Tufts & Bone

For several days she’d caught a whiff of something rank behind the house but couldn’t pin down the source. Probably one of Button’s gift sparrows, partially sampled and deposited under the rhododendrons. But one grainy afternoon, with the temperature cuddling up to 90, the scent overwhelmed the property like a bad blanket. That’s when she remembered seeing the lawn and leaf bag by the back fence.

Grass clippings? The methane, must be. Left there by her husband before he’d gone to his convention in Buffalo. And wasn’t that just like him. She played the soon-to-take-place conversation in her head, the one they would enact in the car after she picked him up at the airport. You need to get rid of that bag, she would say. What bag, he’d respond. The garbage bag with whatever crap you put in it, in the yard. Out by the burn barrel. I never threw that out, he would muse, more to himself than to her, and she would say no, no you didn’t so could you please take care of it tonight, and he would say okay, okay, and she would say don’t get snippy I’m just saying, and he would say okay.

But the following morning the smell was just too oppressive. She had returned from putting her son on the bus and had sat down to eat her cereal, thinking how pleasant, the breeze flirting with the kitchen curtains, until it delivered the sharp tang through the window. She nearly gagged.

It couldn’t be grass clippings.

She stood staring at the thing with mistrust, a dishcloth held over her nose. The black plastic was slick with dew, lying in a part of the yard where the shade of the pines beyond the fence would hold back the encroaching June sun for another hour. It looked small and insignificant, giving the appearance of a deflated balloon sinking into the grass. There was a balled-up lump inside. The bag hadn’t been twist-tied shut and the smell was beyond intense.

She considered dragging the bag to the garbage cans by the end of the driveway, but pickup wouldn’t be for another three days. The smell would get unbearable and it would be embarrassing, insulting really, to have the garbage men haul away something so ripe. They were good guys, never balked at anything left by the road. She even knew the driver’s name, Robbie, though how she came to know that she had no recollection. At Christmas they left out a twelve pack and some twenties taped beneath the lid.

Whatever was inside must have been cooking inside that plastic for days, and the sour-sweet smell made her eyes water. Pinching the corner of the bag, she dragged it to the rear of the yard behind the swing set her son had recently outgrown. Grabbing the bottom corner gingerly between two fingers, she lifted it waist high, and as the thing inside slid out, fast, plopping onto the grass with a slippery thud, she had a childhood recollection of watching a foal being born on her cousin’s farm, the sound of the placenta hitting the ground.

Using a branch she flipped the carcass over, leaning forward as close as she dared to inspect the object.

It was matted and badly decomposed. The size of a large rat, it had tufts of brown and white hair and one tattered wing, like a bat’s, only larger and with maroon claws at the joints that stuck out at impossible angles. Where the other wing had been ripped off, a pearly nub of cartilage poked through. A portion of the skull was gone, and the animal’s mouth was open in a grimace revealing tusks that over time had grown up through the roof of its mouth. The torso was ribbed and bulbous like a caterpillar’s. Its triangular head had small feral ears and droopy black feathers exiting either side of its neck. One of the haunches was alive with maggots. The eyes had been plucked out.

She set the garbage bag on top of the body and then the stick on top of that to keep the bag from blowing away. She walked quickly to the garage to get her gardening gloves and the spade and then dug a hole right there in the lawn next to the creature. When she nudged it into the hole with the shovel, the lawn bag as well, a section of the animal’s leg detached and she flicked that into the ground too. Covered it up, placed the sod cap over the opening, and, not wanting to step on the ground there, banged the earth flat with the back of the shovel, repeatedly. Then she got the hose and sprayed off the blade of the shovel and left it to dry on the back deck. Went inside, undressed, put her clothes and gloves in the washing machine, set the dial to sterilize, washed her hands in bacterial soap, rinsed her mouth with mouthwash, and stood in a hot shower for a very long time.

When her boy got off the bus she was there to greet him as usual. As they walked up the driveway, she told him, don’t go in the backyard just yet. How come, he asked, and she said, I had to bury something and it still smells out there. What did you bury, he asked. Nothing, she said. Hey did you see it, he asked her, did you see what I found. What are you talking about, she said, expressionless. I stuffed it in a bag, I’ll show you. You mean you did that, she said.

He told her he’d found it behind the fence several days ago. You went behind the fence, she said. It’s no big deal mom. You didn’t carry it over here like that, did you? Tell me you didn’t touch it. Well how else was I going to bring it home, he said. She looked at him. Oh. Oh, no, she said. She took him into the bathroom and made him take off his shirt, which he did under protest, then proceeded to scrub his hands, arms, neck, face. While she did this she asked him further questions: what is it (it’s just a bird, mom), no it is not a bird (yes it is a bird), birds don’t have hair and teeth (then what is it, mom), that’s what I’m asking you where did you find it (behind the fence, I said), what were you doing behind the fence you know you’re not allowed back there (I heard a noise), what kind of noise (like a animal noise I don’t know), what do you mean an animal noise (like crying), don’t you ever I mean ever go back there again do you hear me (whatever), don’t you say whatever to me young man look at me when I’m talking to you (what), you are not allowed behind that fence do you hear me (okay, I said), I mean it mister I am not kidding, never again (okay, alright, god).

