The Woman in the Woods
Papa’s Death and the Orphan Train
No matter how many times Horace told her different, Eliza knew her brother was wrong. The woman in the woods didn’t look the least bit dead. The woman in the woods looked beautiful. With her long flowing hair and a leaf-gold cape, she made Eliza think of an ancient Irish queen. Of course, the woman didn’t speak as she made her way along the trail. The woman was communing with her subjects, the dead and dying trees.
Sometimes Eliza suspected her brother’s heart was an ancient stone, rigid as a dead man’s body. “You don’t try hard enough to remember,” Horace accused whenever he caught her following the leaf-cape of the woman in the woods, “I think that’s why Mother still hasn’t come.”
Horace’s fingers were skeletal thin and oh, so hungry. His eyes dark as empty holes. Once upon a time, before the scream of metal against metal had mixed with all those other screams, before she and Horace and the Orphan Train had arrived in the woods, Horace had been different. Back then Horace had loved the hills on the west side of Manhattan almost as much as he loved these woods. He’d loved rolling barrels through the alley next to their apartment and yelling at the top of his lungs. One autumn day he’d tucked one of their father’s many hand-rolled cigarettes behind his ear and chased a wooden barrel down the steep hill on Strathmore Street, grinning and making Eliza swear she wouldn’t tell, even as he flipped and fell and lay sprawled across the paving stones at the bottom. Eliza had screamed then too despite Horace’s laughter, wrapped her arms round his neck.
“It’s all right, Eliza.” Horace had that sweet smile slipping across his face, the one he saved just for her.
“It’s all right,” he repeated. “I promise. I’m not gonna die.”
And, being little, Eliza had believed him.
Horace, it seemed to Eliza, had stopped smiling once they reached the Iowa woods.
Cholera, Horace had called it when their father died. “Old Mr. Goehle looked just like that,” Horace said as he leaned over the straw mattress, looking at the skeletal man that used to be their father. Horace the truth teller. Horace the unflinching. Horace dragging Eliza down the stairs and away.
“But Momma is still—”
“Orphans,” Horace cut in, ignoring the way Eliza pinched at his hand. “Good as, anyway.”
That was the beginning.
Memories, Horace said, were the important thing. Memories stopped you yearning. Memories kept you from forgetting who you really were.
The women at the New York Children’s Aid Society gave Horace and Eliza black, shiny shoes. They made sure both Eliza and Horace were scrubbed clean. Then they proclaimed Eliza and Horace ready for their new lives. Some kids waved from the train’s many windows. And why not. Goodbye dead Father. Goodbye teary-eyed and raging Mother. Goodbye strangers who ignored your hunger and walked on by.
New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois. And then came Iowa and the lightning storm. Everything a blur of screams and tumbling limbs and sudden flashes of color against the night.
Some memories Eliza wanted to forget: the freshly fallen corpses that had littered the clearing, the splinters of yellowish wood and twisted lengths of bark. Just beyond the train, Eliza had recognized the bodies of the two matrons, still wearing their special matron capes. Though eventually they were gone or “decomposed” as Horace repeatedly explained.
After that came the winter snow and the silence with only the groan of the leafless trees. Until the woman appeared.
The woman in the woods was nothing like the matrons on the train or the mother Horace kept talking on and on about. No matter how often the woman and her golden cape wandered away, she always returned.
Horace and the Passage of Time
Before the trees and the night sky, there had been a city train station, soot-stained. Some kids, like Horace and Eliza, had a parent in tow. Most did not. They all wore clean clothes, black shoes, combed hair. A few kids had a valise or a cloth bag. Horace and Eliza sat together in a corner of the train car, pressed tightly together, holding nothing but each other while some of the bigger boys pressed their heads through an open window waving goodbye. Only the matron spoke to them, checking their names off her list. Eliza hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone besides Horace anyway.
When the train first arrived in these woods, Horace used to cook roots they dug up in the coals of the fire. He used to make forest tea in an old tin can. Now the tin can sat unused.
No more train station clocks. No more conductors with watches. No more New York City time. And yet they kept waiting. Horace had explained so many times Eliza could recite the reasons herself: when something disappeared, rotted, floated away, it was gone and could never come back. That was why they had to wait for Mother. That was why mist and floating and following those matrons wasn’t right.
In the woods, Eliza relied on the sun to reveal the time of day. The maples, the sumac, the ferns helped out with the season of the year. And Horace confirmed how old she was. “You’re such a baby, Eliza,” he said. “You still need someone to take care of you,” he said her. “Eliza, when are you going to grow up?” Who needed calendars and birthday candles? Eliza had Horace.
