The boy stepped through lit trees and cast shadows and his boots made a familiar thud with each step. The treads of his boots were heavy and supported his ankles with stiff leather uppers. The annual fall of leaves and the ensuing decomposing thatch created layers and pockets of air, making the impact of his steps resonate like a slow drum beat. All around, the patchwork of flaky white bark of the birch trees stood like tall skinny pillars of light dotting their way across the brown earth. The Birchwood Forest glimmered in the morning sun as low clouds crept in over the treetops. Light sneaked through from the east and the shallow slanted rays of morning light complimented the chill in the air as it hit the muted forest floor.
His name was Hunter, and he stood silent among the tree lined path listening for clues. He felt like his boots were too heavy and overdone and that his steps were loud and might give away his position. He stood quietly and listened for any indication that the beast was beyond the Birchwood Forest. He tightened the straps on his backpack and moved on. The drum beat of his boots picked up their pace. The length of the shadows suggested it was still early but Hunter was feeling defeated and hungry. Time moved fast, and Hunter did as well, scanning the forest in all directions.
Further ahead was a clearing in the trees and Hunter could see a familiar spot of color tacked to one of the trunks of a thin birch. His boots felt lighter now as he began the descent toward the opening in the trees. Once close enough, Hunter could read the sign.
FIELD OF STONES
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK
Hunter recalled the day he first crossed the barrier into the Field of Stones. It was out of necessity during a similar journey as the one he was on today. He had been chasing the large canine since he first laid eyes on it. Only then it was small, lost and scared. Hunter’s recent encounters suggested it was now large and confident, and also, like Hunter, familiar with the forest.
As Hunter stepped into the light, already finding good footing on the top of the dry stones, he turned looking back, and saw the Birchwood Forest he had just left. It was a wall of birch trees with its white flags of bark waving in the wind providing an uneasy, if not misleading invitation into the Field of Stones. Now, his footing would rely almost entirely on the same boots he was cursing not long before.
Hunter moved out of the striped light of the Birchwood Forest and into the opening that was littered with ragged rocks and sharp edges. The downward slope continued as Hunter moved further into the new terrain.
The name was a bit of a misnomer. For Hunter, if he had not known better, the Field of Stones may have been an innocent and tranquil landscape, maybe a destination to meditate among the stones. The words didn’t seem to capture the tricky and delicate nature of navigating through an ever changing hillside of broken shards, massive edgy boulders, and small knife-sized rocks. A small tattered sign announcing the dangers also felt shortsighted, as if it was an afterthought.
Hunter was feeling cautious. He stepped with methodical leaps in a pattern that matched the sound and warmth of his breath. He was athletic and had good balance. He had also been through the Field of Stones on numerous occasions. He exhaled and took another big breath before setting off toward the next smooth stone. Hunter continued forward with a pattern, light on his feet, floating over the sharp ones and slightly tapping the flatter stones on his way by. He appeared to dance across with a rhythm in his feet that resembled the slight touches on the keys of a piano. The snow hadn’t fallen yet so the smooth rocks were dry, alleviating some of the danger.
As he reached the bottom portion of the slope, the stones turned into gravel, and he soon passed through a clearing to the edge of another section of trees.
Clouds now dominated the sky, flattening his view of the terrain. The white birch and broken stones subsided and gave way to the dark bark of wide trees and gray shadows. Thick woody vines hung down, swirling among the trunks. They appeared to levitate, acting as if they grew out of thin air versus being anchored to the earth. Many of the vines were gnarled and appeared like muscles of a strong arm. They gripped around larger tree trunks, only to let loose and hang lightly in the air below. Some obscure vines swooped down and back up creating loops where Hunter would balance himself and swing back and forth.
The Valley of Vines, aptly named by Hunter, was more of a large cluster than it was a valley, but it was dark and thick with trees and littered with strong vines and low bushes. He thought others may not see the beauty in it, but it needed a name.
Without hesitation, and no time for playing, Hunter moved forward, now slower and quiet over thorns and a forest undergrowth. He was listening and watching for a sign, anything that would put him back on track.
Hunter was a strong tracker in the woods. He knelt down looking low across the forest floor and could see a trail of paw tracks in the soil. It wasn’t strong evidence, but the fresh tracks on the sandy path made the unmistakable pattern he was looking for; a large heart shape surrounded by four smaller ovals. Several of the tracks were pressed into the ground at an angle exposing sharp points flanking the smaller oval shapes. Claws! The sight of the claw marks made Hunter think the animal was heavier and most likely full grown.
A few steps ahead, snagged in a wild raspberry bush, Hunter saw gray tufts of fur blowing in the wind. There wasn’t much, but it was a match that he had not expected to see. The paw tracks and matching animal fur was fresh and the best evidence he had seen in a while. Hunter knew what he was looking for and he was close.
Then he whistled. It seemed to cut through the stillness of the forest. The pitch of his whistle moved up and down bouncing off the wind. Hunter had perfected the whistle. It was distinct and always ended in a swirling high tone. It was guaranteed to attract the attention he needed.
Within seconds Hunter heard the faint crackling sound of small twigs and crumpling leaves. He froze. Silent, but breathing heavier now, he strained to isolate the sound and direction it came from. He continued forward toward a large broken tree that appeared to have snapped during a high-wind storm. The trunk stood about shoulder height and was about the same width. The remainder of the tree laid out heavy in multiple chunks, crossing Hunter’s view. It was well on its way to disappearing into the forest floor, but the large base was still intact.
