In the Forest
There’s no passing on a road like this unless you’re courting suicide.
I’m going up a mountain, trapped in the outside lane by double yellow lines. To my right, space, a drop thousands of feet down to the hazy flatland of the valley below. To my left, a sheer gray wall of granite, unspooling in a series of blind curves. I’m stuck behind a Minnie Winnie going 30 mph.
It crawls past a turnout like a fat white maggot.
I tap my horn politely at the next “Turnout in ¼ mile” sign. The Minnie Winnie lumbers on, past that turnout and the next. I get a kind of rhythm going: three short taps at the quarter-mile sign, followed by a loud, long honk where the turnout opens. The Minnie Winnie, unperturbed, continues its slow and mindless crawl.
It’s the Thursday before Labor Day, that most ironic of American holidays when we celebrate the contributions of American working men and women by—wait for it—not working, and I’m starting to think I might end up spending the weekend in my car. Every campground I’ve passed so far is full. I’ve been driving through the national park for hours, stuck between green Juicy vans and giant RV rentals painted with happy-looking families and forest scenes. In the rearview mirror, I can see all my brand-new camping gear stacked in the back seat with the tags still on, everything Coleman: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, and lantern; Thermarest; cooler packed with hot dogs and camp food. Bug spray. Sunscreen. Coffee press. Matches. Twenty-three dollars’ worth of boxed cut firewood. I’m prepared for anything but having no place to unload it all.
I see myself in the mirror’s oblong surface, the hard light unkind. My lined face flushed pink with heat, crow’s feet crinkling around blue marble eyes sunk in puffy lids. My neck is craned forward, and my skull feels like it’s filling with hot steam about to shoot out my ears like some Loony Tunes character.
Relax, I tell myself. Send them some love. Deliberately, I refrain from honking at the next quarter-mile-to-turnout sign. Miraculously the Minnie Winnie pulls off the road and lets me go by. I step on the accelerator, right hand flying up reflexively in a Queen Elizabeth wave.
Open road stretches before me. The roadside terrain changes from manzanita and scrubby oak to the spires of tall pines. My head clears, and a memory floats in of a campground we passed once, on the other side of the park, a 45-minute drive away, somewhere between the horse camp and the ATV range. My not-quite-ex-husband and I took his cousin’s truck up there a few years back, one of those pick-ups outfitted with gigantic tires for off-road and mudding.
I turn off the King’s Highway, out of the national park and into the national forest, past the horse camp on the left, packers sitting in lawn chairs around the corrals, surrounded by a choking smell-cloud of horse piss and manure.
Miles and miles and miles I go. Shadows lengthen, and the sun dips out of sight. Dried mud and decomposed granite creep onto the road as the pavement gives way to potholes and gravel. I don’t remember it being this far. Finally, on my right, I see a campground, but on every site there’s a cruel little white plastic card on a pole that says “Reserved.” All but the very last one, right next to the road. Less than ideal, but there’s a fire ring, a picnic table, and an outhouse a short walk away. The writing on the site card dips in the middle and curves up on either end like a smile: “Available 1-14 days.”
I drive into the site and park, look around for a camp host or registration kiosk. None in sight. I pull the plastic sign from its clip on the pole.
“Hey,” a voice says. “What’re you doing with my sign?”
I didn’t even hear him come in behind me, a guy in a white pick-up, leaning out the open driver’s side window. Aquamarine eyes, direct gaze, a horseshoe-shaped white mustache curving down to his jawline, thin lips curving up. He looks familiar, or maybe it’s just the way he’s looking at me, like I’m some old friend of his from high school. Do I look that old?
“I didn’t see any place to check-in.”
He steps out of the truck, tall and skinny, rangy as a cowboy, holding a clipboard.
“Where you from?”
“A Valley girl.” He fills in a box on the clipboard form. “I live in Fresno myself. Retired now. Twenty-one dollars a night.”
I pull out my checkbook.
“How many nights?”
“I don’t know, maybe four.”
His blue gaze holds mine, friendly, expectant.
“Do you qualify for the senior discount?”
“That depends,” I say. “What age is senior?”
“I’m always afraid to ask women that question. You never know how they’re gonna react.”
“You’ve got a long way to go,” he says, then chatters amiably on. “I’m seventy myself. My brother put me up to this. A little extra money, he says, and free camping. Keeps me busy, cleaning out the bathrooms, raking down the sites. Between my retirement and Social Security, I do all right.”