Time pressed against Eliza’s shoulders. Time sucked the last gasp of air from Eliza’s lungs. Time, Horace said, kept flowing even if no one watched. Mother, he promised, would come.
Eliza was no longer so sure. Time, it seemed to Eliza, was the only powerful magic left; that and the woman in the woods. Though with each day the woman’s magic seemed less real. The woman couldn’t even open her eyes. Some days she seemed more gray than golden, a smoke phantom among the trees.
Some moments are about enduring. Some about forgetting. Others moments have to be re-explained.
Once there had been a man and a woman. They lived in a tenement in the west end of the city. Horace and Eliza lived with them, too. The man wore a black cap. His faded trousers weren’t smeared with forest dirt. A hand-rolled cigarette hung from his lips. When the man talked, his cigarette moved up and down.
The conductor had held out his watch, showing Eliza the time. Still, Eliza refused to go alone. The man said he understood how Eliza felt. Of course Horace could go, too.
People rushed across the platform: frowning people and tear-stained people. Children filled the train cars, leaned out of half-open windows, pressed their faces against the soot-speckled glass.
And all the while the conductor was holding out his watch, showing both Eliza and Horace, explaining why the train had to pull away. “You kids are the lucky ones. A new home. A new life. It’s way past time.”
Silently, Eliza disagreed. Lucky was finding a silver dollar on the sidewalk. Lucky was catching your mother laughing somewhere nearby. Lucky was noticing your father’s smile.
Lucky was not riding an over-full train away from the man and the woman and everyone else Eliza had ever known—everyone except for Horace.
Eliza Becomes Time
Time endured. Time forgot. Time played and watched the woman in her golden-leaf cape walk the woods, her eyes closed. Some days the woman’s face seemed to vanish into mist or smoke, no different from Horace’s campfire when they first arrived.
Watching the woman didn’t feel lucky anymore. The woman in the cape made Eliza feel sad.
Eliza trailed the woman round the birch with its split trunk, through the stand of pines. No matter how many times they looped through the trees, Eliza always kept a little less than three feet away. Horace would approve of her careful distance. But Eliza wasn’t so little anymore. Eliza had her own thoughts.
“Hey,” Eliza called. “Hey,” she repeated when the woman didn’t answer, didn’t falter, didn’t change in any way. The woman’s pace was as steady as a train on a track that hadn’t yet broken.
Eliza sped up. Despite the cape and the hidden face, Eliza knew the woman’s hair was pale white-blonde and that her lips were a silent pink slash that cut across her face.
Eliza was less than an arm’s breadth, less than a tree trunk’s width away. She could see a dense network of raised veins like maple leaves running across the woman’s cape. And the scent. The woman smelled of sadness and ash. She smelled weary, like someone who’d been walking for a very long time. She smelled like Eliza felt.
Only a single footstep left, less than a foot. Eliza reached out and felt the brittle veins and warm, heavy smoke. Felt her hands moving through the woman into nothingness—the relief of it—not ever coming out on the other side.
Once, long ago, there had been a woman who had worn a green woolen coat. As the conductor closed the final door, Eliza had seen the woman elbowing her way through the crowds to the train car. The woman had called out words Eliza couldn’t recall. Horace said the woman in her green woolen coat had promised—cross-your-heart promised—“soon enough” and “won’t forget,” but all Eliza could remember was her face looking all crinkly and strange.
Eliza had been little then. But everything changes. Even the woman in the woods with her closed eyes and her ashy scent. All changed.
In the empty Iowa woods Eliza and Horace sat on the softened remains of a pine tree. Mildewed remnants of bags lay tumbled across the clearing, along with other things, white and hard. The train cars with their shattered windows lay on their sides.
And still no mother arrived to claim them. Eliza was tired. The trees were dark shadows in an even darker night.
“Horace, when is Mother going to show up?”
“But, Horace, there’s no one—”
“When you’re truly dead it’s even worse,” Horace said.
Eliza stared at the narrow pricks of starlight and the looming trees, only half listening to the other things Horace had to say. The wind wrapped its way through the rustling autumn leaves. And still Horace kept on talking, explaining why she was still so little, explaining why they needed to wait for Mother, explaining the meaning of hope, and family, and the end of time.
“It’ll be better tomorrow, Eliza. I cross-my-heart promise.”
Horace sounding like Mother yet again.