Barry’s bones always ached when the fog was rolling in. There was something about it — the sudden drop in temperature, the moisture hanging in the air — that sent his body into a tailspin. It wasn’t the kind of pain that his grandmother felt just before a storm. It was a subtle thing, a yearning to experience the world beyond his home, and his body wouldn’t relent until Barry got himself into the thick of it.
He carried a lantern when he walked on those foggy mornings and dressed in little more than a light coat and trousers as he strolled along the forest path outside of his home. The woods themselves were quiet, wrapped in a cloak of rolling fog that sifted through the trees like hair through a fine comb.
Barry sucked it in as he walked, felt the fog swell in his lungs between each exhale. He watched the wispy clouds wrap between his fingers and dance around his legs. There was a magic to the calming nature of the fog itself, how it slicked over the leaves on the bushes and shrubs and muted the sound of the forest in its passing. Even Barry’s footprints, usually accompanied by crunching leaves and snapping twigs, fell silent in the morning mist.
He’d been walking a while when he realized that he didn’t recognize the forest anymore. It was the same path he’d walked a hundred times — he was sure of that — but the world around him had shifted, changed in some small way. The trees looked different. The grass grew taller. On the shrubs and bushes alongside the trail, small berries seemed to glitter in the mist.
Barry was considering a quick detour to collect a handful of the low-hanging fruit hanging from a nearby tree when something shifted along the base of a large tree just ahead. Barry looked over to find a man seated next to a tree, his body covered in a tattered, brown coat.
“Don’t step off the trail,” the man croaked, just loudly enough for Barry to hear. “Keep your feet on the path! Don’t stray from it.”
“Sir,” Barry said, hustling toward him, “are you okay?”
As he leaned down beside the man, Barry noticed something peculiar about his situation. The man’s feet, firmly on the trail, seemed rooted into place. Near his shoulders, though, the trunk of the tree had grown around him.
“I’m fine,” the man coughed.
“Hold on,” Barry said. “I’ll get you out.”
“No!” the man said. “You’ll only get stuck here. This forest is dangerous.”
“What do you mean? I’ve walked in these woods a thousand times.”
“The mists, they move things around. Different places, different worlds, different times. But they can’t change the trail. That was laid down by men, and it carries our mark. Stay on it — don’t stray from it — and you’ll find your way back home!”
The man was in a bad way. That much was certain. He was obviously delusional, likely from a lack of hydration and nourishment. Barry stood upright, careful to keep his feet on the trail out of respect for the old man’s wishes.
“Sir, stay calm. I’m going to get you out, but I’ll need a hatchet to do it. I have one at home.”
“You go home and you stay there!” the old man hissed. “Not safe. This place isn’t safe.”
Barry set his lantern down on the trail, something he could see at a distance when he returned, and hurried back along the path. It was early morning and Barry could navigate along the path just fine. He wound his way back home, rushed into his toolshed and dug out a hatchet.
He checked the sharpness of the blade and, satisfied, hurried back toward the woods. Above him, the fog was clearing. Slivers of light had begun to cut through the mist, revealing a bright, blue sky overhead.
Farther in the distance, Barry caught sight of the lantern sitting atop the damp leaves. He slowed as he drew near, searching for the old man nested inside the tree. But there was something different about this place.
The berries, sparkling in the morning dew, had vanished. The old man was gone, as was the tree that rooted him firmly into place. Around him, the forest seemed different. The trees grew differently and farther apart.
Barry stared at the forest, puzzled as the fog began to clear. In the morning light, Barry stood alone, a hatchet in one hand and a lantern in the other, and only the empty trees for company.