In the Woods

In the Woods
Published: Jun 17, 2013
A short story about woodland, and what happens there, by novelist Heidi James.

To get to the badgers you had to be prepared to get dirty. It wasn’t a long walk from our estate; you’d never believe that such wildness was so close. In hearing distance almost, the badger set disturbed by revving car engines and music and fireworks on bonfire night. So it wasn’t far, not far.

I found them one Sunday. Dad home from the pub after stopping in at the bookies, wanting peace and quiet, and mum busy with the ironing. I liked long walks. And the south end of the estate was still bordered by the orchards and fields that the houses had interrupted in the first place. Climbing a fence and scrumping the apples was a treat – the farmer didn’t come round too often and he was ok with girls, it was just the boys he hated and took shots at with his long gun. And just walking further, trying to recognise butterflies and birds from my wildlife book that I took from the school library. The song thrushes, and the chaffinches and brown female black bird. Sometimes you saw a fox, bristled and dingy. Rabbits.

The A2 cut through close by, leading all the way – a Roman route they told us, all the way back to the sea, to Dover then France and Canterbury and Chaucer. So I walked and walked, ignoring the nagging sound of the cars, the sun hot on my neck, the sweat gathering under the waistband of my jeans. At the furthest end of a field full of black and white cows – a field walked over carefully to avoid the flat discs of cow shit – was a small wood. A gathering of trees. Had to push through a tight hedge, hair and t-shirt snagged.

It was quiet, with small collections of bluebells and white anemones pegged about on the mossy floor. I went in, and was collapsed by the green dark and the smell of the leaves, I was folded into nothing, just another part of the wood. I lay down, in the tradition of trees, watching everything and nothing. My breathing and the movement of light counted out time, but I wasn’t aware of how long I was there, lying down, my back pressed against the dirt. A tickle of tiny legs and feelers crawled across my stomach. An ant. Then another. And another. I lay still for the column of ants – grand word for the straggling bunch, but that’s what they call them, a column, like an army, like soldiers – a vast not-I, a whole lot of small others making their way over me, through me, becoming part of me.

I lay still until they’d finished. It seemed the right thing to do. The only thing to do. Lying there, unable to see the boundary of what I knew was a little woodland, I could imagine being lost, being able only to see the space between each tree from where I lay in the middle. The woods are historic, not like the field or the riverbank. Tree follows tree, and turning in a circle, you’re lost, unable to find the edge.

As it got dark, slowly the light disappearing, I heard them, snuffling, snouting at the soil. Grunts and growls. I turned my head and saw them. Three of them. One smaller than the others; a baby. Black and white striped faces, lumpy bodies, thick-legged. Badgers, wild creatures, as close to me as a neighbour’s dog might get. I could smell them, their worm breath, their bloodied fur. Fierce. Their noses poked at the air. They ignored me, or accepted me. I was the wood. I was part of them. Like the ants. Like the leaves.

Later, just a short while later, I walked home. Dirtier than usual.

And so later, after going there a few times and fixing myself against the woodland floor and watching them eat and play and fight, I knew that I belonged to them. No matter where I was, I belonged to the badgers. In the bright day, when I was looking for a job now school was done with, or doing my mum’s housework, I thought of them curled up in their set underground, a crumbly, paw-dug cave, with tree roots for a ceiling and a fur and grass nest. I was there, breathing and eating and scratching. There was no lack of warmth or love. No need for a job or a boyfriend or social workers or police or truancy officers or the dole office. I had everything and I was everything.

And so later, lying there listening and watching and being, the moon not up yet, but soon, my hands lost in grass, were grass; body broken down into particles so joining up, linking together all the particles, just one big mass of moments, of unspeakable things, too small, too vast for words. The black and white others feeding and prodding and showing teeth, leaving footprints and folds of shit on the ground. There we were.

And then he comes. He came. The farmer. Dressed in jeans and a tatty blue jumper. His grey hair cut short, close to his head. His eyebrows still black over his eyes. His face rough with stubble. He carried something in his hand. His large, dirty hand.

He said, “What you doing here then?”

And I answered. I told him I was watching the badgers.

He said, “You like nature do you? Like the badgers?”

And I probably answered yes. My heart flicking against my tits.

He said, “They’ll have to go. TB. Bad for the cows. Kills them. Costs me money. A lot of money. The government gave the go-ahead for the cull. Said 'go ahead'. A lot of money is lost to Bovine TB which spreads from them filthy badgers. You like them, do you?”

And I would’ve answered yes and would’ve been crying, because he had come to kill them.

He said, “Bet you’re a right heartbreaker. I bet all the boys do anything you say, give you anything you ask for.”

I shook my head, no. “No, that doesn’t happen. That never happens.”

And he said, “I don’t believe that, I reckon any man in his right mind would do anything a pretty girl like you asked him to.”

And he stepped forwards, his hands large and dirty. His chest and shoulders almost young, almost handsome – at least male and wide and hard. Smiling.

He said, “Have you got a boyfriend?”

I said no and so he said, “Bet you’ve got lots of them. Bet you do. Bet you could make a man do anything you wanted just by being nice to him.”

Later, just a short while later, I walked home. Dirtier than usual. Back through the field, back through the orchard and into the estate. My hair was tangled down my back. I walked past the pub where my dad would be and the bingo hall where my mum would be. I walked past the boys on the corner, their short-faced vicious dogs straining at their leads, their jeans hanging around their arses. Past their whispered offers of skank, skunk and crack. Past the rows of post-war houses, some with tidy gardens, planted with flowers, white net curtains hanging in the windows, the grey ghost flicker of a TV.

I walked up the path and through the gate into our garden, with my dad’s old car waiting for him to fix it. I opened the door and walked through the living room into the kitchen. Everything was the same. Mum’s ashtray full of butts on the side counter. The washing up done. Clean and tidy. The bathroom was next to the kitchen. I went in and turned on the taps. Smoked one of mum’s butts while the water filled the bath.
At least they’re safe. That was what I thought. The badgers were safe. I didn’t go back. I was too human after that. Too clean.

Heidi James’ novel Wounding will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2014. Her novella The Mesmerist's Daughter (published by Apis Books) was launched in July 2007. Her novel Carbon, was published by Blatt in October 09 and is published in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre.  Carbon is currently being made into a film by British film company, Institute for Eyes. She has collaborated with artists including Delaine LeBas, Gwyneth Herbert, Mike Chavez Dawson, Marisa Carnesky and Tara Darby. Her essays and short stories have appeared in various publications and anthologies including Dazed and Confused, Next Level, Flux, Brand, Mslexia, Another Magazine, Undercurrent, 3:AM London, New York, Paris, Dreams That Money Can Buy, Full Moon Empty Sports Bag, etc. She has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature.

Image credit: Tom Medwell.

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