Men of the Woods by Kathryn Scanlan

Paolo Uccello, 'The Hunt in the Forest', c. 1470.

Paolo Uccello, 'The Hunt in the Forest', c. 1470.

The Father

He was a sharpshooter in the war, but now he did odd jobs like cut up dead or dying trees or shovel run-over animals from the road and drive them to where they were burned. He raised his son and they raised rabbits for meat. They did not eat the meat. He’d quit forcing the boy’s mouth open. The boy wouldn’t budge. To make the boy happy, he covered the rabbit cages with heavy cloth when he drove them to market so the rabbits might think it was night, and sleep. But the rabbits hopped from side to side and trembled like always, which made it hard to tell what they thought.

 

The Son

He nursed the rabbit kits with tepid droppers of fake milk and kept one or two warming in his shirt pockets while he watched television in his bedroom with the door locked. When he played with them he tried to be gentle, but it was hard. His body was big and loose and he couldn’t get it to do anything lightly. One little rabbit he dropped on its head from his great height. One he squished beneath his heavy booted foot.

When the rabbits escaped into the woods, he went after them with a sack slung over his back. The rabbits sometimes died of natural causes, such as old age and fright. When that happened, he kindled a fire in the yard and placed the dead rabbits gently into it. Then he kneeled in the grass and watched the flames lick and fuss their fur like their mothers did.

 

The Black-Haired Boy

He dug in his father's desk until he found a butterfly knife, a vial of pills, and a tied-up stack of letters his mother had written. He swallowed the pills with milk and lay in his father's recliner and read the letters and decided his mother was a useless woman. He went outside with the knife and stuck it into tree trunks and fence posts and anthills. He walked along the river and through the woods to the other side of town where a girl named Jenny lived. He squatted in the bushes behind her house and looked.

Their lights were on and they were sitting down to supper, Jenny and her sister and brother and parents. Jenny’s fat dog came sniffing up to the boy in the bushes, wagging its tail. The boy stood and undid his pants. He aimed his stream at the dog’s head. The dog flinched, then barked — and the boy ran, stumbling — fumbling his parts and snaps — putting himself away as he went.

He lost his way back. He stood in the woods while the dark came down. He dropped his knife and never found it.

 

The Thin Boy

His grandmother was very old and his mother was sick from the things that had happened to her, so they sat tethered in a blue spell on the sofa. The thin boy lay on the floor between them while the television jumped and shouted.

His grandmother's legs were turned to stone and his mother's were quickly hardening. When the boy felt the stiff cold creeping, he sprang up and ran out the door.

He ran up the hills and down the dells of the farmer's pasture — the heads of the farmer's cows all rising to consider him. He ran along the road that went into town one way and away from it the other. He ran in the woods along the river. When he waited for the other boys to come home or come outside, he ran round and round their houses and ringed the grass limp.

 

The Boys

They sat on floors together moving their men. They beat the hard little bodies against each other until one of them broke.

Then the thin boy found a box of his mother’s women. The men came molded in their clothes — their skin rigid, their hair all of a piece — but the women were strippable and their skin was prickable and their hair was grippable. The women were large — giants. Next to them, the men looked dwarfish and strange with tiny, pinched faces and impotent little hands.

The boys cut and burned the women’s hair and yanked off arms and legs. They gave a blond one to a dog. They buried the ugly ones behind the rabbit hutch and kept the pretty ones for torture and rescue plots.

 

The Woods

Its low-hanging branches stalled them. Its brambles clung to their shirts. It lay rotted logs in their way. It tore strands from their pants and socks. It drew their blood. It drank their piss. It ate their shit. It hid the light of day. It hid the stars at night. It hid the path to town. It looked very similar from one place to the next.

 

The Father

From the window over his kitchen sink, he watched the thin boy run and doubted he would move that fast again in his life. He had a bad leg and a general stiffening of his blood. His temperament had soured. His lugubrious days slogged on.

His boyhood mornings had been sharp and bright. They’d woken him like a poke. He would pack a sandwich and walk into the woods. He would stay all day. Home was no place to be. He watched the ducks and deer and squirrels and songbirds. He wanted to touch them all — so he brought his rifle. His breath was steady and his aim was true. Afterward, he kneeled and laid a hand on the warm body until it cooled. The bodies taught him the important things of life.

But first, he learned to sit quiet and still and long. He could stop his breath. He could stop his heart. He could be a stone, a piece of wood, a leaf.

Only then would things start to stir. From where they’d hidden themselves, all of the rare, careful animals would rise — slowly, warily, testing the air — even the lonesome men who spent their days crouched among the thorny shrubs and the rough, wild grasses.


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KATHRYN SCANLAN's work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON, Fence, The Collagist, Two Serious Ladies, Pastelegram, The Iowa Review, and Egress. She lives in Los Angeles.