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.