You sit nestled in the crook of a tree branch, legs tucked and folded underneath you so tightly they might be grafted there forever. You’re still and silent between the branches, between the scent of pine and cedarsmoke pressing close and tight against your skin until you imagine you are a part of the air itself. You know where it’s been, all of the paths and roads it has traced to get to this corner of your life; you can taste the lazy curls in which it will soon roll across blackberry leaves and the exposed dirt soles of your feet. This breeze will pick up traces of dust and forgotten raindrops and the cautious beating of your heart.
This is where you are born. Not that Indiana hospital, where your small appendages were wrapped in miles of gauze and oxygen tubes, three weeks ahead of schedule. A premature April Fool’s Day joke over the phone cords the next morning. You have been taught to recite your identity through these numbers and figures - pounds, ounces, inches. But here there are no papers to reference, and here you close your eyes and take your very first deep breath, and here you are right on time.
The world spread out beneath you is soft and sharp all at once, edges lit with the lingering caresses of dusk, everything so thin and fragile that a single exhale could snap it into pieces. So your movements are gentle, and as you lean against the sap-stained tree branch your body trembles a little with the knowledge that you, too, could be so easily broken.
From the back door, someone calls out in your direction. Your name--but you have just been born and you don’t have a name yet, you have nothing but your pink skin and your delicate fingernails and you won’t go back to the house, not yet. You cling onto the swiftly falling darkness and you close your eyes for a moment and then you exhale into the barely-awake dusk, a breath that glimmers for a moment before getting swept away and swallowed by owls or snakes or stray cats somewhere far from here.
Learn the names, if you like. Know how to tell the difference between Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine: one with plated red bark, the other with cones that slope smoothly downward like ripe ears of corn. Get a library book--Foraging in Washington State--that will teach you which plants are edible and which ones aren’t, so you can spend your afternoons picking sorrel in the cool shade of the roadside and leave the Queen Anne’s lace for the butterflies. If it makes you feel better, you can even chart maps of the area and trace out the paths that stretch from one end of the forest to the other. When you eventually get lost, maybe those trails will come in handy.
But more importantly, test the forest’s strength. Figure out which trees will hold your weight and which branches will snap with one wrong step, sending you crashing to the ground with two scraped elbows and a temporary but passionate fear of heights. Find the warm spots of sunlight where no one will interrupt your soliloquies. After all, the only way to make yourself a home somewhere is to go out there and find it.
She tugs you forward by the hand, her palm warm with sweat and her steps dancing loudly on the narrowing trail.
“Come on,” she says, “we’re almost there.”
You follow her over another decaying log, trying to keep up with her breathless enthusiasm. Her smile gets lost in the honey sweetness of birdsong around you and you’re walking too quickly for the cobwebs to catch your shoulders; beneath your red cotton sweater, you shiver a little under the cool fingertips of autumn, the plastic buttons pressing softly against your chest.
“Wait for me,” you call out, even though the two of you are nearly shoulder to shoulder. This is new to you--finding a friend, being trusted with something secret and holy--and you don’t want to get even a little bit left behind.
The path weaves its way gracefully past clumps of ivy, over fallen logs already transforming into spores and soil, until you duck underneath a nest of thorns and spot your destination. You feel a thrill pass through you, as though you always knew this was here, waiting for you to discover it: a row of rusted cars, windows long gone and paint stripped away into flaking petals on the forest floor.
“Oh,” you breathe, as she drops your hand impatiently and clambers over another log into the clearing. You stare at the empty windows a moment longer before following.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she says when you catch up to her. “And kinda creepy?”
You nod--this is an eloquent way to put it. You understand now why she calls this the graveyard; these cars are like ghosts, and you know they can feel your eyes on them. Holding your breath, you step forward to touch the hood of a five-hundred-year-old Toyota Corolla, but hesitate at the last moment and draw your fingers back into the sleeves of your sweater. Rust sparkles beneath the peeling orange paint, almost the same color but sharper.
