‘Before We Left the Forest’, Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

Illustrations © 2016 Rachel Linn

 [ Tangled, © 2016 Rachel Linn ] Every day the sun rises again, bringing up the smell of rain-damp asphalt. Magnolias blooming, the taste of exhaust. The city will become an overgrown jungle soon, scotch broom and kudzu bursting from the abandoned lots; Trees of Heaven heaving up slabs of broken concrete with their hungry, thirsty roots. Invasive species, like the neon franchises that have marred the city since the year I was born. Alien transplants draining the life from an ancient landscape.

I wake up still dressed in yesterday’s jogging pants and tank top, my legs tangled in the sleeping bag I use for a comforter. Sunlight spills in through the window and pries at my eyes. It’s always this time of year when the dreams start to come again: my eight-year-old feet traversing the hall of tetya Annoushka’s decrepit old farm house, following the sound of canned laughter from the television. That lonely feeling I had when we first moved there from the city, a sinking ache that was too big for my small chest.

The man who sat beside my aunt on the worn yellow sofa is big in my dreams, like he is in my memory. So big he looked like he wouldn’t have been able to stand up under the low ceiling, his knees steepled awkwardly under Annoushka’s old pink afghan. I remember saying something to my aunt, although I forget now what it was. He turned around at the sound of my voice, and my mouth fell open when I saw how his beard came all the way up his cheeks, covering his nose, a brown thatch that crept over his forehead and blended into the hair of his scalp.

Annoushka had snapped at me, telling me I should go back to bed and stop bothering the adults. Her voice with its usual sandpaper roughness, although the words were clear and separate this time, not slurring together with the delirium of the Samogon; that home-stilled poison that had cursed the old farming communities since their youth all started leaving for the cities to find jobs and the fields were left fallow. On the coffee table beside them, a bag of jalapeno cheddar potato chips was open, beside a half-empty two liter of ginger ale and two plastic cups. Packaged foods she would have had to drive into town to get, like she’d been expecting company.

Walking back down the hall to the room where my mother and I slept, I heard my aunt laugh at something on the late night talk show they were watching. I stopped in my tracks when I heard the strange man laugh with her; a low, purring, animal sound that made the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up. It wasn’t fear that I felt, but a strange sort of calm. An understanding that the ugly world I had known up until that point was not the only one.

I’ve never told anyone about the strange man. Not my mother, not Vasily. Not even the memory of Vasily, when I’m up late at night with my knees pulled to my chest, having conversations with his ghost. One sided, just like they usually were when he was alive.

Before making my way to campus, I ride my bicycle to the church of Saint John the Warrior where I volunteer in the mornings, check in at the front desk to do my overdose intervention training. In an ambulance parked outside the back doors, we practice chest compressions on a mannequin with an ice-blue face. I cut my thumb when I snap open the glass ampule of Narcan, and the tiny cut bleeds much more than it should. A nurse who says her name is Victory smiles at me as she folds a bandage over it with her blue-gloved hands, and I wonder if maybe Vasily went to some better place, some easier place, after his pulse faded and his lips went blue like hospital latex. I think of Annoushka, and I think of the strange man, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up again.

I found Vasily’s body when the snow had just started to pull its grayed lip back from the pavement, leaving exposed the street’s bright confetti: syringes with their orange caps, red Durex condom wrappers, those little blue phials of sterile water for shooting up. Pink rubber tie-offs fluttering like ribbon, caught in the scraggled twigs of leafless trees. I’d been gone for the night and came home to find him on the floor of the squat in Moscow where we stayed for a while, all the blood gone from his face. He’d been clean for three months before it happened. His tolerance must have been low.

It was early spring as well when I found Annoushka more than ten years before that, her auburn hair fanning out all around her on the moss that peeked through the snow in the clearing, deep in the taiga after the footpaths disappear. Her hands hadn’t gone stiff yet, and when I touched her I’d thought at first that she must be sleeping. Then I saw the bottle of pills nestled in her limp fingers, and my heart jumped into my throat.

I ran and ran down the sloping hills with tears streaming down my face, the forest watching me with its hundreds of eyes. When I got back to the house I remember grabbing the hem of my mother’s sweater where she stood at the kitchen sink, telling her through my sobs what I’d found. She’d let out a sigh as her body deflated and she eased herself onto the floor. Like some part of her had already known why Annoushka hadn’t returned the day before, after saying she’d gone into town for those medical tests she hadn’t wanted to bother with.

