Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Samantha Hunt about her writing process.
“There was a woman, and everyone watched. Including me. We were at the fields where the kids play soccer. You know?”
“I’m there three times a week.”
“The place is surrounded by woods.”
“I know. Three days a week. No joke. Were the kids playing?”
“That’s why we noticed her. She walked across the field mid-game like she didn’t even see the rest of us and disappeared into the woods. The fireflies had started. Maybe 40 minutes before dark? The game must’ve been close to ending. In fact, it did end soon after.”
“I was there,” another mother says. “I saw her go.”
We’re in L’s kitchen waiting for our kids. Any minute now, goody bags and farewells, then L’s kid will be one year older and alone with a new crop of toys.
“I have no idea.” J has two kids, two part-time jobs. She’s looking for something better but hasn’t found it yet. Others here work full time, or nights. The fathers are also working, jobs that we hear are less permeable than our jobs. Really our jobs are not permeable, but we lie to our employers, pretending we are not mothers, or that mothering is simple. Then, like an intricate, silent network from the natural world—say, a creek flowing to a stream, to a river, to the ocean, to the clouds, to return as rain—we rely on other mothers. Systems, delicately complex and ever-changing, carry and care for our young. “I don’t remember the score. I was distracted by the woman.”
“What’d she do?”
“You weren’t there?”
“But you heard about it?”
“She crossed the field as if she didn’t even see the game, like she was chasing a stray ball. Sudden and straight across. The way an animal would go. Some of the kids stopped playing. Maybe they thought she was a referee, or that there was an injury. But she ignored the kids, walked right through them and into the woods.”
“What’d the kids do?”
“Started playing again. And the people watching went back to watching the game. And you know the dad?”
“ ‘Pass! Pass! Man on!’ Ugh. The worst. He went back to screaming. He knows sideline coaching’s prohibited. The fucker even signed a form saying he wouldn’t do it anymore.”
The mothers look. Did the kids hear J curse? A secret swear among mothers feels so good—a dirty-word pressure valve and a wormhole to other lives.
“Did you say anything to him?”
“Do not talk to that man. He’s nuts. I got into it with him once. Big mistake. I was like, ‘Wait, do you actually care which team wins? They’re 8 years old.’ And he’s all like, ‘I love this team! I love my country!’ Holy crap. He’s fucking nuts. He was stomping his foot. ‘It’s Us versus Them!’ Screaming it. ‘Us versus Them!’ I honestly had no idea who he was even talking about. Who’s ‘Us’?”
“His poor kids.”
“Does he have kids?”
“I didn’t talk to him,” J says. “I was watching the woman. Or I was watching the place where she’d disappeared.”
“No one stopped her?”
“She’s an adult.”
“I’d almost say no one saw her. I mean, I saw her and others saw her, but it was like most of us didn’t wonder what she meant. At least at first. You saw her.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had the little ones with me.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean you don’t know her or you didn’t see who it was?”
“I didn’t see. I might know her.”
“She could be anyone?”
“One of us?”
“Was it you?”
“No. Was it you?”
Our chatter pauses long enough for us to look at each face, to see if one of us here might walk into the woods. Dead mom, cheating spouse, raped at 14, Down’s kid, nearly broke, alcoholic husband, bankrupt business, Alzheimer’s dad, raped at 22, colon cancer, barely hanging on to sobriety. Each of us looks like a person who might walk into the woods and not come back.
“Ask K if she knows. She knows everyone.”
“Who was it, K?”
K is eating cheesy popcorn. “Was what?”
“At the game, in the woods. You hear about this?”
“Oh yeah. Somebody told me.”
“Who was she?”
“I don’t know. Who?”
K is no help. We turn back to J.
“When was this?”
“What happened after she was gone?”
“The game was ending. I told you that. Then the game did end and, you know, folding up chairs, collecting water bottles. One of the children had to remind us. Kid says, ‘That woman never came back.’ And someone asked, ‘How do you know she never came back?’ And the kid said, ‘I watched for her. She never came.’ It was that midfielder. Daydreamer, you know. The kids were the only people thinking clearly. They said, ‘We need to go find her. Maybe she’s hurt. Maybe she’s lost.’ And all the adults, thinking about dinner, a bottle of wine, were like, ‘Right, kids. Oh my God, the kids are totally right.’ So we went into the woods. Or some of us did.”
“Not saying. But you know who.”
“She’s such an ass. Not you, hon. You had the little ones.”
“I’m not going to drag them into the forest at night.”
“No one expects you to.”
