Through the dense underbrush of a white-pine forest, a tender skinned boy bushwacks; awkward, flinching, wincing, hobbling as he is lashed and stabbed by branches and thorns. He has returned to the woods.
It is not that he ever came from the woods, only that he, like so many seekers and discontented extremists, longed for a valid life experience, or to at least prove that he could exist in an animal’s natural habitat despite his being born via cesarean section and his childhood health being supplemented by an assortment of asthma and anti-biotic medications. Could he survive had man not removed himself from the food chain or natural selection?
But these are separate issues, convenient curiosities, excuses… in all truthfulness Boy moving to the woods is an escape; the only one that fits his dogmatic restrictions of life, but not even in good conscious. He is fully aware that he was avoiding burdens of greater value- but he felt weak as of late, as if to break! And then what good could he do? He certainly could not return to see the girl who rode past on her bicycle. He was not so shallow to abandon his friends for a vision of physical beauty. One friend read to him: “romance is a refuge for the defeated, a soft bed his escape” and Boy wasn’t finished yet! But he did need a vacation.
And so he has come to the forest that guidebooks warn you of getting lost in. He has brought nothing but himself and a pair of shorts (only to remain decent in the event that he may happen upon a hiker or a family on a day trip). He will climb trees until his body is as leathered as his feet become every summer; and at night he will sleep soundly, unafraid of what does not lurk! “Fuck those horror movies for tainting the purity of the woods in my mind!” And perhaps he will see something of the fantastic and magical, “a lovely fairy princess?”- Oh betrayer in truth! Your mouth reveals your guilty mind: how nice it would be to find your lover in the forest! But you have met a girl in the woods before and she proved nothing more than the lot: “free-spirited”, poly-amorous, gear junkie, cell phone on the trail, narrow-minded picture of reality spoon fed by a college education based in specialization, experience and progress with little regard for tradition or holistic results.
He stumbles out into a clearing, where density is in the canopy rather than on the forest’s floor: thick old trees, standing dark and full so as to block out any light that would let saplings grow. The ground is soft from peat, moss, and mushrooms. “Here will be a good place to sleep,” but it is early in the day still so he wanders on.
Two thin pines (thin being a foot or so wide) have grown, reaching some twenty-five, thirty feet, out over a lake. The water below is shallow, at most four feet deep. One tree is dead. Boy bounds down a hill to the edge of the lake where these two trees lean. “How close together they’ve grown! If one were to jump a little he could easily land in the other.” Boy first climbs the living tree. More than two thirds of the way up he looks at the other tree, “oh easy! But perhaps jump from the dead one rather than to it.” Yes, he has common sense. He has recognized the shortcomings of Man and His difficult path and now from which tree one should jump to. He climbs down and up the other, which proves more difficult as there are few to no branches to use for balance. Close to halfway he stops, not daring to go any further. He rests a moment to calm his breath because he is afraid. There’s a perfect branch to jump to if he were to climb only a little higher. He goes to shimmy but sits down instead. Of course! He has all the right ideas but no follow through! And now will he grace us with an excuse to escape the stunt altogether with?
What’s this? Ha! Ha! He jumped! And with a proud cut across the belly to show for. He bellows out glorious laughter! Then he looks about, with no audience he quickly quiets himself.
The day is warm and so he goes swimming. Just as he is, nothing to remove or to hide and come back for, he is free of all burdens. Wait! Not in that way! Don’t misunderstand my words. He is only on vacation, for the summer. He is glad for his burdens; he will make a great number of those he cares for happy. He is only without responsibility until he needs to put on more clothing, then he will resume working towards his first goal. In fact he despises those who suggest ‘freeing’ yourself from your burdens. What are you good for if you don’t pull all the weight you can? He condemns such underachievers. ‘Feather weights’ as his friend’s father dubbed them. “’Drop your Burdens, don’t think so much, lookout for yourself first, lose yourself,’ words to live a selfish and worthless life by.”
