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“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.
The Body Is Where We Live:
On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms
A Short Essay
By Derek Berry
Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can
claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,
every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the
reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through
sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of
others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself
God or fairy or Leelah Acorn. The catch, that skin stretches around our
bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in
the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we
collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do
not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a
coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language
that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one
our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so
inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that
mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,
with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these
transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some
theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the
body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the
headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.
In the past week, I have written 12,000 words. 1,000 of those words have been fiction, 0 words poetry, and the rest devoted to various academic projects. With the publication of my first novel fast approaching, I must consider myself more and more a writer, and yet such a title demands attention and effort. A writer, after all, must write. Not just blog posts like this one. Or Tweets, a form of which I am particularly fond. But rather, stories. Novels. Poems. Essays for lofty literary journals. And in the past few months, I have done little of this. Moored to the workload of senior year, I have neglected my holy and dreadful duties as a writer.
So what to do? What is a writer who does not write? Recently, my laptop crashed—kaput! The latest draft of my second novel, on which I’ve been working since my Freshman year at College of Charleston, was lost within a fried hard drive. The loss eliminated any motivation to continue working on the novel, and for the past four months, the story has languished in the purgatory of forgotten manuscripts. Where novels-in-progress go to die. Of course I still have the second draft for reference, and I can jump right back in with a new draft.
After all, my inspiration in writing has been replenished. This year I am taking my first ever fiction-writing course with Professor Brett Lott at the College of Charleston. What I expected to be a course crammed with trite advice and undergraduate pandering has actually been quite helpful. Several of the most basic lessons of fiction have eluded me until now, and I must return with a critical eye to my new material. Like all young writers, I am already terrified of my first novel (I wrote the novel when I was seventeen and eighteen), and yet I still have such pride in it. It is, after all, a fine work, especially for someone as young as I. But nevertheless, I intend to do even better next time, applying the lessons I have learned in the course.
But what of time? How does one grapple with the lack of time one receives in university? Some college students participate in Nanowrimo, and I long for the days I could spend hours in a coffee shop furiously typing. But no, that won’t do. It’s not that I don’t have the energy to write nor the ideas, but rather that other obligations have wrestled me away from the stories. Too often I wish to scribble ideas into a notebook and abandon whatever essay, presentation, or op-ed I am working on. Too often I find myself at the end of the day exhausted by the sheer effort of living, of academic rigor, of the expectations of professors and parents, of the black hole of social media that promises either publication success or ruin. Too often I find myself discussing writing with friends rather than writing. But I am finding my groove. I am writing on the toilet, on planes, in cars, in class, between classes, and in the library while I am supposed to be working on the two essays, three group projects, and poster presentation due in two days (as I am doing now).
So I must work without ceasing. I must work even when not writing. Always, a tiny elf sits in my head, scribbling down experiences, filing away gestures and odd phrases, and composing grand scenes. When I am in class, I am working: who needs to listen to a lecture on Benedictine monks when one has read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? When I am exercising (which means here riding my bike aimlessly through the decrepit and ruinous parts of my city), I am working. During sex, I am working. While eating lunch, I am working. While taking a shower, I am working. When I am out drinking with my friends, dancing a wild gig of youthful merriment, I am working. I am cataloging my life for the sake of my art. My mind is alive with stories.
I have taken a semester to step away from my second novel, hoping to return with renewed vigor during winter break. For now, I am perfecting my storytelling. I have written six short stories so far since August and I intend to write another two before winter crashes into South Carolina and forces me inside. And when it does, I will pour a hot coffee and keep writing.
Sunday morning brings a brief reprieve, a misty gray sunshine illuminating the still-flooded streets. As I walk to the coffee shop, jonesing for a rush of caffeine that might inspire my research and writing, I witness a small sports car marooned on smith street. Murky brown water reaches its window. The car has been long abandoned. It has become an island of rust and possible regret. The coffee shop is entirely empty, closing early for the day; we expect further rains to come later, and the barista must drive his bike through the cross-town where his daughters wait at home. As I walk back toward my house, Americano in hand, rain falls lightly.
But not rain like the hurricane has brought, great sheets of rain, waves crashing violently against the Battery. The pictures on the Internet are foreboding—streets become rivulets, gushing with sewage water. Trucks have become submerged in an aquatic traffic jam. Trees fell due to wicked winds. Overly irrigated front yards float. Enough rain to bring buried corpses to the surface. Worse still the news coming from the governor and president—a state of emergency! Enough fear to put your teeth on edge.
The rain will come again, tonight maybe. But for now I’m locked up inside. Day Four of lounging, reading, and listening to music.
I spent a good part of this afternoon lying in bed and listening to an album by the German composer Max Ricther called The Blue Notebook. The music is both classical and surprisingly subterranean. A melody that enraptures and envelops the body and mind.
I don’t mind the quiet. Friday night I attended a small get-together at a friend’s house, but last night, the rain proved too ferocious to bother. I stayed up until 3am, alternating between poetry books I want to re-read and episodes of Adventure Time. There is something calming, I think, about a storm. The hurricane forces one to stay inside, not fearing that some Apocalypse will arrive, that God will tear open the skies and snatch up the few believers yet. No, something else.
This is a makeshift baptism at best. The apocalypse will come later, maybe tonight, who cares? For now, I am learning to be alone, to be content with a pen and paper. To read more deeply. To listen more closely. Isolation both maddens and inspires. Outside, the rain slams against dirt, quenching its thirst beyond need; what gives life may also take life away. Inside I am lying in bed, enjoying exquisite absence, learning to hold no one’s body, learning to be in my own body and not outside of it. Learning to listen, to open the windows, to watch the skies split up and wonder what got God so angry in the first place.
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.
I woke with a sickness and no access to the Internet. My head slick with sweat and my stomach cramped with pain, I climbed out of bed and zombie-crawled across the room to my laptop. A morning ritual in which I tell myself I will write and instead spend seven hours updating my Twitter. But the Wifi in the dormitory was on the fritz, web pages opening blank-white and browsers crashing. Instead, I clicked open a Word Document and waited for creation to begin. Even immured in the wasteland of Internet-less boredom, I could not write. A story, maybe. A poem, at least. Or edit something. I could write an essay, I didn’t care, but I needed to create. Over the past three weeks, however, I had stopped writing altogether. Each story began to feel insipid, each poem dull and contrived. It was the sickness, the strange sickness that would not allow me to write.
I could not create anything new. I was too tired or bored or sad or ill to pen anything that inspired me. Instead, I stared at the blank screen, a tiny line blinking on, off, on, off, hoping that some muse would consume me. That I would swell with pride at some fresh sentence, some poetic turn-of-phrase that scintillated in the glare of the sun. If you wait around long enough, I’ve heard, something will come; some storm of energy and imagination will burst through your windows and sweep you into new mental territory. But no such hurricane battered my windows.
