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Beneath the trees, p.1

Beneath the Trees, page 1

 

Beneath the Trees
 


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Beneath the Trees


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.

  Published by Kindle Press, Seattle, 2017

  Amazon, the Amazon logo, Kindle Scout, and Kindle Press are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

  Contents

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  10.

  11.

  12.

  13.

  14.

  15.

  16.

  17.

  18.

  19.

  20.

  21.

  22.

  23.

  24.

  25.

  26.

  27.

  28.

  29.

  30.

  31.

  Acknowledgements

  1.

  Colden sank down onto a log. Its spongy decay gave way slightly, like a firm pillow, under her weight. She shifted from side to side a bit, searching for comfort. She was tired—not from the several hours of hiking, but from looking, trying to find those things that survived by remaining invisible. Her tiredness was the sort that comes from long concentration with little reward for the effort. There were things she was supposed to be looking for that she hadn’t found—the elusive moose and beaver that made these woods and mountains their home and were the basis of her research, the cornerstone of her current scientific life. Then there were the creatures she hoped to find, members of a ghost species that might not exist at all.

  On the search, she thought. I am always on the search for something that doesn’t want me to find it.

  The world around her was stripped of color, the many deciduous trees denuded of their recent riot of death-throe hues. A harsh, upstate New York winter was on its way. Bark, branches, sky, and ground were all slight variations of the same dirty-dishwater brown. There was an expanse of similarly colored water, stretching the length of about two flooded football fields in front of her. It was less than a pond, more than a marsh, with edges defined not by banks, but by cattails and wild irises, reeds, and low shrubs. Colden released a plastic bottle from the side pocket of her pack and squirted a stream of lukewarm liquid into her mouth. A breeze puffed up and subsided, chilling the sweat on her skin and corrugating the surface of the wetland. She shrugged her well-used backpack off her shoulders, yanked her binoculars over her head, and rubbed her face in her hands. A few leaves drifted down from the limbs overhead, tacking back and forth on the still air before settling among the dense layer already covering the forest floor.

  She sighed, propped her elbows on her knees, and put her chin in her palms. She stared into the middle distance, resting her eyes and her mind. For many moments, the world seemed empty and silent. Then, small sounds reemerged. A rustling in the dry leaves. A chipmunk, probably. A crow grocked somewhere over the far ridge, its call unanswered and yet un-lonely. Wingbeats in the underbrush. The smallest possible wake appeared in the middle of the flat surface of the wetland, and the eerie cry of a loon crossed the open air. She watched, waiting for the bird’s distinct silhouette to come into focus at the point of the V trailing out behind what appeared as no more than a black spot on the pond. But the shape did not form. Because while it was certainly a loon she heard, it was not a loon she was seeing. She squinted. The dot on the pond came into focus. It was the large nose of a beaver, cresting just above the water’s surface, pushing a small branch as it paddled purposely forward. She turned her gaze in the direction the critter was headed. Ah yes, there on the far bank was a dense thicket of horizontal saplings, all woven into a mound that created a cozy den with an underwater entrance by blocking some small stream pouring its watery self into the pond.

  She stared, watching the beaver approach. Then, right next to the lodge, a substantial tree with what appeared to be a wide span of dense branches came to life, its limbs shaking and dripping with water. But in this, too, her initial impression was wrong. Not a tree, but a magnificent bull moose lifting his heavily antlered head out of the muck, wet aquatic plants swaying from his mouth.

  This was what she’d been looking for all day. This was what, she admitted to herself in times of exhaustion and vulnerability, she was tired of looking for. Yet, as so often happened, just when she’d given up, there it was, right in front of her.

  Colden watched the moose move its jaw from side to side. She watched the beaver continue its homecoming, undisturbed. Her binoculars were at her feet. Her notebook was just an arm’s length away, in the side pocket of her backpack. Her camera was there as well, alongside her digital data recorder. She should reach forward, release the tools of her trade, and put them to work. This was what she was there for: to study, record, and analyze the relationship between beaver and moose; to try to understand how the marshlands created by the semiaquatic rodent and favored by the large ungulate were affecting the health of each; to ascertain why the population of beaver, once hunted almost to extinction in these Adirondack forests, was growing, but the population of moose, after years of crashing, had barely recovered. Her academic credentials, granting sources, and eventual career depended upon what she found, figured out, and published.

  But in that moment, all her scientific training, all the frustrations and boredoms of her research, all the striving and yearning to discover something, completely left her. In that instant of seeing nature manifest its quiet, unassuming routine right in front of her, she was no longer a grad student, a PhD candidate, or a wildlife biologist. She was once again what she had been so many times before: just a young woman in a remote area of dense woods, tucked between a couple of mountains, on a damp day in late fall, sitting silently, absorbing the mystery and beauty that surrounded her.

  2.

  A week later, Colden was as close to a moose as she’d been in more than a year. This one was female, young, likely born the spring before. A local cop had called her about it. She, in turn, had called her dad. He met her on a small gravel turnout at the side of a narrow road hemmed in by trees, in the interior curve of a tight S-turn.

