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IN THE BAG

20 January, 2012

A man’s best friend is his dog, and his best place is in the mountains – or are they?

There is nothing like cool, pine-scented, mountain air to clear the lungs of city crud, and the mind of city madness.  “Ol’ Herb Apthorn is gonna hike and fish and sleep under the stars until his boots wear off — or two weeks is up, whichever comes first.”

 Herb grasped the exposed roots of a tree and scrambled up the ledge of a small scarp.  It had been entirely too long since he had done his mountain man thing — too many staff meetings, too much work, too much absurdity.  Ah — but now he was free, at least for a while.  A familiar sense of wildness was spreading up his legs toward his brain stem where it would explode into his mind as a blissful nuke of freedom.

 The only thing missing.  Clyde had loved the woods as much as Apthorn did – shared his dreams and his sleeping bag under the stars – kept him warm.  “The trouble with Beagles,” he thought, “is that they live just long enough to get grafted to your heart, and then rip a piece of it off when they die.”  The intrusion of that old pain deepened the rutted history of care on Herb’s forehead for a bit.

 Clyde had been with Herb on his last trip. Clyde had slept low inside Herb’s sleeping bag, keeping his feet warm.  The dog — grey around the muzzle — had struggled the whole time, obliging Apthorn to carry him over some of the rougher ground.  Still, Clyde had been incredibly game, wagging his arthritic tail and joyfully piddling on everything over two inches high.  “Clyde was here … ,” Herb thought, “… along with Killroy Apthorn.”  He and Clyde had been a thing for seventeen years — longer than most marriages last.

 One of the marvelous things about dogs is that they seem either unaware of, or unconcerned about, mortality.  Herb had tried to learn from Clyde – had tried to take joy in everything good no matter what his aging body and the specter of time forwarned.

Those seventeen years had indeed put their mark on Apthorn’s body.  Even so, he figured he would make it to Wolf Hollow today, though he would likely be making camp after dark.  Second only to the inner recesses of his mind, the forest was his deepest confidant and sanctuary — and, like the basement of his brain, a little scary in the dark — especially without Clyde along.  It was curious how much feeling of security a scrawny old Beagle could provide.

 Herb skittered down the slope of Wolf Hollow as the sun drowned in seismic waves of rock.  Suddenly his feet skied ahead of his body, pitching him well back on his dignity.  Fortunately, his sleeping bag, slung in the small of his back beneath the corroded aluminum frame of his Alpine pack, cushioned his graceless kerthump.  It was more slapstick than painful.  Even so, Herb reminded himself that if he broke a leg this far into the forest he could die before anyone found him.  On his feet again, and moving more carefully, he felt an itch start to develop beneath the bag.  It was difficult to scratch what with the pack harness and his clothing in the way.

Wolf Hollow was something of a geological puzzle.  There didn’t seem to be any reason for the cup-shaped clearing in the mountain forest, but it was here and it was haven.  Herb thought:  “Maybe there is a limestone cave somewhere beneath the hollow which collapsed, leaving a dimple in the cheeks of the forest — and crushing eyeless, white monsters that groped in wet darkness.”

 As the sun completed its cycle of resurrection and death, Herb shivered a bit and released himself from the harness of his pack.  He wasn’t all that great a writer, but he had thought on more than one trip that he could write something here in Wolf Hollow if he stayed up all night — something

                              uneasy.

Pressing his palms into the itching small of his back he arched away the grating creak of his fifties, and scratched with satisfaction.  It seemed like his entire back tickled a bit.  “Probably just a little rash,” he thought with a wide yawn.  Herb tended to get itchy, little red bumps if his sweat was allowed to ferment too long under his clothing.  He stood there in the center of Wolf Hollow for a while.  How long, he did not know.  He always made a point of leaving his watch behind on these trips.  He remembered reading somewhere that an Australian bushman once pointed at an anthropologist’s watch and said “We have no god that demands as much of us as that thing does of you.”  Not that it mattered away from the office, but he was prone to go into states of mental suspended animation where the only living things were his consciousness and the object of his current reflection. 

