The campsite was only a four mile hike from the beach town where I’d left my car, but it was all uphill, into the sea cliffs, and my legs and shoulders ached by the time I arrived. I didn’t ask myself what I was trying to prove by heading out there alone. I had a pocket knife, and a pepper spray keychain, and every time I passed someone on the path, I gave them an uneasy smile.
This was the first time I had ever gone backpacking by myself. Anita had been the one to teach me how it was done, the same way she’d taught me almost everything about the life I now lived. I had been dull before I met her, without specific interests or hobbies, only a body full of longings that I couldn’t understand, leaving a trail of ex-boyfriends in its wake. She had done more than just decipher and fulfill those longings—she had given me to myself. Now she was gone, but I still had this self, shaped through the repetition of habit, and it was supposed to, somehow, be enough.
There was no one else at the hiker’s camp when I got there. It had an air of desertion hanging over it, but so did everything on this stretch of coastline. Moss grew on the wooden camp shelters, and the fire pit was ringed by clusters of white mushrooms, round and wet as pearls. A group of day hikers passed by on an intersecting trail, their laughter loud and disorienting, diluting the illusion of solitude. A signpost, partly overgrown with papery green lichen, said that there was a viewpoint only an eighth of a mile away. I scratched a small section of the lichen away in order to see which direction the arrow was pointing.
The sky had been clear when I’d begun my hike that morning, and the ocean a still line against the horizon, but by then a band of clouds had rolled in, and up there on the cliffs I found myself within them. I watched the fog rise around me as I walked, the sweat on the back of my neck going cold. The wind picked up, casting duff and dead leaves in every direction, whipping my hair across my face, and breaking wisps of fog against the treetops. It smelled of brine and wood rot.
By the time I reached the viewpoint, with its poorly maintained wire fence set just back from the cliff’s edge, there was nothing to see but a vast expanse of milky white, spreading out in all directions. I couldn’t see the ocean down below, or even hear it over the sound of the wind.
Instead of turning back immediately, I watched the blank view for a few minutes. There was something calming about the totality of the fog, its constant movement appearing as unchanging stillness. It looked like the landscape of a dream. That particular shade of white, slightly graying and somehow soft, was the color of sleep.
On my way back along the trail, I heard an eerie, drawn-out creaking noise. It sounded exactly like a door opening, the squeak of its hinges. I looked beside and behind me, but saw nothing. I knew from many camping trips that the forest made more sounds than could be accounted for, especially late at night, when ghosts rode the shadows. Anita had liked to make up stories about certain noises and the monsters from which they originated. The squelch of mud became the footsteps of the bog spirit, and dry leaves crinkling against one another the cackle of the woods witch, whose hair hung green and lank past her feet. She had always loved to tell stories, and I had loved to listen, to fall asleep to the sound of her voice.
I stood still and waited for the creak to come again, but it didn’t. The wind had settled for the moment, and I noticed that I could at last hear the waves breaking against the rocky banks below, whispering something.
Back at the hiker’s camp, someone else had arrived. I didn’t see a person, just a backpack on the picnic table and some kindling smoldering at the center of the fire pit. I slipped into a camp shelter, deciding that I had better claim one in case the incoming clouds meant rain. When I emerged there was a woman tending the fire. Either she hadn’t made a sound, or it had been swallowed by the wind.
She was a lot older than me. Older than Anita, even. I would have put her at close to sixty. She had a tanned face and dark eyes, and very long, thick hair that was a mix of black, gray, and white, as if mid-way through the process of losing its color. Her gear was very colorful, but dirty. I figured that she had hiked in from the opposite direction, out of the wilderness rather than the town.
It took her a long time to look up at me, and in the interim I shuffled my things around awkwardly, establishing my presence, taking care not to spook her.
“It doesn’t want to light,” she said, eventually sparing me a glance.
I swallowed, nodded politely. “The fire?”
“The air’s so damp up here tonight, but it’ll go. It’ll have to.” She prodded the smoking brush, shifting it around.
“Do you want some help?”
“You any good at lighting fires?”
