A red, mud-spackled pick-up sat on the Kum & Go lot, five men gathered around its bed as if in dejected prayer. When we pulled around to park, I saw it first: the deer head flopped over the truck’s back flap with a mangled mass of wrecked viscera behind it.
Tom was the first to speak as we got out of the car; he always was the confident one, the one just innocent-looking enough to state the preposterous without offending.
The men stopped whispering to examine us, the newcomers, gauging as with one mind our presence.
Sarah and I stood behind Tom, not sure if we should go into the convenience store or stand outside on the gravel with him—as if declaring that this were now a thing we needed to deal with and defend.
The men, all of whom wore oil-smudged caps, eyed us without rancor or disdain—as a child might examine a fly on an arm.
Sarah spoke, voice brighter than I guessed she felt. “I’ll get water,” she said, tapping Tom on the shoulder, then smiling at me. The door to the store jingled as she disappeared inside.
Not even looking back to where I stood, Tom walked right up to the truck and smiled. “You guys using grenades or what?” He looked to the men as if they were all best friends.
The men shifted where they stood. The tallest examined Tom for a few seconds until, sensing he wasn’t a threat, thumped the truck’s side with his hand. He laughed—a laugh from his mouth, not the chest, but just enough to deflate the air from the situation.
“Smart kid,” he said. The others laughed outright. I couldn’t believe it; anyone else might have been beaten and left for dead in a little nothing Colorado town like that. But not Tom. He seemed protected somehow, untouchable. I looked at the truck bed and saw what I hadn’t noticed before–that the deer’s eyes had been gouged out. The ground seemed to slide under me as I imagined a single, barely traced thought of fear: what if this is what men did out here, in this place? I could see skull behind the blood-dried sockets.
“You’re right,” the tall one said, removing cap from a mass of sweaty brown hair. “This was no hunt.”
“Goddamn sick waste is what it is,” the smaller, bearded man said. “Can’t even use the meat.”
“But what happened?” Tom asked, swiveling closer to examine the animal. The guy hadn’t even started med school yet, but he always seemed ready to let us all know that he wasn’t squeamish, that he had the stomach for anything. When we’d come across that accident the first week of our road trip, he’d been the first to run out of the car—as if he would have been able to do anything. Still, he looked the hero and managed to calm the mom who’d only bumped her head anyway.
“Could a knife manage this?” Tom asked, genuinely curious. I moved closer, noticing the back split open as if it had been torn. The men studied the deer’s body as if seeing it for the first time.
“And what about the eyes?” I asked. “What happened there?”
No one even turned when I spoke; one of the men grunted, but it was probably in response to Tom, as if still gnawing on what he’d said.
“No knife,” the tall one answered in a low voice. “Looks almost like hands did it, but that’d be impossible.”
The one with the beard took a slurp from a Coors he’d been holding. “Maybe it’s the Chupacabra. Finally made it to Colorado, tramping around up in Willis Gulch.”
A few snickers, and two of the men left to go into the store. Sarah returned with water bottles in hand. To our right, enormous upswellings of mountains towered into the clouds, two of the highest fourteeners in Colorado, Mount Massive and, further on, Elbert. Dark evergreens covered their bases, but higher up, the earth lay bare. I imagined myself up on that tundra, lost and alone.
“Let’s get a hotel tonight,” Sarah said suddenly. “Maybe it’s time for a good shower. After all,” she said, looking at Tom, “It has been two weeks.” She sniffed at him when she said that, pushed him playfully.
We were kids, fresh out of college with a vast expanse of summer and, somewhere just beyond, life unfurling.
We’d met freshman year, and the unstated understanding was that Tom and I were both in love with Sarah. She had a boyfriend, of course (isn’t that always how such things went?)—the same boyfriend she’d then been with all four years of college, and the very same boyfriend she’d just broken up with right before graduation. There was a deeper understanding, too, and that was this: if Sarah had ever been asked to choose, she would have chosen Tom. He was the pre-med kid with deans-list grades who still managed to be looser than me—fun, even. Sure, Sarah would laugh at my jokes, but always in a way that didn’t seem to mean much.
