The forest looked the same as always as Meredith approached it; monstrous and towering and far too green.
The quickest way between neighbouring villages was through these trees but everyone laboured instead on the long cobblestoned way around, picking over rain-slick stone on wet days and ignoring the dry shelter the trees offered.
In the late days of a hot summer, berries grew fat on the woodland bushes, ripening till they burst against the ground for the birds, untouched by human hands. In the winter, the thick dry trunks offered a bounty of firewood to the little frozen town, but no-one would cross over into the thickets to take any despite their blue fingers and chattering teeth.
She had been terrified of these trees as a girl, staying far away with the rest of the children. You couldn’t look at the trees too long, the town elders said, because the forest would look back, and then it would find you and take you into the trees and you’d never come home.
Mother had said bad children were taken by the Forest. Children who didn’t say their prayers and were wilful and wild.
She stood on the border of the Forest now, wobbly on too-thin legs as she stared up at the trees.
Her nightgown was a blotched grey, stained and stinking of sweat under the yellowing armpits. It grazed the dew-wet grass as she idled by the old trunks, toes curling hesitantly against the wet grass.
She still felt heavy with the fever that had overrun her for the last two weeks, too-hot and too-cold and so so tired. Her hair stuck thin and greasy to her skull, skin nearly baggy on its own skeleton.
The forest loomed overhead, green and brown and speckled with life and it made her feel so small, as it always had.
She took a step into the forest.
The baby stirred in her arms. He was as sweaty and weak as she was, flushed with fever and refusing to feed. Only three weeks born and he’d only the energy to fret and fuss quietly, mouth too dry to issue a cry that made any sound. Her heart ached for him.
Elder Morton said he’d be dead by dawn. That she should do the kind thing and wrap his little head in a soft feather-down till he passed, like she had to with the others that came before him.
The trees looked just like trees as she passed, mossy and dotted with mushrooms and birds’ nests. The normality of it all made her skin crawl, and she clutched the bundle tighter against her chest. There was no monster greater than the one your mind could conjure when left to its own devices.
A rustle from the left had her eyes darting like a frightened deer, half-expecting to see all the lost children from her childhood and from generations before, still young and wild, dancing barefoot to pagan songs.
Instead a red-furred squirrel scuttled up the broad trunk of an ancient oak, a nut clasped triumphantly in its cheek-pouch.
Meredith forced a breath that went in too cold and came out too warm, and continued deeper into the woods.
After an age of walking, the two travellers reached a clearing where Meredith bent, setting the little body down on a half-rotten tree stump. A caterpillar wriggled by, undeterred as the baby stirred at the sudden absence of his mother, tiny fingers twitching weakly for anything to hold.
For a moment she reconsidered in a surge of panic. She should be in front of the hearth with her child, letting him pass peacefully. The thought of a forest-taken little boy eternally dancing barefoot among the trees had seemed like hope a few hours before, and now it felt like it was going to choke her.
What had she done? What if she was wrong? What if they found out she had done this?
Meredith had half-reached to him again before she steeled herself, and her hands curled into fists and dropped back to rest against her filthy nightgown.
“This is my boy.” She said to no-one in particular, and the first time she said it nothing came out, so she licked her lips and forced herself to croak it again. She sounded weak and reedy, and she hated it.
“Please be kind.”
Wiping her eyes, she straightened, took a deep breath and tottered away on unsteady legs.
The woods were quiet behind her.
Jennifer (Jen) Nolan is aspiring writer in her mid- 20’s. She hails from County Kildare, where she writes lots of fantasy-based nonsense while she studies Animal Care.