This Gift

The dirt trail off the tree-crowded park’s concrete-paved path is short but steep. Step over the ankle-high rusted chain and work your way up. Crest the hill and go down the rock-pelted clay until you cannot be seen. Shoulder your way between the scrub pines, ignoring the scuffing of your jacket and the fragrant rain of dry, dead needles into your hair. The patches of rusty brown in what should be evergreens hides the vacant, pale morning sky from you. Look down, away from the invisible sky, and let your eyes adjust to the darker colors around you. In fact, close your eyes and listen.

Your presence has called for silence among the birds. Crows and bluejays and other branches of the Corvid families live in these trees, social and intelligent and talkative, but they’ve ceased conversation until they determine what you know, what you’re up to.

Lean back against this dying pine. Rest your hatless head against the crumbling bark. Keep your eyes closed.

Distant sounds of car traffic come and go, filtered out unconsciously. Cars are occasional obstacles, things to be avoided and skirted as they travel, like wildebeest on the savanna. Right now they are not in your world. A squirrel skitters along a thin branch somewhere in a tree behind you, many yards distant. You can almost hear it pause and fluff its black tail. Most squirrels are black here. You know this.

Beneath your skull, in the meat of the pine, you hear a beetle gnawing. Many of the trees you have seen and touched — see them in your mind now. See how they weep thick, yellow, resinous sap. This is why brown needles are falling. This, and the long time between good soaking rains this year.

You make out the smells of beetle-gnawed bark, of the remaining fresh green needles, of decaying leaves of the occasional deciduous hardwood like boiled tea. Humus leached free of anything useful by what rain there has been, sucked dry by hungry roots. Dropped feathers. Bird dander. Squirrel armpits and crotches. Yesterday’s dogs. Volatile ammonias from a distant river. Ozone from burned air, from either long-ago lightning or maybe jet exhaust. A discarded apple core back on the main path.

A droplet of fresh sap pulls at strands of hair on your head. Ignore this.

Open your eyes again. Do it.

The base coat of this wooded painting is rich in the warm browns favored by Rothko in his final paintings before his self-murder. The scene is too bright to look at for a moment, striated by thick-textured vertical strokes from a fat, lazy, paint-clogged brush from a 1960s hardware store, often used but never properly cared for. Ice-cool blues and rust-oranges salt the top of this work. But keep your eyes down, dark-adapted.

Chill dry air burns the skin of your face to powder as it eddies around, turns the end-joints of your ungloved fingers to unfeeling pencils. A distant beastmobile honks for attention.

Slide down to the base of this tree. Let the bark tug your jacket up, pull your flannel shirt up your back and untuck it from your jeans. Sit on the leafmould, let the chill air suck heat from the exposed small of your back. Let the crowded ground suck warmth from your ass through thin denim. Your comfort is irrelevant. That is not why you are here.

Do you smell it yet?

Dig the fingers of your right hand into the leaf-litter. There should be hard clay beneath it, eventually. Ruin your nails. Dig deeper. Stiffen your chilled fingers and stab them downward like the skulls of burrowing snakes.

Close your eyes again. Do you smell it now?

That rounded stone you’ve discovered blocks your questing fingers. Uncover it. Use both hands. Bend your legs out of the way. Twist on your seat until you can bring both hands to bear.

A crow complains. It knows. Do you?

The stone is loose. Pull it free. Pull the shredded-skin-wrapped skull free from the soil and set it in your lap. How small it seems, warmer than it should be.

This. This is how you will end. Feel it to your core.

How did you come to be here? You came straight here, off the park’s paved walkway. You came straight here, with no wandering, sat down right here, dug straight down with your hands, and found this gift I have left for you.


Were you the one who put it there, this grim present for your future self? Or is this some kind of hysterical joke at your expense?

What will you do now?


January 1, 2012 · by xalieri · Posted in fiction  


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