When he finds her body, he is far off-trail. He had come hiking this rare sunny day just to escape an awful, stress-ridden week, and in his haste he had plunged into the green thickets of ferns and nettles and brush, elbowing aside towering firs and cedars, ducking under weary maples, bursting through brambles. His pants are stained with salmonberries and tree sap. Now, in this breathless moment after a steep descent, he stops to survey the trees, the undergrowth, unsure how exactly he’d got here.
The March air is crisp, dew still on the leaves. Somewhere a soft rushing sound that could be a creek over rocks or a breeze in the leaves. The sun does not reach him here, though he can see small shoots of light up the hillside opposite him. And there is her hand, white and delicate like a wide mushroom cap.
He bends to her, plans to smell what he still thinks a fungus, and he takes her slender fingers and lowers his face to her knuckles and sees her staring up at him, her eyelids open and her irises aimed out from under the ferns, pleading.
This is all he notices before he falls backward, gravity sucking him toward her down the slope though he kicks and claws at the earth. He wants to scream but he cannot find the breath for it, this hoarse rasp of panting all he can manage.
Later, he will not remember turning over. He will be certain that he crawled back up the hill because he will feel the sting in his scraped palms, but he will have no memory of it.
He cannot see or feel the trees he ricochets off, does not notice when he finds clear trail or open ground or the asphalt of the street, does not realize he is in his car and ignoring stop signs until a cyclist yells at him and he feels the reverberating thud of the cyclist’s plastic bottle bouncing off his trunk. All he can see, now and for the rest of the day, and for all that sleepless night, are her eyes.
They are deep brown, like mahogany. The whites had dried, so long had she not blinked, and one of them had a small, scaly cedar leaf stuck against the cornea. But her eyes were beautiful. They had shone even without light. He will never be able to explain how that was possible.
He shivers in his bed. This late in March, the nights are still cool but he has turned off the radiators and stripped one of the blankets from his bed. Now he has unburied the heavy comforter and piled it on the mattress, and he huddles inside—the topsheet, the blanket, the heavy comforter—his eyes wide in the dark. His breath is hot against his own face. It smells rank; he forgot to brush his teeth this morning before he headed to the park.
In an hour, he begins to calm. It would be impossible to tell whether he had finally processed the vision of her eyes in the leaves, or if he was simply succumbing to all his exhaled carbon dioxide trapped in the bedclothes. But the result is the same: his breathing slows, his eyes relax, he drops his arms from his shins and unbends his knees. Another hour, and he lies supine and pulls the blankets and sheet from his head. The air is cool on his face, his damp hair.
He watches the progress of the headlights across his apartment walls. He trembles at every shift in the building, each footstep overhead or voice on the sidewalk. He can still feel the clammy rigor in her fingertips, he can smell the pungent earth in her hair. What color was her hair? He cannot recall—he had not seen it. What had she been wearing? How young was she? If the police come knocking at his door, he won’t know what to tell them.
At three-thirty, he climbs out of bed and strips out of his clothes. He takes a quick, cold shower, in and out, and he wraps himself in a large beach towel, a cartoon sun in wide, black glasses. An infomercial flickers on his small television. He tries one of the cable news channels but it’s all filler and recaps of the previous day. He leaves it on mute and opens his laptop, scours the local news websites, tries every search term he can think of. [Dead girl]. [Missing girl]. [Forest Park]. [Body in Portland].
[Wood tones]. [Wood colors]. [Wood stain samples].
Her eyes, he learns, are lighter than mahogany. Richer than maple, cooler than chestnut. He decides they are “gunstock.” He wonders if that’s how she died. He types in [gunshot victim] but recoils at the images and closes the laptop.
As the sun washes his window in pink light—[shades of pink], and he learns the light is lavender, and a half-hour later it’s coral—he researches the laws about reporting a crime. His stomach is tight and his heart pinched. His hand keeps pressing against his sternum. He looks up [heart attacks]. He looks up [fatigue]. He looks up [post-traumatic stress disorder].
When the room fills with morning light, he dresses, slowly, in a ritual. His eyes follow his foot through his left jeans leg, the big toe against the denim like a submerged shark fin. His eyes follow his foot through the right leg, and he wiggles his toes when they reemerge. He pauses with his head inside his tshirt, his arms wide like bird wings, the scent of his dryer sheets sharp in his nostrils. His socks are soft. His hiking boots are heavy on his feet. His hoodie smells of sweat and he reminds himself to wash it.
He checks his phone, decides a half-charge is battery enough. He closes his laptop and leaves it on the couch.
He returns to the woods.
