Below is a large section of the Supernatural Apocalyptic Romance novel I published under my pseudonym S.C. Foster (which is not such a pseudonym since it is, in fact, part of my name). Anyway, the rest of the novel is available on Amazon in kindle and paperback formats. It is the first in a planned trilogy based on Native American and Scandinavian myths.
“A bloodless sportsman, I–
I hunt for the thoughts that throng the woods,
The dreams that haunt the sky.”
— Sam Walter Foss, The Bloodless Sportsman
I shoved the car door open and flung myself into the spiraling rain. I tumbled and rolled into a gurgling ditch, coming to a stop like an unraveling spool in the grassy cradle. I did not know if it was blood or water that washed over my head like a baptism to a new life. Tires squealed to a halt, like the screech of a bird of prey, then reversed. Aching, I rose to my trembling knees, then staggered upward and forward upon my feet, limping away from that moon-haunted highway that stretched from darkness to darkness behind me; away from those demonic headlights that sought to follow me into the woods. The nocturnal forest breathed its wet wilderness upon me, and I followed it, like Beauty following the moist breath of the Beast, uncaring of anything else.
My name was Madeline Spencer, and I was fleeing from my husband.
The forest both helped and hindered me in my flight. Branches whipped me as I rushed blindly through the cluttered underbrush. Roots tripped me like vicious snakes and I fell numerous times, finding myself wrangling with branches that clung to me and tore at my thin, wet dress. Yet, the forest also hid me in its rough bosom, concealing my escape even as it teased and taunted me with its roughly flirtatious play. It was a taloned lover, the forest, and I felt my heart quicken at its dizzying taunts.
I could hear my husband calling out to me— not in concern or to plead for my return, but angrily…vengefully…like a man calling for his disobedient dog. I fled that bellowing voice as if it were the summons of a devil in the darkness. He would not drag me back to that soul-obliterating hell-hole that I once called home. I would have sooner died than been clutched back from this dizzying freedom.
Faster I ran, stumbling and staggering breathlessly. I did not care if I became lost in that treacherous place. Branches and thorns and rocks were nothing compared to the snide reproaches that struck me everyday in our loveless union. The howling of wolves and the mocking “Who?” of owls were not half so demeaning as the passive-aggressive compliments or the unfeeling reprimands made in the naked light of the public eye. The thought of starvation was but a mild death by degrees when compared to the hollowing of the heart that I endured day to day in this cold, manipulative, Stockholm syndrome marriage. Enough! Let death come at once, or let me find freedom elsewhere! I was my own woman now. Come poison or bear or feral vagrancy, I would be unto myself my only constant star in that starless sky. No more would Man badger and bully me. Though the storm beat against me, I went as I willed against the headwinds.
Yet, my limbs ached from my many falls. My lungs heaved and lurched as if to burst, each inhalation like a thorn-bush of ice growing larger within the strained pulmonary tissue. My dress clung to my body as the rain pelted me, becoming like the wet shawl of a widow saturated by her grief. I wished to tear it from my chest and to fling it to the wind like the detritus of an amniotic shell that had long stifled me. Freedom! I desired freedom! Freedom from everything that once was! Freedom from all of the articles of that unwanted life! I wished to be as a snake shedding its old skin, quivering its coils in the lustrous light of a new life! I wanted to be as the butterfly newly fluttering from its old, claustrophobic cocoon!
I did not know how far I had sprinted, nor was I aware when I could no longer hear my husband calling for me. He had receded into the darkness, like a faceless shadow. That selfsame darkness pressed in around me, and yet I welcomed its black-clad congregation of shawled shadows. Let them take me far and away from my life. Let branch and bush and vine— however toothed— induct me into the gulfs that dwelled between the past and the future. Their crimson kisses were but farewells to that life that I left behind me as I set upon my new voyage, however brief and insignificant to the deaf, unfeeling cosmos above.
Suddenly the trees fell away, as did the darkness. I came to a clearing and was so surprised by the illuminated porch that I dropped to my hands and knees. My eyes were bleary, half-blinded as they tried to adjust to newfound light. The porch was part of what looked like a log cabin, but monstrously large and broad and tall. I struggled to stand, but discovered my legs were trembling with overexertion. My chest heaved under the tight wet dress, my heart squeezed between my lurching lungs.
Dogs were barking. Many dogs. Were they hell-hounds, come to fetch me home? A shadowy figure approached me from the porch, backlit and obscured by that lurid luminosity. He loomed tall and big. As I faded into unconsciousness, I did not know if he was the old devil come to reclaim me, or some new devil come to deliver me to another life.
CHAPTER 1 AWAKENING
What I saw first were nonsensical blurs that pulsed and faded. What I smelt was the soft scent of wood and leather and newly-washed fabric; the gentle musk of a man that had lingered and then left. What I felt was warmth, even as my wet, tattered dress clung to me stubbornly, like a needy child. What I heard was silence. A comforting silence. No more rain pelting me. No more wind blowing through the maddened trees. No more barking of dogs. My aches remained, as I soon discovered while trying to sit up. My mouth was parched and my hair was soaked. How long had I been asleep?
My head hurt, but I was alive. I was in the room of a stranger’s house, but I was alive. I had left my husband, but I was alive. It was a consolatory mantra. But I was alive.
When my eyes finally focused I saw that I was sitting on a large canopy bed. There were wet towels beneath me, and beneath them a thick fur blanket. The bed’s drapes were incomplete, woven and colored like dream catchers from one post to the other, the largest one sprawled across all four posts. The wooden posts themselves were large and carved with the likenesses of animals on a totem pole: fox at the bottom, then coyote, hawk, bear, and wolf at the top. All predators, I realized with a start.
I tried to stand, but felt the world spin and lurch to the left and so I fell down upon that gray fur bed. It was then, while I lay with my head reeling, that he came into the room.
He was tall— much taller than my husband— and broader in his shoulders. Looking at him, I did not doubt that he was an “outdoorsman”, the type that kept outside, unmindful of the sun as it beat down upon his shoulders. His flannel shirt was partially unbuttoned, the slit plunging down past his collarbone to reveal a bronzed chest. His sleeves were rolled up to the mid-bicep, boasting thickly muscled arms. His face was as dark as the rest of his body, the lower half darkened even more with rough stubble on his chin and jaw line. His long, black hair was bound back into a ponytail and his dark eyes flashed with fire, like torches in the shadowy forest of night
“I laid the towels out for a reason,” he said. “You are to dry yourself on them, not my blankets.”
His voice was deep and guttural, as if he was growling. If it was from irritation, then my irritation was soon vexed to flare as well.
“If you did not want me to lay on your blankets,” I said, “you should have put me somewhere else.”
“I suppose I could have just left you in the rain,” he said. He walked over and, quite impudently, lifted me up in his arms and set me down again, more evenly on the towels. “There,” he said. “Like that.”
The brusqueness with which he lifted me up and dropped me was infuriating. It was done as a father would a child, and I would not be treated as a child. I was tired of men treating me like a child. I stood up immediately, furious, and pointed my finger into his chest.
“How dare you!” I shouted.
He looked down at me, as if surprised. His dark eyebrows soon settled, however, into a look of complete indifference.
“Do not touch me,” I said. “Ever.”
He shrugged. “You must be a city girl,” he said. “Only a city girl would treat hospitality as an insult.”
This presumption annoyed me considerably, especially since it was true. I had lived in the city my whole life. Yet, his accent was not some country-bumpkin’s drawl, and so I could not but take umbrage that he should assume such things while he was, insomuch as his accent was concerned, from the city also.
“It’s easier to be grateful to someone who is nice,” I said. “Especially when injured.”
His bronzed face was like a wooden idol that stood watch from his night stand: chiseled into solid impassiveness.
“I will attribute your ingratitude to your injuries,” he said, walking toward the door. “I think that’s being very charitable.”
Though I was angered, I was also confused, and in want of answers.
“Wait!” I called to him. “Where am I?”
“You are in my bedroom,” he said.
“Who are you?”
He shook his head ruefully. “A good Samaritan who is quickly losing patience.”
“Are you trying to be mysterious?”
“I don’t like questions,” he said.
“That just means you really just don’t like answers,” I said.
“You wouldn’t like the answers, either, if you knew them.”
I did not know what he meant by that. My mind was racing suddenly, trying to keep pace with all of the worries that were besieging me in that instant.
“No one has come asking for me?” I asked. “A man with red hair? My husband…?”
My host waved his hand dismissively. “I imagine everyone has more important things to do than come asking for you on a rainy night,” he said. “Like finding someplace dry to sleep.” He turned toward the door again.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To make some coffee,” he said. “I cannot sleep while you are here.”
He glanced over his shoulder, his dark eyebrow hoisted high.
“Could you bring me some water? I am really thirsty.”
“Didn’t you get enough water out there?” he retorted.
“I will get it myself, then,” I said. I took a step forward and immediately became light-headed. I tottered backward and plopped down on the bed, resting my head in my hands.
He sighed and scratched that dark stubble that dotted his chin.
“Fine,” he said. “I will get some water for you. Just don’t touch anything in my bedroom. Or in the house. Stay right there. Don’t move.”
“And some dry clothes!” I added. “This dress is soaked through.”
Growling under his breath, he went out into the hallway. I could hear him muttering his irritations as he walked away.
While I waited, I looked around the room. I saw lots of Native American knickknacks and baubles everywhere. Little fetish men and women. Wolf figures. Large caribou antlers upon the wall, holding up what appeared to be old rock-toothed spears. There was a stack of blankets in the corner, next to the bed. The floor was covered in hardwood and cushioned with a rug depicting a woman in a shawl, partially disrobed, with her hands raised above her.
I knew you could never trust a man to do the decorating of a house, or a log cabin. Wolves and antlers and half-naked women: they decorated like little boys would if they had a budget.
My eyes alighted once again on the dream catchers that draped the bed. Reaching up, I plucked at one of the strings. The taut string vibrated, tingling strangely throughout my body. Each large dream catcher was of several different colors, all beautifully faded into one another by subtle shifts of hue. Still, I could not understand the purpose of a canopy made of strings patterned so far apart.
Again I plucked at a string, and then another, and another, feeling their vibrations through the totem pole posts and into the bed and, seemingly, in the deep, dark earth. It was like playing a harp. Before I could stop myself, I was strumming upon all of them; lost in the rich vibrations. Admittedly, I got carried away, and then he returned, growling and rushing at me with the glass of water and clothes.
“Take these and get off of my bed!” he growled. He pressed a palm flat against my back and ushered up and away, then shoved the glass of water and the new change of clothes into my hands. While I stood by, he meticulously examined each string on every dream catcher. I knew not what to think of this other than he was an obsessive-compulsive. I sipped at what water remained in the glass and waited for him to return to his senses.
When he turned around to face me, I found, to my dismay, that his forehead was covered in sweat.
“Never touch these,” he said. “Never.”
I was so angry at his tone that I lost control of my own. “Never touch me!” I snapped. “You want me to stop doing something, ask me nicely.”
There was something wrong with him, I realized. The way he clenched his teeth, the way the vein pulsated on his forehead, the way his muscles seemed ready to burst with each shuddering heave of his chest. I did not fear that he was violent, only that he was…something else. In my previous life— before I leapt out of the car and fled my husband— I might have been terrified. Now, however, reborn in these strange circumstances, I was unflinching. I had left my husband; nothing in the whole, wide world frightened me now.
Or so I thought.
“Are you done now?” I asked. “Because if you are done, then you need to get out so I can change.”
“So you can change?” he said, eying me suspiciously.
I flapped the clothes in front of him.
“Oh!” he said. “Right. Change your clothes.”
“You are dense, aren’t you?” I said.
He huffed and he puffed and he stormed out of the room, his ponytail flopping up and down behind him. I almost laughed, but I was also angry at him, so I just slammed the door. Then I grabbed the hem of my dress and lifted and yanked and gradually peeled the wet fabric as it stubbornly clutched to my hips and breasts. It was only as I had gotten the sheer black thing halfway off that I realized how torn it was, and how scratched and bruised my body was beneath it. The dress had been a gift I had given to myself after my husband had forgotten our five year anniversary. Consequently, it was a dress for consolation, and I despised it utterly now.
After I had finally peeled the dress off, and unsnapped my bra and slipped off my panties, I stood there, naked, in the honeyed light of that room. I surveyed my body and found that I would live. I still needed to take a shower, though, and to lick my wounds.
I went to the door and knocked.
“Hey!” I called out. “Tall, dark, and grumpy! I need to take a shower. And don’t you dare say anything about the rain.”
“The bathroom is just across the hall,” he said. Gruffly, he added, “Don’t get water all over my floor.”
I laughed sourly as I put on the clothes he gave me. He obviously had no women in his life. The shirt was like a poncho on me, so big was it, and the pajama pants trailed nearly a foot under my feet even after I had pulled them up to my navel. As I dressed, I talked through the door.
“I take it you live alone,” I said.
“I prefer living alone,” he said.
“Bit of the lone-wolf type, huh?”
A long silence on the other side of the door. He must have been reconsidering having taken me in. Well, I knew he didn’t seem the pervy type, or the serial killer type. If he had been he wouldn’t have taken the time or given the effort to treat me well, or to argue with me. Those were both good signs: he helped me when I needed it, and he argued when he didn’t like what I had to say.
I opened the door and stepped out. Of all the things, he had his back turned toward me, staring resolutely toward the other end of the hall. I would have laughed, but there was something about the way he seemed so small in that hall— even as he stood so tall— that made me pause. Part of me believed that if I had touched him he would have crumbled like an imposing statue made of sand.
“There are towels on the towel rack,” he said.
“That’s generally where they are kept,” I said, unable to stop myself. I did not know why I was being so belligerent with him. Something about his size and his eyes and his expression made me aggressive towards him. And something else, which electrified my nerves and made my fingers itch for claws.
“The only soap I have is cheap and without fragrance.”
“That’s how you rough it out in these woods, huh?” I said.
He just shook his head. His ponytail waved back and forth like the tail of a black stallion. He really did seem upset, but I didn’t know why, or what to say.
“I don’t have any shampoo,” he continued, his voice gruff like before.
“I’ll make do,” I said. “Thanks.”
I walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I took a hot, hot shower; the hottest shower of my life. It was like I wanted to burn my old skin off, and alongside it everything that had touched that skin: my old clothes, my old apartment, my husband, my previous life. I wanted to burn it all away.
I dried myself and went down the hall. I found him in what I presumed to be the living room. The living room was large and spacious, its airiness extending up the stairs and beyond the second storey, the railed balcony overlooking the rustic expanse. There was a long leather couch in the center of the living room and a large stonework fireplace in the corner. Everything was either wood or leather or fur. There were more figurines here, standing guard over the bookshelves. Wolves. Deer. People. A long run of windows divided the log wall, splattered with rain. The cabin did not seem to leak, so I assumed it was sealed with something. I didn’t know much about log cabins and I didn’t know their structures or how they worked. I could see how the rustic aesthetic of them could appeal to some people, though. It was nice.
He was standing by the window, watching the stormy darkness with a grim expression. The storminess of his face was a match for the elements. If it came down to a staring contest I believed the storm might blink first. He seemed to glow in contrast to the nocturnal gloom.
“You really are all in for Native American stuff,” I said. I meant it to open a conversation; to be polite.
He only nodded.
“What are they?” I asked, looking at a figure not unlike a Tiki man, but different in its expression and proportions. “Cherokee? Blackfoot?” I only knew a few Native American tribes, and it made me self-conscious trying to name them. He looked as if he was partly Native American.
“I do not favor any tribe over another,” he said, gruffly. “Navajo, Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Mesoamerican tribes. My sense of fondness for the Native spiritualism of this land is not restrained. North, South, East, West— these distinctions mean nothing to the Sky Mother. All are her children beneath her loving embrace.”
“So it’s a mishmash,” was all I could say to that, glancing over all of the idols and fetishes and blankets that inhabited that large log cabin. I noticed, for the first time, a wooden carving extending out from the second storey’s balcony. It depicted a woman who held her arms wide toward the sky. It seemed to have been carved from a single tree trunk. Her expression was sorrow. I would not have been surprised to see sap trickling from the corners of her eyes. It was similar to the figure depicted on the rug in his bedroom.
I sat down on the couch and listened to the rain beating against the roof and windows.
“My name’s Madeline,” I said. “Madeline Spenc—Madeline Greer.” I did not want to claim my husband’s name anymore; not since I shed that cloying skin.
“Maddie, then,” he said, not looking away from the window.
“No,” I said. “Madeline.”
“Keep it up and I’ll shorten it to Mad,” he retorted, folding his arms across his chest.
“You keep it up,” I said, “and I will shorten you…where you least like it.”
He said nothing in response, but continued to stare out the window. He was so much larger than me, and yet his presence somehow seemed light, even as he brooded by the dark window. There was no menace in his body or posture. My husband, Kurt, was shorter and more wiry than him, yet there was a tautness of anger in Kurt that always unsettled me, even as I turned a blind eye to it at the beginning of our relationship. That tautness soon became a hangman’s noose that strangled all joy from our lives together.
“And you are?” I said.
He turned from the window, briefly, favoring me with his dark gaze. “Harold.”
“You don’t look like a Harold,” I remarked.
If he was insulted, he didn’t show it. He turned toward the window again, apathetic to my opinion.
“I’ll just call you Harry,” I said, feeling vengeful. “Shorten your name and see how you like it.”
He said nothing in reply. He was as silent as a mountain, and as unmovable.
My eyes were fascinated with the chiseled line of his chest, between his pectorals, and my hand itched to trace it with my fingertip, even as I had the cruel thought of scratching him across his chest. It was very strange: he inspired in me contrary impulses, and I swayed like a feather in a whirlwind between the two urges.
To distract myself, I surveyed the living room once more to glean what I could about Harry. What was prevalent were his Native American curios. He was also an avid reader, from what I could see of his crammed bookshelves. Curiously absent from the house were the electronics you would expect to find in a modern home. There was no television, no computer, no phone, no digital clocks. I supposed I should have been grateful that he had electric lights in the house at all and not candles flickering everywhere. They would have been fire hazards for sure.
Still, the absence of electronics made me feel more isolated. I had left my purse in the car, along with my cell-phone, and so I felt cut off and marooned in another world; another time.
It was not a bad feeling.
“Not a fan of television?” I said.
“No,” he said.
“No,” he said. “I do not need to talk to anyone.”
Another curiosity dawned on me. “Where do you get your electricity from?”
“Solar panels,” he said.
I was incredulous. “All year round?”
“Yes,” he said.
“But what about rainy days like today? What about winter?”
“The solar panels collect enough most of the time.”
“And what about those times they don’t?”
“Then there is a fireplace,” he said, pointing to the stone hearth.
“And alcohol?” I asked.
“Only rubbing alcohol.”
“You are a really fun guy,” I said, crossing my legs and folding my arms. The leather couch was a little cold, as real leather generally was. “I’m surprised you don’t go mad. Or are you mad and I haven’t noticed?”
“All things in due time,” he said.
He had a sardonic sense of humor, it seemed, or perhaps he was merely sardonic.
The rain stopped all at once, as if the clouds had suddenly tired of their own melodrama. The windows lightened shortly thereafter and the dawn burned in haste, as if to make up for lost time. It was all striking strange, that abrupt dichotomy of day and night. I didn’t know what to make of it, and it bothered me, so I picked up the nearest book— resting on the coffee table— and read its front cover.
“Jane Austen!” I involuntarily gasped.
Harry scowled, the orange light of the sunrise flaring upon his coppery skin. He looked so warm there, standing by the window. It was like the sun was in his flesh, and the night was in his hair.
“What of it?” he demanded.
