Short Fiction by RD Mouton
Although I had spent time with her before, I didn’t start thinking about Judith until the day we took Peter into the woods. It was mid-morning at the tail end of summer, and I had never seen trees so tall. It felt like being in a cathedral, with there being more light inside than you felt you could account for.
Judith was in a mild trance of some kind, not saying much. Usually I’d try to keep it from getting too quiet, but this time the silence felt comfortable. I thought animals might act this way, how our eyes occasionally laid on the same thing or passed over each other, and I quite liked that feeling, being surrounded by plants and rocks and leaves.
Occasionally her eyes would settle on Peter though, and I couldn’t help think she was quiet because she was thinking about him. He looked like a sea bird, I thought. He was a tall guy, with broad shoulders but very narrow limbs. His face was nice, admittedly. You could say he looked like a rock star, with dark shaggy hair and big lips. He had lost a lot of colour, but in a way I could see how that might be working for him.
She had his legs and I had his top half, which was fair, since I was the bigger one of us (though she probably was stronger). She had offered to take the heavier end, and I felt sluggish from a cold coming on so I almost let her take it. When we turned him out of the truck bed onto the gravel he landed face down, and she grabbed him with two hands to flip him over, one on the inside of his leg, one on a belt loop on his hip. The gesture seemed odd.
I wondered how she saw Peter, whether he was still partly a person or just a body.
The first dead thing I ever saw was in a grocery store. I was still small, kneeling down in the cereal aisle, digging through the extra-large bags in the wire bins beneath the shelves. At the very bottom of one of the bins there was something light brown and soft looking. When I picked it up, it was too big for my hand, so the front and the back of it hung out the sides of my curled-up fingers. An older boy who worked at the store came over and told me to give it to him. I couldn’t understand what he meant. He seemed mad and scared, and I didn’t know why, because to me, the rat was just a thing.
We had agreed to take Peter at least one half-mile off the trailhead, and we had made it almost half that way when I saw a jagged stump covered in a yellow chalky looking sap, and thought we might take a break.
I asked Judith, and she said she would be glad to rest. We laid Peter on the ground at first, and then moved him around a bit, so he was propped upright, with his back against a tree.
I’d known Judith for a while, but I was still surprised to find she was this strong. She made her hands like cups and crossed her arms, so she could dig them into the muscle on the top of her shoulders. She doubled over to stretch her lower back, then took a seat next to Peter.
I stayed standing, making sure to listen for approaching sounds. I was picking at the stump, thinking about the sap, why there was so much, what about the open air made it crystallize, when she asked me why I was so wide eyed.
I had never been in the woods before I said.
Never, I said. And it was true as far as I could remember.
So you’ve never been camping?
I said no, and the answer seemed to make her confused, as she didn’t say anything for a little while. Next she asked whether I’d been to the beach, which I had.
I saw one in South Carolina, I said. I wasn’t sure if that was true or not though, because it was so long ago. I didn’t know what to ask her back. Sometimes when people asked me questions I started to feel discouraged about the conversation, like the answers I gave them were bound to be worse than the answers they expected.
Despite how I felt, I started trying to make a plain face, so that I could turn around from the stump and see what she was thinking. When I did, she had one of Peter’s hands in hers. She was using her nails to clean the dirt out from under his. Once she saw I’d turned, she let out a small embarrassed sound, then let his hand drop into the dirt.
She offered to take the heavy end again, but I still didn’t let her. Our plan—Judith’s plan—was to hoist Peter up to the top of an evergreen tree, so once we got far enough we had to start looking for good options. From what she told me, the tallest evergreen is three-hundred feet tall, which would be a great one to find but for how long it would take to get Peter that high up. We were looking for a regular kind of tall tree, a tall but-not-extraordinary tree.
We spent a good amount of time wandering through nature in one direction, looking for the tree. Even though Peter was heavy, I felt flushed with positive feelings while Judith and I walked together, scanning the undersides of trees. It was such a simple thing to appreciate her, being with her right then. She was a tall, useful woman. I realised I’d never looked at someone in a context like this— with their eyes turned up towards a light streaming through a canopy of brush-like leaves. Over her shoulder I saw a funnel-shaped mushroom the colour of construction paper and I could swear someone tapped me on the shoulder right then and said into my ear, ‘Hey, Al. Doofus. Look around. Your life is never this good.’
Peter and I waited on the ground. Judith took a lubricated rope up a two-hundred-foot evergreen that was growing especially close to two others. She had a lead rope, that I held the free end of. She would loop it halfway around a nearby branch every once in a while, just in case a branch broke or she lost her grip.
