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The Vanished Trail

by Magda Thorn about a month ago in fiction
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A Lost Sunset

The Vanished Trail
Photo by Justin Campbell on Unsplash

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. The rocky coastline of New England was littered with cabins just like this one, so it was hardly noteworthy to any who weren’t familiar with this particular cabin.

It was well over a hundred years ago, when the abandoned cabin had its heyday. The Appalachian trail was being formed and America was still wild. The men who built the cabin weren’t uneducated but they had never dreamed of college and lived off the land in a way that is more of an eccentric quirk than a lifestyle now.

There were animal trappers, farmers, and indigineous people. These men were none of those, having never truly established themselves. They had hoped to found a basecamp for a logging company. Their immediate failure was overtaken by the next owner, who never actually visited the cabin once he realized that he’d have to actually trek out into the woods to be there.

The next owners of the cabin were the first to live in it.

A newly married couple bought the cabin and were the first to actually make a home within the four walls.

Sarah’s husband trekked back to town at least once a season to stock up on supplies that gradually ran out over the winter season. John hated every moment he was away from the homestead and Sarah. For all that she teased him about his beautiful blue eyes which would make angel’s jealous, and that it was inevitable that they’d certainly kidnap him to heaven one day. John thought Sarah was the angel. She just laughed and kissed him goodbye.

Sarah worked around the property; tending her vegetable garden, gathering berries to jar into sweet jams, she even had a rifle that John left behind to hunt small game with. Everynight though, she would sit by the window, with a candle still on it. Waiting for John to come home.

The tall, white wax candles were an outrageous indulgence. Sarah had tried to make her own but wax was hard to come by and John adamantly refused to have a beehive near the cabin. John could take down and field dress an elk, but bees were the stuff of nightmares for him.

The sound of birdsong soothed her as she waited for John to return. She had taken up knitting and sewing for practical purposes, but her favorite way to while the evenings away was to read Plutarch’s Lives, one of the two books they owned, while she waited.

The forest was indisputably beautiful. Strong, green trees and mountains that curved over the horizon like a lover. The little brooks and streams emptied into the powerful but familiar Atlantic ocean with all its austere, cold beauty.

The land teemed with life and seemed less intimidating than the unexplored land to the west. There was no shine of gold to dazzle the eyes and no dangers of broad rivers and untouched deserts. Let alone the tallest trees in the world. No, the trees in the Appalachian trail were normal sized. Not dizzying giants.

The soft whooper wills called through the night and the woods were mostly full of deer and rabbits. It’s what often misleads people into believing they were surrounded by peaceful paths. It’s what leads them to ignore the danger.

It’s easy to get lost in the woods. And while there are ways to survive and get out, it’s just as easy to die. If you don’t find water, then it doesn’t matter if you know which star it is to the North. The direction moss grows doesn’t help at all. You are stuck in a fairy land of poetry and facing your own mortality. It’s hard to look for unicorns in glades and pixies hidden in flowers when you are thinking of death.

John had never gotten lost but he had heard the stories. Known of men that had disappeared, and knew they were most likely hidden within the mountains forever. So, Sarah worried and John watched his step.

It wasn’t enough.

Safety is a feeling, not a state of being. Still, you always feel safer in your home and the trails were John’s home.

Even the most familiar place feels more threatening when it’s dark. Everyday objects take on shadows that your brain doesn’t automatically register. They shapeshift into new and frightening images, and a squirrel in the underbrush can keep you up all night looking for the bear that surely stalks you.

John always camped at night, making sure that he had scouted a campsite before the sun had fully set. That night he was half an hour from the cabin. He knew he would see the candle in the window in a few minutes. He couldn’t be expected to wait to see Sarah, since this trip had taken weeks and he missed her like an arm.

The sun still paints the mountains purple, and red, and gold in New England. Maine is the first state in the continental US that gets to see the sunrise. Sunset is just as vivid a beauty. All John saw in the sky was the red of Sarah’s hair, the blue of her eyes, the way the stars scattered across the sky looked like her freckles.

John kept trucking home and didn’t really consider the danger of the dying light. The rucksack over his shoulder was weighed down with supplies and the horse trailing behind him was equally laden down. The narrow trail under his feet was one that he had marked himself and he was almost home. Weary and elated, but almost home.

The first sign that something was wrong slowly dawned on John. He was too tired to realize it right away, but it was getting darker. The light around him was the blue that only happens at twilight, when clouds pause in front of the sun. He quickly looked up but there was no distant pinprick of firelight. No candle like the ones he had carefully wrapped in cloth and was carrying on his back.