“It just didn’t occur to me that someone like you…” I trailed off, not knowing how to put it into words.
“Someone like me?” he said. “A half-breed, you mean?”
That was not at all what I was thinking and yet I felt shame at the indictment. Simultaneously, because I was not thinking it and because he made me feel shame, I also felt anger for the misplaced assumption.
“I meant someone so obviously outdoorsy and rugged,” I explained.
“A savage, you mean?”
“I would tell you to lighten up,” I said, “but you would take it the wrong way.”
He merely grunted and continued to stare out the window, his face glowing with the sunrise’s daffodil-hued halo.
“So,” I said, “no television. No internet. No phone. What do you do to pass the time?”
“I grow my own food,” he said. “Subsistence farming.”
“And for stuff like coffee?” I asked, watching the tendrils of steam rise from the mug in his hand.
“For everything I cannot grow, I make a trip to the grocery store. Like everybody else. But not as frequently. I buy in large quantities and keep them in a bunker under the house.”
“Oh,” I said, my mouth a silly moue. “So you’re one of those doomsday preppers.” The concept was alien to me, and I always thought if I met them they would be fidgety doom-sayers or religious fundamentalists, not a cool-eyed man with a no-nonsense countenance.
“Every day could be doomsday for me,” he said, without a hint of irony or melodrama. “But mostly I keep large amounts of supplies because I dislike to be around people.”
“A hermit, then,” I said, returning the book to the coffee table. “Why? Tired of people?”
His frown could have baulked a bear, but I was impervious.
“Must have been a woman,” I said. “Did she leave you for your best friend or something?”
I didn’t know why I was being so belligerent. It was like I wanted to see his temper rise to its fullest heights, if only to gauge his put-on stoicism and see if that wooden mask of his face would catch fire. Instead of losing his temper, however, Harry walked to a door leading outside.
“The rain has stopped,” he said, opening the door. “Come on.”
Not knowing what he was aiming at, I followed him outside. My wedges were still soaked, so I stepped out with nothing on my feet but skin. The grass was wet and slick and tickled the arches of my feet. It was like walking over a thousand tongues.
Outside there was a gravel driveway leading toward what I assumed to be the highway. A large black truck waited nearby. It was an older model, but in good shape. No rust. No dents. The tires were not so big that they screamed for attention, but not so small that they couldn’t go off-road if need arose. Harry gestured toward the truck.
“Where are we going?” I asked, knowing I wasn’t dressed for anything besides a slumber party.
“I’m taking you home,” he said. He walked across the gravel without slowing, his bare feet unflinching at the bite of the rocks. He opened the passenger-side door and then waited for me.
“No,” I said.
His dark eyes lit up with surprise. “What?”
“I said no.”
His face became livid. “You are not staying here,” he growled. “You have to leave.”
“I don’t want to leave,” I said, realizing that I was telling the truth. I did want to stay here.
“You are not vacationing here,” he said. “And it is too dangerous for you to live here with me.”
“I’m not going home,” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “I’d rather live out in the woods.”
He looked so confounded that his mouth twitched in confusion. He pointed to the woods. “Then get to it,” he said. He slammed the door, making the whole truck rock.
“I will,” I said, feeling too angry to be rational. I started walking toward those large, overbearing trees.
“Good luck,” he said, stomping off to his cabin.
With a resolute march I went toward those trees. They stood like intimidating sentinels warning me to turn back. It was only as I neared their wide trunks that I slowed my stride and glanced over my shoulder. Harry was standing on the porch, pretending to do something— sweeping, of all things— and acting like he wasn’t watching me. But I knew he was. He was all bark and no bite. So, turning away from him, I marched into the woods and went as far as I could until I became utterly, woefully lost.
I was too lost to know which direction to go, but too angry to let it deter me. I was also hungry, which lent itself very disagreeably to my temper. If I could have shouted the forest down, I would have, but instead I fumed and continued to hike on in contemptible silence. My feet hurt from the twigs and branches and other detritus that cluttered the forest floor. I had to be very careful as I walked.
The forest was different by day than it was by night. It no longer raked at me with its branching claws, nor did it throw me to the ground like a predator ready to pounce upon its prey. It was kind with its light, and peaceful in its green stillness. Last night’s rain trickled from the foliage above. Eventually, it won over my mood and eased me into a tranquility I had not known for a very long time; a tranquility unknown to me since I had married my husband, Kurt.
Kurt was handsome in his own way. He had light brown hair, with a red sheen, and a light tan that complemented his green eyes. I must have been lost in his green gaze because I overlooked all of the warning flags that cropped up from him like pins in a pincushion. He lied to me— little white lies that amounted to nothing at first except for broadening my blindspot to his deceits. Then came the bigger lies, and the subtle manipulations of correcting me one moment and complimenting me the next, this dichotomy of inculcation making me dependent upon his infrequent praise while simultaneously making me susceptible to agonize whenever he should voice his slightest displeasure. I was ever like a beaten dog too sensitive to his complaints not to agonize over them. I strove to please him, but he always found my efforts wanting; or, at least, wished for me to believe they were wanting.
I was a painter. I had talent, having studied painting in college. I worked as a retailer during the day and in the evening I would paint, hoping that I would someday gain some notice with my artistic attempts. It was a humble life of humble wages, rich only in the dreams I aspired toward while I dabbled in figures and images. My paintings were fixated on transformations. Life was a bland, blank canvass perforated by Kurt’s abuses. I had to paint to cope with the blandness and the abuse. One such painting, titled “Caged”, depicted a woman whose exposed heart bulged against the tight cage of her ribs while she sat alone in a darkened room, a knife in her hand. It proved to be my “break-out” work. I submitted it to a gallery and, to my great pleasure, it had been accepted for a show. Its name proved to be not only ironic, but prophetic.
Kurt was an accountant who had no artistic inclination. He saw the world as numbers upon a computer screen, and little else. He longed for fame, but he would have never found it among all those sterile calculations. When I was accepted at the gallery, he sweetly offered to transport the painting and hang it for me while I was working. I should have known better. I should have known him better than to trust him. But I was so overawed and blissful at my submission’s acceptance that I saw nothing in the world but love and benevolence. I had been given a key to my cage and I foolishly let him have it.
Overjoyed fool that I was, I did not notice the change of name until after the showing was well underway. The painting became quite the talk of the show, and subsequently so did Kurt. He had switched my name with his own, telling the curator that he was the actual painter; that my name was a misunderstanding. I should have fought him on it. I should have torn the painting down rather than allow him to steal it with his name and claim. But I was too meek. I was too defeatist. I allowed myself to fade into a corner, feeling misused as everyone beamed their regard and admiration into the face of my duplicitous husband.
Later Kurt explained to me that I was ill-equipped to handle the spotlight.
“You should make the paintings,” he had said, “and I will handle the social aspects.”
“And take the credit,” I had said.
He had given me a severe look, then, that was as near to slapping my face as a look could be. He then softened his lips into a smile and kissed my forehead.
“Baby,” he said, “don’t you dare think that I am being selfish. This is for you. I don’t want you to mess up your chance.”
I nodded, though I felt my heart beat a little less exuberantly with life. I knew he was using me, and doing so without the slightest twinge of guilt. Simultaneously, he wanted me to feel indebted to him for the success of my own work and its growing status in the art scene. The audacity of his manipulations overwhelmed me and I could not fight for myself, especially as his reputation as an artist soared. All I could do to cope was paint. These paintings, in turn, further solidified his career as an “artist”. It was a vicious, parasitic cycle.
Kurt had taken everything away from me that was me. My heart, my mind, my art, my trust, my life. Fine, I thought. Let him have it all. Let him have that decrepit corpse that I once was. I will have a new life. I will shed the abused skin and grow a chrysalis within which I will find strength and refuge until I emerge: uncompromising and unconquerable. The new Madeline would be a beast unto herself, her fangs and claws ever at the ready against any abuse, threat or deceit.
I suddenly wondered if Kurt would return home, alone, and try to salvage his fraudulent role as an artist. Maybe he would slap some paint on a canvas and call it his “new phase”; one deviating toward the absurdly abstract. Knowing the fickle attitudes of art critics, they might even praise his amateurish paint blotches as a superior direction to the traditionalist figure-oriented paintings I had done. Art critics were always wanting to be surprised by something, especially by someone with an established body of work.
I laughed bitterly at the prospect. My laughter echoed around the woods, and it seemed the forest was laughing at me.
I stepped on another twig, and it scratched my foot. I cussed and reached down, snapping the twig in two. This forest, I realized, was no different by day than it was by night except that it was subtler in its cruelties. It was passive-aggressive, like Kurt himself. It tried to soothe me with its false peace and silence, and meanwhile badgered me and belittled me and convinced me I was worthless and weak. It was a cowardly bully, and were it confronted it would only ignore me, unlistening as I shouted my heart’s aches into its unfeeling spaces.
I smouldered with rage. I wanted to burn this forest down. I wanted to hurt Kurt. I wanted to make him feel the pain and the conflict that he made me feel throughout those years. I adopted a scorched earth policy toward my previous life.
It was as I was seething, steeped in my own memories, that Harry found me in the woods. My rage boiled over as Harry approached me. I was feeling so vindictive toward Kurt that I ran at Harry and slapped him on the chest— slapped him as if he was Kurt and my sorrows were all his fault. I slapped him again and again, and screamed into his impassive face. There was a darkness in his eyes that was as bestial as I felt, and so I reached up with both hands, clasping his stubbly jaws with my taut fingers. I pulled his face toward mine so I could look into that darkness; so I could shout into that darkness and exult in that darkness. I wanted to throw myself into that darkness, and so I did. I kissed him on his lips, pressing my face into his with all of the years of silenced fury that I felt. I kissed him so hard our teeth scraped and my lips bled. Then I slapped him across the face and screamed like a ghost betaken to her own mud-rimmed grave. I am alive! my scream said. I am not dead!
Harry took me by the wrist and led me back to his cabin. It was not a long walk, for I had seemingly walked most of the day in circles. We came to the glade where the forest fell away. He guided me to the porch. Once there, he paused, his gaze flitting here and there: everywhere but at me. He looked frustrated, and angry and lost, just as I felt, and so I slapped him again, and kept slapping him until he lifted me up bodily and took me inside, into the bedroom, throwing me upon that fur blanket that spread over his strange, dream catcher-cobwebbed bed. He nestled into me and snorted with passion, pausing yet again and trembling with either lust or fear or anger or desire. Perhaps he would have disavowed none of them. I grabbed his hair, clutching my sharp fingers into that silken blackness and drawing his face down upon my neck. I was snarling like a wild thing, and tears were in my eyes— tears of anger and frustrated lust— and I told him to kiss me or I would claw his eyes out.
“You don’t know what this means,” he said.
“Do it,” I hissed, “or I swear to God I will eat you alive.”
A hot, wet smattering of kisses rained over my lips. Upon my throat his tongue emerged, like a living thing wriggling in hunger of me as it slipped and slithered across my flesh. I felt a similar creature erupt from my own mouth as I pulled him to my face. These lusty things entwined in the steamy caverns of our conjoined mouths and wrangled endlessly for ardent dominance and blissful submission. At length, the madness in me took complete control and I shoved him away from me, then stripped off that long, ridiculous shirt he had given to me. He, too, peeled his shirt from his body, looming over me like a coppery statue of some pagan god, the muscles of his torso quivering with a bedeviled desire that sought release.
I clasped his face again and shoved it down upon my breasts. He kissed and licked me, from swell to areola to the hard tips of my nipples, and I swooned in the rough delight of his stubble as it scraped over my smooth skin with an ecstatic tactility. A moan escaped me, like a demonic spirit expelled by a carnal exorcism, and still I clutched him to me.
He pulled himself away, too strong to be pinned down, and he kneeled beside me, grabbing hold of the loose pajama pants I wore and tearing them away. Just as quickly he tore away my underwear. My womanhood was thrown open to the bare air, the cool air of the cabin meeting the hot moistness that dwelled in the pit of my desire. He renewed his passions upon my breasts, nibbling and licking gently, yet urgently. Slowly, he dragged his tongue down my sternum, my belly, circling my navel, and onto my hips and quivering pelvis. When his mouth found my womanhood, his hands found my breasts, tracing them with his calloused fingertips and drawing a map of conquest upon my nerves. I gasped and fought for air. Something feral awoke in me, then, and became like the muzzle of a wolf snapping at its mate. The beast in me triumphed unto orgasm. It was like dying, sweetly, and being reborn in the climax. My legs lifted and kicked wildly, like a bird fighting for flight, feeling as if they might split me apart with their quivering paroxysms. My legs finally relaxed and settled down, my heels resting on the rounded muscles of his broad, sweaty back. I felt drowsy and my breathing was belabored, like a lioness having feasted to surfeit.
Harry rose, then, and untangled himself from my legs, walking unsteadily toward the door.
“Wait!” I called after him, my chest still heaving breathlessly. “What…what about you?”
He was gasping for air, too. “It’s too dangerous,” he said, trying not to look at me. He hastily walked to the door and out into the hall; to the bathroom. I heard water running and splashing in the sink.
“Too dangerous?” I whispered. I was intrigued, but I was too satisfied to pursue the curiosity. My mind languished and lolled from one sensation to another, lazily. I stared up at the ceiling, at the wooden beams, and found myself not altogether disliking the log cabin itself. Harry’s decorating left much to be desired, but that was to be expected. A man cannot be trusted to dress up a room; only dress down a woman.
“A man cannot be trusted,” I mumbled to myself.
And suddenly I felt anger again, and frustration at myself. I had let him have his way with me. Didn’t I? No—I suppose I had my way with him. I was too tired for platitudes. What mattered was that he had seen to my carnal longing, even if he denied me consummate congress. I suppose if anyone had a justifiable complaint, it was Harry, but he did not say anything when I saw him walk out into the hallway. Instead, he went toward the living room. A door opened and then shut and all I heard afterward was silence.
My head swam with alluring fascinations. Sights, scents, silence; all were savory in the sensual aftermath of our ardent rigors. My senses had been expanded, and in turn had expanded awareness. I was attentive to the slightest minutiae within my own sensorial rapture. Every nerve was awake and exulted deliciously in the sublime new world into which I had been born. I felt the fur blanket on my skin and realized, at its soft touch, that it was made from a wolf’s pelt. I pulled it to my face, sniffing at its gray hairs. Was it the animal scent of the wolf-skin that filled me with its feral intoxication, or was it Harry’s own natural musk? Perhaps they were one and the same, for everything in that cabin smelled of him. I laid in bed for an hour, luxuriating in his wolfish essence as it enveloped me. I felt like Red Riding Hood relishing the Wolf’s breath upon her bare skin.
When I felt sufficiently rested, I got up from bed and grabbed my clothes. I took a shower— a cold shower, letting the water cool my overheated body— and then I donned once again Harry’s long shirt and homely pajamas. I walked outside.
It was late afternoon when I found Harry chopping wood near the back of the house. There was a large lake spread out behind him. The lake glistened with the sunlight that undulated up and down its wind-blown wavelets. Harry’s coppery body glistened, too. I watched him work. He would set a log of wood on a stump and then raise the ax high above his head, in an arc, bringing it down precisely and splitting the log in half with a very satisfying clop sound that delighted me. The rhythm and the gracefulness of his labors were mesmerizing, as was the flex-and-relaxation of his knotted muscles as he transitioned from one movement to the next. It was like watching an athlete in his prime playing his favorite sport.
“Why are you chopping wood?” I asked.
“Because Summer doesn’t last forever,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “I mean, why are you chopping wood right now? Can’t it wait?”
“I need something for my hands to do,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are anxious,” he said. “And I am anxious.”
To my surprise, I heard whimpering coming from behind the shed.
“Damn,” Harry said. “I forgot to let the dogs out.” He finally looked up at me, his dark eyes uneasy and never staying on me for long. “Could you go let the dogs out? They won’t bite.”
“Okay,” I said, walking toward the shed. “Seems a little late in the day to be letting them out.”
“Better late than never,” he said.
“I guess it is,” I muttered, thinking more about my own marital situation than that of the dogs.
The shed was made of tin siding and a metal roof. It was long and low. Around its backside there was a big pen walled with wire mesh. Inside it I saw five dogs looking at me, their tongues dangling excitedly.
“Hey guys,” I said, nervously.
They all stood up, crowding the pen door.
“Hold on a second,” I said.
Taking a deep breath, I went to the door and unlatched its hook, letting it swing open. I barely stepped out of the way before the dogs came hurling out, one after the other. Only the last one—a golden Labrador— had difficulties. He ran his shoulder into the door and bounded off. He shook his head, briefly, and, without another thought, ran after the other dogs, unfazed.
Watching them was like watching a cartoon. There were dogs with shaggy hair on their ears and ankles. One was white with red spots and the other was white with black spots. Wherever one lifted his leg and peed, the other was sure to come do the same after his discolored twin had left. It was a ceaseless struggle of conquest and reclamation. I had never seen two dogs so obsessed with urinating on things.
As for the golden Labrador, he was all abundant energy. He ran into everything, so overexcited was he. He dove right into the lake, coming out drenched and slick-footed. He slipped on the grass and slid into a tree, bouncing off of it like a hockey puck. He took a moment to shake off the shock, then went running again, heedless of caution. I did not know if he was half-dumb or just extremely reckless. Maybe he was drunk on clumsiness. Or joy. His bright blue eyes were radiant with happiness.
The other two dogs were as different as two dogs could be. One was a large sheepdog with the shaggiest white fur I had ever seen. Racing under him and weaving between his paws was a little black-backed, brown-faced terrier with a long gray beard hanging from his little chin. He was the size of a puppy. Part of the hair on his head covered one eye so he could only see out of the other eye; like a cyclops. Whenever he yipped at something— a squirrel or a chipmunk— the sheepdog bellowed at it, too. I could see that the terrier was the leader of the group.
Eventually, however, the dogs all converged on me, sniffing and sticking their snouts up at me and wanting to be petted. I returned to Harry while my entourage followed me, nosy, but not annoying in their attentions.
“They like me,” I said.
“They like everyone,” he said.
“What are their names?”
Harry let his ax fall on one last cylinder of wood, the two halves flinging themselves to either side of the stump. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief and regarded the dogs with a frown.
“The two Brittanys are named Rebel and Yankee,” he said, pointing at the red-and-white dogs. “The sheepdog is named Boomer and the little dog ordering him around is Bunyan.”
“Bunyan?” I said. “As in Paul Bunyan?”
“He thinks he is bigger than the other dogs,” Harry explained.
The golden Labrador was running at high velocity again. He slipped on the wet grass and went sliding into the stump. He hopped up, as if nothing had happened, and continued racing after Yankee and Rebel.
“What is his name?” I asked.
“Buster,” he said.
I nodded. “Because he busts his nose on everything.”
“That,” Harry said, “and because he can bust your head if he knocks your feet out from under you.”
“Sounds like you’ve had that happen before.”
Harry wiped the sweat from his forehead again. “More times than I would like to admit.”
I giggled. It was the first time I had giggled in a very long time. Watching the dogs chase each other around made me happy. While in the city I never had a dog for our apartment. Kurt did not allow it. But here there were five dogs, all with personalities of their own. They were a pack of miscast brothers.
Harry rested his ax against the stump. He stooped down and picked up the wood blocks that he had chopped, throwing them toward the shed. He flung the halves without looking. They landed in a loosely scattered group next to a tree. I was afraid the dogs would think he was playing a game of Fetch and run after the logs and so get hit by the other logs somersaulting across the yard. But they were too busy chasing something invisible to care about what Harry was doing.
After Harry had thrown all of the chopped wood, he walked to the shed and began ricking the wood up between the tree and the shed. He stooped and he stacked, one splintered loaf in each of his large hands. He fit them atop each other to form a sturdy wall. It looked like he was walling himself inside.
