In the forest where mushrooms grow, you leave something behind each day.
You hear a rustling in the woods, and you know you aren’t supposed to go there, but you steal away at dusk and give the forest what it wants. Or at least, what you think it wants. A gift, or an offering. To help something, to appease something. You aren’t sure which it is, but you are afraid everything might turn grey if you stop. You’re afraid it might come knocking at your door, demanding, if you don’t visit it first.
You return home as quickly and quietly as possible. Every fall since you can remember, your town isolates itself. No one leaves their home. Everyone has spent the months leading up to the season preparing, stockpiling food and supplies, to make sure they won’t have to leave for anything. Even on good days, there is an undercurrent of fear and unease, and everything is tinted grey.
The town would look abandoned from the outside if it weren’t for the warm glow coming from the windows -cars gather leaves and dust, neighbors open their doors only as much as they need to toss out the trash and hurriedly slam them shut. It if weren’t for the stench and threat of disease, you’re sure they wouldn’t even do that.
This tradition existed since before you were born, since before your mother was born, since before her mother could remember. It’s older than the trees hunching over in the wind outside your window, reaching towards you with their knotted, finger-like branches. It’s old enough that now, no one is entirely sure why they do it.
Each day before dusk, the trees, once lively with greenery and singing birds, now pale and barren as death, bark cracking and splintering like dry skin, whisper to you in raspy voices, hundreds at once, making their words nearly indecipherable. They sound desperate, in need of help, and beckoning.
So, at dusk, you go into the forest where mushrooms grow, and you leave behind a token. The first time, it was a small keychain with your name you bought on a family vacation.
Leaving your name was the first mistake.
The rattling of cupboards and spice racks lets you know when you can sneak out each evening. Amidst the the creeping, tingling feelings that are always ever-present in your spine during this season, there is one thing you can look forward to: dinner. There are no lazy boxed meals, no leftovers -everything is cooked a single serving at a time per person. There isn’t too much to do when you make it a point to not leave the house; taking the time to cook each and every single meal helps fill the days. And, when you’re focused on making a meal without burning the food or setting your home ablaze, it leaves little room in your head to think about what is out there, and why you have to hide.
You slink out your window with a small box of morsels you left untouched last night clasped in your hand. This is what you bring today. You’ve been coming here for weeks now, and you hope you can find enough to bring for the rest of the season.
Dressed all in grey, you walk in as many shadows as possible to avoid being noticed as you make your way into the woods. The rich scents of meats, herbs, spices, and seasonings leaking out from others’ homes fill the air and your nose; wafting from their stoves and ovens and fireplaces, before they are whisked away by harsh and howling winds that sting your cheeks pink. The winds are always the strongest at the tree line.
Once you make your way in, it is calmer, but not reassuring. It’s the type of calm you would have to be if someone broke into your house with a weapon, and you had to hide in the closet as still as possible, stifling the sound of your stuttered breath so you wouldn’t be noticed. It’s the type of calm you would be if you had to play dead to avoid being eaten by a wild animal. It’s the type of calm you would be if you had to stay still so a hornet you got too close to wouldn’t sting you.
You speed up, the ground crunching and crackling beneath you as twigs snap, dead leaves crumble, and dirt clumps are disturbed. Long, spindly branches catch on the fabric of your sweatshirt, as if they are trying to pull you back but their grasps are too weak.
You make it to the large, knotted root where you have left the other things, and you place the few bites of food you brought with you there. Mushrooms have started to grow around your offerings, and you see a few black rocks littered throughout the area. You’re a bit surprised nothing has been stolen by a foraging squirrel or a curious owl. Then you realize, you haven’t seen many animals in the forest since August ended.
You try not to think about it as you leave. Whispers call you back from the root, but you pretend you don’t hear them. You think about what you could bring tomorrow.
At night, you try to think of nothing but your full, warm belly while lying in bed, focusing on the comfort, the warmth, and you try not to glance at the black, fog-like figures lurking outside the window, licking their chops, pressing against the glass.
You dream of everything you could leave in the forest until whatever it is goes away.
More mushrooms have been growing around your offerings, some of them oozing a black, jelly-like substance. You don’t know how many times you’ve come here now. You feel hazy, the days blurring together, everything feeling the same the longer you are trapped in this repetitive cycle. You wonder why, how, you haven’t been taken yet, after all the rumors you’ve heard about what happens to people who leave their house this time of year. You don’t know exactly what happens to them, other than they don’t come back. You’re fairly certain you don’t want to know.
