It was winter in the forest. The early year flurry had come down, and the snowfinchs that teetered on the frozen branches were whistling a winter song. The forests’ verdant energies were immersed in the snow, as were the mountains that stood quietly in the distance, which were glazed in white, and always were, but thicker than it would have been in warmer springs. Emerging from a congregation of oaks: Walter—blonde, not tall, and a conspicuous limp, the aftermath of some terrible tragedy. He looked dazed as though considering his existence, and even as he dragged his injured foot across the snow—the blood that seeped from the cut on his ankle forming stained contours on the pristine snow—he had on him the look that all men have when they are aware that the order of things have shifted, that levitation is after all shamelessly human and that spatial forces are an interdiction to flight. Walter continued to trudge till he was gasping for breath and stopped at the trunk of a tree to rest, sliding his back down the tree till he sat in the snow, the bitter winds biting into his skin so that he shivered. When you are marooned in the forest, you are in obeisance to its powers.
* * *
The airplane reminded Walter of those rusty submarines he saw at Havana—sinuous features and lacking contemporariness. He wondered, as he ascended the air stairs, why one thing, so unrelated, reminded him of the other.
A plane. A submarine.
Inside the plane, Walter sat next to an old man who wore an old looking cashmere sweater and had an impeccable knowledge of Indian literature and vernacular. The man said he was a professor in Caribbean arts and his wife was long dead, to which Walter offered his sincere condolences. Walter read from his phone and didn’t look up till he heard the hushed gasps of surprise that seethed from the passengers as two actors who were meant to be famous entered the plane. The commuters—astonished at how ordinary they looked in the physical and how perfect they were in that ordinariness. Walter recognised one of them from the acrylic frame that hung in his daughter’s room, the picture in it, frayed at the edges. The wood chipped at the ramin borders.
He—the actor: smiling out of the photograph, light stubble, not looking like a dead man.
She—his daughter: smiling back at the photograph, fantasizing sexual conquest with him.
The plane levitated off the ground and soon the world below was a connection of smaller forms. The air hostesses had on skimpy skirts and bright red lipstick, welcomed the passengers on board and wished them a safe flight, all the while smiling too widely. Smiles that seemed to Walter both insincere and fawning. The pilot’s voice over the speakers came in an affected accent that testified to his South American origins, and as in a moment of prescience the old man who sat beside Walter said to him, “Bloody Columbians, they’ll get drunk on booze and kill us all.”
And Walter—who had never glorified racism, nor denounced it entirely—threw back his head and laughed. Not more than an hour later, the plane, altered in its linear course, tilted itself, racing to meet the earth below. The passengers swayed to the force of the movement as they grappled to hold onto anything they found: the seats, a loved one. Above the sound of the screams of adults and children and the prayers of contrition that escaped the lips of some, Walter looked towards the horizon, hurtling into its fullness, the brilliant vista, now panning, zooming towards its original dimension. And as he leaned forward—his hands to his head, elbows against his thighs, assuming the bracing position—he felt a deep dissatisfaction with himself, that something somewhere was incomplete and unfinished.
The snowfall intensified to a thick blizzard and Walter stood up from where he sat and began walking towards nowhere. For miles on it seemed the landscape was a stretch of white nothingness. Nothing existed in that space—no life, no vegetation, no sound—only time and space and the dim stream of light, potentially existing. As he walked through the haze, he better understood what it meant to be blind, or rather, partially so, the white veil arrested his vision. On the edge of the landscape, from a far distance, he saw what seemed to be a dotted form. A speck. Infinitesimal. Unclear. On the threshold of invisibility. He continued to walk towards it, as fast as his injured foot could take him; his wound smarted in the cold. It became clearer—the form—as he got closer and his pace slowed to cautious steps. It was a woman. Like Walter, she was bleeding, but from her forehead and temples. She looked ordinary, not particularly beautiful, but there was the issue of her skin—so pale and white, it seemed to camouflage with the encircling blizzard so that in the swirl of snow she was like an apparition. She stood there saying nothing although she had noticed Walter who had stopped walking and was staring at her, terrified by how ghostly she appeared, with skin so pallid, she looked like someone who ought to be dead. They stood, several inches apart, each one’s eyes locked on the other, as if in a staring combat.
