by Premee Mohamed
The woods are watching me. Or no, let me clarify – I don’t mean ‘the woods,’ singular plural, consisting of trees, dirt, sky, and moss. Not exactly. I mean the things in the woods, the animals, or maybe just one thing, one animal, something with eyes…I’m sorry. Let me start over.
The woods started watching me when Cavanaugh disappeared.
The invite was made last year, at his tiny cabin tucked between the creek and the trees, juggling venison steaks on the grill: “Ben, come with me next year. Don’t waste the drive; whatever we shoot, we’ll split. ” And so, be-tagged, be-gunned, in my safety orange, I came on Monday. A perfect autumn day—clear and still with golden leaves hanging on the aspens like coins, a skiff of frost on the mud. I hadn’t been hunting since I was a kid, but it stays with you. Cav laughed when I said so. “It does,” he said. “Look how quiet you’re putting your feet down. We’ll have a freezer full of eats in an hour.”
But it was five hours before we saw our first buck, meaty and sleek with a dainty six-point rack. Cav semaphored with blinks: his shot. I squatted in silence while he set up. A crack, a crash; the buck flung himself through the brush as I ran to look for sign on the frozen ground. “Did you get him? I don’t see any blood.”
“Sometimes the hit plugs the flow for a minute. Let’s track. Brother’s got barbecue written all over him.”
A thing in pain will rush downhill, seeking to save energy and blood, trying to get a lead on its enemy; but the traces we found of the buck went up, till finally the trees got stunted and mean, the leaves no longer gold but gray. It was Cavanaugh who found the cave; we stopped in the entrance, catching our breath.
“He never went in there,” I said.
“Animals do funny things when they’re hurt,” he insisted, fumbling for his lighter. The tiny, shivering light illuminated a few feet of black stone walls, a stone floor paved with leaves. Were they disturbed, had a path been made? I couldn’t tell. It smelled like animal though—unwashed, rank, sweaty fur and sour secretions. A warm, odorous breeze fought with Cav’s lighter.
“No deer would—” I began, then saw something in the fading flame. I picked it up, sure that it was bone, but no—a piece of chalk. Just ordinary, schoolroom chalk, half worn down. I weighed it in my hand, then tossed it off the edge. “Weird.”
“Yeah—ow!” Cav brought his hand to his mouth, sucked, spat red into the cave. “Jesus. Cut myself on the rock. Let’s go. Damn bad luck.”
We trudged downwards, hanging onto the saplings at either side of the path, funny how uphill becomes easier than downhill as your knees start to go. “How you doing, you old bastard?” I said, and turned to see the empty path.
May I never forget the pure sharpness, the clarity, of that moment of panic. “Cav?” Beating the bushes, calling, scaring birds out of the trees. And knowing, somehow, that he was gone—hadn’t slipped off the trail and fallen to his death, hadn’t gotten ahead of me to the truck. Was just gone. I returned in silence, throat raw from yelling. Texted, called: nothing. Finally there seemed to be an answer, but it was just a click and then the chuckle of running water. I thought: The worst, the worst has happened.
Yeah, I called the local police. They asked the usual: name, age, description. And then, very strangely: “Well, we’ll send search and rescue, but I gotta tell you, sir, we’d be more likely to get out there for a kid or whatnot. Y’know. Takes a little while to organize. A forty-eight year old guy with some woodcraft, he’ll be fine. The woods’ll look after him. You’ll see.”
And since then I’ve been in the cabin, nape prickling, intensely watched, as raw as a nerve. I called Alece to say I loved her. “Ben, you silly creature,” she laughed. “You could have just texted. How’s Cav doing? Send him my love! You boys shoot something real big, OK?”
At least I did that. A small comfort. Afterwards, I bolted the wooden shutters and drew the blackout curtains, and I’ve been hiding here in front of the fire ever since. But of course the problem with blocking the windows so nothing can see in is that I can no longer see out, and so I can’t tell, exactly, what is making that scritching noise outside, that cozy, creaturely, third-grade noise, of someone or something scribbling with chalk on the wall of the cabin, the one that faces into the woods.