“Your first time?” the burly man asked.
“Yes, we’re from out of town,” Richard said. His fiancé was clutching his arm. He sensed that she was getting nervous, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.
The burly man stood from behind his desk. “Desk” wasn’t the precise word for it. It was a block of wood, to be more accurate. Everything in the cabin was made out of wood. It did resemble an office, just a little, but Richard wouldn’t have known were it not for the sign.
“So what brings you to the forest?” the man asked. “The art? The trees?”
“He’s here for the art,” Richard’s fiancé said. “I’m just here for the trees.”
“She’s a chemist,” Richard explained. “The rumors about the sap…”
“Right, right, of course,” the man said, nodding along. “Come with me. Either of you have a flashlight?”
Richard hadn’t considered it. It was only a little past noon. “Is it so dark?”
The man sorted through his desk. “I’ve only got the two flashlights. You’ll have to share one of them.”
As the man passed the light to Richard, Richard noticed the thick leather gloves on the man’s hands. They were the sort of gloves that would strangle somebody in a movie. Richard shivered, considering how cold it would be in the forest.
The moment that they stepped out of the office, his fiancé grabbed his arm again. What was she so worried about? They’d looked at all of the pictures online before they’d driven all the way out here. It wasn’t that creepy.
The burly man held his flashlight at his waist, already turning it on. It seemed unnecessary, yet they were only a minute’s walk into the trees when Richard felt he needed to turn his light on as well. The canopy was thick, leaving thin beams of light, beams that were too far apart. It was unnatural.
“The trees are strong here,” the burly man said loudly. His voice should have echoed, but the sound was muffled by the thick air. “These trees grow taller and faster than any in recorded history. This place was noted by the pioneers since as early as 1740.”
As they walked, it got somehow darker. Richard’s fiancé tightened her grip, and he could feel her breath getting heavier. He was tempted to ask the man to slow down, but didn’t intend to interrupt.
“But it’s the carvings!” the man went on. “That’s what really draws people here today. They didn’t start appearing until a little over sixty years ago. Very peculiar. Very peculiar indeed.”
For an instant, the man swung his flashlight back and forth, as if searching for something. He made a grunting sound and kept forward.
“The carvings were first sighted by my grandfather. He’s the man who set up shop here, giving tours. Been passed down the family ever since.”
Richard searched between the trees with his flashlight, hunting for a carving. They had only been walking for three or four minutes, but their car felt like it was miles away. He threw a glance to his fiancé, who seemed to be calming down as she got adjusted, but Richard frowned when he thought that he could see her breath. Was it really so cold? How was that possible? Again, he shivered.
“Here we are!” the burly man announced. The light settled on a wooden pole in front of them. But as Richard grew closer, he saw that it was anything but a pole.
The wooden carving was about five feet tall. It was perfect and precise. It was the shape of a woman, with wide eyes and an open mouth. She looked like she’d been startled by something.
“Hm,” the man said. He swung his light around in a full circle, searching. “Usually this is the second one we find. Must’ve passed the other.”
Richard stepped forward. He felt his fiancé’s arm fall away from his. His pressed the flashlight up against the face of the carving. The detail was incredible. It was as if the woman had been full and alive only a moment ago.
Richard asked, “How was this carving made? With a knife? No chance it was made with a saw.”
The man shrugged emphatically. “That’s the great mystery of it. I’ve seen a lot of wood carvings in my day, and nothing as intricate as this.” His leather gloves tightened on his flashlight, and he cleared his throat. “Take as long as you like, but there’s plenty more to see.”
Richard turned to his fiancé, her arms crossed and her teeth chattering. “No, let’s keep on,” he told the man.
“Alright.” The burly man aimed his light deeper into the trees. “This way then.” He paused, then nodded. “Yes, yes, this way.”
Richard grimaced. This man had better not get them lost.
They had only gone a short distance before they found another one. This carving was a tall man, his arms thrust out as if he’d been sprinting. “It’s amazing,” Richard admitted. He reached out his free hand and ran his fingers along the hair. Then he felt the face, the cold face.
The man took a few steps back, giving him some room. Richard hardly noticed, entranced. There was some magic inside of the wood, and he couldn’t look away. His hand kept moving over the surface, trying to imagine what kind of person was capable of carving this. How long had it taken? How many were out here in this forest?
“Careful,” the burly man said, returning to his side. He fidgeted with his gloves. “Splinters. And there’s lots of sap.”
“Yes, the sap,” Richard remembered. “There was something funny about it, wasn’t there?”
“What’s funny is that it isn’t sap at all. Should be, but it’s over ninety percent water.” He laughed a deep laugh. “Like they’re crying almost.”
Richard didn’t find it very funny. He turned to hand the flashlight to his fiancé, but she wasn’t behind them.
He froze. His light whipped around in the dark. “Ashley?” he called.
The man rotated slowly. “Hm. She didn’t have a flashlight, did she?”
Richard called again. “Ashley!”
The burly man tucked his flashlight under his arm and rubbed his leather gloves together, huffing out the cold air sharply. “Alright,” the man said. “You go that way. I’ll check over there.”
Richard nodded unconsciously. “Yes. Sure.” He cleared his throat. “Ashley!” How could she have gotten lost so suddenly?
The man disappeared into the dark so fast the Richard was sure he’d vanished into thin air. Shaking his head, Richard took cautious steps forward, waving the light around wildly. “Ashley! Ashley!” It was impossible that she had gotten so far that she couldn’t hear him. Then again, he’d noticed how the thick air seemed to muffle sound. There was something wrong with this forest. Something very wrong.
For a moment, he thought he’d spotted her, and Richard’s heart skipped a beat, but it was only another carving. He inched closer to get a better look at it.
Richard felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. The carving looked precisely like his fiancé.
He took another step forward, numb. The face, the hair, the posture, the clothes… Richard’s jaw chattered uncontrollably.
This wooden carving was identical.
There was movement behind him, and Richard swung around. The burly man was there. His breath made a mist in front of him.
“Sorry about this,” the man said.
“How… How is this possible?” Richard stammered. “This carving—” He couldn’t speak. He was petrified.
The man took off one of his leather gloves. Then he stared down at his hand as if he didn’t quite know what is was.
“Look at her!” Richard shouted, but the sound was so swallowed by the forest, it felt like he’d barely whispered.
The burly man stepped up to him, reaching out his bare hand.
Richard glanced over his shoulder, taking one last look at the wooden carving. By the time he’d turned back, the man was inches away from him, his hand at Richard’s cheek.
The man’s bare skin met Richard’s, and Richard felt… wrong. He felt stiff.
He felt like he was solidifying.
The look of panic never left his face.