A place deep in the woods. Drawn to it without any understanding or reason why.
We started on foot, hiking wide city streets from the valley up into twisting mountain roads. The farther we went, the fewer cars whizzed by. Pavement was pale gray with age beneath us, and grasses forced their way into cracks, wedging the gaps. Soon, there was more grass than asphalt.
Railroad tracks crossed the road ahead, and we diverted down them instinctively. Several miles up, we came upon an old train. Blue stripes of paint still clung to its aluminum skin. Synthetic coverings still wrapped padded seats behind unbroken plexiglass. Not bad, considering it had been at least a decade since the train had moved.
Kudzu vines filled the spaces between train and tree line. Rather than hack through that web, we climbed up the rear car and hiked the roof to the front, where we found open tracks again.
A lone patch of asphalt lay across the tracks ahead, the last remnant of some forgotten road. The way to the left was passable with low shrubs growing where pavement once lay, but the way to the right pulled us.
Trees grew close to the path, shading it with evergreen boughs, and we found ourselves walking down an avenue of sand and pine straw. Road signs were absent, only an occasional posted sign that had yellowed to illegibility, and I knew this was someone’s driveway–a very long, unused driveway.
No cricket chirped. No bird sang. No wind stirred the canopy above, yet it was not stifling. We were comfortable in our early Fall layers and we enjoyed the silence.
Sun had crested the ridge line, bathing this side of the range in afternoon light, but the woods grew darker the farther we went. Tall trees reached out with densely interwoven branches that blocked the sky. Occasionally there was a creak from above and a light rain of pine needles would follow.
Perfectly natural, I thought.
Conversation was rare. We were being summoned toward something we could not explain, could not even describe. All we knew for certain was that we wanted to be there, and we wanted to find what lay at the end of the trail. This was a pilgrimage to a place we knew, on a subliminal level, would be like nowhere else on Earth. Still, there were no guarantees of welcome at journey’s end, so we kept humbly and respectfully mum.
Trees grew enormous the farther we trekked. Trunks, black from rain, rose to coniferous towers high above. All around, plush mosses covered rocks and fallen timber. Ferns sprung up in the gaps with fronds like elephant ears. Positively prehistoric.
I found myself at the head of the group, watching for signs of our destination. As I rounded a tree thicker than the six of us put together, I halted. Blocking the path were a black bear, a young moose, and a tortoise. The bear sat on its broad bottom. The moose stood behind it, head lowered, peering at us over the bear’s shoulder. The tortoise craned its long neck and its head wavered like an elderly man. Their combined gaze seemed to lift us off our feet and weigh us.
The bear was young, no more than eighty pounds. The moose was even younger, standing just under six feet in height. The tortoise might have been ancient, weighing nearly as much as the moose by estimation, and the front of its thick shell flared into rounded points. They all had the same soft brown eyes. Not similar, exactly the same. And there was a singular intelligence behind those eyes that extended from one animal to the other. I wondered who, or what, was seeing us.
I raised a hand in greeting then turned that hand to the group so they would calmly approach. My fellows fanned out around me, as interested and as excited as I was. They smiled, waved, and waited. First, the bear rose to all fours and ambled off. The moose and tortoise headed off in their own directions, leaving the trail open. We watched them go and continued up the path.
We spied a glimpse of red brick through thinning trees ahead. Vines and shrubs had nearly enveloped a very long home, leaving rare patches of red showing though the gaps. Moss carpeted the roof up to the ridge vent. Gutters overflowed with twigs, cones, and pine needles.
Despite the advance of nature, the home was far from derelict. Rooflines did not sag. Walls stood straight and true. Seemed as if the land had cupped this house in green hands to hold it safe rather than to reclaim it.
Walking around to the right, we noticed the garage door was half open. At the threshold stood lines of plastic toys, facing us. The tallest was less than twelve inches high, but they watched us like the animals on the path. Obviously, their plastic eyes weren’t the same soft brown, yet the same intelligence seemed to live behind them.
Stepping over them would have felt rude, so I went to the home’s front door. Its doorbell was buried beneath thick spider webs, and the door frame had swollen against the door. No chance getting in that way.
I walked past the garage door again to find another way in and saw a break in the lines of toys. Without any of us seeing them move, a path had opened. Calling the others over, I stooped under the half-open door and went in.
The garage was full of dusty cardboard boxes. How they had evaded the disintegrating humidity and mold, we couldn’t say. The air wasn’t musty, either. Dry as an attic.
The door leading inside was swollen shut like the front door, however. Wouldn’t budge. So we looked around. Always, we remembered we were guests and were careful not to rummage or pilfer the stacks of boxes. We’d peek behind some, lift others aside to check for a hatch beneath. Found nothing but drywall and concrete.
“Why don’t you try looking from a child’s perspective,” someone said.
We sank down to our knees then sat on our heels. The first thing we noticed was a set of short cabinets near the door leading in. I opened one and found a hollowed out crawl space inside. Bingo.
We crawled through on elbows and knees, and emerged into a home that was clearly unoccupied. Years of dust blanketed the surfaces of obsolete electronics, formica countertops, brass fixtures. Though dated, nothing looked cheap. Fine china occupied the cupboards and hutches. Copper pots hung from hooks near rugged stoves. Solid oak frames with museum grade glass shielded beautiful artwork and family portraits. There was still a warmth to it all, as if it had been captured in still life from a time when the home was lived in and loved.
None of the interior doors worked, and each room became its own puzzle of how to move into the next. Move the appliance to find the crawlspace, search the closet for a hidden panel, climb the bookshelf to find the ceiling hatch, etc. It was fascinating solving the mystery of this home, with each new room offering insights to the family who built it.
