Strayed

We had no idea you could go out this far into the forest. I hadn’t intended for us to be out so long; I thought we’d just wander in for a bit, then we’d head back to the village for Southern Comfort and Lemonades in the pub. But now I’ve lost track of how long we’ve been in here – and how to get out.

The forest seems to be changing as we travel through, our hands touching through woollen gloves. It’s only late September but already the trees here have a starved, skeletal appearance. So different from the lush copper and green of the horse chestnuts, the firs and pines we saw earlier. Where before we walked on a trove of fir cones, conkers and acorns, now we trudge through a frosty undergrowth of dead leaves, where only a few spindly mushrooms dare to peek through the tangle of mulch and bracken. There’s not a flower in sight. It’s growing noticeably colder, and a thick blueish mist is gathering round the trees.

I jump as Larissa snaps a branch underfoot.

A crow caws luxuriously from a nest that hands from a fragile canopy. I watch its black shadow sweep between the floating leaves.

“Where are we going?” Larissa asks, her voice a welcome relief from the forest’s eerie soundscape.

“To the end,” I tell her. We keep walking in our perfect silence. Our footsteps rustle the undergrowth like taffeta, like feathers.

“Where are we going?” she asks again, her voice echoing in the hollowness of the forest. I don’t reply. I relish the crunch of mud and rock beneath my feet, the crumbling of solid matter mirroring our loss of time.

Soon we stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned railway line. Moss and strange, unfamiliar weeds sprout up between the tracks. The body of  a dead sparrow lies stark and abject amidst bits of litter: beer bottles, fag packets, empty bags of crisps. It’s like we’ve stumbled upon a spot for teenage gatherings, from long ago, a well-loved no-space of some generation’s past. Mould creeps up through the planks of wood, eats into the greenish plastic, the soft rotten cardboard. There is a smell of earthiness, of dejection; it’s not entirely unpleasant. Larissa looks at me, utterly confused.

“Trains used to pass through here,” I say.  The shadow of a breeze slips between us. She rolls her eyes at me. All seems completely lifeless, darkened. We can’t see where the train track comes from, where it goes to, because the indigo mist cloaks it in vague glow.

“What are we going to do? We’re lost,” Larissa worries, adding again as if this time telling the forest, “we’re lost…” I pull her close, feel her warm breath sharp and scared on my neck. Looking over her shoulder, I see a flash of colour amidst the brownish landscape, the metallic tracks, the tobacco-coloured earth. A violet has somehow sprouted out of the lifeless ground, its purplish blue emanating strength amidst decay. My eyes are drawn to it, absorbed in its focus. As I part from Larissa, a warm zephyr quivers through the leaves, like the light wind left in the wake of a train. Smiling, I say to Larissa:

“We’re not lost. We just have to follow the track, to wherever.” My voice sinks and melts into the fleshless air, becomes part of the forest’s breath.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: photo of railway track in forest, lost

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