Anna of the Woods

Strange things happen while camping in the woods…

Note: Hopefully my writer’s block is over. I’ve been finding a ton of inspiration and motivation lately: use it while I have it, right? This is a mostly fictionalized account of my time trying to live in the woods.

I was lost for sorts. Not physically lost but mentally lost. Lost in life. Depressed. A drunkard to cope with being lost. Being drunk lets you feel okay with being lost, with having no idea what you’re supposed to do, because it shrinks reality into the present. All you must deal with is the here and now and people are always happier when they pay attention to the here and now. The trouble only begins when you dwell on the past or look forward to the future, traveling the x-axis too far. Regret, anger, helplessness, dread, and anxiety all seem to come from either looking backwards or forwards too much or too desperately.

To find my place I set out for the woods. That was the plan. I was drunk again and it seemed like a great idea. I gathered all the supplies I casually thought about over the past few months in case I ever became crazy enough to actually do it. Cans of coup, a can opener, tent and sleeping bag, a few tiny cans of Sterno, rice, cans of beans, a knife, cigarettes, everything I could think of I put into my car and set out. And alcohol of course. And some drugs in the form of my trusty cough medicine dextromethorphan, DXM. Something to help oil the gears within my mind. Something to let my mind expand outward along the y-axis of whatever you’d call it. Space. Time. Peace. Nirvana. Whatever. I’d felt it countless times but it always escapes grasp.

I went to a local park; an isolated park, not too popular but also not totally forgotten. It was a popular area for disc golfers as there is a course there, but disc golfers are there to golf and not to hike. That was part of the appeal, to hide in plain sight in a park populated by disc golfers who didn’t care much for exploration in the woods. Up a path into the trees I went for a quarter mile in dark, then turned off and walked another few hundred feet. Located close enough to the path for convenience but far enough away that I was fairly hidden. It took three trips to haul all of the supplies to my new home.

I sat in the tent and cracked open a beer. The trusty thought that I always dwelled too much on reared its hideous head: So now what?

I texted some friends and no one replied. I tried to start a fire but the wood and twigs I could find were soaked from days of rain. Even the air seemed chilly and thick with too much water and a faint mist seemed to envelop the woods. Not that I could tell because it was dark; only the lights from the city reflecting pale off the clouds provided any illumination. The tiny candles I had did little to push back the ever present darkness around me.

I was alone. Utterly alone. I checked social media for signs of life and found only ghosts, only the faint images of real life that people wanted others to see. Memes shared, political opinions posted, happy family pictures and dinners. Picturesque to a tee. No, there was no life there at all, and if anything this made me more depressed. Trapped in my mind and isolated left me gasping for anything to hold onto. Some sense of peace. There was no answer from the woods. Only the scraping of tree limbs in the wind replied. Maybe a creature sounded in the dark, but they stayed far enough away from the deadly human trespassing in their domain. Silence. Loneliness. And the time crept ever so slowly. It was only one in the morning. So, now what?

I thought as I drank and made no progress. The same issues over and over. The same flawed person thinking their regular flawed thoughts endlessly. But maybe I needed to go deeper, really get down into the nitty gritty of my mind. Have an experience. Steal some insight forcefully from the universe as if it was mine by right. I popped open my cough syrup bottle and began to drink. The stuff was horrendous and I drank beer and medicine back and forth, desperately trying to clear my tastebuds from the twisted flavors of each of them.

I did some math about how much of the sticky, bitter stuff to actually drink. I came to about half a bottle, but as boozed up as I was wasn’t very confident in my math. Who the hell knew. I guessed. I’d either end up not feeling anything or transcending reality. The stuff tasted disgusting and after 75% of the bottle I gave up the whole project. I wasn’t feeling anything and it was time I tried to get some sleep. My math was probably wrong so I put the cap back on and regretfully laid down for the night.

Sleep. Sleep? No. Music. More infernal music, something I had heard in the past ages ago. Or maybe the future. I sat up and looked at the candle feebly flickering in the tent. And. Fire. Fire. That’s what was missing tonight. This morning. Time didn’t mean anything — the world simply spun and only us humans put meaning on it — and that was fine. Everything was fine. But, fire. Fire makes us human, right? There I was in the woods as a prehistoric human, nothing more than a caveman who happened to have a phone and internet with him. I didn’t have fire. Until I had fire I wasn’t enlightened. I could never be at peace living as a slovenly creature in the woods.

In the tent I said aloud to no one in particular. “I want fire. I will make a campfire. If it’s the last thing I do, I will have fire.” I stood up, grabbed my cigarette lighter, a beer, hobbled a bit, and stepped out into the damp and chilly air.

