“The only thing I like better than bringing a beautiful woman to orgasm,” the minotaur told Kenneth, “is killing a cop.” He held up his gloves. “And I do both with these two hands.”
Kenneth didn’t know what to say. How had he ended up in this nerve-wracking conversation? He was only here in the first place because his in-laws made him nervous.
The truth was, everyone made him nervous, more or less, even his own wife and kids. He could never truly relax unless he was alone. That was why he’d come home early. He’d accompanied Emily and the twins to her parents’ place on Christmas Eve, slept over as per usual, opened presents, even went to church and pretended to sing, mouthing nothing, but without complaint. Then he’d caught the train back alone, to get some “work” done. They’d follow in a couple of days.
He was not looking for adventure, to run loose without the family. He had never been the type to cheat or even to have a boys’ night out drinking or gambling. Quite the opposite. His first marriage had ended because, among other things, he’d been too boring. In art school he’d fallen for a beautiful and brilliant girl and they’d married when she got pregnant with a daughter. But he was not cut out for that life: He drifted from painting into graphic design and advertising, preferred staying home to intellectual dinner parties, TV to confounding performance art or deafening noise, and didn’t have the stamina, or the foolish courage, for bohemian life. When she told him she wanted a divorce, he didn’t argue. He was crushed, quietly crushed, heart sinking like a diver gone too deep, silently collapsing under the pressure, but he knew she was right. He focused on work, mainly in finance: logos, websites, annual reports, whatever. It paid well and, though the clients could be overbearing bullies, he found them easier to deal with than the “creatives” one met in the fashion or art worlds, who were constantly throwing tantrums, or having brainstorms, then changing their minds. His business clients gave him a job and said thank you when it was done. They even paid him. On time.
He began dating his biggest client’s daughter, and she soon she became his new wife. A nutritionist and life coach, she quit to raise their kids, but pretty much managed his life like one of her clients (or were they patients?): diet, clothes, even his haircuts. She was the one who had wanted to live out here. She decorated the house. Kenneth had no objections. He was grateful. He felt lucky to have stumbled into such a nice life. Yet he did not ever really feel at home in this house, these clothes, even this family. What he could never admit, to anyone, was that he still felt like a stranger visiting among them. Most nights after dinner, he retreated to his studio to work, or pretend to. But he did not watch porn or gamble online like other men pretending to work. He did not even watch sports. He read. He listened to music on headphones. Often, on the old TV he kept there, he’d be watching the same program that his wife and kids were, hunched in his dark burrow, while they sat laughing and snacking on popcorn in the warm family-room light.
How free he’d felt when they dropped him at the train, ridiculously so, as though he were the child and not the father. He picked up a pack of Marlboro Reds, a six of Bud and a bag of Hot Cheese Doodles at the deli by the train station before walking the three or so miles home. His own car, (a vintage Jaguar, another indulgence, his wife’s car was the family car, the Volvo wagon) was of course in the shop, and the shop, of course, was closed. He didn’t mind the walk. The threatened snow had not arrived and the air was brilliantly clear, as though a filter had frozen and shattered: He’d been looking through a dirty window he didn’t know was there. Now he could see the sky. As the road cut through the woods, he breathed clean air deep into his lungs, as though inhaling pine-scented oxygen freshly made. That was when he saw it, a flash through the branches, a silver gleam, like from a mirror or a shield, and heard music – wailing, whining, guitars, ricocheting off the trees.
It was shocking – he had never heard music in these woods, or seen anyone except the occasional bird watcher – but also oddly familiar. He knew this song from somewhere. Then the bass and drums jumped in, and the voice, unmistakable even when distorted by the echoing woods and shredded by the wind: it was Frank Zappa, singing about the mudshark. He hadn’t heard that one in ages. He paused on the side of the old road: broken asphalt still cracked from past winters, a ditch layered in dead leaves, and then the trees, pines with their deep green needles prickled out, stiff in the cold, white birches like ghosts or slender brides, and lording over it all, the oaks, ancient and massive, stripped bare and dead to us for winter, as though hewn from rock, like their own gravestones. It seemed impossible they would come back yet again next spring. Peering through, he saw the flash from another angle, as though a knight were galloping through the suburban woods, wielding a shield and sword, blasting the Mothers.
