by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012
Underground House, Small Patch of Woods that No Longer Exists between Redstone Drive and Firestone Road and Melvin Road and a Tributary Creek of a Tributary Creek of Fishing Creek
(the Key to the City)
Night crystallized in the mental map of these woods the little boy had in his head as he applied that map to trails and trees around him. In his duskdark peace, the boy felt the woods come up around him like a mysterious city. He knew the city, but the city would always surprise him with new angles and new alleyways he had never seen curve down certain hillsides by certain creeks. Because this mysterious city was a woods, it always changed, and the points of the map grew against and away from and into and around each other.
The blackberry brambles grew into one another and spread across the field by Redstone Drive. To the far right of the blackberry brambles, the sandy trail wandered at the edge of the embankment that slipped down into the minnows and crabs and crawdaddies in the creek that ran behind the houses and up under Redstone Drive and Proxima Road. Where and when the boy had moved down that trail into those woods, the whole woodsmap moved him into it like a world in its last age gesturing kindly and resignedly to one young being who didn’t understand the end of that world was coming. The woodsmap moved the boy into it like a dying gesture the young boy could not interpret because of his newness in the old, old, old landscape.
When the cool air coalesced around him, the boy knew he would not be here long. The boy knew he would be home soon. The boy knew his father would hold him in his arms and they would go over his spelling words one more time before his spelling test in school tomorrow. The boy believed this small woods would always be here for him. The boy believed he could come back tomorrow, and he thought that tomorrow was as many tomorrows as he could lead out in his very young imagination. That belief allowed him to leave. He could leave because he knew he could always come back. Not just come back tomorrow. Always come back.
But he had a ways to go before he’d turn back home. Past the nebulous green in shades greener and less green high up over him, the names of the trees of which he could not yet distinguish, past the first road leading to the right, the boy walked up a shoot of a path that grew out between the right angle of two paths. The shoot grew like the suckers between branches on tomato vines. It took him into a circle of dirt beneath a big oak that sucked the nourishment from the ground all around it and thereby created a lack of lusher green beneath. The other side of this oak held a burn-pit shallow in the earth. It was always freshly burnt, but the boy had never seen it burning. Nor had he ever seen the men who in deep night kindled and rekindled the charred ground. Sometimes the boy found cigarette lighters there and other things he could not identify.
Once he had ridden his bike over the main trail and some kind of small green snake had darted out from the palmettos so that he ran over the snake. Its tail and its head both rose up toward his body and he screamed like a little girl.
South of the burn-pit in the dirt circle beneath the oak, three narrow trails staggered back and forth between briars that perpetually grew into them. These trails led to another small circular clearing, this one in the midst of clumps of palm trees squeezed in by the forest around and above them. The dirt between the palms was sand. The boy never wondered who maintained these trails or what this circle was for. He didn’t know the main trails in these woods were older than the paved roads in the neighborhood around them.
There were some people and the people lived in wooden cracker houses with screened front porches and windows situated such that any breeze that blew might ventilate the house when it was hot in late February and June and October. And these people knew much more woods than the woods the boy knew, because the woods the boy knew was just residuals of a great city of woods that once here throve. The people tapped sap in the woods and ran stills in the woods and hid their shine from the few snoops that ever came investigating through. In these woods was not much law and bad things happened in them. Anything a man had was less than his honor was. Stick a stick at that and killing was fully justified. This was the kind of woods that might house an honor killing. All over the unmapped woodsmap that once was the great city of woods, things happened that were not told at the time and no knowledge shone in from outside to lumine those things. Things died in old heads that had haunted them for years. Things that were never told still lived dead here where they so very long ago instantly disappeared.
