Reclaimed

by John Grey

Firs and hemlocks reclaim this land for forest. 

An old rusted train track doesn’t deter them. 

The last echo of a whistle died eighty years ago. 

Same with the buzzing of the saws. 

 

Logged out, replanted, throw in a few 

alders, cedars, many years worth of rain,  

and the woods rejuvenate in dampened splendor, 

a trove of mushrooms, maidenhair, slugs, caterpillars, 

 

a feast of insects for the passerines. 

And, to think, nature did all this from memory, 

deep and shared, or maybe it had access   

to the picture-book laid on the floor before me, 

 

a world before loggers, sweat and shouts,  

thick and dark enough for fairy-stories. 

This is an unlikely victory for the wild. 

No less a triumph for my picture-book.

 

John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Sin Fronteras, Dalhousie Review and Qwerty with work upcoming in Plainsongs, Willard and Maple and Connecticut River Review.

The Farm and the Forest (Part VII)

~7~

Spring Is Coming

Do you know of the Forest, dog?”

The battered orange tabby lay pooled in a furry puddle atop the kennel where the despondent matronly German Shepherd lay. It was still cold and snow stood heaped in mounds, cast to the side by the older worker bays who dutifully plowed the paths of the Farm, but the air had a tinge of freshness, just the tiniest hint of nascent spring. The matronly German Shepherd did not respond past an annoyed wuffle from nostrils covered by her bushy tail. Dogs hate cats, and this is well known, but the recent events had created a sort of leveling of loathing in her heart. She could no more stand the mindless bleating of sheep than she could bear the capricious honking of the derisive geese who made a point of shuffling by the kennels each day, though always at a healthy distance, to jeer at the shamed pack of dogs responsible for their past mistreatment. In truth, the animals of the Farm avoided the kennels so as not to have any of the low social status of the dogs splash onto their own coats. Short of inspection pigs and spying rats, the only visitors the dogs received of late where angry geese… and the orange tabby.

Hrm, how could you? Wed so long to this heap of buildings containing silly food with feelings. You’ve never torn through the brush at night, snapping with wild abandon at the small, fearful creatures who pray to you for mercy even as you devour their bodies. You do know you were once wolves and proud, right cur?”

Again, the matronly German Shepherd made no response.

T’chask, wolves once and proud, Lords of Death, now relegated to pens that even a Farm goose would disdain, and those foods live in the Piles and call it a kingdom.”

The orange tabby rose and stretched languidly, yawned, blinked a few times, then circled in place and returned to exactly the same position as before. The matronly German Shepherd rolled her eyes and groaned low.

I heard that pooch. I hear much. In fact, I have heard some things that may interest you, things concerning your dear old clapboard Farm… you know, the one that seeks to be rid of you and your kind?”

He was baiting her, this she knew, but she could not help herself. The confinement of the dogs had only added to the problems of the Farm. New bodies were turned out of every section of the sprawling aviary Piles each day. The goats, though swollen with pride at their upjumped station as Keepers of the Peace, were not ones for investigation, so they would play cadaver ungulaball with the bodies until they fell apart from the battery of hooves. The pigs moved about in groups with no less than three security beasts at all times. In fact, every group of animals had taken to moving in gangs for protection; a display of power. This of course led to more skirmishes which in turn meant more bodies. The dying was confined largely to the faster breeding races so overpopulation continued to be a problem. The few groups of animals that endeavored to weather these bad times with more than gang tactics had taken to remaining in their collective pens, creating insular communities that kept unwelcome beasts out under threat of force. The pigs decried this segregation as unlawful and divisive, even as they contracted with the sheep to build a wall around their pens as well as a secured thoroughfare to the big Barn for the sake of sound governance.

“Mmrrrm, Yes, I hear much. I’ll spare you the act of asking as it seems the will to speak has fled you. The horses have walled in their stable as well as a nice paddock nearby. Come spring, they plan to extend their writ to the border fence. Once the other hoofed foods realize this they will follow suit, as the pork-charlatans have already begun to do, and the land grab will begin in earnest. The geese have completed their takeover of the Piles. I have seen neither duck nor chicken in days, which is a pity. The pigs and rats are firmly ensconced in the Barn, and just last evening I happened to overhear a few rats quietly discussing what they would use the nice, white drapes from the Farmhouse windows for…”

The matronly German Shepherd, standing on two legs with her snout within chomp of the cat, spoke quietly.

If you lie I will end you.”

The cat flew at least a foot in the air and landed hissing his wrath and fear. In barely more than a mouthful of seconds he was sitting sphinx-like, his impassive demeanor barely concealing a body wound tighter than a mashed spring.

“KkssssHrm, It is good to see you have not lost all of your prowess.”

The orange tabby was more than a bit unsettled by the speed and silence of the old bitch, but it is an age old truth that to gain a cats respect, you must prove you can destroy it, and this she had done. He continued:

“Mmmrrowmr, I tell you no lies, mommy dearest; the rats have designs on the very Farmhouse you once swore to protect. I wonder if their incursion will bring the Farmer out of hiding, yes? Maybe this flagrant violation will finally make Him manifest? Or, failing that, maybe His few remaining supporters will admit that the ancient dream of the Farm is ended and take their leave, seeking the welcoming arms of instinct awoken, and return to the Forest from whence they sprung…”

And with that, he rose and stretched yet again, fanning out his claws to scrape irritatingly across the roof of the kennel, then sprung over the head of the matronly German Shepherd, caroming off the top of the kennel fence and down into the snow. The grace of the bound and bounce was completely deflated by the explosion of snow and hysterical scramble of fur and paws as the tabby tumbled headlong through the drifted snow, but the dog’s mind was elsewhere. Plans, small and simple, began to form in her head. High overhead, a hawk was soaring over the farm, waiting for its moment to strike.

When evening came, the matronly German Shepherd detailed her kin on their patrols as usual, but they detected something in the set of her spine that they had not seen of late; a resolute firmness, a sense of purpose. She sent them in doubles, as was the usual protocol, but she also dispatched all of the younger puppies as observers. She held back a daughter and son, saying in brief explanation she had need of their paws, and the nightly border walks commenced. Waiting until they were gone, she had a brief conversation with her pups, then all three set out in different directions. The matronly German Shepherd headed towards the horse stables in a roundabout way. Her daughter went towards the barn. Her son headed directly for the Porch of the Farmhouse. Upon arriving, he took up station directly in front of the door and sat at attention, his ears erect and eyes gleaming. Before too long though, the cold seemed to get to him so he curled up and was soon snoring loudly. His sister had gone to the barn and yipped politely over the new and growing wall, though she could have quite easily taken it in a single leap or even shimmied through one of the many gaping holes. She instead elected to wait patiently until a young pig with a rat astride its shoulders grudgingly made its way out.

What do you require dog? I am busy, so very busy at this moment. Some of us actually care about this Farm, you know…”

Indeed, Master Pig, and I appreciate your courtesy and forbearance. Mother humbly requests an audience, of course at your convenience and leisure. Might I inquire as to when would be a good time, rather, when she should expect to be called upon in her confinement?”

Both pig and rat were not prepared for either the request or its stately dressing, particularly from a young guard dog, and neither made any response. The young dog waited patiently, her tongue lolling as she panted vapor into the cold night air. Collecting his limited wits, the pig finally spoke.

Erm… yes… I, uh… yes, of course, a clerk pig will call on Mother, that is to say, the lead dog come noon tomorrow, assuming of course that no matter of real import arises.”

But of course, Master Pig, and thank you for your audience to this humble request.”

The young pup turned to go, but before the pig could do the same, she swung her head over her shoulder and growled low in a voice completely devoid of the previous unctuosity.

Sleep safe rat. For now.”

She loped away as the pig sputtered and the rat sat deathly still.

