by James Ulmer
On a bright fall morning in September, Austin Waller stepped across the parking lot toward the dry cleaner on Jackson Street. Pulling open the heavy glass door, he entered to find a black girl, eight or nine years old, seated on a stool behind the counter. Head down, the child worked diligently at something she was drawing, so intent on her task that she didn’t seem to notice that Austin was there. A woman in a light blue tee shirt and jeans swept in from the back room and hung Austin’s shirts on the steel hook by the register.
“Saw you coming,” she said.
As she rung up his total, he asked, “Is this your little girl?”
“Sure is,” the woman smiled. “She’s my Violet.”
Austin approached across the dingy linoleum floor and looked down at the child bent over her sheet of paper. Her long black hair had been plaited, the braids arranged in coils on the top of her head. A few waxy Crayola crayons in their brightly colored wrappings, the same kind he’d had as a child, lay strewn across the granite counter, red and green and brown, black, he noticed, for the eyes. The little girl, her focus unbroken by the attention of the adults, dropped the black crayon, snatched up the brown, and began scribbling over the form she had drawn as if she meant to scratch it out.
Turning back to the mother, Austin slipped his credit card into the machine on the counter.
“She’s been making pictures of Bigfoot ever since the sighting,” the woman commented.
He looked up to meet her eye. The light streaming in through the plate glass window brightened, and the outline of everything he saw – the counter, the register, the woman’s face against the off-white wall – grew instantly more defined.
“Oh,” she shrugged, “somewhere down around Bradley. You know where that is?”
He did. When he’d first come to town, Austin had passed the place driving in from Texas. The town was little more than a gas station at a crossroads, a white steeple rising above the pines. He remembered hoping, as he’d passed through that day, that his beat-up Chevy Malibu would not break down in those dark, isolated woods.
“Happened sometime last spring,” the woman added. “It was in the local paper.”
Austin took his receipt and thanked her. He lifted his hanging shirts from the hook, swung around to leave, and made a step toward the door when the child looked up.
She turned her drawing for him to see: an imposing figure with black eyes, a cone-shaped head, his form scribbled over with red and brown hair. The child’s eyes, so dark and deep they were nearly black, watched his for a reaction. Light like the sheen on polished copper gleamed across her face, and a faint smile, secretive and self-aware, curled at the edge of her mouth. Drawing this thing, she’d seen it in her mind; she knew.
Unsettled, Austin backed away from her. Once through the door, he turned and hurried across the macadam lot for his car.
Driving home, Austin replayed what he’d just seen and heard – the mother’s offhand story, repeated, he guessed, to many of her customers, the child’s imaginative summoning.
The thought that some unknown creature haunted that stretch of isolated forest intrigued him. He recalled how, a few weeks earlier, he had turned down a street in town that he’d never driven before. For years, Austin’s life in that place had taken him from the house he rented to the high school where he worked or maybe to the local grocery store and back. There was little more to town than that – or so he believed – certainly nothing more to Main Street. The post office, the bank, a few rundown beauty parlors, Holy Sanctuary Pentecostal Church. But that afternoon, turning down a road he didn’t know, he had come upon a labyrinth of unknown streets, unsuspected crossroads. At the end of one such street stood a single cabin on the edge of a broad stretch of lake, two rockers on the front porch, and across the dark water, the dense, impenetrable trees.
He was reminded then that the true mystery of any place exists at the borders.
Austin arrived at the brick ranch house he rented, his tires rolling over the pine straw that littered the drive. His steps echoed through the empty house as he hurried to the computer in his study. Once there, it didn’t take him long to find the story. A man was traveling west on 160 toward Bradley, coming from the construction site where he worked. It was dusk, late April. The man was running late, driving fast to get home to his wife, and when he came around a bend, an animal, he said, was standing at the side of the road. When he slowed to look at it, the thing turned and walked off on two legs into the trees.
It was huge, the witness reported, well over eight feet tall, big enough, in his words, to
take down a wild hog easily.
Austin went to the kitchen, thinking, and made himself a cup of coffee. Back at his desk, cup in hand, he looked up Bradley, clicked on the map, and began scrolling around the area. The sighting, he guessed, had occurred somewhere between Lake Erling and Bradley. From there, the forest stretched south to the outskirts of Plain Dealing. Sweeping northwest from Lake Erling lay an unpopulated area of lowlands, boggy marshes and meandering streams that ran unimpeded all the way to Fouke.
He recalled an incident from his move to town ten years ago. He was leaving Houston for the last time, his marriage over, and coming to Loblolly for a teaching job that he hoped would be a new start. Remembering, Austin rose unconsciously from his chair at the computer and leaned in the doorway of his study, looking down the empty hallway in his silent, empty house. That day, he’d made a late start leaving the city and found himself, six hours later, still miles from his destination with the summer twilight closing in. He had made the turn at Lewisville and passed through town when he came around a bend.
