This story is by April Renee Russell and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Esther tugged at her muddy skirt to reveal her puffed and purplish ankle. Her toes wouldn’t budge; it was broken.
With a sigh, she settled her head against the fallen tree behind her, leaning into its soft, dead wood like a friend.
She thought of her boys, back at the cabin.
They’ll be wondering where I am. It’s late, after suppertime by now. How long have I been here?
Hours had passed since Esther stood at the kitchen table, preoccupied with the ritual of breakfast-making. The sound of muted footsteps along the garden path outside had stopped her heart and arrested her senses. Her floured hands hovered above unfinished biscuit dough as she stared at the weathered cabin door in anticipation.
Henry. It was a hope she dared not speak aloud.
Then sunlight assailed her eyes as her ten-year-old son Paul entered with the day’s collection of eggs, and the spell was broken. Her cheeks blazed in self-reproach. Two years was long enough for hope to have died; she no longer waited for her husband.
Esther watched Paul set the eggs on the table, the door ajar behind him. He joined his younger brothers, Davie and Ezra, by the fire. She cleaned her hands with her apron and moved to close the door for her son.
At the doorway, Esther hesitated, gazing out at the distant foothills blanketed in morning light. She knew better than to feel sorry for herself. She knew better than to wish her husband home. She seethed again at her foolish hoping.
In a surge, the weight of her sorrow fractured her bulwarks and she rushed out the door like a sullen child, leaving boots and shawl and boys behind in a wave of bewilderment.
I won’t let them see me cry, she thought.
With bare feet, she rushed through the clearing and onto the creek trail. She crossed the cold water where her boys spent afternoons throwing rocks and catching bait minnows, then fled into the refuge of trees on the other side.
The bristling undergrowth grazed her skin as she ran through the thick woods. Shadows swallowed up her form and her festering grief, and she soon lost sight of anything familiar. After a time, she slowed her pace, panting from exertion, and knew she was lost.
This is too far, I’m too far.
Around her, hosts of stolid pine trees rose, wavering like pendulums, towards a sky she could not see. As she turned, trying to orient herself, the ground gave way beneath her and an ominous crack triggered a spasm of pain through her leg. Her vision was a blur of dull color, and she was rolling, plunging down a hillside. Twigs snapped and leaves rushed against her body, until she thudded to a stop against a fallen pine.
Her body registered the broken ankle with white explosions of pain and an involuntary gasp, and her eyes opened onto a lacework of shuddering leaves and sunlight above. Heart and lungs pulsed in pain and fury as she trembled on the damp forest floor, clutching at the loose layer of loam and leaves beneath her.
A pearly halo bloomed around the edges of her vision. Closing her eyes, Esther steadied her breathing against the faint until the feeling passed.
A calm began to seep over her like wakefulness as she discerned her surroundings: sunlight pulsing against her face; a company of agitated chickadees; the heavy odor of earth and decomposition; the urgent hushing of wind in the trees. She opened her eyes and watched the undulation of the treetops. The pain settled into a rhythmic throb.
Esther pushed herself up and winced as her leg caught on a root. She leaned against the dead tree, and the soft, pulpy wood relaxed against the pressure of her back. She wondered how long ago it fell to lay lifeless on the forest floor, yielding to the slow efforts of insects and fungus and time; how long before it united, unrecognizable, with generations among the soil.
Where am I? she wondered.
In front of her, a mass of oaks, sycamores and pines, aloof and colorless in the deepening twilight, sloped upward toward an amber sky. Her skin prickled with the dewy evening air.
A ravine, she thought. I fell into ravine.
An owl called from the treetops behind her, somehow modest and impudent at the same time. She smiled, recognizing the impertinent questioning of the barred owl: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” His call came always outside the hours of darkness, as if in defiance of common notions of owls as nocturnal creatures.
Henry taught her to identify the barred owl, years before, when they first came to the homestead as newlyweds, intoxicated by youth and love and promises.
Paul was little more than a baby then, with hair like spun gold and feet black with dirt from running after the chickens. He’d stood for hours, mooning up at his daddy while he built the cabin. The only time she ever could remember Paul being still was when he was passing nails to his father. She could still see his dimpled hands alongside his daddy’s rough ones as he caressed the rough, hand-hewn beams.
She thought of Paul now, tall and strong like a cedar, and there was little worry in her heart about her boys. Paul would wonder at her absence, but he’d get supper on the table without anyone saying it ought to be done. He’d tend to the animals and haul in water for them to wash up. Davie would pester him for a story, and Paul would feign irritation until Ezra joined in on the pleading. The three of them would settle into the big pinewood bed while Paul spun tales of giant bears, bloodthirsty natives and tree-dwelling wild boys.
They’d be all right if I couldn’t come back, she thought. I could quit it all like he did, and they’d be all right.
It would be simple enough to surrender herself to the forest, to moulder among the dead leaves and dark earth, to give herself over to pain and grief and time. She could spare them the sight of her tears, as he had meant to do.
Henry could not bear to let his sons, or his wife, see him broken, and so he left. Misery had infected him, though there was no broken bone, no bruised or bloody flesh show for it. He returned from the war unharmed but hollowed by despair, and an invisible deterioration opened a chasm between them.
Then one morning Esther woke to find Henry gone and herself alone in the woods with only her three sons and the animals for company. He hadn’t said where he was heading, but what was the use? He wouldn’t return.
Paul had not uttered a word for a week after. Ezra had thrown every egg he could find against the cabin walls, his round face red and muddied with tears. Little Davie had cried for his daddy until one day he seemed to know, and the crying stopped.
As grief threatened to bury her, Esther delivered herself unto duty and sobriety. She was needed, and therefore she must condemn indulgences. Mouths to feed, clothing to mend, fences to secure. There was work enough to preserve her.
Esther hated Henry until hatred was replaced with sorrow, and soon she refused to let him occupy a space in her mind at all. Each morning, she rose with the sun to whisper a prayer against his remembrance:
“Don’t think on him. Damn him as a craven but you must carry on. Don’t think on it.”
She wondered at it all, the time and distance between now and then, the unstoppable measure of days and months and years that brought her here, filthy with the rot of the forest and alone with her pain.
Again the owl questioned her, and there was an answer in the distance.
Esther filled her lungs with the acrid forest air and released it. Finding the torn hem of her skirt, she ripped off several arm-length strips of daisy-covered fabric. Looking around, she spotted a fresh hickory limb lying a few feet away. She dragged her body across the moist earth until she was close enough to reach it, then broke off one of the smaller branches. Pressing the stiff wood against her swollen ankle, she bound it with the strips of her skirt.
“Bandages with flowers seems about right,” she said. “It won’t stop it hurting but it’ll help me to bear it until I’m home, at least.”
She lifted her eyes along the steep rise in front of her, where the last light of evening radiated through the treetops. Her hands dug into the rich, dark earth as she pulled herself up toward the top of the ravine.