Awakenings – A Night in the Woods
By Tom Bostock

It was the way it had always been since the beginning of time. The night was alive with the sounds of the forest, prey and predator locked in mortal combat, if you knew how and where to look and listen. The nocturnal drama of life and death was constantly unfolding around the creature.

An unsuspecting field mouse scampered furtively from the safety and comfort of his nest under the old rotting cypress tree into the unforgiving night. There was a sudden fluttering of wings as a horned owl dove from his perch on the top of the tree, his talons outstretched, violently tearing into the rodent’s body.

He sat on his haunches, silently watching and waiting while systematically pulling the sticky burrs out of his long grey/black fur with razor-sharp claws, its shining red eyes glowing like hot, burning embers.  Instinctively, the creature knew that there was no forgiveness in the forest. Constantly alert to the dangers around him, the silent voyeur backed away and into the refuge of the waiting swamp.

####

 The old pickup bounced and groaned its way down the rutted fire road, its springs and shock absorbers complaining as they drove.

“Damn, this is going to be the best weekend ever,” Ralph said. “Right Tony?”

“Yeah, sure Ralph. Can’t wait to be eaten by a bear or a mountain lion in the middle of the night,” Tony replied sarcastically.

Ralph’s enthusiasm about their great adventure had not exactly been shared by either of their wives. His own wife had been especially vocal about the misgivings both she and Tony’s wife felt.

“Face it, Ralph,” she bluntly noted, “you are fat, old and out of shape and that doesn’t even begin to cover it.” (She was just warming up). “The closest you’ve been to a gym in more than 10 years is when you drive by one on the way to work. Your beer gut is so big that you haven’t seen your feet in years! And Tony, you’re not much better. Exercise doesn’t bother you at all. You can sit and watch it for hours. I’m warning both of you, don’t come crying to us if one of you gets killed out there. The pair of you belong in the woods about as much as I do performing brain surgery on myself.”

“A lobotomy might be nice,” Ralph muttered under his breath

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing dear.”

####

“Do you have any idea where we’re going? It seems like we have been on this cement mixer of a road, and I use that word “road” lightly, forever,” Tony complained.

Ralph’s empty beer bottles rattled around on the floor of the truck. He had treated himself to several brews as they drove along. Occasionally, one rolled under the gas pedal, making the drive an even more dangerous prospect.

“What are you complaining about? I got the hard job. Since that stupid GPS don’t work off-road, I gotta keep us going the right way with this dumb map. Can you believe it, they still have paper maps,” Ralph announced, surprised?”

 “Shut up and keep your eyes peeled for the cutoff road. The ranger said there supposed to be a chain across the entrance with a rusty metal KEEP OUT sign hanging from the middle of it,” Tony added.

“There it is! Turn right.”

“Okay, okay. I’m not deaf ….  yet, stop shouting or they’ll hear you in the next county.”

Ralph got out and removed the chain blocking the entrance. He grunted from the effort as he climbed back into the truck. Tony carefully maneuvered the truck into the turn and onto the heavily rutted cutoff road.

“We’re almost there,” Ralph noted, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, like a kid at Christmas.

They drove another mile or two down the even bumpier dirt road, barely wider than a cart track before they came to a wide clearing.

“This is the place that the ranger described,” Ralph said.

Tony pulled over and parked next to a tall stand of trees. Climbing out of the truck, they each reached for one of the knapsacks that they had packed the previous night. The weight of the packs surprised them; they struggled under the weight as they crossed the clearing to their campsite.

####

The darkness was the creature’s friend. He watched curiously as the loudly complaining procession entered the campsite, dropping the knapsacks onto the forest floor. The fatter one collapsed in a heap, sweating profusely and panting from the effort. Concealed by the swamp reeds and cattails, he waited patiently to see what these strange, noisy creatures would do next. He studied their movement as the contents of their knapsacks were revealed. Were they quarry or something to fear? He wondered as the saliva dripped from his oversized canines.

Ralph’s knapsack contained two of his most important possessions, a folding cot and a brand-new, movement-activated, low-light camera that was the main reason for the trip. Tony’s pack had the new, easy-to-erect tent, or so the salesman at Outdoor World had assured him was so easy to assemble that even a child could do it.

“Why don’t we get the camera set up,” Ralph innocently suggested, finally regaining his breath, “before we get started on the campsite?”

“Yeah, why not,” Tony replied. “It’s not like we don’t got all night or there ain’t no wild animals to worry about in the middle of the friggin woods,” he added sarcastically.

“You ain’t gotta be like that, Tony. It was just a suggestion.” Ralph pouted as he picked up the carton.

“Turn over the package and slide the tent out but be careful of the … aluminum poles.”

No sooner had he said it than there was the sound of the clanging aluminum poles, rattling onto the ground and rolling across the campsite as Ralph dumped out the remaining contents of the box. For a split second, as though mesmerized, Ralph watched the poles rolling towards the swamp.

 “The poles, Ralph,” Tony shouted! Get the poles unless you are planning on holding up the tent all night! I knew this was a bad idea,” he muttered under his breath.

Since the poles had only rolled down a small slope, Ralph quickly retrieved them and returned to the campsite, puffing like a locomotive. “I gotta get in shape after this,” Ralph promised himself as Tony laid out the tent pieces like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

####

The directions,  in several languages, seemed straight forward enough; insert pole A into Pole B and follow the same procedure for vertical poles E, F, G and H. Remember to insert the main tent poles first to help position your tent. Slide assembled vertical poles into corresponding slots on horizontal frame couplings A1 through H1 and slide tent canopy over the top.

