It was early afternoon, but the clouds above me were grey and the threat of rain hung damp in the air. The path beneath my feet was not even that; it was a mere track worn out of the grass by the passage of human feet. In the distance I could see a figure walking a dog across the grassy slope leading down into the village, but I was otherwise alone.
By preference I would have been curled up in my desk chair by the radiator, checking the news online, or perhaps watching a DVD, but with a project due in two weeks I had no such luck, and so there I was on the edges of the wilderness, heavy rucksack on my back and waterproof boots on my feet.
The forest was a patchwork of greens and browns, some of the trees still holding onto their leaves even this late into the autumn but the ground nonetheless a bog of mud, rotting leaves and ferns struggling towards the meagre light amongst the dead foliage. There, nestled amongst the grime I found my prize: mushrooms.
I was armed with my camera, for it was too damp for a sketchpad, and I pulled it out of the case eagerly to take photos of the first specimens I had come across. The caps were a smooth, pale greenish-brown while the stems were off-white. Highly poisonous, I remembered from one of the books I had borrowed from the library, and I was careful not to touch any.
I wandered deeper into the forest, the air still and damp broken only by the sound of birds calling. I found a few more spots; clusters of white and brown cups, even a patch of fungi growing out from a tree trunk in soft, pale brown shelves, and the undersides a myriad of cream-coloured gills. Ants crawled their way up the trunk in spindly lines to one side of the cluster, an added bonus for my camera.
After a while, the chill air was beginning to seep through my jacket and my socks were uncomfortably damp, the mud having breached my boots via the bottoms of my jeans, which had soaked up the moisture from the ground. An hour had passed, and I was trying to convince myself that this was sufficient for the time being, and that I would be justified in fleeing back to the station, returning to the city and the warmth of my room.
I was crouched at the foot of a tree, camera in hand for the tiny, slender white mushrooms nestled amongst the roots, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something green move, swift and nearly silent. I turned and the creature spotted me, stopping abruptly. I stared agape. It was reptilian, and I thought at first that it might be an escaped iguana, for it was about the size of a small cat and along its head and neck were little spines. A short flap of skin quivered beneath its scaly chin, spiny ridges stretched over the tops of its eyes. Then, upon its back I saw something that looked like a crumpled green-brown rag hanging from its shoulders.
It hissed, long and threatening, and a forked tongue flicked out from between its jaws. I stayed cautiously still, and it stared at me with orange, reptilian eyes. Its long tail swished irritably, and all of a sudden the crumpled mess on its back began to move, and from beneath it a third pair of limbs stretched the thin, creased membranes into what were unmistakeably wings.
I nearly dropped my camera, only my fear of frightening the animal stopping me in time.
It stared at me, and began to back away slowly, its long and spindly, clawed feet hardly making a sound on the leaves and rotten mud below, and then suddenly it tucked the wings away again with a soft rustle and snap, turned around in a single lithe movement and began to scuttle away.
Without thinking I was on my feet again, following it. The creature looked back once and then fled and I ran after it, my boots slipping a little on the muddy ground as I matched it weaving between trunks and over roots, deeper and deeper into the forest. I did not think, or perhaps I would have made use of the camera strung about my neck, I only ran and ran desperately trying to keep the little reptile in sight. Several metres in front of me it slowed and came to the base of a huge tree with roots twisting out of the ground, and in the centre a large, dark hole. The creature gave me one last look, torn between the safety of the hole and the fear of revealing its den, then swished its tail and disappeared beneath the tree.
I stood panting as my run caught up with me at last. The tree was vast, one of those old oaks that must have been there for hundreds of years, for even if I stretched my arms wide I could have embraced but half of the trunk at most. The roots were old and gnarled and some of the branches stooped so low as to almost touch the floor of the forest. What concerned me though, was the hole. It was less a shallow dimple in the earth and more the opening to a tunnel, reaching further into the ground beneath the tree than I could see. Moss covered the roots, and little grasses sprouted where they disappeared into the soil. Ferns and creepers hung in a little curtain across the top of the hole, but it was clearly big enough for a grown adult to fit into, albeit at a squeeze.
I crept a few steps further towards it, knowing that for all the danger of it my curiosity was too great. I was Alice, about to step into Wonderland after the White Rabbit. Except of course, I was actually a twenty year-old man about to crawl into a dirty hole after a dangerous animal. It was less romantic when you could feel the mud slip beneath your feet, when the bottoms of your trousers were wet and filthy, caked with dirt and grass, and the scent of damp and mould was pungent in your nostrils.
I took another step forward.
The hole beneath the oak was dark and the air inside wafted warm and mildew-y towards my nose. It stretched like a gaping mouth, and the shadows inside seemed to tug at my heart and draw me closer. There was no sign of the creature, save for a delicate claw print in the dirt just in front of the hole but my imagination toyed with me and I wondered if I could see a tail flicking from side to side in the darkness.
Behind me, came the sound of a twig snapping, punctuating the relative still of the forest with a deliberate crack. I flinched, then froze.
Turning slowly, I saw a figure behind me, watching me with a measured gaze. He was about my own age, maybe a little younger. Asian, and dressed in a smart trench coat and a pair of jeans. He looked like a student, perhaps. I figured him for Chinese – there were a lot of students from China at the university – but there was something odd about him, something unsettling in his gaze, the way he stood. Lithe, self-assured and faintly hostile, as though I had trespassed somewhere I did not belong. He said nothing, and his eyes met mine cold and unreadable.
