Joseph D’Lacey was born in London and has spent most of his life in the midlands. He is the author of MEAT, Garbage Man and The Kill Crew. “My mother warned me never to tell stories that aren’t true. It’s been great fun ignoring her advice.” By day he runs an acupuncture practice – sticking needles into people and making little dolls scream. Between victims he writes all manner of disturbing fiction.
He lives in Northamptonshire with his wife and daughter.
Part I, Foundling
Dusk comes early to Hobson's Valley.
The sun slips behind the crest of Bear Mountain at about two thirty in the afternoon during the winter and just before five in the summer. For an hour or more after, the valley lives in a purple twilight that casts its silence out with the mountain's lengthening shadow. Something about the haze that lingers over the pine trees makes the landscape look as though you're viewing it through a violet filter. The temperature drops the moment Bear Mountain becomes a silhouette.
It doesn't matter where in the valley you are at this time, you always notice the change; everyone does, locals and strangers alike, no matter how long they've lived here. You pause at that moment each day to mourn the sun's passing and steel yourself against the premature birth of night.
The creature watched. It sensed.
No light came from the vehicle, except for the spark and flash of a match that gave rise to a single red glow before dying. In the darkness the red ember periodically burned brighter as it moved from one position to another inside the car. Within a couple of minutes, a flick sent the smouldering end through a rolled down window to the moist ground where it sizzled and died.
Instead of light, there was sound. What had begun as whispers and stifled giggles became chatter and laughing – occasionally, high-pitched screeches of delight followed by more laughter. Soon, the rear door opened and a girl spilled forth. A young man staggered after her, slamming the door shut behind him.
"Wooo. I am buzzing. Buzz, wuzz, wuzz." The girl’s voice was lilting, the words over-emphasised.
"That buzz came all the way from Acapulco."
The girl giggled.
"Well, I love a south of the border buzz. But right now I need a north of the border whiz."
The young man stumbled in the scant glimmer of starlight from above.
"Wait for me."
"I'm coming. I need to go too."
"David, you are not gonna pee with me. You might get it on me."
She dissolved into sniggers and had to stop while she recovered. David caught up to her.
"You didn’t mind last time."
"Get real. I can't get back into the Jeb's car stinking of piss."
"Okay, then let me watch you do it."
"You can't see a fucking thing out here."
"Come on, Gina. You owe me."
She walked away from him, whispering back as she went.
"Take my hand."
David reached out and found her trailing hand. It was warm and smooth in the cool of the night. She squeezed his fingers and drew him on. They were twenty yards from the car by then.
“Hey, Gina, isn’t this far enough?”
She led him into the trees where they had to duck below the lowest branches. A willowy pine branch caught on her sleeve but she pressed past it, determined. The branch bent but did not snap and as she left it behind, she released it. It whipped back towards David. He heard the swish and felt the sting at the same time.
He stopped and held his hand to his cheek where the branch had made contact. The skin had parted and raised like a second pair of tiny lips. He felt the warm wetness of his blood, slick and sticky on his fingers. The pain made his eyes water and the saline dripped into the wound making it burn.
"What is it? Are you okay?"
"The branch fucking cut me. It cut my face."
"Here, let me see."
"You said yourself, you can't see a fucking thing out here. I'm going back to the car."
"Wait. Just let me make sure you're all right."
She was next to him now, pressing close. It was enough to make him want to stay a little longer. She put her hands to his face–
– and touched the ridged welt there. Touched the fluids that had so recently been inside David's body. She kissed the damage. When she withdrew, she licked her lips silently. She tasted him. She swallowed her saliva, tinged with David’s blood, ingesting him.
"Don't go back yet," she whispered.
Lifting up the hem of her short skirt she pushed David's hand against her underwear. He felt the dampness there.
Staying pressed close to him she hooked her thumbs into the elastic waistband of the thong she wore and pulled it down, stepping free and placing it in her denim jacket pocket. She hiked her skirt up and as she squatted, she pulled David down with her to the ground. There beneath the trees, the earth was covered with pine needles that were tinder dry. He knelt beside her and she pressed his hand once more to her crotch. In this position her labia were squeezed together and thrust outwards. He felt them swelling against his hand as she began to urinate. He kept his hand to her flow until she had finished.
"That was beautiful, Gina. Amazing."
"Shh. Lie down."
He turned over and lay on his back expecting her to squat over him but she didn't.
"I've got Trojans," he said.
"You won't need 'em."
Looking up, he could not even see the stars through the canopy of trees. The darkness felt intimate, lying against his face like a mask. He could smell pine and dirt and Gina's sweet piss.
