Though the night had already come, the forest was still speaking. Through the slit left by an open window of a hut, the murmur of conversations between leaves trickled in, disguised as a rustle. The trees spoke with a low hum that rumbled patches of sod growing by the walls. The flowers below the windows sprinkled compliments with the twinkle of their petals. The stones beside the stack of firewood in the shed chatted when they rolled on the ground, the intervals between their hops becoming letters, then sentences. But they were interrupted by a hinge-squeak of an opening and closing door, then by boots scraping the loose earth before the porch of the hut.
The man only had to calm the squeak of his swinging lantern and soften his gait to hear, and he imagined them as people: the oaks from the same seed as a family, the few birches covered by shadows and struggling to find sunlight during the day as despondent and destitute factory workers caked with grime, the two large boulders as sour and gloomy businessmen, and the dandelion seeds floating in the river as travelers from distant countries.
The forest was a town, and the man wasn’t alone after all. He could be considered a foreigner who adopted the local customs, happily ambling through the streets to deepen his understanding of local arboreal grammar, complex like the texture of bark; floral vocabulary of bloom and wilt; and stone dialects choppy and brusque like repetitive strikes of flint against steel. In this town built by no man, he took long walks towards the evening and felt like a flaneur. During the day, he had to provide for himself: gather herbs and vegetables, take up a rifle, dive into the undergrowth before the shot and reemerge after to gather his quarry.
The light of his lantern fell on the ground, illuminating, to the man’s surprise, a spiked ball. He crouched to examine his discovery. The hedgehog had no wish to be examined though, so he maintained his rounded stance, rolling even more so inward. After gently prodding it with a small twig, the man rose, defeated but respectful of the mammal’s choice not to make an acquaintance.
“A lonely animal,” he said meditatively. “I hope it has a friend in the forest or finds one—but they’re content in their solitude, aren’t they?” His face became joyless as the light of the lantern fell on his features from below, lengthening the shadows cast by his lips, nose, and cheeks. His forehead was as dark as the sky, and his eyebrows captured most of the glow. They fell down to his eyes which widened, filled with vague emotion, and his chin dropped slowly, elongating his wrinkled face, possessed by rushing thoughts that strived to remain as secretive as a sidelong glance.
“Solitary animals,” the man said, and the words drifted, slowly drowned by the dying tumult of the town—the trees, leaves, and stones were descending into sleep, preparing to wake 1 up at sunrise the next day. The man concluded that he should follow their example and began his retreat.
Suddenly, a patch of red fur flashed by a tree to his side. He lifted his arm with the lantern, cocked his head, and squinted. After a cautious approach, he looked behind the trunk, but no animal met his glance, and he couldn’t discern where the tracks led in the irregular earth, so no trail could lead him astray into the darkness. For a moment, he stood motionlessly, his lips narrowed and his thoughts wild in the wilderness, then continued the retreat home, pondering what creature had passed by but untroubled by any other distractions.
When he reached the hut, he turned and looked back, but the lantern lifted only a corner of the darkness that enshrouded the forest. Only the vague silhouettes of trees were visible.
The man sighed and went inside. He wasn’t superstitious but nonetheless listened to the advice given by the man or woman whose shape and features were now too vague for him to remember. Strange, because he had a good memory for faces. The man pressed his lips together, so that they became pale. The two padlocks let him sleep soundly at night, shielding him from his own imagination and the perplexing ability of the forest to produce mirages of people—entire crowds passing through, visiting glades and waving to him. When he came near with open arms, eager to start a conversation, they disappeared.
Half an hour passed since the man locked the doors, and he was already in bed. Before he fell asleep, he wondered what strategy the chestnut would employ in their next game of chess. They have been playing games for months now with the man moving the pieces for the tree in accordance to its hum. The man would win the next match, he was sure. Then his eyelids were dropping. His eyes half-covered. A long breath. Darkness.
He woke in the middle of the night, believing he heard a noise outside. After listening carefully for a moment, he decided the sound was only imagined or dreamed up and fell asleep again.
Sunlight fell on his face. He yawned, sat up, and stretched his arms to the sides. Then slippers sliding across the floor, the tapping steps, the clung of metal, the whistle of a kettle, the gurgle of poured water, the subtle splash of a falling teabag, and a slurp. His mornings were organized and methodical, and the man was standing by the kitchen counter, drinking calmly.
The aroma of fresh bread he had baked yesterday and of soft cheese he had made from the milk of a goat tied to his hut rose through the air. After visiting the chickens in his shed, he took a pan to make scrambled eggs, placed silverware on the table and sandwiches on the plates. Then he went to a bookshelf and grabbed a hefty tome. Occasionally during breakfast, he would flip through an encyclopedia of solitary animals. The first time he opened it, he was surprised that no man or woman was featured on its pages. So he examined it closer, envisioning two pages glued together and on one of their hidden sides an image of himself. But despite flipping through the tome dozens of times, he never found it as if, in his solitude, he wasn’t a human being, as if he shouldn’t be a human being. After he ate the last few breadcrumbs from the plates and returned the tome to the shelf, he went to the basin and opened the tap. He washed his eyes twice because sometimes his sight tricked him, and he had to blink several times to regain the clarity, sharpness, and form of what he was looking at. After he shaved and scrubbed his hands, he went to the wardrobe and found clothes to wear. He put on a worn cap that covered his brown hair and fit snugly above his gaunt face and opened the door. The man smiled. A small mole on the right side of his head got lost in the wrinkles of his skin. His eyes were brown like the crown of a boletus and would soon be searching the forest floor for one.
The wooden boards of the porch squeaked their goodbye, and the man passed a circle of ferns in front of which he performed every week, reading his favorite lines from a miniature book of puns. Sometimes he even scribbled down his own jokes and then recited them to his floral audience with pride. He wished he could tell them to another person but convinced himself that he was happy in the company of ferns, that he was happy alone, no matter how fallacious his argument was.
The man stepped into a crowd of flowers, shrubs, and young trees, chatting in their floral languages, eating nutrients from the soil like pastries with their roots as hands and drinking the moisture like coffee. This copse was a cafe, and the rustle of its customers against the cargo pants of the passing man was thorned with curses and insults. What imprudence to clumsily knock over chairs, ruffle someone’s hair, and step into a freshly served raspberry cake! What a lack of manners!
With an uneasy awareness of his misbehavior, he strained to ignore the plants and to distract himself, looked down at the weaved basket swinging from his right arm, imagining mushrooms filling it to the brink, forming a mound so large he would have to carry it with both hands. He wouldn’t mind also stuffing his pockets, the supplementary storage compartments.
It wasn’t long before he spotted a group of chanterelles in a clump of moss. Their hats glistened like crowns, so it seemed to the man that they were a traveling royal family. He counted—there were five: a king and a queen, two princes and a princess. He pondered their unusual resemblance and smiled to himself but suddenly became poignant in his discovery and crouched quickly to pluck the mushrooms and dispel the illusion. They fell into his basket with fragile, plaintive thuds. The man looked up, compelled to rout sadness out of his expression with a dumb smile. He had collected five chanterelles, so his mushroom picking was off to a good start.
He looked around and squinted suddenly. In the distance, a badger was standing still beside a tree, looking back at him.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep now?” the man said.
The badger lowered its head and disappeared into the shrubs.
“Unusual…” the man said. He lowered his eyebrows and creased his forehead. His face became dark and gloomy. “Solitary animals.” He stared ahead absently. The words were the only sound in the forest, and they were hanging in the air for several seconds until slowly sinking into the earth like dark seeds.
He continued his walk along a narrow trail, grass receding to patches of beaten earth broadened and smoothed with his frequent walks. It was a freeway, leading him to his favorite grocery stores—the clusters of mushrooms ripe for picking. A few minutes of a cautious search and a white puff by the trunk of a tree caught the corner of his eye. A few steps and the man was looking down at a cluster of oyster mushrooms. He squinted at the white stems which squeezed through the cracks in the bark, and the fungi became a group of children, squeezing through the exit of a school after the bell and smiling with anticipation of what games they’ll play with their friends in the evening.
The man shook off a sudden frown that quickly and silently conquered his face. He placed two handfuls of the mushrooms into his basket and took off, convincing himself that he should be satisfied, so he skipped without joy for a moment. More fungi crossed his path, and his hands were full of work, cutting them close to the bottom of their stem, so more could spring from the spores, and storing them away. The man was preparing to return when his eyes widened and he swirled to the side, averting squashing two boletus with his foot. A wild grin appeared on his face. The mushrooms stood in the leaf litter: one short, one tall. They leaned against each other, becoming a man and a woman in a hug. The man shook off the illusion before it became embedded in his memory.
His basket was full, so he returned to his wooden hut using the backroads, the alleys, and the avenues of the forest, pushing through the flora that crowded them.