He: staring at her.
She: staring back.
And Walter, who had never adored the idea of suspense, even in his youth, broke the mute spell between them.
“Are you alright?” he said. He took a few steps forward, deliberate and slow, trying to verify the tangibility of things.
“Are you alright,” he said again, louder this time. He approached with more courage, but still uncertain, half expecting her to morph into a deformed nymph and fly away.
“I don’t know,” she said, “there’s a lot of blood.” Her hands went to the wound on her forehead and she refrained when it flared up in pain under her touch. She winced. Walter walked over to her, untangled the scarf that hung to her neck and pressed it against the bleeding. He sat her down in the snow as he crouched over trying to stop the blood loss.
“Keep this to the wound,” he said as she took over pressing the scarf against her forehead.
“Were you with the plane? The one that crashed?” she said
“Yes. I woke in the rubble.”
He nodded, wondering how long they could stay there without freezing to death.
“I was flung into some trees, I think,” she relaxed the hand against her head. “I don’t really know.”
“Leave it. Keep the pressure applied,” Walter said.
She looked at him, suddenly abash by his curt remark.
“I’m a doctor,” he said.
“Where are we?” she asked.
Walter scanned the scenery—the declivity and ascension of land widening into an expanse of white earth. Far away mountains, barely visible in the mist, and trees—dense in some regions, sparse in others. And only then did he notice the bruises scattered around his arms and a deep laceration that cut across his left elbow. He could feel no pain from the cuts which were numbed in the cold.
“The Alps, maybe,” he said.
“I haven’t seen any others,” her eyes probed as if to ask.
“Neither have I.”
“We’re going to die in this cold.” She sounded ready, a readiness that was born out of a life which was so plagued by the absence of happiness that death seemed appropriate.
“We need to walk downwards, towards a lower elevation and hope that it’s warmer there,” he said.
He helped her to her feet and they began walking, the snow rasping under their shoes. The woman kept the scarf to the wound which was so drenched in blood it absorbed nothing. “You can let go,” Walter said. The blood had clotted, but the gash remained sore and painful.
“My name. It’s Walter.”
“Oh. Ellen,” she said.
“We’re going to have to find shelter, a make shift one maybe, it’s colder at night,” he said.
“We might get rescued.”
“We don’t know how early.” Or if at all, he would have said, should he not have inherited his father’s fine shade of optimism. They had walked a great length, the haze had thinned in that part of the forest, and there was a comforting chatter of birdsong in the distance.
“People camp in these mountains,” Ellen said.
“Never when it’s this cold.”
“We should check for supplies. Maybe some campers left some behind.”
“Hope we find any.”
And they did when Ellen saw beneath a heap of piled snow the outlines of a tent and, amongst other things: a water bottle, a wool coat, a mitten, no food. Possessions of long ago campers who went with the avalanche, seized by the tumbling snow. The pain left behind within a local space is contagious. Walter fumbled with the tent, trying to determine its shape. Ellen wandered on the edge of the woods, scanning the leaves, where berries were growing, ripe in the bloom.
“Are these edible?” Ellen said. She held a handful of the strawberries up to Walter who continued to struggle with the tent.
“I can’t be sure. Some of these fruits are poisonous.”
Ellen put one in her mouth and started to chew. Walter watched her, ready to dig her icy grave. A single death is better mourned than a mass. To be a member of a mass killing is to be robbed of honor, the death camouflaged in statistic.
“We’ll take these,” Walter said, pointing to the tent and the coat and the mittens. A wave of frost beat across the air and they shivered. Walter hoisted the coat on Ellen, wore the mittens and accepted a handful of berries. They moved side by side through the vision cancelling intensity of whiteness and soon they descended to a level in which sight was restored. Slowly thick sheets of snow gave way to verdant earth and shrubs that specked the landscape, dense plumes of smoke from a distance circled the air. They continued to move past grids of plant and shallow pools till Ellen toppled to the ground—the coat falling around her like a large cape—and started to cry. Walter dropped the supplies and crouched next to her, a thick layer of macrophage had glassed her wounds. Only when darkness had overshadowed the forest and they lay together sheltered by the thin nylon of tent did Walter slip a berry into his mouth, wince and say, “Were you with anyone?”
