Published in Lotus Eaters Magazine 17, 2023.
[To be read slowly, out loud]
You are walking through a deep pine forest. The air is saturated with the smell of moss, covering stones and fallen logs, messy, not planned. There is no path, and you are in no rush, moving forward, without a specific destination. Nature is soaked, every tiny leaf hangs a droplet, bad shoes would’ve been drenched in a few steps, but you’ve got good boots, your feet are dry. The landscape is not mountainous, but hilly, undulating. You can glimpse the horizon from atop rocks at certain vantage points, where some force has brought down a group of trees, making a little obstacle course for you to solve and then leave to its slow decay. The masters of compost, worms and fungi, don’t notice you, you disturb no one. There aren’t many birds and the birds that are rarely sing, not eager to disturb the thick, coniferal silence. The sky is grey but bright, the time of day not important.
Deep among old firs, through moss so thick you sink to your ankles, you see a red wall behind the trees ahead. The red wall stretch as far as you can see from left to right. You walk towards the wall. When closer, you see that it is made of steel, heavy, welded, cold and wet, solid enough to not give off even the slightest vibration when you bang your hand against it. It is painted red from a meter above ground and upwards, below that black, continuing down into the forest floor. It is difficult to grasp its height, because of the low branches, annoyingly brushing you in the face, but it seems to stop somewhere around the treetops, foliage spilling out over the top edge. You follow it down the right.
The wall has rivets, hidden beneath thick layers of paint, the wetness reflecting a pale, warped forest atop the red surface. Above you, large black letters are painted in an alphabet you can’t decipher, a curiously graphic contrast to the chaotic jumble of branches and needles. Pine trees, the most pragmatic of trees, except for maybe willow, no-nonsense onwardness towards new horizons, gladly sacrificing its body to go higher, further, larger, without regard for the supposed grace of the broadleafs, nostalgic in comparison, photogenic and alone atop some hill. Among the needlage above you see pipes, and what looks like ventilation shafts, sticking out of the wall.
You realize that the wall is the hull of a very large ship. Red, hard, wet, and cold, resting sturdily and silently among the trees, wind stroking their flexible stems into soft but loud murmurs, slowly rising, fading, a distant creak. You bang the steel again, but you are not strong enough to make the red hull sing. Instead, you pick up your phone and take a photo of it. The red bleed out on the picture, you lower the exposure to get it right. Your phone has plenty of battery, and you have a battery pack in a pocket, just in case. You annoyingly acknowledge that there is service, albeit weak. You don’t want to use it. You continue along the red wall.
You reach the bow of the ship, the wall curving slightly in on itself until it peaks in a thick round bulbous bow, large as a house, yellow leaves stuck against the wet surface, no moss finding foothold yet. The forest is more open here, swampy, birch trees and big tufts of grass that you use as stepping stones to not get stuck in the mud and risk your good boots. Many meters above you, in large holes on each side of the bow, hangs startlingly large anchors, black, incomprehensibly heavy, geometrically engineered for maximum structural efficiency, secured flush against the hull. No need to cast anchor here, the currents of the forest are much too slow to move something this size. In front of the ship the forest continues, unfazed. You will not go there. How will you get up on the ship?
There is, of course, a way up. Almost all the way back at the stern on the port side, a conspicuously well-placed pine, climbing branches evenly spaced, leaning towards an open door in the hull maybe ten meters up, a lone dark mouth gaping in the vast red slab of heaviness. Up, then in. The inside is boring, as ships are, a standardized design that has stayed the same for decennia. It is also dark, silence pierced by the echoing sound of dripping water, the mossy scent replaced with the smell of disused human objects. Old furniture rotting along the walls, the usual assortment of trash, beer cans, random ledgers torn and strewn across the floor, refusing to decompose due to some chemical coating of the paper, still pointlessly readable. You have seen abandoned places like this before, no need to take a picture here.
After a hallway there is some sort of reception area beneath a broken skylight, tiny birch saplings growing in the dirt on the floor, shadows of bigger trees up on the hull, a couple of sun rays glitter in the droplets falling from the mossy steel frames and the remaining shards of algae-covered glass. There is wallpaper along the walls, once ugly but now creating a perfect melancholic vibe, some sparse graffiti - there is always graffiti, colorful manmade moss, shining indecipherable incantations. This is a place for a photo.
