I drove east, northeast, heading for my father’s house. In the Cascades my poor vehicle labored and slowed to a crawl, but I kept moving through the waves of midmorning and the crickets buzz and the smell of pine needles baking on the ground. A warning light on the dashboard came on. The engine was overheating. What could I do? I flipped the heater on, hoping that might help, and the cab filled with heat, and I cruised along in a weird heat dream. Light and shadows flickered across my windshield, my eyelids, as I drove through the wickerwork of the forest. I lost track of time and knew only that I was moving away from the whirlpool of the city into another vortex of light and high clouds and granite ridgelines that dipped and rose from the forest breaks on slopes of gray shale into high facades and towers and peaks of blue ice.
Once I crossed the crest of the pass, I began to move more freely. The engine warning light went off, and I turned off the heat as I flowed back down into the gut of the forest. The road rose and fell like a river beneath me, and I passed a few semis, the occasional camper or pick-up truck, but hardly anyone else. And no one seemed to see me.
When I came down into the eastern valley, I stopped in a little nowhere station. An old guy in grease pant overalls and a baseball cap with some emblem long ago worn away to obscurity came out, wiping his hands with a black rag. “What can I do you for?”
“Uh…just picking up a few supplies,” I said. He nodded once, and I went into the station and wandered around.
“You got a bathroom?” I asked.
“Round back.” He pointed with his eyes.
I went around the side of the station where there were old oil drums and car carcasses rusting in stacks and parts in barrels and wheels and engine blocks sitting on saw horses. The bathroom was an outhouse that smelled like the foul depths of perdition. I breathed as little as possible inside there. When I came out, I noticed a bumper lying tilted against a demolished car, and on that bumper hung a license plate dangling by one rusty bolt. I looked around, didn’t see the old man, and kicked the license plate off. It was bent, and I stomped it flat and slipped it under my shirt behind my back.
I went back into the shop and grabbed a few snacks, some peanuts and beef jerky and beer, and I put them on the counter. The old guy stood there wiping his hands on that old black rag. “How much I owe you?” I asked.
He rang it up. Then he looked at me with an odd expression and kind of worked his mouth like he was chewing on something and said, “What you done?”
“I said what you done, ya takin’ my license plate like that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just wanted it for a souvenir.”
“Ain’t worth nothin’.”
“Then it’s no loss.”
“Take it. I don’t care. Just seems like a strange thing to want for no reason.”
“You ever do anything for no reason?”
“I’ll pay you for it.”
“Don’t want your money. Like I said. It ain’t worth nothin’ to me.”
“Well, thanks then.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s between you and God.” I looked at him for a moment with an urge to explain, but he turned away and went back into the shadows, so I took my things and left.
I drove through the hot day and only stopped for some quick drive-through road food. Otherwise, I kept on moving. Later, I did stop in an empty stretch of road and pried off my old license plates and tied that one I took from the old man onto the back of my car. It looked like it belonged on a Model A.
The blond road came out of the distance in shimmering waves, and the white spikes of the Cascades diminished behind me. Theatrical clouds drifted into high anvil thunderheads off to the south. The valley floated in swales of heat, and a silver river of serpent scales slid flashing in the dream reeds and grass feathers as I followed it parallel. At one point I looked down, and my hands became my father’s hands. I felt myself dissolving in the droning driving monotony until I couldn’t tell where my legs ended and the vehicle began. My arms went numb and my mind shut down. I drove until I was simply motion going forward, road endlessly unfurling, horizon and wind boiling until something new appeared: a field, a water tower, a town, a man emerging from a mirage.
The sun swung around. The earth spun on its invisible axis. And the shadows spread out before me, my own vehicle form leaping darkly ahead. I stopped just before sundown in a little town with boardwalks and bars and a few weathered shops and a real estate office with faded photographs of land perfect for building a dream home. I went into the hardware store and bought a few camping supplies: a little propane cook stove that folded down to the size of a book, a cook set, a knife, a flashlight, a tarp and a few blankets, and a large, sturdy backpack. Then I went to the market and bought some food: eggs and bacon and beans and bread and canned hash and soups in both cans and packets and coffee and finally two jugs of water. And I was gone from that town before I could even disturb the dust.
