The sands of time are known for their love of stealing away the little things; they sift away memories of childhood best friends and the password to your old computer as they flow steadily towards the bottom of the hourglass of a human life. Soon such small things are buried under the TV static-humdrum of every day life. You wake up, you brush your teeth, you go to work – the unadventurous endeavors of a living being. Helena Putlam is no exception. She is old now, knuckles gnarled and fingers cold, approaching her eighty-seventh year on this Earth. Her husband passed on some time ago, ushered onward by the fleshy muck cooking in his brain that neither time nor hours of radiation could dispose of. His funeral had been attended only by her and someone with a shovel, and she did not cry then. Sometimes, now that she was approaching the twilight of her life, she thought of him and wondered bitterly if he awaited her in the great beyond or whatever lie in store for her. She did not miss him, she said when asked, she merely was aware of his absence.
“Like one misses a tooth,” she said once to a nurse who made the mistake of asking, “You know. When you have that big hole you keep stickin’ your tongue through.”
The house she lives in had always been considered the ‘creepy witch house’ by local children. Her husband had a rude temper and no love for them when he was alive. Their basement had been full of confiscated balls, bikes, Frisbees and whatever other nonsense they would drop as they screamed and ran from the old man. He always brandished a shiny bronze sword when he went after them. Helen kept it on her mantle now, beside her taxidermy owl she lovingly called Jolene and a massive upper skull of a male deer. If the outside of the house with its uncut grayish grass and peeling periwinkle paint didn’t frighten the children, the inside surely would. Helen and her husband were collectors – she more than him – of ‘oddities.’ Their house was riddled with unsettling portraits of Victorian women and children, countless wet specimens of creatures born wrong ( her pride and joy was a cycloptic piglet ) and more bones than you could imagine. Helen was a tidy woman in her youth, but her husband reveled in filth. The whole house was covered in dust, grime, and mold. The air was full of dancing particles that shimmered in what little sun came in through the kitchen skylight. The kitchen sink was cracked and smelled rotten. The cabinet doors were losing their paint, and one hung off its hinges, revealing her collection of strange tea cups. Most of the windows were covered up in thick layers of butcher paper. Her husband was a butcher once upon a time. They got good meat, good bones that way. Her cyclops piglet came from the pig farm he had worked on. Then when it came time to retire, the boss let him take some of the paper home to ‘hide away with the wife.’
The sitting room was something to behold. Old, gray couch with unidentifiable stains barely hidden by floral print, a single armchair with the indent of her husband still in it, a coffee table with his morning paper and his favorite coffee mug still on it. The rug had once been shaggy, and a chic yellow. Now it was matted with who knew what and charcoal colored. The spaces around the furniture were filled with stacks of papers and miscellaneous bones she had not yet gotten to categorize. After all those years, she still dared not to venture into her own sitting room. Beyond the sitting room, up the stairs by the door, was her room. It had been her husbands office once, but now she slept on the cot in the corner, among the many taxidermied animals on the wall and his shelf of wet specimens (including her piglet). The bedroom had not been touched since her husband died eight years ago. The door was locked, and the key buried someplace in the backyard. She had no interest in digging it up. Over all, her existence in her bleak little house was dismal. She woke, she brushed her teeth, and she went to water aerobics or to the local dentist to fix yet another tooth of hers. She felt no joy in her life – that is, unless she was in the forest.
Beyond her backyard was miles upon miles of untamed boreal forest. It rained so often it was misty more than it wasn’t, giving the air that cool stickiness you can find on the Pacific Northwest. There were many signs warning locals to KEEP OUT, but Helen had never been one for following rules. She liked to venture out into the foreboding wilderness and simply be.
She found bones in the woods often. Usually small things, like squirrel remains or an unlucky beaver that bit off more than it could chew. She found other things too – little lost things like gloves, bottle caps, spare change, buttons, an occasional shoe. She liked seeing evidence of humanity beyond the fences surrounding her woods. The rotten little things must have gotten in over their heads and run off scared, she always thought. The woods got scary if you didn’t know how to navigate them. It always amused her that she, and old woman, faired better than the bold teens in the area when it came to braving the thicket. What a treasure trove they missed out on because they didn’t have the guts to continue.
