[StoryADay May Prompt: “Paint A Vivid Setting“]
The paths into the forest always entered from brightly lit residential streets. Start off heading uphill along the steep driveway to Primrose, and one path immediately presented itself across the street, leading into the wall of trees. Turn left on Primrose instead, head west to Magnolia, and take a short asphalt hike north that ended in grass and mounds to find another path into the woods. Turn left on Magnolia, downhill and right to Arch, and the avenue kept to the forest with only a few large homes along the way, eventually leading to an unnamed dirt road on the left, the water tower there, the chain across the path easily bypassed, and a deeply rutted path uphill.
His favorite path started at the edge of the lawn just outside the front doorway of his parents’ house. Instead of following the driveway up, he turned left, crossed the lawn, and scrambled through the bushes and trees separating his parents’ property from the last residence on Primrose. The thin dirt path there incised by animals and decades of local residents led around the neighbor’s house and downhill slightly, until it reached the creek full of water year round. Follow the creek and path right and he ended up at Sutherlin High School, the second worst place he could possibly go. Follow the creek left and he entered the forest proper, via a tongue of tall and overgrown vegetation that separated one tentative residential push into the hills from the next. Soon there was nothing urban to encounter, not even a glimpse of cleared lots that might someday result in new homes.
It was dark here in the woods, the kind of dark that is lush, wet, and green, in which color is vibrant but shadowed, and the trees grow tall to reach above their mutual canopy to find the sun. When sunlight reached the forest floor, it was a brilliant beam confined, as was all sound, as if these woods were a site of worship and sun and sound were pillars that held the steeple up.
Mark never felt as free as he did in the forest. It beckoned him as soon as the weekend arrived, very early on Saturday, before his parents or siblings were awake. He frequently snuck out of the house as early as possible. It was one of few activities that did not seem to anger his dad. Maybe it was his age—only just turned thirteen—or maybe it was some kind of parental relief, but when he returned home hours later, his dad had nothing ferocious to attack him with right away, though what happened next depended on immediate circumstances with no residual protection from the woods. Hiking the forest? Never an issue.
That Saturday, Mark had no plans to return home ever again.
The creek near his parents’ house ran in a thin channel the eventually ended near a pool and drainage pipes behind the high school. Only a few hundred feet further up the hill, however, the creek frequently vanished underground, visible only through holes in the soil and audible if he held his ear near the ground. When it did break the surfaces as he hiked up the hill to discover its source, it tumbled with more chaos, deeper waters, and ignorance of its ignoble end in town.
He knew this length of the creek already. Many months of hiking interrupted only by occasional bad weather, and sometimes not even rain stopping him, had brought him far enough up the hill to find the stream cascading beneath an acres wide dome of blackberry bushes that prevented his further exploration. He had found paths around the blackberry barrier which let him estimate its size, and he had even frequently come down to the area from higher yet, the top of the hill and its old logging roads, without discovering where the stream started. He believed that it bubbled up from the ground somewhere in the blackberries, and he imagined that it must be a sight to behold based on the amount of water that charged out from the area every day of the year.
In an earlier hike, Mark had chanced across a man sauntering down a dirt path at the top of the hill as if he had a home there. His dark brown skin marked him as the outdoor type though Mark could not decide his ethnicity, and his hair and beard were white and coarse. He seemed very happy to see Mark. Mark told him about his project to find the source of the creek and the man who called himself Moss shook his head knowingly. “Many a young man beat a path through these woods looking to answer that one,” he grinned. “And you won’t be the last. But I’ll tell you something: if you can find a way to push on, what you find might be even better than you imagine. A place like no place on this beautiful Earth. Can’t right tell you how, because it’s not a place you’ll want to leave. The few who made it didn’t either.”
As soon as they parted, Mark knew his summer project. And in the first several weeks of summer he had been around the blackberry patch over which one could not see the end from any direction, and found that the only possible way in was via the creek itself.
Mark stood next the creek there, watching it emerge in a surface channel that quickly vanished back underground for several hundred feet. Rotting fallen tree trunks and branches periodically dammed or bridged the creek, but it always found a way under or over obstacles. The water over many years had cleared away soil leaving jumbles of rocks to pave its bed where it flowed across the surface.
