“Are you sure you want to go out on this trail? We’ve had trouble with bears in the past.” The girl behind the desk peered at me behind her curtain of hair.
I patted my overflowing pack. “I’m all set. I hear this peak is the one to climb; the most spectacular views of the valley.”
The girl paused, then leaned forward. “It is nice, but a bear attack is no joke. I can point you towards some others trails, with equally nice views. This one passes through a wildflower meadow …”
I waved a hand to interrupt her as she brought out trail brochures. “I’ve done all the reading, and I’m ready for bear attacks.” I brought out my copy of The Lost Art of Reading Mother Nature, spine broken and generously tabbed with sticky markers. “I know what to do. I brought my bear spray and I know how to use it.” I pulled on the canister attached to my belt.
The girl eyed me dubiously, and I rolled my eyes.
“How recent were the bear sightings?”
“Well, none this year, but the trail …”
“Then there isn’t a problem. I’ll be careful.”
She clenched her jaw. “If you insist. The trailhead begins at the other side of the lot.”
“I already know!” I sailed past her on the way out of the visitor’s centre, ready to take on Mother Nature. My brand new boots sank into the carpet of needles cushioning the forest floor. I took a deep breath, eyes falling shut at the scent of pine and cedar. It was so good to get out of the city; I was too caught up in the grind. Why not take a weekend to get back to nature, to the things that mattered?
I read everything I needed to know about this mountain range; I bought all the suggested equipment. I shifted my shoulders against the weight of my pack. Perhaps too much equipment. But it was better to be prepared.
After an hour of a steady climb, I was starting to feel out of breath, my steps coming slower and slower. I paused, resting my hand on the rough bark of a nearby tree, wiping away the sweat building up on my brow.
A shadow passed over the sun, and the air cooled considerably. I looked up to see a pile of clouds boiling towards the mountain range. That was odd; the forecast had called for clear skies.
I moved again to warm myself. Mist rose from the earth until I was wading through vapour. Before, wandering the trail alone had been cheerful, but now I was spooked. A bird cheeped close overhead and I jumped. I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t see much of anything.
Hissed a curse, I kicked out at a vine that clung to my leg. I wouldn’t be able to see the view if this weather kept up. So much for my perfect afternoon in nature.
I looked down, to see the plastic clip that attached my bear spray to my bag had broken. I grabbed it, groaning. I peered down the path, in hopes the canister was lying nearby on the path, but no such luck.
According to Lost Signs, the best way to avoid a bear attack was to warn them of my presence with loud human noises, so I started to whistle, but the sound was shrill and off-key. I cleared my throat and sang instead. The first song that came to my head was a pop song from high school. It made me smile at first, but the sunny beat was muffled by fog and fell flat.
Up ahead, the trail bent sharply to the right. I hesitated, wondering if I should give up and turn back.
I set my shoulders straight, stiffening under the weight. The whole point of this adventure was to experience nature. This was nature, fog and all, and a few setbacks wouldn’t scare me off.
The trail turned at the edge of a ridge. The ground fell away, and miles of pine trees spread out like a carpet below. It was so big, and there was so much of it, I paused, feeling very small. Maybe this was what I needed, the feeling of hanging on the precipice. I breathed in deeply, my shoulders relaxing a fraction.
Where the trail continued into the forest, I spotted an oddity. I almost took out my phone to snap a picture, but instinct stilled my hand. Trees at the side of the path grew together strangely, their branches twisting as though clinging to one another. They wound in a strange clump, forming a natural shelter. I blinked, looking away.
When I looked back again, my heart slammed in my chest. The trees were gone. In their place was a small hut, made with fallen branches. It was old and knarled, but a proper shelter. I fell back a step. Had it been there the whole time?
The dark entrance of the doorway was shadowed. The billowing mist shifted, and from the entrance emerged a woman.
Stooped with great age, her head was covered in a shawl of mossy green. She shuffled forward, her face finally catching the light, and I gasped. Her skin was a pale shade of grey. Tattoos wound over her cheeks and brows, like vines growing to cover every inch of skin. Her eyes were the only part of her that wasn’t twisted and old; they shone a bright green. She gestured to me, fingers warped like twigs.
“Get your fortune told?” Her voice creaked like branches in the wind.
I let out a huff of laughter; not that it was funny but unexpected. My skin crawled at the dramatic appearance of this fortune teller in the middle of a forest.
“Wha – what?”
“Your fortune told. I can see your fate. It’s considered good luck in these parts.”
Unsure I could move from stiffness, I finally nodded my head an inch. I was supposed to be open to new experiences on this hike. “Okay, yes.”
Then I stopped as city instincts kicked in. Though she looked steps from her grave, I had visions of the old lady hitting me over the head and taking me for all my pack was worth. “What do you want for it?”
“Only that you listen.” She beckoned with one knarled finger and entered the hut. I hesitated, looking back over the misty trail, before ducking to enter the cramped space.
Inside, the air was warm and smelled sharp, like bitter herbs. I stooped, looking down at the woman who was now only a step away. Her odd eyes burned into me. I cleared my throat. “How do you do this? Do you have a crystal ball?” I tried to laugh but it died in my throat at her glower.
“Give me your hand.”
I obeyed immediately. Something in her look brooked no argument. She held my hand gently, turning it palm up. Her skin was rough, abrasive as it brushed over my skin. She didn’t look at my palm but stared into my eyes as she spoke. Her voice deepened.
