Lori R. Lopez
In this place frolick elementals, conjuring
for the sake of eldritch spirits departed.
Copses of trees had knit tangled patches,
eventually creeping close enough to be
designated a Wood. Though not your average
bird-singing sun-dappled collection of
dense thickets, sprawling groves
where folks might pitch tents and relax
around campfires. Quite the opposite.
These were chilling unwholesome sections
of a brambly, gnarled and dread-inducing nature
in which nobody of sound mind and body
should tread. People who lived
within a hundred miles knew better.
Yet now and then, a group or a pair of outsiders
ventured amid the devil trees.
They never came out. And nobody went in
to search. The Haggards had been declared off-limits —
deemed too treacherous and dire, a public hazard —
and the legend became a law, strictly enforced,
a steadfast rule. An unbending local edict.
Warnings were posted along the perimeter
of raggedy edges to KEEP OUT!
DO NOT ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED!
For over a Century, occasional tourists went
absent or were arrested, scoffing at such quaint
traditions, rustic fears. Refusing to obey the
signs, apprehend the rumors. A club even formed
on the Internet of foolhardy death-defiers
aimed at accepting the challenge: the first to
record and survive one night.
So far the tally stood at zero humans,
with unknown or countless incidents of the
dark nethers causing victims to vanish. How much
was truth and how much fiction remained a mystery
no licensed sleuth or badge-wearer summoned
the courage to solve. But there were suspects.
A circle of pagan protectors.
Sylvan guardians known as The Hags,
believed to be youthful in appearance like
Wood Nymphs. Regional folklore spoke of them
luring, enchanting, dancing rings around those
who dared to cross their boundaries; singing, casting
spells. “Fall asleep o’er a loamy bed . . .
a crown of leaves for your face and head.”
Escaping, a traumatized man described the rite to
a friend, an ambitious freelance journalist. He sobbed
that his brother was still in the black haunting forest,
being absorbed by dirt and vegetation! A Sheriff had filed
a report then ignored the case. “He put me in a jail cell,”
whispered the survivor. “I was let go with instructions
to forget about it. I can’t. I miss my brother!”
What Jon witnessed and what he lost scarred him,
kept him awake, robbed him of appetite.
The Hags had turned into crones, a frightful coven!
Their voices were vile and lingered, echoing in
his mind. “I didn’t understand most of the words,
but it’s impossible to unhear.”
The Journalist, Ivy Bruce, was sympathetic.
She tried to contact an online group he blamed.
The siblings learned of the legend from their articles
and forum postings. The brothers didn’t register as
official members. Nonetheless, Jon Sullivan threatened
to sue. The Haghounds Website disappeared.
Ivy packed a bag and drove to interview
Sheriff North — who said her father just retired.
“The case is sealed. I advise you to drop this
investigation. Leave it for professionals. Stay out
of that Woods. Don’t make me have to incarcerate you!”
Ivy parked a yellow Mustang in front of two signs:
NO TRESPASSING! and THAT MEANS YOU!
Jon had nervously declined to accompany her,
citing Panic Attacks. “Find Joe. Please!”
Ivy vowed to do her best. Dismal spiky
Nevergreens met her eyes when she climbed out
to inspect a grim verge, despite a cheerful sky above,
a gilded path leading to the shadowy threshold.
Scant foliage was visible, the Wood
consisting of weeds and snarled scraggly growths
that seemed in a state of demise.
Branches were barren, sharp as spidery legs.
The female wove through a twisted maze
of brush and bracken, stalks and bare appendages.
Traipsing half an hour, her crunching footsteps halted.
Maidens clad in white gowns, floral tiaras, greeted
the intruder. “Thank you for joining us,” they intoned,
an eerie chorus. The voice of The Haggards.
Gazes deep as cosmic pools, astral abysses . . .
Uncompromising in purpose. Solemn and severe.
Dimly the woman recognized features
beyond them — a nose, an eye, the angle of a chin,
pieces of an aspect — blending with the trunk of
a spindly tree. While she stared incredulous, her jaw
adangle, Wood Nymphs pranced reciting verse . . .
Gradually the Journalist felt heavy and reclined
on a serried mat of wild grass.
The figures transformed to withered old ladies.
Looming, a giggling huddle, they peered down —
to gloat, applaud, ogle. Ivy felt her lower extremities
shrivel and take root in the soil. It didn’t hurt,
almost soothing. Her skin cracked apart,
emaciated, fashioning bark. She croaked a garbled
protest. The Witches crooned her to sleep.
“Planting people to sprout in the Wood
replaces the children gone for good.
Celebrate life with arboreal seeds,
collect the guilty and sow crossbreeds.
A limb for a limb to balance the loss
by culling their masses and feeding the Moss.
A limb for a limb, we feed the Moss.”