September 18, 2018 by Sarah Van Goethem
A Monologue of TragedyThe dark forest was where it began, like in every other fairy tale, only the wicked was on the outside and I never knew it was there. The woodland was full of peeping creatures, thoughtfully watching me from inside hollow logs. Their idle chattering never told the truth. The stream trickled with the water of life, flowing past the big rock and into the river that wound around to a place I didn’t ask about. Out of the corner of my eye, fairies with bright green eyes matching the matt of lichen that spread over the trees, danced to a forgotten song.
#She came out of nowhere and everywhere. Her father was the breeze, a mere breath on my lips. I knew from the start, she wasn’t mine. Her hair was dark like the night sky over the forest, her eyes brown like the rich soil from which everything grew. She was only mine for safe-keeping, stolen from another place. I kept her in the forest for as long as I could, until the wind gusted, blowing us out. Sometimes I still notice the bark under my fingernails, from where I latched on.
#At first it wasn’t bad. I tried to recreate what we had. A row of saplings in the yard, transplanted trilliums in the garden. I pushed her on a swing, a hand-painted board tied to a branch with ropes. She sat on a unicorn and saw the sky through the leaves. She spent her days catching toads and riding her bicycle with streamers. When she skinned her knee, I pressed on a band-aid. Thanks, Mommy, she said. When she took a bath, I washed her hair. When she went to bed, I tucked her in. I told her stories of yesterday, of our time in the forest. In her tiny room with the single window, I spun tales of the time before and pulled the blind down on tomorrow. She still smelled like the first rainstorm in spring.
#It wasn’t long before she left. She looked too small; the steps on the yellow bus were as tall as her, the pack too heavy on her back. I was wrong, of course. She managed just fine. Every day her chubby hand waved goodbye and she went away to a world I wasn’t part of. It started slowly. She wanted to play on the computer after school, take a picture with my phone. It seemed harmless enough. But then she learned to read, to make shapes out of chaos. She looked out the big picture-window in the living room and saw all the way down the main street and out of our small town. Her eyes were better than mine. Where’s Daddy? I didn’t have an answer. “Here’s some playdough,” I said, offering her a mound of freshly mixed flour and salt. I’d dyed it with green and blue, the colors of the earth, and now it was a bright shade of aquamarine. I didn’t say anything when she nibbled on a piece. I expected her to spit it out.
#I went on a field trip with her when she was in grade three. It was only a small zoo but had a wide variety of animals including baboons, lions, zebras, and reptiles. At first, she was quiet. I thought maybe she didn’t feel well or had to use the bathroom. But when she saw the giant python in its glass home looking like a surreal Snow White, she trembled. When she started to cry, I led her away. Don’t look if it scares you. She ripped her hand out of mine and seared me with her eyes. He shouldn’t be in that small of a space, she hissed. Like I’d put him there. I held a hand to my chest like protection. Other kids turned to stare at her, parents frowned my way. I lifted my chin. We’ll look at the birds now. I clamped down on her wrist, dragged her to see the plumage of the male peacock. I felt the iridescent blue and green eyespots judging me. You’re doing it all wrong,they said. But then a green and brown hen walked up and the cock forgot me, bringing his tail feathers forward with a rustle. The boys are so much prettier, she said. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. I didn’t satisfy her with a response. Instead, I said, He’s trying to court her. She rolled her eyes. I know. Her fingers were laced into the metal fence. She was reading the plaque. They’re supposed to live in the wild, in lowland forests. She caught my eye again, and this time the anger was gone, replaced with a sadness I knew all too well. They’re supposed to roost in trees at night. Now it was my turn. I know. I took her to the splashpad after that.
#She started a group to save the trees. I encouraged it. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. She gathered her friends and I took them to the council meeting. It was packed that night; the community was divided. Tree-huggers versus farmers. Ethics against money. I thought there was no better fight than one led by children. Maybe she could achieve where I had failed. She bravely stood in front of the adults and told them the facts. That our area had less tree cover than any other in the province, that clear-cutting is destructive to water, soil, species, even our air quality. She shamed the councillors and the farmers in the room. I cheered for her, my warrior. She was fighting for the forest. She didn’t win. After the vote, she turned her eyes on me in disbelief. I’d been so sure she’d win. I didn’t have an answer for defeat, for a vote that blotted out the sun for her generation. Trees continued to fall and I watched it sour her. We consoled ourselves by planting more saplings out by the forest from which we’d come, our private utopia. Thankfully, the dark forest was immune to the clear-cutting. You couldn’t plant beans in a ravine or a stream. It was saved by dumb luck. She stepped into the forest when we were done and I held my breath, hoping she’d remember. She turned her phone toward herself and snapped a photo.
