My knights and my servants and my true children, which be come out of deadly life into spiritual life, I will now no longer hide me from you, but ye shall see now a part of my secrets and of my hid things.
———————————————————————–—Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
THE AVIATOR HAD BEEN HEARING the howling of the dog pack for some time. He didn’t live on this long ridge high in the Alleghenies or anywhere near it, so he couldn’t know that the raucous bugling meant that death was on its way. His head was full of what had just happened to him: the dark bird impacting the canopy of his Phantom at low altitude, blood and feathers and howling wind and blindness. Groping for the ejection handle, he had managed to punch out as the uppermost branches of the trees lashed the fuselage, as the forest pulled him down. The aviator didn’t know what had happened to his backseater. He felt weak with guilt. He didn’t belong on the ground.
He sat at the edge of a clearing, on one in a squat line of tilting stone blocks, an archipelago of order in the chaos of the forest. Around him lay maybe an acre of open ground punctuated by sprawling clumps of rambler rose. He had been drawn to the clearing by the spikes of golden sunlight that drove downward through the green forest roof. They reminded him of the light-shafts that often penetrated the cloud-cover when he was skimming along in the thin margin between the cloud bottoms and the mountain ridges.
Fat squirrels dashed among the tree-limbs, chittering, staring down at him with frantic, bulging eyes. Overhead, boughs squeaked and grunted and thumped against one another in what sounded to his ears like sober conversation. Insect life burrowed beneath his flight suit, into his skin. He had a growing sense of the forest as a single great organism, one that he imagined was slowly becoming aware of him. I am here, he thought, in the vegetable kingdom.
He had lost everything in his tumble through the forest roof. When his eyesight cleared, he was already sliding into the treetops, the silk of his parachute tangling in the branches. Caught high in a monster oak like a discarded marionette, concussion blurring his vision, he had pulled the razor-sharp Ka-bar knife out of his belt and, in a sudden access of terror, slashed the shroud lines of his chute, his torso harness, the lanyard that attached him to the seat pan with its survival gear. He had cut himself free and left it all irretrievably behind. Flares, smoke, compass, mirror, radio beacon, flashlight. Gone.
He’d slipped and slid and bumped his way down the many-limbed trunk of the oak, slowing his fall with an outflung arm here, a foot against a bough there, dragging stripped-away branches after him, green twigs snapping and cutting into his neck and cheeks, bark scraping the skin from his palms. When he landed at last with a breath-stealing thump on the thick carpet of decaying leaves on the forest floor, he found himself in the midst of a tribe of shaggy wild mountain ponies, who took a single eye-rolling look at him and dashed off into the undergrowth, tails flying. Knowing of no better direction in which to start the search for the wreckage of his jet and for his backseater, he had stood on shaky legs and followed them. He kept walking into spider webs strung invisibly between bushes, seeing their elaborate architecture only in the instant before he was into them, the sticky threads adhering to his eyelids, stretching over his nostrils, across his mouth.
There had once been buildings in the clearing where he now rested, and their half-hidden foundations still divided the open ground into squares and rectangles. The aviator took comfort from the straight lines of them, here where nothing was straight. He could recognize the hand of his kind in such a thing. It didn’t occur to him to wonder where they had gone, the people who had laid these foundations, what might have swept them away.
In his fall from the oak, the aviator had twisted his ankle. It ached savagely, and he could feel the hot swelling of the flesh and the soreness in the tendons. The leather on the toes of both his boots had been peeled away by contact with the Phantom’s dashboard as he ejected, and the steel toecaps shone dully through. He heard the dogs, but dogs in his experience were pets. They ran and played in the grass. You fed them; you picked up their poop. He himself didn’t own a dog, but he knew plenty of people who did. He dismissed the sound.
