The Day the Men Went Hunting
The Day the Men Went Hunting
She was unsure what made her father go hunting alone in The Dark Woods one icy morning in December. It was coming up to what was expected to be quite the most dismal and hungry Christmas they had ever known, so perhaps he was just trying to bring home some bacon to feed his family. His reasons were never discovered. He was forgiven for this rash act, however when he returned home with a rather bountiful profit.
The morning had not yet had the chance to dawn before Frank had left. He woke no one, knowing someone would only want to come along with him if he did. He felt he needed some solitude on this particular morning. He did leave a rather conscientious note though, not wanting to frighten them at all.
Nora spent the day huffing around the kitchen, traipsing up and down the stairs on Sophia’s beck and call and also having to wait on Oliver hand and foot, who had come down with a nasty cold and was very much enjoying his time off from hunting and gathering. She was not best impressed at having seemingly misplaced her husband for the day. Trips like this were planned and discussed beforehand. How would he feel, she wondered, if I simply took off into The Dark Woods one day?
Her senses were on high alert all morning, jumping at the slightest noise from outside. Of course, she felt her husband’s return home before he was even in sight. When he came into view through the frost laden trees she saw something odd, disturbing about the way he was moving.
About his neck he had hung two rabbits and a pheasant tied to a rope and in his arms he carried the limp body of a man. Frank was buckling slightly under the weight, he was no longer the young, brawny man he had used to be, lack of food and sunlight had seen to that.
“Frank!” Nora ran to the door and flung it open, not shutting it behind her, a cardinal sin in her eyes. She had developed something of an obsession about keeping the door closed over the past few months. It was to remain shut at all times. If you needed to get in, you squeezed past, opening the door just enough to eject your body out. She had stuck layers of hay and straw over the little windows, she stuffed the keyhole full of cotton wool. This kept the cold out, the cold that would not get a grip on her family. She would not allow it.
She battled the bitter wind to get to her husband, who she could see now had tears running down his face, into his moustache. She reached him on the track that led to the house where he crumpled to the ground.
“It's Rupert,” he cried. It was funny because when Nora looked into the man’s cold and empty face, she did not see Rupert. It couldn't possibly be him. All his fire and timelessness had disappeared. His cheeks were hollowed and his bones stuck out in all the wrong ways. His hair had nigh on vanished. His clothes were ragged and ripped, threadbare.
But the reason most of all why it wasn't Rupert was because, it wasn't him anymore. He'd died out there in that forest. All that was left was the scraps.
Miraculously, on the morning that they buried him, the sun shone wildly and uninterrupted blue sky was visible for the first time in months. Frank and Henry prepared the grave in the tiny church yard where all their dead were buried. All of the remaining villagers gathered together before the hole in the ground and collectively crossed their fingers that the next hole in the ground they had to dig was not for any of them.
They left some things in the hole with Rupert so that the poor little grave did not look so lonely, a picture of his long lost wife, a new pair of shoes to replace the disintegrated boots on his feet and some blankets because it was just too cold to not cover him up.
“It shouldn’t have ended this way. You should have died warm and comfortable in your own bed. We still needed you here. I wish you hadn’t left Rupert; you should have stayed and gone down with the ship. I wish we could have changed your mind, maybe it would have saved you. Thank you for everything, for all the things you have done for us, for accepting me into the village. For being my children’s God father. For fixing our pipes that Christmas. For making us feel brave enough to take on this evil that is coming. And for never letting us forget how lucky we all are to have each other. Thank you,” Nora had said, smiling gently.
“We commit your body to the ground, where you can be safe now. Where you can be far from this hatred that rages on here and where you will be right in the heart of your village. Sleep well,” she smiled.
“Sleep well,” everyone repeated together as their final goodbye.
They all looked down on that patch of earth. It was a shame, Jane thought, that he had run like a coward, with his tail between his legs. The kind words her mother had said didn’t ring as true for Jane. He was a coward and that would be all she ever remembered of this feeble old man now.
The rain returned as they sat together in the hall that night. Reluctantly they had started to raid the abandoned houses for alcohol, having run out of supplies themselves. Alcohol had become such a painkiller however, so now they could see no choice but to plunder.
“How many others of the poor bastards have died like that?” Frank raged, his face ruddy from the booze. “All buried in the snow and I couldn't see them. If Rupert couldn't find someone to give him a home, how the hell are the others coping? Two miles! That’s where I found him! Two miles away from here. Why didn’t he just come back? Crawl into his own bed and bloody well be done with it.”
