In Texas they called it an arroyo but up north it was just a dried up creek bed. Like colonial cobble stone running through the forest. In the spring and fall water would run north south underneath the old route 28 bridge in Eagle Bay, like a great iron skeleton, its belly fashioned out of sun bleached oak planks like some ancient stage from an attic play. Long shadows reached out from the girders like arms of some strange wizard over the stones in the morning sun and embraced the body of the girl as she lay dead in the center of the creek. Studying the scene New York State Police Detective David Montana felt like the weary custodian of the earth, the chore never ending, cyclical and thankless.
The scene was busy and all around him voices murmured. They traded rumors of his origins and past cases solved and cold. They talked of his father, the sheriff, Sheriff Montana, a white man who’d never been married, who’d one day out of the blue produced a black, teenage sonhe claimed had been living in San Marcos, TX. He was respected and no questions were asked.Montana looked at the group sharply and the conversation ceased and his focus returned to the girl.
He stood silently watching the ground tremble before him, in the heat-shimmer her naked body danced alone save for her clothes neatly folded, her hiking boots set atop them. He couldn’t help think about his daughter and where she was and if she was safe and if she ever thought about him. He wondered if he would die a man full of regret or, perhaps, one day, she would forgive him for taking her happy existence and setting it on fire. He saw her face on the dead girl as she lay silent and cherubic, her eyes without sight, attended by a swarm of flies and a twisted chorus of carrion birds hopping impatiently in the distance.
There were no tracks. The long hot summer hardened the creek bed and a man of considerable size in good boots would leave nary a print on these stones indeed. There was no sign that she had done anything more than simply materialized in that very spot. Of course, there was nothing of him that remained, the killer of children, save for the air he left in his wake, strange and electric.
See these strange men in their worn and greasy rags. They are matted with mud and filth. They are seated around the whipping fire. They descend in their order like Russian dolls. The big one is bearded and covered in fur and teeth, souvenirs from both man and beast. A small and ancient man rises and disappears into the pitch-black rim of dark that surrounds the fire and reemerges scratching his filthy and hairless scalp. In the dirt, he draws with his boney finger symbols from the old Adirondack mystics he had known as a boy and his grandfather had known as a boy. Half mad and blind, his milky, bluebird egg eyes turned up to the stars he draws.
There are two younger men, their arms are branded with the same esoteric constellations and in that raised skin too were images of children dancing, running. These men rise in their rags of filthy and stinking hair and in that morning fog too rises a steel colored sun. They rise up out of the earth as if they are born in that instant. They move without sound through the dense wilderness opening before them and collapsing in their wake, carried through the trees as if ushered by the world itself.
The old man watches with sightless eyes. He raises his arms to the sky and says the Lord’s Prayer in his strange and unplaceable accent and when he’s finished he moves like a ground sloth disappearing from sight under the cool and steaming earth.
Montana sat alone that night on the stool in the old wooden fire tower at the top of Bald Mountain. He thought about the girl in the creek bed and wondered who she was and if anyone was looking for her. And he thought about his daughter. With his binoculars, he glassed along the granite ridge to the north and the boulder field beyond it. Witnesses had placed a small blonde girl smoking a cigarette in the field late in the afternoon the day before. He looked for movement, for campfire, but there was none. After a long time, he unknotted his tie and pulled it through his still buttoned collar and rolled it up and put it in his jacket pocket. He put his feet up on the sill of the glassless window frame. He shifted in his seat and the tower rocked and moaned like the hold of a ship. Lighting fingered the sky, skeletal and electric. In the strobe, he saw faces carved into the plasma residue. They lingered like a memory he wished he could forget. He’d seen them before at his cabin, those faces, the lights in the sky on sleepless nights. Montana thought them the faces of lost souls who would forever inhabit the park. Trapped and killed by some nameless evil or beast still undiscovered. The faces hung underexposed like a sun scorched and fading polaroid displaying the violent, chronometric history of the park and with it the planet itself. There was a killer in the dense and vast expanse of wilderness. He’d seen cuneiform writing on the trees and in caves: stars and figures, like a map or diary from some murderous proto-human.
The missing. Visitors myriad and nameless in a wilderness where tomorrow is promised to no one and histories are erased cyclically with the glacial totality that brought the very boulders that peppered the field countless lifetimes ago. Time trudges forward with a determined, unstoppable, locomotive chugging that presses on without regard for man or woman or black or white or rich or poor. She carries with her the fate of every man, woman and child. A fate that cannot be altered or forestalled, bought or sold. Her violence can be measured by felled trees and misplaced monoliths and gashed mountainsides and the valleys themselves and the erasing of civilizations so absolute their memory lives on only in rumor.
