01 Feb If we misbehaved as children we had to stand in the shed, Something else stood with us
It was as simple as that: you misbehaved, you stood in the shed.
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t just if we were naughty, but if our parents wanted some space, some time alone, to get rid of us when they had guests over. They were always throwing these lavish and expensive dinners; with services in latin, incense, all the guests masked and dressed in black.
They needed us gone.
The shed itself was rotting, an old, wet structure that sat at the bottom of our garden, maybe three or four minutes walk from the main house. Sure, that might not sound like the longest time – but try walking for four minutes in any direction you choose and see how far you get. Go on, time it. I think you’d be surprised.
And so after we’d made the mistake, chewed with our mouth open, asked a rude question, used the wrong cutlery, we were sent off. If we were together, Naomi, my younger sister, and I, the walk didn’t seem too long. We could talk, try and take our minds off the shed. Off the fact that it had its own wail, the fact that sometimes it was so dark you couldn’t see one end from the other. We’d try and ignore the fact that sometimes the tapping on the windows sounded less like branches, and more like some form of echolocation, like some giant and curious creature on the other side trying to draw us out.
We’d stand there, shaking, hand in hand, humming songs we could half-remember or whispering stories to eachother. Anything to make the time pass. I tried to keep her spirits up, to make sure she wasn’t as terrified as I felt – as I couldn’t let on that I felt.
Sometimes, she’d repay the favour, and she’d tell me about her favourite animals, how big they were, what they ate, where I might find them if I was interested. It helped. The quiet, focused tone of her voice – the obvious pleasure she took in naming them all, despite our situation.
I was much worse behaved than Naomi. She was all blonde hair and smiles, ribbons, long and looping handwriting in pristine diaries. I wasn’t interested in any of that, being a boy, and being so proud of being a boy, brandishing my scraped knees and torn clothes, refusing to bathe until my father would hold me down and force me upstairs.
As such, I spent a lot longer in that shed than she did.
And as time passed, I began to realise that there was something wrong with it.
Sure, the air in there was colder, stiller than the air outside.
Sure, rats and mice lived under the floorboards, squealing and gnawing and climbing over each other in the dark.
Sure, if you came in the daylight you’d see a flock of crows talk to eachother as you entered, trading little caws, as if discussing you.
But there was something else; a sense that you were never truly alone there. A sense that, shivering and hidden in the dark, something was watching you.
My suspicions were confirmed when Naomi was sent down one evening, before I’d even had a chance to misbehave, and as such, I’d been sent to my room pre-emptively. The dinner they were hosting seemed special, and my mother spent the whole week fretting about who was sitting where and what to serve and if they would be able to find the house, old and crooked as it was, nestled on the edge of thick black woods that had no obvious markings to tourists.
Something else, though. A frenzy in the kitchens, my father holding a set of keys I had never seen before – heavy and brass, the dogs locked in the kennels, my mother’s hands covered in paint.
They had wanted us out.
And so I’d spent the evening in my room, head against the window, watching the guests come in: their long and pointed masks, the lanterns they carried, the way they bowed as they met my mother at the door. There was a goat tied to a post a few foot from the entrance, and I was trying to work out why each guest would take a moment to say something to the goat, before bending to kiss its horns. I’d never seen the goat before, and I remember wondering if it was a gift, or if my parents had brought it for some sort of game.
I felt sorry for Naomi in the shed, the wind beginning to howl, which I knew brought strange, lifelike noises from the holes and old wood, made the windows rattle, the rats shelter between the floorboards.
Felt sorry for how alone she must have felt.
That is, until I saw her.
When Naomi came back, her hair was braided.
It was tied into one long plait that curled around her head, the hair bound together by neat, red ribbons, wildflowers punctuating the plait every so often, to give her the impression of a wild princess. Her nose and cheeks were flushed from the cold, and she spoke in between sniffles, wrinkling her nose each time, still shaking.
I asked where she’d learnt to do her hair. Our mother was never one for anything like that, preferring either military ponytails or simply combing it until Naomi would fight back tears, and I thought perhaps Naomi had read it in a book somewhere. She’d loved books but was clumsy, able to name all the animals of the forest but forever scaring them off with her heavy footfall.
