It was late… already getting dark. I was a bit soar form the bike run but I was also experiencing the specific euphoria you only get after intense physical exercise. I had a beer and I knew I shouldn't have, since I was driving home. I left my bike with a friend and the fact that I had to get to my car, on foot, was becoming more and more annoying by the minute, since I had to go around a large forest patch. Google maps said it's about 3 kilometres. It would probably take me about 30 minutes and I couldn't get a ride anymore. Everyone had left and it was just me here, watching the Sun set between the trees as I finished my beer and dunked it into a trash can.
An old woman was selling mushrooms and fresh forest berries on the sidewalk, next to me. Even she was packing up and getting ready to go home… As she got up she lost her footing, almost falling head first on the stone slabs. Luckily, I was right there and was able to catch her in the last moment. She looked at me with a kind face and glowing eyes and said: "Thank you dear! That's what happens when you get old…no one is spared". She smiled as she touched my cheek with her cold hand. Her skin felt like sandpaper and her fingers were long and thin. Reaching into her bag, she took out a large plastic cup filled with blueberries and said: "Here you go. Thank you for helping a frail old woman". I gently touched her hand and pushed it back: "Oh no, I can't take that. What I did is nothing". Surprised, she put the cup back into her old bag, which looked more like a pile of rags to me.
I felt sorry for her and I wondered what it's like to be so old and alone, having to roam the forest to earn a few coins. I reached into my pocket and took out a few bills that I had stashed to buy drinks with, since my wallet was in my car. It's nothing much but I figured she could use the money more than me. She thanked me and walked away slowly.
Satisfied that I've done my good deed for today, I started to walk myself, towards my fucking car which now seemed to be a world away. After a few minutes, I got an idea: What if I cut through the forest? I opened Google Maps. There seemed to be about 1,5 kilometres of forest between me and the other road, where I'd parked my car. If the forest was anything like the one I'd rode through today, on my bike, it should be an easy hike. It hadn't rained in a while and the ground was nice and dry. I even saw something resembling a path that snaked its way through the trees, in the right direction. "What the hell" I said to myself. I'm an experienced trekker and there was still some daylight available. It shouldn't take me more than 15 minutes to get to the other side.
As I started walking on the forest path, the light dropped suddenly. I looked up and noticed that the foliage was still quite dense, since it was early October. "No matter" I said to myself. "In 15 minutes I should be there…"
A few minutes into my walk, a cold wind started to blow between the trees, picking up leafs and producing a howling sound that made me a bit uncomfortable. It wasn't cold but I wasn't comfortable, since I was wearing a thin biking outfit. I picked up the pace, attempting to shorten the duration of my hike as much as possible. Maybe 5 minutes had passed when I stopped to consult Google Maps, to make sure I was still going in the right direction. Unsurprisingly, I was. I calmed down a bit, remembering I have great orientation skills. I'll be fine…As I slid the phone back into my armband, I noticed that the battery was at 7%. Not a problem….If I kept going in the same general direction I should have reached the road in no time. The forest path seemed to be going in the correct direction, but it was getting harder and harder to follow.
I started walking again, increasing my speed even more. It wasn't long before I started tripping on roots and boulders so I realized I had to slow down and watch my feet. The obstacles were almost impossible to spot now. I could have used my phone as a flashlight but I decided to save the battery in case of an emergency. My eyes were struggling to adjust to the low light and soon I realized I was no longer on the path. Maybe the path itself had ended. Basically I was walking blind now, with just a general direction in mind.
I decided to use what little battery I had left to check my progress. I unlocked the phone and jumped into google maps as fast as I could, but the low battery screen popped up and the phone died. "Fuck", I yelled out, strangely looking around as if someone might have heard me. The sound quickly died and there was an absolute silence now. Not even the wind was blowing but I felt a chill running down my spine nevertheless. I turned around and scanned the forest for any signs of a path but I quickly stopped, realizing that is was pointless. Suddenly I realized: I wasn't sure of the direction I needed to go in anymore. In all the motion, I seemed to have lost my bearings. Strange,… that almost never happens to me. As a consequence, I became a bit restless.
