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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Marijuana Ghost

Something strange happens while smoking in a local park.

Matt and I sat on the bench. It was dark, just a few hours after the sun had set and the moon was dangling just above the trees in the distance across from us. It looked to be about full, but not quite. It had the awkward look of a lemon or a lime, not the sleek sickle of a crescent moon, nor the half circle of a half moon, and certainly not the perfect roundness of a full moon.

Matt reached into his coat pocket and I heard rustling. The sound of a plastic baggy being searched for, found, and removed in the darkness. And in his pants’ pocket he did the same. Digging around for a certain item, although this one was easier to find and remove. It was about ten centimeters long, made of metal in roughly an “L” shape. It was a tube with a fine mesh screen at the end: it was a pipe. A pipe for smoking things, but not boring things like tobacco. No, this was a special pipe designed purposefully to smoke psychoactive things, especially marijuana, out of. Not that it made much of a difference — a pipe is a pipe — but from the artful design and color of it, lit up by the awkward moon, anyone could understand what its true purpose was.

Matt fucked around with the bag a little bit and was crumbling up its contents on his lap, lowering his head down to clearly see what he was doing in the light of the moon.

“Did you need a light?” I asked.

He shook his head. He was too concentrated to say anything.

Matt and I are friends by convenience as we work at the same place. No one is interested in where we work and our families mutually find it a disgrace. Mine for not living up to my potential, and his for, well I suppose the same thing really.

Matt grew up in a strict Christian home and raised him as such, although by the time Matt reached the age of twelve decided the entire ordeal was bullshit. Matt questioned things in a way that few people did, and it didn’t take much time lying awake at 1 a.m. thinking of God, the universe, and most importantly the shit a person goes through in their lifetime to question everything. Even by the young age of twelve most people have been through enough to stumble onto the conclusion that life is garbage. The house of cards falls down when you remove a singular card and his was removed almost by accident one night. Matt never talks about this moment really, in fact he seems to hardly remember it.

I never had this problem growing up. My parents were religious, or rather “religious” but we never knew it. Dad had a tattoo of Jesus in his arm, and my mom “believed in God,” but besides this there was no sign of spirituality or anything. Mom was bad with money and dad was withdrawn and they’d argue about that all day long, occasionally yelling at my sister and I about how we didn’t do enough around the house or didn’t appreciate their struggles. There was no time for real contemplation about a higher power, and we both grew up fairly agnostic. I never really thought about God. He existed, sure, but how and why did it really matter to me? If he did exist, which he surely did, he didn’t seem to give a damn about me. Not that I was greedy for the love of a deity — I was used to being invisible — I just wanted proof. I remember praying one night and I asked something along the lines of this: “God, if you’re real, can you give me a sign or something?” God didn’t do anything and the universe continued to whirl like the gears of a clock.

Matt and I grew up completely opposite environments. Matt, being raised in such a strict Christian household, felt trapped. Like his mind, body, and soul (if he had one) were trapped in a cage. His parents incessant pestering of him to be a preacher in the Church of Christ wore on him greatly. He just wanted to get away, but at the age of fifteen and living in a comfy well-to-do family home in the suburbs he couldn’t and didn’t want to physically get away. But there were other ways to escape. He found drugs, he found girls, and he lost his virginity. The typical process people in religion-based private schools seem to go through. 

As for me? I didn’t do anything. I was uncaged and free enough that I didn’t feel the need to escape from anything. This is my life, I’d tell myself. Not being happy or enthused about it, but not being totally depressed either. I eventually stumbled into the belief that there is no God, no God as Christians describe him (or her…) at the very least. The real God, if you want to call her that, is nebulous and undefinable. And trying to define God seemed like the most foolish thing anyone looking for understanding would ever attempt to do. Like Matt, if you put God in a cage, she’ll find a way to rebel and escape. And her being a God, can you imagine the unforeseen and nebulous ways that she would rebel?

I didn’t do drugs, and for some reason I have a strong gut-feeling hatred for them. They seem wrong in some twisted indescribable way even though logically I know they’re great, at least in moderation and when used properly. Obviously I’ve stumbled into drug use despite my deeply held and illogical opposition to them. I didn’t have a girlfriend until well after high school, a fact that caused me great social anxiety during that period of my life. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t unique, I wasn’t on the football team or did anything notable at all. This is me. Nothing. A whiteboard with the potential to be something, to be of some use to someone or something in some way, but which is currently blank. And I feel I will always be blank.

