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.
Cricket song rises with the waning moon as tender leaves swirl in the slight current and eddies beneath the low-hanging trees…a snake slithers cross-wise over the river making tiny ripples that ride slowly away, lost in the reflection of that fading moon.
I suppose I didn’t know I even existed until the day his mom asked how he thought I felt laying out there in the rain. I didn’t exist as something that could feel or be aware until that moment, so I didn’t and wasn’t, but that reference changed everything for me…and I still don’t know if that’s good or bad; is it a curse or a blessing to suddenly know that one exists or is, to have a sense of being, to know when one is being ignored or noticed, neglected or attended to…or forgotten?
I have fleeting thoughts and ideas enter and pass through my consciousness or awareness and I have started to feel things with my physical self, as well as my inner or cognitive self…if that’s possible for me to do. I understand what it means to be alone, to feel something or someone draw near; I grasp the idea of “used to be” and “what if” and know there is significance in these pairings of words. I used to belong to someone…what if he came back for me? I used to matter, to be important, to be remembered…what if I never am again…what if this is to be the way things are for the rest of my “life…” until I fade away again into the nothingness that enveloped me when my awareness was naught. Or…what if I am found again, wanted again; what if I am desired again, my presence cherished again, if I am cared for again…what if those things happen again? I will continue to be aware, to belong, and to be a part of…to be.
Many days and longer ago…there were colored balloons and streamers and several, small cone hats, more for show than necessity, as the one being celebrated was not so little anymore and had no need for such things. His mother and sister decorated the trees and bushes and fold-up tables to play with his gaining years and the ones left behind…they lovingly mocked his approaching young-manliness and a hoped-for sense of responsibility that just might blossom…any day now. Friends gathered with family, laughing, playing, making a little feast of sausages and rolls with spicy mustard, hot potato salad, and chips, too…tradition brought the chocolate cake and hand-cranked, peach and strawberry ice-cream, buckets of it that had been kept cold in the shaded water running near-by….
The day progressed and shadows grew long with the moving sun…adult voices quieted in the hush of approaching evening as their little ones slowed in their running about…after they chased bits of wrapping paper that had rolled and fluttered across the sand, caught in the breeze…and balloons bobbed-about, still tied to their anchors…minus the one that was loosed from a little hand and went sailing away. I heard goodbyes spoken in the falling dusk and car-doors closing, bright yellow and orange honking from horns that reached into the gray light and caused heads to turn…hands to raise in their waving…the glare of headlights pointing down the roadway…thank you again…see you soon…echoes fading.
The boy and his family all climbed into the pick-up truck, one by one…and drove away…with a shiny, new bicycle in the back…a gift from his Opa…
Photograph used with permission by Gary D. Bolstad of Krikitarts.
Thank you again for the challenge, Gary…for the invitation to participate in the sharing of your beautiful photography.
The moment’s rain fell in soft drops on the light gray earth, each tiny globe of water making a slightly larger wet crater in the dirt of time that had filtered and sifted from mountain streams and into the great rivers and lake on the western horizon. Men had brought it in by the truck-full to build the bank on which they sat…on which they sat and deep into the waning light as dragon flies and mud swallows dipped and lunged across the water’s upper edge, seeking a dusking meal against the long night….
Mama’s gonna wonder where I’m at, you know….
Ever since you’ve been grown enough to leave the yard, Mama’s known that you’ve been with me. You ain’t never been nowhere else.
Then why are you saying she’s gonna wonder where you’re at?
Cause she’ll still wonder.
Well, she’ll find out when she normally does, then, won’t she?
A fish jumped in the darkling water, making ripples spread into the long grass and reeds along the shore, tiny water molecule waves carrying the gray dust that slid and fell from the bank beneath bare feet and sneakers pushing and moving stones and sticks out of the way for legs to stretch into their powdery nests. The fish caught nothing in his flight and swam further downstream, gliding with the gentle current, fish eyes looking up from the sides of his fish head, looking for something that wasn’t there now that the sun was gone and gone and brightening someone else’s day.
The rain left a smell of wet dust and nothing more as its bedtime clouds thinned and fled in the blacking sky. Stars appeared in their distance between the cobweb lattice-work of the bridge’s girders and supports and beams and ties and double rails, specks of light glimmering against the earth and her slow and silent spinning, flickers and hope, torches of wonder falling into the tucked-away recesses of ancient time and the enduring heaven of space.
We ain’t goin’ back, are we…?
That’s right, Bobbi…we ain’t goin’ back…I told him that was the last time….
He reached over to tuck a strand of straw-colored hair behind her ear, gently touched a purple-blue bruise on her cheekbone, leaned and kissed her forehead…and lingered a moment to smell her dusty, little-girl hair….
