Encounters in a Forest

Chapter 1

We are summoned to court not by trumpet, but by dog whistle. Somehow we already know the way. There is a hand that beckons, that pulls us toward. We are the hooked fish that have been caught before and no longer bother to writhe.

Called are myself, Leander, and Vitus. We are sure to meet more along the road. It is early yet, and the dusty path that leads us through the pines is crossed with fog and shadow, my own instruments. I am weary, my companions focused upon the ground before. We do not speak, and this is well.

I close my eyes and stretch out in the empty spaces. There is an old woman, a grandmother, having lunch at a diner with her son and grandson. Her son speaks in a voice she does not recognize and her eyes narrow. The meal is over now and he is trying to help her with her coat, but she remains seated. She has decided that he is a spook, a federal agent come to abduct her. She sits still and looks out the window, trying to seem defiant but feeling only frail and thin.

It is not correct to say that I enjoy such things. But they are kin to me, and there is a comfort in them all the same. Wherever space and static reside there is a curl for me, but my home is mostly in the gaps between - the ineffable that surrounds and permeates each utterance. For I am entrusted with the domain of omission, and the beauty that I find here is mine to keep.

"Rise and shine," says Leander. The early bird-"

"I'm not sleeping," I reply, trying to cut him off before he can get into it.

I turn toward Leander and open my eyes for emphasis, but he is nodding toward the road. Vitus has moved ahead of us, but even from behind I can see that his head is slumped and his arms have gone slack.

I warn Leander not to disturb him, but he looks doubtful. I can tell he's not inclined to let the matter alone so easily.

"What if he trips?"

"He won't," I shrug. "He's a practiced sleepwalker. In fact, this way is probably safer for him."

Leander directs his attention back to the road ahead, watching Vitus bounce and lurch forward. The corner of his mouth is upturned, his countenance that of a pensive mother reluctantly letting her child play, but ready to grab hold again should they move too close to traffic.

"He needs to start living in the moment. Life is best lived with eyes open."

I can feel a small, private smile forming, but I keep silent. At times I feel guilty over how much amusement I derive from Leander, and I question if that isn't really the main reason I enjoy his company. In any case, I know he means well.

I let my eyes close again. Two grown cousins, a young man and a young woman, are fighting over a perceived slight, letting it grow out of proportion. The young man is familiar to me, though I can't place him.

There is something more to their dispute. I can sense that the true root of the issue has intentionally been obscured. They seem to have been close at one time, but now there is the weight of the unspoken between them. After this argument, they will be estranged and will not speak for many years. The void they create is luxurious, and I spread over it as a cat might reach its legs across a carpet while kneading the surface with its claws. I feel my arms grow, lengthening and splitting like tree branches. My form turns dissolute, and I relax into the space and become a slow, viscous liquid poured into a bowl.

The grandson. From the diner. That's why the young man looked familiar.

I open my eyes. Sometimes it's better not to comprehend such things. If there are connections between the spaces, they needn't concern me. There is no need to know everything.

Glancing to the side I see that Leander is maintaining his vigil, still staring at the road ahead. His brow is furrowed and he seems to be involuntarily biting his lower lip. Before I can reassure him not to worry about Vitus, he swivels his gaze toward me.

"Do you see that?"

He turns back to the road and I divert my eyes forward, squinting slightly.

Further ahead, I can see that Vitus has managed to outpace us in spite of his loping shuffle. I can barely make out his outline in the fog, but the figure is just distinct enough that I can tell he has halted by the side of the path. There is something next to him, but at this distance it appears to be little more than a round lump in the center of the road.

"I see something," I respond. What is it?"

Leander continues sizing it up as best he can from a distance."Not sure. A roadblock, maybe?"

"Doesn't look large enough to block much," I say, straining to appraise the object's shape. "Anyway, this is a foot path. What purpose would it serve?"

"Life is full of obstacles. Their purpose is to test us. We must meet them head on and without fear."

Leander rattles off this latest aphorism with casual conviction, but his voice has a distracted tone that makes him sound as if he is reading the words phonetically from a fortune cookie.

"Mm. I was talking specifically about this obstacle. Live in the moment, right?"

If Leander registers this, his expression betrays no response. His eyes remain fixed on the figure in the road. However, he does cease dispensing bromides for the moment, and that alone is worthy of gratitude.

