Geoff Nelder

The June Selected Writer is Geoff Nelder

Feel free to email Geoff at: geoffnelder@yahoo.com


by Geoff Nelder

One more to go. Careful, because the tussocks of long grass snatch at her Timberlands.

It was the day before she would hand a botany outline to her tutor, who would be standing with arms folded and a sneer. Just the thought of Rotten Professor Beaph’s negativity and his black, spiky eyebrows makes her stumble. She falls, betrayed by a loop in a beige bootlace and her preoccupation with Rotten.

Focus. She shouldn’t have worn her denim shorts, but nothing else was clean. Now these aren’t clean either. Grass and mud stains. Blood too. Derryth shrugs off her backpack to access her first aid kit. It wasn’t her choice to be labeled a Derryth even if she bawled out loud in Maternity at the time. Her mother had demanded an ancient link to nature, and Derryth is what she got. Maybe that is why she studies botany.

Mother pulled a favor and dropped a hot tip: an enclosed woodland surrounded by a military training ground has just been acquired by the Woodland Trust, so Derryth volunteered to classify its flora. She knows that Rotten is vying for her mother’s affection. Sadly, that bastard has the devil’s own magnetism. She smiles that she’s been able to block Rotten’s attempts to move in even at the cost of poor grades. Maybe she should’ve gone to another university after all.

This wood is near the cliffs at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. A Google Earth image showed the wood pixelated as if the trees demanded privacy.

Just a straight-as-she-can transect for two kilometres to the other side should tell her if there’s something here. Derryth sips from her flask, Red Bull but without the vodka, replaces it in her backpack and faces an ancient red brick wall. It’s a micro-ecosystem. She laughs at a five-legged ant emerging from a brick-dust cavity. It waves an antennae greeting as it crawls over her green nails—to go with her goth green hair, anything to vamp up her natural mousey brown mop. Then another.

“Hello, Ant Number Two, have you also had a limb accident or does it run in the family?”
More insects tumble out of the hole, eager to swarm up her arm, but she withdraws, shakes off the first two, and watches them scuttle away.

“Any other pentapedes here?” She glances behind her in case anyone overheard. Returning her attention to the ants, she snaps a few close shots with the Canon slung around her neck, then fishes in her rucksack for a bug pot and teases one of the ants inside.

A frown follows. She doesn’t recognize the species. “Friggin’ hell, Derryth, you could identify two hundred of the most common insects in the country by the age of twelve. What’s this ant species?”

She noticed the tree in front of her. Rarely found in Britain and never where anyone has planted a tree for centuries, she sees it is a eucalyptus. She gets within millimetres of the peeling bark. She can’t smell the distinctive oil. Out with her penknife.

Not the fragrance she associates with eucalyptus, yet the edges of the cut flares pink. Closer with her nose. Metallic, as if blood. Another sample pot and she stands to examine her route. She smiles at the lack of ground flora because it makes for easy access. If the trees are a species of eucalyptus then the leaf mould is too acidic for most herbaceous plants. The trees are about three metres apart.

Something hits her on her head, bounces off and rolls into the leaf litter.

“Ow!” She falls to her knees, turns over to lie onto her back and gazes up at the canopy to seek her adversary. No sign of a squirrel but blue sky breaks through the wispy leaves.

She lies there enjoying the view and even the prickles in her back from the autumn leaves. “Was that a pine cone you hurled?” She rolls over onto her knees and uses both hands, breaststroke-style, to make parting waves in the pale yellow leaves. She finds a pine cone.

“Ah, Pinus sylvestris by the raised lump in each scale. I love pine cones, how dare you hurt me!” She notices blood on the cone and touches her scalp, feeling the wetness there.

Something dark and furry reaches from behind, grabs her bag and races back through the trees.

“Damn, there goes my phone and peanut-butter sandwiches!” She’s surprised a squirrel would have the strength to carry off a small backpack...maybe it’s a mutant, like the ants. She takes stock and tallies her flask, camera and remaining wits. Surely the cursed beast will have dropped her bag by now, so she sallies forth between trunks on a search and recovery mission.

Unnerved by such events in what should have been a pleasant walk, she attempts to search for her bag. “Good grief, girl, it’s not the apocalypse, just a critter-snatched-pack, but then it held my obs with only hours left to save my Cambridge career.” She shudders to a halt, sending up a cloud of pungent dried leaves, determined to brave this out. Apply logic and calmness. Now she could smell peanut butter, the cheeky varmint! She hastens but she loses the scent.

She gives up the chase and tries to return, attempting to spot her footsteps but instead aiming to her right where the tagged trees should be.

A movement behind her makes her glance around...there’s movement again but now on both sides. A tree appears to move a few inches towards her. Its roots are mostly hidden by the leaf-fall, so it was as if the giant had slid through them. Another mirrored the approach on her right, forcing her to run forward out of their way. Although the shady wood is cool, perspiration prickles on her forehead and down the middle of her back.

Trees and saplings ambush her. She’s in a small space but now surrounded. She falls to her knees.

