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The Man in the Woods

Wearily, moving his feet because he had nothing else to do, Christopher went on down the road, hating the trees that moved slowly against his progress, hating the dust beneath his feet, hating the sky, hating this road, all roads, everywhere. He had been walking since morning, and all day the day before that, and the day before that, and days before that, back into the numberless line of walking days that dissolved, seemingly years ago, into the place he had left, once, before he started walking. This morning he had been walking past fields, and now he was walking past trees that mounted heavily to the road, and leaned across, bending their great old bodies toward him; Christopher had come into the forest at a crossroads, turning onto the forest road as though he had a choice, looking back once to see the other road, the one he had not chosen, going peacefully on through fields, in and out of towns, perhaps even coming to an end somewhere beyond Christopher’s sight.

The cat had joined him shortly after he entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened. Christopher, when he stopped once to rest, sitting on a large stone at the edge of the road, had rubbed the cat’s ears and pulled the cat’s tail affectionately, and had said, “Where we going, fellow? Any ideas?,” and the cat had closed his eyes meaningfully and opened them again.

“Haven’t seen a house since we came into these trees,” Christopher remarked once, later, to the cat; squinting up at the sky, he had added, “Going to be dark before long.” He glanced apprehensively at the trees so close to him, irritated by the sound of his own voice in the silence, as though the trees were listening to him and, listening, had nodded solemnly to one another.

“Don’t worry,” Christopher said to the cat. “Road’s got to go somewhere.”

It was not much later—an hour before dark, probably—that Christopher and the cat paused, surprised, at a turn in the road, because a house was ahead. A neat stone fence ran down to the road, smoke came naturally from the chimneys, the doors and windows were not nailed shut, nor were the steps broken or the hinges sagging. It was a comfortable-looking, settled old house, made of stone like its fence, easily found in the pathless forest because it lay correctly, compactly, at the end of the road, which was not a road at all, of course, but merely a way to the house. Christopher thought briefly of the other way, long before, that he had not followed, and then moved forward, the cat at his heels, to the front door of the house.

The sound of a river came from among the trees that pressed closely against the sides of the house; the river knew a way out of the forest, because it moved along sweetly and clearly, over clean stones and, unafraid, among the dark trees.

Christopher approached the house as he would any house, farmhouse, suburban home, or city apartment, and knocked politely and with pleasure on the warm front door.

“Come in, then,” a woman said as she opened it, and Christopher stepped inside, followed closely by the cat.

The woman stood back and looked for a minute at Christopher, her eyes searching and wide; he looked back at her and saw that she was young, not so young as he would have liked, but too young, seemingly, to be living in the heart of a forest.

“I’ve been here for a long time, though,” she said, as though she read his thoughts. Out of this dark hallway, he thought, she might look older; her hair curled a little around her face, and her eyes were far too wide for the rest of her, as if she were constantly straining to see in the gloom of the forest. She wore a long green dress that was gathered at her waist by a belt made of what he subsequently saw was grass woven into a rope; she was barefoot. While he stood uneasily just inside the door, looking at her as she looked at him, the cat went round the hall, stopping curiously at corners and before closed doors, glancing up, once, into the unlighted heights of the stairway that rose from the far end of the hall.

“He smells another cat,” she said. “We have one.”

“Phyllis,” a voice called from the back of the house, and the woman smiled quickly, nervously, at Christopher and said, “Come along, please. I shouldn’t keep you waiting.”

He followed her to the door at the back of the hall, next to the stairway, and was grateful for the light that greeted them when she opened it. It led directly into a great warm kitchen, glowing with an open fire on its hearth, and well lit, against the late-afternoon dimness of the forest, by three kerosene lamps set on table and shelves. A second woman stood by the stove, watching the pots that steamed and smelled maddeningly of onions and herbs; Christopher closed his eyes, like the cat, against the unbelievable beauty of warmth, light, and the smell of onions.

“Well,” the woman at the stove said with finality, turning to look at Christopher. She studied him carefully, as the other woman had done, and then turned her eyes to a bare whitewashed area, high on the kitchen wall, where lines and crosses indicated a rough measuring system. “Another day,” she said.

“What’s your name?” the first woman asked Christopher, and he said “Christopher” without effort and then, “What’s yours?”

“Phyllis,” the young woman said. “What’s your cat’s name?”

“I don’t know,” Christopher said. He smiled a little. “It’s not even my cat,” he went on, his voice gathering strength from the smell of the onions. “He just followed me here.”

