Content/Trigger Warning: Murder, Blood
She’s sitting on an old Jersey barrier on the side of New York Avenue when I first see her. Her tennis shoes are dirty and stained; one’s resting on the reflector embedded in the concrete and the other one’s busy rearranging the garbage at her feet. Her jeans and black T-shirt have seen better days, too. Eighteen or nineteen, I’m guessing. One of those girls nobody cares about and nobody notices when they go missing, at least not for a few days. They’re like bamboo: you cut one stalk down and three more grow to replace it. Just not that valuable. An invasive species.
I double park my beat up blue F150 next to her and roll down the passenger window. She looks at me sideways and tries out a smile. It fades quickly, but then comes back like a shy puppy that has to make sure you’re nice before it lets you pet it.
“You want to get high?” I ask her, and her smile collapses to a frown.
“I’m not gonna blow you if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“No, I’m just looking for somebody cool to get high with. You want to party or not? I got wine, too.”
Car horns are beeping behind me; drivers are shouting, “Go, God damn it, go!” All of them full of hate. Finally she relents, hops down from her perch and gets in. Off we go, and the horns stop beeping and the people stop screaming.
We drive out New York Avenue and New York Avenue turns into 50; we’re leaving the city behind and going past the Arboretum and the shitty hotels. She starts getting nervous because we’re heading out farther than she expected, but I pat her on the knee, letting her know I care and I’m not afraid to touch her.
“We’re definitely going to party. You can smoke some now if you want,” I say. I’m in a good mood, laughing and joking, putting her at ease again. There’s a battered tin box on the seat between us. With the thumb and index finger of my right hand I flip the catch and pull out a joint and a lighter. She sparks it. Ten minutes later she’s as mellow as can be. She offers me a hit, but I decline.
“Nah, I’m driving on a suspended license. I’ll smoke up when we get where we’re going.”
She says, “Where’s that at?”
“Out closer towards Annapolis, I got a cool place on the water.”
She nods and says, “Okay. All right,” and smiles, turning unfocused eyes on the scenery outside.
She’s really looking forward to it, I’m thinking.
“I got to get gas,” I say, and turn into this abandoned gas station where I do a lot of my work; it’s about halfway between my place and the DC line. I make like I’m surprised that the pumps are gone and the windows dirty and dark.
“Shit, this place isn’t open anymore? Oh, damn. The tank’s really low, but it’ll be okay.”
Of course it’s not going to be okay. I mean, okay for me, but definitely not okay for her. I park the pickup in the side parking lot and I kill her right there between the locked bathrooms and padlocked ice chest and the woods. I squeeze her neck until the little bones crack and her eyes are bloodshot as hell and her tongue sticks out like a cartoon. Then boom! Pull her out onto the broken asphalt and weeds and drag her to the bed of the truck. Slide the tonneau cover shut and we’re back on the road without even losing fifteen minutes.
Where I live isn’t Annapolis, and it’s not waterfront. I don’t like to lie, but no way am I telling some whore where I live before she’s neutralized. I head a little farther down 50. I’m spooked for a minute when a state trooper comes up behind me, lights flashing. I pull over to the side like a good citizen and he speeds past. I watch him go, my mouth dry and sticky, then continue on to my exit. Down about a mile I turn right onto a gravel road. That’s my driveway. We take that for about a mile and come out at the old homestead. I can’t keep it in very good repair anymore. The roof on the farmhouse leaks and a lot of the sheds are falling down. I unloaded most of the farm equipment piecemeal and I sold a chunk of the south field to a real estate developer in 2018. The entire north field, right up to the north side of the house, is bamboo. Dad planted it just before he died. Thought it’d be good money, I guess. That was thirty years ago, when I was a kid. It’s a thick forest now except for the trails I clear and the little glades I cut for the girls when I’m finished with them. I have to be diligent about clearing the main path, and I can only bury the girls far out on the north edge because the bamboo stalks are too thick otherwise. I’d need the chainsaw to get through most of them and I’m not breaking out the chainsaw and wasting gas for some whore from DC.
I open the tailgate and she’s all the way at the front of the bed right behind the cab. I heard her hit the wall behind the driver’s seat when I braked too fast coming off the exit. And I guess I drove bad in some other places too because her face is pretty messed up. There’s blood in the truck, too, and that’s definitely some amateur hour shit. But a whore’s a whore, fucked up face or not. So I take her into the house. I promised her we’d party and I don’t like to lie.
After we finish up, I go out to cut a new trail in the bamboo. I leave her in the tub with five bags of ice packed over her. It’s hot—pushing a hundred degrees—and I know from experience when I bring girls home in the summertime it doesn’t take long for them to start to stink like hell. It’ll take me a couple of hours to get the new trail cut and the hole dug, and even with the ice it doesn’t do to procrastinate. I fetch the machete from the tool shed and take a minute to get a good edge on it with the whetstone, grab the hand saw and the shovel, and head out to the bamboo.
