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Short Story

On many days, this was a forest of beauty and of comfort. Today it seemed it was the forest of hands. From the rot and debris of their corpses, dark, rigid arms stretched forth gnarled hands, pleading with the sky for an unknown something. Was it for mercy or for forgiveness? Were these the desperate fingers of victims or perpetrators? Was there a question in their grasp? The fog hid and distorted their struggles when perhaps all they wanted was to know why. Why, when so many trees were allowed to live in the glorified sunshine, were they trapped here in this world of darkness and mist?

Here, the sun, that guardian that was meant to nourish these trees, had turned its back on them. All of their pleading, and they were met only with cold silence. No gentle rays through the mist, not even the singing of birds pierced the grove. A grave feeling of forced indifference shut out the desperation of the hands that sought to find an answer. Only a single being moved here, separate from the plight of the forest around him.

This man, eyes down and shoulders hunched, resolutely shut out the situation around him as he walked. There was nothing he could do. Those hands, those pleas, they would never get what they were looking for. They would remain that way, perhaps forever. He couldn’t stand to acknowledge it, that there was nothing that could be done. So he walked on, interrupting the scene only with the quiet crunch of leaves beneath his boots and the white ghost of breath when he exhaled.

Despite his own determination, this man couldn’t deny the reflection of the forest in him. His eyes held the cold of the air, the absence of sunlight, the forced indifference. His lips, tight, betrayed the desperation of the trees with an occasional break, an inexplicable twitch. The gnarled hands were his own, covered by gloves and clutching a package between them. It was a grocery bag, holding a mysterious brown box.

Perhaps I was meant to interrupt this event, or perhaps I was meant to stay far, far away. Whatever the case, it’s where I ended up. There was something about that day that drew me out to wandering the streets downtown. After so long I found myself transitioning from city to suburb, and after following a set of railroad tracks I soon left the buildings of civilization altogether. The fog was heavy here, but hands in my pockets, I continued to wander. I was too caught up in day dreaming to realize that I was right in the thick of a quiet grove of trees with little idea of which way I’d come or which way was out. I swung around, trying to grasp some sense of direction or familiarity from the forest, but it gave me nothing.  Then I heard the quiet crunching that signaled another being.

It was an older man, just above middle age from what I could tell. His eyes met mine and he paused. His face melted into a tired smile, partially obscured by a lightly greying beard. “Hello, young lady. Not often I meet folks out here. Are you visiting Doris?” His voice cut through the silence in a way that was almost startling, but he seemed too calm to notice.

“Hello. Well, no sir, I was taking a walk and I think I actually just got myself lost.”

He laughed and nodded knowingly. “I thought so. There are not many that want to deal with this darned fog what don’t have to walk through it to get home. If you want to come with me the road by my house leads right on back to town.” He seemed to notice my hesitation and shrugged. “Unless you want to try and find your way back out of here, it’s up to you.” The man turned and continued on his way.

As much as I disliked the idea of following a total stranger, I had little choice if I wanted to escape this isolated place. So, I caught up to him and tried to keep up. After a few moments of silence, I made an attempt at small talk.

“I guess I’m lucky I caught you out here when I did. Were you out shopping?” I asked, noticing the bag in his hands.

He let out a sigh and his eyes turned to the ground. “Yeah. It’s a present for my boy.” There was a half-smile on his face and his eyes spoke of a kind fondness.

“Oh,” I smiled, “you’re a father then.” It gave me at least a little more comfort to know that I was being escorted by a family man. “Is it his birthday?”

The look on his face went stolid, then sad. “Nah.” Brow furrowed, he shook his head. “I lost my temper with him yesterday. Kids, they get upset easy, you know. Not his fault, I just… Well, I told him I’m sorry but I wanted to make it up to him.”

I nodded knowingly, looking at the man with a thoughtful admiration. I’d had my share of being yelled at by parents. The fact that he was actually admitting his own faults and making up for it like this was something of a surprise, however. “He’s lucky to have someone as thoughtful as you.”

The man only grunted in response, his face growing stolid once again.

Wanting to keep things lighthearted I changed the subject, and as we continued to walk we talked about the weather, the president, politics, and how to cook a good hot dog. We were both laughing at a bad relish pun when we finally reached the man’s lonely house: a small wood cabin.

“Well, here we are. Thanks for walking an old guy to his home. Could you hold this for a second? Got to find my keys.” He handed me his grocery bag as he began searching his pockets. As I weighed it in my hands my curiosity got the better of me.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what was it you got your son?”

“Oh, it’s one of those big packs of crayons. He’s a drawer that one, a real artist.” The man laughed and then, still unable to find his keys, took off his jacket. I hadn’t been able to see his shirt before this, and it quickly caught my eye. “He likes to draw people, mostly.” Splotches of bleach splattered the front and the sleeves. “He makes up his own stories, like an illustrator for books.” They must have been old, and what needed bleaching in a log cabin? “Goodness, I’m sorry; these darned keys are always hiding from me.” The man took off his gloves and set them on the ground. The color immediately drained from my face.

His hands.

The trees behind me pleaded, asking why. They begged me to stay, begged me to answer. They begged me to leave, to forget. They ushered me forward, pushing me into finding mercy, into solving the questions of a victim. They pulled me back, dragging me into giving forgiveness, into leaving the perpetrator be.

“I told him not to draw the wife.” A sigh, the key was finally found. “Ah but kids they just… They don’t get the sensitive things. Sometimes they just don’t get ‘no.’ Sometimes words just aren’t enough to make em stop…” His door unlocked, he turned and held out a hand to me, gesturing for the grocery bag. I could even smell it: the dried, metallic scent of a now dark crimson. Dried, silent, subtle, but at the same time stark and screaming of something horribly wrong. For goodness sakes, it went all the way up to his elbows. Numbly I handed the package over. Oblivious to my state he smiled and thanked me again. “The roads right over that way. You follow it a few minutes, you’ll find the city. Goodbye now!” The door shut.

On many days, this was a forest of beauty and of comfort. Today it seemed it was the forest of hands. Gnarled fingers snatched at secrets, searching for them, hiding them. I should have done something. I should have told someone. Instead, I left. I walked away, down that road, until I was back in the safe ignorance of the city. I didn’t stop until I was shielded by structures of metal and concrete, away from hands of bark. The sun and I, we turned our back and pretended not to see, pretended not to know the answers, leaving the question of mercy and forgiveness to hide in a little wood house in the fog.

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