A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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There were no obstacles in her path, on the ground or in the air. The briars were ferns beneath her feet, twisting gently out of the way at the first sound of her footfall. Rocks knew her, too. Lichen-covered, they lay quietly in wait, offering up stepping stones. They settled in just the right spot before she came. The trees bent their branches, making way, making room for her. They all knew her as well as she knew where the teaberries hid under silver-veined leaves, where the red toadstools sprouted among curling, open-faced roots, where the ground squirrel made its nest. She never brought others here. The trees and moss would not welcome anyone else.
She never talked to any of them — neither the rocks nor the creek, the roots nor the leaves, nor even the birds perching overhead. Words killed living things, fixed them forever as solid matter. Nothing was solid here, as long as she didn’t breathe a word.
Thus the trees followed their best inclinations, growing without advice or warning, unembarrassed by gnarled spots or crooked limbs. A fallen branch stayed in the very spot where it fell, decomposing in full view. No one weeded or felt the need to look away. The life of the woods continued wet and green, full of spores and pods, fading leaves, spider webs, and tiny insects carving their own airways.
She sat on a stump, then moved to the bank where she, too, began to decompose. She wanted to give up words, to let go of effort and tight muscles. Let go of longing, of trying, of making progress. She breathed without breath, letting go of aging and regret. She was becoming stone.
She was renouncing relationship. She had always been too needy. Renouncing love, its wounds. Renouncing God. Most of all, God. It was what she most needed to purge. A terrible word, God. The word boxed Him in an untenable position where He couldn’t breathe or move or make a difference. He couldn’t hear anyone. Prayers bounced off the word; they never got through.
Decomposition was the only means of prayer left. Decomposition and renunciation, the only remaining heroism. The woods were teaching her.
The world was enchanted for those who knew its secrets, its spells; who knew to expect its flash floods and high winds. This magic cast itself fiercely without regard to its wake. One needed to be enchanted with the fury, too. That had been her trouble. She had learned to love only the sunlight and twilight. She had dwelled always on the highest bank, far from the woods and shadows. One needed to love it all in order to renounce it. One needed finally to give up the enchantment.
Beyond the enchantment and fury was the realm of renunciation. And it was necessary simply to come here and sit without judgement or thought until she became a stone. It was permissible to observe the lizard or the shift in light — to see without thinking, to let it enter her vision without referral to a single metaphor. Then she could become a rock.
She particularly wanted to grow lichen, lacy and green, patterned so as not to stand out from the rest of the rocks. She never wanted to speak again.
But it was fine to hum and to sway her shoulders to the rhythm in her head. Sitting on the rock, she thought of black gospel singers, sweat pouring off their foreheads, heat waving from their robes. Such expressions on their faces, as if they had overcome some barrier and could barely contain their bodies inside their long blue choir robes. Hands clapping, eyes gazing upward, a single palm raised open-fingered in the air. Maybe words were still available to gospel singers; maybe they could still get through with words. But words hadn’t worked for her.
Flowers had worked far better, each seed growing into its own form, far more predictable than words or people. There had been a time when she needed to call their names. Names like prayers. Artemisia, moonbeam coreopsis, liatris, yarrow, sweet pea, daisy, lavender. Just reciting the names would sometimes calm her. Germander, hollyhock, bergamot, chrysanthemum, lily, pansy, fern. She knew the difference between a pip and a tuber, and she understood well her preference for perennials. But she no longer required words.
She couldn’t recall a single definition that held. She tried to conjure her flowers now, without using names. Just the images, the shapes — low-growing, spraying, shooting into their very own forms; unconfused, unenvious of neighbors. The rudebekia left the delphinium its blue peace. The rose remained indifferent to its own scent.
One time, before, she thought she had a mystical experience in the garden. A night rain had made the boxwood hedge particularly fragrant, and a mother rabbit had nested underneath it, just at the back of the bed where the larkspur had faded from purple to pink. The beauty that morning — the odors, the rabbits, the colors, the light — had made the watering hose tremble in her hand, every spray of water a rosary of holy beads. She had burst momentarily out of her skin. For a half-second she’d stepped out of the world, into a direct experience of God.
She laughed out loud now, sitting on the rock. Laughter too required no words and was certainly permitted in these woods. She had wanted God that day in the garden. Here in the woods she renounced Him, hid from Him, behind the maples and scrub oaks, in the vine-entangled growth. She sat there, unobtrusive as a fallen acorn or a river rock. She had decided to quit searching Him out, trying to catch Him, waiting for Him to come.
She had no desire to keep on waiting. She wanted to imitate Him instead. So she sat there without a wish, silent as stone, invisible, watching the patterns and grooves in the brown bark and the humming of the busy air. Beyond the realm of words and mystical experiences.
Leslie P. Shaver