by Allen Griffin

Richard woke up early even though he had the day off. The sun started to rise, the light filtered through the shades like little javelins of light stretching across the bedroom ceiling. He could hear Nadia downstairs getting ready for work. Her hair dryer droned through the house, replacing the sound of the box fan they used while they slept.

He shuffled down the steps, considered sneaking up on her, but decided he was still too groggy. He poked his head through the door instead and waited for her to notice. She was bent over drying the back of her hair which dangled nearly to the floor in a silky, black waterfall. When she stood back up straight, she was still surprised to see him and he thought how easy it would have been to get in a good scare.

“Good morning,” she said and he replied likewise. “There’s coffee already made.” She smiled and leaned into kiss him. Nadia leaned her head into his chest and feigned sleep. He ran his hands up down her back, felt the silk of her dress slide beneath his fingertips.

“Ok,” she sat patting her hands against his chest. “Gotta get ready.” She turned her attention back to the mirror over the sink. He watched for a moment as she began to brush her hair out, lost in the reflection of the two of them, blending together in his groggy mind.

Richard turned and followed the scent of coffee to the kitchen. The cat darted in and out between his feet wanting to be fed, although he was sure Nadia had already given her food when she got up. He poured himself a big cup and went into the den, plopping himself down in front of computer.

He resisted checking his work e-mail. Checking it would likely upset him or stress him out for reasons he could only guess at. A different disaster awaited him on a daily basis and he promised himself, on this vacation day, he would disengage from the quagmire completely.

He opened the weather website instead. Cold but no rain in the forecast, which was perfect. Fall had about run its course and he hoped to get in one last good hike before the snow came.

Nadia came in, almost falling while slipping her shoes onto her feet. Richard swiveled the chair around seeking his kiss goodbye.

“I’m off.” She leaned over to kiss him and he slipped his hand beneath the hem of her dress, brushing her thigh.

“Hey mister…” she slapped his hand away and giggled. He continued smiling as she left the room. He stared at the empty doorway until he heard the door to the garage slam shut. He felt the smile across his lips and it made him smile a little more and then, almost laugh at himself for the moment.

He turned back to the monitor and once again thought hard about glancing at his work account. He knew if something upset him he won’t be able to shake free from it. The car ride down, if not the whole day, would be lost, his mind lost to misery.

*             *             *

Richard enjoyed a sense of freedom on these hikes which he hadn’t felt since he was young. The freedom might have been relative, if he let his mind wander too far afield, the work and the responsibilities would come rushing back, drowning out the peace of the forest.

The forest was his church, old and sacred, but no one there told him what to believe. Belief was a consequence of this environment, a truth with no need to assert itself.

Richard made good time on the empty trails. This was a national forest and required a little extra effort to get to, not like a quick trip to the park. The November chill also kept others away and he was glad. He had the place to himself. There was no one around for miles.

Towering pines alternated with oak and ash trees, the trail dropping imperceptibly off towards the reservoir which was still a couple of miles ahead. Richard felt his joints loosening up. The further he went the better he felt. For a brief moment, youth didn’t elude him.

His mind wandered back. Nearly fifteen years ago, he walked this same trail not alone, nor with Nadia, but with Melissa. They had been together nearly six months and things were going great. He enjoyed walking behind her as they headed down the trail. She skipped at times, acting goofy if the truth be told, but her mood was infectious. About a mile on to the trail, Richard stopped and pulled his backpack off.

“What are you stopping for?” Melissa asked.

“You know how we’re always joking that I’m going to take you out into the woods and kill you?” he said as he pulled a large knife out of his pack. Her eyes were wide with mock terror and then they both giggled. He tossed the knife, still in its sheath, to her and nodded towards her feet. A large geode stuck halfway out of the ground. She almost tripped on it when they were walking.

One could still find geodes on the trail back then, little cauliflowers of rock half-buried in the dirt and mud. Melissa hoped to recover a few and break them open and polish the crystal. Richard didn’t realize at the time the Parks Department frowned on this.

“I almost forgot to bring something to dig them up with. This was all I could find last minute.”

Before long they found a couple of other smaller ones, and now Richard’s backpack hung heavy on his shoulders. They continued down the trail until they got to point where they could see the reservoir at the bottom of a hill just off the right side. The hill was quite steep but they made their way down.

Richard wanted to leave his backpack at the trail, but Melissa insisted he bring the geodes with them. He protested, not wanting to be burdened by the weight but she insisted. He threatened to just roll them down but she feared they would be lost in the brush or would hit a tree trunk and smash open.

The way down was quick, but Richard already anticipated the effort it would take to come back up. The hill leveled out and they fought their way through the brush to reach the shore of the reservoir. About twenty yards from the water, there was a clearing in the brush. A tall thick tree stood high above the bushes around it, and at the base of the trunk, embedded in the ground was a large black rock. The stone was flat on top and must have been at least four feet across. The surface was like a black mirror and the whole thing gave the impression of a naturally occurring altar.

“Whoa…”Richard said under his breath. They stared for a few long moments and then Melissa turned to Richard.

“Let me see your pack,” she said. Richard let the backpack slide from his shoulder, handed it to her and she took the weight of it into both arms, cradling it like a child. She set the backpack gently on the ground and slid the zipper open. She pulled out the largest geode, the first one they found.

“What are you doing with that?” She didn’t answer him. She stood up and hefted the rock over her head, turning towards the black rock. She threw the geode down as hard as she could on the altar. They both turned away, shielding their eyes, as the two rock smashed together. When they turned back around the geode lay in pieces.

“I figured I better give that altar something before one of us gets that knife out again.” They both laughed. Richard kneeled down and wiped the stone fragments and dust from the surface of the black stone. To his surprise, the surface was unscathed by the collision.

Richard looked around and tried to take his bearings. He wanted to come back here on his next hike.

…And he kept coming back all those intervening years. The recollection of that day accompanied him the rest of the way down the trail and he stood in the same clearing once again, fifteen some odd years later.

The rock and the tree looked the same as the first day he saw them. The tree was of a species he didn’t recognize. The bark was ridged like an ash, but smoother and more rounded. The color was a smoky-grey white, but there were little veins of red running throughout also.

Richard sat down cross-legged on the black rock. He had been determined for weeks to come to this place and meditate. This was his little act of defiance against the maelstrom of work and responsibilities his life had become. Meditation at home was helpful but he couldn’t go very deep, the forest was the only place could really dive within.

He closed his eyes and within moments he slipped down deep. The wind rustled through the trees, rattling the few desiccated leaves that still clung to the branches. The woods whisper-rattled, the water lapped gently at the shore, barely audible from the clearing. The peace seemed colossal; he sat undisturbed for an infinite moment.

The sound of something scurrying snapped Richard’s eyes open. He tried to place what he was hearing… the sound of claws or maybe fingernails tapping on wood. Had an animal taken up residence inside the tree?

Yet now he became aware of another sound, a strange drone, a low bass note not so much audible, but more of a sensation. He could feel the sound in his breast plate, in his skull. His vision blurred like a camera going in and out of focus.

The forest was silent now. No birds chirped, the leaves stilled; the wind had died off; the water unmoving as if frozen. Richard’s own mind was already silent from the meditation and now his brain sank into the environment. He stood up on the black rock without knowing why. He stared at the tree in front of him.

He reached out and laid his hands on the bark and then began to dig his fingernails into the wood. Pieces began to pull away like a plaster mold. He calmly removed the bark and something within the tree began to reveal itself; a face, a man’s face but with transparent skin, the eyes closed but twitching like he was dreaming.

Beneath the translucent skin, Richard could see the strange anatomy of this person, flesh and red and blue veins, but also little gears of bone turning in the dark folds of the brain, a twinkling. These recesses reminded him of looking through a telescope at celestial bodies. The tree man’s lips began to twitch and he murmured a relentless stream of alien syllables. Richard’s mind didn’t recognize the language, if one could call it that, but his soul felt a certain wisdom being imparted.

“…if the eyelid of the universe flutters…this is of a magnitude greater than the existence of humanity… your actions… nothing matters… truth is a wisp of dust… lost on the surface of a grain of sand… in a desert ocean of infinity…”

The man in the tree didn’t so much speak these words as allow Richard to think them. Day began to turn to night and then back again. Richard looked up and the stars spun in the sky, circling an axis which was somewhere past the horizon. He felt small and growing smaller.

