Late afternoon. The day was unseasonably warm, and under a hazy smudge of blue-gray sky, he set out for the second time since morning through woods ablaze with autumn fire. Nearby a woodpecker hollowed out a home in a dying pine, the sound echoing down from the tree-lined ridge overlooking Miles Junction. It was a small town, wedged in the jaw of northeast Ohio like an infected tooth. The kind of place where the air, depending on the way of the wind, carried on its back the rotten vapors of the local landfill or the sulphurous scent of the fish farm just over the state line. A place from which one could follow any point of the compass and discover remnants of a forgotten century: The vast quilt of bankrupt homesteads, fading tracts of feed corn and scrub unfolding in all directions; the Lornfield coal tipple and its aging brethren clinging to rocky slopes to the west; long stretches of shuttered mills—Sharon Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Republic, and others—rusting on the banks of the poisoned river to the north; outcast freights running southbound rails toward the rugged spine of Appalachia; and the deep valleys to the east, each one its own quiet American tragedy.
In town, the last of the businesses—Kurtzal’s Hardware, Mort’s Little Shopper, and the bar, Miller’s Tap—continued to fight the good fight at the intersection of 67 and Main, despite the fact that many had long since surrendered. The Station Inn, the butcher’s, garages and auto shops, even the local high school—all deserted. Windowless shells of crumbling brick, as if this section of the world had been used up, crushed and cast aside like an empty can, left to molder in the high grass.
But for Arthur Pruitt, this was home. This forsaken place. Each day the earth reclaimed more and more, and soon it would be gone, he thought. It would all return to the dirt. But when that day came, he would no longer be here to see it.
He made the mile-long trek twice each day: just after dawn and a few hours before sunset, once he’d finished supper and deposited the bones on the trash heap out back. His traps were hidden like landmines every hundred yards or so, between the buckthorn shrubs beside the house and the creek, which spewed from a drainage pipe to the north and eventually veered east toward Pennsylvania along the back edge of his property. Locals had long ago named the stagnant channel Trapper’s Creek, on account of Arthur’s blood. Generations of Pruitts had lived off this land. His father and granddaddy, both long dead, taught him all he needed from an early age. He’d hoped his only son, Lester, would carry it on. But when the young man returned after the fall of Saigon almost fifteen years ago, he’d been a haunted man. Lester now spent his days with a head full of ghosts in the padded confines of Woodside Hospital. And when the stomach cancer took his mama not long after—well, there went hope.
With the exception of going into town on occasion to get a few things—canned goods, fuel, tobacco, hardware supplies—Arthur subsisted largely on what nature provided. But ever since they found the Griggs boy the previous fall, he did his best to avoid town as much as possible.
Folks had no one else to blame for what had happened. He’d received threats, had his truck windows busted out, tires slashed, break lines cut. Just this morning he’d come out of Kurtzal’s Hardware where he’d stopped for a box of nails, found Killer spray painted in red across his windshield. Across the street four men stood in the parking lot of Miller’s Tap, leaning against a battered flatbed Ford, cigarettes stuck in their mouths. They glowered at him, eyes burning with hatred. Something in their stares told Arthur that it wouldn’t be long now.
As he climbed behind the wheel of his pickup, one of them, a tall, rawboned man with a patchy beard and wearing an East Lornfield Coal Co. cap, said, “Better get that taken care of, Pruitt. You’re liable to have an accident.” The men all nodded slowly, the corners of their mouths downturned and their faces twisted behind the smoke from their cigarettes. As he drove off, the same man who had spoken ran a filthy thumb across his neck. No, it wouldn’t be long at all.
Now, as he moved among the trees, breathing in the scent of dead leaves and damp earth, the air cloaked Arthur like a wet blanket. It was early October, yet the air was so muggy he could almost drink it down.
“If I don’t drown by nightfall it’ll be a goddamn miracle,” he said to himself. The woodpecker’s drumming stopped, as though waiting to see if he had more to say on the matter, then began again.
Most of his traps were small, coil-spring footholds. He had a few single- and double-door wire cages set up a little closer to the house, but he didn’t rely on those much; critters tended to get wise to the cages, and the footholds were easier to hide. When he was a younger man, he’d often used snares, but the years had taken their toll, and he could no longer work the knots: at sixty-five, his joints felt packed with sand and were as gnarled and knobby as the roots of a cottonwood.
Halfway to the water, Arthur only had a single squirrel tied to his belt. It had been dead when he found it, neck broken when the trap snapped shut. But now he came upon another, this one alive, caught by the foot in the trap’s jaws, gnawing itself to get free.
Again he thought of his son.
