I searched for twenty minutes yesterday afternoon through neighborhoods lonesome as Sunday before finding the entrance to the woodlands. I was trying to get back to the same forest from several days ago that I’d found by accident.
I couldn’t find the first entrance but I did find another. It was very Narnian– just a footpath at the end of a dull cul-de-sac I’d never heard of– and then a suggestion of a path led into woodlands and suddenly all there was in every direction were vines and grass underfoot and nothing but trees. It was so sudden that I had to turn and look to make sure that I could still see rooftops, that it hadn’t all disappeared like legerdemain, or smoke and mirrors and houses of cards. They hadn’t, but they disappeared quickly enough and from then on every glimpse of white was only dogwoods.
I’ve never been in a forest with grass underfoot. It was like the pictures in storybooks, or tales from Merry Old England. Even the latter, though, was impenetrable at times. The path ribboned off after a while to an open grassy space that smelled like wild onions and there were a few stunted pines in the space, a large swath of goldenrod, and always more dogwoods. I tried to run through it, but it was a sud so I backed up and went around. The grass was luscious. In the sun it was bright and where the shadows fell it was dark green. There were more paths and I took one that followed a creek. Not a normal North Carolina creek either. This was narrow (you could jump over it if you were careful) and the water moved fast and deep and clear. Most of the creeks I know are muddy and lazy, shallow and sprawling. The water looks practically viscous and on still days the brown surface looks thick and almost convex at the edges, like toffee in the sun.
This was much more like a Charles Kingsley brook. It was spanned by a footbridge presently (a new one, which seemed incongruous) and then I stopped running because I was surrounded. A family of five deer were staring at me. It’s a good thing deer aren’t combative because they’re big creatures; it’s only their lines and graceful limbs that give the illusion of smallness. I thought one was a fawn but when it stepped out from behind a tree I saw how big it was, and that its spots were gone. (When we moved back to North Carolina from Africa in 96 I was startled to find out that the woods have deer. It seemed very storybook– I would have felt the same way to find out that the Black Forest was really stocked with wild boar, or a glade in England with pheasant.)
The stream became wider as it went deeper into the woods. There were many paths although I didn’t see anyone. It was almost 7 in the evening and probably people were eating, although I preferred to think there were never any people except for me, and even I would’ve gladly exchanged cumbrous limbs for wings or antennae in a liminal hour.
I ran back to the wild onion glade and the sun was gone. There were more paths than I remembered. I ran and ran and kept seeing familiar loops of vines, a recent puddle already skirted. I thought about mazes, of Father Brown and Flambeau in the Sins of Prince Saradin:
The people who wrote the mediaeval ballads,’ answered the priest, ‘knew more about fairies than you do. It isn’t only nice things that happen in fairyland.
But I found a way out, finally. Each time it’s different, it’s a slip and a pass and behind you could almost look for an empty doorframe but instead the houses have closed up again with nothing more than ordinary gardens and children’s playhouses in back, shaded in a quality of evening light that means dinnertime and all things ordinary and yet– and yet.