Unfortunately, there were no visible letters on either the poles or couplings and a sudden gust of wind blew the multi-language directions across the campsite and into the swamp. They both watched as the white dot of the paper grew smaller and smaller, finally disappearing in the swamp. The creature watched as the paper blew by him.

“Now what, Einstein?” Tony asked, disgustedly.

“If it is so easy a kid can do it, we should be able to do it between us.” Ralph offered hopefully.

Several hours and a great deal of profanity later, a somewhat lopsided imitation of a tent stood in the middle of their campsite. Since they had connected the wrong poles together initially, the tent leaned precariously to one side.

“Well, it’s better than nothing, I guess,” Tony opined.

Ralph nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

####

“Can we set up the camera now?”

“Yes, we can set up the camera now,” Tony said resignedly.

Ralph hurriedly opened the package and removed the camera from its wrappings. “I’ll get some rope to tie it to the tree,” he said enthusiastically.

“What do you need rope for?” Tony asked. It’s supposed to have its own special attachment. That was why we spent so friggin much money for the damn thing, wasn’t it?”

Ralph reached into the box and pulled out a strange looking metal and wire hoop. “I got it. It was just stuck in the bottom of the box.”

Tony carefully attached the hoop to the camera and placed it on the ground near the recently started campfire.  “Get your flashlight and let’s go find a tree to put in on.”

“Who needs a flashlight when we got this,” Ralph said, proudly displaying a huge lantern. I think it’s about a hundred thousand candlepower,” he added flipping the ‘on’ switch. The entire campsite and surrounding forest suddenly lit up like daylight. Even the creature shielded his eyes from the massive light source.”

####

Tony shook his head at his rotund partner.

The light illuminated a large tree, growing close to the entrance of what appeared to be an animal trail leading into the swamp. Surveying the tree, Ralph suggested what he considered to be the ideal place to locate the camera.

“I suppose that you expect me to climb the tree and position the camera,” Tony said.

“Well, we both know that this gut ain’t conducive to tree climbing,” Ralph volunteered, patting his ample beer gut.  “You don’t look like it would be a problem for you, Beanpole.“

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Tony finally agreed, climbing the side of the tree to the first intersecting branch with one hand, the camera balanced in the other. Ralph shouted instructions from the ground until they finally agreed on a perfect position and angle for the camera.

Just out of the field of light another drama was slowly unfolding; a hunting cougar passed, unseen, along the edge of the clearing, followed at a safe distance by a large moose and its mates, each seeking the safety of the swamp.

At the entrance to the swamp, each detected the creature; the cat padded silently into the swamp while the other prey froze in place. Their eyes met, hunter and prey, a moment frozen in time. With an almost imperceptible nod, the moose and his mate also passed, unharmed, into the marsh; the creature’s attention was riveted on the bungling campers.

Hordes of mosquitoes, attracted by the light, buzzed through the swamp; their destination, the source of the light and the tree that Tony was attaching the camera to. As Tony climbed carefully down the tree, the camera slipped off the branch and slid partly down the tree, lodging in the crook of a lower branch.

Now, Tony was really getting irritated! He stopped and began to retrace his steps back up the tree. “So much for that set it and forget it crap,” he muttered. He reached out for the elusive camera and was immediately engulfed in the swarm of the mosquitoes that had been attracted to the light.

With one final effort, Tony’s fingers touched the camera and then everything went wrong. Even in his primitive mind, the creature could sense the humor of the impending situation and leaving the concealment of the reeds, quietly crossed the marsh to a thicket adjacent the tree and the unsuspecting campers.

There was a sudden loud crack as the branch Tony was using to brace himself gave way and he lost his balance. Both camera and climber plummeted to the ground, landing with a resounding thud. “Tony, are you okay?” Ralph asked, rushing to his fallen companion.

“Yeah, Ralph, I’m just great. I love falling out of trees. He brushed the leaves off his shirts and pants, the veins in his neck beginning to bulge ominously. “That’s it Ralph, I’m done. His voice rose several octaves. Bigfoot, Shimigfoot, you can have it and this whole cockamamie place! First you bring me to these godforsaken woods in the middle of the night where the only living things are you, me and hordes of flying vampire bugs from hell that attack me, and I fall out of a tree. It’s lucky for you that I didn’t break my damn neck!” His voice continued to increase several decibels, almost bordering on hysteria.

Tony and Ralph quickly broke down the camp, repacking the knapsacks while leaving the cockeyed tent as one final reminder of their misadventure. They quickly crossed the clearing to their pickup truck. Ralph kept complaining the entire time that he thought he would see animals, a moose, a dear, a cougar or maybe even a Bigfoot.

####

Tony threw the truck in reverse and gunned the engine. The squealing of tires on the loose dirt was followed by a loud crash as the rear of the pickup contacted a partially concealed tree trunk, breaking the right taillight. “That’s the perfect ending to a perfect day,” Tony complained, climbing out of the truck to survey the damage. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t get a damn ticket.” An argument ensued that lasted most of the way home.

What’s next Ralph, we get attacked by a bear?” Tony asked. “You want animals, go to a zoo! Next time we go to Atlantic City!” … Ralph reluctantly agreed.

Bigfoot emerged from the thicket and watched the truck with the damaged taillight slowly recede into the darkness, their arguing fading into the night. He scratched his head while picking another burr out of his matted fur. Loping with his curious side-to-side gait, Bigfoot reached the site of the crash and picked up a jagged piece of the broken, red plastic taillight.

He examined it for possible use as a cutting tool. Nothing was ever wasted in the forest. Placing it carefully into the ever-present animal hide pouch that hung on his side, he sniffed the air and then turned back the marsh and his mate waiting in the mountain-side cave, just on the other side of the swamp. The swirling swamp mist soon covered any trace of his scent and ominous silence of hunter and hunted once more returned to the forest.