Terminal Burrowing by Nathan Batchelor


Jim called out to the figure across the lake. He could tell there was something wrong with the girl by the way her skin looked. Burns, he thought. Bad ones. Third-degree across every bit of visible skin. Fresh burns were rarely fatal. He’d learned that on his rounds in the ER. It was the stay in the hospital and the following infection that took most burn victims. Slow, painful deaths that took weeks or months.

The girl didn’t move, didn’t respond to his calls. Was she dead? He wondered.

Jim had come to the forest to die, not to find the dying. He used to cut up faces, make circular incisions around areolas and stuffed bags of saline into chests. He had led a team of surgeons on a full-face transplant for a man who was the victim of a shotgun blast—self-inflicted—and had been remarkably successful in the operation. The man wouldn’t be taking home college girls from dance clubs, but his daughter could finally stop crying while he fed her formula. The whole thing about the girl looking her father in the eye, knowing what he’d done when she was just an infant—that would have to come later.

Birds cut ellipses in the crystalline sky.

He went back to laying out his fishing poles. It probably wasn’t a girl at all. Probably the husk of some water toy abandoned by a child, half melted during the summer and washed upon the shore in the wake of a pontoon boat. The brain had ways of making things into humans, especially out here. The sound of dogs howling at night turning into screams. A shape moving behind trees while he sleepily pissed on an oak at midnight. The thing across the lake was no different.

Fishing was his favorite pastime since the oncologist had slid into the booth beside him, a few weeks after those lasts round of tests, while he prodded at the hospital cafeteria’s Thanksgiving cranberry sauce abomination. The doctor told him what everyone fears, what no one believes can happen to them.

“I couldn’t tell you, not since Megan walked out on you like that. It would have killed you, James,” Paul said, saying the word killed so nonchalantly, he could no longer fork the stiff, festive mass on his plate.

The fourth fishing pole rattled. A bite already. The pole bent in the middle. This was a big one.

He loathed the cutting and dressing of the fish. Using a scalpel as a fillet knife didn’t make it any easier. Nor did the care and ritual he showed the blade afterward. There was something missing. This was a different type of cutting. This was destructive. He wanted to use his blade as an instrument of rebirth. To heal the cleft lip of a child. To cut away a tumor that hung pendulously over a mouth or an eye.

He saw the fish below the water. It was enough to feed him for a month—perhaps until the end of his life—but the not-girl across the lake caught his eye again. This time it moved. Extending a limb. Unfolding like a knife.

He called out again.

When she responded in a cow-like mew, he realized with piercing certainty that this non-girl was a girl after all. Perhaps those weren’t burns. Perhaps a man had beaten her bloody, drunkenly thrown her from the porch of his single-wide trailer, and she had wandered aimlessly out here to the water before succumbing to her wounds.

He fired the flare he’d kept for emergencies. He prayed Cara would see it. He cut the fishing line, dropped the pole, and waded into the lake.

The water took his breath, a cold that cut to the marrow. If his brain were capable of thought beyond, The girl is hurt and The girl could die, he would have regretted getting in. The way around would have taken an hour or more. He had to get to her before dark. No one wanted to be out here in these woods at night.

He knew what those dancing on the blade of death looked like, the undercurrents of movement traveling through a body fighting to stay alive. The way the chest rose and fell. The instinctive curl of limbs. As if they were going out the way they came in. The girl moved like that.

Halfway across, his leg seized as if it were a plank of wood. A cramp. Below him the water stretched a quarter mile down. If he were to drown here, he wouldn’t be found for days or weeks, or perhaps not at all. At the bottom of the lake, skyscraper oaks stretched limbs over bottom-feeding catfish the size of Volkswagens. Their whiskered mouths were waiting down there in the dark.

He didn’t know how he made it to the opposite shore. He shivered so violently that he believed it would never cease. His mind went to hypothermia. The madness that came with long-term hypothermia, people stripping off their clothes and running away. They called it Paradoxical Undressing. He’d stayed up late at night at the university library reading about those cases when he should have been practicing his stitches on an orange.

