Surviving the Forest

Perhaps it is my subconscious telling me to die in the pines and the snow, better than to die alone in the root cellar, where tossed-out tools are ornaments that shine and sing.

Surviving the Forest
Photo by Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa / Unsplash

by Sam Moe

January / During which I am too stoned on weed juice to try and tell you something

You are passed out on the basement floor, body bent in half after taking a whip-it faster than is suggested, your ribs buckled in a sweater, and to begin with, we shouldn’t be here. This sweet and lightless house doesn’t belong to any of us. I find your friend upstairs having a panic attack in a cow-stuffed kitchen, their bodies falling out of cabinets, glass eyes sewn upside-down, soft moon hanging over the sink, every doll stained from kitchen grease which rests in tubs beneath the table. There are round punctures in bowls, calamari disks like bread pockets, like breath, I do not know why it is always the forest that I am brought back to.

Perhaps it is my subconscious telling me to die in the pines and the snow, better than to die alone in the root cellar, where tossed-out tools are ornaments that shine and sing.

When we hear the nitrous bottles moving downstairs we know you are okay. I leave him in the kitchen to sort this out, knowing we might be fine, no one needs my help. Instead I walk the hall and pretend it is my house. The ugliest cat I have ever seen is in the hidden library, the house has no less than fifty doors, one trap door, two beds that I become familiar with, a porch that looks out over a waxy lake and I say that because I’m from New England where everything is an untouched candle and someone I don’t know has eaten all the flames.

I don’t remember what I ate on the car ride home, what I do remember was wrists to steering wheel, but my relapse scar isn’t deep enough and it disappears within the month. The weather drops and we don’t leave the house, we eat whatever’s left, including holiday tinsel, bacon grease, each other’s lips when the nitrous oxide is tender, two-hundred capsules deep and the new year crawls through the chimney, a sick cloud and now I’ve got the flu from screwing with all the windows open.

As I lay in bed, I think about getting too close, how the novel won’t write itself, but shouldn’t it? I’m thinking back to ripping open knees, if only it meant I could finish telling this story properly. Some like it when I’m honest to the point of tears, they like hearing about the yelling and the grabs and the tubs I’ve passed out in. I can tell by the way these two look at me—they don’t care if I’m saved, I’m their sweet pear, scar or no scar—we’re all afraid on hands and feet, I’m my doctor and my scalpel, the desire and the Neosporin. They ask about you and I don’t tell them a thing.

Somewhere between relapsing and alternating shots of oyster juice and champagne I have lost my sense of smell. I remember the relapse, I remember being told to save myself, as if I’m the helpless bone. I think about scars as I cut into a particularly swollen filet mignon. I’ve left the men in the house, snuck out to meet a couple who buy me twenty-year old alcohol. I use my old vocabulary, I tell them stories about server aprons tied around my wrists and waist, I flirt with the waitress. Is it becoming true, my god, that my body might be a scar? No. I am in love with too many people, I am an evening. I am disappeared. I’m a balcony, I’m playing pretend, I’m the blinking in and out of sleep. Spoils of moonlight stick to the tablecloth and the fireplace smells sweet. Before I leave to return to the house I eat a seven-layer chocolate cake, a tiramisu, and a crème brûlée. Even that has a crusty outer layer, a protection against heat, but I eat it, I swallow the proof. I want someone, anyone, to tell me again how much they love me, how they’d eat my wounds if I fed them in cereals, would give up nights for me, reveal tender secrets, would let me come back home. I return to tomato-hued ghost dolls in the kitchen and the men passed out on couches, learning later they’d gotten into a heated debate about television and cavities. I lay my hands on their cheeks one by one, and only the curly-haired one wakes up. He kisses me and tells me not to tell the other, and I say I already touched his friend but he’s too stoned to shame me, so we head to the guest room to drink weed juice and attempt normalcy.

It is only when I’m heading back home that I start crying, hands on the windows, screaming like I’m locked in a magician’s trick and I’m about to drown. You love to wear sequins but you won’t save me. I didn’t throw out the tool because I need to shave my leg hair and it’s none of your business, but if you must know, I’ve sealed that part of my life and I can no longer access the trauma. writing turns into fungus of my throat, emotional flashbacks in the form of images that are surprising and empty. I think about fruits, meat, eyes, buckets. What if I light something on fire, spill red wine on a carpet that doesn’t belong to me? I think about boxes, washing, writing on the mouth, green sweatshirts, starving, mushrooms, bags, devils.

Back home I’m dreaming about stealing birds, men who are gods, three-letter words, seasoning. I park my car at the abandoned church lot and cry in front of a small golden statue. Still stoned when I stumble home, I eat pepper flakes and ricotta cheese that bursts in my mouth. I wish to take out all my bones and bang them like instruments, I wish to pass out. I won’t contact these men again. Soon I’m naked in my kitchen, eating boiling rice with bare hands, and what business is it of yours that I can’t create anymore. You wrote me a letter that says fuck the muses over and over again until your pen broke and you were just scratching through paper. I wonder when the writing will return.

