Daddy came down off the mountain at dusk, the smell of ozone stars clinging to his duster. It was the longest he’d ever been gone, about half a month. He was at his skinniest, clothes hanging off him like old flour sacks, and his usually warm-toned brown skin was ashen as an old, dusty saddle. Four lumberjacks had vanished while he was away, and Ma told us not to talk about it. It wore on him, she said, and I could see the way he slumped in his chair, too tired to eat.
I crept up next to him when everyone else had gone to sleep, and we sat together in the dark. Outside, the old one-legged barred owl who lived in the barn asked his question.
“Did you see it?” I asked.
“Only signs. Always signs.” Daddy’s voice was an old rusty hinge. He had to drink to keep the hidebehind away while he tracked it, and a body could only take so much of that before it got into the veins like ice in pavement cracks, prying him open.
“Just a few bones. Sometimes a button, or a rag.” Daddy sighed. “I shouldn’t tell you about this. Your Ma wouldn’t like it.”
“I want to know. I have to hunt it too.”
“Eleven is too young to hunt monsters, baby.”
“Not now. Someday,” I said.
“I hope not.”
Daddy wanted to catch every hidebehind on the mountain. Of course he did; that was what Grandma and Great-Grandpa had wanted, too. But I knew the job would fall to me one day. Soon he’d get too tired to keep going, just like Grandma did when she got the cirrhosis, and none of my brothers wanted to take on the job. They don’t have the roaming temperament, Linnie. They aren’t outsiders like us.
I woke up in bed the next morning, still in my jeans and flannel. The smell of coffee had filled up the house, and Ma handed me a plate of eggs and toast when I went into the kitchen. I ate over the sink, hoping to spend time with Daddy before he recovered and went off hunting again. He always showed me interesting things at the edge of the woods, where Ma told us not to play. Monster signs. A clump of fur from a Grassman or a hoofprint from the devils they said came from further east. Sometimes we even saw the shadows lingering behind a passing hidebehind.
Daddy said his family had come up from the cities, where monsters like the hidebehind were common. They hid in different places, in a different kind of wilderness, but they were the same kinds of creatures. That’s why the people in town had wanted Great-Grandpa’s help, but hidebehinds were canny, hungry things that had babies faster than rabbits. He’d trained Grandma, who’d trained Daddy, who would train me if he ever got better.
“You keep quiet or I’ll take you out behind the barn,” Ma said when the boys got too loud. The only time we were allowed anywhere near the barn was for a switching; Daddy said there were dangerous old farming tools and weapons for cutting up monsters in the barn that we weren’t supposed to touch.
Even with the noise, Daddy didn’t get up that day. He wasn’t dead or anything, he was just too tired to get out of bed. He tried, when word of another lumberjack gone missing came, but he was weak. They’d have to stop logging up by where the attacks kept coming, which always meant people went hungry. The next day wasn’t any better, and all the lumberjacks stayed home the day after that.
A few weeks passed before a dozen of them showed up in the front yard to tell Daddy to get back to work. They stayed all day, and Ma wouldn’t let us out for school or anything else, even though my best friend’s daddy was out there. He’d always been kind to me, and I didn’t believe Ma when she said he couldn’t be trusted. But after night fell, I could still hear them outside, shuffling and talking, their voices too big in the closeness of the night. It kept me awake and made fear shiver around in my belly.
Ma and Daddy’s arguing voices soon overcame the sounds from outdoors, which was somehow even worse. Daddy wanted to go out hunting again, but Ma didn’t think he was healthy enough. Daddy told her to shut her mouth about things she didn’t understand, and he was leaving in the morning. His unsteady step thudded out to the front porch, where he yelled the same at the men outside, who shouted back that they’d leave when they saw him go.
After he slammed the door, my brother whispered down from the top bunk that maybe now we’d be able to get some sleep. The light from his watch shone sickly green against the ceiling when I didn’t answer.
“Almost four a.m.,” he said. “Hope Ma lets us sleep in.”
“Me too,” I muttered back, but you had to fall asleep before you could sleep in. I was wide awake. The noises from outside kept reminding me that Daddy had to go back out, weak and tired as he was. He might get eaten by a hidebehind wandering around the forest like that. I had to help, because Ma and the boys were too scared of the forest to do it.
I crept out of bed, peeking through the cracked door into the front room, where Daddy was asleep on the couch, snoring. The clock in the corner said it was almost four in the morning. His rifle was on the floor next to him, his hand hanging down, almost touching the stock. I pulled my denim jacket down from its peg by the front door, and went into the kitchen to get one of Daddy’s bottles of whiskey. I had to climb up on the counter to reach the cupboard for it, and after I stuck it in my pocket to pick up the rifle, the bottle knocked against the rifle’s stock. Daddy didn’t move.
The rifle was too heavy, and I had to hug it against my chest to keep from banging it on things on the way to the back door. When I opened it, the hinges squealed, and Daddy stirred. I froze, heart pounding, ready to hide if he caught me. But he went right back to sleep, and I grabbed my boots from beside the door and snuck out into the chilly fall night. As I put on my boots, the old barred owl hooted, and someone out front remarked on how loud he was. Nobody noticed my footsteps, even when I got into the rustling leaf litter.
I kept walking until I knew I wouldn’t be seen, and took the little bottle of whiskey out of my pocket. I didn’t know how much it took to keep a hidebehind away, so I took a big swig. It burned bad going down, smoky and tasting like the barrel it’d aged in. I managed not to cough, but I swore I’d drink moonshine when I became the hunter. That stuff didn’t have so much brown in it, so it probably didn’t taste so much like dirt.
My limbs felt warm and fuzzy after I’d walked for a while, taking smaller sips than my first one. Daddy would take four or five bottles on a hunt, so I reckoned I should drink at least half of it. The moon was bright and full, but I still wished I’d thought about a flashlight. I couldn’t see any signs. The weird shadows that lingered in the path of a hidebehind were invisible, blending in with those of the trees. No blood had fallen, no white bones stood out against the underbrush. The only scents on the air were leaf mould and a distant skunk spray. I sat down on a fallen log, tired and a little dizzy. The whiskey bottle was empty, and I threw it into a tree to watch it shatter.
Who-cooks-for-you? A barred owl perched on a branch above me, shaking his wings out. Seeing his one foot peeking out from beneath his feathers was like having a friend appear to guide me home.
“I think I’m lost,” I said. My voice was small. High and shivery. I shouldn’t have drunk so much, but I’d never had whiskey before and I hadn’t known how lonely it could make a person feel.
Who-cooks-for-you? The owl swooped over my head, wings silent as he went back the way I came. I followed him, hoping he’d head back to the barn and lead me home, but my feet were clumsy with exhaustion and liquor, and I kept tripping and falling. He was gone after I’d fallen four times, and I stayed on the ground, tears welling up, a hard lump in my throat like an owl pellet.
Come, a grating voice said. I looked up to see the owl perched on a stump so mossy and old it could’ve been a mound of dirt. Hurry.
The words put fear in me like I’d never known. I followed, listening to the owl croak come, hurry, come, hurry. I ran after him, knowing I had to get out of the woods before the whiskey wore off. It felt like I’d been wandering for days, and I had no idea how long it would take for a hidebehind to catch my scent after I quit drinking.
My hands were empty when the grey light of dawn stole over the forest, the rifle lost somewhere. Smoke was on the air, or whiskey was in my head, my lungs on fire with running. Dawn laid shadows everywhere, and I imagined the hidebehind lurking inside all of them, hands reaching and grabbing. Gaping mouths were on every side.
I burst through the underbrush into orange morning light. The bright colours of a barn quilt scraped my palms as I fell into it, throwing up the whiskey and last night’s dinner. When I wiped the tears out of my eyes, the owl shadowed inside, and I followed. It was darker than night in the forest, just a single square of sunlight falling onto an old steamer trunk on the floor. The air was musty hay and late-autumn damp, but I couldn’t taste or smell much besides whiskey smoke and sour acid. Something crunched and clattered under my feet. The lock on the trunk hung half-open, shivering.
Who-cooks-for-you? the owl asked from somewhere in the rafters.
My hand glowed in the sunshine when I reached out for the padlock. Everything stilled, my heart the only thing I could hear until hinges squealed. Opening the box freed the lightning smell of ozone. My eyes wanted to close at the sight of what was inside, cowering against the light of the sun. Shadows squirmed in the corners of the trunk, skittering into the holes of a broke-open human skull.
My stomach turned over again, but I held down what was left and slammed the lid of the trunk. For a second, I thought that maybe if I stole more of Daddy’s whiskey, it could get the captive hidebehind out of my mind. I knew that not even liquor could wash away the questions, let alone the answers. My whole twelve years of life I hadn’t been allowed in the barn. Twelve years of Daddy feeding the locked-up hidebehind with bits of loggers who vanished from the mountainsides like frost steaming off the leaves at dawn.
I closed the padlock on the trunk and backed away, white bones rattling around my ankles. A single shadow squeezed through a gap in the planks of the steamer trunk, fluttering torn canvas, and vanished into the detritus of human remains scattered across the floor. I felt bad for the hidebehind, trapped in a suffocating box in a dusty old barn for so long, sending little bits of its darkness out into the world to find something a mere human couldn’t know. But hunting monsters was my destiny, and I couldn’t suffer one to live, even if Daddy had decided to keep it as a pet.
When I went back into the house to grab the matches from the mantel, he didn’t stir. If he was well enough, he might’ve switched me if there was more than a pile of ashes and charred bones where the barn used to be. He slept on, and shadows streamed out of the burning structure with the smoke and blossoming flames before someone yelled fire. I followed the old barred owl into the trees quiet as a monster’s last breath.
Story copyright © 2020 by A.Z. Louise
Artwork copyright © 2020 by P. Emerson Williams
A.Z. Louise is a civil engineer-turned-writer of speculative things, whose conure keeps them company during the writing process. When not reading or writing, they can be found baking, knitting, or putting on makeup with nowhere to go. Their work has been published in Strange Horizons, Fiyah, and NightLight Podcast.
P. Emerson Williams has an extensive background as a multimedia artist whose work synthesizes alchemical musical expressions with visual art, video, and performance. As a member of UK theatrical company FoolishPeople, his work included the creation of soundscapes and scores, set and graphic design, and live and voice acting. Williams brings his visual work to performing live with Jarboe around the world, expanding these performances with aspects of multimedia, including painted banners, video using footage shot around the world, and animation created from his own visual art.