Into the Woods

(c) Zak Gallagher1
(c) Zak Gallagher1/Flickr

There is a wolf-face in the trees. I can see it when I look up and the branches tangle and sway together in the shape of narrowed eyes, bared teeth. Look, I say, but Vida just keeps walking. Maybe she’s heard me, maybe not. She’s usually not one to pass up a chance at something interesting, but then again, she doesn’t like interruptions either. Maybe all interesting things have to be interruptions in order to be really interesting. It’s the kind of thing Vida would say but if I told her now I know she wouldn’t hear me. This time because she doesn’t want to. When I look back up I can’t see the wolf-face anymore anyway, just the bundle that still looks like a leering grin. Can’t catch me, it says. Or maybe, Catch me if you can. I make my jaw wide, baring my long thin wolf-teeth at Vida’s back but she doesn’t notice that either.

[private]We walk a lot in the woods. Most of the time we don’t see anything that doesn’t look just like the things we see all the time. But sometimes we do.

You have to show me everything you find, Vida reminds me. But the truth is (and we both know it) that Vida doesn’t care about the things I find. She just wants me Occupied. Occupied is a word Vida uses a lot, mostly when she wants me to do something else, like when she’s talking on the telephone and shooing me off with the back of her hand, or when she tells me stories with bloody axes and children-sized ovens to make me go to sleep but only do the opposite. Still, Vida likes to keep herself occupied too. Baking cookies with little stiff mounds of chocolate in the center like kisses, dancing on the living room couch before bed, drawing patterns on the knees of her jeans with black magic markers. Sometimes we go outside where there are other people and she makes up stories about their secret lives, changing her tone to fit their body shape or the way they walk. A hurried person will have a squeaky whisper voice, and a fat boy will sound like a tuba. Not always original, but still. We buy candy bars and hand soap and she points down the aisles at people who look bewildered by all the choices around them.

He just arrived here from Bulgaria, she’ll say, where the stores only carry caged mice and shaving cream. He’s discovering toothbrushes for the first time, lollipops. One day he will run away to Alaska with a fur trapper and no one will ever see him again.

Sometimes we even go to the movies when there’s a long line and we can slip us through the side door without anyone seeing and buy bags of stale popcorn which we throw in the air, only eating the ones we can catch. One time ever we went to a place with nothing but photographs of trees on the walls. What’s the point? she said. Sometimes we see people who look just like my old earth parents and she’ll tell me Quick!, and we’ll play the game where I run beside her and we see how fast we can make it back to our front porch where she calls us Safe, panting and grinning. Every once in a while, when I bug her, she’ll tell me about a place neither of us have ever been, describing it like we’ve just arrived there and when we open the front door it will lay all sprawled out in front of us exactly like she said it would be. Sometimes I tell her about living on the moon, even though I don’t remember much. But mostly we just take walks in the woods.

Things I have found in the woods that were once mine:

A treasure map
A plastic shovel
A shoelace
A metal box that doesn’t latch

Vida says that when we first came here I used to bury things in the woods so that I could dig them up later. I still do that sometimes, but it takes a long time to forget something you are trying to forget so now I just pretend I am an explorer looking for all the undiscovered things. There’s a lot of that out there, Vida says. She says there are lists of things no one has ever found, and even when we find some of them the list just keeps on growing. The earth won’t even be around long enough to find them all, she tells me. Secretly I think it is good then that I only have the woods to explore. At least there’s enough hidden things there that I can let someone else worry about the really big stuff everywhere else.

Things I have found in the woods that were once someone else’s:

A toothpick
A beer bottle
A fork
A blue ribbon
A five-dollar bill

Once, in the woods, I found a switchblade, but Vida said it was hers and she must have dropped it, and took it back. She let me keep the five-dollar bill though. Save it, she said, somewhere safe. Vida keeps money hidden around the house too. In jacket pockets and drawers, and even a little bit in a plastic bag in the freezer. Just in case, she says. We’ve been here long enough that it seems like we will always be here, but Vida says we have to be ready when it’s time. Time for what? I ask, but she just shakes her head and turns off the lamp beside my bed so I can only see the glow of my nightlight plugged in beside the door and the shape of her hair outlined against it.

You’ll know when it happens, she says.

