Into the Woods is the title and theme for this assortment of short stories, poems, essays, music, and one walking meditation. Each piece is unique in tone and genre and the result is that the collection captures the fascinating, frightening, fun, healing, and fantastical wonder of time spent in the woods.
The twenty-six contributors who attend Mindful Writers Retreats in the mountains of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, are donating one hundred percent of the proceeds to support the research and work of The Children’s Heart Foundation.
by Kathleen Shoop
Ellie Trumbull squinted out the window of the Uber, gripping the door handle. The car swerved and bounced up the long driveway leading to the retreat center where the courts had sent Ellie for punishment. She grabbed her stomach to stave off nausea, but when it began to launch itself she smacked the driver’s arm. He slowed and stopped. Ellie pulled the handle, and tumbled out of the door onto all fours, heaving.
She gasped for breath, dizzied. Voices sounded as she struggled to stand. She focused on the group heading toward her: two women, a man, and several children who simply bolted past her, their squealing laughter filling the air.
A graceful woman with gray, bunned hair and dark skin approached. She took Ellie’s arm and pulled her close, leading her into a building. “Welcome. I’m Vera.”
“I’m Alice.” A stout woman with platinum spiked hair followed along.
A lanky man with hair so perfect it looked plastic picked up Ellie’s duffel bag. “I’m Brandon. Your husband’ll send the rest of your luggage shortly.”
Ellie grunted. They led her upstairs. Brandon rushed ahead to open a door. Ellie shuffled inside.
“Your room,” he said. “I’ll set your bag here.”
Ellie looked over her shoulder to see him smiling, as he’d been doing since she arrived. “Thanks, Guy Smiley.”
She ignored his question, held onto one of the top bunks and surveyed the space. Three large windows at the end of the room and three sets of bunks with plastic mattresses belted the perimeter.
Ellie collapsed onto a bed.
“Plastic makes it easy to clean,” Vera said.
“Shut those.” Ellie shook her hand at the windows.
The woman sighed, closed the curtains and lowered the blind that covered the center pane. She lifted Ellie’s feet off the floor and swung them onto the bed. “Housekeeping’ll make up the bed in a little bit.”
“Fine,” Ellie groaned.
Vera loosened Ellie’s shoelaces.
Ellie snatched her feet away. “I’m fine.”
Vera backed away, her large hands flailing for a moment before she tucked them against her belly. “Our healing circle begins in an hour.”
Ellie turned away and balled up. Leave me alone.
And a few seconds later the door clicked shut.
Giggling children and the sound of feet running down the hallway outside Room 2 woke Ellie. Her mouth was desert dry, so she headed downstairs to the great room where she saw a kitchen area. With the kids gone, the silence felt good.
Ellie startled at the sight of Alice, Vera, and Guy Smiley sitting around an island. Guy Smiley poured coffee. Healing circle.
“Ellie,” he said. “Welcome.”
Vera sliced banana bread. The scent threatened Ellie’s stoic facade. A smile tugged her lips, but she tucked away the fleeting happy sensation, hid it where it wouldn’t remind her how Maggie’s face would light up when she bit into her favorite treat.
Alice clomped her feet onto the coffee table. Vera batted them away and pushed the banana bread toward Ellie.
She looked away.
“I’ll take hers,” said Alice.
“I’d like to begin,” Vera said, her voice gentle and melodic. “The healing circle guides us into continued acceptance and strengthens our endurance as we grow through the pain that comes with losing a child. Each of us understands the daily shock of waking and realizing our lives will never be the same. So how do we go on?”
Guy Smiley sipped coffee. “Feels good to be with everyone.”
“Each time we meet I do better back home,” Vera said.
“Same,” Alice said.
“We hope you’ll find our group helpful, Ellie,” Vera said.
When Ellie didn’t respond the others went around describing how they lost their child. Ellie blocked out every word, rubbing her temples. Her own pain was enough. She wasn’t about to invite theirs inside. Her gaze strayed to the kids outside, the game of tag that left them breathless, rolling down the hill and out of sight. How lucky they were.
“Ellie?” Alice asked. Ellie turned her gaze back to see Alice glaring.
“It’ll help,” sweet Vera said. “To share.”
Guy Smiley slid forward in his seat, fingers steepled. “Change brings…blah, blah … comfort, healing…” He droned on and on and finally Ellie’s mind snapped back to what he first said.
“Change?” Ellie said.
He nodded. They all did.
Ellie’s anger surged. She wiped spittle from her lip. “I don’twantchange. I feel Maggie more now than I ever did… before she died I couldn’t wait to get to work, or girls’ night out or go away with my husband. My daughter… difficult from the day she was born… is dead. I’ll never sit with you people thinking about change and eating stinking banana bread.”
She stood and stomped away.
“She don’t want help,” Alice said.
“But her husband…” Brandon said.
Ellie got farther away, unable to hear what they said. Her husband? He was finished with her. She jogged to her room and crashed onto the mattress that housekeeping hadn’t yet returned to make. She covered her face and held back tears. With balled fists she tried to resist.
But she couldn’t.
Up off the bed, Ellie dug through her duffel and found it. Vodka. Cap unscrewed, she gulped, washing away the scent of banana bread, the thought that she’d never again see Maggie’s smile when she took a bite of it.