Holly doesn’t know these woods. She is a stranger to these trees, with their menacing branches, just as she is a stranger in the nearest town. She doesn’t know the name of the raven-haired librarian or the snide convenience store clerk, and she doesn’t want them to know hers. She’s counting on anonymity to save her.
She has a fantasy of living in a house in the woods like a witch, but her first love is walking alone at night. Walking makes thinking easier. Walking feels like escape until the night she stumbles upon the head in the road.
It is saying terrible things about her.
Nothing will make the head stop talking, not even a slap or a kick. No time to bury it, no shovel. She picks it up by the ears and brings it to her house.
The librarian, though unwelcoming, has eyes that dance with mischief. Holly asks her about the local legends. “Is there anything I should know? I’m trying to get an idea of who haunts these woods.”
“Did you happen upon something?”
“No, not really,” Holly lies.
The librarian disappears for a few minutes and comes back with a tower of books. After entering Holly’s information into an ancient computer, she whispers, “He’ll try to romance you. It always begins with seduction.”
“I said, Holly isn’t the right name for you. It’s too festive.”
On the way back to her little house, Holly struggles to balance the books, which make it hard for her to see the ground in front of her. She is terrified of stepping on a dead thing, or worse, something determined to live, biting at her ankles and knees. She trips and scatters the books. Gathering them, she realizes they are useless: romance novels, a field guide, a bible.
Holly can hear the head singing to her as her house comes into view. The night before, the head kept her awake with complaints of hunger and thirst, endless questions about her childhood, and poems of yearning addressed to his lost body. She fell asleep in the dead of night, only to be awoken by the clopping of a horse’s hooves, followed by the growling of a motorcycle. By the time the sun rose, she was exhausted.
The head, however, was sleeping peacefully on the kitchen table. Anyone would have taken it for a very lifelike sculpture.
Returning home now she opens the door with dread. She does not want to talk to anyone.
Before she can drop the books on the table, the head fires a question she cannot answer: “What are you running away from?”
The convenience store is the only place to buy alcohol. As Holly walks past the clerk to the limited wine section, she hears a whistle.
“Hey. Here’s the poison you’re looking for. This is what he likes.” The clerk is holding the biggest bottle of Jack Daniel’s she has ever seen.
She grabs a white Bordeaux instead. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“What, you’re going to drink alone?”
“I certainly can’t pay for that,” she says, gesturing to the whiskey.
“It’s on the house.”
“No, really. I don’t need any favors.”
“Tonight you do.” When the clerk leans forward, she sees a strong resemblance between him and the librarian. Siblings. The clerk won’t take no for an answer, so she trudges home cradling the whiskey and the wine like two stiff babies.
“You should put me back,” the head says after a third of the whiskey is gone. “Back where you found me.”
“No more touching. I poured the whiskey. That’s enough.” Holly has had only one glass of wine but it feels like three. She hasn’t been eating enough.
“He’s coming for me, you know. Or for you. You should get one of those pretty little ribbons to wear around your neck. It would suit you.”
A horse gallops by. Then a motorcycle zooms past. At last a horse rides by on a motorcycle: she sees this with her own eyes.
“I know you’re on the run. You hurt somebody. Some poor man like me.”
“Is that right?”
“There’s a legend around these parts about a woman who cut her husband’s head off. His body roams the woods searching for it. You could piece it all together, solve the crime. Or we could curl up tight in that little bed. I’ll make you sing.” He wiggles his tongue.
Holly stands up so fast she almost knocks the table over. Rage sets her blood boiling.
“Your life is in your hands. There’s a job out there, waiting for you.”
“Shut up,” she says through clenched teeth.
“Did I say your life? I meant my life. I get it: you like power.”
“Have a good one.” She slams the door behind her as she leaves.
“You remind me of my wife!” the head calls.
Holly’s mother never pressed charges, not even when she was black and blue. She never struck back, but she did move from town to town with her little girl in tow. She would be surprised to learn Holly used a crystal shard as a weapon. She might see it as progress.
Holly doesn’t know if she killed her husband when she slashed his neck. Did he bleed out? The uncertainty makes her feel scared and compromised. Dirty.
The library is locked for the night, as is the convenience store. She turns to the woods and sees a headless body coming towards her, walking a remarkably straight line. She could swear she knows this body. That strong torso, those long legs. Her left hand flutters up to her throat.
Then she sees a second figure, a woman just like her, following the headless Everyman. She carries a net bursting with men’s heads. The heads begin chanting the names of all the women in the world until they finally settle on one. Holly.
The woman puts the net in Holly’s arms, then bows.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she cries as the woman skips away. “You come back here!” The heads are a crushing weight, a living truth. She screams for help a few more times, but it’s no use: Holly will never escape these woods.