by Peg Alford Pursell
Peg Alford Pursell explores and illuminates love and loss in 78 hybrid stories and fables. A Girl Goes into the Forest immerses readers in the complex desires, contradictions, and sorrows of daughters, wives, and husbands, artists, siblings, and mothers.
In forests literal and metaphorical, the characters try, fail, and try again to see the world, to hear each other, and to speak the truth of their longings. Powerful, lyrical, and precise, Pursell’s stories call up a world at once mysterious and recognizable.
A Girl Goes into the Forest
Tentative, curious, uncertain, alive, she followed him into the woods, moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited for her. So ready for something to happen. The old secret cottage had fallen to the ground. He acted as if that surprise of the disintegrated shelter was inconsequential, and spread a thin jacket over the dark forest floor for her. To lie down was harder than it looked to be; wasn’t everything? A thick scent of pine needles. Sour smell of mildewed ash. The moon rose. White and tiny, smeared into the fork of a naked branch overhead. Wind chattered like teeth through the trees, their trunks containing hundreds of years of memory. In this new dimension of light and shade, she lost track of who she’d been before, of the home in the town with cracked streets, concrete and glass, sun-scoured spires. Beside her, he said nothing. A troche on the tongue of the needful earth, she lay, thick thirsting roots deep underneath. This was something for the body to feel. There is so much for a body to feel before it goes, returns to its simplest elements, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur. Full night must eventually come on. Its deeper chill. They might remain. Together. It might turn summer and she’d have survived the season. Or the earth might be soothed, some want eased.
Old Church by the Sea
I hadn’t visited the abandoned church by the sea in many years, not since that day with my teenaged daughter. She’d reached that age of awkwardness, so painful to see, when people had begun telling her to calm down, to lower her voice, to walk, not run. I’d brought her to this confused Eden, huge boulders in the garden, cold shadows, the infinite space of sun. Sad jasmine crawled everywhere, even over the dilapidated fence deteriorating as if the weight of the flowers had caused its demise.
I’d imagined we would run and play as in a game of tag, like we had when she was younger, as if we were two butterflies in the tall grass. She wore dark glasses and sat on a stone bench where a white cat lay sleeping. I didn’t dare believe she was looking at me behind those lenses. Her chin tilted up, and I decided she was examining the distant countryside: yellow grass spread with repeated cows, the bay a shimmering backdrop of monotony. A quick wind stroked my bare arms and prodded dark clouds across the sky. It began to rain.
We made the long drive home in silence, her ear buds in place, the tinny chords of her music reaching me behind the wheel. We neared the close-by village where at the street corner, under the overhang of the roof of the grocery mart, a group of five men sat as if hypnotized. My daughter’s head abruptly swiveled, stayed fixed in their direction until we made the turn and left them behind.
How the imagination can forge something from a moment!
Here now the burning light of day rested in all its blue brilliance on the remaining stained glass window of the church, miraculously still intact. The sun bleached only the tips of the wild grasses, while closer to earth darkness churned like sea reeds. Heavy clouds clung to the distant hills speckled with their animals.
Inside the old church it was almost possible to hear what people do to one another.
I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong. Having and wanting at the same time, that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me. After, I was emptier than I could ever have imagined, I thought then. Then, when I thought I would have the chance to tell her one day.
Note to a Ghost
After you died I wandered the nearby field. Twilight. Your cat ran up to me with a bird’s heart in its mouth. I wanted to make something more out of that than what it was. You know what it was. The way you knew to let out your first cry: how you were there and not, how it’s a witness who hears and translates raw sensation voiced in the tone. It’s only natural, as in leaves abandoning the trees to fall at your feet, as is the bleeding red moon tonight, scientifically explicable. Beast, bird, botany, being—all knowable.
Click here to read our interview with Pursell from April 2018.
Peg Alford Pursell is the author of is the author of Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, a collection of hybrid with praise from Peter Orner, Joan Silber, Antonya Nelson, Glen David Gold, and others, and featured by Poets & Writers magazine’s second annual 5 over 50, December 2017. Her work has appeared in Permafrost, the Los Angeles Review, Joyland Magazine, and other journals and anthologies. She is the founder and director of the national reading series Why There Are Words and of WTAW Press. She lives in Northern California.