The woods behind Sam’s house had always been a place of peace, security and solitude. He’d never understood why people got scared in them. A tree was a tree, and a thousand trees were just a thousand trees. Planting them all together didn’t make them greater than the sum of their parts.
His dad had said that people didn’t like being in woods because you didn’t know what was watching you. Sam told him that worked both ways: he could spot people first and watch them, and if he had trouble seeing them then surely they’d have trouble seeing him. His dad then said that people didn’t like them because they were dark and you couldn’t see where you’d come from or where you were going. Sam said that it was easy not to get lost, you just had to remember certain trees or leave markers.
His dad had then said that maybe people like Sam, who apparently like woods because they stop other people from seeing you and who navigate them by leaving strange signs everywhere, were the reason some people didn’t like woods. Sam had thought about it and decided he might have a point, but he liked the woods too much to stop visiting them.
One day, whilst searching for his favourite tree (I’m not lost, he told himself, just a bit misplaced) Sam stumbled upon a clearing that he hadn’t found before.
He knew there were some clearings in the woods, places where trees had been cut down deep inside the boundaries of the forest, for what Sam didn’t know, and some places where a tree had fallen, pulling down some of its brothers and sisters as it tumbled to the earth, but both of those were filled with new growth, and had the stumps or fallen trunks of the trees which had been there before. This clearing was barren; not even grass was growing here, and his footsteps caused swirls of dry dirt to rise into the air around his shins. He wandered around it, intermittently staring up at the blue sky or crouching down and running his fingers through the dust, but no obvious cause presented itself. It started to get dark, so he left the clearing and trudged home, turning over what he’d found in his mind.
That evening, he drank three glasses of water at supper. “Thirsty work, being a woodsman?” asked his dad. Sam nodded and poured himself another glass.
The next day, Sam went back to the clearing. He found it easily enough, which made him wonder why he hadn’t stumbled upon it sooner; it was quite large, after all, a bit bigger than he remembered. Walking around its perimeter revealed nothing.
He pulled a stick off a nearby tree and started running it through the dust, but it was just as fine as he remembered. There were a few solid lumps near the edge, but Sam couldn’t work out what they were. Pieces of wood, maybe? He put them in his pocket to take home and wash.
Just before he left, deciding to visit a stream deeper in the woods and make some boats of twigs and leaves, he stuck the stick he’d pulled off the tree right down in the centre of the clearing.
At home, he took the lumps of dirt he’d picked up and ran them under a tap, picking at them with his fingernails to try and get to a clean surface which might give him some clue as to their origin. They disintegrated in his hands almost as soon as the water touched them.
“Where are you so eager to get to?”
Sam had bolted down his breakfast and was already opening the back door, ready to return to the woods. “Just outside,” he said.
“Not before I give you some things to take with you. I’ve seen you trying to drown yourself the last couple of evenings. Take some water or you’ll get dehydrated out there.”
Sam waited whilst his dad filled up an old plastic bottle with water and put it in a backpack. He was about to hand it to Sam when he stopped and looked at the breadbin. “Want some lunch too?” he asked.
“Yeah, some sandwiches and an apple, so you can stay out all day and don’t have to come back for a meal.”
“Sure, you’re old enough now, aren’t you?”
“Then let’s get you some sandwiches.”
Ten minutes later, Sam was heading out into the woods with ham sandwiches, an apple and his bottle of water. He knew exactly where he was going to eat them.
The morning was spent building a fort out of fallen branches. When it was finished, there were plenty of gaps and Sam couldn’t actually step inside it or it would fall down, but he was satisfied. It would stand here as a monument to his glory for, he looked it over carefully, probably a week or two. He felt a rumble in his stomach and picked up his bag, sparing the fort a last glance before he headed back to the patch of dust that had settled into the forest.
The patch looked bigger again, he was sure of it. A few more trees seemed to have disappeared from around the edge and the dust had filled the gaps. The stick that he’d planted in the centre had vanished, but it could have blown away or been carried off somehow. He paced around the dust a few times, then sat down in the centre, smiling up at the bright blue sky.
He began with the sandwiches. They were delicious, tastier than a sandwich had any right to be, which he suspected had something to do with eating them on his own outside. It wasn’t just the freedom that was exciting, it was the trust his dad had placed in him by letting him head off alone for the entire day. He’d even helped him by making the lunch. Today was definitely a good day.
As he stuffed the crumpled clingfilm back in the bag, he noticed how thirsty he was. He pulled the bottle of water from his bag and unscrewed the lid, setting it down on the dust beside him. A droplet ran down the side of it, and Sam watched it fall as he was taking his first, big swig. It crept towards the dust and, just as it touched it, disappeared, along with the bottle cap.
Sam looked down at where it had been, let the bottle fall to his side, wiped his lips and then ran his hand through the dust, searching for the bottle cap.
The next day, the patch was a little bigger.