She laughs, giving a rope of ivy stretched across the windshield a daring tug. “It’s not dangerous,” she tells you before clambering up onto the hood and wrapping her arms around her knees the way she does on top of the monkey bars at recess. “Don’t worry. I come here all the time when I want to think.”
You’re thinking that the eeriest part of this place is the silence. This is not what cars do, according to your experience: you have seen them only as muscular giants flexing themselves against yellow lines and flat asphalt, always in a hurry to get somewhere, always with something to say. Cars aren’t supposed to be quiet, and you keep expecting the dented metal to let out a familiar low groan, but all you hear are the incessant sparrows and a squirrel scrambling upward in search of a better view.
Not yet ready to take your friend’s invitation to touch these silent beasts, you carefully pick your way through the thick undergrowth, taking a moment to memorialize each vehicle. You hold them briefly in your mind as an act of memoriam: the number of broken lights, the licence plate numbers, the dents in the fender or below the rearview mirror. Details you vow to write down when you get home just so someone will. You wonder what the drivers were thinking when they shifted into park, palmed the keys and walked away into the shadows. Imagine how their fingers must have tasted when they brushed them against their lips hours later--cold metal and pine.
When it is finally time to return to real life, you feel those glassless eyes on your back long after the graveyard has been buried again behind you.
It must be at least midnight. You’re underneath your covers again with a flashlight in one hand and a pencil in the other, hours past the time when you are supposed to be asleep, hours past being able to get a proper amount of rest for the morning ahead.
The narrow beam of light illuminates the words you are writing as they spill into your journal, slipping out of place between the dotted blue lines before wandering back to catch up with the edge of the paper. Your pencil glides along, dulling itself nearly to the point of illegibility until you carefully dig out a sharpener and spend painstaking minutes rotating it as quietly as possible. Words are scribbled, crossed out, rearranged, rewritten. You have to get this down before you forget.
Your best friend back in Ohio wants to know what it’s like out here. Whether there really are as many rainstorms and apples as everyone says there are. She wants to know about your classes and your homework and how weird it is to be three hours behind her. I’m writing this from the future, she wrote in her last letter, and I’m here to tell you that David Cook WILL win American Idol!!!!
She wants to know if you miss her as much as she misses you. Come home, she says. Come home soon.
So you are trying to write back. And talking about classes and apples is easy, but you don’t know how to answer the last question. You do miss her. You miss the yellow of soybean fields under the humid blanket of summer, the languid afternoons on the porch sipping lemonade and the hum of cicadas just beyond the window screen. But when you can no longer keep your eyes open or your hand moving, you know you will dream not of these things but of the cool shadows that fall across your path during an early morning hike, and the only way you can think of to explain yourself is to write down every single thing you know about the forest. Every curve of dirt road you’ve met, every rotting stump covered in mushrooms, every reason you are starting to think that you were really supposed to grow up here.
It takes you an hour to finish your letter, and by the time you sign your name at the bottom and tear the pages from the journal one at a time, you’re not sure if you’re even still awake.
Rain pelts the windows. You gaze out longingly at the slate-colored clouds and the green mountains, brought back to attention only when the intercom’s sharp static announces lunchtime.
You linger in your seat while the rest of the class scrapes their chair legs backward on the linoleum, squeaking boots and crisp Velcro heading toward the door with lunch boxes or quarters in hand. The reverberation of their movement echoes through the room as it empties, and you are still watching the rain curl into perfect droplets against the misty finger-smudged glass, still watching the fog condense against the forest’s shoulders like a thick wool sweater. When all of the noise finally fades, you stand and shrug on your jacket, replacing your supplies in their cubby beneath the desk’s surface before making your way through the doorway and into the now-deserted hall.
She’s waiting for you right at the corner where she always does, and you smile gratefully and follow her through the building, deftly avoiding bodies streaming in the opposite direction. The dimness of the lights overhead is familiar to you now; the alternating white and brown tiles slick with traces of mud make a satisfying sound when your feet glide across them.
