Tom Vowler

Short Story: ‘Neruda in the Woods’ by Tom Vowler

Reading Time: 11 minutes


She was doing her thing with the trees. Securing a trio of screws to the bark of several small sycamores, their position on the trunk marked precisely by a moulded template he’d carried from the car. Satisfied each screw was at a perfect ninety degrees, she fixed the dendrometer to them, where it sat like some three-legged parasite.

‘Why can’t you just put a tape measure around it?’ he said.

‘Not accurate enough. This measures the growth to a hundredth of a millimetre.’

‘It’s all about girth with you lot.’

‘Shut up and pass me the caps.’

He handed her three small plastic covers, their role to prevent passers-by gouging themselves on the screw heads, though it seemed few people ventured this far in to the woods. Finally she attached a numbered tag between the screws and recorded the tree’s identity in a notebook.

It was unseasonably hot for late spring and he wished he’d worn shorts, despite Mia’s warning of knee-high nettles and blood-lusting ticks. She was a year into an ecology PhD, studying the effects of climate change on temperate woodland, initially in the UK, and later, if funding permitted, in the forests of South America. This was her closest site to the flat they shared a mile from campus, yet still an hour’s drive away, and he already regretted being marooned in the middle of nowhere with only a much-read Neruda for company.

‘You can help me,’ she’d said last night. ‘Or get on with some work. We’ll see a deer if we’re lucky. You could put it in a poem again.’

He huffed but spared her his refrain of there being nothing original to say about nature.

His own part-time doctorate was faring less well, the title of which he could now hardly fathom, despite sharing his supervisor’s enthusiasm when the two of them had conceived of it a year ago. As well as his thesis, he was tasked with the composition of an entire collection of poetry, an endeavour that would presumably overwhelm him were he to dwell on it.

Ostensibly he was here today to make Mia feel safe after the incident last week. Two men in their early twenties had approached her, asking the time in a way that meant it was of no consequence to them. She had been about forty minutes’ walk from the car and until then hadn’t seen anybody all day. The one who did the talking had a faint stammer and for some reason Mia wondered at first if he was in the care of the other, the interaction part of some therapeutic strategy. He then asked what she was doing, again little interested in the response, despite it being the glamorous version, the one omitting long days in the rain, the equipment failing, her falling over or hitting a thumb with the hammer. After some unsubtle leering, the men left.

‘It was just odd. They didn’t have a dog or any good reason to be there.’

‘Perhaps they were doing PhDs.’

‘There was something feral in the eyes of the one who didn’t speak, a sort of primitive calculation.’

Apparently, the first wolf whistle came a few minutes after they were out of sight, a strident burst that repeated every few minutes at various points around her. He’d suggested it was harmless, that men did it without thought, that while being puerile or degrading, it was never threatening.

‘If I felt threatened, then it was. It’s an instinctive thing; you wouldn’t understand.’

‘As a man.’


She’d continued to work that day, every now and then checking whether her phone had a signal, which it didn’t. When an hour later, having moved to a new site, she heard more noises – the crack of twigs too large to be an animal, and then more whistling – she pretended to call someone, announcing into the phone that she was on her way back.

‘You were well armed,’ he’d said, several of Mia’s tools being potentially lethal if wielded correctly.

It wasn’t lost on him, how she left the flat each morning with an arsenal of gear most regarded the preserve of men: two types of hammer, a cordless drill, tool belt, two tripods – an entire car devoted to the creating and capturing of data. Returning before dark, hands and forearms scratched, a weal forming in one palm, she would ask how his day had been, what was for dinner.

‘It makes me angry. Like I need another thing to consider, to factor in.’

‘I could come with you,’ he’d said, thinking it something he should say.

‘Jesus, a chaperone. Has nothing changed?’

In the end they settled on his keeping her company the next few times, to take some reading with him, see if the men returned.


Mia was holding a Perspex square to the sky now, a length of string attached to it, the other end held to her face, to keep the distance constant, he supposed. He tried not to look or sound bored as he wrote down the values she called out to him, numbers that might one day form government policy or more likely be used to condemn one. There was something in her approach – to her degree, to life – that fitted well the demands of her subject: rigour, discipline, structure – qualities his creative self found alien. Science was something you did; it was unashamedly reductive. You plucked a theory from the air, then tried to disprove it. You made the complex simple, unlike art, which did the reverse. This didn’t demean science’s value, he liked to say to her in arguments, only its worth.

‘I don’t even know what you mean by that,’ she would say. ‘Or care.’

