Long ago, in the woods by the glen, a dead body was found.
In a yew tree hollow, a girl was unearthed; had kids not glimpsed her hair whilst goblin hunting, she might have sunk, embedded in deadwood. She wore a crown of nightshade flowers and in her hands dark berries decomposed.
‘Be careful’, Aunt Lilac said, retelling the tale. ’Be careful of wild or unripe fruit. It can be toxic.’
As a grocer’s daughter, this worried me.
‘But what killed her?’ I asked. ‘Did she mistake bilberry for nightshade? Or get tricked? Or have a death wish?’
‘Perhaps all three’, she said.
The girl was found before the war, before the time of evacuees. She remained unidentified. She just slipped and fell into legend, curled in the heart of a living tree, resurrecting as a cautionary myth about the glen.
We when arrived, Lilac showed us the chalybeate spring, and spun yarns about trees in the grove. By the yew was a wych elm whose bark cured toothache and a birch whose sap made wine. But about the splintered ash she told some curious lore – that it had the power to heal the sick; that if they were hauled through the split before it was tied, as the tree healed so would they. On hearing this, my sister’s mouth fell open. She touched the broken trunk with enthralled fingertips and, on that day, an aim hatched in her mind and took flight, like the flying ants which chose that moment to rise up from the earth and swarm.
One evening, against an amber sunset, she escaped through the back door and vanished in shadows among the faded fields. I followed her pale swinging plait, and her limping gait – a remnant from polio, as she negotiated tall crowds of pink willowherb. The air through the meadow was hazy and breathless, floating with thistledown.
She turned by the crossroads, south to the glen, and by the grove I grabbed her.
‘Laura’, I said, ‘you’re not allowed to wander out this late alone’.
Her expression was flat, unreadable like a pebble smoothed by the sea. She blinked in my direction then around at the woodland, at the monstrous cables of roots and fallen trunks rotting under liverwort and lichens.
‘This place is old’, she said, ‘so old that druids sacrificed here’.
My laughter chimed in the canopy of leaves.
‘Who on earth told you that?’ I said. ‘Lilac?’.
‘A boy’, she replied. ‘And he told me a secret – that goblins trade here at night’.
I exhaled a long sigh.
‘Don’t tell fairy stories’, I said. ‘Act your age’.
I felt a stab of remorse so I rearranged my face.
‘Alright then,’ I said, grinning, ‘what would you buy or sell to goblins?’.
Her brow creased with earnest thoughts.
‘I’d buy healing’, she said. ‘For me and for us all’.
A hush descended. The gurgling brook at the edge of the glade swelled in a hypnotic lull and I saw blue damselflies dart from the rushes and skim the surface.
‘Once upon a time’, I said, ‘the iron spring here was a wishing well. Just drinking from it grants any kind of wish’.
We trod the few paces to cup our palms and taste the rusty water. Into its depths she beamed a rare smile.
‘Lizzie,’ she said, ‘you can only hear goblins if they call your name.’
I cocked my ear in pantomime, with a finger pressed against my lips.
‘They don’t want me’, I said. ‘But how about you? Is your name being called?’
There was a pause; then by way of reply, her features clicked back into a doll-like mask. She pivoted abruptly, her plait flailing like a rope at sea, and ambled home in a faraway absence, so I found myself following her shadow again.
The next day, an incident occurred. Aunt Lilac was spraying infested fruit trees – she’d left her Victory Garden too late that first summer of the war. Mulberries had shrivelled and plums mummified on the stem and all were dusted in a patina of disease which meant there’d be no harvest.
Laura crumpled in a fit of sobs. Her eyelids fluttered in despair.
‘But I need fruit,’ she said, ‘or I’ll suffer more illness’.
From the end of the garden, Lilac (who wasn’t our real aunt) huffed and muttered that we should all just soldier on, however fragile we were.
So before things turned sour, I leapt into a practiced repertoire of distraction.
‘Here’s a funny story’, I said, flinging out my arms like a comedian we once saw in a music hall. Among the garden gnomes, I strutted a song and dance.
‘Laura’, I warbled, ‘I say, Laura – did you know that too much fruit can actually be bad?’
She swabbed her wet lashes, frowning.
‘It’s true’, I crooned. ‘Did you ever hear of the girl who ate so much fruit that seeds hatched inside her? She grew blossom out of her ears, and leafy branches for limbs…’
I clowned, aped and winked, and the tantrum diffused. But later, when we were darning, Laura asked if it could really be true, because some old trees have eyes in the bark, or teeth embedded, so could it mean someone was trapped inside?
