Nature “Underworld”
 Nature “Tunnels”
Bessie and Joseph were very much in love. Indeed, in the two years they had been together, they’d been practically inseparable and never once quarreled. Others found their dedication to one another sickening but, to them, it was nothing more than sour grapes and they paid it little mind. Today was their anniversary and Joseph had promised something extra special to mark the occasion. His auntie had a property in the countryside, miles away from the nearest town, and agreed for them to stay in the guest house for a long weekend as she knew how much it meant to him. He’d managed to keep it secret from Bessie for three excruciating weeks and his surprise went down a treat when she eventually wore him down and he fessed up to his plan. The trip had been a resounding success and they felt closer than ever, having made the very best of the amenities at their disposal. The late October chill in the air didn’t deter them, indeed, Autumn was Bessie’s favorite season and the setting couldn’t have been more idyllic or romantic. By all accounts, it had been the perfect weekend.
Considering it was the last night before their return to the suburbs, Joseph wanted to make it a night she would not forget and found the ideal spot for a picnic over on Gallows Hill, a couple of kilometers from his auntie’s cottage. He’d always been curious about this place but had been forbidden from visiting it during the long hot summers he used to spend here as a kid, as she swore blind it was cursed and that terrible things happened there long before he was born. Joseph had never been the superstitious type but he did pride himself on his obedience so took her stern advice and did as she said. However, he was twenty-one now, and no longer required to inform her of his every movement so decided to throw caution to the wind and invite Bessie there for his big proposal. She knew it was coming and they’d spoke many times about taking things to the next level but, up until now, the chance had never presented itself. Four months he’d carried around the engagement ring and had almost presented it to her on a number of occasions but chickened out. Tonight he wasn’t about to let another chance go begging.
Early signs were more than encouraging as Bessie adored the location and wasn’t put off by the strange-looking tree on the top of the mound. On the contrary, she was fascinated by the way it twisted around itself, almost as though it was concealing something within. The name Gallows Hill was a dead giveaway and Joseph had heard whispers about the infamous Hangman’s Tree and the bitter curse that accompanied it but wasn’t fazed by the stories. Every few seconds Joseph checked his pocket just to make sure the ring was where it should be. He wanted to hang on for the perfect moment to present itself and both parties were more than aware that was coming which was generating the very best kind of suspense. The temperature had dropped considerably since their arrival and there was a distinct chill in the air that only appeared to be growing more pronounced as the dark moon settled into position above them.
“How are you feeling?”
“Relaxed. The whole world could stop turning right now and I don’t think I’d notice”
“I did well then?”
“Sweetheart, you did very well. I’m impressed”
“Good. I wanted it to be perfect”
“It is and you are”
“So I’m off the hook for earlier then?”
In his haste to prepare the picnic, Joseph had forgotten to check the best before date on the cream cheese, and the sandwiches had tasted ominous to say the least.
“Well off the hook. Just leave the food preparation to me next time okay?”
“They were awful weren’t they?”
“I wouldn’t say that”
“Come on. They were rank”
“Okay, they did taste a little like armpits. But it’s the thought that counts”
“Thank fuck for that”
“So how did you find out about this place anyway?”
“You like it?”
“I love it. The tree is beyond messed up but that just adds to the charm”
“I know right. My auntie always warned me about Gallows Hill”
“Gallows Hill? Is that what it’s called?”
“You really do know how to pick ’em. Romantic to the very end”
“You love it and you know it”
“I do actually. Couldn’t have picked better myself”
“It was nothing”
“Look at you milking the adulation. You’re such an attention whore”
“What can I say? Some of us just have it”
“I love you”
If Joseph was looking for the perfect moment, then one may just have presented itself. However, he was determined to drag this out for as long as was humanly possible and secretly Bessie loved it. While he had remained tight-lipped about his proposal plans, she could read him like an open book, and knew the telltale signs when he was nervous as he had a tendency to fidget wildly. Sitting still was proving troublesome for Joseph and the anticipation was killing him but still he persisted in the cloak and dagger stuff in honor of sweeping her off her feet the very moment she could no longer see it coming. Patience wasn’t ordinarily his strong suit but tonight he was holding it together decidedly well. Meanwhile, Bessie enjoyed just watching him squirm, and knew full well that he was starting to crack.
“So do you bring all the girls here then?”
“Only the ones I have plans for”
“Plans huh? Sounds sinister”
“Well there’s plenty about me you don’t know”
“Is there now?”
“I can’t be trusted”
“I like a challenge”
This foreplay was customary and both Bessie and Joseph knew precisely how to crank it up to the max.
“Can’t have the lady being disappointed can we?”
“That just wouldn’t do. I’m notoriously hard to please”
“Then how do you feel about playing a little game?”
“Are you kidding? I love games. Bring it buster. Whatcha got in mind?”
“A treasure hunt”
“Sounds intriguing. When does it start?”
“It already did”
Upon their arrival, Joseph had spotted a vintage reliquary over by the tree’s stump and, while Bessie headed off into the thicket to pee as generally happened at one-hour intervals, stashed the ring inside and concealed it beneath the soft top soil, using fallen twigs to further bury the evidence.
“Alas, to play this game, I cannot be present”
“You’re leaving me? What a rogue. Say I get snatched away by the tree people?”
“Then I’ll just have to find another willing participant won’t I?”
“And miss out on my prize? Not bloody likely. Pressure’s on then I take it?”
“Oh It’s on”
“So what am I searching for?”
