I had to face up to it: I was lost. The forest stretched all around me, an identical mosaic of green and brown, as though I was seeing the same photograph on every side. There was no path, no sign of civilisation at all. I might have been the last man alive or the first to visit this God-forsaken place for all I knew. If I didn’t find Siskin, or someone, soon then I was going to be in real trouble.
I do not know what man sees in nature. Give me a pipe, an open fire, and a good measure of aged scotch and I am the happiest man alive. Fresh air causes chills, I’m sure of it. But Siskin had insisted on a “ramble” as he called it, and I did so want to make a good impression, for a number of reasons. So I borrowed his walking shoes and put on a coat and hat too good for the occasion, then followed him out into the great outdoors.
And promptly lost him.
Goodness knows how it happened. One minute we were side by side, discussing some oddity of English law, and the next he was nowhere in sight. I admit I had been watching my feet, rather than him, because I was concerned about the mud. It seemed to me that it would have been terribly rude to spoil a fellow’s shoes, even if they were his second pair. Suddenly there was only silence, broken once by the harsh call of a magpie. I haven’t heard a living soul since.
There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and bemoan my fate. I wrapped my arms around me, trying not to shiver. The evening was drawing in, and the sun, coloured like a poached egg, was sinking lower in the sky. Siskin had promised we would just be out for an hour or so and would be back before tea was served. His dear, sweet sister, Lucy – one of the reason for wanting to make a good impression – waved us off at the doorstep and called “Watch out for the Witch!” Siskin had laughed it off as a local superstition when I queried her words, and told me not to worry about it.
I think I would rather face a witch than this forest, I thought to myself. At least she could make me some hot eye-of-newt soup! It was such a silly thought, it made me laugh out loud, which was a terrible mistake. My voice sounded harsh and unnatural, and suddenly I was aware that everything would now know where I was. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching me from the undergrowth, which sent a shudder down my spine.
I set off, not really caring which way I went. The sound of my feet in the dead leaves was like whispering, harsh and cruel, and the feeling of being watched only grew stronger. The shadows were growing longer, deeper, reaching for me. I had to stop and give myself a stern talking-to. There had not been wolves or bears in this country for hundreds of years and never anything worse. Still, I crossed myself, just to be sure.
Up ahead, I saw something that gave me heart. It was an old, dead oak tree, standing in the centre of a clearing. This was something new, something I could use to prove I was not simply walking round in circles. How large can this forest be? I wondered. Surely if I walk with my back to the tree I will come across civilization before very long. I found myself walking faster in anticipation of a hot supper.
The oak tree was clearly once a magnificent specimen, even a city man such as myself could see that. I wondered how many years it had stood, how many kings and queens had reigned during its lifetime. It had been struck by lightning, splitting the tree in half right down to just able the height of a man. The branches that remained were bleached white, jutting out like fleshless limbs. There was no moss anywhere on the tree, and nothing grew at all for about fifteen feet around it. The air was still and silent as a graveyard.
Despite the eerie atmosphere of the place, my spirits were raised. I filled my time pondering what would be for supper. I hoped it would be something warm, as the night was almost upon me and there was a distinct nip in the air. Picking up my pace, I thought of Lucy, waiting with concern on the doorstep. Oh, how I longed to see her sweet face again.
And then I stopped.
There, up ahead of me, was a familiar sight. Through the otherwise identical green vegetation I could see the tips of the old, dead oak. It couldn’t be, though, could it? Looking back over my shoulder, I saw only green, but I was certain I had not been turned around. It must surely be another dead tree.
But it was.
Not only was the tree identical, but there on the dark earth, were my footprints. I placed my shoe in one, just to be sure, and it was a perfect match. My heart was starting to pound in my chest and I was shaking like a new-born lamb. Oh, how I wished for a good stiff drink to settle my nerves! I followed my footprints across the clearing to where they disappeared into the forest.
I must have gotten turned around. That was the only explanation. I decided not to try the same thing again, but set off out the exit on the left hand side of the clearing. As I passed, I noticed a strange shadow below one of the lower branches. I couldn’t see what was causing it, but decided not to dwell on the matter. The sun had almost set by now, and the forest was growing steadily darker. In my haste, I tripped repeatedly over roots and fallen branches, catching my clothes and skin on the vicious vegetation. The whole damn forest seemed to be out to get me.
Head down and arms up to protect myself, I ploughed on through the forest, sustaining myself only on thoughts of Lucy. It was almost completely dark, now the sun had set, but every now and then a sliver of moonlight would break free from behind the clouds to grant me a brief moment of illumination. I was exhausted, cold and thoroughly miserable by then. I would have sold my own grandmother for the way home by that point.
There it was again!
I was quite sure I was going mad now. In front of me was that oak tree, pale and menacing, and there were my footprints, criss-crossing across the clearing. My heart was slamming against my breast, trying to break free no doubt. This couldn’t be happening! Tremors wracked my frightened body and I’m sure my eyes were as wide as teacups. Was this my doom? To find myself forever in the shadow of this dead tree?
As I looked up, the dark shape I had noticed the last time seemed sharper, more defined, even in the gloom of night. It was a little way below the branch, and seemed to twist slightly in the air as a watched in growing horror. I thought of Lucy and her telling the story of the witch as we sat talking after dinner yesterday. No, wait, that wasn’t right. She’d mentioned it on the door-step? Hadn’t she?
I clutched at my head, feeling sick with fear. Not only was my direction all twisted up, but my memories seemed to be, too. I was forgetting something. Something important.. With a cry, I took to my heels, running blindly into the depths of the forest. Twigs and thorns snatched at me like grasping fingers. Roots leaped up from the floor, trying to pull me down or break my ankle. I sobbed like a frightened child in a thunderstorm.
What was happening to me? What had I done to deserve such a fate? I had a sudden vision of Lucy, her sweet face contorted in shock. But I would never do anything to hurt her? Why, I had come to the house with the very idea of seeking permission to court her from her brother. Tears ran down my face, and I could scarcely breath for the terror that gripped at my chest.
My foot snagged and spilled onto the ground, my knees sinking into the cold, dark earth. I shut my eyes, for I knew all too well what I would see when I opened them. There was a strange noise, a creaking sound almost, rhythmic. The moon emerged; I could see its milky light from behind the shade of my eyelids. Though my body shook and the tears fell freely, I lifted my head and saw it, swinging above me.
I remembered everything. I remembered broaching the subject of courtship with Siskin, and him laughing at me. When he saw my shock and anger at his reaction, saw that I was serious, he told me there were other suitors lined up for Lucy, and to let the matter lie. I flew into such a rage, demanding to know why I was not good enough, what right he had to judge me so. We quarrelled, loudly and violently, and the dark rage over came me. I pulled out my gun and I shot him dead, just as poor, sweet Lucy walked into the room to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing what I had done to her, I fled the house with one thing on my mind.
There was a body, hanging from a noose on the dead oak tree. And what was more… It was mine.