Zoe Grace Marquedant
when you walk through spider webs, there is the sense that no one has been here. at least not since this silk tripwire was spun. a hair’s breadth bisects and you remember you are alone. nothing has walked here, nothing has broken the strands, the morning’s industry. nothing but busy spiders live here. in this untrodden place. you are amongst insects. their country. with only water. sometimes when you step, you feel not just one string across your shins but also your knees, thighs, more of your body than expected and you think: he’s got me. finally. in that moment, when you are suddenly crosshatched by what was meant for mayflies, it is as if this was meant to happen.
this is what the woods are for. eating and feeding. fearing. sometimes you stumble backwards. sometimes you see the spider. sometimes you make swiping movements, wiping away the feeling of entrapment. other times you see the unfortunate insect, like a pupil, at the center of an undisturbed web. but this time the ones that laid this trap have shrunken back into their burrows without you. to lay in wait for someone else. and you are let past.
when you look up into the trees, the intertwined bodies of pine, maple, ash, oak, you try to imagine what might live there. what could be hiding in the leaves, deep in a hollow. perched on the branches, disappearing into open air just out of sight. a blur, a flash, the sound of something landing, taking off, weighing down the foliage, scaring the smaller animals, sending them running, frightened, sending you running.
where are the eyes amongst the shadows? blinking from within the splits in the rocks? feeding off the livestock, feeding off the land. tunneling, leaving dirt where they scratched their way under logs. curled into the manmade spaces, now abandoned, reclaimed. mines, fire towers, wells. repurposed by the wild. draped in vines and covered in the evidence of being eaten. the undersides of cornerstones, rotted doors wriggle ripe with the life of the mountains.
what else feasts? on this banquet? the richest of fish and mice, moles, and voles. and house cats. and hikers with their backpacks, bandanas, their bags of granola, dinner over open fires. no companions, no cell service, a knife for cutting plastic packs of precooked sausages, not skin. no help, no one to hear screaming, no one to do anything. just the soft drumming ah-ha of your breath that reminds you there’s no warm exhale intermingling with yours. you could fall, choke, be carried off and no one would know. there’s nothing out here. it’s just you.
when you consider the quiet, you think something else is supposed to move. on front legs. and back legs, pressing its stomach across the ground. perhaps slicing wayward sheep open. frightening children out of old cow sheds and basements, sending them off so quickly they lose shoes and never return to look for them. something thinning the herds. something whispered by farmers in the lowlands. something that finishes bones, but leaves wet blood on the grass to be discovered in the morning.
but no. beyond the gravel that clatters, and skitters, and washes away to dirt in most places, there’s quiet. a stillness. which provokes more fear than anything crashing through the night. you are what moves in the woods. you and this absence. even the birds are hushed. thin streams between rocks keep mum. the air moves without telling you. there’s nothing. your footfalls go unaccompanied. in this place of silence. wherever you are. where no one can hear you. where no one can see you. where do you go? if no creature comes up behind you? if no monster waits up ahead? if you’re free to go forward?
the miles you make in a day, the lefts you take instead of rights, every hill you climb is only known to you. your path untraceable, your next move unknowable, you are moving through an ever-evolving unknown. it’s just you and no one knows it. your movements could be guessed, suspected, figured out eventually, your pack found abandoned, your fire pits cool but visible. but your steps, how and why one follows the other is only known to you. no one else.
when you crawl into your tent at night, you memorize the growl of the zipper. the sound it makes when it opens. the speed at which the velcro parts. how the plastic sags underfoot. with socks. without. how the canvas catches the wind and lifts a little. how your head-high chamber inflates, lunglike, and sinks. it’s moving. the only thing moving. puffed up, exhaling. it does the thing that bodies do. and then it doesn’t as even the air stops its ceaseless rushing at night. chest-fallen, you agree to stillness too.
awake and memorizing the particular shapes of darkness. alert for changes. but the night goes unnoticed. only sound, no motion. all thunder and no lightning. crickets, cuckoos, owls. waterfowl. screeching, cawing, talking to each other through the blackness. no way to see should something come scratching. there’s a chance that the sounds of the four feet in the grass belong to something bigger, but then it purrs and your fears are small again.
then everything is overtaken by the sound of falling water. the trees break in the rain, splintering into each other as if in a fistfight. sending ripples, a chain reaction through the mountain. from your clearing, you wonder what will come looking for shelter. are you safe? do you stay? what else wants to be dry? droplets leech through seams, holes chewed by mold, and collects where you don’t want it. the beads magnify into a river, a lake beneath your boots. that night only the water gets in. but you listen anyway until sleep becomes insistent.