The trees in front nudge each other, creating an opening. Hallucination or not, she takes the opportunity, rises and bolts for the gap. She slows as her panic state lowers. The trees are not willing to let her decelerate. The arboreal creatures glide through the leaf litter. They are so close on either side she imagines she can hear them breathe.

Panic returns as she stumbles then struggles to see properly through her moist eyes and the increasing darkness from the trees blotting the light. There’s a momentary hiatus in the wood’s velocity, a full stop, allowing her to halt, too.

She remembers the cigarette lighter in her pocket. The leaf litter is made of eucalyptus dried leaves—fantastic tinder.

A groan reaches her from behind like the bulkhead of a wooden ship screeching against a quayside in pain. She readies to run again but in spite of her teeth chattering in fear, she’s compelled to look. She sees one of the trees is three times broader than the rest, a blue sheen on its bark and its lower branches are reaching towards her with hand-like twigs as if to strangle her.

“Sorry, sorry,” she blurts, throwing away the unlit lighter in full view of the tree. If only she possessed a flare gun, she could keep the trees at bay like wolves. A tickle above her right ankle reveals a scratch, leaking blood and more worryingly, a tree licking it up.

She turns and runs towards what she hopes is the nearest clearing. A crescendo of inhuman screams and cracking timber assaults her ears, wave after wave. She tries to stop but branches flagellate her back forcing her to keep going, her trainers now dragging, not in the leaf litter but on roots writhing beneath her. She has to stop momentarily to throw up. Steaming remains of sickly breakfast escape her mouth onto the nearest tree. Serves it right. She uses a handful of leaves to wipe her mouth.

The trees thin in front, allowing more daylight through along with an unexpected aroma: ocean. The horror of what is happening grips her stomach, sending its own anti-peristaltic convulsions up her throat. Even while stumbling along, becoming increasingly scratched, bruised and desperate for escape, she has to vomit again.

Through tears she sees, just a few strides before her, a row of trees fall forward. Their roots bizarrely rise up with a mass of dirt stuck to them but they topple over, away from her. Derryth struggles to recall her map of the wood. This wood—no, she digs her heels in but the ground is shifting along with the trees—borders on a sea cliff.

Surely the trees will not take her over? Panic is heating her face, steaming her whole body. There must be an ancient and fair-minded dryad about but a nagging thought crawls up her neck suggesting that someone she knows is controlling the demons animating this wood. Not military toxins but a more ancient evil.    

Only one tree before the cliff now.

Derryth can see a steady line where the horizon battles to separate sea and sky. She holds out her hands but what to rest them on...other than a tree about to do a lemming suicide?

Turning, she grabs at a low branch of a moving tree that is following behind her. Maybe she could climb up and make her way back through the wood, swing on a vine like Tarzan? The quasi-eucalyptus has other ideas and exudes gum so that her hands slip. Flat on her face in among the wriggling leaves, she scrambles but before she can regain her feet she is taken to the cliff edge. Bizarrely, her rucksack appears just out of arm’s reach. Had the squirrel brought it back? Her reasoning is abandoned as she spots her glowing phone displaying a message: Got you!

Her brain is in a whirl but knowing the text is from Rotten, she goes over the edge, feet first, on her stomach, cushioned by the springy leaf litter.

She flails her arms but there’s no rock outcrop, no roots that aren’t on the move. She’s part of a multiple log plume waterfall without the water. Her ears fill with wooden groaning, screeching and screams, much of which escapes from herself. Although she knows she is falling it doesn’t feel like it because this section of wood is travelling with her. It’s all relative and her sister trees share her fate. Her nose twitches with the tangy aroma of tree roots recently unearthed, newly torn wood, and her now sore eyes, although scared wide open, sees little through a dense fog of soil, leaves and a distant flicker of a blue phone screen.

This is it. Her end of days in a cascade of weird wood and she’s hardly had a life. It isn’t a clean fall. No illusory stretch of time to reflect on her life although she has time to curse Rotten for stalking her mother and ruining her university life. She’s prodded by branches who are probably thinking along the same lines. Ironic that her fellow plunging sufferers have had a longer life than hers.

She’s surrounded by falling trees as if she’s prematurely in a coffin, but suddenly everything shudders to a halt. She is standing on a forked branch which is shaking but not descending any more. The cloud of leaves and soil precipitates allowing her to see what’s happening. Although shivering with fear, she laughs with relief. “Priceless! Rotten, you’ve failed again.”

Unlike lemmings who are pulverised or drowned after their fall, the trees have piled up like a near vertical log jam. She examines potential footholds in the upside-down eucalyptus and works her way down the wood-filled slope. A noxious lump comes up in her throat as a tree slips beneath her then another rolls.

She can’t see far down below for leaves, roots and branches. Is the tide in? Progress is slow; she is scratched sore and her fingers ache. Above the cacophony of grinding wood she hears an incongruous chattering. She looks up into the face of that damn-bag-snatching squirrel but it scampers away and she sees why. A huge eucalyptus is toppling over the top of the cliff and she’s about to be a smear unless she gets out of the way—fast.