In fact, it was a pleasant and warm day, the gentle sun seeping through my barely-open blinds. But I could not create. Like God on the seventh day. Perhaps he too was a writer weary of his mistakes. He rested on the Seventh day, and on the Eight Day when he returned to revise the manuscript, he convulsed with horror at the stitches of sin and ugliness he had accidentally included. An Earth riddled with typos and grammatical confusion. Perhaps he abandoned the project altogether.
That’s how I felt—how sick—that if I had skipped a stone across space and formed the solar system, I wouldn’t even want to take credit for the work.
With no access to Web MD, I decided to ride a bus into town, where I could peruse the library for a medical book. When I arrived at the library, however, I had trouble locating any such text. The young clerk at the front desk told me that they had some old medical books somewhere in the archives and lead me to a small, dusty room brimming with drawers. When the clerk left, I began pilfering each drawer for the books on medicine. I found only one, an odd, ancient tome with a simple title.
Ailments and Cures.
The book’s leather cover was stained the shade of human skin, its pages thin as those of a Bible. But not an illustrated Bible, the Gutenberg sort you might observe in awe at a museum; its pages were flimsy, like the copies of The New Testament missionaries hand out during county fairs. Alone in the room, I slumped against the wall and began reading. The book was filled with odd entries, describing a range of diseases and illnesses I did not recognize—the symptoms and the names of these seemed made-up. But fiction too offered me comfort; if these were bogus ailments, then I could more easily have one. If I were in the business of creation, then I too would suffer from a created ailment. I laughed at this thought and located eventually an antiqued condition known as Artist’s Ennui.
The name was righteously sardonic. I explored the first few pages of the book to see when it had been published, but there was no date. No name. Just a title. Strange. At this point, I felt the first pang of nausea, a startling vertigo shuddering through my body. But I dismissed the feeling immediately. The name of the ailment seemed like self-parody, the name a self-important artist would give to his writer’s block.
Under the entry in small font read the word cure, and under this word lay the book’s sole suggestion: go into the woods.
I read the entry again, affirming that I was indeed suffering from these side effects, and then pressed my finger against the section marked cure. This was a strange answer to a strange question, and a wave of whimsy undertook me. Of course I would follow the directions of a random book more than a hundred years old. It seemed like the perfect idea, stupid but beautiful in its simplicity. Just walk into the woods.
As a child, I often found solace in the woods. There was a natural park very close to where I lived, situated within the city limits; within minutes, I could delve into the pine barrens and get lost. Here in Germany, however, I had not yet sufficiently explored the sprawling forests surrounding the city. Here, if I breathed a bit of mountain air and pressed my hands to a few old trees, those righteous coffins of the Earth’s morose memories, the energy would return. Creation from creation, a cycle—I would gather up everything dead in the wilderness and make it come alive on the page.
I had already a backpack with me, and after leaving the library, I visited a grocery store. I bought a large bottle of water, a pre-made sandwich wrapped in cellophane, and a bunch of bananas. I stuffed the food and water into my backpack with a notebook and light rain jacket before setting out.
Behind one of the academic buildings in the city stood a hill—they called it here the Eastern Mountain, though it was undoubtedly just a hill. A green slope inclining up toward the sky, its peak ridged by a tangle of forest. I loved the view on the hill and decided to enter the forest there. Better there than anywhere else.
I rode the bus to the base of the hill and looked upwards. From this angle, the slope seemed steeper, the peak of the hill much higher than I remembered. Along the base of the hill ran a small path that borders a stream, and bikers zipped up and down its pavement. One woman rushed by me on roller skates, carrying a briefcase in her grip.
I tightened the straps of my knapsack and begin the long ascent. I scaled the first five hundred feet quickly before my legs began to strain. My jellified muscles pulsated and squirmed under the duress of fresh exercise after so many dormant days. I followed a simple dirt trail, which divided the hill in half, its path rugged with the weight of previous travelers. The night before, it rained, but now the clouds lightened. The mud dried, trapping there trampled shoeprints in limited posterity. On either side of the steep path, wildflowers stretched their spines toward the sun. The fields were brown as pancake syrup, singing with thousands of flying insects.
I continued up the hill until my legs could walk no more, then collapsed in a patch of grass. Below me, the city looked smaller, the way the world appears from an airplane window as the aircraft takes flight. After resting, I climbed back to my feet and jogged briskly to the top of the hill until my heart thumped against my chest and my breathing pained me. As I doubled over there, the hill conquered, I spotted a man in odd-colored clothing seated on a black bench.
The bench stood further up the slope, halfway between myself and the edge of the forest. Up close, the forest appeared more sinister. Below us stretched fields of yellow weeds. The man waved at me as I approached.
“Good morning,” he said. He spoke in a lilting British accent.
He wore a silk white shirt and a black morning coat, clothing too formal for this setting. His long, black hair flowed down his shoulders. He looked like someone who had just stepped out of a Romantic painting.
“Hey,” I said back to him. I paused on the trail and looked toward the trees.
“You must be on your way to the woods,” he said. Seeing my expression, he cracked a smile. “I’ve watched many young people venture into the forest. Long as I’ve been here, they’ve been passing me by. But I would not suggest it. Stay here. Stay with me.”
“Why can’t I go into the woods?” I asked. I wanted very deeply to visit the woods now, propelled by some absurd notion of destiny. The book told me to visit the woods, and now I had to do as the book said.
The man hunched forward and spread out his arms. He gestured to the expansive field, a landscape of sun-soaked gold. “I wouldn’t quite know why it’s a bad idea,” he said, “but I do know that it’s better to stay here. Those that wander into the woods don’t come back.”
“How so, don’t come back?”
“Don’t ask me. I’ve never made it so far as the edge. You know, that’s the real secret. Balance on the edge of the dark and the unknown, but don’t go inside.”
I shrugged. “Okay. I need to go anyways. I am not sure why I must go, but I can’t stay here.”
“If you insist on entering the woods,” he said, “at least sit with me first. Appreciate the world from my perspective.”
I conceded and sat beside the young man. He appeared boyish, his face peach-pink and shining. “What’s your name? Why are you wearing those funny clothes.”
“John,” he said, shaking my hand. “My name’s John Keats.”
“No way. Don’t mess with me.”
“Nothing. Uh, John, what’s in the forest?”
“I can’t say what’s there, but I will tell you what’s out here. Out here, you’ve got the sky. You’ve got the fields. You’ve got the expanse of nature. There’s too much beauty here to abandon the day to the forest. Imagine. There’s an infinite number of places you could travel instead. Here, you can see the sky, glimpse the perfection of Heaven. You can observe the possibilities of human existence.”
“It’s really nice up here, John. You’re right.” I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. “But you know I can’t stay here.”
“Why not? I’ve been here a very long time,” he said. “It’s better to stop now, while you’re surrounded by beauty. Up ahead, who knows how dark it could be? You’ll never be so young as you are now. Those that stay here, in this eternal paradise, we’ll be happy forever.”
