IN THE WOODS By Denise Leppard

There are always places you should think twice about going to, especially on your own. Not just in the town, but also in the countryside, like our own woods in the country park just up the road from here. You shouldn’t be lulled by a sense of familiarity into thinking that you are safe because you know the way and the sun is shining. Or that the big bold dog you are walking will prevent the unthinkable from happening, that one time in a thousand when you could be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
We hadn’t long moved into the village when I found the overgrown track on the park perimeter that became one of our favourite walks. I wasn’t even certain that it was one of the designated paths, because you had to fight your way through brambles to get on to it, but it was a good, long and quiet pathway. For reasons that will become clear, I’m not going to tell you where it is. Simply that it runs parallel to the boundary of the woods overlooking private property and I don’t think you should go there.
I had another dog then: Sadie who came after my much loved German Shepherd. I hadn’t wanted another big dog at my age, but in the rescue centre she seemed vulnerable and lost, a scarred and sad looking animal whose hopeful eyes touched the core of me. She was a victim of both bad management and chaotic breeding with a history of disappointed owners that hinted at something unpredictable in her nature. It was some months before I found out exactly what that was. By then she had become a loyal and trusted companion. It was only when I began to give her more freedom when we were out on our walks, that I discovered the flaw in her. Sadie, amongst her own kind, was a killer.
Sometimes she could be quite aloof with other dogs, but now and again, in response to canine signals that a mere human can’t even guess at, she would take offence, and display an aggression that at times was terrifying. There were several unpleasant incidents with other dog owners and I was wary of letting her off the lead in public places. But one day she got away from me and attacked a Jack Russell that died when she tossed him up in the air and broke his neck. Its distraught owner complained to the police and threatened me with legal action and other retribution, none of which frightened me quite so much as the fact that my dog had killed. Especially when several months later, she did it again. This time it was a terrier, an old warrior who started hostilities, and who paid the price, because she shook him to death with a terrifying ferocity. There were no half measures with Sadie; she fought to kill. I will never forget the owner, sobbing uncontrollably, telling me that it was not my fault. I was glad when we moved house, and we could start again, where she wasn’t known.
Why did I keep her? Because I feel quite strongly that some other human being bore the responsibility for the way she had turned out, somebody who had handled her badly enough to scar her physically and mentally and I hoped that maybe I could put that right. If she had ever turned on me, it would have been different, but she never did. She remained sweet natured and kind amongst people, trustworthy at home but undeniably, a killer of other dogs.
There were few fights after that, because I kept her firmly under control, we went regularly to training classes, but they only taught me that no amount of training could take that aggressiveness away from her, I had simply to be alert all the time we were out. That was the main reason, when we moved house, I searched out the quieter paths, like the track on the edge of the park.
In the late spring when we first walked that path, there were wild daffodils all along it. Sadie hunted rabbits in the undergrowth coming back to check on me every now and again. The bank below the path fell away into a mass of neglected undergrowth overgrowing a barbed wire boundary fence at the bottom. Further along the path, through the bare arms of over wintered trees, you could see down into the grounds of a red brick, rambling old house; what I saw was intriguing, to say the least.
Between the fence and the house, stretched a large field where a skewbald Shetland pony grazed in unkempt grass. And on one side of this field, was a small compound, enclosed by an eight foot high wire mesh barrier on concrete posts, and a second stock fence on the outside of that. It was eerily suggestive of a wild animal compound. It could have been an overgrown and neglected fruit or vegetable cage – rabbits and wild birds would be a problem for any gardener here – or even a tennis court, but the area was pockmarked with brambles and fallen logs, and certainly did not look as if it had ever been cultivated or cleared. And as for wild animals – that was hardly likely, for in one corner of the compound sat a bright green garden bench, facing inwards.
I pondered the incongruity of that bench every time we passed by, wondering who would sit there, watching what? doing what? and was something kept in, or something else locked out? The gardens surrounding the house were cultivated so presumably there were more attractive places for someone to sit and enjoy the views. The compound had some purpose I could not guess at. But only once did I ever see anyone inside it, and that posed more questions than it answered.
It was an evening much later in the year, and I had taken my camera, looking for sunset pictures. I had thought I might get a silhouette of the red house against the sky, but by then the view from the footpath was almost obscured by summer foliage. I always looked for the pony in case he was doing something interesting and several times I had seen the fox daintily treading his way through the long grass but too far away for a shot even with my telephoto lens. I parted the bushes and looked down.
There was a man in the compound. He was lounging on one end of the bench in a shaft of evening sunlight that illuminated his reddish hair. And the sight of him immediately set the hairs on the back of my neck prickling.