The gray dogs raced like floodwater through the undergrowth, fifty of them or more, driven by the coming of spring and by their hunger. Everything alive on the ridge they pushed before them: white-tailed deer, possums, raccoons too terrified to remember that they could escape into the trees. Even a cantankerous old black bear, shaggy and leaned out by the winter, looking for early berries, heard the murderous howl that rose from their many throats and took to his heels, shambling along beside the humbler animals. Nothing stood against the tide of the gray dogs.
The pack’s frontrunner was young and fast on his delicate feet, if not particularly strong. None of the dogs was strong, not alone, all of them stringy, feral mutts bound together at the mad edge of starvation. Deep in the frontrunner’s brain lay the puppy-memory of a place of regular meals and fences and collars, fragmentary, fragile as a cobweb, of a world away from the ridge where he had answered to a name. His name. What had it been? The wild cry that issued unbidden from him tore the memory to shreds. Now he was as gray as dust, as gray as the rest of them, and crazed with fury and hunger. His dog’s heart soared because everything on the ridge fled them.
He slowed minutely to snatch a stick insect from the branch of a bush, swallowed it down without tasting, and the rest of the pack surged around him, pushing him hard from beside and behind, their panting breath hot on his hindquarters. The next swiftest of them, a lanky prick-eared dog, ran at his shoulder, as close to him as a littermate at their mother’s teats, as close to him as a brother.
Run run run, he cried, they all cried with one voice. The hunger gnawed at them, the agony of appetite hurled them forward, scrawny backs bowed, bony shoulders hunched, empty bellies drawn up tight as drum-skins against their spines, eyes slitted against the wan light that filtered down to the forest floor.
In sixteenth-century Europe, the legend once bloomed that birds of paradise had no feet and that they never lighted anywhere. Instead, the fabulously plumed birds were said to drift forever on the winds, consuming nothing but the dews of heaven, and they descended to touch the earth only when they died. The myth arose because the lustrous skins of the birds arrived from New Guinea preserved in poison, with the feet removed for shipping, and the men who unpacked them, and the people who bought them, none of them ever saw a living bird of paradise.
The aviator could tell you firsthand, though, that to light nowhere, always to fly, to press forever against the taunting edge of the envelope of flesh and mechanism; to watch and strain and yearn as your engines sucked hopelessly at the thinning oxygen, as your enemies spiraled about you, desiring nothing but to see you vanish in flame and smoke and tatters; as the controls bucked and fought and ceased to respond; to see the leading edges of your wings gleam red as blood against the impossible disk of the sun, to grope upward into the darkened freezing curve of the stratosphere, and then always to fall back…. To light nowhere and always to fly: the aviator could tell you that this is paradise.
A family of bobwhite quail broke out of the dense thicket of rambler rose near which the aviator sat. They flashed away into the sky, their panicked wings thumping at the warm, still air. A thrill ran through the aviator’s barrel chest, a shiver of delight to see them fly. He was twenty-nine years old, and that was what he wanted more than anything, to be able to take to the air in a fraction of a second, like a bird. No ready room, no rush across the hot tarmac, no cinching himself solidly into a fabulous gizmo of metal and plastic and Plexiglas. He was a creature of the sky. Only among the cloud-tops did he not feel trapped in his own flightless body, excluded from what he thought of as the true life. The time on the ground between hops was endless, dull, insufferable.
The aviator’s eyesight was excellent. He made out swift movement, small innocuous animals crossing the creek that bounded the clearing, chipmunks and rabbits and even a frightened fox, scurrying out of the tree-line and crossing the rocky clearing where he sat. The smaller animals channeled their way through the lush spring grass and the patches of flowers, forcing their bodies into gaps between the close-grown stalks of rambler rose. The fleeing creatures were silent except for their desperate gasping and the scrabbling of their little hard feet against the earth. A doe and her spotted fawn flashed by, droplets of creek water flicking from their delicate legs. A mouse skittered over one of the aviator’s boots. The howling of the hunters rose behind them.
