Friday, August 7, 2020

In the Heart of the Woods by Christopher Johnson

Ten-year-old Herbie Hereford explores the local woods with his friends, and his courage is sorely tested; by Christopher Johnson.

The woods felt vast to me, with their deep, dark, secret places. They loomed like a sorceress at the end of our block in Upton Grove in northern Ohio, lying thick and black, feeling so different from the everyday life of school and church, tempting me yet repelling me, promising adventure like none we would ever have in the strict, narrow confines of our daily existence.

There were four of us - Darlene, Roger, Tommy, me. We were suburban kids starving for adventure, thirsting to break out. We had a voracious hunger, and the woods beckoned with seductive arms open. Yet we could not have articulated this hunger, which felt like the edge of a sharp knife held against our souls. The need was inchoate. It lay at the back of our ten-year-old collective unconscious - a yearning so acute yet so unexpressed.

That summer - that memorable infinite summer between our fifth and sixth grades - we overcame our doubts and fears and explored the woods on scorching summer days when our mothers shooed us outside like balls of dust. The morning in question, that Saturday morning with the sun bursting in ribbons of gold, I meandered over to Darlene's house, and there I found her and Tommy and Roger, all entrapped by Bugs Bunny. "Herbie's here!" Darlene shouted. "Let's go to the woods!" She was so impatient to escape from civilization, and as one we all rose to our feet and turned off the TV, and when Darlene saw that we were ready to go into the woods, she looked as if she had just had a thousand-pound weight lifted off her shoulders.

The woods lurked with dangers - with a pond that could swallow me up, with snakes that could writhe in my hands and bite me, with bees that could sting me, with dense groves in which I could lose myself and never be heard from again. We lived only a block away from the woods, in a rectangular red house that pitched uncomfortably on a hill, and I often imagined that during an earthquake, the house would slide down the hill. Fears - so many fears.

And yet, despite those fears, the woods drew me, seduced me with the promise of... something... something I could not name but which I felt like a hot coal burning inside me, awakening me. A path wound into the woods, and as we walked along it, I felt as if I were walking into a fairy tale, and my imagination conjured up ogres and dragons. The path took the four of us out of sight of our surrounding suburban neighborhood and into an imaginary world of our own in which we would lose ourselves in cowboys vs. Indians, GI's vs. Germans. Children upon children had adlibbed the path as they pounded down the trail through decades, and the path carried us into a world in which we could do as we wished without the interference of the adult world.

Tommy led the way. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, where have you gone, and where are you now? You were such a central character in the drama of my childhood. When we three entered the woods, you barged your way forward with your tank-body and your eyes set close together and your crewcut and your sly grin that carved things up and threw them out.

Darlene, Darlene, Darlene, where have you gone? You were the bravest - the nature lover - the first love of my life, with your screaming red hair and clear blue fearless eyes and eyebrows that curled up with curiosity when you saw a snake or a frog. You had the greatest whistle in the world. You would put a freckled finger into each side of your mouth and emit a screech that bounded through the woods and chased the birds from the trees.

Roger, Roger, Roger, you were my biggest problem in childhood - my nemesis. "Hey, Herbie," you'd say, "why'd you put Vaseline in your hair?" Or "Hey, Herbie, your head slopes down like a gorilla's." I hated you when you said those things. You were an only child - does that explain you?

We didn't often go to your house for lunch, but when we did, I felt as we'd entered a tomb. Your mother wore wire-rim glasses and had a body as thin as a toothpick, and she constructed elegant sandwiches with liverwurst, lettuce, and mayonnaise, and the four of us sat and ate the sandwiches in total quietude as she hovered over us and asked us if we wanted another glass of milk. In the living room, I saw an antique rocking chair that looked as if no one had sat in it for centuries. No television was visible in the living room, and I wondered if you even had one, and I even felt a little sorry for you.

Earlier in the summer, Darlene had seen a deer in the woods. Now, on this Saturday morning, she brought salt, and she led us to the spot where she remembered seeing the deer, and she bent down and spread the salt on the earth. As she sat on her haunches, her blue eyes burned, and her skin shone with a luster as if someone had taken a cloth, dipped it in water, and anointed her face. I was more in love with her than ever, but being so shy, I dared not utter a word to her. The four of us hid behind bushes, about ten feet away from the salt.