…but we’ll let Mama know we’re ok when we get where we’re going.
Where’s that gonna be?
Ain’t figured that out yet, but I think we’ll know it when we get there….
This is a “story about what’s on the other side of that door….”
There is a new lock on my door again. It is my door, yes, as I’m the one inside and the one who keeps removing the locks every third day or week or month or so, whenever a new one appears. I hide them, tuck them away, attach them to a chain, actually, that is hanging from the rafters in the hidden recesses of the loft, back where the roots from the ancient roof-top garden have pushed through the wood and seek the ground that isn’t there, back where the water from the soaking rain drips in blackened drops of soot and earth and anguished souls. Light hits them sometimes, the locks…at certain hours of the day and in the middle of the night, too, as the full moon shines through the crumbling mortar cracks in the wall. Their absence causes minds to wonder and worry, quickens steps from my doorposts and into the hedges and beyond, out into the gardens beneath the palms and evergreens, among the rolling hills and moss-covered stone-work walls where I used to play with…where I used to play.
I don’t receive many visitors here, just the feeble-minded grandmother of the Earl who claims to hear footsteps in the straw. It must be my rasping breath or the whispering echoes of my fading heartbeat that she hears, for I dare not move when she’s near. Years ago, I rattled a can to scare her away, but that only brought more visitors in the form of the Earl and his wife…and the magistrate, too. They conferred, as wise ones will, and sought the company of the parish priest. He sat and wondered and mumbled against the aging bricks beneath the post…and he thought he heard a nothing that was really something as it brushed against his shin. It’s nothing, said the friar to the Earl, nothing but the wind and a…maybe….. Yes…like that, it’s nothing. The Earl and his wife remained distressed and the grandmother remained convinced that it was footsteps in the straw. They sought those above, as those above will do, they sought those above the parish priest and then the bishop after that. I touched the friar’s robe, when they visited, and scoffed at the bishop’s crown as they offered their hollow words to the Miasma that faded into the ether at Galileo’s waking.
Children know I’m here, of course, as children will know such things…as children will know such things and remain away, and remain away or seek me out on the darkest nights with torches out against the shadows and webs of fright that hang in the corners. They know without knowing sometimes and feel my breath upon their cheeks as I whisper and tell them to go, to leave, and to leave me alone. I don’t want to hurt or scare them, but I want them gone. I don’t want their light tread upon the straw to remind me of other little ones who used to do so before the blazing night…I want them to be away and away.
It was a frosted night and achingly cold with a withering moon when red flames licked the slow-moving clouds. I stood there shivering, only steps away from the oven of my misdeeds, away from the murderer’s weapon that it became within quick seconds of rage and regret in the spilled and boiling blood of those hidden away unknown. Nigh unto three centuries hence, I still hear their short and tiny cries, the hairs on my neck and arms rise with only a thought. So I hide here and away, a stone’s throw from the still standing crematory of an ancient and vine-covered castle. It is a crypt and a memorial, a living nightmare of anguish that still smolders on an icy night as little bones crumble into the dust of time and away, forgotten and missed in grief, they are embers in my eyes and scalding irons on my heart…for I never confessed what I knew. It wasn’t the laundress who caused the blaze…it was me, the gardener’s son.
***Photo used with permission by John M. Smith at Life, Photography & Other Mistakes. The photograph was taken at Castle Kennedy & Gardens in Dumfries, Scotland. Please visit John’s blog to share in his beautiful photography…and the website for Castle Kennedy & Gardens to learn more about their true history.
The man stood in the doorway for a moment before grabbing the elongated brass handle to open the door. He was looking at the house to the west of his and noticed how the image of the lowering sun was about to touch the roofline. The slate roof seemed to dip in the moment of the sun’s contact, causing the illusion that the weight of the sun was bearing down on the roof, or maybe the roof was molding itself to the shape of the sun to give it a more comfortable resting place at the end of its long day. The sun was bright, of course, but softened somehow in the closer atmosphere and haze of industry and pollen and life that existed above the horizon’s curving line, so the man stood there with unshielded eyes and continued to watch the sun’s dip into and below the roof line. He turned away and the golden glow remained in his eyes as he looked through the door’s glass to find his son. It was time for dinner and the boy was somewhere outside.
The door handle lowered without a sound and the door swung open quietly as the man pushed against it and walked out onto the back patio of the house. As he passed the mustard-colored and rectangular-shaped charcoal grill, he noticed that it still smelled of burnt sugar from the last time he barbequed ribs. It had been a couple weeks or more, but the scent still lingered. The man was barefoot and noticed, too, that the cement of the patio was still warm from the day’s sun, but the grass was cool as he stepped into it and began his search for his son. The man turned to the left from the patio and looked into the back-yard proper, gazing at the rock-fronted embankments that supported the tiered lawn that rose from the yard up to the street that ran behind his house. As he walked toward the front of the house that faced the town’s park, he craned his neck to look further into the yard to where the boy liked to play around the young, conical pine trees that resembled miniature Christmas trees when they were dusted or coated with December’s snow.
