T h e T h o r n w o o d .
Once upon a time, as most fairy tales start, I saw a woman with the most beautiful hair.
It bathed her rose pearl skin in a sea of dusky ebony, dark golden eyes pinning me to the ground with rusted iron stakes that her delicate hands didn’t need to drive into my feet -- I did so by my own will.
They all told me never to go up into the forest, the thornwood, where light was so frightened of the creatures there that it flat-out refused to penetrate the black leaves and half-rotted limbs that made the forest’s canopy. They told me that the trees somehow stood by an aberrant force, by unseen fishing lines, criss-crossed in intricate x’s across their moldy trunks. They told me to beware the thorns.
I told them that no such things existed.
They told me that they were there. I just couldn’t see them.
I grew up here, in the only town at the base of the mountain. The stories used to scare me as a kid; the stories that I learned were only meant to keep adventurous brats like me from getting lost in the thornwood, as the adults would call it. It worked. We stayed away.
But as years passed and the fear faded away like the smoke of the cigarettes my brother used to light on Sunday nights. If I really wanted to, I could blame my smoking habit on him. He said that it kept the beasts of the thornwood away -- they smelled the white ash and couldn’t bear to see their own forest in flames. He said it was the only thing they feared; especially the umber woman. All the myths from before might have faded away, but not the ones about the umber woman.
“She’s a real pretty one,” he would say. “A goddess. With thorns in her curls and dripping of swamp water.”
“Did you ever see her?” I would ask.
“No. But I always wanted to. To ask her how she got so pretty.”
My wife and I met as children in the single school in town. She was such a delicate little thing that didn’t belong here, like a porcelain doll lying in a moldy corner of a dead-end house. Children don’t know passion but that doesn’t mean they don’t know love: and I was sure I loved her the moment I saw her walk into the classroom. She held a pencil in one trembling hand and a flower for the teacher in the other. I never did understand where she got the flower, though -- it was said that the umber woman had taken all of them away.
I went up to her that day.
“You’re not from ‘round here, are you?”
“No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“So where you from?”
“By the sea.”
I wanted to tell her that her eyes were bluer than the sea. Than the sky. My six-year-old lips stumbled over the words then, and every day after that.
“Do you want to go back there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’ll take you back one day,” I said. And in my child’s understanding of time, I added: “Tomorrow.”
Tomorrow never came.
“Marley, how’d you get so pretty?” I asked, some years later. I forever asked questions, even on the roof of my house where we would lay for hours and watch the somber clouds crawl past. Marley always had the answers for all of them.
“The stars, Lucas. I’m a star child.”
I loved it when she called herself that.
“How about the umber woman, Marley? How’d she get so pretty?”
“She kinda scares me, you know?”
It was the only time she didn’t answer my question. Her fingers trembled on my palm like they did before, clutching that flower and that pencil in the doorway.
“They say she’s a lost soul who mourned so bitterly when her lover was stolen away by another woman that she walked into the thornwood and found comfort there.” She blinked up at the morbidly grey sky. “You remember when my father left and never came back? They brought back a body from the thornwood, all stuck with brambles and the like. My mother and I insisted that it wasn’t him -- that the umber woman wanted him and she took him. We told them. They didn’t believe us.”
“Marley, the umber woman isn’t real.”
“That’s what you say now, Lucas. But I hear her. Late at night, when the rest of the world wanders dreams, I hear her. Singing. Soft and low. That’s how she comes, that’s how she takes them away into the thornwood. It’s how she takes them all away. Soft and low.”
“Did you ever see her?”
“No, but I want to. To ask her how she got pretty enough to steal daddy away.”
They all told me that I was crazy, getting married to her. To a dented-in-the-head woman like her. Maybe I was. But I loved Marley, and I would have no one else.
I found the ring I gave her at the old carousel that they brought out every year for the school fair. As I did every year I chose the black horse, furthest away from the merry-go-round controls, with the orange lever and the bright red STOP button. Already I was much to old for it and the ride gave me my share of awkward stares, but I didn’t care. I was about to propose to an insane woman. Nothing else could embarrass me.
