Among the Wounded: Conclusion

To read part 1 click here.

To read part 2 click here.

To read part 3 click here.

To read part 4 click here.

To read part 5 click here.

By the end of the week the survey team had completed their transect. Two nights in a row Jeffrey had come into the woods to undo the work they had done. On the third night instead of flags and survey stakes he found blazes cut into the trees themselves. He sat alone in the woods that night and felt them die around him. The trees were still there, but something had slipped from the forest, and from him. He felt a hollowness envelope him where wholeness that had been building through the summer.

At last, sitting on a log in the darkness, the arrow-straight line that cut through the forest and into him only ten feet away, he understood the significance of his encounter a few nights before. The animals had come to him on the last night they could. He imagined those spectral creatures, the soul of these woods, wandering restlessly through the suburbs, pushed further and further away until they could  find no place to go. The forest—through its animals—had come to him to say a final farewell.

The men worked for two weeks straight, even on Sundays, and then the woods were quiet again. When at last the men were gone he walked into the forest and went to a giant beech tree growing along the side of the creek. He leaned against the tree that he imagined to be the oldest in these woods and rested against the smooth bark, his eyes closed.

It occurred to Jeffrey that some ceremony was needed. He thought at first that he might simply set fire to the woods and watch them burn. Let them die by the hand of someone who loved them, he thought. He lacked the courage to take such a risk. Maybe the subdivision would not be built this year and he could spend the winter in the woods, tracking and painting.

Instead he decided on something simple, something that involved ritual, that offered back to the woods nothing physical, but rather something spiritual. He would bathe in the creek. He knew that on his own he could not find the coyote’s pool. He needed one of the forest’s emissaries to lead him to that haunt. He settled for his favourite bend in the creek where a deep pool formed on the outer bank. He walked to it and slipped down the bank onto the gravel at mid-channel.

He slipped his shoes off with his toes, pulled his shirt off and unbuckled his belt. Jeffrey pulled off his jeans, then his underwear, and looked around self-consciously. He felt the wind dance over him and thought of the cougar and the way it moved through the forest. Stepping into the water, he sank up to his waist. It pulled him in. Jeffery sat down and closed his eyes, letting his body sink into the flow. He sat on the gravel on the bottom, the water closing in over his head and felt the push of it on his chest and on his face. When he stood again the water streamed off him. A few leaves stuck to his chest. He put his hands on the bank and looked down into the pool. He stood still long enough that the ripples in the water quieted and he could see a wavy reflection of his face, the forest swaying above him. In the reflection it appeared that there was no delineation between him and the forest.

There was nothing left to separate them. No distinction remained.

A shout shattered the moment. It came from behind him, from the direction of Upper End Line. He heard another and thought that maybe the workers had returned and seen him. Then came the heavy sound of many feet running, crashing through the woods. His clothes lay in a pile near his feet and he bent low to grab his pants. The sound of footsteps intensified and to his astonishment an animal that looked like a cross between a moose and a deer bounded from the woods and landed heavily in the creek bed. The animal stumbled on the loose gravel and rocks only twenty feet downstream from him, but managed to stay upright. It was bigger than a deer and had a dark tan hide—almost red—and a great spreading rack of antlers that made Jeffrey think of pictures of reindeer he had seen in books about northern Europe. In the blink of an eye it bounded up the five-foot bank of the leaving Jeffrey holding his breath.

He hunched there for no more than a second when a shrill shout pierced the air. From the trees two men jumped into the creek, one of them falling and rolling and getting to his feet so quickly he appeared to be a circus performer. The other hit the creek running and bounded out the other side before Jeffrey could focus on him. They were followed by two more men in rapid succession, each one leaping from the woods into the creek, splashing across it with powerful bounds. He managed to fix in his mind an image of the four men. They all appeared to be completely naked. If they wore anything it must have been the same colour as their skin. They had long dark hair that looked like dark wind flowing from their heads.

Jeffrey could swear that they were all carrying bows and arrows.

He stood in the water, his pants in his hand, and looked at the place where two seconds before a woodland caribou had thundered across, pursued by four men intent on killing it. When a fifth man jumped into the water Jeffery had pulled his pants on. The man looked at him and Jeffrey saw that he was only a boy, no older than he was. The two stared at each other across the water. Then the boy smiled and stepped to the bank and leapt up it. Jeffery slipped on his shoes and started up the side of the creek. In a moment of deja-vous, the boy turned quickly to look at Jeffrey struggling up the bank. The two locked eyes again. The boy looked at him as the coyote had, taunting him. And then he was gone.

Jeffrey reached the top of the bank in time to see the dark back of the boy disappear through the woods. Without thinking, he began to run. He felt the strength in his legs propel him forward, dodging trees and jumping roots. The woods passed in a kaleidoscope of light and colour. He caught sight of the boy ahead, darting through the trees, running steadily. It came as no surprise that he passed the place where the woods should have ended, but did not. Instead of running into the neighbouring subdivision he passed beneath maple and pine. He ran for ten minutes this way, then twenty. All the while he could hear the shouts of the men and could see the boy just ahead of him.

Then the woods began to open and the terrain rolled like undulating waves. Jeffery watched the boy pass from the trees into an open meadow and saw sunlight beating down there and as he himself came to the forest’s edge, he stopped.

The men and the boy were pressing the caribou onwards. The animal was clearly tired. The meadow was two hundred meters wide and there was dark green forest on all sides. The caribou made a sharp turn to the left and the men pursued it. They were only fifty feet behind it now. Suddenly from the far side of the meadow three more men rushed from the woods, each brandishing clubs. They were shouting and running straight at the oncoming animal. The caribou turned again, kicking up tufts of sod and turf as it did, the dust rising in the hot, humid air. The animal was now running a course between its pursuers, one group with bows and the other carrying their clubs close to their bodies. The animal headed for a gap in the woods and was only fifty feet away when another group of men broke into the clearing. They ran straight out of the pathway that the caribou was heading for. The caribou tried to stop abruptly, its long awkward looking legs buckling under it. It scrambled to its feet – Jeffrey thought he could see the fear in the animal’s eyes – and turned to bolt, but the men were on it now.

One man struck the animal in the head and another hit it in the back legs. The caribou fell to the ground. Another man deftly drew a long knife from a sheath and slit the animal’s throat. There was no yelling. The animal sagged on the ground and the man who had cut its throat stepped from its back. Jeffery watched them all bow down and then one of the men stood and raised his hands over his head.

Four of them went into the woods and quickly returned with two long poles. The others lashed the animal to the poles and they hoisted it onto their shoulders. The four men carrying the caribou started off into the woods on the far side of the clearing, following the trail that the caribou had been running toward.

At length only the men with bows and the boy were left in the clearing. They seemed to be resting.       After a few minutes they stood and began to walk toward the trail at the far side of the meadow. As they were about to disappear into the forest the young boy stopped and turned. He looked right at Jeffrey, though how he could see him, Jeffrey could not tell. And then he was gone.

Jeffrey sat still awhile. He thought maybe he had come six kilometres. Maybe more. He did not know how he would find his way back. He stood and stepped into the clearing. He walked across its undulating surface and then entered the woods on its far side on a trail.           He did not run, but walked swiftly. He had no desire to overtake the men he was following. He had no appetite to confront whatever it was that was leading him deeper into these woods.

He walked for more than an hour and then the canopy of the dark forest seemed to fall away into nothing. The trail was wide and well-trodden. He came to the verge of the woods and the earth vanished beneath him. He stood spellbound looking over a great river valley. He could see across to the far side of the vale where the woods rose up again. At the centre of the valley he could see, in places where the trees parted, the curve of a river. It was broad and it glistened in the late afternoon sunlight. Next to the river several columns of smoke rose through the trees.

Jeffrey sat down on the path. His jeans were dirty and wet and he wore no shirt. As looked out across the valley he knew that he could name the river, but not the year. This was unlike anything Jeffrey had ever seen, even in the north: wide and lush with waves of trees. The gentle curve of its walls and the way the river sat so snugly at its centre left him with a great feeling of peace. Clouds of birds flew above the glistening water.

There was no six-lane parkway at this valley’s centre, no derelict and dilapidated factories, and no chemicals leaching into the waterway. There was blue above; not a smog tarnished sky. A hawk planed overhead. There was a rolling blanket of forest hugging the earth.

He thought of his childhood along the Nighthawk River, of his father. He imagined what it would be like to fish the waters that lay before him. If he walked into the camp of men and women and children what would their reaction be?

On the horizon, toward the lake, Jeffrey could see clouds beginning to build. A late summer storm was brewing. Thunderheads piling on top of each other were shot through with electricity.

He stood and thought that if he wanted to get home before dark he would have to leave now. With a storm coming he would not make it without getting soaked to the skin. His mother would have already called someone to look for him. They would have found his shirt and underwear in the creek and would suspect the worst.

He thought about his woods; the tiny vestige that hunched amid the turmoil progress. He knew that soon men with machines and good intentions, but who were immersed in their own ignorance, would come into those woods and reduce them to subdivisions with neat yards and carefully planted shrubbery.

Jeffrey thought that he would have to find a place to live where he could run through the woods and feel in his heart the freedom that accompanied such wildness. In one world he would live among the wounded—all of those who had suffered and disappeared from this earth so that one species might prosper.  In the other he might live differently— though he had no idea how—and he would feel what he had felt that morning while watching his reflection in the pool: that the lines between the human world and the rest of creation are thin and he could, if he were willing to make a sacrifice, transcend them.

Jeffrey stood and watched the thunderstorm approach. It rolled in from the lake and blotted out the sun. There was a flash of lightening followed closely by a crack that echoed up the broad valley. But he wasn’t afraid. He was closer to home than he had believed. He straightened up and set off down the path, into the valley below.

Thanks for reading Among the Wounded. This is part of a collection of short stories that I’m seeking a publisher for. I’d love your feedback to help me make my stories stronger. Use the comment form below. You can follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Among the Wounded, Part 5

To read part 1 click here.

To read part 2 click here.

To read part 3 click here.

To read part 4 click here.

Jeffery broke a stick over his knee and placed it on the flames and then leaned close to the embers and blew. The coals glowed red and the flames curled around the wood. He put two more small pieces on the flames and then studied the darkness beyond the circle of light.

Ms. Wilson, his biology teacher, would tell that there was no plausible explanation to his sightings. She might then imply that being afraid of a cat that could no longer exist in so tiny a forest, surrounded by subdivisions and criss-crossed by highways, was a little crazy. Maybe he was nuts; suffering from delusions. The fact that he had chased another forest apparition into the suburbs without even noticing was crazier still.

But the boy knew that if he were to seek the advice of his Paul Winters he would be told that the artist has to believe in things he cannot see. Winters would have instructed Jeffery to embrace his fear and use it to plumb a deeper level of his own creativity.

And so Jeffrey blew on the flames and they leapt up before him. It was a warm evening, too warm really, for a fire. But tomorrow night his brother Bill would return from his friend’s cottage and Jeffrey would be expected to look out for him. And so Jeffery watched the flames and the sparks that spiralled into the sky. As the night deepened he felt his eyelids drop once, twice, and knew that soon he would curl into his sleeping bag and let come what may.

Maybe that was what was missing, thought Jeffery: fear. Maybe that was one of the things that the woods could do for him – or could have done for him if he lived in a different time, in a different place: restore an honest, healthy fear. It wasn’t a fear of failing a math test. It wasn’t a fear like the one his mom sometimes talked about: not being able to pay the mortgage. It was a fear that placed you squarely in the fundamental process of life: a fear of being eaten. He pushed a final stick of wood into the fire and pulled his sleeping bag around him. His eyes drawing closed, he felt the warm rush of sleep wash over his body.

Would the cat come disguised as the wind again tonight?

He slept.

The fire popped. He opened his eyes and saw the red embers of coals. He heard the pop again but saw no accompanying sparks from the coals. He heard the leaves rustle, felt a breeze sweep through the woods. Jeffrey was wide awake now, his eyes probing the darkness, searching the shadows beyond the glow of the fire for movement.

Just beyond the ring of firelight he saw something step almost daintily into the dried leaves. He held his breath. And then, from another direction, he heard a twig snap and saw something dark moving there. And from yet another dark recess of the woods he heard the sounds of footsteps on leaves.

Jeffrey forced himself to breathe deeply. As he did so he filled his lungs with the sweet air of night. He breathed again, and noticed that it was light and delicious. Only when the air was free from pollution did he notice that it was usually very foul.

An animal slipped into the light of the fire. It had long muscular legs, cloven hooves and a sleek body. The buck bent its neck low to look at the boy. Its ears twitched, its six-point rack was broad and handsome. The buck’s dark eyes glistened in the firelight.

