I lie on my back, trapping bonfire-coloured leaves and cold light inside the telescope of my cupped hands. My father ambles on, not watching. I unglue myself from the ground and tiptoe away.
Dodging brambles, I slide between two giant trunks. Bark crumbles under my fingernails, so I can’t get a grip to climb. The base of one tree is hollowed out, and I squirrel in among rotting leaves, the strange sweet smell of decay.
‘Come and find me.’ The sing-song chant hangs like mist in the chilled air. I breathe moisture into the muffle of my scarf. Wait.
Time lumbers. In a drifting doze, I hear my name. My hands are coated with muck, and I taste earth as I unwrap my mouth to call. And peer out.
Dusk creeps but my sight is ice-sharp. The gnarled face looms, uneven mouth gaping under jutting eye sockets.
A slow blink.
I wriggle free, clammy and shivering. At the snap of twigs, I whirl. A figure steps from behind the brambles. I launch myself at it, fists pounding its chest. My father reaches down, laughing, and swoops me onto his shoulders.
He carries me into the last of the light and I twist my head to watch the ancient face vanish in the bark, feel the ancient fear take root.
Ali McGrane lives and writes between the sea and the moor. Her work has appeared in Fictive Dream, The Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine, Cabinet of Heed, FlashBack Fiction and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2019, and nominated for Best of the Net 2019. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK.