It’s six o’clock in the morning on March third. I’m standing in the doorway of Kala’s bedroom in our old commune, looking back at the pile of books, papers, and toys I’ve been surrounded with for the past week. I feel frozen here, staring at this sad mess; the aftermath of the furious, tear-the-whole-house-apart kind of searching people do when they lose something unbearably special. It looks even sadder when I realize I didn’t come close to finding what I was looking for.

. . .

It was a week ago today that I came out of the portal on the good side of the Lighted Woods. I wrapped Tok’s body and hid it as well as I could right inside the cave, worried that one of the kids might stumble onto it before I could let the others know where it was. I sat beside him and wrote one letter to Rupa, for when she is older, and one to Veda telling her what happened and where they could find his body. I waited half the night to sneak in to the Mother’s cabin to deliver the letters, terrified I would have to face someone who would actually be able to see me now.

With the letters clutched to my chest, I tiptoed through the pitch-black cabin, stopping at every creak of its ancient floor to panic. I wanted to just drop them somewhere and run, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t be overlooked. I couldn’t bear to think of Rupa being left to wonder why her dad just left and never came back, or Bodhi stumbling onto Tok’s dead body while he played in the woods. I convinced myself to go up the narrow staircase to the Mother’s room and just leave them at the top of the stairs. Once I reached the top, my legs kept walking, entering her room without my permission. Everything inside me screamed as my body walked right to her bedside and sat, placing a hand on her back without a second of hesitation. She was so still and silent that I started to wonder if I could leave without her knowing, but her voice pierced the thick air before I could move.

“My dear, it feels like you’re leaving.”

I reached over and squeezed her hand, hoping she understood that I wanted to talk to her. I watched that beautiful, nearly one hundred and twenty-year-old woman sit up like a child without so much as an arm to balance her. She turned to face me, the flickering lantern at her bedside illuminating her cloudy, teary eyes. She held both my hands in hers, squeezing them tight.

“I know in my heart it isn’t right to ask you to stay…but my dear, I want to ask so badly. I wish I could make all of this better for you right now.”

I had never seen the Mother cry like that. She often got emotional when addressing us all, but tears were rolling heavy down her face as she spoke to me, and it broke whatever was left of my heart. But it didn’t change my mind.

The Mother saw me without her sight as I spoke to her without my voice for the second time. My heart became a dense, heavy syrup, spilling effortlessly into hers.

Days I’ve spent crying: two hundred and ten;

I am as dry as a bone

Mourning the loss of my only son

(unaware though I was)

that he wasn’t my own

In the third week of grieving the death

of the person I thought that I was,

I’m wondering, of what is left of me,

which are the pieces

(if any) I chose?

This, the one hundred and sixty-eighth hour

I’ve carried the weight of another,

the twenty-thousandth minute of living

as someone who

murdered a brother

For once I am choosing a path for myself

this time beginning at zero

Leaving behind the river, the rock,

the wolf, the watch,

and the arrow

I’ll no longer tally the days of my grief

or forfeit my fate to another

the last of my tears is for saying goodbye

to the closest I have

to a Mother

She heard every word, and I know she understood. I got the feeling that she had known about Tok the moment it happened, or at least the moment we came back through the portal. She is the woods; I doubt anything happens here without her feeling it. Sometimes I get the feeling that she has always known everything that’s going to happen.

The Mother, my mother, stuffed me full of snacks from her private kitchenette in her room. She disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a bag full of books and food. As we drew out our goodbye, she kept adding special things she found around her room to the bag, as if she was trying to give me as much of herself as she could. It was the warmest my bones have felt in a long time.

As she hugged me one last time, she told me that James had recently listed the Commune building for sale as the last people trickled off, either moving to the woods or finding a new place to be.

“He’s moving here himself, and he checks on it now and again but it’s otherwise empty. As far as people go, anyway…you might find it a nice place to transition, with some familiar things around.”

As she handed me the bag, I looked into her cloudy eyes and suddenly felt a heavy guilt for leaving. I was responsible for Tok’s death and was leaving her and everyone else to deal with it, including his own little girl. I felt my cheeks burning, and the Mother reached up and touched my face as if she had felt it, too.

“Don’t you think on these feelings too hard. You didn’t ask for any of this, and I know you didn’t mean to harm a soul. I can’t imagine going through what you have. And you might not believe it, but these people do love you so. It’s all so very sad, but there is nothing to forgive. They would want to help you now. You might not know who you are right now, but I can feel who you are. And that’s why I can let you go, I know you’ll find your way. You can erase a mind but you can’t erase a soul, and yours is as strong as an ox my dear. Take care of yourself awhile, you might be surprised how quick you start to heal. Just you wait till you look in the mirror one day and see what I see. It’s breathtaking.”

. . .

Standing in Kala’s doorway, I can almost feel her kiss my forehead. When I open my eyes, the mess in front of me looks different. Tok’s journals and papers, Kala’s toys, clothes, and notebooks...I have been searching for myself in a pile of other people’s discarded things.

When I feel my mind start to count the days, I gently pause it, walk into the living room, and sit tall on a pillow in the floor.

I close my eyes and breathe.