I could feel the eyes on me, countless and faceless among the trees. But still I watched the fire. The edge of the forest approached close, brushed lightly by the glow of the flames. On the moonless night, the flicker was not enough to give the eyes faces. Their ceaseless stare laid upon my back, my head, my arms like hands longing to grasp me.
Obediently, they waited in the darkness of the timber. Even so, they were my only company. I sat alone in my small clearing in the thick wilderness, as I had every night since the last time I saw another human being. The steel of the hatchet was cool on my thumb as I stroked the blade mindlessly.
I went inside my canvas tent, the sides painted orange by the dying fire outside. The late September night had brought a chill to the air and I got beneath my down blanket and readied for sleep. Lying alone in the forest, I watched the white fabric of the tent. The glow slowly dimmed and soon the light was gone. And the watchful eyes were freed from the shadows. I could feel them outside the tent. I closed my eyes and thought only about the sunrise.
The sun set as I finished the rabbit I had caught and cooked that day. I added more wood to the fire and watched as the stars slowly began to appear, one by one, in the darkening night. As with the stars, so did the eyes.
I felt the first pair fall upon me as the blanket of darkness covered the trees. These were swiftly followed by a second, and a third. Soon, between every tree, I felt a piercing stare. I shot mine back. They were intelligent, staying in the darkness, unseen. Two weeks ago, when the moon was full, they were not so close. They were up the tree line 40 or 50 meters. But tonight they were at the forest’s edge, watching me, only using the last trees to take shelter from the firelight.
They had been watching me every night for two weeks. They could see me. I could only feel them. And I could do nothing about it. Two weeks and all we had done was watch each other. Furiously, from the firelight, I screamed at them.
“What do you want from me?”
The only answer from the shadows was my own echoing rage. The sound softened until it was no more. The night was again silent. No sounds came from the forest, as when a predator stalks.
“Who are you?” I screamed again. I knew there would be no answer, but my newfound energy from the rabbit had manifested into fury. I was standing now, holding the hatchet low in my right hand, staring past the fire into the blackness. The eyes in the trees only stared back.
I had had enough. I walked to the stump next to the tent and threw my hatchet down hard into it. I went to my pack and put it on. I took my bucket of freshwater and poured it on the fire. There was a flash of steam and the blazing flames were replaced by simmering embers. And I stared into the trees.
I could hear my heartbeat in the silence. I stayed standing and watching, but they did not move. The coals slowly died as I stared, unblinking, into the trees. I had never been in such darkness. My breath was quick and shallow, trying to keep pace with my heart. And they stared.
“Why are you here?” I yelled. I took a step forward toward the the tree line and listened. Nothing. I took another. And then another. There was no response. I kept walking towards the trees. And they kept watching every step, dutifully, relentlessly.
I was at the edge of the tree line now, and I was trying to control my breath. I stared at the darkness between two trees in front of me. We were face to face. I could feel it. It was formless and confident. I stood tall and straight, trying to prove my confidence. It backed away into the trees and I followed.
Somehow, in the trees, the darkness was even greater. I could not see my hand in front of my face. I could not see the stars in the sky. Passing through the trees, I followed the eyes that I could feel heavy on my chest. Then I felt another gaze on my shoulder. Then one on my back. They had surrounded me. I was outnumbered and on their ground. The crept in close, increasing their pressure. My heart beat from my chest as I tried to stand tall, alone in the black forest. Closer they came. I could feel their breath on my face now.
“What are you!” I grabbed the magnesium flare from my pack and lit it. The crimson light illuminated the forest with a hiss.
“Christ,” I said aloud with a sigh and spun around holding the flare high. It showed an empty forest. The dancing red light only shone upon the trees, the dirt, and myself. The piercing stares were gone. I turned around with the flare a few more times to make sure I believed what I knew. I turned around until the flare went out and I walked back through the trees, unbothered, to my camp.
I sat in my chair in the darkness and watched the stars. I had never seen so many in my life. I left the hatchet deep in the log.
more by KRAMER LINDELL
Photograph by Sven Schlager