The mist laid low as I sat by the crumbling well. The evening sun had fled behind the mass of clouds, a shapeless grey sheltering the ocean of tall trees. To my right was the old man. His small, restless frame bound by the shadows moving across the forest floor, he lifted his endless gaze and muttered to me:
"Here, sir, here was where she ran."
I swept the highest branches with my sight, unsure of what I should be looking for. They might have been green once, but today all in view is grey.
"And do you know what happened next?"
"She was alone, sir, no friend to watch over her. She was all I have in this world, so good and young, and then she was just gone."
I looked into his eyes. Deep in brown once, a mist had begun to claim their surface. Now what was left in them had turned to the forest floor. Grey and growing blacker by the hour, fallen leaves seemed to blanket the land for a long, lonely sleep. Under the spots of sky the mist had fallen, bringing with it the night’s early rise. He shivered, not quite for the cold.
I’d heard of countless little girls like his; we all certainly have. In the morning paper, in the evening chats, in long winding dreams, countless disappearances, countless victims. Nothing to laugh at or dismiss with ease, at least the better half of the time. But hearing it like this? From someone who knew and had all the reasons to mind? Why, all the better, not the least at the very place. Hunched against the oncoming mist, curiosity opened my mouth.
Now the old man was still. His gaze had shifted to the midst of the fading woods ahead. Just now, I noticed the marks by the well’s gaping mouth. Carvings. Some were old, some were new. All of which I had never seen before.
"Do you know, sir," he slowly started to speak, "the forest is a lonely place." He looked around into the approaching mist, as if unsure of what to say.
Taken aback by the sight of sorrow, I laid an arm over his shoulders. At the same time, I thought I saw a dark mass behind the thickening grey. Eager for the old man’s tale, however, I simply thought of how to bait the words out of his mouth.
"I'm sorry, good man, I really am," I said to show some sympathy. "But should there be anything I might do to lift your grief-"
"Grief?" the man interrupted with a sudden zeal. He’d grabbed my closer arm, wrenching the blood from my stiff fingertips. I ran my eyes over his discoloured face, his perfectly still frame, and his one free arm, where another mark ran red over the lower back.
"No, sir, none at all," he said with a grin. "Who said anything of grief?" As his eyes stared to our front, a look of pure happiness took over that old crumbling face. "Why would anyone be grieving, good sir?" he muttered under his racing breath. "Rather than do it all again?"
Beneath the pale mist, a dark shape was closing in.