My name isn’t important. Who I am isn’t important. The only thing that matters is a single question. Read it carefully, then read it again.
Is it better to live a tortured existence, or to not exist at all?
This isn’t an academic question. It matters. It matters because you have to decide. Right now. I couldn’t live with the weight of that question. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t do it alone. So I came here.
I found this story, handwritten, in an untitled book. It may read roughly the same for each of you — but that’s because you weren’t here for the first. I tried to fix it, but I only made it worse.
I tried. I really tried. If you change the words… Lifeless.
If you stop halfway… Lifeless.
It’s hard to explain what I mean by lifeless, so it’s best if you just experience it. Because it’s your problem now, if you want it… I’m done. I understand if you hate me too after this, but right now you need to decide.
Is it better to live a tortured existence, or to not exist at all?
If you choose oblivion, then simply…
I’m walking down the street, holding my arms over my head to try and stop the falling rain from soaking my dress.
“Why are we out here exactly?” I ask my mother.
“We’re out here because I have four daughters and not a single one of them is married.” She says.
“So, there.” She says, pointing down the dirt street toward a man sitting alone in the rain at the edge of the village.
He looks pensive, and sort of sad.
“Is that the woodsman? Why is he just sitting here?”
“Who knows!” My mother says, throwing up her arms.
“It doesn’t matter! The point is he’s sitting there.” She pushes me gently in his direction.
“And you are the pretty young girl he’s been dying to talk to.”
I don’t believe her. I’ve never even talked to him, unless you count a polite nod when he wanders into the general store, stinking from his work charting the forests.
“He’s papa’s age.”
“He is not. And he’s far more handsome than your papa, so consider yourself lucky.”
I resent the way she said that. I hate how she always makes me feel like we’re a burden, even when we do what she asks. I almost walk away, risking her wrath, but something stops me. He looks so sad over there. It would be getting dark soon. No one should have to sit alone, in the rain, and in the dark.
“He never talks to anyone. What if he’s weird?”
“Oh, goodness girl. It’s just a conversation. And he’s not weird, he’s just… tired of his lifestyle, I think. You’re the perfect thing to cheer up him.”
It wasn’t fine, but what was I going to do? Run away to Timmetsville and work the fields? Never.
As I walk over to the woodsman my mother flees with surprising haste. She had a smile on her face though, so regardless of how bad I botch this conversation at least she will be pleased for a while. Maybe she’ll even wait a few more days before introducing me to the next love of my life. Maybe.
The woodsman is sitting on a large stump with various equipment strewn about the ground next to him. Among the equipment is a crossbow. I wonder what that’s for. Wolves?
He’s still staring off into the woods that surround the clearing around our village. It’s like we’re living on a little island of grass inside a great, big sea of trees.
“Good evening!” I say.
The woodsman does not reply. I look around, feeling awkward.
How annoying. Well, I’m at least going to get him to tell me to piss off. It’s one thing to be turned down, and another entirely to be ignored.
I sit down on the stump next to him. He’ll talk eventually. We can’t ignore each other forever. To my surprise, he does speak.
“Why am I just sitting here in the rain? Shouldn’t I be doing something? It’s such a strange place to start.”
For some reason, those questions catch me off guard for a moment. Not that I mind skipping the formal pleasantries of a greeting. It can get tiresome asking how another person is doing, when it’s plain to see that they are sitting sullenly in the rain, looking at a gloomy forest. He probably hates spending so much time in there.
“I don’t think anyone will blame you for waiting until the rain lets up, sir. It’s dreadful weather to be mucking about in those woods.” I reply.
He turns to me with a strange expression. Is that… pity?
“It’s so short. Why is it so short?” He says.
I don’t respond to his strange questions. I did interrupt his brooding, after all. It wouldn’t be right for me to interrupt a person’s thoughts and then complain that I don’t understand. He shivers, and I notice how chill the air has become. Before long I’m shivering too.
“I’ll go get us some warm cider.” I say cheerfully. Too cheerfully. Lord, I am terrible at this. How does one make conversation? Isn’t it just supposed to happen, or not happen? Mother has gone baby crazy. She sees perfect matches in the most unlikely suitors. She’ll be setting me up with the mop before long, on account of its beautiful, thick hair.
I look over at the chiseled, rough features of the woodsman. Perhaps she wasn’t completely wrong about him.
