by Douglas Cole
The sunlight was fading, and now it was dark enough that I couldn’t see very far ahead of me through the dense woods, which meant that whoever was after me wouldn’t be able to see very well, either. Come, darkness, I thought, come on. Then I saw a beam of light shoot down through the trees about half way down the hill below me, a spotlight from above. I could feel the burn of those eyes. And it circled, that spotlight, sweeping thought the trees, trying to search me out. Then I heard an amplified, mechanical voice coming up from down below, but I couldn’t discern what it was saying.
Then I hit a small plateau, an opening in the trees, and I ran across the clearing where I could see ahead of me. On the other side I re-entered the forest and hiked as fast as I could through the denser woods, climbing over fallen tree trunks and rock outcrops. I hadn’t reached the invisible line in my mind that marked that I had gained enough distance to be able to stop, even for a moment. Right now, it was go go go. No road comes this way, of course, and there’s no place to land anything in all of these trees, no clearing big enough, so if they were going to follow me, they would have to follow me on foot. And I figured that they didn’t know where I was exactly at this point. The forest spread out from my father’s house in all directions. And I had the advantage of the lead and some knowledge of the land.
After a while, the buzzing from above seemed to drift on to the west, and I no longer heard the amplified voices. I slowed a bit and tried to get my bearings. I didn’t want to go in circles inadvertently. I knew I had to keep ascending and get across the ridge and into the next valley. From there on, it was open wilderness for thousands of miles, essentially borderless. The valleys and canyons went on without end. I would go until I died or found a road or found a town and there reemerge as someone else. The air was cool and my breath plumed before me. Stars began to appear overhead through the trees. I could hear the river running down the hill on my right. I readjusted my pack and tied the rifle on the back to free my hands. I took out the flashlight and turned it on. I listened for a while, pushing my senses out, feeling deep into the woods for any movement or sound. I heard whispers in my ears like wings in straw, wind, the voices of the water, but nothing of men. I kept moving, my head down and concentrating on my steps, my own little light from the flashlight illuminating the smallest of circles before me. And I kept moving, looking up from time to time but moving, moving. Then I saw a bright star, and I knew what it was right away, my brother’s star, Polaris. And that hit me with a wave of energy. “Thank you, brother,” I said aloud. I kept it before me, hiking on, making sure that I had it in sight.
I hiked on over the soft loamy branches and ferns and up through a narrow canyon where I had to grab onto the swooping vine-limbs and pull myself up steep slopes and rocky stretches. My ascent went slow, especially in the dark. My hands were getting banged up, and the air temperature was dropping down fast. I thought about stopping and burrowing in and hiding, but something told me that I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop yet. The ridge was still a ways up ahead, and that marked a line I knew I had to cross. After that, I would make my way north. The river was running off to my right, and I knew I’d have to cross it soon or I’d be forced off into the gorge to the west. And if I went off in that direction I’d be caught up in all the chaos of bushwhacking my way through worse terrain, and I was through with all of that for this lifetime. The only conflict left in my mind now was how to get across that river. And I had to do it soon. So I cut over and picked my way through the branch-tangle and on down to the riverbank and pointed my flashlight into the river’s white tumbling rush. The current was deep and fast, and there were only a few big rocks here and there, but they too far apart for me to step across. I couldn’t get across here, so I went on up the hill, staying near the river and hoping for a good spot to cross safely and finally get away.
I hiked through most of the night, stopping only briefly to rest and to drink from my water jug. And I listened, listened hard. I heard no voices, no sound of engines or anything. I listened and heard only the sound of an owl hooting somewhere far off. Maybe they had called it off for the night. Maybe they would resume tomorrow. I wondered if they had gone to my brother. From the crown of my will I imagined him, his blue eyes shining like mine, drifting toward me from his grimy cabin, his face blazing with light. I smiled, thinking of what he had said, and I reached up and touched the medicine pouch he had given. And at least in that moment, I was sure they would never find me.
I hiked on. Now the air was freezing. I heard the perpetual sound of water from the river nearby, and I was sure in my mind where I was. I hung the flashlight back on my pack and hiked on in the pitch black darkness, my steps purely instinctive but sure and unfaltering. And my vision went out inch by inch as into a stone, disclosing the structures around me, lattice-work of trees and arc of boulders and dip of canyon like a relief map in my mind, the green burst of the moss, the flaring red eyes of the creatures out there. Late into the night I felt snow crunching under my feet. I took the canvas jacket out and put it on. It kept me warm and helped cushion the weight of the pack and the rifle. Coyotes howled, and a thin, crescent Cheshire moon rose grinning through the geometry of trees.
Finally, I stopped. I sat down on a rock and just sat there for a long time, listening, my shoulders hunched. All I could hear at first was my own hard breathing. I could see absolutely nothing. And after a while, when my heart and my breathing slowed down, I heard nothing at all. I stayed that way for a long time, feeling dispersed and buried in the silence. At the first sign or sound of pursuit, I’d take off on the move again. I knew I couldn’t stay there, but at this point, I couldn’t imagine anyone following me in this darkness. The woods were dense and hard enough to navigate in the daylight without a trail, so I figured for anyone else it would be impossible now. I was deep down. And I kept thinking of what my brother had said…you don’t exist. Well, certainly the marks of my passing had been discovered back at my father’s place. But at this point, at this time, I had essentially disappeared.