Two hundred yards ahead of him at the side of the road, he had seen what he took to be the figure of a man. Despite the distance and the fading light, he saw the figure distinctly, black as shadow, dark enough to stand out clearly in the green twilight – a shape cut out of burnt iron. Seeing the headlights appear, the shape ran across the road, moving from right to left, covering the distance in three long strides and disappearing into the scattering of headstones in the country churchyard on the other side of the highway. The figure had gone instantly from standing still to running at full speed. At the edge of his vision, Austin saw the wildly sprinting form put a hand on the rounded top of a tall gravestone and vault it without breaking stride.
Slowing to look when he reached the spot, he saw only the empty graveyard, headstones
and scattered crosses under the shadowy, moss-hung spread of live oaks as the night closed in, the forest beyond.
He navigated through the week on body memory, dutifully putting the equations on the whiteboard and solving them, pointing to the occasional hand that rose with a question. Far away, his mind moved like a tracking shot through the trees, waiting for his opportunity.
When the last bell rang on Friday afternoon, Austin made it to his car as quickly as he could. No meetings were scheduled on Fridays, and he wanted to beat the long line of lumbering yellow school buses out of the dusty parking lot before they could hold him up. He took the road south to Taylor, intending to pick up 160 there, going west so he could arrive in the area of the sighting as the witness had. He passed the turn for the county jail, leaving Loblolly behind, and headed into the country.
It was a warm September afternoon, still a good three hours of daylight left, the roadside blooming with goldenrod and cornflowers. Austin rolled toward Taylor, enjoying the sense of movement and freedom after a week spent in his stuffy classroom. He passed fields of newly harvested corn with the line of trees in the distance, the car repair shop in Bussey (a town of four houses at a crossroad), its ragged Confederate battle flag rippling on the rusted flagpole. He slowed down to twenty-five to creep through Taylor, passing under the eyes of the Taylor Lady Tigers, state softball champions, their proud smiles on the billboard fading in the autumn sun.
Austin turned west onto 160 just past the Dollar General. When he passed the last house in town, the trees leaned closer to the road.
Before long, he knew he was in the right place. The trees were older, bigger, more densely packed, their branches weaving a thicker cover overhead. The land veered less predictably toward the road and away from it, rising and falling, causing the road to twist and bend, to double back unexpectedly. He came to a stretch of ponds and dark bayous, the tree line punctuated now with ghostly, feathery cedars, bridges on pilings, a confluence of roads with a tackle shop, and a cabin with a gravel lot out front. Austin turned in to get his bearings. A sign over the entrance to the cabin read Lake Erling Country Store, the sign flanked by two wooden cutouts of Sasquatch in mid-stride – knees bent, long arms swinging, head turned to regard the viewer – the profile instantly familiar. He turned off his engine, exited the car, and stepped across the lot for the front door.
Once inside, Austin found himself in what appeared at first to be a typical convenience store. Fluorescent lights hummed overhead. The back walls were lined with coolers stocked with beer, bottled water, soda, and caffeine-laden energy drinks in brightly colored cans. Passing the shelves of candy bars and chips, Austin discovered a display of wooden carvings of Bigfoot eight inches high and replicas of plaster castings of footprints with dermal ridges, everything produced, a handwritten card asserted, by local artisans. He grabbed a Coke from the cooler and headed for the register.
The woman behind the counter eyed Austin coolly as he approached, a silver cross, he noticed, gleaming at her throat of her pale gray sweater. She had short gray hair and cold gray eyes behind a pair of frameless lenses.
Austin placed his Coke on the counter.
Nodding briefly toward the parking lot, he told her, “I like your sign.”
The woman glanced at him without smiling. She rang up his purchase, and he handed her two bills.
When she didn’t respond, he asked, “That ole boy ever come around here?”
“Now and again,” she said tightly.
“You ever see him?”
“Nope. Don’t want to, neither. Heard him once.”
A greenback fly buzzed angrily at the plate glass window.
She handed Austin his change and added, smiling at last, “If I was you, mister, I wouldn’t get too far off the county highway.”
Austin pulled out and continued west on 160. He couldn’t blame the locals for wanting to cash in on the interest created by the recent sighting; after all, people had to make a living. For him, though, walking into the drycleaners that morning and hearing the story had pulled aside a curtain that had always been drawn before, revealing something hidden, rare – something unexpected in his own backyard. Now he suspected that the only Bigfoot he would encounter was the wooden version on the shelf of the store in his rearview mirror. Briefly, he considered turning around to buy one.
He crossed a narrow bridge over Bodcau Creek, drove a few hundred feet, and pulled off on the shoulder. Climbing out of his car, he locked it behind him and crossed the narrow ribbon of asphalt to the south side of the road. There, he stepped into the forest between the rough trunks of two old pines, the gap seeming to open like a door to admit him.