“It was kind of awkward at first in the woods. Some of us were strangers. And, you know, only moments before our teams had been enemies.”
“Opponents. Not enemies.”
“Right. Opponents. But that changed. We had questions, like: Should we split up? Is that poison ivy? Who is she, anyway? And, you know, other questions. Some of us used the lights on our phones to see. Some had more woods experience and wanted the others to appreciate their superior scouting skills. They were, like, trying to track her. You know, the guys who grew up hunting. They were, like, looking for scat. I swear to God.”
“I do not think she went into the woods to poop.”
“We decided to split up, even though it was dark. But right before we split up, a mom from the other team asked very quietly, not wanting the others to hear, ‘Which way did she go?’ She only asked me, as if I knew or as if she wanted to go too.”
“Did you find her?”
“Some lookers plunged in. Some stayed near the edge, by the fields. Maybe they were scared they’d also get lost. Or annoyed that in order to look like a good person, they’d have to help out and be late for dinner. Some people probably slipped back out to the field, to their cars. Some were calling out, ‘Hello? Are you here?’ ”
“I had the little ones.”
“We know. We know. For Christ’s sake.”
“I mean, I’d seen her enter the forest, but we got no answer. The woods are big. I can’t actually think of where those woods end.”
“Do the woods end?”
“I’ve never seen the end. Anyway. Forget it.” J looks around the kitchen, taking in the cabinetry for a moment. She places her hand flat on the table. “Yeah. Anyway. That’s it. A woman walked into the woods. We looked for her and eventually we gave up. We came back. Did you cut your bangs?”
“Super cute. I need a haircut too.” J pats the table again.
J knows a woman who’s a famous artist. She and the woman had grown up together, childhood friends, but now it’s been years. J follows the woman’s career from a distance. It’s easy to, since the woman is often featured in fancy magazines or photographed wearing her uniform of gold-lamé shorts; wild, unwashed hair; leather straps; hairy pits; work boots; and makeup applied in surprising ways—say, three yellow lines across her forehead or a turquoise streak down each cheek. Sometimes the woman wears a soiled bridal veil with her gold shorts, though from what J can gather, the woman is not married.
The woman bought an abandoned house in Detroit for $4,000. She moved into the crumbling manor with her posse. Yes, the woman has a posse, a jangly bunch of generally free spirits. Free until the woman issues a command, Fagin-style, as in: “Go get me a carved-oak dresser, an armful of red-berry branches, a petticoat, and a set of champagne stemware. And remember, I love you, babies.” A shopping list for the raw material of her art-making. The posse heads out to raid one of Detroit’s other fallen beauties that, because of various downturns in the economy, have been left unpeopled, unguarded, ostensibly abandoned. The posse slips into these homes under cover of darkness and makes short work of collecting treasures that belong to the families who own these decaying homes, or used to own them before the bank repossessed. It’s fuzzy. The woman’s posse, foragers of this misfortune, throw open attic chests, giddy with delight—thrilled with the beautiful trashlike detritus of the universe. They pile up old photo albums, yearbooks, and quilts. They return home laden with crystal dishes, phonograph cabinets, clarinets, cloches, cloaks, gold chains, religious icons, feathers, music boxes, jewels, lamps, and lipsticks. They return home with a sense that they are recycling items that would have gone to the landfill. They present these intimate signifiers of someone else’s life to their queen. Bees with knees full of pollen.
On one hand, J thinks the woman’s project is cool. Property, after all, is a crime. But on the other hand, what the woman does is theft, plain and simple. No one says that. None of the articles mention that. In one of the houses, they found a check signed by Martin Luther King Jr. They brought the check home and the woman posted a picture of it on Instagram. J saw it. Maybe the check would have been destroyed if the posse hadn’t grabbed it. But still, there’s the grabbing.
Or else, maybe J is just jealous of the woman. Maybe J wants a posse too. One that’s not made up of 8-year-olds, 4-year-olds. Maybe J would also like to be recognized for the things that make her totally wild.
“Did you guys watch last night’s—”
“Oh my God. So good. Love that show.” K’s picking the popcorn from her teeth.
“Could you even believe it? She’s like, ‘Mister, I don’t even—’ ”
“Shut up. I had to work late. Don’t spoil it.”
“Oh, hon. You’re in for a treat.”
“But I just couldn’t even believe when she—”
“Wait. Can we get back to the woman?”
“The woman in the woods. You never found her? There’s, like, a woman at large in the woods somewhere and no one cares?”
J looks reluctant, or guilty. “I walked farther into that forest than anyone.”