The matronly German Shepherd approached the horse stables, but they could now be better described as a single fortress. The wall they had constructed was high and solid, offering no holes and built with attention paid to every detail. The gate they had built could only open inward, meaning even a dead horse could hold it indefinitely against anything less than a well trained team of oxen. Behind said gate there was a soft stamping of hooves and a challenging snort.

Who goes there?”

It is I, Lord of Dogs. I wish to speak to the old workhorse.”

The Lord of Hoof is not entertaining guests, dog. Come again some other time, or not at all. In truth, the Lord is all but through entertaining anyone.”

There was a bristling militancy that the matronly German Shepherd had never experienced from a horse, and though it unsettled her to a small degree, it buttressed the purpose behind her visit in the first place. She did not turn and leave.

I hear and understand, young Master Horse, but I shall not, indeed cannot, relent. I humbly request you ask the Lord if he will see an old friend, if only for the sake of a Farm we once knew…”

This jogged something within the guard horse, and after a judicious pause he cantered off to deliver her request. When he returned, the matronly German Shepherd heard the scrape of a lifted crossbeam moments before the door swung inward, just enough for her to squeeze through. Inside the walls, she now saw that there were three horses there, all poised to stomp the life out of her. She lowered herself to her belly in deference to them, patiently waiting for their cue. One of them snorted softly, then swung her bulk towards the main stable. The dog followed close at her hocks. Inside the largest stable, the old workhorse stood flanked by two of his mares. He stared down balefully at the matronly German Shepherd, his large eyes inscrutable in the darkness.

So… it would appear… that your legs… do still work, Lady Dog.”

Indeed they do, Lord of Work, as do my ears. I apologize for intruding upon your relaxation, but a… an assertion, let’s say, has been delivered to me by a… somewhat dubious source, and I have need of… clarification.”

The matronly German Shepherd felt herself falling into the speech pattern of the old workhorse, and it reminded her of days now past wherein she and he were true Lords of a prosperous and safe farm. This stirred a deep melancholia within her, but she suppressed her emotions. She was here to get answers, not reminisce.

What is it… that you heard… my good Lady Dog?”

The matronly German Shepherd shook a few droplets of melted snow from her coat and circle sat at the hooves of the old horse.

The cat stopped by the kennel-”

The two mares whickered softly at the mention of the orange tabby. His reputation was checkered at best, being an animal that moved freely between Farm and Forest.

-and told me he had heard… things. Things too damning to ignore. Can you tell me, Lord of Work… can you tell me, is it true that the rats have invested the Farmhouse?”

The matronly German Shepherd waited for his answer. She actually held her breath to prevent an anxious whine from escaping her snout, and after a time he responded:

Who can know… the dealings of rats… though I am… certain… it does fall… well within the… bounds of the likely.”

All at once the matronly German Shepherd let out her held breath and with it a low growl so menacing that the two mares crow hopped in fright and a guard horse stuck his long nose through the entryway, laying a single eye on the scene. The old workhorse was unperturbed. The matronly German Shepherd got to her paws and shook out her shaggy fur.

Indeed. It is as I feared then. Tell me, Lord of Work, what do you plan to do? Surely we cannot let this injustice stand…”

The old workhorse stood silent for a long while be for snorting through his large nostrils.

Injustice not only stands… it scampers to and fro… with complete… abandon… on this Farm. We, the horses… have elected to… erect a wall… between what we hold… and what we loathe.”

But, but… you cannot just-”

Cannot… you say..? Pray tell me… Lady Dog… what I cannot…”

It was rare for the old workhorse to interrupt anything, and this caused fear to creep into the heart of the matronly German Shepherd. She dropped down to her belly and whined her remorse. She had not come to the horses to make more enemies.

Rise, Lady Dog… but remember your… place.”

I shall, Lord of Work, and I do apologize. It is only that much has changed, so much more than I realized. I respect your decision, and I hope you will respect mine, for it is beyond my capacity to give up. I have spent too long tucking my tail, and in so doing I have let the pigs be poisoned by the chittering of those vile rats. I beg your leave, oh Lord of Work, and may the Farmer look after you and yours.”

The old workhorse lowered his head to her level and gently lipped her ear. If she were capable of tears, a single drop for all that had passed between the two would have stained the hay beneath her paws. She turned and left the main stable and, with a burst of surprising speed, bounded off a bale of hay and vaulted the wall before the gate could be opened then disappeared into the dark and frigid night.

It is so very easy to fall asleep and so very difficult to wake again.

The Farm and the Forest (Part V)

~5~

Things Begin to Unravel

In the days following the meeting, an air of hopefulness and possibility pervaded the Farm. All of the animals took to their chores with gusto, even the Farm birds. Harvest was approaching and all of the best crops were ripening. The silo would soon be filled and the reserve stores thereafter. The horses had not been pleased with the outcome, but their loyalty was to the Farm, so they lowered their heads and worked harder than ever to make good on the promise of more rations for all. Everything did seem to be getting better. But the misgivings in the heart of the matronly German Shepherd did not dissipate. She pushed the youngest pups even harder to learn the Rules and maintain constant vigilance in protecting the boundaries and upholding the laws.

So when the elation wore off, the problems that began to crop up centered around the actions of the dogs. The geese were the first to shirk their duties. With the predicted surplus came a general lazy attitude which was exacerbated by the new Forrest geese who were never fond of any kind of work that did not seem to directly benefit themselves, and even that grudgingly. Things were made worse when two of the new Forest geese were mauled by a zealous young pup. They were not a part of the first wave of new members, and were caught breaking into one of the surplus sheds. One died immediately, and the other a day or so later. The geese and chickens raised a clamor, calling for the young pup’s hide, or at least a shredding of his ears so that he would carry with him the rest of his days the punishment of his reckless and bigoted violence. In the end, the pigs could not risk offending the dogs, but the pup was publicly shamed and new restrictions were placed on all of the dogs. The pigs put it to a vote and henceforth all dogs were under strict instructions to capture any offending animals, be they Farm or Forest, with as little violence as possible, under pain of public humiliation and a revocation of status as defenders of the farm.

And this is when the problems began to pile up in earnest. The geese now felt entitled to wander whenever and wherever they wanted. The dogs, afraid of earning the displeasure of the pigs, did little to stop them. This in turn signaled to the other Farm animals that they too could decide their own hours of work and play. As the numbers of animals milling about at all hours increased, so to did the incidences of brave foxes and brazen coyotes snatching away the young and slow of wit. Again, hue and cry was raised against the dogs for falling down in their responsibilities. The Farm animals demanded better strategies for combating these gruesome raids but would not hear of any limitation on their freedoms. The dogs redoubled their efforts, increasing patrols at night which began to take a toll on their stamina and morale.

The next major incident was when a group of geese comprised of both Farm and Forest birds stomped a number of ducklings to death for encroaching on their space. The matronly German Shepherd demanded blood for this crime, but the pigs were afraid of instigating more violence towards the ducks, so the whole thing was covered up with a story about a dreadful mistake and a light remonstration of the ducks for the lackadaisical management of their young. The geese grew ever more rebellious and haughty and demanded a new pen be set up specifically for them as just recompense for their historic suffering. This required a great amount of effort and supplies so the other animals rejected the proposition. Not to be deterred, the geese went on strike, trumpeting about housing injustice day and night. They even went as far as smashing their own eggs in protest. To quell the rebellion, the pigs ordered the pens be built. As they were quite obviously the victims, the geese were excused from the labor and the work fell largely to the ducks and chickens. Neither of these two cohorts were very capable at craftsmanship, so a mishmash of poorly thought out structures blossomed like toadstools in the avian section of the Farm. This was bemoaned by the geese, but they refused to participate in the construction in any meaningful way, and so the new pens were built, though in truth they would be more accurately described as Piles.

