The trail through the woods was a winding one. It ran along a stream bed, deep and wide with very few places to cross. The trees were tall and as spring settled in, a pasture of green rose above the leaf fall, delicate grassy plants that mirrored the canopy above. The path rose as one moved away from the stream and towards the center of the forest, but fell again as the stream rejoined us a mile or two in.
The mare I rode through these woods was a steady girl, cautious, but not exciteable. An unfamiliar noise or an unexpected deer would cause her to step quickly and toss her head for a moment, but then calm would resume. At first, she never seemed to notice the people in the woods. Or if she did, she didn’t consider them a threat.
I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. In the winter when everything was brown and gray I thought they were leaves or branches stirred by the ever present wind; movements in the periphery that did not remain when I turned my head to look. Once, I thought an owl was drifting silently through the trees, its brown feathers resembling a cloak of sorts. But it was flying too close to the ground. And far too slowly.
As the earth tilted into spring and the light changed, they became more clear. They were usually too far away to make out any features. No brightly colored clothes. An occasional figure or sometimes two or three would appear in the distance, moving through the trees, always away from me. The mare never seemed to take notice. It wasn’t until later in the season when the leaves and grasses aggressively changed the color of the forest from brown to green that I realized they weren’t moving the way humans move. There was no bounce to their gaits, no swinging arms or tilting heads. Just a silent glide.
I had learned not to trust my mind years before. It had started with the peripheral shadows. The darkness beside me would become a dog, sometimes a bird, floating silently beside me. They would retreat to the edges of my vision when I turned to greet them. Later, the world began to bend around me, throwing me off balance and making me unsure of my perception of the world.
It took my doctor to tell me that my vision changes were probably the result of my alcoholism. I couldn’t argue. By that point I had worsening anxiety, I was constantly sick, and my liver had begun to fail. I could not eat. I could not sleep. Grief tends to do that to you. Alcohol could numb the pain temporarily, but ultimately made it all so much worse.
Getting sober wasn’t actually difficult. I simply avoided most of my life, especially the painful parts, and took to sleeping often. But that isn’t reality and I couldn’t sustain it. Getting back into the real world required that I find other ways to mentally retreat. One of those ways was venturing into the forest with this mare where we could wander for hours and I could let go of my thoughts. Many months had passed and the world had stopped bending. My body was healing, but my shadow companions remained.
It was late summer when I saw one of the one of them clearly for the first time. Though far in the distance I could see that she was a slight girl with long brown hair. She seemed to be dressed in a long brown cloak of some sort. I could not see her face. She simply stood with her back to me as if she were surveying the land in front of her. I did not call out as I didn’t want to startle her. This time, however, the mare noticed. She kept her head turned towards where the girl was standing, her step a bit more lively, as though she did not trust her intentions.
I did not see any of them again until the leaves began to turn.
On a sunny afternoon as the mare and I walked beside the stream surrounded by leaves of burgundy and gold, I saw three of them. They were standing together about fifty yards away, up where the trees were thicker. Their features were obscured through the branches, but they appeared to be two girls and a young boy. I could not tell for sure. As we passed the place where we should have seen their faces, they turned and seemed to walk away from us. Their gait seemed more natural and for a moment, I relaxed and thought that they were simply some local kids playing in the woods as I had done when I was young.
I saw them again from time to time, but always in the distance. As fall progressed into winter, the forest grew colorless again and I suspected I would not see them again until spring.
I was wrong.
On the last day of November, the mare and I were trudging along a path through the high point in the forest. She suddenly jumped sideways and let out a squeal. I had not been paying attention, distracted by the sun coming through the trees. As I regained my balance I saw them. They were standing in the woods just off to the right of us, this time staring directly at us. They appeared to be children of several different ages. Only these weren’t children. They were of the woods. Made of the woods.
They did not move, just stared at us with glittering black eyes. Their bodies seemed constructed of nothing more than twigs, bark, and old leaf fall. And yet, they appeared alive.
When the mare bolted, I let her. As she galloped out of the woods, I kept my eyes forward, but saw those shapes out of the corners of my eyes that I had once thought were dogs. Or crows.
I don’t go into the woods any more. At least not those woods. And neither will the mare. I don’t know whether she is reacting to my fear or her own. Madness is not something one can discern in one’s own mind. But what is seen is not easily unseen.