A bag hung lazily on his shoulder, the jean material torn from many places and the blue colour no longer looked like its original shade instead it had turned grey and black with all the dirt and rain it had seen in its time. Like the blue bag, its carrier was also cowered in dirt, chunks of mud in his hair, and his legs and arms were as pale and ashy as his face.
As he walked, the never-ending lights of the city were fading away and the utter blackness in the nighttime in the woods was drawing closer and closer. One-step and another step, the paved road under his feet was soon replaced by the dirt of the woods. The bare branches spiked into the sky, no sign of life anywhere. His senses heightened, living in a dark and dangerous territory had given him the senses of a wolf.
No one would dare enter this forbidden forest- with stories of ghosts and demons roaming around. A forest, parents warn their children about, tales of hauntings they tell them at night to put them to sleep or else the monsters that lurked there would come after them.
Even with all the whispers and tales, the nine-year-old boy entered the forbidden forest, unnerved and unafraid. The only thing that could be heard was the small sounds of rustling bushes and the howl of the wind. The dirt crushed under Shehryar’s worn-out shoes- the laces undone and covered in dirt.
With the sundown, the night began to crawl out and engulfed the city in its embrace. The weather became chilly, at which Shehryar hugged his back closer to his body but a thin layer of clothing did nothing to keep him warm.
I need a jacket, he thought.
It was getting colder with each passing day. But could he risk the money on his jacket? Dania needed new shoes, and clothes. She was growing up and so were her needs. But what about Innaya And Rayya, then there was the baby of the family, Marwa. Being 2 years of age, she had the most needs. The boys could bear having less, but he couldn’t jeopardize the girl’s wants.
It was unusual for a nine-year-old to worry about providing his sisters and brothers with basic needs. But it was not unseen for Shehryar was the living example of it. At such an age, where he should have been making demands and throwing tantrums in front of his parents, this young fellow was living in the middle of forbidden wood; raising eight siblings, earning and providing for them.
Lost in his thoughts, Shehryar didn’t realize how much time had passed and it had turned pitch dark. Not a single thing could be seen now, but the boy had gotten used to this darkness too. It was an everyday routine now.
With the realization of time, Shehryar hurried his steps, walking faster.
They must be scared, was the only thing in his mind.
I have to get home fast.
When he was a few kilometers away from the cabin he resided in, he heard a sound; leaves rustling and getting crushed. His head snapped to his right, eyes wide and ears strained. All he heard was the silence of the night and then it came again, rustling this time followed by a cry. Even though it was damp but the distress was clear in it.
’Who is that? No one ever comes this deep in the woods.′
No one was foolish enough to walk to their own doom, especially the haunted part of the dark woods.
’What if it’s them. No, no! They wouldn’t go there, I warned them about that part of the forest.′
While he was busy fighting with himself, the voice came again; the scream louder this time. Immediately his body tensed. The adrenaline rushing unchecked through his veins, urged him to go and see.
Dania!, he screamed internally, the bag fell on the ground with a thud as he sprinted in the direction of the voice. His feet kissing the land, thump thump; his heart pounded in his ears. The branches scratched his arms, hitting his face like prickling needles. The further he ran, the clear and closer the voice became.
Please, be alright.
Oh lord, please let them be okay.
Keep them safe.
Running through the woods, he came across a clearing; pointed tress, like wines they were entangled into each other, stopping anyone from going any further. This was their territory, banned for the humans.
In front of all the winey tress and the red eyes, that peeked through, stood a girl. She hardly looked five- years old, her white frock was ripped in places as if it was caught in the branches. She was crying profusely, runny nose and tears that were sparkling in the unearthly darkness.
Shehryar’s breaths hitched in his windpipe, his eyes running from the girl to the glowing pits of red behind her. For a minute, he wanted to turn around and sprint back to his home and not look back, but she was just a child probably of Innaya’s age.
I can’t leave her here.
Slowly and carefully, he walked forward, one foot in front of the other, slowly and steadily. In and out, he inhaled and exhaled the air, careful of making any noise and getting the creature's attention.
When he was close enough, he swung the girl to himself and bolted back, leaving a trail of flying dead leaves behind. The girl looked back over his shoulder and when she saw the demonic eyes, a scream ripped through her. Shehryar settled her head in his neck, blocking the view, she is like Innaya, you did right by helping her. Don’t feel bad, you did the right thing; he repeatedly chanted it in his head, you did right, over and over again.
That night for the first time, in the cabin they called home, they had a guest. A five-year-old girl named Zara, who instantly became friends with everyone. On inquiring about what she was doing here, she simply said that she was playing with her brother and sister. On the south of the woods, a decent distance away was a family park. Kids, like any other family on a stroll, got a little further in the woods and were never found, even so as little as a bone wasn’t found. Same was the case with Zara but this time she came a little further to reach their cabin.
Lucky she was, was what they said. The next morning, Shehryar woke up early. Following the usual path he always walked on, Shehryar found his bag he dropped yesterday, still on the ground, untouched and unnoticed. They had slept with empty stomachs, with the food still in the bag, there was no way to go all the way back at that time of the night to retrieve it. Luckily, the kids were distracted by their guest to notice their hungry states.
Picking the blue- almost grey bag, Shehryar dusted the dirt off it. He opened the single pin which held the bag's mouth together to check its contents. Fortunately, the apples weren’t rotten yet and were edible.
Good, he thought. They can eat them for breakfast.
With that thought in mind, Shehryar swung the bag on his shoulder and traced his steps back to his home, humming a melody and with a smile on his face.
The trees all too familiar, he had seen them so many times that every curve and corner was etched into his mind. When he almost entered the territory of his so-called home, he saw the fire, burning bright and red over the trees. From where he stood, only the tip could be seen and it was exactly over the cabin.
Once again, the bag fell from his hands, the pin opening up and the apples he earned through collecting coin and coin, rolled on the dirt ground. His feet pounded on the ground beneath him, it was yesterday night all over again.
The cabin appeared in his line of vision, only this time it wasn’t the wooden walls he always saw, this time the old wood which formed his home was on fire. Burning the walls, eating away the wood proudly, mocking him.
I won again, Shehryar, the fire mocked.
Only one word escaped his clogged up throat,