The harshest winter in a hundred years was followed by the mildest. Farmers fretted about the lack of snow to irrigate the dryland crops, and ski areas around the state closed before Valentine’s Day. Living in the woods where a nearly sunless winter annually gripped her father in a nameless depression, Brandeis was glad to see the sun almost every day in January and February.
“We always get a January thaw,” her father said, sweeping up around the wood stove they had barely used that winter, “but this is something else.”
“We’ll take it,” her mother said. His seasonal depression hit her hard, too.
The weather was ideal for adventuring. With her sister in tow, Brandeis set out daily into the woods to ramble, explore, climb, and discover the shape of this historically warm winter. Being homeschooled, they could finish their work early and then make their rambles last all afternoon. One day in February they took off their winter coats and left them in a brush pile in the woods. Their mother made them trudge around looking for them, but the days were so mild, their sweatshirts were enough to keep them warm.
That spring, there was an unearthly dryness to the low places in the woods. Any other year, pools of snowmelt formed a network of miniature fjords where deer would gather to drink, and the girls would track them by their toe-prints and their small, round droppings. Sometimes, they would see the mystic creatures bent over pools to drink, ready to bolt if they came too close.
This year, there were no fjords.
By early summer, a continuing result of the warm winter made itself plain: animal populations had exploded. Rodents, reptiles, spiders, and insects survived that would ordinarily have frozen to death. There was even a story on the Channel 6 news about how species believed extinct were reappearing, tempted to the open by the warmth and dryness of the earth.
Brandeis and Erin only knew their house was overrun with earwigs and their cat had fleas. The living room entertained a hardy population of flies, and their father bought rat poison for the first time since Brandeis was small and had famously tried to eat it. Both she and Erin were old enough to know better now.
Survivalist Brandeis began reading her father’s old Boy Scout manual like a novel. It was undeniably more captivating than Dickens’s Bleak House, which was taking her far too long to get through. She packed and repacked a small, green duffel bag with necessities, longing for a time when she would need to use them. Her prized possession was a pocketknife, which she had requested for her birthday. Second most prized was a spool of heavy twine.
Ever since she had rescued a book of Greek myths from a library sale, Brandeis had cherished the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Sometimes she imagined herself as one of the seven Athenian maidens trapped in the maze with the monster. Sometimes, she was the hero ready to outwit the maze and slay the beast. Because of Theseus, her spool of twine took on a mythical importance above that of matches or even food. In the labyrinth of the woods, a spool of twine could save her life.
Their lives, since Erin was always with her. It would be nice to ramble alone. Alone, Brandeis might build a fire, which she was not allowed to do and never dared to try because Erin would tell.
Mom, Brandi said she’s going to make a fire.
Mom, Brandi took granola bars for her survival bag.
Mom, Brandi said she might run away.
Well, someday she might. She hated algebra that much.
Brandeis also had to be careful what she told Erin about property boundaries. The sixty acres of woods their parents owned were familiar, but Brandeis longed to see what lay just beyond. Then, too, it was sometimes unclear where their property ended and someone else’s began. Since the neighboring owners lived out of state, it was easy to feel that all surrounding lands were an extension of their own. But if Erin knew they were straying, she would tell.
It was by accident one day that they discovered the Bleak Wood.
It was June, and there were frogs—too many of them—in the gravel pit near the end of the driveway. It was not their gravel pit, but the girls were allowed to skip stones on the water and catch frogs and chase dragonflies to their hearts’ content. This day, they became braver. Brandeis had brought her duffel and turned her sights toward the woods on the other side of the stagnating water.
“Let’s let the frogs go,” she said. “I want to explore.”
Erin complied, removing the flat rock from the top of the bucket and shuddering as she poured the frogs into the pond like potatoes into soup. The girls circled the gravel pit to where an old trail led off to the north, away from their dirt road and everything familiar. They followed it until the path bent and faded out, growing grassy and peopled with firs like sparse Christmas trees. “Probably an old logging road,” Brandeis said. She had heard her father tell of these.
“Are we on our land?”
A helicopter hummed not far away, an overgrown dragonfly in the blue sky. Looking for pot, Brandeis thought, again echoing her father.
“We’re not far from our house,” she said at last. They could still hear croaking frogs.
They walked on, the soft branches of the Christmas trees brushing their sleeves. Brandeis eyed the surrounding forest. The woods to the left would be perfect for trying out her plan. She unzipped the duffel and took out her precious twine. “Come on.”
They left the sun behind in a patch of chest-high ferns at the edge of the logging road. Abruptly they plunged into a cool, fragrant shade. As the tall trees enclosed them, the name Bleak Wood recommended itself to Brandeis because of Dickens.
Erin was unimpressed. She cowered in a stubborn ray of sun. “What if we get lost?”
