Cara’s back in the woods. It’s a winter’s afternoon like so many afternoons; the sky’s white and ragged through the trees. The ground is steeped with leaves, as patched and patterned as charred toast.
At first, she strides ahead as if inspired, inspiring, marching into the cobwebs of her own huffed breath. Mulch clings to her impractical boots and even in her gloves, her pockets, her hands stay cold. The children lag behind.
Every now and then, she turns to them.
While Tammy, Cara’s youngest, dodges creeping bushes, the twins stick to the centre of the path, although they’re weaving several feet apart. Their shoulders are hunched, chins dipped towards their iPods. Ben’s bowed head is a crow-black tangle, gold only at the roots. Helen gleams. Brilliantly blond against the sodden greens and mottled browns, the ghostly grey of latticed branches. With the chill, she’s already beginning to frizz and ripple, her hair clenching back towards its natural curls.
Headphones firmly plugged in, each immersed in their own distinctly different music, the twins don’t look up to find their mother’s gaze, and nor to one another. And yet each child sways in rhythm, as if they’re two parts of the same. It’s how they’ve always been, despite Ben’s crude dye, despite Helen’s straighteners. Irretrievably connected.
Tammy catches up, abruptly bundling between them. She arrives muttering, mid-sentence. Wondering about the dead-leaf crunch, and about her wellies, their blue and yellow polka dots. Yet after a moment, she remembers Cara.
She inclines her head, and there’s that softness to her eyes. Tammy’s eyes… As always, Cara resists the urge to turn away.
After all, her littlest is waving, although with her next clumsy step, Tammy’s already distracted. Bowing with concern over some peeling twig or pearly pebble. Tucked too tightly into her padded coat, her hair hangs in pallid lines and Cara catches herself picturing thin, poured tea. Lukewarm, she thinks.
She shifts her attention back to her own feet, to her preposterous boots with their mud-sticking heels and cracks and streaks. They’re her oldest pair. These days, this is the only place she would think to wear them, although the worn leather goes on cradling her calves like appreciative hands, and they remain, insistently, beautiful. Those stains…
In a kind of daze, as if they don’t belong to her, Cara watches her rumpled feet negotiate knotted roots and mossy rocks. The gentle parting of the leaves.
She refuses to look up, to glance ahead, to the place where the path is pulling them. She doesn’t even want to breathe the forest down too deeply. Not yet. She ought to savour it all, slowly – this walk, these unfolding woods, this perfect, paling afternoon. At the same time of course, she can’t face any of it. It’s all too tangled – not yet, please.
But the trees press close and the scents accost her, regardless. Musky bark and the acrid odour of snapped bracken, and that taste like yellowed metal to the air. Most of all, there’s the curious sweetness of the dark earth that’s packed beneath her. Before her.
It’s irresistible. One of the main reasons why she’s back here, why today, with the weather like this, she couldn’t prevent herself from returning. The same way she wears these tired, beloved boots because –
Cara stops in her tracks.
And then listens to her own voice, surprisingly harsh.
“Come on, you lot! Get a move on.”
In truth, attempting to rouse herself, to remind herself.
Don’t be sad, Cara. Don’t be sad.
“You know you’ll love it when you get there,” she’d told the twins before they left.
And although it has been years, it’s true, they do.
When Cara stops walking, her children take over. It isn’t long before Ben’s bounding ahead, leaping a slick, black stump, loose bootlaces whirling, and there’s a new lightness to Helen’s step too that she can’t disguise. At the very beginning, before anything else, this place was theirs, although they’d never acknowledge it. Nevertheless, they know exactly where they’re heading.
Only Tammy goes on dawdling. Her commentary has grown slightly desperate, sharpening to a sing-song chirrup as she continues to search, to treasure-hunt. Cara waits for her to take off again before following.
Already, the twins have vanished, flitting between the sudden firs, where the path twists and forks. Beneath her scarf, Cara can feel her pulse. A fragile ticking in her throat –
Already, they’ll have found the woman. Their own rediscovery.
