And then there stood Hristo, eclipsing the doorway of our small classroom late one semester. He stood pale and thin, his hair combed into a greasy centre parting, a leather jacket hanging from his slender frame in a way that made him look sickly, victim to some wasting disease. He was a military brat on a temporary deployment, and our classmates treated him as such. They saw little point in friendship and so he was resigned to walk the halls like some spectral figure. Not a part of our world, but apart from it.
He wore hiking boots and always seemed on the cusp of a grand expedition, preparing for some great adventure. Each afternoon he left the school bus by a remote stretch of woodland, the road devoid of any houses, and I watched as his pale body disappeared beyond the treeline. At night I tried to imagine what he did out there, all alone. I wondered where he lived, what his home life was like. Until finally the questions became too much and I followed him one afternoon in late spring.
But I was ill-prepared for the trek and quickly lost track of him along a moss-grown path where the forest grew disorienting and began to close in around me. When I stopped to get my bearings he appeared from behind the trunk of a redwood, brandishing a pocket knife. He looked beyond me, to the path, and tried to determine whether I had come alone. When he was satisfied, he retracted the blade and continued on his way.
I followed tentatively behind him. We walked in single file as the treeline parted to reveal a rock formation overlooking a small creek. Stashed beneath an overhang was a dirty rucksack. Beside it, resting against the rock wall, was a collection of tattered fishing rods and a badly beaten toolbox.
Set back from the creek, a few hundred feet from the shoreline, I could make out a small encampment. There was a piece of tarpaulin stretched between two stout tree limbs and beneath it a squalid-looking sleeping bag. At the centre of the camp was a pot resting above a blackened firepit. Hristo crouched before it and began to stoke fresh flames.
‘You sleep out here?’ I asked.
‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘When I can.’
He sat down and took out his pocketknife, working it into the log at his feet.
‘Your parents don’t mind?’
‘My old man would shit himself if he saw all this,’ he said.
My old man. I liked that. My father was simply: Father. Sometimes: sir. More often: Dad. Once: Daddy. Was Hristo’s old man ever Daddy, I wondered?
He sucked his teeth.
I turned and looked back towards the creek, the battered fishing rods.
‘You fish?’ I asked.
‘My old man said he’d teach me, but he never got round to it,’ I said.
‘You don’t need a rod to catch a fish,’ he said, getting to his feet.
We walked along the shoreline, following the current downhill until we came across a tiered staircase of stone that created a small waterfall. From the bank he began to collect handfuls of crushed sandstone. We worked for over an hour, stacking the stones in a semicircle until they sat several inches above the water’s surface, creating a small pool which the water trickled into from above.
The idea, Hristo said, was that fish would swim downriver and become trapped within the confines of the pool. We could leave the trap and return later, and the work would be done for us, he said confidently.
A gentle breeze made its way through the trees and the forest swayed around us. A silence descended. We were losing the light. Our project had caught us both unawares, made us oblivious to the lateness of the hour. I regarded the falling darkness with a certain sadness.
He turned to me. ‘We’ll come back tomorrow, yes? To check on it?’
I nodded obediently.
A glimmer of hope, I thought. The barest of flames.
The next day, as we cut through the undergrowth and made our way towards the creek, Hristo spoke of geological precedents. How fish swam into the Mediterranean through Gibraltar and then struggled to find their way back to the Atlantic. The whole Mediterranean Sea, he said, was one giant fish trap.
When we arrived at the rockpool, I was delighted to find it teeming with life. There were hundreds of small fish dancing in the shallow water. Hristo knelt beside the pool and cupped his hands, grabbing a fistful of minnows. He dropped several into my palm.
‘To the victor go the spoils,’ he said.
Then, to my horror, he raised the fish to his mouth and began to chew them noisily, his teeth grinding their sleek bodies down to a fine paste. I forced myself to follow suit and held the tangled mass in my mouth, trying not to vomit. I felt their bodies kicking as they went down.
‘You’d need a lot more for a decent meal, but they’d do in a pinch,’ he said.
‘In a pinch?’
‘If you had to survive out here,’ he said matter-of-factly.