Late one day in autumn, a violent thunderstorm blew in and wrecked one of the reserve sheds. The morning after found precious food scattered hither and yon with geese, chickens, sheep, and cows gorging themselves sick until they were run off by the dogs. This of course caused more protests, and what should have been a few days work stretched over weeks with much time and food lost. Skirmishes between the geese and other Farm animals became a regular occurrence. The sheep began to break into sheds for more food. Even with the increased rations, they complained that they were not given enough, at least not as much as the goats and cows were getting, so the pigs decided to bolster the rations for everyone yet again. This did little to tamp down the ever increasing theft of food and the dogs could do little to stop it. It also began to eat into the reserves so laboriously gathered for the coming lifeless cold months.

When the Fall Due was posted, the geese flat out refused to render their portion. Led by the ever increasing numbers of Forest birds, they demanded the right to abstain, saying that it was cruel and unfair to give up a portion of their eggs and old to a Farmer that did nothing for them. Urged on by the whispering of the rats, they began to openly question the existence of a Farmer at all. A rumor propagated that the dogs had made up the legend of the Farmer in a plot to get extra, undeserved vittles. The other animals were of the opinion that if the geese did not have to pay their Due, then why should they? The dogs and horses refused to budge on the matter, and in the end the geese were forced to render, but they did not do so readily. In the night, many eggs were crushed and pails of milk overturned. A few of the older birds even drowned themselves in the Pond rather than wait on the porch for the Farmer to come in the night.

The weather began to turn and the nights grew colder. What should have been a winter of plenty was fast becoming a season of want. Raids on the grain stocks increased as did the skirmishes between the different groups of animals. Night time wandering ceased but only because of the cold and the chances of being dragged off by a predator was higher than even the stolid work horse could remember. The dogs did their best, but there were not enough of them and the new rules hampered their ability to enact common sense safety measures so long taken for granted. When the snow began to fall, it was on a desperate and sullen Farm. Young animals died in their pens and sheds, their carcasses left preserved where they were dragged until starving foxes and coyotes spirited them away under the cover of night. Even on the brightest days of winter, a darkness had settled on the Farm and with it, a deeply seeded foreboding of that which may be yet to come.

It takes no more than a few well pushed pebbles to cause a landslide on any mountain.

The Farm and The Forest (Part IV)

~4~

The Momentous Meeting

The day of the Meeting was heralded by clouds on the horizon with hazy sunlight filtering through. The young farm goose was nervous but confident. He may be asked questions, and he wanted to do his best. He was desperate to be noticed and respected. The geese were assembled in front of the big barn before any of the other Farm animals, rowdily honking and flapping with the chickens round their periphery, squawking and pecking in support. The ducks were there as well, but a sullen silence pervaded their little flock. They were uneasy with the thought of more waterfowl using the pond; the geese were bad enough as things were and if the geese’s motion carried the day, they saw no good coming of it.

On their way to the Meeting, the leaders of the dogs and the horses gathered for a moment behind one of the many sheds on the Farm. It was clear that the horses were nervous, and the dogs’ hackles were on the edge of floofed. The matronly German Shepherd and the stolid Workhorse conferred with each other while their respective lieutenants kept watch.

I see… nothing good… coming of this Meeting, Lady Dog. These geese… have forgotten their… station. I know not the… laws, nor is it a horse’s place to… but I do know that… for the Farm to work… as it should… the order of the animals must be… unquestioned. Do you… agree?”

His plodding conversational style was aggravating to most dogs, but the matronly German Shepherd was well aware of the wisdom trapped within those pauses.

I agree, Lord of Work. We all have a purpose, and our place is defined by that purpose. We dogs guard the Farm, the horses grow the Farm, and the geese are supposed to support the Farm. This new goose… he brings dissension and discord to the fowl. Maybe it is time for the dogs to stand up and be heard.”

The stolid workhorse considered her words, and after a long silence nodded slowly, twitching his ears in discomfiture.

You may be right… but I… shudder at the… thought… of such a… breach of precedent…”

The dog felt uncertain, for she too was nervous about breaking protocol.

Yes, I feel the same, but we are living in strange times. Let us be wise and measured, Master Horse, as is our way since time immemorial. Let us go before there is gossip, of which I am sure the rats would have nothing to do with.”

The stolid workhorse whickered his amusement, though he did cast his long and slow glance about him as he walked off with his mares. The matronly German Shepherd whined to her two pups and began trotting to the meeting. Underneath the shed, the youngish rat sat cleaning her whiskers.

Gossip indeed. Clever girl.”

All the animals of the Farm were arrayed in the clearing in front of the big barn. The cows, sheep, and goats milled about together on the fringes, bored and disinterested with the humdrum of these meetings. The horses stood together in stoic silence. The dogs held station on the edges of the crowd, with a line of their most formidable in front of the speaking spot. Up front and dead center were the flocks of geese, chickens and the contingent of reluctant ducks. The rabbits and mice were absent, but they almost never showed up for anything, enjoying instead the pleasure of the company of their kin in shadowy corners. With a firm nudge to the door and an officious grunt, the oldest of the pigs led his kin out of the big barn and into the clearing in front of the assembled animals, with the rats scurrying around their hooves. Once the pigs and rats were settled, the oldest pig perfunctorily invoked the goodwill of the Farmer before giving the floor to the younger pig that had convened the council. He snuffled briefly, hoofed at the dirt, and then raised his snout and addressed the animals, quoting the speech of the young farm goose nearly word for word, though he injected heaps of purple prose and grandiose description. He made reference to heroes of old and notable catastrophes overcome. Then he spoke of the happy days grazing just beyond the next pasture. But after the glowing terms about their shared bright future, he led them down a mental path of slow decay and sadness. He warned them of clinging to outdated traditions and blind faith in a Farmer no one ever really saw. This definitely unsettled many of the animals, and the pig sped up his pace. He finally reached the climax of his speech by imploring the animals to save the future for all of their progeny by ushering in a new era of openness, a spirit of welcoming, and of course, bigger food rations for all. When he finished, the geese nearly did themselves in with cheering. The chickens ran around mad with elation and, sensing a real danger in not agreeing, the ducks pretended to be equally happy, indeed, they strove to be the loudest and most elated. The sheep and goats bleated with excitement, as they were very easy to inspire if promised more rations. The cows lowed their approval just to get in on the fun. The pigs raised cheers of adulation and cries for promotion, causing the young pig to blush and puff out his chest, strutting back and forth with pride. The rats feigned polite indifference, but could not keep themselves from twitching their whiskers and playfully nipping each other’s shoulders with glee. Only the dogs and horses were silent.

The votes were cast and collected by the pigs, overseen as always by the rats. It was a scant few minutes before the verdict was announced. Even with the unprecedented dog vote, the decision to begin introducing animals from the Forest carried the day. Almost as if by magic, five new Forest geese were in the midst of the flock of birds, bugling their delight and strutting about with brazen braggadocio. By the time the sun set that day, the total of new arrivals stood at a score of various types of wild geese, a dozen or so rats, two wild hogs, and an indeterminate number of field mice. The ominous hooting of the requisite owls was lost in the din, and not even the dogs spotted the legion of glowing eyes silently surveying the boisterous festivities. The diverse array of creatures on the Farm stayed up late into the night, celebrating their victory over the forces of old and praising the inevitable greatness just around the corner. The horses elected to sleep as a herd in the field tonight, forgoing their usual haunt of the safe and dry stable. A congress was held, but what was decided was unknown, for the only rat that dared get close was smashed into bits, his carcass ground to nothingness in the dirt. The dogs maintained their vigil, but neither partook in nor interrupted the revelry. The matronly German Shepherd walked to the edge of the pond and listened to the cacophony echoing across the pasture. Her heart was broken. She could not help but feel that under her watch, a great evil had been given shelter on the Farm

In the dark, down by the gate, and far from the eyes and ears of any animal, a lone figure on two legs leaned over the fence and took the whole affair in. The Farmer was watching.

