From the edge of the forest I find the window. One of the many eyes of the city. To find it, I do not need to seek it. Three floors beneath the sign. The neon glow, startling the night. My eyes are drying. I grind soil between my forefingers and thumb. Soothing, and the scent of the moist earth. I blink.
I hold the up the piece of bark over the cityscape, covering the light, bending the sky back to nature. Just the lights of the petrol station infiltrate my new night. Adjusting my hand, patterned so much like wood, I block the invasive elements. All is dark.
Noises that are the life of the forest wash past me, towards the dark and new horizon, bound only by the light of the moon. To play in the natural world. Yet still, without sight of it, I can see the light of that window. Three floors down. The burn that electrifies the retinas. Coal that does not cease smouldering.
With the line of the forest at my shoulder, I walk towards the edge of the city. The hum of the petrol station lights seep into the forest. Tangles of hawthorn and blackthorn grab at the chain-link, pulling the fence towards nature. Tearing it down. I ease the branches aside and step through the cut in the steel wires. Into the storage and waste yard.
Padlocks fasten the lids of the bins, but the plastic housing is pliant and it yields. Yellow glow illuminates plastic-wrapped cartons, packets and bags inside the bin. I pull out tomatoes, salad leaves, meats. Small mammals inside the bin begin again their own hunt. The smell of compost and decay, of dirt, is overpowered by the fumes from the fuel and the petrichor from the earlier rainfall.
Electricity threatens the air around me. My sinuses are clutching, clawing at my cheeks. The light is pushing down on me, pulling me up, crushing and stretching me. As the hedges grapple with the fence, the artificial chemistry infiltrates me, alive on my skin, forcing the ingestion of toxins. This regular torture I suffer to remind me.
Passing back through, leaving the gap in the fence and hedge behind me, my mission leads me towards the softer residential glows. Viridecence seeping through suburbs of indigenous and alien life. The struggle more harmonious. There are windows like these that torment an alternative malady within me. That does not stoke the fuel of my animus. Instead it disposes a suffering on my energy. A sufferance that draws the difference between worlds and lives. And yet the two are entwined, like the steel and the branch.
Gaining entry into the back gardens is of little effort. For the most of us we expect for attack to come from the front, while we leave ourselves vulnerable where we are at our most exposed. Where we cannot see what may creep up from behind. Of equally little trouble is removing the drainage gutters from greenhouses and sheds. Continuing for a dozen houses or so, I soon achieve the required amounts of guttering.
After stowing the stolen property nearby the petrol station, hidden behind thorny bushes, I retreat towards the forest. Badgers barking drown the sound of the pulsing, buzzing city, welcoming me home. My vulnerability is now behind me. Through my fingers, I play with the birthday candle that I found on the wall of one of the back gardens. I light it. It sparks to life. I blow it out.
As each morning, I awake with a startled realisation of change. Of a different aspiration. It had been more than a year, yet it still shocked my wakening self every day. I stretch to life, swinging from branches and reaching around the trunk of an ancient pine, staying myself. The spongy bark massages my skin and bones as I speak to it. Share my thoughts, my fears, and my confidence.
Chewing on ramp and berries, I think of my five words for the day. Five random words equating to nothing. It has become my morning routine, akin to meditation. A process to encourage thought but also to clear my head. To keep alive my mind.
Softly, into my beard, I speak them over and again. When speaking words this way they begin to merge; to create a pattern where randomness becomes reason, until it becomes nothing but babble. Usually it would, but this time emerged a sixth word. Where something arbitrary became germane. I smile.
Killing for entertainment. When hunting season is upon the fields of the forest, I know. The morning I spend clearing the fields of the land animals, the pheasants and grouse. Beating before the beaters. From one of my hiding places I always watch as the expensive cars roll onto the land, bearing with them the guts and the gluttonous. I hear them, their talk of opulence and derision. From some of my vantage points I am close enough to inspect the spider veins threading through ruddy complexion. See the protruding hairs from eyebrows and ears, wild and unkempt as brambles. Familiar as faces behind lighted windows in a darkened city.
Always they complete their day with a trophy of glassy-eyed animals and birds lined on sheets at their feet. Working dogs are returned to their cages as their masters drink from flasks that glint with light reflected from their teeth. I think of family. I think of loveless life, rewarded with wealth and unhappiness. In the daylight, the city is an ogre and the countryside exposes vulnerability, its back turned.
