This year I released my first short fiction collection, “The Gloaming”, which made it onto the Stoker Award Reading List along with my novel “Black Friday” and my short story “Tree Line”. Because of that I’ve decided to make “Tree Line” available to read here, for free to HWA members, or anyone else who enjoys short, experimental fiction.
11 p.m. says the watch of my dead son.
The darker it grows, the closer the forest things creep.
But I have light. A single, crusty bulb hanging from the ceiling of this logging shack. It is the only thing keeping them at bay. The bulb is powered by a windmill generator in an orchard, ten acres carved from a million of dusky boreal forest. Julip Camp is hike-in only. The waist-high orchard grass that surrounds it kneels in the breeze. When there is a breeze. And light.
Company men to our core, Frank Ficher, Douglas “Saw Hands” Merc, Reynold “Spike” Higgins and I dug hard into the remotest corners of forest, cutting 7,000 board feet of lumber. As the last spruce was felled, we’d all heard something shrieking in a deep, firefly-lit glade. I’ve been the leader of Backwoods Unit 12 for a decade, gaining the respect of upper management with my penchant for minimal injury and maximal board feet. But in all my remote operations, I’d never heard such a sound. I’ve never believed in spooks, either. My wife Isabella used to call me a corned beef hash kind of guy. I think it was a compliment. The men and I had chuckled about the shrieking at first, then hustled back to camp in the dimming light. Although the men grinned as we worked through the ferns, I had a knot in my stomach, the same one I had when my boy died last year. Echo had been helping Isabella collect fresh green peppers and celery from our garden when wind toppled an old growth hemlock across his back. My fifteen year old boy’s spine might as well have been our marriage, too.
The timber lay felled in the forest, crisscrossing in the fading light like femurs and tibias, waiting for the company to haul them away.
Frank, Douglas, and Reynold disappeared at dusk, along with the last of our flashlights. They were out night hunting for venison along the softwood-lined edges of Flathead Bog. I’d heard their fading screams from atop the orchard. Then I’d seen peculiar colors in the darkening sky, curling like fine mist above the bog’s spruce and fir crowns.
Midnight. The bulb filament fades. The wind blows against the hand-chinked logs. The bulb shines. I can hear the wooden windmill creaking out there like some old scarecrow. I close my eyes and picture the view from the orchard, the green expanse of Michigan’s Northwoods, rising to Mt. Curwood. There are three windows in the shack, one for the north, south, and east walls. Each is covered with a ratty burlap curtain. A slate fireplace bulges to the pitched ceiling in various shades of grey and black. Whiskey bottles, shot glasses and packs of Marlboro Reds rest on the jutting slate ledges. Stacks of National Geographic and Playboy had lined the shelves, but
I’d burned everything I could find that wasn’t outside in the fireplace in order to keep light. That didn’t last long. All that remains on the shelves are strike-tip matches, various coins, and pocket knives. A triple bunkbed takes up half the east wall, while a cast-iron stove sits in the far corner. I made sure to close both flues.
I peel back the east window’s burlap curtain and peer into the night. On the orchard high ground, the windmill’s blades spin and slow, matching the bulb’s intensity. Then, at once, the windmill stops. The shack darkens as I gaze into the orchard, past thick aspen and the outhouse with the moon and stars carved into the top. Something curls above the orchard grass towards me, like expelled octopus ink. I shut the curtain and jerk back, just in time to hear the glass crack. I whip my head towards the northern window as it too cracks. Then the south. I drag my metal chair to
the shack’s center, then retrieve my shotgun from the card table and lay it across my lap. I pray Isabella finds happiness again. And then I pray for Echo, and that someday again I may see his gentle eyes and the fluid style of his axe work. There’s a pounding at the iron-bolted door, a scraping along the logs, first the east wall, then the west. I raise the shotgun off my lap as the east window explodes, splaying the burlap and shooting glass across the shack. I cover my eyes and collapse to the floor. When I look up, the curling ink oozes in through the east window, like
a long, slow tentacle. Others of the kind follow, and form a chain in the log ceiling beams. The ink coagulates and stipples into recognizable patterns, and soon these patterns form faces. Crow’s heads with human eyes and noses. Human faces with lamprey mouths and ungulate eyes. A face that looks as if it’s drowning at the base of a cold falls, right cheek concave from water pressure. A human face with wolf ears and walleye teeth, grinding its jaw, screaming, and grinding its jaw. The apparitions float closer, their eyes widening. I fire my shotgun. The pellets
reveal bright, raw wood in the ceiling logs and make me temporarily deaf, but do little else. The faces shriek and bulge their eyes in anticipation. Wind caresses the logs and orchard grass, and then I hear the windmill creak. The filament glows. A cone of orange light bathes me and glints the whiskey bottles. The night things slither out the east window and wail across the orchard towards tree line.