Well placed words can lead a crowd in any direction.

 

The Farm and the Forest (Part III)

~3~

All Seems Calm Before a Storm

And so it was that the crotchety wild goose came to be a member of the Farm. The biggest of the farm geese fell all over themselves to earn the favor of the exotic foreigner, retrieving his grain for him and expanding his place in the pen to accommodate his size. Wherever the new goose went, he was followed by a honking crowd of admirers. At the tail of this feathery train, the young farm goose plodded along sadly. It appeared he had been forgotten by his new friend. Whenever he tried to approach the new goose, his bigger brothers would hiss and flap their wings, eager to protect the peace of their new leader as well as their accorded place, and he would retreat to his small spot in the rear of the pen, sinking ever further into angst and self pity. It was not long after his acceptance onto the Farm the crotchety goose began to circulate the notion that his gaggle should be allowed in as well.

Like me, they are big and smart. Like me, they have much to give to the farm geese community, a community long deprived of well deserved consideration. What is more, they are my family. It is cruel and unusual to separate families from each other for any reason. Why, just the other day, one of my dear cousins was dragged off and slain by a fox! A fox, I tell you, which is practically an evil dog! It is more than fair, it is owed my kin! And so I say we should let them in!”

Very soon, all of the geese and chickens were in agreement, though the ducks were quiet on the matter, and tended to stay clumped at the back of the crowd during these meetings. Ducks fear conflict and loud noises. But they were concerned about their place in the pecking order; farm geese were bad enough, but wild geese were even bigger and decidedly louder. The other farm birds paid them no mind. They blustered and bawked and made a fuss. They hemmed and hawed about convening a council and making themselves heard. But bird folk are long on words and short on deeds. As flock creatures they are wary of leaving the pack and standing alone. No one goose or chicken was willing to approach the dogs and demand a meeting with the pigs. Sensing a dissipation of emotion, the crotchety goose became agitated and insolent, hissing and snapping at the farm geese who followed him, which in turn caused them to snip and snap at each other.

One late afternoon, just before bed time, the crotchety goose was down by the pond, pecking at water bugs and feeling sorry for himself.

There is a solution, Mr. Goose, and it is right under your beak…”

The crotchety goose flapped and trumpeted in alarm.

Who said that‽ Who is there‽ Leave me be or I will call the dogs! I’m a member of this Farm, you know!”

A youngish rat crept out of the long grass, surveyed the sky for prey birds and twitched her ears, listening for the plodding pant of a dog. Convinced of her safety, at least for the moment, the rat continued on.

You need a spokesbird, a messenger, to approach the dogs and pigs. We rats are your best friends on the farm. Indeed, it is we that secured your place here.”

The goose lowered his head to eye level with the crafty rodent.

Then why don’t you approach the pigs and dogs, friend rat, and make the cries of the often ignored geese heard?”

The rat, now standing on two legs to seem taller, gathered her scaly tail betwixt her claws and laughed nervously.

Would that I could! And if I could I certainly would! And though I should it’s understood that dogs hate rats because rats are good. So even though a good rat would, a good rat knows she never should!”

The goose was thoroughly confused by this torrent of word and rhyme. The rat, comfortably back in control of the conversation, continued:

Which is to say, this message must come from a goose. And I think, if you’ll think back, that there is, in fact, a perfect goose to carry this message to the pigs. Why, it is none other than the young goose who first helped you in…”

Who‽ Which goose‽ I am here because I am big and smart! I made a place for myself here! I owe no little farm goose any respect or, or, or anything! I owe no animal a thing! I deserve to be here!”

The rat smiled kindly, though her whiskers made a derisive twitch.

But of course, of course, magnificent Mr. Goose. Pay it no mind. I shall find a spokesgoose to carry the message of your kind.”

And with a twitch and flash, the rat was gone. Twilight was fast approaching, and the crotchety goose loathed the admonitions of the guard dogs, so he waddled his way back to his little throne in the goose pen.

Later that night, the rat crept into the goose pen, down the rows of snoozing birds, to the corner where the nearly forgotten young farm goose was trying to fall asleep. He was sad and sore, as no one paid him any mind and he could not find enough fresh straw for his bed. The rat watched him for a bit, then whispered softly into his ear hole.

Eloquent, courageous, young master goose. The time has come to carry the truth. The time is here for you to share the worries and concerns of your people fair. Approach the good king master goose, and offer your support to his just truth. Volunteer to speak to the pigs on behalf of him and all of the geese. Do this and you shall be elevated above all the other farm geese. This. I. swear.”

And with his message sown in the brain of the half drowsed goose, she crept away soft and silent, back to the haunt of her kind.

Morning came clear and bright. The young farm goose awoke, more refreshed than he had felt in days. He had dreamed dreams of grandeur and acclaim, with his very own train of adoring geese following him with love in their hearts and respect in their eyes. The young farm goose roosted a plan in his little bird brain. He knew that the crotchety goose was always late to rise and slow to get his own chores done. He tended to wait for a farm goose to offer to do them for him, and the young goose eschewed his own tasks to be the first in that line. The crotchety goose grunted in half-hearted appreciation at the offer of the young farm goose and promptly went back to sleep. As soon as the young farm goose was done with the extra chores, he went back to the crotchety goose who was circling around a coterie of young lady farm geese, complimenting their feathers. The young farm goose waited until his cousins scuttled off with fits of embarrassed giggles, then approached the prospective king of his kind.

Great and wise goose, I wish to volunteer my beak for our cause! I will carry your wise message to the pigs so that our people may take our rightful place on the Farm!”

The crotchety goose looked down with barely concealed bemusement upon the young farm goose for a moment, then dismissively assented to his request.

I don’t see why not. My ideas are so brilliant that it does not matter if some ignorant farm goose babbles them out to the pigs. The deeper wisdom will shine through. I therefore choose you, no, I command you to bring my message!”

The young farm goose was overjoyed at this fresh opportunity to impress the crotchety goose and raise his stature in the flock. After hastily finishing his own chores, he nervously approached a patrolling dog and requested an audience with the pigs. It was granted to him, and the following day he came before one of the council pigs. As the young farm goose stumbled his way through his memorized speech, the youngish rat whispered deviously into the pigs ear. The pig nodded slowly then interrupted the young farm goose.

Yes, yes, well said young master goose. I have heard enough to become intimately acquainted with the plight of the Forest geese. Indeed, it is a story I know well, and it breaks my heart. I shall convene a council and carry your message to the animals of the Farm. You are a credit to your kind.”

With that, the young pig turned away, followed by the youngish rat who continued to drip honeyed words into his ear.

And so it was that the most momentous meeting of the animals of the Farm was set into motion by a crafty rat, a naive goose, and a misguided pig.

An opportunity for good is an opportunity for evil, and intentions rarely matter.

THE FARM AND THE FOREST (PART II)

~2~

Discussing the Way Forward

Now see here, dog. I know very well the Rules of the Farm. What is more, I know why we have these rules. But this is the modern age, and in these times we must consider carefully this issue before us, no matter how strange it may seem.”

After the officious pig finished, the young hound lowered his head and went back to his station with the other dogs standing guard in front of the animals assembled in the clearing before the big barn.

Now, young master goose, tell me again why you believe this foreigner should be welcomed into our midst…”

A rat crouched quietly next to the pig, idly preening her wiry whiskers.

Mr. P-p-pig, I just think that if maybe we had an exotic goose of his stature and smarts it would only improve the lot of the Farm geese. We are smart and strong, but he is smarter and stronger!”

The assembled animals talked with their kin in low murmurs. At these meetings there was a natural segregation of the farm animals; like stood with like. The geese raised a clatter of support with much honking and flapping. Cries of “Bigger!”, “Exotic!”, and, “More smarterer!” rang out from their assembled flock.

