Finally night has fallen. There’s a chill to the air, and it no longer steams in the heat trapped by the forest. The night is crisp, and the woods around me are alive with insect life. The temperature dropped quickly as the sun set behind the hills. I haven’t seen the sun in years, but I know that it has turned the sky to fire.
Yet, the cold air outside yanks me conscious. I wake to the dirt and stones I pulled over my head and body, covering my eyes. I scream and claw my way to the surface. Clenched in clay, sand and detritus: my bed for the daylight hours.
For some, it would have been a grave, more permanent in the rest that it offers. For me, its a temporary home, clawed from the floor of the forest floor just 12 hours earlier.
As I push the dirt aside and pull myself from the ground, I feel small pebbles lodged under my claws. It is a minor annoyance, like the sand in my eyes, in my ears. It gets into everything, this mixture of sand and clay. It fills me.
Over the years I have come to know the silence of different earths. From the sands of coastal beaches to the hard clays of the South. Loam in the deep forests of North, and more hard sand in the West. I am a connoisseur of the grave. Every day a new grave. Every night a new life.
Or unlife, depending upon which side of the grave you lay.
Many of my brethren choose cities in which to live, stalk and prey. They find in the abundance of food a security unmatched by the lonely forest. For them, it is the fear of starving, of being alone, that keeps them close to humanity. But they grow lazy, never knowing the real hunt.
Last night, I chased a small buck through the forest, giving and taking the distance between us as it scrambled in the brush. Reaching out with my senses, I felt its heart hunch in its chest, pounding against its ribs. A tiny deer, a spike buck, no more than sixty pounds. Yet its youth gave it speed.
Such a delicious shrill of snorts and screams: Spindly pines broke in our rush.
Somehow, I lost sight of the moon during the chase, neglected to pay attention to the night. That’s dangerous. But the thrill! I live for that feeling as my own blood races and pounds. Sometimes I forget the need for the cool, dark embrace of the dark and the calling grave.
The chase! That pounding pursuit! Let the deer get just far enough away to think it’s free, then pause and listen, stalk and scramble. Give the young buck a reason to scream again as I let him catch my scent and hear the cracker-like crunch of my bare feet in dry pine needles. The slight odor of decay I carry from past feedings alerts the deer: I am a predator.
That scent, more than anything else, drove the small deer into a frenzy. I felt it. The creature wanted to fly in every direction at once. Its muscles, shivering one against the other — each a clamor of fear and flight. In those moments, I felt the buck gather itself to plunge deeper into the forest, thrashing through brambles and ivy, tearing the brush out of the ground with its short prongs.
Each moment of his fear was delicious, an elixir sweet and heady. Though not enough to sustain me, it was enough to remind me of my own life before the night claimed me as one of its own. Honey tastes like this — thick, sweet and cloying.
But too long, too long — I nearly died for that deer. The sun found me ripping the buck apart, my claws buried deep in it’s chest, its tiny hooves flailing around my head. Its bleats were choked around a swollen tongue. Then, behind me, rising just above the trees, crackling on my skin through a canopy of leaves, shafts of light speared me. I threw my head back and howled, my fangs bared at that bastard sun.
My mouth still filled with bits of flesh and blood, I dug through the twitching carcass of the deer, then scraped away needles and sand to the gravel and clay underneath. Above me, the sun — filtered through the heavy tangle of branches of hardwood and pine mix — sliced my skin.
I ripped through roots and tossed fist-sized rocks into the forest as I dug my grave, howling in rage and ecstasy: This is the way to live! On the edge, a kill still fresh in my mouth. My own death, in any case, was only moments away — the mini not-death, not-life of the grave, or blackening to ash under the sun.
Even my own fear tastes good.
But not this clay. The earth is bitter here in the forest. Too much acid in the soil, and too much of it in my mouth. It fills me with reminders that my own permanent death is someday to come. From the earth, to the earth.
But not today. I live, because I beat the daylight. I pulled the earth over my body and face before sun’s face could ruin my own. I covered myself in in clay, sand, gravel, deer’s blood and fur, and laughed at the sun. I was alive, and that was reason enough to celebrate.
Now, the night again.
All day long, I was aware of the sun. I knew it blazed above my daylight grave. New Jersey’s Pinelands swelter in early fall, and clouds of mosquitoes and biting gnats vie with birds and reptiles for flesh and blood when a fall day reaches its zenith. It is odd, though, how I can remember the buzz and whine of insects — bloodsuckers, wasps, yellow jackets — but I can’t really place the taste of honey, other than wrapping it around that young buck’s fear. The things I remember, and those I’ve forgotten, play in my mind when I lie in my grave.
Dreams, visions and fragments of who I was before I began to make my bed in the bosom of the Mother. They are snatches of a life years gone. I miss little things of that life: the taste of honey; a day at the lake scouring the shore for driftwood; and my daughter’s wide brown eyes.
As night covers the forest, as insects scream and whine above my shallow grave disturbed, I claw free of the earth.
In my mind, my daughter’s freckled face, hovers just beyond my reach.