Dane and everyone else lay sleeping in the mountain town when the wind blew hard enough it tore a slit in the black fabric of night just north of the river.
The rip in the night’s fabric went unnoticed for three days until a stranger pounded on Dane’s door hours before sunrise. He stirred in bed as the pounding pulled him from an ocean dream where the small boat he was in yawed in large wake so that the full moon proved elusive from his sight and the feeling was he would be tossed into the salty brine and the waves splashing against the boat’s side turned to thudding, turned to pounding on his cheap hollow core metal front door.
His weary eyes stared at the dark ceiling understanding that a person in the dark was standing on his small porch pounding on his door. Dane got out of out bed, throwing on some clothes.
“What?” said Dane in a dry voice, standing at the door, fists clenched.
The knocking ceased. “Dane Fleming?” asked a woman.
“Who are you?”
“Marta Black. I need your help.”
Dane stared at the closed door.
“Please let me in.”
Dane cracked the door, peering out.
“The screaming night wind of the 16th blew over my giant larch tree.”
“I don’t know you.”
“We need to go now.”
The woman stood a head shorter than Dane. She stared in at the dark crack where the man looked out.
Dane opened the door. The slight woman slipped into the trailer.
He reached to the wall, turning on the light.
The woman squinted. An oversized red and white plaid wool coat hung on her frame. She wore old jeans and muck boots. Her black hair was shoulder length, pulled back in a pony-tail. “I’ll pay you all the money you want.” Her face was frightened. “Please.”
“You need to go.”
“Yes. We need to go right now.”
Dane studied her rich, coffee ground eyes, her skin color like milk chocolate.
“Sorry. Not we, you.” Dane held the door for her, motioning for her to go with his chin. He was barefoot wearing jeans and a dirty white t-shirt. His sandy brown hair was tousled.
“Come with me. Now. Help me.”
“I don’t know you. Never heard of Marta Black.” Dane shrugged his shoulders.
“I bought the old Bedham place across the river.”
Dane shook his head. “All four sections?”
“Please come with me.” She reached out and slipped her small hand into his. “Please.”
Through the dawn light Dane and Marta meandered their way through the larch, doug-fir and spruce forest. They walked along side the river. The March morning was cool, the darkness fading with the brush of sunlight. Dane followed Marta’s silhouette through the trees. They moved quietly over the soft forest duff, spooking a few deer, hearing the dry snorts in the distance.
They talked little.
Marta’s house was at the base of the big mountain on private land, grandfathered into the federally owned public land surrounding them. It was four sections, each section representing one square mile, stretched end to end, beginning at the river. They crossed the river on the old bridge, then proceeded up river along the bank for about a mile before turning north onto her private land.
Dane watched his breath in the the cool air. He looked around the old stand, noticing a few older, large blow downs, scattered about.
They continued walking, now side by side.
“When did this happen?”
“Late Thursday night—early Friday morning.”
“I don’t remember any wind.”
“The wind woke me that night. It screamed at me.”
“Where’s your driveway.”
“There’s only the path.”
“You can’t drive to your house?”
She shook her head. “There’s no need to—I don’t have a car. I’m sick and I came her to die.”
Dane put his hands in his pocket and walked, staring at the dark forest. “About three miles to go?“
“Yes – about.“
A broken twig from their steps echoed against the receding dawn.
The cabin was built tight as a knot under water at the far end of a natural meadow. Crafted from hand-hewn logs, it stood a story and a half against the towering larch in the backdrop. Large windows highlighted the south-facing porch and easterly and westerly walls. Two dormers looking south over the porch broke up the roofline. Wooden shakes wrapped the gable ends of the cabin. A flat rock chimney periscoped out of the roof’s ridgeline.
The meadow around the cabin emerged suddenly from the forest. The path continued to the cabin porch.
“There’s the monster.” Marta swept her hand at the blown over tree. In front of the porch lay a gigantic larch, it’s massive root wad, torn from the earth at the far end of the porch, shrouded in dark dirt, embedded with small boulders. The bole of the tree extended away from the cabin for a hundred feet before the top third smashed through an old shed.
Dane shook his head. “That’s gotta be over 200 feet long and close to five feet in diameter and the base.” He looked over at Marta. “That would have incinerated you if it had fallen on the house.”
Marta sat on the porch steps, wool coat folded under her arms, staring at the tree. “I know. We can take a break then start sawing the bastard up.”
Dane laughed. You need to hire that out. That’ll take months for a crew of sawyers to clear.
No. You and I will do it. She squinted into the sunlight, staring at him.
Dane ignored her. How long have you lived here?
She held up four fingers.
I’ve never seen you or heard about you. I thought a guy from the east coast owned this?
He did. He gave it to me after I escaped from the war. I keep to myself.
You don’t live here year round?
She shook her head. I come and go.
How do you get here, if you don’t drive.
A taxi from the city.
That’s an hour one way.
Yes, it is.
Dane looked back at the meadow and the river of fallen trees through the woods. This doesn’t make any sense.
You have electricity?
Do the lines run under the path?
No. Anna pointed to the west. There are some lines coming through Forest Service land about a quarter mile that way. The line is buried from there.
Dane noticed the green junction box about one hundred yard west of the house. Okay.
Have you talked to anyone else about this?
Well, get some foresters out here. They’ll have something to say about all this.
I can’t get anyone else out here.
Because when I was given the land, the deed says only you and I are allowed on it.
She nodded. Dane Fleming.
The long dark wooden handles were worn and smooth. The five and a half foot blade was wrapped in a leather scabbard.
“This is it?” Dane stared at the old saw.
“Yeah. It’s the only one in the woodshed. The cross-cut.”
Hannah laid the saw across the downed tree, carefully removing the scabbard. The blade was mottled gray and black steel with long serrated teeth. It was forged so that the teeth were wider than the top of the saw, making it less likely to pinch in a log.
“You ever use one of these?”
“No,” said Dane.
Hannah hopped over the log suspended three feet off the ground, grabbed one handle of the saw and balanced it on its teeth across the downed tree. “Let’s go.”
Dane stepped toward the log, gripping the other handle. He examined the tree – about two feet in diameter. “This will really cut through this?”
Hannah nodded. “Yeah, go easy.” Hannah pulled the saw across the log. Dane yanked it hard back towards him, pulling it out of Hannah’s hand.
“No, no! Easy. Let the saw do the work. A nice steady tempo.” She grabbed the saw again. “Okay?”
Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. The sawdust was red and granular from the Douglas fir. The saw moved like a quiet piston between the two. In minutes they were a third of the way through the log. Dane stared at the shower of sawdust.
“Listen,” said Hannah.
zzzzznnnng-zzzzzzzznnnng-zzzzznnnnng, the saw sang softly with a metallic hum.
“That’s good.” She smiled looking at Dane. “It means we saw well together.”
Dane nodded, staring at the sawdust. The blade was almost halfway through.
The sun felt good on Dane’s back, warming him like cool feet before a fire. The sawdust sprinkled onto the path.
“Quicken it a little now—we should cut right through.”
Dane and Hannah increased their cadence.
The saw fell through the log.
“Nice.” Hannah pulled the saw back under the still suspended log. She placed the saw on the tree behind her. Next she pushed one end of the log they just cut toward Dane. “Now we can cut again.” She placed the saw on top of the log four feet behind their first cut closer to the bottom of the tree, so the diameter was slightly larger.
They started again. A handful of minutes later they were through. This time the piece dropped to the ground with a thud. Dane looked at the huge larch, wondering its age.
Hannah rolled the piece on the ground off the path.
Dane turned around to pick up the saw. Something caught his eyes. He bent down examining the butt end they cut, running his hand over the face of the log they just created.
“Huh?” He knelt down looking at the log more closely. He pulled out his pen-knife, extending a blade. He began picking at the log with the tip of the knife.
“Hannah?” He held out his hand. It was a bullet slug.