Sticks. Wood. Kindle. Start small with dry stuff and build up to larger branches. Until you had logs. A self-sustaining fire. A fire hot and fierce enough to burn anything liquid thrown into it. Sure the branches were wet, but with a blazing fire they’d dry and burn like everything else did in the world.

I gathered my piles into categories based on how large the branches were. Twigs, here. And there, larger sticks. And here, branches. The only thing missing was grass, something small and dry that would easily light. But I had paper towels and a nearly empty case of beer; maybe that would suffice? I grabbed the towels, emptied the box, and started tearing the shreds of paper into smaller and smaller bits. I would have fire. It was the meaning of my life in the all-consuming present.

Onto the ground they went into a small pile. I then made a tiny tent of twigs and smaller sticks on top of the pile. I rolled up a tiny bit of paper on the end of a stick and dipped it in the liquid candle wax: a tiny homemade torch. It took fire easily. And this went into the bottom of the tent of twigs.

And fire! It smoked, glowed, sputtered, and then went out. I hopped onto my knees to blow on the remaining feeble embers only to have them die. I tried again. And again. And there was no fire. I was still a dumb caveman who’d never be enlightened and wise. I’d never cook meat, have crops, smelt metal, or build cities. Left in the woods to die and discovered thousands of years later like Homo Neanderthalensis.

I stood up, looked around, and nearly gave up. A tiny bush next to fire seemed to taunt me but I didn’t know why. It was a strange plant, a bush that was only a bush only when you looked at it. Because when you looked away and viewed it out of your peripheral it took on a humanoid appearance. This bush was something human, or humanlike, and it taunted me. It stood over my pile of sticks that refused to burn and made them refuse to burn. It’s name, because it did have a name, was Anna.

I stared at the bush again, knowing who it was (but not what), and said, “Anna, please let me make a fire.”

She stared at me silently, reverting into a form or a bush depending on if I looked directly at it or not.

“Come on. Why? Why do you do this to me?! I just want to make a fire.”

I set back to work. Anna wouldn’t stop me.

More timeless time passed and nothing happened. I came close, once or twice, where flames licked the sticks for nearly ten minutes before it smoldered into nothing.

“Anna. Anna, why?”

Reality came back in waves where I realized I was talking to a bush. A plant. Nothing more and nothing less. I was in the woods trying to build a fire and I couldn’t and I was talking to a plant. Begging the plant to let me make a fire. I felt like I was losing my mind. Nothing made sense. Who was Anna and why was that the plant’s name? Why was I stumbling around? Why did the bush appear so lifelike at times? My thought came back to an old Stephen King story I had read. Something about a hotel room that a totally skeptical guy wanted to spend the night in. And in the room he slowly goes crazy. The room itself was a malevolent being that degrades your sanity causing you to question everything. Until you lost it. Until you went mad. Until the room killed you.

And, what?

I remembered old stories about this park: many people in my city say it’s haunted. My cousin, a supposed ghost hunter, claims she’s seen ghosts in this very park on countless occasions. Right where I was trying to spend the night and seek some solace. There were no ghosts, obviously, and I was a skeptic. Maybe it was just her imagination? There weren’t any ghosts here.

But what if there was.

The woods did seem very silent and malevolent. And I was losing my mind. Was it that far-fetched to believe that I was surrounded by a horde of ghosts or worse, demonic beings that wanted to claim me as their own? I started to panic at the thought. Anna, the bush three feet from my tent, was one of them. A spirit of some long lost and forgotten soul who for some reason haunted in the park I was in. She probably died in a fire, which explained her stopping me from making mine. Even in death she was scared, or even protective of me. Or not. Maybe she was trying to drive me insane, to get me to hang myself off a tree? Or do something crazy. What would happen if I chopped my hand off with my hatchet? Where did that thought even come from? What would people think and say if I came out of the park after one day and had to be hospitalized and institutionalized for hacking my hand off? What if I was going crazy?

No. No way. It was the drugs. Didn’t I drink a bunch of cough medicine ages ago? But, what if it wasn’t the drugs? What if they only allowed me to perceive the unknown? As my mind raced I desperately tried to get a hold of it and keep it under control. Think happy thoughts. I gave up on the failed fire, got into my tent, and finished off the last few beers of the twelve pack.

