The Corruption of Hawkswood

Artwork by Barney Bodoano

Artwork by Barney Bodoano

If one were to drive southbound from the historic city of Durham, following the winding roads through the old pit villages, you would eventually come to a quiet road, shadowed by the presence of trees. Before long the road will widen to half-reveal a turning on the right, often missed if travelling too quickly. Nestled between the densely-packed trees stands a grand iron gate; this is the entrance to Hawkswood Country Park.

Within, a small lake lies silently between sloping hills. On the east embankment, the water splinters into stretching ponds embedded in a surrounding nature trail – the main attraction for visiting families. Yet today, the usual sound of children is absent, heavy clouds obscuring the true passage of time. A Sunday here is rarely so still, and somewhere, a lone dog barks and the sound rolls over the hills.

The peaks overlooking the park are largely vacant, the grass is long overdue a trim and sways in the sporadic breeze. A solitary figure saunters up from the lake path, a long trail of sunken footprints behind him. His hands rest in the pockets of his unfastened coat, a thick jumper shielding him from the cold of the sharp autumnal air. He keeps his head bowed, and walks without purpose.

Save for the occasional rambler, he is alone in his corner of the park. The solitude is welcome, and the silence even more so. His breathing grows heavy as he reaches the crest of the hill, and he stops a moment to take in the scene. On better days, the serene view has offered a pleasant moment of escape. Today, he sees a veil of grey, threatening to entirely envelop the surrounding landscape. He exhales loudly, and deliberately; maybe the walk isn’t going to do the trick today. Behind him, the trees dance as a strong gust rattles them to life, their dying leaves tearing loose and darting across the terrain.

He half-turns, and catches sight of the woodland behind him. Despite the pale light of the afternoon, the trees are swathed in darkness, anything beyond the first few feet remaining a mystery to those on its outskirts. Strange, he thinks, how he has never paid them any mind before today. As he gazes into the woods, a flash of brown streaks past his peripheral vision. The movement catches him off guard, and he stumbles backwards, barely remaining on his feet. He chuckles awkwardly, more for the benefit of anyone who may have seen him than for himself. Glancing down at his feet, he is confronted by his assailant: a doe-eyed, panting dog. It settles itself, and sits dutifully. A handsome English Cocker Spaniel, its coat is rich and shiny; the kind of dog you might see on a tin of upmarket dog food.

He likes it instantly.

“Sorry about that!” Calls a well-spoken voice.

Over the brow of the hill appears a heavy set gentleman adorned with a flat-cap, struggling to conquer the last few steps.

“It’s okay,” he replies, as he waits for the dog’s owner to catch up. Deciding to steal some affection, he squats and rubs a hand lightly on the dog’s head.

“Hello you.”

The dog pushes her head into his hand, and closes her eyes. He beams, and sensing her master’s approach, straightens up.

“She loves a new face,” the ruddy-faced man smiles. Motioning to his dog, he removes his cap and wipes a hand across his forehead. “I swear if we had a break-in, she’d open the bloody door.”

He turns to his pet.

“Felicity! Leave the man alone. Come on girl.” He pulls his hat back on, securing it with a quick tug across his brow.

Felicity remains still; she knows better than to try and climb a stranger’s leg. Nonetheless, she wants to play, the thundering of her tail against the ground betraying her obedient exterior. The younger man offers her a knowing smile. She seems to smile back.

“Really, it’s okay,” he protests, secretly keen to keep her company for a little longer.

“Nonsense,” comes the reply. Reaching into his pocket, Felicity’s owner presents a small ball.

“Felicity!”

Her head pricks up instantly, and she springs effortlessly to all fours, her eyes fixed on the ball. She follows it as he waves it to-and-fro, before launching it with a grunt. Bolting after her prize as it soars through the air, it becomes apparent the man has overshot his target, as it crashes through the reaching branches of the trees.

“Bugger.”