At the park, he unlocks his phone and looks at the keypad, the nine, the one. He wonders if it’s really an emergency at this point. He touches the nine but then thinks it might be best to wait. It won’t do any good to tell them there’s a dead girl in the trees if he can’t tell them where. He will find her again first. He will find her—as far as the police are concerned—for the first time.
It takes him four hours of blind wandering before he finds a trail that seems familiar. Another forty minutes following it back and forth until he thinks he recognizes where he must have gone off-trail. A bend in the dirt, the undergrowth thin, easy in deep thought to wander straight ahead into the trees. Twenty feet in, he finds an animal trail, the path he must have followed, and then the hill he ran down. The narrow valley. The day is overcast, no sun dappling the hillside opposite, and he stands, as before, unsure. He looks for the mushroom of her hand but cannot find it. Instead, he sees the gouges in the leaves his heels made as he scrambled backward up the hill. He squats over them, puts his fingertips into the dirt, and traces the mud down to a pile of leaves and finds her hand beneath them. He touches her fingernails. They are softer than he remembered. He draws back his hand, convinced for a moment that she was about to reach for him, but then he lifts the wide fern fronds and sees her.
Her hair is a dark, ashy blonde. Or maybe it is just soiled. Her eyes look up at him. Her neck is bent and her mouth is parted, just a bit. He had assumed she’d died screaming, but this mouth had gone cold in softer breaths. An aspiration, a single word. Hello, she might have said. All the breath in the H. Such a long last vowel. Hello, as if she’d known he was coming.
He sits in the leaves, his knees up. He looks at her. The cloudy light turns silver as midday comes, and he realizes he forgot to pack a sandwich, some trail mix, a water bottle. He looks at her. The forest remains dim; overhead, through the canopy, the clouds burn a warm gray, plenty of daylight out there but none that can make it this far into the forest. He looks at her.
He leaves her.
He drives home, showers again—hot water, rich lather in his hair—and he shoves the comforter back into the winter storage bin. He sleeps.
Today is the third day since he found the woman in the forest. He can’t imagine now what he would say if he called the police. How to explain the delay. But he cannot just leave her there. On the way home from work, he stops at the Safeway for beer and a frozen pizza, and as he enters the store he pauses at the floral section. He selects a thin bouquet of lilacs and carries them with him through the store, tucking them into the crook of his arm while he collects his beer and pizza. “Aw,” the cashier says. “Must be date night.” He just smiles at her and swipes his debit card. By the automatic glass doors, he spots the gumball machines. Jawbreakers, eyeballs, fruit candies. The single prize machine is full of fake tattoos. He pushes in two quarters anyway, hopes for a heart tattoo. When he cracks open the little plastic bubble, he finds a long band of paper with a tribal coil of barbed wire.
He drops his beer and pizza off at his apartment then drives straight to the park. This will only take a moment. But in the twilight, it still takes him almost two hours to find her again. He lays the lilacs beside her head. He kneels and looks at her. He gently shifts the fern fronds, the fallen branches, the leaves. She wears a sweatshirt with some kind of logo on it, her breasts against the ground. Brown yoga pants. White running shoes like stones in the undergrowth. Underneath her sweatshirt is a pale blue sports bra—he can see the wide strap of it on her shoulder when he lifts the neck of the shirt with one finger. It’s as far as he will go. Her clothes are all intact and he will not be the one to remove them. He replaces each branch, each leaf, exactly as he’d found it. He recovers her.
Small birds are whirring in the trees; flies reel over the ferns where she lies. A prop plane buzzes overhead. In the thin light, he licks his wrist, over and over, all the way around, then he pastes the fake tattoo into the spit on his arm. He squeezes his wrist in his fist and he closes his eyes. He realizes now that he should have bought two of them, a paper coil for her as well, but there was no guarantee he’d have got the same thing twice.
When he opens his eyes, the sky is darker, thick cloud moving into the last of the evening, the air wet, but his vision has adjusted. He can see her looking at him. He whispers, “I wish I knew your name.”
The fourth day, Keith the kitchen guy brought a quarter bag to work, and after they closed the café, he and Keith pulled a bistro table around to the alley in back where they smoked joints and split a case of IPA with the two baristas. The other three asked him about the barbed wire tribal fading on his wrist; he laughed it off as a lost dare. At home, he passed out without changing his clothes.
The fifth day, the sun shone so aberrantly bright and warm that he skipped work and biked to an ice cream parlor. He ate goat cheese ice cream with marionberries and habanero jam. Then he rode to a small city park and walked out to the middle of a grassy hill and lay back with his face to the sun, his eyelids orange and his cheekbones hot.
