(I said I’d tell you the truth, and I will)
A Walk in the Woods
Was I eight or nine? I can’t remember. I remember other things such as the stench of skunk cabbage and the cool, dampness that penetrated my shoes, my socks, leaving my toes aching like the splintered wood on the side of our path as we walked into the woods.
The high grass hid broken tree limbs left to be consumed by the ground, footprints from other explorers before us, most of them the size of children smaller than us, and brown bottles from Budweiser and Pilsners – all of them empty – and occasionally, along this path, there were empty bottles that had contained vodka and gin. Some were half empty Four Roses bottles. I knew what they looked like. I knew them from my father. Some fathers drank beer. Mine drank Four Roses. I would know the smell in my sleep.
I remember this day the way one does an old movie with colors still rich and deep beneath the scratches of white flickering on the film frames as they pass in front of me. I remember the important parts, the scents, the prickling of mosquitoes on my legs and the look on my brother’s face when we made our discovery.
My brother is 22 months older than I am. We grew up closely, going to church together, then Sunday movies, fishing and crabbing in the Hudson River, building a fort at the end of the street we use to live on. We buried our turtle in a ritual of capes and fake swords, conjuring up angels and guardians for its safe journey into the unknown. This day was no different. We walked together into the woods near our home with a few neighborhood children, all of us wide-eyed explorers, following the skunk cabbage trail to the clearing we’d heard about, looking forward to making a pretend camp where we would eat our bagged lunches and talk like wilderness children. It was, after all, our wilderness. It was our time. As New York children, a park that offered miles of wooded land was a gift to be opened, a novel and glorious playground. We’d been to the edge many times. This was the first time we were venturing in on our own. It was said that one could walk from our entrance all the way to the Southern end and be on the Northern edge of New York City. There were pony rides toward the edge, stables where you could pet the ponies and feed them. But that was a long journey for children on their own. We found satisfaction in simply searching for the clearing.
The skunk cabbage was lush and thickly grown in May. The soggy sides of the path we walked contained so much of it that the stench was overwhelming. I pushed my brother in front of me, begging him to walk fast and straight so I could easily follow him and keep my feet from sliding into the soggy shoulders of the path. He laughed, saying I was a “scaredy cat” and would never be a true gypsy, which is what he wanted to be. A gypsy or a priest. He hadn’t decided. Priests were removed from ordinary life and could be aligned with God. God protected priests. Priests protected everyone else. Gypsies roamed everywhere entertaining for food and dancing whenever they wanted. Gypsies didn’t need bagged lunches. They knew how to forage, how to cook squirrel and rabbit. They knew how to survive. In our house, surviving meant being quiet, saying “yes, sir”, learning not to count on your dreams, learning not to repeat what we’d heard or challenge anything, and learning not to laugh too much. Too much laughing was a sign of weakness. We all laughed when my youngest brother was born. He was small and shriveled and looked like soft dough. His ears were like little dumplings and he smelled like my mother, sweet and fresh. We laughed until we were told to stop. My mother always smiled. But according to my father, we would be quiet, obedient and serious. It was a strange place to be.
We walked the path, my brother in front then me, scratching at my legs, Lydia behind me and her sister Maria behind her with little Anthony Landis behind all of us. He was the youngest, the weakest and most frail. He was Lydia and Maria’s cousin and went everywhere with them. What I most remember about the path we walked, other than the skunk cabbage’s overwhelming odor, was the rustle of deep grass as frogs scattered with every step we took. We probably walked for 20 minutes until suddenly, the air was thick and held a smell I didn’t recognize. The pungent odor seemed to come in on its own breeze, wafting around our heads. Anthony threw up immediately. We stopped until he finished. Lydia made him remove one of his socks so she could wipe his mouth with it. He stuffed the dirty sock in his pocket when they were done, continuing the hike wearing one sock. As we walked, the smell intensified and flies began to appear everywhere. They seemed to swarm ahead. My brother stopped. He stood still with a fixed glaze, swinging his right hand back towards me, open palm facing me, his fingers sticking straight out like obedient soldiers. He was always a serious child, even when we laughed at home until we didn’t laugh any more, always looking for exits and reasons and protecting me. That would change later in life. Part of why these memories are so clear to me is that it was a magical time when we traveled together from adventure to adventure, two children against the dysfunction of home, and against anything that might arrive in our lives. Two children saving each other from daily tragedies. It was a time before our family split apart and the paths we took would be not only separate, but opposed.
We remember the times that have hope, I suppose. We remember Love before it becomes indifference. We remember our first loss of innocence in different ways. Some of us move forward. Some of us create imaginary walls and we hunker down. We don’t always know at first which choice we will make.
I don’t remember my words at the time. I don’t remember if I said anything at all. I know Lydia and Maria shouted something and frail Anthony, still sick and starting to cry for his mother let out a shrill scream after running ahead, passing me to stand next to my brother. It was the oddest scene, a tall boy appearing to protect his little squadron and the small, scrawny child next to him, frozen with fear at what he saw. We all stood silent for what seemed a very long time, perhaps only a minute but it was the type of minute that changes the way you see your world.
Ahead of us, on a raised area of dirt beneath an oak tree near the path that led to the clearing there was a circle of acorns around the tree’s perimeter, the kind of circle witches made in children’s books. Unless what we read in children’s books, inside this circle was a man’s body. A dead, swollen body. Bloated. Bluish. Spotted red in some areas. He was naked. I had two brothers. I knew what naked male bodies looked like even then. I’d seen them many times. But I’d never seen any of them naked beneath a tree with strange markings on it. And I’d never seen one with small rocks arranged around its torso or leaves piled on top of its feet or berries crushed and streaked along the upper thighs. My brother knew they were crushed berries. He was a boy scout with more badges than most the scouts in his troop. And I was becoming a girl scout. I knew crushed berries by their trail of seeds and the chunky pulp residue that was left behind.
Once the moment of shock was over, my brother and I walked closer to the body, leaving Anthony to protect his cousins. It gave him a mission, a purpose. My brother told him that’s what men do, they protect their women. The girls were silent as was Anthony. It was probably the day that Anthony remembered as his most brave throughout his childhood, possibly adding a few details of his own, perhaps that it was he who saved everyone, or maybe he remembered the vomit details differently. We all add our own spin on what happened in a group but I will never know what his recollection really was of the day because when he grew older he died in Viet Nam. I’d moved from the neighborhood and wasn’t in touch with Anthony or Lydia and Maria. I’d completely lost track of Lydia and heard that Maria was lost to motherhood and an abusive husband who beat her into submission frequently. Last I heard, they had grandchildren.
My brother and I walked closer to see what we could. I think he was a young man, probably in his thirties. He seemed old to us but we were so young and unaware of what regular life did to age someone, never mind what death brought to anyone. It hadn’t been a quiet death. We could see that. His penis was limp and very dark. His hands were so swollen that the gold ring on his left hand was tight and cut into his skin. Both my brother and I covered our noses. It was the only time I’d been near skunk cabbage that I welcomed its aroma, or considered turning my head and inhaling its fragrant and overpowering ordinarily disgusting smell. None of us had ever encountered a rotting corpse or the smells and colors that accompany it.
The man’s eyes were closed. His hair was dark, wet from the moisture in the woods. There was a red cross drawn on his forehead. There were animal bites on his legs and the red berry streaks on his legs were scratched into the skin. We knew it wasn’t blood. Blood doesn’t have tiny hard pits in it. There wasn’t any blood on or near him. My brother walked around him, circling like a wolf, again and again looking everywhere for clues, for possible evidence of who he was. I think he was really looking for an exit. A way we could all be transported back to our street, away from these woods that had become so unwelcoming. I stayed in my position, crouched down on the dead man’s right side, not too close and not too far, saying the Our Father silently, crossing myself as a good Catholic child does and wondering what we should do. We were in the woods against the wishes of all our parents. All of us would be in trouble if they knew where we were and what we’d discovered. I remember looking back at the three friends who had come with us, seeing only that they were huddled together, holding on to each other, looking toward us and waiting for something that would make it all disappear. There were so many flies around the body, some of them hovering near his face, particularly his mouth. They were hungry and cold, like all of us.
For one moment a few shafts of light came barreling through the surrounding trees laying themselves directly on his face. His whiskers glistened. The dark shadow of growth suddenly looked like miniature trees, standing erect, awaiting growth perhaps but none was coming. I was hoping the light would baptize us all, lay itself on our souls and heal everything that was wrong. Of course that didn’t happen. The tiny forest of whiskers fell back into darkness and shadow when the light shifted. Both my brother and I were unchanged. The dead man was still dead. It’s only in movies that light lands upon the dead and awakens them. In the woods that day, the light only illuminated the trappings of unexplained evil. The bluish and bloated body was still as it was when we found it only now, it was something that would never change. The light failed it. The light failed us. We stayed there for a while, each of us holding fast to our spots along the path and around the body, praying our silent prayers for the dead man and wanting to leave.
My brother said, as we all began to walk out of the woods toward the exit near our street, that he thought the man died of alcohol poisoning, that perhaps the empty bottles in the area around him were his. But “where are his clothes?” Lydia said in the high pitched frightened voice of a young girl. I remember those words. I remember Anthony’s silence, Maria’s shallow whimpering and my brother’s eyes. His eyes stayed full and sad as if a veil had been lifted, perhaps a veil of adventure had left him. Perhaps this was the beginning of his disinterest in gypsies and priests and his love of the military. I’m not sure. I know that we all threw away our bagged lunches and held hands on the way out of the woods. I also know we didn’t tell anyone later which would be a theme to come in our lives. Some children act out. Others act in and become silent. We were all apparently in the second group. Neighborhood talk later was that a body had been found in the woods. No name had been given. The man had been sexually molested and might have been the victim of a ritualistic murder. He’d been “exposed to the elements” for a very long time. I felt guilty, that we’d killed him knowing of course that wasn’t true. But he hadn’t been found by police for several weeks after we’d discovered him. Years later, the case of the dead man in the woods had become cold, an unsolved murder which meant, of course, that the murderers had gone free. It was never solved.
That night, after we all went home, my brother went silent and stayed in his room. My younger brother was an infant at the time. I watched my mother nurse him, then rocking him in her favorite chair. I was curious about their connection, the way she held him, protecting and loving him and wondered if she’d done that with us, if she’d nursed us and let us cling to her. I wanted to cling to her then. I watched them for a while, later going into my room and staring out the window. The moon was large, plump like an orange and the shadows of the buildings seemed to dance as the night breeze picked up strength. We never spoke of the dead man again. None of us. I never cried. I don’t know what the others did. I just know my brother was silent in his room and in the morning his eyes were pink and dull. We never went that far back into the woods again. We kept up church and the Sunday movies together as we did other activities. Those things never changed but he stopped holding my hand in public. He said that was for children, and he wasn’t a child any longer and I shouldn’t be either. He said one Sunday “Stop being a baby”. I’ve not forgotten that.
© 2016 by jacqualine-marie. All Rights Reserved