I awoke a few hours later once again feeling lost, this time mentally. I questioned where I was and what I was doing there. Rain was soaking in through my tent that I was in, my sleeping bag was damp, and I was freezing. My head hurt — the familiar feeling of the hangover — and time would only make it worse. My mind turned back to the previous night which felt like a dream. The demons, the demons that weren’t there but seemed to be there at time, had haunted me and now they were gone. I opened the door to my tent and looked out. I was in the woods and I was certain of my place in space this time. Birds were chirping, the wind wasn’t blowing, and the only sound was the rain in the middle of the forest. Despite my brutal confusion and hangover, there I was. Maybe I wasn’t lost.

And Anna stood by the failed fire. Still a tree but as I looked away there was a person there. I was sober. I wasn’t high. But…the bush was a human. A person. A spirit. Something. I stepped out of my tent and grabbed a couple of beers to think about the situation. I didn’t feel threatened, just confused with this presence still there. After a beer and a half I walked over and grabbed my hatchet which I tossed aside early in the morning into a pile of mud for some reason. I wiped the blade off and it glistened as well as it could under the cloudy and dreary day. I walked up to Anna.

“Anna. You need to leave. You’re disturbing my peace. This whole thing, this whole adventure, was only meant for me to find peace. So, please leave.”

Anna stood there.

I sighed. “Alright, have it your way. I’m sorry.”

I swung as hard as I could drawing all the strength from my body. I waited for a cry or a shout or anything from Anna, but there was nothing. Just the dull plop plop plop of the hatchet striking branches over mud. Eventually Anna toppled over right on top of my aborted bonfire.

And as damp as it was the night before, and as much as it was raining at the time, the fire started to smoulder and burst into a large blazing flame. Here was my fire, here was my peace, here was me transcending my primal spirit.

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By the Bonfire…

The sun was low in the western sky, still slightly above the treeline in the distance. It glowed with a fiery yellow-orange that had yet to turn into the vivid and deep red that another half-hour of time would bring to it. I looked around and discovered I was in a field surrounded by trees. And to the north about twenty feet away a bonfire burned. Around the fire was a few large logs that served as makeshift chairs or benches that three people were sitting on. And as my eyes focused I discovered that this group of three consisted of two men and a woman. They stared back at me seemingly amused, confused, or maybe a little bit of both.

The taller man, and the one who seemed like he was in charge of the party, was the first to say something as I stared at them.

“Hey bud, did you want to come join us?”

I turned around to see if he was talking to someone else, someone whose line of sight I might happen to be interrupting, with only a field of grass and trees in the distance. The same scene no matter which way I looked. He was talking to me.

I nodded and walked over. I didn’t really know why I agreed to join them, and maybe it was because I had no reason not to. The spot on the log next to the woman was free so I sat down there. I glanced over at her and she was wearing a flannel shirt and had reddish brown hair flowing well past her shoulders. She stared into the fire as if mesmerized by it, the yellow-orange dancing flame reflecting in her blue eyes. She didn’t seem to notice me much at all. As for the two men on the other log, the taller one — the de-facto leader of the group — also seemed to be the most professional looking of the bunch wearing a polo shirt and khakis. The second guy was dressed sloppily. He wore a dirty hat, an ill-fitting filthy coat, and ripped blue jeans. This man was also drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette; the other two didn’t appear to be consuming any substances at all.

“We saw you standing there staring at us, and I gotta admit it was pretty creepy,” the tall guy said with a smile on his face. “But thanks for joining us.” He extended his hand towards mine and I grabbed it with a firm but friendly handshake. “My name is Brian by the way. And you can call me Brian.”

“Hi Brian. I’m James. And just call me James I guess.”

Brian glanced over at the guy with the hat and towards the woman. “Do you two dummies want to introduce yourselves? Or should I introduce you?” He was clearly joking as the other two didn’t seem fazed by his insult.

The hatted guy spoke up before the girl make any motion whatsoever. “Huh? Oh yeah. Uh. I’m Jeremy. My name is Jeremy. So just call me Jeremy I guess.” Jeremy slurred his words and seemed drunker than I had initially imagined. A glance towards his feet confirmed this: two unopened beer bottles remained in a cardboard six-pack carrier and with an open one in his hand — he was three and a half beers deep. No wonder he looked relaxed. No wonder he looked (and sounded) drunk.

I looked over at the girl seated next to me. She quickly glanced at me and returned her gaze to the fire. Brian spoke up saying, “And, that’s…well, just call her Luna. She doesn’t usually say much.” Luna acted like she wasn’t mentioned at all and gave no indication of anything really.

“So what brings you out here this evening?” Brian asked me.

