When you wake up there the walls are white. They say this is good but I know it’s just bare, a canvas. They don’t realize her face appears, the way it was that day. When she walked over stones and you just see her hair cling to her lip when the wind changed.
You don’t want to get lost in those woods, even when you know them pretty good—
each bend starts to look like the others, that creek is another creek maybe. I don’t know why it happened, why it happened like it did.
Roby told me that there’s life within a person, not just their own. They don’t tell you this at church, but it’s really true. “There come animals,” she said in the darkness behind the porch, her lighter making our faces glow like we had no bodies.
Animals—sometimes animals appear in your face and you don’t know what to do then. “Sometimes God speaks that way,” she said. “We don’t know everything He wants us to, so the animals come in and take us, tell us things we can’t know, in a language we can’t understand.” I knew this was our little secret, that if she told her aunt Bird, who knows what would happen?
Uncle Ray wasn’t quite so mean about God, never really cared too much. But Aunt Bird would come on you like mosquitoes if you took her lord’s name in vain. Still, waking up here is the worst feeling ever. People just look at you like you’re out of control, a stranger, an alien. Why’d you do it? they’d ask. You say again and again, I didn’t do it! I’d never hurt Roby, no matter what! I’d rather slice off my own right hand than hurt a hair on her head! They don’t understand me, though, and just look away, nod their heads like they know I can’t be trusted, that I see things...
But they don’t know— I did see something. I saw that goat man take her round the sixth bend in Penn’s woods. He had horns and everything. His goat eyes were red, burning! But I couldn’t tell nobody that cause they’d say I had the devil in me. They still say that. They say I’m a demon, that lawman screaming into my face, slapping up my head a bit, like Roby been his own daughter. Bird and Ray didn’t say a word, just sat like headstones, pretending I don’t exist. I guess it’s easier that way.
But they don’t understand—Roby saw him, too. She saw them everywhere, animal faces peering out of the crowd. It’s in a person, she’d say. Sometimes they give us power, strength, but they can get mean and make us do bad things. What if you saw a snake in the mirror! What would you do then? Nobody would believe you, would call you the devil’s man if you saw that snake staring back at you!
It’s not that she didn’t believe in Jesus, that she hated the church. She loved it! It was her favorite place to go, especially when no one was there. She could hear God better, she said, when the choir shut up and the bible was closed. But I saw it in her eyes, she loved Jesus. I know this, and though people said she was stranger than most, must have been that her mother tried to drink her away. But Roby got out with all her limbs intact, she lived and walked like maybe she’d cheated death.
I always followed her, see, cause she was the one who knew the paths. I told her over and over there were no paths, that how could she find her way? but she always knew, we always would end up somewhere amazing, like the big walls of rock that swirled like rainbows, that secret cave, the Indian grave mound. I always knew I’d never get out again if she left me, that the path’d be overgrown before I could find it.
That’s why I loved her, I guess. Her eyes were too small, her whitish hair was thin and veins stuck out all over her. People’d say God went wrong when they let her in but I say God never goes wrong, just people.
They don’t know what it’s like having a secret so scary that it eats you alive like some parasite! But they know a boy with a secret cannot be trusted even when he tells the truth. I know they won’t let me out of here, that if I went to look for her, I’d only be making more trouble. Once you have the devil in you, you’re gone. But I know it was the goat man, I saw him.
Roby saw them, too, and seemed to be ok with it. But whenever I peeked back at those people, hearts thumpin' for God, hands tight with prayers, I’d wait til they turned to see me. Roby said the secret to seeing them is to wait. People will always know you’re looking at ‘em, and the animals will appear at the right moment.
I can’t look around me, it’s too white. They say it’s all for my wellness, but what does that mean? I look into these blank walls and see her face, see how much we loved each other. I told her it was going to be forever, and she knew that, too. Why would I take something I loved away from myself, away from that world she loved so much? That lawman doesn’t think about that when he yells at me, when the sheriff prowled around, saying “son.. son.. son... you’re disgusting, son..”
They say I did it, but I don’t know what ‘it’ means... Yeah, I walked in those woods. We always went there, cause getting lost was Roby’s favorite pastime. “Anybody could sit through a movie,” she said, anybody could eat a sandwich or learn to drive the tractor, but only we could get lost in Penn’s woods.
