by Russell Bradbury-Carlin
|part 2 of 3|
Chris attempted to make lunch while his grandfather hovered around him.
“She’ll come back,” he said from Chris’s right side. “Your great-great-great grandmother Zelda came through the forest five or six times before Grandpa John stepped forward and introduced himself. He was quite the shy one.” Grandpa moved to Chris’s left side. “Was she beautiful?” he asked, meaning the woman Chris had just seen.
Chris chopped carrots for a salad. “I suppose so,” he lied. His neck turned red.
“You know, it would be nice to have a woman visit. Men living together are musty and stale. A woman perfumes the air.”
Chris knew what Grandpa was doing. The ghost modulated his voice to sound relaxed and conversational. He was just “chewing the fat”; they could just as easily be talking about the weather. But Grandpa was all jittery. He flitted around Chris anxiously. His image flickered, too. Parts of him slid in and out of visibility, mostly his limbs, sometimes more disturbingly, his head. He was having a difficult time keeping himself entirely whole.
Chris knew that his image reflected what was really going on. The family line was in jeopardy, a line that went back so far that no one knew when it began. The stories of great-grandparents went back no more than a dozen generations. But each generation knew that there were dozens more that had preceded them. To Chris’s grandfather, the appearance of this woman meant that everything wasn’t coming to an end.
The way it had been described to Chris, there was always an “outsider” who entered their world and stayed. Each set of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents was made up of one bloodline family member and one outsider. Someone always stumbled onto their world and they stayed — willingly, he was told. “We’d all be a bunch of inbred monsters with piggy-tails and gills if it was only the family that produced more family,” his father had explained to him.
At the time, Chris was six or seven, and to him that didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Who wouldn’t want to be a monster in a monster family? He didn’t, however as a child, like the idea of some outsider intruding into their world. He loved his family, his home, and the forest. To add something new would change it.
His life, even at that young age, had been all routine and sameness. The idea of a stranger was a bit frightening. It was not long after hearing that story that Chris began to make a wish that no outsider would ever come.
Chris created small shrines throughout the forest, under piles of rocks and between clefts in tree roots. He made tiny people-like creations by carefully tying together pine needles. He gave them names like Granite, Raspberry, and Nimbus Cloud. They were sacrificial dolls.
He placed them under piles of rocks near the boulders on the fringe of the forest. He buried several of them in a circle around the large mushroom patch that popped up from the damp piles of leaves under the rhododendron bushes beside the cabin. He carved made-up runes onto rock faces and the branches of trees. They were meant to symbolize words like “Please” and “Worship.”
All of this was done in a self-created plea to fate, God, or whatever was in control. He wanted to send a message to him/her/it to let him be the last. Let the line stop with him.
He stopped doing this after a few months. When he grew into adulthood, he came to understand that his accepting a stranger into his world — and to marry her — was his fate, though he never became completely comfortable with the idea.
“All you need to do is invite her, Chris,” his grandfather said with a shrug. His shoulders and arms flickered in and out of view. “When she comes by again, I can whip up a nice meal for you two. You can talk to a living person again instead of a musty old ghost like me.”
* * *
A week later, Chris was out stacking wood for the stove. This was one of his favorite jobs. He didn’t mind swinging the axe and breaking apart the fallen limbs or sometimes the entire tree into smaller segments, especially when he was able to get into the repetitive motion on a large trunk.
But it was stacking, piece-by-piece, a pile of scattered wood into an even pile — making symmetry out of chaos — that he liked. That was why he preferred to leave the more “disorganized” tasks, like cooking, to his grandfather. He didn’t mind putting together a meal, but it was Grandpa that enjoyed the “art” that could be put into cooking — the impulse and creation of something in the moment.
Grandpa was certainly the proponent of The Recipe — and the need to memorize the meals that had been handed down from generation to generation. This was why Grandpa announced every step of a recipe aloud — essentially to carve the instructions into Chris’s slightly reluctant mind. He probably assumed it was the only way Chris would remember everything — if it was given in exacting details, over and over.
If Grandpa could have it his way, he’d be showing his grandson the art between the details, how to follow the directions but veer outside the lines by listening to your gut. This is probably why it was his grandfather who was with him instead of his father.
If there was anything/anyone deciding such things, they probably knew that Chris was an exact replica of his dad. And if it was his father’s ghost who was keeping him company, he probably would have starved to death. Chris did enjoy the artful creations that Grandpa made for him. He just didn’t want to be the one to make them.
