“When I was twelve I got lost in the woods.”
“That’s like the opening line to a book. Or a film monologue. First scene, no music. It starts with a black screen and as you tell the story, it opens to a meadow like this.”
“But no music.”
“Fucking exactly. Nothing but the voice.”
We’re beyond our youth and we’ve known one another since we were seven. By high school graduation we swore we’d probably be best friends for life but were shrewd enough to leave a ‘probably’ in there. Who knows what that fat horizon can birth when you’re seventeen? It shit out a lot of things but we’re still tight and that’s why today was for walking. Two old friends on the state land. Something between a park and the wilderness. Enough. Like a blood pact hedged with the word ‘probably’.
He’s running around the meadow and I’m pretty excited about this cinematic opening we’re going to film when one of us purchases a video camera, and, of course, when I move back here and we have more than four hours a year together to make something happen.
“What is this, a thistle? A bramble?”
“I think they’re called Queen Anne’s Lace.”
“Yeah, you’re right. See how this one’s all dried up from last year?”
“Is that like the weed you were telling me about? With the, what was it? Listen, pay attention…”
“Look closely – pay attention – listen. That’s the mantra. Yeah, it was one of these. I was here a year ago. This is the meadow. It’s something, right?”
The clearing we were in lay at least a half mile inside the forest from where we started and farther yet from the other boundaries. A trail – several trails, actually – snaked about a creek and eventually led to this walled oasis. It must have been farmed some time ago and the scar of agriculture rendered it a haven of long grasses and flowering weeds. It was May and the warmth had held off this year enough that it was shy of that definitive green explosion. A breeze and the meadow trembled with the memory of winter, last year’s stalks leaning funereal.
“It does feel like you said. Not that I believe in heaven.”
“Right. Regardless. Death, violence. You try to cling but it all gives way. And you open your eyes here.”
Whatever moment I had in this spot last year will only ever really be mine. That’s kind of how it works, I think. Opaque to anyone who wasn’t in its path. I explain again how I couldn’t bring myself to leave and finally I asked the meadow aloud “What am I supposed to see?” while hunched over the fractal crisp of a dead Queen Anne’s Lace, flowers begetting flowers, all dead. Some shift of the eyes, a focus change, and there was a spiderweb, perfect geometry and all, just like one you’d draw, tethered between the shriveled stems, and that transformed the whole meadow. Look closely. Pay attention. Listen. He’s nodding in respect and it’s real nice to have someone hear that story again.
“This flower made itself. With the coding in its chromosomes. And eighteen thousand other flowers out here all did the same thing.”
We pass through a low alley of grass that hides standing water and our steps become sucking things that flood our shoes.
“This is ironic to mention, but there’s something wonderful in two people walking without saying anything,” he says.
I’ve caught a drier ridge with some roots and chase it out of the muck.
“Yeah,” and after a moment, “Certainly between two friends. You move through a place and nothing is said, but there’s a purity to it all. It’s just better that the other person is there.”
“I don’t know why I had to explain that to you-”
“No, it’s cool.”
“I’m just saying. Sometimes it’s a thing. It’s satisfying, you know? When you can take this thing or a moment or whatever and condense it into the base elements and state in the most direct way what that principle is. When you really nail it and it comes out just how you wanted. Just how it felt.” The maples ahead mottle the light but it flashes at the gaps. “Like watching a bird land perfectly on a branch. Neither overshooting nor undershooting it. It’s just: ahh, that’s nice.”
We sidewind an ascent through a deciduous stand and I think of the pattern an old teacher chanted into indelible recall two decades ago. Rock, moss, grass, shrubs, evergreen, leafy. Evergreen trees thrive on sunlight when they’re young. They mature and choke out the light for the next generation. Leafy trees prefer the shade and up they come and that’s the final iteration of every woods. A six-word incantation describing all flora ever. A thing you never forget, apparently. It’s probably an oversimplification but it holds water at the moment. Like my fucking shoes.
The forest trail gives us up to a road as straight as sight, and the road rises and falls with the hills it cleaves. Our footprints fade on the asphalt as we progress and I glance back only once to regard them; they are already a part of the past and there’s the whole damn problem on that stretch of road. The spatial coordinates are easy enough to hold onto – graph paper, we were there and could return – but the current of time is an impasse and pushing back on it two like poles never meeting.
Every fifty yards, give or take, my mate stoops to pick up a rock and I watch him wing it with abandon. He hits a sign once and mostly misses fence posts and trees. We keep walking and he keeps chucking rocks into the dingweeds like he’s been hired for it. We regard every hit and all the misses and we say nothing.
The road leads us on a sustained descent and walls of trees give way to fields framed by ditches of cattails and sumac. This is the end of the preserve, regular country. A low drone comes at us over a single bluff in the otherwise uniform slope. We pass it and there is a drive curving around the far end, revealing a white-sided ranch and a corrugated shed with streaks of rust. The entire wall of the shed facing the road is a sliding door, pulled open. The noise growls from within the dark hollow of the structure, now unobstructed by the hill, a more nuanced waveform. It percolates with sharp burps and a grinding buzz consistent beneath. Multiple harmonics trade emphases, whining above the fundamental like a singing hydra trapped in the shed.
