The road winds like a snake, the trees dense, the underbrush heavy, a beer clutched in my hand (Great Crescent, a local microbrewery), Rob taking the turns with reckless abandon, his old red pick up stuttering along like a machine on its last legs. The radio cackles with recycled songs, but we chug our beers in silence, my head thrust out the window like a dog. It's warm outside, unseasonably warm, but that's becoming the new norm: our winters are either mild or unbearably cold. Rob has a pipe full of tobacco jutting from his mouth like an old country farmer, which is more or less what he is, I suppose. He grows tomatoes and peppers in a greenhouse on his property, and there are a few ancient apple trees that he harvests for cider, though I wouldn't drink it, the fruit having been pelted with acid rain and other contaminants. “Everyone you know's got more heavy metals in them than Metallica,” he says by way of explanation. “What's the harm of a few more?” Indeed, I often find myself wondering this. All the precautions we go through daily: the face masks, the copper codpieces (I haven't worn mine in years), the air filtration systems in our homes. Are we really adding time on to our lives? Or is it all theater, a pointless game played to pacify our fears? The research is divided on the issue, as it always is. You can always find someone to back your most insubstantial conclusions.
Rob turns down a gravel road lined with ancient trees, white-barked sycamores towering one-hundred feet above us like alabaster gods. There's a pasture on the left side of the road, opposite the trees; here the grass has grow wild and tall, waving in the faint wind like waves on the ocean. “Ain't it something?” says Rob, more to himself than me. I nod in compliance. I take the face mask off, for the air feels fresh and clean. The sky is a blue sea, an enormous, cloudless bubble. Fuck the microclimate, I find myself thinking. This is real. This is substantial.
We park in front of a small brick house, an unassuming structure, painted white, fading with time. “Check this out,” says Rob, as we exit his truck. He walks behind the house and points at a wide, shallow creek, water rushing over giant sedimentary rocks. I walk to the bank's edge and place my hands in the cool water. It is icy cold, but like the air, it feels purer, more real than anything I've experienced in a long time. I take a handful of pebbles from the river bed and cradle them in my hands like pearls. Rob is beaming; he takes a long sip from his Great Crescent and lets loose with an appreciative belch. We sit down at the bank and look at the water for a long time. It laps against the rocks, the current making a pleasing, indescribable sound. A lullaby, I think. I could sleep for eons listening to that music.
“I used to come out here as a boy and listen to the coyotes howls,” says Rob. “I'd climb that tree there, that big willow, and I wait till it got dark. You could hear them across the crick, moving in a pack, all growls and high-pitched squeals. It ain't a comforting sound, you know. It sounds like they're laughing at you, but they're crazy, they're wild, they're full of piss and vinegar that you'll never have, and I tell ya, as a kid, I was scared to death that they'd cross the river and surround my tree. But they never did. I don't know if they was aware of my presence. Maybe I was just a witness. It's what I like to think. I don't like thinking I'm anything else. Not out here.” He points behind us to the pasture. “Mom and Dad used to plant that in corn and tobacco. Never felt right to me, using the land that way. There ain't no butterflies when you plow it. There ain't no bees, neither. There's just corn and dirt underneath, 'cause Pop always used herbicide. Pop never cared what he was putting back into the earth. He wanted to poison it, I think. He thought it was all against him, all the weeds and the mites and critters. I remember he caught a raccoon one time and had it dangling from that there sycamore branch in a cage. He let it starve. I watched that coon for a month. It took that long. I tried putting a ladder up there and letting him out, but Pop caught me and beat the hell outta me. “What're you, some kinda sissy?” he told me. Well, Pop, I guess I am. I never stopped feeling sorry for that raccoon. What do you think of that?”
“You're not a sissy, Rob. There are worse things to be called,” I tell him.
“I'm sure you've probably heard them. We don't exactly work with the most enlightened individuals.” He picks himself up, rising to his feet. “Well, what the hell you wanna do? It's a little late for hunting. We can build a fire, break out some more beers. Maybe toss some marshmallows in the fire. We could get the tackle box out and fish some.”
