By the bonfire that night, the old man stroked his beard and told me a story. I dug my toes into ember ash, one eye piercing through thin foliage, trained on the headlights of my dead car, and listened.
"There used to be a village not five minutes from here, inhabited by simple people. They found all they needed in the woods, as once all people did. But the woods are so easy to get lost in."
With sooty nails, he flicked away a flame that licked too close.
I was standing over him. My back was to a nettle bush, behind which, only a few steps away, my car awaited help.
"But the people of the village always found their way. They were no different to the woods from saplings. Like the green's siblings. Like forest soil, shaped like man and breathed into animation with an old breeze. When tar roads sliced through the undergrowth, the canopy lent them its shelter. The village, however, it kept. The children of the village knew to stop their games at the edge of the woods. Should they fall, the tar wouldn't be as forgiving as the soil."
There was a sound from the direction of the nettle bush. I jumped, startled. I turned, hopeful.
A critter scurrying, maybe praying for cover. Or a predator praying for prey.
The sounds settled. Without breaking the eerie serenity of the silence, the man continued.
"Then someone left."
My eyes and ears were back on him and my back, once more, to the nettle bush. I eased my knees to the ground.
"A family of five that kept chickens. They supplied eggs to the entire village. Gone. The desertion spread with the speed of a forest fire. Two years later, there was no village. Only the woods."
He fell silent. I could hear no owl or critter. Even the wood and wind seemed to have quietened. It pricked at me, this calm. Some deep-seated, ancient instinct had me inspecting the foliage, as if suspecting something with rancid breath and raking teeth to leap out.
"Don't worry. You're safe here."
Like any smart girl that knows not to trust those words coming from a stranger, and further, to not let distrust show, I nodded. For the first time that night, he smiled. His teeth were stained a painful brown and the quirk of his bark-brown lips etched dendrites all over his face. It should have been off-putting, but instead, it made him look kind. Dandelion hair and colourful, autumn eyes reflecting amber fire.
"The woods miss them. The people. So, I hope you will forgive them the mischief of keeping you for a night."
I should have asked for an explanation. But instead, I slept, kneeling on the soil.
When I woke, there was no bonfire. Only a bed of moss beneath my lying form, too warm to have stolen the heat from the newly risen sun. There was no old man in sight either. And just as I suspected, when I turned my car keys, the engine started.