The compass needle bounced as Richard waited for it to settle. Due North. There was something so satisfying about trekking north. He wanted badly to be able to say he was walking True North. That was the most satisfying north of all. But a compass points to magnetic north, which changes over time. It made him sad to know all the people following all the compasses all over the world since its invention were following slightly different versions of north. Negligible differences, of course. But wouldn’t it be grand, millions of people looking at millions of compasses and all heading toward the same square inch of land on top of their spinning world? The blue marble. The pale blue dot. And him, a pale beige speck on its surface. He wasn’t usually so philosophical, so sentimental. But he also wasn’t usually hiking through the vast Oregon wilderness. It can put things into perspective, given the chance.
I must get out more often. Richard was already making plans to get away regularly. After only one hour of wilderness hiking he was sold. And why not? Mankind, or at least modern humans, have been around for over 150,000 years, and their ancestors were walking upright in the trees as long as maybe 7 million years ago. And for the vast majority of that time they dwelt in the forests, the plains, the bush. This was man’s natural habitat. This is what our bodies were designed for, where our bodies were built to survive. No, not just survive, but thrive! And we did. We covered the globe. Richard’s pace slowed. What good has it done? He warned himself not to get into it. But really, what good has it done? Medicine, sanitation… These were good. These were noble, beneficial achievements. But look at the harm. He hadn’t ever bothered to look at the harm before. He kept a ration of white guilt next to a supply of western guilt on hand. Not too much, just enough to assuage any personal conviction. After all, what had he personally done? Images of starving children in Africa appear on the television? Apply a dab of western guilt salve to the burn. The topic of slavery in America is broached? A little tincture of white guilt does the trick. Suddenly nothing is actively required of him: he’s done his part by feeling sorry for it all. A person can’t be held accountable for the actions of another. Each man is responsible for his own actions. His pace stopped altogether. Let’s change the subject.
It was interesting how his mind wandered. At home, his walks through the neighborhood had always helped him focus. They brought clarity. But out here, in the thick of it, he felt his mind might wander off and be rid of him altogether. A ridiculous thought. He cleared his throat as if to clear his mind. Brady looked up at his master as he swung the pack off his back and stole a drink from his bottle. He grimaced at the taste but welcomed the refreshment. It was still warm, and helped against the cold air.
“How much further should we go?”
Brady stared at him with drooping eyes, then looked away the way dogs do when you try and hold their gaze. He always thought it made them look sheepish. The dog put his nose to the ground and sniffed, for lack of anything else to do. Richard scratched him behind the ears.
“Let’s keep going, yeah?”
He hoisted the pack onto his shoulders once more and continued through the trees. Like all animals, he and Brady followed the path of least resistance until they inevitably came across an animal trail. And a well traveled one at that. Even Richard’s untrained eye spotted it right away. Brady’s nose got to work immediately and eagerly sucked in all the scents available. Richard had to reach out and grab hold of Brady’s collar to stop him running off.
Brady looked forlornly up and down the trail, desperate to do what he was bred to do. Richard removed the compass from his pocket and took note of the trail’s direction. Northwest the trail went downhill, while southeast it went up. Better to go uphill now while I’ve got the energy, then it’s downhill back to the cabin. The trail seemed straight enough for now. Time for a little of that adventure he promised himself. I’m on a real game trail. And where there’s game, there might be an opportunity to try his luck at hunting. Or rather shooting. He only wished he’d made time for target practice that morning. Oh well, there’ll be other chances.
The worries of the morning’s events weren’t forgotten, simply pushed aside. Richard could do that, was good at it. He could compartmentalize when he had to, when something was either too big or too confusing to deal with. He liked to imagine his life was a simple one, free of drama. He liked to imagine it because it wasn’t true, not completely. He didn’t go in search of adventure (his current predicament notwithstanding) and was about as far from an adrenaline junkie as there could be. But drama found him out sooner or later. Complications, he called them. Or displeasures. Never fights or arguments or catastrophes or deaths in the family. Unpleasantries. Richie? It’s Martha. I’m afraid (sob), I’m afraid there’s bad news (sniffle). Oh no. This is going to be unpleasant. It’s Judith. Richie she’s dead (uncontrollable sobbing). I see. How did she die? I told her to watch her weight. We all did. Richie you heartless bastard (voice disappears into the background). Rich? Rich it’s Charles, your brother. Jude died on the operating table. There were complications. The doctors, they couldn’t get her heart started again. Complications. I see. I, uh, suppose I should take the next flight over. The plane ticket is going to be murder. For mom’s sake. Thanks, Rich.