“If he was only two miles away, he probably was on his way back. He just didn’t make it,” Henry added.
They all stared around each other, at the only family they had left. Together they seemed to let out an enormous sigh.
Next to Jane, Lilia sat shaking. “What about Billy?” she whispered.
“He'll be alright,” Jane replied, not entirely believing the words she said.
“Rupert wasn't alright, was he?” she stuttered hysterically.
“Rupert was an old man on his own, Billy is a young man with the rest of his family,” she reassured Lilia.
“That's true,” she seemed consoled.
“To Rupert,” Frank raised his now empty glass in a toast, the others followed suit. Frank then tried to drain his glass, found it was empty and stood clumsily and muttered something about going home. The rest of the family stood to follow him.
“And merry bloody Christmas,” Frank barked. He was not an angry man. He was just angry at these twists and turns his life was taking.
Peter left the others in the care of Isaac who had given a grunt of consent. Oliver propped his father up before he could sink heavily to the floor and they made their way out of the door.
As she left, Jane looked back over her shoulder at Isaac who was cradling an empty bottle in his arms and still had his glass raised in a confused toast. What exactly was he supposed to be celebrating? He was staring after Jane, tumultuously, seeming to blame her for all this mess.
The next morning it was the sound of many gathered voices from outside that roused her from a fitful sleep. It was early still and dark, fog hanging like a dream in the air. Not one for missing out on things, she leapt from her bed and raced down the stairs, to see the congregation of men outside her house.
“What’s going on?” she demanded of them. They were all there, her father and brothers, Brian, Martin, Freddie and their father, Isaac and his father and brother. Any able bodied male left in the village was there stood outside her front door, carrying blankets and spades and torches.
“Jane, go back to bed,” Peter said to her with a brief smile that she supposed was meant to pacify her.
“Come on my love,” Nora whispered to her. Her mother was still in her night gown too. She passed her husband a bag and said “It’s all we have. Just be careful.”
“What’s going on?” Jane asked again.
“We’re going to see if we can find anybody else. We can’t stand the thought of anymore of them lying out there alone,” Frank said.
“Well, then I’m coming too,” Jane replied. “Wait two minutes, I’ll get dressed.”
“No, you’re to stay here with your mother,” Frank said forcefully.
“Not likely! While you lot go off and bump into who knows what? I’m coming.”
“Frank, you can’t allow this,” Isaac said under his breath.
“Dad, I can help. I want to help. Please, you can’t go without me. Please don’t leave me,” Jane begged.
Frank grabbed her by the collar then and dragged her back into the house and slammed the door shut behind him.
“I will not ask you again. You are to stay here and look after your mother and Sophia. They need you here. I cannot let you come. It is too dangerous,” he hissed.
“I’m strong, I can do this. You have no idea how strong I am. You’ve never let me prove it to you. So let me prove it.”
“For once in your life, do as you are told!” he bellowed into her face, her ferocious father returning once more.
“You raised me like this! You raised me like a man. And now, when you need men, you will not allow me to be one!”
“Your time will come when you will get to prove to everyone just how strong you are. Until then, you are to be safe. You are to be here,” he said before leaving the house, kissing his distressed wife once and leading the group into The Dark Woods.
From what has been told of Jane so far, is she the type of person who would allow other people to head off on an adventure whilst she remained at home drinking tea under her father’s wishes? No, quite right.
She dressed hastily and snuck out of the house the way she always managed to sneak out of the house. She pretended to use the toilet, opened the window over the bath and climbed down the trellis which currently held the skeleton of winter bitten rose. Of course, she needn’t have bothered sneaking out. Her mother had already guessed what she was planning to do and she watched as her youngest child ran, headlong into The Dark Woods.
“Just be careful,” she whispered. Nothing I could have said would have stopped her anyway, she reasoned with herself.
The ground was hardened by ice and so there were no footprints, making it impossible to tell which way the men had travelled. So she just walked in the direction that felt like a good idea and hoped she was going the right way. It was impossible to pass by in silence, the earth crunched, frost laden twigs snapped like gun shots.
“Damn it,” she snarled.
One thing was for sure, the cold of that day was a cruelty. If she thought she was cold as she lay in bed shivering, wearing three jumpers and using one hot water bottle for each foot, it was nothing to the cold she felt out in the woods. They seemed to take on a whole new kind of chill. Anybody trying to survive out here hadn’t a chance.
