Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The carve road.
9 October, 2010 / The Carve Road / By Jaret Ferratusco.
Absolutely sure of his direction, Alyster nevertheless wound his way through the woods in almost no real direction at all. His curiosity made for habits toward veering off the path in misshapen s-hooks, myriads of disingenuous zig-zags and short cuts which were hardly short cuts. Numerous times it was sufficient to throw him entirely off course. But he liked being lost a little. It gave him a reason to explore.
He had a sort of make-shift compass system in waiting for sounds from the near distance. This system had so far saved him from ever getting truly, hopelessly lost, though it was a careless system bound to show its flaws in time. The tallest ridge of this part of the woods was always visible, it seemed, where peaks of leafless winter trees towered in bristly triangular spiderwebs and crisscrossed branches and where Alyster looked to in his peripheral vision as he sailed through on his way. If completely lost and the ridge was playing hide and seek, he need only to stop just a moment and take a breath in relative silence to check on his whereabouts by training his ears or eyes, maybe spotting the occasional whitish gray blur of a truck or van as it passed along Carve Road. That would be the top of the ridge, he knew, and then, though sometimes a bit off the mark, he would once again know his way.
This wasn't the most brilliant thing in anyone's ability to do and Alyster knew so, but it was a long, sometimes agonizing way home if he ever just used the same exact path. The monotony of a single path was like the monotony of a highway road and could put anyone to sleep. Two hours is a long time to bother with paths if done the same way over and over again, and every once in while when he did get a little lost, it was actually exciting to be able to find his way again all by himself with no help from anyone. It was a small sliver of independence that nobody would care about but him. And that secret little sense of victory that nobody could take away made him feel good.
And so this afternoon he went along his usual almost careless way, except this time he was cutting it pretty close, because the sun was starting to set already. It was a far cry from the summer, when the sun would usually be up until God knows when.
Before long it would certainly become way too dark to see the top of the ridge with the sun setting on the other side of the world, so obviously it would also be too dark to make out distant cars or even their headlights unless he actually made his way up there and walked the road itself. But it was extraordinarily dangerous to walk Carve Road at night; lots of people had been killed that way. Drunk or just unlucky, stumbling about in pure darkness, picked off by delivery vans or logging trucks. Mostly it was kids who took bad routes to and from home to Doggalin Lake or Maytown, which no matter what you did, took you across Carve Road somewhere or other. It was common knowledge that kids never wore reflectors, and every year new tactics were made to ensure that kids started paying attention, but it never changed anything. In addition to the drunks or the generally lost or those whose cars had broken down, two or three kids died every year from hit-and-runs on Carve Road. It was basically a utility road, not ordinarily used by regular people from town but more often by those trying to make it from point A to point B after in as fast a manner as possible. Farmers, loggers, delivery trucks.
So Alyster almost never stepped foot on it unless he had to get across the road on his way from one side of the woods to the other. And he wouldn't be taking it now either, although it might be faster without having to fight his way through the trees and trenches. Much better to be stuck during nightfall in the woods, if one had to be stuck. Whereas the road was like a waiting predator that gains strength during the night, there was nothing really out here in the woods to pose much of a threat except for the occasional insect crawling into your mouth and dying there.
One might see a deer once a season. Or a few birds. But mostly not even that. These were just barren, uninhabited woods.
After another quick look at the setting sun he stepped up his speed, huffing and puffing and even starting to sweat despite the cold. He'd come this way, generally speaking, lots of times. Even with his head down he sort of knew the right direction. The hill started to get steeper and there were more fallen trees than usual, and Alyster stopped walking so fast and concentrated on climbing over stacks of dead ones.
At the other side of the fallen trees he came to a tiny, leave-strewn pocket in the clearing at the base of the hill, where stood a noticeably awkward and very tall man staring directly at him.
The shock of it made Alyster jump, like someone had popped out from behind a tree and yelled, “Boo!”
But no one had yelled anything.
The tall man was completely silent, completely still. If Alyster had not stopped to take a look around the clearing he may have just walked right on past the guy.
But he was awfully strange looking and now Alyster could not take his eyes away at all. The man was not merely large, but twice more than tall. Even from a distance he seemed to be as tall as a small tree. Alyster judged him to be at least fifteen feet from the top of his somewhat bowed head to the bottom of his strangely tilted legs. The boy stood and stared, nobody moving. The tall man was not just titled, but hanging almost, in an uncomfortable position, somewhat hunched over as though the belt of his pants were hooked to a line and tied around some tree behind him, keeping him only just barely upright. His arms dangled limply in front of him. It looked like a man in position leaning over the edge of a skyscraper while a friend held on to the back of his pants, only there seemed to be no one holding him up.
And, disconcertingly, he also looked dead but for the fact he was staring at Alyster so absolutely.
The boy carefully moved slightly closer, then closer still, inching his way through the crackle and crunch of dead leaves. The closing proximity of the boy did nothing to affect the tall man, who just stared and stood, with his head held crooked and his arms, still as any number of the surrounding forest trees. He continued inching closer, half a foot forward, half a foot forward.
All of sudden Alyster stopped cringing, and he felt the chill in his spine start to warm up a little and leave his body in soaked fragments of sweat and embarrassment, because it became obvious the thing was just a simple scarecrow.
The tall man was just a farmer's dummy.
What it was doing here out in the middle of nowhere was anyone's guess. How profound it seemed. Here, in the winter woods. Not a creature to stir. No crops to guard from silent woods. Just this unfashionable, mean looking atrocity of a scarecrow, the arms too long, body too narrow.
Alyster came closer to the scarecrow, and with each step the thing towered even more. Whoever had done this it must have taken a ladder to hoist the thing up.