Calm and silence will be had! Settle yourselves, animals of the Farm.”

The matronly German Shepherd slowly swung her snout back and forth after speaking, surveying the assembled animals, her low and steady growl paring the susurrus to silence. She had deep misgivings about this whole affair, and her heart of hearts urged her to quell this silliness immediately, maybe even going as far as wringing the neck of the big foreigner until he was dead, if she could catch him. But she knew her station and respected the law. When order was restored, show bowed her head in respect to the pig, who continued:

Young master goose, have you any more to say?”

The pig was stern, but there was no malice in his grunt. The young goose lowered his head, signaling that he had said his portion.

Very well. Go about your day, animals of this great and good Farm. We of the leadership shall deliberate for a time, then we will reconvene later. Go on then. Young pups, escort everyone back to their rightful places, please.”

The younger dogs sprang into action, yipping as they nudged the animals away from the clearing in front of the big barn. Soon, the only farm animals left were the chief three of the pigs, the dogs, the horses, and the rats.

I think… we should move to… The Porch.”

The workhorse was by far the largest creature on the Farm. His word carried immense weight, not only because of his labor, but because he was a wizened old hoof and had seen many years on the land. Nonetheless, this suggestion caused a small stir.

Would that be… acceptable to you… dog of the Farm?”

The matronly German Shepherd had a primal fear of a creature so large, but she was smart enough to bury that emotion.

Yes, oh lord of labor. I think the Porch is exactly where we should go. This is a matter of the greatest import. The all seeing eyes of the Farmer will be a blessing on this process.”

The rats rolled their eyes at the invocation of the Farmer, and one of the pigs went as far as to make a ill suppressed snort, but they all trooped over to the L shaped plank board porch and took their places. The horses stood nearby, idly cropping the tender shoots of shadow grass growing around the Porch. The rats made to creep up to the windowsill, but after a low growl from one of the dogs, they changed their course and gathered together on an old end table and preened each other’s fur, casting quick, malevolent glances at the three dogs now splayed and panting on the rug in front of the door. Once the pigs had clattered into place and knelt down on their hocks, the discussion began anew. The youngest of the three pigs started:

Well, I for one think this is an opportunity to bring the Farm even further into the future. It is no secret that the farm geese are… well… well they aren’t the sweetest slop in the trough. It seems to me that introducing some wild down into the flock would only add good things to the Farm.”

The rats squeaked their agreement, whispering to each other quickly. Another of the pigs nodded slowly and spoke.

That may be so, but it is still an unprecedented idea. In fact, one could even say it is a bit of a violation…”

It is a direct contravention of the Rules of the Farm,” snorted the female horse that had lifted her head as the first pig was speaking. After swinging her gaze from each of the assembled farm animals, she continued.

I do not say it is a definite bad thing, for I know very little of the idle labors of thinking, and I do not understand many of the Rules, but I do know that obeying the Rules has brought the Farm to where it is, and if the Rules say no outsiders, well, I am for the Rules. This I say for me, and all the other horses. We are agreed.”

By the time she had finished speaking, the other horses had raised their heads and ceased their cud chewing. Their large eyes were cold and certain. The matronly German Shepherd spoke next.

It is customary for we, the dogs, to not vote. It is for us to protect and to serve and to slay as the Rules and the animals of the Farm require. But I feel the need to say that this is not just a contravention of the Rules. It is a perversion of the ways of our beloved Farm. We should not, we cannot, allow outsiders such as these foreign geese into our midst. They do not know the Rules. They have no sense of our customs, and I feel it in my paws that they will cause disruption amongst the flocks. This is what my heart tells me. Regardless, we dogs abstain, as is customary and proper.”

The chief dog laid her head on her paws and waited to hear what the others would say in response to her admonition. Her two grown pups whined softly and nibbled at her scruff, a sign of adoration and respect in the manner of their kind. The second pig to speak nodded graciously at the matronly German Shepherd.

Well said, well said, sister dog. And much of what I feel is in agreement. To take this step would be a drastic change in precedent and custom. But I must say that we pigs feel, and the rats tend to agree, that it is time to bring the Farm into a more modern age. There is so much potential lurking in the Forest by the Farm, totally wasted on wandering and scrabbling for pitiful scraps. Imagine, friends, just imagine what we could accomplish once the wilds have been tamed and cultivated! Yes, the geese are rowdy and, dare I say what we all feel, a rather lazy bunch, but their down is priceless and their eggs are fat. We all know the Farmer looks favorably upon their Due. How could it be a bad thing to have fatter eggs and, er, downier geese? So we of the pigs say that this bold endeavor should be our course. This makes it three for yes, three for no, and three abstentions. Now, we will hear from the rats.”

An arrow of misgiving pierced the heart of the matronly German Shepherd. Had her deep respect for traditions opened the door to calamity? She had no pretensions of wisdom or forethought, but anxiety crept in, and quickly on its heels, doubt. Maybe the old traditions were failing them, if such obvious evil was so easily accepted. The rats looked at each other quickly, then to the young pig who had put forth the motion who snorted ponderously. They each stood on their hind legs with their noses thrust in the air.

Abstain.”

Abstain.”

…yes.”

Then it is settled. Dogs of the Farm, gather our friends and siblings.”

Generations of obedience overwhelmed the sorrow in their hearts, and the three leaders amongst the dogs bolted away to do as they were commanded. The Horses looked down their long noses at the rats, whickered softly, and turned as one to march back to the clearing in front of the barn. Once they had turned the corner, the pigs swiveled their eyes toward the three rats.

Well rats, you had better be right about this. The dogs and horses are not happy. Are you certain that you can control these… outsiders?”

The largest of the rats, big and fat and darker than the rest, twitched his nose, nibbled an itch on his flank, and responded in the curtness of their kind.

Certain.”

It is a hard thing to see a threat disguised as a blessing, and harder still to convince others of it.

The Farm and the Forest (Part I)

~1~

How It All Began To End

It all started when a crotchety goose and his gaggle of ruffians, hailing from parts unknown, landed in the Pond on the edge of the Farm. The Pond was divided by the fence, leaving a small portion just outside the bounds of the Farm, its bank up against the edge of the Forest. The small flock did not stay long, as a young German Shepherd saw them land. He hollered out to his sister and they both ran pell-mell to the pond, barking loudly and scaring off the foreigners, who flapped wildly up over the fence and into the edge of the Forest. As his gaggle spread out warily looking for seeds and bugs, the crotchety goose surveyed the Farm with malice and jealousy in his heart. He wanted to swim in the pond, gorge on the grain, and find some nice lady farm geese with which to cavort.

A young goose, all white and rather small for his age, watched this kerfuffle unfold with awe and curiosity. He always had to wait in line behind his bigger brothers and sisters for his share of grain. He stayed up late and listened to the whispering of the rats. He hated the dogs and their scary teeth. But most of all, he hated the rules of the Farm. Why should he have to wait his turn for grain? Who were the pigs to tell him where to sleep and when to eat? Why should the horses and sheep tell him where he could waddle? So this young goose was angry, sullen, and lonely, and when the big goose and his wild gaggle landed in the pond, his heart soared. He was too slow to get there before those meddling dogs ruined the fun, so he moved along the fence, hoping to catch another glimpse of the big, tough foreigners.

Just as the crotchety goose was about to turn away, he heard a rather squeaky honk. There was a young farm goose waddling along the fence, bobbing his head up and down excitedly. He made his way slowly over to the fence, wary of any dogs seeing him. The young farm goose hopped from one foot to the other. Unable to contain his excitement, he honked once, then cowered in fear when the big foreigner hissed and flapped his wings in anger.

Quiet, you silly fool! Do you want the wolf dogs to return and chase me away again?”

The farm goose was embarrassed.

