Something is changing in the forest. The first signs are already beginning to show. The crows are silent, soaring on torn wings from tree to tree, chasing after something I can’t see.
The trees are quiet too, standing still beneath their veils of snow; so still that icicles have begun to drip from their branches in tapered spears. They refuse to tell me anything, even when I threaten them.
So I follow the crows deeper into the forest, their ragged shadows taunting me. I glare at the trees as I pass, but they only draw their branches closer around themselves. As if that would hide them from view.
“What great sentries you make,” I mutter to myself as I stomp through the narrow paths between them.
The birds are hard to spot if you don’t know what to look for: a dark shape here, the flash of a wing there. I can see the vague forms of several gathered ahead of me, sending showers of snow pouring to the ground as they settle together on a single branch. I pause, wondering why they’ve stopped.
Then I notice the footprints.
Frowning, I crouch to inspect the nearest one. It’s a boot print. The snow hasn’t covered it yet, though it’s falling in larger clumps than before. I glance up again as one crow, smaller than the others, leaps from its perch, tattered wings stretching like sails. It lands at my feet, head tilted to one side.
“INTRUDER,” it croaks.
“I can see that,” I say, my eyes on the trail of footprints.
The crow shuffles its wings, the primary feathers drooping slightly as it refolds them. “FOLLOW?”
A twig snaps somewhere to the left and my eyes narrow as I try to peer through the trees. “No,” I murmur. “No following. I think the intruder is coming to us.”
The old man emerges from the trees, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes against the unbearable whiteness of the clearing. He’s been walking for hours without noticing that the prints he leaves behind are beginning to overlap, the snow soaking through to the skin above the rims of his boots. The woollen scarf bundled around his neck does nothing to chase the gooseflesh from his exposed skin.
There’s something odd about this forest. Something not quite right, the old man thinks. He can sense eyes tracking him, but he can’t see their owners.
He doesn’t think to look upwards.
The crow hops away, burying itself in a small hollow as the intruder gets nearer. I lean resolutely against a broad trunk, watched anxiously by the crow and its friends, swaying high on their branches. But the trees will shield me until I choose otherwise. They owe me that much. Damn guards. They’re supposed to keep intruders out, not let them in.
“Who are you?” I demand as the old man steps into my path, his eyes widening as I stride out from beneath the shadowy embrace of the tree. “How did you get here?” The crows chatter nervously above my head as I pace around the old man. “What do you want?”
“I – I’m lost,” the old man falters, instinctively taking a step backwards. “Do you have a phone?”
“There are no phones here,” I say.
“Where’s the nearest road?”
“There are none.” My voice is as raspy as the crow’s. But before I can give proper voice to my anger, a cloud of vapour engulfs me, hiding the old man from view.
The dream descends so fast that I’m powerless to fight it.
They started flowing into the forest a few years ago. I call them “dreams” because that’s what they feel like when you’re inside them, but really they’re memories; the kind people leave locked in a box. The ones they’ll hide under a carpet of dust beneath their beds, never to be re-opened. They leak through holes in the dark crevices beyond the edge of the forest, mostly unnoticed, to spend their time drifting in the chilly upper realms of the canopy. Usually, when I see the tiniest hint of mist floating towards me, I head in the other direction.
But this one is different from the others I’ve encountered before. Icy tendrils snake around me, bringing with them a scene lit with the golden hues of sunset…
A little girl with curly hair tied in bunches cries as hands reach out to lift her from the ground. She howls as the hands rub her slowly reddening knees. A small bicycle lies on the pavement behind her, wheels still spinning.
You’re fine. Stop being silly, a voice says, as the hands set her back on her feet and brush the dirt from her dress.
The image starts to pull away, but not before I catch a glimpse of the owner of the hands. Then the last shimmering wisps fade and I’m left staring into the eyes of the little girl’s father. The old man. He was younger in the dream, but the glacier blue of his gaze is unmistakable.
“How did you do that?” I demand, my anger receding.
The old man blinks. “Do what?”
