[Image Credit: “Path Through the Woods” by Lufie]
The path continues onward, that’s all he needs to know. The rough flagstones greet his steps unseen. Tufts of spiny grasses and flowering weeds envelop his lower limbs. A low wall lies to the left, a drystone construction with curved top-stones. The wall marks the boundary to a fallow field, overgrown and untilled. The hillside is broken by black lines that divide the uneven farmland and dark clusters of heavy, ancient trees. Above, long banks of heather stipple the rocky moorland. Patterned like a child’s drawing, the landscape rolls and curls around from where he stands, tricking the eye, giving the impression not of a confluence of deep valleys but of a ring that circles round and round without end, as though he were walking down inside the cup of an enormous basin, its surface cracked and scaled with moss and lichens.
He puts one foot in front of the other, no longer searching for them amongst the tangle of green, and looks ahead to where the path takes on a steeper descent. He has made good progress; the house is well out of sight. When he turns back he sees only the path stretching out behind, stretching out just as it does before him. No one follows. The people in the house will still be sleeping.
He knows them well: this walk, this path. He has traversed this same slope, from the dark house down into the town, many times; so many times he could not possibly count. Later, when all this was behind him, he would return to this path, night after night, retracing his footsteps whenever he found himself unable to sleep. On those nights, after performing all those rituals of relaxation that his body required for any semblance of rest, he would lie in the blacked-out bedroom of their apartment, with his lavender-scented mask and a strong cup of camomile tea, and he would go back there, to that place, and he would set out, once more, just as he had that morning, long ago.
‘How did you ever get out?’ she would say, all those years later, ‘how did you ever manage it?’
‘I don’t know,’ he would say to her, ‘Sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. I knew, I just knew, I had to leave that house and get out and go as far away from there as possible. If I stayed there, in that house, I would have never been free of them and I would have ended up hurting myself. I know it.’
‘And you never went back? You never spoke to them again?’
‘Never,’ he would say, ‘just like they were dead. Only afterwards, in my mind, I would go back, go back and walk that path again, on those depressed nights, those stretched city nights, whenever I couldn’t sleep.’
‘I’m glad you did.’ She’d tell him then, and kiss him on the mouth and hold him close to her.
‘So am I,’ he would say to her, and then, ‘all I’ve got, even you, I owe to that walk.’
He carries on, eyes fixed in front, suddenly angry at himself for having turned around, even once, as though seeing the path behind, the one leading back to the house, would make it more difficult to keep going, to make good his escape.
A blackbird lifts its song from the undergrowth and skims away over the meadow, beating its blue-black wings. The glistening leaf-tips make it difficult to discern whether it is spring’s final frost that clings to them or the watery weight of summer dew. Only the pale, earliness of light and the warmth in his body let him know.
It’s strange, he thinks, now that this walk will be his final one, how unfamiliar and new it all appears. He does not yet know about the sleepless nights, those long city nights, and of how often he will return to this path, this walk, treading these same stones, recalling each step one by one.
He stops. Nestled in the foliage further down the slope, facing him with calm, unmoving eyes, sits the sleek shape of a fox. Hello, he calls to her, hello, and he moves slowly forward, rubbing his thumb and forefinger and clicking nonsense words as though she were a cat. The fox lets him approach, held by hunger, and then quickly scurries away, flicking her tail and crunching through the grass like boots through snow.
It was sad, he thinks, about the two cats left there, the tabby and the grey, the two cats left behind, abandoned to their fate, left in the dark house with no one, no one to help them or to lead them away. No, it was different with cats, he decides, cats didn’t belong, they lived outside human rhythms. They knew when to move in harmony, when food and warmth and shelter required, and they knew when to return to the wild.
‘There’s something else,’ she asked him once, ‘there’s something else I don’t get about that path.’
‘Yes?’ he said to her.
‘Why?’ she said, ‘why go back there, after everything, even in your head, why go back there to try to sleep?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said to her, ‘or, rather, it’s difficult to explain. It was familiar, of course, the walk along the path. They had sent me down, not unaccompanied as you might imagine, each and every day. It was the only way to get from A to B. I knew every aspect, so well I that could perform it without effort, filling in little diversions and details to occupy my whirring brain, to focus it and slow it down. But more than that, it made sense somehow, to think of them in that way, the house and the walk.’
‘How do you mean?’ she said.
‘It made sense to me, in my head, to explain it that way, to use them as an image, as symbols I suppose. The house was wakefulness, insomnia. The walk was freedom, wandering.’ he told her then. ‘I’d have already set off, naturally, I’d be half, or at least part, of the way down to avoid being frightened, to avoid seeing the house, and sleep would be out there on the path, waiting. All I had to do was take my time, follow the path onwards, just as I had a thousand times before, and somehow, somewhere on the journey my mind would just slip away.’
