In The Pines
Sometimes, the forest seems like an ocean.
You can hike forever and never come across a sign of another human being. Satellite images don’t really do it justice – you see the Northwoods on Google Maps and think that it isn’t so bad; after all, there are these pockets of civilization everywhere, cities, roads, and farmland that help break up the forest. You can’t truly appreciate the immensity of the forest, or the actual minuteness of humanity, without actually witnessing it.
The forest is like an ocean, and just like the ocean, it has things deep within it that would haunt our darkest nightmares.
I grew up hearing stories about all the monsters lurking in the dark in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula – werewolves, ghosts, pygmies, giant fish, everything. You probably think I’m joking, or exaggerating, but I’m not – there’s an entire field of study, a whole subculture, dedicated to the myths and legends supposedly hiding in the Northwoods. There’s something about the forest that just scares people. I suppose; that brings out some sort of a primal fear of the unknown; of total isolation; of predators lurking in the brush; of eyes staring back at you from the darkness.
I’m not a superstitious man. I grew up hunting, fishing, and hiking in the woods near the Wisconsin-Michigan border, sort of near Iron River if you know where that is. I know the forest almost as well as my own home. Sometimes, the forest is my home. I usually never paid any mind to the myths because, well, they were just that: myths. Rationally, I know that the overwhelming majority of the stories are physically impossible, and the rest are, in all likelihood, just hoaxes. However, there’s this other part of me that can’t help but believe them and glance suspiciously at the tree-line when the sun goes down. I never had any proof though, so I never believed any of the stories. That is, until I finally experienced the myths for myself.
Now, what I’m about to tell you is a true story. I’m a young man of sound mental health, and, like I’ve said, I’ve been hunting in these woods my entire life. I’m not easily frightened – taller than pretty much everybody I know, confident with both a gun and a knife; hell, I even did a few years of MMA. As far as I know, everything that I’m about to tell you is true. If it was a practical joke, or I was high on some fumes in the air, or whatever the hell else, it was a damn good hoax.
Let me start from the beginning – it was mid-November 2015. I was out at my uncle’s cabin in the woods. It was a family tradition – I, my dad, and my uncle would all take a few days off of work or school to go deer hunting. Pretty much everybody in my high school at the time class (it was my senior year) did the same. We’d basically run away into the forest for a week straight and do nothing but fish, bullshit, and shoot deer. This particular deer season had been rough, though. None of us had gotten anything all week, and there were only two days left to bag something. To make it worse, my uncle had badly sprained his ankle the previous night and was still nursing it the next morning. My dad told me to go ahead without him, that he was going to stay at the cabin and take care of my uncle. I was pretty bummed out by now – the entire week was turning out to be pretty gloomy, and I could tell my uncle was even more pissed off than I was. So, I decided that I was definitely going to bag a buck before the week was over, as a matter of pride and to save the week from being a total disaster. I told my dad this, I probably wouldn’t be back until morning. He just sort of rolled his eyes a bit but wished me luck.
I packed some supplies – water, food, some rain gear, my lucky knife (I once killed a coyote with that bad boy), a flashlight with some batteries, and some other odds and ends – and checked my weapon of choice, made sure it was in working order, practiced shooting it a bit – I’m a pretty damn good shot, if I do say so myself, and it’s always satisfying to unload on a target and see the center get torn out. It was a Springfield M1A – semi-auto, .308 caliber – that’s basically a 7.62 NATO round, and used pretty much everywhere to hunt big game; in other words, if it hits a living thing, it’s going the fuck down. That’s all you need to know.
There were a handful of deer stands scattered around my uncle’s property, around where they usually passed through, or looking out over clearings. They were all box stands – basically little elevated sheds meant to conceal you from the deer and keep you out of the weather. My plan was to camp out in farthest one for the entire night and wait for a buck to pass by, and that plan played out in exactly the worst way.
I saw exactly nothing all day, except for some squirrels and rabbits I took a few disheartened potshots at, and before I knew it the sun was setting. My dad drove out on his ATV and asked me if I was coming back, but I refused. He derisively told me he and my uncle would be getting drunk and playing poker back at the cabin if I changed my mind and sped off again, leaving me in the woods to watch the orange light slowly die. It was November, so it was already kind of cold; a little snow had fallen, but not much compared to other years. It wasn’t cold enough to bother running the space heater in the stand yet – I had been at this long enough to not dress like an idiot.
