By Emmily Magtalas Rhodes
Content Warnings: Swearing, abuse, violence, murder.
That stench. So strong, acrid and suffocating. But it can’t be. It’s impossible!
It’s only exhaustion. I’ve been hiking for miles around these godforsaken woods. I was told this circular route was scenic, but all I’ve seen so far are trees… ugly, gnarled trees that seem to grow bigger and thicker as I fall deeper into this forest. They block what little light and view I can see.
And this useless map and guidebook! It said this walk was for intermediate ability, even suggesting that children from the age of twelve can do it. I don’t know what kind of children they have here in England, but if I were a twelve-year-old, I’d be throwing a tantrum by now. The ground is so uneven it feels like it’s shifting, even as I walk.
And yet, the map tells me I should’ve finished the route hours ago. How can that be? I’ve followed the path to the letter, only leaving the trail to piss behind a tree. I couldn’t have gone off track. I retraced my steps. I double-checked the map.
Maybe I should’ve told someone where I was going and what I was doing. Who will look for me if I get lost?
My stupid, so-called smartphone doesn’t even have a signal here. I know the area is very rural and remote, but this phone is the latest model and so expensive that it should at least manage to get a signal anywhere. But it’s worse than a dumb phone. It’s so dumb it’s useless. I can’t call, I can’t text, I can’t access any useful apps.
My legs ache. I go to the gym every day, yet I’m still huffing and puffing like a weakling. But I can’t stop. Mustn’t stop. The sun will set soon, and it’ll be too dark to make it out of here.
Why did I even think going for a walk alone was a good idea? Was it to prove I was macho to my foreign colleagues? Raffy, you’re the foreigner here. They often boast about having done the hardest walking routes in this area. And though they don’t say it, I can sense it. Poor, short, stocky Raffy, he won’t be able to hack it. He looks quite soft. A posh city boy. I bet he’s never been in the woods, even in the Philippines.
And this particular forest, they said it’s haunted. They said strange things happen here. Like what? I asked. Raffy, you’ll have to go to find out, they laughed.
They thought I wouldn’t be up for the challenge. They thought I’d be scared. But they don’t know the things I’ve done in my life to get here. They don’t know the hardships I’ve been through, the heartaches, the humiliation. But I rose to those challenges. It took guts, but I wasn’t afraid. I have never been afraid.
They think I’m effeminate, good with the spreadsheet and the paperwork, but not in the wild. Sure, I was educated in America and Europe and travelled the world. They’ve read my CV; they’ve witnessed my promotions. They know my father’s an important businessman in Asia. But to them, I’m only a pampered and privileged boy from Manila. I might look refined and gentle, but I’ve hunted. I’ve known what it’s like to hold a living thing and squeeze the life out of it – see the fear in its eyes. I’ve felt that power. They don’t know.
That stench. I can still smell it. A pervading odour of shit, of rotten flesh and cigar smoke. It’s invading my nostrils, constricting my throat. Could it be a fire?
Fuck! I keep tripping on these protruding roots. They’re a mass of tangles on the earth, and I have to be very careful not to trap my feet in them. The ground is mucky too. Where the sun don’t shine.
My boots, my designer hiking boots, are now covered in mud and weighing my legs down. Why didn’t I notice that I’d entered a bog? My feet are wet, and my socks are squelching inside my boots. I’m no longer walking, I’m trudging. And it’s so much effort to move.
And I’m getting hungry. And thirsty. I haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast. I was going to time it right, do the circuit, and reward myself with a pub meal and a pint. The guidebook said it would only take about three hours, four at a slower pace. That’s why I didn’t bring any food with me. Not even snacks. But it’s now seven hours later, and I can’t see a way out. Plus, I’ve drunk my water bottle dry. If only there was a river or a lake nearby. But there’s only muddy puddles, squidgy earth.
What’s that? There’s rustling in the trees ahead. Maybe there are other walkers. I know my colleagues said it’s not a very busy walking route. But it’s in the guidebook! I said. Apparently, they’re trying to entice people to this area. It would be a boon to the local businesses. But it’s clearly not working. Despite the scenic views? I asked. They said it was because it was haunted. People are scared, Raffy.
I was told a small group of walkers in the ’80s went through this route and never came out of the woods. They were never found. The way those guys talked, it sounded like a stereotypical urban legend. No fucking way! They were obviously pulling my leg. Let’s pick on the rich Asian kid, the foreigner. Those fucking bastards!
‘Hello! Anybody there?! Hello!’