She travelled onwards for perhaps an hour or more without seeing a single clue as to where they were or indeed any other sign of life. This was only the second time in her life that she had found herself in the woods. In contrast to what they had always been told, she found them inviting, luring, she could feel herself being drawn deeper into their mystery. She pushed onwards.
In her rush she had forgotten to bring gloves and her fingers were stinging with the cold. It was an unfortunate feeling that she knew all too well. And it was then as she was nursing her sore hands inside her pockets that she stumbled upon a place that she recognised from a long time ago. It was a clearing, the trees being removed in this small section of wood for no apparent purpose. It appeared that it was the same clearing that had been the place where Jane and Isaac had met all those moons ago. If it was indeed the same clearing, it meant that she had walked around in a large circle and had ended up back in the region of her house again. The woods were cavernous, they encompassed miles and miles of land. How was it that she had happened upon the exact same place both of the times she had dared to enter?
“Damn it,” she growled at herself. She pushed on with renewed vigor, now she would never find them. It was then in her haste that she tripped over something hard and solid. Had she not grown out of tripping over tree roots like a little girl in a rush?
“Damn it,” she whispered again, before composing herself and getting up. And then she saw it, what had made her fall. It was an arm. The fingers of which were extended to the sky, desperately reaching out for a hand hold that had never come. Of course, the arm was attached to a torso which was in turn attached to a person. She gasped, felt like running away and never looking back for the briefest of moments and then she started to crudely scrape away the snow covering them to see who it was. And though the person was barely recognizable, it was someone that she knew. A person who had taught Jane all she could.
“Miss Anderson,” Jane gasped, placing a hand on the woman’s cheek. Even through her own stiffened fingers she could feel the cold that had gripped Miss Anderson was a different, more vicious kind of cold. The kind of cold that told Jane that Miss Anderson had belonged to the elements for a long time by then. But, unlike Rupert, Miss Anderson had not travelled alone. When Jane cast a dreading look around, she saw that there were more of them, more outlines of buried people in the snow. When Jane could peel her eyes from the brittle woman she saw more fingers, more tatters of clothing falling away from more bones, more of her friends, lying perished on the earth.
Heavy gulps of panic caught in her throat, like rising vomit, which she forced herself to contain. Tears would have fallen hard and frozen like diamonds in this weather, she thought briefly.
She forced herself to uncover them, count them and then count them again. All in all there were twelve bodies. And they included young people who should have stayed and fought with them and old people who should have remained and died in the comfort of their own homes. And worst of all it included Billy.
“Lilia,” was all she could say. “Lilia.”
After a while Jane cried a very loud cry, not made up of any words in particular, the ghost of which clattered around in the trees for an age. And then she waited for the men to find her because she couldn’t cope with this without them.
The men found Jane maybe half an hour later. She was sat amongst the bodies, hand in hand with a boy.
“Jane?” her father said softly.
“They’re here. I’ve found them,” she said, her voice crying but her eyes not.
“I can see that,” Frank said, coming to kneel next to her.
“There isn’t anything we can do,” she said.
“No, you’re right.”
“Lilia, I don’t want Lilia to know.”
“We have to take him back, we can’t leave him here,” Isaac said then. Only he knew what Lilia and Billy had meant to each other.
“I know,” she nodded.
“Come on, let him go now,” Peter said, trying to pry her fingers from his. She resisted, she would not set him free yet.
“I’m sorry I followed you,” Jane said to her father.
“I knew you would,” he said patiently. He turned to the others and said, “Start moving them back to the village. Take them to the church if you can manage it.”
The men split into pairs and handled a body between them. The care with which they picked up their companions was full and it was tender and it was an awful thing to witness.
“You’ve seen it now, Jane. You’ve seen what I was trying to save you from. So do you understand?” her father said, turning to help Brian lift an elderly woman.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Let him go,” Peter said. And she did. And she watched as Oliver and Peter carried a frightened and much loved boy back towards his home.
“I know,” Isaac said, from where he knelt beside her.
“What do I tell Lilia?”
“Tell her, that because of her, he died knowing what it felt like to love someone,” Isaac whispered.
Jane found that she could not move, she was catatonic. She was dreaming of what it had felt like this morning before she had seen this. She was jealous of the girl she used to be because she knew she was altered by what she found. She was vaguely aware of a pair of arms wrapped about her then, firm and unyielding. The arms lifted her and she was carried home amongst them. The same arms placed her in her bed, where she remained, unmoving for one week.