Nightwalk

I pulled back the sliding door and stepped out onto the back veranda. Quiet and still, the wind barely stirred the branches of the tall spruce that lined the fence boundary. I dragged the door shut and paused as it clicked and locked. I stood there listening to the buzz of insects. From the paddock next door came the sudden squawk of a magpie. A hurried beat of startled wings, then silence.

Dad had mowed the grass in the morning, the drying rows looking like plowed furrows. The smell sharp and pleasant, far removed from the metallic smells of the city with which I was more familiar.

At that moment, a dark band of cloud appeared above the hills and I shivered as something cold went through me. Annoyed at being disturbed by dark clouds, I walked quickly to the tool shed. The old tin door groaned on worn hinges as it opened and I peered inside. I squinted and looked around, spotting the large axe propped in one corner. It felt unusually heavy when I tried to pick it up. Either it had grown some since the last time I used it, or I had gone soft.

I decided to take only two steel wedges. The things were bulky and I had enough to carry already. One of Dad’s neighbors shuffled along the road, paused and waved in greeting. I nodded and waved back. A shadow fell across me and I looked up.

The band of black clouds had grown and were drifting overhead. Something strange about those clouds I could not pin down, and I paused to watch them. On the lawn, a magpie looked up from his pecking. With a startled flutter of wings, it headed for the giant spruce in the neighbor’s yard.

I noticed the silence then. Not a whisper from anything. Branches hung limp as though the wind itself had fled. Somewhere down the road, a car backfired and I jumped. Two sparrows flew quickly toward the gums that lined the road.

* * *

My boots crunched on loose gravel. The trail ahead twisted as it vanished among the towering gums of the forest. The smell of eucalyptus overpowered everything and the branches high above me hung unmoving. My steps were light. The water bottle thumped against my rump.

There is magic in a forest that drew on the strings of my soul. My cares dropped away as I craned my head, staring at the thick canopy above me. Pushing my way through the forest, I stopped beside a broad white gum, reached with my hand and touched the smooth bark. It felt warm and I imagined I could feel it breathe.

I shifted the axe to my left shoulder and repositioned the saw hanging at my waist. The path before me was narrow and worn, a path I had taken often over the last few days. On my left the ground fell away into a steep cutting where a small stream gurgled as it wound its way through the undergrowth. I stepped over a fallen trunk and followed the path deeper into the forest. By the time Dad returned, I would have cut the logs and his grudging smile sufficient reward for my labors. He doled out his praise in meager amounts and I was content for any crumbs he cared to throw my way. We didn’t have a close relationship, but managed to get along, albeit warily.

It took longer to reach the logs than I had thought. At one point, I stopped and stared at the silent trees around me, wondering if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. They had a strange, lost look that made me pause. Dad and I used only one trail, and I had not taken a wrong turn. I knew this part of the forest like the back of my hand. Now, some strange difference about it made me pause, something alien. A cold gust ruffled my shirt and I shivered, annoyed at allowing myself to get spooked like some city tenderfoot.

I finally reached the logs, dropped the tools and stripped off my shirt, letting the soft air wash over me. Walking around the logs, I frowned, debating which one to tackle first. I pulled on leather gloves and rubbed my hands in anticipation.

* * *

The heavy axe swung high above me. With a whispering sigh, it arced through the air and came down. The steel wedge clanged and sank deeper, the clap flat and muffled. I exhaled loudly, propped myself against the axe handle and wiped sweat off my brow. It was hot work, but I enjoyed the exertion.

Gradually, I noticed the overpowering silence, thick and oppressive like a blanket. As I leaned back, something touched me and I froze. I turned my head slowly and snorted. Only a branch. Hell!

Overhead the clouds were gathering. I looked around and the shad­ows were all about, growing black in the forest depths. Some­where a branch crashed through the canopy and I waited for it to strike. Nothing. It must have caught on the lower limbs.

The log groaned, and with a crackling like frying bacon, a thin line ran quickly down its length. I took another swing and the axe slammed against the burred top of the wedge. The echo rang hollow. With a crack the log split to reveal its dark, almost red core. Sinewy strands bound the two halves. With quick swings of the axe, I cut through, grunting with satisfaction as the halves rolled apart.

I sat on one of the logs, tilted back my head, and drank deeply from the water bottle. The water tasted warm and flat. I looked up and saw the band of darkness had covered the sky, and the air had turned gray. I slowly stood up and stared at the clouds.

There was something strange about that blackness normal storm clouds should not have had. I’ve been caught in storms before, but even during its fury, it had a sense of familiarity, knowing it would pass. This thing was ominous and unaccountably, I felt it courted death for company.

I screwed back the top of the water bottle. Annoyed at being spooked, I spat on the ground and grabbed the axe. Next, I would start to imagine voices! Just storm clouds, that’s all. I grunted and rolled the split log so that it lay flat, then paused to catch my breath. Polishing a chair in an office hadn’t done anything for flabby muscles. Maybe I should have waited for Dad. I could have used some company right then.

Holding the steel wedge, I tapped it tentatively until it caught in a crack. Some­thing stirred the undergrowth and I looked up. A low dark shape bounded in the gloom and vanished without a trace. Only a wallaby, I mused. A branch creaked above me and I stopped. I held the axe tight against my chest and felt my face drain.

When the touch came, I jumped and swiveled, but saw nothing, not even a branch. I could still feel something on my back, crawling. With a frantic swipe of my hand, I brushed my back and felt something rustle. With a suppressed yelp, I stepped back and watched as a gum leaf fluttered to the ground.