I cocked my head. “That’s the problem. I’m very unhappy now. I know I’m young and healthy. Intellectually I can rationalize why I should enjoy life. But I wouldn’t want to live in this moment forever. If there are so many possibilities in life, I don’t wish to only contemplate. I want to experience them as well.”
The fields around me appeared beautiful and the sky beckoned to me. Below lay the Earth’s fissure-wrinkled cheeks, warm and knowable. I wished to stay here with the young man, but I knew I had to reach the forest. After a few minutes appreciating the sun and warmth, I stood up and continued down the path.
“So long,” I told him. “You are a very odd man.” I paused. “Is your name really John Keats?”
“I don’t know. It’s just weird, that’s all. There’s someone famous, used to have the same named.
“Well, no one really knows me,” he said with a simple shrug. “Must be someone else.”
I felt as if I were in a dream. I walked toward the forest, the trees looming larger. Near the edge of the forest, the path split, one half wisp-ing deep into the gut of wilderness, the other slithering along the circumference of the field. I turned right, ferns pressing against my bare legs.
Once I passed into the forest, the scenery changed. Here, the air was colder, the sun filtered through the canopy of trees. The path narrowed. Thorns kissed my skin as I trudged into the dim maw of foliage. I walked for nearly five minutes, the path growing more faint as I continued on. Everything green and alive grasped at me as I walked further, the dirt path sloping dramatically. I must have reached the peak of the hill, the path winding back through a labyrinth of trees of wild shrubs.
After thirty minutes, I paused and sat down to drink from my water bottle. I didn’t feel any more enlightened. I certainly didn’t feel cured. But the forest awed me. I wasn’t sure where the trees ended or when I might come out on the other side of the forest. I knew that several villages laid in close proximity to the city, and I should have come upon one of them by now. Ignoring my anxiety, I climbed back to my feet and continued along the path. The dirt way split many times in the forest, and when I arrived at each fork, I chose my direction randomly. The book from the library was very unspecific about how I might cure my “ennui.”
The forest grew stranger. The mud here was still wet, a slick black sludge pregnant with last night’s rain. The canopy above consisted of tangled branches, tightening, blocking out the spaces where the sun might creep through. Flies, large as plums, whizzed past my head. I swatted at them, believing they might be bats, and then hurried deeper and deeper still.
I had been looking at my feet, bored and still unable to create, when I stepped into a beautiful clearing. Like the ones from a fantasy movie, the kind in which you might find Excalibur. Sunlight leaked silver upon lush, green grass. Around the edge of the clearing hung tie-dyed sheets. I found this very strange, but this meant that others might be in the forest. If I encountered a local, I could ask directions to the nearest bus stop or train station. I could go home. Already I had finished off half of my water bottle. When I looked behind me, it was difficult to discern the path, and if I ventured back alone, I was afraid I would become lost.
As I wandered into the clearing, brushing my fingers against the rainbow curtains, I noticed a man at the far end. He was ancient, his white beard Rip-Van-Winkle-long and spilling onto the grass in front of him. He sat cross-legged on a large, flat stone with his eyes closed. He wore a pair of circular glasses. I walked toward him and paused five steps away. He opened his eyes.
“Well?” he asked.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“God,” he said in a peaceful voice.
“No, of course not. You know who I am.” He seemed to be laughing, his shoulders bouncing, though he made no sound.
I stood for a moment, perplexed. He did look familiar, especially his circular glasses. “I’m sorry. I have no clue who you are. What are you even doing in the middle of the woods?”
“Why do I need reason? Why are you in the middle of the woods?” He stood up and crossed his arms. He wore a long, white robe like a Merlin-styled wizard. “Do you really not recognize me?”
“No, I wish I did.”
I observed the man again, squinting and un-squinting my eyes. I could see the resemblance, though I didn’t believe the man. “But Lennon’s dead.”
“No, no,” he said. “That was an actor. You know how it can be. The CIA replaces you, then offs you. No, I’m not dead. I escaped.”
“Well,” I said. “If you are John Lennon, it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve been a fan of your music my entire life.”
“Don’t try to flatter me, kid. You didn’t even know who I was a few minutes ago.” He exhaled deeply. “You know, I’m trying to let go of ego. Trying to let go. It really doesn’t matter. I apologize. I forget how little you humans actually know about life.”
“Humans? Are you something other than human?”
John Lennon laughed. “Of course I’m not a human. I’m an artist.”
“Oh, right. That makes sense. It’s strange, actually. I just met some guy claiming to be John Keats, maybe only an hour ago. And here, you’re supposed to be John Lennon.”
He rolled his eyes. “I guess I can’t blame you for not believing me. If so, fine, I won’t help you. Go on, find your own way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, why exactly are you here?”
“A book told me to come here.”
He laughed. “That’s a laugh. What kind of book tells you to come to a place like this? Look, kid, it doesn’t matter.” He composed himself, standing taller and squaring his shoulders. “Let’s get this over. Sit down, right over here.” I sat down in grass as John Lennon crossed his legs again atop the flat rock. “So, tell me in truth, why are you here?”
I didn’t want to communicate with this strange John-Lennon-imposter, but I didn’t want to walk back into the woods either. I still had a sandwich to eat, but I figured that, if I befriend this crazy old man, he might give me food. I told him, “Well, I woke up today feeling really sick. Not like a fever or anything. Sick in a different way. I can’t seem to able to create. Writer’s block, you know?”
“Unable to create, huh? Well, what have you done about that?”
“I came here, into the woods.”
“Kind of drastic, don’t you think?” he asked. “Nobody comes to the woods for a no-good reason. You could have gone many places. Once upon a time, I had the same problem. I thought everything I was making, it was boring. You’ve heard of The Beatles, right? Course you have. We’re bigger than Jesus. You’ve heard that one before, huh? Figures. On the other hand, God’s got far better museums. You better believe it. Anyways, I was feeling lousy. Maybe like you. My love life was falling apart. Me and the boys, we were on a rise to fame. We had everything. But I still felt empty. So we traveled to India. And we discovered all these new instruments. And I thought, look, all my life I’ve been searching for new ways to make music, new sounds, when really the sound’s have been there all along. But I had not learned to listen yet.”
“How do I learn to listen then?”
“Well, start by shutting up and not interrupting me. That’s the problem with you young artists. You think you’ve actually got something to say that hasn’t been said before. What is it you do? Are you a musician?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Poems? Novels? Plays?”
“Everything,” I said.
“A writer? Well, do what you want. But what have you ever written that’s actually meant anything? What have you ever said about the human condition that Shakespeare didn’t say first?” He paused for a response. “See, nothing. Absolutely nada. You’ve got to get out of your head, break free of your conventions. That’s the way.”
“But if I’ve got nothing new to say, why should I continue? I thought you were supposed to help me create again.”
