Every morning the wound is torn afresh. She was gone and I still could not help but carry on our old tradition of walking through the woods every day. I tried not to torture myself. Tried not to go for a walk that would be filled with misery and flashbacks. By night-time, loneliness always got the better of me. Around midnight every night was when I set out, against my better judgment. I guess it was the only way for me accept that I now had to walk alone through life. Without her wisdom, her comfort, her deep knowing blue eyes, every day that passed felt like millennia. I could hardly believe it had been barely a year since it had happened. Funny when things in your life are turned upside down you can usually trace it back to one bad decision. I donned my leather coat, seized my walking staff and strolled into the void.
With every step I took through the dark forest I was forced to see ghosts of memories long since past. The wound tore itself wider with each one. The forest I had come to know so well was now smeared by a dark undertone I couldn’t clean off. I deserved the pang of emotion that twanged in me every time I undertook my patrol, just like I deserved to lose everything. I took another swig from my hip flask. The smells of the forest filled my nostrils and it came to life as I left the clearing that surrounded my cabin. I could hear crickets vying to be heard and what I took to be deer chasing through the woods. I was blind to the beauty of the place now because it was missing the most beautiful part. I pressed on, fighting through the now constant flashbacks and sticking to the well beaten path we had created over the years. In the distance I could see the twinkling lights of Mr and Mrs jubilant. A cavernous jealousy clattered through me with familiar recognition that they resided within together and happy as the day they first met. “Why should it be me to lose everything?” I asked of no-one. Why was it always me I thought darkly. My brain tried to process it and I was forced to take a mouthful from my hip flask to quiet it down, the whiskey heating up my whole throat on its way down and awakening the feeling that I blew fire into the cold winter air. Then I bumped into her, my sweet Ceilidh, just as I remembered her. She knocked me to the ground as she flew past me, running from her pursuers before vanishing without a trace. I gazed on longingly for what felt like an age, to which my legs attested. When I attempted to get back up I failed miserably, instead collapsing in a heap just in time for the paraesthesia to rush up my legs in quick pulses. I shook my head at my incompetence and pulled myself to my feet using the staff more than I care to admit. I had aged a decade in a year. Tears stung my eyes and I hated myself even more. I pushed them away, steeled myself and took a long drink of my hip flask before trudging on.
A short time later I realised the path I knew blindfolded was gone and I instead plodded through a quagmire in which I fought to keep my footing. I spun around in a circle to retrace my steps but all signs of a path were gone and soft boggy ground, fallen branches and pine needles instead littered the forest floor. I had little choice but to continue. The soft ground and pine needles combined with the unique pine smell that the tall spruce sentinels gave off. I took a long drink of my whiskey, the only warmth and comfort that remained in my life. A distant howling brought me back to myself as he added his voice to the forest choir in an attempt to find his pack after the hunt. Would that it were that easy I thought bitterly.
There were very few cabins out here. The only people that stay in the woods so far from civilisation are the hiking fanatics, outdoors couples and people that are trying to escape from something. I never got on that well with other people so this emptiness fitted me seamlessly, it was Ceilidh that took some convincing. For months I tried to persuade her to leave the city for a more peaceful domain in the forest. Who would have guessed that the thing that finally made her opt to move was not the beauty of the place or the wonderful isolation but an old friend being stabbed two blocks from where we were staying. She was distraught at the time. Everything she walked passed sprung back some long-forgotten memory they had created there, be it the ornate Byron fountain around which our city had been built, the labyrinth of markets for which we were famous or simple little things such as a park bench or old pub. I felt so helpless at that time. Having to watch your soulmate fall into in a pit of despair, helpless to do anything but watch and offer simple niceties tore me apart in more ways than one. We escaped the city to start on a blank canvas. One with less violence, drunken shouting and drug addicts and much more serenity. It did us both wonders. The walks started from the moment we moved in as a way to see our new neighbourhood and help “us” lose weight. Still not convinced a size 12 has any need to lose any more, more likely the guy with the interchangeable jacket/tent combo but I went along with it and never regretted it. Those walks are how so many of our fondest memories began.
