By Shirley McKendry

To get to the forest you've got to leave the mossy springiness of the greensward that marks the pleasing boundary to the east side of the village, and head north. You need to put your shoes on, as the winsome landscape starts to become petulant, brittle underfoot, sparked with chunks of schist that gleam meanly on a sunny day. These are the pulled teeth of an ancient dragon that once tormented the village. No-one knows what happened to the dragon himself.

If you are a stranger, beware of the urge to lie down and roll towards the meadow's edge, for it conceals a natural practical joke, a ha ha, dropping calamitously as it does into the red mud and crazy paved river below. The bright rush of water cuts greedy slices from the red meadow soil year by year, widening the gulf between village and forest, but only on the village side for the forest rises out of a granite bed which the river may only shoulder past on its urgent journey through the area.

If you really want to enter the forest there is a thin path that directs you upstream. A thin path, and a tortured route that chastens bare legs and snags trousers, yet its polished black surface testifies to frequent use. But you must go in single file, one behind the other. It is unlikely that you will go alone.

At a quite unexpected point, the little path simply evaporates. Now there is only a breathless space that hangs between this side and that, full of the spray and roaring from below. Don't despair. An old oak has lain down for you, its roots still probing into the dark soil, but its trunk stretched over the gorge. Its branches point at you, inviting you to cross its smoothed back and enter the shadows beyond.

Perhaps you are not a stranger to the village. Let's say you’re not a stranger. So you already know all about the ha ha, the changeling path and the missing dragon. You also know that the forest is not a place to be taken lightly. No-one will go there. Even a willful child will not go there. Yet the prone oak's polished bark testifies to frequent use.

Your dreams might explain it all to you, if you could only remember them. Everyone in the village dreams. You hear the dream cries in the night from your neighbours, your parents, even from your own mouth as you wake like a sprung trap. Yet you forget at once the fabric of the terror.

You are not a stranger, so in the course of things, there comes a time when you find it all out. You understand and then you become part of it. Your roots start to stretch out into the dank earth of the forest and, though the knowledge fells you, it does not destroy you. And like all others who have crossed the gulf before you, you do not say a word.

You know that the days are worst. By day you scuttle thinly between house and world. You do what you must but as a shadow. You dart, you peck, you brush past other flickers that materialise, miserable eyes averted, mouths shut. You function like a tin man with hollow legs until at last you may evaporate into the soundless gloom of dusk. You take stock; how many words have you spent today? You check your hoard.

You do not bolt the door at night. The only ones who do are those who still have children. They want to keep them in, and others out. You do not bolt your door, but you shut it quietly and bury yourself in your own arms. You bathe yourself at last in sound, roaring out your grief and your guilt.

When the first child vanished it was different. It was in the first days of hunger — you remember. Words were friends then. Words were poured out and handled and shared and stuffed generously into each other's open hands and pockets. Your face was a word — it spoke long before your lips opened.

You all wanted to share their pain, that first day. You gathered round like a wall and you held them within. You were shocked, of course, but it was their Golgotha, not yours, and so you felt secure. They were strangely shuttered, even hostile, at times you wondered if somehow they had done this vanishing trick themselves.

The village children tied blue ribbons around the village as if the disappeared child was somehow present in the colour; it was comfort, but at dusk when the ribbons drained to grey, it was as if the child vanished all over again.

Weeks passed, and you all wanted to forget. Their twisted faces seemed to lose your interest, to inconvenience you. You wished they would move away so you could forget.

Some months later, the next child went. The shock was indescribable. It touched you. It had relevance for you. You felt the fear of it. You clutched your child. That family threw their pain over themselves like a black shroud and no one spoke to them at all.

And then, during that winter, children were there, and then they were not. It was uncanny. There was little more than a breath in it — there, and then not. That was when you began to think that hideous thought, looking out of your window at the small trail path that shone ever more keenly, stretching away from the village in the moonlight. But you did not speak of these things to a soul, for you trusted silence to be a hedge of protection around your family.

And then came the day that you awoke, and voila! you discovered that the conjurer had visited your house. You found your husband sitting at the window, staring out, his strong black shoes gleaming wet. Then you understood that neither words nor wordlessness had any power at all.

I am speaking to you in this way for you are not a stranger to the village. You live here. You have your life here. And though you empty your word trove by night, ripping each other up like old love letters, day by irredeemable day you sit beside him in the window.

And now you watch as, in the darkening of the evening, the final door is unbolted and a young boy and girl take the thin path on the edge of the village, up towards the dragon's mouth, following their father.

You do not say anything. You do not.


© Lesley Kelly, unless we state otherwise


In January 2013, this story was shortlisted for the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition organised by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.


Hansel and Gretel competitions page

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