“Where’d you find that?”
Dane pointed to the butt end of the log they just cut.
“What the hell?”
The cut revealed forty or fifty slugs embedded inside the tree.
“How the hell is that possible?”
“Someone must have shot up the tree a long time ago but its strange that many of the rounds are near the center of the log.” Dane looked at Hannah. “But you said this tree is around 700 years old. A bullet may penetrate an inch of a tree at best, not twenty inches.”
“Yeah,” Dane looked at the remaining slugs embedded near the center of the tree, “very, weird.”
With Dane’s knife, Hannah carefully picked out the slugs embedded in the tree. A gray penumbra of stain surrounded each one. Dane took pictures and video with his phone. Hannah placed the slugs in a bowl she had brought out from the cabin. After twenty minutes she had removed all forty-three.
Dane stared at the bowl, then at Hannah. “Is this some bullshit trick?”
Kneeling, examining a slug, she shook her head. “No—no trick on my part.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I.”
“This tree is about 780 years old. I counted the growth rings but the slugs were scattered throughout growth rings. You took out a few near the center.”
“Yeah, there was one almost in the middle.”
“Somehow someone must have stuck them in from the outside. Maybe drilled holes into the tree and with some pneumatic tool drove them inside the tree.”
“That is a lot of work for slugs that are unlikely to ever be found.”
“Well no one sure as hell did it 70o years ago.
No, I know—it’s so odd.
Dane studied the tree they had just sawn. And if we had sawn through half an inch either way, we never would have seen the damn rings.
Let’s do it again.
Saw? asked Dane.
Yeah. I’m curious. Maybe the tree is filled with this stuff.
Hannah stood. Why not?
The sawdust sprayed out from their strokes. In a few minutes they were half way through the tree, and soon a four feet piece of wood dropped to the ground.
They both stared at the end of the log, then the end of the tree. Nothing, said Dane, examining the end of the log.
Hannah ran her hand over the freshly cut tree end. Yeah, nothing here.
Maybe we should buck this tree up and make firewood out of it? That way we can see if there’s more stuff.
Hannah looked at the two cut logs, then at the remaining tree. She then gazed at all the downed trees ahead of them. Maybe later. After we clear more of the path.
Dane walked to the bowl of rings, looking at his watch. A few more hours. He picked up the bowl. You know anything about rings?
Not a lot other than they seem like real gold and silver. I don’t know about the diamonds.
Are they old, new?
Some seem old, like a lot of the gold ones and the ones with diamonds. The silver ones seem newer but I’ll leave that up to a jeweler.
A couple thousand dollars worth? Dane balanced the bowl in his hand.
Forty-three nice rings, nine with diamonds? At the very least a few thousand dollars I would guess.
Dane set the bowl on the ground and looked down at the path of wind thrown trees extending out in front of them. Shall we? He pointed to the next tree, a small lodge pole pine, about fourteen inches in diameter.
Hannah nodded. Sure.
Standing on both sides of the tree, with the long blade hovering over the tree, Dane and Hannah gripped the cross-cut saw’s handles.
As they lowered the teeth onto the tree, the blade moved slightly away from the root wad.
They started sawing.
You feel that? Dane stared across at Hannah.
She looked up. You mean you pushing the saw over a little?
Hannah smiled. Okay, must have been me.
They sawed quickly, making the old steel blade hum.
The sawdust from the lodge pole was white, the flecks big shooting away from the fast moving teeth.
Two thirds of the way through the tree, the saw stopped, caught on something. Dane and Hannah pushed and pulled again.
They lifted the saw out of the half-inch kerf. Dane peered down the slice in the tree. I can’t see anything.
Hannah bent down, eye level with the bottom of the cut. Me neither. She pulled the saw to her, then passed it to Dane under the suspended tree, about two feet off the ground. We’ll do an undercut.
We’ll cut up into the bottom of the tree. She flipped the saw around so the teeth pointed up, lining it up with the cut above.
They started cutting up into the gray bark, both kneeling, going slowly. Once they establishing a guide cut, they increased their speed. In minutes they had sawn almost up to the bottom of their first cut.
Shit, said Dane.
They lowered the saw to the ground. Something is in there, said Dane, kneeling, looking under the tree.
C’mon. We’ll make another cut, further up the tree.
Five minutes later they had cut through the tree about two feet above their first cut.
That’s better. Hannah laid the saw across the tree two feet below their first cut.
Dammit, said Dane.
They sawed yet again, this time two feet below their last cut.
In short time, a six foot log dropped to the ground.
Dane placed his foot on the log, easily rolling it with his foot. There’s something in there, he said again. How do we get it out?
Hannah stood and hurried off to the tool shed.
Dane stared down at the log, rolling it in place with his foot.
Hannah returned with a maul at the end of a three-foot wooden handle and three old metal wedges, each about eight inches long.
You’re going to split the log into a rail, like Abe Lincoln?
No. Hannah dropped the wedges. We are.
Dane steadied the log, by sitting on one end as Hannah pounded the first wedge in at the opposite end. She swung the mall with precision and power.
You’ve done this before.
She kept swinging. I’ve done real work before.
The log cracked with the wedge pounded two-thirds of the way into the log.
Hannah placed the second wedge at the end of the crack, tapping it into place.
She handed the mall to Dane. Keep driving it until it cracks. I’m gonna go get more wedges. Sweat beaded across Hannah’s forehead. She walked back to the tool shed.
Dane watched her disappear then looked down at the rectangular metal top of the wedge. He straddled the log, weighing the mall in his hands. Raising it over his head, he swung down, missing the wedge and scuffing off some bark. He swung again making a dent in the log. He nailed the wedge on his third swing. He kept swinging, missing the wedge about every third or fourth swing.
When Hannah returned with four more wedges, he had just finished with the third wedge.
Hannah looked at the crack, now running halfway down the length of the log.
Dane’s faced was wet with sweat.
Looks good. Hannah grabbed the mall and set the fourth wedge. She was pounding the fifth wedge when the crack shot down the final section of log, splitting it in half.
Hannah and Dane stared at the half closest to them.
In the log was embedded a rifle, about four feet long. Their first cut had stopped at the rifle’s barrel.
Jesus, said Dane, bending down.
That’s a machine gun?
Dane ran his fingers down the barrel. Not really but close. Looks like an M16—an M16A1 to be precise. He knocked the gun’s steel stock. In the middle of a goddamn lodge pole pine. He shook his head.
Hannah walked away back toward the tool shed.
Getting a crow bar.
Dane remained kneeling, examining the rifle.
With a few heaves from the crow bar placed under the gun’s stock, Hannah dislodged the rifle from the tree.
Dane picked it up, brushing off slivers of wood. This isn’t in bad shape. He clicked something. The safety was off. The magazine removed easily. Shit. He looked down the loading chamber. There’s a goddamn round in the chamber. He looked in the magazine. And about fifteen in this. He held up the long metal magazine. This goddamn thing was loaded.
You think it works?
Dane shook his head. I’m not going to find out but it won’t take long to clean this thing up. I can’t believe the shape it’s in.
You know about guns?
My dad’s a gun nut—has about five hundred in his collection. Some dads took their kids to baseball games. Mine took me to gun shows.
You said it’s an M16.
It is. An M16A1. Used in Vietnam back in the day. Dad has a few of these.
Dane stood, holding the rifle up to his shoulder, sighting it away from the cabin. “This shit is getting stranger by the second.” He looked over his shoulder at Hannah.
She was kneeling again, hunched over the log where the rifle had been extracted, looking at something small in her hand.
What’s that? Dane swung around, lowering the rifle.
She looked up at him, holding something.
Hannah nodded. Yeah. She stood holding a small black slipper.
It was dirty black canvas, like dried mud, with a hole in the heel, six inches long and narrow. Hannah handed it to Dane.
Hardly weighs a thing.
