There’s a Beast in the Woods
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
We were walking slowly. It took Gus and me a little while to reach our cabin. As we neared it, observing its grey and brittle hide through the black columns of trees, I saw an animal lazily exit the abandoned garden patch. It was a hog with a thick, bristly pelt and stubby tusks. Its rubbery but fissured skin — reptilian — gleamed in the moonlight.
I quickly took hold of Gus. I did not want him to tangle with the boar or pursue it into a wilderness he was unfamiliar with. I took a small flashlight out of my pocket and shone it on the animal. It had begun to amble away from the cabin; I expected it to dash away quickly. Instead, it just glowered at me with bulging, watery eyes. The animal’s color was strange, bluish.
The hog disappeared into the brush, rustling noisily as it trampled the underbrush. I didn’t think much of the hog until later. I attributed its strange appearance to the tricks of moonbeams and its bold disposition to some quirk in its nature.
Gus and I ate a quick meal and went to bed. He slept at my feet, fidgeting throughout the night, kicking me as he tossed and turned. I was denied sleep. I was unnerved and edgy. Hogs are new to these woods, an invasive element and outside its original habitat. I thought it was just the animal’s novelty that made me anxious. I understood later that my apprehensions had a more solid foundation.
That night, something scratched at the door of the cabin. Gus, who is typically a reliable sentinel, did not stir to meet it. I am certain it was the blue hog, seeking shelter from the unseasonable cold or some of my foodstuffs. He was audacious for his kind.
When I woke up, I staggered out of bed and went to the door. I couldn’t tell if the hog had damaged it. It’s in such disrepair. The paint peeled off in my hands in strips the color of a dentist’s office walls, exposing wood so old and dry it’s nearly petrified. Grandpa made it decades ago, when the cabin was first constructed. I can’t bring myself to patch it.
It rained heavily the next day. Gus and I were forced to remain indoors. The ground was turned to a soupy black muck, the kind of greedy, grasping mud that swallows your boots whole if you’re not careful. I was thankful to have a television, even if the picture was grainy and distorted. We spent most of the day watching the news. It was depressing, as it always is. It’s trite to say this, I know, but the world is not the way it once was.
I remained awake most of that night, watching the garden patch from the porch. I was waiting for the blue hog. I was certain it would visit my cabin and use its golden tusks to gouge at the earth my mother had worked so hard to promote, the earth that might harbor the sweet potatoes, cassavas and other tubers she took such pride in.
I set up a sleeping bag on the porch after the rain had gone. It was an old red one from Dad’s closet. I’d seen him take it on his fishing excursions, when he was tired of my sister and me and our mother. Gus, my faithful —if now useless —companion slept near me, insensible to his surroundings and to the danger in the woods. I listened to his clipped, jittery breaths, hoping their machine-like repetition would help me sleep.
Again, I was too anxious to sleep; again, the memories I sought and required did not materialize. I was stuck in the present. I grew frustrated. I had come here to be healed, and yet the restorative properties of the woods were denied me, despite my desperation and my reaching.
* * *
The next morning, I awoke, startled. I was wrenched from sleep by a dream. I thought the hog with the blue skin was standing over me, its long, angular face contorted, teeth exposed and grimacing. It was heavy on my chest and restricted my breathing, and its cloven hooves bored into my trunk, as if it was hunting for my heart, probing for a telltale pounding.
The hog had changed since I saw it last. Its hind legs had seemingly been loaned to it by an overgrown owl, and its body, though still blue, looked as though it had formerly belonged to a sleek, athletic deer. It was a mess of scrambled creatures — rogue taxidermy — and it was filled with life, uncontrolled and threatening.
The sun drove away this nightmare, dispelling it as it drove the cold from my bones, but I was left uneasy. I felt unease for the first time that morning, the nervousness that is now with me always.
As I prepared my breakfast, I thought about my experiences over the past few days: when I arrived, I thought the woods were the same, unchanged since my adolescence. I was mistaken. They’ve been deformed in subtle but definite ways. The hog, my prolonged sleeplessness, my unreachable memories: these, I concluded, were all observable symptoms of a larger contamination.
