The property must belong to someone: I come upon berry patches and fruit trees in the general wildness, and tracks of cattle in the boggy grass by a stream, but there are no fences and the last farmhouse I passed was a mile away.
The ground mounts gradually, a mosaic of sun and shade, up slabs of rock, over tuffets of moss; the sky is a steady blue; the wind barely breathes in the treetops; only a sleepy chirp or a rustle, now and then, filters from above. There is such a spell of green-gold stillness on the afternoon that I, too, move without sound.
With sneaking steps I go up the shallow staircase of rocks and enter one of the many doorways of the trees. I do not feel like a trespasser, but like a belonger to the place, as if I had once grown here long ago, as a bush or tree, or been one of these dark, inscrutable stones in bedded in the hillside.
I come to a flat green spot full in the sunlight. I undress entirely, and stretch out, my cheek on a pad of moss, my body pressed into the warm, pricking grass. Beneath me I feel knobs of stones and spines of tree-roots, the earth’s skeleton under its supple flesh. The sun a great gold brush, comes down on my back, and a ground breeze whisks over me softly. I feel myself being woven back into the fabric and contour of nature. It seems I can hear, under my ear, ants dancing, the foreheads of worms pushing, and the seeds of all growth gnawing upward through the sod. My hand, flung out, touches the smooth, ringed trunk of a birch, its skin as white as mine. Should any human being pass, it seems to me, I would not be noticed where I lie. My clothes are a disguise I have abandoned, and my nakedness is suitable and comfortable as bark to a tree, as his well-fitting hide to an animal. Face down, hugging the earth, I am secure, invisible, sunk in the landscape.
When my back is saturated with sun, I turn over. And now I absorb a new sensation: Gaping, roofless blue above me, my body white as a fallen statue in the open green, I am all at once vulnerable, exposed. So an animal must feel, forced upon its back, its grip with the earth broken, its soft underparts bare to attack. But when caressed or scratched on these parts, of which the nerve-tendrils are so sensitive, the animal relaxes in a kind of ecstasy; and this I do as the sun repossesses me with its burnishing stroke.
The strong light weights my eyelids, and I close them. I am suspended in a great copper sphere, whose dome turns first to yellow—the color of dying daffodils—then green, the green of an old album cover of stiff plush that I remember from earliest childhood—then blue, metallic and flashing as the neck-feathers of a loon—and, at last, a soft and secret purple, the folds of a king’s robe in an ancient painting once brooded over in some lower recess of childhood. If I lift my eyelids a splinter, the dome springs to grinning orange—a lion’s mouth, a furnace doorway, an upside-down abyss of pure frightening light.
The sun now wraps me, layer over layer, with such heat that I lose consciousness of my body’s weight and shape; I am formless, transparent, afloat. Invading every pore, the sun seems to reach my veins, thickening my blood, almost halting it. Closing the cups of my eyes, I let the purple light eclipse to black. I am again sealed from sight, an object colored and textured with its background. Sod now, heavy as a magnet into which a myriad particles of power have gathered, I settle to the bottom of the sphere. I am dimly aware, during a long enthralled doze, of the sun’s slow glide around its arc, and later, of scarves of shade being drawn, one by one, over my body.
When I awake it is to coolness, a thinning of the air, a hollowness in the still-blue sky, while the foliage around me has become denser where shadows have massed between the leaves. There is a listening mood to the wood now; birds utter one-syllable cries and make quick swoops in the upper branches where the sun is still yellow. I awake to the sound of grass being cropped and the slow, meandering stump of cattle, out of sight a little way beyond the clearing. I can hear the animals swish their tails, the wet crunch of their methodical jaws, but cannot see them yet.
I lie still, my hands under my neck, letting the scene around me return. I see red berries, dried by the sun to puckered pellets on a wild currant bush, the embroidery of unfurling ferns at my side. A grasshopper, green and shaped like a peapod, makes a long leap from a fern and lands on my chest. He rocks up and down with my breathing, and when I blow on him he shoots away, drowned from sight in the tangle of the grass.