A foot from the edge of the woods, she stops sharply, her paws digging into the ground ahead of her in a desperate bid to halt her momentum.

Hesitantly surveying the forest, she paces, gazing pleadingly back at her master with a high pitched whine. Her master laughs.

“Go on you, stupid girl!” He turns to his temporary companion and shrugs his shoulders, before calling back to his dog. “If you don’t get it, you’ve lost it.”

Felicity walks slowly back, whimpering all the way, her head hanging low.

“What am I going to do with you, girl?”

She offers him her best begging look.

“Well I’m not getting it, you’ll never do anything for yourself then.” He motions his head back down the hill.

“Come on then! Say bye!”

The two men exchange smiles, nod as men often do when there isn’t much to say, and part ways. As Felicity and her master disappear from sight, he again becomes aware of the stark silence of the park, empty and imposing in its vastness.

Maybe he should get a dog.

Something tickles his nose, his hand instinctively leaps to his face to brush it away. The same feeling hits his cheek, spattering cold, wet freckles of liquid across his skin. He shrinks inside his coat against the ensuing downpour. Nothing too heavy was forecast for today; he decides to outwait the weather. He continues his walk, along the boundaries of the woodland. The rain settles atop his hair, droplets rolling toward his scalp like water on blades of grass.

Soon the rain falls heavier, its fat beads tumbling down his forehead into his eyes. He blinks it away, irritated; the weather shows no sign of improvement, and he would prefer not to slowly get soaked. He considers taking shelter under the twisted canopy of branches, and as the rainwater begins to creep down the neck of his jumper, the decision is made.

Gradually, sodden grass gives way to bald, bubbling mud, and warped, knotted roots erupt from the ground as the forest thickens. The trees around him multiply, the open space of the hill shrivelling in the distance, until the woods have swallowed him completely.

The roar of rain over the brittle autumn leaves validates his choice, and he dusts what droplets make it through the thicket above from his shoulders. With nowhere to go, and time to kill, he decides to tread on down this less trodden path.

He tramps on, the crackling of twigs beneath him, the patter of the rain creating a pleasing blanket of white noise. Despite the soft ambient sounds around him, it is clear he is utterly alone.

Beginning to make notes of his path, he lays a trail of mental breadcrumbs should he need to retrace is steps. Dull light permeates through the earthy branches, casting a shimmering light across the almost entirely intact desire lines ahead. The breeze barely penetrates the density of the trees, the decaying leaves lying motionless on the ground. A prickle begins to format the base of his skull. What is it they call it?

The eye of the storm.

He presses on, cold fingers of unease coiling in his stomach. A sensation swells under his skin; a feeling that he should not be here.

Unaware of the shower dying off, he quickens his pace, his intentions of a gentle amble in the woods giving way to a desire for the plain open space of the hill. The foliage around him becomes thinner, paler; a much younger set of trees. Their branches are limp, and spindly, their older neighbours clearly having monopolised what scarce light is available. It takes little deductive reasoning to fathom that this area had once been cleared, if not many years since.

A shape catches his eye, off to his left. Daggers of disquiet jolt in his stomach. His attention is turned to an area off the clearing, and nearing closer he sees that cloying branches and ivy have climbed and enveloped something solid. Beneath them, barely decipherable are large blocks of stone, forming a dilapidated wall. As he circles around for a better view, it becomes clear these crumbling stockades are all that remains of a building. Its roof and half of its walls are long gone, looted or ingested by the mud. After some scrutiny, he recognises the basic shape of a small church.

On the far side wall, an empty doorframe stands. Its door has long since splintered and rotted away, but the tattered frame still cleaves, barely, to the surrounding stone. He runs his finger over the fractured wood. Long, yawning scratches are hewn into the frame, struck from multiple angles. Nothing that the indifferent destruction of nature could cause, but something quite deliberate. Something human. Their ferocity screams of desperation; a want to get beyond the door. No, he thinks, squinting into the lacerations, not a want – a need.

Passing under the frame, he idly scans the interior of the ruins. What could have had wanted to get in so badly? Toppled into the dirt, he spots the vine-encrusted remnants of the church’s worn stone altar. Sheltered beneath its remaining leg, something metallic catches his eye. Reaching forward, he yanks away strands of ivy, revealing the rusted buckle of a small chest. His face fills with amazement, and for a moment, he forgets the foreboding of the ruins.

Remarkably, it remains fully intact, wedged into a concave of the altar. Lodged in the buckle is a small lock, clearly made with care and pride.

He places a hand upon the chest. The wood is worn but smooth, like a pebble on a beach. Whether by the safety of its stone marquee, or by some unnatural means, it has avoided rot and decay. Whatever is inside has been well protected. He is overcome with curiosity; he must see what is inside. Pulling, he tries to dislodge the chest. It remains firmly entrenched, mocking his feeble attempts. Cramming his feet against the altar, he tries again.

The leaves suddenly shudder behind him, as if disturbed by the scurry of feet.

A splutter of alarm spews from his throat, primal and involuntary.

He whirls around and sees nothing but the dead leaves, still unmolested on the ground. His blood pounds in his ears.

“Hello?”

He receives no reply, though he is he not entirely sure he was not heard. As he scans the trees around him, he cannot shake the sensation of eyes upon him. He slowly turns back to the chest and hauls the ivy back together to cover it. A new sense of purpose upon him, he decides to return with something to crack it. With a last look over his shoulder, he leaves his prize behind.

He recalls his route well, and with the occasional backward glance, he soon spots an opening in the trees. As slips out of the reach of woods, he is greeted by the welcome sight of the lake below him. Ahead, a young family strolls carelessly along the gravelled path, and he is somewhat relieved to see another soul.

The normality of it all bolsters him, and with the benefit of hindsight, and the presence of others, he chuckles to himself at the silliness of his dread.

Despite the distance between them, he feels the pull of the chest from within its resting place in the ruins. As if it was calling to him. He would be back.

He had to have it, no matter what.

*

The murk of the night is descending swiftly as he finds himself on the road to Hawkswood Park for the second time that day. A fog hangs coolly in the air, the rush of passing cars sending its wispy fingers swirling across the country roads. A bag of basic tools sits beside him on his passenger seat, and he heads to a pub to await the complete cover of darkness.

The Grey Horse sits a short walk from its nearest village; short enough to attract locals and long enough to sober them up again on their return to their wives. Past the farmlands that border Hawkswood Park, and down a narrow road, it is the last building you will see for miles on end.

Sunken deeply into a large leather armchair by an open fire, he is far and away the youngest patron within its walls, making him quite the novelty for gaping locals. Absently sipping at his tea, he retraces his route through the park in his mind. The carpet softening the approaching footsteps, does not hear the landlord, as he tosses a log into the hearth.

“You alright mate?” the man laughs, as his young customer’s tea cup clatters in his frightened hands.

He looks up at the publican, admiring the way his thinning red hair glows in the light of the fire.

“Fine, thanks,” he answers at last.

The landlord smiles, and turns back to the bar.

“Actually, if you don’t mind me asking,” the patron pipes up, “have you been here long? The business I mean.”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Been running this place, oh, close to thirty years now.”

“You must have been to Hawkswood plenty in that time then.”

The landlord eyes him closely, and sighs.

“You’re one of those journalists, aren’t you?”

“…Pardon?”

“You’re writing about Hawkswood; we usually get one of your sort poking about on a slow news week.”

The landlord looks his guest up and down, his somewhat youthful appearance, and urban garb seemingly enough to confirm his suspicions.

“Why, is there a story to tell?” He asks cautiously, not bothering to protest.

“Nothing that hasn’t been raked up, and dragged through the mud enough already.”