He wasn’t that far gone. He still felt the cold digging into him. The outside temperature was still above freezing but soon it would be night, and clouds had snuck into the sky. Rain was coming as well. He peeled away the shirt and pants. The air stinging like insects, his flesh raised like the surface of an orange.

She was beneath a piece of driftwood. Beer cans scattered about her. She was folded like she’d crept there to die.

“It’s too cold for you to be out here,” he said, reaching to touch her.

It was then he noticed the flaps of skin on her back. Two pairs of frail, transparent things folded like petals of a dormant flower. Thin flesh stretched over a scaffold of bone. Those petals bloomed when he touched her arm. What he saw beneath made him cringe. The top layer of her skin was almost entirely absent.

He had cut the flesh around the ear of more than one B-list actress, peeled it back, carved away fat, and pulled muscles tight over the bone. He’d done neck lifts on aging Wall Street wives, also called lower rhytidectomies—incisions beneath the chin, working a knife in like a spoon getting the last bit of cottage cheese out of the tub. His students had found that procedure hard to watch. “Like a worm beneath the skin,” they said. “Like something’s trying to get out.”

“Something is trying to get out,” he’d said. “The fat.”

But cadavers and patients were under anesthesia. She was not, as far as he knew. It was hard to look at. Muscles still contracting. The slow rise of her chest. It would have been harder were he not a doctor, were he not used to looking at a body like a map. Then the thought came to him. He didn’t know why it had taken so long. Those flaps of skin were wings. She wasn’t a girl. She was a fairy.

He recalled an Easter dinner at his aunt’s house, the smell of barbeque smoke soaked into his Atlanta Braves t-shirt, a swelling sense of pride passing his uncle the tongs. He was the assistant to the chef. There was a shouting that cut across the Styx guitars screaming through the boombox perched on the picnic table. His father appeared at the edge of the woods, gun slung over his back, white-eyed, sweat steaming off him in the early April chill. There was a small body in his arms. Limp bat-like wings swinging with his steps. The wings looked like bacon, he remembered. Giant pieces of uncooked bacon. Before his uncle got close, his mother grabbed him, wrapped her hands over his eyes. Her grip so tight splotches appeared before his eyes.

“It’s bad luck,” she kept saying to no one in particular. “I won’t have my boy damned by no fairy.”

Every place has its name for them. In most parts of the world, they were known as demons. “Meth Angels” was the most popular name in the States, after the plague of addiction that infected the hills of the bible belt. The Irish called them the Tuath Dé and claimed they were descended from their own mythology, stowing away on boats filled with the sheep herders that swept over the Appalachians two centuries ago. You could only find fairies here in Sipsey, a little patch of woods wedged between the plains of Auburn and the Tennessee River valley.

His mother and grandmother, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and schoolteachers said they granted wishes. Academics—the brave few who risked their careers studying such a fringe subject—said wishes were impossible for two reasons. Firstly, the concept of a wish broke laws of the universe, an effect without a logical cause. The second reason was more practical. Every time a fairy had been found, its death followed shortly after. Sometimes by minutes, sometimes by hours. No one had ever seen a fairy in a state of good health. Speculation ranged on this.

The scholars said the fairy life cycle was short like that of mayflies, so short no one had ever seen a child or a pair of adults mating—which fairies had to do, as a rule for life. Over her last Christmas dinner, riddled unknowingly with cancer—perhaps the same cancer that had eaten away at Jim—his granny answered the medical-school-bound college boy’s bull-headed question.

“Magic doesn’t play by the rules,” she had said.

The fairy wasn’t heavy, but Jim was weak. His legs burned with cold and fatigue. His jaw worked slowly when he spoke. He slurred his words.

“C’mon now,” he said. “You’re hurt. And I’m too damn cold. We both need somewhere warm.”