The light shifts while we stand at the foot of the driveway; we’ve stopped walking. The contrast between the outside world – ours – and the recess of the shed lessens enough to yield a dim look at the inside. The sound belongs to a quaking hulk of curled steel and flywheels and ports that make no educated sense to me but are clearly in their tandem nature an engine of some kind. All perched upon a flattened “A” of a truss, like a sawhorse but more squat. Long-handled things hang near the shadows of walls behind it – tools, their specific uses unclear to me. There is no one attending. I scan the windows of the house, unadorned black voids. No lights, no movement. The engine devours fuel and roars in the maw of the shed and no one attends. I feel alone witnessing this and shudder when my companion breaks our silence.
“There’s no cars in the driveway.”
The change in light is staying and we elect the road for our return, beyond the trail that delivered us to it.
Our north-wise road to the cars takes us along the western edge of the state forest. To the left, a rutted path leads into a grassy swath and disappears over a ridge.
“They’re down there, I’m telling you. We don’t have time but there’s got to be twenty of those little buildings. Every one of them has a well inside, a brine well. I guess it’s just underground pockets of saltwater and they draw it up and pump it somewhere, I don’t know.”
“You’ve been all the way in there?”
“Yeah, I used to run in there. Perfect trails, lots of up and down. Completely isolated. Little white huts in the middle of nowhere. It’s a fucking realm, dude. Doesn’t feel like anyplace else.”
A white pickup truck passes without slowing or giving a berth. Flecks of gravel sting my shins and the air is sour exhaust. He’s heading south. My friend calls him an asshole. There are gas cans in the bed. Maybe for the disembodied engine. The brake lights come on and stay on; he’s riding them down that hill.
“Never any trouble in there?” Still on the business of brine wells.
“Some guy cutting trees once gave me the eye but I was moving pretty good. The wells are private, obviously, corporate whatever. But there’s still state land signs that side of the road, so what’s the problem, you know?”
“Next time,” he says, and this is why it’s always worked. There is no arguable reason that grown men ought to plan a trespass into a mining site, yet this is accepted as important and there’s no need to discuss ridiculous questions of why. The world stamps out enough.
“What time do you fly out?”
“Zero-nine… forty” and ‘forty’ drops flat, leaden. Perhaps I was signaling the inevitability of it, or something.
“That is tomorrow.”
“Buffalo? Or Rochester?”
“Good old Buffalo.”
It is suddenly strange to be in the company of a best friend minutes before farewell-ing for another year. Strange to be a visitor – a tourist, almost – within a countryside that was home until I rendered it not so. I resist making a mess of words about any of it.
He’s walked away from the cars to the edge of a corn plot that borders the state land. The trailhead sign is fixed to a post above a warning about Lyme disease and he’s photographing it. Motes of black fall to the field’s distant end before the trees. Sparrows or maybe crows. I cannot tell the scale at this range.
A pull of breath, held, drawn against the flutters of having to leave. The sky above is gray upon gray and dull enough to stare straight up, unblinking. A vaporous membrane surrounds any point I focus on, swirling about a static center. I shift to another point, the same. It’s a curious way to perceive the sky. I remember another science lesson: something about rods and cones and viewing dim stars better in the periphery. Maybe that applies.
“Christ, look at that,” and he’s next to me pointing at a wretched pile of a cat dead in the mud. Hands on knees we leer at it on the field. Decay hasn’t set in enough to degrade its form. Doesn’t smell from standing. Easy food won’t pass more than a night or two in the coyote woods, not usually. Its left side is up and there’s no blood. Its fur bears the smooch of rain.
“You think something killed it?”
“No. It would’ve been eaten.”
“That’s weird. It’s not fucked up from a car or anything. It just chose here.”
Maybe it did. Or it left a barn up the road to stalk the woods’ edge like it always had and some heart malady ambushed it here, a flash of bewildered pain and then nothing. Or a meadow. Did it suck at the cold mud and remember sunlight in the hayloft? I don’t know if cats think that way. You always hear about animals holing up away from everyone when they know it’s time. The field offers no cover. The cat’s end was an empty tract of wet corn.
Old friend rocks his weight at the cars behind us. It’s getting time. Prolonging the moment with the cat is edging toward strange, but I keep looking. Studying this departure of some anonymous creature, shy of reverent but better than crude. Look closely – pay attention – listen. Its open eye is a black portal rimmed with olive. I shuffle my feet; I can maneuver into its field but cannot engage it.
Old friend asks if I’m good and I’m good. Just staring down a heart attack cat who would never meet me. In its gaze there’s a warning, though I cannot tell of what. The obvious? I know I’m going to die just like this cat did, someday. It’s not that. Or it is that but from some angle I cannot take up. Something the cat knew too late. Something the living always miss.
Matthew Fleming lives in Colorado with his wife and sons. His work has also appeared in Blood Tree Literature.