Here I am waiting in the middle of the woods in North Wood County Park, and Jenna hasn’t showed up to meet at our usual wooden barn owl statue. She said she would be here on time but, if not, I could just run the trails before her and meet at Kelly’s Coffee for brunch.
Jenna and I got drunk as hell last night, and now all I can think about is syrupy pancakes and a big glass of milk to alleviate the hangover. My stomach growls.
I kick, and we are off. We are going to sweat this out, Greg. And, if I am sober enough, I’ll mind-review for my anthropology exams. Go over Eric Wolf’s work, then maybe Edward Sapir’s relationship studies in linguistics, and finally, Strauss’s structuralism.
Anthropology fills my heart and keeps it to this world like glue. Without it, I would just be floating in space, nothing but molecules without a purpose.
Humans are what—
My ponderings come to a stop at a seven minute per mile pace when I hear gurgles in the brush ahead. It comes again: rustling leaves, gurgles, birds chirping, cold wind licking my skin, a whisper of needles grazing the hardened fall ground.
But it’s the gurgle—the gurgle that strikes and plunges deep into my conscious.
It’s the man in the brush that quivers and trembles, a man dressed in blaze orange hunting gear who cracks my mind and tests my sanity.
“Help,” the man says, as blood trickles down his chin, his hand his held hard to his neck.
I almost pass out on the trail. This only happens in the movies. Jesus Christ. This kind of shit doesn’t happen to me.
He waves a hand towards himself in quick, jutting motions, and dashes down and skids to his side. “Who did this? What happened?” I scream. I put a hand to his neck, and the blood comes forth hot and wet. There is no stopping it. It runs through my fingers.
He points ahead to a clearing through the woods.
The shots come, and I hear the air split but two feet from my head. The man’s neck snaps down, and his eyeballs glaze over. He is done for. My heart is nearly beating out of my chest. I have never been so close to death in my life. Even when the caves had nearly collapsed on me in Nevada, I never felt such animal instinct to stay alive. It’s primal, it’s real.
Poison ivy burns me. Twigs and thorns scrape at my body, but they are nothing compared to the fear of a bullet tearing into me. Bullets don’t stop; they don’t care about anything—they scream through the air to end life.
I run for what seems like miles and storm into a small creek to ease the burning of the ivy. Who the hell could shoot a man in blaze orange? Even when dad took me hunting back in high school, I could see other hunters four or five football fields away in their blaze orange. It can’t be a hunting accident. It has to be something more.
I head in the direction of Kelly’s Café, to the east, towards the edge of Grola Forest, and realize that I probably still have at least ten miles to go. I curse at the trees as they pass by. The poison ivy made its way to my crotch, and I can’t keep my pace up.
The air splits in front of my face and bark explodes in all directions. I fall to my knees. A man screams, and I walk towards the curdling sound. Bushes rattle ahead, and I can hear raspy breathing and grunts. I pull back thick overgrowth.
A rat nest haired man heaves up and down as he grips his foot. A bear trap bites down hard on the top of his boot, and the teeth have sunken deep in the leather. My human instinct at first tells me to help the man, but this asshole just about killed me.
“What the hell were you shooting at?”
I look for the gun, but it is nowhere. He must have stepped on the bear trap right before he shot and then the gun went flying into the woods somewhere.
I want to bless the bear trap that saved my life.
He looks up through his bird nest locks, covered in twigs and foliage.
I want to scream at him. My running attire is bright red. There is no goddamn way that I look anything like a deer out here in the middle of the woods.
I want to grab his hand and pull him up because I am a humanitarian. The anthropologist in me wants to help people, understand them, but there is some glint of madness in the man’s eyes that tells me that there is nothing I can do for him and nor can I expect him to do anything for me.
A gust of wind tickles my skin, the hair on my arm rises, and goosebumps spread like a wildfire. The air I inhale feels thick and warm.
“I’m sorry,” I say and back away through the brush.
He lunges out at me, but the bear trap keeps him at bay, and he grits his teeth as the trap bites deeper.
I begin to jog. I ignore the echoes of his pleads and cries in the forest as we part ways. He yells, “Don’t leave me here please! They will eat me!”
