by Charles Duffie
Photography by Brian Michael Barbeito
During October Parhelion is running stories, essays, and photography to celebrate the Halloween season. Ever wonder about creatures that don’t exist? Ever heard of the fearsome hodag? Enjoy this short story by Charles Duffie.
The man didn’t know the windshield was gone until the rain started. Half the night sky was pewter cloud, half sawn away by black pine. There was nothing else to see. He tried to move but his body felt wedged into the wet darkness. Rain made metallic tapping sounds on his skin, no, on the roof of the car. He was in the car, tilted like he was driving up a steep hill. Consciousness slipped back.
The boy couldn’t do it, couldn’t hurt things anymore. Crosshairs trembled over the deer. He slid his finger from the trigger and wrapped it around the guard just in time. “Shoot!” his father growled. The boy jumped, finger pinching into the warm metal. His father snatched the rifle. All five deer had spotted them now. The boy never noticed how gingerly they walked, like the ground was thin ice. They stepped into the trees, bodies shedding the sun.
The rifle exploded and the boy thought he saw something leap onto the last deer, something fast and green like the forest come to life, snatching the deer into the shadows. His father found blood but no body. The boy stared into the trees, into gaps and branches. Something was out there, looking back. He almost screamed when claws hooked into his chest, but it was only his father’s rough hand, snagging his shirt, dragging him forward.
The man jolted awake. A deer. He had been driving through Chequamegon Forest, headlights paving the darkness. A lone deer materialized. He knew not to swerve but couldn’t crash into that startled body. He remembered now. Skidding off the asphalt, tumbling down the steep bank through a melee of pine trunks and boulders.
His waking brain connected stations of hurt: crunchy ache in his nose; spikes in his left arm, pinned between door and seat; hot pressure on his thighs where the steering wheel had slammed down like a dull guillotine; wobbly throb in his right knee and miles away a tick-tick-tick in his ankle. He could only turn his head and move his right arm. His cold shirt stuck to his skin. The scent of pine and sound of rain filled the blackness.
Sucking air, he felt for the dome light. The inside of the car lit up like a submarine. Everything was bent, shattered, wet, except the perfect dome light. His phone lay in a puddle on the passenger floor. He leaned toward it. The car held his body like pliers. He thought of his wife and daughter waiting at the KOA cabin and heaved sideways, pulling into pain, fingers digging into vinyl. Consciousness snapped.
The boy ran through Chequamegon Forest. It was not knowing, that’s what made him so afraid. If his father could turn inside out, what could he himself become? Like Mike Robson at school. They had been best friends but each year Mike became more like Mr. Robson. The boy leaned against a tree to catch his breath. Was a monster hiding inside him too? Was he brave enough to chase the monster out or would it take control, change him like his father? It was OK to be scared. Being scared hurt but it passed, like the shouts and loose fists and thrown bottles. But being afraid hurt all the time, like being locked in the cellar but on the inside.
So every Sunday he rode his bike two hours from the backyard to the forest. He hiked through pine shadows, testing his courage. Could he learn to spend the day alone in the wilderness? Yes. Find his way out as night fell? Yes. Clean and dress cuts and scrapes? Yes. Stand his ground and wave off a black bear or gray wolf or mountain lion? He hadn’t seen any big predators yet, but he’d find out soon enough. And what if, as he pushed deeper into the woods, he met the hodag, that creature prowling his dreams, hybrid of lion and dog and dragon, with fur green as the forest?
He had been haunted by the hodag since his oral report in Miss Shipman’s 5th grade class. He had done his research at the historical society so he knew the monster was just a hoax created in 1893 to bring attention to the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He knew it had since faded into the mythology of the north woods, reemerging as a cultural fairy tale, tourist attraction, high school mascot, stuffed animal parents gave to children on Christmas.
But there were other stories, violent accounts he left out of his report, including his own experience. He had seen a hodag kill a deer, the image blasted into memory by the gun firing just above his head. That under-the-bed terror crawled out and hunted when he was in the forest. Just by being here, he knew, by breathing, he gave the hodag a scent to follow.
An earthy aroma drew consciousness back to the surface. The man opened his eyes. Inside the car was smaller now.
He couldn’t stop shivering. Breathe, his wife would have said. He loved how she meditated without mantras or creeds. She closed her eyes until her breathing flowed, until tides of anxiety and desire pulled back into a calm sea. And his daughter, only ten years old but with a heart drawn to wounded things, Kickstarting a bird rescue in their sunroom. He never knew how many birds fell from nests, flew into windows, survived cats and storms, until people showed up at their door, shoeboxes filled with chirping and fluttering. He saw himself in her quiet ways.
Oh God. A banal car accident in a forest he knew like a map in his heart. All he needed was a moment of leverage. Just enough to reach the phone three feet away. There had to be that much grace in the world, that much give in the seat, in his own flesh. He gripped the steering wheel and pushed, grinding against the pain, then fell back, sobbing, praying. Breathe, his wife said. His daughter called, Look at this bird, daddy. Consciousness fluttered.
The boy hiked higher into the forest. He needed to prove to himself that monsters weren’t real. He had read “A Review of Journals from the North Woods” at the historical society, personal accounts of men and women attacked in the forest, children hauled wailing into the trees, families vanished from lonely farms leaving only strange tracks in the mud. The boy didn’t know what was worse: the emotional eyewitness testimonies that monsters like the hodag were real, or the editor’s flat claim that the forest was innocent, that the monsters had emerged from a wilderness inside the people themselves.
Some nights he dreamed of the hodag’s sharp claws and marble eyes. Some nights he saw his father turn into a sullen monster. Then tonight his father made hot chocolate. He could be like that too, his old self but with shame driving the kindness, guilt glancing sideways through loving bloodshot eyes. Your mother, he would say, and talk like he was telling folktales. But the kindness only made the boy more afraid. Did his father have no control over his own heart? Was everyone like that? Would he be like that, like a werewolf with the full moon on the inside? The kitchen still smelled of hot chocolate when he snuck out of the house and rode his bike to the forest.
By late morning he had hiked past the pounding of Morgan Falls, up the spine of the mountain to the viewpoint at St. Peter’s Dome. He stared down to Chequamegon Bay, farther out to Lake Superior, on to the gold horizon. He picked up a rock and looked for something to kill. If the hodag appeared now, he would kill it. But he was alone on the ridge. He beat the flat of the rock against the ground, then a tree, then his own chest, his father’s face flashing until the boy bruised the ridge of bone, until the skin broke and his father’s face was gone. Tears he wouldn’t release burned behind his eyes.
He pressed the rock like a sponge to his chest, walked to the cliff, and hurled the wet stone. He imagined he had cleaned his heart like a wound and now dressed it with the lake, and the pine trees, and the waterfall, and the breeze, and the sky. It took three hours to ride home. Each downward push on the pedals jabbed into his chest.
The man jerked awake. Something big had thumped onto the hood, rocking the car. He stared into the gap of windshield but couldn’t see past the dome light’s inward glare. Fear crept up his throat. He knew these woods. A bear might climb onto the hood, or a mountain lion. He tried to squeeze loose but the pliers held. He felt a wild presence out there, waiting. Maybe if he turned off the light he could see it. He pressed the warm plastic cover.
Darkness. Rain tapping. Wind through pine tops. His breath cold on his lips.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw the silhouette of a mountain lion against the softer black of the forest. His mind blanched and he remembered only one rule from the survival books he read as a boy, a rule he believed had saved his life more than once: when meeting a big animal in the forest, make yourself bigger.
He waved his right arm and roared like a bear and roared in his mind, Go away. He shouted, pounded the dash, punched the ceiling.
The mountain lion didn’t bolt or slink like it was supposed to.
Exhausted, body clutching cold and pain, he slapped the seat, the dash, desperate for something, anything, found keys in the ignition, twisted them loose, hurled the jangling metal. The darkness swallowed the sound and still the lion’s silhouette didn’t move.
He couldn’t hold the blindness anymore. It was too familiar, this trapped feeling. He pressed the dome light. The inside of the car reappeared, smaller still. His wife and daughter felt so close, he looked for them in the rearview mirror. But there was no mirror. He stared into the empty windshield. Rain shattered on the dash and sprayed his face like soft buckshot.
A paw big as his own hand moved into the light. As it pressed down on the cracked dashboard, the paw flattened and claws curled out of fur green as the forest. He stared as the animal’s face pushed through the black curtain. It had the head of a mountain lion but with long canines curving out of each side of its mouth; nose of a bear, shaggy pelt of a wolf, split eyes of a reptile, small horns instead of ears like a dragon.
He had found the hodag at last.
The creature stepped down into the car, spikes rolling along its back, green fur rippling like pine needles. It crouched in the passenger seat and sniffed his breath. None of the whimsical drawings or statues he had seen as a boy evoked the horror of its unnatural presence. Everything about it scraped against reason.
The hodag pushed its snout into his neck. His shuddering breath tasted earth and rain, stone and pine and blood. He thought of his wife and daughter, of his own life, now so good and barely started. His heart pulsed like radar, pinging outward, locating every face he loved, every place and object he would lose. Primitive forces surged through his body. He shoved his hand against the wet fur but the thing leaned through his resistance. Teeth pressed into his neck. Warmth wrapped around his throat.
His father never asked where he went on Sundays. The car must have kept one bend behind, stalking like a wolf. The boy didn’t see it until he stopped to hide his bike in the scrub. As he ran into the pines, he heard a door slam, his name shouted. A bottle shattered. He ran toward the low winter sky. He knew every stream, every cave and ridge and slope. When his father’s voice shrank to nothing, he backtracked and found the old man passed out against a tree. His father looked so small in the woods.
The boy picked up a fist-sized rock. He could crush him like a snake. Or leave him here to freeze. No one could stop me, not even God. He felt scared by what he could do but he wasn’t afraid of it anymore. He watched his father sleep. The season’s first snow fell light as dust. Looking up into the slow swirl he prayed, he didn’t know to who or what. Maybe it wasn’t even prayer. It felt more like a reaction, an instinct, like a bird singing just to sing. He woke his father and led the shivering old man like a sleepwalker to the car.
The man shook and opened his eyes. The rain had softened, falling like mist through the small space of light. Warmth seeped along his neck, a cloth wiping cold from his skin, hurt from his flesh, fear from his bones. The hodag sat close, watching. The man reached out and touched its strange face.
He saw a kaleidoscope of his wife and daughter, of his own days and days that might have been, time out of sequence, every moment simultaneous.
The warmth spread up his arm and his hand fell. He stared at the dome light. He had never noticed the beautiful interlocking diamond patterns pressed into the plastic.
The hodag bit into his chest. The man didn’t feel any pain. Only a sweet sadness now, and something like curiosity. He prayed like a bird, and breathed like his wife, and spoke his daughter’s name. Consciousness stretched out its hands.
The boy walked through the forest. Surprised by a bear, the boy stopped and stood against a tall pine. They watched each other, then the boy raised his arms and roared.
Charles Duffie is a writer and designer working in the Los Angeles area. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, So It Goes (The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library), Atticus Review, Anastamos, Bacopa Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, Exposition Review, and others.