By the time the path twists into the forest, the sunlight has gone, leaving no more than the pale light of the waning quarter moon. She is more comfortable with that, with the trees stretching overhead and the darkness buffeted around her. When there is light and space, an open stretch of ground, she can see what length of road is ahead, what lies behind. How far she has come from the village at her back and how far she has still yet to go. There is a vulnerability in that. Better to be cosseted by darkness, cocooned by night. Cosy on the road winding through the trees with only her own steps, tap, tap, tap, tap, in breach of the weighted still.
It’s a darker night than usual; it always is under the waning moon, so she draws out her small lamp and lights the wick. A dim circle of yellow pushing the darkness away, her held in its middle. It serves to do little more than force the shadows in the thickening wood into greater relief, but she knows every rise and fall of this road home from memory. She does not need the lamp. But she lights it anyway, with match and a scent of kerosene, because she supposes she should, because those in the village have tried to tell her more than once. It is dangerous to travel alone in the dark. It is dangerous in the forest at night. There are…wolves, they say. Yes, wolves. Then, they hesitate and say no more.
She is not worried about wolves. They are animals that will only attack if desperate and hungry, and the mild winter left the summer too bountiful. The wolves are content. She does not believe the villagers when they tell her the old midwife was chased into the ditch to her death by such creatures. The villagers don’t look like they believe that either, though they tell her such, a story they cling to with something bordering on desperation.
In midsummer, it takes a long time for the skies to properly darken. Tomorrow is the longest of all days, and the strong sun reaches out until late, making the night warm. She prefers it cooler; the heat wears her out, but the wind picks up as she walks, which she likes, and the trees rustle and close in around her.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Her footsteps, even and regular in the night.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She frowns, a hesitation. The echo of her own footsteps travels back to her, bouncing off the trees, off the thick black all around. She glances over her shoulder but finds nothing. Even with her small lamp, she can see only a few feet behind; a full moon would grant her light, but this last quarter moon only brings more dark.
She shrugs it off. Turns and walks on, shaking out any concern like she shakes out her hair, which the wind picks up and blows back.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound stops, too.
It is only her own steps, a double-echo she tells herself with firm intent. Even if she has never before caught a hint of her own echo as she walks, nor ever before has she heard an echo sounding quite so like a half-hidden step of another somewhere in the dark behind.
The trees rustle. She is conscious of them. Of the whipping of the wind, the shifting of the woods. Her own breath filling her lungs and pushing out again, her heart thudding in her chest. She is alone. She likes to be alone. This walk home through the woods gives her solitude after a day spent on the stall, a respite after all those hours speaking with customers, facing the villagers’ curiosity and interest. These others who exhaust her so. She does not want to let their fear infect her and spoil what little time she has to herself. Their confused warnings of the dead midwife or talk of wolves or cautious concern they will not otherwise name.
Her steps resume. Facing forward, moving on.
She does not stop this time. Nothing nor nobody will spoil her reprieve, not noises in the forest, not the echoes of her own steps. She points the lantern forward, keeping the darkness at bay for a few feet at least, what little distance the light manages to penetrate, and continues on.
And if perhaps her steps quicken just a little, and if the warm breeze begins to seem like hot breath down the back of her neck, and if the rustling of the trees obscures other noises, dangerous approaching noises, then she will not acknowledge it.
She walks on. Determined not to hear. Not even as that double-echo of her own footsteps seems to be getting closer.
Kathryn Hore is a writer of speculative and dark fiction from Melbourne, Australia. She has short fiction published in several anthologies and magazines, including Australian staples Aurealis, The Crime Factory and Midnight Echo. When not writing, she works in information governance, libraries, records and archives, and has a spider photography habit she’s finding hard to break. You can find her around the usual social media haunts, just look for @kahmelb and shoot her a friend/add/follow, or you can find out more about her and her writing at www.letmedigress.com