Ellen meddled with her hair and a crow screeched in the trees.
“A co-worker, we planned to visit Boston,” she said and her face became the colour of the sea.
Their bodies were parallel from each other, the tent was large enough for each person to stretch and avoid the sight of the other. A steady column of breeze reached them from the narrow slit at the entrance so that it numbed their toes.
“I was escaping myself,” Walter said. “I was avoiding morality.”
Ellen furrowed her brow to nudge her scars, traced them with her iced fingers and swiveled to her side.
“I’m tired,” she said
They fell mute. The forest continued to hum. To the rustle of snow on leaves and the echoes of the forest life they slipped into the bliss of dream event.
In the clarity of early morning light the details of the forest are readily noticed. Walter emerged from the tent—the sudden glare of light striking his eyes, he stood fully, stretched his pulsing limbs, inspected his scabbing arm. Ellen still lay in the tent, heaving softly. An ibex gnawing its horns at a tree trunk noticed Walter, held his gaze and darted away, its hoofs slushing at the snow. The air was chilly, but the snowfall had petered out. Walter stood, blinking away the light, his hands moist in his mittens. Ellen had woke and she disappeared behind an assembly of trees for a while before re-emerging.
“We need to get a fire going, for warmth and signal,” Walter said, inspecting the ground for splints of bark.
“And food,” Ellen said and walked up to his side and hugged herself under the bogus coat. “I’ll gather some wood.” Walter noticed her features which eluded him the day before: her hair came in unruly locks, matted with leaves and dirt, her face was smudged with loam and the remnants of sleep.
“Are you married?” Ellen said.
“Yes, we have a daughter, she’s sixteen.”
“You seem like a rather noble man, but you’re running.”
“My wife offers sacrifices to a God,” Walter said and the winds seized. “My sexuality defiles religion.” A tree branch—brittle in the cold—descended from its body and tapped on the frozen lake.
“You married her,” she said with enough alarm to stir a congregation of choughs to flight. Walter moved further into the woods leaving Ellen alone in the patch of clearing. He scanned the mossy earth for suspended bits of wood in readiness for a fire. Ellen joined Walter in the maze of hedges and bush, picking at stray figs and hacking at the barks of trees. The sunlight strengthened and lighted their path.
“When did you discover yourself?” Ellen said finally, when the sounds of weaver chatter had ebbed and failed to fill out with noise, the pockets of silence between them. He closed his eyes in mirth and began to narrate in a tone reminiscent of the language of the elders.
It was one of those long ago provincial summers of youth, he had huddled in a jalopy van with the rest of the boys from the church fellowship—the smell of sweat and camphor and hash from the drivers pipe misting the car as they sped across the warm macadam of south. They arrived in Bentonville when the sky had lost its colour and they would spend two weeks bivouacking in pine filled woods in a patch of clearing that overlooked a large creek. The assembly—adolescents, unmoulded, starved of the mystery of touch and intimacy, had paired themselves in twos and ghosted deeper into the thickets to perform the unholy ceremonies of sodomy under the pale moonlight. These rites were artless enough: two pairs of khakis strewn around vein streaked ankles, an erect penis, a stifled groan, a young boys bleeding anus. The boys—frightened by the new found boundaries in which they had discovered, yet thrilled at the prospect of exploring their naked bodies. It is those moments of sexual agreement that defines his existence, the rhythm he had danced to on those languid summer nights now formed part of a family of secrets that followed him into the morning. And it was on one of such nights, when the air was crisp and orange strokes stained the sky like a painter’s canvas, that Liam—a boy with sores on his head who had been excluded from the fest because of his ugliness—wandered away from the loneliness of the camp. The intensity of their groans had led him to their rendezvous in the woods, where he stumbled upon them, snaked in the throes of passionate fucking. The boys—unaware of the dew that cleansed the leaves, of the swooning crickets that screamed out of the trees, of the stunned observer who had spun around and sprinted back to the camp to kneel before cabin leader and recount the ineffable unhallowed acts he had witnessed.
