I was exhausted when I finally emerged from the dirt road and pulled onto the bricked driveway of the great house where I would be staying for my writing retreat. Suddenly, everything caught up with me. Jet lag, luggage who-knows-where, a missed meal, U-turns in quicksand with rental cars, climbing into the hillbilly driver’s seat. Once I got out of the car and looked around, I felt a lot better.
The sun broke through a tower of grey clouds to shine down on the great house: a rambling, chalet-style mountain cabin with shuttered windows, a large covered front porch and a comatose cat on the stairs. The surrounding trees were bright with new growth as only Vermont trees can be. Wildflowers had sprung up in damp pockets as though planted by the exterior decorator Herself. I was quickly reassured that this retreat was going to be everything I needed it to be and that my novel would come out the other end of two weeks in fine, beautiful, completely revised, agent-ready shape.
I was warmly greeted by my host – for the purposes of this tale, let’s call him Alex – but instead of being shown to my grand writer’s suite in the chalet, I followed him into what I call “woods,” – an area comprised of trees grown closely together causing limited visibility. Okay, I thought. I’m game. I’m an animal. I can hang.
I followed Alex down the wet dirt trail. Small branches slapped at my face, lacy vines dropped down and grabbed at my hair and shoulders, low-lying shrubs teased at my shins. Was it just my imagination, or had the day suddenly turned dark? Had the sun merely slid behind the cloud pillars, or was I entering a different, shaded dimension?
As we continued down the trail, I noticed a stuffed animal – a Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil, to be exact – nailed to a tree trunk about ten feet above the ground. I stopped and pointed it out to Alex, asking, “What is that? Dead squirrel got run over?” In Los Angeles, when there are stuffed animals hanging from fences or trees, they’re commonly accompanied by helium balloons and plastic-wrapped flower bouquets and votive candles – evidence of some fatality, usually caused by a car.
Alex just smiled and pointed to my quarters, just across the way from Taz. Once Alex had shown me the ins and outs of the compact but cozy cabin, he headed back to the house, promising a meal within the hour. Still jangled, I laid down for a nap. My eyes were heavy by now, and I expected to fall into my usual deep, drooly sleep.
But I couldn’t. I tried all my usual techniques – thinking about revising my manuscript, saying the alphabet backwards, counting the humiliating moments I’d experienced since I was in grade school – but I couldn’t sink down into anything resembling real sleep. Outside, the darkening sky was pure in a way that the sky over Los Angeles never was. The trees around the cabin smelled invigorating and fresh, but some of them, particularly the younger ones, seemed to be growing in strange ways. Like submissive servants, they were deeply bowed, their crowns bent down and attached to some place in the ground.
This was curious, I thought to myself, as was my growing feeling that someone, or something, was watching me. Which was not an unusual feeling to have in the woods, I reassured myself as I got up and tucked in my shirt to prepare myself for dinner. The woods are full of small animals and birds, and all the little woodling creatures were curious to see what had entered their home. Was I friend? Foe? Lunch?
My animal instinct suggested I head back to the chalet. It also suggested I whistle loudly as I walked. And I did. Until I heard the loud crack of a tree. I froze in place, mid-whistle, then turned quickly and saw a tree – with a trunk perhaps ten inches in diameter – broken in half and now crashing swiftly to the forest floor.
I waited for more sounds that would indicate what had happened, expecting to see a bear scampering away from me, or at least to hear some animal crashing through the brush as it ran away from its fall. Or maybe I’d see the bright red and black plaid of a hunter. Or a Tin Man, squeaking out of the woods with his tin ax. Having no real-life context from which to categorize this event, my mind went straight to the movies.
But there was nothing. The forest went silent. There was just Taz, grinning down at me with his huge overbite.
A tree fell in the forest, and only I heard it..