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The trail carved into the woods at an angle, so that after walking just a few yards their view of the house with its armor of moss-matted shingles and fieldstone walls was cut off. As they continued, the trail behind them ducked out of sight. The path ahead rolled up beneath their feet as though it had not yet existed before they came upon it. The forest was coming into being as they paced onward, thrummed into existence by the rhythm of their footsteps.
“I think I left the stove on,” she said, stopping suddenly, and the revolving track of the path shuddered to a standstill at the edge of her shoes.
“You didn’t leave the stove on,” he said. “I checked.”
“If I left the stove on, and the cat gets into it, the kitchen could catch on fire and the whole place could burn down by the time we get back.”
He shuffled backward from the spot where he had stopped, a few yards ahead of her, and pawed beseechingly at her arm.
“The stove is off. You’re catastrophizing.”
She didn’t move or respond to his touch. When he released her arm, she let it drop like a dead thing. “What’s catastrophizing?”
“It’s kind of like pessimism for overachievers. Come on.”
She paused for a moment before following him, reflecting on the familiar expression that his face had assumed when he realized why she was stopping. It was the same expression he wore as he watched her coming back to bed after getting up for the third time in one night, and when she woke up in the morning feeling like there was a mouse inside her chest. It was the expression she had observed that night they had driven back to the city from his sister’s wedding in Maine. He had reached over to take her hand and told her that she was the woman he’d like to marry. She had dipped her head between her knees and vomited.
Now his face had returned to its accustomed arrangement, a steadily measured compound of calm and playfulness, and the sun, incising the forest through the leaves, cast a living patchwork of light and dark over his features. He looked like the man that anyone would like to marry. Though he seemed light and cheerful she knew that there was a spring coiled tightly in him, braced between his wiry shoulders, that was ready to leap into action if he sensed that they were in danger. He had that kind of protective animal instinct, inherited from grandfathers in war and great-grandfathers at sea, that was typically atrophied in a man of their generation, but in him it was vigorous and well developed. Like hers, his mind was a machine engaged in the endless processing of potentialities, whirring through every possible outcome. But while his way of managing the machine was to fortify his defenses in preparation for the inevitable catastrophe, she found herself caught and mangled inside its gears, forced to cycle through its chambers over and over again.
She watched his face as it was continuously destroyed and recreated in the patterns of sun and shadow, and trained her eye on him with a detached, anthropological interest. He was saying something about the vegetables they would plant in the garden in the fall and the fences they would build to keep out raccoons and deer, but she registered the content of his words only superficially. Her attention was attuned to other things, coded messages embedded in the inflections of his voice and in the gestures of his hands, that might make him legible to her in the ways that she wanted him to be legible. What parts of me, she wondered, will you come to resent – or more realistically, resent already? And when you bury those resentments, as you must, in order to keep this thing between us going, will you bury them beneath an appreciation for my better qualities? Or will you smother them beneath the knowledge that you’ve made your choice – that you are an honorable man who made a commitment, for whom there is only one way forward?
Her distracted brain dully assimilated the fact that the path had begun to slope downward, bringing them into a cooler and darker part of the forest. The ground was softening beneath their feet, the air thickening, while the path ahead continued to meander and twist in a way that made it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. She thought they had lost sight of the trail markers, and her heart jogged in her throat. But a few moments later they came to a weathered wooden sign, shaped into an arrow that pointed down a detour off the trail, carved with the words Witch Hole Pond.
Let’s leave,she thought, as they turned down the detour, and the ground beneath them sank even lower, quickening their steps toward unforeseen depths. Let’s turn around and go back to the house and stay there, she thought, as the woods on either side of them drew closer as though hurtling toward a far-off vanishing point, drawing them onward with a steady magnetic lure.
She didn’t say it aloud, of course, because she had already expended her self-imposed quota of complaints in verbalizing her anxieties about the stove. By carefully selecting the worries she exposed and dispensing them on a regular schedule she could cultivate the illusion that they were only shallow concerns – and not existential crises that wore down to the bone – and that they were relatively rare, fleeting things, rather than a ceaseless interior drone.
She followed him down the detour because that was something he seemed to want to do; it didn’t matter how much it mattered to him or what she wanted – you give more weight to his thoughtless whims than you do to your own deep-seated convictions, she told herself. You’d cut off your own flesh to feed him if he was slightly hungry. For a moment the raw, pulsing mental image was sufficient to distract her from her racing heartbeat.