Their back fence was a typical stockade with one of the sections blown down that her husband had been saying he would repair, but it had been two months now and he hadn’t yet. She stepped over the fallen piece and onto the other side, making her way around piles of leaves he dumped there every fall. They lived along the interstate on one of those long empty stretches, miles in either direction from any town. The uninhabited state land ran for about fifty, seventy-five yards until it ended abruptly at a metal fence, the other side of which was the grassy highway shoulder and then the highway.

The land behind her fence was overgrown, a bramble of laurel and sumac and white oak and baneberry from which drooped a canopy of vines so thick in places that when you stood beneath, it the sun all but disappeared. A mile or so to the west, the ground turned marshy, sprouting dense stands of impenetrable phragmite. In that direction were her closest neighbors, the Hincocks, an elderly couple who lived in a converted trailer. There were no neighbors to the east.

She hadn’t been back here in years. She made her way through ferns nearly as tall as she, unsure of what exactly she was looking for. The remains of a large nest, maybe. Strange tracks in the mud. When she noticed she was standing surrounded by poison ivy, she turned back.

Her mother had grown up in this house. She’d told stories of how, when the state put in the highway, road crews were finding revolutionary war-era ordnance in the course of their digging, and so she and her parents, the woman’s grandparents, would, on late afternoons when the construction crews had left, poke around in the dirt mounds while the girl sat inside the cabs of sleeping backhoes, pretending to drive them. Aside from some old grape shot nothing much turned up. Later on, though, her mother would tell of curiosities washing up on the banks of the interstate. A trombone slide. A bowling ball. A suitcase full of old eyeglasses.

The junk people jettisoned from their cars while zipping down the highway was more interesting in those days. After her mother died and the woman inherited the home and moved in with her boyfriend, now husband, it was just an endless rain of litter. Crushed cigarette packs, napkins, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups from the rest stop several exits west. Wendy’s wrappers. The trees and vines closest to the highway served as a net and the branches were filled with plastic bags that looked like spent husks of enormous insects as they fluttered and rustled in the winter months after the leaves had dropped.

The day her husband returned from his conference, she took him out back. She was going to make him dig it up so he could see himself, but during the night some animal had come into their yard and unearthed the thing and dragged it away through the opening in the fence.

I want that goddamn fence fixed, she said. I want it taken care of. And the next day he did.

At night, as her husband slept, she let the rise and fall of traffic on the interstate wash over her. By day she barely noticed the sound from the perpetual river of cars, but at night the hiss of distant vehicles and the gurgle of downshifting trucks announced themselves in the gloom, and she could not ignore them. She stared at the ceiling and thought about the thing in the bag. There must be more of them beyond the fence, she thought, how could there not. And if that were so, then wouldn’t others eventually make their way into the backyard? They must be nocturnal, these things. Probably fed on squirrels, chipmunks. Cats maybe. That might explain what happened to the two before Buttons. If there were others, did they sit in the trees watching? Looking for stray rabbits to silently swoop down upon and snatch before the animals could scream, rending their throats in mid-flight, jabbing and plucking the meat from their necks before letting the half-eaten, still-pulsing bodies tumble to the ground.

And what about whatever had come into their yard to dig up and drag away the carcass? What manner of creature had that been?

Unable to sleep, she lay in bed and took walks in her mind through that strip of overgrown state property behind the fence, that no man’s land extending for miles in either direction. A ribbon of forgotten scurf and thicket. It must have been months, years maybe, since someone had walked around in there. POSTED signs hung intermittently on the taller pine trees, but these were not what kept hunters away so much as that there were few places to pull off and park one’s car out of sight from troopers. Besides, the strip of undeveloped land here running between her property and the highway was not deep enough to warrant hunting with rifle or even bow. Other than the men who came once a month in their wide-mouthed mowers to cut the grass along the shoulder and in the median, or the occasional motorist stopping to pee or change a diaper or open the door to let a carsick child vomit, it was an unvisited place, a non-place, offering little to hold the attention of those who coasted by at eighty miles per hour.

As her husband snored next to her, she stared at the ceiling and pictured herself venturing into the land behind her house in search of evidence. In her head, she envisioned this as a morning ritual and documented each step. Saw herself waking at dawn. Brewing a pot of coffee and eating a banana, setting the breakfast table for her family who would remain asleep for several more hours. She would drag the picnic table endwise up to the new stockade fencing her husband had installed and climb over, throwing first one leg then the other, lowering herself to the ground and dropping into a heap of last year’s leaves. Despite the heat, she would be wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt as protection against poison ivy and sumac and the thornier vines that hung everywhere like extension cords.

