“No sir that would not work.” Pierre says to the tramp in the battered plaid suit. “Some years ago I lit an entire shack full of dynamite. While the experience left me insensible for a brief period I remained, as you can see, fully intact.”
Everybody guffaws as the plaid tramp passes the bottle to the little lame hobo. Pierre remembers this from before the darkness descended, stories around a campfire to pass the time, a place where a stranger can speak the truth knowing nobody’s going to believe him anyway.
“You hear that, Chuck?” the weasel-faced boy by the tarpaper lean-to asks the burly one-eared man squatting beside him. “Think he could take a mortar round like you did at Guadacanal?”
The burly man looks up, the stubble on his jaw nearly as long as his buzzcut. “It was at Chosun, not that a little pansy like you would know about war.”
The weasel-faced boy sneers. “Not that you’d know who your Daddy is.”
“What did you just say?” Chuck asks slowly as he stands. Pierre holds up his hands, palms facing outward as if he could shove away the jagged anger rising at the fire’s edge.
“Easy, cats. No need for aggression, let’s have a chilled out session, you need some relief and I got some sweet leaf.” He snaps his fingers as Chuck’s rage cools back down to annoyance and reaches into the backpack for the joint lying atop the shotgun shells. “The smoke is my deliverance and salvation, keeps me out of bad situations, provides my questions an explanation. And if you two gentlemen will partake I’m sure you’ll be able to put your differences behind you.”
“How about that, Chuck?” The boy turns his attention to Pierre. “He ain’t just good at exploding, he can rhyme too.”
Chuck stares at Pierre’s cigarette. “Don’t you read the papers? That stuff will make you crazy.”
“My experience, sir, is quite the opposite.” Pierre strikes a kitchen match against the sole of his boot. “When I first met Mary Jane, the weight of my sorrows pressed me so that I could but cry out in my despair. And then, as I wept and raged in a forest, a little Mexican man came to me with a fat smoldering reefer. One draw of that fine Mexicali tea and I began to feel like myself again. I tried to pass it back but he said, ‘No, all yours’ and disappeared.”
Pierre inhales, then blows out smoke and hands the joint to the plaid tramp.
“I still believe him to be an angel sent to offer me balm for my affliction. And since that moment I have always taken pains to keep Miss Mary Jane near at hand.”
“Pass that over here,” the boy says. “Ain’t every day you get to smoke reefer from an angel.”
Chuck grunts his disapproval. “Johnny, you gonna be even funnier than you already are.”
“Weren’t you listening?” The boy examines the joint. “This comes from God.”
The little lame hobo looks up. “You oughtn’t be mocking a man who’s telling the truth.”
Johnny starts to respond but something in the old man’s unblinking grey gaze stops him. The fire crackles as he turns to Pierre.
“I met another of your kind a long time ago. I wasn’t no older than Johnny nor no smarter. This one looked my age when I met him but he was older. I bet he still looks the same even though I don’t.”
“Yes sir,” Pierre hesitates for a second. “He probably does.”
“I was working in Michigan then, at the Callimac Mine on the Gogebic Range. You know where that is?”
“Yes sir,” Pierre says as he stares at the flames reflecting in the old man’s eyes like Diogenes-lanterns. “On the Upper Peninsula. I used to know that area real well.”
“Business was still just holding on then. Everyone knew things was near tapped out. There wasn’t but a skeleton crew working by the winter of ’16. Everyone else had been let go and I was planning to head to Detroit to see if they had anything for me in the new automobile plants. That was when we started dying.”
The scent of piñon pines wafts on the evening breeze. Pierre remembers the smell of balsam firs and white spruce and frost over swampland: he draws on the joint as if its cherry might drive away the long-ago cold.
“It was a hard winter and we lost one with every snowfall. At first we figured they was just moving on like we was going to move on. Then right before the New Year we found what was left of Aleksi. Jefferson, the security guard, said it was a bear. Only he couldn’t explain how this bear tore a grown man to pieces and didn’t leave no footprints.”