There are other rooms, less striking, but still interesting. In one hangs a large plastic sheet with pockets each holding an individual smartphone, like what they use at those advertising farms, an array of devices simulating virtual customers for advertising revenue, existing solely through assigned and never satiated desires. The smartphones are long dead, the pockets water-filled and covered in algae, individual cables still connected to some sort of router-like object hanging in a plastic string from the ceiling. You give the sheet a flick of your finger and it sways slowly, surprised by touch after unknown years of stillness. After the echo has died out the only remaining sound is water droplets against wet floors, and the muffled sound of the wind through the forest outside. Stairs and signs take you up toward the deck.
Up on the deck, you can breathe the world again. Trees, stretching out in all directions, green, fuzzy towards the gray horizon, low clouds obscuring the view over distant hills. Not a sign of anything manmade apart from this huge ship. It is probably some sort of oil tanker. The deck seems flat, freed from its former purpose by the little forest growing up here, repurposing the steel structure for its own unknown designs. Behind you at the stern sits a large bridge, or whatever the multi-story structure at the end of a ship is called. Painted white, broken windows through which the wind plays eerie sounds, as if playfully adding a spooky vibe to the scene, just because. You almost expect to feel a ping of fear in the stomach, but there is none, you feel safe and calm.
Plenty of species have made their home up here, birds have shat, and moss have grown, providing nutritious opportunities for other plants, which have died and made soil for trees, and so on into a young and healthy ecosystem. Birch and pine trees, a forest of youngsters, no stem thicker than the length of a hand, but greener and more vivid than the dark silence of the old-growth forest below. Nature is more visible here, in contrast to the rusting steel it slowly subsumes. The old-growth forest does not need to contrast itself against something to stand out, it doesn’t care about this ship, or about you.
A squirrel makes itself known, black eyes neutrally acknowledging your presence, and disappears among the branches of a young pine. You hear a large bird in a tree somewhere, but don’t see it. A pale sun comes through for a moment, to quickly hide again.
You walk down the deck, past strange pipes and decaying machinery covered in moss, rusty totems repurposed by the relentless flow of green, moist, delicate pervasiveness. Some odd sights, trees growing out of air vents, a lifeboat filled with water, interesting, amusing even, in that way objects can be when you are alone. You stop and look over the edge of the ship. The views roll their grey ribbons toward the horizon, the sun still veiled, although more confident in its appearance, the black silhouette of a small bird perched on a birch branch surprisingly sings a tentative drill for you, or whoever else is listening, piercing the silence and then fluttering off down the side of the ship. You continue down along the deck.
You reach a clearing in the ship forest, and smile at the sun as it breaks out properly. In the middle of the opening, on a bed of emerald green moss, yet unaware of your presence, sits an octopus. It is about the size of you, tentacles included, skin almost human-like, dry, not wet, and it has a human face. The sun shines on its many arms, slowly writhing, in a positive sense of the word, joyously about, agile flesh reaching for the sun, almost dancing.
The face of the octopus is the face of one of your exes, not the ex, but an ex you remember fondly. You fill in the blanks here, on the face, its features and facialities, and what feelings this particular face brings up in you. The octopus still hasn’t noticed you. You close your eyes and face the sun again, let the glow fill your skull to the brink, until you are pure brightness, a shining golden bowl of wine. You think of the face of your ex and the memories it brings.
You remember a place you visited together with this ex, a trip somewhere, the feeling of foreign air, and the newness of the particular objects of that scene, their touch or taste. A cafe. The chatter of people around you, some tourists like you, some locals, snippets of conversation, a child stopping their tantrum for a moment to regard you two strangers with their big eyes, perfectly framed in the sunlight filtered through unwashed glass plastered with advertising and bleached lists of ice creams. The mother saying something to the child to return their focus to the matters at hand.
You strolled down a main street of this town, towards water of some kind, a harbor or a beach, past houses of a particular architectural style, probably the subject of many years of some historian’s life, devoting their full focus to the static expression of a particular tendency of a temporary community. You laugh together at this endless and seemingly pointless task. There is an uncertainty in you, as you regard your ex-to-be, predicting compatibilities too far off into the future to make any sense from the perspective of that moment. You know that you are overthinking, but you know your ex is as well, and you smile at the fact that you both were right in your stupid little calculations.