 His hands changing from scratching to massaging his lower back, Herb stared upward.  The stars lasered pinpoint holes into the most ancient layers of his brain, letting fresh air into dank closets and dark rooms choked with emotional mildew — into basements where past humiliations rotted.

 By the time he returned to normal consciousness, it was fully dark.  It was turning quite cold as well — the surprising kind of cold one experiences when transported from the carbon dioxide greenhouse of civilization to the purity of the mountains and sudden sunsets.

 A disturbing thought intruded:  Apthorn remembered a dream in which he had been tumbling through the frigid, black vacuum of space with not even a star in sight.  He had mused upon waking that being in hell must be like that; not hot and surrounded by screaming souls, but cold, dark and starkly alone — forever.  Herb’s mind, trained to Olympic fitness in introspection, briefly wondered at the co-existence of that memory with the current reality of his pacific delight in this heaven.

 He turned to the pack and began the tea-ceremony ritual of laying out his ground cloth, pad and sleeping bag.  These were all still a bit pungent with the nose-pinching odor of winter mothballs in spite of being purged in the pine air for the past day.  Herb sat down on his bed and peeled the foil from a granola bar.  Munching absently, he stuffed the wrapper into a pocket on his pack out of habit.  In spite of the fresh air and exertion, he wasn’t all that hungry.  The hunger had been in his soul — and that was being satisfied with the pine needles, moss and flowers of Wolf Hollow.

 Barely turning his eyes from the transporting vastness of the night sky, Herb slipped into his mummy-style sleeping bag, zipped it up to his neck.  His hands working inside the back, he pulled the drawstring of the hood close around his face, tying it securely against the gathering cold.  His eyes still fixed on the heavens, Herb’s eyelids began to droop and a tide of delicious sleep flowed into his body, heart, and weathered mind.

Around midnight, Apthorn was bumped solidly into wakefulness by a maddening prickle.  The itch had spread over most of his back, wrapped itself around his neck, and encircled his thighs.  He arched his body and scratched at every itching spot he could reach.  In spite of the cold outside, his skin felt grainy, damp, and warm to the touch.  As his fingers moved to scrape away the itch in another spot, the previous one sputtered back to life-like those trick birthday candles that wouldn’t stay blown out.

 He arched and rolled onto one side, making it easier to reach his prickling, burning back.  “Merciful saints!  I’ve never had a rash this bad!),” he thought.  “Maybe I’ve developed an allergy to mothballs.”  His mind briefly invaded by the odd, background uneasiness of the Hollow, he nearly giggled out loud as he pictured what moth’s balls might look like:  Scaly, and stiff with barbed hairs.

 The itch and gritty feeling were tickling and spreading up and over his entire body now.  Only his face, twisted into an expression of puzzlement and growing irritation, was still cool and free.  The only sound to leave his lips in thirty-two hours (well — other than whistling or humming) popped into the chill night. “UNghh!”  (“I can’t take this.  I’ve got to get out of this friggin’ bag!”)

 He groped up toward the draw-string at the base of his flaming throat and felt for the knot.  It was slippery, hard and unyielding to his fingers.  (“Damnit!  Why the hell did I trim my fingernails so short before I left?”)  The wet, grainy itch was growing into a mind-numbing inferno.  (“God!”) 

 Apthorn rolled onto his back and picked frantically and blindly at the knot.  Panic began to grip him. The hollow seemed to shrink and enclose him like the splay-fingered grip of some giant, black demon.  (“Think ..”) a corner of his mind suddenly and silently screamed at him.  (“Get the zipper, stupid!”)  He sat up and clawed for the cold metal tab of the zipper.  This too was slippery-wet and hard to grasp.  Slipping further into panic, he pinched the tab as hard as he could and yanked it downward.  The zipper moved one scant inch and jammed, hopelessly choking on the weather flap inside the bag.  The momentum of his hand pulled his finger and thumb from the tab and slammed the side of his partial fist into his groin.  “Aw SHIT!!,” he swore into the blackness.  A nauseating ache spread from his groin down his legs and up into his belly, mixing with the agony of his cataclysmic itching.