‘Why would you have to survive out here?’
‘I think about it sometimes. Maybe an emergency. Some toxic event. There are thousands of acres out here. A person could disappear.’
He placed his fist into the shallow pool and watched as the fish swam around it, creating a small vortex.
‘Look how quickly the world can be taken away. Yesterday they had this entire creek. Now this all they have. This is all they know. We did that,’ he said darkly, and seemed for a moment to revel in his own ingenuity.
He stood and knocked over a portion of the sandstone wall. I watched from the opposite side of the bank as loose sediment dislodged from the bed and turned the water around him an inky black. The fish spilled out of the pool and fled downstream.
‘You’re taking it down?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s important that we leave no trace.’
This, as I came to discover, was one of Hristo’s primary compulsions. He held an almost sacred belief in the semi-permanence of nature. It was paramount to him that we left no trace. He repeated the words often, like a mantra, and I tried desperately to indoctrinate myself, to understand his private philosophy. I learnt quickly, proving myself a competent student, and Hristo discovered that he enjoyed a captive audience.
While we worked, he regaled me with the storied history of human trap making. He spoke with reverence about humanity’s affinity for subjugation, his voice taking on a lyrical quality, his body relaxing into an almost transcendental state.
When I returned home each evening, my clothing fetid, my body caked with mud, my mother would chastise me. ‘What on earth have you been doing?’ she asked as she tended to my soiled clothing. But privately I could tell that she was relieved.
He has a friend, I imagined her telling my father in the dark of their bedroom.
A friend, at long last.
But Hristo offered little in the way of personal information. I had no idea where he lived. If he had siblings. Whether his parents were separated or otherwise. I caught only the briefest glimpses of his home life: the constellation of bruises that decorated his upper body, the long stretches of unexplained school absences, the way his voice would falter when he mentioned his father. But it didn’t matter. I felt Hristo had given me something greater than friendship. For the first time, I had a place in the world. The forest was ours. Outside lay the world, remote and murky in its confusion, but here we had claimed a part of it for ourselves. And when school closed its doors for the summer months, we conspired to live a primitive life there, sheltered from the world. I told my mother that I was staying with Hristo and he did the same, and just like that we were free.
On our first evening together, we lit a large fire and lay beside it, the sky above us starblown and infinite in its possibility. Hristo spoke about the importance of the work that lay ahead of us. He said that people had wilfully forgotten the old ways, the necessities of their own survival. One day, by his reckoning, the power would fail without warning, the phones would stop ringing, the food deliveries would cease. And it would be caused by the pollution of the light and air, the invasion of the auditory and ocular pathways, the invisible spectrums of human conquest. Nature, he said, would eventually reclaim the spoils of man. And good riddance. To Hristo, ignorance was a trap as effective as any he could imagine building.
‘My first night out here I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t used to it.’
‘The silence?’ I asked.
‘It’s not silence. If you stay perfectly still, if you strain your ears, you’ll hear it.’
I closed my eyes and lay still. I imagined the area around my own body. I felt the heat of the fire radiating into the darkness, but all I could hear was the beating of my own heart.
‘What am I listening for?’
‘The hum of the universe,’ Hristo said earnestly.
‘The hum of the universe?’
‘The ways things are. The way things have always been. The way they will be again.’
I rolled myself over and snorted into the cool fabric of my sleeping bag.
‘Forget it,’ Hristo said irritably, turning his back to me. ‘We have a long day tomorrow.’
In the morning Hristo was gone. I searched the camp but there was no sign of him. When he finally appeared out of a patch of tall grass and beckoned for me to follow, I’d all but given up hope. We walked for half an hour, until Hristo stopped and took out his red journal.
Inside was a sketch of a deadfall trap. The idea was simple: we rested a large rock above two carefully balanced sticks. We coated a third in bait and wedged it between them. Then we waited for a scavenger to disturb the support, collapsing the structure and bringing the stone down upon it.
‘We can’t survive on fish alone,’ Hristo said, handing me his penknife.
