The Green Man

The woods 2

Leland Foley always worked at night, when the little village was sleeping.  In the forest behind the small collection of farmhouses and cottages, no larger than thirty households, he’d found his latest project.  Among the dark thickets, surrounded by black branches stretched against silver-blue light, seated high and relaxed on his bright yellow excavator, he’d hack and push and dig and turn, and by morning, would survey his work with a proud grin and a cigar.

The night before the village’s annual Arbor Day festival, Leland worked.  It had rained all week, and the ground beneath his machine was soft and pliable.  The narrow river that wound through the length of the woods flowed high.  A chorus of owls and crickets and foxes sang and cried, and Leland was glad the motor of the excavator drowned out the cacophony.  Leland liked quiet in the woods, because it meant he could focus on the sound of making money.  Every crack of every limb, each thud of a fallen tree onto damp earth, sounded, in his mind, like the ping of a penny dropped into a piggy bank.

He’d had a piggy bank, when he was a boy.  It had been a gift from his father, who, as Leland had torn open cheerful red wrapping paper and clawed into a cardboard box to get at his birthday present, had imparted the wisdom by which Leland lived his life: “Bullshit walks,” his father had said, and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, “and money talks.  Remember that, son.”

Leland had since grown up, grown nearly old, and had given the same gift and advice to his own young son when the boy had turned eight.  Only he’d added, “Money means you can leave a mark, kiddo.”  The boy had looked at him dully, attention already moved on to the next brightly-wrapped package, some kind of toy, probably.  “You haven’t done anything with your life if you don’t leave a mark.”  His wife, her hands crossed at the waist of her pink silk house robe, had glared at him across their heavy oak breakfast table, but had said nothing.

In the morning, Leland and his family would join in the Arbor Day festivities and plant a tree in the village square.  His wife had insisted.  “At least try to make them like you,” she’d nagged, and argued that everything would be easier if he was on good terms with the villagers.  He did not look forward to the festival, but he would participate, if only for the photo opportunity.  He had several acres to clear before then, and so he kept at work, lulled into an easy rhythm by the beeping of the excavator, thinking of nothing in particular.

At around 5:00, with only an acre or so left to go and the first gray light of morning on the horizon, Leland took a break.  He climbed down and stretched his gangly arms and his thin legs.  He walked around the work site and surveyed his progress, his tired eyes sweeping over the flattened landscape, visualizing what would come next.  He’d already created a few nature trails, had made plans for a gazebo, a pond, and a tennis court, and would soon start clearing lots for large, luxury homes.  Maybe twelve, he thought, or a few more.  People would pay a lot to live in close-knit, characterful villages these days, and if no one else would take advantage of this free and empty space, then he certainly would.

He’d leave it to others, of course, to do the building, and he’d pay them well, with the profit from selling the timber.  But the clearing, the earth-moving, that he liked to do himself, the product of his own labor.  When this project was done, the village would be remade from a sleepy, old world hamlet into a new, modern, luxury community, one that he’d envisioned and created.  He’d build a town for the twenty-first century, a legacy he’d leave behind for everyone to see.  The villagers didn’t like it, had let him know and had complained to the local zoning board, but they would come around.  And if they didn’t, Leland didn’t much care.

He walked forward a few steps, loosening his stiff knees, feeling the give of the newly turned earth beneath his heavy work boots, and saw an orange flicker in the close distance.  It took a moment for him to process, but he realized he was looking at a campfire.  And a campfire meant a trespasser.  As quietly as he could, he made his way back to his SUV, a walk made longer knowing he wasn’t alone on his land, and grabbed the baseball bat he kept for self-defense.  And just in case, he tucked his gun into his belt.

He snaked, quick and silent, towards the campfire, and saw a young man, probably not more than twenty, reclining against a tall ash tree, his head cocked back and cradled in his hands, his long legs stretched in front of him.  He looked to be sleeping, but Leland approached him with caution.  In the firelight, it was hard to make out details, but Leland thought he saw a shock of red hair, a crooked nose, and, a few feet away, stashed against a boulder, a blue backpack.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the young man opened his eyes and smiled.