February / memories in cloth

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how far-removed I feel from my own emotions. They are lurking behind gates, ready to escape at any moment. There is a bundle of memories that cause me to sob and clutch at different parts of my body when I let them loose for even the smallest moment. I am living through the past again and again. I suppose I’m still here, but I can’t feel my soul anymore. I want to call the self back into myself, even if it’s painful. I want to return to the forests with my heart still inside my body.

Though I’m still far from Massachusetts, I can feel the pine sap on the backs of my hands. I’m thinking about the bright white light that used to spill through the restaurant windows, illuminating the insides of that dark red space so it glowed like a gem. It’s been emptied now, sticky red booths given away for free, foggy window seats covered in bug carcasses, there are probably still handprints on the walls. I imagine the chairs were broken down for kindling. I want to go back, even for a moment—just a minute to lean against the side station, survey the damage. Look out at the front lawn from the dining room and wonder about what kind of flowers have been growing in my absence.

I’d walk through the kitchen last, I’ll want to inspect the spaces where stoves were ripped out. I want to see the drain pipes filled with cement, I want to lean my body over the cold window and remember the times the cooks handed me small lilac crabs they found while shucking oysters.

When I peel back the layers of my own heart, I find that the valves have turned into tree trunks, and beyond the trees is the restaurant, and inside the restaurant is my pulse. I love home even though I’m not meant to.

It’s true what they say about electricity, how it courses through your veins when you want something so much you can barely sit up straight, can feel it in your teeth. I feel burning in my cheeks and ears, my throat is coated in static. The first few weeks of January I spend doodling restaurants in my school notebooks, making sure I include the evergreen pine trees and the different birds that created nests near the parking lot. I doodle lobsters, round potatoes, miscellaneous pieces of food that I recall from special dishes yet I can’t seem to recall the dishes themselves. I remember everyone used to grow vegetables in the flower beds out back. I think it was supposed to be a secret.

I’ve been with others to the forest but it’s only you I want to take with me. We can drink beer and sit on the abandoned railroad tracks. Never mind the fungus or the graffiti, we’re only there to watch the red birds fly across the surface of the half-frozen lake, their appearance reminding me that I have grown another layer around my heart that pulls me from the Northeast and into the Midwest.

My words have not existed for quite some time now. I’m exhausted from reading, writing, coursework. I’m feeling sick and hoping the more I consume language the more I’ll be able to speak. I find my writing turns into one shade, one organ, one desire that repeats like an echo. Every time I ask for help I am told to talk to someone. They don’t seem to understand that I need to return home so I can have a proper cry beneath the buttonball tree.

April / Mouth

Today is a round window the way I picture round stones, I feel I am swung open to the elements and ready to reveal what is inside of myself. The other day I realized I’ve been writing about you—all of you—for years and I never even realized it. Replaying the trauma over and over again, the way that my mouth works, the way I had wanted it to work. The way it, now, most certainly does not work. The way it simply is.

Mouth, you are a window and you are sealed. I see you and I want to toss you open so you can explain your joy and your pain but no one wants to hear those things, the private aches that wake you up in the middle of the night, the way you were clutching your chest because you were crying so, so hard.

What are you doing right now, closed mouth, with your lips all dry and ready to be torn to shreds, no, the fingers, no, the polish, no, the paring knife in the kitchen that both feeds you and kills you. Begs you to be killed by it but you don’t want to die, you just want to feel some sort of pressure, a validation that you exist, that the breeze outside can hear you and longs for you but it’s okay your mouth is closed, your mouth is closed, your mouth is close.

Were you reluctant? Scared? Sad, tired, bored, angry, ambivalent. Were you on your knees, what about the time in the car, whose clothes were you wearing, and why did this keep happening so, so many times?

What was it again my therapist said? It sounds a lot to me like these situations happened without your consent.

These situations happened to me.

I don’t want to write another strict-form poem, April is for the truth, April is where I confess, April is where it all comes clean in the wash, even my tongue, even the tastes and the sounds and the sleeping bugs, the heat from the fire, the cologne the way he smelled how even now I am romanticizing it because my brain quite literally couldn’t function from all the grief I was enduring so I ran away to the conservation lands and called it a day so that we could all move on and so that you would not question me—

You question me.

I don’t want to have to answer you. I don’t want to want. But I’m gaining things slowly, and they feel like they matter and they belong to me, I’m allowed to stretch my body out in this green space, I am allowed to hide in the night and I am no longer laying around the floor writing in my journal about the lava world where everything is a rainbow light and a bowl of cereal and a kiss and absolutely stunning love—is this what it feels like to be moving actively towards healing? Not just calm, not just telling myself I need to relax, but actual, genuine calm. Pleasure, even.