Yet it’s only now that Cara fully allows herself to draw down the day. She fills her lungs with woolly damp, and with each blink uncovers a new pattern in the bark. Bold lines and inky webs, unfathomable words.
She lets the trees surround her.
High above, in a hole between the netted branches, there’s a tiny plane. So distant, it appears suspended, hardly moving. A paper cut-out on the smoky sky. And Cara remembers how, way before Tammy, before these woods meant anything much, she used to watch the planes. How when they first moved here, she’d feel herself shift inside, with the turn of their wings. Her longing unreeling with their fleecy tails as she waited for Mark, her husband, to come home.
Back then, when she’d believed in something perfect, or at least, a striving for perfection, she’d celebrated each of his returns with a feast. A succulent joint, slow-simmering in the oven, further complicated dishes on the stove. She’d wanted a house suffused with the welcoming scents of browning meat and melting butter. She’d wanted candlelight, and peace. Although inevitably, one course or another would burn and the twins would fuss, becoming fractious, sent to bed on time, for once.
And even then, Mark too would never be quite what she’d envisaged. Despite his catnap, jetlag would shade his features like the rub of grubby fingers. His mouth tightening with the effort of it all, while Cara often spent far too long with her clanking pans, her own face straining. Staining. Mascara bruising, and sometimes running, with the steam.
And later of course, it was the planes taking off that had caused her heart to twist. The space without Mark, and what that could mean.
Eagerly in front now, Tammy wades between the pine needles, following her siblings through the gap into the clearing, and Cara comes up quickly behind her. Faster than she’d intended. So fast that with a rush like gulped breath, it is upon her.
His unfamiliar fingers curled around hers. The novelty of holding hands, because they could out here. Because Mark was far away, and there wasn’t another soul about to see them.
Although for a while, she’d remained shy with him, snatching glances, even with his thumb circling her palm. Even as the ripples shuddered through her. It was insanity how much she’d wanted him. The stroke of his coat hem sweeping her thigh –
Impatiently, Cara pushes through the clinging branches. She only remembers to duck at the very last moment and ends up staggering, as clumsy as Tammy. She practically falls into the clearing, and it isn’t good enough. Because her twins are waiting. And the woman.
Helen and Ben had been no bigger than Tammy when they’d found her. It was back in that before-time, during those early, waiting, plane-watching days, when it had just been the three of them, walking together. Until that afternoon when the two of them had streaked off in a whole new direction. Soaring, as if called. But before Cara had had time to unpick her panic, they were calling out to her. Not lost at all, simply high-pitched and excited from beyond the blue fir boughs.
“There’s a woman, Mummy! Come and see. A woman under the ground.”
She hadn’t hurried. The twins’ lives then had been fraught with tiny, bright discoveries. Their delight and terror as intently felt, and as easily plucked, as their splinters. Generally, Cara had attended to them in a daze, wavering between busyness and exhaustion. In some way or another, she’d always struggled to keep up.
And it had been such a fine spring afternoon when they’d come across their woman, winter swept away. Lifting those heavy branches, Cara had let herself be distracted by their fringes, and by the birdsong. By the idea of all those tight, little buds on the brink of unfolding. The air was rich and ripe, tinged green, and Cara’s stomach had stirred with a blend of happiness and hunger. And it was the light that had struck her first, before her children, or even the woman there. She can picture it, still, so beautiful –
The way it had fallen, slicing through the branches. Gold columns hanging like smoke between that green. Turning like water, each one tumbling with flecks, with seeds or pollen. Tiny sea-beings, aglitter.
Cara’s children had been similarly dappled – while the woman spread-eagled at the heart of the clearing was barred with light, strapped down by it. As if it wasn’t quite enough that she was under the ground. She had needed binding too.
Smiling, Cara had walked over to her, and to the twins huddled at her side. All big eyes and open mouths, so dazzlingly blond in that moment, she’d had to blink away. Miraculous creatures…
“It’s all right,” she’d told them.