I remember the moment when I first realized this, and when I understood the nature of the thing that had come to the woods and stricken it. I stepped outside for a walk, my hands clasping a hot stoneware mug and found the clear, glassy shell of a cicada lying on the porch. I handled the translucent, plastic thing; it was whole and untouched. I had seen the same shell yesterday, but with an incised, split thorax. The shell’s parts had been fused, needlessly reconstituted. This, I knew, was the work of some tinkering, meddlesome intelligence.
As I drank my coffee, overly sweet and black like tar, I thought about what I held in my hand. This will sound mad, though it is not, but I surmised that Gus and I were not alone in the woods. We had been joined by — and were likely being observed by — a sly and hidden something, an intelligence distinct from the unified, coherent system surrounding us. I could see and feel its works whenever I exited the cabin.
I understood that what opposed Gus and me, what had robbed me of my capacity for memory and was changing the woods — my woods — was no commonplace animal. It had not been hatched and grown here. There, on the porch, I developed a theory, which subsequent events have entirely substantiated: I understood that there was something in my woods, an uncanny entity that can willfully change things, reconfiguring all in its proximity to suit its impulses. I can only call it the Beast. The imprecision of the title suits it, I think.
Every day after this discovery, I found evidence of the Beast’s furtive presence. As I wandered the woods, I came upon imprints and tracks that defied classification. They were perhaps the soft paw prints of the creature itself. More likely, they were records of the footsteps of the animals it had deformed. I wonder if they know what has become of them, whether they recoil when they chance to see their limbs, ending in inoperative hoofs and now-defective claws. All living things can feel disgust. It’s an adaptive mechanism. I was not uneasy with the discordant world around me; I was disgusted.
The Beast is a thing of great power. Solid, unbreakable things — like animals and memories — are made malleable by its presence, melting like plastic under intense heat. I imagine the grass springs green and meadow flowers are made to burst out of the obedient soil wherever it walks. One morning, I expect to find the long-dead wood of the cabin door to have sprouted fresh green branches. The oak of the cabin itself, turned grey by the years, will be changed to an impossible, aberrant green.
* * *
Two days ago, I set out to find a creature altered by the Beast. If I could kill or capture a victim of its deranging aura, I could be sure of my theory’s legitimacy. The woods were mute, less crammed with scurrying life than they had been when I was young. I hadn’t noticed that before. I’ve become more perceptive.
After a few hours of wandering, I found and killed a pheasant. I regretted doing this immediately. When I found its plump body, speckled with blood, it looked perfectly normal. It was an example of something unchanged by the Beast.
Upon reflection, I realized the thought was naive; beneath its feathers and skin the pheasant’s insides could have been churning with unregulated, heedless growth. Its heart, lungs and viscera might have been grappling with mounds of tumorous meat on its way to becoming new limbs or organs.
At the time, I thought it was prudent to drag the dead bird back to the cabin and cook it. Gus and I were getting tired of beans and bread.
We walked for a while and I nearly forgot about the danger around us. The sun was shining more brightly than it had for days. I stumbled upon a trail; it looked like one my father and I had made decades ago. I expected to find one of our many forts — collections of logs and branches arranged in roughly geometric shapes — but I never did.
We entered a meadow, a green space where the trees had given primacy to the grass, which had grown freely. I felt as if a million eyes — omnipotent spider eyes — were all around me, as if I was being observed and mocked from nearby. The Beast was cackling quietly, I was sure of it.
I knew that Gus and I were in danger, and as I looked around me I saw the subtle deformities of a septic, sick landscape: the mushrooms were larger than they should have been; the grass was a shocking emerald; and the knots in the trees seemed to smile and grimace at me as if humans were imprisoned in their insides. I felt sick. I was in a place that had been made wrong.
Fearful, I dropped the pheasant and ran, and so did Gus. He darted ahead of me, evading the briars that tore at my jeans. We ran for a long time, until I was too tired to keep going. Gus stopped and looked back towards me. I approached him, staggering and gulping down the cold air; he was grinning. It had been a game for him. He was unaware of the distortion in the air, the charged current of an ambitious virus. I bet he is like many of the Beast’s victims: innocent, oblivious.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer