He pauses, from time to time – to rest against a tree and squint through a maze of tree trunks receding into a grey distance – until the pauses reach a climax, when he flops, spread-eagled, onto a mossy clearing on the forest floor.
His line of vision climbs trees to points that seem to puncture the sky and release a cooling mist, which lands upon his hot face, while clouds of breath rise like wordless speech bubbles, before being dissected by the branches of tall, straight pine trees, as though the trees are trying to find a message hidden in their silence. He senses perfection in the interactions and smiles.
He ran towards the forest that morning because he felt his head was about to explode. It was full to the brim with bills, debt, politics, war, the demands of his children and nagging of his wife, clean socks and dirty dishes! He knew one more thought would not have found space within it, so he ran towards the forest in a desperate attempt to escape the torment.
He thinks about his head, and senses he may have spilled some of its contents en route, for he is enveloped within a novel sense of calm. He thinks about his head until the contemplation fractures the hypnotic peace, and he begins to feel restless, when he twists to one side and reaches into a hip pocket of his jacket for his cigarettes and lighter.
He takes a cigarette from the box, slips it into a corner of his mouth, and cups the lighter with his left hand while spinning its wheel with the thumb of his right. He observes the flame being drawn towards the tip of the cigarette with narrowed eyes, before his cool, cowboy-like routine is interrupted by a sudden coughing fit.
He hacks and coughs and hacks until he has recovered, when he pulls a successful draught of smoke deep into his lungs, while exploring the contours of the cigarette box in his pocket with his fingertips. He is embraced by a nicotine-induced sense of tranquility as he exhales, slowly and audibly, and watches the blue column of smoke rise towards a tree and curl around its trunk.
The cigarette burns and his head begins to fill up, as though the thoughts he spilled as he made his way through the forest have managed to catch up with him. The cigarette box’s shape reminds him of cupboards and houses, rooms, blocks of flats and shopping centres and ovens and he shakes his head and slaps it as though to displace them
Once he has regained a degree of calm, he contemplates the peace he experienced before he thought of having a cigarette, and realises he could smoke a thousand and not enjoy such tranquillity with any one of them. He knows he must search for that untainted quiescence, since he will have to stop smoking, and wishes he would have thought of buying cigarettes before he ran to the forest.
He realises such thoughts are filling his mind with worry and confusion but he can’t stop thinking them. He shakes and slaps his head and shouts in anguish. He is overwhelmed by a desire to throw the cigarettes and lighter away – to take off his clothes and start running again, so he will not have anything to remind him of that which he had felt the need to escape from, but reasoning suggests he should keep the clothes to stay warm, and the lighter to light fires.
When the cigarette has burnt to the filter, he takes another and lights it from the glowing butt. He counts those remaining; there are twelve. Months of the year. And pay cheques and bank statements. Electric bills and rent payments and phone bills and installments for the car and he slaps and shakes his head and shouts – “NO!” – like he has never said the word before – with complete negation; with absolute certainty and finality. He shouts again and again and again;
He crushes the pack within his hand, throws it into the distance and shouts;
He frowns at the cigarette between his fingertips, raises it to his lips, pulls upon it, and blows a cloud of smoke towards where he threw the pack. When he considers it will be his last, a sense of fear washes through his mind and body, which attracts the fear of death and disease and the Third World War, and such a myriad of anxiety-inducing concerns that they form a well of angst in the pit of his stomach. He pulls on the cigarette again and again, to soothe his anguish, until it’s finished, at which point he stands and heads off in the direction in which he threw the carton.
He finds it, carefully manipulates the crooked contours into a shape resembling its original form, pushes the lid open, and wriggles a cigarette from the box – it’s crumpled but unbroken. He lays upon the forest floor, slips the cigarette into a corner of his mouth, and cups the lighter with his left hand while spinning its wheel with the thumb of his right. He observes the flame being drawn towards the tip of the cigarette with narrowed eyes, and exhales a cloud of smoke, which rises, for a moment, before being pulled into the surrounding trees as though the forest were inhaling it.