We fish for a while, sitting on the bank like Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Rob the boyish idealist, me the fool, dreaming of witches. Time seems to pass in a fairy-tale manner; night settles in before we know it, our senses inebriated, the darkness shrouding the creek, leaving only the bubbling rhythm as a faint background utterance. Neither of us experiences a tug on our lines. Rob takes out his flashlight, and we settle our poles firmly in-between the rocks and retreat to the fire pit, where Rob lights a fire with kerosine and a box of matches. We drink more beer, our intoxication growing; we eat hot dogs charred black, oozing mysterious juices. The crickets grow loud as an orchestra–‒–they never really die now, it never gets cold enough‒–but it's relaxing, their rising chatter mixed with the gentle roar of the creek.
“You hear that?” Rob asks, as I turn an impaled hot dog on a stick.
“Nope,” I say.
“I thought I heard something. A howl in the distance.”
“A coyote?” I ask.
“A wolf howl,” says Rob, looking at me through the flickering flames.
“There aren't any wolves in Indian, Rob,” I tell him. “Shit, wildlife is dying at an unprecedented rate, with global warming and the general quality of the air. Your children's children might live underground. They won't know what a butterfly is, but they'll know an earthworm when they see one. Maybe.” I look back into the darkness. All I see is the faint outline of the woods; all I hear is the flow of the creek.
“There. There it is again,” says Rob.
“I still don't hear it,” I admit. I wonder if he's trying to scare me.
“Maybe you can't hear it,” says Rob. “My Pop never did.”
“You going to tell me a ghost story now?” I say in jest. “What's so scary about a wolf anyway? It's just an animal that would run away if it saw you.”
“My old man had a friend, a drinking buddy named Hutchinson that used to live out here. He paid my Pop infrequently; his squatting was a sore subject between Ma and my daddy, since she didn't like having a man of his ilk close to the house. Hutch had a trailer a couple acres back on the other side of the creek. He wasn't a good fella, though he was amicable, most of the time at least, which is no wonder, considering he was drunk all day and all night. He was one of them friendly drunks that always gets a little too friendly; he was always one drink away from saying how he truly felt, and it didn't matter to him what he said, cause he was never sober. My Pop eventually kicked him off the land when Ma said he came on to her. Hutch denied it, vehemently, and said my Ma was full of strange notions and divergent opinions, which was his way of talking. He could never say nothing straight. I remember he had real big hands for a normal-sized man. Big ol' mitts with large knuckles like knots in an oak tree's trunk. When he'd touch you, it'd feel like he was scraping sandpaper across your skin. Them nails of his were kinda pointy, almost like claws, and there was bruises underneath them, like someone had smashed his fingers with a hammer. He smelled like a dog, too. Really stinky and musky, like he spent all of his time outside. Had hair spilling out the neckline of his shirt. His eyes were the color of amber. You couldn't look at them eyes very long. I don't think ol' Hutch ever blinked. Even though he was a drunk son of a bitch and a general good-fer-nothing, he didn't take no shit from anybody. I watched him beat the hell outta some big fella who'd come down to race his motorcycle by the river. Don't know what the fight was about, but Hutch had 'em on the ground and was pulling on his arm like it was a stick stuck in the ground, and I heard it pop from a hundred feet away, right out of the socket. It was dangling at the man's side like a piece of meat. The cops chased him off. I don't know why they didn't take him in, have him arrested like he deserved. After my Pop kicked him off the land, we never heard from him again. He either went West, or had himself a heart attack in a ditch somewhere.”
“This isn't much of a ghost story, Rob,” I say.
“I hadn't got to it yet. Hutch could howl just like a wolf. I watched him from that willow tree one time. I had climbed up it like I used to do, just to watch the woods, when I saw him coming down to the creek. He wasn't wearing any shirt, and he had big cuts on his chest, big gashes like he'd been in a knife fight. I didn't say anything to him; I could tell that he wasn't in the best condition, so I just watched. He went right up to the river on all fours and started lapping up the water. I tell ya, Rob, his tongue was just like a dog's. It was long and dangling, and had a little black spot in the middle of it. I watched him drink the water, and all the while the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I was getting a strange sensation like I should high-tail it outta there. Then he started sniffing the air, his nose twitching, and then he let out this howl, this terrible moan that had me sliding out of that tree and running to the house. I locked the door and ran up to my room and hid under the bed. It was a wolf's howl, but it sounded crazy and diseased, like something was sick inside him and he didn't care. I think Pop kicked him off not too long after that.”