“Looks like you are caging yourself,” I said.
“Sometimes I think it would be better if I did,” he said. He did not wear gloves as he ricked the wood and I wondered if he was the type of man who could have had a toothpick-sized splinter in his hand for a week without paying any attention to it. Like a true lumberjack. I remembered the pleasantly rough touch of his fingertips on my nipples and felt myself quiver.
When he had finished, Harry stepped out from behind the wall. He was glistening even more now, as if he was liquid bronze.
“I need to take a shower,” he said. “And go to sleep.”
“It’s the middle of the day,” I said.
“I wasn’t able to sleep last night,” he said. “Because you were in my bed.”
I scoffed. “Excuse me for being a lost, wounded woman.”
“But,” he said, ignoring me, “I can sleep safely during the day. There is food in the fridge, if you are hungry. Just don’t burn down my house using the stove.”
“I know how to cook,” I said.
He turned away and went toward the cabin. At the door he paused, as if he might say something. Instead, he shook his head and opened the door, disappearing inside.
I had to fight the urge to go join him in the shower. The thought of his fingers tracing my body in the hot water tantalized me. But then I thought about what he had said and something in his words struck me as odd.
“What did he mean by safely?”
The hours went by slowly, and I savored their freedoms. I moved a wicker chair from the porch and set it next to the lake. I sat by those mirrored waters and enjoyed the peace and the silence of a fine Summer’s day, letting myself think on nothing except the ambiance of the glade. Even the dogs calmed down and laid next to me, their heads resting on their forepaws.
I had always been a city girl— it was true— and I wondered at the modest marvels of the country: the trees and the birdsong and the unpeopled solitude of leaf and grass and water and sky. A tension in my chest, which I had never noticed until now, relaxed. It was like a tightly bound bud opening its soft petals, or a ball of tightly packed snow melting into a warm puddle and then evaporating. I felt open. I felt limpid. I felt free.
The sun descended like a slow droplet of burning hot gold that broke over the treed horizon and spilled in a dazzling, fiery liquid among the foliage. The sky cooled and twilight came, dropping its dark purple curtain over the forest and the lake and the cabin. Frogs croaked and crickets shrilled their tiny violin music in cascading cadences. Their music was pleasant, even in its multitude. Whereas a single cricket would have driven me mad, the overlapping notes of countless crickets lulled me like a chaotic symphony that reconciled to an organic harmony unlike any I had ever heard in the city.
I could not imagine the city. It seemed like some tenuous ghost beyond the trees, buried below the horizon, its noises and sights and sounds and smells nothing more than the phantasmal residues of an estranged life I no longer knew. Nor did I think I could ever want to live in the city again, or anywhere that reminded me of my old life with my husband Kurt. Let all amongst the past slough off the bone and decay.
My enchantment was suddenly broken, however, when the dogs all raised their heads at once in alertness. Following their eyes, I saw a dark figure flying over the lake. It looked like a crow, or perhaps a raven. I could not tell from the distance. Being the city girl I was, I probably would not have been able to tell the difference if it rested on my shoulder.
The shadowy bird alighted on an oak tree overlooking the lake. The lullaby sounds of the lake and the forest fell to an unusual silence, like the court of a king after a jester had told a particularly off-color joke. Perched there, high on that branch, the mischievous bird disrupted the peace and quiet by cawing. I had never heard the cawing of a crow or raven before, and the coarse-throated sound was not unlike a harsh cynic’s laughter. Turning its head to the left and to the right, the shadowy bird seemed to be looking at me. But I supposed that when you were the only human in any area it likely seemed that all animals were keenly interested in you. That was just the egocentrism of our species.
The shadowy bird took flight again, disappearing into the forest and I thought no more about it until the dogs all rose to their feet and went rushing off toward the trees. I didn’t know if I should call them back or not, nor did I know if they would listen to me if I did.
“Buster!” I called. “Bunyan! Boomer! Rebel! Yankee!”
They did not spare me a backward glance. All five dogs disappeared into the woods. Fearful that they might get lost, or hurt, I contemplated whether I should go fetch Harry and tell him. Then again, he did not tell me to return them to their pen before nightfall. Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure I could return them to their pen. They could have ignored me and had a boys’ night out all night long.
Not wanting to wake up Harry, I decided to call for the dogs again. To my surprise, they came bounding out of the woods, tails wagging happily. They turned about immediately, however, instead of coming to me, and waited, watching something in the woods with rapt excitement.
The figure came out of the woods and headed toward me with what looked like a swagger. The dogs circled around him happily, and from the distance I thought that he might be Harry coming back from a walk. He had not told me he was awake, but I was so lost to the tranquility of the glade that he could have easily snuck away for a long walk in the woods to brood and sulk by himself in the shadows.
But that swagger was not Harry. Harry had a rustic charm, but he was not possessed of, or possessed by, this devil-may-care strut. When I saw that the stranger was dressed head to toe in nocturnal black I knew for certain he was not Harry. His boots, his pants, his shirt— they were all shimmering black like a deep, dark well of oil. Over his clothes he wore a long black duster. His black hair was tied back in a ponytail, like Harry’s, but his face was smooth and devoid of stubble. His face was also darker than Harry’s. While I knew that Harry was partly Native American—a “half-breed” as he had said—this man was unmistakably full-blooded. He also looked like one of those Las Vegas magicians: the ones that performed with scantily clad Goth girls in black makeup and spider-themed corsets.
At first I thought him an older man, but as he neared me his face assumed a young, impish smile that transfigured his whole mien into a vibrant youthfulness. I would have been nervous meeting another stranger coming out of the woods, but the dogs followed him like an old friend. I hoped their trust was not misplaced.
“Laughs-At-Stars is not awake?” the man said. His smile was friendly, but there seemed mockery at its curling corners. Yankee and Rebel were on either side of him, and he petted each with an absent-minded hand.
“Laughs at stars?” I repeated, confused.
“Harold,” the young man said.
“Oh!” I said. “I think he is still asleep.”
Naturally, as soon as I said that, the door opened and Harry came walking out; bleary-eyed and grumpy-looking. He was dressed only in a pair of denim jeans.
“I had not expected you today,” he said to the young man. “You could have given me a warning.”
The young man’s smile never waned or flat-lined, his dark eyes flashing like fireflies. “Where is the fun in warnings?” he said.
“Even a smoke signal would suffice,” Harry said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. He was probably just being sarcastic.
“Smoke signals are only fun if they come from wildfires,” the stranger said. “Because there is nothing funnier than trees signaling their hatred of each other as they burn. Death makes everything more honest. Trees. Dogs. People.”
Harry looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. He grumbled and sighed. “You should go put the dogs up,” he said.
I was too outraged by his presumptuous tone to be mindful of the stranger that had recently arrived.
“You should learn to phrase that as a polite request,” I said, “while using the word ‘please’.”
The black-suited stranger chuckled and Harold scowled at me. I knew my scowl was ten-times worse than his, however, and so he relented.
“Could you please put the dogs up?” he said.
“I can try,” I said. I called to the dogs and, to my surprise, they hurriedly followed me toward the shed. As I turned the corner, I overheard the stranger mocking Harry for being “brought to heel”. Perhaps this stranger was not so humorless as Harry.
“Watch out,” the stranger said, “or she may well cage you.”
Harry growled. “Shut up, you old eye-plucker…”
The dogs went into the pen without fuss, following their small leader, Bunyan. When all five dogs had gone in, the small black-and-brown terrier turned to me and barked as if he was giving me the order to close the pen’s door.
“Don’t get too big for your fur,” I told him.
I latched the door and then walked around the shed. Harry and the stranger were still talking. When Harry saw me, he pointed at the shed.
“They need to be fed,” he said.
I stood there, arms crossed, hips hung up to one side. Immovable.
Harry sighed. “Could you please feed my dogs?”
I nodded curtly and went into the shed. The black-clad stranger was still beaming his mischievous smile. It was hard to believe someone could smile so much, especially when Harry’s gloomy grumpiness was like a somber thunderhead always anchored nearby. Paradoxically, the stranger was dressed like night and beamed sunshine with his smile, whereas Harry had the sun baked into his bronzed skin and yet his dark gaze was like a face frowning out from a dark cave. They were complementary souls, it seemed.
The shed was larger than I previously presumed. It was more like a barn than some suburbanite’s tool shed. There was a push-mower inside, and several red canisters for gasoline and kerosene. Farming tools hung on the walls, neatly categorized by their blades and spades and forks. In one corner I found several bulky bags of dog food. There was a bucket next to them, obviously intended to be used to carry the food out to the dogs. There was no hope of me lifting and pouring a full bag of the dog food by myself. Luckily, there was one bag that was mostly empty, but full enough to fill the bucket with what remained. I squatted over this bag and wrestled with it like it was an unwieldy, stubborn sheep that needed shearing. Finally I dumped it into the bucket. Grunting, I carried the bucket out to the dog pen. I opened the door, stepped inside and filled the dog dishes until the bucket was empty. The dogs all ate their food hungrily. Only Rebel and Yankee quarreled, each one fighting over the same dish even though each dog had a dish of his own. I wondered if they bickered in the womb as well. I had never heard of twins fighting so much.
I returned the bucket to the shed. As I turned to leave I noticed a set of stairs that led down into the earth. Curious, I peered down that dark run and saw in its murky depths a door at the bottom. I carefully descended the steep steps, holding onto the rails that lined that corridor’s walls. Reaching the mysterious door, I tried turning its steel knob. It would not turn. The door was locked. I rapped on the door with my fist and found that it was heavily reinforced door with thick, corrugated steel. A bull could not have rammed it down without losing its horns.
The door intrigued me. It had a small window around which the welded steel bound tightly. I stood on my tip-toes to get a better view through the window, but I could not see much. What I could see were shelves full of large quantities of foodstuffs. The foodstuffs were piled high, either on shelves or on each other, like hodgepodge pyramids. Cans of beans, bags of rice, gallons of cooking lard. There was enough food to last a year without setting foot outside the bunker. The strangest things I saw within the bunker, though, were a series of chains hanging from the ceiling. I just assumed they were used for “meat” and left it at that. The hooks dangling from them looked viciously sharp.
I stood there a while, in the shadows of the earth, and thought about what my friends from the city would think of Harry and his cabin and his bunker. The women would be greedy-eyed for certain, but also paranoid that he was a serial killer living out in the woods by himself. The men would be envious and jealous and probably just wish that he would develop malignant prostate cancer. Thinking about my friends, I realized I did not have any friends. They were Kurt’s friends, if I was honest about them, so the idea of never seeing them again did not bother me. They were just more ashes upon the pyre of my previous life; just more baggage to chuck in the incinerator, alongside my memories.
I supposed if Harry was crazy, then being crazy about food supplies and nuclear holocausts was not altogether as bad as some of the other things people were crazy about in the city: like fashion trends and pumpkin spice lattes. I had met enough “artists” who fancied themselves as such solely because they knew how to paint a white canvas white. Unfortunately, their madness was a pandemic and so many people bought into that craze, including curators and fine art collectors and the museum-going masses as a whole. Having been traditionally trained as a figure painter, it all seemed the plague of the season to me.
I returned upstairs and left the shed.
“You’re welcome,” I told Harry as I rejoined them.
“Thank you,” he said, gruffly.
The stranger’s smile continued, unfaltering. It was like a mask, so inexhaustible was its amiable expression.
“I believe I have a name for her,” the stranger said. He gestured with his hand, as if bestowing a great gift “From now forward she shall be known as ‘Bites-With-Words’.”
Harry scoffed. “River-Tongue would be more appropriate,” he said, “since it just runs on and on.”
“Neutered-Dog-Cries-A-Lot will be yours,” I quipped, “if you don’t stop provoking me.” I turned to the stranger. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to offend you by making light of your culture.”
“No one can offend me,” the stranger said. “I am the spirit of offensiveness.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” I extended my hand for a handshake. I knew Harry was never going to introduce us. “My name is Madeline.”
The stranger’s eyes darted toward Harry, then back to me. He shook my hand. “You can call me…Corvus,” he said.
I could not hide my disbelief. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I did not see you as a ‘Corvus’. I just assumed you would have a more…”
“A more Native American name?” Corvus said. “I do. But there is no fun in simply telling it to you. Besides, Corvus is my English name. Or my Latin name, to be accurate.”
I looked to Harry for further elaboration. Harry just shook his head.
“How did you come to assume the role of Harold’s tamer?” Corvus asked.
I began to stammer an account about my flight through the woods, but Harry interrupted me.
“She is staying with me until a personal storm blows over,” he said. “That’s all anyone needs to know about it.”
Harry did not look very happy saying this. In fact, he only accepted it with what seemed a grim resignation. His lips moved begrudgingly, as if mutinous against the words he spoke.
“Well,” Corvus said, “you should both learn to play nice and make the most of it. Be civil. Enjoy each other’s company.”
Harry shot Corvus a fulgurous glare, to which his black-clad friend merely grinned. Corvus then turned to me.
“Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asked.
I could not help but smile. “So you are a magician,” I said. “I mean, just by the way you dressed I kind of figured. Like one of those Las Vegas magicians.”
“I’m no magician,” he said, “but I have been to Las Vegas. I grew up around there. Even before there was a Las Vegas.”
That confused me, but I assumed he was just teasing me, so I teased him back.
“Are you edgy?” I asked. “You know, one of those ‘death-defying’ kind of magicians?”
He chuckled. “More like the ‘death-defining’ kind,” he said. “Nevermore.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that, and I didn’t ask. He raised his hands above his head, reaching skyward. Through the twilight the first stars were beginning to shine. The dog star, Sirius, was the brightest in the sky, and Corvus’s hands enveloped the star, clasping it between his palms. He then lowered his hands and extended them out to me, opening them palm-up. There, in the center of his hands, was a twinkling light, like a star.
Dumbfounded, I reached toward his hands. Before I could touch the light, however, he closed his hands and opened them again. There, in place of a star, was a little button-sized light such as what you might put on your key-chain.
“Fooled you,” Corvus said, smiling.
I gasped, then laughed in relief. “Yeah, you fooled me,” I said.
Harry was not laughing. He looked unnerved, actually.
“I’ve gotten every lady with that trick,” Corvus said. “Maybe I should be a Las Vegas magician. Imagine the audiences I could reach with my…trickeries.”
“Maddie,” Harry said suddenly. “Could you go inside and get something for us to drink. The glasses are in the cabinet above the sink.”
I felt my anger flare at the idea of being employed like a servant, but Harry immediately said, “Please” with the strangest pleading tone.
I nodded and then headed toward the cabin. Going inside, I found my way to the kitchen. It was the first time I had been in the kitchen. Like the other rooms in the cabin, it was functional, but lacked a woman’s touch. There was a refrigerator, a sink, cabinets, dishes, and a pantry, but no aesthetics whatsoever. The kitchen occupied the corner of the log cabin and had a long line of windows offering a vista upon the lake. I opened a window, to let the twilight breeze in, and then found the glasses. I filled them with water from the tap and turned to leave. Before I did, however, I caught the sound of Harry chiding Corvus, their voices faintly traveling through the open window. Standing next to the windows, I listened to their conversation.
“I do not care if she is a naive city girl,” Harry said. “You shouldn’t trifle with her. She would not be welcome in our world.”
Corvus’s voice was as cool and confident as ever. “You seem to trust her enough to let her enjoy your hospitality.” He pronounced the latter word like it was the punchline of a joke.
“That was a moment of weakness,” Harry said, clearly upset. “I wish I hadn’t done it. I was just…”
“Lonely?” Corvus suggested.
Harry growled something unintelligible from the distance. “You need to go. The Dark-Dreamer may come soon.”
“I am not afraid of him,” Corvus said, casually. “Stars are my play-things. And you, you are Laughs-At-Stars. Never forget that. It is your gift.”
“It is my curse,” Harry said. “Goodbye. Be careful.”
“I would rather be joyful,” Corvus said. “And I wish you would, too. You have a long life ahead of you, and it will be much harder with all of your self-loathing.”
“I had a long life behind me,” Harry said. “Which is why I feel no optimism for what lies ahead. The Dark Dreamer continues to haunt me. Even dead, he preys on me. And if she is here, he will prey on her as well.”
“I believe he would regret that immensely,” Corvus said. “Bites-With-Words won’t tolerate his nonsense anymore than she does yours. She will put both of you in your place. For the better.”
I could not see them from inside the kitchen. The windows did not extend around to that wall. Yet, I thought I heard the flapping of wings and coarse-throated laughter.
As I walked toward the outer door of the cabin I could not help but think back to when Corvus showed me the star in his hands. It may have been a little electronic light, but that did not explain why the dog star, Sirius, was no longer in the sky.
Harry met me at the door. He took one of the glasses I held in my hand. He pressed its cold, condensating crystal against his forehead. Then he drank from it, in one long swig, until the glass was empty.
“Corvus had to go,” he said, simply. “I will make supper.”
Without another word, he went into the kitchen and started cooking. I would have offered to help him, but I was still peeved with him for calling me a “naive city girl”. It seemed that he could not help but fight with me, even when he wasn’t aware that I was listening to him.
I went into the living room and rifled through his books. The wall was lined with shelves stuffed with both paperbacks and hardbacks; books thick and thin. He had quite the collection. Not surprising me in the least, there were many books on Native American mythology and folktales. His history books were numerous, too, and there were even a few art books to appreciate, mostly concerned with Native American art and symbols. There were also the usual “boy books”, like War And Peace, Moby Dick, and 1984. But just as numerous as these books were “girl books” such as Jane Eyre, The Waves, and Pride And Prejudice. Harry really was an enigma that I could not yet solve.
So many books to choose from! I had a hard time deciding which to read. My fingers skipped sideways along the spines until I randomly snatched a thin volume of short stories out from the crammed multitude. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was one of my favorite short story collections. I had not read it since college.
Sitting down on the cold leather couch, I read for an hour or so— of beasts wearing the masks of men, of women daring the dangers of a bloody chamber, of a little girl with a large appetite. I read until Harry came into the living room. He brought with him a platter from which wisps of steam trailed. He set the platter on the coffee table and then sat down himself— on the far end of the couch, away from me. There were two handmade ceramic plates on the platter, each one heaped with what looked like a steak and a helping of vegetables.
“You have a very eclectic collection of books,” I remarked.
He grunted and unceremoniously began to eat.
Undeterred, I pressed on. “I am surprised that a man like you would be interested in the Brontes. And Woolf, of all people.”
“I am interested in the human condition,” he said, chewing.
“So you’re an existential philosopher type, huh?” I said.
He did not look up from his food, his profile somewhat wolfish as he stooped and dipped over his plate. “Whatever reminds me of what it means to be human,” he said.
This was not the elaboration I expected, and so I left off the conversation and began to eat, if only to better digest what he had meant. The food he had cooked was not bad. It was an odd sort of steak, strangely seasoned, and possessed of a different texture and consistency than the steaks I had occasionally eaten in the city. There was a small grouping of steamed vegetables, alongside a corncob that dripped lightly with melted butter. It was a satisfying meal: basic, to the point, and unpretentious, like Harry himself..
“What did you season the steak with?” I asked.
“Pepper,” he said.
“Pepper?” I said. “But it tastes very different than the steak I’ve eaten before.”
“It is venison,” he said.
“Is that an Italian style of steak?” I asked.
He looked up at me, as if startled. He swallowed, frowning. “Venison is deer,” he said.
I literally smacked my forehead with my palm. “Duh.”
“A city-girl,” he said to himself, shaking his head.
“Oh shut up,” I said.
