Tuesday, 29 September 2015
The Sitting Room in the Middle of the Forest (2010)
He had been out in the forest for hours. If you didn’t know him, you might have thought he had no home. He went wandering up and down valleys and over lakes and along roads – but he always came back to his forest.
The forest, you see, was his home. He was convinced it was. He felt at home here. The squirrels were old friends. He knew the best places to sit and to eat, to sleep, to walk and to think.
A shower of white-and-black pine cones tumbled to his feet. He looked up and saw a thrush. It was a large bird, flecked with snow, calling softly. He watched it for a few moments and smiled. It was calling its children from the nest; probably it was to be their first flight.
Then he remembered that he was hungry. It was particularly cold this winter; he’d spent many winters in the forest before but none quite like this one. They’d be boarding up their shops in the town below, he knew. Let them, he thought, and waded on through thick snow.
The old man was heading for a particular part of the forest where he knew he would find food. When he had been younger, food had been easier to find. The forest had not been his home. He had lived in a house with a fire and beds and a nice snug kitchen. As time went on, he had grown to love the forest, until he knew it better than his own home, better than his family.
He padded on in wintry silence. The sound of his feet on the snow was not so much a crunch as a soft purr. It was cold underfoot, but the old man did not mind. The cold forest was comforting to him.
He scratched his beard and screwed up his eyes. Where was it? He sought among the snow and found the mushrooms he was looking for. There weren’t many mushrooms you could eat that still grew in winter, but the old man knew all about food in the forest. He sat down and brushed off the snow. He picked them one by one, warmed them under his arms for a moment, and popped them into his mouth.
He smiled to himself; then ate a few more mushrooms which he found in another clump of snow. He felt better now, warmer, and abler to walk on. He got to his feet and shuffled off.
It was early evening when the old man came to rest by the lake. It wasn’t really a lake, more of a frozen puddle, but that was what the locals called it.
The old man took off his boots and shook the snow out of them. He winced slightly at the cold, but it no longer bothered him as much as it used to. His skin was hardened by long marches over ice and his eyes adjusted to the glare of sun on snow. He looked about sixty, but was probably older. His dark eyes were slightly defocused, as though they were a chameleon’s eyes, looking in different directions at once. His beard was straggly and flecked with mud and snow. He had been tall but now was bent.
As he pulled his boots on again, he cursed his shaking hands. They shook because of the cold, although the old man had an inkling that they shook anyway. He wasn’t sure; he couldn’t remember. He cast his mind back – had his hands shook when he had lived in a home? Possibly. He couldn’t remember the home, if he was honest with himself. It was so long ago...
Though awake, he started to dream there and then. Bright, warm faces swam in front of his eyes. There! Could that be his mother? His sister? And was that his brother or his father? He wasn’t sure. They seemed to be all around him, saying things to him, things he couldn’t understand. He shook his head violently and they were gone. But the after-image still remained.
He stood up, wobbly, and brushed the snow off his legs. He ran his hands through his hair, and muttered to himself, and started walking on.
Through the trees the old man watched the light failing. Threads of pinky yellow weaved their way between the thick trunks. It was his favourite time of day, but the most dangerous. Dusk in the forest was like a hot bath in winter. For a while he felt soothed and refreshed, but when it ended, he started to shiver furiously again.
At night he could still creep between the trees and peer all around him. But he never forgot that there were other creatures creeping and peering too. Wolves and bears: he’d never seen them, but knew their home was the forest also.
Slowly, the old man plodded forward. One booted foot in front of the other, making purr after purr in the snow. He glimpsed a gentle shower of white through the trees, but from the way it was falling he could tell it was not a new snowfall but rather dislodged flakes from a branch. He heard the calls of the owls, the first sign of night.
The air around him grew ever more bitterly cold, and the darkness seemed to draw the trees in closer, as though it would hold a whispered conversation with him. Patches of shadow and snow lay everywhere he looked. Eyes glared back at him in the darkness: sometimes owls in hidden but homely roosts, sometimes other creatures of the night.
It was fully dark when the old man stopped. He had reached his favourite place of all. It was a kind of clearing amid the trees and the darkness. There was no grass, only snow and rock, but he always felt it was more open here, more accommodating. More like home.
The old man set to work. Every morning he left this place and wandered. Every night he came back, and fresh snow had fallen, and he had to tidy up his home. He took off his coat and used it to brush the snow aside until the ground was drier to sit on. He hung his sopping socks over a tree branch to dry. He lit a fire. He spread his coat over himself, and lay down. He was a tiny speck surrounded by whiteness.
Beneath his head was his favourite rock. It was the most comfortable pillow in the world.
The moment he thought this, the old man looked around him. What a home he lived in! The small collection of twigs smouldering away was the hearth, the twigs bearing socks a mantelpiece. He lay upon a rocky pillow and his coat was his blanket, the ground his mattress. The bent branches of trees above suddenly became a roof, shielding him from the cold. He was alright now; he was home.
The old man smiled. It was a toothless smile, but full of warmth. He shuffled under his coat, snuggling between the folds. He felt deliciously warm. He yawned and watched the logs on the hearth crackle and go out. The world was cold and tiresome outside his beautiful sash windows: he could see snow falling, and was thankful that he was so warm in here. He closed those bark-black eyes.
“Put the kettle on,” he murmured, but it was only out of habit. He had forgotten what a kettle was.
Early the next day, two woodcutters from the town in the valley below came across the clearing. They were seeking suitable Christmas trees for their families, and they knew a collection of fine firs grew near the spot. They did not expect to see what they found.
“Who’s that?” asked the first woodcutter, as they heaved the huge tree onto their backs and prepared to leave.
He pointed. About ten metres away from them lay the old man, frozen stiff. The ruins of a fire lay next to him.
“Don’t know him. Poor fellow. Nothing we can do.”
“Wait a second, Ivan. Look at his face.”
The two woodcutters put down the tree and drew closer. In the half-light of the dawn, they could see that on his face was a huge smile. For the woodcutters, it was eerie at first; it unnerved them. But they gradually saw that the old man was really smiling. He was really happy. His eyes were closed and his lips were cracked and damaged by frostbite, but his mouth curled upwards nonetheless. It was a smile that would now never end.
“Look at him. Grinning like a baby.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “Right, grab the tree. Let’s go home.”
The woodcutters left the safety of the sitting room in the middle of the forest and ventured into the outside world. Inside, the old man lay cold and unmoving on his bed. A black cat emerged from the trees and sniffed at the old man, then scampered off to find food.Minutes later, a blizzard of fresh snow covered him completely. It changed nothing. The old man still smiled, and dreamed of a place he called home.