When Vasily died I went to the funeral in a borrowed black dress with shoes that didn’t match it, feeling like I was going to court because that’s the only other time I had to dress like that. It was raining that day, the churchyard almost deserted except for a handful of mourners who I assumed were the few members of his family that hadn’t turned their backs on him. A few years later, when Krokodil began flooding the streets and making heroin look like a lesser evil, I would watch the bone-thin men and women with their flesh consumed by infected welts and feel grateful that he went when he did, before he had a chance to try the deadly mixture of codeine and household poisons, favored now because it was a fraction of the price of smack.

In the months after he died I would spend sleepless nights in the streets of Novokuznetsk, walking through that surreal margin of space when the world is still dampered in eerie silence, vacant except for prowling cats. The quiet never lasts long; the stars fade, and so do the streetlights. The first birds wake up, then the occasional swish of a car down the highway, multiplying as the night shift is let off and the day shift begins. All of them coming and going from the city, because anyone who still works has to do so elsewhere after the manufacturing industries collapsed and left no economy behind but drugs. Sometimes I would think about going back to the hills, finding the overgrown piece of land where Annoushka’s house still squats on its foundations, being digested slowly by black mold and burrowing insects. Winter had come again by then, and I would imagine lying down on the floor, snow blowing in through the broken windows and covering me.

The only thing that stopped me was thinking of my mother, alone in her tiny apartment. Smoking her cigarettes, watching her daytime TV. I thought that if I enrolled in university it would her a reason to be happy again, give us a reason to talk without the black weight of things hanging over us. I would study archaeology, I decided, and bury my thoughts so far in the past that I could forget myself. I excelled from the start, but I never showed her the crowning achievement of my academic career. An article published in Anthropology Today, peer reviewed and everything, which I keep folded up in the back pages of the journal I barely use.

Why Don’t People See the Almas Anymore? Urbanization and Folk Culture in the Ural Mountains, the title reads. Economic globalization has meant that new generations no longer venture into the taiga to hunt, trap, and gather the traditional plant medicines used by their grandparents, I argued. This means that people no longer see signs of the Almas, real or imagined: giant footprints in the mossy forest floor, fish missing from nets and dark shapes retreating into the pines. While modern sightings of the Almas may be fiction, my conclusion stated, recent archaeological evidence has revealed that some species of now-extinct hominids may have existed in the Ural region at the same time as our ancestors. Perhaps this means that the legend has roots in oral histories from a time when the Almas, or something like it, still walked the earth.

It was that last part that spurred the professor to contact me and offer me an assistant position, on a project he said he was sure I would be interested in although we would have to discuss it in person. I was thrilled, at first.

 [ Hands, © 2016 Rachel Linn ] On campus, the brass-handled doors of the Ural Federal University loom like a hungry mouth in front of me, faculty office halls sprawling out behind them in a dimly lit labyrinth. Other instructors like to decorate the their doors in newspaper cartoons, inspirational posters, painfully corny discipline-specific jokes that no one outside of their field would understand. The professor’s, however, is empty save a small plaque that reads Vissarion Vitalievich, Department of Biological Anthropology. Through the window, the skulls of primates grin at me from the top of his bookshelf, overlooking his desk with its turrets of neatly stacked papers. I open the door and sit across from him, and he looks up from his computer screen to raise his eyebrows at me. We go through the same conversation we have had now more times than I can count on one hand. Outside his office window, black squirrels twitch their bottle-brush tails as they flit across the mowed lawn, and up and down the trunks of spruce trees.

“Just so that I’m sure I understand,” he says, frowning at me skeptically. “The issue is an ethical one?”

“Yes,” I manage to say.

“Evgeniya, I can assure you. All the proposals have been vetted by the ethics review board. There’s nothing left for us to discuss.”

I look down at my shoes, and I can feel his eyes boring into me.

“Unless you’re somehow privy to some kind of information I’m not aware of?” he asks, his voice mocking.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, at the site,” he tells me when I don’t answer, and I nod my reluctant assent as I pick up my backpack and leave his office, the primate skulls watching me with the darkness inside their hollow orbital sockets.