We ate in silence for the next few minutes. Harry finished before I did. He had more or less breathed the food down his throat. I watched the muscles of his neck flex and relax with each swallowed bite. When he had finished, he went to the kitchen again and returned with another plateful. I assumed it took a lot of food to keep his muscles fed.
When I had finished eating, I set my plate on the platter and stood up. “Thanks for the meal. I am going to bed.”
“That would be best,” he said.
It was not the response I expected. He did not wheedle or try to worm his way into joining me, which was aggravating. I wanted him to follow me, if only so I could close the door in his face for calling me a naive city-girl. But he just sat there and kept eating, depriving me of my little, petty revenge.
I went to the bathroom and used Harry’s toothbrush to clean my teeth. His toothpaste was no-nonsense baking soda mint. There was mouthwash, which I gargled, and a hairbrush, which I used to smooth my hair. Beside towels and his no-nonsense soap, there really wasn’t much else in the bathroom. The bathroom was clean, however, and practical. It seemed like such a man’s bathroom. Not a woman’s touch anywhere to be seen. The toilet seat was, naturally, up.
Going into the bedroom, I glanced down the hall— only once— to see what Harry was doing. I heard the clatter of plates. He must have been cleaning up. I should have probably helped, since I was gorging on his hospitality, but he had been gruff with me all day, even when I was trying to be friendly with him, and so I let it be. I stripped my clothes off and laid on the bed, unabashedly bare-breasted. The door was open and I expected Harry to pass by and see me sitting up in bed, half-naked. He did, eventually, his shadow stretched long by the light spilling in from the hallway. But instead of coming in, he stood there a moment, looking at me, our eyes locked and unblinking. Then he took hold of the door and, to my utter irritation, closed it without so much as a “Good Night”.
CHAPTER 2 NEW SKINS
The next morning I was awoken by birdsong. Rising from bed, I went to the bedroom window and looked out upon the dawn. The sun had not yet risen above the trees and there was a tangerine, cherry, and plum dessert spilled across the sky. It made me hunger for a fine wine, or maybe just some sherbert.
I put on Harry’s baggy shirt and went to the living room. Harry was sitting on the couch, drinking coffee and reading a book. He tossed the book aside before I could see what it was.
“I…” He suddenly looked away from me, frowning. He kept his eyes affixed on some point past me. “I have extra clothes for you. Clothes for women, I mean. If you want them.”
“Sure,” I said, “but why do you have women’s clothes?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “And I don’t feel like sharing.”
“You aren’t a serial killer, are you, Harry?”
I said it mockingly, but also to nudge him into an explanation. Instead, he huffed and he puffed and he became visibly consternated. “I used to live with someone,” he said. “Or someone used to live with me. She left. That’s all you need to know.”
My poker face had never been good, but I tried to look as impassive as possible. “Why did she leave?”
He pointed at my wedding band. I had forgotten that I was still wearing it. “Why did you leave your husband?”
“Because he was abusive,” I said, trying to work the ring loose from my finger. It would not slip off, but clung like a leech. “And controlling. And because he took credit for my hard work.”
“Well, pick any of those and it should be just as sufficient a reason why she left me.”
His muscles were tense in his T-shirt. A vein throbbed in his forehead. He was obviously upset at having to talk about this mysterious woman. But I couldn’t help thinking that he was slandering himself. Kurt would have never admitted guilt of anything, especially the worst things that he did to me. That was his modus operandi: guilt without regret or admission. He would have been likely to shoot someone dead and then blame them for stepping in front of the bullet. Harry did not seem to be like that sort of person. He was too given to brooding and self-loathing to miss an opportunity for either. Nor did I think I had anything to fear from him. Still, I wondered if he was the type that had much to fear from himself. Melancholy. Depression. Self-harm. Suicide. He lived alone out in the woods, like a hermit, and he had five dogs with the personalities of Looney Tunes characters. Perhaps he was mentally ill. Perhaps he both wanted and hated the company of other people. A sad, lonely misanthrope. That might have been why his friend, Corvus, came by yesterday: to check on him. He probably checked on him often, if only to make sure he had not done himself harm.
“Her clothes should fit you,” he said. “She was about your size.”
He walked up the staircase, heading to the second storey. I could see him on the open-floored balcony, going into a room behind the wooden sculpture of the woman holding her arms out to the sky. I realized I had not been upstairs yet. It was not unexpected, I supposed, since the cabin was as much a mansion as any house of equal size, even if it was made of logs. There were rooms that Harry himself likely never but rarely went into.
When Harry returned downstairs, he was carrying a big plastic container. It was the size of a coffin, but his burly arms hauled it with ease. He lowered it to the floor, then popped off its top. Inside were crammed several colorful clothes: dresses, shorts, shirts, socks, undergarments, bras. Everything I could need for a Summer vacation. There was even a pair of white shoes, which I needed since I couldn’t wear wedges all of the time.
“She just left all of this stuff here?” I asked, astonished.
“She didn’t need them anymore,” he said.
That perturbed me, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I dug through the clothing, found a pair of panties, a dress (light green with little white daisies on it), and a pair of low-cut socks.
“All clean?” I asked.
“Haven’t been touched since she left,” he said.
I nodded and started to walk to the bedroom to change. Harry called out to me. He was holding up a bra.
“You need this, too,” he said.
“Not today,” I said. “There’s no point. It would just make me hot in the heat.”
He grumbled, but I ignored him. Into the bedroom I went. I took off Harry’s large shirt and boxers, then slipped on the panties, the socks and the green daisy dress. When I came out of the bedroom, Harry was already outside. Putting on the white shoes, I went out there, too, though I had no idea what to do with myself.
“I’m going to let the dogs out,” I said, if only to do something. I walked around to the other side of the shed and unlatched the door to the pen. They all came out in an excited rush: Bunyan, Boomer, Rebel, Yankee, and, lastly, Buster. Buster managed to leave the pen without hurting himself this time, but as soon as the dogs all began running like crazed…well, like crazed dogs…he plowed into the shed and ricocheted off, slowing a little, but nonetheless tenacious in his compulsion to chase the others. Eventually the crazed pack stopped weaving around one another and followed me, sniffing at me and nipping at my hands for attention.
I found Harry on the other side of the cabin, where long rows of crops and vegetables grew. He was walking through his tall stalks of corn, barely visible among their clutter. The dogs glimpsed him among the stalks and bounded for him.
“Out!” he shouted at them. “Out! You know you’re not supposed to play here!”
The dogs were undaunted, shooting in and out of those flappy green leaves like children playing Tag. The corn quivered and shook like angry adults powerless to correct someone else’s misbehaving children. It would have been a delightful scene if Harry was not so sulky.
Suddenly, Buster rushed into the fray, eager for play, and the next thing I knew I heard Harry shout, Buster yelp, and saw the two of them tumbling to the ground, Harry sprawled out with one leg on top of the Labrador. I ran toward them, worried that they were both dead.
“Harry?” I called.
Buster stirred and crawled out from beneath Harry’s leg. He leaned over Harry and licked his face. Harry sat up and shook out his ponytail. Dirt fell from it like fairy dust.
“Buster,” he growled. “You have to calm down and look where you’re going. Do you understand?”
The Labrador was smiling, his face all obliviousness and his eyes completely ignorant of anything other than how much he loved Harry. He licked Harry one more time, then took off after the other dogs, as if the accident had never happened.
“Of course he doesn’t understand,” Harry grumbled. “He’s a damn dog.”
As I bent over to help Harry up, Harry looked everywhere but my dress. It was somewhat small on my chest. The rest of it fit well enough, though. I couldn’t understand why he was being such a prude. He had seen everything already.
“And that is why I call him Buster,” he said, dusting off his jeans. “I used to wrestle with all of the dogs, but Buster would get too excited and jump up and head-butt me. That’s why I stopped. That, and Yankee and Rebel would get carried away and start biting for blood.”
“Yankee and Rebel have appropriate names, then,” I said.
“They do,” Harry said. “But I didn’t name them. That was Corvus’s doing. He has a fondness for the Civil War.”
“He must be a history buff,” I said.
“He is,” Harry said. “In many ways. But I think he likes the Civil War for what it represents. Brother fighting brother. Uncle fighting nephew. And all for the sake of ending injustices. Though it really didn’t end them. The cruelties and the war just continued on, out of sight, in the shadows…where all nightmares dwell.”
There was a faraway look in Harry’s dark eyes. He was staring at something in the woods, or perhaps the crowded woods of his memory. I could not blame him for getting lost in that forest. Phantoms always lurked there, in memory, and they confronted you when you least expected them; ambushing you from the underbrush that you wish you could burn away with gasoline and a match.
“Are you hungry?” he suddenly asked.
“I could eat some breakfast,” I said.
“Come on, then,” he said.
I followed him inside, going into the kitchen. There was a loaf of bread cooking in the oven. On the stovetop there was a sweetly smelling pot of oatmeal simmering. Harry fetched a plate for me, took out the loaf of bread, split it in two, took one half for himself and gave the other half to me. He then spooned a heaping of the oatmeal onto my plate and poured a glass of milk for me.
“I’m not a child, you know,” I said. “I can make my own plate.”
“Excuse my hospitality,” he grumbled. Chewing on his bread, he went outside again, leaving me alone to my food.
I rummaged in the drawers and found a spoon, then began eating the porridge. It did not taste like oatmeal. It was nuttier, and sweet. He may have mixed molasses and honey with it. It did not look like oatmeal, either, now that I was spooning it into my mouth. It looked more like couscous.
I ate what I could of the mystery porridge and put the remainder of my bowl in the refrigerator, not wanting to waste it. I downed all of the milk and brushed my teeth. Going outside to walk off the heavy breakfast, I found Harry once again among the corn stalks. He sounded like he was talking to himself.
“Praise the three sisters,” he muttered. “Praise them for plentitude.”
I felt like I was walking in on someone’s moment of prayer, and became embarrassed. Harry was visibly startled when he saw me.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” I said, sheepishly.
He just shrugged. His arms were full of green ears of corn.
“Are you going to water your crops?” I asked.
“They have had plenty of rain,” he said. “I do not wish to ruin them with excess.”
“Oh,” I said. My ignorance about plants was overwhelming now that I was confronted by it. Having lived in the city my whole life, I had never needed to know how to do anything other than work a job and earn money to buy the things I needed. I had never had to grow my own food. Yet, I felt a keen interest in learning how to now. “Could you…could you teach me about this stuff? I mean, it’s not like I have anything else to do today.”
I could not tell if Harry was insulted or amused. After a few moments of consideration, his frown deepened. “Perhaps,” he said.
Over the next hour or so Harry guided me through his crops, telling me when to plant them, and how to tend them, and when to harvest them. I found it all very fascinating, even if I did confuse the sowing and the harvesting times and couldn’t remember exactly how to plant each vegetable and grain. The truth was that I did not retain much of any of the information Harry rattled off. I was too busy watching his face as he spoke about farming. He underwent a lovely transformation. There came a glow to his otherwise dark eyes; a vibrant luminosity that hinted at happiness and contentedness. I wanted that glow to grow, like one of Harry’s seeds, and blossom in his handsome face. How charming he would be, I thought, if he was not brooding all of the time like a thundercloud.
I happened to see several tall green plants clustering around the forest-side of Harry’s crops. They had clusters of green grains growing at the tops of their stems, which reminded me of wheat, but they also had big green leaves arrayed around their stalks.
“What are these big green plants there?”I asked. “They look like big weeds.”
“Some people call them weeds,” Harry said. “Farmers call them pigweeds. But their leaves are edible, if cooked properly, and the grains are better for humans than most of the grains that people in America eat. No gluten. High protein. High fiber and iron. The plant is also resistant to droughts and grows very competitively and fast.”
“If it’s so good, why don’t farmers grow it for food?”
“Because it can be toxic if not properly cooked.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
Harry shrugged. “Native Americans have always eaten it. You ate it this morning.”
My eyes widened in shock. “That porridge? You gave me poisonous porridge?!”
“Not poisonous,” he said. “Amaranth is not poisonous if properly prepared. It is no different than eating venison or any other homegrown vegetables, or anything for that matter. Meat and vegetables can be deadly if you do not cook them properly. Anything born of the earth inherits dark dreams.”
My mind was racing to keep apace with him, especially after the gut-blow revelation about the poisonous food I ate that morning. “Dark dreams, Harry? What are you talking about?”
“Bacteria, if you prefer,” he said. “It is all semantics. Vicious microscopic animals from the darkness of the soil. Dark dreams from the sleeping earth. They can kill anyone foolish enough not to burn them with light.”
I watched Harry’s face for any tick or even the slightest minutiae to indicate that he was playing a joke on me— that he was teasing me or testing me. But his frown was carven wood. He was serious.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Harry,” I said slowly, “but I think being out here alone has made you crazy.”
His face did not change by a single wrinkle of irritation or crease of amusement or crack of doubt. The serious stoic mask remained, resolute in its grimness.
“Sometimes I wish I was crazy,” he said evenly. “But it is not my lot in life. Instead, the world is crazy. Most people simply do not know how crazy it is.”
I ran my fingers through my hair, rubbing my scalp and trying to understand what was wrong with him. He had a psychological problem. A neurosis, perhaps, or maybe even a psychosis. Did he have to take medication to treat it? Did he have a ton of that medication in his bunker in case he needed it?
I suddenly remembered the conversation he had with Corvus.
“Harry,” I said, “who…or what…is the Dark Dreamer?”
It was like a thunderbolt struck him, head to toe. He was silent and still for a long time after I had said it; a stone statue promising no movement, come tornado or earthquake or even supernova. When he finally spoke, it was haltingly. “Do not say…say that name…or bad things will happen.”
“What do you mean? Who is the Dark—”
“Shut up!” he shouted. His bronze skin flared redder and his dark eyes blazed with a livid fire. “Do not say it! Never say it! Especially at Night. You do not know what you would conjure in the lightless hours!”
“You act like I’m summoning the Devil,” I scoffed, trying not to stammer as his fear caught in me like a hook in my heart. I shrugged coolly, or attempted the affectation. “I’m not superstitious. And I’m not afraid. Dark Dreamer, Dark Dreamer, Dark Dream—”
He stepped forward and pressed his hand over my face, muffling me. I was going to pull free, but I saw the intensity of his eyes and so remained still. The scents of wood and soil from his hand were dizzying.
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I am sorry, Maddie,” he said, even as his hand remained over my mouth. “But you are trifling with what you do not understand. I do not warn you because I am playing with you. I am not Corvus. I do not play tricks on people or joke about things. And I am dead serious about this. If you keep saying it, I will throw you out. I will drive you out to the nearest town and drop you off. I don’t have many rules here, and I like to believe I have been very patient and open-handed with you, but if you continue to say…those words…my hospitality ends. My charity ends. Here and now. Do you understand?”
He waited until I nodded. Then he slowly removed his hand from my mouth, all the while eying me as if he suspected me to instantly break my vow. When a few moments of silence had passed between us, he sighed.
“I need to go to bed,” he said.
He immediately turned away from me and went inside.
I looked up at the blazing sun and began to fan myself. Perhaps, I thought, he was suffering from a slight heat stroke.
I went to the lake and sat down in the wicker chair once again. I noticed once again my wedding band, mocking me with its gleam.
“You don’t own me,” I said.
Over the next minute or so I gradually worked the ring off my finger. It was tight, like Kurt’s control over me, and it hurt, my finger bright red by the end of the struggle, but I was glad when I had finally forced the ring off. I was even more pleased with myself when I heard that lovely plop sound as the ring fell into the center of the lake and sank to the bottom.
Playing highschool softball was never something I regretted.
CHAPTER 3 THE DREAM, THE NIGHTMARE
I was walking across the clouds, their white sheep-like backs buoying my bare feet like thick, cool cotton. The sun was larger in the sky than usual, for it was closer, and so I felt the warmth of it living in my skin. I felt a sharp little pain in my heart, like a hard stone, and so sought it with my hand. Pressing inward with my fingertips, I found a seed embedded in my breast. Gently, I plucked it out and walked around that cloud island. In the center of a large nimbus I kneeled and kissed the seed, then planted it in a dark patch of fleece that promised rain. The seed grew quickly in the rainy patch, with the beams of the sun shining brightly upon it. A shoot appeared. It lengthened into a sapling. I spoke to it as it grew, and so it grew faster. I told it my heart’s desires and my simple satisfactions. Soon it grew to be a giant tree with a sprawling canopy of branches and foliage. It gave to me fruits and nuts and things that sustained me, bringing me the contentedness I yearned for.
When the sun became too warm, I sought the shade of that giant tree. Laying there, upon the cool clouds with the tree’s shade covering me, I felt at peace. I felt the satiation of a need which I had ignored for years and which was withering me from within, like termites in a vein of wood. I must have laid there for days, feeling no urges or wants or desires. I stood, at some point, and kissed the tree. It was my sheltering bosom. It was my great protector. It was all I needed; both in the wide heavens above and the far earth below.
I was happy.
But then paradise fell to ruin. I did not understand how. One moment I was blissfully contented and the next the sun was extinguished in the sky, plunging the cloud island into star-dotted darkness. I heard a hateful, howling shriek that made me tremble in fear. It sounded like a wolf and a hawk and a bear and every other animal with tooth and claw and talon that hungered for blood. A Hunter’s Moon glowed red in the sky, rendering the void around my refuge like darkly congealed blood. From this rotting blood there unfolded a thing that was neither man nor beast, but a nightmare made manifest in gaunt flesh. It loomed over me, stretched thin and tall and emaciated. It looked like a corpse, but its mouth was smeared with ichor, was ravenous and rabid, and sharp teeth lined its lipless gums. Its face was shriveled and decayed upon its skull, like meat left to rot on the forest floor.
But I recognized the face and to whom it belonged.
It was Kurt.
I ran as far as I could and came to the edge of the clouds. I saw the earth far below, the murky drop dizzying my senses and palpitating my heart. I could not force myself forward, and yet I could not go back. I was toe upon the edge and teetering. When Kurt reached me, his hands were so stretched and bony that they clasped me like willow branches, lifting me in the air. The stench of him made me retch, burning my nostrils and eyes. Howling in triumph, he brought me back to the tree in the clouds and pointed at it. His eyes glowed balefully.
“Whose tree grows here?” he asked.
Terrified, I looked at the tree and I saw a face in the bole of the wood where I had kissed it. It was a handsome face with a dark gaze and a gloomy expression. It was not my husband’s face.
“Not yours,” I said.
The shriveled, stretched thing that was my husband shrieked again. He then raised his withered mouth toward the bloody moon and fed on its succor, growing larger and thicker and stronger as the blood and the shadows of the darkness reigning above spilled down his gaping red gullet. I felt the shudder of ecstatic violence in the hand that held me. Soon he was taller than the tree. He held me aloft in one hand while he grabbed the tree in the other. Wrenching and roaring, he pulled and shoved the tree from side to side, loosening it from the cloud’s embankment. With a deafening shriek he uprooted the tree and threw it over the edge, into the void. I cried out in horror, my tears like cascading waterfalls upon my cheeks.
The thing that was once my husband set me down near the hole where my love once grew. Icy cold winds blew up from the hole, burning my eyes.
“All that’s left for you now,” Kurt said in his inhuman voice, “is the fall.”
He shoved me and I plunged through the frigid hole, plummeting toward the earth like a shooting star in want of landfall.
I awoke in the wicker chair, the lake before me and the dogs all around me. They were whimpering and licking my hands. My heart raced and my body trembled. Every systole and diastole resounded through my body like a cavernous collapse and explosion. When I tried to stand, the emotions of the dream returned like a storm of turmoil. Terror, regret, grief, and the longing for the peace and contentedness I had known, so briefly, all fell me like an Autumnal leaf by an errant gale, and I swooned back into the chair. Languid, I remained there for some time, letting my exhaustion and the malaise settle over me as a weighted net. As discomforting as it was, this stupefied torpidity was better than fighting its gravity. My distressed nerves were yet raw. I leaned my neck back and rested against the chair, my head lolling to the side. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of something golden in the woods. I turned to look at it directly, but saw nothing there. It almost looked like a bushy tail, but I knew no animal that looked like that. No animal was that large and golden and quick.
