UNDER ONE OF the hammock oaks, Bryan pours the last of the coffee from the thermos into the stainless mug.
The coffee would be good on ice, but it was strong coffee, and it would hold him over until they got to camp. The tiny flycatchers circling through the branches sing their echoes.
Across the only patch of light coming through the oaks, the hound mutt stretches, listening carefully to the flycatchers above. He remembers one of those mornings when he’d wake early and get out the old hiking boots, and the lanky and lean pup would start running in circles in the small apartment.
The pup knew what the boots meant, that the weekend had come, that they’d ride out in the truck. No radio, only the dim dash glow and check engine light and a few of the big rigs’ headlights breaking the early morning dark, riding out, she’d curl up beside him until he turned off the interstate. He would crank the windows to the cool wind, a long way from his New England home, the dog intently watching the empty gas stations and the doublewides and dew-covered jacked-up trucks, and then the bandana-wearing workers out at the tomato farms. Downing the last sip of coffee, shifting to overdrive, the old asphalt two-lane deepened into the country, he let the truck take them out. He knew they’ll have to head back in a few hours, the dog dead tired then, his boots dirt scuffed. But driving out past the farms, he tried not to think about heading back.
No one out yet at the trailhead, the man and the hound head out, the pup running ahead, her white stripped, narrow doe muzzle sniffing the wind, stopping to wait for the man, before running out again.
Those mornings were eight years ago. When they were alone. And now they are again, just him and the hound mutt.
Lying on her side, she watches him.
It don’t matter any, he says not loudly.
The dense cover of the oaks and creeping vines keeps out the afternoon light, but ahead the horizon opens to the white light of the open scrub.
No, it doesn’t, he says.
He downs the last of the coffee, and when he puts the thermos back in the pack, the hound mutt jumps up, and she runs ahead, along the overgrown trail, with her white-stripped, narrow doe muzzle sniffing the wind and stopping after a few yards to wait for the man like she did as a pup.
They hike past a smaller oak, the silhouettes side by side now, the tall man and the hound, towards the willow slanting over the dry marsh, and the sawgrass that cut his legs as they headed further into the light, his tiredness heavy like the pack, but he kept hiking across the scattered sawgrass and weeds of the land dead-level-flat, the black sandy soil dust dry until they walked right up to the edge of the creek. The water was cold and dark when he reached in to fill the thermos. He filled the dukjug too, so he could boil the water later. It would have to last. The hound waded muzzle high just before the creek dropped down into deeper water. After he put both containers back in the pack, he surveyed the open scrub ahead.
With the now-heavier pack on, he pulled the straps to relieve some of the pressure on his shoulders. He’d get used to it. He could feel the sun warm on his neck and arms. It wasn’t the sharp sun of July — but it was much stronger than that January sun back up in New England intangible when you rubbed your hands together to try to stay warm in the morning.
The ice layered overnight was smooth out to the trees where the first snowdrift piled. It looked fragile, atop two feet of snow, but you could walk out on the ice without pushing through if you stepped carefully, lightly. He rubbed his hands, but it didn’t make a difference.
His uncle lifted the hood, took a last look at the old small block.
“He wasn’t all bad, Bry,” his uncle said, “—wasn’t good. But he wasn’t all bad.”
“As long as I don’t end up anything like him,” the young man said.
His uncle reached in checking the new hose hooked to the radiator. It was a solid engine still.
“Don’t let her run hot.”
There is the wind in the morning, and the wiregrass in the rusted light, and palmetto and vines of the open scrub as far as he could see. It’s the third morning, a Tuesday.
The narrow trail turned east, and straight ahead the two-rutted ran to the north-northeast further into the scrub, everything flat and open for miles until the far border of the first of the pine flatwoods just visible.
Ready to go, Sandy girl? he asks, and in reply the hound mutt runs in a circle, and out to the two-rutted where she stops, waiting at the edge of the deep rut, her tail going crazy, until Bryan comes up, and they take the two-rutted straight as a plumb line. On the map, the trail was called Fox’s Low Road. They take it past the lone scraggly scrub oak, and the meadowlark nearly blended into the faded palmetto and brush, crossing the small rabbit tracks, past the yellow seedbox growing up from the thorns, the hound stops.