A second animal approached the fire. The buck twitched once, its tail flipping, showing briefly the white flag for which it was named, but it did not flee. The second animal was the colour of shadows. The tips of its fur caught the light of the fire; otherwise its pelt seemed completely absent of hue. The black bear moved into the fire’s glow, its tiny eyes probing for danger. Jeffrey knew this animal well, had grown up with this animal in his back yard, in his garage, in his garbage. The bear sat down on its haunches and lowered its head, its small round eyes moving between the fire and Jeffrey. When the bear breathed out it sounded like a sigh.

Jeffrey reached carefully to the woodpile and took a stick of white pine and put in on the coals. The flames crept up it and encircled the wood, consuming it. The flames cast more light over the camp and over the two animals now before Jeffrey.

The wind swept over the ground again, and Jeffrey closed his eyes. The air smelt musky and Jeffery looked and saw the eyes first, green and glowing in the firelight; then one paw placed carefully into the ring of firelight. The deer and the black bear both turned to look where the cougar stood. It took two more steps forward and looked into the fire, then at the other three animals standing or sitting next to it. The cougar sat and then lay down within the circle of light, its head erect, its eyes slowly blinking, reflecting the light of the blaze.

Jeffrey felt no fear at all. Here was a gift from the forest. The four creatures sat and regarded the fire, the light reflecting off their coats and fur and faces. Jeffrey fed the fire and it sent a shower of sparks into the night air. The sparks drifted into the sky above the forest and were carried away on the wind.

From above the forest appeared dark and primal with a tiny glow from the fire at its centre where four figures watched the  flames. The boundaries between things were blurred by the suspension of reason and belief. The woods were dark and extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. They rolled over hills of sediment deposited as Lake Ontario had receded; they tripped over limestone ledges and escarpments carved out by ancient glaciers. The forest fell away into a broad river valley and ended abruptly where the Great Lake lapped at its rocky shore. The whole of the earth seemed to be dark, blanketed by a spray of stars so thick that all the counting in the world would not number them.

* * *

Jeffrey awoke as the first sunlight of the day burned through the forest canopy. Nothing remained from his evening fire under the dark coals. He looked around him for some sign of his visitors. There was no evidence of the night’s encounter. Jeffrey stood and stretched and breathed in the air which was thick and hot and tasted like exhaust. He could hear the motorists on the road rushing to work. Jeffery had begun to scatter leaves back over the site to camouflage its presence when he heard the unmistakable whine of a chain saw pierce the quiet of the woods. The sound intensified as the saw bit into a tree. Jeffrey felt a lump form in his throat. He shouldered his pack and finished his task quickly, feeling an urgent tug. Suddenly he felt the tininess of the forest around them and the frailty of their island-like existence.

The sound of the saw grew louder. He ran toward the noise, the trees passing as a blur, his feet sliding gliding effortlessly over the tangled woods. He thought he could hear men’s voices nearby and stopped.

“Stand clear!” came a voice, close, much too close. A tree crashed into the undergrowth close by and Jeffrey froze feeling the earth beneath him tremble. Something was being pounded and he looked through the green cacophony before him but could only see faint shapes. There were three men in the woods, each wearing a hardhat, coveralls, and bright orange vests. One held an idling chainsaw. The other was using an axe to pound in survey stakes. Jeffery’s heart beat so hard that he was certain these men, only a hundred feet away, would hear it. Jeffrey imaged the earth wincing as each stake was driven into its soft body.

Jeffrey had heard that the forest had been spared earlier because of the financial collapse of a development company. He knew then that it was only a matter of time before someone else bought the development rights to this parcel of land. Now he knew it was inevitable that bulldozers, trucks, and paving equipment would move into his tiny sanctuary and eviscerate it. As he watched the men probe deeper into the forest he wondered what would become of the animals that made their homes there. There were hundreds of gray squirrels and thousands of birds in this tiny woodlot. Would they be able to spill over into the surrounding community? What would become of them?

He thought then of his own home, backed up as it was, against the forest. Ten years before he had arrived his yard was also forest, the tiny creek not a channel in an underground pipe but an extension of the natural watercourse he so loved. He imagined what the place had been like fifty years before, at the end of World War Two when the city was still small and all of this area was a dark forest.

Jeffrey knew well what it had looked like, he had seen it, he had run through it chasing the trickster — coyote—and had the scar on his palm and elbow to show for it.

He wondered if, fifty years ago, someone else had watched the progression of humanity into these same woods. He wondered if someone his age had sat in the forest and watched as Upper End Line was surveyed and then watched silently as the houses grew up all around. Jeffery watched the men and knew what he must do.

* * *

He waited until dark. Bill was watching TV, his mother at work.

“I’m heading out for a quick walk,” he said to his brother.

“I’ll stay here,” Bill answered, glued to the set.

“I’ll be back soon.”

Jeffrey went out the back door and hopped the fence and trotted into the darkened woods. He crossed them quickly, his heart pounding, his palms sweating, and came to where the men had finished working that day. Without hesitating began his task.

He was kneeling within ten feet of the edge of the woods where the men had entered it when the task was complete. His pockets were crammed with red ribbon. He took off the gloves he had worn to keep from getting slivers as he had pulled up dozens of survey stakes, broken them in two, and thrown them into the woods. He turned and retraced his steps and then crept quickly, quietly, home through the silent forest.

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Among the Wounded, Part 4

To read part 1 click here.

To read part 2 click here.

To read part 3 click here.

Jeffrey conspired to sleep out in the woods for the last week of July when his mother would be working night shifts. He selected a spot along the creek, far enough from the road to minimize the sound of the traffic, and far enough from the pathway that bisected the forest to lessen the possibility that his tiny camp would be detected by other people walking there.

The boy arranged several logs to protect him from prying eyes and errant walkers who might venture into his private sanctuary. With a hatchet he cut several long poles from ironwood and pounded them into the ground. Then, with his father’s hunting knife, he sliced several thinner stems from silver and red maple and made a lean-to. He was careful not to make the structure too obvious, and when he was done he circled around and approaching it from every angle, hoping that it would be undetectable. It was by no means perfect but he was satisfied that anybody who strayed from the trail would not find the shelter without a deliberate search. And who would search for such a thing in the middle of an urban woodlot?

His final preparation was to collect wood for a fire he would build one night. He hadn’t spent a night looking into a fire since the last autumn of his father’s life.

***

They were hunting in the woods behind their home in northern Ontario. Jeffrey carried a single-shot twenty-two rifle that his father called the pea shooter. Frank carried a semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun. Grouse was the quarry. They had decided to spend the night out, and had brought with them sleeping bags and some pasta in case the hunting went poorly.