The water is cold but the Boy is happy to swim. He knows he needs the practice. “Maybe by the end of summer I’ll be quite good,” he hopes. “If I had been swimming since I was young I’d have talent.” He remembers what he had heard of a baby’s natural ability to swim. “If a baby were to be born in a lake I wonder if he could stay there and grow up always swimming or floating. A whale boy! If I were to walk on my hands half of every day I’d surely be able to run on my hands in two years!” He paddles to shore and practices.
Night has fallen and he has laid himself a bed of leaves inside a debris hut beneath the dark under- story. The crickets bow soothing tones. He is comfortable with the different sounds around him. He will not allow his imagination to distort sounds that are anything but unusual.
Sleep comes quickly but he wakes with that middle of the night urgency. He crawls out of his miniature log cabin and waters a tree. The cool night air chills, shivering his nerves, leaving him uneasy. He races back into the warmth of the leaves, trying to return to where he was before: deep unknowing unconsciousness. But the chill is still about him. The night sounds have become crisp and loud: each leaf crackling as his body settles, the wind stirring and scrapping the trees’ branches. The crickets are asleep and the frogs.
He envisions a faceless man in the woods wearing tall black boots. But in his shelter he cannot look to see if anyone is around and so he strains his ears to hear his own imagination. He hears nothing but imagines more, enough to terrify some; he isn’t terrified, only fearful enough that he lies still listening. There is a sound: a rustling of leaves. Oh this sends his mind reeling! and his muscles tense. And another sound: a mucus filled cough. He should faint or lose control of his stool or something. But he has heard this sound before, and now he feels no fear. He perhaps even feels protected.
“It’s a deer. You shouldn’t be afraid of ‘em, they’ll protect you if you lay still- unless they’re in danger they’ll protect you. I don’t know how but they will. But I’d be lying there thinking how good they taste: deer steak, deer stew, deer sausage… It’s okay if you eat them, they’re vegetarian’s meat. All they eat is vegetables: people’s carrots and carrots and vegetables in gardens. No guilt in eating vegetarian’s meat.” The drunken war vet had told him this, some time ago sitting on the tracks. Sleep returns to the Boy now.
The days are easy on Boy: blue skies, sunshine, and warm temperatures. Each day he climbs trees and practices handstands. He swims, throws stones at targets, or skips them across the water. Once he made a fire and stared at the flames, but only once because it is too warm for a fire. He spends a good amount of time recalling his past, imagining if he were to return to moments of his younger youth as he is now, as his mind is now. What would his friends or parents think of him toting around the ideas of the future? Would he be able to tolerate the pathetically small scope everyone had back then? Would he be able to tolerate his own pathetic state of being, his body, his diet, his living conditions, school? Never the less he would make significant change, dramatic change by even the smallest of comments or ideas. Ha! Ha! Yes he would as he has and as he does even now! Every word spoken and every gesture forces change. This becomes ever so clear as he reflects on his past, imagining how his words would move many things big or small. He stares at a log as his mind entertains itself with these thoughts.
“Such a thick log.” Moss grows from its dark wet flesh. Ferns and Jack in the pulpit grow beneath. “Such a dark thick log. It must reach close to six and a half feet high in width, as it is on its side. How perfect would it be if a little man were sitting on this log? He’d dress in clothing made from the woods: a crown of vines and a shirt of leaves. Oh but he’d have to wear tan tights and curled shoes!
“Sitting on this log on those nights that dipped down to four degrees. On such nights head sized stones might even float up streams if the moon allowed such a phenomenon. His face wears a devilish smile, truly entertained and psychotic, ever so pleased that he has fallen into a manic spell. Hee! Hee! I can see him standing behind the couch where a sleeping beauty lays, half enveloped in darkness. He stands as dark and tall as the log though he is shorter than this shorter than average sized girl. It is his mightily imposing presence that makes him appear so large.”
Over the past week Boy has grown more accustomed to sleeping outside by himself. The summer nights are short enough that, if he is sure to relieve himself before going to sleep, he can rest peacefully from dusk till dawn.