Maybe it’s just birds. Or a squirrel. Although it’s quite weird that I didn’t hear any tweeting of birds when I entered the woods. I’ve done walks before, easier routes, yes, but I remember always hearing birds. And I’ve not seen any animal, not even insects, on this walk. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Woods without insects. Ha! That’s a laugh.
A laugh. Now I hear someone laughing. It starts out as a giggle. Then it grows louder. A belly laugh. Now it’s guffawing in a big, booming voice like it’s heard the funniest joke ever.
It vacillates between a cackle and a guffaw. And it keeps on going and going like it’s on a loop.
‘Hello! Please answer me!’
More roaring laughter. It sounds like it’s getting closer. But I can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. It sounds like it’s taunting me.
‘Stop it! Stop it!’
I turn around, but there’s no one behind me. The trees rustle again, this time from a completely different direction. But when my head follows it, everything stands still. Then, suddenly, the laughter stops, and it’s quiet.
Was I only imagining it? I’m tired and starving. My throat is parched. Maybe I’m hallucinating.
Then, the penny drops. My colleagues, those guys, are playing a trick on me. They’re hiding in the trees. They’ve followed me, and they’re trying to scare the shit out of me. But how could they have known I was accepting their dare? I didn’t tell anyone about this journey. I was going to take selfies when I got to the right place. I was going to surprise them. Show them I wasn’t afraid.
I had already picked the first location for my selfie – one of the many scenic spots the guidebook mentioned. It’s called the Floating Rock because it looks suspended in the air. The write-up says the legend is the fairy folk cast a spell on it, and whoever moves it will unblock the portal to this world and theirs. I was going to take a picture of myself on top of that rock, or maybe pretending to push it to open that portal. It would’ve been hilarious.
But I don’t see the rock. Nor do I see the Weeping Ladies (a cluster of stone columns), or the Cursed Lovers, a rock in the shape of a man entwined in a petrified tree trunk. There are only trees. Massive trees with their rough and wrinkled barks, their long and twisted branches, wounded and scarred by the changing seasons. Many are pockmarked with disfigured eyes, glowering at me, not daring to blink.
Don’t stare at me.
Now I’m talking to goddamn trees. I didn’t say it aloud, but shit, I thought it. I’m getting paranoid. Must be the effects of hunger. I try to spit, but my mouth is dry.
The leaves on the branches high above me swoosh violently, but there’s no wind. The air is still.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
There it is again. That deep, bellowing laugh that appears to come simultaneously from the ground and the sky.
Is that someone calling my name?
‘Quit fucking with me! I know you’re there! Guys, I know what you’re doing, but I don’t scare easily!’
No, I don’t scare easily. And I’m up for a challenge. They think they can scare me, but I’ve been tested in the past, and I’ve proven myself. There have been times when I’ve hurdled obstacles, when I’ve triumphed.
They don’t know what I’m made of.
That thunderous laugh surrounds me now. And that foul smell, that nauseating mix of decaying meat, unwashed groin, and the reek of strong tobacco. Like an unhygienic, chain-smoking butcher. It’s making me gag.
‘It’s not funny anymore, guys! I’m getting tired of your sick joke!’
From above, twigs fall one by one, hitting me on the head. I put my arms up, but the sticks become larger, turning into branches as big as my legs. I slide my rucksack off my back and use it to shield my head.
‘Are you trying to kill me?! You’ve gone too far, you know!’
I look up to catch my colleagues. But it’s difficult to make out solid forms. It’s twilight now. The little bit of orange sky peeking from behind the lush shade of leaves is turning red and purple. And I can’t trust the shadows.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
It’s one of those sound effects machines kids use for Halloween, I’m sure. It’s only that. They’re trying to freak me out, but I’m not afraid.
‘I’m not afraid! Fuck you, guys! I’m not scared!’
No, I am not scared. I was never scared. Even last time.
Not the last time I was in the woods, but the last time I felt this way. Not scared, but maybe agitated.
It was so long ago. I want to erase it from my memory. But it’s worming its way into my head.
Her face, such an exquisite face! Carved like a pagan goddess. There was something so primal about her, so… exotic.
I had taken her to my dad’s island resort in the south of the country because we would have privacy there. No more sneaking her into my bedroom at night when everyone was asleep.
I knew the staff might talk, but if they did, they would never work again. My dad would’ve made sure of that. He had connections in high places – government officials, scary people.
Besides, I couldn’t have been seen in Manila with her. She wasn’t from the right family. I was class A; she was class D. She was just a peasant’s daughter, a mere maid in our house, for crying out loud! But god, she was beautiful. That flawless mocha skin, that curvaceous body – ripe, yet virginal. I was beguiled, maybe bewitched by her.
