I saw him again in my dreams. He was closer this time, just back from the tree line, amongst the branches. The faded black coat which draped over his gaunt frame had folded into the darkness of the woods. Standing there, immobile, he looked like the scarecrow in the field down from our shack that frightened me as a child. I couldn’t see his face in the shadows, but I knew that he was watching me.
I wanted to step forward, to ask him why he was following me, but I couldn’t move my legs. Rock was cowering behind the log pile, trying to flatten his canine body into the ground. I made the sign of the cross with my forefingers and found myself awake.
There was a frost in the air, the cold creeping in through the walls. It was the first chill of winter; soon everything would be covered in a blanket of snow. I put on my thick coat and leather boots. On my way to the door I stopped to get my rifle from the wooden cupboard next to the rough-hewn dining table; the same rifle I use for hunting, when I can get away with it, and when I can afford the ammunition. I don’t normally take it out to the traps but the man in black was getting to me. I thought to take some shells, shoving them deep into my pocket, just in case.
I called out for Rock as I left the cabin. Usually he’d be at the door, waiting for me, but not today. After a few moments he emerged from behind the shed. I could see that he was limping, and his grey fur seemed matted.
‘What’s happened to you, old friend?’
Something wasn’t right. The dog made his way to me slowly, his hind quarters wagging, his paws crunching over fallen, frosted leaves. He licked the hand that I offered him tentatively. Stroking his fur I could see that he had been in a fight. There was a gash on his right flank, running from his shoulder to his haunches. I wondered what could have done it; I know there aren’t any bears in these woods. Rock looked up at me with his deep, penetrating eyes — one green, one blue — and my heart broke. I hate to see my friend hurt. There was only cold water to clean him with. There was a blanket, though, and I rolled him in it and waited for him to fall asleep. Then, when he had, I left.
Usually there is comfort in the forest, a comfort hidden among the lofty and ancient trees. The forest embraces me as a mother does her child. I am hers. She is mine. I know every contour of her body, every outcrop, every river. Today, though, everything was different. Somehow I felt that I was no longer a part of these surroundings, I was something foreign and unwanted; the deep shadows scared me, the shift and creak of the boughs made me jump. Without Rock I felt how truly alone I really was. But I’m not one to back down. I made my way deep into the woods, following paths that only I could see. I was stepping carefully, so as not to make too much noise. Above me the snow-tipped mountains rose up, sheer and daunting.
The first trap was empty, the wire noose —skilfully hidden in the undergrowth — was untouched. I made sure it was set correctly then covered it so that it remained hidden and moved on. I hoped, hoped that there was something in one of the others. I needed to eat.
Maybe if there are two nice birds, I thought to myself, I could dress them up and bring them to town. Maybe I would happen upon Cosette as she walked down the main street on the way to the bakery, he blonde hair loose, and I could stop her, sling off one of the birds and offer it to her. I could make a play of it, as if it is nothing to me to see the plump bird go. Maybe upon taking it she would look at me and smile. I would die for that smile.
I don’t think she smiles much these days. Maybe she wouldn’t, even if I brought her five birds. She is still in mourning for that teacher of hers, her fiancé, the one from out of town. No, she wouldn’t want to smile. And it was very unlikely that would I find two birds in my traps.
As it was my traps were empty. All except the last. And when I saw what that one held, I wished dearly that it, too, was empty. A small bird had been caught in it but it had been mangled and bloodied. It’s sharp wings were broken and it’s head torn off at the base of the neck. Blood had poured out of it and had seeped onto the hard-frozen black soil. I pitied the poor thing. Yes I killed birds, but not like this. What could have done such a thing? No animal would take the head and leave the meat. I threw the carcass away and crossed myself again before re-setting the trap.
The bird made me think of Cosette’s teacher. Poor Cosette. She had just wanted a man that could take her away from this harsh place and her teacher had promised her that much.
He had told her stories of the city out to the east and all the luxuries it could afford. He had told her about its winding roads — all cobbled — and its many shops. She in turn had told me of these wonders. He had given her a token, a small, delicately engraved bracelet, and from then on she was his and only his. I was resentful, of course. I had always hoped that she would see in me a reason to stay, that our childhood romance would bloom into something lasting. But she had told me from the start, when we had met in clearings and glades, before my father had died, that what we played was only a game, a way to pass the time, that we would never have a future. Not like the future she saw with that man who, one day, strolled into our village, full of strange ideas and complicated words. It was he who would steal her heart.