There was a bundle on the bench beside him. He had one hand gently resting on it and I thought it might be a dog, asleep, with a jacket, or a blanket thrown over it. It didn’t move. But suddenly, he sat up, his whole body language changed from relaxed to on guard as he swivelled round to glare in my direction – and I knew he had seen me. Perhaps the movement of the bushes. Perhaps a glimpse of my red fleece jacket. He stared fixedly for a few moments, and then quite deliberately he stood up, his feet solidly apart, the epitome of confrontation. Placing his hands firmly on his hips, he faced me out. The message was clear. Go away, stop looking, or else.
Hastily I let the bushes fall back into place and backed off. There is something shaming in being caught out looking into someone else’s private property – but as I hurried on, I became rather less embarrassed about it. After all, I had every right to be there on the footpath, hadn’t I? I could look wherever I wanted from a public place, couldn’t I? Even take photographs if I wanted to. But the questions still loomed; what was he doing, just sitting in that compound. Looking for wildlife? Waiting for the fox? And what was that bundle on the bench beside him? It was all rather unsettling. I hoped I wouldn’t see him again. But I did.
It was an early morning, a few weeks later. I had taken to walking by without spying into the grounds of the red house, and certainly not taking any pictures, just in case. I walked briskly as usual, the dog rustling along the top of the bank where I suspected there might be badgers. Then, as I turned a bend, I suddenly came across the red haired man planted on the path ahead of me.
His body language gave the impression that he had been waiting for me, that I was not going to get past him. His legs were splayed, his arms hanging loosely at his side, he seemed poised – on the point of – what?
For an instant we simply stared wordlessly at each other, neither giving way. He was not a tall man, he was almost squat, a square, heavily built person, suggestive of huge strength. He was wearing camouflage gear, heavily laced boots, carrying nothing in his hands though a gun wouldn’t have looked out of place. But it was his eyes that held me, set deep, with a flash of pure, clear blue that was almost shockingly hostile.
Did he take a menacing step towards me? I am still not sure, because it was in that exact moment that Sadie burst down the bank, slithered to a surprised halt, and barked. One single, questioning who the hell are you? sort of bark, and stood there, hackles raised, as he modified that movement towards me – if that’s what it had been – and changed it into a plunge to the side that took him down the bank, where he disappeared, in the direction of the house.
And thank god for that, for Sadie was still standing growling deep in her throat. It unnerved me, of course it did. But I do not frighten easily, I always felt safe with my big dog beside me. She’d seen him off, hadn’t she? But it did give me pause for thought. That odd compound, and that odd man and Sadie’s reaction to him. I did think I might ask someone about it, but I didn‘t, not then.
After that, I didn’t go that way quite so often, but I didn’t stop altogether because it was such a safe walk to take Sadie on. But when I did, I was always on my guard. Not least of all because Sadie had growled at him with her hackles raised, and I didn’t want any problems if she ran across him again. Fighting other dogs was one thing but attacking people was something else altogether. There was still that unknown in Sadie’s past, and I would never completely trust her. But it wasn‘t over, far from it.
The year unfolded; it was late autumn and the trees were almost bare again; I had had a photographer’s surfeit of autumn colours, and a couple of days of heavy rain had dampened and darkened what was left. Everywhere was turning brown, and the back path, unmarked by foot prints except for those I had made the week previously, was a damp and dull sort of place to be. I walked with my camera tucked away, enjoying the white-patterned birch trunks in their straggly stands, ancient horse chestnuts knee deep in their own prickly husks and the sense of the woodland putting itself to sleep for the winter.
It was a long time since Sadie had attacked any other dog, but I knew the isolated walks now, and we rarely ran across other walkers. If we did, I put her on the lead straight away. But she was in an odd mood that day; not rambling up and down the bank, but sticking close to my heels, stopping now and again to scent the air and occasionally whining. I’d just begun to register her uneasiness when she suddenly veered off the path and disappeared down the bank in the direction of the red house. She’d never shown any inclination to go down there before. I whistled and called, not too happy at having to draw attention to myself this close to the house, afraid that there might be another dog down there, or that man, and another confrontation. But she didn’t come back. In the end, I reluctantly pushed my way down the bank. When I got to the barbed wire fence, I saw what was there and froze.
A few feet away the pony was lying on the ground in a heap of contorted limbs. And Sadie was standing over him, hackles raised, her face twisted by a snarl.
Panic swept through me – in those first few moments I was absolutely convinced that she had attacked him and brought him down. I angled myself through the barbed wire fence, my hands trembling as I clipped the lead on her collar. Sadie was growling constantly and trying to pull away from me.
The pony was certainly dead. And I was unable to ignore the convulsive evidence of what had been a terrible death, the ground around it churned up, and the poor animal looking as if it had been tossed there. Was Sadie responsible for this? Was she strong enough to bring a pony down? Surely there had not been time for all this while I was running down the bank after her? But then I stepped closer.