“I wish we could go outside,” you say at the lunch table.
“Me too.” She peels the plastic off her Lunchable, crunches a pretzel between her teeth. “When it stops raining, can I come over to your house? I want to meet your dog.”
“Yeah.” You take a bite of your cookie-cut sandwich. Today it’s in hearts. “I’ll ask my mom.”
“Maybe…” You chew thoughtfully for a moment. “When you come over, I can show you my treehouse.”
Her eyes light up. “You have a treehouse?”
“Well,” you amend, “just a tree. But it’s a really good climbing one.”
“Cool. My mom never lets me climb trees.”
“Well, my mom does. So we can do that. And then we can go look for flowers…”
For the rest of the lunch period, the two of you continue to make plans of places to go, scribbling them inelegantly in the margins of your math notebooks so you don’t forget. You start to worry that the calendar tacked up above your kitchen sink won’t have enough squares left to copy everything down, but you don’t say this. It is better to pretend, better to imagine that you have time for everything.
Outside, you can still hear the steady dripping rain as it strokes the metal roof, pools against the pavement, trickles down the gutters only to slip underneath the wheels of passing cars as they swirl through the flooded streets. You picture the puddles that are waiting impatiently to embrace your boots.
You’re perched in the branches again, listening to the neighbors play through a familiar argument in the yard across the street. Below you, at the base of the trees, a small civilization has taken root, growing up from a lopsided circle of exposed dirt. Rough stones stolen from the side of the road are arranged in a row, propping up shards of bark to form miniature houses. Garlands of dried flowers and stubbly acorn caps decorate the dwellings, ringed by piles of soft moss and pine needles. Each doorway is blockaded by a gift: an overripe berry heavy with juice, a scrap of bread filched from the dining room table.
As the days move steadily toward winter, you’ve become fixated on the idea of leaving something behind. Something to say that you were here, that you saw this forest and that you cared for it intimately. Maybe all of your careful work will be washed away tomorrow, but you do still believe in fairies. And if they can find shelter in something you’ve built, then perhaps it will be proof that your time here mattered. Perhaps they will remember you, will be waiting gratefully if you ever return.
Will you ever return?
When it is too dark to distinguish your own toes from the skin of the trees, you slip back down to solid earth and wrap your sweater tightly around you and try not to mind the stinging of needles against the parts of you that are still bare. You stand underneath the branches for as long as you can, knowing that no sprite will reveal themself while you are still watching and yet unable to let go of the fantasy quite yet. Please, you find yourself whispering into the night, take me away to your world for a while. Please, let me stay just a little bit longer.
Here is what remains: the dirt, the roots of pine buried miles below, the edge of a cold breeze. No footprints.
When it is time, posters torn from magazines will be torn from sticky-tacked walls. Milk bottles will be emptied and returned, mismatched chairs will be sold for five dollars apiece. Phone cords will be untangled and retangled in dusty shoeboxes. There will be nothing left, not even the initials you daringly carved into the closet wall with the sharpened end of a paper clip. This place will move on without you.
And yet, the drops of saliva you sent into the air will be in this place forever; they are in your lungs and in the stomachs of worms and in the dazzling calamity of early frost. These are things you cannot take back: blood and sweat and spit and skin, sharp intakes of breath and short bursts of laughter and all of the questions you dared only ask when you knew nobody would answer.
When you finally buckle your seatbelt in the backseat and watch the forest disappear from the rearview mirror--when all you have to hold onto is a journal full of memories and a home that is supposed to be getting closer, not further away--you can still feel pine needles clinging to your back like they belong there, like little roots trying to burrow down beneath your skin, even as the flat ribbon of the freeway wraps itself around your wrists and presses hard against your fluttering pulse.
Ari Koontz is a queer nonbinary artist with a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from Western Washington University. In poetry and prose, Ari grapples with identity, truth, and the sheer beauty of the universe, and is particularly fascinated by birds, stars, and other forms of light. You can find them online at arikoontz.com