His blindness lent power to every sensation. He felt her unbuckle his belt and unbutton his fly. He felt her yank down his jeans and boxers well past his knees. In the dark, free air, his skin was alive to every sigh of wind, every scratch of the pine needles against his behind. He knew he wouldn't be able to hold himself back for long. As soon as Gina touched him he would shudder his pale sperm into the night.
He felt heat then, the moist heat of her breath against his thigh. Then her lips, not warm but hot. The contrast with the chill in the air was exquisite. Her cheek brushed his penis and then the heat was there, right there around him.
"Gina, I’m gonna-"
"Not yet you're not."
And from then on she used only her tongue. With no more pressure than a feather lain against his taut flesh, she caressed his beating totem.
Gina, her skirt still pulled over her hips, swung her ass from side to side in the darkness and ground her hips against the nothingness of night. With her hands on either side of David's hips she bobbed her head up and down, licking and circling and flicking. She wanted it to last forever.
He didn't feel it when her tongue divided into three writhing, snake-thin, shafts. The central one continued to work away at him, twitching and sliding over, under and around, keeping him on the very edge of explosion. The other two shafts of tongue-flesh stretched away towards the joint of his groin where they began to gather and push at his skin. They released a fluid through tiny orifices in each tip, numbing David's skin in the places where they touched it. They pressed into him in muscular spasms, they elongated and sharpened and wormed against him and the skin beneath. It weakened and thinned and stretched at their insistence, finally splitting.
The two warm shafts burrowed into him and all the while he moaned on the precipice of his orgasm. The snakes of wet pink flesh tunnelled into the vulnerable softness where his legs joined his pelvis. They separated the tissues and muscles beneath and David ached there, believing it was his intense arousal causing him such pleasurable pain. He cried out, a yielding cry that was devoured by the night. As he submitted, she pushed further until the two outer tendrils of her threefold tongue found both his femoral pulses and breached them.
Gina moaned as she drew on him. David moaned too. When she had taken enough, she stopped and withdrew the two wormlike spikes of lingual flesh from inside him. They fused once more to become one with her tongue and finally she closed her mouth over David's penis and gave him what he wanted, that which he had begun to beg for, his pleas gaining volume in the otherwise silent forest. She gave him that pleasure and he gave more fluid in return. She wasted nothing.
And while he lay, panting, recovering, her trifurcated tongue tunnelled into the earth and reabsorbed the urine she’d spent there minutes before. The creature watched it all, sensed it all. It was almost aroused.
The shop bell jangled and the door slammed behind a slim, weathered man. The usual offhand greeting followed:
"Hey, city boy."
"Hey, Randall," the man replied without a pause.
He knew he’d never shake the nickname. The inhabitants of Hobson's Valley enjoyed making a person feel like an outsider and he could understand why if he tried hard; there weren't many things to make a person feel valuable or special in such a place. Being able to identify fiercely with the tough, isolated territory was about the closest they came to self respect. It was the backbone of the ‘community spirit’.
The rugged man mooched along through the partially stacked shelves looking for anything he could use.
"Got any brown rice this week?" he asked.
"Sold out? You said you'd call me when the rice came in."
"I didn't get the chance. Jeff Katz came in and bought it all."
He knew what that meant. Randall had shifted the whole batch to the chef at Segar's Cabin so that he didn't have to worry about the product going over its sell by date. If he wanted rice now, he'd have to eat out or drive thirty miles through the pass into Saracen, the town in the next valley.
He picked up some canned fruit and frozen meat, the kind of things he couldn't grow in his own yard and placed them on the counter. Randall avoided eye contact as he tallied up the goods.
The man placed a well-worn hundred on the worn counter top and Randall tutted to himself.
"Ain't you got anything smaller?"
Randall made him wait while he counted out the change out nice and slow. The ‘city boy’ watched the shopkeeper’s hands as he molested the coins and bills. He had spatulate fingers; the kind that splayed out at the ends making them look like a frog's pads. The nails were broad, thick and grey. The ‘city boy’s’ name was James Kerrigan. He had read a book on palmistry years before and he was certain it said that fingers shaped like Randall’s were known as murderer's fingers. It was the only part of the old man that interested him. It worried him too.
“You seen your folks this week?” Randall asked.
“I see them every week.”
“I heard Burt hadn’t been too good,” said Randall with some satisfaction.
It was true that Burt hadn’t been as energetic over the last month but Kerrigan didn’t think it was any of Randall’s business.
“Burt’s just fine.”
Randall appeared to lose count of the change and started over.
“You still writing for them magazines?” he asked.
Kerrigan wanted to keep the conversation to a minimum. He knew what was coming next.
“You should get a real job, Kerrigan. Get out of that cabin more often. Spend more time with your folks. A guy could go crazy up there on his own.”
“It is a real job, Randall.”
