“Jared, why don’t you take my bucket and you two head back to the truck?” Brady asked. “I’m getting a little greedy and want to cut through the woods, maybe fill up my bag again. Meet you in a few.”
Stuart recognized that his friend needed some distance from Jared. Brady disappeared into the timber but he wasn’t more than a few minutes on his own when gunfire echoed through the hills. Instinctively Brady fell to the ground and hugged the earth. He was unable to tell which direction it came from although it sounded very close. The first volley was followed shortly by another. It was a combination of single shots and then automatic fire. Each time he ducked down. Between rounds he ran crashing blindly through the undergrowth bolting for safety but not knowing which direction to go. It was then that he tripped over a log and put his knee through his pant leg. As he lay on the ground holding his leg the gunfire stopped. He had covered several hundred yards but wasn’t sure which direction he’d gone. He got out his whistle and blew it several times but didn’t get a response. He waited for another minute and tried again. He then got caught up in a thicket, turned around and headed down a steep hillside, still whistling, before he stumbled out onto a gravel road.
Brady was only fifty yards down the road before he came upon an old corn cob. He stopped and wondered for a moment how the cob had come to be placed in the woods but then as he continued to walk he saw more corn cobs spaced at regular intervals as though they had fallen from the back of a wagon. The line of cobs soon turned a corner and led off the main road and down one of the older overgrown logging roads. Despite his anxiety about being lost, curiosity got the better of him and he followed the dried cobs which soon led him into a small gorge that had a hunter’s blind built into trees on either side. At the end of the cul-du-sac he came upon a ghastly pile of bones. It was a considerable collection and had accumulated over a number of years. There he also found a waist high bench that was stained red with blood. One pile of deer remains was recent with rotting flesh hanging from bones covered by ragged fur swarming with maggots busy consuming the remains. The smell turned his stomach.
Brady ran back to the road, careful not to trip over the cobs. As he retraced his step he couldn’t help but notice the chanterelles which lined his way and decided to pick just a few more. It was then he then came upon a fallen tree that had a profusion of chanterelles sprouting from underneath it. Reminded of his salamander encounter, he looked first before picking a mushroom and was surprised to discover a purple eggplant. Unlike the dried corn cobs, it was a fresh vegetable, as though it had just been purchased in the store. Underneath a nearby log he found a yellow squash. The vegetables seemed as out of place as the corn cobs. Before Brady could arrange his thoughts he came upon a shooting range along a corridor of trees with a pile of cartridges at one end and a target at the other end which was in the form of a human silhouette with an afro haircut.
Brady turned back to the logging road but that retreat was immediately cut off as he stumbled over a large tent that was camouflaged, covered with branches and vines. It was made of heavy canvas and was streaked with dirt and mold as though it had been in place for a few years. A bleached deer skull without antlers stood on top of each corner of the tent. He popped one off its perch and put it in his mushroom bag, nervously looking over his shoulder as though he was stealing a religious icon from a shrine. Carefully retracing his steps, Brady tried to take a shortcut just beyond the firing range but then came upon a small clearing where an ATV was parked. A voice addressed him from behind a tree. “Sorry mister but you’re trespassing.” Brady turned around and faced an overweight boy, wearing camo, holding a rifle in his hand.
“I’m not trespassing, just lost picking mushrooms,” Brady countered. “Why the hell you pointing that gun at me?”
“My Dad says we need to be suspicious of anybody we see near the camp.”
“So I told you what I’m doing,” Brady tried to reason with the boy. “What are you doing?”
The boy relaxed, pointed his gun to the ground. “Just out on maneuvers.”
“What kind of maneuvers? You guys belong to one of those militia groups?”
“It’s part of our Church. We’re out here getting the camp ready, just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“You know, if things happen.”
“And what about all those dead deer out there? Did you do that?”
“That’s the workshop. The Guild harvests a crop every year.”
“OK, up in the air,” another voice boomed. Brady raised his hands high and faced a man who was dressed like the boy, same camo, buzz cut and eye grease but twice as large. His uniform had a name tag which identified him as Sgt. Waldorf. He wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with the image of a man praying in the foreground and a prison watchtower in the distance. The shirt read “POW-MIA: You are not forgotten”. Sgt. Waldorf pulled a pistol out of a holster from his waist and pointed the barrel at Brady, nervously locking and then unlocking the revolver’s safety.
“Your son’s been telling me about being here on maneuvers Sargent Waldorf.”
“Well, so Kelly, this man is your prisoner, you don’t have to tell him anything. He’s the one trespassing. He needs to give us some answers.” Waldorf turned to Brady. “So who the hell are you? Government agent? Working for the forestry department or that bureau of land management?”
“I’m just picking mushrooms,” Brady held up his bag, reaching inside to pull out a specimen.
“Not so fast, keep your hands in the air,” Waldorf again nervously unlocked and then locked the safety. “I don’t want to see what’s inside your sack. All I want is answers. You alone?”
Brady tried to maintain eye contact with Waldorf. “I’m by myself.”
“Well you’re one lying son of a bitch,” Waldorf spit out his words. “I heard you signaling someone with that whistle. You came right through our camp back there.”
“He’s seen the workshop,” Kelly added.
“Your killing field,” Brady regretted the words as they rolled off his tongue. “You know, I’m out here enjoying the bounty of nature, just like yourself.” Waldorf again nervously released his safety and then locked it again. Brady decided to make a break, grabbed his mushroom bag and dove into the brush.
Casey Bush is a Portland poet whose eighth collection Student of Hippocampus was published in 2018 by Last Word Press (Olympia, WA). His essay “Sisters Around the Cauldron: Mary Barnard and Her Sappho” was recently posted on the Berlin based website The Decadent Review. Casey is the poetic voice of Notes & Motes: The Vlatkovich Trio Plus One. He recommends Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center.