B Hartman is currently in the throes of shopping his third novel. He also hails from the East Coast where he drinks too much coffee but is trying to make the conversion to tea.
The Hunter and the Siren
It was she that caused this. I am haunted. Vividly and distinctly her stark, whispered cry resounds through the unruly summer ferns, navigating felled tree limbs and around brittle, emerald boughs. It wades through stagnant, stale marshes and amidst the conifers and softwoods; it moves between broad, stringy vines and amongst heavy needle and acorn dappled underbrush to grace my ears in a manner so profound, I am never more convinced of its reality. Take heed, every word recounted is of utmost truth:
Setting out on another daily excursion into the northern wilderness beyond my residence, the morning was quiet as I exited into the sunlight. The cabin sat in the recess of a knoll, sparsely dotted with shrubs, while facing the much denser woodland.
Before embarking further into the depths of my beloved forest I made careful inspection, as I always did, of the previous night’s snares. An unfortunate hog had found his gluttonous self unable to resist a tempting loaf of bread, spotted with olive-colored mold. The pig’s life ended with the sweet taste of nourishment on his tongue. But his lips were now bloody and impervious. Hardly a squeal would have broken the threshold of his snout before a tediously and masterfully carved wooden spear of my own handiwork was unleashed and subsequently driven into his skull. The dead hog, lay at a twisted angle of last second anguish. The hilt of the spear was barely visible as it had been driven in so deeply that the point had pierced the bottom of the creature’s eye. Rusted blood cracked and flaked in a petrified dribble along his lips and the length of his filthy snout. Flies had already infiltrated its nostrils. Surrounding the protruding spear, still red and sticky between my fingers, moist ring remained. A young piglet in age, the girth was plump, and appearance rare. Its purpose would be served adequately.
The other traps were vacant. Without wasting my idleness on such a small prize, I braced my boot against the fatty belly and forcibly jerked the spear from the corpse. I carried the hog back to the cabin. I would store him there until I returned. Then I dismantled the trap. I felt this particular snare would bring me more fortuity as the day progressed. I brought it along.
After completing my tasks I took a short inventory. I held aloft most prized belonging, a blade fashioned sharper than a piercing ray of Zeus’ lightning bolts and more deadly than the venom of Lucifer’s adder. With this knife, I had scoured the forest. Next, the trap and harness were fitted into a satchel. Lastly, the rifle, for which I had, over a time, gained much distain, was slung across my back. The copper lacing was tarnished; swirling blue and green oxidation glinted off the breadth. Corrosion had left its scars. The lock and pin had grown coarse rust from my conscious decision to abstain from the guns proper care. The stock was stained and flecked, revealing the lighter, frail wood underneath. Still, I kept it as remembrance of when I first discovered my fervor and insatiable taste for the hunt.
Yes, to recall what simplicity a rifle afforded me. I was able to kill whenever the yearning struck me. I had been infatuated since. Later on, however, it became too easy. With each smoking discharge, my elation ebbed. Restless, I no longer felt any semblance of my initial ecstasy. From a distance, I was not a participant of the kill, only a spectator. Without endangering my own safety, there was no value in the slaughtering. I could, with a firearm, kill swiftly, effortlessly, and there was no purpose to watch the brains implode to splatter behind the beast, as I, safe and comfortable, stood at a distance. I slaughtered in large numbers, for days at a time, without any reserve, attempting feverishly to revive the elations of the first kill. But I could not. I would surely go mad and perish without tasting the salty blood. The power I wielded was unmatched by any creature. They could not counter with bullets, and it seemed unjust that I should have an advantage. When I extinguished each of their lives, I wanted to be on equal ground. This notion occurred to me when, upon sawing off the heads of two young cubs (I had killed their mother with the rifle), I was suddenly overcome with a quivering exuberance! Energy coursed through my veins. My legs trembled; sensations trickled to my fingertips, washed over me in fulfilling waves. Quenched my thirst! I was struck with the same high as the first time. That moment was when I discovered my adoration of the hunt. My first kill with the rifle, and intensity I felt then was the empowering intensity I felt every time with the knife. Their moribund heads adorned my temple of sacrifice, and at last, when I drank their bitter life-nectar from my chalice, I became stronger still.