The terror rose in the back of his throat as he picked up the pace. Something was wrong and he didn’t want to think about it. His thoughts flicked through his mind anyway. He had lost himself and was miles from the cabin. Sarah had starved to death with a lack of food. It had taken her months to agree to dress one of the rabbits he had caught. Someone had taken her. Maybe she had left. Had the cabin burned down? Perhaps everything was just fine and she had gone to bed early, or just ran out of candles. The horse picked up pace behind him.

Ten minutes became twenty and John was panicking. He had managed to push all the other thoughts of what had gone wrong out of his head. Now he was just convinced that he had lost himself in hundreds of miles of treacherous woods that could betray him even further at any moment. He could swear that he knew exactly where he was. It had been too long though, it had to have been too long.

He burst into the clearing and was so surprised when he saw the familiar wood cabin that he almost collapsed. He left the horse standing behind him as he rushed forward. The door opened easily in his hand and the cabin looked exactly the same as when he had left. It smelled the same as when he had left too.

“Sarah!” John yelled repeatedly as he careened through the house.

The kitchen table was bare and everything was neatly put away. The bed was made fresh with Sarah’s quilt that she had received from her grandmother as a wedding gift. Plutarch’s Lives was placed gently on a bedside table he had carved. The fireplace in their living area had fresh wood stacked and ready to burn.

The rucksack that he hadn’t realized he was still carrying slid from his shoulder and hit the ground. Sarah was gone but everything looked too perfect for her to have been taken. He numbly moved to check the dresser that he had been the first piece of furniture that he had made. It was full of her clothes and he stared at them. She hadn’t left him. She was just gone.

He slept in their bed that night, with the scent of home and the echoes of their lives embracing him. He could almost feel Sarah’s thin arms around him.

The next day, he picked up the rucksack from the floor and searched for her. She had never gone far from the clearing of their cabin since she had arrived. Never felt the need to. So John knew he had to try and find what had happened to her. He found the horse contentedly nibbling on a patch of clover and unpacked him. He wouldn’t need hair ribbons or flour for the journey he was about to make.

He didn’t even bother to try and clean his long coat that was covered in mud, or his work boots that were the same. He had to find his love. She was probably dead and he knew it but couldn’t process it. Her beautiful neck snapped at the bottom of a ravine, or half eaten by a five hundred pound bear that would never have gotten her if he had been there. Perhaps a wild man, a furrier who had lost all vestiges of civility had stumbled upon her. Perhaps she had been taken after all.

John kept looking for her long after he should have returned to the cabin for winter. Winter’s in New England are harsh and he ignored it as though it was an afterthought. Cold didn’t even register with him as he trudged through snow. The horse died next Spring and John kept looking. Knapsack over one shoulder and a long beard that snarled down his chest. He didn’t care.

The cabin fell into disrepair but John never sold it. He returned only to pick a new direction in which to trek, and to fill up waterskins from the well. Soon everyone forgot that the cabin even existed and it passed from living memory. Its last vestige of existence was destroyed in a fire where a forgotten document in a stack of useless documents burned to ash.

John kept looking.

The stories of a man traveling up and down the Appalachian trail soon spread. The romance of a man looking for his lost love. It was little more than a rumor and died quickly. Myths take longer to be born and have to survive the perpetual boredom of everyday living.

John kept looking.

Tales of another sort soon took its place. A tall man, bent under the weight of the world, was sighted. Brown boots and coat still outlined in mud. A gray, unkempt beard and watery gray eyes peering out from under a hat was spotted. A vagabond who would murder them all in their beds.

The tales changed until he was a civil war soldier seeking revenge on his long lost brother. He was from Boston and became a hermit when his fiance was killed. He was a revolutionary war hero who had been killed by the British.

John kept looking.

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. No one alive knew that the cabin existed. John hadn’t returned to it in fifty years. The soft light from the white tallowe spilled across the windowsill. The gentle hum of a soft melody filled the air.

John kept looking. He didn’t know he had been dead for over a hundred and fifty years. He wouldn’t care if he did know. All he wanted was Sarah. A woman that he has never found but will always remember. The love and hope which had filled his life had washed away and all John could do was look for it. So look for it, he did. Be careful walking the woods for you will find more than you ever thought could lurk in there. And what is left of a man who had everything, who can only restlessly look for it as he walks through the woods.

John keeps looking.


About the author

Magda Thorn

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