Once upon a time, as a boy, I was tramping through the deep woods of my ancestral home.
Strolling along the sparse trail that runs beside the rushing creek, my foot caught a hooping curve of Elm root that thrust forth from the loamy soil. An absurd and half-buried root with a slight cork-screw twist.
Angry that such a ridiculous thing even existed. Angry to have been tripped up, for a moment’s inattention, and sent sprawling into the underbrush.
There was a large smooth stone, and I had missed it by only an inch. Chaos and fate surrounded and bewildered me.
Bold and brash a boy of twelve that I was, yet strong did I think myself to be. That all my fancy and high thinking could be cast aside indifferently by a heedless landscape was more than I could tolerate. There is little shame in being bested by a superior and only a little more in being surpassed by an equal, but to be upended by a meaningless trifle of Nature’s outcrop defied all reason.
This land is mine, this land is free, I’ll do what I want… irresponsibly.
Slightly dazed from the fall, I reached down with both hands to tear it loose from the earth. Thin shoot tendrils popped in surprised alarm as it yielded to my strength. I think I even imported my own sense of personhood into the root, so that it might better fuel my desire to steal it away with eager savor. I wanted to maim and to kill.
Imagine me grinning over gritted teeth, I am reveling in the throes of some mad adolescent blood-lust. A swooning fury within a skinny frame, a mask of warlike rage betrayed by smooth hairless cheeks.
Then… suddenly… the root stops. I don’t mean it tears loose in my hands, or becomes a lot harder to pull. It just, stops. As if anchored to the Grave, its resistance is complete and absolute. “Hither shalt thou go, but naught further.”
Undeterred, I take the revealed length and wind it across my shoulders from one hand to the other.
A slight tremor of hesitance swept away by a deep breath and flush of adrenaline. Hands grip. Grunt, and pull.
My hands and back shake in strain, a single droplet of sweat glides from forehead to the tip of the nose. All is given, my grunt turns into a low groan… a groan joined in chorus by a thick green root stained black by the earth. Strain. Pull. Groan… a loud SNAP, and then silence.
Silence upon silence. A true silence. Not the peaceable sort of ambient quietude which make a sojourn into the wilderness a delight. Silence. There is not babbling brook nor dulcet songbird, no gentle breeze ambling lovingly through the treetops. Silence.
A shudder rises from a thousand miles deep, even as the land begins to fall away. Blue skies fade into blackness, and my bones turn to water. The words of my grandfather roar and echo from every corner of my mind: “Your angels walk hand-in-hand with your demons.”
Falling upward in a sky infinite. Darkness. Silence.
…and then light. Light upon light, a great piercing light. A flickering shadow. Heat. Warm breath. I open my eyes.
My dog, Buck, peers down at me… with the strange canine head-tilt of confusion. He leans down and sniffs, his pungent tongue then runs the length of my cheek.
“G’way,” I murmur, my hand pushing at his heavy snout as I rise to a sitting position.
I glance at the root, still quite intact and undisturbed by having caught my foot. Wiping the sticky wetness Buck left on my cheek, I see bright red blood smeared upon my fingertips. There is a thin cut ‘cross a round knot that throbs near the right temple of my forehead. They’ll heel quickly, and without a trace. Some scars stay on the inside.
From a furlong span up the trail, I hear my father. He is in one of his gardens, singing even as he leans over potatoes and beans or tomatoes and peppers. Perhaps he walks along the rows of corn, examining the stalks and soil.
I hear his deep tenor cascading down into the creek valley where I sit. “Cowboy change yore ways…” he croons under a blue sky streaked with the subtle pink of dying Sunlight.
“…or forever you’ll chase the devil’s herd,” I sing quietly in response. Buck looks at me, and I nod up the trail. Lowering his head to smell the way home, he trots with a cheerful step.
Just a dream, I tell myself, just a dream… and I almost believe what I am saying.
I almost believed myself then, I almost believe myself now.