I stared at the leaf and my hands shook. I knew I was on the verge of screaming with rage. With an effort, I willed myself to calm down. Afraid of a falling leaf! If I told anyone, I would never live it down.

* * *

The axe fell in slow motion and I didn’t hear it fall. A strong gust made the branches groan and my bush hat was whipped away. Muttering a curse, I bent to pick it up. Suddenly, I found myself bathed in light. Startled, I looked up and knew I had gone nuts. Where a thick forest had stood before, I looked at a gently rolling meadow. Tall grass swayed beneath a black sky, pushed by a stiff wind. Where I stood, everything was silent and still. The forest hissed behind me.

The edge of that dark sky touched what looked like low hills. Beneath the blackness, a stubby black funnel reached toward the ground and I imagined raging winds sucking everything in its path. I heard no roaring, saw no debris flying, nothing. The funnel seemed to pause as if waiting for something, then it slowly moved toward me.

I had no time to rationalize what I was seeing. I clamped my teeth to prevent myself from whimpering. Behind me, what sounded like stifled laughter stirred me into movement. When I turned, I saw only the gloom of shifting shadows. The forest should have been familiar, but there was only darkness within which strange shapes moved. The laughter came again, this time closer.

When I looked at the meadow, the funnel was almost above me and the wind keened thinly – the wailing of trapped souls. Like a window opening, the funnel moved over me and I could see into it. I could not discern any depth or distance and I felt if I reached up, I could touch it. Shapes moved inside it and I stared in helpless fascination as a gray, elongated, planar face formed. The eyes, black pits with no irises, stared back at me. The mouth split into a jagged gash and moved, but I couldn’t hear anything.

I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I had to get away from that funnel. Laughter fol­lowed my footfalls as I broke into a run toward the trees.

* * *

My foot caught on a root and I sprawled, scraping skin off my palms. Rain started to fall, cold and invisible. Something touched my legs. With a muffled scream, I scrambled up and ran down the trail. Shadows shifted around me. The trail wound its way down the side of a cutting and I did not remember taking a turn.

When I reached the stream, it had turned into a raging creek, boiling and hissing, its water oily and black. Beyond it lay a dirt road and I jumped, landing waist high in the foamy water. I struggled toward the bank, my hands clawing at the mud.

In panic, I scrambled up and sagged weakly against the bank. Almost dark now, the road before me became indistinct, but still recognizable. The forest around me groaned in pain, branches whipped in agitation, but there was no wind, only the cold rain falling softly.

“Run, Man,” something whispered close and I whirled, but I was alone. Distorted shapes twisted and melted just outside my reach and I moaned.

Something cracked above me like a gunshot and I could hear the ripping of timber. I jumped and rolled as a heavy branch crashed onto the spot where I had stood. Gasping, I ran down the road.

The road looked unfamiliar, but I knew that I could not go back into the forest, or cross that creek again. Alive, the forest had now filled with something sinister, and it wanted me. I remembered the stories my father used to tell me, of witches and devils and strange happenings. They were good for a laugh, but I wasn’t laughing now.

I always imagined a devil with horns and a pitchfork, a long tail lashing back and forth as it prodded its hapless victim. I almost wished to see one now. At least, I would know what was after me. This invisible presence, though, the shifting scenery and horrible laughter, was harder to take. I kept running, knowing if I stopped, it would win.

* * *

The road seemed to end in a thicker patch of blackness and I paused, exhausted. I turned and a shadowy hand reached for me. Muffled laughter followed my strangled scream as I ran into the black wall.

I burst into daylight and skidded to a stop.

My heart hammered and my chest heaved. I stood frozen in a crouch as hot sunlight washed over me. I slowly looked around. Behind me lay the overgrown tracks of the Daylesford railway. On my right ran the main Trentham road. A low slung Ford Falcon topped the gentle rise and whispered past. I glimpsed a startled face of its driver, then it was gone.

I sank to the ground and sobbed. Shaking, I wiped my face with the back of my sleeve and patted my matted hair. It was streaming wet. I looked at myself and terror welled within me. I patted my muddy, wet shirt, as were my jeans. No wonder that driver looked startled. I managed a weak cackle of relief.

The sky was clear, deep blue and without a cloud. Insects buzzed sooth­ingly and I breathed deeply of the scented air. I didn’t know what had happened, but there would be time to sort it out later, happy to be back in the real world – and sane.

I pulled off my shirt and tied it loosely around my waist. My Dad’s place was about a kilometer away and I started to walk. My first few steps were tentative and unsteady, but being in familiar surroundings reassured me and I picked up my pace.

The terror still lurked inside me, vivid in my mind, but I could face it now. I paused in front of a store and stared at my reflec­tion in the display glass. The face looked thin and drawn and the eyes were wild. A hot shower and it would all vanish into the bad dream I felt it was.

I almost laughed when I reached the spruce-lined fence. The gate stood open, so Dad must have returned. I paused at the gate and looked fondly at the house. A magpie pecked at the grass. It turned and looked at me. With a squawk, it flew away. I grinned and walked to the front door.

As I reached for the handle, the door opened with a heavy groan and a blast of cold air washed over me. The face staring at me was gray and long, with sharp, planer features. The eyes were black pools and I saw my horror reflected in them.

“You have come to me.” The voice was cold and deep, drawn from the depths of my nightmares and I heard myself scream.

This story appeared in an anthology It’s Behind You, released in March 2018, edited by Samie Sands.

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Copyright © Stefan Vučak 2019

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