She follows the squirrel. After all, if it’s under the influence of Rotten it wouldn’t have alerted her now to the overhanging monster. She’s desperately scrambling sideways, hands slipping with perspiration. Ah no, blood. Splinters are not just in her hands but knees too, and she’s about to be impaled by a giant shard.

Breathing is difficult with the air so thick.

She has to traverse more than a few arm’s lengths to be clear of the oncoming tree, not just its branches but massive roots. Perversely, some of the branches have sheared off from contact with its tree siblings.

The trunk thunders past like a derailed train. She closes her eyes in fear. Her back is whacked and scraped by branches. She feels compelled to open her eyes and sees that the big tree has halted its descent.

In spite of everything, she notices a red ribbon fluttering from the trunk. Number 3.

She grabs a smaller tree, Number 5, and hangs on while looking down past its roots and sees the mass of wood like a giant logjam. Are there reflections beneath them? The sea is down there but then if she crash-splashes among the trees it wouldn’t be safer than up here.

Without notice, Number 5 is flipped upright, launching her into space.

Not far is an ocean landing. She knows the water will be full of woodland debris and many traps underwater but in spite of screaming, her trajectory is out of her control. She curls into a fetal position just before splashdown then shrieks as the cold ocean takes her in.

She’s alive. She can’t believe she survives.

She splutters to the surface trying to avoid breathing in the woody flotsam. Her right shoulder is so sore from the impact she cries, releasing hot tears, warming the sea. She lies on her back for a few moments in a lull between waves churning less than the sea near the cliff foot. There she witnesses the extraordinary sight of the jagged slope of trees leading up to the cliff top. She looks up at a pinking sky, altocumulus clouds underlit with marmalade light.

Her body is dragged down feet first until she realizes her boots are anchors. She gulps air so as to reach down, undo the laces and retrieve her Timberlands. She knows her feet might need them so she ties the laces together and strings the boots around her neck like a lifebelt, one that sinks.

She swims to shore.


She drives two-hundred miles to her mother’s house in Ely because she knows the damned Professor Beaph will be there, breaking the news of her daughter’s untimely gone missing, presumed dead. Comforting her mother...and the silly woman will let him.

Derryth stops once at a motorway service station and mall to change into dry clothes and grab food, coffee and to buy a steak knife.

Her mother’s cottage might have yellow roses over a portal but Derryth bristles at the sight of Rotten’s blood-red Audi Cabriolet in the driveway. She opts for stealth, not knowing about the new squeak in the side door.

They are already looking up at her from the sofa. Mother in tears with a saturated hanky and Rotten’s blue shirt is wet from where her face had snuggled. Both sets of eyes are wide open in shock; and of pleasure from her mother, but anger from Rotten.

His words belie his eyes. “My dear Derryth, how wonderful to see you safe. I’ve been misinformed.”

“Yes, squirrels can be unreliable,” Derryth says, gripping the knife behind her.She brings it out, points it at him, and lunges.

Her head swims as if it were back in the sea, making her miss by an arm’s length. She sprawls on the Axminster and is too weak to get up. Blood oozes from her head and arms as earlier scratches reopen. A weight is on her back, getting heavier and the back of her neck becomes moist from his rancid, hoarse whispering.

“You’re such a simpleton, Girl. My name—Tom Beaph—is Baphomet. Even the Knight’s Templar couldn’t annihilate me. You had your chance to escape. Now I’ll have to finish what the cursed wandering wood couldn’t.”

He reaches for her dropped knife with one hand while grabbing her hair with the other. Suddenly he cries out and lets go, staring at his hand. She wriggles out from under him and shakes her head. From out of her green hair comes a cascade of tiny spores...miniature revenge-bombs. The devil appears to be helpless, writhing on the floor.

Derryth grabs her mother’s hand. “Come, we have to get out of here!”

Along the brick path to the iron gate and to her blue Citroen 2CV. She hears a familiar rustling noise and looks back. The tall sycamores in the rear garden are the first to reach the house. Poplars, beech and oaks are engaged in a pincer movement. Mother tugs at Derryth’s arm because ash trees across the road are marching up behind them.

The little French car had never accelerated so fast. Half a mile away is a bridge on top of which she stops to gape at the crushing of her mother’s home.

Trees are succeeding where the Knights’ Templar failed. No wonder he had to make his own trees in her attempted murder.

But she had been born with the name of a Rowan Druid from the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. The real trees, her trees, are taking revenge. Her turn to laugh and laugh.

Geoff Nelder lives in rural England within easy cycle ride of the Welsh mountains. Having had 84 short stories published, Geoff was chosen to be the short fiction judge for the Whittaker Prize.

Geoff is an editor at Adventure Books of Seattle, and he was a co-editor of science fiction magazine, Escape Velocity.

Publications: humorous thriller Escaping Reality (2005)

Award-winning science fiction, Exit, Pursued by a Bee (2008)

Another thriller, Hot Air, (2009) won an award from an Arts Academy in the Netherlands.

A science fiction post-apocalyptic trilogy, ARIA (2012-2015) won best SF novel 2012 with its original premise. An historical fantasy, Xaghra’s Revenge is out this year.

You can find Geoff HERE