The Herd Path
by Kate Todd
The path ahead is well trodden, but poorly sign-posted. Centuries of human passage are evident in the impressions moulded into the ground by those who have gone before, also in the tree limbs that have been repeatedly hacked back until they relented, bending to human change and leaving clear spaces for travellers to forge ahead.
Your journey starts with a high gradient before levelling out for some time. The pace is comfortable as you test the path for hazards, at first sidestepping exposed roots and shying away from imagined shadows. You checked the map before you set off, so you’re familiar with the landmarks that will punctuate your journey.
You’ve not gone too far – but far enough that the trailhead is out of sight – before the ground shifts under you. Even your best effort can’t keep your feet from sliding off the trail into a ditch when the firm ground becomes slick mud. When you right yourself, you find that the next landmark, the rise that would have allowed you to see the next section of the trail, isn’t visible on the horizon anymore.
You find yourself back at the trailhead, as though you’ve been playing snakes and ladders and have landed on a space that has brought you back to the beginning. The place looks different; you feel as though your footsteps are out of sync with the others setting out from here for the first time. Familiarity with the trail’s outlines means that you view it with a seasoned eye, wisdom gained but wonder mislaid.
“The imperfect guides threaten to send you off-course. Everyone has his or her own North.”
You start down the path anew until you encounter a diversion. Lost, you look around for landmarks. When you speak of this place later you will be surprised how many people can describe it in perfect detail, right down to the way the canopy closes in, dimming the light. There are tools you can use – measures that could help you get back to the well-trodden route. You test the weight and heft of each. Some are useful; others are made for a more generic purpose that doesn’t suit you. The imperfect guides threaten to send you off-course. Everyone has his or her own North.
Throughout your journey you encounter other people. You peer across to a parallel path, gaze clouded with envy at the people who walk lightly in fresh clothing, not splattered with mud or torn by brambles like yours. You know neither where they have come from nor what lies ahead for them, but you still ache to rest in their footsteps. From where you stand, their footing seems so much surer.
When others pass alongside you, the brief encounters feel like a sheet of wind skimming across your skin. Most are together in pairs, a few are lone individuals. You notice that the clasped hands of some couples are straining across growing chasms. You hold your companion’s hand tighter and look to the ground, ever mindful of cracks appearing under your feet.
In the distance, loud voices can be heard. It’s easy to mistake the sound of a group of people for a rushing brook. You stay clear of these groups, wary of their ability to carry you off in a direction you don’t intend to go. Choices like this are one element in this environment of which you are entirely in control.
There are more ravines, tangles of branches and knitted vines that take time and patience to clear. At the base of steep, narrow paths you are forced to stop and consider how best to tackle each section of the trail. At the crest of a particularly high hill you push off of a step and onto another, marvelling at the muscle you have unintentionally and reluctantly developed.
You realise after some time that you could simply step off the path anytime you like and you won’t actually fall. There are no great crevices or gorges waiting to envelop you, just another path. This new terrain is a landscape that you hadn’t pictured or traced with your finger on a map. Its outline is faint in your mind, like an old postcard card once glimpsed and only the impression of forms retained.
But you stay to the trail you are forging, continuing at least for now to press your feet to the packed earth. You’ve come this far already and your footsteps have their own story to tell to the multitudes who will continue to trod these paths day in and day out.
Kate Todd | @KTodd_Writes
By day, Kate Todd is a business analyst for an art and tech firm. In every other spare minute, she is a reader and writer. She is represented by Carly Watters of P.S. Literary and is embarking on a new novel in 2018.