Since you moved here, you’ve been drawn to the woods behind your house.
The first day you moved in, you looked out the back window, and saw a deer at its edge. It looked out at you, its eyes reflecting the low afternoon sun, across the narrow strip of overgrown grass that you call a yard. And then it turned, and fled back into the woods.
You don’t consider yourself an outdoorsy person, not really. You like going for the odd walk, but your camping experience is limited to one disastrous year of Scouts when you were a kid, which had ended in tears and several bee stings, and weekend in a mountain cabin with your parents a couple years later, and the less said about that one the better. Hiking isn’t normally in your vocabulary.
But rent on the house was cheap, and the woods behind it were pretty, at least, when you took a look. You had no objection to living by the woods, you thought, and so you signed the rental agreement and moved in.
And since then, the woods have been a constant distraction. In the morning, you sit by the back door with your coffee, and look out at the tangled branches, watching the odd bird flutter past. In the evening, you sit by the back door with your tea, and look out at the blackness between tree trunks, and wonder if you’re imagining the glitter of eyes peering back.
At first you think it’s because there isn’t much to do around here. You’d moved here for work. You like your job, you even like the little town that’s a short drive from your woods-encompassed home, but it isn’t exactly a bastion of entertainment options. A handful of restaurants, some still open; a surprisingly handsome library; an abandoned factory. The town has all the hallmarks of a little town that had once been prosperous but has since gone a bit to seed. But it’s still hanging in there, and still trying, and you admire it for that. A few start-ups have been drawn in by the cheap rent, and of course, your company has its branch there, and the quiet is kind of nice. But still, you’re pretty sure opening a movie theater somewhere within forty minutes wouldn’t hurt anyone.
So, in lieu of a movie theater, you have the woods. That’s what you tell yourself, anyway. You saw a deer the first day, and that’s been the most exciting thing to happen, so of course you’re trying to recreate it.
Truth is, a rural area doesn’t mean you don’t have Netflix. It doesn’t mean you can’t curl up with a book from that beautiful library. It doesn’t mean you can’t take up your new coworkers when they invite you to their house for dinner.
And yet, you never do.
You get up, look at the woods, go to work, come home, look at the woods. You’ve done this from the first day you moved in. And after a week, you’re still doing it.
And at night, you dream about the woods. You dream of the cool green scent of leaves; you dream about moss under your bare feet. You dream about something in the woods, something following you, and sometimes you wake afraid, and sometimes you wake comforted.
Sometimes you dream that you are walking with someone. They walk to one side of you, but whenever you turn to look at them, they’re on the other side. They laugh a little, and you can’t help but laugh as well.
You dream, once, that you’re deep in the woods, and don’t know your way home. You call out for help, but you know that no one will hear you.
I hear you, says a voice, soft, from behind you. A cool hand comes to rest on your shoulder.
“Do you know the way home?” you ask, and begin to turn.
You forget your dreams within minutes of waking.
On your first day off since moving in, you decide to do more than look. Perhaps there’s a reason you’re so absorbed by the woods, you think. You aren’t, generally speaking, a mystically-minded person. But even you realize that this is getting a little weird, and when logic fails, sometimes, unbidden, the mind comes up with its own conclusions.
You dress in jeans and boots and flannels. You pack yourself a lunch, and some snacks. You have a backpack full of water and flashlights and a portable power bank for your phone. You have GPS, and you have a working knowledge of the area: the woods seem impenetrable, but in honesty they aren’t that big. From your back yard you can see two other houses. You aren’t much of an outdoors person, but even you probably can’t get lost in the woods for very long. You’re pretty sure the other side of the woods, from your house, is the Dollar General and that gas station with the cute cashier. This is not exactly an expedition into untouched wilderness, but you pack well anyway.
And then, in the early morning, you leave out your back patio, and cross the lawn, and step into the woods.
It’s early spring, and early morning. Birds don’t sing so much as chatter, the little squawks and staccato chirps surrounding you just as much as the lacy shadows of the branches. Some of the trees are bare still, with little purple-green buds the size of your pinkie nail to show what will happen soon. And some of the trees are in full leaf, but the leaves are still a pale green.
It smells like wet earth, and new growth. You stand there, breathing in the smell of the woods, feeling the cool, wet shadows on your hands, and wonder what you’d been so excited about.
And then, just feet from your right, is a crash of underbrush, cutting through your disappointment. You look up, and see a flash of movement, too big to be a rabbit. A deer, then. Maybe the same deer from that first day.