I have never before seen an animal choked to death. But this was what I was looking at then. The bruised and bloodshot eyes, the swollen tongue lolling out of the mouth. A twisted tangle of hair at its throat and a trail of blood in the livid foam that still seeped from its lips . My dog could not have done this.
Sadie suddenly pealed into a cacophony of high pitched barks and threw herself in the direction of the path above us, pulling me over. As I fell, I put out one hand to support myself and it landed on the pony’s flank; it was still warm. In the shock of that moment I let go of the lead, and Sadie shot through the fence.
I stumbled after her, but in my panic hooked my coat on the barbed wire, and for a few minutes I was trapped, then ripped my arm away tearing my hands as well as my sleeve. I was barely through the fence before I heard Sadie scream.
It was a cry of pure agony and terror, cut off into a gurgling whimper far worse than anything I ever want to hear again. I screamed her name as I fought my way up through the brambles and fell on to the path. At the same time I had a distinct flash of something – something, not someone, not the man – something else – scuttling off the footpath. I thought: badger. But it was the wrong colour, wrong shape, and then I saw Sadie lying in a heap, as if she too had been thrown there.
She was fighting for breath, taking deep groaning gasps that racked her whole body. There was blood on her mouth, her tongue lolled out, just like that pony’s in the field below, and her eyes were bloodshot. I straightened out her legs, and she fell back with her sides heaving, her eyes glazed with shock. I fumbled for her collar and she cried out but I had to unclip it to free her throat to help her breathe. There was a rank, odd odour about her that had transferred to my hands.
Desperately I looked around, wondering what had happened to that thing I had seen. I was shivering with shock but I was not so far gone that I couldn’t still sense a terrible danger. The pony had been attacked – and now Sadie – and that indefinable something had shot off into the bushes. It was still there. I felt it as surely as if I had hands at my own throat. I could smell it; on my hands and in the air. And then I saw it, barely ten feet away close to the ground under the green fronds of a yew bush, eyes glinting.
What I could see in the shadows was the pale ovoid of a hairless face, not quite a human face but not animal either. Everything was wrong about that face. Eyes, mouth, nose, it had them all, but not arranged with any kind of symmetry, a misshapen mouth and lips pulled back over handfuls of blunt teeth, brows that seemed welded to its sparse hairline. And pale eyes unrelenting in the fixed stare of a predator.
I had to get away. We were miles from anywhere and the prospect of anyone else being on that path and able to help was minimal. I urged the dog to her feet though she could barely move. My panic must have infected her because she lurched off along the path , stopping now and again to gag and cough up blood. And it followed us.
I have never felt real fear before, but you can believe me, absolute terror leaves no room for anything else. It was fear driving Sadie to stagger through her pain; fear that drove me to scream at her to go faster, injured though she was. And all the time that thing rippled easily through the bushes behind us.
It was playing with us. One moment it was on our left; next, I saw it from the corner of my eye cross the path from one side to the other behind us; then it moved parallel, matching our speed step for step, turning that ghastly visage with its empty eyes towards us. What was it, for god’s sake? And we had miles to go before we got to the main path. No time to get my mobile out of my pocket. And in any case, who would I ring and how could they find us here, this far off the beaten track?
Without warning Sadie collapsed, went down with a groan and lay still. I couldn’t lift her. I thought she was dead. My own strength was gone and I could run no more. I stood there panting helplessly; no sticks, no stones, no means of defence to hand. I knew it would come for me, and it did.
It emerged slowly from the bushes and stopped on the path behind me, coming up off all fours in a waft of that foul odour, so that I could see it completely for the first time. It was not something you would forget quickly. It was small – less than a metre high – but no juvenile, there was adult confidence in the way it held itself. It was clothed in some kind of overall and shirt, a ghastly parody of something not quite human. An enormous head was set on wide shoulders on a stumpy body, its reddish hair scraped back into a kind of pony tail. The arms were a man’s arms, thick and muscular with massive hands and long, strong fingers brushing the ground. But it was the eyes that dominated; the depthless eyes of a wild animal focussed on me.
When it began to move, it propelled itself effortlessly by those muscular arms, a movement at a time, cautiously and with its head level as you might have seen a cat creep up on a mouse. It came nearer. I glimpsed the thick leather collar round its neck, and a length of broken chain, that told everything.
Its lips drew back over that tumult of crowded teeth, and it could have been a snarl, could even have been an expression of pleasure, it was not the teeth that frightened me, but those lethal hands strong enough to choke a pony.
There was nothing I could do but watch it come, an inch at a time, just waiting for that final pounce. Suddenly it was all too much for me – I found breath from somewhere and I heard myself scream at it. I howled wordlessly and then cried and beseeched, appealing to some part of it that must be human…. But it didn’t stop coming.