A bear lumbered through the clearing, smelling of half-eaten fruit. The aviator started—he thought someone, perhaps in the survival training classes in which he now wished he’d paid better attention, had told him to roll up into a ball if he was ever confronted by a bear, to pretend that he was dead—but the old bear kept on without even a sideways glance at him and passed out of the high meadow.
Vague shapes clustered at the edge of the forest. Gray and low against the ground, like a terrible mist, they advanced across the fast-running stream and out of the undergrowth, many of them moving in a single body.
The frontrunner had not been alone in—how long? No way to tell. There was that faint sense that he had of the life he’d lived before the gray dogs: the life of plentiful food, the life of lying quiet in a cool place and resting, the life shared with men. And then there was the life of the pack, which was all of his life since. It was a life of riot, of constant noise and hunger, of wolfing down any bit of flesh that came his way, no matter how hard, how bitter, how rotten, of running through the dark, constant running, and of falling down to sleep only when the others fell down around him, curling himself over and against the closest dogs, his nose to his neighbor’s tail for warmth, the neighbor’s nose likewise digging into him.
He snatched at ragged sleep, in which he would sometimes dream of the life of food and the soft voices that came with it—good dog, good dog—but in which more often he would dream that he was running, running, seeking after something to eat, the world fleeing before him, only to wake and find that he was already pounding along with the pack on the trail of some terrified quarry. The dust raised by their relentless passage settled over their coats until they became a single uniform gray.
He had been slow at first, always in the rear of the pack, struggling to keep up, always at the fringes of the group when they flung themselves down to sleep, always cold, always farthest from the kills. Never full, eating only when the feast was so great that the pack leaders couldn’t eat more, when they were so gorged that they couldn’t be bothered to chase the starvelings away but instead lay a few yards distant, eyes half-closed, bellies bulging, while their inferiors fought each other for the leavings.
Sometimes he would find dry bones in the foliage, usually small—voles, squirrels, perhaps the partial skeleton of a coyote—and he would suck on them, afraid to bite down because he knew that the sound of the cracking bone would draw the attention of others who would snatch the secret morsel away. Sometimes he would strip berries from nearby bushes, but they made him vomit as often as they nourished him.
Soon enough, though, he found his stride lengthening, his legs growing stronger, his pace quicker, and he took his place in the midst of the surging pack, the foot-draggers left far behind him. The gray dogs never looked backward. Always on the move, eyes searching for the kill, anything to keep the specter of starvation away for yet another night and yet another run. His prospect was a lake of bobbing backs and heads and shoulders, the sweep of the tail ahead of him.
When prey was scarce, the pack at some unfathomable signal would wheel, and a shudder of greed and terror passed through their ranks. This was the moment they all feared and dreaded, when the pack whirled on itself, the leaders sweeping in behind the stragglers and overtaking them, knocking them off their feet. The pack would consume its laggards. The frontrunner wasn’t innocent of the cannibalism, when the killing went far enough. As dogs drifted in to join the pack—strays gone feral, lost hunting dogs, abandoned mutts—others surrendered their bodies to the multitude. The lame and the halt fed the leaders.
In time, he found the ranks before him thinning. He shoved his way forward in the pack, striving for all he was worth, until there were no dogs in front of him. He flew through the forest, and the frontrunner’s howl broke from his throat, and the dogs behind him took it up, adding their voices to the awful wail. They trailed him, matching their pace to his. Down the fern-shrouded hillsides they flew, along the ravines, across the ridges and through the deep forest, pressing behind him so that he was fearful to stop, lest they should bowl him over and, seeing him weak for a moment, devour him. Only when he felt the horde flagging could he slow his pace. Only when they collapsed from exhaustion, their scrawny sides heaving, could he stop.
The aviator fled. He wasn’t aware of any impulse to run: one moment he was at rest, watching the dogs advance, and the next he was thrashing his way through the rambler roses, which tore at his Nomex flight suit, at his skin. The watery light in the undergrowth was confusing after the brilliance of the clearing. His strained ankle protested, the swollen flesh pressing against the tight lacing of the boot, but the closing cry of the dogs kept him moving.