The only grouse of the day was shot as the men walked along the base of a granite outcrop. They were moving among dense stands of hemlock and balsam fir when Frank stopped. Jeffrey, watching every move his father made, stopped too.

Frank looked to his left, his legs set apart. Jeffery peered hard into the dense undergrowth where his father was staring, but could detect nothing amid the thick cluster of shrubs.

“What—?” Jeffrey began.

“Shhh.” In one swift motion Frank raised the shotgun and fired. The sound was deafening, and it echoed again and again off the granite hills. Jeffrey saw a flash of leaves and branches and what he presumed were feathers. Frank walked into the tangle of shrubs and reached into them. He pulled a grouse—minus the head—out of the bushes and grinned at Jeffrey.

Late in the afternoon they gathered firewood and kindled a blaze. They cooked the grouse on a green-wood spit and ate it with their fingers in the failing light. The wind moved through the trees and tousled the boy’s hair and sent a shower of sparks into the heavens. Father and son contemplated the fire.

“People have been sitting around fires for thousands of years,” said Frank when the woods were dark and the sky pale with the final light of the day. “We learned how to tell stories around fires. We taught one another about the animals we share this planet with sitting next to a fire.”

The two men regarded the flames. Jeffrey poked the wood with a stick and then placed it across the fire. He watched his father in the red glow and hoped to hear all of those stories over his lifetime. He hoped that his father would tell him every single one.

* * *

His mother left for the night shift at 7 p.m. and would not return until after 8 the next morning. His younger brother Bill was staying at a friend’s cottage for the week. At nightfall he grabbed his pack from his closet and headed out the back door, through the gap in the fence, and into the sombre woods. There was no moon but he found his way easily along the path and then, at a place he had marked with a few sticks across the trail, he turned off toward his camp. He found it in the growing darkness. Everything was as he had left it.

He laid out his tarp and sleeping bag on the ground. He would not light the fire until he had spent several nights out. He wanted to get a feel for the woods at night, and to make sure that if he did light a fire it would not be visible from the road. Jeffery felt angry that he had to take this precaution. He thought for the first time about what had been taken away from him. He felt small and powerless in the tiny woodlot surrounded on all sides by the city.

The following two nights he went to bed with the forest cradling him in its arbour-arms and woke the same way. His fourth night in the woods he contemplated building a fire; he was fairly certain that no passing motorist would see the reflection of the blaze if he adjusted the roof of the lean-to so that it blocked the view from the road. He decided to wait one more night. Jeffery felt he still needed to gain the acceptance of the woods themselves. He was beginning to think that the forest had a soul, one that had been revealing itself in ways he could not completely understand. The trout and heron, the fox in his painting, the falls, and the coyote, were messengers from these woods. But what was the message? He needed more time to understand. Sleeping in the woods was erasing the boundary between the boy and the forest.

Jeffrey thought that maybe the forest was slowly peeling back layers of itself. He was a little concerned about what he might find when the final layer was cast off. During the fourth night he had a long series of dreams: A forest at the edge of the city; a coyote sent as a messenger; men probing deeply into the woods; a world on fire. And all night he half-dreamed that the wind brushed his shirt and tossed his hair and swept over him in the troubled heart of these tiny woods.

Jeffrey woke to birdsong. The light still faint in the east  Jeffery noted that he was rising earlier each morning and going to bed earlier each night.  He breathed deeply and then caught himself in mid-breath. Something lingered in the air  that had not been there the previous three mornings. Something pungent. Something wild.

He crawled from his sleeping bag and cogitated on his surroundings. In the course of setting up the camp he had cleared much of the area of leaves in order to minimize the risk that his fire, when he lit it, would get away on him. When he left he would return the leaf litter and erase any trace of his presence. Now he studied the ground around him. It took only a second for his eyes to confirm what his nose had told him. He had been visited during the night.

He studied the prints. They were as wide as they were long with five-lobed toe pads pressed into the soft earth. He bent down beside them and delicately fingered the tracks. They had predominant claw marks and were half an inch deep. Judging by their shape they belonged to a cat. Judging by their size they belonged to a cougar.

They seemed to be everywhere around and inside his little camp; here was a place where the cat had sat and regarded him while he slept. Here was a place where the cat had sniffed his pack, empty of food, but reeking of pungent pastels and oil paints. And here was where the cat had circled him while he slept, and boldly stepped across his prone body in the night.

Jeffrey stepped away from his sleeping pad and looked to see if he could follow the tracks out of the camp and into the wood. They disappeared into the foliage. He stood and looked into the forest. The birds sang. A gray squirrel jumped from one maple to the next, its tail spinning like a propeller. There was no sign of a cougar, no sign of any mammal larger than the squirrel. They were the same woods as he had walked into last night, he told himself. But he knew differently. They were not the same.

* * *

“Son, there hasn’t been a cougar in this part of the world for forty years. Hell, the eastern cougar is pretty much believed to be extinct.” The voice on the other end of the phone was raw and exasperated. “Are you sure it wasn’t some other sort of cat? A fat Tommy maybe?”

Jeffrey had called the ranger at the nearest provincial park to ask if an animal such as the cougar still existed in southern Ontario. “How big a space would a cougar need?”

“Well, that would depend on if it’s male or a female. Males need a lot of space. Few hundred square miles at least. There isn’t a patch of woods left in southern Ontario that’s big enough for them. Maybe at Frontanac or Algonquin. But you see, those parks are islands.”

“What do you mean?”

“Island biogeography, son. It means that they are tiny patches of wilderness surrounded by a sea of farms, clear cuts, towns, cities, highways, you name it.”

Jeffrey thought of his own tiny island, and indeed could see it for a moment, as a tiny life raft adrift on a heaving sea of humanity. “What does that have to do with my cougar?” he asked.

“Well, son, I don’t know what made those tracks. What I’m saying is that animals like cougars can’t be isolated on little patches of woods like what you’re telling me about. Not for long. They need to be connected to other big populations of their own kind to keep the population viable. You understand?”

“Inbreeding?” Jeffrey asked.

“That’s right. If these populations don’t connect with each other over time, they lose their ability to adapt to stress. Even if they don’t get hit by cars or shot by hunters, they die off because they can’t adapt. Anyway,” the ranger finally said, “we haven’t had a genuine cougar sighting in some time in these parts.”

“Thanks for your time.”

“No trouble at all.”

Jeffrey hung up the phone. The patch of woods out his back door was a long way from being a couple of hundred square miles.

* * *

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Among the Wounded, Part 3

To read part 1 click here.

The read part 2 click here.

