Gathering the fabric of my skirt, I widen my stride.
Behind me, the cottage lights recede into a milky haze, and I adjust my eyes to the darkness, concentrating on the trail ahead.
With each footfall, the scrub thickens. Snaking branches claw, foliage slaps, and broken limbs like discarded prosthetics snatch at my ankles. Tepid with humidity, the air grows heavy, and my ragged breaths turn to gasps.
Slowing down is not an option—and I know this place.
As a child, I played hide-and-seek here. I had a secret spot within the carcass of a giant yellow gum, pitted with age and hollowed with decay. I would hunker there for hours, cocooned within its protective shell. No-one ever found me, and when I got bored, I would backtrack, pounce from behind, giggling at the shrieks of my pursuers.
But this is different—no longer child’s play.
This time my pursuer is bigger. Angry. Drunk on delusional rage and cheap piss.
This time I am running for my life.
Left, keep left, I repeat, though everything looks different. It has been years since I ventured this far. The forest has flourished, saplings matured, and the path rooted. Now my compass is off and battling through a vengeful maze of green and grey, my resolve drains as panic swells.
Maybe I’ve come too far left—missed the mark completely?
The next second, my foot snags. My ankle twists, buckling me in an explosion of pain. Scrambling for cover, I don’t know how long I cower on the dank earth. Seconds, minutes—a breeze rustles the leaves around me. It warms my cheeks and waters my eyes. The moonlight, choked by the overhead canopy, bleeds the world of its colour, so all that remains are the silhouetted forms of brush and rocks, trees sprouting talons on beckoning limbs. It paralyses me. Childhood memories whispered under bedsheets of vengeful ghosts and ancestral spirits … I draw a frayed breath. Faced with tangible danger, I now want nothing more than to call them, to summon intervention and save me from a fear far greater than the esoteric.
I do not have the luxury of pause or fairytales. Realigning my foot, I tentatively settle my weight on it.
Move, I tell it, and grudgingly it responds.
Around me is silent—no hum of insects. No bird call. No ragged breaths or movement in the scrub. Relief trickles. My pursuer has retreated.
Yet the silence is unnerving, as if the insects and birds and the spirits are privy to something I am not.
I sweep a tangle of curls from my forehead. I will keep to the trail, find my hideaway, and then leave this place—and him—forever.
The blow comes from behind. Pain sears and my legs buckle. The fabric of my blouse tears as I am lifted. A slap sends me down again.
Movement thrashing and blurring. Screams, I think are my own. A weight on my chest, then hands around my throat, squeezing. I look into dark eyes—eyes that once sparkled in humour, clouded in passion. Now I see nothing but black, a cascade of stars. And when the agony stops biting, I close them—consciousness flickering like a flame submitting to the breeze—entering the dark.
How familiar it will become. The heavy, muffled hush around the peaty scent of soil, the anaemic coils of worming roots. Embraced by the earth, blanketed by fallen leaves, through seeping rain and crumbling drought.
For sixty years, I lie foetal-like in my womb of soft loam.
Occasionally, a woman comes—my sister. She brings flowers, which she lays at intervals along the trail. She kneels and weeps. ‘I’m sorry. We searched and searched, but we never found you.’
I learn the larrikin ways of the bush spirits, and as the breeze lifts the hair across her brow, I ride the draft—a kiss on her cheek, the back of her neck, a rustle in the undergrowth where the shadows are the deepest.
Today she brings lilies, trembling in arthritic hands. ‘I won’t be coming anymore,’ she says. ‘We sold the property—got a good price … I’m sorry.’
Cosseted in the darkness, I don’t feel remorse, for that is the affliction of the living. I will never grow up or old, clasp lilies in wizened hands. I will remain one with the earth, the roots, and the worms: bones and dust.
A rumble and roars shatter the silence. Monsters roll, belching and snorting. They rip and tear, gouging at my heels, churning the earth as roots are dredged and pulled from their sinews. I swear I will be ripped into a thousand pieces, scattered and mulched into nothingness.
Figures are furrowing, brushing strokes that tickle.
For the first time in decades, I hear my name.
‘A missing girl, presumed dead, struth, like sixty years ago. Suspected some bastard but without a body could never pin it on him.’
Of course, I remember the bastard. A man not much older than a boy, yet, without the perspective of time, we thought ourselves so grown up. An abuser and a narcissist. My husband. My killer.
‘Story goes, she haunts these parts.’
‘Reckon it’s her?’
They call it a subdivision. Grazing land and forest have given way to houses: brick and weatherboard. Small yards. Asphalt on which motor vehicles in all shapes and sizes come and go.
The little path I believed was my escape is all grown up now. The trail where I lay for so long is a main road. It is lined with new trees and bushes—and they name it after me.
Not justice, because it is too late for that, but some commemoration for Veronica Langham: seventeen, beaten and strangled to death on February 22nd, sixty-one years ago.
Found and not forgotten.
No longer a secret.
Find more from Carin under her pseudonym – C A Rin.