He'd followed a circuitous path home.
If he had a sense of that place anymore, it was in Boston, though it'd been years since he'd been back and no one would likely recognize him.
He could no longer remember how it came to be that he left. The details seemed irrelevant. Something had happened, to someone else maybe, and he lived with the consequences.
Sometimes he wondered, briefly, about why he kept moving forward. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. That was him. Lacking the will to stop.
The environs in which he found himself now were unfamiliar. Had he been here before?
Safest to stay on the highway, where no one would notice. Or maybe the countryside, where no one would see.
The highway was a collection of dinosaurs--tired strip malls, truck stops and little-used access roads. He needed the truck stops. Only places he could pick up a couple of dollars clearing trash, cashing in bottles.
He'd been shuffling along the shoulder of this highway for hours. His gut was riled, and explosive, from dumpster chicken he'd sampled the night before. It was the inability to control his bowel that led to his current dilemma.
He was foul. Needed to clean himself. And yet, he was starving. Cash in pocket, $13. Enough to buy jerky, biscuits and water. But would the store tolerate him in his present state? Odor, he'd learned, makes one conspicuous.
There, on the corner of a narrow access road, a convenience store. And behind it, woods, where he could hide out, and wash up. He'd quickly pick up something to eat and take it into the woods. Find a stream maybe.
Get off the road.
The store had those narrow aisles he hated. Impossible to be discrete. But he was hungry. He looked for jerky. Crackers. Water. Hurried past the bread aisle. And there it was.
He froze. Why now? Why that cake, with a Ferris wheel on top, and blue letters.
He picked it up. Realized as soon as he did he'd have to buy it. The store owner eyed him resentfully. $3.50. Would almost wipe out his cash.
He hurried to the counter. Didn't wait for a bag. Just stuffed the supplies in his roll sack and pushed through the door. To fresh air, to the border of the forest.
The forest was cool. Amazing that it was so close to the highway, and so quiet. Peaceful. He continued deeper. Higher. Climbing. Rocky. Untamed, like a forest primeval. As though no one, before him, had ever been there.
He needed a stream, a pond, someplace to wash. After that, a soft spot under the trees. Fallen leaves and debris make a nice bed. He allowed himself to fully feel the fatigue that had settled in his bones.
A murmur. Water. Unmistakable. Follow the sound. Soggy ground. Then he saw it. A stream. Clear. Crystalline. Rushing from the mountain, to a distant river.
He stripped down and took off his underwear. The water was freezing, but he scrubbed, and scrubbed until every bit of grime was removed.
He wrapped himself in his blanket and hung the underwear to dry in a spot of sun that made its way through the trees.
After a while he dressed, underwear still damp. He decided to explore the woods, to enjoy the peace, freedom from the danger of harassment, before he headed north again.
Deep, deeper into the woods he went. How far did they go?
The sun was low in the sky. Should he look for the road again, or bed down here for the night?
What was that ahead? A house?
He shrank low behind the trees. A house meant people.
Not a house. A shack. No door. No window. Surely, no people. He approached cautiously.
He ventured inside. What was this? Books? All over the floor. No, not books. Comics. Comic books. Stacks of them.
Very little daylight remained. Inside the shack, almost complete darkness. He went outside to check for signs of activity. Nothing. As undisturbed as the rest of the forest.
What a find! He organized the comics into a pile and arranged his blanket on top. He had a bed.
The cake. It was almost as though fate knew he would find this refuge. He might be able to start anew, at least for a while. A kind of birthday.
He made sure to sleep under the window opening so the first rays of light would wake him, a natural alarm. He'd clear out until he was certain the shack was safe.
The next morning he reconnoitered the area. More surprises. A raspberry patch, and wild rhubarb. The stream, abundant with fish.
Night came. And then another morning. Each day he rose when the sun woke him. Samuel never lost his sense of caution. He'd pack his things and keep a distance. Unless it was raining. Then the likelihood of intruders was slight.
He often thought in the days that followed that if he hadn't bought that cake, if he hadn't lingered in the store and then rushed into the woods, he might still be on the road, wincing with every disdainful glance, retreating from threatening gestures. It had been weeks since he had to deal with such hostility. In those weeks he'd even made a friend. A squirrel, coaxed close with berries and bits of cooked fish.
Life went on like this for maybe three weeks. Then his luck ran out. Two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from the woods and headed purposely toward his cabin. Samuel shrank beneath the cover of thick brush. This had become his customary retreat in daylight.
Their voices carried.
"Someone's been here!"
Samuel's heart sank. He was discovered.
"Who?" the second child asked, more curious than concerned. "Look, the comics are all in a pile. We better not hang around."
They left in very short order, but carried with them several comics.
The girl raised her hand.
"I just want to see what I've got."
The children paused and each perused a comic. Apparently satisfied, they closed the books and hurried off again.
Samuel knew he could not stay. The children would tell an adult and people would come looking for the stranger who was stalking the woods.
He had known this would happen, hadn't he? It had always been the case that he would have to leave someday. But for the first time in many years he felt disappointment. Disappointment is a luxury of those who have expectations. Samuel had not indulged in that luxury for as long as he could remember.
He'd have to go further into the woods, away from the road. They'd be looking for him now. His compass would show him the way to Boston.
He threw the strap of his roll pack over his shoulder and gave one more look toward his cabin. At that moment his squirrel scurried to their accustomed meeting place.
The squirrel's expectations were too much for Samuel. This little friend of his would be disappointed. And that broke Samuel's heart. A heaviness settled on him as he passed the raspberry patch and field of wild rhubarb. As he crossed the stream and went from the familiar to the unknown, to the strange. Again.
He couldn't bear it. He was too old. Couldn't go back to that.
He thought of his cake, and his new beginning.
Who was in control of his life? Those children? The people in a community that had no regard for him? Or was he.
Samuel decided his wandering was over. He was in control.
That night he found sleep under the boughs of a weeping willow tree. The drooping limbs of the tree reached nearly to the ground and innumerable fallen leaves created a soft bed. The next morning he remained in that spot. He had run out of berries. There was still jerky in his pocket, but he lost interest in it. Later in the day he felt a mild thirst and took some of the now musty water.
His clothes were wet from sleeping on the ground, and, he suspected, from his own excretions, but he did not pay attention. He regretted only that he had failed to bring some of the comics, to use, perhaps, for a pillow or to hold by his side.
He closed his eyes and listened to the forest. He could distinguish the different aspects of the forest – the trees whispering their accord with the wind, the legions of hunters and hunted scurrying around in their eternal dance of life and death – winning and losing, contributing to the endless cycle which ensured the forest’s continuation.
His peace, the peace he had enjoyed so briefly in his cabin, returned.
“I’m not alone,” he thought contentedly. “No more alone than anyone else.”
It was perhaps two days before Samuel drifted, finally, into his deepest reverie. And when he sank into that place which is behind all dreams, the forest received him, as he knew it would, into the fabric of its life.
The following sources were used in my illustrations (to a greater or lesser extent) for inspiration, guidance or outright use :
The scene: a landscape photo on Pixabay,
The deer: a photo on Pixabay
Samuel: a photo on Pixabay
The squirrel: a photo on Pixabay
The rock (Samuel is sitting on a rock): a picture from Pixabay
Raspberries: a photo on Pixabay
The children: a picture from Pixabay
Samuel: a photo from Pixabay
The willow: a photo from Pixabay