Each issue, we choose a winning entry from all the submissions sent to us. For the spring issue of PaperBound Magazine 2022, our winning entry is short story ‘Children of the Woods’ by Rachel Keating. Keep reading below to find out more.
Children of the Woods
by Rachel Keating
There was an inevitability about it, the way the blade entered her. He knew that it would kill her. Just one movement is all it took. The weird thing is that, at the precise moment when he took her from us – her children, I’m not sure that he even wanted to. It’s not that he didn’t want to either — he could have stopped himself and spared her. It’s that he didn’t care either way it seemed; death is just the way it went, this time.
Oak, beech, hawthorn. We’re surrounded by trees, some with trunks so large it would take this despicable man and three others to hold hands in order to reach all the way around. Perfect hiding places, indeed many animals are doing just that right now — scarpering into hollows and flitting away from this hideous scene that has no place in the middle of these majestic woods. But we cower in the undergrowth next to her, fixed to the spot, small and still in the dense shade.
The man turns, she’s not even dead yet and already he’s finished with her. We’re relieved though, he’s walking away. His heavy boots crunch through a floor that’s alive. We’re safe, for now. We can have our last moments with her privately. Of course, the connection we have isn’t something that can be seen anyway —that bond between parent and child, it’s like no other.
These woods are big. It’s not the amount of trees here that tell you that; it’s the air. The air is completely different to other places— cooler, moister, richer. The fresh atmosphere whispers of the size and greatness, at the same time as the canopy of leaves above shows the intimacy to be found here too. Mother nourishes us with what I know are her last reserves. It’s like she’s pumping everything into us, from her body into ours. She talks to us, she tells us about the danger, she tells us that we’re loved.
There are actually scores of children in these woods on this drizzly spring day, being taken care of by their parents. He’s amongst the others now, the man. I can feel the screams through the earth. It’s the parents he wants.
The sun tracks westwards across the sky and the woods are quiet now. Time simultaneously means everything and nothing. What happened to the rest of them? We already know but we don’t want to. We haven’t moved from our places. This is our woods now, if we can survive on our own.
“Y’know trees talk to each other. Through their roots.”
A new voice. A human voice.
“Oh really,” comes the response.
They are close, these two people. Right next to me in fact. A boy and his mother out for a walk in the woods.
“Yeah,” he continues. “They send nutrients to each other, carbon and stuff. The mother trees even favour their own saplings. Mum, y’know baby trees are called saplings.” He looks down, lips pouting in concentration as he reads out loud from a book…
“Trees talk to each other through a complex network hidden underground.”
As he reads he leans on our mother and traces his little fingers with ease through the deep fissures of her bark. He stops at the top of the stump — her open wound bearing the chainsaw marks.
“The network is made of fungi which connect the roots of different trees. This is known as a mycor… rizz… Mum, how do you say this word?”
The lady is distracted.
“Hmmm? Let me see,” she says before noticing. “Oh careful! Don’t touch that, it’s been felled recently. You might hurt yourself.”
He lingers though, reluctant to pull his hand away completely.
I think he can hear us, this human child. He’s listening in on our underground conversation as our mother prepares us for our future without her as best she can. Our bendy stems reach only up to the boy’s knee. Our leaves are so young and fresh, paler than our mother’s. There’s not enough sunlight on this part of the woodland floor, she’s been sustaining us, feeding us, nurturing us until we’re old enough. That’s what mothers do.
With her help we’ve grown so fast from the acorns she dropped in the autumn. He visited us then too, this boy. She remembers. The thick rubber soles between his feet and the ground did nothing to stop him feeling the thrum of activity beneath him, our relationships playing out in the same dirt he has under his fingernails. Our mother shed her leaves on him as he stood and they were still.
Still, but busy, both boy and tree. But whereas she had been reabsorbing, preparing for winter, conserving; he was expending. His body was only just keeping up with his mind. She could sense then his wisdom. His own mother knows it too and she nurtures, she feeds, she gives of herself and nourishes him. It’s what mothers do.
“You’re not supposed to be in this bit! It’s the start of the clearing! There’s a sign! You need to leave!”
The man. He’s back, calling loudly to the boy and his mother as he approaches. He treads the same path as they did, only differently.
“Oh, we didn’t realise,” she’s saying, instinctively leaning towards her son and flashing him a look of warning, his eyes and body responding by mirroring her — mother and child speaking the visceral language of protection.
“Well, there’s a sign.”
“We didn’t see it.”
“Right, just go back the way you came. This area is being felled. We’re due to be chopping more today.”
“No,” said the boy.
Nature and children’s literature are huge passions of Rachel’s. Mix them together and it doesn’t get much better as far as she’s concerned! Rachel is about to be querying agents with her MG novel about a girl who connects with nature in an extraordinary way. The book features OCD, a theme very close to her heart. Follow Rachel on Twitter.
You can read even more spring stories, author interviews and more in our latest issue by clicking here. All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book.
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