“You’ll know it when you find it”
“Well first I need to pee”
“It’s your fault for filling me up on cheap wine”
“Okay then missy. Make it quick though as the treasure hunt begins in earnest on your return”
Indecisiveness was another of Joseph’s afflictions and, as Bessie skipped off to the nearby bushes to retrieve herself, a far more poetic hiding spot suddenly presented itself and he hadn’t noticed it until now. This was a doozy and, while it wouldn’t take as long for her to sniff out her reward, it didn’t involve messing up the manicure he’d coughed up for as an early anniversary present. With only a few seconds to spare before her return, he dug up the receptacle and placed it lovingly in its new cubby hole.
Bessie had taken longer than normal peeing and this was, in part, down to daydreaming as she pondered how the ring would look on her finger. Her smile was at full mast and even the mysterious raven that seemed to emerge from thin air just inches from her feet as she wiped herself wasn’t about to rain on her parade. Under normal circumstances, this intrusion would have been less than encouraging as she’d read somewhere that these birds represented the ghosts of past murder victims and played host to the souls of the damned. But not tonight.
“Why hello there Mr. Raven. How are the wife and children?”
This particular visitor certainly wasn’t timid and seemed more than happy in close proximity of its audience as it stared directly towards her with its beady black eye as though it were some kind of contest.
“Man of few words huh? I like the strong silent type. So you’re here to watch then? Dirty little bird. I take it you got an eyeful?”
It certainly had and didn’t take its steely gaze off its subject for a solitary second as Bessie pulled up her denims and commenced brushing them down with both hands. By the time she was done, the game had subsided and, for all its curious persistence, her new feathered friend became surplus to requirements.
“Well it’s been a blast but I’ve got to go now I’m afraid. Duty calls and all that. Same time next year then? Great, thanks for the riveting conversation”
Bessie couldn’t resist glancing back one time just to see if her audience was still present and indeed it was. Moreover, while the raven had moved to a different spot now, it only had eyes for her and a delicious cold chill trickled down her spine as she knew she was under keen observation. As for Joseph, well he wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and she prepared herself for him to leap out at any given moment from some meticulously planned hidden vantage. There were plentiful crawlspaces within the foliage as she ventured back although, as she came within sight of Gallows Hill, opportunities suddenly became far more sparse for concealment. You see, aside from a vague smattering of ghostly looking roses around the roots, there was no other plant life in the vicinity to speak of and, while moist, the earth surrounding the stump didn’t appear to take kindly to disturbance.
“Okay I’m cracking on then. Wish me luck”
Knowing how restless Joseph typically was, Bessie figured this should all be sewn up in a matter of minutes and began checking the nearby area for anything that appeared out of the ordinary. He hadn’t actually offered much of a clue as to what she was actually supposed to be searching for but a small black box about the right size to host an 18 ct White Gold Engagement Ring with 0.54 carat Cushion Cut Diamond seemed like a good place to start. Nothing much had been doing thus far so she decided to cease her search momentarily and think like her opposite number.
“Where would he have hidden you I wonder?”
Suddenly the smile spread across Bessie’s face widened as she approached the tree and noticed something that hadn’t jumped out at her previously. Its branches were no longer contorted around one another and, instead, had parted wide to reveal what appeared some kind of opening at its centre, relinquishing another icy southward chill in the process. Considering she prided herself on her photographic memory, Bessie found this odd amendment downright fascinating, and was prepared to supply Joseph full marks for achieving such unlikely trickery.
“I have no idea how you did that but you just earned yourself brownie points”
Leaning in to inspect the hollow closer, she was then startled as the eerie silence was broken by the raven’s cry from its distant perch. However, her concentration was only compromised for a split second as something else appeared far more worthy of her attention and seemed to be steadily drawing her closer. It was pitch black inside and would require things to get a little more personal before presenting her reward so she reached inside and instantly the cold spread right through her entire body. This was no ordinary cavity and easily large enough to accommodate a young lady of barely 5″4 so, after fumbling unsuccessfully for a few moments, the urge became far too powerful not to venture inside. What proposed to be something of a tight squeeze was anything but as the darkness rushed to greet like a high tide upon her entry.
Instantly something didn’t feel right. Granted, Hangman’s Tree was well over two hundred years old, and cast rather an immense shadow on the landscape, but inside it felt boundless in size, and Bessie felt sick to her stomach as she turned on the spot to discern absolutely no light source whatsoever. Even more disheartening were the whispering voices all around her, none of which sounded particularly hospitable. Indeed, they hung at her ankles like an imperceivable low-level mist and it felt almost as though they were attempting to drag her down. Bessie began to tense up and panic set in, although there seemed no manner on hand in which to vent this emotion as the paralysis continued its climb. Screaming her lungs out would have been the obvious next port of call but, when she attempted such, the dubious collective tongue flooding her ears was all that was omitted.
No sooner had her cry for help fallen flat, than Bessie began to sink down deeper into the blackened void beneath her. All her best efforts amounted to nothing as she felt the bones in her feet and ankles splinter, accompanied by piercing agony the likes of which she could never possibly have imagined. Rapidly the pain spread as she sank deeper into the earth below and her flesh began to split wide open, fractured bone becoming increasingly entwined around the tree’s root. Within a few short but excruciating seconds, Bessie was no more and, in the very same moment, was reunited with her beloved Joseph forevermore. And once the transaction was complete, the hollow sealed shut and the branches of Hangman’s Tree twisted up once more for its eternal embrace. Now all that remained, just a couple of yards from the scene and in clear view, was an ornate reliquary.