Is he trying to impress me? He doesn’t move like an old man, but he’s got the turkey neck and a full head of snowy white hair. I start filling out a check.
“There’s another site available at the next campground up. Further off the road. I’ll show you if you wanna take a look.”
He gets back in his truck, and I follow him in my car, up the road till he turns off onto an unpaved path, kicking up clouds of dirt. I roll up my windows. All the campsites we pass are unoccupied but have white plastic “Reserved” signs. We drive for almost a mile till we get to the end, where the road loops back around. He stops and parks in a spot marked by an uneven row of boulders.
The campsite is huge, with a fire ring and cooking grate, three raked flat spots for tents surrounded by pines and felled, partly cut-up tree trunks. Some previous camper has set up little cairns of smooth flat rocks around the site, giving the place a vague pagan vibe.
“I’ll take it,” I say.
I notice the name on his chest badge: Lester Putnam. It’s almost dark. The light is fading fast.
Lester writes the site number on my check and finishes the paperwork, talking the whole time.
“It’s gotten real busy up here. That’s why they went to reservations. Will anyone be joining you?”
“My daughter, later tonight or tomorrow, maybe,” I lie, suddenly acutely aware of the fact that in another minute or so I’ll be a woman alone in the middle of the forest at night in an empty campground with no cell phone service, a mile from the nearest road out.
He writes a date in black grease pencil on the site’s white plastic card and clips it to the parking area post.
“Please don’t alter the reservation sign, even if you decide to stay longer. I come through a couple times a day. Sometimes people just wipe off the cards and write in whatever they want, like they think no one’s gonna figure it out. Last weekend I had to kick out this Mexican family. I’m not prejudiced or anything like that.” He smiles, his blue eyes probing. “But they had a whole kitchen set up and twenty people. The limit is six.”
He gets back in his truck with a grin, eyes twinkling with unasked questions.
“Quiet time is after 10 p.m. Campfires only inside the ring, and put the fire completely out with water if you leave the site for any reason.”
He gives a short wave and churns up a brown cloud as he drives away.
I know how to start a fire the right way. Donny taught me. A big sappy pine cone, some dry pine needles, a few twigs for tinder. But it’s getting dark, and I’m in a hurry, so I do it the white man’s way, squirting charcoal lighter fluid onto a chunky, half-burned log left in the fire pit, letting the liquid soak in while I set up my tent in twin tunnels of light from the car’s headlamps. I can still see a bit of orange blush in the west, so I set up the tent entrance facing east, toward the fire ring and tomorrow’s rising sun.
I throw the Thermarest and sleeping bag and my pillow inside the tent and zip it up carefully to keep out the bugs. I lug the cooler and groceries to the bear locker, put my flashlight and coffee press and cooking gear and coffee cup and plates and utensils on top. I made a list this time, so I wouldn’t forget the things I’ve forgotten in the past, like a spatula or a can opener or dishwashing soap and toilet paper. The nearest store is at least half an hour’s drive away.
I set up camp chairs next to the fire pit, two so I won’t look like what I am: a woman alone. By flashlight, I gather some dead wood from under the trees around the campsite and pile it near the fire ring. For some reason I don’t want to think about, the sight of so many fallen trees chain-sawed in chunks disturbs me. The national park campgrounds don’t usually leave dead trees lying around the campsites like this. But maybe it’s more honest this way. And as the night spreads around me, I can’t see them anyway, only the dark silhouettes of standing pines and cedar, stars poking through black patches of sky above.
I make a little teepee in the fire ring with the deadwood I picked up, stack a few store-bought pieces around it and put a match to the lighter-fluid-soaked log. Voila – instant fire. The lighter fluid smell slowly burns away. I pull out my cell phone and check the time: 9:02 p.m. Sun comes up around 6 a.m. There’s no sound but the crackling of the fire and ringing in my ears, the noise inside my own head.
I sit by the fire and wait for the enchantment.
There’s something about a fire that makes the unmagic fall away from me. The ring of flames like a captured sun, the wood releasing the sun trapped inside, the fire a live thing, licking at the shadows. Me, just an animal, under the moon, living and growing and drying and dying in the quiet of unadorned natural space, far from the million artificial suns lighting the night for sad city children with no one to tell them when it’s time for bed.
I breathe in the peace of mountain, fire, and forest, interwoven with memories of sitting under these same stars with my husband and my daughter, the past clinging to me like a lead apron I can’t reach the knot to untie. I used to feel my spirit leap at 5,000 feet, with the first sighting of tall trees and bare granite peaks scratching the blue glass sky. Here tonight, it’s only me, the heavy center of my own existence, trapped like a lump under a rug of silence.
The air is getting colder. I add more wood to the fire. The flames leap and spark. I go to the car and get a book, a murder mystery, out of the trunk. I position the flashlight in my lap and start to read. After only a few pages, the beam yellows and dims, and I realize the batteries are dying and I haven’t brought replacements. I put the book on the picnic table and turn off the flashlight to conserve what’s left of the battery in case I need it later. I add more wood to the fire.
I used to love sleeping out under the stars next to the campfire, my daughter zipped into the sleeping bag with me, my arms wrapped around her, her small body warm against my belly. She’d fall asleep, and I’d watch the constellations wheel above us, feel the world slowly turning. I could tell what time it was by the position of the Big Dipper or Orion in the sky. Sometimes I’d lie there and watch the sky all night. Some mornings deer would find us while we were still asleep, walking tawny and graceful, right through our campsite on their tall, nervous legs, watching us with their dark wild eyes, and we’d freeze upon waking and watch them back. Donny said it was his grandmother who brought them to us, and he’d make an offering. The deer was her animal.
Like a hand shoved without warning into my gut, pain rips through me. Dead, dead, dead. My daughter, dead. My marriage, dead. Is it some form of progress that I can say it now, if only to myself, say the word—dead—if only in the ringing silence of my own mind?
Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I’m not ready for this. Maybe this is my life now, this endless ghostwalk through the ruins of better times. My body aches for my child. One more night. One more morning. One more walk. One more memory not wrapped in black paper, stinking of death.
I don’t know what to do with myself. Too restless to sleep, I get my purse from the bear locker and dig till I find my emergency cigarettes and peel off the cellophane, like breaking the glass on a fire alarm. I light one, smoke it, feel dizzy. Been a week now since the last time I quit. Why do you do this, smarter me keeps saying the whole time in my head. Why do you poison yourself? And here of all places, in the pristine mountain air? Throw it in the fire, smarter Yvonne commands, throw it away.
Monkey fuck. That’s what we used to call it in high school when you light one cigarette from the still-burning end of another.
I jump straight up from the camp chair at a clattering in the blackness nearby. Wish I had a gun with me. I aim the failing flashlight beam into the night. Just a pine cone, falling with a thud, the high branches of the tree stirring and settling back into stillness. I sit down. The wind changes direction, and smoke from the campfire blows in my face, thick, choking. I move my chair. Hear Donny’s voice: “Smoke follows beauty, old Indian saying.” Finish the second cigarette. A few more minutes tick darkly by, slow mincing steps on my long trudge toward morning. I’d forgotten this part, how long the night in the forest can be.
There’s the sound of an engine and headlights approaching. Fear pokes my belly. I fight a crazy urge to run into the woods and hide or maybe duck into the tent and let the two camp chairs tell a story that does not include the words “woman alone.” The headlights are blinding, obnoxious halogen high beams. It looks for a moment like whoever it is may be heading straight into my campsite, but they come to a stop at the boulders. A dark figure gets out. Shuts the door.
“Just checking on you,” a deep voice says, with a hint of laughter. I realize I’m standing up, probably looking terrified and ridiculous, the proverbial deer frozen in the headlamps.
“Want some company?”
It’s Lester, the camp host from earlier. I’ve already forgotten his last name. He reaches back through the open window into the cab of his truck, switches off the headlights, grabs something, a bottle with two plastic Solo cup shot glasses sitting on its neck like little red party hats.
He walks toward me, not waiting for an answer.
“I brought an adult beverage,” he says, setting the bottle on the picnic table. “Do you partake?”
“Maybe,” I say. I’m thinking maybe just one. It might put me to sleep. Bring the daylight sooner.
He pours. “You strike me as a high-end whiskey kind of gal, am I right, or am I right?” He grins.
He looks younger by firelight. I realize who he reminds me of: that cowboy actor, Sam Elliott.
My mind fly-fishes for small talk, something neutral and not too encouraging. “Do you live up here all summer?”
He touches his red plastic shot glass to mine and gulps. “Smooth,” he says, the flames of the campfire dancing in his eyes.
I sip, the whiskey warm and smoky on my tongue. Tennessee bourbon. The whiskey warms me all the way down, melting away the ice chunks of fear still chilling my stomach.
“But to answer your question: mostly. I’m staying in the next campground over. Number 53. Generally, I just roll out my bag in the back of my truck. There’s showers and laundry up the road a piece. Once a week or so, I go back down to Fresno to check—to check on things.”
He looks over at my tent. “You might consider putting on your rainfly,” he says. “Weather up here can change pretty fast. A down sleeping bag ain’t much use if it’s wet.”
“How’d you know I have a down sleeping bag?” I ask. The ice in my stomach thickens.
“Oh, I’m an observant type. Goes with the job.” He pours himself another shot, offers me the bottle, but I’m still working on the first one. I wave it away.
“So what’s your story, little lady?”
“Yvonne,” I say.
“That’s right. Yvonne Hunter of Vandalia, California. What brings you to the mountains? Or do you want me to guess?”
I take another sip of the whiskey. “Okay. I’ll play. You guess me, and then I’ll guess you.”
“You’re fifty-five years old.”
“I told you that.”
“You’re not wearing a wedding ring, but your skin is still indented on your finger there, and the skin is whiter, so I’m guessing you took it off recently. Separated? Or going through a divorce, maybe. You have one child, a daughter, but she’s not really coming to join you. You just said that to make it seem like you’re not all alone. You haven’t always lived in the Valley. You come from somewhere else, Southern California, maybe. You’re a surfer.”
“Your earrings. They’re surfboards, right?”
I laugh, my hand flying up to the painted plastic hanging from my ear, stroking the flat surface.
“They’re supposed to be feathers. My husband gave them to me. He’s Native, from Ghost River.”
“Huh,” he says. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for being married to an Indian guy. Not one from around here anyway.” He refills my shot without asking. “How am I doing so far?”
I down the refilled shot. “You’re seventy,” I say.
“I told you that.”
“You’re a 49ers fan. You’re a Republican. You have one brother. Your father was a WWII vet. You didn’t wait for the draft, you enlisted to go to Vietnam, and your father was proud of you. But he’s gone now. Your mother is living in a nursing home. and you go down once a week to visit her. Your wife passed away, and your house still looks exactly the same as it did the day she died. How am I doing so far?”
I watch as his smile fades and reappears.
“Not bad. Except I have two brothers. Had. One followed me to ‘Nam and didn’t come back. Well, he did come back, but in a box, and not all in one piece. My mother never really got over it. She has early-stage Alzheimer’s. Thinks he’s still alive. Thinks I’m him, sometimes. I don’t have the heart to remind her.”
“I’m sorry,” I say to him. You’re such a jerk, I say to myself. This is why no one likes you. This is why you don’t have any friends.
“Yvonne,” he says. “Let me see your hand.” He’s got a mini-flashlight on his keyring, and he switches it on. I hold out my left hand. He motions for my right, turning it palm-side up on the stained surface of the picnic table. He shines the flashlight beam on my skin.
“You have a long life line,” he says. “But here, you see this break? In your love line?” His finger traces my palm. “You see that? That’s heartbreak. That’s a broken heart.” His voice is low now, almost a whisper, almost but not quite smarmy. “Your divorce, maybe? Wasn’t your idea?”
I try to pull my hand away, but he holds it. My throat is tight. “Where’d you learn to read palms?” I ask. He lets go of my hand. Pours me another shot. I drink it in one gulp.
“This old Filipino lady. I was stationed there for a while, after ‘Nam.”
“What branch did you serve in?”
“U.S. Navy. Didn’t see much action. My brother went Army. Stepped on a land mine a week before his tour was up.”
“My husband was Navy,” I say. “My daughter was Army. She was—KIA, a year ago. In Afghanistan.” The ice floe that’s been forming in my gut shatters suddenly, unexpectedly, making big ugly creaking sounds as it comes up my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Yvonne,” Lester says, his voice tender, and he comes around to my side of the picnic table. He pours me another shot, and I slam it back, trying to melt the ice shards sticking in my gullet.
“I’m sorry,” I croak, and I cry for a while, hiccupping into the shoulder of his flannel shirt. I can smell his strange man smell, his cologne and antiperspirant, and it’s wrong, all wrong, when he puts a knuckle under my chin and lifts my mouth toward his, his lips thin and hard, his tongue pointed and probing, his moustache tickling my nose, and all I can think about is Donny when he grew his awful beard, except Donny’s mouth was soft and warm and electric and this guy’s feels cold, his tongue a wriggling fish I’m trying not to catch. It’s a no. It’s a no. My body stiffens like it suddenly grew bark, and I pull my head back and away from him.
He gives up. Sits there, slouching, staring silently at the top of the picnic table.
“You’re a beautiful lady, Yvonne Hunter from Vandalia,” he says, offering the bottle one last time before he stands to go. He picks up the little red cups and nests them, one inside the other. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”
I hear his truck drive up the next morning, but I stay inside my tent, sleeping bag pulled over my head, till I hear him drive away. When I get up, I see he’s left a calling card, a small bouquet of purple lupine, which happens to be my favorite wildflower, accented with scarlet shooting stars.
Later I see his name written on the dated cleaning log inside the door of the outhouse: Lester, followed by an indecipherable scrawl.
Not until the third day do I feel like leaving the campsite. I get up with the sun, make a fire, boil some water for coffee, sit around, read, add wood to the fire, pee behind a cut-up log and burn the soiled toilet paper in the fire ring, go to the outhouse to poop. Life becomes a series of simple tasks I expend minimal effort to perform. Breakfast is a protein bar, lunch a sandwich, dinner a can of soup heated on the cooking grate or hotdogs sliced into beans. Early afternoon I might get around to washing my face and brushing my teeth, but I’m still wearing the same clothes I arrived in. It’s amazing how little I care to exert effort toward any personal maintenance. It seems so far from me now, that life in which I had an audience of others—husband, relatives, friends, mostly his. Not that I miss them. I don’t miss anyone right now.
I wonder if I walked off into the forest if anyone would miss me.
Lester catches me one afternoon sitting in my camp chair under a burnt-out tree trunk, watching my woodpeckers. I’ve been inching my chair a little closer each day, watching the parent-birds go in and out of a hole up higher than my head.
“Hey,” Lester says as he pulls up, leaning out his driver’s side window, engine idling. “Do you like fish?”
“Sure,” I say, nodding. Trying not to look as distrustful as I feel.
“Me and my brother are goin’ fishing today. We always catch more’n we can eat. How many? One? Two?”
“One is good.”
“Fins off or on?”
“What kind of fish?”
“Fins on, then,” I say.
He grins and waves, drives off.
I go for a hike that afternoon, and when I get back, I see Lester has left the fish in a plastic zip-lock bag on top of my cooler inside the bear locker. One good-sized trout and a smaller one, both gutted with the heads cut off, silver and pink skin shimmering. Fins still on as promised. I make a small cooking fire, fry up the filets in my black cast iron skillet till the skin is browned, and the fins are crunchy, the tender, flaking flesh delicious.
Lester returns while I’m still at the picnic table, finishing up. Gets out of his truck this time.
“Thanks for the fish,” I say. “Best meal I’ve had since I’ve been here. Not that beans and hotdogs are much competition.”
“Butter?” he says, glancing at the skillet on the fire ring’s cooking grate.
“And garlic,” I nod.
“That’s how my brother fixes ‘em, too. But he likes fish more’n I do.” He stands next to the picnic table, waiting, I suppose, for an invitation to sit down. I wave him in, not because I really want to talk to him, but because it seems to me it would be impolite not to.
“Yvonne,” he says, “I feel like maybe I owe you an apology for, you know, the other night.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “Bad timing. That’s all.”
“No,” he says. “You were vulnerable. And I overstepped.”
And if you don’t shut up right this second, I thinking, you’re overstepping again. But I don’t say anything. Because, after all, I ate his damn fish.
“It can be hard to meet people,” he says. “At our age.” He puts his hand over mine.
I count to three. Take a breath.
His thumb is stroking the back of my right hand.
“Lester,” I say.
He looks at me, that look, when I was younger, I used to think meant a man was falling in love with me, till my best friend Denise explained to me that love isn’t a look. It’s a set of behaviors a girl needs to test for.
My hand twitches. He tightens his grip. “What the fuck are you doing?” I ask.
He looks away from me, startled. Lets go of my hand. Looks back. “Well, I thought I was having a conversation with a beautiful woman.”
“Look at me, Lester. Really look. I haven’t had a shower in four days.”
“So maybe you’re a little more—European in your bathing habits. I don’t mind. I like a woman’s natural—aroma. It’s a turn-on.” He grins. “But I’m not trying to rush you. I’m a very patient man.”
“I’m still married,” I say.
“Your finger says otherwise.” And he strokes my ring finger where the wedding band used to be.
I shake him off. Put my hands in my lap.
“Jesus Christ, Lester. You’re seventy years old. Can you even—?”
He flicks his tongue at me like a snake through his narrow lips. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve been told I’m rather gifted in that department. And I’m sure you’ve heard of the little blue pill.”
“Lester.” I can’t help it. I’m laughing now.
“Yvonne.” He’s smiling. As if he thinks there’s still some chance.
“I am not going to fuck you,” I clarify. “Not tonight. Not ever.”
“Well, let’s not rush to conclusions.” He takes a business card from his shirt pocket and sets it on the picnic table between us. “Just in case you should ever change your mind.”
“I’m not going to—”
“Shhh.” He puts his forefinger against my lips, then stands up.
“Think about it,” he says. “That’s all I ask.”
“I’m leaving in the morning,” I say. “But thanks for the fish.”
“Check-out time is noon,” he says, then winks. “You know where to find me.”
The holiday weekend congestion clears, and I find a better campsite in the national park. I make myself a sandwich and study the trail map till I find what I’m looking for: Redwood Grove, a trail I haven’t hiked before. When I arrive at the trailhead, there’s only one other car in the parking area.
There’s a sign with a map of the loop and a quote by Honore de Balzac: Who can walk in a forest without the forest speaking to him?
The trail starts out clear and strong but quickly fades, washed out by rain and snowmelt. I start to look for landmarks to remember my way back. It’s so quiet here; more than once I turn around suddenly, startled by the sound of my own backpack rubbing against the ass of my jeans.
“So, speak to me,” I say out loud to the forest. “I’ve got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a water jug and the whole afternoon.”
The day is bright, and the sun is hot honey splashing over low-growing berry bushes and green ferns. Birds kick out of thickets as I pass by, wings whirring like helicopters. A family of quail picks its way through the underbrush, tiny fussy heads like middle-aged matriarchs in feathered hats, a half-dozen chicks scattering around the adults, downy little fluff balls with pipe cleaner legs—I could watch them all day.
I start naming trees I pass, landmarks to guide me later when I’ll need to find my way back. There’s Skinny Penis Tree, a pine with a single leafless branch sticking out from its base at a forty-five-degree upward angle. A little further on is Haunted Hallowe’en Tree, like something Tim Burton might animate, tall and dead from the waist up, with bent-branch arms and two large vacant eye-holes pecked out near the top. The trail dips, the pines thin out, and a thick, incense-scented hush descends.
There’s a giant sequoia in front of me, its reddish bark polka-dotted with circular black burn marks to a height of fifty feet or more, as if some giant came through hurling red-hot coals. I try to imagine the inferno of the summer before, fire slithering, dragon-like among the trees, orange, soaring, out of control.
At the base of the sequoia is a triangle burned black, folded back along the edges like the lips of a vulva, and I swear there is even a charred clitoris bulging out at the apex. The burned-out cavity is large enough for me to walk inside, like some dirty joke the boys used to tell in middle school, or the even more filthy ones I used to hear my father and his work buddies tell after a few beers: “Her vagina’s so big you best bring a ball of yarn or some breadcrumbs.”
I give her a name: Burnt Vagina Tree. I stand there dwarfed in her blackened opening. I step further inside.
There’s enough space inside for me to sit down, lie down, if I chose. The walls are sticky, dripping with sap. It smells good, scented with smoke, but cool and alive with a hint of spice. This tree, I am thinking, has been here for a thousand years, will be here for a thousand more.
I want to move into this tree. I want to live forever in its big charred vagina, the reigning queen mother of all lesser pink and purple vaginas. I want to stay here and gestate, surrounded by something that is not afraid to live, that drips sweet-smelling sap and grows past its own scars and heals itself and keeps going and growing simply because it can.
I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich sitting inside the sequoia, unwrapping the tin foil, licking globs of purple jelly from my fingers. I look around me.
Burnt vagina trees fill this grove.
Some are dead on their feet, leaves and branches seared away, ruined and graceless, like pillars of some ancient temple whose gods refuse to fall down and be forgotten. Some have lost their balance and lay shattered, will lay that way for centuries, exposed and decaying, while humans like me walk among them, feeling sad without knowing why.
Peanut butter sticks to the roof of my mouth. Mortality sticks to the roof of my mind. Tree, be my mother. Make me more like you.
Fire brings both life and death to the forest. The outcome depends on the will to survive.
I break open a cigarette and leave a tobacco offering inside the burnt vagina.
Speak, forest, tell me who I am, who I will be: fallen, shattered; standing, dead; scorched and hollow yet alive.
But the forest is silent now, not even a bird crying out to me, all the way back to the car.