I smiled self-consciously. “No.”
She lit a cigarette, flicked some of the embers at the fire pit. “You mind?”
I shook my head. “I can still try for a little while. If you want to take a break.”
She nodded, handed me the stick she’d been using, and sat up on the picnic table. Her movements weren’t labored or slow. She carried her body with more ease than I carried mine. Pulling a couple of protein bars out of her backpack, she offered me one, finished her cigarette, then ate her own in a few bites. The forest shifted and breathed around us.
“Did you come alone?” she asked, after a few minutes.
I nodded. “You, too?”
She offered me an apple slice next, and since I had declined before, I accepted so as not to seem impolite.
The wind blew in and out, settling at times, allowing the fire to gain momentum, then rising again, shaking the treetops and showering us with spruce needles. The tang of smoke was seeping into my clothes, my pores. We introduced ourselves. I spoke a little bit about myself, what I did back in the city, but the woman asked more questions than she answered. All I learned about her was that her name was Maria, and that Maria had also been her mother’s name.
“My mother’s name is Barbara,” I said, as the logs finally caught, and the fire snapped to life.
We ate dinner together, on opposite sides of the fire, drinking canned beer that Maria had brought. I felt stingy, having packed only one of everything, but she laughed it off with a wave of her hand. The backs of her hands, more than anything else, showed her age.
It was clear that we didn’t have much in common. Even her loneliness was incompatible with mine. Her way of relating to things seemed easy, untethered, whereas mine was as fraught as ever. Until I was a few beers in, my end of the conversation was stilted. Maria acted as if she didn’t notice, speaking at length about what she had seen on this trip and on others, the plants and animals and weather encountered. She never mentioned where she had come from, and I didn’t ask.
It was late and the night was blue-black when the last embers of the fire finally burned out. The sky was overcast and starless, so we fell into a heavy dark that merged every object into every other, reforming the landscape. The black trees rustled and sighed, and the night animals crept through the undergrowth. I had drunk enough not to feel uneasy, but when I rose to dig out my electric lantern and my toothbrush, I heard that noise again, that creaking. It climbed my spine as it rose in pitch, then abruptly it stopped. It was so much like a door opening that I looked to the camp shelters, but, of course, they didn’t have doors, just doorways.
“What was that?” I said to Maria.
“That sound? It’s probably a branch in the middle of cracking off. They don’t fall all of a sudden, you know, most of the time. It starts with a little break, and it grows over time, until finally a strong gust of wind comes and finishes it off. I’ve even watched whole trees come down out here, when a real storm rolls in.”
I looked up at the treetops. I could see nothing of them but their movement, but I decided definitively to sleep inside a camp structure. My heart was still beating fast, my blood loud in my ears. It wasn’t raining yet, but the wind was heavy with the threat of it.
“This isn’t a real storm, right?” I asked.
“This?” She laughed. From a few feet away, I could see nothing but her outline. “This is just the sea kissing the land goodnight.” She lit another cigarette, and I saw her face briefly in the glow of the flame, all hollowed out with shadows, before it faded to just the glint of orange at the tip.
The sound came again, a groan like that of an old house, the creak of a floorboard, or the hinges of the screen door at the duplex where Anita and I used to live. It would bang and squeak through every windy night if we didn’t bolt it shut. That sound had woken me up all the time in the first few months after I had moved in with her, but after a while I had grown used to it, came to even like it. It made the place feel softly and manageably haunted.
“Goodnight sea,” I said, finally getting hold of my lantern near the bottom of my backpack. I was tipsy enough to say something like that.
“Goodnight land,” Maria said. I could hear in her voice that she was smiling.
I switched the lantern on and was blinded by its sudden white LED glow. I held it out in the direction that Maria’s voice had come from, but she was gone. Probably she had already disappeared into one of the other camp structures. All that was left to illuminate was the fog.
I fell asleep easily, but woke abruptly while it was still dark, with the creak and groan of a door’s hinges in my ears. For a moment, squinting at the dark wooden ceiling and feeling the sleeping bag clinging sweaty to my skin, I didn’t know where I was. My dreams, now forgotten, hung over me like a pall. I wanted to be at home, in my own bed, where nothing writhed or shifted just outside the doorway.
