Originally published by Running out of Ink (April, 2013)
Into the Woods
The front door resembles the bark of an ancient tree: unvarnished, rough against her knuckles. The house is planted on a hill between the city and an expanse of forested land. No sound comes from within it to join the chirrup of birds or the distant hum of traffic. And there’s no answer when Sal knocks.
She tries again, though she’s already started filling out a note declaring the occupier isn’t home, sorry, please call the number to rearrange delivery – if you’re still alive in there.
The door opens.
“Hi,” says Sal, looking up.
Whiskers sprout from the occupant’s sallow, sunken cheeks. His hair is tangled, unconditioned.
“Got some canvas and oils and thinners for you,” she says, flattening out the delivery note on her clipboard. She studies him again: the intensity and familiarity of his eyes. “Sign here.”
He holds the clipboard close to his bare torso and scribbles.
“I couldn’t help no
ticing the name.” Her voice is tremulous. He hands the clipboard back. “Is that like—?”
“Wow. Amazing artist.” Sal picks up the large box, her arms feeling weaker with her giddiness. “Where do you want this?”
He turns away. “In here.”
Sal follows him to his living room. No sofa, coffee table, shelves or photographs. Just a forest of canvases: nothing but paintings of trees.
She sets the package down in the nearest empty space, by an easel.
“I need to paint now,” the artist says, picking up his palette and a fan brush.
Daddy took me camping. And we’ll paint, he said. And he loaded up the car with his paint brushes and paints and our tent and sleeping bag and stuff. I wanted to go fishing as well but he wouldn’t buy me a fishing rod, even though I cried. But I didn’t think of crying when we was on the way ’cause I forgot things quick then, and I think I wanted to paint now ’cause Daddy wanted me to. And Mommy said to me I had to listen to Daddy when she was gone. Daddy knows best.
Mommy’s gone and Teddy Doo-Doo Bear was with me in the car and we got to ride next to Daddy in the seat up front. I watched Daddy drive the car with his big hands turning the wheel and moving the stick and I wanted to try it too, but Daddy wouldn’t let me drive it so me and Doo-Doo Bear pretended to steer the car. And then Doo-Doo Bear whispered something to me but I didn’t know what it was ’cause the window was opened on my side and I couldn’t hear him, the wind was too noisy in my ears. So I wounded up the window and I asked him what did he say and this time I heard him say, “Remember.” I didn’t know what he meant so I told him he was being silly and I heard Daddy laugh.
When we was all there I really needed a wee wee so I went up a tree while Daddy unloaded the tent and things from the car. Doo-Doo Bear went too and when we was finished he said to me, “You’re on my territory now,” and then we went back and helped Daddy carry our things. He wouldn’t let me carry his special bag though ’cause it has his gun and knife in it for hunting. Daddy was going to show me hunting and said we’d get a rabbit to cook up with our beans, which was good ’cause I don’t like the beans much. And while we followed Daddy into the woods Doo-Doo Bear told me we’re going to catch a big big rabbit just for the two of us.
Daddy and me found the bestest spot for the tent and we got it up real quick. Daddy said I did a good job. And then we put the sleeping bag and things in it and zipped it right up and we went to find our rabbit.
Another delivery. Sal drops it off in the living room, taking a passing note of the additions to the canvas forest. She leaves while the artist continues painting. They don’t exchange a word beyond “Hi”. But he smiles, faintly, uncertainly.
With each subsequent visit she lingers, unpacks the contents of the parcels for him. He goes back to his work.
No. Intriguing. Every other man she’s met usually says too much. But the artist is silent, communicating through colour, shape and shade alone. His work will tell her enough. Somewhere in those careful, indelible brush strokes, she’ll find him.
Me and Doo-Doo Bear walked behind Daddy holding hands. Daddy was carrying his gun and he looked like an action hero. And I was pointing at things and making gun noises now – bang bang. And then Doo-Doo Bear told me, “Wait now. Wait for the kill.” But I went ahead anyway until Daddy said to shhh and put his hand up to stop me.
We saw a rabbit hopping along between the trees. It was brown and had big eyes that looked at us and didn’t know why Daddy was pointing his gun at it. And then before it could hop away the gun went bang and its little rabbit body bleeded and twitched until it was dead.
Daddy carried the rabbit back to camp to make it into stew. He said he’d show me exactly what to do and Teddy Doo-Doo Bear said, “Pay attention,” so I watched Daddy stick his knife into the bunny’s neck and slice down its spine and then pull his little rabbit body out of its coat. And I watched as Daddy cut it open and took out all the yucky bits we didn’t need. I didn’t really like this bit but Doo-Doo Bear said it was important. But I liked eating it better. It cooked up into a yummy stew.
After supper there wasn’t time for painting or drawing or anything else, so Daddy said it was time for bed. We left the dirty pots outside and went into the tent and then Daddy said it was going to be cold so it would be better if we didn’t wear anything and cuddled up together, and I knew it must be right ’cause Daddy knew best like Mommy said. And so Daddy took off my clothes and then he took off his clothes and we got into the sleeping bag. I held onto Doo-Doo Bear and Daddy held onto me and we were all very warm just like Daddy had promised. And Daddy kissed me goodnight but I couldn’t fall asleep ’cause he was kissing me a lot but Teddy Doo-Doo Bear said, “Remember. Remember now. And soon you can live here with me.”
Sal sits on the hardwood floor, propped up against a delivery box. She can’t recollect the transition from day to dusk. Perhaps because the diaphanous curtains are always drawn, filtering sunlight during the day.
When did she become a guest here?
She’s captivated watching him work. Maybe that’s his trick: the left-right movements of the brush have hypnotized her, like the swings of a pendulum. He wants her here. He never asks her to leave. And he’s placing orders more frequently, most of her supplies still unused.
