Dropping the final crate of jarred food to the floor, I slammed the cabin door shut bracing the cold. Lighting the wood stove before I began hauling my supplies likely helped a bit, but opening the door with each delivery lowered the temperature by several orders of magnitude. It was going to be a harsh winter. Just the way I liked it. I could barely wait for the thick snow drifts to pile against the door, embracing and insulating me once again.
After a decade of winter retreats in this, my outpost from the world, I knew that the cabin would warm almost as quickly as it cooled. The little pot belly stove in the corner was a superhero and would be performing miracles in no time.
I took a moment to sit with the silence. I had been looking forward to this for eight months, as I do with growing anticipation each year. The sudden lack of traffic, noise, and news. An escape from the ceaseless wheel of emotional cause and effect. This was my refuge. A singular celebration of self. And at the same time a rebellion against the sometimes violent absurdities that assault all of us throughout our lives.
My last pair of close friends never considered this annual journey inward to be a refuge, nor certainly, a celebration. In their eyes I was running away, giving up after what happened to Kylie and the impact it had upon Jennifer. But Kylie is gone, and Jennifer can not even express whether she needs me or not. I do my part. Working for three quarters of the year to make sure her room in the ward is paid well in advance. That she is fed and cared for as suitably as her condition allows.
I can’t blame my former friends for their concern. However, I refuse to allow their fears to lord over my choices. People are often like that. Their own well-intentioned anxieties constantly being wielded to bind others to their frameworks of safety and comfort.
My comfort for the next few months was stacked in wooden boxes across my floor. This bounty of food from the spring and summer was larger than any of my previous winters, though it had been threatened during the drive up.
These are wild lands at the best of times, but I was taken aback by the incredible tangle of trees that had fallen across the interstate. After six hours of road hypnosis the shock of the sudden bramble blocking the way caused me to overreact and nearly landed my truck in a ditch. The mason jars knocked and rattled as I wrenched the wheel back and forth to right myself. My food stores had been rattled and shaken, but not broken.
After organizing the dry goods in the cabinets, I began to sort the canned vegetables. I could tell that something was off immediately. The mason jars looked dark. Darker then they rightfully should given their contents. The canned green beans in my hand looked as if they were steeped in earl grey tea and tiny bubbles were forming below the lid. I retched when I opened the first jar. After the second, I decided that I could distinguish between the good and bad by sight alone and spare myself more of the putrid smell. My spirits fell with each examination.
All in all, it seemed that I had lost three quarters of my winter supply. The green beans, carrots, cabbage, corn… all of it bore some unknown taint. I tried to make sense of it. I had just loaded the jars yesterday and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. I had been canning for well over twelve years and was meticulous with the sterilization procedures. I had no idea how this could have happened. The gravity of the situation set me well on my way to a mood just as foul as the rotten liquid I had released into my cramped space.
Most of my meals would need to be light on vegetables and heavy on rice and dried beans for my entire stay. All the way through to spring. I had enough to sustain me, though the lack of produce would certainly impact my morale.
After organizing the paltry remainder of my viable vegetables, I segregated the bad jars into the cabinet under the sink. I looked out the window, tempted to put them outside, but steadfast in my sense of responsibility to the local wildlife.
It was then that I first saw the figure. It was out on the horizon at the edge of the forest, probably four hundred feet away, just visible in the frosty air and through the barely translucent window pane.
The shape was reminiscent of a human figure. Though it was twice as large and proportioned abnormally. It was formed from a tangle of twisted boughs and branches. Little specks of light, like distant twinkling stars, peeked from mass in its oversized torso.
The light of the setting sun dampened and the visage was gone. I smiled, realizing that my mind was already starting to play tricks on me. It’s funny how quickly that can happen out here.
Lack of stimulus was a drug like no other. Even a small taste of stillness and the mind comes out to weave sounds, images, and stories in unbridled flurries. It was frightening at first, but had become a treasured part of the experience for me, over the years.
I suddenly found myself ravenous. There was no possible way I would allow myself to open any of the good jars yet, so my options were limited. I knew that in time, the mono diet of beans and rice would take root and the cravings for variety would subside. Eventually I would introduce some diversity into my diet in order to lift my spirits. But only when necessary.
