The Poetry in the Forest
by J.M. Kessler
Portia leaned her small, thin body against the door frame and wiped her hand across her mouth. She had one clean monogrammed handkerchief somewhere, but the humidity left her too sluggish to be bothered about it. Or to remember a line of poetry correctly. It was about something that was burning. Or maybe it was just that she was so used to the burning sun every day, she couldn’t think of anything else. Staring vacantly out the door, she wiped her hand on her shorts, and then lifted her t-shirt to wipe the perspiration off her forehead. It was late in the day in the mangrove forest on the Bay of Bengal. It would cool off soon.
A thought drifted out of her mind as she gazed around the hut that had been her home these odd weeks, an adventurous, romantic hideaway, perfect for a newly married couple. She adored it from the start, even after Allan had smiled at her sweet, childlike view of the world. He had that way of smiling at her. Now, it was a place to wait out the burning sun of day for the cool, black night.
And to think. What was that thought? Something embarrassing. Something about her t- shirt. She had used it to wipe the perspiration off her face. Oh, that was it. Two months ago, she would sooner use a swear word than use her shirt to dry her brow, even in private. Two months ago she was having lunch at the club with her mother. She was wearing her lemon-yellow sundress with her new sandals and the sunburst earrings her mother had picked out on their last visit to Tiffany’s. She didn’t like those earrings. She could admit it now because she was too hot to be agreeable anymore. At least about the earrings.
The air smelled of wood smoke, of bread and stew and spices cooking on clay hearths. She looked at the mud and thatch village, marveling at how the villagers did it, how they lived here with what they both feared and worshiped. Perhaps the tributes they left at the statue helped. And the prayers they chanted.
Forest eyes are burning bright. No, that’s not it, she thought, tiredly. It’ll come to me.
Allan was walking toward the hut. She had wanted to go along with him every day, to work by his side. He said she didn’t have to, that she would find it dull. And he smiled when he said that she could just stay at the hut and do whatever she liked all day. She had spent her days waiting for Allan to return with his notes for her to transcribe for his book.
“Good stuff today,” he said as he approached, holding a tattered journal and a recorder.
Portia grinned. “Okay. I’ll get right on it.” Her voice was soft and weary. She had always been told to speak up, speak clearer, that she was too quiet. Allan’s nickname for her was Pipsqueak. She was his little mouse. But even if she wanted to speak up now, she just didn’t have the energy.
Allan stopped in front of her. “I’ll have to go over it first. It’s getting so I can’t read my writing anymore. You doing all right?” he asked, looking her over with mild concern.
“I don’t know how you can stand the heat. Or is it the humidity. It can’t be the humanity. There aren’t enough of us here.”
Allan chuckled, patted her head, and went inside.
“I don’t mind, really,” Portia said, turning in the doorway. It was as close to an apology as she could get without Allan telling her to stop apologizing; she was always sorry for everything. It was just that she wanted everyone to be happy.
She walked in and got a bottle of water. She looked down at her uneven, unpolished fingernails, at the mud caked on her boots from the walks she had started taking. The hair that was loose from her braid was stuck to her skin. She wondered what her friends would think.
“I’ve lost track how long we’ve been here.” She took a drink from the bottle.
“Two months,” Allan said, skimming his notes.
“Oh,” she sighed drowsily. ”It’s nice to lose track of time. I was always aware of what time it was. ”
Before they left, Marcella had taken Portia’s phone and filled in her social calendar for when she returned. She would come back and pick up where she left off as if she hadn’t left at all. Portia had taken her phone back from Marcella and held it next to her heart. She and her friends were connected now, through space and time. She imagined they would be thinking of her, missing her. Not like when Callie was in Spain, the way they talked about her. The things they said. And when Callie returned they acted as if she had never been away.
Portia tried to remember where her phone was. There was no service out here, but she had kept it out. It used to make her feel good just to see it every day. Then one day she couldn’t stand the sight of it. It was probably in the nightstand drawer, where she used to keep her cosmetics. She stopped wearing make-up after the first week and jewelry soon after. She had put her wedding ring on a chain because the heat made her fingers swell, but the metal burned her skin in the sun, so she took it off and kept it in her purse.
A breeze came through the hut. It brought the scent of smoke and spice.
“It’s starting to cool off. It gets cold here at night the way it does in the desert. From one extreme to the other.
“Tiger of the burning night. That’s not it. A Lit. major and I can’t remember William Blake. I guess it doesn’t matter here. Everything I know, it doesn’t really matter. It used to. It used to be important. I remember that.”
She remembered receiving the job offer from the girl’s school to teach the Poetics class. But there was Allan’s work. Important work.
Portia walked across the hut and sat down on the bed, worn out from the heat. On the nightstand was a figurine of a tiger god, half-tiger half-man. Kamala, one of the Tiger Widows, had given it to her for protection.
She smiled to herself. “Actually, it does matter here. William Blake. Poetry.”
Allan made a sound that could have been a question or agreement.