I trudged into the forest in search of tree branches and cut a number down to size. When I was almost finished, I noticed a plastic bag poking out of a hollow tree. Inside were dozens of pornographic magazines. I took them out and lay them on the ground. There were men and women in various states of undress. I felt my heart beating in my throat. When I heard Hristo calling, I packed them hurriedly into my backpack and emerged from the overgrowth, holding the branches as if they were a primitive offering.
‘I’ve built these before, but not like this,’ Hristo said excitedly as we lifted several large slabs of stone together. ‘Never this big.’
When we were finished, we climbed a nearby tree and waited.
‘I found these,’ I said, taking the magazines out of my backpack, my hands shaking with excitement, but Hristo regarded the pictures with complete indifference and I felt an immediate shame. How trivial a discovery, I thought. How childish an infatuation.
I made myself comfortable and allowed the heat of the afternoon to slowly take me. I dreamt that Hristo and I were in the forest, running topless through the trees. I caught brief flashes of his pale skin as he ran ahead of me. When he shook me awake several hours later the light had changed around us. The traps had caught a total of three squirrels. Hristo led me to each one, his breathing ragged, his eyes wild.
‘They had no idea it was coming,’ he said, dancing like a jester.
The animals lay sandwiched by rock, the stone kissing through them.
‘This one tried to get away,’ he said. ‘But not quick enough.’
Its arms were sprawled out in front of it, its head bloodied, its eyes ejected from their sockets by the impact. He clapped his hands together, imitating the force of the blow. I stared at the bodies. I’d seen death before but only in passing: a raccoon curled at the roadside, a coroner transporting an elderly neighbour. In the outer world, death had a transient quality. But here, in the stillness of the forest, the concept took on a sense of permanence. We were alone not only with the body, but with the sense of the thing before the body: the life.
That night, Hristo taught me to clean and prepare the animals and we ate the meat hunched over the firepit like cave dwellers. Afterwards Hristo asked for my thoughts and listened intently. I told him about all of the things that had surprised me: how easily the bones had broken, how simple the body looked beneath its coat, how oddly mechanical and primitive its construction. And when he nodded his head enthusiastically, hanging off my every word, I ruminated on the act of reduction I had witnessed.
‘They seemed foolish by the end.’
‘Foolish?’ he asked. ‘To allow themselves to be trapped?’
He leant forward, his eyes shining in the darkness, his breathing hard, expectant.
‘You felt they deserved it?’
When I nodded my head, he let out an audible gasp.
It slithered out of him.
A moment of pure relief.
In the weeks that followed, Hristo abandoned any attempt at hiding the darker elements of his nature. It was as if he had suddenly realised the benefit of our partnership, and with my help he began to accelerate some internal timeline. To fully realise his cruel intentions.
We created tension traps which loosed fire-hardened stakes down upon rabbits and raccoons with a brutal efficiency. Those lucky enough died quickly; the rest fled hopelessly. We beat bushes and followed their trails, hollering like some primitive and barbarous people. And when we found their mottled bodies alive with blowflies we danced and sang.
Hristo made no attempt to salvage the meat. Instead he insisted that we endeavour to catch live game, and so we set about rigging spring snares using thin metal wire which tightened around the animals’ throats and lifted them high into the air when the traps were sprung.
I lingered uncomfortably on the periphery of Hristo’s increasingly sadistic spectacles. It was one thing to trap and slaughter an animal for sustenance, but Hristo seemed to be using the creatures to stave off a much darker need. A hunger of a different sort.
When we stumbled upon deer tracks late one afternoon, Hristo became consumed with the thought of catching one alive. We built a collection of Apache foothold traps, which we covered with layers of leaves and loose foliage, and for a week we waited with held breath. But when the fated deer failed to materialise, Hristo grew incensed. He took it as a personal slight, muttering to himself and cursing, before travelling alone along the path, returning only when he was satisfied that he’d located fresh tracks.
We rose the next morning before dawn and ate a sorry breakfast in the crimson light. We marched further than ever before into the woodland, passing a red clay gulley, and deeper still until we came upon a clearing circled by oaks and hickories. A column of sunlight cut through the trees. It was here that Hristo had planted a crude flag the night before.
