'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Picnic in the Woods

The trees are bare. Autumn's colour show is over, but I like the garden at this time of year. Christmas decorations wouldn't make it any more exciting. The wife's aunt does paintings of the garden. No amount of decorations could make the place seem as unreal as it appears in the paintings. She's started differentiating everything into vans and ghosts and scuba divers, and nothing else. She says the world is much simpler like that. Her paintings of the garden are full of vans and ghosts and scuba divers.

My cousin Craig once went camping with his friend, Tony. At the campsite, they met two women called Maggie and Michelle. The four of them spent a lot of time together, and two couples started to form. Craig often found himself alone with Michelle and Tony ended up with Maggie.

Craig and Tony convinced the women to go for a picnic in the woods one night. They said it would be romantic in the light of the moon.

There was a clearing in the woods where they could sit on rugs and see the stars. This is where they had their picnic, which consisted almost entirely of drink. There was a pond in the woods, and Tony suggested going there after midnight. He led the way. They couldn't see much on the path through the trees. There was an eerie atmosphere, and this affected them. No one said anything.

Maggie screamed when she heard something howling. "Was that a wolf?" Michelle said.

"There are no wolves around here," Craig said. "It was probably just a dog."

"I want to go back," Maggie said.

"We'll be fine," Tony said. "You're forgetting that I once had to shoot a French man." The truth was it was an accident. The uncomfortable truth was that it was a French woman. He shot her in the leg when he was trying to put the gun on a table. She wasn't happy about it. He thought that was just because she was French.

They heard another noise. It sounded like someone laughing. Tony and Craig were terrified. They agreed to go back, but they tried to make it look as if they were reluctant to return, and that there was really nothing to be afraid of.

There really was nothing to be afraid of, until they got lost. They walked for half an hour, and all the time Tony said he knew where he was going, but they ended up at the pond. The water was shrouded in mist. Craig looked into it, and he thought he saw a few sets of glowing red eyes looking back out at him. A man spoke to them in a French accent, but they couldn't see where he was. They looked at Tony, waiting for him to act. He just wanted to run away.

He managed to restrain this impulse and he walked away very quickly instead. The others followed. They kept walking until they met an old woman, who smiled at them and eased their fears. "Are ye lost?" she said.

Tony was going to say, "Well, I wouldn't say 'lost'." But Michelle got there first and said, "Yes, completely lost."

"Follow me."

They followed the woman. She looked as if she was about eighty, but she had a spring in her step. There was a glint in her eyes, and she talked a lot. Her voice was very clear and she was very precise. She put them at ease because she seemed completely at ease with the woods, as if there was nothing to be scared of.

She led them to a clearing, but it wasn't the one where they had their picnic. They saw the heads of dead animals nailed to the trees all around the clearing. This was something to be scared of. The fact that the old woman was smiling was something else to be scared of. "Keep following me," she said. "And don't try running away. I promise you'll regret it if you try. You'll probably regret following me anyway, but all other options will bring you tidal waves of regret."

They followed her. Tony felt helpless. He had wanted to show the women how much of a man he was, but he was at the mercy of an old woman. He felt he had to do something, so he threw a spoon at the woman's back. She turned around and said to Tony, "Did you just throw a spoon at me?"

Tony wondered how she knew it was him. "No," he said.

"If you do that again, I'll find something pointy to stick in your eye." She said that with a smile. The French woman had said something similar with real menace in her voice, but the smile was much more menacing.

They felt utterly helpless. All they could do was wait and let fate do to them what fate was planning to do to them, which was looking like it would involve an eye and something pointy.

Craig thought it was time to get away from the old woman and see how regrettable that course of action would be. When she climbed over a fallen tree trunk, he shouted, "Run!"

He ran back the way they had come. Michelle, Maggie and Tony ran after him. They didn't hear the old woman following them, but they kept running as fast as they could.

As they ran, Tony said to Maggie, "I've always thought that if you know you don't have long to live, you should try to live life to the full in that short space of time. You should do everything you really wanted to do. You should go out with a bang."

Maggie said, "The very fact that you're trying to sleep with me in a situation like this is so off-putting. I wouldn't sleep with you if you were the last man on earth."

"In effect, myself and Craig are the last men on earth."

"What you're saying is that myself and Michelle are going to die before we see another man. What happened to your 'Don't worry, I shot a French man' line? Now it's 'We're all doomed. Doomed! We're all going to die. Because we're all lost in the woods with a psychotic old woman, we're all going to die. Die! Will you sleep with me?'."

"I wouldn't put it like that."