“So he was a wild man. You think there's anybody squatting out in your woods right now?” I ask.
“You know that trailer's back there somewhere. I haven't seen it in years,” says Rob. “You wanna go look at it?”
“Sure. In the morning,” I say, humoring my friend. Crawling through a crazy hermit's abandoned abode didn't strike me as a particularly rewarding task.
“You wanna call it a night?” suggests Rob. I nod my head in agreement, and we retreat to the small cabin. I fall asleep instantly on a bottomed-out futon and dream of a woman in a white dress. She's inside the cabin, cooking something in a pot; I'm standing outside, looking through the window. It's a sunny day, the air clean and pure, my hands warm and perspiring on the cool glass of the window pane. The woman smiles at me as she stirs, her teeth white, her lips crimson, cherry ripe. She waves, beckoning me inside, so I leave the window, my feet moving quickly on the damp earth, an unbridled eagerness in my steps. Invite me in, I say at the door, and it opens. Whatever she's cooking smells delicious, its odor heavy with onions, herbs, and roast flesh. I sit myself down on the hardwood floors and stare up at her, the woman in white, as she looms above me, gracile, slender as a fawn. You're a good boy, she whispers, extending a long white hand to trace the outline of my face. My tongue comes out and licks her fingers, and she laughs and shakes her head. None of that, she says, bending over the stove with a bowl to ladle my meal. Saliva drips from my jaws, pooling on the floor; I find myself jumping up at the bowl, which is held aloft by the woman in white, who tells me to be patient. But I can't, but I can't, no, I can't, I shout in my head. Sit, she says, and I manage to kneel on the floor, my tongue dangling from my mouth like a wet rag. Good boy, she tells me, placing the bowl at my feet. I see a flash of skin and bone and maybe an eye before my jaws go to work. I eat with the ravenous stupidity of an animal, licking the bottom of the bowl for droplets of broth, afterward flipping my dish to see if there is anything underneath. That's all, she tells me, her mouth widening, her teeth tiny slivers of bone. I see now the hair on her legs; her feet are huge and filthy, the toes ending in talons. Go outside now, boy she says through her fangs. Go find something else to eat.
We get up early, eating a breakfast of eggs and bacon provided by Rob's small farm. Rob pours us coffee in a red union suit that shows considerable wear; I say nothing as he mixes Jameson into our cups. I feel groggy from my strange dreams, with a slight headache and a dull pain brewing in my lower back from sleeping on the futon. A strong desire to go home and leave this cabin and the woods manifests itself in a “mopey-eyed stare,” according to Rob. “What're you gonna do at home, play on your computer and watch tv?” he asks. I shrug in compliance; I would probably being doing one of those activities were I not out in the wilderness. Change can be good, I suppose, provided that it occasionally knocks some sense into us. I finish my coffee, but Rob pours me another cup mixed with liquor and puts on a heavy pair of overalls, taking a rifle into his hands. He thrusts a weapon at me.
“I thought I'd be better as coming as moral support rather than a hunter,” I tell him.
“Just carry it, then,” he replies. It's a black shotgun, double barrel, cool and solid in my hands. Dad had a gun, a black nine millimeter that he kept under the bed. I remember my brother daring me to take it and go shoot it off in an alley. His suggestion was more of a joke than actual advice; we both knew that our father would likely beat the hell out of us or worse for taking his pistol. Still, it lingered beneath the bed like a forbidden talisman. I went to look for it on a particularly desperate night, one of those terrible days of youth when the stark loneliness of existence is palpable and present in one's hands, but it was gone, probably pawned by my father to pay off a debt. I haven't searched for a gun since.
