By Aaron Burch
Saw kept his eyes closed but imagined opening them, seeing night. The sun would have set, everything gone dark. The clouds would be gone, the sky a dome of deep blue, and shining through the darkness, the full moon, a flashlight on their diorama of a world. Saw pictured himself like outside observer—watched himself sit up, drop to the ground like he’d been no higher than sitting on a table. He could see it all like out of body experience, while at the same time feeling it as himself: the falling through the air from tree to ground that had looked like nothing felt like a skydive’s length of fall, an extended suspension in midair, a slow-motion parachuted descent, and then the ground, soft but still with the feeling of a landing in his feet, up through his legs. He made his mental image of himself shake out his arms, brush off the fall, like he was a video game character he himself was controlling. And then, all at once, he was from tree to farm, distance covered in a flash.
He was inside the chicken coop first, grabbing chickens in one quick swing of an arm before they knew there was an intruder among them. One chicken grabbed in his right hand, another in his left. He bit the head off the chicken in his right hand, dropped its body and spit its head into the corner, where it bounced off the wall, rolled back toward his feet, then brought empty right hand together with his left, clapping the chicken dead before shredding it into strips and strings of carcass, a fury of feathers and meat, blood and intestines, no longer distinguishable as chicken save for, if looked at close enough, beak and legs, hanging from the mess in his hands in drools of guts. Then, as quick as that first grab, quick as chicken had become challenge to imagine ever having been a chicken, Saw grabbed two more, again one in each hand, all these things happening so quick as to seem at once, simultaneous, two chickens dead and two more nearly there all before the rest of the coop had even realized what was happening, the wave of realizing they were in danger only just now starting to rise. They flapped their wings, ran into themselves, ran into Saw’s legs, like he wasn’t the one they should be running from. The flurry of action, and then a chorus of squawking, like inverse of thunder before lightening, and that, the cacophony of it all, woke Saw from his visualization as plan.
Opening his eyes, Saw was surprised how little real time had passed. The sky was still blue—or, more gray than blue, the sky-cover being almost solid cloud, but starting to show hints of pink, orange. Saw had watched enough nights, had watched closely enough, to know with an almost certainty that this sky would grow clear. The setting sun would burn off the clouds, or would take them with it, or maybe no discernible association, more correlation than causation, transformation of day into night being echoed by cloudy into clear. The promise, still, of the coming sunset, a clear-skied night, the full moon waiting its turn.
This was his pattern, the routine Saw had created for himself. Find somewhere to hide for the day, a tree with limb sturdy enough to support him, at angle near enough to what he’d found to be of optimal comfort, high enough off the ground to hold him out of sight but not so high as to forbid ability to jump from limb to ground, all in a tree full enough to give him cover, leaves and branches dense enough to camouflage inhabitant. Though, too, he was just as likely to forego the tree to keep moving, to pace and circle, to stalk the land in anticipation rather than a quiet, still waiting. Sometimes he walked because there were no trees, or none that matched what he was looking for, and sometimes there was a perfect tree but he just felt like walking. Sometimes there was a slight anxiousness, nerves or stress or just general impatience, though he wouldn’t have applied any of those labels, would only have said he felt like walking, not that there was anyone that asked to make him have to say. Stillness or movement, in a tree or on land—decision was part environment, whatever the land most lent itself to, but also at least as much part instinct. A feeling deep inside his core that Saw found difficult to describe. He’d not yet been caught, had never been seen, he didn’t think, or if seen, never noticed, a fact he took as evidence to support his belief in instinct.
The sun lowered, settled itself in for a moment to break through, painting the horizon in oranges and yellows, illuminating the cloud blanket from below in pinks turning into blues into purples, all these bright colors cast against the autumnal view of the changing leaves, everything all at once stuck in this brilliant moment of transition. A burning glow cast over the farm, making it picturesque in the way Saw would probably be tempted to snap a photo of, if he had his phone with him, nevermind how many times he’d seen it before, nor that he’d likely never look at the picture again. The moment just begged to be frozen in place, to be shareable even if never actually shared, to be reached out and touched, physically held in his hand even if that was the false promise of sunset as photograph, but of course he’d left his phone at home with wallet full of ID and credit cards, shedding everything down to the most minimally necessary, a forgettably neutral outfit and three neatly folded stacks of cash—left back pocket, small change pocket inside front left pocket, and tucked into left sock, inside back, between heel and inner ankle bone.
