He was a simple man, with simple hungers. In winter, he ate smoked and salted fish and popcorn. Come spring, he gathered fireweed shoots and dandelion flowers for fresh salads. And in late summer – oh, that was the best of seasons. All the sweetest berries burgeoning everywhere, bursting on his tongue.
He lived off-grid and out of sight, in a fir-and-alder forest on the edge of the muskeg. Though warm and snug inside, his house looked like a pile of logs leaning haphazardly on each other, his wood-shingled roof piled high with moss and studded with birds’ nests. Since pulling his back last summer, he’d had to shift from a woodstove to coal-burning, so many afternoons saw him trundling down the bluffs with his wheelbarrow, collecting coal from the broad seams revealed by the ocean’s low tide.
Last summer’s harvest had been harder won than any previous. The sun had at last wearied of her long festival and begun retreating in the wee hours, permitting the darkness a brief trespass whose incursion every night grew bolder. Blueberries dried in batches, and fireweed bloomed in full fuchsia riot. He sat shrouded in the forest shadows and watched as women and children arrived to fill their baskets with raspberries.
Perhaps in other parts of the world society had moved beyond its old hierarchies, but the Alaskan traditions were all he knew. A handful of women fought alongside the men on the banks of the salmon-choked rivers, and fewer still captained the little fishing boats that braved the open seas, but men almost never joined the women in berry-picking and baking. His summer afternoon vistas were rarely sullied with broad shoulders and bellowing voices.
He didn’t have favorites. He loved them all equally: the Russian girls in their long, vividly patterned skirts and glittering headdresses, the granddaughters of homesteaders in overalls and galoshes, the visiting cousins with tank tops and shorts and goose-pimpled skin, the grandmothers with leathered flesh and squinting eyes and unhurried fingers that still managed to collect three times as much fruit as anyone else. He let the sound of their voices and the trills of their laughter run over his skin like rain rolling down the birch branches.
Wary of bears and militant mama moose, most berry-pickers arrived at least in pairs if not in groups. But sometimes, a plucky creature would come alone. Then he would indulge his yearnings, untangle the dark thoughts from his belly and imagine how they would wrap around her. As he sat, hidden, he thought he could hear her breathing as he stepped closer and closer in his mind’s eye. He fantasized about the first sensation of her skin under his fingers, how she would start, how she would scream, how she would struggle.
Sometimes he would even leave the woods and venture up beside her. He carried a basket and made plenty of noise so as not to scare her, whistling under his breath and using a lumbering stride to mask his strength. He’d call out, “Nice day for pickin’, ain’t it?” and she’d politely call back, a little anxiety running through her voice when she realized she wasn’t alone.
He wouldn’t approach too close, keeping to other side of the bushes and carrying on sing-song conversations with the magpies and the rabbits till the wariness faded out of her eyes and the tension from her calves. When her baskets were full, she’d wave and shout out goodbye like they were old friends now. That night he would lie in bed and think how delightful it had been to hold that trembling little mouse in his paws and then let it go. He would laugh, a dark broken sound rattling like a wooden spoon beating on a saucepan. Spiders would skitter back into their webs. Shrews pinched their eyes closed tight.
But last summer he’d finally devoured one of those little rodents. It had been so easy, and over so quickly, he wondered why he hadn’t done it sooner. She’d been past her youth but not yet old, probably just aged enough to assume that predators no longer saw her as prey. Her cargo shorts and bear spray and screen-printed shirt had marked her as a tourist, one of those independent females who traveled alone. Not a slight creature, she’d fought as hard as she could, but that only added to the fun. Her bear spray was still somewhere out in the bramble where he’d tossed it. She’d never even gotten the protective nozzle off.
It hadn’t been until he was hauling her body over to the far edge of the muskeg that he’d pulled his back. He’d been furious at the time, as if the harridan had reached out of the grave to maul him, but now it was all just part of the adventure. Every great undertaking had its scars, and in time they became fond remembrances. Each time his back twinged, he remembered her wild eyes, her flailing hands, and he smiled.
Digging out a patch of even a few inches in the soft swampy ground had been an agony, and he’d been swearing as he covered her cooling flesh with mounds of thick moss and dragged a rotten tree trunk over the shallow grave. At least disposal was a small enough matter here. Between the brackish water and the rampant fungal growth and the hungry moss, she’d be nothing but a shadow on the loam in no time.