It was early July and Jeffrey sat next to the creek, the woods alive with the hum of cicadas. The boy alternated between painting a small canvas and reading a book he had borrowed from the library the week before. It was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac. He had picked it up on a whim, it having been recommended by his biology teacher of all people. In the chapter called The Round River he read:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

The artist needed to harden his shell too, Jeffery thought, for he also could see the marks of death, though with a very different eye. While those who called themselves experts might be capable of naming the thing that brought death to the woods, Jeffrey believed that maybe the artist could feel it. In doing so the artist’s shell could very well crack and the suffering of the worlds wounded beseech him.

Contemplating these wounds, Jeffery looked up from the book and his gaze was met by the cool stare of another: only 30 feet away, on the far side of the creek, a coyote watched him, its eyes locked on Jeffrey’s. The boy felt studied in a way that unnerved him.

Jeffery slowly put down his book, not wishing to startle the creature. With a quick glance back at the boy the coyote began to trot downstream, gliding along the forest floor. The animal cocked its head as if to say, “Are you just going to sit there?” Then it was off again, a beige blur passing between the trees.

Jeffrey stumbled after, his legs feeling like iron after sitting so long. Each time the coyote moved just beyond Jeffrey’s sight, it stopped and waited, looking back. In a minute it occurred to Jeffrey that they must be approaching the edge of the woods and that soon the animal would have to run from the cover of the forest and onto the four-lane road. And where would it go from there? Jeffrey wondered if he should stop pursuing the animal, and slowed his pace. Was he chasing it from the shelter of the woods into civilization where it would be hit by a car, attacked by dogs or caught by an animal control officer? He stopped running, his heart beating fast, his breath ragged.

The coyote stopped too. It turned and took two steps toward him. When Jeffrey finally took a step forward it began to run again, like a dog playing chase. The creek at his side was now nearly level with the forest floor, and Jeffrey didn’t recognize this place in the woods. Somehow, despite having combed this forest nearly every day of the last year, this locale had eluded him. He might never have come here without the coyote’s taunting.

Jeffrey saw bright sunlight through the heavy canopy of the forest in the distance. Was this the road? The coyote ran on, entering the bright sunlight. It came to a steep bank and paused, inviting Jeffrey to close the gap between them. Then it disappeared.

Jeffrey ran to the place where he had last seen the coyote, and skidded to a stop on a mat of leaves. He was on the edge of a precipitous escarpment of broken and exposed limestone that dropped twenty feet. The creek plunged over the limestone terrace in a series of cascades, white spray dancing in the hot afternoon sun. Below him, next to a pool at the base of the falls, stood the coyote, its head lowered, its tongue lapping from a tiny pond.

How could he have missed this escarpment, this waterfall, and this pool? He looked around him to get his bearings. He recognized nothing. There was a faint trail that snaked its way from one ledge to the other below him and he followed it down the escarpment. Birdsong enveloped him.  As he stepped onto level ground near the pool the coyote looked up, water dripping from its snout, and broke into a trot downstream again. Jeffery regarded the clear pool, the fine mist spraying from the cascade, and momentarily contemplated abandoning his quarry in favour of a swim.

How long had it been? More than two years now. The last time he and his father had been fishing together at Opishing Lake was the last time he had swum without chlorine in his eyes.

I can swim on my way back, Jeffery reasoned, and returned to his pursuit. The animal was running now and Jeffrey had to hurry to keep up. He tripped several times, the first time stopping himself before he fell, but the second time his foot caught on a root hidden among the leaf litter and he came down hard on his left hand and elbow. He scrambled to his feet in time to see the coyote bound through a thicket of hemlock. He had cuts on his palm and his elbow. His shirt was ripped and some blood already soaked the sleeve.

Fucking ridiculous, he thought to himself, getting to his feet and starting to run again. Chasing some damn dog through the woods, believing it’s a coyote. There are no coyotes here anymore. They’re all gone.

The animal turned and jumped through a tangle of cedars. Jeffrey figured the chase was on again and ran forward, holding his bleeding left arm close to him. The shrubs were strangely thick in the comparatively open woods, and he crashed through them. He came face-to-face with two children playing in a sandbox.  They looked up, fearful, as Jeffrey nearly tripped over them.

Jeffrey looked around himself. The cedars were there, but also a chain link fence. He must have jumped it, though he could not recall doing so. He searched for the coyote. It was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the children. One was seven or eight, the other much younger. The younger one looked as if he were about to cry.

“Hi, um, ah…”

“Who are you?” demanded the older child.

“Uh, I’m Jeff. Did you just see a coy— a dog run through here?”

“No.”

“I was chasing a, I mean my dog got away and I was trying to follow it. It didn’t just run through your yard?”

“No. I’m going to get my mom.”

“It’s okay. I’m going to go now . . . sorry.”

Confused, Jeffrey turned and put his hands on the fence, his left hand still bleeding, his elbow now sore and bruised. He pushed himself up, into the shrubs and over the fence. He expected to land back in the dark woods, but instead found himself in another backyard. Two girls about his age were lying on deck chairs in bikinis. He thought he recognized them from his school. He stood before them, bloody, his hair messed and his shirt ripped. His jeans were dirty from where he had fallen.

One of the girls looked up and he said, “Did either of you see my dog?”

One of the girls giggled and said, “Nope.”

It took him twenty minutes to figure out where he was. It took him another hour to make his way home. He wove his way through the sweltering heat until he came to Upper End Road and finally Cavanaugh Street. He followed it for six or seven blocks to his townhouse complex. When he got home his mother was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner. He walked past her and started up the stairs.

“Hold it,” she said and he stopped. “Turn around,” she said. He did. “What in God’s name happened to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Did you get in a fight?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

“I fell in the woods.”

She shook her head and dried her hands on a dishtowel. She walked to him. “Let me have a look at your arm.” He held it up. “Go get some peroxide from the bathroom so I can clean this.”            Jeffrey did as he was told and came back down the stairs. He met her in the kitchen. He opened the fridge and took out a can of Coke and drank deeply. “Take off your shirt, hon, so I can clean this up,”

“I can do it,” he said, taking off the shirt.

“Yes, but you won’t. You’ll forget and you’ll pay for it.”

She dabbed at the cut on his elbow and then his hand. She was smiling and shaking her head. “You’re just like your father, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

She put several butterfly bandages on his elbow and one on his palm. “It looks worse than it is. You’ll be okay. You spend a lot of time in those woods, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it reminds me of home. Of up north, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. You miss it, don’t you?”