John Lennon nodded. “Not exactly. I’m here to help you find the truth. I can’t do much more than tell you my opinion, though. I’m not God or anything. But there’s the real crux, kid. You want to write, but you’re not even sure what story you want to tell. You want to create, but you don’t understand where creation comes from. The whole world’s right in front of you, but you want to spend time dawdling in your head. It’s not my fault you’re stupid enough to become a writer. I mean, become anything else. Really.”
“I don’t believe John Lennon would actually say that,” I said.
“Well, I’m saying it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this forest, it’s this. You cannot let your ego get the best of you. Don’t worry about speaking about art. Don’t worry about the conversation about literature. And don’t think anyone owes you anything. That’s the mistake I made. I thought, the world needs my voice. I need to change my generation. But the truth is, my generation would have got on just fine without me. I’m no true messiah. You’re not either. No one is. The most you might ever accomplish is voicing the concerns of one person. Maybe helping one person fall in love or express joy or sorrow or fear or outrage. You’ve got to keep in mind, they’re just words.”
“Just words,” I repeated. “You know, you’re a bit crazy. But this was actually helpful.”
“Well, I am John Lennon. What did you expect?” He closed his eyes again. A moment later, he asked, “You read a book?”
“Yea, this book was a medical book. Told me to go into the woods. But now I’ve got to get out.”
“Get out? Don’t worry about that. If I were you, I’d stay right here with me. I’ve got loads to teach you, kid, but at the moment I’m a bit exhausted. I want to meditate. When I’m finished, we can talk about all sorts of things. Creativity and unbridled imagination. You’ve got to explore new lands with fresh eyes.”
I stood up. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay here. That sounds really nice, Mr. Lennon, but I’ve got to get out of these woods. I don’t actually want to be here.”
Lennon nodded. “That’s the problem. People spend their lives contemplating, go into the woods or not. Go into the woods or stay safe in the sun. And no one understands, there’s no way back. There is no other side. But if you’re going to go further, you’ll want to bring something along.”
John Lennon stood up and retreated behind one of the tie-dyed sheets hanging at the edge of the clearing. When he returned, he clutched a pear-shaped instrument. “Here, takes this along. It’s a sitar. If you’re going to explore new places, you’ve got to explore their music as well. Then bring the music back into your own work. The whole point of art is to mix, mix, mix, mix everything possible until it’s only human.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Clutching the sitar, I waved farewell to John Lennon. “I meant what I said, Mr. Lennon. It’s a true honor. Sorry for not recognizing you before. You look a bit older than I imagined.”
“Art might not age, but the artist does. Just because someone remembers you, that doesn’t mean you live forever. Keep that in mind, Derek Berry. You can write every poem you want, blow up big as the planet Jupiter, and pretend to be God. But that won’t keep you from dying. In the meanwhile, you can’t left art stand in for life. It’s just a representation, just a hobby. Sure it might make life easier, but it’s not life itself. It’s not worth working if you’re not bothering to live.”
I nodded and then retreated into the forest. If this was a dream, it was a very strange and long dream. John Lennon even knew my name, which I found curious. I pushed back one of the tie-dyed sheets and continued following the path down, down, down. It seemed as if the path sloped downward always, in a slope much longer than the one I had previously ascended. When I looked back over my shoulder to spot the clearing, I saw only the thick, dark copse of trees.
After ten minutes of walking, I remembered my hunger. Though it must have been some time after noon, I could not be entirely sure. Through the thick branches above, I could not observe the location of the sun, and I never wore a watch. I sat down to eat, unwrapping my sandwich and stuffing the bread into my mouth. After I finished, I wiped the crumbs from my mouth and leaned back against the tree. I strummed a few strings from the sitar, though I felt extremely strange. I wasn’t even a musician. What was I supposed to do with a sitar?
Though I had heard others play the sitar before, I had never attempted to do so myself. As I did, I discovered how difficult it was to coax any sound from the instrument other than confusion. As I continued aimlessly plucking strings, I heard a distinct melody drift through the woods. I wasn’t makign that sound.
Someone was playing the electric guitar. Rock-and-roll spilled through the trees, growing louder and vibrating the ground. I must have stumbled upon some outside festival. Finally. I could find masses of people who could help me find my way back to the city.
As I sprinted toward the sound, I observed a large, wooden stage rising in the distance. When I reached the stage, though, I saw no people. There was only one black man standing on stage, dancing and playing a guitar by himself. Although the guitar was not hooked into any amplifiers, the instrument emitted a deafening sound. His pale-hued blues tumbled across the stage.
The man played guitar so loudly, I could hear hardly anything else. Then suddenly, when the man noticed my presence, he stopped playing rock-and-roll. Instead, he began to slap a beat against the guitar and began to rap. I could not quite understand what he was saying, but I recognized the words: he sang the verses of several famous rap songs, each remixed and conjoined. When he finally finished, he leapt from the stage and gave a slight bow.
I clapped for the man. He approached me. “Howdy there,” he said. “You must be lost.”
Up close, the man appeared very strange. He was in his forties, I guessed, and his skin seemed strange, almost too black. His hair was long and black as well, straight as a curtain. “Hello, could you maybe help me? I’m lost in these woods. And when I heard music, I thought there might be some people here.”
“Call me Smith,” he said. “Too bad you’re lost. I would help you, but I don’t know the way out the woods myself. That’s why I’m here. Biding my time until my next big gig. Practicing.”
He shook my hand, and when I pulled away, my palm was stained black.
“Is there shoe polish or something on your hand?” I asked.
“No, no, sorry, that’s just my stage make up.” He removed a small, white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face until he was no longer black. Underneath his black face was a white face. I recognized him immediately.
“Hey, you look just like Elvis.”
The man laughed. “In his own royal flesh.” Elvis flashed a grin. “Did you dig the song?”
I nodded. “I really enjoy hip hop, actually, but I thought you were supposed to be the King of Rock-and-Roll. Not rap.”
Elvis shrugged. “You’d be surprised. Some of the best songs are about black pain, and the way we express that changes over the years. So I’m trying to stay relevant, that’s all. That’s one of the reasons I want to look the part.” He gestured to his face and his still-black arms. “You know how good black grief can sound coming from a white tongue? Long as you’re speaking someone else’s words, white boy can wail just fine. Them others, they call it funeral music, but we call it rock-and-roll.”
I shrugged. “Okay, look, if you can’t help me—”
“What’s that?” He pointed at the sitar.
“It’s a sitar,” I said. “Do you know what that is?”
He shook his head.
“I’m unsure too. John Lennon gave it to me. It’s an instrument. From India, I think.”
“Looks a real beauty. Could I hold it?”
“Sure, just don’t break it.”
“No worries, Derek. I know all about India. I remember reading The Jungle Book in seventh grade, woohee, that place is wild. Talking snakes and dancing bears, wolf-cub-boys.” He began to play the sitar, strumming wildly. “Damn, that sounds like something new. That’s the secret, boy, did you hear? Go after what ain’t been done before. Explore new places. Bring it back to yourself. Mix it up. Don’t be afraid of the dark neither. Unknowing is our natural state.”
