An entomologist and her assistant venture into the heart of darkness
|Just to be a jerk, I decided to use everything. Though it pained me to harm these lovely trees, I carved arrows into the bark to show the direction we were heading. "I'm sorry," I whispered with each notch. Behind me, Mallory sprayed biodegradable paint and held the unraveling spool of string line as we wandered deeper into the forbidden forest.
I didn't want to say it, but my assistant was right to be apprehensive. The uneven landscape and crowded thickets made it impossible to see more than ten meters into the distance. Without blazing a trail, we would have been lost within minutes.
Each time I paused to take a swig of water, my gulps seemed to boom in the oppressive silence. I couldn't shake the feeling that something was listening out there. If there was any wildlife, those reclusive animals left nothing signifying they lived here. There was no cheerful birdsong floating on the air, or crickets chirping in the grass, not even an errant claw mark scarring a single tree.
Now I understood why the legends existed. To an impressionable mind, it would seem as if these woods were haunted. I turned and gave Mallory an encouraging smile, in case he was having disquieting thoughts. "How are we doing on paint?"
He rattled the can, unleashing a hideous clamor in that heavy calm. "About half a can left."
Patting my rucksack, I told him there was another one where that came from. "We're doing pretty good so far, I think. Have you seen any other webs? Maybe an egg sack or two?" I was trying to keep things light and breezy, but the atmosphere seemed to tighten around us. The back of my neck prickled. Pretending I wasn't on edge, I acted like I was scanning the area for our shy arachnid.
"Where are you, lil' guy?" I called out, forcing a bubbly tone. Mallory shot me a look, probably telling me to shut the hell up. Inexplicably, the air pressure around us increased, making each breath feel as though we were inhaling something solid. My ears rang, whining while the unknown presence grew. I thought my head was going to explode, pounding louder and louder as the sensation painfully built.
And then it vanished, lifting away.
I sagged against a lichen-encrusted boulder, strangely exhausted from the experience. Metal clanged as a pale Mallory dropped the paint can and spool. "Did you feel that?" He gulped, hands quivering as he loosened the shoulder straps. I gave no response.
Instead, I dully watched my assistant as he rummaged through his backpack. "What are you- Oh."
Pulling out a stainless steel flask, Mallory unscrewed the top and took a few healthy swallows. I could have used some liquid courage myself, but I didn't want to show him that I was feeling nervous. He tended to snowball if a situation wasn't going well.
He offered me the container, but I turned it down. After all, someone needed a clear head out here.
"Are you seriously going to deny that happened?" Mallory squinted at me accusingly, wiping his mouth. I shrugged, acting aloof. "I don't think it was anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was a fluctuation in electromagnetic frequencies?"
Throwing the flask back into his pack, Mallory barked a short laugh. "That's a load of bullshit and you know it."
I dropped my own bag to the ground and drank some water as I rested on the mottled green rock. "Awfully rich, coming from Mr. Urban Legend." The instant I said it, I knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say. I just couldn't help it, this barbed tongue was practically reflexive.
"Do you know what was an urban legend? Your stupid little spider. But you don't want to admit that I might be right for once, now do you?" His face had been white and bloodless before, but now it was flushed with the insulting inferno I'd lit within.
Arguing with him now was pointless. Mallory was all riled up while I felt worn out and ill-prepared for the fight I'd started. "I'm not doing this right now," I grunted and pushed myself away from the cool stone. He glowered as I retreated into the underbrush. "Where the hell are you going?"
I made a face and stuck my tongue at him. "I have to pee, thank you very much." Why couldn't I resist adding more fuel to the fire?
"This isn't over!" He called out as I pushed past the bushes and into the wilderness beyond.
Once there was a comfortable amount of distance between me and my seething assistant, I squatted below a flowering cherry tree and sighed in relief. Who could ask for a better view while emptying your bladder? Pink sakura blossoms gracefully drifted, slowly spinning in the air on their way to the mossy ground. Chalky mushrooms sprouted in between the gnarled roots that twisted everywhere. Bushes waved broad leaves, surrounding the area in a green expanse. This truly was a living sea of trees.
