The Forest in the Forest
by Will Pinfold
A winter walk in a landscape shaped by the hand of humankind reveals ancient secrets hidden in plain sight...
Approaching it now, across the wide field, the forest was a horizontal band of jagged black between the harsh white of snow and sky; forbidding but irresistible, the only feature in an otherwise blank landscape, at least in this direction. Closer to, as the wind died down, it became less abstract, signs of human activity becoming evident: a bounding fence, waist high when standing straight, but now almost parallel to the snowy ground; sagging chicken wire topped with barbed wire, and a stile of slick, sodden dark wood covered in eight inches of fresh snow. He looked up, squinting at the serrated treeline against the sky, braced himself with a gloved hand, crushing the layers of puffy and crystalline snow on the fencepost, and stepped into the woods.
Immediately, the wind sound ceased and the view opened up; the ground smooth white humps, snow laying thickly over the shrubby gorse and pine at the forest’s edge, alien marshmallow sculptures. And the woods themselves just as he’d remembered, despite the very different conditions today. Regimented, evenly spaced, closing together overhead, their uniformity enhanced now by the carpet of white; slender pines and firs, straight, bare, receding into depths which, last time he had seen them, had felt dry, dusty and green – today silent and black. Striding forwards, the effect was almost as disorienting as outside, only now he was in a hypnotic maze of monochrome verticals. He found himself walking irregularly to break the rhythm that felt too pervasive as he strode down the avenues of trees, which seemed to pull irresistibly towards some hidden vanishing point – purely an illusion as, after walking for just a few minutes, the effect was the same in whatever direction he faced.
These woods aren’t big enough to get lost in. This, he knew, was true. And with the thought, the irritation rose within him again. The meeting here in late summer had, all agreed, been a waste of time and, as the initial excitement had faded, it was replaced by a sense of disappointment that became more and more barbed when voiced. Old? Forestry Commission! Probably dates to… what, the 70s, if that? He had agreed, but they were here now. They had wanted woods; here were woods. But as it turned out, he was the only one willing to try to salvage the day. After all, the site was old, and maps made mention of a stone circle –
Everywhere is ‘old.’ And if we want to see the stone circle we can drive out to the roundabout, where they moved it to when they built the motorway.
Scornfully said, but this was true too, although they had only realised as they had left that morning, setting the tone for a day of short-tempered frustration. Do you know what the name means? he’d asked, but of course they already knew. Like the stone circle, that had been a prime reason to come – too hastily as it turned out.
‘Place of punishment or retribution’ – maybe the punishment is to attract gullible walkers to a patch of completely unremarkable forestry. There’s nothing here.
At the time, he had agreed, more or less, but for all its evident monotony – and it was not a piece of woodland much diversified by plant or bird life – he’d wanted to go in. And here he was, being drawn, step by step, towards – well, more pines; more lumpy, slippery, snow-covered ferns.
He stopped. Once his own crunching ceased, the silence was deep and warm. No, not quite silence. Here and there were indeterminate rustles, the occasional piercing call of a finch. But a sense of stillness, almost – he realised he was holding his breath to listen – of anticipation. As he looked around, the effect of the black and white vertical lines of snow and trees sweeping past his vision, combined with the sudden fatigue he felt after hiking through several miles of knee-deep snow, was dizzying, and he reached out a hand to steady himself on a tree. He could see no path, though he knew there were several main routes through the woods, some for vehicles, others footpaths. But none were really necessary in such a geometric space. To go in any direction for an hour at the absolute most should take him back to the edge of the forest; he could walk the whole perimeter to get back if he had to. So he continued forward without fear, not planning his journey any further than his eyes could see.
He had intended to listen to music as he walked, but was immediately unnerved by the sensation of his headphones plugging his ears, and he pulled them out again, feeling foolishly vulnerable. He listened again, but heard only nature: snow, sliding wetly from a shelf of heavily-laden pine; a tiny scurrying and scratching in a nearby tree; birdsong and his own breathing.
The lines of evergreens were straight and true, but he realised fairly quickly that the ground beneath his feet was not as featureless as it at first looked. As he stood, deeply breathing the still, cold air, his eye followed trails of half-effaced prints in the snow, pheasant, fox and deer, and he could see that they rose and fell in undulations not at all noticeable when looking ahead at the dark-roofed tunnels of the trees. He was lucky not to have twisted his ankle; unbeknownst to himself, he seemed to be heading uphill – or maybe downhill, it was obscurely hard to say in this disorientingly enclosed space. Nevertheless, as he set off again he found himself, without meaning to or even noticing, looking ahead and not down, his eyes fixed on the distant meeting point of the trees as he strode steadily forwards, deeper into the dark-walled, white-floored corridors of the wood.
Several things happened simultaneously: something caught his eye ahead; he crunched heavily on a snow-submerged branch, cried aloud and almost toppled headfirst into a ditch. The sound of his own voice in that insulated hush shocked him and he whirled around, half expecting – what? An amused hunter perhaps, or a bemused deer. But there was nothing, only the trees. The averted fall would not, probably, have been an actual disaster; although filled with snow, the ditch was wide, not too steep-edged, and no more than eight or ten feet deep. A fallen tree spanned it; a child would have walked or even run across – he might have too, on a dry, mild day, but the thick blanket of snow across the tree seemed to promise injury, especially as the bottom of the ditch was equally white, masking who knew what? Brambles, rocks, a burn?
