‘Live off the Land’, Toby MacNutt

Art © 2023 Cécile Matthey

 [ My woods © 2023 Cécile Matthey ] Sometimes people walk into my woods. Mostly they walk out again.

I didn’t.

This one has not either. They entered the woods with urgency and purpose, if not skill. I thought they would be a poacher, inexperienced enough to leave empty-handed, or a shortcutting fool, cutting a corner on their route as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, telling themselves they skirt the curse safely. But this human sets no traps and wanders indirectly deeper. I have been watching their progress through the soil and the roots. Their steps are growing lighter as the days get shorter, and they have lost a great deal of speed.

They are lost, and they will not survive it.

Sometimes I ask the wolves, or the bears, but mostly the land looks after itself. There are sharp ravines near invisible in the brush and shadows, burrows that can break a leg, friendly-looking mushrooms that are not so friendly on the inside. The cold comes fast and the upland slopes are hammered by sudden storms. It is easy to enter this forest and never come out again, and people learned that this was true, even more true long ago when I was younger and fiercer, and so they do not come in unless they have a plan to go out again, fast. Nowadays, if they do not linger, if they only try to survive, I let them.

This one does not know how to survive, even without the forest set against them. I think they are starving. But it is autumn. Food is close to hand in every direction; all the forest’s life is storing up against the winter, fat and vigorous. Those who come here to die are usually more direct about it. This one I think is ignorant, even more than I had been, so long ago. But I can see now the roots swollen with sugars and the seeds falling from the stems and the squirrels’ not-so-secret acorn stashes, and they do not. I see the deer trails a poacher would follow, and they do not. Nor do they smell the water on the air. They wander and they thirst and they starve.

When they lie down for the last time, I will tell the crows and the beetles and the foxes where to look, if they haven’t already come to call. It will not be the first time. I go about my business, the business of everything now preparing to sleep, or to survive.

They are still alive.

They stumbled onto—nearly into—a stream, and it sustains them for a time. They have caught no fish and made no fires, but the water is good, and some plants are ragged, chewed. The crows have been following for a while, and more of them are keeping an eye on this stranger than I would expect. The human has been singing, or talking—crow discussions are hard to understand—since they found the water. I resolve to pay a little more attention, and before too much time has gone by, I realize my awareness of them has stopped moving. I come in closer; I do not want their remains too near to the water in this part of the woods. I want them to feed, not foul. But they are still alive. Their knees are sunk into the soil, thin and muddy, and they are talking to themself. Humans are even harder to understand, now that I do not speak.

Their hands are on their face, which doesn’t help.

so far … water only … time, [long/short?] … die anyway … woods … plan, [bad/wrong]

They drop their hands to the earth, and I can taste salt, shedding from their skin to the grass and dirt. The mice will appreciate it, later.

All around the salt, and much more clearly than their words, I taste futility, hunger, and despair—old despair, a death long carried, the kind that could drive a human into the woods.

I shift the soil under their fingertips grain by grain, and nudge a tuber from the streamside closer to their hand. The mice like those, too; oh well, they can have the salt in trade. I work it under their fingers until it is there ready for the plucking, as if by chance. The rest is up to them.

[??] … potato? no …

As always, if they only try to survive, I let them.

Having taken an interest in my stranger, I keep some of my attention on them. They are moving again, slowly, clinging to the stream as it meanders. They eat leaves and tubers and tell stories to the crows, who must appreciate the company, as they exaggerate their foraging in the tree-mast, coming up with nuts to be cracked by beak or stone, and eventually the human gets the idea. The crows leave, territory and exchange both ended, and the human goes silent, most of the time.

They follow the stream until it vanishes into the earth.

That night, curled up in a pile of leaves against the gathering frost, they shiver and whisper to themselves. I understand a little better now. It is like an old door creaking open in my mind.

Getting cold

Nowhere … going, lost

Forest big.

Not back again

Survived—how long, surviving

[origin/country/home] death … forest death, instead … forest, [kind?]


Lost, winter, life lost, lost.