You smile, and look around. There aren’t paths in these woods—people don’t hike here—but you can see a game trail, and you start to follow it, heading in the direction of the deer. You don’t expect that you’ll see it again, of course. But it reminded you that the woods hold things that are unexpected, reminds you of the strange, quiet thrill you get from just looking at them.
You start to walk, and at first, it’s just a pleasant stroll. The birds continue to announce your presence wherever you go. Once, you see a white butterfly float past. Squirrels leap around you, and once in a while scold you for getting too close.
I should do this more often, you think.
And then you look down at where you’re walking, and you stop.
It’s half-buried under a tangle of grass and old roots, and starkly white. A deer skull, you suppose, with no antlers. Its eye sockets are not empty, but filled with dirt and moss.
Well. Animals live out here. Of course animals would die out here. Still, the sight of it startles you, the contrast of pale white death, and the dark soil of new growth.
For a brief moment, you consider taking it. You could clean it up, display it in your living room.
But something about that feels wrong. It’s here, and it has been here for some time. Animals ate the flesh from it, and left it, elongated and eerie. Perhaps other animals lived beneath it, a family of mice, like a slightly macabre Disney film.
You leave the bones undisturbed, and continue your walk.
You are being followed.
It’s been about half an hour since you saw the deer skull in the grass. The game path is still surprisingly distinct, and so you travel along it. There is no danger here, or shouldn’t be.
You aren’t sure if you’re afraid or not. You aren’t sure if you even believe your own instincts. But you can’t quite shake the feeling—the creeping chill on the back of your neck, like you’re being watched.
And as you continue forward, it’s more than just a case of the creeps. You hear the sound of underbrush crunching, here and there, and it stops a moment after you stop. It could be an animal, you suppose, but you’re not sure what. A deer would run away. A rabbit wouldn’t have such heavy footfalls. A stray dog, maybe?
Somehow, you don’t think so.
You stop, and get your heavy flashlight from your backpack. You’d gotten it in case you were out late; you hadn’t really thought much of its heft when you bought it. But now it makes you feel just a little bit safer.
You keep going forward, with the cold flashlight in one hand. The idea of turning back does not occur to you. You just keep walking.
And so do those other footsteps.
You stop for lunch at noon. The sun is spilling white through the leaves, and you find a log and sit on it, looking around. You’ve been walking for hours, now. You’re hungry. Your legs hurt.
And you’re still pretty sure that you’re not alone.
It’s not until you unzip your backpack that you realize something’s off.
How have you been walking this long in these woods?
You stuff some chips in your face, crushed by the other things in your bag but still tasty, and look at your phone. Your GPS should still be good in the woods, you think, and open up the app. Your phone is mostly charged still, since you haven’t been using it, and the app opens quickly.
It shows your house, approximately, when you zoom the right amount. And yes, indeed, there’s the Dollar General on the other side of the green blob indicating the woods. It shows you, right in the middle of the woods.
You plot a walking course from your house to the store, passing through the woods, right through where your little arrow currently sits. 1.5 hours to walk, it says, would you like to see other routes?
You plot a walking course from your current location to the house.
5 hours to walk, it says, and offers nothing more.
That makes no sense. You close the app and reopen it, but it shows you the same results. You decide to calculate the other way, from your current location to the store.
This route is not possible, it says, and the app closes itself.
Something is still watching you.
“Okay,” you say, a few hours later.
Your lunch is a distant memory. You’d waited there in that sunny spot until the sunlight shifted and left you in shadow. You started to walk back up the game trail towards your house. But nothing seemed familiar, though you can’t remember the trail branching off at any point. And surely you’d have noticed some of these things, right? The huge, mossy rocks that would be beautiful in other circumstances. The wild, cool, laughing stream.
And you’re pretty sure you should have gotten home by now.
“Okay,” you say again, and look around. Trees before you, trees behind, trees on every side. Birds continue to sing, although their songs are softer, as if they’re calling in the night, now.
You’ve spent this whole time listening to the sound of other feet moving, so much that you started to wonder if you were imagining it, if it was just the sound of your own boots. You didn’t acknowledge it once.
Not until now.
There is silence, after you speak, but it isn’t the silence of nothing. It is, you think, the silence of waiting. Of listening.
“Is there someone there?”
