A Meal Purloined Cont...
The cabin had absorbed the musty, earthy smell of the forest for decades and the logs and boards were always damp to the touch. Occasionally a small black bug would slither from a hole in the soft wood in the very place where her finger would be and she’d suck in a breath and marvel at the shiny slickness of its carapace. She would watch it wriggle back into the wood like a little black tongue and she’d run her own tongue across her small teeth and giggle to herself.
She pulled a dreary shawl over her sloping shoulders and opened the heavy front door. Stepping onto the porch, she breathed in the rain-heavy air. She walked gingerly down three stairs and into the clearing that was her front yard. Just beyond, the tall trees darkened into a thick forest with a floor of plush green moss and lichen. The trees struggled for the weak sunlight that rarely peeked from behind the grey and corpulent clouds. The big trees crowded the little trees and kept them from the light with their gnarled, hungry branches. The little trees shrunk and lost their leaves and the moss scurried up their wet trunks and slowly devoured them. The earth stank of their corpses and squished and sucked at the girl’s footsteps.
She gathered the hem of her dress up into her thin, white hands and began to gather mushrooms, placing them delicately into the folds of it, their dirty, fat stems leaving black mud on the faded pastel fabric. She grinned down at the sight of them. Though as familiar as her own body, they never ceased to interest and fascinate her with their firm, thick stalks, delicate, dark, ribbed underbellies and of course their sturdy tops, the resting place for slugs and toads.
When she’d filled the pouch of her dress she returned to the cabin and began to prepare them for dinner, cutting off the tops, dicing them into cubes and strips for sautéing. She grinned as she worked, only the rain and the sizzle of the homemade chestnut oil in the pan accompanying the sound of the monotonous rain, until she heard the dogs.
She stood still over her wood stove, the spatula poised in mid-air. Her grin faded into her pale face, her lips nearly invisible as they straightened into two lines, pressing against each other and waiting.
She’d heard dogs before. They carried birds in their slobbering, dangerous mouths. They brought hunters with them, whose big black boots crushed the mushrooms and toadstools and left their prints in the soft moss and the sucking mud around her cabin. The men had urinated just beyond the clearing and shouted obscenities to one another. She’d huddled in the bedroom with her hands over her ears, her skin pulling itself up into goose pimples as the guns exploded around her home and the birds’ limp bodies dripped blood into the mud. The smell of the men was absorbed into the logs and boards of the cabin.
The dogs seemed far away, perhaps further than she’d ever wandered. She listened a few moments more then went back to her cooking, the iron pan clanked once against the big iron stove and the mushrooms’ aroma curled around her. She hoped they wouldn’t come any nearer.
She removed the pan from the red hot top of the massive stove and bent to place another small log on the fire, opening and shutting the door with a thick metal rod so she wouldn’t burn her fingers. She opened the damper a little to let the smoke undulate out into the rain. She’d have to fetch water from the stream behind the cabin and use the outhouse before she could sit comfortably for her meal. Her eyes darted around the dark room. The pupils were open wide, forcing the iris into a nearly imperceptible dark brown ring. They were like the eyes of a slow loris.
The metal bucket hung in the corner of the main room, near the stove and across from the front door. A rectangular wooden table rested in the opposite corner, its legs knotty but strong, the varnish long since peeled away. Three wooden chairs sat around the table. One was worn and its arms rubbed and softened while the other two, never used, waited stoically to simply decay. No one visited this cabin in the woods.
She took the bucket from its nail then paused for a moment listening for the barking of the dogs. Hearing nothing, she opened the front door, descended the stairs and went around to the back of the cabin in her bare feet, where the stream wound through the dripping trees. The light was fading into evening. The stream was swollen with the recent downpour and the rocks she usually perched upon were under the surface of the icy water. She looked around nervously with her bucket poised over the water, her black eyes peering across the stream, over the tops of mushrooms and toadstools to her cabin and beyond into the dark forest. Convinced there were no hunters about, she knelt on the sodden bank and dipped the bucket into the murky water, bringing it back up with a scrape against the rocks and sediment at the bottom. She put the bucket on the ground and rose from her knees, gathering the bottom of her dress up over her waist. She looked around once more then poked her foot into the water. As the sharp toenails broke the surface, a chill shimmied up her leg and through her whole body. She balanced on the now-submerged rocks and crouched close to the roiling water. She began to relieve herself here rather than use the rickety outhouse, letting the stream carry it away. She grinned as her bladder emptied, but froze when she heard a voice from across the clearing.