I relished this peaceful ambiance. It was nice to get away from moody Mallory once in a while. But if I waited too long, he'd start worrying and wander off looking for me like a damn fool.
Pulling up my pants, I fastened my belt and took one last longing look at the scene before me. I took a mental snapshot and committed it to memory. Then I turned around and shrieked.
A black fox sat on its shadowy haunches before me, ears perked, yellow eyes glinting. From its jaws, a dead crane dangled limply. The broken wings splayed open, white feathers stained from the sanguine fluid that trickled down from its torn neck. Motionlessly, I watched blood-drops fall onto the dead leaves below. Drip, drip, drip, drip.
Behind me, a disembodied laugh rasped in my ear. It was a horrible gurgling noise as though someone was choking and giggling all at once.
I whirled, finding nothing there. Only the sakura blossoms, silently floating downwards. Clutching at my chest, I felt my heart hammering as the panic faded. Was I losing my mind? I distinctly heard that sound despite the endless hush that fell on these woods.
The onyx animal and its prey had disappeared into the underbrush, leaving nothing behind but four crimson splashes on a dried leaf.
Stumbling out of the bushes on shaky legs, I called for Mallory. His friendly face would be a comfort, something constant that I could rely on in this unfamiliar region. When he didn't answer, I shouted again. It was possible that he was still upset with me, which was entirely my fault. But I needed him now, I needed him to say that he was here and I wasn't alone in these woods.
Bitterly, I wished I hadn't walked out of sight. I should have gone behind the giant rock and told him to look the other way. "Mallory!" This time I screamed. If it sounded like an emergency, it's because it was. "Please, Mallory. Where are you?"
What if something had happened to him? What if he got so angry he left me out here, out in the wilderness? The what if's kept stacking up in my head, threatening to make me hysterical with their horrible possibilities. I shoved my way past a maple tree, pushing a shrub aside, and saw the lichen-covered boulder, our backpacks, and Mallory.
The relief swept over me, making my knees weak. I was never so happy to see this oaf in my life and he'd probably say something along those lines. "Why didn't you answer, you jerk?" I wobbled towards him, waiting for a snarky reply.
He was facing away, facing something I couldn't see. I snapped my fingers and frowned. "Say something, you okay?" Not even so much as a twitch. Finally, I was close enough to touch him. Placing a hand on his slumped shoulders, I tugged and pulled Mallory away from the object he was so fixated on.
It was an ashen wraith web, stretched between two trees. How had I missed this before? It was right beside the rock I was leaning on during our little spat.
"You found one!" I squealed, approaching the structure with unrestrained glee. The silk seemed fairly recent and taut, the radials were intact and the perfect spiral was.... well, perfect. There was even a trailing safety line where the spider had dropped to the ground after weaving this gossamer labyrinth. The only question was why leave after finishing its work? And where was it now?
I glanced at Mallory, who seemed caught in a trance. "Hey, are you in there? Hellooo, anybody home?" Shaking him seemed to work best. It was as if he was waking up from a nap, confused and disoriented.
"Hm? What's going on... I thought you had to pee?" He looked dazed and glassy-eyed. I narrowed my eyes, inspecting him for bite marks. "Did anything bite you? You feel a sting anywhere?"
Rubbing his face, he blinked a few times and wondered what I was on about. I pointed to the web. "You were staring at this like a zombie. Do you remember anything that happened while I was gone?"
Mallory peered at the silk lattice and nodded slowly. "It was moving... The web. I've never seen anything like it."
But he couldn't describe anything further. A sickly pallor crept over his skin, and he was uninterested in the conversation. I was torn between examining our newest lead and worrying over Mallory's condition. What exactly had transpired while I was away? Biting my lip, I made a decision.
"Take your shirt off," I commanded, pulling at the fabric. He gaped at me, bewildered by the odd request. "Whatever for?"
"Just do it," I ordered and yanked it off despite his protests. Circling around his exposed back and chest, I carefully examined his skin for puncture wounds, peculiar bumps, or any other lesion. Satisfied that there was nothing, I straightened and tossed him his shirt back.
"Looks like you're bite-free. Though you might wanna get that mole checked." Conscience clear, I grabbed my camera and returned to the spectacular web. Mallory chuckled and slid back into his clothing. "You sure that I don't need to take my pants off too?"