 [ Too-green eyes © 2023 Cécile Matthey ] There is no salt this time, only certainty. I find that I would be sad to feed their body to the scavengers, even though they, too, only try to survive. But I will not make a road through my wood, I will not make fire, and I have no speech.

If I were in a bog, I could fill my leathery skin with will-o-wisps and marsh gases and rise up, leading them from one tussock island to the next, step by careful step, my shrivelled fingers clasping their bone-and-flesh ones, pulling them onward, closer. But I am in the forest. Only bones remain. Some were stolen early on, lost now, and those that stayed are jumbled up, under the thick layer of mast, under the rich loam, down in the gritty part of long ago where the glaciers dropped their own tiny bones. A mess of bones and teeth. Sometimes the frost breaks them. Some were broken already.

I have no body, but in the morning the brambles have parted just so, and the dew on the late berries catches the dawn. There is not quite frost, but they sparkle and grab the eye. And on the other side of that, some sheltered, tender shoots…

I lead them deeper into my woods, to the place where the sun comes through the pine needles at nearly the same angle it once did, a breath of warmth, where water is near enough for the ground to be soft, the air damply resinous. There is a little hollow where grassy plants once briefly flourished and insects grew fat, and then both enriched the soil, and now moss spreads in a carpet. I have encouraged blackberries and beeches and wild apple and wintergreen to grow nearby, and some years I have lured the bees. It was comforting, even pleasant, as I learned how it was done, to create a little haven. I like to feel the scrape and thump of the black bears’ paws and the scramble of tinier foragers in the branches. The crows prefer their own home, and only come as guests. We trade gifts. But I should try to keep the bears away while the human is here. Bears in autumn are hungry.

I stir the leaves with a breeze. The not-so-stranger has been paying better attention, as they learned the ways the forest might provide and began to believe the cursed woods may not be so cursed. Forest, kind. They look around my bower and their lips part in wonder, breath warm in the cooling air.

Thank you, forest.

As the sun goes down they lie down with their head pillowed by moss, body not quite in the hollow. I see the dirt in their pores, and watch over the insects drawn to their sweat and their heat in the cool night. They are not, perhaps, as warm as they ought to be. Their fingers twitch into the moss as they sleep.

They rest, eat, rest. They make a little wind-wall of broken hemlock boughs. They eat slightly too many wild apples, and waver as they walk, body and stomach unsteady. That night they roll into the pocket of moss and curl up small, clutching the ground with their fingers in little burrows. Gotta… hold on, you, don’t mind, do you

and I reach up through the earth to hold back, pulling them deeper, breathing in their dirt-apple-pine-moss scent, wrapping around their too-cool body, full of autumn’s bounty and ready for sleep.

The days are countable again and eight of them pass, walking with care and purpose, before the woods begin to thin. Progress quickens, then slows, fears old and new flooding in as the edge comes, and there are fields, a farm, fences, gardens, people.

But then the wind shifts, carrying voices, and the sounds of a welcome language bring their own flood of relief. The other people—the women, two women, one older, one younger, approachable, familiar-unfamiliar, safe—stop their work and go quiet as the stranger emerges from the woods, squinting in the light. Words appear as if by magic on the tongue, long ready for this moment. Hello. I’m sorry to startle you. Am I out of the woods yet, can you tell me where I am. I look down to see hands spread palm-up and open, dirt-smeared. Moss has started trying to grow at the base of the fingernails and maybe will never stop. The women notice, or maybe they do not. They have other questions, of the stranger from the deep woods. I can feel the tongue tense with answers, some true, some less true.

“It’s been so long since I saw anyone else,” I say instead, and I mean it, and my too-green eyes water and spill, and there is the salt, and the women look one to another, asking, answering wordlessly.

“You poor dear,” says the older, and puts her arm around me. “You look half dead. Let’s get you fed and cleaned up.”

My face streams, my body shakes.

The women leave their questions at the edge of the cursed wood and walk me into their home.

© 2023 Toby MacNutt

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News