I know. It was wedged in that crack. She pointed to a fissure in the split log, above where the rifle was encased.
Would this fit you?
No, way too small. Maybe for a big kid or small adult. Smell it.
Dane held it up to his nose. Hhhhmm. Smells like someone just took it off.
I know. Sweaty almost.
Anything else in this damn thing? Dane looked at the split log.
Hannah got to her knees, examining the fissure more closely. You check out the other half.
Dane set the slipper and rifle down and walked over to the split log.
Ten minutes later Dane and Hannah had nothing new from their search and were back looking at the rifle and slipper.
We should call the police. Dane held his phone.
And tell them we found a rifle, a black old slipper and a bunch of rings in the middle of trees?
Yeah. The rifle and rings are worth reporting.
Maybe, but I told you about the deed.
You can’t be serious. No way is that legally binding especially if some crime is involved.
I have no idea but stolen rings and a rifle? And a damned slipper.
Well, no matter. I’m not calling the police.
Okay, but I will.
Please don’t. At least not now. Let’s get a handle on this.
A handle on this? You’re crazy. Rings, a rifle, and a slipper in the middle of trees. This is insane and too much weird shit is going on and you’re worried about a damned deed that says you and I are the only ones allowed on your property?
Yes. I am worried about the deed.
Why—who exactly did you buy this from?
Hannah rubbed her face, staring at the rifle and slipper. His name is Brackus Beddum.
You said he’s from the East Coast.
Who the hell is Brackus Beddum?
An old retired government guy.
What’d he do for the government?
I don’t know but he liked to hunt. That’s why he bought this place in the 70’s.
How did you end up buying it?
Hannah rubbed the back of her neck. I never bought it. I inherited it.
You’re related to Backus Beddum?
No. He was our nearest neighbor in Virginia. We sold him fresh eggs and homemade bread. I knew him as a friendly neighbor. I know he lived in DC but would come up to his place on weekends. A cabin on about thirty acres. She looked at the cabin. It’s funny. His cabin in Virginia was a lot like this.
So he died and your family inherited this?
No, not my family. Just me—he deeded it to me.
When did he die?
Hannah shrugged. I don’t know if he did die. A lawyer from DC came to my apartment last fall and provided me the paper work.
Well, I sure as hell don’t know the guy. How did I ever fall into his radar?
You mean how did your name get on the deed?
Yeah, that allows only me and you on the property.
Beddum didn’t put your name on the deed.
No, my father did.
Yeah, my dad—Hoarace Beddum.
Jesus, so Brackus is your grandfather.
Hannah shook her head. My uncle. Horace’s brother.
Do you have internet?
Yeah, I’m connected through a buried landline.
Yeah, it works fine. I’m sure Brackus needed it for work.
Dane headed toward the cabin.
Where you going?
I want to find out a bit more about your Uncle, Brackus.
Dane sat in front of Hannah’s laptop and logged in as a guest.
Yes, you can use my laptop.
There’s enough weird shit going on that I didn’t think I needed to ask. Dane stared at the screen. Spell his name.
B-R-A-A-K-U-S B-E-D-N-U-M-N. Brackus Bednumn.
That’s a hell of a name. You said he worked for the US Department of Transportation.
I guess so. That’s what Dad always said.
Hannah watched Dane at the computer. Coffee, tea? It’s all I have.
So what do you do, Dane?
Yeah, for work.
I’m a software developer—mostly backend stuff for a few small companies around the world.
Do you like it?
Yeah, I like it. Allows me to travel, I can keep to myself and make decent money. How about you?
I’m an English professor at a small community college in Virginia.
And you like it?
Mostly, yes. It has its moments but I’m fortunate to like to what I do.
How about your husband—I noticed your ring.
She looked at her hand. Yeah, Seth is a lawyer—a lot of municipal law, not real exciting stuff.
She turned around from the cupboard, looking at Dane. Two girls—nine and fourteen. Did you see a ring for that too?
No, you just seemed like a mom. That’s a good thing.
Oh, okay. And how about you? Married?
Not really. I mean, I was once, but my wife was killed in a car wreck. Three years ago. I guess, I’m still dealing with it.
No worries. It’s good for me to talk about it. I don’t clam up anymore when people ask me about her. Her name was Alice—a graphic artist. Very damn cool.
How long were you married?
Almost two years.
No, but we would have.
Hannah poured two cups of coffee. Cream? Sugar?
Hannah walked to the computer with two cups of coffee, setting one down next to Dane.
Dane stopped typing, took a sip of his coffee, and leaned back. That’s good. It’s been a long morning.
Hannah shook her head. I can’t believe it. Two days ago I left Virginia for a long four-day weekend, to check out my ‘inheritance’ from Bednamn. Seth and I are going to sell this place but we figured I should see what we’re going to sell. Hannah looked out the cabin window. Staring at the cut up trees. What the hell do you really think is happening here?
I have no idea. I can’t imagine how someone could do all this shit, not to mention having us discovering it with a goddamn cross-cut saw. I’m confused.
Confused? I haven’t been scared like this since I was a kid. I just wanna get outta here.
Yeah, me too. Dane sipped his coffee. But this helps. He set down his coffee and started working the keyboard again.
Hannah walked over to the window, looking at the rifle and slipper in the distance. Anything on Brackus yet?
Born August 6, 1945. I think in Ashville, North Carolina. Looks like he was a prodigy of sorts. Graduated from University of North Carolina when he was only 19 with a degree in mathematics then did an about face at Harvard with a Masters in Government Public Policy. In ’66 after Harvard he enlisted in the army. Was sent to Vietnam in ’67 at the ripe old age of twenty-two as a sargent. I don’t know when he returned but looks like he worked for the State Department from ’70 to ’73, then moved over to the Pentagon as part of a planning team.
Hhhm. Seth and I searched for a while on Brackus but never got much, except a stupid White Page thing. You got that information quick.
“Yeah, I’m probably looking in different places.”
Hannah turned around from the window. “You mean hacking?”
Not really, hacking, just a more robust way to prowl the internet. Dane paused from typing for more coffee. What’s interesting is there’s not much on Brackus from ’83 to 2011. That’s quite a dry spell.”
What’s he doing in 2011?
Still trying to figure that out. I have to prowl a bit more.
Well, while you prowl online—I’m going to poke around here some more.
Dane nodded, looking around the cabin. It’s Spartan.
There was a nice queen bed against the middle of the west wall with attractive blue, green and white bedding, next to a built in bookcase, still filled with books. An oversized oak rocking chair near the south window. A large Jotul green enameled woodstove, in the middle of the cabin, feeding into a large stone chimney. A small sofa near the woodstove, a large wooden dinning table with four chairs, a small full bath framed off of the north wall and a simple kitchen with gray granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances and white stained cupboards, and a small desk between the dinning table and the rocking chair.
Yeah, pretty simple but everything is nice. Hannah stood at the book case scanning the book bindings.
You spent last night here?
Hannah looked over her shoulder at Dane. Yeah—not a great night sleep.
I was restless for one thing, which isn’t strange for me in a new place but I kept hearing strange noises out front.
Dane stopped typing. Like what?
Like kids playing in the yard. I got up twice and looked out the window. It wasso real and so close.
Yeah, this place isn’t right and I’m always the cynic when I hear stories like this. Dane stopped typing and stared at the computer screen. Looks like Brackus still had his hand in government working as a lobbyist from 2011 until I don’t know when. He represented a few firms in the defense industry.
What was he like when you saw him as a kid.
Hannah pulled a book from the bookshelf. Uhh, he was a nice guy, I guess. Kinda unremarkable, really. Never said much. He’d show up for eggs, whenever he came to his farm for the weekend, and then ask about bread for the next day. I sensed he didn’t get out much and coming to our farm made him feel good, like part of something. Our farm was two-hundred acres. He owned ten next to it. I know he kept visiting after I left home. Ten years ago he sold his cabin. That was the last my parents saw of him. We never knew he had a place out here, let alone 640 acres. And why he deeded it to me— I’ll never know?