I always wanted a boy like you, is another thing Vida says sometimes. It’s the way I imagine she means when she says wistful. Wist-ful, like someone full of wishes. These are the days she stays in bed all afternoon, no walks in the woods, the covers pulled up and over her chin for hours that seem stretched out like weeks. No matter what I bring to show her, she just lies there, staring at the wall.

But you have me, I tell her.
Yes, she says. Yes I do.

Things I will find in the woods someday, but haven’t yet:

A hundred dollar bill
A dinosaur bone
A faerie goddess
A warrior princess
A spaceship
A hedgehog

Even I know the woods aren’t really woods but Vida calls them that anyway. They’re really just a line of trees left standing a few feet away from our backdoor that grow all tousled together before they meet the parking lot on the other side. In the summer you can’t see the parking lot at all, just the trees with all their green shade, but in the winter the trees shake off their coats and wave their skinny branches in the wind.

Vida was the one who rescued me. I don’t really remember any time before that, which is why she says I don’t remember the Moon People. They were my first parents, my real ones. They came down from the moon for a picnic to celebrate the day that I was born, and that was when I was kidnapped by the Earth People. The problem, Vida explains, was that the Moon People love anything that’s green. The grass, bitter apples, tree frogs, limes. Anything. My parents were writing a book about all the green things they could find, like scientists that make up names for all the new things no one has given a name to yet. The names they gave the green things weren’t earth names or moon names, but something else entirely. No one even knows those names, Vida says, not yet. That day they let me roll off in my moon blanket, admiring all the green around me. They weren’t even thinking about wolves. And that’s when the Earth People came and swooped me up and took me home with them, while my parents were too busy naming things and didn’t even notice.

What happened when they noticed? I asked.

They cried, Vida said. They saw you were gone and they cried into rivers and streams and they stayed hidden in the trees so they could wait for you to return.

Sometimes I think Vida was a Moon Child too, only she’s forgotten it. That’s how Vida says moon life works. When you are there you remember everything, from the moment you were born to the speck of dust that landed on you arm on day two hundred and eighteen. But once you leave, you just begin forgetting, shedding each hour until none of it is left and your skin turns dull as anybody else’s and you start to believe you are nothing but ordinary. If Vida was a Moon Child too once, then that means we could both go back together. There would be a bright light up above us and Vida would start crying and hugging me, saying how sorry she was for not realizing it all along and I would forgive her and we would hold hands and race each other to the moon. That’s how you knew to rescue me, I would tell her. Sometimes I wonder if Vida has rescued any other Moon Children, and if so where they are. But mostly I just think about the lightness and the floating.

I told her, I said, This is when they come for you. It was just like the story she was always telling me. We were waiting for our breakfast orders, Vida with her black coffee as usual and the steam making its way slow around the rim of her mug like it was breathing and everything was normal for once, like a picture in a magazine. Like we were could be anyone at all.

She always told me this was how it happened. You got to feel safe and stayed put, like my moon parents watching all the green and forgetting about the black shadows every color makes when they grow deep enough. Like the girl in the woods with her red cloak and the wolf sniffing up the air behind her. Vida says it happens like this to people everyday, everywhere. People going about their lives until the moment they’re not.

But she just looked at me across the dinner table like I wasn’t using the same language as ever. What’s when? she asked. That, this, I told her. Us sitting here and waiting and not noticing the wolf behind us. Like you said.

Like I said, she repeated. At least she was listening to me again, even though it made her look around at the waitress two tables down with her tray and the four teenagers piled up in a corner booth spilling salt on their trays and laughing, and even the man sitting alone at the counter blowing his cigarette smoke straight at the ceiling. Vida left money on the table all of a sudden, like she had actually seen the wolf even though I was just making an example, like she always says those stories are. Examples of what happens when you stop paying attention and you think that happily ever after is a thing and not just the words to end a story.

Let’s go, she said.

I do sometimes remember other things from I don’t know where. A car door slamming, metallic lights, a swing that just keeps rocking and rocking in the wind. None of it green, but black instead, squirming in me like death, dying, mud earth and wet clay that only weighs me down down down down.

And once, on a signpost of lost things I found a picture of a boy that could have been me, years ago. Lots of capitalized words framing that image. MISSING. WANTED. REWARD.

