The door groaned and complained but with a couple more groans and heaves from us, we finally managed to prize it open. And then we stood there, simply staring into the pitch black space beyond the door with our jaws suspended. We’d been talking about this for weeks. It had been a November breaktime when the weather was too damp and miserable to go outside and we’d been forced to cram inside school again. Squished around a tiny round table in the Dining Hall clutching hot chocolates, we reminised about our childhood back to the sun-filled summers where our biggest fear was getting a scrape on our knees. Sarah was the first to mention it. “Do you remember the house?” A silence hung over the table for a few moments as we remembered not just the house but the feeling of discomfort brought with it.
When we were younger and the world was a much bigger place full of wonder the three of us would go exploring in the woods at the bottom of Liv’s garden, picking blackberries and pretending to be Tarzan. It was our magical place differing from one day to the next – sometimes the trees were the skyscrapers of New York and other times a bush was a penguin we’d made friends with during our expedition to the North Pole. I still remember the day Mum dropped me off at Liv’s house and her expression of concern when I went into the kitchen for our usual glass of juice. We watched through the conservatory window in horror as council workers erected a fence at the bottom of the garden, concealing the realm in which we had let our imagination run free. We soon became used to playing on Liv’s quiet street and only remembered the woods at times like that rainy breaktime in November.
But that day was different. We had remembered the house. It went back to a day when we had been naughty and wandered further away from the house than Liv’s mother would allow. We discovered something quite unusual. A house, decrepit and derelict standing alone in the middle of the woods as though someone had placed it there by accident. Looming over us with its brown wooden boards and black windows, it was clear life had not walked within its walls for years. We didn’t go within ten meters of it, far too cautious. We had suddenly felt very aware of how far we must have wandered from the house and quickly paced back to a distance near to Liv’s garden constantly checking over our shoulders back to the house although for what we weren’t sure. We never wandered that far into the woods again, nor did we speak of the house.
“Lets go back”, Sarah said. I looked up from my hot chocolate, sure she was joking but her eyes were filled with mischief as they often were and a grin was stretching its way across her face. This prompted the usual host of worried and logical questions from Liv such as, “What if the council had found the house and razed it to the ground when they erected the fence?” Our sixteen year old selves knew these questions and scenarios were all perfectly plausible and the chances of us finding the house were low, yet our ten year old selves wouldn’t let it rest. Our curiosity had been aroused and we had to return to the house in the woods even if all we did was peek in at a window or find an empty space between trees. So it was decided. As soon as the holidays started we would go beyond the gate.
Here we were, standing in front of the untouched house with its black, black windows. “Come on then” breathed Sarah. “We’re not going back now are we?” She spoke in such a way it was as though she was trying not to be heard, as if we were still hiding from Liv’s Mum. We couldn’t be heard anyway, we were far from any houses in a part of the woods rarely visited by dog walkers. “No” I heard myself say more convincingly than I felt and then I was stepping forward into the black. I was completely blind, only able to sense Liv and Sarah no more than an inch away on either side. We stood rooted to the spot, plunged in darkness with nothing but the sound of our breathing. Suddenly Sarah broke the silence as she started to move further into the darkness. A moment later my eyes were readjusting to the light streaming in from a shafty looking window opposite us. “I knew it was a curtain” Sarah said as she found another window and uncovered it. I looked around to Liv standing with her arms firmly crossed and eyes darting into every corner. We were in a vast, bare room filled only with an old wooden cot. The floorboards creaked underneath Sarah’s feet as she returned to my side, still the only one of the three of us who had defeated our apparent state of physical paralysis. And then the cot began to cry…
For a moment, no-one moved as we stared at the cot. Then we edged forward as though we were approaching a tank of sharks rather than a crying infant. Peering over the edge of the wicker cot, a ripple of gasps escaped each of us. It wasn’t possible. How could the sound of crying come from a cot without a baby inside?
“I don’t like this” Liv started moving away from the cot, still looking at it like a bomb about to cause destruction at any second. I felt equally uncomfortable. “I think we should leave. Now”. Just as I started to follow Liv back towards the door, the ceiling above us creaked so quickly, I almost wondered whether I had really heard it. We were all staring at the ceiling.
“What the hell are you doing?” hissed Liv as she watched Sarah moving towards the stairs. It was madness but I was following suit and travelling towards the uneven staircase. “Em?…Em, where are you going? Are you insane?” Clearly I was, as I carried on walking until the creaking, hollow stairs were under my feet. Liv huffed behind me and then there was only the sound of three sets of overlapping creaks. Sarah discovered more curtains and a landing started to emerge as plain as the room now below us. It was only when I reached the top of the staircase and the first floor came into view that I realised once again, we were in one large room stripped of any furniture. The hairs on the back of my neck were on end. We had all spotted the heap in the corner.