What do you smell girl? All I smell is me, and the wind.
The wind is like steel-just-sanded-bare, he thinks, or something like that.
Alert, intelligent feline eyes and long ears pointed, she sniffs the wind again. He never knew what breed the mutt was, but maybe she had some pharaoh hound in her.
Bryan looks back over the wiregrass and the scraggly oak just a scraggly speck in the middle of the rusted light. He stops to watch the falcon, flying low, hunting.
It flies above and north across the open scrub for a long time without changing course. With its long wings stretched wide, he thinks it’s a Peregrine.
He’s getting used to the ripstop nylon against his shoulders, the weight against his back, the sun on his neck. But he was feeling tired still. Just past the another oak surrounded by palmetto, the two-rutted forks, and they take it north.
The boy worried that if he stopped waiting his dad would never come back home. So he stayed there by the window as the cars came and passed. He would wake early sometimes before his mom and come downstairs to the freezing cold peeling from glass. First the work trucks through the dark morning would slow for the corner every minute, and then he would watch the minivans, and the new, shiny cars buzzing past, their headlights only dim on the road. He waited because his dad didn’t say how long he’d be gone.
Bryan looks into the soul of the small fire fading.
The hound mutt rolls over, itching her back on the pine needles.
He drops another snag pine on the fire and watches as the tiny bursts of flame rattle. That old birder with the Nikon they saw a few miles from the trailhead would probably be the last person they’d see for two weeks. The hound had stopped, her fur up, when she heard the camera’s clicking sound barely audible above the wind. Bryan had looked to where the man crouched, focusing into a tripoded camera with a long lens. Bryan had wished the man wasn’t there, but the man was just as startled when the hound let out a bark, and he almost knocked over the tripod. “Didn’t expect to see anyone out here,” the old birder said without moving after he had grabbed the tripod.
Bryan remembers the treats stowed in the big pack, and he reaches to the bottom compartment.
Treats, girl, he says when he finds them. The pup springs up, her fur covered in pine needles and the gray, sandy soil, and he gives her a milkbone, which she breaks in half with measured precision. One for eating and the other for digging in a shallow hiding place, the hound pushing the gray, sandy earth back over the milkbone with her muzzle.
He takes out the pint. I think I just might, he says. And he takes a draw. He had tried not to drink any more. At least not in some shitty bar or behind the colorless, chipping paint where unending manufactured thought pours through the walls. He takes another draw from the pint, and another, and he drops another snag and watches the soul of the fire coming back.
The whiskey coats his throat and sinks to his stomach with a warmness that left before the next sip.
The wind comes again, and the hound looks up to the moon. He takes another draw. It goes down smoother, but it no longer warms him, so he leans closer to the fire.
His mom stopped waiting, but the boy didn’t. The boy would pick up if he called, he would tell him just come home. You don’t need to bring a thing, the boy would have said. I don’t care if you won or lost it all. Just come home. That’s what he would have said. But his dad didn’t call. The boy kept waiting. Only three hours away, give or take, his dad had said before. That’s how far he was. Two hundred and twenty miles. His mom said it was four. His dad wouldn’t drive fast, but he never stopped.
He would just come in, tired, wearing his loose watch and bringing a surprise for his son and a story Mom wouldn’t want to hear. Because he’d been gone for so long, maybe he just wanted to surprise them. So the boy waited. When the white light bent vertexes into the frost and the heater started coming on with its steady metallic clicking, he sat with his feet under the old paint chipped metal. Outside the cars kept going by.
They reach the end of the trail map where the two-rutted stops and the firebreak goes out through the first of the slash pines and the half rusted sign:
WILDERNESS REFUGE: PERMIT REQUIRED. NO HUNTING.
He folds and stows the map he won’t need anymore in the smaller inside compartment that holds the bandana and the coffee supply, unsalted peanuts and dried cranberries in zip-lock bags and protein bars, and he hoists up the rucksack.