“Were you scared?”
“It was beautiful. Green and dark blue. I’d go back. There were some briars here and there but it smelled so good, I didn’t mind. That dirt smell. And there was something. The woods kept opening up more, like, Oh, there’s a clearing just over there, and then at the clearing, Oh, look, a small path, and then, Oh, what’s that up ahead? I kept walking and the woods kept opening.”
“How long did you look?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, I’d be pissed if I were you,” P says. “What the hell, right? She endangered all of you, leading you into the woods at night.” P is often angry. She has her reasons.
We turn to look at her.
“What about the woods scares you?”
“I don’t know,” P says.
“I’m more scared of an overwhelmed mom behind the wheel of a minivan.”
P pinches her mouth. L tries to defuse any conflict. “Come on. We’ve all been there. Right? Late for something; no food in the house; tired, bratty kids; and you think, Maybe I should just 60-miles-an-hour into that tree. Right? You’ve all been there.” L laughs.
Everyone looks at L. No one says a thing.
The night after the woods, J fell into bed at nine. The artist and her posse were probably just waking up, ready to begin their bacchanals. Fire and costumes and sex. Dancing, touching, making something new from the possessions of the dispossessed. Is that wild? J wondered. Cities in decline? Postapocalypse? Humans behaving badly with lots of drugs? That doesn’t really seem wild, but maybe J would enjoy smearing her cheeks with odd colors and sneaking into her neighbors’ houses at night to steal their belongings and have sex with multiple partners, sometimes even multiple partners at the same time on a pile of stolen loot.
It was wild growing humans inside her body. That was the most wildness J ever felt. And a posse of kids is wild. The other night J’s 4-year-old said, “Mama, my vagina’s singing.” And J asked, “What’s it singing about?” Her daughter didn’t miss a beat. “Pee.”
Still, J is worried that wild mostly has nothing to do with humans, especially the grown-up ones.
“The woods didn’t feel dangerous,” J says. “I liked it in the woods.”
“You really weren’t scared?”
“No. I even shut off my light and stood in the dark.”
“Not me. No way.”
“Everything felt soft. The trees were black. The sky had some blue left, like a painting, and it got quiet. People gave up and went home. People stopped calling for her. I mean, it’s not like she’s the sort of woman who’d come just because someone called her anyway.”
“How do you know?”
“Where were the kids?”
“At the field. They were fine. They had a ball.”
“How do you know? You were in the woods.”
J smiles. “It got quieter the farther I went, and I liked it even more.” J looks like a person who’s telling a joke or a scary story, a person who knows something but won’t say it plainly. “I was like a girl with an excellent hiding place. You know that feeling?”
“Does she have children?”
“Everyone asks that question. Why does that matter?”
“It changes things. If her kids were there. If her kids were looking for her.”
“She should behave because she’s a mother?”
“She should be brave because she’s a mother.”
“Walking into the woods is not brave?”
“I really just want to know. I’m asking for real.”
“Does she have a husband?”
“I don’t know. We never found the woman.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. Eventually I made my way back to the fields. My kids were in the car. They didn’t even notice I’d been gone so long. We were the last to leave. Then there was no news about the woman, nothing in the papers. So I don’t know.”
“Did you imagine her?”
“Do 10, 12 people have the same dream?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you just didn’t see her leave.”
“Maybe. I was distracted.”
“Well, after a while, I could see in the dark.”
“What’d you see?”
“Nothing much. The dark.” J stops talking for a minute. “Anyway, enough. That’s it. That’s all that happened. Eventually I walked out of the woods.”
“ ‘Enough’? You’re the one who keeps bringing it up.” P really is angry.
“I guess I wonder if she’s still there.”
“You can go back.”
“Also, I’m jealous thinking that she might still be there.”
“Jealous? She’d be dead.”
“The woods are better off without us in them.”
“Well, that night I thought I might belong there. Or I wanted to belong there.”
“You can’t live in the woods. It rains. It snows. No coffee. The woods don’t want you.”
“But I felt something there.”
“Ah, you were scared.”
“Divine like good?”
“No. Divine like God.”
The liberal mothers who hate religion look pained. “Jesus, J.”
“Not him.” She smiles.
“I just mean, holy crap. You felt God in the woods? What the fuck, girl?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
J shrugs. “I felt unhuman. After a while, I lay down.”
“On the ground?”
“The soil was so soft. I dug my fingers into it and it was like plugging into a socket. It was electrical. I don’t know what’s underneath that ground—microbes, mushrooms. But something crazy’s there.”
“What do you mean unhuman?”
“What’d the mushroom say, J?”
“Is that a joke?”
“I wondered how long before a body would disintegrate.”
“I’m a real fungi. Get it?” K belches. Some mothers giggle. Some don’t.
“You know D started microdosing?”
“Everyone’s started microdosing.”
“It wouldn’t take long for a body to become forest again,” J says.
“I don’t know. What a way to go. Or to not go. To stay forever.”
For the second time, the mothers look to see if the children can hear what’s being said. No curses, but a conversation that skirts precariously close to the most taboo topic: mother death.
“Had you been drinking?” L tries to lighten things up again.
“Not even a sip, hon.”
“You sat down?”
“I lay down. And to be honest,” J says, “it was hot. It was sexual. Like the way giving birth is sexual. An animal.”
“Birth is sexual? I think I missed something.”
Now the conservative moms get to look pained.
“You’re funny, J.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“Then you shouldn’t tell people that about the trees. I mean, you can tell us, but—”
“But no one wants to hear about a middle-aged mom having sex with a tree?”
“Wait. You had sex with a tree?”
“Maybe sex is the wrong word. Or else maybe the tree just wasn’t that into me.”
“I think I mean decomposing.”
“Rotting: the new sexy.”
J smiles. “It’s definitely more intense than screwing. Rotting is wild.”
“Is wild the point?”
“I think so?”
“Not me. I like baking cupcakes and watching Netflix.”
“My cousin has a cabin in the mountains. You should rent it from her, J.”
“I like hot baths.”
“So do I,” J says. “I love hot baths.”
“The woman disintegrated?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know you don’t know, but what do you think happened?”
“Maybe she needed a hiding place. Maybe she did just need to poop. Or else the woods beckoned her. Maybe the woods needed her. She was watching the game and a leaf caught her eye and waved. Then suddenly a thousand new paths she’d never considered before seemed possible.”
“I don’t know, but imagine this woman at Career Day.” J’s on the PTA. She’s a real leader, booking Career Day presenters for the high school, which is kind of funny since J doesn’t exactly have a career. “This woman could tell the kids something.”
“I don’t know, something like ‘Listen, I do not give a fuck about soccer, kids. Honest,’ she’d say. ‘Us versus Them is bullshit. You’re more than little warriors.’ Maybe she’d even say, ‘Listen, I went into the woods. I lay down on the forest floor and became nutrients. And it was amazing, kids.’ Then she could give them a brochure: ‘How I became part of the forest.’ Then at least they’d know their options for real.” J pauses, takes a measure of the room.
The mothers say nothing for a moment.
“Are you the woman, J?”
J shakes her head no.
“I’m sorry?” A is uptight. Insecure. Righteous. She’s a fitness instructor. Also, she’s a Career Day presenter. Also, she’s a soccer coach. “Are you making a joke of this? This woman might have died. She might have been somebody’s mother.”
We pause our chatter again. We have already lost some mothers here, and it is bad. The only thing worse than that is when we lose one of the children.
“You think she harmed herself?”
“There’d be a body if she had.”
“Unless it disintegrated.”
“It couldn’t do it that fast.”
“ ‘It’?” A is really upset.
“Please. Please,” J says. “I’m telling you something wonderful. Don’t make it dreary. Please. Come on.”
“It sounds like you’re saying death is great. And I don’t think it is. It’s bleak and cold and it hurts us.”
“It hurts the living.”
“Plus it sucks.”
“Well, I just want to know if the woman is safe.” A’s got her hands on her hips. That sort of righteousness.
“ ‘Safe’? What the fuck is that?”
“I want to know she’s alive.”
“Alive is safe?”
“I just want her to stay a mom,” A says.
“We all want that. I mean if she even was—is—a mom.”
“You’re not thinking of hurting yourself, are you, J?”
“I’m telling you something strange and beautiful is in the woods. God is in the forest. No. Wait. God is the forest. Or not God. Silence. Or—”
“What the fuck, hon?”
“I don’t know. Forget it. Forget I said anything. Please. I’ll be embarrassed tomorrow.”
“No. I get it, J. No offense, L, nice party, but how many of these have you already been to this year?”
J remains neutral, unsummarized. “I didn’t come back from the forest because my kids were waiting. I came back because look: cabinets, doors, floors. You don’t have to walk into the woods to know the forest. IKEA, motherfuckers.”
“But this wood’s dead.”
“Yeah. And you’re not scared of it. You don’t hate it for dying. We should be more like the wood.”
“Less separate with life and death. I feel like I’m keeping a dirty little secret all the time, trying to hide something. Then, someone gets sick and it’s like, oh shit, it’s her fault she’s going to die. She did something wrong. Not enough moisturizer or exercise or something.”
The mothers look stricken.
“Are you sick, J?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
J nods. “Forget it,” she says again. “Forget it.”
Some of the mothers pull their phones from their purses to have a look at the news of the world. The kitchen’s quiet. The dead wood of the cabinets and tables just sits there. Finally, one woman puts down her phone and speaks up. “I’m going to root for being alive over being dead. Sorry, J. I like it here. I want to stay here, as a human. Soccer, dinner, cupcakes, all of it.”
“Yeah. Go, team.”
“You guys, I’m not rooting for death,” J says. “I want to stay alive so much, I can’t sleep at night trying to hold on to it. I’m just telling you that in the forest, the dead stuff in the ground wasn’t dead. It was living. It was both. Dead and alive at the same time. It was making the trees grow and it was—”
“Wait. Wait.” L, hostess without end, tries to make nice again. Smooth, sane, polite, safe gossip. “But what happened to the woman? Does anyone know? Should we go look? Maybe she’s there, hurt. Maybe we just—”
“Oh wait. I know what happened to her,” P says, a new thought dawning across her face.
“Were you there?”
“No. But I know what happened.”
“You weren’t even there, P.”
“You saw a ghost, J.”
“Or a zombie. Like on the show last night. For real.”
“Don’t tell me. I haven’t watched it yet.”
“I’m serious. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. You saw a woman go into the woods and never come out. Why did she have no car? Why did she have no kids?”
“Because she’s dead.”
“Or maybe she just likes the woods. Maybe she didn’t want to have kids.”
“And you were walking right into her trap, J. How do we know you’re not dead too?”
“I am dead too. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, dead and alive.”
“So she got you? She bit you? That’s why you’re acting so weird.”
“No. I never even saw her in the woods. Are you listening?”
“I’m serious. Maybe J just hasn’t started to decay yet. When did you say this happened?”
“Stop. You’re scaring me.”
“I’ve definitely started to decay. You have too, P.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Well maybe we should be scared.” P grabs J’s wrist, trying to feel for a pulse.
“Really?” J asks.
“It’s just like the show. No one knew she was a zombie until she ate all their brains.”
“Fuck! You just ruined the one highlight of my week. She ate them all?”
“Or maybe the woman did come out of the woods again. Came out of the woods dead. She could be anywhere. She could be walking among all of the kids right now, coming to Career—”
The doorbell rings.
“Shit!” The mothers jump.
“It’s just the door,” L says.
“Don’t answer it.”
“Are you serious?”
“Didn’t you watch?”
“Don’t answer the door, L.”
Then a firm knock. The mothers listen from the kitchen. L tries to crane her neck to see through the window. “It might be the new girl’s mom. I have to let her in.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yeah you do.”
“What if she’s dead?”
“Open the door, L. This is absurd.”
“Please don’t.” One mother unwraps a cupcake, takes a large bite. “Don’t.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Open the door.”
“You have to.”
“Yeah, you do,” J says. “Even if she is dead.”
“Jesus, J! Stop it. I’m not going to sleep for weeks. Please.”
L approaches the door. A handful of the mothers shrink in their seats.
“Open the door,” J says. “Open all the doors.”
“Shit. Hold up. Hold up,” A says. “The kids are coming.”
“The kids are coming? Fuck. Don’t open the door.”
“Are you okay, J? Everybody good?”
“I’m fine. Yeah.”
“Don’t open that door.”
“Here come the kids. Ah, Christ. Goody bags. Sorry, L.”
L slows her approach toward the door. Her hand nears the knob. “I swear I only put in healthy snacks and some erasers. Oh, and a Ring Pop. And Tootsie Rolls. And a water pistol. Everybody all right?”
“Don’t open the door.”
L pauses in the foyer. “Hello?” She lifts her hand to the door as if to touch the thing on the other side, to know it without having to open to it. Only it doesn’t work that way. The wood of the door reveals nothing. And L, inside the house, knows nothing of outsides. L touches the knob.
“I’m fine,” J says in the kitchen. “I probably have the story wrong, anyway. The sun set so no one saw the woman come back, find her things—you know, her keys, her phone, her kids. No one saw her drive home in the dark. That’s how you want the story to end, right?”
The mothers watch L at the door.
“Right,” one of them says. “Sure. Shhh. Here come the kids.”
“Right. Shut the fuck up. Here come the kids.”