I was told since I was six that a monster emerges from the north woods every so often to settle a score in town. It’s not the seven-foot tall, claw-wielding rig of death we once saw sketched in the Scholastic America Book Club stories in grade school; it’s more of a feeling or a presentiment, followed by an earthly manifestation of incarnate demise. It happens often enough that it pervades one’s dream states and waking hours—it happens when an ounce of pride drips forth after years of backbreaking toil. This thing is real enough, and—up until these last dark winter days—I hadn’t known just how to describe an encounter with the beast. I can share with you now a dalliance of mine which occurred the last month of this winter; this story is between me and the monster, but if any of my more memorable points of dread can keep a good man or woman weary of this type of scrape and how it’s summoned, then I present to you this recount with the best of my will, and from the steepest reaches of my caution.
I had just cleared the ashes from the wood stove and emptied them into the bin on the porch when—from the horizon of late morning light—I saw him. It was a figure standing behind the fringe of the forest. It looked like my neighbor, Willis, at first, but the shape turned into a feeling. My stomach fell and my head grew light—the shape of my neighbor turned into a shimmering clay ribbon of madness. This ribbon rippled among the red oak and dead sumac, summoning my fears into it. It grew a bit in size, then laughed, and soon after retreated from view. More than what I could see it was the sensation of what remained; I felt a warm pocket of moisture before my face, hovering between my gaze and the apron of the woods. The plane of ground between us glared with the blinding angular shroud of sunlight against a season’s blanket of encrusted snowfall. The warping of near-spring light played with my senses, but I knew I had received a summons from this creature, I knew, for the feeling of stultification within me at the sight of this thing was soon replaced with an anchoring molasses of guilt. I was placed on notice.
On the same afternoon of the day of the encounter I made my trip into Quivey’s Gardens in my truck. I needed heirloom seed, topsoil, pot grids, and rabbit fence for the tomato patch. Planting in the earth was still weeks away, but I could get started in the greenhouse until the time came. I grabbed a variety of gourd plant seeds and six packets for summer squash before heading to the register. The cashier asked me if wanted to take home a stray mouser who’d been lurking in front of the store for weeks. The caramel/white/charcoal calico was pleasant looking enough for the patrons, but she had become a dasher—a type of prowler that would haunch back, point, and fire forward with such speed and reckless terror that the store owner was prompted to fill it full of birdshot. I picked up on the plaintive glimmer in the cashier’s expression. If I didn’t take the prowler with me then the creature would gain no reprieve and not see tomorrow. The cashier brought the manager over, and he shook my hand warmly, thanking me for my above-board grace. He explained that he had a crate I could use to transport the cat, but that it would be better to come back near closing after he’d had a chance to lace her food with a tranquilizer.
THE TOWN hadn’t cared much about my business since the time Judith stayed missing and—eventually—turned up dead under a pile of branches next to the pump house of the school. When she first disappeared I was carefully pored over with the most dizzying combination of concern and suspicion, but my inscrutable period of mourning wasn’t enough to lock them in, and the town’s unapplied vexation culminated in the perfect puzzle piece—the arrest of Harrod Tims.
Judith was exquisite. She loved my home and the unbound result of my childless divorce. She had only just begun staying over on the weekends before her abduction. The judge, the parish priest, the actuary and the Rotary Club all wanted a goat to slay. The Sheriff’s Department found Tims’s fibers on her body. A trial was thrown together. No one cared that Judith and Tims were boarders in the same house, fibers and all. It was my misfortune to have seen Tims at the Pump ‘n’ Freeze the night she disappeared, and I most unfortunately saw him between the hours of nine-thirty and eleven. I agreed to be a Witness for the Defense. I’ll not forget the coaxing looks in the courtroom, their urgency to see Tims put away. I was the lynchpin. The Key Witness. Key to my shunning, I knew.
“Yes, Your Honor. Harrod was unwrapping a Nutty Cone over a covered trash container right in front of the Pump ‘n’ Freeze that night…” “Yes, I went to grade school with him. It was unmistakably him.” “Yes, I was teaching music that night at the Armory…it was most certainly a Tuesday night.”
Since the acquittal the village has filed me under Co-Conspirator status and sneered and glared away my existence. Not that they needed much help, there. I wasn’t nearly ever the choicest meet at the picnic.
LATE THROUGH the first night with the cat it happened again. A sustained howl enshrouded the house. The hoary wail triggered the cat’s boosters from the bedroom, down the stairs, and through the screen on the front door. The hardwood boasted white streaks of clawed lightning all along the escape path. I grabbed a four-cell torch and stood on my stoop, waiting for my telemetry to kick in. In the far bank, where I’d thought I’d seen my neighbor Willis standing that morning, came the origin of the liquid moan. I—again—noted the muddy light in the apron of the woods. I ventured forward, half-expecting a specter, half-expecting a mob of villagers. The forest ingested me sooner than I was prepared. I was a quarter mile in. My torch could only pick up the broken frost on the grass where I had stepped, minutes earlier. I clicked off the beam of light and concentrated on the howl. Several minutes expired in the pitch of the woods before the bewilderment kicked in. The roiling murmurs, growls, and near shouts were absent where I stood—replaced by a distant and all-too-familiar hum. The sounds, the wraithlike cries of taunting restlessness were coming along the line of my footfalls as if traveling along a seam of space—untouchable and free from any possible containment. In the still of this discovery I placed the echo point and my steps. The howling was now standing somewhere between the house and me. As I retraced my path back to the porch I felt a chill from the charm of the affair; these recent weeks had been filled with such loss, grief, hate and mob influence that the haunting of a low, sustained moan of inchoate vengeance felt more like a blanket across my shoulders. I laughed at the comfort of this bewildering night.
When I saw Willis fueling his truck the next day I asked him if he’d been around my property line, and if he’d heard anything odd. He shrugged that he hadn’t, but—instead—gave me the card of a utility crew that had been conducting light surveys on our road along the easement line. After a call they sent out a regional tech who was familiar with the described situation. At times, the man explained to me, when there is a residence on the utility grid that doesn’t subscribe to internet, cellular, and satellite, an appendix, or seam of resistance is created. Sometimes this seam emits sounds or lights in lieu of the residence’s refusal to receive the signals and services. There can be pockets – areas of activity so fierce that vacuums create an aurora and howl. It turned out that my solitude had not only become a social burden, but also a technological sideshow. The man recommended I get some friends—even a number of fake ones on the wireless program. I decided—instead—to befriend the howler.
To my relief, people did not come to witness the phenomenon. On nights when the moon was absent I would run into the berm above the marsh and follow the twisting curtains of moaning light to laugh and feel the play of the charming, newly wonted mystery of my latest and now seemingly necessary companion. The skittish pet resurfaced at one point during this waxing communion and—noting its legs ached from mousing and, yet, the tin bowls were always full on the porch—begrudgingly adjusted itself to the phenomenon. By the time the full summer forged its pregnant and resonant nights I found myself up one cat and one grand and noising thing.