The evening was peaceful, now that the neighborhood kids had left the park and gone home or wherever after playing soccer for most of the afternoon. Looking toward the east and over the hills that fronted that side of the town, the man noticed the swallows darting over the park for their evening feeding and play-time. Overhead, the clouds were pink and orange and white and darkening gray with the falling sun and approaching night. Further north, he could still see the white line of a plane’s contrail that was still intact even though the plane had been gone for hours…just the singular, lined cloud was left in its passing. The man didn’t see his son anywhere, not in this side of the yard and not out in the park. He thought about calling-out for him, but didn’t want to break the quiet by raising his voice or yelling. Instead, he retraced his steps around the house, passed the back-door patio, and toward the other end of the yard, the side that fronted their street. The man walked along the low hedge that separated his yard from the neighbor’s and then past the gooseberry bushes and toward the side of the house where he could peek around the corner to see if his son was playing under the cherry trees. His step was quiet in the cool grass and the moss that grew thinly among the grass where he was, but was thicker under the trees.
Because the sun had completely lowered itself beneath the roofline of the neighbor’s house by now, there was no chance of the man’s son seeing his father’s shadow intrude into his quiet play. When the man slowly moved his head around the corner, he saw that his son was sitting cross-legged, facing away from him, and leaning forward with his hands busy at some task. The boy had his tan and green army-men positioned in loose rows and partially hidden in the moss, or situated behind various military vehicles and broken sticks from the trees above him. He occasionally leaned back or to the right or left to straighten a fallen man or to move a truck closer to the grouped men, enacting some strategy or maneuver of protection or attack. The boy even rolled a golf-ball or lightly tossed a shiny, black cherry in the direction of the men, imagining that they were rockets or some other projectile, sometimes knocking over one of the men or coming to rest next to or on top of one of the vehicles, and sometimes not. With the impact of the cherries or golf ball, the boy made his eleven year-old’s version of a soft explosion…a hushed “pkshew!” that he thought only he could hear.
The man smiled to himself as he watched and listened to his son. He saw the purplish-pink stains on the boy’s white t-shirt and imagined the cherry-fight that he had had with his friends earlier in the afternoon…the cherry-fight that he wasn’t supposed to have had. As the man attempted to kneel down into the moss and grass next to the house, his shorts scraped on the prickly stucco finish on the house and startled his son. The boy was in mid-reach across his battlefield and gasped and dropped one of his army men as he jerked and turned around to face his father.
The boy’s heart was pounding and his mouth was suddenly dry. “I didn’t know you were there,” he said. His mind was racing back through his day, wondering at what he might have done wrong, wondering what little or grand sin had been revealed and was now set to ruin what he thought was an otherwise good day, and wondering why, if he hadn’t done anything wrong, his father was there on the side of the yard looking for him…and getting ready to sit down like he was planning to stay for a while.
“Well, I wasn’t here for very long. What are you doing?”
The boy tried to swallow. “Just playing…Army.”
“Weren’t your friends out here earlier?”
“Yes Sir, but they had to leave.”
“Which friends were here?”
“You said your friends were here earlier. Which ones were here?”
The boy looked across the gravel and grass driveway and out into the park where the swallows were still darting around. He saw a couple boys at the water fountain at the far side of the park. “I…don’t know,” he stammered. “I don’t remember.”
“But they were just here,” the man said, “who were they? You’re not in trouble, Stephan, I’m just asking which friends were here.”
“Hansi and Martin.”
“Isn’t Hansi’s father the butcher?”
“I don’t know. I think so…maybe.”
“Isn’t he one of those older boys that you were playing with in the spring and got into trouble with?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember,” the father said, “when you guys stole the bratwurst and then went off into the woods and cooked it? You don’t remember that?”
“Yes Sir…I…think I remember.”
“Wasn’t Hansi one of those older boys?”
The boys had moved from the water fountain and were now kicking a soccer ball out on the field at the park. “I don’t know.”
The man sat down in the grass and moss and leaned against the house. “Stephan…look at me. You’re not in trouble…we’re just talking…ok? You can answer me,” said the man. “Look…here,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “You’re ok.”