The trail felt as though it was staged – it was performative, as someone in one of her college anthropology classes might have said, manipulating the landscape and their bodies inside of it in order to render a particular kind of experience. They couldn’t see the pond but they could sense its increasing proximity in the moist air and the deadening of sound and the smell, musty with the earthy notes of wet things left to rot. There was an earnestness and an honesty to the scent of decay which she appreciated more now that she was older – now that the ritualized incantation of anti-aging spells had become audible to her. She found all the talk of staving off age to be disturbing; old people talked about their own bodies as if dealing with things that were already dead, stripped and dehydrated and molded into an uncanny facsimile of life. She imagined living inside a taxidermy shell of herself, the cold clinical measures directed at her desiccated flesh, the sour antiseptic stench of concoctions meant to hold the cells in stasis—
You don’t need to think about this now,she thought. You’re young and you still have many years ahead of you. There were no stigmata of age on her face yet (she checked daily). Her body was lithe and vigorous. Can’t you feel your heart working, now, your young, healthy heart, pulsing fresh life through your body? And its telomeres steadily shortening with every moment, she thought, the chronometers in her molecules winding down like rickety clocks.
Perhaps it was the path, working its tricks, or maybe it was her own distracted mind that effected the illusion, but when the pond finally appeared it was as though it emerged from behind a curtain, as though it hadn’t yet existed before they came to it – as though their coming to it had summoned it into being.
She wouldn’t have called it a pond. To her it was a small lake, banded by a dense circlet of fir trees, its jeweled waters studded with rocks – the type of sand-colored, craggy boulders that proliferated in that part of Maine and were used as raw material for every structure imaginable, including their own little house and the walls around the garden. She would have called it a lake, and given it a different, less spooky name, but what did she know? She had grown up in a suburb, where a pond was what they designated the part of the backyard that grew a giant puddle when it rained, and the stand of five trees along the picket fence was a jungle.
The path led them along the circumference of the pond, and as they walked, the forest changed. At times it was open, allowing a clear view of the water and the trees on the opposite bank, and of the bushy green undergrowth that grew between them. At other times their view into the pond was obstructed by the bleached stalks of dead trees, tilted and braced against each other to form a triangular window through which they could glimpse the insects prickling the surface of the water.
They came to a small bridge, crossing a crooked stream of water that fed into the pond. The shadows from the trees were particularly close in that spot, as though converging on a central point, a vortex of pure darkness where the air was completely still and bracingly cold. This was where he chose to take her hand. She sensed the warmth of it, the familiar nip of his calluses against her skin, but she was too unsettled to appreciate the gesture.
“Let’s go back,” she said, against her better judgment.
Because I’m afraid. Isn’t that the reason for everything I do? Because on the inside I’m just a panicked animal running through a maze. Where most people have desires and motivation, I have fear. Fear is my substitute for a soul.
She shook her head, unable to answer.
“We’re already more than halfway around,” he said. “If we just keep going it will go faster than if we double back.”
She didn’t quite grasp his logic – how did he know that the path went in a loop? But she acquiesced, wordlessly capitulating and resenting him slightly for it as though he were a tyrant who wielded absolute control over her. This was how she passively disenfranchised herself, displacing her own inner tyrannies onto him. She resented him for the suggestions he made, which she accepted unquestioningly, and for the annoying tics and habits – his frozen feet needling her in bed – that she tolerated silently. She had volunteered to leave the city, to realize his dreams of dreams of building a homestead in the woods, rendering a sacrifice he had never asked her to make and infuriatingly did not seem grateful for. And now they were deep in the wilderness and would likely soon be dead, if not from the malevolent forces she sensed pulsing through that part of the forest, then from starvation when their meager harvest failed to take root.
She was thinking about the garden and of the tiny bead-sized leaves that had only just begun to unfurl along the fine channels in the earth, when she realized that her hand was empty. The trail in its serpentine course had bucked again, and thrown him off of it entirely.
There was a game she liked to play in her head ever since she was a child. It was called Escape Hatch. She had invented it in first grade one morning when her stomach was queasy and her heart felt like a tiny motor purring in her chest. She imagined raising her hand and asking to use the bathroom. The teacher would nod his permission. Then, on her way down the hall, she would turn the other way and sneak out the front door. No one would see her because she was still short enough to duck her head and avoid the gaze of the receptionist over her desk. Once she was outside she knew the way to get home. She had memorized the route; it was about four miles, only six turns, right-right-left-right-left-right.
Knowing that she could leave at any time and manage her way home on her own accord loosened the tight cords in her gut. The irony of Escape Hatch was that in perfecting her plan, mentally mapping its coordinates and choreographing its gestures, the impulse to run away diminished. She never left school.
As she grew up, the game evolved. In her mind, she packed her suitcase and walked three miles to catch the last train home on the first day of college. Before her first date – with a narrow-faced, greasy-haired boy from her art history class named Josh – she visited the restaurant a day in advance and took note of where the exits were and how easy it would be to slip out without his detection. During the first week she worked at the Aldrich Historical Museum she made a habit of arriving early in order to look up the route back to her house on her computer. Of course she knew the route – she had just walked it, after all – but she found it soothing to look at, a visual representation of her ability to flee. If she had to, she could pull the lever on her job – on her life, on anything – and disappear.