I don’t want anything to do with this place.
I want to be at the cafe having brunch with my Jenna.
My god, Jenna!
Images of crazed men hunting fill my mind.
Thigh forward. Muscles burn. Next thigh up high. Arm pumps up. The next arm comes up too. Repeat this. Repeat it. This is how you run. You let your breath out, you suck the air in, you forget that your heart is pumping, and you neglect it until you get to your destination.
That is running. You conjure images that keep you strong and hard and moving in one direction, and one direction only. Forward.
“I will be eaten!” he screams again.
I keep running.
“I will be eaten!”
I don’t care about the man that tried to kill me.
“Please help me!”
My lungs burn.
One foot in front of the other. In order to run long distances, you probably shouldn’t think about the total distance. It’s all about keeping one foot in front of the other. It’s all about the micro, not the macro. How can I get that next foot forward?
I keep my eyes on the trail as I move left and right, avoiding the limbs and rocks that appear. A squirrel scatters from behind a tree and my eyes are pried off the trail for just a second, and that’s all it takes.
My foot catches a tree root, and I fly forward in the superman position. I roll down the trail, and the earth scrapes and gnaws at knees and elbows. My back slams into grass, and my breathe blows out from my lungs. I’m in a ditch.
I gasp at the body.
I’ve seen bodies before. They’ve never surprised me. The dried-out ones that have been in the ground for thousands of years, that is. They feel like the earth, the roots, the rocks. They are just part of the environment, one with the long-ago world.
But there is no synchronicity between the body I see now and the environment surrounding it.
A head, wet and sweating is pale and staring with its glazed eyes up through the canopy. Attached to the head is a body that has been stripped of all flesh, and there is nothing but bone.
The meat has not been gnawed.
Surely, coyotes would make a larger mess of the body, but the meat appears to have been cleanly cut. The geometry of the cuts looks more like someone had used a knife.
I throw up my pre-run banana and toast.
A stripped body. How has it been stripped? How did it end up here?
I wipe the bile residue from the corners of my mouth and want to fly out of these woods. I walk, but I don’t recognize where I am. I haven’t been to this part of the woods. No one can help me.
I can’t even help Jenna. God, I hope she's okay.
This all has to be an accident. Humans are good by nature.
I start to run but the poison ivy burns more the faster I move.
“Jenna!” I yell.
“Jenna, are you alright?” I yell. I keep repeating it but realize that I’m just exposing myself to whatever is out here on the prowl.
I say to myself over and over: It is all just an accident.
Hunters that made a mistake, and coyotes that were hungry.
It isn’t their fault. No animal on this earth is perfect. We do what we have to do to survive and, on the way, we make choices that we aren’t proud of. We have to forgive.
I come to an opening in the woods. A camp.
A girl in rags is bent over, gnawing on a bone.
She warms the meat on the campfire and then returns it to her mouth.
A branch crunches under my foot.
She drops the bone and darts off into the woods.
Goddamnit, I think. Someone has to know what the fuck is going on.
“I just want to talk,” I yell and chase after her, but she has already been swallowed up by the overgrowth and the sound of her footsteps blends with the swaying canopy above.
I walk around the campfire. Bones are everywhere. The coyote again comes to mind. It must have killed a deer, and the people in the forest are just eating what’s left of the kill. That must be it.
On the east end of the camp along the tree line, something catches my eye. A red sliver hangs, dangles, and waves in the light wind.
Strips of meat.
I look closer at the filets hanging from the tree limbs above by fishing line. I see now, one part of the filet is skin and hair. The hair is thinning.
Possum hair? It’s black and only two or three inches long.
What animal does this belong to?
What the hell are these people eating?
I look at the meat again. It comes to me like a hammer on the nose. I don’t want to say it, I don’t want to think it, and I don’t even want to dream it.
Shut up, Greg.
Animals, Greg. Animals are responsible for this.
I step back, and my foot rolls on a twig. Pain shoots up the side. I can already feel the bottom of my foot swell. I need to get out of here. No, I don’t. Everything is going to be ok. I am going to find Jenna, we are going to call the police, and then we will return to our little university lives and concentrate on our research.