He left the road. Curiously, cautiously, he began moving toward the sound, or more like he was wading into it, a kind of force field breaking in waves against the trees. There was no path, just layered leaves, and no guide except the music, which kept abruptly cutting out then roaring back, like a bad connection. He was nowhere. Then he saw the mound.
It was a small hill of fresh soil, a shallow hole hastily filled with loose dirt – like a tiny grave, he thought, that a child might dig for a pet, though without even a childish marker, just one or two leaves that had fallen. Was something buried in there? He prodded it with his toe and the dirt crumbled. He crouched down and brushed away loose soil. There didn’t seem to be. Then, from that low angle, he saw the second mound.
It was about a hundred feet away, between two trees – though he supposed everything here was between two trees – another low pile of fresh earth. This time he grabbed a fallen twig and stuck it into the mound. Nothing. Just another shallow hole, dug and refilled. It was as he straightened up that he realized: there were perhaps a half dozen more scattered about. Someone had been hard at work. But why?
As the music, which had dwindled away to nothing, blared out again, tinny and distorted, Kenneth saw a tall thin shape striding in the distance: A man passing, like a stick figure, between the lines of the trees.
Kenneth inched forward, crouching low. But what was there to hide from? He was embarrassed, he supposed, to be caught spying, while at the same time eager to see the digger doing whatever he did. He crept up between the big trees that rose like fat columns around him and whose vast branches vaulted up and joined above him like buttresses in the sky. Then the woods parted and he saw the digger. Kenneth ducked, tingling with fear or excitement, that happy fear you felt as a kid playing hide and seek. He slowly peeked from behind a fallen oak.
The man was all in black, but not in winter gear: wool trousers, a black leather jacket, cut long and belted, kind of cheesy really, pointy black dress shoes, and a black hat, but not a wool cap or a fleece, a wide-brimmed fedora pulled down low. On his hands, black leather gloves. He had a brand-new shovel in one hand, that was what had been flashing, and in the other, what they used to call a boom box, a player, probably for CDs, or even tapes, a big one with a handle. That was why the sound had come and gone with him as he walked. Now he set the box down on a log and pulled a folded paper from his coat. He consulted it briefly and began to dig. Kenneth watched as he worked, quickly and efficiently. He dug his hole, then crouched and poked around with the shovel. Then he rose, stretching his back, and, leaning on his shovel, took a flat pint bottle of something from his pocket and drank. Then he re-filled the hole. He lit a cigarette, with a gold or highly polished brass lighter that flashed like the shovel had. But there was something else, something shiny that had gleamed on and off as he dug and now, peering carefully, Kenneth realized what it was: a heavy gold ring that the digger was wearing on the outside of his black leather glove. Peculiar.
He picked up his box and moved on. It only took a minute for the man to disappear into the maze of the woods, though the sound lingered, fading in and out as the box swayed in his hand. Finally that too was gone. Cramped and cold, Kenneth hurried back to the road and then up his driveway to his family’s home.
