More Important Than Fog
I stepped off the porch and into the chill. It was four in the morning. Even the birds and the insects burrowing into the muck knew enough to be asleep. The fog was white and clung to the barren trees like a veil. It was more important than the forest, more important than the sludgy path, more important than me. I breathed it in as I slowly trudged. It was soupy in my lungs. I hugged my coat tighter around me as I started on through the forest.
Something had roused me from my bed that morning, something restless and sizzling just beneath my skin. I couldn’t possibly remain inside. I had to burst out into the chilly morning. I had to search for something or be sought by something in the forest.
My boots sloshed through the mud and I turned my face to the sky. The naked branches where black with dew and creamy fog. They looked like veins upon the sky. The silence around me was nearly musical, so full with the forest’s life. I made my way over the rickety bridge. The water trickling below looked like melted onyx as it flowed over the rocks. I wound further into the woods as the fog consumed the hills, the ferns and became reality.
I’d left my phone forgotten on the kitchen counter. There was no service out here anyway. I was alone, outside in the morning with nothing but the coat that clung to me and my galoshes that waded in the mud. I was glad for it, too. Maybe I’d step off the path. Maybe I’d sink my bare toes into the soaking dirt beside a birch tree and let the forest have me, give my veins to the white sky.
My brother could have the cabin, my cell phone, my journals. What was the point in my scribbled stories out here? None of them were real. They were only letters on a page, flattened in a journal. When they tried to leap off the page and step into the daylight, they died. Stories weren’t real, as my brother often pointed out. Bills were real, taxes and insurance and cancers that stole away fathers.
My brother had torn my journal from my hands in a hospital room all those years ago. His eyes had scoured the page furiously.
“God damn it, Laura! How can you just sit there and write in your little book? How can you ignore what’s right in front of you? This crap is not real!” He shook the journal in my face, the crinkled, weathered pages rustling. “Ghosts aren’t real, Laura. This is real.” He jabbed the book in the direction of our father lying sunken and small in the bed.
I grabbed my journal from his fist and ran from the room. I hid somewhere, hugging my ghosts to my chest. The ghosts in my stories had entire lives after death, they sang and played tricks on the living and reunited and fell in love. But my brother was right. Ghosts weren’t real.
My father died in that room and nothing had happened. I sat by his grave, moved into his cabin and was convinced of one irrefutable truth: my father was gone. There were no glimpses of him reading in the study, no shades of him out by the woodshed smoking a cigar. He had stopped his labored breathing and that was it.
I began to jog, running further into the woods my father knew so well. My galoshes slid on the damp earth, my feet nearly rising out of them as they clung to the mud. My breath was heavy as I sucked the fog in. Eventually the trees slipped into the mist and left me as well. My chest burned and tears were rushing coldly over my cheeks and back into my hair.
I stopped running though, when a man appeared in the fog forty feet ahead. I stood staring at him. He was facing west, so only his silhouette’s profile was visible. He was still, just looking on ahead.
“Hey,” the word was small in my mouth. I knew it would never carry all the way to him. It had all the good intentions of being a fleshed out scream, but got scared on the way out.
This was my father’s forest. It was private property. Suddenly, I was wishing I’d grabbed my father’s rifle from its trophy-like perch on the mantle. He and my brother used to take it hunting in these woods, but I’d never touched it. Now, I was possessed with the need to protect this land, to send this stranger packing. Didn’t he understand trespassing? Didn’t he understand that a man that loved these woods had died?
“Hey!” I screamed, my voice now blaring.
I took two angry, pounding steps toward him. He didn’t look much older than twenty and was dressed in dark green fatigues. It seemed like he had taken a dreadful wrong turn on the way to a World War II battle reenactment. He turned his head toward me and I staggered back.
The left side of his face was blown apart. His cheekbone was visible, as stark and white as the fog. The skin was stripped and bloodied. The flesh caved in where the jaw had once been. His left arm ended violently below the elbow. The fog froze in my lungs.
I had written garish things into my stories, injuries and deaths in unsparing details, but only now did my stomach turn. Only now was I robbed of all words, trapped in horrific stillness.
His eye found mine and what was left of his face became alert. He began to speak, calling to me. His arms waved animatedly at his side. I could almost imagine his left hand mirroring the right’s movements, as if it were still attached. I could see his ruined lips moving, but there was only silence in my ears. He was looking at me noiselessly beckoning.
“I can’t hear you,” I said, my voice tiny again.
The stranger’s face fell slowly into desperation. The dark eyebrow that remained furrowed and he screamed for me. I could see plainly that the effort was straining his throat, but I still couldn’t hear him. Was the fog so thick it was capturing the sound before it reached me? I watched helplessly as he shouted silently. I took in the state of his face, his shredded uniform that had been worn by seventy years yet darkened by blood that looked to be spilled only moments ago. Tears fell from his good eye.
“Please,” I called, my voice raw. “I can’t hear you.”
The stranger looked at something over my shoulder, his muscles clenched. I whipped around ready to be felled by enemy tanks, trampled by the whole goddamn army. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d wandered so far into this fog that I’d ran back through the centuries. Had I landed myself squarely in one of my own make believe stories? Would I become another ghost pressed between the pages of a journal?
When I turned there was nothing. No tanks, no armies, only fog. I looked back to the soldier, but he was gone, consumed by the mist.
“Wait!” I took off in the direction he’d once stood. I tore through the forest begging for him to come back, pleading for the ghost to stay.
more by NOELLE CURRIE
photograph by unsplash.com
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