At times the game was a soothing and even enjoyable diversion, a way of reminding herself of her own resourcefulness – she wasn’t trapped, after all; she was in control, and knowing that she could go or stay, according to her own will, was a source of power.
But at other times the game was a source of humiliation, a revolting habit that she couldn’t stop. It was embarrassing to recall how she had opened her eyes just a sliver during her first kiss with the man who was to be her life partner in order to make sure that the door to his apartment was still there. If necessary, she was to grab her purse – it was on the hook by the door – and run the six blocks to the bus station. And it was shameful to find, among all of her pleasant recollections of the day, a memory that stuck out from the rest like a shard of glass: that as she walked down the aisle, even as she said I do, she had been playing the game. In her head she planned how she would return all of the gifts with a note of apology to each giver. She would ask her Aunt Emma for the name of her divorce lawyer. She would move back in with her parents and let him keep the apartment, but she would take the cat and the Windsor chairs she had inherited from her grandmother.
Thus from the very beginning – sealed into its foundation – there was a cowardice in her role as a wife that went beyond the simple fear of displeasing him (which was in itself a source of significant shame for her, a self-identified feminist). It was a fear of taking responsibility for her own life, her own decisions. Without wanting or asking for it, he shouldered that burden for her. And so, when things went wrong – when he hated his dull office job, when their apartment was burglarized, when they both became weary and disenchanted with the city and the life that he had chosen – there was no one to blame but him. Perhaps that was why he had thrown himself so enthusiastically – almost fanatically – into this quest for a new life, so radically different from the one they had been living.
And now, alone on the edge of Witch Hole Pond, she could comfort herself with the fact that she had done nothing to bring this on herself – or perhaps more accurately, that she had brought this on herself by doing nothing, by being no one but the shallow reflection of a man’s desires.
She called his name, softly at first, as though to avoid waking something that she sensed lying dormant in the long reeds that shaded either side of the path, then louder, with as much volume as her lungs could muster. She thought of retracing their steps back to the main trail and following it back to the homestead, but what would she do there, in an empty house, while he was somewhere out here, searching for her? The knowledge – as concrete and real to her as any solid object – that he would never stop looking until he found her weighed on her heart like lead. She decided to go onward, to see if the trail looped around as he’d suggested.
The branches of the trees above her slotted together like laced fingers, admitting only small, mobile pinpricks of light onto the forest floor. She was surprisingly calm. His absence freed her from the scrutiny of his gaze. She had spent so much time as a performer beneath the glare of that spotlight that she had forgotten the person she was when it was turned off.
The scene came to her like something from outside of time, like a fragment of a dream that had broken off and fallen into reality. It was a little ramshackle hut made of dark wood and sandy stone. Like a cross between a log cabin and the Pilgrim cottages at Plymouth, it was old-fashioned but belonged to no particular time period: a child’s primitive drawing of a house rendered life-size in bristly thatch and unpainted clapboards. It was set into an alcove of the forest with just a few feet separating it on each side from the rutted trunks. The windows, narrow slits without panes, were lit with a ruddy orange glow. There was no motion or sound from the house or its surroundings except the narrow plume of smoke uncoiling from the chimney.
Her husband had once defended them both from a mugger on their way home from a restaurant in the city, throwing the man back with the flat part of his forearm just as he was brandishing the knife. But for all his courage in the face of worldly dangers he had an intense aversion toward any suggestion of the supernatural, ghostly or witchy things, dark tales and horror stories. He had walked out of a theater once during a Halloween showing of The Haunting and he had adamantly refused to listen to her read aloud a passage of Lovecraft. The little house was not overtly threatening like a robber or a murderer; it simply sat there, its very presence a sinister provocation. She knew that he would be tugging at her arm by this point, pleading with her to keep going.
But he wasn’t there, and she wasn’t bound to his wishes. She walked through the open door.
There was another game she played, less compulsive and more relaxing than Escape Hatch. It was more like a daydream or a satisfying puzzle, the kind that required just enough effort to be interesting.
In this game she imagined what her life would be like if she hadn’t met her husband, or one of the other men she had dated, or anyone at all. Instead of moving to the city, she would have stayed in Aldrich, working at the museum in the town where she had grown up. After a few years living with her parents, she would have saved enough money to buy a place of her own. Real estate in Aldrich was cheap, and she might have bought a one-bedroom house on a tree-lined street, the kind of house she always referred to in her mind as a Spinster’s Cottage. In her cottage every object would be carefully chosen and arranged. She would line up rows of antique bottles on the bookshelves and hang her grandfather’s watercolors on every wall. She would have three or four cats and cultivate a reputation as an eccentric. The neighborhood children would know her as the lady who let them pick raspberries from her garden, and she would nurture a relationship with them akin to a distant aunt or cousin, fondly regarded but never intruded upon. Perhaps she would have affairs: discreet, informal liaisons with men who knew better than to ask for her affections or her allegiance. Or maybe not.