With this newfound hunger, I gained endless patience. If need be, I could wait for the day’s entirety, in utter stillness, residing in the certainty that I would be the one to make the kill. I could see the unsheathing blade tremble on its way out of my belt. Hear the metal whine as it rang through the tranquil forest air. And witness, beyond any doubt, the blade, slicing effortlessly through flesh, bone, and sinews; hearing the grainy, popping squirms and primal groans for mercy. Retrieving, and finding a soft underbelly, the knife fell again, and again. With anointing blood, their life became my life.
Before I elected a life of solitude, there were those that disagreed with me. They egregiously opined that hunting should only be a means for food, but who of them is the hunter? Ha! I hunt for food, but I also hunt for survival. There is no inhumanity. I must do it, for I could not live without it. My life depends upon it, the logic is clear. I needed this to keep breathing, and this is why I needed her.
I had been waiting for hours, though I do not recall the time. I did not observe, nor account for it. Time only perpetuates anxiety; a vice when one is hunting. Patience is devoid of time and this is my virtue. My only allowance of time: the small glittering rays descending through the thinned tree canopy. The area was unfamiliar to me, as I refrained from hunting in the same spot. Nature can sense disruption. A trait we humans are not so lucky to possess. Instead, we thrive off the chaos, knowing it will consume us, until finally and at last, to own our undoing, we are overcome. Animals sense death; languid and pernicious, hanging thickly in the air. They can smell it, and avoid its location. Astute enough to know these principles, I could, with prudence, find worthy vessels for sacrifice.
I had uncovered an exceptional location. A natural shrine; fallen trunks splayed on top of one another circularly like collapsed dominos. The sunlight allowed for larch and oak trees to flourish, and myriad vegetation to sprout. The grass was thick, and grew freely, unscrupulously, as sun drenched the undergrowth. An aging evergreen stood resiliently erect, infested with ivy and vines from surrounding aspens. The downward sloping branches from the evergreen swept along the needle-carpeted forest floor. The boughs would shroud my body and allow me to perch just above an unsuspecting beast. From this spot I could pounce, hidden from view by the ravenous vines and young saplings. I covered myself in the chalky residue of aspen bark to hide my scent. At the base of the tree, I assembled the trap. The painstakingly sharpened jaws were covered with a layer of enticing leaves. Upon release, the shafts would render one of the beast’s legs useless, and consequently, unable to escape.
After I completed the construction, I baited the trap and harnessed myself in a crux of the evergreen.
To keep my mind active, I memorized each location afresh. This way I would not frequent the same wilderness until, at least, the seasons changed. After a time, when a new generation of animals would be born and bred, I could revert to the most prolific areas and indulge in their naivety. With each year and passing season was change, and it had been my commission to notate the alterations present within the forest—my forest—so that I could utilize it to the best of all my purposes. Here, though, was a location I had been to just once during the last winter’s scourge. Blizzard weather had penetrated even the thickness of the trees overhead and unleashed a deluge of powder and ice on the floor below. The temperature was colder than any I had ever beheld. Even the sap had begun to freeze. Beasts were forced into hiding and hibernation from the icy talons of the cold. An injured elk that had escaped one of my traps, bled until it finally collapsed and froze in a snow drift. Happening upon the site, I was enraged. Nature should give, not take life, for the taking is mine.
But now, the scenery had changed dramatically. The grass grew lively, lacing up through the browning, pronged oak leaves and prickling through brittle, orange needles. Moss grew frantically on the decaying cottonwood and pine trees. Intermittent mushrooms sprang up in clumps where the all but ubiquitous moss had not yet overrun. Beetles burrowed and made their homes within the mildewing wood. Small wildflowers, though I only knew most in appearance, poked up in small patches to frame the setting in a peaceful quietude. A lone bee whirred onto the center of a blonde flower. There, it examined, I suspected, a columbine flower. Bobbing back into the gleam of light, the bee exited the forest. To most, the forest is silent, but to the carefully trained, it is a cacophony of sound, alive with potential. And this is why so patiently, I waited for the forest to procure a beast for me. I could hear the forest screaming, but I chose to ignore it. Instead, I listened for only one sound; the timid, prodding footsteps nearing my location. So ignorant of their fate.