Jeffrey was silent. He sipped his Coke. After a minute he said, “Yeah, I miss it a lot.”

“You know we had to move here. I couldn’t stay up north, not after what happened. I needed to start over. There were too many memories for me up there, Jeff.”

“I understand, Mom.”

“After your father….well, I just couldn’t look out the window every day at nothing but pine trees. I needed a fresh start. I hope you and Bill understand that. I did this for you too. I want to be a good mom, and not be mourning your father forever. Do you understand?”

Jeffrey was looking at his Coke. “Of course I understand, Mom.”

She came over to him and knelt beside him. “You be careful out there. The forest is a dangerous place sometimes.”

“Ah, Mom, it’s not like I’m using a chainsaw…” He immediately regretted saying it. “I’m painting, that’s all.” And chasing coyotes, he thought.

“Just be careful, okay?”  She kissed him on the forehead and went back to the stove.

After dinner Jeffrey walked in the fading light into the forest to retrieve his things. The woods were familiar again, every tree, every log, every stump was known to him. He found his pack and his paints where he had left them and tidied them up. The book lay open at the chapter he had been reading and he slipped it into the bag. He glanced up and down stream, and was relieved to see no coyote watching him. He could hear the faint hum of the road beyond, filling the woods.

* * *

The next day he returned to the same place and tried to retrace his steps. Within five minutes he came to where the creek slipped from the woods into a concrete channel. There it flowed into a giant steel culvert and passed under Upper End Line. He crossed the road between speeding cars and watched the creek emerge on the other side. It flowed in the concrete gutter between rows of houses with high fences. Jeffrey picked a side street and walked down it. Where the road rolled down a short steep hill he turned right to see if he could find any sign of the waterfall or the pool. Instead he found that the creek had disappeared altogether, flowing underground in one of the city’s storm runoff pipes. He rubbed the bruise on his elbow and felt the stiffness there. Still cradling the tender arm he turned and walked back up the hill.

Twenty minutes after Jeffrey had crossed the road and walked home through the forest, a City truck pulled up along Upper End Line. Two men got out of the cab and took tools from the back of the truck. They erected posts and a plywood sign that read:

Attention: Zoning Change Requested

Shady Woods Developments has requested a change in the zoning of this parcel (SD-121) from Community Reserve to High Density Residential. Shady Woods Developments has applied to build 124 condominium style townhouses on this property. All Inquiries must be made by August 1.

Jeffrey, who never walked along Upper End Line, never saw the sign.

* * *

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Among the Wounded, Part 2

To read part 1 of Among the Wounded click here.

On Wednesday Jeffrey cut class after lunch and walked toward home. He felt he deserved it. He had, after all, gone to every class on Monday and Tuesday. He had even attended his biology class.

During morning announcements on Monday he was summoned to his counsellor’s office. When he arrived Dr. Lemon, whom he had come to know well over the past year, greeted him. She asked him to join her in her office. He found Ms. Wilson, his biology teacher, sitting in one of the plastic chairs at Dr. Lemon’s conference table.

“What’s this, group therapy?” Jeffery said.

“Grab a seat, Jeff,” said Lemon, sternly. “Ms. Wilson asked me to arrange this meeting.”

Dr. Lemon turned to the biology teacher and indicated that they should start. Wilson looked down slightly and then back at Jeffrey. She said, “I’d like you to come back to class today.”

Jeffrey’s heart sank. He had already begun to look forward to finishing school each day at 2:00. He had planned his excursions into the woods to sketch. Jeffrey regarded Ms. Wilson coolly as she said, “Why didn’t you tell me that it was Shawn that was talking?”

“What would have been the point?”

“You wouldn’t have had to leave.”

A long moment passed, “I don’t rat on my friends.”

“Shawn told me after class Friday that he was talking. He said he was sorry. You can come back to class this afternoon. Okay?”

Jeffrey was implacable. “Jeffrey will see you then,” said Dr. Lemon looking at Wilson without seeking confirmation from the boy.

Jeffrey watched Wilson leave.  “You should take it easy on Ms. Wilson,” said the counsellor.

“She didn’t take it easy on me. Now I’ve got to go back into that stupid class.”

“Will you attend the classes?”

Jeffrey smiled and looked out the window at the morning. The birch trees shimmered in the breeze. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“The weather.”

And so on this sunny afternoon in late April he was walking toward the woods near his home. It was hot. The traffic on Upper End Line droned with the constancy of a bee hive. Once in the woods Jeffery strolled through clearings that were carpeted with trilliums. Absorbed with the brilliance of the flowers, he soon found himself on the banks of the tiny creek.

More water seemed to course between the margins of the brook than normal. He imagined that freeing the waters from the strangulating obstruction of newspapers on Friday had helped. But more water pushed between these banks than seemed explainable by his efforts. Jeffrey was about to dig his sketchpad from his pack when his eye was attracted upstream to a flash in the water. His hand still buried in the green canvas bag, he looked to where he had seen the movement and there was  a blaze of motion again. A burst of silver-white, like lightning moving through the water; it was gone in an instant, but like a quick glance at the sun, it had been burned into Jeffery’s memory. He saw the flash again and in a moment of dawning recognition, identified the arching back of a rainbow trout slipping upstream from its hiding place behind a broad stone. He watched it glide around a bend in the creek and disappear. Through the shimmer of light on the creek’s surface he became aware that more fish rested on the bottom, noses upstream, mouths agape, waiting for mayflies or stone fly larvae to drift by. Jeffrey watched as another trout moved from the eddy where it rested, out into the current and rolled over onto its side, mouth breaking the water, to swallow an insect drifting on the lazy current. Then, like quicksilver, the fish slipped back behind the rock.

Jeffrey sat for an hour and watched, making several sketches as fish moved up the creek from downstream and disappeared upstream out of sight. There shouldn’t be fish here, he thought. There were no fish here on the weekend when he came to collect the newspapers. There were no fish here last autumn. For all he knew, there had been no fish here since the 1970′s when this creek had been channelled and diverted through culverts to make way for Upper End Line and the housing developments that now surrounded this tiny woodlot.

He followed the brook upstream, pressing as he did through a small thicket of willows, and stopped abruptly. There was movement in the shallows. A great blue heron silently lifted up from where it had been hunting in the creek. The bird flapped once, twice, and disappeared through the trees, up the creek and out of sight. The flash of its prehistoric looking wings, its long trailing legs, bent neck, and stiletto-like beak were unmistakable.