We stood at an impasse, staring wordlessly for what felt like an age but must have been a few minutes at most. My eyes wanted to slide away from him and back to the hole in the ground, but through some futile stubbornness I did not want to admit that I had been about to climb into it. There was no crime to be found simply in being there in the forest. Finally, I backed down. I packed my camera back into its case in feigned indifference, then turned and walked back the way I had come from.
I resisted the urge to look back to see if he stayed, left or even followed me, but I listened carefully and heard nothing save for the squelching sound of my own boots in the muddy grass and leave underfoot, and the calling of birds. I tried to memorise the route through the forest for future reference as I walked. I knew that the curiosity was too great, and I would come back another day; the battle lost but not yet the war.
As I emerged from the edge of the forest it began to rain, gently at first but soon growing heavy, and I quickly stuffed my camera case into my rucksack and pulled the hood of my coat over my head. Slippery as the ground was, I took off at a jog for the village, and accelerated to a run when I reached the stone pavements of the main road, slowing only once I had reached the little station just beyond the shopping street at the centre of the village. I had no sense of the time and the trains into the city were only once an hour, but I checked the board in the ticket hall and was in luck; the next one was due in ten minutes. I wandered through the archway opposite the station doors and stood beneath the rickety old shelter over the deserted platform. With no hope of drying off in the cool autumn air, I prepared myself for an unpleasant half-hour journey back into the city in damp clothes.
Nearly an hour later I was back at the flat I shared with a couple of my classmates, and I stripped off my wet clothes and bundled them into the washing machine after I had changed into something fresh. Then I grabbed my camera and settling myself in front of the radiator with my desk in reach so that I could use my laptop.
Though it had been a successful afternoon for taking photographs I was listless as I sorted through the day's work, my head occupied with scurrying, winged reptiles and tunnels beneath trees. I gave up in the end, and went to bed early without so much as eating dinner. The project could wait, and I was tired and too distracted to work.
The weekend finished and classes started again the next day, but they passed in a disjointed blur and I could concentrate on nothing. I told my friends that I was tired and stressed when they asked if I was well, but in truth I was anxious and distracted. Thursday came and I had no classes, and I felt relief wash through me. It was time for another trip into the forest; I could not wait any longer. I had agreed the previous week to meet my friends for studying and video games on that day, and I bailed on them complaining of too much work to do. They teased me for my dedication to the project, but let me go without a fight.
I took the train into the village once more, and set off at a brisk walk up through the streets, beyond the last houses and up across the grassy slope to the edge of the forest. I had promised myself that I would look for mushrooms to photograph on the way to justify the visit to my conscience, but I was distracted and saw nothing but the path before me. I should not have remembered the way; the trees all looked the same to me, but somehow the route was burned indelibly into my memory and the very movements of my body and I found the tree again almost instinctively. Yet as I approached it I knew that something was wrong, something was different to before.
The hole was gone, and in its place a tangle of roots and lichen, not even a crack to suggest a tunnel hidden behind. I approached it slowly, frowning. Large holes shouldn't just disappear. Had I imagined it? Spent too long sticking my head near fungus and given myself some sort of hallucination? So vivid was my memory that it did not seem possible, and yet there the tree was, absent of any hole.
I crouched at the foot of the tree and scowled at the thick network of roots thwarting my efforts. I ran my hands over them and they seemed solid enough, so I gave them a tap. Hollow. I was sure of it, and just to be certain I gave some of the other roots around the base of the tree the same treatment, even the trunk itself. The sound was different, a dullness that told me they were solid wood. I pushed at the hollow roots, and they creaked beneath my fingers like aged bones but did not give way.
I almost wished that I had brought a knife but even my desire to find the tunnel again could not have brought me to such wanton destruction of the old oak.
I felt around the roots again, trying to stick my fingers between the tough fibres but it was no good and so I sat at the foot of the tree in thought for a while. Perhaps returning to my mushroom hunt was wisest, though I had enough materials already.
Lost in thought, I did not even notice that someone had crept up on me until something pressed against my nose and mouth, but before I could struggle or catch a glimpse of my assailant I felt my eyelids dropping and darkness creep over me.
I awoke slowly and sluggishly at first, then my brain caught up with my body and I sat up with a jerk, eyes wide. Pain lanced through my head, and I sat recovering for a few moments before looking around me. I was alone, a little way from the edge of the forest. I checked myself over and found no sign of injury, save for the ache in my head. Then, I noticed something sticking out of my coat pocket. It was a piece of paper, though it was yellowed and looked almost woven like parchment, and when I unfolded it, written upon it in a neat and oddly old-fashioned script were two words:
I frowned, tucking it away in my pocket again as I stood up slowly. My mind drifted back to the person I had seen last time. I couldn't be sure that it had been him of course, but clearly there was someone – or perhaps several someones – who really didn't want me near that tree and whatever secrets were hidden beneath it. Perhaps I had been wrong, and rather than a student he had been a journalist, or a member of some secret organisation. My mind was wandering into science fiction territory, and I sighed.
I checked my watch, and saw that it was getting on towards late afternoon. I needed to catch a train back to the city again and get some actual work done before the day ended, so I walked slowly back into the village, picking up some aspirin and a bottle of water from the pharmacy on my way through.
I settled back into working on my project again over the next week, and tried to put aside what I had seen within the forest. I spent time with my friends again, played video games and busied myself with the thrilling task of drawing and painting mushrooms. Everything was back to normal again, and I felt a certain relief at the realisation.
Yet at the back of my mind there was always a faint nagging feeling, and creeping into my dreams at night were lizards and tree roots and gaping dark holes.