by Elana Gomel
Today I lost my temper.
It dropped away from me as I was brushing my teeth, a small round object the size of a billiard ball. I think it was wine-colored but I am not sure as I only saw it from the corner of my eye. It hit the floor with a substantial thud, too much for its size, and I could hear it roll away and then clunk against the wall. When I looked for it, it was gone.
In the evening, I sat in the living room, staring at the tree drip. In happens almost every night in the Santa Cruz Mountains, this rain-without-rain, a slow steady weeping of giant redwoods. I sat there until the glass wall turned into a flat expanse of darkness. I was waiting for Leyla.
She came every night since the Event: a smudged, shapeless dark silhouette that watched me from the shadows between the redwood trunks, never coming too close, never moving away. I did not know it was a “she,” of course, but it dispelled the fear just a little to think of the watcher as female. And Leyla means “night,” so it fit. The first time I saw her, I had been petrified. But fear must have been one of the things I lost, together with my husband, my temper, and most of my memories.
She was there as always: a darker shadow among the unrelieved murk of the giant trees. I stared at her and I knew she was staring back at me. And then I fell asleep.
In the morning, Mike and Yvonne showed up. I was grateful for their neighborliness, but I also wished they’d stop coming. We would sit together in tense silence, mentally going through the list of things and attributes we had lost, trying to gauge whether one of us was worse off than the others. And did they expect me to offer them food? I did not feel I should. They had always struck me as the kind of people who would hoard tins, and batteries, and survival gear. I would bet Mike had a gun. Maybe he could shoot a deer.
Not that he would be crazy enough to go into the Nightwood. At least, not yet.
Strangely, Mike retained more memories of my husband Carl than I did. I only knew the basics: we had met in London where I used to live; we had been married for less than a year; this glass place in the redwoods had been his wedding gift. I had found a picture of the two of us together a couple of days ago, but it had disappeared, and I could no longer recall his face. Mike, on the other hand, had apparently known Carl for years. On the morning of the Event they had been supposed to carpool, he told me. But Mike had had an unexpected conference call and so Carl drove down alone. And when Mike finally got into his brand-new Lexus, there was nowhere to go. The road had been lost.
Anyway, Yvonne and I felt close. Yvonne was Chinese from Hong Kong, while I was … whatever. Two strangers in the Californian woods. Except I was not sure they still deserved this adjective. Maybe there was no longer any California. Maybe it had also been lost.
Not that I had much choice in the matter of company. After the road leading down to the Peninsula from our exclusive private development had disappeared, and the lights in the valley had winked out, only a couple of houses in the woods remained within reach. There were the Murphys on the slope below and that crazy Texan guy in the big unfinished McMansion behind a raw wooden fence. There used to be the Solomons, too, but not anymore. A couple of days ago I went down to their place and ran into a wall of manzanitas that had not been there before. Their strawberry-red trunks had grown gnarly and twisting, squeezing the house like arthritic fingers. As I peeked over the wall, I saw that the house was sagging, its stained-wood walls caving in, its roof hanging over like the eyelid of a stroke patient. There were oily yellow bodies twisting on the porch. Banana slugs. One of them reared up from the porch and I saw it was the size of my arm.
I hadn’t gone to the Solomons’ place again.
“I’m sure there is signal below the Bear Gulch intersection,” Mike said. “If I could soup up the reception …”
Yvonne rolled her eyes. Mike still insisted that the Event was some sort of natural disaster, and spent his days fiddling with his cellphones, computers and other dead hardware. Whatever he had lost, it was sure not his pig-headedness.
“Why can’t you accept that we need another kind of receptivity?”
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. Yvonne was a Christian, but until the Event I assumed she was just the good old C of E, or whatever the Hong Kong equivalent was. Now she started quoting the Book of Revelation.
“Should we do it, Ally?” Mike addressed me as if I was some arbiter of their marital dispute. “Try to go down through the woods to the intersection and then maybe hike down to Woodside?”
“I don’t think going down is safe,” I said, which had to be the understatement of the year.
We had already tried a couple of times. Just because the tarmac had evaporated, supplanted by a tangle of manzanita bushes and poison oak did not mean we could not hike through the woods. And we had.
About a hundred yards below the boundary of what used to be the Solomons’ property the redwoods began to change, turning into what I called the Nightwood. The Nightwood is what you see when you’re waking up from a nightmare and realize you are still in it.