Early in the morning, he could not tell the hour, dogs woke him from this dream: I’m just there. I don’t remember fallin’ asleep but I must be asleep because this is obviously a dream because if it ain’t I’m in trouble. The trail opens up into a boulder field. The sun is huge but the sky is dark like I’m outside of our atmosphere. I can see the universe but still feel the grass between my toes. He’s out there in the dark, beyond what I can see. I don’t know who but he’s there I’m sure of it. Time slows down and my feet feel like concrete when I try to turn and run back to the trail. That’s when I hear the baby cry and I see the earth passing in front of the sun. All that’s ever lived and died for billions of years right there floating in the void. The crying gets louder until I see him in the trees and the crying stops. I try to speak to him to tell him I’msorry but my tongue feels thick and the words jumble. He’s wearing a bird’s mask, like a crow’s head. There’s something wrong with his legs, like his knees are backwards but he moves very quickly and his eyes are darting around. Then I hear the crying and as he gets closer the crying gets louder and louder and I tell him to stop crying and I realize it ain’t him, it’s me. I’m crying. The sky starts to shift and pixilate and the sun blinks. He’s close now. And then I’m in my bed. I’m soaked in sweat and piss and the man in the mask is in the corner of the room. He’s in the half-light and it’s not a mask. I scream and I wake up. Back in this world. Dry as a bone. What do you make of that?
In the swaying fire tower, confused and still half asleep he glassed the ridge with the binoculars and saw one of the hounds that woke him chasing what looked to him like a small bear. He was halfway down the creaking ladder when he heard the dog yelp and the others go silent. He made his way down the mountain and through a low-lying swamp engulfed in thick patches of switchgrass. The ridge was just ahead of him when semi-automatic rounds erupted above his head. The rounds whistled and cut through the leaves above him. And then it was quiet again.
Montana crouched in the deep grass. The sun was coming up and already it was hot on his back. He thumbed the grip of his pistol and tried to imagine what was going on above him. He tried to puzzle out what he was about to walk into. He sat for a long time and there was no sound. He took his binoculars and glassed along the trail ahead as far as he could before the granite outcropping cut off his view. There was movement where the trail met the mouth of the boulder field.
One hundred feet from the field he found two horses wandering just off the trail. Their black eyes studied him from the trees and as he approached the field they snorted and stomped and when he looked back at them they turned and went back the way they’d came. The three remaining dogs slept in the pine needles and the dead one lay disemboweled some fifty yards into the field. He called to the dogs but they would not move and when he pet them they gave off a static shock.
He knelt down to study the scene. Between his feet two cigarette butts lay in the dirt with grease stains on the butts. He thought the stains could have been lip gloss and checked his notes to see if the girl in the creek had worn any and she had. He put the butts in his pocket and took a deep breath. Burnt gunpowder hung in the air. For all the rounds fired, and there were many, there was no blood and there was no sign of the men who those horses had carried. He made his way down the trail and at the head he found a New York State Fish & Game truck with a horse trailer hitched to the back.He reached in and took the radio and called for backup.
Watch Montana at work. A baroque vision inhabiting the space between real and unreal, peace and violence, moving and resisting the stability of the geometry around him. People and even the trees seemed to lean toward him. Light and shadow seemed more exaggerated and unreal and awkward when he passed through them as if he operated between worlds neither of which could completely accept his presence.
Early the morning the missing wardens with their hounds had been dispatched to investigate reports of poachers raiding beaver traps in the river valley below the boulder field. Montana spotted them first from the granite ridge on top of the cataract. The two missing wardens dipping and surfacing in the roiling water below. They looked like porcelain dolls in the cold water. Their skin had turned the color of wet concrete and the tops heads had been scalped clean and turned a gunmetal blue, bobbing in the white water like beacons of warning.
Montana and several officers of varying affiliation crossed a wooden footbridge and worked their way to the edge of the water. After several sorties, back and forth along the shore they found no sign save for the officers’ uniforms neatly folded at the edge of the woods. Their possessions accounted for save their pistols and back up magazines.
That night Montana made a fireless camp in the center of the boulder field. In that place, the world felt thin to him, as if this were the spot where two realities met, separated by an electromagnetic veil that could be pulled aside at the right wavelength. Shadows danced in the miasma. He felt eyes on him from the outer dark of the forest, beyond the reach of the moonlight.
In the still dark morning he went down to the edge of the water where they’d found the wardens’ bodies and drank from the water and washed. When he arrived back at the boulder field, weather started to build in the southern sky and the sun began its long ascent in the east turning the morning pink and hot and impatient and when Detective Montana happened upon the old tree and what lie beneath, it was as if he had divined the place himself. He could describe it before he saw it as if manifested from some half-remembered dream or out of hearsay. This is the place. A corridor of wreckage and violence that predated man himself. True wilderness.
The entrance to the structure lie under an ancient Bigtooth Aspen and its maze of twisted roots and scrub pines at the northernmost edge of the boulder field. A gap in the earth no more than eighteen inches high. He took off his suit jacket and pulled his service weapon from the shoulder holster and slid that off too. He let the magazine slide out of the pistol, made sure it was full and drove it home again with the heel of his palm. On his belly, he slid in the dirt into the dark void. Toward the end of his story. Toward the places that appear as blank spots and serpents on old maps.
