Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
You wake up filled with dread. There seems no reason for it. Morning light sifts through the window, there is birdsong, you can’t get out of bed.
It’s something about the crumpled sheets hanging over the edge like jungle foliage, the terry slippers gaping their dark pink mouths for your feet, the unseen breakfast— some of it in the refrigerator you do not dare to open— you will not dare to eat.
What prevents you? The future. The future tense, immense as outer space. You could get lost there. No. Nothing so simple. The past, its density and drowned events pressing you down, like sea water, like gelatin filling your lungs instead of air.
Forget all that and let’s get up. Try moving your arm. Try moving your head. Pretend the house in on fire and you must run or burn. No, that one’s useless. It’s never worked before.
Where is it coming from, this echo, this huge No that surrounds you, silent as the folds of the yellow curtains, mute as the cheerful
Mexican bowl with its cargo of mummified flowers? (You chose the colours of the sun, not the dried neutrals of shadow. God knows you’ve tried.)
Now here’s a good one: you’re lying on your deathbed. You have one hour to live. Who is it, exactly, you have needed all these years to forgive?
There are no paved roads here and all of the goats are well-behaved. Mornings, beneath thatched shelters, we paint wide-brimmed straw hats. We paint them inside and outside. We paint very very fast. Five hats a morning. We paint very very slow. One hat a week. All of our hats are beautiful and we all look beautiful in our hats. Afternoons, we take turns: mapping baby crabs moving in and out of sand, napping, baking. We make orange and almond cake. This requires essence and rind. Whipped cream. Imagination. We make soft orange cream. This requires juice of five oranges and juice of one lemon. (Sometimes we substitute lime for the lemon. This is also good.) An enamel lined pan. Four egg yolks and four ounces of sugar. This requires careful straining, constant stirring, gentle whisking. Watching for things not to boil. Waiting for things to cool. We are good at this. We pour our soft orange cream into custard cups. We serve this with sponge cake. Before dinner, we ruffle pink sand from one another’s hair. This feels wonderful and we pretend to find the results interesting. We all eat in moderation and there is no difficulty swallowing. We go to bed early. (Maybe, we even turn off lights. Maybe, we even sleep naked. Maybe.) We all sleep through the night. We wake eager from dreams filled with blue things and designs for hats. At breakfast, we make a song, chanting our litany of so much collected blue. We do not talk of going back to the world. We talk of something else sweet to try with the oranges: Sponge custard. Served with thick cream or perhaps with raspberry sauce. We paint hats. We paint hats.
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out into playing fields, the factory, allotments kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men, the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan, till you came at last to the edge of the woods. It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw, red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth! In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me, sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,
my first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry. The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake, my stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night, breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem. I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1 Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws and went in search of a living bird – white dove –
which flew, straight, from my hands to his hope mouth. One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said, licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books. Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head, warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood.
But then I was young – and it took ten years in the woods to tell that a mushroom stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out, season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon to see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw the glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones. I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up. Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.