Aaron Penn owned those woods, all of ‘em, but never got lost in them. He died some time back I heard, all alone in his house. His dogs laid down and died, too, right next to him in his bed. I think that’s the way people should go, right next to the ones they love. That’s why I didn’t do it. But would they listen? No. I told Roby we were going to die in that bed, the one we would own someday, when I got rich.
Well, maybe not rich, but if I got that job at the shop, I could save and we could get a place of our own. She said she don’t need much, just a bit of space and time. I said I could do that and she smiled. Her teeth are jagged, so she’s always scared of smiling. But I said it was great cause I could see her animal.
It’s funny how they say she’s dead, but they don’t know that. It’s like remembering something that’s been gone a long time. The paper says the sheriff searched those woods high and low. But I didn’t hear nothing about a cave, about an eagle mound. I know they’ll never find her, cause she don’t want to be found. Only she knows the way outta there. Of course, when I say that, there’s blood in my eyes— there’s some strange animal peering out at them and they’re too scared to move. They won’t never tell another living soul what they saw when they looked at me.
They say, he’s just fifteen, he’s a good lookin’ boy, but he’s got the devil in him, I’ve seen it! But it wasn’t me, it was that goat man. And I couldn’t have done it, I’m just a boy. But that lawman don’t believe me, he pulls his own tie and hits his own forehead and he’s alive with hate. I look for his animal, cause I’m always looking for that goat man, the one who took Roby away from me.
I sit in the bathroom, don’t have to pee or shit, just sit there on the toilet like I’m beat tired. In the mirror I see myself, waiting for that animal to appear. I always told myself if I saw the goat man there, I’d go on out, tell them it was me.
But I don’t see no goat, just a lanky white kid. I have freckles on my chest and dips in my temples from when the doctor pulled me out too fast. Just me. So, I couldn’t have done it; I’m no goat.
But they don’t see that, they look at me and see sickness. “You’ll boil in blood, son..” they say. “That’s where you’ll be when you go to hell! Satan’s helpers will throw burning sand into your eye-holes!”
I don’t look at them and they get mad, but they’re mad anyhow. They don’t know me, don’t know that I loved Roby more than I hated the idea of boiling in blood with sand in my eye-holes.
They just don’t understand, don’t like looking at love when they really see it. “You killed Roberta Alcott, didn’t you, son?” Those tall men would hover, watching me like a hawk watches a mouse, waiting for me to get caught. But I don’t know nothing about killing. I shot a rabbit once, its eyes were all shaky, its nose quivered like it was about to sneeze. It was in Gran’s garden, just sittin there. I don’t know why I did it, but it was just a game, right? I aimed my gun and pulled tight the trigger. At first I thought I missed it cause the thing spurred up to flee. All the birds in the bushes flew in fury when the noise hit everywhere.
Gran yelled “what happened?” and I’m pretty sure I said “nothin.’” I walked over there, it was in the bean patch. It wasn’t a good year and all of the beans got bleach yellow. On the other side of the patch, a wad of fur. Its blood had blown out of its body like fireworks. I knew it was the rabbit, but it wasn’t anymore. The thing was gone.
Was that like Roby? Was she gone? Still I thought I’d turn a corner and see her standing there, her hands planted on her hips. You’re late! she’d say, lookin like a momma, her plaid shirt tied in a knot at her navel.
She was beautiful, she really was. I think a couple times I’d feel wild, feel that dark beast rise in my throat, gulping hard to make him stay out of my eyes, where everyone could see my lust. But I was just a boy, I don’t know what I feel—just that it’s wrong to want like that. Jesus didn’t do none of that, Mary neither. God didn’t.
But Randy does it, he looks at his woman Marge at the club, grinning with his beer, that beast roaring in his shining eyes. Her hair’s flying everywhere as she dances and they don’t say a word. Everyone can see them, though, circling each other like the other might just get away if they don’t stay hooked.
Marge doesn’t like me, doesn’t like when I come around. But that’s when Randy gives me my check, the money to send me away. He’s all I got left of kin, so I let him alone with his woman. He holds Marge about the neck like a wolf pup, touches her face and hands, loves her in a strange way. But Roby’s no woman, she’s a girl and I don’t hold any girl by the scruff of her neck.