We worked in shifts to dig a large pit. By late afternoon the heat was suffocating. We stripped to our underwear and crawled in and out of the earth like primordial creatures. We tossed the displaced soil over the lip of the pit, and when the pit became too deep we ran ropes through a tin pail and lifted it like a dumbwaiter.
When my shovel hit bedrock, I called out to Hristo, but no answer came. Above me I could see the dusk closing in. I touched the freezing dirt walls around me and felt a sudden jolt of panic. The hole was at least ten feet deep, and there were no footholds to speak of. I tried to climb but without traction it was hopeless. I sat for a time and considered my options. Eventually I dug my shovel into the pit wall and used it for leverage, hoisting myself up by grabbing fistfuls of loose branches.
I found Hristo sitting just a few feet from the pit. He’d been listening. As I caught my breath, he peered over the edge and stared at the shovel.
‘You cheated,’ he said disappointedly.
As we worked to cover the mouth of the pit a heavy rain began to fall. Within minutes the wind picked up and we found ourselves chased back to camp by an encroaching storm, the sky above us electric with sheet lightning, our pale bodies shivering and fluorescent in the moonlight. When we arrived, Hristo strung a piece of tarp between two tree trunks to erect a loue shelter, beneath which he stoked a large fire. Above us the rain swept through the trees in great gusts. We huddled for warmth, wrapped tightly in our soiled blankets, and as the fire waned and the heat began to dissipate, we drew closer still.
It rained for three miserable days. When the wind brought tree branches down around us, we decamped to the rock formation beside the creek. We ate provisions that Hristo had saved or brought from home, and when the rain finally subsided we found ourselves so exhausted that we slept for an entire day.
With the weather more agreeable, Hristo was eager to check on the pit. We filled water bottles from the creek, packed tools and began on a sullen pilgrimage. We passed the clay gulley and walked carefully over moss-covered limestone and the trunks of felled trees. By the time we reached the clearing, the sun had risen to sit in the middle of an otherwise colourless sky.
We could tell immediately that something was wrong.
The netting over the pit had collapsed and beside the open mouth lay a whittled stick. Hristo froze. At the bottom of the pit lay the body of a man in a bright puffer jacket and tattered hiking boots. His left arm was bent awkwardly. The top of his head crowned by a halo of blood. At the sight of him I felt the air leave my body.
‘How did he get here?’ I asked, pacing the perimeter of the pit and then stopping when I felt a wave of nausea rise up in my throat. ‘We haven’t seen anyone in weeks. No one comes out here.’
‘You’re here,’ Hristo said, his eyes fixed on the body.
‘I don’t want to be.’
‘Well,’ Hristo said, ‘You’re here.’
I sat down and began to weep. Hristo regarded me with a mixture of confusion and condescension.
‘We didn’t push him,’ he said dispassionately.
I stared down at the body. There was something in the stillness of it.
‘My God,’ I whispered. ‘My God, Hristo. Look what we did.’
Hristo turned and lifted me up by the lapels, walking me backwards until the balls of my feet hung over the lip of the pit.
‘There’s no God here,’ Hristo said.
‘Isn’t there?’ I shouted suddenly. ‘You and your pathetic fucking crusade.’
He pushed me further until my body hung at an angle over the pit. For a moment I thought he was preparing to drop me. I imagined myself alone with the body.
‘Please don’t,’ I said, clawing at his arms for balance.
He was deathly silent. I watched my fate swimming in the dark of his eyes.
‘Go back to camp,’ he said at last. ‘Wait for me there. Speak to no one. Do you understand?’
When I nodded, he let me go.
‘Help me down,’ he said, picking up one of the shovels.
I lowered him awkwardly and watched as he bent over the body and began to inspect it.
‘What are you going to do with him?’ I asked eventually.
He looked almost startled by my presence.
‘Go now,’ he said. ‘Leave us.’
The forest had never seemed so small as on that lonely walk back to camp. I felt the outer world pressing down around me. Without Hristo to guide me, the landscape felt entirely unfamiliar. The sound of phantom sirens played through the trees and I imagined beams of torchlight in the distance, search parties combing the woodland to take us away.