By the time you realize you have already been taken, it’s too late.
You can’t stop leaving the house each night, even though you know the dangers, even though you know you shouldn’t, even when you see the shadows stalking you behind every tree. Your parents look at you like they know, but then avert their eyes and don’t say anything. When you look down at your hands, you look normal. When you look in the mirror, there is an aura of smoke around you. Hollowness in your eyes, bags at your lower lids. You fall asleep to the sound of scritch-scratching at your window, the trees scraping at the glass like they have nails, and the stars twinkling like eyes.
The next night, you leave a piece of your clothing that you ripped off.
After that, you bring scissors and cut a section of your hair.
Now, you go to the forest even though you forgot to bring anything. You trip over the root of the tree where you’ve been placing your offerings and you scrape your knee. While on the ground, you notice the black ooze you thought came from the mushrooms is forming a pattern like a frail canine skeleton. Tonight, you leave blood and skin.
The next morning, you wake up, you carefully wash and get dressed for the last time. You have your last breakfast. Automatically. Trance-like. You don’t wait for night. You leave after breakfast. You walk straight from the table to the front door this time, not even bothering with hiding, with sneaking out your window. Your parents scream and cry at you not to go, but they sound very far away, like the shadows in the forest, and unlike the shadows, they do not dare follow you once you step foot outside the door.
It’s daylight, but not over the forest. It already looks dim there, a perpetual dusk that fades into 3 AM, an ongoing cycle of twilight and midnight.
As you approach the root, you can see that it is moving, slinking. Rolling black mist forms around the jelly-skeleton. It turns and looks at you -the large head of a wolf, with wide, crazed, starved eyes, a drooling tongue, black teeth slick with spit. It’s translucent, and whole, growing, and shifting, alive, and dead.
There was nothing out there in the wood, there was nothing to fear in the autumn, until you fed it, created it, manifested it, brought back its life. Until you listened to its pleas and answered to its will.
And now, you give it your last offering. You thought you were keeping it at bay, you thought you were protecting the others, but you just made it grow stronger. And this, you realize, is why everyone stays in their houses in the autumn. So they don’t risk succumbing to the whispers, falling into the forest’s trance, and accidentally feeding the wolf.
You find yourself unable to move as the shadow, the ghost, whichever it may be, closes in on you, salivating with hunger. Your teeth clench so hard you think they may chip, your lids close so tight you see spots. A piercing scream echoes only in your head, hoping you can drown out what is around you to shield yourself the pain that is to come.
Sharp fangs never pierce your soft flesh and jagged claws don’t pin your body down. Instead, you become enveloped in the thick shadow of the spirit. Reluctantly, you open your eyes to see its jelly-bones wrap around you like an exoskeleton, then harden. Its skull fits over your eyes like a mask, its legs finally form, extending beyond yours, and it carries you within itself in the air. You can’t move. You can’t speak.
It walks out of the forest. It walks you out of the forest. Somehow, darkness has already fallen. You don’t understand how much time has passed. You writhe and wiggle but cannot break free, trapped in the body of the wolf, you feel weaker, your physical fight being drained while your mind panics.
It approaches the first house, breathing heavy, steaming up the air. You see through its eyes. You scream to warn the family inside, but no sound leaves your mouth, silenced by smoke choking your throat. Wood cracks and splinters loudly like breaking bones as the beast tears through the door. The family inside did not escape in time. Unable to break free, unable to shout, unable to fight, you watch as the struggling, fear-stricken family is enveloped in the same thick, expanding fog, and the beast grows. Their energy leaves their bodies and they fall limp. Their skin turns ash-white, sunken areas forming where there was once the plumpness of life, like time is fast-forwarding their death. Yours won’t be as swift.
The wolf spirit will keep you inside it, thankful for you bringing it back after so many long, long years
Hello everyone! My name is Alissa M. Terracciano, and I’m the illustrator, author, and dog mom behind this post, which was inspired by the style I used in my daily Drawtober 2017 drawings. Fandom, mythology, pop culture, and being part of the LGBT+ community has a big influence on my work, which is mostly illustration. You can view my more formal portfolio on Behance, or follow my social media for a more relaxed vibe on Instagram, FaceBook, Twitter, and Tumblr. If you want to support my work, you can buy my art on my newly opened Etsy, or subscribe to my Patreon. Thanks for viewing my work on Gender Terror!