[ToC]

 

BEAST IN THE WOODS

Edward Helfers

 

 

There's a beast in the woods. For some, the beast is invisible. Others see the beast behind every tree. Still others—frozen at great distance across the valley or standing atop a ridge—cannot distinguish the beast from surrounding foliage. It could be the beast. Or a pile of rocks. It could be a shadow or an outcropping because the odds of encountering the beast (in this region, in this season) are extremely low. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning, the field guide suggests, more people die every year from bee stings. Which is to say that beast encounters, though rare, are not unprecedented.

*

Some believe the beast to be harmless. In their eyes, the beast is secretive and beautiful and because of its secret beauty deserves protection. These people are in the minority. The majority believes that the beast is a scourge. "The beast is a scourge," they will say, "our children carry fear in their hearts like a loaded gun." Something must be done, the argument goes, or nothing, depending on where you live. All differences aside, everyone can agree on one fact: someone or something is responsible for the depletion of area livestock.

*

If the beast is real, according to the field guide, you will know by its odor. The scent, similar to equine manure, can be detected from over a mile away. The odor of the beast is thought to induce sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and in extreme cases hallucination. As for beast color, weight, and speed, reports are too varied to be helpful.

*

If the beast is not real, a simple test has been devised: 
    "Are you really the beast," the observer must ask.
    If the beast says nothing, the beast is real and the observer may die. But if the beast is not real, it will respond, "Now you have ruined everything."

*

The depletion of area livestock could have any number of causes. Disease is the primary killer of broadhorns in the area, followed by infection, followed by starvation. Pesticides typically account for grinder casualties, whereas hoof hinds commonly succumb to exposure. In the kneeler family, cracked femurs prove deadly unless stabilized within the hour. Recent years have seen a spike in the percentage of fork-toothed foals born with genetic disorders. And while predation ranks low on every fatality list, it remains a distinct possibility. None of the animals gone missing in recent months have been recovered—no carcasses or claws, no fangs, footprints, or bones. If there is a beast, and if that beast is a carnivore, we must assume that it kills with the cold, swift silence of an undertow. 

*

When did the beast first appear? How long has it roamed the woods? Nobody knows for certain. The first accounts, footnoted in the field guide, date back to the early centuries. Eyewitnesses spoke of fear, of goose bumps running their length of their spines. Most were too traumatized to recall the exact contours of the beast. The doubt today is no different. "I imagine it was big," survivors will say, "and beast-like. I don't know where it came from or where it went. It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me and I hope it never happens again."

*

Some argue that survivors deliberately withhold knowledge of the beast and its dimensions. "The survivors are lying," these people will say, "a conspiracy is afoot." Out of joy or sympathy, perhaps the survivors concoct and perpetuate myths for the sole purpose of terrorizing others. What the beast takes, the thinking goes, can only be reclaimed through distortion. An alternate explanation: the truth of the beast is vast and unknowable even to the beast. It can only be remembered in bits and pieces and even then one must be careful not to hurt their brain. Such theories have neither been confirmed nor denied. 

*

Anyone who sees the beast has already been seen. Closing your eyes will not help you un-see the beast. If you smell the beast, you are advised to seek shelter. "As far as we know," the field guide notes, "the beast does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation." In this regard, the beast is to be commended.

*

To look for the beast is an exercise in futility. The people who search for the beast are called hunters or scientists or insane. They carry supplies into the woods—lanterns, noisemakers, costumes, and chemicals. They carry cameras and computers, notebooks and harpoons; they carry canteens and mess kits and maps that will do them no good. They carry little black pills in case something goes wrong. It is their hope that the beast, dead or alive, will satisfy a deep-seated longing for satisfaction. These people think of the beast (and how the beast thinks) more than the beast thinks of them. They have grown up picturing the beast, imagining its haunts, wondering what it means and where it is right now. If only there were answers to these questions, they assume, the beast could finally be subdued. But in their dogged pursuit, what they fail to realize is that the beast will never be subdued because then it would cease being the beast; they fail to realize they are wasting their time. 

*

The range of the beast is immense, the field guide claims, thousands of miles from the mountains to the ocean and everywhere in between. Though forests figure as its preferred habitat, the beast may also appear in caves, canyons, and dreams. The dream beast, which exists in the mind of the dreamer, is accepted by many as a subspecies of the real or imagined beast. The dream beast may have wings or scales or spines whereas the real beast defies description. The imagined beast knows your deepest phobias and how to exploit them.

*

Estimates vary as to the number of organisms the beast has dispatched. Nor do we know if or how many people factor into this sum. Human disappearances—some explained, others not—are common in the region, especially in more remote locales. The woods, for example, have long harbored refugees and vagrants, a large percentage of them hailing from other states and other countries. Many in the region want to help, but the sad truth is that little can be done for this population, which for reasons legal and personal would rather not be found. If the beast finds them, they will have their wish. If the beast is real, and if the beast is a killer, it is unlikely to leave any evidence behind.

*

In certain cases, the odor of the beast may not be detected. When the rivers brim with snowmelt, when the wildflowers bloom in the meadows, when the wind kindles campfire embers—phenomena such as these can have a dampening effect. There are some who say the odor of the beast is not an odor at all. They prefer the word 'fragrance' and describe a mixture of mulch and roses, a potpourri of birch, mint, and pine straw. They say that the beast is misunderstood, that the beast is more like us than we care to admit. These people dare not say such things in public.

*

Do not confront the beast. Do not attack the beast. Do not shoot the beast in the head or the heart or the chest. Never beat on the beast with an arm, club, rock, or branch. The beast will always be stronger than you. Resist the urge to play dead, the field guide insists, do not run away from the beast, for the beast is equally angered by deception and cowardice. Also: the beast is immune to mace.

*

The beast could be anywhere. It could be prowling just beyond the tree line or lurking in the sewers. The beast could be peeking through your bedroom window, waiting for you to fall asleep. The beast could be reading over your shoulder, hiding behind the curtains, breathing down your neck. Panic is understandable. Worry is pointless. The location of the beast cannot be known in advance. If anyone asks where the beast is right now, you must share what you know: the beast exists everywhere and nowhere and there is nothing left to say on the matter. 

*

At this point, some of you may be wondering: "Are you the beast?"
    No.
    But if I were, and if you met me on a dark wooded trail, and if you looked me in the eye without malice or fear, if you called me by my name, if you smoothed the fur behind my ears, if you bathed me in a cool aspen stream, if you wore the necklace I fashioned from clovers and vines, if you promised never to tell anyone of our sweet forbidden love, then and only then would I let you pass.

 

 

__

Driving home from work one day, I heard a radio host discussing a political ad from the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign. The host played a clip, maybe twenty seconds long, about what to do when you see The Bear (Russia). Here's the last line: "Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear?" This felt like bad advice for bear encounters, the type of advice a bear would give. Everybody knows humans aren't as strong as bears. Never will be. So the smart thing in this case would be outsmarting the bear. I'm pretty sure that's how we got to the top of the food chain. Anyway, I played around with the idea for a couple weeks, worked through different scenarios, and poof—fiction.