My days were structured and repetitive, passing in rapid succession. Coffee and fire. My wooden bowl. Meditation and my book. A small plate, and nighttime tea. As the cabin grew quieter and warmer the outside grew louder and more impending. The wind and thickening flurries visited one night, then another, then consistently. The snow began to pile and my surroundings were dulled in their intensity leaving room for my thoughts. Each day I felt more and more alone. Embraced by the pristine silence.
My stomach was growling the morning that the gift was delivered. I had bargained with myself, deciding to open the cabbage for dinner later that evening, when I caught the image of something alien through the window. A dark shadow on the snow out front. I could not make out the shape through the frosted window pane, so I opened the door. I stood there dumbfounded for some time.
Two wild hares, furry and plump, were strewn across the stoop. Breaking my paralysis, I lifted one and inspected it’s limp body. There was no obvious sign of injury or sickness for that matter. Not only did the rabbit appear healthy, but it was still warm in my hand. These two hares had died recently. And right on my doorstep it seemed.
I scanned the yard and the woods and finding nothing out of the ordinary, carried the hares inside, bolting the door behind me. I mentally concocted a hundred stories explaining the ways in which their deaths could have occurred. Every tale, each more absurd, served to prove to myself that they were safe to eat.
All through the butchering my monkey mind would point and say “See that, healthy flesh. No growths, no puss, no disease. Just a perfect wild hare like you would buy from a butcher”. The mind is a cunning beast when faced with even minimal discomfort.
That night and the following days were quite comfortable for me. I spent three days mostly beside the fire, in my blanket, with my book in one hand and a searing rabbit stew beside me. I had been rather indulgent in adding my dwindling carrot supplies to the stew, but it was that much better for it.
Two days later the meat was gone. Three days later I awoke in agony.
Falling out of bed I found myself doubling up and fighting for enough breath to scream. It tore at my insides like wild animals trying to escape a trap. My mind raced. Tainted food and tainted meat. Poison. I had poisoned myself, by vegetable or hare, I could not be sure. Botulism. E-Coli. What did they do to the body? Would they kill you? How do you treat them? I fought to remember anything I may have learned or heard about food-borne illnesses but my mind could only seem to continue to uselessly list names of conditions. Cholera? Listeria?
Thinking ceased as my spine wrenched backwards against the wood floor, dragging splinters into my shoulders and back. My vision was obscured by crimson flames fueled by the pain that licked and stung from my core. For a moment I could actually visualize the pain, tearing open my stomach and leaving ragged edges of torn flesh hanging over my side until the darkness abruptly blanketed me as thickly as the snow piling against my outpost.
Awaking some time later I found myself whole. In fact, outside of the scrapes and splinters on my back, I felt reasonably well. There was no lingering pain. No visible injuries. I was not even nauseous. In fact I felt robust and ravenous. Though I was also not delusional and remained dubious about my condition.
In less than two weeks I had lost more than half of my food supply and managed to poison myself. I could deal with the restricted diet. Hell, my diet was restricted even between retreats due to the cost of Jennifer’s long term care. But the violent reaction I had to my careless feast. That was something that I was unwilling to gamble with.
I sighed and my shoulders slumped at the thought of having to drive into town. To speak to the receptionist at the hospital. Talk to nurses, doctors, each with their own brand of feigned interest in my life, each offering trite responses to any personal information that I was forced to share. I only hoped that I could get through a quick checkup and return with a clean bill of health and a truckload of groceries before the mounting weather barred the possibility of returning until spring.
After some preparation I found myself sitting in silence in the cab of my truck. That silence continued unchallenged after each turn of the key. I turned it softly. Then hard. Fast and then slow. Nothing.
“Shit.” I shoved the door open and spit as I exited. First the food, then a poisoning and now my fucking truck was playing dead? My understanding of cars was almost non-existent but even I was able to determine the issue as soon as I popped the hood. In the compartment where the battery was typically found, sat a jumbled box formed from dried twigs, vines and weeds. What was happening here? Who did this? I scanned the surroundings for the lost part, prints in the snow, tools, or any other indication of sabotage.