On this night he does the same: urinates then retires to his hut. Like most of the nights he dreams very little or of nothing at all. No in fact it has been years since he has had a dream worth mentioning. “I don’t know why,” he mumbles when others talk of the fantastic adventures they partook in the comfort of their beds. The last dreams he can remember were those of his childhood: the one about the exploding boat house of course; and one in which he would follow a road or a dried out stream bed to a great marsh. Here he’d have to be both quick and light of foot to skip from lily pad to lily pad. Once crossing the marshes he’d come to a mansion, which he’d have to sneak into through spaces in the walls that were all too tight, horribly claustrophobic. In the mansion he’d visit a girl who could always be found in her bedroom, a beautifully safe environment. This was in serious contrast to the house itself, which was often filled with flames resembling the fires of hell, and her father, the murderous madman Boy would often battle. She was his deepest love, so much so, she was love itself for Boy, and though she loved him she sat high up on her lofted bed and he’d visit, never making this his home too, and she would never give much of herself, only the comfort and kindness of a beautiful and lofted girl. And he was but an infant in this posed and tranquil woman’s place. His heart cried out desperately and she sat quite calm, brushing the hair from her eyes and smiling at the Boy’s humorous ways. Thick in the air, melancholy, defeated yearning, that love could never be expressed- she seemed at peace with this, and Boy would want always to weep.
On this night again he has had no dreams, though he is conscious of that vacancy. He waits. Starring at the darkness upon darkness of the stick ceiling above him. There is a hum, a drone, many voices with distance muting and blending them into one sound. As the sound moves closer each voice finds clarity and he recognizes who is speaking. It is the shrieks and cackles of a thousand black birds, now deafening. In his hut he can only imagine how they fill the branches of the trees around him. He remembers long ago when he had seen so many black birds that they made the ground look as though it was thriving with the richest soil. When he stepped closer they all took off, a thunder of fluttering wings. They blackened out the sun and the sky and all that he could see before. Now as he lay in his bed of leaves he hears these familiar sounds and perhaps even a dog barking in a field that is closer than he had known. He imagines how the sky must be brightening up and how the sun is surely breaking over the horizon. He is so sure of this that he can even see it happening. The warmth pours in through holes between sticks.
“What a pleasant wake up call: a thousand black birds and a rising sun. I am refreshed.” So he sits up to greet the day. But there is nothing. He sits up only in a dream to a dream morning. It is still night and he has only opened his eyes and that is all. There is no sun, not even a moon. There are no black birds. There are no crickets either, and no wind in the trees. There are no deer coughing or squirrels rustling leaves. He certainly does not stir, he wouldn’t dare disturb what envelops his hut and these woods: this terrible silence, terrifying quiet. He lies with horror strewn across his face until he falls back asleep.
Morning is as beautiful as it has been every day. He goes for walks, climbs trees, practices swimming and handstands, chases deer, skips stones, sits and stares, sits and stares- the girl on the couch. “Oh she was precious, so tiny beneath her coat. She was breathing as heavy as she could but you could hardly hear a whisper of air and only the most attentive eye would notice movement from beneath her makeshift covers.
“But she shouldn’t be sleeping on the couch. She should have her bed, and who knows perhaps she’ll wake in the night confused that she is not in the comfort of her room. No, she must be brought to her room and tucked in, under real blankets. I go to her and scoop her up into the air. Hee! Hee! At this she stirs. I am sorry my dear. She flails about for she has been thrown so violently, so unwittingly, into a strangers arms, a gnomes hideous and powerful arms: she has no idea of what is happening!
“This is only for a moment, her first reaction. She looks about, then at my face, and once again she is calm. She curls up into my arms and rests her head in the soft pocket between my chest and shoulder! Sweet angel.
“I lay her in her bed and gaze down for a while. It takes all my strength not to lie down beside her. I should go for a walk.” He walks swiftly through the woods keeping to deer trails.
“An angel indeed! Ha! She may act meek and innocent. She may even avoid speaking profanities. Maybe her pillow or jacket has little wings. Oh but do not be mistaken she is no angel! No, no, no, she only wishes she were. Why do you think she was passed out on the couch? Yes passed out! Oh you have such simple answers: ‘fell asleep reading a book’! Really! How naive you are. No, there are devils involved in such slumber, a fallen angel maybe but not one who can look the Lord in the eye; an angel complex, not an angel!”
He stops by an apple tree that grows as though it should be in a field and not in the forest.