One particular day – a misty Tuesday, to be exact – Helen found herself crossing her broken picket fence into the woods with a swelling excitement in her chest. It had been storming the last two days which meant she couldn’t get out there to investigate, which also likely meant there would be more goodies for her to find. She donned herself in a little red cardigan covered in knit ladybugs and a pair of light wash elastic banded jeans, covering up her cotton-ball tufts of white hair with a black bucket hat she had found in the woods one day. The forest was very odd when you entered it. Before you hit the trees, there is no sound. No sound at all – no human noise from the neighborhood and nearby town, no birds, no crashing of the nearby sea, no insects. When you broke into the mist was when you could hear the trees creaking and the leaves rustling with the sudden hasty breeze. But no birds sang, no bugs twittered. There was only your breathing, the wind, and the distant call of deer once in a while.
For Helen, it was like being enveloped in a blanket. The Earth felt like it reached up and swallowed her whole here. She found comfort, not fear, in the mystery of the woods. On that misty Tuesday she found herself walking a trail she had never seen before. The woods did not have any real trails, it being off limits and whatnot. But the one she found seemed oddly real compared to what she was used to. Nevertheless, she followed it with a basket in hand and an eye for new bones. Her collection of teeth, she thought, had been lacking.
Those same sands of time that steal away memories like to swallow up time as well. The forest always felt unaffected by time to Helen; it always seemed just lit enough to be safe to see, no matter what time of day, and no birds ever rang in the morning or settled down into the night. She figured it was all just her mind falling apart at last, opting not to dwell much. The trail rewards her for her trust with a milk crate off to the side full of empty greenish bottles. Dirt and bugs infest them now, but she grins as she plucks one from the crate and tucks it into her bag. Something to put teeth in, perhaps, she thinks as she continues on. Soon after the milk crate, she stumbles upon something human; a tube of lipstick, open, with the stick itself crushed into the trail.
Helen scoffs. Teenagers running off to have sex in the woods, she reckons. She plucks the tube off the ground and examines it before tossing it in her bag, to be thrown away. Helen is content to keep walking down her path into the weaving woods, but something catches her eye deeper into the undergrowth beyond the little trail. If she squints, she can see the vague shape of something laying in a heap, flies buzzing around it like mad yet making no sound. She grins a crooked grin, shuffling into the underbrush without a second thought towards whatever lies in the plants beyond. She is not disappointed with the gift the forest has offered her; indeed, she will have the teeth she had a hankering for. A pile of muck and cloth lies at her feet, covered in dirt and flies. She nudges thick pieces of pinkish something out of her way with the tip of her shoe, brow knitting as she tries to discern what from what. She manages to find a little change purse under it all – red, velvet, with a rusted clasp. She opens it to find a chunk of greasy reddish hair, two massive incisors, a few deer teeth, one or two molars she can’t identify, and a little piece of red fabric.
“Perfect,” she coos as she plucks one of the incisors from the bag. It is beautifully sharp. When she presses the tip to the pad of her thumb, it presses so hard it goes numb. Her tongue finds her own incisor, running along the pointed enamel edge.
She drops her bag.
Helen reaches up with dirty fingers and feels the empty spot in her mouth where she had just gotten a canine pulled. It, like most of her teeth, and rotted to the core. Human teeth were so feeble. Human mouths were so useless. But this, whatever the forest had gifted her – it would serve her well. Helen doesn’t have to think before she raises the new tooth upwards, pressing the jagged roots against the soft flesh of her gum. She pushes hard, and the flesh splits as the roots dig into the gum. Blood fills her mouth with sourness, her eyes sting with tears. She thinks back to her husband, who like her understood not to waste things, and had replaced his own big toe like this. It hurts, but finally, her mouth makes room for the rude intrusion and the tooth is in.
Her tongue is fascinated by the new tooth, so it runs eagerly around the sharp end of it. It tastes like dirt, but it’s in, and the blood pouring into her mouth will stop in time. She wipes some of it off her chin and goes for her bag. She places the coin purse inside, tongue sloppily clicking and slurping as it agitates the new tooth hungrily. She concludes her adventure in the forest with this, and it guides her home as though it were an old friend.
“Thank you,” she says to the silent woods as she reaches the edge of the tree line. Her chin is still smeared with her own blood, but she smiles. The forest has provided.
Credit : Sugar Sharks
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