It is good of you to write, and I thank you for it: I am glad at last to hear from another of my kind—and, above all, to have another of my kind acknowledge me. I have indeed, since my return, heard many voices, seen many faces, but the individuals to whom they belong neither hear nor see me in return. I shake them, shout in their ears, but they do not respond. It is as if, for them, I do not exist.
But why then, I wonder, would I exist for you? What is different about you? To put it bluntly, what is wrong with you? By which I suppose I am also asking: what is wrong with me?
• • • •
You ask me what happened. You ask if I can recount to you what passed in the forest—why, though four of us went in, only one came out. First, I must ask how you found me. True, after leaving the forest I returned to my old residence, and have been here since my return. But considering that everyone around me acts as if I do not exist, how did you know I did? Did you deduce somehow that one of us had returned and simply posted letters to all of us in turn? Was I the first of the four you contacted? The last?
What do I need to tell you of the forest before I begin? Since you are not from our city, I do not know what you already know.
We have enjoyed a long friendship, for lack of a better word, with the forest. We foraged there, but did so with care. There were, true, portions of forest that over the years we destroyed, razing whole hectares of ground to make way for our roads, our houses, our farms. We also inadvertently, carelessly, burned down many hectares more. But these were exceptions rather than the rule: nobody should be judged by the exception. Consider them just the momentarily slights of a thoughtless friend. No, for the most part we honored the forest, preserved it.
And what did the forest offer us in return? It provided berries and mushrooms for food, animal skins for clothing, wood to build our shelters and to warm us. It healed us, nurtured us, kept us alive.
Or at least it did so in the past. More recently, no.
But that, no doubt, is why you have written to me.
• • • •
For many years, we had a practice. We would care for our elderly until they were moribund, and then they were taken into hospice. They would wait there a day, a week, perhaps more, and then a delegation would arrive. Elo Havel, they might begin—or with whatever name the individual possessed—you have been chosen to commune with nature. Then they would turn to another individual, say his name, and tell him he had been chosen as well. Eventually the delegation would lead or carry one or several individuals out into the forest. They would be left in a designated place, a certain grove. From there, waving and smiling, they would watch the delegation depart. They were happy to be left there. Their friend, the forest, they trusted would take care of them.
One day they were in the city and the next they were in the forest, and once left in the forest they were never seen again. Never a trace of them, never a sign.
They always went willingly. The forest was their friend. To go into the forest when death approached was the order of things. We had taken from the forest, and now the forest took us in return.
• • • •
And then one day something changed. One of the moribund did not wave, did not smile, when he was left in the grove. He resisted, and when the delegation left, he screamed and begged them to come back. When they would not, he tried to follow, and, despite his frailty, managed to leave the grove. The delegation rapidly conferred about this man crawling after them, about what to do with him. There was talk of breaking his legs so he could not follow, but they could not agree to this. There was talk of letting him return to the city: if he did not care to be taken into the embrace of the forest, then why insist? But they could not agree to this either.
What, in the end, they could agree to was to pick the man up bodily, carry him back into the grove, and lash him to the trunk of a tree. When he continued to scream, a delegate removed both of the man’s stockings and wadded them into his mouth. And then the delegation turned and left.
What did the other moribund do as this occurred? Just observed, saddened perhaps at the man’s failure to understand and accept his role. They did nothing to interfere. They exhibited no desire to leave the grove. When one of the delegation circled back to see if one of the other moribund had released the recalcitrant man, he found that they had not. They had gathered around him; those who could still stand were stroking his face and arms, attempting to calm him, but they did not free him.
Two days later, the delegation returned to the grove with more of the moribund. As usual, there was no trace of the individuals who had not resisted. But with the man who had resisted it was different. He was gone, but substantial trace of him did remain: an immense amount of blood spilled upon the remains of the rope and splashed up the bole of the tree. When the new group of the moribund saw this, they collectively expressed a desire not to be left in the forest. They began to scream and shout, and resisted. But since they were weak, they were quickly subdued. One of the delegation was sent running back to the city in search of more rope to lash them. Soon they were tied up and left. That was the end of them.
Perhaps if the delegation had chosen a different grove, perhaps if the moribund had not been confronted with the frayed rope and the blood, things might have reverted to the way they had been before. But instead, the grove grew more and more spattered with blood, and the chosen became more and more panicked. Quickly, as word spread, to be sent to the forest was deemed more punishment than release.
• • • •
The forest began to change, too, as if instead of sheltering those who had been its friends, it now fed upon their fear. The trees of the grove became wracked and twisted, and a blight spread from the grove to the forest at large. Some said this was due to people no longer going willingly into the forest, others that the blight had not started in the grove, but was instead due to the houses and the roads we had built: a slurry of chemicals and pollutants had leeched into the ground and sickened the trees. Something, in any case, was wrong with the forest. There were those who felt we should no longer bring people to the woods at the end of their lives. But what else were we to do with these nearly dead? The tradition was strong enough to continue.
• • • •
And so, it kept on, for months, then for years, until we came to believe this was the way things were meant to be, that we were meant to meet the end of life in darkness and terror. We stayed shy of the forest except to bring the moribund to the grove. Even the delegation, elected by us, now shivered to enter the forest and hurried quickly away. Many of these, having observed over and over again those they had taken into the forest screaming and afraid, chose to kill themselves when their own time came, preferring self-murder to whatever fate might await them within the grove.
The city folded in on itself, becoming a shadow of its former self, as twisted and broken as the forest itself. Many moved to other places. But some stayed on, waiting, living in broken-down houses in a moribund city beside a moribund forest as they themselves grew moribund, because they had nowhere else to go.
• • • •
I was among those who stayed. By the time the forest and the city began to change, I was too set in my ways to flee, and I knew I was dying. A decade before, I had served as a member of the delegation. I had seen the fright of the moribund, had even tied certain of them to trees. I knew what awaited me in the forest: fear. And yet I stayed.
Time passed. I lived what was left of my life and attempted to forget what I had seen, what I had done. I was often successful. I loved my children and grandchildren. As I grew increasingly frail, I realized I did not want to lose the time I could have with them, even if it meant ending my life tied to a tree in the grove.
Soon I went from frail to fragile and then fell and broke several of my bones. The doctors set these bones, but when they did not heal properly, it was decided I would be sent to hospice. And so I went. My son and daughter would not look at me when they said goodbye. My grandchildren would, but only because they had no clear idea where I was going or what would happen to me there. I embraced my loved ones and entered limbo.
Each day as I awoke in hospice I wondered: Will this be the day that they call my name? A day went by, then two, then a week, then a month. My bones still did not heal properly, but they got no worse. Soon, I learned to walk with a crutch. Others were called, even those who had come to the hospice after me, but never me. Perhaps I won’t be called, I began thinking after a time. Perhaps I will prove myself sufficiently able that I will be allowed to return to my life.
• • • •
And then: Elo Havel, they called through the hospice’s open doorway. Elo Havel!
“Yes?” I said, and hobbled forward. “That is my name. What do you want?”
You have been chosen to commune with nature, said the delegation, for of course it was they.
• • • •
Other names were called out just after mine, but I cannot be expected to remember what those names were. My head was swimming. I experienced difficulty thinking. Before I knew it, I was being carried into the forest, each arm wrapped around the neck of a delegate as they transported me to meet my fate—just as I, in my time as a delegate, had carried others. There were, I realized, once I gathered myself again, three of the moribund besides me, each apprehensive, but none as of yet panicked.
• • • •
We could smell the blood long before we arrived. It had been bad when I had seen it a decade before, back when I was a delegate, but now it had grown much, much worse. As we entered the grove, countless flies arose buzzing from the ground. There were maggots, too, wriggling on the damper portions of the earth which were, I couldn’t help but notice, always to be found at the base of a tree. The trees of the grove were dead and dry, mere collections of sticks now, bleached by sun, ghosts of the trees they had once been.
First one of our number began screaming, and then another, then the third. The second tried, to the best of his ability considering the severity of his ailments, to flee. I, who had at least some idea what to expect, was the only one of the four capable (if only just) of maintaining my composure.