It had been one night over greasy pizza freshman year when Sarah had come up with the idea for a road trip. “If we’re still friends senior year, let’s go on a trip together. Kerouac-style,” she said, mouth full of crust.
“To see the West,” Tom said.
“And find ourselves,” Sarah added with a giggle—though we also knew she meant it.
I thought we’d forget, but three years later, graduation arrived, and we did remember. Two weeks into the summer, we hit the road in a VW Jetta that sometimes would decide it didn’t feel like working. We’d packed clothes, food, and books, loaded up our phones with podcasts, and Tom even brought a medical kit and a pistol. “A gun?” Sarah asked, worried. “Just in case,” Tom had said. “But don’t worry: you’ll never see it. I’ll even give it to Bradley, just so it’ll be extra safe.” He turned to me. “You mind, Brad? It’s just a little 22. Practically a BB gun.” I didn’t, but I wasn’t sure why it would be safer with me. Tom and I had gone to a shooting range once, and I’d hated everything about the day. But still, maybe he had a point. We’d never need to take it out; we’d have it, just in case. The medical kit was the thing that had caught my attention even more. Tom wasn’t even a doctor, yet still, there it was.
“You know what Chekov said about introducing a pistol in the first act,” I said.
“Who?” Tom asked.
I’d wanted to be funny, but then I realized I was doing what I always did: saying something to try to impress. Sarah hadn’t even heard anyway.
In the Hopi mythology, they say that we will all, one day, be asked a question, and when that day comes, we must be ready.
When we pulled up to the old hotel in Twin Lakes, Sarah clapped her hands in wonder. The Inn backed right up to the mountains, and before it lay views of two wide glacial lakes. Between the Inn and the water, route 82 wound up and over the pass to Aspen, where we’d already talked about having lunch the next day. Sarah couldn’t stop saying how beautiful it all was when she stepped out of the car, arms lifted to the sky. “This,” she sang out, “is why we came on this trip to begin with.” The clouds hovered in great globs over the peaks, delicate capillaries feathering out from their centers.
Normally the Inn would have been full in the summer, but someone had just cancelled.
“You got lucky,” they told us inside.
The lobby smelled like history and hash browns. It was a low-slung affair of dark wood, rocking chairs, and in the next room, tables for the restaurant. When we stepped in, though, a crying woman was all we initially noticed. She was talking to a thirtysomething bearded guy who looked like he worked there, telling him, between sobs, how her dog had been taken. “Snatched” was the word she used. The man murmured to her something about mountain lions or bears, but she shook her head, saying she was from Utah, that she knew mountain lions and bears, and the sound she’d heard had been nothing like either.
“Almost a human in pain,” she said. “But worse. A horrible sound. A wailing.”
“What kind of dog?” the man asked, eyeing us and seeming to want to change the subject.
“A German Shepherd,” the woman said. “85 pounds.”
“Oh,” the bearded man said. He had a nametag on his flannel shirt that said “Andy.”
Do you know the question? Can you guess it?
“Welcome,” the woman at the reception desk announced, eyes glancing over to Andy and the woman. I tried to keep listening, but both their voices had dropped. It seemed now like Andy was asking about details. Where she’d been. What she’d seen.
As Tom paid for the room—something he liked to do since his dad had been the one funding most of our trip—I felt like a kid tagging along with his parents on vacation. Sarah stood at Tom’s side, as if she were his wife, and I, the bored child, had been left to examine the lobby. A large map of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness was thumbtacked to the wall on our left, and behind us, four men all sat separately in different parts of the restaurant and lobby area. One wore headphones and seemed to be testing some sort of small metal contraption. At the far end of the room, a woman sat by herself, reading a paperback.
“Don’t mind all that,” the receptionist said as she nodded towards the woman with the lost dog and then the man with the headphones. “Things have been a bit crazy since the stories, but all’s fine.”