She leapt erect abruptly and unsteadily, splashing water and tumbling backwards onto the muddy bank. Her eyes were wide with fear and her heart beat violently. Her rear end was soaked and muddy as she clumsily stood up, ignoring the pail of water and running toward the front door at a mad and awkward sprint, slipping as she went, birdlike cries chirping from between her lips.
A big, grey man clambered out from behind a walnut tree and called out, “Hello there!”
She stumbled, caught herself and rounded the side of the cabin, stomping over precious fungi, knocking the caps off their stems, her pellucid feet crushing firm stalks beneath.
He was black-booted and fast, reaching out a long, thick arm and grabbing hers in a constrictor’s grip. Chains hung from his wrists and ankles. A rifle was slung over his back. She mewed and shrieked, her feeble limbs thrashing, her body collapsing in on itself in contortions to try to wrench away from his clutching hands. He held fast to her skinny arm, just above her bony elbow. His hair was cropped close. A day or two of stubbly beard growth shadowed his chin and he had eyes so blue they stood out like jewels or butterfly wings in the grey-brown of her domain. His mouth was in a tight smirk. He seemed amused by her grotesque and futile struggle.
He spoke so close to her ear she felt the heat of his breath. “Calm down now. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She kept writhing soundlessly in his grip, her eyes black and terrified as a cornered salamander’s. His smile widened and he said, “Don’t be afraid. Sorry I snuck up on you like that. It’s just that I’m lost.”
She struggled less and his hands loosened a little. She stared at him and he smiled kindly.
“I just want to be on my way but I need a little bit of help, that’s all.”
She looked at his shackles, the rifle, backed up a few steps. He let her, keeping a gentle but firm hold on her wrists. Her pointy little nose was running and mud caked her dress and had splashed onto her cheeks. She sniffled once and his scent filled her nostrils. They both were startled as the long, drawn out howl of a dog wailed through the whispering trees. He gazed toward the sound, squinting, fear tightening his jaw. He turned back to her and his face softened suddenly, like a mask falling away. He could see the bluish veins beneath the skin on her face, the unsettling teeth and the limp, wet hair. She was obviously an easy target. She had the look of someone whose genetic makeup was…not quite right. He felt a tingle of revulsion. He considered bashing her head in with a rock.
“You are very pretty,” he whispered. “Are you all alone?”
She just stared at his eyes, unblinking, the wide pupils eclipsing the cornea, her body taut. She panted small exhalations between her sharp teeth.
“May I come in so that I can dry off?”
He gestured with his head toward the stairs, still holding her wrists and began walking, with her slowly moving beside him.
She looked around at the mushrooms and toadstools torn apart and his giant footprints in the mud. The fear that gripped her had diminished slightly and she went inside with him, considering it useless to struggle. Her rows of tiny teeth now chattered like the sound of a gnawing termite.
Just inside the door, he was skulking around the room looking for matches or some sort of light. His eyes weren’t used to the dark of the cabin as hers were, and night was falling quickly. She watched him some seconds more as he grew increasingly agitated.
“Turn on some lights please,” he said firmly.
She skittered over to a cabinet near the stove and retrieved a box of wooden matches. Handing the box to the man, she scurried backwards into the shadowy corner of the cabin near the door.
His eyes lingered on her huddled form. He thought of a shaved possum or a hairless something. He felt the cold and wet suddenly pressing into his skin. It had been some time since he’d had the “willies”. He smiled crookedly to himself and shook it off.
“Thank you,” he said through a warm smile. How odd, he thought, that she’d moved backwards across the room.
He leaned his rifle against the table, lit the three candles and then sat in the worn chair, looking at her. Her childlike form remained huddled in the corner. He began to play with the wax at the top of the candle closest to him, squeezing the melted edges toward the flame. His grey coveralls were soaked and his hands and face were lined with small, bleeding scratches. The brambles of the forest had slowed his progress and the baying dogs had grown ever nearer.
“So frightened. Can’t you see I just need a little help? Maybe a meal? Do you speak?”
She did not respond but continued to look at him from her dark corner.
Still just those black abyss eyes peering out from her translucent face that nearly glowed in the dark.
He spat out a laugh and looked out the window.