Hunter knelt down quietly to listen. He rested his back on the bark of the downed tree. With his weight on his haunches he kept his pants off the soil and leaves. He leaned into the giant stump to relax for a few more minutes. Reaching into his inside pocket, Hunter pulled out a wrapped lollipop and inspected the label for the flavor. The corners of his mouth turned upward as he softly said, “green apple.”
Hunter put the lollipop in his mouth, crumpled up the wrapper and stuffed it in his back pocket. He was pulled away from his green-apple bliss when he heard a familiar sniff and scratch. In quiet slow motion, he got to his feet and scanned around in a full circle, squinting into the dull grayness of the trees and the dark clusters of bushes. He couldn’t see it, but he was certain that a large animal was walking slowly on the far side of several large boulders.
Hunter first saw its' black nose from behind an immense pitted boulder that sat heavy on the forest floor. The black and silver boulder stood nearly as tall as Hunter, and large enough to conceal the animal.
Hunter whispered under his breath, “I see you.”
When the large dog appeared his head was low to the ground. His teeth were exposed from a slight upturn of his mouth, blurring the line between smiling and snarling.
Hunter's heart raced as he thought to run. He was too far away to reach the Field of Stones in time, where his footing had a better chance of out matching the dog. There was a jagged set of limbs to his right. The branches appeared sturdy but the thorns brought back memories of sharp bramble from several months before. Hunter rubbed his stomach without thought. He could still feel the sensitive skin around a healed wound from a slip out of a magnolia tree. To the left was a smaller tree but with substantial boughs to hold his weight. They were high enough and easily accessible.
Hunter and the dog stood like statues. The dog peered through wide gold eyes, never blinking. Hunter looked at the dog through blue eyes, suspicious, scanning for escape routes for both he and the dog.
The race started in unison. Hunter bolted left. The dog jumped forward and bounded toward Hunter. The fur around his chest and upper back was large and bulky. The dog’s coat was full with hints of black, brown, and red mixed with his overall gray tone. In a blur of winter colors, the dog sprinted, easily reaching the boy. Growling and barking as he sped by, the animal kept some distance between him and the boy. The overshot by the dog gave Hunter time to lift himself onto a low branch and out of the way. The dog waited and stood at attention. He appeared obedient with a smile more prevalent.
After a short standoff, Hunter started slowly lowering one foot onto a limb below. He continued methodically, at one point lowering both feet at once, hanging from a limb above. From several feet above the ground Hunter dropped, landing his boots solid on the ground. They made a sharp smacking sound on the wet soil underneath.
Within moments of climbing out of the tree, Hunter whistled again and he watched as the dog dropped its head and shoulders down low to the ground and began growling. It was a slow gurgling growl and the smile was gone. His snarl exposed the sharpest of his teeth. The dog laid low with his legs wide for stability.
Bracing for the worst, Hunter widened his stance shifting his weight toward the balls of his feet. He took an aggressive position, almost jumping and slamming his feet to the ground as he situated himself. He instinctively lowered his body more. Hunter was ready. He had prepared for this day.
With attitude, almost out of spite, the dog swiveled and sprinted out of sight beyond the large boulder used earlier for cover. Hunter watched as the dog disappeared into the woods. He could hear the soft gallop of the large dog move further away, and return back to close proximity.
While taking several deep breaths, Hunter listened for more clues. The dog seemed to be circling around but it was still out of sight. Hunter reached down and tied his shoe and checked the buttons on his jacket pocket. He didn’t want to lose the handful of lollipops he grabbed before leaving the house. Then he took off toward the loudest sound.
Hunter found a worn path and followed it for about 50 yards then ducked off the path where he could see a creek running below an embankment. Twigs clicked and broke in what seemed like a pattern around him. He was able to appreciate his heavy treaded boots for a split second as he splashed across a patch of wet stones without losing his stride. He followed the creek upstream, slowing to notice steam coming from his breath. It seemed like hours had passed since first entering the Birchwood Forest. The temperature had dropped.
Hunter puffed out a few more heavy breaths. He kept his lips pursed to emphasize the steamy air mixing with the cold. He stepped from one side of the water to the other, noticing how the shallow banks were starting to freeze. A slight trickle of water passed under the natural ice forms from the patter of water spattering over the stones. The rounded ovals were smooth and clear and iridescent, allowing Hunter to see the colors of the rocks, fallen leaves, and rotting pine straw below.
Hunter had no more time for exploring. He needed to find what he was looking for and get out. The dog would not have gone far. He never did. Down stream, he could see a low figure rooting around a large clump of thorny bushes. He walked slowly and was able to sneak around several large boulders to within about twenty feet of the bushes. He lowered his body down on all fours to see the dog.
Hunter watched the unsuspecting dog sniff and push leaves under the raspberry bushes. He whistled softly and startled the dog, making it jump and spin around to face him. The dog’s smile was back and he stood tall waiting for more.
Hunter gave another quick whistle and a familiar command, “We gotta go!”
The dog quickly fell in line as Hunter stepped out of the bushes and found a path that led toward the Valley of Vines.
Taking advantage of their remaining time in the park, Hunter and the dog raced around bare trees and fallen leaves through the dark forest, leaving the creek behind. As they passed through the Valley of Vines the sun was now higher in the sky, exposing the complicated patterns of the swirling trees and children's swings. They easily hopped and bounded in and over the boulders, upward through the Field of Stones. Finally, Hunter could hear the familiar drum beat of his boots as they made their way through the Birchwood Forest toward the trailhead.
“I'm looking forward to snow. How ‘bout you?” Hunter asked the dog.
The dog pranced and nudged Hunter under the hand and easily stretched upward to meet Hunter's face. The gray skies turned to snow as Hunter and the dog walked through the gate and onto the sidewalk. They will be back tomorrow.