“If you wish to survive the hour, you must listen to everything I say and follow my instructions.”
I huffed. “What is this?” I tried to tug away but she held on with a strength I hadn’t expected. “I’ve read everything there is to know about wilderness survival.”
The woman snorted, looking me over as if reassessing my sanity. “You need to stop reading about Mother Nature, and start listening to her.” Her grip tightened, vice-like as she pulled me close, even as I struggled. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “When you hear the crow caw three times, hide behind the tree. If not, your fate ends here.” She ran a sharp nail across my palm, not quite breaking the skin.
Dread grew in me, tightening my chest. Her eyes had changed. The pupil was gone, leaving only glowing green orbs.
I jerked, her skin scraping as I pulled out of her grasp. Stumbling backwards out of the hut, I fell and landed hard on the ground, sharp pain jolting my elbow.
She shuffled toward me. “Listen.” The whisper followed me up the trail, bouncing off the fog.
I tore up the trail, putting distance between myself and the old lady. I should have run downhill because I would need to pass her again on my way down. But I would not let a terrifying geriatric stop me from experiencing nature.
I marched upwards grimly. All pleasure had been stripped away; now, I was simply determined to reach the top of this goddamned mountain to say I did it.
A crow flapped clumsily above me, landing on a branch that swayed under its weight. Gooseflesh rippled over my bare arms as it inspected me with opaque eyes.
It cawed, loud and definitive, and my heart hammered in my chest.
“No!” I yelled out loud. “Shoo, you!” I flapped my arms at the crow, but it only watched me placidly. I stormed ahead, faster than before.
The crow flapped again, landing in front of me. It cocked its head and stared directly into my eyes, before letting out a sharp caw again.
The woman’s words echoed through my head: Your fate ends here.
“What are you?” I gasped at the crow. It flapped to the branch above me. I whimpered. “No, please.”
The third caw rang through the forest. An eerie silence settled over the mountainside. The chattering of birds and buzzing of insects disappeared, leaving an oppressive silence behind.
From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a tree, something out of the ordinary. It was greyish-white, wider around than the others. In the mist, it shone like a beacon.
Before I could overthink it, I dove off the trail and pressed my back against the trunk.
All I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my ears, my breath coming out harsh and ragged. But after several minutes, the fear faded and humiliation began to simmer. That old lady had shaken me up, but in real life, crows did not give out warnings.
I shook out my hands and pushed myself away from the tree. I wasn’t going to fall for whatever trick she had pulled on me.
A growl ripped through the air, running along my spine. It sounded from down the trail, and I lunged back to the tree. My breath choked in my throat.
The sense of something massive approached. Every footstep shuddered the ground, and the beast’s breathing wheezed deep from a barrel chest. Ahead of me was nothing but endless pine forest. The beast was on the other side of the tree. I turned, ever so slightly, to get a glimpse. A shifting impression of dark fur, then the beast halted with a grunt. It began sniffing the air.
I squeezed my eyes shut. It couldn’t see me. I prayed to every deity I could think of that the beast wouldn’t find me, but most of my prayers went to the fortune teller.
A crow cawed up on the path, ringing out in the strange silence.
The beast let out a wheezing grunt, then shuffled along up the trail, still sniffing.
I stayed there as long as I could stand, before ducking around the tree. Half of me expected to find myself face to face with dark fur and foul breath, but the trail was clear. Slipping onto the path, I started down the trail, moving as silently as possible.
The guidebooks said the best way to prevent a bear attack was to make noise. But a deep intuition told me I did not want to alert this beast to my presence. That was to be avoided at all costs.
I crept down the trail, listening. An odd strangled whimper sounded; it took me a moment to realize it was me, every breath like that of a wounded animal. I reached the ridge where the trail turned; where the fortune teller’s hut stood.
Despite my panic, I faltered. There was no hut, no woman. In its place stood an ancient tree, bark knarled and tough. Twigs stretched out from the low-slung branches, as though reaching for me like hands knotted with arthritis.
Shaking, I took a step back. My foot fell across a branch, the snap crisp and sharp. A growl sounded in the distance and I reached my limit. I fled, a free-for-all of limbs as I dashed down the trail.
Time stretched out in countless heartbeats as I made my frantic escape. I arrived at the entrance of the visitor’s centre, unable to stop the shaking in my bones. The girl at the front desk looked up and smiled, relief softening her face.
“Glad you made it back. You weren’t gone as long as I thought you would be.” She stopped, taking in my appearance. “Are you okay?”
I stammered, trembling too hard to form speech.
“What happened?” The girl came around the desk, supporting my weight and setting me on a plastic chair. “Was it a bear?”
I tried several times, and finally whispered, “I don’t think it was a bear.”
She stared into my face. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Was it … something else?”
Slowly, I nodded. She let out a long breath and looked towards the trailhead, lost in fog now. “Then you’re lucky. A handful of people over the years have come back with stories.” She let out a long breath. “Mostly, people go missing. This trail should have been shut years ago, but nobody listens to me.”
“I listened.” I was babbling, trying to make her understand.
She nodded. “You should go. Maybe don’t ever come back.”
I hoped my quivering legs could drive my Tesla back to the city. Never had the idea of returning to the tumult of humanity sounded better.
But as the mountain air cooled my face outside, I found myself turning back to the trail, and the forest, wondering at all I had witnessed.
“Or maybe I just need to listen more.”
A crow let out a harsh cry, and I raised my hand in acknowledgment.