It was raining, that day. Pouring buckets and buckets without an end in sight. It came off the carousel roof in sheets, like icy translucent windows to the dreary world beyond. I coughed, ash in my lungs, and lay my head down on the winged horse’s hard plastic mane and watched it all go by. Round and round. Both my legs fell asleep, prickling painfully like thorns, up and down my skin. Round and round. Up and down. Dripdripdripping -- there was a leak in the roof. I wiped away the sky’s tears with the back of my sleeve and looked down at the puddle it made.
There it was. On the floor.
A perfect gold circlet, dull in the lackluster atmosphere, with a small shard of obsidian. Imperfectly set, just like us. It would do, just like us. I couldn’t leave it to get trampled on the rusted iron plates of the bottom of the carousel.
I didn’t know why I did what I did, I just did it.
I took it and ran.
Our baby died before he was one year old.
“Lucas, Lucas, oh no,” she whispered in my ear one tortured night. “Oh god, Lucas -- she took our baby.”
I groaned. Not this again. Not another night of torment. Another night of bad rememberings.
“Marley,” I murmured into the blackness, “go back to sleep.”
“But what am I going to do? I can’t live without my baby…”
It was the only time I regretted marrying a crazy woman, that night. She cried for a little and I held her close, threading fingers through her hair like a five-toothed comb.
“Shh, love. Shh.”
“Will you leave me too?” The sentence bordered on hysterical.
I stifled a cough. “I’m not going anywhere, sweetie. Don’t think otherwise.”
“Stop smoking those cigarettes. She’ll smell them and take you away.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“The umber woman. I can hear her singing at night, Lucas. Soft and low. Just like when she took my dad. Just like when she took our baby. Just like when she’s going to take you.”
They all told me that her name was Ariadne, the Greek word for ‘holy’. I always thought that she was anything but.
She was an inconsistency, a contradiction. Dissension among the ranks of our ideas. She was the denial of our birthright as humans; the opposition to our opposition of hate, revenge, betrayal. The discrepancy in the fine print that we all chose to ignore. The physical embodiment of everything we strive to be less like, everything that we are told we should not tangle in -- like the thornwood.
Ariadne wasn’t holy. She was sin incarnate.
“When can we go to the sea, Lucas?”
“Tonight?” she asked, as if saying so would change my mind at two o’clock in the morning.
For a moment or two, she fell silent. I breathed easy. Then:
“I can hear her singing, Lucas. Make her stop.”
“Tomorrow, Marley. Tomorrow.”
I listened at the door a few nights later, eyes half open with a shot gun in my hands. My trembling hands. I listened -- impatiently, impetuously -- for what I knew would never come. I listened for her song. I waited for her voice. I waited an awful long time, my nails tap-tapping on the barrel of the shot gun to the William Tell Overture.
The door creaked. I startled.
Somewhere outside, the thornwood was awake. It hissed and crackled under the ruse of creaky, chirping crickets and the hollow call of an owl. It shh-shh-d with the tall swamp reeds and cattails, caw-ed with the lone crow that always found its way to our window.
I knew it was her before she made her presence known. She was the shadow that fluttered on my peripherals, the breath against the wood of the door. She was breathing into my ear, her striking raspy voice that rattled with her bones exhaling a song into the innermost cracks and cavities of my skull. A deathly lullaby that put you to sleep, and never woke you again. Soft and low, just like Marley had said.
She fell silent, and the night music obeyed.
Her voice answered with saccharine sweetness, feeding on my will like the leeches in the swamp and keeping me there.
I breathed in the summer humidity. It stuck in my throat on the webs the spiders wrought -- I coughed, once. Twice.
“How’d you get so pretty?”
“I loved the thornwood,” she said. “And it loved me back.”
I felt her drift away and I pressed against the door, wondering exactly why I longed for more.