He doesn’t wear a watch, and the cell phone’s back in the truck. It wouldn’t work out here anyway. He doesn’t have any GPS or digital camera or one of those tiny video recorders, either. Everything he needs is in the big pack, with what he might need to reach quickly in the outside side compartments — in one compartment the old Leatherman, bandana, compass, water filtration tablets, the stainless thermos and two of the one-liter dukjugs and the bowl for the dog in the other.
The big pack snug against his back, the low sun to the east, and the pines growing up beside the two-rutted. They keep their line, the tall, steady silhouette and the light-stepping hound leading the way, smelling the scents left by nocturnal animals. They hike further. There’s one single pine taller than the others, and that is where they’ll camp. For a long time the pine does not get any closer.
When he stops for a minute and takes the dukjug from the rucksack, the hound stands beside him.
He wonders if he’ll see the falcon flying above again. This is her territory. They’re just passing through.
His uncle’s big canvas U.S. Army rucksack on his shoulders, he took the trail past the lake and past the old stone wall. The pack had his mom’s old last name. The boy stopped to check his bearing on the compass. He headed north.
Hiking up the pine ridge, his sneakers laced snug, solidly over rocks and roots, crunching across the dried pine needles and fallen branches. He looked up, following the sliding clouds. The pines solid and twice as tall as the ones back close to home. His uncle had told him they reach over a hundred feet when you go way past the lake, but he had never seen pines this tall. Soon he felt the thick shadows of the low forest. Not many had followed the trail here. He couldn’t go home, so he went further away from the cold glass. Away from waiting.
This was a forest. The boy named it Nowhere Forest. And he followed an unmarked line under his boots. He used the compass the way his uncle had showed him. He kept going, but the clouds moved faster.
He heard the flight and looked up to the falcon that came down and turned sharply, with two strong movements before soaring straight above. The boy turned and watched the falcon until it was gone.
He took out his sketchpad. The sun low, he didn’t have much time. He sat cross-legged before it and opened to the last blank page. He drew one line. Then another. Then the edges of pointed wings, and another line the smaller lines of the tail feathers straight back and another line the clouds. He drew it as real as he could.
The boy put the almost-completed sketch in the pack and shouldered it. He looked for the old stone wall. But he found only the shadows of the forest. The shadows sank. This was where the emptiness had first come. It was dark under the trees and colder, and he listened to his steps.
Still out in Nowhere Forest, far past the stone wall, he watched for the falcon above the pines and listened for the sounds of flight. He looked for a long time, only the clouds above the pines and only the sound of his steps. The tired sun disappeared, but its light stayed in the clouds sliding.
When the boy saw something flying across to where the land went down, he felt his heart beating faster. He turned, and saw it was the falcon. He went down the ridge, jumping over the downed pine, following the falcon. He’d learned in school how a bird’s heart beats faster than a human’s in flight, how light their hollow bones are. He knew how far the falcon could fly without stopping.
He closed his eyes, tightened his fists that were like anchors and he could feel his beating chest that no matter how much it swell and hurt wouldn’t let him fly.
The pine did not stand as tall as they did in Nowhere Forest far past the stone wall, but it stood solidly, its furrowed bark peeling, roots entrenched, the first branches covered in vines and moss. The largest of the top branches snapped by wind, the pine stood askew in isolation above the other slash pines that must grown after the area had been logged years ago.
Knowing they were stopping for camp, the hound lay under the solid pine. Dusk left everything a hard gray, the clouds and air gray, the low moon a fainter gray, and even the pines in the distance a bluer gray. Bryan lowers the pack and pours some water from the thermos into her bowl. The emptiness comes in the cool, dry wind.
He wishes he had some whisky left, just a few good sips, not for the emptiness — that would go away. But to ease his muscles a little.
The tired hound rests her muzzle on her front paws. She’s a hell of a good dog. He knew he had gotten lucky.
With the weight of the pack lifted, the wind feels cold between his shoulders. It comes through like it does before a heavy rain. But there would be no rain. He leans against the pine, stretching his arms, his shoulders against the hard, furrowed bark. He leans for some time, but with less than an hour of light left, he knows he has work to do, and he begins collecting the branches for the fire. The dog watches him carrying over a few of the larger snags, but her eyes begin to half close again.