Killing for survival. Returning to my cabin, I check on one of my snares. I find it empty. I look to see if any tracks have been left in its locality. As I survey the land and the surrounding flora I see a rabbit staring at me. It is large, its salt and pepper fleece glossy, rising and falling as those black eyes shine in my direction. I stare at the rabbit. The rabbit stares at me.
It is not often that I see other people in the forest. Trees. Trees everywhere. Native, indigenous. Foreign. Nature in harmony. Side by side and entwined. Roots that touch and feel and share. Some grow as weeds. Some fall and lay upon flora, which embraces and feeds from the decomposition. Some will continue to grow after they fall. Nature is abundant. Ash trees. Ash all over. Ash everywhere. The routes that walkers take are far from where I have made my home. It is not often that I see other people in the forest.
It takes a few moments for me to recognise what is not right about the tall beech tree with the forked trunk. I had heard the sound. The creaking noise that a branch under strain makes, especially at night, especially at times when the weather is inclement or extreme. I can smell the odour that is so natural to the forest. I don’t look up into his face. But I do watch as his body weaves on a travelling breeze. His suit is lined. I am familiar with the expensive tailoring. Speckled with droppings from branches above. His shoes are still as shiny as they must have been when he made his way into the forest. As shiny as the ring of his wedding finger.
Everywhere I go my knife is companion. Having watched and listened and thought, I climb easily up and onto the thick bough and cut the rope. Something breaks as the body hits the floor. When I am once more upon the ground, I turn him over and look into the face. Purple and rose, puce and pained. Colours such like a birthed child. Colours I shall never, ever forget. Beneath and within those colours, I believe that I recognise the name. Dane. This once was Dane. ‘Dane,’ I say. I never can understand why someone would give up rather than get out, or when they can get even. Dane occupies a window beneath that neon sign. Dane used to.
‘Fuck off! Get the fuck out.’ Sometimes the words that I expel are not as meditative as those of my morning ritual. Sometimes they invade like city toxins. It is as necessary as my routine to put air around them, sorry as I am to pollute the forest. It understands. It cleans them off and returns them as air to breathe. It is nature. This is a human nature. ‘Get the fuck out of my head,’ I mutter. My teeth are clattering. They feel soft in my jaw. My muscles are tense, prepared for battle. I feel at my most relaxed after it passes. It is meditation.
Since coming to live in the forest, I feel better now than I did at the age of 30. Screaming words out to the world, should they occupy a part of my mind that is vacant and vulnerable to attack, is something that I’ve found many, many people do. I used to think that I shouldn’t, even if in my past the words in my head were carefully sown. Not of my choosing. Never of my reaping. I wonder how deeply they were sown that they remain there still. But I do wholeheartedly believe that there will be a day when only my own thoughts remain. Supplanted like nature’s ability to regenerate. Like spontaneous combustion.
Never did I talk about these internal ills. Now I talk about it to the trees. I listen to them as they sooth my affliction. Not many people know how to properly listen. A tree will listen to me and respond in its best way, every time. I was about to move away, yet the sweet chestnut calls me back. I return to it. It is warm and has a gentle pulse, a tattoo that steadies the pace of my heart. It whispers. It is passed. I am soothed.
The forest is stocked full of foods and useful finds – once learned where to discover them, and their uses. One of the supplements from the bins was a full jar of goose fat. I don’t recall where from where I stored the memory of how to make soap, but I am close to mastering the process. Using my knife and a piece of flint turned up by the field plough, to build a fire is of little effort. Anyone who is to succeed in living from the land will wonder why people discard the things that they do. Will always question why we feel we need to live with so many possessions, when few could be so useful.
With some fresh soap – a concoction of ashes, fat, water and berries; the goose fat much simpler than cleanly separating the fat of a kill – I move towards the river to bathe. But on the way I hear voices. It is not usual to encounter people this far towards my chosen land. I see that they are wearing hi-vis jackets – like their voices, an invasion of neutral tone. I creep closer. Whenever I am led stalking towards people, as very occasionally I must, I tread as I have seen the animals do. Soft of step. Alert. Wary.
As I watch, I see one of them – a fat man with not a hair upon his head – discard his empty water bottle into the brambles. The other man – younger and with features of a polecat; hooded and wearing sunglasses in this depth of the forest – flicks the end of his cigarette into the bushes. I watch them. I listen to them. I begin to fantasise. Wrapping the fat one in brambles, a cocoon of thorns. The younger one planted headfirst into the ground. Waiting for him to grow. I want to watch them burn. Instead, I listen. They are talking about knotweed. I learn that they have found none in the area. That there is no threat. I will not bathe this day.