Because of course the woman wasn’t really a woman.
“It’s just earth,” Cara had said, wondering aloud about underlying rocks and lumpen roots. The freakishness of nature. Yet that sprawled shape remained incredible, despite her reasoning – and so perfectly centred beneath the trees. Even the nettles crowded a respectful distance back.
When Cara had drawn closer, the mounds that might have been a head and two firm breasts only grew more definite, and it had made her laugh. Nothing but bumped, slumped soil. And yet so distinctly, unnervingly, a woman.
It wasn’t just her breasts and the embedded rise and sink of her shoulders, there were also furrows that seemed to suggest the length of her arms, and a pair of strong legs. A possible dip between her dusty thighs.
Although she lay larger than any human woman, it was astonishing how properly proportioned she’d appeared, so that briefly Cara had wondered if she wasn’t in fact man-made? The work of some secretive artist? But the thought was easily dismissed; the figure was somehow too much a part of these woods to have been imagined elsewhere; she’d grown here.
Yet nothing grew on her, Cara had realised. And that was strange.
The twins had listened to her explanations, the possibilities, their faces dubious. They didn’t ask a single question. Once Cara’s reassurances were over, all Helen said was “We’re keeping her,” and Ben had nodded. “She’s our lady now.”
And so it was decided. After that, they had to keep coming, back and back. It became a weekly occurrence, at least. At some point, one of them declared the woman a sacrifice – they were probably at school by then, investigating Aztecs – while the other determined that she was definitely alive under there, only sleeping, waiting, just like them.
They took it in turns with their stories and occasionally, they’d pounced on her, throwing rocks and stabbing her with sticks. Kicking up her powder while their eyes flashed and their cheeks blazed, their laughter like screaming, ecstatic and appalled. Such frenzies never lasted long though, and mostly, they fell hushed before her. They had started leaving gifts.
Snail shells and bracelets of petals, gleaming, bone-like stones. One summer’s day, a three foot-long daisy chain that Helen had been meticulously winding since the house. The offerings, the visits, rapidly became ingrained. Such a part of their routine that when Cara had finally returned to the woods without her children, she couldn’t seem to prevent her feet, these boots, from leading the same way. She hadn’t meant to –
But until Tammy arrived and Mark stopped travelling, until these last few years when the house had closed in, she’d kept returning.
As if there was nowhere else for them to go.
There wasn’t any wind, that first time. No real rain either, just chilly damp, the air silvery with moisture. But Cara had been warm inside her boots. And shivery-hot wherever he touched her. His fingers on her neck, even before they’d kissed –
On the way, he had put her hand inside his pocket and she’d felt him. Laughing clumsily, a thin gasping, made stupid with desire.
They’d intended to lay down their coats, but in the end, there wasn’t time. She’d had to pull off her boots though, one at least, in order to peel free her woollen tights, her underwear – the absurdity of clothes. She’d fumbled with the leather, and when she finally managed to grasp the zip, the sound of its teeth unhooking had made her wince. Like ripping a plaster from a weeping knee. A brutal noise, beside the quiet. Their breath –
“Who’s that, Mummy?”
Cara drags herself back.
Of course the woman’s still there. Where else could she go?
For a moment, Cara’s old smile appears. A brief, ghost smile. Even though the woman’s grey this afternoon, soft and exhausted-looking and perhaps not quite as big as Cara remembered.
And yet her figure remains unmistakable. Rough head, those breasts, the reaching paw-like hands. Slowly, heavily, Cara lifts her gaze to Helen, and then Ben.
But the twins no longer seem interested in their lady, their rituals. They stand a little way off, beside the holly. Helen’s tugging the headphones from her ears, but she doesn’t glance over. Neither of them do.
And even Tammy’s trudging off again now, already distracted by a paper-lined cone or an acorn cup, woodlice.
So Cara’s alone as she approaches. Transfixed as she recalls the dreams she used to have about this woman, night after night, once she’d stopped visiting. Dreams of digging, of clawing … And she remembers too how whenever she left this clearing – not with Mark, never with Mark, but with J – she’d always glance back, a grin running right through her as she nodded goodbye.
