Written by VeraH
This work was last updated November 8, 2020
There have always been rumours about Engerby Forest. There are always rumours about forests, especially ones like Engerby, where the ferns have swallowed up the trails, and shelves of white mushrooms hang over your head, and old pines rot and creak with the wind. How old Mrs. Rilic can live in that house, in the middle of the forest, I’ll never know, Lola will sigh as she rings up my groceries.
“Excuse me,” says the girl on the sidewalk, reminding me of her question. The fall fog tickles the ends of her hair. “Do you know which is the best trail through Engerby Forest?”
“The forest?” I’ve been raking the leaves in my yard for the past hour, sculpting them into a cone of burnt red and faded yellow, wondering if there are any slugs curled up inside. I would have ignored the girl if I had recognized her, but I don’t – and for Engerby, that’s odd enough. I haven’t seen a new face in a year. And I only see the old ones if I accidentally make eye contact.
“Yup,” the girl says. She slips her mouth into a smile. “I’m Lola’s niece. You know, from the grocery store?”
Lola’s the only person I see nowadays – when I go to buy milk and whatever’s on sale. I rummage through memories, wondering if Lola has told me something about her niece. She always rambles while packing my groceries. I’ve stopped listening.
“I’m staying with her for the fall term,” the niece shares. “Since school is online.”
“I’ve volunteered to deliver groceries to seniors,” she explains. “And Mrs. Rilic is one of
them! Living smack-dab in Engerby Forest.”
“Don’t know how she can stand it there,” I say. It’s just what pops out of your mouth when someone reminds you about the old woman and her old house in the old forest. People have other things to worry about. There was the flood – and all the mosquitoes that came with it. And now, of course, the pandemic. I honestly don’t remember when I stopped working. Gave up.
I tell the girl nobody really goes into Engerby Forest. That makes her laugh and she goes on her way, fog curling around her ankles and kissing her hair. I turn back to my castle of leaves.
Through the badges of dead mosquitoes on my window, I see her every few days, leaves crunching under the wheel of her bike, grocery bags wobbling in the basket. When I get my own groceries from Lola, she says she’s proud that her niece is helping out. Lola’s mask crunches at the skin on her face, and muffles her voice so that it’s even easier to ignore. I ask about Mrs. Rilic.
“Oh, she’s been picking up her groceries from the porch,” Lola says.
“Does she say anything?”
“Oh, no. Quiet sort, you know. By the way, have you found a job?”
I don’t explain that I have simply stopped trying. When I get home, I realize that I didn’t shovel my pile of leaves into a bag. They hang all over the yard, like limp pieces of fabric, bristling with frost. They remind me of the dead mosquitoes on my windows.
I go out less and less. I become an expert at making the contents of my fridge last. Anything to avoid going out. When I do leave for groceries, I hear the forest leaning into the wind.
I’m lying on my couch when someone knocks. Chances are it’s someone I know – and I don’t have the energy to turn down another job offer. What else have you got to do? they’ll say. You don’t even go anywhere. They’ll wrinkle their nose as they peer past my shoulder into my house, see the dirty laundry spilling into the hall. My clothes stick to me, crisp with sweat, and I barely even think about going out anymore.
Another knock. It’s Lola’s niece – she backs away as I open the door. Two metres stretch between us. Six feet. I wish it were more.
“Sorry to bother you!” It’s cold enough for her breath to puff out in spirals. “But I’m going back home tomorrow. To visit my parents.”
Good, I think. But then she says her next sentence.
“Mrs. Rilic needs to get her groceries. Could you please go and drop these off?”
I want to tell her no. Of course not! But somehow, I let her lean the bags against the wall, leave her bike propped against my fence, and race down the street. Her hair bounces against her back. I leave my mouth open for so long that my tongue dries.
How many days can I leave Mrs. Rilic without her groceries? When I pick mine up from Lola, I promise that I already took care of it, in a tiny voice that barely worms through my mask. Instead, I rake up the leaves in my yard and stuff the groceries underneath. I can practically hear the wet swish of slugs slithering in, leaving trails of yellowy, eggy white all over the crumpled plastic. I wonder why I can’t go. How hard can it be, I tell myself, to load the groceries in the bike, pedal over, dump them on the porch?
Days go by. A week. The smell begins to float over my house – moldy milk soaking the leaves, eggs blackening, rotting tomatoes. Reeking of death and sliminess. Oozing out from under damp leaves.
I don’t go out anymore. Not even to the grocery store. When I take a step on my lawn, my shoe squishes into the earth – it’s spongy, moist. I tell myself it’s Engerby Forest that scares me. I dream of it, with its branches rattling, with its roots whispering under the earth, with its mushrooms peeling off trees, leaving chunks of white in my hair. Through the mosquito guts on my windows, I see puddles of grey and brown spill out from under the pile of leaves. The smell has chewed its way through the walls, into the house. I can’t escape it now, as it leaves its putrid breath all over my couch, as it kisses into my pillow and humps the towels in my bathroom. It puts its arms around me and thinks it’s cute when it tickles me.
One night, I dream of Mrs. Rilic’s house. It’s been years since I saw it. Engerby Forest has claimed it: its walls are suffocated by labyrinths of withering vines, its roof lost beneath scales of moss and lichen. I can just make out the porch: there are no groceries. But there is a hunched figure huddling on the top step. Her fingers clutch at air. Her hair shivers to dust as I watch. Her bones suck her skin into them – until she’s nothing but her skeleton, the clacking of her elbows against her ribcage, the grinding of her hips against her pelvic bones, the dripping of her eyes out of their sockets, her teeth dropping from dry gums and clattering against her thighs.
I’m awake and then I’m rushing to the door and through my mosquito-splattered window I can see the pile of leaves and the slugs squelching over the grocery bags. The smell rushes into my mouth and clogs my lungs and I know I need to get to Mrs. Rilic. Maybe I can save her before she starves.
If you just go out, I think, you’ll fix everything.
But it’s been weeks since I left. And even as the sweat of my hand pours over the doorknob, I know I can’t open it. Even as my fingers twitch, I can’t do it. Just as my arm falters, the air is cloven in two by a deafening CRACK.
As though two giant’s hands have flattened the roof, the house caves in around me; the yellowed walls topple over my head, hemming me into a tunnel of brick and curls of peeling wallpaper. Even as I grab at the door, the floor opens up beneath me, a jagged jaw, the carpet its wet tongue. Into darkness I tumble, my screams lost in the belly of the house – it squeezes the space around me, as I tumble and crawl and thrash through passages of black and cold. I feel brick palms scrape my elbows. Wooden claws in my skin. Linen curtains and the leather couch and the black swampy breath of the groceries scuttle over my body. The smell reaches into me as never before – digging into all the angles of me, knitting into my tissue.
The broken house moves and presses around me, like it’s being folded into origami, and I’m chugged through its innards like a rat in a snake. Pushed along through peristalsis – the same way your food goes down your esophagus. The same way it shifts through your stomach. The same way it’s pumped through your intestines. As the house eats me up, I shout: I’m sorry! I can go out! I’ll go out!