You Cannot Return to the Burning Glade

Trail Diary, Day 377

Birds: Barred owl, still and silent at the top of the old oak. Chickadee on her buckthorn branch at the edge of the clearing. Waiting for me and my pocket of seeds.

Animals: None to be seen in the trailcam frame, but hoofprints in the mud by the creek. Deer. A big buck by the depth of the imprint.

Notes: I couldn’t walk the trail today, not after the call from the hospital, and later with the funeral director. I stood at the door for a long time, breathing in what scents the wind sent me—sticky pine resin, leaf mould, and somewhere not far off, the black tar of roadwork. I couldn’t move past the front porch. Couldn’t bear even a quick jaunt, the trail so close to home. Feeling too much like I might miss an important phone call—might miss news of you. But those days are over. So I watched the trailcam, curled up with my laptop on your side of the bed. With my head on your pillow. It still smells like you.


Trail Diary, Day 379

Birds: A crow, worrying something on the chickadee’s tree. Some small bit of a scavenged kill, lodged between branches. Kept the camera trained on it for a long time, remembering those videos we used to watch of crows using tools, how delighted we were by each quizzical cock of the avian head. Like they would figure out this whole messed up world given enough food pellets. Remember how we tried to lure them to the yard with peanuts, hoping they would leave something in return? Today the chickadee is nowhere to be seen.

Animals: A grey squirrel crossed the frame, but stayed on the far side of the creek. Skirting the bank as if avoiding something. Maybe a snake’s hole. New deer tracks in the mud.

Notes: Still in bed. Still with the trailcam. I will make myself get up tomorrow. Eat something. Cross the front porch and stand in the sunshine, no matter how it burns. Remember when we would stay in bed all day? We’d lie so close, nearly every part of us touching—toes, knees, bellies, noses. We breathed each other like our lungs were connected. Ate only because we thought we had to. Because somewhere beneath feeling we knew that love could not sustain us forever. It was one of those times you looked me in the face—inches away, I could taste your breath. You said, “I’ll come back for you, Dee. I’ll give you a sign. Believe me.” And I did. I do.


Trail Diary, Day 383

Birds: Chickadee was there on her branch, and came to my hand. The weight of her on my finger was almost too much. Her little claws too piercing. Feathers too delicate, brushing my open palm. Watched her eat seeds, tears streaming. Crow-calls a mile off.

Animals: None. No fresh prints on the bank. But there was a deer leg—lower-half, burnished fur to the ankle, gleaming bone and red muscle intact—wedged into the Y of the tree. Probably eagle-dropped. Should have included this in the bird list above.

Notes: My lungs burn with exertion, fresh air. Feels like it did during the fires last year, when we could barely breathe outside at all. Maybe it isn’t the air now; maybe I will never be able to breathe again. Maybe this is how you felt?


Trail Diary, Day 385

Birds: The shadow of a host of sparrows crossed my bedroom window.

Animals: Trailcam is open on the desktop, sound on. Red squirrel scolding, marking some disturbance. I can’t look.

Notes: In bed again. Since being out on the trail yesterday, every shift of light, every breath of pine or juniper carried on the wind, every sound seems to trigger some remembrance. Something I swore I’d forgotten comes to me through the chatter of a squirrel’s teeth. The shape of the light through a clutch of maple keys. We tried to tap a few of those trees out past the glade in our second season, but in the drought the previous summer the trees drew the sap deep, keeping it for themselves. We didn’t know the state of things. Thought we’d just done it wrong. We laughed about it in bed later. Laughed so hard we cried, a bit drunk on that sour elderberry wine the neighbour brought. And on possibility.

I kissed the tears from the corners of your eyes and I meant it.

But is this what you meant for me when you threw the rope up over the branch of the biggest maple? When you threw yourself back down to earth? Or did you intend, instead, a warning? Let not your step grace this patch of grass. Lest you remember . . . . But you didn’t die, love. Not right away. Not for weeks.


Trail Diary, Day 386

Birds: Turkey vulture overhead the whole way from the house to the chickadee’s glade. Not yet, not yet. No chickadee, but bluejays were screaming from the pine grove up the hill.

Animals: Three days ago I recorded that some bird had dropped a deer leg in the tree but now I’m second-guessing. It’s a whole leg, nearly to the flank. How could I have missed that? A whole deer leg in a tree is not something easily missed. But I missed it. I must have. I must have missed it like I missed the ways the land was changing—the months of drought, insects I’d never seen before. I must have missed it like I missed the signs of your illness—your breakdown—because I didn’t want to see? A deer leg needs a damned big eagle to carry it away. Or a cougar? I don’t see mention of cougar prints or scat in the diary. I would remember that.

Notes: The diary reminds me it’s almost time to do the back-burn again. How I will do that without you, I don’t know. That first year, when we didn’t do it—we didn’t know—how could we have known?—the fire came so close we had to turn the hose on the porch rails. Stay up all night to keep the wood wet. You fell asleep in your chair, hose running. Woke up screaming at me to get into the pond. To save myself. Wide awake but still dreaming, you couldn’t fathom—couldn’t see—that the pond was bone dry. Was that the first season I noticed a change in you? When we lived in the city it was easier to put these things aside. But when we found that doe caught in the fence, her head seared to the skull by some quick-burn wind, you weren’t ever the same after that. After we walked the woods with your gun looking for all the half-burned souls. After that you mapped the fires. Tracked temperatures. Expanded your recording to the entire country. The continent. The world. The numbers were too much, too heavy. It was hard to breathe.


Trail Diary, Day 388

Birds: No chickadee on the trailcam today.

Animals: No.

Notes: Maybe it’s the angle of the thing. Maybe I’m just going fucking crazy. But the deer leg’s past flank now. Can I see shoulders? Black singe marks on the fur. It’s moving. Back legs kicking. Trying to get free.


Trail Diary, Day 389

Birds: The chickadee is nearby. Calling and calling, but I haven’t seen her.

Animals: Something is screaming in the forest. I can hear it with all the doors and windows closed. With our bedroom door closed.

Notes: I know what I’ll see on the trail. I’ve seen it before. The tangle of stiff limbs. The singed fur. The skeletal mouth in a rictus of agony. The grid of teeth barring all mercy. Antlers like a lightning burn. Just like you said you would, you’ve come back to me, love. But you haven’t left your pain behind. You’ve brought it back to life. You’ve given it new strength. And you leverage that strength between me and the world I live in now without you. The world I love. Even without you.

You cannot return to the burning glade. The burning world.

Tomorrow I’ll walk the trail. Tomorrow I’ll go out with your gun in my pocket. I’ll bring extra bullets. But in the other pocket, I’ll have the chickadee’s seeds.


Author: Eileen Gunnell Lee

Eileen Gunnell Lee is a Canadian writer, educator, editor, and a PhD in English literature. She has stories published in or forthcoming from Nightmare Magazine, Escape Pod, Selene Quarterly, Fusion Fragment, and others. She is an Associate Editor at Truancy Magazine. As Selena Middleton, she publishes academic research on speculative fiction and ecocriticism and is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Stelliform Press, a new press for long-form climate fiction and non-fiction. Living halfway up the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton, Ontario, she regularly meets deer, foxes, coyotes, cloaked riders on horseback, and mushrooms of ambiguous intent. She can be found on Twitter @eileenglee and on the web at Stelliform Press is on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @StelliformPress and on the web at

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