“What is it about those woods anyway? If you had more sense, you’d live right here in town like the rest of us.”
The inevitable flush of anger that accompanied any trip to Randall’s flooded his face with heat. He kept quiet, not wanting an open quarrel. Randall looked up, saw the evidence of his unwelcome customer’s emotions and seemed pleased with himself. He leaned towards Kerrigan like a man about to share a dirty joke and, even though they were the only people in the shop, dropped his voice to just above a whisper.
“I don’t know what it is you do up there all day but people don’t like it. They talk about you, Kerrigan. You don’t fit in right. You should think about that.”
“Randall, I really don’t think-”
“No, Kerrigan, you don’t. That’s your problem. I’ve lived in this valley all my life and I know how it is. Things happen in those woods sometimes. Bad things. When they do, you’ll be the one who gets the blame.”
Kerrigan was careful not to touch Randall’s hands as he passed him his change. He didn’t even check it, just stuffed it into his pocket. He wasn’t going to allow the meddling old geezer to see him lose control, but right then he wanted to smash Randall’s face down into the antiquated cash till and keep pounding until there were no more sounds from him. Kerrigan took a couple of deep breaths and paused before speaking. His voice sounded alien in his ears.
"Thanks for the advice."
"It ain’t advice, Kerrigan. It’s a fact."
He didn’t know why Randall had it in for him so bad. He wasn’t the only one, though. Kerrigan had left Hobson's Valley for just a couple of years but it was a bigger insult to most locals than being an ordinary stranger from out of town. Three years after returning, they still expected him to crawl and eat shit.
It was a shock when the Jimenez family trooped single file into his back yard as he was picking beans for his dinner one afternoon in late August. In that moment, the temperature had sharpened a degree or two and a little of the late summer light had retreated from the sky. The vapour in the air took on the faintest shade of lavender. Kerrigan noticed, as always, that the silence seemed to deepen in that first moment of change and any sounds that followed it seemed louder.
Hikers often stopped to ask directions through the woods to favourable camping spots or to find out the best way to the higher trails beyond the tree line. But on that day, even though he heard their footsteps and their rhythmic latin chatter, he still jumped a little when he turned round to see them standing there.
Kerrigan had discovered that he knew people. Understood them. For the briefest moment he knew them from the inside the way he knew himself. He became unreal for that split second, as if he was only a shadow thrown fleetingly by the light of their consciousness. It happened in the instant that he met them. He would feel what it was like to be them as they looked through their own eyes and saw him. It was a swift experience; never even lasted a second, but it was always there. To him it was a little like putting his hand into a glove still warm from someone else's. There was an urge to caress, the urge to make a fist.
It was this knowledge, the understanding of what took place in the minds and bodies of everyone he met or came close to, that had driven him back from New York City to the solitude of the mountains. Back to Hobson's Valley.
Raising up with a plastic bag full of freshly picked beans and dirt all over his hands, he spent a moment in each of them and discovered something about them that they did not yet know. It was a wild feeling, savage and wise at the same time. As soon as he felt it, it was gone and he was left staring at them, not quite sure what to say even though he'd been in similar situations with holidaymakers a hundred times.
Usually they knocked at the front door. This was the first time anyone had actually made their way so boldly into his vegetable patch.
"Hi there. Can I help you with something?"
The man at the head of the family held out his hand and the others spread out beside him.
"I am sorry to scare you like that, sir. My name is José Jimenez. This is my wife Maria and my children Luis and Carla."
His English was accented heavily but easy to understand and he held Kerrigan’s gaze as if he felt no shame over their intrusion. Kerrigan took them to be wealthy Mexicans initially, even though the assumption felt wrong. Each of them exuded a fortitude and vigour that he associated with outdoor types. He had the impression that they were nomads moving from one adventure to the next, spending little or no time in civilisation, preferring instead the honesty of the wilderness. That far, at least, Kerrigan felt a kinship with them.
After wiping the crumbs of soil from his fingers and onto his jeans he grasped Mr. Jimenez's hand and they measured each other's strength in the contact.
"Jimmy Kerrigan," he replied.
They were well matched. The family looked on, approving of the unspoken machismo in their exchange and, it appeared, expectant of some further result. After what felt like too long, the men let go.
"We are looking for a trail in this forest. I have asked others in the town but none of them knew the way. All of them said that you would."
Most of the folk in Hobson's Valley disguised their dislike of outsiders and treated them with grudging respect. They usually told visitors the way if they knew it. Perhaps these Mexicans were a little too far from home to be made welcome. He'd known some of his so-called neighbours to completely ignore ‘coloured’ visitors in the past. It would be just like Randall or one of the other old timers to send these people his way instead of helping them.
