Doors in the Woods
If things had gone a different way, then Bernadette would be telling this story, not me. Or we’d still be pretending we were horses after school. Playing in the field behind my house, between there and the edge of the woods. Galloping around tall gold-green grasses, running, so our manes flew behind us like flags. Instead, I found a box, wooden, and buried in the dirt. I’d been chasing Bernadette. Her blonde ponytail looked almost white in the early autumn afternoon sun, just out of reach from my fingertips, when my toe caught on something hard in the ground. I dug up the rest of it and found the box. Looking inside, I realized we were too old for horses. Once you know something like that, you can’t play anymore as you used to, not even if you wanted to.
Inside were two deer skulls, the color of clouds in creek water. I’d never seen a deer skull before, but somewhere inside of me, I felt this was what they were. Underneath the skulls were compartments filled with glass bottles, each filled with dark-colored shapes. Some held liquids, others dried plants, ground up like on my mom’s unused spice rack. I set the skulls on the grass and picked up a bottle with a sloshing murky liquid inside. I uncorked the bottle and took a sniff. Bernadette leaned into me and the bottle, hoping to smell it too. It stunk like the garbage can after my mom forgot to take it out, waiting for the next week’s trash day. I closed my eyes and smiled, though, like it was the most enjoyable smell, like the bread factory in operation near the movie theatre. Bernadette held out her hand eagerly, her little fingers waving, ‘let me smell.’ I shoved it under her nose and held her shoulder with my other hand, gripping her to her kneeling spot next to me. She started gagging over my giggles, pushing me away, telling me I wasn’t funny. She continued holding her nose even as I recorked the bottle and slipped it back into its place in the box, the skulls back on top of the bottles. I popped up with the box under my arm, marching towards the woods. “Let’s go,” I told her, “we’re playing a new game.”
“But we were playing horses.”
“We’re too old for horses.”
I didn’t turn around. I knew she’d picked herself up to follow me into the woods. In between the trees, she asked me what the game was. “You’ll see,” I said, still in front of her.
We played every day after school, gathering ingredients from the woods. The hard knots that grew on leaves like warts, squishy flakes of mushrooms from logs that felt like skin. We collected what the cicadas left behind on trees when they outgrew their bodies. When Bernadette wasn’t looking, I smashed up black beetles and told her I found them that way. Together, we filled the spice jars that I’d stolen from my mom’s kitchen. She never noticed they were gone.
My mom came home from work late every night, too tired to stand in the kitchen for longer than it took to heat something in the microwave. Bernadette didn’t talk about the meals she went home to. The ones her mother cooked for her family to eat, all gathered around a table together. Out here, in the woods, it was just us and our new game. The deer didn’t come in the beginning, not until we found the rabbit.
In fall, the leaves on the trees, so many colors at first, turn the same dull brown on the ground. The woods were thick with them, the fallen leaves now dropping seriously. Before our new game, we used to lie on the ground and watch them fall for hours, saying nothing until our bodies were the same temperature as the earth, and our breath was the wind. We laid there guessing where the leaves would land next until it was time to go home. Some days I think it’d be nice to lie there again, with her, as she was.
Turning off the trail we’d made from past years of walking back and forth, Bernadette sloshed through the dead leaves like shuffling through puddles, kicking them up to catch in the wind, pushing them forward as she walked, making them spray out like water. The woods between our houses were dense and deep, confusing if you aren’t familiar with them. Like two mirrors held up facing each other, the trees, their trunks, and spider leg limbs stretched on endlessly inside. We’re told stories as kids about the woods being dangerous, especially for children, but Bernadette and I knew this place, we knew our way through it, what lived inside it. I would talk to the woods when she wasn’t around. The deer would stand near like they were listening. I imagined they were curious about what I was doing, asking me questions at first. But then something changed, and somehow it became me who would listen. It was me who would watch them.
Maybe things would have been different if I hadn’t been forgotten about in such a clumsy way, like a shirt caught behind dresser drawers. Or if the rooms of my house weren’t all so empty, places we only called rooms because they had doors. Even in the winter, I’d rather be in the woods, with its noises and living things. Not like in a house, in my house, where everything tasted stale. I walked from bedroom to kitchen and back again, but that’s not enough to be considered alive.
Passing the dried-out creek bed, I heard more than just our shoes on leaves. Bernadette heard it too and stopped to listen. In the ditch was a young rabbit. Its grey-brown fur hackled and scrunched over straining muscles, hopping, jumping for the top of the ditch. We watched it miss and fall back on itself. Bernadette crouched down, hands reaching for the rabbit to help.
“Don’t,” I said. “It’s still young. If you touch it, the mother won’t want it, and it’ll die.”
“If I don’t help it out, it will die anyway,” she said.
She stood up and went into her backpack, pulling out a notebook.