That night two friends visit him. They come to him as he sleeps. They do not wake him, their presence alone gently stirs him and they take him out of his bed to a train. He gazes out as the darkened landscape passes by. On the furthest hill he sees dark clouds. They move with the train but faster. AS they near they become more clear: a stampede. First cows and horses, and then elephants and mammoths, then elephant-like beasts with giant gorilla faces on their asses roaring as they run. There are hundreds of them.
The train slows, then suddenly stop, Boy stands to go to the party. Everyone enters the mansion in a very regal manner. The host is familiar to Boy. They nod to one another knowingly, then move on. It is understood that Boy has secrets to keep for the host.
Three girls catch Boy’s eye. All of them are very thin and young looking, large eyes. They are close, though perhaps not the closest of friends, nor do they trust one another. The blond approaches Boy. She instantly engages him in conversation and slight touch on the arms to emphasize words. Her hands are tender as a child. She doesn’t hesitate in asking personal questions and he answers with no reservations.
“How eagerly you answer! How is it that you are so willing to tell me these things?” Her physical allure is serious. She shows no restraint in using her powers. It could make you cry.
“Eagerly is perhaps not the word I’d use, but it’s true I hold no secrets. I could speak these things to anyone; I’d speak anything to anyone. This is my philosophy.” At this he realizes he has spoken falsely and that she is horrible and is performing trickery. He steps back defensively. “No! I have one secret and I will never utter it to anyone!” At this he realizes he’s betrayed himself again, admitting a secret is there at all. She whines and whimpers mimicking the innocent curiosity of a child. But she has chosen the wrong method. Boy is not susceptible, turned off instead. He knows now that she is wicked and he knows what she looks for in him. “I won’t! And if you inquire any longer I’ll have to leave. Do not even ask what the subject or general content of my secret is.”
At this she steps away. In a sort of bitter defeat she gestures a cohort (the brown-haired girl in Boy’s direction. She has no need to create illusions now that he has dismissed her. She even strikes the meek girl who now steps towards Boy.
The brown-haired girl is sweet even for a conspirer, perhaps only a tool of conspiracy. She asks Boy no questions and he finds comfort in this as well as her company itself. He’d kiss her softly on the head and cheek. They find a quiet room with a bed and lay together for some time. She yearns for comfort and compassion and he has no qualms in giving that of himself. She falls asleep resting her head on his chest. He thinks to himself how the next few moments will play out: a repeated moment in life or dream. He glances to the window, simple but beautiful stained glass. What colors there are are vibrant even in the dimly lit room.
The third of their trio sits by the desk adjacent to the window. She is virtually a non-entity but is somehow crucial to their companionship.
The blond enters. She comes with some new inspiration, determined to pry out information, but Boy is a stone. She appears threatening, dangerous even. He tears himself from the brown-haired girl’s grip of affection. She cries out awoken and acknowledging that in moments there will be violence. He runs towards the door to escape but is stabbed by a reluctant jab from the brown-haired girl. The blond comes at him next with two knives. She stabs him over and over. He remains calm, staring at the window. Lifting her, he carries her to and through the glass.
The brown-haired girl slumps to her knees. Boy stands unsure now of what secret he ever had, but if he knew what it was he wouldn’t tell. Even this he wouldn’t speak of.
Boy’s two friends bring him back to the woods and return him to his hut. The dawn has long since broken and he is late to wake. He opens his eyes to be reborn by the morning light. Instead he wakes to darkness and to silence. The same hideous and haunting quiet of before, unnatural and perverted. He is consumed completely, horrible anxiety and a piercing pain of fear. He clenches his eyes and prays desperately that morning will come and that this oppressive nothing will pass. He is blessed by another cycle of sleep and does not wake nearly til midday.
By afternoon boy is seated, staring at reeds that grow in the water. He is like stone.
“I met a girl. She was lovely and young. We were both young, these were in innocent days. But she was particularly sweet, a little princess. In fact she was a princess of a South American country. She wore a princess dress and I wore a suit, black tail coat with white tie, white vest, gloves, buttons, cuff-links. A formal event- I have mixed feelings for such things. I called her over for a walk.