“Uh-huh, well, look, Elvis—it’s a pleasure to meet you and everything, but I’ve got to get going.”
“Man, you hear that? Ain’t no Indian sound. That’s a human sound. That’s the experience we’re swinging for—the human experience.”
“Sure, sure, Mr. Elvis, but I need to—”
His loud strumming drowned out my words, and I slowly backed away. When he stopped paying attention to my presence, immersed in the spell of the sitar, I wandered deeper into the forest.
As I passed further into the forest, crossing a stream by leaping from slippery rock to slippery rock, Elvis’ music faded. The slope became ever more treacherous, and I balanced on each stone with arms outstretched. I hopped over rot-tumor-ed roots and descended down, down, down. The slope grew ever stepper, and I grasped to overhanging branches to sustain balance. A cruel breeze sliced through the swath of trunks, massaging my bare skin, this frigid intimacy wrenching blood from my fingertips. A moment later, the slope evened out, and I stepped onto a dew-wet cliff.
Fifteen feet of emerald-green grass stretched from the edge of the trees and halted abruptly at a precipice. I approached the cliff’s ledge, wading through an ether of milk-foam fog, and peered down the length of the sheer cliff. From up high, I could not see the ocean. I closed my eyes and strained to listen, but beyond the fog I could hear only a haunted wind. I stepped away from the rim, looking over my shoulder at the arduously steep hill I had just descended. This did not make sense—the Earth could not continue dropping lower and lower, below the ocean, down, down, down until I slipped into the warm lakes of lava lurking beneath the crust.
“Not another one.”
I searched through the mist for the owner of the voice.
“Can’t he see I’m busy? Can’t he see I don’t have time for young artists or writers, whatever. If you’ve got your own problems, don’t come to me. Can’t you see I’m mourning?”
As I drew closer to the origin of the voice, I managed to discern a dark shape in the murky soup, a man wearing a black coat that draped down his back and splayed across the slick rocks. He wore his hair as a gentle wave, its black shape whipped into existence like chocolate mousse atop a cake. When he turned to face me, his gaunt face trembled—his eyes hollow as emptied whiskey bottles. A limp, brown moustache hung above his pallid lips.
“I’m sorry if I bothered you,” I told him. “I’ve been walking in this forest all day.” I gestured to the stretch of trees behind me. “It feels as if I have been here for hours, and I am unsure how to get out.”
“Hasn’t anyone explained yet? There’s no way out. Just down.”
I nodded. “I think I know who you are.”
He crossed his arms. “Let me guess. You want to sit beside me on this cliff and talk about your writing. Or painting. Whatever you’re doing. Which one are you?”
“Novelist and a poet.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, if you insist on being both, you’ll be terrible at both. Like me.” He fixed his gaze on the sea. “So, what’s the problem with you, then? Call me Edgar, by the way.”
“Yea, I knew it. You’re Poe. Man, I love your stories. When I was a teenager, I remember reading the collection of your short stories. So dark.”
“What sort of story that centers on the human experience is not dark?”
“So, my problem is—I’m not sure what my problem is, to be honest. I just cannot write. For weeks, I have tried to write, but I always find myself bored or uninspired or sad.”
“Why are you sad?” he asked.
“Well, that seems more of a personal problem than a literary problem.”
Edgar shrugged. “You make the mistake of separating your personal life from your creative life. But they’re the same. You cannot address your problems as a writer without addressing your problems as a human being.”
“Well, I’m unsure. I mean, I don’t even know you. What, am I supposed to spill my guts to you?”
Edgar sighed and again. “You really are stupid and dull, aren’t you? Of course you know why you’re here. If you didn’t need to be here, you wouldn’t be here. You would not have come to this infernal forest. Everyone who comes to speak with me, they’ve got the same problems. Come on, use your head, Derek Berry. Where are we?”
“A cliff-side,” I said. And then, “A Kingdom by the Sea.”
Edgar nodded. “I like you young ones. You know my work and don’t mock it. Yes, the poem I wrote for my late wife Virginia.”
“Her name wasn’t Annabelle Lee?”
“Well, it’s called creative license, Derek. Now please, listen.” Edgar stood up, his black coat rippling in the breeze. “You were in love too?”
“Oh, is that how it works? Poof, one days love is gone.”
“No, I guess not.”
“At least she’s not dead.”
“How do you know that?”
Edgar smiled. “Where do you think you are, Derek? I know everything you know.”
“Yes, I suppose—that’s what it is. Lost love. But it’s got nothing to do with writing.”
“Did she read your writing?”
“Yea, she did.”
“And no one reads your writing anymore. You’re afraid that if one person cannot love you, then the world cannot love you.” Edgar sized me up. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been thinking these things for years. This is my punishment, to remain here. To remain obsessive. All my life, I kept drinking and sinking further into depression, and now I’m here. Now I’m damned.”
“Is this Hell? Is that what you mean by damned?”
Edgar did not answer. “Here’s my advice. I have thought long about this, so please do not interrupt, Derek Berry. You loved someone else more than you loved yourself. When she left, you forgot how to care for yourself. You could not imagine a future without her, and once forced to do so, you stopped. Stopped writing. Stopped living. You cannot center your future on one person. Otherwise you spend the present anxious over the past.”
I nodded. “Okay, but it’s not that easy, is it? I mean, sure I love myself. In the abstract. But still, it’s a difficult thing to even—to even live, you know?” I paused. “I guess you do. That’s why you’re here. Dead.”
“Dead is one word for it,” said Edgar. “Think on this. There are pieces of yourself you cannot give away. Some things leave you, the way in which you kissed the one you loved or the in-jokes you made under the sanctuary of blankets; other things stay, fragments that cannot be unstuck from you. Your love of inauthentic Mexican food. Your hands and the lines that labyrinth your palms. Your strange smile. Don’t be surprised, Derek, that I know what I’m talking about. I too spent years searching for everything I lost. The smell of your clothes change. The way you breathe might change. But you cannot keep holding onto what is lost, like the shriveled shell of a snake’s skin you must scrape from your new flesh. Do you understand me, Derek? Begin searching for the constants, the things that never change, the parts of you that make up you. Holding onto those fragments will help you accept the parts of you that you do not recognize.”
“So, are you saying that being a writer is a constant?”
“Well, I’m unsure,” said Edgar. “That entirely depends on whether or not you were writing for her or not. Me, I always had this dream—I was writing for the world. But the world thought me bitter and dark and strange. Children used to dog me in the streets, screaming, Nevermore. What sort of dull existence must a man endure when he can no longer love?”
“I am glad for the advice, but I’m unsure what love or romance have to do with romance.”
