For two years, James had been living with the one-pointed mind of a buddhist monk. His focus not on the elusive void, but on the repetitious rhythm of working life on a commercial fishing boat. His senses were finely tuned to the cold, wet slap of fish on fish, the geometry of the great expanses of netting, the salty bite of sea air in the nostrils and the ever present, ever distant line of the horizon.
Two years of sweating over the nets as the pay checks trickled steadily into his bank account had left James feeling like little more than a machine in man’s clothing. He lived and breathed this work but inside was empty. A shell discarded by its inhabitant.
So, that September morning when the boat docked to unload its haul, James stepped onto the California harbour for the first time in weeks and kept walking. He walked until he could no longer feel the swell of the tides under his feet. He walked until he could no longer smell the sea in the air, although the scent of fish still stained his fingers.
He longed to see grass, shrubs and trees and for the horizon to be jagged and unpredictable. He headed for the mountains, walking and hitching rides until he reached the foothills.
Dusk was falling as he entered the forest. Exhaustion hit like a brick.
Intoxicated by the heady new scent of pines and oaks but almost nauseous with fatigue, James unhooked his backpack from his shoulders, unrolled his sleeping bag and quickly fell into sleep.
In the early hours, a dream of the grey boat, silver skins of fish and blue-black sea flickered through his consciousness. As his mind awoke however, the soft light of the September morning filtered through the foliage and the air twittered with bird calls as he inhaled deeply the perfume of earth and leaves.
He lay on his back for a span of time he could not measure; breathing, watching and listening. He was reminded of the summers in New Jersey when his mother would send him out in the morning and not expect to see him until dark. He would spend hours climbing trees, playing at indians with sticks for bows and arrows and paddling in the creek.
That first day in the forest James felt as though he had crossed a bridge. From a spell of his life that was quickly receding into memory and now ceased to have any importance, where he now stood every other direction led to the unknown. Yet it mattered little, life in the mountainous forest provided a feast for the senses that kept him rooted to the present moment. Rather than the cold, salty days at sea, the woods brought him gifts of velvet moss, frilled lichen, rotting leaves, tough bark, birds that darted and swooped, squirrels that leapt and scurried.
On his third day, he had climbed with his pack up to a stony ridge that emerged out of a dense area of forest and chanced upon a young deer and its mother drinking from a spring trickling from the rocks.
On day five, he awoke in the middle of the night to see a fox watching him from amongst the trees. The moment he glimpsed it, the animal turned and fled, silent and silver in the moonlight.
By the twelfth afternoon, the sky had begun to cloud over and the air became moist and heavy, portending rain. James settled on a natural bed of pine needles under a rocky overhang. He laid down an armful of sticks and kindling that he had been collecting along his trail so that he would have dry fuel for a fire. He sat and waited, chewing on the last dry hunk of bread that he had been rationing since he left the road.
He heard the rain travelling across the valley before it reached his spot. Crackling and whispering, it moved in a misty grey sheet towards him. Then the drops started to fall, sparsely at first, then growing fatter and faster until a heavy shower pelted the ground. James imagined the joy of the trees and plants as the droplets wetted their leaves then slipped down to the soil to be soaked up by their thirsty roots.
He fell asleep to the rush of the rain. By the morning, the air was still, stirred only by the bird voices that passed back and forth as the sky grew brighter with morning.
James left his backpack and firewood and stepped out into the woods, changed by the water. The dampness exaggerated the pleasing scents of decay and muffled the flavours of the flowers. Often, along his path, James came across fungi that had emerged with the encouragement of the rain. He started to look out especially for a small, smooth breed of mushroom that had been popular with his adolescent friends back in New Jersey for their magical properties. Sure enough, as he returned to his camp by another route, he came across a small crop of the wavy caps in a grassy clearing low down in the valley. He plucked them and carried them carefully back to his rock.
He built a small fire and boiled some water in one of the tin cans he had saved from his small stock of supplies. When the water was bubbling, he dropped the chopped mushroom heads into it and let it simmer for some time, as he fed the fire with twigs. He flavoured the tea with wild mint leaves and stirred in a sachet of sugar that was hidden in a pocket of his rucksack from a forgotten visit to a roadside diner.
He sipped the tea straight from the can.
A little while later, the sounds of the forest began to grow sharper and more musical. With his eyes on the fire, James noticed the flames taking different forms, human and animal, lions, wolves and eagles. They seemed to dance and pulsate with the beat of the sounds from the forest, throwing their fiery limbs into the air.
He got up and started to wander into the woods. Each time his foot made contact with the earth he sensed the vibrations reverberating from molecule to molecule in the soil. He thought that he might be frightening the insects in their network of underground tunnels so removed his boots and socks. He then sat touching the smooth pink-white skin of his bare feet, they reminded him of seashells. His skin tingled with every line his fingertips traced.