“Well, hello, sir,” he said, cheerfully.  “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I own them” Leland answered, flat and sharp, “and you’re trespassing.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”  The young man reached into his pocket and produced a tattered map.  “I never could read these things,” he said.

“The highway’s a few miles east,” Leland told him.  “You should move on, or I’ll have to call the police.”

“Sure,” the young man said.  “Only you never answered my question.”

“Excuse me?”

“What are you doing out here in the woods?”  The young man stared at Leland with wide, curious eyes.

“I’m working” Leland barked.  “And these woods belong to me.”  He added, for good measure and to make himself clear, “So you’d better move on.  Now.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the young man said.  “The wood’s are no place for working.”  He paused, thought for a moment, trained his eyes on the campfire. “Not for regular folks, anyway.”

“Yeah, well, regular folks have to work to make money,” Leland replied.  “And you’re in my way.”

“I think you’ll find you’re in mine,” the young man said, quietly, and if Leland thought he perceived a shift in the young man’s demeanor, a sudden coldness in his speech, he couldn’t be certain.  The young man looked up and added, with a bit more volume, “If the highway’s east, then I’d have to go through you to get to it.”

Leland had no answer to that, and said only, “I thought you were bad with directions.”

The young man leaned forward, began to shovel dirt onto the fire with his hands, and said, “I’m bad with maps, but I’m good with directions.”  He stood and stamped on the smothered embers a few times, and then stepped away.  He grabbed his backpack, hefted it onto his shoulder.  “And I’m good with the woods.  Seems like you are, too, in your own way.  Or bad, depending on how you look at it.”

Leland said nothing.

“Let me tell you a secret before I go,” the young man said, and stepped in close.  He leaned over Leland’s shoulder, his lips close to Leland’s ear.  “You’re standing in a fairy ring.”

Leland looked down, and found that he stood in the middle of a small circle of mushrooms.

“And the moon’s full,” the young man added.

Leland looked up.  Ten minutes ago, there’d been only clouds, but now, he could see the full moon, bright and looming in the lightening morning sky.  And wrong.

The woods and moon 3

The full moon wasn’t for another two weeks.  Leland was nearly certain.  He’d seen the information only this morning, when he looked at the weather.

“You should make a wish,” the young man whispered, and then laughed, loud and hardy.  He stepped past Leland, close enough that his threadbare backpack brushed Leland’s arm, and began to trudge through the underbrush, whistling as he walked.

Leland watched him go, didn’t dare move until he was out of site.  He went over their conversation in his head.  And he thought, in spite of himself and for the briefest moment, of a wish.  A wish to leave a legacy in these woods, to remake them.  A wish to make a mark.

Leland’s feet began to tingle.  He looked down again at the tiny, snow white mushrooms all around him, surrounding him on all sides, no higher than his toes.  He began to feel stiff all over, and realized he couldn’t move his knees, then his elbows, and then his neck.  Somewhere in the forest, he heard a fox scream.  Or perhaps it was the high-pitched yowl of his own voice, just before his lips sealed shut.  In his last moments, he thought of houses.  Neat rows of cream siding on a flat, sodded landscape missing its carpet of deep green forest.

And then he didn’t of think anything at all.

********************

In a little forest outside of a tiny village, near a serpentine slip of a river, stands a broad, dark-limbed tree that village children call “The Bad Man.”  It is an ominous thing, all black knots and rough, prickled bark, with leaves like human hands.  When the wind blows through its spindly branches, the villagers say it screams. The children insist that it holds the spirit of a greedy man who disappeared a long time ago, and they play a game to see who’s brave enough to touch it.  The adults don’t say so, but they grow up believing it, and they avoid that part of the forest.  The tree stands on its own, covered in a thick layer of black moss and poison vines, set apart from the ashes and sycamores around it.  At its base rests a ring of white mushrooms.  And high on its trunk, sticking out like a cancerous knot through the moss and vines, is an angry, twisted face.  The villagers say it’s been there for a hundred years, maybe more, like a blight that will never heal.

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