Southern Legitimacy Statement: Only in the South can you walk into the woods and be surrounded by something so familiar yet so different from everything you’ve ever known. It is like seeing a life-long friend and forgetting their name: there’s the tenderness that you remember in the back of your mind, but there’s also something distant and terrifying: as if you can’t truly know what will come next; as if you’ve misremembered that person and are really seeing a stranger.
Wayne Peltzer had already been out in the woods several hours, walking along the makeshift trail that cut through the trees, deviating from it at times before looping his way back.
The mud of the trail showed only the tracks of animals, of deer and other small creatures. No marks of boots or signs of any other human, and he liked it that way.
He walked with a bent back, shuffling his feet as he moved. At times, Wayne would stop in the middle of the woods and lean backward as far as his old body would allow. When he did this, he felt a quick dizziness. The sky would be a shock to him, a reminder that there existed a whole other world above and around him.
It was during one of those moments that he heard the rustle of leaves and snapping of twigs in the distance ahead. He felt his body tense, and for two or three minutes he remained silent with his head tilted slightly to the right so his left ear was closer to whatever sound might come next. He held the rifle loosely in his hands, the barrel pointing down and to the left, just as his father had shown him all those years ago. Wayne found himself holding his breath in long intervals as he watched the trees.
After several minutes with no other sounds or movement, Wayne relaxed and let his eyes drift over to the west. The sun was sinking low; within another hour and a half it would disappear completely, and he would be left out there all alone in the autumn cold.
Wayne was just turning to head back through the woods to his cabin when he heard another sound. It was different from what he heard earlier; this sound was like the screech of a bird, though it was no bird he’d heard before. He stood still, waiting for the sound to come again, but it didn’t. He looked around, trying to see through the trees and bushes, the skeletal arms of branches stretching every which way. Then he moved forward. Whatever animal or bird had made the sound was just past a copse of trees ahead.
As he slowly shuffled through the woods, Wayne lifted the rifle to his shoulder.
Then he stopped. Ahead of him several steps yet was a small swatch of color in the muted woods: something red and bright blue on the ground near the base of several pines. A shiver ran through Wayne’s body, coursing along his arms and neck as saw what it was. A shirt and jacket crumpled into a ball. He let the rifle drop in his hands, and he knelt to pick up the clothing, feeling the strain in his knees and thighs as he did so. They were clearly that of a young girl, in her early teens, if that. He brought them to his face. They smelled of strawberry and something else, something sweet, like sugar candy. Around the area were footprints, two sizes—one smaller than the other—flattened out into the mud in circles and crisscrosses.
He looked off to where the woods stretched beyond him, searching for the owner of the clothing, but he could see no one else.
To the east, a bird called loudly, startling him and bringing his focus back to the present. Wayne’s breath caught and he turned, raising the rifle to his shoulder and waving it back and forth. After several seconds more, he lowered the rifle and set it down so that it lay against the trunk of a pine. As he rolled the shirt and jacket into a tight ball to put in his pocket, Wayne thought he could feel warmth in the clothing still, but he dismissed this thought, saying in a quiet voice that these clothes had been left out here for days, that whoever owned them had changed into another shirt and gone off home and forgotten to pick them back up. He took a deep breath and shook his head.
He picked up the rifle and turned away from the small area. If he wanted to make it to his cabin by nightfall, he needed to start back now.
And as he walked, he repeated a hope like prayer in his head. Don’t let there be another sound. Don’t let there be another sound. Don’t let there be . . .