Deep in the earth the dirt floor sloped downhill and the walls closed in. He could feel the tree roots that webbed the walls on both shoulders. The air cooled and ahead of him a dark that his pocket flashlight could not cut save for a handful of feet. The smell of hot soil faded into a cool damp basement musk and something else that became hard and metallic. The rich iron smell of blood. It hung in the damp air thick enough to taste. He passed a huge sheet of meat laid out to dry and sitting beyond it the men who had slain it.
He had caught them by surprise with their backs to him as they sat among the smoldering coals. The first to his feet was huge and the robes he wore were a crudely constructed mix of deer and black bear and he wore a greasy skunk pelt on his head and the scalps of the two wardens hung from his belt, their undersides turned to a blackening paste in the humidity.
The still seated man wheeled around drawing one of the dead ranger’s pistols as the larger man charged forward. Montana felt the heat from his gloc-9 before he realized he fired it. From his hip, he caught the sitting man above the left cheek bone spinning him and peeling the skull back, dropping him instantly into the fire.
The big man charged and drove the heel of his hand into Montana’s throat and the detective pulled the poacher down on top of him as he gasped for air. There was a volley of gunfire exchanged in the dark and movement stopped. A moment later Montana felt the hot liquid pouring out of the man and on to his neck. The poacher was huge and lifeless atop him and moving him was like moving a bag of sand. When he stood up his chest began to burn. He had to step over the smaller man as he burned in the fire. The fur pelts he wore had ignited and the structure filled with a gamey smoke.
Past the fire the tunnel doglegged and was dark. In the void, he felt along the walls with his hands and dragged his feet along the floor. The tunnel branched into smaller chambers and in one of them he found what he thought was a small boy sealed in a shallow plastic storage bin. He opened the top and vomited, the smell catching him off guard. He knew what it was without seeing and his eyes began to well.
He moved deeper. Feeling blindly along the carved walls. Reading every divot and pock like a mad and ancient braille until his fingers arrived at an opening dug into the clay mid-way up the wall. He found her enveloped in absolute dark in a cocoon of copper colored clay dug to match her size. The space allowed her only room to inhale and when he heard her scream it was muffled as if she’d done so directly into the dirt.
He dipped his arm into the void and when the wall met his shoulder he felt her hand. When he pulled her arm, he thought it might separate from the socket and when she reentered the world he felt as if he were witnessing her birth and with it his own rebirth. She came forth with a sound that he had never heard before like a dying rabbit. The girl swung blindly and bit at his hands and face until he could get a grip on her. He held her for a long and tender moment in the dark and then Montana pressed his cell phone into her palm and told her to run and she did.
The girl emerged from the wilderness at a full and mindless sprint, eyes walled and crazed, cell phone falling from her hands, dried blood spider webbing down the inside of her naked thighs cracking and flaking to the ground. At the trailhead, she climbed into the driver’s seat of Montana’s parked cruiser and lay her head on the horn crying.
Montana’s father came up the gravel drive opened the car door and wrapped the girl in a solar blanket. The breathless old man asked her where his son was and she told him about the boulder field and the cave. He radioed for an ambulance and back up. In the trunk, he found his son’s service twelve-gauge shotgun and loaded a handful of shells and chambered a round and when he did so his hands were shaking and his stomach ached and he went up the trail into the darkness calling his son’s name.
At the edge of the woods Montana leaned heavily against a scrub pine that buckled slightly under his weight like primitive crutch. His green eyes saucered and looked east, a rope of blood unspooling from his ear. He watched the first light of morning burn off the fog revealing a brighter, truer light before his eyes. He looked on. Seeing beyond focus. Eyes beyond dilation. They turned green to a black, shimmering matte like wet stones. He could hear her lay on the horn of the cruiser and his eyes became aware again. The corners of his mouth turned up and his cheeks rose slightly. He’d kept the promise he had made to himself, to his daughter in absentia: to redeem himself by any means.
His eyes locked on the still rising sun to the east and then to what was beyond it and for the first time in a long time he felt whole. He felt something true inside him, he felt her. She was there deep inside him, more than a memory, an ancient truth deep in his subconscious, older than language. Older than God. He looked to the morning sun and the trees it warmed and beyond them toward the daughter he would never see again.
The sun warmed his face and it softened and he took a deep breath and exhaled for what felt like the first time. He took his dripping hand from his chest and held it up to feel the heat or to welcome what he knew was coming or perhaps to say goodbye to her. A froth of pink bubbles expanded and contracted from a fist size hole in his chest where his hand had been. He could hear his father’s voice calling to him but when he tried to call back the words would not come. Montana took out his pistol and fired three times into the air and the let the momentum take him to the ground. On his back, he looked for those faces he’d seen in the sky but there were none and all about him the world began to pixelate and fade from his eyes until there was black and then a darkness absolute. Then the bright lights came.
Justin Vibbert is lecturer at the City University of New York. Form and Void is his first published piece of fiction. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
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