Down by the water you sat in some sort of bar, too early for dinner but late enough for beer, the conversation not flowing naturally. In lack of other topics, you talked about your shared future, a future that you both were so subconsciously certain would never occur that you let it stand proxy for any impossible dreams, which, in turn, made this imagined shared future surprisingly desirable. Lost in plans of greenhouses, arrays of tomato plants, hydroponic systems feeding rows of strawberries suspended from the ceiling, views over the foreign city in which you found a cheap apartment, glazed roof tiles reflecting the sunlight into your botanical heaven, morning coffees with your laptops down at the cafe at the corner, talking world news with the aging owner, stretching into noon as you sit in a bustling town square, still somewhat foreign though you lived here for many years now, in vivid conversations with friends eating dinner at your terrace, another couple similar to you, but with a different political make-up, endlessly getting into analyses of the sociological process underpinning this or that particular tendency of your everyday life, and as they continue talking, you pause, and look over the balustrade and out over the city, the sun setting over its churches and towers, steeping the hills and forests behind in gold.
As you talked at the bar the sky darkened outside, a storm or evening, unclear through the people now crowding the place. A few beers in and yet without dinner, you went out into the air, and kissed as the wind picked up and rain started falling, your touching lips framing the scene as a painting, in hindsight overtly romantic but in that moment perfectly devoid of an outside. You shrug at the nostalgic shimmer of the memory, and then at the fact that the nostalgia annoys you in the first place, its faded colors disturbing you, as if the act of remembering put an Instagram filter on the moment, or if it is Instagram itself which have done so, through providing new tools for remembering also taking control over the way the memories are formed, reframing any memories created outside of its stupid little interface. You get annoyed at being reminded of the phone in your pocket, its silent weight with its infinite presence and limitless capabilities. Your eyes twitch, and you spill the golden bowl of wine.
You try to get back into other memories, frying food in morning kitchens, learning their breakfast habits, surprisingly meaty, and drinks with parents, yours and theirs, bad to very good sex, but you can’t make them go live in your head right now. Your ex was not an octopus at this point either, obviously, as you are not an octopus, and neither of you lived in the sea, or on a ship in the forest. Both of you were fully human, all included and with all the extras, strong and agile, afraid of nothing and ready to roll.
You open your eyes. The octopus has noticed you and moved closer, calmly watching you. You sit down, leaning your back at a tree, facing the clearing. You look into their eyes and they look into yours, theirs are just the size, shape, and color they were when you last saw them many years ago. Yours ought to be the same too. You don’t say anything, you don’t want to disturb the silence. The sea of green below the railing whispers its endless hymns.
Tentatively, slowly, they stretch out a tentacle, its suckers frail and gentle like nipples. You pretend to not see it, you don’t need to answer yet, you can stretch this moment further, you know how to play the game of touch. Because it is a game, and everyone who pretends differently is either a liar, or blessed with being one with their physical expression, which would in some way be missing the point of it. You calmly watch their limbs, reflecting the sunlight, strong, not muscular in the human sense, but revealing an octopian power that is hypnotizing and new to you. You look back into their eyes.
The tentacle reaches your foot, and lightly touches your hiking trousers, a fairly rare high-quality brand that you are proud of wearing. The tentacle stretches further. You have never been into tentacle sex, as far as you know, at least. You haven’t tried it either, but regardless of the limbic setup of the situation you don’t want to be intimate with your ex, and you know that neither do they want to be intimate with you. Your breakup was calm and mutual, almost efficient, friendly and professional, like if conducted over LinkedIn. You sat at the large wooden table in their kitchen, some old flowers a bit too withered to not feel overtly symbolical given the situation, making you both feel embarrassed, laughing at it together, a welcome break from the tears. You left their flat and went home afterward, sat down, and looked at the sudden fork in your life, clear and bare like a big Y, or an X maybe, depending on perspective. When you come to a fork in the road, take it. That was a good fork to take. Although technically, you didn’t take the fork, you choose one of them, but you like the quote as it is.
The tentacle is around your leg, not hard, but firm, holding you. The face of your ex looking at you with a sudden display of forced sexiness, submissive or dominant depending on which used to turn you on. This is strange, and fake. You get the nauseating feeling of when someone tries to engage you in something that you do not want, and that they don’t want either, but which they believe that you want. You are happy, you don’t need this. They are probably happy too, and probably don’t need this either. The sun shines stronger now, the fluttering of a bird in the distance brings you out of the downward spiral, the nausea fades.