I dress, and we go outside brandishing firearms and a twelve-pack of good beer, maskless, the air cool and breathable. We cross the creek, stepping on huge stones forged with the remains of tiny animals, little seashells and sea worms that lived millions of years ago when this land was the bottom of a great ocean. Oak, maple, and box elder grow tall and tremendous in the woods, where we weave through the underbrush until we find a deer trail. I don't think it's deer-hunting season, but Rob wouldn't be the type to care, though he hasn't told me what we're doing, exactly. It doesn't matter. My mood improves with every step, with the chatter of birds and squirrels, with every palpitation of nature's resilient, adaptive heart. I don't see the damage of acid rain or the grey blanket of ash that so often covers my yard. What I see is alive and thriving, though separate from man, isolated, preserved. This isn't how the world is anymore, I find myself thinking. In a way, we are traveling back in time.
We wander awhile through the woods, getting drunk and not speaking, just letting the birds do the talking. We pass an old barn with a tree growing through its roof, the wide branches stretching upward like a priest's arms asking for God's benediction, and we drink a beer inside its hollow innards, deer tracks visible in the dirt. Rob takes a bag of marijuana out of his pocket and puts it in his pipe. He smokes, holding his breath in for a minute, then slowly letting out a plume of thick smoke through his nostrils. I take the pipe, putting aside the fact that they drug test at work, and have myself a smoke. The hum of nature intensifies; the birds chirp louder, the insects increase their throbbing song. Sunlight pours through the branches of the canopy, warming us with blinding rays. After a while we both look at each other stupidly, our expressions hanging on our faces.
“You wanna go see that trailer?” asks Rob.
“If you really want to,” I reply.
“I do,” says Rob, getting up. “It's just over there, past that ravine. Used to be a road somewhere back here, just a trail of gravel, but I bet its overgrown with weeds now. Let's go see.”
The trailer sits in a depression, like the earth is caving in beneath it. The rotten remnants of a porch lie in front of it, sticking out of the ground like headstones. We pass an old car rusting into the forest bed, its color long faded, its wheels vanished, having been plundered. The door to the trailer hangs by a single hinge like a broken jaw. We pause before entering, our apprehension growing, yet Rob pushes past and climbs into the derelict old thing.
“Find any boyhood monsters in there?” I ask.
“There's some nice nudie rags,” replies Rob. “You better get in here.”
I'm greeted by the smell of mold as I climb up into the trailer. There are boxes everywhere, endless clutter; Rob sits at a booth, slowly perusing a vintage porno, an opened box before him on the table. The guy was obviously a horder, that's clear, though the contents of his boxes are diverse and not restricted to pornography. The first box I open is full of dried purple flowers, pressed flat, perhaps between the pages of a book. In another I find a collection of religious books including the Bible, Torah, and the Vedas. I show these to Rob, who seems uninterested, the porno apparently rather arresting. “He's got notes written in here,” he says, “shit like 'nice pussy,' and 'grade A tits.' That's pretty weird, huh?” I show him another box, this one full of bones, femurs, tibias, and the skulls of small animals.
“He was a grade A creep,” says Rob, putting down the magazine.
“What were you hoping to find here?” I ask.
“I dunno. I guess I wondered why the guy was so weird. I also wanted to know why my father put up with him for so long. My dad was always a loyal guy. It took a lot to fall out of his graces, once you were a buddy. Hell, maybe he was scared of him. I think everybody was scared of Hutch.”
We root around for a while, looking through the boxes. I find a collection of notebooks filled with illegible scrawlings, their characters alien and unsettling in their angular hieroglyphics, but I slip one of the books beneath my jacket for future examination. Rob takes a couple porn rags, and we climb out, our curiosity sated. My friend seems disappointed, as though he expected to find a pentagram or a book of Satanic drivel. We travel aimlessly through the forest, I following Rob, trusting in his knowledge and sense of direction. Eventually, we come back to the ravine. Rob sits down next to a tree, resting on his haunches, and looks through the two hillsides, the gleam of the trailer strong in the midday sun. We finish the last of our beers. I feel content, as though I've accomplished something. I can tell that Rob is restless.
“What are we doing?” I whisper. I feel compelled to whisper. Maybe it's the silence of the woods.
“Waiting for a deer,” he says.
“Why are we back at the trailer?” I ask.
“This is a good spot. We can see down in that ravine. I know they come this way, you saw the tracks. I don't got a tree stand around here, and I don't feel like walking any more. That enough for ya?”
