I could feel the bite of the wind through my hoodie. The sting of the sun on my eyes. My feet, bare besides the socks, were numb in the snow. The sun was rising and soon they would wake up to find me gone. No matter what, I had to keep going.
Every step was agonizing as new pains emphasized older, yet still fresh, ones. I reached out to steady myself on a nearby birch tree, stripped clean of leaves, and saw the dried blood crusted under my fingernails and in between my fingers. I bent down to cleanse the filth with snow, watching as it turned pink. The wind picked up and sent a gust of fresh snow into my face. I pulled on the strings of my hoodie. Jasper had given it to me when he got into his first choice college, only to dump me a week later. That feels so long ago now.
I looked back the way I had come. My footsteps were small but clearly visible. The wind wasn’t able to cover the tracks here in the woods; they’d find me in no time. I stood and wobbled before I started off again. I just needed a plan, a destination. These woods turn into a protected forest that goes on for thousands of square acres. If I kept going forward I may freeze under the trees.
That’s not so bad. At least I’d be safe.
Somehow I managed to keep a steady pace. The trees seemed to beckon me on. They swayed with each step I took, calling me forward. They shook their bare branches at me and icicles fell to my feet. I too am bare like you. The pure white snow was untouched by man here. No footfall to disturb the serenity, no shack to ugly up the landscape.
I stopped and looked around. There were no footsteps of any kind. No bird, no squirrel, no deer. The snow was crisp and flat, laid out like a picnic blanket in a meadow. Tangles of thorn bushes seemed reduced to snares. Branches in the snow were placed by design. But the warmth of the sun on my back told me to keep going.
I crawled on top of an old fallen tree in my path to get my feet out of the snow and inspect them for frostbite. My hands were shaky as I took the socks off one at a time. Zebras wearing sunglasses.. I thought they were cute. Another gust of wind slammed into my face, taking my breath with it. I leaned my back against the sloped bark of the dead tree, ignoring every muscle in my body, and willed God to take me.
The sound of a dog sniffing broke me of my reverie and I turned to my left, further into the woods. A small, short hound was sniffing the ground. He looked up at me and let his tongue loll out of his mouth. He barked once and sat, looking at me with his head cocked.
I narrowed my eyes and turned my face away. After a moment I felt warm breath and his tongue on my hand and jolted up. I didn’t even hear him coming. He just kept looking at me with his sad eyes and his head cocked. I sighed. Fine. I slipped from the fallen tree, not bothering to put my socks back on, and he jumped playfully in front of me. As I walked I inspected him. His coat was shiny, and he was small but his ribs weren’t showing. But he was small enough not to leave any footprints in the snow. Every few seconds he would turn his head and make sure I was still following him.
Maybe he belongs to a hunter. He took me down a hill and into the thick of the forest. The canopy grew close together, intertwining their branches and shadowing the walk. Luckily it also meant the snow was thin here, almost not present at all. My feet stepped on pine needles without care. I tripped over an exposed root and fell forward, letting out a silent gasp as I almost fell onto the dog. I hit my cheek against the frozen ground and my vision blurred for a moment, shaking and vibrating like googly eyes.
The dog nudged my hand and I put a hand on his head and pushed him back. I reached around for a tree to pull myself up with and my hand grazed something hairy. I’m staring at the dog, so, what is that? I slowly turned my head and saw two goat hooves and let out a sigh of relief. I pushed myself back up to standing and turned toward the goat, only to fall to the ground again with a stifled scream.
It was a man, with goat legs. Like what I used to read when I was young. He was a man from the waist up, bare and muscled with a thick beard that was twisted cruelly into a braid. His legs were thick with fur, and hooves stomped impatiently on the ground. The dog circled him before sitting and watching. I didn’t realize when but I had covered my mouth with my hand. I moved it to my chest and my lungs heaved for breath.
The man, creature, thing, moved a finger over his lips before outstretching his hand toward me. I hesitated before placing mine in his. It was rough with calluses. He helped me to my feet and the dog barked its pleasure. The creature let go of my hand and gestured for me to follow him as he pushed aside a low-hanging pine branch still flush with needles. I felt the dog at my heels and stepped forward.
The creature led me silently through the pine trees. I wasn’t sure how he knew where to go as there were no footprints he was following, or leaving. I smelled burning wood and cooking meat as I tugged my leg out of a thorn bush. I looked past the creature and saw movement beyond the pines. It was a clearing. A large one.
The dog bounded ahead in front of me and barked until someone threw a scrap on the ground. I hung back and looked around at the faces. The creatures were mostly like the goat-legged one, but some were not. There was a centaur and what I can only picture a druid to be. Hair that flowed with no wind, flesh that looked rough like bark. There was no talking, but the crackle of a fire. Over which spun a spic and a few small creatures.
The creature who led me here waited for me to go pact him into the clearing. I walked to the fire and stretched my hand out, allowing the flames to melt my body. After a minute I realized I was crying. I looked around to each of the faces in the clearing and they were all looking back at me. I took my place besides the druid and was handed a bowl with meat by the one who had led me here. I ripped off a piece to give to the dog, but he had gone. I didn’t even see him leave.
He ran through the snow, leaving dust to be picked up by the wind. His small body leapt over branches and sped through the forest. People were calling out to him. In front of him there was a person whistling for him. He ran to him and sat, dropping something wet at his feet. The man bent down to pick it up..
“It’s a sock.”
The chatter of police radios broke the silence of the landscape.
“Well, Lou. What do you think happened?”
A man, wearing a blue jacket, snow boots, and a sheriff's hat, turned toward the voice. His comrade was leaned forward wearing an almost crossed-eyed look.
“You tell me, Jack.”
“Well,” Jack sniffed and stood up straight. “Looks like a little girl done froze.”
“Mighty fine detective work.”
They were standing next to a tree, long since fallen, on the edge of the border of the Long Pine National Forest. The ranger’s dog had found the girl’s sock in the snow when he was out on patrol.
“No missing person reports, huh?” Lou asked another officer.
“No for a while now.”
The rev of an engine made the group turn. A vehicle was crawling through the snow to them, backup.
“How old are we thinking?” Lou turned back toward Jack.
“Young, but not real young. She’s wearing a college sweatshirt.”
The third offer looked up from his phone, “My nephew just got into that college. I’ll see if he knows anymore else that goes there.”
Lou walked in closer to the girl. She was laying against the trunk of the fallen tree, toes, finger, lips as white as the snow. The only footprints around were hers, the dogs, and their own.
“Have these guys follow her tracks to see where she came from,” Lou gestured behind his shoulder to the incoming vehicle. “Looks like she was in a bit of trouble. See the bruise on her temple? And I do believe that is dried blood under her fingernails.”
“I wonder how long she’s been here,” Jack said.
Lou took his hat off to scratch his head, “That I wonder too. And I do hope her soul is at rest now.”