When Lester came home from the service, he’d been distant, prone to wandering off and getting lost. Many nights Arthur would awake to find Lester’s bed empty and the front door swinging on its creaky hinges, and each time he would grab a flashlight and go looking for him, usually finding him hunkered in some brush or behind a fallen log, eyes wide with visions no one but he could see. This went on for years, until one night Lester got himself caught.
It had been storming, rain so hard even the summer canopy offered little shelter. When Arthur discovered him, Lester’s bare foot was clamped in one of the larger coil-springs. He was sawing his leg above the ankle with the bowie knife Arthur used to clean game, partially through the bone and screaming They’re all dead all dead all dead over and over. By the time Arthur got him home, got some tea and bourbon into him and bandaged him up with an old sheet, Lester’s screams had ebbed into mutters, ones that never quite stopped entirely, even as he slept.
That was the night Arthur accepted what he’d known to be true but had been denying since his boy first came home: Lester was gone, mind still in that goddamned jungle. He’d have to be put someplace. Someplace there were people who could look after him properly.
He took him to Humility of Mary in Youngstown the following morning. The foot had festered too long, and they lopped it off before the gangrene spread. When his body healed, Arthur signed the papers and committed Lester to Woodside, a decision that carved away at his guts a little more each day.
He placed a boot on the squirrel’s head, feeling it struggle as it sank into the soft dirt. He flexed his stiff fingers. Once they loosened up a little, he released the squirrel’s mangled paw, gripped its scruff and body, and wrung its neck.
With images of his son still skimming the surface of his memory, Arthur continued on toward the creek with the two squirrels on his belt, their heads swiveling on broken necks and bobbing against his leg.
He came to the next trap, a foothold with a maw like a tiny shark. It was disengaged, but whatever had triggered it was long gone. He reset the spring and camouflaged it with some twigs and dead leaves.
Standing up, he massaged the small of his back, where wires of tightness had stitched themselves around his spine. He removed his faded red ball cap and ran a forearm across his sweaty brow. The woodpecker on the ridge had ceased its work for the time being, and a preternatural stillness seeped through the trees. Despite his aching body and mind, Arthur let the stillness spread through him, and soon the self-loathing he felt at the memory of his son became a dull remorse.
Stretching, he placed the ball cap back on his head and began moving again, this time through silence, save for the crunching of sticks and leaves beneath his boots. Ahead, the creek elbowed eastward through its stony groove, separating the dense trees at the foot of the ridge from a wide field of creeping thistle, horseweed, and yellowing grass.
When he got to his final foothold, a large, toothy old thing, it was locked tight around a mangled possum. The animal was dead. It had been picked apart, its pelt in tatters, head attached by only a few strands of sinew and fur. Damn, he thought, and turned his eyes upward to see several dozen crows gathered in the treetops. They squawked and ruffled their feathers, twitched from branch to branch as they glared down at him.
He tossed the remains of the possum off to the side, reset the trap, and went to the water’s edge to clean his hands. As the cool water sluiced through his fingers, Arthur felt the soft, muddy slope begin to give way under his feet. He backpedaled but not in time, letting out a raspy howl that echoed off the trees. He tumbled into the water and the serenity of the woods shattered into chaos as the crows began shrieking and flapping their wings.
The creek wasn’t more than knee deep, but Arthur nevertheless went under, arms flailing to catch his cap before the current carried it off. He got back to his feet, scrambled up the bank and through a tangled mess of swamp rose, and made it back onto solid ground just as the slope once more threatened to slide out from under him. The crow’s discord drew Arthur’s eyes upward again, and he lost himself on a gnarl of roots, landing hard, twisting his ankle and tearing a hole in the leg of his overalls. One of the squirrels which hung from his belt collapsed under his weight. The impact between his hip and a mossy rock crushed its ribcage. Fragments of angled bone poked through its pelt like broken teeth.
The crows continued their racket high in the trees. On his back, he looked up at the patches of October sky visible through the fiery canopy. He was out of breath and dreading the walk back. He closed his eyes, tried to summon the will to stand. A will which eluded him.
He heard the flutter of wings, like fabric whipping in the wind, as several crows grew bold and descended back to the forest floor to finish their meal.
Sleep had become a welcome prospect, and by the time his breath began to slow, Arthur was close to drifting off. He likely would have, had it not been for the piercing pain of a beak pecking at his ankle, which had already begun to swell and bruise. A lone crow had broken away from the group, seeking fresher meat. Arthur kicked the bird, shouted, “Git, you sonofabitch!” though there was little weight behind it. The bird retreated but lingered just out of reach, pacing from side to side.