Thank you, that’s what she used to think. As if the woman was their secret keeper. As if she could keep them safe.
Sometimes, afterwards, they would go for a drink, J and Cara. Knocking back whiskies in some dozy pub, high and thirsty and relieved. Just once, they went to a café in the furthest village instead, where Cara had giggled at the Battenburg. At the unreality of it all.
She’d been in such a haze that afternoon, so stunned still, looking back at him, that by the time she brought the rimmed china to her mouth, her tea had cooled; it was almost undrinkable. And with that lukewarm sip, came the realisation of time. Of endings. How they were always leaving one other.
“Don’t be sad,” he had told her. “Don’t be sad.”
His eyes tugging at Cara as she gathered up her purse and brushed viciously at her boots. Practical measures to hold back a terrible, swooping vision of her golden twins waiting. Just the two of them waiting, in that wide, grey playground, at the end of school.
Hopeless, Cara thinks now.
Stupid to have come back here. And to have brought the kids with her –
She can hardly look at the woman anymore. That woman made of dirt.
At the clearing’s edge, the undergrowth ripples, scuffles. There are creatures hiding there, furtive, scratching things. The bushes flounce with their squabbling, while overhead the branches shift, just perceptibly, with the wind. They remain stiff against the white, while far beyond them, another plane…
My children, Cara thinks.
Turning her attention back to Helen, who’s leaning towards her brother now, untangling him, fitting her headphones into his ears. Ben rolls his eyes – and is that eyeliner? Cara half-wonders, though what does it matter? What does she care? He laughs, shaking his head. Then Helen’s sniggers reach her too.
Cara’s twins still glow, despite the afternoon’s flat glare, despite Ben’s contrived darkness, and: How close they’ll always be, she thinks. How interwoven. That bond between them, which has frequently held Cara distant, that at times keeps everyone at bay, it remains tangible. Unbreakable.
And Cara considers, as she so often has, what it must be like to have that? To have another person so rigorously, truthfully, a part of you? To have someone forever, and not just walking beside you, but inside you too? A connection that’s sunk deep into your bones, that wavers with the thinner air between you.
They share such a careful, ice-blue gaze –
Suddenly it strikes Cara, that carefulness. The fact that while neither child has seemed to pay even a second of attention to their ancient goddess, they haven’t walked over her, or even anywhere close to her either – and Cara finds herself ridiculously pleased. Their avoidance is gratifying. An acknowledgement, surely, in itself.
My children, she thinks.
My magical, mysterious twins, so precious.
Of course she would never once have considered leaving them. She’s never even allowed them to have to look for her, to wait for her. She couldn’t have lost them. It’s an impossible concept. Not even out here, in these woods –
Tammy rummages about the clearing, circling Cara and her twins. Skidding about in that world of her own, mud spattering her wellies already – another smudge on her chin. What has she been doing?
But Cara’s vision is smearing. The holly’s different greens blur, while the bare branches merge into that blank, torn sky. It is only when Tammy marches, almost decisively, back to the woman, that everything refocuses.
The child pauses, open-mouthed, over that featureless face. For a heartbeat, she holds herself still, and then she bends, slowly. She doesn’t wobble in her usual Tammy way.
Finally, she crouches.
Cara hardly breathes.
She cannot move. Her beloved boots are frozen to the frozen ground – and yet at the same time, a fine, fluttering part of her is sinking alongside Tammy.
Feeling him roll her over, feeling his mouth on her neck.
The give of that earth beneath her knees –
But Cara doesn’t have to battle to bring herself back this time. Back to her third child, to her youngest, because Tammy is reaching out with one mittened fist. She plants a single feather, and her tepid hair’s spilling as she looks back up, as she calls over.
“Hey Mummy, don’t be sad.”
From ‘The Woman Under the Ground and Other Stories’, Weathervane Press, 2014