June 17, 2024 Short Story

Ye Brazen Beasts

Ye Brazen Beasts Artwork by DALL·E

The hickories and black gums done been naked a piece, and Christmas come and went two months past. All’s left of that purty ridgeline is gray trunks run up with lichens, spindly limbs and crunchy brown leaves covering the ground. Leaves’ll give a man away this time of year. 

Weather’s still so cold, the wind cracks like glass across your face, but I know the painters done got active again – them big old mountain lions don’t sleep none in the winter anyway – and the bears done come out they winter holes. Pa swears they ain’t, but I done caught first scent. They hear you rooting around in them crackly leaves, youse a hunted man.

I got painters and bears on the brain though, I grant you that. This is our first winter on this ridge; Cherokee only let us live up here in peace because they won’t go near it. Makes a man wonder.

997 - Southern Death Cult

“Ojimway, Ojimway, Ojimway, come to my hearth, for I have returned with tidings in my cheek.”

Woodsmoke curls like the Great Serpent into my nostrils and awakens my smelling brain. Wafting in it is Ojimway, turned from his hut and draped in a bearskin, and we embrace warmly in the ice breeze tumbling through camp from the wings of the Thunderers above. 

We walk to my hut, and I bid my children go outside. My hearth is warm, and for a moment we listen to the fire’s crackling. I watch my thoughts assemble in the orange flames; Ojimway stares into it too, black eyes fixed and thin lips pointing downward, where the panther sliced each side. My focus drifts to the panther under his bearskin, the one that the elder woman tattooed on his chest afterward, each paw stretching the length of an arm; and I wonder why the panther who attacked him did not kill. The chief says for sullenness at the escaping world, but how, when the world is yet so harmonious? I offer him a glass of water, which he takes.

“I was in the woods today,” I say, “far down the ridge, communing with the trees and the animals and the spirits. I walked upon the white snow and brown leaves yet made no sound, letting the cold infuse me with its purity.

“By degrees, all accidental, I arrived at a narrow, deep stream, so I bent low and let the crystal water flow into my mouth.

“I turned upon a wolf approaching. I reached for my ax, but the wolf yelped and shook, pointing its head downward, signaling no appetite for teethy bite or snarl. It passed me, and I imagined thirst must have tugged it this way. 

“But the wolf did not drink. It raised its pointy head and howled in little plaintive bursts, then bent low to empty its stomach on the ice. It coughed once, shook and turned from the steaming pile of bones and fur, leaving as it came.” 

Ojimway said: “Do you perceive its meaning?”


“Then we have to consult the chief.”


“Let us go.” His eyes turn from the fire for the first time since I began speaking. “This is surely a warning, brother.”

The trails through camp freeze over each night, but now, in the early afternoon, are slushy with muddy snow and ice. Ojimway and I walk through the slush. Outside, two women butcher a skinned buck, its beautiful gore on display in the bright winter sun, while another stretches the animal’s pelt.

Floral smoke leaks from the cracks under the door of the chief’s hut when we arrive. I inhale deeply, and for a moment it carries me back to the stream and the wolf. I stand dreaming, my hand resting on the handle until Ojimway pulls it off.

“Do not water down your vision by letting it play out now. Let it remain fresh, so the chief can cogitate upon it raw.”

I nod, and we enter. Darkness and smoke obscure the chief, who sits alone beside the hearth, a parchment in one hand and a long wooden pipe in the other.

They bid us sit, and we oblige, taking our spots on the freshly washed rugs and blankets layered on the floor. The chief empties their pipe, dull thud upon palm, and reaches for a rabbit-fur pouch from which they pull sticky, sparkling buds and plunge them into the pipe.

“Here,” says Chief, passing the pipe and fire, “smoke with me, brothers.” I receive the pipe and hold the fire to it, pulling the fragrant smoke into my lungs.

When I blow a purple-pearly smoke train into the middle of the hut, they speak again: “Tell me what you saw, Triple Born.”

I pass the pipe and the fire to Ojimway, and cough, shaking slightly from the eddy tickling my throat; then tell the chief about what I witnessed at the stream below the ridge.

The chief’s stony eyes don’t move, like rocks festooned in mud, and the lines on their face grow shadowy; until they speak nothing disturbs the symmetry of their drooping face, but then: “Triple Born, my brother, your tale has excited me.” Their eyes enlarge like the sky when the Thunderers ride across, and suddenly the doleful wrinkles stretch taut, disappearing in sudden youth.

Ojimway takes a puff, blowing smoke toward the hearth. He passes it to the chief, who packs it down with a weathered, pluck-hard thumb, and raises it but doesn’t light it, saying: “We must prepare for an attack. They will spill out over the ridge charging mad, and they will give no quarter.” The chief puts the pipe in their mouth, then the magic crackle as they light it.

“Who?” says Ojimway.

“All of them,” they say, “every animal, an army.”


My name’s Herschel-John, and I got a little brother we call Baby and my Pa – we ain’t got no ma. She blowed her head off with a flintlock pistol last winter, and after that we left out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and headed to Kentucky. Pa said it was still wild out here, that it’d give us quiet to think. Him and Baby looked peaked all the time after that, and their eyes always drooped.

I always take a doglock musket with me in the woods, that or a pistol and Pa’s old cutlass. Told Pa I’s a-going out in the morning, but he didn’t let Baby know; I didn’t neither, even though I kindly knowed he’d be a-wanting to. I don’t normally mind too much having him around, unless I’m going out in the woods. See, Baby’s deaf and when he’s in the woods there ain’t an animal on this ridge or the next don’t hear it.

Baby ain’t in the cabin. Pa’s freezing his ass off chopping wood, so reckon that puts Baby in the outhouse or helping Pa. I pick up the pistol and the cutlass, and sling the satchel I packed with biscuits and salt pork over my shoulder. The door’s loud, but if you push it real fast, then hold it halfway open, why, you can squeeze through without a sound. Then I’ll head dead right from the cabin, where I can attain the woods yon way, and stay hid in the woods till I get to the ridge. 

I open the door, sliding like a snake, and when I turn the corner, why, there he stands, satchel strapped across his chest, grinning. I sign to him, asking how he knowed I’s going out.

“I could tell it in the way you’s acting,” he signs. “I know you ain’t wanting me to go, but I’d kindly love to,” looking all pitiful; little runt done knowed I ain’t gonna say no, just says that to rub it in.

Deep in the woods, hiking down the ridge, Baby’s louder than hell. I don’t even try and stay quiet, just hold the pistol close in case a bear or painter starts a-hunting our loud asses. We walk on till we reach a branch that runs close to the bottom. I bend down to take a drink of the cold water. Baby does too, then refills his waterskin. 

“Why was it you come out today?” he signs, brushing the red curls he got from Mama off his forehead.

“I don’t know; have something to do, I reckon.”

“I like to feel of the world out here, like I was listening to the trees and the animals and the air, even on account of …” He laughs and points at one ear. “You ever do that?”

“I don’t look at it so literal, Baby, but that purty much describes the peace a man can feel out here.”

“And I’m so loud …”

“Aah, it ain’t bad; least you don’t talk much.”

I bend down to get me another drink and fill up my waterskin; soon as I do, Baby’s a-tapping me on the shoulder.

“Be there presently,” I say, forgetting to sign and not looking up. He taps again, harder, then again, like he’s about to have a conniption, till I stand up to a bear ain’t more’n 10 yards yon way.

“Don’t you do nothing,” I sign. Now, Pa always says the best thing for black bear is to make yourself out big as you can, throw your arms clear up over your head and holler like a banshee, but first thing I done’s put my hand on the pistol. Baby don’t make none of them noises he makes when he’s upset, just puts his hand on my pistol hand, and says one of the only words he trusts himself to say: “Nah.”