Hence my parents disappointment with me. “James, you’re so smart. You could do anything you want to do. You could go to college, you could have a good job and have money.” And I didn’t want those things. And what did I want? Nothing. Everything. The whiteboard that is me didn’t know if it was in a math classroom, a science lab, magnetically attached to someone’s refrigerator, in a Fortune 500 boardroom, or in a garbage truck heading to the dump south of Rockford.

This explains mine and Matt’s friendship. Two people on perpendicular trajectories that seemed to somehow be parallel. We didn’t talk deeply at work, we never said anything of importance together, we just existed around each other. Two parts to some completely flawed, directionless, hopeless entity. Hell, I didn’t even like Matt that much — he was distant mostly but could have bouts of utter cockiness that would throw you off and leave you hating him — but for the most part Matt was Matt.

We were seated on a bench next to the river hidden in a little grove of trees away from the romantics, joggers, and bikers on the bike path behind us. There was a large white arch trellis up against the trees, and I’ve always known it to be a popular wedding spot. Very picturesque. Fitting. The mid and evening sunlight was perfect for those wedding pictures you see posted on social media, especially in the spring and summer. You know, the beginnings of happy families and such.

At night this picturesque location takes on an ethereal quality where certain drug users like us two could take in the atmosphere and think about nothing with also seems to be the same as thinking about everything. I had the passing question wondering if the wedding goers had any idea what happens here after the sun goes down. Drug use. Teenage sex. Drug deals. Muggings. Maybe even witchcraft.

Matt fucked around with his pipe enough to finally take a hit from it. He held the pipe with his left hand and a lighter in with the right. The flash of flint and the dim reddish glow of the lighter and the audible hiss of him drawing the flame into the marijuana as the moon glared at us, deformed in its current phase. Matt held in the smoke as long as he could and exhaled. He passed the pipe to me as the cloud of lung exhaust gently drifted up and away towards the moon and the trees, indifferent to where it was going.

I did the same. I inhaled, exhaled, and my cloud chased after Matt’s. I sighed. What were we even doing here? That was a normal thought for me, although I could feel my brain begin to stumble around wondering what the hell was going on with it, what chemicals would it have to contend with.

“Pretty good stuff, huh?” Said Matt.

“Yeah.”

We sat in silence puffing and passing like proper and civil marijuana users do. Etiquette. A couple on the path giggled like they do. Moments layer a cyclist shouted “On your left!” as he (I’m assuming) whizzed around the couple who were blind to everything else around them. And as their entire consciousness was contained within a tiny bubble around them where nothing else existed, mine followed suit. My consciousness shrank to the size of a dot, fully centered within my head. Like a star collapsing into a black hole. I was in the shit now, and it would only get worse. The outside world was still there, but it was like looking through a window at something else. Or maybe like a TV? The people on the TV were real, but they also weren’t. It’s all the same thing isn’t it? The screen is my consciousness and it was showing me a white trellis, trees, and a ghoulish moon, but was it even real?

I tried to tell Matt my insight. “I feel like a TV right now.” He chuckled and shifted his weight around a bit, seemingly settling into the bench as if it was a comfortable recliner.

“How are you feeling, James?”

“I feel…terrible. I mean I’m here I guess. Physically you know? But…”

“Why do you feel like a TV?”

“What? Oh. I don’t know. I guess…does all of this exist? Like the trees and stuff?”

“I think it does, but how is that like a TV?”

“Well. It doesn’t seem real but it is. This is everything, you know? Everything you know…” I sat and thought for a second.

“And you being a TV?”

“Everything I know…oh. Okay. A TV. Has images of people who are real but…when you look at the TV it’s just an image.”

Matt slapped it all together quickly for me. “So you’re saying this,” he gestured to the surroundings, “is real but it doesn’t feel real to you right now? So in your head you’re a TV?”

“Yes! Exactly. You get it.”

“Good job, James. It isn’t that profound though.”

“Oh.”

We sat in silence for what felt like ten or twenty minutes. My brain compressed further. I felt awkward, like I should be doing something better with my time. But what better was there to do? What would my parents prefer me to do right now if they had any say in it? Nothing. Maybe they’d want me to do nothing because that’s what I am.

And then it really started. The introspection. The anxiety and the endless questions marijuana brings me to. It started with the awkwardness of our mutual bench silence. What should I say? Should I say anything? What would James, the person that everyone knows me as, say right now? Where is James? James is fucked up and losing his mind on marijuana right now. Where is the real James? Is he in there, in the black hole, trapped? Can he please come out and say a few words?

