Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I
Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings. One of the bridges goes nowhere, ending four feet above the ground behind a solitary Chinese restaurant, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it used to reach. On the east bank, sitting mostly by itself between the paved river walk and the ties of an abandoned stretch of railroad, you’ll find the county art museum, a sliver of white concrete and glass.
Most people are wrong, as it happens. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and the real explanation has nothing to do with the river. In the early 1840s, a pair of hearty Dutchmen were surveying for the highway that would link the port and railroads of the urban south to the farmland and sawmills of the north woods. Here, nestled among the ridges and kettles that the glaciers’ icy fingertips carved out eons and eons ago, they planted the sign that marked the halfway point along that road. A resting place for weary travelers. A city born of exhaustion.
I am so fucking tired.
The thing is—and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself—I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.
The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.
Both the printed and electronic maps call the painting White Moose, but the name on the museum placard is Katabolism. The word has something to do with digestion, with the extraction of energy from chemical compounds. The first time I saw that title, I thought the artist was a pretentious fuck. Now I’m not so sure.
In any case, the title on the map is an accurate description. .The oil painting shows a white bull moose, lumbering through a landscape that looks not unlike the glacial moraine that gnaws perpetually at the city limits. He’s no local fauna, though, and he’s bigger than life-size on the canvas: seven or eight feet high at the shoulder, his antlers spread off the edges. The antlers are thin and asymmetrical, with six points on his right and seven on his left. His eyes are the same color as his coat, slightly filmed.
Every time I see him, I think how much better I would feel if he were an albino, a lovely red-eyed creature like the rabbits and sometimes deer that I find stumbling in my backyard in winter, when the snow-reflected sun is too bright for them—something natural, fragile, and not-at-all sinister. But the white of the moose is not an absence of pigment. His color is something creeping over him, coating the duller, natural life underneath. Every time I see him, the white has spread a little farther.
The placard gives only three initials and a year: Y. L. H. 2012.
If you’re one of the people who believes that Blair is dead, then near as I can tell, this is the painting that killed them.
I’m not certain, yet, if I’m one of those people. But then, I’m certain of very little where Blair is concerned.
They were not my son, and they were not my daughter; but what they were remains unfathomable and changeling. I’m not talking about sex, those hundreds of quiet and not-so-quiet confusions that stalked my child for the seventeen years of their life in this city. I am talking about how hard it is to even think of Blair as my child—to claim Blair as mine, when they seemed so determined to be anything but.
(Speaking of Blair in the past tense has started to come naturally, and maybe that’s the most fucked-up thing about this whole mess.)
When I get home from my shift at the library, I stand in the laundry room at the back of our little bungalow, take their t-shirt from the hamper, and smell the cinnamon scent of their shampoo. I can’t remember their face, not really: only pale skin, dark eyes, red hair that was always too long and always faintly damp. White as daisy and red as sorrel, or however that fairytale goes. I don’t even have a photograph.
I stand in their bedroom beneath the pitched roof of the eastern gable and smell the stinking richness of their favorite myrrh candle, which is still cemented to the window ledge with its own gray wax. The desk beneath the window is littered with sheets of the cheap, yellowish paper that the secretary at the Catholic church on Kilbourne let me rescue from the recycling. I can’t see any words or lines of ink, perhaps because whatever was there has faded after so many months of sunrises. Or maybe there was nothing there to begin with.
Alone in Blair’s bedroom, I cover my mouth with both hands and say things that a mother should never say to her child. The words tear their way out of my throat like knives. I beg them to come home, you little bastard, come back and stop all this bullshit about the paintings, about Y. L. H. and the things we see in the forest. Please, come home. You’re killing me.
Finally, when I am too tired to beg, I tell them to go fuck themself.
But to begin at the beginning.
January, grey and dreary, and school was back in session after a tempestuous winter break. I found out from the newspaper that a membership card for the art museum cost twenty-five dollars, fifteen with student identification. I got a letter from Blair’s art teacher and that was good enough for the woman at the ticket counter. Unlike me, Blair never had a talent for words. They pulled Ds and Fs in one English class after another, losing books, failing to turn in essays. I thought art might give them whatever we try to get from stories.
Once upon a time there was a forest, ‘savage, rough, and stern…’
From that first afternoon, all they could talk about was the White Moose.
“I think he’s one of them,” they said.
We were walking home along the east bank of the river, where shards of brown ice ground against the shoreline. On either side of the path, the Rotary Club’s rosebushes slept under cones of yellowed Styrofoam. I was cold and only half-listening.
“One of what?” I asked.
“You know. One of them from the forest.”
And in the savage forest there lived a mother, and her child…
I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye. Their hood was pushed back despite the cold, and their hair glinted like copper. Hair like a lost penny, my mother always said. She was a woman to whom anything beautiful looked lost.
“In the painting, I saw ripples on the leaves at the bottom,” Blair said. “The light’s distorted, almost like they’re underwater. But it’s just him. He fills the whole kettle—the whole canvas. It’s just that he’s denser in the shape of the moose.”
No, I thought then, it’s impossible. In the January daylight, I wasn’t even disturbed.
“That’s only the style,” I said. “Don’t make something out of nothing.”
On our left, a brick staircase ran from the river walk up to the Fourth Street Bridge. I began to take the steps two at a time.
“It isn’t nothing,” Blair said stubbornly. “Whoever painted that picture must know about them.”
“No one else knows about them, Blair.”
They weren’t following. I looked back over my shoulder and saw them staring, not at me on the stairs, but at the glimmer of black water threading through the ice.
“Who do you think the artist is?” Blair asked. “Y. L. H.?”
… a mother, and her child, and a witch.
“I don’t have a clue,” I said, and kept walking. I meant: I don’t want to know. Let’s not find out.
Or maybe it began before that.
Maybe it began the day Blair told me that they were not a boy, and the only thing I felt was relief. Does that sound terrible? Does admitting that make me an awful mother? I don’t know. But I know that I had never wanted a son. I didn’t grow up with brothers or cousins, only with the faces on the news, and the broad and smirking faces in the bars south of the depot, the hungry faces trailing tired women in convenience stores, the post office, the high school gymnasium. Savage, rough, and stern. When I imagined having a son, I imagined him growing up like that. I’d never wanted to deal with that kind of man, and I can’t help but feel, guiltily, like I was granted an unspoken wish.
Blair’s father had that particularly male helplessness, sucking and draining, pressuring and pleading, and both the best and the worst you can say is that it doesn’t leave bruises. I can remember all those nights in supermarket parking lots or under movie theatre marquees, when he had followed me somewhere on the bus because he just had to be sure. “I’m such an idiot, Joan,” he would cry. “I always knew I’d do something stupid like this and make you leave me.” And because he was pitiful, because he needed saving, I had to tell him I’m not going anywhere, baby, and hold him while he sobbed.
In the end, he was the one to leave. He found the energy somewhere, and followed the freeway south. Maybe this all started the day he left, and I stayed. The day the forest pulled me stronger than he had pushed, in the way of every fairytale without a happy ending.
One evening in February, a week or two after that first visit to the museum, Blair was late coming home from school. Not late enough for me to really worry; merely a dress rehearsal for everything yet to come. I sat by the kitchen door, watching the sky darken and considering whether to call, when I heard the front door snap against the siding, and Blair swept in with a slushy gasp of twilight. They were looking at something on their phone as they stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.
I closed the book whose pages I hadn’t turned in half an hour.
“Where have you been?”
They shrugged. The shoulders of their thrift-store jacket were fuzzy with dust. “Downtown,” they said.
It was a chance laugh, to break the tension that wasn’t quite thick enough to acknowledge. They looked at me without smiling.
Victor’s was a café on Rhodes Avenue, the very edge of downtown. I don’t know what the cavernous pile of red brick had been originally, with its alcoves and square turrets like the growths of some rhomboid crystal, but the interior space glowed with recent renovation, all waxy yellow wood and bare Edison bulbs. The coffee was mediocre, the pastries gluey and flavorless, but they housed a spectacular collection of shit: knock-off Tiffany chandeliers, assorted sporting equipment signed by virtual unknowns, and musical instruments missing strings or vital knobs. The café was a garage sale written by H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated by Virgil Finlay.
“What’s that on your phone?” I asked.
Their fingers tightened around the pale blue case, an almost undetectable moment of hesitance. But they passed me the phone without a word of complaint.
I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Dim and indistinct, with the hallmark shallowness of a cheap cellphone camera, the photo showed a woman sitting at a high table at Victor’s pastry counter. The first thing I noticed was her scarlet leather boots, the black heels hooked over the rung of her chair. The second was her hair, white as milk and hanging down to her thighs.
I felt a creeping chill up my spine, like the sensation you get when you swim into water that is suddenly deeper than you expected.
“It’s her,” Blair said. “Yelena Linden Hersh.”
