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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

Fiction



While the trees slept

During the months following our meeting in the woods, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened that night. My perceptions changed after the long night we shared. As watched the storm and its unceasing rain fall over the trees, it stirred something inside of me. It wasnít the longest time, consisting of a single night, but it left quite an impact on me. It was as time stood still. I could divide my life between the time before we met and the time after. As the days passed, her presence remained a vivid force in my life that failed to dissipate, like many other memories had. She became an unspoken, yet constant undercurrent in my life. She was my secret guardian, an ethereal friend, an invisible, powerful force no one else could understand. Thinking about her and our secret meeting began to take a life of its own. Sometimes, it was like living two lives at the same time. It made it difficult to stay in that world for very long without drifting and sinking into it. I remained steadfast and kept things straight without straying too far from the path and the moment we shared along the way. In many ways, this became a welcome distraction from reality. I kept a low profile, concentrating on other things to keep myself busy during the day. This allowed me to stay out of the spotlight for the most part. I was able to fit in to some degree, and was able to talk about things without giving up my secrets. Thatís what probably appeared to be going on the outside. I hid a lot of what I was doing, not letting anyone see the pictures I drew of her or the stories I wrote about our encounters. If they were seen, I knew what they were going to say and I didnít need unnecessary confrontations. In order to cope with these contradictions, I created a separate identity that allowed me to keep a foot planted in both realities. Sometimes it would slip through my filters but I always rolled it back. I could usually cover it up though. Everyone thought I was going through a strange phase but there was something happening underneath that they didnít know about. I knew what happened and this was kept close to my heart, closely protected from anyone else. These were our secrets, I kept for them for us and I wasnít going to reveal them to anyone else. It wasnít always the easiest path to walk, but it was the only one I wanted to take.

Darkness arrived earlier as the fall unfolded, the night slowly began to seep into the afternoons, giving the elusive sun more importance. I had to walk there faster if I still wanted to see things, but it also had another effect. The nocturnal surge created a distance from the claustrophobic daylight, giving me additional shelter from its relentless inquiries. There was no point in explaining this to anyone, since we shared something unique. After awhile, I became accustomed to hiding her presence from others during the day, but this only increased my longing for it when I was alone. She was my silent, unseen companion walking alongside me on the rock-strewn paths, guiding me to unexpected places and showing me things I hadnít seen before. Slowly, I came to the realization that while I knew exactly who she was, I didnít think anyone else would understand. This was special and best left between us. While her face was a vivid memory for me, I decided to keep it out of othersí sight, to honor our code in the end.  By keeping it a secret only we knew about, my memory retained its own identity, one that would remain strong with me through the years. Taking this approach worked during the day, and it was easier when I was free in the afternoons when I could explore the world again on my own terms

I was allowed to chart my own path on the way up there, and this freedom made me feel less vulnerable than during the rest of the day. There was no forced or predetermined direction for me to take home, and I could walk where I wanted. I returned often to the woods where we sat in the rain together for those many hours during that long storm. Each time I went back there, I became a little better at climbing the paths and avoiding the sharp, dangerous rocks. Learning where things were, I learned that I didnít need to climb straight up that cliff to reach our spot. On the night we met, I hadnít discovered the paths to the top of the mountain that werenít as dangerous to traverse. I knew where to go safely, so she wouldnít have to worry about saving me again. As I explored the mountain, things began to emerge that I hadnít seen on my first encounters. It was a much longer path, but one I used since it was safer. The problem was that it exposed me to the outside world a bit more. It was still hard to see from the nearby street and the entrance wasnít marked with any signs. It seemed like a small cluster of woods at the edge of a nearly deserted street. Even through I wasnít likely to be spotted there since it was so isolated and neglected, I made careful that others werenít around when I entered. It was a peaceful place and I didnít want anyone else to following me, especially not those who wouldnít understand.

As the first few days of December arrived, the long autumn began to fade into winter. It happened hesitatingly, a slow change occurring one moment at a time. The change from October to November was scarcely noticeable. There was an occasional cold gust that chilled the air. Meanwhile, the leaves steadily began to fall, collecting into small piles on the ground. When they fell, they cemented the muddy paths into a stronger, crisper walkways littered with crackling twigs and acorns. As the trees began to fall asleep, resting for the winter, their forms changed slowly. They were still strong and tall, but they were slender now, with their thick branches now barren, twisting into new forms. They seemed more vulnerable than they had in earlier. Their brittle branches stretched far into the sky, guarding and overlooking the ground beneath them. Their personality seemed to change with the seasons as well. Instead of angrily blocking the moonís radiance as the night fell over the woods, they seemed to absorb their glow with less reluctance as the nights grew colder. Embracing their new forms, they adapted to the changed world and began to accept its changed reality. They responded by creating shadows which planted distinct markers between light and dark section into the ground. As they changed their shapes, they revealed sections of woods where I could walk through safely, and other areas I could walk through undetected since they were shrouded nearly completely in darkness as the afternoon slipped away. I learned the best paths to take, slowly it became my sanctuary. It had become a refuge where I could be alone without feeling afraid.