I take to hollering and dancing around, and soon as I motion to Baby, he does to; him trying to do what he thinks yelling is, but really just moaning low and sad. Bear don’t react one bit, stays put on all four legs, calm and curious-looking. A little bit of spit hangs from its jaw.

We keep on a-hollering till our voices give out, but the bear don’t move. Baby looks at me, the color on his face drained out so they’s just freckles left, and signs, “Let’s go real quiet.”

I nod, and we start circling around the bear, giving it plenty of room, until we’re standing behind it a good fifteen yards.

“Hold on,” signs Baby, “let’s see what it does.”

“Ain’t no way we’s stopping, son.”

“It ain’t after us. It just ain’t feeling good.”

“How you know that?”

“Eyes had a look.”

“Eyes? You putting stock in the look of a bear’s eyes now?”

“C’mon, Herschel-John, you’ve got that firearm if it gets agitated.”

“One minute we stay. But if it turns around, we skidaddle like a preacher out the whorehouse, you hear?”

We turn toward the bear, what ain’t moved an inch. When I look yon way at it, why, I can’t describe it too good, but something like comfort sits in; like there ain’t no danger; like here’s this room, and you’ve been in it your whole life.

The bear exhales, shakes a little, then walks toward the branch, not tarrying or hurrying one, kindly easygoing.

When it gets to the water, it don’t drink like I done, just groans and commences to make the awfullest sorrowful sounds. Then it … Lord, it’s the damnedest thing … why, it fetched up its lunch on the ice shelf. When it coughs, I feel it in my chest; and it don’t take long till the bear shakes its head, turns and leaves out, same way it come.


I used to be a fucking artist. After I picked up D and S today, I was thinking about the field recordings and poems I made, and how I’d perform concerts in the woods. I thought about the noise band I was in and the time we got kicked out of a club for nudity and forcing ourselves to puke on stage. I remember the basement shows and the tours in conversion vans and the zine we stapled together in my friend Jimmy Balls’s basement for a string of seven glorious issues.

I’m thinking about all this driving through the same national forest we used to camp in, counting how many houses on our street followed the neighborhood council’s regulation of having a gas lamp at the head of their driveway. 

“Let’s not play hair-pulling games with your sister,” I tell D later, when I’m finished preparing after-school snacks.

They eat their cheddar cheese Goldfish and grapes at the table, and I open Instagram, see a few hiking and camping pics from friends – how are they always outside doing interesting things?

“Mommy, you gave D more Goldfish than me,” says S.

“Sweetie, you can have more if you finish all those first.”

I don’t look up, but scroll through my apps looking for something I’d be proud to have open if someone else looked over my shoulder, but there’s just business and news apps. Jacobin? Do I even have that? WFMU? Who’d be looking anyway, all the way out here? I click on the gothic, stuffy-looking “T” denoting the New York Times, and I tap through to the book reviews.

We were going to collect all the zines in one anthology, and it was all going to be connected by a common but subtle thread into one masterpiece. I read the Times’s review section, knowing I won’t find anything there like we used to make – unruly, transgressive … probably gratuitous – but not knowing where else I’d find anything like that anymore anyway. Just search for “underground lit zine,” maybe? D screams again, and I set my phone down.


Denzel arrives in his big GMC. He’s wearing his hunter green US Forest Service coat, the bulky one for this cold snap. I’m staring out the kitchen window at the cold dark, and he walks through the door and comes over to me, draping me with his arms under his big coat, smelling of cold and cologne, brisk and delicious. I try to ignore how nice the fragrance is and how good it feels to be enveloped in his warmth.

“Hey, baby,” he says, “tough day?”

“Hey,” I say, exhaling. “No – I mean, tough like every day – yours?”

“I was on patrol in the morning, then responded to complaints from hikers and campers. Animals are crazy right now; approaching people, stealing food, had my first bear attack, even.” He retreats back to the refrigerator, and his boots squeak on the wood floors. “Guy just had a few scratches, looked like the bear wanted his doughnut. But Lord …”

“Marie Fogelson swears their dog was lured into the woods by coyotes and killed.”

