The Woods – Julian Manthorne

We walked carefully through the woods, lurching at the sound of squirrels rushing through the brush overhead. I caught sight of one sitting on a thin spruce branch, quivering. I tapped your arm and pointed, keeping quiet so I wouldn’t scare it. You caught a quick glance of its red fur before it skittered away.

“Wow. Those are endangered, you know?”

“Squirrels?”

“Red ones.” you said. I was skeptical.

“Why?” I asked. I thought maybe they were more obvious to predators.

“They’re hunted for their fur.” you said, making a disgusted face. 

“Oh,” I said, looking at my feet.

You were thirteen and I was twelve, except when we were in the woods. We had decided that in the woods, age doesn’t really matter, since there are no clocks or calendars to mark the passage of days. My black and white sneakers crunched on the layer of pine needles and twigs that covered the uneven ground. My socks had tiny burrs clinging to them, and scratches dotted my bare shins. You were wearing a yellow rain poncho, “because the weatherman said it would rain”, and a faded denim baseball cap. Your ponytail was fed through the adjustable part and it swayed from side to side like a swing as you walked confidently across the makeshift bridge we built five summers ago. I was watching the quick clear stream and almost tripped over my own feet as I crossed. I caught myself and you didn’t notice. You were already five feet ahead, climbing the hill, talking about how there are more shades of green than there were shades of any other colour.

You stopped at the top of the hill and looked back, your face stretched into a mockery of The Scream, complete with your hands on your cheeks. I grinned, bounding up beside you. But you didn’t smile back, and a second later, I saw why. Below us, a snare was strung between two trees. Trapped in the wire was a large pheasant, with brown feathers across its back and wings and purple ones circling its neck.

“Oh no,” I breathed, feeling a little sick. The bird was struggling more since it had noticed us.

“Do you think it’s injured?” you asked. I looked at the mass of brown and purple and tried to decipher how exactly it had become tangled in the wire, but I couldn’t tell because of all the feathers. There were more on the ground around it and on the trees on either side. I decided that it had pulled them out trying to get free. A few were dotted with red specks.

“Yeah,” I said, taking an involuntary step back. “I think we should get someone to help.”

She raised her eyebrows, “Like your dad? Or mine?” My dad was flat on his back right now, finishing a twelve pack of beer and watching the football game. His last words to me before I left the house had been “Stop blocking the TV.” Your dad was out golfing in Ash Hill Links, 40 miles away.

I shook my head. “What about Mr. Goodwin?” He was an old man who lived next door to me. Whenever we went into the woods, we had to cut through his backyard.

“He’s probably the one who set the trap in the first place,” you said.

“He’s not.”

“Why not?”

“He’s too old,” I said. Mostly, I didn’t want to imagine my neighbour as someone capable of this.

“He’s only sixty.”

“I thought he was seventy.”

“My mother said he was born after the war ended,” You answered. I couldn’t argue with that.

“Are we going to do this?” I asked. You took a deep breath and got that earnest look on your face.

“We have to.” You took a few steps toward the pheasant, and I followed tentatively behind. It wriggled and squirmed at our approach, sprinkling more red onto the feathers below.

“Grab it’s neck,” you said. We were standing right next to it now, and it was really putting up a fight. It Probably thought we had come to check the trap, to see if we had caught anything for dinner.

“I really don’t want to,” I said. My hands were balled up in fists and tucked into my armpits. The air felt cold now, more fall than summer. School had been back in for almost a month, and there were only a few more weekends that we could go out in the woods before it would become impassable with snow. Then, we would have to resign ourselves to sledding and building forts, or more likely spending the afternoons shivering in the hayloft of Bob Hodgekin’s old barn, playing DS games and talking until the sun went down. We were older now, you were a real teenager, and I was almost there. Maybe this would be the winter that we would be bold enough to steal a beer from my dad’s fridge, handing it back and forth between us like a secret, only to end up pouring the last fourth into the hay because we couldn’t stand the taste.

“Carson, grab it’s neck,” you said again. “I’m going to grab it’s body. Make sure it doesn’t peck me.” I uncrossed my arms, and got into position. The pheasant was trying to beat its wings, but they were tied to his sides. I faked with the left hand to draw its beak, and then sent in my right and grabbed it around the brainstem. You hand both hands on it’s back. It was stomping wildly, but was otherwise immobilized. You started to feel along the right side for where the wire was stuck. I ran my hand along the left, feeling the smoothness of its feathers, and the cold moistness of blood. The wire was cinched around it’s wing, and cutting in.

“Can you hold the neck? I can see where it’s stuck.” I said. You nodded, and took the neck, just below my hand. I tried to loosen the knot on the wire but the pheasant beat it’s wing and swatted it’s neck around, and I lost my grip. The pheasant pulled away from your hand and bit my shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. You grabbed it’s neck again, higher and asked if I could go on. I had tears in my eyes, but I said I could. I took hold of the wing and the wire and began to separate them, having a bit less remorse for the creature than I had before. Once the wire was off, I began to unwind it from the trees until there was enough slack to pull out the pheasant. When it was free of the wire, you let go of it’s neck and we backed up quickly. The pheasant squacked, flapped its wings madly, and then took off, getting as far away from us and the trap as possible.

We turned back home after that, pausing to wash our hands in the cold stream by our bridge. When we built it, we had carved our names on the underside of the last plank. As I pulled my cold, clean hands from the stream, I was overwhelmed with a desire to see those names, and laid down across the narrow bridge on my stomach, leaning my head over the end, careful to keep my feet out of the water. My shoulder was aching and the ends of my hair dipped into the stream, but I craned my neck over a little further.

“Can you see it?” you asked, squatting on the bank.

“Yeah.” It was a little dim, but I could see the scratches. We had cut them deep so they would last for a long time. Maybe one day, if someone pulled the bridge up, say to build a better one, they might see our names and know that we had been here. I took your cold hand and you helped me to my feet. You led the way out of the woods and I followed close behind. Our footsteps were as quiet as the breeze.


Julian Manthorne has been creating short stories and novels for nearly 20 years. When he is not writing, he also enjoys painting, drawing and watching science fiction movies at his home in Halifax. Julian completed his BA in Psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University, and is currently working on a MA at Yorkville University. You can find him at his LinkedIn.