You are much closer now, facing each other, faces perfectly aligned. The foliage reflecting in their far too detailed irises, ridges of untraversed mountain ranges behind plates of crystal, then wet and porcelain white, interspersed with red, over to skin, then tentacles spreading out a skirt of naked flesh, a body dispersed enough to submerge you in its embrace. You feel their breathing, warm and calm, a low pulse contrasting the arrhythmic whims of the forest whispers. You sync, unintentionally at first, then with purpose. You let them come closer, in a reassuring but not urging way. You touch their skin, and pause, savoring the brittle moment of skin-to-skin connection transversing the corporeal gap, the sun warming your new shared body. You let go together, breathing out, almost laughing, hugging each other, cozily snuggling up in a comfortable and unpretentious embrace, forgetting the weirdness of the situation in favor of the sweet deliverance of touch.
The first kiss takes ages to happen. Whole days pass, just minutes, but with the swift air of full cycles, wind picking up leaves and leaving them elsewhere, branches, grasses, and a tiny white flower rocking gently back and forth. The lead-up is somewhat awkward, with a bodily uncertainness and subconscious sub-social, sub-emotional strategizing, carefully weighing the delicate tendencies of desire that are gleaned from beneath the layers of flesh and intention of the other. You notice how there is so much skin, so much more than usual. Not in any way unpleasant, just different.
Eventually your lips touch. You fall into the kiss for an unknown amount of time, until your thoughts pull you back from the moment, jealous of your body’s mindless activities and their sudden uselessness, a servile but stupid army, eagerly saber-rattling as soon as any potential distraction appears. You tell the thoughts to calm down, but reality is already crisp and clear and it will take effort to fall back down again. There is an obvious uncertainty of who’s in charge, of you and your ex, both eager to let the other take the lead, each with your own arguments of why you can’t be expected to make more than cautionary moves. You have broken up, but that was mutual. You found them here, but that was not planned. They are an octopus, but that doesn’t really change anything. The fact that you even phrase the act of taking charge of your physical intimacy as a burden maybe, probably, is a sign that you do not want this. Elongated muscles stiffen and shine under dry skin as their tentacles reposition you both. Your ex’s new strength is almost intimidating, as they wrap you into a snuggly little cocoon and simultaneously massage every part of you to help you fall back into the moment. Your rain-proof jacket is stiff and annoying, you take it off.
Afterwards, you talk, and say some of what is required. Your words try to touch emotional aspects, but struggle to find footing in an encounter that up until now has been fully physical, language too unstable and awkward for the kind of conversation you want to have. Your ex tells you about the ship, how it is indeed an old oil tanker, and that it’s been left here for a reason, one of those reasons that seem so blatantly obvious when you hear it but which you immediately forget about, something to do with taxes or environmental regulations, probably. It is soothing, knowing there is a reason for the ship to be here.
You both drift off. Your ex holds you tight, in a way that indicates that you will soon leave, and that this isn’t a problem, but that they want to squeeze the most out of what is left. You wonder if they will stay here after you leave, among the trees and moss, but you do not ask them out of fear of them asking to come back with you. That would not be good. You look into their eyes and feel certain that you don’t want to be with them outside of this place and moment, although you welcome this place and moment to stay. The wind has died down. Two small birds land in a nearby birch, with its outermost branches hanging out over the railing, and start chirping surprisingly loud, your sense suddenly tuned to the max, you feel the soft wet moss under your back, a thick warm tentacle snaking around your shoulders, you stroke it, the muscles beneath the skin twitching appreciatively.
The sun is approaching the horizon and you need to leave soon if you are to get back before dark. You have no problem with darkness, but the lack of full visual access to the world makes everything so complicated, and also, it is time to leave. You say goodbye, and your ex absent-mindedly acknowledges it, thinking of something else, refocusing on your face almost with surprise in their eyes, saying thank you.
You rise, and leave, back through the overgrown ship deck, past rust and grass and the white bark of the birch trees, empty ventilation shafts gaping like stupid guardians, their flaking paint falling on the moss below. You turn around, but don’t see your ex between the trees, and then head into the door of the bridge. Back through the interior of the ship, darker now, backstage, the eerie, almost queasy feeling of revisiting long since completed levels in a video game, the same passive props standing dutifully silent, nothing new to bring to the narrative. You rush, and almost get lost taking the wrong exit in a corridor, but you find the broken skylight and then the open door. Down the conspicuously placed pine, back into the forest, calm and glowing in the fading light. You notice the sun steeping the treetops in gold, but quickly follow your tracks along the hull, even if it would probably be quicker to go around the stern, you know from experience not to try shortcuts at this stage of the hike. You check to make sure your phone is still in your pocket. It is.