He’d limped laboriously down the all-but-invisible trail to the road, where her car hunched lonely in the midnight sun twilight. His DNA wasn’t in any database, so he wasn’t too worried, but he still wore his gardening gloves as he drove her car down to the next pull-out a couple miles away. Who knew when the troopers would start looking for her. All along the Alaskan highways, discarded vehicles sat for months or even years, traveling through their own transformation as windows were smashed out, doors pulled off, tires stolen, upholstery ripped. A vehicle had perhaps a day or two of sitting quietly before tweakers and teenagers rendered it unrecognizable. No-one would think twice about an abandoned car.
By the time her family or friends back home or the rental car company had alerted law enforcement about her disappearance, few clues would remain. The incessant rain would have washed all traces of his own footsteps away, if any sign of his traverse could even be marked through the dense brush. He left her purse in the car. It’d almost certainly be stolen out of the vehicle within another 24 hours or so, anyway, which could only create another breadcrumb trail leading away from him. He did indulge his curiosity, though, and check her drivers’ license. He ought to have a name to put to the memory, he thought.
Diane Von Ruden.
How nice. A German woman. From one Black Forest to another. There was a poetry in that, he decided.
He rolled the name around on his tongue. He liked the taste of it and decided he would always use it when he thought about her, replaying their brief moments together, night after night. Her name was one more gift he’d stolen against her will, a piece of her identity she hadn’t given him and that she could never retrieve.
He’d been exhausted, of course, by the time he finally tramped into his little house, but he’d slept like a baby all through the next day. Clocks never meant much to him anyway, and certainly not in the summer. When the sun never really set, it didn’t matter when you slept or woke. In the winter, now, things were very different. A man had to get up with the bleak cold sun and make the most of the few minutes of light he had.
He’d promised himself from that moment not to let another opportunity pass by unheeded. Life was too short to allow its brief pleasures to slip through his fingers ungrasped. It’d be ungrateful, downright disrespectful, to walk away from joy. Now that he knew what he was doing, he had no excuse for sloth where harvest was concerned.
He’d have to be a little cleverer this time, though, since his dang back wouldn’t allow him to rely solely on brute force. And a little variation was creatively healthy, wasn’t it? Diane Von Ruden’s throat under his fingers, its straining muscles, the wild heartbeat pounding in its vein, had been the most erotic sensation he’d ever experienced, but maybe there was something to be said for a more straightforward approach. If he could disable his next little mouse with a single blow, before she even knew he was a threat, he could enjoy her at his leisure. And who knew what imaginative options might suggest themselves to him once time was on his side?
So when he heard the footsteps of a single walker approaching steadily through the fields of fireweed, he readied himself. Slipped a heavy rubber mallet into the hammer loop on his worn, holey coveralls. It hung unobtrusively, almost behind his thigh. He tugged a fisherman’s hat over his shaggy hair and slung a wicker basket from his arm. His unkempt beard made him look older and less threatening than he was. He dropped his shoulders and shuffled unhurriedly out of the woods, in the opposite direction of whoever was approaching. Let them greet him first. Thinking he hadn’t even been aware of them would automatically put them more at ease than if they knew he came to meet them.
He hummed tunelessly as he went, his left hand brushing the tops of the shockingly pink flowers and sending honeybees tumbling.
He turned with a little start and a self-conscious laugh. “Scared me a little!” he explained with a wave.
Oh, yes. Not that he was picky – he considered himself a true connoisseur, capable of appreciating the unique aspects of every female, but this one immediately fired his hunger all the same. Those stupid blonde dreadlocks, no doubt intended to signal her cultural appreciation or diversity or some such when they were really just an excuse not to wash her hair. Her toned skin almost the same dirty yellow-brown color as her hair indicated she too was likely from out-of-state, somewhere the sun baked people’s skin instead of just keeping them awake. Her bare legs poked out of clunky hiking boots instead of galoshes, and he was careful not to stare too long at the black ink winding its way across her right shin. An octopus, maybe? He’d have plenty of time to look at that later.