‘Just because there’s a daft story’, I said, tutting, ‘it doesn’t make it real’.
She suspended her needle mid-air, caught between stitches as she considered this.
‘But I’ve seen faces in trees’, she said, ‘faces which spoke’.
The afternoon was overcast: a low fog crept uphill from the sea and the sky turned pewter. It was only when daylight failed that I noticed Laura was gone, so I strode across the meadow and down towards the glen, knowing where she might be.
The track through the woods smelt of pungent night, like the dank sly scent of foxes. Glancing above, boughs loomed huge against the oncoming dusk. As I passed, overgrown gorse and brambles snatched. Undergrowth rustled and snuffled; shadows expanded. Something, probably a glow-worm, glimmered in my peripheral vision. I sung Laura’s name just to hear my own voice.
I planned to wield a stern upbraiding – that we should show more respect. But when I reached the brook, she wasn’t there wandering the bank. I bit my lip then yelled her name. I listened to secretive replies from deep in the woods – chirping, squalling, flapping wings. I bellowed again, hearing my voice absorb and dissipate. I sharpened my ear for an answer but there was a sudden, profound silence.
But then I heard it – a swishing and splintering of twigs. I veered off the path to the grove, stumbling and huffing. Silhouettes reared up in the gloom. Arms outstretched, feeling for clues, I collided with her. She was hanging from a low branch, struggling and thrashing, cracking the wood. Seed heads and insects showered down as I seized her arms, trying to ascertain what was wrong, where she was tethered, and why.
‘My hair’, she said, ‘something’s grabbed my hair’.
Reaching above, I felt her plait knotted with twigs. I tugged. Due to the blackout, I had a pocket torch for emergencies so I flipped it on. In the spectral light, I saw her hair had been tied to the branch using bindweed and honeysuckle.
‘Who did this?’ I said, feeling my cheeks flame and my voice rise. ’I’ll kill them’.
I illuminated her face. Her lower lip was smeared crimson; there were blood spatters over her cheek. Her eyes were glazed. Flicking my penknife, I sawed at the tangles. I finally freed her, leaving strands on the twigs fluttering like ghostly pagan offerings.
As night closed in, I dragged her back to the path but she begged me to slow down.
‘Something incredible happened’, she said.
She chattered, as though recalling a lost dream, and as we neared the open field, under a luminous moonrise, with rare fluency she told the strangest tale.
As she’d sat by the tinkling brook, Laura heard a voice call her name. It sang out from the grove, from the yew’s hollow. As she’d approached in the twilight, foliage had glimmered. In the underbrush by the tree’s base, tall stalks of ferns and horsetail rippled in the windless air. And as she’d watched, they’d unfurled their fronds, back and forth in a hypnotic whorl, forming faces which opened their eyes and blinked.
More jostled out from inside the hole. Green slinking figures hid within the vegetation. They wore masks of leaves, snail shells and feathers, each like an animal – she saw weasels, hares, badgers and little owls, all grinning. Around them was an uncanny light: a green aura which illuminated what they were carrying.
When they spoke, it was together in a chorus of silvery chanting. Their voice purred like a breeze through wild grasses gone to seed. They asked if she wanted to buy from them. She replied she had no money. They seemed to ponder, leering; then they suggested that she could pay with a lock of hair, which was fair currency because it was fair hair. She agreed and they shimmered their leaves.
‘We heard your wish’, they said in sad reverence, and with a dramatic flourish, they revealed a platter of fresh fruit.
All of her favourites were there, all impossibly ripe. The fragrance was exquisite. It stabbed her with searing nostalgia for Spitalfield’s market: for her childhood home, now forever lost. She tasted and swooned, and ached from remembrance. Her lifeforce rose up and yearned. She savoured mouthful after mouthful of sweetness until she slumped; then she’d woken up tangled in vines.
Laura finished her story as I unlatched the garden gate.
My attempt to sound calm bordered on frenzy.
‘Nightshade’. I said, ‘It has shiny berries: they taste bitter then sweet but they’re deadly poisonous. Laura, I must know what you’ve eaten.’
‘Are you not listening?’ she said. ‘I ate figs, dates, greengages, melon…’. She reeled off a list of produce as I fumed.
I argued that there was little chance they’d be available in wartime Sussex; that no-one could’ve walked up from the glen out of uniform because the area was strictly out of bounds – the pathways from the beach were being mined in case of invasion.
But she claimed that none of these caveats applied to goblins.
‘Tomorrow’, she said, ‘you’ll believe me tomorrow because I’ll show you’.
