Bad things can happen on an open road. Terrible things can happen off of them. Read Nicholas Bowen’s short story “The Clearing.”
Nearly born in the Great Northwest of the United States – saved this fate by a house burned down from a careless cigarette – Nicholas Bowen was instead born in California, to a pair of luckless ex-hippies turned overworked and disenchanted land-laborers. Bowen came to later appreciate to the drear and gorgeous Northwest owing to a shiftless, drifting nature. He has lived in the Northwest ever since, as it suits his personality. He fancies himself a writer, because he likes to read and thinks he’s gained something by osmosis. Whether or not he deserves the title remains to be seen. He won second-place in a writing competition (and $75 bucks), which only helps to support these delusions. For more on Nicholas Bowen visit: nickbowen.hubpages.com
By: Nicholas Bowen
There were the skeletal forms of fallen trees, dry white and inextricably tangled, arranged seemingly by design throughout the clearing. Small veins of new growth sprung. The ground beneath was obscenely wet, with a peculiarly raw and wrinkled texture, which was wan and slightly ocher. In full blossom, the trees grew strangely, their small flowers oddly colorless; they bore no scent. As the trees fell with the changing of seasons, the bark of their hides peeled and fell away to reveal the soft and shiny dark yellow meat of their secret interiors, which had all the appearance of something newly-born and putrefying.
The site lay a distance from the highway, beyond even the most rudimentary man-made footpath, among the nondescript foothills and still evening quietude. The birds would not sing there. He had to trust his memory to find it. The hunched forms of wild goats shuffled and bleated through the tall, untended grass, grazing at a distance up the hillside. At his approach they lifted their heads sedately to watch him pass, dark eyes staring in empty, somber appraisal. Having noted his presence – and in realization that he was no threat to them – they returned once more to their brooding forage.
He stopped a moment there, hefting a cumbrous, canvas-wrapped form from off his shoulders; he wiped the accumulated sweat from his forehead and took a long, steady drink from his canteen. Affixed to his belt was a length of bailing twine, a compass and a large, leather-sheathed hunting knife. It was hot, and he had come no small distance afoot carrying this thing. The object was heavy; loosely bundled and oddly-proportioned. He had parked his pickup a mile off the freeway – a good five miles from where he now stood drinking – at the entrance of an ancient horse trail. The sun acted as mile-marker, following him into darkness. No horses were to be seen. There had never been, not for as long as he could remember using it.
The woman, the girl – his burden, the shape stirring in all its rough-hewn garments –returned slowly to life, moaned quite softly. He gave her a playful nudge with the toe of his boot as he screwed the cap back onto the canteen. He returned the canteen to his belt and, with a short grunt of effort, hefted her back up onto his shoulders and continued on toward the clearing. A light breeze stirred the wilted, fractal and veinous shapes of the sere dead branches that marked its perimeter. It was his shrine.
It was there that he’d lovingly gathered all the small stacks and piles of branches, dried flowers and animal bones found throughout the dimly shaded interior, the interior of some strange forgotten ossuary. These piles had been placed equidistantly to one another – numbering fifteen in all – in a semicircle within the clearing. He stepped gingerly over the husk of a petrified animal’s skin (inverted like a discarded sweater) which lay on the temple floor. It was not one of his kills, though it did complement the air of the place. It served as small affirmation to him; a signal of nature’s somnolent, unspoken approval.
He slung her body beneath the low, gnarled branches of one of the older living trees that remained. It seemed to serve there as naturally-occurring fulcrum to the half-wheel shape of the fifteen graves; a sacrificial altar. He set about cleaning a place for her, sweeping away the sticks and dry leaves that had accumulated since his last visit. When completed to his satisfaction, he laid her there in the branches, tenderly, with all the measured gentility of a bridegroom. He undid a knotted end and gently peeled the tarp away from the curl of her shoulders, her shape trembling slightly despite the heat of the day. She had the appearance of something shedding a winter carapace. No other sound or movement disturbed the clearing, the wind stilled in sudden reverence.
He lit a cigarette as she lay shivering, alabaster-white and vulnerable as a foal. He offered her one; she didn’t take it. He shrugged.
“I understand…it’s a bad habit.”
He smoked for a while, gazing soundlessly to the horizon, to the slowly setting sun. It was almost the time, but there was no hurry. He sat down cross-legged before her on the ground, groaning a little with the effort. Not getting any younger.
“You know,” he said “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings…to criticize…but you are really far too trusting.”
She said nothing, but scrutinized him carefully through the crook of her arm. She had adopted a defensive position, shielding her face and torso with the rest of her body – her eyes were big, her breathing fast. She hadn’t begged him, hadn’t admonished him, not yet. He had to admit, though only to himself, that she was showing great composure considering the position she was in. She even made a half-hearted effort to cover her nakedness, though by now there was no part of her that was secret to him.
“I don’t mean it as a character judgment or anything. I’m just saying.”
He shrugged, flicking the butt of his cigarette off into the stunted, patchy emerald-green sage grass that abutted the clearing. He checked his watch against the dying light. All the while maintaining a staid, serene manner of contemplation, of someone looking inward. He didn’t seem bothered by what he saw there. She’d known him for years, though only in passing, as one of a hundred tangential acquaintances. He hadn’t stood out to her as peculiar or even remarkable. She would have described him as kind, quiet and thoughtful. This secret aspect of his nature must have seemed entirely alien to her, a thing incomprehensible. Never judge a book by its cover. A terrible thing; the ironic knowing that imparts no lesson, or one learned too late to do her any good.