There’s a gap in the stalks just past the east side of the house. It’s discreet. It has to be. If anybody shows up, I don’t want them taking a stroll back here. Though I probably don’t need to worry too much: I run the brush cutter over the main trail once a week or so. The bamboo grows so fast, if I wait any longer the job is twice as hard and takes twice as long. Most of the little trails branching from the main trunk are almost entirely grown over now. It makes me laugh to think I’ll probably lose track of where the girls are buried. Once I forget them, they’ll really be gone. The bamboo roots will weave through their bones like new veins and arteries in place of the old ones. But I’m getting sentimental. I’ve got a dead girl rotting and a grave to dig.
Near the north perimeter of the forest the bamboo is younger and more pliable: easier to cut. Of course, to call it the perimeter isn’t quite right. It’s today’s perimeter, if anything. The forest grows a little more every day; sometimes it seems you’ll notice a stump or an old fencepost two or three feet behind the bamboo line that was in the clear just the day before. It’s a hungry kind of weed, bamboo. Or maybe “starving” is a better way to describe it. Bamboo wants to grow like a starving animal in a cage wants to eat: with an angry hunger; a blind ravenousness that won’t rest until it’s satisfied.
I cut the trail easy enough; thirty feet down into the woods and then a circular clearing about six feet in diameter. I prefer to put the girls in the ground in a fetal position. It’s easier that way; digging a grave big enough for a body to stretch out in is hard work for anyone, let alone somebody like me, getting up there in years. I’m not going to do it for these whores.
Half an hour later I’m only about three feet down. The bamboo roots grow thick, thicker than you’d expect from these juvenile plants, and they’re all connected in one big spaghetti nervous system. They’re hampering the shovel’s movement and sapping my strength. And it’s so God damn hot.
Another thirty minutes and it’s deep enough and about four feet in diameter with the ring of removed dirt piled around the edge. I’m sweating so hard it’s like I just stepped out of a swimming pool. My head is pounding and my skin is red. I’m guessing if I had a mirror my face would be the color of a steamed crab. But it’s God damn deep enough. I clamber out of the hole, gather the tools up and set them on the edge of the pit, then turn back toward the main trail. But the new cut is gone. Every direction I turn, it’s all bamboo, encroaching up to the edge of the pit. I can almost feel it growing even as I stand here, rank upon rank like an advancing army, pushing me closer to the hole.
I’m a little bit spooked; I don’t like to lie. I’ve never seen the bamboo grow this quickly before. But it has been raining almost every day and it is hot as hell and those are two things bamboo loves. So I get control of myself and grab the machete to hack a new path back to the main trunk-trail. I sigh with relief that the main trail is still passable and set the shovel by the entrance to mark it: it has a bright red blade—scratched up and dirty, but I’ll be able to spot it when I return. When I’m halfway to the house I look back, sure the stalks I just cut will be regrown. But it’s too far to see anything except the shovel.
“Okay, that’s okay,” I say to the early evening sky, and continue my shuffle back.
“You ready to start your all-dirt diet, girl?” I say when I walk through the door. I expect her to laugh, but of course that’s not something that’s going to happen. It’s hot in the house and I fear the worst, but when I open the bathroom door I don’t smell anything except the mustiness of old leaks and rotting plaster. The ice did a nice job. I pull the plug in the cast iron tub, porcelain all chipped down to rusty spots, and the melt glugs down with hungry sucking noises into the stained drain hole. I have to pluck out the plastic grocery bags I’d used for the ice because they’re clogging the flow, but it’s done emptying pretty quickly. She’s wet, but I’m still not dry from all the sweat, so I don’t really give a damn. I heft her slippery, naked dead weight from the tub and throw her over my shoulder. I get a little excited, but it’s not the time and I’m exhausted anyway. No matter what, my back is going to ache tonight; tonight’s going to be a Motrin night for sure.
We slosh down the hallway and out onto the porch and down the creaking, weathered steps. She fits in the old wheelbarrow—the one with the big tire that goes easily over the soft ground on the main bamboo cut—with some coaxing. I use a bungee to secure one leg that won’t cooperate. We set out on the trail with the sun starting to sink down below the western treeline. The bamboo trail is in deep shadow; a wind picks up and the leaves whisper their secrets to the dusk. I can almost understand their words: We eat the soil now, but we are always hungry. We find no satisfaction in the soil. And I think maybe it’s not the trees—not the bamboo—saying that. It’s the girls underneath; the forgotten girls, forgotten before anyone even noticed them missing. My shirt, damp with the corpse water and my own sweat, reeking of death and life, clings to me and sucks the warmth from my body despite the close heat. I look down at the inert form in the wheelbarrow and think, We got to carry on and get this done with. And I do. It’s dark, but the main trunk-trail beckons.
It’s not hard getting down there. The tire’s good and broad; sometimes one of the bigger stumps of cropped bamboo impedes the wheel and I have to go left or right a few inches. But mainly it’s an easy trek back to the shovel and the new trail. And it’s wide open; it hasn’t grown back in the hour or so I’ve been gone.
