Jennifer didn’t hunt. She didn’t believe in the “sport” of it, unlike the rest of her family. But she still wanted to take advantage of the hunting cabin her grandfather owned–not to party with friends, but to paint in silence.
Her family had an elaborate system for delegating the cabin–so-and-so one weekend, so-and-so and their friends during the week, etc. They all shared a Google calendar where they could bid for certain days, and by then the whole summer had been jam packed. Jennifer’s brothers and her cousins and her aunts and uncles would buy hunting licenses and “bag” at least one elk or deer per trip. They all worked as butchers or grocers or meat-packers and were used to blood and bone and fat. Jennifer was a barista.
She didn’t care to visit the cabin in the summer anyhow–it always reeked, she thought, of carcasses, of putrid wet fur and copper musk. She preferred to use her cabin time in the off-season of autumn, when the chill was just beginning, and the butchers and grocers and meat-packers were back at work preparing someone else’s kill.
The first thing she did when claiming the cabin was take all the mounted heads off the wall. She stuffed them under the stairs and threw a blanket over them to avoid their glassy stares. The blanket jutted out at odd angles where the antlers caught it, and the shape gave off an eerie silhouette in the darkness, like the thing under the covers you’re afraid of as a child, pressing against the barrier of cloth, preparing to tear through.
She stepped outside and thought no more of it.
Her easel came out first, then her canvas, then her paints, her brushes. The sun splintered into rays skewering the sky like God’s fingertips through the branches of the half-naked trees. And the sun, bleeding reds into the skyline, a star or two popping high above, Jennifer rushed to capture it before the bloodied sun could sink into its temporary grave. She could hear her wrist crackling like the wind displacing brittle twigs as she swept the brush left, right, left, right, dab-dab, up and twirl and tickle just at the right spot, right there… Too fast, her arm grew tired, but the weather out here in the mountains changed so quickly, she couldn’t know if tomorrow would look at all the same. Left, right, left–a military march, then a pirouette, then a lover’s teasing caress…
The sun was laid to rest, and Jennifer’s canvas grew dark. She was rushing, making mistakes. She tried to keep the image of the melting sun throwing rays through the trees in her mind, her wrist snapping from exertion. Except she didn’t feel it. And the snapping was too loud.
No, it was from nearby. Twigs, high and low. Twigs from tree branches, twigs fallen on the floor. Snap-snap. Snippity-snap. Snaaaap…
Jennifer paused and looked into the tangle of trees for the source of the noise. Wind thrust her hair against her cheek, sticking against the wetness of her lips. The wind… breaking through the branches, throwing skittering leaves in a pinball course against tree trunks.
But the floor. Weight, downward weight on the forest floor. Crushing leaves, dividing fallen branches in hollow claps, slow and grave. Jennifer looked behind her to the cabin door. It seemed to stretch far away in a great yawn, a carpet of shadows between it and her.
She looked back to the forest. Red leaves fell. The yellow ones seemed to stay. The branches seemed thicker than before, like a black sap grew between them, blinding her view. Above, billions of glinting eyeballs watched.
Yet she could almost see. There was something there, between the trees, between the spidery shades that rattled and danced. The wind picked up, screaming against the cabin behind her, come back, come back.
As in a dream, she couldn’t move. She was as rooted as the trees she was caught in a staring contest with. Until the wind found a pocket between the paper canvas and the board and tore her painting loose, rushing for the forest it once depicted.
No! Jennifer’s feet found the air as she dropped her paints and sprinted after the painting, the fingers of God now shadows embracing her and pulling her into the depths. She panted, snapping through branch and twig, kicking up footfuls of leaves, momentarily losing the painting only to catch the bright white backside of it lifting into the air like a magic carpet and somersaulting deeper into the trees.
At last, the wind skewered the painting on a branch, flittering and waving like a doomed flag. She approached, but something was wrong. Something was wrong with the tree her painting caught itself on. It was too short. Short and dead.
The moon flashed inside two dark eyes. A mud-caked, leaf-printed, rail-thin man stood before her, naked top to toe, and the top was high indeed, for he wore a crown of antlers. He reeked of fecal matter and wet fur and his ribs protruded from his chest, alien-like when he breathed. Every part of him could have been mistaken for a branch, from his fingers to his teeth–everything but his moonlit eyes.
Once more, Jennifer found herself frozen, this time in a silent scream. A tiny, conscious voice inside her yearned for her to keep to her inside voice, not to judge, to be polite… while the part of her that was earthen and animal and fragile pushed for the scream, for the flight, for the release of bowels, and the conflicting demands collected inside the barrier that was Jennifer, who kept it all inside. Everything inside. One at a time, please? No? Then you’ll sit there and nobody will get to go play.
The antler man said, “Are you here to kill me?” and his voice rattled through his twiggy throat like leaves shaken from a willow tree.
Jennifer couldn’t trust her voice to obey. No, she thought, no, I’ll leave you alone, just please…
And while the voice inside her spoke in silence, she shook her head along with it.
“Days,” said the antler man. “Weeks. Months. Hunt me. Please.” He reached for her. She could swear little leaves grew out of his fingernails. “Hunt me,” he hissed through his bark-like teeth. All Jennifer could do was shake her head, shake her head no no no, as the tears escaped and the urine escaped and her painting twirled on the man’s crown of antlers like a spinning wheel.
Slowly, like the setting sun, the man lowered. His knees popped as he bent them, his genitals sagging between in a limp shadow. He appeared to be bowing to Jennifer, inclining his head, presenting her painting to her. His long, willowy arms arched downward, the hoodoo fingers digging into the dirt and the leaves in front of Jennifer’s feet. Hesitantly, yet thoughtlessly, she reached for her painting, and lifted it off the antler like she was taking a hat from a hook.
Then the antler man charged.
When Jennifer’s family found her, punctures huge and small all over her body, all the butchers and grocers and meat-packers wanted to say, If only she was a hunter. But none did. Instead, they hunted elk not as sport, but as revenge. At every sight of antlers, a shot was fired.
The forest reeked. Red leaves fell. Gunsmoke clouded the sky. Snap. Snap. Snap.
Day 201’s three random prompt categories were, “Antlers,” “Countryside,” and, “A barista.”
Sometimes I like to get a bit spooky. Enjoy your camping, readers!