This is a true story. I say that every time I post on here, but I feel I should stress that on this occasion, as this is not a story about my own narcissistic, belligerent, drunken idiocy. This story does not bring me pleasure, or pride, or even amusement. It’s not that type of story at all. I suppose it’s quite different than anything I’ve ever put here.
This took place about fifteen years ago. At the time my family lived close to Lexington, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia, which is the state capital. Lexington was the specific distance away from semi-urban Columbia to give it that perfect small town atmosphere that you only see in movies. It was the sort of town where everyone could trace their family ties to the place three or four generations back – any less and you would be seen as a drifter, or a family of nomads. But just as Lexington was far enough from Columbia to be ignored, my family was that far away from Lexington.
It was what you would call “The Country.” We were out in “The Country.” You know those homes that cling to the sides of highways, isolated little huts and houses whose front yards are a mere stone’s throw from the shoulder? Usually you see a lot of corrugated tin, lonely swing sets and see-saws sitting in browning grass with the odd toy duck lying nearby like a forgotten soldier. The homes have a peculiar sense of abandonment or transience, like they could never be a real home. Just a rest stop along the way. That was us. But we lived further in from the road, almost inside the woods. Here the rose-colored lens of childhood fails utterly, because I’m well aware that our house was by no means nice, nor even decent. In all the photos I’ve seen from my youth, it’s always a sprawling, pseudo-70’s affair. The idiot who had built the place had left the crumbling remains of a workshop dangling off the rest of the house like an afterthought of some kind. Not nice by adult standards. But then again, it was all we could afford.
We did not have cable, nor did we have any sort of video game. Not even a Game Boy, which often shocks my peers, evoking great, horrified gasps, like I had just admitted to sexual abuse. This means I missed a good decade of culture that seems to be so crucial to discourse here on the forums. But while this would be complete torture to most children, I had something else to occupy my time – I had the woods.
There was about a dozen or so acres of pine forest surrounding my home, in most places sparse enough to allow walking, and almost all of it was deserted. No one lived nearby and there was no farmer or real estate developer looking to hack it all down and turn it into a trailer park or an alfalfa field or whatever. It was, for all intents and purposes, my own. It was my private playground. Many of my favorite childhood memories center around wandering empty and abandoned trails, presumably made by the wildlife, with my dogs at my side. Each season was perfect in itself – there was something beautiful in the lush explosion of spring or the fragile, naked branches that rose into the air in the middle of winter. In fall the sky was filled with fire, which rained down upon you in clouds during the later months. In summer a tree was always nearby to offer you shade from the sweltering heat.
Nature walks were my thing. While I was always eager to go far into town to someone’s house to see their TV or Nintendo, they were always more excited to come to mine and see my miniature version of The Island of Lost Boys. I don’t recall much of the Zelda theme song, but I can spot about three dozen birds. The red-headed woodpecker was my favorite. Its flashiness appealed to me.
It was around my seventh birthday that I received the present that contributes so much to this story. It was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, and I devoured it within a handful of days. Soon I had every Greek god memorized (in what I later learned was a carefully censored version), and after that came the constellations.
You can’t ever really see the stars unless you’re miles out from city lights. The fuzzy orange halo that’s projected by most cities drowns them out. But there in the woods in our big back yard, they seemed to come down out of the sky until you felt you could almost reach out and touch them. At first it was hard. Very hard. Most of the major constellations are no more than three or four stars, and even those who have more than that seem to be arranged chaotically, like they were thrown together. Some have several strong, bright stars, and then the rest of them are made up of the weak ones, which are scattered across the sky like so much dust. But if you sat long enough and looked hard enough and really wanted to see the faces in the stars, you would. Soon I had learned Sagittarius, and Cancer, and Pegasus, and Orion, and Leo, and God knows what else I used to bother my parents with. It was like they had been there waiting for me, and all I had to do was to want to see them hard enough.
