I have been in the woods for four months.
It has not been particularly difficult. I think more people would do it if they knew how easy it was. I am always careful, so I am usually an exceptionally poor chooser, but the particular plot of woods best suited to me seemed very clear right away.
I couldn’t be too far from anything, of course. I’m not terribly outdoorsy. I’ve always been jealous of those kids I knew who seemed to fit in so well, who knew how to tie knots or forage for mushrooms or bite into deer hearts or whatever. They seemed to get right down to the meaty center of being a person in the woods. I could only ever stand back in awe.
So I couldn’t go too far. I don’t have what it takes to go into the woods for real and true. I’m not driven by some deep connection to the trees and the birds and the lawless winds. I went into the woods because I needed to go somewhere and it was the only place that was free.
That was a funny thing to want. What’s it like to be free, I wonder? Was there ever anybody really free who could tell me? Because no matter where I go or what I do, I’m still shackled to the fact that my stomach needs food and my head needs sleep and my lungs need air. It is an exhaustion to be real. Someday I will be a leaf on a tree or a coffee pot and I won’t mind anything, and I won’t need anything I can’t have.
Anyways, in the woods I’m as removed as I can be from things without being dead.
From the woods, in certain looking spots, I can still see the lights of the nearby houses. This has not proved to be a problem. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as I don’t have to be in them for long. I wasn’t looking to disappear into an abyss, just to stand on the edge of one for a while.
I didn’t think that a while would be four months. Only, every time I thought about going back, I couldn’t. That was the point of this whole thing, to go away until I absolutely wanted to go back to school. I don’t want to yet, so I will wait for a while more.
Nothing about this is permanent. I despair the permanent. I’m just dancing on a precipice, as is expected and as is my right.
Since it’s an in-between time, I haven’t exactly built a cabin or anything. I’ve got a bit of a cave I dug into the roots of this enormous tree. It took ages to dig it out, but it turned out that I had ages. I still dig a little bit each day to make it bigger. I guess I’m just greedy.
As of the moment, it’s just big enough to lie down and sit up. This is plenty. I mean, it’s no worse than anywhere I’ve lived before, or anything. I can cover the hole with a piece of bark that I took off the tree and a few rocks to one side to keep it down, which makes it nice and dark for sleeping. Next to the hole I transplanted this bush of elephant ears I found growing by the creek. I wasn’t sure they were going to be happy up here at first, but they seem to have taken. Now they offer some really fine camouflage.
In the corner I store my things. When I came into the woods I brought a quart mason jar, a Swiss Army knife, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. This has proven to be all I really need. When I need food or medicine or water to put in my jar, I just wait until the night and I take it from one of the houses.
The houses up here are mostly vacation houses. People are always going in and out on trips to the lake or the ice cream stand, so it doesn’t make much sense to always be locking the doors. Besides, it’s so rural out here that people think there aren’t any thieves about. They are only afraid of wolves and bears, who, for the most part, cannot open doors.
On Wednesday, I had a veritable shopping list, so I went to the large yellow house by the lake, which always has such a well-stocked pantry. I like the larger houses because I can stay further away from the people. I really don’t like the idea that I’m in the house while people are sleeping. It’s violently creepy. I mean, I know I don’t mean any harm, but still. If I ever woke up to find a strange person in my darkened camp’s kitchen, I’d have a heart attack. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t mean any harm. It’s just a strange thing to do.
That night was especially tricky because I had to fill up the hot water bottle. I took the hot water bottle about a month ago, when it was cold for a few days in a row. If I fill it with hot water at 2 AM it will stay hot nearly until morning, and it really doesn’t take much to heat up my little home. I always go to the yellow house when I need to fill up the hot water bottle because they have a camp stove in the garage that I can use. It’s too risky to do it in the kitchen. Then, of course, I watch it very carefully and take it off just before it boils so that it’s nice and hot, but it doesn’t make a sound. This is very important. Once the water bottle was filled, I put it under my shirt to warm up and went into the house.
The doors are hardly ever locked, but there’s still some obstacles to be dealt with.
I have to know everything about every house that I go into in order to not fall into any traps. In this house, for example, I know that the door only opens about two feet before it squeaks, I know that they always leave the tortilla chips against the door of the top cabinet so they’ll fall on you if you’re not careful, and I know that the teenage son likes to stay awake with his lights on till one in the morning. I know these houses better than the people who live in them; I have made a career out of it.
This family keeps their plastic grocery bags in a bundle under the sink, and I usually begin by taking one as though I am really shopping. I put into it three apples, which last a long time; a third of a loaf of sourdough bread, which is fine stale; and then the piece de resistance, about four ounces of salt pork. Then I rethought. They’re probably saving that for a recipe, and it’s not like somebody in the house would feasibly eat a nice chunk of salt pork for a snack. Dejected, I traded it in for an almost finished jar of peanut butter. Really, it’s just as well. A jar is always useful.