The red wall shines deep and quiet. In the spot where you first encountered it, you lean against it for a short while, taking in the smell of dusk, the foliage spilling out over the top edge in dark contrast to the deep blue sky, the clouds cleared up a while ago, unnoticed. You are on the wrong side of the ship to see the sunset, probably magnificent from the deck, but the mere thought of going back there now is so alarming that you have to forcefully remove it from your head to not risk actually doing so, just to try to prove some stupid point against yourself. You leave the red wall behind, and start back through the old firs and deep moss.
The way back through the darkening forest is uninteresting, not because the reversed path is lacking something, but because you are trying to get back to your car before dark, and it is a long way left. Your car stands in an allocated parking space, sleeping now, ready to be woken when needed. You start thinking about work, or rather, the boring tasks that need to be handled at one point after you return, because it’s never really work, is it, just stuff that needs to be done, because if you don’t do it no one else would do it and that would be bad, for a multitude of reasons that are all dotted down in a document somewhere. Lists and plans and annoyances appear in your head, and you are saddened by their blandness, how, even after an encounter like this, the monotone rant of the everyday spews the same static noise, casting every beautiful experience in the dull colors of context. You wish some moments could be left alone, separated from the life they are born from, delineated from the boring main story, and you realise that you would not remember them. Maybe you have experienced such moments, perfect, not tainted by the stickiness of memory. You continue along the path.
At a meadowy clearing you see something imposingly large, stopping you straight in your tracks. It is dark now, past sundown, and the forest drifts into territories that are not meant for you. Not you personally, but not meant for those with your sensory range. You know this from previous experiences of being a guest in the non-lit world, difficult to navigate, forcing you to accept all assumptions of your surroundings, allowing the shadows to gain forms imposed by your guessing mind, part pragmatic and part erratic, staying calm in a shifting dreamworld. The thing in the clearing, that stopped you in your tracks, moves slightly, takes a few steps forward with its head down. You hear the crunching of leaves, and see the pointy fingers of its massive crown almost glow against the dark.
You can’t see its eyes, but you know that it is watching you, and that it is calm in your presence, as it continues munching on a young birch. You stand perfectly still for a long while, in the damp scents of the evening, watching dew whisp a thin mist above the thick grass, supposedly dancing fairies, extremely slow or extremely fast, either way far outside your frame of perception. The forest is thinner here, birches and pine trees alternating, always the bestest of friends, two siblings with playfully opposing styles, one dark, one bright, white bark a pale blue against the dusk. Between their trunks you see other meadows glow faintly in the distance, it is not long back to the car, but you will not move before the moose moves, greedily squeezing every bit out of also this moment, even though you are tired. You realize that this is what your ex felt as they held you before you left, an insistence on staying, even though the situation is already elsewhere. Maybe you should have stayed and slept with them, given each other a night below the stars atop the ship. It would probably have been a bit cold.
You remember their taste from earlier up on the ship, almost earthy, wet, and human. As you kissed them your mind explored what would happen after, a vague plan to get back before sundown, setting up milestones for your intimate engagement to reach and complete before you felt you could properly leave and head back through the evening forest. You thought of what you would encounter on the way back. You didn’t foresee the moose, but you foresaw the dancing fairies, and you pausing amongst them, thinking about and sinking back into that kiss, that you back then were still inside. You pause among the dancing fairies.
You realize that you can probably call them. If they have a phone up on the ship, which you suppose they do. You won’t call them. But this sliver of an option gives the moment an air of a cliffhanger instead of a proper ending, the fork might be taken but the other path is still visible, reachable, filled with tasty unreasonable potential. You hold your phone in your pocket, but have not unlocked it. You dissuade yourself with the argument that your phone would disturb the scene, even though you know that the forest does not care about you or your phone calls. The moose slowly move to another meadow, the fairy dance continues its static flow, the branches of the trees are perfectly still against the deep blue sky, no birds but some stars have appeared. You walk towards the car.
You head up the last rocky path to the parking lot, steep, parts of which almost require climbing. You do not turn on the flashlight on your phone, as this would create two separate worlds, with you inhabiting only the smaller lit world, contained in the much larger unlit world, which you have no access to, but which have access to yours. That would be a bad world-setup, you prefer to have access to the bigger world, even though you barely perceive it. The rocks are without moss here, worn off by hikers and children, the ground covered with pine needles, getting stuck in your palm as you balance yourself carefully. It is almost completely dark when you reach the car, alone on the gravel, standing there dutifully like a stupid dog, or a smart machine, answering your keypress with a silent neutral blink. Inside it smells technological and manmade, full of useful objects in their allocated places. It starts without a complaint, and you drive.