Tell me a story.

1. Sapwood

In American lumberjack folklore, the hidebehind was a fearsome beast that camouflaged itself behind tree trunks so it couldn’t be seen. It stalked wayward loggers, attacked viciously, dragged them back to its lair to be devoured.

The lumberjacks, crammed in single-room cabins and working twelve-hour shifts, marched into the woods daily to cut the trees, to clear paths for roads and railways.

But come night, fires roaring, tucked inside and drunk on warm beer and homemade moonshine, how they dreaded this place, these godly lands. How they feared that the critters the old gods of the woods sicced on them would eat them whole.

• • •

Primordial, is how you describe it. The feeling of being lost in the woods, abandoned to your wits, what you remember from low-budget survivalist TV shows and action films.

I’m thirteen or so. Down by the elementary school, there’s a red-iron bridge traversing a small creek filled with crawfish. Around the bridge, thick woods potted with oak and elm, skyline locust and chestnut and linden between sectioned neighborhoods. I’d seen deer here once, at recess, when I was younger. So I reasoned it’s possible to disappear, this close to home still, if I wanted.

2. Cambium

Pliny the Elder was convinced that deep in the Hercynian Forest there lived birds with feathers that glowed like bonfires in the night. They were called hercinia, and their shining feathers were meant to lead people out of the dark, twisting woods. He sought these birds—many did—and wrote about them endlessly, desperate to prove their existence.

This search for something almighty, ignoring instead the splendid, astonishing natural world itself, the actual birds, their sweet music, how they keep the forests healthy, happy—How much do we leave behind?

How much do we miss?

• • •

Now I’ve come, with a backpack full of crackers, having told my parents I was at a friend’s house, to see how much nighttime I can take in. I stand, let the blue-black come for me, and it’s quiet, once the birds sound off: I hear trees creaking, branches cracking, evening animals I don’t know the names of emerge from their daylight slumbers.

Back home my parents argued, my older brother jammed a steak knife into the wall in protest of his life, being born into this family. He’d hole himself off in the small bathroom and smoke weed, blow the smoke out the open window, hate the very earth this place was built upon.

Here, in these woods, I think about my house. I’m breathing hard. I ask the trees what it would take for me to live with them.

The wind picks up and they roar back at me.

3. Pith

In Irish mythology, the famous King Suibhne was cursed in battle and fled to the woods. Years there, he went mad, but after a lengthy exile he emerged with a mastery over the animals, the birds, the trees themselves. He’d learned their language. He could see mankind for what it was: bitter and mean.

In the woods he’d found refuge and solace—freedom. Not long after, taking shelter in a monastery, Suibhne was killed by a cook envious of the way his wife was looking at him. He couldn’t, any longer, see any of this for what it was.

• • •

At a party my sophomore year in high school, in a friend’s backyard acreage, a bonfire soars up and crackles into the purple dusk-lit sky. People have paired off, are making out on the oversized trampoline, have wandered, hand-in-hand, to fool around on spread-out blankets along the lawn. I’m alone, have only just recently had my first kiss, so I take a stroll in the small woods at the side of the property.

I amble slowly over soft piles of fallen tamarack needles, penny bun mushrooms, viburnum and trillium and toadshade and wild geranium. Way in the back, near the crooked chain-link that squares off their massive yard, I sit on a rotting elm log. My face is red from the fall chill, my knees knocked together. From here, I can see the bonfire lit up brilliantly, can just make out silhouettes of drunk teens laughing and dancing in place, lips pressed together, bodies humping in unison.

I touch the sides of the log where rot has set in and my fingers press deeply into the soft inner parts, velvety on my fingertips. I smile. From here, I can see the whole world.

4. Heartwood

In Swedish folklore, the skogsrå were mythical female nymphs that lived in the vast evergreen forests, lured men—hunters—into the deepest parts, never to be seen again.

• • •

In college, I meet a girl I like in a forest near campus rife with trails and bike paths. We walk next to one another and make small talk about classes, the impending summer break. She rubs her hands tenderly along a silver maple, tells me about her uncle who makes maple syrup from trees in his yard, gifts it to family members. She’s crying when she turns to tell me she’s leaving school. That her ex back home has asked her to marry him, that they agreed college wasn’t for her. Overhead, blue jays and warblers sound off. Then all I can hear is the distant din of traffic, a train whistle even farther off.

I touch the tree with her, lie my palm flat on its bark, carefully catalogue its patterns, the fissures and cracks, the initials of past lovers, dried sap clinging to the carvings like scar tissue.

Together, we are quiet.

We are.

Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at and on Twitter at @robhollywood.

© 2019 Robert James Russell. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, August 2019.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Franco Mateo).




by Robert James Russell