The Red Van
The gravel path climbs through the trees. The air is so still she can hear ravens’ wings flapping overhead. Below her the plain fans out, full of noisy cars, arguments, life. She can pick out her house in patchwork fields.
The dog pants with excitement, anticipating deer and a chase. Soon the track will open out in the forest where the trees have thinned and he will have his chance. She trails her hand across green tips appearing on pines which are soft, unlike the old jabbing needles of last year. Since the accident she prefers to come up here.
Her car is in the empty carpark. Sometimes a red van is left there, too far away from livestock and hayfields to belong to a farmer. Today, the barrier has been lifted with a sign, 'Operations in Progress'. And the way is open for the red van which she has spotted, driving along the ridge. She knows iit isn’t an official forestry vehicle which makes her uneasy.
A stag is standing on the track but he dog hasn’t noticed. She locks eyes with it for a moment, then he jumps up the banking and disappears into the trees. The dog lumbers off onto the trail. A greyhound cross he is built for speed, but only for sprinting. Defeated by his age, he’ll come back in a few minutes.
She stands in the track waiting for him to return. But he has vanished.
In oppressive silence, she follows the path of flattened grass. Moss grows over fallen branches, resin seeps from bark, pools of peat-coloured water have collected in ruts. She crouches down to examine oval prints which show that the stag has passed this way.
“Prince,” she shouts.
All she can hear is her own breathing as she climbs. The trees darken and thicken over a treasure trail of dots and hooves. She would like to lie down on the soggy sponge but can’t without the reassuring panting of the dog. However,halfway up the hill, she notices a change in the zig-zag pattern of dog and deer prints now superimposed with boot treads. Her heart is hammering as she bends down to check.
Peaty water has soaked her plimsolls and formed blisters on her heels. Stupid dog! She has come up here for months to get away but now the forest no longer feels safe. Locals say it is haunted and don’t come. Entwined buttresses are homes for trolls; leprechauns could be hiding everywhere and menacing fairy rings are in clearings. Bottomless pools lurk under islands of green moss stars.
Up ahead is a clearing lit by a sunbeam. She spots a figure moving between the dark trunks who can only be the owner of the boot treads. He bends over a dark shape which must be a deer. Sunlight catches on a line of spider’s webs and his knife which he is using to break off the animal’s legs with a loud crack. She has always been relieved when the dog is outrun and the thought of animal softness being ripped open is upsetting.
“Have you seen a dog?” She tries to sound normal, her hand automatically covering the left side of her face.
“No, I can’t say I have. I’ve been in this spot cleaning deer to take down the hill.”
She asks, “Are you a deer hunter?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m employed by the Forestry to cull them.”
“Is that your red van? I’ve seen it around.”
He shifts his feet and says, “Yes, it sure is. Look, I have an idea where your dog might be.”
Her hand stays clamped over her cheek. Perhaps he is right, with his a wisdom and feel for the place. Besides, If she leaves she will go back without her dog. He walks with loose strides through the trees where they have to duck, taking her deeper into the forest. His woollen hat bobs between the branches, going so fast, she can hardly keep up.
After a while, they arrive at narrow cleft in the hillside, carved out by a stream.
He reaches out to steady her as she approaches the edge. Trees grow at wild angles, their veined roots anchored to bare rock.
“Look! He’s bound to be there.”
She leans over the mossy edge, hears whining and sees her dog dwarfed by the sides of the gorge.
“What goes down must come up. It’s a law of physics.” His grin unnerves her.
He smells of earth and woodsmoke. She needs to use her other hand to hold onto a sapling and removes it from her face As he turns, she sees his surprise and familiar pity, and her feelings of panic flood back.
He doesn’t stare. If only she could get her dog back without him. The rock face is slippery and almost sheer. He eases himself over the edge and makes his way down quickly like a monkey.
“We’ll never get back this way,” he shouts. “I’ll walk down the stream bed and meet you at track.”
She waves self-consciously and scrabbles down through the trees.
The deer hunter has a Scottish accent. What’s he doing over here then? Was it just a yarn about being employed by the forestry?
As she approaches she sees him standing beside the van. Only a humiliating slide on her bottom down the bank brings her to his feet. The dog whines and licks her hand.
“Nice dog. I’ve two labradors at home but I don’t bring them out in case they get in the way of the gun.”
“Oh, are they golden?”
“No. Black like him. He’s just as friendly. What’s his name?”
He smiles and pats the dog which wags its tail.
“Just a minute. I have something for you.”
Through the open car door she spots the rifle while he roots around and hands her a boning knife. Although the blade is worn, it is very sharp.
“Take this. Good for the vegetables.”
She laughs for the first time in months, forgetting the scar and the accident.
“So, you often come up here?” she asks.
“Only when the forestry ask me to. I cover a large area. How about you?”
“Yes, most days.”
“Perhaps we’ll meet again.” He smiles.
updated by @valerie-omond-cameron: 01/28/16 10:13:46PM