Paloma had lived in Madison all her life with her mum, dad and little brother Cody. Madison was a small tight-knit village cut off from the surrounding towns and nestled inside a valley so deep that the only way to come and go was by aeroplane. The small population was circled by towering snowy mountains and on the edge of the village, there was a forest known locally as Culzean Woods. As children, Paloma and Cody were always intrigued by the forest because they had never been allowed to venture any further than a metre from its entrance. If other route’s home were blocked and their parents had to take them through the path that passes Culzean Woods, their parents would grip their hands a little tighter and bow their heads to look at the gravel. Cody and Paloma used to make up stories about Culzean being an enchanted forest where Snow White and the Seven Dwarves lived.
“You shouldn’t waste your time dreaming about such nonsense, Paloma!” her mother would snap at me when Paloma told her about her make believe stories.
The more Paloma paid attention, the more she noticed the residents in Madison glancing warily at the forest before snapping their heads away. She would notice that nobody ever went into the forest or walked too close to its edge. Paloma knew there was something more that the adults of the town knew about the woods, something that the children were shielded from.
From that moment, at the age of 15, Paloma began to study the forest religiously from her bedroom window. Every night once the sun fell and drained the last of its dusky light from the sky and the moon rose high in its place, Paloma would creep out of my bed to watch the woods. She would keep the light off, fish out her binoculars, open the bay window wide, lean on the sill and trace the patterns of the forests intertwining trees through her new magnified eyes. The weather was almost always miserable in Madison but Paloma loved the smell, chill and heaviness in the air at night after the rain had showered the village during the day. Her stakeouts were always unsuccessful. She would search without being sure what she was looking for and all she ever saw was the leaves flickering as the wind slinked in between them. At around 1am, she would eventually give up on her investigation and go to sleep.
Paloma grew more inquisitive with each failed detective attempt. She even asked the school librarian for information on the forest and told her it was for a biology project. The librarian raised an eyebrow and looked suspicious.
“I would advise you to let go of this fascination you have, Paloma,” she warned. “No good will come of it. Do you understand?”
Knowing she wasn’t getting anywhere, Paloma nodded and left, but she wasn’t giving up. Later that day, Paloma managed to sneak her dad’s work laptop into her bedroom and Googled the forest. Most of the information she found was sparse and useless but after digging around for an hour, she found an old newspaper article. The article stated that ten years ago, a teenage boy from Madison went missing. He was a sensible college boy so the disappearance was out of character and therefore taken very seriously. After a few months, the trail ran cold and eventually the village started to move on but on the first night of winter, the boy’s body was found at the entrance of the forest with strangulation marks around the throat. After that, the case was completely dropped. He was quietly buried and grieved for and the whole ordeal was put to bed. Paloma would have been five years old at the time. She reread the article several times in fascination and confusion. She found it so bizarre that apart from the article, this disappearance was essentially kept secret. The author was unnamed. Paloma stayed up until 3am that night.
A few nights later while studying the woods, Paloma finally saw something. It was the first night of the year that the temperature had dropped into minus numbers and sleet was pouring from the open clouds. She pulled her sleeves up over her cold trembling hands, wiped the watery lenses on her binoculars and held them back up to my eyes. Someone was walking along the path to the forest. Paloma knew the person. His name was Eric Copeland and he was in his last year at the local high school. He was standing at the forest entrance and looking inside. He was perfectly still, in only a pair of jeans and a thin blue sweater. Every few seconds he would tilt his head and he would edge closer as if he was trying to better hear a faint sound. Paloma wasn’t getting a good enough view from her bedroom window and decided to get closer.
Paloma pulled on a thick hoodie and pattered downstairs in my bare feet. She weaved through the lounge, into the kitchen and quietly slinked out the back door. She quickly skipped along the wet spongy squishy grass in the garden, across to the ladders of Cody’s treehouse. She ran up the rickety ladder that creaked and swayed with her weight and climbed into the small wooden play house. From the makeshift window (a hole in the wooden wall), Paloma started watching Eric again. This was much better, she thought, she was a lot closer and now she could read Eric’s movements and expressions rather than just seeing a smudged soppy figure. Eric stood still for a moment and then he slowly turned his head.