The redwoods sagged like melting candles, their orange-red bark oozing down their contorted trunks in soft billows infested by beetles the size of my fist. I could swear some of them had human faces. The trees bent but did not break, as if their wood had become pliant with disease, and formed giant arches choked with needles the color of aging hair. Their swollen elephantine roots had become actual paws double the size of a human body. I saw a redwood trying to walk, swaying and dipping, crushing the twitching poison oak bushes whose leaves had turned into brightly colored frogs. The deer had taken root and were being slowly devoured by the newly energized banana slugs who have lost their vegetarianism, along with the limits on their size. And all of this was veiled and intermittently obscured by swaths, curtains and banks of damp fog that had not lifted since the Event. No, the Nightwood was not where I wanted to go, even if it was to confirm what I strongly suspected to be the case: that the world was no longer there, down below in the glittering expanse of the Silicon Valley. The world was lost to us.
After Mike and Yvonne left, I decided to do an inventory. I did it almost every day, tallying my diminishing supplies, and writing it all down. I had rice, flour, wine, egg substitute and a pantry still reassuringly half-full of tins. I was a light eater anyway, a lapsed vegetarian. My inventory had less to do with actual anxiety about starvation — I believed it’d all come to an end before hunger became an issue — and more with simple curiosity. If something was lost, I wanted to know it. Things kept disappearing from the house seemingly at random: dishrags, a couple of dinner plates, my wedding ring. I wrote it all down but could not discover any rhyme or reason. Why dishrags but not bath towels?
I just wished I had thought about keeping an inventory of personal attributes as well.
But it was too late now. The memories I’d lost could not be retrieved. Even worse: how did I know what I had lost once it disappeared? Expunged memories do not leave behind empty racks or gaping holes.
And it was crucial to remember as much as I could because I sensed that the silent watcher in the woods was somebody directly connected to me. Leyla was not just part of the Nightwood encroaching on our fragile preserve. She was not simply another monster. She was my monster.
• • •
Yvonne came alone this morning. She looked puffy-pale. I broke my rule about not sharing food and offered her a cup of Lipton with milk.
She asked me if I thought the Event was the Rapture. I snorted. My parents had been religious; I remembered as much, but the Rapture was not part of their vocabulary because … I tried to grasp the memory, but it melted away. In any case, I was not a believer myself. I was pretty sure that was the case.
“I don’t think it was the solar flares either like Mike says,” I said, just to make her feel better.
“So, what was it?”
“I think we’re dead,” I said.
Yvonne spilled her tea.
“But we’re alive!” she protested. “Look!”
She pinched herself, leaving a delicate bruise.
“Who said that death is a single occurrence?” I said. “Maybe it’s a process. We’re being stripped of our memories, our identities, ourselves. Everything is blurring, losing definition. At the end, there will be nothing left.”
“Something must be left!” she protested. “Some … some core! We’re more than the sum of our qualities!”
“Do you have a Chinese name?” I asked.
“Of course. It’s …” she stopped.
“See, that’s what I mean. It’s gone and a piece of you is gone with it. Lost.”
She looked disturbed.
“I hope I won’t lose my faith,” she said.
After she left, I found a pearly opalescent bead on the floor. It was clearly one of the lost objects. They all had the strange aura of being too substantial, heavier than what they should be, their colors too bright and a little off, as if reaching into some other spectrum. Just by holding it, I realized it was Yvonne’s faith. I placed it on the counter, intending to return it, but when I looked for it later, it was gone.
• • •
A new development! The Nightwood was advancing.
The Solomons’ property was now completely engulfed under the tide of maroon moss. It was as shaggy as an expensive carpet and there were gophers the size of cockroaches in it. Some of them poured over my shoes when I came closer. And the fog seemed denser, oily with a faint rainbow sheen like petrochemicals.
Stan, the crazy Texan, showed up on my doorstep this morning. He addressed me as “Mrs. Collins” and avoided looking me in the eyes, which irritated me considerably. I knew I was pretty; hadn’t Carl been attracted to my “exotic looks”? Whatever that meant.
Stan wanted to borrow Carl’s ax. His own had suffered some mishap as he was battling “all that stuff.” I was about to invite him to root in the garage when I suddenly decided against it. Giving an ax to a madman — and one who disliked me — felt like a bad idea.
I told him I didn’t know where Carl kept his tools. He did not seem to believe me but did not insist. As I turned to go back in, something caught on my sneaker. It looked like a ball of prickly orange yarn.
“Stan!” I yelled. “Is it yours?”
He looked over his shoulder. His brows almost met above his eyes like hairy caterpillars.
