I love to take long walks through the woods as summer dies and autumn blooms. I love having to dress in layers. I love shedding them as I make my way through the day and then donning like the ebb and flow of the tide.
I was quite in my own thoughts when I saw him. At first, I didn’t think it was a “him,” I just thought it was an unusual rock formation. He only moved when I cursed aloud at myself for having forgotten my camera.
“Please don’t, I haven’t combed my hair,” he said. His voice reminded me of the sound tree roots make when they shift too much after a heavy rain. It took me too long to realize he was making a joke.
I think I screamed.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I did.
He lurched forward and gently placed his hands on my bare shoulders. That layer was gone already. His skin was tanned and not unlike saddle leather. I glanced at his hands. You could tell they were the sort that were meant to be soft and unused for hard labor. They were scarred and rough instead.
“Please don’t scream,” he said. “I don’t mean any harm, I’ve just been alone so long…” He trailed off, seemingly lost in his own troubled memories. I cleared my throat and he came back to himself with a small start. “Please don’t scream.”
I took a gulp of air in a vain attempt to calm myself. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think.
“Here, sit down.” He gestured to a fallen log covered in moss.
He crouched down low in front of me, eyes twinkling. His face was doing an impression of a smile as performed by someone whose forgotten how. I smiled and reached for my water bottle. I offered it to him and he drank thirstily.
“How long have you been out here?” I asked when he handed the bottle back. “Are you lost?”
“I ran away,” he said simply.
“You ran from what?” My mind raced at the possibilities. “Are you in trouble?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I ran away when I was a boy. There was a fight, I don’t even remember about what. I promised myself to only stay away as long as it took them to find me. I guess I’m still waiting.”
I reached my hand out to him, but he stood abruptly and walked a little ways farther into the woods. I called after him.
“No, I should go,” he said, not looking back. “You should too.”
Then he was gone. I tried to follow him, but he didn’t leave any tracks in the soft soil and I was afraid of getting too far away from the path. At dusk, I climbed back into my car and drove home.
In the years since, I’ve taken many walks in those woods, but I’ve never found a trace of the wild man.