The Shadows We Know by Heart
The first traces of indigo line the sky when I hear the creatures call through my open bedroom window. Distant whoops echo through the forest, growing closer by the minute.
Eyeing the glowing “4:30” on my clock radio, I slip out of bed and slide my socked feet down the faded wooden floor of our old farmhouse, knowing from experience which creaky boards to avoid. Dad’s voice enters my head, as if in anticipation of my actions.
Cardinal Rule One: Don’t lie. God will know and I will, too.
Cardinal Rule Two: Don’t go into the woods. Ever.
There’s no excuse for what I’m about to do, and breaking several house rules will be the least of my problems if I get caught.
Down the stairs and into the kitchen, I grab a plastic grocery sack from the pantry and fill it up with apples from the bowl on the counter. As I reach for a flashlight, someone clears their throat. The burst of adrenaline that floods my body sends spots across my vision. Turning, I see my father sitting at the dining table, just on the other side of the closed glass doors that separate it from the kitchen. In the dim lamplight, I didn’t notice him sitting there peering down at paperwork spread in front of him, both hands threaded through his sandy blond hair.
He hasn’t seen me. Not yet.
Dad reaches for his white coffee mug. One glance up is all it will take. My hand could reach for the flashlight drawer or the doorknob, but there’s no time for both.
In one smooth motion I open the door and move through. As the door clicks shut my mind is screaming at me to go, that I just dodged a holy bullet and should be running instead of standing here waiting to be caught.
But I have to be sure. There’s no room for mistakes in this house.
Silence envelops me on the back porch, punctuated by the occasional call of one of Mr. Watson’s cows. After a whispered count of twenty, I step into my pink rubber boots, tiptoe down the steps, and trek through the yard. A quick climb over the fence and then I’m treading through the wet pasture, the threat of a sticky, humid day only hours away. A pair of doves flies up from the high grass in front of me and I swallow a shriek. Once again I remind myself that I shouldn’t be doing this.
Technically I’m not really lying. I have never uttered a word about what I’ve found or what I do. But Dad would call it a lie, regardless.
The old stump sits at the edge of the forest where I deposit most of the apples from my sack. Darkness fades from indigo to violet, and high above, wisps of cloud begin to burn. I enter the trees, moving like a wraith, and tuck myself into my secret spot to wait. A blue jay lands in the branches overhead, invoking the ceaseless chatter of a disturbed squirrel. Wings flutter and claws scratch bark as each defends their space, and the
cooing of doves is hushed by the cry of a hawk heralding in the morning.
This is the moment when I can forget about my life. The second I enter the trees, everything that is Leah Roberts stays behind. It used to puzzle me why my parents would move us from our familiar neighborhood home to an old farmhouse on the edge of the forest, and then establish the rule that we do not, for any reason, go into those woods. The first time I did, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. Bad things happened in the woods. That’s what I grew up believing. But standing in the silence of a winter forest, watching darts of red fly among pine branches, I knew where I belonged. The forest called to me, offering solace and peace from a family torn apart by the death of a child.
It didn’t take long until I figured out the storage shed in the backyard could cover my escape all the way to the trees. And there I would run along the game trails, free to be whoever I wanted, or nothing at all. I’d run until the joy faded, until the walls fell and I saw Sam’s face, until fear and pain threatened to strangle me like the vines hanging around me, until the tears finally came and brought me back to earth.
It was cathartic then, and still is today. The forest is the only place where I can see my brother, where I let myself see him, where I can take down the barricades I place around my heart for the rest of the world, and just feel.
The girl who steps into the woods is not the same one who steps out. There are two of me, and they fight to stay hidden from each other, because one cannot live in the world of the
other. Instead of sharing their grief with my brother and me, our parents closed themselves off. So I did the same. I don’t know that they would recognize the part of me that exists in the woods, the one that cries at memories and lost futures, and climbs trees until I can see the entire world beyond my own. I laugh at scurrying squirrels and scream at spiders and snakes so loudly that it’s a wonder the trees don’t fall down around me.
But I’m real. I’m me. There are no lies there beneath the trees, only the person I want to be. And I don’t know if anyone will ever see that girl for who she is, or if she’ll simply live and die alone within the protection of the forest shadows.
I wait in breathless silence as the forest comes alive. My fingers twist into the soft ground beneath me, and I imagine I can feel the rotation of the earth as the sun slowly comes into view. Everything is in motion but me. In the faint light of an East Texas dawn, I try to become nothing but a shadow.
A soft breeze blows through the pines, rustling the plastic bag beside me. I tuck the loose ends beneath my legs, knowing they are near. A branch snaps in the distance and my body goes stiller than death. Except that a dead person’s heart doesn’t tend to beat out of their chest in terrified anticipation. My eyes strain through the mist that’s creeping in from the field, carrying the warm scent of fresh-cut hay. The urge to flee invades my mind, and I press my back against the tree in mute defiance.
I can do this. I won’t run. They will use the same trail they always have. There is no reason for them to see me.
That’s what I tell myself to stall the fear, likely just another lie to add to my collection.
The truth is that they are fast, strong, and fully capable of sensing my presence if I screw up. Though what they would do if they found me is still uncertain. I’d like to think the part of them that resembles a human would show mercy.