I had been walking for about an hour by this point and could see that the night sky had passed its darkest stage and had begun to lighten a shade or two while dawn was still a long way off. When I stood still there was not a sound in the world save the forest’s own backing track. I hated it. I took a nip from my flask and looked up at the night sky as I began down a slow decline at a steady pace and followed the path of least resistance. That trail took me around the crest of a big hill and lead me to a clearing dominated by a lake. A stony beach kissed the lake in front of me. I picked up a stone and threw it as far into the lake as I could. The stone broke the water in delicate circles with a soft gulp. I picked another larger stone and tried again. It fell just short of my first attempt. I looked for a much larger stone picked it up and in a sudden burst of anger tossed it into the lake clumsily. The pitiful throw consequently soaked my trench coat and ran down my neck chilling me through but I cared little for such physical problems. I resolved to take a long drink of my whiskey, to feed my anger more than to combat the chill and I took out my belt knife and drew it across my wrist to accompany my other marks and bleed the pain that had nested in me. It seldom helped but I did it anyway. The knife helped me to punish myself for what I had done and the whiskey acted as a short escape, one that I tried to maintain. I made another crude incision before submerging my arm in the water and squeezing below the new cuts to encourage the guilt to get out. I splashed the chill water in my face and continued around the lake before exiting the clearing. I was greeted at the mouth of the forest with an ear-piercing scream. I ran toward the scream and saw Ceilidh held firmly around the throat by a hulk of a man standing behind her. The brutes added their laughs to the orchestra. A man I didn’t recognise ran into the situation and cracked one of the pursuers over the head with a staff and then spun around to meet the other man’s fist which collided into his head. He fell to the ground lifeless. The horrific incident then vanished as abruptly as it had appeared. I took another hit of my whiskey to ease the pain and the wound pulled itself apart. My feet led me away from that scene and back up the hill to cross over an old stone bridge that spanned across a ravine. It must have taken centuries for the slow stream to carve such a deep wound into the hillside. I followed this new path for some time.
I was still saturated by the dirty lake water that had stuck my long black hair to my skull. I brazenly tried to tie it back out of my face to clear my vision somewhat and remembered fondly that she had loved my hair. That, in part, was what drove her to approach me in the bar that night. I was never a popular person, always preferring to stick to the outskirts of any social situation and so it was that she came over to my corner of the bar and I fell for her. Head over heels. It's like she had pulled out a long sharp knife and cut a piece of me out and placed a piece of her in its stead, right
over my heart. If you are only as old as you feel, well, then I had felt as giddy as a little child that night. Yet all good things come to an end and just when everything seems perfect in your life adversity strikes to teach you your next lesson. Complacency. Putting the key to happiness in one basket, yet I regret none of it. That’s why my guilt rips at me endlessly, avoiding the escape holes I
cut for it. My feet took me along the path which now began to narrow. It became little more than a game trail as I pushed on. The trees here were primarily Douglas fir. Tall and yet the canopy was less dense allowing the thin tendrils of dawn to appear to me. The path was littered with pine cones. A deer emerged from the treeline on the side of the path and darted right in front of me, desperately trying to escape something. That didn’t entice me to wait for it so I increased my speed to a fast walk and tried not to look back.
