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Still, in the Woods

by Brenda Kern

Crispness. Winter days in New England have a particular quality that isn’t duplicated on a winter day in say, Kansas, even if the weather stats read the same: temperature, wind chill factor, barometric pressure, humidity. The snow has a crisp quality, so does the air, and so do the leaves not tucked in under the white blanket. The quality is like new celery kept in water and ice in the refrigerator: crisp, almost brittle.

The day was like that, with snow at least a foot deep, a day promising the fun of seeing your breath and pretending you were smoking, making snow angels, and having snowball fights, all under a brassy-bright sun. The huge back yard, once a pasture on a working farm, offered these delights, which my younger brother and I took advantage of, for sure.

But beyond the fence made of rail and barbed wire, through the gate by the apple tree, oh, my friend, that was where the real adventures began. We loved playing on the boulders, randomly strewn about as if by a giant’s child, around the dried-out creek bed and enjoyed running down the gently sloping outer pasture to the woods.

The woods were the real prize: ever so forbidden, but maybe with trails! Or Indians, or wild animals we would bravely fight off...

The house seemed small, as distant as another country, as we stepped in between the trees. The going immediately became easier, because the thick canopy of trees kept the snow out - very little evidence demonstrated in here that it had snowed out there. The forest was its own world, separate and quiet, intimidating and inviting at the same time. We spent a moment deciding if we should split up and explore on our own, or stick together. We opted to stick together.

And we walked in, deeper and deeper. At times we could see vague evidence of a path, of the presence of people there before us. At other times it was completely wild, jumbled, untouched. We climbed over fallen trees and kicked through drifts of damp leaves. Birds fluttered and spoke to one another high up in the trees but kept their distance from the intruders. We might have seen squirrels but had no heroic battles with them, and no other animals showed themselves to us.

As kids do, we found mysteries and treasures: rocks with an interesting shape, or the soft carpet-like texture of the moss on the trees. And we breathed in the smells: thick, primitive smells of leaves, of trees and moisture, and of nature itself. It also seemed warmer in the woods, or maybe our exertion had warmed us, or we had become acclimatized to the real temperatures.

Time passed, and our meanderings took us nowhere in particular during that time. At some point one or the other of us thought out loud that we’d better get back. The fantasy world of play and illusion faded away with a sigh, and reality settled back down, in us and on us, and it was heavy.

Which way was back? My brother expected I would know, as I was the oldest. I didn’t know; I didn’t have any sense of direction, and I still don’t. The sun, we thought, was so low in the sky. Night was coming! We thought we’d try to remember our afternoon, and we looked around. What seemed familiar? What had we passed? Nothing we saw seemed right. Why hadn’t we used the Hansel and Gretel trick, only better?

And we listened. A road ran past the house. We thought maybe we could hear cars and head toward the sound, then walk back to the house along the road. No car sounds. We heard only birds, wind, twigs and leaves crackling as we stepped on them. And maybe there were other sounds we hadn’t picked up on before, slightly ominous sounds. Definitely time to get back.

I sadly realized that we were lost. Yes, I was positive. I reasoned that kids had been lost before and made their way out, even out of woods where they weren’t supposed to be in the first place. I was sure of it: lost people sometimes found a path. Or were found. Even though we figured we’d gone so far that we must have left the state of Maine by then, we thought they’d come looking for us, and we’d be rescued and get ice cream!

Or get in trouble for scaring everyone, and making them bundle up to come out and find us, and for going to the place we were not supposed to, doing things we were not supposed to, breaking the rules. As usual; right, little brother? You and I were always good at that kind of stuff: we were bad kids, we were rebels. Not angelic, like the baby sister. We were tough!

But not so tough that we didn’t recognize the situation for what it was. We were lost, and the daylight was going, and we didn’t know which way to turn, or how far we’d come. We felt less and less like tough kids and more and more like little children who needed their daddy, first, to find the way out, then their mommy, to comfort and embrace. We’d face the inevitable trouble later, and cry a lot, pitifully, so maybe the trouble would be forgotten...

We tried trudging one way, convincing ourselves, “Oh, yeah, I remember that rock, I know I do!”

That way wasn’t it.

And we tried another way. How stupid we were! “It couldn’t have been that way, because that way is downhill. We never climbed uphill! Did we?” Oh, during the valiant struggle to not fall into the boiling dirt between rocks and logs while fighting invisible bad guys, there might have been some climbing... hmmm...

And we tried every way. No sights or sounds assisted us; our memories betrayed us. We didn’t know if we were moving farther away from the house or moving toward the edge of the woods, just around a bend from seeing the vast whiteness of the outer pasture, and salvation, for the moment. We were as lost after backtracking as we had been then, in the first moment of realizing we were lost. We were not hopeless yet, but wearying. And we were turning on each other, squabbling, accusing, feeling less than loving.

And we found something, just then. Something that made us completely forget our spat, the impending dusk, the dread of punishment, and everything else.

There it waited, in a small clearing, no bigger than the average living room. How long had it been there? How old was it? Did anyone but us kids know it was there, that day, still there? And it was not fenced in, had no barrier. We could have walked right up to one of the tombstones and touched it, if we could have summoned up the courage.

Yes, it was a cemetery, but that seems too grand a term. It was more of a burial plot, really, with maybe a dozen tombstones and crosses marking the final resting places of long-forgotten people. For surely they were forgotten. The place had a sense about it, a pristine quietness. No one had been there in years, maybe decades.

I can’t speak of my brother’s thoughts and feelings in that moment, but I can try to express mine. At that time, I had not yet experienced death as a reality: it was an actor getting “shot” in a bad western; it was inevitable summary numbers at the end of a news story about Vietnam, a country a world away where war dragged on endlessly; or a sad thing other people experienced, but not me, not yet. It would be some time before anyone I knew well would die, and I would be introduced to grief, with all its layers, tricks, and shadows.

This place had shadows, but wasn’t scary, and it didn’t seem to me that it would be, even in the full dark, in the middle of the woods. The place was still, and had qualities of stillness that I wouldn’t have known the words for at that time: tranquility, serenity. It had absorbed a deep, abiding calm into its very soul. I knew it. I sensed it. My mind grappled with what I was thinking and feeling and breathing, and it drew a conclusion: death is not scary. No, that wasn’t quite right. After death is not scary. Dying might be; it might hurt.

But these people, dead people, reposed there, experiencing no more pain, quietly resting. The woods cocooned the cemetery, dulling sights and sounds and intrusion from the outside world, which just kept bustling along, not acknowledging these people, people more lost to the world than we were. No one ever visited these graves, leaving flowers on birthdays or a flag on Memorial Day. No groundskeeper mowed or trimmed or raked there.

On the heels of that thought was another, more disturbing perception: no one mourned these people, not anymore. Maybe before. Maybe someone had mourned their loss, when they had been recently buried. The ones who had survived them would remember that they had lived and died, and would carry them in their hearts. But on the day of our discovery? No. They were peaceful, but they were forgotten.

In my adult mind, I know I think of that even now, some thirty years later, with echoing melancholy. I, like everyone, will be mourned when I’m buried, but then... Even if I’m not buried in a lost graveyard with muffling, protective woods around it but buried in a cemetery right in the middle of a busy metropolis, I will be forgotten!

The two concepts struggled to achieve a precarious balance in my little girl mind: peace vs. being forgotten, calm vs. being left behind while the world moved on.

At the edge of the clearing we stood, transfixed. When we entered the woods that day, stepping from white to brown, we never would have dreamed, even in our wildest little-kid imaginations, that we would make a find like this! This discovery was WAY better than an arrowhead or a dead deer or even a cave.

And we didn’t know what to make of it, or what to say. Neither of us walked into what cleared area there was, or touched anything, or made any attempt to read any of the inscriptions. We just stood, our feet rooted to the ground, not having taken more than a step or two from the time one of us — I don’t remember which — saw it, pointed, and said, “Look!”

Look is all we did, and with an appropriate reverence.

Nevertheless, at some unknown moment, eventually, the fascination with the spot ended, and we got back to the business of getting “un-lost.”

Clearly, though I don’t remember the details of it, we found our way. I do remember the joy of stepping out, from the brown to the white, and whooping and hollering all the way across the pasture, the yard, and into the back door of the house, the one with the screen door that always slammed shut, no matter how careful you were.

I don’t recall any punishment either. We made it back! We didn’t get caught! All was well. And, to my recollection, we never told anyone what we had found.

Incredibly, I forgot our discovery in the woods, forgot it for a long time. At some point in my mid-thirties, I recalled being lost that day and finding the forgotten cemetery. I couldn’t believe that such an unusual memory could have just slipped away, like a leaf floating along the surface of a brook swollen with melting snow, gliding along silently, gently, then over a drop and gone.

Copyright © 2016 by Brenda Kern

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