“You came out of the womb preferring the outdoors over the in,” his mother had liked to tell him, though later in life he couldn’t help but wonder if she’d meant it critically rather than the pride he’d given it. As a baby, his father took him on walks around the neighborhood to soothe him, his cries muting as soon as they were out the door, like even as a baby being inside had felt constricting, claustrophobic. Growing up, he’d joined Boy Scouts, been involved in youth group, looked for any club that focused on the outdoors as soon as he got to college. He didn’t have much interest in any of their beliefs or whatever they thought of as their respective causes; he liked the social aspects alright; but, mostly, he just wanted to be outside. Farmland, beach, mountain, forest, desert…the scenery didn’t matter; nor, even, the weather, only that he could feel the openness, could smell the air, be it tree- or water- or anything-else-scented.
The sun dropped a few more degrees, casting a deeper red across the farm, the small patch of open sky between ground and clouds looking like viewed through pulled apart slats of closed blinds and seeing the world on fire. It was beautiful, or foreboding; Saw found it both, had always considered the two more related than mutually exclusive.
He laced his fingers together, put his basketed palms behind his head, leaned back so lying all the way down on his branch. He closed his eyes, felt the sun’s warmth pull over him like a cover. The sun itself almost now tucked in below the horizon and the tree’s branches dense enough to not let through a single ray, even were the sun at its peak and the sky cloudless, there would be no actual warmth to feel, though the horizon had looked so vivid, so bright, the mind’s ability to turn sight to feel so strong, Saw felt nearly lizard-like, basking on his rock.
Saw kept his eyes closed, counted to keep himself patient. He’d been working on that, patience, and so he counted. He tried to hold himself as still as possible; tried, similarly, to hold himself as still in thought as in action. He pictured his mind as physical object outside of himself, as something he could hold—he kept himself in position, reclined on limb, head resting in the palms of his hands—but visualized his hands out in front of himself, holding his brain in cupped palms, gentle like a baby bird, stillness of hands creating a stillness in thought, maybe a slight rocking, bouncing his brain to sleep now like a baby, a slight coo now, too, whispering, humming, shhhhh, he whispered, thoughts turning audible, don’t wake, it’s ok, shhhhh. He returned to his picture of how the night would go, like he’d put his brain to sleep and now it was back dreaming, but rewound, starting again from the beginning. He visualized the chickens and goats and one donkey spotted across the farm, each standing in it’s place from when he’d last scanned the grounds, taken a mental snapshot. As soon as he recreated the entire scene in his mind, it unpaused. Reanimated chickens made their way into their henhouse for the night, the goats kept eating grass in place. One goat would clear the area it had been chewing, move a few yards one direction or another, start anew, and then a few other goats would take notice, would wonder what new special patch the mover may have found, and follow, looking for their own treats. Saw liked the goats, liked them on their own accord and liked them even more compared to the chickens. The goats had personality, he could see it in their eyes, there was something about them he not only liked but admired. Chickens were dumb, they got what they deserved, it wasn’t hard to reason. Not that the goats didn’t. They were all God’s creatures, himself included. It was the cycle of life, laws of nature.
Sam felt his body both tensing and relaxing. A kind of stirring; into itself, into something else. The sun hadn’t quite fully set, the horizon looked fully ablaze. The animals had moved, though only barely, the snapshot of the farm looking only slightly nudged from its last iteration. The cloud cover, as he knew it would, as it had in his meditation dream, had started to clear, stretching and pulling apart, breaking into pieces, each piece shrinking, it’s edges melting inward. Through one such fissure, the hint of the moon. Only a slight glow, not yet visible as full, bright, as perfect circle spotlighting the night’s stage. But close.
Not long, Saw thought. But then, not waiting, synchronized to and nearly even seeming pre-thought, he swung himself around and over the limb, held himself suspended over the ground for a moment. He let go, dropped to the ground, started running.
Aaron Burch is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King's The Body, and the short story collection Backswing. He is also the Founding Editor of HOBART. He is currently very slowly working on a werewolf novel of which this is maybe probably the first chapter.