It came at night.
The air oozed silence, no passing cars or other people. We were far enough outside of town not only to see stars but to enjoy them with peace as well. Dinner was heavy enough to send me to my rocking chair, the one that lures me to sleep, overlooking the Sunrise Valley of green brush and golden grass; the view always threatens to bring comfortable sleep. My eyelids started to cover my eyes by a will of their own, and as I was filled with my last conscious thoughts, I could see only a vision of the stairs leading up to the porch, only slightly crooked, old, leading out into the darkness beyond the light. Sleep came. I closed my eyes.
I hear a howling, snapping, clanking of wind chimes, louder and louder, horrific as nails, chalkboard nails, chiming frozen melodies, compressing my head. The chimes stop. Silence comes: brief silence. I open my eyes. The lights are off, and I see only dimly. Darkness is prevalent. Then I see a shadow, like a man or an ape, not yet visible. Its shoulders were hunched, crooked, one side faintly rising and falling with each step. I began to see its hands, long and spindly, casting their own shadows over the porch like the limbs of trees. Its head bent over until it reached the first step, then arched up towards me. On top of its uneven shoulders was a crooked skull of an antlered buck, glowing dully white, even in the dark of night, its empty eye sockets sucking the air from my lungs. I watched, petrified, as its antlers waved, clopping step after step, creaking and moaning, the specter advancing. Its human ribs were inhumanly bent inward, and the spine was bent to accommodate the unnatural head. The bones softly jangled as it reached the top step, hooves on human legs, echoing, reverberating through empty air. One long arm half curled under the body, half drooping, lifeless, vines growing through the skeleton, a Black-Eyed Susan blooming on its shoulder. It cocked its head at me, knowingly, and raised its other arm, arm and finger bones stretching toward me, palm open, outstretched to grab me.
“Jesus, Marty!” Marge came bustling out of the screen door. “Are you alright?”
As though awakened from a trance, one last shiver traversed through my spine as I realized Marge and I were the only ones on the porch. “My God, you were screaming again.”
“Let’s get you inside, I should have known better than to leave you to sleep in that damn rocking chair.”
“It helps me sleep.”
Marge, a large woman with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, turned back into the doorway. “It helps give me a heart attack,” she said over her shoulder. She wanted to say, ‘stay away from that rocking chair,’ but truth be told, she was as afraid of it as I was.
“Alright, Jean, pull me out,” I said, thinking the job was done. Lifting my head slightly from under the sink in an attempt to see my daughter, a tweak in my back tightened as though I hadn’t stretched it for years. I could see just enough of a younger version of my wife’s features in my daughter, high cheekbones, narrow eyes, but her body more closely resembled mine, narrow features, as well as other features I try to ignore as she gets older. I could also see the smartphone she texted on, the texts keeping her focus.
She sat bolt upright. “Sorry!” she said as she quickly pulled on the flat scooter underneath me in an instant to pull me out. The problem with such a maneuver, however, was that my head was still up, and the pipe was of solid material.
A tonk sound echoed in my head. “Jesus,” I said as my daughter pulled me all the way out.
“English,” I muttered, as my way of saying ‘watch your language.’ “Help me up.”
This time, she was very careful, slowly pulling me to my feet. My back tightened but not enough to make me squeal. Her hand covered my forehead. I swatted it away, muttering. Jean said no more.
I went out to my chair on the porch. As I sat down to relax, I finally felt a sharp pain in my forehead. Involuntarily, my hand reached up to touch the spot, which hurt more, at which point I cringed and moved my hand away. Voluntarily, I looked at my palm. Blood. It seeped down my forefinger, leaving a crimson trail, to pool in the cracks of my hand. There seemed to be an excessive amount for a small bump, more-than-droplets crisscrossing to heed the call of gravity, eventually dripping over the side and onto the porch. Red dripped, dripped, until it fell one last time, cascading, blending with a small stream underneath, crimson twisting and bending, mixing, swirling until the swirls lost color. I stood on the bank, moonlit, reeds blowing in the wind, trees narrowing my view, tall grass, tall trees. Gurgling from the stream started to rise, faster, louder, but became subtler to my ears, quieter and quieter, jarring against rocks. In its place came footsteps, crackling. I looked. On the other side was a figure, covered in a black robe, walking slowly through the dry bank reeds. As it stalked, the only skin that could be seen was a hand, pale white, lifting up from the robe. The other hand appeared, ghostlike, hovering over an open palm, fingers, fingertips grasping, pulling a few petals straight from the palm I could no longer see and ejecting them, a flowing hand from the wrist to the tips, leaving a shower of petals to float, slowly, down to the water and be carried by the stream. Mesmerizing. I took a step closer, and another, trying to peer into her hand. I leaned over. As her hand went down to take another handful, in her open palm, was red, a red, beating heart, fleshy, blood pouring over the side. Her hand grasped again. Skin, heart skin, stretched, stretched farther, separating, reshaping, become petals in her hand. Plop. My heart jumped. I looked down; my foot was in the water. I looked up. The figure had turned towards me, a shadowy figure of a white face, a specter, taught skin; it opened its mouth, and a long, painful, piercing sound came out, a harrowing scream.
