Fiction by John Kuligowski
Papa’s mouth was open, but no words came out anymore. This, I reminded myself, is not a riddle—not a clever bit from one of his books. I traced the rope to his wild hair sheening in the sun, and followed along the lineaments to his bulging eyes. Then his nose, long and narrow (patrician, he called it once), forever leaning to the left. My gaze teetered from its tip and landed in a hollow that’s barely visible when he had his beard. He said an angel placed its finger there before he was born. There was darkness and dried blood at the cusp. Shapes moved just behind his tongue. Blowflies had made it a nest.
Five days and four nights. Still I waited for something to be said. Words of wisdom, guidance. Or at least one of his stories. There was advice in those, sometimes explicit, and other times murmured, hinging on some sign I’m sure had been known only to him, like the way one of the wild dogs in the woods will sniff the air and know something that we never can. Once upon a time, there used to be so many of them. A lot of the words came from the shelves. Field guides, farmer’s almanacs, books on the earth and its chemistry, and those covering the heavens and everything that lives in them, including on the underside of that place. He used to tell me about all the ways the cities are bad, full of people that aren’t really people, but more like wendigos and skin-walkers from the Old Peoples’ legends. Nothing but insensate craving inside their gnashing teeth. He’d said that’s why we’re safer here, in the forest.
It was just before dawn and the shadows had retreated deeper into the barn, where Papa did his work. When the sun climbed to the tops of the trees, I’d gather the eggs Myrtle and Penny had laid in their coop. Later, walk to the lake to fish for dinner. I believed that’s what Papa would’ve wanted. For now, I thought, it’s too early.
I turned from the sad horrorshow and headed back to the cabin, where I’d moved my bed into the Story Room. I turned out the lantern and tried to rest for an hour or two more. It didn’t take much time for my eyes to shut.
“They’re going to come back.”
Pulled out of the nothingness of a stolen sleep, I sat up in the gloomy Not-Yet-Light.
“My little girl, the devilmen.”
My eyes focused on the shape in Papa’s chair, the soft glow which had settled in it.
“You needn’t look.” Papa’s voice sounded strange, tinny, but still I recognized it. “There’s nothing you should see—lie back down for a while.”
I did as Papa asked.
“I knew you hadn’t left me,” I whispered.
He didn’t say anything else for quite a while. Bright little fragments like flakes of mica on the edge of the lake began coming to me. I remembered the story about the city he’d expeditioned from—the trash and sickness, the rats that would gnaw on your toes when you fell asleep. He said that he’d driven until he couldn’t go any farther. Before, he’d sometimes point to the ruined Econoline parked in the weeds. “There was an old monster who ate little girls who lived in that, just across the alley from where I stayed. That city was a dungeon. Well, they all are. But this was one of the worst. One of the fucking worst.”
Papa’s dull tongue would pass over his lips as he stroked his beard. His gray eyes never failed to spark in the wells of his sockets, and I’d wondered what he was seeing behind them, circumscribed by the words. Papa more than once said that language wasn’t the thing, speaking and writing were no proper ways to get at real meaning, but it’s also all we have to go on, like spells uttered to conjure the dead.
He’d always returned to the story of how he escaped the dungeon-city when we were heading to the lake to fish or gather firewood, or were hunting the wild dogs which live in the hollows deep in the woods. “The wendigo who lived in the van had just finished eating a little girl not much older than you are now”—and the curious thing is, as the years moved on and he told me this again and again, the girl in the story remained only a little older than me. “That night Papa was furious sick, and he knew that if he didn’t leave, he never would. So, when he saw the wendigo get out of his van, Papa sneaked out of his own haunt and shoved a knife just like this”—and Papa would yank from its scabbard his bone-handle hunting knife slung on his belt and thrust it, level with his belly, into the air before him—“right against his back. Then I whispered ‘Gimme the keys you crusty old bastard, or you’ll never be able to give nothing to nobody no more!’, and he pulled those keys out his pocket and dropped em right on the ground. Your papa knocked him on the head and took that van away from the Dungeon by the Sea, and just drove and drove.”
