I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.
It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.
A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.
I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.
I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.
There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.
The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.
Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.
It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.
Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.
Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.
It was night. The sun had set.
Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.
A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.
It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.
It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.
I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.
I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.
Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.
My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of singing.
Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.
The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.
I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.
Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.
With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.
I blinked, and the face was gone.
The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.
I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.
The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.
Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.
Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.
“What are you?” her song asked.
“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”
Her smile was soft. “No.”
I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.
When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.
I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.
I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?
It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.
After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.
The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.
I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.
“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.
I shook my head. “I have no song.”
She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.
I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.
There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.
I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.
Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.
I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.