This story is by Pieter Jorissen and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The leaves crumbled under the feet of the two walkers as they stepped slowly through the woods.
A path wound before them higher and higher, through fallen trees, mud puddles and small streams, until it reached the hilltop.
It was a small hill, for young children in summer nothing more than a fun diversion to kill time, but they were old. They could no longer ignore time, let alone kill it.
During their uphill walk, the woman looked not only at the path before them, but also at the man beside her. The man kept staring through the trees and the hovering tendrils of mist with a smile. Sometimes he began humming remnants of songs, songs she had already forgotten, but that he still remembered. Or sometimes he would talk to her, little anecdotes of the pranks they pulled in the past.
The woman did not answer. The path required her attention. With every shaky step on the steep ground, with her leaning on the trees, and her snail-like slowness, it cut her to realize how old she was. Sometimes she would pass a weirdly bent tree or a big rock, or another landmark, and a memory would suddenly flash in her mind. How she climbed in the tree or painted on the rock as a child.
But she could not stand there for long, the man was already walking out of sight, disappearing in the mist. She had to move on. Not only had she to keep one eye on the path, she had to keep another on the man. It was so strange the way he walked. Even though he was also slowed by age, he walked with little skipping steps, as if he was playing a form of hopscotch, hopping on his dancing feet to the home base.
Sometimes he would cry out. And then jump a little. Then walk further. And every time her heart would skip a beat.
What if he fell? It would be so easy. A smooth stone that rolled away under his sole, a branch that snapped in his hands, and then he would slip, and fall. And then not a smooth stone, but a sharp one would wound him or even break his skull. And then what?
She turned her head away. Through the mist swirling around the hillside, she saw, a few miles below her, her home glinting in the dwindling light of the setting sun. She stared at it. Then the mist thickened and veiled it from her eyes. She walked again.
It would have been more sensible to take someone along, in case something happened. But then it would have been different, not something shared between her and him. And his children would probably not have allowed him to walk again. Maybe they were right.
A cry jolted her. Before her laid a thick tree. It was so broad you could only walk around it, by stepping right through the blackberry bushes at the wayside. You could, if you clung well to the branches and put your feet down on the right spots, step over it. But only if you were careful.
She heard whimpering behind the tree. She ran, as fast as she could in her condition, to the tree and strained her neck to see him lying on the ground, tears streaming down his face.
She grabbed a branch. But the wood was too wet and slippery, being soaked by the mist, and she began walking through the blackberry bushes. The thorns clung to her sweater, tore off a few shreds of wool and scratched her legs and arms. But she didn’t pay them mind, and came to him.
He was sobbing, his breathing came out in fits and starts.
She bent over him, put her right hand under his head, while she stroked his wet cheeks with her left hand. He moved and began to get upright, but his feet slipped in the mud, and he fell again, his hands grasping in the mist. He cried again, bewildered and frustrated.
She racked her brain to find something to say, and then a memory welled up in her. They had invented a song, made up of funny fantasy words, that one of them would begin to sing the first line, and then the other would answer with the second line, and so they would be singing until the last line.
“Erasion, thickettee,” she said, and stopped. How did it go further?
But he smiled again and said: “Tampas Fugitee,” and then added: “But that is not the first line. It is the third!”
“I am sorry,” she said.
He grasped her hand, and together, slowly, they came up and stood again straight on their feet.
“We are almost there,” she said, “it is behind the bend.”
“I know!” and then he was walking again, humming the rest of the song.
She stared at him, just a few minutes ago he was crying so hard, she thought one bone was broken; now he was laughing and singing. Did he just forget what happened?
And again she followed him through the mist.
At last, under a clouded sky, they arrived at the hilltop. She saw it was darkening, the clouds covered the vanishing sun, except for a few spots of light orange at the horizon.
Then she saw the swing. At first it was just an unfamiliar shape in the mist, but after she came closer, it became more clear and recognizable.
The swing was still there under the branches on the left side of the oak. She tugged at the chains. They were rusty and made a terrible creaking, but they were still there.
“Look,” she said to the man who was wandering around, “Do you remember? We used to push each other.”
His eyes lit up. And with a big smile, he came over and sat down on the swing.
“Of course, you remember that,” she said. “You always do.”
She looked how he began to swing. She still held the chains softly, to assure he would not swing too hard.
Then she looked at the almost naked tree above them. The branches were shaking, the remaining leaves fluttering. Then she looked back at him.
“I should not have brought you here,” she began, “They were right. Too dangerous. But I knew you still had memories of how we played here in our summer vacations. And the doctors told me, that you would no longer be able to walk. That you would just lie there, in that bed. I knew there was not much time. Do you understand?”
She looked to the back and forth swinging man.
She fell silent for a while, in which only the sound of the creaking chains were heard.
Then she spoke again.
“I don’t know why I wanted this so much. I don’t know why I lied to the sisters. They are searching now, I suppose. And they will find us soon.”
“I guess I wanted to see you happy again. Alive. And maybe, maybe that this would bring you back for a while. That I would get you back.”
She smiled a little to him.
“But you are gone. All that you remember is the far, far away past. And you do that better than me. “
She turned her eyes up to the dark-grey sky, through the trembling branches. Then she saw how from a branch a leaf fell, and whirled down.
Above the hilltop, the sun shines. Little puffy clouds drift by.
And under the bright-blue sky, he is swinging. And he laughs. Under his feet, the world whirls in flashes of green and mud-brown.
Then he sees the leaf. Slowly falling, it is a crumpled and wilted thing of faded gold and rusted brown.
His eyes get drawn to it.
And the world begins to change color, to darken. The green trees become naked scratches against the grey sky.
He cries out for her, the girl next door. His playmate.
And there she is, smiling. Her green-white dress waving in the wind.
But her face seems strange, contorted and wrinkled.
Then she lets go of the chains and hugs him. And all is right again.
He begins to sing, still hugging her, in full sunlight, under the green oak where each leaf is still in the right place, never falling and always shining in summer-time.
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