Creative Non Fiction: A Walk in the Woods

A montage of images and musings on the agony of growing up and apart

A pocket full of posies;
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down

The leaves weren’t emerald and the sun wasn’t gold but when I remember them, I think of jewels.
The forest was dark and misty, a ghostly breeze trailing through the emptiness and a lone bird singing a love song to the wind. I pretended to be Little Red Riding Hood that day, in a red lace dress and ballerinas, but I knew that inside, I wasn’t.  I pretended the mossy path would lead me to a cottage, the one from my storybooks but I also knew that it wouldn’t, that I was walking deeper and deeper to a darkness I couldn’t escape from.

But I was wrong. There was a path–ancient stone steps leading somewhere, surely not nowhere and sunlight was struggling to get through the canopy overhead, and causing dust motes to dance, like glittering pixies.
What I remember the most was the utter peace I felt, the sense of oneness with the summer air, the silence of the woods, the cool sunshine that trickled in from behind the pine leaves and cast pale shadows on the broken stones entangled with moss and ivy. Yellow and white butterflies flitted about and though I could not see them, I could hear the bees buzzing in the bushes.
The cracked stone steps I’d chanced upon led me all the way to an abandoned temple atop a hill. As I relieve the sheer excitement of it I recall my childlike imagination conjuring tales of dead nuns and monks, of ghost children following my footsteps the way I followed the trail of a yellow butterfly.
I did not uncover any treasure that day. The temple was as I’d imagined-lonely, desolate, smelling of oldness, like a forgotten souvenir from a long-ago but long-cherished trip.
I knew that I wasn’t the first to come here. In my mind, I liked to think that the place was perfect, that little white blossoms peaked out from the cracks in the stone that the crumbling walls were carved with runes in a language that was long dead. That way, the forest and the temple could be a magical place, and I, the child granted access to the forbidden realm.

But in truth, cigarette stubs, food packets, torn plastic lay scattered haphazardly on the ground and fading alphabets scrawled on stone walls-the remnants of the wanderers who’d come to this forgotten place before me and left a sign, a memory so that the next person who came would  acknowledge them, their long-dead presence for the briefest while.
I thought of scribbling my name. At one point, I was sorely tempted, lured by the promise of this petty evanescent immortality, but in the end I let go of the chance. Not because the rain and dust would wipe away all vestiges of any mark I’d leave here, but because I didn’t care. Why bother? What did I care about remembrance? What did I care if one day another child or a pair of lovers walked up to this very place and saw a fresh name gleaming on the stone? What did it matter if they read it, assigned a face and identity that I’ll never come to know of, gave it a momentary life in their minds before letting it fade into the darkness? I didn’t care.  I didn’t like the idea of being remembered at all. If I loved someone, I’d want them to live forever, living, breathing, never changing, always beside me. Not some memory haunting the inner recesses of my mind. I didn’t mind ghosts (I loved them), I just didn’t like the idea of being a ghost or a shadow in someone else’s memory. I was repulsed by the thought of such a pathetic, twisted travesty of an existence.

In retrospect, I think that had I been with a lover, I might have been tempted to do something reckless, as testament of some illusory notion of our true and undying love. But I was only a child back then, someone who still believed in fairytales and hoped that the path in the forest would lead to some Elvin cave, that the butterflies were faeries in disguise, and that the ivy and wisteria-like flowers came from an era where damsels were still trapped in their towers, weaving webs of the “mirror’s magic sights”.

But more than the stories, I thought of the pictures of myths and folklore frozen in paintings and statues, of dusty antique books at my grandfather’s library, of ancient Greece, of pagan cults and priestesses who performed rituals by the light of some silver moon.
I wondered how this place would look at night, if some nocturnal beast would emerge from the shadows and standing on the altar, howl to the empty starlit sky. I wondered if some child lost in the woods would seek out this temple for shelter and if the phantoms of the temple would offer sanctum.

Standing there, on the threshold of decadence, the lines of a poem I’d memorized for a recitation class, seemed hurled at me:
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men

A part of me refused to believe that apart from the bees and butterflies, I was the only, living soul present there, at that very moment-the only living breathing entity standing at the ruins of an abandoned temple staring at a world of loneliness.
It’s like that loneliness that comes from staring at the moonless, starless black blankness of heaven, to realize that we might be all alone, a mere ripple in the vast river of the ever-growing cosmos.

I both liked and did not like the idea of being alone. And so my imagination began to fill the gaps: the rustle of leaves on the mossy forest floor belonged to the cherubic voices of children who went into the forest to play. Perhaps they encircled the temple, singing in unearthly voices “Ring a ring a roses”. Maybe children indeed came out to play here a long long time ago but were murdered as part of some sacrificial ritual and, maybe my thoughts were an outcome of those children trying to talk to me. But they couldn’t because they were ghosts and separated by an invisible veil and I badly wanted to talk to them.
This saddened me immensely, and I was sure this was the saddest anyone could ever be, the frustration of a child who wanted to escape into the world of adults, where there were no such things as ghosts but she couldn’t, and she believed that she could and held on desperately to that hope till something else that was inconsequential distracted her.
But my idea of this sadness was based on a fallacy, as this childlike melancholy was nothing compared to the travails of an adult wishing she were a child again, believing in nothing and unable to hope, shackled to the chains of an eternal frustration that in childhood was (like everything else) only ephemeral.

Another fallacy was that as a child, I thought life existed in the perfections, in the most beautiful of places, in the blossoms that bloomed from the cracks but when I grew up, I realized that life existed in the conflicts, in the imperfections, in the cracks that allowed for the blossoms to bloom.
And there was another dilemma I was stuck with, the eternal conundrum between art and life: the isolated artist creating beauty from  the very he has detached himself from, the agony at being unable to embrace the flawed life in which he searches for beauty and perfection, the pathos in yearning for two mutually exclusive things.


Much later,a close reading of Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot did two things to me: made in fall in love and then broke my heart. I wanted desperately for the Lady to not die, to have a happy ending with Lancelot. Why was she cursed and why did the mirror have to crack? Could she have been imprisoned forever, spinning a web of colors gay-the colors that came from the very world she was never allowed to look upon, but merely glimpse from the shadows in the mirror?
It seemed to me that she wasn’t just trapped in a tower, but rather in the snares of imagination and reality, the former was the tower that kept her secure but slowly poisoned her and the latter was the freedom she always craved but could never have, as that freedom came at too heavy a price.

You remember that child in the forest who found a temple? Never for once did she think of the holiness of the place. The temple was too ruined too command any respect, having lost all traces of its former glory long ago. But still she had the temerity to pretend she had found something else, something infinitely more magical and precious, like a jewel and though she knew it was all pretence, she wanted the pretence to be true, because it is only in the moments of pretence that the world of reality and imagination collide and intermix, because in those moments anything is possible.

In those moments, the phantom children can talk and play, the temple be an elfin grot, the Lady of Shallot dream of her dreams coming true, the isolated artist coexist with the world of men, the imperfect be perfect-but only for that one lone moment, fleeting as the summer breeze.
And the acceptance of this transience is the signal for growing up.

The line between childhood and adulthood isn’t blurred, but a thick jagged edge.


Please let me know your thoughts!
Image source

This was previously published in the Quail Bell Magazine


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