I've heard it said that for every tale and every rhyme there’s always a little bit of truth behind it.
Growing up, mum had always warned me away from the woods near our place.
“Josh,” she would say, “never go into the woods at night.”
“There are things that wander the woods at night.”
Or perhaps, “It’s dangerous in the woods at night.”
I even remember once, on the way to the shops, the car radio began playing a song:
“If you go down to the woods today,
you're sure of a big surprise.”
Mum immediately changed the radio station and reminded me about playing in the woods.
Now, mum was not a strict person and she would even let me stay up late with her on the odd occasion, but she had always stressed the importance of keeping out of the woods at night. At the time I always just took it as her being a doting parent, trying to keep her son, me, out of harm’s way.
I should have listened.
For as long as I can remember, we've always had a teddy bear in our living room. Brown fur, black button eyes, wearing a light grey vest – just a normal looking teddy bear, sitting in a little chair next to the fireplace.
But mum would never let me play with it – never even let me anywhere near it. Being the good little boy that I am, I listened to her instructions and left it alone.
As I grew up, I thought it must have been some sort of memento of hers, something precious that she didn't want ruined by childish playing.
But now I realise she never looked at it fondly. And now I know why.
We moved house when I was twelve. I remember now that when we moved, we had packed our things into the car, but remember that mum had not packed the teddy bear – I thought to myself, “Maybe mum would come back for it later,” or “Maybe the movers would bring it with them?”
When we arrived at the new place, I remember mum began sobbing when she opened the door and there by the fireplace, was the teddy bear – brown fur, black button eyes, light grey vest, sitting in its little chair. She quickly fought back the sobs and carried on like nothing happened.
At the time, I had thought that the movers had brought it in and set it up like our old place, and that mum’s sobs were old memories welling up. But thinking back now, I’m not sure why I thought that – we had arrived before movers had even got there and I had never seen her look at that bear fondly.
Even at the new place, she stressed the importance of not going into the woods at night.
Life at the new place went on uneventfully – I went to school, made new friends that I hung out with and so on – just the normal stuff kids do growing up. Being the good boy that I was, I always went home before dark, and avoided going into the nearby woods.
A few years later, after I had turned fifteen, mum sat me down for a serious conversation.
“I know you’re growing up,” she said in serious tone, “and one day you might go in to the woods with friends or something, but promise me, if you ever go in there at night, you’ll hide your face. Wear a mask, or a hood, or something. Just don’t show your face. Not in the woods.”
This surprised me. I had always been a good boy and listened to her instructions, but I guess she thought I would soon go into my rebellious stage or something and go into the woods in spite of the words she impressed upon me growing up.
“If you go down to the woods today,
you better go in disguise.”
One day, I had run into the neighbour’s kid, Jimmy, playing kick ball in the street. The moment he spotted me he came up to me and started chattering away. He was about nine, so I guess he thought talking to me would make him "cool," talking to the older kids and such.
Thinking back now, during the conversation, he brought up how brave he was, that, despite being told otherwise by his parents, he had snuck out and into the woods at night and saw something I wouldn't believe.
He said the night he snuck out, he came across a path that he had never seen before. Following it, he had come across a small clearing in the woods. In the clearing, there was a bunch of teddy bears, dancing around and having a picnic. He even said he saw his own teddy in there – not that he still had a teddy, exclaiming that he was a grown up – and when it saw him, it even waved to him. He had run back home after that.
I chalked it up to childish imaginings or a dream, and I told him that he shouldn't do that as the woods were dangerous at night. He had scoffed at me and called me chicken.
“For every bear that ever there was
will gather there for certain because,
today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.”
It happened last year. Mum had gone out with her work mates for drinks and left me home alone to study for exams – she had stressed a reminder about the woods as she closed the door behind her.
I was at my desk, opened up a book and began studying. I’m the type that’s easily distracted, so while studying, I don’t turn on the TV or radio, no background noise – a nice quiet environment to keep my mind focused on my studies. But because of the silence, the sound of a door closing and light footsteps stood out to me all the more. Looking at the clock, I noted that it was already after midnight - did mum come back already? I got up, stuck my head out the door of my room and called out, “Mum?”
I went out and down the stairs to see if she was in the kitchen or something, but no. Just me, alone in the house.
As I turned to go back upstairs, my eyes caught something odd next to the fireplace. It took me a moment to register what was wrong.
The bear was gone – the chair was still there, but no bear. Maybe mum finally got rid of it – or maybe she took it with her.
Thinking nothing of it, I decided that since I was down here, I may as well get a glass of water. That’s when I saw out of the kitchen window – being dragged out into the woods, a shape, what I shortly registered as a child. The child was being carried out to the woods dragged across the ground – I couldn't clearly see what was dragging him, all I knew was that it was definitely not a person.
Thinking that perhaps the kid had been playing outside at night and an animal, like a wild dog, had caught him, I rushed outside to try and scare it away from the kid.
I started yelling, growling wild and random sounds trying to scare the wild dog away, but as I did so, it seemed to drag the kid away faster. I hesitated for a moment, remembering my mum’s constant warnings about the woods. But a child’s life was at stake – I ran after it.
“Every teddy bear who's been good,
is sure of a treat today.”
Still chasing after the dog, I slowed down in order not to trip and break a leg on an unseen branch or root. After my eyes had adjusted to the low light, I came to realise that somehow I was following a path through the woods. A path that should not exist – I had chased the animal into the woods in front of my house, where this path could not have been. I could hear light footsteps from all around me, but whenever I turned to see who or what was there, the footsteps would stop and there would be nothing.