His mind raced back to a picture in an anthropology textbook. A human precursor knuckling across the veldt, away from a dying family, north into the unknown. Then to paintings on the wall of the hospital director’s office, Dürer’s The Holy Family with the Dragonfly. The director’s handshake, weak and full of pity. The director’s passing comments about Jim “curling up and dying in the woods like some kind of animal.” That phenomenon had a name as well. Terminal burrowing. He’d stayed up reading about that too. One grainy black and white image from those nights jumped out at him. Of a seemingly empty room, a cot in the corner. It was only on close inspection that he spotted the dead man in the shadows beneath the cot. He felt the hair stand up on his neck.

He was too cold and too focused on his thoughts to notice the low sound of dogs howling or how they had begun just as he’d picked the fairy up.

“I was hit by a car one time,” he said, clearing away books on the futon in the two-room cabin. She was lying on the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen.

The cabin was unadorned. Not much to look at. Bare walls. A single lamp. How he wanted it.

“I remember the taste of rocks in my mouth,” he said. “I broke my arm, but it was my scrapped knee that hurt the most. What was the worst though, was lying there with the taste of asphalt in my mouth, yelling. No one coming to help. I felt so alone.”

He squeezed out the last of the tube of Neosporin on the gauze. He did not have enough of either to properly care for her. She needed a team of specialists, a helicopter to rush her to the best hospital in Atlanta or Nashville. Not a dingy cabin in the woods and a plastic surgeon who’d last raised a scalpel a year ago.

“But you’re not alone,” he said. “You’ve got an old, sick doctor to take care of you.”

He turned toward the door. “Those dogs. They’re howling up a storm tonight.”

She made a sound like mewing. He doubted she understood anything he said.

He was shaking, he realized, after he’d dressed her wounds as best as he could. He needed to be warmer if he were to stave off hypothermia. He took off his underwear, which clung half-frozen, sand-speckled to his hips. There were cuts on his legs from the briars. A deep purple welt rose on his thigh where he’d banged into a stump on his journey through the forest. She stared at his nakedness, though his nakedness wasn’t much to look at, his penis a purple nub poking from a copse of hair and his testicles so retracted from the cold they appeared absent.

“Excuse my manners,” he said.

The prospect of frostbite down there crossed his mind. He tried to block out the dogs’ incessant barking. He needed to get his temperature up. He needed to start a fire.

The girl was lapping water from the bowl in his hand when the door rattled. He jumped and the water bowl went tumbling.

“Sorry,” he said, turning toward the door.

The body had a way of staying primed to fight long after the danger was gone. Adrenaline was still coursing through him. His brain went to the worst possibilities. He imagined snarling dogs outside, them breaking down the door, rushing over him, tearing at his throat and face.

It was Cara, wheezing, clutching her chest. The checkered apron from the diner over her shoulder, her white worn tennis shoes caked in mud. She’d run straight here.

“I thought your flare was a star,” she said when she’d caught her breath. “Monkey threw down his spatula and yelled that it was a UFO. Jim said I was fired if I left, but he can’t let me go. We’re too short-handed as it is.”

She took her hair down and shook it out. Silver, dyed not grown. Her face no longer bothered him—the asymmetry of her eyes, the nose long and crooked. She smelled of cigarettes, fry grease, and mint. He loved the smell.

He had tried to save her from this place, had begged her to come live with him in Atlanta while he was in college, scraping by on a meager scholarship and student loans, but always enough to support her if she wanted. The “no” she had whispered into the phone was sharper than any knife he would ever wield.

For many years, he dreamed of her standing before him while drew purple lines on her face.

“I’ll cut here and here. No more cleft lip. It’s an easy operation.”

And her dry response, another whispered, breathless, “no.”

He told her about the fairy, swimming across the lake, the dogs howling. There were tears running down his face.

“You really are trying to die out here,” Cara said. “You’d have swum across for a dog. At least a dog you could have saved.”

“She’s lighter than she looks. You can get her into town before the sun sets.”

“She’ll be dead in hours. You know the stories as well as I do,” Cara said.