The delegates, too, I realized, were nearly as upset. They were eager to tie me and my companions so they could leave, and this made them inadvertently cruel. I did not judge them: I saw my past self in them—I had been slightly less panicked perhaps, since the state of the grove had not been nearly so horrific, but had still been gruff and blunt and eager to be gone.
I took it as best I could, with what equanimity I could muster. I let them tie me to a dead tree, even did my best to aid them. I was struck in the face for my pains. I did my best to receive that blow with equanimity as well.
• • • •
In the end, they left, and left us alone. I could hear the others shouting and weeping around me. I did my best to block this out. I did not want to meet my death that way. Here I am, I thought, there is nothing I can do about it. I will soon be dead. There is no point in being afraid.
I waited for whatever would come. I tried, best I could, considering the circumstances, to clear my mind, clear my thoughts, blot out the groans and cries around me. I thought of my life, my son and daughters, my grandchildren, what it was like to see them and be with them. I kept thinking of this, somehow, despite the wails that once again rose up around me. I kept my eyes closed and tried to imagine myself elsewhere, back to the life I had left.
One by one the screams of the others were abruptly cut off. Something was moving among us, something vast, snorting. I kept my eyes clenched shut, still trying best I could to imagine myself elsewhere. The faces of my family continued to hover before my eyes, but as the sounds came closer, these faces grew distorted and monstrous.
And then I sensed the creature before me, its breath hot on my face. I hesitated a moment, then opened my eyes.
• • • •
What did I see? Surely that is the only reason you have bothered to write me at all. Surely this is what you want to know. What sort of creature was it?
I am afraid I am in little position to enlighten you, having only the evidence of my eyes to guide me. It seemed to me a creature made of broken branches and loam and hunks of tar, twisted metal, shards of glass. An odd amalgam of dead forest and city refuse, it moved in an extraordinary, rolling fashion, at once so hideous and so marvelous that I found myself unable to cry out or even breathe. The others who had been lashed to the trees around me were already gone, tatters of bloody rope the only indication they had once been in the grove. And indeed, the muzzle of the thing, to the degree to which it could be said to have a muzzle, was slick with blood. I did not quite believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I believed instead that my mind had substituted what it could bear to see for whatever was actually there. I closed my eyes again, and waited for it to kill me.
And yet for some reason it did not kill me. Instead, when I finally opened my eyes again, it was to find myself alone, dawn just breaking. I struggled my way free of the ropes and then stood. Unaccountably, I felt better than I had felt in months. I could walk again, even without the aid of a crutch. The forest, I have come in time to believe, had chosen not to destroy me but rather to heal me.
• • • •
For a long time I hesitated over what to do. I could not, I knew, remain within that desolate grove. But should I go back to the city or should I continue deeper into the forest, find perhaps a place still verdant and alive? Was I part of the forest now? I honestly was unsure. But in the end, the draw of city and family was too strong. And so I returned.
Almost immediately I came to understand I had made the wrong choice.
• • • •
I have told you already what I found when I returned to the city. Everything was as I had left it, but it no longer acknowledged me. It was as if I no longer existed. I was no ghost—I could physically grasp those around me, but they did not seem aware of my touch: they would stop their motion or conversation until I released them, but that was all. Even my grandchildren stared through me. Something had happened to me when I was in the forest. I had, in some measure, been transformed.
Yet it gave me some pleasure to watch them even if I could not be seen. Thus, I found myself back in the house I had once occupied, before my forced removal to hospice: an observer of the lives that had once been close to mine, alive for myself but not for anyone around me, a ghost of sorts, but a curious one.
It is here that your letter has found me. It gives me hope, your letter, that I still exist for someone, that one of the delegates found one undamaged set of ropes and believes that someone survived. Even hope that there are others like me, that Elo Havel is not alone.
• • • •
That is all I can offer you concerning the forest and concerning myself. What can you tell me in return? Who are you, and what? Has your experience some connection to my own? Can we perhaps meet face to face? If we do, will you be aware of me? Can you help me?
I eagerly await your reply. But I shall not wait forever. I shall not even wait long. I understand better with each passing day that this is no longer the place for me, that I do not belong. The forest beckons. I belong to it now. Do not hesitate too long to reply or you shall find me gone.