Disadvantageous physical attributes were not its only peculiar value, either. The thing was not dressed as any regular scarecrow might be; in place of tattered, straw-stuffed old clothes, battered by changes in weather from year to year and looking every bit the part as a scarecrow should, this one was dressed in a normal pair of moderately clean but worn slacks, under a tucked-in long-sleeve dress shirt. Pulled over the feet were not old corroded boots from the back shed of a farmhouse, but modestly scuffed black loafers that Alyster guessed could be pawned in town very easily if they weren't three times as large as any man's foot. Overall, aside from the sheer height of the thing, the scarecrow looked like you could prop it up it in the pew at church and it would fit right in.
Perhaps that's why someone had abandoned it in the woods. This scarecrow looked rather dull and sad, not threatening.
The only very spooky part was that the skin on the scarecrow's face looked oily and pained, with very real scratches born into it. It looked like real skin, in turn making the entire head look real. A small lock of hair hung over its eyes, which Alyster attributed to the thing having sunken over to this awkward leaning position. If standing, he assumed, the lock of hair would settle back into place.
When Alyster walked right up to it to get a better look at the shoes, the scarecrow moved slightly.
Panic shot through Alyster. It really was like someone had just gripped him from behind and yelled, “Boo!”
The boy let out a shrill cry of alarm and jumped back two or three steps. The scarecrow's long dangling arms almost brushed against him and when he noticed that he cried out again, hopping another two or three steps backward. His leg caught on a fallen branch and Alyster screeched at it like something had reached out and tried to kill him. Jesus, he needed to get a grip. He smoothed his jacket out with his mittened hands and tried to laugh, but there was nothing to laugh about.
Especially considering what came next. The scarecrow lifted its head and the lock of hair moved aside. The tall creature looked directly at him. This time Alyster was sure it was looking at him. Too sure, for even though it stared, hard, the thing's eyes had been poked out of its head, yet followed his tiniest move.
Tiny black bubbles of dried blood collected in the two empty pits of its eyes, frozen over crude smears of more blood, also mostly dried.
Alyster started to feel quite sick. And more and more afraid. It didn't seem right to have something like this thing out here in the woods, regardless of why it would be here. He didn't care why, just wanted it to disappear. He wished he could take back the day and not gone to the arcade in Maytown. Or he could have hitchhiked at least; even talkative old farmers—or worse, sinister old salesmen with out-of-state rental plates—were easier to handle than this thing.
“I'm sorry, I didn't expect anyone to be dropping by,” the scarecrow said cordially, opening its arms slightly to motion toward the outer part of the small clearing. It smiled sadly, as if the boy had called at the thing's home unannounced on the morning of a lonely holiday. Alyster jumped back another five steps and almost turned his back right then and ran. His skin bristled with a sharp panic, scaling his entire spine alight with electricity. It reached his brain and pumped it once, hard. It felt like he was a new boy in a strange new world, but not a world he wanted to be in.
It was one where scarecrows talked when you did not want them to. When they just weren't supposed to be, because scarecrows are not alive.
This was so much (terribly) further away from the warmth of his heated home and all the food and the relative comfort of all his shitty cousins.
“I'm sorry. I was only trying to be friendly. But honestly, I was not expecting company, to most extents. But it's nice to have company now. Please don't run away so soon.”
The scarecrow continued to smile awkwardly, sadly. It stared on, blinded, supremely pathetic. Alyster felt suddenly sad for it.
Nevertheless, with fright coursing through his veins in a current of poisoned ice water, some horrified part of him wanted to shake this terrifying shiver off and catch this right . . . suppose it were just a trick? Sure, this was some trick alright, but damnit, he didn't want to be made into such a coward all over again for the fourteen hundredth time. He was so tired of that crap, that ceaseless crap from his dumb brother and even dumber cousins. He simply had to withstand this haunting apparition for just a bit more to make sure it was not a joke somehow. Or else he'd—predictably—end up running home whaling like a baby, and the whole family would be there in the living room by the fire, across from the television and VCR, laughing ceremoniously, with his older brother or some fucking cousin or other, having long beat him back home because they had a car, holding a video camera and a remote control pointed at the TV, and everyone would be watching the tape of Alyster shrieking and turning tail like a frightened cat. They'd be roaring extra hard when they caught sight of the real deal . . . Alyster wet and sweating, cheeks blotchy red, scared out of his mind like a big damned baby.
So he stood his ground in front of the awkward bent-over scarecrow, slowly letting his feet become grounded again and the hair on his head settle back down into a messy mop of fucked-up curls like it usually was.
“I'm so hungry, sir,” the scarecrow said, disarmingly. “Can you help me?”
And although the voice was calm and warm and friendly, and even somehow reasonable, it scared the boy badly that the sound of its words resounded in the woods, bubbling in the air, taking the chill away from winter and whipping it back quick like dozens of rocks pitched from a slingshot, nailing Alyster from every direction. He felt completely trapped in place. If he tried to push his way through the woods it would be like a pantomime placing his flat hands on an invisible mid-air wall.
A very thin fear of crying passed over him and froze the wet skin on his belly and back. Alyster cringed, his eyes squinting and widening at the same horrible time, holding his stomach with his hands and curling one leg up. He resembled a slug with salt all over it, shrinking. If anything in the world had ever made him feel stupid and feeble, this topped it grandly; he looked up at the gray-dark sky, fully expecting there to be sprinkles and peanuts and chocolate candy falling from the clouds, covering him up like he was some kind of spotlighted sundae, perfect for the whole world to dig into with several thousand sharpened spoons.