Soon a deer slowly approached the opening in the woods where Darlene had placed the salt. It walked slowly toward the patch of salt, and its eyes darted. Cautiously, it bent down to lick the salt. I was amazed at how every inch of the deer's body quivered. I could tell, even from ten feet away, that the deer's heart beat rapidly, with a deer life that was different from human life yet not so different. I yearned to reach out and touch it. The deer leaned over and licked the salt while also keeping an eye on the surroundings. I longed to feel the short bristles of its hair. Darlene stared intensely, as if she had merged with the deer. Suddenly, the deer bolted.

We continued on the path leading deeper, ever deeper, into the woods. The trail was narrow, so we had to walk single file. I felt as if we were as far from the strange world of adults as it was possible to get. The path rose and fell as if we were traversing the back of a lizard. Darlene stopped us. "Look!" she exclaimed. We were surrounded by a riot of exploding wildflowers of various shades of purple and yellow. A breeze as soft as skin sifted through the grass, and the flowers swayed back and forth like a body in a hammock. "This is cool!" Darlene said.

"This is boring!" Roger said, with a sneer that I will never forget. We stared at him. He'd broken the spell. We ignored him - we just ignored him. Darlene led us farther into the woods, into the heart of the woods. We came to a clearing, and there we saw an ancient oak tree gnarled with dozens of branches spreading like octopus arms and reaching toward heaven. We circled the tree and stared up at its crown, which loomed over us like a tall grandfather. "We gotta climb this damn tree!" Tommy said.

"Why?" I asked. "Why can't we just look at the tree? Why do we have to climb it?"

Darlene said, "Because we're the Explorers Club, and that's our job - to explore everything we can about the woods." At the beginning of that burning magical summer, we'd created the club, swearing on our souls that we would explore everything that we could about the woods. We'd formed the club, and then we'd all promised in blood that we would never tell anyone - anyone - about it.

"I don't know," Roger said. He looked up into the canopy of the oak tree, and so did I, and the crown of the tree towered above us like a skyscraper. For once, Roger and I were joined in perception. Roger turned to me and assumed his wise-guy voice. "I'll climb it if Hereford climbs it." I cringed, for I doubted that I could do this. I looked at Tommy's sausage arms and then at my own potato-stick appendages. But I wasn't going to say anything about how skinny my arms were. I had no choice. I had to climb the tree.

The tree was too massive for us to shinny up the trunk. The lowest limb was about a foot above our outstretched arms. "Roger, you boost me up," Tommy commanded. We positioned ourselves under the lowest limb. Roger bent down, and Tommy climbed onto his shoulders. Meanwhile, I kept looking up at the tree. My heart skidded as if it were being dragged over a row of boulders. The tree was ancient, its bark rough like corrugated iron.

With Tommy perched on his shoulders, Roger stumbled back and forth until he steadied himself beneath the limb. Tommy reached up, and he was able to wrap both his arms around the lowest limb. He pulled himself up, and I thought, my God - he's strong! Tommy wrapped his legs around the limb and, using his strength, pulled each of us into the tree. As I stood on the lowest limb, I looked up. The dark heart of the tree loomed. We were probably about seven feet up, but to me it felt as if we were twenty feet up. The prairie grass spread below us. I felt fearful and exhilarated.

Tommy said, "I'll go first. Then Darlene, then Herbie, and then Roger. Roger, no damn fooling around up here. We're gonna have to help each other." Roger nodded. I didn't believe him. Roger had never helped anyone in his life. Tommy began to lead the way up.

Struggling not to show my fear, I wrapped my arms tightly around the trunk. Tommy and Darlene climbed up one branch after another, confidently pulling themselves skyward. It was my turn. A limb swaggered about two feet above me, and another limb stretched out five feet above. I would have to step up on the one that was two feet above while using the higher limb to keep my balance. I was horrified at taking that first step. Roger was below me, waiting for me. My nerves squirmed inside me like an eel. What was I afraid of? Death? Being laughed at? The fear felt stupid and real, all at once.

