Snakes and bears and birds and things—it was a part of some old rhyme. He attempted to focus his memory. Snakes and bears…"and birds and things."
He waded through the brush, treaded unevenly on the tawny needle-covered ground—the whole, a mass of desiccated tree leavings, matted ferns, and regurgitated vole skeletons. He took a tentative step. Shhhrrk! It left a shallow impression on the surface that rebounded only slightly as he lifted his boot. It was the stuff of bird nests and rat dens. Of children's nightmares.
To calm himself, he imagined he was walking on a bed of those compacted wheat cubes that were supposed to be high in fiber and good for someone of his advancing years. Only these harbored dangerous animals, ticks with Lyme disease, rot, death….
He wasn't yet 60—still rather young, he reasoned—so this little hike shouldn't be too dangerous for his hips or his nerves or even his skin, which was nearly all covered, save for his face. But he remembered the mantra, and it now it seemed to issue from his own footfalls like sylvan heartbeats: snakes and bears and birds and things. He felt a cold sensation coursing around limbs, journeying to and fro like waves of ice, until it made his arms quiver and his head arch backward. Turning around, his dark-grey eyes scanned the distance behind him for all four dangers, but mostly for the last.
He thought he saw something, but he didn't. He never…Shhhrrk.