We are much closer now, and the figure is beginning to come into focus. I can discern what appear to be long, white poles protruding from the central mass. There are two on the right side and one on the left, sprawled out along the ground like the felled trunks of small birch trees. They contrast sharply with the middle portion, which resembles a pile of dark leaves.

I glance toward Vitus, who is standing still by the side of the road. He makes no sign, but his head continues to bob up and down.

"Are those feathers?" asks Leander. "Vitus, what-"

"He's still asleep."

Leander tilts his head slightly, his eyes transfixed by the dark figure. "It looks like a bird."

Before I can warn him to be careful, Leander steps forward. He gets within a few paces of the thing, then halts abruptly and kneels down. I let out an involuntary hiss, inhaling sharply through clenched teeth as though I just accidentally touched an active burner on a stove top. I approach cautiously, ignoring the sting of my better judgment as it seeks to ensnare me in the paralysis of deliberation.

Leander was right. The dark leaves are actually feathers, though they are not as uniformly black as they appeared from a distance. Many are brown or gray, and a small patch of them are white. The extruding poles still look like birch trunks, but up close I can see that the two on the right are actually jointed limbs. Their ends are cloven into segments, with the middle portions curling into large, charcoal-hued talons. Though they lay motionless and limp, it is easy to envision how much power they must have contained when there was an active will behind them.

"Dead, then?"

Leander nods. "Mm. Look at this."

He motions toward the long white pole that sticks out from the other side. This one is much smoother than the other two, and is partially feathered at the end that connects it to the body. There is no joint and no cleft at the other side like the limbs. At first glance the end opposite the body appears to terminate in a mere stump, but now I see what Leander was indicating - a portion is actually pushed into the ground, partially obscuring it beneath a large mound of dirt.

"It's an ostrich," says Leander.

"Really? I've never seen one before."

"Same here, at least not outside of a book. Not exactly the place I'd expect to encounter one, either. But what else could it be?"

I shrug, pointing toward the mound of soil. "I didn't think they actually did that."

"What, bury their heads in the earth?"


"Guess somebody forgot to tell this one," Leander says, reaching out toward the submerged head. "Either that, or we're looking at the handiwork of a lazy undertaker."

"Don't touch it."

"We needn't be afraid. Death is simply a natural part of life. Why should we fear to look upon it?"

"I see. So if this all feels natural to you, then I guess there's no need to interfere."

"Aren't you even curious? You know, the unexamined life-"

"Sh. Hold on."

Straight ahead in the distance, out beyond where our path disappears into the fog, I can just barely make out the low sound of a faraway rumble.

"What is it? You feeling the pull?"

"Not yet," I reply. "Don't you hear that?"

Leander pauses to listen for a moment, then places his ear to the ground.

"Sounds like a tank," he says. "I wonder - WHUH!"

Suddenly, Leander leaps to his feet and recoils as though bit by a snake. I find myself recoiling instinctively, a moment before I even realize the cause: the ostrich is moving. Though its head remains buried, its body is now twitching and writhing in a frantic spasm, its two white limbs flailing erratically as though performing some sickly, skeletal tap dance.

I flee to the roadside, almost crashing into Vitus and Leander in my haste. Vitus at least is undisturbed, still managing to keep his eyes shut and taking no heed of the panicked cohorts beside him. I can hear him snoring faintly as I glance over to Leander who, in contrast, has never appeared more awake in his life. He is still staring wide-eyed at the road, looking on in shock at what is transpiring there.

The ostrich is continuing its odd dance, its back legs clawing and pushing against the ground mindlessly as though striving to gain enough traction to stand, or perhaps dig. My hands are shaking. I want nothing more than to turn away, but the creature's movements are hypnotic. They seem far too animated to be death throes.

In a flash it occurs to me that it may be trying in vain to free its head from the soil. If it wasn't thrashing around so violently, perhaps I could get close enough to help it. Not that it matters, since my own body seems to be frozen in place. In the back of my mind I can vaguely hear the muffled sound of a warning bell, a slow beeping noise like an alarm clock that has been submerged in molasses.

Something is coming. The rumbling sound from earlier is now much louder, and as I turn to look at the path ahead I can make out a large vehicle rolling toward us through the fog. Its outline is hazy and indistinct, and if it truly is a tank it appears to be much taller and narrower than any that I've ever seen. There are two dimly lit beacons in front that are barely making a dent in the mist, and a small red dot near the top that is flashing intermittently. The underwater beeping is rising, sounding out in unison with the blinking light.