I-I-I am sorry, foreigner. Why have you come to the Farm? From where did you come? Oh, I have so many questions!”

The crotchety goose looked down on the Farm animal and sensed an opportunity.

And I may have many answers for you, young one. But to get, you must give and…”

The farm goose was taken aback.

You know of the Rules of the Farm, foreigner?”

Without missing a beat, the crotchety goose continued on haughtily:

I know many things, youngster. I am a wild goose, and we are the smartest of all creatures. If you would like answers, you must bring me gifts of grain and seed. Go now. I will be waiting here after the sun goes to sleep.”

The farm goose shifted nervously from foot to foot.

Um, ah, see… the Rules say no wandering at night…”, the foreign goose looked disappointedly away, wuffling from his nostrils in derision, “But! But, I am the freest of the Farm geese, and I do not follow the Rules, if I do not want. I will bring the grain!”

And with that, the young goose waddle-flopped merrily on his way. Later that night, he snuck out of the goose pen, gathered up some fresh grain and barleycorns, and quietly made his way back to the pond. It took him some time to see the big fellow staring intently at him through the slats of the fence.

Did you bring me what I deserve?”

Yes!”, the farm goose’s loud, squeaky honk caused the foreigner to hiss angrily. Quieter:

Yes. I brought you fresh grains and barleycorns. The best the Farm has to offer.”

As soon as the young farm goose laid down his gift, the foreign goose snapped them up greedily, leaving none for him.

Mmm, delicious. Exactly what I deserve. Now, tell me youngster, are there things you would like to know?”

So many things! So very many things! What is it that-”

The foreigner cut him short.

Then you must find a way to get me a spot in that dreary little hutch you call home.”

The farm goose was nonplussed. Not only was he crestfallen at this unexpected turn of events, he had no idea how he could get a foreign goose a place on the Farm. The crotchety goose stared at the farm goose hard, swinging each eye to look at him in turn, then turned and waddled over to the unfenced part of the pond where his gaggle slept comfortably with their beaks tucked under their wings at the edge of the dark and wild Forest. The farm goose watched him go, then made his way back to the hutch. Narrowly avoiding a young pup on patrol, he snaffled a few more barleycorns and settled down to contemplate as he fell asleep.

Interesting… very interesting…”, a dark, fat rat said quietly to himself before scurrying off quickly to the haunt of his kind.

Sometimes, to get what we want we have to give more than we have.


[Part two coming soon…]

The Chittering

Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound save for the rustling of the lonesome wind. The men were two in number, one middle aged and the other graying about the temples, languidly smoking a cigarette and listening to the portable radio he’d set up inside the bunker. Phil sat fiddling with the radio, it hissing white-noise in bitter hums between channel emissions. The Sandhill Crane is exceptionally large, reaching heights of 7 feet and possessed of red coloring about its eyes-; hiss; the Brown Bear can often be found-; hiss; “I wish a buck was still silver. It was back when the country was strong. Back before Elvis. Before the Vietnam war came along. Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday.’ When a man could still work, still would. The best of the free life behind us now. And are the good times really over for good?”

“Phil,” the younger man intoned with vexation, “Would you mind changing the channel?”

“What’s the matter, Tom, don’t like country?”

“Nobody likes country music.”

“Heresy.”

Tom raised his head from the elegant scribbling of the notebook, brows arching in reproachment.

“Fine, fine. Changing it. Can’t believe you don’t like Merle Haggard. Didn’t know better, I’d assume you weren’t American.” He switched the dial. Silence, then a voice, sonorous and official of tone.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking news: mysterious sights seen over the town of Holdover, Nebraska. These reports come to us straight from our reporter on the ground, Emily Curtis who we have here on livefeed. Ah, hello, Emily, what are these ‘mysterious sightings’ really all about?”

“Good evening, Chris. To answer your question it’s hard to say. We recently interviewed several people who have reported glimpsing a strange creature, moving about the trees. Some say it had wings, though most say it was too dark to see but-“

A old voice, croaky and filled with agitation cut in.

“They’ll shake their heads and laugh, but goddammit I know what I saw! Its there! ITS THERE!”

When the newswoman had recovered her composure she interjected in befuddlement.

“Who are you, sir?”

“Cooper Greene.”

“What’s there? What is it that you saw in the woods, Mr. Greene?”

“Well,” he calmed some and the sound of a beard being stroked could be heard over the airwaves, “I caint rightly say as I know what it were. Weren’t human, I kin tell ya that. No, ma’am.”

“Well, alright, there you have it, Chris. Emily Cochran reporting for National Vita, back to you Chris.”

“Thanks Emily. What a curious story,” the news anchor could barely contain his amusement, “Moving on, noted motivational instructor, Christopher Wisdom challenges noted ophthalmologist to a fencing match – the twist, the fencing match will take place on a hockey rink-“

“Well, hell, what do you make of that,  Tom?

“Strange spot for a fencing match.”

“No, meant the business in the forest. You know they were talking ’bout Offstead Park, right? That means they were talking about this forest, our forest. According to that old timer, there’s some kinda… thing hereabouts.”

Tom gave his companion a looked of utter indifference.

“He sounds like the kind of fellow that’d think the earth was flat.”

“Come on, you have to admit, its weird.”

“What is? A soused hilljack leaping at shadows? Hardly out of the ordinary.”

“Come on, you know what I’m talking about. This is the eighteenth sighting in the past month. Ain’t normal. Something’s going on.”

“What do you fancy that something is?”

“Hell if I know,” Phil took a puff of his cigarette and a sip of his beer as he leaned back in the ancient wicker chair, the upholstery creaking neath his burly frame, “Could be anything, but it sure as shit ain’t nothing.”

“Ain’t nothing ain’t much of something.”

“Sometimes I think you just like being contrarian. Like when Frank was telling us about that haunted house.”

“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Sometimes I wonder what you do believe in.”

“Pretty rich coming from a lapsed Catholic.”

Phil threw up his hands in exasperation, set his beer down with a decisive clink and turned to his compatriot.

“Listen, I’m not saying its spooks and goblins, I’m just saying I’ve heard about this kinda stuff, read about it too and there are just too many things that we can’t explain and dismiss out of hand. Back in 2021 there was an unidentified object over the pacific, US battle cruisers couldn’t get a bead on it, one of them said it looked like a giant bat with glowing eyes, had no idea what it was but it jammed their signal; 2023, four children said they saw a winged creature over their farmstead in Appalachia; 2029, 15 different people in Iowa claim they received strange phone calls where some fella up and tells them that there’s to be a death in the town in seven days, seven days come and pass and some young beauty is murdered by her boyfriend, crime of passion, or so they said. You just telling me all those people who corroborated each other’s stories were making it all up?”

“Not necessarily, though that would be more believable to me than a giant glowing bat that can signal-jam a battle cruiser. Could be mass delusion, could be their eyes deceived them and they made up a story after the fact to explain it. In India, there was a holy man who millions believed could heal the lame and wake the dead.”

“Well… maybe he could.”

“Yeah, and maybe the moon is made of cheese.”

“Now see, why ya gotta be that way?”

“Ain’t being no way.”

“Hell if ya ain’t. If I offered you two strippers, a pole and a case of black label, you’d assume it was a prank.”

“Knowing you, I probably would. You’d never shill out that much money for a couple of broads. Now the black label, that I’d believe.”

They exchanged smiles but Phil’s vanished quicker than his friends; he shook his head.

“Well, I ain’t one ta argue,” the older man noticed Tom was massaging his temple, blinking rapidly, “You alright?”

“Fine. Just a migraine. Head’s starting to pound all of a sudden. Must be the pressure from the elevation. Probably just not used to the altitude.”

Phil took a long drag on his cigarette and then bent to change the dial yet again, before his hand could reach it, the hissing of radio-static overtook the channel.