“I just saw you – you were with a little girl…”
“Never mind,” I wave the question away. The forest’s ways aren’t exactly easy to explain. “Now tell me, Lost, how did you get here?”
The old man shuts the door on the policeman.
He returns to the sagging armchair by the fireplace and turns up the volume on the television, the policeman’s footsteps fading as he walks back to his car. The sound of the engine as he drives away is drowned out by the roar of a crowd as commentators announce another goal has been scored.
The night grows late as the old man stares at the flickering screen. When it grows too late for the decent programmes, he flicks a button on one of the remotes lined up on the armrest and the screen goes dark.
Mechanically, the old man trudges up the stairs, his slippers scuffing on the worn carpet. He goes first to his bedroom and then, taking his pyjamas with him, he shuffles to the bathroom.
He stares at his reflection in the mirror above the sink for a long time after his teeth have been scrubbed; his day clothes replaced with looser ones. Then, as if shaking himself from a dream, the old man returns to his room and folds back the covers on the bed. He climbs beneath the chilly sheets, and rolls onto his side, vacantly watching the branch swaying in front of the streetlight outside the window.
He falls asleep as the shadows dance on the curtains.
The next day the old man wakes up and does exactly the same things he did the day before.
The day after that is the same.
And the weeks after that.
On the floor by the front door a newspaper lies untouched. It arrived the day after the policeman’s visit. On the front cover is a picture of the old man’s daughter, with the headline,
WOMAN, 31, KILLED IN COLLISION
Lost looks at me blankly before he answers.
“I don’t know how I got here…” he says. “I was walking.”
“The woods,” he frowns, concentrating. “I was trying to find the bench. They said they’d given her one. It was supposed to be under the trees…I’m sure it was. There was a plaque with her name on it.”
Whatever this “bench” is, he won’t find it here. He must have come through where the boundary is weak – no doubt the same place the dreams drift through.
“Fine,” I say. “Come with me.”
The crows follow as I lead the old man to the edge of the forest, their curiosity getting the better of them.
The old man sinks deeper into the drifts with each step, while the younger one strides on, completely at ease despite the frigid ground under his bare feet.
There’s something familiar about the tilt of the younger man’s head and the near-white of his hair, but the old man can’t find the reason in the clutter of memories inside his head. It may be that he’s imagining it.
Yes, that’s it; the stupid old grey matter is playing tricks again.
I stop walking when I reach the last tree, where the blackness beyond leeches in, seeping into the forest like mould, like a bruise, staining the snow grey. If I step any closer, I might fall. Or I might not. Either way, I’ve never been tempted to find out.
Lost stands beside me, breathing hard. White plumes of his breath swirl upwards each time he exhales, streaming from mouth and nose.
There’s no sign of any weakening of the boundary: the blackness reveals no hint of a chink in its velvet armour. I close my eyes and focus on the forest. Usually I can feel any disturbances, and it puzzles me that the birds knew about Lost before I did. If I couldn’t sense him, what else have I missed?
Glancing at the crows provides nothing particularly helpful, but I call one of them down to me anyway. It flaps grudgingly to land on my wrist.
“INTRUDER,” it caws.
“Yes, I know,” I sigh. “Find where his footprints start. He had to come from somewhere.”
“FIND,” it repeats as it takes off. More stretch their wings and leap after it into the sky, shedding feathers that drop, soft as whispers, to lie broken and bent upon the snow.
I turn back to Lost, who is gazing after them with a mixture of fascination and horror.
“What are you?” he says.
“A sentry. Just like the birds and the trees.”
“I take it you don’t have crows that talk in your world?” I ask, interrupting him as I duck between two trees and head back into the forest. Now that I think about it, they are a little odd.
“No. So, what is it that you do?” he asks, hurrying in my wake.
“I make sure things – like you – don’t get in. The dreams are the exception. I can’t seem to stop them.”
“Dreams?” As I turn to look at him, his eyes flick left, then right, as if he’s expecting something nasty to dive out from behind a tree.
“If you stay here long enough, I’m sure you’ll encounter one.”