“The tigers in the forest,” Portia continued lethargically. “The Man-eaters. I know the stories. They swim up to the boats and leap on board without a sound. The boats don’t even rock. The fishermen don’t hear the tigers walking on deck. A tiger kills a man instantly with a bite to the neck, leaps back into the water, and carries him into the forest the way a cat carries a mouse. The boat never even moves. Still, the men fish. They go into the forest to get honey.”
She fell back on the bed. She wanted to close her eyes but they were too hot to keep shut. “I know about the beehives, too. It’s illegal to go into the forest, but at a certain time of year, the village men are allowed to go in and harvest honey to sell at the market. They wear masks on the back of their heads to scare and confuse the tigers, but it doesn’t always work.
“The honey is sweet and spicy. I’d like to taste it.”
Allan hummed a response again, and then put on headphones to listen to the recordings he’d made.
“The tigers never come into the village,” Portia went on. “They don’t eat the women or children. The villagers leave gifts at the statue of the tiger god, pronounced dawkin roy but not spelled that way. Coins, flowers, fruit, tributes for protection. The men fish and go into the forest, even though they could die. There are sometimes 300 deaths a year, but they accept it as the cycle of life. They need the fish, the honey, and the mangroves protect the village from cyclones. There are pink dolphins in the rivers, and giant turtles lay eggs on the beach. At night, the fireflies light up the forest, and the water shimmers from the bioluminescent fish. The villagers respect the tigers because the tigers protect the forest. From Man. Developers. It’s a religion and the tigers are gods. And Man is just part of the natural balance. Just, meat. To keep the harmony of existence.
“To keep the poetry in the forest.” Portia closed her eyes. She fell asleep.
Portia awoke to the smell of bread and stew. Allan had placed food on the nightstand. He was working at his desk. It was dark outside.
“Is there something I can help you with,” she asked. She had no idea how long she’d been asleep.
“No. Eat your dinner, Pip. It’s getting late,” he replied.
Portia swallowed a few spoonfuls, and then stopped. It’s was too hot to eat during the day, and now food made her nauseated at night. She got up and walked to the doorway and looked out. The sky was full of stars. She could hear children chanting prayers to the tiger god. The cold air made her shiver.
She went back inside and sat on the bed, looking through her pile of sweaters.
“We’ve been married three months,” she said, as if marking time. “Dr. and Mrs. Allan Pond. Portia Perdita Pond. It’s pretty, really. Portia Pond. It’s funny that your surname starts with p. You had Mother’s approval before she even met you. I love my father, but I wasn’t upset about giving up his name. Portia Pollack. I always thought it made me sound like I should be on a menu.”
She watched Allan, his back to her while he worked. She remembered everyone saying what a catch he was, despite his circumstances. And what a great couple they would be. He, the handsome anthropologist, and she, his sweet, pretty wife, by his side.
Portia picked up the figurine of the tiger god. “Three months,” she repeated. “I know my parents were hoping I’d be pregnant by now. They never said it, but I know. I know them. Maybe I am pregnant. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? For us, I mean. Out here. Something all our own. We could stay here. Have the baby here. And nobody would know. No one else could claim him. No long line of ancestors. No expectations. Oh, I hope I’m pregnant. Would you mind?”
Allan cocked his ear. “Sorry, what?”
“If I were pregnant right now. We could stay here until I had the baby. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Pip, you know I want to get back to the university. And besides, it would be better for you to have a baby back home, in your own hospital, with your own doctor. You’d feel better. It would be easier all around.”
“Of course. I just thought.... Allan,” she said.
He hummed back.
“We’re going home soon, right?”
“A couple of weeks and you’ll be back in life as you’ve always known it. Why?” He yawned. “Are you homesick?”
Portia smiled to herself. “No. Shall I write up your notes?”
“I took care of it earlier,” Allan replied. “You were sleeping. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Of course. You should get some sleep, too,” she added.
“I just need to get a few more things down,” he said. He reached for his headphones.
Portia sat motionless on the bed. He’d be at least another hour. She was used to that now, as she had been used to so many things all her life. Until she met Allan. He was something new, something bright. She had felt new and bright, too.
She went over to Allan’s side of the bed and picked up one of his sweatshirts. She held it close and breathed in his scent.
“Allan,” she said softly. He had his back to her and was wearing the headphones.
She slipped on the sweatshirt, and then changed into a pair of jeans. She crept softly to the door and looked back; he hadn’t noticed her. Later, when he had finished working for the night, Allan would turn and find only the small figure of a tiger god on the bed.
Portia walked along the path to the water. The darkness didn’t bother her. She knew the path, she knew how many steps it took to get to the shrine, and from there to the small wooden boats. She had watched the men push off from the muddy, sunlit shore and glide across the water. She had looked across the water at the forest, knowing what was hiding there, bright as the burning sun.
She paused at the statue of Daskin Ray, the tiger god, and looked at the tributes glowing in the candlelight. Then she turned and walked to the shore.
The boat glided silently. Lights glimmered under the surface of the water, and she could see the fireflies in the forest, the silent, blinking lights like drops of burning honey. It was more beautiful than she had imagined. She dipped the oar into the river, wondering if she would even make it into the forest. Not that it mattered, really. Only, the forest in the night was poetry.
© 2016 J. M. Kessler