“The forest. There’s always the forest.” The thought brought with it lightness, gave her pedalling an extra burst of speed, as if in recalling the woods she had summoned it, conjured up its healing air.
As she moved farther and farther away from the National Library, Elsa couldn’t shake off a feeling of dread. Like an unbearable itch. When she returned the plastic envelope with the manuscript, the director had taken it without saying a word. Not even a vague nod to register the gravity of the material, the precious first-hand account of the early days of the Catastrophe and beyond, all traces of which they had discreetly tried to wipe clean from their shelves and databases. No small talk about how they took note of any inquiry about Lev Smidovych for routine reporting to the authorities. She was given the rest of the day off and was making her way out of the Neo-Baroque building to where she left her bike when she saw him. One of the three masked policemen who had watched over her as she scanned the fraying pages. Mean looking. Smoking languidly but movements seemingly rehearsed somehow. For show. It was too late to avert his gaze when she realised who it was, and by then the cop had taken off his mask, revealing a thin smile.
She winced, cornered into smiling back. How long since she’d last seen a smile. And people didn’t smile at her. Or at all. The police certainly didn’t.
Soon the wall came into view, her reminder that she was halfway through her journey. More or less. She tried to pedal faster. Heading to the forest instead of her place didn’t entail a huge detour. Her path still mostly followed what used to be the city’s busiest metro line, past the main square, past the museum row, past the rotunda with the brutalist war memorial. But at a certain point instead of west to her borough she’d need to turn east, to the direction of the rolling mountain range that gave the district its name.
Every now and then she’d slow down, catch her breath, and look behind her, suddenly sure that she was being followed. But what she’d find was the same empty stretch of pavement, the same shock of a leafless tree, a stranger’s non-seeing eyes. She kept an eye out for the police car from the library, but the green things were a fixture in the city. At every block almost, as if the surveillance cameras at every traffic light and building weren’t enough. Neither police nor cameras smiled.
It must have been two years now since the incident. An altercation at a queue outside a grocery in the outskirts of the city. It was the early days of eased quarantine measures. Things were under control, they declared, tone solemn, funereal. At last. Then a forty-something man, supposedly rowdy, a veteran of the counter-insurgency campaign down south, gave the policeman guarding the queue a weird look. Men and their staring matches. Witnesses said he raised his hand; the police said he reached into his bag. A few days later grainy mobile phone footage of the shooting surfaced online, prompting the usual cycle of indignation, vows of a thorough inquiry, and deathly silence. People planning to protest were rounded up. A so-called watchdog cleaned up news websites. Physical newspapers were deemed non-essential. Then reports of a new wave of infections drowned out the rest of the news cycle. Complete with overhead shots of cadaver bags in hastily dug-up mass graves on an island off the coast. Voila. The lockdown was back.
Her darn curiosity. Why did she even try to catch snippets of the yellowing pages?
It didn’t help her nerves that the voice of Lev Smidovych continued to ring loud in her ear, above the rush of frigid wind. Not so much in reproach or rage but just in banal reminder that so many things were uncontrollably wrong in the world, and here’s one more. That the world described by the calm, clinical cursive in the diary was not so different from this one. “Everything’s working, everything’s fine, the traffic lights are on. The streetlights are on, the streets are swept. Everything’s fine, don’t panic.” On cue Elsa had to stop at an intersection, eyes peeled at the light. A hint of snow in the air. Inhale, exhale. To her left, a wolf trawled through an alley dumpster.
Her darn curiosity. Why did she even try to catch snippets of the yellowing pages? She could have looked away. She knew she was chosen for the task because she kept to herself. Kept to her books. Her little life. Masha, her mother. That she ignored the news, the world’s reliable regime of discontents. It was a sustainable way to live. These days maybe the only way. Didn’t she work where she worked precisely to permit such a life? Her first terror was the long-ago realisation that the real world was unlike what she’d encountered in books. It was cruel, often dull, out of her tenuous control (and with not nearly enough Russians; she gave her satchel a little tap, her worn-out copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” snug inside). She was well into her twenties when she learned to live with this knowledge, though not without anguish. But if she made reading her life, could the world be downgraded to being the interruption? One day she took the wrong bus (the good old days when buses still ran) and found herself getting off at a stop near an abandoned hiking trail. The forest in the foothills seemed to call to her. Away from the world or else onto its bosom. Thus began her darling weekend routine. And soon she realised that the forest, like her books, had its own infrastructure of knowledge. A kind of numinous dispersion that lay outside language. And not extractive somehow, like how reading sometimes felt. Not mercenary. She pushed down on the pedal when the light turned green
“This simple solitary act of writing these words on this page will ensure that something of me remains.”
