There’s a Beast in the Woods
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The day after Gus and I encountered the Beast, it snowed, turning the ground to a mash of green, brown and white. Gus and I were confined to the cabin. It was colder than it should have been. I did not bring a heavy jacket and was forced to cocoon myself in old quilts and blankets to fend off the cold.
I spent the day staring out of the cabin’s windows, watching for the guest who I know must come: the elemental of mutation. It had willed the snow into being, trapping me indoors so I could not reverse its conspiracies. It was about in the woods, an agent of pandemonium in a land that should be ruled by immemorial commandments.
As I watched the airy snow twirl in the air, stirred by the wind to form and unform delicate helices, I imagined how the woods would look in the future. In that moment, their weird, unseasonal greenery smothered in snow, they appeared only subtly stranged.
They could be made truly objectionable; twisted branches and elastic, dissolving vines could be made to cover a forest floor carpeted with mosses that propel themselves like slugs; trees could grow chitinous, lustrous carapaces like beetles, and their leaves could be dyed impossible colors; fungi could be grown to hothouse sizes and made to pump out glittering, mephitic spores. The animals could be fused and made alike by their shared impossibility. The woods — my old woods and my family’s old woods — could crawl with nightmares.
Just as these thoughts began to firmly lodge themselves in my brain — an organ worn out through sustained nerviness — Anne called. Honestly, I thought she would have reached out sooner. “Hello,” I said. I sounded calm. I think I sounded calm.
“Where are you?” she asked. “I called your office yesterday and they said you haven’t been in and that you haven’t responded to the emails they’ve sent you. They say there isn’t a big business trip in Las Vegas. I know you’re lying to me. Do you have any more stories for me? Any more bullshit for your idiot wife?” She was breathing heavily, speaking with abnormal vehemence.
“Honey, I should have explained things more clearly. I’m leaving the company and doing this independently. This is my gig. I’ve got it under control.” Stuff like that often shuts her up.
“Shove it, Mark. You’ve been crazy for years, and I’m just now figuring it out.” Her voice was cracked and splintered. She sounded frail, but triumphant too. Too damn strong.
I blew up on her, detonating all my emergent anxieties and spewing jagged, shrapnel-like words at her. I clutched the phone tight, as if by squeezing it I was silencing the rebellious, strident voice of my wife. I yelled. I don’t know what I said, or I just don’t remember what I said. I know I lobbed the phone into the trees like a burning grenade; it impacted with one — an oak — and exploded against the tree’s warty hide. That shut her up. The phone’s electric innards lay scattered in the dirt and in puddles of melted snow, spindly like the bones of a dead bird picked clean. It was quiet again.
I slept that night. It was the first night I took my father’s rifle from his closet, transgressing one of his old and now unnecessary commandments. I kept it near me, even as I lay in bed. I did not dream, but I did not remember either.
* * *
When I awoke, the snow had melted and the air was warm and fresh; it was a deception to lure me from my cabin. I planned to remain there, safe in my bastion, though I was besieged. I watched for the Beast, knowing it must come.
I killed time by thumbing through a collection of old, yellowed photos I found stowed away in a closet. There were so many. I wanted to catalog them all, putting them in their proper and original order. I won’t have time.
That afternoon, I took Gus outside for a brief walk. I was very tired, and the afternoon sunlight pounded against my head. Just as I was about to tell him to turn back towards the cabin, I saw a subtle movement in a stand of tall pines. The trees were sharp and angular, like blackened spear points. I peered into them and saw my doom, at once lithesome and clumsy.
What animal was this? It was all and none: the fusion of a thousand base forms, ever shifting. Its eyes, twinkling and opalescent and hidden deeply in a hircine face, brimmed with hatred for a world unlike its own. It was the Beast. It was the lunatic prince: the offspring of some nameless orb in the gulfs of space or some secret gulch unlit by a sun. It abominates me because I am the representative of a world governed by unalterable laws.
Luckily, I had my rifle with me when I saw it. I fired into the woods, splintering branches and shattering leaves. Alarmed birds soared into the sky. I did not hurt the Beast; I was foolish to think it could be hurt.
I ran back to the cabin, turning to look behind me every few steps. Gus ran around me, orbiting me joyfully. He had not seen the Beast, as I had. Thankfully, it did not follow us; it was content to terrify.
When I reached the cabin, tired from running, I collapsed onto the porch steps. There, as Gus licked my face and grinned at me idiotically, I realized the Beast would not kill me. It would, instead, manipulate my pink skin like a sculptor does red clay, remodeling me to suit its perverse impulses. Killing brings it no joy; distortion does.
I stood and brushed the bits of grass and dirt from my shirt, and I grasped something else. There were only two options open to me now: I could allow the Beast to warp my flesh, accepting an eternity of transformation, or I could escape its influence.
I dismissed the second possibility. Any escape from the Beast would be temporary. Once the Beast has refashioned these woods, it will move on, emboldened by its conquest. It is driven by the logic of limitless extension: the thought process of a corporation or a cancer. I would not allow myself to be remodeled and made wrong.
* * *
The encounter I just described was yesterday. Today, refreshed by a deep sleep, I have come to understand why I was brought here. The woods sought a liberator and chose me, their lost son, for this role. It’s a pity I am weak and the Beast is strong. I cannot cleanse the woods of corruption. They will be warped and made into something unnatural. If I cannot save the woods, I at least know how to prevent the Beast from making me something I am not.
I think the Beast’s poison will soon get into me, seeping into my skin and steeling under my fingernails to get at my vulnerable insides. I don’t have much time to act. Soon I won’t recognize myself. I’ll be incorrect too, like the plants and animals around me. But my solution will confound the Beast and suspend me, like an insect in a globule of yellow amber, in an unalterable instant. Stasis is preferable to mutation.
I knew I could escape the Beast’s warping influence. My car was outside, and the Beast would not pursue me; so much of its work here remains unfinished. But as I said, to escape the Beast would only defer the inevitable. In any case, I cannot allow the Beast to drive me away. This is my family’s old house, and these woods are our woods — even if they are not the same and the memories once stored in them are now gone. I must remain here. After all, God hates a coward.
I am going to stop writing now. In a few minutes, I will clean and load my father’s rifle. Gus and I will then go for another walk.
Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer