Learning the Way
When you’re a boy your father takes you
into the woods and comes out without you.
“I’ve taught him long enough. If he wants
to come home he’ll find the way himself,”
he tells your mother; maybe she’s sober
enough to notice, though whether she cares
if she is is a different story. Unaware of
this life lesson in progress, I show up the
next morning looking for you only to find out
you spent last night in the woods alone except
for your wits and your knife, and that you
still haven’t come back yet. Horrified, my
first instinct is to run in and look for you, but
even before this you always had surer footing
in these woods than me; alone, I’d only end
up lost, no help to you at all. So I settle
myself at the mouth of the woods near your
house to wait and watch, heart in my throat
and worry gnawing my stomach to shreds.
Mid-morning, relief floods me when you emerge
from the trees, but only briefly. You aren’t a boy
anymore. Oh, you still look the same as you did
when I saw you yesterday: dark shaggy hair,
scrawny body, dirty hands, blue eyes. But
those eyes hold a look I don’t recognize,
and I wonder what they saw among those
dark trees; you walk as if you’re carrying
something besides yourself out of the woods,
and I wonder what met you there on
that moonless night. I want to rush to
you but hesitate, worried you won’t
remember me in this new state, but after
a moment you give me a small smile and
I throw my arms around you, and you
hug me back tighter than you ever have.
The darkness comes back when you see
your father approaching, though, and for
once when you push past him he lets you
go without pushing back. Maybe for a
minute he wonders what he’s let loose.
Maybe for a moment he’s finally afraid
of you. When we’re alone I open my mouth
to ask what happened; you look at me. “Don’t.”
Just “Don’t.” It’s all you say. I don’t ask.
I never find out what happened that night.
You don’t tell anyone. Sometimes I see
flashes in your eyes, on your face, new
shadows, and wonder at their source; when
we return to the woods you know more
than you ever did about where to go
and where not to set foot, finding
hollows so beautiful I never could’ve
imagined them existing around here
and pulling me back before I can
twist an ankle in a hole hidden in a
sea of grass. It’s too much for you
to have learned in one night of wandering,
and yet you know it, and more. Sometimes
I look at you, burning to ask once; maybe
you’ll tell. But I bite my tongue, let you be.
Sarah Cannavo is a writer of prose and poetry living in southern New Jersey. Her poems and short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines such as Carrying On, Untimely Frost, Parody, Poetry Quarterly, Postcards From the Void, Schlock! Horror!, Darkling’s Beasts and Brews, The Devil’s Hour, It Came From the Garage!, The Literary Hatchet, Liminality, Horror USA: California, Deranged, Obliquatur Voluptas, Ghosts, Spirits, and Specters, Midnight in the Witch’s Kitchen, Star*Line, Ghost Stories For Starless Nights, The Society of Misfit Stories, The Devil the You Know, and Hookman and Friends; her poem “The 5 Stages of Being on Hold” won third place in the 2018 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest and her poem “Fallen But Not Down” was nominated for a 2020 Rhysling Award. Her short work will appear in the upcoming anthology Horror USA: Washington, and her story “Unreality” was recently published by Alban Lake Press as an ebook. Other projects include doing her best to finish her current novel-in-progress and keeping up a five-year streak of daily poems. When she’s not working on these and other projects, she sometimes manages to blog about these and other projects on her site, The Moody Muse (www.moodilymusing.blogspot.com) or rant about them on Twitter @moodilymusing.