Some of the wooden cracker houses still stood around the neighborhoods that rose up through the unhistoried woodsmap. Now they looked like parts of neighborhoods. But they came before. They predated. They saw things of which they speak not. They saw things of which they never spoke. They’re in the fiber of the beams and the boards. Some of the houses are gone. Those houses are gone down to ground. When a house goes down to ground, quickly it becomes the ground. No one ever will tell, because no one will ever know to tell. When a house goes down to ground, the pine needles cover it. The oak leaves carpet them. The mulberry seeds blanket them. The weeds and wild hellebore grow up through these layers. The berries scattershot the ground that’s growing. A tree falls. Animals nest in it. The needles come again and the oak leaves and ground does two things at once. The ground grows higher from all these layers upon layers that perpetually cover and compost the past and regenerate things in decay. Also the ground sinks from all the bacteria and earthworms and burrowing insects and grubworms. Then sometimes things will burn, and ash is the very best regenerator. The whole process cycles through annually and annually again and then again. In the rich and nutritive decay, multiply bacteria and fungi and the actinomycetes that seem part bacterium and part fungus in a cobwebbed fiber that define the smell that people call earthy. The smell of earthiness in the great woods city of the northeastern peninsula is the smell of the activation of actinomycetes. Beneath all this processing lies the disintegration of one of the old houses here and one of the old houses the other side of that hill and the houses never told and their absorption into the earth means nothing but the earth, but still bad things happened here.
The boy walks the loop of trail that runs the low bluff above the creek, that tributary of a tributary of Fishing Creek. Sometimes the trail loses sand and dirt over the side and down toward a gopher tortoise. On the other side of the creek, along the opposite bluff, stand chain-link fences enclosing barbecue grills and weight benches and barbell sets and car parts propped over the soil and a rusted picnic table one side of which the ground has pulled down. When the trail returns into the woods and the woods recur, low ground lies in swamp and muck and marsh and smells of methane. The boy has been here before many times and the stink of the muck comforts him with its familiarity, sulfurous, like all the new eggs of things lie rotting in the earth, or like the earth here, low and watery, digests and burbles and farts up through all the plants that grow here. That’s the smell. It is the smell here of the earth. If the womb stinks, its creatures love its stink nonetheless, allthemore.
For just that moment, where the boy pees in the pine straw is a place. For just that moment, where the boy’s pee pools into the ground is an era. So how many greater things here from before for so long? The boy does not guess that peeing in the pine straw is sincere archaeology.
The boy’s house is just down Proxima Road, newer than the woods trails, but already so much older. The boy, however, is not old. His very young youth means that what his life offers him has not time. His father’s arms, his mother’s cheek laid atop his feathery head, because not old or young, are not changing. So what the boy believes is, is. Things do not change. Woods do not go away. Nor parents. Nor childhood. Nor did these trails once extend further from this residual woods than paved neighborhood roads now extend away from them. This gopher tortoise isn’t a billion years old. This gopher tortoise is eternal. The boy can be proud to say he’s seven and a half years old, because getting older means getting big, not getting older. The woods will be here tomorrow morning while the boy is in school. Parents’ warm arms will touch his back and his chest before school and after school as well. Look at that longleaf pine. The pine is the pine. Don’t bother saying the pine wasn’t there or won’t be there. There it is. Right now. Right in front of us.
Now the remainder of the disappeared has disappeared. Where stood the last woods are now cul-de-sacs, Fireside Court and Fireside Drive West. Cheaply built houses. Other things came before. When things come, they also go.
Now it’s getting dark and the boy walks the outer loop of the trail back by Firestone Road. He has a sense of something strange. Without a sense of time, he has no mechanism to decipher it. There are skulls beneath his feet. One of them is human. The night is hot. His head doesn’t work right. He doesn’t know what he thinks. He gets lost in the trails he well knows. They’re not complicated. A bird believed to be extinct and last seen 60 years before perches amid the thorns of the Devil’s Walking Stick. The boy does not see the bird. The boy does not know what to see. The bird does not know the boy.
The boy lies in his bed beneath Disney animal stickers on his wall—Goofy and Mickey and Donald Duck and Daffy Duck and Minnie. Time goes by slowly for the seven year-old boy who does not know time. Time will go by faster when he gets older. Time goes by slowly for him because everything he does is a new thing. He hasn’t done this before. If he has, it’s cut off from him. So time, in the slow accretion of time that thus develops its own definition, depends on the proportion of new experiences to old. In their senses of time, then, the earth and the boy are at odds. He gets lost in places he knows. The woods knows its world will end and invites inward the boy who knows nothing. But bigger than the boy and the woods is all that dirt underneath and all that sky overhead, and the time of dirt and sky is deeptime. So the boy felt when he walked through the woods that the woods knew everything there was to know about him, and that the woods lived its own life outside him and took no notice of him at all.
