🪦 Woodland Grave by Maureen Bowden

A touching story from Maureen Bowden about death, the past, and moving on

🪦 Woodland Grave

by Maureen Bowden

Penelope looked at the packet of woodland wildflower seeds, free with a box of cornflakes.  She read the sowing instructions. “Scatter in poor soil, containing no nutrients, after removing weeds.” Perfect. Nothing grew in the patch of earth that had haunted her dreams and filled her days with dread for seven years. She’d tried cuttings from every plant in her garden. Even the rampant feverfew failed to flourish. Maybe the breakfast cereal's gift would lift the curse. 

No time for curse-lifting right now. She’d do it after work, before daylight faded. She shivered at the prospect of being anywhere near that place after dark.

At the end of her working day, she drove back to the country cottage where, as an orphan child, her grandmother had raised her.

Her front garden was alive with early summer scents and colours of irises, peonies, geraniums, marigolds and scarlet sage. Nothing threatened her here. Nature had been tamed.

A footpath ran along the back of her and her neighbours’ cottages. On the other side of the path stretched ten acres of woodland: the remnant of an ancient forest. She stepped through her back gate, locked it, and crossed into the Wild.

Sycamore, rowan and beech entwined with timeworn oak. Small, indefinable creatures scuttled underfoot, and birds fell silent at her approach. Deep-rooted instinct told her that this was the domain of dryads, fauns and maybe the Earth goddess, the Great Mother herself. Stupid superstition. Nothing here that could harm her. Even the curse was in her imagination.

Forcing down her sense of unease she made her way through the tangled vegetation to the small forest clearing that was dominated by the dark, infertile patch, rejected by all living things. She simply needed to flood it with flowers and then she could forget about it. Her hand shook as she tore open the packet and scattered the seeds evenly over the powdery soil.

A prickling on the back of her neck told Penelope she wasn’t alone. She turned, and faced the pale, gaunt figure of the man she had loved, until an over-fondness for whiskey and cheap wine had turned him into a violent beast. He was wearing the same clothes that he wore last time she saw him.

Her throat dried and sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. “Ned? I’m hallucinating. You're not here. You can’t be here. I killed you seven years ago.” 

He laughed. “No, Penny. Of course you didn’t kill me.”

Suppressed memory of their final confrontation clawed its way back into her consciousness: Ned staggering through the door after midnight, smelling of drink and vomit, and showing his fists. She had been prepared for another beating, but as he had lunged at her he lost his balance, fell at her feet, and lay, snoring, in a drunken stupor.

Her fear had drained away. She felt only anger, and determination that this ended here. She stepped over his body, reached the kitchen and looked for a weapon. At the back of her storage cupboard she found a heavy copper-bottom saucepan, a legacy from her grandmother, who had scorned non-stick modern frippery.

She delivered heavy blow after blow to the back of his head, until his hair was matted with blood and he snored his last snore.

She curled up, shivering and sobbing, in her favourite fireside chair, until her heart stopped thumping and returned to its normal rhythm. An almost full moon shone through the window, illuminating the scene of the crime. Its familiar, friendly light helped to clear her mind. 

She walked outside to the shed in which she kept her gardening tools, and fetched her spade and wheelbarrow to the cottage door. She grabbed Ned’s feet and dragged him outside. Adrenalin-fuelled stamina enabled her to heave him into the wheelbarrow alongside the spade. By the light of the gibbous moon she wheeled him out of her back gate and through the woodland to a small clearing out of sight of the ramblers and ley line enthusiasts who frequented the footpath. 

Dawn was breaking by the time she’d dug his grave, tipped him into it and covered him with the disturbed earth. Exhausted, she returned home, scrubbed the pan, threw it to the back of the storage cupboard, fell into bed, and tried to sleep.

She’d expected the woodland to encroach on the grave, hiding it from prying eyes, but the woodland had refused to co-operate, and here she stood, seven years later, with Ned telling her that it never happened.