When I slipped back into bed, Marley was awake. Waiting for me.
“She was there, wasn’t she?”
“Go to sleep, Marley.”
She clung to me in fierce desperation. “Don’t go. Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
“Go to sleep. It will be better in the morning.”
“No it won’t,” she said.
In the morning, Marley was gone.
I phoned the district police and when I mentioned a missing person they came a-running, but as soon as I mentioned the umber woman they were back in their car faster than a dog on a cat.
“She went to find the umber woman,” I insisted. My fingers were curling into fists, uncut nails drawing blood on my palm. “She went to find Ariadne. She went to go find our baby -- ”
“Listen kid,” one of the officers said. “This whole here town is crazy. Ariadne this, umber woman that. The thornwood’s a whole ball of myths and gum that seems to stick to everything and nothing. We’ll find your wife, kid. But if she’s with another man, don’t be giving us any surprised looks, you hear?”
“Have a good day, now.”
The bed was cold that night. I coughed, I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t ever sleep again. Not without my Marley.
The branches clawed at the window with the ferocity of a wild feline, gouging grooves into the cheap glass, trying to cover Marley screaming. Ariadne was singing again, soft and low. She was happier than usual; every so often, the wind picked up when her voice hit a chilling octave higher.
I could hear her. I was sure of it.
My bare feet made their way across the splintering floorboards, down the stairs to the door, and outside. Down the gravelly main road, up the hill, and into the thornwood.
I met the darkness with darkness. Marley always said that my eyes looked completely black at night.
Brambles blocked the path inside, needle-like thorns glinting in the gleaming moonlight that passed no further than there. I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my hand, pushing them delicately to the side -- they snapped back at me, raking my cheek and painting crimson on my chin. I held my breath and gasped.
If you loved the thornwood, the thornwood loved you back.
I closed my eyes and stepped inside. The branches brushed past me. I did not scream.
Within the thornwood, there was only hush. All noise stopped here, as if every sound I had heard from my window back home was only radiated outward and in the inner recesses there was only quiet -- a comfortable blind-deafness that forced you to explore that which you were never allowed to before.
Instinct told me to run. It pounded against my head like the big bass drum I played in a school parade once, to the still, lifeless beat of the thornwood. The blackness reverberated against me, steady and slow, pushing me out. I didn’t belong here, but I wouldn’t turn away. Not now, not ever. Ariadne had taken my Marley and she would pay. The thornwood tried to put me to sleep with a silent song, like it had every night, but I wouldn’t ever sleep again. Not without my Marley. My crazy, crazy Marley who had warned me of her song and I didn’t listen. My crazy, precious, lovely Marley.
I coughed, more violently than ever before. It made me double over in an ache that was a long time coming, spewing ashes and cobwebs and worries and unsung melodies from my lungs. It stung like pins and needles, inside. The sins of my fathers, of myself, splattered on the floor of the forest. They belonged to the thornwood, now. It would feed on them and grow.
Beneath my foot, something sharp pierced skin. It wasn’t a thorn. I felt around and picked it up, shifting it from hand to hand, disbelieving its shape.
It was Marley’s ring.
The ring that the carousel had given me, with its elegant gold body and obsidian shard. The ring that never left the chain on her neck.
“Marley,” I said, whispered. Breathed. The ring slipped from my grasp. “Marley.”
The blackness stretched on forever. The folks back in town had lied -- it wasn’t that I couldn’t see anything. It was that there was nothing to see. Not even thorns. Just a nothing that swallowed you whole and refused to let you go.
If you loved the thornwood, the thornwood loved you back.
It adored you. It wanted to keep you there. How do you reject a love so whole?
I didn’t expect her to answer back. I expected my voice to echo on and on forever, in the void that I found myself in.
“Lucas, you came.”
She sounded delighted.
“I knew you would see me. At last. At long, long last.”
“I want Marley back.”
“You can’t have her.”
“Because I have you.”
