A thick bank of cloud rolled slowly across the purple evening sky. It extended well past the horizon, moving forward like a giant grey continent gliding over the earth. The savage ice storm of the past winter had left traces of itself everywhere. The tallest trees had suffered most. Branches that had snapped beneath the weight of the ice still dangled dead and leafless. Dark silhouettes of broken treetops stood out sharply against the sky and made the forest seem like the ravaged wasteland of a corrupt forgotten place.
Martin pushed his way through the thick underbrush into a wide clearing. He stopped for a moment, surveying the countryside and taking his bearings. Most of it looked unfamiliar now. As a boy he had felt at home in the woods. He had loved the outdoors almost intensely. Now he wondered what it was he ever saw in it. There was only a strange aversion now. It was something he had moved on from, like an old relationship; something he didn’t want to go back to. Being outside anywhere made him anxious. He didn’t like the disorder, the randomness, the chaos. He preferred a roof over his head and walls around him; a separation from the world as much as possible where he didn’t have to be reminded he was part of it.
The thorn bushes scraped across his pant-legs as he brushed past them. He moved through the giant hogweed and wild parsnip and spotted water hemlock, – all the poisonous varieties he had once learned to identify stood out more prominently from the other plants. Up ahead he noticed a dense mob of bullrushes that had sprouted from the shallow water of a tiny pond. He walked around its muddy banks, vaguely aware of how its waters had greatly receded since he had last seen them. He went on through the abandoned apple orchard. Some of the trees still managed to survive in spite of the smothering weeds that circled their stout trunks and twined their branches. The inevitable fate of the living was illustrated in the hollow black husks of their neighbours. Scores of wasted fruit covered in bruises and apple scab cluttered the ground and gave off a sweet, putrid smell.
He picked his way carefully down an incline strewn with dead twigs and green moss-covered stones. Dry, brittle stems cracked beneath his feet as he stepped over them. In the distance he could see the enormous twin Maple trees that stood side by side in the centre of a clearing. Their long twisting branches floating and swaying and reaching for each other and appearing always on the verge of some dramatic embrace. He stood observing them from a distance; remembering the last time his eyes beheld them, the fleeting glance he had given them then, yet how they stayed in his imagination. A definable landmark in the ever-changing scenery. He walked between them, finding a kind of solemn majesty in their size and beauty. The sound of the furious wind howling through the branches gave them voices. It felt like they were trying to warn him away.
He strode into the wide field where the remnants of an ancient stone barricade made a border along one side. A long, thick furrow of stones scooped out of the field a century earlier to make the ground more suitable for planting. When the land was abandoned the forest honoured no such jurisdiction and swallowed most of it, shedding leaves and branches over top and leaving only a small portion still protruding out into the open.
A rustling sound across the field caught his attention. Martin slowed to a stop and watched as the branches of the cedar trees parted and a tall figure dressed in a long black overcoat pushed his way free, brushing the fragments of leaves and twigs from his clothing. Martin felt a vibrating fear rise up. He watched as the man’s movements halted abruptly and he stared out across the field in a way that told Martin he’d been made. They stood frozen for several seconds, both of them poised on the brink of an encounter that was something complicated and profound, feeling the weight of it; consciously giving the moment its due. Almost simultaneously both began to move forward, closing the gap that separated them, impatient to proceed. Martin heard himself being addressed across the open space, over the rustling grass, a deep voice, familiar, imposing, – spoke his name like a question. “Martin?” The man walked with a confident stride and his long black coat looked expensive and immaculate.
“Martin! It really is you,” he said as he drew closer. “You startled me.”
“Me too. Christ! It’s been a long time.” He slapped him on the shoulder and smiled.