But these woods are deep and the mountains are sheer and it’s easy to get lost in them. Men and animals often go missing. Such was the case for Cosette’s teacher; he was swallowed whole. I know I should not speak ill of the dead but he was careless, being an outsider. I often saw him on his walks into the mountains. He made so much noise and wandered apparently at random. It is a dangerous thing for someone to do. When the search parties went out I did my best to help, but after two nights had passed we all knew that he would not be walking out of the mountain forest alive.
I have no fear of losing my way, even in the harshest winter. I have lived at the base of these mountains all my life. From the time I was a child, from when I could first walk, I learnt to live off the land. My father was a drunk and a violent man, but at least he taught me how to survive.
I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. Something was moving out there to my right. I twisted my neck but could see nothing. Then I saw him on a boulder to my left. The man in the black coat: immobile, watching.
‘Hey!’ I shouted, ‘What are you doing here? Who are you?’
He didn’t answer. He stood silent, as immobile as a statue. I un-slung my rifle, raised it hesitantly to my shoulder. My hands were shaking.
‘I’m armed! Leave or I’ll shoot!’
The boulder he stood on was smooth and had a faint covering of lichen. One of those vast detached pieces of rock that fell from the mountains generations ago. I remember trying to climb it as a child and failing at each attempt.
The man was unmoved. I turned when I heard a tussle in the leaves to my right. When I looked back he was no longer there.
I ran home in a daze, forcing my way through the low bushes and undergrowth. I didn’t care about the noise I was making or the branches that whipped at my face. I tripped and fell, cutting my hand as I caught myself on the sharp rocks hidden in the undergrowth. But I managed to lift myself up and kept running.
All I could think of was the man. I’d seen his face this time. He looked like the teacher. Cosette’s teacher. The black coat, though worn and beaten, was the same he was wearing the day he went missing.
Eventually, stumbling and gasping, my lungs burning from the cold, I emerged into the clearing in front of my cabin. I walked quickly across the frozen grass, clutching my injured hand to me. I was planning on stopping for a short time, enough to recuperate a little before making my way to the safety of town.
There was a movement behind the grey front curtain. My heart stopped. He was in there, in my house, standing in front of the stove. The black coat hid his frame. He was stooping over something but I couldn’t see what it was that held him. His gaze was intent, fierce. I was struck by a terrible thought and started running again. Only one thing could make me run into that cabin. I was at the door, then inside, gun up to my shoulder. I dropped it when I saw the huddled shape on the floor.
‘Rock, Rock, no… please no.’
He lay outstretched, his paws reaching towards me. Tears streamed down my face; I could see that he was dead. My back hit the wall as I slumped, broken, beaten, crawling forward to cradle his still-warm head in my arms.
Eventually I looked up to see where the black thing had gone. I was sure, then, that he wasn’t a man, that he was something other, a devil up from hell come to torture me. But there was nothing and nobody in the small room, no one there but me and the cooling body I held in my arms.
‘Come on you bastard! What are you waiting for?’
There was no answer.
I awoke, hours later, covered in mud, my hands and face sticky with congealed blood. I searched my mind for answers but I couldn’t think clearly. I needed some idea, some clarity. Anything to explain what had happened.
I picked myself up and grabbed my heavy torch as well as the rifle which lay on the wooden floor. I knew that there was only one way I could discover the truth. No matter how much it terrified me I had to find an answer, and for that I need to head back up into the mountains. I needed to be sure.
The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the fallen leaves. My mind was blank, I had moved beyond pain, beyond terror.
Soon I came to a small path, little more than a deer trail, that wound it’s way steeply upwards through the pines. It was one of those used by the mountaineers who come to our village, looking to pit themselves against the devastating majesty of nature. This particular path was steep and arduous. It was the one that the teacher was hiking up the day that he disappeared.
I knew because I had followed him that day.
He had left early in the morning from the hut that Cosette shared with her parents in the village. I had watched as she kissed him goodbye with a fervour that I had never known.
