Darkness is a relative thing. Relative to the bright sunshine of day, the grey and ominous clouds before a storm are dark. Relative to the glaring fluorescent light of a supermarket shop floor, the stockroom is dark. The inside of your jumper is dark, an unlit room is dark, the night is dark. Physicists will argue that the space in between galaxies is the darkest place in the universe. There are places on Earth though, deep places, forgotten places, where it’s just as dark. It’s in the darkest places that you see the most detail; the cracks, the breaks at the edges, the places where, with enough effort, and the right tools, a determined person might be able to slip through. Or, indeed, a bumbling fool might accidentally stumble into…
I had first learned about Green Men from an old beardy hippy in the Posada in Wolverhampton. You know his type, giant bushy beard, tie-dye t-shirt, sandals, smelling faintly of incense, fancied himself as a bit of a Wiccan. He said to me that he’d been searching for their roots, why they started appearing as paintings and carvings on buildings, and where they came from. He said it was commonly accepted that they were either pagan representations of woodwose, or wild men of the woods, that had been accepted into Christian imagery to appease the converts, or that travelling artists had borrowed the imagery from Eastern carvings from the 2nd through to the 9th Century. Apparently though, he wasn’t a man to accept what was commonly accepted, at this point I looked at his jelly sandals and nodded into my cider. He went on to postulate that they were older than that. Much older, older indeed than civilisation, older than man himself. I quipped that a statue on a 13th Century church was certainly not older than civilisation, but he seemed to get upset, so I let him carry on. The Green Men as we knew them were representations of spirits that lived in the forests. He avidly believed that they were still about. I stopped listening to him at this point as he was raving and my train was due in 15 minutes.
That was a couple of years ago now, I’d mostly forgotten about it after it had done the rounds as a “you’ll never guess what happened to me in the pub…” kind of story. I’d been suffering from mild insomnia; literally spending about 2 hours asleep every night. I’d been passing the time watching documentaries on iPlayer when one sleepless night I watched a programme on the demise of the Forest of Arden. Apparently it used to cover as far as the West Midlands, even Birmingham. Concentrated around Birmingham and Coventry area were large sections of mainly pagan communities for a long time into the 15th Century that worshipped tree spirits. This reminded me of that eccentric chap from the pub and his Green Men. Well apparently there are still shrines to tree spirits knocking about in some of the green belt, standing stones with elaborate carvings of men with foliage for hair, no doubt carved with graffiti and all sorts by now. I stumbled across one while walking my dog on Cannock Chase. The daft fool had run off chasing squirrels as usual and I’d blundered after him into the wet heather and fern. As I was cursing his name and lamenting the all too quick progress of moisture toward my underwear, the ground gave way beneath me.
I slid gracefully, like a swan, on fire, being thrown down a waterslide full of mud, screaming all the way like a girl. Eventually, after a minute or so, I slowed down and came to a halt with a squelch, waist deep in something revolting. It smelled earthy, like the forest floor after rain, but intensely so. There was a little light that had made it down with me from the chute I’d slid down. I tried to look up but it curved away out of sight above me. There was no way back up, the sides were too smooth, my heart sank. I patted my pockets, my mobile phone! Excellent! But alas, it hadn’t made it; It was full of the goo I was wallowing in. It’s odd, I wasn’t panicked, or worried, I was just annoyed. How very British of me. I stood up and the goo was now only shin deep, so at least I could move around, and my eyes were getting used to the dark so I could begin to take in my surroundings. Now there are old mines all over Staffordshire and some of them go under the Chase, but this didn’t look like a mine. It was more like a cave, but the sides, underneath all the slime and moss were as smooth as glass. I looked to be in a hemispherical chamber, of which the chute I had fallen down, was set about halfway up the curve. On closer inspection, the chute looked to be perfectly circular. It felt old. Not like your granddad’s old, or the town hall old, or even a church old. I got the impression this chamber was ancient.