when you feel something, the small suggestion of movement across your legs is not a figment of your imagination, but the soft needle-heads of legs-legs-legs-legs-legs marching. something with a segmented body. no teeth but perhaps pinchers, stinger, poison, the instinct to burrow. in your childhood bedroom, that same sense of small body on large body was a piece of lint, the edge of a sheet falling, or just a dream. something made up in sleep. something from deep inside, slipping out.
tonight balanced barely in waking, its six distinct points making their way from calf to the back of the knee. brushed away absentmindedly with the hope of never feeling it again. what it was is unknown. is simply: moving, alive, on me, gone, hopefully. nocturnal? natural? egg-laying? does it hide in corners, on the ceiling, under bedding? you are double-bagged in layers and yet something still gets in.
finds you. proves your tent, your bed, all your closures have openings somewhere. they’re not impenetrable. more than rain joins you. what else? and when? will you hear it? or will its entrance, its movements be missed? how can you be expected to fall back asleep? are you surprised when you do? when again nothing happens for a few more hours?
when you wake in the morning, the sun is slow-moving. warming half the earth, that sleeping reptile, before spreading across the other. you watch sunlight lazily cross the clearing, brightness pushing shadows back under the cover of tree branches. revealing soft earth, the passage of night, dawn, neighboring critters. the ground is speckled with the cursive of claws and paws and pads of everything you didn’t hear coming. everything unseen that saw you sleeping. you leave the largest mark stepping out to shake off the damp.
the dew is disrupted, drops perched on grasses rupture and run groundward. you pack water. you pull on layers. you eat standing. you spit into the bushes. you leave so much of yourself where you were. stray hairs, sweat, skin cells, flinty pieces of fingernail where you nearly missed yourself cutting something to eat. crumbs. the vapour of coughing, clearing your throat. the size of your body against the ground. an imprint. and the footprints leading in the direction you’ll be going all day.
when you look over your shoulder, on the short hike that becomes longer, there is still nothing following. nothing tracking as you hairpin higher. to visit another removed piece of woodland. to sit on a rock to survey the distance and find it unmarred, unmoving. unoccupied. where you drink until it runs down your chin then smack your lips and consider how much further. where amidst the faint lines of the treeline is enough? where do you stop? depends on how long the light lasts in this season, on this particular slope of the mountain.
there is no other decision-maker. no other mouth for water. only one set of footsteps, one shadow tail you. there is no other. no one else to satisfy. no one else to watch for. no one to keep an eye on. no creeping sense. no snapping of small sticks. no dry wood sliding underfoot. no disturbance in the leaf litter. everything is where it was laid. where it fell. where it rolled. to turn to dust, to decompose. there is no otherness. nothing behind, in the corner of the eye.
no scent intermingling, amiss amidst the smell of hot pine needles on the forest floor. no motor smoke, burnt rubber, banana peel, washing powder, shower gel smell of other people. just the faintness of moving water in your nostrils, unplaceable but present. as indescribable as faith. understood deep in your senses. something that has been in your body a long time, primordial as the mountains themselves, the rock face, the summer ice.
when you wait for something to come get you, nothing does. you live and you live and you live and nothing stops you. you plunge deep into a far-ness, worm under fallen trees, over boulders, through streams so cold they sting, and nothing follows. where is danger and why hasn’t it found you? is this luck or are you just a course best saved for later?
not even a vulture. the raptors are fat on rabbits and lambs. the wolves were hunted out of these mountains, their valleys. all predators cleared away like old growth. for the land beneath me is pasture. bears went the same way but supposedly wander in like neighbors. camera traps catch wildcats passing by bodies of water thought to be long abandoned. no longer considered life-giving. they only occasionally attract the unseen, while migrating, moving on to elsewhere. anything bigger than a pine marten is over the border.
I wonder as I walk, is it me? am I the thing lurking amidst the trees? am I the creature? the dark corner of nature? the thing that defies science? for I, too, have never been seen. there are no witnesses. there is no one with me. no monstrous inhabitants. no shapeshifters. no giants. no titans. no myths.
no bedtime stories of young girls gone missing, leaving nothing but a sky blue hair ribbon snagged on a boundary fence to prove they ever existed. no reason to lock and bolt and worry and wring your fingers and thread your pointer through the trigger guard and sleep with the lights on and never wander the woods at night. no shadow crosses under the door. nothing makes the dog bristle, bark, whine, shrink. nothing unidentified. nothing betraying the eye. only me.
Zoe Grace Marquedant is a queer writer. Her work has been featured in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, Cool Rock Repository, Analog Cookbook, Talk Vomit, and elsewhere. Follow @zoenoumlaut.