As I stumbled over the rocks, wiping sand and ash from my eyes, something large loomed in my periphery
Beyond the Fire
Art by Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji
The berries were my first mistake. Hanging lush and dark from their spiked brambles, shining pregnant with sweet juices, they lured me down the shadowy path as if Ariadne had spun her labyrinth strand from jewels of Persephone's cursed fruit.
It was midafternoon when I headed down the trail. Though the path into the redwoods looked tempting, there was nothing to hint at the fears that darkened the nights of ancient peoples. It was your standard state park: cinder block restrooms, notice board with campfire talk schedules and reminders about poison oak, faux-rustic trail markers. The beginnings of the main trail were more like a bicycle path than anything else, leveled, close-packed gravel, wide enough for a minivan. Yet, after the first few bends, something changed.
The trees grew closer together. Bracken and horsetail ferns packed the undergrowth, beyond them lay a swampy pond, swarmed by lazily hovering dragonflies and ringed with reeds and berry brambles. The vines curved out to meet the trail, arching over one branch of a fork in the path. A Frost aficionado, I took this narrower, thorny path with its lush fruit, keeping the wider main trail, “for another day.”
Yet I knew how way leads onto way.
Each step drew me deeper into a leafy darkness, moss soft beneath my feet. Every so often, a particularly luscious blackberry would call out to me, and I'd pop it into my mouth, feeling the juice trickle down the back of my throat.
A salty, silver mist worked its way through the branches and brambles. I thought I was further from the sea; shivering, I dug in my daypack for a sweater. Putting on the sweater, head still half trapped like a stupefied turtle, I glanced up the trail behind me. It was gone, covered in mist. Mindful of the nearby thorns, I put a cautious hand into the mist and swept around. All was cold and blank. My searching arm felt no foliage, no leaf, cane, or berry. Spinning around, shaking, I took out my compass, laying it flat on the path before me. The needle swung leisurely back and forth as though it had lost all interest in the truth of North.
The only point of orientation was the ever-dimming, branch-walled corridor before me. I needed to get clear of the tunnel of vines to find a landmark of some kind. Breathing heavily, I plunged down the path, pursued by the pounding of my own footsteps.
Mist swirled through the branches, heavy as dragon's breath. It seemed nearly tangible now, obscuring everything but a few footsteps ahead. Leaves whispered and branches crackled as I ran, my breath the breath of the forest.
Finally, the bramble walls on either side of me fell away. I stood at the edge of a brief and rocky shore. Waves like horses with manes of jade foam beat the boulders marking the almost non-existent liminal space between forest and sea.
Mindful of the ancient prohibition against turning one's back to the sea, I glanced over my shoulder. The path behind me was gone, leaving a deepening black mass of trees and brush filled with rustling whispers.
Shivering, I searched my narrow no-one's-land for driftwood and fallen branches, gathering enough for a small fire at the boundary between land and water. I broke the first match, and the second. Finally on the third, my tinder caught, dragging the mist-logged wood into a sullen, smoky fire.
Fire shields and fire consumes. Tucked in the warmth of its flames, the light pushing the darkness past our circle, we feel protected. But the dancing flames lick the shadows with forked tongues and embolden the rustles and growls in the darkness behind us.
The friendly moon one would welcome on an empty path grows cold and pallid in the face of burning wood, throwing nets of shadow against the hills and beyond the trees. Branches crack and pop as they heat, shattering the night. But the fire keeps them at bay, hiding the scrabbling claws and glowing eyes that haunt the night.
I huddled near the flames, my back to the forest, waves pounding just beyond my narrow strip of rocky sand. Slowly the mist gave way to a silvery darkness, the biggest moon I'd ever seen shining coldly across the sea. I peeked over my shoulder. The woods behind me were dark with a primal breath of rustling branches and whispering leaves.
Soon the whispering gave way almost to voice, a murmur and scurry, a low growl, then an unholy snarling yowl. Small fingers touched my back, fingers of bone and claw.
I leapt up, knocking my precious fire apart, sending burning brands into the surf. As I stumbled over the rocks, wiping sand and ash from my eyes, something large loomed in my periphery. It was a horse.
Its white coat gleamed in the silver moonlight, mane and tail shot with reflections of the dark green sea. It dipped its head as if inviting me to safety. Shaking, I jumped onto its back, desperate to be carried free of my nightmare.
But rather than turning to run along the shore, my steed spun toward the waves, plunging toward the horizon.
I took a desperate glance behind me, to see three raccoons, their eyes glowing in the remnants of my fire. Their laughing, masked faces were the last thing I saw before the broad back beneath me dissolved into the waves that pulled me under.
October 27, 2021
October 27, 2021