As soon as Kerrigan smelled the racial implications of what Mr. Jimenez was telling him, he softened. After a few knock-backs in town they were still determined enough to come and ask yet another stranger for help. He admired that; it was what he would have done. It made them outsiders like him.
"I can help you find just about any trail in Hobson's Valley and I know every path on Bear Mountain. Do you have your own map?"
The parents exchanged a flicker of a glance before Jimenez answered.
"Come on inside and I'll mark the trail on it for you."
Kerrigan led the way to the back door and it felt like a long walk with them all following him. He imagined that they were taking in everything they discovered around them; the rows of beans and corn and onions, the wooden fence that separated the pine trees of the forest from the garden, the rusty porch swing. Even the sound of the crickets that had intensified in the moments since the sun had fallen beyond the peak of the mountain and the water that dripped from the high gutters into the collecting barrel below, still dripping intermittently since the afternoon's rain. The qua-la-la, qua-la-la of turtle doves pecking and sifting through the fallen pine needles, the fragrance of the moist air, the leaning tools visible through the open shed door, the smell of creosote, the creak of the hinges on his back door.
Some instinct swelled inside him. He didn't like having them behind him, out of his line of sight, and he was relieved of some the tension that had built when he faced them once more across the kitchen table and snapped on the overhead lamp. Already such light seemed bright in the lengthening gloom outside.
"Are there really bears on this mountain?"
The girl’s question scattered thoughts of darkness and delighted him.
Carla's speech was different to her father's. It was schoolgirl English, pronounced more accurately, but with other national accents creeping in. It was as though they had travelled many continents to be there and she had picked up nuances in all of them. Listening to her was like hearing a new language. To complicate her tones and manner further, it was evident that she was crossing a threshold; somewhere in the delicate territory between girlhood and womanhood. Her breasts were petite but obviously mature, the curves of her body coltish and athletic. Her look was in one moment adolescent defiance, in another Hispanic feminine mystery. He guessed she was sixteen or so and he found himself assailed by sudden visions of a taboo courtship between them. He didn't attempt to stop the thoughts; he knew better than to try and control the whimsies of the mind – better to let them come and go naturally. Acceptance negated obsession; that was the rule. A moment later the thoughts were gone.
"Some of the older folks say their parents shared this land with bears, but I'm not sure I believe them,” he said in reply to her. “As far as I know, the bears have been gone for a hundred years."
"Maybe some of them could have hibernated all this time, like they were frozen in time,” said Luis. “Maybe someone could wake them up again."
It was a strange notion, some childish concoction of high school biology and science fiction. The boy was clearly imaginative. As Kerrigan laughed, he noticed that Luis's parents weren't fazed in the slightest by their son's flight of fancy. To them it seemed a reasonable question. Kerrigan got a hold of himself.
"I don't think so, Luis,” he said “I think all the bears died out a long time ago. The only thing you might find is their bones, but I doubt it. I've lived here almost all my life and I've never seen a single trace of a bear, living or dead."
"They should change the name of the place then," said Carla.
Kerrigan chuckled again.
"They should at that," he said.
Silence filled the kitchen. It was his house; he let the space between words stretch out.
Mr. Jimenez reached into a zip pocket on the inside of his colourful all-weather jacket and drew out what looked like a large brown leather wallet. He laid it down on the table top with practised care and Kerrigan noticed the four dark ribbons that held the wallet closed. Mr. Jimenez slipped the knot on each of them and opened the wallet like a book. Protected inside was a single sheet of well-preserved paper or parchment that had no creases to suggest it had ever been folded. He had a feeling that the leather binder had been made for that piece of paper, not the other way around.
"Wow. That's not the sort of map I see too often."
"It's an heirloom,” said Mr. Jimenez. “Unique in every way."
Kerrigan could sense the pride in the man’s voice and something else too; a hint of melancholy.
They all moved closer to the table and leaned over for a better view. The map was hand drawn in black ink and showed in considerable detail a large part of Bear Mountain, including the land upon which they all stood. Kerrigan wondered if the cartographer had drawn the images free hand or if he’d traced them first in some way. Whatever the case, he had a skilful if amateur hand. Much of the scale was inconsistent and there were artistic flourishes that made features of particular trees and rocks along the marked trails. In some places wild animals were depicted in rampant poses. The embellishments reminded him of mariners' charts with whales blowing water and giant squid hauling ships into the deep.
"It's a work of art,” said Kerrigan. “It's not exactly accurate of course, but it's close enough to follow. From the look of it, I'd say that some of the trails it shows have been abandoned. There are a few that aren't on any of my maps."
The map went some way to explaining why the family had been passed along by each of the town’s residents they asked for directions. Maybe the trail they wanted to find no longer existed in living memory and appeared on no other map except theirs.