“We’ll have to name him something,” Phyllis said. When she spoke she looked away from Christopher, turning her overlarge eyes on him again only when she stopped speaking. “Our cat’s named Grimalkin.”

“Grimalkin,” Christopher said.

“Her name,” Phyllis said, gesturing toward the cook with her head. “Her name’s Aunt Cissy.”

“Circe,” the older woman said doggedly to the stove. “Circe I was born and Circe I will have for my name till I die.”

Although she seemed, from the way she stood and the way she kept her voice to a single note, to be much older than Phyllis, actually, when Christopher saw her face clearly in the light of the lamps she was as vigorous and clear-eyed as Phyllis, and the strength in her arms when she lifted the great iron pot easily off the stove and carried it to the stone table in the center of the kitchen surprised Christopher. The cat, who had followed Christopher and Phyllis into the kitchen, leaped noiselessly onto the bench beside the table, and then onto the table; Phyllis looked warily at Christopher for a minute before she pushed the cat gently to drive him off the table.

“We’ll have to find a name for your cat,” she said apologetically as the cat leaped down without taking offense.

“Kitty,” Christopher said helplessly. “I guess I always call cats kitty.”

Phyllis shook her head. She was about to speak when Aunt Cissy stopped her with a glance, and Phyllis moved quickly to an iron chest in the corner of the kitchen, from which she took a cloth to spread on the table, and heavy stone plates and mugs, which she set on the table in four places. Christopher sat down on the bench, with his back to the table, to indicate clearly that he had no intention of presuming that he was sitting at the table but was only on the bench because he was tired, that he would not swing around to the table until invited warmly and specifically to do so.

“Are we almost ready, then?” Aunt Cissy said. She swept her eyes across the table, adjusted a fork, and stood back, her glance never for a minute resting on Christopher. Then she moved over to the wall beside the door, where she stood, quiet and erect, and Phyllis went to stand beside her. Christopher, turning his head to look at them, had to turn again as footsteps approached from the hall, and, after a minute’s interminable pause, the door opened. The two women stayed respectfully by the far wall, and Christopher stood up without knowing why, except that it was his host who was entering.

This was a man toward the end of middle age; although he held his shoulders stiffly back, they looked as if they would sag without a constant effort. His face was lined and tired, and his mouth, like his shoulders, appeared to be falling downward into resignation. He was dressed, as the women were, in a long green robe tied at the waist, and he, too, was barefoot. As he stood in the doorway, with the darkness of the hall behind him, his white head shone softly and his eyes, bright and curious, regarded Christopher for a long minute before they turned, as the older woman’s had done, to the crude measuring system on the upper wall.

“We are honored to have you here,” he said at last to Christopher; his voice was resonant, like the sound of the wind in the trees. Without speaking again, he took his seat at the head of the stone table and gestured to Christopher to take the place on his right. Phyllis came away from her post by the door and slipped into the place across from Christopher, and Aunt Cissy served them all from the iron pot before taking her own place at the foot of the table.

Christopher stared down at the plate before him, and the rich smell of the onions and meat met him, so that he closed his eyes again for a minute before starting to eat. When he lifted his head he could see, over Phyllis’s head, the dark window; the trees pressed so close against it that their branches were bent against the glass, a tangled crowd of leaves and branches looking in.

“What will we call you?” the old man asked Christopher at last.

“I’m Christopher,” Christopher said, looking only at his plate or up at the window.

“And have you come far?” the old man said.

“Very far.” Christopher smiled. “I suppose it seems farther than it really is,” he explained.

“I am named Oakes,” the old man said.

Christopher gathered himself together with an effort. Ever since entering this strange house he had been bewildered, as though drunk from the endless trees he had come through, and uneasy at coming from darkness and the watching forest into a house where he sat down without introductions at his host’s table. Swallowing, Christopher turned to look at Mr. Oakes, and said, “It’s very kind of you to take me in. If you hadn’t, I guess I’d have been wandering around in the woods all night.”

Mr. Oakes bowed his head slightly at Christopher.

“I guess I was a little frightened,” Christopher said with a small embarrassed laugh. “All those trees.”

“Indeed yes,” Mr. Oakes said placidly. “All those trees.”

Christopher wondered if he had shown his gratitude adequately. He wanted very much to say something further, something that might lead to an explicit definition of his privileges: whether he was to stay the night, for instance, or whether he must go out again into the woods in the darkness; whether, if he did stay the night, he might have in the morning another such meal as this dinner. When Aunt Cissy filled his plate a second time, Christopher smiled up at her. “This is certainly wonderful,” he said to her. “I don’t know when I’ve had a meal I enjoyed this much.”