The lawyer didn’t say why?
The lawyer was as much in the dark as I was. At least I knew Brackus. The lawyer had never met him, only corresponded through mail and email.
Yeah, Seth couldn’t believe it. He had never heard of such a thing. Hannah, flipped through the pages of the Shakespeare Reader she had pulled out of the bookshelf. Hhhhhm. She kept flipping pages, then stopping. Shit.
Hannah held the thick reader, holding up a page. I don’t like this.
I’m not tracking.
See the little cut-outs? She walked closer to Dane.
Those two little holes?
Yeah, it’s like this throughout the book.
What’s cut out?
Well, I know most of my Shakespeare and all the words like KILL, DEATH, DYING, DEAD are cut out.
Hannah set the reader down and pulled out another book. Old Man and The Sea. She flipped through the pages. Huh, same thing I think. That is what _____the eyes. Eat it so the point of the hook, goes into your heart and ____ you, he thought. She put Hemingway down and pulled out Little Women next. It didn’t take her long. I always wanted to do the ______ part. Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t ____ me, she said stoutly. Hannah closed the book, shoving it back in the bookcase, looking at all the books. She looked over at Dane. This is complete bullshit. She turned back toward the bookcase, reaching for Tolstoy.
Dane’s hands were folded in front of his face, gazing at Hannah’s back, then the computer screen. Yeah, it is. Complete, fucked up bullshit. It also seems our friend Brackus—
A shadow flashed in the corner of his eyes. Dane spun his head toward the porch window. Peering in the lower corner was a man in a black shirt, collar buttoned, a white shock of hair, his mouth opened, screaming with yellow teeth, black eyes squinting at Dane, his face and two hands pressed against the window.
What?! Hannah’s head snapped around at Dane, then at the window. She couldn’t see anything.
What’s the matter?!
There’s a fucking guy out there!
Hannah and Dane both bolted for the door. Hannah reached it first, ripping it open. She lunged out onto the porch, with Dane right behind her.
They paused a moment before Dane leapt off the porch, searching around the corner of the house. Hannah ran towards the logs, searching the forest.
Dane ran around the entire cabin, before racing to the tool shed.
Hey! Yelled Hannah. It’s gone!
Dane ran over to the logs.
No rifle—no anything! Hannah threw her arms in the air.
Dane looked around the ground, at the logs, the cross cut, the empty bowl, up at the cabin. Any idea who that fuck was checking us out through the window?
I’m outta here. I’m not gonna get killed by some physcho ass putting stuff in live trees. Dane stared at Hannah. Let’s go. You don’t need this crap either.
Hang on! Lemme get my computer and stuff.
Dane and Hannah hurried into the cabin. Dane packed her laptop, while Hannah got her small bag packed. In five minutes they were walking back toward the car.
You can call the police when we get back.
I’m sorry I dragged you into this. Hannah looked over her shoulder.
You see something?
Dane quickened the pace up the trail, scanning through the trees for the man in black.
You got a picture of everything, right?
Yup. And a video. Dane looked ahead for the car. Where the hell is the car?
It’s right at the wooden fence. Just up here.
Hannah and Dane started to jog.
Up over the rise were more trees, no wooden fence.
We took the wrong damn path. The car was only a one minute walk from the cabin.
There’s only one path. It’s just up there. Hannah waved her hand forward.
The path dropped down, slightly into a wet area where the path was muddy for ten yards. After the mud, the path rose slightly. As they crested the small rise, Dane stopped cold.
Shit—shit. We got turned around.
Twenty yards in front of them was the cabin. Right where they had left.
Hannah shook her head, staring at the cabin. I don’t get it.
C’mon! Dane turned around on the path, racing away from the cabin again. We must have missed the fence and road. Let’s get the hell outta here.
Hannah didn’t hesitate. She spun around chasing after Dane, racing away from the cabin. She ran down the small path, winding its way through the forest. The path turned gradually left and up a small rise. Dane stood still at the top of the rise, his back to Hannah.
This is bullshit! he yelled.
What!? Hannah continued running toward him.
He clasped his hands, resting them on top of his head, staring ahead.
Hannah gasped when she reached him.. They were staring at the cabin again. Impossible!
This is unreal. Dane looked over at Hannah, then back at the cabin. His sandy blond hair was tousled, dirt smeared his cheeks. Let’s do this slowly and see what happens. One step at a time.
What do you mean?
I mean we walk back to the cabin—make sure it is in fact the cabin, then walk away slowly and one of us always has an eye on the cabin. C’mon.
Dane leaned against the west side of the cabin, staring out at the path. You go ahead. I’ll tell you when to stop. Okay?
Yup. Hannah walked slowly away on the path, constantly looking back over her shoulder at Dane leaning against the cabin.
At about 50 yards Dane shouted. Stop!
Hannah stopped. Looking back at Dane.
Okay, yelled Dane. Watch the cabin at all times and I’ll walk to you.
Dane patted the side of the cabin before heading toward Hannah. He too, kept looking over his shoulder, back at the cabin. When he reached Hannah, kept his eyes on the cabin. Okay. Do the same thing.
Yup. Hannah started walking. She stopped while heading down a little rise, about thirty yards from Dane.
If I go a little more I’ll lose site of the cabin! She shouted.
Okay—stay put! Dane walked towards her, constantly looking back at the cabin. When he reached her, they talked while both staring at the cabin. I guess, just walk slow and don’t get so far ahead that I can’t see you. Stop and shout if you come to the car.
When, not if.
Let’s hope so, said Dane.
Dane kept looking back and forth between the cabin and Hannah and she dropped down the small rise, then rounded a bend in the trail.
She stopped and looked back. You can still see the cabin?
Of course, shouted Dane.
I don’t see the car or fence yet. What do you want me to do?
I’m going to stay put so I can still see the cabin. Go ahead for two minutes and if you don’t see anything hurry back.
Hannah, checked her watch. Okay—two minutes. She walked away looking back at Dane once before disappearing through the trees.
Dane stared at the cabin in the distance, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
Hey! Yelled Hannah.
Dane snapped his head back down the trail. There she was, just where she was ten seconds ago walking towards him. What?!
She threw her arms up in the air.
What’s wrong?! Dane shouted.
She paused. Nothing! She turned around and disappeared down the trail.
Dane shook his head, staring back at the cabin again. Jesus. He studied the lines of the roof when he heard Hannah again.
Oh my god! She shouted.
Again, he snapped his head around seeing her trudge back up the trail heading towards him. What are you doing!?
She ignored him, walking hurriedly towards him.
As she approached Dane noticed her grayish face. What’s wrong?
Her voice shook. I can’t do that again.
That! She pointed back down the trail. I’m not walking down that anymore.
Why—what are you talking about?
She stood close to him, face to face. You know what? I never turned around on the trail. Not once! As soon as I lost sight of you, a few seconds later, there I was looking back up at the trail at you.
Yes! I feel sick. Her face was gray and clammy.
Dane looked back at the cabin, then back at Hannah. Shit!
I’ll stay here and look at the cabin! You try and walk away. She pointed down the trail. Go!
Just keep watching the damn cabin. Dane hurried down the trail away from the cabin and around the small bend in the woods. As soon as he lost sight of Hannah he started running., looking around for the fence, the car, and that goddamn man. Fuck! He stopped in his track. He was looking up the trail at Hannah. He spun around in the trail sprinting away, looking over his shoulder at Hannah in the distance. As soon as he lost sight of her, he faced forward at the trail ahead. Moments later he saw Hannah, again. She turned away from the cabin, catching sight of him.
See?! Just what I told you!
He raced towards her.
He panted standing next to her. He ran his hands through his hair. Fucking bullshit!
Let’s go! Said Hannah. Let’s go together and get off the damn trail. Maybe it’s the path.
Dane thought for a moment, looking at the distant cabin. Sure, why the hell not? It can’t hurt.
See where the trail bends—where we’ve been loosing sight of one another.
That’s where we jump off the trail. Where the trail turns left, lets go right into the woods.
Fine. Dane hands were on his hip. Ready? He was staring back at the cabin.
Go! Hannah sprinted off down the trail.
Dane looked at the cabin one last time, before tearing after her.
He watched her race over the path, dust rising after each foot pounded the earth. At the slight bend, Hannah veered off the path, through the woods. Dane followed, braches slapping his face. Faster! shouted Dane.
They raced down a gradual grade, where a large tree had fallen length wise in front of them. Hannah, jumped up on it pausing momentarily looking back at Dane before leaping forward.
Noooooo! Screamed Hannah.
Dane bounded over the tree, stumbling into Hannah, bent over, breathing hard. She pointed in front of her.
Dane looked up, staring through the trees at the goddamn cabin.
Dane stormed out of the cabin with a bottle of Pendelton Whisky. He unscrewed the cap, tipping the bottle up, and took a long draw. He wiped his mouth with his hand. He held the bottle toward Hannah, leaning against a porch post. Here.
She shook her head. Hell, no.
Dane took another draw. This shit has never tasted so good.
Hannah stared out at the gigantic larch. You know we have to cut that?
I know. Dane shifted his gaze from the larch to Hannah. What the hell is going on?
Stop asking me that.
You must have some idea. You knocked at my door this morning, dragging me into this bullshit world. How do I know you’re not part of this whole fucked-up thing. He took a nip from the bottle.
Maybe because I’m confused and frightened just like you.
Or you’re frightened because you do know what the hell is going on.
Oh, please. She watched Dane take another sip. Put that bullshit down and let’s get to work. Hannah stepped off the porch, heading toward the cross-cut.
Dane watched her pick up the cross-cut and then head for the broken off larch.
Let’s go! she shouted.
Shit. He stepped off the porch, bottle in hand. Dane watched a large cloud drifting between him and the sun. He looked at his watch. In another three hours it would be dark.
He stood at the fallen larch, fifty yards from the cabin. The wind had snapped it off the bottom third of the tree, when the fierce wind hit three days earlier. The end on the ground was splintered to match the splinters still of the main bole of the tree, reaching up toward the empty sky.
This tree is old.
Hannah slid the cross-cut on its side over the top of the down tree, thrusting a handle toward Dane. How old?
Dane looked over at the base of the tree, with the splintered top reaching for the sky. The diameter of the base was close to five feet across. Seven to nine-hundred years old.
Dane shrugged. Something like that. He studied the splintered end on the ground in front of him. Once we saw through it and have a clear grain we can count the rings.
Hannah grabbed the handle near her and tipped the saw up on its teeth. Put the booze down and lets saw this thing and hopefully get out of here.
Dane looked back at the cabin before taking another sip. I’d like to know who the hell that guy was. He scanned the woods behind Hannah.
Ya know why I’m drink’n this? He held up the Whiskey.
Because I don’t think any of this is really happening. It can’t be—it’s gotta be a dream. He took another sip. And in the real world I can’t drink this shit because I’m a goddamn alcho but in this nightmare world Dane can drink all he wants because it’s all bullshit.
Hannah looked at Dane. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, his hair a mess, mud splattered his jeans. His wool shirt was ripped on his left shoulder. C’mon, Dane. Lets saw through this and get back to the real world.
Dane smiled. I kinda like this fucked-up one with weird shit inside trees, a mad man stalking us, and being stuck in a place were you can’t run away from because you keep ending up at this haunted shit-hole cabin and anyone, no matter how fucked-up they are in the real world, should be able to get drunk in this world and feel good about it.
Hannah gripped the handle tight, looking over Dane’s shoulder at the cabin. Okay. Fair enough. Let’s saw through this damn tree and then you drink your ass off—whatever world we’re in.
Dane smiled. Yeah – why not? Let’s just saw through this fat ass tree with a one-hundred year old saw because that’s what this world has dealt us. A fuck’n antique saw and trees filled with freaky shit. He took a long draw.
Alright—alright. Now let’s saw before you’re not able to stand. K?
Whatever you want—Hannah-Banana.
Hannah pushed the saw further towards Dane. Grab it and lets go.
Hang on, hang on. Priorities first. He turned, stumbled, then made his way to what was still standing of the larch. He held up his bottle to Hannah. Needta put my juice in a safe place. Don’t wanna spill any. He took a quick swig before placing it at the base of the tree. He grabbed a rock to help prop it up. Somewhere he had lost the cap. He stepped back form the bottle, holding his hands out as if to cast a spell so it would remain upright. He turned and looked at Hannah, smiling. Good to go. He clapped his hands and walked toward the saw.
Hannah looked again at the cabin, thinking she may have seen movement in one of the windows. She stared at the large picture window on the porch. Still gripping the wooden saw handle, the saw pulled forward. She blinked, turned her head and saw Dane gripping the other end of the saw.
Shall we? he smiled.
Hannah kept the momentum going with the saw blade, pulling and pushing with Dane, cutting into the fallen tree.
Dane’s eyes were glassy, from the whiskey, his speech a little lazy.
Whatta ‘ya think we’ll pull outta this tree?
Ya think this is the key—this big larch? That once we saw through this we can somehow make it back to the car and get outta here?
Hannah studied the porch window behind Dane while sawing. I’m hopping.
Has this type of shit happened to you before?
Hannah shook her head. Never. First time.
Then how come you are so with it—you don’t seem freaked out by this shit.
Hannah laughed. Oh, I’am. I guess I’m trying not to overanalyze it until we’re safe and sound somewhere else.
Yeah, like denial. Hannah noticed sweat on Dane’s forehead.
My life is denial.
How so? The saw had cut down into the tree about two-inches.
Everything in my life is just bullshit. Dane stared intently at the moving saw blade. I like programming but I program for shit corporations that screw people over. That sucks.
So program for companies you like.
That hardly pays. I gotta live.
So do something else. You’re smart and capable.
I like working alone. At home. Not having to deal with other people’s bullshit.
Hannah laughed. Sounds like there’s bullshit in a lot of places.
Even my house is bullshit.
Why’s that? Sawdust stuck to Hannah’s cheek.
It’s paid for right?
But’s it’s pretty nice, with good views of the mountains. Has a river running through it and so for a house that is bought and paid for I pay ninety-five-hundred bucks a year in property taxes because I decide to invest in my house and not in stocks. With one hand on the handle, Dane quickly took his other hand to wipe sweat out of his eyes before returning it to the handle. But if I decide to invest a shitload of money in the shitty corporations I work for, I don’t get taxed a penny on the investment unless I cash out. I put two-hundred grand into my house and I pay out the ass in taxes every year on it. I park two-hundred grand in stocks for a bullshit corporation and it can grow for decades without having to pay any annual tax until I want to cash out.
And it gets worse. The property taxes I pay to the state and the county help pay for the bullshit service they pretend to provide. Like a goddamn building inspector. Dane looked over the log at Hannah. A goddamn building inspector in this place—in the middle of nowhere. I built a barn three years ago and the bastard had to stop and tell me I was putting the nails in the plywood too deep or not deep enough or too many or not enough nails and that’s what this guy does. He drives around this huge ass county all day telling private land owners how to build their own shit. It’s not like we’re building public buildings. We’re building our own goddamn stuff. There’s more government oversight on a goddamn woodshed here than there is with billionaire corporation ripping us off.
Hannah watched Dane talk nonstop, while still watching the porch window. The saw was now buried into the log about seven inches.