“No!” he barked.
I considered tossing the ball away but instead I squeezed it hard, its barbs scratching my hand. And then I suddenly remembered why everybody thought Stan was bonkers.
Stan was an amateur pilot who had once crashed a chopper by trying to land on an unfinished pad he had been building on his property.
Carl might have told me about it. Or …
I went back into the kitchen and sat cradling the orange ball in my hand and staring at it as if afraid it’d disappear if I took my eyes off it, which it probably would.
If we were all losing parts of ourselves, did it mean that we could pick up lost parts of others? I’d finally accepted that I’d never get back the things that I’d lost: snippets of my past, discarded selves I’d sloughed off. But what if I could patch up holes in myself with castoffs from others? The ball grew warm in my hand, its barbs no longer prickly, and I thought that maybe it was his courage. A man needs courage to try to land on an unfinished helipad, doesn’t he?
What if I could borrow a big, loud-mouthed Texan bravery?
We are all like onions: layers and layers of influences and imitations, patchworks of identities. If I lost one layer, could I find another?
I put on a pair of old jeans, hiking boots, layers of sweatshirts and a windbreaker. The end of the world did not improve Northern California’s climate: it was still cold and damp. I packed a backpack with bottled water and crackers. And then, clutching the borrowed courage in my pocket, I went into the Nightwood.
The light was strange: yellowish and sickly, like a forest fire seen through fog. But I could hear no crackling and smell no burning. The Nightwood reeked of damp rot.
The miniature gophers in the moss hill that the Solomons’ residence had become hissed at me. They had been busy evolving into different sizes. Some of them were now as tiny as ants, busily marching away in long columns, and some grew into fat, bristly sentinels the size of lapdogs, their sickle-clawed paws waving in the air as they balanced on their hind legs and followed me suspiciously with flat button eyes. The deadwood on the slope occasionally tried to trip me, and tree fungi pursed like hard lips and jabbered as I slunk by, but nothing took a bite out of me. The landscape was unnerving, but I’d always found the redwoods unnerving. I liked open spaces and lots of sun. A shadow of a memory stirred in my brain and dissolved.
The fog closed around me. Stumbling in the dirty whiteness, I suddenly heard footsteps. Crunching of twigs, the occasional clang of a dislodged rock.
The fog parted and I looked into the sad brown eyes of a deer.
“Shoo!” I yelled, relief washing over me.
The deer did not take off as they usually did when yelled at. Instead it emerged fully out of the fog. It walked on two legs.
The creature’s body was still that of a ruminant, its potbelly jutting comically above a small clutch of genitals. But it had been stretched and reshaped into an approximately erect posture, its legs bending forward at the knee, its arms — for that was what they had become — dangling awkwardly and ending in long, furry brown fingers.
I squeezed the ball of courage. It bit back.
The deer stretched an arm toward me. It was disproportionately long, giving it a vaguely simian appearance. Because there was nothing else to do, I took it. My fingers were bleeding from the courage’s bite.
The deer led me down the slope through the fog and the brush. It limped. A strong ammoniac odor wafted from its matted fur but it did not bother me. In fact, I felt strangely at peace. There was something familiar about this: walking through the forest with a deer. And then I realized what it was: Alice in the Wonderland. She met a fawn in the forest of no names. I had always loved this book. This was why I was called Alice. No, wait! Surely, I did not give myself that name. Or did I?
The deer maneuvered me through a stand of bay laurel. The fog lifted again, and there it was. A house. My house.
For a moment, bitter disappointment rose in my throat. So I just walked around in circles! And then common sense reasserted itself: I had been walking downhill all the way. It could not be my house. And indeed it was not, though it looked like it.
Its glass walls were blind and opaque, reflecting nothing and showing nothing. It was as if the house had cataracts. Its porch sagged in organic folds. And the front yard was a seething sea of banana slugs, voluptuously sliding over each other, some as big as me.
I looked at the deer. It released my hand and gave me a little push toward the porch.
Fortunately, the driveway was free of the slugs. As I unwillingly dragged myself to the front door, I took out the ball of courage. It had grown a big mouth full of vicious, sharp teeth. I tossed it into the slug-pool.
Even with my nose pressed against the door, I could see nothing inside. I pushed it and it opened onto my own large living-room, with the familiar Californian landscapes on the walls and rustic rugs on the wooden floor. It suddenly occurred to me that it bore no stamp of my personality. It had all been Carl’s choice. I’d brought nothing with me from … where I had come from. Wasn’t it London?