Now, my rational mind took over and I assessed the situation. I'd walked for about 10 minutes so I was about one kilometre away from where I had started, probably going in the right direction. Assuming that I hadn't walked in circles, which was highly improbable since I hadn't been walking completely devoid of references, I should have been, worst case, deviated from the shortest path but still close to the road. Maybe close enough to hear cars or see the headlights.
I stopped to look and listen but I heard nothing and I saw nothing. All I heard was my own breathing and all I saw were the fading silhouettes of trees, all around me. ''Wow, I taught smiling nervously, am I actually lost in the woods?? That is such a fucking cliché. Oh well, I'll just keep walking slowly in the direction I think is right and I have to reach a road at some point, right?" After all, I was in a patch of forest surrounded on two sides by roads. Even If I was completely oblivious of my direction, I had at least a 50/50 chance of getting out of there in the next few minutes. There was only one problem: It was almost completely dark and I was actually risking walking in circles or injuring myself.
I had to make a decision fast, since I knew there would be no light left soon and any kind of walking would be impossible. I'd literally be like a blind man in the forest.
Strangely enough I felt calm, since I knew that the worst thing that could happen is me spending a miserable night in the cold dark forest. Besides the obvious inconvenience, the worst thing that could happen to me is getting a sore back or catching a cold, from sleeping on the ground. I have never been afraid of the dark or forest critters and I enjoy a good challenge. Fuck it! I decided to enjoy the silence and seclusion, accepting my situation fully. I was still in control.
I was walking slowly, when suddenly I saw a flickering light in the distance. There you go! Must have been the roadhouse I had set out from. Having my point of reference set, I could have continued towards my car but that somehow didn't seem right... I started moving towards the light.
Only a few moments passed and I heard footsteps behind me. My heart jumped and I lost my state of calmness instantly. I turned around and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was the old woman from before, just standing there:
-Are you lost, my boy? I saw you going in to the forest and I decided to follow you since u didn't seem to know what you were doing.
-Hello! I say trying to conceal my strange mix of emotions. Yeah, I think I should go back to the roadhouse and just follow the road…
-Oh, my boy, that is not the roadhouse you see. You don't want to go there.
-Why not? Is it on the wrong side?
-No, she says almost whispering. It's not safe.
I moved closer, keeping my voice down:
-Why is it not safe? What is that?
-Trust me my boy, I know these woods well. It's best if you just follow me. I'll get you to the other side.
The old woman pulled out a small plastic flashlight, turned it on and told me to follow her. I did. I felt a strange sense of trust and balance between us, since I helped her before and now, she had the chance to return the favour. I didn't give it much more taught.
As I walked alongside her I had a chance to observe her in the dim light. She was quite tall, taller than I remember from before, and wearing a dark red coat, so long that it reached the ground. Her footsteps where strangely light, compared to mine, making little sound. Her bag was large and was actually made of black leather pieces, hand sawn together,…not a bunch of rags like I remembered. It's funny how the mind plays tricks on you when you are tired. Her hands, as I observed before, had long elegant fingers with long yellow nails. They were however freakishly large for a woman of any height and showed signs of physical labour. No doubt she didn't have an easy life. I no longer felt pity for her, but admiration.
-Thank you, I said, gently touching her arm. I don't know what would have happened if you didn't show up…
-You still don't know, do you my boy? The road offers many surprises…
She laughed innocently but her laugh was somewhat eerie to me. Looking up at her face, I saw a faint smile. Her eyes where almost glowing under the light of the flashlight but her face was almost completely dark, just like my own, probably. Her hair was covered by a black and red scarf, traditionally made, perhaps by her own hands. Here presence became unsettling. I couldn't say exactly what is was, but I felt there was something awfully strange about this old woman.
We stopped after a few minutes, as we reached the side of a deep ravine, with a tiny stream running at its bottom. The faint sound of running water was a welcomed addition to the darkness. Ahead of us was a downed oak tree, spanning across the ravine. The old lady pointed in the distance and said:
-Here is where we part ways, my dear boy. Just across this stream is the road. You can't miss it.