It usually took me awhile to get there. I had to walk, since the uneven land and scattered rocks and twigs made running dangerous. This was even more true after a rainy day, when the ground would turn into thick mud that gripped my sneakers, making it more difficult to lift my feet. However, the effort to get there was worth it. I could usually feel the dayís pressures lifting from me once I reached the end of the pathway. Iíd sit there for a few minutes and rest. I used my backpack as a pillow and catch my breath. As the problems of the day receded, I felt the peacefulness of the trees and their wiry branches protecting me. Gradually, I let the world slide away. Under their guard, I was alone and could feel myself returning to reality as the survival constructions I built slowly peeled away. As I sat there on those cold December afternoons, the solitude became a concentrating force, allowing me to feel things I normally wouldnít be able to. Through the blowing winds and slowly receding sunlight, I could occasionally feel a kind of echo of her spirit that still remained there. It brought me back to that moment immediately. I didnít have an expectation of her imminent return. It worked in allowing me to relive that moment without needing to actually see her sitting on the rocks again. I knew she wasnít going to be there all the time, but the fleeting moments we shared together were important. Our bond was strong enough on its own without the constant reinforcement of direct contact. As I sat there, I could see her whenever I wanted to, using a variety of different methods that I created. They worked for me, but I didnít think anyone else wouldíve been able to reproduce the system I had. It was full of secret codes and things only the two of us would know.

Regardless of her immediate presence, It was the perfect place to go when I wanted to be alone. As the days went on, I discovered that I was good at cloaking myself and disappearing underneath the shadows. A few times, I would hear something and a stray cat or dog would walk by and not see me at all, which was a fairly fun game to play. It was a serene place for me to escape; its quiet solitude brought me to another place. Even as I walked there, I felt things lift from me. I could finally be alone, vanishing into another world, released from expectations, alone with my memories, finally free to think and exist without any pressure. The more time I spent there, the more it became familiar. I found favorite spots and sections; the locations of trees and other landmarks became second nature. I navigated through the paths effortlessly, increasing my comfort level with each day. As December reach its center, my journeys began to dwindle in length as the days became shorter. These visits shrank until they became only a few fleeting minutes, a short moment of peace, to remember and think about things, on the way back home. Our secret was safe, but its presence slowly diminished in my as time went on. When I was there, I always took the opportunity to take a deep, cold breath, inhaling its purity and solace before I left and the long winter nights took hold of the world with its unrelenting icy grip. Eventually, it got too cold to stay outside for very long and I didnít visit again for several weeks. I felt a bit lost without my times up there and I tried to think of ways to get back there. However, it seemed too dangerous to be out alone for so long, especially when the darkness and cold became overwhelming. I put it aside for those few weeks and focused on other things.

During the week before Christmas, I caught a break that gave me more time to explore. The school was letting out early and this gave me more daylight to explore once again. I returned one afternoon to find things had changed once again. The wide rocky paths pf the fall had narrowed under the icy layers that had accumulated. This made them harder to traverse and gave me less leeway. I walked up through the paths and it seemed quieter than usual. Everything radiated stillness and calm, which was at once reassuring and unnerving. Most of the leaves had fallen and the rocks and twigs had sunk into the ground, making the paths smoother, but also slippery. This changed the landscape and I had to take some different paths to get there. Some of the safer sections werenít as predictable, making each step an unexpected adventure. At this point, I knew the ridges and valleys well enough and its familiarity allowed me to find my way back to our hidden refuge without much effort. I noticed that the breaks werenít as forgiving, but I most of the landscape was familiar.

I looked upwards and saw the old trees hadnít moved, but they looked different. After putting up a valiant battle, the trees finally succumbed to the winterís grip. I saw their thin branches covered in layers of frozen ice, standing firm against the wind. They seemed stiffer against the wind, barely budging against the stiff breezes that blew through. I walked towards the other side, where I had first stood. That night earlier in the fall came flooding back to me and I felt a rush as I remembered how I felt. Those minutes seemed like hours when I was standing there alone on the ledge. Moving closer to the site of my near-disaster, I remembered how afraid I was until the moment when she grabbed me. How I was able to hold on so long was something I couldnít explain. She was there the moment I needed her, and I was grateful for her presence and help. The long winter night emerged slowly on the horizon. Its namesake moon began to illuminate the ground in its distinctive blue glow. I stood there for several minutes basking in the impervious light of the ascending early-winter moon. I could see the entire town peaking out from behind the trees. It seemed smaller than I remembered in some ways, but also less cluttered. With wind and ice that had accumulated, if I squinted hard enough, the reflections in the windows were twinkling as the sun slowly began its descent. The ledge was near the top of the hill, with a long way down if a single slip occurred. I stood there for quite awhile, letting the wind blow through me, allowing the cold to permeate my body. Slowly, I felt myself becoming as stiff as the trees surrounding me. It let me think about things in different ways. I was able to transport myself back to that night and relive that moment. Once again, I could feel her hand as it grabbed me, the way she held onto me, and how quickly she was able to pull me up. It had seemed effortless, she forged an immediate bond, and her grip instantly replaced imminent danger with safety.