“Stories?” Sarah was the journalist in our group, the question asker who could find out anything from anyone.
The woman rolled her eyes and smiled. “Nothing much. People can turn just about anything into a ghost story. Or better yet, bigfoot. I can’t keep track which,” she said, laughing. “But at the end of the day, it’s all good for business. I do feel bad for that hiker, though.”
She noticed our worried expressions.
“Nothing that doesn’t happen from time to time. These tourists come in, excited to explore the wilderness, and they get lost. Happened to a young guy from Texas last week.”
“They found him, though,” a voice from behind us said. It was an old man with white hair who’d been sitting in a rocker reading a newspaper.
The receptionist looked only mildly surprised, then turned to us.
“See? All’s good. Even that story’s not really a story.”
The old man, rising now, continued. “But he was confused. Didn’t even know who he was anymore. Just came out of the woods babbling. They took him to a hospital in Denver two days ago. We don’t know anything else.”
The receptionist shrugged. “Weird things have been happening, I guess.”
“You mean like the deer we saw coming in? That thing looked like it had been mauled,” Tom said.
“Deer?” the old man said, stepping closer to us. “What’d you kids see?”
Tom, ever the leader, described.
“And it had no eyes, either,” I said.
The man, who had a slight hunch but who seemed stronger now up close, just stared intently. “Where’d that woman say she lost her dog?”
“Not far from Willis Gulch.”
“Isn’t that the place those guys were talking about earlier?” Sarah asked.
Jonas appeared to have stopped listening; he turned to gaze out across the dark mirrored face of the lake and into the trees, now grown dark, on the distant shore. A dark splotch of birds rose, spiraling, into the sky; behind them, the sunset burned like a bloodshot eye.
It’s a question as simple as it is complex, and it’s nothing more and nothing less than this: who are you? Three little words. But can you answer it? Do you even dare try?
Two hours later, we’d eaten our first sit-down meal since we’d set out from Virginia: buffalo meatloaf, mashed potatoes, salad, and an actual bottle of wine—which made us feel like full-fledged adults. We were there in the Twin Lakes Inn restaurant, alive with people—mostly out-of-state tourists like us, but a few locals, too. Even the woman who’d lost her dog sat at the bar, nursing a Chardonnay. Next to her sat the chubby middle-aged guy, still with the headphones.
The old man, Jonas, had returned to his rocker and seemed fine now. He chatted with a young, good-looking couple who said they were on their way over to Aspen.
Andy poured drinks at the bar.
To be in a mountain-town inn like that, with the air, even in summer, chilling outside, made me feel good for the first time in a long time. I felt whole and together. What had I been jealous of Tom for? And had I even been jealous? We were friends, eating and drinking together. Even the stories of disappearances added a poignancy to the night. A tree just outside the side window clacked its branches against the glass, dendritic fingers asking for entry.
Tom suggested we go sit at the bar, where we could have a digestif—a word I’d never heard before, but which he used with casual nonchalance. As we sat down at the last three seats, we realized we were entering into the middle of a conversation. An old man with a scar on his face, nursing a whiskey, spoke in low tones to a tired-looking woman across the corner.
Life was as good as the night air was cool.
Later that night, I lay in bed, staring at the swirls of knots in the ceiling’s wood. Even in the dark, from the dim light of a bulb on the porch, the knots appeared like faces pleading. I felt sadness. And longing—but for what, I couldn’t say.
In the bed next to me, Sarah and Tom slept. We’d drawn straws to see who’d be the lucky one to “get” to sleep in their own bed, and before we even did it, I knew how it’d turn out. It could have been Tom and me sleeping together in a bed, and Sarah on her own, which would have been just fine, or it could have been Sarah and me in a bed together, with Tom alone, and that would have sent me through the stars.