Kenneth had craved the solitude. But he had not imagined the silence. Or rather, to be precise, the lack of familiar sounds – the kids, wife, TV, yelling, laughing, crying – because, of course, as soon as this emptiness expanded, opening up a space that his family had filled, new noises that he’d never heard rushed in: the creaks and groans of the old house, the sighs and coughs of the heating system, the rumble of a small plane far overhead. He put on music, the classical station, blasting it through the house, then switched to Bad Religion, Germs, Dead Boys, all the stuff his wife didn’t like and would never tolerate him playing so loud. He drank a couple of beers and ate his cheese doodles, lying back on the couch, then jumping up when he got the orange powder on the cushions. He wiped it down with a sponge. The fact was, it was hard to relax. It was, he suspected, a learned skill, not something a beginner could just jump on the couch and do. On an impulse he went to the basement and searched his record collection, stored in milk crates in a corner. Finally he found it, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Live at the Fillmore East. He cleaned the vinyl and put on “Mudshark.” The second he heard it, he remembered, he’d been a kid when he’d first heard this, in a basement on someone’s Dad’s stereo, thrilled by the bawdy lyrics, hysterical at the absurd humor. He listened to both sides, drinking another beer. Then he went outside on the back deck to smoke.
If hearing that old song had triggered old memories, lighting the cigarette was like firing up a toxic time machine. It had been right around the same age, when he heard those records and started sneaking smokes, puffing away with friends in those same basement rec rooms, or stealing his mother’s cigarettes and slipping out the back door into the yard to light up, just like he was now: the stillness, the silent trees, the taste of smoke. That’s what he had been up to that day when, long ago in different woods, he first found the dead body.
It was spring, April probably, or late March, the first real thaw after an epic winter. He had just turned eight and the woods where he played had been transformed into an ocean bottom or archaeological dig. There were a dozen tires, a rotten couch, the skeletons of a bed and a dining room table, spongy mattresses like sprouting fungi that he bounced on as he tramped along, kicking in a broken TV set, shattering a discarded lamp. There were trashed bikes, books blooming into moldflowers, baby clothes, dead toys and toasters, a print cotton dress, still on a hanger, spotted in mildew and mud.
He trooped on, looking for a place to smoke the Kool cigarette he’d swiped from his mom, till he found a thick fallen limb, snapped off from a gigantic oak, no doubt during the heavy storms that year. He sat and struck damp matches until he got the Kool lit. It was horrible, he remembered still, like toxic toothpaste. He gagged and put it out. Then he noticed the rope, looped around the limb, dirty and soaked through. The other end trailed off into the snowbank around the tree, so he started tugging. It was tough, but there was something there. He got behind the log, foot up and braced, yanking like in a tug-o-war. Finally something gave, so he ran over and dug with his stick and then with bare hands. “I got it,” he yelled victoriously to no one, grasping at something with numb fingers. Then he saw what it was. A hand. Cold and rubbery, it did not seem real. He recoiled, but was fascinated too, sort of hypnotized, and as though in a trance, he gave the rope a final heave, unearthing the head like a huge rotten turnip. The end of the rope was noosed around the neck. Or it had been. It had sunk in as the flesh rotted, becoming part of the putrefied throat. The head itself was mostly gone. Eyes eaten by birds of pray. Face gone to rats and foxes. It was a hollow mess, like a pie chewed out from the center in a pie-eating contest, with the skull now obtruding, staring up at him in surprise, hair and teeth still comically intact. He ran home, howling, through the woods.
Kenneth’s house was close, a small, rundown place with missing shingles and a crooked porch on the first street he hit. He arrived in shock, already crying, breathing too hard to explain. Kenneth’s mother, a bit of a hysteric herself, went wild, thinking at first that he was injured, bleeding from somewhere she couldn’t see, or that a creepy man had done something to him in the woods. Hiccupping uncontrollably, he managed to choke out the story but, to his amazement, his mother did not believe him. No matter how much he argued, or begged her to come look or to call the police, she insisted, first soothingly, then angrily, that it was a fantasy, a mistake, a nightmare that he had misremembered. But how was that possible? Finally it was too dark anyway. Then it was dinner. Then it was time for bed.
The next day his mother told him to forget the whole thing but of course he was bursting. At school he told Danny Fogle, and word soon spread, first among the kids, then parents and teachers, till two days later, they were marching back out as a party, Kenneth anxious about seeing it again and feeling somehow in trouble, the parents serious and alternately silent or bossy, and the small-town cops openly excited. One even brought his family dog, as if this were a fugitive hunt. All except Kenneth’s mom, who stayed home.