I hurry to my feet. Bones. Everywhere, chalk bones. Dry.
Bears got to them, yes.
I slap myself.
But I don’t know why.
I slap my face again, and the stinging lingers.
Ribcages here and there. It’s a fucking boneyard.
This can’t be real, and people can’t be this cruel. They can’t come down to this level of barbarism in this day and age. Nobody. To think of it is insanity, to dream of it is absolutely ridiculous, to touch the remains would be offensive to the dead.
This is not a crime scene, Greg. I laugh, I giggle, and then I cry.
I’m not insane. I love people and they cannot stoop to this.
The heat overtakes me.
Images of teeth flash before me.
They flash and they thrash and, before me, another image of a deep gash that bleeds upon white bone. There is too much meat, and too much blood, and too much everything.
I want the day to end.
The heat, my body, the insanity.
My tears are hot against my cheeks.
I can’t remember the last time that I cried.
It feels like decades ago.
I stumble to a river. A row boat is staked to the shore. My means of escape from animosity, anthropophagy, and necrophobia is right in front of me. I’m overloaded. I trip in the boat, and my limbs hammer and strike the wooden boards of the hull. Fatigue swallows me.
I grab the oars and dig their lips into the water. I push and pull, push and pull, cursing at the lactic acid build-up in my already jacked up arms.
My ankle hurts, bones lie everywhere, the banks are peppered—no, plastered. I’ve never seen so many bones.
It is time to be a realist, it is time, goddamnit, Greg Benson. It is time to wake the fuck up.
Trembling I am, crying I am, feeling nothing but the oars burning in my hands, this is the final countdown. I can feel it. Soon, I will go insane and run around this forest as the others do. And maybe, just maybe, I will eat like them. I will be hungry. I won’t be picky.
I heave over the side of the boat, but nothing comes forth. I have already emptied too much. My mouth waters, my lips are moist, but nothing comes forth.
The river slowly narrows and now there is not but two feet on each side of the boat from the bank. The water that had flowed quick is now stagnant and becoming a small creek with deadened waters. Mosquitos fly all around.
I know this place.
The bottom of the boat rubs into the river bottom clay, and I come to a soft halt. I get out and clench my teeth when my ankle hits against the side of the boat. I limp to shore, earth sucking at my feet as they sink and rise.
Sunken trails sprawl out before me. The recent rain has turned the landscape into a swamp. I used to run here a couple years ago when the DNR had the rivers under control.
In the middle of the swamp, there is a small dry island knoll and then a hill beyond that stretches ahead, sparse with wood. I know that, on the other side, there is Highway 45. On that stretch of road, Kelly’s café waits, Jenna waits, civilization waits.
I head for the mini-island and trudge through knee-deep, thick soup.
Wahoooooooooo. Wahoiiiiii. A voice breaks the silence.
My feet sink. My heart jolts.
I try to hasten my pace but my foot burns, and the persistence of the mud sucking me into earth sends me into despair.
Water splashes from behind.
I look back, but there is nothing.
I look ahead. I shake my head and slap my face.
Forget the fear.
The island washed in sun looks like a gate to heaven. Soon, I will be there. Keep pushing Greg. Keep at it. Just keep it going. Fight it.
More splashes, this time deep in the northwest part of the dying woods. The sound of water being thrashed sends my heart pumping like pistons. Nyaaaa...nyaaaaaaaaaa. Wahooo...
The voice is louder than before. The air darkens and smells of burnt rags and ash. I see an orange glow and the flicker of a flame through the woods.
I squint, and there is nothing.
When I reach the island, I look around, making a full circle where stained water meets muddy shore. My eyes had played tricks on me. Nothing occupies the woods. It is completely empty save a gray barn owl perched on a branch with its head cranked one hundred and eighty degrees.
The woods feel lonely, but then I see that something floats in the water. It slowly makes for the island. Alligator? Not in fucking southern Wisconsin, Greg. Racoon…swimming? Doesn’t sound very plausible either.
The body floats in.
