There’s a forest tucked away on the outskirts of the city. She doesn’t go there often; only in winter, when it frosts over and she has to wear thick-soled hiking boots lined with extra socks and haphazardly-stitched in knitted linings. She pretends it’s for the sheer beauty of the place, but it’s so well isolated that she has been able to build a little stone cottage on the forest’s edge – just a bare bedroom stocked with a few changes of clothing and a minimal ensuite bathroom, a kitchenette with a low fireplace used for all cooking needs.
In winter she comes here, sleeps on a mattress that retains the chill no matter how many blankets she brings in. Most nights she prepares one hot water bottle that gets shuffled around the sheets, and hangs a tiny cauldron over the flames to boil tea, make toast and go wandering.
When she first came here she called it adventuring, dressed it up as if she was going hiking when she always kept close to the perimeter of the forest, always left the cottage within sight. Anyone she told would be inevitably curious, wondering about how they too could attain their own cottage complete with forest – early on, she learned how to shut them down by focusing on the negative: no internet access, minimal ease of electricity (she always leaves out how this is by choice) and the only knowledge of the passing days is watching for the sun and moon, marking off each day on a calendar and still not being sure what the date is.
All that happens now is she comes here, brings one notepad and one reading book, takes them with her when she goes. Every year she comes when the ground is still dry, dried-out and sparse, stays for the icicles hanging from the trees, the thick snow coating the ground and packs thermal gloves for trailing around searching – for what, she doesn’t know. Wandering aimlessly, as if looking, is a new habit of hers.
Each year she delves a little deeper into the forest, tying a scarf around a tree to mark how much further she has paced and tries to keep track by the footprints she leaves in the snow, tries to find flowers and rocks and interesting-looking trees to show her where to go the next day. Only, all the trees are alike: tall, slim at the trunk and narrowing as they get taller until the top is just a star shape. None of them stand out, and so she brings a penknife with her, carves her initials and the dates into each one as she passes them.
Her boots sink slightly into the snow, and the temperature is so low that she’s reached the stage where she can’t tell if she’s warm or cold. It all feels the same, so she snaps a few branches from the closest tree, hurries back to the cottage and stokes the fire, lays the branches she just collected on the rack in front of it to dry out more.
The days pass like this, and in between she draws, writes, creates new recipes. Her apartment is being taken care of by the neighbour and she’s made arrangements to have all her utilities prepaid for three months because she won’t be there to deal with them as they happen.
This is a world where bills don’t exist and people don’t hound her here: there’s something infinitely pleasing in not having to lock her front door every time she leaves; something even more pleasing in coming inside and feeling that the volume on her senses has been turned down.
If summer is an assault on the senses and autumn is a gentle breeze in comparison, winter is a muted wonderland all but tailored to her specific preferences. She designed the cottage only, but the entire set-up she lives in during winter is almost so perfect as if it were designed by her.
It’s rare that she ever has to leave, but sometimes she’ll go away for the day and bring back new supplies, a new set of clothes to replace what has become worn out and faded from being repeatedly hand-washed and hung over a couple of rods hooked into the ceiling; a new blanket when the old one loses its thickness or candles to read by, glue to act as a sealant on the windows to warm the place up a degree or two.
On these days she comes back in and seals the entire cottage over, shoves towels into all the crevices made by the door and drops the thick curtains over the windows as soon as she can. It’s almost hermitlike the way she then heats a packet soup over the fire and eats sat at the roughly hewn table, a Frankenstein’s monster of a table cobbled together by a few similarly-shaped bits of wood and topped with a flatter piece.
She learns to drag the bed to opposite the fireplace when the weather is at its coldest; her back will stiffen up tomorrow, but she lies awake and takes delight in listening to the wind howling around the brick structure. Rain batters the roof sometimes, or at least she supposes it does. There’s only brick up there, and it absorbs most of the sound of rainfall. Other times she sits up in bed, on enough of an angle to shove the curtain away and try to adjust her eyes to the darkness outside as she watches for snow or rain or hail.
Her eyes always feel cold and teary after a few minutes though so she doesn’t do this often. Instead, she lies back and imagines the mattress to be softer than it is, pulls up the blankets: the trickery works, and the bed feels cozier.
(In the coldest season she’s known, one day she wonders if wonderland is driving her mad)