We were hiking deep into the old growth forest, to some place I’d never been before. It was his favorite spot, he’d said. He wanted to show me. I chided that I barely knew him, but of course I went along. How could I not go? My feeble protests became stillborn on my lips. It was his eyes, those damned eyes. I’d never seen anything like them. They were warm like the autumn leaves crunching underfoot, set to fire by afternoon sunlight. I couldn’t possibly say no when he looked at me like he did, as if he might never see me again.
I thought that I might drown in his eyes. Their hue sticky as tree sap gone amber, it seemed certain that I would become stuck like the prehistoric mosquitos. And what would the world learn from me, I mused, a million years into the future? What could be extracted from my DNA that would say something about me, my time, my world? That high cholesterol was on the rise, maybe, that the 21st century had forsaken multivitamins. But certainly nothing important. No amount of DNA could reveal the truth of this moment with him, and that is a loss that future scientists and specialists and theorists will never know they have suffered.
I mean, when we think about the Neanderthals, do we really think about them? We think of their bones, the flesh that must have once encased them, sure. But we don’t think about who might have caressed that skin, or the way that the skin might have trembled, body electrified by something stirring within.
And I was a woman stirred.
We had met only days before, though it seemed like we had known each other for much longer. Some people are fated, you see, and I recognized him immediately as my own. Even from the first moment I saw him, I had known that I could never escape him. He didn’t say it, but I knew he felt just the same.
That night we first met, I’d seen him across the bar. Intrigued, I sipped my drink slow. He was handsome, with all the right features in the most pleasing proportions. And his eyes gazed somewhere so far off, achingly so, that I craved desperately to know what they saw. I usually was occupied enough with my own mind that I didn’t bother with that of others, but something about him was different. And then he’d looked at me and we had seen one another with a clarity that left me gasping. He came over to me then without delay, and we drank. It was when he came close and I really saw those eyes that I knew I was doomed. Right there in them, I saw all of eternity sizzling.
“Hello, who are you?” he said.
“Well I’ve never quite known. My friends call me
“If I call you that too, can we be friends?”
“I suppose we can.” God help me, I thought. This is how it happens.
“I don’t know who I am either, Andy,” he admitted.
“What do your friends call you?”
“Isn’t that for you to decide?”
I laughed, he was too much. He still wouldn’t tell me his name, not even now. I began to call him Fox, because of his eyes. This amused him.
The thing was, it took only minutes with him for me to feel completely new, a miracle. It was like I’d never existed until right then. My whole life I’d tried to feel that way, with some difficulty. It usually felt as if I was imprisoned half in my head, traipsing around a memory palace dusted over with cobwebs and dread. I had a habit of hanging on to the past more than was healthy. I was afraid sometimes that I wasn’t a woman but a walking graveyard, teeming with people that I’d once been but never who I actually was. It’s a frightening thought that we may never truly know ourselves, that cockeyed reflection in the mirror. But with him, I slid into my own self like you do a warm bath. It seemed ridiculous that I ever thought so much about who I was, because he seemed to understand it without any effort. With him, I could think only of what would be. Instead of who I was, I sensed who I might become. And isn’t that love?
I tried to express this wonder to him as we hiked through the towering pines. The entire forest seemed laced with lichen and peeling bark. He listened to me but he didn’t speak, focused on getting us to our destination. I didn’t mind. It’s not so easy to find a good listener. I rambled on about how wonderful he made me feel, then something about birth and death, growth and regrowth. I spun what I thought was a very impressive metaphor about the nature of a forest being like the nature of a human heart. Suddenly he stopped and turned towards me. He looked at me oddly. A strand of hair was tickling my nose and he tucked it behind my ear.
“Listen,” he said. “This is what I think: we use ourselves as fertilizer, and we never stop growing. I’m going to make you a tulip.” I sighed.
He understood me completely. Only fate could have brought him to me at a dive bar.
Then I thought about growing with him, and realized it was a dangerous thought. He was too new and I was already thinking too much. It’s such a bad habit, thinking too much. I tried to quit it but they say it’s worse than nicotine. It happened to me a lot, such floods of thought, and whenever it did I would think desperately about trying not to think. Be in the moment! I’d cry to myself, pinching my arm. And then I’d try to act like I wasn’t thinking at all, that I was happy to live thoughtlessly, trusting the flow of life, taking whatever came to me, being pleased when I got the shit end of the stick again. If I acted like those were my thoughts, they really became my thoughts, sometimes.
The winding dirt path seemed to go on endlessly, and I caught myself wondering where he was leading me.