He returned to walking, now feeling, hearing, tasting every sensation through the shoe-softened soles of his feet. His gaze rested on the forest floor, noticing each pine needle and twig that shifted with his weight, the minute communications between each ant and beetle. Then he turned his face to the trees, the shape of each leaf beautifully illuminated by the sunlight behind; the shapes between the leaves talking to him in a new pattern language. For hours he walked in this way, feeling each sinew of his body flexing with his movements, the way the breeze lifted the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. At moments, words danced delicious with poetry through the rivulets of his mind. At others, he felt only colour, form and smell. At others the melodies of the wind, birds and leaves crescendoed like an orchestra. He wandered until the twilight muted the mountains, shadows grew longer and his body grew more tired. Shapes softened and at some point he must have stopped and slept.
He awoke, chilly and damp. His mind foggy at the edges but crystal clear at the centre. It took him another day to find his way back to the rocky overhang where he had left his belongings.
He sat quietly, revisiting some of the visions from his walk, quieting his hunger with the little food he was left with.
The following day marked two weeks since James had arrived in the forest. Although he felt he could stay much longer in the mountains, the edible fruits and plants were not enough to sustain him now that his supplies had run out. He was used to eating large quantities to fuel his physical work on the boat and the empty groaning in his belly was beginning to bother him. Besides, a small, unfamiliar voice was calling him to dabble in civilisation again and he decided to follow it.
A day’s hike with few pauses took him back to the road by which he had arrived. He walked south until a trucker pulled up alongside and asked if he wanted a ride. With a nod and a smile, he accepted. The driver was chatty at first but when James offered little in the way of conversation, turned the radio on and kept his eyes on the road.
James decided to head to Topanga, a small town about an hour south of Los Angeles, where he had some friends and had stayed for a couple of short spells between fishing trips. The driver agreed to drop him at the freeway junction and wished him luck as he jumped down from the cab. After walking twenty minutes, a middle aged man in a station wagon offered him a lift into downtown.
As James’ boots hit the swept street he suddenly felt shabby and sweaty. His stomach really wanted a chicken fajita with a side of refried beans, guacamole and pico de gallo salsa from one of the local Mexican joints, but it somehow didn’t feel right to sit down to his first proper meal in weeks wearing the khaki t-shirt and navy blue overalls that had become his uniform on the boat.
He felt like an alien in human disguise as he walked into the bright lights of Topanga’s largest downtown department store and headed straight to the ground floor men’s clothing section.
Unbeknownst to James, he was being watched. Two young sales assistants in their early twenties, were standing behind a rack of jackets when he entered with his backpack over his shoulder. Katy’s eyes followed him across the floor.
“I want him to be my boyfriend”, she said quietly to Donna, nodding in James’ direction. Donna gave her friend a gentle shove in the young man’s direction and went off to check for spare hangers in the fitting rooms.
James was usually inclined to refuse help from sales assistants in stores, convinced that their intention was only to earn a commission or worse, persuade him to buy socks or a belt to accompany his purchases. But when the young woman approached him with a broad but quiet smile of beautifully straight, white teeth, he couldn’t help but smile back instead of shrugging and mumbling something incoherent before shuffling away.
She was wearing a pair of jeans, a red sweater and a badge that said ‘Hi, I’m KATY, how can I help?’ She led him around the clothing racks, helping him to find his size in a pair of chinos, a pale green shirt and a couple of white t-shirts. James explained that he was going to dinner and needed to look presentable. Katy looked him over conspicuously. He looked a bit rough around the edges, with his thick stubble and weathered hands but his eyes were sharp and bright and his voice deep and engaging.
James enjoyed the dance around the store, the fabrics between his fingers and the neat stacks of folded shirts were pleasing in spite of, or perhaps because of, their contrast with the shapes of the forest. The glare of the strip lights enhanced this piece of consumerist theatre, in which he and Katy were the protagonists.
She showed him where to find the fitting rooms and then left him to it.
A short while later, James stood in line for the check out. As he approached the desk, the young woman who had been serving: ‘Hi, my name is DONNA, how can I help?’, slipped into the background and Katy appeared again with her Californian smile, clear face and wide brown eyes. James smiled back. She rang up his items on the cash register but refrained from offering him socks, he didn’t seem the type who would like that kind of pushy talk. As she handed over the paper tote bag, she said, “Enjoy your dinner.” James thanked her and turned away. Two steps later, he turned back. Somewhere in the quiet woods of his mind, a twig had snapped, and he chose to follow a different fork in the path. “Would you like to join me?”
“I’d love to”, Katy replied.
Four years later, in the orange glow of the bedroom, James gingerly lifted the slippery baby into his mother’s arms. She held him, breathing deeply with disbelief, inhaling the wet animal scent of his head. His creamy coated skin clammy against her hot chest, pricked with perspiration. James noticed the outline of their two bodies silhouetted against the lamp light.
“He’s here, Katy. Our little boy is here.”