One Night I Walked into the Woods
The forest raised me, like it did so many others, with dirt-caked jeans, untamed eyes, and imaginations that could be barely be contained inside a single mind.
I was brought up by the towering trees, the woodland animals that delighted in frightening me by skittering under leaves and rustling thick bushes, the breeze that made branches sing and my own skin flush.
The shadows. The ghosts. Their whispers.
I grew up in the woods, where farmers once settled, where crumbling stone walls marked property lines and cow paths. Woodland advanced upon every angle of my house, surrounding us like a decaying castle in an old story. My mother could never get a garden to thrive in the rocky soil, yet the forest flourished.
Back then, I didn’t know the extent of what could be hiding in the woods. Never mind the fairy tales I devoured, ripe with the threat of wolves and witches. Wolves did not roam in Connecticut. Witches always seemed misunderstood
And so I believed I was safe. But now I know what is there, watching and waiting, sliding into the gloom and traveling on the backs of songbirds and foxes. Still, I continue to return to these woods. I return home and I peer into the thicket.
One night, I walked into the woods. I was grown by then, nothing like the little girl who once stalked that property. Or, I was exactly like that girl, but with a woman’s skin and a more battered soul. My children slumbered soundly in the bedroom where I’d slept when I was young. They did not fear the forest the way they should, either. I told myself they would learn. But then, had I?
The moon, engorged and luminous, hung in the unhindered sky like a lantern, though it could not possibly illuminate all that was obscured by inky tree trunks and stirring ferns. Even in the light of day, nightmares can haunt the mind. We like to believe if we shed light on the shadows, we will realize there is nothing there, nothing to be afraid of after all. We turn on closet lights and shine lamps under the bed, certain that the monsters were manufactured.
I walked into the woods in rubber boots and a woolen coat, my hair loose and the wind on my neck. The woods were a landscape teeming with flora and fauna. They were nature and beauty. Still, my body tingled and my stomach cramped as I left the protection of a grassy yard, walking into the wild.
Since that night, I’ve learned to trust myself more expertly. Intuition, as throbbing as a full moon, is not a hysterical reaction to a normal circumstance. It is the truth, sighing through the body and shocking the brain.
Shadows slipped past, hiding in faraway corners beyond my sight. Charcoal tree trunks blended into the unending night, black against black. Moonlight slipped through to the ground so that I could almost make out my feet against the chilled earth. A spiderweb grazed my face, sticking to strands of hair, and I brushed away its fine threads.
The air tasted sweet and melancholy, crisp and alert.
When I was young, the forest spoke to me. I see that now. And I better understand what it was trying to communicate in its imprecise, ancient way.
There were no apparitions or disembodied voices, no tangible monsters that materialized before me or secret books I uncovered in the dirt. Though I did leave many messages, I remember. On lined paper torn from my school notebooks, I scribbled snippets of prose and desperate wishes, burying them under the earth. Perhaps I’ll never know, or recall, the contents of those notes, but the forest does. The memory of trees is long and unhurried, unlike a brook or a cloud. Trees soak in our stories through their roots, like so much water, and keep them stored in their hidden grooves. The trees knew me, and they will know me until I am no longer here.
Small mammals stirred in the undergrowth and the hallmark call of owls echoed eerily through the branches. I walked down the familiar path of my youth, dry and dusty, though then it was narrower than before. Soon enough, the forest would devour it and the next generation of girls would not find it there, under the vines and thorns that time would grow. They would take knives, or bats, or their bare hands to clear away the trail. But for me, it was still there. A ghost of what it had been.
My foot caught on an exposed root and I stumbled, though I did not fall. When I came to the clearing, I did not need moonlight nor markers to know of my arrival.
The quiet told me.
This spot was the farthest into my forest I would venture when I was a child. It was a gate and a barrier, and even then, in my daydreamy ignorance, I knew not to cross it.
When a wood hushes, it’s not merely the sound that vanishes. The air lightens and the shapes sharpen. The body changes, becoming acutely aware of every twig on the ground, stone blocking the way, and bird sitting silently atop a tree, staring but not flying away.
When the forest speaks, it makes sure you have no choice but to listen.
Under the moon and the shadow canopy, time stopped as my muscles tensed. My ears grew larger, waiting for the inevitable and ethereal call to retreat as quickly as my rubber boots would take me. Hairs stood on my neck while under my wool coat and thin pink pajama top, goosebumps dotted my arms.
In my youth, I was frequently consumed by this sensation. It was the faint murmur of a change in the surroundings, a shift in safety, a breath of clarity. I would often write outside, a notebook propped on my skinny, bug-bitten thighs. A stone fence still stands over a vanishing stream, and it was my outdoor office before I knew it was what I needed, and what I would eternally return to.
As a young girl, I was sitting on the fence one summer day, deep in thought about a story that ached inside me. Then, it happened. My surroundings were suddenly altered and I knew, in the well of my instinctual awareness, that I had to leave that place immediately. I closed my notebook, swung my legs off the fence, and ran up my driveway. I ran.
That night in the woods, the same feeling passed through me. The shadows darkened and the crackling leaves overhead blocked out the moon’s comforting glow. Patches of stars were visible until wind-battered boughs blotted out the only spots of light. Cool air pressed upon me.
Again, I sped through the woods toward shelter and warmth. The forest wanted me to listen. No wolves were following my trail, but as for monsters, I did not know. I thought I was safe because I had become the witch.
When I glanced in a mirror at home, I gasped at the sallow image reflecting back. Silver moon spots dappled my face, along with a fresh scratch from a stray branch in the woods. A thin, elegant strip of blood ran down my cheek.
The forest promised no safety. It cut and bruised, leaving marks etched into my skin and my soul, no matter how wise I thought myself to be. Still, I knew I would return again.