by Aleks Haecky
I run. Tears stream down my face. I feel weak. Beaten. Lost. My fists are clenched. My feet beat the tile-floor hallway towards the entrance. All I want to do is get out of the school and under an open sky where I’m free to breathe my own rhythm.
I’m running away from big John, who has called me “frigid” and “faggot”, and I don’t know what that means, not really, but I get the sneer in his voice, and his triumphant laugh when the other students pick up the words like a chorus. I hate middle school. I hate the teachers who won’t help. I hate my father who says the same thing every time I come home crying.
“Don’t take it seriously. It’s part of life at school. Just fight back.”
I don’t know how, and I’m not sure he does, but I nod and slink away.
I crash through the school doors and outside into the crisp early morning air, and I keep running, out of the school yard and past where I live, away from the houses where no friends of mine live, until the road turns and one side hugs that last country house with the grapevines on the walls, while the sidewalk on the other side marks the boundary between me and the forest.
I cross the road and stop. I glance to my left and to my right, making sure nobody is watching, then inspect the green bush wall in front of me. It stretches alongside the road, thick and green and pretending to be impenetrapble, but I am looking for the one spot where there is an opening, where a deer trail starts right behind a few conealing branches. It’s my secret door into my secret place.
I’m wearing my soft sneakers and a warm knitted cap that can be pulled down to hide most of my face, because fall mornings are chilly. My knife hangs on my leather belt. I always carry it. It makes me feel adventurous and strong, and definitely safer. I pretend my cap is ringed with eagle feathers and my sneakers are moccasins decorated wtih porcupine quills and bead art.
I reach out with my hands to separate the branches, getting some that flip back tangled in my hair. I like it, the forest hugs me welcome as I step through. The branches fall back into place behind me, and I have shifted into a different world, one where I belong, where I do as I please and am who I am without restraint, and nobody tells me I’m all wrong.
I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. I let my breath slow. I watch the steam cloud that comes out of my mouth. It makes a fuzzy cloud of fog in the air, and the trees behind it looked washed out. I let my eyes roam. Everything is quiet and in order. I move forward to follow the barely visible trail through the thicket, bending to avoid brushing the branches. I must walk quietly and not disturb anything. Small, two-toed hoofprints in the soft ground catch my attention. Round pellets are scattered around like calling cards. They tell me that I share the trail with deer this morning, which pleases me, because in sharing I become one of them.
The thicket ends and releases me into open forest with trees of various sizes, oaks and beeches and firs, evenly spaced. Some of the larger trees show the painted red marks that mean they will be cut soon. A woodpecker pecks up in a crown, for effect, not for food, and another further away takes up the drummed message, “Mine, all mine.”
A sparrow hops onto my trail. I hold my breath and make myself invisible, simply by willing it, hoping the bird will come close and not see me. I’ve figured out a long time ago that by closing into myself and becoming like a tree, I can become invisible. The sparrow hops closer and almost touches my shoe when it stops pecking at the leaves and turns its head up. We lock eyes. Startled, it flutters away chirping.
I continue on tiptoes. The trail snakes between the trees, not much underbrush at all, mostly just fallen leaves in shades of brown and rust. I try to step without making a sound but can’t quite do it. Even though I feel every brancy through the thin soles of my shoes, my feet don’t fall lightly enough, and every few steps a crackle betrays my presence.
I stop to watch two birds chatter at each other on a low beech tree branch. “Green finches,” I think, and I feel a bit of pride at remembering. A rustling sound above me draws my curiosity. I tilt my head up and follow a squirrel through the branches of a blue fir tree. He’s running, a nut in his mouth, bottlebrush tail stretched out. He seems to know where he’s going. Where am I going today?
The sun is up now, higher than the surrounding mountains, and it will be a warm day. My sweater is getting too hot, but I don’t want to take it off. It’s so comfy soft, and it keeps away the mosquitoes that are also waking up. I swish at them with my hand every few steps, but can’t do much. After a little while longer on the trail, there are low bushes between the tall trees now, the ground changes to cracked dryness, and I can’t avoid rustling the leaves. The noise scares a deer and all I see is its flashing white backside as it gracefully bounces away over bushes. I’m envious at how lightly it overcomes its obstacles.
