by Christopher Woods
The path approached, passed beneath them, then fell behind. They moved slowly, she supporting him. On this winter night it came to her that, in so many layers of clothing, she could not feel his body heat. Only hers. She pulled him closer. In earnest.
"That hurts," he said.
"I’m sorry, but you don’t need another fall."
When he sighed, she watched smoke flare from his nostrils to either side of his head. He was a frail dragon, walking in tame woods. Time had killed what was primitive in the woods. Now, in their old age, she realized that the woods were probably much more civilized than they were.
His hair was thin, white, windblown tufts. Better off than he was, she knew she would survive him, would have to bury him after watching him die.
Would there be someone to do the same for her? On any walk, she knew, there was always someone ahead or behind.
"Let’s turn back now," he said.
"Only a little more. We’ll catch the other trail and follow it home."
Now too cold to argue, he grabbed her hand and held it as an owl flew over their heads. It vanished into the night gloom of trees. They kept walking.
"There it is," she announced, seeing the other trail.
"I’m happy for it," he said, his voice chilly as the night.
In their house they had left a fire burning.
They did not fear the night. Not silent slugs oozing with directive across autumn leaves. Or the crackling forest floor, ground so brittle that even the footsteps of ghosts resounded endlessly.
In a bag she carried insect repellent, a bottle of red Bordeaux and two kinds of cheese. He carried the old plaid blanket slung over his shoulder. This was a night of celebration. They had feigned illness and skipped cocktails at a neighbor’s home. Here were the trails they themselves had made, one weekend after the next, for years. Here, they could walk blindfolded.
"My insomnia could go away outdoors," he said.
"Maybe we won’t want to sleep," she said hopefully, and she surprised even herself.
They left the trail and went crashing into underbrush, finally coming to a small clearing where a fountain bubbled and whispered. The wine and cheese finished, they watched the sky through firs that framed their field of vision.
"You know I’m sorry about that," he said at last.
After all, he had strayed from the path only recently. The night sky of many distances had made him consider this.
"It’s over," she said. "Isn’t all that over?"
He cupped her chin with his hand until his lips took over. She didn’t resist. After some weeks of his constant absence, she had taken him back, preferring not to start life over again alone.
Much later in the night, both of them covered with dew and the air thick with fog, he got up. He was going back to the house for another blanket. Moving about in the dark, he wished aloud for a flashlight.
"I’ll go with you," she said. "A person could get lost."
"And why not?" he asked angrily. He was infuriated that she would refuse him.
"It’s not time," she said. "Not yet." Defensive about denying him, she also feared his wrath.
On the new plaid blanket, on a night in a high school year, their clothes in a pile on summer grass, their sweat glistened and mingled until they smelled like the same person.
He got up, standing with a foot on either side of her waist. His eyes brimmed with rage. He was aroused, the same as she. Then, in a quick movement he turned and walked away, disappearing into the trees. Not bothering to cover herself, she followed.
She wanted him, no doubt about that. But she feared that, by giving in, she might be giving him away. After savoring the moment, he might begin looking for different moments.
She found him kneeling in a gully, spilling himself in a small stream. She wanted to go to him, pull him down in the stream and please him, but before she moved an inch he had begun moaning like a pained animal in a trap. Afterwards, she watched him clean himself with eucalyptus leaves.
Ignoring warnings of a one-eyed troll, furry and brandishing fingernails the length of Spanish daggers, they entered the woods. The bright spring morning dissipated in the hushed dank air beneath the trees. Poison berries weighed down limbs over the path.
"We could get lost," she said, six years old and fearful of most things.
"Follow me and we won’t," he said. He was a year older.
They found no troll. Instead, they discovered the place where bums slept at night. Excavating the hobo inner sanctum, they scattered the ashes from old fires.
By afternoon they were lost, by nightfall certain they would never be found alive. Their cries were heard only by melancholy owls. Very late, there were voices from a search party. Flashlights appeared, coming and going like the small migrations of fireflies. The closer the lights came, the more the vines hanging from trees became corpses of snakes, limp and bloodless.
And despite lectures received once home safe again, they knew they would enter the woods again.
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