Suddenly Paloma could feel her ears getting hot and her heartbeat pulsating through her temples. Eric turned his head further and he was looking at Paloma. Paloma knew he couldn’t see her. She was completely in the dark, she was still far away and he didn’t have binoculars like she did. He definitely couldn’t see her, she thought. Paloma stayed still, hoping it would make her invisible. After a moment, Eric gradually turned his gaze back to the forest and slowly walked inside. Paloma watched him, her eyes gripped on him as he robotically strolled inside the forest. She lost sight of him.
Paloma wanted to shout for him to come back. She wanted to run into my mum’s room and tell her that someone had went in there but she couldn’t do it. She didn’t sleep at all that night.
The next morning was a Sunday and Paloma got out of bed at 6:30am. She sneaked downstairs and packed some food and essentials. She put on several layers of warm clothes and pulled on her heavy black hiking boots. It was still dark when Paloma headed outside. The village was still and silent like a ghost town, everyone was still cosy and fast asleep in their beds. Paloma took the gravelly path that led to the forest.
She’d had enough. Paloma had to find out for herself what was in there. It was only a short five minute walk to the entrance of Culzean Woods. After pacing up the path while gravel crunched under her boots, Paloma was standing in the same spot were Eric Copeland had stood the night before. The imprints of his trainers were still on the ground. Paloma had never been this close to the woods before and as she looked where Eric had seemed to be looking the previous night, all Paloma could see was trees. She stared and noticed a tiny blue light at the vanishing point deep in the forest. From the eerie silence emerged a voice singing in light, airy tones. It was quiet, distant. The lullaby was soothing and almost motherly. The lyrics were in a language Paloma didn’t understand, yet the words were hypnotic and without really noticing, Paloma found myself walking forward into the forest and towards the blue glow.
She expected the forest to be icy cold but instead it was lukewarm and tranquil. She was dazed and starry eyed as she stumbled further into the woods. As she weaved between the trees and became lost, Paloma started to feel dread and regret. She shouldn’t have come here. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. How was she going to get back out? Just as she turned a corner, Paloma bumped into someone.
“Oh, I’m sorry-” she began. She pulled back and was stunned to see a small elderly African man wearing war paint with a bow and arrow and a small bag on his back. The man didn’t say anything. He simply smiled like he’d been expecting her. He pressed his hands together as if he was praying and bowed to her. Paloma was confused but she mimicked the gesture back to him.
He gestured to himself and said, “Akhona.”
Then he gestured to her – “Paloma?” She nodded, too fascinated by him to even wonder how he knew her name. He grinned again, nodded and asked her to follow him.
Akhona’s den was made from huge branches and leaves from the forest. In the middle was a small fire to create light. He sat on the ground with his legs crossed and invited Paloma to do the same.
“Paloma have been watching Culzean, hasn’t she?” he asked. Suddenly Paloma felt like she was in trouble and Akhona saw the flicker of worry in her expression.
“Paloma have a fascination with the trees, the plants, the nature, just as Akhona has. Paloma sees the special sight that many cannot see.” He spoke in a rhythm like he was singing. Paloma nodded again. She didn’t know what else to do.
Akhona untied the small bag from his back and out of it he took out some war paint, two small cups and a bowl, a bottle of water and several different coloured leaves and seeds bound together with string. He smiled at her like a grandfather.
Paloma realised that she should have found it strange and should think about leaving but she didn’t want to. It didn’t occur to her to wonder why a lone tribal African man was in the woods in a town nowhere near Africa. For some reason, Paloma felt safe and comfortable, surrounded by nature.
Akhona squeezed some of the paint onto his fingers and drew lines and patterns onto Paloma’s face to match his. He put his hands together and bowed his head again as if to say thank you and Paloma repeated the motion to him. Akhona then put the leaves and seeds into the bowl and started to beat them with a rock. Once the leaves had turned to mush, he added the water and swirled the mixture delicately with the rock. Paloma studied every step of the process. Akhona then lifted the bowl and held it over the fire. The mixture bubbled, boiled, spat and erupted a puff of green smoke into the den. Paloma jumped and pushed herself back. Akhona gave her a reassuring look and then poured the mixture into the two small cups. The mixture was now a smooth lime green liquid. The scent was intoxicating, like nothing Paloma had ever smelled before. She found herself sniffing the air like a dog scouting for food.