“Finally it’s night. I’ll be staying here tonight. I’m in a bit of a pickle though. Those dogs you hear? They don’t want to make nice with me. It’s all a very horrible misunderstanding,” he said as he placed his feet onto one of the other chairs and crossed his legs at the ankles with a clank of his shackles.
He listened for the dogs a moment then unzipped the top of his coveralls, the chains hanging from his wrists jangling as he got more comfortable.
He leaned forward to unlace his boots when in the distance a single hound let loose a flurry of barks.
“Christ!” He hissed between clenched teeth.
The dog was too close. In spite of the rain and the streams he’d crossed the thing was still on his trail.
“Have you got a basement or an attic?” His voice was less soothing now.
She crossed the room, keeping her eyes on him. When she neared the stove she reached down and opened the door, placing a small log on the dying cinders. She glanced into the frying pan. The mushrooms lay cold and flaccid in their own juices. Her fingertips, held in the light of the burner flame, seemed to glow a soft pink from within, a mere trick of the translucency of the skin. The bulbous tips blushed wetly, as if she could affix them to a wall and ascend to safety. She bit her lower lip with her tiny front teeth and became overwhelmed with sadness.
She jumped when she heard the chains scrum across the table.
“Did you not hear me!?”
She just stared at him, riveted in place.
“Shall I fold you up and toss you into that oven? Do. You. Have. A. Hiding. Place? The answer had better be a sound YES or your days of pissing in streams will come abruptly to an end, darling.”
She recoiled at the violence in his voice, his sneer, the knowledge that he’d seen her in such a private moment. She felt mortified and violated.
The barking again. Closer now. She crossed the floor on tip toes into another room and he ran after her, grabbing her sharp elbow and turning her abruptly. Before he had to ask, she was pointing to a corroded brass handle on the floor. He dropped to his knees and yanked at it. A square panel lifted on hinges near the foot of her bed. He flipped it all the way over and stuck his head down into the dark cavity. The smell of mold and decay swept up into his face and infiltrated the bedroom. He reared back gagging.
She just looked at him. The smell didn’t bother her.
“Get me a candle. Hurry!”
She heard a dog’s bark. Closer now. She returned to the room carrying the candle. In its glow he felt he could see through the pallor of her face to the bone. He took it from her and held it down into the crawlspace. It was a small space indeed. He would have to lie on his back.
She stood back and watched him plan and prepare himself. He looked at her, once again charming.
“If anyone comes for me, you have not seen me or anything out of the ordinary, do you understand?”
His eyebrows were raised and waiting. She nodded a tremulous yes. He gestured for her to shut the lid over him just as frenzied barking ricocheted outside the cabin.
Moments later there was a muted knocking at the door. The wet wood absorbed the tapping of the police officer’s knuckles as he rapped persistently. This was the only residence he’d seen for miles. It had looked abandoned save for a weak tentacle of smoke curling out of the chimney. K9 unit dogs had made their way into this vicinity but had wandered in vague circles, unable to retain the trail of the escaped prisoner. He was going to drop a sketch by and ask a few questions, check on the locals. He cursed the rain as he stood there, wet to the bone.
The diminutive figure that opened the door startled him and sent his skin immediately creeping. Once he determined she wasn’t a child, he introduced himself awkwardly.
“Do not approach this man, ma’am. He’s a bad guy. If you see him call 911,” said the officer. She just looked up at him with unblinking eyes that twitched nervously. “Do not let him into your home.”
In the darkness beneath the floorboards the man listened intently. His nostrils flared against the pungent smell of decay that seemed to pull open his pores and suck at him like an army of leeches. He clamped his lips and eyes tight and grew increasingly angry as the cop’s voice seemed to drone on and on.
The closeness of the crawlspace was bearing down on him. His arms cramped against his sides and his legs ached to move as flecks of things tickled his face. The stench seemed to grow more potent and he thought he felt something crawling over his scalp. He dared not move or shake his head as he heard the cop’s footsteps inside the cabin. Rage tightened in his belly. He heard a scratching sound near his right ear. Suddenly something scrambled across his chest and he recoiled in horror. There was nowhere to move and his muscles jerked spastically. The damp, cold space seemed to be alive with moving things and their crawling and chewing became almost cacophonous to his ears. He began to believe the earthy chorus of things would give him away as he heard more mumbled words from above. Every inch of him itched.