I did not move until Harry appeared. He still looked tired, despite his long nap, yet he had the gall to comment on my appearance.
“You look awful,” he said.
I could not even manage a glare. My face was as fatigued as the rest of me. The nerves had misplaced the muscles, and the muscles had misplaced the tendons. I could not raise my eyebrows, or wiggle my nose, nor even move my tongue. I felt utterly embalmed with exhaustion.
Seeing how listless I was, Harry scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the house. My eyes rolled up toward him as he carried me. I felt dreamy and faraway. I wanted to tell him about my dream, but I could not muster the energy. As he laid me in bed I realized that there was something wrong with me— more so than just a spell of fatigue.
“Your skin is cold,” he said, as if it was somehow my fault. He laid down beside me. “Like ice.”
He wrapped the wolf-skin blanket around both of us and hugged me close to him. I could feel the sun in his skin, burning hot, even as I saw the starry night in his eyes. His body warmed me and I felt myself emerging, gradually, from that cold fall that took me far into that nightmare and its plunging depths. My heart steadied its beat and my nerves were soothed, the warmth of his body a shamanic balm that suffused my frozen core.
I remained still and silent after I regained some of my strength, letting him hold me in his warm arms. He, too, remained silent and still, and I could not but marvel at how beautiful he was. His ponytail was undone and his long black hair had spilled around me. It was silky on my forehead and I cherished the soft caresses it made upon my skin. He was so beautiful when he was quiet. I would have laughed to think such a snarky thing any other time, but it was a profound truth in that moment, devoid of irony or insult. Silence suited him well, as it did any wonder of Nature.
He must have realized that I was feeling better because he eventually rose to his feet and went to the window. It was dark outside. Night had come. I wished that he would return to bed with me; that we should lay together in stillness and silence until the unmaking of the world.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
“You are feeling better,” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” I said, “and no. Come back to bed. Please.” I did not like sounding desperate, but I was desperate for his return.
He remained by the window. As I watched him, I didn’t know if he was staring out at the woods, or up in the night sky. He shook his head, his eyes intensely set on something beyond the window pane.
“You are feeling better,” he said again. “That is what matters.”
I sat up in bed. Since I did not faint, I tried rising to my feet. Standing, I felt a little woozy. I steadied myself on the totem post bed, then took a few steps toward the hallway. Feeling more confident, I went to the bathroom to obey Nature’s call. When I returned, Harry was not in the bedroom. Walking slowly down the hall, I found him in the kitchen, cooking a soup on the stovetop. It was aromatic with basil and tomato and garlic.
“That smells delicious,” I said.
“It has been simmering since I awoke this afternoon,” he said. “I had planned to serve it earlier, but then you had your…spell and I had to let it sit for a while.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what was wrong with me. I fell asleep and had a horrible dream. When I woke I was weak. I felt like I was dying.”
His back was to me as he stirred the pot. “What kind of dream did you have?”
“A nightmare about my husband,” I said. “Kurt.” It was the first time I had spoken his name to Harry. I felt a great dread at having said it, like it might conjure Kurt up out of thin air. Harry continued to stir the pot in smooth, gliding circles. Unaffected. “He was a monster,” I recounted. “He attacked me. Threw me from the clouds. After he tore a tree from it that I had planted from my own heart. It was a weird dream.”
The ladle paused for a moment, then continued its circles.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said. He took a bowl from the cabinets and ladled the soup into it. “Here.” He handed the bowl to me. The bowl was made of heavy ceramic and was cool to the touch, whereas the soup breathed its steam in high tendrils. He gave me a spoon. “You need to eat to regain your strength.”
I ate the soup, slowly. Harry sat down and ate, too. It was a thick, flavorful soup with lentils and beans and other things. I was not surprised to find amaranth, or pigweed seeds, in it. Nor did I hesitate to eat it. If it was going to kill me it would have done so already. Then again, I hesitated to think maybe it was the amaranth that caused my sickness.
I immediately stopped spooning the soup into my mouth and pushed it away.
“What’s wrong?” Harry asked.
“I don’t feel like eating,” I said. “Still too queasy.”
He continued spooning the soup into his mouth.
“Don’t eat it,” I said.
He frowned at me. “Why?”
“You’re poisoning yourself,” I said. “That pigweed stuff is dangerous. You shouldn’t eat it. It made me sick. I know it did.”
Harry just shrugged and went on eating the soup. When he had finished his bowl, he took my bowl and ate the remaining soup in it, also. He even tipped it up to his lips and drained the bowl noisily.
I glared at him: not because he ate my soup, but because he ate the soup after I told him not to. But then my stomach started rumbling and I knew I needed to eat something. I went to pantry and took out a pack of ramen noodles I found there. I dropped the little brick of dry noodles into a pot, poured some water over it and put it on the stovetop.
Harry was dismayed. “You would rather eat cheap ramen noodles than my homemade soup? You are ludicrous.”
I stirred the ramen as the water began to boil. “The pigweed is what made me sick,” I said.
“I eat it almost every day,” Harry said. “But I never get sick.”
“Maybe I’m allergic to it,” I said, searching for an explanation. “Or maybe you’ve built up an immunity to its poison.”
He shook his head dismissively, stood up from the table and put the dirty bowls in the sink.
“City girls have no sense at all.”
He poured the remaining soup from the pot into a plastic container, letting it cool before he put it in the refrigerator. He washed the dishes and set them to dry on a dish rack. He headed toward the hall, but paused at the threshold.
“Make sure you clean up your mess.”
He walked out before I could lose my temper and throw something at him. Instead, I fumed above the ramen noodles, watching as the softening brick loosened and spun around with the spoon that stirred them. I used only part of the seasoning pack that came with it— oriental style— and threw the rest of the pack into the garbage can. There was very little garbage in the garbage can. It seemed that Harry did not use a lot of store-bought stuff, despite having a bunker below the cabin with shelves crammed with store-bought foods. I did not see a lot of garbage cans or bins around the house, either. Being self-reliant, he probably did not like to use anything but what he grew.
I ate my ramen noodles quietly, then washed the pot and the spoon and the bowl. I felt better, my strength rallying since my weak spell earlier. Going to the living room, I found Harry staring out the window again.
“Were you expecting Corvus?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “He visits every other day.”
“Are you both part of the same tribe?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t insulting him by asking.
“Corvus belongs to all tribes,” he said, enigmatically. “I belong to none.”
I looked around the living room. A book on Native American culture was spread open upon the coffee table. There were black-and-white photos of rock spears and bead jewelry. A beautiful headdress was on the opposite page, the chief wearing it also wearing the same serious frown that Harry often wore. Perhaps he was Harry’s great-grandfather. Probably not.
“Well, we all belong to the same tribe,” I said, trying to sound hopeful. He looked at me, quizzically. “The human tribe.”
He snorted and returned his gaze to the window. “Not all of us.”
He was being broody, and I knew it would do no good to try to lighten his mood. It would have been easier to take a chisel to Mount Rushmore and change Lincoln’s expression. Besides, I felt tired. I had slept already that day, but I was tired. I had laid in bed with him, but I was tired. I needed sleep.
“I’m going to bed,” I announced.
Harry did not even nod to show that he heard me. It irritated me.
“Good night,” I said.
He still gave no reply.
I brushed my teeth and rinsed and spat. Entering the bedroom, I stripped down and put on a pair of Harry’s boxers that I found in a dresser drawer. The dresser was an antique and had a large mirror overtopping it. There were little figurines on top of the dresser: three women who looked exactly the same except for the bags they held in their arms. One had corn, one had squash, and one had what looked like beans. I did not know their significance. My ignorance of Native American iconography was embarrassing.
“Good night, sisters,” I said.
As I laid down on the wolf-skin blanket I wondered about Harry and the “Dark Dreamer.” Was the Dark Dreamer an alternative personality for Harry? Was it some persona that overtook him in the nocturnal hours while he slept? I did not know, and not knowing made me uneasy. I wanted to trust him since he was letting me stay here— which took a lot of trust on his part, too, if I had to be honest— but it was hard. Not knowing things made me suspicious. Kurt had kept many things from me. He had wounded not only me, but my perception of men as a whole. It was now more difficult to trust them than ever before. How could you trust them when some of them could smile with such great sincerity while driving a knife into your heart?
That night I slept in Harry’s bed with the bedroom door locked. Even so, Harry came to me in my dreams, manifested by the smells that haunted every inch of that cabin. I dreamed that he prowled after me on all fours, crawling like a beast around the bed. I curled up against the pillows, nestled against the totem post as his glowing eyes sought me in the dark. I quivered in fear and excitement as he slowly approached.
“You’re an animal,” I said, without the slightest disgust. “You’re a beast and a monster and a devil.”
He only growled and grabbed the wolf skin blanket, tearing it from the bed and wrapping himself in its thick fur. He then stood and came to me, spreading his arms around me in a hungry embrace. The wolf skin enveloped both of us like an intimate shadow, plunging us into darkness until only he and I remained; the sights and sounds of rest of the world vanishing beneath the deafening music of our feral lovemaking.
CHAPTER 4 FAKE MAGICIANS
I slept most of the morning away, like a convalescent after a car wreck. It was nearly noon when I came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Harry was standing over the stove, spooning a heap of grains and rice into a bowl.
“Here’s your brunch,” he said, setting the bowl in front of me.
“No amaranth?” I said.
He regarded me coolly. “No amaranth,” he said.
“Do you ever sleep at night?” I asked. I stirred the rice and grains, letting the steam float up in my face like the warm breath of a dragon.
“I did before you came here,” Harry said.
“Is it because of this ‘Dark Dreamer’ you and Corvus were talking about?”
“I told you not to say that,” he snapped.
I shrugged his anger off like a burdensome minx coat before slipping into the cool pool of my own impassiveness. I knew he was exhausted, and so he was short of temper. He looked like he had not slept in days, the whites of his eyes riddled with red vesicles.
“I’m just saying that you can sleep at night in your own bed if you want,” I said. “I will sleep on the couch. Or in bed with you. For mutual warmth. If you want.”
Harry folded his arms angrily. Yet, I could see the thoughts abounding in his head. The dark gaze of his eyes were made even darker by the black rings under his eyes. He needed better sleep at better hours, like a normal human being; not a vampire.
“I thought you would want your time to yourself,” he said. “If I sleep during the day then that means you have more solitude.”
“Being by myself for a change is nice,” I said, thinking of all of the times Kurt pestered and harassed me, never leaving me alone, even as I painted the paintings he would take credit for. “But I just wanted you to know you don’t have to rearrange everything for me. And the truth is that I kind of…well…I would like for you to sleep with me. Every once in a while, I mean. It was nice last time…”
“Last time was a mistake,” he said, curtly.
That set my hair my hair on fire. “I’m not saying love, asshole. I’m just talking about sex.”
To my surprise, he looked stricken— as if I had slapped him with something hard and flat and stinging, like a metal spatula.
“That would be a mistake, too,” he said. “It never is ‘just sex’ for women. They have too many consequences to worry about.”
“Like what?” I said, enraged by his chauvinism.
“Like children,” he said. “A man can run off. A woman is stuck with it, unless she has other means.”
“Oh!” I laughed mirthlessly. “So you’re saying if you knocked me up you would run off.”
He grunted, which was as close to a laugh as he could produce, it seemed. “Depends on which side of my blood flows strongest. Even so, something tells me you are the type of woman a man can’t escape. No matter how fast he might run, or how much he might hide. Like a wolf after a scent.”
“If you don’t want me here, then tell me so!” I shouted.
“I have told you as much,” he said, heading down the hall. “But you remain. My people have a bad habit of letting guests overstay their welcome.”
I was up to my feet and running after him before I knew what I was doing. He had entered the bedroom when I caught up to him. He turned and I threw myself against him. He embraced me in a bear hug, pinning my arms to my sides. I tried to claw at him, but my hands were useless. I don’t know what it was about him that made me so wild, but before I could question myself, I bit into his chest with my teeth. The muscles were firm and thick, but they could not withstand teeth, and I knew I had drawn blood. He did not yelp, or even gasp, but he did let go of me. He was bleeding through his T-shirt, and yet I was the one with tears in my eyes.
“Men!” I screamed. “You’re all the same! You take what you want and don’t care how you make us feel!”
Harry looked at me, then, his mouth slightly ajar with sorrow. The dark gaze of his eyes lightened. “I am not the same as other men,” he said. “Which is why I don’t take from you what I want. I want to. I want to have my way with you. You know I do. But I cannot. I cannot take anything from you, even if you think you want to give it to me of your own free will. It would be a mistake.”
My body rocked with overexertion and unraveled emotions. I wanted to bite him again, and I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to lap at the blood that trickled from his chest, until it should staunch, and I wanted him to bite me, to make me feel the pain and the pity that he felt for me.
“Who are you?” I wept. “Who are you, really?”
He released me, but his gaze held me steady and unwavering; his eyes unblinking. There was a tautness in his stubbled jaw as he spoke, as if each word pained him and yet he fought to keep a stoic countenance. A light shined in his eyes, like twin-horned moons in that eternal blackness of his pupils.
“I am the doom of this world,” he said, without affectation. “I am the arbiter of the Darkness. The strangler of the Light. The destroyer of Day. I am the ill-favored by Fortune, the withering of crops and the winnowing of Man. I am the hunter that comes, fording the River of Tears. I am the predator of Innocence, the unending throat, and the teeth that feed. I am Malsum, the Wolf, and Pamola, leader of the Kewawkqu. I am Tawiskaron, the Child of Night. And I am Harold, the half-breed son of a woman who fell in love with the wrong man.”
Harry had gone to bed. I had not known what to say to what he had said to me. Maybe, I thought, he was taken with poetic license. Maybe he was suffering from a delusional episode. Maybe he was just plain crazy. If the latter was true, however, he seemed to suffer from a highly functional form of crazy. Perhaps it was merely a monomania and nothing approaching a psychosis. Perhaps I was more smitten with him than I cared to admit to myself and I was making excuses for his madman’s monologue.
I went outside to walk and clear my head. I often walked in the city park when I was feeling upset with Kurt, or life in general. Walking here, though, was special. The solitude was as sacred and nourishing a Buddhist temple.
To my surprise, I saw that shadowy bird again. The dogs watched him fly in, their eyes fixed on him as if mesmerized. That shadowy bird landed on the branch of the oak overlooking the lake and cawed his rough-throated laughter. He flew away toward the forest and the dogs went chasing after him. A few minutes later they returned, following Corvus. I was starting to think that the shadowy bird was his pet and that he was playing a trick on me. As if to further deepen this suspicion, Corvus was dressed from head to toe in a traditional magician’s clothes: top-hat, suit, cape, and even the cane. It was not unlike the attire Houdini had worn. Yet, the ensemble was different in one regard: it was a dark, shimmery black with a tint of purple or blue in its sheen. Even the undershirt, the collar, the gloves, and the tie were the same black. The cape— traditionally red— was black, too and very long, dragging heavily behind him on the ground.
“You are dressed like a real magician today,” I observed.
He bowed. “Actually, I am a fake magician.”
“All magicians are fake,” I said, smiling. “They use tricks to fake magic.”
“And hence why I am a fake magician,” he said. “I remember the missionary who taught me English. He told me of the lovely trickeries that you call ‘double negatives’.”
“I don’t follow,” I said.
“And neither do I,” he said. “Which is why the missionary disliked me so much. There was no room in his prayers for a fake magician who could not follow.”
Everything Corvus said seemed to be a riddle. Perhaps that was why he was always smiling so smugly: the confusion he caused other people pleased him to no end.
“Laughs-At-Stars is still asleep?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “He’s been asleep since after breakfast. Why does he sleep during the day?”
“To avoid nightmares,” Corvus said.
“You can have nightmares when sleeping during the day,” I said. “I had one yesterday when I fell asleep out here.”
“It isn’t a nightmare if it is during the day,” Corvus said. “It is a daymare.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing he was teasing me.
“That’s not a good name for something as scary as it was,” I said.
“Daymares are the scariest things on earth,” Corvus said. “Who knows where they will lead you, bucking and kicking as they go?”
“I think you’re making fun of me somehow,” I said. “But I don’t know how.”
Corvus’s incessant smile never faltered or broadened or gave away anything. “I do not make fun of anyone,” he said, “but there is certainly always fun to be had in everyone. It exists there already, and people offer it in their own time, from their own choices.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
But I was glad Corvus was there, even if he unnerved me a little. Sometimes it seemed like he was looking at things sideways, out of the corners of his eyes, including me. It wasn’t that I thought him untrustworthy, but it always seemed like he was thinking of something askance to his sight, and so you could never be certain what he was really focused on, even as he spoke to you. It was like talking to a bird whose eyes were looking in two different directions. I wanted to ask him if there was something wrong with Harry, but I was afraid I might sound ungrateful and insulting to Harry, especially speaking to his friend about him behind his back. I tried to be circumspect.
“Doesn’t it seem odd to you,” I said, “that Harry sleeps during the day? Why doesn’t he sleep at night? If I hadn’t seen him in daylight I would think he was a vampire.”
“He would be the duskiest vampire I have ever seen,” Corvus said
“I just find it odd,” I said. “And a little frustrating.”
“Because you hunger for his touch.” Corvus was still smiling, but his tone was not flippant. “Many women do, of course. It is the nature of what he is.”
“What he is?”
“Tall, dark, and handsome,” Corvus said, winking. “The truth is that it would be dangerous for you if he slept at night.”
“Why? Does he play baseball in his sleep?”
“That’s not too far afield of the truth.”
“So he sleepwalks?” I said.
“Something like that,” he said, “but more…lively. I guess you could say he dreamwalks.”
“What’s the difference between sleepwalking and dreamwalking?”
Corvus doffed his top-hat, turning it upside down, its mouth open toward the sun. “Think of all of the times you have succumbed to temptation in your dreams,” he said. “All mortals have fantasies. It is only natural. But none of your fantasies are more embarrassing than what you dream about when your subconscious reigns, locked away as you are in the privacy behind your own eyelids.”
He tapped the bottom of the hat, or, as it were, the top of the hat, and a bird flew out of its mouth. It startled me so much I almost screamed. When I had recovered I looked for it in the sky. I could not see it. It was gone, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.
“Harry knows the Dark Dreamer has more power in those moments of ‘freedom’ than any other moment of his life. And the Dark Dreams can only come at night, after the sun has fallen from the sky and the earth is given to its own dark dreams and every sleeper is tucked away in the privacy of his or her mind. Wakefulness dispels them, however. Light banishes shadows, after all.”
Suddenly he glanced down at his hat, his eyes trying to affect mock-surprise even as his smile remained unwavering upon his face.
“Where did my bird go?”
“It flew away,” I said. “Is it your pet bird?”
“Pet bird?” he said. “Like a parakeet? Or a parrot? I have heard that Sheriff Jackson has a pet parrot and he teaches it crude language. I wouldn’t do that if I had a proper jester bird. I would teach it to tell the truth. That would upset people more than the worst profanities.”
“I just meant that the bird that flew from your hat looked like that bird that always seems to come here just before you do. It is a crow or a raven, I think. I thought it was your pet.”
“I have no pets,” Corvus said simply. “Only friends in many shapes and forms.”