On the sixth day, Keith and the baristas were still teasing him about his faded fake tattoo, so he called his artist from work and made an appointment for the next day. On the seventh day, he got the barbed wire tribal inked around his wrist. His coworkers will still make fun of him, but it’s his now, his for her, and it’s not just some two-quarter gesture.
Today is the eighth day. It’s been overcast all day, and now, in the early evening and his afternoon shift at the café long over, a light rain is drifting over the city. This morning, he’d opened a bill he had forgotten he owed, the money for which he’d just spent on ink. Earlier today, not only Keith and the baristas but also four different customers and the driver who delivered their roasted beans made cracks about the new tattoo. They were no longer joking. This afternoon, just as he was leaving work, the check engine light came on in his car, even though he’d just had it inspected. This evening, his refrigerator is empty. Tonight, his neighbor is having a party—he is never invited—that will last until the small hours of the morning.
It is late. By the time he reaches her, Forest Park will be closed. But he knows where she is now. He can find her even in the dark rain, without a flashlight. He gets back into his car. He looks at the check engine light. The gas gauge pointing near empty. The rain stippling his windshield. The tattoo on his wrist still puffy and shining in the dash lights. He puts his fingers around his wrist. The skin is still tender. He can feel his pulse. He starts the engine. He needs this.
It has been a week since the last time. He sits in the warm grass, a bright day but the grass wet from recent showers, his shorts soaked through to his underwear. The cedars tower overhead, swaying in the breeze like old men who’ve fallen asleep on their feet. He is holding her hand, though he’s sitting several feet away from her. All over, her skin has turned dark green, like burnished brass, and the skin of her hand has broken open and slid down her palm and her fingers, slipped off like a loose glove. He rubs the soft leather of it between his fingers. It reminds him of the purple leather gloves he bought his mother for Christmas when he was eleven. His father had helped him pick out the gloves. He had not helped this woman slip off her skin. He wonders if anyone else had been here, had seen her, had tried to pull her free from the leaves. He listens, but he hears no sirens, no shouting voices, no police radios. The trunks of the trees groan as they sway. Their spiny leaves high in the canopy whisper together and shower over him. And her.
She has bloated severely, her deep brown eyes swallowed in the swollen flesh of her dark green face. Her hair is tangled in the grass, half of it fallen in fine strands and her exposed scalp collapsing in folds toward the ground. The smell of her, though trapped in her shroud of maple leaves and ferns and pineapple-scented cedar branches, is noxious. He can taste it, can feel it in his stomach, as though he’d made a slurry of rotted fruit and bad eggs and ruined meat and drunk it through a straw. The odor is sweet, but awful—it tastes in his mouth the way getting called to the principal’s office used to make him feel as a schoolboy, the way getting stopped by a cop on his way to a concert with a glove box full of pre-rolled joints made him feel in college. The way wondering if anyone else has seen her makes him feel each day.
She is not the same woman, and he cannot look at her anymore. He looks up into the trees, the bright blue sky and the listing treetops. He rubs the skin from her hand. He hasn’t eaten all day. He isn’t hungry now. Coming here like this, he has skipped several meals and hiked more than he did all last autumn. He has lost a dozen pounds in the last week. She looks as though she has gained a dozen.
When the light goes, he holds his breath and eases forward onto his knees, the grass soaking his shins now, and he lays her limp hand in the leaves, spreads and smoothes the fingers, lingers over the knuckle-flesh. The wasted lilacs have shriveled and turned black, and he lifts them gently and hides them in the brush to finish their decay. Then he risks a final look at her bloated face. “I’m sorry,” he says. His voice is faint but it startles him. He looks around, twisting his neck back and forth. He pinches his nose, leans in closer and whispers. “I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to do for you.”
He jerks upright, electricity in his spine—her fat lips are twitching in the fading light. They part. A black tip of a tongue protrudes, then slips free. He slaps both hands over his own mouth, to repress both vomit and a scream, but it isn’t the tip of her tongue. A small black beetle drops from her upper lip into the leaves and skitters toward him. He uncovers his mouth and gasps. The beetle stops. He leans over it. It looks like a weaponized coffee bean. He reaches for it and it topples just before he snatches it up. He closes his fingers in a cage, slowly presses his hand together, stopping up each possible exit, only a tiny hole formed from his thumb and forefinger. He holds his fist to his ear, like a seashell, and he listens.
He cannot hear anything. The beetle is still inside his fist and it makes no sound. He looks at his fist, then he looks at the woman in the leaves. “I don’t know what this means,” he says to her. He holds his silent fist to his ear again. Then he uncurls his fingers and looks into his palm. The beetle is on its back. With his fingertip, he rolls it upright, but it doesn’t move. He jostles his hand and it rolls on his skin. He turns his wrist and the beetle tumbles into the leaves. As soon as it touches green it scurries, and he jolts and scoots away from it as it burrows under a leaf and disappears.