She climbed well, using her arms for balance and her legs for power. I watched as she carefully shifted her weight, and her hips swung over in the direction of the next highest limb.
Albert, she said, give me more slack than you’re giving me, and I realised that the rope had been dragging against my ankle. She reached the top in ten minutes.
I belayed her down with the pulley-knot she made at the top of the tree, and we started work. We had hauled Peter halfway up the tree when someone yelled.
Judith froze, but I doubled down on the rope, yanking and jumping away from the tree, wrapping it around my wrists to keep it from slipping, to get Peter to the top as fast as I could. When I ran out of slack Judith was nowhere around. I stood there for a moment, with the rope clenched between my fists, listening. I heard nothing, and decided the best thing to do would be to sit there against the tree for a while, so I did, with the rope under my butt, wrapped around my pant leg a couple of times.
The yell had come from far away, I thought. I waited for a long time, which was good, because I’d lost my breath in the panic. My hands were bright pink and only stopped stinging if I pressed them hard into my jeans, but I was afraid to rest and take more than one hand off the rope at once. Shouts came again from the distance every couple of minutes. I kept trying to think of what I would say if someone walked by, but I never came up with anything.
Judith reappeared, out of breath, with a serious look on her face. Someone’s hurt I think, she said. We both knew that wasn’t good, but it wasn’t particularly bad either. Judith left her harness and shot up the tree again with the extra rope while I sat there still under load, listening to the shouting person. Not once did I hear the word help. From this distance it sounded like the screech of train tracks. It didn’t take Judith long, but it wasn’t until I heard her climbing down that I let slack go into the rope underneath me. No creaking. No crashing. We were all set.
We did a quick check for blood with some wet wipes, then agreed to go find the screamer.
The closer we got, the more human the sound became. It was a woman certainly, and she wasn’t screaming exactly, but rather sing-songing a long, high yowl into the air. We walked for over a mile before we found her.
We saw her from far off, a youngish girl with red hair, seated on a rock, wearing a fluorescent yellow sports top, black tights, and pink jogging shoes. Seeing her made me realise how bizarre Judith and I must have looked in our not-quite hiking gear—both of us in jeans, me in steel-capped boots.
The girl was right around our age, and she stopped calling once we stepped out onto the trail.
She was calm when we reached her, even smiling a little. She said she was sorry that she made so much noise. It was her ankle she said. It happened all the time, so much that she had an array of splints and wraps waiting for her back at her home down the road. Only trouble was she jogged here, and her phone was dead.
Judith did all the talking, which was a relief. The girl— Shayna— asked if we had a phone, and Judith lied beautifully, saying Oh no we don’t. That would defeat the purpose of being out in the big beautiful woods.
Shayna liked that, but it meant she’d have to make it to the trailhead somehow. Four and a half miles she said, making a hard wincing smile at the two of us.
Well, I said, we actually know a shorter way.
Judith swung her head towards me, slowly. She smiled but it was fake. Her eyes were ablaze. She turned back to Shayna.
Yeah, she said. We’re actually parked about two miles that-aways. It’s off-trail but not too treacherous.
Shayna liked that idea. She said the park rangers had given her a ride home before, and they weren’t particularly friendly about doing that kind of thing.
Judith and I tried to hold Shayna between the two of us, with her armpits over our shoulders, but really she was too small for it to work—her feet only barely touched the ground that way. I offered her a piggy-back ride and found she was light, the weight of a little girl. As we made our way back, I got the feeling Peter’s tree would be coming up very soon. I made the biggest loop I could around it without losing my bearings.
Shayna and Judith talked continuously as we walked, and I couldn’t believe how well it went. I heard so much more about Judith than I would have learned otherwise. She was from Arizona. Badgers were her favourite animal. Shayna wanted to play the clarinet professionally. As we all walked together I answered some of the questions to myself, and it suddenly I felt like maybe my answers weren’t so bad. I was born in central Florida, but I grew up in West Virginia. Scorpions were my favourite animal, because they have hardly changed in over 300 million years of existence.
I drove all three of us to where Shayna lived. Judith got out of the passenger seat to help Shayna make it down from the truck, and then up the path towards the house. Halfway up the walk Shayna stopped, turned around and waved to me in the driver’s seat. She shouted thanks so much, Al! so I shouted No problem! right back.
Judith disappeared behind the red door of the house for about three minutes. She came out at a half-run towards the truck, made for the handle, and sprung up into the passenger seat.
Hey, I asked, do you feel like driving through somewhere? There is a place that still does breakfast this late.
