It had been years since she’d been in the woods in midwinter. She arrived late one afternoon, long after any walkers had gone home. She moved as quietly as she could over the ground, placing her feet carefully so as not to disturb the stillness with the snap of twigs. Her toes were cold, close to numb. Her cropped dark hair melted into the shadows in between the trees, leaving her pale face stark against the backdrop.
The trees were short and not too tightly packed together. Their growth had been manipulated over centuries by the prevailing winds along the coast. Their limbs brushed against her as she diverted from the main path, moving deliberately through the oakwood.
At the burn, she stopped. The sound of the water was muffled, enclosed beneath a thin coating of ice. Bubbled air-locks created patterns across the frozen surface. A flicker at the corner of her eye made her turn her head, and she watched as a black and white wagtail hopped across the stones a few yards upstream.
Concentrate, she told herself firmly, picking a route across the water. She placed one foot onto the first stepping stone, which was covered in jagged pins of ice. Something glittered just out of reach, caught underneath in the middle of the burn. She hesitated on the edge of the bank for a moment, her fingers involuntarily moving, itching to pick at the ice and release its treasure. But this was a moment’s weakness, and it vanished as quickly as it came. She moved on, stepping lightly on the stones to cross the stream.
She rubbed her hand across her mouth, removing the last traces of red from her lips. Now that her hands were cold, she suddenly found herself missing the feel of another’s in her own. This was not the first time she’d admitted to feeling a little more for him than she first expected.
She thought she planned it all perfectly. It was never meant to be anything more than a trap, the perfect seduction.
A pink dusk was falling as she climbed upstream towards the old mining path. Here, the ground was well-trodden – folk must have passed by here only recently, she thought, as she placed her own feet into far larger boot prints. It was strangely satisfying to destroy the perfect imprints of boot soles with her own feet, pressing down the regular battlements of mud with each step. She slowed her pace as she rounded the next bend, holding her breath. Familiar though it all was, she wasn’t quite sure what she might find ahead of her after so many years of neglect.
When she first came here it was the height of summer. A thick, hazy afternoon, buzzing with insects and full of bird chatter and the rustle of small creatures. She remembered the feel of warm, soft grass between her toes as he urged her off the path, ducking under branches and pressing through the patches of ferns that had sprouted up in the forest clearings.
He seemed reluctant in his task, nudging her gently onward rather than pushing. She could turn on the charm, of course, she knew that. But it seemed pointless – it wasn’t like he could do her any real harm, not here.
The vibrant green of the forest was all-consuming; every shade, every shadow took on a deep green tinge, shimmering in a heat haze as though they were underwater. Sunlight broke through in places. She had hoped to stumble across a sunbathing adder – she knew he had a fear of snakes and it might have given her a chance to vanish into the woods she knew would protect her.
Instead, she turned to him and smiled.
Her attempt to disarm him failed, she saw that in an instant. There was simply no need to try and change his mind – he’d done that himself already. As he gazed at her with soft, pathetic eyes, a ripple of pleasure shot through her. The sheer satisfaction of being able to manipulate at will, the simple delight of seeing someone – male or female – reduced to putty in her hands. It gave her a thrill like no other.
She thought for a moment that she might offer herself to him – not in gratitude, of course, but rather to ensure he would never tell the truth when he returned. But something about his thick, hairy upper lip made her squeamish, and sweet though he was, she figured she’d caught enough of him in the net already – no need to subject herself to something unpleasant if there was no need.
In hindsight, she thought she played the innocent schoolgirl rather well. She handed him the wild rose she’d been twisting round her fingers as they walked, and placed a firm but sweet kiss on his neck. Then she turned and ran, a flash of yellow skirts disappearing into green, black hair melding with the shadows.
That was before. Before everything changed, and summer sunlight faded into memory. Now she wasn’t a day older, but she considered herself at least a little wiser.
Looking up, she stopped. The corner of the cottage had come into sight, nestled in the curve of the path. It was utterly derelict, chimney stacks pulled down to rubble under the weight of tangled ivy. The weak evening light played tricks on her, reducing what she could see to two-dimensions, a series of flat outlined images on paper. The trees, in silhouette, appeared cut from black card and stuck down on the surface of the sky, the house taken from the pages of an old book.
She stood, ever alert. Nothing moved.
Her toes ached with the cold. She replayed the events of the afternoon once more in her mind, fire and flame warming her, his skin against hers. As she walked up to the cottage doorway all their voices floated in on her memory, each one easily distinguished without her needing to see their faces. Dead for many years, yet still clinging to her return. They knew she was here. The broken slats on the front door were splintering in the elements. Her hand reached out, careful to push without hurting herself.
Among the fallen leaves, evergreen ivy, and wrought-iron bed frames, she found what she was looking for. Lifting it she was once again surprised at its weight. The glass was hazy, its frame pitted with rust marks, and a large diagonal crack ran across it from top to bottom. It didn’t matter—she couldn’t see herself in it, anyway. She carried it carefully across the room, stepping over gaps in the rotting floorboards to set it gently on its hook on the wall where it belonged.
Before she spoke, she took the lipstick from her cloak pocket and reapplied it. She fished out her comb and tugged it through her hair, smoothing out the curls that were stubbornly returning in the cold air.
He told her what she wanted to hear. Satisfied, she blew him a kiss before heading back out into the dark, revelling in the latest pleasure he had given her. Ready to begin again.