Richard’s breathing increased with the slope of the trail. He was getting his exercise now, working up an appetite, which reminded him he hadn’t eaten yet that day. It’s been an eventful one. No wonder he was already feeling winded. It looked to him that the trail was leveling off up ahead and hoped to find a good place to rest a few moments. As the slope grew more gradual, the trail opened up from the bramble into a small clearing, dominated by a large tree growing at the edge of a rocky precipice. He crept up to the edge and looked down. There wasn’t much of a view; it only went down about twenty-five feet. The ground below was free of vegetation and covered in fallen leaves. As good a spot as any for a picnic. Right then the ground beneath his feet gave way slightly and he heard a sound like rope breaking and dirt hitting the ground below. He fell backward but caught himself and scrambled away from the edge. It must be an overhang, soil held together by the roots of the tree. Staying well clear of the edge, he sat his pack down against the tree and himself down next to it. He reached into the pack and came out with a granola bar. Granola and dirty tea. Some picnic. He wasn’t really complaining, though. Despite the conditions, he was happy for the moment. The tree rose above him, its many limbs starting thick and low down the trunk and winding up and out over the ledge. He wondered what kind of tree it was. Most everything else around was an evergreen, but not this one. It looked old, and strong. The kind of tree he imagined children would want to climb and build tree houses in. He marveled at it while chewing the cereal bar. It only made him thirstier so he folded the wrapper over the remainder and stuffed it into the pack. He stole another swig from his bottle and stood up, ready to go on.
Against his better judgment and in favor of even more adventure, Richard abandoned the game trail. He had timed his route so far, and using time to determine distance and his compass to determine the angles, figured he could close the triangle by heading back to the cabin on a south-westerly route. He was slightly nervous at the dare, but trusted his wits, and besides, you never know till you try. The consequences of his being wrong were never allowed at the front of his mind. To entertain those thoughts would have been unpleasant. He drew a rough sketch of his journey in the dirt with a stick and found the exact (read: approximate) direction he needed to take to in order to reach the cabin. With somewhat less confidence than before but twice as much determination, Richard, with Brady it tow, got going.
And soon regretted his decision. Twenty minutes into their way back Richard caught sight of something that made it feel as if his stomach and testicles had swapped places. He hoped to god it wasn’t what he thought it was and worked up the courage to inspect it closer. A tree off to his left stood out from its neighbors. It was the same species, same relative age. But as Richard grew closer it became more and more apparent that this tree hated him. Why else would it do this to him? He looked at the other trees for reassurance, but they stared back blankly. An icicle grew inside his gut, grew up and out through his skin. The blood drained from his face. Isn’t this what he wanted? Isn’t it what he’d daydreamt? He tasted acid at the back of his throat. The tree mocked his fear. His eyes closed tightly. You can’t wish it away. Why are you so scared? Get a hold of yourself. Was he overreacting? He didn’t know. What he did know was it was probably a good idea to get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible. He judged he had at least an hour before he reached the cabin, forty-five minutes if he pushed himself. He drew several deep breaths and held the last one, flooding his brain with oxygen. After a moment of dizziness he felt sense returning. There’s nothing to worry about. There was plenty to worry about, but not much worth in doing so. Richard stepped back and looked again at the tree. Four scars tore down through the bark of the tree. Claw marks. Bear claws. He traced the length of the grooves with his fingers, which came away sticky with sap. These cuts are fresh. He couldn’t remember how large a bear’s territory was, or how many were supposed to live in these woods. He’d read that bears usually avoided humans. He repeated that over and over to himself as he turned off the rifle’s safety. They usually avoided people, except when they didn’t. Brady wasn’t happy either. The dog was running from tree to tree, sniffing out the bear. Richard hissed at him.
The hound ignored him, absorbed by the heady aroma of apex predator.
The dog looked briefly back at his owner before scurrying off to the next tree. Richard knew he had to get Brady under control. Bloodhounds could forget everything around them while tracking a scent and Richard was not about to leave his dog alone in the woods with a bear around. He regretted leaving the leash behind, he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Brady stopped yet again to sniff, but not at a tree. Richard tried to see what it was, but the dog was in the way. A magpie sang somewhere overhead and Richard looked around nervously. He tip-toed toward Brady and peered around him to see what captured his attention: his shoulders sagged. Bear scat. Brady skipped to another tree, following the bear’s scent. Richard ran for the dog without hesitation, leaping into the air and hooking his arms around it before it had a chance to run. Richard grunted as he hit the ground on his side, hurting his shoulder but not releasing his grip on the dog for a second.
He checked to make sure Brady was okay, then took hold of his collar and rose to his knees. Richard scratched the dog’s haunches and head, reassuring it after the tackle, and then stood up.
“Come on boy, go for a ride.”
Brady bucked up considerably and pawed at his master’s leg. Richard checked the compass and got his bearings, then looked at his watch: 12:17. Forty-five minutes to the cabin. He started jogging. To take his mind off the unpleasantness of not being on top of the food chain, he turned his thoughts again to his work. I’ve wasted enough of the day. I’ve wasted enough of this trip. I have to get down to business and write. I have six days. Six days to write eighty thousand words. To finish a novel in that time I have to write at least… thirteen thousand, three hundred and thirty-three point three repeating words a day. If I write twelve hours a day, that’s… one thousand, one hundred and eleven point one repeating words an hour…
Richard glanced at his watch again: 12:59. Three minutes earlier than he expected. He lifted his head and drank in the sight of the path in front of him, the driveway leading to the cabin. He reckoned he was only a hundred yards or so away. Almost there. Strange how a place he wanted so badly to leave just hours earlier could now seem such a sanctuary. He stepped onto the overgrown trail with no small sense of accomplishment, and even he had to admit that this time he felt justified in it. A short walk later he was unlocking the front door and welcoming himself and Brady home. No time to rest, though. He grabbed the water pot and filled it from the rain catch. I’ll get this one boiling then come out to clean the gutters. On his way in he ripped another handful of fresh pine needles from a tree. Good source of vitamin C.
Richard set the pot on the stove and stoked a fire to get the water boiling. He stepped out onto the porch and took a deep breath. When he exhaled he could see his breath. He was so distracted on his hike he hadn’t realized how cold it was outside. He shivered an icy breeze cut through his clothes to the sweat beneath. It was a hard push to get back so quickly, but he hadn’t noticed he’d sweat till now. He shivered again. Better get a fire going in the other stove as well. Richard stepped off the porch and brought in a load of firewood, dropping it in the front room. Fetching the matches and some kindling from the kitchen, he knelt down in front of the stove. He threw open the door and immediately jumped backwards in disgust and tumbled to the floor. Something was in the stove that shouldn’t be. He rose to his elbows and peered forward. A tuft of gray fur mottled with splotches of red sat motionless inside. Richard climbed to his feet and put a hand on the table to steady himself. The chair looked comforting so he sat down. He stared at his lap for a moment before realizing something else wasn’t right. He continued to stare at his lap, not wanting to admit it, but knew he eventually had to look. And when he did look, he wished he hadn’t. The blank piece of paper he had left in the typewriter that morning was no longer blank. Richard struggled to remember: had he typed something and forgotten? He was sure he hadn’t. But, there was type on the page. Just one word. One word that shouldn’t be there.
He stared long and still at the word. His brain didn’t know in which direction to go, so it decided to do nothing. It was a brain that needed to make sense of the world. It liked to solve puzzles, find solutions to problems and riddles. But it didn’t care for this riddle. It would rather it go away. It didn’t want to make the obvious connection. Unfortunately, Brady didn’t give it a choice. The noises Brady made behind Richard finally caused him to turn around and face what his brain didn’t want to see. From out of the stove, Brady pulled the bloody carcass of a rabbit, its eyes and heart cut out. Richard leapt up and bursts through the front door.
“Who’s there? Who are you? Show yourself!”
The forest responded with deafening silence. Inside the cabin, bones crunched and skin tore as Brady ate the rabbit.