THE SEA OF TREES - CHRIS DEAL
The old man swung on the wind not twenty feet into the forest, the rope creaking with his weight as the woods prepared for the night. He had been there for a while, long enough for clumps of hair to have fallen from the dome of the skull, leaving odd patches on the molting, blotted skin. His flesh had started to slip, especially around the noose. The flies and ants had gotten to his eyes and were starting on his tongue, a thick muscle hanging limp from his lips. His shirt had been tucked in but with the pressure from the rope, his waist was exposed, displaying some red and green streaks along the veins where his blood was breaking down. If he didn’t have any shoes on, the discoloration would be worse on his feet, as would the swelling. His left foot was hanging back on the log he had used for leverage. The fall hadn’t been enough to snap his neck. He’d had to wait for suffocation, and had tried to take things back in his last minutes.
He wasn’t even ten days out from the deed, I’d say. Within a week, his chest would rupture from the gases. If his body held out for another two weeks, he’d start to mummify there in the quiet darkness of the trees.
I took the log from below his foot, adjusted it, and stepped up. That close to him, his face swaying near to mine, the smell of him was sickening, heavy with decay and waste. With the weight of his body pulling tight, my blade split the rope quickly, all but cutting the very atoms apart. He fell into a heap on the ground, his head cracking against the base of the tree he had been hanging from.
It felt wrong to go through his pockets. Even if he was still above ground, it was still grave robbing, but as I took his wallet from his back pocket, I knew he didn’t need it anymore. I did. A couple twenties and credit cards with the name Benjamin. They would still be good. His watch was worthless, a cheap plastic imitation of wealth, and I left it on his wrist. He had a set of keys but his car had probably been towed, so that was worthless.
They came from all over to this forest, like it was something romantic to die here. They called it the Sea of Trees, a great forest that stretched along the belly of the mountain, hugging close to the small lake. Every year they found dozens of bodies, some fresh, the rest forgotten in the dark. There were caverns hidden throughout, some known, explored, and others void of the touch of man. The old folk said that ghouls stayed in the deep, coming out only at night for their feasts of the dead. As a boy, my grandmother told me they left the old and infirm to die in the silence of the wood, that some nights specters could be seen wandering in the hell of their deeds, the growth so thick that not even angels or demons could claim them.
Pocketing the money, I put the wallet back and set about pulling him back from the base of the tree, leaving him to be found with some respect before I went deeper into the forest.
Except for the corpses, the woods were untouched by man. Old growth towered, blocking out the sun and wind. Despite the Spring, there was no sign of bird or animal, save the insects attracted by the bodies.
I found the next one fifty feet in. It was a woman, but she was so far gone I couldn’t tell her age or what she would have looked like in life. Her sundress was stained with dirt and putrefaction. She was sitting with her back to a tree, a pill bottle still grasped in the bones and muscles that had been her hand. She’d been there for a month at least. She had no pockets or purse, simply a note stuck to her breast. I reached for the slip of paper but stopped before my fingers touched it. It was none of my business why she did what she did.
When I found the third body, it was too late. He was my age, if that. The face still recognizable but he was deep in rigor. As I dug into his pockets, I glanced through the branches to the sky and saw the sun was gone and that night was upon me. Something blind and irrational came over me until I made myself remember I was still close to the edge of the forest. Two hundred steps at the most and I would be back to my car, on my way to buy the evening’s meal with Benjamin’s money. The young man’s wallet was still there, with nothing but his ID inside. Martin.
The last time I’d made the trek, I found an old man with a chest pocked with knife wounds, the blade secure in his hand. He had over a thousand dollars on him and a watch I hocked for twice that. This time, the hunt was barely worth it.
I tossed his wallet onto the ground beside Martin and went back the way I came. The dark had become something tangible, a flood of blackness. Two steps and I tripped over a root. Walking faster, I kept falling. Three hundred paces and the forest gave no sign of letting me go. I turned and ran, stumbling over rocks and bodies, each fall getting me more mixed up. Drowning in the irrational, with every foot I gained, I was more lost. I made a sound like an animal and it was absorbed by the thick nothing of the forest. Not even an echo came back to me. My muscles ached but I kept running, not even in a straight line, zigzagging until my foot found no ground, and the forest swallowed me whole.
BIO: Chris Deal writes from Huntersville, North Carolina. He doesn’t remember how many poems and stories he’s published, but that’s not really important now, is it? His debut collection of short fiction, Cienfuegos, was published by Brown Paper Publishing. Check him out at Chris Deal.