Wash the sins

The forest is not half a mile from our house. The area is unsuitable for cultivation, or so I am told. So, the trees continue to grow and the moss gathers ever thicker, continuing the trend that has perhaps lasted centuries; and if secrets are kept there, they remain hidden under heavy canopies of leaf and darkness.

Mostly.

There have been tales. Stories recited from the mouths of parents as they gather in the fading light of day. From my vantage point on the stairs I have heard them speak of children lost to the woods, and of the mothers and fathers spending the remainder of their days calling out the names of their loved ones as they search as methodically as they can amongst the elms and oaks; for no man can truly claim to know the depth and breadth of such a land. I hear claims that the children were lost to the many bogs that litter the terrain, or, in mores hushed tones, that the woods themselves stole each child, and that is the blood of the young that causes the forest to grow so tall, the foliage so lush.

I listen. But, I know these things not to be true.

Yet, for all this talk, there is an undeniable beauty to such a place. On warmer days the denseness of the branches gives the promise of a cool place in which to retreat for the sun, the many streams and brooks dance with flickering light, and the fauna, colourful and abundant, has long been the inspiration of artists and poets, their number creating bodies of work that have been pored over by scholars and academics alike. It is these summer days which draws it’s many visitors, each eager to take in the forests splendour, to paddle in it’s cool waters, to walk amongst it’s branches, and for some, to experience the wonder that drew the poets to tears, the painters to frustration. And although, on these days, the stories of lost children are almost forgotten; for there is nothing to fear in the light, the fathers and mothers instinctively keep their offspring in sight, and each feels a weight lifted from them as they leave the cool confines of the trees, and step back into the light.

Today, though, it is the midst of winter. The morning has brought a light snowfall, with more, perhaps much more, forecast for later. It is something on an inconvenience, but I shall make good on my promise. I retrieve the thickest jumper I own, along with a scarf and my boots. I take my Parker from off of it’s peg in the hallway, and on opening the back door of the house, step into the chill morning air.

I then walk to the forest.

I feel their gaze as they watch me walk across the open field that leads to the trees. I have come to know that they often observe from a distance, only showing themselves to the young, the least threatening, that they look and evaluate, take measure of the those who venture near. Even now, with it being more that a year since they disclosed their presence to me, they are guarded. Wary of my actions, of their secret being revealed. And so, I approach slowly, with my palms facing outwards. It is a simple gesture: I mean you no harm. And in the still air between tree and grass I hear them whisper ‘He is coming’.

The bracket is thickest by the woods entrance, but I have taken the trail many times and manage to step through without snags or tears to my clothes. The air is cooler here, moist. I stop for a second, taking a deep breath, forming a steam of mist upon the air as I exhale. It’s something that I know they like to watch; it magical, one once told me. I found that amusing. I don’t know why.

A stream runs eastwards, and it is this that I follow. The trees are at their thickest here, the roots gaining substance from the waters. I watch each step I take, for the ground here is treacherous and eager to trip the unwary, the forest floor sodden and slippery with mulch. It cakes my boots and dampens the bottom of my jeans, and more than once I have to pause for a branch to grip or bank to ascend. In time, I reach the clearing.

The fallen tree is, of course, still there. I have no idea when it fell, though it’s bark has long been stripped by the creatures of the forest, and if one was to take the time to count the rings that run through it’s centre, a number of 122 would be reached. So, I have been told. One day, I intend to see if that is indeed true. But, not today. Today, is for other matters.

I sit down, the Parker I wear a barrier between myself and the rotting wood. Usually, I find the coat too large for my frame and am not inclined to wear it, but it cushion my bottom, here upon the tree, and for once I am glad of the size. I rub my gloves together and then survey my surroundings. The light above cuts through the softly swaying branches and dances particles upon the air, I watch them for a time, following their slow descent, mesmerised by the simple beauty of it all. It is only when I feel a chill to my neck that I realise that I am not alone.

She is sitting next to me. Her tender frame modestly covered by a dress once white, now browned and threadbare. Her fingers, pale as to be almost translucent play at the hem, she is looking down, her face obscured by a storm of dark hair, it rains down her shoulders, the flow ending at the middle of her back. I notice she isn’t wearing shoes, her toes are muddied, her ankles stained.