She shook her head, no, she said, it wasn’t me.
Someone at the party? I asked, knowing full well that she wasn’t supposed to attend, but that often guests couldn’t resist saying at least a hello to the little blonde girl on the stairs.
Shook her head again.
Something turned in my stomach, caught in my throat.
Who, Naomi? I asked, trying to hold back the panic in my voice.
Pointed to herself, did this strange rasping voice, and on the in breath, spoke her name in syllables:
nay .. oh .. mi
I said it again, firmer this time, the tone I’d use when I scolded her, who did this, who was in there with you, who put the ribbons and the flowers in your hair.
The reply was the same, on the inbreath:
nay … oh … mi
I knew neither of us could go back, and although I was on my best behaviour Naomi didn’t seem to care, seemed to be oblivious as to what waited at the bottom of the garden for us.
My mother said the party was a success, that she’d be having another one. She seemed younger, I thought, the crows feet by her eyes had smoothed, and her mouth seemed fuller. I tried to beg for her to hold off, but she’d reply by looking out the window, towards the shed, and I’d have no choice but to shut up.
I asked about the goat, and was told that there was no goat, that I must have imagined it, and when I pushed her on this she slapped me hard in the face, until I’d tasted blood, and said that boys who lied spent weeks in the shed and had their food slid under the door until they knew better.
The shed hung at the bottom of the garden, hidden in shadow. I’d try not to look at it, terrified I’d see faces in the window, pressed up against the glass staring back at me. I thought that maybe, somehow, if I tried as hard as I could to pretend it didn’t exist I’d be safe.
I was wrong.
My parents were looking for any excuse the night of the party, and before I even knew I’d done something wrong, I was sent to the shed. I tried to find Naomi, tried to ask if she was there but she was nowhere to be found.
My parents’ patience grew thin. They said if I didn’t go right this minute I’d be sorry, and my father’s lip shook like it did when he was angry, or drunk, when he wanted to use his hands or his belt to bruise.
The walk to the shed had me breathless. My whole body was shaking in fear, in anticipation of something I didn’t understand. I could feel my knees weak as each step took me closer. The sun was beginning to set, and the trees cast long shadows on the grass. The crows were quiet this evening; strutting down branches to watch.
The door to the shed was already ajar, and, for a moment, I thought I caught motion inside. I was still, silent, until I heard the flapping of wings, the patter of rats. I took a breath.
I was going to be okay.
There was nothing in the shed that could hurt me. Naomi had learnt to braid her own hair.
I decided, upon entering that I would do what any boy should do, what any man should do, and I slowly paced around the walls. I thought that this would dispell any ideas I had about something else being in here with me, about anything sharing this space. My footsteps were marked by the groan of old floorboards, a faint echo as they bounced from the wall.
Each footstep, followed by an echo.
A slight delay and so after I’d walk three paces I’d pause and hear:
step – step – step
I’d walk three more. The same thing.
Step – step – step
Except, I realised, it wasn’t an echo. It was the sound of something behind me, something mimicking me, following my exact footsteps for fear of being heard, and I felt sweat begin to break out on my back, my mouth went dry. I couldn’t breathe.
Whatever was behind me knew I’d be listening out.
A noise startled me, made me gasp, and I realised I hadn’t taken a breath in almost a minute.
The window in front of me.
Something was tapping against it.
I still had the impression of something behind me, something huge, something watching – and part of me knew I had to turn around but I couldn’t bring myself to, I think I had it somewhere in my head that maybe I could still pretend this was all a game, or a mistake, that by turning around I’d somehow make my fears real.
The tapping on the window continued.
I squinted to see better.
There, against the window, was a crow. Feathers, dark beady eyes, a huge and sharp beak. But it seemed bigger than I thought possible, dwarfing my reflection and I thought maybe it was because I was still some paces from the window, and then the tapping came again, and I realised that the sound wasn’t the crow – couldn’t be the crow – because the crow was completely still, and I could see it now, the long and low branch that actually was tapping, and I realised that what I thought was the crow was actually something behind, something huge and dark and still and-
I turned around.