Trembling, I reached with my right hand to grasp the higher limb. As I reached, I clutched the trunk with my left hand to keep balance. I took a deep breath and felt my heart rattle in my chest. I carefully raised my right hand and grabbed the limb above me, squeezing it so hard that I thought it would turn into sawdust. Slowly I raised my left hand to the same limb. I took a deep breath, pulled up with both my arms, raised my right foot. It found only empty air. I kept lifting myself. My arms were straining. With my right foot, I kicked air. Finally, I felt the limb. I kept pulling up with my arms and placed my right foot firmly on the limb. Slowly I lifted my entire body until both feet were standing on the limb. I took a deep breath and then another one. I didn't dare look down.

The next limb was about two feet above the one I was standing on. I grasped it with my right hand, put my right foot on the limb above my feet, and slowly started to pull up. I felt more confident. I pulled myself up to the higher limb. By now, Tommy and Darlene were far above me. Below me, Roger said, "Hurry up, Hereford!"

Tommy heard that. He yelled down, "Shut the hell up, Roger! Let him take his time!" Roger didn't say a word.

I continued ascending the tree, crawling from one limb to another like a caterpillar. About halfway up, I looked down. The ground was horrifyingly distant. The grass and the fields looked like a checkerboard. I gulped. I pictured myself falling. My knees buckled. I felt my feet slipping from the limb that I stood on. I tightened my hold on the limb above my head and squeezed my eyes shut. My breath came in short bursts like shots from a machine gun. "Oh, God!" I murmured.

Above me, Darlene said, "Take a deep breath, Herbie." Her voice floated to me as on a cloud. I heard her, and I did as she said. I breathed as deeply as I could. I felt the clean oxygen fill my lungs, and I let my breath out and felt calmer. Another breath, and the feeling of panic passed. I opened my eyes, looked up, saw a limb above me, reached up, took hold of it, hauled myself up, kept breathing regularly, moved steadily up, up, toward the crown of the tree. I reached Darlene and Tommy, where the limbs were thinner but still sturdy enough to support us.

Darlene and Tommy were just above me. Roger was below me. All of us were breathing hard from the climb. I felt securely perched. Now I could look down. I could see the fields and prairie, reaching like a carpet of green to other stands of trees in the distance. I felt like a spirit hovering over the earth. It was magnificent! I breathed more easily. I felt something pure, unpolluted. Never in my life had I felt such purity, such exhilaration! Something was bursting from my heart. I couldn't even describe it. "We did it!" Darlene shouted, and the sound of her voice bounced from the tree and echoed through the woods. "This is so stupendously cool. Beautiful!" she said. I felt stronger than I had ever felt in my life.

We climbed carefully down the oak tree. When we reached the ground, I noticed the luscious green of the prairie, the yellow and purple of the wildflowers, the emerald of the leaves, the gray bark of the trees - those colors were deeper and richer than they had ever been before.

The four of us started to walk along the path that would return us to our homes and our families. Roger turned to me and said, "You were afraid, weren't you, Hereford?" He said it with a sneer of superiority, but he said it softly enough that only I could hear him.

"So what?" I answered, defiance limning my voice.

"So, you were afraid, and I know it."

I stared at him, and I hated him so much that an acid ball formed in the pit of my stomach that made me clench my teeth and breathe faster. Things had been so fine and pure in the oak tree. But now we were back on the earth, on the soil, in the muck. "I climbed the tree, didn't I?" I said.

"Yeah, you did, but all the time you were scared - really scared."

"No, I wasn't."

"Yes, you were." Roger started to walk ahead of me.

I wanted to pick up a stick and clobber him. A red curtain dropped over my eyes, and I suddenly felt anger like a black, swirling storm that blinded me to everything except my hatred of him. Roger was just ahead of me, while Darlene and Tommy were walking quickly - maybe ten or fifteen feet ahead. "Hey, Roger," I said. He was just ahead of me. I reached out and touched him on the shoulder. He turned around.

"Fuck you," I whispered.

Roger's jaw dropped in complete and total astonishment. I was equally astonished. I had never ever said that word before - never in my life. I knew it was an evil word, a word that would carry me straight to hell, a word that when you were at the pearly gates, God would look at His checklist of sins and say, "You, Herbert Alan Hereford, said a very very bad word when you were ten years old, and for that you will be forever condemned to the deepest recesses of Hell." But I had said it. I hadn't even said it very well. I had said it in this timid and pipsqueaky voice. It was as if Mickey Mouse had said that word - that evil word. But the word was said. It was out there, in the air, entering Roger's ears, violating them. He thrust his face up to mine. His eyes blew smoke like a steam engine. "What did you say to me?" he said.