"I suppose it's one of these disused trails you're looking for, right?"
Mr. Jimenez smiled.
"I think you must be correct," he said.
"Well, I can take a look for you. I've got some pretty good maps. I can't guarantee anything, though."
"We appreciate any help you can give."
"Which trail are you after?" asked Kerrigan.
Where Mr. Jimenez was pointing was one of the more unusual places for a trail to have existed. It was a branch of an old track that ran parallel to the tree line and just far enough inside the forest that the rest of the mountain would not be visible. The primary tack was remote enough; it appeared to skirt the mountain for several miles before stopping. But there was no logic to the one they were looking for. It wasn't circular, it didn't lead to a place of particular beauty and it didn't relate to anything else on the map. It led away from the old track and the mountain, and into the forest. At the end of the trail on Mr. Jimenez’s map there was some kind of icon. It was in the shape of a man whose legs had become roots and his arms branches. It made Kerrigan uneasy to look at it and he laughed a little too loudly.
"What does this signify?" he asked.
When there was no answer, he looked up at Mr. Jimenez and the faces of his family. Their expressions were guarded but still amicable.
"We are not sure," said Mr. Jimenez.
"So why go there?"
Again the silence.
"I'm sorry," said Kerrigan, "It's none of my business. I'm just curious." The atmosphere relaxed a notch or two. "I know these woods and trails well but I have to admit I've never spent much time hiking in that part of the forest. It's quite a distance."
"If you could show us the way on your maps we would be most grateful."
"I can do better than that. I'll mark it on a waterproof map and let you use it until you finish your holiday."
Kerrigan looked at their faces and saw the relief and simple excitement that was so openly displayed there. The close air retreated as everyone stepped back a little from the table. Once again he found himself feeling a kinship with them. It was born of a love for the woods and the clean air, the freedom of the wild.
"Can I get you some tea? Coffee? Something cold?"
As he stepped out of the kitchen to get collect the right map he heard Mr. Jimenez reply in embarrassed tones.
"We have troubled you enough already."
Kerrigan poked his head back into the kitchen.
"The kettle's there, the cups are on the drainer. You set it up and I'll make the drinks. How's that?"
"Luis, do as Mr. Kerrigan says."
Kerrigan left them to it.
His maps were laminated to ensure their longevity and he kept them rolled up and stacked in an old umbrella stand in his larder. He'd spread them onto the table more times than he could count with every kind of visitor. He'd seen young couples looking for excitement in the wilderness, recently divorced mothers taking their children into the woods while they mourned a split home, groups of teenagers wanting to get high in a place where they knew they wouldn't get caught, families that didn’t yet know they couldn't survive a single night of camping out and solitary men who disappeared into the woods in search of themselves to return days or weeks later, bearded, gaunt and crystal-eyed with the harsh peace they'd discovered. He'd advised them all, marked pathways on their maps, told them where to find clean water, told them what to avoid.
In the cool darkness of the larder he turned the light on and was able to put his hand straight on the map he planned to lend them.
"Here we go," he said, as he walked back into the kitchen.
He rolled the rubber band down the tube of encapsulated paper until it sprung off into his hand. Mr. Jimenez folded his map case closed and lifted it up to make space for the newer version. Kerrigan unfurled the map across the table and used four heavy grey stones to hold it flat. He'd always believed it was better to roll a map than to fold it and although there were folded plastic maps available from the right outlets, he still believed a rolled map would last a lifetime or longer. He'd bought them for his own interest and to help him hike with more confidence, but soon after acquiring and moving into the stone cabin, the knocks on the door had started and he began to spread the maps out on the kitchen table almost every other day during the summer months. Some solid paperweights became a necessity and he gathered four smooth rocks from Singing River, the waterway that had created Hobson's Valley over millions of years.
The stones were large, the size of misshapen ostrich eggs, and a dark, slate grey speckled with sparkling flecks of mica. Sometimes a sun ray catching them just right would release a glitter of cobalt sparks from their surfaces. They had been battered against other stones over millennia; who knew what size they may have been when they were first formed? The ones he'd chosen had a uniformity to them, as though they were from the same family of stones, if such a thing was possible. Kerrigan liked to think he had found four stones that had once been part of a single boulder.
It often awed him to speculate on their origins and many times when he touched them they prompted him to glimpse his own temporary nature. They would still be here in the valley long after he had passed away, long after the cabin was a ruin, long after his bones had returned to dust.
On that day however, he didn't think of any of those things. Feeling none of that respect for time and creation, merely wanting to hold the edges of a very stubborn and well-curled map in place, he set the stones on each corner of the chart and tamed it as easily as that.
