The hiker had been lost in the wilderness for five days when the animals began to talk. He wasn’t sure if this was due to his faded suburban scent, or if they simply decided he was now part of their world and could be trusted with their secrets. Skyward chirps transformed into arguments and gossip; squirrels sang pop songs. A savant woodchuck recalled baseball scores from 1985. The hiker listened to it all, absorbed and replied, his body weakened, his chin rough with sprouting whiskers. Near sundown one evening, while he rested on a stump, a bobcat drew close, sat at his feet, and talked with him about Andy Warhol. When he tried to pet her, she said, “Don’t confuse me for your domestics. I eat cats for breakfast.” When he pressed, she said, “I should tear out your throat.”
On three different mornings, the hiker bathed in a creek alongside a young buck, who warned of crotchety bears and complained about his own lack of education. The hiker twice asked porcupines for directions, but both attempts seemed to carve his path deeper into the wild. The problem was finding home; the problem was food. He dreamed of potato chips and ate acorns. He was rich in conversation, if not in sustenance. As the days wore on, he gave audience to a tortoise reciting the entirety of Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. He shared an anemic campfire with a family of coyotes and joined them in howling tales of woe into the plum sky.
Then, on the tenth day, the skies opened and the hiker was alone again in the world. Animals took shelter; gray clouds masked the sun; downpours refused to abate. The hiker’s once white t-shirt was stained amber from sweat and dirt; his chest shivered with breath. He found a hollowed log and crawled inside, where he could barely move. He remained there until the skies cleared after many hours, and in that brief wink of silence before the animals reemerged, the hiker heard the sound of distant motors. Squirming free, he followed their call, nodding and answering the rising birds along the way. “Yes, that was quite a storm.” “No, I haven’t seen your sister.” The hiker exited the forest at dusk and collapsed onto a paved road. He screamed with joy. He kissed the ground. And when the next vehicle, a ranger’s van, appeared, he threw himself in the middle of the lane, forcing it to stop, pinning himself between its headlights. “We’ve been looking for you,” the ranger said as he rolled down his window. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive.” But as the ranger spoke, the hiker couldn’t understand his words. Everything that spilled from his lips was foreign, an echo like the screech of a wild creature.
About the Author: Benjamin Woodard's recent fiction has been featured in New South, Hobart, and Corium Magazine. He's also Editor-in-Chief at Atlas and Alice. Find him at www.benjaminjwoodard.com.
Story Song: "I Got Lost" by The Afghan Whigs