The next day, I dropped my pen by the door of my daughter’s bedroom, and as I picked it up, I heard voices. I leaned closer to the door. I could just hear “Marty” and “nightmares.”
So, by accident or by purpose, I overheard their conversation about me:
“You know your father freaks out from time to time.”
“He wasn’t even asleep!”
“It’s not his fault.”
“I’m not saying it is!”
“You have to understand…”
“You’re not even listening to me!” Jean screamed. A pause. “Dad needs help. Serious help. Like a psychiatrist or something.”
“Good heavens, Jean.”
“It’s not that serious.”
“Not that serious? Are you fucking insane?”
I straightened up, pen in hand. All I could hear from then on was too much. The strain was too much. It was time to end this suffering, for my family, and for me.
I went to my rocking chair again, same old heavy, color-drained seat cushion on top. I never noticed it in so much detail before: it used to be just my rocking chair. Like never before, it terrified me: the rocking chair was my portal.
The wood groaned under my weight as I waited for the dreams.
Hours seemed to drain by; now that I wanted it to come, it took its sweet time. Light slowly faded. My wife didn’t come out to see what I was doing, as she is used to my outbursts. My daughter came out, but, seeing the expression on my face, was speechless. She also let me be, though certainly not from apathy. After a while, the day began to wear away, and darkness took the place of light.
Sure enough, it came for me.
It appeared on the porch steps ahead of me, its head cocked. I couldn’t open my mouth to speak, but it already knew my question: it reached out its hand and closed each finger, one at a time, starting with the smallest on the end, in a gesture I understood. I stood up and followed the creature.
Its gait was odd, but it walked with purpose. I followed behind, walking around the brush and attempting to keep from tripping in the darkness. My eyes began to adjust, and I could see the creatures around me: the bright eyes of whitetail deer, the cautious walk of a feral housecat, the swoop of an owl. It wasn’t long before the creature found the stump, the halfway point, a landmark to find what I had hidden.
The creature never once turned to make sure I followed, though now and then it would look around as though its memory was as corrupted as its body. I felt an air of familiarity toward the creature, its hideous demeanor notwithstanding. Finally, it stopped, stooping over a place in the ground with a weather-worn shovel stuck in the mound. I knew.
I took the shovel in hand and started to dig. The creature, ominously, crouched next to me as I lifted the first, second, third shovel-fills of dirt. A sliver pricked my hand, piercing, a splinter caught in my palm. I heaved ten, twenty, thirty times and fell into a rhythm. I worked as though a slave, my fate sealed beforehand, working toward my own destruction, the ruin of man. As I sank lower, the creature stood above me, head cocked, staring, unmoving, lifeless. Then, as though choreographed, planned, or scripted, I bent down and moved the dirt with my hands, my fingers, trembling fingers, dirt in my nails. Eventually, I touched it: cautiously, carefully, my hands pulled away small layers, roots, pebbles, flakes, making an outline, starting at first in a semi-circle, more semi-circles, whole circles, liberating pits, small pits, working down, finding lines and curves and patterns and bones, more bones, finally revealing the skeleton of the man I shot and killed one year before.
One year before was the third day of hunting season, and I took a couple days off from work to celebrate it. I often went alone, since my daughter never took up interest and my wife annoys me (admittedly because she is a better shot than me). I went alone, my packing my rifle and walking out from the house before the sun had risen. I took no flashlight, as I would allow my eyes to adapt to the darkness, and I took no lunch, since I tend to find a deer before lunchtime even comes around. I followed the same old trail my grandfather used to use, and then my father and uncles, and now it was only me, alone, wandering deeper into the area I thought of as my property, even though there is more land than a man can really control.
I did not stop until evening. I was a hungry, though only a little, but I was very thirsty. I followed the trail home, my stomach leading the way, reminding me that supper would be on the table. My pride was a little hurt, since it was the first time in years I did not find a decent buck by the third day. It had not been a good day.