It was during that drive, he’d often told me, that he met Mama at a filling station where a devil had imprisoned her. Papa said he fell immediately in love, and he freed her. When they found this place, they lived Happily Ever After for a while, but Mama was sick in her heart from having been so long under the control of a devil. In the end, she ran away to another world.
“You’ll need to leave soon, Little Bird,” Papa said now. “Tomorrow. The devilmen will be back the day after.”
This time his words reminded me of things other than the story of how he and Mama came here. On some occasions he’d tell me about the hardships of making this place a home, of getting the chickens, of keeping the dogs at bay.
“Why?” I asked the faint glowing thing in the chair.
Papa taught me how to tie a fishing line. How to fillet a fish. Not to go too deep into the hollows without a rifle. Which berries are edible; which aren’t. How both to mend the roof and to read the fortune cards . . .
“Because they’re worried about the bag of bones hanging in the barn.”
Most importantly, he taught me to keep away from monsters. About the latter, I now understood unconditionally.
The devilmen used to come every fortnight. That’s what Papa said. He would look at the pages hanging on the cabin wall, marking off each Moonday. The Sunday before he would spend a lot of time inside the barn where he worked. Other days he spent time in there, but not as many hours as when the shell between air and earth becomes thin, and all the gods and archons can hear you. Papa was an alchemist making medicine. Poison to others, he’d said, because they’re blind in their iniquity. He alone knew how to use the medicine. He’d used it to study, to undertake to learn all the signs of the earth. “Never you touch that medicine; never touch those vats or buckets or the magic suit and mask Papa wears,” he’d commanded. “It’ll make you furious sick.” Maybe worse than he was years before, when he’d fled the Dungeon by the Sea. When I asked why it would do that, he said it was because of my age. I was far too young. It might transform me into a wendigo. A hungry ghost of who I was.
“The devilmen are afraid of someone finding what’s left of me,” he said in the fatigued darkness of the cabin.
“Never you mind who,” he said. “Just know that it’s time to leave. This is what you do: take only what you absolutely need, Little Bird, and you get out.” And Papa began to hum a lullaby to me, something he hadn’t done in a very long time.
Sunlight streamed through the kitchen window. I’d just finished breakfast. I sat at the table, watching dustmotes swirl in the curtain of light that waved through the air, over the wooden floor, in time with the sounds of the trees moving in the wind. Because this was the first I’d been able to make myself eat anything more than stale breadcrusts in almost a week, I felt I could fall asleep even though I knew I ought to be getting myself ready to leave.
I sensed my body starting to stretch out, my legs relaxing, my hands softening in my lap. The warmth of the day and the food unclenched my thoughts, each spilling out lazily, drifting, coextensive with the dust in the light. Papa was not there to tell me to get up, there’s no fucking time to be lazy, we’ve got to go. I wondered if what I saw and heard that morning, Papa and the lullaby, was real. Nothing in my head had felt right since Papa died, but I could still see his face, smiling at me from his good days.
A loud noise outside, a great thud like somebody jumped off the roof, awoke me. I started in the chair and almost fell over. Then I was on my feet, shaking a bit, looking around the kitchen of the cabin. My ears were pricked for any sounds—I heard a woodpecker off in the woods. A blue jay. Other than that, just the wind in the trees.
I moved towards the window and glanced out of it, into the yard, obliquely at first, and I saw no sign of anything out of the ordinary. I padded very softly into the Story Room, where Papa kept his guns, opened the cabinet, and chose the rifle easiest for me to use. The gun was loaded. I moved back to the kitchen, looked through the window once more, and, still seeing nothing, went outside.
The front of the barn was not fully visible from the kitchen window. Papa always said this bothered him, but that he’d had to make the best of what he was given, and that what we’d been given here was a far cry better than what he’d expected. I wonder sometimes what it is that he’d expected, and I wondered what I was expecting as I made my way down the steps, careful not to make them creak, not to let loose that barren sound which might ignite within some pair of ears the signal that there’s a soul here. I crouched down beside the steps, laying the barrel of the rifle across the old, dusty wood, training it toward the mouth of the barn, and I knew what I expected: The ones who came each fortnight, who Papa warned me would be returning.
