Friday, October 21, 2011

The Way Back Home

The trail rounds a bend, and I spy a granite wall. Inside that wall there is a cave. Inside that cave lies darkness. I have returned. I smell her. I smell him. I smell them. They call to me with the wind through the trees. Their voices sound from the gurgle of a small creek coursing downhill over mossy stones. They call me home.

Leaves fall around me from the tall maples, oaks, and hickories. Across the stream, a dervish of pine straw sweeps through the shady dark trunks of a patch of slash pines.

I don’t belong here.

I look at my hands. I see my wedding band. I shake the watch I received as a gift from my eldest daughter on my too-skinny wrist. I remember my girls. I remember their hair, their smell, and their laughter. I inevitably remember they are gone. I note my fingernails and how clean they are. I turn my hands over and touch the bumpy line running up my arms. That line is ugly and purple and seems to grow larger every year. I remember a crimson river collecting as a cloudy delta in the ocean of my bathtub.

I don’t belong here.

But it started here. I think. I don’t know because it was all so long ago. It seems a nice enough place for it to end, all the same.

I hear birds sing a song and know the words. Some people might say they are not words, but those people would be wrong. There is meaning. That’s all words are in the end. Songs convey meaning. Music carries emotions. The forest has a song all its own. That song is nothing if not meaningful.

A shock of cold creeps up my leg. I look down. I see myself walk into the stream. My pants grow dark with creeping moisture. Chill bumps rise on my arm. A shiver slinks down my spine. Overhead, a trio of crows caws as they leap from branch to branch to branch. A flurry of leaves, nuts, and pinecones shower down in their wake.

I hear a rustle and see something dark and large – A bear? A deer? A mountain lion? A wolf? A troll? A dragon? – creep through a patch of underbrush. Twigs rattle in the wake. There’s a growl or a cry or a laugh; it is hard to tell the difference. I think I see fresh hoof prints outlined in mud. Worms wriggle up and fill the dark indentations like anemones.

I don’t belong here.

My daughter had been a little girl once. She sat on my knee. She held my hand and dragged me around everywhere as little girls are wont to do with their daddies. I let her carry me. I thought I was the parent. I thought I was in charge. I thought I was the protector. I thought I was keeping her safe and sound. I never dreamed she was the only thing keeping me from being lost. That’s what I am without her: lost. I need her hand in mine so I don’t slip away.

I trudge forward through the creek. I splash as I lose my footing. I slip on moss and algae. I scrape my hands. Loose moss sinks beneath my fingernails. My arms are slick and white with cold. My teeth chatter, but I hardly recognize this. I don’t feel the cold even though it eats at me and sends my pulse into a frenetic fury.

I come closer to the cliff I first saw when coming around the bend. The gurgle of water becomes a roar. I look up and see the waterfalls. They cascade down from above. Beneath the base of the falls, I can just make out the dark outline of the cave. The walls on either side of the opening appear soft and languorous, worn smooth by an eternity of erosion.

I don’t belong here.

I look back behind me and realize I am on a rise. This is a natural overlook. Below me, a river snakes through a valley. A city sits on the bank of that river. Cars drive on streets. Children play on playgrounds. Adults sit in offices or work construction. It is Halloween. Once the sun sets, the carved pumpkins will be alight with fire. Families will take to the streets with glow sticks and bags for candy. People will smile and visit and knock on each other’s doors. They might not knock on each other’s doors any other time during the year, but they will on that night. At least the children will. The adults will hang back and watch from the curb or sidewalk or simply stay at home while getting drunk and watching horror movies.

I always liked Halloween. But not this year. Not last year. Not the year before.

Every little girl, no matter the costume, looks just like my little girl. I find myself wondering if she might be underneath that wig? That make-up? That mask?

I belong here.

The cascading water slows and then stops. Lingering puddles in the rock drip. The birds stop their song. The crows land next to me. They stand silent and regard me with obsidian eyes.

A tree falls behind me, then another.

A dragon sweeps by blowing smoke and fire.

A troll rides on the dragon’s back. The troll picks its nose and laughs. It sings a song whose words are meaningless and untrue. I hate that troll.

The dragon knocks the cliff with a spiked tail. I’m not sure if the action was on accident or on purpose. I doubt that it matters. The impact of the beast against the cliff breaks the stone apart. Rocks fall around me. It grows dark. I am buried. Water seeps through cracks above me. I relent. The chill overtakes me until there is no chill, only numbness.

I touch the scars on my forearms. They vibrate and pulse. I dig in with my hands until I can feel myself. Pink light erupts from my torn skin and muscle. This blushing illumination lights my way. I dig and dig. My hands grow wet. I will keep digging until I find myself, until I find my way back home.

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