The woodland at the edge of town had been nicknamed ‘the Hanging Woods’ long before Arthur Leith gave the name new meaning last August. It appeared on maps as Hannigan’s Wood, named after the family who had owned the land when records first began, but no one from town ever used its official name. People from the area had been known to live and die without ever knowing that it even had a ‘real’ name. Any teachers or parents who were ever asked said it was called that because it was made up of lazy pines, which were weak and downturned, and of ‘weeping’ trees – the kinds with branches reaching back down towards the earth. They hung like rich green curtains, keeping daylight out and secrets in. Younger voices gave a different reason for the name.
In the Hanging Woods, the trees all point to Hell,
The dark is keeping secrets of the lies that evil tells.
Never get too close, or the woods will take your soul,
And hang it up like deerskin with the other souls it stole.
It hangs them in the darkness, even in the light of day,
Taking all it wants until it finds another prey.
Other than ownership, there were no real records of the history of the town or the woods, so no-one could know for sure what, or if, anything had ever really happened there. Nothing and no-one survived from the old Hannigan family line, so nothing but their name remained. A name which, in the local area at least, was largely unknown and rarely ever spoken.
The kids had always been afraid of the woods. They told stories about the low swinging branches of the willow trees and flagging elms, which snaked and beckoned in the wind. They said that the trees would just take whatever they wanted. In most towns, kids dare each other to run up to the scary old houses, walk through cemeteries, or summon local ghosts from apocryphal tales, but none of these children would ever dare each other to go near the Hanging Woods. Even the teenagers didn’t go drinking there. They all knew that the woods were alive. A dead body being found there was no surprise to them – surely it had only been a matter of time until they found one – but they all doubted that it really was a suicide, as all the grown-ups claimed. They tended not to believe anything the adults told them about those woods.
Mr. Leith had owned the farm in front of the Hanging Woods. Everyone had always thought he was a nice man, if not a little odd. He was well known around the marketplace, where he sold his overstock cheaply to his neighbours, always wearing a shirt and tie, even with his flat cap and bright green wellingtons. He was a quiet man, who had only rarely left the town in decades. He seemed to have no immediate family and had no interest in travelling or holidays, so he would be seen passing through town almost every day with a bicycle cart full of produce. The whole town had thought it very kind of him to volunteer one of his fields for a summer fair in July. The local council nearly collapsed under the excitement of the free venue and quickly spent their budget on filling the event with everything you would expect and more. There were stalls, barbecues, games and rides, offering food and fun for every age.
The children nearly forgot about being scared of the woods while they laughed and ran and played in the sun. Nearly, but not entirely. Every now and then, you might see one of them slow down just for a moment to take a sideways glance to check that the woods were still where they were supposed to be.
It takes what it wants, without rhyme or reason,
No matter which soul, no matter what season,
Taking strength from the earth, from the sky and from Hell,
Your soul becomes secret and the woods will not tell.
It was as summer as a summer could get that day, until a scream brought everything to a full and sudden stop.
A little boy was gone. His parents had just bought him a balloon from the stall at the far end of the field, nearest to the edge of the weeping trees. They had seen a spot near the fence where they could put down a picnic blanket and had been unpacking their sandwiches and snacks when they noticed he was gone. His balloon was caught in the low branches of a solitary, wilting birch tree at the edge of the woods, but there was no other sign of the boy himself. The boy’s mother and father had screamed in unison, imploring Heaven and their neighbours to help them find their baby. Everyone dropped what they were doing and searched everywhere. Some police and other brave volunteers even went into the woods to look for the boy. They never found him.
Rumour and speculation turned to judgement before anyone had time to consider alternatives. The town hung the blame on Arthur Leith. His guilt was indirect but definite, according to the most forgiving folks. To the gossip-prone, however, he might even have taken the boy himself. The former group believed it was a crime of negligence – that Leith should have better secured his property borders, so then the child couldn’t have wandered away. The others called his character into question, pointing to a history of odd and secretive behaviour, asking why he was not seen by anyone at an event that he had volunteered his land for – a party that was ‘literally taking place in his backyard’. No one knew for sure what had happened, but they agreed ‘Weird Old Arthur’ was somehow at fault.
Everyone stopped doing business with him or buying anything that came from his farm. They gave him only sideways glances on the rare occasions he ventured through the town and gripped their children tight, telling them not to trust the strange old man. Even the postman started throwing Arthur’s mail over the wall into his garden, rather than go anywhere near his door.
It was only six weeks later that they found him. The town only spoke about his death in hushed tones without much eye contact. A policeman’s son told all the kids at school about the note the detectives had found in Arthur’s house. Soon, everyone knew what he had written.
“I am innocent. The woods took him. Hopefully if I do this, they might give him back.“
The adults interpreted the note as proof of his madness. The children, on the other hand, all knew better. They all believed Arthur Leith was right about the Hanging Woods. It was assumed in the whispered stories in school corridors that he had bravely tried to take the boy back from the grip of the woods, to try to negotiate his own life for the boy. It must not have worked. The woods had taken him too. “It takes what it wants,” the stories all said.
In between the branches and underneath the leaves,
The Hanging Woods are waiting for the ones who don’t believe.
They will get too close and then the trees will take them quick,
Hanging them like prizes among the stones and broken sticks,
We will all stay far away, as we know for sure we should,
Because the trees take what they want in the deep, dark Hanging Woods.
Search parties had continued to look for the boy throughout those six weeks and long, long after. Unfortunately, the woods had been avoided by everyone for so long that they must have been starving. The trees took two more over the following months, although obviously the town’s adults saw no connection to the woods themselves. The first was one of the dogs used in the search, who ran away into the woods and never came back when his owner called for him. The other was a woman, who had volunteered to join the search despite poor health. She collapsed in the woods and had died before they could get her back to the road and into an ambulance. The adults called it a shame, but inevitable, given her age and condition. The children said that the woods had seen her as an easy target.
The searchers had made sure to completely rip apart the farmhouse after Mr. Leith’s sparsely-attended funeral. Finding no sign that the boy had ever been there, they quickly dug up the gardens, then went out into his fields and trampled what was left of his crops. When all the dust had settled (and whatever distant relatives Leith may have had somewhere had failed to materialise), some of the townspeople even went back and helped themselves to his possessions. Soon, there was little sign that Arthur had ever been there either. The children were all wary of the adults who had raided the farmhouse. They worried that the adults might be learning from the woods, thinking that they too could just take whatever they wanted.
Thank you for taking the time to read this short story and I hope that you enjoyed it. I am currently working on adapting this story into a full-length novel, which I hope to finish in the next few months. In the meantime, please feel free to enjoy some of my other short stories by clicking here.