I handed the phone back. “How do you know her name?”
“I asked, after I took the picture.”
“How did you know who she was?”
Instead of answering, Blair swiped their screen and passed me the phone again. It was still Victor’s—I recognized the pounded tin on the wall. Blair had tried to photograph a painting, but the phone camera wasn’t up to the task. The texture of the canvas stood out prominently. So did the globs and ridges of paint caked along the bottom. It looked like a painting of a bog, some vast surface of black water, and the thick knobs of paint bobbed along it like something alive.
“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Look at that one towards the front.” Blair tapped a red-enameled fingernail against the screen, on a pale blur in the foreground. “It looks like a frog, doesn’t it? But there’s a woman just under the water. That white thing rising to the surface is her breast.”
The sick feeling had traveled to the pit of my stomach. “Blair,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. The painting was at once too strange and too dreadfully familiar.
Blair slid the phone into their jacket pocket without another word. They tucked a lock of flame-orange hair behind their ear and stepped into the living room. I heard the static click of the analog television turning on, and took a slow, shuddering breath.
What do you call the opposite of déjà vu? Not the sense of a recurrence, but its inverse: The feeling that this is a moment to which you will return. That was what I felt, envisioning that painting by Yelena Linden Hersh. That small breast in the water, beckoning like a ghost.
The things in the forest are still there: still filling the kettles like mist and twisting the light like water, still pulling at my heart like every hunger in hell. They haven’t gone away just because Blair did. It’s not that I thought they would leave—just that it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. I don’t know the shape of this puzzle, remember. I can’t begin to imagine how all of it does or doesn’t fit together.
But they are still here, as much as they have ever been. Vaporous and vast, they seem as much air as flesh, although sometimes I can make out a shape—a deer or elk, or else some long-snouted, carnivorous thing. Soft black eyes emerge from the places where they are densest, and nearly human mouths shape words I can almost understand. Sometimes I think they are drawn to me, although this might be abhorrent self-flattery.
Some mornings, just after sunrise, I walk down to the woods behind the bungalow. For an hour or two, I sit very still on the remains of a farmer’s fieldstone fence, holding out my empty hand. They come to me out of the water, out of the air, and they kiss my palm as though tasting for sweets.
Some of these mornings, I have seen Yelena Hersh in the forest, walking in her scarlet boots. Her black jacket is buckled to her chin and she walks briskly without looking down. I called to her, once, but she didn’t even look my way.
There is nothing strange about her being there, I try to tell myself. It’s a small city, and the trails through the forest are popular. I have seen a lot of people walking. But she’s the only one I’ve ever seen when they are around.
In March, the art museum hosted a show of local women artists. It was mostly watercolors of cats and pencil sketches of tractors; also a quilt, a ceramic beehive, a few mercury-glass sculptures that I couldn’t figure out. The latest offspring of Yelena Linden Hersh’s brush hung just outside the gift shop, between a pastel sketch of sleeping kittens and a rack of dusty scarves.
It was called Anabolism. Which is the opposite and complement to katabolism; it’s a kind of reassembling, the re-linking of molecules after the body grinds them up for energy. Anabolism is how the body lengthens bones and grows muscles. How it makes more of itself, I guess, out of everything it takes in.
The painting showed Blair emerging from a pond in one of the larger kettles. The water came up only to their knees, but there was a weirdness about the ripples that made me think Blair was floating rather than standing on the ground underneath. There’s no telling how deep that water is in the moraine; geologists say it can be as little as two or as many as two hundred feet.
In the painting, Blair was naked. Each skinny muscle tensed in the cold, layering blue shadow on pale skin. The slight tuck of the waist looked like a teenage girl’s. The flat thighs, even larger than life on the canvas, seemed small enough for you to cup your hands around—to snap with a flick of your wrist. I don’t remember the face.
“What if people recognize you, Blair? What if kids from school go to the museum?” Arms folded across my stomach, I sat on the sea chest in the corner of their bedroom. Despite the asthmatic chug of the heater, everything felt cool and damp to the touch. The candle on the window ledge burned greasily, leaving a myrrh-scented streak on the ceiling.
“Blair?” I repeated softly.
They looked up from the spread of paper on their desk.
“What do you think people will say?”
“Fuck people,” Blair said. The thing that lurked in their eyes was tense and coiled, too ravenous to be fear.
Here is the damned thing, or one of the many damned things in this whole hellish business: I can’t prove that Yelena Hersh had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance. I can’t even prove that Blair began meeting her. Those fucking paintings might have been proof once. They aren’t any more. They still exist, but they aren’t Blair any more. And maybe I’m mad for thinking that they ever were.
