Driftwood antlers lie abandoned on the leaf-duned forest floor; from the chiaroscuro of dappled woodland, a sepia smudge slowly crystallizes into deconstructed hart: damp mushroom nose, a furtive snuffling in the truffle-dark litterfall; eye’s liquid lens glimpsed fleetingly in the gleam of fern-filtered sun; flickering streak of rust flank quenched by dust-filmed shadow, before my startled retina can capture the shifting fragments and fashion into composite whole. As if fearful of over-exposure, he fades wraith-like out of frame, his faint spoor and cast-off crown all that remain in the waning light.
So intent have I been on pursuit that I have wandered from the track that leads from my lodge through this cinnamon-and-gingerbread wood in Gloucestershire, my hideaway for these last few, idyllic days. Friends were puzzled when I turned down a break in the full glare of guaranteed Spanish sun, but I needed tranquillity, so here I am, cocooned by the susurration of breeze-ruffled broadleaf and comforting tang of wood smoke.
I turn, disoriented, searching for the ‘pointing finger’ red route-markers. Dusk has arrived, leaching the warm, treacle hues from beech and oak leaving a chill, grey monochrome wash. I move more quickly, eyes straining to make out the clearing, careless of the uneven ground where roots snake treacherously through the khaki camouflage. Without warning, a stomach-lurching jolt: nostrils are filled with the sweet stench of rotting vegetation as I splutter, spitting out crumbling earth. Heavy panting, very nearby, unnerves me. Is it my shy quarry, come to gawp, or some less benevolent creature? Then I realise it is my own breath I can hear, a stuttering counterpoint to my thudding heart.
I trace a searing pain to my left leg and an agonising throb to the elbow on the same side. Panic engulfs me as it dawns on me that I’ve fallen into some sort of pit or perhaps a crater from the subsidence left by old mine workings. Scrabbling at the carapace of prickly twigs and desiccated leaves above my head I manage to heave myself on my good arm to the rim but I can’t get sufficient purchase and slide back, sobbing now, knowing that there’s no mobile signal, that no-one is waiting for me back at the lonely lodge to raise the alarm. Under the cold gaze of an indifferent moon I gather every shred of strength for a further, desperate attempt at escape.