I met HD Brown, the recluse, on one of her daily walks in the forest. That day was wet and our boots sunk into the needle-pillow ground, but she was alive like I imagined reading her books. Together, we walked a mile back to the road.
“Three things in life matter,” HD said to no one in particular. “Time, space, and breath,” she gesticulated around a chewed tennis ball in her hand. The dog at her feet, some overactive heeler breed, was rapt. Just as I was. She chucked the ball out of sight, “consider life without them. Too little time, space, or breath and you can’t do much.”
The dog came back and dropped the ball. She threw it again.
“Is that why you’re out here? For the space and breath?”
“Time, too. Goes slow up here.” Alone, she intoned.
“Does it seem lonely?” I asked.
“Ha!” She threw the ball again, “that’s the point, isn’t it?” HD looked at me, searched my face, but I had nothing to say, “You’ve read my books, you know that feeling I’ve given you – and to write it, I must experience it. Without dilution. Consistently.”
“But, imagination –”
“Can only take you so far, and for so long. What the human mind can imagine is nothing compared to the real. I can imagine hunger, but what does that give me? A wonderfully-worded, gross lie. And a lie I make up from books and poems written by people who’ve seen real hunger – who’ve been hungry – because I’m too afraid to feel it for myself?
“This is the price – the true price – of being an artist. I can’t write real hunger if I’m not hungry. We work ourselves damp with hot-running emotion to wring it all out for you,” she threw the ball again; it hit a tree and went astray, “what comes out is maybe simplified, sometimes beautiful, in paint and words and music because we’re wish-granters; we are the god-damned sacrifice to the beast called culture because we’re all so scared of unconcentrated reality.”
“With immortality. It’s loneliness now, sure, but a promise of an unimaginable legacy in my wake –”
There was a screech of tires and a shrill yelp just beyond the trees.
We reached the small road — a scenic choice to take instead of the highway — just in time to watch a red car speed away, leaving HD’s dead dog behind.
HD’s arms were too weak to pull the carcass from the road, as flattened as it was, so she sat in street without a care for traffic. Hyperventilating sobs stopped up her throat. She folded in on herself with the dog on her lap, growing smaller in front of me. She could write about loss, now, I thought, but HD had been wrung dry, long ago. What was left, I hadn’t considered. She was brittle, tired; everything good about her had been sold to publishers, to fans, to me.