In the store, I catch my own reflection in the mirror above the sunglasses rack, neon lights bringing out the bruise-purple saucers around my eyes. Something about the thought of anything resembling real food turns my stomach. It’s liquor that my body craves, cheap malt beer mixed with orange juice. A complete meal, rich in vitamins and carbohydrates. When it gets bad like this I’ll drink three or four cans of pop, sugar and carbonation tricking me into thinking I’m having the real thing. I take a one liter bottle of ginger ale out of the cooler, perusing the aisles of packaged snack foods, looking for something solid to put in my stomach. Chips will be healthier than Hostess cupcakes, I decide, taking a bag of jalapeno cheddar flavored Lays from the rack before going to the cash register. I say ‘thank you’ to the clerk too many times as I put the stuff in my backpack. Pulling up the hood of my sweatshirt, I walk out the door and hurry home underneath the darkening sky.

When I get to my apartment I flop down on my bed without turning the lights on. I dial my mother’s number and don’t press the call button. My teeth start chattering before the tremors spread over the rest of my body, and my lips pull back from my teeth in an animal snarl when the sobs start to wrack my chest. I squeeze my eyes shut but he’s there anyway, my dad, imprinted onto the backs of their lids. Pulling my mother out the door while she kicks and screams and her dressing gown falls open. Grabbing me by the arm and throwing me against the wall when I pull at his pants leg and yell for him to stop. I look in his bloodshot eyes and then they’re Vasily’s eyes. But Vasily wasn’t like that. He never, he hardly ever hit me.

In my closet I scrabble through the clothes and boxes of old junk I haven’t bothered throwing out. Family photos, knickknacks that belonged to Annoushka. A box of drawings and letters I got from Vasily, the one time he did three months in jail. My hands close around the neck of the bottle, and I slump down on the floor with my back against the wall, drinking the vodka with no chaser until the shaking starts to calm down and I can hear something other than the ringing in my ears. Cars passing on the street outside, the occasional squeal and guffaw of drunken voices. Today is Friday, after all, and people are outside enjoying themselves.

I sleep eventually, after my tears have exhausted me, and dream that I am among the spruce trees. Their trunks seem enormous, bigger than they are in real life, until I realize that it’s just me who’s small. I’m standing at the edge of the clearing, sun filtering through the canopy in columns. Casting patches of light that melt the snow where she lies, sprawled on her back with her mouth and eyes open, her hair covering part of her face. I step closer, and I see them where they weren’t, before: kneeling over her, combing her hair away from her face with their big hands. They mumble to themselves, sounds of grieving that pull me back to some ancient rhythm, some state of knowing that predates language or speech.

I sit down beside them as they turn her onto her side and curl her knees to her chest, arranging her arms so that she’s holding herself. One of them takes the prescription bottle from her hand and sets it on the ground beside her. I touch her hair too, like they are doing, and lay my palm against her lifeless cheek.

In the morning I make coffee, spill the grounds all over the kitchen counter and don’t clean it up. I eat half a piece of toast standing over the sink, go to the bathroom and smear concealer over the dark circles under my eyes as if it makes any difference. I don’t bother packing my bag because I know I won’t be able to eat. I just pour the rest of the vodka into a dark blue water bottle and zip it into the front pocket before leaving my apartment, heading to campus where the professor and his research team wait for me.

Through the window, I watch the city-scape give way to farmland, until the pavement ends and we’re driving on the bumpy packed earth of forest access roads. I feel calm and clear-headed, sipping vodka and chasing it with the coffee someone passed me from a cardboard tray. I’m just crazy, like everyone else in my family. My mind created the strange man so I could deal with the guilt of not having been able to do anything for my aunt. Nothing could have saved Annoushka. She made a choice and left us behind, and I smile now as the simplicity of the world finally hits me, a sort of peace in the realization that there is no meaning in anything, no higher purpose in the suffering that life gives us.

At the excavation site we unload our equipment from the van and I’m the life of the party, cracking jokes that make everyone laugh, carrying all the heaviest boxes. It’s getting so hot! I say, wiping sweat from my upper lip, drinking from my blue plastic bottle. Morning turns into afternoon, and I notice people aren’t laughing anymore. I trip over a trowel I didn’t see on the ground and the professor glares at me. Kaspar, my colleague from Poland, helps me up but gives me a strange, pitying look, and I see his eyes come to rest on my bottle. I resolve to act normal, taking a trowel from one of the cases and stepping gingerly into the excavation pit. I used to joke all the time that I drive better when I’m drunk; I realize now that I also excavate better when I’m drunk. My mind is empty of all distractions, free to focus on displacing the dark earth, looking into the wound I’ve opened and scanning for anything of significance.

