Let's say you go for a walk.
Let's say it's a beautiful day, cold but sunny.
Let's say it's almost sunset.
Let's say that what you do is you grab your camera and walk up a mountain. You hurry, so you don't miss it, forgetting as you always do that sunset actually goes on for quite a long time at this time of year.
Let's say that when you get to the top, there are dozens and dozens of people, all looking at the sinking sun and pointing.
"Just look at it!" they say. You are all looking at it. The sun splays oranges and yellows across the horizon.
"Look at that," you agree. "Just look at it."
Your dog barks at you, bored. But the lakes below the hill are covered with a rising mist and the silhouettes of the branches are perfectly outlined against the sky and if you look down, you can see people taking pictures of each other in the yellowing light.
So let's just say that just for half an hour or so, you feel like you are part of a big family of people who have walked up this hill to see this thing that actually happens every day, but just today feels more beautiful than usual. These people are smiling and laughing and talking and happy. These people are happy. A tribe of sunset watchers, smiling. They take pictures of each other. You take pictures of them taking pictures of each other.
These are your people, you think.
Your dog barks at you again and you think, "I suppose that I should walk down before it gets dark."
Let's just say all those things happened.
On your way down the familiar trails, you feel buoyed by the beautiful sunset and the pictures and the way everyone seemed so friendly and happy and appreciative of the sky and the mountain and the view. You think, specifically, that this makes you feel magnanamous. You aren't strictly sure that magnanamous means what you've always thought it means, but that is exactly what you are thinking, watching your feet carefully on the darkening path. Jovially, like that. "Why, gosh darn it, I feel damn near MAGNANAMOUS!"
You feel like you understand something that you didn't understand before.
On the backside of the mountain, the side not facing the flaming orange of the sinking sun, there is ocean and islands. Over the ocean, the sky is hanging softly, pale pink and mauve and blue, prettier than its flashier counterpart. Smoother. Gentler.
So, of course, you take more pictures. Because there it is, so beautiful, no different maybe than every day, but that doesn't matter, for the sake of our story.
Let's just say it is now darkening, the trees stretching their shadows langourously across the path, forcing you to look down so that you don't, say, lose your footing and fall. You could take the road, but you like the path better, the ups and downs of it, the way the light is giving up its grip on the salal and water-soaked trail, the way the darkness is slowly sinking down around you like a long exhalation.
Let's just say, then, that you pass someone on the path.
And like you always do, you smile and say, "Hi!"
There you are, buoyed by the beauty and the magnanimity of everything in the world, saying "Hi" to a stranger on the path, like you've said "Hi" to thousands of strangers on paths.
This is where the story changes and becomes unpleasant.
Let's say, for example, that this particular stranger does not want to be greeted. Maybe he is very sad or very angry or otherwise not on the same page as you, with the sunset and the people and la la la through the shadows. Either way, he opts for, "GO FUCK YOURSELF!", right there, suddenly lurching violently up in your face, his spittle on your cheek, his middle fingers waving in your eyes, but walking fast, away from you now, and past, and gone.
And you are left there on the trail, frozen in place, suddenly aware of horror film scenarios and of being a woman alone in the darkening woods on a trail where no one will likely hear you scream.
Let's say that you walk the rest of the way on legs that are finding it impossible to believe that they can both shake like this and still support the whole stupid weight of you and your stupid smile and stupid camera and stupid magnanamous "HI!" and let's not get started on your whole STUPID HAPPY SMILE.
On the plus side, nothing actually happened.
Here is what actually happened:
You hike up to see a sunset. On the way down, you see a stranger on the trail. Without stopping, he hands you a beautifully wrapped gift. Black, say, with red and orange ribbon curling down the side like flames. "But I..." you start to say, but you can see he's angry, so you accept the gift and turn to walk away.
He stops you, wrenching from your pocket a gift you didn't know you had. Think of it as pale blue, a pink that fades into purple so subtly that you can't see where one gives way to the other. He doesn't thank you, but that's OK. It's the giving that counts, you suppose, and he gave you something, so it's only fair.
And maybe it will make him less hostile.
You don't like him though. There is something. You are uncomfortable. His gift is sharp in your hands and somehow too heavy. You can't think why you don't just put it down, abandon it, but you carry it. A gift given is one obligated to be received, you suppose.
It's only when you get back to your house, securing the locks carefully behind you, as though he might have followed you home with his sour expression and aggressive words, that you open the gift and inside the box, there it is. It's lying there on its side under a black stone that weighs more than anything. It is a small scorpion. Not moving, let's say. But still upsetting. You know immediately what it is. It is Fear.
You drop the box, which tips, and the scorpion gets out and immediately multiplies, becoming hundreds of scorpions, all over the mountain trail that you once loved, as recently as an hour ago.
"Well, I didn't ask for that," you say out loud to your dog, who cocks her head at you and then wanders away to go lie on your bed while you are obviously distracted.
By now, of course, the man has openened your gift, too. Sitting, as he probably is, atop the mountain in the dark, the sunset-watching crowd all at home now, in front of warm fires, remembering how pretty it was. Above him, the black sky is flecked with a scattershot of stars. It's only then that you realize that what he got from you wasn't something you meant to give away at all, much less to someone so undeserving.
It was your favourite thing.
Inside that box was a small stone, cool and white. Nothing much to look at. The kind of thing you don't realize that you treasured until it's gone. In fact, you hadn't even known you'd been carrying it with you all this time. It is, after all, just a feeling. Or, rather, two feelings.
Let's call them Safety. And Security.
Gone with the man in the black jacket who was too late to see the setting sun.
You can picture him up there now, sitting on the outcropping (where you just recently stood, absorbed in the beauty of it all), rubbing the stone between his thumb and forefinger, feeling the smooth coolness of it there, before dropping it in his coat pocket, another one for his collection, his smile widening in the darkness, his teeth glowing white as bone.