She wouldn’t wake up to cold feet or hairy legs or have to chip dried shaving cream and stubble from the sink. She wouldn’t have to visit his friends or his family or pretend to be interested in the things that interested him. That chunk of her time, of her attention, of her body that she had deeded to him would be returned to her, and her life would be wholly hers. A tidy, circumscribed, solitary life.
The thought of this game came to her as she stepped into the house and surveyed the carefully swept floorboards, the massive timbers bracing the roof, and the cavernous fireplace shuddering with flames. Along one wall, there was a long wooden shelf that held a pewter cup, a pewter plate, and a ceramic bowl. The only furniture in the house – which was all one room – was a small circular table, a chair, and a bed, with high posts and neatly gathered curtains. Baskets and bunches of dried herbs hung from the rafters, forming a dreamy upside-down forest around her head, a thicket of pleasant scents.
Clearly a homesteader, and a much more staunch disciple than they, lived here – some latter-day Thoreau, Helen or Scott Nearing. It was a niche with occupancy for only one, and only one with a hardheaded, Spartan type of will, paired with a well-developed receptivity to the humblest variety of pleasures.
She sensed the magnetic pull again, the same weighted sensation she had felt when they had started down the trail, driving her to stay – stay, and enjoy the warmth of the fire and the play of its orange light on the bare wooden surfaces, stay and sink into the bed and wait for new light to blanch the windows, stay and see what shape the days would take inside these warm, close dimensions, molded only by her own hands, by her own wants.
Would he miss me? she wondered. Once the violence and the urgency of grief had faded away, and the passages of life reopened to him, would she prove to be replaceable?
The house performed its spell, sending warm draughts of air from the hearth to cradle her, buoying her back and forth as if rocking her to sleep. But there was another force at work, and she was surprised to find it stronger, more urgent and visceral than she had expected. She took one last lingering gaze around the room and went out.
He was right; the trail did circle all the way around. When she came to the end she found him, appearing seemingly from out of nowhere beside the sign for Witch Hole Pond. He stepped forward and the structure of his body collapsed around her like a fallen tower.
“Molly. Thank God. I thought I’d lost you.”
She dug her fingertips into his back with an animal possessiveness. She marveled at how good he smelled, like leather and earth and wood smoke. Apparently being immersed in that scent all day long, day after day, had rendered her insensitive to it. Their brief separation had lifted her olfactory anesthesia.
“Did you see the cottage?” she asked.
He nodded. “I thought of you right away. I thought, only Molly would appreciate such a weird old thing. It must have been there for two hundred years. I was amazed the chimney was still standing, with the rest of it all in ruins.”
She shook her head. “The cottage I saw wasn’t ruined. It was perfectly maintained, with a fire going and everything.”
He gave her a wry, slanted look, his trademark gesture of skepticism. “We must not have seen the same cottage. This was a wreck with the walls caved in and the roof gone, and trees growing out from the inside. There was a black stain over everything, like it had been burned a long time ago. The chimney was charred too, but it was still upright. And there were some broken things on the ground. Here, I brought a piece for you. I thought you might know what it was.”
He handed her a small, hardened nub, the size of her thumb. Whatever it was had burned so hot that it vitrified, turning it into a glossy, iridescent lump, over which five or six different colors crawled at once. She turned it over in her hand.
“Pottery maybe. Or metal. It’s hard to tell.”
He shrugged. “The whole place spooked me out. I don’t think I’ll go down there again.”
“I’ll go back sometime by myself and look.”
She might as well have told him she was planning to climb Mount Everest. His eyebrows arched, then settled with the rest of his face into a look of quiet admiration.
She did go back the next day, in the morning when the sun was high and filtered freely through the leaves, illuminating the forest in broad, golden strokes. She found the ruin as he had described, shrugged narrowly into a pocket of the woods along the pond loop trail, a pile of blackened splinters guarded by the crooked chimney, its silent stone sentinel. She went back many times over the next few weeks and months, sometimes bringing his walking stick with her to poke through the rubble, uncovering more of the same brittle, scintillating fragments – none of them remotely identifiable. She always found the ruin, making note of its place about halfway around the pond loop. But no matter how earnestly she searched, she never again found the other cottage, the one with the thatch roof and beckoning fire.
Madeline Kearin is an archaeologist and writer whose work has been published in Conjunctions, the Beloit Fiction Journal, and BFS Horizons.