He wanted to cry but knew he should not. If this was a trick, it was a very horrible one, but he would not be panic-struck and condemned by it. He just couldn't be. He had no choice but to at least try to stand his ground. Putting his arms out in front of him in case he should have to defend himself against . . . something, he circled the scarecrow slowly, looking for the rope that must be holding him up. Or for thin fishing reel puppet-strings which could be descended from the branches of the trees. He looked around for his cousin with a video camera, or anyone, anybody at all hiding in the woods, snickering, laughing.
But there was nothing. Just this massive scarecrow leaning over with its arms dangling lifelessly.
Alyster walked back around to the front of the scarecrow and stood fully ten feet away. “Are you for real,” he asked, his voice small and weak.
The thing smiled weakly, but with a growing warmth, and tried to angle its head so the hair, which had fallen again, would come back away from his eyes. It held its head as straight as could be then it shrugged, as if to apologize for its condition. Alyster could certainly sympathize with that.
“Do I look fake? Yes, I am just as real as you are,” it said. “What's your name?”
It smiled wider and spoke in its shockingly reasonable tone. “Ah, Alyster. That is certainly a suitable name for you. It's smart and handsome. A strong name. It carries when you say it out loud. I do believe it's one of my favorites, though I may be biased. Are you going to help me, Alyster?” It talked like a friend, but the boy was weary of this. Friends are not ten foot tall talking puppets in the woods.
He cringed inwardly, holding his hands up almost over his face, unable to mask his revulsion. “Help you what? Are you trapped?”
“Oh, no,” it said. “I'm not trapped at all, just weak. But I am hungry, as well as being weak. Or perhaps I should say weak due to the hunger. I haven't had food in a long time. A very long time. A man could die out here and nobody would know.”
And its face was so friendly—despite the rendered eye sockets—and there was now no doubt about the skin on its face, that it was not a scarecrow at all but a real man. An altogether different kind of man than any Alyster had ever laid eyes on, but nevertheless a real person.
He tried to avoid eye contact because of the lack of eyes, but it was hard. Especially as the tall man looked directly at him as they spoke, even moving his head slightly to the right as Alyster shifted on his feet slightly to his left. The broken visual connection followed the boy's every move as easily as any man could've with the eyes not torn from his head like that.
“What happened to your eyes?” the boy the asked the stranger.
“Well, this was done as a punishment. It is rather gruesome, isn't it? As terrible as it may be I'm afraid I can't do anything about it.”
Punishment. Alyster almost didn't want to ask, but let it linger a while to be sure. After a short amount of seconds ten thousand other things came into mind that he wanted to ask, and this “punishment” was set to the side for the sake of being polite.
“But can you see me anyway?”
“With no eyes, Alyster? That's absurd. No, I can't see you. But, I've been this way for a very long time, and I've grown accustomed. So I've learned to adapt, as anyone should.” It raised it's long arms, motioning around in the air somewhat, in a gangly, puppet sort of way. “To sounds mostly. You can move every which way you'd like, Alyster, and I can tell just what it is you're doing, to every detail. In fact, I think I should say that you can stop cringing if you like. You can stand up very tall and strong and stop being so afraid. You can talk to me just as easily as I am to you. You see, I could hear you coming from some ways off. It's just that I'm very tired and I cannot move so well. From being so hungry. I was hoping you would be coming just this way, so you could help me. And now here you are. This is providence.”
The tall man shrugged, waving his elongated arms a bit, but not too much before they sort of slid quietly back into complacency, dangling in front of its bent-over body again. “Well, it's something like a picture puzzle. You cannot complete the picture whole without every piece of the puzzle, correct? And there's just always that very, very stubborn and hard-won important piece of the puzzle to find before much else can be done. The one puzzle piece that, without a model of the finished product to draw upon for reference, like a box top, would make everything tie together, allowing for the rest of the puzzle to simplify itself and drop right into place. My predicament is just like such a puzzle, the one without a box top reference. I can't see very well how to fix my predicament in whole, but I do know that you can help me to better resolve the puzzle. And so you are not just one of the many pieces to fit it, but much more importantly, one of the most essential pieces to the puzzle. And likewise extraordinary, that different from me putting this puzzle together, you did. You found the missing piece, which is you, and you came to me with it, without my asking. That is providence.”
Alyster didn't get it. “I don't have any food,” he said, trying to appease the situation and settle whatever the situation was.
“Of course you do. Look at you, you're a healthy boy. You're not starving. There's no dilapidated bones coming through the skin. You are the product of a well-fed environment. It's in your bones and that heavy stride of yours, like a great animal charging through the woods.”
“I thought you said you couldn't see me.”
“I can't, Alyster. But as I've also said, I've adapted. I may be weak but I can sense you are not. Who is moving about so effortlessly, and who is not? You are moving because you have strength and agility. I can tell that you're very young, rather healthy. You are well fed and you have nothing to lack. You have gray pants on, and a green sweater. You lost your ball cap up the ridge so your hair's all messed up from the wind. You are agile, healthy and in every way able to help me, which will take less strength and motive than finding your missing cap.”
Almost without realizing he was doing it, Alyster reached atop his head and it was true, he'd lost his hat. He looked around, frightened and mystified. Where had he lost his hat? Running? Up the ridge, like the scarecrow said? No, it wasn't a scarecrow. Just a very tall man, thin and too tall and progressively more hypnotizing.
He had to try to shake off some of the confusion and wonder and try to stick to a normal conversation, or he'd be stuck in the woods all night unable to see his way out.
“You look like a scarecrow.”
