by Alli Kirkham
Once, when I was a little girl, I got lost in the western woods. The air was cool and damp, the trees towered so far above my head that looking at them made me dizzy. When I was found I was only a shell-shocked, newly orphaned child with a secret that I kept even from myself.
They were very safe people but some things want to happen. We had been careful on the river, all of us wore helmets and life jackets. None of the guides had said anything about white water or dangerous boulders. They probably didn't know about the unusual snowmelt patterns and didn't expect a cloudburst. Or they thought my parents were better boaters, or that I was older, or any of a million of the variables that could have been changed and let my parents live. Whatever.
Problems started, the raft flipped, my mother broke her neck and my father froze to death fifty miles from where I was found. I floated over rainbows, as little girls should, and landed safely on a bed of clover that hugged me close. I don't remember anything that day.
The forest was deep and it muffled the sounds around me. I had lost my helmet. When I brushed my hair away from my face as I stumbled my hands came away bloody. There was always water; I was never thirsty but I had no food to eat nor warmth nor love.
I cried the first night through. Imagine discovering that some owls shriek when you are huddled in moss, in dark too thick to breathe, and thinking that you might be the prey that that voice wants to startle into stillness. Owls and crying. That is how I spent the night.
The second day there was no sun, only glowing mists that flattened my perspective into a hungry cartoon.
The second night I found the herbs by smell. I remembered the feel of lavender in my hands from my mother's garden and used it to trace my way to wild mint and an enormous rosemary bush that grew up over my head into a shape like horns.
The herbs were bitter and cold and strong. The owls howled but I couldn't bring myself to be scared anymore - I was too happy to hear something other than the slow condensation of mist into drops that slapped on broad leaves behind me. I ignored their calls and crammed rosemary into my mouth, trying furiously to chew and have something inside my belly. I worked my jaws frantically, but no matter how I tried nothing I did would turn the handful of sticks in my mouth into food. I pushed even more rosemary between my teeth, forcing myself to bite down and try to chew, panicking and not realizing it. Three of my front teeth broke off, leaving behind bleeding pink sockets. A sprig jabbed the newly opened gum, hitting the adult tooth that would take two years and a bridge to descend, and the spiraling pain teased my gorge. If I puked with this much stuff shoved in my mouth I would choke and die. I breathed in deeply through my nose. I smelled wet copper and herbs. I started picking wads of rosemary out of my cheeks and dropping them on the ground in front of me. So much blood, and I could only find two of my teeth. There were no toothfairies here anyway. No warm parents to put quarters under a pillow that was hundreds of miles away.
This time there was no sobbing. I simply wept, periodically wiping my face and shaking the tears off of my fingers. I hadn't seen my parents in a full day. I had no idea where I was. I was hungry and cold. No one knew where I was. My head hurt. I didn't know how to get home.
The rosemary bush opened. Warm light fell onto my lap and a not-man walked out to me. "Are you cold?" he asked and I nodded. "Are you lost?" I nodded again, glad to have someone to share my terrible situation with. "What do you want most in the world?" "I want to go home," I whispered.
I remember that his hands were hot, so hot that their warmth relieved the chill of my skin only to leave burning welts in their wake. He said that I had called him with a potion. He said that he had to give me a potion in return. I remember that I didn't want it, that it tasted bad and hurt my sore mouth, but he insisted. He said it was how I would pay for my ticket.
I woke up next to a stinking pile of mashed rosemary and still-tacky blood. I couldn't find any of my teeth in the pile or my pockets. In the gray daylight I found a lot of mint and managed to consume several fistfuls of the soft shoots. I licked water off of a fern. I walked past a thicket and tripped over thick, muddy ATV tracks. It only took two hours of sitting along the path until someone came by. Then there was a frantic, numb ride followed by helicopters and flashbulbs and a house empty of my parents and full of strangers.
Ten years later there were shrieking owls in the wind. I knelt over a toilet. I caught the scent of rosemary on the water. I didn't vomit: this was not the specter of memory-killing alcohol coming back on me. This was the remnant of the not-man taking his own ride. I didn't vomit: I screamed as a writhing black ball worked itself out of my stomach and into the toilet bowl. I screamed as it climbed out of the bowl and its hot hand reached out and touched my lips.
I woke up on the bathroom floor the next day. I lactated for three months before my doctor told me that I was barren; it then stopped suddenly and never came back.
It has been another ten years today. I feel mist on my skin and mint on my tongue. My mouth is made of scars and I don't know where tomorrow is.