“Aw, dammit. Lost the signal.”

“Would you mind turning that thing off? My head’s gonna explode. Where’s the Motrin?”

“I’m trying, the dial is stuck,” Phil huffed under his breath, furrowing his brows with consternation as he tussled with the whirring machine, “Come on, you sonofabitch…”

Tom slammed his notebook shut and rose, passing the hunting rifles and coolers of beer and bottled water, and moved towards the door. Massaging his temples still, more forcefully now, face flush and a slight sweat beginning to break upon his brow, despite the frigidity of the old bunker.

“I’m going out. Taking a walk. Let me know when you’ve got that thing under control.”

“Aight. Just don’t go too far, wouldn’t want you falling down a mineshaft or stepping in a bear trap.”

Tom nodded and snatched a flashlight off his desk, threw on his Carhartt jacket, strapped his homemade knife-sheath to his belt and left the bunker. Outside the rusted construct a chill wind blew undergirded by the swelling cacophony of the forest’s multitudinous host. The building was situated in a small clearing, the ground, damp and mossy, here and there a stone, smooth and the height of a man’s shin, laying like the eggs of some gargantuan beast, calcified in some cataclysm beyond all reckoning. Oak and willows surrounding, heavy with slithering vine, scratching the sky as if in vengeful protestation of its withdrawal of the sun. Moonlight shown through the boughs, illuminating efts and mew alike and them skittering off into the darkness with the faintest of fey rustlings, the scent of mud and bark and wet stone heavy in the air.

Tom Callahan stretched and breathed deep the sweet scents and gazed up unto the night sky, his cold blue eyes shimmering with the reflections of the lunar disk, white as bone. His head was feeling better already. Lungs swelled with sweet mountain air. Skin caressed by the soothing filaments of the northern wind. He decided at length to look around. The bunker was a recent discovery and the duo had never scoped out the old quarry which they had seen from a distance when they had tracked a deer the previous morning. Curiosity swelled in his breast and without wasting any time he spun on a heel and left off to the north. He strode over tumultuous hillocks, then descended down a steep bank, once a mighty river that twined like a sorrowful and desiccated serpent, down onto a flat and trammeled plain of grey stone that crunched with every measured footfall, like a bevvy of pulpy chitin.

Callahan gazed about in wonderment at the quarry. It was more a place out of some fantastical eldritch workshop than a thing of known materiality, so queer-lit and ambiguously skeletal in its stony laylines of dryrent earth. Everywhere were large boulders, some standing thrice the height of any mortal man, they rooted to their respective moonshine and shade. As he approached, the wayfarer discerned yet another peculiarity about the wide, square boulder, strewn and stony expanse; small piles of bones. Animals of all habitats and morphologies, toads, newts, boar, deers, birds of many variations and, here and there, the great horned totem of a elk.

“What on earth,” he mouthed to himself as the wind swept up.

He drew closer to the nearest skull pile which had been carefully situated beneath a high rock outcropping which let down into a echoing cavern. Atop the bird, deer and elk skulls sat a horrid effigy.

A human skull.

Instinctively, unthinkingly, Callahan flinched and drew back, muttering a curse underneath his breath, quivering much from fear as from the wind’s savage increase. A cold, liquid dread slithered up his spine and coiled about his reptilian ganglia. Then, as if from a dream, eyes like flashing embers shone through the inky voided architecture of the cave. A great and terrible entity sprang forth, wings liken to the wings of a mighty sphinx, its body towering over the man, eclipsing him in its shade, as if the light were there leeched from his very essence.

The man screamed, turned heel and ran into the failing light as twisting tendrils of cloud slowly consumed the moon.

*

Phil watched the television’s techno-colored dance and fondled his everpresent cigarette and discount beer as Tom flipped furiously through the hefty stack of tomes he’d checked out from the local Offstead Library. There were only four other people in the bar and all of them eyed Tom nervously.

“They’re staring.”

“Cuz they think you’re crazy.”

“I know what I saw.”

“That’s just what Greene said.”

“It’s not like they gave me the time of day, they’d moved on from the story.”

“Yeah, but you know how word travels. Look you know I trust you, but you’re getting too worked up about this. Haven’t even been to work since you saw, well, whatever it was you saw.”

“I’ve got new work to do now,” he muttered under his breath with vexation, peering at a series of black and white photograph on the page of one of his library books. Depicted were a strange humanoid looking creature, some eight feet tall, with round, glowing eyes, it appeared to be cognizant of the camera and, in the very last photograph, it vanished. The book noted it was the product of a hoax.

Gasping, Tom slide the book across the table to Phil.

“Look. This thing looks like what I saw.”

“Hell, Tom, you can barely see anything, could just be a man on stilts with a reflective mask. Says right here it was it was confirmed to be fake.”

Tom flipped to the previous page, “What about the fact that these sightings have a history dating back to the 1700s?”

“Tom, people see all kinds a thing in the woods out there. One time when I was out deer hunting I swore I saw a dinosaur, turned out to be a log sitting at a weird angle. Tricks of light and shadows,” He gestured sadly at the pile of books, “I just don’t see the use in all of this.”

Tom grimaced and slammed the book shut. “I don’t see the use in talking to you either. I thought you of all people would believe me.”

Phil held out his hand in entreaty, “Now, come on, don’t be that way. Tom!”

Tom ignored him and packed his book into the backpack sitting on the floor beside the bar. He ignored everyone as he left. He ignored the cold of the moon as he made his way back to the library which had become something like a second home to him since the sighting at the cave. The street was quite and the ghastly shell of the lunar disk peeked around high billowing nimbus, it reminded him of when he had seen it. He moved on with a wary eye and quickening feet. Suddenly a black shape drifted out from the shadows and screeched horridly. The world seemed to stop in its turning and Tom gave a shuddering gasp and fell straight back off his feet to the flat of his back, quickly peering up only to discover a large, unruly black cat starring back at him. He hissed at the beast until it ran off, then rolled his eyes and made his way across the deserted street to the library.

It was a old building, all of colonial brick, some of it crumbling and all in desperate need for repair. He passed beyond the high oaken double doors and passed the librarian who gave him a hesitant wave and then returned to watching the small portable television screen which had been set up at the front desk. Beyond the foyer, with its reception desk and low, flickering lights, and low, moldered ceiling and alabaster colored crenellations, lay the library proper, with fifty five rows of bookshelves standing about the room like dutiful sentries and the walls all likewise covered in the same. Tom adjusted his pack about his shoulder and scanned the books until he found one titled ‘Unexplained’ then he picked out a few more books and took them to his usual sitting place upon the upper landing nearest the southern-most corner.

Some twenty minutes into his venture the sound of footsteps intruded upon him. He looked up to behold a old man dressed in mangy flannel and tattered jeans. He was bearded and graying, gaunt, wild-eyed and possessed the look of one who had lived too long without company. The man pocketed his hands and stood a moment in silence before addressing the bookworm.

“You Tom Callahan?”

“Yeah. I recognize your voice, you’re Greene right, Cooper Greene?”

“Word sure does travel fast in this town, don’t it. Pleased to meet ya. I saw you climbing the stairs and thought I’d say hello. You mind if I sit?”

“No, go right ahead. Chairs here are public property, I don’t own um.”

The man gave a tired little laugh and set himself down opposite Callahan. After another few moments of uneasy silence the old man affixed Callahan with a curious gaze.

“They all laughed at ya, didn’t they?”

“What?”

“Because a what ya said. Cuz of what ya saw.”

“Not much laughing, more like a whole lot of staring and whispering. No one believes me. My best friend said the shadows were playing tricks on me, wife told me that I’m just stressed out from working too hard, the reports I tried to talk to just waved me off as a crazy, said the story wasn’t a story, said it wasn’t worth covering, my kid said I was being silly. Even my fucking kid, doesn’t believe me, man. But you saw it, didn’t you, that thing.”

