The Boy In The Woods
Kane Cooper sat on a boulder surrounded by a carpet of yellow balsamroot blooms. He stared into the nearby forest guarding the edge of the Oregon meadow. The rise and fall of the insects’ droning cries set its own time. The seconds lingered, hesitant to let go of the moment; fearful that the next will be less. Kane remembered finding this isolated spot with his brother Kyle. One day they would be explorers scouting out the forbidding forest from their own mountaintop, the next pirates at sea riding their ship through a sea of flowers. When one boy was lacking a scenario, the other would step in. Kane remembered the first time they had been here. Kane had to reach down a hand and pull the younger Kyle as he scrambled up the rock. Atop the boulder the boys were masters of their universe, and no one could touch them.
Kane’s eyes changed from a hazy unfocused stare to sharp scrutiny in a moment. He was attuned to the soundtrack of the meadow, like a conductor who could hear any imperfection in a score’s execution. He spotted a raven taking flight from the forest’s edge. Soon after the unmistakable crack of a twig broke the perfect cadence of the insects, causing them to restart their chant. Kane sat silent; head cocked slightly. His head suddenly swiveled. There! A shadowy form crossed a break in the trees at a trot. Kane’s eyes widened. A boy? In three strides he was swallowed by the dark embrace of the thick trees. Kane waited quite some time to see if he could hear or see anything else. The sun changed from white to yellow to orange before Kane reluctantly slid off the boulder and headed back home, knowing that his parents would be worried.
Mark Cooper stood at the kitchen sink of the house that he had built for his family on the edge of the Mt. Hood National Forest. He watched his twelve-year-old son come into their backyard from the path that led into the forest. He could see the young man he would grow into as Kane walked towards the house. Mark slid the window over the sink up and leaned close to the screen.
“Any adventures today, Kane? Tell me about them after you get cleaned up, your mom’s about to serve up dinner and she’s in a mood since you’ve been off to the woods again.” Mark watched his son with paternal pride. He knew that Kane was more at ease in the woods than he was anywhere else, and he had taught him bushcraft since he, and his brother, were young.
“Did your son come home yet?” Mark sensed the prickly thorns behind her words but resisted the urge to reply. “You know I don’t like him wandering off into those woods,” Rita Cooper slammed the coffin shut on the conversation, “and you know why!”
Sitting at the dinner table Kane was wondering what it would be like to be an owl. He sat erect in his chair and rotated his head and eyes as far as he could one way, and then the other. He blinked big owl blinks and imagined himself scanning the forest floor for prey. Spotting a fat grouse, he swooped silently to grab it in his talons.
Rita Cooper watched as her son Kane snatched the turkey breast from his plate and took small stabbing bites at the meat, continuing to scan his surroundings carefully. She was at her wit’s end with her son, but the thing was no matter how…odd Kane’s behavior was, her husband refused to do anything but make light of his quirks. If he wasn’t off roaming in the woods then he was at home, imitating some wildlife or the other. Once she had found him “nesting” in the attic, another “roosting” on the house roof. Rarely was she able to hold a real conversation with her son. If he wasn’t withdrawn and unresponsive, then he was mimicking some forest animal. It had been a year since his younger brother had disappeared, and Rita had hoped for some sort of closure for her and her family. When she looked out the back windows of their home, she didn’t see natural beauty, she saw a deep darkness that had swallowed her son.
Mark Cooper sat on Kane’s bed to say goodnight. He had found that accepting his son’s reactions to losing his brother was a lot easier than hoping things might go back to the way they used to be. At Rita’s insistence Kyle’s twin bed remained in the boy’s room. A Seattle Mariners pennant hung on the wall next to an Ichiro Suzuki poster. The younger of the two boys had been a rabid Mariners fan, while his older brother defiantly claimed himself a Yankees fan. Mark brushed the hair out of his son’s eyes, giving him the “let’s talk serious look” they both knew well.