I drove and watched the sun dissolve in the upthrust of clouds at the top of the Cascades behind me, and I headed up into a smaller range of mountains, the pine trees accumulating again along with their brother birch trees with a million eyes. The river stayed with me, disappearing and reappearing on the other side of the road, then dipping down again as I crossed a small bridge and caught sight of its white surging force below. I drove off onto an old forest service road, following the river as it flowed through the hills, going until the road dwindled down to a rut that faded out in a grove of fir trees. I continued off road a while longer and maneuvered my car between four trees with their limbs hanging down like a perfect hide-out. No one would be able to see me, especially in the dark.
I worked fast to set up a camp. I laid out my tarp and blankets and built up a rough kitchen with rocks. I made a fire ring and gathered up some sticks and branches and broke them over my knee and started up a little fire. Then I sat down as the granite peaks melted into night, and I listened to the ticking of my car engine, listened and at last heard the voices of the river. I need to be near that, I thought, so I got up hiked toward the river. Then I stopped. I heard something: other voices, the voices of people. I went back to my camp and listened, and I distinctly heard the voices of people out there somewhere. I walked toward those voices, crouching low, sliding up next to trees, trying not to be seen. And I remembered what my brother had said: you don’t exist. I don’t exist. That’s even more powerful than being invisible. Just thinking it gave me confidence as I went forward through the trees. Then, I stopped and waited and listened and heard nothing. I looked around and saw nothing. What had it been? I waited for a long time, remaining very still, but nothing appeared and I heard no sounds. I went back to my camp.
I sat there trying to penetrate the space around me, the river, listening hard. Then I heard the voices talking again, and again I crept out in search of them. But the closer I came to where I thought those voices were, the farther away they sounded, until I heard nothing at all. It was like they were moving away, then coming close, then moving away again. Like some game. I looked up through the lace of tree limbs. I saw nothing. Sight was useless. The forest was utterly dark. I moved slowly, keeping my breath quiet and close. I stopped. I waited. Nothing again. I went back to my camp.
Then I saw something, an orange hunting cap, out there in the trees on the other side of my camp. I went over that way, stepping carefully so that I wouldn’t make a sound. But I saw no one. The hat was gone. I waited there in the grove, in the open. Then I saw movement on the perimeter. I followed it, moving deeper into the trees. The limbs whispered around me. But I found no one, nothing, and I thought, what the hell am I doing? Then it struck me that I might be going mad. Whenever I stopped, became still, I saw something or heard something. My heart was racing. My hands were shaking. All of this, I thought, is coming from my mind. I’ve been here before. These are fears I’ve carried for lifetimes pouring out, nothing more. So I went back to my camp.
I must not panic, I thought. I lit a cigarette and sat by the fire and grabbed hold of my brother’s medicine pouch. No matter what, I decided, I’m not moving from this spot. I will just stay put. I’m not the first person to be in this space, and I won’t be the last. How I handle this now, though, could make all the difference.
I was assaulted by voices, then, by intense conversations nearby, arguments rising and falling, indictments, monologues, debates, harangues and laughter. And other sounds. But I didn’t move. And shadows flowed just beyond the edge of my camp, flickering, flashes of color, eyes. But I didn’t move. It became like some strange pageant of absurd forest monsters chattering, jumping, taunting me as they moved in closer and closer, my hands shaking, my heart racing, my guilty fearful mind fighting as I said over and over again, they’re not real, they’re not real, they’re not real…trying to believe it, trying… and I began to sing a little song to myself, trying to fight it off, singing, home home heya home, home heya home, and it vibrated in my mind, creating an invisible cloud of sound around me so that gradually the voices subsided and the shadows fell back as I rocked and sang and rocked and saw a deer appear there suddenly before me in the firelight, a notch-eared, black tail deer standing at the edge of my camp. I went silent and gazed at it and it at me in an eternal moment during which neither of us moved, and my heart went calm and my mind went still and I just gazed into the black infinity of those eyes there in perfect trance communion without words.
Then the deer faded away. I tried to follow, but I only took a few steps. I let it go, knowing I had whatever it could offer. I stood there now in the darkness with a blanket over my shoulders and listened and heard nothing in the night that was not there and the nothing that is and felt for the first time in…no time that I could remember…peace.