And the posture. How does James sit? How does James act? Would James, regular everyday James that is, sit relaxed or would he be upright enjoying himself. But these are all silly questions because I’m talking about myself here. How do I usually act? What do I usually say? It’s me, oh God, it’s me. I’m the guy James who is wondering what James would do. I’m not a TV passively experiencing things, I’m a robot. A big, ugly, meat and blood filled robot with a computer in his head. Act natural. Isn’t that what people always say when someone gets in this state? Act natural. How do I do that? I don’t know myself. I never thought about how I act when I’m sober; maybe next time I should take notes. But I’ll probably forget it in an hour. Don’t forget it. Write it down. Write it down now.

Apparently Matt noticed my fidgeting and nervousness as I dug in my pocket for my phone. (What pocket does James usually keep his phone in? He’s right handed so it should be there but it isn’t. Oh, the right pocket is where James keeps his pens and papers. It’s in the left pocket. It’s not there either. Where did James put the damn thing?)

“You okay there?” He asked.

“I need my phone. I can’t find my phone. I need to take some notes.”

He reached down next to me, picked the phone up off the bench, and handed it to me. He asked again, “Are you sure you’re okay?” The moon lit up a wide grin on his face.

I forced a laugh because I thought James might laugh at something like that. “I need to take some notes. I might forget some stuff and I need to take some notes.”

I opened the phone and navigated to a note app. Somehow this was effortless and a big, giant neon sign started to flash in my brain saying Act Natural! I just did it. I had acted naturally. I felt a little better but not by much.

Take notes on how James acts. How does James do thing? Act Naturally? How? Don’t know how I act naturally. Don’t know what I do and why I do it. Don’t know myself???

Matt could tell I was on the verge of losing any sense of self and offered me a cigarette. He wasn’t wrong and the first drag off the cigarette was magical. My consciousness expanded from a black hole into the entire cosmos, a mini big bang all in my brain. I was here, really here, and was a magical and wonderful part of it all. Even as a miniscule puppet of meat with a computer in my head, here I was. And as much as everything made sense under the moonlight I lost it all. I was here. Sitting on a bench. Smoking weed. And possibly losing myself.

The smoke from our mutual cigarettes did a dance similar to the marijuana smoke hours or days or years ago did. The clouds even did an embrace, twirled, and swayed a bit. Mine was a female cloud and Matt’s was a male cloud. They were dancing to relaxing classical music like you see in movies. Movies on TV. Wasn’t I a TV? I killed the thought as quickly as possible.

The clouds strangely drifted down into the trees and the trellis. With each drag and puff the dancing clouds would drift up, over, and down and seemed to hang like a fog. Didn’t heat rise? Or did the weight of the miniscule particles of the cloud come down due to gravity? Maybe it was getting foggy out? Hazy? I blinked in case I had some haze over my bloodshot eyes but that didn’t fix it either.

One of the beams holding the white trellis up seemed to move but only slightly in the distant haze. My eyes locked and Act Natural! seemed to mean that James’ heart rate increased from a flood of adrenaline to his system. I sat still even though I was already still. An entirely different level of stillness. I steadied my breath and tensed up my muscles. The beam was moving. A shape was slowly forming off the side of the beam melting into an entirely different form. Or was it just the haze?

The longer I stared the more the shape refined itself into a humanoid shape. It looked feminine in a way. There appeared to be hair waterfalling off her head, and the hips and chest gave her a clear hourglass figure. She was all the same color, the color of moonlight on mist, glowing under the trellis.

Matt sense something was going on with me again and asked, “Hey, are you sure you’re okay? Do you want another cig?”

I looked over at him with my eyes Acting Naturally! and then across the grove towards the trees. It was the primal and perfectly natural way, embedded in our collective DNA, of saying something is over there.

Matt stared and I could tell the exact moment he saw her. He was an animalistic meat robot just like me and we had the same program running in our brain computers. He did the same thing I had done moments earlier: perfect stillness, slowed but deep breathing, tensed posture, and the eyes of an animal on the possible verge of death.

“What is it?” I whispered.

He didn’t move for what felt like a few minutes. Hours? Seconds?

“…is it a ghost?” He asked.

“I don’t believe in ghosts.” I didn’t know what else to say. There wasn’t much explaining or rationalizing what was going on, especially in my state.

Almost imperceptibly the shape seemed to grow larger. Slowly enough for us to not notice immediately but in a way that something deep within us felt threatened. She was slowly moving towards us without moving her body at all. No features visible. The shape of a woman floating towards us as a cloud of smoke or fog.

Mine and Matt’s brains were perfectly synced up running the primitive software that we both had running in our heads. At exactly the same time we jolted upright and started sprinting in the same direction. Towards the car. Towards safety. Towards the perfect, bland, and depressing sameness of The Real World. Where there were no answers. Where there were no questions either. Sprinting as fast as possible from the beautiful unknown towards the terrible known.