Richard turned to the clearing behind him. A tall figure stood behind him, first with the face of Melissa, and then Nadia, and then neither. The creature seemed to melt before his gaze, shrinking to a strange animal on four legs and finally to some kind of slimy aquatic creature. The being scurried off into the woods and everything went black.

*             *             *

Richard didn’t remember leaving the clearing or hiking back to his car. The trance didn’t begin to lift until the long drive home. He turned on the radio and left the station on the public radio news show.

The closer he was to home, the more Richard questioned his experience. With each passing farm house and gas station, he sunk back to normalcy. He had been meditating for years and nothing like this had ever happened. Surely, he merely crossed the border into sleep and dream.

Richard began to push his mind towards work. The tensions rose up his spine, his shoulders lifted and his jaw tightened. These thoughts may have been an imperfect solution to his episode, but they proved effective. Whatever had happened, he came away with an understanding that nothing mattered. Not his job or anything else, but he also felt an attraction to drag himself back into the mire, to let himself become once again, distracted.

He beat Nadia home but by only about thirty minutes. He jumped in the shower and washed away the dirt from the hike. She walked in the door just as he was getting out. He stalked the house naked.

“What’s up nude one,” she asked. “You gonna put some clothes on there?”

“I was thinking maybe you could take yours off…or maybe I could take them off for you?”

“Maybe later, right now I’m starving.”

Richard admitted to himself that he too was hungry. He let the disappointment pass. He walked to the oven and flipped it on and then pulled a pizza out the freezer.

“I guess we’re having pizza,” Nadia said,” that’s fine but you should really put some clothes on.”

Richard flashed a grin and turned, quickly reaching his arms out. She knew the game and they dashed to the bedroom where he caught her and tickled her until she became annoyed. Then they both put on sweats and t-shirts and waited for the pizza to bake.

*             *             *

They went to bed early that night. Snow began to fall in the early evening, just enough to leave a light dusting. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Richard was glad he hiked when he did; it would have been much colder if he’d waited.

Richard tried to initiate sex as soon as the lights went out, but Nadia wiggled away from his advances. She promised to “have playtime” the following evening and he couldn’t blame her; they were both tired, although he didn’t fall asleep right away.

He stared at the numbers on the alarm clock and listened to the wind. The red light from the clock reminded him of flame and he wished there was a fireplace in the bedroom. He slipped in and out of half-sleep but never really went deeper.

Richard’s mind began to roll his vision from earlier around in his head. He had said nothing to Nadia, it felt too private. He felt his life was insignificant, that was what he took away from the whole thing. But it was insignificant in a good way. No matter what he did with his life, the biggest victories or the grandest mistakes, none of it mattered. The realization felt like freedom.

Restless, Richard rose from bed and went into the bathroom, being as quiet as possible. He didn’t want Nadia to wake up. He flipped on the light above the sink and stared into the mirror.

His eyes gazed into themselves for as long as he could bear. As they began to take in his own face, he felt like his skin was transparent and he saw the same clockwork mechanisms turning beneath his skin that he saw in the man in the tree. He watched the blood pump and the wheels turn.

Blue and red veins twisted around each other and blood flowed around the engine of flesh. The bones of the skull strobed from white to black, so slowly and the muscles in the face twitched, sending ripples across the mirror. He marveled at how fragile the whole thing appeared.

Slowly, the vision began to fade. Richard saw his face as it always was. On impulse, he reached into the cabinet below the sink and pulled out Nadia’s make-up bag. Looking at his face, he brushed the darkest blush onto the mirror’s surface and then applied heavy amounts of dark eyeliner and her silver eye shadow. He then took her bright red lipstick and pressed it hard into the mirror, smearing red lines across the surface.

He stared at what he had done. An abstract constellation of stars danced on the mirror’s surface, a painting of impulsive futility. Tears welled up in his eyes and soon he was weeping in torrents. He ran the tap and splashed water on his face, but he only cried harder and he began to sob out loud.

Richard pressed his face against the mirror, letting the water and his tears intermingle with the make-up until the surface was a wet paste of silver and red, tree bark and blood. He only cried harder when Nadia knocked on the bathroom door to find out if he was ok.