The cabin leader, a stout man with a prickly beard and an affected gait, had rounded the boys up the next day and singed their rods of pleasure with the flames Liam had made. It is these scars which give Walter the identity he had subdued in the eventfulness of childhood, the same harmonious dyad of years ago had remained with him, became indelible as a pox mark.
“Alright, gather your sticks look sharp. Fill those dirty minds of yours with something handy,” the cabin leader said. He was shirtless, hairs sprouted from his chest like petals, his back was glazed with sweat. He inspected the progress of the boys who crouched their heads drilling figs into the earth and clashing rocks against themselves. The overwhelming fumes that escaped the cabin leader’s pipe dizzied the boys and forced the birds into migration. And now here he was, isolated within a shade of trees and branches, rubbing rocks to spark flames, the same technique of those many years ago. For a moment he was unsure whether to weep or rejoice. However, he did not, even for the briefest of moments, flash a hint of emotion at recounting the darkest details of his life. All the while, he simply blew on the ashes that had begun to circle around the friction of wood and stones, detached, emotionless, as in a Roman soldier. It is his sincerity which surprises him, his willingness to pore over the mysteries of his life, which he had never told another soul, but now felt contented doing so to a woman whom he did not know but who by all standards had been his confidant for the past day.
And then late evening. The snow resumed, coming down, noiselessly, soft as cotton. The brightness of day had been burned out by the deep blue evening light, the furtive mist arrived, heavy over the landscape like a curse. The forest sat becalmed and silent as a cathedral in the brilliant dusk of spring. The forest life had recoiled into their shelters, all except a team of choughs twittering from the trees in one shrill movement but modulated by the singular syncopated whistle of a bird who appeared to miss the beat. And as in an orchestra one bird conducted, and the others swayed to the rhythm of its guidance. Walter and Ellen sat in the snow sheltered by the tent and warmed by the sustained heat from the fire which Walter made. The tent was luminous with the flames so that its very form appeared like a halo in the night.
Of her own life Ellen revealed little, and only did when the snow was fully bathed in blue light and the tent was filled with the slow rhythmic rasp of their breathing. Walter attached the fish which he had retrieved from the lake on a stick and held it over the flames.
“Did you always like flowers?” Walter said.
“They’re divine. Dad kept a nursery in our backyard when I was little.”
“It was a pastime, we’d help him out on the weekends. When we moved to Newport we just couldn’t find the time anymore.”
In the formative years she had resided with her family of two sisters (whose jealousy towards her led her to sin) and parents along the parched countryside of south. It was the scenery—thrilling in its ugliness—which stayed with her, clung to her, ready to lend itself when she forgot how to live. Along the terrains of Arkansas, atop a crumbling belvedere towards the north, one experiences the town as a fine blend of commerce, obsolete agriculture and precarious recreation: the millers at the bakeries shovelling flour into jute bags—their palms calloused by manual labour, tractors bellowing in the fields operated by tobacco chewing ranchers, the marshy trails snaking their way towards the augurs shed and marrying at a distant point. In the brothels, young girls allowing themselves to be unclothed and giving their bodies up to the care of a stranger whose exit was a bridge to another’s entry.
Ellen’s father had weaved a handsome life for himself and his family through his association with the Klu Klux Klan, a secret he had never revealed to his ailing wife, even in the final days of her infirmity. “In life,” he said on starry nights, “find the right people and cleave to them.” They had made their home in the upscale part of the city with its stately avenues, its gloriously lit alleys, the spires festooned with filigree, the soft music of the sea at night lulling the sphinxes to sleep as they lazed under the moonlight. Together they lived in a marvellous brick house that basked in the shade of a grand camellia, in a manner which the townspeople envied.
“And your love for flowers?” Walter asked, he prodded the flames.
“Dad had a space for a nursery built, we tended the plants in the evenings.” Then her face softened. “It was my hideout.”
“What were you hiding from?”
“Who,” Ellen corrected. “My sisters. Jealousy forced them to do unspeakable things.”
“Ah. The old sibling rivalry.”
“I played the flute like an angel,” Ellen said, smiling as if remembering a familiar face.
