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Cristina Van Dyck

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Fear
By Cristina Van Dyck
Monday, June 13, 2005

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Marte and her son meet an unwelcome visitor in the forest near their quiet German subdivision.

A more well-rounded attempt at brevity...

Fear

Marte kissed her son and gave him a hug. “Goodbye, Schatz. See you soon.”

“Tschüss, Mama!” Four-year-old Tabb hugged her back and ran off to play with his classmates.

Marte left the warmth of the nursery school and stepped out into the cold January air, inhaling its crisp, icy cleanness. She turned onto the wide walkway that led through the forest to the tiny Stuttgart subdivision where she lived with her husband and son, and the snow crunched under her feet. She loved its insular quality, how it muted noises, and made things visible that usually went unnoticed, outlining them in soft blankets, giving them vague, but recognizable, definition. She especially enjoyed being the first to walk the forest paths after a night of snowfall, when hers and Tabb’s feet were the first to mar the blank whiteness.

Animals often left their marks before Marte and Tabb did, however. Deer were plentiful here. She’d once seen several does accompanied by a stag with a large crown of antlers. Traveling from one side of the forest to the other, where they knew food had been set out for them, they’d crossed the path in front of her. Marte had watched, breathless, and marveled over the delicate imprints they’d left behind.

More often than not, she encountered dog and human tracks, paired side-by-side. They came in all sizes. Small people with big dogs, large people with tiny dogs. Once, she even saw that two horses had been ridden down the snow-packed walkway. These were the things that Marte looked for in the snow. She loved reading the stories it told.

Today, Marte found no other footprints but hers and Tabb’s, and she followed them up the steep hill they had come down less than twenty minutes earlier. As she neared the top, however, she noticed a new set of large dog tracks that emerged from the edge of the forest and continued in the direction she was headed. Something was different about them, and Marte pondered it as she climbed the hill. They were very large and she stooped to press her fist into one. It overlapped her hand by nearly a centimeter on either side. “Meine Güte,” she said, and whistled softly.

Near the top of the hill, there was a crossing. The dog prints followed the right fork then disappeared into the trees. As she studied them, it occurred to her what was different, other than their size. Only four sets of footprints marked the passage. Two were Tabb’s and her own leading toward the nursery school, the third hers leading back home. The fourth was the dog’s. The very large dog’s, Marte amended. There were no human prints alongside the dog’s.

Marte peered down the path the animal had taken, then continued walking. She crested the hill, gasping, and paused. As her breathing slowed, she became aware of a tanginess in the air. She sniffed. The odor was thick and musky and distinctly animal. She swallowed hard, tasting the rank air in the back of her throat, and, remembering something her husband had read to her from the newspaper just the week before, her pulse quickened. Wolves had been long extinct in Germany, but were beginning to repopulate parts of Austria and Switzerland. So far none had dispersed into their region. Marte sniffed again, wondering. Pushing her anxiety to a fluttery place behind her heart, she hurried past the desolate, snow-covered playground, and on toward home.

When she mentioned the tracks to her husband that evening, Uwe waved it off. “There are no wolves out there,” he said from behind his newspaper. “It’s probably just a big dog.”

“But what about the smell?”

“Only deer scent,” Uwe replied. “There haven’t been wolves here for hundreds of years.” He smiled and squeezed her hand.

“Okay,” Marte said, and smiled back. Trusting Uwe’s judgment, she put it out of her mind and turned to the matter of feeding her family.

***

During the following weeks, to ease her conscience, Marte asked neighbors and other mothers if they had seen large dog prints in the forest. No one had. She scoured the paper for wolf sightings or large animal encounters, but found none. She stopped just short of calling animal control, when her husband laughed at her and told her she was being silly. “There are no wolves here,” he said with a smile, and patted her head as if she were a child. So, Marte put it out of her mind for good. She continued to walk her son to nursery school through the forest, using the only routes available to her by foot. Winter melted into spring, and she never found another suspicious paw print.

***

In early May, the weather was still cool and fair. Marte walked through her subdivision and entered the forest to retrieve Tabb from nursery school. She wound her way along the main paths until she came to a shortcut. She turned right and followed a narrow deer trail through the trees, pushing aside low-hanging branches, waving away gnats and flies. Eventually, the trail would empty out onto the wide walkway that led past the playground and toward her son’s nursery school. She loved going this way because, following it, she walked among the trees and felt part of their cool, dark surroundings. The trees had just opened their leaves, and the new pale green of them tickled her senses. Their shadows played papery patterns on the forest floor, and the warming earth released its moist, loamy scent. She breathed deeply and continued uphill, wishing she could embrace the earth.

At the nursery school, Marte was greeted by a chirping of hallos from the other children, and Tabb ran up to her, embracing her around her legs. “Mama!”

“Hallo, Süßer,” she said. “Are you ready to go home?”

He presented her with a large sheet of white paper. “Für Dich!”

“For me? Really?”

Tabb nodded, his smile causing Marte’s heart to flip-flop. The paper was covered in every shade of water color, still damp, the hues mixed and running into each other. “Oh, Schatz, how beautiful. I love it. Thank you so much!” She bent and kissed him on the nose. “You’re a wonderful artist.”

Tabb smiled and ran toward the door. “Let’s go!”

Marte followed, and they walked out together, turning toward the paths that led back home. Tabb ran ahead of her, anticipating the big playground on the other side of the hill, but Marte was anxious to get home, so she guided her son along the shortcuts she had taken before, promising to stop at the playground the next day.

As they walked, a peculiar smell tugged at her memory. The smell grew stronger, richer, muskier. She heard movement behind her, soft, stealthy. Something was coming toward them through the trees from behind and was moving quickly. A frisson of cold fear slithered through the center of her body. Tabb heard the sound too, and, trotting beside his mother, craned his neck back to see what made the noise. He tugged at her hand to stop, but Marte, forcing herself to remain calm, gripped Tabb’s small hand and walked steadily onward. When they came to a clearing, she turned around to meet their stalker. Her breathing was shallow, and blood pounded in her ears.

The wolf broke through the trees into the clearing. It stopped on long legs and huge paws to stare at Marte and Tabb, its lean, grey sides heaving softly.

Tabb laughed. “A doggy!”

She uttered a low moan, and looked into its yellow, unblinking eyes, their emptiness more frightening to her than anything else. The wolf cocked its head and gazed at her and Tabb with interest. Marte’s heart hammered wildly, sweat broke out on her hands and feet, trickled down her back. The wolf sniffed the air and its gaze shifted. It circled around her, and she turned with it, keeping Tabb behind her. She could smell its thick animal scent, and knew it could smell her fear.

The wolf stopped circling. It snarled, its haunches tensed. A wild scream caught in Marte’s throat, but no sound came forth. There was a rustle of deadfall and a rush of movement beyond the clearing. Marte turned toward the sound and saw the white hindquarters of a doe as it leapt from the clearing edge, where it had stood watching the uneasy tableau. It bounded deeper into the forest and the wolf sprang. Marte shrieked and bent to protect Tabb. The wolf ran out of the clearing after its prey, casting a last glance at the woman and her child as it passed.

Marte sank to the ground and wept, pulling Tabb down with her. He peered into her face, wiping at the tears on her cheeks. “Was ist los, Mama?”

Marte shook her head and managed to smile. “Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. The big doggy scared me, but it’s gone now.” She still gripped Tabb’s painting, now smeared and crumpled. Her hands shook as she smoothed the paper out on her thigh and said, “I’m sorry I ruined your present.”

Tabb patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, Mama. I can make another one.” Marte hugged him tightly.

They were still closer to the nursery school than home, and there was no way to get to either place on foot except through the forest. Gathering the last of her courage, she rose and led Tabb out of the clearing, taking the deer trail back to the wide walkway, toward the school. If she kept to the main pass, she reasoned, they should not run into the wolf again, or any others that might be out there. Marte knew that wolves ran in packs; if there was one, there were likely to be others.

They hurried past the playground. Marte squeezed her son’s hand and started at every sound, every snap of a twig. Tabb kept silent and trotted along beside her as best he could.

At the kindergarten again, Marte explained what had happened in the forest.

“I will call the Polizei,” said one of the teachers.

Another brought two cups of Fruchttee, and offered to drive Marte and her son home.

***

“They found the wolf,” Uwe said a few days later.

“There was only one?” Marte sat on the floor near Uwe’s feet playing pat-a-cake with her son.

“That’s what they say,” he replied, gesturing toward his newspaper. “He was a rogue, but they got him. There should be no more trouble from him.”

Marte looked at her husband closely. “And you know that for certain?”

“Well,” he said, glancing at the paper, “that’s what they say.”

“Hmm. I see.”

Uwe swallowed. “There are no more wolves out there. It says so right here.”

“Of course,” she said. But she would call animal control in the morning, just to be sure.

Uwe cleared his throat. “Why don’t you take the car from now on? It’s safer that way. I can take the U-Bahn to work.”

Marte heard the tremor in her husband’s voice and laid a hand on his knee. “Okay.”

Uwe stroked her hair for a few moments, then resumed reading. The pages of his newspaper brushed lightly against her head and she shivered, suddenly chilled. Marte pulled Tabb onto her knee and held him tightly, gathering warmth from his small body.

© 2003, 2004 Cristina Van Dyck
word count: 1,894


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Reviewed by johnny freudiger 2/24/2008
Well written. Very nice description of a mothers fear for her childs safety.
Reviewed by April Smith 6/13/2005
I really liked this story. I loved your imagery, especially in the forest, and then again with the wolf's scent. I could almost feel and smell it! Great job. Thanks for sharing, April



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