Brandeis tied the end of the twine to a tree trunk using a scout knot. “There. Now we can’t get lost. You’re being a baby.”
She led the way over a silent carpet of pink-orange needles that slipped and slid beneath their feet. Above, the eerily still canopy permitted only fortunate sunbeams to shine through. Brandeis tried, as she always did, to identify the trees. At first there were beeches interspersed among the conifers, but gradually, the trees became taller and rougher—uglier—and Brandeis did not know their names. Their limbs angled wrongly like broken arms and legs, and the crooked trunks reminded her of scoliosis. Some suffering part of Brandeis’s spirit took pleasure in the brokenness of their bones. She could live in a place like this, make shelter, spend her days communing with the hurt heart of the forest. She would sketch the compound fractures in the branches overhead. She would write. She would thrive. She would not do math.
A deliciously melancholy ramble like this one could not help but be cut short. It was fate. Erin would slip on the needles, slice a knee on a root, sit down hard on a half-buried rock. Now she was crying like the baby she was. Brandeis tried to pity her, helped her up, but desperately wished they would not have to turn back. She had let out so little twine.
Erin’s knee bled, and they both fought not to gag.
“I want to go home.” The words of doom.
Brandeis soothed Erin as best she could. She dried her eyes, wrapped her knee in a bandana, offered her a granola bar. Why hadn’t she brought water? She knew why. Water was heavy, and this excursion had been a whim. Be prepared. What kind of a Boy Scout was she?
Erin must be taken home. If Brandeis prolonged the adventure, Erin would tell, and Brandeis would be punished. Her parents might forbid her from leaving their clearing. Almost as bad, they might take her pocket knife. And they might find her matches.
She patted Erin’s shoulder and nudged her homeward, winding up the twine as they walked. Once, she glanced back at the dim, Gothic-cathedral tangle they were leaving. I will come back, she silently promised. Alone.
The place where Erin had fallen was disturbed, the dark loam showing damp where she had kicked up the needles with her heels. Here and there, drops of red blood brightened the orange needles. A high, fizzing sound descended from the treetops like bubbles from ginger ale. Something brown and mushroom-like dropped from a branch. Brandeis shuddered.
They were home by two-thirty, and she felt cheated out of an adventure. It was more than that, though. She needed for once to be out of earshot of her mother’s call. She schemed how to elude her sister, to keep her promise to the trees. To herself.
Erin’s tailbone had been bruised by the rock, and of course there was the skinned knee, so Brandeis lived in fear that she would tattle. It was only a matter of time. In the room they shared, she hid her duffel bag in the closet under a pile of laundry.
The hour of vindication came sooner than she imagined. The next day, Erin pitched an interminable fit about brushing her hair. Thus, she did not finish her schoolwork by the time Brandeis was ready for her afternoon ramble, so she was not allowed to go out. Brandeis retrieved her duffel.
Dreaming of adventure and freedom to a soundtrack of dragonfly wings, she rounded the gravel pit, her shoes sticking a bit in the sucking mud. The logging road was dry and grassy, and she wiped her feet as she walked. She would easily be able to tell when she had explored farther than she and Erin had yesterday: the string she had unwound and wound again was bunched thickly at the middle of the spool instead of lying flat in its factory pattern.
And the place where Erin fell would serve as a landmark.
She tied the twine to the same tree and started into the infinite tangle that was her Bleak Wood. She had come back, and she was alone. Today she would ramble as long as the string held out.
When she came to the end of the rewound twine, she eyed the needled ground, not finding the site where Erin had fallen. Had she veered to one side? The place must be nearby. She studied the trees, but they were strangely alike in their deformity. What were they—sycamore? hackmatack? Her father would know.
Then she heard the fizzing, hissing song. She let out more twine, turning her feet left, south, toward the strange sound. She found the half-buried rock her sister had fallen on, but instead of orange needles and black earth, it was surrounded by crawling things—beetles larger than any Brandeis had ever seen. They seethed over the ground, singing their strange, carbonated song and exercising their crooked mandibles as if shredding invisible flesh.
Brandeis stepped back, nearly tripping over the twine. She dropped the spool and found it again with hands that shook. What were these red-brown insects as large and fat as lemons? Had they always lived in this forest, or had the warm winter drawn them out after decades—centuries—of sleep? Brandeis shuddered. Did anyone know the horrid monsters existed? And why were they gathered just at the place of Erin’s fall?
She continued to backtrack until the angle of the twine was straight again. She could hardly hear the fizzing now. If she listened, she could hear the comforting frogs in the gravel pit. The sun was still high. She moved on. The twine burned her hands, but she relished the pain. This was the adventure she had wanted. All her life, she had needed this walk through a trackless place to clear her head and soul.
She would run away. She would lay her plans, obtain supplies, and she would run away.
