Old Ladies of the Woods

Matt Briggs

My mother sits on the couch in the living room wrapped in an afghan she and my grandmother crocheted over Christmas. My grandmother tested the ratio of the gaps in the brown and orange and yellow yarn with the width of a number two pencil. While crocheting my grandmother took breaks from knitting to bake cookies. My mother took a break to make sandwiches. I put together a winter puzzle on the coffee table. They told family stories on the couch over the tap of the hooks. The afghan smelled fresh then, like detergent. I could have a cookie. And then the second cookie was a trade. I had to chop the firewood for the week. One cookie for a handful of blisters. A cookie now and then a week from now, blisters.
By the spring when I could finally go outside and the windows had been open, the afghan carried the smell of my grandmother’s living room cedar oil candles, which she lit to keep out the moths, my grandfather’s pipe, my mother’s cigarettes, and my father’s joints. The fabric held the smell like a memory among the number two pencil gaps. Fabric remembers things. Old clothes know where they have been worn. My hand-me-down jacket that had fallen out of use before I was born. It was a longshoreman’s jacket. “What happened to him?”
“The longshoreman who wore this jacket?”
“I don’t know who owned your jacket. They took good care of it.”
Mom bought me a shirt from the Salvation Army. I told her that the boy who wore it before me died. “Don’t say that” Mom said. “You don’t know that.”
“I know I don’t know,” I said. “The shirt knows. The shirt remembers.”
“If anything happened to you,” Mom said, “I wouldn’t sell your shirts to a secondhand store.”
“Something happened to this boy,” I said. “And look now. I got his shirt. Something useful came out of it.”
“Don’t say that,” Mom said. “Tell me if anything happens to you. I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you.”
“I don’t know how,” I said. “But I’ll tell you before something bad happens to me if something bad happens to me.”
“Don’t say that. It’s creepy.”
If I caught a deadly flu, I would just wither away in bed. I can imagine laying among the tangled sheets in drowsy agony. I would hate that because Mom would do everything in her power to make sure I didn’t die.
She said she gave birth to me and that made everything in her life have meaning. This made me think of myself as an answer and of her as a question. Do all answers feel such responsibility to their
This flu is lethal. It fills my lungs with mucus. My head swims with mobs of germs. Mom bombards me with the menthol goo of Vik’s VapoRub. She soaks me in salts and medicinal packs. And yet there is nothing she can do. I could die even if I was bathed in Vik’s. That would be a relief from the entire bubble boy world Mom keeps me in. It makes sense that she would keep me wrapped up like a porcelain plate waiting for the dinner that never got set out on its surface.
When the rain really breaks in the spring, and the days become clear enough, I take off to the forest. Mom is under the afghan again. She has a cigarette and her pack at the ready on the arm of the couch. She reads from the pile of paperbacks she got from the paperback exchange. She looks up. “Stay in earshot,” she says. “I call, you come.”
“I will come if I can hear you. But I might not be able to hear you.”
“Don’t say that,” she says, “I call, you come in straight to the house.”
The first time she calls, I make sure I run headfirst into the nettles between the stand of cedar trees I like to play in and the house. I make sure I run straight through those nettles. They smell leafy like a salad or the long grass on the cattle pasture above the house. The leaves bite. They have tiny hooks on the edge of the shovel-shaped leaves. The leaves drape and then cling to my skin and leave acid stings that immediately turn white with a ring of inflamed flesh. Each one is like a hard pinch that stays pinched. Mom calls my name and I plow through those nettles. I go through them, and I have welts everywhere. I have welts on my belly button. I have welts in the fold of skin between my index finger and middle finger. I have welts in my ear canal. I stagger into the house.
“What took you so long?”
“It’s dangerous for me to just come in a straight line to the house,” I tell her. “The forest is full of dangers like nettles.”
“Didn’t you feel that they were stinging you? You’re stung everywhere.”
I stagger around the room. “It’s like getting a burn,” I say. “It is just like getting a burn. If you get a burn over 80% of your body, you die.”
Mom has to step away from her afghan. She stands in the middle of the kitchen. “We can treat this. Quick,” she says, “into the bathtub.”
She fills the tub with warm rather than hot water. After I wash, she takes a bottle of calamine lotion and dabs a drop on each welt. She gives me a tiny white pill, the one I take when I have hay fever. It seems like it should be sweet, but instead it just vanishes on my tongue with a faint chemical aftertaste. She continues to dab the lotion on me. Finally, she sets me down on the bed. “You need to have sense in this world,” she says. “You are precious to me. I don’t know what I would do if I lost you.”