The dead only speak if you know how to listen. Or, rather, how not to listen to anything else. Hearing the dead speak is like identifying the slightly different hue of a different green of a different tree in the particular shade of certain time of day in the right season. Or, it’s like having nothing else to which to compare it.
The dead are always in the earth beneath the boy’s feet, because the dead are the earth itself. There are houses beneath the forest floor, houses of which the boy knows nothing. They are there, because they were here, and because they fell. When they fell, no one was recording what happened, and things just slipped back into the earth they had always been. Beneath the forest floor, there are houses of which the boy knows nothing, and this is why he can get lost in the woodsmap he knows. He knows the place, but everyplace is unknowable. He doesn’t know that. Bad things have happened in this woods, and he doesn’t know about them. He can get lost in the places he knows, because no place can be known. Not unless you lived perhaps for 500 years. That might be a start. But then again.
He does not know time. Sometimes when he does not fall asleep at night, he feels lost in the whole world, but feels the whole world knows where he is. He feels taken care of. Loved. Nurtured. But he does not know time.
When once he sees a palm tree fallen in the woods, its rootball extended from the sandy soil, he feels he sees a piece of a much bigger movement of a thing, and he feels that in that piece, he sees the bigger thing and its bigger movement. But what he sees he does not know. Big things in small. The whole movement glimpsed in one fall. Then he almost understands a thing he might understand if he yet knew time. If the fall of the palm is a way to see the whole movement of things, then he could understand what his life is. Not that he does. But he almost has a sense of it. He has a kind of sense. He doesn’t understand it though. What he might have been able to understand is that his one life is to all life what the palm in the forest is to the whole forest. His growth in childhood is to uncountable long times of life what the fall of the palm is to the whole movement of things. We are only part of the shadow of the great movement of all of life, which is interconnected and one form. If he knew time, he might understand. Perhaps it is better he does not understand. Or, perhaps that understanding would be salvation. Never will learn that word, synecdoche, but that is what the boy’s whole life really is, and that is what every living thing really lives for. Time encircles us. Even his newness that is so new to him is really old, deep and circular time in preparation for his knowing he is living in this moment.
If he had known time, he would be able to say this woodscape contains depth. Here, things seem to lie beneath things that beneath things lie. If he had known time, he would be to able to say that old rooms have atmospheres of distillations of the things that have happened in them, distillations of the human beings who’ve inhabited them. If he had known time, he would be able to say that even particular parts of this old woods have these haunted feelings of distillations. Distillations survive many dissolutions. If he had known time, he might understand these feelings come to him because a house once stood here, here in this particular space of trees. He might understand that long ago the house had gone to ground, that the trees in seasons had covered the ground until the ground rose, season by season, to cover the house.
In among certain pines, the boy always faintly hears a screaming.
Stillness, known by so few, is sacred. Even more sacred, the understanding that stillness itself is not still. The boy stands listening.
A strange vision. The boy sees into another time. In that time, he knows well this woods, though the trees are all different, and he knows it not as within the United States. The woods is, instead, its own place. And in that time, the boy sees himself come up from a smaller creek, a tributary of the tributary he knows. He sees himself at a distance come. He sees himself outside of himself. He sees himself other than. There are two of him now, and this other him has intentions. He hears his own voice, disembodied from and outside of him, speaking to him from a distance. Before it happens, he understands he will see the boy do a bad thing that will haunt future boys. After many years, the house will be underground.
Then even in the disintegration into the elements of the house become forest floor soil after so many years, he will go to the window of that very same house underground, and from that window, he will be given the key to the city, the city he does not even realize goes on about him, all around this woods that is an island within it, and he will be told to listen to every turn and every corner of that city and to record everything he hears. Then underground like a tunneling mole, he will go firmly to the window and he will listen with deep emotion.