“That the truth?” he says, a jar of bread and butter pickles in his hands. He twists off the lid, and puts a few slices in his mouth.

“She’ll want you to come down and take a look, you know.”

“Yeah,” he says, chewing, “coyotes’ll do that.”

He says “kai-oats,” not “kai-o-tees.” Where he’s from, just an hour and a half from the city, the language splinters off into an Appalachian dialect that defies the Southern drawl, holding its integrity all the way through eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina. When I started dating him it was 2001, and I’d already graduated college. I was waiting tables, playing music, writing; he still had two years left to finish his BS in forestry. My friends called him Bionic Heterosexualite when he’d leave, and later, drunk, high, solicitous, they’d straight ask me why I was dating a square. It didn’t take long till they loved his country-boy frankness and his twangy laugh though. And they all wanted to see what that bubble butt looked like without jeans and a neat, tucked-in shirt covering it.

When he graduated, I was still making no money and partying. He went directly into graduate school; wanted to be able to get a rank of ranger, and that required a Master’s. We moved in together, and his discipline lowered a curtain of guilt over me. “Quit being so rumstudious, Littlun,” he’d say when I’d get frustrated and pick a fight; then turn back to reading about the hardwoods of the southeastern United States or whatever, and cross those pretty legs, lightly covered in short sun-bleached hairs, there on our little fourplex porch we were so proud of. 

One day I started studying for the GMAT and applying at business schools. I got into a she got a job with the university while I was finishing my MBA. He made a little money and we kept our apartment cleaner than any I’d lived in; and it felt good to go to the fancy bourbon bars, the horse races and the restaurants without Mom and Dad footing the bill. 

My little arts scene changed, as people variously “got serious,” myself included. In some ways it got richer with new blood, while also maturing, with a couple lucky bands getting European tours and a new museum downtown.  I still played now and again, but my connection to it vacillated – sometimes it was a healthy little stream and others it was a crackle-hard creekbed. Denzel would say “branch,” not “stream” …  

The last year of my MBA, Denzel started applying for jobs. Before I’d finished, he received an offer to go out to Wyoming on the promise that the Forest Service would send him closer to home after ten years. We took it, didn’t even think. Soon, D was on his way. S came a year and a half later, and the smear of years passed over us. Just two years later than promised, the Forest Service offered Denzel a job in an Appalachian outpost called Vaunce County in Kentucky, close to where he’s from. 

“Well, I better check with Marie before I get too tuckered out.” He opens the door, and the screen slaps shut. I hear the GMC turn over and head down the hill to the Fogelson’s; after that just wind. It howls like a banshee over the ridge, more wild than anything I’d encountered out West, then quiet and dark fill in everything.

997 – Southern Death Cult

The fires burn early the next morning. Before, still in darkness, we assembled all who would fight. We are poor of arms, but all possess axes; some have bows but there are few flints. 

A mighty breakfast is laid out, and afterwards we pray to the Thundering Gods above and the Underwater Panther below. Before light, I take my place beside Ojimway in the line. I look down the meager ranks, and there is no fear, neither on faces nor in the air. The night brought numbing cold, hardening the ground and clearing the sky; it is a deep azure now, more night than day.

They appear as shadows in the trees, just behind the forest’s edge where the ridge dives down. Their number is tremendous. I turn my head to Ojimway, who bows slightly and grips his ax. 

In the night, Ojimway and I ate a portion of mushrooms and contemplated the fire. What we saw would frighten some, but we rejoiced in the wave of blood foretold in the flames. We danced, and the beautiful symmetry of our impending destruction lifted our hearts in the cold dark.

When we arrived on this ridge in the fairer months, there were warnings. We did not ignore them – what fool would? – but were pinioned up here by enemies in all directions. After the winter, we said, we will leave and settle far from here; but now it is too late, and we will pay for that indiscretion.

A wolf howls as the first rays of the sun break over the ridge, and the animals launch forth onto the clearing. “This!” I cry to Ojimway, “We saw it!” 

When we saw the thundering line of beasts in the fire last night, we could not believe such beauty existed in this world, but now, to encounter it in the world-as-it-is, arrests me, pinning my body to earth.

But I must play my part.

Two lines of stampeding animals – bears, wolves, panthers, turkey buzzards, coyotes, raccoons, bucks and does, bobcats, wildcats – bear down on our spotty lines.

“The fear is also beautiful,” says Ojimway, turning to me.

“Yes, brother.” I say, “It must descend from the gods. I gulp it in.”

I call out a blessing to the gods, and Ojimway echoes it; then we run at their teeth and claws and talons.


Baby put the coffee on hours before the sun come up; salt pork too. Soon as he took to frying the pork, the aroma snuck under my thick blanket and woke up my smell, but hearing the slow sizzle of the fat in the pan roused me proper; Pa too.

“Why you up so early?” I ask my brother with my hands.

“Kept on having a dream,” he says.

Pa sits at the table, pours a cup of coffee for me, then himself. “What was the dream?” His huge hands flap a little when he signs.

Baby puts a plate of salt pork, biscuits and fried eggs on the table, then the red-eye gravy in the iron skillet, steam rising, crispy egg corners still sizzling. Me and Pa and Baby load up our plates before Baby answers: “The same dream kept a-coming back again and again.” He pauses and takes a small bite of biscuit. “A wave of teeth and claws poured over the ridgeline … out of nothing. Then it stormed over the clearing, like … like the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible, and covered up the cabin in a swirl of teeth and claws and dirt. I couldn’t do nothing but watch – and it’s the most beautiful thing. Then I’d wake up.”

Daddy ain’t took the first bite of food; just watches Baby sign. “Well, son, that’d make a lesser man scared.”

“I am scared, Pa.”

“I would be too.”

“Dream’s over now,” I sign between bites. “Ain’t no reason to be afraid no more.”

“It didn’t stop none when I woke. I keep seeing it over and over, clear as day.”

We eat. Then Pa and me collect the plates for washing. Baby gets him a cup of coffee; stands at the window, looking out back. It ain’t yet full light, and it’s frozen. 

Pa and me finish with the washing, and we both pour ourselves another cup of coffee. Pa sits in his chair, and I sit at the table again;  we watch Baby light up with the rising sun. After a few minutes it’s light enough to see outside. Baby turns around and puts his coffee down.

His eyes are wide, clear and bright. He signs to us: “They’re here.”

“Who’s here, son?”

“Come and look at yon woods.” Pa and me walk to the window. “They’s mainly shadows yet, but sure as the world there they stand. I be damned. Red wolves, gray wolves, black bears, painters, coyotes, buck deer, birds …”

“What in tarnation?” I say out loud, not signing. 

“See, all the animals are waiting in the woods till first light,” signs Baby.

“Waiting for what?” signs Pa.

“To attack.” 

“Get all the bullets we got, Herschel-John,” says Pa, signing and talking both – he don’t never forget. “Baby, fetch the coats and every knife you find.”

“Why you want him to get the coats, Pa?” 

“Just do as I say, son. I’m gonna post up at the door and try to pick off a few. Don’t y’all shoot none till they get close though.” He stops and his head darts in every direction. “Don’t shoot out the window neither, but if they bust through and get close, well, shoot them dead.”

Me and Baby stand in front of the window holding muskets. We got four muskets and that flintlock; and Pa’s wearing a cutlass.

Baby’s still a full head shorter than me. He’s got that same look of Pa – same eyes, pulled down by clock weights, same shrunk shoulders, same slack jawline. Pa took to looking that way after Mama died, but Baby’s done been that way his whole life.