His mind went for a moment to the knife, the Ka-bar with its seven-inch blade, secure in its sheath on his belt. He was a man; he was fit and strong, in the prime of his life. He had been trained to fight, to survive, to prevail. He had killed other men, for heaven’s sake, though never at close range. The idea that he might be eaten by a bunch of dogs seemed faintly ridiculous to him. But the reddened eyes, the lolling tongues, the bodies bunched together, clenched like fists and then flexed on the bound, the long legs tirelessly eating up the distance, most of all the fangs, the numberless teeth in the gaping mouths—if he faced them, he would die. The aviator knew himself as prey.
He followed the trail of the other animals. His sharp eyes picked out the brown, humped back of the bear, maybe thirty yards ahead of him through the light bracken, lolloping along at its best pace. Why didn’t it fight? It struck the aviator as wildly unfair that something as strong and fierce as the bear should be fleeing. The bear should rightly be between him and the dogs.
The face comes to the aviator, with its high cheekbones and dark eyes: his backseater, Geronimo. And with the face, a blaze of shame. Had the aviator ordered Geronimo to punch out, or had he left him behind? The altimeter unwinding like a nightmare clock as the forest reached upward.
Outside the scratched Plexiglas bubble of the canopy, before the impact, the sky was bright, and the aviator picked out details on the ground below. A skein of silver lines, rivers, broken here and there with white, where rapids boiled. The carpet of endless forest, which furred the rough outlines of the mountains and made them seem soft as pillows. The thousands of hectares of it spread out on all sides, to the horizon. Behind a dam, one of the rivers blossomed into a lake. He eased the stick forward, and the fighter stooped like a hawk. The aviator wanted to make a low-level run through the mountains.
They were deadly men in a deadly machine, one so fast that, pushed to its maximum, it could outpace the turning of the earth. They could run westward with the sun, and night wouldn’t ever fall on them. An endless day. The stink of jet-fuel and rubber and stale air filled the aviator’s nostrils, the stench of his own sweat. The seat-pan hard beneath his buttocks. Over the intercom, he could hear Geronimo’s breathing, high pitched and stertorous. Strange to have breathing in his ears like that, like a lover sharing a pillow, but in a hundred missions he had grown used to it.
The Phantom descended, the forest rising up to meet it. Suddenly, Geronimo laughed, at some private joke, at something glimpsed on the ground below them, at nothing, and the sound, distorted over the intercom, came to the aviator as a meaningless blast of sound, flat and crackling, like gunfire. He could picture Geronimo’s face beneath the oxygen mask and helmet, the eyes amused. Impossible to know what another man was thinking. No one closer than a pilot and his navigator, and yet they might have been worlds apart, connected only by the slender static-filled line of the intercom. Neither of them could see the other, each in his own universe of panels, instruments, lights, cramped and familiar and homelike.
The dark bird shattered the canopy.
The Phantom F4B weighed thirty thousand pounds empty. It carried twelve thousand pounds of fuel in an internal tank. At the time of the bird strike, the aviator’s jet was fitted with two drop tanks, which brought its initial fuel load to eighteen thousand pounds. The aviator didn’t know precisely how much of the fuel they had burned before the collision. Geronimo would know. The backseater managed mundane tasks like navigation, communication, fuel consumption. Say they had consumed five thousand pounds. At impact, the Phantom had weighed well over twenty tons, counting the twin pods of Zuni rockets slung under the wings.
A turkey buzzard—that was what it had to have been, the wingspread wider than the span of the aviator’s arms, the glimpse of that ugly, naked head, like something peeled and red—weighed about five or six pounds. It had impacted the canopy at just under four hundred knots. Shards of glass from the shattered heads-up display had gashed the aviator’s forehead and the bridge of his nose but spared his eyes. If the vulture hadn’t caromed off in some unknown direction, it would have decapitated him.
