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The Forest Beside Marston Footpath


by Hannah Schultz

Emilia Thorne swipes the back of her hand across her eyes, smearing mascara and blood onto her cheeks. Each footfall is jarring. She steps and gasps. Steps and hisses. Steps and whimpers.

There are no stars tonight. She limps towards her house in the dark, the light she left on hours earlier faintly spilling from the window panes above the kitchen sink and across the side garden before being swallowed up by encroaching shadows. In ancient times, navigators would have been stranded by faith and luck on a night like this. Perhaps the constellations disappear of their own volition: to wash their hands of blame when there is no future written there in the heavens, no almighty intervention to reveal the nebulous path between right and wrong.

Emilia hesitates by the side door. Across the road, the Baigents’ front light blinks on, and the door is opened just wide enough for their dachshund to scurry outside. Emilia turns away, draws herself into the shadows. She instinctively reaches to tighten the scarf around her neck, but it was left behind—along with so many other things that she could never get back. She draws a deep, shuddering breath, trying to ignore the feral pain clawing through her abdomen, and stumbles inside her house.

* * *

Piper Collins approaches a couple standing just off the Marston footpath. She’d left her husband in their bed just a half hour before, and his guttural snores are still reverberating inside her ears, the cutting pain of her solitary schedule made more distinct in the grey light of dawn. One day, she would put in her resignation. One day she would have all those little joys that she could not have in this life of death and brutality—but it would have to wait. 

“PC Collins,” she says. “Responding to your call about a body.”

Thick fog rolls across the marsh, disintegrating as the early morning sun appears over the horizon. Patches of ice are scattered off the hard-packed dirt. The footpath leads straight from Saint Cross and South Parks to Ferry Road. On one side, there are Oxford faculty buildings, and on the other, neat little neighborhoods with kids playing in the front garden. In between, it’s just sucking mud and spiny undergrowth shadowed by bare tree limbs. 

Piper follows the couple through a tall gate off the main path, and they all continue into the brush of a side trail. She eyes the direction of the neighborhood again, measuring the short distance in a mental map. It isn’t unusual for someone to see blood or guts or bones and immediately phone the police, only for the constable to find the skeleton of some poor house cat or the mangled corpse of a rodent attacked by a loose dog. She has been on her fair share of those calls, nightmares plaguing her for several nights afterward. Once, she dreamt of an under-city constructed from the bones of rats and squirrels and sheep. Red foxes with blood-stained muzzles led her down the ossein streets, and when she looked down, she discovered that she too walked on four paws over the calcified relics of spent life.

“This is where we saw the blood,” the man says, pointing to a sticky glob of maroon liquid in the withered grass. 

Piper grabs an evidence marker from the inside pocket of her jacket and presses it into the cracked, half-frozen ground beside the alleged blood splatter. 

“Then…” He points further ahead, off the path and into the trees, where drops of deep red have soaked into the leaf detritus. 

Piper follows his line of sight, her breath catching in her throat. She covers her mouth with her hand. It’s involuntary, a twitch, before she regains control. “I need you two to move away.”

It’s a newborn. It’s tinier than any infant Piper has ever seen. Its skin is pink and purple and blue, like a bruise, thin as wax paper, with a network of capillaries branching beneath. Its hands are clamped into fists, toes curled in on themselves. Blood coats it like a thin layer of varnish—a witness to the violence that brought it there, to a desolate riverbank on a freezing day in February, in the shadows of skeletal tree branches without even some wild animal to keep it company. 

Her heart seizes, boiling over with a primal, instinctual rage. This is senseless, she thinks. Irreparable. Unconscionable. 

* * *

Emilia leans heavily on the handrail, her feet dragging up each step. Her eyelids are made of lead, and she knows if she lets them flutter closed, the exhaustion will consume her in moments. Soon, she tells herself. First, she has to clean herself up. She has to dispose of anything that might tie her to the forest.

As quietly as she can, Emilia grabs a pair of joggers and a t-shirt from her bedroom and heads to the bath. Dead leaves, pulverized by her body weight, soon litter the tile floor. Crimson fingerprints cover her top. It joins the pile. She inhales and exhales in trembling bursts, struggling to unbutton her jeans. They are a size larger than normal and still tight. 