When it paused fractionally I knew it was gathering itself to leap – and I stopped screaming, a sob of fear held deep in my throat. A moment of total silence – and then into that infinitesimal pause came a little incongruous sound –
Tinkle, tinkle.
The thing quivered as if suddenly held back, eyes darting sideways, attention slipping. Tinkle, tinkle, a sweet and innocent jangling from the path behind us, and the next moment the red haired man ran full pelt round the bend.
He had no eyes for me. He was holding high in the air a small silver bell, a chain in the other hand, his eyes immediately locked on to the thing. He stopped dead, shaking the bell as it whipped round and faced him. And the next moment, with a leap that seemed almost joyful, it scuttled towards him and clawed its way up his legs and into his arms, snatching the bell with one of its enormous hands. In a movement so quick I almost missed it, he clipped the chain to its collar, and then wrapped the creature inside his jacket, where it burrowed motionless. Only then, did he turn, white faced and look at me.
It was very quiet, the whole woods listening, no birds.
Sadie moaned and dragged herself to a sitting position. In mixed relief that she was alive and panic that her movement might set off some other kind of horror, I squatted down and put my arms round her to keep her still. I was shaking so much I could barely breathe.
So we faced each other, that man with his arms round his unspeakable burden and me with my arms round my dog. I thought he might speak, but he didn‘t. He just looked at me, and I thought I could see a terrible fear on his face, coupled with a mute and desperate appeal. I thought of the pony strangled in the field, and I remembered the dogs that Sadie had killed and I thought that this man and I, we both held killers in our arms.
As I stared, the thing moved and turned its head and glanced up at the man. I wondered what they were to each other; keeper and kept? siblings? I heard the muted tinkling of the bell in its huge fist. Their eyes touched; the same blue, I saw the way it nestled its head into the curve of his neck; there was something unmistakeably and hideously feminine about it, and a sense of it being at home, comforted there as a child might be. The next moment he turned and disappeared along the path.

I can hardly remember how long it took me to help Sadie back to the main path or how long it was before I heard voices calling out. I was feeling quite ill by then, shock, I suppose and could barely speak as a pair of men who had been working in the woods found us. They had heard me screaming a lifetime ago. They carried Sadie between them to their Landrover and drove me back to my car.
I told them a vague and rambling story that Sadie had fallen down a bank or perhaps she had been attacked by a badger, or perhaps she had run into a bush and injured her throat on some branches … and I had screamed because I thought she was going to die right there in my arms. And I saw myself in their eyes, an almost incoherent dog besotted old lady, having hysterics and I thought they were more concerned for me than for the dog, as they watched me drive away.
I took her straight away to the animal clinic and told them the same story. It was easier than trying to tell the truth. She was in shock, and having difficulty breathing, and they kept her in overnight and on a drip, and x-rayed her throat. The next day I went to collect her and she was breathing better but her throat was still swollen and she would have difficulty eating for a little while. The vet couldn’t account for the injury to her throat and questioned me closely, particularly interested to know if I had seen something or someone get hold of her. I said I knew nothing, except that I had found her collapsed in the middle of a path, after she had chased something in the woods.
So she survived, and a few weeks later she had her first confrontation since the incident with another dog – but some of the stuffing had gone out of her. She went through all the motions, but never got close enough to do any real damage or for the other dog to grab her. It was all show now, and I understood the terrible lesson she had learned. It was the only positive aspect of the encounter. My own state of mind was somewhat different.
I don’t know any more than I have written here, but I have surmised a great deal, usually in the dead of night when I am most likely to think about what happened and what nearly did. There have been a lot of those kinds of nights. I don’t go deep into those woods any more, but keep to the main paths, or walk with friends, and go down by the river or to the lakes where I can see in all directions who is in front of me, and who is behind.
I did ask in the village if anyone had ever seen anything peculiar in those woods and I got the usual sort of reply; odd goings on at night when the park was closed; someone had seen a strange figure dressed in white; someone else had their dog mauled by something that the vet had said looked like a big cat attack. There had been odd men, and peculiar encounters, but nobody mentioned a thing like I had seen.
I know the address of the red house, because I have found the lane where it stands, quite on its own with no other properties within hailing distance. The house is well kept and its iron gates are always locked; a couple of the windows have bars across them, and some evenings I have seen lights inside and sometimes a small blue car parked outside. I have driven past several times, but I have had to stop myself doing that because it was becoming something of an obsession. And because, really, I don’t need to know any more.
Until now, I have never told anyone this story; it was easier to stick with the garbled first version rather than offer a revised one that really might not be quite believed. Besides, I have been wrestling with my conscience over it all; should I report it, in case it happened to someone else? But every time I think of that, I remember the pain in the red haired man’s eyes, and I remember the look they shared, he and the female thing he had chained to his wrist, which he had tamed by a little tinkling bell. I too have loved a killer on a chain and I know how that feels.

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