They ended up back at the clearing where the heads of the dead animals were, but since they were last there the animals had acquired bodies and had come to life. They could see where the heads had been stitched to the bodies. Some of the heads and bodies didn't match. The animals had an evil look to them. They encircled Craig, Tony, Michelle and Maggie, and they closed in on them. "I wish I hadn't thrown away that spoon now," Tony said.

"Even a mouse wouldn't fear you with a spoon," Maggie said.

"That was the old me. I feel a new me emerging. I should have taken things into my own hands a long time ago. It's time for action. No more being pushed around by old ladies and furry animals. No more pushing around either. No more pussy-footing with pushing; we're going to bulldoze our way out of this. Follow me."

He looked around for the weakest animal. He chose the squirrel, or at least it had the head of a squirrel. They couldn't say where the body or the eyes came from. Tony ran towards the squirrel and kicked it out of the way, as if he was kicking a rugby ball, and it was a good kick too. Even the squirrel acknowledged that in the sound it made. It was sweetly struck. He kept running and the others followed. Tony grinned the grin of a man who's about to escape death and have hours worth of stories to tell for the rest of his life, stories that portray him as someone who could shoot any number of French men who deserve to be shot. But the grin was removed from his face and replaced by something more sinister, something furrier, something with a black heart. The squirrel landed on his head and clung to his face, muffling his screams. Craig got a stick and started hitting the squirrel/face. Before that night, he'd have felt sick at the thought of hitting a squirrel, but that wasn't the first time he had to hit Tony's face. The squirrel eventually let go and accepted defeat. It ran into the undergrowth.

Craig said, "If that was a rugby kick, it would have been a perfect up-and-under, a Garryowen. You caught it brilliantly."

Under normal circumstances, Tony would have appreciated the rugby reference and he would have loved the compliment about his catch, but these stopped being normal circumstances shortly after he threw the spoon at the old woman.

They ran, and they were determined to keep running until they got out of the woods, but they came across the old woman again. She was blocking their path. She smiled at them, and Tony lost the will to bulldoze his way out of this situation.

"Well, well, well," she said. "No, I can't believe I just said 'well, well, well'. I said that before and I thought, 'Don't ever say that again.' I read these things in books or see them in films and they come out when I'm in similar situations. I might as well add 'What have we here?'. I should say something original, like 'Ye forgot the lemon'."

"What lemon?" Craig said.

"I should say something like 'Ye forgot the lemon', but not that, because there is no lemon."

"Do you want to take a moment to think about what you want to say?"

"Yeah, just give me a moment."

Tony said, "Let's run her down. Rugby style. She's the full back and the ball is heading for her. We can even throw a squirrel at her to make it more realistic. The try line is behind her. We don't even need possession of the squirrel -- we're just heading for the try line."

"I don't know," Craig said.

The woman kept smiling.

"She's more afraid of us than we are of her," Tony said.

"She isn't."

"Do you want to wait around to see what she'll do next?"

"Ye don't have to wait around to see what I'll do next," she said. "If ye want me to do it now, I will. It doesn't really matter what I say. I can think of that later; I'll come up with some brilliant line, and when I'm telling people the story I'll say I used that line. I'll say, 'The stupid one came up with a plan to run right through me, like in rugby. I said...' And that's where my line would go. I could continue with that little story now, but then ye'd know what I'm going to do in advance, and it would ruin the surprise."

"You already know what we're going to do," Tony said. "Has it ruined the surprise for you?"

"No. I know what ye think ye're going to do, but I know how it's going to end. There was never going to be any surprise for me because I've always known how it was going to end."

Maggie started crying. The woman said, "Are you crying because you've known all along that it was stupid to go into the woods with morons?"

Maggie nodded. Tears streamed down her face. Craig thought about turning and running again, but he could hear the animals approaching from behind them, and then he saw countless red eyes emerging from the darkness behind the woman. The eyes belonged to wolves. Craig thought this was The End, with a capital T and an E. But the wolves attacked the woman. The other animals ran past Craig, Tony, Michelle and Maggie, and they fought the wolves. This was when Craig turned around and ran. The others followed. Within a few minutes, they had found the clearing where they had the picnic, and they were on familiar ground again. They didn't stop to gather their things. They ran out of the woods and returned to their campsite. They spent the rest of the night in their tents, listening to the sounds of the countryside around them, but they heard nothing out of the ordinary.

The moose's head over the fireplace got a new pair of glasses. He finds it much easier to read the newspaper with them. I have to hold up the paper for him. The wife's uncle says he once went to an optician and a woman examined his nose. He told her she needed to get her eyes tested, but she said they weren't really hers, and neither were her feet -- they came with her shoes. He asked her out on a date because in his younger days he had a policy of asking women out before they got their eyes tested. As he got older he realised that he didn't have to rely on poor eyesight to attract women. A glint in his own eyes was enough to make them weak in the knees.