The thornwood suddenly wasn’t so dark anymore, and I saw a woman with the most beautiful hair. It was slick with obsidian oil and dripdripdripping wet, its surfaces glistening, like snakeskin, from the bright glow of the lake she stood in. Her stoic, smooth, imperfectly perfect shape was a statue hewn from rose marble but a hundred times more real, supple and welcoming. Tapered fingers reached out to me, moss clinging to their tips in sordid despondency. Her pearly nails shone dangerously, reflecting on the deep amber-gold of her eyes.
“I have you now, Lucas.” Her hand caressed my cheek, soft black lichen against skin. “You’re mine. Mine.”
“No. I’m Marley’s.” I shoved her away, prickles crawling down my neck.
“You belong to me.”
She loomed over me, fictional jaws agape, ready to devour me whole with the rusted iron stakes she had for teeth.
“Don’t take me away from Marley,” I said. I wasn’t begging. “She can’t live without me. She would forget to breathe without me.”
“I’m not crazy, am I? I can love you better than she can.”
The words fell from her mouth in sheets, like the rain off the roof of the carousel. Her body was so close to mine, now, and I could feel the cool warmth radiate from her, tempting and delicious. I could taste it on my tongue. Her hair didn’t feel wet at all; in fact it was soft, just like her voice. Soft and low.
“I love better than anyone.”
I shook my head and shut my mind.
“No, you love everyone.”
She drew silent.
“I don’t belong to you. You belong to everyone.”
I took a step forward. She stumbled back. Her landing into the lake made a splash that broke the tentative silence of the thornwood.
“You are our sins. The sum of our wrongs. The result of our vices. Everything we’ve ever feared and despised and scorned, tossed away in the midst of a fairytale forest that’s only spoken in hushed-spun words. A shadow of memories we, more likely than not, forget.”
I had never seen someone so afraid. Her eyes were like a deer in headlights, but the car showed no signs of slowing.
“That’s it. You are everything that is no longer needed,” I said, one bare foot in the glimmering lake. “Every bit of a person that’s been cast out and over and done.”
Her words were so soft and low I thought I had imagined them.
I grinned, feeling the triumph approach. I had her. I had her.
“Yes,” I said.
Her demeanor wavered.
“Now one more question, before you give me back my Marley.”
I bent down and looked into her golden saucer eyes, breathed on her trembling lips, just as she had done to me not too long ago.
“How’d you get so pretty, Ariadne?”
She did the very last thing that I had ever expected her to do --
The umber woman threw her head back, and laughed. It was an eerie, choral laugh, as if there were many voices instead of one. It jolted through my spine, which offered no resistance. A coughing fit brought me to my knees before her, rolling in pain, the warm water soaking through my shirt and into my skin. Weak from hysterics, Ariadne righted herself and cupped my cheek, tittering in the presence of my confused expression.
“Lucas, that’s what I love about you. Your naievity.”
I coughed once more, black splattering on her face. She didn’t seem to mind.
“I look so pretty, because I’m everything you want but you can’t have.”
I couldn’t breathe.
“Do you understand now, Lucas?”
I was choking.
“You were right about me. About almost everything, really.”
I felt like I had swallowed a thorn that lodged horizontally in my windpipe, with no hope of unsticking itself. My fingers grappled at her thin wrist in frail resistance, though her mossy hands were nowhere near my throat. I was sinking, into the depths of the unfathomable lake. How far down, I’d never know.
“But here in the thornwood, you can’t forget about your sins, your wrongs, your vices. You can’t forget them, because you see nothing else. You see only one thing: not Marley, not anything.”
Her voice was so sweet. So soft and low. Like a lullaby. This time, I listened.
There are no wires on the trees, no creatures afraid of fire.
And whether you love it or not, the thornwood doesn’t love you back.
It eats you up, swallows you whole, devours your being. It drags you down and kills you quietly. And when you hit the bottom, you hit it soft.
Soft and low.