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 it moved away from the stream and towards the center of the forest, but fell again as the stream rejoined it 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 they seemed to be 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 their was something unnatural about the way they moved. 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 could not eat. I could not sleep. I was ill most days. Grief tends to do that to you. Alcohol could numb the pain temporarily, but ultimately made it all so much worse.
So instead of drink, I took to venturing into the fields and forest beyond our gates with this mare who preferred not to pull a cart or walk sedately through town. She was more suited for the hunt and after a full gallop, was content to explore the land at a more reasonable and confident pace as if it belonged to her and her alone. I would return home too fatigued from these rides to do much more than eat a meager dinner and climb into bed. 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 in late fall I saw three of them standing together, surrounded by leaves of burgundy and gold. They were fifty yards up the slope from where the mare and I stood where the trees were thicker. Their features were obscured through the branches and I could not tell age or gender. As they moved 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.
In late December, just before the winter solstice, the mare and I were moving along a path through the high point in the forest. She suddenly jumped sideways with a squeal as she pulled the reins out of my hands, eyes wild. Distracted by the late day sun coming through the trees, I had not been paying attention and struggled to regain control. Before she bolted, I saw them. They were standing in the woods just off to the right of the trail, staring at us with glittering black eyes. I don’t know how many there were, surely more than four, less than ten.
Constructed of nothing more than twigs, bark, and old leaf fall, their stillness made them seem more like the natural creations of some woodland artist. The only movement was from the slight breeze that rippled the leaves scattered over their slender forms. But, there was an awareness in those large dark eyes.
As the mare galloped out of the woods, I clung desperately to her mane as she crashed through low hanging branches and brush. Once we cleared the trees, I dismounted and lead her the rest of the way home on foot lest she run herself to death. She was lathered and breathing hard, her eyes large and wildly scanning the forest behind us. I had never seen them out of the woods and took my chances they would not follow.
They did not, but it was a long time before I could coax the mare back into the forest.