But no. Tom and Sarah had “lost,” so they’d gotten the bed together. And, not ten minutes later, I lay there in the dark, listening to them whispering, occasionally giggling, as the sheets scuffled and moved. Were they doing anything? I imagined passionate kisses in a relationship that had been building for the past few months—or years. I imagined the trembling hands. The need to be quiet from me, which would only have added to the romantic tension. Had anything happened at all? I knew I would never ask, but now they slept. In the quiet, I lay awake, thinking. My bed was scooched up next to the window, which I’d just cracked to allow in a little mountain-night air.
As I lay there in the vortex of loneliness, made all the lonelier by the two friends next to me, I heard something below. A voice. Two voices. Whispering. I raised my head and peered down to the porch just under the window. Though I could only see the top of one head, with the white hair illumined by the porch light, I could tell it was the old man from earlier, Jonas. He was talking to someone directly below me, likely in the frame of the door. He whispered in urgent tones. I looked at my phone: 1:42 in the morning.
Sarah and Tom lay still beneath the sheets, apparently sound asleep, so I leaned closer to the window to hear.
The first voice was deep and slow, and it seemed to have asked a question.
“I’m worried,” Jonas said in response. “We’ve taken care. They should all be hibernating. But we’ve done okay by them, haven’t we?”
“Course we have. And they know it.”
“I should go up tomorrow and check.”
“No point in disturbing.”
“But they are disturbed.”
“Today? That was a mountain lion.”
And then silence. A long silence.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“I’m not sure what I believe any more, but something out there is shifting. And now word’s getting out. People are posting things online. Middle-aged guys are showing up with devices they’ve bought. And New Age Wiccans are traipsing around the woods.”
The old man coughed, as if choking on what he was about to say. “To hell with social media,” he said at last. “No one will understand anyway. What’s out there is changing. It’s moving like water through the landscape, rolling down the hills and pooling and puddling out amongst the old rocks, below the mines. I’m going up. Maybe they need us.”
And the last few words were muffled, but it sounded like the old man had ended with a word like “Noel.” My body tingled from the unknowingness of it all.
I leaned to the window and the bed creaked. The voices fell silent. Had they heard? I peered out from the side of the curtain, and they were gone.
Before I rolled over, I heard a noise, soft and low, in the distance; it sounded like a train’s whistle from the other side of the valley. But there were no trains out there, I knew: only wilderness.
The next day I awoke to the dim blue-gray light of the pre-dawn world. I wasn’t even thinking about Sarah or Tom then. I’d dreamt of black rivers rolling down a mountain, rivers flowing down into rocks and into darker, unseen places. High above, on a ridge, a ball of fire rolled down towards me. And then another. Was someone above trying to hurt us? In the dream, I entered an abandoned cabin, on the verge of collapse, and watched the boulders of fire roll and bounce past. I felt safe in the barely standing cabin. But I felt like I wouldn’t be safe for long.
Downstairs, a crowd had gathered in the lobby, some tourists with hiking gear looking worried and some of the same locals we’d seen the night before. “No one’s going over the pass,” Andy announced to the group. “If you want to go to Aspen, you have to go back out to I-70. The landslide up on Independence Pass is going to take a day to clear. At least.”
A murmuring from the crowd, a few mutterings of “four hours?” and head nods as people readjusted plans.
Tom looked at us. “It’s a sign,” he said.
I looked at him, not sure what he meant.
“We need to stay. Go up Willis Gulch. See what’s there. I was thinking about ways to convince you two anyway.”
“You believe?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Either way it’s a story. And it’ll be nice to get out into the backcountry regardless.”
“I’m in,” Sarah said.
Knowing who you are doesn’t come from thinking; it comes from getting up on your own two feet and heading out into the places you don’t yet know. Out there? Sure. But more than that.
By 9:00, we were on the trail—the lake to our left and the ridge ahead and to our right. The aspen around us rose like slender white tombstones in the early light of day, and we began to climb. I was breathing hard, but I did my best to hide it. Tom and Sarah laughed and talked despite the ascent, and I’d occasionally look back and suggest a water break, just to give myself a rest.
