We Went to the Woods

Caite Dolan-Leach

The following is an exclusive excerpt from We Went to the Woods, a literary thriller from Cait Dolan-Leach that explores the unsettling misadventures of intentional communities and probes the dark secrets of their idealistic members. Mack, a twenty-something grad-school dropout, joins a crew of similarly disillusioned young people on a plot of land in upstate New York—but their idyll soon turns into something more nefarious as secrets and betrayals begin to divide the group.

Morel season dawned on us in chilly spring, and we fell upon the mossy ground in a porcine frenzy. Trillium appeared first, heralding the arrival of the fungi. We snuffled out the precious little nubbins, their sulcus cortexes winking up from the warming earth, and we dragged them home in little net bags, letting their spores scatter as we brought them to Louisa in her kitchen, where she verified each one, ensuring they were not the poisonous false morels. Our woods seemed to be unusually blessed, and without other produce, we committed ourselves to truffling about beneath the trees. We cooked up a beastly amount: morel “risotto” (Louisa lamented the lack of local varieties of Arborio rice, alas), morel and chèvre crostini, morel omelets, morels and garlic on pasta. Jack desperately wanted to make a morel pizza with some of the mozzarella he’d sourced from a nearby cheesemaker, but we didn’t have an oven yet, a project we meant to get around to eventually. When we were sick of morels and had dried a bunch more, we went off to trade them for cornmeal, oats, early spring greens, and some new seedlings. We met some of the neighbors, who didn’t seem especially covetous of the little fungi, but they took pity on us and gave some cheese in exchange. I’m sure they thought we would starve to death.

With the warming weather came the time to invest some money.

We needed chicken wire for the coop, not to mention some chickens. We needed more seedlings than had already been started, to supplement our rather pitiful crop, which Chloe had been lining up on the windowsills. And we wanted that wood-fired oven, damn it.

We had some tools, and we were able to scavenge more from the local ReUse center, along with big cast-iron pots and pans that were perfect for the job of prepping big vats of rustic food. We had compost from Louisa’s old apartment, with a backup supply from Rudy’s house if we fell short. Chloe had brought a few tarps that she had liberated from backstage at an Ithaca College drama production.

We were settling in. Since the weather was still too cold for our catchment bags and outdoor showers, we were basically just putting a big tub of water in the sauna and sudsing ourselves off whenever we grew too gross from the manual labor of hoeing up the nearly five-thousand-square-foot garden that was to sustain us. We built up beds and carved out troughs, sowed early seeds for next spring. We wondered if we needed a greenhouse.

Because I was new to the group, I didn’t know much about the others’ habits and assumed that those first few months were typical of their behavior. For example: Chloe hated waking up early. She was miserable in the early morning, a shadow of her usual glowing self; this made farming a singularly weird profession for her to take up. She would mulch the squash beds listlessly until the sun was warmly and fully up in the sky, seemingly unable to say a word or emerge out of herself until midmorning. Louisa drank too much, but seemed hell-bent on proving that it didn’t affect her the next day, and subsequently flung around dirt with alarming vigor after every overindulgence in wine, sweating it out. Jack sang tunelessly while he worked, smiling as he walked the rows or went to check the neglected apple trees for blight. Sometimes I would catch him grinning giddily at a slug or a crocus, in private communion with God knows what reveries.

I’d learned that Beau was prone to mysterious disappearances; anyone who knew him noticed his sudden absence from a gathering or his coy refusal to reveal where he’d been earlier that morning. He did this on the Homestead, too, naturally, but often returned with a loaf of bread from the baker two miles away, or news that he’d found what looked like a huge patch of early strawberry leaves in the clearing due west of the big cabin. But sometimes his disappearances had no apparent explanation, leaving Louisa in a repressed but seething froth of annoyance if he missed mealtimes. We all figured he must be out roaming the back forty, seeking mushrooms and wild garlic to heap on our picnic table (recently constructed by Chloe in the clearing) with the self-satisfied smile of a provider. We tolerated this behavior, I suppose, because we let Beau get away with so much. Embarrassing though it is to admit, I think we revered him somewhat: his enigmatic pauses, his feline grace, the sharpness of his mind. He was rarely challenged, and his absences were considered par for the course—his unavailability making him all the more appealing.