Almost a mirror of my face, but past and too boyish, too small as if the boy just left a cradle or a swing with one of those seats that fit like a rubber diaper so no one gets hurt. But there are lots of boys that look like me, I told myself. Boys all over the world doing the things boys do, like treasure hunting or getting lost in woods that aren’t really woods. The paper boy didn’t even have my name right. Vida called for me to hurry up then, and I did.

These are the things I don’t want to find. The things I don’t tell Vida. Not ever.

We don’t have many neighbors, except maybe the parking lot that’s usually empty except for couples that park there sometimes late at night when they think no one’s watching, their windows steaming up with moisture from their breaths.

Someone’s always watching, Vida says. You can be sure of that.

So when the knock comes at our front door one afternoon, it makes me jump. Vida too, though she tries not to show it. Hey, she says, like she wants to be casual but I can see she’s not. Her eyes twitch from side to side and she doesn’t go to the door all at once to see what the surprise is like I would. But then she’s told me this before: only policemen knock like that. Policemen and wolves. Hey, she says again. Let’s play a game, a new one.

Okay, I tell her. I like games, especially new ones. Vida always comes up with the best new ones.

Let’s pretend you are a stowaway, she says. She leads me to her bedroom closet where all her dresses hang limp and long like curtains. Stay here, she says, don’t make a sound. Remember the wolf at the door? Ready to blow the house down? I’ll trick him, she says. And when it’s safe I’ll come get you and we can celebrate. We can dance on his bones afterwards and laugh.

I sink down into the soft cloth of her fabrics. This is a new game, exciting even. I can almost hear her moving to the front door, but it’s all muffled. Vida knows I’m good at this, not listening too hard and being small when I need to.

I like games, but this one is long and dark and Vida’s dresses start to look like more than just cloth hanging limp all around me. Like they’re shrunken people ready to billow and burst into life. Like they could suffocate me if they wanted to but they haven’t decided one way or the other yet. Menacing. Another one of Vida’s favorite words when we’re walking in the woods and she tells me her stories. Still they smell like the perfume she wears sometimes and that makes me calmer, makes me wait because I can’t imagine that she won’t come back. That was never part of the game, I tell myself.

Then I hear her, her voice, but not like her normal voice. Saying, Just a minute, I’ll be back in a minute. A door opening and closing. And not even a minute and she’s there! Peeking in between the hangers, the dresses that are just dresses again. But her face is different somehow, a face that seems worried and not like her at all.

Quick, she says. This is a new game.

But we never play two games at once and I want to tell her this but she isn’t listening, I can see that without being told or guessing or anything I know about the way these games work.

There’s no time, she says. She hands me her switchblade and I fumble taking it from her because it is not at all what I expected. Take this, she says. Run.

Run where? I ask. With you? I’m not trying to be difficult but I don’t understand the rules of this new game that I’ve never played.

Just run, she says. Into the woods.

I think I know enough now not to argue.

When she’s gone again I slip out the bedroom window, without even being told. I can hear her in the living room with a man’s voice that isn’t even slightly familiar. She is cheery and bright and the man sounds tired. But wolves can be like that. Sound like ordinary humans doing ordinary jobs when they ask about little girls or boys lost long ago in the woods. But I am not a lost boy, I am a Moon Child, and at least I know how this version of the story ends.

The wolf, Vida once told me, knew how to dress in human skin. That was his trick. But when they cut him open, ribcage to neck, all the people he had devoured came tumbling out and they were safe because everyone knew that the quicker they moved, the less time the wolf had to make them stay that way forever.

My feet hit the ground as I drop from the window. Vida will be fine, I tell myself. She knows how not to be tricked by human meat. I take the path I would take with her so she can follow me later. In the woods at least I know where I am going. And I will wait there with my switchblade and the five dollars tucked into my back pocket, and if they come and try to take me away again I’ll know just what to do.[/private]

About Amelia Boldaji

Amelia Boldaji received her MFA from Hollins University, where she was a teaching fellow and Editorial Assistant of The Hollins Critic. Most recently she has been awarded grants from the Elizabeth George and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundations to support work on her debut novel, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is also the Assistant Editor of Quarterly West. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX, Compass Rose, and elimae.

Amelia Boldaji received her MFA from Hollins University, where she was a teaching fellow and Editorial Assistant of The Hollins Critic. Most recently she has been awarded grants from the Elizabeth George and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundations to support work on her debut novel, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is also the Assistant Editor of Quarterly West. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX, Compass Rose, and elimae.

One comment

Leave a Comment