Now there appears the low-slung, munching head of a cow through a gap in the bushes. I hear others following after. Her loose, fawn-colored neck-skin stops swaying under her chin when her glossy, dark eyes fall upon me. She wags one ear forward, then the other, her black, slime-wet nostrils sucking clues of scent from the air. When I do not move, she steps closer, her lashes brushing down over mournful pupils, and the others behind her take an imitative step, bringing them into view. The herd of ten or a dozen gradually clusters into the clearing until they are standing in a respectful semicircle, all gazing at the motionless white object on the grass. None ventures an exploratory gesture until their leader gives the signal by moving first. The grass is juicy and lush here. I am probably lying in the delectable center of their cropping ground. Will they advance and threaten me, realizing their superiority in strength and number, or will my human status (naked, prone and passive though I am) ward them off to look for other pasture?
I am too immersed in my conviction of belonging to be afraid of these slow-moving, tranquil-breathing creatures who hesitate above me; yet they do look large and heavy there, weaponed (are they aware of it?) with sharp horns and hoofs. I see my little image reflected in each pair of stuporous, non-committal pupils, but I decide to stay motionless. The leader takes two steps forward; the others imitate, keeping the semicircle intact. And two more steps. Their heads do not sink to sample the grass; the white object lying there is a fascination greater than food.
What can they want of me? A strange emotion, more awe than fear, keeps me lying rigid. Haven’t they recognized me as a human, then? Without my clothes, do they no longer sense me as man, but as some creature they have never encountered, and whose meaning must be discovered?
Yes, it must be so, for the leader takes another step, carefully, and lowers her head. With her gray, rough shoe-shaped tongue she licks my toe. Am I really becoming part of the woods, and is it recognition of my metamorphosis that attracts her? The others stand waiting for her judgment. She raises her head and looks around at them, running her tongue over the bridge between her nostrils as if sampling the taste of me, considering its quality. The herd is alert and waiting, but her communication must have been one of puzzlement; they do not advance. White and green saliva slides from the corners of the lead cow’s lips as she stares at me expectantly, wishfully.
It does not occur to me to say a word, or make a gesture of self-identification. I find I am flattered by their interest, intrigued by speculation as to how I appear to them. The smell of the farmer in his sweaty overalls, pitchfork in hand, they know; the laconic command in his voice, his calloused, impersonal palms relieving their udders in the stalls at morning and nightfall, the unconscious contact of his forehead with their flanks as the two hard jets of milk cross each other squealing into the pail. They are accustomed to the vegetable and mineral smells of the forest, their summer domain, and all season nothing has disturbed their day-long green routine of aimless meandering, mindless munching, their eyes reflecting nothing but the sky’s serenity, the stillness of their drinking pool. And today they come upon an ambiguous white object in the sun on the grass, with an undefinable smell and shape. Is it alive? Scarcely. And yet, is it not breathing? But it does not assert itself; it cannot be human. Vegetable, rock, beast? No. What then?
Or, perhaps they have recognized me as human—the lick at my toe confirmed it—and awareness of my helplessness is dawning on them, being signaled this minute to the others by the enterprising leader as she lobs her thick, hair-frilled ears back and forth, and the sun glints wickedly on the white points of her horns. I feel all at once how it would be if their blunt, split hoofs stamped on my belly. No, it cannot be. Their eyes are too wide and meek, they are too hesitant —no flicker of fury in their faces.
Maybe it is love, then, the cows all feel for me? Their leader has sensed my repentance of the human state, my retreat from the sin that was the first thought, my return to animal grace after the long betrayal, before the temptation to mentality seized a natural creature and raised him arrogantly on his hind legs. Maybe they are welcoming me back among them to the wisdom, the peace and beauty of existence outside the cage of thought, and maybe the lick on my toe was a tentative caress, a sign of recognition and forgiveness.
