Sprig

George Aitch

Closer to the forest, the path is littered with dry leaves, crisp from the frost.

I have always made sloe gin. The berries are best picked from the hedgerows after the first frost. There are plenty of patches around if you know where to look. Once I’ve gathered enough of the blue firm sloes, I sit in front of the television pricking their skins then slipping the pierced berries in to soak. They’ll float store-bought gin for a few weeks with only the meanest pinch of sugar to draw out their flavour. At the end of the process, I’ll have a clutch of bottles to pass around at Christmas. Of course, I have to pick them first.

On that first morning which coats the grass in lace webs, I wash out a couple of plastic tubs. Wrapping myself up in a winter coat and boots, I set off down the lane. My cheeks burn with the cool air’s caress as all breath rises as fog. My next home crafting project ought to be a scarf.

The afternoon beyond my bungalow is still. Most of the birds have left for warmer weather weeks ago. In the late autumn calm, words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘domain’ come to mind. At the Astradurham parish school, the tarmac comes to a halt. A dirt track runs along the fenced playground where timbers and planks have been stacked in a cone ready for bonfire night. Indoors the children will be putting their Guys together, old newspapers and older clothes, the effigies to be tossed into the flames come November.

On the bridle path, the mud is firm, the chill having raked all moisture away. Hoofprints, the signature of the stable horses from the mews downriver, mark the distance between hollow puddles. My boot falls thud and the plastic tubs in my backpack rattle as I make my way along the track. The village allotments are here. I’ve never tried to nurture anything in our waterlogged marsh soil and it isn’t worth fifty pounds per annum to try. That doesn’t stop the few weekend farmers out today tending to their shallots and peas.  

The bridle path worms into a gulley and beyond to the forest with hedgerows at its brink. Year on year I’ve found the richest harvest here. From atop one of the hills on either side of the dirt track, a sentinel rock looks down on me, a sarsen stone placed back in who knows when. The hedges are near bare here. They hem the bridleway as a pair of spun wooden skeletons. Where they dip too close to the trail, their thorns catch at my jacket. I tug away and the branches shake as they release their grip.

Closer to the forest, the path is littered with dry leaves, crisp from the frost. My trail is steep here. It’s getting harder to hike up at my age; it’s not just the chill keeping my hips stiff. A trio of dog walkers tip over the hillbrow. As they pass, their chat peters out. They nod their heads to me and I smile. A snuffly terrier takes an interest in my ankle and the walker tugs its lead. I have enough time to sneak a quick tickle behind its ears before it potters after the other two mutts, all of them wrapped in tartan coats. Even the dogs feel the cold.

At the top of the valley, the wind sweeps over the hillside, stirring the yellowing grass. Even though it’s more exposed, I have to pause here and rest. The climb has winded me. I am alone. From up here, the waning sunlight on the manor and village rooftops casts long shadows into the marsh. It is getting dark early, though the golden light playing between the beech trees doesn’t enchant me the way it used to.

Instead, I cast an eye toward the shallow pond filled by the rainfall during the week. Once summer was over, the rain felt no need to hold back its torrents. It’ll soak through the chalk in the hills to flood the river meadows before long. I’ve taken to switching off the radio while I’m in the middle of cooking dinner to listen out for the pitter-patter of the shower on my patio. As such, it isn’t surprising to find the pond brimming with rainfall.

Its surface is calm. The silver reflections of clouds are faces peering back at me from the murk beneath. I leave the mirror and it’s drowned to venture away from the path. The hedgerows and their sloes are only a little farther, a short weave between the treeline. The bracken at the forest edge holds a lot of treats for any forager like me. There are blackberries for crumbles, juicy damsons for jam and red haws which I’ve been told can make a rich-bodied wine.

Today is for sloes though, and I am rewarded after a short meander by the little blue dots sheltered between the blackthorn. These luscious fruits nestled in bramble are what I’m after. My favourite shrubs peep over the mantle of the Avon valley. This is the place. The annual pilgrimage ends here.

Rolling up my sleeves, I reach into the shrubs and seized handfuls of the berries. I crane on my tiptoes and come away with a few small cuts on my fingers, the price to be paid for harvesting sloes. A host of tiny brown spiders creep away from the disturbance. Their spindly legs tickle my bloodied fingertips. My tubs fill up. I work quickly against the fading daylight, the effort stoking the mist which I exhale. The white puffs drift across the gulf left by the valley and join the mist rising from the riverbank.