He’d tried to explain, earlier, before putting her to drug-induced sleep – about how he was doing it because he loved her (because he loved them all). That, in a way, he was doing them all a great favor. Sparing them the pain of living. She had not seemed to express understanding then, and seemed now in fact well beyond any understanding. She appeared lost somewhere deep in thought herself.
He left the knife sheathed at his waist. He knew in his heart that there was never any use in explaining, yet always he felt compelled to try and make them understand first, hoping – always vainly, always – that it would get through to at least one of them. That they would just know, would finally hear him without judgment, without fear. That words would suffice. But it never got any easier. He supposed that the sight of the knife only brought them to hysteria, clouded their reasoning. If only he could state his case in plain language, speak openly and honestly with them. But then they’d be dead, and there’d be no explaining anything – just him, alone again and wanting; a hungry void consuming, forever unfilled.
She continued to study him, eyes queerly impassive. There was something in her eyes – something so clear, so animalistically fixated, yet hidden – that caused him unaccountable fear. She scared him for the very fact that she betrayed nothing of her thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” he offered meekly, boyishly, glancing away from her strange eyes. “Hell, that don’t make it right…just talking, I guess…”
He folded his hands, in a gesture of prayer or meditation. He was always thinking, yet each time reaching the same conclusion. There was no other way.
“Can I…can I talk to you straight for a while?” He asked her, almost in a whisper.
He felt eyes on him, but she did not answer.
“I…” he began, but faltered. He cleared his throat, picked up a pebble from the ground beside him, and weighed it in his palm. What was a life, anyway? What did any of it amount to, really, in the final summation? How were we any different from the lowliest creatures that crawled upon the earth? We are not precious.
“I never could understand women. I…I just love too…”
He couldn’t find the word. Where to start? With his mother? Or was that even where it started? Maybe his first girlfriend…or his first wife, dead fifteen years now. Maybe with that first one, the one he’d buried here so long ago, on that first day of spring. What was it he expected to flower there? Jesus, if he could only find the words…those perfect words, those true words that would rid him of the hurting and the wanting. He remembered with an inward wince of pain all the times that he’d pleaded, begged them not to leave. But still they went, always. As sure as dying.
“I don’t know where it all started.” he admitted aloud. “I’ve just never been able to let go.”
What had drawn him here that first time, he couldn’t now remember. He could neither remember their faces…just the way it had made him feel. That inexplicable oneness, that intangible feeling of revelation, of communing with something greater and more unknowable than himself, a thing almost holy. But then the loss, the aching aloneness returned and redoubled…
Sometimes he spoke to them, after. He would sit there in the clearing for hours, offering words and apologies to unhearing ears. He offered words, useless words – told them how much it hurt him to do it, realizing distantly – with a gut-sick, sinking feeling – that there never would be words for his hurting. Pain had its own language, and pain only recognized pain. This was such a lonely goddamned world, and he was doing them all a favor ridding them of that pain.
He started to cry then. He couldn’t have said why. He cried for the world, for himself. For them. He couldn’t help it, though he hated to betray such naked fear and weakness in front of her. No man cries; he’d learned early on that it only served to scare them away that much quicker. But still he sobbed, bent double, shuddering with the effort. He gave a start of surprise when he felt her hand on his shoulder.
“Do you know how fucking crazy you are?” She asked him, smiling slightly, pityingly. He could not meet her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I don’t owe you anything…killing me won’t change that.”
He began sobbing openly, moaning under his breath, trembling and choking back the wetness of snot and tears. He hadn’t cried this hard since his mother had gone; not since his first and only beloved had left him. It was like a half-healed wound was worrying open, her burrowing down deep inside him. The world was lost to tears. He lay weeping on the floor of the clearing as she caressed him, lovingly, as a mother would have done.
“There’s a reason a soul leaves when you kill the body, god damn you,” she whispered into his ear, like a lover. “Don’t you know that by now?”
He met her eyes at last, and it felt like a knife sinking into his heart. Her eyes were distant and cold, but her face had softened, given to something like understanding. There was no judgment in her expression, only a sad acceptance. She reminded him of his mother, though he couldn’t have said why. She reminded him of them all. He unsheathed the knife, held it with shaking hands between his legs. She shook her head and ran a tender hand through his sweat-soaked hair.
“You poor, dumb son of a bitch,” she said, leaning forward to kiss him gently on the forehead. The gesture was unbearably forgiving.
He told her to leave – that he wouldn’t follow, had no intention of hurting her. He wanted to be alone, and that was all. Without another word, she ran, naked and pale and wonderful through the tall grass at the edge of the clearing. She was the single most beautiful thing he’d seen in all his long and lonely life.
“The one that got away,” he said to himself, laughing joylessly. He examined the pebbles in his hand, threw them off into the clearing, where they clattered down through the dried branches that marked the graves.
He steadied himself, took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. The sun set, leaving him in darkness. He took up the knife and slid it in, just beneath his ribcage.
It didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would.