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In My Forest of Inky Night
In life, I had a ritual with the letters I received. Once I’d absorbed their meanings, I took the letters out into my forest and shredded them with my hands, tearing across their secrets so that no one else could ever claim them. I mixed the letters with the leaves, allowed the rain and the worms to make them into soil. Sometimes birds took shreds of paper to line their nests with words. From the secrets I kept, life sprang forth unabashed.
The care facility where I died was clean, sterile, colorless. Pleasant, if you find it reassuring to be so far from dirt. I missed the smells of clay-rich forest soil and yellowing paper. In bland surroundings, I, too, became colorless, my skin as thin as the onion paper upon which I wrote my poetry, my veins as blue as ballpoint ink.
No one came to visit me the day I died. My brother-in-law, the husband of my late sister, did not visit every day. He is a decent man with a sense of duty, but visiting that pale, glossy-surfaced room more often than he visited my little house would have implied a closeness between us that did not exist. Neither of us visited one another much on the mountain, and leaving the mountain was a step neither of us liked to take more than we had to.
He’s gone now. Moved in with one of his daughters and never came back. My house is gone, now, too, torn down to make way for something more modern. Nobody touched the forest.
My relatives still say it’s a pity I didn’t die in that house, stretched on the sofa in front of the fireplace, re-reading Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. That it would have been kinder if my heart had stopped while I sat on one of the two rockers on my tiny porch, drinking my coffee or smoking a cigarillo as I looked out into the mountain woods. I heard them say so as they stood on that now-empty porch, the embrace of my forest all around.
I built that snug little house, every corner considered, to be near my beloved sister. She was all the company I needed. Although her husband was not thrilled to share his retirement with me as well as her—I heard the grumbles about “unnatural,” usually in reference to my preference for trousers or the fact that I never married—but he accepted my presence because she loved me. When she died, he and I kept out of each other’s way. We shared a driveway, but it’s a big mountain.
Years and years ago, I was engaged to a young man. He died of blood poisoning when the dye from his socks seeped into a blister. This is a thing that used to happen. Nobody would believe it today.
My sister’s daughters, and her daughters’ sons and daughters, came to visit me every year when they came to visit my brother-in-law. There was little for the children to talk about with me—and perhaps they were intimidated by this old woman with steel-rimmed glasses and steel-colored hair—so they flitted about my house, flipping through my books and rearranging my penguin figurines as my nieces chatted pleasantly. Then they would go back to their faraway homes, and the forest and the books and I were alone together on the mountain.
No one but me was ever comfortable staying in my house, where the water from the board well smelled of sulfur. The guest room saw little use. Even now, dead, with decades to harbor resentment or regret, I am not certain that I mind.
Tiny as my house was, it took my relatives years to empty it after my death. No one wanted to sell the house and burden my cantankerous brother-in-law with a neighbor to share his driveway. And from what I gathered, they were sad to take my house apart by stripping it of my things. We had not known each other as well as they might have liked, and by dividing my possessions among them, perhaps they felt they were dividing me as well.
Foremost among my possessions were the books. The books I read, some inscribed in handwriting only I can identify, given to me under pet names only the giver ever knew, signed in loops that meant nothing to anyone but the two of us. The books I wrote, in stenographer’s notebooks and reams of unbound paper: my diaries and my poems, stacked in boxes on the floor of the guest-room closet. The puzzle of my writings, all undated.
I expect I shall always remain a woman of mystery.
In my bedroom, heavy 78 RPM records in their lovely slipcases lined the lowest bookshelves. Caruso, symphonies, ballets. I had no player to extract the music from them.
The topmost closet shelf, well above my height, held a box of my greatest secrets: envelopes emptied of correspondence. Friends my family knew, friends they did not know. One envelope from a famous lesbian poet. Like the books, the envelopes absorbed the scent of the forest woods.
My relatives probably assume that I burned the letters in my fireplace, but that is where I burned the bills, once paid. The tax returns. All the things that did not matter and were not worth keeping.
My diaries kept my worries and observations, encoded in my crabbed hand and fading ink. My poems spoke my dreams. The letters held the secrets of others. They held the stories we told one another, the dreams we shared, our thoughts on one another’s poems. They are my secrets, my loves. They were never meant for the eyes of whoever was cleaning out the house.
Now a wraith, lighter than Giselle, I walk the mountain woods at night. Although my secrets died with me, they sprouted new trees, birthed new seasons of birdsong. My letters have become my forest. My forest has seeped into my books. I am dissolved in the ink, the paper, the leaves.
My books are scattered across the country, but I have not been divided.
In death, I grow.
October 8th, 2023
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Y.M. Resnik’s Magic is Like a Box of Chocolates, all about how tough life is for trainee magical heroes and the difficult choices they have to make.
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