Her mum, fit from tennis on the weekends and determined to stay that way, had fought Emilia when she’d asked for the money to buy them. You shouldn’t let stress over something easy like GSCE’s compromise your health. I certainly didn’t. Her mum had sighed reproachfully when she conceded the 30 quid, and when she saw the brown paper Primark bag later that week, her eyes raked over Emilia’s frame. Do you want me to meal prep something healthy for lunches and dinners during the week? Takeaway day in and day out clearly isn’t working for you. But Emilia couldn’t take away any of the small chances at rest her mum had before returning to scrubs and standing on her feet for endless hours—not when her mum constantly reminded her of that hard-fought potential Emilia was expected to fulfill. 

The thick fabric clings to her skin as she peels the jeans off. They are saturated with muddy water and blood, dripping murky, reddish brown liquid on the floor. 

In the tub, her body gradually processes that she is safe—she is home. She doesn’t close her eyes, just sits, her legs outstretched, arms floating at the surface of the water. As her body slowly unclenches, opening like a reconsidered fist, she notices the water is turning pale pink. Then rose. Then cherry. 

It must have been crimson paint, swirling in the tub around her, and she blinks, trying to remember what she did earlier that day. She must have been painting the set for the school play, As You Like It—a fire, or a red brick wall—and tree roots tunnel up through the tile floor, showering her in grout dust. There is no clock in the forest. A path snakes through the trunks around her, leading towards the water, always towards the water, and there is something shimmering in the glassy reflection—a ruby stain that undulates in the light. Her head is pounding from the inside out, but it must be the paint fumes. Her dad once told her that paint fumes kill brain cells, and she can feel it—her brain is dying, and she feels each of her heartbeats in the center of her forehead, like a drill bit gouging its way out. She squeezes her eyes shut, pressing against them with the flat of her palms, until the inside of her eyelids burst with white light. 

When her vision refocuses, the Forest of Arden has vanished, and the water is blood. 

* * *

Piper tips her chin downwards and tamps down her cloud of curly black hair in the face of a biting wind.

““DI Kelly, sir,” she says to the detective who has arrived on scene.

“Call me Sean,” he says.

His voice is gruff, features brooding—she heard something about him working a particularly gruesome homicide in the woodland outside Wycombe before he was transferred here. Other officers have caught him mumbling to himself about trees. 

In the two years since Piper became a constable, she has seen ten dead bodies. She carves their faces in her thoughts. She gives their families retribution. She relishes in the act of altruism. The more inanimate faces she commits to memory, the more the blood-soaked curls of a 7-year-old boy, seen through her 5-year-old eyes, fades. 

Sean clears his throat, slipping into an authoritative, robotic tone. He indicates a patch of earth littered with chunks of tissue and soaked with blood, surmising that the suspect gave birth there in the forest. The nearest hospital, the John Radcliffe, is a ten minute walk from the footpath. 

Piper bends down next to the body, forcing her eyes to become analytical. She flips open a knitted blue scarf that had swaddled the infant. The alien-like coiled umbilical cord is still attached to the belly-button, its frayed end dangling onto the dirt. The body is no more than five or six inches long. Her earlier anger dissipates as she continues her assessment. Through the infant’s translucent skin, covered in soft, downy hair, Piper can count each rib. Its fingers are impossibly small and jellylike, and she wonders if its bones are as thin and light as a bird’s. Its mouth hangs open in a yawn—or perhaps a scream. This child was born to die. There was no saving it.

“Botched abortion?” Sean breathes, and Piper can track his thoughts: the blood, the unsterilized, remote area, the abandoned corpse—it reads like a 1950s horror story. She shivers—what animalistic desperation must drive a woman to bleed and struggle on a bare patch of frozen earth.

Piper reexamines the scarf, noticing on one end that it’s embroidered with a familiar blue flower.

“This is the crest of Oxford High School,” she says, showing the scarf to Sean. “If she’s that young, it’s possible she wouldn’t know she was pregnant at all, not this early on.”

She chews on her bottom lip, wincing at the tenderness caused by her bad habit.