I’d always hidden from them. Papa’s orders. I never saw exactly what would happen, but they came in a big black truck with a death’s head. Papa said he traded them his medicine for the things we needed to make this our home. I know that it troubled him, this arrangement; he was always quiet afterwards. When I once suggested that we didn’t need the scary motherfuckers with the skull on the hood, he got very angry. But he should’ve listened to me. The last time they came, he ended up hanging from the rafters.
“Scary motherfuckers,” I’d called them that time. He knocked me to the ground with his open hand. I looked up at him from the rug in the Story Room. It was exactly what he’d called them. I wasn’t crying, not the kind of crying that comes from hearthurt, but I felt water streaming from the eye on the side of my face where his palm had landed. Through the sting, I thought, I could kill you. I imagined in that instant sinking a knife into his chest while he slept, or of shooting him when he was walking to the barn, his back to the cabin. I don’t know what that feeling was, exactly, except knowing that I could do it, like I’d shot and killed some of the dogs in the past.
Presently nothing stirred as I kept my eyes on the mouth of the barn, but I saw a shape. How long I waited, how long I should wait, I didn’t know. There was an ache in my knees, and I think the sun expeditioned a good bit. Eventually, when all that I could really make out were the tree-sounds and birds for a long time, I crept to where Papa did his work.
What I saw was his body on the dirt. A swarm of insects. Flies buzzing and crawling all over him, making it look like his clothes were alive. One of his legs was twisted out beside him at an angle that shouldn’t have been. The rope was still around his neck, and also tied around one of the segments of a roofbeam, where the water would leak inside when it rained, no matter how often Papa would patch it. I felt my throat dry-gulping, and a smell that was not Papa’s folded all around me, pressing into my face. My stomach went hot and cold all at once. I turned away, and wretched onto the warm, dead earth.
The sun eventually slid down the other side of the world. Our plans kept running through my head. We were going to get more chickens. A cow for milk. Things were going to progress, because, as Papa said, “Progress is the only thing that keeps a man alive.” Cold air pressed down on our valley. A breeze had crusted over the saltwater streaking my cheeks. It ached my joints when I stood, but I soon forgot the hurt in my knees and elbows because when I looked off to the side of the shed, I glimpsed a something on four legs, just half hidden in the woods.
The creature stopped. I felt it watching me, and so I went very still again, measuring the breaths I took. The animal came out of the cover, slinking into the little clearing by the woodpile. Gray and white with little black patches. Its hair was matted, and it hung its tail in a servile way. The dog looked at me square-on. I wondered what it could be thinking.
The smell. The smell that wasn’t Papa.
I snatched up the rifle I’d leant against the side of the cabin, and, when I was in position, aiming at its head, the poor bedraggled creature jumped, moving a little towards the woods again. But still it watched.
I took a wild shot. The bullet crashed into some cords of firewood, unloosing a few logs. Then I shot again, into the air just above the dog’s head, and the mangy thing loped away.
I could have killed it, simple.
I glanced west. Dusk was coming. Tomorrow, before leaving, I decided I would bury my father.
My eyes are wide open. There’s a clearing. I see the mountains out ahead, and, below, a wide, steep valley descending into thick woodland. The sky is pale cornflower. Clouds run across the underside of heaven like deer, much too fast for clouds, but that’s OK, because Papa comes up the side of the very tall hill before the sun goes down. He holds a book open in one hand, a big book, and when I look at the writing none of it makes any sense to me, but he’s running a fingertip along the lines and his lips are moving in silent accord with whatever the words mean. Suddenly, he closes it and looks up at the darkening sky; then at me. “I don’t know what death really means,” he says. “I think it means that we’re dead now, and we keep dying, to wake up to a new death, in new lives, over and over.” He shakes the heavy book and some bird and squirrel bones fall from the flapping leaves. “There’s just no reason, except that it is—” and Papa starts choking.
