I spend most of my time in the woods, especially since I retired and my wife died in the same month three winters ago. My remaining friends and my children are convinced that I am too old to live alone in the tiny, powerless, cabin two long miles from the nearest passable road. But I am not afraid here. I have been afraid on city streets, in hospitals, in airplanes, but never in the forest. Sure, one might fall, freeze, twist an ankle, or get lost, but an old man who has experience usually knows how to avoid these perils, usually. Modernity speaks of “safe spaces.” My safe space has always been here. Maybe that genuine lack of fear explains why what has been happening to me for the last fortnight is so troubling.
I stepped outside that first night in question to relieve myself and curse my swollen prostate for the second time that evening. The stars were fiercely bright, bright enough to light my path. The frozen ground cracked beneath my shoes, and my breath was visible for at least two feet. I suddenly felt very cold, a chill deeper than the climate could explain. I also felt somewhat unlike myself in a way I can’t define, perhaps a slight, quickly-dissipating headache and dizziness, and then clarity. I also inferred that I was not alone. Woodsmen often experience that feeling when a wary old buck is observing them from behind a large Yellow Pine, or when an old gobbler approaches the hunter’s calls unnoticed. I contemplated retrieving my bright spotlight and searching the hillsides for eyes, but the cold drove me back to my bed.
When I awoke the next morning, the cold had crept through the cracks in my cabin and I again could see my breath. After rousing the banked fire in the stove and warming a pot of tea in my blue-speckled pot, the cold seemed more bearable. After breakfast, I donned my thickest coat, my wool toboggan, loaded my ancient lever gun with six long, slim, flat-nosed cartridges and set out on my normal westerly route. I don’t particularly need the rifle; I carry it only because walking without would seem like so much absurdity. My people were hunters, and a man who walked in the forest without a gun on such a bitter morning would earn just derision. My tribe would have laughed at the mere notion of hiking as a rich man’s foolishment. So I carry a gun because I can justly claim productivity. I walked slowly along old trails and abandoned logging roads, along creek bottoms, and atop ridges. I frequently paused, surveyed the much-colder-than-usual wind, and proceeded. I continued till the light faded. It was, in many ways, so much like every other winter day since I came to live here full time, except that I never escaped the feeling from last night that I didn’t walk alone.
That night I dreamed I was once again back at our old home. It was Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter. I’m not sure which. There were faces of those who still walk the earth and faces of those long since gone. My wife prepared my plate, and the table and sideboard supported dish after dish of the foods that I loved most. There were three or four cuts of meats, soft breads, casseroles, and deserts too numerous to enumerate. It seemed as if I had been asked to bless the feast and I could feel many hands on my shoulders. I struggled to find the sacred words and felt as if everyone were waiting on me, and still no words came. I could still feel their hands when I awoke with a fright. Again, I was very cold.
And so it went. For two weeks I walked these hills in the unseasonable, almost unreasonable, cold, but the once familiar woods now seemed strange. I felt haunted, and maybe, finally, afraid. Each night I stood at the head of the dream table, the waiting hands again on my shoulders, and again, no prayer would come.
Early this morning I awoke again, wordless and chilled. I stepped outside, much as I had done fourteen nights ago. The stars were again fierce, and there in the darkness, I could discern a frozen form on the ground, my form, and then all became clear, and warm, and finally I knew what words to say.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Timeshare” Horror by Mark Jabaut.
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