I came to a fork in the road. I was unfamiliar with this part of the forest, a fancy way of saying hopelessly lost. I followed my gut telling me to go right. Off I went uncaring about how I would get home because my house had become the very torment that we had both moved here to escape. Irony at its finest. The path on the right was a wider, more well used path. As I continued on I had a terrible feeling of déjà vu. I remembered being here, the wide path with the fir trees banking both sides and the clawing fingers of dawn scratching at the sky. Then I was shaken to the core by another shrill scream and a man shouting, then the scream was muffled but the man continued shouting. I walked off the path and down a recently made tributary that connected to the wider path. A memory tried to push its way up to recollection but I fought back with a long draught of whiskey that saw me empty my flask. I followed the trail that opened into a small clearing hidden from the road by well-placed bushes and bracken. The two men from earlier had tied Ceilidh and the stranger to trees across from each other. They both now leered over her like wolves with a fresh kill. Her mouth had been bound tightly with a rope but she determinedly made as a loud a noise in a vain attempt to catch attention from the road. The man watched helplessly, struggling and shouting until his throat sputtered up blood instead. Ceilidh’s eyes were raw and puffy as she struggled desperately. One of the men walked over to the bound man, grabbed his face by the chin roughly and told him to enjoy the show, to which he responded by spitting bloody phlegm into his face. A hard blow to the head left the bound man in a dizzied state, trying to still the spinning world. Through his dazed vision he watched in horror as the larger of the two men pulled a knife out and cut Ceilidh’s clothes off, stripping her naked and then drawing the knife across her wrist and up her arm like a crimson paint brush. Ceilidh’s muffled screams and her look for aid that swept past me before resting straight at me is something I will never forget. Even in such a hopeless situation she hoped that I could save her and I could have. A better man could have. Stronger and smarter than I. I just watched through my stunned vision as they drew their knives in small nicks all over her body until she dripped red. One man picked up a large woodcutter’s axe that had been resting against a tree and shouted
“Desmond step back or I’ll cut you instead”.
Desmond shifted aside reluctantly and said
“I get the next one then”.
He threw the heavy axe about as effortlessly as he had the knife. He raised the axe high and swung it in a huge side sweep that cut Ceilidh’s head clean off. I died that night at that very same moment. Everything worth living for fell as lifeless as Ceilidh’s head. Desmond reached down picked up her head looked into the emptiness that now dwelt there and kissed her lips. I struggled relentlessly but was powerless. They laughed together and Desmond threw her head at my feet and left me there. I stood watching the horror unfold all over again and was glued to the spot. I don’t know how long I stood there staring blankly but at the same time the bound man was forced to look at his naked, headless wife dripping with blood and feel her head resting against his ankles. The memory slowly dissipated.
I was dragging myself on by this point. I had been without my other half for just shy of a year and every night since, I had gone on this walk. I chose to face those memories to punish myself. It never got any easier. I followed the path I knew well by this point as I had spent a year trying to find it. In the distance I could see the smoke rise from their chimney in the distance and squinting let me see the outside lights of the cabin. I pressed on until I entered the clearing. I saw the cabin right in front of me that the police gave up searching for. It had taken me a year to find them and the fact that they stayed in my forest pained me even more. I walked towards the cabin and saw the heavy axe that I remembered all to clearly, now lodged in a large log. I pulled it free and let my anger feed me as I looked in the nearest window. On the walls hung an array of hunting trophies of all shapes and sizes as well as several photos. Hung on the wall were family photos. These brothers lived here together with their wives and several children. That sickened me more than I can say. I began towards the door brandishing the axe when in front of me appeared Ceilidh like she had been before our walk that night. The walk that should never happened.
She said “Don’t do this Connor this won’t change anything!”.
“They took everything from me! They left me alone in this world. So, I am going to do the same to them”.
I saw flashes of them cutting her and decapitating her and fuelled my anger with them.
“There’s no coming back from this”.
“You're dead! You are gone forever! And it’s my fault”.
Tears stung my eyes and I walked through the apparition and she vanished. I lodged the axe into the timber step that lead up to the front door then broke down beside it. I had planned this vengeance for nigh on a year. Now it hardly seemed worth the effort. I heard a soft whining from the treeline and saw a young wolf appear and slowly wander towards me with head hung low and curious. I wondered if this were the wolf I heard a while back and then pushed the thought away as useless. When it was about two metres from me I realised it was going to come straight up to me. I reached a hand out as a peace offering and the wolf sniffed it anxiously. There was a sadness in those crystal blue eyes that made me wonder what had happened to its family. The wolf nudged my hand with its nose and I carefully patted its chin and stroked behind its ear. We both needed the comfort that it brought us and she sat down beside me. She can’t have been more than 4 months old. She sat looking up a me, flaunting that sad puppy look and covered in her soft, fuzzy puppy coat. We sat there on that step as dawn came to full fruition and I felt the raw wounds begin to heal. The scars will always remain, ugly and brutal.
I let myself love again. I named her Ceilidh.