The officer thanked her for her time. She watched his back as he made his way through the trees. She stood in the doorway a long moment, until she heard an engine come to life. Soon quiet again blanketed the forest and her cabin. The rain bounced against the caps of the mushrooms and she watched them shiver for a moment. She pulled the door shut. She heard the trap door slam open in the bedroom. He rose in a fury from the infested mausoleum and emerged from the bedroom, brushing himself off everywhere, pulling at his clothing and vigorously shaking his head. She backed into a corner, out of reach of the candle’s light. His face was cast in deep shadow, darkening his scowl.
“I should slice you to ribbons,” he muttered. “I have sliced women to ribbons for much less than putting me in some bug-infested hole. Are you a woman? I can’t even figure out what you are.”
Then in two strides he was upon her and shoved her hard against the wall. She let out a whimper. Her yellow hair fell over her face and plastered itself over her eyes. She couldn’t see and her back ached from the blow. Tears squeezed from the corners of her tightly pressed eyelids. He pushed her again, with less force, toward the stove.
“Now you feed me,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “I’m hungry.”
She looked at the mushrooms still sitting on the corner of the stove, her own dinner, rudely interrupted. Sliding the heavy iron pan back over the hot burner, she set about reheating the mushrooms she’d prepared so carefully before the man had defiled her home and frightened her so. Now he would eat her meal.
Steam rose from the hot pan as she brought it to the table where he sat, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes smugly watching her. He watched her silently as she scooped the contents onto the plate in front of him. The fragrance of the sautéed meal filled the air. He was famished. Her black eyes glinted in the candlelight. Her lips were tight and expressionless. He looked with disgust at the small, bluish veins through the thin skin of her cheek.
He regarded her for a moment more. She didn’t know what to do with herself so she sort of sank under his gaze, her eyes beginning to dart around. His crooked smile split open and he whispered, “You eat it first.”
She blinked. He stabbed a piece with the fork and handed it to her.
“You first, freak.”
Her hand brushed his lightly as she took the fork and his skin crawled just a little. She took a bite of the almost meaty fungi. Satisfied, he wiped the fork on the sleeve of his shirt and began to eat. In spite of his hunger he chewed thoroughly, often resting his fork on the side of the plate and gazing out the window. All the while she sat rigidly. When would it end? When would this violent interloper permit her to return to her simple life? How long would it take the rain to wash his scent from the gnarly wood of the cabin’s walls?
He finished the meal, slid the plate away with a satisfied smile and almost as quickly as he had come, he departed. He left with nothing, for she had nothing but some pots and pans, bed linens that were soiled and dreary as shrouds and a box of matches that would be of little use to him in this constant deluge. He would go as far as he could from this place, find a town outside of this belt of endless wet. He’d cut off his shackles, find some family that wasn’t paying attention and was kind to strangers, take their car, some money, leave the country. He’d try hard to forget this unnerving creature that dwelt in the cabin.
3 days later the police officer found his body, still shackled in broken chains, by the side of a gravel road about 20 miles from the wooded area he’d canvassed in search of the escapee. His body was curled in a fetal position, covered in mud and weeds and beginning to bloat. Blowfly larvae were clustered in the eyes, nose and gaping, vomit encrusted mouth. Rove and carrion beetles scuttled over the corpse, eating him, laying their eggs in him and hiding in the folds of his soiled grey coveralls.
Under the mossy roof of her cabin her finger wetly traced the path of a single raindrop down the window pane. It had been three days since the interloper had come. She kept her eyes on the woods and was watchful whenever she went out to gather mushrooms, sniffing the air with her pointy nose. She hoped that with time, peace would return to her and her quiet cabin among the trees where she’d lived gently and harmoniously for hundreds of years.
She went to her stove and picked up the bowl of mushrooms she’d gathered and cleaned that morning. She was looking forward to a peaceful morning meal, the same meal she ate each morning just as she had intended to eat before the man came and fouled her home. She removed the mushrooms and began to slice them thinly: White chanterelles, cauliflower mushrooms, fool’s mushrooms and death caps. She did not know their names. They provided her with sustenance and she respected them as she did the earth, the trees and the crawling things. She looked up and out of the rain specked window, through the trees until they clasped each other tightly into a curtain of darkness beyond the point she had ever wandered and hoped she’d never see the bad man ever again.