He drags over a few more branches so he has enough to let the fire burn good, setting aside the largest for the makeshift kitchen table, and the hound mutt sleeps as he unpacked, unrolling the tent in the pines next to and propping the old, soft, warm sleeping bag and lantern beside the pack and finding a good level spot for the tin pot and the stainless mug and the bowl on the big snag. As he works, the wind takes some of the emptiness away.
He boils the rice water, stirring in herbs from the small zip-lock bag of dry basil, oregano, rosemary, and garlic salt. When he drops in the dried tomatoes, the hound awakes.
I know, he says. Rice never smelled this damn good, girl.
He puts the pot down and spoons some of the rice into the small bowl, mixing it with a cup of the dog’s food. The dog scoffs the food down, and with the first spoonful he realizes just how hungry he’d been, too. After the pot was scrapped clean, he feels full and a little sleepy.
He stokes the fire, layering the pine snags until the flames warm his boots as they spread through the leaning, cracking triangle. He sits against the rolled-flannel backrest of the wider pine. The dog watches for a few minutes with half-closed eyes, and after she falls back asleep, he studies the fire that’s small but stoked good now, the triangle of branches collapsing into the building flames.
ON THE FIFTH morning they head out through the last of palmetto and wiregrass. The forest of pines nears, some perfectly straight, narrow, some leaning, and out along the horizon to the north-northwest the pines are stacked so close there is only a thin line of light where the firebreak cuts through.
Without the full warmth of the sun yet, the pack feels good against his thin flannel.
He listens to the weightless, dry, steady wind, and the light steps of the hound, and the dissymmetric fog of clouds slides north. He follows them the way he did as a boy with his canvas handme-down pack on his shoulders and sneakers laced snug. The sun just coming up, the two silhouettes head into the pines again.
Do you remember, girl, the first day I picked you up? How you got your name?
I was taking you home from the no-kill shelter, you were less than six weeks old, small as a kitten. You started to tug at the leash in the parking lot and broke free from the too-big collar they gave me. You tore through the grass and into a pit of sugarsand and you started running in circles and digging in the sand. I was calling “Hey, Hey come here pup,” and whistling, to which you paid no attention. A few people were watching. As you were digging in the sand, I called “Sandy,” and you froze, just for a moment, and looked at me. Then you went back to digging in the sand. You knew you were free.
They hike further, the dog beside him now. A red-shouldered soars towards the sun. The tiny warblers dive back into the grass, and a thrush forages through the leaves and pine needles. Counting of pines, watching clouds move faster, he keeps reliable measurements, but not distance nor time anymore, even subconsciously. Here distance is like water in clouds. He straightens his back against the pack, feels the pull against his shoulders.
There are about two hours of light left when Bryan finally lowers the pack. He takes off his boots and socks, his toes sore from where they pushed up against the hardness of the boots. His bare feet on the pines fallen over so many years, he leans back against the pack. The hound comes and lies next to him. He thinks about all the preparations he’d have to make before dusk — he’d pile the snag branches, and leave another stack for the morning coffee fire, and set up the tent at the least — but there was time to do that.
We can rest a minute, he says to the hound.
White muzzle stripe covered in dirt, the dog curls up close against his leg. They’d hiked a good ways, and the dog soon falls asleep.
He doesn’t want to wake her, so he slowly stretches his legs slowly, leans back against the pine, and the hound sleeps heavily. He pets the hound’s flank where he sees the white fur spreading. Lying on her side, soon she kicks out her front paws, yipping softly, and kicking her paws again. She’s running in her sleep. The hound yips again, sprinting out after something. He hopes her dream is something good she could hold onto.
INSIDE THE TENT, he keeps the small lantern on. The hound curled at his feet doesn’t move. Curled against his thick socks that have started to wear in the heels, she sleeps soundly. He can feel her breathing.
It’d be good if he had something to read. Maybe that Marquesas book he read a long time ago. He tries to remember one scene. Or maybe the Hemingway story about the man in the café. He didn’t know of any clean, well lit places. Only dusty bars and dark, cold cafes filled with music from speakers and men who had just taken off ties and who wouldn’t take their eyes from the women. He knew many of those places, noisy but dead inside.
There was one good café. It had been the girl’s café first though, so it could never be his. It was a good café, and he remembered their corner table under the canopy.