We didn’t know exactly where to go, but the words “Willis Gulch” rang in our ears like a chant, and when we got to the gulch, we unanimously decided to keep climbing above it, off trail. This was something that felt new to us, like we were doing something we weren’t supposed to in leaving the well-tramped trail that switch-backed up the side of the mountain.
It was like leaving the last vestige of civilization behind.
An hour later, we looked back down the great swale of ridge to the gulch below, could hear the roaring creek pouring its might into the funnel, down towards the awaiting lakes. And we were quiet because the woods seemed alive to us. Alive and watching.
“Down there,” Tom said. “See it?”
I looked where he pointed, and though at first saw nothing, my eyes adjusted and I realized I wasn’t just seeing shadows at the bottom of the ravine. We’d come down the other side of the ridge, still off trail, when he pointed it out: an old mine, a tunnel burrowed into the side of the mountain, partially hidden by the jagged granitic outcroppings of an enormous boulder field. We walked down the steep slope in silence, studying the hole as we did.
We eased our way down towards the boulders, but as we did, I noticed movement. Sarah must have seen it at the same time—as did Tom.
“Quiet,” he said.
We slowed our steps and stopped talking. A hawk flew overhead, quietly circling on the thermals.
We hadn’t seen him before because he’d been behind one of the bigger rocks, but there was the old man, Jonas, standing before the cave opening.
Tom turned to us and mouthed the words, “what the –?”
And we stilled to watch what he was doing. How had he even gotten all the way out to this place?
“I’m cold,” Sarah whispered. I said nothing, but I felt the same. A chill had crept into my bones, but I’d just chalked it up to being in the long-shadowed ravine. If the old man had been looking for us, he would have seen us, but he was focused on the mouth of the mine. He crouched down and began laying some sort of plants before the opening. And, we noticed, he’d lit a fire off to the side, small and carefully set in the middle of a huge pile of stones, not ten feet from the mine’s mouth, where scattered bones lay strewn about. What looked like a few deer skulls, some ribs, and a scattershot of white bone shrapnel, half-ground into the earth. What was the old man doing? Was he crazy? Or superhuman for being out here?
And then it happened.
To know who you are, you must not only enter the wilderness, but allow it to enter you.
Jonas took off his shirt and kneeled before the opening. His bare, bony chest, covered in white hair, looked fragile. None of us spoke. I couldn’t even put words to what was happening, and I suddenly didn’t feel like we should be there.
The man picked up a flute that had been lying amongst the brush, and he began to play. It wasn’t a tune, exactly, but just a few long and sad notes, filling the forest with melancholy. I wanted to cry. I wanted to leave. Sarah and Tom stood next to me, transfixed.
And then we saw it: another movement.
At first it looked like a tree branch swaying, but then we saw it extend and bend—and we understood it for what it was: a gnarled and knotted arm, rough like tree bark. Or papyrus. The arm emerged from the hole, as if reaching for the light, followed by a body. The old man, still kneeling, lowered the flute and dropped his head. The thing that emerged from the small opening seemed to uncurl itself, to open itself to the light of the late afternoon. My heartbeat surged in my ears: I couldn’t accept what I was seeing.
The thing was horrible. First, only fractals in the air, as if the molecules of the breeze were taking shape, but from the fractals, a form. A cadaverous, elongated form that emerged from the dark place, straightening itself only a few feet before Jonas, head still lowered as if waiting for a blessing. It was El Greco’s Frankenstein-monster, a cobbled-together patchwork of stretched-out, contorted humanity. It had a face—or eyes, at least—and on its back appeared to be wings, tucked close to the body. These appendages, like those of a decaying vulture, opened, and as they did it rose from the ground a few feet. Its eyes, large and black, showed no emotion. I felt those eyes staring down at Jonas, and as it extended both its arms, Jonas thrust his chest out and up towards the sky.
The old man looked as frail as a baby bird, knobby chest exposed to the cold dusk air. For the first time in my life, I felt the temperature shift of something not related to the air around me.
