They take me out hunting for strays. They stride through the woods and shout. They practice propping guns on their shoulders and breaking them in half so the empty shells tumble to the ground. Sunlight breaks through the trees to illuminate kaleidoscopic patterns on the forest floor. Pine needles, fallen leaves, patches of dirt. I’m small and constantly underfoot. The pack of stray dogs barks in the distance. These are the first things I remember. Gunshots. Popping sounds. Little bursts of gray powder blooming from the end of each rifle.
Of course there are things before the first things: a stone farmhouse, warm meals served on white plates, a large room filled with narrow beds tucked with wool blankets. But this hunt is my beginning. The kids fanning through the forest. The slow-motion ballet of soundless steps. The silent chorus of raised rifles.
A bearded man orders the children to circle up and divide into groups. A brother and sister pull my ears and claim me. They say that I’m their lucky charm. The siblings are pale with spindly legs, denim shorts, floppy hiking boots. We set off into the heart of the woods. The boy’s crew cut ends in a braided rat’s tail. He flicks it back and forth across his shoulders. They both have beady eyes and big noses. There’s something else on their faces, but it’s not clear yet.
There’s something wet on my palms. Maybe it’s blood, or
only reddish mud
The boy hisses at me to keep up. My legs are sore, but I’m determined not to complain. There’s a chill from the intense shade of the forest. A trickle of snot tickles my upper lip. A pebble bounces around inside my shoe. When I break into a trot, I stumble on a tree root and fall. There’s something wet on my palms. Maybe it’s blood, or only reddish mud. I can’t quite remember. The girl grabs my hand and tugs. She says: “Faster.”
An adult blows a whistle and the hunting parties halt at a blacktop road. We cross the highway together and pause in a clearing. Everyone stands so still that horseflies start to land on us. I see it now: Everyone wears masks on their faces. Black masks with sequins. White masks with feathers. Red masks with long crooked noses. Even I’m wearing a mask. Several adults crouch by a patch of raw dirt to examine the fresh claw marks left by the pack of dogs. You can hear the faint echo of harried yelps and shivering leaves as the animals hurtle through the bushes.
The dogs bark more loudly in the distance. The siblings have loaded me down with a backpack. The nylon straps dig into my shoulders. There’s a canteen in the outer pouch and the water tastes like cold metal. The siblings are silent, they converse by shifting the whites of their eyes. They seem to be intently following some unmarked trail. The boy scouts ahead and marks the path with spit.
The other groups are nowhere to be seen, but the hunt surges around us. Bristling undergrowth. Rattled birdsong. Nearby gunshots. The boy and girl throw their masks into the bushes. I follow. We stop and listen to a series of high-pitched whines. My throat tightens. I know it’s the sound of a stray dying without knowing how I know. It’s a terrible sound. The siblings clutch their guns tighter. They’ll go off in a minute, not yet.
We rest by a tree stump. The girl removes a pack of cigarettes from her shorts and the siblings light up. “We’re not normally bad at hunting,” the girl says to me. “Even though we haven’t bagged a dog yet.” They pull the smoke into their mouths and exhale, over and over. Their faces seem ancient. The boy makes perfect smoke rings. I pucker my lips and pretend to blow circles in mute admiration. Maybe they’ve brought me along to teach me something. They whisper.
We stand in a clearing with a small tree. The girl kneels ceremoniously on the grass. The boy instructs me to sit with my back against what feels like a tree. The girl shakes some rope from the backpack and wraps it tightly around the slender trunk. I mean, they wrap the rope tightly around me. They remove some jars from the pack and unscrew their aluminum lids. They smear my entire body with runny chunks of dog food and slimy kitchen grease. Some of the gritty brown paste sticks in my eyes and I blink it away. There’s a word they each keep using. The boy stammers. He says: “B-bait.”
Even now I can still smell it: a foul stench, like overly sweet spiced meat that binds me firmly to the clearing. The boy and girl shoot at the trees and watch the frenzied birds scatter into the far corners of the sky. They’re waiting for the dogs to arrive. Insects crawl onto my hands and swarm my knees. Ants, mostly. A butterfly lands on my elbow, purple wings still as its body twitches. It gets stuck in the tacky paste, its feet frantically pumping up and down.
