Given what I’d done, and the speed with which they were pursuing me, my only reasonable course of action was to disappear into the woods. Luckily, where I live — a location I won’t disclose here — there are thousands of acres of dense forest for a desperate man to utterly lose himself in. So as I set off one spring morning down a wet gravel road, with the hawks flying overhead and the eyes of unknown creatures upon me, I was less worried about being caught than I was about being swallowed up by the trees, like a fish down the throat of a whale. It was terrifying to think that, once I walked in, I may never come out.
I knew I had about a day-and-a-half head start on my pursuers. They were fast-moving creatures with black hearts and rotten minds: not fully human, but not outright beasts, either. They were some disturbing mix of the two, a concoction from a subpar science fiction novel brought to life. It was best to stay out of their grasp, because once they sunk their claws into you, death was inevitable. And it wouldn’t be swift nor painless. These creatures took a perverse pride in drawing things out, in milking human suffering for their own twisted enjoyment. I had no desire to find myself in that awful situation, so I descended as deep into the forest as I could go.
The thing that struck me most during my first few hours of solitude in the wilderness was the peacefulness of my surroundings. Gone were the car horns, the tires wooshing on the interstate, the cussing, the fussing, the fighting. The cacophony of human society melted away like ice into summer lemonade. Instead, I heard gushing streams. Birds chirping. A hoot from somewhere deep in the vegetation. A mysterious rush of wind through the leaves. It was like I was traveling far back into my history — far back into our collective human history — to a time before asphalt and computer screens, to an era when time itself didn’t exist in any measurable sense. I felt as though I’d returned to a time when mankind was truly a part of nature. The dew on the grass cooled my shins. For a moment, I forgot my predicament. All was peaceful.
What I saw cannot be confirmed by anyone else– after all, you are relying on me and only me to recount this story, and how reliable can any one narrator truly be? — yet I promise everything I say is true, as fantastical as it may sound.
I walked on, surrounded by thick greenery. Around dusk, when exhaustion began to set in, I happened upon a one-room cabin in a clearing. It appeared through the foggy haze like a halo or a gravestone. It seemed almost too good to be true, like my pursuers had placed a trap, knowing I’d wander into it like a drunk into a tavern. If it was, in fact, a set-up, I frankly didn’t give a damn. It looked cozy and ethereal — an ideal place to lay my head after a long day of trudging through the vast and tangled underbrush. To hell with it, I thought, and flung open the creaky front door. What I saw cannot be confirmed by anyone else — after all, you are relying on me and only me to recount this story, and how reliable can any one narrator truly be? — yet I promise everything I say is true, as fantastical as it may sound.
In a far corner of the cabin was a glowing creature the size of a small bird, but with the form of a human. I hesitate to call it a fairy, because of the connotations that accompany such a word, but perhaps fairy is the best way to describe it. It was singing, too — in deep Johnny Cash tones — an old Irish folk song the lyrics of which I cannot remember, for I was so deluded with fatigue. The fairy-like thing fluttered around the cabin, crooning all the while, leaving a crystalline trail in its wake. I thought I was losing my mind, that the long walk coupled with a lack of sustenance had turned my brain to mush. But after rubbing my eyes and opening them again, the fairy-like thing was still there, singing in such soft tones that my eyelids grew heavy. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor as rays of sunlight streamed through the window. A dog was licking my face.
The dog, who I’ve since named Konrad, is an Australian Shepherd mix. It wasn’t a puppy, nor an old pooch, and I knew, right then and there, I’d found all the company I’d ever need during my stay in the cabin. The fairy-like thing had vanished overnight, and frankly I was glad, because while I’d enjoyed its company to an extent, its incessant singing kept waking me up throughout the night. It was much more pleasant to have the dog around, and in the weeks, months, and — indeed — years, that followed, Konrad and I became downright inseparable. He was my hunting partner, my confidant, my friend. I could spend hours recounting all of our memories together — like the time he got ahold of a groundhog, or the time he was sprayed in the face by a malevolent skunk — but the only thing you need to know is that he’s the most loyal friend a man could ask for. Where at one time I was afraid of being stuck in the woods for eternity, Konrad has made it so I never want to leave. And on those nights when I sit up in bed worrying about the fast-moving creatures with black hearts and rotten minds closing in on me, Konrad tucks himself into my nook, as if to say: “We’re in this together, buddy.”
The dog, who I’ve since named Konrad, is an Australian Shepherd mix. It wasn’t a puppy, nor an old pooch, and I knew, right then and there, I’d found all the company I’d ever need during my stay in the cabin.
I’ll never know what Konrad truly thinks of me. All I can do is make inferences based on his actions. Him licking my face must be a sign of affection. His wagging tail, his willingness to expose his belly, must be a sign of trust. This is certainly the way it feels. I had many close human friends during my time in society, but none of those relationships compare to my undying bond with Konrad. There’s a pureness, a mutual respect, a lack of ulterior motives in our connection that simply cannot exist between two human beings. In short, I make up for what he lacks, and vice versa. In his love of sprinting through the forest and sniffing everything under the sun, I began to understand what it means to live in the moment, to truly enjoy life. In me, he sees a protector who provides and cares for him, no questions asked. And that’s all that needs to be.
Soon, I know, Konrad will die. It’s been years. He’s been moving slower, stumbling more. What was once a sprint is now more of a half-hearted jog. But on occasion, his puppy-like joy bubbles to the surface, and it’s so beautiful that it nearly brings me to tears. It also reminds me that I myself am no longer young, and that somewhere out there, they’re still pursuing me. They’ll always be pursuing me: Trying to sucker me into a shouting match. Trying to draw me out of my shell. But I don’t fear them anymore. There are no more sleepless nights. I run my fingers through Konrad’s fur and feel at ease.
There are no more sleepless nights. I run my fingers through Konrad’s fur and feel at ease.
That dog, and this cabin, offer all the solace I’ll ever need. Let humanity hum stupidly in cities far from here. Let the bastards close in on me. When they finally arrive — and they will, inevitably, arrive — I’ll just smile. Fists clenched, ready for a fight. Konrad will let out a vicious bark, despite his old bones, and we’ll face the blackhearts without fear, ready to put up one hell of a fight.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.