I sat up and groped around for my water bottle, draining more than half of it in a single gulp. Sitting still, breathing softly to myself, I heard the sound again, that long, drawn-out cry of bending wood. In the night, it sounded more anguished.
I dug out my pocket knife, clutched it to my chest, and settled back down and listened for footsteps, for an approach. I heard them then. There, beneath the wind and the wailing of the branches, were the wet, labored movements of the bog spirit. Even quieter, from up in the treetops, came the whisper of the woods witch, reciting her spells and incantations.
Lulled by the sound of her voice and the creak of the screen door, I fell eventually into a heavy sleep.
It had rained in the night, or maybe the early morning. When I rose, the ground was muddy, the air smelled clean, and there was no wind. Maria had gone. There was no sign that she had ever been there beyond the blackened remains of the fire. I was already running later than I had intended, but I decided to try the viewpoint again, because the sun had come out and burned off all the fog. I ate quickly and ravenously, made myself a thermos of coffee, and packed up. In the daylight, last night’s fears felt like they didn’t belong to me.
This time the short path to the cliff’s edge was intersected by a thick hemlock branch that had not been there the day before. The inner wood, where the branch had split, was still deeply and richly colored, like fresh meat. It wasn’t the only branch to fall in last night’s wind, but it was the largest I’d seen.
The view that morning was clear. From the viewpoint, I could see a lighthouse on a small, rocky island a mile or so out to sea, and around it the waters were calm and the sky was cloudless, dotted with gulls and cormorants. I got out my phone and took several panoramas, but they all came out dull, the island barely more than a speck against the vast dark ocean.
Back on the path, I heard the noise again, a high-pitched creak that sped up and ended abruptly. I wasn’t surprised that some branches had held on through the night, but as I looked up to try to spot which of them might be loose, I noticed that there was no wind at all. The treetops were still, the air was mild, and the sun shone brightly, casting soft blue shadows. The only sound I could hear now was that of my own breath.
I took a few steps off of the path, through the wide spruce trunks, among the ferns and trailing vines. Against the damp ground, my footsteps sounded wet. I felt like turning back, but I didn’t because I knew Anita would not have. The creak came again, and this time the sound was unmistakable.
Stepping around a low and thorny shrub that caught against my pant leg, I emerged into a small clearing, carpeted thickly with moss. Above me, the treetops parted slightly, letting in criss-crosses of light. My pulse thudded, and my throat went tight. Across the clearing, set into a wide tree trunk, was a door with a large brass knob. It was cracked open and shifting slightly on its hinges. Coming from behind it, I could discern a faint, shimmering light.
“Maria?” I called, for no good reason. My voice was overly loud in the still forest, my pulse beating in my ears.
The sea did not answer.
Jaye Nasir is a writer based in Portland, OR whose work blurs, or outright ignores, the line between the real and the unreal. Her poems, essays and fiction have appeared in many small publications, both local and international, as well as in the interdisciplinary art gallery Decorative Shred and the Constellation Reading Series hosted by Tin House. Her work is forthcoming in an unannounced video game project from the indie developer Deck Nine Games, a global anthology of Palestinian poetry from Haymarket Books, and elsewhere.
Other stars in the Crescent asterism:
Wingspread (Letter to Yanyi)
How mysterious and almost divine it feels to be capable of sending through words the understanding of emotions across space and time.
The Gentrification of Rocket Falls
Our houses didn't like this man either. We knew the signs of repulsion and fear, the way their siding shivered and shutters clanged shut.
Sometimes I feel like this, like my inside-body is going to pop out of my outside-body, because the inside is too sour to keep in.
The Unicorn in Captivity
Now the trumpets of battle blare; the castle is under siege. The young queen thinks: the unicorn is me; treasured, trapped but able to see beyond its flimsy cage.
At the school, kids would sometimes sneak looks inside each other's cavities, carefully cracking the little doors open just a sliver, not wanting the animals to escape before full gestation.