“Heart rate’s over 250. That’s four times my own. Her eyes are entirely black with blood. And she’s missing over ninety percent of her skin. She needs morphine and a burn unit, but she’s got time.”

“I thought you’d be dead.”

“I’m not dead, but she’s gonna die if you don’t take her.”

He couldn’t go into town. He couldn’t stand the pitying gazes of the dollar store clerks and men who smelled of sawdust and chainsaw oil. Or the black mold that had crept into the corners of the same stores that seemed so clean when he was a child. Or the “Help Wanted” signs posted on doors of every gas station and hardware store. The town was drying up and dying. Like him. He thought of the image of the dead man beneath the bed.

“You know I can’t go back there,” he said. “And you were gonna go back tonight. Just do this. Please.”

It was quite a walk into town, but the fairy was light. And Cara was strong and in good shape, despite all the cigarettes she smoked.

Cara bit her lip. She didn’t seem to trust him since he’d left for school and the outer world. It was as if leaving made her suspicious of his every action, as if this place came with authority and he had given that up by moving away.

“I’ll go. If you come,” she said.

He looked at the fairy, felt the fatigue and sickness that coursed through his body. How much more time did she have, he wondered. How much more time did he have? How long till he ended up like her, fighting against the inevitable thing that consumes us all? Perhaps if he could save her, he could taste for the last time the high that came with saving someone’s life.

“Deal,” he said.

A low growl of thunder rattled the cups on the wall in the kitchen. The fairy kicked reflexively, knocking free the gauze on her leg. Rosy, pus-covered wounds showed beneath.

“There’s a storm coming,” Cara said. “Freezing rain or snow.”

“Must be what the dogs are barking about. Must be,” he said.

A torrent of rain began to crack the sky. And somewhere behind, Jim could hear the dogs.

“It will ease up any time now,” he said. Yelled rather.

The wind had knocked the front door of the cabin lose. Icey slush pooled under the door. He’d tried stopping the flow of water with blankets. But the water had kept coming. It reminded him of a girl who’d come into the ER during his first year of residency. A piece of steel from a conveyor belt jabbed through her femoral artery. The surgeon had stuck his hands inside her leg to pause the blood flow, but it had kept coming. Jim remembered it all. The waist-high pile of blood-soaked linens the nurses carried out. The smell of grease and blood. The father who wrung his hands so hard the flesh of the hand came away. Eventually, Jim gave up on stopping the water, watching it flow beneath the table, picking up leaves, turning red with the fairy’s blood. Just like the surgeon had given up and watched the blood flow until the girl was gray and cold.

It wasn’t an issue of how far it was to town, but the forest was notoriously labyrinthine among hikers. A step off the path and Cara may not find the trail again. Ever.

It had happened. To Cara’s cousin even, on a walk with two friends when he decided to take a leak. The two boys said they followed the screaming for hours, but it only led them in circles. Night came. The screaming stopped. Hoarse, one of the boys said in the police interview. The cops had organized a search party. On the third pass through the woods, three weeks later, a volunteer found his remains. A shoe with a foot in it and a backpack, torn to shreds.

Then there were the dogs.

“They’re not dogs,” Cara said.

Jim took inventory of his senses. He thought he might be having auditory hallucinations.

“Barghasts,” Cara said. “Or demon dogs, or whatever the people want to call them. They hunt the dying. They suck the last life from the living.”

“Like me and her?” He looked at the fairy.

She was quiet for a moment, then she said, “How would I know? The only fairy anyone seen in years was the one your father shot. I just know what my momma told me. Don’t be out here if I thought I was gonna die.”

“Strange thing for your mother to tell you.”

“Strange thing to swim across a near-freezing lake for a dying fairy.”

She stared off. She wasn’t pretty. If he’d never known her, and she were to show up in his office one day, he would have felt immense pity for her. The kids had teased her for looking like Quasimodo, then Sloth when they rediscovered the old movie The Goonies.

