in horror at the bonfire begins when my professor sends me deep into the
far forest because we nearly fought in her office and she became frightened
to have me around.
It takes me two days of driving through
the Monogoshan State Forest to get there, and I don't even remember
a single thing about it except for the crunch of gravel beneath
the car tires. Two days. And then the clearing in the woods at the
end of the road, and then the trees in rows.
This may have been--like she said--an
orchard at one time, but now it's little more than an opening in
the forest that was already being reclaimed by the wild. Most of
the apple trees are pathetic: dead, black, twisted shapes amidst
the riot of tall grass and saplings. But a few are still live, barely,
their sparse white blossoms dangling in the spring breeze. Her uncle's
orchard, she had said, where she used to come as a child, before
the state bought the land.
I pull up and cut the engine. The
cabin is overcome by swarming vines. I step out of the car into
the sun. A small tree grows through the rotten wooden boards of
the front porch. The tree has pinned the front door shut. I go around
back, wading through the waist-deep weeds, yellow something-or-other
collecting on my pants, the sound of insects filling my head, and
enter through the rusted metal door in the rear. The floor inside
is mushy with moss. But things aren't so bad. Some of the vines
have crept through the windows and a few small holes in the ceiling,
true, and there are even some trees that have grown up from beneath
the floor and have pushed their way through the gaping holes in
I go back outside. The big faded
barn in the back is empty, leaning over on its side like parallelogram.
Geometric graffiti is everywhere, spray painted triangles, indecipherable
words, grotesque portraits of what look to be butchered bodies.
The work of a real death-metal crew. But where do they come from?
How do they get out here, miles from anywhere?
And why am I here? Because she banished
me, her temptation. That's not what she said, of course. "To retrieve
something from the cabin. Would you do that for me?" She knew I
was desperate and that I would come. But I was not always desperate.
I was not always ironic, like her. I used to be kind, I told her,
to hold out hope for others and for myself. I used to despise people
who are like I am now.
Day passes. I unpack the car. I've
taken up residence in the cabin. At night I shut my eyes, and try
to re-create the circumstances that led me here, my conversations
with her, try to pinpoint the events that led to this, her foot
touching mine beneath her desk, her lingering gaze, her sudden laughs,
the way she talked about punk rock.
At night I lie along the wall beneath
my blankets and smoke, the room around me full of trees, like those
scenes in Where the Wild Things Are after Max is sent to his room
without supper. "That very night in Max's room a forest grew . .
. and grew . . . and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and
the walls became the world all around . . ."
The next day and the next I roam the
orchard and the surrounding white pine forest, like Daniel Boone
with cigarettes. I trap animals for food and live off the apples
from the few fruit-bearing trees that remain. After a week, and
then another, I don't think my car will start, but I don't even
try it anymore. I don't know how much longer I can stay out here.
I used to hate Nature because I misunderstood it. But I'm starting
to see now, to understand. I've read too much to believe there's
a hidden order to Nature, or to believe that it's somehow purer
than what I left behind. It's not. It's no more anything than anything
else, no more anyplace than anyplace else. And I'm beginning to
understand that, to see it even. How long, I wonder, would it take
to come to complete control, complete understanding?
Yet I'm no isolationist, no transcendentalist,
and I miss the idea of comrades. I have no thoughts against anyone
in my head.
I am no Thoreau.
I am not a Kaczinski.
The past few nights I've heard them
over at the barn, blaring their punk, smashing bottles, laughing,
cursing. "Holidays in the Sun." "Anarchy in the U.K." Where have
they come from? I keep my lantern off, and wonder how long it will
be before they discover me; I imagine them coming upon me, at first
thinking me a rolled up carpet in the corner, then seeing my eyes,
my face, and the one of them making a joke about killing me, and
then another one poking me with a stick, then with some barn siding,
then one calling me an old drunk, then one kicking me, then another
one, then coming in with a tire iron . . .
That's nearly how it happens.
Except there are only two of them
tonight, drunk out at the mammoth bonfire behind the barn, setting
off firecrackers and M-80s. The fire consumes the night; they must
have fueled it with planks from the piles of old, unused barn siding.