The creature took a soundless step towards Jonas. It didn’t seem to be either male or female, but its body seemed both sinuous and lithe, strong and serpentine. And then I heard it: a soft muttering, a whisper that mingled with the breeze. I couldn’t understand any of the words, if they were even words at all, but I found myself mesmerized by the incomprehensible, almost chant-like speech.
“Oh,” Sarah said to herself, a barely uttered sigh. “It’s beautiful.”
I didn’t understand, but in that moment I guessed that she was being transfixed by this thing, that she wasn’t aware of the evil I felt. Her face had fallen slack with awe.
Gray was its color, like the clouds of a twilight sky before a storm, and I sensed in it, in the whole forest, the electricity of an impending storm.
“Run,” I said, and I ran, but I didn’t hear Tom or Sarah behind. I looked back. The creature, hovering where it was over the old man, had heard my movements, turned its head in my direction.
Wanting to escape into a crevice between one of the rocks, I climbed, still not sure if Tom and Sarah followed. When I scrabbled to the top of the boulder, I looked back and saw that Tom had fallen. Judging from the angle of his knee, it looked like he’d broken his leg. Sarah crouched beside him, not seeming at all worried by the creature, which now floated slowly over in thick heaving movements, wings flapping like the meaty thuds of a killer whale’s flippers on dry land. I yelled out that I needed to get a better angle, that I could help better from up on the boulder, but I only wanted to get away. I can admit that now.
I grabbed onto the next outcropping of boulder and pulled myself up to the ledge
“Please,” Tom said, calling out. My thoughts burned in anger. I wanted him to die. I wanted the thing to get him first, because then maybe I’d be saved. And Sarah? Maybe she could come to me, once I’d found a safe place.
As I tucked myself between two boulders, I looked back. Tom’s head lay in Sarah’s lap, and I felt an upsurge of dark jealousy. Fine: let them be together. From my vantage point on the boulder, I was at eye level with the thing, which now hovered directly above the two of them. Sarah’s white T-shirt seemed like a flag of surrender, and I imagined it spattered with blood when the creature attacked.
As if from an almost-forgotten dream, Sarah yelled out to me. “But don’t you see it?” she said. “Why run?” And her face had become beatific, an angel on a stained-glass window. “See?” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
I could see no beauty, though; her words made no sense, and I wondered if, in that moment, the thing had transfixed her, had captured her in some sort of spell.
As if seeing myself from outside myself, I slid my hand into the backpack, heart racing, hand grasping the leather case at the bottom of the pack, and I pulled it out: the holster.
That simple question is one of the most terrifying questions you could ever ask yourself. Because what if, after trying to answer it, you realize this simple truth: there’s nothing there, nothing at all, and that behind the “you” lies only a great emptiness? What then?
The creature, like some mummified angel, had begun to lower itself closer to Tom and Sarah. Realizing I looked the coward, I pulled out the little 22 pistol from the Velcro holster, unclicked the safety, and fired. The gunshot was silence and stillness then a sudden vacuum of greater silence, and the tree behind the creature exploded: I’d missed. The thing turned its head, eyes still empty of light, and I heard Sarah’s voice telling me to stop, screaming at me no more, but all I remember is in that moment I felt strong and terrifying, and I fired again. This time, the bullet struck home, hitting the creature in its side, opening a small hole in its lower torso. Its eyes, still solemn pools of emptiness, seemed to express disappointment, but I fired again anyway, and Sarah’s screams came through more clearly: why, why?, she asked. What was I doing? And maybe I said something, I don’t remember, but a gash appeared in the creature’s leg where the second bullet had struck, and in that instant-flash, the creature shimmered and suddenly appeared rainbow-hued, as if returning to fractals. A brilliant being of light and color, and for a millisecond, I felt perhaps what Sarah had been feeling all along, what she told me, later through tears, she’d been feeling during the entire experience: the warm touch of something that wasn’t hate or separation or emptiness. It was only beauty. Genuine beauty.
The drumbeat continues for the rest of your life, every day of your life, the one question, you must ask yourself over and over again. Because there’s never just one answer. And it’s really not just one question.