I told him there was nothing there for the spider to bite and smiled. Looks like he was back to his old self.
After exhaustively documenting our newest finding, I checked to see if my assistant was feeling better. His color hadn't improved much but he was busy stuffing his face with trail mix, so it seemed that his appetite was unaffected. I was still concerned. Mallory acted as if he was fine but he looked fatigued. Maybe it was time to call it a day and retrace our steps tomorrow.
Besides, it was difficult to tell how long we were in this forest.
The dense canopy above blocked out the sun, making it hard to gauge how much sunlight was left. My phone and watch had been acting funny since we entered the forbidden zone, most likely because of the strong magnetism that Mallory mentioned.
I decided we found enough for one excursion. A nice dinner and a hot shower would be marvelous right about now. We could ask where the nearest hotel was at the park office. Mallory seemed rather pleased with this plan, saying that he would just about die for some udon noodles.
Picking up the string line, I began raveling it back up as we followed it back the way we came.
"Hey," I said. "You never told me what the guy said about those monks." Mallory was puzzled for a second until it dawned on him. "Oh yeah... Do you really want to know? I thought you didn't really care for that urban legend stuff."
I shrugged, spinning the spool. "Passes the time I guess." He shook his head at my blasé reaction. "They were praying to appease the yūrei - the ghosts of those who died with anger and regret. Yūrei cannot pass on and are forced to roam the earth as they take their revenge on the living."
Japanese folklore was really fascinating. I wondered how many other cultures believed something similar. Mallory said that nearly every country had a version of restless spirits, but each required slight differences in order to leave the earthly realm.
"Did you study this in college?" I inquired. He was a little abashed by the question. "No, I just like to learn about the supernatural... I don't think they have electives for superstitions and creepy stories."
"Well, maybe they should. You could be a professor of Spookology." I teased, stepping over a snarl of roots. We were almost out of the woods. I could feel the line was slackening, approaching the end. Then I frowned. It shouldn't be this loose, something was wrong.
I lifted up the string line and glanced at Mallory. "You tied this around that tree by the trail, right?"
He confirmed that was the case, looping it twice for good measure. "Didn't you watch me do it? I knotted it tight, it shouldn't have come loose..."
But I could see the tail end, pulling it closer as I rolled the spool up. Mallory snatched the string up and examined it. "It's been cut," He grimly remarked. I could see he was right. Someone had severed our lifeline, hoping to leave us stranded.
"Good thing we used paint and some old fashioned steel," I reassured my assistant. But my confidence had been shaken, knowing there was a stranger out there with malicious intentions. That gurgling laugh came to mind, echoing in my ears.
"Yeah," Mallory mumbled. "Good thing." He didn't seem very optimistic.
The paint seemed to grow less and less visible as we followed it back towards the trail. I asked Mallory if he had been spraying the entire time and he got upset that I was doubting him. "Look, Adrienne. I was right behind you the whole time and I was blasting the crap out of these trees. Maybe you got some faulty paint, I have no idea."
I didn't press any further. He was right, everything was good on the way in. For some reason, our careful methods were failing us and I didn't understand why.
"As long as we have the markings, we're okay," I convinced myself. "There's no way those are going away, it would take days for that."
Sure enough, the arrows I'd carved were still there. But new ones had appeared, spreading out over several trees until I could no longer tell which way to go. Mallory was nearly beside himself. Sinking to the ground, he buried a distressed face in his hands. "We're never leaving this place," He moaned.
I heard that raspy gurgling laugh mock me again. This time, Mallory heard it as well. His head shot up, eyes wide with fright.
"We need to move," I announced as calmly as I could. Inwardly, I was screaming. But I couldn't crumble, not in front of Mallory. He was barely holding on as it was, and I needed to strong for both of us.
"Adrienne?" He was gazing off into the woods, where the noise had come from.
"Come on, let's keep going. We can rest later." I reached down and helped him stand. Mallory was still staring at the shadows. "Mallory," I gripped his shoulders tightly. Maybe a bit too tightly. He blinked and looked me in the eyes.
"I need you," I tried to put on a brave face, not letting him see the cracks in my armor, the growing dread within my heart.