I watch them for a long while.
Why do I reveal myself to them? Because
I'm lonely, I want to see their faces. I want them to see mine.
Perhaps they think I'm a ghost, unreal, a hallucination, a trick
of drugs or the night. I can't account for what makes them throw
the firecrackers at me, or for what makes him pick up a small stick
and aim it at me like a pistol, or what makes the girl egg him on,
what makes her say "Get it," when urging him to come for me. Not
"get him." The bonfire is a painted inferno, defying gravity, its
flames leaping in the wind and snapping like a flapping sheet.
They taunt me. But I hold my ground.
I protect myself. The boy's movements are broad and lumbering. He
must be stoned. He can't focus, and when I get too close he lunges
for me, misses, falls to the ground, and cuts his head on a rock.
In the firelight the deep red blood spreads across his face like
war paint or an SOS.
"Christ," he says, standing up unsteadily,
wiping his forehead, gently rubbing the blood between his fingers.
He flickers in the light. Black leather jacket, torn jeans. He flickers
like he's not even there. He takes off his jacket and in the firelight
his T-shirt says "The Sex Pistol." No "s." A misprint, I think.
Or else the "s" is lost in a shadow or wrinkle.
The fire roars close by, shooting
little yellow coals into the sky, casting everything in a dull orange
glow. The boyfriend eggs me on, getting braver, edging closer. Suddenly
I'm the center of his world.
"What the fuck are you?" he demands.
Not "who" but "what." He lights a firecracker and tosses it at me
stupidly. It goes off at my feet, illuminating a little circle of
earth in a bright white split second supernova atom bomb. He advances,
inching me towards the fire until I feel it on my back and the backs
of my legs, searing.
"What are you?" he asks again, louder.
But it's his face that's a mystery, his face that's inscrutable,
unreadable in the shifting fire light. Behind him the girl holds
herself still like a shadow. What's in the duffel bag slung across
her shoulder? She lingers there in the outer reaches of the firelight,
even more frightening than him, less easy to read, less sure of
what she wants to do. In my mind what's in her duffel bag is what
I was sent out here to find.
Then he makes his sudden move, when
my eyes are on her.
That's when he comes for me, full
force, furious, his fleeting face distorted like a melted painting.
I step aside, brush him off, and he trips into the fire, arms outstretched,
screaming. The fire hisses.
The girl stands there, focused, focused
on the fire, as though if she looks hard enough he'll come back.
But he won't come back.
She is someone's daughter. Flareout
jeans, low and tight around her smooth hips. Her navel deep and
full of shadow. Indian feathers in her hair. Melting mascara streaming
down her cheeks. A pierced eyebrow that flashes in the firelight
like a spark. She holds the duffel bag close against her tense body,
like she's ready to do it, ready to leap, ready to leap with her
little body of secrets, ready to end it all and find him in there,
in the coals, the ashes, in the white hot truth.
She makes a move like she's really
going to do it, then stops, faces me, tense and tight, ready to
fight or run. But I'm patient. I have to be, now. I must be very
careful not to hurt her. I slowly back away from the fire. I stand
back in the shadows where she can't make me out, and where I will
wait for her to move.
But I don't have to wait long before
she calls out something. Is she sobbing? She calls out something
again, a choking name. Maybe his name. Or the name of some other
boy. She backs away from the fire, slowly. The forest behind her
shifts in uncertain light. Shadows open and close. She takes something
from the duffel bag. She holds it out in front of her. She takes
And it's because I can't see what
it is in her hand that I'm the one who flees. I find my keys. I
start the car. The girl watches me go. I'm driving through the woods
in the dark like a maniac, the shaking trees in my headlights as
pale as death. I can barely hear a thing. The sound of sound has
come apart. When I get back I'll tell the professor that she can
fuck her Sex Pistols, and her foot games, and her David Lynch posters,
and her stale irony.
I step on the accelerator. It gets
quieter. The harder I press the softer and quieter it is. Who am
I kidding? I'm not ever going back.