It was a special feeling, to see them there. It made you feel less lonely when the sun went down. It made you feel like the world was alive, like when you walked it walked with you, and when you laughed it was laughing right at your side. It was friendly and dependable – night or day, rain or shine, clouds or no clouds, you knew those stories and faces were out there, hanging in the heavens, waiting for the next time they could see you again. Really, the world was filled with faces and stories. All you had to do was look, and look hard enough.
It was a few weeks later when it happened.
Summer was in full riot. It was one of those summers when the sun beat down on you, hitting you with everything it had. There was no rain for weeks. Earth turned to baked mud, plants wilted before your eyes, green grass was overtaken by brittle gray blades that crunched underneath your feet. The entire world slowed down, lurching along with the burden of the heat, and it was all you could do to sit on the porch, fan yourself with whatever was at hand, and drink iced tea until the sun went back down.
But this did not stop my enthusiasm. Day after day, I still walked the paths in the woods. Sometimes they were covered up with the fallen pine needles, but most often I could remember the way. The forest was an ordered, methodical place to me, and I knew the beat of its veins very well.
I try to remember the less intriguing events that happened in the hours beforehand. I probably told my mother I was going out, and she probably said that I shouldn’t, that it was too hot, that I should drink water, that I should stay indoors and I, as usual, more than likely ignored her. And then she probably went through the same list of half-hearted pleas – don’t go too far, stay away from the road, and if you get too hot come right back inside. Without listening, I undoubtedly agreed to all of these. It’s always easier to get along with people if you say yes to whatever they ask you. Questions are difficult. If you put them off, it gives you time to think up interesting answers or appropriate excuses for whatever you’re going to do next.
And so I went out walking in the woods with my dog, Jasmine. My head was probably full of whatever wild fantasy or fiction I had recently red – perhaps Redwall, or The Hobbit. A Southern pine forest is a poor excuse for the woods I usually envisioned after reading these stories, but I tried my damnedest. We had been walking for some time. I, no doubt, had gone through my usual exchange of walking sticks and staves, picking up one and feeling its strength only to discard it for another a few steps down the road. I often imagined I was arming myself for some attack that would never actually come. I was probably pouring sweat as well, having worn the necessary blue jeans you need to walk anywhere in the forest.
We were close to the far edge of the forest when suddenly a change came over Jasmine’s demeanor. Her head suddenly darted up, and her pained brown eyes flew to some spot in the trees that I couldn’t identify. She looked about, snuffling the air eagerly, and then whined and half-barked, almost in recognition of something. Without a glance back at me she began bounding off the path, over the fallen branches and into the trees, heading towards some destination that was unclear to me.
I followed. It wasn’t hard keeping track of her – the woods were so dry that the merest step sounded like you were walking on broken glass. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her, but I was certain that something had to be wrong, because she had never done that before. More than likely scenes from adolescent detective fiction were flipping through my head.
After following her for a few feet, I stopped and peered into the forest. I thought I had seen something, the slightest movement. But, no - it wasn’t slight. It kept going. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, but it couldn’t be real. I foraged my way ahead further, hearing Jasmine’s piteous, excited barks. And then I realized that I wasn’t imagining things at all.
The shadows. They were moving. All the dark parts under the trees were swelling and shifting, billowing in and out like curtains or clouds. It was like the shadows were alive.
I was conscious of another thing, as well: a low, mindless drone, like the sound of a distant freeway. I listened to it for a moment, hearing nothing but its wordless mutter and wondering what it was. It was too early for cicadas, and besides, this sounded nothing like them. It didn’t vary enough.
I kept going ahead, picking my steps carefully. I began to notice that a sweet, noxious odor filled this part of the woods. It smelled like old sewage and stale beer, sour and sweet and thick all at once. It seeped into my sinuses and eyes, and I remember pushing my face into the nook of my elbow in an attempt to free myself from it.
