Beneath the Fallen Leaves: A Short Story

With the wind blowing outside like this, I can tell it’s going to be a dreary day.  Dreary in the best possible sense, of course, seeing as I love it when the weather is cool, wet, and breezy.  I am always at my most alive on days like these.  It isn’t often that I get to enjoy them, though.  There always seems to be some place to be, some person to meet, or some thing to get done….  I usually try to convince myself that I can get it all handled in time to soak up the last hours of bliss to myself, but this rarely occurs.  I’ve become accustomed to just ignoring the irritation I experience whenever I realize my day has been spent, with no change left over for me to buy my own time.  Today is like any other day, whether the weather is of the kind I like or not, so on I’ll go to do all I am to do…

Or will I?

Perhaps instead, I’ll blow off all my commitments and take this day, just this one day, for me.  Perhaps I’ll wrap a scarf around my neck and run out through the moist and chilling woods to my favorite clearing by the river and visit with all the birds and fish.  Perhaps I’ll sing out loud to the trees like a madwoman and not care if I miss the note.  Perhaps I’ll do cartwheels and pick flowers. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Or, perhaps not.

One thing I do know- I have a choice about it.  I can choose to live this day like all my other days.  I can equally as easily choose to create my day how I see fit for my liking.  I understand that both choices inherently carry consequences, and I understand that by not making a choice, I am still making my choice.

So what shall I choose?

That, may take me a moment…

 

 

 

…Or more…

 

. . .

 

. . .

 

This morning, I sat here contemplating what choice I would make about my day, claiming I understood what the consequences of either choice would be…

But how wrong I was…

It has been hours, and I can still see those mangled faces.  How can I get these images to leave me?  What did I do to deserve this waking nightmare?  How did I get to this?…

It started as every other morning: Me at my desk, tasks at hand, meetings to attend, people to call.  I was so resistant to it all, because rarely does my favorite kind of day come around to greet me.  I usually just ignore its calling to me, and go about my work.  Instead, I chose to put that all aside and take the day for myself- to be free to do as I please.  It was beautiful.  I felt so light and so unencumbered…  As soon as I stepped out of my door, I felt the thrill and zest of breath in my lungs.  I experienced a surge of energy come up from the ground through my feet, swirling my body all the way up my spine and through the top of my head.  I felt expanded.  It was as if when I breathed, the Universe breathed with me.  I experienced immediate connection with all things.  It was as if I had just eaten the magic mushroom of consciousness, and my Being encompassed the whole world, as opposed to the world encompassing my Being.  It was in me, I was not in it.  I looked to the sky and commanded the clouds to turn with my mind, and they turned…  I looked to the forest and commanded a path, and the winds picked up the foliage and branches that covered an old piece of railroad that pointed a way into the woods.  I went to it and took my first step onto the board connecting the two rusted and pitted rails.  I peered down to it and noticed it was engraved by hand.  The letters were haphazardly etched with what I assumed was a pocket knife, and they read:  “Go this way” with a crooked arrow pointing ahead.  I loved the fact that I had lived here over a decade, and had hiked these woods thousands of times, and yet, had never seen this before.  Not only was it a literal sign pointing the way, it was a sign that I was on the right track, both literally and figuratively.  The exuberance and power that surged through me was as though I had my hand on a Tesla coil, channeling the electricity in and through my body.  I could hold still no longer.  I plunged myself into the forest, and I ran as if on the wind.  Stumps, limbs, fallen branches, and bushes couldn’t slow me down.  I felt like a mountain lion honed in on my kill…  Although cognitively I had no idea where I was headed, my soul instinctively knew where it was going.  I trusted in this, and let go to its direction.

There was no beaten path.  There were no stepping stones.  There wasn’t even a way that looked clear enough for my body to pass… and yet, with each step that came down in front of me, the wind was a step ahead, blowing apart the leaves and bending the branches aside as I swam through.  Eerily etched along seemingly random trees were those same scrawled little words, “Go this way”.  No arrows to guide me, just the words… Thinking back to it now gives me chills and makes me feel a slight dis-ease, though in that moment I was clear and calm and merely buzzing with the energy of the Universe pulsing through me.  There was nothing that could stop me.  Nothing.