Soon though, the boredom took over and I felt myself dozing off as darkness enveloped the trees.
I don’t know how long I was asleep for. When my eyes snapped open, my hands were cold and stiff, gripping my rifle tight. My entire body was freezing; apparently a cold snap had hit in the night or something, and I had been laying out in the cold for hours. I sat up and moved to start the space heater when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. I snatched my rifle back up and began scanning the ground below, thinking that this was finally my chance. Whatever it was, it had been big. After a few minutes though, I had found nothing – not even a squirrel or rabbit. I guessed that it had been an owl or something. Looking up from the ground however, I found something entirely different.
On a tree, maybe thirty, forty feet out, something was crouched on a thick limb, silhouetted against the dim moonlight. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I raised my rifle to look at it through my scope. It was big, alright – huge – but I couldn’t make out any details in the darkness, and my flashlight wouldn’t reach that far. I cursed myself for not bringing any sort of night vision gear. I studied what little I could in silence for a very long time. Whatever it was simply sat in the tree, perfectly motionless. I had an uneasy pit in my stomach, and the suspicion that it was looking right back at me. I realized after a while that it wasn’t even sitting – it was standing on two legs! So, it was huge, and it was on two legs – that narrowed it down pretty nicely: a bear. I couldn’t think of any other option. Bears climbed trees all the time. My uncle hadn’t mentioned anything about any signs of one in the area recently, but I suppose it could’ve just showed up. Maybe that was why we hadn’t been able to find any deer?
Something wasn’t right with that hypothesis though. Bears were big, sure, but not black bears. Standing up, black bears were human-sized, maybe a bit bigger. Probably no more than six, six and a half feet tall. This thing was too big to be a black bear, and they were the only kind of bear we had in these parts; I had never heard of a brown bear even remotely this far south and east. Those things were supposed to be Alaska’s problem. It wasn’t impossible that one had escaped a zoo or somebody’s private menagerie, but still…this thing was at least eight or nine feet tall, totally still, and utterly silent. That didn’t seem like bear behavior to me.
So, I just laid there and watched for a while longer, waiting for it to do something. Anything. Maybe it was because I was curious; maybe because I was scared. This wasn’t anything I had ever seen, or even heard of, before. All those stories started flooding back to me. I tried to rationalize it: maybe I was dreaming; maybe there was just some sort of accidental illusion and it was a normal-sized black bear. No matter how many theories I came up with though, I always found something else that decisively shot it down. I was starting to get really freaked out by now, maybe thirty, forty-five minutes in. I just wanted it to do something, you know? Move, or growl, or scratch itself, or even charge the goddamn deer stand – anything. The anticipation was killing me.
An hour in, shit started to get even weirder. It started off subtly, so much so that I hardly noticed it at first. Whispering. Muted whispering that seemed to buzz all around my head, dozens of high, raspy voices chattering unintelligibly. I snapped my head back and forth around the little stand, swiveling my rifle around with me, half expecting the thing to be standing right behind me, but saw nothing. I returned to my position at the window and leered out at the thing in the tree. While I wasn’t looking, it had changed position, now sort of crouching from what little I could make out. The whispering didn’t increase any more in volume – it was like white noise, just sort of there. I tried to focus on what the voices were saying while I watched the creature but couldn’t make out anything. It almost sounded like they were saying random town names – you know, the crazy Wisconsinite ones derived from old Indian ones; there must have been more to it than that, though. Even though I couldn’t understand them, the whispers felt like they had some sort of…inherent malice to them. Like they were threatening me. I didn’t like it.
About two hours in, the creature hadn’t moved another inch. The entire forest had been utterly still and silent (save for the whispers) the entire time. I was absolutely frigid now, and really had to pee, but too nervous to take my eyes off the thing in order to turn on the heater or throw on another layer of clothing, or even grab an empty water bottle to piss into. I had settled into my position and resolved to watch the thing all the way until daybreak. Then, I would see that it was just a black bear that was so scared of me that it hadn’t moved all night, and everything would be fine. At least, that’s what I told myself.
That expectation finally came crashing down after two and half hours. The whispers suddenly cut out. My ears rang, and I heard the blood flowing through my head in the abrupt silence. Trying to calm my rapidly quickening heartbeat and breathing, my finger twitched over the trigger and I made sure the safety was off. Something was about to happen, I could feel it in my bones.
