Into the Forest
The yellow and brown leaves under my feet cushion each step, making a squishy crunching sound as they do so. I like the sound. It’s natural, welcoming. The aroma also pulls me deeper into the forest with its organic allure, like bark and subtle sweet mildew in the best of ways. I lower my head to avoid a jagged protruding branch.
Soon I come across the clearing. I haven’t been there before, but I know it’s the right place. I stop at the perimeter. My ears are full of silence. The density of leaves thins out, showing patches of dirt and grass under them. There is a giant oak in the center of the clearing, with a small pond, still as glass, behind it. A gust of wind nudges me forward like a breath of the forest, the sound like the ocean receding from a pebbled beach breaking the silence. The pond ripples, the reflection of the oak separating rhythmically within. I again break the dense silence when I resume walking, now towards the towering solitary oak. My destination. Of course.
I sit down, leaning against the tree. My legs breathe a sigh of relief. I must have been walking a while. I tense momentarily as I feel cold, or wet, or both, through my pants, but I decide to settle into it. My body crunches into the ruffage, but once I’m still the silence once again bears down on me. I close my eyes, and listen to the soft intimate rhythm of my breath.
“Wake up,” a ghostly familiar voice says. A small cold hand touches my cheek.
At the startle of sound and touch, I slap the hand away, open my eyes, and reply. “I’m not sleeping.”
“You were,” the young boy says, pulling his hand to his body. Six years old? Maybe eight? Messy dark brown hair combed into a forced part above large elfish ears that point out beyond the hair. “Ow.” His lip pouts, but he stays standing where he is.
He glares back at me, looking down slightly, his dark brown eyes like endless pools. I briefly look away, somehow intimidated.
“Who are you?” I ask.
The corner of his mouth curls up into a sneerish smirk. “You know who I am.”
And of course I do. “You’re….me.” I hear the crunching of leaves before I realize that it’s my nervous shifting causing the noise.
His smirk turns into a grimace. “Nah. I mean, well, kinda. I’m what you were. But definitely not what you are. But, I guess, you’re what I’ll be.” He looks away, down, sadly.
I stare, understanding, and slowly begin to share the same sadness as I look on. He kicks at some dirt, still looking away from me. I smell the fresh muskiness of uncovered earth, and I also look down on it as grief continues to swell inside.
After a minute, I look back at his big brown eyes behind long dark lashes. “Are you happy?” I ask.
Without lifting his head, his eyes roll up to look at me through the lashes. It’s a sad, knowing look. His bottom lip again pouts slightly, and his arms cling tightly to his small frame. He looks back at the dirt, and kicks harder. The dirt makes a spraying sound on the forest floor.
“What do you want?” I ask.
He looks up again, into my eyes. And he shrugs dramatically. Enthusiastically. As a soft tear suddenly drops from my lower eyelid, making its journey down my cheek and into the crease by my nose, the boy bends over and picks something up.
“You see this?” he asks, holding up the brown nut.
“Yeah, an acorn,” I say, smiling at the sweet confusion only kids can offer. I taste the saltiness of my tear.
He doesn’t respond, but instead shifts his gaze upward. My head follows, and we both look up at the grandeur of the giant oak. Despite sitting comfortably at the base, the tree reaching proudly into the sky gives me a sense of vertigo. I look back down. The boy keeps staring up, now smiling. A gust of wind makes another sad shushing sound as all the branches bend and then quiver, and the boy’s smile widens.
“What do you need?” I ask.
His smile disappears as he looks back down at me. Like looking in a mirror I see his eyebrows shift familiarly, pensive. His reflected familiar youth makes me feel old, and tired.
There’s something there, in his nonverbal response to my question, so I nudge: “Anything. What do you need the most, more than anything, in life?”
A few seconds later he takes a step towards me, and leans down, putting his lips to my ear, so close I can feel his breath. I smell myself, only lighter, fresher, sweeter.
He whispers, “A father.”
As my heart sinks to my stomach, he leans back and stares into my eyes, expectantly.
I shake my head. “It’s not going to happen.” My voice cracks a bit as I respond. “At least not while you’re a kid.” I clear my throat. “And when you finally get close, he’s going to die.”
The boy looks disappointed, but not surprised. After another minute of consideration, he leans back in.
“To be a child,” he whispers, and again stands up straight and waits for my reply.
“Not gonna happen,” I respond with a soft cringe. “You can’t. The girls need you.”