I thought not of the life I had taken, but of all that remained of my own.
Second by second. Minute by minute.
When I reached the encampment, I found that I was shaking. I stoked a small fire and when the flames burnt bright and good, I sat beside it and thought back to our first week in the forest. How Hristo had dipped his fist into the sandstone pool and marvelled at his own ingenuity.
‘Look how quickly the world can be taken away,’ he had said.
I thought again of the man. I imagined him alone in the pit. I prayed that the fall had taken him quickly. I prayed for his family. For all those who might have known him. But in response I heard only Hristo’s voice: There’s no God here.
I found his red journal and began to flip through it. There were sketches of traps, custom-built containers and cages, all manner of measurements. But as the book went on the illustrations grew steadily more disturbing, until they ceased to document traps at all, but instruments of torture.
I cast it disgustedly into the fire and watched as the pages curled and the embers floated into the early evening, and then I took a collection of spears and crude instruments he had crafted and threw them onto the flames as well. The fire rose and roared with a hunger that I sated with sleeping bags and spare clothing until the flames became a towering effigy.
Hristo appeared out of the forest in the late evening like some wretched time-haunted phantom. His entire body caked in mud, his eyes floating in the darkness. We sat in silence for a time, completely exhausted.
‘It’s done,’ he said finally.
‘We have to tell someone.’
‘There’s nothing to tell. The pit is gone. Tomorrow this will all be gone too.’
‘People could be looking for him,’ I said.
‘No one’s looking. His wallet was empty. He had a driving license but it expired a couple of years back. His clothes were threadbare. I think he might have been a transient. We got lucky.’
‘We got lucky?’
‘We have to tell someone. If you won’t do it, I will.’
‘You’ll tell them what, exactly?’
I thought about this. I tried to imagine the conversation. Without Hristo, I had little hope of ever finding the pit. I saw him hunch over, shielding his body slightly. In his hand he held a leather wallet.
‘Did you take that from him?’ I asked.
He drew the wallet close, cradling it like a child.
‘He doesn’t need it,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t belong to you. You can’t take a person’s things.’
‘A person?’ He scoffed. ‘You don’t even know his name.’
‘Tell me,’ I said, rising to my feet. ‘Tell me his name.’
He held the wallet out as if he were preparing to hand it to me, but as I stepped forward he cast it into the bonfire. I watched as a thin smile spread across his face. In the firelight I felt as if I were seeing him for the first time.
‘A part of you wanted this,’ I said, aghast.
I backed away slowly from the fire. Hristo sat motionless, watching me.
‘Did you enjoy being down in that hole?’ he asked. ‘Because if you talk that’s what they’ll do. They’ll lock you away. They’ll throw away the key.’
I stumbled over loose branches and stone until I’d put several hundred feet between us, and then I turned on my heels and ran through the forest.
‘There are thousands of acres out here,’ he shouted after me. ‘People disappear all the time.’
The end of summer brought with it days of isolation and grief. My mother regarded me in the way only a mother could: as if I were an extension of her own body. She looked at me with a certain sense of longing. She knew that something unspeakable had been lost between us, an innocence that would never be recovered. Have you been eating? she asked. And I assured her yes, yes. But even I was shocked by the sight that greeted me in the mirror each morning. It was as if Hristo was staring back at me. I’d lost weight. My skin was pale, my hair greasy, my eyes sunken.
For weeks, I waited for the news to break. For the television to show scenes of search parties scouring the woodlands, televised appeals from concerned family members. But nothing came. It was inconceivable. We had dug a hole in the earth. It had swallowed a man. How could such a thing go unnoticed? How could it not matter?
At home I took long baths and tried to scrub myself clean of Hristo’s touch. I revelled in the luxury of betraying everything he stood for. But at night I lay awake and listened to the steady throb of the power lines behind the house, to the unending artificial iridescence of the outer world, and I knew that I had been forever tainted.
When my mother found a pair of deer antlers resting on the hood of her car, I resolved to confront him, but when school began there was no Hristo. The administration said his father had been redeployed. They left no forwarding address. No additional information.
