I shall write it again for you, Doctor.
My dog wouldn’t stop barking. I threw back the covers. The air cycled by the ceiling fan brushed my exposed torso. The chill in the October night raised small goose bumps. I fumbled a couple of times to put my sandals on, the dog barking incessantly.
Wandering around with eyes half-closed by fatigue can be dangerous. I read once about a woman who walked downstairs in the middle of the night for a drink. She was so groggy she didn’t see her cat sitting at the top of the stairs. The tumble after tripping over the animal broke her neck. Fatigued as I was, I was grateful to live on one floor.
It was still raining. The digital clock on my cable box said it was close to three in the morning. Four and a half hours of incessant rain, with more promised for morning. I made a mental note to remember my umbrella. Whether there would be parking close to the social sciences building was a different story.
Sybil, my Westie terrier, was planted at the sliding glass for my new backyard. Growls and barks echoed off the bare walls. She hadn’t disturbed any of the boxes in the kitchen. I told her to be quiet, that Daddy was trying to sleep. She obeyed but only for a moment or two. Then the barking resumed. This time she walked back and forth in front of the threshold, growling unhappily. She whimpered a couple of times, like she had caught something on the air that was familiar. That’s the sound she makes right before I open the door after coming home from work.
I’d only been for a week; she had never become this agitated. As I got closer to her, she stopped and looked at me. Dogs’ eyes are cold when they’re scared. I felt a shiver creep down my spine. Sybil eyed me curiously. Then she turned back to the door and started barking again.
I stood behind her and gazed out at the woods beyond the yard. Behind my cul-de-sac was a teeming forest of maple trees. AT first, all I could see were those trees, their leaves beginning to transform into gold-red flames. But then I saw it.
A face stared back at me from within the leaves.
My heart skipped. The rain on the glass distorted the face, but still, it was not right: It had warped skin, folded over the nose and eyes like lumpen dough. The mouth was barely more than a slit. The sound of the rain falling on the roof faded; suddenly I could hear the creature caterwaul. It was a gurgling scream, thick with saliva. It was the sound of a drowning man.
The face disappeared into the trees. I caught glimpses of alabaster skin. What little I could see looked ripped and reknit. I yelled at myself to move, frightening Sybil even more. She scurried away to her dog bed, whimpering and hiding her nose under her front paws.
My legs returned to life. Lurching like a drunk, I ripped into one of the nearby boxes. Under a food strainer and inside a steel cooking pot, I found my electric lantern. Turning the power knob switched the LED light on, adding a soft glow to my kitchen.
I went back to the sliding glass door. The face was gone, lost in the night and the woods. With lantern dangled in my left hand, I unlocked the door, but stopped short of opening it. I was thinking of reasons to go out there—and reasons not to go. I didn’t know what it could do to me. Chasing after it didn’t seem smart. At the very least I could get sick, stumbling about at night in the rain. But I kept thinking: What if he was hurt? What if he needed help?
That was enough to push me out into the night. I’m not a saint; in fact, I don’t believe in saints or angels. But if the face I’d seen, even deformed, was a person in pain, how could I not follow? That said, my well of altruism ran only as deep as my kitchen sink. In the same haphazardly filled box I found the hatchet from my outdoor kit. It was less keen than I would have liked, but it would do the job. Better to be prepared.
Holding the hatchet under my arm, I opened the door. What had sounded like a mild sprinkle inside became a steady shower once I stepped out. The back porch was a smooth slab of concrete leading to grass as tall as Sybil. Each blade of wet greenery slapped against my pajamas, which were soaked from the shins down within a dozen or so feet. Chills shook me and I increased my pace, wishing I had thought to put on more than a t-shirt. I reached the trees within a few strides.
“Hello?” I cried. “Hello?”
The trees stood like silent sentinels, leafy fingers dipping under some primordial weight. The wet fronds slapped against my face, some even reaching my exposed arms. While the rain was no longer torrential past the treeline, the canopy above me wept—in cold streams.
Moist earth squished over the tips of my sandals, sticking between my toes. Wet flesh and wet leather feel alien together, like your skin isn’t attached. The ground sucked and pulled at my feet, saturated but hungry. Slick mud squelched under my soles.
As I went farther into the forest, the air became heavy with chlorophyll. While the leaves around my home had taken on the burnt orange glow of autumn, these leaves were fully green. The emerald roof overhead filled my lungs with each breath. Before moving to the country, I hadn’t realized that green had a smell. My old apartment near the city college smelled like gray charcoal mixed with rancid barbeque.
Under the verdant odor was something else, something cloying and dead. This place, not far from my new home, felt like a place where ancient gods had walked, had killed, and had died. My poetic reverie was broken when, at the farthest edge of the lantern’s light, I saw a naked figure kneeling on the ground.
I crept closer. The creature’s skin was the color of bone. Centipedes crawled over its toes and ankles. Scars, like spider veins, covered its back. From neck to buttocks, not an inch of its skin was undamaged. Much of its head was bald, save for a few wet wisps of colorless hair.
I looked up. The canopy was less dense here. Twigs and branches littered the ground like broken toys. None of the wood was green; it was all dead. I turned back to the wretched figure on the ground, stepping closer, raising my hatchet before my chest. The circle of scrub beneath my feet was soaked. It should have felt like the rest of the woods; it should have smelled of life and of green. But it didn’t. It was musty and rank.
A dead twig, incongruously dry, snapped under my foot. The creature’s head snapped up. I stepped backward, swinging the hatchet in front of me. My heart wasn’t in it.
This close, I could see that its face, too, was covered in scars. One milky eye stared at nothing. The other was a brilliant gem of amber, like mine. The whorled scars twisting around its skull looked like great serpents, entwined in cataclysmic conflict.