Jeffery sat down on the bank, his gaze fixed on where the heron had been and shook his head. It shouldn’t be here either. It can’t be here. He looked down at the pool where the bird had been hunting. Trout swam by. On a stone, wet with the splash of water, was a rainbow trout, its side ripped open, as if it had been impaled on the tip of a spear.

***

In the first week of June the temperature reached 30 degrees Celsius every day. In his morning math class Jeffrey sat next to the open window watching waves of heat rise off the pavement of the parking lot. He dreamed of being in the woods with a pencil and paper, in the cool shade of beech and maple trees. His teacher, Mr. Reid, was explaining something at the blackboard.

“Mr. Patterson.”

Jeffrey did not turn his head from the window.

“Mr. Patterson?”

Jeffrey was miles away, walking along the pathway in the woods, following the tracks of deer that he had seen only a few days before. He had not seen a deer since moving from the north. But he had seen the tracks on Saturday while he was exploring a section of the woods he rarely visited. Their cloven hooves had pressed little heart-shaped tracks into the soft earth of the pathway and he had followed them to the chain-link fence that bordered his housing complex.

“Jeffrey Patterson. Earth to Jeffrey Patterson.”

Jeffrey turned to see Mr. Reid standing next to his desk, an amused look on his face. “Care to rejoin the class, Jeffrey?”

Several of his classmates snickered at this and Jeffrey looked around the room and scowled. Mr. Reid seemed to be awaiting an answer to what Jeffrey thought was a rhetorical question.

“Not really,” said Jeffrey, hoping to end his school day early.

Mr. Reid smiled. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy, sport.”

***

On the last day of school, Jeffrey skipped all but his third period class. After spending the morning in the woods he walked straight to Paul Winters’ class. He went to where canvases in various stages of completion were sitting upright next to the window. A six-foot-long, four-foot-high painting that he had been working on earlier this semester was among them. It was a kaleidoscope of light and colour. Even to its creator – its harshest critic –  the painting imbued the observer with the impression that they were running through the woods. The myriad hues of green affected a gentle blur, and the light that poured through the canopy danced in warm yellows and pale blues. Jeffrey had finished the painting almost a month ago and had not looked at it since.

He looked at it now. Later in the day his mother was coming with the truck and they would take the painting home. He was going to give it to her for her birthday. As he prepared to drape a heavy canvas over the painting to ready it for transport, his eye detected something out of place in the lower right-hand corner. He bent down to investigate. He felt his heartbeat rise as he studied the painting: he thought that someone had defaced it. There was a flash of red among the greens and yellows that he had not painted himself. But the red was not graffiti. It was carefully tinted. It was a red fox poised, waiting at the margins of the dense foliage.

Stay tuned next week when I post Part 3 of Among the Wounded. This is the title story in a collection of short stories that I’ve been working on for an embarrassingly long time. To receive updates when I post new pieces follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault. Feedback is welcome. Post your comments below.

Serial: Among the Wounded

I’m trying something different. Over the next ten weeks (or so) I’m going to post serialized segments of this short story. Every week, in celebration of #fictionfriday, I’ll post a segment of the story Among the Wounded. I wrote the first draft of this story in the late 1990s. I wanted to find a story that would capture my teenage experience losing a place that was precious to me. This is part of a collection of stories by the same name that I’ve been trying to publish, half-heartedly, for more than a decade. Give this a read and follow me on twitter @stephenlegault to get notification when a new segment is posted. If you have feedback, please post a comment; I’d like to know what you think. My purpose is to work with readers to make this story stronger.

Among the Wounded, Part 1

Brenda Wilson closed the textbook with a sharp slap and the class quieted like crickets on a summer night when a snake passes among them. She looked out over her Grade 11 Biology class with a frown. “Jeffrey,” she said sharply.

Jeffrey Patterson looked up from the book of M.C. Escher illustrations he was reading. “Yes,” he said after an uncomfortable moment, his tone exasperated.

“Please leave.” A murmur, faint as a morning breeze over silver maples, rippled through the class and was gone.

Jeffrey sat still, his hands holding the book. “Pardon me?”

“Please leave. You are disrupting the class.”

“I don’t understand. . .”

“You were talking. Don’t bother coming back until you can respect this classroom.”

Jeffrey looked down at the book, at his hands covered in paint from his previous class. He hadn’t said a word since arriving ten minutes late. It would be a very cold day in hell before he respected any classroom, let alone this one. He opened his mouth to protest the summary judgment of culpability, but thought again. Conscious of his classmates looking at him, evaluating him, wondering what he might do next, he considered his options. Behind him Shawn Bradley looked down, trying to conceal a grin. A second before he had been talking to his lab partner Jonathan Waters about tonight’s party at Mary Grady’s house.

“I’m waiting for you to leave,” Wilson said again.

So wait, bitch, thought Jeffrey. He turned his head and looked at the clock above the door. It was shortly after two. For the rest of his class, the day would not end for another hour. Gazing out the main floor windows at spring’s ephemeral pleading beyond, Jeffery considered the sunny afternoon and the faint breeze rustling the leaves of the birch trees. It was hot and humid. Jeffrey smiled and scooped up his books and walked slowly toward the door. Passing behind his teacher he couldn’t help but grin and say, “Have a nice weekend.”  He let the heavy door slam behind him. He walked down the hall, still smiling.

* * *

Stepping into the woods the silence broke over Jeffery like waves on a rocky coast. With each step it grew more complete until the sound Cavanaugh Road’s four lanes all but vanished. The density of the air in the woods hushed the roar of the world.

Despite the mid-day humidity it was cooler in the forest’s shade than on the roadway and sidewalk. The leaves of the giant trees caught the sunlight’s free-fall, then bounced and reflected the calmed glare towards the forest’s floor.

Jeffrey followed the pathway through the trees, jumping across a tiny rivulet that fed the larger creek emerging from the culvert beneath the townhouse complex where he lived. Since moving to the south with his mother and younger brother William a year ago, he had taken to walking to school and home each day through the forest. It cut five minutes off the travel time, and at first that was all that mattered. But as Jeffrey walked the path day after day he began to recognize something in this tiny wood-lot, not much more than a kilometre across at its widest, and surrounded on all sides by housing and roads.

Above Jeffery the world was a rush of iridescent green; below the earth wore a muted cloak. His feet crushed the dried husks of last year’s foliage, ankle deep once he stepped off the beaten path. He dragged his feet through them, and flicked them with his toes. With the side of his feet he pushed a growing pile of the leaves before him, then kicked them high into the air. He felt like a kid horsing around in fresh snow. The leaves, dry and dark, cascaded back to earth, filling the air with the rich aroma of decay—the pungent fragrance of spring.

