When Eve had first seen him he had been a tangle of bones and roots. Something that could gnaw at the soul and drench the mind in terror. He had towered over her but adults had been standing over her all of her life.
Eve knew that the torn ribbons she brought home along with the scratches and bleeding knees didn’t help her grandmother’s distaste. Her cousins had them laced perfectly through their hair in shades of green, silver, and purple yet hers were always left muddied brown from the forest.
He had looked rather similar with his vines knotting around his arms, twisting just slightly too close to his skin to be comfortable. The forest had sunken into him, clawed him feral, and offered a piece of itself back to her. The trees below the town had always been a shade too wild for the quaint houses that clustered further up the riverbank. Finally, after years of talking to the trees, they had answered her with him.
‘You have cat eyes,’ she said, admiring the way the afternoon’s sunlight made them shimmer around the dark slit of his pupil.
‘And you have those of a bird,’ he murmured, his expression stony.
She cocked her head. His eyes sparkles with mirth at the gesture and watched curiously as she padded barefoot towards him.
‘I can’t find my shoes,’ she whispered, flexing her dirt-ridden toes. ‘Nana will be angry if I’ve lost another pair.’
He reached out one bony hand and tucked a bronze strand of hair behind her ear.
‘You do not need shoes in the forest,’ he murmured. ‘Not when you are of the forest.’
Eve frowned, looking over her shoulder to the path that would take her back towards the river, the car park, and the up-hill lane of the house to the town of Corbridge beyond. Her grandmother often stayed with a friend there and brought Eve with her while her parents stayed in Newcastle to finish their work.
‘How do you become of the forest?’ she asked, facing him again.
The creature smiled, showing jagged teeth and a blue-black tongue. He tilted his head to where the depths of the forest lay, a place Eve had been too afraid to venture into, and offered his hand. It had scratches on the palm like a cat had attacked him and strange black veins snaking through his skin.
‘Eve! It’s time to go. Ethel has made you Bakewell tarts to go with your lunch.’
Her grandmother’s voice made them both stiffen. The creature retracted his hand and receded into the forest as quickly as he had appeared, falling to no more than a shadow dancing between the oak trees.
Twigs snapped behind her as her grandmother and her eighty-year-old friend Ethel broke through the tree to discover her reaching out a hand to the empty pathway in front of her.
‘Eve, what are you doing?’ Her grandmother demanded, brushing twigs and leaves from her green dress.
‘I was talking to someone,’ she replied.
‘And who was it you were talking to, pet?’ Ethel asked gently, taking her hand.
Eve bit her lip, searching the trees to see if he had indeed disappeared.
‘A friendly monster.’
The wind rose around them, howling in from the direction the creature had gone. A murder of crows began cawing and her grandmother swallowed. She took Eve by the shoulder guiding her back to the path while Ethel followed.
‘Do you know who it was, Nana?’
A weariness settled in her grandmother’s hazel eyes. ‘He is a monster, Eve. One you should never speak with again. There are worse things to lose than your shoes, love.’
They went back up the hill, leaving the forest and the monster behind. But he remained tangled in Eve’s thoughts; following her from Corbridge back to the city and throughout the years that followed.
But Ethel passed away when Eve was ten years old and there was no reason to visit Corbridge any longer. The monster was a dream her grandmother refused to discuss and Eve half-expected it was a childish imagining.
A few days after her twenty-first birthday in February, Eve took the train from Newcastle to Corbridge. The half an hour journey blurred in her mind, replaced by the noise of the city that refused to be displaced from her mind. Her fingers drew spirals on the train’s windows clouded by her breath. The heater blew out hot air to warm her feet but the window left open by one of the passengers let in the frigid air from the Northumberland countryside.
Eve left the train behind, striding out of the station and up the hill to the centre of Corbridge, the cold slicing into her cheeks. She stopped at the bakery by the memorial to buy two cheese and onion pasties. The woman behind the counter looked at her curiously, as though half remembering her, but Eve was out of the door before she could utter a question.
She eyed the path heading into the forest and sat on a bench by the river’s edge. Mindlessly nibbling at her pasty, a robin hopped down from the bushes to greet her. It pecked at the barren ground, hope glinting in its tiny black eyes. Eve broke off a corner of pastry and threw it down. The robin tore into it merrily and when finished with it, fluttered a little closer to her.
‘I see you have made a friend.’
Eve jumped at the voice. She had dreamed about it for so long, worrying that its timbre would fade from her mind.
‘I thought I wouldn’t be able to see you,’ she murmured, standing up from the bench. The filling of the pasty oozed over the paper bag from the pressure of her hand. Her knuckles, bitten red by the cold, had turned white.
The creature chuckled. ‘You will always be able to see me. The forest remembers you. Not many humans have that honour.’
He turned around, the vine tightening around his limbs as he began to wind his way back through the tree. She gathered her bag and ran after him. Branches caught at her clothes, tearing holes to catch at her skin, but she refused to stop following him.
‘How do you become of the forest?’ she shouted, sending a flock of crow winging their way from their tree to the sky.
His molten cat eyes bored into her as his head swung around. ‘Promise yourself. Your blood and bones. Your joy and sorrows.’
‘You can have it. As long as I never return.’
A mirthless smile spread across his feral face. ‘That I can promise you.’
Lucy Ann Cummings is a writer from County Durham who writes the weird and fantastical. The Promise of the Forest is set in the Northumbrian town of Corbridge near where her ancestral roots are. Fascinated by the ancient quality of the forest and what spirits might reside inside it she was inspired to write of a girl taken and a promise made.
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash