James had never been this far before. Down through the valley on the old logging roads, slick with mud in the center; the edges tangled with waxy-leaved dog hobble and thickets of laurel that were slowly reclaiming the path. In one hand, James held a plastic compass. In the other, a walking stick he had shaved with his knife and now thrust deep into the rich red earth. His cattle dog followed at his heels.
As he walked, James thought of Lilly Tipton: the girl sat behind him in the eighth grade homeroom. He pretended she was walking beside him now and he was showing her how to look for tracks in the mud. He would tell her how to tell coon prints from a possum’s, how to see if an animal had been on the run. If the toe prints are deep, if the palm leaves barely any mark. He stooped to lay his palm on a deer print, the two hooves pressed into the mica-flecked mud. They had held hands once, he and Lilly, when they walked out to the bus stop one morning in early September. Her hands were soft and damp and clean.
The land slanted downwards. There was a break in the pines, and James could see the navy silhouettes of the mountains, just a few shades darker than the dusky sky. He held onto saplings at the edge of the road to keep his balance, but the earth was loose and raw and fell away from his feet. He jabbed the walking stick deep into the soil and fought his way up the bank, off the road and into the trees. The dog scrambled up ahead of him.
At the top of the bank, James pulled a hunting knife out of his pocket. It was stainless steel with a black matte finish and grooves on its handle. He’d bought it from Wal-Mart with some of the money made over the summer pouring concrete on the Parkway. He turned it over in his palm and gently lay his finger on the cold surface of the blade. It was better than his brother’s knife, he thought. That knife was old and dull, had a fake-bone handle made of white plastic that showed where the paint had rubbed away.
There were no human tracks or tire marks on the muddied trail, but just to be sure James looked around. The trees were very still, and the hum of summer’s insects had been silenced weeks ago by an unexpected frost. It was a few weeks before the first true snow would fall, but the forest was full of the understanding that winter was a promise.
Splitting the stillness, James raised the knife and began hacking at a sapling, gouging deep into its green bark, peeling down the trunk in ribbons like flesh from a bone. He imagined Lilly was beside him. Instead of a sapling, the tree was a big bear, a black bear. He drove the knife blade deep. The fragile tree bent almost to the ground but did not break.
Lilly was beside him, proud of him for keeping her safe. Her hand brushed away blonde hair revealing translucent skin paled from fluorescent lights, blue veins branching beneath the surface like a river and its tributaries. The smell of her was a little bit like laundry detergent and a little bit like her daddy’s tobacco. She was saying sorry that she didn’t return his phone calls. Sorry she never let her eyes meet his across the lunch room anymore.
James let his arm fall to his side. Just as quickly as his anger had come on, it left his body. There was only a dullness in its wake. James brushed away the leaves and sat down on a flat creek stone.
You ain’t the kind of guy any girl wants to be with, Bill said. Two years out of high school, sitting on the sagging couch in the trailer, baseball hat pulled low over his brow. He had a loan to go to auto-diesel college in Nashville once but just never signed up. Said it was because he had to get a drug test and needed to wait awhile till the pot left his system. Said it took five weeks. Mama said this was bull but she didn’t live in the trailer anymore so Bill decided it didn’t matter what she thought.
The dog became bored. She put her nose to the ground, ruffling the wet black leaves on the forest floor, following the trail of an animal long past. James stood. He folded the knife’s blade and tucked it in the pocket of his pants. Following the dog up the ridge, he picked his way through dense groves of galax, the shiny leathery leaves rustling as he passed.
When he reached the top of the ridge, James found himself on a deer trail, a narrow clearing through rhododendron thickets, gnarled, knuckled branches arching overhead. Off the logging trails, it was much darker. The sky’s streaky purple was almost completely obscured by the dense black overhang of trees and the curl of rhododendron and mountain laurel.
It was then that James felt the dog’s bristly fur brush his ankles. She was almost underfoot now, she stayed so close. And quiet, too. Even her breathing seemed muted, like she was willing herself to go unnoticed. James looked and saw only the twisted shapes of trees all around him, purple in the twilight.
Then he heard a noise off to the side of the path. Soft paws on damp leaves, snapping soaked twigs underfoot. A dark, cautious shape moved just beyond his sight where the tree line became dark. He stood rigid for a moment and his existence narrowed to the rush of blood in his ears and the pinprick of his vision.
James began walking down the path, the dog at his side. The animal continued to walk beside them in the dark, its heavy paws padding delicately, quickly, confidently. The sound of its movement made its unseen form sharply visible in James’s mind. Sinewy shoulders. A broad, square head. Bright eyes like coals in the dark.
They walked for a long time, the three of them. Down the ridge, to the gravel road that led, in a mile, to the trailer. James’s chest rose and fell to the beat of the animal’s gentle gait, quickening as they moved onto the flat stretch of the gravel road. Up on the bank above, the animal followed. The leaves were dry there; it had not rained in the cove in some time. With each footstep, the animal split the night with the crack of brittle sticks and raspy leaves.
James thought about the knife. Heavy in the pocket of his pants. He thought of Lilly Tipton, what would she think now. He put his hand on the velvety, matte surface of the handle, and the grooves cupped his fingers. He, the dog, the animal on the bank—they were perfectly balanced, all moving so deliberately, so carefully through the night. Like prayer. Like life before death. He let the knife fall again to the bottom of his pocket, afraid to push any kind of luck.
The lights of the trailer were almost visible now through the bare skeletons of the trees. James did not quicken his gait, but continued steadily onwards. When he reached the end of the driveway he stopped. Quickly, the dog slunk up under the trailer, disappearing between the cinder blocks. The animal on the bank made no move to follow it. No sound came from above the bank.
James stared up at the woods. His eyes blurred for a minute, but he held his gaze defiantly. Looking into the darkness. He felt for a moment as if he had stumbled on some secret truth of the world but just as suddenly he found he could not recall what it was. With all he had, he turned and ran to the trailer, flinging the aluminum screen door open and letting it bounce behind him on its hinges.
ANNIE-ROSE FONDAW’s writing centers on the people, cultures, and landscape of Western North Carolina. She spent much of her childhood living around the world with her family, but the Blue Ridge Mountains have always been a very special chapter of her upbringing and a place she’s always felt compelled to live permanently. She is a working writer in Asheville, North Carolina, and her previous publications include a variety of music journalism, including work for Eleven Music Magazine and KDHX St. Louis.