Out of nowhere, “Hey, you doin’ alright up there?” My dad’s voice, clear as day. I didn’t take my eyes off the creature. What the hell was he doing out here? Was he worried about me? Had he seen signs of the bear and come to warn me?
“Dad, be careful!” I shouted back. “There’s something up in that tree over there. I think it’s a bear.”
Silence. I had been so focused on watching that thing, I hadn’t heard his ATV drive up, or the crunching of his footsteps in the snow, despite the total silence pervading the forest. I tried listening for the sound of him climbing up the ladder into the stand, or maybe whispering so as to not provoke the bear. Nothing.
“I think it’s fine. Why don’t you come on down from there?” His reply came.
My blood froze as I realized that the voice – my dad’s voice – was coming from directly in front of me a ways out. The only living thing in my line of sight for two and a half hours had been that thing in the tree.
“Nah, I’m fine up here.” I called back, a sense of cold dread beginning to wash over me. “Why don’t you go back to the cabin and check on Uncle Jim?”
“Come on bud!” Not-my-dad snapped back, sounding frustrated. “I need your help with something! Come down!”
I shook my head. “No! Fuck off!” I shouted back into the air.
For the first time, I saw the thing move. It stood up in a long, fluid motion, reaching what I assume must have been its full height – maybe eleven feet tall. Long gangly limbs were outlined against the moonlight, along with the shape of what must have been antlers. Two pinpricks of white light glowed steadily below the antlers. I steadied my shaking hands and breathing and trained my scope on the creature, aiming for what I estimated to be the center of its freakish form.
“BUD.” Not-my-dad snarled, tone completely enraged with a primal ground. “COME. DOWN. NOW.”
“FUCK OFF!” I screamed and pulled the trigger.
Once, twice, three time - I counted out internally, sending a full magazine – ten .308 Winchester rounds – hurtling into the creature. I reloaded with a new magazine as fast as my stiff, frozen hands would allow and started unloading again immediately, barely thinking about what I was doing. By the time I was loading a third magazine, I realized that the thing had vanished from the tree. I frantically scanned the forest floor and surrounding trees but found nothing.
I saw and heard nothing for the rest of the night, but continued laying in absolute silence the entire time, desperately watching, and listening for anything out of the ordinary. I realized soon after that I had managed to piss myself in the commotion and was now laying in a puddle of my own cold urine but couldn’t muster the courage to move. Freezing and tired, I felt relief wash over me as day finally broke. I descended the ladder out of the tree stand to have a look around, bringing my rifle with me just in case. Closing the door behind me, I stopped dead in my tracks and felt my jaw drop as I looked at the ground.
Laying at the foot of the ladder was a huge fourteen-point buck. Examining it, I found that its body was cold, and the only wound present was a single, clean slash across its throat, which I assume caused it to bleed out. There was no trail in the leaves or snow showing where it had been dragged from, nor was the snow around it stained in blood. I ran my hands through my hair and looked around in confusion. Looking back up at my stand, I saw something even more befuddling – three long, vertical lines drawn on the door of the stand in what could’ve only been dried blood. I walked out to the base of the tree the thing had been in, and found nothing around it – no tracks, no blood, nothing. I was sure I had hit it plenty of times; I had unloaded twenty .308 rounds into that thing and it had never made a sound, and apparently didn't even bled. After looking around at a few more trees – maybe I the change in perspective made me pick out the wrong tree – I finally gave up. There were no marks that something of that size would make anywhere in the vicinity, let alone blood.
Upon going back to the cabin, I didn’t tell either my uncle or my father about what had happened, or about the deer, or the mark. I just wanted to completely forget about all of it. I was trying to convince myself that it had all been some sort of nightmare.
“Rough night, bud?” My dad asked me as I walked through the front door. “I knew you wouldn’t stay out the whole night.”
I froze and simply stared blankly at him. “What do you mean?”
“What, you think just ’cause you came back at, like, one at night, that I wouldn’t remember? I talked to you and everything, bud.” He smirked. “What, were you too tired to remember?”
“You…saw me come in last night?”
“No, it was dark. Heard you though. Opened the door, rummaged around, talked to me…you really don’t remember?”
I just numbly shook my head and shuddered.
There are things in the forest, things we don’t understand, that are simply best left alone. The trouble comes when we go out looking for them without even realizing it.
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