“If writing poems, or whatever it is you do, made her happy, do you still want to write poems? That’s what I mean. The crucial question. Why are you who you are? Are pieces of yourself still linked to her? That’s how it happens, or how it happened to me, at the very least. I had this concept that every good thing about me, every decent morsel of my being was linked to my love for Virginia, and when she died, so did every decent and beautiful portion of myself.”
We sat quietly for a long time. I wanted to ensure Mr. Poe that I did indeed love myself and that I did not want my life to be defined by heartbreak and depression as his had been, though I retained a glimmering anxiety about his warning. He was right, after all—I had spent the last weeks moping, feeling sorry for myself, lying in the grass most afternoons to escape work or thoughts or whatever. Even the small joys, like writing, had become a numb exercise in futility. I no longer believed I could write anything worthwhile without someone looking over my shoulder and telling me, Good job. I lacked any self-confidence in my work.
Contemplating these things, I stood up and thanked Poe before wandering along the edge of the cliff. I walked far left but found only that the rim of the crater below was endless. When I turned back around to begin trekking in the opposite direction, the distance that had taken thirty minutes to traverse suddenly became only two minutes. I encountered Poe again.
“Edgar, please, I appreciate your musings on writing and love. But I still am trapped in this damned forest or Hell or whatever, and I’m quite hungry. I’d love to go grab a Cuban sandwich, you know? Maybe not. But I need to leave this forest.”
“Were you even listening? I said, the only way out is down.”
“I thought that was a metaphor.”
He pointed into the sea of fog below. “No, it was not a metaphor.”
“So, what? I’m supposed to somehow climb down this cliff side?”
“Did I say climb, Derek Berry? I think it’s pretty obvious you need to jump.”
“But I will die.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I mean, I am a bit bored. Sad, even. But I don’t want to die.”
“I told you already, Derek, that I know what you know. Don’t try to hide from me, not me. And here I thought we had become friends.” He gestured toward the fog. “You probably won’t die. Just jump.”
“But I don’t know what’s down there.”
Edgar threw up his hands. “Yes, neither do I. That’s why I am still on this cliff side. But everyone who has made it through, they have all jumped. That’s the secret. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, no, but you cannot stop moving.”
I backed away from the ledge, held my breath, and barreled forward. My feet left Earth, and for a moment, I felt light as a discarded newspaper in a snowstorm. Until I began falling. Swiftly. Air rushed up past my body, cutting against my face. Everything blistering and strange. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to fall.
When no longer could I stand the queasy feeling of descent, I heard a familiar melody snaking through the fog. I knew that music. The title of the song pricked at my subconscious. My descent slowed, as if I were being gently lowered, and finally I landed onto a dirty mattress. I stood up and squinted my eyes at the darkness surrounding me. I was at the mouth of same cave, I discerned. Above me stretched another cliff similar to the one behind me. The song continued to play, a strain of electric guitar dancing above my head.
I mulled over what Edgar Allen Poe had taught me about self-love, but I didn’t feel any different. Although I found the advice of John Keats, John Lennon, Elvis, and Poe compelling, I wasn’t sure if I could apply it. They made it sound so easy—be adventurous, respectful, loving, free, boundless, and human—it all sounded like a warped artistic manifesto, the same upchucked ideas artists had been cycling for centuries. Even with these thoughts now in my own mind, what could I do with them?
As I entered the cavern, the music grew louder. A young black man sat on a far-away rock, his head bobbing up and down. He wore a black, curly afro, which danced along to his erratic music-making; he wore a purple button-up unbuttoned and long white pants; a cigarette dangled from his lips. I approached him.
“Holy shit, Jimi Hendrix.”
“Sir, it is an honor—”
“Quiet. Give me a minute. Damn.”
He strummed his guitar with nimble fingers, his hand become an acrobatic spider traversing the strings’ web. The way Jimi played that guitar, it was if he could raise the dead with grit and husk alone.
“So, what kind of lesson do I learn here? I’m starting to get the gist of this place.
“Kid, I don’t go no advice for you,” Jimi said. “Can’t you see I’m praciticng?”
“Oh, I just thought—”
“Just thought what? I can say something and fix your problems? You don’t get anywhere blah-blah-blah-ing, kid. You wanna creating something, get to practicing.”
I said, “That’s the problem. I can’t seem to create anymore.”
“Is that your excuse? Cause you don’t feel like it? Or that you can’t? That’s so bullshit. You can’t be an artist and create no art. You want my advice? You go back home and create. Don’t mope around that no one’s ever heard of you or that no one cares. Make them care, damn it.” He continued to play. A minute later, he shouted, “That’s really all, kid. Best be moving along before I kick your ass.”
I bowed awkwardly to Jimi Hendrix and scurried deeper into the cavern.
I had visited caverns and caves before during family vacations, but these experiences seemed always more safe. We traveled with a guide who shined his blinding flashlight into all corners of cavern as we witnessed neatly-organized mining exhibits. Here, however, the floor was slick and uneven; although I did not carry a flashlight, an eerie blue-green light illuminated my path, though far ahead, I could only see darkness. The light grew dimmer as I pressed onward. This had to lead somewhere.
A moment later, I stepped into a large, well-lit room—one I had not noticed until I was inside. The room was circular and contained a single prison cell. On the far side of the room, a series of cruel black bars stretched from the floor to the ceiling of a crooked crevice. No door through which to enter and exit the cell. As I approached, peering through the gaps, I discerned that no one was inside. And then he stood up, huddled in blankets at the back of the cell.
“How did you get in here? You’ve got to get out,” he said.
“What are talking about?” I asked. “Who are you?”
He stepped into the light, and I saw him—his bandana wrapped carefully around his head, his long face still carrying the ghost of amusement, his eyes piercing. “You’ve got to leave before he finds you here. Before you end up like me, trapped.”
“Tupac Shakur,” I said softly. “I guess this means you’re actually dead.”
He crossed his arms. “See that door behind you? Go on through. Don’t stick around speaking to me. Been here damn ten years, after I tried to start an uprising.”
“Uprising? Ten years? Against who?”
“Who ya think? The Devil.”
“Wait, so this is actually Hell.”
“You ain’t figured that out by now? Haven’t you ever read Dante’s Inferno?”
“Well… I mean, I read the Spark Notes.”
“Kids sure don’t know nothing these days. Anyways, the Devil’s lurking somewhere round these parts. Deeper you go, the closer you get to the Big Boss. If I were you, homie, I’d go back the way you came.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to go through.”
“Fine. But I guess I got to tell you something first.”
“What’s that? I mean, I figured you’d give me some advice. That’s what everyone else has done.”
Tupac Shakur looked me in the eye, sizing me up. “It ain’t about you. It was never about you. You’ve got to do it for your mother. For your friends. For your community, everyone.”
“You mean… write poetry?”
He shook his head. “Naw. Live.”
I waited a moment. “That’s all?”
“Yea, that’s all. Don’t listen if you don’t wanna, ain’t my problem. I don’t even know who you are.”
Gesturing toward the door near his cell, I asked, “Do I go through here?”