Kenneth remembered the sense of mounting drama as they approached the clearing in dying light, the mingled anxiety and gratification at being so important. When they got close the kids were commanded to stay back, then the parents. They waited in anticipation. Some held hands and prayed. Then the cops called them through the trees. There was nothing there.
Time passed. Years added up. The woods were chopped down and plowed under for more houses but by then Kenneth had moved away. He too had begun to think of it as a childish nightmare, a strange dream that got mixed in with other faded snapshots in a memory box that, as the decades passed, he misplaced altogether.
Later that night, Kenneth walked to the local bar. A pub, it called itself, O’Doodles Irish Pub, it sat, missing a second apostrophe, on the road just outside of town, a nothing place really but the only spot walking distance from the house. After playing records and grilling himself a steak for dinner along with the rest of the beers, he ran out of independent, rebellious things to do at home and decided to go out. So he bundled up, grabbed a flashlight and headed back down the road.
The place was dark but cozy, with green upholstered booths and a long wooden bar, a low-beamed ceiling and posters of ballplayers and Ireland on the walls. Behind the bar, a paunchy middle-aged fellow in glasses was watching a silent wrestling match on TV, two huge specimens in tight underwear, grinding together with the subtitles on. Jerry, this is why they call him the euthanizer. I know it, Hank. Magnus has no idea he is about to be put into a deep sleeper hold.
Then there was a fellow he didn’t notice at first, hunched over the jukebox. Kenneth went to the end of the bar farthest from the TV, (And Magnus is out, Jerry. Good night sweet prince. The rest is silence, Hank) and when the bartender waddled over with a sigh and a dirty rag, he ordered a beer. Whatever they had on tap. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw that there was actually a black leather coat draped on the stool beside him. A long one, with a belt.
“Hey!” the guy at the jukebox called out to the bartender.
“You got any Zappa on this thing?”
“Zappa! Frank fucking Zappa! How come you don’t have any?”
“Whatever’s there, man. I don’t, you know, program it. It’s just whatever’s there.”
The guy nodded irritably, waving the bartender off, and bent back over to study further, showing a thatch of bushy dark hair that stuck from under his black hat. Kenneth couldn’t say he recognized him, since he’d never really seen him that clearly, but it had to be the digger from the woods. He was in a black wool suit. His suit was plain and tightly fitted and he wore a black shirt beneath it buttoned up to the neck. No tie. There was dried dirt on his shoes and the cuffs of his pants. Also – and Kenneth noticed this as the man finally picked a song and crossed the bar room, a song Kenneth knew but couldn’t name or say who played – the man still wore his black leather gloves. And he still had a gold ring on the outside of the left ring finger.
Kenneth sipped his beer and the man settled in his spot, one seat over on Kenneth’s right. Up close, Kenneth could see that the man was in his 50s, with a lot of gray in his black hair and bushy mustache and eyebrows. He looked very strong, with broad shoulders, thick limbs in his tight suit, and a broad, hard face scored with wrinkles. “Vodka,” he called to the bartender. “Stoli. Neat.”
The bartender came and poured the man a shot. He downed it immediately and waved the bartender back before he could even turn away, tapping the bar with his ring. It was very old looking, thick beaten gold with a flat red stone in the center. The bartender refilled his glass and this one the man let sit. He sighed, settled, seemed to see Kenneth for the first time. He nodded. Kenneth nodded back.
“What about you?” the digger asked. “You dig it?”
“Sorry?” Kenneth was startled.
“You dig Zappa?”
“Oh. Yes, I do actually. I was just listening to him…recently.”
“Amazing guitar. The best.”
“Yeah.” Kenneth nodded. “Definitely.”
