The Forest King

I remember the sound.

I was 11. My family had finished getting our house remodeled a few years earlier. The carpets, windows, furniture, everything had an aura of opulence, like the objects themselves wanted to be pictures from one of those heavy catalogs, which could tilt your mailbox into the earth’s core. It was the January cold of a typical Minnesota winter. The outside world had this biting lucidity to it, like the air was so sharpened by the arctic edge, it could freeze the blood in your body before it knew where to go. This level of cold was scary. It made everyone rethink priorities. The world shutdown to it, like a servant bowing to an emperor.

It took me forever to sleep in my own room as a little boy. Every monster, abomination, ghoul, goblin, creature, zombie, alien, vampire, gnome, critter, and horror from popular culture was lurking there. A whole collage of nightmares leering over my bed like a choir, whispering sweet little possibilities for every lost sound in the nighttime deep.

At first the noise was distant in my head at I listened beneath the blankets, afraid to move, thinking whatever shadow was hunting me might forget I’m there. It was a grinding sound. A crunching of something jagged being swiped against the house, brushing the very walls and floor beneath my feet. It was like a haunted forest had sprouted up in the basement, and was fluttering against the floorboards. Eventually, the scratching would reach such an intensity, I’d jump out of bed and run down the long hallway to my parent’s room. They’d get up. Listen to the quiet imagery of my room, then say:

“It was just the house settling.”

“You need to stop watching those scary movies.”

“Could’ve been the wind.”

“We don’t hear anything.”

“Just get over it.”

For three nights during this vault of frigid air, I would hear the scrapping sound around 2 a.m. Every time, I would hope that it wouldn’t return. Maybe trying to worm and crawl through the Sheetrock was too hard for the monster. Maybe it lived off fear and sweat from children, but didn’t actually need to consume them.

Even as a child, constant fear weighs you thin.

On the fourth night, when the scratching started to rise, I crawled out of my bed timidly, with a Nerf gun and flashlight for protection. If I shot the monster in the eye with a dark gun, I might be able to get away. I walked out to our back family room, which had a sheet of huge windows hanging over the round backyard. On the edge of this glass wall was a back porch with doors overlooking the patio. The deck was high up, with a set of wooden stairs leading down into the darkness. At this time of night and season, it might as well be oblivion.

Moving at night so timidly with my toy and flashlight, I felt like I was marching through a level in a first-person shooter. I was so scared I was outside of myself, and anything familiar became a caricature to me, even my very vision of the night. The living room was quiet, pristine, and shaped like a photograph. The couches, pictures, all seemed permanent and unreal when I scooted by them one shaky foot at a time.

When I reached the windows overlooking over the yard, I couldn’t get too close to them because my breath would spray frost up like a hand-print. The white backyard was glowing against the blue skin of winter moonlight and trees. The branches looked so dark and frenzied in the gloom, it seemed like someone had sketched them along the snow.

It was hard to stand at the patio door looking out into the night. A furnace fan clicked on in the background, making me jump and clank my Nerf gun into the window. The cold-stretched glass thundered back at me.

That’s when it moved, the scrapping beneath my bed.

A buck, old, grey, and wearing a crown of what seemed like a thousand antlers, stepped away from the house. He had been against a bit of siding right beneath my bedroom. He looked ancient. He had a mane of old fur on his chest, which looked like some sort of artifact equipped to him in a Role Playing Game. He shook himself against the spread of starlight sky and tree-shadows. A puff of air blew out of his nostrils like a train from an old western. It stayed on the air with a hint of dominion. Then, in two quick gallops, the buck was gone. It was like I’d awoken some sort of forest king, who in the cold had become bored with his own frailty, and wandered towards the walls beneath my room.

My family said the buck was just trying to keep warm. He was soaking up the heat from our sealed house of fossil-fueled warmth.

No matter how many walls and boxes we forge to glow in the dark like little toy villages. No matter how many energies we capture to scare the elements away. And no matter how tightly the weather-proofing is around your window seal, the wild is just a few scrapes away.

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