"You heard me."

"I dare you to say it again."

"I don't need to say it again. Even a dummy like you heard it right the first time."

Our faces were six inches apart. This - this was mano à mano. This was Joe DiMaggio against Ted Williams. This was ten-year-old testosterone - puffing out our chests and staring each other into the ground with pre-adolescent toughness. Roger - I could see fear in his eyes then, but I could also see that he knew - he just knew - that he had to do something. The adrenaline grabbed hold of him, formed a fist, pulled his right arm back, flung it forward, right into my jaw.

I went down. I saw stars. The kid had a punch. I was shocked. I shook my head. The stars circled in my head. Roger stood over me, his legs apart, his right hand still in a fist. He looked shocked at the power of his own fist. Where were Tommy and Darlene, I wondered. They had walked ahead. There was no one to rescue me. I looked up at Roger's face. He didn't say a word, but he wore a dark, sardonic smile. The law of the jungle had triumphed.

A moment passed. Roger continued staring down at me with the grin of a triumphant boxer. Then, out of nowhere, Fury stormed me, the fury of the Valkyries, charging every muscle in my body, filling me with strength that felt superhuman. I leaped up, and before Roger could react, I drove my head like a bull into his belly. The Valkyries blinded me. I churned with my legs. I heard him yell, "Hey, no fair! I wasn't ready!" I kept driving my head into his belly. "Hey!" he screamed. I kept churning my legs like pile drivers. I drove him into the nearby woods. He tripped on something and lost balance. He started to fall, in slow motion. He hit the ground. His head hit a rock. A boulder. His head hit with a sickening thud.

I was horrified. I lay on top of Roger but rolled over and stumbled to my feet. Roger lay on the ground, stone-still. Darlene and Tommy were several feet ahead of us. They hadn't seen what happened. They just kept walking. Roger lay flat on the ground. I stood over him and stared in disbelief at him. Roger was completely inert. Not a muscle moved. He lay totally still. I looked down, and my eyes narrowed in horrified amazement at what I'd done. My eyebrows curled in disbelief. It was as if someone else had attacked Roger - someone evil who lived inside me, like a monster.

"Hey!" I yelled.

Darlene and Tommy turned around, and they saw Roger lying in a pile on the ground. "Jeez!" Tommy blurted. They both ran back to us. Tommy looked down at Roger, lying like a corpse on the soil of the earth. Tommy looked up at me. "What the hell happened?"

By now, tears like slugs had formed in the corners of my eyes. "I... I don't know." I saw Darlene look suspiciously at me.

All three of us knelt down quickly to look at Roger. I thought my God, my God, I killed him, I killed him! Roger's head still lay against the boulder, his eyes closed, his arms splayed to his side. I remembered seeing my grandfather's corpse. Roger looked exactly the same way. Darlene touched Roger's shoulder and then shook it. "Roger!" she said. "Roger!" she repeated, more emphatically. When she shook his shoulder, his body moved like gelatin.

Tommy bent down and put his ear to Roger's mouth. He looked up, his eyes narrow with panic. "I don't hear him breathing." Panic spread from Tommy to Darlene to me. The tears moved inexorably down my cheeks. "I killed him!" I moaned.

"What do you mean?" Darlene said.

"I got mad at him, and I dove right into him and knocked him back, and his head hit that boulder."

She looked at me, and fire flamed her eyes. "Why the hell did you do that?"

Before I could answer, Tommy said, "Forget that for now. We gotta go for help!"

I couldn't think. Tears rolled like globules down my cheeks. I knelt down by Roger. Darlene shook her head at me. Tommy said, "You two stay here. I'll run for help!" He rose and turned, ready to run. I felt cold inside, as if I were the one who were dead. I felt the cold spread through me, deadening my senses. I could only stare at Roger's body. The cold spread through my veins and arteries like ice water, numbing my entire body.

By now Tommy was running. Then, a tiny moan escaped from Roger's lips. It was the moan that a sick mouse might make. "Oh," he moaned softly.

"Wait!" Darlene said to Tommy.

"Oh-h-h," Roger moaned again, more loudly this time. He raised himself onto his elbows. With his right hand, he felt the back of his head. "Ow!" he said. Tommy ran back, and they helped Roger sit up. I could do nothing but kneel and stare at Roger as if he'd been resurrected from the dead.