They stayed at the table as the morning crowd came out. Two more walked by with their to go cups, bank women who’d be late soon. The untrimmed vines had spread across the canopy.
There was LaMontagne through the speakers and the metal creak of the FedEx parking on Murhpy and the snowbirds taking their own corner table. The old man sat before his newspaper and drank his third espresso.
“It’s noisy now,” Karia said. “But everyone is in their own world.”
The FedEx truck came down Murphy. The shorter snowbirds’ danish half eaten, he tells a story. One of the baristas came out and was saying something about the Marlins to the old man with his espresso. The old man had been sitting there with them in the quiet before the morning crowd settled in, and the man would stay after they were gone. The old man listened to the barista, only nodding his head when the barista talked about so and so choking in the ninth. The old man never said anything. After the barista went back in, he picked up the espresso cup and stood. This was the old man’s well-executed routine, standing above his café table and neatly take up the cup as he would every five seconds.
“You’re in your own world too, Bry,” she said when he turned to her.
He stands outside the tent and stretches, and so does the hound. After he has the small fire going, the hound comes up to sniff the open bag of coffee and she backs away after catching the strong odor. Bryan smiles and pours the non-measured heap into the press.
He sits and has his first cup, watching the smoky, remnant moon above the pines, and pours the rest of it into the thermos. He gives the hound the second-to-last milkbone from the bag before cleaning up camp, making sure everything is stacked good in the pack.
Out two miles or so the morning sun comes across, and when they stop the hound stands in the middle of the firebreak, smelling the wind, facing the sun, until he takes the thermos from the side of the pack, and she lays down, watching still, alert. After her night of deep dreams she’s ready to go. He drinks another sip of the still warm, dark coffee.
It sure is strong, he says, and the hound looks up. He feels the film on his teeth and some of the coffee grinds. He thinks of the old man at the café standing before his espresso cup. The old man didn’t ever say anything. He just stood there neatly holding the cup.
When Bryan shoulders the pack, the hound stands, stretches her front paws. The land waits. The same flat forest with the same thin pines, the same low, dissymmetric clouds block drifting. They hike out into the same stillness, the only sounds the squirrels dashing branch to branch with an acorn or half-torn mushroom.
WHAT HE REMEMBERS is the way she looked at him that same way she looked to the rain outside. The way she said his name slowly. That’s what he remembers.
He feels his stubble, and his boots hard against his toes. He smells himself.
Could she be wondering about him, where he is now? Does she think he forgot her?
Maybe he’ll grow a beard. He would. That’s a good idea.
He’ll quit his job. Find something else. He used to care about the work when he started, but he no longer did. They’d probably let him go soon anyway, like the others.
He has a few principles he should try to change. Focus on the good things. Maybe draw something again.
That’d be a good start. That and the beard, he says.
There was plenty he could add to the list. But there can’t be too much.
They finally come to the edges of where the fire had been, the pines charred on one side. Further in, the light comes down bright where the fire had burned the jagged palmettos to ash and splintered branches.
The firebreak hadn’t stopped the fire here, where the flames left everything black and the ground still smelled of smoke. He walks cautiously, trying to step over the fallen, splintered branches, and the hound follows just behind him, smelling the dry, burned soil.
The fire burned the way it was meant to burn, probably for weeks, striping even the tallest pines to skeleton where it burned hottest, leaving nothing underneath, not a blade of wiregrass or patch of brush.
The scarred land stretching for miles, the sunlight comes down over the leaning remains of the pines.
But the light would bring the first of the grass and the palmettos back after rain. Only the fully burned-through pines wouldn’t grow back. Further through the burned-through pines, the hound stops, fur up on her neck and pointing. She sniffs the tracks just smaller than a dog’s heading north.
A lone coyot, probably walking though to the unburned flatwoods.
He’s long gone now, Bryan says, but the hound follows the track until it disappears in the ash. The lone coyote might have come through maybe an hour before.
It rained three days straight. She said it made her feel like a kid, feel small in the world. She remembered the wind that came during those summer storms and the sound on a bungalow’s roof. She missed her mom.
