The man squatted on his haunches for a minute or two before he knelt into the brown grass and heavy leaves of late fall that covered this part of the forest. His several decades spoke loudly in the rubbing of bone and cartilage in his knees and the sharpness of the pain in his feet. He looked over the top of his glasses at the trees and rocks beyond, removing the field of his vision from behind the shading of the lenses so he could see the trees’ remaining leaves in their natural color, even if they were blurred in shape and substance. He had walked and run and hiked the miles and hours into the forest, remained on the trail for most of the morning, but now he wandered off a bit as the day progressed and as he felt the need for a slower pace.
About a quarter to half a mile back down the trail he thought he had heard a scream. It wasn’t long and it wasn’t short, but a medium scream that climbed in intensity in its short life and in its rebounding off the rocks and slabs of the canyon walls. He thought it was a scream. It might have been only an echo, though…an echo of a scream. He stopped and listened for what more might come after that middling scream and wondered from where and why it might have come.
The canyon road was somewhere off to his left as he had climbed forward, but now it was behind him as he sat there, facing into the woods and listening to what might be there or not. His thighs were trembling in staying in the position, or holding the position that he had been in for what must have been three and four or more minutes now. He thought he had heard a scream and wondered at the closeness of the road and the cars in their passing. Was it a girl or woman on the roadway on her bike, or was it a younger boy whose agony or surprise was too great to allow him the control of a more manly scream and instead came out like a girl’s in its purity of emotion, or was it someone on the trail or deeper in the canyon’s woods?
He tried to look past the clearing and through the near-winter bare trees toward where the base of the mountain had to be, those hundred or more yards in front of him. The man stood again and turned to look back down the grassy trail that he had followed to the clearing. He could still make out the larger and more often traveled dirt trail that ran this side of the rocky gorge that held the stream, but just barely, because of the rise of the ground and the vegetation that was in his way as he had gone this direction and that in following the more faint trail up and into the woods, the forested forever that ran up the canyon and brushed and hugged the side of the mountain that rose slowly and then thrust itself upward in a granite face with its contours and shadings from the light and the clouds and the darker woods beneath.
The man was still outside the clearing, down-trail of it by a dozen yards or more, but he could see that it had been used as a camp-site at some time in the past. He saw what appeared to be a tarp, curled and crumpled into a loose ball that had been blown and dragged by the wind and caught in the leaves and branches that lay in their forms across the wood’s floor. Pine needles and cones and fist and thumb-sized leaves were wrapped in the blueness of the tarp and faded it and caused it to almost bleed into the colors of the forest, so numerous they were in their covering of it.
The man looked behind him again and listened for the stream. He listened for the breeze in the trees and the stronger wind that might be up in the higher branches of the pines, that charging flow of air and breath that rides through the pine needles and cones and tight branches and sings among the heights and sometimes talks in a whisper tone of things seen and past and gone.
A truck was downshifted and rode the lower gears as it descended the canyon road, as it caught itself in a tighter turn and the gears of the transmission whined higher in their efforts to slow the weighted bulk of the truck. A bird lighted on a branch above him and hopped closer toward the berries on the higher branches, tentative steps and hops; he looked around and down and back as he climbed toward his prize.
The man turned around again and saw what might still be a sleeping bag at the far side of the clearing. There were leaves and dirt on it and he noticed…his abdominal muscles clamped down and a rush of adrenaline burst through his body…he was immediately scared and angry and his heart raced while sweat streamed down from his forehead and into his eyes…he wiped them furiously and looked again at the sleeping bag and saw strands of red-brown hair, clumps of it, tangled and matted and caught in the leaves and sticks, caught in the zipper of the bag and his heart was pounding in his chest and images flashed in his mind, he bent on his knees and leaned into the ground with his face into the grass now….no….
Someone else’s scent was on her neck, a blast of it came to him now as his animal mind listened to what might be around him, moving in his physical world as he raced into a past that had crumbled into ruins in years back and then….go away. Footsteps and echoes and tears in his eyes and fallen leaves in a warm desert air with a late sun shining into the night…she lied. The forest floor beneath him spoke of a present and he heard cars on the canyon roadway passing…rich earth, wet, decaying leaves pursuing their beauty and regeneration….cells breaking down again…thoughts coursing through his mind, bursting like unexpected thunder pounding into his consciousness…a pressure grew in his chest and made his shoulder hurt as he breathed deeply of the wet forest.
He leaned back, near upright, and tasted the salt of tears and thought of her beneath him, half smile and half pain in her closed eyes, holding his hips against hers and he saw shadows moving, pill bottles scattered on the floor and bed….capsules in a fold of the pillowcase and curtains moving with a breeze…. “Mommy!” came from the other room…. The pressure in his chest, numb shoulder, and tingling fingers brought him back…again the anger, fear, and cold. The man licked his lips and looked at the sleeping bag, he sought the hair again…leaves torn from their branches, bark shredded, splayed angrily against past thoughts…another motorcycle passed on the canyon road….
Sometimes we misplace our dreams, lose them, or forget that we hid them away…and sometimes they’re taken from us whole, from the first thoughts that spawned them to the final beat of the heart that sustained them….
***This is a work of fiction that was inspired by the finding of a long-abandoned campsite in the forested area of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, USA. Any resemblance of actual persons or events is purely coincidental.