The Woods Man encounters strange creatures in the forest.
|Something was wrong. A clap of thunder rang through the forest, but the sky was not right for it. Clear blue was all I could see through the canopy of green. Not a cloud was in sight.
I settled down low on the river bank, where I had been fishing and devouring each fish as quickly as I had pulled them from the river. The aroma of salmon scraps mixed with the musty smell of the rotting log I had hidden some under. I scanned the tree line along the opposite bank for any movement, anything out of the ordinary. Nothing seemed amiss.
I faded backward allowing the forest to absorb me. Now hidden, I knew that anything stalking me could no longer remain still. The forest was silent. Not even the birds were speaking. Then the thunder came again. It was unlike any I ever heard. It was sharp, and near. I watched an animal dive from the opposite bank and a hawk take to flight. They were fleeing the thunder.
I had no reason to fear such a sound, not yet. My curiosity grew until it overtook apprehension. Skulking from the woods, I eased into the water. I had learned long ago that generating a wake when entering the water could alert both predator and prey of my presence at great distances. A moment later, only half of my head was atop the water. I floated toward the opposite shore drifting downstream with each stroke of my long arms. At times my toes would touch the soft gravel infused silt of the river bottom, at others I treaded water, unsure how deep it was. Swimming in open water was easy for me. The deeper the river became the easier it seemed to fight the current.
I found a fallen tree half submerged near the other bank and glided toward it. It was unwise to emerge from the river absent concealment. I heard a splash upstream and lowered my body. I held my breath, remaining above the waterline only from my eyes up. The splash came from a bear, anxious about the strange thunder no doubt. It scurried into the water and paddled away from the threat. I always found it curious that such a powerful predator, save a mother protecting a cub, preferred to turn and run rather than fight. The forest seemed frightening and mysterious, but rules did apply. Hunger could outweigh discretion, but fear could outweigh hunger. Run from the unknown. When cornered, attack. Though difficult for outsiders to comprehend, for the most part those rules were absolute.
I decided to move upriver, to the point where the bear emerged from the wood line. I floated offshore a bit, to keep my body well hidden in water. I broke the surface as little as I could, paddling with my arms and walking along the soft bottom. The current was strong. I longed to emerge onto the bank and walk freely. I could cover the distance in a few strides. But, no. I would never sacrifice the invaluable camouflage offered by the life bringing river. Not for something so reckless as haste. In the forest, rashness was often the last mistake one made.
It had been a while since the last strange thunderclap. I scanned the sky from the unobstructed aspect of the river . Worried confusion set in, not a single cloud. The sun was low in the morning sky, while the moon still shown faintly over the horizon. I sniffed the air. A strange smell wafted by mixing with the familiar rotting wood and river water that dominated my senses, yet there was something else in the air, something familiar.
I reached the bear’s entry point and treaded closer to shore. Confident that I was well hidden, I half floated, half waded quietly, watching the forest for anything unusual, any movement. I heard nothing. It was rare that something could upset so much of the forest like this. I started as a frog near the bank grew impatient with the tranquility and let loose a wild croak. Soon the bank was a cacophony of singing amphibians searching for mates.
I eased toward the water’s edge, until I was crawling over silt-laden sand. The frogs stifled their singing at my approach. I only stood to my full height when the woods edge was an arm’s length from my body. Then I faded into the wood and brush. If I remained still, I was invisible. But I could not remain still, not if I was to find the source of the strange thunder and the disquieting odors assailing me.
I danced between trees hardly disturbing a leaf. I reveled in my speed out of the water. In the forest I felt like the wind weaving through trunks and underbrush. I knew that I was drawing nearer to something, but what? I lifted my nose. Strange odors wafted by, carried on the lightest breeze. I changed direction, heading toward the trace in the air. It wouldn’t do to approach from up wind.
I detected an unfamiliar chatter coming from a clearing ahead of me. I lowered myself to the concealing brush near the clearing’s edge. Detection was always avoidable, always. I settled between a strong oak and the stump of a felled maple that had lost the contest for sunlight and water long ago. What lay beyond astonished me.
Many deer lay upon the ground, unmoving. Several creatures walked about, bipedal like me. They were nothing like any beast I had ever seen before. Each carried a strange stick in their hands or hanging over their shoulders. Had they killed the deer? If so, why? They weren’t eating them and deer would never attack another animal unless their fawns were threatened. I watched in puzzlement.
One of the beings moved closer to me. In time I realized it was walking directly at me. I retreated slowing into the wood, silently, carefully. It couldn’t have smelled me, and it was unlikely that it had heard me. Could it have seen me? I crouched lower just an arm’s length from the wood line. The creature carried its peculiar stick, long and black with a broad end colored like driftwood. The creature stopped short of entering the woods. I wondered what it was doing, until finally it revealed its true intent. Realization sunk in as the creature began marking its territory. It marked in a strange manner, not in many places but in just one. As I pondered the sight the strange thunder rang out again, louder this time. I lurched to my feet and looked toward the sound. It had come from one of the sticks the creatures were carrying. I watched a squirrel fall from a branch. I was as alarmed as I was amazed. Could the creature and its stick have somehow killed the squirrel without touching it?
I heard another sound that, though much quieter than the thunder, frightened me far more. In my moment of alarm I had made myself known to the creature marking its territory. We now stood staring at one another, stock still. Its mouth quivered. Then more strange sounds came out. It was raising an alarm to the others and raising its thunder-making stick.
I spun and fled through the forest, making directly toward the river. I no longer moved with stealth. I sped, crushing brush and small trees as I ran. Again, I heard the thunder. Something stung my shoulder. It did not feel like the sting of a branch or thorn.
Something inside me took over. The thunder, the sting, the creatures, they all meant one thing. I was in danger. I didn’t understand any of what I had seen, but for one thing. They had killed and now they hunted me.
I broke from the woods and crossed the shore in three strides. The first water that touched my feet reminded me that the river would slow me. I had to get to deep water. There I could be invisible. I had to get to deep water before the creatures cleared the woods.
I changed my direction at the water’s edge heading toward the fallen tree I had used for cover not long before. I veered away from the water and then sprinted with all speed toward the tree. I leapt upon its trunk and flung myself as far into the river as I could. I heard the strange thunder once more. Something passed by my head. It sounded like a flying insect, like none I’d ever heard. Thoughts of the insect soon disappeared. I splashed into the water sinking well under the surface. I used my long arms and legs to pull myself toward the sandy bottom. Hoping that my breath would hold, I swam downstream letting the current help me. I wanted nothing but to put distance between myself and the creatures.
In time, I let my body float upward. I let only my face break the surface. I could smell my blood seeping into the water. I was wounded— bleeding. I thought of the smell I had detected when I first emerged from the river, the smell of blood. Who were these creatures? Why did they kill the deer and not eat them? Why were they hunting me? I didn’t know.
I relaxed into the current, only surfacing enough to breathe. A slowing trickle of warmth oozed from my shoulder. I couldn’t compromise my safety to address it. I was safe. I could see the creatures gathering at the bank, their forms shrinking as the river carried me away. They would believe I crossed the river to the opposite shore. At least that was my hope.
I let my head fall back into the water. The sun warmed my face. My shoulder would heal in time, time spent being far more cautious than I had been on this day. I would never again seek out the strange thunder. I would never again approach the smell of fallen deer so heedlessly, and never would I venture so close to the strange creatures I saw that fateful day.