  Colden paced around the animal.

  “Sad,” her father, Dix, said.

  “Yes,” Colden replied. “This girl was in her prime. She likely had plenty of years of productive breeding ahead of her.”

  Dix sucked his teeth. His hands were stuffed in his pockets. She knew he was waiting for her—not just to finish her examination, but also to calm down. She was angry. Frustrated. It was one thing to lose an animal to a predator. All creatures killed other things to stay alive. Plants were as alive and as complex and interesting as the deer that munched their fresh growth into oblivion. Black bear had as much right to live and provide for their cubs by taking a fawn as a mother deer had a right to protect her baby from bear predation. Sometimes the hard hooves and powerful legs of the mother deer won. Sometimes the curved claws and sharp teeth of the bear did. She and her father hunted deer, and many of her neighbors hunted and trapped to eat and make a few bucks so they could stay alive themselves. For Colden, all of this was neither politics nor philosophy—it was science. But this moose had not died as part of the normal course of living. This one was taken out by a tourist from New Jersey driving too fast on a back road. The car was damaged and towed. T
he driver was fine and taken to a hotel. The moose was killed and dragged to the side of the road.

  Colden retrieved her sample kit from her truck. She took photos of the moose, cut some hair samples, pulled some blood, and made notes on the animal’s overall condition and low parasite load. Then she nodded at her father. He went to his truck and unloaded four large coolers from the back. He then fetched a leather sheaf from the passenger seat and unrolled it in the dirt, revealing several gleaming knives, two of them almost as long as his forearm. He handed one to Colden. He took the other. They began cutting the animal apart.

  This was familiar work for them; together, they had hunted, field dressed, and butchered a dozen deer in her life. This project was different, as the animal had been sitting for a few hours, and even though the day was cool, they wouldn’t be eating the meat themselves. They didn’t hang, skin, or gut the animal. They just hacked off the back legs, rump, and shoulders and jammed the coolers with messy hunks of fur and meat. They worked in silence. When the coolers were full, they opened bags of ice into the remaining spaces and dragged the remainder of the animal off the roadside and into the scrub. The local scavengers would make quick work of what was left. They rinsed their hands and forearms in a nearby stream. They stood side by side, drying their hands with rough towels. Dix used the corner of a towel to wipe a smudge of blood off Colden’s cheek. She let him.

  “I was supposed to be in Albany by now,” she said.

  “Why don’t you wait until tomorrow?” Dix replied.

  “I shouldn’t.”

  Dix eyed her. Colden knew he knew that there was no reason she had to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive this afternoon. She also knew that he knew she would be glad to delay her return. She was not fond of all the people and sidewalks, cars and horns, conversation to be made, and traffic to manage. Nor the walls and hallways, buildings and elevators, cubicles and computers. She was used to stillness. She had spent countless hours hiking in the shadows underneath the heavy canopy of evergreens and deciduous trees that carpeted the mountain landscape where she had grown up and had canoed across silent ponds with nothing but the loons for company. Backpacking and camping for days on end made her forgetful about personal grooming and used to eating food made tasteless by dehydration. She’d rather be in her little cottage nestled into a far corner of her parents’ property than in her bland condo on the outskirts of the state capital. She liked being someplace where her home and truck didn’t need to be locked. But Albany was where the university was, where her department, colleagues, undergraduates, meetings, and reports were. She had to spend time in the city so she could get back to the country so she could work to protect all of this, for herself and everyone she knew or cared for and for plenty of people she didn’t.

  “OK. You’re right,” she relented. “No need to drive this evening.”

  “Why don’t you take a couple of these coolers over to . . .”

  “Yeah, I had the same thought.”

  “OK, we’ll see you for dinner.”

  “What’s it going to be?”

  “Lasagna. Salad.”

  “Yum. My favorite.”

  “I know. Sally’s, too.”

  They loaded the coolers into their trucks and parted ways, driving off in different directions. The sweet and bitter scents of dried mud from her boots and sweat from her body tickled her nose. She’d be back to clean clothes and regular showers soon enough. She’d get her hair trimmed. She’d buy new underwear. She’d get some good Mexican food. She’d see a movie. Small compensations. She’d also spend hours curled on the sofa of her apartment grading undergraduate papers and critiquing research reports. She didn’t have any friends in Albany—it was impossible to maintain connections when she was there so infrequently. And she didn’t have much need of friends. She hated hanging out in cafés and restaurants, chitchatting and gossiping. Her parents were her friends. Together, they formed a tight trio with few needs beyond one another and their various distinct but overlapping interests. Colden regularly gave herself internal pep talks about the efforts she should put into widening her circle. It had been a long time since she’d had a gal pal, a date, a boyfriend. Yet she rarely took her own advice.