A gentle, unhardened laugh fell from the man gently, breezily. Alyster could not see his mouth move much but his voice was loud enough, even from so high up above him. He spoke so gingerly, seemingly careful of the fragility of his assaulted face. Judging from the scars, Alyster supposed he had a right to be cautious. What if his whole face fell off? From this position, looking up, if the mashed up face did become unharnessed and slid from the tall man's skull, it would float down and land right on Alyster's face, like a Halloween mask.
The boy shivered. His leg curled up again when he did that. Slugs with salt.
Alyster decided if something so awful happened he'd run no matter how dark it was and not stop, even if he had to charge across Carve Road in front of a drunk farmer's truck. If the tall man was in pain he'd have to stay that way. If his face slid off, Alyster would run.
“Jesus, Alyster, I'm just a hungry man. I'm not a scarecrow, not some creature, not some ghost. You stare up at me as though I might contain the most terrible secrets. But look at me. I hardly contain anything. I could use some food. This is not an altogether odd request. Can you imagine how you'd feel, two days from now, if you hadn't eaten? You'd be cowering on the leaves below me, begging. I dare say you'd be whimpering. Unable to move but to hold out your shaking hand and hope I would fill it with some bread. You may be strong and what have you—and well fed—but you're just a boy. You could not possibly stand it as long as I have without breaking down and crying. It's been a long time since I have eaten anything, a very long time. Look at me, I'm as thin as kite strings. Meanwhile, you've eaten twice today. Couldn't you sympathize? You have everything, you're the man of the hour. Can't you spare?”
But what could Alyster spare? There would be no way to find food for this man before sundown.
And even if he were able to get out of the house in the middle of the night with a package of food and a flashlight to make his way, would he be able to find the man again? Alyster looked around. It was hard enough to try to figure out where he was now—and he still couldn't but hadn't thought about that for a little bit—let alone attempting doing so under the cloak of night. Unfortunately, there was just not any way to help the tall man. It would have to wait until tomorrow morning at the very earliest.
But the tall man was so pressing, and so sad, and he hadn't lost his temper at all. Alyster could not recall a time when someone had spoken to him with as much respect. He could not recall a single moment where someone had spoken to him like a person. Ghostly as the tall man seemed, he was a lot nicer than anyone he'd ever met.
The tall man's face darkened, but softly. Like a sad darkness, one that comes with years of dissatisfaction. Like grandmother's face had when they left her overnight that first time at the new home Alyster's parents had put her in when she started to become unbearable in the house. The tall man sighed; it was clear that time was wasting. But the boy had no answers. He just couldn't do anything to help.
They both sighed. The sound carried in the quietness of the clearing like the end of a symphony. The sounds hummed and bumped against each other and danced and played and lingered, and then died out. It was so silent again.
That thin fear of losing bodily control wormed its way through Alyster's body again. How incredibly awful it felt to be here right now. Now, just as sure as he was that this was no trick harvested by his mean brother or his meaner cousins, he was also as sure that he'd be better off if it were, if it had been a hoax. Alyster was suddenly very sure of this; he would even have preferred it filmed and screened for the whole family at Christmas if only this could be fake, not real.
Here he was as useless as anywhere else. And how could he be sure that out here, with nobody to see it happen, that the man would not take what he needed regardless of it being offered or not. He might steal Alyster's coat and beat him up for all he was able to do about it. Wouldn't anyone be very friendly like that, at first? As the tall man let out a very soft moan that drifted uncomfortably in the frosty air, Alyster considered this might not end very well.
And that led on to fears of something worse happening, and the terror began inching back in again, harsher than the cold.
He let the world spin a little around him, feeling dizzy in his galoshes. He was about to lose both meals the awkward man justly predicted he'd eaten. And it was later in the day, sure, so that wasn't very hard to guess, was it? Breakfast and lunch. Everyone has eaten twice a day by now. But how had he known about the ballcap, that's something think about. And the color of his sweater. Maybe it was time to run, and run fast. Alyster just didn't know what to say. It all suddenly shifted back to maybe it was a trick being played on him after all. It all sounded like a mean trick. The ballcap? Nobody can hear a hat falling off somebody's head from a mile away. But if they did hear the hat fall, how would they know it had been a baseball cap of all things? If you dropped a dunce cap into the leaves, from a mile away it would sound just the same as a baseball cap. Or a mitten. Something was up, it had to be.
The silence stood there in between the two and grew spiderwebs.
Not even the clouds in the sky were roaming now. It was a very typical winter evening. The boy looked around, trying to spot the familiar ridge of trees along Carve Road that would tell him he knew where the hell he was and how to get away if he needed to, but the compass was too hard to find this time. And maybe it was this sudden labyrinthine fright, but the area just didn't look so familiar anymore after all. It didn't just look like a different part of the woods but a different part of the continent. He trained his eyes around him, trying to spot the flash blur of a van or a truck, or the sound of one, which would signify he was still at least somewhat near Carve Road, the only way to tell how deep he was in the woods. He took another step backward, but wavered, feeling something in him trying to stand up for once and not be so afraid of everything. If the man needed help, and he knew how this could be done, hadn't Alyster the obligation to hear him out instead of just leaving him here, stranded in the woods with no food? Thinking he may want to take a few steps in the other direction, back toward the tall man, Alyster straightened up and tried to dash that feeling. Inside he was still frightened, overly confused and starting to fear he may be lost for good all alone in the woods on the verge of nightfall. He looked around again, wishing he could hear something rushing down the fucking Carve Road. But nothing came. Not even the sound of birds.
Or wind rustling the branches.
It was all just complete and utter silence.
“What's your name,” he asked the man cautiously, looking over his shoulder as if splitting the silence might set off a trip-wire bomb somewhere.
But all that happened was that the bent man sighed, and smiled again. It was a large smile, noticeably comforted, very normal and endearing. It looked like what somebody's father ought to look like when smiling as a simple boy loses his fishing reel in the lake early on a Saturday morning in the fog. It was the kind of smile that existed in life to make mistakes okay. And so Alyster felt like he had made a minor mistake in being so frightened. The tall man just kept doing that, smiling warmly, so friendly, standing up to impossible heights in his leaning way, with his arms still dangling limply in front of him. Alyster ruminated on the attack on the tall man's face; his scarred features must surely have been the cause of great pain; the eyes were tight with dried blood; when he turned his face a little to the side, Alyster could hear the dried blood snapping open just a little and in a few places, new drops of fresh blood seeped out from the blackened pits of the sockets. And the tall man winced ever slightly.
It was so pathetic, actually. If the man had been the size of a skyscraper he would be no less pathetic. Look at the pitiful way he stood, like a dummy propped up against a wall. Like he was no more than some kicked over mannequin in the back of a shop warehouse who remained standing only because the feet were on base pegs.
A horrible thought penetrated his thinking: what if the man's feet were rooted beneath the shoe and that's why he didn't move? Perhaps it was not merely weakness, but more punishment? If his eyes had been taken out as punishment, maybe whoever had done it had also driven steel beams through his feet and buried the base weight under the ground so he couldn't walk away?
The tall man stopped smiling endlessly and broke the nasty, fear-inducing silence.
“My name is Alyster,” the tall man said. “Just like yours.”
At first the boy laughed, surprised. But he was only being fooled. He waved it off. “No it's not.”
“I knew you would say that. But it is, my name too, is Alyster. And I've had it longer that you, so for all intentions and purposements, if it should belong to anyone more so than others it would be to be, for I have been around a good deal longer than you have. An actual very good deal.”
“What does that even mean? What's your real name?”
The boy blushed, momentarily covering up unease. “No it's not.”
“Okay then, it's not.” For a seeping moment the smile faded into a sadness, but was replaced with a crossed version of both looks; a melancholy politeness. “Is this really how we're going to handle this, just standing around all day, arguing? Is my name the same as yours or is it not? Am I lying? I say my name is Alyster too. So? So what if I say you're not a boy?'
Alyster shrugged. “What do you mean? Of course I'm a boy.”
“Sure you are. Your name's Alyster. And so is mine. So what are we arguing about, Alyster?”
The man's long dangling arms were starting to jitter.
The boy shrugged again. This whole situation was impossible to understand. It seemed okay one moment and eerie the next. Fun one moment and dangerous the next. How was he supposed to know what they were arguing about? Alyster could barely understand a thing at this point, including why he didn't leave and go get help. If the man needed food, standing here while the sun made its way further toward the back of the sky was doing nothing but making it worse for the both of them.
He suddenly felt as if his own feet were the ones pegged to the ground. Why hadn't he just turned and run? No matter how big Alyster was, the tall man would be bigger, and given the intricacies of a crowded forest, that was to the elder Alyster's disadvantage, any way you looked at it. In an open desert you could say the tall man had it ruled, but here, amidst densely packed hills, with trees whose branches grew into one another? Alyster (the boy) had the advantage of a mouse, a creature who could fit into any crevice and just escape, no questions asked. So why didn't he just run?
“I don't get it, mister.”
“Oh dear, didn't I just say you can call me Alyster?”
The tall man held up a long spindly finger.
A quick flash of a wider smile, pained but receptive, brushed over the tall man's face and then he lowered his head. A small lock of dark oily hair fell over the cruelly disfigured eyes. For a moment he did nothing, and neither did the boy. They both stood there, facing each other but looking slightly downward. Even looking downward as he was, the man was so tall his face was aimed at the boy's direction anyway. Though with his hair in his face and his shoulders hunched and his arms dangling limply in front of him, it looked like a dead body hung from a tree, about to fall over onto Alyster if not for being held up like he was. Except there were no ropes. No strings. No nothing.
This severely disorganized silence started to hum in Alyster's head. He stood mesmerized, forgetting how to think, trying to look up into the downturned face of the tall, weak, disfigured man and figure out . . . anything.
Then the man raised his head again, and that warm smile once again widened. And he winced while doing so. His face was in great pain and that was apparent. “Please, you can call me Alyster, I said. There's no need to be so formal out here. It's the woods. We can even say FUCK if we want to, Alyster.”
The boy steeled himself.
“Are you going to help me?”
There was no more reason to stay here and be scared. If the man was weak and needed food, Alyster could go and get some. There was no sense in even fucking around talking about it; there was plenty at home. Plenty. Every year his house was packed in like a cattle car during Christmas, with enough food being baked and roasted and fried and ultimately left over in heaps after the holidays to feed a prison camp.
So, the only reasonable thing to do was say so. He'd be the hero, after all. Saving the stranded, dying, hungry, fucked-up carnival show that this guy was.
“I can go home and get some food. It's Christmas vacation. My mom's been making pies all week because our family's all over at the house. The rest of the family, I mean. My dad's brothers and my mom's sisters.” He found that he was spitting out this information almost like he was lying. But it was all more than true, just that those damned missing eyes in the tall man's face kept staring down at him, boring sightless red hot rays through him, scorching his brain with fire, burning away every last foot to stand on comfortably. His felt his head wanted to explode; if it did that his parents could follow the bright orange glare in the night sky surrounding its gloomy, hesitant mushroom cloud and they could find him and take him away from this awful day. “I mean, my cousins and stuff. My aunt and her boyfriend too, and his kids. I mean, there's lots of food everywhere. Everyone's cooking something and it's just sitting around, in the fridge and in the cooler in the garage. I could go back home and get something and nobody would even notice it was gone.”