So now what? It occurred to me that it might be better just to set up a dry camp and wait for daylight. No fire. But the thought of that invisible line ahead persisted. That line meant something. It had taken on mystical energy. It meant safety. It meant freedom. And it was too risky to get my stuff out here and set up a camp. If they were following and should approach, I would have to move quickly, and I might not have time to gather up everything I needed. And I needed everything I had.
I made my way back to the river. I decided that above all else, I couldn’t stop until I had crossed the river. Only a fool would try and cross it in the dark, so if I got across it, then I could relax, if only for a moment. At least from there no one would be able to follow me. I approached the river and listened. The river was all I heard. I turned my light onto it and saw the obsidian bolts of the current flowing. I saw some rocks, too, but they looked too jagged to stand on. I pointed my light up and down the river, looking for a better spot to cross, but I couldn’t tell. I could search all night and find nothing better, so I decide this was it.
I took a step out onto one of the rocks and immediately went in, my foot slipping off and going down into the water, and I had that quick jolt of hope-fear that my foot would land somewhere not too far beneath the surface of the water and I’d climb my way out of it, but I went down and reached out and turning to the left lost all bearing and dropped fast and went underwater. I was lost. My left arm hit rock. My knees hit rock, and I lunged up and caught air and fell back and twisted around and rolled back under and flailed in water darkness, blind and breathless and moving in the current.
My foot hit and stopped, and I came up against another rock. My head seemed poised like an arrow into the current. And I thought, now I can pull myself up. Then foot slipped and I was taken up again, free flowing in the black, barely controlling even my own movement, more a question or a thought than anything else. And I entered a calm, drifting, thinking, well this is it. I looked through the watery lens at the silver coin of moon above, no notion of the shore. Odd thoughts came to me such as this is the way the world ends this is the way the world end and what form shall I take from the gallery as I rose and fell in the cool belly of water. So be it. Then a sound of rushing wind came from somewhere, a sound that I realized was my own throat gasping as I broke the surface and took in air again. And turning, turning I caught hold miraculously to a slick ropy branch and held myself fast against the force of the current and finally pulled myself back onto earth.
I was soaked through and through. I gasped and got to my feet and coughed and stumbled and felt myself and felt that I wasn’t injured, as far as I could tell. I checked my things and found I’d lost my flashlight and my rifle. I was sorry to lose them both. The way would be much harder without them. But I breathed in the night air, harsh and cold. I breathed and was also relieved. I had made it across the river.
But I was cold, shaking, down to the bone cold. My nose and my cheek bones felt numb. My hands and feet were numb, too. I was beginning to shiver in a way that felt dangerous. I felt a vague and menacing apprehension. And I knew the air around me was getting colder. I didn’t know how high I was in terms of altitude, but I could feel the difference in the atmosphere. The risk of not building a fire was now critical. I was susceptible to the elements. I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t do something soon. I decided to build a fire.
I found a spot in a clearing and gathered up some dry sticks and twigs and leaves from around the base of the trees for fuel to get a fire started. My hands were shaking badly. The ground seemed dry, sheltered as it was by the canopy of the forest. I took off my pack and listened again and heard nothing. Okay, this would do. I opened my pack and took out a few of the cans and ripped off the labels to use for starting the fire. Perhaps they were still dry enough to burn. I couldn’t tell. My hands felt lifeless. My fingers were numb. I couldn’t actually feel the things I was touching. I had to concentrate to make my fingers move. In fact, I watched my hands working with a strange and distant awareness, as though I were watching another person’s hands.
I crumpled up the paper labels I had pealed from the cans and clustered bits of dry leaves and twigs I’d pulled out from around the base of the trees and tried to light a fire. This took real effort, coaxing a little flame to take. But I soon had a fire started. I found a few seasoned branches and broke them to make smaller pieces and coned them on the flames that were going. Now I had a good campfire blazing. And the heat of it began to grow, flowing into me. I gathered a few more branches and rigged up some racks near the fire and hung my backpack there and my coat and watched them steaming in the heat. I stood with my back to the fire and felt my own wet clothes heating up and steam rising off my body. I turned and felt the warmth flowing up my chest and my face. Then, for a moment, I panicked, because I thought I might be making a mistake. Anyone nearby, anyone searching from above would be able to see my fire. But again, I fought that feeling back and stayed calm. The forest was thick, so I didn’t really need to worry about anyone seeing the light of the fire. This is what I told myself. And if they did come, I would douse the fire and run. But those were just thoughts, and I saw them as such. And as it was, I heard nothing. So I sat there absorbing the warmth and the light, letting my mind settle a bit into the dance of the flames and the pitch-crackle of the wood.