Bundled now in a zipped windbreaker with the hood pulled over his head, he put on work gloves he found in the garage. He had worn jeans instead of shorts, but he expected to be soaked and muddy quickly. He got down on his hands and knees and inspected the blackberry vines that arced over the stream. He would be able to on either side of the water worm his way along it, with thorns snagging his clothing but hopefully not poking through. How far he would be able to get was unclear.
He was right about getting wet and muddy. While there was enough ground on either side of the creek to keep him out of the deepest water, it was muddy, and frequently his leg or foot ended up in the water as the tunnel through the blackberries narrowed. Each time he was able to push his way through. Despite his garb, he felt pokes and scratches on his arms and legs. He glanced behind him and saw he had made very little progress. He pushed on. He had plenty of time to explore; it was still early in the morning.
Except for the sound of fast moving water occasionally burbling beside obstacles and occasional bird chirps, the forest was quiet. He has spotted a few squirrels and rabbits earlier, but now he was looking for snakes and other unexpected animals that might have a special liking of this difficult to reach setting. He tried not to think about how difficult it would be to turn around under the blackberry vines and make his way back to where the patch ended.
Up ahead the way was gloomy, and so it was now behind him. He should have brought a spool of twine, he thought, so that he could have measure how far he crawled. He hoped, though, that he would not need to go back the other way. Either he would find a way through the blackberries entirely, or he would find something else here, something he barely dared imagine.
What the man Moss had hinted of in not so many words was a place to flee from Mark’s awful world and constant fear of his dad. A destination like those in fantasy novels. If there were paths between this world and another, then it seemed this unlikely one under the blackberry vines was a strong candidate. A vine snapped back and hit him in his face, scratching his forehead and cheek. He tried to pull himself across the ground with minimal vertical motion, but when his face was so near the ground and the creek suddenly seemed much deeper than before, he worried about his nose and mouth filling with water. It wasn’t likely that if he died here anyone would find him easily. It would probably be the smell of him that eventually led to him.
He pressed on. What Moss had also hinted at was persistence. He tried to remember exactly what Moss had said, but what he actually remembered was the surprise of him when they first met and how they parted. In between was an image of them as if reflected on top of a calm pool of water, a conversation without hearing what was said, without much motion, with only lips moving and truths uttered but not heard loudly, or remembered easily. What he remembered was more like muscle memory: the desire to keep going, to find out for sure where the creek came from, and having reached such a place, being prepared for anything, including magic.
He moved along and now the left side of his body was soaked. When he came to a stop it was because there was no way to push through the blackberries, which had grown so thick that they now presented a barrier that reach to the ground. The arc of them was almost gone, except for a small gap over the creek itself. Now he would have to crawl backward.
There was another way. He carefully slipped his left leg into the cold water. He was disturbed when he did not immediately find the bottom of the creek. Then he cotinued dropping into the creek with his other leg, until he was bent at the waist and holding on to the side with a white knuckled grip. He legs reached the other side easily enough—there was just barely enough width to accommodate the width of him—but there seemed to be no bottom at all. He lowered himself into the water.
Maybe he would drown. The creek would keep working on pulling his body downstream, or his body would get caught somewhere permanently and the water would flow around and over it. Maybe there wouldn’t be a smell as his decay was washed away, or maybe a piece of cloth would end up caught in a twig next to the creek next to the path leading back to his parents’ house. Now the water was up to his chin, he felt the fathomless depths under his feet, and he pulled himself upstream, against the rush of water, wishing that the creek banks were made of firmer material than the organic rich mud through which his hands oozed so easily.
For several feet he could keep his face above the water, but the way forward continued to shrink. He found what felt like more comfortable purchase against both sides of the creek, his hands on top and his feet pushed into the soft sides. He wobbled back and forth as he inched forward, until his lips were on the water and then in it, until his nose was what he used to breath when he didn’t seem to have room to push his head up further.