The tall man cocked his head reprovingly, considering the boy for endless minutes. For the first time, Alyster felt ashamed. He didn't even know why.
“Nobody would notice it's gone, I see. So, you're saying you will go home and steal food for me? Do you think I'm some kind of criminal? Have I broken something, some law? Am I fugitive? Really, Alyster, must this be a secret? You can find a pay telephone and go dial your parents right now and give them my name if you're so worried. But will that get me fed any quicker, all this pussy-footing about like cats stealing bites in pie from an open window on the street? Really, I'm starting to feel like you are lying to me.” The tall man squinted his absence of eyes. The feeling of shame in the boy deepened. “I see how it is now. I'm not going to get you in any trouble, am I? Do you fear punishment? Well I can tell you now, little sir, that punishment is not known to you. I daresay that being grounded is not punishment. You are free to turn your back on me and march forth to your aunt and her boyfriends. And his kids' children. Have a very wonderful life. Pay no attention to turning your back on someone who is dying. Leave an unfortunate man for dead in the cold, or else you might get yourself punished.”
All of this was delivered angrily, but with a certain hint of sadness and dejection in it. It scared Alyster for sure, but he could, after all, sympathize. The tall man had been right about everything. It hurts to be in need and to be offered refusal, it has to. If he were the one stranded in the forest and needed help, no matter how frightening the tall man looked, or appeared to look, would he not be absolutely infuriated if the tall man walked off without helping him?
Reading the changes of heart exploding in the young boy's face, the immense thin man apologized again, his voice whispery. “It's not an easy situation today, I fully comprehend.”
But what could he do for the tall man?
And, broken down completely, confused and bitter toward his older brother for some reason he was too angry to think about, Alyster smiled, though he still kept on his guard. Only just not as much as before. He was broken down. He wanted to help this guy. Outside of the inconsistencies within reason, this confusing, bent-over, fifteen-foot-tall man seemed more normal than his family did to him. He found himself trying to like the tall man over his family, and found that it was easy. In the case of his brother, it was almost a given. Even his own parents. Easy. Cousins, aunts, uncles; easy. He shifted on his feet, his eyes wandering around the clearing without seeing anything. He only really could focus on the scarecrow. That's the only thing that seemed to be making any sense. Furthermore, he felt maybe he'd been wrong all his life. Maybe heading home had been the mistake all along, and the tall man had been sent here to stop him from doing so. Wouldn't he have called that providence? The tall man was exciting. Past the fright, past all that—wasn't it just Alyster being a chicken shit?—the tall man was more interesting than everyone in his house at home, all put together.
“Well, Alyster? Am I going to get you into trouble if you just help me out? Just a little? Is helping a person in need going to get you grounded for Christmas? No plastic toys to play with?”
He thought about it, but only from one side. The one that was pulling.
“I guess not.” And he had an even better idea than food. Those bastards at home would kill to see this. Not only could he help the tall man get better, but he would be the envy of the house. He'd even be the envy at school. All those shitheads that grinded him down day to day, they'd fucking be in awe of this. He'd be the most talked about person in town, and then he would move on and leave that town to wonder. He'd disappear for good, maybe follow the tall man wherever he belonged, and leave town and this would be the start of something new and amazing.
That was it. But he needed help.
“You want me to see if my cousins can help get you down?” he asked upward into the darkening twilight sky. And he was about to go on into an explanation of getting his cousins down with the truck with some ropes, and pulling the tall man off the base pegs under the ground and getting him to a hospital where he'd be fed and rehabilitated, and Alyster would be on the news programs. He'd be an honest to God hero, and when the tall man was healthy, he'd take Alyster back to his land. They'd leave this place in dust. It would rot. And his envious older brother would go on to become, at best, if life was kind, a mechanic.
My tail light's out, Alyster thought to himself, smirking. Or a ditch digger. You want the piping to run perpendicular to the main housing unit?
He was about to lay his plans out when the tall man raised his spindly finger again, silencing him.
“Down?” the tall man asked, blinking his broken sockets. Small beads of dark red poked out from the edges of the freshly disturbed scabs. He leaned in closer to the boy, if that was possible given the already stressful slant of his body. Thin little lines of blood fell down around the tall man's nose, seeping from the cracked scabs in its empty sockets. “But I said I'm not trapped. I'm not stranded or trapped. I'm not hung on a cross. I can walk right out of here on my own two feet if I get some food in me. It's just that simple. It's that very simple. I don't need your cousins, I need you to help me, Alyster.”
“I just need food. I am weak and can only barely move my body. What you refer to as hanging, or being trapped, is me weakened and unable to walk like a normal person. Because I am starving. I've only a little energy left and it must be used wisely.” The last few words trailed off a little. “Forget it, Alyster. I don't need pies. Or cookies. Or a hamburger. I need something else today.”
“What do you need?”
“I need to eat something substantial. What I need is something more substantial than pies. Do you have a minute?”
Alyster shrugged, alert but dulled. Being cut off in the middle of fantasizing had brought him back to the facts. He was alone in the woods. He didn't know where he was. The tall man was probably not human. The sun was setting.
His flesh started to crawl, from up the back, to the base of his neck. He felt picked up by a static charge, not for the first time but certainly with a stronger current than before. The whole forest felt electric. In the presence of this tall man almost nothing looked right, and in turn almost everything felt wrong.
All of this pointed downward. Alyster felt like he were being screwed into place just as he assumed the tall man was. Maybe even the other end of the beams driven through his feet were bent back and came though Alyster's feet now too? They'd be stuck like this together forever, bent forward. He felt the ghostly pain of what it might feel like getting his eyes torn out, and the boy grasped his face and cried out.
The tall man shifted just a bit.