No thanks, she said, it’s been a really, really hard day.
I had to go back into the woods a couple more times, but after that time with Peter, I was always by myself. I was alone in the woods one day when I saw Shayna again. I was crossing a path, towards a lake I had seen come up on a google search, when I saw someone jogging right at me.
She was wearing much of the same outfit, with black tights and bright shoes, except her top was a soft cotton T-shirt that said Maryville Brewery on it. There was a second that I thought she wouldn’t recognize me, that it might be better to keep moving on towards the lake since Judith wasn’t there to do the talking like last time, but to my surprise, Shayna jogged right up to me, and grabbed me by the arm.
Al! she said. Oh my gosh it’s you Al!
Hey Shayna! I said, but she didn’t let go of my arm. She held it close to her like a football, with one arm around my wrist, and another around my elbow.
I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, she said, breathing hard and smiling. I could see she had straight, shiny teeth.
I wish that I had taken your number down before, she said.
How is Judith?
Oh I don’t really know, I said.
Her bottom lip shot up a little. Oh sweetie, she said. You didn’t try to tell her, did you?
Tell her what?
You know, she said, smiling a little and pressing her hand into her chest, over her heart.
Uhh, I’m not sure I do, I said. I couldn’t tell what she meant to ask me, but suddenly the conversation felt doomed. She looked so sad, and surely, I was just about to say another wrong thing to her. It was like I’d just given her the worst news. I recognized how disappointed she was, and it made me feel sad too—and empty, so empty I wanted to quit standing up.
Oh, she said, her face starting to change back into something not so bad. It’s fine, don’t worry. She still had both hands on my arm. Hey, are you going anywhere important? she asked. Do you want to walk back to my place with me and have some tea?
I was surprised she said that, but I said yes. I had some time to walk with her.
We walked together quietly for a while, but in a way that didn’t feel natural. Whenever I looked over at her, she moved her head to look me in the eyes and smiled.
Finally I asked her how her ankles were doing lately, and she said that they weren’t bothering her any more than usual. She explained that when things go wrong in such a small space in your body so many times, it’s not likely that things will ever go back to being healthy. But it doesn’t bother her she said. As far as she saw it, everyone was born with a certain number of strengths and weaknesses, and for the most part people tend to have a similar number of each. She thinks that if her ankles were good, she would have had to trade one of the things she liked about herself to balance that out. She liked herself exactly how she was, she said, and her strengths were what made her feel that way.
I asked what she liked about herself.
Oh, I don’t know, she said. It’s hard to explain without sounding like an asshole. It was quiet for a while after that.
The pathway to her house led through a dense thicket that was all mixed up with electricity towers and power lines. It was hard to feel comfortable around Shayna, but I wasn’t sure why. She talked a lot, which I liked, about things like art. She said that artists were some of the most important people in the world. I felt like I agreed with everything she said, but I didn’t understand why we talked about the things we did—I wasn’t sure what to add. She scared me a little, somehow. She was so happy to see me. I wanted to know how special that was, whether I was one of a lot of people that made her feel that way, or if it was me and just a couple of others. While we walked together I kept thinking about how small she was, and how easy she was to carry the first time that I met her.
We went into her house through the back door, which I hadn’t seen. It opened into a long hallway, and when I shut the door behind myself, I realised that she and I were in the dark. It took a second for my eyes to start to adjust. I stood still, trying to sense the surroundings. Shayna’s voice came from halfway down the hall.
Sorry, she said. My parents don’t turn on the power or the heat until the summer. She opened a door behind her and some faint grey light streamed in that made it easier to see. She came towards me and grabbed my hand. We walked past the open door, which was a bedroom, towards the front of the house, where there was a small room filled with books, an armchair, and a dark green silk sofa that was split so much the stuffing showed. We sat on it together.
She sat straight up, with her shoulders back. There were two white squares shining on her eyes where the reflection of the window struck them.
I know your secret, she said. I felt panic, but nothing about the moment felt right for it. She was too calm, too excited for me to have any reason to worry. Even so, I decided to wait, to not say anything. There was a long silence, and she took my hand in both of hers, like she did back in the woods.
How does that make you feel? she asked.
I still didn’t say anything.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I’m not doing any of this to make you feel bad. Really I thought that you’d be the type that wanted to talk about it. When I saw you and Judith together it was not hard to figure out.
Yeah, I said. I guess it is pretty obvious.
She smiled at that and squeezed my hand. Her eyes crinkled into little crescents.
So, she said, where do all the bodies come from?