I trek far and with purpose. Such is the simplicity of the life that I have chosen – when I got out and did not give up – that my days are made of whatever I choose to make them. When I gave myself to nature, and nature accepted. We live outside beauty, the most of us. We settle around others, where we must guard and be vigilant, wary and anxious. A part of my centre was attached to the numbers on the screen, the rise and the fall, the grab, the bust. Gain. Gain. Gain. Facing the screen. Facing the window. Never vigilant. Never wary of what might be happening behind my back. In the forest I have eyes all around. Even in a sound. Even in a scent.
I see the little Sika deer before it has seen me. Heard me. Smelled me. When first I came to the forest, most of the creatures would startle and run at my presence. The little Sika continues to forage as I pass by on my way back from the farm. Not even the sound of the two large steel jerry cans that I carry, flattening the undergrowth and snapping branches, disturb its scavenge.
The only items that I have previously taken from the farm are vegetables – turnip, squash, corn and potato – and rope, nails, screws and hand tools when constructing or working on my cabin. They are rough characters on the farm, deserving of this land. Whenever now I venture onto the farm I am more cautious than I first was when scrumping or thieving. I do not wish to encounter them at close hand again. Even though I found that I am much faster and more nimble than them, their dogs are the most savage animals in the forest. On that day I learned that I can pass from tree to tree like an ape.
As the night begins to fall, my fire grows. Fire. No invention shall ever surpass it; few would exist in its absence. In the daylight it is not possible to detect my cabin. For the forest has claimed it, grown around it, reclaimed the wood of the walls and lives now upon the roof. Each day I check the flues, so that we can continue to live without one harming the other. In the evening, such is the depth of my place in the forest, no soul would witness my existence here.
In the early times, I would venture into the city at night to claim what I might need. A rug on the floor of the cabin – part of a display left one night outside a shop. A stack of paperbacks in the corner, a pile of crockery – when chanced upon in front of a charity shop: rich pickings for new literature, clothes and luxuries. I settle onto my bunk, blanketed with sheets and cushions from the streets and a thick sleeping bag. The two jerry cans are just inside the door. I must wait until the waning crescent of the moon begins to fall before I go to the city this night.
Time moves slower in the forest, where trees do not hurry to grow and seasons shall patiently change. The light of my fire shimmers in orange and black waves upon the fabric curtains on the walls. My needs are not separate from the other animals of the forest, and I am alone. I lower my trousers and drawers. Quickly I pull them up. She is looking at me. I pick her up. Holding the half of the photograph, I look into the eyes of the little girl. She is not smiling. I wish that she was smiling. Her bottom lip is slightly plumped up into her top lip. Yet within her eyes I know that wicked humour. I see it still. With my thumb I stroke that face. I am biting the nail of my other thumb. The dirt crunches between my teeth. I touch the torn edge of the photograph, the shape of a broken heart. I put the photo facedown beneath the bunk. I button my fly and tighten my belt.
Nature shall regenerate. After storm and hurricane, flood and drought, seedlings find root. Winds shall spread the new seeds. Creepers will creep. Climbers will climb. Where man has built upon the land, where he leaves it, nature will swiftly reclaim. It cannot be destroyed, not in totality. The earth is made of nature’s ecosystems. Its luminescence is the light of the earth into space. We live off it, but are not a part of it. It doesn’t need us to survive. Where nature is free to flourish, it is the skin to the planet’s blood. The more populous we become, the greater threat we are to both. Each natural disaster is an animal scratching the irritation of a parasite. We are alien.
The shape of the field towards the city lends providence to my intention. Guttering leads a bumpy line over the field, down over a path, beneath the hawthorn and blackthorn, beneath man’s steel fence, onto the humming electricity of his forecourt. The birthday candle stands in a puddle of its own wax at the top of the guttering, three dried twigs as a tripod holding it, leaning downward. The smell of the fuel gurgling out of the second jerry can, splashing down the chute, makes my head hurt, my stomach sicken. I turn and vomit into the undergrowth.
The candle is burning quicker than I had expected. One of the twigs falls away and travels along the slow run of the fuel towards the petrol station. With the field at my shoulder, I walk uphill and sit at my place on the edge of the forest. I look at the window. Three floors down. The lights of the city. I hear the woomph from where I am sitting. Watch the furious orange snake hurtle towards the city. I sit. I watch. Waiting for it to burn.