There is a place called Black Pine Falls.
A place where everything looks like a shadow of something else. The trees like tall, stiff men in the dark. A forest of people, hiding in mist. Huge caves like open mouths. Somewhere the rush of water.
You might go looking for it.
It’ll let you get close. Maybe you’ll hear the faint cries of children. The soft thump of an axe into wood. The smells of life and death and the swampblood. And just when you’re almost on top of it all it’ll be gone in smoke, leaving you with nothing but echoes.
The people in the town wipe holes on fogged windowpanes and stare out, at the distant lights of your torches and lanterns. Eventually the lights retreat and go out.
You can look as hard as you like. It’ll let you get as close as a whisper in your ear, before there’s nothing, nothing but fog and the clustering trees.
It simply isn’t there.
TALES OF BLACK PINE FALLS
They called it the Timbersea. They talked of it like it was a single, definitive place, and not the sprawling, stretched out and patchwork area of woods that curved like a horseshoe around the town. It was home to half a dozen logging camps, but they were always sprouting up and dissolving. Sometimes, as the black pines crept in, the Timbersea was connected only by threads. In winter the black could cut it up entirely, turning it into mere pockets, islands of dark green and brown fighting the darkness. Last November workers swore that they were marooned in a single day. Few believed them; tree-blindness, they called it. Caleb was one of those that believed.
The Timbersea was the only place the forest would let them cut.
They’d fell an area, and the trunks and roots would loosen and come up, as though eager for their own annihilation, happy to be done with it and cleanse the land of their gelded forms. Two of the men would turn the grinder and chew the roots and the branches and all that detritus into chips. When they’d moved on to a new area, they’d replant the previous. The trees grew fast, unnaturally fast. Nowhere stayed clear here for long, nowhere but the White Circle.
Caleb crunched his way to the logging camp. He crested a rise, and stopped to take a breath at the usual spot. Through the trees and at a little distance you could see the church, standing on its own in the light morning fog. It was small and old, and short of visitors. It was partly the season; Preacher Williams held the services earlier, so everybody had time to get back long before sundown, but that wasn’t always good enough. Williams had taken a fancy to blaming the large red-eyed crows that perched above the doorway and around the spire. They were there now; their number seemed to grow every day. Was that a raven leading them?
Truth was the biggest reason for the church’s emptiness wasn’t the crows or the season. It was the holes in the roof that Williams never got around to mending. The mists poured through them and drifted around the aisles, making the seats damp. Nobody wanted a wet ass.
Caleb hefted his axe back on his shoulder and continued. It was just him and Foreman Miller Jones for a spell, sharpening and moving things about; the others arrived soon after. There were nine men in all on their shift, and one woman, Rosie. Rosie was too tough to take shit from any of them. She’d been married to Preacher Williams before the thing with the goat. Ever since (and maybe before), Caleb reckoned that she had a thing for him. Sometimes he wondered if the others reckoned the same thing for themselves.
They began to cut.
You always cut in the Timbersea. You never strayed further, no matter how much the black pines beckoned you. And beckon you they did. There was a siren call, whispers carried on the wind. If you didn’t keep your head strong and focused on your work, they could talk to you, in their wordless way. They wanted to lure you, tempt you into cutting into their oil-dark wood and hear them moan.
Caleb had heard them moan, sure enough. He’d been there. He’d seen it.
He’d nearly been there. He’d almost seen it. Almost in time.
The legend of the Man of the Woods was birthed twenty-one years ago. The name was Paul Bunyan. Caleb and Foreman Miller Jones were the only ones still logging who remembered him (Jones remembered others lost to the black too, men before Caleb’s time). Paul was a big feller, bigger than Caleb, a seven-footer with a chest like a barrel. One day he’d gone for a piss and not returned.
Caleb had gone looking for him, and he’d heard the moan. It came from the invisible, ever-shifting line where the Timbersea met the black. The black pines. The sound was like a great woman in cold pained ecstasy, a ten-layered breath that trembled through the ground under his boots.
Caleb had hesitated, then stormed forward, roaring Paul’s name. He found the man’s hat, strewn with black needles at the foot of a tree. It held a fresh cut in its trunk, and the sap that was pouring out was thick and bubbling and congealing fast. Soon the cut would disappear.
Of the axe and of Paul Bunyan there was no sign.
The hat blew with the wind as Caleb stooped to grab it. It danced further and further away, always just out of reach, and like a fool he chased it. He’d wised up in time enough, thank god, letting it go and racing back to the safety of the Timbersea.
To this day, whenever they stopped for their lunch break or there was a lull in the work, you might think you hear the far-off sound of one man walking through the woods. A large man, a huge man by the sounds of it. Or a faint noise on the wind of an axe thudding, sinking into oil-dark wood.
The day’s work as done as it could be, Miller Jones let them go with enough time to get back before dark. Caleb stomped his tired way back through the forest. There was a knot of black pines that separated him from his cabin, and he would always grit his teeth and stop himself from quickening his pace.
Something that sounded like a whippoorwill called from behind him, but it could have been anything at all. The kids better be shut in tight, he thought, not looking round.
After all, it was September. And the dark belonged to them.