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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene twenty six

Something woke Tom very early. There was light in the morning air, but it was just enough to turn everything a deep blue gray. He raised his head from where he lay on the porch and strained across the distance to the pond. At first he saw nothing, and he thought he must have been dreaming, but as he continued to search, a form emerged, backed partially by the tall grass that rimmed the pond. A fragile little whitetail doe, her legs delicate and impossibly thin, stood perfectly still. Her neck was stretched as tall as possible, and she gazed directly at the porch. Tom froze and observed her. Her chest and body seemed tight, like a loaded spring, and Tom could tell that she knew something wasn’t right, there was a presence at her water hole that was foreign. After a minute or so, she turned her head and looked back across the pond, her body still at the ready for flight at any second. Her ears focused towards the west for another minute, and then almost imperceptibly her body lost tension and she walked toward the pond, lifting her feet high, and putting them down carefully, almost as if she didn’t want dew from the grass to wet her ankles. She lowered her head and drank for a few seconds, then brought it up with lightning speed and stared at some menace off in the field that Tom was unable to hear. She stood at vibrating attention for a moment, then relaxed and took another drink, her front legs knock kneed as she bent. When she’d finished, she turned and took two steps back towards the house. Cat moved in his sleep a few inches, and in the moment Tom looked sideways at him, then back, the deer was gone, vanishing into the dusky morning like a spirit in the wind.

Cat dozed later than he normally did, and by the time he woke, Tom had a fire built from pieces of wood he’d scrounged from trees and bushes, siding from the house, and anything else he could find. Cat dressed quickly, like he was embarrassed to have slept almost until sun up. “I was tired, man, I was out like a light, and I don’t think I moved all night,” said Cat. Tom laughed, “Gave me time to get this fire built. Cat walked down to the pond. A thin layer of white mist covered the surface of the pond, and he paused and looked at it for a few seconds before bending and raising a few handfuls of water to his face, “Whoo, son of a bitch is that ever cold,” he said after he’d finished. He used the sides of his hands to squeegee away most of the water, then stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the pond. After a few seconds he squatted down, butt on heels and looked into the pond in front of him. “I’ll be goddamned, there are millions of fingerling minnows right here pecking through the dust I stirred up.” Quickly he stood and walked back to the house. Tom watched him take his knife out and cut the rusty bottom square of the screen from the front door of the house. He poked a hole in each corner, then searched in his bag until he came out with a tight little ball of orange baling string. Tom watched him purposefully and efficiently work, both confused and interested all at once. Cat tied a length of string to each corner, then brought them all together and knotted them together, forming a dip net. He walked back down to the pond and stuck his hand in and muddled the bottom furiously, then he quickly pushed the screen flat to the bottom in a foot of water, and squatted at the edge of the pond holding the ends he’d tied together. “Hey Tom, could you bring me your biggest pot?” Tom had already taken it out earlier, what in the hell is he doing? Tom sat the fire blackened pot on the shoreline next to Cat. He watched Cat squatting and holding the net strings, then he stood quickly and drew the screen up as fast as he could. Fifty or so shiny minnows about three inches long bounced and wiggled frantically in the bottom of the screen net. He made a funnel of one end and poured them into the pot, then muddled the water and repeated the process over and over until the pot was nearly full. Finally Tom’s curiosity got the best of him, “Bait?” he said it as a question. Cat smiled, “Gourmet breakfast.” Tom looked at the pot full of little silver fish, confused, “But how are we going to clean them?” Cat picked up the pot and walked back to the fire, “We aren’t.”

Cat built a little rack from rocks and put the biggest frying pan over the hottest part of the fire and heated a thick layer of oil. Once it was hot he scooped a big double handful of the minnows into the pan. They sizzled and popped, and where oil escaped the pan and hit the fire below, flashes of tall yellow flame surged up. He stirred them for a minute or so and then scooped them out with two forks into another pan. He repeated the process until all the fish were cooked. They looked like little golden brown french fries, the fins burned on the edges. He scattered salt and pepper on them and popped one into his mouth. Tom watched him for a reaction, Cat shook his head very slowly back and forth, and said “Mmm, hmmm,” in appreciation of the fish. Tom listened to the fish crunch in his mouth, and his face must have shown horror, because after Cat swallowed, he said, “Tom…it’s basically tiny, fried, fresh sardines, just a baby version.” He grabbed another and popped it into his mouth. Tom could hear it crunching like a potato chip. He grabbed one of his own and held it by its miniature little tail and looked closely at it, french fried minnows… He popped it into his mouth just as he’d seen Cat do, and crunched it up. As badly as he wanted to be disgusted and spit it was not only good, it was delicious. Cat saw the surprise on his face, “See? I told you they’re good.” In minutes they were all gone. Cat took the pans down to wash them and refill them with water to boil for drinking. “How the hell did you figure out that minnow trick?” Said Tom. Cat threw a handful of orange gravel into the pan and started scrubbing it, “I don’t think I’ve ever figured anything out all on my own in my life,” he laughed, “when I ended up in Indiana instead of Florida that time, I saw a couple of twelve year old kids doing it with one of their dads. They let me try one, and it was delicious. I've been doing it every chance I get ever since then.”