Heavy steps echo through the trees, the surefooted sound of creatures that have nothing to fear in this world. Off to my left, I can see the old stump where the apples wait. It took me months find this spot, one that has the perfect view of both forest and field while still keeping me hidden.
Their smell comes first, ranking somewhere between skunk and wet dog, though it’s not as harsh on my senses as it used to be. Just as three massive shadows emerge from the foliage, a rusty truck door slams in the distance and a reluctant motor sputters to life. I bite back a frustrated hiss as the shadows pause. Dammit, Mr. Watson, do you really have to leave at the crack of dawn?
It’s not as if the feed store isn’t open all day. But he’s got to stop at Carla’s Café first, where every retired male over the age of sixty-five meets on Friday mornings for coffee and heart-attack-inducing breakfast platters. That’s all there is to do in this tiny speck of a town besides Friday-night football and Saturday-morning livestock auctions.
I don’t breathe again until the aged truck fades into the distance and the shadows merge with the light.
The result is a family of Bigfoot.
The immense male is the first to enter the field. He sniffs the air, his head turning slowly as he determines the safety of his surroundings. He’s got to be every bit of eight, maybe
nine, feet tall, covered in thick, dark brown hair all over his body, and with long arms swinging down to his knees as he walks. He grunts softly and the others follow, an eight-foot female and a six-and-a-half-foot baby. Yes, baby. When I first saw them years ago, she was half my size, bouncing around like a chimpanzee on chocolate.
Now she’s just as still and silent as the others, as careful as deer nearing a feeder.
I’m captivated as they gather around the apples, eating just as many as they gather into their arms to take. As long as I live, this will be the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, though it’s still tainted with memories of why I’m here to begin with.
They never let their guard down. One of them is always watching their surroundings. Last year Old Man Watson fired up his John Deere too early and they took off like a shot. They didn’t come back for a month.
I’ve thought about bringing a camera, but the light’s rarely good this early and I’m way too far. They could probably hear the camera click. Every little sound catches their attention. Besides, the proof is before me. I don’t need anything else, especially something that could be found. This is mine alone, my secret that I don’t have to share with anyone. It’s not like they would believe me anyway.
The apples are disappearing quickly. The wind picks up and I crouch down lower, afraid they can smell me. The big one lets out a short, grunting bark, loud enough that my heart trips. It’s almost like he’s calling someone. It’s not until I see another shadow appear through the trees that I realize he is.
Adrenaline floods my body as I lean forward, cringing when the apple sack crinkles. I’ve never seen four of them.
The sun is shining through the tree line now, laying bright patches of light across the trail. I watch in awe as the new one slowly, carefully emerges from the trees. He’s small compared to the others, a little taller than me. They encourage him with gestures and soft noises, but he refuses to leave the protective shade of the forest.
There is something different about him.
The male grunts again, impatiently, while the other two retreat back into the trees. The new one slowly slides a foot out, painstakingly making his way toward the stump. He waits for a minute, his head turning every direction like it’s on a swivel, before he hurries out of the shadows.
It takes everything I’ve got not to gasp out loud.
He’s not like the others. I can see his skin, pulled tight over muscle and bone, but I can see it. Not hair or fur. Skin.
The hair on his head falls well past his shoulders, and a dusting of light brown covers his arms and legs. The hands that reach out desperately for the apples are just like mine.
After a few minutes more, the big male walks back into the forest after the others, leaving the new one on his own. In moments the Bigfoot have disappeared.
Without a second thought for my safety, I start walking. I watch as he shoves the apples into his mouth with a desperation I’ve never known. His ribs are showing; his stomach is flat but not emaciated. Before I realize it, I am standing out in the open for anyone, or anything, to see, and I don’t care.
When I’m close enough to throw something at him, he looks up.
I know without a doubt I will remember this moment forever. The smell of hay and apples, the feel of wet grass on my skin, the warmth of a new sun, and the way the light falls across his face and makes his green eyes glow. Beautiful is the first thought that enters my mind.
We stare at each other, me in my pink unicorn pajamas and he in his almost nothingness. The boy’s got some sort of animal hide wrapped around his waist, but that’s it. He looks like he could be my brother’s age, eighteen, give or take, not really a boy but closer to a man.
He’s breathing fast just like me, and I’m close enough to see the surprise in his eyes. A thousand different emotions pass through them, leaving his gaze haunted. He watches me warily, his fists clenched, but doesn’t run.
I should, but I’m too entranced.
And when the bellowing roar from the forest breaks the silence, I do. I’ve never known terror until that moment, and it reaches down into my core, like arctic water shooting through my veins. The boy doesn’t speak, but his eyes are screaming at me to run.
I tear through the field, toss myself over the fence, and stumble through the grass to the back door. I almost forget to see if the kitchen is empty but manage to stop long enough to press my face to the window, leaving smudges and fog on the clear glass. Dad is gone, and my feet don’t stop until I hit my bedroom. As I lie under the covers, waiting to have
a heart attack, breathing so loud I’m sure everyone in the house will hear me, I tell myself that I will never go back. I will never cross the field again. Never leave my gift of apples on the stump. Never, never, never.
But it’s just another lie I will add to my collection, another secret I will keep.
Because I will never forget the haunted eyes of the human boy in the midst of the Sasquatch.