People in this city, they have all the answers they feel like looking for. Blair was a sad kid, a confused kid: it’s all there, wrapped up in whatever was or wasn’t behind the zipper of those weathered black jeans. “Kids like him disappear all the time, Joan,” the secretary at the station said to me. “They just do. Don’t go dragging a woman’s name through the mud over it.”
So where do they go, the kids like Blair? Do they evaporate into thin air? Wash down the river, get carried out to the lake, like all the other flotsam and jetsam from exhausted cities like this? Sometimes I imagine Blair has gone to find their father; other times, while walking over one of the bridges downtown, I think I see their face in the river, floating between mats of leaves. Sometimes the fantasies comfort me, and sometimes they don’t.
Maybe the kids like Blair start spending their evenings with strange women twice their age—women who wear scarlet boots and black wool, who dream of ghosts and monsters, whose hair is white as milk. Maybe they spend too much time wandering in the forest, snooping in the ruins of barns and sugar houses that the maples are slowly reclaiming: maybe they get lost in the woods. Or maybe they get eaten by witches.
Maybe you’re getting frustrated with me now, with my increasingly evident disregard for the facts. What really happened? you may well ask. What’s the true course of events? But the only truth I know for certain is that I am fucking exhausted. You cannot begin to understand how tired I am. And I don’t think that having the answers will let me sleep any more soundly.
Palingenesis. In its simplest translation, it means rebirth. Sometime in the nineteenth century, it got picked up to describe the now-discarded hypothesis that ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny—the development of the fetus proceeds along the same lines as the evolution of the species. Or, in another version, that children become educated by passing through the earlier stages of human society. From barbarity to civilization. Another discredited Victorian idea.
In the painting, Blair could almost be sleeping. Their eyes are closed, the lids wet and purple. Their limbs are folded up, almost fetal, the dry pink of knees and elbows picked out with the medical detail of anatomy plates. The setting sun is at their back, and the blowing leaves have started to mound up around their feet. You can feel the wind gusting from that direction: a bitter, northern wind.
Why is this the image burned into the back of my eyelids? Why do I remember this, and not their face? I’m afraid that’s a question to which I already know the answer.
(Another riddle: If Katabolism is the painting that killed Blair, what does that make Palingenesis?)
I don’t know if there are other things in that painting, or if the bending of the light along the forest floor is just an accident of style. I must admit that I haven’t brought myself to look too closely. The one unforgivable piece of strangeness—the part that would tell you the name of the artist, even if you didn’t see the stark initials in the corner—is the sapling that sprouts from Blair’s genitals. It is slender, leafless, and almost the same color as their skin: a sickly, peeling white with scabs of pink. Where the bark pulls away, the pulp that shows beneath is black as rot.
In the second week of April, at Yelena Hersh’s request, the directors hung Palingenesis at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. They put the White Moose back before the end of the week, after unspecified complaints.
By then, of course, it was too late. By then, Blair was gone.
In our last conversation, the day before they failed to show up for school, Blair told me a secret about Yelena Hersh.
“She has a son,” Blair said. It was Sunday evening, and we were loading groceries into the trunk of the Nissan: cans of beans, boxes of macaroni, and a half-gallon of skim. Everything teetered on the edge of the mundane, precariously normal, until Yelena intruded like a ghost.
“A son?” I repeated, and Blair tipped their head in a nod.
“When she was younger than me, she got pregnant. She gave him up for adoption.”
I frowned, at a loss for the proper response. Blair slammed the trunk, disturbing a layer of late, powdery snow.
“She says the news terrifies her now. It’s all men with guns, men with knives. Men who run over women with trucks and strangle children by playgrounds.” Blair watched me wheel the cart to the side of the car, sliding their hands into the pockets of their jeans. “She’s afraid she’ll see him on the news one day. Or she’s already seen him, just didn’t recognize him as hers.”
The next day, Blair was gone. And I wonder, now, if the news is something that terrifies every mother with sons. Or if we were just the strange ones, Yelena Hersh and I—the Pasiphaes of our century, afraid that we would give birth to monsters.
To early-twentieth-century sexologists, anabolic and katabolic were gendered terms. The female was anabolic, conservative and preserving. She consolidated the evolutionary adaptations of her species, passing them to her offspring. The katabolic male, creative and destructive, was responsible for the mutations, for everything novel or monstrous—two sides of the same coin.