I kept going, walking towards the shifting shadows. And then I saw they weren’t shadows at all. They were little dots flying through the air. I reached out to them and a few landed on my hand.
Blackflies. Thousands of them. I watched as they crawled over my palm and fingers, their backs blue-green in the waning evening light. I shook them off, stared in the surging cloud, and kept going.
I should have turned back. But maybe I was a braver person then than I am today.
I walked to the edge of the glade, circling it first for an opening in the branches and the flies, and then I stepped in.
And then I saw the monsters.
Dozens of eyeless sockets stared at me from the cover of mounds of pine needles. Half-fleshless heads silently writhed their way out of small barrows from underneath the fallen leaves, headless jaws rose up from the ground, their sharp, strange teeth poking through the undergrowth like tiny gravestones, horns clawed at me from the earth, the branches, the bushes at my feet. Arcs of fur and skin still clung to them in places, smooth and brown, lined with raw pink at the edges. And the entire area stank. It stank of death, of rot, of blood and inchor and decomposition.
In the shifting screen of flies, they seemed to move. They seemed to sway back and forth in the leaves, like a cobra entrancing its prey, filled with some insane focus. The clearing was filled with the meditative hum of the flies, like it was singing with a single voice, high and whining. The flies were landing all over me, on my face and my neck, but I did not notice. It was like I had fallen under a spell. I was waiting for the heads to rise up, to launch themselves forwards from underneath their cover, and then I would see what was waiting underneath the earth – I would see the monsters as they truly were.
In my memory, the faces and the earth and the trees are all one. I cannot see where the faces stop and the real world begins. It was like I had stepped out of reality, into some hell that had been planted there in the woods and then forgotten. It was a sight that was utterly alien to me in every way. A bone orchard, starting deep beneath my feet and rising up above me, like I was standing in the middle of a massive ribcage, with leaves hanging off the bones in the place of ragged meat. And the faces were alive, the faces of monsters I could barely dream of – this was where Death lived, where Grendel lived, where the Big Bad Wolf brought home its kills. This was a place older than time, and it was filled with corpses that had come to life, awoken by my intrusion.
I did not scream then. I have to give myself credit for that. More than likely I was too terrified to breathe, let alone scream. But when I heard something rushing through the undergrowth, I shrieked, and I am not ashamed to say so.
As I backed up against a tree I saw that it was only Jasmine… but she was different. Her eyes had a fire in them, and her muzzle was stained with crimson and black. Her tongue lolled from her mouth as it always did, and she leapt up to me, expecting the same usual greeting, but I only screamed again, thinking that somehow she had come under the curse of this place, that it had perhaps driven her insane as it almost did me.
But she did not attack me. Instead she backed away, confused by my cries. Her deep brown eyes lingered on me, and then she turned and began to dig through the burial site. Her head ducked into the pine needles, like she was attacking one of the faces, and she pulled something out.
One pair of horns twitched and then the head jerked forwards. Seeing it move was more horrifying than seeing it waiting for me in the glade, but as the pine needles poured off of it in a shower, I saw what it was for the first time. It was a deer skull. Scraps of flesh and hair still clung to its sides, but it had no jawbone, and no ears. I did not see a tongue. As I cast my eyes about I saw that the clearing did not only have skulls, but also hooves, and ribs, and other things I had only seen in photos. I watched as Jasmine sunk her teeth into the dead thing’s cheek. There was a sound like denim tearing, and as she jerked it with her neck its one remaining black eye poured from its loose socket like molten glass to land upon the needles.
Then there was another sound. I was screaming again. The next few minutes turned into a blur as I sprinted madly through the woods, not knowing which way was out, which way I had came, or even which way I was going. Thorns and branches bit at me, tearing up my hands and arms. There were faces everywhere, hidden evil things peeking at me from the earth, and I ran faster, thinking they were following me, believing wholeheartedly that every yard of this forest had been turned into some sort of abattoir.
When I saw the signs of civilization peeking through the trees I clawed my way forwards to the edge of the woods. I fell to my knees and retched until I had dry heaves. The next thing I knew my mother had burst out of the house, having heard my screams, and was scooping me up onto my feet. She was shouting as well. Perhaps she was more terrified than I was. Between quick breaths I hacked out my story, telling her that there were dead things, dead things out in the forest, all rotting, all dead.
She looked up, eyes scanning the trees, and then she called my father at work.
Two hours and a cup of water later it was explained to me. I remember my father standing in our jaundice-yellow living room, blinking thoughtfully as he fleshed out the words to explain this. He had gone out there himself, and had known what he was seeing.
“Listen,” he said. “Out here in the country, we… we’re naturally going to get some hunters around here.”
I didn’t say anything. The words were barely reaching my ears.
“They usually hunt farther out than this, I think,” he said. “Further out from the city. But… it’s not unusual for hunters to leave parts behind that… that they don’t want.” From the tone of his voice I could hear his disdain for these men. My father knew something of hunting, as his family once hunted deer and ducks regularly, and apparently these hunters had made some sort of transgression I didn’t understand. Perhaps they had left behind too much. “But, see, as they go into town they dump the parts they don’t want. So… you understand, they drove their truck into the field out there and just… well, left what you saw.”
I said, What did they leave?
He looked at me, half-piteously. “They left all those deer parts out there. The parts not good enough to keep.”
I stared at him. It had not yet sunk in that I had seen any part of an animal. I could not convince myself that what was out in the woods was normal, or could have once been normal.
Those were deer? I asked.
“Yes. Deer parts.”
Why would they leave so much behind?
“I really don’t know. I suppose they only wanted the meat, maybe.”
But, I began, but I had to fight off another vision of all of those eyes. I said, But why so many heads?
My father made a puzzled face. “Heads?” he asked.
“There were only three or four heads.”
No, I said. There were more.
“No. I went out there, son. There were only a few.” He paused. “How many did you see?”
I did not answer. That was enough for him.
“I can understand how frightened you were. I would have been frightened, too. But… but rotting is what happens to dead things. Once something dies, it… Well, it falls apart, and goes back into the earth. Do you see?”
I did not see. And I did not answer.
I spent the rest of the day trying to bridge a massive gap in my head. Those things out in the woods had once been alive. They had been living things. They had been deer, like I had seen on TV. Majestic, proud, beautiful creatures. I remembered feeding a baby deer in Ruston, handing it a peach and laughing as it nuzzled my hand. That was what was out there. That was what a deer was, underneath it all.
Each night that I went to sleep over the next few weeks, the deer skulls were there. They were piled in the corner, lining my bed, my walls, my ceiling, staring at me accusingly. The gray-blue of the moonlight accentuated their deadness, and as I pulled the sheets up over my head I could hear the nasal whine of the flies, moaning with the voices of the dead.
It did not help that my dogs would sometimes venture into the woods and bring back bones of the deer to gnaw on. Imagine sitting on the patio of your backyard and seeing your closest companion dragging something through the brush, and then making out the twitch of antlers and knowing what it had in tow. This infuriated my parents, but there seemed to be no end to what was rotting out there. It was like a constant reminder. And, besides, the dogs were only doing what was natural to them.
My father went to the library and selected a child-friendly science book to explain it to me better. He sat me down one afternoon and showed it to me. He showed me colorful, cartoon-like diagrams of the soil, of bones, of a cow turning into the earth. The cow looked like it was sleeping restfully, not like a dead thing at all. My eyes followed the bright, colorful arrows, and then the cow turned into what appeared to be brown mud, and then it turned back into soil.
“Do you see?” my father said.
He used words I had not heard before, like “decomposition” and “fertilization” and “soil.” There was a cycle here, he said. “Dead things are eaten by bacteria,” he told me. “And… and God was very smart to put bacteria here on earth, because they return things to the dirt and make it useful, and they… they make dead things go away.”