With a steady gait, his head held high, he had made his way up into the mountains. Occasionally he would stop and take out a notebook, jotting something down while peering at a tree or flower. We went on like this for a few hours, him trying to take in everything around him, me seeing nothing but this man who had stolen everything from me. I followed from a safe distance. When I knew for certain where it was that he was heading to I ran up over the shoulder ridge to where I could overtake him without him seeing me.
I knew that it would take him at least an hour to reach the lookout, but for me it only took about half. The site itself was striking: a small outcrop overlooking a gorge through which an icy stream wound. If you made your way out to the point, onto a platform of jutting rock, you would see, far below, the valley and the village. You could even see my cabin, hidden in the trees, a few kilometres out from the rest. Above you rock faces tower and threaten.
I was nearing the lookout; the man in black was no-where to be seen. Darkness had insinuated itself amongst the trees and I lighted my torch. The moon, though, was close to full; it basked the trees and rocks in a silvery light. I walked to the outcrop carefully, my steps measured, making sure not to slip. I made my way out to the spot where, shielded by the undergrowth, I had waited for the teacher; biding my time until I had heard his heavy breathing and the crunch of his footfall.
He had stepped out, full of confidence, his handsome face held high. A few steps and he had been at the edge, overlooking the gorge, looking down at the village. He had probably been trying to pick which of the huts was Cosette’s. He had turned when he heard my footfall. He had just had time to see my face as, putting both hands on his chest, I pushed him into the void. There had been the sound of his amputated scream and then the muffled thud as he hit the rocks far below.
That’s how I knew that it couldn’t be the teacher who was torturing me. He was dead, down there in the ravine, where no one would be able to find him.
But something had come back hadn’t it? And I had to be sure.
I turned, threading my way to a gully which I knew, with a certain amount of difficulty, would lead me down into the ravine. Hand over foot, I make my way down into the darkness. About halfway down there was a traverse across a sheer cliff face. I tucked the torch into a pocket and inched myself out, into the void. The rock was smooth and silvery in the moon-light. Carefully, carefully I shifted my weight out into the cool, open air. My right hand reached for the next handhold and encountered nothing, my weight shifted and I felt myself drop.The ground, rushing up from below, hit me hard, knocking the breath from my lungs. I just had time to grab the outcrop below and hold on tight, as my feet scrambled at the nothingness. I pulled up hard and clambered onto the ledge. Then, with difficulty, I continued my way down. My ribs ached but I knew that nothing would stop me. There were just a few remaining metres to the rocky river bed.
The river usually runs higher at this time of year. It can flood at any time as shifts in the weather up higher in the mountains cause natural damns to burst. Up to my left there was nothing but jagged rock, running steeply up into the darkness. I turned right and follow the river down, grasping my side with one hand and shining my torch with the other.
There! I saw it: a sad and broken form. Right were I knew it had to be.
Still my mind was a blank. I approached at a snail’s pace; each step was a struggle. When I reached the broken form I knelt. I ran my fingers over the coarse dark material of the coat. Then I grasped it, wrapping my fingers under it’s heft and heaved the body onto it’s back. It was waterlogged and heavy. My hands were soaked through, frozen and numb. And there was his face, bloodied and disfigured but still recognisable. It was the teacher; his features unmistakable. Something in my chest broke open and I started to scream, to shout and howl and whimper. I cried out until I was hoarse, my breath jagged and hard against my throat as I rocked back on my haunches.
Then, through a haze of tears, I saw him — the man in black — out across the frigid river that leapt and spluttered. He stood, as he always did, immobile and unspeaking.
‘What do you want?’ I shouted.
I swung my rifle from my back and fired. Still he didn’t move. I fired again.
‘What do you WANT?’
I shouted out again and again until I was gasping for breath. I felt myself shaking, unable to control my body.
Finally, eventually, I gave in. There was nothing left I could do. I let myself down slowly, soaking my coat in a pool of water as I lay myself next to the misshapen form that was Cosette’s teacher. Weeping, I waited for the darkness to take me.
S. D. Jones
S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer. He has recently completed a MSt in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and is working on his first novel. Examples of his work can be found at STORGY Magazine, Typishly Literary Journal, Short Fiction Break, The Esthetic Apostle, and Ink & Voices.
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