I feel dizzy. I raise my palm to my forehead and cover one eye, glancing around to try to regain my bearings. I can still see the ostrich moving out of the corner of my open eye, but Leander and Vitus have disappeared completely from the roadside.

From behind, something pulls me with great force and I stumble backward into the brush and trees that line the path. For the second time, I almost crash blindly into Vitus as Leander drags me off the road. I would thank him for it, but panic has left my tongue dry and uncooperative.

Obscured behind the tall weeds, I can nevertheless clearly see the pitiful, spasmodic struggling of the ostrich, its body still twisting and convulsing in the dust. But now I can also see what approaches.

It isn't a tank, exactly, though it does appear to be propelled by large treads on either side. It more closely resembles a construction vehicle, all gaudy yellow metal and pinched angles. There is a glass panel in front and I can just barely see a driver sitting in the carriage, though I can't make out any details from this vantage point. Above this compartment, a rusty pipe is belching out a stream of thick, black smoke, sputtering momentarily each time the vehicle rattles and lurches forward over another pothole on the path. Beside the pipe, rising high above like a spire of tarnished silver, is an enormous crane.

I would very much like to be somewhere else, to wander off and find respite in the empty spaces. I close my eyes and retreat, momentarily ensconced in the soothing darkness.

No use. I can still hear the cacophony of creaking steel, only it is now joined by a series of electronic tones that are sounding out a repetitive tune, like the come-hither jingle of a slot machine. I am hidden, but the darkness is not the open space for which I had hoped. Instead, it is oppressive and suffocating, holding me in place. From above comes yet another sound, this one a high pitched whine like an electric razor. Before I have any further chance to surmise the nature of the abrasive, alien cacophony surrounding me, I am interrupted by the feeling of something cold grasping my leg. I try to wriggle free, but its grip is insistent. I am being lifted up, up, out of the darkness and into an upside-down world of harsh, whirling lights.

Dazed, I try to raise my arms up toward the manacle affixed to my leg, but before I can reach it I am swung around in an abrupt sideways motion. Below me, a lumpy mass of angular shadow-shapes glide across my vision. When the movement stops, I find myself above a vast, black chasm with no ledge or foothold in sight. The pincer around my leg opens, and I am dropped into the pit. Though I am falling, it feels slow, as if I am sinking down into a pool of ink. The only light is coming from the depths below; a multicolored neon sign growing ever closer, burning like a firebrand, its letters imprinting in my brain: TODAY'S TOP PRIZE.

Eyes open. The vehicle is upon us. I can see the driver now, his face blank and impassive. If he has caught sight of us in our position huddled and staring out from behind the brush, he pays no heed. He is staring straight ahead, looking past the still-kicking ostrich. For a moment, I think he is going to run right over the poor creature without even hesitating. But instead, he brings the vehicle to a groaning halt a short distance in front of it.

In one smooth motion the crane dips down and latches on to the ostrich, cinching its seizure-wracked body inside a thin but sturdy looking belt of steel, then whips backward instantly in a violent, ascending arc. The movement reminds me of a "drinking bird" toy I once saw in a shop window, and the way it lurched backward as though scalded each time it breached the water's surface, only to return for another attempt moments later, caught up in a cycle of eternal torment by the dueling forces of thirst and pain.

Bird-drinking birdie, my mind keeps repeating. See the insatiable bird-drinking bird - the world's most voracious mechanical cannibal!

The ostrich is flying, pinwheeling over the vehicle like some out of control pole vaulter. I swear I can still see it kicking as it is catapulted through the air, throwing off scattered clumps of dirt that rain down on the path and the roof of the vehicle's carriage. The driver is sitting motionless inside, apparently unfazed - his face remains the same cold, unblinking plaster mask as before. For the first time, I notice that the back end of the vehicle is actually a large, cylindrical drum, resembling a sort of upright cement mixer with a large hole in the top. In the next instant, the ostrich's trajectory carries it straight through this very opening and it lands in the drum with a dull, wet thud - a sound that I may never be completely sure I didn't just imagine, but that will nevertheless resound in my memory for a long time to come.

Without a moment's delay, the vehicle is on the move again. The drinking-bird crane is back to its resting position, as neutral as the face of the vehicle's driver. The red light continues blinking, and the rust-covered pipe is still coughing out clouds of toxic miasma with each fitful lurch of the vehicle's heavy treads. As the vehicle passes, I can see the word that has been stenciled on its side in peeling black paint: SANITATION.

Then it's gone.