As he ran, the aviator kept hoping to strike a debris trail, trees sheared at a descending angle, with the twisted hulk of the plane’s wreckage at the end. Had the plane burned when it struck? All that fuel, it should have blazed like a torch. No smell of smoke reached him, no flicker of flames to tell him where to go. If Geronimo had ejected in time, then he would search for the wreckage of the Phantom as well. The aviator could imagine the backseater leaning nonchalant against the massive tail section of the smashed plane, amused but unsmiling. What was he, maybe twenty-one? A kid. Everything amused him. The two of them could hold off the dogs. Two men together had nothing to fear from a pack of dogs.
The frontrunner made out the shape of the man in front of him, hunched and running but nonetheless upright—two legs—and the scent was strong in his sensitive nose, the scent of another carnivore, fat on meat and marrow and bone. He had never pursued a man before. Nothing was forbidden the gray dogs; but this? For a moment, the frontrunner was two dogs, and each dog possessed a separate history. One history was ten thousand years of servitude and loyalty and symbiosis, of corrective blows and caresses and the sweet leavings of the master’s table.
The other was the history of a million years, and a million years before that. The history of the timber wolves and, behind them, of the dire wolves that ruled the fantastical prehistoric jungles, too fierce to run in packs, too deadly even to their own breed for any kind of companionship. The lanky dog at the frontrunner’s shoulder lunged forward, and the frontrunner pushed hard, to stay out in front.
The aviator struggled up out of the ravine, knees quaking, lungs burning. He knew that he was only moments ahead of the dog pack. They were screaming at his heels. He felt that he might almost be able to bear what was going to happen to him—it would at least stop the agony in his ankle, the drowning sensation of the carbon dioxide waste building up in his blood, the unbearable tension of the endless sprint—if it weren’t for the awful howling. The howling drove him on. The bear had outdistanced him, and the other animals as well. The aviator was alone with the gray dogs.
He dodged an upright stone, hip-high, skirted another, and a third, topped by a crumbling seraph. Grave markers. He was passing through a cemetery. One great central monument, twice the aviator’s height, bore the figure of a bandaged man, twisted, misshapen, propped up on clumsy crutches. Little granite dogs twined around the man’s bandy legs. If he’d had the breath, the aviator would have laughed at the coincidence.
The graveyard sprawled out on all sides, vast and full of moving shadows. To the left and right, the suggestion of tilting buildings, bracken grown up around them, trees pushing through shattered roofs, thrusting their limbs through glassless windows. Ahead of the aviator, cloaked in trumpet vine, a crumbling brick wall. And in the wall, nearly hidden in the gloom that spread beneath the encroaching trees, a door. The aviator lunged for the door, thrust downward on the great wrought-iron handle, hauled it toward him. It refused to open, and he tasted death, more surely than he ever had in combat, more surely than he had when the vulture had burst through the Phantom’s canopy.
Push. He put his solid shoulder to the upper panel of the door and shoved for all he was worth. The door gave before his weight with a terrible scream of age and disuse, and he spilled inside. He found himself in a high-ceilinged building, dark, dust-coated, disused. A church? He took no time to look around him, but kicked the heavy door shut, leaned his weight against it. His breath came in sobs as the howling dogs flung themselves against the wood.
The frontrunner struggled to stop short of the closing door but couldn’t manage it. The others were too close and moving too fast. He went headfirst into the hard wood of the door’s lower half, stunning himself. The lanky dog at his side screeched and bounded, bounced off the door as well, and fell back into the scrambling horde. They were piling up, two and three deep, those behind shoving those in front, dogs’ bodies washing into the doorway like waves against a cliff, legs splayed, tails tucked under. They yowled and squealed and bit one another, rolling over and over, dog after dog piling blindly on, the prostrate frontrunner bottom-most.