The creature shimmered back to its cadaverous self, but eyes luminesced with sadness. Suddenly exhausted, I lowered the gun. Black eyes still on me, as if seeing only me in this universe replete with beings, it tilted its head back and wailed, a cry of wounded despair. The thing then rose into the air, and as it did, other creatures emerged from the mine’s opening. First two, then three, and then dozens. They came pouring fourth, and the creatures rose into the charcoal sky, a cloud of dark beings, all singing together, in unison. I watched them fly low over the treetops and on to the snowcapped horizon. The cry turned into a low whistle, like a train’s whistle from far away.
Hands trembling, I climbed down from the boulder, awash with shame.
“I saved us. From that thing, those things,” I said. “They were evil.” The last sentence I said like a pronouncement, but I didn’t believe it. I wanted their confirmation, but Sarah only stood, looked at me, and answered with a one-word question: “why?” For some reason I couldn’t look at her, but I heard no recrimination in her voice, only melancholy.
Tom seemed not to see me any longer at all. His eyes were now fixed on the distant horizon where the creatures had flown
“Do you understand what you did?” a voice said. It was Jonas, now walking over to us, shirt still open, chest still bared to the chill, crepuscular air.
“I shot it. I scared it away. The evil.” The shivering had begun to take over my entire body.
“But you’re wrong,” he said. “They’re not evil.” His voice dropped to an almost whisper, and he examined me as a disappointed father might
Sarah let out a sob.
“Those beings,” he said, “were our protectors. They’ve kept us safe from the true evil that lies asleep deep within that mine.”
His words came slowly, methodically, each one a pebble dropped into a well, sending out little ripples across the water’s obsidian surface. He continued.
“They have sung to the nameless thing for centuries. And their songs have kept the thing asleep, like a lullaby through time.”
The trees stood sentinel around us in gloomy reverie.
“But now they’re gone,” he said.
I felt overwhelmed with exhaustion and despair. I fell to the ground.
“Some say they’re angels. Some say nahual, the protective spirits of nature, but everyone sees them as something different. People see what they carry inside them.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head, digging hands into the leaf-strewn forest floor. I wanted to make myself small, to disappear into myself.
“I don’t know about spirits,” the old man said, “because maybe I’m too practical. I see those things as part of nature’s immune system.” He paused, looking up into the sky, as if expecting the creatures to return. “They’re the white blood cells,” he said. “Our last line of defense.”
“And the thing?” Sarah asked, raising her head. “The sleeping thing under the mine?”
“That’s the cancer,” Jonas said. “That has been growing.”
As if on cue, the ground beneath us rumbled softly.
“But what is it?” she asked.
Jonas shook his head. “Never seen it. Only heard about it. My own grandfather told me he’d heard stories since he’d been little. When evil has no place to go, it ended up there, people say. In that mine, safely guarded. Until now.”
“But they’ll return, right?” I asked, voice small like a child’s.
The old man said nothing.
As we remained there in that darkening clearing by the mine, the low rumble returned, a barely perceptible tremor. It vibrated through the air, up from the ground itself, as if something were moving in the vast chambers of darkness below our feet.
Images of the dark rivers rolling down the mountain returned to me. What was the thing that was now finding its life?
“Maybe it would have happened anyway,” Jonas said, but his voice didn’t sound convinced.
I felt the hum in my bones, a deeper hum from some ancient, cavernous place. Why had I seen them as evil? It didn’t matter now anyway.
They were gone.
They are gone.
They’ve been scared away, leaving us to face the awakening darkness on our own. We weren’t meant to be alone, but we have made ourselves this way. I understand this now.
Jonas, eyes filled with tears, turned to me, voice for the first time edged with reproach. “Who even are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know anymore.”
Please forgive me.
Eric Dawson is a long-time Spanish teacher and World Languages Department Chair living in Denver, CO who, when he’s not wandering in the wilderness, enjoys reading all things speculative. He has an MA in Spanish Literature, and he has attended writing workshops at Aspen Summer Words and Kenyon College.