There’s a Beast in the Woods
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I came to the woods to be healed. You will say I came here to flee some inchoate fear or perhaps to escape a debilitating trauma, something that can be neither forgotten nor repaired. The incident at the bank would qualify as that sort of trauma. That is the reasonable explanation. But I know there was more to it than that.
When I came to the woods, I felt I had been pulled here by a gulping vortex, a sentient eddy hidden, way out in the sea of grey-husked maples. You who cannot hear its drone — the pulsing hum coming from its empty belly — or feel its strong pull cannot understand why I am here. The essence of the woods crept into me when I was young, seeping through my porous skin and wrapping itself like a snake around my young bones. I did not come to the woods. I was brought here.
But how did I get here? I’m not entirely sure. I know I left the bank quickly, got in my car and began driving hard, herding others off the road. I did not stop, even when there was a loud murmur in my gut because I hadn’t eaten anything since my sandwich at lunch — some bologna and mayonnaise stacked between squares of white bread that turned to bleached clay in my fingers — and even when Gus was whimpering loudly like he was sick.
I must have stopped at home to pick him up. I don’t remember doing that, though. I must have been moving too quickly. My brain must have only registered and catalogued my essential actions and discarded all it determined to be extraneous. Sick and tired and eager for escape, it did not record my discrete, rote movements.
I remember some things about my journey. The car rattled loudly for the duration of the long drive. That metallic churning, which throttled all sounds beyond itself, is trapped in my ears like some mosquito. I still hear it, even above the monotonous chants of nearby toads. I should bring the car to a shop, but I won’t. I won’t need it anymore.
At the time of my flight, I thought I understood why I was brought here. I had thought up an elaborate and conceited explanation. I supposed the trees wanted to succor me in beds of grey moss and feed me on the same water they drink, the water that comes to them cold and clean from hilltop streams. I wanted to be their cherished invalid.
My family lived here years ago and, arrogantly, I assumed that the bond I had built with the woods would provoke their compassion. The woods, sensitive to my condition, wanted to cure me. That is what I thought.
I remembered the woods well. When I got here, I exited my car and looked at my family’s old cabin, solitary under the limbs of an oak tree only a little larger than I remembered. I was transported to childhood. The air, dense with the scents of pine needles, drying leaves and musty wood regenerated my dead memories, digging them out of the shallow graves where they’d been buried long ago. I longed to remember, and the woods promised to let me.
The trees were in agreement: I was to be healed by memories. The present, the cruel and unrelenting now, would be barred from entering the green cordon that surrounded me. I was to be quarantined, and under the supervision of the trees, I was to be made well. I thought they would mend me.
* * *
When I first arrived, I was happy. The woods seemed unchanged. The trees, mostly stout maples and oaks, were still choked by an understory of thorns and briars. The cabin, too, seemed untouched by time. The garden patch near its entrance was overgrown, though you could see its faint outline in the yellow grass. Mom hadn’t been much of a gardener, and it never was very well tended.
I chuckle to myself even now, as I write: a fragmented, decontextualized memory has ascended, excitedly, from the black deeps of my brain, bursting to the surface like a whale gasping for air. I remember Mom working in the garden one afternoon, proudly wrenching weeds from the ground and tossing their mandrake-like carcasses onto a heap beside her.
Dad went out to look at her handiwork and began laughing. Mom, in her zeal, had pulled our radishes from the ground and they lay scattered all around her, like a clutch of cranberry-colored Easter eggs. She had spent a long time supervising their growth. She laughed too, when she saw what her negligence had done. This is a happy memory.
The memory dives back into my subconscious, sinking fast into the ever-churning dark. I will not see it again. I will not have more memories like that one. This place is no longer conducive to their recovery.
The thin, winding stream that runs past the cabin burbles loudly; the stones on its bed are churned by water seeping down from Sugarloaf Mountain. I listened to the roiling of those stones when I was a boy. The squirrels above me, in the cabin’s roof, perhaps the descendants of ones that frightened my sister and me as children, scamper loudly. I won’t disturb them, though they have kept me awake for several nights. They don’t know what will become of them. I do. I pity them.
As I said, I was happy when I first came to the woods. After unloading my things, I took Gus out for a hike. We couldn’t find a trail for the longest time, and we made it our mission to uncover and repair the network of trails that threads through the hills and clearings hidden under the canopy of old trees.
We hiked for hours, enjoying the clean air and stillness. Gus sometimes ran ahead of me. He sometimes found the circuitous, hidden paths made by wandering deer. That night, we returned to the cabin and ate a modest meal of baked beans and white bread as the sun sank under the hills.
* * *
Anne called as I was washing my plate. I could hear the intrusive ringing of the phone even above the sound of pounding water, but I did not answer it. Such a pushy sound. An insect buzz, puncturing my still air. I needed time away from her. I let her leave a voicemail, which I never listened to.
Before going to bed, I went out onto the porch and looked into the wall of mute, inexpressive trees, the partition between me and the world. Safe, at last, I let warm, soothing memories carry me to sleep. Soon, I thought, I would be well again.
It was not a deep sleep; it was dream-steeped and insubstantial. I was visited by a parade of nightmares. When I woke up, I remembered one in particular. Through my fluttering eyelids, I thought I saw hot breath in the window above my bed, the exhalations of an animal I could not see. I was sure it had been watching me, inspecting me as I dozed.
The morning of my second day in the woods, Gus and I got a late start on our planned hike. I slept in much later than I wanted to. We ended up hiking for hours, enjoying the crisp air and the quiet sounds of the woods, the rustlings of furtive animals and the creakings of old trees as they swayed imperceptibly.
We did not turn back towards the cabin until after seven. The woods were blackening as we wound our way through the trees. The moon and stars cannot lighten this place at night. Trees that had been unremarkable in the daylight were transformed into many-limbed ogres at the sun’s leaving, their long branches terminating in claws and talons.
Long-dormant childhood terrors were reactivated in the encroaching dark. I did my best to suppress them, reminding myself that the woods are haunted by nothing but phantoms of one’s own devising. I smiled when I thought this, because I remembered feeling frightened by these same trees when I was a boy.
Anne called again, as I was crossing a dry streambed. I did not ignore her as I had done before but instead picked up her call on the third ring. It was imperative I keep her calm. I was affectedly nonchalant. It’s the best way of soothing her.
“Where are you?” she asked. “I’ve been calling for two days. Did you pick up Gus before you left? How could you take the dog without asking, but leave your medication, unopened, on the bathroom counter?” She sounded agitated and perplexed, neither of which is becoming on her. She is normally so peaceable and unruffled, and that is how I prefer her.
“I was called away on business,” I replied. I spoke slowly, striving to moderate my speech and to muffle the screeching of a sparrow flying low overhead. “It is a very important trip. I am in Las Vegas, actually, and meeting with some clients from Germany I’ve been working with for the past few months. I thought Gus might enjoy the trip, so I took him with me. So far, my hunch has been proven entirely correct. He likes it here. He likes all the lights.”
“I would have appreciated it if you had asked first,” she replied, testily but quietly. There was a long pause. “When will you be back?” she asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. That was true. “I arranged to meet some gentleman from Dubai for dinner and I’m already late. I love you and will call as soon as I can. I’m just swamped right now.” I don’t know anyone from Dubai. I’m fairly sure Anne doesn’t know where it is.
In a quiet, detached voice, she replied, “Okay.”
I had succeeded; she was tranquilized, if only temporarily. I closed my phone, silenced it and thrust it into my backpack’s deep belly. I hid it under a sandwich bag filled with parched, over-salted trail mix.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer