Devonian | Łukasz Drobnik

“We need to go deeper,” she says in her own quirky way, meaning, “further into the forest.” It’s quiet, as if we are underwater. The air is cool and moist. Ferns stretch their feathery leaves like lazy barnacles reaching out for plankton. There are pine cones and pine needles crackling under our feet.

I can’t believe we’re doing this. She was always so rational. At bedtime, she would tell us stories about evolution and mass extinctions, about oceans teeming with ammonites. Once she said the continents used to be a single landmass and, one day, they would collide again. My brother and I liked to imagine our beds were tectonic plates on a collision course: M sitting on the Eurasian plate while I was riding Australia.

We used to be embarrassed by her strong foreign accent when she came to pick us up from school. I still remember the taste of the greasy dumplings, stuffed with mashed potatoes and cottage cheese, that she would force on us at the bus stop, as if we’d been starved all day. Now I look at her grey hair and sunken chest and think maybe it’s for the best. Perhaps she doesn’t believe natural medicine will work either, but what do we have to lose?

We reach a small clearing. The air is much warmer here, dry and filled with buzzing insects. Small brown lizards hide under twigs and stones as we walk across a sandy patch. We always knew better than to ask her about our father. She must have had her reasons to run away from him with two little boys, leaving a job as a lab technician for one as a cleaner. Only once, when we got drunk together at M’s twentieth, at a beach picnic outside our new town, did M ask her what he was like. She just said, solemn and composed, he was a very charming and a very selfish man.

Her eyes are as tired and determined as on the day M died. My forty-year-old little brother lying there on a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV, with skinny arms and sunken eye sockets, a pale memory of the person he used to be, telling us this state is freedom, nothing less. He held my hand and asked, “Remember when I was Eurasia and you were Australia?”

I wonder what the healing house will look like. We joked it would be a witch’s hut, with a thatched roof and bundles of herbs hanging in the porch, but it might be a fancy villa built on people’s hopes. I can’t be sure if this is the right direction. She looks dauntless, treading the moss and sweeping away cobwebs with her cane, but I bet she’s just putting on a brave front. I wouldn’t dare, though, ask her how much further or whether she even knows where we’re going.

Maybe we’ll die before we get there, attacked by a wild animal. Our bones will be cleaned of flesh by insects, worms, and small mammals. White and naked, they will sink deeper into the moss, under blankets of pine needles and autumn leaves, among the roots of generations of trees. Minerals from the soil might turn them to stone, buried deep under layers and layers of dust, with a kaleidoscope of forests and deserts and meadows and lakes high up on the surface. If members of a sentient race of robots excavate them millions of years from now, will they find the tumours on my mother’s bones?

Meanwhile, we keep walking. The forest gets denser and darker, the ferns ever wilder. It seems to have no end or beginning, stretching endlessly in all directions with its pines and spruces and birches, with its groundcover sewn from moss and heather and studded with mushrooms. Finally, she stops, looks around, and says,”We are lost.”

Łukasz Drobnik is a Cracow-based Polish writer, and the author of two novellas, Nocturine and Cunninghamella (Forma 2011). His short prose has been featured in Lighthouse, Bare Fiction, and in other Polish literary journals (Lampa, Rita Baum, Dwutygodnik, Dodatek Literacki, WyspaFabularie).