I bristled in silence. There was no point disagreeing with her logic.
Laura wasn’t hungry at supper. Again and again, she’d assured me her stomach felt normal, as was her temperature when I checked it. But she was tired and fell asleep early. For a long time, I sat in our room wondering what to do. Aunt Lilac was out at a meeting. With the light off, I peered through the blackout curtains into blue midnight. I saw a shooting star – probably artillery fire at sea; and when I finally got into bed, I lay awake listening to the tap of a Death Watch beetle deep in the rafters. Knuckling salt tears, I wished us away – I wished us home again and in the past: an impossible wish.
At sunrise, Laura seemed fine. We busied ourselves in the house and garden – weeding the allotment, feeding the chickens. If anything, she seemed more animated than usual: brighter. But countless times I caught her glaring at the clock and biting her lip, impatiently waiting for sunset, unable to focus on anything else.
Anxiety buzzed in my ribs like a hive of bees. I sharpened my penknife, as I just didn’t know what to expect in the glade. If it was local kids bullying evacuees, I intended to fight them. When evening finally came, we set off across the hill. The air was sultry and the meadow billowed with umbrels of yarrow and ragwort. As we trod, nightjars swooped over the field. We turned down to the glen and the temperature dropped. I rubbed my bare arms.
At the grove, Laura’s hair had vanished from the twigs and in its place were wisps of cobweb. She pointed out where a sea of ferns had come alive; there were indentations but only where she may’ve trampled the foliage. I searched the hedgerow for blackberries but they were mostly small and unripe. I traced the area for clues as to what she may have eaten.
As we waited for twilight, I stood sentry. I had a crawling sensation we were being watched. As shadows lengthened, she asked again and again, ‘Can you hear them?’.
Every time, I obediently cocked my ear to forest sounds but heard nothing strange.
As the light failed, Laura paced through the leaf litter, biting her thumb nail.
‘I need more of that fruit’, she said. ‘I desperately need it’.
She lunged past me towards the yew, thrashing undergrowth aside; she bent to enter the mouth of the hollow but I grabbed her wrist.
‘Stop’, I said. ‘If anyone does it, it’s me’.
The hole was craggy and misshapen, as though the bark had melted like wax. The space inside was large enough to sit in. As I crouched, my torchlight picked out twisted cables of trunk which reached up into the crown above, and below into the earth.
‘What can you hear?’ she asked.
Inside, I honed my senses – I picked out echoes of chittering magpies, cawing jackdaws and a shrill pink of a blackbird call from deep within the copse. But as I pivoted to shuffle out, I caught something else, as though a radio dial had tuned through static, catching a snatch of garbled speech. For a second, the throats of woodland birds had chanted a familiar sound – my own name.
My brow slithered cold. I swallowed and for a moment, couldn’t breathe. My heart thumped in the hollow. But then I heard her scream. I tumbled backwards into ferns, scrabbling up again as I felt for my knife. I bellowed a warning shout to whatever was there and lurched towards my sister. She was clutching her ears in panic.
‘What?’ I said, cupping her face. ‘What has happened?’
‘I can’t hear’, she screeched, ‘I’ve gone deaf’.
As the light faded, I tried clapping, and snapping my fingers, but she said it all sounded lost and faraway. I was just about to march her home when something flit the other side of the glade, from the path to the quarry. A boy was watching us. I saw the last light of day reflect off his glasses.
‘Oi’, I yelled, but he’d run off.
On that second night, I hauled Laura back across the faded fields. She couldn’t hear with clarity, nor recognise the landscape. She had difficulty speaking and her limp deteriorated. When I put her to bed, she reared up in anguish, and bawled.
I had to ask Lilac for help. She brought a nurse who prodded Laura, tapped her back, looked down her throat, but nothing new was diagnosed except for malnutrition, which was already known. We were both given bottles of fortified milk – an unpleasant gloop with a bitter aftertaste.
With brisk sympathy, the nurse said, ‘If she needs a day’s bed rest, let her have it. But don’t encourage silly fantasies’.
After she’d gone, Laura lay frail as a ragdoll. Her hair, once a honey gold, was now ragged and dull.
‘It makes sense’, I said gently, ‘that you’d dream of fruit – because it reminds us of home: of Grandma, of Dad.’
She pursed her lips.
‘I know you don’t believe me’, she said, ‘but I do have proof’.
She reached beneath her pillow and withdrew a peach kernel.
‘I kept it’, she said, tracing her finger over the gnarls. ‘Plant it – surely fruit still grows in war?’
I explained the logic of how long it would take to root then grow, but the idea of cause and effect seemed lost.