The aviator recognized the building as a barracks, abandoned for some considerable length of time: long and narrow, with a tall, pitched roof and small windows. It was a room in which, he felt sure, many lonely men had passed the loneliest hours of their lives. What had they been? Soldiers? Prisoners? Monks? The building would have sufficed to house any of them. The roof had given way in places, and pale light filtered through to piles of rubble on the floor, but he noted with relief that the walls appeared to be sound. Sanctuary. Behind him, the door held, despite the pounding and thumping and wailing of the gray dogs.
The dogs began scrambling at the sides of the building, growling and griping, seeking another way in, a way to get at him. He hustled around the periphery of the room as fast as his bum ankle and his short breath would allow, making sure that it was as solid as it had seemed at first blush. He was a practical man. The place had been securely constructed. Here and there lay piles of ruined furniture: smashed bedsteads, half-burned mattresses, wrecked chairs, an empty trunk, the leather that bound it cracked and green with mold. Outside the walls, the dogs bawled their frustration.
Elated, the aviator howled at them in return. He tilted his head full back, closed his eyes, inflated his lungs, and roared. He had never in his life done anything like it. The sound of his voice bounced back to him from the sagging rafters, loud and reassuring, and he kept on, his teeth bared, spittle flying in high arcs. His head ached with the echoes. His nails bit into the palms of his hands, and cords stood out on the sides of his neck, blood vessels began to rupture, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. It felt as though there were a dozen of him, a score, all lifting their voices up in protest against the death outside.
A reply came. Not from the dogs. It came booming from deep within the wilderness, wordless and chthonic. The aviator continued screaming for a moment longer, but the great call from the forest was overwhelming, and he felt how small his own voice was, raised up against it. Even the dogs fell silent. It wasn’t a challenge, like one bull elk defying another over a female or territory. This was a declaration of dominion: calm, deliberate, absolute. The bellow came again, vast beyond comprehension: the voice of the forest.
The aviator found himself praying—he who never prayed—praying and begging that he would not have to face whatever it was that he had called up.
In the refectory of the military school the aviator had attended as a boy, there was a stained-glass window that he particularly admired. It had been installed to honor the graduating class of 1943. Most of the colorful images set into the window meant little to him, a mishmash of Jesus Christ as a human and as a lamb, King Arthur holding up a clumsy sword, his noble knights arrayed around him, the Grail floating above their bowed heads, shedding rays of light. The central figure, though: as he ate, the boy who would become the aviator often lost himself in contemplation of it, and had to be jostled back to awareness of his surroundings by his classmates.
He found it a little humiliating, to be so entranced by the picture. It wasn’t even, he didn’t believe, a very good piece of art. A man surrounded by doves descending and ascending, bordered by bursting stars, by smoke and long trails of flame. A man in the garb of an old-time combat flyer: leather helmet, goggles, Mae West, parachute harness, leather boots. His coveralls were gleaming white, and he seemed to float above the ground, his feet pressed tight together, his toes pointed downward, his palms outward in a beseeching attitude. His face was bland, his features frustratingly regular and unmanly, his lips full and lush. His hips were strangely wide, and he appeared to have a little pouch of a belly that thrust his flying suit outward.
The man in the stained-glass window was not heroic. He was a bit silly in his passivity, his apparent gentleness, his androgyny. The boy would have preferred that the doves had been hawks, or eagles, with their cruel talons and their hooked beaks, their all-seeing eyes. The smoke and flames seemed to indicate that the man had been defeated in battle, his plane had gone down, he had died. One of the reprobates at the school—the academy was full of them—had thrown some hard thing at the window at some point in the past, and the flyer’s right eye was dark, as though it had been shot out.
The boy would rather have been interested in any of the other martial figures in the window, or none of them, but it was this embarrassing image to which he came back again and again, despite the mockery of his table companions, many of whom would fight and die courageously in wars yet to come. Whatever his flaws, this man in the window, he was a being of the air. He was, as the boy knew himself to be, an aviator.