“Sorry about that,” she said with an easy smile. Pretty, and young, but no makeup. A tomboy? No. Strings of colored beads swung between her small breasts. Modern-day hippie. The long o sound in sorry told him she was likely Canadian. Maybe Upper Midwestern United States.
“I hope I’m not trespassing,” she went on. “A friend told me about a late opening on a fishing boat, so I’m on my way down. And he said I should stop off here to stretch my legs and snag a bit of a snack from the raspberry bushes. It’s nice to have an inside track.”
“Not trespassing at all,” he said reassuringly, but inwardly anxiety seized his gut. Her captain buddy must be a pretty good friend to take her on this late in the season and give up a berry-picking location, too. The best spots for picking were closely guarded secrets among the locals, rarely served up to tourists or transient workers.
A good friend, and a boss expecting her to report to the boat, no doubt by tomorrow morning. Day after that at the latest. So not only would the alarm be swiftly raised, but the man would certainly tell the cops he’d directed her to stop here on the way.
He should retreat. Should let this little mouse go with nothing more than a sweet whiff of its fur. Should go back to his cabin and wait, his belly empty, for easier, less dangerous prey.
She tilted her head. “You sure I’m not bothering you? I know what it’s like to think you have a lovely little spot all to yourself, and some stranger tramps in.”
Sunlight slid down her throat like dew on lupine leaves.
What was life worth without a little danger, anyway? He’d move her car, just like he had Diane Von Ruden’s. The cops would assume she hadn’t followed the directions quite right. Wandered off into the brush, met an old brown bruin, been dragged away never to be seen again.
Happened all the time.
He could still do this. He fought to keep a sloppy grin off his face. He could almost smell the heat coming off her body. He couldn’t wait to feel her fighting beneath him.
“Not at all. Folks come up here all the time.” Put her at ease. “Your buddy’s right – this is a great spot for raspberries. Help yourself. A little sugar will help you stay awake on the road, right?”
She laughed again. “Seriously, though! I thought Jack was kidding when he said I couldn’t get lost. Only one road down the entire Peninsula? I’ve been pulling the hairs on the back of my neck for the last forty-five minutes to try and keep my eyes open. There isn’t even a decent radio station to yell along with.”
He chuckled, hoping she’d assume he laughed with her and not at her. Stupid little prig.
“Sounds like you need a berry break for sure.” He waved a hand vaguely. “There’s more than enough for the both of us.”
She smiled and nodded, but to his dismay, she kept walking past the heavy-headed bushes nodding right beside her. Instead, she struck out unhesitatingly toward the swampy open ground of the muskeg.
“There’s – there’s really good raspberries right there,” he called out, annoyed with the sudden rasp of his voice. An unreasoning panic took hold as she tossed him a cheery grin over her shoulder, stepping easily over the very log that pressed Diane Von Ruden’s rotting remains into the peaty bog.
“I saw that, but look at these! They’re positively begging me to pick them. How can I argue with raspberries?”
Almost against his will, he looked where her arm indicated.
How had he not noticed that before?
His head swam a little.
The blood-red raspberries bobbing gently in the clover-scented summer breeze were at least twice the size of those on the bushes this side of the muskeg. He could almost smell them, almost taste them bursting sweet and tart on his tongue. Dread and longing seized him in equal measure.
The beautiful interloper bent to pick a handful hanging low. Her shorts rode up on her thighs. More ink and the ragged fingers of cellulite clung to her muscles, and he imagined how they would feel beneath his hands. He stepped closer without even realizing it.
“Oh!” Her exclamation was orgasmic. “These are the best raspberries I’ve ever tasted. There really is no comparing with fresh-picked, is there? No wonder the robins around here look so happy.”
She was transfixed. Little glutton. Whether he liked it or not, this was his moment. He had to keep going.
It wasn’t that he was afraid. That wasn’t why he hadn’t been to that side of the muskeg since last summer. There was just no reason to go there. All the raspberries bushes were on his side of the field. At least, they had been. He could have sworn it. He must have just not noticed. After all, what reason did he have to tromp across the soggy clumps of grass and channels of rotten, stinking water?
“Mmmm.” She was still talking, still moaning and muttering about the raspberries. Still waving her bubbly little tight ass in his face.