“You need to let me make my own decisions,” I say.
“You can make your own decisions as soon as I know they would be the decision I would make,” she says. “You can’t go off and pull stunts like this.”
“I just want—” but the hay fever medicine puts me to sleep. I wake hours later, and the rain has come back. My father works nights. During the day he goes fishing or hiking or works at the horse ranch at the bottom of the hill. That is why we moved to the house in the forest on top of the hill. There is no one near us. It is a little house in the forest. We have a paved road that was just loose gravel that kept clotted because the county coated it with tar at the end of every summer. Bits of gravel come from the surface of the road all the time. The gravel is loose on the steep banks for the road as it turns up and down the hillside. It is on a rounded path above the forest floor. If you go off the ditch, you will go down a steep slope into the trees. A few other people live out here with us. Old ladies keep rose gardens and sometimes goats in the side yard of their tiny houses. A farmhouse with a cattle field ringed by dense stands of old forest occupies the gentler slope above our house.
Mom is convinced the forest is dangerous. Black bears with sleek and iridescent fur like a bed of fly wings crawl up from their tunnels. Coyotes make their way down from the top of the hill to find chickens that stray from their coops. Hobos wearing worn blue jeans, torn plaid shirts, and muck encrusted sneakers wander from the other side of the valley where the Milwaukee Line went over the pass. They leave fire pits with blackened Bush’s Best Baked Beans cans. Yet the forest is mostly empty except for the occasional old woman hunting for mushrooms.
I leave the house and Mom admonishes me not to go that far into the forest. I thought we had worked this out. “Where could I go? You know I won’t go far. Just don’t call me again or I may get stung by nettles. I have a watch. I’ll be back in two hours.”
“Is your watch wound?”
“Yes. Yes.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m going into the forest.”
“Don’t get lost.”
“I can’t get lost. I’ve tried.”
“Don’t go far.”
“Do you want to come with me?”
“Just say within earshot.”
She wants me to carry her voice into the forest with me. I want to get away from her voice. When she says stay close, I want to go far. When she says don’t get lost, I don’t want to know where I am. I’d recovered from the nettles. I wear a loose secondhand t-shirt my father had been wearing. It only remembers my father riding on his Honda motorcycle until something happened to the bike that caused my father to start yelling and then he hung the bike from the rafters in the woodshed and now I have this t-shirt that remembers what it was like to ride on that Honda.
I want to see the sun. Under the cedar trees, I can hardly see in front of my hand. In the gloom, the trunks stand out and fall away into the darkness. There are the old ladies in the forest who collect mushrooms. I told my mother about them. Mom said be careful around strangers. The old ladies didn’t seem like strangers even though I didn’t know them. What do you call the people who were here before you were here? The forest was more familiar to them. I was the new one. Mom said, “Don’t take anything they offer you. Don’t take it especially if it’s really good. I will get you something nice instead. Just tell me what it was, and I will get you something twice as nice.” The old ladies will offer me toffees wrapped in wax paper and muffins folded into foil. I will tell my mother this, but I will also take the toffee and the muffins, and that way one toffee offered by a strange old lady in the forest will get transformed into three toffees in total. A lie is bad. Yet truth is unproductive. A half-lie, half-truth is fruitful. As I take the toffee from the old ladies, I say, “I can’t. My Mom won’t let me.”
When I come home, I tell Mom what had happened up to my eating the toffee. “An old lady in the forest offered me a toffee,” I say.
Mom scoffs. “Just now in the forest? She offered you candy?”
“Yes, it was wrapped in wax paper like she had made it herself.”
“That could be really dangerous. It might not be toffee at all.”
“It looked really good,” I say. I want to tell her it tastes like cream and butter and salt, and I want more of them as soon as I have it. There is no way the store would have something as soft and flavorful and fresh as that toffee. Instead, the store is likely to have something as hard as an old Lego.
“I would have to go the store to get toffee,” Mom says. She is under her afghan, and I can tell it will be a difficult act for her to get up and get a Tab from the fridge, much less go to the store. “You can have some baker’s chocolate.”
There is a square of semisweet chocolate in the cupboard that tasted and broke apart on my teeth just like an old crayon from the bottom of the toybox.
“You come back home as soon as you see those old ladies again,” Mom says. “I don’t like it that they are out there. What are they doing following you around in the forest?”
“I think they are collecting mushrooms,” I say.