A twig snapped from beyond my vision. Instantly my eyes narrowed on the location. After an eternity, a slender-leafed bush swayed abnormally, not in any manner produced by the breeze. It ceased, and then shook again. The summit of antlers poked around the brushes breadth. Another pause, and the moose’s immense head rose into view, surveying my small clearing. His twitching ears were erect, as he ambled into full view. An enormous and beautiful creature, his cream colored mane looked soft and lush like satin blanket. But it was merely a target, soon to be painted crimson. The moose trotted closer, lowering his head to sniff and nibble at idle weeds. Carefully he plucked, choosing his meal with delicacy as he ebbed closer to my ambush. He eyed a trove of flowers I was sure he could not resist. My bread would be of little use, but even so, if he came close enough, the taut trigger could be loosed. I silently congratulated myself on selecting such an excellent location. If I had not ventured near these prosperous weeds and ripe flowers my efforts would be squandered while the moose wandered in search of a more desirable meal. As the moose stepped over a moss and fungi covered trunk into the grove, I was able to take in his breathtaking size. The sun shimmered on his coat as though the creature was embodied with celestial iridescence. Huge muscles undulated under the surface of his vast body. His dark eyes searched thoughtfully. His jutting jaw chewed the small plants while he edged closer.
My breath stifled. My knife had been slid out meticulously slow the entire time the beast approached. The moose perked up suddenly, gazing fixedly into the darkened forest beyond him. My thoughts screamed so loudly, I feared the moose might hear them. He eyed the woodland warily before him, with an almost whimsical and carefree expression, he trotted directly beneath me! Contentedly, he consumed a mouthful of flowers, and while chewing, sniffed at the bread with a curious demeanor.
At the exact moment at which the animal’s hoof was raised to trigger the claw, I heard an alien cry. Out of the forest, though distant, the melody rang from every angle. The beast’s head snapped upward and froze. Startled by the echoing crescendo, the moose dashed off in a headlong gallop; hurdling the timbers back to the direction in which it had arrived. I barely noticed this event, as I too, was awestruck by the noise. It was as though the whole forest had begun to chorus a dirge to a great fallen Sequoia. My senses were overwhelmed by the sheer noise and illumination of the sound. The cry was distant and yet it was as if the whole earth wept. Never had I heard such a noise in the forest. My mind could not comprehend this foreign sound. I abandoned my position; today’s hunt held no consequence. My mind became consumed with a searing desire to know what this sound was. I knew all the sounds of my forest, but I did not know this. It was imperative that I know this song, and more importantly, its origin. Still, as I listened, the noise cried out, in unpatterned intervals. It could not be an animal. I listened for its direction. But human? No, no one ever entered my woods. They were prohibited.
The sound appeared to originate from the south. There had been no disturbance when I had passed through there in the morning. Even so, I drove tentatively onward, navigating through trees, elusive and aware of any unearthly creature that may attempt to prey on me! The sound never grew louder, but I knew that I neared the source as it became more and more distinct. Excitement grew within me, like weighty lead in my chest until at last I thought I would never reach the source. The song seemed a serenade of pain, a sobbing almost. But beautiful and serene. The further I listened the further I became maddened to know. Blood pounded in my temples and raced to my eyes, until finally I could stand it no further. Trepidation absconded, I barged and sliced though weighty boughs, before coming to a thin line of trees, their low branches washed away by flood waters and fire. I could make out my cabin in the distance. And at once I was home. And at once I saw her!
A woman no less beautiful, dare I say more, than even Helen of Troy. Shrouded in an aura of alabaster brilliance that, for a moment, I hardly realized why she had cried so. One of my traps, empty only a few hours earlier, had now ensnared her, slicing a gaping wound into the thigh of her wondrous skin. In attempting to escape, she had further raveled her beautifully toned figure in the ropes that now shackled her. The bottom of her dress was saturated with blood. She had the complexion of no human I had ever encountered. And as I gazed upon her sublime features, a feeling of congratulatory praise washed over me. I had captured a wingless angel. How illogical that a goddess of her magnitude would be so easily enmeshed by a contraption of my humble conception. In both a conflicted sense of pride and urgent necessity, I assisted, with delicacy, detangling the muse from her captivity. Once unraveled, I carried her inside.