#She got her period and somehow that was my fault, too. I tried to make it a celebration. You’re a woman now. I’m aware of that, Mom. Wanna have ice cream? No, I want to figure out how these damn tampons work so I can go to the pool with my friends. She yelled and cursed, both to me and at me, through the bathroom door, sometimes throwing in a question (how in the eff does this work?) but mostly using swear words I usually forbade. I didn’t say anything this time. Fuck. Shit. What the hell. I poured myself a glass of wine and sat outside the door, unsure whether I wanted to laugh or cry, while she got acquainted with the workings of her own body. Finally, she emerged. She’d won this battle. But triumph was bittersweet. How long do I have to have this? she asked. I shrugged. Five days? A week? Maybe till you’re like fifty? I was guessing; I wasn’t sure myself. Eff, that’s like older than you. She walked out the door in a bikini and cut-off shorts. The wine made me bolder. Remember, you can get pregnant now! Like I’m going to bring a kid into this world.
#She outgrew me while I was making cookies in the kitchen. I tossed in chocolate chips, shoved the tray in the oven, and blinked. On the other side of the counter, she was suddenly taller than me. Or maybe I shrunk. Did you know the Golden Toad was the first species to go extinct due to climate change? she asked me, but I knew it wasn’t a question. She knew I didn’t know that. She took a spoon of the raw batter and ate it. She also knew I hated when she did that. She knew a lot of things. Too many. The cookies will be done soon, I told her. You can wait five minutes. She was a huge fan of sarcasm now. I’m more likely to die of a rapidly spreading disease than food poisoning. I’m sure she wasn’t wrong. Somehow that was the day we really moved into the present.
#Her world is bigger than mine now, connected by the fingertips. She’s a sponge, absorbing, then leaking. At first it was only a dribble, but now reality spills from her lips, violently squeezed out. I think she was born to battle. She tells me the oceans are full of parasitic plastic, islands of garbage that choke fish and birds. Honeybees are vanishing, taking all the sweetness. The earth is warming, glaciers are retreating. She says sea levels are rising, submerging us in our own stupidity.We’ll drown, Mother. She speaks of ice with fire in her eyes. She says it’s ironic; some will drown and yet others will die of thirst. Water cycles are all affected. Forests are being harvested, more than just the ones in our area. Farmland is increasing along with a population bent on destroying the planet. There’s accusation in her tone, blame in her muddied eyes. The generation she speaks of is mine. I failed her. She goes on and on, a monologue of tragedy, a world I never wanted for her. She says trees extract groundwater from their roots and release it into the atmosphere. I try to tell her I knew this from my time in the forest; the shimmers of light that flickered through the branches. The place she’s forgotten. She hastily jerks me back from the treetops; the trees are now piles of brush, she says, ready to be lit.And the rows of corn lead to the end. Oxygen levels are going down. We’ll suffocate, Mother. I already knew it was harder to breathe.
#I let her go on a mission trip. She thinks she can save the world with a privileged-kids-vacation, with a snapchat of her teaching English or petting turtles. She gives herself a pat on the back and a trophy because she cares more than her peers do. She isn’t them, the ones who take pictures of their butts and cleavage and spread their legs like icing on a cake. She thinks she’s above that. Maybe she is. Sometimes she’s still the little girl who wants the python released. But other times I catch her looking at her own butt in the mirror. At least she only takes photos of her face. Twenty a day, I’d say, on average. Put your phone down. It’s like heroine to you, an addiction. Sometimes I take it from her; it’s the best punishment, the severing of the lifeline. She thinks she’s dying, like I chopped off a limb. She tantrums worse than when we left the forest, writhes in agony. No one died, I remind her.It’s just a phone. It doesn’t escape me that I’m the one who pays for it. I wish I could lock her in the dark forest, far away from reception.
#She slaves away for her good marks in science and math. She’s applying to university in the fall, she’s getting the hell out of here. She wants to go into environmental science. Save the whole world, not just our forest. Maybe she’ll win yet.
#My parents recently sold the dark forest. It went with the farm, like an organ to a body. The heart, I think. Somehow, I said goodbye to the big rock, the lumberjacks and the forest fairies. The place I first dreamt of her. I only hope on the future battlefield, she’ll remember where she came from.