Pierre passes to the little lame man, who shakes his head. He stretches the joint out toward Johnny but the boy stands motionless as his sneer melts into terror.
“Two nights later it snowed again and we heard shots in the dark. Next morning Jefferson was gone.” The old man takes a gulp from his pint. “Later someone told me they found his badge and his gun in the woods that spring. Never heard of them finding anything else.”
Chuck eyes Pierre warily: the plaid tramp hesitates before taking the joint from him. Pierre stares straight ahead into the fire, hoping the last dancing flames will distract him from memories of loud noises and acrid smells and a brief stinging spark exploding into shrieking red velvet shreds. The old man stares into the flames with Pierre, his knuckles white as he clutches the bottle.
“That was when we all decided to go. But the railroad wasn't running and all the roads were blocked. There was no getting out save with a dogsled or a snowmobile and we didn’t have neither. Big Bjorn remembered Jefferson had a pair of snowshoes. But then Kowalski pointed out even so you couldn’t walk to Ironwood without spending the night in the woods. And wasn’t a man in that camp willing to do that."
“Winters are hard in that part of the country,” Pierre says, trying to keep the words coming. He can feel the smooth brass of the Pinkerton man’s watch and wonders what time it is now, a beast of the field knows light and dark but a man can read a clock, it was three seconds past 8:38 when he came in and when he looks down again it is exactly 9:32.
“Since we had nothing else to do, we all decided to wait for death or the train, whichever got through first. Turned out to be neither.”
The dancing flames are flickering lower now, nothing left but embers and fear and the little lame man sitting on his orange carton. Pierre extends his hands, easy cats, and the plaid tramp becomes a blank gap-toothed smile but Johnny and Chuck are out of range, he can feel their terror but can’t snuff out its locust-song. The lame man eyes him quizzically.
“The other fellow was different. You make folks calm. He couldn’t help but make you feel like there were spiders inside you.”
Chuck moves away, Pierre thinks he might run into the hills but instead he grabs a handful of sticks and kindling and throws it on the smoldering fire.
“I was the one keeping watch when he walked into camp. He didn’t leave no tracks in the snow. The way that thing in the woods didn’t leave no footprints.” The old man drains the rest of his pint. “The way your boots weren’t muddy even though you had to cross a creek to get here.”
“Quit it, Pops,” Johnny says, his voice a high whimper. “This ain’t funny no more.”
“Wasn’t funny at all,” Pops says, smiling faintly despite himself. “I wanted to run but I couldn’t turn away even though looking into those eyes was like sticking your head into the maw of hell.”
Not like hell, Pierre thinks, like a great empty void and at the bottom snow and stars and hands so pale the moonlight reveals knuckle-bones beneath the skin and a sad-eyed boy singing Domini Deus Noster, Miserere Nobis.
The old man continues. “He told me there was no monster in the woods, just a soul in torment and that it wouldn't trouble us again. I asked him what he meant and he said he couldn't take away its suffering but he eased it for a little while. Then he laughed and I swear to God I soiled myself when I heard that laugh.”
Singing till you can’t help but sing with him, Miserere Nobis, and then you remember language and fall sobbing to your knees in the snow and there is no singing, just a pale hand on your head and a soft voice saying “A beast of the field howls but a man has words to sing with.”
“The next morning they finally cleared the tracks and we all left on the next train. Except Kowalski. We found him in his bunk with his throat slit.”
“Stop it, Pops,” Johnny is nearly crying now. “Stop it.”
“What’s the matter, Johnny? Thought you didn’t believe in any of this bullshit.” The old man laughs as he turns again to Pierre. “Don’t worry, kid. If you meant us harm we’d all be dead right now, ain’t that right?”
Pierre hesitates then decides he doesn’t want to go to Dr. Oppenheimer with lies on his conscience.
“Yes sir,” he nods. “That’s right.”