“Like hippies?”
“I don’t know, Mom.” After that the old ladies give me a muffin.
An old lady carrying a basket with chanterelles and goat’s beard comes out of the bushes. She walks around the cedar trees and says to me, “This is good ground, dearie. Do you want a muffin?”
“My mom—”
“I don’t see your mother here. You can have the muffin. It’s nice. Everyone deserves a nice treat, don’t they? No charge.”
I can’t help myself when presented with this logic. My mother isn’t there. And I can get two more muffins with the story of the muffin. Mom doesn’t need to know I have eaten the muffin. The muffin is moist and stuffed with seeds that I pick out from the crumble. The seeds crawl away, and one flutters up into the forest gloom. They are little beetles.
“It’s all right,” the old lady says, “They are edible. They don’t mind being eaten.”
“Alive! Eaten alive,” I say. “They are alive.”
“If you don’t like them you don’t have to swallow them. Some people don’t seem to care for them very much.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Mother’s old recipe,” the old lady says. “They add a bit of pizazz. But if you eat them, they will make your drowsy.”
The crunch of the beetles remains with me, and I want anothe muffin, and I am pretty sure the store doesn’t have muffins like the ones the old ladies had in the forest.
My mother makes me hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. It isn’t grandma’s recipe but something Mom concocted on her own while standing on the aisle of the Associated Grocers under the florescent light, one foot on a lime green Lino tile and the other foot on a white tile. I begged her at the time to get me a 24-ounce Coke can. It was the size of two cokes in a single can. I didn’t get the can, but she had the idea of macaroni and hot dogs. After we eat, we sit on the couch while I wait for Dad to come back from the horse ranch and then get ready to go to the diner to cook. We watch a program where men are dressed as plush animals. There is bright, silly music and the sound of a slide whistle. The men run into walls and then fall and kick the plush soles of their feet at the sky. I am in the house as carefully wrapped as the wedding china on top of the cupboard.
The next day when I leave looking for some muffins, Mom says, “Where are you going? Stay in range. Don’t get lost.”
“I won’t get lost.”
“Don’t run into the nettles, okay?”
“One time!”
I want to get as far away from her voice as possible. I wander into the forest and find the footprints of the old ladies. There is a Mary Jane footprint right in a rodent hill under the trees. It is left by a shrew, mole, or vole or some burrowing animal. I follow the trail, broken fern fronds and more tracks. More tracks join them until I follow a trail winding through the fir, maple, and cedar trees. I come to a clearing at dusk. The old ladies gather under the purple sky in clumps, knitting with needles rather than crochet hooks. The needles seem major league, dangerous compared to the blunt hooks. They stand in groups and whisper to each other. One old lady cackles and says, “Oh my.”
They see me and ask me to come out where they can put an eye on me.
“Does your mother know where you are, dearie? Do your folks even know?”
“Would you like a muffin?”
I do want a muffin, and not despite the beetles, but because of them. I eat one muffin after another. There are baskets of them. I nod off and then wake when the old ladies lower me in a large wicker basket into a cavernous clay well in the center of the field. The clay walls drip run off water. I can see holes in the wall drilled by voles. Is this the same as getting lost?
I stand up and they said, “You can rest.”
I grab the earth rim of the hole and find a handful of sod and root that hold me as I pull myself up onto the field. The old ladies make a cooing noise. The one nearest me says, “I like it. Spunk.”
I start to walk, and the old ladies follow in a mass behind me offering toffee and muffins. I burp and a beetle spirals out of my left nostril. The ladies can’t move as quickly as I can on my young, supple legs. I’m unsure of where I am, but I am not lost. The ladies flock behind me, appearing and reappearing behind the trees.
I come to my house. My mother looks up from under her afghan. “It’s dark. I was worried. I called for you hours ago.”
“I know Mom. I’m home now.”
Outside the old ladies gather and wait. In the morning they have gone back into the forest. And I’m unsure if I want to risk seeing them again, even though when I wake I want a muffin with the beetles that drift away into the forest gloom. I am as free as a moth suspended in the wind.

Matt Briggs is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. His essay “Falling and Always Falling: Twin Peaks and the Clear-Cut Landscape” appeared in Moss: Volume One. His short stories have been published in The Seattle Review, String Town, the Chicago Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of eight works of fiction, including the novel Shoot the Buffalo, which was nominated for a Washington State Book Award and won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award. Briggs grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley and currently live in Des Moines, Washington.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.

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