I remember the date, May 1, 2005, because my father-in-law had just died and I had just returned from a soul-shredding trip back east for his funeral. I had nothing left in me, but was in that wild, I've-got-to-get-out-of-here state that always makes me slam the door behind me and travel.
On foot. I went off into the woods, and around here that means I went down the street and turned left, but these were public spaces, dog paths, old-lady-jogging places, and I needed far more surcease, more refuge. I needed to get away from the whole damn human race.
I kept walking, and once more turned left.
I was on a bridge. I was aware that a year or so ago, there was no bridge here, never had been. I had a vague memory of someone building one. Why? It led to nowhere.
Or had I tried it once, and found the rough path over the bumpety old tree-roots just too creepy and uncomfortable? I was on that path, and soon borne up by the rushing of streams.
These were hissing, shisshing, fish-and-glitter streams that rushed through my ear canals and rattled the tiny tympani behind them as if gushing through my skull. Suddenly I had the sense of smell of a horse, and, snorting, lifted my head.
The path led ever on. It twisted and wrenched. I was aware of civilization not far away, as if I could even see houses and hear lawnmowers through the cedars. But it couldn't be so, for these woods were primeval, pulling me deeper in. My feet were in a state of hypnosis. I could not refuse.
I went over bridge after bridge. Where had this path been all my life, I wondered - inaccessible to the dogwalkers, the granny-runners. Sealed off, yet here. One stream roared like traffic in a tunnel. It was awful, and I sped on.
As if pursued. But look. Here was the place I always turned back. Or not? I had never been on this path, so how could I remember turning back? My scalp was electric. Beyond this twist lay the place of the faeries.
I can't describe how each tree seemed inhabited, not by a human or a squirrel but by its own fleshwood-spirit. I can't explain how each tree seethed, how burls swelled like pregnancies, wood cancer that somehow popped out of the symmetry of the trunk and made it look hideously deformed.
Then I stopped at the sight of a massive, salmon-coloured stump, the fleshy remains of a huge fallen cedar. It seemed to hum and swarm with life. I wondered where the tree had fallen, and when. And the sound it must have made, and what pushed it over. The tree-flesh seemed vital yet, not grey but livid red, full of ant-tunnels and probably housing one of those termite queens the size of a rat.
I walked beside a huge gully. I have always hated the word gully, it's ugly and hollow and hellish. I remember when I was about two or three, it could be my first memory, falling down into a gully in Delhi where my grandmother lived, and my sister, who was about 15 at the time, bending over me and saying, "Are you wounded?"
My feet slipped in spongy moss and slime. It was a pleasant day, but I was menaced. Something veered and eered. I could not see it. I turned around quickly, and it vanished.
Now strong cords pulled me, whipcords snaking out from under the ground to yank my feet out from under me. I burst into a clearing, and -
I stopped, then stepped, as cautiously as Pocohontas. The ground sank and groaned under me, giving way with each step and leaving a dark depression. I stopped uncertainly and looked up and all around me.
I stood in an exact circle of tall cedars. I lifted my head and felt a crackling charge of energy whizzing clockwise around and around me. I chanted some sort of prayer that I wish I could remember now, something about my father-in-law. My temporal awareness had burned away like fog.
As I stood in the electrocharged circle I noticed a squirrel violently frisking its tail, jerkily making its way toward me. But it did not stop. It crept and stopped, crept and stopped until it was only a foot away from me. Then another squirrel appeared, and began to creep towards me. They sat up on their hind legs with their tails jerking and their beady eyes glistening in the sun, waiting.
I walked. Huge fallen logs, roots of trees just jutting up in the air: how had they been uprooted? Why were all these trees laughing at me? Then I saw or felt with my foot the weathered slat of an old ladder. Or something like it.
But it wasn't a ladder. It was a bridge. It was a bridge that lay flat on the grass. And it went on and on. I stepped on it and began to walk.
Perhaps the ground wasn't level here. But it was. Perhaps the ground was marshy here. But it wasn't. This thing was, it just was. I wobbled along on the rickety old slats, cursing the fucking little gnome who had put this bizarre useless thing here just to freak me out and make my hair stand on end.
Then. Then I did see something, a minor gully ahead of me where the ground fell away. But the rickety little bridge remained level. Like a horse stepping on a live power line, I jumped back.
Had I walked on it, I surely would have tumbled in.
This was some booby-trap set by a vindictive fairy tale witch, some Tenniel nightmare ink-drawing designed to scare the living shit out of innocent children. I wheeled and ran. And ran and ran, and it was a good thing that no bear ran after me. Everything unspooled and unreeled and unhappened, so that by the time I got home again,
I was not even sure any of it had been real.
But I went back a few days later. I had to know. Yes. It was all there. I noticed a humming and a cracking. A subtle sizzling in the air, something that I picked up with the tip of my nose.
This was once a place deep, deep in the black-green uterine core of British Columbia, before the white man came and ripped the hell out of it, as he continues to do. It was a place where you had better not go, not even if you were aboriginal and knew the danger. The place of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood and the Handless Maiden and all those other sweet children who started out innocent, but ended up lost and devoured.
Don't go there. Don't go there, my girl. This is a place of enchantment, but in the archaic sense, the faerie chant seducing you with coils of magic that will never set you free.
All is changed, changed utterly. I go to that place sometimes still, and like a soft drink left out too long in the sun, most of the fizz has gone out of it. But the trees are still murmuring to themselves, nasty little things they don't want me to hear
One day I realized the weird wooden bridge on the grass was gone: just gone, and then I wondered if I had imagined it. So I decided to go a little farther, clambered down and up that gully, and kept going.
A few minutes later, I had no idea where I was.
This was a profound disorientation. I couldn't turn in any direction. The view behind me was even more unfamiliar than the view in front of me. Panic crept up my scalp and I started running, desperately running. Like a hunger, like a thirst, like a stab of unbearable desire, I needed something, anything that looked familiar.
I ran until my lungs ached, and then: I burst out. Burst out of the forest, as if the forest had an actual door. I found myself on a road, a main road, paved, travelled, but completely unfamiliar. I had no idea how I would ever get home.
I walked and walked. I didn't have the nerve to flag a car down. Then I saw something. A bus stop. But I had nothing with me. I wriggled my hands into the pockets of my jeans and came up with a frayed yellow bus ticket that had probably gone through the wash.
I waited and waited. A bus came, a bus I had never heard of before, but it had to take me somewhere, somewhere familiar, somewhere in the civilized world! I made myself look normal, or hoped I did, and got on. I had the thought that I should have some sort of passport, to take me from one mode of being to the next.
I went home to recover, then as I was getting ready for bed I discovered a small bulge in my jeans pocket. I took it out and turned it over. It was a small stone in the exact size and shape of a cat's paw: neat toes and pads on one side, smooth elegance on the other. I didn't remember picking it up. For some reason I put several coats of nail polish on it. I have it still in a case with my jewelry, a bizarre trinket that wouldn't mean a thing to anyone else.