Aunt Cissy bowed her head to him as Mr. Oakes had before.

“The food comes from the woods, of course,” Mr. Oakes said. “Circe gathers her onions down by the river, but naturally none of that need concern you.”

“I suppose not,” Christopher said, feeling that he was not to stay the night.

“Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to see the house,” Mr. Oakes added.

“I suppose so,” Christopher said, realizing that he was indeed to stay the night.

“Tonight,” Mr. Oakes said, his voice deliberately light. “Tonight, I should like to hear about you, and what things you have seen on your journey, and what takes place in the world you have left.”

Christopher smiled; knowing that he could stay the night, and could not in charity be dismissed before the morning, he felt relaxed. Aunt Cissy’s good dinner had pleased him, and he was ready enough to talk with his host.

“I don’t really know quite how I got here,” he said. “I just took the road into the woods.”

“You would have to go through the woods to get here,” his host agreed soberly.

“Before that,” Christopher went on, “I passed a lot of farmhouses and a little town—do you know the name of it? I asked a woman there for a meal and she turned me away.”

He laughed now, at the memory, with Aunt Cissy’s good dinner finished.

“And before that,” he said, “I was studying.”

“You are a scholar,” the old man said. “Naturally.”

“I don’t know why.” Christopher turned at last to Mr. Oakes and spoke frankly. “I don’t know why,” he repeated. “One day I was there, in college, like everyone else, and then the next day I just left, without any reason except that I did.” He glanced from Mr. Oakes to Phyllis to Aunt Cissy; they were all looking at him with blank expectation. He stopped, and said lamely, “And I guess that’s all that happened before I came here.”

“He brought a cat with him,” Phyllis said softly, her eyes down.

“A cat?” Mr. Oakes looked politely around the kitchen, saw Christopher’s cat curled up under the stove, and nodded. “One brought a dog,” he said to Aunt Cissy. “Do you remember the dog?”

Aunt Cissy nodded, her face unchanging.

There was a sound at the door, and Phyllis said without moving, “That is our Grimalkin coming for his supper.”

Aunt Cissy rose and went over to the outer door and opened it. A cat, tiger-striped where Christopher’s cat was black, but about the same size, trotted casually into the kitchen, without a glance for Aunt Cissy, went directly for the stove, then saw Christopher’s cat. Christopher’s cat lifted his head lazily, widened his eyes, and stared at Grimalkin.

“I think they’re going to fight,” Christopher said nervously, half rising from his seat. “Perhaps I’d better—”

But he was too late. Grimalkin lifted his voice in a deadly wail, and Christopher’s cat spat, without stirring from his comfortable bed under the stove; then Grimalkin moved incautiously and was caught off guard by Christopher’s cat. Spitting and screaming, they clung to each other briefly, and then Grimalkin ran crying out the door that Aunt Cissy opened for him.

Mr. Oakes sighed. “What is your cat’s name?” he inquired.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Christopher said, with a fleeting fear that the irrational cat might have deprived them both of a bed. “Shall I go and find Grimalkin outside?”

Mr. Oakes laughed. “He was fairly beaten,” he said, “and has no right to come back.”

“Now,” Phyllis said softly, “now we can call your cat Grimalkin. Now we have a name, Grimalkin, and no cat, so we can give the name to your cat.”

Christopher slept that night in a stone room at the top of the house; a room reached by the dark staircase leading from the hall. Mr. Oakes carried a candle to the room for him, and Christopher’s cat, now named Grimalkin, left the warm stove to follow Christopher. The room was small and neat, and the bed was a stone bench, which Christopher, investigating after his host had gone, discovered to his amazement was mattressed with leaves, and had for blankets heavy furs that looked like bearskins.

“This is quite a forest,” Christopher said to the cat, rubbing a corner of the bearskin between his hands. “And quite a family.”

Against the window of Christopher’s room, as against all the windows in the house, was the wall of trees, crushing themselves hard against the glass. “I wonder if that’s why they made this house out of stone?” Christopher asked the cat. “So the trees wouldn’t push it down?”

All night long the sound and the feeling of the trees crowding against the house came into Christopher’s dreams, and he turned gratefully in his sleep to the cat purring beside him in the great fur coverings.

