The flames lapped and curled over the edge of the log. Bark turned to ash, wood crackled and popped, and the pile shifted. The noise made by the dwindling camp fire startled John back to his senses. He had nearly fallen asleep on the ground at the edge of the fire. He was glad he hadn’t. The lonely woods around him were silent, an odd, ominous sound considering how many noises he should be hearing from them. He strained his ears, listening for any sign of what was happening outside the small ring of light the fire was creating, but all he heard was the soft crackle of burning logs. He slowly rose to his feet, keeping alert, still straining his ears in the hope of catching some sign of life. It had been three days since he had run into another living, breathing thing.
He’d been lost for three days, and in the last day he’d seen nothing but trees, rocks, and soil. He’d found what appeared to be a path through the forest, but it was continuing much farther than he’d expected, especially considering how close to the city his campsite had been. Despite all the things that unsettled him about his situation, the thing that ate at him the most was the nature of the path. It was straight and it was nearly impossible to wander off of it. He had tried, more than once, to break off the path and in a new direction. Each time he had been forced back to the path in short order, whether by thick underbrush, steep walls of rock, a mass of fallen trees, or simply by ground so difficult to navigate that he’d ended up back on the path. Regardless, he had found enough familiar fruits and berries to keep himself strong.
John sighed in frustration and lay down on the earth. He decided sleep would be necessary eventually, and now, while it was dark, would probably be the best time.
The next day dawned much like the last: bright sunlight, stained green by its journey down through the branches, the smell of flowers mixed with the smoke of last night’s camp fire, and the oppressive silence that reminded him that something was still wrong. He slowly stood up and began walking cautiously down the path. The silence seemed to want to be kept. It was such a powerful thing, a thing that filled the entire world around him, that John had no desire to upset it.
The day wore on, and John picked fruit as he noticed it, eating whenever something familiar presented itself near the path. He watched for signs of another path, anything that would suggest that the forest on either side was something more than an impassible barrier. Despite his careful watch he could never remember if the patch of grass or the space between two trees he’d passed a few minutes before had been the beginning of a new clearing, a way to get somewhere else. But he couldn’t bring himself to go back. He’d made the choice to move forward, and he had to reach something eventually.
His legs ached, and the silence beat at his ears. His heartbeat echoed in his head, and his footsteps thumped monotonously on the ground. Eventually the shadows began to grow, reaching out from in front of him, his own stretching out far behind. He slowed his pace and began picking up bits of dead wood from along the edge of the path. He walked on until he had a good bundle weighing down his arms and until he had found a larger open area to build his fire in once more. He set up his fire—he was fortunate to have a large pack of matches with him—and drank a bit from his canteen. He supposed he was lucky he’d had it at all, but the fact that it was nearly empty made that a difficult thing to be thankful for. Tonight he wasted much less time in thought and attentiveness. He’d strained his mind all day looking for signs of life, of anything beyond the quiet of the path, and found nothing. He was tired, and so he slept.
But not staying awake, not straining his mind prior to sleep, had the unfortunate side effect of allowing his mind to wander in dreams. His dreams started pleasantly enough, with images of beds, baths and proper food. Of tea and friends, and padded armchairs. But the images began to flow, and each one brought him closer to the forest, closer to taking a walk alone, closer to the path he now walked. And once he reached it, his dreams grew dark: images of trees dragging him down an endless dark path, of being smothered in leaves and vine. He woke the next morning badly rested and sore from the ground, sweating despite the pleasant temperature. He slowly worked his body off the ground, various joins protesting along the way. He stood still for a moment, listening again in vain. He sighed, finished the last bit of water from his canteen, and continued on.