"If you put your map down over here,” he said “I'll be able to use it to estimate the position of your trail."
With reverent care Mr. Jimenez placed his leather bound map once more upon the table and with a magic marker Kerrigan began to inscribe his own directions over the contour lines of the new map, leaving a dotted path on the shiny plastic coating.
"This is where you are now. You can drive another two or three miles into the forest from here but the road finishes at a picnic area called The Clearing and you'll be fine to leave your vehicle there for a few days, even a week or two if you want. From there you'll take a posted trail known as the Eastern Path. It's not a popular trail because there isn't much to see there. You'll find yourself hemmed in by pine trees. It makes for kind of a gloomy walk.”
He looked up at their faces but they were intent on the map. All except Carla who caught his gaze for a split second and then looked down. No one noticed.
"About five miles along, the path forks. The left fork is called Trapper's Trail and it's well signposted. It leads out of the tree line and up towards the steeper slopes over a lot of loose shale. I've walked to the summit that way a few times and it was hard going.
"You'll be taking the right fork, though, down into more pine forest. That's the continuation of the Eastern Path and it's not so well trodden these days. You may find yourself pushing a few branches out of they way and there may be fallen trees that haven't been cleared. Eventually, it leads to a pass that goes into the next valley but you're not going as far as that. You need to follow the trail for about another twelve miles. Then you'll be at the start of the trail you're looking for."
He glanced up again. They were all staring at the map and absorbing every word he said.
"This is a long hike, folks. Are you sure you're all going to be OK?"
"We are not strangers to the outdoors, Mr. Kerrigan."
"I'd be more comfortable if you all just called me Jimmy, you know."
"We love to walk, Jimmy. All of us."
"Well, that's good. Now, around the twelve-mile mark, is the start of the trail on your map. How you're going to find it, I don't know. Maybe there'll be some kind of marker or sign that suggests people once walked that way but I doubt it. If this trail is as old as your map looks, there won't be any sign of it. Actually, I'm expecting you to come back tired and disappointed.
"If you do find it, and if you can re-break it, you'll be on it for eight more miles before you reach this…whatever this place is. And when you're done, you've got to come all the way back knowing exactly how the scenery will look. I think it will take two days to get there, assuming you find the trail. Less if you don’t find it. I'll expect to see you back here in four or five days at the latest.”
There was silence around the table but the excitement in the air was palpable. The only one who didn’t look enthralled was Maria. He had the impression there were other places she’d have liked to be.
"Now, up by Trapper's Trail, there's a spring for collecting fresh water."
"We will work it out, Jimmy."
"Okay, sure, but have you got food enough for five-"
"We have everything we need. Enough for many days."
The kettle had been boiling on the gas stove for some time and the steam was beginning to fog up the kitchen. Why was he so concerned about these hikers anyway, Kerrigan asked himself? Where they went, what they did when they arrived, that was none of his business. He saw so many tourists come through this way each year, there was no reason to start worrying about this party. They seemed better prepared and more able than most to tackle a demanding hike.
As he turned to remove the kettle, Buster, his Siamese cat, leapt on the map for a closer look at the latest batch of strangers. It was a habit of his to inspect each party that came in. Sometimes he let them pet and fuss him, other times he walked away before they could touch him. Buster and he tended to agree on who was worthy of special attention.
The Jimenez family all jumped at the same time when Buster arrived and skidded to a halt at the centre of the stones. Mr. Jimenez snatched up his map and backed away. No one seemed to know what to do.
"Yeesh, he won't hurt you,” said Kerrigan, “Will you, Buster? You like visitors, right?"
Buster looked over at his master and then up at the four faces above him. He padded towards Carla and stood staring at her with his paws right on the edge of the table. She put her hand out as if she thought she might get bitten, but she still put it out. Buster stretched towards her for the contact he knew would feel so good. She touched her fingers to the top of his head and gave a little scratch there before pulling away again. Kerrigan could have sworn that Buster had a look on his face like, oh, come on, lady, is that the best you can do? The cat waited there until she did it again and as soon as she did they were friends.
My choice too, buddy, Kerrigan said to himself as he finished making the tea and handed the mugs around. They all stood there looking uncomfortable, not sure what to do. He couldn’t understand the way they wavered between confidence and uncertainty. It was a real puzzle.
"Here, sit down."
He gestured to the four rickety pine chairs around the table, all of them damaged by him leaning back on two legs and stressing the joints. He pulled up a stool and, with the map no longer the focus of the discussion, silence was king once more. This time he didn't want it to last.
"I can't help wondering why you're going all the way out to this trail. I mean, what are you hoping to find there? Treasure?"
He laughed but no one else did.
"We have come to find the last resting place of my great grandfather, Raul Jimenez." said Mr. Jimenez. Kerrigan was intrigued.