“It’s easy prey in here for foxes and owls. Look how scared it is.” She squatted once more by the rabbit. The sight of her bright pink notebook only made it more frightened. Its black eyes bulged from its skull. It couldn’t tell the difference between something wanting to kill it and something trying to help it. I watched Bernadette’s attempt. How, with soothing words and slow movements, she managed to scoop the rabbit out without touching it. Without looking back, it took off into the woods, still unable to tell the difference.
She was beautiful then, her curling hair pulled up in a ponytail, always away from her face, at the opposite end of her pointy chin. She reminded me of a poster in our class, showing the earth’s tilted axis, a pole stuck through its center. She had a ballerina’s neck, long and slender. It wasn’t like Janene Mocker’s neck. Janene’s neck looked like mashed together soft clay thrown down on the table, wrinkled on the sides. Years ago, she used to tease me, pick on me, taunt me relentlessly. Only leaving me alone when I’d made a friend, no longer a loner, but accepted by someone else, forming our own tiny tribe. Bernadette was the new girl at school, we had the same bus stop. It was enough common ground to start a friendship on. Bernadette was beautiful, but I would never tell her that. She already had so much.
I woke up, bright light on my face from the window. The moon was right outside, glowing and swollen like a pregnant woman’s belly. If I opened my window, my fingers could touch it, so close. My hands were on the wooden ledge, ready to pull my window up when I saw them, the two of them, standing at the edge of the woods, under the moon. Their brown fur, white under the glare, except for their eyes, black and staring, unblinking. So close and asking. Those black eyes asking, no, telling me what they needed, demanding it now. Two of them and two of us. The ones who found the box.
I watched Bernadette in class carefully after that. The black circles under her eyes mirrored my own. Bernadette’s head dropped forward, her blonde hair spilled over her desk, her ponytail flipped over. Would you like to come over and play with me? After her first day, I asked her, getting off the bus, her brown eyes surprised, glowing intensely like the moon I’d seen. Or maybe they were mine, reflected back at me. Bernadette’s fate to be my friend because of a bus stop.
There was no point to my bed now. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I sat at my window, and they watched me, unconcerned I had seen them. They weren’t in the woods anymore. They weren’t even at its edge. They were past the field now, in my backyard. Here, with the moon, just to show me. They want me to know. I wondered if they’d found Bernadette too. I thought about her tired head on the desk. The curls of her hair making flat s’s on the light lacquered wood. I stared into their eyes from my bedroom window. Not just one, but both of us, together again. But she wouldn’t see me anymore, not after what I’d done. I watched her in my mind, squatting low to help that rabbit.
We’d set up log benches and stone altars at our place in the woods, the skulls out of the box and in a prominent place. I watched her crush the meat from acorns under rocks and ground them down to paste. I sat behind her on one of the benches, her back to me, and picked up red-brown centipedes. The little ones you find on tree bark don’t mind. They wove like ribbons across my hands, their bodies flicking from side to side. I watched her back as she worked and felt dozens of feet march across my fingers. She asked me if we could take a day off, maybe stay in the field and play like horses again. While she talked, two deer stepped from behind the trees, not so far away. Bernadette kept mashing. She hadn’t seen them. “I told you,” I said, “we don’t play that anymore.”
My hands squeezed together, the feet on my fingers drumming faster, the deer getting closer. Walking in a slow procession, silent hooves over crisp leaves, their thin stick legs missing every one. A centipede was moving with purpose up my wrist. Bernadette’s back, bending in front of me, busy at work. I picked up the insect, watching its legs churn in the air without any traction before placing it gently down on her back, careful not to touch her with my fingers.
“Aren’t you having fun,” I asked. “Don’t you like this game?”
She paused for a moment in her grinding to brush the blonde wisps that had broken from her ponytail. “Of course I am. I just wondered if there was more to it than this.”
I answered her question with choices. We could use our collected ingredients to make a potion to raise my Nan from the dead. Or we could make ourselves rich and beautiful so everyone will love us. Or we could make something to teach Janene Mocker a lesson. Bernadette stood up and turned to face me. “I don’t think any of those sound like good ideas.”
I lowered my chin and raised my eyes to meet her. “You don’t want to be rich and beautiful?” I asked.
“Not like that, not by cheating.”
“Cheating,” I repeated.
I stood up, centipedes wound around my feet.
“Then what would you like to do, Bernadette.” Her having an opinion on things was a foreign idea I’d never prepared for. “I bet there’s nothing that you want because your life is already perfect—you with your mom and your dad and asking how your day was. There’s nothing you want. Is there, Bernadette? Your family, your ponytail, everyone at school likes you. Well, not me, I’m not your friend anymore, and you can’t play here anymore. That’s something you can’t have.”
She didn’t say anything. Her face didn’t crumple in like a balled-up piece of paper. She didn’t cry. She didn’t even speak. She grabbed her backpack like she’d been waiting for this for years. Since I met her at my bus stop and asked her to play with me on her first day here, not because she was new and had no friends, but because she was new and I had no friends. She wrapped her backpack over her shoulders like a sweater and pulled her long ponytail out from behind it, where it was caught between her back and the bag. I watched her fingers slide from the top of her head and down her hair, her ponytail swinging free.
I reached a hand inside my jacket before she turned to go. “Wait,” I said, “there’s one thing I want you to have, something special I found in the woods.” I held out the paw in my palm gently, as if it were still alive. It was lighter than I’d expected it to be. She didn’t reach out to take it, but her eyes were on the fur, matted with blood from where I’d made the cut, separating it from the rest of the rabbit. I saw in her eyes that she knew. Her jaw clenched tight, the muscles underneath her skin exposed. I held it out to her still, and she looked at me like she’d always known, since the day we met, that we’d be standing here, just like this—me and a tiny dead thing in my palm and her knowing what I’d done.
“You’re right,” she said, “we aren’t friends anymore.” She turned around, her back in my face. Her legs like an insect’s, walking backward but moving forward. The deer had gone, I hadn’t noticed when. I called out to her, someone should warn her, my last chance to tell her. “Don’t come to the woods anymore, Bernadette. It’s not safe for you.”
Before I left, I put away and straightened all of our jars, checking each one, knowing each one. Hiding them in the open trunks of trees, where the wood had split, keeping them inside the empty doorways. It seemed a shame we’d never use them, a waste to never test the potions we’d made.
The next day in the cafeteria, sitting with Janene Mocker, Bernadette violently threw up her lunch all over the table. She went home after, picked up by her mom. The nurse was worried about how much she’d thrown up. They had to clear out the entire lunchroom. I heard Janene Mocker say to her friends they would probably have to burn the table, so much vomit. She didn’t say she hoped Bernadette would be ok.
No one offered to bring her homework to her house. Especially not me. I had work to do in the woods. I went by myself after school, following the trail we’d been making for years. I looked up from my feet and saw them. They were standing there, waiting for me.
They stood on the trail between the trees, both of them watching me. They asked why I didn’t talk to them anymore. They said I’d invited them, Bernadette and me. They said they were here to play our new game. I tried to tell them they were too late, Bernadette wouldn’t play anymore. She wasn’t my friend, but they kept coming closer. These weren’t my woods anymore, I thought as I ran.
I didn’t sleep again that night, the moon inside my window now. Bernadette wasn’t in school the next day, or the one after that either. On the school bus, I stared out the window. I could see the black half-moons under my eyes in my reflection. When was the last time I’d slept? The moon had been full for days, maybe weeks, unmoving and unnatural. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They needed me, and they needed her. They wouldn’t let me explain. They bleated like sheep at me, a pillow over my head and the moon’s light covering my body.
The bus jerked to a stop, and my face slammed into the sticky plastic seat in front of me. I could hear the kids in the front, their pointed groans. Gross, they said, but in an excited way. The bus pulled out, arcing around the reason we’d stopped. Pulling alongside, I saw the car, its hood crumpled in and bloody. A deer, dead, body sprawled, back against the road, and run up against the curb. Its legs sticking out at different angles. We were just one stop from my house. What if, I thought. My mind galloping in one direction, what if.
One deer stood outside my window. One deer, white under the moon. It only needed one now, it said, they were giving me the choice. It was time. I said I was ready. We walked through the woods on the trail, my nightgown white and see-through in the moonlight. I let my arms hang at my sides. I had no one to hide from, no shame for what I was doing. We had made this trail when we were little girls, but not little anymore, not since we’d found that box. She hadn’t been to school since the cafeteria, since she’d spewed her guts at Janene Mocker and her friends. No one wanted to see her anymore. Their ostracizing felt different than my own torturing of Bernadette, different from the way I hurt her with my friendship. But now I let the deer follow me, and I led it to her window, I led it to her. It asked if I was sure, and I said yes. I just wanted to sleep. I turned back toward my house, a lost white nightgown wandering in the woods.
When the darkness is in the room with me, close to me, the same on either side of the window, I can see. It’s only when I turn the light on that the outside vanishes, and there I am, staring into the glass. In my reflection, I see all the different people I could have chosen to be, all of them with my face. I tried them on, which smile was the right one now. I practiced Bernadette’s faces, too, my thick dark hair in a high ponytail. Someone would have to make them for her now. I don’t visit the woods anymore. After school, I lie on my bed, still dressed in my uniform. Wrinkled Catholic plaid, loafers lying at the foot of my bed, the bottoms of my stocking feet still sweaty, and I think about her. But there outside my window, past my reflection, are the woods.
Kate Sowinski lives outside of Philadelphia with a Siamese cat and is currently writing a children’s book series about a chameleon who solves crimes. She has been published by the Sad Girls Club and her artwork has been exhibited by The In Art Gallery, the Grey Cube Gallery, and the American Color Print Society.