“We’ve got a place to start, then,” Sean says. He manically rubs at the stubble on his jawline. “Forensics said she most likely has a retained placenta—that it happens a lot with premature births and miscarriages, whichever it was. We’re talking about severe fever and blood loss. If we don’t find her fast, infection will do her in.”

* * *

Emilia dresses herself tenderly, the friction of her skin against itself creating sparks. Her face feels flushed, and she thinks it must have been the heat of the bath. She had stayed, drifting until her thoughts expanded like the universe, until she was just floating in the deep black between galaxies. The blank spaces speak more loudly anyway. 

It’s strange how heavy her blood is. It takes all her strength to carry her blood-soaked pile of clothes to the bin outside. Not even the moon, which she cannot find in the sky, can bear witness to her absolution. 

She collapses into her bed without memory of having traveled there. Waves of heat scorch her, and her hands shake as if she has been out in the freezing cold for hours. Shock. She must be in shock. But the knowledge of the thing doesn’t give her power over it, so she shakes and shakes and tries to grasp at a strain of thought. 

She starts with a simple fact: Thomas Cross is her boyfriend. 

Images flash and fade—they stain her irises with the afterimage like the starbursts of fireworks and bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night. Bluebells. Fingers interlaced. Shadowy alcoves. Her first kiss. Her chest constricts, tugging at itself like it wants to implode.

You’re dry, he croons. Laughs. Grins. I’ll change that.

She bites her lip to keep from whimpering, curling into the fetal position. The pain grows, blossoms, until it is all thorns and no beauty.

* * *

The first crime scene Piper ever saw was in her own back garden. 

She closes her eyes and sees it now. 

The trees, sticking into the sky like jagged skeletons. The shock when he fell. The salt and snot that stuck in her throat. The way the blood coagulated. By the time her parents cleaned it up, it looked like red currant jelly. 

Piper opens her eyes and shifts the stack of flyers in her hands, glancing over the clinical black text. They currently have a couple of PC’s on the footpath handing them out to pedestrians, but she figured she would bring them to the all-girls school for good measure.

Police Appeal: Seeking Information If you have information about a deceased newborn recently discovered near the Marston footpath, please contact Thames Valley Police at +44 1865 841148. We have reason to believe that the mother is at risk of a life-threatening medical emergency and needs immediate medical attention.

Oxford High School is housed in a modern building with sharp angles and large glass windows. Out front is a sculpture of a gargantuan bouquet of sunflowers. Young girls part around Piper in a sea of navy sweatshirts emblazoned with the same crest as the scarf, all returning from their lunch break. She sees the fear reflected in their eyes at the sight of her uniform and shudders. 

Sean stiffens at her side, eyeing the weeping willow hunched beside the front doors to the school. 

“Can’t see the bodies for the trees,” he says. His words are no more than a sigh swept along by his breath.

Piper ignores him and shoves open the doors. It’s only been an hour since she helped the coroner load the body of the infant into the back of the lorry. She hadn’t known they made body bags so small. 

Piper and Sean wade through the milling groups of girls, and Piper imagines each one with bloodstained thighs and fever-flushed cheeks. They all look so young, clutching textbooks to their chests, hair done in braids and ponytails. Those children shouldn’t have to worry about a body in the forest. 

The headmistress is frustratingly suspicious. She picks at her manicure and questions why Piper and Sean are there. Why they believe it’s one of her girls. Why they need to find her now. Piper digs her nails into her palms, fidgeting in one of the high-backed wooden chairs across from the headmistress’ desk. The woman asks to see the scarf herself. Piper explains it’s in evidence at the station. The headmistress picks at her impeccable french-tip manicure and sighs at the inconvenience. It takes them precious time to convince the woman that they need a list of all the girls who weren’t accounted for in the morning role call. Piper’s knee bounces up and down as the headmistress has her young, bright-eyed secretary print off the list.

Sean stays behind to thank the headmistress for her time, but Piper takes her stack of flyers to the secretary, dropping them to her desk with a thump.

“Hand these out to every girl and every parent in this school,” she says. “A girl’s life depends on it.”

The secretary nods, her determined expression not buckling under the weight of her new-found responsibility. 