Looking across, he remembered: something had stopped him from striding over the edge, but what?
At first, he saw nothing, but as he swept his eyes left and right, there it was again. Movement? No, but something. Glimmering whiteness that seemed almost like movement as it broke the relentless verticality of the corridors of pine. He picked up a large stick, a fallen branch worn smooth – not, he noticed, a piece of springy evergreen – and carefully, using it as a staff, clambered down into the ditch, checking ahead for running water, but finding only soft undergrowth, more ferns, and the occasional boulder that made him glad not to have toppled face first down the slope.
Standing on the far side of the ditch, the woods felt warmer, though snow still lay thickly beneath his feet. The stillness was intense now, and he found himself trying to breathe silently, the birds, animals, and wind silent too. His heart jumped as he saw motion ahead, that flashing of white again, a beckoning that made his skin prickle, warm and, he realised, damp with sweat beneath the layers of his hiking clothes. Looking back, the fright abated. Trees stretched off into the gloom, but this wasn’t some tract of dense primeval woodland; if it felt unsettlingly labyrinthine, that was because of the sense of design that had made it so off-putting in the first place. You might not know where you are, but you don’t get lost in Forestry Commission woods.
That was a comforting thought. With that in mind, he turned again, noticing with irritation the – smaller but still undeniably there – jolt of panic as that something in the path ahead caught his eye. He tried the earphones again, but no – that vulnerable feeling again. Onwards. As he walked, the elusiveness of whatever it was he saw made him edgy. Just when he had decided it had been nothing, or animal movement, or just snow, there it winked again, seemingly always on the periphery of his vision, but always ahead too. He walked faster now, unwilling to allow himself the time to think, just move. The lines of trees swept past as he crunched along, the effect now like driving at night, bars of light and shadow sweeping his vision. And there it flashed again, but this time the fear did dissipate a little, though the unease didn’t. Before, it had seemed to be at eye level, but he realised he must have been heading down a gradual slope, because the white flickered above him now, always just beyond the next row of trees, and the next, and the next.
He stepped into the clearing, almost losing his footing, although this time there was no ravine. The snow lay thicker here and the white sky seemed almost to push down on him, but the tree was inescapable. It was an ancient Beech, huge, broad, twisted, a long scar stretching down its trunk, as if the tree had twisted itself apart in turning. The white he had seen was more snow, lying horizontally along its tortured, tentacle-like, outstretched branches, which spread and separated, filling the sky above in an impossibly complex pattern. He stared. His heart pounded and, although he knew the fear should have evaporated, he could feel it pulsing there still. The roots of the tree seemed to squirm, as thick as the trunks of the pines, through the snow, erupting from the ground on the far side, where the ground sank into a hollow.
This was not a stone circle, but it was something.
He felt his annoyance at his companions rise hotly again. Their loss. He slipped off a glove, groping for his phone to at least take some pictures. This was not a tree you see every day, least of all in an immaculately managed woodland. But his fingers were numb, slipping uselessly off the phone’s smooth surface until he felt foolish for groping after it. He stepped towards the tree, looking into that scar, following it down the trunk where it opened into a rotten wound, a hollow almost big enough to climb into. A wave of disgust spread through him as he touched the rough smoothness of the bark. Normally he loved old trees, but his jangled nerves were not soothed by its cool touch or dank, dark organic smell.
The call of a crow nearby made him jump, and for the second time today he realised he’d made an involuntary noise, but in his confusion wasn’t aware of what exactly it was. He was being watched. Suddenly he was certain of it. Mastering his fear, he breathed deeply, pulling his hand away from the tree in distaste and turned. His glove lay in the snow, and his phone, twenty feet or more away, where, presumably, he’d dropped them, although he had been, he thought, standing by the tree.
And then he saw the watcher.
How many times today? he thought, exhaling raggedly. It was just another ancient Beech, some distance away, along what he saw was a ridge around the hollow.
Naked, bloated and strangely obscene, it was growing lop-sidedly where its roots on one side wrapped around a group of large boulders, the stringy hollows between them standing out, dark gashes against the snow. Further along, there was another, and he saw that here, guarded impassively by the legions of dark pines, was a loose ring of trees, far older – as old, he thought, as any trees he’d seen. He turned to count them, but found himself strangely reluctant to stand with his back to that dank abscess he’d looked into, and stepped away into the clearing, heart jolting again as something touched his shoulder.
Rope. So people did come here. An old swing perhaps, four inches thick, rotten, it slithered over his coat as he moved forward, feeling strangely relieved. The rope was old, but not as unknowably ancient as the trees, which he now saw numbered six, or seven if the huge stump in the distance was one of their number. The ground was treacherous, perhaps rocky, but across the hollow stood, on a little hillock of its own, the largest of the beeches, immense, obese, roots clutching and scrabbling at the stony earth beneath itself, and there was, he thought, or rather felt, something not sane, something even hysterical about it, the scraping of its dark tangled branches against the harsh, chalky grey of the sky, as if railing against the flurries of fresh snow that the wind, now gusting, flapping at his ears, threw into the clearing.
He stepped towards the tree, unthinking now, his eyes only distractedly noticing the ghosts of great hollows in the earth, as if a ring of huge teeth had been torn from their sockets there. Blinking snow from his eyes, attention fixed on the tree, he stepped forward, arms flailing as his ankle twisted in the thigh-deep snow, his foot slipping over a root or boulder, and then there was only the snow, and the trees, and the sound of the wind.