The tunes she played were indeed angelic. On Fridays, after dinner, the family would descend to the patio fresh with the tangy smell of guava leaves swaying in the breeze. Then they would elevate her on a stack of old suitcases and textbooks whose theories had become obsolete. And there, under the milky light of the moon, she would reproduce the tunes of long ago composers who had died clutching their records.
“Isn’t she marvellous,” her mother cooed, facing her daughters. “She’ll play for bourgeoisie in grand operas one day.”
And that was the beauty of her scale and the arrival of jealousy. On certain nights the quivering tones sliced into the still air, rising above the glades, into the black of night where it mingled with the geese and rendered their flight rhythmic. On nights heavy with dew the notes danced amongst the thickets till it reached the sea and rippled its face. There it would swell and rise to a tune so intense—of the kind that ferried the dead across the lake—that the ranchers raced to announce the arrival of God.
On each performance, when her father had returned from his trance, he would say: “Glorious. Music gentle enough to tame even the wildest beasts.” Ellen’s sisters would sneer and retreat to the den to gossip about boys and how they preferred to nod their heads to The Smiths.
“Your sisters,” Walter said, “they were older than you were?”
Ellen nodded. “Four years. They were twins. Their names were Hazel and Melanie.”
Then Walter became grave and peered past the flames into Ellen’s eyes. “What did you do?”
The twins—whose spite for Ellen was shared—were fueled with enough jealousy to dismember her locks while she rested, to tug at her breasts at the oddest moments, to sprinkle spices into her piccolo so that when she played she coughed and sneezed. They had come to her with their usual mischief one afternoon when the town was renewed with the rains of the previous day and doves lapped the sparse puddles in the streets. Their father was away on business in Norwich (or frolicking with white supremacists), their mother out on the streets testifying to the glory of God. Music tinkered from the sunroom where Ellen sat, playing a rendition of Schubert.
“Ever tried playing with your ass?” Hazel asked, a crooked smile lining her face, the kinds you saw on paintings of Lucifer. Melanie followed keenly behind. “Yeah. Play me some Chopin with your butt. Play it pretty.”
They lurched out to seize her piccolo. Ellen, as small a frame as any, squirmed away from their reach and suddenly the years of unsated resentment came roaring out like carps rushing up to the clear surface of a lake.
“Get away from me. Get away,” Ellen barked.
The twins stood with their feet frozen to the earth, stunned by the once small and timorous Ellen who stood enraged, rasping heavily with her fists balled, ready for combat. Hazel—infuriated by Ellen’s confidence—gripped her arm. Ellen, still brimming with rage, yanked away and shoved Hazel with a force that neither she nor her sisters knew she possessed. Hazel faltered back and struck her head against the lavabo. So there, in the sunroom, with the light warm against her face, she slipped into the next world. The blood pulsed down her head, a rich carmine that would become unbearable to look at long after Hazel had surrendered to the earth, such that years later she would loathe the senseless parade of valentine’s day, avoid alighting red taxis and cuff her son when he requested that his cake be frosted red.
“I’ll remember to send you white roses only,” Walter laughed as though unfazed by the story.
Ellen’s expression was flat.
“What did your parents think?” said Walter.
Their mother returned from evangelism when evening had descended and discovered Melanie asleep beside Hazel’s languid body, her head cradled in Melanie’s arms, her spirit already in banquet with the dead. They searched for Ellen and found her in the nursery sitting amongst the tulips and the mouse ears and the azaleas, humming the tune of the afterlife.
“We buried her with her treasures and belongings in the backyard. I carved her epitaph.”
When her father returned they led him to the spot where Hazel had ascended into the clouds and showed him the patch of earth in the backyard where she rested.
“If you were Africans,” Walter said, “you would have believed her spirit still pranced.”
They relocated to Newport two weeks later where they dwelt in a bungalow nestled in the centre of woods that became lanced with sunlight at noon. There they led a furtive life of outlaws, careful to avoid the keen stare of the diviners that swarmed the bodega fronts, playing truant on the festivities that ringed the town on limpid spring nights, preferring to watch the swirl of colour and dance from their nestling in the woods, behind their fogged bedroom windows.