In the morning I cooked myself a big breakfast of beans and bacon and eggs, and I made a big pot of coffee and stood in the center of my campsite as the sun came up and cast down shafts of light through the mist that drifted up from the river and moved through the congregation of trees. Blue Jays and camp robber birds worked the edges of my campsite, and I tossed bits of bread to them. They darted in and carried everything I tossed them away, storing their catch in hidden places and coming back for more. And I began to distinguish them and gave them names like Ruffled Jaw for the one with a tuft of brown feathers splayed beneath its beak, Ace for the brave one that shot in first, Spaz for the one so frantic it missed everything because of its furious movement, and Watcher for the one that never came close. A flicker flew in overhead and landed on a branch above me. They’re holy birds, I’ve heard.
Then at last I went down to the river, hearing the sound of its many voices as I approached. I pulled back the branches of an ash tree and slid through and found the bank and crouched down next to the river to see. I stared into it, watched as it coursed over rocks in thick glassy tendons of water, fast and powerful, jade green in its depths toward the middle way, aqueous clear along the shallows, rising and falling and cresting as it slid forward, rilling and circling in eddies that spiraled into themselves, places of motionless motion that came up from below where I saw the quick of the deep flowing current coming through, riffling the submerged white ash roots that twitched like cilia as they shot forth from the black talus bed. I reached in and felt the ice cold flow of water over my hand. I touched the white roots and the rock underneath. The cold of the water worked down into the bones of my hand. Then I raised my hand cupped with a palm full of water and drank.
Up a ways I beheld where two rivers came together, water flowing into other water, surge and current combining their forces and volume in a howl of colliding momentum. And the sunlight shot straight down through it all, striking the body of a salmon that nerved its way upstream. Its scales shone bright green and red. It seemed to regard me. What I was to that salmon I have no idea, but it didn’t move. It just hovered in light. I gazed into that water forever. I could apprehend nothing else. Then my attention wavered, and the fish shot forward and was gone.
When I walked back into my camp, the birds scattered to the nearby rocks and up into the low tree limbs and chattered their annoyance at me. But I didn’t linger. I packed my gear into the trunk and scanned the camp for any remains and found none. The air was cool. I thanked my camp, tossed a few more breadcrumbs to the birds, got in my vehicle and started the engine. And as I pulled out and onto the forest service road, I saw a deer, perhaps the same deer that I had seen the night before. I wanted to believe that. It jumped across the road and stood nearly invisible among the trees, and as I passed by it watched me.
I saw no one as I drove on. The river flowed with me then flowed away. I drove in trance. Visions of past journeys came back to me, of my father and brother and me traveling deep into the northern plain to my great grandfather’s homestead, a place he built above an ancient lake that reminded him of Ireland. It was almost impossible to find, buried deep in the low-lying hills, with misleading signs pointing down roads that lead finally away. It always seemed we could find it only by dead reckoning, laughing, cussing, saying, is this the way? No! You’ve got it all wrong! Turn back! You’re crazy! Keep going. It’s just up ahead! The house burned down, leaving nothing but the stonewall of my great grandfather’s foundation, a dry mason’s masterpiece. Then my grandfather rebuilt it and kept it as a going concern, but eventually he moved on when the market prices dropped and the apple crops failed to produce enough to live on. For years, my father talked of going back there. He talked of shedding the great weight, the chains of the city, and when our mother passed on and left him alone, he did just that. And he never came back.
There is a paradise in my mind when we used to come out to fish and hunt. But that was another life. I’m now a thief of those memories. It was a struggle to think my way back into the present, my flight, and it occurred to me that when the police did not find me in the city they would eventually come looking out here. My hope was that I had made a good start and would be long gone before they arrived.
I drove through the high altitude as the rain rolled in. I drove down the wild blue road. A white oblivion mist devoured the treetops and snaked into the depths of the forest. I plunged headlong into the onslaught of rain. I flipped on the windshield washers, cutting into the watery world, and I dove into the black pupil of distance out of which mile on mile of two lane road issued without end.