 He hunched up with pain, the coppery taste of fear on his tongue.  Even that briefly lucid piece of himself that had suggested the zipper as an escape was now caught up in his growing mixture of panic and irritation.  One hand shot up to his neck again and his fingers jammed out of the bag beneath his chin.  He jerked upward with his body, now crusty-slimy within the bag, and downward with his hand.  There was a millisecond of hope in the sound of ripping seams, but all he had succeeded in doing was to loosen the enclosure around his face by two inches or so.

 The grainy tickle began to spread onto Herb’s face.  He drew a deep breath and pulled at the opening with every adrenalin-fed bit of strength he could muster.  The fabric stretched a molecule or two, but held firm.  (“You always bought damn fine equipment.”), his fading rationality muttered.  His head hurt from the force of his yanking, and he felt something like a whip-lash start to tighten his neck. Inside the bag his body was a mass of searing, itching flame.  He felt sticky.  (“Oh godgodgodgodjesusheavenhelphelphelp”)   ” H E L P ! , ” he shrieked out loud, even though there wasn’t another soul within miles, and Clyde was long gone.  Clyde; there was something about Clyde nicked at the edge of his consciousness.

 The itch on Apthorn’s face began to heat up, and sticky sweat began to drip onto the front of the mummy bag.  His nostrils began to itch wildly.  A brief puff of memory pictured him sitting on top of his hapless little brother when they were kids, tickling the inside of his nose with a piece of grass.  Apthorn pushed his slippery hand out of the bag under his equally slick chin, turning his palm to his face and bending the hand back enough to focus on it.  The night made it hard to see, but he could tell that his hand was dark and dripping, and seemed to move and sparkle dimly in front of him.  Before the reason could rise to conscious thought, he pulled his palm to his mouth and licked it.  The salty taste of blood hit his tongue, and his anticipated nuke of freedom mushroomed into a dirty black cloud of horror.

 He twisted and writhed within the bag, side-winding some twenty feet from his ground cloth over moss and rocks.  His lips prickled and he felt the press of living sand at the corners of his mouth.  Herb closed his lips as hard as he could against the crawling fire.  His eyes began to scratch and go blind.  These too he squinted as tightly shut as possible.  Still, the itch poked its way though the corners of his lids and scratched painfully at his eyeballs.

 Apthorn felt the irritation spread through his nasal passages and down the back of his throat.  His throat became inflamed and clogged, and his lungs followed suit with a sublime tickle.  He wheezed, coughed, cleared his throat, and swallowed hard in an effort to stop the paralyzing agony without relief.  He was well beyond horror now, slipping over the cliff of drooling insanity that lies in the darkness of everyone’s minds.  A far corner of his brain cackled.  (“MAN ITCHES TO DEATH IN LOCAL MOUNTAINS.”)  Finally the crusty, crawling clog in his nose and throat closed completely.  Little sparkles danced behind his locked eyelids to be swallowed by a white explosion as his lungs dredged the last few atoms of oxygen from the remaining air they held.  Herb’s head began to ache violently, and nausea rose in his belly.  His sphincters gave way, and he defecated within the bag.  He was dimly aware of warm urine flooding over his lap.

 Blackness swam into Apthorn’s brain.  He collapsed on the cold ground, back arched and fingers slipping from their grip on the sleeping bag’s opening.

 As it often goes with those on the verge of passing into the void of death, he dissociated and floated above his body.  Looking down at his earthly form, yet slightly twitching in the moonlight, he saw thousands of slightly dull, black facets glittering on the sleeping bag and covering his face.

Just before the tortured form below him went into its convulsion of death, he had a final flash of clarity:  “Fleas! Clyde!  You little shit!  You little SHI …”

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From → Stories & Poetry

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