Watching the rain with the hound curled there beside her, she said his name slowly —
“Bry, do you have any of your drawings?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why don’t you draw anymore?”
He didn’t have an answer for her or himself, and when she turned to him, he saw she was watching him like the rain. It was the first time he saw her sadness like that.
He looks out to where earlier he had watched the snag pines of the burned forest, but there’s only darkness. The small fire fades, and when he goes in to the tent, he feels sleep coming. The hound curls at his feet. Even with the wind, the man and hound sleep soundly. They wake an hour before the first light.
Pouring some of the coffee from the second and last zip-lock bag he packed, which is two thirds empty now, he listens to the first of the warblers.
THE LOW SUN shines brightly, so he pulls his hat lower. It’s all overgrown, and Bryan and the hound walk down the middle of the firebreak. After a while the firebreak turns through the oaks mixed with pines, and before it straightens there’s the snake across the trail, a rattlesnake just laying there in the sun, its angled head resting on the fat round part of its thick, scaled skin. He sees it too late. Sandy is in front of him, looking down at the snake three feet away, or less. The snake’s head rises. It’s too damn late. He should have seen it. Bryan moves so now he stands between the rattlesnake and the hound. The rattler isn’t going. He can’t bare the thought of carrying his dog limp out of the woods. He will do anything he could to avoid that.
Bryan has the dog by the collar when the snake strikes. He feels the fangs pierce flesh and the throbbing in the back of his neck, and then it’s over. The dog’s fur standing up, and she is growling from her chest as the snake slithered off.
He walks five steps, drops the pack, the hound stands beside him. The first aid kit in the bottom wouldn’t do him any good. Neither would his phone out here, even if he hadn’t left it back in the truck.
It was a good bite, the fangs stabbed quick but deep through flesh. He sits down.
He needs to lower his heart rate and blood pressure.
Needs to let the venom localize.
He closes his eyes. He could still hear the snake sliding away, even though it was gone. He feels the burning in his ankle, but it doesn’t hurt yet.
When he opens his eyes, the blood is seeping through his sock. That’s the anticoagulants in the venom. It’s probably 10 a.m. Bryan is not sure if he imagined it or if the snake really didn’t move at all—not even the rattler — as if it had made up its mind to strike.
The hound comes up, her head lowered. She tries to lick the wound, and he pushes her away. I should have seen it, he said.
Should have been looking — but I can’t start thinking like that. He knew one bite would have been enough to kill the dog quickly. He couldn’t bare the thought of carrying his dog limp out of the woods. That wasn’t an option. Less than .1 percent of humans died from rattlesnake bites. But it wasn’t good that it was a young eastern rattler, the worst rattler to encounter here. He would have a few days, though, and they would have antivenom at the ranger station.
He remembered when Karia said she wished he cared about her the way he cared about that dog. She knew how much the hound mutt meant to him, how he saved her when she was smaller than a kitten and how she was his only friend sometimes. He did care about the girl too. He was just scared about what that meant. He probably would have stood between her and the snake too, but she had been gone for more than a year so it didn’t matter anymore.
After what he guessed was not much longer than twenty minutes, he began to walk back. Just a line, he said, and the hound was watching him.
It’ll be alright. It’s just one line back, girl.
By night, they’d reach the other edge of the burned pines. If he could keep a good pace, by the following night, they’d be following the firebreak again where it cut south through the big pines.
Just one line.
The heavy snow began to fall. The boy had his sketchpad in the canvas pack, and he put his head down and hiked out, through the January New England cold unstopped by boots or gloves. Only the movement warmed him a little. He knew the places where no one would find him, the places he gave a name. He was a cartographer, a chronicler, and the emptiness came with the heavy snow. He had his sketchpad. He had some distance to go to Nowhere Forest and Shadows Ridge. So he would disappear further, the snow weighing heavy on barren branches, carrying silence. The stillness surrounds the boy and the light cuts the fog, the cold, white light awakening geometry into pieces. Bones heavy, his heart swells.
