‘Get away from that window!’ She heard her father bark from behind her. She didn’t react at first; she was intent on the treeline, the line that crept so close to their cabin, closer every day it seemed. Tendrils of mist snuck forward as though to grab at the porch light, wreathing around it. The lamp only glowed brighter in the coming dark, turning the mist to an orange haze and revealing those million dancing, falling things that lived in the air.
Her father didn’t ask twice. His hand grabbed her dress and she was yanked backwards. She would have hit the floor if his huge arms hadn’t been there to fall into.
‘What did I tell you?’ Her father said, and she hung her head and looked at her shoes. ‘You only just got in before dark when I told you to come home earlier. And now you’re at the window again. I don’t want you having nothing to do with the outside come evening times. Especially not now it’s September. Alright?’
‘I’m sorry, father,’ she said.
He pulled the curtains closed. ‘Go and play with your brother.’
Mabel nodded and sat down opposite her brother, who was doing weird things with his hands. He stopped and stared at her, and she opened her eyes as wide as they could go – which was very wide indeed – and stared back. This was a game they played often: whoever blinked first lost. It didn’t matter that she always lost, as she did again. Cain never did blink all that much even outside of the game. I blink when you blink, he told her once. That’s why you don’t see me do it.
Mabel picked up her brush and began to brush her black hair in front of the mirror. She heard her father grunt and walk off with his heavy tread on the floorboards, and she knew he was heading to the back of the cabin, to the adjoining woodshed where he did his wood carvings.
She looked at her reflection. Some people said that with her perfectly round face and perfectly straight hair and her large round eyes she looked like one of her father’s wood carvings. A painted doll, but not perfectly painted. There was a black spot underneath her right eye, like a stray drop of paint had flicked off the end of the brush and onto her cheek.
She didn’t think she was a wood carving, not anymore. She had believed when she was younger, though, and her father had been slow to dismiss her of the idea. She wasn’t allowed in the woodshed, but she’d peeked inside once when he was out felling trees; it was where he kept his creations, all his unpainted dolls and statues, his carved bears and miniature trees and his monsters. She’d seen them looking at her, even though most of them didn’t even have any eyes, and she’d quickly run back into her room. She didn’t want to be like them at all.
‘It’s getting late.’ Her Uncle Samson stretched out his legs in the rocking chair by the fire. He’d been quiet for a long time and she’d thought him asleep. ‘Let me tell you both a story while Caleb’s busy.’
Mabel and Cain sat down at his feet in front of the log fire that kept the outside chill almost at bay. Samson opened a book by Atticus, the writer who lived in the town and wrote almost all the books. Most of them were not very long and seemed very improbable, but Mabel understood that was just how books were.
They sat, clutching their knees while their uncle told them the story about a magic device that some people had that could let you talk from one side of the forest to another, all the way across Black Pine Falls. You spoke into it and it sent the words sailing out, and they bounced off every tree, entirely invisible until they reached the other person’s device, where they became sounds again.
‘What about in the White Circle, where there are no trees?’ Mabel asked.
‘That’s when the words fly up and hit the moon,’ her uncle answered. ‘Then they fall back down to the other person.’
‘I don’t believe in magic like that,’ Mabel said.
‘You don’t need to believe in a story,’ her uncle said, closing the book. ‘Stories just are.’
Their father returned then, wiping his brow, and sent them off to bed. He was tucking Cain in when he realised that the curtains to their room had not been drawn. He stiffened and quickly grabbed the sides, but hesitated. He was staring out, out into the darkness. The lamp outside had gone out.
‘Are they out there, father?’ Mabel asked.
‘They’re out there,’ her father replied.
‘Are they still hiding?’
‘No, they’re not hiding anymore.’ He wrenched the curtains closed.
Mabel stared into the candlelight next to her as her father sat down heavily on her bed. He put a hand on her leg.
‘Sleep tight, sleep true,’ he said, in the same low monotone he did every night. Mabel always thought it sounded strange, like some kind of chant. ‘Don’t let the bogeymen get you.’
‘They won’t get me, will they father?’
‘Not if you’re a good girl,’ he said, and left, closing the door behind him.
Mabel watched the guttering candle. Outside she thought she could hear something, a very faint rustling. But it was probably just the wind and the trees.
There is a place called Black Pine Falls. A place where everything looks like a shadow of something else. The trees like tall, stiff men in the dark. A forest of people, hiding in mist. Huge caves like open mouths. Somewhere the rush of water. You might go looking for it. It’ll let you get close. Maybe you’ll hear the faint cries of children. The soft thump of an axe into wood. The smells of life and death and the swampblood. And just when you’re almost on top of it all it’ll be gone in smoke, leaving you with nothing but echoes. The people in the town wipe holes on fogged windowpanes and stare out, at the distant lights of your torches and lanterns. Eventually the lights retreat and go out. You can look as hard as you like. It’ll let you get as close as a whisper in your ear, before there’s nothing, nothing but fog and the clustering trees. It simply isn’t there.