I forgot my words while attending to her wounds. I could not recall my last encounter with another human, let alone a majestic nymph of nature such as this. But she demanded no more the obligation to speak, only watching, saying nothing, as I worked in silence. With makeshift bandages, I managed to clean her gash, and stop its profuse bleeding. When I applied alcohol, she winced; sucking at her teeth, which sounded as though waves were crashing and receding on a distant shore. And when she was finally bandaged, a coo escaped her lips that could only be described as the sound of an autumn zephyr riffling the leaves on a willow tree.
At first I believed the fright had caused her to lose her tongue, but finally I could bear the silence no longer. In gauche and stumbling phrases, I asked her name and from where she came. She would not speak and eventually I had no option but to figure her a mute. Ah, but now she listened with what few words I spoke. She smiled and her eyes gleamed; their sparkle gazed upon my rough, grizzled features. I shuddered to think she approved, but perhaps she only humored my disfigurement.
After the dusk settled, I offered her a meal. She refused by shaking her head, and with subtle ease, her hand motioned towards the pallid windows with a docile smile. The ruffles in her long dress shifted with her arm, and the cascading friction sounded like far off rain, whispering to the earth.
Her dress, which had appeared a deep emerald, had now, away from the sunlight, acquired a lighter green, almost teal hue, in the candlelight. Her fair hair, lolled over her shoulders, shimmering like a halo in the paled, quiet light. A goddess.
I found myself unable to look away. Try as I might, I could not. Her beauty was so magnificent, and unlike anything I had ever encountered. Her feet, I noticed, were bare, but unscathed. Perhaps she had lost her shoes when my snare had impaled her. She yawned, and still I wondered further. I looked her over again, unable to resist gazing for long periods at her incomparable beauty. From a nearby chair I kept vigil. She had turned on her side, fallen asleep, her eyes closed. So natural. Watching her, my veins seethed with the desire to know her, to want her. As exhaustion crept to my eyelids, still, I could not bring myself to leave her. My back warmed by the fireplace and wet wood whistling in the hearth, I soon slipped into a peaceful slumber.
When I awoke, she was gone. I jumped from the chair at once, hearing a low incontrollable sobbing from behind me. The trophy room door was ajar. I stepped quietly to the door, easing my head inside. There she stood, her back turned, starring immovably at my wall of heads. A penumbra of earthen shades and stiffened hair gilded the room. Hearing the bloated floorboards creak, she whirled to face me. Her sodden lips gaped with horror at my presence, as tears stained her cheeks. She pointed an accusing finger to the wall. A gurgling anguish bubbled out from her throat. Her cry burst like an eruption of despondent sorrow. Then, with a sudden realization, fear apprehended her like asphyxiation.
She tensed and crouched with the arresting panic of a cornered hare. So beautiful and mysterious, unlike anything I had ever encountered. I could not let her go. It would be the most glorious, most extraordinary kill I would ever make. At that moment, my logic no longer became a question—it was what I had to do. I must have her. My knife was in the other room; I needed it. It was crucial, vital to the kill. I would subdue her first. I lunged, but her agility was unexpected. She sidestepped my waiting grasp and darted towards the door. Barging out after her, she was still fumbling in fright with the lock. I started towards her, enjoying her terror; her contorted snarls. I laughed, already tasting her. I could feel her frightened heart flutter. But as I found the blade, she too, found purchase. Wrenching the door open she tumbled into the early morning daylight.