“I feel like you're waiting for something. Or somebody,” I suggest.
“I'm waiting for a ten-point buck, that's all. What the hell else would I be waiting for?”
“Hutch,” I say.
Rob doesn't say anything; he just points, slowly, then his finger goes to his mouth. A deer has sauntered into view, a great buck, with a large, many-pointed rack. He stands at the bottom of the ravine like a king, the sun shining on his golden shoulders, his great head raised, the antlers like crown. He sniffs the air, snorting loudly; he raises his forelimb and paws at the earth. The ash has not affected him; his tawny coat knows no acid rain nor malnutrition. “He's beautiful,” I whisper. Rob is on his belly, his rifle in his arms, peering through the sights. I look at the deer and then at my friend, and I realize that I have never wanted to kill anything less in my life. “Rob!” I shout suddenly; the gun goes off, the shot reverberating through the ravine like a bolt of thunder. The buck shudders, I see the blood fly from his shoulder, and then he's off, vanished into the wilderness.
“Christ, what the fuck did you do that for?” says Rob, turning toward me angrily. “He's wounded, and now we gotta find him.”
“I think he got away,” I say.
“Yeah, no shit, but you don't leave a wounded animal to die. I saw that shot hit his shoulder. He's probably limping off somewhere to die slowly. Let's get down there and follow the blood trail before it dries up.”
The trail is clearly visible, great splatters of blood littering the earth like globs of paint thrown from an errant artist's hand. We wander through a field of stinging nettle growing next to the bank of the creek, and we cross the waters, finding the trail immediately. His blood is bright, florescent, brilliant like ichor. My fingers touch a splattered leaf, my thumb and forefinger feeling the liquid's consistency, its fleeting warmth. Ash starts to fall suddenly, heavy silver flakes raining down from a sickly cloud barely visible beneath the canopy. We scramble to put on our masks. The trail loses its vigor as we follow it, contrary to expectations, the blood fading, its color lost under the growing murk. The sunny disposition of the forest has changed; ash and midst grow, strange bursts of hot and cold air bringing fog that hangs in pockets, pooling in depressions, oozing out of stumps as though propelled by an invisible machine. Rob curses; he wants to find the buck, but we are losing our sense of place and risking becoming lost. “Ain't this some weird shit?” he asks, and I nod silently behind him and try not to think of how the air I'm breathing is full of toxins, carcinogens, and hormone-altering substances. We're about to give up when I see a flash of movement off to my right, a recognizable white tail bounding out of my peripheral vision. “There!” I say, and we head that direction. The terrain has grown rocky; we are climbing through a dried creek bed that winds up a gully, the trees on each bank immense, twisted sycamores with alabaster skins. Crude stacks of stones five feet tall rise from the midst, remnants of a wall, perhaps, or something else. I watch Rob glancing at them as we climb, as though he recognizes their meaning. As we climb, the mouth of a cave emerges, a stony overhang jutting from the hillside like a reptile's jaw. I pause, looking into its darkness, and see a drop of blood shimmering on the floor. “Here!” I say, but Rob's up the hillside, heading toward the summit. I yell for him again, but he doesn't answer, his silhouette vanishing in the fog. The gun is heavy in my hand, making its presence known. I walk into the cave.
The hoof prints are easy to see in the damp soil, their trail heading deeper down the lined throat of the earth. Warm air like hot breath hits my face, bringing with it the reek of ammonia. I stagger and touch the walls; they are moist and slimy, perspiring viscous fluid. Water trickles somewhere in the depths. I squint my eyes and see light down there, a flickering, fragmented light. The slope is severe, too steep for my liking, and I'm about to head back when my feet slip, and suddenly I'm falling, tumbling like a child down into the innards of the cave, my limbs tangled, flailing helplessly at warm, wet rock. The entrance, the mouth, it shrinks in my shattered vision, its jaws closing, shutting out the light, shutting in the darkness and me. I lose contact with the earth. An abyss rises out of nothingness, banishing the lure, and there is nothing left to see, nothing left to wait for but the end. Where is that damned dear? I think before it all turns to black.