He did his shot, smacked his lips and exhaled loudly. “Ahh!” Then he called to the bartender. “Vodka! And one for my friend.”
“Oh no that’s OK thanks.” Kenneth’s beer was barely touched. But the bartender was already pouring.
“Come on,” the digger said, holding up his glass. “I’m celebrating. Toast with me.”
“OK,” Kenneth said, raising his. “What to?”
“Buried treasure.” They drank. Again the digger smacked his lips and waved the bartender over. Kenneth was focused on not gagging, as the vodka ate through his guts, and then his glass was full. He coughed. His eyes teared.
“I bet you’re wondering why I said that,” the digger said.
“What?” Kenneth asked, catching his breath.
“Buried treasure. I bet you’re wondering why I made that toast.”
“Oh…” He wasn’t sure what to say, but he figured the guy wanted to tell him so he said, “Yeah.”
“It’s because I found some today. Almost. Anyways, I’m about to. Probably tomorrow morning.” He laughed, showing a lot of gold and brown teeth. “I’m rich,” he said raising his glass. Kenneth tapped his against it. They drank. Kenneth choked less this time, but he was still speechless while the clear liquor burned its way down to his belly, then melted into warm waves that radiated out from his core. The man undid his top shirt button, and Kenneth noticed a thin gold chain glimmering through his abundant chest hair, spilling up over the collar in a thicket of black and gray. His wrists too were unusually hairy, dense with fur between the gloves and his shirt cuffs. A woman walked by on her way to the restroom and the digger saluted her with his glass.
The digger smiled. “I’d like to follow her in there and see what kind of treasure she’s got hidden under that skirt,” he said. He chuckled thickly and Kenneth laughed too, nervously and too loud, which embarrassed him and he immediately cut it off. He didn’t even see the bartender approaching this time, but there he was, pouring. “I bet you are wondering why I told you?” Digger asked.
“About that lady?”
“No. About the treasure.”
“Oh…because you’re drunk?” Kenneth giggled, feeling a little drunk himself.
Digger laughed loudly and slapped Kenneth on the back. “Not yet I’m not. Cheers!” He lifted his glass and Kenneth did likewise. They drank.
“It’s because we are strangers,” Digger said leaning into him. “By this time tomorrow I will be gone and you will never know who or where I am. That’s why I don’t have to kill you!” he added, waving to the bartender. Then, seeing the look on Kenneth’s face, he cackled. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you.” He patted his shoulder as the bartender refilled their glasses. “My whole point was that I don’t have to.”
Digger fell silent and Kenneth followed his gaze. The door was open and a state trooper was walking in, holding a thermos. He took a seat at the other end of the bar and greeted the bartender. “Randy, how’s it going?”
“Evening, John. Ready for a refill? Must be cold out there.”
“If you don’t mind.” He handed the thermos across. “Temp’s getting down there, alright. Still no snow though.”
“They’re saying it hits tomorrow,” the bartender told him and went to where the coffee was brewing.
“Yeah we’re on alert. Expecting road closures and downed wires.” The trooper looked across at Kenneth and Digger.
“Officer,” Digger said, lifting his glass.
The trooper nodded, “Gentlemen,” and then “Ma’am,” as the woman left the rest room and sashayed by to rejoin her table.
Digger spoke in a low tone, smiling at the woman as she passed. “The only thing I like better than bringing a beautiful woman to orgasm,” he said, “is killing a cop.” He grinned and held up his gloves. “And I do both with these two hands.”
Kenneth stared. He didn’t know what to say. He saw the woman settle herself on the seat beside her companion. He saw the trooper munching pretzels from a basket. Digger laughed. “Come on, relax. You’re so serious. You need a drink, my friend.” He pushed Kenneth’s glass closer and they drank.