With finality, I decided I must stop thinking at once or I’d risk ruining everything, for which I’d never forgive myself. I focused instead on the lush scenery which enveloped us as we moved deeper into the woods. The air was fresh and ferns reached out to caress my legs, an occasional rogue blackberry scraping at me. Sunlight illuminated flurries of golden pollen as it flashed through breaks in the trees. A ladybug landed on my shoulder.
“That’s good luck,” he said. “Good thing I’ve got you around.” He winked.
“Why do you say things like that?” I asked.
“Sweet things. Nice things. You’re too nice. You make me want to feel things I shouldn’t feel so soon.”
He appraised me, eyes sharp as ever. They scraped at my skin like a chunk of fool’s gold.
“I’m not so nice, really. I think your own sweetness clouds your vision.”
“Ha! You’re as charming as one of those men who play flutes to rattlesnakes. Girls like me should be careful around boys like you.” He was so charming, and he didn’t even seem to try!
“Are you saying you’re a rattlesnake?” he replied. “A garter at most. And it’s all too true. Yet here we are. You’re a great little fool, you know. It’s really wonderful.” Something about the way he spoke made me swoon, like he understood everything but was the most humble creature on Earth in spite of it. God, it didn’t make any sense at all because we barely knew each other, but I was in love. He had all the power to break my heart in two but it seemed absolutely worth it to let him. I took his hand in mine.
He pulled me to him, moving his arms around my waist. Our mouths lingered on one another for maybe seconds, maybe minutes. Time is just different under a canopy of trees. We seemed to teem with life itself, surrounded by the rich green of old growth and the buzz of honeybees. Our lips were salty from the sweat brought on by the hike, the heat of midday.
Even as he kissed me, I couldn’t help but think of how I was changed. I could hardly recognize myself, I felt so giddy. Yes, this was someone who would take a risk, who would go off to the woods on a whim with a man who had a startling gaze. This self was not so frail and afraid, and the rest of her life would be better for it. There had been so many versions of myself that I hated. They were dead and gone now, but still I knew that they remained as fossils somewhere within me. I realized then that history is inescapable. It’s the foundation, the home we either inhabit, abandon, or demolish and rebuild. He may not know my corpses, I thought, but he knows the flowers which grow from them. Finally, I forgave myself for growing up. He didn’t notice as tears warmed my eyes.
We stood on a carpet of moss with nothing but freshness around us, nothing but dirt beneath our shoes and light in our eyes. The air in our lungs infused us with new life, and together we seemed to ignite.
It was like ecstasy, his tongue tracing my bottom lip. My eyes closed and I gave myself to the moment, thinking,
This is that overwhelming death I have been craving. Yes, I am going to die from fire right here, set ablaze by his warmth. And, you know, I’m going to smile as I go up in flames, and I will smile when I come out of the ashes, too. Like a phoenix. Always dying, always becoming. We were goddamn poetry together. His hands shifted behind me, slowly moving up my spine, and the heat spread through my body.
I didn’t know it then, but sometimes we’re right in recognizing our fate when we see it, only we misread its look. We all make these little mistakes, it’s only human. You see, I knew he was my fate. But I did not consider that while all passions burn, they don’t always consume with the same appetites. A flame is a flame but there remains a vast separation between the blaze of a campfire and that of arson. And as he brought the long hunting knife swiftly down through my back, positioning it so that it slipped smoothly through my ribcage and punctured my lung, I knew that all the signs had been there but that I had misread them.
His lips were still on mine as blood gurgled into my mouth, and I felt his tongue come in to taste the warm copper. I tried to push him away but my strength was gone, so I clung to him instead. Fate had found me begging. I had seasoned myself to perfection and jumped right into its dripping maw.
Very quickly it became difficult to breathe. I realized that death came much more swiftly than it seemed to in all the stories. Death wasn’t an epilogue, it was a sentence which died halfway through on your lips. Not poetic at all, and I still couldn’t stop thinking.
I slumped to the ground and he moved there with me, sitting cross-legged. He placed my head in his lap and gazed down at me with those eyes, full of fire and everything else I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps a truer love than I had thought possible. I turned my head to the side, away.
My eyes fell on her then. At first, I thought she was a decomposing log, because she was overgrown with mold and a fine moss. But tree limbs were very unlike human limbs, and I could make out her fingers splayed in the dirt, pale and muddy. A golden ring glittered on her pinky. But what made my whole body ache and tremble were her eyes, which were not there at all. In their place were fresh yellow daffodils, which shot up from her sockets and preened their faces towards the sunlight.
I sobbed just once, a rugged and terrible sound, and then looked back to him, my fate. He smiled kindly, nodded knowingly, and showed me two tulip bulbs which he had pulled from his pocket.
We use ourselves as fertilizer and we never stop growing.