At the Edge of the Forest

Sitting alone, resting alone,
Walking alone, unwearied,
The one alone, who controls oneself,
Would be delighted in the forest.

The Dhammapada
trans. Carter & Palihawadana

Throughout the day after the funeral, while puttering around the shop, Bryan caught himself thinking of Julia, her memory like a glint at the edge of his sight. He remembered their constant conversations, her insatiable curiosity, her devotion to both him and Cameron, an odd couple she had herself created through a combination of insight and force of will. She had insisted on bringing Cameron to the shop to meet Bryan, even though Bryan told her not to, that he would renounce his friendship with her immediately, that he was serious, he really, truly, absolutely did not want to meet this man, because he had understood what she was trying to do from the moment she mentioned her friend who was legally blind but not blind blind, who lived with his mother even though he was only a few years younger than Bryan, who was a wonderful potter and an artistic soul and a good conversationalist and everybody loved him instantly and she knew they’d both be interested in each other. “Stop trying to set me up,” Bryan had said to her, and she looked stunned. “I don’t even know,” she said, “if he goes that way.” (Cameron laughed at that later. He and Julia had known each other since high school. She was the first person he came out to.)

 “Every freak needs a blind lover, is that what you’re thinking?”

No,” Julia said. She looked away. She walked over to an oak table with a set of mid-20th-century cookbooks on it. She lifted the cover of one of the books without looking at it, her eyes drifting to a wall display of old gas station signs. She came back to the counter. “Okay, I’ll be honest. I think he’ll be intrigued by your face, your skull. I think he’ll want to touch it. And that’s good. He’s very tactile. It’s not like a freakshow thing, not like — like, you know…”

“Not like a fetish?”

“He can’t really see anything out farther than his arms. He’s okay close up, but to actually see something, he needs to be able to use his hands. Is that weird? It shouldn’t be weird. He’s a potter. It isn’t weird with him. It isn’t. And, I just, honestly, honestly, think you guys will enjoy each other.”

On the day that Julia brought him in, Cameron wandered through the store slowly, and Bryan couldn’t help but watch Cameron’s hands explore the furniture and shelves, his fingers like a piano player’s, each working separately over the surfaces. His touch was light, casual, his hands feathery. He paused over an oddly large pink glass vase that someone had brought in a few months ago, and which Bryan had agreed to buy, along with a box of other junk, just to get rid of the seller, an elderly bald man whom he’d never met before, and who started the conversation by saying, “It must be difficult for you, going through the world like that. I admire it. Brave of you.” (What, Bryan had wanted to say, would be my alternative? I can’t very well chop my head off! But he did not say it. He was always polite to his customers.)

As Cameron picked up the vase, Bryan said, “Oh, you don’t want that.”

“It seems a bit out of place here,” Cameron said. “An interloper.”

“I keep thinking it will go away of its own free will.”

Julia looked at the vase in Cameron’s hand. “Even I can see it’s ghastly,” Julia said, “and Bryan will be the first to tell you that I have no taste.”

Cameron smiled. “I’ll take it,” he said. Julia laughed.

“You can have it if you want it,” Bryan said. “I won’t stop you.”

“It says five dollars?”

“I’d be ashamed to take money for it. It’s yours. If you promise to smash it to smithereens.”

“Gladly!” Cameron said. “I’m Cameron. Julia would have introduced us, I’m sure, but it’s more fun to beat her to it.”

“Cameron, Bryan,” Julia said. “Bryan, Cameron.”

“Julia tells me,” Bryan said, “that you will want to touch my face.”

Julia gasped. “No,” she said, “I meant—”

“Perhaps I will want to,” Cameron said. “Julia told me that you have an interesting face and that you are an interesting person, if blunt. Or forthright. Direct. I forget what word she used. But of course I understand if…”

“Maybe another time,” Bryan said.

“After I destroy this vase,” Cameron said.

A week later, Cameron returned to the shop. “My mother’s gone grocery shopping, so I had her drop me off here,” he said. “I have brought you something. Not to sell, but to have. Unless you want to sell it. In which case, I’ll accept a commission. But I’d rather you keep it.”

From a small backpack he took a ceramic box, dark green with inlaid fragments that Bryan immediately recognized as the remnants of the pink vase, its pinkness now muted against the green of the box.

