On a barren hiking trail this past summer, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a young person just off the path, half-hiding, peering quizzically at me. The sun was blinding. I blinked and the person was no longer there. I followed the trail, and circling back to the same spot I saw, or imagined I saw, a blur of a face peeking from behind a tree. There, then gone. Did I see someone? Who? What were they doing? And why? I chalked it up to the heat. But the questions remained.
You’re alone, then?
Somewhere in a forgotten forest, after thirteen years below ground, a cicada crawls stubbornly from the dark soil to sing, and its cry wakes you from a lonesome early summer torpor.
You are alone, yes, but not unhappy. Though not quite happy, either. It is that age, that transitional time between junior school and high school, when acquaintances move to other schools, other districts, other lives; when you find yourself abandoned and think, not unwelcomingly, I will always be alone. And you feel nothing: not sadness, not pity, not happiness; not anger, not regret. Not anything. As if you don’t exist.
And so it is that one summer afternoon, mere days after graduating junior school, and weeks before you are to start high school, you discover yourself walking along a path in the sun-strewn woods, looking up, up, squinting, hand shielding your eyes from the light dazzling through the leaves like a kaleidoscope, when from the corner of your eye you sense movement, and you look ahead to see a figure, a boy, emerge from behind a silver birch and step onto the path.
“Hide and seek,” the boy calls out, and he is but a pale blur as he dashes into the woods, into the shadows.
You are too old for such games, you tell yourself. As must be this boy. Soon, though, there will be high school, and college, and a job, and the general death of childhood, the slow erosion of a world that once held wonder. And as you perch on the precipice of adulthood, it is a pleasant early summer day; the scent of sharp pine and dead leaves and old earth drifts on the still summer air. The cicadas trill their songs and shafts of golden sun poke through the canopy in a hazy corona to bathe the green forest in enchantment. And the boy . . . he expects a game, doesn’t he? Hide and seek, he’d said, his delighted voice ringing in your ears.
So, you run. You race off the path and charge into the darker forest, a grin plastered to your face. And in the running you feel energised and alive, your legs and arms working rhythmically, pinwheeling, pushing you pell-mell through the trees. And you remember what it was like to be younger, to be carefree, to be wind-kissed and rain-soaked. To splash merrily through worm-laden puddles as soft, warm rains fell; to toboggan steep hills as icy shards of snow flew up and stung your face raw; to ride your bicycle through a green, green wood, pretending to be a knight atop a mighty steed on a dangerous quest. You remember what it was like to be unencumbered by worry, before the world got all serious and dark. A world where games are frowned upon. Mostly, you remember what it was like to not be alone.
You run until breathless, resting atop a rotted tree stump. You hear movement—something lumbering through the forest. You sprint in that direction, heart-racing. Where could he have gone? you think. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
And a voice, like an echo . . .
Come out . . .
A crunch, crunch, and a snap, like bones breaking. And you turn and head in that direction, deeper into the windless woods. The light is a fading thing behind you, as if all the colour were draining from the world. The trees are briefly limned in the dying silver light. A chill sweeps through you and you shiver. You jog aimlessly, searching and searching, calling out “Come out, come out,” and you realise you’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game, for childhood, for so many things, that life has defeated you yet again, and you stop dead, breath heaving and clouding in the sudden cold.
In the dark, you are cold and alone. Then another soft crunch, and a darker shape appears between the trees. The black form moves towards you.
You’re alone, then? A voice like razored-dusk; quiet and disquieting. And a grin in the asking.
You shiver. Your world is a darkening void; empty and starless. You grow numb, your mind spinning, trying to latch onto something but coming away empty, like a rudderless ship bobbing on waves as distant shores dim. An untethering. Silence, except for the slow crunch of booted feet. Then, a lunge as the dim figure reaches for you . . .
. . . and you turn and run. And run. Mindless. Heedless of the reaching branches that claw and scratch. And in the running you feel sluggish and dead, plodding through the trees. Then you remember. Remember what it was like to be scared, heart-pounding as you stumbled through the dark of the world, past an old and broken bicycle, past the bones of dead things as a dark laughter rang out behind you, your mind a dark and spinning vortex of dread, a curtain of blood, then darkness.
You remember the dark. You remember being alone. You remember feeling nothing. As if you didn’t exist. And thinking, if only I could crawl out of here.
Then, a sound reaches you. A shrilling, buzzing noise. The cicadas are screaming. Thirteen, you recall.
Thirteen years . . .
Presently, you open your eyes to sunlight stippling through a green forest canopy. Your mouth tastes of dirt and worms, and something else, something worse. There is a birch tree, proud and silver, and beyond that a path. And on the path is a figure, looking up, a hand shielding its face from the light. You move to the tree, and your heart starts up, and for the first time in a long while, the beginning of a smile creases your face. And, briefly, you remember. So you step out from the shadows.
“Hide and seek,” you trill out, and run back into the shadows, into the forest-dark, until the cicadas scream again.
Spread the word!