The forest whispered with a million vegetable mouths. The aviator found that he didn’t want to sleep. He had discovered in this dormitory setting a kind of calm, a repose of the spirit that was better than sleep. He would be sought out soon by men much like himself; he would be judged on how he had handled the bird-strike and resulting crash, would be either hero or goat—but for the moment, he desired only to exult in the familiarity and solitude of the barracks.
The forest murmured, and the dogs kept their vigil. The aviator wanted to take off his boots, but he didn’t dare. He would have had to cut the boot off of his injured foot, so severe was the swelling, and he knew that he would never get it on again. For the first hour or so after hearing the voice from the forest, the aviator had hurled pieces of wood and chunks of masonry from the windows in an effort to get the dogs to leave him be. He had managed to brain one lanky dog, and its body lay unmolested in the leaf-filtered moonlight among the gravestones. The gray dogs were either too weary or too agitated to eat it.
The aviator had ceased to want them to depart. The gray dogs were not company, but they were…. What? They were not the forest. There was something terrible waiting out there among the trees—or perhaps it was the trees themselves that were waiting, watching. The aviator could almost bring himself to believe that the patrolling dogs were guarding him from whatever it was that walked in the darkness, that dwelled in the shadowed hollows out beyond their protective circle. He regretted having killed the one, and he was grateful to the others for their noise and their animation.
Most of the graves that he could see from the windows were graced with a wretched man of rags and tatters more or less similar to the one on the monument, sometimes crude, sometimes elaborate. The figure was always accompanied by numerous dogs, and it was hard to tell if the dogs were being affectionate with him, or if they were plaguing him. The aviator had worked out, in the hours that he had stood at the window peering out, who the man was: Saint Lazarus, the leprous beggar who died outside the rich man’s gates, where the dogs licked his sores.
This building and the surrounding graveyard had not been part of a prison, not a monastery or a military installation. It had been a leprosarium. The aviator had heard of such places, stuck far away from population, in the swamps, tucked away in barely habitable regions of the deserts of the southwest. In the mountains, on the high, lonely ridges, where contact with the uninfected was nearly impossible. No crime had been committed by those who had lived in this dormitory, but confinement here had been lifelong, without hope of mercy or parole. The forest had been the walls.
He yawned. He knew that, if he had suffered a concussion, he mustn’t sleep. Sleep for him could mean death. For the lepers, to enter the forest was death. To try to return to civilization was to perish. The uninfected ones who lived in the valleys and the flatlands away from the ridge, what would they have thought of the lepers? Their features ravaged, fingers missing, feet irretrievably lamed, skin luminous with infection. Monsters. Perhaps banishment was the kindest solution, for all involved.
The frontrunner roused himself, the foul dark taste of his own blood on his tongue. Only a moment before, as it seemed to him, all had been noise and fury, the shrieking of his packmates as they piled into the closed door and landed atop him. Then darkness like sleep, and a voice that called to him, a voice that spoke his old name. Now silence hung over the place. He stood and shook out all his limbs, checking for serious injury. There was none.
He saw that the lanky dog that had run along at his shoulder lay unmoving out in the middle of the field of standing stones. The rest of the pack milled about aimlessly in the open space between the building and the nighttime forest. There was a man in the building, he knew, the man he had been chasing. The dogs looked to him, and he knew as well that, were he to begin running, they would follow him. He would once again be the frontrunner, and they would once again be the gray dogs, and everything alive would flee before them.
Instead, the frontrunner lay down on the threshold of the door. He would wait on the man to emerge. Resting his aching head on his paws, he turned over in his simple brain that name, the name by which they had known him in the days before the coming of the pack. He had once been called Attaboy.
“Dead to the world, be thou alive to God.”