Somewhere near where they’d crossed the coyote tracks, he stops. His ankle burning, he feels dizzy. He looks out to the scarred landscape, guesses they’re forty miles north of the creek. That means a hundred miles from the trailhead. He can see the prairie, a broken stretch of horizon blurred. He takes out the thermos and takes a sip of the warm water. The hound didn’t want to drink, but she finally licks up some of the water as Bryan pours it into his cupped hand. It would have been alright, he thought, if they weren’t a hundred miles from the trailhead. It would have been just another stop to rest his legs from the hike. Just a place to listen to the breeze and cicadas set up camp. He feels sick to his stomach. The bite wound was getting redder and bumpy and the dried blood was crusted around the bite. He should have been looking. There was no way though that he would have seen it under the snag. Maybe he should carry antivenom or one of those GPS beacons. Hell, he didn’t even know where to get antivenom. He could blame himself, he could trace what he should have done, think about what he should have in his pack. Get it out of his system. He knew regret fully, and it was the one decision in a long time he didn’t regret.
Bearing his pack, they continue the line out.
Slower, the steps steady though. He will keep going. Cadence is important. And so is the plan — across the burned forest now, they head south. By the next dusk they will be hiking through the edge of the wilderness area.
AN ACT OF distraction, he brings over more of the snags and lights the fire. He won’t be eating anything now though.
The fire stoked, he sits close. He reaches in the pack, taking the folded trail map from the side compartment and searches for the point-dulled stub pencil he stowed in the pack a long time ago.
He begins to draw — an absurd act, another distraction. Turning the folded trail map over, he begins sketching with the pencil stub, first the falcon’s wings. He draws across the folded creases and wrinkles.
He closes his eyes. The fire still burning. He can feel the disorder of flame — can see the falcon flying above. With his eyes closed, he draws one more line.
Floorboards rusted, vinyl ripped, his uncle’s old truck worn, almost broken, but running strong, reserve tank full, he pushed it as fast as bald tires would roll through ice and snow for the last time. Alone, heading south. Only spruces as far as the headlights reached. The long bridge empty, passing the only rig on the interstate. At twenty two hundred rpm he ran through the night.
He awakes cold, with the map turned over on his chest, as if he had fallen asleep in some recliner before a reading lamp — It’s dark, not even 2 a.m.
The dog watches her master awakening. He traces along the sketched lines and the creases. He lies in the darkness, before he carefully folds the map and puts it back in the pack. He gets up and pisses.
I will finish it later, he says to the hound.
When they set out, the owls are howling somewhere far off. Again bearing his pack, listening to his steps, they set out. The rhythm slowed, his steps steady though. That is one good sign. He walks through big pines in the darkness, each step more numbing, lessening the pain inside his bone, but he feels the blood burning, no matter how he tries to ignore it — that’s the venom doing what it’s meant to through his veins. He wonders how much longer he can go. He tries to remember what day it is. Light comes slowly.
They walk for a long time, the hound right beside him, before he can see the creek. As the water nears, the moon is a lingering dream twisting through the dulled eddies. He hears a wren’s soft call, and he sits, letting the big pack fall. He breathes, but the burning returns as he crawls through the dried dark muck and reaches the cool water. He takes a drink. He isn’t worried about parasites or bacteria. The frayed light of morning spreads. What was he looking for? He was always looking for something, trying to fly and falling, and moving on. The cold of the water contrasts the broken, swelling skin around the bite marks. He should wash the wound, but it’s hard to move.
The hound nudges at his flannel, her muzzle cold. It was a half hour, or an hour, that he was out. The moon’s reflection is gone. He makes himself stand once again, and he takes the carefully folded sketch from inside the pack and puts it in his flannel pocket. He leaves the pack there at the creek’s edge, and he walks south slowly. The hound knows the way. He does not stop until he reaches the truck.
Roger Drouin’s short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in the journals Potomac Review, The MacGuffin, Grey Sparrow Journal, Pindeldyboz, Pif Magazine, and elsewhere. His debut novel No Other Way was published May 2012 by Moonshine Cove Publishing. His recent essays and articles have appeared in Grist.org, The Atlantic, Sugar Mule, EarthSpeak Magazine and The Explicator. Roger recently completed his MFA in creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. One of his favorite hobbies is to get almost lost way out in the woods. Some of his nature photography and environmental writing can be found on his blog, rogersoutdoorblog.com.