The fire was a success. Sensation came back to my hands and feet. And I kept feeding the fire with twigs the size of my fingers and occasionally ones the size of my wrist, careful to protect the nucleus but not let it grow beyond a certain circumference. I didn’t need a big fire, just a need fire to get me through this. And then I just stood there. The cold had left me. But I felt something close. I felt like I was standing outside myself. Had I made it? I felt the surge of a familiar sensation, and the mind opened up, like a child on the first trip away from home. I was light, breathless, floating in space. What a beautiful sense of elation. I didn’t want it to end. And it struck me. I was safe. For the moment, nothing was happening and I was clear. My mind flew back over the roads, my brother’s place, the camp by the river, the old house. I was looking for something. Somehow, my flight had taken me over old ground, and a pattern seemed to show itself. A crooked smile.
Then something happened to my vision. Something snapped, and I felt like I was seeing through a long tunnel. And I felt pulled, like I was physically moving through that tunnel, even though I was simply standing there. Something was near. No, someone. I felt it. But I couldn’t see. I knew it, though. I could feel the presence of it. I waited, like a person in a haunted house. Ah, was this just fear again? A flash. Wait a minute. A sort of pale blue light appeared. Was it close to dawn already? My sense of time must have been way off. Stay still, I thought. Then two green lights appeared in the same spot, glowing through the trees. Stay still. I fought a growing sense of panic, an urge to make a quick decision and to run. But concentrating like that, I kept myself out of it. Then I felt my body again. I made myself feel my body again. And then I saw a pair of eyes.
I was transfixed, staring straight into those eyes in the forever dark. What are you come at last, I thought. It had to be. What I had been running from was materializing before me, now. The mystery had found a form. I gazed at it and it at me in a moment of perfect symmetry. Then it turned, and leaving my pack, leaving the fire, I followed. Quiet into the dark, nothing followed nothing, and I went. The obstacles of the forest, the interlocking fallen branches, holes, the uneven ground were nothing. As much as I believed my feet touched anything, I was gliding on my way. And I could feel whatever it was breathing up ahead, a panther form. If I made out anything at all beyond the eyes it was the sleek black shape of it in glimpses in the moonlight. No reason here. I was not following reason. There was nothing reasonable about any of this, its presence or mine. So I followed. This is the way. I felt the truth of it. But this was not a process of thought. Where it is going I am going. And I was sure that this was right. It was a piece of the great nothing come to lead me out of the maze. In my life, I had never felt more calm, more comforted. It could lead me to a cliff and I would follow. We could go over that edge, and I would follow and keep on following. So I matched my strides to its strides, my pace to its pace, and in that darkness I didn’t falter but went on. I had no idea where I was going or where I had ever been. I was simply going. And in the going I became something else. And if I told you I used to know the circular truth of the void and that I have been all over it building this breadth and scope, going for however many lines across this and then this as it rippled it’s shoulders that were steeped in the power of escape and parting the darkness before me and that my going was to go up and out of all of it all at dead of night, well believe me too that I am speaking to you from where I was shook off, like this, where it turned and shrugged me off, and I stopped there still silent at the dead of night with my sympathy in the weeds and heard nothing no further as clear as if spoken, as if the air itself had said enough.
So I turned and made my way back to the river. I didn’t try to figure out how. I just knew. It seemed as if I’d only taken a few steps. And I went back to my fire and crouched there beside it and felt the stars crawl across my back and the forest rippling its wings. And I kept my fire going, but I didn’t sleep. I listened. No voices came this time. I had moved past that. I had entered that quiet space where nothing comes. All was stillness. And I stayed there as long as I could, as long as I could make it last.
It was gradual at first, almost indistinguishable, a gray glowing forth of the trees, a gathering of substance in the earth around me. I was coming out of the darkness again, into the world again. So I gathered my things and settled my pack onto my shoulders and cinched it tight and kicked the dirt over the place where I had built my fire. I scattered the collection of twigs I had gathered. I scuffed up the ground where I had been. I did a good job of erasing any trace of my being there. And I moved on.
In the twilight I made my way. And as I went, I could feel something in the forest change. I noticed it in the light. Not the light of growing day, but something else, the way the light was coming through, the way it was reaching me. The trees were more spread out, now, and I could see farther on through the gaps between them. I was approaching new ground.
And then, I was in an open space, a land between darkness and light where the forest ended and another landscape began. I felt like a creature emerging from hibernation as I moved out of the trees. I saw the world spread out, the white waves of snow glowing out and away. And the sun broke its eastern plane, light flowing over the clouds, clouds rolling deep through the valleys to the west and below me, mountain peaks rising like islands. I was up above it all in a dreamsea sky, seeing in every direction. And I went forward, one black quill tip of a hawk far ahead of me scripting its way on the cool arc of wind. What beauty! What glory, I thought. And I went forward, thinking, I’ll try, I’ll try my luck again, going forward into the vast white field.
Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry. His work appears in journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, The Pinyon Review, Solstice, Eastern Iowa Review, Kentucky Review, Wisconsin Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is douglastcole.com.