I’d learned that Beau was prone to mysterious disappearances; anyone who knew him noticed his sudden absence from a gathering or his coy refusal to reveal where he’d been earlier that morning.

In April, I was out walking near the end of the drive, picking a small bouquet of forsythia blossoms (woody branches prickly in my hand, yellow blooms almost too much) when I saw Beau hop out of a genuine hippie VW van, painted with the predictable sunflowers and cornstalks. From the sound of the engine and the stenciled embellishments, I speculated that it was probably run on either corn or sunflower oil. Squinting, I watched him wave goodbye to a young woman with a deep tan and a tower of brownish dreadlocks. She had some sort of tattoo on her firm, sinewy shoulder. She lurked at the edge of the driveway as though not wanting to come down it, and she seemed to glance towards the cabins from time to time as she talked to Beau. He grinned at me when he saw me in the drive, my arms filled with yellow branches and the mammalian buds of late-blooming pussy willows. He was wearing black today (indeed, his white outfits were trotted out for festive occasions, due to their impracticality, and he wore only those two unambiguous shades). He lit up one of his cigarillos.

“Who’s this?” I asked, trying not to sound shrilly jealous. Though I couldn’t have known what her presence would come to mean, I must have felt some presentiment that Fennel would drive a wedge into our lives.

“Oh, just some ladies headed from town out this direction. They were nice enough to give me a lift and save me a long bike ride.” He gave a careless shrug and began to turn me down the drive, leaving the “ladies” behind him. Something about his nonchalance made me wonder if he didn’t want me to properly meet them for some reason. But when he linked his arm with my own, my whole body became suffused with blood, and I followed him, as I had followed him out into the country.

When Louisa appeared striding down the driveway in front of us, though, Beau stiffened.

“Hey,” he said, too casually.

“Hi, Beau. Been hanging over at the Collective?” she asked, with an edge that could only mean trouble.

“Just socializing with our neighbors.”

Louisa raised a hand to her forehead to look towards the road. “That you, Fennel?” she called. “Why didn’t you come up the drive to say hi?” This comment was laced with too much friendliness; it came across as sarcastic. The dreadlocked woman paused warily before replying.

“Hey, Louisa. We were just headed home,” Fennel said.

“Oh, really? You’re not just, I don’t know, afraid to come up and say howdy? After everything? Thought maybe it would be, I don’t know, awkward?”

“Look, I know you’re upset about what happened—what you think happened—”

“I know exactly what happened, Fennel. And so do you. But he’s gone, right? Matthew’s back in California?”

“He was just as upset as you were—”

“I really doubt that,” Louisa interrupted. “Skipped town like the last time, though, I guess. Wouldn’t do to have someone else suggesting that he’s a creep, abusing his power.”

Fennel said nothing.

“I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other around,” Louisa said brightly, looping her arm in Beau’s and spinning around to march back up the drive. Without turning around, she called over her shoulder: “You all just stay out of trouble, you hear?”

As we walked up the drive together, it occurred to me that Beau’s bike had been in the yard all day, and he could never have planned to bike home.

Each of us observed the nocturnal comings and goings from each of our cabins with a deep and abiding interest, though we all feigned indifference. I would sit in my chair, wrapped in my downy duvet, peering out my window and pathetically trying to get a glimpse of who was headed to which cabin, who would share which bed. Though we all typically retired tactfully to our own cabins at the end of the evening, this was merely a formal ritual, enacted to preserve some unspoken illusion of celibacy. I don’t know why we bothered, as there was a reshuffling of sleeping arrangements almost every evening, with very few real attempts at dissimulation. After cleaning up from a meal in the big cabin, we would bid one another good evening and slink to our own cabins, still slightly cold in the spring damp. Each of the five cabins would light up with a candle or a little kerosene lamp, and you could sense the evening bedding-down taking place. Soon, Beau’s or Chloe’s candle would migrate outdoors to the dull glow of a new windowsill.