“We took off our shoes and socks and walked barefoot (as it was a warm autumn night) out to where the woods met the fields. The moon was full or close to it; it lit the ground as well as a cloudy day. All was magical. Think of it, how much more does it take? We walked by a corn field, which still hadn’t been cut. We hardly spoke, flirting heavily with eyes upon eyes and gentle shoves and squeezes and giggles and eyes upon bodies- and from within the corn, near the edge, came a rustling and heavy breath, deep as a horse. Only frozen for a second, we ran. I think I even saw his black boots; terror then laughter, reflected on fear then soft kisses; we were young.”
At this point Boy has surrendered to gravity, laying back with his left arm thrown across his eyes and brow as his right hand tears apart leaves from the ground. He slurs his speech, mumbles and shouts. He speaks falsely and does not correct himself. He simply speaks unfiltered, unapologetic, unconscious rambling:
“I have one regret in life. A regret I knew I’d carry the moment before I made my decision. I was almost a professional ballerino. I trained under a famous Russian dancer from the Saint Petersburg and New York City ballet. He was an old man but he was magnificent. I’d watch, as he’d dance with the girls, as he’d show me my part.
“Oh but you must know how I came to him. I am a musician and I was looking to acquire ballet accompaniment music to use as a model for some songs I was writing. You see, I have always been fond of ballet: the rigid yet passionate melodies, the gestures and poise of a ballerina within her rigid preset of movement. I happened upon his studio after a days work landscaping. My hands were scabbed and scarred from pruning rose bushes and locust trees. I came to him with this request, for the sheet music, but his English was poor and he thought I wanted to play for his class. This I did, for a few weeks to earn extra money.
“He’d look at me at times and wonder if under my rough exterior there wasn’t the most graceful ballet virtuoso? One day after class, as I was packing up my music, he took me from my bench to the bar. He asked me to do a series of positions and toe points that I knew well from watching the girls in class. He asked me to jump and this is something I do well. All of it impressed him and he ranted in his thick Russian accent: ‘I may have found the next Baryshnikov! You belong on the stage. You are a handsome boy, strong from raking and carrying trees. You will be on stage in a year’s time, professional in three. My training, you will be a great! But promise me, I have discovered you, you must not dance for anyone else.’ I promised and then began training twice a day. I quit my landscaping job and he paid for my food, as I needed it. I lived in the studio.
“He was magnificent, as he’d show me something with the girls. I’d see a great master and a young girl gracefully love one another in the most passionate form, the most beautiful expression of the beautiful things. I doubt that those girls even realized what sensual acts they partook in day after day.
“I couldn’t continue. Oh I so desperately wanted to, but it was selfish, self-serving. It would not amend the shortcomings of man or ease their burdens. It would help the world in its way, in a small beautiful way, but not to the extremes I’d hope for-”
His voice and thoughts trail off. For a moment he had forgotten what goals he had. He finds it difficult to think of his life outside of these woods as it actually was.
The sun had not set but he lies in his bed of leaves. “When I close my eyes I imagine a leaf falling into the cold water with a fish’s mouth near the surface: opening and closing. The leaf falls again from an exhausted hand, limp fingers and wrist. It falls with a letter written on delicately thin post card sized paper. Flower-like drawings have been scribbled in dull tones of orange, blue, and green, in the bottom corner. The water soaks into the paper darkening the ink then bleeding the words illegible. It floats half submerged down the stream, meandering through the curving course. The sun shines brightly, washed out through mist, or the moon shines down just the same.”
He wakes halfway from his slumber, refusing to wake completely, knowing that he is surely being tricked into the silence. He has to pee. Ha! Ha! No he won’t! He ignores the urge and falls back asleep and again partially wakes and back and forth and back and forth. Each time, a new trickery: the sun is rising; you’re home; you are in danger; fire!