In the morning, Christopher came down into the kitchen, where Phyllis and Aunt Cissy, in their green robes, were moving about the stove. His cat, who had followed him all the way down the stairs, moved immediately ahead of him in the kitchen to sit under the stove and watch Aunt Cissy expectantly. When Phyllis had set the stone table and Aunt Cissy had laid out the food, they both moved over to the doorway as they had the night before, waiting for Mr. Oakes to come in.

When he came, he nodded to Christopher and they sat, as before, Aunt Cissy serving them all. Mr. Oakes did not speak this morning, and when the meal was over he rose, gesturing to Christopher to follow him. They went out into the hall, with its silent closed doors, and Mr. Oakes paused.

“You have seen only part of the house, of course,” he said. “Our handmaidens keep to the kitchen unless called to this hall.”

“Where do they sleep?” Christopher asked. “In the kitchen?” He was immediately embarrassed by his own question, and smiled awkwardly at Mr. Oakes to say that he did not deserve an answer, but Mr. Oakes shook his head in amusement and put his hand on Christopher’s shoulder.

“On the kitchen floor,” he said. And then he turned his head away, but Christopher could see that he was laughing. “Circe,” he said, “sleeps nearer to the door from the hall.”

Christopher felt his face growing red and, glad for the darkness of the hall, said quickly, “It’s a very old house, isn’t it?”

“Very old,” Mr. Oakes said, as though surprised by the question. “A house was found to be vital, of course.”

“Of course,” Christopher said, agreeably.

“In here,” Mr. Oakes said, opening one of the two great doors on either side of the entrance. “In here are the records kept.”

Christopher followed him in, and Mr. Oakes went to a candle that stood in its own wax on a stone table and lit it with the flint that lay beside it. He then raised the candle high, and Christopher saw that the walls were covered with stones, piled up to make loose, irregular shelves. On some of the shelves great, leather-covered books stood, and on other shelves lay stone tablets, and rolls of parchment.

“They are of great value,” Mr. Oakes said sadly. “I have never known how to use them, of course.” He walked slowly over and touched one huge volume, and then turned to show Christopher his fingers covered with dust. “It is my sorrow,” he said, “that I cannot use these things of great value.”

Christopher, frightened by the books, drew back into the doorway. “At one time,” Mr. Oakes said, shaking his head, “there were many more. Many, many more. I have heard that at one time this room was made large enough to hold the records. I have never known how they came to be destroyed.”

Still carrying the candle, he led Christopher out of the room and shut the big door behind them. Across the hall another door faced them. As Mr. Oakes led the way in with the candle, Christopher saw that it was another bedroom, larger than the one in which he had slept, but with the trees pressing as close against it.

“This, of course,” Mr. Oakes said, “is where I have been sleeping, to guard the records.”

He held the candle high again and Christopher saw a stone bench like his own, with heavy furs lying on it, and above the bed a long and glittering knife resting upon two pegs driven between the stones of the wall.

“The keeper of the records,” Mr. Oakes said, and sighed briefly before he smiled at Christopher in the candlelight. “We are like two friends,” he added. “One showing the other his house.”

“But—” Christopher began, and Mr. Oakes laughed.

“Let me show you my roses,” he said.

Christopher followed him helplessly back into the hall, where Mr. Oakes blew out the candle and left it on a shelf by the door, and then out the front door to the tiny cleared patch before the house which was surrounded by the stone wall that ran to the road. Although for a small distance before them the world was clear of trees, it was not very much lighter or more pleasant, with the forest only barely held back by the stone wall, edging as close to it as possible, pushing, as Christopher had felt since the day before, crowding up and embracing the little stone house in horrid possession.

“Here are my roses,” Mr. Oakes said, his voice warm. He looked calculatingly beyond at the forest as he spoke, his eyes measuring the distance between the trees and his roses. “I planted them myself,” he said. “I was the first one to clear away even this much of the forest. Because I wished to plant roses in the midst of this wilderness. Even so,” he added, “I had to send Circe for roses from the midst of this beast around us, to set them here in my little clear spot.” He leaned affectionately over the roses, which grew gloriously against the stone of the house, on a vine that rose triumphantly almost to the height of the door. Over him, over the roses, over the house, the trees leaned eagerly.

“They need to be tied up against stakes every spring,” Mr. Oakes said. He stepped back a pace and measured with his hand above his head. “A stake—a small tree stripped of its branches will do, and Circe will get it and sharpen it—and the rose vine tied to it as it leans against the house.”

Christopher nodded. “Someday the roses will cover the house, I imagine,” he said.

