Children of the Moon
We drop to a crouch. D points fingers forked at his eyes and then toward a glade just ahead on our right. It is 5:30 a.m. and the sun is nothing but embers beyond the tree line. The gloom swarms with navy static. Yet, before I see it, I know what’s there.
This is deep forest: Spruce, oak, linden, hornbeam, sycamore. There are no bright birches to backlight the clearing. Long, motionless seconds pass. There is only the tap and click of falling leaves and hornbeam seeds in the vast cistern of the forest. I will the shadows to assume the desired form. I summon creatures from the deep.
Then, like an image forming on photographic paper, a specter condenses from the gloom.
Two nights before, I’d passed by the rose-tinted tower of Stalin’s Palace of Culture. The following morning, I’d glimpsed my first orthodox minarets as the train pulled into Biaylstok. It had been a further two hours to Bialowieza in the company of T, who’d lost a relative in the Katyn massacre and decried the state of the economy as we traveled through the flat, arable land that had given Poland its name and cursed it with envious neighbors.
The following morning, after a breakfast watched over by an icon of Tsar Nicolas II, I met with S, a licensed guide for the strict reserve. This is an area of forest, fenced, gated, and patrolled by wardens who check ID. It is forbidden to enter without an official guide, and even then it’s forbidden to leave the path. This is a world without people, a fragment of Europe that is returning to a primeval state. Trees rot where they fall. Some rot where they stand, their lifeless trunks budding great mushrooms. We think forests exist as places of eternal growth, but equally they exist as places of eternal decay.
I must ask before lifting a dead bracket mushroom from the path. It looks like the hoof of a shire horse and weighs several kilos. It feels like stone and is made from chitin, the same material as insect shells. It was produced by a life-form finer than a cobweb. I hear a gunshot.
“No.” S motions a fall. “Branches.”
The secret work of the fungi is announced by boughs snapping free and falling to the ground. Outside, the strict reserve mushrooms are gathered like fruit. The Poles have a proverb:
‘Flowers are children of the sun,
Mushrooms are children of the moon.’
Woodpeckers also attack the trees. There are slim trees that have been splintered in two by them, their remains gleaming like flakes of bone on the ground. “The holy ground” S had called it. A sea of leaves carpets it; a golden hoard softening in the shortening days. Even so, come the spring every one of these leaves will be replaced. Beyond the strict reserve, when I am alone, I hear the echo of woodpeckers tapping among the trees. They frame the great silence.
It is difficult to imagine such serenity being the scene of grotesque massacres, but mass graves testify to those villagers hounded through sunlit glades by Einsatzgruppen, their villages soon to be torched in a punitive racist war.
“In the First World War they shot the animals; they shot the animals and hauled away millions of tons of hardwood. In the Second World War they shot the people. Goering forbade killing the animals. The forest was to be his hunting range as it had been for the Tsars before him.”
It is as though an entire world has been resuscitated. Not only does the forest still remain, but it is now protected; the villages have been rebuilt; the animals, as well as the people, have returned.
This is what brings us to the glade at daybreak. The day before had been one of signs and glimpses: the paw-prints of wolves (and how the mind had thrilled with thoughts of them wild and free); the pointed stakes of beaver-felled trees, their dams and lodges (but not them). D spoke to me in German: Hirsch, Wolf, Biber. He pointed to tracks made by boar rooting for acorns. Schwien. And I glimpsed them: not fat pigs, but svelte, like fish coursing among the trees to the rumble of their gallop.
Now we froze, the darkness of the glade charged with promise. I’d believed every dark shape to be what it wasn’t. Now it was here; it was real and I couldn’t believe it. I’d come to see the soul of the wilderness. Now here it was, solitary and silent even as it moved, even as it melted into the trees. It faded away, and we found ourselves watching the empty glade.
“Wisent,” whispered D.
“Bison,” I whispered back, and we grinned.