He drops the book. His hands move to his throat, strangling or massaging, and I see something round start to come out of his mouth. It’s the part of his suit that he called the ventilator. It comes out, and then the yellow sleeves, and the legs and boots. I look away, and see a mangy dog standing alone on a different hill, but a hill that is the same as where we are. Then Papa is pointing and I’m looking down, and I see the lake. A truck is there, the one with the death’s head.
Like that, the body was gone.
Early the next morning, thinking about the dream, I went outside and into the barn. The beam of the flashlight landed on the ground. I saw the rope and the rotted plank, but Papa was not there. Not his ghost or spirit that came before, either.
I inspected the ground, but there wasn’t any sign of disturbance on the dirt, and, anyway, I know that a single dog, or even a pack of them, wouldn’t have gone far with the full body. They would have torn it up, pulled him apart—eaten what they could, and dragged off the rest to some spot where they’d have a chance at it later. There was no mess. There wasn’t even evidence that Papa rose from the dead in the night. He’d simply vanished. Soon after, I began laying the cards.
The Moon and the Hanged Man kept appearing, no matter how I shuffled.
There had to be some answer, a sign. In a sick world filled with monsters, where could I possibly go?
Late in the morning, I put the deck away, and let the chickens go. Probably it would’ve been better just to shoot them, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Penny and Myrtle were like friends. Papa would’ve called me weak for thinking this, but it’s true. No doubt Papa would’ve called me stupid for the way I watched them wander around before they slipped from sight behind the woodpile. Afterwards, I packed some things in a rucksack, including a collapsible fishing rod and a box of bullets, and, with my rifle, started for the lake. On the hike, I watched for signs of him.
Time goes neither quickly nor slowly out here. You sweat and step and balance and step. The way to the lake is long and rugged. Under these conditions, time isn’t a thing. Inside the woods, you climb down the valley, along the sinuous ruts that began as deer trails, and which Papa and I had made our own. It’s a steep place, and falling would leave you broken on the rocks below. You follow the right trail, and it begins to ascend after you’ve gone down to the belly of the earth. Once you come up, past the trees, there’s a rounded ledge, and from it you can see the shimmer of water below the mountains’ fist.
My mind was on other things, because I heard them much later than I know I would have, usually. There was a crashing noise and the voices echoed across the bowl. I dropped to the dusty ground beside a stunted juniper in the rocks and grass. On my side, I knew they couldn’t see me, but I remained ever-so aware now of how bright the daylight was. I couldn’t make out what was being said, or who formed the words. Then I heard a whisper. “You didn’t fly quick enough, Little Bird. Not far enough.”
Papa was lying beside me. Maggots fell from his mouth; his huge, strangled eyes squirmed too far out of his head.
“You told me—” I began.
“I’m a dead man, Little Bird. Nothing more.”
The lake is not a secret place. There’s a road that leads to it, one that the wendigos and skin-walkers know. Papa would always keep an eye out for cars each time we went. Once, he told me, he’d walked it all the way. That was the time Mama left.
She was sick in the heart, and she had started taking his medicine, he’d explained. She’d been taking something like it while she was the prisoner of the devil, and he’d thought that maybe his own recipe could cure her. He said that a day and night had passed, and he started in the direction he thought she might go.
I asked him what was there, what he saw. He paused. It was late fall, early winter, then. I remember the darkness in our cabin, the warmth fluming from the wood-burner. “There’s a town, and then the end of the world.” His eyes seemed to drain of life, the way they did while he was hanging in the barn.
The rope and the beam were still tied to him. He just stared. Licked his lips. I wanted to scream and hit him the way he sometimes did to me. I wanted to kill him, but he was already dead. I squeezed shut my eyes. Bit my hand. When I opened them again, he’d gone, and my hand was bleeding.
A lot of crawling. Through the nowhere edges of time. A lot of the time spent listening for something I wasn’t certain I’d find, out here, especially now, their figures out on the far edge of the lake, near the road.
There was one day we saw a car on that road.
Papa and I were fishing, and aspen leaves were falling. The bright, clear light had begun to make me drowse on the log I’d taken as a seat near the shore. Every so often I would jerk awake when the cool breeze of the late morning came shivering over the water. Papa was far off, in the water with his hip-waders, casting his line. We already had a good haul, so he didn’t mind my resting.
