Even though I am ashamed to admit it, my hands are trembling as I am writing these lines. Memories of that fateful night came back, like a torrent of bloody water in the trenches after heavy rain. No battle in the Great War had brought upon me the feelings which overwhelmed me back then, in the ancient woods near the Great Lakes. I've fought at Gallipoli under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton. There is no telling how many soldiers, fathers, sons, and brothers have fallen before my eyes. I became numb to death. That was until I visited the sacred lands of the Ojibwa Indians.
Oh, God, this shaking will not stop. I feared that trying to write this incredible tale will make me uncomfortable, but I haven't thought that I will tremble like a leaf. The night outside reminds me of that night, too. I feel the same smells of wet leaves, sulfurous swamp, and sour earth, which I felt back then. The moon seems to look the same, and to shine the same frozen dead light. And the smell of decay is lingering all around my room. I'm sure my mind is playing tricks on me.
It was a few years after I came back from the war. I had been wounded at Gallipoli, and after I recovered, I decided to go to America. I've always desired to travel for reasons other than war. It seemed to be the perfect time to help my mind and soul recover as well. But instead of recovering, I've been shocked out of my wits.
Solitude and nature had always helped me clear my mind and regain my grasp on life and reality. A reality which sometimes gets blurred by nightmares and feelings of hopelessness. So, after visiting several parts of northern America, I traveled to the Great Lakes. The boreal forests in that area are gorgeous, ancient, but also full of dark secrets.
Ancient spruce trees, tamaracks, jack pines and balsam firs greeted me there. They towered above me with majestic grace. I also saw hardwood trees, like aspen and birch, but in vastly lower numbers. The forests were dense. There have been fewer and fewer trails as one went deeper into the belly of the woods.
It was only the middle of autumn, but the air was chilly. I had to dress myself in thick garments. Several elderly people, some of them native, had said that they had been sensing that a particularly cold winter was coming. How were they able to know these things, is beyond me. Nevertheless, it is fascinating how these old folk seem to have a deeper connection to nature and to life itself. A lot of wisdom can indeed be accrued through many decades of struggles and hardship.
So, I walked through the wonderful forests and gasped in their awe. I made quick drawings of things I found fascinating. As a child, I've found out that I possessed great talent for drawing. I had lost a part of it during the war, but as I happily discovered, I could still use the pencil and paper reasonably well.
It was in the afternoon that I reached an area where the vegetation seemed to be not as dense as before. After strolling some more, I saw that a small trail branched off to my right. Deep inside, I felt I should avoid it, but my naïve mind and adventurous soul told me to go. And off I went, onto the side path. What a hopeless fool I was.
I thought I'll have plenty of time to explore for an hour or two, then get back to the main path, and still be able to go back to my lodge before dark. With my maps and compass with me, I confidently strolled forward. Brown and yellow leaves were falling all around, covering the ground in a colorful blanket. Soon, I discovered something odd. A buck's skull had been nailed to a thick tree. It had huge antlers, and it was clear that it had been there for a long time. Perhaps the natives had placed it there as a warning, or as a deterrent. I quickly grabbed my drawing book and made a rough sketch of it. I found their superstitious nature fascinating, but also primitive.
Why could they have placed it there? Of course, if there is a question, one must seek answers. So I, the curious fool I was, wanted to investigate. As I walked on the path, I saw antlers scattered around in some places. I also saw bones of smaller animals here and there. Also, the leaves seemed to have become darker, desiccated. Even those, which were still attached to the branches, seemed drained of life.
All these omens should have been more than enough for me to run away, but I was curious. Looking at my watch, I saw that there is still time to go a little further. I thought that maybe I'll find some more eerie things which I can make sketches of.
I wandered on, and the landscape kept slowly metamorphosing into a barren one. Deadfalls were frequent. A thin mist was curling its way around just above the lifeless leaves. It was as if the devil himself had made this land his home.
The first genuine shock came when I saw the buck's head again. I stopped in my tracks and looked suspiciously at it. The tree looked eerily similar, and the skeletal head also resembled the one I saw before. I fumbled for my notebook in disbelief. After I took it out of my bag, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was the same skull. The antlers, the eye sockets, the nose, everything.
This can't be, I said to myself several times. There was no way on earth that this was real. After standing there in disbelief, I finally had enough. Time to go back to the trail, I thought, and turned back. My steps were quick. I hurried as much as I could. The old wounds from the war began hurting again. It was bearable, but of course, the pain was not helping my cause.
I looked up to the sky, and to my utmost horror, I saw it was already darkening outside. It was difficult to see the sky from the forest floor, but here and there I got a glimpse between the branches. The path was near. I knew it, so I pressed on. I thought I should reach the edge of the hellish area at any moment.
How wrong I was. I just seemed to go deeper into it. Deeper into madness, possibly into death's embrace. My heart sank when I saw the buck's head staring ominously at me.
I stood there for several minutes, trying to figure out just what kind of madness came upon me. Then I remembered the compass, which I had tucked into one of my many pockets. I took it out and looked at it with great hopes. It showed that the north was behind me, which was consistent with my knowledge. The path was leading roughly towards the north.
I sighed in relief. Maybe there were two buck's heads on the tree, on opposite sides and also which were similar to each other. It was a probable explanation, however unlikely. I walked behind the tree to see the other skull, which I had supposedly seen on my way here. But there was nothing on the other side. I looked again at the compass, as my heart beat faster and my breathing hastened. The needle slowly began moving. It made a few full circles at a considerable speed, then stopped. Now the north was in a different direction.
Desperation overtook me again. I was lost. I couldn't understand how, but it was a fact. Calm down, I said to myself; you had survived a war. But even though wars are unmatched in their brutality, you know what you sign up for. You know that the chances of survival are low. A bullet most likely has your name written on it. Or maybe an artillery shell, or a bayonet. In war, you get to know the thousand faces of death. But what about an uncanny situation like this? When nature itself seems to conspire against you? Or is it madness? At the moment, I almost reached the conclusion that I'd become mad during the war, and it only surfaced during my trip. It was as if I entered the mouth of madness itself.