His brow furrows. Raked up? A casual turn of phrase, or was he meaning something literal?

The landlord returns to the bar, and abandoning his half-drunk tea, his inquisitive guest follows after him.

“I’m not a journalist, honest. I just visit the park a lot. Healthy curiosity, that’s all.”

The landlord turns around, taking a stray dimpled pint glass and placing it to the side.

“Well, you look the sort.”

“So, what’s the story with Hawkswood then?”

“Just stupid gossip,” the landlord shrugs, flippantly. He seems a stout man, not prone to flimsy superstition, and yet he appears troubled by the subject matter.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asks, with a tone more threatening than curious.

The guest takes the hint.

“No, thank you,” he replies, resignedly buttoning up his coat. “Goodnight.”

He throws open the pub doors, and the cold air bristles on his face, the setting of the sun having ushered away the last of the day’s warmth. It’s time to return to Hawkswood.

The subtle rumble of the distant motorway carries over the fields, as he climbs into his car. And yet, there’s something else glowering in ether, some other low, throbbing sound.

Something from within the chest.

*

The night is bitingly cold; he sniffs hard as his nose begins to stream in the cold air. He knows he will suffer for this late-night escapade in the morning. His tools wedged in his pockets, a heavy-duty torch up his sleeve, he gazes through the bars of a secondary gate at the back of the park.

“I guess we’re really doing this,” he mutters.

With a cautionary glance behind him, he slips his foot between the iron rods and hauls himself up, delicately hoisting his legs over the top. Tossing his chisel and hammer to the soft ground, he leaps after them with a loud thud.

As he makes his way through the vacant park, he pricks his ears for signs of life. Nothing but the occasional whistle of wind, and the calls of unseen birds. He makes good speed along the public path, passing groups of picnic tables, somewhat melancholy-looking under the cold blue light of the moon.

Finally reaching the expanse of hills looming over the lake, he is satisfied he has remained unseen, and flicks on his torch, its beam dissipating up the hillside. The mist swirls absently within its shaft of yellow light, serving only to exacerbate the way the hazy night has drained the landscape of its colour.

The ground begins to soften under his feet as he enters the muddy outskirts of the woods. The torch cuts through the shadows, plunging everything outside its narrow reach into absolute blackness.

A rook cries out from its perch in a nearby tree, its black eyes flashing in the light of torch. He ignores its watchful glare, and presses on. Slowly, his senses adjust to the night. The woods creak around him. Adrenaline pricks through his body, a paradoxical mix of fright and anticipation swirling in his stomach.

Just like before, the trees began to thin out, and relief sets in as he realises he is approaching the clearing. He points his torch toward the direction of ruins, but they are not yet in sight. As he flicks the light from back and forth across the clearing, his ray falls upon an unusual shape.

Immediately he swings it back, the bright light casting long, warped shadows on the ground. His eyes scour the area, desperately trying to make sense of the tangled web of branches and shadows he spots it.

A figure.

Partially obscured by a tree, it stands like a statue.

His heart freezes in his chest.

Shaking hands fumbling in his pockets, he pulls out his hammer, brandishing it at the darkness.

In a split second, the figure disappears. He flashes his torch around, frantically trying to lay eyes on the thing in the trees.

“Who’s there?”

He grasps the hammer tightly, and tells himself he is feels safe.

He does not.

“Hey! I know you’re there!”

Birds take flight above him, but no reply comes. Nothing moves in the darkness beyond, and he begins to wonder if his imagination is running away with him.

Panicked breathing racks his body, the bitter night air tearing ragged from his lungs. The beam of the torch shakes in his grip. He doubles over, swallowing hard, and attempts to steady himself.

Finally, his breath leaves him more slowly, gently pouring from his mouth into the night air before him. He pulls himself up, and makes toward the spot where he saw the figure. Running his torch over every side of the trunk, he finds nothing. Not even footprints in the mud.