I can’t stop coughing. My throat gags. I won’t let myself cry. The wind has fallen dead and the metallic chirp of the insects accompanies the siblings as they submerge themselves in the bushes at the rim of the clearing. The round black holes of their guns flit between the green leaves like a pair of watchful eyes.
I have no idea where the siblings have gone. I call for help but there’s no reply. I can’t remember when they left. I’m having trouble keeping up with what’s happening. The streaks of food have hardened and it feels like I’m trapped inside a thin shell. The sky turns the color of a peeled orange. The edges of the woods vanish into nothingness.
We gaze into each other’s eyes. They begin to lick my face
with their rough tongues.
The night is populated with shining green eyes. The pack surrounds me. They sniff the air and growl. Twitching noses, bristling whiskers. I hold perfectly still. When one of them bares its yellow teeth, I start to wail. A wet warmth spreads through my pants. They circle closer. Their movements are tentative and hobbled. Their thick brown coats are matted with tufts of dried blood. I’m surprised to find their faces are kind. We gaze into each other’s eyes. They begin to lick my face with their rough tongues.
The ropes I’ve been tied with are slippery. Maybe they’ve been this way all along. I wriggle loose from the tree, arch my back, and stretch my body. The clearing is empty. The moon is bright overhead. Bits of its light are mirrored in the shiny surfaces of the leaves. A breeze combs through my hair and clothes. I feel strangely happy.
I walk in a perfectly straight line through the forest. I don’t know if this is the proper route, but I keep moving.
The house appears in the distance. The stone farmhouse with the warm meals and the room full of beds. The place is lit up like an ocean liner. A silhouette of a boy waves to me from a bright upper window. I stall at the front gate with my hand on the latch, wary of the reaction to my return. A group of adults and older kids gathers in the yard. I can’t recall their actual faces. The adults tell me that dinner is waiting. Nobody acts as if anything strange has happened. An older woman with calloused hands helps me change into fresh clothes, then leads me into the kitchen. I sit by myself on a wooden stool at the counter. The vegetable soup is still hot.
I lie tucked in my bed in the large room. The rows of bodies next to me are already asleep. My eyes are shut, but I’m sifting the day’s events for explanations. I suspect I’m remembering things wrong. Maybe nothing unusual happened after all. There is only the hypnotic sound of breathing, the enfolding comfort of clean sheets, the warmth of the wool blanket pulled to my eyes.
Several nights later, I creep out of the pitch-black house, careful not to wake anyone. I venture back into the woods. Branches scrape my cheeks. Puddles soak my shoes. In the distance, several strays bay at the hidden moon.
The same clearing. The same sapling. I kneel on the soft grass in front of the backpack and unzip the inner pouch. I couldn’t find rope to bring, but I pull out jars slopped full of leftovers. I sit with my back anchored against the tree and slather food over my body. It smells strong, a mix of syrupy perfume and tangy mold. I wait for the strays to return. I try to remember the exact shape of their eyes.
Every time the wind scatters the clouds, I howl at the white moon. Nothing stirs. The woods remain hushed. They keep their own counsel.
The grass swirls in complex patterns. The surrounding bushes creak and rattle. A man breaks into the clearing. His familiar shape remains blank. I wrap my arms around the trunk, but I’m too exhausted to fight.
I ride through the woods on the man’s back. My elbows rest on his shoulders, my legs dangle through his arms. The rhythm of his steps rocks me toward sleep, though the feeling is less like settling into a dream than waking from one. The man lurches forward, and I steady myself. My fingers fumble against a swath of fabric. He’s wearing a mask.
Waves of darkness, created by swiftly moving banks of clouds, roll through the forest.
The lights of the stone house blink on in the distance.
I can’t get rid of this smell.
Jeff Jackson is the author of the novel Mira Corpora, forthcoming in September from Two Dollar Radio. As a playwright, he has had four works produced by the Obie Award–winning Collapsable Giraffe company. He also runs the popular jazz website Destination: Out. He lives with his wife in Charlotte, NC.