With Highway Brushfires Like Golden Grain
rating: +11+x

You are walking on the path. You are not looking for anything in particular, nor are you walking for any special reason. You are just walking, legs moving rhythmically like a heartbeat against the soft warm earth. The sky is opaque and thick, the air a cool blue-grey spray that isn’t quite a downpour. It's that special time just before the rain starts, and the world is fresh and wet, smelling like soil and green. All so much green.

Above you, clouds roar, great grey battleships looming at the edge of the heavens.

You walk. The leaves are heavy, the not-yet-rain a little thicker beneath the trees with a smaller, denser downpour. You hope the rain does not grow. Your coat is not meant for the damp: it is soft and delicate, with velvety fuzz cocooning the outside like the warmest dryer lint made into fabric.

    • _

    Your coat was not meant for men, either, but you think it suits you just fine. It was too nice to give away, all those years ago. And with that thought, the scars on your chest, twin cuts just beneath your pectorals, tingle in the periphery of your mind.

    Your nerves. They spark electrochemical action potentials down central and peripheral fibres, chatting away with the rest of your body, but the rest of your body doesn't hear it. You don't feel what sensation is experienced there. Your nerves are still regrowing along the pale scar lines, and it will be a long time before you stop experiencing that jolt of nonsensation when you trail your fingers down your skin. The surgeon said it would take years. Decades. Maybe a lifetime, before you go back to normal.

    But what's normal for you? You had gained initial feeling back faster than they thought.

    You’ve always been an outlier.

You walk. The air has thickened. Become murky, like soup let to steam on low heat for too long. Flowers on the sides of the path, brilliant bluebells and violets, bow beneath the weight of the heavens, and something like dew burdens your shoulders, too, for a moment — but you are able to shrug it off. You identify it quickly. The rain is thicker now, and you are ill-equipped for the weather. It will ruin your coat, but you are not dismayed. You do not let yourself become dismayed. It's not resignation, and it is not denial. As the grey fuzz soaks into your shirt, you think: you made the choice to wear your coat, and now you're facing the consequences.

What has happened has happened. The purpose of regret is to help us change our behaviour, similar to how pain reminds us not to touch a hot stovetop. But feeling sorrow or regret in the long-term is not learning. No need to feel bad over what is now unavoidable — no matter if you go home now or later, you will be soaked. No purpose in running home with your tail between your legs, and no need for crying over spilled milk. What's done is done.

You breathe the sweet honeysuckle air of spring rain, taste the asphalt-dust and pesticide-ashes as they stir, rise, flush from the world, and turn your face to greet the sky. The heavens burn blue and grey, a whirling mass of stormclouds and water-heavy currents colliding like the twin seas of Grenen. Far below the waters of the upper atmosphere, misty droplets settle on eyelashes and glitter in the storm-grey sunlight like diamonds.

You breathe. In. Out. In, out. And you open your eyes, and you keep walking.

There is a stick on the path. Or no, it is a branch, thick and long and straight in the way that most artists think branches are and all woodcutters know them not to be. It looks like some type of birch, or maybe some thick, knotty highway Scotch Broom that made its way from the yellow sides of the highways where it grew like wildfire in the suburban jungle. Jungle isn’t really the right word for the world you lived in, though. There is a sidewalk beneath your feet, a street to your left, a great big bluff to your right. Every year, on the bluff, some kids snuck off from their parents and jumped down the side of the cliff, thinking that the bottom would come sooner than it ever did. The aftermath was seen not as bones and corpses, but as fresh flowering wreaths set atop drying bouquets leaned upon crumbling garlands, all with soggy little paper cards long since faded.

You walk on springy green grass freshened by decades of teardrops.

There is a branch on the path. It does not block your way, but lies slightly off to the side. Innocuous. Lonesome. Straight. Beautiful. It is pitted with nodules and whorls, gorgeous curls and warps, but it is still the straightest, cleanest stick you have ever seen. Maybe you should go out walking more often, if this is what you can find.

You pick up the branch. You strip it of its sub-branches and yellowing spade-shaped leaves. You test the heft of it, examine the half-shorn bark for signs of rot. You aren’t walking anymore. The rain has become what it was always meant to be, a dull roar collapsing upon the earth and mingling with the crashing of the waves at the base of the bluff.

In the rain, your shoulders and sleeves are soaked, grey velvet cowering in on itself.

The branch is firm in your grip. Smooth, strong, proud. You want to take it home. You have always liked staffs, appreciated the smooth, cool heft of grain in your hand, the calm assuredness of strength and the means of digging your way through mud if you had to, or poking at crocodiles. You never did those things, of course, but you liked the thought of it. Nowadays, you liked how staffs looked, how they made the bearer seem competent and self-holding.

The desire to take it home is almost overwhelming. You want to bring it with you. You want to carve it. You want to make it yours.