“Have a safe night, officer!” Digger called as the trooper passed by, thermos in hand. He nodded and left. Digger leaned in, black hand heavy on Kenneth’s shoulder and began to mutter a long and tangled tale into his ear, involving a safe full of cash and jewelry and gold coins, double-crosses, cops and a hidden stash. It was hard for Kenneth to follow, with the loud music and the shots that seemed to keep appearing in his hand. At one point they buried the loot, and someone named Big Moe tattooed the map on his shaved head, letting the hair grow back to hide it. But he started to really go bald, placing the whole gang in jeopardy as his hairline receded.
“Then he got his head split open in a prison riot and after the scar healed you couldn’t read shit. Besides, people don’t realize, when you get old, your tattoos wrinkle and fade.” He eyeballed Kenneth. “You don’t got any tattoos, do you?”
“No,” Kenneth assured him. “I wanted to get one, but I never did.”
The Digger patted his shoulder. “You’re better off. Anyway, I’m the last one left.” He grinned and waved at the bartender. “It’s all mine.”
Kenneth looked up. He’d been in a daze. He rubbed his eyes and checked his watch. My God, it was after midnight. The Digger took one more drink.
“So you see why I had to tell someone,” he was saying. “To have one person in the world who knows the truth. And it had to be a stranger. You don’t know my real name, and I don’t know yours. You can’t find me or my treasure. So we’re both safe. And we can part as friends. Understand?”
Kenneth nodded. He was much drunker than he’d realized. The room was slowly spinning. “Understand,” he said.
The digger tapped his own forehead with a gloved finger and then pointed it at Kenneth’s. “You are the only one I ever let into the maze in my head. But I did not give you the map to get back out.” Then he laughed and straightened out his hat. He pulled a crumpled hundred-dollar bill from his pocket and slapped it on the bar. “For you!” he yelled at the bartender. Then he pulled on his leather coat and was gone.
Kenneth hadn’t been this drunk since college really, and as he trudged home through the woods, he felt the landscape swirling around his head, as if he were on a spinning carousel, the dark forest blurring by. He was warm from the vodka, but he could see his breath smoking out before him. Then he passed the last streetlamp and, as the darkness closed in, he somehow felt the chill enter too, as though the black night were eating his bones. He turned on his flashlight and followed the bobbing spot of lit road until he heard a rustle in the trees. It was the Digger coming for him – he was suddenly, drunkenly certain. He’d changed his mind and wanted to bury Kenneth, along with his secret, in one of those holes. He saw the Digger’s silhouette loom up before him, rising between the trees, now without the hat or jacket. He saw two horns curling upward, sharp as a bull’s, glinting like speartips in the moonlight. He heard his grunting breath. He swung the flash and caught a glimpse of cloven hooves, and forelocks, and a furry chest blazed with white like a shield.
Kenneth was so startled he dropped the flashlight and it went out. He picked it up and rushed onward, but he did not turn it back on. He did not want to see what was out there. Probably only a deer, dumb and magical.
Vodka had been his father’s drink. That was probably why he never drank it, never drank hard liquor at all really, just the occasional beer or glass of wine. There was a time when the harsh smell of spirits, the chemical fire of alcohol, was enough to make his stomach clench. His father was a state worker, when he worked, repairing and paving roads all over New Jersey, and Kenneth had learned that when he came home stinking of asphalt and sweat, he was safe, usually. When he crashed in reeking of booze and sweating it too, the poison seeping from his pores, it was time to hide. His mother tried to shield him, she caught the brunt, but there were plenty of nights when Kenneth had to take a beating too.
And then, one day, he was gone. At first Kenneth didn’t think much of it. His Dad would often go on benders, take off for a weekend or so, then come stumbling in or even be found in the morning, washed up snoring on the mangy lawn, the lawn he rolled out during a sober spring day, then never watered or mowed. But this time he did not come back and, as the weeks became months, Kenneth’s mother assured him that this time, he was gone for good.