I feel my trowel touch something hard, and I remove one of the brushes from my tool belt, dusting away the blanket of soil that covers the object. A piece of jawbone. A lower mandible, with one large, flat tooth still embedded. A shiver runs through me, and I look around to make sure no one is watching. That’s when I see the professor standing above me, his face shadowed under his khaki-colored Tilly hat.

“What is it?” he smiles. “What did you find?”

My eyes are big and my teeth chatter, my hand closing around the piece of bone.

“Show me,” he says, still smiling, bending down and reaching out to me.

My body feels frozen, but I make a decision and scramble out of the pit, ruining the cordon of rope and wooden stakes that edges it’s perimeter.

“Evgeniya, what did you find?” he demands, grabbing my upper arm, his fingers digging into me. There’s desperation in his face now. This project means everything to him, to his career. His lips are pulled back from his teeth, and I show him my fangs too when I snarl, don’t touch me, wrenching my arm away before I sling my backpack over my shoulder and bolt into the trees. I look back at them over my shoulder; Kaspar gets up like he’s going to come after me, but doesn’t. The professor just stands there with his mouth open. I run and run and don’t stumble once, my feet avoiding rocks and exposed tree roots, knowing they’re there before I see them with my eyes. Adrenaline keeps me from feeling my legs cramp, the brambles lashing at me through my thin pants. Above me, crows are screeching. This way, this way.

I find a stream eventually and sit down on the mossy ground beside it. I’m crying, the way a baby cries, in big snotty wet sobs. In my hand, the piece of bone glints off-white through the black earth that’s been smeared into a paste by my sweat. I lower it into the water and let the stream carry the dirt away, cup my hands and drink until my stomach hurts. I think of calling my mother, rifling through my pockets for my phone, but it must have fallen out while I was running.

I set off at a walking pace after that, taking a dead branch from the ground and using it as a staff. I walk until the sun starts going down, and then I walk some more. I pass an old weather-beaten deer blind, think of staying there for the night and decide against it. When I am too tired to walk anymore I find a patch of soft earth and gather sticks from the ground to make a fire, snap off some green spruce boughs to keep the bugs away. Above me the moon is bright, the trees around me thick with the sounds of nocturnal life. I tuck the bone into the front pocket of my shirt before snapping open my folding knife, shaving thin ribbons of dry wood to feed the young flames until they’re big enough for real branches. My stomach grumbles and I realize that I’ve hardly eaten in the past two days. That’s when I remember the pop and chips in my bag. I take out the ginger ale and unscrew the cap slowly so that the fizz doesn’t explode all over me. It’s warm now, but it calms my nervous stomach.

I close my eyes and lose myself in the hiss and pop of young branches on the fire. It could be hours or minutes later when behind me, something moves in the bracken. Big footsteps, too soft and careful to be human. They pad closer, and when the dark shape eases itself down beside me I don’t turn my head, just reach out my hand and offer the ginger ale. From the corner of my eye I can see that she’s female, long breasts hanging down her broad, furry chest. She takes the bottle and has a sip before passing it back.

I look at her and I can see that’s she’s old, the fur around her eyes and nose white in the fire light. Older than the city with its vacant factories and onion-domed churches. Old like the forest, like the mountains themselves. Her hand comes towards me, and I stop breathing as she reaches into the pocket of my shirt and takes the bone. I look at it where it lays against her smooth palm, and when she brushes the fingers of her other hand over it, it vanishes under her touch. Transported back to the other place. That softer place where we lived too, once. Before we had a name for the sun, or the moon, or the pain in your chest when you lose someone you love. Before we started wearing the skins of other living things, and the fur fell from our bodies.

I look into the firelight again, shapes rising and falling in the leaping flames. Animals and birds and faces emerging, changing, reconstituting into something new. I watch the stories they tell, poking at the hot embers with my walking stick and watching the sparks jump, rising into the black sky above us before they go out. The same way I loved to do when I was a kid, sitting between my mother and my aunt on the cinder blocks around the fire pit. The three of us happy for a while in our oasis of warmth, safe from all the things that go bump in the night. That same feeling spreads through me again, and I smile to myself, drinking more of the fizzy soda. I take the bag of chips out of my backpack and open it, propping it up between us on the ground.

“Jalapeno cheddar,” I say, taking a couple and popping them into my mouth. She takes a small handful too, eating them one at a time as we stare into the flames.

© 2016 Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

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