Then the storm broke and passed on. I relaxed my grip on the wheel and rolled through the lingering mist without thought or fear. And then my father’s house appeared on its hill above the apple groves. The windows blazed in the late afternoon sunlight. A small black creek flowed down along north side of the property and through the orchard and then disappeared beneath the road and further on rose again to join the greater rivers. Clouds fanned above the house like a halo. I drove up through the orchard, stopped, and sat there for a moment looking at the house. It was so bright in the sunlight, it looked like it was made of fire.
I lit a cigarette and listened to the crickets. White moths fluttered close to the ground. The orchard was an abandoned mess with some trees twisted and overgrown and nearly lying on the ground. Others were dead from the inside with ashen limbs and gray black bark. A few remained tall and tough with the weighted clusters of apples hanging from their boughs. Years back, when our grandfather had lived here, we came out and helped with the harvest. It was a flourishing orchard then, even if it didn’t make much money. But when our grandfather left, it fell back into wild neglect. Our father never tended to it. When he moved back into the house, he was only a silent, drunken watcher spending his last years in quiet idle oblivion.
I got out and walked up to the house and found the front door open. I went in. It looked like no one had been here for years. Dust covered the floor and the windowsills. There were animal droppings all around. Some of the windows were broken out. And most of my father’s possessions were gone, though a few things still remained. It had the look of a place abandoned in haste. There were some cans of food in the cupboards, a heavy brown canvas coat and a rifle in one of the closets, some shot-gun shells in a drawer, and a photograph on the mantle of me and my brother taken when we were little kids standing on a rock with bare chests, snarling like two little bears, our hands raised like claws. I looked at it for a long time, went into the time of the picture, that moment, then pulled myself free.
I suppose I was not that surprised that he left, but I wondered where he had gone. I hadn’t heard anything, and he was not one to communicate in details. I went back outside and stood on the front porch from where I could see the road descending through the hills for several miles. I calculated that I had an hour or two of sunlight left, so I unloaded my few supplies and placed them in my backpack: blankets on the bottom and against the back, then canned goods, including the ones from my father’s cupboards, the cook set, one water jug and the rest of the food on top, and at last the tarp; then I put matches and pliers, flashlight and batteries, shotgun shells and the knife in the outer pouches. It was a nice, lightweight pack, a good set-up. I tried it on, and it felt okay, but after a few hours of hiking I knew it would feel heavier. It would be all right, though, I decided. It would do. And I set it on the porch along with the shotgun and the canvas coat.
I drove my vehicle around to the back of the house and pulled the tarp from the woodpile over it and threw a few pieces of wood on top of it to hold the tarp down. If anyone were truly searching for me, they would find it, of course, but my intention was more to hide it from the eyes above.
I smoked and looked out to the west where the sun was half dissolving in the talons of a new storm rising up over the pine ridge. The light fanned out in beautiful rose hues along the mackerel clouds, punched through in sun bolts that strafed the valleys below. And rogue clouds raced juggernaut in the wind, dragging their shadows across the hills.
When I came back around to the front of the house, I looked down the hill again, and this time I saw what I thought was the flash of reflected light from a windshield. A car was coming up the hill. I froze for a moment, thinking it might be my father. But that was impossible. I knew it without a doubt. And that road led nowhere but here.
I went up on the porch and put on the pack with the coat strapped on top. Then I picked up the rifle and went down the steps and hiked around to the back of the house and jogged across the back clearing and up towards the northern ridge. I went fast and dove into the cover of trees. I listened, but I heard nothing.
I hiked up and away from the house. There was no trail, so I bushwhacked through the brush, trying not to leave signs of my passage. I stopped and listened again. Then I heard an engine in the distance. At least I thought that’s what I heard. I was maybe two hundred yards from the house. I listened again, listened and heard nothing. Then I headed on, glanced back and could just barely see the house through the trees. And as I hiked, my heart pounded fast, sweat pouring down my back and my face. I wished for quick darkness.
After I had made about a mile and a half, I heard an odd sound, a kind of pounding, rhythmic, pulsing. It grew louder, then it hit me, that’s the sound of a helicopter. I was stunned they had come so soon. I heard it circling overhead, and I hiked faster, picking up the pace. The sunlight was fading, slowly, so it was dark enough now that I couldn’t see very far ahead. The woods were dense, so they wouldn’t see very well, either. Come, darkness, I thought, come. Then I saw a beam of light shooting down through the trees about a hundred yards below me, what must have been a spotlight from the helicopter. And it circled, that spotlight, trying to search me out. I heard a voice amplified and echoing in the gorge below, but I couldn’t tell what it said.