The sky turns purple, then red, and the first ray of sunlight rises up over the treetops and lays down across the clearing. A wolf howls; they charge. Don’t know if I’d call it beautiful, but that line of rushing beasts, kicking up a misty ice cloud at their backs, is something.

“Just like I dreamed it,” signs Baby.

I feel the cold snap from the cracked door; the shot explodes from Pa’s musket. My ears ring; Baby smiles.

“Boys,” Pa signs, facing us, “fetch yon boards and nail the window shut.”

“But Pa …” I says, not signing, but I stop when I see his eyes raise up.

The clearing between the ridgeline and our cabin ain’t but 150 yards, and some of the wolves and bucks are close as we nail the first board against the window. Pa takes another shot, shuts the backdoor and starts pushing anything that’s heavy behind it. I peek out the window, and out in front of the snow mist is a huge gray wolf and a painter, both heading straight for the window.

We pick up the second board. My hands shake and sweat burns my eyes. I drop a nail, and look at Baby; he signs, “Easy,” and I pick it up. Soon as I get that first nail in, the glass cracks from one of them rushing beasts, but just a little. Snarls and growls and scratching fill up my ears, then the animals fall back in the snow; me and Baby keep on a-hammering. Pa’s done shoved heavy things in front of both doors. When we hammer the last nail in the second board, he shoves Mama’s old wardrobe in front of the window. 

We listen. The roars and the snarls and the painters’ hiss; it’s purely awful, makes me think of Revelation … the beasts of Hell. My skin is cold and tender-feeling; I grip the musket tight. Every now and then something bangs against the door or the window, but the boards hold.

A minute or two passes. I look at the pile of firewood, and Pa catches me. “If we go slow on the wood,” he signs, “it can last us a week. We got food. Just gotta hold tight.”

“How long you reckon them boards’ll hold?” I say, remembering to sign, too.

Baby and me look at Pa. “They’re just animals. Maybe they’ll forget. We’ll reinforce the two on the window with more boards later.”

A whoosh from outside, and the wood moans and cracks, like a bed slat giving out. Pa runs to the window.

“Bear,” he signs. “Now listen here. Don’t waste a bullet unless it sticks its head through.”

There’s a terrible thud and another crack. More glass breaks between the boards. A paw big as Baby’s chest shoves through the crack, and Pa stabs it with the bayonet on his musket. The bear roars and crashes against the window. A sound like thunder far away, and the boards split, opening up a hole at the top of the window. We aim our muskets at the hole, but it’s a swirl of snow. Everything goes still. 

A painter jumps through the hole, lands on Mama’s wardrobe. I take a shot but hit the roof, and it leaps down in the middle of the cabin. Like lightning it pounces on Baby, knocking his musket clear across the room. Baby takes to screaming, that painter just a-tearing into him, swatting at his face and angling for his soft neck. Poor thing, ain’t even got stubble on it yet. They’s too close together for a shot, so me and Pa run toward them; right before we reach them Baby lets down his hands, and the painter buries them evil teeth in his neck. Pa shoves his old cutlass through the cat’s ribs. It falls over dead on top of Baby, and them long incisors exit Baby’s neck; two little blood geysers erupt. Baby mouths something but no sound comes out, not even one of his funny ones. Before his heart makes another beat, I look at his eyes. They’s perky, alert, not droopy like usual; then his heart beats again and he dies.

Everything goes quiet for a spell; snow must be falling. 

The boards take to cracking again, and two gray wolves jump first on the wardrobe and then on the ground. Pa aims his musket and shoots one dead. The noise spooks the other, and it runs over to the kitchen. Me and Pa move toward it, but before we get there the boards and glass at the window finally give out, and a bear breaks into the room, knocking over the wardrobe.

I turn toward it, take a shot. Too hasty. Miss the heart; it charges, pinning me on my back. At first I manage to keep my hands up, but then it overpowers me and puts my head in its mouth. I’m helpless as a baby; can’t hear nothing, just digging teeth and hot breath and pressure. Maybe I screamed. Suddenly it stops, and there’s weight all over me and my hearing returns. I hear Pa cussing and grunting, pushing the bear’s corpse off me. 

“Son! Are you alive?”

I see the blood splattered over the floor and gathering in a pool beside Baby. Another blood pool collects real close, but it’s the bear bleeding out; Pa kneels.

“I’m fine,” I say. Ain’t nothing broke anyway; it don’t take to hurting till later. 

The wolf jumps on Pa’s back. He drops the cutlass and starts clawing at the snarling animal. I roll over, take hold of the flintlock and try to stand. I’m woozy, swaying cotton; I fall to one knee, pointing the same pistol that killed my Mama at man and wolf, all the sudden just one thing. Then the other wolves pour through the window, make a beeline for Pa and pounce. A painter sits on top of the pushed-over wardrobe, just a-watching, and another bear struggles to get through the broken window. 

“Run!” says Pa, under the pile of wolves. “Run, Herschel-John!” I holster the flintlock, pull a torch from the fire and sprint head-on at Pa and the wolves. But the wolves don’t budge none. They done tasted blood.


I’ve never hiked in the woods here, although some of the forest performances I held in college happened nearby; and the parties after. “It’s a wonder y'all never walked off a cliff,” said Denzel, when he attended a much tamer one later on. But I don’t think so. I can still smell the woodsmoke and the sweetness of spilled beer, and feel myself grinding teeth as the acid comes on. That clarity is crisper than memories of yesterday. There’s a little stream that flows down the hill called the Little Posquette, and one Saturday while Denzel has the kids I decide to hike down to it.

When I announce that I’m going, Denzel looks at me with his innocent, country-boy face, bemused I guess; but knows better than to question me on one of my only moments without the kids. “Just be careful, honey,” he says. “There’s a path leads down, but it’s steep, and today’s probably the coldest day of the year. Bundle up.”

He wants me to ask about the path – Oh, honey, you’ve been all the way down there? Wow. Tell me about it before I go – but I just zip up my heaviest down coat, and say, “I’ll see you three bandits later.”

Denzel’s still looking after me, and even this fleeting diversion of his attention doesn’t go unnoticed by D and S, who assail him with sudden requests. In the end, I can’t help saying, “I’ve got my phone,” before I walk out into the cold.

The air bites every trace of exposed skin, but when I reach the gray winter bark after the clearing, it abates. I put my gloved hand on a large post oak and trace the lichens running up it all the way to a tiny disfigurement, a little piece of its insides expelled to the cold, curling backward; taut. I pluck it like a jaw harp, and it echoes through my head; I walk down the ridge trail with jaw harp boinging around my head.

Denzel was right: it’s steep here, but beautiful. I never noticed how nice the winter sparseness could be; the hardwoods look so pretty when they’re naked, gray monoliths somber and tall. It’s quiet, too, and suddenly I look around and can’t believe I’m the only one disturbing it. I start to drift off to a meditative place I used to encounter when I played or tripped or hiked, where every sensation is taken in little teaspoonfuls of total attention and everything in the world, even the contradictions, becomes harmonious. 

Ten minutes later, I hear the Little Posquette. It’s only a trickle under the ice now, a solitary sliver down its throat. I stand beside it and listen. I’m thirsty. I bend down and look at the strong, skinny current and flaky edges. Denzel says no matter how nice it looks, unfiltered river water will leave you sick. 

I sit down on a boulder overlooking the stream. It begins to snow, falling unencumbered through the leafless trees and settling on the ice over the stream’s edges. 

Nothing stirs, but something directs me to turn. A coyote trots languidly down the path and stops about ten yards from the stream. I don’t startle, and as it looks up at me plaintively, there is no fear in its eyes either. It walks slowly up to the stream and pukes on the ice, depositing a steaming heap of slimy viscera, hair and tiny bones. 

I stare at it, like a veteran at death,  but then try to stop myself. It returns my gaze, and I fall deeper into that meditative, no-thinking place, flowing with the in-this-world that opens its chest up and pulls you inside. I don’t rush the feeling or corral it, because – I do remember this much – the moment you think about it, the peace shatters. My eyes stay fixed. The coyote breaks its gaze, trotting back up the path, and eventually, whenever I start to feel the cold again, I follow.


The next day is Sunday, and we’re all up before the sun. Our old percolator gurgles in the kitchen. The dark blue sky lightens more every second as morning creeps over the ridge. S turns from the kitchen table and stares out the bay window. 

“Why are all the animals standing there?” she says.

“Standing where, honey?” 

“By the woods. Come look.”

“Just one sec, let Mommy pull some things out of the fridge first.”

“Mommy, there’s so many.”

“Be right there, sweetie.” 

A mournful howl penetrates the house. I shut the fridge and rush over to S. Denzel and D come from the living room, and we all stand behind her, peering over her shoulders.

A thin, long line of animals advances over the clearing toward the houses; they aren’t charging, just trotting. My phone rings, then Denzel’s. We ignore them, transfixed by the line of bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons and other animals advancing.

“Daddy,” says D, “I didn’t think the animals were friends – why are they all together.”

“I don’t know, son,” his voice trailing off.

Denzel and I catch each other’s eyes. “Let’s maybe go upstairs now,” I say.

“I wanna watch the animals,” says D.

“Me too,” says S.

“Just come upstairs with Mommy,” and I shuffle them toward the stairs. My stomach tickles, like a bump on a country road; at that moment, I’m sure I must be jittery and instinctual, but when I look at my steps they are sure, and there’s tranquility in my chest. “We can watch from there.”

“What about Daddy?” says D.

“I’ll be up in a second, son.” As we reach the landing, I hear him go to the gun rack in the locked room downstairs. The back door swings open and the cold rushes all the way upstairs. A gun blast resounds through the house, and we watch the animals scatter.

“Is Daddy hunting?” says D.

“I don’t want him to hurt them,” says S.

“No, Daddy’s just scaring them away.”

The gunfire from Denzel and a few neighbors scatters most of the animals; a few are shot and hobble back toward the treeline; a buck lies dead. When a neighbor’s doberman challenges the line, I distract the kids as one of the bears rips it apart. A few of the animals reach the houses, but just paw at the windows or pace around looking confused. Before too long, a few of Denzel’s colleagues at the National Forest Service arrive with noise-making devices that scare the remaining animals back into the woods; they manage to hit a few with tranquilizers. Later, Denzel says they’ll take blood samples from them to see what may have caused this.

In a little over an hour it’s over. The apprehension of jitteriness and fear vanished for good as soon as Denzel’s first shot rang out, the outcome clear, but the tranquility that was really there evaporated too; the leftovers are blue, purposeless, dull and relentless. I walk down and the coffee is still hot in the percolator. Denzel is outside with what looks like a mountain lion – I thought he said they weren’t around anymore. He calls them “painters,” says that’s what people called them when the beautiful cats thrived here. The kids got bored after about a half hour – of the men with guns and the forest service trucks and all their insane gear – and now sit on the couch watching television.


The neighborhood Facebook page is electric for a few days. No one goes out for walks. Denzel’s office releases a statement calling the incident “inexplicable” and “an act of God” that was “without precedent.” But when National Geographic writes about it, they dig up some legends about Appalachian families attacked by wild animals. One of those families apparently lived on this ridge,  a man and his two boys. Everyone in the Facebook group says these are apocryphal, fantastic, just legends; scientific arrogance reigns, dominating the neighborhood opinion.

But I know better. Lately, I’ve been taking more hikes than ever, following the paths up, down and sideways off the ridge. Denzel always gives me a pistol, but I hide it in a tree every time. Most often, I return to the boulder beside the Little Posquette, drifting back to that no-thinking place, waiting for whatever might meander along the path to join me.