I made a full pass of the circle and found no convenient stairway outside. Typical. My dog was also no Lassie, he wouldn’t be alerting the nearest woodcutter to my peril. He’d be chasing squirrels in the ferns. Now I was very irritated; had this happened on a path somewhere, I might stand a chance but I was a good hundred metres or so into the ferns and trees. I had a go at shouting “help” for a few minutes, and then started to feel embarrassed, despite my solitude. I collapsed in a heap in the filth and felt sorry for myself, it was starting to sink in that I could die down there, by starvation, dehydration, something awful, who knows. I clung to the notion that this cave was clearly man-made, or at least built with a purpose. What would be the purpose of a giant hemisphere and a chute if it didn’t lead to, or out of something else though? I started to scrabble around in the slime for any indication of anything on the floor. After ten minutes of filth-burrowing, my random groping had got me nowhere, a sad parallel to my love life. I decided to go about it sensibly and made my way to way was approximately the centre and started a spiral outwards. I hadn’t gone far when my searching fingertips found an edge in the otherwise smooth floor. Upon tracing it, it seemed to be a circle of about two metres diameter in the centre of the room. My fingers made their sightless way into the middle and found what felt like a handle, or ring or something. I gave it a tug and for the second time that day, found myself on the world’s filthiest water chute.
I spiralled down for some time, not at any great velocity like in the movies, although I found it difficult to judge the actual speed as it was now utterly dark. Just as I was getting comfortable with the descent, the world felt suddenly open and I was in free fall, an absolutely bizarre sensation in the dark. I assume I was knocked unconscious as I was suddenly in a lot of pain and I certainly don’t remember landing. My right arm was almost certainly broken and my head felt like I’d been run over, by an aircraft carrier. Despite the fact that I was now injured, far under the ground and in the pitch black, I was still quite calm, I put it down to the bang on the head. There was a feeling of great space around me, my every movement caused a far off echo, clear but distant. It was utterly dark and utterly silent apart from the sound of my own heartbeat and breath. The air smelled sterile, old, untouched, as if no living thing had been here in a very long time. Again the floor was as smooth as glass to the touch, but oddly, there was no filth here, not even dust. I walked very slowly and tentatively forwards with my good hand outstretched, it was sometime before I hit a wall, well over a hundred steps. The wall again was sheer and smooth, how very enigmatic.
I slumped against the wall and slid to the floor, partly from dejection, partly from exhaustion and partly because I was starting to feel really quite ill from the head wound. It’s hard to tell how long I was there for, in the dark it’s difficult to know whether you’re even conscious. My backside had gone numb, I was starving and woefully thirsty, so I reckon I’d been there for a good few hours when I climbed my feet and decided to circumnavigate the space. I took off my congealing shoes and left them against the wall, so I’d know when I was back, and started to feel my way slowly around like a demented mime artist.
My eyes were starting to play tricks on me, flashes in my periphery, spots, that sort of thing, so when I spotted the white flash, I initially ignored it. After another couple of feet though, I’d convinced myself I’d seen a crack of white light, a break in the perfection of the wall’s surface. I tracked back and there it was, a thin line about four feet long. It was so thin I couldn’t see through it sadly, but there it was. I held my hand in front of it, but the apparent light I could see wasn’t illuminating my hand, it was as if the light couldn’t cross the threshold. What the hell was this place?! Try as I might, I couldn’t force my fingernails into the crack and running my fingers across it, I couldn’t even feel it. Holding my cheek close, no air tickled me. I was well and truly flummoxed. Resting my head against the crack, I exhaled a slow, melancholy sigh, that’s when my world went white.
It took my eyes a couple of minutes to adjust to the sudden influx of light. I was in a massive chamber, like the one that was full of goo but a thousand times bigger. Again, it looked perfectly hemispherical, set around the top of the curve were six holes equidistant in a ring. One of them had dark smears around it and on the floor beneath a puddle of dried blood and mud. That was evidently where I landed. The hole was about thirty feet high, quite a fall, I’m surprised I made it at all. I could see my shoes in the distance and a trail of filth where I’d shuffled forwards and then around. Just to the left of my shoes was a stone archway barred by a stone door, around fifteen feet high. If I’d have gone the other way I’d have found that first. Typical. In the centre of the space was a grey column of about ten feet. I hadn’t noticed really until this point but the light didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere specific. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. I cast no shadow on any surface, neither did the column and apart from the trail of grime I’d left, the place was clinically clean. The surfaces, despite being smooth like glass, reflected nothing. Never before have I seen anything like it in my life. I looked back to where the crack had been and I could plainly see a thin black line where the white one was previously. It was as if the world had been inverted. I started to limp towards the doorway, hoping for a way out.