The old man nodded solemnly and looked out the window into the resting darkness beyond the pane. Out off into the blackening woodlands where an eerie mist was rising like the tentacles of a great, beached kraken.

“Yeah. I saw it. Went through the same. Boss told me to take time off, said I was bringing too many reporters to the office, said I was too distracted, that I wasn’t thinking clearly. Hell do they know? They weren’t there. They don’t know nothing. I just wanted to tell ya that, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how smart the people ya know are, they will never, and I mean NEVER, believe you, unless you walk into the sheriff’s office with that monster’s body slung about ya shoulder, ain’t no one ever gonna believe ya story, or mine.”

“You suggesting we go hunting?”

“Maybe I am, maybe I ain’t. Wouldn’t matter none until I hear your opinion.”

They held each others eyes for some time; the old man was intensive, determined whilst Callahan faltered under the weight of his uncertainty. He remembered the jeering voices of his wife then, of Phil, of his son, of his coworkers, his boss, his neighbors and the reporters he’d contacted. They’d all scoffed. Mocked him for weeks and weeks after that fateful encounter; everyone had turned on him. Eschewed him. Everyone but Greene.

At last Callahan fully met the old man’s eyes.

“I think a hunting trip sounds like a fine idea.”

*

Phil leaned back in his seat examining the woman with a cautious eye. He didn’t quite know what to say, words escaped him. Had she been any person other he wouldn’t have believed her, but Tom’s wife wouldn’t lie. Not about him. Not about this.

“He what now?”

“He left. Didn’t even phone me or David. How could he? I just don’t understand any of this.”

“Well, hell, Cathy, I wish I did. I knew he was worked up about… whatever it was he thinks he saw out there, but I had no idea it was eating him up this much. When did he leave?”

“Late last night. Said he was going out to the bar, with you. I called him and he said he had left the bar, that he’d went to the library to study about whatever it was he saw.”

“What he thought he saw.”

Cathy sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing her weathered and sun-kissed face with her palms and falling into stony silence for a beat. Then she raised her head and looked out the window of the tiny little burger joint at the dewy drops of rain, pecking away at the surrounding arboreal tarp.

“I just can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, he means the world to me.”

Phil nodded gravely, “I know, Cat. I know. Ya know he used to save me from fights. At school,” he paused a moment, took a bite of his burger, found it tasteless and greasy, set it down, swallowed and looked again to the woman. She was crying now, shaking her head.

“You like Merle Haggard, Cat?”

“What?”

“The singer. Ya like him?”

“Oh, gosh I haven’t listened to him in years. Not my cup of tea.”

“Not you too.”

“Too campy. Ya know, kitsch.”

Phil shook his head. “Well, then what all do ya like? Caint believe we never talked music before.”

“Townes Van Zandt.”

“He’s good, lonesome sonofabitch, but he’s pretty good.”

She at last broke out into a tired smile, chuckling faintly under her breath, then falling still. Her mind turning back to her husband and the dark woods into which he had fled. Abruptly, Phil placed his hand atop her own and leaned slightly forwards, the better to meet her gaze.

“You gotta calm down, I know he’s been agitated but he can take care a hisself. Now listen, I’m going to head up there, to our bunker, see if he’s holed up, if not I’ll look around the woods a bit. He can’t stay out there in those forsaken woods forever, he’s far too fond a that famous… hell, what do you call it?”

She smiled the slightest ghost of smile and spoke in a thankful whisper.

“Foie gras.”

“Yeah. That’s the one. Ole Tom always did love that Frog food.”

“Thank you, Phil. Just, be careful.”

He nodded, rose from the booth, threw on his jacket and headed for the door.

*

The old man’s cabin was littered with crushed empty cans which rattled like wind-rapt bones, the walls covered corner to corner with red-lined newspaper clippings. In the center of the tiny hovel stood but a single wooden table, two rickety folding chairs and a single lantern that looked as if it was dredged up from some ancient silver mine. In the left-most corner lay a foam mat, a pillow, a backpack and a hunting rifle poorly concealed beneath the bedding. Nothing else in that creaking den but the two men who stood a moment, engulfed in fear and uncertainty. At length the old man moved to the southern wall and drew a grease stained finger across one of the newspaper clippings, “1978, strange creature spotted in woods beyond Offstead,” he drew his finger further across the wall, closer to Tom where he stood beside the doorway, “1998, another sighting, this time someone got a good look at it, massive black wings he said,” again the old man drew his finger further across the wall with more verve, “2010, two kids say they seen a monster in the woods, but they’re kids, so who would believe um. And now, its back. Or maybe, it never left.”

Tom nodded indecisively. He wasn’t certain that the old man’s tales were all true but he knew what he had seen in that cave and that was enough. One’s own eyes do not lie.

“If that’s the case,” Tom stated grimly, as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder, “Then we had best get a move on.”

*

The moonlit duo moved across the uneven ground like brigands skirting the law after some devious heist; hardly making a sound as they traipsed beneath the wind-twisted boughs of the forest groaning. The shrubbery seemed to obscure all manner of life which skittered and chittered here and thereabouts, yet never revealing itself unto them. Always in shadows. After some twenty minutes of trekking they made their way to the old quarry and passed beyond the piles of bones, illuminated in ghastly effulgence by the radiance of the celestial spheres. Standing before the cave the two men raised their rifles and exchanged anxious looks and nodded one to the other and passed into that infernal portal. There was nothing. The whole of the skull littered cave was devoid of sentience save their own. They left out of the chasm shortly and there heard a rustling, unlike those which had previously sounded, some ways off in the distance, cutting through the silence of the starry night with all the force of some mad executioner’s blade.

“You hear that?” Greene whispered to his compatriot. Tom nodded without speaking or turning; he realized suddenly his hands were shaking. It was close. He could feel it. Out there. In the blackness. In the shadow. In the null space which beckoned to him like some self-planned tomb. Watching him with those blazing eyes of fathomless fire.

Tom gestured for the old man to be silent and pressed his rifle-butt to his shoulder, dropping to a knee and scanning the treeline. The boughs rustled with the breeze and the shrubbery shook with the faintest breath of the wind. Tom’s heart leapt in it’s bony cage as he realized with terror that there was something moving through the bushes, moving out between the trees. A huge, looming shadowy thing, walking forth with the crunching of stick and stone with all the stolid confidence of an alpha predator.

“It’s here,” Greene mouthed breathlessly, crouching down behind a grassy hummock upon which Tom had laid himself out on his stomach. Tom’s hands shook upon the trigger and stock of the rifle as he steadied his mind and calmed his nerves. There would only be one chance to get it. This was the moment to prove what he’d saw, this was the moment where he would show them. He’d show them all how foolish they were for refusing to believe him. For telling him he was losing it. For saying he was mad.

“It’s coming out of the trees!” Greene hissed.

“Keep your goddamned voice down.”

The thing picked up speed as it descended a bushy incline and broke through the most dense portion of the treeline. Tom took a deep breath, aimed and pulled the trigger. The shadow-beast flinched and fell back into the shrubbery and scrambled across the ground. Greene took aim now and fired a volley into the darkness until the skittering had subsided.

Then all was silent save for the whistling of the wind. Tom and Greene exchanged dire looks, nodded and rose from their hilly perch, trudged across the mossy ground and peered behind the bushes. They froze in abject horror at the sight which then greeted their eyes.

A human body lay in a twisted heap upon the ground, a large red hole showing grisly and raw upon the abdomen. What little was left of the man’s head leaked out bits of brain and silver-black rheum upon the cool, lichen-wrought ground and somewhere a crow cawed in the darkness as if in acknowledgement of some soul’s passage into the underworld. Tom tore at his hair as he starred down at the body; it was familiar to him, dreadfully familiar.

It was Phil.