The dogs were chasing a squirrel near the lake. The bushy-tailed rodent flitted up the oak tree like a brown streak. Buster slammed into the tree and rebounded off, unfazed. The other dogs gazed up at the squirrel, their tails wagging excitedly. The squirrel clambered onto a branch and started barking at the dogs, showering them with its squirrel profanities. The dogs, in turn, barked at the squirrel. Soon the whole forest was alive with the chittering and chattering discord of squirrels, birds, and whatever else was annoyed by the antics of the dogs. It seemed to please Corvus immensely.
“Corvus,” I said, “why do you check on Harry?”
His expression was impenetrable. I tried to read his face— to see if there was any betraying seam of amusement or mockery in the facade— but his entire face was its usual amusement and mockery and so there was nothing to forfeit such a deception. It was like being in the presence of a perpetual clown. You never knew when they were really happy or sad or mad or solemn. His expression was a thick makeup that covered up his emotions, and his years. Sometimes it seemed like he was older than he appeared, and sometimes he seemed younger. It was utterly disorienting.
“I check on Harry because he is my friend,” he said. “We have been friends for countless years, and we will remain friends regardless of what happens to either of us. He has what you might call an ‘illness’. A nocturnal illness. Strikes at night. Incurable except in sunlight.”
I remembered some program I watched on television last year while I was stuck at home and Kurt was out at a bar, drinking with his friends. It was a documentary about people who were influenced by darkness in strange ways. Some were insomniacs whose personalities changed at night. Others were sleepwalkers that would go to neighbors’ houses and apartments and do all sorts of unsavory things, whether it was sleeping with someone or attacking someone. Sometimes they slept with them and attacked them. I wondered if Harry suffered from the same affliction. Maybe “Dark Dreamer” was the name for that nocturnal persona. Maybe it was a split personality.
“You check on him because of the Dark Dreamer, don’t you?”
His eyes were focused upon me now. Wholly focused on me. He was no longer like a bird with its eyes in two different directions. His attention was undivided. It was an eerie feeling. Having his eyes, and the enigmatic mind behind those eyes, wholly fixed upon me made me feel like I was shrinking and insignificant; a worm beneath a shadowy beak.
“I am his thanatron,” he said. “The kill-switch, if you like. If he loses control then I must swoop in and—”
“That is enough, Corvus.”
It was Harry. He looked disgruntled, the stubble on his face dark and the rings under his eyes even darker. He wore only a pair of boxers, and looked miserable. He squinted painfully as the sun shone down upon his face.
“I was just being a servant to the Truth,” Corvus said.
“You need to go. Now.”
“Fine, old friend,” Corvus said. “I will go. Just make sure you mind your lady. She gets awfully lonely during the day. It’s almost as if she wishes someone were around more often.”
Corvus nodded to me, his smile indefatigable, and walked toward the woods. I never saw the shadowy bird, but I did hear coarse-throated laughter a few moments later.
“He’s not flirting with me,” I said, “if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“That’s not at all what I’m worried about,” Harry said, waving a hand dismissively. “It never even crossed my mind.”
He started to head back to the cabin. I followed him.
“And if we were flirting?” I said.
“Then what of it?” he said. “What does it matter to me?”
That infuriated me. I would have rather he accused me of throwing myself at Corvus like a wanton than be completely apathetic to the idea.
“Where are you going?” I demanded.
“Back to sleep,” he said. “I am tired.”
“Why did you get up to begin with?” I said, still furious.
“Because I had to pee,” he said.
He reached the porch and went up the stairs to the door. He opened it.
“Wait!” I said.
He paused, his back to me.
“Why do you sleep during the day? Tell me the real reason. Is it because you have some kind of night sickness?”
He turned half-way toward me and opened his mouth to say something. He instead sighed angrily and simply walked inside, shutting the door behind him.
“Fine!” I shouted. “Don’t tell me anything!”
I was so mad that I had to go for a walk. I called to the dogs, hoping for company, but only Buster came with me; the gallant klutz. The rest were still trying to devise a plan for catching the squirrel some twenty feet above their heads. They had one-tract minds, whereas Buster was scatterbrained.
I did not go deeply into the woods, but walked around the perimeter. I was surprised to find a hut near the cabin. It was made of animal skin formed into an oblong dome. When I pulled aside the entrance flap I found that its ribs were made of flexible wood. In the center of its dirt floor was a stone basin and a fire pit. There were strange symbols etched upon the stones. One looked like a bird. One looked like a tree. The others were more difficult to decipher. Beneath the basin was a fire pit full of ash.
The hut reminded me of a sauna. There was a single wooden bench near the basin. It was already hot in the hut, even in the shade, and I wondered how hot it could become when its fiery heart was burning. It could roast a person alive, I thought.
I left the hut and continued walking in the perimeter of the forest. Buster was roaming the bushes, sniffing in search of something. It seemed that if he took his time, and did not become overexcited, the Labrador did not run headlong into anything. There was a moral lesson to be had about passion in that, but I was in no mood for life’s lectures. I wanted to walk away from my thoughts, however futile such an endeavor might prove.
Beyond the hut, I circled around the cabin, keeping it within my vision. I glanced over at the shed and thought I saw what looked like a raccoon walking toward it. Buster did not seem to see it, so preoccupied was he with the woods, and the other dogs were still fixated on the squirrel high up in the tree. I was glad, though, because I had often heard that raccoons carried rabies. And I could not bear the thought of these cartoonish dogs getting rabies from a raccoon. Especially a large raccoon like this one was.
I continued walking, and saw the strange raccoon go into the shed. Buster was still sniffing purposefully as he walked with me. Suddenly he brought his head up, his ears perking to attention. I assumed he finally noticed the raccoon and would go bounding after it. But I glimpsed a flaring golden tail in my periphery vision and turned to look at it directly.
It was gone. I saw nothing but trees and bushes and the deepening shadows of the woods. Yet, Buster’s ears still stood at attention. His eyes still gazed—unmoving and unblinking—at one spot in the distance. He started to growl, then, and I became nervous, expecting to see a wild animal leaping out of the jumbled underbrush. A bobcat, maybe, or even a bear. I did not know what kind of animal had such a golden tail.
Instead of an animal, there was another flash of golden hair as a woman stepped out from behind a tree. She was wearing a flannel shirt and a breezy skirt. It was an odd combination for someone hiking in the woods. Then again, I was only wearing a Summer dress.
“Hi,” she said, waving.
“Hello,” I said, shocked to find another human being in this part of the world. Buster continued to growl beside me.
“You must be living with Harold now,” the blonde woman said. She was very pretty. Her eyes were sky-blue and her golden hair was curly at the ends.
“I…uh…” I didn’t know what to say to that question. Was she a neighbor that lived around here? A local taking a hike?
“Well, he has a way with women,” the stranger said. “An animal magnetism. Naturally, he would.” She giggled at some private joke. “Just be careful. You don’t know what kind of Nagual you will be until you start the prowl.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling more lost in the woods than ever. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You will,” she said. “Eventually. You’ll understand everything better, including yourself. And you’ll embrace it like a religion. Only, it’s more real. More…tangible, like blood upon the tongue. It really is more pungent than wine.”
I must have stammered because she grinned as if amused, and her teeth frightened me.
“Sweet dreams,” the woman said. Her eyes shot toward Buster, briefly, and the dog whimpered and backed away. She waved at me and disappeared into the woods, the golden tumble of her hair bouncing behind her.
My heart racing, I hurried back to the cabin. I could still feel the blonde woman’s eyes hunting me. I could still see her sharp teeth as they glistened between her parting lips, pointy with a carnivorous hunger.
“I met a woman in the woods,” I told him.
“Just a tourist,” Harry said, battering at a clump of uncooked dough.
“She knew you,” I said.
He paused, his muscles tightening. He then went on kneading the dough. “Lots of women have known me.”
“She said you have a way with women,” I said. “She said some other things that didn’t make much sense. She was blonde, though, and had blue eyes.” I hesitated. “Her teeth…there was something wrong with her teeth.”
Harry turned away from me, looking out the window. The air was tense around him, as if a storm was soon to blow in. “Just a lost tourist,” he said.
“I don’t think she wa—“
”A lost local then,” Harry snapped. “Stay away from her. She isn’t what she appears. She is dangerous.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that humans aren’t the only ones that wear other animals’ skins.”
He picked up the gooey dough and slapped it onto a pan lined in aluminum foil and then poured an aromatic oil over it. Opening the oven door, he slammed the pan in and twisted the oven’s gauge to 350 degrees; the apparent temperature of his temper at that moment. Setting the timer, he told me to listen for the alarm and to take it out when it was golden brown. Without another word, he opened the kitchen door and went outside. A few moments later I heard the rhythmic chop-and-clop of wood being split. Did he always cut wood when his temper was on the rise?
The bread cooked for about an hour. In the meantime I read a book at the table. Or I attempted to read a book. I could not retain anything that I read, however, since I was so distracted. It seemed that whenever I tried to imagine what was occurring on the page my mind went instead to the image of that blonde woman in the woods, and her sharp, toothy smile. I concluded that I did not want to go out into the woods again, not without Harry being with me. Buster had tried his best to protect me, but I knew that the blonde woman was likely crazy and violent in a way that the goofy Labrador could not contend with. She had to be crazy, didn’t she? Why else would she have filed all of her teeth to sharp canine points?
When the oven’s alarm went off, I checked the bread. It was crispy and golden brown; neither undercooked or overcooked. I retrieved it out with a mitten, then turned off the oven. Its aroma was savory. I went outside to tell Harry that it was finished.
There had to be a whole tree’s worth of split wood fallen to either side of the stump. Harry was breathing heavily, shirtless, and sweaty. He looked like he had ran a marathon while arm-curling bourbon barrels.
“The bread is done,” I said.
He remained taciturn as he followed me into the kitchen. He cut the loaf in half and sliced a block of cheese and split a venison roast that he had refrigerated. We ate all of this in silence until I asked him about the hut in the woods.
“It is a sweat lodge,” he said.
“Like a sauna?”
“A sauna for sweating out your…negativity,” Harry said, “for lack of a better word.”
“Could I try it?”
“It is not a pastime,” Harry said. “It is a sacred rite. People die when they attempt it without taking it seriously or knowing what they are doing.”
“I just assumed it was harmless,” I said.
“It is,” he said, “if plastic shamans are kept from it.”
He was being dead serious again, the thunderclouds dark and glinting in his eyes.
“People who use my culture for personal gain,” he said. “New Age imbeciles who prey on people trying to find real spirituality. Were such plastic shamans to attempt a true Sun Dance they would melt down to nothing, for they are nothing but artifice bound in human form.”
I sighed. It seemed the only times Harry spoke at great lengths were when he was angry about something. It also seemed that there were few, if any, times when he was happy about something. He really was a misanthropic hermit.
“I also saw a raccoon going into your shed,” I added, since he did not seem to want to talk about the woman or the hut. “It might have gotten into the dog food.”
It was his turn to be perplexed. “A raccoon?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, those furry little creatures with big bushy tales and black masks. It didn’t really look like the one on Disney’s Pocahontas, though.”
Lightning crackled in his eyes and I gasped in horror. I hadn’t meant to insult him. Instead of yelling at me, however, he rose from the table and ran outside. I followed him, stammering an apology to his elusive shadow.
“Harry, I’m sorry if I offended you!” I shouted at him as he headed toward the shed.
“I don’t care about that,” he snapped. “Be quiet!”
He went into the shed and checked the large dog food bags in the corner. They seemed untouched. He walked to the stairs leading down to the bunker and descended them. I went to them and peered after him in that dark recess. He was at the bottom of the stairs, trying the steel door’s handle. It was unlocked, opening as he pushed it with a tentative hand. He looked up at me as I stood at the top of the stairs.
“Did you unlock this door?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t have a key to it.”
He frowned and reached up to a crack in the stone blocks beside the door, searching it with his fingers. “The key is gone,” he said, shooting me another suspicious glance. He shoved the door open and went inside.
I walked downstairs and stood by the open door, peering into that dark dungeon-like chamber.
Harry walked around in the darkness of the bunker, which was larger than I had originally thought. I could not see much from where I stood except the chains hanging down from the ceiling and a few rows of shelves piled with food, all running on into darkness. Harry walked to one of the rows of shelves and squatted down, picking up something from a mess of empty canned soup. He wiped it off on his leg.
“What is it?” I asked. The air inside the bunker was cold, like a crypt.
Harry ignored me and looked around that shadow-draped interior. Without saying anything, he walked to the door and flipped a switch. The shadows were peeled away by fluorescent lights that blinked blindingly from the ceiling. I could not see past Harry as he stood in the doorway, but he seemed to survey the bunker a few more times. Silently, he flipped the switch and plunged the bunker into absolute darkness. Seeing nothing, he stepped out and closed the door behind him, locking it with the key he had found among the soup cans. This key he shoved into his pocket, gruffly shooing me back upstairs.
Leaving the shed, we found Corvus waiting for us outside. He was dressed all in black, as usual, and smiling.
“Problems?” he asked.
“Something’s getting into the cache,” Harry grumbled. “Something sneaky.”
“Something or someone?” Corvus asked, knowingly. “Perhaps a little of both.”
They both looked at me.
“I didn’t do it!” I said.
“No,” Harry said, “you didn’t. You’re not that clever, even if you are that nosy.”
My jaw dropped in outrage. “I was the one that told you about the raccoon!”
Corvus’s smile did not falter, but his black eyebrows teeter-tottered questioningly between the two of us.
Harry waved a dismissive hand. “I am too tired for mysteries,” he said.
Without another word, Harry headed to the cabin, leaving Corvus and I in the yard. Corvus chuckled, shaking his head.
“Pests always did get on Harry’s nerves.”
“It was a raccoon,” I said.
Corvus looked at me as if amused; as if I was wearing an arrow-through-the-head headband.
“Wasn’t it a raccoon?” I asked, feeling silly for a reason beyond my understanding.
Instead of answering my question, Corvus directed me to the porch.
“Would you like to hear a story?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me or if he really wanted to tell me a story.
“Sure,” I said.
We sat down on the top of the steps. The dogs followed us up and laid down near us, as if they were wanting to listen to Corvus’s story, too.
“It is an old story,” he said. “A story that has been bandied about by many tribes in the West. It is about a child that was born among the stars and who came to earth to kill monsters.”
“Not a romantic story, huh?” I teased.
“There was romance,” Corvus said, “but there were monsters, too. There have to be monsters in the story, otherwise the love cannot be truly strong. And if the romance is between two monsters, well, then the story is all the more interesting for it.”
He grinned, then continued.
“The child had many names among many tribes, for his feats were legendary. He could not die— not really—for he would be resurrected upon death and once again slay the monsters that haunted the earth. The monsters despised him, even as they coveted his power. So they sent a snake to slither down his throat while he slept and to burrow into his heart. This snake was small and venomous and it lived inside him, becoming like an artery that pumped poison into his heart. When his most recent life was over, and he was supposed to resurrect, the snake’s poison prevented him from being born again, for the poison withered him, and though he was strong, the snake had been strengthened by the Star Boy’s own blood. The hero succumbed to the powerful poison, and lost hope in his own great deeds, and so withered from within, becoming nothing more than a skeleton of what he was, the snake still clinging to him, defining him, making him and unmaking him for all eternity in his living death. The end.”
“That is a depressing story,” I said.
“It is a hopeful story if you take its lesson to heart,” Corvus said, “instead of that poisonous serpent. Thinking on it, you know you must try to enjoy life as a child would, otherwise you will find yourself with a snake in your heart that will consume you. And it will. Many mortals succumb to its poison, and when they do their lives become nothing more than the bones of what they enjoyed as children.” He glanced back at the cabin’s door. “Just think of Laughs-At-Stars and how he squanders eternity by being gloomy about his life. He is nursing a serpent at his breast, even as he curses its fangs.”
“I don’t think I have ever seen him smile,” I said.
“We all grin,” Corvus said, “just below the skin.”
“That’s a little grim, isn’t it?”
“But it’s true,” he said. “And it’s funny that some of us will only show our brightest smiles when we are dead.”
The dogs all seemed to be smiling, which reassured me.
“Well,” I said, “I think we should smile as much as we can in life. It spreads happiness. Or I like to think it does.”
Corvus nodded. “That is what I do. Spread things. All my existence I have spread things. And so I have many names spread everywhere. Some names the White man gave me. I have been called Johnny Appleseed, for instance, and I have been called Pavayoykyasi. Of course, I planted more than simple apple seeds on my journeys. I have planted all sorts of things. Sown far and wide. Love and discord. Wild oats. Wild oats are always the most fun to sow.”
I just assumed Corvus was teasing me. Truth be told, he was charmingly disarming. He could have seduced any woman he wanted to. He probably did.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked, curious as to what a wily young man like him might make a living at.
“I make money off my casino,” he said.
I thought he was being facetious again, and playing to stereotype, but his smile was serious, even if it was as full of mockery as it always was.
“The casino of life,” he said. “I make many bets, and I always win.”
“What do you bet on?”
“I don’t bet on anything,” he said. “I just make the bets.”
I was confused. “So you are like one of those accountants at a racetrack?”
“That is a very loose comparison,” he said. “But I suppose it works. I arrange the bets, and then others benefit or lose from them.”
“Then how do you benefit from them?”
“I suppose you could compare me to the dealer at a poker table,” he said. He fanned his hands and poker cards appeared between his fingers, splayed. Each card was a Joker. “I make a wage regardless of whether the house wins or not. But I am not employed by the house.” He slapped his hands together, and the cards were gone. “In fact, the house hates me more than the gambler does.”
I was at a loss as to what job he might be suggesting. “Is there not a job title that can sum it up?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Illusionist? Deceiver? Trickster?”
“So a magician,” I said.
“No, a fake magician,” he said. “I’ve told you this before.”
The door opened behind us and Harry stepped outside, holding a mug of coffee.
“I can’t read right now,” he said by way of explanation.
“Harry,” I said, “what do you do for a living?”
He sat down on the swing on the porch and sipped at his coffee. His gaze was almost as black as his coffee.
“I grow crops,” he said. “Subsistence farming.”
“I mean, what do you do for money?”
Harry regarded me warily. “Money is like any other crop. If you plant the seeds correctly, and tend it, it grows.”
“So you have investments,” I said.
“I have investments,” he said.
“You must have good investments, then,” I said.
He grunted, and continued sipping his coffee and staring out at the lake.
“I handle his money,” Corvus said. “He gets very good returns on his investments. Not that he uses much of it. I give him a cash allowance every month. He will never want for money, especially since he doesn’t use it.”
“I buy solitude with my money,” Harry grumbled. “It is the best luxury to spend money on. Everything else is needless.”
It all made sense. A lot of men who had money worked hard to get it just so they could isolate themselves from the rest of the world and not have to be bothered. Harry was no exception. He was the proverbial hermit.
“I have investments,” I said. “Or…well, Kurt says I do. He handles the money. He’s an accountant. I don’t know how much money I have in my investments. Not that I care now. Kurt can have it all. I don’t want money. I just want to…to not care about anything like money again. I just want freedom from it. Freedom from everything.”
Harry stood up and walked down the steps. “Everybody says that until they need money.”
I could tell that he did not like to talk about money, and so I let the conversation die. I was only curious. He lived in what could be considered a mansion by some people’s estimates, even if it was made from logs and posts and lacquered wood. How could he afford to build such a place? And to live idly, without working a job? He was a rich eccentric. He had to be.
Corvus stood, now, stretching his neck. “Well, it’s time to fly. Try to play nice with each other.” He winked at me. “And remember, that snake can be really stubborn when you are stubborn. It clasps on harder the harder you clasp it. It’s a tug-of-war with yourself, I think.”