‘Don’t let me die’, she said.
She trailed off in silent tears, her teeth chattering, so I put my arms around her.
In the morning, I worked hard to make up for her absence from chores. When afternoon came, I planned to scrump fruit in private gardens, pretending I’d found it at the grove, but Aunt Lilac told me the area was now blocked off with rolls of barbed wire, that the whole woodland was now out of bounds.
‘Strictly no trespassing’, she said. ‘You could be shot by the Home Guard’.
It rained that evening and an oppressive veil of gloom descended.
The next day I resolved to trace the boy we’d seen. I trawled the usual haunts. Our school had been requisitioned and most children evacuated again, but Laura hadn’t been fit to travel; so the vicar taught us some days but others we roamed. I eventually spotted the boy in the graveyard, sitting on a stone tomb reading a book.
I grabbed him by the collar and shoved him off his seat.
‘Why were you spying on us in the woods?’ I said.
He scrambled in the dust, as skinny and stunted at Laura, and it was then I realised he wasn’t a boy at all. An owlish girl with pixie hair and a grubby flustered face blinked up at me. When she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, I saw her hands were lurid with burns.
‘I…I just wanted to warn you’, she said, ‘that the thing you heard – it’s dangerous’.
I lowered my fists, disarmed.
‘Why dangerous?’ I said. ‘My sister…she heard…’. I hesitated, unsure how to explain.
But she finished my sentence with grim conviction.
‘Your sister’, she said, ‘heard goblins call her name. I know that because it happened to my sister too’.
Under a conifer, we sat side by side. Her name was Lois and her sister had died in the snow.
‘Lottie found wild food in the woods’, she said, ‘in the dead of winter. Trying to find it again, she got pneumonia. When she talked about goblins in the glen, how I wish I’d listened now’.
I recounted Laura’s tale of vegetation coming alive.
‘They prey on girls,’ she said, ‘I’m not sure why; but it’s the reason I dress like this now. I searched for them afterwards. I tried to set them on fire’.
She waved her hands, mottled with leathery scars.
‘They don’t burn or bleed’, she said, ‘but they do have a strange vulnerability’.
She held up the book she’d been poring over. It was slim, with an embossed hard cover, foxed pages and a broken spine.
‘I’ll fight them,’ I said, gritting my teeth, ‘just tell me how’.
She pondered this, her dark eyes grave.
‘I can’t accompany you because they know me,’ she said. ‘But the route to their circus is through the hollow yew and wishing is the key. Make a binding deal, and when they agree, force them to release Laura or you’ll threaten to read…’
At that moment, we were interrupted and Lois stopped dead. The vicar’s wife appeared at the railings, flapping in a raincoat. She summoned her home.
Lois stepped forward, beaming, as though to embrace me with friendliness, but as she did, she whispered in my ear the oddest thing. Then she said ‘Good luck’ and, before leaving, in a secretive gesture pressed the book into my hands. I smuggled it home.
Back at the cottage, Laura lay, neither asleep nor awake. She hadn’t touched the bread and butter I’d left, and her skin had developed a cracked peeling rash. It had spread in patches over her body. Aunt Lilac gave me some calamine lotion. I sat on the bed’s edge with a fretting sense of doom.
Downstairs in the kitchen, over a supper of spam fritters and soup, as I ate, I digested recent events with a baffled frown, so much so that Lilac enquired if I felt ill too. In reply, I asked to hear more stories about the glen and particularly if she knew anything of note on the subject of goblins.
Unflappable, but rather hard of hearing, she said, ‘Gremlins? Yes, dear – they’re nasty buggers. But it wouldn’t be wartime without them, even though they sympathise with the enemy.’
She whinnied a horsey chuckle.
‘But’, I said, making an effort to sound casual, not obsessive, ‘but how do you defeat them?’
She shook her head sagely and her pin curls jiggled.
‘Well, you never do’, she said. ‘You just have to be cleverer, and confound them with their own sabotage’. She tapped the side of her nose with a long artistic finger.
‘You must be a gremlin to the gremlins’, she said, and returned to her soup.
I thought about this advice long into the night, and I was up and dressed before dawn. I packed my school satchel with supplies and weapons, and swung it across my shoulder along with my obligatory gas mask.
‘I’ll fight them,’ were my last words to Laura’s sleeping form as I kissed her brow goodbye.
Sunrise streaked in pastel shades as I crept across the hill keeping close to the thicket to evade being spotted, as what I planned to do couldn’t be explained. By the crossroads, a barbed wire fence stretched along the track, so I had to find a new access point. There was an oak with a branch over the path, its trunk choked with ivy. I tugged out vines, hauling myself up, and soon I was clear of the barricade, dropping into woods on the other side.