He looks at her. Her dark, thick body; the one waxy, skinless hand.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he says.
Whenever he visits a new café or a new bar, he wonders if she had been there. Had sat in his chair. Had spoken to his barista or waitress. When he shops for clothes, he wanders through the women’s section, touching blouses and pencil skirts and cardigans. He wonders what her color was, what fabrics she preferred, what trends she followed.
He goes to the zoo and reads the animal descriptions on the placards aloud, as though she were standing next to him. He points to a printed fact about black bears and asks, “Did you know that?” Sometimes people answer him, and he has to slip away before he is trapped in someone else’s conversation.
He goes to the art museum and discusses the paintings with her. He visits small bookstores and record resell shops and tries to guess her opinions on the book and album covers.
He browses the greeting card section and wonders when her birthday was.
He goes to library. He wants to ask a librarian for help, wants to find the woman’s family, her name, her birthday, her deathday, anything he can know about her. Instead, he hunches over the catalog computer trying combinations of searches: genealogy, missing persons, private investigating. Notifying family. Grief. Divorce. Relationships. Several times, a staff member or a librarian walks over, smiling at him, and he rushes to clear the screen, go back to the start. “Can I help you find something?” she asks.
He wants to say yes. He wants to show the librarian the tattoo on his wrist, to ask about glove sizes. He wants to learn about decomposition, to know when the smell will go away, when the skin will wither and relax, when he can see her teeth. When the earth will swallow her. How long he still has with her.
He says, “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?”
He faints at work. Thick ceramic cups tumble from a stack by the espresso machine, white handles broken and scattered among the cracked bowls of the cups. Pale shards cut his shoulder, his cheek, his forearm, his tattooed wrist. The paramedic says he is undernourished, sleep-deprived. In the emergency room, they connect him to an IV drip of vitamins and proteins. They feed him plastic bowls of enriched pudding for elderly people, give him little paper cups of orange juice. After a few hours, they release him. “Get some rest,” they say. He nods. He climbs into his car, starts the ignition. The sun is blinding in his windshield. He drives with one hand to his forehead in a perpetual salute. When he parks and climbs out, he is confused—this is not his street. Or any city street. He is on a country road, the trees pressing in tight. He sees the sign marking the trail. It has been two weeks since he saw her last.
He walks along the trail slowly, quietly. When he spots a sturdy cedar branch, he picks it up and leans on it. The paper bracelet from the hospital is still around his wrist, the untattooed one. He sees a raccoon and he stops to watch it as it stops to watch him. Both sets of eyes flashing in the failing light.
When he reaches her, he goes cold and nearly faints again. He cannot see her. He crumples to his knees and sprawls, swiping at the leaves in quick, short motions, his fingers in the dirt. He finds her hand first, as always. The bones are exposed, the sinew holding them together dark and tough like jerky. When he touches her, her whole arm shifts under the leaves, the deltoid rotted away and the humerus dislocated from the scapula, and he begins to cry. He lifts the fern and finds her dried scalp, the few strands of hair that remain like cobwebs. He touches her head. Her nose is gone, and he sees her white teeth, so small and elegant. He leans over her, touches his forehead to her skull, his tears on the small patches of exposed bone.
“You can’t,” he cries. He falls over on his side, his cut shoulder in the grass and his knees curled up around her arm and head. He looks into her lidless eye sockets, her gunstock eyes long devoured, his vision whirled and stinging. “I’m so sorry I left you, please, you can’t leave me.”
He wakes in darkness when a raccoon stands on his legs, tiny paws on his thigh, a tail brushing his ankle. He spasms at the surprise of it and the raccoon snarls at him then scurries away into the night. He reaches for her, touches her leathered face, the cheekbones so prominent now. He touches his own face, his own sharp cheekbones. He sits up. His eyes adjust to let in the starlight, her bones blue and her skin black. He shuffles leaves into a ring around her, fluffs the ferns and branches that cover her. He wanders away several paces and circles her resting place, gathering loose branches, and he covers her more. Hides her arm, her white hand, her small skull.
A tracker might recognize the impression of his private path hidden under the ferns. A botanist might detect something different in the shades of green and gray the moss bears. But she herself is hidden, her bones the same color as the buried branches of long-fallen trees. Only he knows where to look, and she isn’t going anywhere.
Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in Portland, Oregon, and he is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship. He also works as production editor for Jersey Devil Press and for Unshod Quills; online, he lives at http://snoekbrown.com. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, Eunoia Review, and SOL: English Writing in Mexico.