There were still a couple of hours of daylight left when we set off for the wood. I was wrapped up against the chill in a heavy coat and gloves, but Bill wore only his threadbare jacket. I’ve bought him gloves and hats in the past, but he refuses to wear them. He says he’s used to the cold, though the state of his skin belies this, as his cheeks are red and threaded with veins and his hands dry and sore-looking.
“I can’t understand how it’s gotten so cold,” I shivered, as we stepped out from the warmth of his cottage.
“It’ll snow before long,” Bill looked up at the sky. “Mark my words; we’ll have snowfall before the month is out.”
“So early in the year?” I asked.
“The seasons are changing,” he said. “The earth is rebelling against the misuse and don’t bother telling me that you recycle, it’ll take a lot more than that to heal the damage that’s been done.”
I hate it when Bill speaks like this, because I know he’s right and it frightens me more than any ghost.
“We’ll go by the bog,” he changed the subject. “It’s quicker that way.”
Bill had mentioned the Wailing Wood in passing and I’ve heard stories about it since I was a child. I’ve seen it in the distance, but never thought anything about it, until now. It’s a strange group of trees, more copse than wood and stranger still; it grows on the edge of the bog. Since I’ve started to record Bill’s stories, I’ve grown wiser and now wear a pants and flat shoes when I go out with him. The land we trek across is uneven and dangerous to those it catches unawares. We crossed a few fields, the earth bare, and the land shorn of its crops, in hibernation until the spring. The sun sank a little as we walked and its dying rays were blinding. The leafless branches of the trees offered no protection from its light, but the beauty of their skeleton forms would gladden the eye of any artist. As we moved closer to the bog, the land turned harsher and its neglect was obvious, as no crop would grow in the marshy earth and the farmer wasted no time in its upkeep. We climbed over barred gates, the bolts rusted into place. Bill pulled back the thorny bushes and it was hard to imagine these barren, brown branches would hang with heavy fruits once the winter had passed.
The bog spread out before us, and we stood panting from our last climb in order to get our breath back and admire the beauty. Purple moor grass vies with gold and brown heathers in a vast array of autumn colours. Other plants grow on the hummocks, the higher, drier parts of the bog, and Bill named each one as we passed.
“Stay beside me and don’t go wandering off,” he still thinks of me as a child who needs warning.
I know the bog well, but not in the way Bill does, and despite its beauty, it can be treacherous. In the numerous hallows, deep pools have formed, some of them bottomless, according to my guide, and the white bog cotton surrounding them masks their danger. Other than the small hummocks, the land is flat and there are no trees to welcome the nesting of birds. To the untrained eye, it seems a dead place, but it is, in fact, teeming with life and Bill calls out the names of every bird we come across. Imagine the thrill of a city dweller like me, to see the Red Grouse foraging among the heather, its gold and crimson coat making the other plants look faded. The bobbing Snipe hops from place to place and takes no notice of the human invasion. It looked up at us and decided we were no threat, before going about its daily business. In the distance the call of the curlew echoes over the bog, its notes haunting in the silent air. Bill says he’s seen Kestrels hunting here and I would love to see one swooping over the ground in search of prey, but my luck was out.
“Look,” Bill whispered.
A red streak ran across the mosses, the fox’s body so lithe, that his movements seemed fluid. I was so taken by all this wonder around me, I had lost track of our reason for being there, and it wasn’t until Bill nodded at the dark shape ahead, that I was jolted back to reality.
The Wailing Wood stood like a dark shadow against the sky and not even the setting sun could pierce its denseness. It is a small growth of trees that overlook bushes and wild undergrowth. Though many of the branches are bare, some leaves still remain and hang like sleeping, black bats. While the trees in the more fertile fields have been stripped bare by the wind, they nevertheless stand proud against the sky. Here, in this veritable, almost petrified forest, they droop limp and drained of life. I started to move closer, but Bill’s hand on my arm stopped me.
“Don’t try to go inside,” he said. “There are thorns big enough to tear through your skin.”
“What is it?” I wasn’t aware that I was whispering.
It’s difficult to explain the wood. It had a hallowed ground feeling, like walking into a church, or a place of the dead.
“I wanted you to see it for yourself,” Bill said. “Before I tell you the story behind it.”
“Can’t you tell me now?” My eyes scanned the undergrowth, looking for signs of life.
“It’s not a story that wants telling in the cold and dark,” Bill said. “I’ll tell you all about it when we get back to the cottage. I wanted you have a look at it first. The bones of a young mother and her children are buried in there,” Bill pointed a quivering finger into the darkness. “I want you to search them out and feel their despair, go on,” he nudged me with his shoulder, as though pushing me into the arms of those waiting trees.
The wood is dark and I saw in my minds eye the centre, the place housing the mass grave. The branches of the overhead trees have tangled together to form an arch, so the grave is always in shadow. Despite its solitude, no birds sing and the usual black shapes of crows’ nests are missing from the branches, but it’s the sadness of the place that makes me catch my breath. For the first time, I am aware of the sun sinking below the horizon and I am totally alone and lost within the tangle of trees and bushes. Everything is lost, I have no one left, all those I love are dead and I’m trapped in a maze of thorns. No, my mind screams for release from these terrible memories and it is the feel of Bill’s arm around my shoulders that pull me back and turn me towards home.
I don’t speak, because I can’t. My throat hurts from the tears I’m trying to hold back.
“I’m sorry, girl,” Bill’s breath is warm on my chilled cheek. “I forget sometimes how strong the power is in you.”
“That’s OK,” I managed to whisper. “I just got a bit carried away.”
I knew by his next sentence that Bill was trying to change the mood and it worked. He’s said the same thing to me a thousand times.
“You know, in the olden days you’d have been burned as a witch.”
“And I know who’d be wielding the first flaming torch,” I said.
“Best thing really,” I sensed his smile. “Put you out of your misery.”
“You’re just pure evil, aren’t you?” I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and saw his face crease up with laughter.
We better get you inside,” he said. “You’re pale as death. A drop of brandy will bring the colour back, and you’ll need it when you hear the story attached to the wood.”
“I can’t drink, I’m driving,” I reminded him.
“Phone home,” he suggested. “Tell them you’re staying the night here. Get yourself a bit of a reputation.”
We were still laughing, when we reached the cottage and saw the welcoming light of the fire inside.
That’s it for this week, dear reader. I can tell you that our laughter soon ceased, as Bill retold his tale. I now understand the sadness of the wood and next week, you will too. Oh, by the way, my reputation remains intact.