“You know your mom worries about you going into the woods. It’s not that she doesn’t trust you, it’s just that she doesn’t trust…out there, anymore. You know what I mean?”
“I do.” answered Kane in a near whisper.
“Because what have I always tell you about going into the forest?”
“Don’t be apart from the green. Be a part of the green.” said the boy earnestly.
Kane Cooper stood in the meadow at the edge of the forest. The old growth formed a barrier but not as distinct as the one that had formed in Kane’s mind. He turned to look back at their boulder solid and safe in the meadow. He remembered waiting there an entire day knowing that at any moment Kyle was going to reappear from the growth with his smile and tales to tell. But Kyle never did come back.
Swallowing his fear, he found comfort pretending he was a bear, nose finely tuned to the task at hand. Crawling into the forest on all fours he snuffled the leaves and ground as he went. He was certain he had seen a boy yesterday, but deep in his thumping hopeful heart he thought that it might just be, somehow, some way, him. After a time, Kane froze, peering closely at the ground.
“Be a part of the green.” The boy repeated his silent mantra as he scanned the area. A subtle shift of focus seemed to illuminate the living things around him just a shade brighter. Kane now could see clearly the footprint and the dullness where someone had disturbed the green. Slowly lifting his head, he could now see a trail of steps leading deeper into the woods. He rose to a crouch and followed his animal instincts and the trail for what seemed like hours. He moved swiftly and silently like a deer, until suddenly he stopped. Just ahead there was an area almost devoid of the green. Many footsteps had worn the area around the base of a huge tree. Most wouldn’t have given it a second glance if they had stumbled upon it, but Kane could see the lack of life in the pile of brush at the base of the tree and how it had been arranged to conceal something. He melted into the background, becoming a hawk, which no boy could sneak by.
Donny Francis walked towards the hidey-hole that his dad had built hidden from the rest of the world. Hidey-hole, that’s what Jimmy Francis always called it to his fourteen-year-old son. When the world doesn’t notice you, it leaves you alone he said. There was a time when his dad took him away from his mom that they had lived on the streets of Portland. One night his dad had returned to their tent looking like he had taken a beating, but he never spoke of it. In the morning he had gathered their meager belongings and taken Donny by the hand heading out of the city. The first winter was the hardest, but since then they had remodeled a large spacious tree trunk into their personal paradise. Game was abundant and fish filled creeks made their own crooked paths to the ocean to the west. In the time that Jimmy had been in the military he had learned survival skills that he had passed on to his son. Many days, often for several, Donny was left alone as his dad went to “forage” among civilization. He never asked where dad had gotten his hoard, and no explanation was ever offered.
The two hares that hung over Donny’s shoulder were flanked on the other by the bow that had ended them. Dad had been gone two days now and he was never sure when he might return. He planned to prepare them both in hopes that tonight he would appear. As he approached the treehouse he suddenly stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck had risen without warning. He slowly sank to one knee and soundlessly brought the bow to bear, arrow nocked and loaded. He scanned the area, all senses brought to bear on identifying his unease. After a time, his eyes could discern a dark shape in the mottled jigsaw of light that penetrated the forest canopy. A shaft of light shot through a gap as the breeze jostled its branches, reflecting off two frightened eyes.
“Hey, you there! Come on out here or I’ll shoot.” Donny tried to sound threatening, but he was more curious than anything. Several years of living with his dad had given lonely a whole new meaning to the boy. He longed for companionship. He coaxed the younger boy as he broke from his cover and slowly entered the clearing at the base of the tree. “Come on out here, I’m not going to hurt you.” He lowered the bow as proof.