They filled every available pan with pond water to boil for drinking, and sat them by the fire, which was out. “We’re gonna have to boil this water, I don’t want to take the chance of drinking it and getting sick,” said Cat. He squatted down and tapped a pot full of water with his fingers, causing rings to ripple, “It looks good and clear, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.” He grabbed a pack of cigarettes and his lighter that had been sitting on the ground where he'd eaten and shook one up and out, then grabbed it with his lips and lit it. “Ain’t much for wood around here, might have to go on a little quest.” They started walking around the house in ever widening circles. The dead and yellowed grass was tall for the first hundred feet around the house, and Tom found two pieces of weather grayed two by fours about a foot long, and he was able to carefully break off a small armful of dead rose bushes from around the house, their thorns long and sharp even in death. He was carrying them back to the fire when he heard Cat scream, “Goddamn it you son of a bitches.” He ran around the corner of the house and fell to his knees next to the fire holding his forehead with both hands and rocking. He didn’t speak, just made a long, loud growling sound. “What in the hell is going on?” Tom said. Cat answered with an even louder growl, and shot his hand, palm toward Tom, directly at him, as if to say, shut up. Even though it was still cool, sweat glistened on the back of Cat’s neck and the cords on the side of his neck were tight and straining under his skin. Tom was confused, “Can I help you?” Cat had stopped growling and was just rocking, “Get a glob of wet mud from the pond…” Tom hurried over and scooped a hardball sized gob of black, tarry mud from the bottom of the pond, then hurried back. He stood above the rocking man, droplets of black pond scum dripping at his feet. “Here you go.” When Cat sat up to take it, Tom could see his eyes swelling shut, and his forehead was thick, and red was showing through his dark skin. “What in the hell happened?” Cat smeared the black mud on his forehead and between his eyes. He looked like a manic ash Wednesday participant. “I went to break off a dead bush back there and must’ve bumped a bee’s nest, those great big black bastards with white heads. They came right at my eyes and hit me three or four times before I even had a chance to react. Son of a bitch this hurts,” he growled loudly again, and the growl held frustration more than anger. “My fucking eyes are already just slits. I was really hoping to get back to at least a road today, but I can barely see.” Tom grabbed his pack and dug out the ibuprofen. He gave 4 of them to Cat. “These will help with the pain and swelling a little, are you allergic?” Cat took the ibuprofen from Tom, “No, but I’m allergic to being fucking blind from these bastards though. Goddamn it, shoulda seen it coming.”

Cat sat on the porch with the mud packed on top of the stings, and a wet sock that Tom had given him over the top of that. Tom boiled the water, let it cool, and filled both of their jugs. The morning cool and breeze had given way to calm, and rapidly rising heat. The sky was pale yellow, and the scent of smoke hung over everything. Tom squinted into the far north, but couldn’t see the plume of smoke that was so obvious the afternoon before. After the water was boiled and stored he packed everything away, then sat on the porch by Cat. “How’s it feeling?” he asked. Cat sat up from where he’d been reclined on his pack. “It doesn’t feel as tight and hot, but I still feel little stabs of electric pain here and there, but it’s getting better. How are your ribs?” Tom rotated his torso with his arms straight out to the side. “They’re still a little sore, but nothing like a couple days ago. I bet by the day after tomorrow I’ll be 100%.” Cat dropped the wet sock onto the porch and walked down to the pond. He bent at the waist and scooped water with both hands up to wash the mud away. When he turned, Tom could see the damage the bees had done. His lids were so swollen that he could barely see Cat’s eyes deep back inside the red flesh like shiny glints of marbles pushed deep into smooth clay. His forehead was thick and tight, like it had been injected with some sort of fluid. When he reached the porch, Cat stopped and looked at Tom, the side of his face and ear still a ghastly combination of purple and yellow and black, and Tom stared back at Cat’s tight forehead and swollen eyes. For a long moment they looked at each other, only their breath audible, and then, as if they’d both heard the punchline of a joke at the same moment, they started laughing uncontrollably. Every so often they’d get their laughter under control, and then a second later they’d be hysterical again. Finally they caught their breath. Cat sat down and lit a cigarette. “What a sight we must be.” He said.