Jeffrey smiled. “What do I care if I can’t go back to biology class? This is where I belong. . .” he said aloud.

The creek appeared; wide enough to provide an opening in the dense ceiling of green overhead so sunlight fell to the forest floor. Willows and alder grew in clumps along the verge. The water was shallow and pooled on the inside of a bend where the brook had undercut the earthen bank. Jeffrey heard the muted symphony played as the water passed over stones, and as was often the case with music, it conjured memories.

* * *

Frank Patterson warned his son of the danger. The man and the boy stood on the banks of the Nighthawk River, the river flowing fast and hard at their feet. They both held fly rods. From downstream Jeffrey could hear the rapids.

“Watch your step along the bank,” said Frank, starting to feed out line, preparing to make a cast. Jeffrey nodded.

“Can I walk downstream a little?”

Frank looked at the boy a minute. “Sure you can. Just mind your footing.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Jeffrey stepped back from the bank and began to thread his way downriver through the thick growth of birch along the shore. Picking his way along a game trail, he soon came to the source of the white noise.  The boy found his way to the very brink of the river where he stood on a granite promontory, its polished dome dry in the afternoon sun. He faced the water without the confronting barrier of the trees. When he had inched, and then crab-walked, as far onto the rocky peninsula as his legs would permit he sat down, his hands pressing against the solidity of the stone as if it might disappear. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the moist air of the crashing river, the world around him filtered through tiny rainbows.

Just ten feet away the water appeared dark and oily as it poured over a ledge deep beneath the surface, then piled against a rock in the middle of the river and boiled and fell backwards— frothing white—churning downriver, folding into more rapids.

Tossing a stick upstream he watched it float past him, hit the smooth tongue of water, then disappear into the froth. He spent the morning this way.  Later his father joined him for lunch and afterwards they walked upriver together where his father showed him how to cast the delicate fly; how to hold the rod and roll his wrist. He caught on quickly.

More than anything that day, though, Jeffrey enjoyed simply sitting and watching the palate of colours in the forest, the deep blue sky above, and the rushing of the river. The sensation of closeness to his father, and to the earth, was mesmerizing.

* * *

That was two years ago.

From his pack Jeffrey pulled a sketchbook and a hand-made pencil box and let his gaze roam over the shapes and textures of the forest. He closed his eyes and listened. Soon he would hear, beyond the forest’s edge, the pulse of rush hour traffic on Upper End Line. But here he was invisible. The other high school students who used the network of trails that crossed the woods never strayed from the path. Only he followed the curving bend in the creek. His secrets were safe.

Jeffrey laid the sketch pad open across his knees and rested his back against the hulking mass of a red maple log that was several feet thick. The leaves that blanketed the forest floor stirred as he made himself comfortable, the scent enveloping him like a fog. He slid the top of the wooden box back and let his hands feel the smooth glide of the groove that held the top in place. He read the inscription there: “For Jeffrey, Happy Birthday, Love Your Pa.”

From the box he pulled several oily pastels and set to work rendering the scene before him on the finely textured paper. His face held only a foot and a half from the paper, he studied the forest and the creek before him, and then the drawing. Each was done with equivalent intensity. He failed to notice the time when school finished, or hear students cross the woods behind him, or note the swelling sound of the traffic half a kilometre away. He was confined to a funnel of time, space, light and texture. His concentration was both narrowing in its singularity, and expansive in how it opened an entire universe.

When finally he did look up he was aware of two things. First, he was hungry. Second, the afternoon light was fading fast, which meant that it was after seven o’clock, maybe as late as eight. The woods were growing dark, the shadows lengthening and swallowing the forest floor. Jeffery put his supplies away, stood and stepped toward the creek and looked into its trickle of water, listening to its gentle murmur.

He walked upstream, towards his home, but before reaching the chain-link fence that separated the woods from his subdivision, he discovered that someone had dumped half a dozen bundles of newspapers into the creek. He jumped down onto the gravel bar where they choked the creek. Jeffrey felt anger swell inside him. More than the ignorance and callousness of the person who dumped newspapers that they had been paid to deliver into a creek, what he hated was the invasion into his own personal sanctuary. It was as if someone had dumped the papers into a church. With the daylight slipping from the woods he reached into the cool water and lugged the sodden papers out of the brook and onto the shore. He would return on the weekend and haul them away. He thought he might also call the newspaper and make a complaint.

As he pulled the last of the bundles from the creek – his hands, arms, face, and chest soaked with rotten leaves and soggy newspaper – the creek was released in a rush and began to flow freely.

* * *

Paul Winters’ classroom was more like a medieval maze than a high school art room. Every semester the eccentric teacher simply hung new artwork over the previous season’s efforts and if a student did not retrieve his or her work before the end of the term, the art was destined to become a permanent part of the classroom. The clusters of tables, random assortment of art supplies, and the two decades of artwork that was fastened to every surface including the ceiling, exuded bedlam. Winters’ office was known throughout the school – throughout the entire school district – as “the hobbit hole.” Winters had erected a wall down the centre so that students or other instructors, seeking out the recluse, had to weave through a corridor lined with books, ceramics, paintings, paint, boxes of clay, sketches, records, stereo speakers, and rows of overflowing shelves and cupboards. They finally came to the man, propped up like any other piece of art, on a small stool, his head bowed as if in sleep, his eyes likely fixed a piece of student work. A cold cup of coffee rested near him on any almost flat surface available, most often a Muddy Waters record or a student’s painting.

Now Paul Winters looked up from the sketch he was marking. The music had stopped. He stood and stepped carefully over the pile of grading and rounded the tight corner to where he kept the stereo. He inserted a Robert Johnson CD and then made his way into the classroom, which at lunch hour was empty. He passed the clusters of tables and moved toward the back of the room where more plywood dividers sectioned off several small studios. Through the long row of windows spring light streamed into the space, alive with colour. Winters knocked at the opening of one of the small studios.

“Come in.”

Winters stepped into the cubical where Jeffrey Patterson was standing. Jeffrey’s hands were at his sides, he wore a white painter’s smock covered in greens and browns and blues. The boy had his back to Winters, his head tilted to one side. He stepped back and the teacher could see in the natural light of midday the painting the boy was working on.

To Paul it felt as if he had stepped out of the classroom and into the woods. He could swear that mixed with the pungent odour of oil paints he could detect the smell of water when it pours over rocks and into deep pools. Neither student nor teacher said a word.

* * *

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