From the Woods

upload.jpeg

The following is an excerpt from what is to be a much bigger novel. 

His earliest memory was a distant holler in the wilderness. It rose from some point in the canyon and filled the forest before it seized abruptly. In that silence was the stalemate air of predator and prey held in abeyance; the thuds of fruit dropping from trees, the dew-dampened sweeps of brush and scrapes of branch, sturdy hoof-beats and the perfunctory calls of nested birds. A black hawk tore the air with a dismal screech, punctuating the long moment in which it traced an ovular track in the stained azure before a remote drop in timbre and a melancholy catch which drifted over the air for the duration of several wing flaps as though the bird wanted to fly out and retrieve the sound it had thrown. The holler which proceeded the call of the hawk had been so shrill that Peyton was, from that moment, compelled to divide the two plains of time which constituted the terrain of his life between the void before him and the world in which he found himself standing upon that moment's thinnest recollection.

He sat on the declension of a trail leading to a unit full of thin trunks with knuckled bodies. As if there had never been only one, many hawks appeared. They circled endlessly, as though waiting for something just below the tree-line to reach completion. He'd started on foot, carried forward by an earnestness which he could not place but which seemed to propel him away from something, as though only his body remembered the danger. The wane of day pulled a thick night across the cascades. The valley's vacancies were filled with pools of shadow, enclosing the trees with a rising blue tide which climbed up their stocks. No matter how far he tried to run, the night caught up with him. The higher ground, replete with dry branches, revealed to Peyton an opening in the forest ceiling in which the bended shape of a starfish stood above him, filled with cotton pink bodies of cloud with blue, adumbrant strands of silk in the setting sun. Upon entering a meadow, the white, bushy tail of a spackled doe flickered like a flame in a quick wisp of wind before it bobbed through the tall grass and over the winding circuits of the tendrilling roots of overturned trunks and sinking into the joined high bush and low leaves neighbored with pink flower petals whose patchy, red throats opened to the ends of their yawning mouths. Peyton's legs were bloody, having been snagged by various thorns and barbs. Shirtless, scrapes covered his bruised chest and abdomen like the inadvertent swipe of a paintbrush. Tired, he sat, and after a while dozed, still upright and finally laid down, the night's pallor retreating to the clouds which softly creneled the dark hilltops and filled the hollows above rivers and canyons, making islands of the valley. As it often happens when one tries to stay awake as Peyton did, he fell asleep.

 ***

By the time morning arrived, the loose bedding of vapors and fog retreated slowly and hovered over the Clackamas River. Plains of dark cloud glided overhead as thunder rattled acoustically through the walls of the wilderness, their subsequent fulgurations like large matches struck by lords of heaven. Light drizzle dotted the dirt of the forest floor and added small pearls to the leaves and needles, which soon gave way to a hard rain, which pelted the walls of leaves, fanning and waving toward the ground where a path of blond gravel rested next to an old water pipe, covered in pale moss and dark vines, reaching up the mountain to some vanishing point in the forest shadow beyond.

It was here that a blue pickup truck with a silver stripe in the center and rashes of rust on its body hugged a half-oval of flat ground which curved from the side of the road. In the bed of the truck lay a series of fishing poles wrapped in tarp. In the back window was a naked gun rack. It was from here Ron Nyquist had travelled down an abrupt edge of reddish mud, at which point he looked behind him for a few moments, trying to decide how he would travel back to the road. It hadn't worried him too much so he pressed on through the woods, stopping every now and then to listen, to look around for signs of disturbance in the bodies of twigs and in beds of grass and brush. The wide padding of his boots pressed into the mud and flattened weeds on the ground as he carried his rifle at a slant, using his free hand to wipe the sweat and rain which had collected into the bill of his hat. With a hard toss of his hand, droplets fled his dirtied fingers.

Ron entered a small, narrow meadow and crossed it at a diagonal stretch that awarded him enough view of its end to see the wave of mountains above. After looking through the meadow for flattened beds of grass, the rain thinned again and, in the distant airs, a pale thumbnail of clear sky yawned in a beam, cut with such precision that it had the appearance of a diamond. Ron saw a series of perpendicular lines standing close to the ground in foggy illumination - a shape his native religious sense was acquainted with well enough to distinguish, though not in such a feral arrangement. It was a small crucifix onto which some small animal had been placed. His eyes found their focus as he gathered sight of the wet fur and the gaping hole which was either a mouth or a wound at the top of its small head. As he approached, it looked like the remains of a rabbit, from what he could tell, with half its face torn away, its one remaining ear pulled back, its remaining eye slit and perpetually frightened. His front paws were stretched along either side of the T, his back paws tied to the bottom, bound with small wire. His soft stomach protruded pathetically, his wet, white furs yellowed from dirt and dotted with blood. Ron pitied the creature. He found himself relaxing his hold on the gun until his better intuition caused him to raise it in case the perpetrator of such cruelty were to return with an ambition for larger game and a taste for harsher measures.

