Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

The Glimpse Before

by Kari Trail

Author Bio

Kari Trail is a rising college freshman at the California Institute of the Arts and recent graduate from Menlo-Atherton High School. Her work often explores liminal landscapes and human flaws through short stories and prose, constantly considering how to verbalize the ever-evolving world around her. She particularly enjoys exploring the stories of unlikely protagonists and their flawed yet ameliorating narratives. In her free time, she loves reading independent magazines, designing layouts, and exploring the outdoors.

Inspiration

This story was largely inspired by the demeaning way society views age, particularly towards women. Despite wrinkles and sunspots being a natural part of growing older, society enforces a damaging–but ultimately profitable–narrative where botox, plastic surgery, and cosmetic alteration are normalized. In response, A Glimpse Before centers around an aging woman, Actaea, as she reckons with and gradually comes to terms with her age, ultimately realizing that old age is not a prelude to the way you die, but rather a testament to the way you lived. Much of the imagery and world-building was inspired by Félicia Atkinson’s short anthology A Forest Petrifies.

Actaea Eneas lived in a small cabin held together with chiseled support beams and wooden posts, tucked along the forest’s outskirts. It was a tired structure, a far cry from the white-trimed houses of the main city a few miles east. From the window above her kitchen sink, Actaea could just see their roofs peeking out from above the treetops, dotted in neat rows along the Greek coastline. But, most of the time, she kept the curtains closed tight, cinching off the perfect houses on their perfect coastline with a quick-handed swish of drapery.

Thick leaves heaped up in uneven piles around her house each night, forcing her to rake a halfhearted pathway from the front door to the outhouse in the morning. They clung to her thin nightgown, sticking along the cloth’s hem and leaving a dirty smear. She hated the leaves and let them hear it. Cuss words echoed across the isolated field, eventually dulling to a soft murmur upon reaching the forest edge.

Lacking any structural integrity, the small latrine seemed to fold in on itself, diagonal boards shifting with the slightest breeze. The walls reeked of urine, rotten leaves, and dying rodents. Actaea didn’t bother cleaning it anymore, though she hated the stench. Each morning as she sat bare in the outhouse, she cursed the mice and their dreadful, decomposing flesh.

Every day, she felt a similar decay. It started softly, mineral, but now seemed to manifest as a sharp ripple along her chest and joints. Hot, like a jab to the heart. In the afternoons when the light had already started to dim, she sat by the fire and watched each flame lick upwards, then fold back into itself. She envied the balance, the simplicity—the way it existed as a continuous life form, almost taunting the ephemeral winds that hushed in silently under the door. Sometimes, her thoughts wandered to her daughter who lived in the city, working as a secretary in a small library. Actaea wondered if she still rubbed her thumb irritably against the back of her hand when she was anxious, a trait Actaea had likely passed down. Smoothing out the creases methodically. At night she counted the days since they last spoke: Three hundred and four, three hundred and five...

Time felt stagnant here, yet she still felt the weight of bones shifting beneath her, the crimped folds of skin on her cheeks, the continuous aches that pervaded every motion. At night in her twisted-sheet insomnia, she could sometimes hear a light layer of rain hitting the roof, fragmented and hollow. When she finally fell asleep, the sound morphed into dark soil falling above her body, thicker, heavier, darker, until she couldn’t see a thing.

____

That was the night Actaea dreamed of her mother. In the daytime she had come to forget her mother’s face, but tonight it was perfectly clear. Deep wrinkles sunk into her forehead like spiderwebs, pulling skin tight against diagonal cheekbones. Her facial features were jagged, but seemed to melt softly when she smiled or laughed. In the dream, they were seated around a campfire–just the two of them–and her mother looked calmly into the surrounding woods.

"Look, Actaea," she murmured slowly. "The trees are speaking to you. Listen to their branches chatter, their pinecones clack. The forest is always guiding you, whether you know it or not. No matter how lost you might find yourself, it always offers you a map to reach the other side."