I had lost sight of the dog, but I knew it too was following this path, so I continued, those footsteps following nearby. Eventually I spotted that the path led up to a clearing amongst the trees, lit up by the moon and stars. What I saw caused me to hide behind one of the trees outside of the clearing rather than to stumble into it.
I could make out a number of teddy bears of all sizes and colours gathered in the clearing. Impossibly, they gathered there, moving around as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
In the middle of it all, the neighbour’s kid, Jimmy, still in his pyjamas, gagged, tied up and squirming, surrounded by those things, his desperate sobbing yells muffled through the gag.
It was all silent except for Jimmy’s muffled yells – even those footsteps had gone quiet.
The bears danced around him to music only they could hear, shuffling right, then left, right, then left, over and over again. If it weren't for Jimmy, this scene would have been comical, even cute.
Then the music stopped.
I covered my mouth to keep a yelp of my own from escaping as they all leaped forward towards Jimmy. I heard his muffled pained yells through his gag as darkness began to colour his pyjamas.
“There’s lots of marvelous things to eat,
and wonderful games to play.
Beneath the trees, where nobody sees,
They’ll hide and seek as long as they please.
‘cause that’s the way the teddy bears have their picnic.”
Backing away from my hiding spot, my foot caught on a twig that lightly snapped as I moved. None of those things noticed – none except for one. Brown fur, black button eyes, light grey vest, dyed in dark liquid. It lifted its head towards me, extended its arm, and waved.
It saw me! The bear that should have been in the chair by the fireplace back at home – It saw me! And it recognised me.
All sense lost, I turned away and ran down the path, somehow reaching home and locking the door. I somehow made my way back to my bed and cradled myself sobbing - I now realised my mum’s warning not going into the woods at night. I now know the reason my mum told me to hide my face if I ever went into the woods. I don’t know when, but I eventually fell asleep.
In the morning, I went downstairs – and there it was, sitting on its seat – brown fur, black button eyes, light grey vest, all clean and pristine – next to the fireplace, as if nothing had happened.
The police canvased the neighbourhood that morning. They found nothing. Even the traces that should have led them to me had disappeared – like someone had cleaned up any evidence of what happened the night before. The police showed up and asked about if we knew anything about Jimmy’s disappearance. I answered no, giving late night studying as the excuse for my red eyes. I wanted to tell them the truth – that Jimmy was taken by the bears and what they had done to him. Oh, poor Jimmy! I strained to tell them that the bear in our living room was part of it. But I couldn't. I mean, who would believe it, a tall tale about teddy bears taking a kid out into the woods. And doing… that. I would probably be branded a nut-case. Or worse, I would be the one blamed and branded as someone who takes little kids out to the woods to do who-knows-what.
News of Jimmy’s disappearance spread around town and no one knew what to make of it. They searched the woods – for two weeks they looked, volunteers and police, searching the woods, but they came back with nothing. Other than asking me if I were okay, Mum said nothing more about it.
What about that thing? I know you’re asking. While mum was away on a conference for a week, I took that thing, drove out with it and buried it in the middle of nowhere, chair and all. I was ready to apologise to mum if she was upset when she returned and found it missing, but I knew it had to be done. I spent the rest of the day happy; glad that I did not have to lay eyes on that thing. I nearly broke down when I saw it back in its place next to the fireplace the next morning. Brown fur, black button eyes, light grey vest, sitting in its chair, not a speck of dirt on it.
Over the next few days, I tried burning it, tearing it apart, even packaging it up and sending it to a random address from the internet with no return address. But the next morning, without fail, there it would be. Next to the fire place, like nothing had happened. I continued on with my life and did my best to hide it from mum – I must have been a pretty good actor as mum didn't notice any difference. But I never let that thing out of my sight.
A few months had gone by, on one Autumn day, while I was in the kitchen with mum, talking with her as she cooked dinner, despite the fact it sat facing forward as it always did, I could feel its stare on me. I snapped. I threw it into the fire burning in the fireplace, just to get away from its stare – on doing so, mum looked at me in horror, an instant recognition on her face. She began crying, ran over to me and hugged me.
We tried everything since then. Mum even sent me overseas to stay with cousins, but when I arrived, they jokingly remarked how much of a kid I still was, sending my teddy bear ahead of me. I fought back the tears and even laughed along with them. I stayed with them for a few weeks but eventually made the excuse that I was home sick and wanted to go home. They laughed, but they saw me off in good spirits.
I’m back home with mum now. It seems there’s no way to escape it and I would rather spend the rest of my time at home with mum. We've spent the last few months ignoring it, living out our lives as best we could. But I could see the sadness in mum’s eyes whenever she looked at me.
Jimmy disappeared a year ago.
I made arrangements for mum to go visit our cousins overseas and she should be on a plane in the air over the middle of the ocean now. She fought against it – I knew she would – but I made her promise me she would go. I don’t want her to see me. I don’t want her to find me like I found poor Jimmy. It’s too late for me, I know that now. No matter what I do, they will get me. At least I won’t let them take her too. I can hear light footsteps slowly coming up the stairs, I think it’s them – oh God, please let me be wrong. I’m sorry I didn't listen, Mum.
To anyone who reads this, please don’t go into the woods at night. If you really have to, make sure they don’t recognise you.
I can hear them scrambling against my door now.
“If you go down to the woods today,
you're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today,
you better go in disguise.
For every bear that ever there was
will gather there for certain because,
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.”