-No need to thank me, my boy. We are now even! After all, you helped me before and wouldn't even accept my small token of gratitude. Go ahead and cross. I will light the way for you, then I'll be on my way.
-Goodbye, I said, determined to end our interaction right there.
Somehow, even though I was grateful, it was a relief to know she was leaving. I stepped slowly across the thick trunk of the tree, while the old woman was lighting the way.
Suddenly I heard a scream in the distance, like the desperate cry for help of a woman. It came from the direction of the light I saw earlier. I instinctually turned around and slipped. The rotten bark of the tree gave way and I hit my head on the trunk on the way down. Everything went dark.
I regained consciousness with my face in the stream, covered in mud and almost drowning in the shallow pool my head had created. I was cold and shivering. It felt like some time had passed. I looked around. Strangely, my eyes seemed more adapted to the darkness and I could just about make out the edges of the ravine. It was about 3 meters high and I saw no end in any direction. The earth was soft and difficult to climb. Every time I tried I got about halfway up before the loose earth could not handle my weight and I fell down again.
Suddenly I remembered the old woman. What happened to her? Why did she leave me like that? She must have seen me fall, no doubt about it. Hmmm, maybe she went to get help, since she was old and frail and couldn't help me on her own. Maybe she just wasn't paying attention and didn't see me fall. Maye it was her plan all along, to trap me here. But why would she do that? I was becoming a bit paranoid. I decided to call for her, hoping she was nearby. I shouted off the top of my lungs for minutes but no one came.
Finally, I stopped calling and gave the climb one more try. I made it halfway up when, by blind luck, I grabbed the root of a tree and managed to pull myself up to the edge of the ravine. All I needed was one more good solid piece of earth to gain a decent footing. My feet were desperately pushing against the soft earth, searching blindly for one more spot but there wasn't any. My arms grew tired and I had nothing else to grab. This was the first time I lost composure since this all began. Spending a night in the cold mud was definitely not an option. I had to make it, somehow. I was angry and restless but not scared…never scared.
It was at this moment that something absolutely shocking happened. I saw a large shadow moving above me, beyond the edge and heard the voice of the old woman, addressing me: "Are you in trouble, dear boy?" I remained speechless for what seemed like an eternity. Her voice, this time, seemed to echo through the whole forest. I heard it ringing in my head also, as if reaching me without words. I believed I was hallucinating. Where was her flashlight? I saw no light, just a shadow moving closer and closer to the edge. Could it really be her? Was I losing it?
My arms where getting weaker and I knew that in mere seconds I would fall back down, this time to stay there for good. I decided to answer, in a split-second decision. "Yes" I said quietly, almost to myself. "I am losing my grip. Can you help me somehow?"
The shadow was on top of me now and I could clearly see it was really her. I looked up at her and I froze. It is in this moment that, for the first time, I got scared. Scared does not even describe it…I was terrified.
Her face was total darkness but her eyes, her eyes were glowing a pale eerie light. There was no light anywhere, only cold darkness. She appeared massive, standing there on top of me. What I was seeing was absolutely unimaginable. It didn't even look like a human being anymore. Suddenly, a night in the cold mud was not looking so bad. But what if she follows me down? I felt trapped and hopeless.
Before I could even let go of the root and fall back down I saw her huge hand reach down and grab me by my right wrist. I felt my whole body yanked up as she pulled me effortlessly from the pit. I was shocked. Her strength was incredible. I fell to the ground and quickly rose to my feet in terror, ready to run for my life. It was then that I really saw her. In front of me was a massive silhouette, maybe 2 meters tall, and wider in the shoulders than anyone I know. She, or rather it, was covered in a long dark cloak, faceless, with freakishly long arms and huge hands. I could have attempted to run but something told me I wouldn't get very far. Besides, I was paralysed by sheer terror.
