The Whyknots were woodland creatures, who stood up bipedal as man does, but varied only two-and-a-half to three foot tall. They were an ugly blend of ash grey and hunter green, with a bumpy skin texture topped with un-ripened peach fuzz for hair. They had one job to do, and that was to make caskets. Long wooden boxes made from fallen trees and leftover cabin remnants, nailed together and sanded down to splinter-less. Unlike dwarfs who whistled while they worked, these odd little creatures grunted; sometimes short grunts that matched their steps, sometimes long and drawn out like a giant’s moan. They were always busy, and they had only one job to do. And each casket was made custom.
Sally and Peter Cline walked the path below the Whyknot’s village every Saturday in the early afternoon. Every now and then they would pause and look around like someone was watching them, then laughed it off, kissed, and fast-tracked down the path. When Whyknots weren’t making pine boxes, they were watching. So many people had gone lost in these woods, yet the Clines kept coming back. Perhaps they didn’t know the history of the Madson Woods. Perhaps they thought their love would conquer all demons lurking in the brush. Or maybe they were ones who believed that only bad things happen at night, when the sun was nigh.
The Madson Woods were deep and treacherous if you strayed from the path. Signs at the entrance of each hiking trail warned politically of the dangers of the forest, but the Missing posters stayed closer to town. Adventurers packed tents and braved the elements, teenagers would bring pot and shrooms and booze and dares. But it was the seemingly unknowing, like the Clines, that riddled the Whyknots most. And they were secretly preparing for the glorious celebration of their capture the Saturday after next.
Meanwhile, the Whyknots kept building. And the man kept providing. The Woodsman was as big as the Whyknots were small. He fit in perfectly with the tall trees, and looked like a sibling of the oaks when standing still. But when he moved, he was daunting. His long, gangly legs took monstrous steps that left prints the size of a Whyknot lying down. His eyes were sunken and his head bald to the skin, no peach fuzz like the Whyknots had. Not bumpy like the Whyknots were. Smooth like a snake. He wore a hunter green coat over an ash gray shirt to blend in with them. They took it as a sort of homage to the hard work they put in for him. The attire camouflaged him well with the colors of the forest, since his size made it much harder for him to be overlooked from afar.
It was routine practice for the Woodsman to gather all of them outside of his tree home the morning before the kill. He would tell them all about his Shadow Neighbor, a term he would use to describe his next target. The Shadow Neighbor is six feet tall, he would say. The Shadow Neighbor is round, but not fat, about 220 pounds, he would say. The Shadow Neighbor needs a perfect coffin, he would say. One that fits him just right. So the Whyknots would take notes while grunting, some would pace and scowl while others would lick the tip of their wood pencils and scribble furiously on cracked brown leaves. Then the Woodsman was gone, and would not return until nightfall.
He would always bring unsavory looking Neighbors back with him. Sometimes the Whyknots wondered if these were vigilante killings, and that the Woodsman was getting rid of Neighbors that had left messy evils out there beyond the forest. The Neighbors were never scared, just angry. And they were all men: short, tall, round, skinny, ugly, more ugly. But each had his own custom-sized box, made to fit. The Woodsman was satisfied when the boxes would fit, and he would reward the Whyknots with fresh berries and meats he collected along his route.
Each Shadow Exit was the same, a ritual of sorts. The Shadow Exit was the send-off to push the Neighbor downstream in his perfectly-tailored coffin. The boxes were always made sturdy enough to withstand the torment of the bustling river, even if it knocked against a few stones and outstretched tree limbs. The caskets were good. Strong. Made to perfection.
Every month, the Woodsman would give the Whyknots a free Saturday to rest. This is why they picked the Saturday after next to capture the Clines. The Woodsman could know nothing of it; he would be livid and take all of their privileges away. They had to make Sally and Peter’s caskets in hiding when the Woodsman was asleep. The Whyknots took turns watching, to see if he moved or bustled or arose, while the others quietly sawed, hammered, and sanded. After weeks of grunting arguments around how tall Sally was and how much Peter weighed, they finally got it right. They tailored each casket from deep analysis and observation every Saturday, early afternoon.