She would make her way through the brush. She would discover the remains of a trail untouched for years if not generations. She would take her machete—she would have bought one at Home Depot expressly for this purpose, keeping it hidden on a shelf in the garage so as not to have caught the attention of her husband—and hack her way through plants as dark as cooked spinach. She would climb through gullies, up slopes, and down into hollows. She would rest on the remains of stone fences built centuries before while sipping from the water bottle clipped to her belt loop. She would sit in such places for long stretches of time, listening for any kind of bird or animal cry out of the ordinary. She would scan the tops of the sycamores, looking for the flash of exotic plumage, perhaps the glint of yellow eyes staring down.

But these imagined early-morning visits yielded no sightings, and she was forced to admit that to make contact with this elusive creature, this undocumented species, she would have to travel at night. And so, still lying there in bed and conjuring these travels in her mind’s eye, she imagined staying up one night after her husband and son fell asleep. She would quietly exit the house and make her way back to the wooded strip, leaving the back door unlocked, armed this time with just a small flashlight. She’d walk as far west as the Hincocks’ trailer, and farther beyond, heading into areas into which she had never traveled before. Clouds of bugs would harass her as she skirted clots of swampland, and she would pull her sweatshirt hood tight over her head, tugging the drawstring so that only her nose and eyes showed.

After several such imagined forays, each time going farther into the slough, she came to find herself standing in a clearing surrounded by low-growing witch-hazel thick with caterpillar nests. Only they were not cottony caterpillar webbing at all, but strange cocooned packages suspended from the trees. And she realized that within these low-slung wrappings there were animals—mice, voles, baby raccoons, muskrats—captured and poisoned by the creatures she had been seeking and which, like spiders, kept their prey wrapped in fabric spun from their bodies. It was here that she had finally reached her quarry, wandering into their pantry. It would be around now that she would notice the absence of crickets and cicadas and, sweating deeply in the close, jungly air, sweep her flashlight in broad arcs above her head. And there she would see, hanging upside down from the branches, not one but dozens of the beings. Animals neither bat nor rodent nor cat nor spider but echoes of each. Each one regarding her with eyes glimmering like cut beads of glass. And they had tails, something she had not seen on the dead one in her yard: hairless, barbed, whip-like tails, twitching in anticipation.

As the woman imagined these nocturnal journeys in greater detail while her husband snored next to her and her son in the room down the hall sweating in a tumble, his covers kicked off onto the floor and he, his father’s child, snoring too, she would spend long hours standing, eyes closed, in the lair of these night-things. And while the creatures were full of malice, their taut black lips curled back and strings of spit swinging from their ingrown teeth, they would refrain from attacking her but simply stare, unblinking, watchful and expectant. And here is where it would enter her mind that she had been chosen as their emissary. A confidante. Their queen, perhaps. And she would remove her clothes—no insect would enter this hallowed part of the woods to sting or bite—and climb into the lower branches of a box maple where she would sit, leaning against the trunk, arms clasped around bent knees and settle into sleep.

It would be here that she would choose to stay, refusing to return home. She pictured her family waking in the morning to discover her gone. They would call out for her. Her husband would find the picnic table pushed against the fence and realize she had gone over to the other side and entered the land behind the house, that primordial strip, that liminal zone dividing home from highway. He would call for her and walk the path she had cut with her machete, but, finding no sign, would call the authorities, who would after the requisite period of wait-and-see embark upon a full-blown search, fanning out five abreast. They would investigate the highway, seeking signs of cars that could have pulled alongside the road and abducted her. They would question the Hincocks but find there nothing more than an emphysemic man with an oxygen tank and a wife with a bum hip and cataracts. Eventually they would make their way closer to the site of the animals’ den, but they would be unable to see the woman, as the clearing she shared with the creatures was nested in some parallel realm accessible only at night.

And so there she remained, surrounded by her coterie of vicious companions, camouflaged shadows that hung by day, their eyes open even in sleep like deep-sea predators. They were a kind of children to her, or she to them. By night the animals took flight and hunted, and she would feed upon the scraps they brought back and let fall to the ground. When on occasion one was killed or injured—smashed by a tractor-trailer on the highway, or wounded in an owl fight—she would travel to that spot and bring the animal home, just as she had before when she herself had, in a trance, dug up that first one she had buried in the back yard. And the only trace of her that her husband and the authorities would ever find would be the clearing in the woods, the floor littered with the bones of small animals, in the tree limbs above nothing but the wispy remnants of spun webbing they mistook for silkworm nests. Had they entered this realm by night, they would have seen her squatting naked on her haunches in the lowermost boughs of her tree, surrounded by her tribe, their acid pinhole eyes and hers too winking back like glowing cankers. But since they could search only during the day, they would never see her, for in the dappled sunlight of the forest she was nothing more than the wavering echo of a thought.

In the morning her husband and son would look at each other across the kitchen table. Where’s mom, the boy would ask, is she still sleeping. Yes, his father would say. Why’s she so tired, the boy would ask. Eat your eggs, his dad would say.

Derek Owens directs the Institute for Writing Studies (St. John’s University, New York). Information on his artwork, writing, and teaching can be found at derekowens.net.