I tucked my Father’s note into my pocket.
“I should get started,” I whispered to myself. Just as I let the shovel swing down from my shoulder, the grayed sky gave a swift bluster that rattled the trees behind me. I hesitated. But only for a moment.
I put the shovel in near the marker, which was two jagged shiplap boards held together in a cross by a piece of rusty fence wire. There was writing on the marker, but so many winters had seen fit to gnaw a good portion of it away. “A.D. 2016 Ro” was about all that remained in what was once a fuller verse in a fading white script. And still, it was enough to assure me that I was in the right place, and in a few short moments, as long as the rains were kept away, I’d know.
The shovel felt weak against the clay – each thrust seeming so useless, moving not much more than what a child’s hand could scoop in a sandbox. It was getting darker and the wind was taking notice. If what my father told me was true, it wouldn’t be long before the hillside would protest my pillaging.
Another corner began to show. Buried in haste and unevenly, it was lower than the one the seasons had already revealed. I noticed a gathering of blackbirds above me, thinning and thickening, swelling upward and downward, calling down in irritation from the sky. I laid aside the shovel. A swiftness was needed, and so I began clawing the clay until I found the edges and could lift it from the earth.
The birds screamed when I took hold.
The box was smaller than I expected, encompassing only a little more than a square foot. Still, it felt heavy. There was no time to open it, only to move, only to get back to the house.
I made my way back down the trail my father had made over thirty years ago. The sun was beginning to set. It was dropping too fast, as though the cosmos was in a hurry, accelerating the globe’s spinning. The trace turns were becoming shadowed and harder to see. I moved more quickly. Each stride felt small, and each yard saw the trail become narrower, as though it were coming awake, as if it were realizing and preparing to swallow me.
“He said this would happen,” I thought. “He said that the forest wouldn’t let it leave.”
And in a moment I knew this for sure.
The sun was fully hidden, and the horizon’s fading glow was all that gave me light. The forest awakened. The wind changed its course and became strong against my face. It skipped across the moistened ground throwing up wet debris to blind me. The tree branches scooped down in the winds to scratch at the box to snatch it. The willows and marsh grass snapped at my face and feet. The creatures in the side brush began to chirp and hiss and snarl and fill the path before and behind me as I steered further along looking for the mouth of the trail.
And then I could see – the lighted eyes of my childhood home cutting the darkness and calling, “Hurry, my son! You’ve only a short way!”
But still, the forest would not have it, even in the last few yards.
I could see the gateway beginning to close. The timberland floor swam below me, crackling and swiping. I hopped and dodged, bloodied by thorns and livid pines, slowing as the assault increased but still eluding capture.
It was in the last yard that all of the trees bent down together to bar the trail and move in to suffocate what they in their counsel had deemed a thief. The birds bawled and dove into the branches, hopping in and through in pursuit. I scratched and climbed, pulling apart nets of branches and falling over roots and thistles until finally, in a last push, I hurled the box through the angry foliage and into the shallow grass of the backyard.
The wind calmed. The forest loosened its grip and retreated into itself. All of its creatures withdrew as well preferring its shadows.
“It’s done,” I sighed. It started to rain. I rested long enough for the sky to rinse the sweat from my face and the dirt from the box, and then I carried it inside.
My father’s note was soaked and severely torn, but I could still read the words:
Taking no chances, I set this one aside for you in what I now
know to have been an unpromising manner. Never mind my reasons,
only consider that there is something different about it. It is
a kindly but powerful dram, a “Drink Divine” as the label heralds,
a remedy that no sooner did I find myself without it, did I seek
to retrieve it. But it was too late, and now there is trouble
The soil in which I’d planted it has stirred a sentience in the
forest. And now the surrounding meadowland is relentless to protect
it. I tried for many years, dear boy, to retrieve it, but the forest
wouldn’t let me. It just wouldn’t let me.
If you are reading this, then either I am still alive but much too
old, or I have gone and there is no more discussion to be had. A much
abler frame is needed to return what I have so foolishly lost.
You’ll find it along the trail to the river, where the way begins to
climb just past the hungry pitcher plants. The forest rests during the
day. It rests, I say, it does not sleep. Be cautious but quick. Take
little with you and leave all behind. Bring home only what you discover.
Remember what I sang to you when you were little. You did not know then.
But you know now.
“For whomever my chief
Will hold fast in belief
And never let me from my keep.
But beware, and be swift
If you elect to lift
Lest you join with me here in the deep.”
I did not hesitate as with the wind on the trail. In a moment my glass was near full and the room was beginning to burst with the scent of highland sweet blossoms and molasses. This alone fed my wits as to the forest’s greed.
In the sip I discovered a luxuriance of sherry and simmering applesauce. This carried through to a medium finish of raisins so perfectly minced and divinely applied.
I was sad for the forest. I was sad for my father. But I would not make the mistake he made.
I finished the dram and put the whisky back into the box. It was time to leave. It was time to go to my own home, to my own family. And so I put on my dirtied coat and I lifted the box up under my arm. It was heavy again.
I reached into my pocket for the house key and made my way to the front door. It slammed shut and locked before me. The blinds in every window snapped and dropped to the sills beneath. The lights flickered momentarily — a few bulbs burst in the chandelier above the dining room table.
“For whomever my chief
Will hold fast in belief
And never let me from my keep…”
“Gray Forest” photo © 2016 Jennifer Thoma