The woods never changed. Every tree, every fallen log, every stump was familiar. For over forty years, ever since they were kids, Bob and his older sister Cheryl had been taking morning walks at least once a week on the deer trails that wound through the woods that covered most of the family’s immense property. The house had been divided into separate apartments – upstairs and downstairs – so that they could both live in the old family place while still maintaining their privacy, but without spouses or children, Bob and Cheryl turned to each other for company more often than not, and the regular morning hikes had become a comforting ritual, even when the conversation was mostly arguing, or when there was no conversation at all, just the sounds of their feet shuffling through dry leaves and cracking sticks. Their deteriorating joints and stamina had drained some of the fun from the walks, but neither sibling was willing to give them up until they became actually impossible.
It was a week before Christmas and the morning was still and cold. An inch of snow had fallen sometime after Bob had gone to bed and it clung to the bare branches of every dormant tree and rested lightly on the forest floor. The sun was cut by a thin layer of clouds that dampened its light and made it seem more silver than yellow.
“Let’s just stay on the trail,” said Cheryl through the blue scarf that concealed her face up to her eyes. She wore no hat and even though she had several years on Bob, her long black hair had kept its color long after he’d gone gray. “There’s still thorns and stuff. We’re supposed to meet Kenny for lunch in an hour. What do you want to go off the trail for?”
Bob’s exposed nose and cheeks were bright red and though he wore a hunter’s orange stocking cap, it was perched on the top of his head in a way that didn’t cover his ears at all. “I want to see the stream,” he said.
“Why?” asked Cheryl. “It’s been dried up all year. There’s not going to be any ice for you to walk out on while I tell you not to walk out on it.”
But Bob had already veered off the trail. “Oh, come on, Cheryl. We’re right here. I just want to look for coyote prints.” He labored up a low rise, leaving shallow, brown boot prints behind him. Cheryl pulled her scarf down below her chin so she could spit, arranged it back over her nose, and followed Bob up the slope.
When Bob reached the top of the rise, he saw the dried up stream bed twisting off through the woods just a short way down from where he stood. His knees were throbbing and he was careful on his way down the hill, grabbing the narrow trunks of saplings as he passed them to keep from slipping. He made it to the edge of the stream bed without falling and stood huffing and coughing with his hands on his hips and his glasses fogged over. Without any water running through it, the stream wasn’t much more than a long, winding ditch, maybe ten or twelve feet across on average, with steep muddy sides. Bob didn’t see any coyote prints right away, but that didn’t mean they weren’t around.
Cheryl came up beside him and bent over with her hands on her knees, gasping for breath. “We’re too old for this. I’m sweating like a pig in this coat. I told you we didn’t need so many layers.”
“I’m comfortable,” said Bob, and as he took one more step closer to the edge, the soft ground under his foot gave out, he lost his balance, and he tumbled down the embankment and landed in a heap in the bottom of the stream bed. He moaned and rolled onto his back, looking straight up at the gray and white sky. A blurry flock of something flew overhead.
“Your glasses are still up here, somehow,” said Cheryl.
“It’s peaceful down here,” said Bob from his prone position. “You should fall down here too.”
“No thanks,” said Cheryl. “Do you want to get your glasses when you climb out or do you want them now?”
“Now,” said Bob as he sat up and began to rub his left knee with both hands. “I don’t know if I can climb out.”
“Sure you can,” said Cheryl. She was standing next to the spot where Bob’s foot had broken through the little cliff. She had his glasses in her hand. “It’s only, what, five feet?”
Bob staggered to his feet and sharp pains pulsed through both of his knees so that he winced and clenched his teeth. He limped over to the embankment and Cheryl handed his glasses down to him. He put them on and then he reached up to put his hands flat on the ground next to Cheryl’s feet and tried to boost himself up, but he was too heavy, too weak, and his knees hurt too much.
“What if I give you my hand?” asked Cheryl.
They tried, but there was no way for Cheryl to get the necessary leverage and they stopped when Cheryl only managed to avoid toppling into the stream bed on top of Bob by letting go of his hand at the last instant and sending him sprawling onto his back.
“We’re going to be so late to meet Kenny,” said Cheryl. “And I was already starving an hour ago. What am I supposed to do? Walk back to the house and get you a ladder?”
