The Shrine

Alexandria Peterson

It was a fifteen-minute trek outside
Wekiwa Springs, into the disemboweled
marsh of our neighborhood, not unlike R.L. Stine’s
Werewolf of Fever Swamp: purple aspens bleeding
into a rolling fog backdrop, a moon the size of Neptune
rising from the green muck like ectoplasmic
crossfire. There, Samantha and I had passed
fallen tree trunks, aging riverbeds, shredded poison
ivy beneath our rubber sneakers, and pimpled our skin
with mosquitos dangling two-inch legs.
We were slapping our necks, the backs
of our knees, searching for an undisclosed
hideout, our sophomore year spot,
when we found the dolls. Dozens of dolls, a clearing
of bodies strapped to tree trunks, hanging
from pine limbs by their severed limbs, white porcelain
hands clutching air, tied by the wrists.
The middle of the bog was where we found the underwear,
the photographs, the carved-out eye sockets sinking
into sludge, natural springs pooling and knuckling
the earth with heavy hands. We stood
sweltering, sticky, two girls whose voices hitched
beneath the gathering dark, watching cloth and clay bodies
swing headless in the breeze, as if pulled
by invisible hands. The underwear was crumpled
and jaundiced, ragged with dirt, lacework
stripped into strings. We rinsed our hands
in the retention pond, turned facedown dolls
over with fractured branches, lifting them by tulle
or braided hair. From behind me, Samantha said,
Alex, look at this. A fist full of Polaroids had been strewn
around the largest, most divinized tree
of dolls in various positions, all missing
garments, thumb partially obscuring the lens
in several scenes, in most scenes,
as well as the shrine in various stages
of development, like children aging
between losing and earning their teeth, and this
is when we wanted to leave. We dove elbow-
first against the saw palmettos, feeling our way
by how quickly the wind left us, until our shoes hit
the pavement like hammers. I confessed the story
to others until I’d grown soaked in the adrenaline
of immunity, as someone who no longer
felt they had expired purpose, the kind of immortality
a teenager develops when given an omniscient
point of view. I would ask Samantha to get lost with me
again and again, new routes every time
until the following summer, when we finally found
the fallen tree trunks, the aging riverbeds, the clumps
of poison ivy, and felt the sharpness of ozone
against the backs of our throats, two
children breaching the tree line only to find
the other side empty, absorbed by light.