Crunching acorns underfoot, I threshed through a tangle of saplings. I side-stepped rocks fleeced with moss, and fallen timber rotting with chanterelles. A faint trickle of water signalled the way, as did maps of silvery snail tracks. Overhead, the sky wisped in pale aquamarine. I heard birdsong but met nothing except for speckled butterflies spiraling in dapples of light.
Hacking a gap into the grove, I strode towards the yew, parting low branches then squeezing inside. Cross-legged on bark chips and splinters, I sat in the hollow facing the central heartwood, impatient for something to happen.
I waited. Earwigs and woodlice squirmed in the decay. Scanning the crooked inner veins, I recalled the unknown girl found here dead. My shoulders slumped at the hopelessness of it. How I wished to see Laura thrive, and how guilty I felt that she didn’t, now we were alone. Stinging tears streaked my lashes. They welled and skewed my eyesight into strange refractions; and it was then, through double vision, that I became aware of a strange emerald glow.
It radiated from behind me, through the hole’s opening, so I backed out into foliage. The glade had transformed, as though a veil of green gauze had fallen. The ordinary track had misted and dimmed. Ahead glimmered a new trail – a tunnel of trees cut into unknown forest. A narrow footpath stretched into the distance lined on either side by foxgloves and wolfsbane. The only sound was my own breath. All around lulled in hush.
I set my shoes walking. Gleams of light fell through the canopy in geometric shafts and prisms so vivid that I lowered my eyes. I tramped in monotony and yawned, feeling my eyelids droop. When I raised them again, the path had gone.
What stood before me was a crumbling sandstone wall – a dilapidated ruin. Clumps of daisy fleabane engulfed the bricks, and spilling over the topmost slabs were cultivated fruit trees. I saw cherries and apricots, all with a heavy harvest.
I cleared my throat and called a greeting. My words chimed and hung in the air. I was just about to go either right or left to search for a gate when I heard scraping. A section of brick was heaving outwards, revealing a crack of hidden doorway. I passed through it.
Inside was an orchard – a chaos of trees and grapevines scrambling up pergolas and frames in a landscape otherwise abandoned. Overhead was a hazy sea-green light. I stepped onto broken paving and followed it. On the horizon, a panorama of hills rolled, and beyond them lay a flat turquoise sea. It was familiar and yet unrecognisable, like a dream of a dream of a dream.
I called out again, and the wind picked up. A sudden brisk plume rustled the vegetation. In my peripheral vision, a gleam sparkled, and I took it to be a sign.
‘Good folk’, I said in a bold voice, ‘please sell me some fruit’.
I flung my arms wide in a gesture of candour and revolved a full circle seeking acknowledgement but none appeared. Silence was my answer.
So I reached into my bag to withdraw my purse of change. I held it aloft. Confident now this was a silly game, I cooed in a sing-song patter:
‘Hello? I plan to purchase a punnet of peaches – I’m promptly presenting payment’.
I grinned and bowed to an unseen audience. I dropped copper coins – the money landed on the path with a tinkle. Then I tiptoed towards the trees.
A sudden blast of wind swished every leaf and branch, as though something invisible had swooped in and landed. In a second gust, foliage rose up from the earth and waved. Fronds and tendrils snaked towards my shins. All around my scope of vision, shades of greenness swirled in a lurid blur. I gasped and screwed my eyes shut. When I’d opened them again, my hosts had appeared.
Eyeing me from undergrowth were faces. All wore elaborate masks with furry or feathery animal features, both native and exotic. I stepped backwards to find them behind me too, crowding in from all angles. Their mouths were set in a smirking leer. Their eyes were glassy, with slit horizontal pupils, like goats. They radiated a strange phosphorescent glow.
‘Good folk’, I said, gushing with mock joy. ‘How nice to finally meet you’.
I felt fingers of the wind snag the roots of my hair.
‘So’, I said, a smile glued to my lips, ‘may I take a punnet? Is the money enough?’
They answered together, in unison, in a voice like the hiss and suck of the tide on a pebble beach, on a fickle day when a deluge threatens.
‘Eat with us’, they said. ‘Come to our market’.
With leafy limbs they gestured, so I turned and saw the view had changed.