“I have a friend,” Cameron said, “who has a shotgun, and we went out behind his house with said shotgun and we shot, I tell you, we shot the fucking vase.” He cackled. “I collected what I could of it, took the shards to my studio, and voilà. Not deathless, perhaps not even inspired, but better than before.”

It was a nice box, Bryan thought, a simple bit of slab pottery given depth by the celadon glaze that, on close inspection, revealed a range of hues and smokey shadows. The bits of the old vase added attractive ornament.

“I shall treasure it always,” Bryan said. He leaned forward, his elbows on the counter beside the cash register. “And now, I believe…”

“Ah yes,” Cameron said, and gently placed his fingers on Bryan’s temples, then drifted over the crags of his forehead, his asymmetrical cheekbones, the stub of a nose, the hard skin, the soft skin, the lips covering artificial teeth, the canted wedge of jaw. All the other hands that had ever touched his face had done so from motivations either medical or sexual, but Cameron’s hands felt different: no less curious or objective than the doctors’ and nurses’ hands, no less intrigued than the hands of the men who had taken from him some brief satisfaction, but Cameron’s hands explored without awe or hunger, without repressed revulsion. Or so Bryan imagined then. Now, having known Cameron for almost two years, he thought he hadn’t been wrong, exactly, about Cameron’s perception, but he had learned that such touch was not different in kind so much as in degree from what he’d known before.

Cameron’s studio filled the basement of the rambling old farmhouse he lived in with his mother. It had a separate entrance from the house, an entrance that had originally, he told Bryan, been little more than a bulkhead before it was expanded into a room dominated by stairs going down. The front of the studio was a small gallery, with custom-built shelves and tasteful lighting. The rest of the studio spread out behind a wall, a single large cinderblock room with two potter’s wheels, numerous tables, floor-to-ceiling shelves that looked to have been built with salvaged wood, and the stout silver octagon that was an electric kiln.

Though Cameron said he had prepared her, his mother couldn’t hide her revulsion at Bryan’s face. She brought them a plate of chocolate chip cookies she had made, but didn’t stay to see if they enjoyed them.

“She likes you, she really does,” Cameron said. Bryan knew it wasn’t true. He had seen her eyes looking away from him. Whenever she dropped Cameron off, she never came into the shop. Sometimes, she would park out front, and Bryan would wave to her through the window, but she didn’t wave back, and she hadn’t parked there for a while now.

Though he had enjoyed seeing where Cameron spent so much of his time, and especially enjoyed seeing a collection of Cameron’s work, Bryan never felt a need for a return visit.

Julia asked about boyfriends once, and he said there hadn’t really been any. He told her about the boys who found him in the darker corners of dingy clubs, the boys he spent so much of his late teens and early 20s with, boys whose names he didn’t remember and rarely knew. In a large city, it’s easy enough to discover people whose lusts veer toward what repulses others. They don’t yearn for the person, though; they slaver for grotesquerie. For a while, Bryan had been content to let grotesquerie be his selling point. In moments of anger or self-hatred, he had indulged in his ability to repulse. The power to attract was new and thrilling. But newness quickly sheds its skin; thrills dull. By the time he met Tim, even someone’s great desperation was barely enough to satisfy Bryan. Tim offered something else, a gleam in his eye that kept Bryan looking, that let him agree to go back to Tim’s little basement apartment at the far end of a subway line. Bryan had had dangerous encounters before, men with strong hands or sharp knives, and he thought perhaps this time he had met the man who would kill him — but no, it was just a night together, then some breakfast at a diner the next day, then goodbye. And then their paths kept crossing and they repeated their encounters. They began to know each other’s habits and rhythms. They talked about pasts and hopes. Tim never asked, but Bryan told him one night, their lips nearly touching: “It was a car crash. Winter. The highway seemed clear, but suddenly it got cold and wet. My father was driving, my mother in the passenger seat, I was in the back, we were going to see a movie. There was black ice. The car hit a guardrail and flipped over it, flew into the air, toward the edge of some woods. Fell against trees. My parents were killed. The emergency crews at first assumed I was dead. Almost was. Soon wished I was. Parents dead. Arms broken, ribs broken. I barely had a face left. Months in the hospital, years of plastic surgery. This is the best they can do, the best I’ll let them do. No more surgeries, that’s what I vowed. No more.” Tim’s lips came closer, touching Bryan’s. They kissed softly and gently for what at that moment seemed like days, in memory too few seconds. Bryan had never felt happier or more content. He started applying to graduate programs for archaeology. He stopped going to the bars and clubs where he’d found companionship before. Tim was happy to be seen in daylight with him, never seemed self-conscious. “This is my boyfriend,” Tim would say to people. Each time, the comfort in those words brought tears to Bryan’s eyes, and he would cough or chuckle nervously or look away to hide his pleasure.

Bryan never mentioned Tim to Julia. He had never talked about Tim to anybody up here. A year after they met, he and Tim were spending less time together, uncertain where their relationship was going. They didn’t end things, and didn’t want to end things, but agreed perhaps a pause might help. Bryan returned to the clubs, and kept expecting to see Tim, but he didn’t. Eventually, he called, but got no answer. He called again a few days later, again no answer, and then finally somebody answered Tim’s phone and said Tim wasn’t there anymore, sorry, there’d been a terrible accident, Tim was gone. It took Bryan months to piece together scraps of gossip and single sentences in newspaper reports to learn that one night Tim drank too much wine after he had taken anti-depressants and sleeping pills and some mix of pain medication, which he kept in the apartment because he had an old injury to his back that bothered him now and then, or so he said, though Bryan had seen no evidence of that, or any other, injury. Bryan tried not to wonder why nobody had bothered to seek him out to tell him, or at least to let him know about the funeral arrangements.

Bryan said to Julia, “People die around me. People who know me.”

“Not because they know you,” Julia said.

He smiled as best he could, but did not reply.

When she told him she had cancer, he did his best to comfort her, but he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t expected it, or something like it. “This isn’t your fault,” she said. “The world doesn’t revolve around you.”

“I know,” he said.

“Do you?”

There was a coldness between them then, but it lessened as Julia got quickly worse, and in her last week she barely let him leave her bedside. “Tell me about the accident,” she said, and he told her about the darkness he felt his parents fall into. “Were you scared?” she asked. No, not at all, not until he woke up in the hospital. Darkness isn’t terrifying, emptiness isn’t terrifying. It simply is. We had it before birth, we will have it at death. Pain is frightening, suffering is frightening, but emptiness and nothingness are the purest states. He told her he always wished he had been able to go with his parents, he wished that every day, and she got very quiet and bowed her head and told him it was the saddest thing she had ever heard. “Do you still wish you went with them?” she asked at the end, lying in her hospital bed as he held her hand. He leaned close to her ear and whispered, “Yes. Always.” An hour later, she was dead.

Julia first showed up at the shop one day in search of a birthday present for her grandmother, who was turning 90. She spent an hour looking through everything, picking up one item after another (a glass paperweight with a sepia photograph of a stagecoach inside; a woodcut-illustrated copy of Frankenstein from 1934; an iron weathervane of a crowing rooster) until finally she brought to the counter a small vessel: pit-fired Guaraní pottery. “I have to admit,” Julia said, “I would never buy this for myself. It’s got no pizzazz. But it’s for my grandmother, and she’s a simple woman who likes this sort of thing, and I think it will make her happy, and that’s what matters.”

“It’s from northern Argentina,” Bryan said. “I brought it back myself.”

“So you like it?”

“Yes, very much.”

“You should meet my grandmother, you’d probably get along great.”

Julia returned to the shop after her grandmother’s birthday party. “She adored it. I was the hit of the party. To her, at least. Nobody else much seemed to care, but they were happy she was happy. She was a big traveler when she was young, before she had kids. She speaks Spanish. She knew right away it was from South America.”

Julia began to come back every Saturday. She was waiting for divorce papers to go through with her husband; she worked an unexciting job at an insurance company; she said she was tired of the people in town but didn’t know where she wanted to go because she had lived here all her life. She asked Bryan to tell her about the places he’d been, and to show her the things he liked most in the shop. “You like the old, weird stuff,” she said. He didn’t disagree. “Do you have any shrunken heads?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “But I saw one once, when I was in grad school in New Mexico. A professor from a British school, an anthropologist, came to visit and give a couple lectures. He had been to Ecuador and studied the rituals around head-shrinking there. He had gotten hold of one, and he carried it around to lectures to show to people. I suspect it wasn’t real, though. I don’t think you’re supposed to own them. And I’m not sure how you’d get it through Customs. Anyway, he was an asshole. He asked if he could measure my skull.”

