A man wanders through the forest beneath the gloom of the evening twilight. The trees tower above like giants, their arms reaching out into the fading sky, welcoming him in. Fallen leaves are scattered about, each step of his a constant crackle of pine needles that sends the ground echoing in pain. Everything remains completely still, as if frozen in time. The decaying bushes grasp at the tree trunks like frightened children, while shattered pine cones litter the ground like broken glass. A treacherous road lies ahead. The silence is his only companion. The chill of winter offers him a solemn comfort.
Wisps of air lead the way as he pushes forward into the unknown. The shadows are gathering, the trees now closing in. He holds an arm up to shield himself from a thicket of branches attempting to steal him away. He tells himself that he has to keep moving. He has to find her. He searches everywhere for a trace of some kind. A footprint. An item of clothing. Anything. He believes that she’s still here, still waiting to be found. For him, it’s only a matter of time.
Long ago, the man had a wife. They built their lives together in a house not far from here. They clashed every day, wearing each other down until dusk only to begin again at dawn. He imagines the trees stirring in their wake. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She threatened to leave and never come back. He, in turn, opened the door for her, a cruel gesture that gutted her completely. Before she disappeared into the night, she gave him one last look. In that moment, she loved him more than ever. All the man had to do was say her name. It would’ve been a deliverance, a reassurance that he loved her too. But he said nothing. He let her leave.
And he never saw her again. In the days that followed, the police scoured through the woods while the helicopters flew overhead, both of them coming up empty each time. It was as if she was swallowed whole by the forest itself. The search stopped soon after. The man, however, relented. He had given up on her then. He wasn’t going to give up on her now. He was determined to go farther than anyone else. But as the years have passed, his progress has slowed down to a crawl, making the trek every few weeks to every few days out of the month. Now, he only shows up once a year, on the anniversary of that fateful day.
He thinks back to the arguments he and his wife had and he can’t help but laugh. He would trade anything just to suffer through a thousand more fights with her. Because after all the shouting and the name-calling, they still had each other. All he’s got left now are the memories. But even memories cannot sustain a lifetime. Memories cannot fill the emptiness next to you, nor can they take you by the hand and promise a better tomorrow. Memories are painful reminders of what was lost.
Night has converged on the forest, the cold cascading in waves. The man grasps at the trees to help pull him through the despair. But the barren forest reminds him that there is no way out. He’s forced to wander this path forever. The desperation breaches his lungs. He tries to call for her, but his voice seizes in his throat. The horror pins him in place. He doesn’t remember her name. He can’t even recall what she looks like. He looks down at his hands, at the wrinkles forming on his skin. He notices the pain in his joints and the strange limp in his gait. How old is he? How long has it been? Time has slipped away, same as she did.
He collapses onto his knees. So many years gone. A lifetime taken from him. And he can’t get it back. He can’t get her back. “I’m sorry,” he whispers into the shadows. “I’m so sorry,” he says, sobbing. No one is around to hear it, but the words need to be said regardless.
A light snow begins to fall, landing on his face like soft kisses. The wind begins to howl, lapping up all around like arms caressing him. Up above, the stars peer through the branches as if to watch over him, to keep him safe. He doesn’t know how, but suddenly he feels closer to her. He realizes that she’s here, in these woods. She is in the trees, in the ground, in the silence that pervades this place. He’s found her at long last.
He takes one last look at the wedding ring still on his finger. He wrenches himself free. The ring leaves a brutal mark, oddly resembling a shackle. Upon kissing it, he plants the ring deep into the ground. He covers it up with the dirt and debris, allowing the ring to take root. It took him all this time. He’s finally caught up to her, and he’s not going to keep her waiting any longer. Wiping away the tears, he takes the forest by the hand and gives himself over to the darkness.