The hills behind had darkened: an indigo storm was brewing over the English Channel. Strange lights blurred on the horizon and, as I blinked, something morphed into focus. A funfair was twinkling in the distance, with a vintage merry-go-round, and a ferris wheel overlooking the cliffs. The sea beyond reflected the wild sky. Strings of fairy lights winked in a soporific ripple and on the dense air, I smelt toffee apples and candy floss, and heard the nostalgic piping dirge of a fairground organ.
My head whirled. I took a moment to bolster my resolve before facing them again.
As expected, they now offered up a huge golden dish of luscious ripe fruit, cooing with honeyed encouragement, begging me to taste. I exhaled a long sigh of bittersweet fatigue then set my plot in motion.
‘No’, I said briskly. ‘Let’s do business.’
From my satchel I whipped out a notebook and pencil. There was a sudden stillness and a palpable hush as I flipped it open. With a broad proprietorial smile and a patronising air, I delivered my first assault.
‘Now’, I said, ‘I was brought up buying and selling fruit. So, for my accounts, may I please take your name so I know to whom I’m paying for goods and services, and I’ll write a receipt like my Dad taught me.’
My beam widened as a flurry of surprise billowed the faces. As moments ticked, they consulted each other in urgent murmurs. My smug bravado increased.
‘Is there a governor among you?’ I said in a sharp tone. ‘May I please take their name?’
Their collective voice, now hesitant, susurrated the foliage.
‘True names’, they said, ‘true faces – all secret’.
‘Well’, I said, tutting, ‘that’s rather cowardly in wartime. In fact, I think it’s downright lily-livered and spineless’.
I shoved the notebook back in my bag and snatched my identity card, which I waved.
‘Are you enemy spies?’ I said, raising my voice to shrillness. ‘If you’re not cowardly traitors, then prove it by showing your real faces’.
In reply, a squall of wind lifted vegetation in the orchard. It streamed upwards, flailing and flapping in all directions. There was flustered chaos, then foliage spiraled off them in a cyclone of swishing leaves. Revealed underneath were oily creatures with grey scaling snakeskin. They were lashing their tails and splaying their claws.
The wind screamed a battle cry and the landscape tipped sideways as they all rushed me at once.
In the seconds before I’d spat the final insult, the gas mask was in my grip. I thrust it on as they attacked, dragging it up over my chin, tightening the straps. I toppled over like timber in a hurricane under the force of thrashes and smacks, and scrabbled in the dirt as they pelted me with missiles, yanking my hair, shrieking in my ears; but what they were chiefly trying to do was prise off the mask with their talons and force feed me fruit.
As I rolled in a blood bath of smashed pulp and pips, I thought of Spitalfield’s Market and its Pearly Kings and Queens: its grocers and hawkers, barrow boys and flower girls. How they’d bawl and guffaw at the idea of losing a fruit fight: losing any bloody fight. Inside my gas mask, I roared, and I rose up swinging fists like a bare-knuckle boxer. As I punched and kneed and thumped, they wheeled in all directions like puppets.
I reached into my satchel for the final bombshell. My fingers closed upon Lois’s book. I thrust it out with the cover facing forward, wielding it like a holy relic to vampires.
They stopped dead, then issued a gnashing wail. They slithered and squirmed together like fishing bait.
I slid up my mask.
‘I have in my hand’, I said, ‘a weapon which harms goblins’.
They whimpered and whined, all eyes on the book.
‘Give me the antidote for Laura’s illness or I’ll unleash it’, I said.
They froze in panic, and gawped as I opened the frontispiece.
With theatrical bluster, I read aloud the title page – “British Women Poets of the Victorian Era”.
There was a cacophony of screaming.
I yelled, ‘What dreadful monsters you must be, if you fear poetry’.
They conferred in a squealing frenzy, then stuttered, ‘Don’t r-r-rhyme words’.
‘Grant my request’, I said, ‘and I won’t r-r-rhyme words’.
There was a tense pause, then they made a declaration.
‘We agree’, they said, ‘agree to grant you wishes’.
‘Wishes?’, I said, huffing. ‘But I only want one’.
‘But’, they replied, ‘wishings always come in threes’.
They trooped under the orchard branches and flew into action. There was sawing, brewing, hammering and whistling. Fruit was juggled high and tossed about. Their paws moved in a swift flurry and a faint green smoke rose from the speed.
Finally, they scattered. I was approached with fearful reverence and one of them dropped an object by my feet then crawled away like a mollusc. It was a receptacle that fit in my palm: a bottle made of wood with a greenish iridescent sheen.
‘So’, I said, eyeing them with suspicion, ‘how does it work?’
‘Just wish’, they replied. ‘Use all three today – or they’ll go off’.