The Whyknots had never captured a Shadow Neighbor. None had seen how the Woodsman did it. But they knew they wanted to do it themselves. To feel the rush he must feel: stalking, waiting, hunting. They wanted to feel that excitement, not just be the clean-up crew. They would capture them and they would place the bodies into the customized wooden creations. They would push the caskets, with all of their united might, down the river. The Woodsman could never know.
The Saturday finally came. The Woodsman gathered the Whyknots around his tree home.
“Tonight’s Shadow Neighbor is five-foot seven, 155 pounds, and is shaped like a whittled-down carrot,” bellowed the Woodsman. “I want it right, I want it tonight.”
So the Whyknots would take notes while grunting, some would pace and scowl while others would lick the tip of their wood pencils and scribble furiously on cracked brown leaves. Then the Woodsman was gone, and would not return until nightfall.
The Whyknots scurried back to their cemetery of rejected pine boxes. No time for new ones today, they grunted. They would have to choose the one that most closely resembled a five-foot-seven, 155 pound, whittled-down carrot shape. The Woodsman would be angry, no doubt, and they would not receive their berries and meats. They may even be punished. But they did not have time for new boxes. The Clines would be passing by in early afternoon.
Peter and Sally Cline arrived on schedule, in their matching workout clothes and coffee and naivety. As they walked the path that stretched below the Whyknots village, they were surrounded by small rocks that had never been there before. The couple was engrossed in lover’s conversation and didn’t notice the unfamiliar terrain. The Whyknots lay in rock bundles at their feet and were ready to capture their very first Shadow Neighbors.
When the couple eventually noticed that the rocks were breathing, they froze. The Whyknots descended upon them in dozens; the Clines fell over as they were overtaken by these horrible, bumpy, skin-like creatures. The fear paralyzed them. Sally passed out from the ordeal, while Peter was subdued by the strongest of Whyknots and could not move.
The Whyknots, after significant difficulty moving the Clines from the path to their custom-made boxes, rolled the bodies into the caskets and nailed them shut, as they always would for the Woodsman. They slid and carried, slid and carried the boxes to the river. Dusk had fallen. There was not much time left before the Woodsman would arrive with the whittled carrot. They must hurry, or he would see the boxes floating downstream and they would be finished.
Peter and Sally Cline were not dead. What the Whyknots hadn’t realized was that they didn’t know how to kill, they just knew how to clean up. The Woodsman would always show the Shadow Neighbor to them, confirm the size of the box, slink away for several minutes, and come back with the job done. They never knew how he did it, they just knew that the Neighbor was alive for the tailoring confirmation, and then not when he returned to be put in his box. It wasn’t good enough for them to hunt, capture, and trap the Clines in their boxes – they had to kill them.
Peter was the first to break his casket open and start fighting back. The Whyknots were not prepared. Flustered, many were thrown downstream, pummeled, or tossed deep back into the forest. The Neighbor was strong and determined. He kicked, he punched; he even bit.
The Whyknots had no choice but to retreat, for they did not know how to fight and kill. That was the Woodsman’s job. They ran back to their village and hid deep in the tree stumps, shivering and afraid. The Woodsman returned and saw two empty, half-broken boxes at the top of the stream, surrounded by injured and dead Whyknots strewn about.
The Woodsman galumphed toward the Whyknot village with deep, red, bulging eyes. He began to kick over the stumps and uproot the trees. Then there was a loud shot, and then another. The Woodsman fell like a sibling oak, bleeding from his midsection. Smoke rose out of holes the size of a Whyknot’s foot in the Woodsman’s chest.
The Whyknots stayed silent, huddled, hidden in the earth’s floor, praying it would all be over soon.