“Well. I don’t know really. I’m just, here, I guess.” Something in my mind tried to tell me something. Like when you go to do something important and forget about it. That pestering in the back of your mind reminding you that you forgot something important, but had no idea what the “something important” actually was.

They stared at me except for Luna who was still fixated on the fire.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” A few moments passed. “Well, I’ll tell you what we’re up to since you seem like a quiet sort of guy. We’re like a support group, the three of us are. We all have problems and we listen to each other’s problems and it’s a good thing. There is a fourth member of our group but she was busy tonight and was unable to join us. We miss her greatly. She’s a magical person. Maybe you’ll meet her someday.”

Jeremy now spoke up saying, “She’s the coolest one out of everyone we work with so her not being here is terrible, ya know?”

“And yeah, we all work together as our drunken friend pointed out. I’d say each one of us is going through a crisis of some sort, wouldn’t you guys agree?”

“Hell yeah Brian. Life is fucked up.” Jeremy took a drink from his bottle.

Luna sat silently and vaguely nodded.

“I myself am having a midlife crisis. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s like I’m lost, and I know I’m lost, but I don’t know where to go to find out where to go. Like I pursued something that seemed very important to me at the time but now that I achieved it it feels so hollow and pointless to me. And my heart isn’t in it. That’s why I’m out here with my friends. We sit here and enjoy each other’s presence. We listen to each other and maybe that’s all we really want: to have people listen to us. To have people to show your true self to. To know that we have friends we love and who love us. No judgement, no guilt. Just the openness that comes from love.”

“Amen Brian! I love you buddy. For real.” Jeremy took a drink while Luna glanced over at Brian with another slight nod in his direction.

“My problem is, well fuck, nothing really now that I think about it.” Jeremy said. “Life itself is such mundane bullshit ya know? It really gets to you if you think about it too much. Bad vibrations all around and everything, it’s scary. And not to take away from Brian’s crisis here because it is loads more worse than any of my paltry shit, but ya know what I get to vent too, right? I don’t know what to do with my life either. Like I’m not freaking out about it yet but the same basic idea of not knowing still freaks me out. Does that make sense?”

I nodded even though it didn’t make much sense.

“Like look I’m trying to be a writer, ya know, and progress is so damn hard to make. It’s like you throw yourself at a computer over and over and write all sorts of dribble that comes into your mind and no one actually reads it. I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up actually.

“Your name is James, right? That’s kinda funny really. One story I’m working on basically features myself as the protagonist because I mean how the hell else are you supposed to write about someone who isn’t you, right? And so my name is Jeremy in case you forgot. I’m terrible with names so — like pretend the situation is switched here — if I was you and you were me and some random guy stumbles upon your bonfire and stares at you for ten minutes straight and, well I’d also. Um. Oh yeah. James. Alright. Anyways in my story I’m writing as myself but I don’t want to use my actual name so I renamed myself James. That’s pretty interesting huh? It’s clever right?

“You see my technique is to write about the people I know where I just change the names slightly to where it’s a joke kinda. Jeremy. James. Right? And if I ever wrote a story about this moment right here with some random guy showing up to our bonfire I’d probably rename Brian something like Johnathon maybe. To hide the real person’s identity, ya know? Our other friend who couldn’t make it, I’d call her Claire in the story because why not? And Luna? Well shit, I don’t know what I’d name her really. Maybe something crazy. Could just leave it as Luna though. Luna is unique enough that maybe it doesn’t need to be changed. What was I talking about? Oh yeah writing. Fuck writing.

“But if we’re all trying to be deep and shit — which I guess we are — my main issue is alcoholism. I can’t be all open and friendly like Brian and I can’t fully embrace myself like Luna over there can. So I drink so I can feel somewhat normal. Like I can act and be a person without overthinking every single thing that happens in my life. Like right now? I feel great. An idea comes into my mind and I say it and,” Jeremy waved his hand as if giving up, “I guess that’s it. Alright well I’m done talking now.” He looked reflective and upset, quite a change from the jovial drunkard he was minutes earlier.

“As you can see, Jeremy is what we’d call ‘in the zone’ right now. But honest at least. No judgement here. No one is forcing anyone to confront their demons, but if they want to do so we’ll all encourage them and support them.”

Luna blinked a couple of times and looked out into the distance. She opened her mouth slightly as if to speak and her eyes lit up with something that wasn’t there previously while staring at the fire. Brian and Jeremy became very still and stared at her. And as suddenly as she seemed to jerk into awareness she took up her trance with the fire again; her eyes becoming unreadable and lost in thought. Jeremy and Brian took up their usual postures and appeared slightly let down.

