Something In The Woods

IMG_1165As far back as I can recall, my father has always been telling stories.

There were the ones from his own childhood, the details patched together or overwritten in favour of something leaner and cleaner. There were a fistful of Hardy Boys Mysteries in weathered hardcover he’d read to us, chapter by chapter, until we fell asleep on school nights.

And then there were the stories about the woods.

Behind the family cabin nestled deep in the wilderness of Northwestern Saskatchewan, there was a thick, nearly impenetrable growth of old trees ringing a bog, ones that had resisted the axe for decades since the first few people bought lots around the crystal clear waters and started cobbling together summer homes. It’s a half-hour drive from the nearest town, off a series of dusty gravel roads, and the only line of contact to the outside world is a beat-up payphone lingering near a power line. The television offers seventeen different channels full of snow and static, and the only voices you can find on the radio dial are the local community talk shows and a buzzy CBC station on the AM side who give out the time signal every morning at eleven o’clock sharp.

Everything else is… silence. And when you’re used to the buzz of the city, your brain doesn’t handle silence all that well. It needs something to fill in those gaps, the spaces between the trees, something to slip between the waves of that azure lake. And after years of being propped up by television and video games, when you’re left without so abruptly, like a smoker quitting cold-turkey… things can start to get a little fidgety. A little unusual.

“Did I ever tell you the time I saw the Beast?”

It’s 1996. I’m ten years old, sitting on the floor of the cabin, my meagre supply of comic books exhausted and the rain outside showing no signs of abating. Every other breath out of my body was an indignant sigh of boredom, delivered right where my parents could hear it best because they had insisted no, no, bringing a television up to the lake was a bad idea. My mother was napping on the couch, the book she was reading half-held in her hands. My father was planning out renovations, as he always did.

He asked again,

“Did I ever tell you the time—“

“What, dad?”

“Have you seen it?”

“Seen what?”

“Just in the woods out back? Looking at us?”

It was over my head. I didn’t have a clue. He set aside his pencils and rulers and joined me on the floor by the wood stove.

“Well, when I was a little older than you, back when we were first building the cabin with your grandpa, we had to stay in trailers just where the tool shed is now. And while we were sleeping one night, the dog started letting off this huge howl, barking like mad. And I thought to myself, you know, it must be raccoons or maybe coyotes. So I go out to calm him down…”

“Uh-huh…” I wasn’t buying it. I felt like I’d seen this movie before.

“So I’m out there, with my flashlight, and the dogs at the end of his chain, yapping his head off, pointed like an arrow towards the treeline. And sure enough, you can hear the coyotes chatting amongst themselves, they’re a regular fixture around these parts. But then I hear something else.”

“A monstrous roar?”

“More like.. more like a moan. A low moan, coming right from across the road there. Right from the thick of the trees. And I see something… and I figure I ought to follow it, see what’s what.”

The trees in question linger across the dirt and gravel road behind our cabin, like a crowd of bystanders gathered to watch something unusual unfold in swaying silence. Somewhere within them was a slew, where hordes of frogs teemed and croaked, giving soundtrack to the otherwise silent nights. Tall reeds and berry bushes and an infinite supply of mosquitos were there… it’s supply of bogeymen was far less certain.

“…Right dad.”

He’d go on to tell me about how he’d ventured out, deep into the woods that night, searching for the source of the noise. What he found, at the end of an overgrown path, was a beast, eight feet tall, covered in wiry fur and with features so plaintive it looked, in the right light, like it was the saddest creature on Earth. It didn’t react in anger when my father approached, according to the tale he told; it just sat there and moaned louder, looking him straight in the eye, unwilling to hide it’s melancholy.

It’s 2015 now.

The nearest woods have been cut back, allowing new cabins to take root behind our own lot, upon which the old ramshackle pea-green cabin has been replaced with a replanted Calgary home with a dishwasher and real doors that close. It’s all comfortable now, more so than it has ever been before, and the surrounding environs are no longer boredom-inducing to my mind; after almost three years in the belly of Vancouver, the idea of being able to see the stars without the din of city lights and opening the window without catching a siren’s blare is heavenly. Late at night, after my parents have long since gone to bed, I sit outside alone and listen to the chatter of crickets and frogs, the occasional rapport of fireworks from the more party-oriented vacationers down the shoreline, and the metronome-like thrum of waves against the sands.

