Footsteps in the Woods

My uncle hunts birds with his dogs. He goes mainly into the mountains and so he knows them well.

One autumn day, he caught wild duck and my family was invited to share. He butchered the duck himself and made hot-pot. The meat was chewy and tasted unsophisticated so my parents frowned as soon as they had the first bite.

On the contrary, I loved it, especially the oily broth. At the end of the meal, I put rice and eggs into the leftovers to make porridge and finished the rest almost by myself. My parents seemed relieved since they didn’t have to have any.

“Thanks uncle! It was good” I beamed. He just nodded with a small smile.

The Mushroom Offer

When we left my uncle’s house, he asked me if I was interested in hunting matsutake mushrooms. I sad yes immediately because these mushrooms are the most expensive in Japan and I hadn’t tried them yet. They are hard to find and impossible to grow on a farm.

My parents were already at the car and looking back towards me. My uncle leaned in close and whispered, “Just between you and me, I’ll take you for a matsutake mushroom hunt. I know a secret spot.”

The Mushroom Hunt

The next weekend, he came to my parents’ house in his mini truck in the early afternoon. He told my parents that we would be back before dark and not to worry.

My uncle drove towards the nearby mountains. At first, everything looked familiar. But as soon as he turned into a more isolated section past the main peak at my guide, I lost my sense of direction.

We reached a small residential area that I had never seen before. I had no idea where we were going and my uncle was strangely quiet.

torii

After ten long minutes, my uncle finally steered the cramped truck up a roadway. Two or three old farmer’s houses were clustered beside an abandoned shrine. The truck tilted as we gradually drove up the mountain side. There were no birds to keep us company and no signs of life. I squished back into my seat, now feeling unsure.

My uncle veered the truck to the left. A large, thorny bush was just off the path and behind it, a slight slope was barely visible.

“Follow me”. My uncle’s voice had turned sharp and low. I did as I was told but there was no trail or path to follow. He simply walked into the tight forest and up the slope.

In minutes, a small field surrounded by woods appeared without warning. Twenty metres ahead, there was a small trail. If my uncle had not beelined there, I would have missed it.

“Hah!” My hand slammed up towards my mouth to stop my screech. Looking down, an old, stone Jizo statue stared straight forward into the field. It was partly hidden behind a small tree. This must be the sign of the hidden trail!

Another half hour passed in silence with me fighting to keep up with my uncle. He moved quickly and confidently through the dense forest.

The scenery changed and pine trees appeared. My uncle slowed, looked carefully left and right, and crept towards one of the trees. Bending down for a closer look, he swept his hands over the earth. Turning around, I finally saw his face again. In his hand, he held out a large matsutake mushroom with a big grin.

“Yahoo! You did it uncle!”

We were there about an hour and found 5 or 6 more mushrooms. I was expecting to fill my whole backpack but it was not going to be. Our tiny haul was enough to make matsutake rice and soup so I was happy. I put our treasure in a plastic bag and looked at my uncle.

“Okay, let’s call it a day!” He seemed happy and relaxed.

Heading Home

We started walking back the way we had come. Now I could afford to pay attention to the landscape. Leaves crunched under my feet and the air was sharp.

Crunch crunch, crunch, crunch. I kept following my uncle and enjoying the sound he made stepping on the dead leaves. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

After a while though, the uneasiness I had felt earlier in the afternoon came back. Something was not right.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

We kept walking at the same pace.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

I could swear that there was an extra crunching sounds a ways behind me.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Was it the wind? A boar?

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

No! I was starting to think that something or someone was chasing us!

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Uncle, I ….”

“Don’t look back,” he kept his head down and voice low.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

We kept walking at the same pace while sweat gathered on my forehead and my heart pounded beyond my control.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

The extra footsteps were still behind us, coming closer, closer. The sound was so clear and getting closer, closer.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

The entrance to our secret trail was in the distance. My breathing now felt like a shouting train and I was sure I heard something along with the extra crunching sound. I wanted to speak!

Crunch… crunch… crunch…

“Don’t  reply,” my uncle hissed.

My uncle’s pace never changed and we kept walking with those extra steps behind us. I was terrified and so thirsty. I wanted to run. I wanted to cry, but we kept walking at the same pace.

Finally, the entrance was in front but the footsteps were still chasing us.

Crunch… crunch… crunch…

Now it sounded like it was right behind me and I was about to yell. “The entrance is almost there,” I kept repeating to myself.

Then my uncle wheezed, “Give me the plastic bag of mushrooms. Now!”

His hand stretched back for the bag and without looking back, he dropped the mushrooms the instant he passed the Jizo statue. I kept following and didn’t say a word.

Crunch.

The footsteps stopped. I could feel eyes burning a holes through my backpack. I wanted to see but refused to turn around, continuing to follow my uncle’s steady pace back to the truck.

Back to safety?

Climbing into the cold truck as the sun was sinking behind the mountain, I was breathless and exhausted.

We sat without speaking for almost an hour. Finally, my uncle spoke. “If you hear something unknown in the mountains, try not to look at it and never, ever reply.”

mushroom

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6 thoughts on “Footsteps in the Woods

  1. A very unnerving story! Loved it! Thanks for sharing.

    Did you ever get an explanation form your uncle or anyone else? Or is there a story that all Japanese kids know about woods and footsteps and Jizo statues that I don’t as an American?

    Like

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