The boy turned his head from watching the boys with the soccer ball and met his father’s eyes. He didn’t answer him immediately, but just looked at him. This was unusual for him; the boy…he felt odd, bold somehow…maybe even brave. His father’s manner and voice were unsettling. There was none of the harshness or sarcasm that he was used to…and his eyes didn’t look angry. It looked like his father was really just asking him a question…not investigating an offense.
“Augie’s father is the butcher,” said the boy, “but Hansi was part of the group that did that, yes Sir.”
“Is that Hansi out there playing soccer?”
The boy looked at the two other boys out on the field for a couple seconds and then turned again to his father. “No Sir. Hansi had to go home. He said it was almost getting dark and he had to go in for dinner.”
“Why what?” said the man.
“Why’d you want to know if that’s Hansi out there playing soccer?”
“Nothing, Stephan. I was just asking…nothing. Relax, would you? And stop calling me ‘Sir.’”
The boy looked at his father’s hands for a couple seconds and then moved up to meet his eyes. The eyes were still dark brown and still set deep into his father’s head, but the prominent brow-ridge seemed less severe as his eye-brows were raised in a gentle and almost inquisitive arch.
“What? Just call me ‘Dad’ now. Say ‘Yes Dad,’ not ‘Yes Sir.’ That seems wrong somehow.”
“Can I ask you something and not get in trouble?”
“Yes…ask or say anything you want.”
The boy just looked at him.
“I’m serious…really…anything…you won’t get in trouble.”
“What happened to you in the wreck? I know you broke a couple ribs, but what happened…you know…inside your head? Mom said it went through the front window, right?”
The man looked at his son…intently, gently…and picked a tuft of moss from the ground. He moved his eyes to the moss and then asked, “What do you mean, ‘What happened in my head?’”
“You’re not like you used to be,” said the boy, looking past his father, but still watching him, trying to sense if he was going too far. “You’re different.”
“Almost dying in the wreck like that made me think about my life; it made me think about how I was treating people…how I treated you and your mom…and I decided that I needed to be different.”
The boy looked out into the park again. He didn’t want his father to see the tears that were starting to spill from his eyes. “Just like that…you ‘decided’ that you needed to be different?”
The man looked down and watched his fingers as they slowly tore the moss apart and let it drop back into the grass. “I guess so. When I was laying there in the hospital with my neck in that brace and my face all bandaged-up and tubes sticking out of my lungs, I thought about how lucky I was that my heart was still beating and that I wasn’t hurt as bad as I could have been considering what I had been through. It almost seemed like I was being given a second chance or something, you know…somehow…maybe…to do things right…if that’s possible.”
The boy turned back and looked toward his father, not meeting his eyes exactly, but looking through him at some point directly behind his head. “If you could just decide that you needed to be different when you were laying there in the hospital, why couldn’t you have decided a long time ago that you would be different…why didn’t you decide when I was a littler kid that you weren’t going to be so mean…that you could talk to me instead of hitting me, or that I could talk to you like you were just my dad and not some…kind…of…whatever you’ve been?”
“I don’t know, Stephan. I guess it took me almost dying to realize how much I love you…I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well, that’s when I figured out that I don’t love you,” said the boy, “when you were in the hospital almost dying. I always thought I did, or wanted to, maybe. I thought that if I loved you more you’d be nicer to me, but it didn’t work. So when Mom told me that you might die, I was hoping you would, because I knew I wouldn’t have to try to love you anymore. It would be ok that I didn’t…and now you’re not dead and I still don’t love you.”
The man turned his eyes to watch the neighbor drive past in his blue Saab. He followed the car until it stopped at the water fountain by the corner of the park and then turned down the hill where it disappeared behind the Vivo store on the opposite corner. Then he turned slightly in the other direction and watched the kids chasing each other and kicking the soccer ball for a few seconds. Finally, he looked back at his son and said, “Wow…I don’t know what to do with that, Stephan.”
“I don’t either,” said the boy as he reached for one of his army men.
“I guess I’ll have to work on that, won’t I? Give you a reason to love me?”
The boy pulled a handful of moss and began to gently tear it apart and lay the pieces across his army trucks, camouflaging them against the enemy that was lined-up behind the moss and grass berm that he had built close to the trunk of the nearest tree. He then absently grabbed a cherry from the ground and slipped it into his mouth. He bit down on the sweet flesh and then used his tongue to separate the seed as he slowly chewed and swallowed the tiny fruit.
“Stephan? I said I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”
“I don’t know.”
The man slowly stood and then leaned over to stretch his legs that had been folded under him while he sat and talked with his son. He said “Ok,” and then turned to walk back around the corner of the house. After a couple steps, he turned around and leaned down so he could see his son better under the cherry trees. “You need to come in now. The streetlights are coming on and it’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The man raised his voice a little – “Stephan, I said you need to come in.”