He mustered the energy to scoot himself up against a tree and placed his hand in something slick and warm on the ground beside him. The broken squirrel’s innards had leaked from its body onto the dirt. Arthur wiped his hand across the wet thigh of his pants and removed a tobacco pouch and some matches from the pocket of his bibs. Soaked and useless. Dismayed, he threw them at the squawking bird. Soon it lost interest in him and joined the others.
Watching the crows work on the possum, he thought about the kid again, Nathan Griggs. They’d found him bound to one of the cottonwoods along the water. A hunter had spotted him through the scope of his rifle while tracking a deer along the base of the ridge. The photographs the detectives had spread out on the table in front of him the night the boy was discovered were of a life-sized ragdoll, pecked at and chewed on by birds—God knew what else.
“I didn’t hurt no one,” Arthur had said when they hauled him in for questioning. “I’m innocent.”
He carried his own guilt about things. Everyone does. And he knew there were plenty of monsters in the world, masquerading as men. But knowing didn’t make the idea that someone could do such a thing—to anyone, much less a child—any less difficult to reconcile.
“I never laid a hand on the boy,” he said.
Sure, kids came nosing around on his property, rooting through his trash pile, but he’d only ever run them off with a shout or a shot in the air. No, the boy’s death wasn’t his burden. But he knew such facts rarely mattered to those who sought justice.
He hadn’t paid much mind to God after his Lester went away, other than to spit his name out like spoiled meat. He paid him even less after his wife passed. But now, propped like a soggy burlap sack against the tree, Arthur found himself wondering about the human soul and if the spirit of that Griggs boy had moved on before or after the animals got to him.
This and similar thoughts played leapfrog in the cavern of Arthur’s skull as his eyes again fell closed, and this time he found sleep.
He woke up from a circus of fragmented words and shapes, wrenched from the depths by a jagged howl resounding through the woods. It was near dark, the trees black, hulking figures against the thickening purple sky.
How long have I been out? he wondered. Couldn’t have been more than an hour or two, judging by the fading light. The crows were gone, and the only remaining sounds were the soft babble of the creek and the rustling of small, unseen things.
And again—the howl.
He couldn’t tell where it was coming from; it was a mile or so away but seemed to come from all sides.
Stiff and slow moving on his sprained ankle, Arthur nevertheless navigated the darkness with confidence. Hobbling toward home, he tried to sort through the scattered dreams from which he’d just emerged, images frayed at the edges and unraveling with each uneven step.
A faint residue remained. Cloudy snapshots. The same as they were every time he slept these days: Pictures of the Griggs boy melting into pictures of his boy melting into other faces. The police, the public defender, the men . . .
The clipped words and questions: Why’d you do it? Have there been others?
The verdict: Not Guilty.
The threats: You’re gonna burn in hell you sick sonofabitch! Gonna pay for what you done!
These thoughts all merged into a mosaic of moments, spinning between his ears, spinning themselves into oblivion and breaking apart like fractured glass.
Not your burden, he reminded himself. But it was no consolation.
The howl came through the trees again, and this time he placed it up ahead somewhere.
Soon the single howl became many. It was not a sound born of the woods, of coyotes or distant dogs, but of men.
As he neared the sound, neared home, the darkness began to lighten. The trees’ slender silhouettes sharpened against a warm orange glow. The voices returned then, You’re gonna burn . . . gonna pay . . . gonna burn! They played on a continuous loop, and for a moment Arthur thought perhaps he had never woken up. Perhaps he’d never fallen asleep. Maybe it had come and gone.
But then he came to the tree line and smelled the smoke. Heard the fire crackling and spitting as it consumed his small cabin. His tool shed and truck, too, were both ablaze. A moment later, the truck’s tires all blew in irregular succession. Then the gas tank, a shotgun blast booming off the surrounding hills.
Though something in his mind told him to stay where he was, within the seclusion of the trees, his instinct to save the only thing he had left was too strong. The fire was too hot, too high. It was all beyond saving, he knew. But before this reality could take root, before he could think twice, Arthur was standing in front of the cabin, staring into the hissing, hellish throat beyond the busted door.
The porch roof fell. Black smoke and fire spilled out from the broken windows, crawling up the side of the house toward the clear, star-strung sky. He turned when he heard a shuffling in the dark. Feet on gravel.
“Gonna pay for what you done,” came the voice. Only this time it didn’t come from inside his head. It came out muddied by liquor, first from one, and then from many. He felt the heat against his back as he watched them, their eyes like hot coals, moving out of the shadows and into the light of lapping flames.
William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two children. He received his BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and is a graduate of the NEOMFA program. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as New World Writing, The Fictioneer, Thuglit, Jellyfish Review, Kentucky Review, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and many others. You can find him on the various social media sites, if you’re so inclined.