His feet have returned to him. The path soon becomes a stone stairway leading past the little waterfall carved by the brook, and down to the first real road. Across the tarmac and through the stile the path continues into the waiting woodland. He climbs down the steps, passing the old pub, long-since converted, listening to the soft whisper of the water. Twenty-nine steps he reminds himself. An uneasy thought strikes him – the road. Could they have woken as he left and followed in their car? Could they be lurking round a corner, ready to grab him when he tries to slip across?
‘You were brave,’ she would say, as they sat down for dinner or slouched on the sofa with a bottle of cold white wine, in their room high above the city, ‘someone should have helped you, the police, someone, they let you down.’
‘Things get lost,’ he would say, ‘it’s easily done. They were clever too, the people in the house.’ He always called them that, the people in the house, or the inhabitants,as though he could not bring himself to say who they really were, even now, even when he was safe.
‘Still,’ she would tell him, ‘still, you were brave, to leave like that, to walk down that path on your own and leave behind everything you knew.’
‘It was a dark place to start out from,’ he would say, ‘I wanted to forget those well-kept rooms, rooms that contained everything I knew, everything I had come from.’
‘And you did forget them,’ she would tell him, ‘and here we are, happy.’
He looks both ways. There are no cars. Engine sounds rise from the sunken town, a pleasant hum too remote to cause any alarm. He hurries across the empty road and climbs over the stile to re-join the path, covering the next fifty metres at a brisk stride.
A wave of tiredness passes over him. His pack is heavy on his shoulders. He composes himself and speaks about what is to come.
‘I will go to the town and I make my way to the train station. I will take the train south and I will find a city, a foreign place where I will meet a woman and we will be in love and live in an apartment high above the ground, and we will watch the lights below us at night, all the little lives passing undisturbed. We will both work to pay our way and one day I will tell her about the path, about the walk I did, away from the dark house and its inhabitants and all those unspeakable things. I will find a life, just one life, and I will live it there, high above the city, quietly and undisturbed.’
‘Did you imagine me,’ she would say, ‘even then, all that time ago?’
‘Not you,’ he would say with a smile, ‘how could I have ever imagined you?’ and he would kiss her on the mouth and hold her close to him.
He enters the gloomy wood. A cold wind echoes in the branches. The town is still far below him, in the deepest recess of the valley basin. The inky leaves form a smooth ceiling. A creeping horror takes hold; it writhes through the breeze and crawls up inside his bones. Perhaps he has remained inside the house, kept captive. Perhaps the walk along the path is still to come. Perhaps the valley contains nothing more than dreams, fabrications summoned up by his desire to set out, to leave the dark house and never come back.
‘You were confused,’ she would say, all those years later, over a cup of coffee or a plate of scrambled eggs, ‘you were afraid of what you had done, like a prisoner leaving the prison after so long on the inside.’
‘Yes,’ he would say, ‘I was confused at the time.’
He steadies himself against the wall. His heart feels pale and thin. He looks down, trying to pick out the houses and the cars, but tall trees cover up the view. He must continue onward, that’s all he needs to know. If he stops, if he stumbles, if he falls, he will be caught, he will be sent back, back into the house, back to the terror of wakefulness.
No, he does not want to return, this walk, this was a mistake, he was getting confused, ‘I was getting confused,’ he’d say, somewhere else, not here, in the future, safely away, not back to the house, no, there is still time, just another sleepless night, onward, that’s all, he could open his eyes, he could open his eyes right now and remove his mask and see her, see her sleeping beside him, her shadowy shape washed in the gentle scent of lavender, he could stand and step through into the kitchen, pad around their small apartment, make a cup of camomile tea, he could sit at the circular table with the newspaper and turn the lamp on, the one with the stand cut from an old glass bottle.
A violent wind is gathering. A squall catches his grey cap from his head and sweeps it back across the road toward the stone steps. Fear grips his throat. His tired tongue mouths mellifluous words, soft, sleepy sounds set to carry and calm him. He could wake her. He could tap her on the shoulder and she could bring him back to the city night, back to the endless sea of lights drifting below their apartment block, the little lives going on undisturbed, and she would say to him ‘don’t worry, there’s no need to go back, try again another night.’ There, high above the world, he could sit tight and wait for morning.
‘Help me,’ he would say, ‘help me leave the dark house.’
He steps forward. A fissure opens in the hillside. The basin falls away into nothingness taking everything down with it. Panic seizes up his limbs. The fingers of some hidden hand grasp at him, trying to pull him under. His mouth is frozen. No words can come out. Just before he is swallowed up his mind slips quietly away.
Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in Gorse, Aeon, Music and Literature, Litro, and 3AM Magazine among others. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag.