When the Forest Comes to You

Keith drops from the monkey bars. He stumbles, because it’s high for a five-year-old, but the ground is that soft bouncy stuff that doesn’t hurt. He runs past the bins into the scrappy copse behind the playground. The big kids come here sometimes. It’s small, bordered by two roads, and even right in the middle he can still see the bus stop through the trees. To him, it’s a forest.

He sits cross-legged under an oak. He knows it from its acorns and scalloped leaves. There’s a hidden place among its roots where he tucks himself away. If he had a magic box, he’d keep this place inside it. He’d take it home and open the lid whenever he needed it: earth-smell, green shadows, whispering leaves. A forest in his room. There are squirrels. The leaves set the daylight dancing.

It’s almost quiet.

Outside, his friend Sam is probably wondering where he’s got to, but his parents are still shouting. He wants to be lost, for them to be sorry, but he’s not lost, there aren’t enough trees, and when they call Keith, it’s time to go

–he goes.

* * *

Things don’t get better even after Keith’s Mum pulls him onto her lap and promises they will. She’s been crying. What he wants is to be somewhere else. Like in Where the Wild Things Are.

“When he sails away?”

No. Before that. When the forest grows. The blank space shrinks. The trees take over the pages. But he doesn’t know how to explain any of that. “Yeah,” he says instead. “In the boat.” He wriggles off her lap and gets his Lego out, so he can look at the bricks and not at her wet face.

* * *

At seven and eight and nine years old, he and Sam dare each other to jump from the highest point of the swings. Landing hurts and letting go scares him. But there’s a moment in between when he comes face-to-face with the crown of a huge tree, and it’s like he’s suspended in the air, among its leaves, weightless. Safe, like home should feel.

That’s where he’d like to be forever.

* * *

“Keith. It’s your turn to read.” Giggles. He’s been staring out the window. London plane trees guard his high school; they absorb more air pollution than nearly any other tree. He’s read that air pollution harms people from birth; before, even. Certainly childhood. The planes bless and absolve the cities they grow in. But even they have limits.

“Keith! Act four, scene one, if you please.”

“Sorry, Miss.”

He stumbles through the lines. It disappoints him, Macbeth. “So the wood doesn’t really move?” But he can imagine it so clearly. The muffled birdsong, the cooler air under the canopy. In his imagination the trees don’t walk; rather, the landscape shifts to meet them.

That’s what he wants: the forest, stretching in all directions. Quietness. A softer, dancing light. Not anger, permeating like air pollution through his home.

His life is blank spaces. But some days Keith can sense the trees, as if they’re just outside his daily reality, waiting to be let in. So close he can hear the leaves whisper. Green shadows behind his eyelids. Earth- and leaf-smell on the breeze.

The forest, within reach.

* * *

“Here’s a book you might like.” The teacher drops it on his desk after class. The Lord of the Rings.

When he comes to the chapter on the Old Forest he understands why. Strange how easily she saw what he’d thought was private. He forgets the book isn’t his and doodles waking forests in the margins.

* * *

Years later, his partner smiles when he suggests the name.

“Max,” she says. “I like it.”

He takes her hand.

She links her fingers with his. “It’s going on the list.”

* * *

Max. His son. He loves him more than anything, more than forests, more than worlds. For the first time his heart fills up and he knows he’s meant to be here. His life isn’t blank spaces. Max is the story.

Only now Max is five years old, and Keith’s shouting at him.

Really shouting.

Max’s face crumples. But they’re not on a playground next to quiet trees. They’re in Max’s bedroom, Lego strewn all over his floor. There’s nowhere for him to run.

Keith would hate himself if he could, but, inside, the pages are flipping backwards and the margins, the blank spaces, grow and grow and grow and blank him out.

* * *

The forest comes to him then. Thirty years late. The trees don’t walk; they shift into focus. The same way ultraviolet light reveals what’s been there all along.

Strips tear from the world like wet paper, like eucalyptus bark. Trees show through. As the world rips away, trees stand in the gaps and hold the sky up. Birches appear, like ghosts. Sycamore and thorn. Dappled leaf-light spills into Max’s room and plays over the Lego on his floor.

Keith steps through the gaps in the world. Into the forest. Home.

Max reaches after him.

“I’m sorry, Daddy! Please don’t go!”

Keith wishes he could take his son’s hand. But it’s a distant wish. Everything is distant but the trees. He’s already changing.

He belongs with the forest.

Then there are no gaps, only trees. Birds blip and echo. He stretches into the canopy and out. His roots tingle with nutrients, part of a network bigger than cities. He’s tall and strong and good and not alone.

“Come back!”

Max’s voice is far away. Lost in the immersion. Lost among the owl-nests, the stop-motion lizards, the hurrying ants. Gall wasp. Oak bore. Woodlice like tiny armadillos. The forest is here now. Sap surges; sunshine pours down. The light dances. Time becomes liquid. It swells and recedes like tides; it registers in seasons, in decades.

And it’s quiet like he wanted, and it’s beautiful like he dreamt. And he’s losing everything, he’s lost everything, he’s lost Max, and still he takes his place among the trees.


FFO: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

EML: The edges and connections between nature and people, and between life and death. Ghosts, the sea, birds. Also, family dynamics, particularly family members losing and finding one another. I’m not sure about the family dynamics but I’ve always loved ghost stories, and the natural world is weirder and more beautiful than anything I can dream up.

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