"There you go, dear boy, out of the pit and so close to your destination!" she said, as she pointed towards the edge of the forest, barely visible in the distance. I still couldn't believe it, even though I could actually feel her cold breath on my face. "Thank you. I would like to go now" was all I could say in utter desperation. My pulse was racing and I expected to be struck down any moment. "Hahaha, here, I will guide you this time, to make sure you get there safely" the apparition said. I couldn't answer. Instead I waited to see what comes next.
The monstrosity started to move towards the edge of the forest and I quickly followed, not daring to move against its instructions. It was so fast that I could barely keep up in the darkness. I heard the voice again: "Careful, or you may trip and fall into another hole. Hahaha". I did not dare to answer and resigned myself to following as fast as I could. I wanted all this to be over. As we moved closer and closer to the edge of the forest, I taught about making a run for it. There where now only meters to the edge of the forest and I could see the headlights of passing cars beyond it. This is it, I taught to myself, this nightmare will soon be over. The hulking abomination was still leading the way and in a moment of insane bravery I decided to turn left and exit the forest in a different spot then the one it had intended for me. In my haste I tripped and hit a tree. I quickly got up and ran as fast as I could to the edge of the treeline, guided by the pale moonlight. Finally, I was out of there.
My shoes griped the asphalt and I ran as fast as I could in the direction of my car, which was parked at the edge of the road, maybe 200 meters away. I reached into my only pocket to grab the car key on the move so I could get in there as fast as possible. It was in this second that a new layer of terror added to my existing state of mind. I realised I didn't have the key on me. "Fuck!!!", I screamed. I must have dropped it when I fell into that damned hole or when I tripped a few moments ago.
I quickly decelerated as I reached my car. What the fuck do I do? I can't go back and look for the key in that dark cold hell. I didn't even dare to look behind me, but I had to: The abomination was not there.
Suddenly I heard her voice, echoing in my head: "My dear boy, you dropped your key. You really ought to be more careful" I looked around and I saw her, at the edge of the forest, not 10 meters from me. She stretched her arm and revealed my key, on top of her open palm. I froze again.
"Well, what are you waiting for you silly boy? Come and get the key! I have to get home myself." I still couldn't believe this was really happening. Once again, I felt trapped thanks to my carelessness. I taught about why she was just sitting there, between the branches of the last trees, and not moving a centimetre beyond them. Maybe she couldn't? I could have just ran and leave my car. Why would I just go to that monster, attempting to snatch me with one last desperate trick? That seemed insane.
In that moment I realised that that ….thing, whatever It was, did nothing but help me the whole night. Why should I fear it? It was clearly allot stronger and faster than me and it could have crushed me like a bug if it had so desired. It didn't.
Conflicted to my very core, I decided to go to it. I could not believe it myself: she just stood there in the darkness and I was going TOWARDS her. Somehow I knew I had to. Once again I found myself in front of the monstrous apparition, steps away from the edge of the forest.
"Step closer boy" I heard it say, so I did, surrendering myself completely to that moment. Somehow, tough terrifying, it felt strangely liberating. I knew there were only two possible outcomes: I get to go home or I die, right there and then. It was no longer up to me. With the last step taken, I was now a simple observer to my own fate. I acted mechanically, as if on autopilot, and gently lifted the key from the massive palm of the apparition. Each moment seamed to stretch to eternity as I watched my hand moving, taking the key and retreating. Each nanosecond felt like a new dice was thrown, mercilessly and objectively deciding if my life would go on or not. My mind quickly jumped between fear, rage, denial and ultimately peace.
As each moment passed I realised I didn't care anymore if I should live or die. I just wanted this infinite uncertainty to end as it seemed to have trapped my body, my soul, my mind and my spirit.
My consciousness was slowly altering and it was as if I wasn't me anymore. Perhaps this was just my mind's way of preparing to let go of everything. I couldn't help but think on my actions in this entire bizarre encounter and try to figure it out: What did it all mean??
At last, I understand: It feels like an eternity has passed when I hear her voice, one last time: "Finally, my dear boy! Don't be confused. Go into the light"