Lost shudders. “I don’t think I want to.”
The old man picks up the phone, silencing the loud ringing. He nods a few times as he listens, says he’s fine, thank you very much, grabs a pen and writes something on the back of an old envelope. Spread out on the table behind him are legal documents and bank statements, dated back a few months. They cover the surface like a cloth, overlapping each other. Some have spilled over onto the floor, where they continue to lie, forgotten.
“Yes, I know where the park is,” the old man says. There’s a pause as the other speaker’s voice comes over the line, muffled but still audible. Just. “I’ll be there. The bench on the far left.”
“How long have you been here?” Lost asks, fighting off a tree as it tries to shove its branches in his face.
“Always,” I say, but as the word leaves my mouth I realise it’s not entirely true. I did live somewhere else before…but I’m not sure where that was.
“It must get lonely.”
“What’s this?” Lost bends to peer at something partially buried under fresh snow. I glance down as he brushes the brittle flakes away.
It’s a toy; a broken one. I think the correct term for it would be a “train”. It’s cracked and warped as if someone has trodden on it by mistake. But nothing ends up here by chance, so it was probably unwanted anyway.
“The forest’s full of them,” I say, walking on.
“It’s like a waste land – a wasteland of broken things,” Lost murmurs, cradling the crumpled train in his hands. “Why?”
“They have to go somewhere.” I shrug. It’s the only conclusion I’ve arrived at so far. But I don’t tell Lost that.
“You could fix them, you know, the broken things.” He picks up a shard of mirror a few paces from where he found the train.
If you look closer, more of Lost’s “broken things” reveal themselves: rocking horses, snow-globes, spinning wheels, the odd page from a book…More things than you can count.
“I could,” I agree, “but what would be the point?”
“They’re not that broken,” Lost insists. “Everything can be repaired if you take the time.”
A crow plummets from the sky to land in a heap at my feet. Lost jumps, but this has happened so many times before that I’m not particularly shocked.
“Did you find anything?” I ask as it scrambles upright and ruffles its damaged feathers.
“NO FIND,” it says. Then it darts away between the trees.
“Looks like you’re staying then, Lost,” I say.
The old man watches his daughter drive away, her hair tumbling past her shoulders in bronze-tipped curls as she waves.
He continues to wave back even after she rounds the corner, disappearing from view.
The next morning, a policeman knocks on the old man’s front door.
The old man peers blearily at him; a young officer with shadows beneath his chestnut eyes. “Yes?”
“There’s been an accident. Your daughter…”
“Charlotte? She’s on a plane right now.”
“Sir, she never made it to the airport.” The officer stands there awkwardly as the news he can’t bring himself to say dawns in the old man’s eyes. “I’m terribly sorry.”
The old man retreats into his house and numbly closes the door.
He doesn’t cry, even at the funeral two weeks later. Something has snapped inside him, leaving a broken edge. To stop the pain, he imagines that he is frozen; stuck in the time before he opened the front door.
To move forward would be to accept that his daughter will never come around the corner again.
There is a bench in the park marked with a tarnished brass plaque. The old man stands for a long time, staring at the words engraved there.
Tears drip down the front of his coat, but he doesn’t notice as he places the yellow rose he brought with him on the seat of the bench. Another falls from his nose to rest among the petals as he straightens and turns away.
He’s still crying as he wanders back through the trees, his eyes focusing on nothing but the path he thinks leads to the road. Feathery leaves brush against him as he passes deeper into the shadows beneath their branches.
At first he doesn’t feel the cold.
In the short time since Lost stumbled into the forest, the dreams have given me the answers I’ve been searching for.
Lost is broken. Just like everything in the forest.
But as I watch him calmly secure a wheel onto a small red bicycle, crouched over at the workbench he’d made, I realise he’s not as broken as he was.
I cradle the smallest crow in my hands as I carry it over, careful not to injure its wings any further. It’s taken a while to coax it down from the trees and convince it that repairs are necessary.
“Can you fix him?”
Lost looks up at me, blue eyes sparkling. “Of course.”
By Kimberley Ford