Because right now, you’re far too lost for this to make sense. For anything to make sense. Your GPS shows you in the woods, and nothing more, and you’ve given up relying on it for anything.
If something’s following you, that’s creepy. But at least it’s a thing. The shifting woods—that’s far more frightening than any being could be.
“If you’re following me, please…just…do you know how to get home?”
You don’t expect an answer.
But an answer comes anyway.
I know how to get home, it says. But it doesn’t say it, not in words. You don’t hear it with your ears, though your ears are ringing with some sound. It’s more like a feeling, a vague sense of meaning, and you understand entirely.
But, it says, without saying, it isn’t time for you to return.
“Who are you?” you ask—out loud, because you don’t know the other way of speaking. “Why are you following me?”
There is laughter, and it sounds like chattering birds.
Because, it says, you were first following me.
And then, just before a bend in the game trail, a doe steps out. Her pointed hooves are dainty on the ground. Her fur is tawny, and looks thicker than you’d have imagined. Suddenly, you want to bury your fingers in the fur at her side, feel the softness of it. You want to touch her velvet muzzle.
But then you blink, and it’s not a doe at all.
She stands before you, naked and unashamed. Her legs are long, with rounded thighs and muscular calves, ending in bare feet. Her chest is flat and featureless, and thick hair grows beneath her navel, hiding any features. But you know that she is a she, not in how she looks or sounds, but in the same way you know what she means to tell you.
Her head is not a human head, and it is not the head of the doe you thought you saw.
It’s a skull, a long, white deer skull. Yellowed antlers spread over her head like branches. If she has eyes, you cannot see them. The hollows of her eye sockets are as black as the darkness between tree trunks at night.
But she sees you.
You saw me in the woods, she said, and you chose to follow me.
You wonder if you should be afraid. You wonder if you should have been afraid all along—not just since you felt someone near you in these unfamiliar woods, but before, when you could not seem to tear your attention away from them.
You are not afraid. You aren’t sure what you are, right now.
“You were the deer I saw earlier?” you ask, thinking of the crashing that had set you on the game path.
I am the deer you saw much earlier, she says. The deer skull cannot smile, but you can sense a smile to what she says.
The deer that first evening, staring at you from the woods, her eyes reflecting the setting sun.
“Who are you?” you ask. Is she a ghost? A demon? Is she some kind of hallucination brought on by wandering the same tiny wooded area for ten hours? “And what do you want?”
You mean you don’t know? she asks, and seems genuinely surprised. I thought you would have, since you sought to follow me. You only shake your head. If you followed her, it was by accident, wasn’t it?
And she speaks without speaking, explains so that you can understand.
These woods were vast, once—now they are only what you know. But I have been here since the first acorn sprouted; and I shall be here as long as one tree still stands. I am as ancient as the stones, and as new as the buds on the trees.
I am the God of the Forest.
And I want what all Gods want, in our own way. I want to be worshiped.
She sits now on a mossy log that crosses the path. You’re pretty sure it hadn’t been there before, but now you don’t know what to think.
And you, she says, with a certainty that cannot be conveyed in mere words, want to worship me.
You are face-to-face with an ancient god. Her feet are bare on the ground. Sometimes, when you look away, out the corner of your eye, you see a deer, and not a person. Sometimes, looking right at her, you think you see a tree instead. But she never changes, not really.
You have been drawn to these woods since you first saw her. You have followed her here, to the middle of the woods that are never-ending. It was a forest once, and you could wander through it forever because it remembers being a forest, at least when she’s around.
She wants to be worshiped.
And you have followed her here to do just that.
You step towards her once, and stop. You bend down, and take off your hiking boots. Your feet should be sore, from walking so long, with so little practice—blistered, maybe. But they aren’t. You take off your socks, and stand up again.
The earth is cool, but not cold. Your heels sink slightly into the soil, as if you might be planted there if you stand too long, as if you might put down roots like a tree.
You step forward again, and again. And then you sink to your knees, and look up at her.
Her face is not a face, and her eyes are not eyes, but she looks down at you. Her mouth does not open, but now you hear her voice out loud.
“Are you here to worship me?” she asks.
You lick your lips, and look up at her. Her legs are covered with fine, soft hair. And you want to touch them.
“I am,” you say.
She spreads her legs. The fur is thick between her legs, thick as the undergrowth between the trees. But you can see wetness as well.
“Then worship,” she says.
