Christina liked long walks; long walks on the weekend, when the weather was just right. ‘Just right’ for Christina meant clear skies, sunlight like ice and a breeze strong enough to pull at her hair when it passed by. She had gone out once on a day when the clouds were swollen like rotten fruit, to see what it felt like to walk in the rain. She had expected liberation, empowerment, a certain oneness with nature, but instead she felt damp, sullen and cold. Crisp, cloudless days were more her taste. Unfortunately they were not typical fare all year round and Christina often had to make do with what was offered.
Today, however, was one of her days. It came unexpectedly. She threw back the curtains that Sunday morning and the sky was an unmarked, virgin blue. She had no other plans, nothing that could not wait for another day, so she dressed, made herself a packed lunch, and set off in the car. There was a little country house, and just on from it an Iron Age hill fort where she had often walked, sometimes heading on down to the coast if she felt particularly energetic. It was just a short distance away, and soon enough she pulled into the tiny, gravel car park. There was only one other car, which was not altogether unusual. Christina got out of the car and put on her boots, which were stained with archaic, partially fossilized dirt. She chewed her hair while she tied the laces.
There was a gentle chorus of sheep as she set off towards the hill fort. The woolly creatures looked up at her calmly, but bleated in alarm as she passed by. The hill fort consisted now of two raised rings, the top of which had paths. From such a vantage point much could be seen. Christina might stand there for ten minutes or so looking about her, in either awe or quiet consideration, before turning and heading down once more. In the centre of the fort there was now a wood, where children built dens, or did once, at any rate. As Christina came closer she looked up and saw someone standing atop the first ring. She could not see clearly, but she imagined he stood in the aspect of the watcher, a hand raised to his forehead to shield his eyes from the sharpened sunbeams. Christina mirrored his pose, trying to get a better look at this like-minded individual. This, she presumed, was the owner of the other car. The person on the ring seemed to shift, turning his upper body in a circular sort of motion towards the car park, and towards Christina. She wondered whether to wave, and then decided against it. Perhaps she would pass him by a little later, which would be the more appropriate time for waving.
She walked with her head down, for the ground was laced with rabbit holes and mole hills, waiting to catch hold of an ankle and exert some small measure of retaliation on any walker who did not watch where they were going. The winding path up towards the rings took her out of sight of the watcher, and it was at that moment that a young woman in a dark blue anorak came carefully down the path that led from the woods. It was a steep path, and hard on the ankles, but the young woman handled it with grace, or rather all the grace humanly possible when prancing from foot to foot like a pixie. When Christina was closer, and about to ascend to the path for the ring-top circuit, the young woman turned to her and smiled. It was a rather broad smile which made pretty dimples in her cheeks. She waved, perhaps. Her arms were already upraised in order to keep balance, but Christina assumed she had and responded in kind. The woman went on hopping until she came to surer ground, when she began to skip instead, heedless of all peril. Christina watched her from the top of the ring, frowning a little at such unexplained joviality.
The feeling was as she had hoped, atop the green wall of the ancient fort. The wind tousled her hair, which had been untied for the occasion. The sunlight was leached of all warmth, and she soon felt her cheeks pressed into redness by motion of the wind. It bore into her ears, leaving her with a pain there which she did not dislike. The feel of the grass and soft mud beneath her boots was familiar and good. She knew the path intimately, and recognised each part of it. She knew where, when rainfall had been heavy, it was liable to flood with water turned golden by the clay in the soil. She knew where thorns would catch her legs. She knew where stones lurked, just beneath the surface of the path, which had tricked her when she’d first walked this path as a little girl. She skirted the wood, looking outwards at the hills and fields and the villages, which lay scattered like shards. She had almost completed her circuit, and when she looked down towards the car park she saw indeed that the other car had gone. It brushed her mind briefly that the woman she had seen descending from the wood could not be the same person she had seen standing on top of the ring. However, before she pursued this thought with any seriousness she saw another figure on the path which ran through the field. This figure was dressed darkly, and was heading away from her towards the car park. It seemed to her that it was the man that she had first seen. She gave them no more thought, and bent her steps downwards towards the woods.
The ground was thoroughly carpeted with brazen leaves, in varying stages of decomposition. The wood was tightly packed, to such a degree that it must have been difficult for any new tree to scrape a living in so saturated an area. Some of the trees were quite rotten, and there was a small oak which was entirely hollow and split so as to provide a hideout for children untroubled by insects. The smell was pleasant and hung thick as theatre curtains from the trees in that little bowl of woodland. Christina inhaled it deeply, as if she were breathing in some restorative draught which would return her to a time a youthful simplicity. The ground, made up of its layers of dying, dead and rotten, was soft and easy beneath her feet. She walked with a spring in her step. It was cold and thousands of little hairs tugged at her skin as they were forced upright. Christina smiled and swept up a few leaves with the toe of her mud-crusted boot. Glancing through a tight thicket of malnourished birch trees, which bent forward like bony fingers, she saw something odd. It was a pale shape, suspended in the air, and somewhat oval.
At first Christina thought it was a growth of some sort, a wasp’s nest maybe. But then she drew closer, and she saw the strange folds and protuberances. She stood on the path, and looked upwards into the little thicket. The thing within looked back at her. It was a face, with a waxen, greyish complexion and eyes that moments before had been invisible, but were now open and looking right at her. It looked like a mask, for Christina could not see the curve of the head, or any ears or neck. But those eyes were not painted. They glistened with moisture and were looking so directly at her that, by the time the mouth drew back, there was no denying that it was real. The lips slid back in a smile so gaping it seemed to press against the very edges of the face. Like grey slugs the lips stretched, and the inside of the mouth seemed dark as the void, even from the distance at which Christina was standing.
All noises seemed to have stopped, apart from a whispering which seemed to be coming from somewhere close, perhaps even inside her head. Christina turned her back on the thing in the trees and ran back down the path. Her foot slid in mud and she thought she heard cracking twigs coming from the slope beneath the thicket. She did not turn around, too focused on what lay ahead of her. Small trees and winding weeds seemed to intrude upon the path. She leapt over logs she did not remember meeting on her way up, and before long the path was entirely lost in the undergrowth and each upward glance seemed to show some pale, other face looking at her.
Christina sat in her car. Outside it was a gloomy blue and objects seemed to be in perpetual motion. The shape of the hill fort itself, barely visible, seemed to sway and undulate as if glimpsed through water. The trees in its centre flickered like shadowy flames. Christina did not see it. The window she leant against was opaque with her breath. A faint tang of urine was detectable in the air around her, as was sweat and the less recognisable smell of fear. All this, however, was only secondary to the overwhelming scent of the woods. There were twigs in her hair, and mud caked up to her knees. A spider hung from one of her earlobes, and there were beetles under her shirt. Her face was pale and waxy, her eyes starting from their sockets and looking at something in the rear-view mirror.