This was a difficult story to write. Although the central event is true, I knew nothing of the details surrounding it, thus any similarities to real persons or events are coincidental. I don’t think that makes it any easier.
Every night I see her. A toddler, beneath a table. Elderly, sitting on a gnarled root. In her teens, twenties, middle-aged, dancing, almost floating, barefoot, in the dappled sunlight of a silent clearing, smiling, inviting me to follow.
I long for sleep, dread sleep, doze off in class, wake up weeping, always seeing her, my little Megan, out there in the woods.
She was a quiet baby; she rarely cried, hardly ever babbled. Concerned, Beth and I had had her tested for autism. “Megan is just a very quiet little girl,” the doctor had concluded. “Be thankful, little Craig didn’t let me sleep for the first year. Colic.”
She liked to hide. At two, she christened her favorite spot “Okeegara.” It was easy to see when she was there; she’d never fail to take her shoes off before crawling underneath the oak dining set, protected in its forest of chair legs. Talking didn’t seem to be allowed there; the first time I’d slid myself under the table, I’d gotten no further than “Hey, honey” before being cut off by a fierce little scowl, her chubby finger to her lips. “Ssshhh, Daddy. Okeegara is a quiet place.”
She loved to draw. Always the forest. The forest, and her imaginary friends ‘Dikey’ and ‘Hero,’ who lived in Okeegara, up in the trees. At three, she made up her own alphabet, strange little squiggles she pretended were their names.
When she got bigger, Okeegara moved, became a few small trees in the backyard. Megan would spend hours out there, just sitting quietly, always shoeless, in her little woodland.
Kindergarten. Parent-teacher conferences, praise for her intelligence, cautious questions about her emotional development, her “lack of interest in socializing with her peers.” Beth defending Megan, repeating the doctor’s diagnosis: “My daughter is just a quiet girl, dammit, there’s nothing wrong with her!”
We moved. I found a new job at a new school, rented an old stone farmhouse, and she was in heaven. Her private forest, once under the dining room table, then in a suburban backyard, finally became the woods, real woods, behind the new house.
The spring before she was to go to high school, I got an offer. Tenure track, finally, at a university in the city. It included an apartment downtown for the first year, to give me time to get my bearings.
The move drove her insane. She couldn’t handle the city, the noise, the concrete.
She broke down, retreated into her room, into her bed, into herself. Stopped talking. Stopped eating.
We got help. Inpatient care, at a private facility in the country. It seemed good for her. The counselors said she was becoming more social, eating again. They recommended weekly trips to a park, a forest, “quiet time to commune with nature and recharge her batteries.”
According to the incident report, an hour before she was due to be discharged, she asked to be allowed to go out and pick some flowers for us. They found her in a small grove, fifteen minutes later. She’d fashioned the noose out of braided dental floss.
She had removed her shoes. She was thirteen.
It was too much; Beth left. The dreams began.
Four years after Megan died, I got the letter. Her junior high English class had written letters to themselves, to be mailed in time for high school graduation. We’d moved, left a forwarding address, but never told the school about her passing. Inside the envelope, labeled with her made-up alphabet, was a drawing of the forest, with Megan, Dikey, and Hero, up in the trees. But the writing…
Not made-up. Not Okeegara.
Japanese. Aokigahara. The Sea of Trees, the haunted forest beneath Mt. Fuji, eternally silent, where Daiki, Hiro, and hundreds of others have gone to die, to hang in the trees forever.
Where Megan died so many times before. Where she’s gone again.
Where she calls me now to come and join her.