The Thing in the Woods
Fall is my favorite time of year. The colors of the leaves, the dew on the grass in the mornings, the smell in the air. It’s also the month I was born, but I suspect that has little to do with my favorite of the four seasons. Frankie Valli would be disappointed.
It was a Tuesday, I believe, when this all happened. Well, when it began, anyway. To some degree, it’s still happening, and has never really stopped happening. But I’ll get to that.
I have a seven year old hound dog mix, named Brunswick. Brunswick is a golden brown canine, smooth fur, floppy, darker ears and snout, and a bit of a crooked tail. He’s a good pooch. Doesn’t ask for much except dinner and breakfast and the chance to stretch his legs. He’s got long legs, and since we moved to the woods a year ago, both of us are happier than we’ve ever been. In fact, the abundance of space up here, the clean air, the sound of trees and not much else, those were all big factors for me in moving to this little woods-covered mountain. We’re pretty far from anywhere that might be deemed “city-like” by normal folks. Around here, the mall is a gas station that happens to have a food counter where you can get submarine sandwiches, pizza, and beer. And I like that.
Each morning, Brunny and I have our breakfast — eggs for me, doggy cereal for him — and head towards the woods for a good hike. It’s about a quarter mile down the paved road where I can turn onto a short stretch of dirt road that leads to a marked path in the woods. Supposedly hikers use the area in the warmer season, but to be honest, I think I’ve seen one, maybe two hikers out here ever. It’s the kinda place that feels like it’s our own little section of land, though I know deep down that it must belong to someone else. Likely the state, I guess.
Brunswick and I walk the trail for nearly an hour each morning. He loves to sniff things, and trot along the path, his crooked tail in the air, happy as a clam. Occasionally he’ll dart into the bushes as if he’s spotted something — a chipmunk perhaps — and dig around a bit. He’s never actually caught anything, of course. He’s mostly just a big lummox with a heart of gold and a can-do attitude, both toward life and the situation in general.
About another quarter mile from the start of the winding dirt trail, we cross a large, open field, and then hit an ancient steel suspension bridge. The bridge seems very sturdy, though it bounces and sways a bit when we cross over it, and my guess is that it was built in the last sixty years or so. The trail we follow through the woods is marked as a snowmobile trail, though most of the signs are ancient — falling apart, or so faded that you can’t tell what they actually used to say. The bridge connects the old snowmobile trail from the main road (the paved road, also known as route 5) to the rest of the something like forty miles of twenty-foot wide, winding path in the forest.
The bridge crosses over Elk River, a lazy gurgling stream more than a river, about twenty feet up in the air. The first time I took Brunny over the bridge, it took him some convincing not to turn around at the half way point. Once the bridge started its slow bounce and jiggle, he was forced to stop his forward motion, lest he (in his doggy opinion) tumble into the water down below. He turned and looked at me that day, as he does from time to time, with a look that says “Why are you making me do this?”.
But once Brunny got a taste of the woods — the real forest on the other side of that bridge — well, the river crossing was much more of a slight inconvenience to him. You put some chores between a man and a cheeseburger, and those chores will get done much faster. Same thing, here. But I’d say that Brunswick loves to run in the grass and trees perhaps even a little bit more than eating a cheeseburger. Even with bacon. The maple kind.
That Tuesday was a sunny day. The temperature, according to my old, circular, Wal*Mart thermometer (the cheapo kind with an ink sketch of a deer, or bear, or moose on it) that was nailed to the oak tree by the kitchen window, was 49 degrees. A bit chilly for some. Perfect for us. Especially with those patches of sunshine that we soak up between the trees, or on the occasional open section of field. I was dressed in my shorts, as I like to hang onto the warm weather until well into October, and Brunswick was naked, save for his bright orange dog collar with his name and our phone number stitched into it. Folks around here consider it hunting season year round, and a bit of orange on a fella, or a pet, is generally a good idea.
We cleared the bridge, the water below looking a bit lower than usual. A few rotten old sticks poked up from the rocky bottom of Elk river, but she didn’t seem as deep as she had been last summer. We got a crazy rainstorm that lasted three days, and the things we saw floating down that river, well. We saw lots of things. But the water level had receded weeks ago, and Elk river now seemed far from imposing.
Half way across the bridge I stopped, placing my hands on the rough boards that served as a handrail, feeling the echoing bounce and jive of the suspension bridge slow to a stop; the only thing traveling on it had ceased its movement. Brunswick, as usual, had raced ahead of me as fast as his long pooch legs could carry him, eager to be into the thick of the woods, and had already crossed to the other side.
I closed my eyes, listening to the babble of the water, taking in great deep breaths of air. Smelling the sweet scent of pine trees and oak trees and birch trees. I felt the sun warm my face. I glanced to the far end of the bridge, and saw loyal Brunswick there, looking at me, wondering if we were going to continue. There were times when we would do just a short walk, but we’d never turned around at the bridge yet. Depending on how my stomach was feeling (from time to time I get a little swirly in the guts) we might only go five to ten minutes past the bridge, but today we were going to go as far as we could. The sun was shining, the weather was wonderful, and life was good.
“I’m coming, Brunny,” I said to him in a reassuring voice. He wagged his crooked tail, delighted that we were continuing on. He hadn’t dared to tread back half-way across the bridge I guessed, because that might mean he’d conceded with the idea of calling it quits at this point of our walk. As soon as I moved toward him, he spun in place, nose to the ground, hunting some rather invisible chipmunks, and hoping for a rabbit or other varmint to chase. I crossed the bridge, and leaned over to tie my boot lace on one of the large, dark railroad ties that acted as a support under the bridge’s off ramp. I smiled, loving our days in the fresh air, and feeling like the world was ours. I heard Brunswick dart off in the bushes after something he thought he had spotted.
Now, neither of us had any idea what we were about to discover. Something not of this earth, almost. Something made of metal. Something … alive.