Name: Dinah Rogers
Date: Last week, but consciously speaking, three days ago, as a middle two days were lost to the incident.
Emergency contact: Hannah Rogers, but don’t mention this.
Make sure to be specific here.
5 miles away from the nearest road accessible by vehicle, a fingernail crease in the left corner in the Ranger Station’s only topographical map of one of two strands of rainforest in the country. Edith, with her heavy lids and slopey drop-waist dresses, owned it before the federal government did. How is that possible? To draw a box around a river-veined green thatch on a map and say, this is mine? I imagine it would be like the first time I drove, my father in the passenger seat, my sister lurching in the back, my toe edging the car forward. The trembling of the toe, the potential of fire and smoke and a great ball of regret laid upon feelingless bodies held tight in the muscle and bone, just below the skin.
There is a membrane, soft and delicate, between the appendage and the gas pedal, and one thin thread of adrenaline, one jolt in the steady application of force, will rip a stitch out of it, leaving a hole, horrifying and irreversible. We travel through the slip in the fabric, the shape of pointed toe, like it’s a sizeless needle’s eyes and our last view of the irreverent gravel lane goes up in a bloom of flame. That skin of fate shrouds split rail fences lining highway overlooks and gas knobs pressed to baby’s fingers when chairs from lazy bouts of noodle-stirring for Sunday’s in-law dinner are left forgotten.
Edith, with her hat like a wave of black feathers and her hand impossibly long and ivory, held that curl of temporal nerve-endings, that fateful membrane, in her lap at her husband’s funeral and I imagine once more that she pondered what she had acquired, as if the forest and all its gorges and mist and creeping Bear’s Head fungus was sitting on her black-creped lap and spilling off onto the hard church floors.
Edith Gerry, widow of Vanderbilt.
Pisgah is not a word that smooths nicely over from mind to mouth to air, and when I hear it said I always imagine a hog with something off about it—the extra syllable and inverted relationship between the g and the s proof of some porcine deformity. But it joins the ranks of other clunky National Forests: Tongass, Gifford, Salmon Chalice. Pisgah, unlike the imaginary hog with the unplaceable defect, was wanted and loved and magnificent. (Then again, like the hog with the collar and the one sleepy eye, it was stolen.)
It was passed from husband to black-clad wife in the spring of 1920 when the lethal rhododendron buds opened for the season. Though she would never dare, just as I would never dare to swerve the car over into the sunken creek bed 20 feet below, she could’ve ordered the forest gone. For a moment, the thrill of power snaked in her gloved hand. But everything that followed was predictable: the land was largely cared-for, transferred from private to federal ownership, and the Vanderbilt-established forestry school that stood under the arch along its central artery remained a regional success. The gorges swelled periodically and the mountain laurel continued to weave itself together. And then slowly, almost nefariously, the boggy foot of Appalachia was paved and webbed with well-trodden day-hiking trails and streets for big white vans to roll on, flopping with inner tubes.
But I wasn’t near any white tour bus or asphalt path leading off from the creamery. I was up in the corner of the stolen forest, watching the light around me change and the air move, untouched by exhaust fumes and fiery blooms.
Please describe the incident in as much detail as possible:
Okay, just tell us what happened.
It doesn’t deserve a report, really. I know what happened—it happened small and it happened fast.
It’s protocol, hon. Go ahead.
Alright. The air shimmered that day. It was bright and cold and the light reflected so hard off the rocks embedded like tombs in the purple ground that my head hurt.
Say what you were wearing. They need to know how it got to your flesh.
I was wearing the same thing that I had worn for weeks: my favorite pair of overalls, my only pair of overalls, my only thing, my defining visual characteristic. That day, though, I wore them over four pairs of pants, which was fine because they were four sizes too big anyway. When she was in college, my mother sewed patches onto her overalls just like I do now. I hate those photographs because everyone’s so grimy and beautiful and when I look at them all the holes in myself are suddenly made clear and I curse the linearity of time. I wish I could live in sepia, permanently tinted with a camera lens’s subjection. I was thinking that as I listened to the person who they said could cure us all.
Nathan, soft around the edges with a shapeless canvas hat and a loose, fawny coat, was just beginning to explain how he had planted rutabagas in his bathtub as an only child with distracted parents and an affinity for the care and keeping of root vegetables. Then I was stung. We were a perfect circle, linked by the knee on the leaf-litter, listening. He was flanked by two old dogs who leaned into him so that I couldn’t tell where man ended and dog began. They were the same color—the fur and the beard and the animal eyes, not gray nor brown, but something in between like the shadow-pattern of a forest floor.
As a trio, they had found their niche in the late-fall woods—had entrenched themselves in a sepulchre within the trees. I wondered if he shifted seasonally—if he shed his speckled, autumn-skin. If he molted and emerged, spring-green and twinkling. I couldn’t imagine that. We were his disciples, and we had much to learn. Afterwards, I found that he was the same age as my parents, but looking at that living product of the elements—sun and wind embedded in the creases under his eyes and threaded through his hair—I couldn’t help but think that he must’ve been very, very old. Old like a tree trunk though: strong and old, not weakening with gray human age. Old as in cocooned by time—layers upon layers of forest-rhythm sheathing a radiating pith—the heartwood.
He was just getting to the part about picking seeds out of their curled sprouts at the community garden when I felt a too-close murmur at my neck and a sudden prick. The wasp escaped, left ragged and torn. For a moment, it had held my blood suspended, a zone of panic that worked both ways, but the pain drained away and I settled once more into the leaves, into the circle.
And then Nathan kept talking. His dogs swayed to the sound of his voice. I always envied him, how he fitted his whole being into the slats between the trees. How squirrels and small birds would approach him calmly, so easily. Isn’t that the best we can do in this world? To blend in? His eyes were there, though. Always a break in the pattern: they never fully disappeared.
Well, after a few minutes, maybe five, the reaction came back. Of course. That’s why I’m here at this table, writing an almost-occurrence. Detailing a near-miss. Anyway, it was a wave that sloshed from my navel, bloomed quickly in my blood-stream and heavied my eyelids with welts in a moment. In a moment, the membrane could’ve been broken. My body could’ve been flooded, overtaken. My throat could’ve swelled, constricted, snaked away to nothing and choked me from the inside out. I could’ve gurgled on the ground and no one would’ve been able to help me, not even Nathan and all the forest trapped in his bones.
I imagined the little T-cells that made up my immune system as pearls, clotting and gleaming around that vein in my neck, sticking themselves like barnacles to the edges of my arteries.
I was fine. The day after we hiked out, the valley and surrounding foothills were hit by a flash flood. That is a story of a happening. Not a near miss, but a devastating hit. The gorge filled and the neighbor’s cows bubbled up on Nathan’s porch. The fungicides from the corn farm on the other side of the mountain rose up in a chemical film and clung to the sides of the valley.
The valley will grow old. Not tree-old, but human-old: gray, weak, and worn away. Edith will mourn in her grave, but not as much as others. What does she have to mourn for?
I’ll ice my neck now and watch the flooding on the news.