“No! What did you say?”

“I told him I thought phrenology had gone out of style some years ago.”

“I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good.”

“It shut him up.”

She laughed, and they kept talking, and soon they were going to movies together or out to eat in nearby towns or, in the summer, on long drives through the hills and forests. She needed a distraction from divorce and what she thought of as all her failures in life (lost husband, no children, a solid but boring job), and he relished the companionship after years of solitude. He told himself he would enjoy it as long as it would last, and at the first hint of danger, the first suggestion that the darkness was reaching out, he would disappear to somewhere far away, somewhere even more remote, and start again.

One spring Sunday, they drove across the Kancamagus Highway from Lincoln to Conway, a favorite trip of Julia’s childhood. She asked him what got him interested in archaeology, and why he spent years in South America. “Why not?” was his first answer, but she persisted, and he told her the truth: He had been desperate, tired of how expensive everything in New York was, worn down by the fact that even though he had money from his parents’ life insurance policies, it would be gone quickly if he stayed in the city. A friend had said there were good archaeology programs at universities in the southwest, so he applied to some, and ended up in New Mexico. It was just a whim, really. He heard about a fellowship for some work in South America, and he had all sorts of idiotic ideas about finding lost civilizations. And not just that. He hoped to find wisdom. He had built up in his mind an idea of indigenous cultures as possessing wisdom that isn’t otherwise available, and he wanted to know more about the realm of death. (He expected her to laugh at that, but she didn’t.) All of his thesis work was on rituals of death and mourning, and while now he thought that this work was mediocre at best, and that he was lucky they gave him a master’s degree at all, it truly had been an obsession, and writing the thesis only made it more so. He heard about a fellowship to travel to South America for archaeological work, and he didn’t have anything else lined up, so he applied. Another whim. He traveled to Peru, then Chile and Argentina, working here and there at various sites, all the while looking for traces that would point him toward the wisdom and knowledge he didn’t think any living person had access to.

“And what did you find?” Julia asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Good work had been done for decades by far more knowledgeable and talented people than I could ever claim to be. I was just an outsider, an interloper, and — in ways that pain me still — a typically arrogant and oblivious white guy. When I was there, I didn’t see myself as that at all, quite the opposite, but I realized it later.”

“So you stayed down there for a couple years and nothing came of it?”

“I have a knack,” Bryan said, “for always being just a bit too late to everything that matters.”

He had told Julia most of the truth about his time in South America, but he left out the story of the cave that Sebastián took him to. Sebastián who, like Tim, found fascination not only in Bryan’s ruined face, but in something of his personality. Bryan would not let him get close, though. Sex was one thing, easy and fun, but Bryan never lingered, never spent days and nights with Sebastián as he had with Tim, never learned much about Sebastián’s family and friends or revealed anything about his own. One night, they got drunk on some local concoction made of various fermented fruits, and Sebastián led Bryan up to a series of caves in one of the hills overlooking the town. Sebastián had a flashlight, and the light bouncing through the caves made Bryan’s head spin, so he sat down, thinking he was about to throw up. Sebastián kept going deeper into the cave, but Bryan stayed behind in the darkness, leaning against the cave’s cool wall. He thought he might pass out. Then someone sat next to him and took his hand. Bryan could see nothing in the darkness. Had Sebastián lost his flashlight? Bryan let his head loll onto Sebastián’s shoulder, but then he knew it wasn’t Sebastián sitting beside him, but someone else, someone with short hair and a beard. “I love you,” whispered a familiar voice, Tim’s voice, again and again, growing fainter until it was gone. Bryan wanted to speak, wanted to scream out for Tim to stay, or, better, to let Bryan come with him, but his mouth was filled with silence, and then Tim was gone.

Bryan woke later to find Sebastián sleeping beside him in the cave. Every bone in Bryan’s body ached, his head throbbed, his skin felt like stone. Sebastián had wrapped himself around Bryan, but Bryan was able to slowly pull himself away without waking him, and he climbed out of the cave and down to the town, where he packed up his backpack and walked a mile to the bus station without ever saying goodbye. He didn’t know what became of Sebastián, but in all likelihood he was dead.

Bryan had considered it before, multiple times, imagined countless ways to do it, conjured just as many excuses not to, but Julia’s death made him more certain than he had been in many years that the only way out was to die. It might not be too late for him to save Cameron, and it was certainly not too late for him to save someone else, someone who might suffer the bad luck of getting to know him in the future. He had thought going north would be enough, but it was not, because though he was far away from any population center, he was still bound to people. Lacking survival skills, he could not live somewhere truly remote, a cabin in the woods with no electricity, no need for any human contact. He depended on civilization, and so he kept living into the future at the expense of other people’s lives.

A gun would be the easiest. He had never had trouble with the law, so would not have trouble buying a gun. But he knew nothing of guns. What kind should he get? A shotgun seemed the best choice, but he had imagined the ways to put a shotgun to his head and hadn’t quite been able to figure out the mechanics to avoid it all being awkward (his arms were too short, the likely gun too long) or, worse, a missed shot, the gun slipping and wounding him in the shoulder, for instance. He could put the barrel in his mouth, but the image made him laugh and cringe, the sexual parody obvious and puerile: a final, literally explosive orgasm. Nonetheless, a shotgun still seemed a good option, especially if he wanted to finish the work of destroying his face. But a pistol would be easier. They must make big pistols, something with which to kill a bear, for instance. Put that against his head, pull the trigger, be done with it all. (But where against the head? he wondered. He had heard of people wounding themselves gravely, and he did not want that. He did not want to be hooked up to machines in a hospital. No more hospitals.) He wished he could ask someone, wished there were an anonymous service providing answers about the best ways to die.

A few days after Julia’s funeral, Bryan picked Cameron up in the morning on the way to the shop. They hardly spoke during the drive, but that was normal enough; they both liked quiet mornings. At the shop, they made coffee with an old electric percolator. Bryan poured the coffee into mugs that Cameron had made, which they kept under the counter at the store. Both mugs had a thick, rough glaze that reminded Bryan of lichen. Bryan had first seen one at Cameron’s studio and exclaimed over it. “You have a potter’s taste,” Cameron had told him. “Most people — ordinary people — think these sorts of things are ugly. We love them for the chunky texture, the weirdness. You could only ever give this sort of thing away, or sell it for a few grand at an upscale gallery maybe.”

“So why don’t you sell it at an upscale gallery?” Bryan had asked.

“Because I need something to drink my coffee from each morning.”

This morning, Bryan and Cameron mostly sat silent.

“How are you feeling?” Cameron asked.

“Not great,” Bryan said.

“Anything I can do?”

“No,” Bryan said. “Sorry. Didn’t sleep well.”

Cameron reached for Bryan’s hand, but Bryan pulled away. He didn’t want to. He wanted to take Cameron’s hand in his, press it to his lips, hold it to his cheek, let Cameron’s fingers drift over his face — he wanted to pull him close, embrace him, kiss him. But that would be a mistake.

“I’ll drive you home,” Bryan said.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine. I think I’ll close the shop for today. I’m very tired. I think I’ll just go home and rest.”

“I can come with you, keep you company.”

“No, I’ll take you home.”

“I’m worried about you.”

“I know. But I’m fine. Really.”

After a week of Bryan’s carefully-cultivated distance, Cameron demanded that they talk. A friend of his, Sophie, a woman Bryan didn’t know well, drove Cameron to Bryan’s house one Tuesday night, unannounced. She drove away when Bryan opened the door.

“What’s going on?” Bryan said.

“I was going to ask the same of you.”

“She just left you here?”

“Yes. I told her to.”


“A good place, no? My boyfriend’s house.”


“Can I come in?”

“Sure. But what’s going on?”

“Maybe I’m horny. Or maybe I just want to talk. Or both. I’m out of sorts. And I don’t know what’s going on with you.”

Bryan offered to make coffee, but Cameron went to the cabinet in the kitchen where Bryan kept a couple old bottles of liquor. “I think we need bourbon tonight,” Cameron said, and poured generous amounts into two glasses.