When my plastic boxes are packed with berries, I heave them into my rucksack. As I start to wander back to the track, I look over my shoulder at the now-empty blackthorn bushes. Out of the low shrub, a large growth seizes my eye. Like the rest of the starved hedgerow, its twisted branches are mostly bare. They curl around the blackthorn like stag horns. I don’t recognize the plant, though from the way it hangs on the boughs it might be some parasitic mistletoe.

A gust shakes the trees and something rustles behind me. I glance back. A bundle of the growth has been knocked to the ground. The ball is a skeletal cage. Its folds ensnare the grass and anchor it where it should roll over the lip of the hill. The wind stills once more and I tread through the birch trees to meet the bridle path. 

The sun has fallen further toward the horizon and its beams flicker between the trees. My boots, wet from the field grass, toss up twigs and fallen leaves from the forest floor as I set a brisk pace home.

On looking back, I see that the wind has cast the thorn brush into the woods, like a tumbleweed from a Spaghetti Western. The forest is silent. Even the evening birdsong has died. I glance again at the ball of growth and see that it has grown. Where it was tossed by the wind it has snowballed to collect the leafmould detritus.

An uneasy sense settles on my shoulders, that flavour of quiet dread which is only felt in the lonely parts of the woods. I feel as though I am being followed. Glancing back at the thorny growth, I spot that it has unfurled. Where before it was a spooled mass of bramble sprigs, it has unwrapped itself, the brown still-frame of an electric spark caught in motion. My neck prickles as I hurry through the dusk to the edge of the woods.

I dare myself to glance again. The ill-ease is overcome by a stab of definite fear. The bracken has shaped itself into a pillar and has crept closer, tracing the route I’ve taken. My breath quickens at the sight of this looming clump that stands twice as tall as I do. A stack of white chimney smoke floats from my lips.

Frozen to the spot, I hold my gaze at the thorns as my heart batters itself against my ribs. The wooden column holds to the spot. Each of us peers at the other, daring to be the first to move. Keeping my eyes level at the mass, I take a first step back and then another.

The last of the sunlight is vanishing in the distant fields. A gale starts from nowhere, shaking the trees. I look behind me to make sure that nothing else is creeping up where I can’t see. There’s nothing but empty forest, the coppiced birch trees clawing out of the ground like bare finger bones.

When I spin around to the clearing where the column has planted itself, my sweat turns to ice. It is much nearer now, a single pace away. It has unfurled itself into the outline of a figure treading towards me, a sculpture of a running man. Still held fast like a scarecrow, a skeletal arm reaches out with grasping twig hands splayed. From where its brow has formed grow a set of twisted wooden horns. Its face is frozen in a roar.

My last nerve breaks away and I flee after it. I sprint as fast as I can through thicket and back to the bridle path. Each gasp burns my lungs as I urge my iron legs to run. Each glance into the woods is a snapshot of the thorny figure pacing after me. When I look forward, I can hear fallen leaves crisp and whisper as it takes unseen footsteps.

I rejoin the path at the head of the gulley. Here I have to stop, I’ve spent my puff. The shaped thorns haunt the edge of the forest. The wooden figure lingers between the trees, captured by my gaze. While I retake my breath, deep wheezes of chill twilight, I lock my eyes onto it. Between my blinks, it darts closer in flickering movements I cannot see. As long as I am watching it, the creature cannot stir.

Keeping my eyes peeled, I tread backwards along the path to the village. The berries in my backpack rumble with each stumbling step. My eyelids itch to close, tearing in the cold wind. They bulge as I force them open, droplets streaming down my stinging cheeks. I cannot look away. I mustn’t.

The familiar hedgerows crowd around me. I don’t dare check them. All effort is honed on keeping my stare as I trace my trail in reverse. The thorn figure holds fast, locked into position. I feel its hate as a swarming black cloud at my midriff. The last I see of it is a crown of antlers poking over the hedge by the allotments.

When I am sure that it has gone, I test the water by turning around on the spot. After a few trials where nothing breaks through the dusk, I cut a brisk stride back to the safety of my doorstep. It is dark and the first pinpricks are starting to pierce through the night sky.

I lock my door and latch it shut. The windows are closed firm. I settle my nerves on the sofa, dipping a sewing needle into my sloe harvest before washing them and poking them through the bottlenecks to steep in gin. Between the howling gale outside, I catch the scrape of branches as they pore at my windowpane.

George Aitch is a writer from Deptford. You may find more of his stories in print and online with Massacre, Shlock! and Horla, among others.