My mother warned me of The Smiling Man when I was about to play in the woods for the very first time. Perched on the edge of a worn out loveseat, she whispered horrible truths about the man who lived in the forest. He was a dark and bitter man who hated the happiness of children. “It made too much noise” she said. “It brought back too many memories.” I had heard the story of my Aunt’s disappearance many times before, but now it came with the tension that The Smiling Man brought into the room. It rolled in on heavy footsteps, and seated itself comfortably next to my mother on the loveseat, deepening the cushion worn by years of frequent, uninvited visitation.
“Your Auntie used to like to play in the woods, although our grandparents were superstitious about it.” She started. I fidgeted on the braided rug, more anxious to play than to listen. “We would play together, sometimes, around the stream and by the redwoods….until one day, your Auntie wanted to go beyond the wall of fallen logs in the woods.” My mother’s eyes grew dark. “It was foggy and I was too afraid to go. She kept asking me to go with her…just over the log…just the once and we’ll double back.” My mother sunk deeper into the loveseat. “As soon as she got over the log I heard a terrible sound. She screamed, and then there was silence. And then I heard sobbing. I ran straight to my grandparents and told them what your Auntie did. They called for help, and we searched the forest. We never found your Auntie.” Sensing my interest had been lost, my mother picked me up off the rug and carried me to the door. I rested my head on her shoulder, understanding that I was a bit too tall to be carried like this anymore.
On the porch sat my younger sister, Afia, a sweet little girl the color of earth, swathed in pink and ribbons. She looked at me eagerly, awaiting an invitation to play. However, this was not her day in the woods. It was mine. Looking back, I pray she never comes to the woods. My mother scooped Afia up and onto her lap, and sat on the porch; a silent send off.
The first sensation I felt was the comforting sound of laughter. The children were playing in the woods. Two girls chased each other along the forest paths, while some boys rummaged through the dirt, using sticks to prod roots and bugs. One girl offered to show me a rock she found. It was steely gray, with iridescent flecks, like her eyes. Someone told a joke, and the children laughed. It was high pitched, flitting laughter that carried up into the trees and was swept away by the breeze. I remember feeling a sense of dread, knowing that the breeze might carry our joy into the ears of The Smiling Man.
I can’t recall how I was separated from the group. I have a thousand memories of the day; some where the children heard their parents’ call and left, others where the children saw a face and ran. I started to panic. Things began to snap around me. Twigs? Bones? A loud crack behind me sent me into a sprint, off the path and into the underbrush. My heart raced, and I felt as if a million tiny hands were reaching for me, tearing at my arms and legs, trying to offer me up to their master. My footsteps echoed back, as if a whole army of men were on my heels. In my fit of fright I almost collided with a huge fallen tree trunk. Digging soft fingers into the rough scaly bark, I vaulted myself over the rotted wood and into the dirt.
Oh how I wish I hadn’t. Had it not be for the army of shadows at my heels, I would have never ended up face to face with the being my mother had been sitting next to all those years in her stories. He stood seven feet tall, with bloodshot eyes. His clothes were a mixture of rags and moss, knotted together in thick bundles over his lanky frame. His face was hideously torn and scarred, and cracked like peeling bark. His smile lived up to the legend. It was long, and crooked, and flayed out at the cracked edges. It looked as if he had poorly strung his lips up with twine, and fastened them behind it ears. The teeth peeking out were bloodied by oozing gums.
I screamed as loud as I could and then I ran, full speed, at The Smiling Man. He barely had time to lift his slender hands before I barrelled into him, fists flailing. Some of my punches landed, others grazed the rough scarred flesh that tore at my knuckles. The Smiling Man didn’t scream at all. Instead he wheezed through his peeling lips. I turned my fists to his face, and punched in the very essence of his being. The teeth flew out like black pearls from a broken strand. I kept pelting him, harder and harder, until the horrible wheezing sound gave out in one last exhausted breath.
The next few moments were silent, save for the pounding in my ears. A sudden panic washed over me, and I immediately turned to run back home, clumsily climbing back over the fallen log and sprinting back to my home.
It was already dark, and my mother stood on the porch with a candle in her hand. Afia peered at me from behind my mother’s skirts, full of worries and stories. I apologized, and hurried to wash for dinner. That night, my mother stared at me with cold eyes. I think she knew.
The next day I slipped away from the children’s games, and over the fallen log where the Smiling Man lay. The body was twisted, rotting, and ravaged by animals. I sat against the log, tears stinging my eyes. It was as if The Smiling Man reached a gnarled hand inside me and scooped out my heart; I felt hollow. I thought of my auntie, and my mother; people touched by his evil presence. It didn’t help at all.
I kept returning to the fallen log in the woods, long after the body withered away. It started to become a safe place, where I and The Smiling Man knew the truth. Not the lies I lived at home, or the smiles I faked with the other children, but something more authentic. I found it harder and harder to smile with each passing day. Each day I would leave the house, and my mother would shout warnings after me. Each day I quelled her worries with a taut, full smile. It hurt my cheeks. It split my lips. It wasn’t real.
One day, the weight of it became too much. I sat in the forest and pulled a length of twine from my pocket. My fingers shook as I knotted the twine around two fish hooks, and strung up my smile until it reached my ears. It stung, and bled, but it wasn’t heavy anymore.
I bolted to my feet at the sound to find a small girl. She had scrambled over the log and into my safe place. I held my hands up to her, and tried to calm her down. “Please!” I screamed. “Please! It’s just my smile!” But she didn’t hear me. She turned and tried to flee. She reached the top of the log as I grabbed her foot. I needed to explain. “There’s no danger here, please! Stay!” She shrieked again, and I pulled hard on her chubby little leg. Her hands slipped from the log, and she fell head first into the rocks. There was a crunch, and a tiny whimper.
I let go of her leg. My heart was stuck in my throat. I couldn’t have… I… couldn’t have. I knelt beside her, and turned over her little body. There was a deep gash on her soft forehead, and a pool of blood. Her chest didn’t move, nor her eyes, which were glassy and fixed. Tears filled my eyes, and a wretched sound escaped my throat. The hooks in my cheeks twisted and ripped, wrestling the grief into a ragged gaping smile. Her little eyes stared at me, and I could see the bloody mess she saw. I was a monster.
I didn’t leave the forest that night. In fact, I never returned home. All I could think about was the chubby little girl. Her horror-stricken face, the struggle, the crunch. I touched my hands to the long jagged scabs forming on my cheeks. I thought of my mother, who was probably sitting on the couch with Afia. I could hear her whisper tear filled apologies to my sweet baby sister. “Your brother is with Auntie now.” she would say. “Auntie and Brother won’t be coming home, sweet child.” Afia would wail, and clutch my mother. I imagined all these things, and hoped Afia would grow to be much older than I was. I hoped she would never enter this forest…my forest.
I wondered how bad it would be if one day a young boy scrambled over the top of my log and found me. Would he beat me like I beat The Smiling Man? Would I even raise my hands in defense? When children played beyond the log my heart would stop. Many times they would reach my barrier, and superstitiously turn around and run back to their wooded playground. Their laughter filled the wind, and taunted me.I hated the sounds they made. I could not smile and laugh like they did. My smile was twine and viscera.
I wish I could say this story ended, that the chapter was over and the book could be closed; but I wake up every day to find a new page. A fresh blank sheet to continue a chapter I had unwittingly fallen into when my mother set me onto the grass outside our house. I greet every day with a strung up smile, and the hopes that someday a new soul will climb over the log and end my chapter.