I trailed after her, grabbing the knife and slinging the rifle over my back with one motion. She dove headlong for the forest. Sprinting in pursuit—I knew these woods better than any man or woman. No alien succubus would elude me! As I pursued her, I was astounded by the speed at which she traversed. It was as if she had acquired no laming injury the day prior. Athletic and nimble she ran and I followed. How easily she navigated through the brush, hardly leaving a trace. I could not overtake her but kept her within my view. My tracking skills became obsolete as I was forced to follow her much longer than I had anticipated. She darted through the impenetrable forest. If was as though sewn foliage and interlocking leaves parted for her. Ferns wound my ankles; tufts of branches thrashed my face. I scrambled atop slippery bluffs, through murky bogs, and rocky outcroppings. No impunity would prevail; I would catch that Atalanta yet!
Coming into a clearing the poplar tree line broke away and I watched her leap over the tall grass in a sodden, sun blanched meadow. I was winded and my lungs burned. I would not be able to overtake her. Knowing above anything that I could not lose her, I unshouldered my rifle, and took aim. I found her profile thrashing through the high grass. The butt of the gun recoiled with a bitter sting into my chest. My aim, although seldom used, remained fatally accurate. She fell, gracefully, as if dancing, first on her knees, and then collapsing facedown. Barely visible, the gleaming fabric of her dress remained caught above the high, fallow grass.
I approached the body quickly, ensuring that she could not crawl away. I saw that my shot had been true. Her back was soaked with mud and the crimson shade of death. The patina of her dress had dissipated. Even in the sunlight it no longer shimmered, but only a dull, withering brown vestige remained. I slung her body over my shoulders and carried her across the field and back into the wilderness.
I soon tired of her weight and heaved her to the ground, opting to drag her instead. On the return trip, her lifeless body could not fend itself of the prickling foliage and gnarled brush. When we arrived at the cabin, her beauty had been tarnished. Her emerald dress was filthy and tattered. Her long, silken hair had frayed and knotted as a broom that had been dragged upon the forest floor. Smeared blood ran pathetically from her nose. Her lips were encrusted with black dirt. She was pale, cold and dead.
With disgust, and no satisfaction, I dismembered her. Cutting methodically, with no remorse, reprieve, nor pleasure. She would have been my supreme kill. She would have been everything I had hoped for, everything I had searched for. But now I had nothing. She had left me. Her carcass was no longer fresh with radiant life. Her smooth, flawless limbs extended beneath the folds of her dress. The Siren left me with nothing, and in return, I left her cursed mouth without a body. Only a head, fitted with hacked hair and a battered, unmoving expression. She left me no option.
The fire kindled—ignited, as life spilled onto the wood; heat coursing from the huge logs. Shadows reflected on the walls as I watched the fire engulf the wood. Then, unceremoniously, and by her repulsive hair, I flung the head into the waiting flames.
A burst of sparks crackled, exploding into the room. Coals and flakes of embers tumbled from the hearth. The head lodged between the crux of two perpendicular logs. The face ignited as burning flesh glared sinisterly. A loud hissing ensued as the inferno ate voraciously at the skull; her hair caught and curled; the shriveling eyes curdled, boring black holes.
The hissing ceased and the blaze calmed. All that remained were her hollow eye sockets staring into my own pupils and with this, the cursed creature possessed my soul! Suddenly, I tell you with all honesty, the Siren’s mouth yawned open as a deluge of her torturous scream pervaded the room! Oh, that horrifying, demonic scream! The resurging blaze then detonated, a raucous scream ascended up the chimney. Collapsing to my knees, the walls trembled with her shrieks. I clutched my temples as though the very blood vessels would blister through my skin. I returned the guttural bawl, but my own curses were buried by the hellish visions unleashed from the blackened, charred skull!
A tower of fiery tendrils, like the flaming claws of Cerberus grasped for me as a draft lurched down the chimney, exploding into the room. The windows shattered, the door shredded off its hinges, the trophies were cleaved from the wall. And then, nothing.
Both the flame and head were gone. Ash filled the cabin. My lungs throbbed and my eyes burned. Warm blood oozed from my ears as the ringing of her scream still ravished my mind. Then came silence. My hands tripled as I held them at eye level; the irrepressible pull of gravity overtook me.