He knows he is trapped by endless habits and customs, as if each is a link of a chain – hooked to a collar fastened around his neck – which leads back through the forest to his point of departure. He reasons that the only thing which will prevent the chain from running to its full length, and jerking him to a halt, is attitude. He realises he is a prisoner of mentality and conditioning, which must be displaced through fresh reasoning, for he is unable to cope with the routines instilled within his mind by the world he ran from.
He considers this as he smokes more cigarettes, by lighting each from the butt of the last. As he smokes, he wonders how to break the chain and remove the collar – to be totally free – and knows stopping smoking is one of the first steps towards freedom. While he is smoking his third last cigarette, he understands he must release fear and embrace courage, for he will need an abundance of the quality to be able to abandon all he has ever known. When he is smoking the second last, he makes a determined effort to overcome the fear of stopping smoking by replacing it with the joy of being free from the habit, and by the time he smokes his last, the joy is overwhelming.
He crushes the cigarette into the forest floor, smiles broadly, sits upright, and swings his legs together to form a cross legged position. He straightens his back, closes his eyes, and sucks the clean, humid forest air through his nostrils and deep into his lungs. He remains in this position for some time, breathing slowly and rhythmically, while attempting to clear his mind of all thoughts.
When he opens his eyes, he notices the light is beginning to fade. He feels a pang of fear, and through force of habit thinks of lighting a cigarette. He feels another pang of fear when he realises he doesn’t have any, which is followed by a hunger pang, and then another pang of fear when he realises he doesn’t have any food. He shouts;
The longer he sits wondering what to do, the darker it becomes and the hungrier he gets. He takes deep breaths, to quell a rising sense of panic, and begins to consider his options. He has no cigarettes. He takes the carton and peers inside, with the hope he may have missed one, but finds it empty. He searches through seemingly endless pockets in search of cigarettes and something to eat, but finds nothing. He stands and walks in circles around his resting place, but it’s already too dark to see if there are any berries or mushrooms. He resumes his seated position, and uses the lighter to set the cigarette carton on fire.
Flames crawl from a corner of the box and spread until they touch his fingertips, when he releases the box to drop on the forest floor, where flames cast a warm glow and flickering shadows until they are extinguished. Orange forms writhe within the ash until they disappear, when it is darker than before. He realises his pupils have contracted in response to the light, and closes his eyes so they will become accustomed to the darkness.
When he opens them, it seems darker than before he had set fire to the box, and assumes the light’s fading fast within the forest’s shade. He yawns and decides to sleep, and consider each new day as it arrives. He zips his ski jacket up – which was the only sensible thing he took before he left, apart from a sturdy pair of walking boots, although he had donned both through luck rather than thoughtfulness – before curling into a foetal position with his hands tucked between his thighs.
When he closes his eyes, he sees his mind is like a fairground attraction, where creatures pop up randomly from holes, which one should beat with a mallet to encourage their retreat back into them. His thoughts are like these creatures, and the mentality he attempts to develop the one standing with the mallet. As he struggles to still his mind, a branch snaps within the peripheral consciousness of his hearing. His eyelids spring open, and he lays perfectly still in the near darkness, breathing as quietly as he is able, while his hearing detects a cacophony of strange noises.
In an effort to dispel the fear of the unknown, he analyses each sound and allocates a reason for its being. The creaking; the sway of young trees in a wandering breeze. The tapping; the branches of trees touching a neighbour. He thinks each seems only harmless, and perhaps even comforting, eventually, once he has grown used to them, as though nature’s lullaby.
He relaxes his body and closes his eyes. A bear wanders through his imagination and scares the creatures of thought away. The bear lowers its great head to smell some flowers, before rising to its hindquarters and speaking of a river where it fishes, which he will meet if he follows the morning sun.