I continued my investigation until my hands started to seize and my teeth rattled me back to the present. It wasn’t here. The battery was gone, replaced with madness, and there was no sign of a culprit. Though I had brought five gallons of spare gasoline with me, I certainly did not bring a spare car battery.
I spied the truck for hours through a clear corner of the window, taking the occasional bite of my rice and beans. My hands continually rubbed my stomach, searching for any sign of the nausea or pain returning. Physically I was fine, but my mental state was quickly becoming less seemly.
It made no sense. There was no sane explanation that would set my mind at ease. There was no plan or action I could come up with to ease my worry. I’m stuck here. I am under some strange assault. And someone is out here with me. I am not alone. My mind seized upon that last thought and held it tight until it became a constant and imposing mantra. I am not alone. I am not alone.
Unsurprisingly, sleep did not come easily that night. Not at the start and certainly not after the noise started up. It was a light but rapid noise. Tapping for a moment, silent and then again. I lay paralyzed, trying to determine the source of the intermittent click-clacking that drew my attention from one corner of the room to the other, to the ceiling and then to the floor, and at times from different positions simultaneously.
A cacophony of shattering glass broke my paralysis and I shot from bed. The moment my feet hit the frigid floor a burst of scattering noises erupted before silence was restored. My shaking hands managed to break one of my oil lamps before I was able to light the other and surmise the destruction.
It was the kitchen. All of the mason jars had tumbled out of the cabinets and lay broken across the floor, even the ones beneath the sink had somehow been destroyed in their short fall. Putrid liquids were seeping through the gaps in the planks and through the loose piles of rice and beans, their sacks shredded and jettisoned from their former abodes.
There was not a single good jar left. Not even a handful of untainted rice in the corner. This was everything. Every portion of sustenance I had left. It was my mortality I was staring at. On display across the floor. The polluted having corrupted the pure. I was out in the middle of the woods, far from help. No transportation. No communication. No food, only water. It was fate now, unmistakably. My destiny was to die of slow, painful starvation.
As I fell into my chair my eye caught upon something out of place near the foot of my bed. The vent at the base of the wall was pulled away. Bent several inches out from the wall, with a single mangled screw hanging from it’s end. Jammed in the opening between the vent and wall was a bundle of sticks, twigs, and small bits of white that reminded me of bone. I only saw it for what it truly was after I had extracted it.
It was a hare. The likeness of a hare formed from black and oily twigs, just the same size and shape as the ones I had found and consumed.
I was in action before my mind could formulate any coherent reasoning. I dropped to the floor, peering into the duct, looking for any sign of another. I moved my lantern closer until I could see the back wall of the duct. Nothing.
I took the twig rabbit that I had extracted and put it on the floor, enclosing it under a wooden milk crate which I sat upon at once. Using some paracord and the iron poker, brush and dustpan from the stove, I fashioned a little jail cell out of the milkcrate. A little prison. Holding a singular prisoner. A small monster that I had somehow been tricked into creating in my naivete and pain.
This was, of course, madness. I knew that. But sometimes madness and truth were indistinguishable. This was something that I was far too accustomed to accepting. Though at least I could say that I faced this fact. While my peers seemed content to scurry around it and shield themselves with the mundane, their careers, or more and more, actual painkillers.
I sat hunched staring into the little prison upon my table, trying to ignore the growling in my stomach. Starting to growl in my chest. This thing just sat there. Still. While I slowly consumed myself before it. Silent and knowing, seeing every part of me. Mocking me in it’s stillness.
“I’m just a bunch of sticks and you’ve gone mad.” I could almost feel the thing smirking. “You’re sitting, watching sticks in a box and telling yourself it makes sense. Years of solitude have finally broken you. Your daughter died and your wife is catatonic living in a room that she will never leave. Her mind lost in a labyrinth that it could not escape. You ran and isolated yourself until you snapped. You’ve destroyed everything and everyone around you and now you’re waking up in your sleep and arranging these tableaus in order to drive yourself to suicide. You’ve chosen to starve yourself. That’s what you’re doing. And you don’t even know it. Don’t even know yourself. You’ve lost your mind just like your wife, only slower.”