A few steps further, he finds his church. Hopping over the collapsed wall, he reaches the altar and pulls apart the ivy.

It’s still there, still safe.

He rests his tools on the stone top, and he tries once more to pull out the chest. It remains as stubborn as ever. Tucking the torch between his neck and shoulder, he places the chisel along the seal, and brings his hammer to it sharply. The sound splits the silence of the night, and he stops and looks over his shoulder. Nothing, but the sense of being watched only seems to grow.

He strikes the chisel once more, and again. Heavier. Again.

Then, the sound of wood cracking. He successfully lodges it under the lid of the chest, and pushing down upon it, pops it open a few inches. He grabs his torch and seeks to examine his trophy. Through the small gap, he slides his forearm, his eager fingers scooping at the cold, hard treasures inside.

Pulling himself out, he opens his hand and out falls several gold pieces.

He can hardly believe his eyes. Shining the light onto coins, he can see they are genuine. He scoops more out, their weight confirming their value.

A branch snaps beyond the ruins.

He hears nothing but the excited thumping of his heart, as he begins to collect the coins. They clatter together as his pockets fill.

What am I doing? He thinks. What the hell am I doing?

Two branches snap in quick succession. Closer now.

This time he does hear, and turns an ear behind him as he places the last of the gold into his coat, his greed overriding his previous alarm. He peers into the woods, but keeps the torch pointed at his feet, afraid of what he might see. He flicks off the torch to hide his movements – from what exactly he does not know – and makes his escape.

His knees tremble, his pace slower than he’d like. He wills his legs to keep going, and they oblige. A hush falls across the woods, as if every creature within listens to the jangling in his pockets.

Another branch snaps, directly behind him.

The last of his courage leaves him instantly.

He runs.

He breaks into an outright sprint, sharp twigs tearing at his face as he mindlessly pushes through. His body wants to stop but he won’t let it. Not until he reaches his car.

*

After scanning the seat of his car for any escaped coins, he heads into his house, the familiar setting of his home putting him at ease immediately. Locking the door behind him, he presses his back against it. He’s safe now, and quite possibly, a tad better off.

As he walks the short hall toward the living room he stops by the kitchen to collect a bottle of Ale, deciding it time for a celebratory drink. Flopping onto the couch, he takes out his phone. It hums in his hand, his connections to the wider world fizzling into life again. His soggy coat still draped around him, he places a free hand in his pocket and absently turns over a gold coin.

He taps the web browser on his phone, and begins to search for some kind of context for his new found riches. Deep in the furrows of his search, his eye falls upon on extract from an obscure website that seems to specialise in historical oddities:

“…the village of Hawkswood… No doubt it was the folklore surrounding the churchthat drove the residents away…”

Immediately, he clicks the link and waits impatiently for it to load.

“…drove the residents away. As the local priest apparently became more unforgiving of the everyday sins, he became stricter in the confessional, and more vocal in his damnations. The story spread of his requests of for bribes, the desperate, and highly devout villagers began to pay. While there is circumstantial evidence to these claims, the fact remains that Father Jonah Callaghan lived a comfortable life. Upon his untimely (and reports had hinted at a somewhat suspicious death), the Priest’s home was immediately ransacked, and his grave desecrated. Some families reported their riches still unaccounted for. And appeals were made for information in the town. Accusations were said to have been thrown between neighbours, but the animosity did not end there. Violent crime began to rise in Hawkswood, all under the watchful gaze of the empty church. For reason we cannot confirm, and can only speculate, the church chose to never send a replacement to Hawkswood.”

He scrolls past a few paragraphs.

“…The village no longer stands, nature has reclaimed the land. The crimes are mostly forgotten, as such things often are. However the name lives on in Hawkswood Country Park, a delightful-”

His eyes leave the screen as he leans back into the couch, deep in thought. He removes his hand from inside the pocket and reaches absently for his drink. The nature of his discovery has more or less become clear to him, yet the new-found information rests uneasily upon his shoulders.

His hand is unsteady, and rather of gripping the bottle, he knocks it off the arm of his chair and onto the carpet, its contents spilling onto the floor with a repetitive plugging.

He exclaims aloud and dives after it. Quickly, he leaves for the kitchen to grab something to clean up the mess. After some frantic rummaging, he eventually finds an old towel. Just as he turns to leave, something outside the window catches his eye. He faces it, and can just about make out something beyond the reflections on the glass. He switches off the light and looks again.

A face, looking in.

Submerged in darkness, the pale, genderless face is visible for only the briefest of moments. Shadows flow over like blood spilling in water, and before they consume it completely, he is able to see the expression; a countenance of malice and hated. The lips, twisted in a mocking snarl, seem to hover on the cusp of screaming.

His own mouth opens, but his cries die in his throat. He blinks rapidly, refreshing his eyes.

The lone tree in the back garden shifts innocently in the breeze.

He shakes his head and forces a laugh, feeling quite the fool, if not a little shaken. He’s tired, and surmises the face has surfaced from a long forgotten nightmare.

Squinting into the murky darkness outside, he senses that the dark is not simply an absence of light, but something far more tangible; something he could almost touch and feel. Then from its depth, he hears an odd, faint, uneven sound of scratching.

His imagination has teased him all night. Now, determined for logic to triumph, he ventures back to the front of the house to get ready for bed. The front door enters his sight as he makes his way. As he reaches the last few feet, the scratching begins again. Louder this time, he realises they clearly emanate from the other side.

He approaches the door, and slowly unlocks the latch; the scratching does not falter. With a deep breath, he swings the open door, ready for what awaits him.

The street is empty, and more importantly, silent. The mist still lingers, a drizzling dampness in the air. The darkness of the surrounding houses is interspersed with the glowing from cracks in drawn curtains. These signs of life empower him with a sense of security; surely his neighbours would rally with him against a potential prowler.

Something on the floor glistens in what little light there is, and he stoops to look closer. He recognises it immediately.

His hammer and chisel.

Perfectly parallel to each other in the middle of the road.

The memory suddenly strikes him; he had failed to collect them in his haste to escape. He realises his fears have been warranted; his nervous mind has not been playing tricks on him.

He has not been alone since he set foot in those woods.

Something is watching him, he knows now. He feels it abruptly, indisputably, as stares up and down the road with wide, startled eyes. Stepping onto the wet ground, his bare feet instantly ache with the cold. Tracing the sensation of being watching further down the street, he sees the darkness peppered by the beams of a street lamp; something abnormal draws his eye.

A dim shadow billows in its shaft, standing unnaturally against the flow of the light; a vague outline of a figure, draped in swirling darkness. He finds it difficult to focus on, as if it exists in some strange blind spot. The desire to race back into the perceived safety of the house fills him; he subdues it, with great effort.

He has to have answers. Had this been the watcher in the woods?

He walks out onto the road, his anger growing, swallowing up the sensible instinct to flee.

“Hey, you!”

The figure does not answer, instead its shadowy veil begins to bleed, its darkness consuming the light of the street lamp.

Growing closer, he feels a force emitting from the watcher; malevolence and bitter hatred. It calls to him, taunting him. He breaks into a jog, his fury swelling in response.

Two beams of light crawl up the road. He calls out to the watcher again.

“Hey! You need to back off, right-”

He doesn’t finish. A great force slams into him. It launches him from his feet, sending him hurtling through the air. He lands with an unpleasant crack, the side of his skull shattering instantly.

He hadn’t noticed the car coming.

The driver slams on the breaks and only just avoids hitting the body again.

Lights flicker on, and curtains twitch. A nearby door opens and its resident steps out; her screams at the mangled and bloodied figure lying on the road ring through the street.

None saw who he had been yelling at.

StoriesMark Nixon