The entire time, I was aware of my surroundings. Well, more specifically, that my surroundings were aware of me. We behaved ourselves as interested guests, flattering this home with our curiosity and urge to explore. Because of that, we felt safe inside. Welcome.
Just behind that was a sense of peril, however. Not menace, not foreboding or threat, it was like standing at the edge of a cliff. There’s nothing complicated about a cliff. You can see the edge and as long as you respect it you’re perfectly safe. But if you screw around, it can kill you without needing to try. This house felt as rugged and powerful as snow-capped peaks that could inspire wonder or could bury you in an avalanche.
Soon, what little light filtered in began to dim, and we knew it was time to go. There was no sense the home was tired or bored with us. Rather, it seemed to enjoy having us crawling through its rooms. We wanted to keep that alive by not overstaying our welcome. We also wanted something to look forward to in a return trip.
For the next visit, I wanted to bring something that would fit with the older decor, something the house would like. So I burrowed into a box of childhood toys and retrieved my favorite: an orange plastic robot. It seemed so much smaller than I remembered, though I still recalled how much I loved it when it was new. There was never a worry if the house would like it. I had loved it, imbuing it with years of good memories. And that made it a worthy gift.
Our spirits were bright. Though still struggling to articulate it verbally, we had a better notion why we were returning. The closest we could describe it, we were building a new friendship, having carefully laid a foundation of respect and trust. If served well, that could grow, we were sure.
The same landmarks greeted us along the way with a touch more Autumn yellow in the leaves. Breezes were cool and dry. A stream nearby was swollen with recent rain, and one of my friends called me over to it. From the bank I looked out and saw the moose and bear wading, playing, and swimming together. Though I couldn’t see it, I guessed the tortoise was not far away.
Just when I was certain the land had become comfortable with us, allowing us unhindered passage, a black shape dived from the trees as silent as an owl. It landed on massive paws and stalked toward us with bright yellow eyes and gleaming white teeth. I recall its swagger, like a house cat, and how its eyes were lidded, relaxed. Ok, this is another introduction, I reasoned to calm my fraying nerves, not necessarily a warning.
In slow, deliberate movements I removed my pack and pulled out the orange robot. When I held it out, the panther sniffed it, then ran a raspy pink tongue up one side of it. Its whiskered lips parted and, as delicately as a human hand, took the toy in its mouth. No more than a glossy shadow in the dark woods, it piled up on its haunches and launched into the branches again.
My gift was accepted.
When we reached the house, the orange toy was standing among the others in the garage. It looked up at us with the same intelligent eyes the other toys had, and I smiled. It wouldn’t be shut up in some dark box anymore. It was being appreciated again. It was where it was supposed to be.
We followed the same path inside then proceeded farther than we had gone before. We wormed through knee walls, slid around dusty mechanicals, shimmied up a laundry chute until we were sure there was only one place left we hadn’t seen. The others stacked some crates for me and I pushed open the ceiling hatch.
Standing up, I poked my head into a converted attic space. Though windowless, there was just enough light to see the dimensions and furniture. The closest piece was a simple wooden desk, painted gray like the rest of the room. I didn’t see her until she lifted her head from the desktop, hair as glossy black as the panther’s. Her skin was pale as moonlight. Her eyes were sunken with dark circles around them, yet they were a familiar soft brown. She looked tired, and then she smiled.
All of the clues fell into place in rapid flashes, and I knew everything.
Her family was affluent, but not out of greed. Money came from a rare intersection of genuine human service and profitability. So they bought every lot of a newly zoned subdivision, built a single home on it all the way at the back, and let the rest return to the wild.
She was born here. Adored by her parents. Taught to love and respect the land, taught how to care for things that grow. Allowed to explore the streams and trees and wildlife.
Cancer took her before her eighth birthday. Her family grieved so hard they couldn’t stay, couldn’t bear to take any memories with them. They buried their little girl in the rose garden out back, closed the home, and left everything behind.
The girl had too brief a taste of life, however. Her spirit could not leave the things she loved and would not disperse. She remained by reaching out to the very things that made her happiest. Remembering her kindness, animals and plants gave themselves over to her willingly. At first, the bonds were sparse, tenuous. She was barely an idea occurring across multiple creatures at once. Then she got better, became stronger. Shared sight and hearing. Complex sensations communicated instantaneously across distance.
She gave them empathy. And they gave her a piece of their life.
Through her, lifeforms experienced each other in ways they never had before. Kinship formed unusual ties between a bear, a moose, and a tortoise. Trees, ferns, vines, and mosses cradled the home, sheltering it from the advance of weather. The panther patrolled the land as a protector, hunting far away from its kin lest it feel the sting of its own bite.
The girl had united the land, and the animals upon it, into a greater order of awareness. Her spirit had triumphed over death by aligning then merging with the forces of nature. This place radiated new possibilities of connection and understanding between beings. It was potent, and dangerous if abused. We knew she would not have hesitated to kill us if we threatened this place. Instead, we made a powerful friend.
I was amazed, and a tad envious, of that connection as I had sought it my entire life. All six of us had. That’s why we were so attuned to it. That’s why we felt compelled to come, even without knowing why. We wanted to witness it for ourselves. And to experience it, if we could.
The girl had found a way to survive beyond what her body allowed. Yet even with so many living things around her, she was lonesome for someone like her. She had called out for companionship to any who would listen. We brought the company she missed. She showed us greater cause for faith in the world around us.
In healing union, we all found new life.