I stray from the narrow trail when the ground gets moist again and lush grass grows between the underbrush. The grass reaches my knees, and after only a few steps my socks are soaked and the legs of my washed out jeans cling to my calves, annoying, because they make my legs feel clammy, which scatters my attention. A blackbird sings a very loud and repetitive song while I survey the small open space that is ahead of me, a secret pasture in the center of the forest. My roaming eyes catch movement on the opposite side of the clearing. I crouch, unable to think of a better way to hide quickly.
A doe steps into the clearing, stiffly, head erect. The slight morning breeze wafts in my favor and carries her scent to me. She smells of wet fur. She steps into the grassy area, ears twitching and turning like radar dishes. She relaxes and starts to nibble on the grass. She makes a small sound, and out of the underbrush emerge two young ones, not babies, maybe as old as me in the world of the deer, still spotted brown and white, still full of play and empty of attention. Since their mother has givem them the “all clear,” they walk, push their noses into every stalk and flower, jump a little, nibble a little, as if bored or undecided what game to play first.
One of the little ones moves closer towards me and I shiver excitedly. Sweat seeps onto my forehead and runs into my eyes, and I ignore it, and also the mosquito on my hand, and I try hard to breathe quietly, and then my right leg cramps, and it really hurts, and I have to move just a little.
With a flick of her ears and a sniff the mother finds me, looks straight at me, turns, and disappears back into the forest with her children. I don’t even hear them move off. The birds cackle and screech predator warnings, and being discovered, I stand up with a sigh of relief fo fmy legs, though disappointed that the special moment has passed. I brush off seed pots, scoff at my clammy feet, and find my trail again.
I stroll onwards. I feel full and energetic and bright inside, and the shadows of the nightmare at school have been driven away by my beautiful moment. I don’t think I can find any better adventure, and shouldn’t try. I think of going back home where I can have a hot shower, dry clothes, and a sweet apple. It’s late enough that my parents will think I came home from school if I tell them class was canceled. I leave the trail to cut across through tall trees towards the edge of the forest.
A small thicket blocks my way. I force my way through it and step into a clearing that I hadn’t known was there. The sun breaks in at an angle and bathes everything in a soft light that brings out the browns of the forest floor. A few red and gold leaves stand out on the bushes, but mostlly they are brown, as if fall has already finished its work here.
A brown form separates from the brown background.
I freeze. Twenty feet away stands an antlered buck, and he is looking straight at me. His eyes hold mine, boldly, and very un-deer-like. My heart beats fast, my breath comes in spurts. I’ve never see a buck this close up. He stomps his right front hoof on the ground and I clench my fists, alarmed. He shakes his head, and the sun that shines from behind him makes it look as if flames spring from it. My eyes widen and my nostrils flare, scared. He beats at a bush with his antlers, and sparks seem to fly off the branches along with dry leaves. I have read about meeting bucks during rutting season, and how they will attack anything that gets in their way. I want to run, but he can run ten times faster. He takes a couple of stiff steps towards me. I get ready to jump away. He lowers his head and beats the next bush, with more determination, never taking his eyes off me.
I touch my knife for reassurance and am streghthened by a surge of courage. Very slowly, I draw, the knife. I push it up and hold it between me and the buck. If he attacks … I will not die without a fight. He moves another half-step, closer, and images of my belly ripped open by sharp antlers, my innards pulled and shaken and scattered on the ground flash before me. The knife glints in a beam of sunlight. He lowers his head and sniffs the ground. The air around his nose fogs like dragon smoke. With the last of my composure, I hold my breath and move one tiny step towards him, clutching at my knife. His ears twitch. He stops his feet, and stomping retreats one inch, and I see his moment of weakness before he moves forward again, and I step back, and back, and I keep moving until our eyes break contact and the thicket claims me and creates a barrier between me and him.
I turn and push through the bushes and underbrush back into the open forest, take a deep, deep breath, half-expecting to hear his triumphant roar. Instead, I hear the birds sing more beautifully than ever. The air tasts rich and nourishing. My fear seeps away, except for a remnant of unease, and I sheath my knife. I walk the last few hundred feet to the edge of the forest. For the first time ever, I am eager to leave. I reach the bushes that separate the forest from the sidewalk. I take my last breath of wild air and step outside.
With the first breath of street air, I remember that I will have to go back to school tomorrow. And my father, he will be coldly furious when he finds out I’ve cut classes. And my mother will look passively sad while I take my punishment.
I turn back around. I cross the threshold back into the magic, and I just keep walking.
Copyright © 2017 Aleks Haecky
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