A Walk at Dusk, “Dead Wood Living,” part 3

At length the path ended in a small rocky enclave, surrounded by scrubby pines. A small cave was nestled in the rocks: a burrow for a creature that David at present did not wish to disturb. He turned around and went back the way he came. At the next track crossing he turned north, thinking that if he kept in as near a constant line back toward the plantation he would eventually reach it. The game path he chose was winding and broken in places, and as the sky leadened and the sun westered, the forest was plunged into a soft, grey gloom. David began to have difficulty determining north, relying on patches of lichen to ensure him that the path was still winding its way back out of the woods.

Soon the path stopped at a slow-moving stream gathered into a watering hole as it ran against a short step of rocks. A raccoon was there, lapping up water with paws and tongue. It scurried away as David approached. He suddenly felt very thirsty, and so bent down and drank with cupped hands from the cold stream. Flicking the water off of his hands, he looked around at the forest, totally unfamiliar, with disgust.

“Damn you, Michael,” David said aloud. “I’ve let you put my foot in the fire one too many times. I’ll never listen to another word you say.” The slipping of water over stone was the only response to his proclamation.

David was only a boy, but he was not totally green when it came to wanderings abroad. He tightened his belt and set out again to the north-east, a line he was sure would bring him to the end of the wood near the plantations or, had he wandered further North than he realized, the little township of Laughlin that served them. He trudged slowly through the thick undergrowth, which grabbed at his pants with unseen bristles and thorns. The creek ran in a fairly straight course beside him, sometimes rushing swiftly along rocky banks and other times running slowly over wide shallows. He watched the fish swim and felt a hunger.

“I’ll be late to supper,” he thought to himself. “But not late to a switching.” He sighed and continued. Eventually he found another game trail, this one clearly heavily used by deer that had flattened the grasses and ferns down to the dirt. It went the direction he wished to go, so he gladly took it. He felt he was making good time along it, and the forest seemed to be thinning a bit. The rising of his spirits was offset by the lowering sun, casting long shadows through mote-filled streams of light.

His spirits sank to a new low when he noticed the trees around him begin to thicken and the ground to grow more moist. He sloshed through water in places as the tall pines and rugged hardwoods gave way to scrubbier Slash Pines and limp Willows. The needles and leaves changed too, from a deep green on the pines and robust, lively light green on the oak shoots to pale grey-brown patches of needles and long, dead leaves that had never dried nor fallen from their limbs.

The trees closed in, then separated as David walked up a short hill and stepped into a clearing. Low spirits were replaced with sudden dread as the boy looked upon the massive monolith his brother had brought him to see. He had gone in a wide circle, and was now looking at it from the other side. Dusk was setting in, and he had walked back to the dreadful grave. Frozen, not willing to go forward or back, he leaned against a nearby willow. The sun was hidden from view.

He closed his eyes and attempted to calm himself and clear his head. He said a short prayer, whispering out the words. When he stopped, he noticed suddenly another voice that was not his own, high and breathy. He held his breath involuntarily and stared at the grave. His heart pounded loudly in his ears, almost enough to drown out the soft, feminine voice.

It was singing, and it was getting louder.

Something inside, fear or terror, broke David’s paralysis. Turning, his nerves snapped his body into sudden motion. He took two rushing steps and then found himself falling forward. He hit the soft earth face first, splashing mud into his ears and hair and knocking his hat off. Desperately, he tried to right himself, but was unable to move his feet. He dug his hands into the mud and found no purchase to pull himself forward. Not daring to look back to see the source of the voice, he grasped at shrubs and ferns, trying desperately to move away, but everything in reach pulled out of the fresh mud and came apart in his hands. Desperately he reached for a root and it too gave way in his hands.

He coughed and sputtered as the voice grew, and then stopped. David held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut.

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