“Ten girls,” Piper says grabbing the list of names from Sean. She scans the addresses, groaning. She hardens, thinking of giving up before they’ve even begun. “And of course, they’re all over the city.”

Sean’s eyes are the color of wild thyme. They lock with hers. “We’ll split up,” he says. “Start with the year 12’s—suppose they’re more likely to be…” He clears his throat. “You take Headington.” 

Piper nods, and he places his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. There are six year 12’s and four year 11’s. Ten girls—their only leads. 

“There’s still time,” he says. His pained expression tells her he needs this just as much as she does.

* * *

Emilia blinks open her eyes, and the sky has lightened, sunlight casting a kaleidoscope of shadows onto the bedspread: positive and negative space. Thomas lays beside her and tugs at the waistband of her jeans. Last time she pushed him away. Last time she was surprised. It’s almost a comfort that he makes the advance. Apathy is the enemy of love, she thinks.

This time there is something else in his eyes, something dark darting beneath the glassy surface. His skin is a pallid shade of grey, and his fingers grip too tight. Emilia backs away, but he tugs her closer. He grins from cheek to cheek, and shadows spill in thick tendrils from his eyes and mouth. She tries to scream, but no sound escapes her lips. There is a knocking, someone wanting to be let inside—someone waiting on the other side of the door—but Thomas pins Emilia down, his weight nailing her arms to the bed. She flails wildly under his grip, but her muscles stop responding, go limp.

She is outside her body now, and the knocking is growing more frantic, and she is watching her boyfriend’s darkness consume her, and the other Emilia has lost something, and she retches sickly green bile on the carpet, and all she can feel is that ache, that hollowness, deep in her gut, and the knocking is inside her head now, and she just wants it to end. 

Emilia’s eyelids flutter open to the half-darkness of her room. Deep, throbbing pain clenches and unclenches around her body. There’s someone impatiently knocking on her door.

“Emilia, are you in there?” her mum says. “You’ve missed half the ruddy school day!” Her mum’s voice sounds distorted, as if she is speaking underwater. Emilia now feels the wetness on herself, dripping from her neck and forehead. Was she underwater? 

Emilia hisses through her gritted teeth as she turns towards the door. “I’m feeling poorly.” She wrinkles her nose at the distinct acidic smell of vomit on the floor beside the bed. 

Her mum pauses. “Do you need anything?” she says. The words blur together—not an actual offer, an obligation. Emilia glances at the window, where her curtains partially block the afternoon sun. Her mum must be finishing her lunch; she has to get back to the hospital, to saving men and women and children and babies, to her twelve-hour shift that starts before Emilia is awake and ends just in time for a sleeping pill.

“I’m just gonna sleep more,” Emilia says. “If that’s all right.” Her voice is a croak, and she holds her breath for a moment as she can feel her mum lingering outside the door. Emilia isn’t sure whether she hopes she will come in but it doesn’t matter once she hears the front door slam shut.

* * *

“Sean,” Piper says. She tucks her phone to her ear, closing the front gate to the unfruitful house she’d just left. Katie McPherson just has a sore throat, and her mother nearly collapsed from heart palpitations when she saw Piper’s neon yellow uniform jacket at the door. “Any news?”

“Nothing,” he says.

“Nothing,” Piper echoes. She squeezes her eyes shut and sees the infant’s face, the peacefully lidded eyes and baptism of blood. But then it’s not the unnamed forest child—it’s a seven-year-old boy curled in the fetal position over the roots of an ancient oak. Were we not all born to die?

“Collins,” Sean says. “It’s not over. How many girls do you have left?”

“One,” Piper says. She glances at the sheet of A4 in her hand. One name: Emilia Thorne. They have no other leads. This is it. 

“One more chance, then.” 

“One more.”

Piper breathes in and out to steady herself. Her mind flicks through the hundreds of girls’ faces she has seen that day, putting each one beside that closed door, just out of reach as their time dwindled. 

The line is all electric hum for a moment, as if Sean is waiting for her to hang up, but she doesn’t. She lingers in the limbo. 

Piper has seen ten dead bodies in the past two years. Ten dead faces. Finite endings. Full stop. Clear victims and culprits. They were all driving accidents or overdoses or muggings. But this young mother—she is both culprit and victim, compelled to hide her shame and in need of sanctuary. 