Next I filled up my mason jar with water from the sink. This is something that always makes me nervous. For the hot water bottle I just reboil the same old creek water again and again, but for drinking I have to be more careful. I can not help that running water makes noise, so I just close my eyes and fear God until it’s done. This method has not failed me yet.
Next, I went to the bathroom. This is not always a stop on my trips, but I was fresh out of ibuprofen. I don’t like for the pills to rattle in a bottle while I walk back, so I usually take out a roll of gauze and wrap the medicine in it. Then I selected a decorative soap from the basket in the back of the highest cabinet (starfish shaped, grapefruit scented), put my purchases in my bag.
I had one more stop.
The living room, or the family room I guess, has got a handsome set of bookshelves all along one wall. I took The Oxford Book of English Verse out of my bag and switched it with one of the books on the shelf, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read that book when I was in the sixth grade, and I liked it awfully. When I come again, I will switch them back again. In the meantime, they’ve got mine.
I’ve always been a big reader. I thought… somehow I thought that would make things easier.
You read a lot as a kid and people say you’re smart. Then you start expecting things. You start expecting everybody to think you’re smart and you start expecting things to fall in line for you. I mean, you use the word “mercurial” at a young enough age and people act like you’re destined for something.
That night I was destined to eat some peanut butter and go to sleep.
The next morning I decided to have a foraging day. I don’t know much about these things, it’s true, but I know about raspberries. They grow like mad in the woods near my cave, and they grew just as outrageously near my childhood home. When I was just a baby, my mamma would take my sister and I out to go look for raspberries, always keeping one eye open in case somebody called us out for trespassing. We’d gorge our little bellies and try to tell our mom that the berries had just fallen out of the bucket, so we had to eat them, you see?
Anyway, I knew what they looked like.
It’s hard work, picking raspberries. They only grow where there’s lots of sun and they grow so awfully small that it takes an hour to get a cup full. Still, I think it’s better than stealing from the houses because anybody has got a right to pick wild raspberries. I still need to eat something, after all. In order to survive and all.
I do not want to be dead.
I know how bad it sounds. Personally, I have sat down and thought seriously about how bad it sounds. I ran away to stop existing; that is not something that a great lover of life does.
I do love life, though. I have realized through serious discussion with myself that I love life viciously. I love to make up stories and sing old hymns and wear lipstick and pet cats and bake scones and go to plays. I just didn’t realize I had to be so goddamn qualified to do those things.
Honestly? I want to float through life. I want to not worry about anything. I know people hear that and they think it sounds lazy and immoral to not want to work. I can only get away with it because I’m poor enough to have to work and get good grades anyways, no matter what grand things I say. I just hate having to do things I don’t like.
I don’t really like picking raspberries, though.
That morning was too fine of a morning, too bright, and I could feel the sweat pinch my underarms. It was the blistering type of day when other people follow me out into the woods. In fact, I had only been picking raspberries for a moment when the voices of two little boys crept up my spine. I ducked behind a distant bush before they were within sight.
“Didya hear that?”, the taller boy asked the other.
“Yeah, whaddya think, a fox or something?”
“Nah, you know what I bet it was? I bet it was what that lady at the halfway store was talking about, that wolf thing.”
The smaller boy looked up quickly. “Don’t kid about that stuff, Tommy.”
“What, are you scared?”
“No, but I think we better not take any chances. C’mon, let’s go back. It’s probably lunchtime.”
On a one… two… go… Tommy and company raced back home. They live in the red house with the truck, which always smells much too strongly of cinnamon. I do not think any children live there, though. They must just be visiting.
They are afraid of the wolves. That makes me smile in the curling way that you smile when you hear a half-remembered song. I was afraid of the wolves when I was their age: the wolf who lives in the woods, who will slink out and gobble up any child who disobeys their parents. I lived in utter fear of him, yet I still broke the rules at my own discretion.
Now it seems I am him.
I think that must be right, because all the time that I have been in the woods, I have never seen a wolf. I have never met another permanent resident out here besides myself. It stands to reason that if the wolf lives in the woods, and this particular woods has only got one sentient entity in it, then those two must be one and the same.
Am I so frightening? Am I so evil? Am I wrong?
That night I made preparations to go back to the yellow house. I needed to return my book. I had not quite finished reading it yet, but I had seen the red haired mother of the yellow house looking at her bookshelves through the big picture window, and it made me nervous. I should hate to lose my book if they ever realized I had theirs.
I was less nervous than I usually was, as though the purity of my mission somehow protected me.
I opened the door like I had a right to—so clumsy and fast that it squeaked. I stopped for a moment to see if anyone heard, and then I tiptoed through to the living room.
It’s hard to see the exact titles in the dusk of an empty house. I knew my book was shorter than the others, so I ran my hand over the tops of all the books on the shelf to tell their height. That was presumptuous.