Why, he wondered, was he still going? Was his home life really worth this risk? He thought that being thirteen and abused had somehow made him too mature for his age, but in the creek he felt lonely and childish. Afraid of massive things open maw below him. Afraid of losing his grip and sinking down to meet them. Of dying, and no one knowing, even his dad. Would that make his dad start caring about him? What he imagined instead was his dad’s anger when he didn’t show up tonight. The anger growing even when his tearful mother called the police. Days of searching and his dad in a full fury, demanding to know what Mark had been thinking, no one able to find him, but his dad wanting to beat the shit out of him. His father over his corpse, kicking at it, shouting.
He wasn’t going to stop. He was going to start swimming. He was going to make it to the source of the water even if it was erupting from a deep natural pipe at the center of hill. He would dive down into the depths and fight the beasts off and sink until there was no way back up. He’d drown before he went back home.
The sudden lack of creek sides and an unexpected brightness startled him. He flailed briefly before remembering he could swim and he swam up to see that he was in a small pool with plenty of room around it to scramble up onto firm soil. He lay down at the edge, panting, and felt the warm of the high sun on his skin. Exhaustion sapped his strength. He closed his eyes, opened them, and the sun seemed to have moved slightly. He felt better. He sat up and looked around him.
Blackberry vines were safely at a distance, though they surround the clearing like a well-maintained hedge. He was certain that there was no clearing in the blackberries after all his days exploring its fringes, but here, somehow, he was warming under direct sunlight and not being poked by thorns.The clearing was relatively smooth, obviously part of the forest with patches of ferns especially near the pool, soft dead yellow leaves and pine needles, rich soil, a few trees and bushes, flowers, lilies in the pool, buzzing insects, excited chirping birds, and a massive animal he hadn’t noticed before. He thought at first it was a deer, but when the size of it began to register, he suddenly felt fear again.
“You’re fine,” the beast boomed. “Nothing to fear here.”
Then it stood.
What it was, he could not quite pull enough descriptions together to begin to label it. Antlers were indeed attached to its head, great brown and black branches that ended in sharp points. It was a rack as wide as a pickup truck is long, and both sides curled down and up and out. The head was deer-like, too, elogated and ending in a snout, but he was reminded of a dragon. Yet the dragon seemed to be made out of tree bark, and tree sap oozed out of thin rents along its neck and down its body. The body itself resembled that of a man, a giant, a tree with two arms and two legs on which it now stood high over him so that it blotted out the sun. Or it was a boulder carved into a statue. Or it was nothing but what it had always been, and he had no idea what that was.
“Can you speak,” it inquired.
“Yes? I’m glad.”
How to respond to such a thing? Mark wondered if its size meant he should bow before it. Or that it was hungry. After standing, though, it stopped. There was no comfortable distance from the thing, but it was as far away from him as possible, and not showing signs of coming nearer.
“Do you request entry, then?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where I am.”
“You came here, did you not?”
“I…I did.” He could scarcely remember why. “Oh, yes. I came here. I was hoping to find this place. Anyplace.”
“And you found me. I imagine in your world there are none like me?”
Your world. If he had been standing, he would have fallen back to the ground. As it was he slumped down. Another world.
“I swam here.” The words sounded stupid. “I mean, I followed the creek up the hill. Under the blackberries. In my world.” Yes, an entirely different world. “And then I had to get in the water, where I swam, and I thought I was going to drown but now I’m here.”
“Do you request entry, then?”
And that was the important question, apparently. There was really only one answer: “Yes. I wish to enter your world.”
“I’m sorry that you cannot.”
The beast’s response made no sense. “I’m sorry? I’m here, aren’t I? Didn’t you just ask me if I wanted entry?”
The voice boomed and if there had been other creatures evident he thought they would have run far, far away, but the birds didn’t seem to mind. They continued to chirp, though he had not yet seen one. “I had already decided. I was ready before you arrived. Why else would I be waiting here?”
“You knew I was coming?”
“You made every noise. Everyone knew you were coming.”
“There are others?”
“In all worlds where there is one, there must be others, or what good would it be? But your question has been answered and you may go now.”
