We had run off into a thick forest together, you and I.
We had lost the tracks of others, delved into the greenery, feet-first. Hand in hand, we walked and talked. Following nothing but the shadows of our hearts. The moon rose and watched us from overhead, just a sliver shy of being full. We’d occasionally glance up and glimpse through the mottled branches, the stars of reality. We’d whistle the same song at the same time, melody and harmony.
As we sank deeper, a cold fog gathered around our ankles, drawing us closer together. Fingers interwoven, we moved step for step and breath for breath. Two knit-together souls against the world.
Then, a clearing came. The near-full moon lit the grass in between our toes. It made the shadows recede into the path from which we’d come and the one by which we planned to go. Everything within reach was a silver-bathed glow.
We turned, after such a long time and looked each other in the eye. Had the color of them changed? We shook our heads. No, we were still the same. Two moon-bathed souls against the world.
Overhead, thick white clouds began to roll in. Shadows like arms reached for us. We tried to pretend it wasn’t happening; tried to chase the light. First here, then there. Hopping around from one place to another. The wind picked up, dry and bitter. We only picked up the pace, like if we found the right place to hold each other, the increasing chill would fade.
But, soon, it became clear we could not escape. So, we stood shoulder to shoulder and braced. Looking out at the growing dark, we tried to imagine a map of where we could go from here. But, we both had to admit, standing there shivering in the wind — nothing came to mind.
Our fingers slowly loosened, tired of an ineffectual grip. What were we clinging to? Something that, in the coming through the forest, had had its use. Now? It was just a remnant of a thing we had needed before. Our arms dropped to our sides. Our legs carried us in circles around each other. You watched the ground; I, the sky. And we acted like that was enough. And it was — for the time.
Then, the sun crested the horizon. For a moment, it blinded us. But we blinked the pain away until we got used to the light of day. The morning sun scattered bars of yellow light across the place we were in now. Not just a clearing, but a low hill top. Down below was the meandering places from which we’d come. The well-trod road was full of turns and twists, but we had not kept to it. We’d cut our own way through the roughest land.
As the morning wore on, the warmth the night had sapped out of us slowly returned to our bones. Then, as the sun climbed toward noon, we knew it was time to go. I reached first for your hand, but you did not reach back.
“We need others,” you whispered and I imagined I knew what you meant.
There was an obvious break in the trees up ahead. You nudged me. I nodded, and off we went. Not hand in hand. Not step for step or breath for breath. But that was alright. We had changed, grown. We could walk on our own. So, like this, side by side with an undefined space between us — we walked.
The path sank down for a long grade before we had any hint it’d come back up again. But, it did. And the sun was warm on our backs. A breeze, cool without being too strong, urged us on. I looked now into the matrices of branches. What I had thought was nothing but a wall of green turned out to be a series of homes to other things. I pointed each new life out. Some even briefly alighting on my hand. My shoulder. My arm.
“Ah, see all the life we’re surrounded by?” I called and looked to you. But you were still staring at the ground.
There was the cawing of a crow and we both looked up. A white bird with black beak and black legs filled our view. It dropped from a tree, swooping low and cutting a line across our sight like a knife. As quick as it had come, it arched back up and disappeared.
“Did you see that?” I asked, looking for the bird instead of you.
“I didn’t know crows could be white.”
The bird, swallowed by the forest, did not come again.
Silence took its place between us as we kept moving. A while longer and we didn’t so much find another clearing as make one. The climb was too steep. Out of breath, we moved some sticks and leaves. Soon, a resting place was cobbled together from our joint effort. We sat down in the same exhausted moment — not shoulder to shoulder, but not face to face either.
Long slow breaths were a long time in coming, and neither of us said a word. Eventually, I got up and stretched — feeling rested. “We best be going.” It came out low and quiet, in the form of a question.
“You go on ahead,” you said and didn’t move.
I waited a while, thinking you only needed time. Nothing changed. When I was sure you weren’t planning on getting up any time soon, I said, “Are you sure?”
So I left. Sank back into the greenery alone. From time to time, I’d whistle the same tune. Sometimes, I’d even call out. All so you’d know exactly where I’d gone. And, after a long while, when the sun was low and the evening cool, you did come. Came up by my side by a different route.
“I’m here,” you said and I assumed we’d go along from there together. I was glad you’d come your own way, and glad we’d found each other again.
But, the shadows grew long and the road I had chosen stretched only upward before us. You clearly trudged along, dragging feet, making a cloud of dust. Eventually, my eyes burned from it and I had to stop. You stopped half a step behind.
I turned and we faced each other full. The first time since setting out. Your face and stance were different and strange. I wondered if I, in your view, was the same. I couldn’t bring myself to ask. The words were stuck in my throat, my tongue a cork.
“I can’t…” you started and didn’t finish the sentence.
“I’ll wait,” I said and went to drop into a squat. In a moment, I thought, I’ll make another clearing for us. We could both use the rest.
I stood back up, dropping the bundle of leaves I’d already picked up. “But…” I didn’t finish that sentence either. And not because I thought you knew the end of it. But quite the opposite. Because I guessed you never would. “I’ll go.” I hung my head and looked down at the ground. I couldn’t help but notice how even it was brimming with life.
“Yeah,” you said and sat down where I had thought to stop.
I moved away, looking out at the places I could go. I quickly decided to stick to the same road. It was clearly cut and, in the back of my heart, I knew you could find me if you looked. I didn’t call out, thought. Every sound I thought to make died in the nest of my chest. There was nothing I could say. Occasionally, I’d hear sounds from behind and look over my shoulder. Was it you?
Just other things, other being moving around me. A world brimming with life, but nothing in the orange glow at the end of the day alighted on my hand, shoulder, arm. Nothing touched me at all. But in the warm and quiet air, butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps all hummed in patterns above my head.
The orange light became a blue-grey, marking the dying of the day. Scattered clouds overhead began to brighten in the light of the rising full moon. It’s glow washed out most of the stars. I made new designs in my mind from the ones I could still make out.
Then, a loud sound.
A deer? You, a long time in coming?
I turned and looked back. The road I was on had risen so much I could see the whole way we had taken. The landscape was a map of us, spread out before me. Our feet had padded their way through the middle of a wide, rolling valley. I could see the first path, the clearing we had found, the one we’d made, and the place we’d stopped and parted ways. A plotting of our whole story, lit by the moon’s rising.
And not too far from the last place we’d stopped, I could see you crashing through the over-growth to make your way back to the start. The sound I had heard was your departing.
I watched for a while, to see if you’d come out at the same clearing as before. Hoping that if you did, it’d mean something. That you’d turn and hurry along to catch up to me. That in the echo of the wind’s howl, I’d hear you calling my name. Telling me to wait. Saying you’d made a mistake.
But in reality, by the time you came to rest, I couldn’t see you anymore. Only knew it by the pause in the echos of your sound. And knew you’d picked up again by the return of them. The sound of you kept moving further away, getting smaller. I can only guess since you’ve found your own road, you will also find a new clearing to settle in.
I don’t know where that path leads or how long you’ll rest along it when you do. I don’t know by which way, high or low, you will choose go. I only know that in a little while, where you are will be imperceptible. And the sound of your going back, inaudible from where I am.
As Vonnegut said until the last — So it goes.