The door turned out to be a red-herring, or at least it was opened by some unseen means. It appeared to be made of granite, totally unlike the flawless glass-like surface everywhere else. It too however had no gaps, nicks, markings or handles. Wasting little more time, I shambled over to the middle of the chamber, which took a while. It was about a hundred feet or so from the door to the pillar and I was starting to become quite weak. The hunger, dryness of mouth and tiredness seemed to indicate I’d been down here for most of a day now. As I approached the pillar I started to realise that it wasn’t blank and smooth like everything else here, it was carved. Crafted at the top of the column was the head of an old man, shrouded in a mane of sycamore leaves with a beard of birch and oak leaves. It was a Green Man. Again, I got the feeling it was ancient, much older than anything I’d seen in any museum. It was intensely detailed, every leaf was unique and had an intricate pattern of veins as if a real tree had been petrified. The thing that struck me most about the sculpture though were the eyes. They were completely missing, just two holes that lead to darkness. As I stared at them though, I began to feel odd. A wave of sadness passed over me, I felt like crying, lamenting all the world’s woes. My legs felt weak and I suddenly buckled to the floor, I couldn’t take my eyes off those deep pools of melancholy.
I snapped to, some time later, at the sound of a stomach-churning rumbling that filled the room with sub-sonic bass notes. The titanic doors were opening inwards. My heart was in my mouth, I could hear my pulse pounding out the intro to “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen. The doors took an age to open, all the time the almost subsonic rumbling was making me feel queasy. They were at least six feet thick, there would have been no chance of me actually moving them. An earthy smell filled the chamber borne by a warm, humid wind from the widening gap in the doors. The smell of a thousand forest floors, concentrated and matured for ages greeted my nostrils. Stood in front of me, framed by the stone arch, was a giant figure, eight feet tall, the head wreathed in leaves with pupil-less, glowing blue eyes. It’s skin was pale and faintly blue, textured like ancient bark. It was naked apart from a loincloth of ivy, exhibiting a powerful, muscular frame the same texture of wizened bark. It was holding a staff as tall as itself, it looked like willow, gnarled and twisted, with a glowing blue crystal of some sort captive by a root-like structure at the head. I was terrified, sweating, breathless and utterly at a loss for words.
The figure regarded me for what seemed like minutes before barking some unintelligible command at me. My jaw worked silently as I struggled to find words. Again, the challenge from the tree-man. Its voice sounded like someone drilling a timpani. The third time, it bellowed angrily and its eyes and the crystal in its staff glowed brighter. I whimpered some impotent response about not understanding. Its head cocked to one side as it regarded me further.
“Follow,” it commanded, its voice softer but still stern.
It turned and I noticed the tunnel behind the figure for the first time. It was extruded in the shape of the archway and disappeared into the distance. It was more a corridor I guess, seemingly built from trees, woven together with a canopy of moving leaves. The floor was that of a forest, detritus, roots, fallen branches. I struggled to my feet and began to follow the figure as it strode purposefully down the long avenue. It was about now I wished I hadn’t taken my shoes off, I was too scared to disobey and go and fetch them. The air inside the corridor was close, humid and organic smelling, certainly in stark contrast to the clinical chamber we had just left.
After a few minutes struggling to keep up, I finally found my voice.
“Where are we going? Where is this place? Who are you?”
The tree-man said nothing, just let out a chuckle like a tuba falling down the stairs. We continued for about a mile, it was hard to gauge in this enclosed space, before the corridor opened out into another circular chamber, again woven with trees. Opposite were three more corridors, one almost identical to the one we had emerged from and two smaller ones flanking it on both sides. One of these inclined up, and one down. The tree-man headed to the left archway, downwards. I was wishing he’d have gone into the upwards passage, it felt more like getting out. I followed sullenly.