To be wanted is a nice thought. But what can he see in a talentless Hispanic girl like her? She’s nothing. He’s a visionary. She struggles to see the meaning of his paintings: woods, just endless woods, no wildlife, no streams, just trees and brushwood.
Not that she needs to interpret his art. Her needs are simpler. Since the accident when she was ten years old, she’s wanted to find someone to fill the void. She needs someone to soothe the smouldering memories. Although she can’t explain it, there’s something about the artist; something healing about being with him, listening to the scratch and scrape of his tools against the canvas, losing herself in his mystery.
“Where did you go?” I called out. And I heard Doo-Doo Bear say, “I’m here.” And so I told him he mustn’t run off like that.
“I was taking care of a rabbit,” he said, and I looked down at him and I saw his sticky red paw.
Sparks fly from the lighter as it ignites. He touches it to the tip of the joint that hangs like a broken birch branch from the corner of his mouth.
“You want?” He holds out the lighter, paper and a bag of weed in a hand hued brownish green. His voice is ancient, cracked and splintered. Sal waits to hear it again, to see if it imparts something meaningful.
He sees her hesitation. His hand closes and retracts. He carries on with his work.
Sal watches the smoke erupt in short puffs. She inhales the cannabis smell and wonders whether, if she lets herself indulge in his habit, she’ll see what he sees. See clearly. Understand.
The canvas forest is growing denser, darker. But his paintings are becoming lighter. Ethereal, sunlit mist is curling its way through the furthest trees of his latest picture.
Then she notices something within the trees. It looks like a fuzzy ear – a creature hiding at the edge of the painting.
We stood over the rabbit and watched him drag himself along in the dirt, afraid, leaving a trail of blood from the wounds in his leg and stomach.
“I’ll finish him off,” said Doo-Doo Bear, and he flashed his silver claws and put them to the rabbit’s throat. And the rabbit trembled and looked at me with his pitiful eyes and through a mess of snot and tears he begged for mercy.
Sal doesn’t touch the LSD. She isn’t brave enough. But she sprinkles the weed along the centre of the paper sheet. Rolls it. Licks it. Lights it.
She holds it between her thumb and forefinger. The tip smoulders. Gives off a tendril of smoke, and she wonders if this will become their binding thread. Will it be a flimsy connection? Talking might strengthen it, even though he needs her silence because every artist requires an observer.
But she wants him to know her now – her name, Salvadora – know everything about her.
So, she speaks.
I died here, not him. I live here with Doo-Doo Bear, but “live” is the wrong word because I’m a ghost, haunting these woods. Every day we go hunting, but “day” is the wrong word too because there are no days. The beginning’s lost and there’s no end, only now – the same now.
So here we are: me and Teddy and the trees. I can’t see my way out, but it’s not so dark and scary anymore. Something’s changed and I don’t know what it is. But sometimes I think I hear a voice. A whisper. And I ask Doo-Doo Bear to shhh as he tries to convince me to chase after the rabbit, even though the blood spots soak into the ground too quickly, impossible to follow. But he always pulls away from my grip even though I tell him, “Let it go,” and I have to run after him. Teddy frightens me when he’s like this, but sometimes I wish he’d killed that rabbit right there and then. And then I do run after him and time repeats.
Before we run back in time again, I hear her. Sometimes I catch bits and pieces of what she says. And here I am now, holding on as tight as I can to Doo-Doo Bear’s paw, and the whisper comes: a breeze, a rustling of leaves, and then the wind swooshes words into my ears. Something about a fire and blame and guilt – words swept into the air and scattered until my ears catch them.
Part of me wants to stay and listen, but there goes Teddy and here I go after him and suddenly Daddy’s loading up the car with his paint brushes and paints and our tent and sleeping bag and stuff—
A microdot of LSD fizzes in her stomach. She feels the bubbles bursting, tickling, and she giggles. Bubbles squeeze and pop out through her belly button. They float up, shining oily purples and blues, and she blows them away delightedly. She isn’t sure if this is exactly what he sees, but she wishes he could see it and calls to him: “Hey – haha – look.”
But he’s focused. He’s lost.
Sal picks up the lighter. Thumbs its wheel. No sparks.
She takes a half-empty box of matches from her jeans pocket and, with a joint between her lips, she strikes one and brings it closer, closer to her face, watches it grow until the flame almost engulfs her—
She throws the match, her breathing fast and heavy. It lands at the foot of an easel. The fire leaps up its legs, which is when she notices it isn’t an easel at all.
“Papa?” Her eyes blur. Cheeks salty, wet.
Her father’s trying to speak. His mouth moves but she can’t hear him. Mama’s sitting next to him. She’s on fire, too, both of them blackening, burning. Sal reaches out to her father, to hold him and let the fire catch her own arm, to pull her into the abyss with him.
But the flames shrink away from her hand – her little-girl hand – letting her touch him unharmed. As her fingertips make contact, he crumbles into ashes.
Sal flinches, looks away.
Why did the fire take them but not her? How does it choose? She wishes there were answers. If only—
Before she completes the thought, an indistinct voice says, “Let it go.” And her love, loneliness and remorse reply, “How can we? Show us, please.”
Sal looks up and there, standing in a forest, is a boy and a bear. While she stares at them, the forest grows, stretching out before her. The bigger it gets, the smaller and more distant the boy and his bear appear, until they’re just a dot and then – gone.
Behind her, the fire spreads. She stands up and runs towards the forest, as fast as her short legs will allow. She looks back once, to see her mother crumbling too.
She runs and runs until the trees envelop her.
And she’ll stay here until she finds the boy and his bear, lost in the woods.