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At dawn the light trickled between the trees, seeped into the dark like a milky liquid. The hues and shapes that appeared in its wake were always the same. Black-green branches, grey moss curled up like old women’s hair, blood-red lichen clinging to grey boulders.
The strangeness of the landscape comforted him. Every morning he felt relief to see it emerge into its separate components. At night it was as if it united with itself, contracted and expanded at the same time, became a thing; breathing and waiting for him outside the thin walls of the logger’s cabin.
[private]He was able to separate the unease from the man who prepared his supper from the contents of tins and bags of foil, smoked his cigarettes, slept for seven hours every night, put on his work clothes in the morning and walked along the path to the logging site. The man who operated with confidence and skill amongst whining, humming machinery and the hard-soft swoosh of falling trees.
The last bit of forest fringing the path to the logger’s cabin had been left to maintain itself. Young pale trees pushed up at random next to black tree stumps that looked as if they had blown over in some primeval storm.
They had offered him the logger’s cabin when it emerged that he slept in his car the nights he didn’t sleep with Bodil, which was more than half the nights of the week. Since he moved in, he’d confined his stays in her house to the weekends.
He carried with him a not-quite-acknowledged feeling that something or someone was lurking at the edge of his shadow. Something that would keep still as long as he was in motion, but start moving in once he settled for too long.
But after the Change and the Ravage there was less space in the world to move around in. This new world didn’t really suit people like him. One day he would find himself held in a pocket of activity he couldn’t leave so quickly.
And here he was. Caught, held. Filling the hole after another’s absence.
He had just completed a short contract in another logging area nearby when the request came. Someone had disappeared and they were under pressure to clear that particular area of forest within two months. Would he be willing to step in and help?
He’d accepted. He needed the money…
He read between the lines of her letters that his mother was finding it hard to get by. She was a proud and fierce woman who never asked him for assistance. But times were hard. Where she lived, as everywhere else, they first chipped away at the resources of the ones without the power, the time or the energy to fight back, or, they hoped, the intelligence to notice.
Tell me what you see…
They used to play that game, his mother and him. She had been a science teacher for over fifteen years by the time she had him, and clung to her faith in observation and reasoning as a way of finding one’s way in life with grim determination. During their frequent walks she would ask him to describe a landscape or a scene back to her. It excited him, the request made him feel important. But as he got older he learned that the more he looked, the more he saw. What he saw was not necessary what she wanted him to see. One day he described a procession of people in the far distance which his mother denied was there. He didn’t argue with her, but never doubted that he had seen what he had seen.
He had a memory of looking his mother in the eye from the arm of another. The only memory he has of being held by someone else as a child. He knew the man holding him was his father, and he felt anger that the only thing he was able to recall about him was the pressure of an arm against the back of his thighs.
“Your father came across the border together with all the other survivors. We all had to give up any spare rooms we had to accommodate the refugees. I had one room available. He came one night with the rain and left another rainy night two years later. In the meantime he had moved into my room and you had been born.
He was lonely, I was lonely and that’s all you need to know. The problem was that he had crossed the border, but left most of himself behind on the other side. The last thing he said to me was that he needed to go back to find out what had happened to “the others”. As if he didn’t know. He left to join the dead, that’s what he did, even if he wouldn’t admit it, even to himself. “
His mother’s voice hoarse with hurt and old fury. He didn’t press her for information, but saw her in a different light afterwards. As both more human and more of a stranger. A woman who was perfectly able to see a procession of people in the far distance.
They turned off the machines at six. He looked around at the area they had recently cleared with the now familiar sense of discomfort. It hovered at the corner of his eye, breathed into his neck as if it had a will of its own. To free himself from its grip he raised his eyes and looked at the line of trees in the distance, further away now than it had been this morning. The trees merged and billowed against the horizon like a veil. He was unable to rationalize the impression by telling himself that behind the seemingly thin, wafting tree-line there were still kilometres and kilometres of forest. He turned his back to the apparent chaos around him. Logging was an orderly, meticulous business, starkly at odds with the detritus left in its wake.
When he reached the cabin and fiddled with the keys he felt the landscape behind watching him, felt its evening-breath against his back. It made him feel porous—someone open to be infused, invaded and rearranged.
He opened the door and went in. The cabin was simply furnished with one table, two chairs and hard, narrow bunks. The fourth wall contained the only window, overlooking the moss-field. As he prepared his food he sometimes turned towards it and watched the slow ebb of light away from the window-pane.
As he was eating he found himself looking at his work clothes. Clothes that once belonged to the man whose job he had inherited. When he first put them on he felt—an absence. An echo of another’s smell and skin. The sensation wore off after he had used the clothes for a while, but returned the next time he put them on.
He put his plate away, lit a cigarette and looked at the clothes again. In the half-light they acquired a strange tactility, an almost- fleshiness he felt he should find repulsive, but didn’t.
He leant over, picked up the carving on the windowsill and turned it between his fingers, as he had done every night since the first night he slept here. The carving was bulbous, irregular and very smooth. It looked as if it had been made with great skill, but it was hard to make out what it was meant to represent. He saw different things each time he looked at it. Two bodies entwined, a grimacing face, a mountain range, a three-dimensional map of an unknown landscape…
Despite the uncomfortable chair he drifted into sleep, still gripping the carving. On the edge of sleeping and waking it felt as if it curled up and settled into his palm, like a living thing.
Two hours later he woke up with a stiff neck. He got to his feet; put the carving carefully back on the window sill and walked over to the hard, narrow bunk at the corner of the room.
Outside the night was still breathing long, slow breaths. He’d learned to tell the time of night by the cadence of that breathing. It turned shallower and more rapid towards dawn.
Tomorrow was Saturday. He would go and see Bodil.
When he put on his work clothes he now tried to ignore the sensation of stepping into someone’s absent skin. He let the feeling trickle down the protrusions of his spine and away.
He opened the door and walked out into the pale sunlight. As always he stood still for a while before he walked on. Pushed the steel toe caps of his work-boots gently into the tightly curled moss, still moist with residue of early dawn. Residue that made the red lichen quiver at the edges in the light.
He felt the same wistfulness every time he had to turn his back and walk towards the logging site. The man whose clothes he wore must have seen the same things and walked along the same path.
The day he started work he’d simply been told that the other man had “buggered off”. Or that was all they could assume. One day he just failed to turn up. When he still hadn’t appeared after several hours, someone went to the cabin to look for him. They found it empty, but tidy. Some clothes and a pair of shoes seemed to be missing, but that was all. The police were called in, a search party combed the surrounding area, but no trace was found. Everyone knew though, that these forests still allowed you to disappear in them quite easily, despite the nibbling at edges being pushed steadily backwards. Especially if you had a wish to.
“He didn’t seem to want to top himself,” one of the men said, eyes fixed at a point between the machines and the trees. “But you can’t always tell, can you?”
Bodil drank a glass of milk by the kitchen table. She was just back from her night-shift in the nursing-home when he arrived. She greeted his arrival with her usual air of calm acceptance. Bodil possessed kindness of a sort he’d never encountered. An unreflecting kindness, freely given but grounded in self-containment and not open to abuse. She accepted him as the one he was, even if she probably didn’t think of it that way. A drifter. Kind, gentle—as long as he stayed around. And maybe she, in her animal way, also sensed the precarious equilibrium in him. Maintained by moving away, moving on.
He’d never met anyone that rested so effortlessly in the centre of things. In her own skin, in the clothes she wore and the rooms she entered, whether in activity or rest. Even in bed she always found the right place to rest near him. Neither too close nor too far away. He didn’t think of her as pretty or ugly, fat or thin, as she was none of these things.
He often spent his Saturdays like this, dozing beside her, sometimes watching her sleep. This time an exhaustion he hadn’t been aware of knocked him into a heavy slumber as soon as he was in bed with her. He had a dream where the walls of Bodil’s house became dark and vaporous, as if made from shadows and rain. From somewhere far away, he felt Bodil putting her forehead against his shoulder. Her hair smelt of wet moss and the skin of her arm and hip felt soft and sleek like animal fur.
During one of his first days he’d found a set of wood carving tools and dry wood in the cabin’s only cupboard. The tools were old and well used, but the wood looked relatively new.