As the sky cast crystal shards which illumined the trees so that their change in color looked as though they'd been lit aflame, Ron noticed a series of small brush-like shapes flapping in the sky and calling out with great fervor. He watched as the scavengers circled the air. Certainly, something had roused them, whether a predator below from which they'd fled or some prey to which they were omen, waiting out an earthbound execution-angels of death assuring all that the cycle of life would continue. Trying to find a clearer area by which he could ascertain some pattern to their figures, he walked forward with his head up and his gun out, having long ago left the crucified rabbit with a prayer of personal safety ever present on his lips, the noise of birds in the trees around him steady, the irregular yelps of coyotes howling at the dull hum of airplanes in the sky offering a strange sense of comfort, that he was not the only one who felt the weight of this strange augery. The gray of day soon diminished, letting the greenery, pouring and teeming with white vapors of steam about the needle-matted mud around him, glean wet like a world of melted wax. Ron found a fallen tree and sat, unable to see the birds and hawks squawking in the sky, and pulled out a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich from his bag, which had in the center of its white top, a large China-shaped damp spot. He threw the sandwich on the ground and pulled out a small plastic bag of nuts instead. As he ate them, his eyes slowly scanned the woods until he found a shape in the great distance. It took a moment for him to discern that it was a pale human body. He was sure of it. From what he could tell even from that distance-knobby ribs protruding, the head hidden behind a series of winding, sinister branches-the body belonged to a child.

Ron's cautious steps carried him forward, as though afraid that he was approaching a bear cub. He held his rifle with the firm grip of one steady hand, pointing the barrel downward as he approached the pale shape. Just close enough to see that the boy had black hair and was wearing boots and shorts which looked as though they were homemade, another pale figure caught his eye near a tree to the left. He studied it with more deliberation. At first, he thought the figure was a statue. The woman, her face so etiolated and dirty that her skin looked gray, blinked at him finally. Her hair was pure white. She wore a sort of brown cloak with such baggy arm-sleeves that he couldn't tell where her hands were.

Perhaps it was only her son who lay on the ground, sleeping. She had in her eyes the weight of some grave danger, some horror which had happened so fast that one would have needed time to exorcise it from memory. Perhaps she was wounded or in shock.

‘Hi,' Ron found himself saying, quite tritely. ‘Is everything alright here?'

She'd been standing so still that when she turned her head to look at the child on the ground, it gave him a start. Her eyes, already somewhat wide, seemed to change. Her pupils shrank to the size of pins and she took a step toward the child, lifting her wrist, aided by her hand half covered in the fabric of her cloak before lowering it midway, turning to Ron once again and spreading her thin fingers out as if to beckon him to stay. Her voice came out in a way he wouldn't have expected it to - an inebriated, raspy-chested sound which didn't seem able to control its changes in pitch from high to low, almost like an adolescent's voice breaking. ‘Are you here to take him?' she asked.

Ron turned his head a little as if the angle would help him better ascertain the statement. ‘Here to take who?' he asked.

Her hand lowered and disappeared somewhere under her cloak and her head started to shake just lightly.

‘No,' he said, ‘I'm not here to take anyone.'

She glanced at the child again, a look of sorrow on her face.

‘Is that your boy?' Ron asked.

She shook her head and said, on the verge of tears, it seemed, ‘No.'

‘How long have you been out here? Are you lost?' Ron asked.

The woman turned to him again, a peculiar terror on her face that hadn't been there initially. She trembled all over as she said, ‘They said you would come.'

Ron shook his head. ‘Who?'

Her eyes became glassy as she said, ‘God told me you'd come … You come from Lucifer.'

‘No,' Ron said. ‘I'm here to help.'

‘You lie to my face. You talk to demons!'

Ron shook his head.

‘Demons!' She grew louder with each mention of the word: ‘Demons!' the repetition itself producing a strange effect on him, as though if it were said too many times, demons would in fact appear.

‘Stop,' Ron said, taking steps back. ‘Calm down.'

She took one step forward. Her eyes now looked crazed.

‘I want to help,' Ron said, lifting his gun up as if to surrender.

‘No!' she shouted. ‘You lie! You're a liar! All of you people!'

Ron, his heart beating quickly, lost his patience faster than he thought he would as he out-shouted his fear and said to the woman, ‘Stop! Stop talking like this!'

The woman seemed surprised and disoriented, suddenly looking at the boy again. She produced a blade from her cloak and started toward the boy at an even pace.

‘Stop!' Ron said. He found himself instinctively raising his weapon and aiming it at her.

