A Clearing in the Forest

by Nate Pritts

You begin in your car in the driveway, facing the closed garage. You check your mirrors out of habit though nothing ever moves them or knocks them out of position. They always show you the same things in the same way. So you back out slowly trying to be perfect since there's a car to your right and a low stone wall to your left. You work the angles; you take your time, the driveway not treacherous just long and narrow. You pause at the end to check for traffic, an imperfect science since so much else obstructs your view, and you do it, you accelerate out to the street. Then you stop, a complete stop—no motion at all—and shift from reverse to drive. It's May. Early May, deep spring, but it's already too warm. Sunny, hazy, early in the morning and already too warm to breathe without feeling like you're taking something else into you—all that heat, chunks of it, dripping. You feel the air surround you like some kind of costume.

You drive two blocks, traveling south, then a third. The sun penetrates every cloud, every tree in all the yards of the houses that aren't yours. The other drivers, every building, everything enkindled by the thin yellow touch of this early morning shine. Two intersections, then an on ramp, to the right, a winding curl that deposits you onto the eastbound artery. You merge with the traffic easily because it's early or because it's familiar. You can feel it. It's unchanging. The on ramp, smoothly and without fuss, becomes the road itself. It feels like a prayer being answered. Like whispering something you want to happen, then having it happen.

Only a few minutes of this, then another ramp, on the left this time and more of a curve, and now you're on the northbound road. A few seconds into that graceful j-shaped turn and the sun hits you full in the eyes. Like water tossed, like a solid sheet of metal, like some kind of sharp gleam ramming into your eye. But you put yourself back on this road, you wipe the flash away. You make your eyes dull.

You click on some noise, religious talk radio. You like it because it's predictable, the rising and falling of the preacher's voice, the way it sounds accusatory one minute, then amazed, then full of sadness. It's rehearsed and postured—there's nothing real about it. You keep your car moving, solidly north, quietly, like a whisper across the asphalt. Some cars pass you and other cars lag behind. Some appear in your rear view and never catch up. You wonder about the power of this as an analogy. You imagine the radio voice narrating it all, the one so sure of its faith. The one that believes everything happens according to a plan, and the air is full of reasons, crowded with them, and all of them point back to one luminous answer. But you remind yourself life isn't a self-help book, there's nothing simple, or fixable, about what's happening. You think about the only answers you've ever gotten, how you didn't like them and so asked again. About how you asked again to see if the answers would change.

You think about the light in the trees surrounding you on all sides as the north road slices through marshy fields, tracts of land with no owner, the land not worth owning—how sharp it all looks, frenetic refractions from every angle. You stare into it; you work the angles with your eyes. The person on the radio commercial tells you once you finish working on the outside of your house, you have to work on the inside. You count a few butterflies, bursting recklessly from one side of the road, staggering through the jagged sky. You think about your house. You try to make a list of what needs doing.

Then there are a few more butterflies, then more, then too many more. Some seem intent on making it across, their flight following a serrated horizontal track, while others seem to move vertically, or in some as yet undiscovered dimension entirely. Too many, so many it terrifies. You keep the car steady, you handle it well. An eruption of butterflies, vivid orange. It was a warm winter, an uncharacteristic spring. Environmental factors cause the upsurge. It's not about faith, or something magical. This is science, something purely phenomenal.

You keep driving. You miss your off ramp. You keep going north. You and the sinners on the talk radio—we are all sinners—and the butterflies, too. Thousands of them now. You—you're limited to reckoning based on what you can see. You're trapped by your senses; you have no feel for faith. You head north. You're in your car and you keep going. You think about the inside of your house. You wonder what questions you'd ask if you got a chance to ask them, you wonder if you'd believe the answers.

So you drive away, over time and miles both. Through the season, through months. The trees around you burst and get lush, the green almost too much to bear. Then the leaves fall, you see them flare into different colors and then collapse while the sun gets harder in the sky, colder. The snow starts to fall, dry and harsh, a whisper across the empty fields. You feel it throughout your entire body. It's the only thing that reminds you about your body anymore. Thousands of years have passed, you've passed from yourself. The snow piles up, blots out all the details and makes everything heavy. Then it recedes, disappears. You see the brown fields, the branches of the trees. You hold your hand up and look right through it while all around the world the grass starts to rise, green, rise again.

One thousand years, maybe one thousand more. You move away. Away from towns, from structures, and away from the people. The people with voices and desperate actions. You could hear it all adding up, every gesture and declaration, all of it accumulating. It felt like a cloud passing in front of the sun, a jittery cloud of butterflies. Like struggling to turn a key when inside the door the mechanism is eroded, out of synch. It can never work again. You work the angles, you try to get it right, but it never gives.

It's been so many years since this morning when you left. You try to think about yourself and can only think about everyone else. You pray for us all, mumbling, talking to yourself. You come to a clearing in the forest.

Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever. His fiction has appeared in The Collagist and Untoward and is forthcoming from Atticus Review. He founded H_NGM_N, an online literary journal & small press, in 2001 and still serves as Director & Prime Architect for its various endeavors.

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