  She kept driving into the bright, dry, late-fall day. Snow and frigid temperatures would be here soon enough. She rolled down the window and let air, as crisp as a fresh apple, fill the cab of her truck. She shook off her dread of returning to classes and city life, her foul mood over the death of the young moose, and found the driveway she was looking for. At the end of it, there was someone whom she could call a friend. Not friends in the way of the city, where connection was made by sharing conversation and meals, but a friend in the rural way. Here, connection came from a nod and a beep as you passed on the road, from small snippets of conversation tossed back and forth as you pumped gas at the local Stewarts convenience shop, from gossip, handed over like illicit currency, and from whispers about someone in need, which was invariably followed by the unannounced appearance of a man with just the tool required for the necessary repair, the driveway anonymously plowed, a bag of groceries or load of firewood dropped off with no more than a wave of a hand expected or required by way of thanks.

  Colden made her way up the quarter-mile drive and stopped her truck in front of a small cabin made of rough-sawn timbers and siding. She gave her horn a light tap to announce her presence, even though her truck’s tires on the gravel had already done so. Killer, a compact and furious ball of terrier muscle and indignant barks, shot out from a small gap in the barn door. His attack quickly subsided into happy yips and dancing on his back legs. Jake, sixty pounds of indeterminate breeds, roused himself from under the porch, stretched back from his long front legs, moseyed over, and leaned his yellow body against her. Buck, the wolfdog rescued from a zoo that had closed down several years ago, bought with $200 quickly scrabbled together from the sale of some marijuana plants, watched her, unmoving, from his perch near the front door. His serene yellow eyes were neither wild nor domesticated, but he allowed his tail a few perfunctory thumps against the well-worn floorboards. Lucy, the now three-legged pittie who had been found, broken, bruised, scarred, and scrawny, by the side of the road after someone threw her from their truck and sped off, wobbled around from the back of the woodpile, wiggling her whole body so hard that she toppled over before she quite got to Colden.

  Colden squatted in the patch of old gravel, dry weeds, and dirt that served as a parking spot and submitted to being licked, pawed, and muddied. She listened for the familiar clump, clump of crutches. The front door of the cabin swung open, banging itself on the wall, and a twisted, shrunken gnome of a man waddled out.

  “Well, ain’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Gene said in mild reproach. “Where you been keeping yourself?”

  Colden smiled and said, “Oh, the usual. Out in the woods.”

  “Collecting moose poop?”

  “It’s a tough job,” Colden replied. “But someone has to do it.”

  “I see the welcoming committee has assembled,” Gene said, smiling at his dogs.

  Colden smiled back, and as she did, she also took in the man’s weight and pallor. She looked for redness in the eyes, deeper twists in the body, any sign of gauntness or disease. He seemed no worse than the last time she had been there, a couple of months earlier. She stood and shook off the dogs.

  “Brought you something,” she said as she walked to the back of her truck and lowered the tailgate, revealing the stark white, blood-stained coolers.

  Gene tipped his head back and howled like a wolf. Buck joined in, his voice more plaintive and musical. Killer yipped. Jake let fly a few low barks. Lucy looked from dog to dog to human to dog and then back again. This circus dissipated any remnants of Colden’s bad mood.

  “We love roadkill!” Gene hollered and then clapped his crutches together. “What did you get this time? Flatlander? Downstater? Some preppy from Connecticut?”

  Colden laughed. “No, Gene. Just a lo
cal moose.”

  “Guess whoever hit him lived?” Gene asked, pouting.

  “Yes. A tourist from New Jersey. And his girlfriend.”

  “Little late for leaf peepers to be cruising around up here,” Gene said as he shambled down the two tilting steps off the porch.

  “Maybe his disappointment that the leaves are all down was why he was speeding south,” Colden said as she shoved the coolers down the truck bed. “Drove their little sports car right underneath the moose. Lucky for them, she flipped up, over the top of their car, and broke her neck in the fall onto the pavement.”

  “Driver hurt?”

  “Nah. Car totaled, though, I guess.”

  Gene let loose a long cackle, like someone crumpling stiff paper for a fire.

  “Serves him right.”

  “Yeah, she was a beauty and a young one. Real shame.”

  “Get any data off her?”

  “Little bit. Fortunately, she wasn’t one of the moose we radio-collared last winter. They’re all still out there, wandering around.”

  “Gonna attract aliens with those things if you’re not careful.”

  Colden shook her head and jumped down from the truck.

  “Gene, it’s hard enough for us to find the moose we put them on. No one from outer space is interested in moose.”

  “Set aside any meat from uninteresting moose for your dad and his dogs?”

  “Oh yeah. He got plenty. There will be lots of happy canines at Ragtag Farm.”

  “How many he have up there now?”

  “It varies. He does try to get most of them adopted. There are a few that aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon.”

  “Good use of that property.”

  Colden felt her stomach tighten in on itself for a moment. It passed quickly. She knew people thought the property her father had turned into an animal sanctuary was cursed. Plenty of tragedy had transpired there. But Colden was not one for curses or conspiracy theories. Yet, she was also not one to spend time correcting other people’s closely held misconceptions and badly supported beliefs. She was aware that sometimes these were all they had between themselves and complete, soul-sucking despair.

 
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