I shot up, grabbing the cage and shaking it in fury. I was not fucking crazy. I’m not doing this to myself. I know myself and I’m being attacked. Attacked from the outside. And some part of me realized that this creature was a limb of my attacker. I screamed and shook the little prison with escalating desperation at the lack of response from the prisoner.
“Wake Up!” The animalistic outburst tore from my throat, unrecognizable and startling. Falling silent I realized that there was another anguished cry beneath my own, seemingly erupting from the vastness of the horizon in the west and shaking the earth itself beneath the floorboards.
I burst out of the cabin, the cage banging against the door frame, causing renewed alien cries from the west. Maybe fifty feet out, at the edge of the dense wood was the master. He had to be thirteen feet tall and his arms were raised to the sky as if to strike at the gods themselves.
It was perfectly still, frozen in it’s torment. I remained still for a moment as well, before the smile crept across my face.
I shook the box as violently as I could, slamming it’s resident from side to side and against the makeshift iron bars. The pleading sounds of agony rose in volume, cutting through the air, as my rage rose to meet them. I was fighting for my survival. I would not die here. Not starve. My ferocity was pure and primal.
And stupid. And misguided. And an utter failure beyond all comprehension.
The climax of my orgiastic attack on the prisoner and in turn, it’s master, ended when I smashed the miniature prison against a stone hidden beneath the snow. My folly reaching a crescendo as I rolled over my ankle and planted myself face first into the biting snow and ice.
When I rose, my heart sank. Before me was no more than a pile of short boards tied to bent iron tools. The prison was destroyed by my own hands. The prisoner released. And neither it, nor it’s sire were anywhere to be seen. I had only taken my eyes off of the predator for a moment, but it had clearly been enough to release them, and allow them to flee.
For a moment I had held an advantage. The monster’s fetch locked in my box. A way to hurt the daemonic thing that shared these barren lands with me. And I had forsaken it. Left myself hopeless, powerless and almost certainly destined to waste away to nothing.
And I did waste away, night after night, mostly sleepless, and increasingly more uncomfortable.
The sun rose and fell. My stomach raged and settled. My mobility diminished and the cabin grew colder. I knew it would happen eventually, one morning I would not have the energy to bring in another cord of wood. Things would progress quickly from there.
And then, after five days without food, I was brought another “gift”. A bounty actually. But one that would demand untold pain and commitment to accept.
I bent down, taking my right glove off and pressing my bare palm to the warm neck of the buck spread across my porch. As with the hares, there was no sign of foul play. No blood or taint that could be seen by the eyes or detected by the nose. Just a stunningly beautiful beast with a strikingly symmetrical rack of antlers.
I dragged the carcass into the cabin and shut my door against what was truly lurking out there. Madness trying to feed me from the edge of the world. Trying to extend its reach and its dark legacy. Using me as a medium to spread its sickness.
There was no deliberation. No contemplation or question of what must come next. I simply acted. I hauled a box of supplies inside, some from the shed, and some from my truck. I spent the day butchering the deer as quickly as I could and dragging the unusable remains out into the snow. By dinner time I was feasting on the backstraps. By midnight I was bloated and blurry, and considered my preparations complete. I allowed sleep take me. I would need my strength for the coming ordeal.
Three well fed days later, it began much the way it had before. Only far more intense. One moment I was sipping on some pine needle tea and the next my body was thrashing like an animal. I knew what to expect and fought with all my might to remain conscious, even as red clouds filled my vision. My shirt tore and became indistinguishable from the ragged hole in my torso. I was wide open, in the chaotic throws of of birth.
The moment I saw a corrupted branch protrude from the opening, all went black. It was not something I could bear. I had been a fool to think that I could remain conscious through it. But I was, regardless, prepared.
I shot from the floor and confirmed my success the moment I regained consciousness. I was not alone. It was here with me. A five foot mass of matter sculpted and bound into a crude representation of a buck, horns and all. It’s leg was clamped and held by the bear trap I had bolted to the floor joists just after my first venison supper.
