Not that anyone would admit to paying much attention to the old man. He was a loner, an outsider, who lived in his run-down cottage under the eaves of the Old Forest, and most people tried their best to ignore the fact that he existed.
Oh, the children in town told stories, of course, as well as a few of the adults. They said if a child wandered into the forest during the day, he’d be lost forever, and if he was caught in the forest at night, the old man would find him and capture him. What happened to the captured children, nobody would say with certainty, but many variations on the story imagined a grisly end.
However, most adults regarded these stories as just old cautionary tales about the Old Forest that had become twisted and distorted with time and repeated retellings. Still, most adults did keep their distance from the old man, and nobody could remember his name.
His house – more of an old cottage, really – sat right up against the edge of the Old Forest, so much so that the moss which had once grown and spread all over the roof was now brown and dead from lack of sunlight.
It must have once been a quaint and pleasant cottage – perhaps made back before the village was settled – with a gently sloping straw-thatched roof that came down low on either side.
As for the old man himself, he kept mostly to himself, and was rarely seen in the village proper. On occasion he could be seen strolling along the dirt roads of the village at dusk, just after the sun had set – especially in the winter, when the sun set early.
He sometimes visited the village doctor and traded for some herbs and plants that he must have either grown himself or found in the forest. The villagers didn’t avoid him necessarily during these times, but nobody would approach him on purpose, and people looked the other way and avoided his gaze.
Dix, however, thought differently. He thought differently about a lot of things, actually, but he usually didn’t do or say anything to show it… except in this case.
Dix had always felt strangely curious about the old man, ever since he saw him when he was little. He remembered that night very clearly, though he was only 6 years old at the time. He’d been out late, playing in the big oak tree at the edge of his father’s fields. The tree was ancient and huge, with ample large branches, many of which hung low to the ground – perfect for climbing. Once you got up a bit in the tree, you had a clear view over all the surrounding fields, including over the neighbor’s field, and then the empty meadow, and then, tiny with distance, the old man’s house on the edge of the Old Forest.
That day he’d been playing in the tree, looking out at people working in the fields. He’d just watched the last few workers head in as dusk approached when he saw him – the old man, clearly visible now that the wheat had been cut, walking along a track beside the far edge of the field.
Dex remembered being riveted by the sight – he’d heard stories, of course, but he’d never seen the old man himself. Now though, he somehow sensed the inherent injustice of the stories as the old man walked with his long-legged stride along the track, his head down, his eyes watching the path before him in the dimming light.
And then, suddenly, the old man had stopped in his tracks and looked up – looked right up across the field and into the tree and seemingly right into Dex’s own eyes. Dex felt a surge of panic, of fear at being discovered, but only for a moment. In that next heartbeat, somehow, Dex saw right back into the old man’s eyes, saw the calm, quiet contemplation there, and knew with a certainty very unbecoming of one so young that this old man was not like what the stories told.
But before he could even blink, the moment had passed, and the old man was walking again, and Dex’s mother was calling for him to come inside.
Ever since then, Dex had tried to catch a glimpse of the old man again – but it wasn’t easy. But Dex kept at it, and several years later, when he was 12, he managed to catch a better look.
It was midsummer’s night, and the village was throwing its annual celebration. Dex took the opportunity to sneak out of the village and creep along some of the less-used tracks between fields, until he was near the Old Forest and the old man’s house.
Then he saw him – the old man, sitting quietly on the side of a small hillock, his back to the forest, looking out over the fields and towards the village.
Dex had wanted to come up to him, to talk to him and ask him questions – questions about who he was, why he lived alone, and whether he’d really seen him that day years ago – but on this night, something held him back.
It was something in the old man’s face, or perhaps just in his eyes, that kept Dex from disturbing him. He didn’t seem quite so old then, sitting in the grass under the purple sky, the first evening stars twinkling above him.
Dex stood there – for how long he was later never quite sure – and then slowly, as the deepening dusk spread across the sky, he turned around and walked quietly back into town.
Ever since then, Dex had tried to defend the old man whenever people spoke of him – which was rare, but still, word got around. He also tried to meet the old man again, waiting near the edge of town at dusk, or wandering the fields before dawn, but though he saw the old man from afar many times, he was never quite able to get close to him like that again.
People started to avoid Dex, or look the other way when he came by. He almost expected his parents to scold him for his behavior – though he was nearly an adult now himself – but they never brought the subject up again, and as Dex got older he thought he saw the signs of resignation in their eyes.
Eventually Dex reached his 17th year, and it was time for him to choose his future. Nobody seemed surprised when he announced that he was going to leave town and set out on his own rather than stay and help with the farm. Surprisingly, many people – including his parents – seemed almost relieved.
After packing what little belongings he had and slinging them on his back, he hugged his parents for the last time and set out on the road, heading out of the village.
He’d deliberately waited until sunset to head out, and as he plodded along out of town, dusk deepened around him. After he passed the last house on the long road that led north to the next town, he looked one last time behind him, and then swiftly jumped off the road and cut across one of the fields – heading straight for the old man’s cottage.
By the time he got there, dusk had passed and night was here in full, and for a moment he almost regretted his plan. The Old Forest loomed frighteningly close now, and all those old childhood ghost stories began to rise up again in his mind – but he stood his ground.
The stars were out now, as was a sliver of moon – casting a surprisingly bright light over the land, at least compared to the deep dark under the nearby trees.
He waited, listening to the sounds of the night – the occasional rustle of leaves in the distance as the night breeze fluttered its way through the forest, the haunting calls of the owls, or the mournful howls of wolves… and then, he saw him.
Plodding up around a bend in an old horse trail, the old man came, like a whisper on the wind, a barely visible gray shadow in the night, with just a hint of silver twinkling around his neck. At just a dozen paces away from Dex, he stopped and looked up.
Though it was far too dark for Dex to see it clearly, he was sure the old man was smiling, or if possible, grinning, as if he’d expected to see Dex here this night. And then, in the most surprising moment of his life, Dex heard the old man speak.
In a voice that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a man who looked half his age, the old man said, “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
Standing up a big straighter than before, the old man swept quickly past Dex and to the door of his house, opening it wide and revealing a warm and welcoming light from within. “Well, come on inside,” he said, gesturing with his arm, “I’ve a lot to tell you, and the night is wearing on.”
With that, Dex seemed to feel himself break free of his awe, and he smiled and nodded, and stepped inside the house.