Return To The Land

Cold. Sticky. Painful. 

Skinned knees and a bump on my head. Everything else hurts, too.

I open my eyes and can barely see a thing, just a wisp of silvery light in the dark. I reach out to it and see my hand covered in red.

Oh. Oh no. Sticky. Rusty. Blood. A lot of it. Not mine. Whose?

I know the light is a friend, somehow. I follow it out of the hollow, stumbling over twisted roots to find myself in a forest. The waxing moon looms like a scythe in the sky, partially blocked by the treetops. It’s even colder outside; the night breeze shivers my skin and chatters my teeth. 

I steady myself against the trunk of the massive tree I had been hiding under to stand up on the battered soles of my feet and the burning meat of my legs. I have never felt so weak before. Maybe I ran to this place? But where is it?

I follow the moon and hope its light will answer my questions. 

The trees tower silently above me, and I feel eyes on me in the dark. Bright dots, always in pairs, moving fast or creepily still on high branches and in thick bushes. It sure makes me hurry.

I reach a point where the trees start to spread out. They part to reveal a lonely hill with a tree on top, or what remains of it. Something split it in half, and the part that’s still rooted to the ground appears ghostly and pale in the moonlight. I can swear the beam I have been following comes from it, not the sky.

Before I can take off towards it—my guiding light, the moon below the moon—a blood-curdling sound freezes the blood in my veins. It’s like a woman screaming.



Like my mom.

When the car started spinning.

Because dad’s guys had found us.


Mom was never a fan of me having sugary stuff. I knew something was up when she bought me a coke and a pack of skittles after I asked only once. I didn’t have to whine or say that dad always buys me candy when I ask, to which she’d reply that “yes, he does, the one or two times a month he takes a moment to be with you at all.”

We got back in the car. I asked mom where we were going.

‘It’s about time you meet Nana and my sister.’

Mom never talked about her family. Dad did, every time we were together, insisting on the importance of loyalty and obedience. ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ he liked to say. It looked thick on his fist the last time he beat mom up—the one time I saw it because I hid under the bed. He broke the skin above her eye. 

The next day, mom put me in a car and let me have skittles and coke before lunch on our way out of the gas stop near the edge of town. I wouldn’t have mentioned dad’s candy to get what I wanted that day, not after what I saw.

‘ have an aunt?’ I asked. I was really surprised.

‘Yes, sweetheart. She’s young and pretty, and she plays the banjo. Nana sings.’

‘Can you play music, too?’

Mom let out a sigh. ‘Used to.’

‘What was it? Why did you never—’

‘Nyckelharpa. A really old one. I think it came from the north with Nana’s nana. It was my mom’s before it was mine. I didn’t bring it to town with me because it was a hassle to carry with my other things.’

‘What’s ‘the north’? Like Canada?’I asked, then kept asking because I didn’t know how long this answering mood mom was in would last. ‘What’s a nickel-harp? Wait, so my nana isn’t your mom? The other kids in school call their mom’s moms their nanas sometimes. Or is she your nana?’

Mom laughed but didn’t seem to find any of what I had just said funny. ‘Nana is Nana. She’ll be happy to lecture you about our family’s history once we get to our neck of the woods. Then you’ll see the nyckelharpa and hear it, too, but I can’t promise it’ll be good.’She turned the radio on, and I knew that had been enough talk. We whizzed past silvery birches and naked pines in silence for the rest of the day.

When we stopped at a roadside motel after dark, there was an old lady at the reception desk. Her  eyes stayed on mom’s bruises a bit too long. She called mom honey and gave me a popsicle for ‘being a brave little boy.’

I’m not that little. I’m eight! I was about to tell her that but decided a better use of my mouth was enjoying the free candy.

We had microwaved burgers for dinner and mom went out, leaving me unsupervised with the TV. It was fun for the first couple hours, but I eventually went looking for her.  