I circled my quarry once or twice in admiration, but wasted little time before swinging the front door wide. Just as I had hoped, the beast of branches was visible from the door and facing me directly. I knew that it saw me. I could feel it’s stillness gripping my shoulders as if ready to shake me to my foundation. I kept eye contact with the daemon as I flaunted the hacksaw in my hand and turned back inside.
I could not help but shudder as I dragged the serrated blade across the hind quarters of the silent but sentient creature in my living room. I also shuddered with excitement when the beast’s cries rang out from the edge of the woods. One incision only. Just a blooding. A strictly controlled demonstration in service to my strategy. Stomping back out into the snow, I opened the hood of my truck and removed the bundle of twigs that sat in mockery of my battery.
I held it high above my head before hurling it towards that imposing tangle of detritus that had invaded my world. My sacred space. Having made my message clear, I returned fireside.
I waited until sunset before checking. When I did, I found that the battery had been returned to its proper place. After reattaching the wiring she turned over smoothly. It worked. I had the means to leave this place, once and for all. I was packed up and backing out of the driveway in no time. The last thing I would do would be to squander another opportunity for survival.
I was ten feet from the cabin when I heard what sounded like hundreds of trees cracking and falling. I did not see the monster move. I did however see that it was no longer where it had been moments before and that the front door of the cabin had been torn from its hinges, swinging cockeyed in the freezing wind.
My gaze fell upon the tracks. There were three sets, one large, and two others small, leading into the cabin. The whole family was home now. It had once been my true home. The only home I ever had that remained untouched, untainted. But it was now being occupied by forces which I cannot comprehend. My sacred space now belonged to something else. Something far more threatening than the cruelty of everyday life.
I left the engine running as I leapt out. I could just make out the interior scene, back-lit by the glow of the wood stove. The inhabitants were perfectly still. An oversized monstrosity crammed between the low ceilings and the buckling floor, with one hare at each side poised beside the trap that bound their bulkier brother.
The whole family was home. Complete and whole. But not for much longer.
I dragged the zippo across my jeans, and touched the small flame to the stream at my feet. It spread through the air above the rivulets that lead through the sunken stream to the porch, and finally to the wide pool of gasoline in the crawlspace beneath the floor.
I held my eyes wide against the heat, locked onto the shape of the daemons inside. For it seemed to be my gaze that held these creatures paralyzed and I would not risk their escape, even with a single blink. I stood transfixed until they were no more. Until my retreat was no more. Comforted both by their destruction and the sound of the engine chugging behind me.
It was time to return to the world. To simplicity. To the never-ending emotional echo chamber of mundanity. To all the messy noise and constant onslaught of people who served only to reflect the worst parts of each other. To the obvious and transparent monsters. And away from the ones that lurk in the dark corners of the wild.
I smiled uncontrollably and banged on my steering wheel as I sped to town. I had really done something. Survived an ordeal that few others could even imagine. And I had been victorious. I was absolutely beaming when I arrived and even fantasized about telling my tale to the gas station attendant the moment I pulled in. He would think I was crazy but that fact did not bother me in the least.
Spotting the Texaco station I pulled up to the pumps. I switched off the engine and froze as I caught the sight outside my passenger window. The gas pumps were in fact no more than twisted branches wrangled into a rectangular shape with braided vines approximating the pump.
All down main street they stood frozen on the silent streets. A dark dead tree in the shape of a streetlamp. Vines crossing the road with lantern like boxes hanging from them, where traffic lights should shine and guide the populous. Creatures too. A stag on the road. Squirrels on the corners of squat buildings. And not only animals.
I saw what appeared to be men. Women and children as well. Statues of them in black decrepit vegetative matter. Behind counters. Behind steering wheels. Along the road and in the windows of their homes. Twisted travesties of every single person in town. Staged, silent and still.
What I experienced at my outpost was not confined there. It had spread to town, maybe throughout Maine. Maybe even worldwide. Who could say?
It could be. It could be that I am now wholly, completely, and unquestionably alone.