Things in the Forest
I was alive. The blizzard had spared me and my dogs. But my heart didn’t know it. It had stopped in my chest.
My fingers glided over the soft snow, thick flakes melting against my skin. I was a man alone in the cold. But the small, curved footprints in the snow said otherwise.
Heavy snowfall was frequent during the winters of Africa’s southeastern country, Lesotho. It was July, the middle of winter, and last night had released its first snowstorm. The wind had thrashed the windows and snow swirled like a white, freezing hurricane.
I’d been huddled in the back of the house with my dogs, waiting out the storm. But the noise hadn’t been enough to block out the loud crash from the shed beside the house, sending the hounds into frenzy.
At dawn, I rushed outside to find the highest window on the shed door broken and the dogs’ meat gone. I ran back to the house. I had a shotgun there, ready and loaded. But at my door I stopped dead. Suddenly, beside my old footprints, were fresh, smaller ones sitting atop the snow leading from my door into the forest surrounding my house.
I was buried in snow to my knees. With my weight, every step crashed through the snow like a hammer. But this stranger’s footprints were faint, like a finger had drawn them. I had just left the house and the shed was only a few feet away. Who was light enough to walk without making a sound?
The dogs were quiet, still curled together by the dwindling fire. Forget the shotgun. I glared at the tracks. This had to be the same person who’d broken into the shed last night. I didn’t know how they’d reached the window, and didn’t care.
Now I ran to the forest. But as I passed the front line of trees into the frosted thicket, the hairs on my neck stood up, and my heart stopped again.
Something was wrong. My forest was wrong.
There was nothing to breathe but dead air. My steps were weary now, as slow as I dared. Scratching sounded behind me. I whirled on an empty tree. I had to be calm, had to think. I should’ve brought the dogs, shouldn’t have left the gun.
I turned to follow the tracks, but as I stared into the snow, the human prints were gone. I blinked once, then twice. I whirled, making a halo in the snow. My tracks still were behind me, but ahead were small paw prints. Not human. Against better thoughts, I kept walking. The scratching grew louder, circling, but I didn’t look up. I couldn’t look up.
A shadow darted across the snow. Finally, I looked up and snow crashed onto my face. I fell to my knees and shook my head, fighting to breathe.
A low mewl sounded to my left. I turned. A bright, tan caracal cat stared at me with cold, black-gold eyes, its black and white ears like large pointed fans. Fresh blood lined its fangs as it snarled.
That blood—it had to be from my dogs’ meat. I started for it, but it hissed and sprinted off. I ran faster but slipped. I fell headlong into the snow. Sputtering, I looked around, but the air was dead again and the scratching sounds gone. I had lost it.
I shook my foot, my leg still tangled in what had tripped me. I twisted and untangled a damp, ripped shirt. It was small, a child’s. I had to go back, had to tend to my dogs. Damn the lost meat.
I rose when the snow shuffled before me. I looked up to a little shivering girl. She stood barefoot atop the snow, almost floating. Her legs were bare, her body covered in just a huge towel—a towel from my shed. Her frosted ebony skin had patches of tan fur, her small fingers pointed like claws as she stared back at me with cold, black eyes. My gaze lifted and locked on her large black and white twitching cat ears.
I tried to beckon her over but she hissed and ran deeper into the forest, the tracks she left behind the same as those at my door.
I was confused, had to leave, had to breathe. Get back to something solid and leave this bizarreness beneath the snow.
I had forgotten that there are things in the forest that need to stay in the forest.