As far as he could tell, Mia came from a long line of distinguished academics, all of whom would no doubt be appalled at her choice of mate. Her father was a fellow of the Royal Society, while her great-grandfather, a brilliant mathematician and Oxford Blue, had a chess move named after him, setting the bar rather high for subsequent generations. By contrast he had fallen into a research degree in an attempt to stave off serious employment a little longer, a scholarship bestowed his way thanks largely to his cleverly anarchic pastiche of Kipling’s ‘If’ being placed in a national competition.

‘I just don’t think they understand what a creative writing PhD is,’ Mia had said after taking him to meet her parents. ‘They’re old school. To them practice isn’t research.’

And hidden somewhere among these words, he suspected, lay her own reproach of his vocation.

He watched as Mia attached red cable ties to scores of saplings. This achieved she fitted the fisheye lens to her camera, giving a hemispherical image of the canopy above. There were fewer nettles here, bluebells carpeting the ground around them, apparently native, which was preferable to their invasive Spanish counterparts. This was another cause trending in his girlfriend’s realm, the resistance of non-native species, though it seemed there was debate about what this constituted, Mia’s position taken at the point Britain separated from mainland Europe after the last Ice Age.

‘Bloody grey squirrels,’ he liked to say. ‘Coming over here, taking our jobs, our women.’

They’d met as undergraduates at some hybrid event, an attempt to marry science and the arts, the cross fertilisation appearing to have only modest success, with each faculty amassing at opposite ends of the room, politely disdainful of one another. What he and Mia lacked in the way of intrigue for each other’s discipline, they made up for with a synchronicity in their visits to the bar. Upon their fourth convergence, he risked his best science joke.

‘Why did Schrödinger work in a very small garage?’

‘Go on,’ she said jadedly though not entirely appalled at his presence.

‘Because he was a quantum mechanic.’

There followed a largely tepid courtship as both lacked either the romantic ambition to afford the thing significant status, or to terminate it. He still fancied her, especially when they got drunk, which was less often these days, it being generally reserved for visits to Mia’s parents, where the malts were single, the wine vintage, her father demonstrating each time the famous bishop sacrifice that had conferred eminence upon the family.

He looked at his phone, to confirm Mia’s claim of their isolation.

‘You’d think it possible to get a signal anywhere these days,’ he said. ‘I mean, if a drone can target a wedding table in the desert.’

‘Please, not again.’

Politics, unless inextricably bound to climate change, bored her. It wasn’t that she lacked compassion, more that other matters were trivial by comparison, which was hard to argue with at times.

‘If there’s no planet,’ she would say, ‘what does it matter how governments behave or who invades who?’

He’d pointed out there would always be a planet, at least until a swollen sun engulfed it. Just that it would be uninhabited.

‘And what,’ she said, ‘would be the point in that?’

He helped her carry the gear to the next site, a cluster of mature beeches, their smooth, elephantine trunks rising to a denser canopy. Mia changed the drill bit to allow for the harder wood and began marking the bark. As he divided up the packed lunch, birdsong poured down on them with the overhead scramble for territory. He used to mine the natural world as an undergraduate, his verse tending towards the overwrought, the affected: light always slanted, air had to shimmer. Skies were rinsed of colour, frost clung to everything. The sea possessed a fury as it roiled; dusk blunted the day’s hard edges. All of which made him nauseous now if he read it back. Not that Mia held undue sentiment for nature beyond a desire to be its custodian. At a recent dinner party hosted by a vegan couple whose company they enjoyed in small doses, she had announced that the best thing anyone could do for woodland conservation was to eat venison. Driving home they’d argued, as they invariably did when only one of them drank.

‘That thing you always say in public,’ she’d said, ‘about there being more to life than books but not much more.’ It was true he often said this, a nervous tic almost, and not an original line at that.

‘It’s obviously flippant.’

‘But it isn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t have any impact. You say it to belittle people who don’t read.’

There followed a ranting monologue in which he must have uttered some awful things, as he awoke on the sofa the next day, some malevolent creature hammering inside his head. Later, by way of apology, he wrote her a poem in which eco-conscious deer became cannibals until the woodland returned to pre-Ice Age levels. Mia had smiled but it merely returned them to familiar ground.

‘Perhaps you should write a novel, something that pays.’

‘It doesn’t really work like that.’

Which it didn’t. Plot was abhorrent to him. Language was his thing. He simply didn’t understand how things happened, how one event led to another in a seamless narrative arc, stray ends all neatly gathered. Plot burdened everything; it was a lumbering behemoth, encumbered by its own contrivance.

They ate in silence, the ham and cucumber sandwiches wilting a little from the heat. He thought about what would happen if the men did appear, whether his attendance would inflame rather than dowse their belligerence. Perhaps they were already present, observing from deep in the foliage, biding their time, sharpening their whatever. He could muster no comparison that gave insight into how it felt, this threat of sexual violence. Whenever he tried, it merely manifested in physical terms, as an assault, which of course it was. He just couldn’t conceive of its extra dimension.

Perhaps he would disarm the men with a poem, like in that terrible novel, the recital pacifying them, converting them from would-be rapists to aesthetes. Or after some heroic resistance, he and Mia would limp from the treeline at dusk, barely alive, the incident lending itself in years to come to some prizewinning prose.

The dog was on him before he saw it. For a second the pain coming from his forearm seemed abstract, as if witnessed rather than felt, the noise, the violence of the movements, too absurd to acknowledge. The animal, if not a banned breed, closely resembled the type featured heavily in the media several years ago – squat, muscular beasts whose appearance mirrored that of their owners. Despite the dog’s small stature, it had little trouble flaying his arm from side to side like a soft toy, its teeth only prevented from meeting by the bone between them. Amid his own tortured cries and the animal’s low growl, he tried to make out the sound of an owner calling it to heel, but there was nothing, so with his spare hand he half-punched, half-slapped the dog’s head several times and for a moment the thing loosened its grip, only to clamp on slightly higher up his arm. Blood now pooled from the punctures of this first wound, mixing with the dog’s saliva, smearing through the air in scarlet sprays each time he was shaken. Turning on his side he tried to use his feet as weapons, but the angles were all wrong, what leverage he could muster missing the target by some distance. In the few seconds since the attack began, he could hear that his screams had risen an octave or so, the pitch shifting from pitiable to something inhuman. Still he presumed it would cease abruptly, the dog yanked off, an apology issued, his injuries more superficial than they looked. But like a seasoned tug o’ war champion, the animal’s claws were now dug into the ground, gaining traction as it savaged him further. Fixing his eyes on the dog’s for the first time, he realised the thing was trained to see this through to the end, every instinct and impulse it possessed channelled into his expiry.

The pain was unbearable now – wasn’t adrenaline supposed to make itself known in such times? – and whether through agony or fear or both, he sensed he was about to pass out, the edges of his vision blurring, sound skewing as it diminished. Perhaps this was a good thing, a state that mimicked death fooling the dog into releasing him. Or maybe the mauling would continue even then.

It struck him as such an ignoble way to die, absent of any consumptive episode or substance misuse associated with his calling, although it was just possible, given the rare nature of such a demise, that his modest body of work would gain acclaim beyond its worth. At least he wouldn’t have to endure Mia’s father pushing the same chess piece around a board again, or referring to a wine as chewy.

The first yelp was muffled, almost incidental, but the second rivalled his own earlier shrieking. With force that he wouldn’t have attributed to her, Mia again brought down the larger of the tripods on to the dog’s back, the energy of which he felt through its jaws and up into his shoulder. For the first time he could now see some doubt in its eyes, a sense that attention was warranted elsewhere, that things had shifted, and with the next blow the dog let go of him, fleeing into the undergrowth with a series of whimpers. Sitting next to him, Mia inspected his wounds, before wiping the tripod dry.


The stitches would be in a week or so, the nurse said as she finished dressing his arm. A tetanus booster might be required, depending how up to date he was, and some antibiotics would prevent infection. She asked him what he did for work, whether he needed a sick note.

Waiting for his prescription, he tried to read some of the Neruda one-handed, but his head fuzzed with painkillers. Mia offered to get them some coffee from the machine, suggesting they stop for something stronger on the way home once she’d collected her stuff from the woods.

‘What if it’s still there?’ he said.

‘I’ll hit it again.’

He pictured the dog, its acceptance at having to abort the attack as Mia bludgeoned it. How the presence of pain, once great enough, overrode its compulsion for violence, the association between the two states made.

The anaesthetic in his arm was receding now, a fierce ache making itself known. He’d thought to tell the nurse that his arm, his hand, was his work, that its immobility was a great loss to literature, but as ever the words wouldn’t come.


Tom Vowler is an award-winning novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize, while his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he completed his PhD. His second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, was published in 2014. Represented by the Ed Victor Literary Agency, Tom’s second collection of stories, Dazzling the Gods, was published in 2017. More at You can also read our two interviews with Tom. The first focusing on his short story collection The Method (read here)and the second looking at the process of putting together his short story collection Dazzling the Gods with Unbound (read here).

You can also read our two interviews with Tom. The first focusing on his short story collection The Method (read here) and the second looking at the process of putting together his short story collection Dazzling the Gods with Unbound (read here).

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