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The Copse

The copse sat central in my old suburban town, an untouched spot of the old forests. Last remnant of America’s ancient wood. On maps, it was the dark core of a bruise, the town its paler rings. Oaks towering high as four homes stacked, a maze of roots and trunks, easy to be lost in. Leaves choked the sunlight from above, so even at high noon, that copse was a dark, black-green mire, the color of deep set grass stains. No grass grew, no flowers. Its smell was mulched dirt and sticky sweet sap.

It was a place for children to wonder at, to poke around clean cut edges, marvelling at where manicured lawns merged to shadowed, knotted dirt. It was a place for illicit rumors at barbecues; did you hear Susy and Paul went in there last night, some people have no shame. Lies, of course. Not even the adults liked to go in.

Children would play in it, but never for long. There were no breezes, no animals. Every murmur, step, breath, the silence took offense to. If we giggled during church, the priest would stare at us, brow low, so we knew we had done wrong; making noise in the copse was like that. Every oak glowering, scorning, but their heavy, solemn age was more imposing a threat. In there, I felt cold egg slime pour down my spine, the prickling sensation of being watched. I doubt I was the only one. No one, not ever, entered past dinner, not even on a triple dog dare.

The copse was forgotten when I entered middle school, overwhelmed by geometry, and crushes, and schoolyard gossips. Until, one day, I was called a coward for not asking out May. Stewing in frustration and hormones, I saw father’s axe. Chopping my name into one of those oaks would show them. Even Mary would be impressed.

The first whack chipped the bark, and jarred my bones. So, putting my arms into it, turning and heaving, I swung until a notch appeared. Could already feel the pinch of new blisters on my palm, and sweat beading, and a freezerburn coldness. Mid spring, sun high, and the cold was cutting through my shirt, biting my teeth. The oak was bleeding, wine red, thick and slow.

A ram, a boulder, something, barreled into my side, pushed me into the dirt inside the copse. The axe was kicked away. Stamping, crunching steps around me, straddling me, like a prancing horse, but there was no panting breath. I tried to turn over, raise my arms, kick it off, but as I lifted my head, a cold sharpness struck my cheek, left a burning trail to my lip.

Then it was gone, and I was alone in the cold, green darkness. Rising on shivering legs, every nerve tingling, adrenaline licked. There was nothing around but me, and the oak I had cut. Its bleeding had stopped.

Cheek stinging, axe lost, I left, shooting glances over my shoulder until the copse was gone. At home, mother went into a fit tending to the gash on my cheek, and trying to wash the red from my shirt. No one asked about the axe. Later, much later, on a cloudless day, I went back to find it. One tree, I think the same one, had a light red streak across it, like the scar on my cheek.

Used to wonder why no one had cut down that old copse; now, I prefer not to think about it.

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