Akhona handed Paloma one of the cups and gestured for her to drink. Paloma took a breath and the rational logical part of her brain began to speak up. She shouldn’t be doing this. She didn’t know this man and this drink could be poison. It could kill her! Ordinarily, Paloma would have listened to this sensible frightened little voice but on this occasion, she chose not to. The drink had the sweetest scent Paloma had ever known and she couldn’t not taste it. Slightly nervous but willingly, Paloma held the drink to her lips and took a tiny sip.
“Ayahuasca,” Akhona whispered as he looked to the sky.
The roots that were spread across the forest bed shook and broke away from the ground. They crawled towards Paloma and began to intertwine around her limbs, hugging her snugly. Akhona held her hand as ‘Culzean was born again’ he said. Paloma looked around her in awe as the lifeless dull woods became animated, colourful and bright like UV paint. From the bark on the trees emerged moving expressive faces and from the branches grew grasping arms. Paloma could suddenly perceive colours and dimensions invisible to the human eye. She could see ultraviolet and infrared. She looked down at her body to see it as an image of hot and cool. The tropical plants uprooted from the ground and began to dance around her, sprinkling their seeds and exotic scent all over the forest. Paloma could see carbon dioxide as a swirling rainbow coloured gas in the air as the vegetation feasted on the fume. Paloma could eat it too. It was coated with a sugar gauze that popped and sizzled on the tongue.
Paloma could feel a heavy metal in her core that provided little dotted lines of magnetism that connected her to the earth, the moon, the sun. They were holding her in place, grounding her. Paloma looked up to see the sun smiling down at her with the crescent moon beside it. The moon’s eyes were milky and they glistened as it winked at her. It is all connected. We are all connected, Paloma realised. She understood. In the midst of her swirling thoughts, Paloma realised she too was a little piece of the universe represented as a human being. Her purpose was to be a guardian of nature. It all became so clear.
“This is the vine of the soul, Paloma. The lungs of the planet. We must love, protect and serve Culzean. Do you understand?” Paloma heard Akhona say from somewhere nearby. Paloma nodded profusely.
Paloma’s eyes could comprehend a myriad of colours, she had spotted kaleidoscopic vision. The patterns in the air were so intricate, detailed and colourful and moving so quickly that she felt dizzy. Through the forest walked giant fuzzy tarantulas with googly eyes the size of Paloma’s head; purple tigers breathing yellow fire; pink lions with horned heads; talking grizzly bears who cuddled Paloma and cradled her in their furry arms like an infant; giant blue centipedes; enormous snakes double Paloma’s size who left a trail of gooey radioactive scales behind them; and orange monkeys who sang as they swung rapidly from tree to tree. A green baby elephant walked through the trees and approached her. The miniature elephant wrapped her long never-ending trunk around Paloma’s shoulders and pressed her forehead to Paloma’s.
You are our special one, Paloma, the elephant said to Paloma in her mind. You must save us from the evil of the planet who wish to destroy us.
A tear trickled down from her eye down her rough green skin. She let go of Paloma and lifted her trunk in the air. She trumpeted and the sound vibrated in Paloma’s ears before a waterfall of tranquil glowing blue liquid rushed out of her trunk and into the air, washing over Paloma. The water was so hot that it was steaming but it didn’t burn Paloma. Her skin felt new. The water had washed away all her negativity and clouded thoughts. Culzean had blessed her and gave her a spiritual rebirth. Paloma was a different person. She could barely even remember her life or its former purpose before now. She was in love with the forest. She didn’t care about anything else, not even herself. The plant spirits whispered to her and enticed her further. Paloma wanted to become one with them. She wanted to be buried in the earth and surrounded by the plants and the animals; just to be close to them.
The leaves in the air opposite her began to move in perfect unison. They morphed into the shape of a woman’s face.
“Moeder Natuur!” Paloma heard Akhona cry.
The woman was so beautiful. Paloma felt embarrassed to look at her.
“You have done well to seek us, Paloma. Are you ready to join us and be a guardian of Culzean?” she asked. Paloma immediately blushed. The voice Paloma had heard singing when she first entered the forest belonged to this woman.