In the static hum of the quiet line, Piper hears the voice of the seven-year-old boy again. It’s always choked with tears, unchanged in twenty-five years. No, don’t run away. I need you. 

“Meet me by the footpath,” Piper says into her phone. She wills the boy’s voice to the back of her mind, concentrating on unlocking her police cruiser with trembling hands. “It’s not far from there.”

* * *

Emilia floats, cascades, tumbles through the minutes, compounding them into hours and months and years. Her bed is a raft on an endless ocean, no guiding stars in sight. At some point, she attempts to get up and get paracetamol from the bathroom, but the weight on her legs makes them quiver and shake, like leaves on the wind. Underneath her on the sheets is a stain. Amounting mass with each second, it spreads—water bubbling up through the cracks of her vessel—until she is sinking into a sea of crimson. 

Rustling. Wood scraping. Glass creaking.

The raft is gone. She is on her bed, the heaviness of her blood weighing down the sheets. Her hair is pasted to her neck and forehead, and blinding pain, as if a serrated knife is sawing her in two, churns her stomach. She raises a hand to her blurry eyes, wiping sweat from her lids, and blinks. Her window is moving. 

You look awful, love. Something about the voice makes shivers crawl over Emilia’s skin. The figure steps away from the afternoon sun silhouetting him in the window. It’s Thomas.

When you didn’t answer my texts or calls after you left last night, I got worried. He takes a step closer—still a shadow, a shape, an impression.

Last night. 

Her chest constricts, images flaring and fizzling into pure sensations—shame and desire and grief, all in electric surges. Her failing mind can’t fling up its walls, its protective barriers, and there it is before her: she sees herself, as if a specter to her own life, walking home from Thomas’ flat in the dark, doubling over in pain on the Marston footpath, the waterfall of liquid gushing between her legs, through the fabric of her jeans. She scrambles off the path, down to where she used to smoke with some year 12 girls by the River Cherwell, a hidden place, and knows something isn’t right, that this shouldn’t be happening—she thought she still had weeks to decide how to end it, or if she would end it. Her knees buckle, and she crawls to the base of a tree and prays that it’s taken away, that she doesn’t have to make this decision, but then she thinks about its little body being in her hands and how cold it would be in the frosty air. Blood soaks her jeans and her muscles tighten and tighten until they shudder to a stop, like a screw being stripped, and she pulls her coat over herself like a blanket, angling her face to the unyielding blackness of the treetops, and the cold grips her thighs and calves, turning them numb. It’s already dead when it arrives. 

It had only been hers for six days. Six days of knowing it was there and feeling the stomach flutters and being torn between creation and deletion, in that blank space of unblemished potential. 

She holds it in her hands for just a moment, palms up, like an offering, then wraps it in her scarf and bathes it in saltwater and bites her lip to keep from screaming. She rips the cord that attaches her to it from her body, but she can still feel it inside her, as if what is on the forest floor, nestled in the leaf debris, is nothing more than an illusion, a mirage. That life is still inside her, and she can feel it, and it is not over—it is only beginning.

“I was pregnant,” she says. The words fall from Emilia’s lips like a dying breath. She doesn’t have the strength to sit up, only turn her head towards him.

Thomas’ mouth contorts into a shadow-frown. What happened? The duvet is concealing the heavy, heavy blood sinking into her mattress.

Emilia shakes her head. It’s gone.

Did you—

Emilia cuts him off, can’t bear the words being spoken aloud. Her voice is a cracked, crumbling apology. No, no. Tears leak from the corners of her eyes, slipping in frantic drips down the bridge of her nose. She sees nothing but blood and body parts. Five fingers. Five toes. Tucked knees. She was my baby. My baby girl. How could I do that?

Thomas shifts in and out of being, between sunlight and obscurity. She would have ruined everything, you know that.He slinks closer, and Emilia can hear that hard breathing, the darkness darting behind his eyes. How could Thomas think that something so small, so fragile—cupped in the palm of her hand like a ripe fruit—be capable of unraveling their love? Fat tears slide down her cheeks, and she flinches as Thomas strokes her jaw with his fingertips, his frigid skin burning the heat off hers.

Suddenly, Thomas stiffens, eyes flicking towards the hallway. Emilia strains to hear past the rushing of blood behind her ears. Someone is pounding on her front door.

Who is that? Emilia asks.

Thomas puts a finger to her lips. His skin scintillates, as if it is covered in a thousand shimmering crystals. They can’t know about me, love. We talked about this, remember?

Emilia shakes her head. She can’t remember anything except the pain excavating her, hollowing her stomach and chest to make room for more pain, and the water—or was it blood?—winding its way through the forest, and the despondent cries of some wounded animal, and how odd it was to notice that her arms were empty. 

Thomas purses his lips in mock frustration, and when he moves, the imprint of his features lingers, dissipating like smoke rising through the night sky. If they find out who did this to you, the police will take me away. We won’t be together. His words conjure dates and numbers and birthday candles, a jumble; time is important, and it is catching up with them—or maybe time isn’t important, just the gooseflesh from his fingers running through her hair and the feverish heat of his lips against hers and the dizziness from the beer he presses into her hands. She isn’t sure if she thinks it or the words come from Thomas, but she knows that soon they won’t have to hide. Soon, she won’t have to walk home from Thomas’ flat in the middle of the night, or lie to her mum about going to a friend’s house, or text him to come over when the house is empty. 

Until, then, you have to protect me. Thomas grins, and it’s too big for his face—rows of white teeth like palace guards all in their proper place. She has never noticed how straight and even they are. 

The pounding on the door returns, this time with a voice. It screeches through the house, filling every corner and crevice with its insistence. Maybe the voice is there to help her. Maybe it can make the pain go away—bring back whatever she lost to the water, to the forest.

Thomas is cloaked in inky shadow by the clouded sun. He runs his fingers over her forehead, across her eyes, urging them closed. But the knocks won’t let her sleep. 

Knock. Her eyelids fly open. Knock. Darkness lurks in his eyes, lives and breathes and feeds. Knock. Love shouldn’t be this much pain, not the kind that aches and claws and decays. Knock. Six days. Knock. Five fingers. Five toes. Tucked knees. 

Emilia struggles to push Thomas’ grasping hands away. She screams, hoarse wheezes and then rasping shrieks, towards the voice, towards the knocks.

* * *

The first crime scene Piper ever saw was in her own back garden.

She was 5 years old, playing ‘explorers’ with her older brother. He chased a squirrel up the towering oak tree, and Piper watched, mesmerized as he scurried up into the sky with bold movements. She also watched as he missed a handhold and slammed to the ground in the space between two breaths. She continued watching as he lay on the ground, twitching and moaning, shiny red blood spilling from the base of his skull. 

When his frenzied eyes found her, they ignited with hope. Please. Piper. 

But Piper stopped watching. Her mind processed his arm twisted at the wrong angle and the widening pool of blood and the way his gaze flicked back and forth like a wounded bird, and her heart seized with panic. She stumbled backwards, tripping and crawling towards the house. He called after her in a weak voice. No, don’t run away. I need you.

By the time her parents found his body, it was too late. The police came, and she told them he was playing alone. He didn’t like playing with her; he said babies like her always ruined his games. Piper watched as the men in strange clothes took his body away, his limp curls matted with crusted blood and twigs. She watched as the officers scribbled with pens in black notepads, shaking their heads and hunching their shoulders. And she watched from the kitchen window as her parents rubbed their eyes raw and scrubbed the exposed roots of the oak tree with bleach, until the water in the mop bucket was cherry red. 

Piper pounds on the front door of Emilia Thorne’s house on Williams Street. No answer. Sean murmurs something about returning to the forest, checking with the officers posted on the footpath for another lead, and turns away. Piper waits. She doesn’t turn away. She keeps knocking. 

It’s weak at first, a faint grating whisper, like an old AC unit switching on. But as Piper continues knocking, the sound grows louder. 

It’s a girl’s voice—and it’s calling for help. 

Hannah Schultz is a Kentucky-born writer pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she also teaches English and serves as a fiction editor for Blue Earth Review. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Barely South ReviewThe Gordian ReviewKentucky’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology, and The Asbury Review.

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