Crashed to the Ground – Dawson Wohler
November 9, 2020
God made Copper Bridge (Pop. 1,663) as a monument to civilization among the savage brambles of the American wilderness. The coffee black Galbreth River slithers down, snakelike, from its nameless source up in the mountains, bisecting the town and necessitating the bridge that gave the village its name. Even in the city center, concessions must be made for nature.
Buildings rest uneasily on the earth there, as though the dirt itself loathes the human presence. Wasps nest in the eaves. Grass forces its way up between cracks in the pavement. Termites and rats gnaw through floorboards. Foundations crumble. Whatever structures stand continue to stand by providence and by man’s hardscrabble ingenuity. To settle there is to declare a war without end against fauns, against dryads.
The few intrepid souls who do enlist wear the scars of this conflict proudly, and their myriad wounds, given sufficient time to heal and scar over, become permanent occasions for barroom conversation, alongside the usual (and usually dubious) claims of Native ancestry and sexual prowess.
Stopping, as I did one night many years ago, at one of the hamlet’s taverns, travellers and out-of-towners are sure to hear dozens of tales featuring rabid coyotes, venomous snakes. Do not go barefoot in the Garden of Eden, or so they say. But of all the stories I heard that night, one has taken root so deeply in my mind that I still find myself returning to it almost monthly, wondering at its horrible suggestion of unspeakable violence and untamable brutality.
It was late in the evening when I struck up a conversation with Eldon. He was a picturesque man, no doubt of the same Scotch-Irish stock as the rest of the townsfolk, and wore a red flannel button down with his well worn jeans. A curious jagged scar traced its way down his throat, disappearing into the wiry black hair that protruded from over the top of his collar. We talked for some time about nothing in particular before I finally gathered the courage to ask him about his injury.
The men seated on either side of us grew hushed as Eldon unbuttoned his shirt and revealed his chest. The flesh was crisscrossed by a latticework of white scars. Claw marks, bite marks. “Hunting accident,” he said with a wry smile.
Had I not been so deep in my cups by then, I might have been content to leave it there. Obviously whatever had happened to him had nearly killed him and would likely be traumatic to recount, especially to a relative stranger. But I was drunk. “There must be more to it than that,” I pushed.
“Course there is,” he hiccuped. “If you want to hear it.” Again, the men at the bar around us shifted uncomfortably. Eldon was making them nervous. “Please, do tell,” I said.
“Well first of all, it was all about a year back. October– or was it November?– deer season, anyhow. Most of the leaves had changed by that time, but the firs were so green they might as well have been black. I was out deep, deep in the woods, trailing the biggest twelve point I’d ever seen in my life.
“So I’m following him. He leads me down into this gulch, where I lose him. And that’s when I notice I haven’t heard bugs or birds or anything that crawls or flys for a while. I start getting nervous. There’s all kinds of super… super…”
“Superstitions?” I offered.
“That’s it. Superstitions about that around here. Old Navajo monster myths.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the nearest tribe lived nearly three hundred miles away, and that they were Iroquois. Besides, something in the way he held himself told me that he was about to reach the critical point in his story. He began again:
“Anyway, I start getting nervous. Start listening real close. Nothing. I keep walking, going further down into this gulch. There were all these branches hanging over me, cutting the light down.
“At this point I’m not even looking for the buck anymore. I’m done. And that’s when I see him: the buck. It looked like he exploded, guts everywhere. Up in the trees.
“And then it hit me: a wolf like a freight train. It grabbed me by the chest, tried to shake the life out of me. Dug around in my belly. I don’t know how it didn’t drown on my blood.”
Eldon traced the scars on his chest with his hand, seeming in that instant to relive the attack.
“I walked three miles, stuffing my insides inside and praying to God I’d make it back. They found me at the edge of the highway bleeding out. Took eight hours and sixteen thousand dollars to put me right.” Finishing his tale, Eldon slumped down against the bar and passed out.
“Jesus H. Christ. Again?” the bartender said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.” “I got him going. I didn’t know.”
“It wasn’t you. Eldon ain’t been right since crawling out of those woods holdin’ his guts in his belly.” There were murmurs of assent throughout the bar. The general consensus among the locals seemed to be that something of the wilderness had been transferred into him during his encounter. A darkness clung to him.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, he never used to drink, for one. Practically a teetotaler. Now he’s in damn near every night of the week, drinking until he can’t hardly walk. About once a month he comes here and goes on a fuckin’ bender. I guess this is his once a month for this month. And then there’s Cal…” he trailed off.
“Calliope. His live-in girlfriend. They’ve been together since high school, at least. Used to be real sweet to each other, but now…” he shook his head. “I feel bad for her, is all.”
That could mean anything. Had they fallen out of love? Was he abusive? I looked at Eldon. Nothing about him suggested that he could be capable of that. Especially not now, sleeping with his head on the countertop. Yet…
“Somebody call Calliope to come pick him up.”
About twenty minutes later, I watched as a rusted out pickup pulled into the parking lot. The woman who stepped out of the truck looked like nothing so much as an animate porcelain doll. Calliope. She was wearing a baggy T-shirt, several sizes too large and probably belonging to Eldon, that concealed whatever figure she might have had. Her gaunt features and spindly limbs suggested a life of hardship that the bruises about her eyes all but confirmed.
“Your ride’s here, El” the bartender said, shaking Eldon awake.
“I said your ride’s here.”
Eldon stood and promptly fell to the floor. I rose from beside him, sliding my shoulder beneath his arm and helping him to regain his feet. He mumbled something that sounded like it could have been an apology.
By then, Calliope had come in from the parking lot. She sidled up beside Eldon and did her best to help me support his weight. I thanked her. She flushed, looked away. She looked impossibly small standing beside him beneath the neon lights of the bar.
“I’m so sorry, Cal,” Eldon said with tears in his eyes. “I never meant to… to hurt… I wish I would’ve died out there.”
“No, you don’t,” she whispered. And: “It’s okay.”
We walked, the three of us, to the exit. The bar was silent. No one rose to help us. Outside there were no street lamps, but the light of the moon was more than bright enough to illuminate our path. I shivered. The silver light felt cold on my skin.
When we finally reached the pickup, I helped Eldon up into his seat and I closed the door behind him. Calliope walked around to the driver’s side and started the engine. She mouthed a parting thank you through the window glass. As they drove away, I thought I heard a wolf howl somewhere off in the night.