Did I ever tell you about the time that the forest spirits decided to have a laugh with myself and a few friends, and got us lost in my backyard? No? Well, then, let’s fix that, shall we?
One afternoon, many ages ago, when I was a much younger river nymph than I am now, some friends and I decided that we would go into the forest that grew beside the house I lived in at the time, to perform arcane rituals of our own devising* on a heath that I and my brother had found the previous autumn while following a herd of deer at dusk.
It was an overcast day in early spring, and the air held that chill mistiness that it often does in the northern forests at that time of year. Everything is half-frozen, still, and it’s as likely to snow as it is to rain. Generally not the best time to be venturing deep into the trees, but we were determined. The ritual needed performing, and we weren’t sure when we would get another chance, so out we went.
There is a place in those woods where several pine trees grow in two, perfect rows, for reasons that no one knows. They weren’t particularly old trees, maybe a decade or two, in the middle of a much older stretch of forest. To get to the heath, you have to follow an old, forgotten road until it’s swallowed by the trees and ceases to exist, cross through a small valley, pass on the right side of the boulder on the ridge, pass to the left of the row of pines, and straight on until you come to the remains of an old stone wall, the other side of which is the heath.
Seems simple, right? Except on that day we didn’t pass the pines on the left. Instead, when we approached, I noticed how the light had a peculiar quality about it as it filtered through the mist and the grey-green haze of the pine needles, and my attention was raptly caught. I had been to this spot before, but had never seen the light look so captivating, and decided to walk between the rows, and the others followed behind.
We came to the stone wall, which is only a couple of hundred feet from the pines, and crossed onto the heath. After some wandering and discussion, we found a place among the rocks and winter-dry grasses to perform the ritual we had come to do to, and when we were done some time later, we left the heath to cross back through the woods in search of lunch and warm drinks. It was good to be outside, but we had sat on cold stones and bare dirt long enough to be chilled, and the air had taken on the warning hints of incoming weather. We wanted to be back under a roof before it started, with cocoa and sandwiches in hand.
We crossed back over the wall, one by one, and passed to the right of the pines, but after a short while realized that we had not come to the boulder as we should have.
This was something of a problem, particularly since you can see the boulder from the edge of the pines. It should not have been possible to miss it. As we looked around, my brother and I exchanged a troubled glance as we realized something else. Despite the fact that we had both been out this way many times in the recent months, both together and separately, neither of us recognized where we were. So we retraced our steps back to the pine row (this was easy, considering that our fellow woodland adventurers were very much not wilderness types and left a clear, broad trail in their wake) and tried again.
As we did so, I noticed something odd, but kept my tongue behind my teeth at what I saw. We started back out, and this time passed the boulder and kept on our way.
We walked and walked and walked, and we did not come to the valley, nor did we come to the remains of the old, lost road. We crossed a small brook by walking over the remnants of an old beaver dam, which was very worrying, as I knew of no running water or ponds nearby. Judging by the set of my brother’s shoulders, he did not know of any, either. One of the girls slipped on the wet logs, and twisted her ankle just enough to make walking harder. We stopped to rest, and my brother and I conferred away from the others. Neither of us had recognized anything since before the brook, but decided that it was best, for the time being, that we not let the others know just how bad the situation was just yet, as we still hoped to be able to sort the path out.
We walked on, and the day grew late. The clouds were that flat, uniform grey that ensures there is no chance of telling where the sun is, and it had begun to drizzle very lightly. As the light faded, we decided to stop walking and resigned ourselves to a deeply uncomfortable night under the trees. We started to build a makeshift shelter that would at least protect us from the worst of the elements, and hoped that there were enough of us that our body heat would help stave off hypothermia. My brother decided to take one last scouting run a little way further, just in case. The area was thinly populated, but we should have come to a house or road long since, and he didn’t want to spend the night in the woods within shouting distance of someone’s back door.
He came back a few minutes later, laughing oddly. He knew where we were! He had come across a small clearing that he and his father had spent many a morning in while out hunting, and it was not far from the dirt road that ran past my house. We stopped building the shelter and followed him out of the woods and at last stepped onto the road.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, we walked down the driveway of the house, where my father and a friend’s father were standing. They had been out in the woods yelling for us, but we had never heard them. Once it was determined that everyone was fine and none the worse for the wear, my friends left for their respective homes, and it was just my brother and I in the kitchen, sipping cocoa and staring out at the dark line of trees.
“When we went back to the pines to try and find the boulder again, did you notice that there were no tracks through them, or on the other side?” I asked him, not taking my eyes off the trees?
“You noticed that, too, huh?” he replied.
“Remember that clearing that I go hunting in, that we found our way out from? It’s about four miles away. That wasn’t a four mile walk back. “
“I know,” I said. “There’s also only 100 acres* of woods right there, before you hit the heath, the road, or the orchard.”
“Yup. Not sure where we went, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t where we thought it was.”
“Yeah…. Pretty sure those pines are somehow involved, and we should probably not go through them again. I’m also pretty sure we shouldn’t mention this to the others.”
We sipped our cocoa and thoughtfully looked at the trees, wondering what else was looking back at us from the shadows, as the moon began to climb from behind the clouds into the cold night sky…
*Oddly enough, not a metaphor. We were a strange and raggedy collection of souls, prone to creating odd rituals and looking for magic in mundane places.
*About 1.5 square miles.