Kane was wide-eyed with equal parts wonder and fear. He slowly stepped into the clearing never taking his eyes off the boy. The taller thinner boy wore a pair of hiking boots that looked new in contrast to the blue jeans that were practically worn and frayed to uselessness. He wore a flannel shirt two sizes too big, unbuttoned to afford glimpses of a black tee shirt with a large grinning Sponge Bob on it. His hair was wild and tangled, and he stared at Kane with hooded hazel eyes. Reaching a decision, he sat at the base of the tree and plopped the two rabbits onto the ground. He drew a knife from a sheath hidden by the flannel and commenced to field dress his prize. Kane silently sat down on the forest floor and watched the boy set to work. Within a minute Donny tore the nearly intact hide from the animal’s body and held it up, admiring his work. For the first time he looked up from the rabbit and met eyes with Kane. He felt a pang of…something…as he saw the younger boy’s eyes widen in admiration and awe. With the tip of his knife, he beckoned Kane to join him, and held the unskinned rabbit up. Kane crawled across the ground ten feet to where the boy sat, eyeing him warily. But when the boy handed him his knife handle first, then offered the rabbit to him, Kane relaxed and lowered his guard. He motioned with his finger the path that the knife should take, and Kane understood intuitively. With the older boy’s guidance Kane finished preparing the game, holding it up for his teacher’s approval. Donny bobbed his head and standing up, beckoned Kane to follow him.
Kane watched in amazement as Donny reached into the tangle of fallen branches at the base of the tree with both of his hands. With a yank he pulled off a section of the pile revealing an opening. A wave of fragrant smoky air drifted out of the doorway from within the tree. Donny set the camouflaged door beside the opening and ducked inside. Kane hesitated but when the boy’s head reappeared from inside, he was smiling, and he waved him to follow. Kane had to stoop slightly for a few feet but then the entry gave way to the cavernous interior of the tree. The partially dead trunk had been hollowed out, and seemed to Kane to be much larger than a tree would seem from the outside. But he had never been inside of a tree before, so he was willing to suspend his disbelief. Planks fashioned a tightly seamed ceiling at least ten feet from the ground. A stone hearth had been built from river rock along one side with a metal tube running from it up and beyond the makeshift roof. Two hammocks hung limply below the ceiling across the width of the tree. Each held a blanket made of some dark-haired creature’s skin. Donny lit a large candle made of tallow that sat on a stump in the middle of the floor. He threw some kindling into the hearth and blew unseen embers back to life, then set about preparing the rabbits.
The growing flames combined to peel back the murky interior exposing more wonders. The hide of a large brown bear hung on one side of the hollowed-out trunk. He spotted a carved wooden owl on a shelf, wondering if the boy’s knife had whittled it. There was a pile of books against one side, schoolbooks Kane surmised. As his eyes wandered upward, he froze. He felt sick, wondering if he would faint. The modest rack of a buck was attached to the wall and served as a hat rack. Kane had been admiring the cowboy hat hanging there when his eyes drifted and he saw it. A simple cap. A baseball cap for that matter. A Seattle Mariners hat actually. Kane could feel his blood stopping in his veins and a loud buzzing in his ears. He could see his younger brother Kyle running off from the safety of their boulder in the meadow that day. The day he never came back. He was wearing that hat.
A loud booming voice filled the inside of the tree. Kane turned to see a man entering.
“Donny, you know I taught you to NEVER leave that door uncovered!”
The man stood up when he was inside, and his eyes turned to Kane. “What in the HELL have you done! No one is supposed to know where we are!” The rage in the man’s voice was tempered by an edge of panic. He glared at Kane as he took a step towards him. Kane could see the hungry eyes of the wolf inside the man before he made his move to grab him. Snatching a hairless rabbit from the stump Kane hopped to one side and swung the animal with all his might. The man saw stars as the skinless hare slapped him in the face, raking across his eyes. Kane bolted out the entrance like the rabbit he had become and dove into the undergrowth. He could hear the boy screaming at the man.
“No! Leave this one alone! Please!”
With a snort Kane became a mighty stag, darting impossibly through the thick growth of the forest, running hard until he reached the safety of his home.