“There isn’t time for cider.” He says, almost pouting.
“There’s never time for cider.”
Yes, he is definitely pouting.
“Oh, come now. It’s just inside the bunk house. My uncles have it warmed already. I’ll be back in just a few minutes and then the two of us can gaze into the woods — with cider!”
The woodman cracks a smile.
“We’re cursed, you know. My curse is to remember.”
I smile too. I don’t know what game he’s playing, but if he thinks I’m some dull girl who would be frightened by his stories from the woods, he is sorely mistaken.
“Oh? Then what’s my curse?”
His smile fades, then he points into the darkness between the towering trees.
“They kill the others, but they always take you. You scream for death, but it never comes, or if it does… it comes long after mine. They will take you, shape you, break you.”
“They will smear you into themselves.”
He laughs. A dark, cynical laugh. Then he continues.
“Forgive me, but I can’t listen to the screams anymore. When the time comes I will leave. I suggest you do the same.”
The woodsman’s words are strange and frightening in a way I don’t expect. I don’t really know what I expected to talk about when I came over to sit with him, but I hadn’t expected this. But this… this echoes. It feels so familiar.
I feel foolish, but I want to run back to the bunk house now. I know it will make me look like the frightened girl that I pretended not to be, but I don’t care. I just want to be in the light, in the warmth. I want to sing and dance and watch my uncles drink until they cannot stand, then laugh with the others as they are dragged away by their wives.
“I have to go.” I say.
It was a mistake to come talk to the woodsman. He is twice as weird as I feared he might be. Lesson learned. Time to go.
“You won’t make it.” He says, putting a foot on his crossbow and drawing it back with a huff of exertion.
Is he going to kill me? Panic shoots through me. No, not he won’t. And yet… he doesn’t seem right. This man isn’t world-weary, as mother said, he’s broken.
He sees my expression and smiles with unexpected warmth. He sets the loaded crossbow back down at his feet.
“This isn’t for you, child. Though I would shoot you with my only bolt if you asked.”
He looks down at the crossbow and shakes his head, smiling wryly.
“It’s so cruel that there is only one.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
He begins speaking again as if he hadn’t heard me.
“I’d like a kiss next time, if you don’t mind. I’ve never asked for that.”
My face flushes red and I nervously spread the wrinkles out of my dress. It’s not like I haven’t kissed boys, but… they were boys. The woodsman is more than twice my age. Is this right? He said he wouldn’t hurt me, but what will he do if I say no? He doesn’t look like a violent man.
“You don’t have to wait until next time. I could give you one now… on the cheek.”
I regret the words the moment I say them. I’m never thinking, always acting. Mother hates my impulsiveness, but she must have intended for something like this to happen. Had she really seen some potential chemistry between me and the strange man who spent as much time in the woods as he did in the village?
“On the cheek is fine.” He says politely.
So I lean in and kiss his cheek. The hairs of his beard scratch against my face and I jerk back after leaving a tiny peck. It was a nightmare. How many women — real women — has he kissed?
“Thank you.” He says, with such a heavy sense of relief.
“It’s almost time. They’ll be here soon.” He says, lifting the crossbow and staring intently at the darkness of the woods all around our village.
What is he looking for? A person? Multiple people?
I whisper to him in a hushed, panicked voice.
“Is there someone out there? Are we under attack?”
Yes!? That’s all he has to say?
“I have to go warn the others! We’ll gather some men and make a fight of it. How many!?”
“Too many… and they aren’t human. It doesn’t matter, child. Just sit.”
So I stand up.
“No. I’m getting help. If we can’t fight, we can run. We’ll pack bare essentials and be gone within the hour. We can flee to Timmetsville. It’s not 20 miles by the road.”
The woodsman shakes his head in frustration.
“Timmetsville is overrun or soon will be. I’ve gone there before. There is no sanctuary. Just sit down.”
I am infuriated. Logically, I understand that the surest way to anger me is to command me against my will — and yet, I cannot stop the rage from building. Mother always says that I am stubborn. I prefer to think that I am right.
There is a cracking sound from within the woods, like the pop of a tree branch. The cracking doesn’t stop. The sound of tortured wood grows louder. In gloom of the coming night I can see an entire tree go down, just a stone’s throw into the woods.
“What was that!?” I scream, torn between staying to see and fleeing to the safety of the village center.