I looked around cagily. The house smelled of rotting wood and insect larvae. I had to let go of the front door and it slammed shut behind me with a bang.
I walked into the kitchen and saw the cereal bowl that I had left on the table this morning. And beside it, something flashing in the dirty light from the outside, something round.
I picked it up. It was my wedding ring.
It was unpleasantly warm and sticky and when I tried to put it on, it left dark stains on my ring finger. It was bleeding from the etching on the inside of Carl’s and mine initials. I tossed it away and it hit the floor with a wet splash.
Something slithered toward me from the living room. It was one of the missing dishrags, humping up and flattening out with a wheezing sound like a giant asthmatic inchworm.
I should have run out, of course. If my lost temper was here somewhere, I could just imagine what monster it’d grown into by now. But I was tired of running.
I walked toward the master bedroom, passing a walk-in closet on the way. I opened it. It was full of long, embroidered dresses. I had never worn anything so … ethnic. Had I?
The door to the bedroom was closed. I hesitated before pushing it open.
The night-creature, Leyla, was standing with her back to me. She was a shapeless hunched mass in the dimness of the woods that swayed outside the glass-walled room. I realized that she was swathed in a huge cloak of an ugly slate-blue color. She turned around. Her face … she had no face; the cloak covered it all. I stepped up, so close that I could smell the musky odor of her and pulled on the cloak.
It would not come off. It was her own skin, slick and blood-warm, falling in large folds around the stick-thin, starved body inside. But with the cruelty I did not know I possessed, I tugged and ripped, until the skin came off her face that was instantly washed in blood.
I lifted my hand and touched my own cheek. And stared at the red on my fingertips.
• • •
We sat in the kitchen, Leyla and I, and she held waddled paper towels to her bleeding face where the skin was torn away, leaving long, ugly slicks. But she did not complain. We never complained. My mother did not when she and my dad ran from Basra in the aftermath of one of the innumerable bombings; and my little sister did not when she caught dysentery in the camps; and I did not when the girls at the school where my parents sent me to in London teased me about my origins and made fun of my name.
I did not complain. I just discarded it all: my past, my name, my history.
I started calling myself Alice. And then Ally.
Leyla Abdoul that had become Ally Collins.
“What is the Nightwood?” I asked. I was boiling water for tea on a camp stove. One of the mugs had sprouted porcupine quills inside — this was the one that had disappeared three days ago — but the rest were OK.
“The forest of lost things,” Leyla said. Her voice did not sound like mine at all. It was high-pitched and unpleasant, and I had to remind myself that people do not hear their own voices the way others hear them. And her face disfigured by blood and rapidly swelling, did not look like mine. And even her name, the name that used to be mine, felt alien.
“So … what we lose, you find?”
She would not — or could not — explain. I realized she was not very good with words. And this gave me an idea.
I’d always believed that what we saw was only a small portion of all there was. Beyond the things we named and gave meaning to, there was a vast realm of other things. Things we didn’t see. Things that didn’t mean anything but simply were. The Nightwood.
And what if that everything we had lost — memories, hopes, aspirations, selves — somehow ended up there? Until the Nightwood became soaked with our rejects, polluted by our losses. The landfill of worn-out words and broken promises. Forcing human meaning upon nonhuman things.
And now it had rebelled against our spillage of worn-out emotions and discarded memories. And took over.
I tried to pry out of Leyla whether the Nightwood was now all over the world or only in our own corner of Northern California. She did not want to tell me.
I got up after we finished our tea and looked outside, where redwoods strained like enormous red-and-green snakes against the darkening sky. They were visibly growing.
“I’m going out,” I said.
Leyla shook her head and I saw, with a shudder of revulsion, that her skinless face was lacerated and gouged, as if in the aftermath of one of those bombings that I had witnessed as a child.
“There is nothing there for you,” she said.
“I want to find myself.”
“I am you.”
“No,” I said. “You are my past. I want to find my future.”
She did not answer but as I walked to the door, I realized what I had just said. If my future was there, in the forest of lost things, when had I lost it? When I had escaped with my family from the war-torn country? When I had married Carl and relocated once again? An immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, leaving behind a trail of lost selves?
Or … I looked again at Leyla’s bleeding face. Had I ever really escaped from Basra?
She smirked. I turned away from her.
I pushed the door open and walked into the Nightwood, shedding memories that sprouted into monsters in my footsteps.
Copyright © 2020 by Elana Gomel