The Heart of the Forest
Part 1: A Short Cut
Golden sunlight poured through the forest canopy, striking down in such thin shafts that Robin thought that they would cut his skin if he walked through them. It was cool in the shade of the trees, though, and a walk in the forest was far preferable to sitting in the burning sun outside clothes shop after clothes shop, whilst his mum and her friend Jane went shopping. Anything would have been better than that, of course, but the forest had been Esther’s idea. She walked a little ahead of him now, twirling around in the sunbeams and laughing as she span, her chestnut hair falling in waves to her shoulders.
“Isn’t this great?”
Though he was barely ten feet away from her, she shouted at the top of her voice, filling the dense canopy with the words. What sounded like a raven cawed in return, but otherwise the forest was quiet, save for the small noises of insects’ wings as they flitted here and there in the undergrowth. It was cool and it was peaceful, except for Esther shouting and laughing, of course, but as soon as he thought that she stopped and flung herself down on the ground and crossed her bare legs underneath her.
“Are we stopping?” he asked, coming over to her.
Her response was to grab his arm and yank on it so that he had no choice but to sink to his knees at her side.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
He shifted into a sitting position, shrugged off his backpack and took out two bottles of water. Wordlessly, he handed one to Esther and opened the other himself. He was glad that the water had stayed cool in his bag; another benefit of not being stuck in the high street. He enjoyed the sensation of the cool water on the back of his throat, not realising how thirsty he had been until he had started drinking. He could hear the crack of the plastic bottle as Esther also drank greedily.
“I just wanted to sit,” she said, gasping a little as she stopped drinking, “and admire the surroundings compared with sitting on the pavement outside yet another fucking local arts and craft shop.”
He chuckled at that. She was right, of course. The infuriating thing about the endless shopping was that nearly all the shops on the island were exactly the same and sold all the same clothes, ornaments, nick nacks, and keyrings. Even the museum had been more interesting than the endless shopping, and it had a collection of what it called amusingly shaped driftwood. As far as any of them could tell the driftwood was in the shape of driftwood. That in itself was funny, though the joke had worn thin after the fifth display case.
“How did you know about this place?” he asked, propping the bottle against his leg and sighing slightly as the coolness spread over his skin.
“We had to do a project as part of our geography coursework and I knew we were coming here, so I picked this one,” she said, matter-of-factly, stretching her legs out in front of her and leaning back to look upwards at the canopy through her sunglasses, “It was once home to the first of the islanders, who built huts with the wood from the forest and, in time, boats so that they could spread their settlement all around this archipelago. It’s steeped in their rich history and culture, as well as being home to the island gods that watch and protect over all the settlements from their main temple at the centre of the forest.”
“Wow,” he said, “I didn’t know that.”
“That’s because I just made it up,” she said, looking at him over the sunglasses as if he was slow, “I saw it on the map and thought it might be marginally less boring than waiting for our mums to decide which of the hand decorated pots they want to buy. It was this or the museum.”
“There’s the beaches,” Robin said unenthusiastically, playing with the cap on the water bottle.
“Yes, but we need something to do next week. Besides, if I wanted to spend my summer having pervy old men stare at my chest I could’ve just stayed at school.”
He laughed out loud and she gave him a grin, before standing up and brushing off the bits of leaf and twig that had stuck to her, leaving small indentations in her skin where they had been. Robin took the water bottles, checked the lids were secure, and then placed them back in the backpack. As he fought to close the zip, she took a small map from the back pocket of her shorts and started walking idly along as she mused over it.
“Where does this path lead, then?” he asked, finally succeeding in shutting the backpack and catching up to her.
“I think we’re here,” she said, pointing at a spot in the northwest corner of the map, “So this path goes…”
She traced the path with her finger.
“…to this car park, which is obviously exactly where we want to go.”
“At least the view will be nice until we get there,” Robin shrugged, “and it’s still better than arts and crafts.”
As they walked along the path she looked over the map, turning it round and over in her hand. Robin looked at the scenery – the plants growing on the forest floor turned almost to gold by the shafts of bright sunlight, the dark sentinels of the trees standing watch over their domain. It was beautiful, but not all that exciting.
“If we turned off the path here,” Esther said without looking up from the map, “we could join this other path.”
He moved closer to her side and she pointed to another path that ran almost adjacent to the one they were on. It was marked in blue and unlike their current route, which simply circled the forest, this one went into the heart of the forest in a squiggly line.
“It doesn’t look like it ends up in a car park,” he said, brightly, “so that’s a plus.”
She nodded and set off for the tree line, stepping through the long grass and wild flowers that marked the edge of the path. He followed behind her, hoisting the backpack into a more comfortable position, and barely avoiding tripping on a large grey stone. It was cooler off the path, where the trees were closer together, and less sunlight made it through. There was the smell of mustiness, the scent of damp earth and wood settled in the nostrils, and the air in places was like walking through a fine mist.
They continued on, not deviating in direction, for about an hour, but they saw no sign of the central path and there was no break in the trees. They grew where they pleased, their gnarled routes snaking through the undergrowth and nearly sending them both sprawling onto their faces on more than one occasion.
“Essie, where are we?” Robin asked, after his latest stumble, this time over a block of stone, hidden from view by the ivy, moss, and grass that grew over and around it.
“I’m not sure,” she said, taking out the map and looking about to see if she could find a landmark, “we should have hit the other path by now.”
She did not sound worried – Esther was very rarely worried – she sounded confused, if anything. Robin was confused as well; it seemed unthinkable that they could have missed the path, since it ran almost adjacent to the previous one, and yet there had been no sign of it. He was worried as well though, if only a little. If they had missed the path they could be anywhere in the forest now, and it seemed possible that even if they retraced their steps they might mistake the path again and never find a way back to the car park they had come from. They had plenty of daylight left, of course, but if they couldn’t see the path in the light that made little difference.
“Shall we continue on?” she asked, “I’m sure we’ll come to some part of the path eventually.”
“I suppose so. We could always go back?” he ventured.
“Back is boring,” she said and started off in the same direction they had been walking, looking over her shoulder to make sure he was following.
They walked on a little longer, when suddenly in front of them they saw stone archways looming out of the forest. Robin realised that he had taken them to be trees at first – they blended almost imperceptibly with the dense foliage around them until you were feet away. He took his camera from his bag to take a photo, as Esther moved forward towards them, pulling the map from her pocket once more.
“Get one of me here,” she said, leaning against one of the archways, smiling at him.
He lined up the shot and took it; he didn’t usually like posed photos, but her delight at their discovery actually made her smile natural. It was in her eyes as well as her mouth; that was the difference. He changed the setting to admire his handiwork and then had to turn his back so that the sunlight wasn’t shining on the screen. It was a good photo.
“Do you want to see? It’s a good one,” he said.
He turned and held the camera out, moving towards the archways, but Esther was nowhere to be seen.