And then there was black.

I don’t know how long I had lain there, amongst the dead leaves and branches.  I couldn’t tell if it was dawn or dusk, or whether it had been moments or days.  I was oddly calm.  I felt as though I were awakening from a long, deep, and restful slumber.  I imagined for a moment that I must have looked like Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, as she lay encased as the sun streamed in to meet her face.  I looked upward through the thick canopy above, and began to orient myself again.  I tried in vain to remember how it came to be that I was laying there.  I imagined scenarios of tripping, hitting my head on a low branch, or even just feeling suddenly exhausted and needing a rest, but nothing sparked a memory.  I stood up and noticed the particularly filthy appearance of my pants, as though I had been rolling and sliding in the leaves and moss.  I turned all around to determine if perhaps I had fallen down a hill, but the land was flat for as far as I could see through the trees.

I heard birds singing.  They seemed far away.  I listened hard for any sounds closer to my person, but there were none.  It was dead silent.  It didn’t fully hit me until now that not even the leaves were making a sound… They were muted.  I saw them rustling with my eyes, but there was no sound.  How could it be that I would hear birds far away as they sing to one another, and yet the very leaves before my eyes made no sound whatsoever?  A wave washed over me… I felt blanketed in doubt of my perception.  My feeling of oneness and unity with the All had vanished and I was shrunken inside my vessel, hiding like a rat on a ship.  What had happened here?

I looked down at where I had just been, and I caught a flash of something glimmering in the speckled sunlight.  I knelt down, and in silence, pushed the leaves and debris aside to uncover the source.  It was golden in color, and as I excavated it bit-by-bit, I realized it was a necklace.  Unearthing the last of it, I pulled from the soil a locket, still tightly closed.  I brushed away the dirt and used a stick to pry it open.  The pictures inside were still clean.  There was a dark haired woman on one side, and two small children on the other.  The woman looked as though she was a warm and loving mother, in love with her children.  The kids, whom both greatly resembled their mother, each wore a matching hand-crocheted sweater with their names embroidered on them, Joy and Nathan.  They looked the same age, and I assumed they were twins.  I sat looking at the pictures for what seemed an hour or so before I snapped out of the fantasy life I had built for this family.  It was all at once that the sinking feeling within me smashed into my psyche as I imagined how this necklace and locket might have found its way so deeply into these woods.  For some reason, I knew that they were not the mere remnant of a day hiker’s lost jewelry.  No, there was something much more ominous about this find, something more than I wanted to know.

I again looked up around me in all directions, almost frantically looking for the path to lead me away, when I saw it.  There, on the tree just in front of my eyes, was scrawled the word, “here.”  I felt my skin grow cold.  My muscles stiffened, and my heart started beating on my sternum like a schizoid locked in a padded room.  In a sudden flash of urgency, I sunk my fingertips into the soil and began digging.  I felt the resistance of the earth against my hands as I pulled at it with all the strength I could gather.  Roots of the nearby plants and trees had weaved their way into knots and became entanglements encumbering my effort.  As if trying to inflict some form of ancient Chinese torture, the ground met me with short sticks and pieces of bark that found their way under my fingernails to stab into the soft flesh beneath them.  I was bleeding.  I didn’t care.  I kept digging.

I don’t know what was compelling me to continue, especially since I was well aware that there was nothing good that I would find.  And yet, I continued.