He clung to a moulded piece of bear bread protruding from the dead tree headstoning Diane Von Ruden’s grave as he swung a leg over, pulling the hammer from its loop as he propelled himself forward.
He windmilled wildly as his right boot sank endlessly down into the fetid earth. He brought his left foot over in a rush, frantic to establish some solid ground.
But that one sank, too, with a hideous slurping sound. Fear speared his chest.
The rubber head of the hammer stuck in a tangle of grass, and he tugged as his midriff disappeared into the hungry, loose mud.
He heard the pathetic word issue from his own throat as if it came from a stranger, even as he felt a cold, bony hand seize on his ankle, deep in the bog.
Pretty Blonde Dreadlocks swung around at his cry, her gleeful smile never wavering when she met his terrified gaze.
“That mud down there is cold, isn’t it?” she asked him, her perfect calmness frightening him as no threat could ever have done.
He hadn’t noticed it before, been too distracted by fear to permit sensation, but now he was shuddering all the way up to his shoulders, his teeth chattering, and still that bony hand on his leg squeezed tighter and tighter.
“Please. Please help me,” he forced the words out between his knocking teeth.
Somehow she stood directly above him, her feet planted shoulder-length apart, her hands propped comfortably on her hips. How was she not stumbling, not sinking, not falling into the quicksand beside him?
The hand on his ankle tugged. Slowly. Inexorably. The mud reached his chest. He gagged on the sudden wafting aroma of decaying flesh.
“Strong, isn’t she?”
He felt his eyes goggling, but he had no will to restrain them. Raspberries rained down on his face from Pretty Blonde Dreadlocks’ open hand. Juice burst against his cheekbones, his chin, his eyelids.
He dropped the hammer. Clutched at the grass with sweating, shaking hands.
“Help me,” he pleaded again.
With the toe of her hiking boot, she gently tilted the hat off his head. Sunshine stretched its ready fingers through his damp hair. He strained toward that faint warmth with all the strength in his body. The fingers on his leg flexed, resettled their grip. Terror paroxysmed through his veins.
“You do know that’s not why I’m here, don’t you?” she asked softly. She rested her boot on his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he blubbered, surprised by the sudden gush of tears that came from nowhere. “I’m so sorry.”
“You aren’t, of course,” she said. “You aren’t sorry at all. You’re just afraid. But that’s all right. The swamp witch doesn’t want your apologies.”
Pressure. Slow, relentless pressure. He tasted mud.
“The swamp witch only wants your fear.”
Desperate, he abandoned the grass and clung to her calves. His fingers slipped, leaving streaks of mud like new tattoos on her pale skin. Her balance never wavered.
Under his gaze, she shifted.
That burnt butter skin he could almost taste faded into moss-riddled bark, knobby and bent. Her dreadlocks grew long, long, longer before disappearing into a sudden burst of bright rotten mycelium, its burgeoning colors and fluttering gills all promising poison. The foot on his head stretched into a tangle of roots, their trailing threads wrapping lazily around his throat, stretching up to tickle his nostrils. Her glinting eyes, so bright, evaporated into two great grey owls who regarded him with flat, stupid hunger.
“No!” he howled futilely, the word ending on a gargle as the roots sucked his head into the muskeg.
For a few seconds, his filthy fingers scrabbled still, but the wind only cackled a wild banshee laugh as the swamp witch’s bark crumbled away beneath his clutches just before his hands disappeared into the lush Alaskan bog.
A few minutes later, a long-haul truck driver sounded an appreciative honk while rounding a curve on the Sterling Highway, as a long-legged, dreadlocked blonde bombshell emerged from the fireweed and the alders. She waved cheerily at him, popping something sweet between her cherry lips, unmindful of the mud streaking her muscled calves. He saw the little beater car parked in the shadows of the cottonwoods and kept driving.
“Maybe next time,” he thought with a lewd grin.
“Next time,” chuckled the swamp witch to herself as she watched his license plate disappear down the road. “Next time.”
Cassondra Windwalker is a poet, essayist, and novelist presently writing full-time from the southern Alaskan coast. Her full-length poetry collections and novels can be found in bookstores and online. She welcomes discussion with readers on Twitter @WindwalkerWrite and on Instagram @CassondraWindwalker.
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