I hiked on over the soft loamy branches and ferns and up through a narrow canyon where I had to grab onto the swooping vine-limbs and pull myself up. My ascent went slow. Then I hit a plateau, and I ran in the clearings where I could see ahead of me. I hiked as fast as I could through the denser woods, climbing over fallen tree trunks and rock outcrops. No road comes this way, and there’s no place to land that beast, so if they follow me, they will have to follow me on foot. They couldn’t know where I was exactly. The woods spread out from my father’s house for miles in all directions. And I had the advantage of the lead and some knowledge of the land.
After a while, the helicopter seemed to drift on to the west, and I no longer heard the amplified voices. I slowed a bit and tried to get my bearings. I didn’t want to go in circles inadvertently. I knew I had to keep ascending and get across the ridge and into the next valley. No roads went there. It was open for thousands of miles, essentially borderless, as far as I knew. The valleys and canyons might go on without end. The air was cool and my breath plumed before me. Stars began to appear overhead through the trees. I could hear the creek running down the hill on my right. I readjusted my pack and tied the rifle on the back to free my hands. I took out the flashlight and turned it on. I listened for a while, pushing my senses out, feeling deep into the woods for all movement and sounds. I heard whispers like straw in my ears, wind, the voices of the water, but nothing of men. I kept moving, my head down and concentrating on my steps, my own little light from the flashlight illuminating the smallest of circles before me. I kept moving, looking up from time to time but moving, moving. Then I saw a bright star, and I knew it, my brother’s star, Polaris. “Thank you, brother,” I said aloud. I kept it before me, hiking on, always sure that I had it in sight.
I hiked through most of the night, stopping only for brief rests and to drink from my water jug. And I listened, listened hard. I heard no voices, no sound of engines. I listened and heard only the sound of an owl hooting somewhere far off. Maybe they had called it off for the night. Maybe they would resume tomorrow. I wondered if they had gone to my brother. From the crown of my will I imagined him, his blue eyes shining like mine, drifting toward me from the ragged clearing, his face blazing with light. I smiled, thinking of what he had said, and I reached up and touched the medicine pouch. And in that moment, I was sure they would never find me.
I hiked on. The temperature dropped. I heard the perpetual sound of water from the creek nearby, and I was sure in my mind where I was. I hung the flashlight back on my pack and hiked on in the pitch black darkness, my steps purely instinctual, sure and unfaltering. And my vision went out inch by inch as into a stone, disclosing the structures around me, lattice-work of trees and ridges and fields, the green burst of the moss, the flaring red eyes of the creatures out there. The air became colder, and late into the night I felt snow crunching under my feet. I took the canvas jacket out and put it on. It kept me warm and helped cushion the weight of the pack and the rifle. Coyotes howled, and a thin, crescent Cheshire moon rose grinning through the mathematics of trees.
Finally, I stopped. I just sat there for a long time, listening. All I could hear at first was my own hard breathing. I could see absolutely nothing. And after a while, when my breathing slowed down, I could hear nothing at all. I stayed that way for a long time. At the first sign of pursuit, I’d be on the move again. But at this point, I figured it was best to stay still. I had learned that lesson. I couldn’t imagine anyone following me in this darkness. The woods were dense and hard enough to navigate in the daylight without a trail. I was buried. And I kept thinking of what my brother had said…you don’t exist. Well, certainly the marks of my passing would be discovered back at my father’s place. But at this point, in this time, I had essentially disappeared. Certainly there was a chance someone was coming, but it was unlikely. But my brother meant something else. I knew it, and I didn’t know it, exactly. It aided me, and yet I doubted it. But I knew, my survival depended on achieving some clarity.
So now what? It occurred to me that it might be better just to set up a dry camp. No fire. I also thought it might be a good idea not to set up anything at all and just keep moving. At most, wait until light and then keep moving. It was too risky to get my stuff out and set up a camp. If they were following and should approach, I would have to move quickly, and I might not have time to gather up everything I needed. And I needed everything I had.
But I was cold. My nose and my cheekbones felt numb. My hands and feet were numb, too. I was beginning to shake. I felt a vague and menacing apprehension. And I knew the air was getting colder. I didn’t know how high I was in terms of altitude, but I could feel the difference in the temperature. The risk of not building a fire was perhaps worse. I was not equipped with heavy clothes, and I was susceptible to the elements. I decided to build a fire.
I found a spot in a clearing and gathered up some dry sticks and twigs from beneath the trees to get a fire started. The ground was dry, sheltered as it was by the canopy of the forest. I took off my pack and listened again and heard nothing. Okay, this would do. I opened my pack and took out a few of the cans and ripped off the labels to use for starting the fire. My hands felt lifeless. I couldn’t actually feel the things I was touching. I had to concentrate to make my fingers move. In fact, I watched my hands working with a strange and distant awareness, as though I were watching another person’s hands.
And then I just stood there. I was cold, but I was close to something. I was standing outside myself. I was near a familiar freedom, the mind opened up, like a child on the first trip away from home. I was light, breathless, floating in space. What a beautiful sensation. I didn’t want it to end. And it struck me. I was safe. For the moment, nothing was happening. My mind flew back over the roads, my brother’s place, the camp by the river, the old house. I was looking for something. Somehow, my flight had taken me over old ground. A pattern seemed to show itself. A crooked smile. Then something happened in my vision. I felt like I was seeing through a long tunnel. I felt like I was physically moving through that tunnel, even though I was simply standing there. Something was near. No, someone. But I couldn’t see. I knew it, though. I waited, like a person in a haunted house waiting for an actor to jump out. A flash. Wait a minute. A sort of blue light appeared. Was it close to dawn? Stay still, I thought. Then a red light appeared. Stay still. I had to fight a growing sense of panic. An urge to make a quick decision. But concentrating, like that, I kept myself out of it. Then I felt my body again. I made myself feel my body again.
With a new focus, I crumpled up the paper labels I had peeled from the cans and clustered the grass and twigs over them and lit the paper. This took real effort. But I soon had a little fire started. I found a few seasoned branches and broke them to make smaller pieces and coned them onto the flames that were going. Now I had a good little campfire. The heat of it began to grow. Then, for a moment, I panicked, because I thought I might be making a mistake. But again, I fought that feeling back and stayed calm. The forest was thick, so I shouldn’t really worry about anyone seeing the light of the fire. And if they did come, I would douse the fire and run. But as it was, I heard nothing. So I sat there just absorbing the warmth and the light, letting my mind settle a bit into the dance of the flames and the pitch-crackle of the wood.
The fire was a success. Sensation came back to my hands and feet. And I kept feeding it with twigs the size of my fingers and occasionally ones the size of my wrist, careful to protect the nucleus but not let it grow beyond a certain circumference. I didn’t need a big fire, just a need fire to get me through this. And I kept my fire going, but I didn’t sleep. I listened. No voices this time. I had moved past that. I had entered that quiet space where nothing comes. All was stillness. And I stayed there as long as I could, as long as I could make it last.
It was gradual at first, almost indistinguishable, a gray glowing forth of the trees, a gathering of substance in the earth around me. I was coming out of the darkness again. So I gathered my things and kicked the dirt over the place where I had built my fire. I scattered the collection of twigs I had gathered. I scuffed up the ground where I had been. I did a good job of erasing any trace of my being there. And I moved on.
In the twilight I made my way. And as I went, I could feel something in the forest change. I noticed it in the light. Not the light of growing day, but something else, the way the light was coming through, the way it was reaching me. The trees were more spread out, now, and I could see farther on through the gaps between them. I was approaching new ground.
And then, I was in an open space, a gray land between darkness and light where the forest ended and another landscape began. I felt like a creature emerging from hibernation as I moved through the trees. I saw the world spread out, the white waves of snow glowing out and away. And the sun broke its eastern plane, light flowing over the clouds, clouds rolling deep through the valleys below me, mountain peaks rising like islands. I was above it all in a dreamsea sky, seeing in every direction. And I went forward, one black hawk far ahead on the cool arc of wind. And I went forward, thinking, I’ll try, I’ll try my luck again, going forward into the vast white field.