These are gentle woods.
Tomas Transtromer, “Skogsparti”
You came to us a long-haired girl, lithe from a life of dance. You’d auditioned before stern men in somber clothes, their faces hidden beyond the footlights of the stage. You crossed with toes pointed. Your smile was serene. The music played, concluded, and you curtsied and left. You were cast as Giselle. They pinned back your brilliant hair. You leapt. You landed. Duke Albrecht lifted you, and oh, how you posed, your spine an arrow. Mornings you danced, and afternoons you danced, and, when you went home at night, you unwrapped your bloody feet and winced and slept and did it all again.
Then you fell.
You came to us with nothing. No leotards, no balms and salves, no sensible bag with ergonomic strap. You boarded a bus and rode north. A hundred miles later, you arrived on our doorstep. You’d heard of us, you said. Your ankle swaddled in a cast, a crutch beneath your arm. You hoped—you’d come all this way—it was so hot out—could you come inside?
Of course you could.
You were slim but strong. You undertook your chores with dignity, no matter how banal. You scrubbed grout. You weeded. You rinsed the kale and cut it. You kept your room tidied and neat. You didn’t speak of your past, but we sensed something in you—something bright and young and pulsing. Your ankle healed. You walked with surety, tall and proud.
We ate at different tables, four chairs each. We passed bread kneaded with our own hands, salads gleaned from our gardens. You met us all: the frustrated teachers and disenchanted students, the former accountants, the scientists, the anarchists, the clarinetist (who accompanied the guitarist as the doctor plinked along on the old upright piano). We pushed the tables to the walls and danced. We joined hands and spun, and then there you were, the sun of our system, your leg straight and your arms raised, twirling. You danced. You danced. And we cheered and applauded and afterward you were breathless, falling into our arms and laughing.
Then we knew.
Slowly, you told us, and we told you in return. How we had left our professorships and labor unions and W-2s. Smashed our cell phone screens and deactivated every account. Left our SUVs in random parking lots with the license plates removed. Some of us left notes; some of us didn’t. We showed up alone or in pairs or with children. We brought nothing but our bodies, our hearts and our hands.
Summer was mild and kind, the mountain air easy and clean. Others arrived and a few departed, but you remained. You lost the shadows beneath your eyes. Your arms thickened from towing tinder and logs. You filled out, your cheeks brightened as the leaves around us went from green to gold. At dawn, your breath misting before you, we handed you the rifle and told you to stay steady, to squint one eye and aim for the head. The buck collapsed, and we carried it back, sliced away its hide and gutted its organs for stew, hot in our bellies.
In winter you took up needles. Flimsy yarn became a blanket on your lap. You kept your hair braided down your back. Our rations were slim, but when we were hungry, we sang. Your voice was clear, blending seamlessly into ours.
There had been others before you. Lorena, the sculptor from the desert, who faded before our eyes; she needed blue skies, not white. She didn’t last the winter. Gretchen dressed herself in pashminas and shawls, preached organic and holistic, but grew bored in the wilderness and silence of our disconnected life. Arianne cut hair and improvised dye, recreated books she’d read. We had the most hope for her, truly, but she was stronger than we suspected and the bonds were too loose. We found her upright with her arms around her knees, her head tilted in a permanent dream, her skin tinged blue.
In the morning, you carried buckets of snow inside for melt water. You sank your arms into the tepid bath and scoured our dishes clean. We ate eggs laid by the chickens in the coop. Midmorning found you quilting by a window. At noon you visited the pails of our maple grove. You took down the hanging sheets, flapped and folded them. We ate the evening meal and you sat beside the astronomer who told you all the names of the constellations: Cassiopeia, Fornax, Draco. We steeped tea for you, and when violet dusk became black night, you slept.
We wake you at midnight. We dress you in white. We take your wrists and tie them with twine. You ask questions that have no answers. It is an honor, we say.
With torches lit, we walk into the snow. Your feet are bare, numb when we reach the circle of trees. We arrange you on the pyre. Four posts anchor your extremities: East, South, West, North. We lift the rabbit above your chest and slit it open, draw lines along your limbs. We bless and sanctify. The moon remains behind the clouds.
We cut away your hair with a knife. We sing. You scream, but we are very far from anywhere, and our voices eclipse yours.
We thrust our torches into the wood. Twigs pop and smoke. The fire stretches. We turn our faces towards the sky and open our throats. You cough and weep. You beg. The heat thrums against us. The fire soars and laps at you. We have nailed the skulls of others to the trunks around us, white bone dusted with white snow.
And you, your skin splits and curls, your eyelids snap open, your howling diminished and then disappeared as you burn so beautifully.