Chris turned and bent low to grab the last far-flung piece of wood when the woman appeared again. She walked out from behind a dense group of pines about a hundred feet from him. Chris froze.
The woman seemed engrossed in watching where her feet were stepping. The edge of the forest that Chris lived in was very rocky and full of ankle-twisting nooks and crannies. Her long, blonde hair cascaded over her face, so he didn’t have to try to assemble her features again.
Even though she was watching her path carefully, she carried herself with confidence. Chris could tell that she was someone who spent a lot of time in the woods. She watched her path because she knew that she could get hurt, not because she was inexperienced. If there was meant to be an outsider who was coming to pair up with Chris, this most certainly had to be she.
Chris tried to imagine himself stepping forward and saying “Hello.” He tried to picture himself letting go of his long-held ambivalence. It was some version of this exact moment that one of his relatives had done for every generation for who knows how many centuries. One move, one word, and his fate would be sealed.
Chris flitted behind a maple tree and tried to make himself as narrow as possible. His heart hammered away, almost loud enough that he feared she might hear him. The crunch of the woman’s boots passed by him as they broke a path through the forest with her determined gait.
Chris glanced around the edge of the tree. Now that she was leaving, he began to calm down. He stared ahead of her, to the point at the peak of the hill. He was more interested in watching where she was going, to see if where she disappeared was like a door. If so, perhaps he could catch a quick peek at what lay on the other side. Was it more forest? Or would he see something he had never seen before?
Then the woman simply disappeared. She popped away like a soap bubble. There was no glimpse of anything.
Chris stood back, disappointed. Then he glanced around. The maple tree he had hidden behind, as well as several other trees around him, had vanished.
* * *
“What’s going on?” Chris asked his grandfather.
“Your grandmother loved the autumn.” His grandfather said, ignoring the question.
Chris swept a pile of dead pine needles off the front porch with his foot.
“She loved watching the forest prepare for sleep,” his grandfather continued.
Chris tried to remember if there had been an autumn where his grandfather, living or dead, had not told him this. A quiver of annoyance rushed through him.
His grandfather sighed. “Why are you so shy? You need to speak to this woman, make the invitation permanent.” The ghost hovered off the porch and bobbed in the air, a way he signaled being pensive. “Please tell me that you haven’t thought about following that woman. You need to know that her world is very different from ours, even more than described in your books.”
“What are you talking about?” Chris responded. “I don’t want to follow her.” He paused, then continued. “I want to know why things are disappearing.”
“I was afraid this was going to happen.”
His grandfather glanced out at the forest. “You need to talk to that woman soon, Chris.”
And with that, his grandfather walked through the wall of the cabin and made his way to the kitchen to prepare dinner. It was his way of saying “conversation over.”
* * *
The woman sat on a nearby boulder. She took loud sips out of a water bottle.
Chris was lying, again, behind a log. He took deep breaths wondering if she wore perfume.
Chris had not moved. But he wanted to. He felt silly lying behind the log, uncertain about what to do, frightened at the possibilities of his decisions. Of course now the idea of not inviting the woman to his world, but of introducing himself and following her to her world plagued him. He would truly be the caboose trailing out of his family’s world forever, ending all of this.
He glanced up again to peek at the woman. She had her back to him. He noticed a scrunched up paperback book in her back pocket. It was thin and frayed at the edges. He couldn’t make out the title.
Chris felt an almost hunger-like sensation, only in his head. The idea that there were other books out there — probably hundreds, maybe thousands more than the same fifteen he had at the cabin — taunted him.
The woman must love to read if she carried a book with her on her hikes, he realized. It was a small thing, but clearly it was an interest they shared. Maybe it was some kind of sign that they were meant to be together in this world or hers. But still he wanted a clearer sign, something that said stand up and invite her, or stand up and go with her, or don’t stand; stay exactly as you are and allow things to remain unchanged.
Chris half-decided to stand up and announce his presence, at least to stop the uncertainty. He took a deep breath and tried to imagine himself as confident and not at all overwhelmed by her very presence. Could he really do this?
She was gone by the time he glanced up.
Chris saw that the forest looked thinner as he walked back to the cabin. Many of the trees were gone. He closed his eyes as he walked and realized that his seventh sense was dimmed, as if he were going blind or deaf. Fear gripped him. Was whatever was going on happening because he didn’t talk to the woman?
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Russell Bradbury-Carlin