I REMEMBER IT ALL! Every last detail. Well, some of it anyway. I like to’ve froze to death that night. I’d already washed up, but I knew I’d better get rid of the jacket before I got home. My hands was stuffed in my pockets. Wasn’t nothing I could do about all that dirt under my nails right then. Mama’d been waiting up for me all night. She was on the porch when I walked up dead dog tired from out of the woods; the sun was coming up and shining through the mostly leafless tree limbs.
“Where the hell’ve you been?” she hollered, rising from the old white wicker chair with the chipped paint where she’d sat off and on all night, waiting for me to show up, wrapped up in an electric blanket and smoking them damn old Virginia Slims. “What happened?”
I didn’t answer, but strode right past her into the comfortable warmth of our trailer, through the living room where our 72 inch LED TV was showing the news channel, and straight into the bathroom where I got in the shower. I was already starting to feel like my old self again. After a scalding rinse and scrub, I headed to my room, still ignoring Mama, who’d already given up getting any answers from me anyway. I locked my door and crawled under the covers all shriveled up and red skinned. I’d had one hell of a night.
When I woke up, the red numbers on my clock radio read 6:17 PM, and it was getting dark again. I threw the comforter off and sat up, wearing nothing but my underwear. At least that damn old trailer’s warm. It’s the only mobile home in the Tri-County area to have a real wood-burning stove. That’s what Daddy used to say anyway. My head still felt like it’d been split wide open. I’d sweated and tossed and turned the whole time I was trying to sleep. Whatever it was, it came and went. But it sure left me with a kick-ass hangover.
I just sat there on the edge of the bed awhile, thinking. I had to figure out what I was going to tell Mama. No way I was going to tell her the truth. Not that I was exactly sure what the truth was anyway. I mean, the first part and the last part are clear as a bell. But once I got out there in them Dark Woods, the night seemed to be made up mostly of pictures, all cut up an arranged all wrong, like one of them collage things they made you do in kindergarten.
It was the first Saturday in December and late in the afternoon when I set out. Our mobile home sits at the edge of the woods on the far side of the Old Black River from Locustville, on a 5-acre lot Daddy’d inherited and planned to build a house on before he got killed in that wreck. We had plenty of wood, and maybe enough newspapers to get us through the weekend, but we needed a good stack of kindling for the week. I knew it would be dark in a few hours, but I didn’t expect to be out very late, and I knew them old woods well enough to where it didn’t matter anyhow. I threw on Daddy’s old green field jacket, grabbed my hatchet and the old Indian blanket I used as a sling to haul all them little sticks in and headed out the front door. I told Mama I’d be back in a little while. She didn’t say nothing and didn't look at me, but just sat there on the recliner with her feet curled up under her and took a drag off her cigarette and kept on watching the television.
I needed to get some air, cause I’d felt weird all day at school. I was all twitchy. Sometimes my heart’d race. And it seemed like my brain was running about a thousand miles an hour. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I thought a good walk in the cool would settle my nerves and clear my head. The air was crisp and my breath visible as I strolled along the well-worn path to the deadfall where I been getting all our kindling this year. It was an easy two-mile hike, and I had plenty of time before the sun would be gone completely.
It was as I approached the fork at the bottom of the holler that I first noticed the sound. It was muffled at first, so much so that I barely even heard it. It was hardly even there at all, that tiny, steady ringing in both my ears, like after you fire a .44 without no earplugs. It seemed to come from nowhere; I wondered how long it had been there, ringing steadily in my head before I noticed it. But as I progressed, more carefully now, paying greater attention to all the sounds I heard, I became distracted, indeed, focused on another sound, something much more pleasant: singing.
It floated on the air dreamily like the song of some lost, lonesome bird, drifting along with sweet peaks and valleys in a melody that was at once alien and intimately familiar. I found myself enchanted with the tune, mesmerized even. It became more difficult to remember why I had left home in the first place. Much less interesting than this divine songstress, whoever she may be, was the mundane chore I had begun. Who was this lovely bird, distracting me, attracting me to her? Had she travailed from some forgotten land, a forlorn princess who had lost her way? Was she some angel who had descended from Heaven to take my immortal soul back home? Or was she merely a figment of my imagination?
Already her slave, I abandoned my task –whatever it was– entirely. The sun was setting now, and the gray sky had turned fiery red and orange, with golden blades piercing and flaying the wind-ravaged, leaf-deprived branches above my head. I took the fork that led away from the brush pile. I walked; I trotted; I ran down the path in the direction of the River, where the song seemed to originate. I had to know. I had to find her.
Closer. Closer I drew! Even now I can feel her song resonating in my chest. Even now I can see her radiance, her incomparable beauty before my eyes, all golden curls and ruby lips. But other sounds were there as well. The mounting cacophony of the woods swelled like some great sylvan symphony’s dramatic crescendo. Owls, crickets, toads, snakes! None hybernated this night. The sound of the River itself grew, beckoning me with greater ferocity with each hurried step of my approach. But above it all, with angry persistence was the sound, the horrid ringing that nearly agitated me to the point of frenzy. I can hear it even now, so vivid is my memory of that night.
I stopped and stood panting, watching my warm respiratory mist swirl about and dissipate. Sweat dripped from my every pour, accumulating in all the usual places. My head pounded; my knees shook. The clearing spun. As daylight failed, the vibrant, fiery autumnal colors went with it. There remained only white splashes in the indigo night. My mind was a mess of confused questions without answers. Who am I? What am I doing here? And most of all who is she? She simply stood there, her golden curls flowing all about her lovely face, its skin as smooth and white as milk. I stood transfixed by her beauty and by The Sound, her song and the forest’s overture, all of which seemed to surround and envelop me. Her blood-red smile beckoned me to her.
Then all I could see was red, the red of her bloody smile, mocking me. And all I could feel was heat, exquisite heat, and all the while The Sound and the Serpentine Symphony and the Maiden's Song persisted, competing for dominance in my mind's ear; the riot of sound ricocheting within the walls of my soul and echoing on into infinity. All of my nerve endings burned. My mind burned. My soul burned. All my senses were attacked from all sides, with no hope for succor.
But the hatchet. The hatchet! At last I could see an escape. At last I could feel the burning subside and I heard the din dying down as the hatchet struck home, again and again and again, endlessly into the back of her neck, her body prone upon the ground, offering no resistance amongst the damp, fiery leaves, lit only by the cool full moon.
I realized that I was in a cold sweat, shivering so violently that my teeth chattered, but would have to abandon my gory jacket. The hatchet was easily cleansed. Unsure of where I was in this abandoned wild, I stumbled through brush and bramble, scratching the shit out of myself a few times.
My head pounded. All my muscles was tight. I groped on and on, getting more and more pissed about losing Daddy's jacket. Then I recognized the little rock quarry with the pool where everybody swum in the summer time. I could find my way home from there. I's only about a mile away. Only one thing was bothering me.
What the hell'm I gonna tell Mama?