The irony is so fucked with my taxes because not only do I pay for a service I don’t want or don’t need but then some of my taxes help pay this asshole’s salary and pension and every county employee’s pension contribution is matched by the county so when I cough up ninety-five hundred bucks every year some of that money goes directly to Wall Street and the fucked up corporations get even more of my money and everyone else’s property taxes in the county.
Dane shook his head. And the damn kicker is no one, and I mean no one gives a shit about all this. They just pay their property taxes, take it up the ass, and keep grinding away until the next tax bill. It’s all bullshit.
Sounds like at least one person is paying attention. Hannah smiled at Dane.
He shook his head. No, not really. I pay attention but I still play the fucked up game. That’s why I’m in denial. I can’t think too much about it or I go crazy.
Hannah stared at the man across from her. The man now drunk, the man now bitching about taxes, the man with sweat covering his face, dripping off his chin, the man sawing a huge tree with her, the man seven feet away from her gripping a hundred year old saw, the man she was stuck with in this bizarre as hell place, the man whose smile she welcomed, the man she suddenly wanted to fuck..
About fourteen inches down into the tree, they stopped for a break. Dane hurried back to the whisky bottle, happy that it had remained upright. The rust colored liquid splashed the back of his parched throat and burned the way that feels good. He told himself to only take two sips. And he did. And then two more quick ones.
Back at the tree he found Hannah leaning on it with her elbows, watching the cabin.
You see something?
She shrugged. No, thankfully. I just want to saw this thing through. She patted the tree.
Dane admired her tan neck, her occasional sun freckles on her chest. Her black blouse was now unbuttoned from the sawing so that the top of her white bra contrasted with the blouse. Dane looked away, and studied the tree.
This beast is big.
Too big, said Hannah, standing upright, grabbing the handle. She pushed the saw blade, still set down into the tree, toward Dane. Let’s make hay while the sun shines.
Dane grabbed the handle and pushed lightly back at Hannah. Sawdust instantly started falling as the two worked the saw down through the larch.
Hannah was in the mood to prod and take advantage of Dane’s whisky greased tongue.
So why else are you in denial?
You want me to keep rambling?
It takes my mind off of what is going on here.
Okay. Dane smiled. I can ramble. He cleared his throat. Ya wanna know what else is bullshit?
Hannah, nodded, smiling. Please.
Alice. Dane pushed the saw hard back toward Hannah, then again, then again.
Yeah but the bullshit isn’t about Ally, it’s about what happened after she died.
Hannah kept sawing, listening.
I find out she’s dead at three-thirty in the goddamn morning by a policeman who still had zits. I shit you not. I’d be surprised if the cop was even twenty-one. He was nervous as hell. I open the door in a daze and he blurts out, Alice H. Vaulkner died in a car crash an hour exiting the interstate just before town. Sorry for your loss, sir. You need to come with me to the morgue. Dane looked up at Hannah. Well, shit, I lost it. Told the kid to get the fuck out of my face and I sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere with him, especially a goddamn morgue, and then I pushed him in the chest, yelling at him.
Yeah, I did and then the little shit pulls a gun on me. No fucking kidding. Before I know it, blue lights are everywhere, and I’m face first on the grass, with my hands getting cuffed behind my back. Instead of the morgue identifying Ally, I get booked for assaulting an officer and spend the next eleven hours behind bars with a stainless steal shitter. Can you believe that shit?
No, not really.
Well, it went downhill from there.
Is that possible?
The saw was eighteen inches through the tree.
Two weeks later Alice was in a urn in the living room, which cost me eighteen hundred bucks and my lawyer cost me twenty-two hundred to get the charges against me dropped. They county prosecutor was actually going to make the charges stick. And because I work at home I saw that damn urn all the time. I was far from being in a good space but that urn didn’t help. A vase filled with Alice’s ashes wasn’t consoling to me but I kept it in the house for two years. Sometimes I’d think about the sex we had and then I’d open the urn and look in it and that always fucked with my head. I tried to give her ashes to her family but they wanted nothing to do with them. They wanted her buried so were pissed about the whole cremation thing. I tried to give the ashes to Ally’s best friend but Tanya felt it would be too much pressure on her to do the perfect thing with them so eventually I told everyone I spread them on the top of Mount Nicent where she loved to hike.
The sawdust piles on each side of the tree were mounting. The saw was over half way through the tree. Dane was drenched in sweat but the more he talked, the harder he worked. Hannah kept quiet, not wanting to mess with success.
But I didn’t do that because something weird happened.
Hannah raised her eyebrows. Imagine that.
About four months after Ally died a strange old guy knocks on my door. White hair, balding, sunspots on his face. He wore a white shirt, black tie, black pants, shiny shoes. From the doorway he could see the urn on the mantle in the living room and after a minute of small talk he points to the urn and asks, Are those Alice H. Vaulkner’s ashes?
I look over my shoulder and say, yeah, she was my wife. How do you know her. And before I know it the guy is sitting down on the sofa offering me fifty-thousand dollars for the urn and her ashes.
Yeah, really. That’s kinda of what I said. Anyways he talked for a long time. Turns out he buys ashes of people who died while they were scared or as he said it, goddamn horrified. It wasn’t any old ashes he was after, it was ashes of people who died while screaming or scared shitless right before they die.
Hannah wanted to stop sawing but pulled and pushed through her desire.
Dane wasn’t looking up at all but staring into the tree, where the saw exited and entered the kerf.
It was weird. He didn’t try to hide why he wanted the ashes. He had read about the accident and knew the eye witnesses watching the car stalled in the middle of the road, facing the logging truck head-on and the people hearing Alice scream through the closed car windows. He said this was exactly the ashes he collected.
Tell me you didn’t sell him Alice’s ashes?
Dane shrugged while sawing. I felt shitty afterwards but I did. He said it was a one-time offer. Fifty-grand in cash for the urn and the ashes. Ten minutes later I was sitting in the living room staring at an empty mantle holding a plastic bag filled with fifty thousand cash.
That’s as insane as what’s happening here.
Dane sawed for a while in silence, mesmerized by the falling sawdust.
They were about two-thirds of the way through the tree.
Remember in the cabin when I was on the computer, researching Backus Beddham.
Yeah, of course.
Remember when I got a little quiet.
Well, I found a scanned picture of Beddham’s I.D. card at the pentagon and that was the same guy.
What same guy?
The same guy who bought Alice’s ashes.
Hannah let go of the saw, leaving it wedged two-thirds of the way through the tree. Christ, Dane, why the HELL didn’t you say that earlier?!
Shit, it caught me off guard. Maybe I didn’t want to admit selling Alice’s ashes to a goddamn stranger for fifty grand. Dane turned, heading towards the bottle.
Leave it alone! Let’s finish this damn tree.
Dane threw his arms in the air, still bee-lining it to the whisky.
Shit, muttered Hannah.
Dane lifted the bottle and put it to his lips like a man dying of thirst. He didn’t sip, he glugged, coughed and glugged some more.
Okay, okay, okay. Let’s go! We’re almost done.
Dane set the bottle down—amazed that so little was left. He wiped his face with his sleeve, removing sweat and booze. THAT is good shit, thought Dane.
Returning to Hannah, he squinted at the motionless saw two-thirds into the tree. Shit, he pointed. What the hell is that?
Hannah looked down on her side of the tree at the saw.
My god! she gasped, staring at blood dripping out of the tree.
Hannah and Dane lifted the saw out of the tree. Both peered down into the saw’s kerf. Dane used the light from his phone.
Jesus, I can’t see anything. He knelt down, shining the light lower on the kerf. A small pool of blood collected in front of his knees.
It is blood, right?
It sure as hell looks like it. Dane gazed down at his knees.
Well, I can’t see anything. Let’s just saw through and take a look inside.
Dane stared at Hannah over the top of the log. You wanna keep sawing?
Yeah. I do. I wanna see what the hell is in there.
The tree is goddamn bleeding, Hannah. This is so fucked-up.