It must have been about eight foot tall, huge and with thin limbs covered in black robes, robes so dark that unless you were really looking for them, really aware of their presence they’d have seemed invisible, and, emerging from the hood a long and pointed beak, two eyes that only appeared as glints.
We stared at eachother for a while.
I could feel my heart beating so fast it hurt, a tension in the left side of my chest that grew and grew.
Slowly, the bird-thing lifted its hand, pointing a long and gnarled finger at me.
It opened it’s beak to speak, and the sound reminded me of a parrot a father’s friend had, mimicking human speech, uncertain, grating, as if the words were not meant for it:
nay … oh … mi
I shook my head: it was all I could do.
The thing cawwed, and the crows screamed in response.
It asked again.
No, was all I could manage, no.
Then the thing seemed to fly into a panic, all limbs and frantic movement, bending itself, folding itself through the door and out into the forest, and as my eyes followed I could see the faint glow that it headed for. Some glow that threw shafts of orange light between the trees, and the sound of drums.
I followed as fast as I could, my knees and shins whipped until they bled by wild grass, thickets, low bushes. But I kept on pushing on. Something in its tone had disturbed me, some sense of panic, or purpose, and I had only the safety of my sister in mind.
I ran until the glow turned into a deep light, that cast its own shadows into the dark, that illuminated pale figures standing in a circle around it. A fire. Surrounded by naked figures, who wore masks made from thin branches and reeds, crude shapes, who were all flesh, some with drums made from bone with leather stretched, some empty-handed, some holding books and totems and lanterns-
There. Unconscious, on a chair in front of the fire. In a red robe, with a crown of wildflowers: Naomi.
Some would come forward from the crowd on the beat of the drum and kiss her forehead, gently, the way you might do to a baby.
She sat bolt upright, eyes closed, and as she dreamed the figure in front of her read something from a book, their voice echoed by the crowd, growing louder and louder, in a language I did not – could not – understand, and the drums grew faster now, as if drawing in on something, converging, and the voices grew excited, and I saw in the figures hand something glint in the light – a knife.
A long and thin knife that they were slowly raising.
I wanted so much to do something, to stop this, but my limbs seemed to freeze. To stop.
It all happened so fast.
There was a caww, angry and clipped, and then the caw echoed around the woods, coming from every angle, from the roots to the boughs to the tops of the trees, from behind me and above me, and then the fire was snuffed out like a candle. A commotion, screams.
People began to run, only lit by the dim light of the lanterns, and I could see that somehow Naomi was gone, her robe and crown all gone.
The revellers began to run towards me, heading into the forest to get away from whatever this was, faces still covered by masks, screaming – and I had no other choice. I couldn’t tell what they’d do if they found me, if they’d just run past or if they’d grab me too, taking me to wherever they were sheltering and-
I ran until I was sure my lungs would collapse, and then ran some more.
I ran until the spit dried in my mouth and in my lungs and every breath made me shake.
I ran until I was two towns over, covered in blood and my feet torn.
They found me on all fours in the town centre, retching onto the cobblestones. It took two days for me to finally speak.
When they finally took me back they made an effort to disprove the parts of my story they didn’t believe, although, even then I could tell they were holding back.
They could not find my parents, or the guests at the party. They found evidence of a bonfire, but no masks. The could not find Naomi either, and the case would stay open for years, decades. No one had seen anyone like her description come through, and it was assumed that for one reason or another, she had disappeared with my parents.
They did comment on the sheer number of crows in the garden.
It took me years after that to finally return to that house. Took enough time for me to have children of my own, undergo years of therapy. I found things that helped me piece together what happened: hidden rooms, stone slabs, runes carved into the wall. Old books that smelt like rot and had strange diagrams in.
But I never found her.
I like to think whatever took her saved her, although, if I’m honest, I can’t be sure.
I like to think that she roams the forests now, with her crown of wildflowers and her red robe, passing her blessing over all the creatures she loved so much.
And although the shed has been demolished now, floorboards and walls removed to reveal the bones of livestock, sometimes I’ll hear it.
When I’m walking in the woods, or working in my room.
Whispered by the wind, or in the cries of birds:
Na o mi.