"He came here too?"
"He lived in this place."
Kerrigan flicked his gaze across all their faces.
"In Hobson's Valley?"
"In this house."
José Jimenez shook his head. The others were quiet, solemn. Buster jumped down from the table into Kerrigan’s lap and he stroked his fur as he thought about what this piece of information implied. The notion that their paternal ancestor had lived in his house stabbed at his root. He felt like he’d lost his grip on the intimacy he felt with the house and the land around it. He had in some way been undercut, preceded. Negated. And the fact that he felt such a strong reaction frightened him.
"It is okay, Jimmy,” said Mr. Jimenez, “we are not here to evict you. We merely wish to take my great grandfather's bones and return them to the land of his birth. If we cannot find them then we are here to pay our respects and see the land where he made his life. We are fulfilling his wishes as stated in his will."
"But why now? Why after so much time has passed? Couldn't he have arranged to have his body returned to Mexico for burial at the time of his death?"
"My grandfather was from Spain, Jimmy, as are we."
Kerrigan was certain he blushed after that.
"God, that was stupid of me. I'm sorry."
The children were looking down, pretending to study the map, he thought. Maria and José Jimenez were focussed on him.
"I ask too many questions," he said.
"No. I am glad to speak of it,” said Mr. Jimenez. “We have not had such an opportunity until now and you have been good enough to help us before you asked your questions."
He placed the leather map case on the table.
"This was left to me in his will. We received it two months ago by mail with a letter from Symmons and Sons, a law firm in Boise, and a copy of the will. They were instructed to keep the map in a safe deposit box before passing it to a Jimenez at a time specified by my great grandfather. I am the only Jimenez left. In the will, he asked that his remains be brought home to San Sebastian to be cremated and then scattered in the Pyrenees, the beautiful mountain range of our region where he spent his childhood. He has left us quite a task."
"He sure has,” said Kerrigan. “But why wait all this time?"
Mr. Jimenez looked at Maria for a moment and then sighed.
"It is superstition. He believed that any descendents who touched his remains within a generation would be cursed."
Kerrigan had never heard of such an elaborate will. Or such long lasting paranoia.
"Sounds like he was a little eccentric," he ventured.
"There is no doubt of that, Jimmy."
“How will you transport his…remains?”
“Let us first see if we can find them.”
After he stopped speaking, another silence bunched up in the small kitchen. Kerrigan had stopped stroking Buster and, feeling neglected, the cat jumped up onto the table again and then into Carla's lap. She accepted his advance with more confidence this time and began to stroke him in the same way Kerrigan had. He supposed she must have been watching him do it. With Buster on her knees, she looked more like a child than ever and he a felt a brief rush of self-disgust for having had the thoughts he'd had when he first met her. He allowed the negative feelings to go just as quickly as they had come, remembering, or hoping at least, that all people including him were not defined merely by their thoughts, but by their actions. He consoled himself that he had not harmed her with his fleeting fantasies.
Mr. Jimenez placed his mug down on the map.
"What are those?" he asked.
He nodded his towards a mobile that swung idly in silhouette over the kitchen sink. Each piece of the mobile was hand crafted from polished pine and withy strands to show a simple X shape within a circle. The handiwork was rough and ready and made the ornament look rustic, homemade.
Kerrigan cleared his throat.
"Those are, uh...binders."
"What are binders?" asked Mr. Jimenez.
"That's a good question." He tried to think of a way to answer the question and found, as he always did, that it was very difficult to explain. "They...well…I always used to notice the shape in the stained glass windows of our church when I was a kid. Round windows with crosses in them. I'd kind of stare at them and daydream when I was meant to be singing hymns or listening to the preacher. They always fascinated me and since I came back to Hobson's Valley, I started carving them out of fallen branches and reeds from the edge of the river. I usually make a couple of new ones every day. I've got a whole cupboard full."
He laughed, embarrassed at the admission.
"Why do you call them binders?" asked Maria.
"I don't know, I just do. Probably it was the name I made up for them when I was a kid."
"I like 'em," said Carla.
"Me too," said Luis.
The kids looked fascinated. Maria wore a look of mild concern.
"They are not occult, are they?" she asked.
"I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, the idea came from the church, so..."
Kerrigan shrugged his shoulders. He knew he wasn't doing much of a job of explaining his creations, but then, he never did.
"I give them to everyone who stops to ask for directions, actually."
What credibility this might add to them, he didn't know.
"How much do you charge?" Asked Mr. Jimenez.
"Nothing. I give them away."
"To make the journey through the forest special."