The first few times I saw it, I assumed it was a last-minute privy trip and dismissed the wandering light. But soon I started to notice that Beau’s light wouldn’t return to his own cabin, and would instead venture to Louisa’s or Chloe’s. Chloe’s lamp would disappear, usually to Louisa’s cabin, less frequently to Beau’s. If Louisa’s candle moved, she was headed not to anyone’s cabin but, rather, to some outdoor spot, where she would soon be joined by one or two other candles. She entertained visitors in her cabin, but I don’t think she ever visited someone else’s.

Each of us observed the nocturnal comings and goings from each of our cabins with a deep and abiding interest, though we all feigned indifference.

Naturally, I writhed with jealousy. I lay there imagining Beau’s shiny dark hair bent over Louisa’s pale breast, or Chloe’s wide, sweet mouth meeting Beau’s in the darkness. My little cabin became the site of racking fantasies about the pale limbs a few dozen yards away. They twined together and multiplied from four to eight to twelve and sometimes, when I felt truly dejected and excluded, to sixteen, with Jack’s lanky legs and tawny arms tossed in for good measure, to reinforce my sense of outsideness. Riveted by this nightly procession, I sat glued to my window, crouching low so my moony face wouldn’t appear in the telltale glass, hoping to witness I don’t know what. Consummation, the verification of my anxiety, a rosy, taut nipple pressed to the glass? I watched Jack’s door with hawk eyes, certain that he, too, was slipping out for these torrid trysts but was, alone of the four, attempting discretion. I never saw his candle waver, however, and I believe he lacked the subterfuge to pretend; he was a terrible liar, his face too revealing, his spirit too open. I would have been grateful had Louisa or Beau or Chloe concealed their evening peripatetics, but I consoled myself by pretending that I would rather know than remain ignorant.

A more mature human, consumed by jealousy and unrequited lust, would have voiced her frustrations. What prevented me from waylaying Beau in the orchard grove and colliding with his sinewy trunk against the unyielding one of a tree? From bending down to graze Chloe’s lips while we sat on a blanket shelling peas, slowly stretching her supple dancer’s frame alongside my own? I even, on certain occasions, thought of Louisa, stripped in her white bed, her skin a dusky pink, beckoning for me to come and join her. But action is not something that has ever come easily to me; I wait for others’ decisiveness, not choosing for myself. Never recognizing that my passivity, too, is a choice.

Jack alone did not appear in these tortured waking dreams, and I think it was simply because he seemed more available and, therefore, less desirable. In an unfortunate personality quirk (one I think I share with more than a few other folks), I find myself pretty uninterested in anyone who might remotely be interested in me or who is not actively pursuing another object of their desire. Jack wasn’t actually less lovely than the others. His smile was the biggest and the most genuine, his laugh full and wild, his broad face open and alive and without deceit. His arms were as thick as Beau’s and his waist as narrow; he was even perhaps an inch or two taller. Of the four of them, he was certainly the one who tortured me the least, and for that reason alone he would have been the best match. I knew this, lying there and working myself into an unreciprocated lather. And yet.

By day, the night-born tensions were frequently evident. Louisa was hotheaded and prone to sulks, and after nights when Beau and Chloe had found their way together in the dark, Louisa would take herself off to the woodpile to attack the logs with a petulant fury, leaving us to fret in the vegetable plot. Jack and Beau seemed oblivious to these funks, but Chloe would stare off towards Louisa, then finally, after some internal regulator ticked down, decide that she couldn’t take it anymore and would scamper after her with some present of water or apples. Louisa would return pacified, and Chloe would inevitably join Louisa later that night.

When Beau visited Louisa, Chloe would opt for careful friendliness the next day. She loathed conflict, and went out of her way to ensure peaceful relations. She wouldn’t be the one to bring this little ménage à trois to an inevitable head, no sirree. Louisa would try to ignore this gallant display of sportsmanship, but eventually she couldn’t help planting an affectionate kiss on the bridge of Chloe’s nose.

Beau alone seemed completely unaffected by whatever took place. It didn’t matter to him who spent the evening with whom; he remained slyly pleased with himself no matter what. This enraged Louisa most of all.


From WE WENT TO THE WOODS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Random House. Copyright © 2019 by Caite Dolan-Leach.

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