It was after a summer storm that he most enjoyed his walks in the forest. He would head out from his flat overlooking the main market square and follow the street north where, within minutes, he reached the last of the houses with their neat gardens and the point where the road became a track, engulfed by the trees on the lower slopes of the mountain. After the storm a light mist would hang between the trees and the air was thick with moisture, the scent of pine and moss, and the sound of the thunder still rolling around the next valley. He would follow the trail as the beads of water continued to drip from the branches, until he reached the treeline, where moss and ferns gave way to scree and chalky rock, and the path began to snake up the side of the steepening slope, until it hit the ridge above.
For most of the walkers who came to stay in the town, sleeping in one of the hotels, holiday apartments or at the youth hostel down by the river, the forest was something to be got through before the real fun began, but he rarely ventured above the treeline. He was not interested in the summits or the ridges, but the discoveries of the forest floor. The traces of the animals who lived there but rarely showed themselves. The spent cartridges of the hunters who tracked them. The hardy flowers and other plants that somehow survived in the permanent shade beneath the thick canopy.
When he had been a teacher, he had often brought his class into the forest. The children were wary at first, their heads full of fairy tales and other gruesome stories about what lurked in the shadows. Lower to the ground than he was, they would often spot things he had missed, and he enjoyed observing them as they crouched down to watch ants crossing the trail or a solitary beetle as it made steady progress with little concern for the heavy boots that might at any moment come crashing down from above.
He used to walk there with his wife. And with his friends, who came to the town to stay and to walk the forests and the mountains around. When he was younger, he offered tours to groups staying at the youth hostel. When he walked, he used to say, he liked to have company, and although in later years he was known throughout the town for his solitary wanderings, this was more necessity than choice. He had never understood those who saw walking as a solitary activity. For him it was social. When he and his wife had something to discuss, or a decision to be made, or simply in order to get some time together, they went for a walk. No distractions, she would say, and they would head out together, holding hands until the end.
Not long after she died, they announced the school was closing. It was not a surprise. The number of families living in the town had decreased as more and more properties switched to holiday lets. He was offered a position in the next town, but he decided not to take it. There were only a few years until he was due to retire, and the district made him a good offer. Sometimes he did supply work; a few days in one school, a week in another. But it wasn’t the same.
After his wife died, he also realised how little he now saw their friends. She had always been the one to keep in touch, and many of them were busy now, busier than they had ever been in their working life, filling up their days with grandchildren and extravagant holidays. The weekend visits that once seemed to fill up all the the summer months faded to nothing. And so he walked alone, following the street from the main square to the forest five or six times a week, and never more joyfully than after the summer rain.
One day he went into the forest and never came back. It took a while for the alarm to be raised. It was a neighbour who first noticed he was missing. After a while, the police also got involved, asking around. It was true, people thought, they hadn’t seem him for at least a week, maybe longer. They thought back, trying to remember the last time they had glimpsed the familiar figure, his red socks poking out from the top of his boots, as he strode across the market square towards the hillside.
Slowly, a day was agreed upon. Forestry workers confirmed they had seen someone similar, high at the treeline, right where the cable car crossed the main forest trail. He had been carrying a stick and greeted them with a smile and a few cheerful words. Now that they thought about it, they remembered him walking away, up towards the mountain path, as the sky darkened and the first distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. When the rain came, they had sheltered in their cab. They remembered joking about the poor walker they had so recently seen. About how he would be soaked to the skin. If he was to return in the next few minutes, they said to each other, they would offer him a ride back down into town.
He never returned.
With this information, the police triggered a mountain rescue search, although everyone was sure that with so much time having elapsed, what they would be looking for was more likely to be a body. Some of the people in the town couldn’t help thinking that they were looking in the wrong place. Why would he have gone up high? He had always preferred to walk in the forest, enclosed by the trees. Especially if he had looked up at the darkening sky and realised another storm was on the way. He would soon be able to walk through those trees after another downpour of summer rain. It was how it liked the forest the best. No, if they were going to find him anywhere, it would be there, resting beneath the branches, among the ants and the beetles, the moss and the ferns.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig
Fine piece, Paul