by Lilly Tupa
A beginning look into a world in which the woods are not to be trusted.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.”
“I’m so glad we were able to get out of the city for a bit. I mean, I enjoy a bustling metropolis as much as the next person, but every once in a while it’s so nice to get out and walk in the forest, you know?” Charlie smiled as he talked to Elie, who was doing his best to keep his eyes on the road. Trying to take in his surroundings while driving.
“Yeah I agree completely,” Elie knew that the best way to converse with Charlie was to agree at all times.
“I also appreciate the strict musical diet of hits from the 50s, very rustic.”
Elie now seemed to ignored Charlie. There was only so much of his chatter that he could handle. “This is the only official park on the map. It looks to be a nature reserve of some kind. When we were leaving our rooms this morning I asked the desk clerk about it. He took one look at me, stood up, and went into his office, rather rudely might I add. He slammed the door behind him for Pete’s sake.”
“Maybe it’s a huge town secret,” Charlie laughed through his words.
“This isn’t Riverdale,” Elie interrupted but Charlie continued on without pause.
“Like the Mothman, or a secret laboratory gone wrong.” Elie struggled to not roll his eyes at his friend. “Is this it?” Charlie pointed at a sign which read “Gilded Woods” in big black letters. Underneath in drippy red spray-paint had been marked “enter at own risk”.
“Cheery place, isn’t it?”
“I’m sure that’s just some local teen’s idea of a joke, I wouldn’t take it too seriously.”
“Gilded Woods? Who are these people, Robert Frost?”
“Frost wrote about a Yellow Wood, not a Gilded Wood.”
“You know what I mean.”
Elie did roll his eyes this time and parked the car. The two got out and stretched their legs. The drive had only been twenty minutes from their motel, but all day they had been sitting in a board meeting so stuffy that Charlie finally understood the meaning of the name.
After climbing out, Elie looked around, beaming at the beauty of the park and admiring the trees. From behind some tall grass he saw another sign, this one even more graffitied than the last. Deciding that reading it would be too difficult he left it and mentioned nothing of it to Charlie.
Unbeknownst to him, this particular sign was not an informational placard, but a form of warning. Decomposing and tagged over, the sign held words that the locals told their children to scare them at bedtime: “Many fear to enter/ the fabled gilded wood/ for few seem to exit/ where one truly should,” Though to be fair, even if Elie had made the effort to read the words under the ink he wouldn’t think much of it. He was never one to believe in fables, folklore, or fairy tales. How ironic that he was to become one himself. Fascinating, really.
“Ready to hike?” Elie grabbed his and Charlie’s bags out of the backseat of their 1959 Ford Thunderbird rental, the vehicle courtesy of the company that flew them out to Odessa. Charlie nodded, grabbed the spare bag from his hand, and the two set out on the trail.
“Maybe we’ll see some native wildlife.”
“We’re going into the woods, why would we not see wildlife?”
“I don’t know, your ugly face might scare any living thing away. It’s a wonder I’m still here, though I’ve learned to stomach it.”
“I hope you fall off a cliff.”
“After you.” The pair bantered as they walked along the path, completely oblivious to anything that lay beyond the trees. That does not mean though, that there was nothing beyond the trees. The things of the forest were never quite as oblivious as visitors tend to be. Elie couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. This emotion, most closely described as paranoia, is one that nearly all humans have. The only difference is that in this particular instance, Elie actually was being watched.
The two continued to walk and chat, occasionally taking note of a bird or squirrel that ran past. Neither of them thought anything of the rustling in the bushes or the cracking of far off branches. All of this was written off as “forest sounds”. Nothing to worry about. They rounded a turn in the trail that took them next to a sheer drop into a shallow river.
“This place reminds me of a poem my Mom used to tell to me before bed.”
“If you start reciting Frost I will push you into that river.”
The trail wound itself back around into the thick of the trees. Around Elie and Charlie the world seemed to get darker. Like most suspicious things, the two chose to ignore it. If they had been more observant they would have noticed their shadows moving without them. The trail behind them tapering off. The forest sounds dwindling. They were not more observant.
Ahead of them lay an obstacle. A large willow tree loomed over, branches sprawling lazily through the air. Its trunk split the trail directly through the center. All around the base of the tree, the usually dusty path was discolored, a shimmery silver hue replacing the tan of tread upon soil. The bark seemed to glow with an unearthly intensity, so bright that the world around it seemed to radiate heat.
“Well that's--” Charlie began.
“Ominous,” Elie finished for him. The two weren't entirely sure what to make of the sight before them. Neither man completely believed what he was seeing.
“Do we just… continue on?”
“Well… Two roads and all that.”
“What, like I go left and you go right?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous, you go right and I go left.”
Instead of doing the correct thing, the sensible thing of cutting their losses, turning right back around and returning the way they came, the two continued on. Each chose a direction around the tree. Charlie went left, and Elie went right. Charlie thought it would be more picturesque that way, or some malarky like that. Before setting off on their own routes around the tree, Charlie made a show of tipping an imaginary hat and winking at Elie, who laughed.
Still smirking from his charades Charlie emerged from the other side and looked across to where Elie should have been in step with him. Strangely the space on the other side of the path was vacant.
“Hey I’m supposed to be the comedian in this partnership, thank you very much,” Charlie spoke to the woods attempting to call out to Elie. It is quite difficult to speak to someone who is absent from your location. Charlie looked around the trunk of the tree, pacing its circumference in a vain attempt to come up with a different conclusion when he reached the other side. He could not. The fact of the matter was that Elie was gone. Getting more feverous in his hunt for his friend Charlie walked in bigger and bigger circles around the tree hoping that Elie was simply playing a cruel trick on him.
“Elie? Elie, where are you this isn’t funny anymore!” In his search Charlie hadn’t noticed the environment around him had changed only slightly. The tree was no longer aglow, the path no longer shimmering, and the most important part that he had not noticed in the first place, the woods were no longer dark. They had claimed what they needed and left what they did not.
Elie was never found.
Not one article of clothing nor piece of DNA was left behind as proof that he even ventured into the woods in the first place.