The woods darkened, though it was still mid-afternoon. The spicy smell of the needles tickled her nose. In her hands, the twine became thinner and lighter on the cardboard spool. Mosquitos first swarmed, then savaged her face, neck, and arms.
The woods did not diminish. In a tunnel of skeletal branches, Brandeis stopped. Her twine was about to run out, and she was parched and uneasy. It was not the darkness or the claustrophobic clawing of the deformed trees whose names she did not know. She could not shake the memory of the hissing insects waving their jaws like chainsaws in her direction.
This was not the Amazon rainforest. How could insects that size exist here? It was practically the frozen tundra, most winters, and the springs were wet and the summers mild. Beetles the size of lemons? She gathered up the twine spool, but could not continue. Not yet.
It was a good thing the bugs had not appeared when her sister was with her. Erin was afraid of earwigs, ladybugs, and the fleas on her own cat. When a flea had gotten trapped in Erin’s pajama top one night, Erin had been bitten dozens of times on the shoulder. After that, she avoided the cat for weeks, though she had raised it from a kitten.
Brandeis wondered if she ought to capture a sample—a specimen—of the strange, rust-colored beetles. How would she capture one without getting in the way of those horrible, moving jaws? Could she even bring herself to go near the bugs?
She had taken a few more distracted steps when a wisp of twine flicked her wrist in its flight from the spool. She had lost the end—the Bleak Wood had sucked it into its maw like a strand of spaghetti.
It could not have gone far. And yet. . . .
She stepped toward what she thought was the way back. If she could find the sun, she might be able to orient herself. She felt dizzy in this tunnel under the trees. She groped with feet and arms, stubbed her toe on a root, stopped herself from falling by leaning into the sharp scales of a tree trunk. She must never fall. The bugs might eat her if she did. She listened, expecting the eerie sizzle of their hunting song. All was silent. Even the frogs were still.
This way. This must be east. She skated over the slippery needles, inhaling their fragrance and begging them not to betray her. The sun must be covered by cloud. Darkness deepened around her. She would not see the hemp-colored twine in this light if it jumped up and bit her.
Now she shook like a little kid, like Erin. The woods she loved to ramble in, her Bleak Wood, the forbidden paradise, had seized her with fingers twisted as if they had been broken and incorrectly set.
Always keep your head when lost. The Boy Scout manual’s painted pages swam before her eyes. Stay in one place and wait to be found. But who would look for her? Who would know where to begin? It would take a pack of bloodhounds to find her.
Or Erin. Nine-year-old Erin of the skinned knee and the bruised tailbone. But no one would worry until dark, and Erin might not think first of the Bleak Wood.
Brandeis opened her duffel bag. Water today. She had learned. But alas, no flashlight. She had taken it out to read Bleak House in bed till one a.m. How the book had not put her to sleep before then, she did not know.
Her knife was there, and the matches. She longed to strike a light, but feared a wildfire more than darkness. At least, she thought she did. This darkness was fondling her bones.
She could make a torch.
At the sound, Brandeis slid on the needles, cracking her elbow against a trunk. She sobbed, immobilized by hurt.
The beasts dropped swiftly to land plop on her jeans, her ankles, her scalp. Sickly clots with jaws.
Their sounds became an engine’s snarl, their separate bodies one machine.
Her body would satisfy them all.
Erin came to the end of the twine and stopped, listening to the sizzling that could only come from bugs. She hated bugs. Was this more punishment for pitching a fit? For annoying Brandi? For snitching? She would apologize. She had to find her sister and the cardboard spool.
Erin lay her flannel overshirt on the ground to mark the place where the twine ended. Though she did not read scout manuals, she had learned a thing or two from Brandi. Following her ears, she tiptoed forward, timid as a doe among pools of snowmelt, dreading to see a spider, a deer fly, or a yellow jacket.
A step, another step, and she saw. Someone—her sister—lay twisted like the haunted trees, her bloated body pulsing under a rug of rust-red insects. Erin knew them for ticks (she had seen a tick on her cat) but these were too large, engorged to the size of plums. Their jaws sawed, and they hissed like feral cats out for blood.
Erin ran for the twine, scrambled through scraping brush to the logging road. At the gravel pit she did not stop, but slogged through the fetid water, wincing as it touched her hurt knee, trying not to think about frogs.
If only she were not too late, she would save Brandi. She would tell Brandi she was sorry for being a baby. Brandi would be happy with her. Brandi would like her.
It was up to Erin. Erin the hero.
Erin would do what she always did.
She would tell.
Amy Ballard writes and teaches in southern Idaho, where her husband, three kids, a naughty corgi, and too many cats keep her company. Her poetry has been published in GNU Journal, among other places. Her fiction has appeared in Penultimate Peanut and on the Second Hand Stories podcast. Find Amy on her website, www.amyballard.com.