“Did you try it?” she asked. “You know, making a wish?”

The thought hadn’t crossed his mind. He’d been so caught up in getting to the cabin, the storm, the howling of the dogs. If you could catch a fairy before it died, the legend went, you could ask it for a wish.

“It’s hocus pocus,” he said. “They’re dogs.”

Her life was tied up in myth. Legends that old women told while shelling peas. Bible stories men shouted from pulpits. He recalled an aphorism or theory that the largest buildings in a community denoted what people worshipped. Here the churches towered over everything. But what about the trees? He had wondered. It was them that cast everything in their shadow here.

“Think about what we could have with a wish,” she said.

What would she wish for? Not money or beauty. He could have given or that. Or love, which never interested her. As thirteen-year-olds, in the damp blackness of her grandmother’s storm cellar their hands had fumbled over each other. She had stood there, giggling as she touched him. Shame and disappointment enveloped him. It wasn’t at all like the boys at school said it should be.

The howling bleed through a pause in the rain. There was a cacophony of high-pitched squeals of smaller dogs and the growls of things that sounded bigger than they had any right to be.

“You’re still shaking,” she said, wrapping a blanket around him. “I wish we could sleep.”

“Go ahead,” he said.

“But the barghasts,” she said.

“You sleep. Let me worry about the dogs.” He took the rifle down from the shelf, the same gun his father held in his hands the day he’d discovered the fairy. “Maybe they’re just dogs,” he said. “Maybe they’re just upset that ice and snow are coming down for the first time in their lives. There’s nowhere to hide out there.”

“You and your wishful thinking,” she said. “You shouldn’t go out there.”

“That motherly instinct of yours is kicking in,” he said. “I’m not going out there. I’m just making sure they don’t come in here.”

“I’m not your mother. I just don’t think you realize what you’re up against. Maybe it’s the hypothermia talking or—”

“The cancer eating my brain,” he said.

“I was going to say maybe you’ve been out here too long.”

He watched her crawl under the covers. He imagined her crawling into a bed next to him, crawling next to their child perhaps. He imagined a life that life had denied him. He looked at the fairy, chest rising slowly beneath the mass of gauze and blankets. Could he wish for that life? He fell asleep to the thought.

The flannel blanket was sliding down his legs. Being pulled by something he couldn’t see in the blackness. Something had opened the door. The wind screamed and a cold gust of air enveloped him.

A flash of lightning filled the room with light. In those seconds, an image burned into his brain. The red splattered like paint over everything. The fairy with her chest open like a cooked, picked-over turkey. Dogs with their heads buried her chest. A dog, milky-eyed and gray pulling the blanket off him. He grasped awkwardly for the rifle that should have been in his lap. It was gone.

He screamed for Cara.

The dog bared its dagger-like teeth. He’d never thought about teeth the way he thought about them then. Instruments for ripping flesh, papery flesh like that of his neck, or red flesh like that of the fairy.

His hands grasped emptily at the sheet where Cara should have been. The dog sprung forward, too fast for him to get his hands up. It towered over him. Its breath was hot and smelled of dead things.

On his back, lightning flashed again, and he could see the dogs outside. One. Two. Four. At least a dozen. He stopped counting. A ragtag band of shapes: abandoned purse dogs, long lean greyhounds, a pit bull with a mud-caked leash dragging the ground. All covered in blood and viscera.

The dog leaned close enough that its teeth touched Jim’s nose. He was going to die here, he knew.

“You smell of death,” the dog said.

The dogs voice was as gruff. Jim had gone mad. Or he’d died, and this was hell.

“Dogs can’t talk,” he said. “You can’t talk.”

“Dog? You insult me.” The dog told him what he was. A long string of incomprehensible syllables. “You may know my kind better as barghasts, seekers of the dead, keepers of places too good for the living.”

“Did you kill her?”

“The woman ran screaming into the night when we came,” the barghast said.

“She would never leave me here,” Jim said.

“You’re underestimating the power of fear. It clouds judgme