Autumn has fallen a much gentler season than I anticipated. The skies have been Oscar blue for days, and the foliage is brilliant. I’m writing this in the mountains of Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. A strong breeze shakes down the trees, sending shimmering waves of gold and fire-orange to the grass already blanketed. The branches weep, reaching for their leaves as they slip away, dancing in the wind on their inevitable descent.
My friend has been kicking me out of the house every day for some solo, baby-free time. I’ve gotten coffee, run errands, walked a lot, and written. It’s been really nice; as my return-to-Vermont date grows closer, the idea of learning to be a single parent and handling everything on my own becomes more daunting, so I appreciate these daily breaks right now.
On our first day here, my friends took me down the street to a local park on the James River. Trails run through it and connect some parks via the waterway as well. The river is home to some class 4 rapids, nearly unheard of within city limits. Signs posted state that with the river over five feet, life jackets are required for anyone entering the water in any manner; over nine feet and one must have a permit. The plan is to stay firmly on land, a plan endorsed by both our dog and theirs. The pups competed to see who could pee in more spots; I believe it ended in a tie.
One of my host friends is damn near a botanist, by knowledge if not by trade. He had been sharing an incredible (read: nerdy) amount of detail about the woods, pointing out the conservation efforts to encourage the old growth forest, the different native plants (Latin names included!) and the invasive species. About a half mile into the woods, he pointed out wild grapevine, nearly half a foot thick where it broke free of the ground. It rose and dove along the ground, its boughs and bends mimicking the motion of deep sea monsters, not so out of place with the muffled rush of the river behind us. Sinuous in its stillness, it wrapped around a giantess of a tree. The oak rose from its hidden roots, at least four feet across; the deep ridges of her bark were worn away in softened patches from the constant embrace of the grapevine. I laid my fingers in her grooves, feeling them sink toward the heart, and feeling mine beat in response. There are many trees I have felt a connection with; it’s never something I have questioned, but enjoyed. I felt the quiet excitement of discovering an old friend in a new neighborhood. We paused long enough to take some pictures of Lucy and I there, and I promised myself I’d return soon.
Two days later, when my friend kicked me out for the first time, I went nearly running down to the trail. I was almost immediately slowed by the reminder in the morning fog to enjoy the journey. My eyes sought to follow all the flitting of small wings across the road. The calls of crows and jays and the indistinguishable chirps were a backdrop to new and unfamiliar songs. I entered the park and picked up the beginning of the trail. Alone, my steps lengthened over what I had taken with the stroller and the dogs and my friends; they fell on the gravel, the crepitus dampened from the hundreds of feet that had fallen before mine. It took longer than I anticipated to reach the tree, but eventually my steps fell silent as in reverence as the crushed rocks gave way to smooth, dark earth.
I reintroduced myself, sinking my fingers into the creases in her bark again. I ran my hand over the exposed fibers of the grapevine, completing the circuit, my body as battery. I breathe in the energy and the peace. I disconnect and retreat to the bench across the path. I lose myself for an hour or more, pen in hand, words flowing like an extension of myself onto the pages of my notebook. I forget to move much at any point; by the time my stomach demands we leave, my feet are tucked up under me asleep and the muscles in my back feel tangled and tight. I roll everything out for a few minutes, pay my last minute respects to the tree and the vine, and start back down the path towards home and another cup of coffee.
I come across the fairy bower accidentally, as most do. I was on the main path, bag slung over my shoulder with its pens and pencils quietly clacking together with my steps. I glanced down the side paths that wandered off the main, quick jaunts down to the riverbank. One to the left caught my attention, calling me back from my automatic forward motion. I looked down the path with its slight winding, a grapevine twisted in an arch overhead, tall enough for most men to pass through without stooping. English ivy thickly banked both sides and climbed to intertwine with the wild grape. The boughs didn’t quite reach down to the other side, leaving the arch just incomplete. Beyond it a new tree, verdant in its youth and against the ivy, stood like the centerpiece to this wild garden. The tricks of the fey, was the first thought that came to mind, and didn’t for a second believe that because I was within the city limits they would not also be here among the old growth forest. I found I had taken a few steps down the path and turned back to the main road. I nearly bumped into someone who clearly did not understand the need for distancing.
He stood casually, leaning against an old hickory. His boots were clean and his clothes crisp; add a to-go cup of coffee or a slim briefcase, and he could be any local businessman just stepping out of the office for a bit. He carried nothing, wore no watch, no rings. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t notice that he didn’t belong there.
“Beautiful day,” he said, the barest hint of a smile playing around his lips.
“It is,” I replied. With a slight nod, I shifted my weight to continue forward. He came out of his lean to stand fully in the way between me and the main path.
“This is a gorgeous time of year to visit. You have made it just in time for the leaves to turn and fall.”
If there had been any doubt in my mind, his lyrical small talk would have put that to rest. I smiled but did not answer.
“What’s your name?” the fairy asked.
I nearly replied. I felt the warmth of the day as a gentle breeze stirred the leaves beside us.
“Not a lot of people out this morning, hm?” he mused, watching me. I had been hoping for some jogger or intrepid dog walker to interrupt with their passing. I realized that he had blocked the fairy path from sight. There would be no accidental intercession.
“Your name,” he said, voice a little stronger and with a slight ring of authority. The fey command respect, even with their antics.
“Hawthorne,” I replied. Knots inside me that I hadn’t been aware of loosened, and my body relaxed.
He looked surprised. “Hawthorne. That’s not a common name. Your given?”
“Chosen,” I said simply. He nodded, satisfied.
“A strong choice. A name like that carries magic in it. The owning of it, the speaking of it.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I know.”
A companionable silence fell between us as a flock of swallows took to the clear morning sky above, trilling, their song falling through the canopy like a gentle summer rain.
“Have you no interest in continuing down this path for your travels?” he questioned me.
“No, but thank you,” I said, firmly, but with respect. He looked me up and down, and his eyes searched mine. I maintained my polite smile; as his gaze lengthened, I raised my eyebrow a fraction.
“Very well,” he said, letting go of the search. “May the rest of your day be as lovely.” He stepped back cordially to allow me to pass.
“Yours as well,” I replied, walking back towards the gravel of the main path. I didn’t dare look back until I made the turn; as I suspected, there was no trace of the man. The bower stood silent down its crooked path, still ensconced in shadow. The light beyond was dappled and no longer highlighted the young tree; in fact, it had become indistinguishable from those that surrounded it.
I left the woods feeling lighter. I had come here to heal. I needed to get out of where I was for my heart to stop seeing them at every turn. Here there was no history, no memories to dim new ones made. I need that space right now, in the immediate hereafter. We were never in this place together. And so I had come, seeking peace, and leaving with far more than I imagined.
I lied to the fairy I met, but with mischief and no malice. Giving the fey Hawthorne’s name lets me let go of a little bit of them; I can’t carry all of them, my heart is already so heavy. I know they wouldn’t mind; they had so many more (mis)adventures left. I can’t think of a better way to let them live them out than with those are not quite of this world, but not quite out of it either.