I tell the DA this and he laughs. He laughs a lot. But even if I told him why the sky was blue and the sun shone the way it did, he’d probably laugh. Everybody says it’s cause God made it so, God willed it so—but that’s cause they’re too scared to know the truth. I asked myself, if I said Roby was gone cause God made it so, would they let me go? Would they let me out of here?
But I know God didn’t want it this way, didn’t want me to suffer cause I’m just a boy. The preacher says that baptized children go to heaven, and I’m a child of God! So why would He make me suffer, why would He steal the words from my mouth, steal the truth from their ears when I say it?
The grass is so green here. It’s like a sea, spreading out like moss on a rock. I can see those hills far off, heavy with mist and morning. I don’t want to look at myself, but it’s sitting there in the window reflection.
Why’d it have to be like this, Roby? Why did you go, when you know I don’t know my way out! It was Tuesday, and noon was long past. The sky was bleak, hit rain on the leaves sometimes. The light’s too bright, she says, and pulls me into the dark corners of the woods. She’s always three steps ahead of me, never tripping over the slippery rocks, like she was made for this place.
She’s so pretty, I see the back of her head, know it so well. It’s so thick here, so warm and real. I know I never want to leave here again, want to savor that growl in my teeth. Want to lick my own mouth like it tastes so good! They don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, to die while you’re living.
But they’re not me, not a boy with an animal in him. They won’t look in that mirror and see no grinning goat. They shut it out, pretend it’s all ok. But it’s not, and when we reach the sixth bend I can’t even stand it’s so hot and bloated! It’s alright, she said, God talks that way. I reckon it’s in a person. She’s all tears and blue and my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t stop ‘em.
She always said the people don’t know what they are, that they hide like foxes in the glen. But she never admitted that she was the reason I was here, the reason we found that sixth bend in the woods. Those hills were so deep, so twisting, and I thought I’d retch with fear. Don’t do it, I said, I don’t want no trouble!
But a groan was in me—it’s in a person, she said. Not what was in me, though, they said I had the devil in me, that he came one strange night and left me ruined, a rabid boy. She loved me! I scream at that tall man crowding the space. But it was so urgent, that moment! I’d never hurt a thing I loved! All the people would keep turning away, hiding their animals and shaking their heads sadly.
I’d never hurt something for no reason, it was the goat, the goat man! All the people back away then, weak in the knees, cause I s'pose my feet are cloven hooves. But how! Her neck was so white, a birch tree, her eyes loved me!
Then I see that gob of fur behind the bean patch, that was God. God did that, made the rabbit bleed so bad. He could’ve stopped it, but He didn’t. They raised their hands to a killer, they relished the bloody communion wine!
God coulda stopped that bad man, that demon I watched from behind a tree. How’d you know it was the sixth bend, they say, I thought you didn’t know your way round those woods? But how’d you get out? they ask.
You wanna die next to the one you love, they say. So you didn’t love her—you killed her, didn’t you, son? If you really cared you’d be in that wood now, birds eating out your eyeballs.
But I’m in this ugly white room, strange shadows mocking me. I need you, I tell that wall, who could forgive me if you’re gone? She’s gone, she won’t forgive me because she’s gone. And it’s so hot that day, your clothes just melt to your body like caramel on the road. It’s the back of her head, her arms swaying as she walks. It echoes in you like a mighty howl and you see that your hands aren’t your own!
How can it happen? You won’t get hurt, you have to play along. Your animal can take it too, just let him touch your face, let him hold your neck. Let him talk warm in those tongues we can’t understand! God made it that way, you said! You said it was in a person, Roby! How could you say this mountain would hold us forever, that its secrets would be ours, that those dead Indians could call our names!
But they didn’t, it was like a heavy cloud on my heart, like a stomach full of worms! Those people don’t know, they can’t feel what I feel, what I felt. They don’t get out of a scary dream, vision swirling! They don’t look into that fear mirror, goat eyes wild! That crazy DA, he won’t look me in the eyes cause he sees my animal, and he knows God made mine with fire.g here ...