One night he put the other man’s wood carving back on the window sill and took out the tool- set and a piece of wood. He felt a tingle in his fingertips, as if they were inhabited by tiny creatures.
His first idea was to carve a woman’s face, Bodil’s perhaps, but he found that he was unable to get a clear picture of her in his mind. She was just a blurred outline, as if he was looking at her through rain-covered glass. He pushed the tools away, looked the window in the eye and picked them up again.
He worked on the carving every night, not forcing the process, tried to ease out the form he sensed was inside. He still tried to carve a face of a sort, but sometimes it hid from view. The mouth became a bend in a river, the hair a wind-battered meadow. The eyebrows pushed up to become low hills against a flat horizon. Late at night, just before he was about to put the carving away, it sometimes felt softer and more malleable, as if he was handling clay, not wood.
He knew when it was finished, or rather, when it was time to stop carving. He made it as smooth as he could, put in on the window-sill beside the other one and looked carefully at them. They were very different, but at the same curiously alike, as if they had been made by the same hand.
The outside gazed in at him, probingly. He felt invaded him by a different sense of time. Old, slow, pooling into the hollows of the present. It was the middle of the third week when he first saw lights at the forest’s edge. They didn’t reflect off the surrounding darkness, but hung globular and still, like luminous holes in the fabric of the night. He splayed his hand on the glass, looked at them between his fingers. He put his forehead against the window. Watched the lights go blurry behind the expanding mist-sheet from his breath before they went out. He listened for a while, but heard nothing.
He walked over to the bunk and started undressing. Let his clothes fall to the floor as he removed them. He felt as if he had been abandoned by something he hadn’t known was there.
When he returned from work the following day and had reached the end of his usual routine of food and cigarettes, he’d made a decision. As it got dark and the lights again appeared, he opened the door and went out.
On the other side of the moss-field the night had condensed into a different shade of darkness that hovered like a wall. The lights hung in what appeared to be slits in the wall. When he looked up at them he saw a hazy outline of the jagged tree line on the other side.
He walked closer, half expecting the wall to retreat as he advanced, but it didn’t. As it loomed in front of him, it changed its appearance, became firmer, less vaporous, more tactile…Behind the lights he saw a reflection of movement, and thought he heard music—soft sounds that trickled out through holes in the silence.
He was never sure when he’d crossed the threshold, when he’d crossed the border. He just knew that he found himself between walls and was unable to guess the distance from one to another. The ground he walked on was still springy and moss-soft, but there his sense of the familiar ended. It was as if he walked inside an edifice superimposed upon the world he knew. He started walking. Rooms emerged as he moved and folded themselves out to spaces around him. He had a feeling he was being played with, in some curious detached, almost non-intentional way.
After a while he stopped, exhausted and sat down. He stared at the semi-transparent, blue-black wall in front of him and held himself still. He saw thin eddies inside it, tracery that flowed in and out of images of things he recognised. Faces he’d known formed, widened and became landscapes he must have visited once. Bodies emerged from these landscapes; rivers and fields became trellises of arms and legs. After a while he turned around to get away from the maelstrom and found the opposite wall gone. Instead he looked out on to an empty beach facing an empty ocean. Where the beach met the sea was a band of spume that stretched into the distance like a long strip of torn lace.
He tried to form words, project his voice into the room, but it fell heavy and echoless to the ground. He closed his eyes, clutched the moss with shaking hands, dived into the ebb and flow of his breath. He sat like that until the morning came, until milky light touched his eyes and he knew he was back across the border
Who had come back? What had he left behind, to be sensed by whomever wore his particular work clothes next? To animate the carvings he’d left on the window sill beside the others. And what had he taken back with him?
At night, beside Bodil, inside Bodil, he fused, came together. At dawn he emerged like the separate parts of a landscape he didn’t recognise.
If he stayed she would love him and care for him with her here-and-now kindness. If he left she wouldn’t waste that kindness by pouring it into a void, waiting for his uncertain return. But now he could no longer bear the thought of waking up beside her; disjointed, dispersing inside his skin in the light.[/private]