So, I still keep silent and motionless. And the fawn-colored leader steps closer, and this time licks my knee, and goes on licking, confident now, absorbed. An eagerness like hunger has come over her. Her tongue at first is pleasant-feeling, but soon rasps like a file; her forelegs with their knobby, grass-stained knees are planted solidly at my side. And her tongue moves up my leg, wide, hot, full of friction.
Oh, why have I let them get near me? I cannot hope to push her away with my puny legs and arms. And now the others have arrived, their heads lowered determinedly all around me. Three of them begin, with heavy, drooling tongues, to lick my feet. I will be licked from head to heel, slobbered over; I am their strange delicacy to be rolled over and over in the grass, pushed this way and that by their many avid tongues.
And now it comes to me what it is they believe me to be, or what wishfully they would make of me: a slab of salt, discovered on this miraculous day in their hilly meadow! It was not here yesterday, but it is here today, a gift of mankind or of nature.
Their warm, eager, snuffling breaths descend upon my sweating skin. My tardy panic is so intense that I am paralyzed. I want to draw up my knees, spring erect, and run. But all I can do is raise an arm, and say a husky “Shoo!”
At my motion, the old leader’s head jerks up; she backs away as if stung in the forehead by a bullet. The other cows start, and fall back instantly. Brimming with their own panic now, they bound away, crashing through the brush, staggering into each other, and they stop only when their leader does, beyond the low bush wall. From there they fearfully look around at me over tremulous hind-quarters and agitated tails.
I sit up with a thrill of power. They stumble down the hill. I stand up, and begin to dress. At sight of my head and shoulders they move together defensively into a clump on the path. They recognize me now. There is an injured balky frown between the eyes of the leader. The rest are sullen and comatose. They look as if they expect me to pick a switch and herd them home.
I take an opposite direction, turning my back on them, forcing myself to a moderate pace, although my feet want to hurry. The back of my neck is still cool with fear, and my knees loose. Why? I wonder, since it has turned out that I am the power and the danger, not they. They have already forgotten their fright; they are back to munching; while I must settle this turmoil in my stomach before it will consider supper.
At the same time, my chest is warm with a strong, brandy-like pride. Because to them I am an apparition, a thing outside their ken, a being with hands that can seize and use objects, a stick, a rope, to dominate them; a thing that operates by thought, the brutes retreating as from something supernatural.
Evening has moved in now over the ground, filling the spaces between the boulders and under all the bushes with thick, furry shadow. That tree with the bronze leaves ahead—is it a beech? I remember passing it on my way up, just after I left the road and entered these woods. As I get nearer to it, my footsteps unaccountably slow down. Everything looks peculiar in this light that hesitates so long on summer evenings. I am not lost. I think I know quite well where I am, and after that tree there will be the road down, where I will turn south to the farm where I am staying.
But aren’t the leaves of the beech turning red, and redder as I look? Its trunk, smooth and gray between the warts of bark—is it expanding? It seems, as I stare in the uncertain light, to be breathing. When I reach it, stand next to it, touch it with my hand, what if it should do something, and I should then see what it really is?
I wish that it would. And I wish that that high boulder sitting in the ravine, mottled with moss so that it resembles the back of a giant toad—cold, mindless, lonely—would hear my footsteps, would relax its petrified pose, and turn toward me, revealing its true form.
Before me, the ground rippling with stripes of shadow, and above me, the sky stirred into motion by feathers of pink in the west, seem together to arch and stretch. As I pass the beech and the boulder, and walk down hill, it is as if earth and sky were shifting—as if a fold between them were smoothing out. I focus on that fold. Is it really only the sunset changing hues, or is there a cord, a sort of braid uncoiling from under the horizon—gray, then rosy, as it lengthens and thickens—passing, between the earth and into... into the body of—? Some prone and immense shape filling all the distance...