“Do you think so?” Mr. Oakes turned eagerly to him. “My roses?”

“It looks like it,” Christopher said awkwardly, his fingers touching the first stake, bright against the stones of the house.

Mr. Oakes shook his head, smiling. “Remember who planted them,” he said.

They went inside again and through the hall into the kitchen, where Aunt Cissy and Phyllis stood against the wall as they entered. Again they sat at the stone table and Aunt Cissy served them, and again Mr. Oakes said nothing while they ate and Phyllis and Aunt Cissy looked down at their plates as always.

After the meal was over, Mr. Oakes bowed to Christopher before leaving the room, and while Phyllis and Aunt Cissy cleared the table of plates and cloth Christopher sat on the bench with his cat on his knee. The women seemed to be unusually occupied. Aunt Cissy, at the stove, set down iron pots enough for a dozen meals, and Phyllis, sent to fetch a special utensil from an alcove in the corner of the kitchen, came back to report that it had been mislaid “since the last time” and could not be found, so that Aunt Cissy had to put down her cooking spoon and go herself to search.

Phyllis set a great pastry shell on the stone table, and she and Aunt Cissy filled it slowly and lovingly with spoonfuls from one or another pot on the stove, stopping to taste and estimate, questioning each other with their eyes.

“What are you making?” Christopher asked finally.

“A feast,” Phyllis said, glancing at him quickly and then away.

Christopher’s cat watched, purring, until Aunt Cissy disappeared into the kitchen alcove again and came back carrying the trussed carcass of what seemed to Christopher to be a wild pig. She and Phyllis set this on the spit before the great fireplace, and Phyllis sat beside it to turn the spit. Then Christopher’s cat leaped down and ran over to the fireplace to sit beside Phyllis and taste the drops of fat that fell on the great hearth as the spit was turned.

“Who is coming to your feast?” Christopher asked, amused.

Phyllis looked around at him, and Aunt Cissy half turned from the stove. There was a silence in the kitchen, a silence of no movement and almost no breath, and then, before anyone could speak, the door opened and Mr. Oakes came in. He was carrying the knife from his bedroom, and he held it out for Christopher to see with a shrug of resignation. When Mr. Oakes had seated himself at the table Aunt Cissy disappeared again into the alcove and brought back a grindstone, which she set before Mr. Oakes. Deliberately, with the slow caution of a pleasant action lovingly done, Mr. Oakes set about sharpening the knife. He held the bright blade against the moving stone, turning the edge little by little with infinite delicacy.

“You say you’ve come far?” he said over the sound of the knife, and for a minute his eyes left the grindstone to rest on Christopher.

“Quite a ways,” Christopher said, watching the grindstone. “I don’t know how far, exactly.”

“And you were a scholar?”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “A student.”

Mr. Oakes looked up from the knife again, to the estimate marked on the wall.

“Christopher,” he said softly, as though estimating the name.

When the knife was razor sharp he held it up to the light from the fire, studying the blade. Then he looked at Christopher and shook his head humorously. “As sharp as any weapon can be,” he said.

Aunt Cissy spoke, unsolicited, for the first time. “Sun’s down,” she said.

Mr. Oakes nodded. He looked at Phyllis for a minute, and then at Aunt Cissy. Then, with his sharpened knife in his hand, he walked over and put his free arm around Christopher’s shoulder. “Will you remember about the roses?” he asked. “They must be tied up in the spring if they mean to grow at all.”

For a minute his arm stayed warmly around Christopher’s shoulders, and then, carrying his knife, he went over to the back door and waited while Aunt Cissy came to open it for him. As the door was opened, the trees showed for a minute, dark and greedy. Then Aunt Cissy closed the door behind Mr. Oakes. For a minute she leaned her back against it, watching Christopher, and then, standing away from it, she opened it again. Christopher, staring, walked slowly over to the open door, as Aunt Cissy seemed to expect he would, and heard behind him Phyllis’s voice from the hearth.

“He’ll be down by the river,” she said softly. “Go far around and come up behind him.”

The door shut solidly behind Christopher and he leaned against it, looking with frightened eyes at the trees that reached for him on either side. Then, as he pressed his back in terror against the door, he heard the voice calling from the direction of the river, so clear and ringing through the trees that he hardly knew it as Mr. Oakes’s: “Who is he dares enter these my woods?”

Masterful writer known for 'The Lottery' and 'The Haunting of Hill House', who carved a niche in horror and mystery.