“Yes! I want to join you!” Paloma pleaded. Akhona appeared and handed her the blossom of an exotic yellow flower. He gestured for her to eat. Paloma, without question, put the blossom into her mouth and began to chew. At first it tasted like bitter crumbly chocolate but became tough and chewy like raw meat. Suddenly it dissolved in her mouth and became a fine sour powder. Paloma started to gag and she spat it out in disgust. Paloma looked up to see all the colours had gone. The forest was dark and all Paloma could see was Moeder Natuur and Akhona staring at her.
“You are almost ready,” Akhona said, suddenly seeming sinister.
Paloma continued to spit out the putrid powder when she noticed a huge black shadow towering over her. Paloma looked up above her to see Eric Copeland and the missing boy hanging by the neck from nooses high in the canopy. Blood drenched their faces and their arms stretched out for her to join them as their limp bodies swung and dangled idly in the air.
“You will be our next sacrifice, Paloma,” Moedur Natuur said firmly.
The forest was freezing cold and Paloma could feel her lips turning blue. She didn’t want this anymore. She wanted out.
“No. No, I can’t be!” Paloma whimpered.
Moedur Natuur’s green leafy face turned fiery red and flew towards Paloma.
“You chose to come to us!” Moedur Natuur roared. Casting a gale through the forest and making the trees quake. “You agreed to join us, to give us your soul! You can’t go back now!”
“Please, please let me go! I’m sorry! I’ll never come back again,” Paloma pleaded as she sobbed on the ground.
But Moedur Natuur refused her. Paloma didn’t know what else to do. She ran.
Stumbling as she sprinted, Paloma threw her legs forward as quickly as she could. She snapped my head back to see Akhona only feet behind her with Moedur Natuur consuming the forest and growing bigger and bigger, expanding her presence and flying through the air behind Paloma. Above her, Eric and the missing boy were soaring through the forest after her, their heads leading them and their lifeless bodies merely flailing in the wind. Their blood dripped onto her as she ran.
The tree roots and plant vines on the forest bed uprooted, trying to grab Paloma’s ankles and pull her down but she managed to jump and miss most of them. She kept tripping as she raced, frantically searching for the way out. Finally, in the distance Paloma could see daylight and she tried to quicken her pace but her legs were growing tired. She pushed herself to keep running, telling herself she was nearly out. Her breathing was wheezy and heavy. She turned round to see Akhona right on her tail and he grabbed my arm, twisted it and threw her back. Paloma landed hard on the ground with her face in the dirt and immediately she felt the roots wrapping around her like veiny boa constrictors. Paloma struggled hard. She managed to grab the knife from her back pocket and stabbed the roots. The squealed and retreated as she cut through them. She kicked off the rest and clambered back up from the ground. Akhona tried to grab her by the shoulders but before he got a tight grip, in the midst of her panic, Paloma clenched her fist and threw it into his nose. The bone gave a sickening crack as Akhona fell back and groaned in pain. Paloma immediately turned and ran to the exit of the forest so fast she thought my legs were going to fall off. She was getting closer. She willed her legs to pick up quicker and her arms to grab the air and push it back behind her. Finally, she reached the edge of the forest.
Paloma collapsed on the gravelly path covered in a sheath of cold sweat. Her face was hot and she was gasping for air as she felt her heart pounding against her rib cage. Paloma looked up from the gravel to see Moedur Natuur and Akhona deep in the forest staring at her, angry in defeat. They seeped further and further into the distance and soon disappeared behind the trees. It was now night time in Madison. The moon was directly above her and she started to think about how worried her family must have been. She lay on the ground until the rhythm of her breathing calmed, then made her way on aching legs.
Eric Copeland was never seen again and there was no investigation into his disappearance. Everyone just pretended he’d never existed. Paloma researched and found an online blog of a similar account to hers by an Amazonian. After reading, she believed that somewhere inside Culzean Woods was a portal that was twinned to the Amazon rainforest, but her fear and night terrors prevented her from researching any further. Paloma never told my parents or even Cody about what had happened. Even now, she can’t walk that gravelly path and she never ventured back into Culzean Woods again.