“We all became estranged. Hazel’s presence remained heavy.” Ellen blew on her palms. “We never spoke of her.”
“You miss her.”
“I don’t. I’d kill her again if she returned.”
For a moment, silence enfolded them. Ellen’s words had created a pressure that lingered between them both.
“It’s cold,” Walter said.
“And late,” Ellen said.
But what was time when one had become cocooned in the navel of the deep, groping for edges and vines through which she could climb out of the hollow black and out into the glinting sunlight. One had no use for time, only chance and luck.
That night, while they slept, their dreams raced back and forth. Walter found himself flopped on the golden sand of a beach. From his vantage he saw the estuary that spread out towards the vast blue of the ocean and the point in which the tides of the West reconciled with those from the East. From somewhere he made out the distant scatter of bongos tapped to the cadence that prompted birds to their mating dance, and immediately Walter knew he had found his way to the land of desire. Tottering at the edge of a cliff in tightly clad briefs were two chiselled men, they raised their arms and let themselves plop into the solid blue below. When they emerged their hairs were slick with salt water, their pectorals shone and they beckoned to Walter to join in the sensual pleasure of sea and salt and skin. Walter could not help but imagine himself in bed with them, their limbs intertwined, their skin hot against his own, for we are no more than sexual beings seeking pleasures from each other’s bodies which do not belong to ourselves alone but are now the properties of Eros. Aware that the men before him were a fiction, Walter disrobed and waded into the immortal blue.
Behind Ellen’s trembling lids her dreams happened. She sat in the calm of a garden, the air was frigid and she could feel the dew beneath her feet. At first, Ellen thought she had died and awoke in the company of the dead, but she caught the scent of pines, the same that bloomed in the nursery of her childhood home and she saw that she was back amongst the flutter of the tulips and the mouse ears and the azaleas. At the corner of the nursery stood Hazel in a silk white dress that accentuated her firm breasts and luscious thighs. Ellen looked down at herself and noticed she was draped in the same white gown but appeared less voluptuous than her sister. Hazel walked towards Ellen, took her hand, and they walked a great length, past showers of fog, into shaded meadows. Hazel lay Ellen on the grass and in the cool glade they made love. The act was pure and simple and filled them both with waves of intense pleasure. When it was over Ellen walked away from the dream, back into the solid world which was too neutered, too moral for those whose needs were fleeting.
On the third day, when the lake had melted and the sun like a fluorescent warmed the earth, Walter and Ellen came out of their hiding place and stepped out into the full gleam of the light. The forest was drowned in the melody of trickling water that descended from the leaves shedding frost.
“Be thankful,” Ellen twirled around. “The spring is here.”
Walter collapsed the tent and began gathering their belongings.
“Why?” Ellen asked.
“The earth here is soggy. We’ll find dryer ground somewhere in those mountains.”
While they strolled through the woods, amidst the cheer of squeaking birds, they spoke as though they were assured of rescue and refused to discuss their dreams.
“What would you do?” Ellen said. “When you get home?”
Walter regarded her steadily. “Tell my wife I prefer men.”
They laughed. Walter returned the question.
“What would you do?”
“I’ll quit my job and start a garden.”
Ellen shrugged. “Roses, forget-me-nots, tulips. Anything colourful.”
They walked into woodlands shaded by a canopy of trees that averted the full shafts of the sun. The sun pierced through the cracks where the branches failed to meet so that the light came dappled and bright. With its scattered light and modulated cool, it looked like a place where men came to die in peace.
“It’s lovely,” Ellen said.
“We’ve found our place.”
Walter dropped their belongings and they lay supine in the greenery. As they reclined in the verdure, a deep unbridled satisfaction washed over them. They no longer felt sequestered from their kind for they had found solace in the likes of them who feared to live fully. And because they owed their souls to nobody, their lives felt truer, more honest than it had ever been. “Look,” Ellen said, pointing. Walter followed her gaze. A finch had got its webbed feet lodged between the figs of an oak, it squirmed and scuffed its way plum of the trap. Freed, it floated towards the cracked shimmer of the light.
Adeoye Amurawaiye is an essayist and fiction writer. His work has previously appeared in The Kalahari Review.