I heard her voice rhyming nonsense behind the motel and followed it until I found her at the edge of the forest but got scared of approaching because she was close to a large, gargoyle-shaped thing perched on a rock. It had horns and menacing bright eyes. Still babbling singsong, mom got even closer to it, her back turned to me, and did something with her hands.

The thing didn’t seem to mind. Then it flew off. An owl.

That was a bit much for me, so I hurried back to the room and pretended to be asleep when she returned minutes later.

It felt like a stranger putting me to sleep when she sat on the edge of the bed and ran her fingers through my hair, whispering ‘we’re going to be alright.’


I take off running towards the scream. ‘Mom?!’ I shout but get no reply save for the BANG! BANG! BANG! of my dad’s guys opening fire against a mountain lion that dashes past me. 

‘Fuck, where did it go?’ one of them shouts as they come running after it. 

‘There’s the boy!’ The other one, I think my dad called him Jaimie when he was our security during one of his wars, points at me with the revolver, realises what he’s doing, lowers it, and takes a couple careful steps in my direction.

I take as many steps back. 

The guys look like they’ve been having a rough time too. Dishevelled, filthy suits flecked with blood and torn by brambles. 

‘Come on now, kid. This place is scary and dangerous. We can get you back with your mom in the car and drive you two home,’Jamie says with a desperate edge to his voice.

‘Liar.’’My mom isn’t back in anyone’s car. The thought rumbles in my brain.

I think it, and, as the guys gear up to jump me, that large owl from before dives into Jaimie’s face claws first. The other one raises his gun to fire and the mountain lion springs from a nearby bush to bite his throat.

All this blood. Not mine. Theirs.


We woke up in the small hours of the morning to our room’s lights unceremoniously flicked on. The old lady from the reception stood at our door, master key in hand and a worried look on her face.

Mom got up in a blur of motion that ended inexplicably next to the lady, holding a handful of something mushy that dripped red––like crushed berries or fresh meat––like a weapon pointed at the lady.

‘What in the wor––listen, honey, you have to run. A group of men came in with a picture of you, saying you’re mentally unwell and they need to help you back home,’ the old lady said. She was more scared of dad’s guys than of my mom, who looked like a wild thing with her dishevelled hair and red right hand. ‘You run a place like this, you meet a lot of women on the run from men who were making them crazy. Please go, while they’re busy where I sent them.’

Mom had me pick up our scant baggage, and we marched out with a brief word of thanks to the motel lady. The red hand trembled as if whatever was in it wanted out. I walked to her left.

We crept low to the ground. From the other side of the motel, we heard fists pounding on wood and men yelling about ‘being reasonable.’

Once we got close to the parking lot, we took off running toward the car. A large man in a suit who had probably been watching barreled into us and tried to grab mom. 

She raised her balled red fist to his face and just let go. The thing she had been holding, all slick wetness and too-many-leggedness, sprang out like a spider and crawled into the mouth of the screaming man. The scream turned into a rattling gurgle, and he collapsed into a twitching heap. 

Mom yanked at my arm to keep moving because I had stopped to stare. 

‘What did you do?’ I was scared out of my mind and tried to resist.

‘What I had to do!’She replied with what I thought were pleading eyes.

The six other guys were already running toward us. I let mom drag me to the car. When we took off, I saw mom’s face briefly lit by the motel’s neon sign. She looked spent in a way that’s hard to explain; like she had just aged a few years in those last few seconds. 

We sped into the country backroads with the two cars my dad’s guys drove gaining on us.

‘We are so close! If we get there, we’ll be alright. Just a bit further,’ mom kept saying stuff like this, and we made crazy turns for minutes that felt like hours.

Then, a gunshot sounded, my mom swerved hard left, and the world started violently spinning around us. The airbags hit us in the face. I think she was doing the rhyming thing again as the car tumbled down the slope, juddering my bones.

When it stopped, it was as if the car’s trajectory had been gently interrupted so it could finally rest upside-down. The world kept going, though, round and round. We heard screeching tires back on the road. A shaft of moonlight angled just right showed me how badly mom was doing. She looked dead, with no colour on her skin and blood coming steadily out of her nose. 

