Prose

Number 206: The Glade

8 August 2016

How to describe Maude Wakefield? ‘Legend’ is the word many have used and when considering her achievements, it seems more than apt. Born in Colchester, in 1928, she climbed both Everest and Kilimanjaro before the age of forty. She mapped areas of South America and the Antarctic before going on to contribute to Project Omega – the highly classified research group commissioned by the British government to investigate the possibility of manned space exploration. The project was abandoned after the events of 1973 (see Note #65, Midnight’s Children) and Wakefield’s involvement in this and other government operations have, sadly, meant her contributions to her fields have often gone unnoticed by the wider populace. However, those who remember her champion her as one of history’s great explorers, and rightly so.

But we are not here to examine Wakefield’s triumphs – we are here to examine her fears. What follows is a transcript of an audio recording made some months before her disappearance in 2010. It concerns an area of forest identified only as being somewhere “north” of where the interview took place. It is difficult to ascertain the point of reference as it is not known where the recording was made, or, indeed, by whom, though many have presumed it is journalistic in intent. Whether the land Wakefield refers to still exists or not poses a similar challenge, as information is markedly hard to come by. Indeed, the following may be the only account of what transpired on that night, and, indeed, the only kind of clue as to where she has gone:

“ – never liked rabbits. Funny, isn’t it? My sister had a pet rabbit and I can remember how awful it looked in the dark. But fear? Let me think – I would have been about fifty and I was starting to think about retiring from fieldwork. Yes, it was about then that I got the call. From Sir Robert Godwin, whom I’d met working on Omega. The man was insufferable but I could hear, over the phone, I could hear a very real… concern, I suppose. Something had properly rattled his cage and it’s not often that happens to a civil servant, let me tell you!

“Anyway, it was about this forest – a fair ways north from here, I won’t tell you what it’s called – where people had been going missing. I told him the police should deal with it but he said they already had. And they hadn’t come back. He wanted me – among others, of course – to go and take a look. Said it would be “my sort of thing”, yes. Well, after Omega, how could I say no? Pretty soon, I was shipped up there with the rest of them.

“Decent lot, they were, about ten or so. I knew Fielding from Cambridge and Ward was there, of course. The forest itself seemed like any other you’d find in the countryside and there we were, carrying enough equipment to get us across the Alps! (laughs) Still, we’d been warned. A whole lot of people had gone missing, not just the police. Campers and the like… some poachers too, if I remember correctly. Funnily enough, the first thing you noticed when you got there was no birdsong. Not a sparrow to be heard – only the quiet. And a kind of rustling in the undergrowth. “Just rabbits,” said Ward, and who were we to disagree?

“Our instructions were to hike to the centre and set up camp, observe, take notes, that sort of thing… see if we could find something to explain the disappearances. We had some old maps and a set of aerial photographs. That was the cause of our first shock, though you may think it only a little one. By evening, we had reached the middle of the forest and found ourselves in a glade, looking straight up at the sky. It looked to be a perfect circle. But when we looked at our aerial photographs, there was no such thing. Treetops all the way across. We shouldn’t have been able to see up. But we could. On the ground were scraps and forgotten things – a coat here, a map there. It all felt a bit… tawdry? Like a waste of time. Until dusk, of course.

“We’d set up camp when somebody screamed. I thought it might’ve been Jeffries mucking about but it didn’t stop. I forget the girl’s name but she was pointing right up at the sky. Two moons. You don’t forget that. One large and white – like milk – and the other, smaller, floating beside it. Two alien moons in the sky above our heads.

“And then another scream – Ward this time. He’d left the clearing earlier with Banning, gone to compare the area with an old map or some such. He stumbled out from between the trees and we realised he couldn’t see. His eyes were intact, you understand, but he was crying out – “I’m blind!”

“That was when we saw them. They must have followed him to the camp. Hunched over, with white hair all down their arms. Whiter than white, like the moons over our heads. And their fingers – long and pointed – scratched at the dirt and the leaves and the scraps of clothing. Ward panicked at the sound. “Rabbits?” he asked, in a kind of scream. “Rabbits?”

At this point, the tape cuts. For a long time, it was thought that was all that survived of the interview but, only last year, some fragments of recording were discovered in a university collection. Small fragments, certainly, but there is enough to account for Wakefield’s trauma.

“ – running like wild things. Jeffries fired a shot but it passed through them like a hand through smoke. We were outnumbered and there was Ward, eyes starting to gleam and – ”

“ – fingers opening the skin and those little white hairs blossoming out of the veins – ”

“ – burned the photographs of the – ”

“ – suffice to say, I’ve never thought of rabbits in quite the same way.”

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places

– H.P. Lovecraft, The Picture In The House


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