Alyster started, “I need to get ho—”
But the tall man reached forward and sunk long, thin fingers into Alyster's shoulder with an encompassing grasp of one enlarged hand. The pressure hurt. Hot needles shot through his chest and raced down his arm, shooting into his fingers and burning up the tips like candle wicks. Without looking in Alyster's direction, the tall man said, “Listen closely, I need you to pay attention to me. I can only just barely move now and this has gone far enough, but I will do as is needed. This goes largely well beyond you and some pies. In fact, you can forget about sweets, or freshly baked breads, or superhero toys waiting for you underneath the Christmas tree. That does not concern me in the least, and so, considering, it no longer concerns you either. Do you understand?”
He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he thought maybe he did actually understand, and so the boy squirmed. The tall man's grip was like a locked door; he flailed then, arms windmilling wildly. The tall man sighed and shook the panicked boy slightly.
“Alyster. Alyster, stop this please.”
The boy flailed even more.
The tall man lifted the boy off his feet. His long arms brought Alyster so high that when he looked down to the dirt and leaves it seemed like a good thousand feet to the ground. He held each of the boy's arms at length and stretched his body wide, holding him up even higher. He pulled the boy's arms so far apart the jacket seams tore in several places and Alyster screamed.
“Alyster, stop this right now and I will put you down. It's that easy. You are hysterical. How can you expect to get through an ordeal in hysterics? Historically, it's just not likely. Factually, it's rather impossible. Either you settle down or something very unpleasant can be expected.”
Alyster thrashed on as if deaf to this. So the tall man stretched harder. Alyster's left shoulder broke. It snapped audibly and in the seconds to follow, the shoulder of his blue winter jacket soaked through darkly.
The mood turned as the tides do. Now the tall man was the world, and Alyster just a speck of dust.
“Can you be convinced now to settle down, or would you like to carry on and maybe hurt yourself more than is needed?”
But the boy felt like he was exploding inside. The broken shoulder had already gone dead. The pain had been like lightning, but once struck, it went away, leaving just a hollow dead feeling. Fear overwhelmed every emotional and physical sense. He kicked out, wishing he could punch and grab and though losing feeling in his body he was not losing enough feeling in his mind, and not being able to move his arms saddened him almost to submissiveness. Nothing landed, no kick would connect. He was helpless. He should have ran. He should never have stopped when he thought this thing was a scarecrow. If somebody puts out a fifteen-foot-tall scarecrow in the middle of the woods it's not for any reason that was Alyster's business and he should never have stopped.
The tall man's limbs were long. They held the boy far in the clear as he kicked and kicked, at open, chilly, darkening air.
“If you settle down I will put you back on your feet. It's very simple. You're hurt, Alyster, but are you dead? Think which is worse. Fight more and see where this gets you. I am hungry and weak and need your help and you're trying to fight me. Should I not defend myself?”
No answer from the boy, who had just begun openly sobbing. “Well I wouldn't have to if you were not attempting your vain assaults on me, don't you think? By the way, they are indeed useless defenses. You're solving no puzzle of your own, I'm afraid. And in doing so, lessening in value my interest in preserving your ultimate help, which harms you more than me. You need to stop this right now.”
Alyster screamed out.
“I promise. Your shrieks are killing me, Alyster.”
Then the hands holding him squeezed tremendously and the boy felt both shoulders equally numbed, and to his horror, his ears were now acquainted to the sound of shattering bone. When the next shoulder went it didn't surprise him. His mind tried to learn from this and grasp a lesson. Fight harder, fight harder, fight harder, his mind said. But the body was scared and not listening. It was pained and stretched literally beyond comparable limits.
The tall man let go of one arm and Alyster swung down hard. His legs swooped and he tried to make his kicks land but he was just a pendulum, doing nothing but swinging. His chest was scorched through with fire. It boiled up into his neck. Pain, pain, pain. The tall man shook him with a single hand and Alyster bobbed out in the air, fabric ripping and flesh tearing and bones breaking. He shook Alyster like a toy doll.
“You are not a very smart boy,” he said tensely but not yelling. With each syllable he shook the boy. YOU – shake – ARE – shake – NOT – shake – A – shake – VERY – shake shake – SMART – shake – BOY – shake shake shake shake.
“And the fact of it should hurt more than this,” and he shook the boy harder. His body bobbed up and down, flesh and muscle singing out into the night, mixed with moans. His brain bumped inside his skull Succumbing by default, Alyster ceased his frantic fish-flopping in the air. He hurt all over. His head throbbed.
“I said to settle down long ago and you did not listen. Why is it that it took to this moment for you to do so? Are you satisfied with your actions? Alyster? Do you want me to put you back down?” He shook the boy a little more. It provoked a pathetic jolt of rage and Alyster swung out with his free fist. The shoulder would no longer comply, so the swing went low of his own hips, and of course, hit upon nothing. The limp fist went wide of everything short of weakly tapping his own thigh. Without moving much, the tall man lowered the boy crudely. Alyster's legs began to scissor sharply, still blindly fighting. He hit the ground so hard that his kicking feet brought up a cloud of leaves and dirt and he toppled, landing on one knee while the other leg bent underneath him and cracked under his own disproportionate weight. Alyster cried out. In some vain attempt at controlling his broken body, he attempted to run. It got him a mere two feet toward the direction of safety but no further than that. The tall man bent ever further and picked him up again, but this time held both legs still at the ankles, with just one hand, raising him back up off the ground.
“I need to eat something right now, Alyster. There is no other choice. I'm just not going to stand here until the dawn of a new decade for you to quit weeping and run off to fetch some pie. I need a bite from your hand.”
