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In the North Woods

Wayne James

I have returned to the north woods to battle demons. Whether those demons exist only within my mind or, like the bottle I hold in my hand, come from without, I do not know. This I ponder, standing in the bitter November wind, watching the snow swirl down upon the forest.

           The events that bring me here today began three years ago, though, in a way, they started long before, when I left the village of my ancestors and my Inuit heritage behind to live in the white man's world -- the modern world.

           Nevertheless, three years ago in these woods I killed a deer without welcoming his spirit, without offering it water, and without thanking him for his sacrifice. I had been too long in the white man's world by then -- first at the University, then in business -- and had cast aside the ways of my people as myth and superstition. Now I am not so certain.

When the company president invited me along on the annual opening weekend hunting trip, it was a great honor. It meant my efforts had distinguished me, that I was no longer the company's token other, kept on to fill hiring quotas, but someone to be watched -- a comer.

           On the first morning of the hunt, the company president escorted me to my blind long before the sky began to change from black to gray. Arctic wind screamed down across the Canadian wilderness to chill my blood. Snow covered the ground with white. The drifts piled against trees shivering in thick coats of ice and clutching the skies with frozen fingers.

           When dawn grayed the sky, I sat on a folding chair, shivering, sipping coffee from a thermos in a vain attempt to stay warm. Then the buck appeared.

           He stepped, proud and magnificent from between a pair of fir trees. Head held high, nose sniffing the air for predators, he moved into the clearing. His antlers were the odor of burnished bronze, tall and wide, with sharp and perfectly proportioned tines. Childhood caribou hunts flashed through my mind. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder.

           The rifle leapt in my hands, its crack echoing through the silent forest. But the buck did not fall. Rather he stood there as if considering some profound and weighty decision. For an instant I thought I missed. But then the buck broke into a run. He came straight at me, and I realized he was disoriented -- dead though still on his feet.

           He was quite a trophy, the best of the hunt, and the president insisted on having the head mounted. Three months later, on the same day I received a promotion, the taxidermist returned the head and front feet mounted on a walnut plaque.

           I hung the head upon the wall above the dining room table as a symbol of my success, and, to celebrate the promotion, Amanda, my wife, prepared venison steaks for dinner. She and I and Michelle, our three year old daughter, sat in the dining room enjoying dinner and discussing the possibilities my promotion opened to us a larger home, perhaps another child.

           Michelle asked for a piece of venison, and I cut her a small piece. She had been eating solid foods for quite some time, and it should not have caused a problem.

           But it did. She choked on it.

           Images of her gasping for breath despite my frantic attempts to clear her throat, the sound of her mother's screams, and buck gazing down, glass eyes unblinking, haunt my days and nights. Always will.

           Grief drove a wedge of silence between Amanda and me and I began to drink, widening the chasm until it became vast and cold as the spaces between the stars. Amanda left six months ago. That's when the strangeness started. First I felt as if the buck were watching me from its place upon the wall, so I covered it with a sheet. But the feeling didn't stop, so I took the head off the wall and put it in the closet.

           Then came the dreams. Dreams of being pursued. Hooves thumping on the ground behind me, clattering over rocks. Slicing out of darkness toward my face. But awakening, sweating and trembling, always before the hooves reach me.

           I tried to drown the dreams with alcohol. I drank at night to sleep. I drank during the day to forget the nights. But the dreams continued.

           Last week the company fired me. I knew then that the time had come to face the demons.

I turn away from the woods, go to the station wagon, and unload the camping gear. Pitching the tent takes some time because it is new and I am unfamiliar with its design and because I am drunk.

           The buck's head is in the back seat of the station wagon. I move it into the tent along with the other supplies. Tomorrow I will travel to the sight of the animal's death, bury the head, and beg the creature's spirit for forgiveness. Afterwards I'll return to camp and perform the rituals of purification. Perhaps then I can find peace and resume my life.

           When darkness falls, I build a fire in front of the tent. I sit inside the circle of light and warmth, sipping whiskey, listening to the trees moaning in the wind, and watching the snow fall.

           Near midnight the storm becomes a blizzard. The wind shrieks. Snow falls so fast and thick it smothers my fire, sends me into the tent where I fall asleep listening to the wind. I am lost in the woods running. The sky spins black and moonless above me. Yet the snow gleams with light as if imbued with a ghostly phosphorescence. Something is chasing me. I hear breathing, light and regular, hooves clattering over the rocky soil behind me. The buck. Fear overwhelms me. My breath burns, my heart pounds. But I run harder. I enter a narrow trail. Brush tears at my clothing as if trying to grab me to hold me back. I reach a dead end. The branches of the trees interlace with the brush's limbs and twigs. I push against the wall of foliage but it refuses to let me through. I turn. Eyes gleam in the darkness. Antlers like burnished bronze. A tawny coat.

           The buck moves toward me prancing on razor sharp hooves, rears up over me. Hooves hover over my head. Slash down. . .

           I awaken, trembling, entangled in the sleeping bag. Crepuscular light seeps through the tent fabric The wind has stopped, the morning is quiet.

           I sit up, rub my hand across my face. This dream was more vivid than any of the others, almost as if it were real. The hooves closer than they've ever come before. The terror threatening to drag me over the abyss into insanity, I throw off the sleeping bag and stumble outside.

           The sky is clear, the air cold and still. The sun's first rays burst over the horizon and paint the sky pink and orange and mauve.

           My breathing slows, my heart ceases its pounding, and I step farther out into the morning. My foot nudges something buried in the snow, and using my toe, I push it into view. The bottle, an inch and a half of amber liquid sloshing in its bottom, emerges from the whiteness.

           Whiskey shines in the sun. I study it, my fingers trembling toward the cap, but I stop them -- and, using all my strength, heave the bottle away. It arcs high into the limpid air, sparkling in the new sunlight as it tumbles. Then lands with the satisfying crash of broken glass.

About the Author (click here) © 1998 Wayne James, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           Often, taking the first step, making the decision to change, is the key to change. And, as a great writer once said, "Life is but a fiction waiting to be written, but death is a fact already recorded." You can't do anything about death, but, life is yours to write -- as an adventure, a tragedy, or a romance.

           When I originally conceived this story, I thought I had a work of supernatural horror bubbling up from the recesses of my mind, which interested me, for the main body of my work consists of speculative fiction, and works of supernatural horror seem hard to come for me. The piece turned out to be one of the most literary pieces I've produced -- almost self-consciously so. Did that disappoint me? Yes, at the time it did. Pieces of this type are so hard to place, the cryptic nature putting it beyond less careful readers. But I took it for what it was -- a gift of the imagination -- and polished it just as if it were any other story.

           "In the North Woods" was published in the University of Houston-Clear Lake's award winning literary magazine, Bayousphere. In fact it was a strong contender for a first place prize in one of the journal's annual short story contests, but, alas, was beaten out by another story, entitled "Mouse Makes Parole," written by a fellow who uses the pen name Wayne James. Of course, he is quite pleased by this since the check comes to the same address.

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