As I stood there at the edge of the cliff, I thought of how my perceptions of the past frequently changed as subsequent events occurred. This brought back our encounter because the memory was so different from so much else that had happened. It remained as vivid and unchanging as the rocks beneath my feet. The memory was unchanging, perfectly replicating itself exactly each time. It flooded back and crested towards that moment. She was there at the moment I needed help. It was as clear as if it had happened a minute ago. It was the kind of moment that stood out in time, a clear line that wouldnít change shape. I held onto it for months, knowing what I knew, and where I was, it brought a shiver down my back, it could have ended there, but it didnít. I stood near the edge of the mountain for a very long time, but even my endurance wasnít enough to take the direct assault for very long. I walked back towards the safer middle of the mountain, where the ground was flat. I soaked it all in, knowing that additional opportunities for visits were dwindling fast, I didnít want to let it go. I looked up and saw the clouds begin to darken. I could feel another storm forming and I knew that I wouldnít stay there through the night. I watched the clouds slowly overtake the moon and felt the winds begin to blow stronger. As I began to walk back towards the other side of the hill, I felt a few small flurries on my face. It was a prelude to a much stronger wave. There wasnít much more time to linger there, as much as I didnít want to let the moment go, I knew I needed to leave. I walked past the rocks where we sat during that long night and began to doubt, in some small way, whether it has actually happened. I looked at them and they seemed a bit strange, a little larger than they seemed at the time. Deciding to go a little closer to them, I felt the snow flurries getting a bit larger and more intense, their flakes increasing in size and volume. Soon, they filled the sky and the ground, slowly saturating the mountain. I reached them once again and I felt a sudden dizziness in my head.  The memory of our long night together surged into my body and it was a little overwhelming. I decided to sit on the rock once again to regain my balance. I thought of how close she seemed that night, and also how distant she seemed then. I thought I could feel her presence, but wasnít quite sure if it was a memory or something happening at that moment.

It was very strange sensation, to find myself standing on top of the ledge again. Iíd avoided that section in my previous visits, not wanting to disturb the memory. As I sat there, I knew that she wouldíve understood why I needed to be there. While I sat there, the snow became ever more persistent and it began to cover the ground, slowly covering it with a fresh glow. After a few minutes there, I realized that I could easily get lost if I didnít move quickly. I stood up and walked down towards the path, under the suddenly intimidating cluster of trees and navigated the paths which had become slippery. Unsure of my steps, I moved forward slowly down the hill and felt the winds and snow trying to catch up to me. It wasnít particularly far to get back down to the street at this point but, I knew Iíd have to keep pace before things became problematic. I knew the path that was the quickest way out of there, but it was becoming obscured as the snow became stronger. I decided to take another way out. It was a little bit longer but, there were more trees there to protect me from the wind and snow. My footsteps became a little faster at first, then I slowed down a little so I wouldnít slip away. As I walked I looked at a small cluster of bushes at the edge of the path and saw something out of the corner of my eye that made seemed strange.

Someone left something up there for me to find, which was strange since I rarely saw others in this small sanctuary. I couldnít quite make it out from the distance under the snow but I wanted to see what it was. I walked towards it and saw that it was a small package, seemingly dropped from the sky. As I moved closer, I could see it better and once I got it in my sight and once it came into focus, I knew exactly what it was. I walked towards it and pulled it out from under the bushes. I felt a sudden feeling of recognition which gave me both relief and happiness. It had purposely been left there for me alone. She had somehow managed to enter undetected beneath the slumbering giants, placing a gift there unobtrusively. In some sense, I think she must have known how the day would unfold and which paths I would choose before I walked them. The moment I held it in my hand, I immediately felt it was meant for me, even though my name wasnít written on it. In that moment, I knew someone had been watching my return journeys to the hill and that I was never completely alone. There was someone present, however distant, shadowing my every step. While her gift was a bit damp on its edges, I could tell it hadnít been there for long, at least thatís what it seemed like. The snow began to pick up at that moment and I quickly moved down the rest of the hill. It didnít take long for me to get to the edge and I finally reached the edge of the street. I didnít want it to get spotted, so I pulled out my backpack and gently put it inside, carefully placing it so no one would see it if they looked at me walking by. It was protected from the storm. I walked quickly through the streets and felt the snow picking up, with the accompanying silence giving the evening a special glow. It took me a few more minutes to get back to my neighborhood, but it didnít seem like it took that much effort. The storm was raging by the time I arrived home, and the final steps up the stairs were a little difficult. Once there, I was able to hide her present and its secret would be safe with me. No one down there saw what I was hiding. I didnít need to open it up since I already knew what was inside.

- Michael Palisano

Previously

We Left Together 
Our Secret Code

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