He could not move. Did he have to explain? He spoke then about finding this place again, and then he backtracked and talked about how he had been searching for a very long time. Then about what his father did to him. About how this had to be a safe place, or else why had it been so hard to reach, so painful, so scary?
“You have siblings, don’t you.”
What? “Yes. I have a brother and sister. Why?”
“Aren’t they still back there in your world. In the home you want to escape?”
“Are they in danger from him?”
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I get the brunt of it, when I’m there, but I guess, when they get older. Maybe my dad will mellow out.”
Why did it matter? Then he wondered why it wouldn’t matter. It was unfair. It was unfair that they were the reason why he couldn’t stay here. “What if I go get them?” That seemed impossible. What if he could convince his ten year old brother and six year old sister to follow him into the woods. Once they reached the blackberries, then what? He had barely survived reaching this place; it would be impossible to come back with the two of them.
The deer beast, stone giant, dragon god, whatever it was, slowly backed away, keeping Mike in its sights, but eager, it seemed to be done with this.
“So you want me to go back? Back to all that! My dad is awful! Maybe if I’m not there he’ll be nicer. Maybe because they never find me he learns to be a better dad. Nate and Ally won’t get in trouble like I do.”
The beast stopped. “It’s not your fault.”
“What’s not my fault? That you won’t let me stay? That my dad is a monster? How do you know?” It was really easy to cry in the middle of the blackberries under a frightening creature with a friendly voice after nearly drowning while scratches and scrapes started to sting and itch and all he had to look forward to now was heading back the other way on a long and treacherous retracing of his steps that if he survived led right back to his dad and beatings. And what a beating he would get now that the evidence of his long trip was carved in his skin and soaking his ruined muddy clothes. It was all enough for a week’s worth of hitting and screaming and school not even in session to moderate what marks his dad left on him.
“No path is ever easy,” the beast said and Mark noticed it was trying to soften its voice even further. “The path away, the path back, the path to adulthood. Perhaps, if you had been an only child, the world you find yourself in now would have accepted you. I do not decide. I see the decision upon you. You will not be a part of this world because your own world still holds you so tightly. It is not a bad thing to be wanted by your own world, even if so far it seems there is nothing but pain for you there. No, young man, young man wise beyond your years and hurt but always so brave, the decision that has been made is not one meant to make you feel even more pain. It is a decision based on your own courage and the esteemed position you hold in a world in which others have not been kind to you. They lash out at you because they are monsters, certainly, but because they see in you what they will never be.”
“But what do I do?”
“Keep finding and surmounting these difficult paths. That cannot be any comfort to you, I know. Can I tell you what will happen next? Can I tell you lies about how things will get better? I see nothing upon you but what you are, what you are and your father is not. You are in terrible danger, but you have always been. Maybe now that you know this, maybe it will help you in some way. That is, after all, how you ended up here. You have not been granted entry, but you made it this far. You have been given a rare glimpse. There is hope in that.”
Then it was retreating again, this gigantic, inexplicible creature who nevertheless seemed to know the content of its words and with its kind voice suggested more than what it said, just like Moss what seemed a lifetime ago. Mark waited until the beast turned and marched without any indication of pain through the blackberry vines that surrounded the clearing. Once Mark saw its back, he stepped into the pool and felt the water pull him with speed and certainty forward, not the water in the pool, but water from far away, water in a creek and from its source and the gravity of its path down the hill to where his parents’ home sat. He was not aware of the transition between worlds, he did not suffer along the way except from internal uncertainties and disappointments, and quickly he arrived back at the edge of the blackberries in his own backyard woods, covered in mud, wet, scratched and scraped, and not looking back.
You have been given a rare glimpse. Mark wondered if the glimpse was all that one needed to finally see much, much more. As the details in his memory began to blur and fade, with only the beginning of his journey under the blackberries and a persistent image of the creature he had encountered on the other side to frame them, he also felt certain that this would not be his last opportunity to enter another world. And he had his world that seemed to want him here very much.
It was very strange how much comfort that brought him on the way back down the hill.
StoryADay May 2016 Day 11