“I’m not really in a mood for company,” Bryan said.

“Drink your bourbon. It helps.”

They sat together on the couch in the living room.

“I know a psychiatrist,” Cameron said. “A good one. A woman. Really smart, compassionate. She’s in Concord, so a bit of a hike, but worth it, I think. I’ll go with you. She helped me a lot.”

“I don’t need a psychiatrist,” Bryan said.

“Of course you do. Everybody does. But you especially right now. I’m worried.” Cameron took both of Bryan’s hands in his own. Bryan tried to pull away, but Cameron held on. “I’m not letting you go,” Cameron said.

“You need to.”


“It’s not good for you. I’m not. This will end like it always does, always has—”

“No no no,” Cameron said. “You don’t get to go with that bullshit everybody dies around me thing. You use that, Bryan, it’s an excuse, it lets you feel better about disengaging with people.”

“I wish that were true. But people are dead. One after another. Julia. Others. I haven’t told you about all of them.”

“Please stop. Tell me you’ll see Renee. The psychiatrist. I’ll make the appointment for you and everything. You won’t have to do anything except drive there. Hell, I could even ask Sophie if she would—”

“No,” Bryan said. He stood up. “I’ll take you home now.”

Will you just listen to me!” Cameron screamed.

The house creaked. The wind outside blew a branch against a window.

“I’ll take you home,” Bryan said.

Cameron collapsed into himself on the couch, his arms over his head, and sobbed.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Cameron whimpered.

Bryan stood up. He listened to the branch against the window.

Eventually, Cameron called Sophie and asked her to drive him home.

As he lay in bed in darkness, Bryan saw shadows against shadows, and the shadows swarmed into shapes. Arms and legs writhed across the ceiling. Whispers slipped from the walls and settled into something like words, sibilant sounds swirling across plosive echoes, no language Bryan could understand, though he had heard it many nights through the years.

For a while, Cameron called every day, and Bryan said he was fine but no he didn’t need company, no he didn’t need Cameron’s help at the shop, no. Cameron stopped by the shop anyway, whenever his mother needed to go into town, and he made a point of calling to talk to Bryan every night, but then one night he didn’t call, but he called the next night, and then not for a few nights after that, and then Bryan realized that Cameron hadn’t called or been to the shop in over a month, and despite a pang a sorrow, this gave him comfort.

He tried to sell the coffee mugs Cameron had made, but no-one would buy them. For fun, he listed them with a reserve of $2,000 on an auction website, and they sold for more than twice that, the bidders assuming, apparently, that a couple of mugs with such an absurd price must be rare, indeed. He sent Cameron a brief note and a check for the entire amount, and when he got his monthly account statement, he was pleased to see that the check had been cashed.

He kept the box Cameron had made with the inlaid fragments of the pink vase. He set it on his bedside table beside the alarm clock. When morning light came through the bedroom window, the fragments sparkled.

By the time winter brought snow, Bryan didn’t bother opening the shop. He could sell what he had left for inventory on various websites, and that was enough to keep him busy, enough to pay the bills. Usually, he only went in to the shop at night. He would package the day’s orders, bring them home, then take them to the post office in the morning. The only people he spoke to with any regularity now were clerks: at the post office, the grocery store, the gas station.

The snow that covered the trees and the yard muffled the days and nights. The days and nights were mostly the same. The man he paid to plow his driveway came in the mornings after a storm, and Bryan dutifully mailed him a check each time. The truck from the heating oil company came to fill his tank each month, and he hid away from the windows while they were doing it; the payment automatically got deducted from his bank account, no need to speak to a person, no need to risk encounter.

If the wind wasn’t fierce or the temperature too cold, Bryan spent time each night outside, looking at the contoured darkness. Julia had been a night-owl, much more than he had ever been. Whenever he looked up at the stars, he thought of her, because the sky inspired a poetic sense she never otherwise showed. “Night is when the universe is biggest,” she said. “Go out some night after midnight, the whole world quiet, and look up. Even when it’s cloudy, you can get a sense of just how small we all are. On a clear night, that’s when everything feels like what it is — just a moment, a blip.”