Out of nowhere, that was as close to the truth as he had ever come. He watched the binders turning and turning on their nylon threads and began to drift the way he always had when looking at them. An X within a circle. A nought and a cross. A kiss and a hug. Four slices of a pie. Simple. Beautiful–
"Weird," said Luis.
"Cool," said his sister.
"Can we have one?" they both asked.
"You can all have one. Like I said, I give them to everyone that passes this way."
He stood up to fetch a few from the kitchen cupboard.
"Thank you, Mr. Kerrigan,” said Maria “but I don't think the children should have such things."
"They're for all of you to have, not just the kids."
Maria was adamant.
"We don't want them."
Mr. Jimenez put his hand on his wife's wrist.
"I do not see any harm in it. Jimmy is a good man. He has tried only to help us."
Kerrigan watched their personal politics play out in micro gestures of body language and knew that Maria was going to give in without a word being spoken. That didn’t mean she was happy about it, of course. Apparently, the male line of the Jimenez family still ruled its household.
"If it is no trouble,” said Mr. Jimenez, “we would gladly accept your gift. It will give us a way of remembering this journey that we have made together."
"It's no trouble at all."
The binders he made to give to strangers were on thin leather strips of cowhide so that they could be worn. He took four from the drawer and handed one to each of them. Carla and Luis put theirs on immediately, causing Buster to be ejected from his position of comfort. This time he left the kitchen and didn't return. Maria handed hers straight to Mr. Jimenez and he placed them in the zip pocket from where he had produced the map. Kerrigan thought at the time that perhaps he really would keep them.
"Thank you, Jimmy. And now I think it's time for us make a start. We have a lot of miles to cover."
"You're not thinking of hiking this afternoon, are you?"
"Of course. The day is almost over and we need to make progress."
"You won't get far before dark. Take a look outside." They all turned and saw the hazy gloom pressing in at the windows. The electric light in the kitchen seemed warm and yellow and bright by comparison to the bruised shades of the early dusk. "You ought to be pitching camp right now."
"We will see."
Mr. Jimenez stood up and the rest of the family followed his lead. Kerrigan could see there was no use in trying to dissuade them. When it was too dark to walk, Mr. Jimenez would see sense and they would camp. They would soon learn the lessons of Hobson's Valley and Bear Mountain.
"Come through this way," said Kerrigan.
He led them out to the front entrance, opened the glass-paned inner door and then pushed the screen door outwards and held it while they passed. Parked out front was a white Land Cruiser. The damp smell of pine was everywhere and the crickets chirped from their hiding places. José Jimenez looked back and held out his hand.
"Thank you again for your help. Completing this task will mean a great deal to my family."
Kerrigan took his offered hand and they shook once again. This time there was more communication and less competition. The feelings Kerrigan had when he first met the family were fading and he was left with an impression of a close knit and loving family, a family with an adventuresome spirit binding it, as they began the final leg of a journey that had already brought them a long way from home.
Maria looked at him but didn't speak. Instead she made the smallest gesture of a wave, from the hip. It was like a secret wave or one she didn't really want to give. He didn't think she disliked him; he thought she was nervous about what they were going to do. Perhaps the forest made her uneasy and if not the forest, the mountain. People heard the voice of nature in different ways. Some were threatened by it. Maybe she was one of those.
The children looked excited too, but he felt concern for them and he didn't know why. With their binders on display around their necks they looked like recent converts to a strange religion. They could have been child soldiers off to fight a crusade against the unbelievers. He was the one who had made them look that way. For the first time since he had moved back to Hobson's Valley, he felt a hook of anger catching at him. It came from being disturbed by his own thoughts and feelings. It came from believing that he had let such self-torture go long before, and then discovering that he still hadn't completely learned the lesson. He saw Luis and Carla waving at him and was able to let the anger pass. As he did so, he returned once more to a state in which ideas flowed through him without becoming stuck.
The doors of the Land Cruiser slammed shut and the engine started easily. As it moved off up the track into the pines the Jimenez family faced forward, eager to be on with their mission. Only Carla looked back, waving a pale-palmed hand through the glass before the car disappeared from view.
Kerrigan sat down in the rocker on the porch and listened the sound of the engine being swallowed the deeper into the trees it went. A minute later and the sound was gone but still he listened for it, hoping to hear one last note or grumble brought his way on a breeze. He didn't rock in the chair. Instead, he touched his fingers to the binder that rested against his chest beneath the fabric of his shirt.
The view from his porch was limited in every direction by trees but the air was always sweet and that was why he liked to sit there. Now that the car was gone he could hear the forest sounds again and at the edge of that he could hear the Singing River smoothing the rocks in its currents.
He didn't stay out for long, though. The night's arrival was swift and cunning. He went inside before its blackness overran him.
© Joseph D'Lacey 2010
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.