Actaea smiled at her and looked down at her hands. They were smooth, delicate—she must be only ten or so, judging by the nonexistent wrinkles she was so used to rubbing throughout the day. Glancing back at her mother, Actaea was reminded of a small clay pot she’d made a few years back, sculpted carefully from the moist soil that bordered the woods. Her mother’s cheeks were a similar bronze, with holes for eyes and a quick gash for a mouth. Both vessels, in a way.

"Let me tell you a story," her mother said, opening her palms to the orange flames. "Have I told you the one about the boy in the woods?"

"No," Actaea responded.

"Ah, good. In a golden world decades back, there was a hunter named Tyche. A stalky, confident lad. He reminds me of you, a bit—a little too arrogant for your own good. He spent his days roaming the hillsides with his friends, shooting stray deer and dragging their carcasses to the forest’s shadow, their hearts sometimes still beating, amber eyes wide and globular. He was overtly proud, and made sure his pile was always the highest of his friends. One day, Tyche noticed one of the deer from his pile limping away into the forest, her fur matted in a deep crimson oval along the left flank. How embarrassing! he thought to himself, eyeing his friends chatting a ways up the hill. Quietly, he slipped into the forest before they noticed, determined to catch the deer and return it to its rightful spot. But he was cocky and did not listen to the forest. The trees resented him and his selfishness, overhunting the sacred deer of the hillside and slaughtering them along the forest’s edge. As the story goes, Tyche, spotting the wounded deer in a clearing, rushed forward with his dagger but tripped on an exposed root. He fell forward and immediately impaled himself with the sharp blade, his eyes bulging wider than the poor deer in front of him. She too stumbled just at the edge of the clearing, but eventually caved forward onto the forest floor, her breath heaving quickly at first but eventually withering away into a lapsed hush."

"But wait! The hurt deer—does she survive the wound?" Actaea questioned earnestly, leaning in towards the fire.

"In this fairytale, no," her mother admitted. "And because of this, the forest decided to take revenge. They spared Tyche’s life, but not in an act of mercy. As he stumbled confused from the forest, his friends seized upon him, shooting his side instantly with an obsidian-toothed arrow. It’s only then that young Tyche realized that he had become a stag, but all too late—his fellow huntsmen had dragged him to the pile, and he was left there to die, eyes wide in a sudden, brief glimpse of humility."

Actaea sucked in her breath through her teeth, trying not to make a noise. Her mother closed her eyes, then whispered in an even voice:

"You see Actaea, death is an inevitable part of life—the two are inseparable concepts. But you must always think about the kind of person you want to be remembered as. Will you die as an arrogant hunter, living selfishly for the sake of a transient appearance? Or will you die a humble deer, finding peace with the simple joys of life? That choice is up to you, Actaea. Only you."

____

The next morning, Actaea felt sick, the pain in her chest especially sharp and staggering. She refrained from her usual daily leaf-clearing ritual and instead took the back door out, boots stomping past heaps of wet leaves on the ground. It was damp outside, the air moist under the furrowed glare of storm clouds. She took off toward the edge of the woods, clearing the small creek and emaciated saplings just around her house’s border. Her joints ached with each lugging step. Crunch–a slight pause, and then–crunch. The leaves mocked her, ridiculing her stiff movements.

By the time she made it past the forest’s first line of trees, Actaea was breathing heavily. She leaned against a large rock as her chest rose and fell, attempting to catch her breath before continuing on. A thin layer of fog was lingering waist-level now that she was inside the woods, and she shivered despite her thick quilted jacket.

"What am I even looking for?" she muttered irritably, wrinkling her nose and rubbing the back of her hand thoughtlessly. Her mother’s words sat heavy in her bones as she leaned forward and continued to walk.

Death by his fellow huntsmen. Decomposing alongside his prey. What a sad way to go, she thought.