He walked beside Harry as they headed toward the lake. They were talking, and Corvus occasionally snuck a furtive glance at me. Harry stared resolutely out at the reflection of the sky upon the water. He did not say much; his body posture said everything. He was stiff, stubborn, and uncompromising. Eventually the conversation ended, Corvus shrugged, waved at me, and walked off toward the woods. A few minutes later I heard coarse-throated laughter and saw a bird receding over the horizon.
Harry sipped at his coffee, his brooding, dark-eyed reflection staring back at me on the mirrored surface of the lake.
CHAPTER 5 DRESSED DOWN
I sat on the porch swing, reading as the chains creaked and popped with the pendulous rhythm of to and fro. Harry sat on the steps, also reading. I could not help but to occasionally steal a glance at Harry at the start of every other paragraph. He looked so…intellectual as he read. Still broody and moody and outdoorsy, but also like Lord Byron with a dark tan and without the clubfoot. And taller— much taller. If only he knew how to smile, or even how to smirk. Instead, he was like a sandstone mesa cliff, ever weathering thunderstorms. If I was a sculptor, instead of a painter, I would have chiseled his likeness into a stony bluff gazing out onto a desert plane stretched far and flat across the eternal horizon. It would have rivaled the Sphinx of Gaza for most stoic gaze, his stony eyes staring unflinchingly into the sandstorms trying in vain to topple him. Then again, I wasn’t even sure I could capture that somber ruggedness in any medium, including the subtler shades and colors of oil paints. Yet, I wanted to try.
“I want to go to town,” I said. “To pick up a few things.”
He looked up from his book for a moment, and then returned his dark eyes to the pages. “What for?”
“For you,” I said.
He looked up again, this time closing the book. “I don’t want to be dressed up like a doll,” he said gruffly.
I actually giggled at the notion. “I don’t want to look for clothes,” I said. “To be honest, your biggest problem is not your outfit, but your outlook. What I want to do is paint you. And I need art supplies to do that.”
“You want to paint me?” he said, as if it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. “Why?”
“You would make a good model,” I said. “You are well-sculptured and you have a…nice skin color. Just the play of light and shadow on your…form…would be enough to make an interesting painting.”
“And you can paint?” he said, as if I was devoid of all talents.
“I am a painter,” I said, realizing that it was the first time I had told him so. “I am a famous painter, actually. Or…well…my paintings are famous. My husband took all of the credit, which is one of the reasons I left him.”
Harry’s broody brow creased, like a sandstone block splitting down its center. “And you let him take credit?”
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” I said, feeling defensive. “He…he…well…” I struggled to explain, but realized he didn’t know how Kurt was— the nuances of Kurt’s manipulations and the myriad daily doubts he planted in me. No one knew how treacherous and deceitful and cold-blooded Kurt was; no one except me. “He had his ways,” I concluded, lamely.
“So you were complicit,” Harry said, without malice and yet somehow worse for having said it so logically. “You let him do what he wanted without fighting for yourself.”
I immediately pressed my feet down, stopping the swing. “What else was I supposed to do!” I said, raising my voice in outrage. “He knew how to manipulate me. He knew how to stab me in the back and undercut me and…”
“Then you should have undercut him,” Harry said. “Scalped him where no one could see it but his lovers. That is what women in some tribes would do when jilted. Find the man and scalp him so he could not beget children upon the world and spread his cursed seed.”
“Oh, I am sure you’re just exaggerating,” I said. “There’s no way anyone wou—“
The look in Harry’s eyes said otherwise. He was never humorous in his expression, and always sober seriousness, but there was now a fierce solemnity in his face that countenanced no conditionals. He meant what he said, unequivocally.
“I’m just not that strong of a woman,” I said. “Or perhaps not so…”
“Savage?” he said, eyes flashing like lightning.
“No,” I said, slapping his thigh with my book. “Not so…angry.” I sighed. “Harry, all I want is to go to town and pick up some art supplies. It will give me something to do during the day while you are sleeping, and it could keep me out of your hair when you are awake.”
“How will you paint me while I am asleep?” he said.
“Very quietly,” I said. He opened his mouth to protest, but I interrupted him. “I will paint you from the hall while you are sleeping. If you want me to.”
“I may move in my sleep,” he said.
“I will work with what I have,” I said. “I have a good visual memory. And I can paint other things while you’re asleep. The lake. The woods. The dogs.”
He considered this for a moment. “Let’s say I agree to bring you to town and look for art supplies. What makes you think I won’t just drive off and leave you in the store?”
“Because I am asking you not to,” I said. “And because I think you like having someone around. Otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me that question just now. You would have agreed and then driven off while I was busy picking out paintbrushes.”
He shrugged dismissively. “Fine,” he said, standing. “I suppose it’s nearly time to go for more cleaning supplies.”
He went inside and put on more clothes. When he emerged he was wearing his usual flannel and denim combo and his long black hair was tied into a ponytail. I followed him out to his truck. The dogs immediately came sprinting toward us, but Harry shooed them all away— except Buster. Buster slipped and slid across the gravel and into a tire. He rose to his feet, a little wobbly and whimpering. I scratched him behind his ear and he was so happy he forgot all about his grief and went bounding again, chasing after the other dogs. I hadn’t turned around before the luckless Labrador had already slid into something else— a rick of wood. The whole stack tumbled down. Fortunately, it fell away from Buster who jumped up and ran on like nothing had happened.
Harry cussed as he opened the truck door. “Why have I kept that damn dog for so long?”
“Because he is adorable,” I said.
I got into his truck and buckled up. It was the first time I had been in Harry’s truck. It smelled of him, just like his cabin did, and it smelled of wood. The seats were leather, but the interior was vinyl. It was comfortable, but there was no CD player in the dashboard, nor even a radio. There wasn’t even a clock. The entire console was stripped out, and in place of modern electronics was a run of shelves with dream-catchers, miniature totem poles and animal figures such as were scattered around the house. Cultural kitsch knickknacks. They appeared to be glued in place. The rear windshield was also cobwebbed with dream catchers.
“Don’t you think you take this dream catcher stuff a little too far?” I asked him.
I was joking, of course, but he shot me a look as he gripped the key in the ignition. The look was an ultimatum that said either be quiet or we don’t go anywhere.
“Sorry,” I said.
He started the truck and we left the cabin behind, following the rough gravel road out of the glade. We merged onto the smooth asphalt of the highway. There were no other cars on the road. The highway stretched from arboreal shadow to arboreal shadow in either direction. The woods followed us and awaited us as we drove that highway, seemingly endless in its foliated expanse.
I was feeling anxious, and inexplicably aggravated, as we drove. My hand unconsciously reached for the radio that was not there, withdrawing in disappointment. Sitting there, listening to the wind and the trees and little else as we drove, I found myself restless. I did not know why, but I felt an irresistible urge to tease Harry. It stemmed from an aggression toward him that I could not channel in any other way except in little barbs. I had never been that way with anyone else before. I was a single child, so I never had siblings to tease or annoy. Yet, Harry provoked me by simply being near me, an electric friction sparking within me if our bodies were in close proximity to one another. I felt like a puckish cat near a large, overly disciplined dog: I just had to aggravate him; just had to tease him toward his snapping point.
“If you are so concerned with Native American culture,” I said, “why do you always wear flannel and denim? You don’t even wear feathers or beads. You would look really good with them, too. I’m not joking. You would have ‘the look’.”
He ignored me, which was the worst thing he could have done. I was aghast at what came out of my own mouth, and yet my embarrassment made my assault more audacious. I leaned into my pugnacity.
“And since you are so obsessed with dream catchers, you could wear them on your necklace along with your beads and bones and things. I’ve seen them for sale in Women’s magazines. You could order some.”
Again, he remained silent, which further provoked me; or this other me that I was unaware of until now: an evil twin inhabiting my own body, possessing me in order to spur me toward horrible things.
“I would like to see how you dance, too,” I said. “You know, a real Indian dance. I’ve never seen one. It must be pretty funny. All that hooting and hollering and hopping on one foot…”
With a jerk of the wheel, Harry took the truck off the road and brought it to a screeching halt. He killed the engine, withdrew the keys, unbuckled, and opened the door. He walked around the truck and came to my side, yanking the door open.
“Out,” he said.
“No,” I said.
I shook my head and crossed my arms and stared out the front windshield, not looking at him and his dark eyes. I felt childish, to be honest, and ashamed of what was coming out of my mouth, but that made me feel all the angrier for the way he was treating me, and the way I had treated him. I could only fume and stare out the windshield, aghast at this other self that had emerged from my hidden depths, hateful and ugly.
The road stretched on in front of the truck. There were no cars. The trees were quiet. We were the only ones in the world. Harry, me, and my evil inner twin. Where had she come from?
“It’s not my fault,” I said.
That must have baffled him because I heard him snort.
“It’s just…” I struggled again to articulate what was wrong about him and me. “It’s just that you have this effect on me.”
“Which is all the more reason why you need to go,” he said. “It will destroy you, otherwise.”
I finally looked at him and it astonished me to see that he did not appear angry. Instead, he was trying very hard to appear impassive, even as I saw cracks in the edges of his mask. There was a great sadness in him. It reminded me of a weather-worn cliff face, beaten every hour by relentless storms.
“No one…no one should be around me for long,” he said. “It is not safe, especially for someone like you. Someone who thinks she is teasing a man, but is really teasing something much worse.”
Seeing the earnestness in his eyes, I knew I had wronged him. My pride subsided and in its wake I sat steeped in my swelling shame. My evil inner twin vacated my body, exorcized by Harry’s wounded look
“Okay,” I said, quietly. “I won’t tease you. But you have to know that I can’t help it sometimes. I just feel like…like I have to vex you.”
Vex wasn’t really the right word, but there didn’t seem to be any better word that came to mind. Maybe hex would have been the better word, since there was a strange magic of antagonism between us that fed a woman inside me that I had never known until now.
“I will try to keep that side of me restrained,” I said.
Appeased— or at least reconciled—Harry closed my door and walked to the driver side, getting into his truck once again. He buckled up and started the truck.
“I really don’t feel like going to town,” he said. “Not now.”
“That’s fine,” I said, wanting to be conciliatory. “We can wait until another day. Maybe a day when I’m better behaved.”
He turned the truck around and we headed back toward the cabin. Along the way I regretted a lot, and not just because I didn’t get my art supplies. Ever since I leapt from Kurt’s car and tumbled into that rainy night I had been behaving unusually for myself. I wondered if I had struck my head too hard in that ditch. Perhaps it was the wilderness and the isolation permeating the air around Harry’s cabin that was changing me. Perhaps the fall had been a death to my former meek self and a rebirth to an unruly selfhood, one that was easy prey to such freewheeling emotions.
Tires squealed and my head whipped forward as if struck by a shooting star. The truck screeched to a halt, but not before I felt something tumble under the tires like a lumpy speed bump. I dared not look in the rearview mirror. I was afraid of what I might have seen.
“Are you okay?” Harry asked me, looking me up and down.
“I’m okay,” I said, still shocked. There was a small splash of blood on the hood of the truck. “What was it?”
“A deer,” he said, flinging his door open. “A doe.”
He got out and took off his flannel shirt and handed it to me. I wondered what he was going to do.
He slid his seat forward. From behind his seat he took a large revolver. It was black as night. Taking this death-dealer in his left hand, Harry walked to the back of the truck. My eyes involuntarily followed him, even as I told myself I did not want to see anything. It was like a taut string was attaching my gaze to his back. He stood behind the tailgate, looking down at something and shaking his head. He raised the revolver and pulled the trigger. I looked away and covered my ears. Yet the thunderclap of the gunshot sought me and taunted me with its deafening shout. When I looked back again I saw Harry stoop and grunt. I realized he was picking up the dead body of the doe.
I looked away once more, feeling the truck shake and the sickening impact of a heavy limp body fall onto the truck bed. A few moments later, Harry returned to the driver’s side seat. His white T-Shirt was splashed with wet crimson and he stank of a metallic sharpness. He was about to sit down when his eye caught something on the other side of the road. To my great regret I followed his gaze and saw two small fawns standing in the nearby woods, looking small and lost between the large tree trunks. Their brown fur was dappled alternately with sunlight and indigo shadows. Their eyes were big and black and lambent, shimmering darkly in the woods. They had the gaze of innocence in their delicate faces and it frightened me to think of what would happen to them now that their mother was dead.
Harry sighed and raised the gun. Before I could shout for him to stop, he fired twice, each bullet meeting its mark. The two fawns tumbled backward and lay still. Harry put away his revolver and fetched the two deer from the arboreal shade, carrying each of them one at a time. When he had reunited them with their mother, he returned to the cab and started the truck, driving in silence until we reached the cabin.
The truth was that I did not know what to say to Harry about the deer, and he did not give me time. Once we arrived at the glade, he unloaded the deer and brought each of them into the shed, carrying them down the staircase and through the heavy steel door of the bunker. I followed him down there, and he did not protest. I was surprised. I didn’t think he would want me down there, like Bluebeard covetously guarding his “bloody chamber”.
The underground room was more like a house floor unto itself. It was as wide and as long as the cabin above it. The concrete floors were lit with bright fluorescent rods that buzzed constantly and blinked rapidly. They illuminated that spacious hideaway with a blanching effect that disturbed me. But I could not deny that the vast area needed a lot of light to illuminate its subterranean recesses and shelves.
“You might want to leave,” Harry said, sharpening a knife on a whetstone. There was a table near at hand, and buckets and trash cans and garbage bags.
I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t leave either.
“You won’t like seeing this,” he warned me.
I stood resolutely by. I did not know why. I didn’t want to see him butcher the deer, but hearing him suggest that I couldn’t handle it made me defiant. I was not a city-girl, I told myself. I was a city-girl, of course, but I did not want to be one right now at this moment. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be something more.
In the center of the floor, below the chains and hooks that hung from the ceiling, there was a recess toward which the concrete sloped at an almost imperceptible angle. Atop this recess was a vent with a metal grill embedded in its mouth. There were bloody stains on the metal bars. I realized this really was a “bloody chamber”.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“A dressing floor,” he said.
“Dressing floor?” I was clueless.
“For deer, mostly,” he said.
“You mean for butchering them,” I said. I was no vegetarian, but thinking of the actual act of butchering an animal made me nauseated. But at least it wasn’t a torture chamber. Or a BDSM theater.
Harry pulled the chains and the hooks down and then lifted the ruined body of the doe, hooking her by her ankles and hauling her upward. He set the chains so that she hung a few feet off the floor.
“I do not know if the meat will be tainted,” he said. “The impact was strong. I will have to work quickly to salvage most of the meat.”
He then proceeded to dress her down. I did not watch this but in fitful glances, and only because some morbid aspect of my curiosity demanded to witness the transformation as the doe gradually dissembled from deer to unrecognizable carcass. I watched Harry, too, afraid I might see something in his eyes that I did not like. But there was no malice in his face. There was no joy. He was whispering as he worked and I caught certain words and phrases that did not sound like a killer relishing his score.
“…blessings from…neither waste nor want…mercy upon both sides of the spear…hunter is nothing without hunted…with gratitude taken…love given…unhappy circumstances…blessed Sky Mother…thanks to Taronhiawagon…”
When Harry had finished skinning and gutting the doe, he left her hanging and gathered the viscera in a bucket. The pelt he also hung up. It was cold in that underground shelter, but I was surprised that he left the doe to hang there, headless and skinless, nothing but bones and meat and sinew and blood.
And blood. I understood, then, that Harry was letting the doe trickle dry. It nauseated me, but I understood. There was so much blood that needed to be spilt before he could process the rest of the meat. So much blood. It made me think of slaughterhouses and how awash they must have been with their daily sacrifices. There was a sea of blood that went unseen as people ordered fast-food lunches and shopped for meat at grocery stores. Having to witness the slaughter of an animal made you realize what the true sacrifice meant for a hamburger or a steak. I was not yet convinced that I wanted to be a vegetarian or vegan, but I could sympathize with them more easily. Being awash in a sea of blood was a horrific thing.
Harry dressed down the two fawns much faster than the doe, hanging them up alongside their mother. This I could not watch, even in fleeting glimpses, and so I busied myself by making a mental inventory of all the foodstuffs in the bunker. It was a needful diversion.
The shelves lining the walls were many and varied in their stocks. There was at least a hundred pounds of rice in one corner of the room. Next to it was a whole miniature city of canned foods, replete with skyscrapers of yams and strip malls of tuna. There was a whole exposition center of black beans. The remaining cans ranged from corn to green beans to apricots and pineapples in light syrup. Heaped together like an avalanche were bagged pounds of sugar and salt and pepper. Near them were gallons of powdered milk. Just the thought of carrying these supplies down here exhausted me. It must have taken a week to do it.
The extent of Harry’s supplies seemed like madness, and yet it seemed like a rational sort of madness: a pretzeled logic that fed back into itself seamlessly. The world would end someday, it seemed to imply, so why not prepare for it? Because the world would be ending, my mind countered. It seemed futile. But then again, the world was ending every day for someone, and it would end for us all sooner or later.
Such thoughts, dark though they were, galvanized me in the notion that I had done what was good and right by leaving Kurt. And though there was a horror show happening just over my shoulder, it was not half so bad as being butchered every day by a man’s insidious tongue while my life’s work was hung up for his own butchery and gratification as others heaped praise upon him for his “fine cuts” of art.
Harry uncoiled a water hose and turned on the faucet. He then sprayed the bodies as they hung upon the hooks, the water crashing against their vermilion-velvet slickness and trickling down in pink runnels. Seeing them hang there— skinned beyond recognition and their ribs gaping, their limbs dangling stiffly— was like seeing a mother and her two children flayed and gutted and adorning the home of some sick serial killer. The one glimpse I stole at them made the world swirl in a bright, fluorescent kaleidoscope. I felt nauseated, especially as I also felt an exultant thrill at the blood and the meat on display. Part of me wanted to kill my own deer and eviscerate it; part of me wanted to kill a whole herd of deer and bathe in their blood.
Horrified at myself, I turned away from the image, afraid of what it was doing to me. My knees became wobbly and I felt my body turn gelatinous. Swooning, I fell upon several large bags of flour.
“Don’t worry,” I said, head lolling and ears ringing. “I’m okay.”
Harry came to me and lifted me up, carrying me upstairs.
“But what about your work?” I asked, deliriously.
“I am finished for today,” he said.
“You’re going to leave them hanging up?” I said, incredulous as a child recovering from anaesthesia.
“The meat needs to air out,” he said. “And you need some air, too.”
“You’re not going to eat me, are you?” I asked, unable to make sense of the most immediate things. “You’re not a cannibal?”
“So long as I am in control,” he said.
He brought me inside and laid me on the couch. I felt the cool, smooth touch of the leather on my legs and neck and it seemed to revitalize me. The delirious fog lifted. He wiped my forehead with a wet rag, cleaning off the white flour that had dusted me after my fall.
“Your color’s returning,” he said. “But do not move. Lay here and rest. You may have struck your head.”
I watched him as his gentle fingers searched within my hair for knots and bruises and lacerations. They found nothing but a tingling within my own scalp, and this tingling spread down to my heart, and further down into my loins. I wanted his big hands to touch me elsewhere, where I tingled, even though I knew he was right: I should not move. I tried to grab his hand and force it down toward my chest, but I was still weak and so he easily ignored my languid touch. When he seemed satisfied, he left the living room. I wanted to scream for him to come back, to return to me, to touch me; not to abandon me.
My self-pity evaporated as I watched him bring me water and a slice of darkly grained bread.
“Here,” he said. “One of your problems is that you haven’t eaten or drank much today. You are weak and need your strength.”
Gently, he helped me sit up. I felt the living room tumble in somersaults, but his steady hand on my shoulder reassured me. The sun was in his touch. I knew this and would have sworn to it even if I was free from my delirium. His coppery skin was stained with the sun’s gaze.