The repetition is calming especially when I can’t find a proper rhythm in a poem. I’m worried during the pandemic I’ll let all my teeth rot out and my veins will shrivel and die and my thyroid will become a trumpet and I’ll wither into a plant outside where people will walk all day—maybe my soul will be torn in half by a bicycle. Or something along those lines.

What I’m saying is you remind me of one of those soft and sugary blueberries that I eat by the handful, but sometimes you’re a crow, most days when I am angry at you you’re a fox.

But who is it, what is it? Infatuation that is boredom that leads me to want to write and if I don’t write I know I’ll start to panic again. I start researching different poisonous flowers for the novel, wanting to create a character who can withstand  eating on the edge of danger. It’s still pale blue outside, but soon the butterflies will be back. I don’t know if my scars will heal, or if I’ll spend the summer in sweaters. I want to return to walking in mushroom patches, letting my hands grip the branches of river birches while a stranger leads me on a long walk away from those man-made paths in the forest.

In this moment I’m not sure anymore why I am doing what I am doing, but like I said, April is for no regrets, April is for lovers, April is called getting these words down on a piece of paper or else. April is calling to me on the phone and I’m answering and we’re both twirling our fingers around a phone cord.

I want what I can’t have and what I can’t have I can’t name and what I can’t name I don’t know and at the very end of this riddle is another bird. I will go out on the porch soon to say goodnight to the clouds and no one else.

May / I’m dreaming about deer again.

June / I’m in love with you, does it deserve its own line?

I’m healing slowly from the warmth of the sun.

July / Monarch

I’m excited by the wine glasses, napkin hearts folded anatomically, of heat from a faded June breeze, of ease. You must know I burn for you at dusk. It’s the warmest fall home, serving crushed ice and chestnuts in silver bags. Even the garden is dreaming.

Evening is beginning to feel a lot like love.

We’re all here, I don’t imagine I’ll catch you alone but I hope to. I wish the rosé shelf would become a winged thing swallowed by moon. Head of the table toasts us, dazzling, I catch your gaze, don’t know if my cheeks are hot from your hands or eyes, know this: if there were ever a night I’d tell you, it’s this night, strings of fairy lights casting bronze-green bugs to the table, I’m crushed beneath your hand. You laugh at the dead bugs, leaves, steady in your movements, I see you remain precise and as for me, I’m desperate for knee brushing knee, I want the flesh, sing me a story of how what I’m feeling is wrong and I’ll chart myself a patchy fungus on a tree, a guide to truth. I know I’m not sorry because I feel you on my neck, sweet as hell, won’t you go first this time?

Dinner lasts through four wines, smoke creates a ghost in the fireplace, I drool looking at the sky. Heard you say my name softly, won’t I help carry out dessert? I show I’m still capable of balancing three dishes on one arm, I’m myself when engaged to whipped cream, breadcrumbs, hot pears, stashed a sugar cube beneath my tongue when you looked away. Evening turns on its heels, it’s only ten, will you wait for me at two?

Songs without voices play from small radios. I try not to stare, don’t lick the spoon. I’m taking hands behind backs, fire mangos, matched movements when our lips crushed against each other in the heart of the house, or main kitchen which has four fridges, a shelf dedicated to jars of crushed pepper. It’s blue lightning outside. A show of fingers tells me I still twist at the mention of stoves, rings of hearts, coals, catharsis, god do I miss working with my hands.

By the time everyone’s gone to bed you don’t say goodnight. I gather the remaining pie slices, head to the porch, find you leaning on a shelf of records, focus bent to the forest. Still hungry? I ask. You respond by smudging whipped cream on my arm, we laugh. You must know—don’t you, now? I wouldn’t be out here if it weren’t for Libra’s full mon, but I wanted to sew my wish into the lining of porch moss. I’ve crushed instinct before, said I would never let my heart escape myself. Of course, that was a lie. I don’t know how to call the organ back to body.

I imagine my heart is running across the lawn, telling my secrets to owls, singing truth to sleeping red birds, dearest one, won’t you calm down? You’re near.

Outside, the trees are tucked into snow. Tomorrow we will rush into the forest, together. I’ll tie cherry stems into knots and you’ll laugh at my skills. The snow will later thaw, drip into the lake. Your sweatshirt smells like lavender soap bubbles. We’re next to each other on the porch, I start to feel like a person again. There’s a clarity I feel, there’s a tree dipping into the neighbor’s pool, there are frozen bugs in the cracks of the porch floors. We are not deterred by the cold, you are encouraging me to throw open the windows in the living room, telling me the snow will inspire creativity. I start writing again, later, after you’ve gone to sleep, and I don’t stop, not when winter thaws, nor when spring unveils its tea-colored leaves.

Sam Moe is the recipient of a 2023 St. Joe Community Foundation Poetry Fellowship from Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Whale Road Review, The Indianapolis Review, Sundog Lit, and others. Her poetry book Heart Weeds is out from Alien Buddha Press and her chapbook Grief Birds is forthcoming from Bullshit Lit in April ’23. Her full-length Cicatrizing the Daughters is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press.