by Jacqui Talbot, http://justjacqui2.wordpress.com
I am almost home when the street ends abruptly at a high wall. The bricks have faded and mortar crumbles at the touch. Odd, I don’t remember seeing it before. I shake my head and turn around, only to find a dense forest of pine trees instead of the cars, pedestrians and cigarette littered pavement that were there just a moment ago. I listen for the hum of traffic, but all I hear is the wind.
I wonder if I’m dreaming. Must be. Otherwise, I’d probably be screaming by now. Instead, all I feel is mild surprise. I lean forward and touch one of the trees. It seems solid enough, the bark rough against my palm. Pine needles cover the ground. The clean, fresh scent of evergreen makes me smile. I’ve spent so much time inhaling hospital disinfectant and exhaust fumes that I’d almost forgot what fresh air smells like.
The forest is dark, the canopy overhead blocking most of the moonlight. It’s chilly beneath the trees. I pull my worn cardigan closer and shrug. I’m not going to get home standing here and waiting for the street to reappear. I start walking, my surprise replaced by a dreamy feeling of contentment. I don’t know why, but being here feels right. It’s as if someone or something has taken control of my emotions. There is no fear, no uncertainty, only a driving need to move forward.
The wind grows stronger, ripping at my sweater. Long strands of brown and gray hair blow around my shoulders, the rest straining against the small army of bobby pins holding it in place atop my head. As I walk, my footing grows uncertain, my orthopedic shoes unable to get traction on the slippery pine needles covering the forest floor. Finally, I stop and take them off. I know I won’t need them anymore.
The wind grows calmer. The night air presses against me, not in a suffocating way, more like a warm, fuzzy blanket made of air. In response, I remove the ill-fitting nurse’s scrubs uniform and look down at my pale, fleshy belly. Time has not been kind. Varicose veins mar the once smooth perfection of my legs, seeming to squirm with every step. Stretch marks squirm up the sides of both legs
I keep walking, cheered by the sight of my freshly painted toenails against the dark green and brown pine needles.
The forest floor changes. Slimy, purple loops of intestines lie underfoot. They squirm with every step, and I have trouble keeping my balance, but I’m not afraid or even disgusted. The squishy feeling reminds me of the thick black mud along the banks of the Mississippi where I grew up. I spread my toes, dig in, and keep walking.
Then he is standing there, naked, arms loose at his sides. Norman. Five foot-eight, balding on top and working the comb-over, shoulders rounded from too many hours spent hunched over books and computers. My Norman. I rush forward to embrace him, only to falter when he doesn’t respond. Confused, I stumble to a halt.
Suddenly, I am afraid but don’t know why. I look around and see others roaming through the forest, each one lost in his or her own nightmare.
“Where are we?” I ask, startled by the tremor in my voice.
“Am I dead?”
He shrugs again, a small smile on his thin lips.
He is still staring at me, and I’m starting to get angry.
“Where are we, Norman?” But I already know. We’re in the Forest of Broken Lives, the place where dreams and might-have-beens are buried. Everyone ends up here eventually, each of us paying for acts we committed in life. But to whom were we paying? God? The Devil? Ourselves?
Norm turns, picks an apple from a tree that wasn’t there a moment ago, and passes it to me. When it touches my hands, the fruit turns into a fetus. Small, about the size of a peach, with ten heartbreakingly small fingers and ten tiny toes. Perfect, except that it is dead. Hundreds of trees surround us, each branch bending under the weight of unborn children suspended by their umbilical cords, all dead, swinging gently in the wind. Occasionally, one drops to the forest floor with a soft plop.
I stare at the dead child in my arms, and then at Norman.
“You knew?” I whisper.
He nods and turns away.
The child in my arms is so small. Tears threaten, but I blink them away. I made my choice. The time for crying has passed.
Norm turns, takes my hand and our little family – such as it is – ventures deeper into the Forest of Broken Lives.