“It’s the moon and stars conspiring to mimic the sun, you won’t get me out of my hole! You won’t wake me!” He goes to scream but there is no sound. He looks about frantically and sees that he had left his hovel. He had leaped out of his bed to scream and no sound came from his mouth! No sound came from his feet as he ran out into the night! There is nothing! Oh this is horribly beautiful, frightening in its magnificence. The hush is music in itself: an old silver production of the fantastic. He is swept by the mute’s melody and consumed by fear as he is, he dances off through and between his towering audience. They watch a dream unfold. He leaps over logs and bushes with inhuman levitation or grace so strong. The leaves that hang over his shoulders and around his neck glimmer in the darkness. Reflecting their own brilliance. He looks down at his legs with a lunatics glee. He jumps and kicks and stomps about all the time starring at how his tights show his strong thighs and defined calves. He runs swiftly barely touching the ground with more than his toes. He pushes his chest out to take in the clear air. He leaps down a steep hill and glides above the slope the whole way never touching. He runs across water in the same way and on the other side mimics both a ventriloquist and the dummy. His own hand controls the imaginary strings that move his body to the mute’s song. He runs more and so that his knees come up to his chest and his spine is swayed back.
From behind the trees that stand before Boy lights stream through the woods. Light that resembles nothing of the sun or moon. He looks with curiosity, a comic cock of the head with wide eyes. Then he runs in his way with that demented smile plastered in exaggerated proportions. He dances right to the source: the apple tree that belongs in a field. It seems monstrous this evening and it looks nothing as it did before. It is a house as much as it is a tree and light pours out of the windows.
“What’s the difference between horizontal and vertical?” He wonders as staring up the long tower of wood. He steps to walk up it and I believe he certainly could have but instead he finds distraction. “She is here!” He mouths the words.
“She,” at this he is a little more serious, oh but still mad by fantasy. She is everything he could imagine in a girl. Even her shortcomings are as he would dream: a devil or an angel? She dances. Oh, she dances! Years of harsh, rigid training coupled with a fantastic bleeding heart. She dances with all the beauty of earthly holiness. “Oh to know her dreams and passions! To know what stirs her so much that she’d be moved to laugh out loud though tears are hidden behind her eyes. Tell me anything princess, tell me what you will, and I will tell you anything you wanted to know.”
Boy’s face is pressed against the window. His open mouth fogs the glass. His eyes dip as if to cry. And as tears form, about to flood down his cheek, she turns and sees him.
Dawn had broken the silent night. Boy wakes. He waits for night, impatiently, to return to the girl in the tree. He waits all the dark hours but no hush ever comes over the woods. He tries again and again every day during twilight hours but the mute never sings.
“One day, as uneventful and long as the rest, I came upon a road, a real road. There were even construction workers waving down traffic allowing only one direction passage at a time. I watched the cars from the edge of the tree line. In the back of one of the stopped cars sat a girl. She saw me too. I must have looked to her like some sort of wild animal. She smiles and waves. I smile back, though my lips are tightly closed and turned down at the corners. My eyes are loving and sad as if I am in love, but they narrow and squint harshly toward the sun. I raise my hand with my fingers stretched out. Her smile and wave fade as the car is allowed to pass. She disappears over the hill.”
He wanders further that day abandoning his little home and those things that had become familiar to him. He wanders long past dusk and long after he has become exhausted. His mind is numb and uninspired. He doesn’t consider suicide though he probably should. He is a waste.
Ho! A sudden change of expression; surprise and intrigue rather than gloom: a cabin. He knocks then enters.
It is difficult to see but there is a faint smell, some sweetness about the place. He feels around and finds a stove and table. He follows the scent to a bed. On this he lays down, his head upon a pillow. “Oh dear such a pleasant fragrance! Pleasant pheasant.” He breathes in deep with the pillow tight against his nose and mouth. He imagines the lovely creature who lives here. He rolls around the bed, inhaling deep breathes of her musk, wrapping his body around her (pillows), tickling his face with the sheets, rubbing them against any soft places that remain on his leathered body. He mimics her voice speaking to him: “Goodnight puddle jumper. Goodnight my brave puddle jumper!”
He wakes late in the morning. The bed blazes from the sun, from through the window. Rolling over he brings the pillow back into his arms. He presses it up to his nostrils and takes in deep breaths to fill his mind with her delicious and delightful perfume. He wishes to become delirious and intoxicated first thing in the morning.
But there is nothing. No sweetness, only the smell of dirt and sticks and sweat. His own brutish odor has swallowed her whole. There is nothing left, nothing more.