Lost in the Woods – Charlie Chitty

He walks the same woods he has always walked, although no longer knows the way.

One lone man who continues to wander the ancient arbor of deadwood and pine needles, knowing that he is lost. Perhaps irrevocably. He calls out into the woods, although nobody can hear the words.

He was a ranger, once upon a time, and used to look after the woods. Scare away the local kids if they were letting off fireworks or doing something bad. Pick up litter. Keep the forest clean.

But there aren’t any children here. There’s nobody here. He keeps walking, although he lost the use of his legs in 2018.

It’s hard when you want to get out of the forest, but can’t recognise the trees. When you want to pick up litter to make the forest nicer for others but there’s none to find.

There’s just nothing. A blank desolate wasteland of verdant trees, mocking him. How can a place be so full of life and yet feel so dead?

He doesn’t like that tree, the one up ahead. It’s the bad tree, the one he doesn’t like but keeps stumbling towards. There are some good trees in the forests, and you can tell by their curved branches instead of their pointed and nasty brambles. 

But there’s the tree, and it’s right in front of him. The tree is Susan, and she’s the bad tree. And the woman he loves. He can’t remember why it’s a bad tree, but knows that she’ll help him get out of the forest.

The park ranger can see, even though it is dark in the woods, and he can see the two stouts branches that form Mark and Kirsten, his two children. Those are flowering, and lovely to look at. He can sort of see them, although can’t quite remember how to identify trees like he used to. Back in his days of being a ranger, and the scouts before that. They told him to always be prepared, and he had been. But still cries at the tree.

It had been the most beautiful tree in the forest, and he had danced with her and sung with her and lay pretty flowers by her trunk and remembered always when he’d first met her, and he’d been afraid to hold her hand and how his heart had soared when he’d looked at her. She’d told her that she felt so happy with him too. And they had a special party and exchanged rings because they both felt that way and the tree is-

It isn’t there. It is there, but it’s a trunk. And he sits on the trunk, in his park ranger outfit and he cries. He always cries. Twice every day, he sits on the trunk and he cries. Lost in the Woods.

But today is a different day. The gloaming searchlights from the helicopters are shining on the woods, and he can hear the songs of the people who have come with their flashlights, into the dark wood. They’ve come to find him and he stands, listening, smiling.

His eyes shine as he begins to laugh, at the chrome helicopters that are here to rescue him, the loving world honing in on him with their shiny equipment with sonar and radar as they swoop in to look after him and make him feel better. To not feel so lost and sad when he’s on his own.

The helicopter is cresting the tops of the trees and it is made of chocolate frosting.

The rest of the staff at the retirement villa tell them that it’s a special recipe and they always talk proudly of their special chocolate frosting. It’s actually just melted chocolate in a glass bowl whisked with butter until thick, but they’re still proud.

The nurse carries the cake into the room, filled with the steady hum of the people who have come to take him out of the woods, if only for a moment. It is a small room, filled with maybe twenty people. Next to the window is a man. He’s crying for a woman who has died fifteen years ago but mostly two minutes ago. His eyes are searching the room, but they do not grip. He clutches at the blanket drawn across him. 

But then he relaxes his grip, because he can hear it.

There is a warming rhythm as the staff and his friends sing, stopping on one word that leads the way through the trees. Streetlights in the fog, a lifeboat in the sea.

“Happy Birthday, Dear Eric.”

The man in the wheelchair grins. He is ninety six today, but doesn’t look a day over eighty. You can see his uniform, neatly pressed and put on carefully by two orderlies. Eric looks at the sponge cake, the glowing searchlights on the top as they flicker and the smiling faces around him. He smells warm pastries from when he was a little boy, fresh pine needles from where he walked as a man and the smell of the burning wax from where he sits now.

“Happy Birthday to you!’

Eric leans forward, not aware of the slight ache in his back or the tear stains on his cheeks. He can only see his friends, here with him in the woods.

Eric blows out the candles.

And the park ranger walks into the clearing.