She moves her arm and I feel a coldness as her hand envelopes my own. An icy chill spreads through my body and I instinctively shiver which draws a look from her. Her face is very pale, her lips colourless which makes her black hair seem all the darker. Her eyes I can’t help but notice are completely grey, like the colour has faded over a long period of time. She reminds me of a black and white illustration from one of my many comics. One where the artist having coloured the background became tired of his work and left the character unfinished. She is out of picture, I think. Separated from her surroundings and forgotten. I want to ask her her name, but I don’t. She will tell me in time, and I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. Especially, when it has taken me so long to gain her, and the others, trust.

As it is, it is she that speaks. Her voice is soft, quiet, and I find myself holding my breath just to catch her words. ”Are you ready?’ She asks.

I nod and she releases her hand from mine. As she stands I see marks upon her legs,she pats down her dress, then begins walking back towards the tress. ‘Wait” I say, and she pauses. She mummers something that I can’t quite catch then moves once more. The pale of her form darkens, and then there is only the tress, the clearing and I. A boy alone in the forest. Cold from the touch of a girl who no one thought to finish.

The snow is reaching through the branches now. It gathers upon the clearing, spots of white laying a blanket before me, making the tress heavy, the air colder still. I do not know how long it has been since the girl left, only that I am to wait. Are they watching me? I think so. Perhaps, they are testing my resolve. Making certain that I am true to my conviction. They need not do so. I decided long ago the path I wish to take. And, so I sit and I wait. Pulling my Parker tighter around my body, pushing my hands deeper into my pockets. And the snow continues to fall; a bed of cotton suppressing all sounds but the breath that now labors in my lungs.

It is perhaps this that allows him to move in close without my knowledge, only signalling his presence with the removal of the rag from his pocket that he now pushes into my mouth. I struggle… an instinct that proves useless. He is too strong.  Too practiced in his role. I kick the ground, making dirt of the snow as he grips me tighter. Now stars appear where there were none, the last light triggered by a lack of oxygen to my brain. And, then, they too are gone. Replaced by a darkness so absolute that in extinguishes the all of me.

No.

Not of all of me.

Just the finishing touches of my being.

The essence is here still. A pencil drawing that cannot be fully erased. And I can move, yes. I move now. Walking, like an imprint upon the page of a painting of the world. Unseen, but for those who look beyond the brush strokes.

I am sitting once more upon the log in the clearing. I feel little, though my clothes appear to be made for one larger than I. They hang upon my frame and the breeze makes flags around the bottom of my legs. The Parker I wear is no longer blue, but it doesn’t bother me. Little bothers me now.

We play in the forest, the girl and I. Sometimes the others join us, but mainly we chose to be alone together, for I enjoy her company and she mine.

For a time there are those that come to search the forest. They call out my name, and on odd times I try to tell them that I am here, and that I am not alone, but whatever road passes between us is untravelled by the foot of men, and so they move without interruption, searching in vain, until even in time, they appear no more.

It was many months before my parents stepped into the woods. Perhaps, they thought people were wondering why they hadn’t searched for their offspring and decided to quash the rumours of beatings and other violence forced upon their boy. I watched them for a while as they pushed bushes aside and prodded bogs and streams with the broken branches in their hands. It was all for show, I have no doubt. Even as they searched I could not hep but notice the smiles upon their faces, they were as fixed as the bruises upon my body, and just as ugly.

During the summer months we watch as families once more appear in the forest. We witness the love between parents and their children, and then we observe the others, the children who sit further away, who are quieter, nervous. It is these we observe more closely. We see the darkness in the father, perhaps the cold that emanates from a mothers heart, and when their backs are turned, we learn towards their child and whisper. We tell of how to stop the pain. And whilst many close their ears, there are those who listen. The ones broken, those that fear the night, and what it brings. And we watch as they walk behind their parents, tugged this way and that. And we know we shall see them again.

And we tell the one who walks the forest. And he nods and folds rags to his pocket.

The girl and I play. And over time our bruises fade. The colour washed, until finally…..

We are clean again.

little_snow_girl_by_ireneshpak-d4vpeh3

Art by Irene Shpak

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