‘What I want’, I said, aware that careful wording was crucial, ‘is for Laura to enjoy perfect health, for the rest of her life, which will be long and happy.’
‘It will be so’, they replied in a raucous din like the squawking of parrots.
‘And’, I said, ‘there’s a girl called Lois: her sister died. Can she be returned to life – in perfect health?’.
‘No’, they answered. ‘Dead is dead. But new sisters can be made’.
I pondered this, surprised by their honesty. Then something else occurred to me.
‘We’re at war’, I said. ‘Can you attack enemy pilots? Can gremlins be sent to destroy enemy aircraft?’
They consulted each other in a discord of babbles, then finally replied.
‘Don’t know’, they said. ‘Never been asked’.
There was silence; so I deemed the conversation finished.
‘Should this be a trick,’ I said, ‘I will return and detonate you. Have we got a deal: a binding agreement?’.
‘Deal’, they said, ‘Nice little girl. Deal’.
Stowing the bottle in my bag and still with the book in my grip, I shuffled backwards to the opening in the wall. They waved goodbye with bizarre politeness and, in my last glimpse, I saw them kicking their fruit around like footballs, leaping and prancing.
Off I hurried, back along the way I’d come, concerned I was being shadowed but every glance over my shoulder caused the landscape to smear and dissolve, like a wet watercolour left out in drizzle. I fixed my eyes ahead, through the tunnel of forest with its prismatic light. As I passed, the foxgloves and wolfsbane chimed with the faintest knell.
I walked, then sprinted, then walked, desperate to leave. At last, I saw ahead of me the familiar grove. I shuffled into the yew’s hollow and collapsed in leaf litter, leaning on the inner trunk. I realised this could’ve been the fate of the dead girl found here, that after making deals with goblins, maybe she couldn’t get home alive.
Just the thought of home prickled my eyes. I focussed hard on the wish I’d made for Laura’s recovery of health: a health she’d never truly possessed. I imagined the dread of facing life without her: entirely alone. In sheer exhaustion and misery, I hugged my knees and sobbed.
I drifted into oblivion; I floated faraway over other worlds. When I next lifted my lids, a fox was watching me with shrewd amber eyes. From the entrance, mellow sunlight streamed through summer leaves. I emerged into afternoon, with pathways in the right place. Looking down, I seemed normal despite the dirt: my dress was torn, my arms and legs scraped with bites, bashes and stings.
Following the trail hacked before, I hurtled through woodland. Fallen trunks and mossy boulders assured me of the way. Soon I was scrambling up the twisted ivy.
When I jumped down over the fence, my heart raced with expectancy: with hope. I strode along the trackway, turning at the crossroads. But on the edge of the meadow, surveying the view, something seemed different: something seemed wrong. The nearby farm was shut, with its barn doors locked. No land girls wielded pitchforks in their dungarees, no milkman clinked on his rounds, no postman grumbled on his bicycle.
I charged across the fields. From the cobalt sky, distant thunder rumbled in the cloudless blue, and I peered upward, scanning the vista. As I did, my foot caught something hidden in the heather and I tumbled.
Flat on my back, it occurred to me that the sky wasn’t quite right. I wriggled over to what I’d tripped on. It was a body – someone lay face down in long dry grass. With crawling dread, I held my breath as I rolled them over. It was Laura, deadly still, chill to the touch, her skin mottled and flaking with a feathery rust-coloured rash.
Clutching her shoulders, I shook: I pleaded. Against her ribs, I listened for a heartbeat. But all I heard was a low drone of reverberation, a dangerous hum, like a legion of disturbed wasps chirring.
Then everything happened at once. Out of the thicket’s shade, Lois bolted in breathless panic.
‘I chased her…’, she said. ‘…I tried to drag her back…because…’.
Then Laura stirred: her eyes clicked open. She said, ‘Lizzie – where have you been? Your story’s come true. Look – I’m growing bark: I’m turning into a tree…’
From my bag, I grabbed the goblin bottle; I yanked the lid and sniffed the contents. It had a feral sharp scent – fungal and primordial .
‘Girls’, I said, ‘I have the antidote’.
As I said those words, the sky glowered and darkened. Thundering from the treeline, strafing rooftop low and straight for us was an airplane. My chin plummeted.
In that split second, we had no time. The enemy opened machine gun fire. The earth sparked where bullets struck; they flashed and glittered like fireworks.
The unstoppered bottle teetered and fell. The precious liquid slipped through my fingers as our hair coiled upwards, snake-like in the engine’s wake. The plane bellowed over us, churning the vegetation.