You look up at the sky. You look down. The world thickens, and you are at your workbench. Dry. Inside. Coat off. You have the branch before you. It has been picked clean of bark, its inner layers soiled by the downpour.

You are mechanical, rote, unthinking.

Water damage. Some tunnelling insect's marks. You'll need to fix that. The underlayer of wood is dark, dense, and marred by thin scrapes. Like squirrel scratches but bigger. Did you do this?

No matter. You breathe. Become not surprised, not disgusted, but disquieted by the thick, unventilated air of the space. Do not look around, just examine how it feels in your chest. How it moves in your lungs and throat. The dry, heavy feeling of dust and arid-loving mildew and half-open paint cans is soaking into your clothes, your skin, your eyes. It hurts. You feel it heavy on your tongue, this beige-yellow aroma. It soaks into your pores and you can feel your skin turning solid and dense like compacted sawdust from its ministrations.

The branch. You return to it, bring your attention back. It is on the workbench before you. It is less straight than you had thought, bent like a flattened C, and its base is marred by repeated impacts against concrete – again, did you do this? You must have tested its reliability against the ground on your way home, splintered and shocked its core against the sidewalk by using it as a walking stick. That was to be its purpose, after all, so why not try it now, when the rain was pouring down?

But you were inside now, and you were filled with regret. Or no, not filled. It simmered there in the gutter of your soul, peeking out in much the same way a rat looks up at bathroom lights from the wrong side of a grated shower drain. You had the staff before you. Or no, it wasn’t a staff yet. It was young still. It smelled like green, like the way living wood is when you peel back the layers of nutrient-rich skin to expose the muscle. It is a clean, almost minty smell, like fresh-cut cucumber and snapped celery. A young thing like this, not yet cut and sandpapered and bent lacquered and oiled into shape, cannot count as a staff. This is a branch. Something unfinished. Potent, brimming with possibilities. Something that is yet to be.

Cucumber and mint. Celery. Such a strange smell to mix with sawdust. You wish you could keep the smell forever, but that was impossible. All fresh things die eventually.

The sharp, acrid odour of teak oil. Your hands are moving, your body bending to pour. The glut glut glut slopping of a liquid, something that looks like high-proof alcohol, warm and silky as it flows from the bottle to the cup. How do you describe the smell of teak oil? You can’t. It smells like old ships, but not really. It smells like a new car, but not really. It smells like fresh lumber in storage, but not really. It smells like a fire in a chemical factory, hot and sour. It smells like sap dripping from a pine, like woodchips laid fresh on the playground. It smells like asphalt after rain.

And at the same time, it smells like none of these things. What can you use to describe what refuses description?

Better to describe how it feels on your hands. You rub the oil down on the wood, after you are done sandpapering it (when had you done that? You can’t remember, but whole sheaves of high and low-grain paper alike are clogged, spent, and lying in the paper grocery bag you call a recycling bin). The oil is thin, slippery like water and not like the lipids it claims to be. It has a texture to it, like it is made of fine sand. But that's not what makes it memorable, you realize. A thing like teak oil can't be described in just one sense.

The oil is not like other oils. It is not like vegetable oil, where it sticks to your skin. It is not like olive oil, where the smell clings to your nose. Well, that does happen, for teak oil. But not like how you would think.

No matter. You take a paintbrush and the cup of oil, and you slowly, methodically paint the starving young wood in a sleek sheen, whereupon the oil soaks to the grain like water to parched soil. It starts slowly, sitting uncertain on the surface, and then is sucked in to leave not even the dark gloss of moisture for trace. You apply another layer. Another. And each time, the wood grows heavier, yet it is still hungry.

No matter. You apply another layer. Wood is ruined by sun. Heat. Rain. If you had left the branch out any longer, it would have rotted. Teak oil prevents that. It also prevents you from thinking straight, you have heard. It’s not a drug, per se, but it is close: in unventilated environments like yours, the fumes work as a depressant. Like alcohol, or an opiate, or a benzodiazepine. You suppose your fixation on the smells and tastes of the world at the moment may be influenced by that.

Would it kill you if you drank it?

But that’s all a life beside your own.

The rain pours, and you gasp wetly, cough up a lungful of water you had breathed in over the minutes. Your hands, waxy and white, grasp the wood, stiff and almost numb from the cold. In the rain, your dreams are dispelled, and you find yourself. You are no poisoner. You are no woodworker. You are just you: standing outside in the rain, clothes soaked by the downpour, musty gloom of a workshop forgotten and alien to you because you had only been there once, in an old dream dark with the smog of recall.

The rain pours down. You are soaked, shivering. The branch is heavy, your muscles weak. You didn’t anticipate it being this hard to bring home. You stiffly plod along the path, hoping you hadn't wandered too far when you had lost your senses to daydreams.

Do you even want to bring the stick home? Do you really want a staff? You have wood at home, and you can always buy the staff you desire from better, more experienced people. People who care about their work. But you don't buy it from others, because you feel the need make it yourself.

