I know you’re out there. I have to believe that you can hear me. And if not you, then someone. Someone who will memorize these words and tell them back to you, tell you where I went. Where I am.
This motorbike may be dead circuitry but it breathes, Les, it breathes and spews out yellow-scented smoke. The smoke smells so, so yellow that I wish I were traveling backwards so I could breathe it in. Take that smoke inside myself and smell its yellow all day long. But you’re not behind me, are you, Les? You’re somewhere on ahead.
I can only speak to you when I’m not moving. What a change that must be, to hear me when I’m static, when we just couldn’t stop. But now still’s the only way we can be together.
It’s funny. When I drive, the motorbike’s roar drowns out my words – smothers them in oceans of crimson static until I can’t even hear myself think.
Les, this roar, it’s very dark. Darker even than the engines of the trucks that pass my small, fragile vehicle by without stopping. Those trucks’ engines are red too, of course, but they’re different. Less grim, somehow. Isn’t that strange? When I bought this bike to come out after you, I didn’t know it would make such a dark sound. I don’t know how the truck drivers can pass by a small bike making such a deep, dark red sound and not stop.
Don’t they hear it? The roar is the color of blood.
Les, Les, are you there? Listen, Les, I’m not sure how to say this, but –
I think I’m going insane. Listen, I’m on the I90 heading west to Quick Creek. I am parked beside a sign saying Quick Creek, ten miles. Across the road, there are woods where woods have no right to be.
These are flatlands. I’m riding through a desiccated grain belt in the summer, where stalks wither with rainbow sighs as they crackle in the heat. All the forests here in grain country were cleared out long ago. But not this one, Les. Not this forest. Not this one thicket of ancient trees, repeated over and over, every single mile.
This stretch of road was peaceful at first, unfinished with gravel that sounded blue against my tires. Little pings like splashes of blue paint against an undercarriage, tiny scratches blossoming forth into color. A necessary counterpoint to that all-consuming red of the engine. But over these past few hours it’s grown frantic, shifting to a chaotic purple though it’s the same gravel and the same motorbike and the same me…
Les, I’m not sure why these woods bother me so much.
They are only trees, Les. Only trees possessing broken, ancient forms. Only trees with roughened purple bark the color of the gravel against my body. Rustling in orange susurrus, they are only trees. They hide a shadow taking form as I pass by, only trees endlessly, mile after mile of only trees. Until we are only trees. We are nothing to them, nor they to us. In the end, they are only trees.
But I’ll be safe when I reach Quick Creek, Les. Just ten more miles. Ten more forests. Only ten.
Les, I’m parked beside a sign reading Quick Creek, three miles. Across the road are woods. And I’m close, so close now that I see the glowing lights from town reflected by the pale clouds. It is evening. I have passed by seven forests, and each has been the same one as the last – ancient and unmoving, composed of only trees. I wonder if you’re up there, in Quick Creek, sitting in a cheap motel and listening to me speak. Leafing through a book while I drown in this crimson static.
Les, I can’t continue. Yes, Quick Creek is close, but these woods are closer. The shadow is not a shadow any longer. Instead, it is a bear with fur and teeth and claws and a single ear that dangles by a thread. The wound does not look recent. The bear does not look recent. This bear is as ancient as the trees that have been here only moments.
I am sitting here with my engine idling, watching the bear, smelling yellow-scented smoke as it curls up around me. The bear is unmoving, but its fur ripples silently in the breeze. When the breeze is absent, its fur ripples anyway. Its fur doesn’t ripple, but instead shifts uneasily as muscles clench beneath its pelt. Les, this bear is watching me. The worst thing I could do would be to turn my back to it and ride away. Isn’t that what you always said? Never show your back?
Oh Les, this yellow-scented smoke is so intoxicating. I can’t stay on my bike and ride on towards Quick Creek. Stay in that cheap motel and wait for me. The woods are here and I have to enter. I can only move towards the bear because I promised I’d stay safe until I found you.
And with this yellow smoke inside me, I am safe.
I was happy when you left, Les. It sounds cruel, but I knew if I woke up beside you after that night it would end in nothing more than tragedy. Sneaking off while I slept was your way of avoiding confrontation. I know. I respected it. I still respect it. I may be unbelievably selfish at times but I’m capable of that much.
Look, I’m not sure about any of this anymore. Some days on this bike I feel like I’m doing the right thing, coming out after you, but other days it’s just so… hard. I can’t know if you’re listening and waiting, or if you’ve forgotten and this yellow-scented smoke is all for nothing. I fear that I’m unbelievably selfish and this journey is only for me.
But I miss you, Les. You breathe green into this world when you speak. No one else I’ve ever met speaks words as green as yours and missing you is easy. But my imperfections are highlighted by the red roar of this bike, and I keep wondering if you’d really want me to keep looking.
I’m parked beside a sign saying Quick Creek, three miles. The pale clouds reflect lights from a town three miles behind. The road ahead is dark and silent and a single orange headlight shoots out through the darkness, fading slowly into black.
Les. Across the road from me, there is only grain. The woods are gone, Les. They are ancient and unmoving, and I have left them far behind. As I walked towards the woods, I was full of yellow smoke and the bear had only clenching muscles sending ripples through its fur. As I approached, it backed away without turning. It knew, too, that you must never show your back.
Inside the woods were shadows and a rustling orange susurrus that masked the bear with its quiet absence. Walking forward through those twisted trees was dangerous, because at any time the bear may get behind me and strike out at my unprotected back. The trees, of course, were safe. Trees do not have backs. They have only violent purple bark like gravel on an undercarriage.
Eventually, a clearing. The ground was a matted floor of trampled wheat and remains of animals that had shown their back to the bear now lying on the ground, looking up at me. Its eyes, dull and empty before, were pleading. I didn’t know what it wanted, Les. I didn’t know how to help it.
When I emerged from the woods, Les, the one thing I was sure of was that the bear had not forgiven me. I didn’t know what I’d done, and I still don’t. I just know that later on down the line, somewhere, the bear will be waiting with that one ear still dangling by a thread.
I have to go, Les. The yellow-scented smoke is making me dizzy and I still have a long way to go. When I emerged from the woods there were no trees behind me, only a road and a town I’d passed through without entering.
After all, there are no bears or trees in grain country, just wheat cracked raw and open by a harsh summer heat.