Bob stood panting and brushing mud and leaf fragments off of his coat sleeves. His stocking cap was askew on his head. “Nah, we’ll just walk down a ways until we find an easier place to climb out. It can’t be this steep the whole way.”
Cheryl sighed. “Kenny’s going to be so disappointed.”
Bob said nothing. He just started limping off down the stream bed, stopping every so often to bend down and massage his aching knees. Cheryl followed along a few steps back from the edge, not wanting to repeat Bob’s mistake, her gloved hands tucked inside the pockets of her coat. “You’re quite a sight,” she said. “I wish I had a camera right now.”
Bob laughed. “You don’t know how to work a camera. You’ve never taken a picture that turned out.”
“Yes I have!” Cheryl kicked a spray of snow down at Bob and a lot of it got inside the collar of his coat.
Up ahead, the stream bed curved abruptly to the left. “Around that corner,” said Bob. “I can feel it. A nice, low, gently sloped bank. I’ll stroll right out.”
“Oh, Bob,” said Cheryl. “Neither of us have ‘strolled’ in years. You’ll hobble right out.”
Bob blew a sarcastic kiss up to Cheryl and quickened his pace. As he approached the curve, he heard Cheryl stop in mid laugh and say, “What in the world is that?” From her higher vantage point she could see further ahead in the stream bed than Bob could.
“Is there a place I can climb out?” asked Bob.
Cheryl didn’t answer. Bob rounded the corner and came to a halt. He heard Cheryl’s footsteps coming slowly closer and then stopping, just up and to his right. They both stared in silent wonder at a spot in the middle of the stream bed where they saw a small table covered with a white tablecloth and surrounded by four unoccupied, little wooden chairs. The table was set with four plates, silverware, a whole roasted chicken, a bowl of baked potatoes, and a basket of golden dinner rolls. There was no one else around.
“It’s all kid-sized,” said Bob in a low voice.
Cheryl nodded. “Go investigate, Bobby.” Her eyes darted around, peering into the woods on all sides, but there was nothing to see but the brown tree trunks and the white snow.
Bob limped closer to the table, his breathing shallow as he tried to stay quiet. Cheryl followed from above, stepping over and around dry sticks that might have snapped loudly under her boots. Around the table, the ground was heavily scuffed and marked, but the prints were so jumbled that Bob had a hard time making anything out. “Some of ‘em might be grown man sized,” he said.
“So odd,” said Cheryl, shivering.
“But doesn’t it smell nice?” said Bob. His eyes trailed over the chicken and the potatoes and lingered on the rolls. “Look, Cheryl. There’s even a little butter dish and a little jelly dish.”
“No, no,” said Cheryl. “Leave it be.”
“We don’t know if I’m ever gonna find a spot where I can climb out, sis.” Bob’s face broke into a sly smile. “I’m just foraging for food. What do you think of my survival skills?” He turned back to the table and pulled out one of the little chairs. He sat down on it, gently at first to make sure it could hold his weight, but when it seemed sturdy, he arranged himself on it as comfortably as he could, stretching his legs straight out in front of him so that his feet poked out from under the other side of the table. He took one of the rolls, which was still warm, tore it in half, and began to butter it with a small butter knife.
“So you’re just going to eat while I wait for you up here?” asked Cheryl.
Bob looked up at her as he took a bite of the roll. “Mmm, Cheryl. It’s so good. Come down here and join me.”
“Join you? Bob, if you can’t climb out, there’s no way I’ll be able to. My hip is worse than your knees. Then we’ll both be stuck down there and there won’t be anyone to get help.”
Bob was cutting open one of the baked potatoes on his plate and as the knife broke through the skin of the potato, fragrant steam slipped up out of the cut and coiled into the chilly air. “Suit yourself,” said Bob. “But you were just saying how hungry you were.”
“You could just hand me some food,” said Cheryl.
“I could,” said Bob, as he mashed his potato with a tiny fork in preparation for a dollop of sour cream. “And I will. If you want.”
“OK,” said Cheryl. “I’m coming in.” She sat down on the edge of the embankment, her heels resting against the slick mud slope, waited for a moment with her jaw set, and then she pushed herself off with her hands and slid down into the stream bed without falling. “Tah dah,” she said. “A perfect landing.”
Bob grinned. “You managed that much more gracefully than I did. Pull up a seat.”