Before he had time to take the safety off, she was kneeling beside the child, the blade held close to the ground at her hip. Her expression changed as she met Ron's gaze again. She frowned, her eyes wide and wrathful, her teeth bared like an animal's revealing rows of yellow with two black and dead. She spoke with strained malice, saying, ‘We can kill him!' With a shutter and a spasmodic shift of sorrowful, downturned mouth, her eyes gathered glaze as she said, hoarse and barely audible, ‘Oh no, the poor boy! The poor boy! Don't you lay a hand on him!' She seemed to be saying this to the air until she gave Ron a venomous look and repeated, ‘Don't you lay a hand on him!'

‘I'm not going to,' Ron said, shaking his head, afraid that his voice sounded much softer and weaker than he'd intended it to.

She frowned again and bared her teeth. ‘We'll kill him so no one can take him!' She let out a sharp cry as she looked upward, her pink mouth and yellow teeth interrupting the dull greens and browns of their surroundings, sounding as though it was her being killed, her eyes wide, her head slightly tremoring, and lifted the knife into the air above him.

Ron released a one-syllable note of protest and smacked her as hard as he could in the face with the butt of his rifle. Her head bounced with the impact of the ground. She turned onto her back and began to convulse, her pupils rolling upward and behind her frenzied lids, her arms straightening out beside her as her dented fingers curled and contorted, her dropped knife on the ground beside her. Ron swiped the knife up quickly, careful not to touch her. As her face gave off a violent, vibrating shiver, she began to cough on wet, gagging sounds which sent beads of white foam from her mouth, dotting her face and clothing, soon turning into pools and eddies of cloudy mucous on the ground next to her. She let out one great gasp for air and her head fell still, her eyes open.

The boy just next to her let out a sigh of breath but didn't rouse. His black hair was damp. There were dark circles under his eyes.

Ron knelt next to the ghostly woman and tried to feel her pulse. Her skin felt cold and grainy to the touch. He waited a while just to make sure but, before long, decided that she was dead.

His hands were shaking as he knelt next to the boy and felt his pulse, this time on the wrist. Ron had already seen him breathing but had to be sure. His pulse was normal.

A shredding scream filled the sky above, forcing Ron's attention upward where the circling scavenger birds scouted the area without daring to land with the living still present.

Ron strapped his rifle to his back and hurried himself along, trying to lift the child. What if there were others like the woman, after all? Ron knelt and reached toward the child, nervous about the way his head hung. He struggled to get him into a better position. It wasn't long before the boy felt heavy despite his size. Ron lifted his legs high over branches and fallen logs so as not to trip, every now and then looking back as if the woman would rise and molest them once more. Had she come into the forest with the boy? Had Ron killed the boy's mother?

The way her face changed reminded him of the stories missionaries had brought back from Africa and Barbados-men and women speaking in strange voices, referring to themselves in all manners of menacing plurality like the demon-possessed men who resided near the tombs in the gospels.

He arrived at his truck again with a peculiar degree of speed. He had to hike a ways along the muddy ridge in order to find a point shallow enough by which he could carry up the boy's body. Upon setting him in the passenger's side of his vehicle, he grew more aware of the clamminess of the boy's skin and the moisture which covered him and dampened his hair. Ron started the truck as an owl in the distance fell from a tree onto some unseen prey in the forest bed below. Once the truck was fully ready, he took the path adjacent to the pipeline down the mountain and headed toward the highway.

A white, angelic bird flew over the rocky cliffs cut long ago by the path of the winding highway along the river, the highway sometimes laying over portions of the stone-covered islands and fields which parted the water, only to lead into its widening bodies of cool green in the middle and ebony shadows hugging the brown banks swollen with large, smooth stones and riddled with jagged rocks peppering the sides and puncturing the ladders of hard earth underneath, creating white, erupting rapids forever roaring and twisting off fiery white fans into the flat waters above, which soon lost themselves under the first small bridge of Estacada, where the closest establishment to the trees and the split highway, Blue Moon Inn and Tavern, stood peopled with smokers in the parking lot, looking over the main street through town, running past the local grocery, many shops in rows on either side and a series of parking lots below dull, stopped-clock-like buildings with tinted interiors.

The sounds of sirens followed one another in ascending notes and were soon lost around the edges of verdant hills, summer breezes and the sounds of the river's lapping. Road signs were put up warning drivers that Mt. Hood Highway would be blocked off 10 miles out. Not long later, a police helicopter hummed over the town like a distant angel of warning and disappeared over the Mount Hood National Forest. Behind it was a news helicopter from Portland. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and soon, a series of black cars could be seen taking that highway and disappearing around the folds of the land. Soon, it was reported around the world that some one hundred bodies had been discovered deep in the Mount Hood National Forest. No conclusion had been met though police thought it was a communal suicide of some sort-cult related, most likely. None of them had ID. No one knew where they'd come from. There'd been women and children among them. They seemed to have come from nowhere, or from deep in the earth, emerging only to die in the sunlight like worms vacating their rain-filled residencies.