BETWEEN TWO RIDGES carved by a silver creek, in a forest of black fir trees, there was a place where the hills came to a shallow bowl and the earth went soft. The mountain heather and sword fern thinned at the edge of an open meadow, and a field of smooth cordgrass began, which led to the banks of a stagnant marsh.
In the summer, dragonflies flickered over the marsh's mirrored plane and frogs croaked from its damp shadows, while many-headed pussy willow bobbed in the wind. In the autumn, arrows of geese landed there, and during the spring mosquitoes rose to the surface at dusk, where hordes of bats would descend to pluck them from the air. When it was hot, the water lay still and reflected the clouds; when it rained, its skin came alive with dilating rings of energy.
At the bottom of the marsh's black water, hidden from view, lay two bodies, one with a crack in its skull and the other with a shattered chest.
Over time, the seasons cut through the marsh like a knife, changing the shape of its banks and the texture of its silt. The plants on the shoreline grew and died and decomposed, which nourished the algae, whose cells divided and fed the mayflies and waterskippers. Sacs of eggs burst into tadpoles which became frogs and laid sacs of eggs.
And all the while, beneath the surface, the two bodies settled deeper into their soft beds. Their ribs gradually emerged from their dissolving skin, and their eyes became empty sockets. Their muscle and fat disappeared, and their skulls emerged, fastened to long chains of vertebrae.
Soon enough, only white bone remained, fixed in the velvet mud. Two skeletons at the bottom of a pond, side by side, their long fingers wrapped in a delicate grip.
FOOTSTEPS ON THE forest floor made a noise like paper crumpling in a child's fist. One after another the sounds disturbed the still air, settling in dry explosions of snapping, and fracturing, and the fine shattering of small branches and twigs.
High above, the boughs of the fir trees shifted in the wind, revealing white fragments of twilight sky, and the trunks made melancholy aisles into the gloom. The only thing moving afar the ground was a single gray moth, batting its way over the mossy earth, bobbing and looping, until finally disappearing into black shadows.
Cookie Figowitz, the youngest partner in the Wild Panthers furtrapping party, five weeks out from Colter's Hell, Sioux Country, knelt in a bed of ghost fern in the massive rain forests of the Oregon Territory staring into the surrounding trees. His hands were quaking, and a cold, trickling dampness was creeping into the knees of his pants.
Steadily the footsteps seemed to be coming closer, never moving more than three or four strides before pausing to wait. At which point the air would go still. And the life of the forest would stop. And then the footsteps would begin again. Somewhere else. Grinding the dead leaves and dry seed husks under their ominous weight.
More often than not, Cookie realized, mysterious sounds in the woods were nothing to worry about, just falling pinecones or a mischievous crow. But for some reason these particular sounds had gotten him more spooked than usual. The way they stopped and started, and seemed to exhibit some kind of intelligence, made him wonder if perhaps they belonged to something more purposeful than a swaying pine tree or a bird. He shaped each sound to the gait and heft of some terrible danger-cougars, ocelots, brown bears, and black pumas- testing his fears against each other like a set of bright marbles, until finally, after careful consideration, he settled on the image of a painted Indian, creeping toward him with a sharpened stone spear in hand, and the entire forest seemed to thrum with new dread.
From The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, Chapter 1, pages 1-17. Copyright 2004 by Jonathan Raymond. All rights reserved. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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