Moving into the shadows, Austin noticed at once how much cooler it was under the trees.
Shafts of light sifted through the branches above him, widening as they fell and turning the forest around him – trunks and roots and branches – into planes of light and color. A strong smell of damp earth and green leaves reached him, with a trace of wood or sawdust, an intimation of the coming autumn cold and the cycle of death and life, rot and resurrection, discernible in a breath from the pine straw, brown leaves, and slowly decomposing trunks of fallen trees in old growth forest. He wandered farther in, thinking, watching.
The woods were still; quiet, but not silent. Austin listened to the steady chirruping pulse of tree frogs and katydids, punctuated, now and again, with the cries of birds. High up, the oak and beech leaves flickered in a breeze he couldn’t feel below where he moved past the base of the trees. He recognized the screech of a hawk that passed invisibly above the canopy. Then he caught a sweet, spicy scent, vaguely familiar in the heavy air, and he looked to his left to see the thick, three-fingered leaves of a sassafras. A few yards in front of him, which was as far as he could see in the densely packed trees, a redheaded woodpecker landed on the trunk of a pine and commenced its staccato tapping. After a moment, feeling itself observed, the bird skittered around to the far side of the trunk.
Austin walked farther in, entranced, feeling as if he had passed out of the world he knew. He lost track of time and arrived at last at the edge of a culvert. The ground fell away sharply at his feet, and a stream, slow and placid, flowed sixty feet below him. A painted box turtle, visible for its yellow markings, slid from a log and dropped below the surface, sending concentric rings out across the cedar-dark water. From his perch above the stream, Austin stood looking out at a hundred yards or more of open forest. The sudden expansion of light and sky disoriented him for a moment. Any predator, human or otherwise, could have watched him unobserved from the cover of the trees.
Then he noticed the silence.
Gone was the companionable thrum of insects and tree frogs. The afternoon had turned suddenly hostile, terrifying, unnaturally silent. At that moment, standing there in the open, unguarded in his stonewashed jeans and thin city shoes, Austin, who had never owned a gun in his life, sincerely wished that he were armed. He looked around wildly, sick with dread, his body sheathed in an icy layer of sweat. The trunks and branches around him seemed to tip – the world off balance, askew with some barely hidden threat.
What happened next – he recalled it with embarrassment – could only be described as a panic. He swung around and fled, running full out in the direction he hoped would take him back to the safety of his car. He stumbled on a tree root, slipped in the mud, and sprawled headlong into the underbrush. At one point, he reached a thicket of brambles, the ripe, heavy blackberries hanging in clusters among the thorns, and realized, with a new stab of alarm, that he hadn’t passed them coming in. Was he lost? Then he heard a crashing in the brush behind him, the sound close, getting closer. That was his worst moment. He rushed straight ahead, at last breaking out of the shadows and finding the highway.
Looking to his right, he saw his car on the edge of the road three hundred yards behind him. How could he have arrived so far off course? He crossed that distance as quickly as he could, picking his way through the uncertain footing at the roadside, convinced that his unseen pursuer would step out of the woods at any instant to block his escape. The daylight was beginning to decline, and the old pines and red oaks cast their thick, anthropomorphic shadows across the pavement. When he reached his vehicle, Austin climbed in and immediately locked the doors, out of breath, his arms scratched and bleeding.
As he drove on toward Bradley, Austin reviewed what had happened in the woods. He knew he was lucky to have escaped alive; but he also knew, now that he was calm and safe in the moving car, that the entire experience could’ve been of his own manufacture. After all, he had seen nothing, heard nothing threatening. The crashing in the underbrush behind him, he told himself, might have been a deer scared up by his own precipitous flight.
Stalks of red cardinal flowers lifted from the tangle of roadside weeds as he approached the outskirts of town. As he drove, Austin thought about the images of mystery and the uncanny crowding the media these days. Armed with cell phone cameras, people were capturing blurred evidence of every phenomenon they could imagine. Carl Jung, commenting on the sightings of spacecraft in the skies after World War II, wrote that the saucers were mandalas, images created by our deep unconscious minds to remind us of peace and wholeness after the horrors of war. This, Jung asserted, did not make them any less real. Austin wondered about the source of all such evidence: Sasquatch, Dogman, shadow figures, strange lights in the sky.
The town of Bradley, population 515 and falling, looked exactly like many other small towns in the South. A few struggling businesses, a scattering of houses on streets named Jackson or Jefferson, the Baptist church, and a yellow brick high school much like the one where Austin worked. He drove slowly through the deserted town, keeping an eye out for the sheriff, careful of the lone pedestrian, a black man who wandered across the road pushing a shopping cart, talking into a cracked cell phone.