I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, scared, and in a lot of pain. The tunnel spiralled further and further downwards in a tight helix and just as I felt I could go no further, opened up into a long cave. The cave was set on both sides by earth walls, roots poking from the ceiling. Set on one side were a series of small cells barred with branches that came through the ceiling and into the floor. None of them had a door. The tree-man dipped the head of his staff towards the branches of the nearest cell and they parted in response.
“In,” it directed.
I ducked inside and sat in the corner on the soft, dirt floor. The tree-man retracted his staff and stalked silently out of the chamber. At least it wasn’t dark, or cold; heat and light seemed to be generated by bigger versions of the crystal in the tree-man’s staff that were mounted at head height everywhere. The heat was soothing, the walls and floor were strangely comfortable, I started to drift off to sleep.
Coming around some time later, I noticed a bowl of water and a gold-coloured apple near the bars. I greedily slurped the water down and chomped on the apple. It was sweet and crunchy, juicy and satisfying, the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. No sooner had the stripped apple core hit the ground when my friend entered the room again. It opened the bars and beckoned me out.
“Where am I going now then?” I’d regained a little of my confidence with the sleep and the apple. The tree-man looked at me quizzically for a second.
“The Watcher,” was all he said.
I didn’t want to question him further, it seemed pretty final. I followed him up the spiral back to the chamber above and then through the big tunnel in the middle. My arm was agony, but I felt invigorated after the apple and kept up easily. The next part had me completely disoriented. I didn’t know how far, but I knew I was below the ground and yet we emerged into a clearing bounded on all sides by tall trees of which I couldn’t identify, above us, blue sky. How? We couldn’t have gone far enough upwards for that. Sat at one end of the clearing, on a throne formed of a living tree, was another tree-man. This one was much bigger, its mane of leaf-hair much bushier and this time accompanied by a regal beard of oak leaves. Again, an ivy loin-cloth sat about its hips but this time a long cloak of ivy-leaves spilled over its shoulders. It said something to me unintelligibly, in a slow, gravelly, voice.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, “I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“How did you get here?” It asked, every syllable slowly drawn out. The accent, I couldn’t place. It reminded me of my old English teacher reciting Chaucer to us. I told him my story as it sat perfectly still on the throne, its glowing blue eyes boring holes into my soul.
“Hrmph,” it huffed. “You will stay and await the Inquisitor.”
“The Inquisitor,” it replied irritatedly. “I am the Watcher, I witnessed your arrival through the gate. Now you must be questioned by the Inquisitor. He shall determine your intentions. The Magister shall decide your fate.”
“Intentions?!” I exclaimed. “I just want to go home, via the hospital. I have no intentions!”
“So you say,” it quipped tersely.
“Where the hell is this place?”
“This is Wyretherismir.”
“What? Under Cannock Chase?!”
“Does this look like it is underneath anything human?” It looked to the sky. “You have passed through one of the Great Gates. It is forbidden.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t go through a gate, I fell down a hole,” I argued.
“You slipped sideways,” it replied simply.
“Sideways? What do you mean sideways? I didn’t do it on purpose! I had no idea what I was doing, I fell!”
“You found one of the Breaks. It is forbidden,” its eyes glowed more intensely as it finished the sentence. I could tell it was getting angry.
“OK, OK, I’m sorry I found the Break. When can I go home?”
“Never,” there was a very final tone to this.
“The Gates are sealed. We are at war,” it replied wearily
“They aren’t sealed very tight then if I managed to get in.”
“The Breaks are not supposed to be there human,” it quipped matter-of-factly.
“I see, well, what are you guys any way? You certainly aren’t human,” I asked conversationally.
“We are Wyretherrhii, the woodwose in your tongue,” replied the Watcher.
“I thought that guy was a loony,” I muttered under my breath. “What do you do here?”
“Silence! Enough questions! You will await the Inquisitor,” its eyes grew dim. It motioned to my friend who prodded me back towards the door. Off we went back to my new boudoir.
That was days ago now. I have no idea how long, there is no way to gauge the time. No-one has come to see me, I haven’t seen anyone in the whole time I’ve been down here. I sleep when I’m tired and when I awake, there is water and a golden apple at my feet. I guess I just wait now…