Awaking, it was only possible I had dreamed such an occurrence, but lying in the remnants of my own blood I immediately found myself sickened at the sight I beheld. Gray ash blanketed all of my vision and the skull had vanished from the cold embers. She was still alive! The sorceress had deceived me, conjuring an apparition to convince me I had eradicated her. She had defiled my home, had deprived me of my final transcendence. Her spell still lingered and I would take my vengeance.
She had escaped and now I would slaughter the beasts she found so precious. This was the only means to quell my anger, heal my wound, quench my thirst. I would slay them all to vindicate myself of the pestiferous stench of that devil incarnate! Slicing, gnawing, ripping, I would savor each second, watching the beasts writhe and squirm until finally each of their lives was absorbed into me. Shearing off their limbs, stretching their wretched bodies across the earth; I would make the forest a gallows! This was the only way.
I sought a new location, set my traps and waited. For hours I waited, without avail. With the afternoon dragging, how impatient I became! But I would not relent; this is what the seer wanted! She wanted me to stop, resign, and in my capitulation, concede triumph to her. I would be not broken!
When dusk finally began shedding shade through the canopied crevices, I saw an enormous doe, larger than my memory could comprehend. Only yards from my reach, she tentatively picked her way though the undergrowth. Salivating at the imminent taste, low and garbled it began, before I heard the sound rage inside me. The scream! The dreadful, abominable scream! Ripping through my being like a maelstrom! Holding my head in agony, I convulsed as the scream tormented me. It was inside my head, but the animals heard it! Above me, birds from afar trees, squawked and took flight. How could they hear? How could they know? It could not be. My mind, plagued by her spirit had caused me to hallucinate from the spells of her wicked tongue.
Glancing ahead, I froze in disbelief. More vivid than the day itself, a Spirit bear emerged from across the grove. Never had I witnessed one, such prehistoric monstrosities, they were thought to be myth! But no unbelief could thwart the Siren’s scream! Hearing the warning, the terrified bear lumbered into the woods. I could not lose this time, I had to kill! More bloodthirsty than ever, I pursued the bear in maniacal fashion. Breaking through an encumbrance of high branched trees, I tore into the clearing.
The bear stood motionless as if awaiting me. My head still burning with her ghoulish melody, I saw what lay before me and at once became untethered. The forest teemed with life. Throughout the entire wilderness, there, I was surrounded. Beyond capture, thousands of unblinking eyes watched me: tassel-eared squirrels draped from interlacing branches. Countless birds of every variety festooned themselves in audience of my presence; tanager, thrush, crows and gyrfalcon. Sparrows, loons and ravens perched unmoving beside scores of bald eagles and gray owls! Snakes slipped among the upright bodies of shrews and moles. Muntjac, moose, and mountain sheep were all there; elk, deer, and wild boar, rodents of every size. Rabbits stood with wolves! A Siberian Tiger strode furtively through the ferns! How could it be? They stood staring in erect silence, mocking me!
Rising to its haunches, displaying its massive size, the Spirit bear made no noise. Falling to all four, the beasts’ head quavered and her eyes sought to embrace the whole forest. Her jaw unfastened and the despicable melody was released from the throat of the bear! As loons wailed savagely, the wood frogs began to croak an endless chorus of hate! I will slay all of you, I screamed! The sound of my voice hummed with murderous electricity as I charged. But before I could even come close they dispersed, scattering throughout the woods; the scream ever present. I stabbed and swiped, but only soil and sweat peppered the air. At the trees I slashed, but the soil churned as if they leaned away, their exposed roots tripped me as I ran. The malady of thirst maddened me, and they knew! Enraged with the craving, I could not live without the blood.
There was only one choice left.
It was she that caused this. The Siren, that witch! Her scream, heightened and rattled evermore; ever louder than before. Spittle arced from my infuriated tongue. She will not burden me any longer. All the earth shook as the witch’s’ undead spirit tore an unforgiving and ceaseless howl through the silence. The leaves trembled, as animals roared and the entire forest reverberated with her wrath. I will prevail against your curses and taunts! This is my forest, these are my animals. Mine! You witch, I have won, not you, and now I will finish this!
I will kill in spite of her. The last kill, my own, with only the calloused dirt to inherit my cursed soul as I embalm it with the offering of warm blood--