The forest was much larger than anyone had previously thought.
So large that one couldn’t find one’s way back.
Luckily there were many lovely clearings and crisp glorious mornings.
It was therefore possible to live.
Also there were rose bushes everywhere, each larger than the one before
(and how we loved to discover the roses, naming them after ourselves).
And biplanes would pass overhead.
In the period before I entered the forest, I thought
that there was the world, one small corner of which
was the forest. Now it has become clear to me –
there is the forest, and the world is but
one small corner of it, exceedingly small, humble even.
For I have seen them meet in the street, and I can tell you
it is the world that makes the deeper bow, the world
that goes away, hat in hand, making furtive glances back
to see if the forest has turned also to look. Which never happens.
And furthermore, one can’t find one’s way back.
Luckily there are many lovely clearings and crisp glorious mornings.
On one such morning I went out looking
for the clearest of seven streams. Seven there were,
running through the forest, and all of them clear.
Which was the clearest?
I put my hand in the first stream.
My hand turned the color of the night sky, which is mottled.
This distressed me, so I put my hand in my pocket.
On to the next stream.
I put my other hand in the second stream.
It soon began to move of its own accord.
This distressed me further. With a stern act of will
I put it too in my pocket.
At the third stream, a man was standing.
Both of his hands were stuck in his pockets also.
“What do you suppose we do next?” he asked.
The forest is different than was supposed.
It is darker in the trees, lighter between them.
Passing between them is its own skill,
separate from the skill of being in clearings.
This is how it goes: you wander for years
in the world, then you find the edge of the forest.
You enter, and wander for days in the forest.
You try to find your way back.
Instead you find a clearing. Also you find out
whether or not you can live alone in the forest.
Many can’t. Others come after, and bury them.
Hungry little roses grow then from the ground.
We of the forest wonder often about the biplanes.
From where do they take off?
Where do they land?
It should be easy to answer this question,
as there are so many of us asking it and spending time
wondering and musing.
The trouble is, only one person ever saw the biplanes.
He mentioned it in passing. Afterwards,
he refused to speak of it. Otherwise, he was silent.
If you happen to see a biplane, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?
one of my friends asked me.
Of course I would, I say. But I’m not sure of it.
I’m not sure I wouldn’t follow the plane alone to the landing field
(which must be a clearing deeper in the forest)
there to make friends with the aviators, and beg them to take me in.
Such a life it would be to fly in the air above the forest!
Distinctly I feel above the forest luckily it is always gloriously morning.
And in a plane, one can easily find one’s way,
though not, of course, back to the world. One could,
I mean, find one’s way deeper into the forest.
What can I tell you about the forest
that you can’t read in books? Well,
our lives here are bared like the trunks of trees.
We believe fundamentally in things that are
quite obviously not true. On such things
our happiness is often based.
For instance, the allegiance of friends.
We of the forest are known cowards.
We make free with each other’s possession,
make love to each other’s husbands and wives.
At first it is odd, I know.
Pierre for instance, has a gorgeous wife.
She wears a little dress of leaves. People are forever
pulling at it as she curtsies by on her girlish legs.
One day she asked me if I would like
to go and find the Monumental Rose.
Where is it? I asked.
Deeper in, she said. We really must be going.
And so we went. I took Pierre’s name.
He took mine. We shook hands.
Have a fine time, he said. Be good.
The forest is much larger than you think.
THEN – a rustling of leaves. Cora had gone.
I’d better go, I said, following into the rustling
through the glorious light.
The philosophers who end up in the forest
stop writing books and begin instead
trying to grow herb-gardens. Every time
it happens the same way. It’s so funny.
There’s Spinoza. What’s he doing? Pruning oregano.
There’s William James.
What are you doing, William James? I inquire.
But he doesn’t answer, so absorbed is he
in laying string for vines. I watch for a minute,
standing fast by his elbow, intent on his progress.
Before you go, he says absently,
be sure to take a sprig of parsley for your buttonhole.
This I do. Need I say it twice?
We of the forest are terribly dashing.
Everyone in the forest has the same dream every night.
We sleep and are immediately awake again
in a tiny one-room house. There is a storm
in the out-of-doors. It is clear to everyone
that it is the biggest storm there’s ever been.
The forest, in fact, has been flattened.
All of a sudden, the storm halts.
We rush out of the cottage door
and are standing in the middle of a clearing
that stretches infinitely in every direction.
It’s then we realize that the forest
has not been flattened. Nor was there
a storm. Merely that
this is a deeper clearing, one we may
someday find. We wake then, invigorated,
and without so much as a by-your-leave,
rush off into the dew-strewn underbrush.
East Riding. It is the name that the world has
for the forest. I recall I was a child when I
heard it first. Still, I felt drawn.
I would go sometimes to the highest part
of the farm-country and gaze eastward to the sea
of treetops drowsing in the distance,
hazy day, the sun’s rays mingling with the dust
and hanging in the air like the passing of hands.
I believe, I told the village priest, in East Riding.
Dismayed, he spoke with my parents,
counseling them to send me to the part of the world
farthest from East Riding.
But my father laughed. I recall this vividly.
He laughed at the priest, and raised me up
eye level into the air. He said,
“I believe you are going to East Riding.
Already you’ve left us.”
He took my mother’s hand and stood in the doorway
looking off into the distance as though watching
the progress of some traveler on a distant road.
But I was still in the house. My things weren’t even packed.
The priest stuck his sharp elbow in my ribs.
See? he said. So I slipped between my parent’s legs
and walked and walked and walked.
When I reached the distant road, I could see
that they were watching. I waved. They waved back.
And I followed the road where it went
beneath a canopy of trees.
On the deeper paths, one can’t know
for sure if one is welcome, save by clearings.
If one encounters lovely clearings
and crisp glorious mornings, then one has
cannily chosen the right path.
At other times it’s as dark as the inside
of a leaded window on an old cloudy block.
No one visits anymore, and the oldest man
is older by far than the histories he tells.
This is his defense, and it’s a keen one.
So I know to turn back, sometimes.
Always, it’s then one is given a small but kind
clearing to sleep in, and a tiny rose in greeting.
Be thou pleased by the day, and by waking
to light. From the bottom of a well
comes the vaguest song, but it is, I think,
known to you, muttered in your aging heart.
For if we all do not know a thing,
then no one can know it. It is not given us
to have that which is not instinctively
present in the world. On the softest grass
imaginable, I lay my head. It is quiet
and the path has been lost.
The path, I say, has been lost.
It is lovely to say things in a human voice
and hear in your mind or in the air,
and hear in the forest a human reply.
Jesse Ball is the author of Samedi the Deafness (Vintage 2007), Vera & Linus (Nyhil 2006), Og svo kom nottin (Nyhil 2006), and March Book (Grove 2004). His next novel, The Way Through Doors, will appear with Vintage in 2009. His work has appeared in many national and international journals, and been included in the anthology Best American Poetry. He is on the faculty at the Art Institute of Chicago.