But if my friends had found out I was fooling around with our young maid, I would never have heard the end of it. Sure, I had noticed them surreptitiously checking her out, making suggestive gestures whenever she served them. But that’s all she was to them. An object of their rude fantasies that they would never touch for fear of catching something terrible, like a ruined reputation. Oh no. They would never act on it.
Which was why it was of utmost importance to keep our affair a secret. Otherwise, I would be the butt of jokes. I had a reputation to protect. And if word got out, my dad would never forgive me. He’d never pull strings for me again.
I was going to have my fun like my dad said. Satisfy my curiosity, taste the fruit of the countryside. She was going to be my guilty secret. My love slave. No, I wasn’t in love with her. It was never love. I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to fall for a provincial girl, completely unsophisticated and ignorant. We had absolutely nothing in common.
But she fired up my flesh. I couldn’t stop thinking about her face, her body. It was pure lust, that was all. I just needed to get her out of my system.
My dad had a plan. He was always brilliant with ideas, this astute businessman. He was going to pay her to keep quiet. After all, we’re not monsters. She was going to live in the resort as a chambermaid. And whenever I visited, she would be there to lavish her attention on me until I no longer wanted it. That had been the arrangement. And it should’ve all worked out had she not started being silly, having her delusions.
I knew she did it to make me jealous. Maybe she got greedy and wanted leverage. What else could it be?
A kapre. How utterly backward. Idiotic. What a country bumpkin she was!
She said a kapre in the resort’s woods befriended her. A dark, hairy giant perched on the trees, smoking a cigar in his loincloth, stinking like hell. An ogre in a nappy. A coarse mythical creature concocted by uneducated minds. My dad doesn’t employ ugly creatures, I told her. Unless he’s a trespasser, then we’ll have to shoot him, I laughed.
He said he’ll protect me, she insisted.
Oh, so that was it. She’d found another lover. An illiterate country boy, one of those boorish oafs harassing the resort staff while waiting to be handed a job. Protect her. Protect her from what? He wouldn’t be able to offer her anything because he was nothing. Just another lazy peasant.
And well, she was mine. And I wasn’t sharing. Not with some crude yokel. Not with some imaginary cryptid. Not with this kapre.
So, I watched her. Every night, I checked the resort’s security cameras. I went to her room and inspected her things, looking for love letters, gifts, pictures, any incriminating evidence I could throw in her face.
I interrogated the staff. What did she do today? Who was she with? Who did she talk to? Where did she go when I wasn’t around?
They pointed me to the woods. Of course, it would have to be the woods. That was where she would meet her hillbilly lover, in the cover of darkness. They thought they would be safe there, protected by those colossal old trees.
And that was where I found her, deep in those woods, under an acacia tree. She was waiting for him. Against the enormous trunk of this ancient giant, she looked so small and fragile. She was looking up, just as I am now looking up.
It could be the same tree. Do acacias grow in this country? Even if they do, I’m sure this is an oak. What do I know? I’m not a botanist.
That voice, again, calling my name. And that horrible smell!
I need to get out of this forest. It’s messing with my head. I grab my bag and run to my right, but it feels like I’m in slow motion. My bag, it’s so heavy and drags me down. I shake the contents onto the ground until it’s empty. Then I pick up what’s fallen, identifying the objects by touch because I can hardly see anything now – a pen, a notebook, my water bottle, my wallet, my keys. I don’t really know what I’m looking for. So, I throw everything indiscriminately in all directions. My phone, its screen now cracked, is dead. My useless phone.
I hurl it at the towering tree in front of me, and it shatters.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
‘Enough!’ I scream, though I’m no longer sure who I’m addressing. I kick off my boots and peel off my sodden socks, then I sprint, so fast my feet barely touch the ground. My face, arms and legs get whacked by branches jutting into my path, and I flail my limbs as I battle my way forward. When I finally stop to catch my breath, I examine my surroundings.
Silhouettes of imposing trees all around me, big and black and endless. My legs give, and I fall, kneeling on the mud.
‘Please!’ I say like I’m praying to some mischievous god.
I’m so tired I can’t do anything more than lie prone on the mud.
I won’t be defeated.
Slowly, I crawl on the soft, wet earth until my hand touches something. I pull it closer to my face. My deflated backpack! I raise my head, and things take shape. My discarded stuff is scattered on the ground. Then I feel a sting on my thigh, and as I lift my bloody leg, I see a jagged piece of my phone’s broken screen embedded in my skin.
‘Fuck!’ I shriek.