As soon as my fingers touched the cool, hard surface I had been unearthing, something shifted.  Time. Reality.  Existence.  Awareness.  Consciousness.  Connectedness.  The Universe.  It all took a step to the left as I felt myself sink into the wormhole that connected me to this alternate reality.  In a flash, I was no longer myself, but instead a stranger to the body in which I was living.  I looked down with the eyes of another and did not see my own hands.  I saw the dirty and gnarled hands of a man with short fingers covered in callouses and scars from their years of manual labor.  His nails were bitten to the quick, but still managed to collect the dirt as he dug.  At first, I thought the dark globs congealing on his hands and wrists were spatters of mud, as they were as covered in dirt as his fingers.  It was the tunnel vision that struck me as one speckle of sun reflected a glimmer of light revealing the true color and nature of what this substance was, the deep red burning into my awareness like hot coals pressed to the skin.  It became seared into my memory.  I could not comprehend how it was that I came to be there, in that body, in that time.  I tried my hardest to move, but I was restricted to his movements.  I was merely the observer within him, I was not him.

I was held prisoner there, screaming as loud as I could, but he could not hear me.  I watched powerlessly as he dug into the earth with his hands, every now and then glancing around nervously.  Our eyes finally landed on a large metal box with a rope tied around it.  I noticed the drag marks trailing off behind it in the direction from which I came.  The box looked heavy, and the ruts in the earth told the same story.  The man turned our head back to the hole.  He grabbed at a nearby stick to help loosen the earth, and before too long, he was done.  The stick made a thudding noise as he threw it to the ground.  The man grabbed the filthy and frayed rope and dragged the box over to the hole.  He pushed it in, gently at first, then with a shove.  We stood there for a while, looking down at the box.  He dropped us to our knees, slowly, sweat rolling down our cheek, heartbeat pounding through our ears, and he put a hand out to the lid of the box.  He fumbled at the lid, and I attempted to shut my eyes, but he wouldn’t let me.

And there they were.  Joy and Nathan… and their mother.  The pile of blood and mess was atrocious.  Intestines were piled in and around detached hands and feet, the torsos completely decimated. And setting there on top of all their other parts were the heads of this man’s family, staring in horror up at me.  The jagged cuts at their mouths and eyes let the jaws and eyeballs hang loose from where they should be.  I was surprised I could identify them all as the happy people I had just seen inside that locket.

I remembered the locket in that moment, and tried to look around to find it- was it in the box?  Almost as if the man were thinking the same thing, I felt our hand, cut and bruised, reach into the front pocket of our jacket.  It clasped something small and out it came with the locket.  We sat there looking at it, I felt the tears in our eyes, the man was crying.  He used our other hand to pull the lid of the box shut, then he threw the locket on top of it and began pushing the dirt back into the hole.  He covered the box completely and stood up.  We grabbed leaves from the surroundings and tossed them over the loose dirt and ruts.

He pulled out a pocketknife and scrawled on a nearby tree, “here”.

And in that moment, I felt like the ground opened up and I was suddenly  falling.  My eyes couldn’t make out the swirling, winding twist of leaves and branches that I could feel slapping my face and body.  It was as if I was a skydiver without a parachute who’d entered the canopy of the trees on her way down.  Soon I’d hit with a thud, and I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant.  The air rushed out of my lungs on impact, and every part of my body stung.  I couldn’t see anything, only a small pinpoint of light.  As the pinpoint began to expand, the stinging in my limbs began to subside, and I could hear crunching leaves next to me.  I panicked, but I couldn’t move.  Was he there with me?  Was he going to cut my body into bits and parts and shove me in a box in the ground?  I had to move!

I managed to turn my neck toward the sound.  My eyes were starting to focus, and I could make out a small squirrel next to me, digging through the leaves into the ground.  I saw him pull up something small and hold it in his two hands as he nibbled it.  He saw me move, froze with the small nut in his jaw, and then ran off in a hurry up one of the trees.  Only a squirrel…

Had it all been a dream?

Had I really slipped and hit my head?

I flexed the parts of my body that I could, when I felt something jabbing into my right palm.  I managed to sit up, and I looked at my hand.  I held a locket.  It was covered in dirt.  My hands were covered in dirt.  I glanced up to see a freshly turned piled of earth covered loosely with leaves, and my heart began beating faster.  I looked back down at the locket.  I used a twig to help pry it open.  And there was the happy family…  My mother, and my younger brother and sister.

 

….. What did I do?…..

 

 

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