What You Lost in the Wildermere

Things vanish in the Wildermere. The usual, expected things—livestock, the occasional person—but also the less conventional.

The less tangible.

You walk to the border between this world and that, stand in the tangled underbrush, and peer between the gap in the ancient redwood trees. And something is snatched away, leaving only the faintest shadow of a memory and that nagging sense that you’ve left behind something important.

It’s the kind of place where you sign up for a day-walk tour to take photographs to show your coworkers back at the office, the kind of place you’d post selfies on social media from, say you’d been, and that, oh, it was so beautiful (but even for all that beauty, no, you don’t think you’d ever go back). It’s why someone would plan a trip to the coast, even if they only had limited vacation days and didn’t have family in the area (but why would you plan it, if you didn’t have family there?).

It’s the kind of place that has a handful of little, quaint villages whose main source of income, it appears, are tourists staying at the obligatory bed and breakfasts with their hand-painted signs and lovingly trimmed hedges. Tourists who visit the quaint souvenir shops to buy key chains and wood bookmarks and leather-bound journals and t-shirts, stamped, emblazoned, and printed with the word “Wildermere.” By the time the weekend is over and you’re checking out of the B&B, you already have enough Wildermere-branded tchotchkes to stock your own little souvenir shop back home.

But there’s still that feeling—that creeping, twitching, untraceable feeling—that you left something behind. You decide you must’ve lost a sock under the bed (but you always match your socks, clean or otherwise). You settle the bill and drive away in your SUV (which seems so obtuse here in this tiny village with its skinny streets; you wonder why you would ever buy such a large vehicle).

You go home. You unpack. You return to work. Your coworkers greet you with a bright, “So how was your trip?”

“Fine,” you say.

You share your photos. You give away the souvenir key chains.

But something is still wrong. Something is out of place. The outline of the memory is smooth and that, in and of itself, is what begins your questioning.

Memories aren’t smooth. Memories aren’t flawless.

You remember standing on the border of the Wildermere and looking between the trees. You remember the exact way you stood, with one hand in the pocket of your jeans and the other hanging loose at your side (but you never held your hand loose like that, just like you never stand perfectly straight—you’re always leaning, always resting a part of yourself on something else, the table, the wall, as if your legs couldn’t ever support the whole weight of you). You were wearing your favorite pair of waterproofed hiking boots and your fleece-lined raincoat.

You remember the precise angle of the sunlight peeking through the clouds. It had been overcast that morning, and the weather report on the B&B’s dial radio had said there was a forty percent chance of showers. For breakfast, you’d had a cup of strong coffee and a stale croissant with strawberry jam that you microwaved to make more palatable. You remember regretting the coffee; it had upset your stomach, and you kept burping up the flavor of it. There was a breeze from the south that smelled like horse manure.

You remember feeling underwhelmed, and a little irked that you talked yourself into paying for this trip (but you know you would have never picked this place; you’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains). You remember wishing it was something more.

So you start making lists. And in those lists, you hope you’ll find something, anything, that doesn’t connect, that doesn’t fit the smooth contours of your memory, because it’ll be the one thing that can confirm your suspicions. It’ll be the frayed end of the cord the Wildermere cut when it stole from you.

You make lists upon lists. You fill the leather-bound journal with Wildermere stamped into its cover with everything you remember, everything you know is true. By the last page, you begin to question even that.

You buy another journal. You start at the beginning.

You write:

I know my name is Ellen.

I know I walked along the borderline of the Wildermere last March.

I know I wasn’t alone.

© 2020 by R. J. Howell

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