“Luna is a very quiet person as I’m sure you can tell. She’s a tough shell to crack and it’s nearly impossible to get her to open up. But when she does open up and lets people see her unguarded self, it’s magical. We make sure to listen when she lets us see her beauty.” Once again there was no reaction from her. As if she didn’t realize the conversation was about her at all.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to speak for her, but I think that’s what her crisis is: she’s underappreciated. Those closest to her don’t seem to appreciate the gem they’re constantly around. They always try to bend and mold her into something she’s not, to make her into their idea of beauty, which simply isn’t the beauty that is inherent in Luna. They don’t see that she’s fine just the way she is: perfect the way she is. That she’s enough for the world.”

“Luna is a such a goddamn badass amazing person, you wouldn’t believe it James my man. I love you Luna, seriously buddy.”

Luna still seemed detached from the conversation while she turned around to look behind her and then turned back to the fire. Once again life appeared in her eyes and she slowly opened her mouth. “The dancing girl is back. Just like last time.” She said this in a perfectly deadpanned and unamused voice.

Sure enough as we all turned and looked we saw a figure in the distance dancing amongst the knee-high grass. In the fading light it seemed she had a dress on although you couldn’t make out much more than that. Her skin was pale and her hair was blonde. As she twirled around her braided hair pulled away from her body dancing along with her as she spun.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Some woman,” Brian replied with a shrug. “We see her out here periodically. She’s always over there dancing and we never see her arrive. She just poofs into existence it seems. It’s strange, but we’re also out here being strange. If someone wants to dance in the field, well, go right ahead.”

Silence blanketed the air for a few moments as I let my mind wander. Something about the scene seemed very strange and unreal. Something that I needed to remember. Something very important. And then it hit me: I was dreaming again. It was a victory in my lucid dreaming quest. I finally caught myself in the act. And I told my newly-found friends this fact.

“I just realized something and I don’t know how you guys feel about this, but I’m dreaming now: you’re all in my head.” I tried to keep my face as blank and as serious as possible but couldn’t help the slight grin that creeped across my face. I’m sure to my company that I sounded insane, but it was the truth. And I was proud that I discovered the truth.

All three turned at looked at me. Brian and Jeremy seemed amused enough and Jeremy took the moment to light another cigarette in quiet mocking contemplation. Luna simply stared at me for a second or two and went back to admiring the fire.

“Well okay then buddy,” said Brian.

“Seriously though. I’ve been writing my dreams down the past few months in an attempt to lucid dream, you know, be aware of the fact that I’m dreaming while I’m dreaming. And this is it. It just feels like it.”

Luna, with her elbows resting on her legs, brought her hands up to her head and put her fingers on her temples like she was having a headache or was stressed about something. Her look was of someone both deeply concentrating and being in slight agony. She looked at me and then at the other two.

“He’s right you know.” She said. Jeremy and Brian looked amused and terrified at the same time. Luna was finally speaking and they were listening.

“When we first saw him he was zoning out, totally lost to the world. Like someone who had no fucking clue what was going on. He’s lucid now, see? He knows what’s happening. And the dancing girl over there? I bet that’s part of his dream too. It might even be why he’s here right now, something subconscious to himself. He’s not dreaming about us for our pleasure, to bring us into his existence or whatever; he’s dreaming because of her.” She turned and locked eyes with mine. “Does the girl over there seem familiar to you? At all?”

I turned and looked. “Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. Something about her seems, nostalgic? Old? Like something from my childhood. Like a smell or a song could make me feel something about her.”

She turned back to her skeptical friends. “Do you guys even feel real? I’m questioning it now: being real. I feel really funny right now and I really think James is dreaming, and our reality is where his dreams occur. And that girl over there has something to do with…something, I don’t know. It’s hard to grasp all the thoughts in my head right now.”

“Maybe this guy is just tripping on acid or something? Come on. This shit isn’t real. Come on, Luna.”

“Shut the fuck up Mr. Author Guy. You think out of everyone you’d have the most open mind about these things, but no, skeptical as always. Can’t you just pretend this might actually be happening? Maybe you could write a story about it and give everyone uncreative similar names like you usually do.”

“Woah. Hey. Okay. I’m done. Relax.”

Luna looked over at me and said, “Go dance with her. I think that’s what you’re here for. We’re only a distraction to whatever is going on in your dream. Go dance. And it was nice meeting you.” She smiled as I wearily stood up, tuned, and walk towards the girl dancing in the field. I was lucid enough, but was still floating along, and feeling like I didn’t have a choice walked over to her.