The woods in the thick of summer: she’d seen it from the interstate with all of its fertile allure, deep green leaves. From the back of her parents' van as a child on a summer trip, the trees and grasses looked close to paradise under a blue sky. Older and driving, she knew the joy of simply looking from an air-conditioned car, safe from the humidity, gnats and heat. But today she was walking through it.
The hill wasn’t far from her small cabin, her retirement home as she called it, and it wasn’t far from the state line that led to her childhood domain of forts and walking sticks, or the road that reached forty miles to where her son settled with his wife and children. That’s where she really wanted to go, that road, but they were away on their vacation to the shore. Instead she climbed the slope, under pines and over a mossy log, stepping around the small shoots of maple and oak, deciduous among the conifers. She was glad to note that it wasn’t any harder, climbing at her age, as long as she didn’t extend her arm far to the right, and re-pull the tendons in her shoulder who had long been her enemies. She knew how to do it by now, without thinking; pull aside the briars, watch her footing, watch for holes, homes of snakes and foxes, she stepped around the small piles of pellets left by deer.
Why am I out here? She thought, staring the short distance behind her, her cabin out of sight. Because I can’t be there. She answered, fixed on the sound, faint enough to be the wind, but distinctly the rolling of water over rock. In her mind she saw her son, grown, happy, a father with his own children and wife, taking the time they needed to have as a family, the time they needed alone between sand and saltwater. She’d gone with them the last year, and remembered her grandson’s soft, suntanned face upturned in a smile as the surf swept
over his feet, and her grand-daughter reaching up to catch the spray, trailing seaweed, an oceanic sprite. The pictures turned in her mind, one after the other, the moments not caught by film but placed within her, kept safe: her husband in his work clothes, leaning over the bed to kiss their son on the cheek on an ordinary morning. She sorted through the pictures and stacked them as she turned back to the hill, taking the incline at an angle.
One thing she hadn’t saved in her memory was a small square of paper left on the kitchen table. She had written a simple note in case anyone came by,
“I went for a walk in the woods. –A.”
Coming to the top of the hill, the trees thinned and she heard the river clearly. As she climbed the steeper tract, she saw the summit, treetops and the sky above, a summer sky. She used her hands to gain the last ground before the ridge. On that small clearing, the pine needles beneath her hands had faded in the sun to a light golden brown. She rocked back to sit and wrapped her arms around her knees. The pictures kept coming, more she had stored for the sake of memory, to ward off loss. In the sun, she sat, sorting, stacking, the earth hard beneath her, her sides growing more rigid as she moved less and less.
She felt full; she had become full over the years. There was just so much more than she could contain –so much more joy, so much loss, and then hope. She had to pass it down, give it away, and she’d tried. As if to make more room, she rolled her head back, her chin to the sky like an open lid. Again, the sound of the river, she’d been on her way to the river.
Flat on all edges, her arms finished the perfect square that started with her back. Below, her heels met with her tailbone to form a solid, level base. With each breath, grain entrenched her wooden flesh, her true angles, dove tail joints, her six sides. There, atop the hill she waited, head tilted back, waited to make more room, to unload or to add, but her heart was full and still longing.
She waited until the wind whipped her head back down. Quiet among the trees, she heard the muted sound of wood on wood, not hollow but filled, solid. Closed and heavy, she could topple down the other side of the hill, perhaps knocked into motion by a passing animal. She’d slide, her hard wood rumbling over the underbrush, too fast to catch on a fallen limb. She’d slide all the way to the river, and slip in, water tight.
She wasn’t pine. She was a hardwood, oak, heartwood. It burns hotter, brighter, longer. She’d burn all the way down the river, that river that crosses under the long road. Her pictures, her treasure would fly up in great bright sparks, each a brilliant joy. Anyone who looked for her would find her.