He nodded, lips twitching into a small smile. I hugged him fiercely, fighting against the bitter sobs that threatened to spill out. It was the first time we had ever embraced in the three years we'd known each other. I never wanted to let him go.
We picked the most likely path and followed the little arrows. I told Mallory not to look back at whatever was following us, to pretend it wasn't there. The last thing I needed was his mind to break completely. I chattered on about whatever I could think of, useless knowledge about insects and plants that I'd learned through my extensive research. I didn't want to talk about spiders.
It felt like we were stuck in a web, helplessly struggling on those sticky threads. Something felt our vibrations, patiently waiting for us to stop struggling so it could sink its sharp fangs in our flesh. I hated myself for dragging us into this. For acting so clever and mocking Mallory for his nervousness.
He responded to my prattling, asking questions, and showing interest as we shuffled through the increasingly gloomy forest. I kept his mind off of the thing behind us, talking about childhood, my college days, and the wild parties thrown by my sorority. Mallory even laughed a few times at these tales.
I didn't share my disquiet. How I didn't recognize the ground we walked on or the way we were heading. It felt like the path was leading us in circles. Or even a spiral.
"My feet hurt," Mallory groaned. He looked like he was about to collapse. I put my arm around his shoulder and coaxed him onward. "It can't be far now," I said brightly. He snorted at my fake optimism. "We've been going the wrong way for almost an hour."
It was no use acting like we would find our way out. I told him that I had a little tent and a stove in my backpack and that we could set up camp for the night. "It's no hotel, but we can make the best of it." He gave me a weary grin and said we might as well.
What little light existed was fading fast. I pulled out my flashlight and used it to guide our way through the treacherous terrain. As I swept the beam back and forth it illuminated something. A flash of blue, in an ocean of greenery.
It was an old sneaker.
Mallory moaned again, looking as if he was about to be sick. "Oh god, we should never have come this way." I glanced at him, concerned for his state of mind. "It's just a shoe."
He shuddered in agitation. "You don't understand. But you'll see. You'll see plenty."
We moved on. I discovered more articles of clothing, fragments of lives lingering in the eternal shadows. Moldy wallets, frayed jackets, torn letters, sparkling jewelry... Traces left from troubled souls that came to die in the forest. I saw a white glint of human bone and moved the beam away before Mallory could see.
He said nothing as we trudged along. I knew he was at his limit, I was quickly approaching mine.
A clearing opened up before us, ethereal mist curling over dead leaves and velvety moss. I sighed, thankful for the opportunity to rest our aching feet. "Let's stop here for the night. I'll set the tent up." Handing the flashlight to Mallory, I dropped my heavy pack and withdrew the folded canvas.
"Shine it over here," I requested, assembling the fiberglass frame. Wordlessly, he complied. The humble shelter was nearly complete when the soft glow drifted away from me and over to a contorted Mongolian oak towering near the edge of the clearing.
"Mallory? I need to see what I'm doing," I reminded him tensely. If he heard me, it made no difference.
Slowly, the yellow light crawled over the warped trunk, highlighting objects that had been nailed into the knobbled bark. Straw effigies dangled, rusted spikes driven through their grassy chests. Faded pictures of strangers with their faces scratched out. A dilapidated headless doll was crucified upside down, plastic limbs outstretched.
"Curses..." I heard Mallory whisper in horror. "Curses upon the world they left behind."
My stomach knotted, twisting painfully. I had a terrible suspicion that if he examined that oak any longer, he would find a new pair of straw figures. "Give me the damn flashlight," I seethed.
There was a low creaking groan. It was echoed, multiplied several times, the lament of wooden limbs and twisted fibers straining against a heavy burden. Pointing the beam towards the noise, Mallory let out a strangled cry.
From the branches above, a number of severed ropes drooped. Each one gradually swayed in a non-existent breeze, bearing unseen bodies. The raspy gurgle arose again. It was the sound of someone laughing while they choked a slow death.
Dropping the flashlight, my trembling assistant backed away from the unimaginable scene. Understanding what he was about to do, I rushed towards him in panic. "Mallory, don't!" I shouted desperately. But I was too late.
Utterly consumed by fear, he turned and fled into the woods.