"What the hell happened?" Tommy demanded.

Roger kept rubbing his head. Then he stared at me. "Hereford took me by surprise and tackled me. He took me totally by surprise. My head hit something. I just went all blank." He looked around and saw the boulder. He looked up at me. "Fucking coward!"

Tommy and Darlene stared at me, and I evaded their stare by looking at the earth. I wished that I could dig myself into the soil and disappear. Darlene said to me, "Is that right? Did you do that?"

I felt my face flush crimson. I had no words. I wanted to defend myself - to tell them that Roger just kept on me and what I said and what I did. I was burning with guilt, guilt that I had almost killed Roger. Words wouldn't come. I could not look at any of them. I felt the blood in my face, pulsating, heating my skin. I kept fighting back the tears.

Darlene and Tommy turned to Roger. Tommy said, "Do you think you can stand?" He said it with a gentleness that I'd never heard from him before.

Roger nodded. "My head really hurts."

"We'll get you home," Darlene said. She grabbed Roger under one arm, and Tommy grabbed him under the other, and they hoisted him to his feet. Roger started to walk forward uncertainly. Tommy and Darlene kept their hands under Roger's arms, helping him forward. I trailed behind them. They never looked back at me. It was as if I no longer existed. At that moment, I hated myself. I wanted to disappear into the earth. I kept fighting back the tears that crept like vermin into the corners of my eyes.

We reached the edge of the woods and stepped onto the street on which we all lived - the world of suburbia - the world of civilization. Roger was walking on his own by now, but Darlene and Tommy stayed close to him. I desperately wanted to ask Roger if he was all right. Did his head still hurt? Was he dizzy? But I didn't dare ask. I was afraid of what Roger would say to me.

We came to the house where my family lived, and I veered away from them and shuffled up the walkway to our front door. They kept walking as if I didn't exist. I watched them continue to walk toward their own homes, Roger in the middle between Tommy and Darlene. I watched them until they were pinpoints far down the street, and then I watched them disappear into their own homes. Only then did I open the screen door and enter our home.

I went upstairs to the bathroom, slammed the door behind me, and stared into the mirror. I hated the face staring back at me. That night, I dreamt that a monster lived inside me and it was as black as an anvil and breathed a fire so hot that it melted me. In the dream, the tears formed rivers down my cheeks. I rode a dragon, and it was a hundred feet long, and it roared so loudly that I became deaf, and the roar woke me up, and I was horrified, and then I wept tears of blood that stained everything in the bedroom a deep crimson, and then I woke up and realized that I was crying and the tears had flowed onto my pillow.

The next morning, I knew what I had to do. I dressed in my T-shirt and shorts, put on my Keds sneakers, ate my breakfast, which tasted like gravel in my mouth, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, and walked slowly to Roger's house. His mother answered the door, and I stared at her thin body, and I knew right away from looking at her that Roger had said nothing to her about yesterday. I asked if I could talk to Roger. He came down the stairs, and he walked as if he were OK, like he didn't have a serious head injury or anything. He looked at me and shoved his face up real close to me. He stared at me. He said, "You were a goddam jerk yesterday!"

I looked down - down at the stoop in front of Roger's house. Then I looked back up and stared at him. I almost said, "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." But the words seemed so stupid to me, so empty. I stared back down at the stoop and felt tears form like little drops of acid in the corners of my eyes. I fought them back. Then I looked up and into Roger's eyes again. I saw a pool of something in him, not hatred, but a something mysterious. A blanket of silence fell over us. We stood on Roger's stoop. It went on and on - this strange, awkward silence, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. Finally, finally, I said, "Do you want to go to the woods?"

"Yeah," he said.

3 comments:

  1. I like the part where the kids climb the tree. Facing the fears together....the fights with self and others and the girl crushes. the memories last a lifetime. A kind of sentimental piece on the nostalgia for and also on the realities of free range childhood. Good one.

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  2. A very well written story. You did an excellent job of painting a picture of not only the woods, but the adolescent mind of the MC. The story does a great job of capturing what life was like for children of a different time. Thanks for sharing your work.

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  3. Nice bit of nostalgia. The relationships amongst the characters feel authentic, as do the motivations and thought processes. I could see this bunch banding together for an even larger adventure.

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