She blinked away the words, which came to her with no warning, like an undammed memory. But she didn’t even see that sentence. Or did she? Next to flash in her mind was the image of a man writing at a desk, gone as quickly as it arrived. Parts of her body felt numb. She adjusted her mask with one hand and looked around her, all while trying to steady her pedalling. Away from the center of the city the ravages from the past decade were more noticeable, harder to hide. The middle of the road eviscerated for a planned metro station, now indefinitely halted, the gaping hole cordoned off by sagging police tape. Colonies of homeless people encamped not far from the half-built foundations. They had been given housing when the lockdown began, but the new normal deemed that unsustainable, everyone had to make sacrifices, and so on. Her eyes absently followed a feral-looking dog approach one of the makeshift tents, and where she expected a harsh shooing the animal emerged dragging with some effort a limp body.
A long piercing honk hauled her back, and she pedalled faster, watching the SUV hurtle past her. Calm down, Elsa. Calm the fuck down. Her bike wobbled beneath her, and she felt a sharp pang before her eyes. Her flight or flight response, Masha would joke. Cue her riotous laughter. A bit farther away, she stopped on the side of the road. On instinct she reached into her satchel for her bottle of water. Like everyone, she knew that the Catastrophe began with widespread thirst and over the years had grown paranoid. Like her grandmother, she idly thought, who survived the war and afterwards maniacally made sure that her pantry was always aburst with canned food and grain. She looked up to the leaden sky. The world had gone mad, which was to say it went on. Heedless of the violence she’d just witnessed. And no police car in sight now when one would actually be useful. She rejoined the sparse traffic of sedans and cargo trucks. The woods, the woods. Almost there.
Maybe she should send Masha a text message. About the body. Or just in case. In case what? She turned right to a smaller road, and instantly the sight of the mountain half-obscured by tufts of clouds brought with it a rush of relief. This path went uphill, but somehow the usual effort that announced this didn’t strain her legs. A sullen thought, perhaps she was fine with dying if it were in the woods. Her body married serenely to a fallen log, a feast for botflies, army ants. Or on a bed of twigs, cheeks caressed by the nose of a curious deer. Her last moments nothing but comfort. Around her the rustle of tiny lives, ceaseless birdsong, moist earth.
Soon she was completely alone on the road; the world resumed its blessed largeness. No Lev Smidovych. No police. No virus, controlled or not, weaponised or not. The houses along the way hushed as usual. No sign of life save for the uncollected trash bins out front. She whizzed by a few trees that retained some color, a last hurrah. One final push up a mild turn and the familiar meadow swept into view. Her woods. She lay down her bike. Discarded right next to the trail entrance was the old No Entry sign from when forests were made off limits. Something about disease-spreading bats or civets, which she was sure was only too happy to be left alone.
Her usual route was a leisurely trek that ended just shy of the foothills that led to the lowest peak. Just over an hour each way. And the old water fountains still worked if one were adventurous and not so squeamish. She’d turn around at an abandoned cabin that she guessed used to be an outpost of sorts. Graffitied walls swathed in vines, surrounded by tiger grass as tall as her. The first time she went inside, she couldn’t resist imagining what it could have looked like in the past and, just as swiftly, what a little cleaning up would do to it. On one side stood an empty shelf.
Her entry into the forest had always been accompanied by the memory of the book she’d probably read the most times in her life. “Los pasos perdidos”. Alejo Carpentier. A Sisyphus figure’s journey to the edges of civilisation, and time, and history, and text. And what could this non-place be except the forest? This time, the book didn’t flicker in her mind as her skin adjusted to the crisp air that danced around the always-damp tree trunks, the unbroken canopy of leaves overhead. Deeper into the forest, random images would flash in her head. A man in the corner of a tiny room. A crowded supermarket. A group of heavily armed men storming a building. A pair of dead, emptied-out eyes. Each time she’d try to focus on a faraway treetop or a scurrying underfoot, the forest helping her oust the unwanted visitor.
Closer to the cabin, she heard snippets of conversation interrupt the endless crescendo of croaking and buzzing, the riot of faraway whistles and howls. They were coming from inside, she realised. She couldn’t place the accent but somehow understood individual words. Her first instinct was to turn around and run, but she felt her own feet take the first steps toward the cabin. Right, left, right. She crouched under a window. “The borders are still closed”, a voice said, “but even they couldn’t guard massive swaths of the woods.” Silence. “Is no one hungry?”, someone asked. “The stupid forest will always be there, but I’m starving.” Another lull, then laughter. “Wash your hands!”, another voice called out. Elsa remembered her favourite book. A wearied smile, just as she noticed that the row of oak trees across from her was now half-lit by the setting sun. A formation of birds swooped down from the sky. She got up, as noiselessly as she could, and had taken a few steps away from the cabin when she heard someone call her name.