There was the tiniest trickle of fluid still in my palm. It bubbled, dispersing a fizz of iridescent spores. In the eye of the storm, we all saw it froth; we all breathed its last ebb. Afraid to lose that final hope, I froze. Whilst Lois sprang up, tugging my elbow, scanning the sky, ready to run, all I could do was slap my hand over Laura’s mouth. I wrestled on top of her as she thrashed and flailed.
‘You must taste it’, I said. ‘I nearly killed them for this’.
Her eyes widened. I felt her lap, then whine and struggle. I released my grip.
‘It’s foul’, she spat. ‘It tastes like poison’. I heard her retch and splutter.
Despairing, I crumpled in the dirt and sunk into failure.
Lois shrieked, ‘We have to go’.
I felt her seizing hands. She hauled Laura up, and they both plucked at me. I lolled my neck to the side and whispered to the soil.
‘Three wishes’, I said. ‘Three wishes’.
Then I lurched to my feet and we bombed for cover. The hedgerow shadows hid us as we slipped home. Aunt Lilac met us at the gate in a tin hat.
‘My dear girls’, she said, her voice quavering.
We were bundled in the garden air raid shelter until the all clear, and afterwards, there was a chaos of visiting neighbours checking for damage. The doctor was called for Laura, because she writhed and howled with a fever as though demonically possessed. He diagnosed nervous tension, a virus and a bad case of hives. I was too exhausted to grieve my defeat.
But in the morning, everything changed. What I heard first when I awoke was my name being called. From the bedside chair, Laura beamed a weak smile. Her rash had faded to marbling.
‘Lizzie’, she said, ‘I promise I’ll forget fairy tales now. I feel better already’.
For fear of jinxing outcomes, I decided then to keep my wishes secret, because all three were fulfilled in the next hour. As Laura and I hugged, news arrived of Lois. Windows in her house had shattered so she came to stay with us – a camp bed was crammed in our room. She was so overjoyed at having new sisters, her glasses brimmed with tears. Then after breakfast, grapevine rumours leaked that the enemy plane had crashed in the sea. Our lifeboat rescued the pilot, who’d wept with terror telling fishermen what happened. He said his equipment malfunctioned over the glen and the cockpit had filled with little green goblins, who’d bitten him and thrown him out of the sky.
We were evacuated again just weeks after. Due to the coastal raids, we left Hastings for Hertfordshire and all moved to an empty house. Lilac came with us, becoming a leader of the local Women’s Voluntary Service. In the following months, willowy Laura blossomed, as did Lois, to whom we grew attached. We attended school together where we were jovially known as The Three Witches. But this isn’t the end of the story.
Around Christmas, we began to feel ill. We’d felled a baby fir tree which we brought inside and decorated with baubles. We’d cooked seasonal meals with our small increase of rations. But on Christmas Eve all three of us came down with a twisting stomach ache.
‘Perhaps you have parasites?,’ Aunt Lilac called as we traipsed upstairs.
In our shared room, we tried to sleep it off, writhing with spasms and a powerful rising nausea.
The last thing I heard was Lois groan, and Laura say, ‘I feel so sick, I think I’ve turned green’.
I sunk into a stupor. When I next raised my lids, there was a rotten sour smell in the room. The floor was crawling with translucent creatures emitting a faint green glow. They had lashing tails, tiny grasping claws which they splayed upwards, and hungry thirsty eyes.
Lois lunged at them with a fountain pen, but I held her back. Laura fetched the little festive tree and they disappeared into it, hugging the branches and blinking.
We slammed the bedroom door and leaned on it from outside.
‘They tricked me,’ I said.
‘We have to kill them’, said Lois.
‘But aren’t they infants?’ said Laura.
‘No’, we all yelled.
There was a pause then Laura said, ‘But couldn’t they be used for the war effort? They could grant Mr Churchill wishes.’
‘But at a huge cost’, I said, ‘and one we can’t trust or control’.
So on Christmas Day, we vanished in the frosty dawn heaving a nativity box and a book of women’s poetry. We set our burden down by a hollow tree in a graveyard on the edge of town, and in the bleak midwinter sunrise, we prised off the lid.
Clearing my throat, I flipped the pages to a poem – ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti.
I gazed around at my pale sisters, as Laura offered up a prayer for all the suffering in the world, and Lois stood in remembrance of it. I raised up my voice and boomed the first word.
Aviva Treger studied Ancient History at University College, London then later trained as an actor with Questors Theatre in Ealing. She’s recently returned to her home town of Hastings and finds its folklore and seaside landscape to be powerful inspiration for strange short stories.