It’s an impressive library they have at the yellow house. I want to say that they don’t read them, because that will make me feel better, but they do. Every book is well worn and read.
I felt myself slipping towards comfortable as I read the darkened titles.
There’s this sort of a religion to an empty house at night. It’s so very dark and so very quiet; it’s how a bug must feel under a rock. You may start to find that the darkness is oppressive, that it fills in your nose and mouth, and coats your eyes, and all your feelings get muffled. That’s the most peaceful thing I know, if you ever really give in to it.
But I couldn’t give in to it, not then. I couldn’t slip. I don’t have the time to or the space to. The fact that I came so close to sinking scared me. An unsettled feeling was knocking at my back, and I wheeled around suddenly.
There was a little girl standing there.
Imagine us please, nose to nose: me reeking dirt and damp, her two feet shorter in her Cinderella pajamas, me holding her book, her knowing it was hers.
Neither of us spoke for several minutes.
Why do people freeze when they’re afraid? Like that will do something. I’m still there, moving or not. She’s still across from me. It’s strange if you think about it, that she would stand across from me. Most children would go back to their rooms to hide, or cry for their parents. Staying is a strange thing to do.
It is something that both of us do exceptionally well. We stayed locked in this otherworldly silence, this silence that rang of unsaid cries and undone violence, until I tried to speak.
I’m sorry was all I wanted to say. It’s always the right thing. People love to be forgiving and it’s right even if you’re not sure what ill you’ve caused. I’m sorry was all I wanted to say.
But I have been in the woods for four months.
I have not spoken to anyone for four months. I have barely even coughed or thought for four months. When I open my mouth the only thing that comes out is a low groveling rasp. It is the noise of a cat hissing, or a snake rattling, or a wolf ready to pounce.
She screamed. I don’t know what I expected.
Then I ran, I ran past the girl with a shove that I regret, I ran through the creaky door and down the steps and into the woods. I ran like a runner who will never run again, like a record breaker just shy of record breaking. I ran, and the bugs and mice and birds parted to make my way, while the house lit up behind me. I ran, and bullets wreathed my path.
I regretted that night. I regretted it all night long in my cave.
All day today there have been men coming through the woods, because of that night. They came from a place of righteous anger, they came with guns and footsteps and they walked over my head a hundred times in an hour. They don’t know where or who I am, which seemed funny for a minute before it seemed hopeless. If they can’t find me then this will never end.
I can’t see them but I can hear them talking and I can hear the sirens and I know that they are hunting for a wolf.
I do not think I am a wolf, but I will fill the role. If I am to be a wolf I will cower in my wolf’s den and cry my wolf’s tears, although a wolf would at least have meat to eat. I am not wolf enough to take the salt pork.
Wolves live in the darkness, and so do I.
Now it is evening and I am out of my den again. There’s no point in searching at night, when the mosquitos are out, and even hunters need their supper. I sit by my tree and watch the houses.
The last of the locksmiths are leaving.
The two boys in the red house, and the old woman in the cabin, and the teenagers in a gullible parent’s camp, and the hunting party in the lodge with all the shingles, and the family in the yellow house: they are all inside with locked doors. I realize that I hate them, those bright cells stuffed with life, and I want to squeeze one with my hands until it bursts.
Sitting here, I watch the sun recede into dust and the lights flick off in the houses. Now every house is dark but one.
In the window of the kitchen I can see him so clearly, the yellow family father with a shotgun in his embrace. He looks like a hero.
They think they can scare me away with the gun. They think that I am a wolf, who lives in the shadows. They think I cannot meet the challenge of electric light and bullets.
But I still have their book, and they still have mine.
It is wrong to keep something you have stolen, and we are both in the wrong. I will set us right.
So I emerge, and I walk to the house.
As I walk through the woods the little hands of the plants reach out and grab at my skin. They want me to stay a while longer, but I know I cannot.
I didn’t realize that everything would be resolved so easily.
I wonder if he can see me, coming down and coming back. I feel… pilgrim-like. The dirt I walk over and the blood in my veins thump to the same unsteady beat. It is appropriate that they are so soon to be married.
I have no choice. That’s a relief.
When I get close enough I can see him. He is asleep, which is better. If he is asleep I will have time to come into the house before he sees me, I will have time to pick the time and the place and the words. That is some solace.
I do not want to die.
But sometimes in the real world we have to do things we do not want to do.
I can’t say that this isn’t the real world they warned me about. I can only say that I am disappointed, and then accept my due.
I go up the steps and I open the door more unobtrusively than I have ever opened it before. It is a shock that so little force could move a door at all.
I move slowly and quietly and I go to stand on my mark. There is no place for me besides at the end of this shotgun. I am resigned.
I realize that I have forgotten the book at home.
There’s someone standing in the doorway.
“I’m sorry,” I say.