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Song of the Forest

Photo by Steve Baxter:

By the time the family got to the campsite, Bernard was already exhausted. The children had been unmanageable all the way out to the shady spot in the woods, bickering and punching each other almost non-stop since they had left their suburban home. He had tried to defend his decision to cancel the annual trip to Disney World to come here instead, but the children were not interested in putting heritage before amenity or learning before entertainment, and soon he had felt too self-aware to try. Parental authority was his last resort. “We’re going because I said so.”

“I thought there was supposed to be a cabin,” his daughter said, disappointment and confusion crinkling her face.

“Don’t tell me we’re going to sleep in tents, Dad.”

“Come on, guys!” He forced cheeriness into his voice. “We’re bigfoots! We don’t need those things.”

“I beg to differ,” Bernard Jr said. “I very much beg to differ.” He held up his Nintendo Switch. “I’m running low on battery.”

“This is how I lived when I was your age.”

“We know, Dad. You’ve only told us, like, a million bazillion times,” Bernice sighed.

“A million bazillion and one, then,” he said. “This is important. This is your history.”

“No, Dad, it’s your history.”

Bernard didn’t know what to say to that. If Marge had been here, she would have known what to say. She always knew what to say. He itched to strip off his ill-fitting XXXL cargo shorts and tracksuit top, but he could predict how the children would react – with feigned disgust, a mock-human reaction they had internalized somewhere along the line. He decided he would start gathering firewood. He knew, even in the muggy heat of late summer, that the nights would be cold this deep into the forest.

He lumbered into the undergrowth, relishing the crackle of leaves and twigs against the soles of his feet. He had run around these same woods when he was a youngling. He knew these trees, the calls of these birds... The specific, strange weight of the air. To him, every part of it glowed with sacred light. He hoped that it was ancestral, but deep down he wondered if it was merely nostalgia for his imagined days of innocence. He tried to press away the thought that his children would never be able to see or feel the forest the way he did. They were the new generation, he knew, and they would have to find their own way. Junior was a math whiz, according to his teacher, and Bernice was a supremely gifted musician. But he couldn’t help but feel that something had been lost, something small and important. He hummed to keep his mind from spiraling. A tuneless ditty in his deep, craggy voice that carried well in the loamy shade. Soon he was no longer thinking. The song reverberated in his chest and head as he picked up dry branches and kindling, his body working almost automatically.

Junior sighed as the message flashed on the screen – Low battery. Console will shut down in 30 seconds. He lay back onto his elbows, the fire warming his feet. His dad was lying on his back, staring at the sky. He looked up and saw the galactic spray of stars. Rationally, he knew quite a bit about stars. How they were formed. How they died. How unimaginably far away they were from each other. But tonight they looked close, and he felt that if he climbed up one of the taller pines, he could reach out and touch them, stir them like drops of shining ink.

“I’m bored,” Bernice groaned.

“Practice violin,” Bernard intoned calmly.

“I don’t wanna!”

“Did you really bring it all the way out here just to let it sit in the case?”

Bernice grunted, the spitting image of the frustrated teenager, but got her violin anyway. Her exams were coming up, and she couldn’t stand the thought of failing, of embarrassing herself, of losing her bursary at the prestigious art school her dad had fought so hard to get her into. She woke up shaking some nights, her fur matted with sweat. She knew it was ridiculous to be this anxious about high school, that there was much more out there to be anxious about, but she couldn’t help it. It was an overwhelming internal pressure. She shook her hand vigorously and started warming up with scales, her long fingers flitting gracefully up and down the neck.

“I hate this song,” Junior said with a little smack-me grin, but Bernice ignored him. She cleared her throat and started playing. She had meant to dive into Brahms, her big piece for the exam, but something else came out. It was a song she had never heard, but she knew she wasn’t improvising either. Bernard’s eyes opened. It was the song he had hummed to himself while he was gathering firewood. How hadn’t he realized until now? It was so clear, as familiar as the feel of bark under fingertips: it was an old Bigfoot lullaby. His own mother soothed him with it when he was a mere babe in arms.

The melody flowed through the woods, glittering and beautiful and somewhat sad. The fire crackled and sent a burst of sparks into the sky. Bernard couldn’t help but feel that this moment was important. Small and important.



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