By Greg DeLaurier
“He knew the forest would be back to greet him in a few months, green and lush, but he was never certain of this, as nothing is permanent.”
He knew the forest well. He’d grown up in a village just at its edge and, as a boy, considered the forest his playground, his friend, his teacher. He learned the forest was itself a village in which the trees did not live solitary lives but communicated with and nourished each other. He learned that everything in the forest was part of that village as well. Birds, bugs, earth itself lived by and for each other. He learned you could hold a honeybee in your palm and it would not sting you. He learned that he too was part of the forest, that it would listen to him, speak to him.
Every day he walked through it. He knew every path through the labyrinth of trees; he knew each tree, their appearance, the feel of their bark—some rough, like the oaks and maples, some smooth, like the white birch, saplings competing with the ancient ones for a bit of sunlight. He knew where the mushrooms hid and where the moss grew thickest, under a tall ancient oak as old as Methuselah.
He lay down on the moss, looking up at the leaves blowing in the wind. The great, ancient oak listened as he told it things he did not tell others; about his loneliness and fears, about how weak he was and bullied, how he liked that red hair girl who sat in front of him, about how his father drank and sometimes beat him. The ancient oak whispered to him in sympathy, in support, with love:
“It will be alright.”
“You do not need to be afraid, we all are here for you.”
“We will watch over you.”
In early December the trees in the forest lost their leaves. Walking through the silent, barren trees was to him like being in a cemetery, or among some ancient obelisks a lost people had erected eons ago. He knew the forest had to rest, but, still, winter brought a strange sadness over what once had been green, fully awake.
Even in winter he continued to wander through the forest. He kicked the dead leaves in his path, making small clouds in the air. He piled them up high and made great leaps into them. The trees, even as they rested, seemed to enjoy this homage to what had once been and would be, he hoped, again. He heard sleepy soft laughs reverberate around him.
He no longer made such piles. He was now an old man. He knew the forest would be back to greet him in a few months, green and lush, but he was never certain of this, as nothing is permanent, and he feared the forest might remain as it was now, dark and barren. Yet he also feared the forest might indeed return, but perhaps he soon would not, as nothing is permanent.
Walking in the silence, he remembered things from long ago. He remembered the rabbit.
To ’make a man of him’ his father had taken him hunting, only once. This he did not want to do, to bring danger to the forest, but he wanted to avoid the danger from his father more. So early on a Spring morning they went into the forest, rifles in hand.
They didn’t see much to kill, but there, under the great oak, was a rabbit. It was eating away at the bit of grass around the oak. It was small and had that way of rabbits being seemingly still yet always in nervous motion. But it did not see or sense them.
“Shoot it”, his father said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because that’s what a man does when he hunts, he kills. And you are going to be a man. Shoot it.”
So, reluctantly he raised the .22 to his shoulder, took aim, and fired. He hit the rabbit, but did not kill it. It seemed to just roll over on its side, clearly moving, clearly still alive.
“Shoot it again,” his father said.
He did, but still it lived.
“Shoot it again.”
He did but still it was alive.
“Shoot it again.”
“Shoot it again.”
But the rabbit was still moving.
“Goddammit, you are useless.”
His father walked over to the rabbit and shot it once in the head. It was dead. The boy began to cry.
“Crying? Crying over a damn rabbit. You are useless, I’ll never make a man out of you. We’re going home.”
And so they did.
Later, as his father was passed out on the couch, he grabbed a shovel and went back to the rabbit.
The great oak was silent, its leaves not moving.
Beside the great oak he dug a hole and placed the remains of the rabbit in it and buried it. He said over the grave, “I am sorry I shot you, I am sorry you are dead. I will never again bring harm to the forest. I hope you can forgive me.”
He picked up the shovel to return home, but looked up at the great oak. Its leaves now were blowing, and it whispered, “You are forgiven.”
This was long ago. He was eighty now, his father dead fifty years, but still he hated him and what he had made him do.
Mist enveloped the forest, making it hard to see where one was going. But this did not bother him, knowing the paths and the trails so well. Suddenly he stopped short.
He could see through the mist, something he had not seen before, or perhaps he did not remember as he found himself forgetting many things these days, little things like where the car keys were, more frightening things like his name, where he lived.
It was a bridge. He walked to the edge of the bridge, and he could tell it was very old, just a simple foot bridge with railings on each side. The wood had turned gray and the walkway was worn down.
He did not know if it was safe, but he stepped on it anyway. No creeks, or moans, or movements. It seemed a sturdy old bridge, so he kept walking. Through the mist he could not see where the bridge ended. He stopped and leaned over one of the railings, testing it first…strong and solid. He looked down, but the mist hid whatever was below the bridge, nor could he tell how high up he was.
He walked on, still not being able to see where the bridge ended. As he looked back from where he came, that too was lost in the mist. Suddenly out of this mist behind him appeared the rabbit. It was hopping, but slowly. It didn’t seem injured, only not to be in a hurry.
It hopped toward him and stopped in front of him. It raised its head to him, not making a sound, but only softly scratching his pant leg, gently pulling on it. Very faintly, as it had awoken from its slumber, he heard the ancient oak whisper, “You do not need to be afraid. Nothing is permanent.”
The rabbit turned toward the hidden end of the bridge.
As it disappeared into the mist ahead, he followed it.
Greg DeLaurier is a resident of Melrose. A retired professor of Chinese politics, his writing is influenced by Chinese writers of the early decades of the 20th century–Lu Xun, Ding Ling, Lao She and others–in their brevity and clarity of language. He regularly attends FYACS writing sessions, and works with a group of fellow writers. How he got to FYACS is lost in the mist of time.
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