by Russell Bradbury-Carlin
|part 1 of 3|
Chris sat in the well-worn chair between the kitchen and the living room with a book. He was trying hard to concentrate on the story, but his focus kept slipping off the page. He wondered if he had read the book so many times that the words may have been worn down in a way — lost any traction they once held for him.
Chris’s grandfather’s ghost was huddled over the big pot on the kitchen stove making tree soup again.
“It was your great-great-grandfather Ernest who discovered that these leaves make the best broth.” His grandfather’s translucent hand grabbed a branch covered with reddish leaves from the counter. He put his hand around the base and pulled it through his big fist. The leaves dropped into the pot.
Chris knew that his grandfather expected him to memorize the recipe. It was what his great-grandfather Vance had done, as well as his great-great-grandfather Ernest, and so on. Chris half-listened. He had heard the recipe described hundreds of times, just as he had read the book in his lap hundreds of times. His grandfather’s voice had lost traction, too, from repeating his recipes and stories.
Chris glanced out the window and stared at the patch of forest that was framed there. This was his entire world: the cabin and the several acres patch of forest that surrounded it. He had been born here, grown up here, and he would die here. Perhaps he would even haunt here, as his grandfather was doing.
The window framed a selection of maple trees, broad and full. The leaves lifted and fell in undulating waves as the warm breeze drifted through them. Chris knew these trees so well. They were like his cousins or even siblings — especially the trees closest to the house.
The trees seemed a bit tense. Perhaps because his grandfather was stripping their brethren of their leaves and placing them into a pot of boiling water. Or perhaps Chris was projecting his own feelings onto the trees. Sometimes it was difficult to separate himself from the plants and animals that filled their tiny world.
The leaves whipped around suddenly. Either a stiff wind had passed by or the trees were reading his mind.
He picked the book off his lap to try to read it some more. There were only fifteen books in the house, books that had come from the “outside” world. They described things he had never seen and could only conjure up through the words on the pages: cities, oceans, machines.
He had read each book over and over. Since he had lived his entire life in this house, in this lonely section of forest as his family always had, they were the only things that gave him a glimpse of the world beyond. He knew they were real, somewhere. A part of him hungered to learn more, to expand his paper-thin understanding of what lay “out there”.
* * *
Chris walked out the front door of the cabin and made his way to a small section of the forest that contained the trees with the red leaves; Red Aspens, his grandfather called them. He was out to gather more branches for the soup.
Chris believed there was a seventh sense and that it came alive as he walked through the forest. There were the obvious five, and the sixth, which was an ability to sense the future. For Chris, this sixth sense only worked occasionally and only projected a few moments into the future.
He had once avoided a huge oak branch that snapped away from the trunk a few years ago. He sensed that he needed to stop suddenly — it felt to him like the muscular need to pause that one feels before sneezing, all the muscles clenching for a moment. Then — Thud! — the branch dropped right before him. If he hadn’t paused, it would have likely broken his neck.
His grandmother had been graced with a more developed sixth sense. She was almost completely lost in it. Grandma seemed at times to only see the world through this sense. She was famous for making statements like, “Chris, be sure to wear your raincoat next Thursday.” Or, to her husband: “Don’t use that language with me, Henry, especially in front of the boy!”
Of course it did suddenly rain in the middle of a gorgeous mostly cloud-free day that next Thursday. And in the second situation, Grandpa told her to “shut the hell up” in the middle of an argument that had started with what to cook for lunch and had degraded into the continuation of some long-unresolved argument that had begun before Chris was born.
Grandpa had known that he was going to say something that would cause his wife to make the comment ahead of time. But it still slipped out and Grandpa slapped himself on the forehead after saying it, and Grandma said to him quietly, “See?”
Chris’s seventh sense could be dismissed as just a collection of the other senses and memory. But Chris didn’t experience it that way. He could close his eyes and “feel” the parts of the forest around him. Chris’s father also had this ability, and it was his idea that it was a sense different from the other six. It was almost like there was an electric charge that everything gave off — rocks, trees, plants — and he could feel their presence on his skin. He didn’t visualize them; he could just feel the charge from them increase as he drew nearer.
And each object felt different than the other, like the way that everything has different colors, or different smells. People or animals, however, didn’t give off a charge that he could sense. They were invisible, “odorless.”
* * *
Chris tromped down the well-worn path to the Red Aspens with his eyes closed. Though he preferred to see things, using his seventh sense broke up the monotony of looking at the same trees and rocks every day.
Suddenly, something moved in front of several trees. It must be an animal, he thought, because he could only make it out by the absence of the forest behind it.
He opened his eyes and saw a woman walk out from behind a rock outcropping. It was as if she had materialized out of nowhere.
Chris dropped to the ground behind a fallen tree and lay as flat as he could. His heart hammered in his chest. Is this it? Is this her?
It had been a long time since he’d seen a living person — six winters or so since his father died. And he had yet to see any person outside his family.
A flicker of pain shot through his temples. He wanted to believe that he had imagined the woman — he had, after all, been alone for a long, long time. A ghost didn’t really count, did it? He had been alone even longer than his great-great-great grandmother. She had been by herself for only four years before her future husband stumbled onto her out in the woods.
She had lived with two ghosts, though: her mother and her grandmother. Chris had come to accept that he might be the one to end the line of his family in this tiny world, that no outsider would ever come. And that everything that he knew would likely disappear with him.
A part of him actually liked that idea, the thought of being the caboose of a long, long train, only having to watch the world drift away behind you and not having to do any of the pulling.
Chris heard the crunch of boots as they tramped on the ground near him. He clenched his jaw and ground his teeth together. This was real. She was real.
He lifted his head to peek up from behind the log.
His head swam as he tried to take in what he was seeing. It was strange to look at something completely new and different in a world that was always exactly the same and had always been that way.
The woman was tall with long, blonde hair. She wore a button-down shirt, shorts, and scuffed-up hiking boots. He tried to get a glimpse of her face. But he had difficulty focusing on it. His brain seemed to be struggling to take in new information, especially something as complicated as a face.
He squinched his eyes, opened and closed them, but he could only make out small aspects at a time. She had blue eyes, long eyelashes, thin lips, but he was unable to put them all together into one image.
The woman moved swiftly. She trudged along through a small clearing only a dozen yards from Chris. Soon she climbed a small hill and disappeared as she began to descend the other side.
Chris sat up and rubbed his eyes. Was that it? Did I just miss my big chance?
The pounding of his heart throbbed throughout his body. Slowly his pulse calmed. His thoughts began to reassemble themselves.
He stood and looked toward the place where the woman had disappeared. It was as though an invisible doorway sat on the top of the hill. Chris walked closer and stared up at the space. If there was a door there, that meant that the outside world lay on the other side. He swayed his head back and forth to see if he could make out the doorway. He didn’t dare climb up and search for it. He was afraid that that might somehow destroy something and that the woman would not return. That would disappoint Grandpa greatly.
It took him a while to turn away and grab more Red Aspen branches. He stared intently into the empty space at the top of the hill and pictured another, much larger world lying just on the other side.
Finally, Chris pried himself away. As he walked from the hill, he glanced over at the space that the woman had come from. The rock outcropping where she had appeared had itself disappeared completely.
“That’s weird,” he thought.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Russell Bradbury-Carlin