The man appeared at the woods’ edge backlit by the setting sun, casting a long shadow towards me. I’m terrified of the woods at night and knew there was less than an hour left of daylight; still, I followed when he beckoned me deeper into the trees. He was but an inky silhouette yet somehow familiar. I couldn’t help but think of my outdoorsman father and our long walks through the forest before his untimely death.
“Wait,” I yelled as the figure pulled ahead, slipping out of sight. “Who are you? Where are you taking me?” I caught a shadow of movement again, squinting as the sunlight filtered through the thickening verdure.
What was I thinking following an unidentified stranger into the forest? I turned back toward my house, but already it was out of sight. Mother would worry if I wasn’t home by dark. But Father was on my mind, and the way the mysterious figure bounced ahead of me, challenging me to keep up, was eerily reminiscent of him. Mother and I weren’t coping well with Father’s death, and I suppose it had to do with the unknowing of it all. There’d yet to be an explanation, the autopsy scheduled later in the week; all we knew is that his body was founds in these very woods – cold, gray, his dark eyes affixed upon the rustling leaves and blue sky beyond. The forest was Father’s refuge, where he walked to clear his mind, where he imparted life lessons and aphorisms to his grumpy teenage son. I wish I had known he would be taken from me; perhaps I would have listened more closely to all he had to say.
I was running now, the silhouette-man almost out of sight, still silent to my shouts and questions. Stumbling over a fallen branch, I caught myself against a thick trunk, scraping my hands on the rough bark and knocking my head hard enough to scramble my brain. My vision blurred momentarily, and I frantically scanned for the man, terrified he would become another woodland mystery. Weaving forward a few yards, the dark outline appeared standing near a thicket of bushes surrounded by dense bracken. The silhouette-man gestured toward the bushes, and they parted, revealing a dark entrance to a crawlspace.
The figure was featureless despite the sun’s glare having waned; he was only six-feet ahead of me now, yet he was but a paper-cutout. I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought. Still, I advanced.
Quickly the silhouette ducked into the crawlspace and was swallowed in the foliage. “Wait!” I yelled again. I scrambled to the thicket, fell to my knees, and peered into the blackened space. Was I really going to follow an apparition into this dark cave of bushes? But before my rationality could return, I was pushing into the brush, focused on the dreamy light at the end of the dark expanse.
A few feet into the crawlspace, I was overtaken by an indescribable feeling, as though my body had filled with helium gas, and all physical sensations fell away. I could no longer feel the leaves and branches scratching at my back and sides, no longer smell the damp earth. I was halfway through the tunnel now, squinting at the white light pouring in ahead of me. I dared a look back, overtaken by a sound like a strong exhalation, and saw my own body upon the leaves. I should have been terrified but suddenly felt wrapped in soothing warmth. My lifeless body flew back the way I’d come as if the crawlspace was a mouth, and my body a sunflower seed husk being spat upon the grass. The warm embrace pulled me toward the light, and all went white.
I came-to in a sea of light, my vision focusing on a single black figure – the silhouette-man. I looked down, swooning as I realized my legs and feet had become a cut out of black construction paper upon a blank ocean of white. My arms and hands were the same. I tried to cry out, but instead of my intended plea of “Where am I? What’s happened to me?” my entire being thrummed like a tuning fork.
The silhouette-man rushed in, somehow grounding me with his touch. Full of preternatural calm, the man’s face slowly faded from a black cutout, revealing what some deep part of me had suspected all along. When he spoke, I didn’t hear him with my ears, but his voice rose dreamily inside me as if coming from everywhere at once.
“Hello, son,” Father said. “I’m sorry if I scared you; it was the only way…”
“Dad? How are you? What happened? Where are we?”
“On the other side…”
“What? Am I dead?”
“Death is but an illusion, son…”
“But… but… I don’t understand…” The blank expanse around us had become clearer; I was in a landscape of endless clouds and golden light.
“We only have a few moments before you must return to your body; please listen carefully,” Father said. “I’m so sorry I left you and your mother. This place contains infinite knowledge, and I chose to stay here instead of putting my family through the coming pain…”
“What do you mean?”
“The autopsy report will reveal a brain tumor. I couldn’t bear to put you and your mother through the anguish of watching me wither away, tarnishing your memories of me. The medical bills would have bankrupted us… Staying here allowed us all to avoid suffering…”
A tsunami of emotion crashed over me as the pieces came together. Still, at the heart of the torrent was a blooming rose of peace. “But we weren’t ready to lose you,” I finally replied.
“I know, son, I know. I wasn’t ready either. But now you know… Come, you must return before it is too late…”
Father swept me toward a strange halo of flitting light, and as he did so, his features faded away. Once more, I gazed upon the silhouette-man. It was all impossible to comprehend, and I could not bring myself to leave my father’s side. “I can’t go yet,” I said. “I still don’t understand all of this, and I want to talk to you more.”
“I know you do, son, but you must return before it is too late. We have been given a great gift, but our time is up. I love you. I will be with you always.”
“Can I come back?”
“No, you cannot. Nor can I pass through to your side without being stuck in the in-between. We will be together again one day. I love you, son.”
Before I could utter a reply, a magnificent current pulled me through the circle; light and shadow rushing over me. Then, all went black. I opened my eyes and beheld rustling leaves backlit by a pale ochre glow. Slowly I stood, looking around for the thicketed crawlspace, yet it was nowhere to be found. As I made my way home, I shed a million tears upon the damp earth, weaving a trail of tears through the forest.
I would often follow that winding trail back into the woods throughout my life, where I would sit amongst the copse of trees and reflect upon the bottomless well of hope I had been given, a final gift from my loving father. In those woods, he felt closer than ever, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.