Just like climbing the stairs, we treaded towards it in order; Sarah, me, Liv. It stirred like a child in a bad dream. Stopping in our tracks, I squinted trying to comprehend what the heap was. Covered by a dense, black blanket, it could have been anything; an animal, maybe even somebody our age. It started to moan and wail, now thrashing about inside the blanket like a distressed creature trapped inside a cage. Something tugged inside me and I was advancing towards whatever it was underneath the shroud of the blanket before I even thought about what I was doing. The heap at my feet stopped crying, still and silent. “Em…” Sarah’s voice trailed off as my hand reached outstretched down to a fold in the blanket. For a moment, I concentrated simply on my breathing and my fingers wrapped around the worn, heavy material. Nothing. So I pulled and stumbled backwards as the hiding heap was revealed…
Drip white arms, lank black hair splayed over its body, a dirty, yellowing rag as a dress. What I could only assume to be a human girl was hunched over on her knees with her head pressed to the floor. Her posture was almost like someone praying, only she looked as though she was in despair. Worship and asking the heavens for help were the last things on her mind. She moved. Her shoulders jerked once up and down and her fingers dragged slowly backwards across the floorboards to either side of her head, resting on her hair. Slowly, she started to push herself upwards on the palms of her hands, face still covered by her raven black bonnet. Her head was turning to face us, again so slowly it was as though she had not moved for years, getting used to using her limbs and joints in unison. I made out the face of a young woman under the cloak of hair. Complexion matching the pale in her arms, the eyes that locked with mine were even more paralyzing. Little, black stone pupils were surrounded by burning, crimson irises ablaze with hot fury…
She was muttering something inaudible, resembling a person waking in a confused state from an interrupted sleep to begin with, before she began to sound increasingly hysterical and cried out piercing screams. Her eyes never left mine. She paused, breathing heavily. And then she was standing, picking her left leg from underneath her and then her right. Her shoulders remained hunched with her hands balled into fists and she glared unwaveringly at me through black strands. She shook with each enraged breath she took. And then she spoke.
“Baby” she said almost inaudibly. “Baby” she repeated, this time louder and less of a question. “Taken” she spat as she spoke this word. “Taken…baby…taken.” Not once did she break eye contact as she raised her arm, reaching out to me, beckoning me. I was immobile. “You…you bring…” Something had shifted in her expression, it was less harsh. Was she asking me to do something for her? “Bring…back…baby” I opened my mouth to reply, but it seemed my ability to speak as well as move had been temporarily ceased. “Baby…taken…must…bring back” her tone was urgent and strained. When I again failed to speak, her eyes returned to a blazing frenzy, hostile and merciless. Her cupped, outstretched hand turned into an accusational, pointing finger. “You…no…help” she was snarling now, “baby…taken…you…taken…baby…must…pay” Oh god, I thought as she started to walk towards me her joints suddenly seeming to loosen. Still, her eyes locked with mine, fixated with no intention of letting go of my gaze.
“Em!-” Liv’s voice was high with panic. I stumbled backwards to where she and Sophie were stood and they clung to either arm. “You…baby…taken…pay…must…pay” the young woman came to a stop. I nearly jumped three feet when the crying resumed downstairs. This triggered something even stronger in the woman, who now started to shriek, “MY BABY…THEY TOOK MY BABY…GONE…BABY!!!” she howled on like a mourning animal confirming it would find its revenge. Horrified, I watched her pant through the effort of her crazed screaming before the wicked smile gradually spread across her face and her eyes widened. “You…keep…here…you…pay…for…baby” she was walking again and I would have stayed rooted to the spot, helpless had Sarah and Liv not dragged me backwards. “Run, Em! Come on!” and we were pounding down the stairs, the ceiling banging with each step she took behind us. It wasn’t until we were flying past the cot that it hit me. They had taken her baby and we had discovered her in a place where she had been left grieving to grow bitter against humanity.
We couldn’t get the door open fast enough, bustling back into the woods towards the safety of Liv’s back garden. I constantly looked back over my shoulder, terrified she would follow. We were safe.
Scarred by the experience, we broke down into hysterical tears in Liv’s bedroom. I couldn’t tell them. No, they’d suffered enough shock and upset. I would have to deal with the truth on my own. I knew I was adopted, Mum and Dad had always been open to talking about it. I’d never really been concerned with who my biological mother was. Now I knew. She had finally seen her daughter grown up, her baby once taken had involuntarily returned for a fleeting instance. She had left again, leaving her mother alone once more. Forgotten in the woods.