“Only leads deeper,” he said. “I was trying to get to the Devil myself, but he found me and put me here first. You wanna know why?”
“We tried to leave. Those of us who could still leave, we tried to escape. But there ain’t no leaving this place.”
I nodded and pushed open the door.
As I stepped through the threshold, I started to tumble down into endless black. I reached out with both arms, grazing the sides of the cavern. Something cut my hand. I flailed my arms, trying to hit whatever stood with me in the dark. Nothing.
I was alone. Turning around to consider whether or not to return to Tupac’s prison cell, I could no longer locate the doorway. I squinted through the dark—a black complete and impermeable. Stumbling forward, I navigated the cavern. I dragged my feet slowly across the cavern’s floor, carefully placing each step. My hands explored the space in front of me.
Then I stepped suddenly into a blinding light. I covered my eyes as a voice cried out, “No, no, no, no. Fuck, no. Why the fuck are you here? Why the fuck do you keep coming here?”
Peeking between my splayed fingers, I examined the room into which I had stumbled. I could no longer discern the ceiling of the cavern, and it seemed as if I was again in the forest. Ugly, gnarled trees sprung up all around me, their branches curling above my head like sinister fingers. I heard a cracking sound, then the voice again.
“Fuck, no. You’re not supposed to be here. Just leave. Fucking leave.”
I finally identified the source of the voice. A handsome, young man sat at the base of one of the trees, his long blonde hair falling into his face. Except he didn’t seem to be sitting. He was climbing out of the tree, up from its tangled roots. He dug his fingers into the dirt and clambered finally onto the ground. As he stood up, he brushed the dirt off his trousers and blue t-shirt.
He sized me up. “Look, kid. I’m sorry. I’m sorry—I just, I guess I’m supposed to be your guide.”
“Like Dante’s Inferno. Like Virgil.”
“Yea, I guess, dude. I just wish—not another one. Fuck, not another one. This is so fucking stupid, mourning.”
He crossed his arms, then stretched them high above his head. He cracked his back. “Mourning what? You.” Then he began to size me up. “Wonder what you’ll be. A Sycamore, a willow, a fig?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Who even are you?”
“I’m Kurt,” he said, shaking my hand. “That’s not a descriptor. That’s my name.”
“Wait, Kurt? You mean, like Kurt Cobain? I’ve heard of you. You were in that band—”
“Right, exactly. Sorry I couldn’t remember. That’s pretty embarrassing.”
“Whatever. I just wish we never had to meet, okay?”
I remained in the same spot as before, watching Kurt Cobain pace back and forth. Finally, I asked, “Mr. Cobain?”
“Call me Kurt.”
“Alright, Kurt. What will you be teaching me about art?”
He sighed, his greasy, blond hair veiling his face. “Don’t you get it? You’re not here to learn about art or writing or poetry. That should be clear by now. This is about you.”
“Why were you— you were talking about trees?”
“I have to teach you about the trees, especially if you’re staying here.”
“Staying here? I don’t want to stay here. I want to keep going.”
“Keep going? You really don’t know what’s going on, kid, do you? It’s over. This is the end.”
“This can’t be the end. You’ve reached the Forest of Suicides.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a forest, obviously,” he said, gesturing to the grotesque trees, “but it’s the suicides. Of artists, only. I know, exclusive club. You’re lucky to get in.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have made a joke. Just trying to lighten the mood, and I don’t get out the tree too much. Only when there’s a new sapling. Usually Sylvia gets this job.”
“Oh shit, Sylvia Plath is here? Why couldn’t she be my spirit guide, no offense.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault that your spirit guides manifest as default male. Sounds like a personal problem.”
“Oh, okay. But—look, I’m not staying here. I’m going back.”
As I turn to re-enter the cavern, however, I find that I am rooted to the spot. When I look down at my feet, I see that they have been swallowed by dirt and that roots have begun creeping up my leg. “Whoa, Kurt, what the fuck is happening?”
“You’re being planted,” he said simply. “Sorry, man. It happens to all of us. You’re becoming a fucking tree, dude.”
He sighed. “Wait, have you not read Dante’s Inferno?”
“I—well—look, you need to help me out of this dirt.”
“I can’t do shit, Jack. I’m dead. You’re the only one who can pull yourself out the grave, don’t you know that?”
“How do I do that?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here, living as a giant, mutant bonsai tree in Hell. I don’t have any advice for you. But if I were you, I would not fight it. Death comes for us all, so might as well jump in head-first. Just let it happen.”
“I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to die.”
“You already made that choice, man.”
“What choice? I didn’t make any choice. I just walked into the woods.”
“And why didn’t you turn back when you had the chance?”
“I didn’t have the chance, fuck, fuck. Kurt, please, the roots.”
Leaves had begun to spring from the roots, curling up my leg and ensnaring me. I sank deeper into the dirt, everything below wet and alive and dark.
“There’s always a chance to turn back, Derek. There’s always that oppurtunity, you knew that when you entered the forest. You knew that when you wanted something new to write about.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The story. The story about Hell, you’re the one writing it. You don’t have to keep writing. You can just make it stop.”
“But how? How am I supposed to just stop? I didn’t want to come here. I never wanted to come here. I just wanted a small, calm, peaceful walk in the woods. I just want to live.”
“Living is not a small, calm, peaceful walk in the woods, Derek. Let go of a happy ending.”
“No, I don’t want—I just want everything to stop. Please, make this stop. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I don’t want to be here. In these woods. I just want to see the fucking sun again. I want to see my family. I want to live. I want to love again. I want to try all this bullshit again, and I know—I know it sucks. Maybe the story will suck. Maybe the story will be boring, but that’s okay. I don’t want an interesting story, if that means it’s going to be tragic. I don’t care about the narrative anymore. I don’t want some twist ending where I kill myself. I swear, I want to leave these woods.”
Branches began to grow, slithering up my torso and wrapping around my shoulders. Bark coated my legs and pelvis.
I continued, “How do I make it stop?”
“Being a tree is not so bad. You don’t feel anything but the wind and the water. You just grow the way you’re supposed to, and you don’t even need to worry about it. It’s not like being human.”
I struggled to speak as twigs began scratching at my face. From my stomach down, already a tree trunk had formed. I was transforming into something new, something wooden and dead.
“I just want to survive. I don’t want the story to end. I don’t want to live in this stupid story, anymore. It doesn’t make any sense. you’re not even Kurt fucking Cobain. You’re just—you’re just—I want to live. I want to live. Is that too much to ask, for another chance? I want to wake up in my own bed, and I want to live. Even if it’s shitty. Even if I spend the whole day moping and sobbing and feeling sorry for myself, I want to have a body again. I want to have a voice. I want to own lips and kiss everyone I love, and tell everyone I love that I love them. I don’t want to just feel nothing. I don’t care. I will feel everything. I’ll deal with it, I swear if just—Kurt? Kurt? Kurt? Are you there?”