It’s a body, and its facedown arms float against its sides. It has to be dead. I’ve seen dried up bodies all the time. But this one is fresh. This one is recent.
The head moves. There is a ripple effect, and the miniature waves from the corpse come breaking onto the island coast at my feet.
The question comes to me like silver burning to brain, hot acid on trenches of faith, and I don’t know if I can even say the words that come to mind. The plants on this island seem to affect me beyond what my psyche can handle, beyond my physical resistance. The brush of their leaves produces a mist that fills the air, and I suck it in.
Purple plants spread upon the island that I didn’t notice before. My feet lick into them and shake them, rake them, move them, irritate them, and when I stop and look down, I see I am completely covered in a light purple film that smells of hot ash.
The body comes.
I am hungry.
I lick my lips and eye the body that comes floating in like ocean debris to dirtied filth beach. But the body, the body that floats to me now is not just a body.
It is breathing. It still has life.
Its head rises from the thick, brown-stained water, and the eyes that look at me are as dead as the definition of dead can provide. Red roots plaster the whites of the lifeless marbles that are buried deep in its skull.
Wayoooohooooo….nyaaaaaaaa. wahooo…….nyaaaa, it screams.
Its body is up and erect, and its intention is clear as it scuttles and scurries towards me. It wants me.
Its legs fold up and its arms sway. It stands erect and I stand dazed, perplexed, and faint at the sense of the reality that I cannot seem to grasp.
The body comes at to me and a flash in the air comes down on my leg.
The thing that has been born from swamp filth and watery bacterium is now upon me like plague upon the centuries of evolving civilizations.
He saws thickly at my thigh with the flash that came through the air like lightning. I scream in pain.
He is filleting me.
Its eyes look up at me as it does its business. It laughs, and chews on air. I can barely stay awake with all the pain.
It saws and saws. The blade starts at my Achilles. It then slides into mid-calf bone and tries to work it up deep. So sharp, I feel only pressure against bone.
“Please, stop. I beg you.” I try to plead, but you can’t stop the ones who have focus and determination. It is like trying to stop a train without emergency brakes or an airplane that has lost all control of its hydraulics.
Earth explodes at my flank, nearly two inches from my face. I’m not sure, but it sounds like Earth has split at the core and my ears ring to a chorus that is not interested in making something beautiful.
Another crack splits the wind. I see an end, I smell smoke, I feel earth hugging me, and hear another crack that splits me wholesome.
When the body in front me quits its slicing and massacre upon my leg that is now but a crimson heap of veins and musculature anatomy soaking earth, another crack splits the air. It is a cannon, it is fire, it is flame, it is a devastating sound that means nothing but the end of all.
The butcher in front of me raises his glittering knife high. This is the end of all. It will take but not five seconds before the steel that he holds digs deep into my neck and I will feel nothing. I will feel numb and I will go onto another world that takes its souls in deep and wholesome.
The blade sings death. But the crack of the sky is stronger. Metal screams through the air and eats bone. The man that has snuck upon me is nothing but a corpse with brains fizzling in the aftermath of lead that doesn’t give a single shit about empathy or sympathy.
Bloodied and muddy and carrying a rifle, Jenna comes wading through the water crying. She has survived, and my heart fills with so much pain and purpose. I should have been there for her.
“Oh god, your leg,” she says, and begins to wrap the mangled mess tight with her towel. “You’re going to be okay.” She puts her head on my chest and sobs.
“I’ll be alright,” I tell her. “But I’m so hungry.”
I think of all the bones in the woods. The hungry ones. The humans that just try to live and survive.
Nothing can save them.
They are all doomed. We all are, I think. Humans cannot be saved, and I must learn to live without careless optimism towards them. We are all just pawns being played in a giant game of civilization, repeating the same mistakes over and over.
I have come too close to this failed civilization.
“It’s so weird,” I whisper. “It’s like I have a craving for something. It’s food. It’s meat. But...it’s not anything I’ve ever had before.
BENJAMIN DEHAAN is a speculative fiction writer, road runner, and circular economy promoter. He was born and raised in southern Wisconsin and now lives and works in Japan.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.