I was violently repulsed by this. I did not want to unite God with what was out in the woods. I did not want them to have anything to do with one another. I knew God, we had talked about him in Sunday school. The idea that he could have something to do with the bone orchard was something that I could not accept.
So I pushed God away, and tried to think of the science terms. It seemed to explain what happened so well. The book had big words, cold surgical words, the words of something that knew where things went and fit together, the words of order. There was an order there, the book said. There was a process. There was a Higher and Greater Goal, and the graveyard was a Cycle of Life.
It would almost make sense. But every time I came close to seeing it, I would hear the sound of denim tearing, and I would see the ruin of an eye, black as coal, dripping from a gaping socket to the forest floor.
The graveyard in the forest seemed bigger than sense. It defied the science, and when I read the word “cycle of life,” it was like the millions of blank eyes looked at life, regarded it impassively, and then shunted it away as something not worth their attention. We could name it all we want and understand its workings, but that did not explain it, and that did not subdue it by any means.
I understood what I felt then, but I did not know the words for it as I do know. You see, it was easy to see order when you just scraped the surface. On the surface, you could draw your order and your meaning, using words and diagrams, using art and language and song. But underneath it all… it was just rot. It was all just a series of deaths waiting to happen. A slow process of decomposition. The only difference between the deer in the fields and the deer in the graveyard was a difference of heat. All the bits were there, all the necessary parts. They were just taken apart and left to cool. Perhaps that was what was so disturbing – that there was no transition. That there was no difference.
It did not seem right. I wanted to see the pattern. I wanted to see the transition, to see the big, colorful arrows that would somehow connect what was out in the woods to the rest of life. I wanted it to be reconciled. But it was not, and it did not seem right.
I thought about this for days. It was my first experience with death, and it was not the deaths of loved ones. It was arbitrary and cold. The deaths of things I had never met and never would meet. I did not know them and they did not know me.
I remember one night not long after when I walked out on the patio to see a clear sky arching overhead. My parents were outside as well, drinking wine and listening to the cicadas. “Look there,” my mother said. “Look. Do you see the stars? Do you see the constellations?”
I looked up. I saw the stars overhead.
“Do you see them?” my mother asked. “Do you see Orion? Do you see the Big Dipper?”
I squinted and looked. I waited for the lines to appear in space, drawing out the dreams of men long dead. They did not come. I did not see the faces. I saw three stars in a line, and then I saw a few more forming a geometric pattern in the dusky purple.
“See Cancer?” she asked. “That’s your star, remember? You’re a June boy, isn’t that right?”
I looked for my star, but I did not find it. Instead I was struck by how if I moved far enough to the left or right, I would not see them at all. They were all lined up just right for where I was standing – except it wasn’t just right. The stars weren’t just right – I was just right. The stars had nothing to do with it. It had everything to do with me.
“All you all right?” my mother asked as I looked up into the sky.
“I’m fine,” I said, and then I sat down at the picnic table, and did not look up again.
I still went on my nature walks, but they did not seem as beautiful anymore. I still waited for the elegance and grace of nature to return, but it did not. I waited for the day that the chaos will draw back like a retreating wave, showing me the beautiful things that it has buried underneath its tide. I wonder if it will ever come.
Maybe beauty is not eternal. Maybe it’s a very short thing, so short you barely feel it as it goes by. Just a few seconds in time or a few feet in space that you occupy, staring out at the world, and you ignore the chaos and put yourself there instead. Seeing your own dreams and thoughts in the world around you - drawing your own beliefs out on the stars, invisible dreams that are never really there, but are only there for you and for the handful of seconds that you believe in them. There is beauty in the vantage point, but that’s as far as it goes. No further.
I still look at the sky sometimes. But I see fewer and fewer constellations now, and more and more stars.