I choked back tears, from pain and desperation.

‘Don’t give up yet, my beautiful baby boy,’ mom croaked, barely moving her lips. ‘Get out and follow the moon until you reach the hill of our lightning-blasted tree. We’re so close to our family that I can feel the land calling. Get there first and they won’t stand a chance.’

Then she exploded into a cloud of ravens.


I remember.

I remember crawling out of the car through the dark feathers collected on the overturned roof. I remember how the trees held the beat-up car frame. It could have kept on rolling, but…

But mom asked the tree to stop it?

I didn’t have the time to think about it, so I ran from the men. By the time they came slipping downslope I was already following the moon. It guided me with a bright beam that looked solid enough to grab if only I got close enough. Maybe If I managed to wrap my hands around it, it would whisk me to safety.

I ran until my lungs burned and my legs turned into jelly, then I ran some more. Then I collapsed. You know what happened when I woke up.

And now I’m here. My dad’s guys are probably all dead, except for Jaimie, who stumbles away clutching his eyeless face and whining. 

I can’t help it. I cackle madly, like a hyena. Like a murderous clown in a movie. Like someone accepting that that magic is real and in their blood.

No more fear, no more running, no more questioning what my eyes tell me. Mom was right. They didn’t stand a chance. How am I supposed to keep the laughter from bubbling up? None of this feels real, but it is, and it feels right.

“Odd thing to be laughin’ at, eh boy?” The mountain lion circled a tree and came out the other side an old woman. She’s every bit the storybook grandma, with blood on her mouth. 

‘Hi, Nana.’

‘Hi there, littlun. You lost?’

‘Not anymore,’ I smile at Nana openly. 

She harrumphs. “Sweet is a dangerous quality for a child in woods such as these.”

I don’t know how to react to that.

She raises her voice and talks to the forest itself. “I’m takin’ this one,” she gestures at me, then at the dead man, “an’ this one. The rest you lot can keep as due thanks.”

Things move in the dark around us. I catch glimpses of bright eyes and movement low to the ground. A pair of yipping foxes jump on the trail of blood Jaimie left, then a wild dog, three opossums…

“Boy!’ she snaps her fingers to call my attention, “Make yourself useful. You handy with rope?””

‘Not really,’ I reply.

Nana takes some out of her backpack and kneels beside the dead man. ‘Course not. City folk don’t learn anythin’ useful ever, always money this, money that, get someone else to do it for you. An’ your ma left to be city folk, have a city kid. Yeah, you. Your real education starts now. Come here.’

I get down beside her. It’s easy to ignore the dead man’s blood pooling on the floor beneath our knees since I’m already covered with the stuff. Nana hands me one end of the rope.

‘We’re bundlin’ this one because this,’she pokes at one of his beefy legs, ‘is fine fertiliser for our garden. We don’t waste a thing hereabouts.’

I help her get the man tied up into a compact shape. Despite the harsh words about city people like me, she’s a patient teacher. When we’re done, she makes me help her drag him to the base of the lonely hill with the lightning tree, where a beautiful teenage girl in the same type of simple, old-timey clothes––like the women wear in historical TV shows, with a laced bodice and a bonnet ––waits for us with a wheelbarrow.

The hill is covered in small, dark shapes. Ravens. My eyes well up at the sight of them. 

‘Your ma’s got a lot of explaining to do, what with bringing all these men here. ’Specially one we’re supposed to feed an’ shelter,’ Nana’s voice is not unkind. ‘At least your auntie gets another young one around here to play her silly games with.’

About the Author

Leonardo Andrade is a self-taught writer, narrative designer, and translator from Brazil. His creative endeavors span tabletop RPGs, interactive fiction, videogame narrative design, translation, prose fiction, webtoons, scriptwriting, and more—working independently and as a freelancer.

Most of Leonardo’s work has been in the TTRPG space, but he’s always venturing into other creative realms, doing creative challenges, taking courses, and so on. Most of his time is dedicated to storytelling in some way, either doing it or enjoying what others have done.