He was still laughing. “You were a skinny nineteen year old,” he said. “You didn’t have the strength to kill anyone.”

The mockery in his voice stirred her to anger and gave her courage. “I'm stronger than I look.”

“I know you are. I woke up with a hell of a headache. What did you hit me with?"

“My grandmother's copper-bottom pan, and you didn’t wake up. You were dead.”

He shook his head. “You were in shock, Penny. I looked at you, curled up in your chair, like a frightened child, and I was ashamed of what I’d done to you. That was when I decided to get out of your life.”

She still believed that she was imagining all this, but she formed a vague hope that it might be true and the nightmare she’d been living wasn’t real. “Where did you go?” She asked.

“To the city. I joined the homeless hordes that sleep in abandoned doorways and under railway bridges, and live on the leftovers that the city throws away.”

“But I remember burying you.”

He shrugged. “Probably a false memory that your mind invented to explain my disappearance.”

“But nothing will grow here.”

He hunkered down beside the barren patch of earth, and signalled for her to join him. 

She shook her head and remained standing, not wanting to acknowledge his presence or give any indication of companionship towards him. 

He said, “Your guilt and fear cast a blight over this place.”

“You can't possibly know that.”

“Believe me, I can. In my years on the streets I learned a lot about blighted lives and the effect they have on people and places around them.”

“My fear was real enough. If somebody had found your bones the place would have been teeming with forensic anthropologists and detectives, and they’d be sure to find out what I’d done, but you’re wrong about one thing, I didn’t feel guilty about killing you. I still don't. I want you dead.”

He looked up at her and she saw tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry I made you so bitter,” he said. “I know I don’t deserve it, but is there any chance that you could forgive me?”

She was suddenly afraid again. “Hang on. You’re not hoping to wheedle your way back into my affection, are you?”

He shook his head. “No, don’t worry. There’s no place for me in your life. I just needed to speak to you one more time, but I promise that you’ll never see or hear from me again.”

She pointed to the barren earth. “And what about that?” 

“Now that you’re no longer afraid, the blight will pass. The birds and beasts will return and their droppings will fertilise the soil. Your flowers will grow and the woodland will nourish them. You needn’t come here again.”

A suffocating burden lifted from Penelope's mind. “In that case, I forgive you. I’m leaving now. Don’t follow me.” 

She ran through the undergrowth, ignoring the overhanging branches snagging her clothing, and the thorns scratching her legs. She didn't stop for breath until she reached her back gate and padlocked it behind her.

Back in her garden she sat, and leaned against the cottage wall, basking in the early evening blue and gold light, while the melting sun stained the clouds pink. This place had been the only home she'd ever known, but it had become her prison. She was safe here, but maybe too safe.  Now that she was free she’d sell it and take her chances in a world of which she’d never been a part, move to the city and change her life, but she’d take grandmother's copper-bottom pan with her, just in case.


In the woodland clearing Ned's ghost turned his eyes away from his own grave and howled an anguished prayer to the Great Mother. “Hear me, mighty goddess. Have I redeemed myself? I lied to your granddaughter to grant her peace. Will you now grant it to me?”

The goddess heard him, and responded. “You've made your point, Ned. I’ll grant you peace, but please keep your voice down. You'll annoy the dryads, and they're a nuisance when they're petulant.”

Horns sprouted from his brow and curled around the sides of his face, his feet became cloven hooves, and a soft pelt replaced his clothes, covering his lower body. As the moon rose the Great Mother reached out to the faun's lost soul, and guided him home. 

The End
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 198 stories and poems accepted by paying markets including Third Flatiron, Water Dragon Publishing, The First Line and many others. She was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize and in 2019 Hiraeth Books published an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic.’ They plan to publish an anthology of her poetry in the near future. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies and her husband has performed them in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare, and cats

Check out the full issue of 🎉 Weekend Edition Vol. 024!