The voice woke the aviator, who had fallen asleep, propped in a sitting position in a corner of the dormitory, half-wrapped in a flimsy, scorched mattress. The room had grown cold. Before the aviator stood a man covered in silver scales. He was naked, and he gleamed like a fish in a river. He glistened so brightly that it was difficult to make out any particular details of his appearance. His face was a shining caul, pierced only by his dark eyes. The aviator assumed that it was the silver man who had spoken, but there was nothing to prove it. The aviator couldn’t make out whether the man even had a mouth.
In the old days, the aviator knew, the priests had given lepers a full funeral. Put them alive into a coffin, covered it with a pall, hauled them out to the cemetery. When they left the leper alone, to climb out of the casket on his own, forever after unclean, they had said those words over him, like a magical incantation. Dead to the world. Dead to the world.
The silver man turned from the aviator, whom he had been examining, and strode toward the door. His back, his buttocks, his legs—the coin-bright scales covered all. The aviator almost expected him to jingle when he walked. It occurred to him that this must be one of the lepers from the leprosarium’s operational days. Surely the institution must have been closed for years? This might be the last leper, then, so far gone in the disease that he wouldn’t wish to come down off the ridge even when it was allowed.
The silver man’s hands and feet, fingerless and toeless so far as the aviator could tell, seemed to confirm this notion. He walked over the warped board floor of the barracks with a rolling gait, like a sailor in heavy seas. When he reached the door, the aviator struggled to find his voice, to shout out a warning.
And knew, in that same instant, that he had not warned Geronimo. He had punched out and left his backseater alone in the Phantom as the forest drew it down and consumed it. As the aviator floated into the foliage under billows of fluttering silk.
“No,” he said. The silver man opened the door. The aviator’s throat was raw, and it stung with his attempt at speech. “There’s something out there.” He meant the dogs, of course, but he also meant whatever was beyond the dogs, out in the forest. The forest itself. His hand found the haft of the Ka-bar.
“Go home. Go home.”
Impossible, again, to know if it was the silver man who spoke. The words echoed in the tall-ceilinged room, and the aviator remembered with discomfort the howling that he had set up in the night, and the intolerable reply that had come. This voice was entirely human, humane. Gentle. The aviator could tell that the words were directed at the dog pack, but he thought that they were perhaps meant for him as well. The silver man stepped into the graveyard.
Home. The antiseptic BOQ at Oceana? The cramped cockpit of the Phantom? The dormitory of the military school? The Spartan bedroom in his boyhood home? He couldn’t tell what precisely the word might mean, but he felt a strong impulse to rise, to search, to find it out.
When the aviator emerged from the barracks at dawn, favoring his injured ankle, only Attaboy awaited him. Tracks in numberless circuits around the building testified to the watch the gray dogs had kept over him during the night, and similar tracks led away, in many directions, winding past the ruined outbuildings of the leprosarium and into the trees. The pack was broken. There was no sign of the silver man, and no prints that looked to have been made by unshod human feet. At the aviator’s appearance, Attaboy rose from the door’s sill and stretched, head cocked at an attentive angle, as though he were waiting on a word of command.
The aviator slapped his palm twice against his thigh, as he had seen other men do to summon their dogs, and Attaboy trotted over to him, looking up with mild brown eyes. The aviator reached down and stroked the dog’s dusty, bony head. “Left you all alone up here, did they?” the aviator asked. The dog pushed hard against the hand.
“All right then,” the aviator said. He crossed the graveyard to the body of the lanky dog. The piece of jagged masonry that had broken the dog’s skull lay nearby. Overhead, a pair of perfectly matched turkey vultures circled counterclockwise, their wings stiff and still as they rode the thermals, waiting with infinite patience and serenity on their chance to descend and feed. The aviator admired their flight for a moment—so effortless, so unforced—before he knelt and picked up the lanky dog, felt the stiffness in its limbs. He was intent before anything else on finding a place to lay the body where it could lie undisturbed. With the dog cradled in his arms and Attaboy at his heels, the aviator entered, limping, into the green sepulcher of the forest.
This story was selected for New Stories from the South 2009.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.