Don’t lose it, Raffy. I close my eyes to centre myself. Think, Raffy, think! You’re the son of a shrewd businessman. You’re educated, you’re from a prestigious family. This is just a stupid trick. Sue those bastards when you get out of here. Yes, they’ll have it coming. But for now, focus. Remember how powerful you were! Remember what you did!
She did not see me. Her face was turned upwards, beautiful and beatific, like she was communing with God. I rushed towards her, grabbed her, pushed her to the ground. Then I slapped her face savagely. You’re mine! I screamed. You’re mine!
Please, Raffy, stop, she begged. She didn’t scream back. She just lay there, crying softly, so pathetic.
That roaring voice, it’s the same voice I heard as I pinned her down.
Raffy, please don’t hurt me, she pleaded.
Don’t tell me what to do! I shouted at her.
You don’t have to do this, Raffy. You’ll make him angry, she entreated.
I don’t care if he gets angry. Why should I care what he feels? He’s just another useless peasant. He’s not stealing what’s mine!
The voice shook the ground and threw me off her. She scampered away from me and was about to run, but I was fast. I wasn’t going to let her go. I snatched a clump of her hair and yanked her towards me.
We paid you! You’re mine!
My hands closed around her slender neck. And I saw the fear in her eyes. It gave off an awful smell. This fear, it stank. It smelled of excrement and rot and pungent smoke. The sharpness burned my eyes and made me gasp for breath. But I held on, I tightened my grip, I squeezed as hard as I could until her eyes closed, and her body hung limp from my grasp.
The stench – that acrid smoke, so strong and suffocating, pervaded the air. I dropped her and ran. I ran and ran, but the forest seemed to expand. And the voice kept calling my name.
Fire! I yelled. Help! There’s a fire!
Eventually, a resort staff member bumped into me. Sir, what’s wrong? Are you ok? he said. I told him a villager had started a fire in the forest after I saw him strangling her. Call the police, I ordered him.
The culprit was never found. My dad carted me off to the airport and put me on the next plane to Europe. I’ll fix this, Raffy. But lie low from now on. I don’t want any more of this from you, he warned.
I stayed away. I never went back to my own country. I tried to erase the episode from my mind. I hadn’t thought of her in ages.
But now, here I am, trapped in these woods. Darkness has descended, and it feels like I’m back there, thousands of miles away in that tropical forest. My eyes are smarting from the stench, and I’m gasping for breath.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
That jeering laugh. It’s coming from those thick branches high up. I must get to it. I must stop it.
I pull myself up and take off my torn clothes, a hindrance to my progress, until I’m only wearing my shredded underwear. My fingers claw into the rough tree bark as I desperately try to get a grip. I climb up, apelike and clumsy.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
My legs wrap around the fat, scratchy trunk, and I propel myself upward. The tree is very tall, and the first branch seems so out of reach. But I won’t be defeated. I won’t be humiliated.
That taunting voice spurs me on. My fingers find crevices; it’s just like rock climbing.
‘Stop it!’ I holler. ‘Rahffeee! Rahffeee! Rahffeee!’ I mimic it in frustration.
I reach a branch substantial enough to support my weight and perch on top of it to catch my breath. I am so high up now; the ground below me is miles away. My legs dangle as I sit, and I notice dirt smeared all over them. I’m covered in mud, matted with sticks and dry leaves. I try to rub it off with my hands, but it won’t come off. It’s stuck to me like a fake tan gone horribly wrong. And that stench.
It’s coming from this branch. No, it’s coming from…
I sniff around me. But it can’t be. It’s impossible.
That overwhelming stench. It’s emanating from me!
The realisation makes me wobble, and I grab hold of a branch to steady myself. But it’s not a branch. There’s smoke coming out one end. When I bring it closer to my face, it’s… a cigar?
The whole situation is so absurd I put the cigar in my mouth and laugh.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
My voice thunders across these woods.
I shout my name, and it reverberates, causing the trees to shudder.
‘Har! Har! Har!’
I guffaw so hard, spittle spews everywhere. Then my head hangs down, and I see her. Down below, standing on solid ground.
She’s looking up at me, a primordial goddess. Her beautiful face blissful and beatific.
Emmily Magtalas Rhodes:
Emmily Magtalas Rhodes is a freelance writer of Filipino heritage, currently living in an English spa town. Her debut YA novel, What It Means to Be Malaya, was published in the Philippines in 2020. Her short stories have appeared in Corvid Queen and 50-word stories, while her story, “Dwende”, got an Honourable Mention in the Storyshares 2022 Story of the Year Contest. Her mini-chapbook Split Bamboo (part of the New Cosmologies series from Sword & Kettle Press) is coming out in the US this year. She is fascinated by folk tales, horror, witchcraft, and magic.