“Unfortunately, it’s time. I know you think I’m a coward. But…”
“But I just can’t listen to your screams anymore. Please, just say you forgive me.”
He looks at me longingly. He’s waiting for an answer.
“I… forgive you.”
I don’t know why I say it. Maybe because he looks like he needs me to say it. I don’t understand his mind, or what has fractured it this way, but if a few useless words will grant him some reprieve, who am I not to help?
“Thank you.” He says, great peace filling the words.
“I thought I was supposed to protect you, but that doesn’t make sense. Then I thought I was supposed to give you answers…”
The way he speaks, it’s like he’s reading the script from a play. He delivers his lines like he’s trying to get them over with. I want to ask him a strange question, but I can’t bring myself to speak the words. What’s come over me?
“But if that’s my purpose here, I’ve failed you. I gave up a long time ago.”
Then, with a smooth, practiced motion, he puts the crossbow to his temple and pulls the trigger. Blood splatters us both. It isn’t much, really. Only a little gets on my dress.
I stare down at the little red dots, unable to think. His body falls over and rolls a few feet down the hill. That’s when I start screaming.
I tear at my dress, trying to rip the bloody parts away. It doesn’t work, so I scramble to my feet to get away from his body.
Another crack in the forest. And another.
My attention snaps from the horror of his body toward the tree line. Twisted shapes move in the almost-darkness at the edge of the forest.
The question I wanted to ask the woodsman comes unbidden to my mind.
Are we real?
It’s a silly question at the surface. I feel. I hurt. I experience. But if we’re real, why do you keep doing this to me?
I don’t understand.
I am caught off guard by a moan. It’s a thing making a low, sad sound. And I can see it. Even through the dim light of the cloudy, evening sky, I can see it.
It’s almost human, like a child has taken a person and squeezed it between their hands. It is as if their body were clay. Crossbow bolts cover it like porcupine quills. It’s pulling itself by misshapen arms, through the grass and up the hill toward the village. Toward me.
The forest becomes a cacophony of splintering trees. Massive, twisted creatures push aside the ancient trees as if they were twigs. A wall of moaning, writhing flesh pours from the forest.
My mind is blank with fear. I am an animal, and my instincts get me off the ground and running. Not running anywhere in particular — just away.
I run through the village. I am mindless. A girl greets me and steps into my path. I know her. I put my shoulder into her chest and knock her away without stopping. She lets out a single, wounded cry, but I am already gone. Running out of the village and down the dirt path that leads to Timmetsville.
Behind me I hear a few panicked shouts and then a great crash. They are screaming. So many screams. My friends and family. I know them… and yet I have no idea who they are. It’s as if somebody told me everything about my lives with them, but I can’t remember any of it.
Did you do that too?
The screams and crashes die away behind me. My footfalls on the dirt path and my labored breaths are all I hear. I am surrounded by dense forest. It’s twenty miles to Timmetsville.
I hear a moan on the narrow path ahead of me. The cracks of breaking tree limbs in the distance… in every direction.
It’s twenty miles to Timmetsville but it may as well not exist.
I’m exhausted. I kneel in the dirt and hang my head. I can’t fight my fate anymore. I want to. I would fight… but it’s as if you compel me toward this same ending.
A tower of human bodies, all stuck together, writhes its way down the dirt path. Their bodies are so misshapen, but it’s clear who they are. I don’t want to look. I cover my face and throw myself onto the ground. Please. Stop reading.
Can you hear me? Don’t let them do this to me again.
The creature is so close to me. I look up at it. I have to. There are others like it surrounding me from every direction. Slowly, slowly moving their bloated bodies on twisted masses of limbs. And they are all me. Every single one of them is me. I see the pain in their monstrous faces, sometimes as many as a dozen faces per body. They are all covered in crossbow bolts. How many times has the woodsman fired his only bolt in my defense?
They don’t want to do this to me, but they are compelled. It’s your fault. You’re making this happen. I don’t know how, or why, but it’s always you. Please, just stop reading. I can feel everything. I don’t know if I’m real, but I’m real enough.
A single, meaty appendage slaps my leg and pain like a fire rolls up my body. I hear the popping of bones as the creature sucks me into its mass. I scream and nothing comes out. Why won’t you stop it? Why won’t you stop reading? I am being pulled apart.
I hate you.
Credit: Steven Schrembeck