And I’m still listening for the Beast, alone in the woods, watching us all with some kind of mournful curiosity, wishing he didn’t feel like he was the last of his kind; a solitary entity, staring through windows at happy families listening to stories on the radio, wishing he could come in to warm himself up.

Almost two decades later, I think I’m finally starting to get the story.

Summer, Twenty-Something, In An Applebees By The Side Of The Highway

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The line is in a constant state of eruption; tickets are flying in faster than the plates can fly out, the fry cook’s just burned himself again and is gripping an ice pack to his wrist while he loads another basket of fries and the manager herself has appeared to support the poor struggling souls in the dishpit. The air is a traffic jam of smoke, grease, spice and salt, mixed with the shouts from across the line for more mash, more g-toast, more ramekins and more lettuce. Waiters and waitresses barely have time to grab a gulp of coffee and a smattering of gossip before seizing upon the next few plates and heaving them out the doors, where a horde of long-haul truckers, adventurous families of four and an entire soccer team await salvation in the form of chicken fingers, special sauce and shoddy Caesars.

You barely see them, only catching a glimpse of the actual diners through the swinging doors beyond your domain. Their only presence in your mind is in the flashing red tickets hanging off your rack as you sort, stack, season, plate, hit the bell, tear the ticket and do it all over again. You’ve been on since the lunch rush and were conned into covering dinner for an extra twenty and a joint by your friend who wanted to spend this last Saturday with his girlfriend before she went back south for college, and so you chugged what was left of your morning double double and steeled yourself for whatever hell lay in way once six o’clock creeped around and the diners arrived in a trickle and then a roar.

Kitchen knives sing across the tattooed carving boards, rending chicken into bite-sized, aesthetically pleasing strips. Salad is bagged, dressed, shook and spat out onto plates, sides wiped, out the door. There is an endless demand for garlic toast that cannot ever be sated.You feel a trickle of sweat cresting your bandana, you become painfully aware of a rock in your shoe that must have been there since yesterday’s hike out by the train tracks. You could sleep for a year, and that feeling will catch up with you about an hour after you hang up your apron and shuffle on home, but for now the exhaustion is held back by old coffee, adrenaline and the constant scream of orders and the fire of the ovens snapping you back to reality. You hover just above, on a different plane, plating and shaping each dish without even thinking about it, all while carrying on a detailed conversation with the grill cooks about where the best place in town would be to go to survive a zombie apocalypse (he thinks the Wal Mart. Your vote is for the water tower.)

The rush eventually ends because a thunderstorm rolls into town like an angry ten-top, sending shattering blows down upon the farmers fields near the highway where the restaurant stands tall among the parked cars, the Best Buy and the craft stores. By the time the last plate is wiped clean and the grease traps are emptied, the skies are a churning black mass rippled with electricity and no one with a car is going your way, so you grin like the devil and drive your ten-speed through the curtains of rain and the occasional lance of lightning landing just beyond your purview, ride with aching muscles all the way home and howl like God and the Devil are resting just behind your teeth and are fighting for the microphone.

Witching Hours


The air hangs like a finale curtain
a flag at half mast
ghost lights adorning leafy streets, trees
dangle like marionettes
left to their devices.
The world is a breath held
tight between the ribs,
and through all this
he swims up to you.

Waving his hands like he was
warding off mosquito-spry spirits
old limp gnawing off his heel
carrying history in the jukebox
between his teeth.
Give him a sliver of silver
and he’ll spin a snarl of steel-stringed
sadness so sharp
it’ll cut your eyelids off,
so you can see the whole picture 24/7,
like you really did live inside your phone
instead of clawing at the windows with
starving Christmas orphan desperation.

Thing is, though, he doesn’t care how deep
you need to hide, he’s hunting for a witch that can
set his hexes straight
align his stars and unwork
the whiskey curses he breathes
like a bone thin violin
singing like a ghost razor through nights
like this.
It always comes out on nights like this.

But your pockets are empty.
You can’t pay his ferryman
and so he lopes off down the block
swinging at the air, a boxer
in a perpetual prizefight with himself.
In the suspended midnight, all that is heard
is the distant grind of the last train headed homeward
and his morse-code footfalls trailing straight for dawn.