Alyster screamed and flailed out, but the tall man squeezed harder and something else in his body that was not already broken decided to pop, killing off the feeling in his legs. Finally he gave up and the tears became a downpour.
The tall man let go of Alyster's legs while grasping instead one of his arms. He pulled one hand closer to his mouth, whispering something small and breathy, something that sounded to Alyster like, “Oh.” With one hand holding an arm now, and the boy ceasing to shake so adamantly anymore, the man picked the boy's mitten off and tossed it far off into the distance. Alyster watched with a drugged haze as his ragged black mitten sailed off as if carried by a strong wind. He thought to himself, Why didn't I run? That question had crossed him so many times it felt like a skipping record. How stupid is instinct if it doesn't work?
Then the man flicked at Alyster's hand with his strong, spindly fingers. The flicks hurt and drew blood, shaving off slivers of skin.
Up close, the tall man's mouth was easily understood as disfigured too, ripped at the corners, as if someone had reached into his mouth with both hands and torn out the jaws. And that is just what appeared to be the case when the man opened his mouth, only it was just one side of both jaws that were missing. That empty side of the mouth was just as gummed up and semi-scabbed over as the eye sockets were. One half of the mouth remained, and it was on this side, with the teeth, that he inserted Alyster's tiny bleeding hand and bit down.
Swallowing the majority of Alyster's hand with only half a mouth, he bit off what he could, leaving just the little finger and the ball of the fist, which wiggled with eccentricity even without the thumb.
Spots of black and gray sprinkled Alyster's vision and his head hummed with numbness, feeling excruciating pain but unable to process it much more than the cold, which too felt excruciating. His voice caught somewhere in his throat and stayed there, making him choke. It became a short fit, but it only lasted the span of a few more angry shakes. Quickly the boy's body was nothing but the gentle squirms of a hacked up snake. Complacently, relieved with the incapacitation of the boy, the tall man opened his mouth again and took off the rest of Alyster's hand below the wrist. But an unpleasantness swelled in his stomach. This feeling was revolt. He'd taken in too many bones, too much of what was not edible. Soon he might start to convulse himself. With alarm, he started to feel as if there was not enough time to get more of the arm out of the tight layers of sleeve so he turned the body over a bit looking for something more available and less dangerous. Unexpectedly, Alyster started to shiver again, in dull convulsions. To stop it the tall man beat at the kid's head to render him gone again. And then the tall man grabbed at a handful of Alyster's shirt and coat and ripped a wide hole in the fabric, exposing chalk white skin, and he lifted the boy higher so that his midsection was for the better part bared, and at once, took a large bite from the boy's side. Thick sheets of muscle and strands of tissue and blood and fat fell out in a downpour, which the tall man tried to drink in as much as possible before it was too late and he became too tired or sick to go any further.
It felt like ages. Like decades had passed. Black spots in existence became kinder. He punched again at the stilled boy's head, cracking the skull and pushing one of the eyes out onto the cheek.
It stopped immediately any further throes the boy would be capable of. Though this was a relief and a surprise to the tall man, it was not something he'd intentioned. Alyster blinked once, then closed his good eye completely, shivered gently again, softly, and was still.
The tall man took hold of one of Alyster's legs and then got a grip on his neck with the other hand, and took a few more bites from the swell of his belly and the soft ring of fat around the plump little body. With only half a mouth of weak, damaged teeth to work with the effort was more exhausting and painful than he had counted on, but he had to keep doing it before he grew too tired to move.
Each little move hurt even more. It sent bolts of anger through his body and so he squeezed Alyster's body until more bones popped and shattered.
Accordingly, as feared, his bites grew more aggravated but less powerful, and it became panic, which was of no help. It was like biting through steel to pull any more out of the boy, and the chewing slowed considerably, and he had to actually spit some of it out of his mouth to swallow just a portion. He let one half of the body fall and tried to grab at the soft matter slipping from the wounds but it fell through his fingers, slippery and too fast for his reflexes. And just like that the man was exhausted. He held very still, holding the wet, torn body, unable to let himself drop it but also convinced he may have to within the next few moments, for the simple lack of strength.
His eyes grew very heavy, and his arms and his head. Soon he would be unconscious again for a long time, a very long time. It would all go nowhere. He would eventually wake again, just as tired, just as weak. And that was, he supposed, the object of punishment.
Anger seized him and with what energy was left in him, the tall man raised the boy's body high and shook it violently. His face became spotted with drops of the falling blood and he spat at the broken and ripped up limbs and in the dead boy's silent, caved-in face. Much too angry to expend his energy instead on eating more, which would theoretically contribute to a return in his health, he shook the boy and thought of weeping.
But as always, anger and rage were stronger than will, and he shook the body in the air and then, holding it by the leg, dashed the boy's head against the ground repeatedly. It swept away most of the surrounding leaves and thumped across the frozen floor of the woods hollowly, spinning wildly off the shoulders of a shattered neck. In one final surge of wakefulness, the tall man pulled his arm back and pitched forward, shooting the boy far off into the distance, much farther than the mitten had gone. A thick rustle in the trees and leaves sounded from far off, and then promptly died away into silence. The tall man sunk forward, his arms dangling very limply in front of him. And slowly, his head too fell forward, as he was much too weak to hold it up any further. A small lock of hair slipped out of place and fell in front of his mangled eyes. The setting sun was now being deeply playful with the ridge of trees up ahead, where Carve Road lay, twenty or so minutes walk into the distance.
In a few more minutes' time the shadows would disappear and there would be only darkness and cold and silence.
No more strength was left, all of the stored energy expended. As little as he'd taken from the boy it would have to sustain him in sleep alone, but whether it would could be anyone's guess, and the tall man closed his eyes, fading out again for a long time.