I drank some water and then tried a bite of bread: not too much, just enough to exercise my mouth a little. I swallowed and it felt like my throat might rupture. The cords bulged and I realized how thin and taut the skin was around my esophagus.
“Why did you shoot the fawns?” I asked.
“It was the merciful thing to do,” he said. “They would not have survived without their mother. And their deaths would have been cruel. Predators do not think of suffering when they feed on prey.”
I flinched in pain. The back of my head hurt where I hit the flour bags. “I just wish they could have lived.”
Harry shook his head. “Twins are cursed,” he said. “Nothing good comes of twins.”
It seemed an odd thing to say. I had never heard anyone speak with prejudice about twins before, but I did not ask for elaboration. Instead, I laid back down and rested for an hour or so, once again enjoying the feeling of having to do nothing; to be nowhere but here. Even a billionaire in the city was obligated by the city’s breathless bustle, whereas out here all time seemed to stop, focusing the mind on the unhurried Present and avoiding thoughts of the Future or the Past.
When I felt better, I sat up once again and found Harry sitting at a small desk. He was writing in a journal or ledger. The pen scratched along the page in an impatient rush, his right hand jerking in rapid motions like a fidgety squirrel. I remembered how he raised the revolver in his left hand and shot the three deer. Was he left-handed or was he right-handed? Perhaps he was ambidextrous.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“Thoughts,” he said.
“Is it a journal?”
He drew images between the sentences. Some looked like animals and objects; others were more abstract.
“It is a dream ward,” he said. “I write down my dreams so I might make sense of them all.”
“They must all be good dreams,” I said. “Since you have so many dream catchers to catch the bad ones.”
“Those dream catchers are for animal dreams,” he said, absently. He shook his head. “Never mind. Forget it.”
“Forget about it,” he said. “It is not important. Just more superstitious nonsense from a savage.”
“You are not a savage,” I said. “And I’m not a racist…”
“It’s not a matter of being racist,” he said, shutting the ledger. “I am a savage. Not in the demeaning sense of the word, but in its original meaning. Wild. Of the woods. I am a danger to all people, civilized or not.” He stood abruptly and walked to the statue of the woman with her arms outspread to the heavens. “That’s what you do not want to understand. It’s not that you will hurt my feelings with your privileges or your prejudices. Those things mean nothing to me. The problem is that I am a danger to you. I am a danger to everyone.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “You’ve just been living alone for too long. It has messed you up. That’s all. You took care of me, didn’t you? You didn’t have to, but you did. You’re a good person.”
He just shook his head and kept staring up at the statue. I needed to do something to relax him; to make him trust me, and himself. I had to unfasten that poisonous snake from his breast, as Corvus told me to. But how?
“Will you come to bed with me?” I said. “Please? I don’t want to sleep alone tonight. I am afraid I will have nightmares about…about the deer.”
He could not look at me. His face was a battlefield of desire and dread. “You don’t know what you are asking, Maddie. Just by being around me you are changing. What do you think it will do to you once you have what you think you want? You won’t know whether to hate me or to love me. Whether to kiss me or to bite me. I know what it does to women. What he does to women. You will grow fangs of your own. And then you will hate me for what you have become.”
I wanted to argue the point, but found myself falling into a perturbed silence. The truth of what he said struck me sharply, like a spear to the heart. I had been acting unusually around him. The one and only time we had touched each other I had been nearly bestial. Never in my life had I been physically violent. Never had I been so sexually aggressive and vicious. It was like a hateful love, and I became easily drunk on it.
But the snake had to be undone.
I went to him and put my arms around his waist. He had taken his T-shirt off, since it was covered in blood, and I felt his muscles flex against me, like a city raising its army against an invader, but they relented as my hands softly caressed their defenses away with diplomatic tenderness. I felt him crumble, then, like a mountain collapsing after countless eons of standing defiant on the skyline, its magmatic blood once dormant but now flowing again. The heat of his desire burned my fingertips, and I welcomed that scorching hunger. I led him away from the carven woman and gently urged him into the bedroom. Once there, I lifted my skirt up and over my head, letting the dress fall aside like a crumpled flower. His hesitancy was like a Gordian knot, and I sliced through it with a kiss, my nipples brushing against the fullness of his muscled, heaving chest. I walked away from him, then, and laid on the bed, making of myself a hostage to his rallying forces.
He turned the light off, drenching the bedroom in shadow, and I heard him walk toward me. I was laid out, spreadeagled like a martyr by my passions, knees bent and arms haloed around my head, the cool wind stealing in through the open window and dappling my body with goosebumps. Or was it my excitement that stirred the wind to breathe? He laid atop me, his hot, smooth chest pressing urgently upon my groin while his face rested between my breasts— tenderly, like a child asleep in innocent repose. The warmth of his skin spread like a newly risen sun on cold mountains, and I felt my valley gush with icemelt that soon sweltered with hot spring mists. I wanted his heat to consume me. Then came his burning kisses, like saltwater splashes in arid August. His stubble was as sand upon my slick, wind-cooled flesh. Mouth to mouth, his hot breath filled me with phoenix flame. I died at his touch and I was reborn in his kisses, the cycle repeating a thousandfold, yet each cycle different, like a story unto each simplest caress that brought new meaning upon the last; a concatenation of carnal narratives. I heard his snarled breath, the beast overtaking the man in him. I dared not look to see if lupine eyes met mine in the dark, and yet, even if they were rutting above me, I would have welcomed them. His feral intensity was as irresistible as Spring’s showers. I welcomed it as a famine land would a torrential downpour.
The darkness did not divide us, but bound us together with nerve and touch and blind harmony. When I found his manhood, I took it in one hand, and then in both, and I felt it throb and vibrate like an animal unto itself, pleading to be taken as it anxiously pressed itself into my keeping. The size of him in my hands was reassuring, but also frightening. Had I light enough to see, I might have been too apprehensive about the portions offered to relax enough to enjoy the generosity of such a serving.
The masculinity in him cried out to the femininity in me, and my womanhood purred hungrily as it expanded in anticipation beneath him. At last he settled upon me once more and I guided him in. He was gentle and let me swallow him in my own time, as appetite and aperture allowed. I gasped in pleasure and shock as I took him partway to the trunk, but not to the root, and felt his engorged head pressed against my sensual center. But when he entered me it was a delicious awakening that trembled my entire body. I could not remember when I had last felt so wholly filled and complete. It was not solely the physical satiation of a feral need, but the realization that he belonged in me; that no one else could fill me so utterly in my innermost self. There was a wondrous moment when we did nothing but lay together, still and breathless, and felt the communion of our bodies and the resonant quakes vibrating us together in tuning-fork harmony.
Moon-washed lunacy, a labial flowering at midnight. Something awakened in me that wished to prowl and stalk and hunt as unapologetically as the beast in him did. The other woman within me clasped my arms around him and rolled him over onto his back, straddling him with my legs and forcing my quivering cleft down upon his pulsating pillar. I moaned in ecstacy, and in hunger. I was appetite without surfeit. I was full and yet starving.
There was no more room for the rest of him, and yet I wanted more of him in me. Simultaneously, I shoved him out just as I wished to draw him back in. I had never felt so contradictory in my desires. It was a frenzy of conflicting urges that could not be reconciled, but had to be followed from one moment to the next as my centripetal sex took him and shook him in a maddening rhythm of exponentially subsuming pleasures. My river ran wild with whitewater rapids. The orgasms dispossessed me of my breath, impoverishing my lungs even as they lurched desperately for air and I swayed to my own rhythm, reeling and drowning in open air. Lightheadedness took me and the blood throbbed with the carnal upheavals that interrupted one another in a jolting rapidity of hot, wet, watersheds. At one and the same time I believed conclusively that I would die from such exertions, the lightning-rod blasts flailing me with their writhing rigors. Even so, I readily accepted this prospect with a fatalistic sense of inevitability and even ecstatic abandon. Were I to have died then, I would have welcomed it as the most climactic ending to an otherwise unfulfilling and charmless life.
I cried out one final time, and heard his bestial moan as he erupted within me like a hot geyser. I fell forward upon him, kneeling atop him and trembling as if in supplication and predation, the sweat of his neck upon my lips as I nibbled at his throat like a cougar upon a prized elk. I had eaten to satisfaction, and yet I claimed more of his flesh with my kisses. Like a sleepwalker, my urges led me onward, even as I was exhausted unto obliviousness The concussive surges had rocked my bones and spasmed my muscles, hastened my blood unto riptides and shortcircuited my nerves. My mind was obliterated, and in place of rational thought was emotional resonance; a spiritual awareness that glowed phantasmically upon the world in a way that the clinical light of Reason disallowed. So many bombardments of sensation left me sublimely hollowed—cavernous as he slipped out of me. The tidal surf of my desires receded unto vague, permeating joy. I laid upon him as a washed-up castaway on a beach, feeling the powerful rise and fall of his chest.
Clarity patiently awaited perspective, and found it not wanting in the corroboration. The world had been changed because my mind had awakened to its truer forms and meanings. There was a magic now in every littlest thing: in my own breath, in the strands of Harry’s hair against my cheek, in the froth of my lethargic loins. In my own sleepy satisfaction I felt that I could do so much with a thought. I felt I could strip the air of its threads and weave from them a web to ensnare mountains, bringing them to heel. I felt I could snatch lightning with my hands like shoots of flowers, and cup thunder in my palms like scoops of water. I felt I could raise the sun with my own fingertips and bring midday upon the midnight world, burning away the complacent darkness.
We said nothing. We laid beside one another silently, back to back, buttocks to buttocks, feet to feet, like adolescents coiled in their own Eden-like innocence. I knew, even as I submerged within our mutual silence, that this was more than just sex.
This was rebirth.
CHAPTER 6 URSA MAJOR
Harry sat up in bed with a violent start. Breathing heavily, he stared at the window.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Groggy, I looked from his shadowy outline to the darkness beyond the open window. A faint breeze blew in, like the soft breath of a baby. “Harry?”
He did not answer me. Instead, he leapt to his feet and slammed the window shut, then hurried to put on his jeans, buckling his belt with frantic fingers. It was as if he was late for work. He did not bother to put on a shirt.
I turned on the small lamp beside the bed. “Harry? Will you answer me?”
He went to the mirror-topped dresser and yanked the bottom drawer open, fumbling inside. I could not see what he was doing. Despite the lamp’s halo, it was dark in the bedroom, and Harry’s back was to me. Yet, I heard the scraping and clicking and snapping of metal. When he turned, there was a shotgun in both of his hands, gleaming in the lamp’s light.
“Stay here,” he said. “Stay hidden.” He turned the lamp off and hurried out into the hallway. His footsteps hastened into a sprint as he approached the front of the house. I heard the front door burst open and then slam shut. He had not even bothered to put any shoes on.
Standing up, I went to the window. It was a moonless night. The world beyond the pane was black and devoid of distinction, like the great rolling wave of a lightless ocean beneath the starry sky. I could not see Harry, but I heard the pattering of his bare feet upon the grass. I thought, perhaps, he had gone insane; insane from dreams or sex or isolation or any number of other things. Surely, I thought, he had gone insane.
But then the world went insane.
As I stepped away from the window there came a deafening roar that froze the blood in my veins. I cowered instinctively, like a mouse at the shriek of a cat. When my senses halfway returned to me I could hear the dogs barking. A moment later I heard the explosive boom of Harry’s shotgun. I saw the orange sparks of the muzzle, flashing like a bouquet puff of fire. Then I saw another flash, and another, but the roars of the shotgun were overwritten by the unearthly roar of whatever beast was approaching the cabin. The cabin itself trembled as if it, too, was afraid of that unearthly sound.
I tried to steel myself, but my instincts were mutinous. I wanted to run upstairs and to hide myself in the narrowest, deepest cranny I could find. Simultaneously, I felt myself fastened by fear to the floor, my toeballs bolted down immovably while my toes twitched for flight.
I heard the front door bang open, and the frantic hammering of Harry’s bare feet down the hall. He came rushing into the room and threw aside his shotgun. It rattled uselessly on the floor. It was empty.
“Go upstairs!” he said, rallying me from my dismay. “Go upstairs and do not come down until sunrise!”
“Upstairs now, Maddie!” he barked.
I hurried toward the door, but turned at the threshold. I wanted to know what was going on, and what he was going to do. I didn’t want him to get hurt.
Something collided with the cabin. The outer bedroom wall bulged inward, the logs shifting unevenly in their vertical stack. The beast— whatever it was— was ramming its massive bulk against the walls. The logs creaked and groaned and I felt their give in my bones. It felt like the whole cabin would shift off its foundation and come collapsing down at any moment; like a house made of popsicle sticks.
To my surprise, Harry did not seem ready to leave the skewed room. Instead, he clutched the wolf-skin blanket and pulled it from the bed. Before I could ask him what he was doing, he shrouded himself in the gray pelt, huddling down on his knees in the dark. I was taken aback. It was so childlike and bizarre, like a boy hiding from ghosts beneath his favorite blanket. I nearly ran to him, to pull him away from the bedroom before it could collapse. But then Harry groaned under the blanket, and he growled. It was not one of his moody growls, such as when he was upset with me; nor was it the heavy breathing of his lovemaking. He was growling like an animal. He shook all over, trembling in the murk of the bedroom. I did not know if he was epileptic or going into shock. Maybe he was having a breakdown. Maybe whatever horror awaited outside— throwing its bulk against the walls of the cabin— had destroyed his sanity.
But then I saw shadows converging upon him, feeding the pelt so that it grew longer and larger. At first I thought it was just him rising to his feet. However, his body stretched upward and outward beneath the fur blanket. His bones creaked like wind-battered branches and his sinews squeaked like dry rope stretched tightly through pulleys and cranks on a ship. His muscles multiplied and expanded. The wolf-skin tightened upon his limbs as his limbs extended with the painful popping of their unnatural dimensions.
Harry was still kneeling, but he was taller than me. There was a strong musky smell emanating from him— not quite like a wet dog, but also not quite his own usual smell that so easily intoxicated me. It smelled of violence and blood and death. The stench made me feel small and timorous, and I shrank away from it, my heart slowing for fear that it might draw the creature’s attention with its beating rhythm.
The thing that was once Harry turned toward me. His tail was bushy and gray, and as long as I was tall. His legs were contorted, less like a man’s legs and more like the strangely opposed angles of a dog’s hind-legs. His claws were white, jutting out of fingertips that were more like paws than a man’s hands. When he finally faced me I saw a hairy snout riddled with fangs, his eyes lupine and candescent yellow, transfixing me where I stood with a mixture of fear and mesmerism. There was gray hair all over his nightmarishly proportioned body.
I mouthed the words, but could not muster the sound. He stepped toward me, hunkering down like a man playing at being a beast, or a beast playing at being a man, yet being neither. I heard the tapping of his claws on the wooden floor, like knives dragging across a wooden desk. I was too scared to move. A great ice-like veil clung to me. It was my own sweat on my own clammy skin.
“Harry?” I mouthed the words again, and this time found my voice. “Harry, it’s me. Maddie.”
He dashed toward me in one smooth, blinking-fast motion, his fanged snout pressing its nose into my inner thighs. His nostrils sniffed and snorted, traveling up my legs into my nether regions, shoving upward into my cleft. His snout paused, then his nose sniffed again, and withdrew. I stared into those glowing yellow eyes— lunar-lobed and fierce— and did not notice the pee trickling down my legs until later.
The window burst inward, glass and wood shattering and scattering across the floor. Screaming, I threw my arms up to protect my face and to shield my eyes from the giant head that had entered through the herniated wall. Harry snarled and leapt at the beastly visage, raking and shredding the thick black fur in a flurry of crimson-streaked claws. The behemoth beast shrieked in surprise and pain, withdrawing from the bedroom. Harry leapt out after it, diving through the ruptured window and into the night.
I had seen enough. I ran upstairs, past the wood carving of the woman with her arms spread wide, and retreated into what appeared to be a bedroom. I went straightway to the windows and looked out into the yard below. I could hear Harry and that ursine behemoth fighting. The behemoth shook the ground with its ponderous step, creating earthquakes and scattering trees with the furious swipes of its limbs. It was difficult to see anything in that inky ocean of shadows. What I did see looked like a small hill on the star-clustered horizon, wobbling and quivering, bucking and rolling as a smaller figure climbed its rotund body. The forest itself was being leveled by their violent dance of claw and tooth. I could hear tree after tree falling to the ground. Sometimes the ursine monster would rear up on its hind legs, taller than the cabin and come crashing down like a bomb blast. Sometimes I would see Harry’s long tail trailing him as he was thrown away from the giant bear, or leapt atop it with a vicious frenzy of claws.
The fight went on and on through the night. I did not know who was winning. Sometimes the behemoth would shriek, and sometimes Harry would yelp. I stayed by the window, crumpled like a paper-doll, and listened in silent terror. Tears fell from my eyes. I knew nothing about the world now. All was upside-down and plunged into darkness. My wits were the weakest flashlight in search of meaning in this new nightfall of the soul. Illumination was meager, if not utterly futile. I could not cope. I could not reconcile. I could only make allowances, and so I did. Harry was a werewolf and he was fighting a bear that was bigger than the largest African elephant.
When I saw the first blazing crack of dawn, I collapsed against the window. I knew not why, but something told me all would be fine now; that the battle would be done soon.
The sunrise gilded the treetops a somber gold, like an egg yolk spilling across the greenery. I was roused by the ensuing silence, so loud against the cacophony of battle previously reigning. The hellish sounds fell clean to silence like violin strings snapping all at once. There was a long lull of soundlessness, punctuated only by the muffled sounds of dogs barking. Straining to hear, I was startled when the door downstairs creaked open and shut. I rushed downstairs on wobbly legs, weary with weeping and exhaustion and this ostensible psychotic break from reality that had happened throughout the night.
“Harry?” I said, both hoping and fearing what might answer me.
When I reached the landing, I saw Harry staggering slowly down the hall, denuded and human once more. His wolf-skin hung from his shoulders like a cape, but below it his bronzed body was streaked with crimson slashes that trickled red runnels, dripping onto the floor. I did not marvel at him. My instincts compelled me into motion. I hurried down the hall and helped him into the bathroom. Once there, I turned on the shower and cleaned his body of the mud, blood, twigs, and grime that lathered him. This done, he told me where his medical supplies were located. I found them in the pantry in the kitchen and thoroughly sterilized him with peroxide and antibacterial ointments. When I started to bandage him, he stayed my hand. He pointed to the wolf-skin that was hanging from the towel rack; filthy with mud and blood.
“No, I said. “It is dirty. You will get infected.”
One of his eyes was closed by a black knot. Below it, his cheek was lacerated and nearly flayed open. He spoke and the laceration started to trickle blood again. I did not think he would live.
“I need it to heal,” he said. “Take it and help me into the bedroom.”
I obeyed him, though I feared for his life as I did so. I helped him laid down in the bed. His wounds were still bleeding. Many of them were deep and needed stitches.
“I need to take you to the hospital,” I said.
He ignored me. “Lay my skin over me,” he said.
Again I looked at the dirty wolf pelt. It stank of blood and death, and so I hesitated.
“Now,” he urged me.
I draped it over him, fearful as I did it that I condemned him to a slow death of gangrene.
“Can I do anything else?” I asked.
He did not answer. He was already asleep.
Worried that he might die, I laid down beside him and watched him as he slept. As I laid there, however, the frights and the wonders of the night overburdened my mind and, in halting degrees, I fell asleep—unsure whether the vanishing lines of crimson in his face were my sleep-deprived fancy or a trick of the shadows and the morning light stealing in through the ruptured window.