07 Oct The Reserve
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"The Reserve"Written by
Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Until recently, I had considered the reserve near my home just another quiet, if slightly unnerving, relic of pre-suburban life. With sub-divisions and commercial sectors rising steadily around it, the knot of thick trees, greenery and long, straw-like grass had been cast aside by time; a mottled green and brown fortress among the ever-expanding web of houses and streets.
Nothing about the area seemed inviting. Entirely unkempt, the reserve, which stretched out over a square mile, was visibly overgrown. It was near impossible to make out any detail amongst the trees. As a natural wall, the old branches and predatory vines weaved together on the outskirts to truly reinforce the isolated, island-like nature of this heavily shadowed place.
During my childhood, I remembered that the area had been popular with trekkers and runners. A long tourist trail wound from one corner of the park to the other, providing a nature walk for visitors to what, at the time, was a very tourism-oriented area. The walk would take the best part of an hour, with the trail weaving through patches of woodland and large open areas of tall, pale-coloured grass at the centre of the reserve. Considering the lack of anything truly spectacular about the place, it is no wonder that after several years the local Council abandoned consistent maintenance of the park. They had quoted a lack of public use for the decision, and had then planned to sell the area to commercial developers.
Through my research, I discovered that it was around this time the disappearances started. Although the authorities had abandoned the reserve to the elements, some runners insisted on continuing to use the area. The Council had made no efforts to actually fence off the area, instead choosing to erect several temporary signs at the track entrances indicating the impending sell-off of the land. As such, it was easy enough to simply enter the area. The thick masses of foliage had already begun to press into the path, narrowing the already small trail. It was somewhere along this isolated track that runners begin to vanish. Over the course of six months, 3 different people had entered into one end of the path, never to emerge from the other.
Police invested significant resources on all three occasions, searching the reserve with dozens of volunteers, but no bodies were ever discovered. This deepening mystery had an immediate ripple effect, with the company expected to purchase and make use of the reserve withdrawing their application. With no other serious offers, the Council then left the land to itself, listing it officially as a ‘nature reserve’. To my knowledge, they have never again attempted to sell the land.
As the years passed, the local homeless population began slowly migrating into the area. Makeshift shelters and camps sprung up deep into the wilderness during my teenage years. I clearly remember seeing dishevelled, untidy hermits plunging into the, then, entirely overgrown track entrances, as if the woods themselves had reached out for them and consumed them whole. In recent years, the park has been as good as forgotten by the greater society. It still looms over the homes of those families it borders, but to some, having evidence of more untouched nature at their doorstep must be a blessing rather than a curse. But, it is a curse. The whole area is cursed, and it was almost enough to ensure that I never wrote this story down.
You see, I made the mistake of discovering the secret of the reserve. I didn’t even do it intentionally. It started purely by chance, from an unlikely source. One afternoon, several weeks ago, I had planned on walking several miles to a party someone from my college was hosting. I had never been to their house before, so I had punched their address, and my own, into the maps website to check for the fastest route. The program had returned three alternatives, two of which would take me almost two and a half hours. The third option, however, showed as less than one and a half. The blue line on the map worked it’s way from my house the two blocks to the edge of the reserve, then traced the original tourist trail before emerging out the other side, only several streets from my destination. Despite the almost instant apprehension about crossing that place at night, I think I had already decided I would risk it to shave an hour off the trek.
It wasn’t long before I was standing at edge of the green, imposing mass. After checking my phone one last time and wishing, fruitlessly, that it now showed a different path, I plunged into the undergrowth. The sensation of walking on human-constructed ground wasn’t instant, as over time, foliage had even grown over the gravel trail. But soon, the earth hardened, the trees parted, ever so slightly, and the thin, shadowy trail was revealed. After 15 minutes or more of manoeuvring through low-hanging branches, guided by the impressively powerful light on my phone, I pushed through a net of thick vines and shrubbery to emerge at the mouth of the grassed section of the park. The pale blades stretched upward, easily towering over me. Some fell lazily over the path, bending at their middle, but the trail was still defined enough to push onward.
About halfway across the reserve, still engulfed in the imposing grass, I came across by a small clearing. The grass parted to reveal a loosely-circular bare patch, no bigger than a basketball court. I slowly swept my light across the clearing, and at it’s centre, stopped on what appeared to be the silhouette of another person. As my eyes adjusted, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a another human at all, but a grass giant. Long strands of the surrounding grass had been cut, or pulled out, and intricately woven into a human effigy. It was secured in place with a gnarled tree limb which had been embedded in the earth. The figure loomed, standing at least eight feet tall, it’s arms hanging downward almost to the ground below. It’s head was rectangular, featureless, a knot of grass blades rising above the figure’s low, drooping shoulders.
I cautiously approached the bizarre creation, refusing to let my light leave it. As I reached the grass-man, I tentatively reached out to touch it. I’m still not sure why. As my arm extended forward, I heard a rustling directly to my right. I paused, arm outstretched, listening. The sound came again; a clear movement in the grass. For the first time since arriving at the clearing, I shifted my light, as I begun to scan the grass encircling me. As I swept my light to the right it revealed a man, standing quietly at the clearings edge. He wore a large overcoat, and appeared to be covered in dirt and dust. Even with the light shining directly on him, I couldn’t make out any of the details of his face, his long, matted hair hanging down below his chin. The grass beside him rustled, and several more figures emerged, none too dissimilar from the first. I was obviously terrified, but knew almost instantly who they were. I quickly rationalised that they were members of the homeless community in the park, and that I had walked into one of their areas.
As that moment seemed to stretch into eternity, I finally found the courage to act. I ran, diving forward under the overhanging grass figure and towards the opposite side of the clearing. From behind me I heard only a single sound. A male voice, quiet and rough, said ‘they won’t like this’.
I powered forward along the trail, breathing heavily, my light sweeping wildly in the dark. Without ever looking back I made it to the edge of the reserve and emerged triumphant from the trees. I was shaken by the encounter, but refused to let it rule my thoughts. Trying to understand why these hermits had constructed a grass man, or what they used it for, both seemed fruitless thoughts. I had a party to go to and wasn’t going to let any of this ruin my night.
As with most college parties in my town, it was a pretty big let down. I drank to overcome the dullness of the people I spent the night navigating my way around, both physically and socially. I drank too much, it seemed, because on leaving the party somewhere around two in the morning, I had entirely forgotten the encounter earlier in the night. My brain, however, did choose to remember that I had taken the wooded shortcut to the party, and mobilised my feet back in that direction. I shuffled into the trees almost robotically, guided by that inbuilt GPS we all seem to have for home while we can somehow consciously construct little else. The next thing I clearly remember, having apparently already made it back to the clearing, was facing the tall, woven figure again. It dominated my perspective, hunched over in the thin beams of moonlight. I fumbled for my phone in my pocket, having seemingly given up on using my light sometime earlier.
The memories of my previous run-in with the clearing quickly flooded back, and I anxiously glanced at the clearing boundaries, searching for any signs of movement. Almost instantly, I again heard a shuffling noise. A rustling, indistinct. This time I couldn’t exactly tell where it was coming from. I finally pried my phone from my jeans pocket and fumbling, switched on the light. As I raised it forward and revealed the grass figure, the source of the sound became apparently. The effigy lurched, a staccato jerking motion, as it’s arms raised their hanging grass knuckles from the earth. The legs each shuffled slowly forward, each moving as if seen through a strobe light. The branch securing the creature to the ground fell loose to the earth. With the short, sharp movements, the grass man, with arms now stretching onward in my direct, moved closer at a frighteningly fast rate.
I think I screamed, I’m not sure any more, and ran to my right, plunging straight into the tall grass. Sharp blades whipped against my face and hands, causing small cuts, but that was the least of my concerns at the time as I ran on. I felt almost instantly sober, my senses working overtime as I continued to run. I could hear the creaking, shuffling sound of the figure behind me, unsure how far back it was. As if on queue, my foot caught in a tight knot of dead grass, and I tripped forward as the grass in front of me parted. As I regained my balance I quickly became still as another clearing appeared in front of me. Far larger than the previous one. As my light pierced the darkness, dozens of grass figures were spread across the glade. Each of them, almost in unison, turned at the waist, their torsos bending to face me. Their featureless, shapeless heads twisting around to acknowledge my arrival. As I turned to run, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the homeless people from earlier in the night. They were huddled at the other edge of the clearing, kneeling down over what looked like a large pile of loose grass. They raised their heads, and I could feel their gaze upon me.
I dived back into the long grass, ploughing forward blindly through the dense expanse. I could hear the sounds of my pursuer, or pursuers, but they quickly began to fade into the distance. Struggling to breath, my lungs burning in my chest, I reached the tree-line and stumbled back out into the world. I somehow found the strength to continue to run all the way home, bursting inside and securing every door and window in every room within minutes. I collapsed onto my bed, the lights left on, and waited. I’m not sure for what, but it didn’t feel like the events of the night were over. Despite this, the tiredness must have overcome me because I somehow slept. I slept almost the whole following day. When I awoke, it all truly felt like a bad dream. A nightmare more twisted, more real, than any I had experienced before.
I doubted my own thoughts, my fears. It didn’t take long after I awoke to convince myself, through the haze of a fairly heavy hangover, that it all had been some sort of bad waking hallucination. After the amount of alcohol I had consumed, I quickly came to believe that I’d scared myself into jumping at shadows the whole way home. Emerging from bed, I noticed that I still had my shoes on. Dirt was spread through my bed, and my room. I cursed at myself for the stupid mistake, and removed the shoes. Carrying them to the front door, I opened it to place the shoes outside. Sitting on the doorstep was a doll. Well, not exactly a doll. It was a small figure, made from pale, woven grass.