Hannah picked up the saw and carefully slid it back into its kerf. I know—so all the more reason to finish this tree. She grabbed the handle. C’mon.
The clouds were dark. A breeze whispered through the trees.
Dane looked back at the cabin, then at Hannah. He shook his head. The last one—okay?
Zzzzzzzzzng. Zzzzzzzzzng. Zzzzzzzzzng.
The rain began gradually.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Oh, great, said Dane. A cold rain.
Hannah watched the saw sink lower into the tree. A few times it snagged but they kept pushing and pulling. The blood was a steady stream, splattering their shirts and pants and hands and faces with specks of blood.
It rained harder. The wind forced the surrounding trees to sway. They were two inches from sawing through the larch. Their cadence increased.
Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng. Zzzng.
Hannah’s long wet black hair stuck to her face. Dane bit his lower lip as he pushed and pulled. The tree cracked loudly when the saw sliced through the last remaining wood fibers. Dane and Hannah, stood staring at the blood pouring from the tree. Steam raised from their heads and shoulders, up into the cold, dark clouds.
So freak’n weird.
I know, said Dane.
Let’s roll this thing and see what the hell is going on.
Yeah. I guess. Dane climbed over the wet fallen tree, getting on the same side as Hannah. They both crouched, bringing their hands under the tree, preparing to roll the log using the strength of their legs.
On three, said Hannah. The rain poured down, pelting off the tree into their face. One-Two-Three.
Hhhhmmph. They rolled the tree six inches.
One-Two-Three. Another six inches.
Look! Dane motioned ahead toward the cabin with his chin. That light wasn’t on before.
I dunno. It might have been. It’s just easier to see because it’s getting dark.
Bullshit. I so wanna get outta here.
One damn thing at a time. Hannah crouched again. We can get it on this. On three. The wind howled.
The tree rolled. They both kept pushing with their legs, rolling and rolling the tree as it turned down a small grade.
Keep going! shouted Hannah.
They rolled it five feet. Dane slipped in the mud and blood. Shit.
Hannah turned back to look at the sawed off tree remaining on the ground, to see what was inside.
Dane pushed himself up from the mud when Hannah released a horrifying scream.
Hannah and Dane stood side by side, drenched in the downpour, staring at severed legs and arms they had sawed through with the cross-cut.
Jesus, whispered Dane.
Parts of the limbs remained in the log they rolled away, while the matching parts were packed in the stationary tree laying on the ground. The various shirts and pants covering the limbs were muddy and faded blues and red and black and white.
Hannah turned her head, taking deep breaths, staring emptily into the dark forest. This can’t be happening.
Dane stared at the limbs packed into the stationary tree. Blood continued to stream down the cut face, mixing with the mud and wet grass on the ground. There’s a lot more in there, he whispered. He ran his hands through his muddy hair. He turned, walking toward the tool shed, feeling nauseous.
Hannah kept staring blankly into the trees, breathing deeply.
In the tool shed Dane found a hoe with a three foot broken handle and some weathered clothesline. Exiting the shed he gazed at the cabin with the light on. It didn’t appear warm and cozy. The light was cold and menacing. It was not right. It should have been dark.
Walking back in the pouring rain he stopped at the whisky bottle. With muddy and bloody hands he picked it up, clutching it like the hand of a lost child. He saw Hannah hadn’t moved, still standing looking away from the edges of hell.
He closed his eyes to the pelting rain as he tipped the bottle skyward. His soul a sponge for the whisky, absorbing it like an excelsior for escape. Again he set the bottle down, propping it up with the rock, trudging back to Hannah and the tree from hell, the rain washing the blood from the whisky bottle.
I’m fucked enough now that I’m gonna see this tree through. See what the hell is in there. Dane tapped the larch tree with the hoe.
Hannah, didn’t turn around, didn’t say anything.
You okay? Dane stared at her hunched silhouette against the dark trees, her wet hair dancing in the howling wind. He let her be.
He walked first to the log they had cut and rolled. The bloody limbs were cut flush with the butt end. Dane swung a corner of the rusty hoe into the bloody pulp of a limb, about five inches in diameter. He angled the hoe upward so as to get purchase against the flesh and bone. Carefully he teased the limb out of the log two inches. Next he drove a corner of the hoe down into the exposed limb, pulling it out a foot. Where it wasn’t bloody or bruised the exposed skin was cocoa colored. He stepped forward grabbing the limb with both hands and pulled. It slid out a few inches before it stuck. He tried again but his hands slipped off, covered with blood. He identified it as a leg, severed by the cross-cut about mid thigh. He removed the clothesline from his pocket, wrapping the rope around the thigh and tying it off. He stood back three feet and pulled. It didn’t budge. Still pulling he walked over to the right, then the left. It began to slide out of the log. Dane continued angling left, freeing the stuck foot and pulling out the leg. He stared down at the leg on the ground. It was three feet long, with a small foot still arched and pointing like that of a ballerina. He bent down to examine the tattered calf. After a minute he picked up a small stick and poked the marks on the calf. The stick disappeared into the holes, sometimes penetrating out near the shin. Bullet holes, he thought.
Dane jumped, snapping his head around to find Hannah standing behind him studying the bloody leg on the ground.
Have we both gone fucking mad? she asked. There’s no way in hell, this can be happening.
The rain pounded the leg, washing off the blood and mud.
Dane reached down, picking up the leg by the calf, holding it upside down, so the ballerina-like pointy foot was at eye level. He then swung his arm around, as if throwing a lasso, and let the leg go, tossing it against the log they had just cut. The leg bounced off the larch, splashing into the mud.
Dane looked at Hannah. The blood’s red. The mud dirty. The rain cold. The wind screams. Dane looked around. This shit sucks. He looked up into the rain then at Hannah. Seems fucking real to me. He walked over to the bottle.
Half an hour later, Dane and Hannah had extracted one more leg, two arms and a hand from the log they had sawn and rolled. The body parts were lined out on the forest floor, still letting blood onto the ground. All the limbs were dark skinned. Two of the arms and two of the legs were riddled with bullet holes. Hannah had pulled out two slugs from one of the arms. The pants legs were made of cheap cotton. After the second leg extraction, some of Dane’s whisky and parts of his last meal or two had been puked onto the ground. Bullshit, said Dane, wiping his mouth with his sleeve then heading back to pull out more body parts with his hoe, clothesline and Hannah.
The larger stationary part of the fallen tree was packed with bodies. The severed limbs on the ground had been parts of bodies extended into the wood cambium from the mass of bodies in the remaining section of the fallen tree. Two bodies had spilled out of the tree while Hannah and Dane were extracting limbs from the other half.
The women on the ground had severed stubs for arms while the man had severed legs having been sawn through with the cross-cut. The bodies were Asian.
The man’s chest and stomach had at least thirty bullet holes scattered about. His brown eyes were open in the rain. His small mouth was ajar as if he was in the middle of a whisper.
The woman had fallen out the center of the tree face down into the mud. Dane had tried rolling her onto her side but without any arms, she kept tipping over so he nudged her onto her back. Her tan shirt was ripped at the shoulder, just before the bloody stump where her left arm should have been. Dane placed a piece of bark over her face, not so much to hide the dead eyes and mouth but to protect her from the rain.
Hannah and Dane stood in the mud, looking at the bodies still packed into the tree.
I’ll start hauling them out, said Dane.
You think we should wait until we get some police here?
Are you serious? Even if our phones worked what the hell do we say? I want to report a blown over larch at the old Beddum’s place. It’s stuffed with a bunch of dead people. And by the way, my sawing partner and I accidently cut the arms and legs and a hand off a couple of them with a cross-cut but don’t worry, we saved the limbs and shit. We just spread them out on the ground for you. Oh, and I’m drunk by the way. Drunk as shit from Pendleton. And we can’t leave ‘cuz every time we try we end up at this shit cabin. Maybe it’s a time loop or some shit because I don’t even know what a time loop is. And oh, yeah, the guy that used to own this place—well it seems he’s the same guy I sold my wife’s ashes to a few years ago for fifty grand. I hope that’s not a punishable offense because I’ve been in your jail before—the day Ally died and I hated it. Nothing like shitting diarrhea after your wife dies in a stainless steal open shitter in a jail cell. Dane walked around with his hands folded over his head. I can’t believe this shit.