After he made his trip to the post office each morning, he spent his days reading history books or mystery novels, or watching old movies on tv, or searching the internet for new inventory for the shop, or, most often, taking long walks through the forest. Now, he could sit alone and rest alone. He could walk alone, unwearied, unwatched.

When he looked out his window each morning and each evening, the forest delighted him. In the summer, he found the trees’ shadows comforting, cooling; in the autumn, the blaze of foliage thrilled him, the scent of fallen leaves on damp soil invigorating. If he stood still long enough, birdsongs surrounded him. In solitude, he rarely thought of his face, and he had grown more relaxed and comfortable than perhaps he had ever been since his parents’ deaths, but nonetheless, he would have liked to share moments with someone — with Julia, with Cameron. That yearning tinged the days with melancholy. He tried to console himself with philosophizing, reminding himself of beliefs he had long held: all matter is interconnected; all time is an illusion; everyone who ever lived is, in some sense, here with him because they had always been and would always be, the atoms of their breaths still lingering in the air he breathed, the electricity of their thoughts and memories mingling with his own. But he had grown weary of philosophizing. Old thoughts could not console him.

When the lease on the shop came up for renewal, Bryan decided not to renew. He could store at his house the few bits of good inventory he still had. The website was working well. There was no need for the shop, and he was tired of thinking about it. He spent the fall cleaning it out. He was surprised at how much he ended up bringing to the dump. In his mind, the shop was full of treasures, but in reality, he had put a lot of items he hadn’t wanted to deal with in back corners and on forgotten shelves. A whole bookcase full of cheap toys was covered with at least ten years of dust. He had no memory of putting the toys in the bookcase, no memory of acquiring the toys.

Near the bookcase slumped the brown leather rucksack he had carried through South America, a stout and hardy companion he’d nicknamed (for reasons long forgotten) Barney. He had thought Barney got lost years ago. He had moved from one place to another enough when he was younger that losses were common. But Barney had been sitting here, sitting for a long time, waiting to be found or to be remembered.

Bryan picked the rucksack up and slapped it a few times to get the dust and dirt off. There was something inside it, likely some relic or memento he’d long assumed gone. He brought Barney back to the front counter, where the light was better, and pulled a strap to open the central pocket. Inside sat a large, dark yellow envelope, and inside the envelope twenty or thirty pages of graph paper covered with handwriting and another envelope, smaller, but thick with photographs.

The photographs looked faded, but it might have been an effect of sunlight or the camera, a misjudged exposure. He recognized the landscape, recognized people from his grad school days, but he had no memory of the pictures. His face had taught him long ago to turn away from cameras when they were pointed at him, and he was, at best, a haphazard photographer himself. Images seemed to him something to discard, not hold onto. These pictures were pleasant, though, not only because he had been the photographer rather than the subject, but also because they evoked no specific memories, only vague and gentle thoughts of a lost era, a different life. Until he came upon a picture of Sebastián. Then another and another. Sebastián sitting beside a pool; Sebastián on the edge of a dirt road, pretending to thumb a ride; Sebastián standing outside a taqueria in Cuernavaca.

Bryan had stopped in Cuernavaca on his way home at the end of everything. He had spent an couple weeks there, not doing much of anything, wandering. Sebastián had not been there. They had never been in Mexico together at all. Mexico was later, after Sebastián, after the cave. The pictures must have been taken by somebody else, someone who sent them to him.

Or had Sebastián been the one who told him about Cuernavaca, given Bryan these photographs, and that was why he went there?

He couldn’t remember.

He stuffed the photographs back into their envelope and set it on the counter.

The pages of graph paper were letters. A series of letters in a mix of simple English and complex Spanish. The handwriting made Bryan catch his breath — he knew it immediately, and the signature on the first letter confirmed it: Sebastián. (How had he known Sebastián’s handwriting? He did not remember Sebastián ever writing anything. He had thought Sebastián was likely illiterate.)