After boarding up the windows with sheet metal I’d found behind the cast-iron stove, I arrange my chair in the center of the shack, directly below the inconsistent bulb. My neck muscles hurt from looking up so much, and I see vision spots from staring into the light. The orchard grass sings, the aspen leaves a hundred balsa chimes. The air smells of cedar logs, sweet grass, and bog musk. I sigh and remove a pocket watch from my Carharts. I brush dust from the silver lid and wedge it open with my dirty thumbnail. It’s a unique piece, half-compass, half-watch with Charlemagne font and a painting of an otter in the middle. Otters were my boy’s favorite animal. I’d given him the watch for his fifteenth birthday, two months before he was killed. I even had it engraved.
I grip the watch in my trembling fingers, and keep my other fingers wrapped tight around the shotgun stock. On my lap rests a case of strike-tip matches. I think about Isabella, about the cold that had wedged between us the last year. And how I don’t feel the coldness tonight, despite the things hidden amongst tree line. I just want to be near her, to tell her it wasn’t her fault, to brush her hair from her pretty hazel eyes and tell her it’ll be alright, that Echo is in a good place.
Two a.m. says the watch of my dead son.
The filament glows, then dims. The orchard grass stops sighing. I can no longer hear the windmill. But I hear them. They pound and scrape against the log walls and crack the remaining windows. Soon they burst through and pummel the sheet metal. I brace in my chair, watch in my left hand, shotgun in the other. The first one slithers between the sheet metal and window frame, brushing past the ratty burlap curtains and expanding up into the ceiling beams. The others follow, then stipple themselves into obscene faces. I turn away, then set my watch and shotgun
down. I strike a match. I know it’s lit because I can feel the heat on my thumb and forefinger. I keep my eyes closed tight as the things wail inches from my face. I try not to picture their eyes. I try not to picture anything except my dear wife and I holding hands as we picnic alongside Silver Creek with Echo. The heat fades from my fingertips and I try to strike another match. Something bites my neck and I scream. A thing tears into my ankle, then my inner thigh. I scream and recoil, but am able to strike another match. The biting stops and the wails resume. I hold the match near my face, feeling the heat in my cheeks. I keep my eyes shut tight.
The match dies. They are on me at once, biting and scratching. I reach for the matches but they have me pinned. Out in the orchard the windmill revolves, a hopeless thing in all this pain. I scream and flail for the strike-tips. The windmill rattles. I look up between snaking apparitions and watch the filament burn orange. In an eye blink they vanish out the southern window, wailing and undulating back to tree line. My skin is glassy with blood and my tendons ache as I unfold my tattered body along the floor. The raw scent of exposed flesh fills my nostrils. I listen beyond my thrumming heart for the orchard grass, or the aspen. But there is no wind. At all.
The bulb dims and brightens, dims and brightens, and for a moment I think I see the drunken grins of Frank, Douglas and Merc, framed by the cabin logs. I slide open the strike-tip match case and count the crisscrossing sticks, then look for my son’s pocket watch. I cannot find it.
I wait beneath the flickering bulb, bloody and sweaty. The light holds place for dawn, and when I see the first rays illuminating the sheet metal edges, the windless windmill ceases. I stand from my chair and wince as something knocks weakly against the door. I press my ear to the battered oak and hear a chain clatter to the slate steps outside. I unlatch the heavy iron bolt and allow the door to creak open. There, on a hunk of slate is my son’s silver pocket watch. It’s warm to the touch as I grasp it in my blood crust fingers. I thumb the lid open and read the words I’d had engraved years ago: Even the finest woodsman sometimes needs help finding his way home.