All of that is bullshit, of course. If Blair has taught me nothing else, it’s this—the creative and the destructive chase each other perpetually, like blood and bathwater swirling around a drain. But preservation, that’s the most ridiculous fantasy of all.
Sometimes, I imagine that Blair’s father saw those paintings. That he recognized his child and came to find them, that he offered Blair a better life than I could give them here. This is improbable. As if Blair’s father could be in this city without me knowing. As if he had any interest in art. It’s easier to believe that they left with their father, though, than what the school counselors try to tell me about suicide and statistics and ‘kids like him.’
It is easier, also, than imagining that the forest had something to do with it.
There is a new tree, now, where the dead farmer’s fence runs to a halt some fifteen yards from my property line. A skim of peaty water pools over the fallen leaves, and the tree grows from it, white as milk. I’ve gone so far as to step into the water, reaching for the bark, which looks so warm and soft. But the mud beneath my boot gave way, and my foot sank far enough that I knew the water was something more than snowmelt.
Maybe if I hadn’t stepped back onto solid ground, I would have something closer to an answer.
Or maybe Blair ran away. Maybe you ran, sweetheart, all on your own, without your father, without ghosts or monsters or Yelena Linden Hersh. You were never good with words, and you wouldn’t have left a note. You left me paintings instead, and maybe all the explanation I’m searching for is there. If only I could bring myself to look.
“I know why you don’t like her,” Blair said to me once. It was a morning in late March, before they left for school. We stood on the back deck in our jackets, and with cold, bare hands, they held the birdfeeder steady while I poured in the mix of seed.
“You want to be special, don’t you?” Blair said. “That’s why you won’t believe that she can see them, too. You want them all to yourself.”
On a sudden impulse, I pressed a kiss to their forehead. Some of the seed missed the feeder, pouring out into the slush, but they didn’t turn away.
“Yes,” I whispered, mouthing the words against their skin. Maybe they heard me, and maybe they didn’t. “I always have.”
Katabolism should not be confused with katabasis, which means a journey into the underworld. Katabasis is Dante and Aeneas, Orpheus and Psyche. It’s revelation and love and disaster. Anabasis would be the return, if a return from the underworld is possible—a suggestion for which I haven’t seen much evidence. The words can also mean, respectively, a retreat down to the water, and the journey back inland or uphill.
Some of the reviews in the papers and the online magazines misprinted the titles of Yelena Hersh’s paintings. Anabolism and Katabasis, digestion and descent. The pieces from two different puzzles pushed inelegantly together, and that makes as good a metaphor for me and Blair and Yelena Linden Hersh as any other I could come up with.
The word palingenesia appears once in the New Testament. It describes the new creation, in which the order of the old will be utterly overturned. I’m not holding my breath. But I guess every city has an explanation, even the divine ones. And I guess creation requires destruction—revelation, uncovering, apocalypsis—before everything else.
If you were here, sweetheart, I’d tell you to run.
This city is not for you. You are not tired yet.
Today, by the white tree in the brown water, Yelena Hersh is sitting on the remains of the fieldstone fence. Her scarlet boots are speckled with mud, and a vast white creature like a moose leans down to nuzzle her shoulder. She does not seem to see him. She sees me on the trail and raises one hand, a trembling salute, and her white hair falls around her face like a curtain.
The things in the forest—I don’t think that they are older than us. Not exactly. I’ve begun to think they are us, or us as we will be. That is why the painting called Anabolism has started to look like something else: not Blair anymore, but a white canine thing, a carnivorous thing rearing on its hind legs. Another stage in our evolution. Perhaps the things in the forest are nothing better or worse than our children.
That’s all the Minotaur was, in the end.
I worry, sometimes, that I will wander into the woods one morning and they will no longer be there. It will only be the trees and water and dead leaves, and the unrelenting anabasis and katabasis of a landscape birthed by ice. I think the reason they frighten me is not because they are so strange, but because they are fragile. I am afraid that they will disappear.
Or that one day I will look, and look, and have forgotten how to see.
Megan Arkenberg’s work has appeared in over fifty publications, including Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Clarkesworld, and in anthologies such as The Apocalypse Triptych, Heiresses of Russ, and The Best Horror of the Year. She has won or been nominated for the Rhysling Award, the Asimov’s Readers’ Poll, the Seiun Award and WSFA Small Press Award. She edits the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and served as the nonfiction editor for Queers Destroy Horror!, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. Megan currently lives in California, where she is working on a Ph.D. in English literature.