By ten o’clock they were back on the tracks, following along. The smell of smoke was strong, and the haze in the sky had turned the sun a dusty orange tone, which in turn caused the air to appear manilla yellow. “Two days ago it was so goddamn windy out here you had to lean into it to keep from blowing away, now, when we need to clean this smoke off, nothing,” said Cat. They’d fallen into stepping exactly the same speed again, from tie to tie, and they had an unspoken urgency to their steps, they both felt it. Maybe it was because the landscape showed no mark of progress because there were no landmarks to measure progress against, or maybe it was a desire to see something, anything, that gave them direction, or maybe it was the uneasy feeling that the fire they smelled was going to sweep across the prairie and burn over them. Whatever it was, they walked with purpose, without talking, their breathing rhythmic and loud. For over an hour they kept a steady and aggressive pace. The air was still and calm, and the smoke settled in like a burning fog, turning their eyes red, and making their throats sore and scratchy. Tom felt a strange sense of reverse claustrophobia. The space they were walking through was so large, so expansive, that it seemed endless, and with the smoke beginning to limit the distance of his vision, it was like he was walking in a dreamscape. He had to fight the desire to break into a run, he needed to get somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t flat, dead, open prairie. Just before noon Cat pointed and said, “Well looky there.” Through the haze of smoke stood a massive weeping willow, its sad branches hanging like the black hair of a huge monster. “If we’re coming to a tree this size, we’re probably not too far from civilization. You wanna break for a second and get a bite to eat?” Cat’s eyes were still just slits, his forehead thick as a slice of ham. They walked down off the tracks and put their packs on the ground under the tree. Where the pack straps had rested on their shoulders was sweat, and even though it was warm, the sweat streaks felt cool. “Let’s just eat something quick, and get a drink. I know it’s probably nothing, but this smoke is freaking me out.”

They sat with their backs against the thick trunk of the willow and split a can of tuna, and ate two granola bars apiece. Tom kicked a hole in the brown duff with his heel and put the can and wrappers in and covered them. The food, water, and rest helped to calm him, but the smoke was ever present and they both had headaches from breathing it. “I’ve never seen smoke like this, have you?” asked Tom. Cat was scratching his forehead softly with the fingernails of both hands, “No, never.” A tiny motion caught Tom’s eye. On his pant leg was a tiny, bright green inch worm. It stood on its rear legs, and reached out with its front feeling here and there for a safe place to step. Once located, it planted the front legs and brought its rear legs up, and the process repeated. Tom put his hand in front of it and used a tiny stick to push it from behind onto his finger. Cat watched the process. “Look at this little boy.” Tom held the insect up closer to eye level. The worm had abandoned caution and was frantically crawling in its heel-toe manner. Tom turned his hand this way and that so that the inch worm was always on top. “This little guy was probably born on this tree, spent his whole life here, and he’s gonna die here too,” said Tom. Cat, no longer able to hold off the urge for nicotine, even breathing all the wood smoke, lit a cigarette, “Yeah, just like us here on earth.” Tom turned and angled his hand so that the worm could climb back onto the tree. “He’s gonna go tell the other inch worms that he was abducted by a giant, and they’re gonna tell him he’s full of shit.” They both laughed.

They walked for a half hour into the strange otherworldly landscape, never able to see more than 100 feet. Their pace had slowed, but the desire to be past wherever they were was still strong. Cat abruptly stopped, Tom took two more steps, and then he also stopped and turned, “Everything ok?” Cat cocked his head to the side and aimed an ear back towards where they’d come. “There’s a train coming, get off the tracks.” They jogged down the little slope and stood at the bottom and waited. The metallic chunk-chunk…chunk-chunk of the wheels passing over sections of track came through the wall of smoke first, followed by the steady strain of the engine, then a yellow light, like a small moon appeared in the smoke, and in seconds it was flying past, deafening. Smoke whirled around it, and when Tom looked above it at the blood orange sun, he could see smoke moving in curls in front of it. Then a couple seconds after it passed, the engine sounded its horn, and even in the sound muting smoke, it was loud. Cat elbowed Tom, and turned to him, his eyes still swollen to ridiculous proportions. He cupped his hands around his mouth to make a megaphone and put it to Tom’s ear. “There’s gotta be a road right there, or they wouldn’t have blown the horn. I think we finally made it.”

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