Hannah walked over to the bottle, picked it up and returned to Dane’s pacing. She sat on top of the larch log they cut and moved. She took a sip, then another. Okay. Come here. She patted the wet log.
Dane stopped pacing, staring at her through the rain.
Let’s do this because I don’t know how the hell else to. She held up the bottle. You’re right. We have to get those bodies out and I sure as hell can’t do it sober. She looked around. Not with all this shit going on. She took another sip.
Dane came over, standing in front of her. She handed him the bottle.
It’s funny, she said. Seth hates alcholol. Hates it when I drink it.
I get bitchy because he won’t drink with me.
Dane laughed. Do you?
Dane took one long draw before studying the bottle, holding it away from him at arm’s length. He then looked over at the dead bodies packed inside the tree. We gotta do this. He walked over to the tree and grabbed the top body by the back of the shirt and pulled. It came out easily and he dragged it off to the side, where the ground was wet forest duff out of the mud, and laid it face up. It was an old woman, with gray streaks running through her dark hair. Her left cheek was pushed up in an odd way, maybe broken. It appeared two bullets and pierced her throat. She had no teeth.
Dane snapped his head back toward the tree.
Hannah was pulling a body towards him. It was a boy, maybe five, six, seven, wearing only small black pants. She hauled him next to the old woman. She stepped back, looking down on him, the rain hitting his tan body. She bent down and folded his arms across his chest. Hannah didn’t look at Dane. She turned, trudging back towards the tree.
Three hours late the whisky was gone, the bottle tipped on its side, the rain a steady drizzle. Hannah was dragging a body. Dane leaned against the fallen larch counting corpses. Fifty-three were distributed in five rows. Twenty-three women, seven men, fourteen boys, and nine girls. Hannah was dragging a girl—girl number ten.
They took turns dragging bodies. For every ten or so feet of empty tree cavity, they cut another log so as to avoid crawling blind up into the trunk. There were four such ten foot section cut and rolled out of the way from when they started. They were about seven feet into the next section.
As Hannah approached the rows of corpses Dane pushed off against the rolled larch log and proceeded towards the tree cavity filled with bodies.
Wait! Shouted Hannah.
Dane stopped, looking back.
Hannah positioned the young girl between a women and another girl. She brushed the girls bangs back from her face, wiping mud from her cheek. The girl had been shot in the stomach. Hannah paused, studying the girl before hurrying back to Dane.
Mud splattered Hannah’s face. Her oversized wool shirt was drenched. Her eyes wide-open. She pointed to the tree cavity. Someone’s alive in there, she whispered. She wiped her mouth with her hand. Alive, she whispered again.
I heard breathing. Saw a limb move. Maybe a body or two back. Hard to tell.
Dane stared at her. You’re serious?
Hannah nodded. What if the person has a gun? That’s why they’re all shot.
A bullet to the head doesn’t sound bad right now. Maybe that would wake me up from this nightmare.
Hannah grabbed Dane’s arm. Careful.
Dane got on his knees, crawling into the tree cavity. Slowly he inched his way forward through the mud and blood. He stopped. The rain pounded on the tree trunk with a steady dull cadence. He stared ahead through the dark at three bodies stuffed together in front of him. A dead face stared at him, contorted around someone else’s legs. But it slowly moved downward. He watched as the face tilted down then back up. Something was behind it’s skull. Another’s leg? Arm? A force was pushing on the back of the head. Dane inched closer.
Two feet from the moving face, he listened. There was heavy breathing and faint grunts and sighs.
I’m right here, said Dane, moving bodies. I’ll get you out.
The movement stopped.
Hang on, it’s okay. I wanna help.
Dane grabbed the waist of the body with the legs wrapped around the face. He pulled the body down. Moving it the side.
Hannah! Pull this one out!
Dane waited, listening to the rain, listening to himself breath heavily. His left leg rested against the dead body he just moved. He heard Hannah enter the cavity, crawling towards him. To your left. Grab it by the hair or shoulder and get it outta here.
Did you hear the breathing?
I did. There’s someone back here. Get this one out and there’ll be one more I think.
Shit, whispered Hannah. Got it.
Dane felt the body next to his leg, jerk away from him, sliding through the mud. As Hannah and the body exited the cavity, more light entered the tree. The body with the face had fallen forward, its ass in front of Dane. He backed up enough to grab the body’s knees and pull it parallel to himself. He backed up more, slowly pulling the body out by its feet. As he exited the cave the rain pounded his back. He left the body at the mouth of the tree for Hannah. It was a bald man with the right side of his head blown away. His white t-shirt was stained with blood and mud. Dane scurried back into the tree.
A girl had rolled down on her side facing Dane. She blinked in the gray light. Her forearms were drawn close to her chest, her knees bent up to her elbows, curled up tight.
Dane slowly waved. Hi, he said softly.
The girl wore tan pants and a sky blue short sleeved shirt.
Are you okay?
What? said Hannah, standing at the mouth of the tree.
Sssshhhhh. I’m talking to this girl.
Oh my, whispered Hannah, crouching low, peering inside the tree.
Dane extended his hand towards the girl. C’mon out.
The girl closed her eyes, squeezing tighter into a ball.
Let’s get you into the cabin where it’s warm and plenty of food.
The girl started humming softly and rocking back and forth.
Maybe she doesn’t understand you, said Hannah.
I know. Dane craned his head around, looking at Hannah. Maybe you should try. She might be more comfortable with you.
Dane wormed his way out of the tree cavity backwards, then Hannah crawled in.
The girl was still humming, rocking in the cold mud.
Hey, hey. Let’s go, sweetie. It’s so cold and wet in here.
Hannah noticed blood stains on the girls blue shirt by her right shoulder.
You okay? Did you hurt your shoulder?
Dane knelt at the end of the tree, watching.
I’m going to touch your leg, okay? I’ll help you out of here.
I wouldn’t touch her, said Dane.
Oh, ssshhhhh. She’s alright.
Hannah slowly reached forward, her fingers grazing the girl’s calf. C’mom, c’mon. Hannah started backing up, exiting the tree.
Hannah pointed through the rain. “We’ll be over there. Waiting.” She smiled before walking over to a large spruce, sitting down, taking shelter from the over hanging branches. She waved Dane over.
The two sat under the tree, stinking of whisky, watching the tree’s bloody cavity through the rain, hoping the small girl would crawl out and help make sense of the fucked-up place.
What happened to you? Hannah pointed to Dane’s left hand. Blood dripped out of a gash across his palm.
I ran my palm across the cross-cut.
To reassure myself I was alive. Dane stared at the tree. To make sure I’m not dreaming.
That must have hurt.
Dane smiled. Hurt like hell but I know I’m conscious. He squeezed his hand. At least I think I am.
Hannah shook her head. This is so fucking bizarre.
Dane stared at the tree. You think she’ll come out?
Hannah shook her head. I don’t know—would you?
Hell yeah. I’d blast out like a rocket and never look back.
Hannah picked up a handful of mud, squeezing the water out of it. What do you think these people are? Ghosts?
I don’t do ghosts.
Jesus, I don’t think you have that choice anymore. I don’t know what you want to call them but they can’t be like us.
What the hell do you mean?
I get the feeling they’re trapped here. Like maybe this is the only place they exist.
We can’t take them to a hospital?
I dunno. I just think this deeded land is totally fucked-up.
No shit. Dane looked at the dead bodies lined up. Then he stared at the gash in his hand.