“Mommy and my sisters,” he responds, half in question, half in understanding and recognition.
“Yes,” I say after a pause, “them too,” and I’m now not sure what to say any longer.
The boy looks confused for a moment, but it passes, and he leans to my ear again. He whispers, “Then, to feel totally independent someday, and loved unconditionally.”
I nod, slowly, before replying to his expectant childish look. “But those are opposites,” I reply.
The boy’s shoulders drop heavily. He looks to the ground. I can’t see his eyes any longer. He sniffles, damply, and walks past me towards the small pond. I hear a few quickening compressions of dead leaves and then a splash.
I stand up, and walk around the giant oak. The boy is gone, and the pond is choppy, small waves splashing onto the dirt shore. I look down at the water, waiting for the boy to resurface, and I see the color of my face and hair thrashing in the violent water.
As the seconds pass, my hope for the boy to resurface fades, and my true reflection slowly takes form. I look younger than I’d expected, but older than I’d like. I stare into my own eyes as the surface of the pond turns to glass, and silence retakes hold of the world.
A teardrop breaks the surface of the pond and brings me back into the forest. I turn around, back towards the giant oak, and I see a man leaning back against it, legs crossed, eyes closed. His hair and beard are white, his lips are curled down slightly at the corners. I break the silence by walking up to him, and staring into his closed eyes. He looks like my father, but without the glasses. I consider how little I ever saw of my father without the protection of tinted glasses.
The man’s skin is wrinkled, blotchy, old. Older than my father ever was, and with more smile lines around the closed eyes. “Wake up,” I say, my voice breaking into a half whisper as I do. I reach out and softly touch the loose skin of the man’s cheek above his beard.
His hand swats at mine. “I’m not sleeping,” he says gruffly, opening his eyes. They look deep into mine. I see an unfamiliar murkiness holding the familiar dark brown eyes, heavy with sadness, or perhaps fatigue. “Oh,” he says, recognizing.
“You’re….me,” I say softly, quietly, wondering, sadly.
“Hm,” he laughs through his nose, his mouth not following. “In some form, yes. You were what I was,” he explains patiently, with a surprising kindness in his tone. “But I’m not necessarily what you will be. And certainly not what you are.”
My eyebrows compress in confusion as I consider.
He laughs mirthlessly once again. His jest makes me self conscious so I look down at the ground. I see an acorn, and go to kick it, but he reaches out with wrinkled, liver spotted hands and grabs it before I do.
He holds the nut in between his face and mine, clearly focusing on it and not me.
I wait, but soon become impatient. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I need?”
His focus shifts to meet my pleading gaze.
“What I need more than anything in life?” I continue expectantly.
He reaches out his open hand with the acorn in it. “This acorn is the oak,” he says, and looks up. “Everything the tree is, and ever will be, is in here.” He looks back down at the acorn.
I’m about to speak, but his suddenly intense look, straight into my eyes, stops me.
“They’re not opposites,” he says. “Independence and unconditional love.” Long pause. “They can serve each other, actually. Though living that, well that’ll be up to you.”
Then his hand closes over the small brown acorn, hiding it from my view in his withered hand. “You can’t save them,” he says.
“Who?” I ask, confused. And then, remembering: “My mother and sisters?”
“Sister,” he corrects me. “And sure, them too. All of them. You can’t save them, and it’s not your job to. Never was, or should have been.”
I look back down at the ground, at the moist earth and corpses of foliage. I hear the gust of wind before I feel it, and even then it doesn’t penetrate beyond the most surface layer of my skin. I shake my head, and feel the emptiness inside at the realization that there is no way to dispute, and nothing else to discuss.
I turn around to the pond, whose surface is a symphony of ripples. As the ripples dissipate, I understand that I can’t let the reflection return to perfect again, can’t allow a clear representation again. So I walk towards it, breaking the unbearable silence with the shattering of dried leaves on the ground. I seem to break through them now with every step, as they no longer cushion my weight. Suddenly the crushing melodies of life and death meeting cease, my bare feet are wet, and the pond radiates with excitement, anticipation.
The water is warm, almost hot. I feel it slowly ascending up my body, from my knees, to my waist, to my chest, as the nearing surface of the pond grows violent with concentric circles clashing into chaos. Before long my ears fill with the shrieking sound of liquid submersion, my vision blurs into a glimmering war between light and dark, and I slowly, softly, ceaselessly exhale.