She took on another job, waitressing at a diner nights and weekends, and with the pension from the state, they got by. He wondered, especially as he got older, why she knew he’d never return, if it was just a comforting story to tell her son, and herself, or if she somehow really knew. But it was not until he was into his teens that he began to connect his father’s disappearance with the body in the woods. It was impossible to recognize his Dad, or anyone, in that monstrosity. He never asked his Mom about it either. They did not even discuss normal things, like girls or future plans. How could he ask about this?
Kenneth’s mother died while he was away at college. She never told him about her cancer and so he did not come home until after, when he needed to wrap up her affairs, sell the rotten house that the bank mostly owned. In the bottom of a drawer, in an old felt cloth bag, he found his father’s wedding ring and the gold chain he wore. Had he taken them off, as he often did, to scrub the asphalt and tar from his hands and the sweat and grime from his skin? Or had his mother taken them, when she hid his body, to prevent identification? Had she moved his corpse to keep his much-needed pension coming, to hide the evidence of a suicide and thus collect the union life insurance which paid his way through school? Or to bury something darker, deeper, a murder?
Now even that event was more than twenty years past, and like so many things, even the worst things, or maybe especially the worst things, he had ceased to question it, even to think of it at all. If the past exists, independent of our knowledge or memory, if it persists without us, buried somewhere in darkness, then the truth, he supposed, was out there somewhere. But all connection between that truth and Kenneth had been broken, or had simply degraded into nothing. Not even the rotten rope remained.
Kenneth’s head was killing him. It was by far the worst hangover of his life. He woke up, washed four aspirins down with a quart of water and then went back to bed. He slept deeper and longer than he ever did, so deep that all he could bring back from his dreams was a burnt smell of tar and the taste of stale vodka when he burped. His sweat smelled like his dad’s. He sat drinking coffee and watching the snow, which had finally come, falling on his yard. He thought about the Digger. The whole drunken night played over and over in his head, as though it were lodged there with the hangover it had caused.
Late in the afternoon, when the low winter light was cutting sideways through the trees, he bundled up and went out. He was determined at first, following his impulse like a dog on a scent, but the further he walked, back to the spot where he’d first heard the Zappa, and then into the woods, the sillier he felt. The man was crazy. That was the obvious solution that explained everything, the holes, even the gloves. Who walked around in a leather trench coat with a boom box these days? And now with the delicate flakes falling onto the silent snow, the whole thing seemed moronic, a drunken dream.
He found the mounds and wandered among them. Then, at the end of the trail, he found a fresh one, newly dug. The earth was darker, looser, less covered in leaves or snow. As far as he could tell this was the last he dug. Was this where he gave up? Or, he couldn’t help thinking, where he’d found his gold and jewels? He picked up a stick and poked the mound, but unlike yesterday he struck something under the surface. It was not an empty hole.
He knelt and dug, though soon his pants and gloves were both sodden. He felt compelled, as though the whole thing had instantly become real again. He dug wildly, tossing the dirt up around him, until, breathless, he found it, and then he stared, unable to move or even breath: a black gloved hand, severed at the wrist, its bloody stump frozen but showing raw meat and bone. And on the fourth finger, a gold ring with a big red stone. Holding his breath, afraid to touch the stump but feeling compelled by some greater force, he drew the ring off with his own numbed and trembling fingers. Then he ran.
The storm had come. The snow was heavy now and the wind drove it like needles into his face. He got mixed up and ran in circles in the woods and by the time he found the road it was dark. He fell on the ice and reached his door exhausted. He grabbed the phone, planning to call the police, but it was dead, knocked out by the storm. So he changed his wet clothes, made tea, and soon, an hour later, the power too went out.