Having entered, he took off his jacket, hat, and shoes and walked straight to the small kitchen. In one elegant motion, he placed the basket on the counter and began washing the mushrooms, preparing them for a stew. He remembered that a respected chef from the city cooked dishes using those ingredients, giving them renown, but here, far from any town or settlement, no one would come searching for them. His customers could be the surrounding beech trees or blackberry shrubs—using their forked roots and pointed branches sharp like knives as silverware. The flowers would eat without cutting, their stems and leaves too fragile, but could gently scoop the stew with their fallen petals as spoons. The man looked up and envisioned himself as great a cook as the one from the city. He would like to share some of the stew with a guest, a visiting man or woman, but hospitality was unheard of by his old radio, unseen by the mirror in his bathroom, and untouched by the one spare pillow, not because the man was arrogant, hostile, or ignorant but because no one had ever passed by. Not one soul.
He lowered his eyebrows as if lost in thought, then began chopping the mushrooms. He threw logs into his stove, and soon smoke started to weave out of the cobblestone chimney.
While the sun was disappearing beneath the horizon, a cuckoo landed on a cushion of moss growing by the edge of the roof, self-satisfied after sneaking its own eggs into another’s nest, so the chicks could be raised with the help of an unaware babysitter. The bird sat, wallowing in its trickery.
Darkness was surrounding the house, so the man went to bed. He blew out the candle on his nightstand and closed his eyes. Sleep, lying beside him, hugged him tenderly like a woman he could love. And then his dreams came to sit in the middle of the sheets like children afraid of nightmares. His hand furrowed the covers of a blanket as if he tried to touch his nighttime visitors but then stopped. A scraping sound broke through the silence as if claws were scratching against a window. He opened his eyes. The sound lasted for a while, and the man’s eyelids were nailed to his brows. He tried to ignore it, convincing himself that it wasn’t a series of knocks. No lost traveler was at the door, only imagined knuckles were hitting his eardrum, composing a fictional throb.
The next morning, he woke, sat up in his bed, and stretched his arms. His goat, which bleated rarely, had been silent now for a week as if it was let in on a secret the man didn’t know. Though safe in their shed, his chickens became suspicious and fearful. He looked around and got up. The wind outside blew, ruffling the leaves and whistling in the drain pipes. As if holding its breath, the forest didn’t speak, and its floral inhabitants observed the house. A sudden impulse grabbed the man by the hand and pulled him to the window in the living room. The source of the nighttime noise stood before him. A group of foxes.
He examined them carefully and determined there was a vixen and four kits—an entire family but no father fox. Unusual, the man thought, foxes are solitary. He felt pity for them. Perhaps they were abandoned? Mistreated? Or lost their way like people do? The forest stretched for miles and miles without end.
He opened the window, letting them inside. He smiled after they eagerly trotted to his sides and tousled their fur. Later in the day, with a little hesitancy, he set small bowls filled with mushroom stew on the ground, and they ate it gladly.
In the evening, when he opened the door to release them into the wilderness, they stood still in the hallway. They didn’t leave that day, or the next, or any day after.
The man set the bowls on the ground until the animals found their place at the table, and the fox family sat on the chairs along with him. Month after month, they became more dear to the man like his own kin, even more so since he started clothing them. The mother fox was his wife and the growing kits his children. After so many years this was the first time he smiled and laughed out of real joy.
Slowly the foxes started losing hair, their teeth became more blunt and even, their ears moved to the sides of the head and rounded, their noses became small rectangles, and their whiskers fell off. The opposite happened to the man. He was shocked when he looked in the mirror and discovered that his nose was a black dot and his ears were pointed. He was disappointed when he grew orange hair on his entire body. When he was fully furred, he stopped wearing clothes.
Many months later a man, a vixen and her kits no longer lived in the hut but a fox with a woman and her children. He left weeks later, as the home no longer suited him and the conversations of the forest called.
One night, several years after his departure, the mother of the children discovered an old black-and-white photograph with a bearded man, a black-haired woman, and their daughter whom she had never seen before. But the son in the image, his brown eyes and the small mole on the right side of his head, brought a vague familiarity, a sensation warm like a hug given by 5 someone who was no longer there. After this much time had passed, the woman believed she had been living alone in the forest with her children—who often ran through the house, dragging the encyclopedia of solitary animals behind them—but sometimes she was struck by a feeling of absence, and then she would look at the one empty seat in the dining room.
“Social animals,” she said, thinking about the black-and-white photograph. The woman looked at her hands, confused, as if they were willed into shape and form by someone she could no longer remember, someone lonely, someone who wanted a family.
At the edge of the forest, a fox stood, staring at a field, seemingly wondering if a city or a town was beyond the grassy hills in the distance. He was still for a moment before disappearing in the dense undergrowth.