Darkness again. I could breathe again. I pressed my hands against my chest and could no longer feel the branches or the bark. Not that they were gone. They were still there, a seed of death planted inside my ribcage and waiting to bloom some other day, waiting for some other era in which it might claim this body for the grave.
I heard a voice, and I knew this time who it was.
“Yes? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“I wondered when I would be seeing you, if I got to see you at all. I guess you’re an important guy.”
“No more important than you.”
“You’re an angel,” I said.
“Not anymore,” said the Devil.
“You’re Satan, I mean, you’re a big deal.”
“I actually prefer Lucifer. That’s the name He gave me.”
“He? Does He exist?”
“I exist. What about Him? Why not?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I just don’t believe in that stuff. Even if the Devil—Lucifer, sorry—exists, that doesn’t mean God exists. Could you at least explain why I’m here?”
“You know why you’re here, Derek. You know I can’t send you back. It’s against the rules.”
“Seriously? What is this place? Why am I here?”
It was still dark. I could only hear his disembodied voice. Perhaps I could have imagined him any way I wished, but he remained unseen.
“Come on, you’re not stupid. What have you learned so far?”
“Well, I kept meeting these people—these dead people. Like John Lennon and Tupac—who I think is dead, anyways—and Kurt Cobain. And, and, and they were all artists. Tupac said this was Hell, like in the Inferno.”
“I always hated that poem. Gave me a bad name. Dante never appreciated what I gave him.”
“What you gave him?”
“What I gave him and all the others,” said the Devil. “What I gave you as well. I made you like this, Derek.”
“You? What do you mean?”
“Well, surely you didn’t believe art was a gift from God? Why would He wish to contribute to human creation when his own creation is already perfect? Art is blasphemy. Anyone who dares imagine the world different than how God created it, is not he too a Devil? Does he not dare, like I, to question God’s perfection? That’s what art is—not a translation of the world, but rather, an observation of the world and the comment, this could be better.”
“Sometimes… sometimes, it’s not about getting anything better. Maybe I just want to understand.”
“And God works in mysterious ways,” said the Devil. “Haven’t you heard that before? God doesn’t want you to understand. God doesn’t want anything, that’s why He’s God. He doesn’t need to want anything. It’s you humans who want, want, want.”
“You want too.”
“Yes, I want too.”
“And what did you want? Why—why did you get kicked out of Heaven?”
“I—I just thought…” The Devil trailed off. “I created something. I was the first artist.”
“What did you create? Like a painting.”
“No, I—I tried to improve upon God’s work. That’s what he didn’t like.”
“Lucifer, what did you create?”
“Free will, Derek. I gave humans the freedom to choose.” The Devil paused. I waited in the darkness for a few moments, a few eternities, listening. I remembered what John Lennon told me about listening. “You know, it was all different before. God made humans, and they were perfect. Just like God. Like me. Like everything. But it was all pre-determined. You were set on a path, and you couldn’t leave. Imagination didn’t exist. Everything just… was. Then I decided that this was boring. Everyone in the world had a soul mate, everyone fell in love with the soul mate, mated—of course—and that was that. Everyone was so content and so incomplete. And no one cared. No one wanted to know what it was like to be with other people, to fuck new people, you know? No one wanted any job they weren’t born to do. No one cared to experience a life God had not pre-ordained for them. This went on for centuries, Derek.”
“What about Adam and Eve?”
“Oh, some propaganda piece,” said The Devil. “It wasn’t like that at all.” He paused again. “So I gave them free will. I gave them imagination, the ability to decide for themselves what was real. They could carve out their own lives. But it came at a price. Soul mates never found each other. People never discovered what they had to do, what their God-given purpose was. Everything was a mess. Because of me. God called it sin, you know. And it’s true—any time we strive against God, that’s sin. Any time we create a new possibility in our life, that’s sin. It’s unavoidable. It’s art. Art is the Original Sin.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why did you let me leave? Why am I here? I mean, am I a tree now or—what is this?”
“You’re not a tree. You said, you didn’t want to be a tree. If you were a tree, we could not have this conversation. You said you wanted a body. Is that what you really want?”
“Flesh too is sin.”
“Okay, but—why did you let me leave?”
“I didn’t let you do anything. You didn’t ask Lucifer for permission, Derek. You left on your own. That’s called having free will. When in your miserable life have ever been an active agent? People say, do this. Do that. And you comply, folowing blindly becuase yu’re unsure what to do, who you are. So you’ve got to break free. No one can hold you in one place or dictate your destiny, not anyone you love, not your ex-lover, not your father, not even God. That’s the truth: those that end up in Heaven, they’re all bores who play by the rules. But to wind up in Hell, you’ve got to decide to remain here.”
“So I don’t have to die? I don’t have to stay here? In this strange Hell?”
“No, if you want to return, you can return.”
“I thought you were supposed to be the bad guy.”
The Devil took a long time before answering again. “I hate when people say that, that I’m some kind of monster. Just because I made one major fuck-up, I’m supposed to be this terrible guy. You humans really never stop demonizing me.”
“Lucifer? Was that a joke?”
“Ha, I know, right? Demonize.”
“So, you think I should live?”
“Why did you ever want to die?”
“Because I hit rock-bottom.”
“You think this is rock-bottom, Derek Berry, you’re still scratching in the dirt. Stay here if you like. At least you know you’re not headed to Heaven.”
“Thanks, Lucifer. Real supportive.”
“I’m the fucking Devil, what do you expect? But to answer your question about staying here: no, I cannot decide for you. That’s the whole point of this long, boring conversation we’ve been having, Derek. You’re a human being, not a tree. You get to choose how you grow. You get to choose where to plant your roots, and you get to choose who sits underneath your shade. I know, it’s not a perfect formula. I know, I messed up.”
“When I first got here, there was this dude. John Keats. He said, there’s infinite possibilities. He was the one who was right. All along.”
“Now you’ve been in the forest. You’ve known what’s it’s like to be a tree. And—maybe you can go enjoy the sun now. See the sky again for the first time. You want that?”
“Yeah, um… this is kind of awkward, but thanks for talking to me. You know, I needed this. All of this. I needed to come here. Even if life is absurd, I needed to talk it out, you know? Even with the Devil. I mean, whoever will listen, right? I have my whole life to worry about dying and not feeling anything else. Right now, I want to feel everything. I want to accept everything. I want to live.”
I woke up in the middle of the forest. As I climbed to my feet, I rubbed my eyes. Everything in my body hurt. Every ached. Even my heart beat so loud, I thought it would burst from the pressing pain. Every limb felt as if it had been torn apart and stitched anew.
It felt so wonderful to feel again.
I stumbled across the wet dirt, collapsing into the dry grass. The city stretched out below me, welcoming.
Have you ever stepped outside on a summer day and said, damn, how can everything be so beautiful? How could I have missed this? Is this what it means to be alive?