He found his thoughtful wife’s emergency kit, lit candles and played the transistor radio. The storm had toppled phone lines and blown a transformer. He was lucky to have heat. Some people were seeking refuge in shelters, though many roads were impassable and everyone else was urged to stay home. Several feet of snow were expected, and Kenneth reflected, as he munched his dinner of cheese and crackers, that by tomorrow all traces of his discovery would be gone. No footsteps. Thick snow over the mounds. How would he even find the spot? What would he say, there is a hand somewhere in these acres of woods? Feeling less and less sure of himself, he became uneasy, annoyed almost by the ring he still had in his pocket, and which he constantly took out to examine, though he didn't dare try it on.
Finally, he went to his office and, in the back of a drawer stuffed with old files, he found the soft felt pouch that held his father’s ring and chain: another piece of “evidence” that proved nothing, that was only a clue to him. He added the new ring, tucked the bag in its place, and pointlessly but deliberately, (no one else came in here, and the key was kept in a cup on his desk) locked the drawer.
Back in the living room, he turned the radio off to save the batteries and lay down on the couch. That was when he heard the strange sounds from outside. First there came a moaning. It was the wind, no doubt, rushing between the trees like a cold river stinging your fingers. In the storm the naked trees were raw as throats, and the wind came shrieking and singing, like a horde of white-haired ghosts, whispering even through the walls and windows, finding the tiny cracks that eluded the human eye, the spirits of felled trees and forgotten humans, of rocks torn from the ground and bodies buried in unmarked graves.
Living in the woods you got used to the wind. But under the wind he heard a scratching. Like claws on a cage or nails across a back. A tapping, like trees would make, wind-bent branches brushing the house. Except there were no trees. Not close enough. Kenneth’s wife had wisely had them cut back, so that nothing could damage the house in storms just like this one. So it was not trees. But something, he knew not what, was there in the black beyond the windows. Could it be animals driven by the storm, seeking shelter, he wondered ludicrously. He even pictured the Digger, crawling like a beast on one hand.
Shaking it off, he went upstairs to bed. Whatever it was could wait out there till morning. He brushed his teeth by candlelight, used the toilet and went to sleep. Then he heard the scratching again. In fact it was louder, more insistent, a rapping like knuckles on the window. At least the curtains were drawn, so it can’t see in, he thought, then admonished himself. He was two stories up. There could not be anything there. It was hail, or flying debris. Still he felt fear mounting, primally stupid and insensible. Something was out there. Something wanted in. The knocking got harder. Insistent. Without thinking, on pure reflex, he jumped up and, grabbing his quilt, ran from the room, back downstairs, but further now, to the basement, the back bathroom off the children’s playroom. It had no windows at all. He shut the door and climbed into the tub, curling into a ball under the blanket. Hiding. Cowering. Like a child. But in this moment, he is a child, and again he is hiding in the darkness under the blankets, as when he heard his father curse and rage. He trembles, pretending to sleep, praying he will not come.
And then he hears the scratching. The tapping. The knocking. It is at the bathroom door. He can even hear breathing now, a heavy grunt, like a bull. It has finally found him. It is here. The door opens. Kenneth shuts his eyes tight and he waits.
Late the next morning, Kenneth awoke to the ringing phone. His eyes blinked open and he realized the power was back. He stood quickly and stumbled upstairs, missing the call when the sight he encountered froze him in place. All the lights and the TV were on. The storm had passed and sun poured in, glaring off the untouched snow. The front door was wide open and a drift of blown snow had entered, like a white sheet spread across the threshold and into the hall. Wet footprints crossed the living room. Round and muddy, they were probably left by boot heels, but could, he decided, have been hooves. Equally alarmed and fascinated, he followed them to his office, where they stopped at the filing cabinet. The locked drawer was open wide, with the key hanging in the lock. The felt bag was lying on the desk. The rings and chain were gone. He stared, and before he could even organize his thoughts enough to react, the phone on his desk began to ring again. He picked it up. It was his wife. She was on the way. Traffic was slow, but the roads were open again and they would be home in an hour. The kids were hungry. Should they stop for lunch or, if they picked up pizza, would he come and eat with them?