Actaea’s boots kicked up dirt as she trudged farther into the forest, not caring to leave a trail behind. Not caring which direction she went in, what place she ended up, or if she even found a way back. Just forward. Like Tyche, maybe. Was he a hero? Was he worthy of a fable? The tree tops swayed in disagreement, their long slender branches beckoning her forward. Her boots sunk progressively deeper in the dark sludge; the morning sky let no light through, keeping Actaea in a perpetual tremor.

As she walked, Actaea couldn’t help but become lost in the rhythm of her feet on the ground; left and right, left and right. She thought of her late husband who died just two years ago. The way he scowled and hung his head once his hair turned a pale grey, acting like it was an inevitable death sentence until it eventually became one. She thought of her daughter in the city with her hair slicked back in a tight low bun, lips artificially puckered with needles and filler, eye bags lightened and smoothed once every month. The way she used to laugh but now couldn’t, her skin so smooth that a hushed giggle might tear it like paper. And Actaea thought of herself, too. Her tired face, cheeks dragging downwards as she forgot how to smile, terracotta skin folding in linear tessellations. A ball of clay long overworked, cracked. The way she was now a spitting image of her own mother just like in the dream, holes for eyes, gash for a mouth.

The trees, almost sensing her anxious thoughts, gave way to small clearing, allowing Actaea to pause for a moment. Shutting her eyes briefly, she slumped against a tree and slid downwards until hitting the damp ground. Her chest ached badly, and it didn’t help that a mass of serrated leaves dug sharply into her right hip. She was about to let them have it when she stopped, suddenly, her mouth caught mid-word.

There, in the far shadows of the clearing, lay a golden stag, his fur glimmering amidst the dark trees. A small, wide-eyed fawn sat nestled against the stag’s chest, her delicate legs quivering next to a mange-ridden stomach. The young doe nibbled neatly on a walnut, the father looking over her shoulder with a compassionate gaze.

Actaea could barely breathe. The stag, perhaps sensing her presence, made eye contact. Then, a mutual exchange: If you don’t move, I won’t move. Silence, stillness—a bird swooped down noiselessly. The stag seemed to nod, then looked back down at his child. She let out the breath and relaxed hesitantly into the crook of the tree.

As she sat there, Actaea noticed that his antlers were truncated nubs, protruding only an inch or two above his skull. She recalled learning about the regenerative cycle of these antlers in her college years, a natural process of annual decay. Similar to a bone, this stag’s antlers seemed to be completely calcified; only in the spring would they lengthen fully again, the promise of growth likely but never certain. And yet, the stag smiled proudly over his sweet fawn as she rolled backwards onto the grass, still chewing on the walnut’s inner kernel—old, ossified antlers didn’t make him any less of a father. They didn’t make him any less of a stag either, for that matter.

Actaea’s heart was thumping disturbingly loud in her chest, but this time she didn’t reach for the back of her hand. The burning sensation spread outwards like alveoli expansion, reaching the base of her neck and around her breasts—a red-hot, unceasing heat. The pain was incessant, making her eyes suddenly well up. Tears dripped into the wrinkles along Actaea’s cheek, deep crevices formed from years of wide smiles and blowing out birthday candles, from somber midnight phone calls and tear-stained I miss you’s at the port. Her creased skin formed neat lines downwards, a shallow vessel for the tears to harbor and eventually pass through.

But it was not these memories she thought of as she slid down the tree roots onto her side, cradling her pounding chest with aching fingers. It was not distant thoughts about the wrinkles she despised, the jagged features that now sagged across her cheeks. Nor the pale grey hair, its thin strands plastered across her sweating brow. Instead, her eyes stared straight ahead at the stag with his too-short antlers, nuzzling his child with an ineffable tenderness. It was in this golden haze that she smiled, softly, and breathed gently into the clearing, its once-dark trees bowing deeply to reveal a faint sun shining above. A light that only further illuminated the stag in the crux of the morning glow, a softness that touched even Actaea’s still body, her eyes shut in a sudden, brief glimpse of humility.