He threw the pages to the floor. A glance at a few sentences was enough, sentences about San Cristóbal and Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, something about leaving Sebastián at the hotel in Mexico City, a “scene” in the lobby. He knew, without reading more, that the letters pleaded with him to write back, even a simple postcard, anything — some words to explain himself, or merely to signal that he was alive. They had done good work together, the letters said, and they had cared for each other, and maybe Bryan hadn’t thought of it as love, but Sebastián had, for a little while at least, and hadn’t they been happy together, if never else then during that crazy time when they were crossing between countries, riding overcrowded buses driven by suicidal madmen, when they were making their way through little villages and sleeping at the edge of forests — hadn’t they been happy then?

Bryan leaned against the counter to hold himself up. He could not breathe. He coughed, retched, and slid to the floor. This was all wrong. The history was wrong, the time, the pictures, the letters, Sebastián, it was all wrong. He had traveled alone through Mexico, he was sure of it, traveled alone after leaving Sebastián at the cave. And yet if that were true, how could he now remember these letters so vividly, and how could he know that one of the pictures he hadn’t looked at was one they had asked a British tourist to take of them together outside the Palacio de Cortes? (Even though they were careful and didn’t touch each other in public, didn’t give anything away, the tourist said, “You two look like you could be in love.”)

He got to his feet and walked slowly out of the shop. He did not bother to lock the door. It didn’t matter. He would never come back. Or, he might come back one last time — with a can of gasoline and a match.

A storm filled the night with snow. At dawn, Bryan dashed into the drifts and between the trees, frantic for the morning light and the comfort of the waking forest, hardly noticing that he had neglected to put on a coat or even boots, his feet covered only by the wool socks he had worn to bed.

Bits of breeze caused the trees to shake clumps of snow from their branches, the clumps exploding in air, sugary smoke raining down through sunbeams. The world was silent, cold, and timeless.

Shivering, Bryan stood in a clearing between white pines, snow up to his waist, snow grasping his outstretched arms, sticking to his shoulders, his hair, his face.

He would return to the warmth of his house soon, probably, and when he did, he would pick up the phone and call Cameron and apologize for whatever he needed to apologize for, try to explain, though he wasn’t sure what sort of explanation was possible. Instead of explanation — which could be at best a shard, a grain of dust, a mote of light — he would offer Cameron escape. They should skip town together, he would say, get away from memories and obligations, spend some time in a warmer place, somewhere south, Mexico or farther even, where maybe Cameron would allow Bryan to show him around some of his favorite sites, the little churches, the marketplaces, the murals, the monuments to struggle, the quiet ruins, the roads through forests and plains and villages in Guatamala, Honduras, Nicaragua. They could spend a few days on the beach at San Juan del Sur, get a cheap motorcycle in La Cruz and ride around Costa Rica, maybe even keep going farther south, depending on their mood, their whims, desires. Maybe they would go in search of pottery, find some far-off village where for a thousand years people had been burying vessels in fiery ground.

When the time was right, he would return to the house and call Cameron, and they would make plans, he was sure of it. When the time was right.

He took a deep breath. (Life is breath. Keep breathing.) Soon he would have enough breaths to be able to pull himself through the snow, to leave the woods, go back to the house, and he would call Cameron when the time was right.

He closed his eyes. He breathed. He stood still, breathing, his breaths caught by a breeze, indistinguishable from it. The breeze shivered through the woods, it tossed little whirlwinds of snow around Bryan’s house, it tapped the branch against the window gently, then fled down the hill and into the town, gaining strength, it dashed through the streets, tossed the ends of the scarf wrapped around the postmaster’s neck as she locked up the post office for the night, jostled shopping carts against each other in the parking lot of the grocery store, passed by Bryan’s shop without a pause, wending its way out toward Cameron’s house and farther, until it slowed and scattered and the night settled still and quiet and dark.

In his studio, Cameron slapped a lump of clay onto the wheel and began to shape it, uncertain exactly what he would make tonight, letting his hands guide the clay toward form, tossing some away as the shape asserted itself and he realized he was making, for the first time in many months, a simple cup — or maybe, if he stuck a handle on it, a mug. Wind rattled the windows of his basement studio and he shivered at a slight draft. He continued working, longer than he had ever worked at a vessel of such simple shape. He continued, unhurried, without any sense of time passing, to seek a form that might hold.

“At the Edge of the Forest” by Matthew Cheney is licensed under Creative Commons:


created January 2022

Image sources: 1. Unplash, 2 & 3. Matthew Cheney, 4. Unsplash