Eaten, Joe Howsin
I met him at a party. He was older than me, mysterious. He stood at the back, always talking to someone but never looking at them, like he had somewhere else to be. But when he moved, he was slow, careful, like he was absolutely certain everything and everyone would wait for him for as long as he took. That’s what I’m doing now. Trekking out into the woods on a winter’s night. To wait for him.
My auntie used to take me camping in the fields just past the treeline. I felt damp, cold, and itchy the entire time, like something was clawing away under my skin. I’d stare at the mass of trees. From a distance they looked like an impenetrable wall, but really, they stood apart by inches, as though they were being polite. I’d look up and see that, despite their efforts, all the branches were tangled in a mad, chaotic jumble. They were trapped, and when the wind blew, each one struggled to break away. I’d wondered what was lurking inside that eclipse of leaves.
Whatever it was, Auntie saw it, and I felt safe in the woods with her. The trees and branches parted in her wake as she walked and greeted them as old friends. I used to joke that she must be at least half tree. In the tent she would tell me stories; her eyes became glazed, her hands would gesture, and her voice would take on this deep tone like she was in a trance. When the big reveal came, she’d screech like a demon. It was wonderful. Once, she showed me a mark on her skin. I couldn’t tell whether it was a birthmark or a scar. When I asked her what it meant, she told me that I’d understand when I was older, that I’d get one of my own, and then I’d see. I wondered if she’d use a knife to cut the symbol into my flesh, or if it would simply rise up out of me, like hair. I wondered if it would hurt.
My favourite stories were about shapeshifters, beings who could become something else, someone else. I used to dream of galloping through the ferns, of gliding through the rustling leaves, perching on a branch and basking in the moonlight. Now I’m older, but I fantasise about shapeshifting still; to be another person, to be another being entirely, to shed my scarred, stained skin and fly far, far away. Tonight, somehow, I’ve been brought back into the woods again.
At the party, I was so shy that for the first hour I just stood, gripping the beer someone had stolen from their dad’s shed, staring at everyone else yelling, dancing, singing, kissing. Auntie almost cried I was home so late. I laughed then, told her I was with friends, that I’d be fine. She held me close and made tea in my favourite mug. She offered to tell me a story, like when I was little, but I said I was too tired.
The trees stand bolt upright all around me, black silhouettes in the midnight air. Twigs crack underneath my feet like brittle bones. Beyond, I think I see the shape of a man. If I’m late, he won’t be happy. He likes me to wait for him, but he won’t like waiting for me.
That night, he slithered over and offered me a cigarette. I said I didn’t smoke. He beckoned me outside anyway, into the winter air. The first drags were free, then I had to buy my own. Then I bought his. After that, he introduced me to some of his friends, who offered me more obscure delights. You give me that little bag, and I’ll give you everything. I had no job, no money. Auntie suspected what was going on, so she refused to lend me any. I screamed at her for that, but she only smiled at me. Even when I stole from her, she’d just smile, but the light in her eyes failed a little more each time. I’d come home late, my shoes caked in mud, a stream of blood trickling down my arm, my pupils wide. She’d only say, ‘Have you eaten?’ I’d lie, yes. Then to bed, but not to sleep.
An owl stares at me from the limb of a gnarled tree. Its feathers are pure white, its eyes wide, black and searching. Its head tilts in a gesture of sorrow and pity. Before I can reply, it spreads its glorious wings and disappears into the moonless sky. Take me with you.
The trees seem to bend towards me, like gentlemen bowing as I pass. Low branches claw at my cheeks, leaves turn to dust beneath my feet. I stretch out my hand to balance against a tree trunk, but I pull it back instantly: it’s wet and sticky. Strange, thick branches bend outwards from the trunk almost symmetrically. My fingers, numbed by the cold, grasp at my phone. The touch screen barely registers my input, like I’m not here, until at last, I turn on the torch.
I stare at the leaves on the ground, the dirt, the twigs, the blood. There are feet near the roots of the tree, suspended a few inches in the air. Expensive trainers, irreparably stained. The body hangs like a puppet. I don’t need to see the face. I know who it will be.
Back home, I look over at auntie. She’s sitting in her usual spot by the gas fire, covered in dirt and grime and other things too. A shawl is wrapped around her naked shoulders as she pants, out of breath. There are long, bloody strips of fur on the floor leading to where she’s sitting. I can see that mark on her skin. I look into her eyes, which blaze like a new sun. She smiles at me sweetly, like she always does. I smile back and say, ‘Beautiful night, Auntie.’
Joe Howsin studied the creepy craft with Manchester Metropolitan University’s MA in Gothic literature and film. He was a finalist in the London Independent Short story Prize with his ghost story, ‘Snapshots’ and has appeared in Horrified Magazine.