We make the left onto the grave-trail; I grab the shovel on the way and nestle the blade into the space between the bowl of the barrow and the girl’s mottled back. It’s easy going; there’s just annoying stubble on the path and then we’re at the edge of the pit. I pivot the barrow on its thick wheel and I dump the girl in. That sound: the dull thud of lifeless meat on soil; the first time a man hears it it becomes part of his soul forever. He either learns to love it or he learns to hate it, and whichever one he does decides a lot about how his life proceeds.
The bamboo on the edge of the trail rustles against my legs and back. The machete’s close by, teetering on the edge of the grave, and I grab for it to cut a little more around the perimeter to give myself some room. But my snatch is clumsy and the blade topples into the pit; I jump in to fetch it. Despite the work I put in earlier, the hole isn’t too deep. I reach under the girl to grab the machete and thrust it into my belt and I catch sight of her face: it’s turned toward me, and her eyes are open. They’re glassy and they’re dead, but they’re open. It happens. For a second I consider closing the lids the way they do in movies, a single hand stroking both eyes at once to a peaceful slumber. But the idea of doing that makes me want to puke. I’m not easily spooked, but the idea of touching her—here, now, in this grave—fills me with dread. I put my arms over the edge of the pit and start to pull myself up, but I’m stuck on something: her arm. Somehow my boot’s gotten caught in the crook of that rigid limb. The dread fills me again, and I use my other boot as leverage to pull my ankle out of her grip. The maneuver unbalances me, and I fall backward onto her; I’m all caught up, my left wrist between her legs and my other ankle caught now.
I’m breathing too fast, so I close my eyes and concentrate, willing myself to inhale nice and slow and exhale the same way, just like they taught me in the Army. Calmer and more in control of myself, I get my feet free, pull my arms loose and move to the side of the pit farthest from her. I catch the top edge of the hole with my elbows and lift myself out backwards, keeping my eyes on her dull brown peepers the whole time. It’s an awkward exit, and something snaps in my right arm. The pain is excruciating. But I’m out. Away from her face.
The bamboo is thick now around the edge of the pit, way thicker than just a few minutes ago. I slither in amongst the new growth because there’s nowhere else to go: the grave is ringed with it right to the edge. The fresh stalks press around me and they’re getting tighter. I reach out and pull myself farther away from the pit and it’s obvious they’re not getting tighter; they’re growing: the new shoots were only an eighth of an inch in diameter at first; maybe a quarter. Now they’re three or four inches: thick and woody and tightly packed. They’re pressing against my face and chest, making it hard to breathe. I’m on the ground and they’re crowding me, crushing me as they grow; there’s only one place to go: up. I grip the trunks of the two crushing my chest and heave myself upward. My feet find purchase on the canes and I’m climbing—actually climbing—this bamboo. The higher I get, the more pliable the stalks: it’s harder to hold onto them, but at least I can breathe again.
But the reprieve is brief.
The limbs overhead interlace and overlap; I reach up to pull myself higher, but my hands catch in the grasping branches. Their movement is chaotic, binding my wrists and releasing, only for another three or four branches to take over: greedy wooden hands with a strength like iron. The hot wind has grown wild and the grasping branches undulate me through the bamboo forest like food through an intestine. And then it stops. My injured arm is screaming bloody murder. I’m as high as I can go, ankles and wrists trapped in lattices of overlapping limbs; my weight is too much for them: they bend and I sink toward the earth. There’s a smell down there: the girl. She’s started to stink. It was only a matter of time. I descend on the springy, bending stalks through the lower branches, and there she is: no longer in a fetal position. The bamboo has grown around her, lifted her, and it springs from her limbs as though she and the grass are one. Her mouth and eye sockets are filled with the wiry roots. She seems to be beckoning, arms raised to my approaching form. I hear the whispering of the bamboo in the wind, the hissing voices from across the grassy forest: all those grave-trails; all those graves, connected by subterranean coils of bamboo roots.
We eat the soil now, but we are always hungry.
I come to rest against her dead form, my face a few inches from hers. There’s corruption there but an earthy smell, too: a plant smell. The stalks of her arms and legs embrace me; they expand, squeezing my limbs and chest. I can breathe, but barely. I’m bound to this dead thing, and the bamboo is slowly crushing. It’s growing, and it will continue to grow all night. Binding me tighter to the dead girl. My breath is a little shallower with each inhale. The bamboo is crueler with each passing second.
I try to scream but the serpentine grass tightens, and all I can manage is a gasp. All around me the hissing emerald is darkening to black; the bamboo girl stares sightlessly into my eyes. The greed of the forest has infected her; I can feel her hunger in the stabbing shoots and crushing stalks.
They are hungry for more than soil, I think. They find no satisfaction in soil. The whispers grow louder, frenzied, on the hot wind as the last light fades, and the blackness becomes complete.
Tim Hoelscher is a lifelong resident of the Washington, DC area. His short fiction has appeared in works from Dread Stone (Tenebrous) Press and The Horror Tree, among others. Tim can most often be found in the Threads writing community at @TimothyHoelscherX.
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