You crawl forward, still gazing up at her. Her flat chest rises and falls with steady breaths. Her hand reaches down and touches the top of your head, in a gentle benediction.
You press your first kiss on her soft thigh. No one has touched you beneath the waist, but you would never believe it from the way your stomach clenches.
Her hand strokes through your hair, and you can read it as approval as clearly as you understand her words.
You don’t know how to worship a God, but you think you know how to worship a body. You trail more kisses up her thigh, slowly, gently, taking your time to savor the tingle on your lips.
She smells like arousal. But she smells also like forest.
When you reach up a hand to part her, her hair is soft as you’d imagined, when you’d thought she was only a deer. Her folds are slick with anticipation of worship.
You bend down, and trail your tongue over them, testing, tasting. Your breath catches when you reach her swollen, red clit.
For a moment, you feel something against your own crotch, and you think it’s probably just the seam of your jeans. But you almost gasp at the sudden pressure.
But that—that’s immaterial. Your own arousal does not matter, not right now. You dip your head again and slide your tongue between her folds, tasting her.
You are here, between the legs of a God. You are here, deep in the forest that’s obsessed you since you first saw it.
Her hand strokes your hair at first, and then her fingers tighten, and she grips your hair a little too hard. You gasp a little as she tugs your head gently. And as always, you know what she’s saying, you know what she wants.
You slide your tongue harder, until you find the hard bud again. She tugs a little harder, and you stroke it firmly, slowly at first, still taking your time to worship, to savor. You feel it twitch. She is silent, but you moan a little.
You hold her open with your thumbs, and you close your lips around her clit. Inhaling the wild, earthen scent of her, you suck gently.
For the first time, you hear her cry out, as both hands grip your hair, and hold you to her. Her hands are strong, stronger than you would have imagined. But you don’t fight against them.
You suck again, and again, and each time you do, you’re rewarded with another sound from the God. One of your hands comes down to slide over her entrance, slick and welcoming, and you slide two fingers inside of her, just as slowly as before, like a supplicant entering a temple. Her cunt is hot, and wet, and you moan against her clit as you start to curl your fingers inside of her.
God, this feels good, you think, and the word “God” is not a casual blasphemy, but an aching pronouncement of worship. You suck, and thrust. Heat blooms for you even as you can feel her getting wetter. You buck against nothing, against the ground, even as she grabs your head and grinds herself against your face. You moan in gratitude, that she’s willing to use you for her pleasure.
When she comes, it spills past your fingers, and you pull your face away to look up at her, expecting to see pleasure contorting her features. But of course, a skull does not move, does not change.
But you can see her chest rising in gasps. You can see the bloom of color over her shoulders. You can see wetness on her thighs.
“Now you,” she says, her hands still in your hair.
And underneath that, in the wordless way, she says, Finish worshiping me.
And as always, you understand.
You reach down to unfasten your jeans. The knees are muddy from kneeling here before her, and they’ll be hard to clean, but you don’t care. You unbutton them, and unzip, the sound echoing around the forest.
You reach into your underwear. You moan when your fingers, still wet from her, touch your skin, and you close your eyes.
“No,” she says. Look at me.
You force your eyes open again as you touch yourself. Pleasuring her has aroused you beyond measure, and you know that this won’t take long. You moan as you start to move against your own hand, but your sounds are lost among the sounds of the birds, the sound of the wind rattling the new spring leaves.
You’re so close, and you look at her, the skull-face and the soft, hot, solid body beneath—
You come, hard, and it’s all for her. In this moment, every pulsing, aching moment is hers, and she knows it, and you know it. But you cannot keep your eyes open, as your pleasure just rolls through you, never seeming to end.
And then, you wake up.
You are in your own bed, in your new house.
The woods are out back. They house birds and deer, and beyond them is a dollar store, and a gas station.
Your house is almost silent. Your phone is on your nightstand, buzzing, and you realize it’s your alarm. The one you’d set, so that you could get up early enough to go for a walk.
You sigh, and realize. That had been another strange dream of the woods. A deer skull, the heat of a clit, all of it one and the same.
You sit up to grab your phone and turn it off, and check the time. But it is not Saturday, you find when you look. It’s Sunday. And GPS is still open, informing you that you have arrived at your destination, and would you like to rate your route?
You realize next that you are not in your pajamas. You’re in your jeans still, and your flannel. You’ve left flakes of mud in your sheets, which will need to be washed.
Mud, from kneeling in the moist soil. Kneeling in worship.