Are you taking the branch home, picking away at the bark with your fingernails and stomping the end to the ground to test its use as a walking stick, because you want to remember some long-forgotten aspect of childhood? Are you trying to relive all those times in the woods with your friends where you picked the best sticks and battled your way through thickets of devil’s club to get at the sweetest, ripest huckleberries you had ever tasted?

The ground has turned to mud beneath your feet. The scenery has changed. You are at the base of the bluff, the fence of flowers and garlands now as high as the clouds. A cliff of sandstone is at your back, and you are facing a stormy, angry sea. Bull kelp writhes at the surface like a swarm of oily eels, blackening the waves.

When did you get here? This is not the way home. This is where you had played when you were a child, back when you had friends. Why are you here now?

You do not cower, but your soul does. You are weary. Filled with regret. Where is everyone? Rain washes down your face, down your body, freezing. The pebbles beneath your feet shift with crabs, and you see it, do not feel it. You waver, buffeted by the wind, no more protected from the weather than the trees or rocks.

On the beach, alone because everyone with sense has gone home long ago, you stare at the branch, held aloft with a stranger's fingers. It stands up before you by itself, by its own power, like it is holding back the might of the sea. Of the world.

Why are you here? The question is a quavering wisp of thought in the vast expanse of your skull. You shake yourself dimly, more befuddled now than you had ever been in the half-dreamt workshop where you had constructed a memory to cloak yourself. Why do you need to make this staff on your own? Why not enlist, or pay for, the help of others?

The seaweed shifts in the water before you and you crouch to the ground, reminded sickeningly of live anchovies writhing in a bin.

The staff is numb in your fingers. Do you make your own work, shoddy as it is, for the pride? For the clout? Or, perhaps, do you keep the work you do for the sake of having a hobby? Is the staff something to idly work on in your spare time so you can feel like you are making some progress in life, like people who track the growth of their plants? Or is it for none of that — perhaps, maybe, is it for novelty?

Do you keep the staff because you are bored?

Something shifts. An altered sense of being, perhaps. Do you remember what it means to be human?

The rain is done soaking your shoulders, and you are someone else. The rain trickles over your marble clothes, across your polished granite skin, down the craggy lines on your chest. You glisten, cold and still in the moonlight, and you do not breathe. Down at the base of the bluff, where only the dead will see you, you do not think. You simply are. When the sun rises, the locals will find a person of stone holding a branch, the top half carved to become an intricate staff, the bottom a rough, splintered mess of wood pulp and mashed leaf litter. And lower, at the base of you, huckleberry bushes will grow and bear fruit, and in the morning the sea will glow red and gold like a wildfire seen from the highway. Devil's club thickets will envelop the beach, and you, a statue, will stand there, patient as summer's heat at dawn, and wait for change to take you by the hand and make you come along.

No.

Something stirs in you, and you shake yourself of the rain. Droplets scatter in the rain, your own private rainstorm from your shoulders, and you find, watching them, that there is some semblance of warmth left within you. Do you really want to stay here? You do not. It is cold. You want to go home. And so, instead of waiting for the world to transform around you to suit your needs, you move on your own. Your legs do not want to walk, but you make them. Your lungs do not want to breathe, but you force them, ragged breaths with the limp sacs of tissue in your chest. You walk, one step after another, clambering stiffly over the rain-slick rocks and tidepools, through the marsh and the cattails. Up the old trail where you had clambered as a child. Over the exposed roots slick with rain and old blood.

Do you have the dignity to accept your losses and move on, or will you succumb to forever seeking experiences you can never truly regain?

You shamble. You climb. And eventually, you make it, disheveled and soaked at the bone, to the top.

At the top is rain. Soil. Asphalt, flowers, bones. Old, yet new. In your hand is the branch, stone-cold as it had been on the beach yet feeling stranger somehow, like it has been divulged of its essence, and through water-blurred eyes you find that it has changed. Rubbing against the rock and soil on your way up, grinding against pebbles and sand, has transformed it from a half-stripped stick to a gorgeous, intricate staff. In the grain beneath your wrinkled fingers, you can feel the dry spines of sea salt, the remnants of crushed petals from the fence with the names of the dead, and the lingering residue of teak oil from what you thought had been a dream. You gaze at it in wonder, eyes clouded, forgetting, for a moment, your goal. That you want to return home.

But your thoughts wiggle in the back of your mind, weak but omnipresent, and you tear your eyes from the past. The staff you hold is a symbol of things gone by. You are at the top of the bluff, your back turned to the sea. The staff has no purpose now. There is a road before you, and at the end is your house, distant but warm. Do you wish to continue this cycle, hoping that the things you bring home will let you relive the lives you once walked, or will you find a way to make change from within?

The rain has stopped pouring. Do you leave the stick in the rain?

Ah, now I remember what this feeling is called. Malaise.
Elden Ring has eaten my brain and time. Help.

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