The sounds of the footsteps proceed in perfect unison with those I produce as my sneakered feet hammer autumnal ground in these woods. No two twigs fracture the same way, and the various kinds of leaves, as anyone who runs in forests is aware, account for different notes underfoot. And yet the form who also runs, whom I cannot see, creates the same noises as myself, which used to make me wonder what else she owned.
I say “owns” because it is as if she possesses these sounds in advance given that she is able to make them come from her the very moment I make mine. She must know my thoughts as well, because when I deaccelerate, she also slows, at the same rate, in perfect synch with my body.
“Come out,” I say, to the woods, on early Saturday mornings, when the sun hangs so dimly in the sky that it can almost pass for a night cloud. “Join.” But she only answers vegetatively, with the leaves, the twigs, when I begin moving again, as I say, “very well, we will run.”
I come to these woods once a week, always on Saturdays, driving to this town where I once lived. At Christmastime many years ago, after I had left, I made my return, staying at an inn by the sea. It is a curious feeling to sleep in the inn of a place where one once lived. I had an aunt who was the director of a funeral home. She was laid out where she worked for so long. I think it’s like that, or sleeping under your bed, perhaps running alongside someone in the woods whom you cannot see.
In the morning I ran through the town where I had never run when I lived here. I didn’t see anyone, save a woman across the street from the inn upon my return. She had a dog she called a hound. People with hounds will always says that’s what they have and not a dog. Maybe it’s like saying you screened a film when you watched it.
“My hound is very friendly,” she informs me, as I bend over to catch my breath. Running was new to me. The hound trots out of her little yard, which is up on an embankment, dead grass bunched in by a wooden fence, weathered gray, as if demarking the hound’s personal paddock.
“We’re not a running town,” she says, having come down as well. I tell her I used to live here, that I have returned alone, because I have needed to, to show myself I could return. “You look like a woman trying to put your soul back together again,” she said to me. “I know it might be cold comfort,” she goes on, “but if you see smoke coming out of our chimney tomorrow”—the next day was Christmas—“know that there are people out there who care.”
I’ve told people that story before. They are fond of the woman and the hound. The hound licked my hand. I add that in, too. I didn’t really care for them, honestly. The hound was fine. But the idea that I’d be sitting alone in an inn and should take comfort in looking across the street and knowing people were together, happy, warm, spirited, but I was not there, seemed kind of arrogant to me, not that I should talk. She probably meant well. They were new to this place she added. Her boy had special needs, they found the school system accommodating and helpful. Kelvin was happy again. If it wasn’t the holidays I might have inwardly made a temperature joke, but I remember being glad. Their recent arrival would have meant her sense of local lore precluded me. But that’s the way of lore—we are always so much more of a factor in the brand of lore in our minds than the form that actually permeates the world, or just a small corner of it.
My husband had loved this place so much. You have to realize how much he loved it. We stood outside of our home, shortly after we closed on the property—we would not have it long—throwing a football. He wasn’t a great sportsman. It was his way of getting into the robust spirit of the place. “Do you love it here?” he asked me. “I do,” I said, which was true. “But not as much as you do.”
I meant it as a compliment to his ardor. I am an ardor admirer, especially then, having lost the sense that I could feel much of anything. If there are chessboards in the world made wrong, jagged, with heat blisters on their surfaces, one can figure they’d all but envy the flat texture of a stump latticed with lines into vague patterns of squares in rows. I was one of those blistered boards. And when he was away for work, I left. I never looked back. The house was in my name, and I left it, too, and you might say I made it leave him as well. And he went off in the world, and I went off in the world. After the buildings had come down, so to speak. You are strangers when the air is clear and still again.