The Woods Behind My Parents’ House
I will never forget the woods behind my parents’ house.
My parents always told me not to go into the woods alone. They warned me of all the dangers that lurked among the dark branches and the tangling brush, how the roots could ensnare me and trap me where no one could ever find me. They told me how monsters hunted in the night and bad men prowled in the day, waiting for any opportunity to snatch up helpless little girls for themselves. I believed them, every word they said. And for it, I grew apprehensive of the woods, even disdainful for the unknown they harboured just beyond the veil of trees. Their cold silhouettes looming on the distant edge of my backyard had always rattled me with fear.
I was an only child. I had no siblings to drag me off into the shadows, insisting on a game of chase like wild animals running in the forest. Maybe that was what made my parents all the more cautious of me venturing alone.
As I aged through elementary, junior high, and into high school, I had friends that would gawk at the vastness of the yard and ask if I’ve ever found anything strange in the woods. I would always reply no, you never find anything different besides trees and more trees. I didn’t mention that it was because I had never gone.
Sometimes they would implore to go into the trees, especially as darkness washed in. I hated their curiosity. Why could they not be satisfied with what they knew – safety, security? I always said no.
When I moved away, I left the woods behind. The city is bustling and alive and full of lights and sound. There is no such thing as the stillness of the woods and I feel encompassed in the presence of everyone and everything; and yet, as I return to my parents’ home time and time again, I see them. The woods. Dark and unmoving, an memory displaced but eternally lingering on the fringe of my awareness just out of reach.
It happened one morning when both of my parents were away at work. I was visiting for the week but neither could afford to take the time off, leaving me to my own devices during the day. I was standing at the kitchen counter following a jay outside, watching it hop through the grass and up to the cement bird bath in the shade of the house. It twittered to itself between bouts of preening and then flew away, and I watched the flash of blue as it crossed the length of the yard and vanished into the darkness of the treeline.
For a long while, I stared at the trees with my coffee cup between my hands. The trees that have been an ever present figure of mystery and threat through my whole life. They still gave my heart a sinking feeling; a stir of foreboding in my gut, imagining what creatures lay out there in waiting.
But I am older now.
No longer am I the frightened, vulnerable girl who could so easily be plucked by the beast hiding in the trees. I could defend myself or at the very least, think rationally, and I already know it’s foolish to be haunted by my parents’ childhood warnings. I feel indignant, arrogant even. I should not be afraid of a few meagre trees.
I was gripped by the very same obnoxious curiosity that drew my friends to the unknown. I left the house and locked the door; with bold steps, I crossed the yard, perfectly manicured under my mother’s watchful eye. And when I reached the trees, I hesitated. If only for a moment, if only to still my buzzing thoughts and frightful heart, and to gaze up at the towering gatekeepers of an uncharted frontier.
I touched their bark, recognizing the gritty texture as something different and wild.
I smelled the air as it pushed through them, alive with honey and flowers and pine.
I listened to the humble melody of the birds and cicadas in the mounting heat of the morning, and I plunged into their breast, setting my eyes forward into a labyrinth of green and dark.
All around me the forest was beginning to spring to life. What had not existed from the distance of my home had suddenly manifested in song and sound, and in colours and sensations and sights.
I hadn’t known how thickly the moss layered the earth, encompassing fallen logs and roots under a spongy, soft blanket. Or how many species of tiny mushrooms pushed their way to the surface in splashes of white, yellow, red, brown.
The deeper I ventured into the woods, the more I began to see, and the more I began to know. In turn, the forest began to know me better; I was greeted by clouds of tiny black flies and mosquitoes hungrily dancing across the surface of my skin. Eager squirrels darted between the trees and sleepy owls lingered on their limbs, rotating their heads to observe my passage. Chickadees and finches flitted overhead, guiding me with a jumble of sweet summer songs.
When the trees opened up again, it was to the shore of a small lake.
I wondered how many people knew this was here, then I imagined that no one did, and that I had discovered it all for myself.
I stepped out of the brush and removed my shoes, then my socks. My toes wriggled in the cold silt that washed up at the water’s edge. I was compelled – for some reason that I’d never know – to immerse myself wholly in this forest and in its heart, here in the crystal blue water of the lake. So I stripped off every remaining article of clothing until I was as naked as the woods themselves, only pausing as the fleeting thought of monsters and men jilted my comfort.
There was no one here. There never was.
I ran into the lake as though I was free. Waves of boreal water chopped against my skin and I felt liberated from all that had once strapped me down, held me bound to obligation and responsibility. I lived nowhere, I belonged to no one and nothing but the forest.
The sun had reached its zenith and began to sink downwards. The late afternoon light filtered through the overhead canopies was reminiscent of the warm glow that spilled in from the living room window. My parents would be home soon, if they weren’t already, and wondering where I’d gone.
Emerging from the lake, I settled on the spongy moss and let droplets of water evaporate from my skin. The slow rustle of leaves illuminated the air and the gentle wind periodically ran between the trees. Every cessation, I felt the forest taking another breath. We breathed in time.
I could have stayed bathed in the sunlight forever.
Fully clothed, I emerged from the forest renewed, a child who has been gestated in the womb of nature herself. When I came to the house, my parents marvelled at the sight of me walking from the trees like some biblical figure of old, a sign, a prophet awoken from death.
I told them that I had spent the day hiking and they accepted it as such.
It couldn’t have been more simple.
But no one will know how deeply those woods have changed me.