Beyond the last street, the countryside opened into farmland, broad fields of harvested corn and soybeans, silos of corrugated metal. A red-tailed hawk floated through the sky, calling, Austin thought, for the lost forest. He remembered the map he’d inspected in his study. There was a state park nearby, an old family graveyard where the first governor of Arkansas had been buried. The sun was getting low in the west, the shadows of silos lengthening across the fields, but Austin decided to see if he could find the place before he turned for home.
Just up the road, a small green sign pointed left to the cemetery. Turning, Austin found himself moving down a rutted road, partly paved and partly hardpan, not much wider than his car. Had he taken a wrong turn? The shoulder, overgrown with high weeds and feathery green saplings, rose up steeply on both sides, and it occurred to him that any predator watching from the underbrush would’ve seen him eye to eye. Something dashed across the road in front of him – quick black legs, ears back, a flash of red across the fur. For an instant, Austin’s heart raced; then he laughed and shook his head at his own startled reaction.
The next turn took him down a second narrow road. Old sycamores and thick-trunked oaks formed a canopy overhead, their branches blocking what was left of the daylight. Austin noticed a tall figure, a man in a long dark overcoat, back turned, walking in the shadows at the edge of the road. He rolled down the window as he approached and slowed to the walker’s pace.
“Am I going the right way to reach the cemetery?” he asked.
The man stopped and turned to regard him. He was thin and pale with dark, unblinking eyes, a shock of dark hair and sideburns, a narrow face. Something aloof, imperious, in the man’s expression put Austin on his guard. When he didn’t respond, Austin asked again, “Is the graveyard up ahead?”
The man nodded.
Austin made it a point to thank him before he drove on; but watching the thin figure recede in his rearview mirror, he recalled the woman in the convenience store, and he couldn’t help wondering what was wrong with the locals. They acted as if they expected you to disrespect them, so they were cold and distant in self-defense.
Coming up a rise, he broke suddenly into the declining sunlight. In front of him extended a row of parking spaces, and a few dozen gravestones enclosed by a wrought iron fence rose up from the shaggy grass beyond the lot. The graveyard was smaller than he had expected, intimate somehow, familial. The parking area, large enough for six or seven vehicles, stood deserted, the surface carpeted with cedar chips that muted the sound of his tires as he pulled in. Austin turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car. The profound silence, the stillness of the place, fell on him like a weight. Far away across the open fields, a single unseen bird called out.
He felt the coolness creeping out of the woods at his back. Six tall, broken-looking trees surrounded the graveyard in front of him, and a seventh rose within the confines of the iron fence. Nuts hung from the stripped branches in their rubbery green seed casings. When he moved beneath the trees approaching the graves, he stooped to retrieve a blackened casing from the grass. Breaking it open, he expected to find the smooth, striated surface of a pecan but discovered instead a rounded kernel, its surface convoluted, folding in upon itself repeatedly like a miniature human brain. Then he remembered the name of the governor’s now-vanished plantation house: Walnut Hill.
Austin stepped through the gate and moved silently along the rows of weathered headstones, reading the names and dates, the remembrances carved beneath them: Death is only a shadow across the path to heaven. Another, a child’s, read simply, Only sleeping. He couldn’t help but be moved, standing in the last remainder of the day, by these Victorian sentimentalities.
How wonderful, he thought, to believe such things.
Walnut leaves lay like thin, blackened tongues across the graves. It was time to leave.
He was already later than he’d meant to be, and by the time he reached home, it would be long past dark. As Austin stepped through the gate toward his car, his eye fell on the metal plaque he had walked past on his way in. Across the top, the plaque read James Sevier Conway, first governor of Arkansas, 1836-1840. He began to read the narrative of the man’s life, but then his eye fell to the portrait painted for his marriage in 1825.
Austin felt his entire body go cold: it was the same face, thin and pale, he’d seen on the road. The same dark hair and sideburns, the same dark eyes that had looked down at him silently where he’d sat behind the wheel of his idling motor.
He looked over his shoulder at the road disappearing into the trees he’d driven through, their trunks stained red now, transformed in the quickly dropping light. Dusk had settled over everything, not a leaf stirring, not a bird calling out to break the fragile silence. Cold air smelling of earth and stone and last year’s fallen leaves drifted toward him from the stand of oaks.
He knew that he was being watched.
James Ulmer‘s last collection of stories, The Fire Doll, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. Recent stories have appeared in storySouth, The Arkansas Review, The South Carolina Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Sequestrum.
Mafloku is an artist that works and resides in Tampico, Mexico, who, despite no formal training and an unrelated background in financial, governmental, public, and private institutions, has accidentally discovered the ease of expression through innocence with an overwhelmingly positive reception with international exhibitions, acknowledgments, and various national and international publications.