My eyes followed the trail lazily up a hill, my feet practically dragging. Then, from some primal instinct luring my gaze upward, I finally saw it. Standing on the top of the hill was a four-point buck, staring, immobile. It certainly wouldn’t be the best rack I’ve collected, but at this point, I wanted what I could get. I pulled my rifle from off my back and put the creature in my sight. Adrenaline kicked in, helping me aim. The buck looked as though it was just about to bolt. With the speed of molasses, I pulled the trigger. Crack. I must have gotten excited and missed, but the buck didn’t move. I thought I was lucky. Crack. The buck jumped and bounced away, but my adrenaline began to cease. I must have hit him that time. I slung my rifle and made my way to the top.
There was blood, alright. Enough to follow him by. I stopped for a good half-an-hour, trying to see through the dense trees, one of the few places with anything taller than me growing on the whole property. After a moment of waiting, I unslung my rifle and followed the blood trail, a little tense from the adrenaline.
After meandering through thick brush, I found the carcass. The deer was dead, probably not long before I had reached it. A feeling of relief flooded over me. A clean kill. I started to look at the kill I had made, one of many. It was something I was used to. Just then, a chill vibrated on the back of my neck. Something else was here. I looked up. There was a figure, lifeless, in a small clearing fifty yards away. Everything told me not to go up to it, but my body disobeyed me. I walked toward it.
On the ground was a forty-to-fifty year old man with a speckled gray and brown beard. He wore all camo, no ‘hunter’s orange’ or pack. He lay sprawled against the ground, his eyes staring upward. His throat was covered in red, one hand still over his wound. Though I couldn’t know this, it seemed that he had choked to death on his own blood. He wasn’t supposed to be on the property, but here he was. After seeing his body, I turned back toward the buck, pulling my knife out, prepared to go through the tribal motions of gutting and quartering, ready to…
What was I doing? A man lay dead just behind me. I couldn’t turn to see the man again, the blood still pouring from the wound onto the ground. Something my grandfather had told me came back to me: “Never shoot over a hill, son. You never know where that bullet might go.” I saw the buck again, with new eyes: blood poured from his chest, still pouring, a fresh kill, fresh death, red, blood covered the dirt, soaked up the red blood, red, still bleeding, his hand on his red, red, on his neck, red, red, red…
I couldn’t remember the next part. It was dark, very dark, and there was a hole where the man’s body was. A compactable shovel was in my hand, one I always bring with me. Both of the bodies had gone. I stood and, following the old trail, made my way home.
I stepped up onto the front porch, shovel in hand. The lights in the house were on, and a figure moved back and forth. My tense feet struck the steps with a heavy thump, thump, thump. The wind chimes started acting up, making a ruckus. I heard some commotion from inside the house. Halfway up the steps, the front door opened. My wife took one look at me and screamed, a soul-piercing sound that made me tremble. I froze.
“My god!” she said. “You scared me half to death! You know I was waiting up all night for you…” She didn’t know. A part of me felt relieved. I barely listened to her in my state of mind. “… You’ve never been gone so long. What a heart attack you gave me!”
“I’m sorry, dear,” was all I could mutter.
She gave me an odd look. “Why, you’re all covered in blood. My, men are messy! But at least you get the job done.” She smiled. “I suppose you’ll go back for it in the morning, hmm? Big, strong man couldn’t carry it by himself?” She looked at my shoulder. “Honey, where is your rifle?” I gave her a puzzled look. “Oh, you know, your father’s rifle!”
“Oh,” I managed, “I must have put it down somewhere.”
She made a tisk tisk sound with her mouth. “You know what your father would say. ‘If someone dropped that rifle, then someone had better be dead!’ Now come inside, dinner’s cold enough as it is.”
“That’s alright,” I responded a little too quickly. “I’ll have a moment in my chair.”
Her eyebrow raised. “Suit yourself, but I’m going to bed. Finally.” She left.
Once she was gone, I had another feeling, the same feeling I had when I found the dead man. I turned, slowly, against my will, toward my rocking chair. It was occupied by a slouch-backed man with both hands on the end of the arms of the chair, not rocking, not moving. He wore the same camouflage as before, had the same build as before. I looked at his face. Instead of a man’s head, it was an antlered buck, fleshy, lifeless, staring away, its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth, its teeth showing. A fly buzzed around from out of nowhere, landing at first just above the eyelash, then crawling, purposefully, onto its eye, searching the surface, until the eye twitched, the fly fled, brown eyes pointed, purposefully, directly, at me.