Another birch tree. And another, and another. It seemed this forest consisted of nothing else, and Thomas was beginning to hate the sight of them. Just like he was beginning to hate the sight of Erling’s back, always just in front of him.
Why had he agreed to go? A hunting trip was a great way of bonding, Erling had said, but how could he have thought there was any point in getting to know that man who called himself his father? He had been absent for most of Thomas’ childhood, they had nothing in common, and now they were stuck in this wilderness, trying to make conversation about nothing, until they could shoot some poor animal dead.
“So…literature?” Erling glanced back at him.
“Yes. Literature,” Thomas said through his teeth. His chosen field of study. And also the topic they kept coming back to. This time Erling gathered up the courage to ask what must have been really on his mind all along:
“So… Are there any jobs to get?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out when I’m finished.”
Silence. Leaves rustling.
“Isn’t that a bit short sighted?”
Thomas sighed. “Maybe. But that’s what I want to do.”
“Nothing wrong with following a dream. Just want to make sure you have thought it through. Perhaps there’s something more…real you could also find interesting?”
But literature is real, Thomas wanted to protest. Sometimes more real than the world around him; sometimes stories were what kept him going.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you when you were growing up,” Erling said, as though this was somehow to blame for Thomas’s choice of career.
Thomas shrugged, tried to keep that familiar ache out of his chest. It was a stupid thing, anyway, missing someone you never really knew.
“Your mother and I… After the divorce, things got—hey, look!”
There was movement on the path ahead. A bear. Big and scraggly, with glowing eyes. Like two specks of fire.
Thomas felt the prickling sensation of every little hair on his body rising. Erling slowly lifted his rifle, took aim. And that old, magnificent animal would die, and for what? Without thinking, Thomas pushed at Erling’s arm. A shot rang. The bear bolted off in between the trees.
“What are you doing? Now I missed!”
“Thought it was…some kind of endangered bear. Did you see its eyes? I’ve never seen a bear with red eyes.”
“Well, how many bears have you seen?” Erling took a deep breath. “Never mind, son. I know you’re not used to this. Let’s just see if we can find that bear again.”
They followed the bear’s tracks, through dense forest, until they reached a clearing. There stood a house in the middle of it. On gnarled, slightly bent posts. No doors, no windows.
Thomas stopped dead, recalling stories from his childhood, of forest witches and magical houses, then shook his head; the world was never more than it was.
Erling eyed the house. “It must be some sort of supplies storage. They’ve built it on posts to keep out wild animals, I guess. Clever.”
They began moving again. Just below the house, the track ended, and Erling crouched, scrutinising the ground. Thomas’ gaze shifted to the nearest post, mossy and craggy and weirdly yellowish, and ending in a tangle of roots. Or old, withered chicken feet. Which of course it couldn’t be.
“Turn your back to the forest and your front to me,” Thomas mumbled, a fragment of an old fairy tale flickering through his head. The house shifted and creaked. And there were stairs, suddenly, leading up to a door.
Erling jerked his head up. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Thomas croaked, his mouth dry.
“Are you all right? You look pale—hey, look.” Erling laughed. “I must have grown old and blind! Didn’t notice those stairs before. What do you say we go take a look?”
Thomas didn’t say anything. For if this was real, the world was magical, full of wonders. And he never knew. Heart pounding, he followed Erling up the stairs and through the low doorway. The door closed with a thump. Everything went dark.
“What did you do that for?”
“I didn’t, I didn’t shut the door,” Thomas whispered, feeling the cold musty air creeping into his lungs. His hand skimmed across the rough wooden wall, touched something slightly sticky. Cobweb. “I can’t find the handle.” His stomach tightened.
“Well, never mind.” There was scrambling in the darkness. A little flame flickered; Erling held up a lighter.
An iron stove became visible. A table, chairs. An old, gaunt woman sitting in one of them, her eyes closed. The flame jumped as Erling gave a start, but Thomas found he was not surprised.
“Hello?” Erling went to the woman. Tentatively, he put a hand on her arm. “She’s cold. I think she’s dead. Been for a long time. We’ll notify someone when we get back to civilisation.” He turned, regarded the wall with a frown. “That door can’t just have disappeared…”
Thomas just stared at the vague outline of the old woman, transfixed, breaking into a cold sweat. That ragged breathing–was it his? Was it Erling’s?
Or was it hers, he thought, and in the same instant the woman’s eyes sprang open, and they were red and glowing, two specks of fire, just like the bear’s. They narrowed and glowered at Erling’s back, and Thomas’ breath stuck in his throat
“Please don’t,” he gasped. “I saved you before. Let him go. Let both of us go.”
A dark grin; one glowing eye winked, and there was a faint creaking. Light flooded in and Thomas scrambled out.
* * *
“I just don’t understand where that bear went. I’m a good tracker, you know.” Erling shook his head. “What were you talking about, by the way, when you said you had saved me before?”
“Nothing. I was just rambling,” Thomas mumbled, glancing back. Between birch branches, he could see the clearing still. And a house on chicken legs, turning.
He looked at Erling again and winced: a branch was on fire, next to Erling’s head. But no. It only seemed so: the flames flickered in the shape of a bird, cocking its head. Then it spread wings and fluttered off in between the trees.
“Is something wrong?” Erling asked. “You’re looking pale again.”
We just escaped a witch; there was a bird of fire perched right next to you, he wanted to say, but he just shook his head; he doubted Erling would believe what his eyes refused to see. Stories, living and breathing, ancient as the woods.
They walked on in silence for a while. Dapples of sunlight revealed a ring of mushrooms on the forest floor; shadows hid things he could only guess at.
Things he could not leave behind.
“I won’t be going to the University, after all.” The words were in the air as the thought formed.
“Really?” Erling halted, looked at him with surprise. “What will you do then?”
“I will stay here.”
A deep crease formed on Erling’s brow. “Here? In this wilderness? Why?”
“Because there’s magic here,” Thomas breathed. “Because it’s real.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Astrid S. Nielsen
Astrid S. Nielsen is a chartered surveyor, born in 1982, and residing in Aalborg, Denmark, with her husband and and three fish tanks filled with beautiful fish. Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex and Silver Blade Magazine, among others. Visit her at www.astridnielsen.wordpress.com.