I think we picked out the sound of the motor at the same time, and he was gesturing at me to stay back, to stay the fuck down, as the silver car came, a silver car with lights on top and a star on the side, kicking out dust behind it. When he saw that I’d hunkered into the reeds, he continued to cast, walking a bit in the direction of the vehicle, leaving me free to watch him move slowly up the shore. The car still wasn’t very big when it stopped, but Papa was plenty small when he turned his head, like he’d been so engrossed in the business of fishing that he hadn’t even noticed it come around. A heavy man got out. He had white, bushy hair and a mustache. Papa put his arm into the air, waving once. The man returned the gesture. Papa didn’t have his gun, but it wasn’t far from me. I looked at the rifle which had bent a narrow swathe of reeds under its weight.
There was fear then, like now, but unlike then, something else was prowling through me. So close, and they didn’t even know it. I could hear what they said, what they did.
“We should just burn the old tweaker’s place down. Barn, cabin, all of it!”
“That’s just the stupidest shit I’ve heard—it’d start the whole fucking forest on fire.”
I moved slow, and I could see by the sun that several hours had gone by. They were drinking something, passing it among each other, the three of them, and listening to strange music. I saw the death’s head on the black truck.
“Well, how the fuck else we gonna take care of this shit?”
Some clouds were moving in, thunder clouds. I could smell the storm. I realized now I could smell it earlier this morning, but I hadn’t paid the right mind to it because I’d been distracted with Papa. The prowling feeling came over me completely, and I knew they wouldn’t notice me stand and raise the rifle.
I was nervous, lying there, looking at the gun. Papa was talking to the man. After a while, they parted, and the man lingered where Papa left him. Papa got back into the water, heading towards me along the shore. I lifted up a bit on my elbows. I saw the man glance over the water, almost wistfully, before he got into his silver car and turned it back up the road.
When I asked him why the man looked like a real person, Papa told me that all monsters wear curiously normal skins when they go hunting. The monster knew I was having my very first womanly time. He could smell it, and he was looking to take me away.
There’s something delicious about the heft of the rifle, the tension against my finger as I squeeze the trigger.
My first bullet takes off a third of the devilman’s head. The noise cracks through the quiet posed by the lake and startles the others. There’s enough time for me to land another shot, straight into one’s chest. The last starts to run. The truth is, by then I know I’m safe. I could go back to cabin. I know in my heart that these creatures pose no real threat, not with all of Papa’s guns in the Story Room. But I drop to the ground again and wait.
This terrain isn’t an easy one to expedition through, even if you live here. Just looking at the dogs when they pass will tell you that much. I get the sense that these lives were caught up in the truck with the death’s head, the way Papa’s once was with the Econoline.
It is only a matter of time. Eventually the runner comes back, because there’s nowhere else for him to go. They’re all hanged men.
Hours have passed, daylight has died again. In the dark of my shelter beneath the shell on the back of the truck, I listen to the rain falling. A low rumble of thunder shivers over the valley where home was, as the squall eases away from the mountains, heading east, to whatever is there.
This will do for tonight. I settle atop an old blanket that smells like dust and oil, and I close my eyes. Beside me is a set of shovels the men had been using to dig recently—undoubtedly a shallow grave for Papa. It’s warm and comfortable here. The sight of that lone dog on the hill from my dream, and the memory of trying to scare it off with gunshots, rolls through my mind long into the night, until the rain begins to fade away.
Tomorrow, I’ll take to the trees, following the road. That will be better; I can find cover much easier when anybody comes. I imagine a steady stream of vehicles making ruts in the mud as they begin looking for the ones I left lying in the woods with bullet holes. Maybe monsters don’t care. But I know, that like Mama, I have a sickness in my heart. I want to find the town where the road stops, at the end of the world.
John Kuligowski currently lives in the Midwest with his partner and a dachsador named Olive. He is currently pursuing an MA in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Photo by Alireza Afkar on Unsplash