Upon hearing the news, I trekked to the creek but found little evidence of our encampment. The fishing rods and toolboxes were gone. The tarpaulin sheets and stove pots had vanished. Even the firepit had been dug over and covered with loose leaves. I hiked to the clay gulley and searched for the forest clearing, for any sign of the pit, but I found the path unrecognisable.
Hristo had been true to his word. He had left no trace.
Each night I dreamt of the pit. I imagined the man. I saw the shape of his body. I heard him crying out in the darkness. I no longer knew how to live with myself, but still I lived. Years passed in brief glimpses: the furrowing out of a meek existence. School. College. A steady stream of jobs and short-term apartment leases. Always moving on at the slightest hint of promotion or accolade. The semi-permanence of the guilty man.
I remember days of despondency, days of delinquency. Days spent waiting for a judgement that refused to come. There were relationships. Men and women. But their faces are amorphous now in my memory. Their fates sealed by a hesitation deep in the fabric of my own body. I passed through the lives of others like some half-remembered dream – but still there were moments of consciousness.
When my father collapsed on a golf course, I drove home to find excavators carving into the woodland. Men in bright vests busy digging up large swathes of ground for new developments. I sat and watched them and prayed for the discovery of our makeshift grave, but still nothing came.
My mother died a year later. She’d gone to be with my father, the chaplain said, and it was shortly after the service, alone in the world, that I decided to confess. I sat with a police sergeant, a reticent man who correlated the dates I’d given with missing person reports, but ultimately came up empty-handed.
‘Can you give us a name, anything to go on?’ he asked, but I shook my head: no, no.
He requisitioned two officers and had me lead them into the forest, but after an afternoon of aimless wandering they called off the search. By their reckoning I was a victim of grief, some misremembered childhood fantasy, and they cut me loose, citing a lack of even circumstantial evidence.
‘Come back to us with a name,’ they said.
I packed up my parents’ house and fled like a thief in the night. I searched for Hristo. There was no mention of him on search engines or social networks, so I hired a private investigator. He tracked him to Colorado through deeds and divorce records, but there the trail ran cold. It was only after an insurance company suffered a data breach that his details finally came to light. We got lucky, he said. Hristo had left virtually no footprint.
I sat on the balcony of my apartment until the early hours of the morning. When I made the call, Hristo answered almost immediately; at the sound of his voice my legs went weak. I knelt as if in prayer.
‘Hristo?’ I whispered.
‘Who is this? Do you have any idea what time it is?’
In the background I could hear muffled conversation.
‘Hristo,’ I said. ‘It’s me.’
There was silence on the line. I pressed my ear to the receiver and listened to the sounds of a mother soothing her child. Was it possible that Hristo had a family? I looked back at the barren walls of my apartment. My pathetic kitchenette.
I heard footsteps and the closing of a door.
‘How did you get this number?’ he said irritably, his voice hushed.
‘I told them what we did, Hristo. But I left you out of it. I swear.’
‘You told them what, exactly?’
‘Everything. But they don’t believe me. They need his name. They say if I give them his name they can look into it. They can verify the authenticity of my claim.’
Hristo exhaled slowly.
‘I just need his name.’
He held the receiver so close that the sound of his breath distorted the line. He took pleasure in withholding the information. It was like we were children again: the learned teacher and the helpless student.
‘I can’t live like this,’ I said.
He began to draw quick, excited breaths. I thought of the body in the pit. The crown of blood. The face made blurry by memory. Hristo had laid not only the body to rest, but all proof of the man. He had left no trace of our indiscretion. There could be no expiation, no hope of atonement without his blessing. He alone carried the stranger’s identity and, by extension, my own. I came to him now a hollow man, a transient and unsubstantial soul. So ghostly, so intangible that my own existence left no trace. And I realised then the scope and scale of the trap that Hristo had laid. The years he had spent in waiting.
‘Hristo, please,’ I wept. ‘I have nothing.’
His breathing rose to a crescendo that ended with an elongated gasp. It slithered out of him. A moment of pure relief. There was silence on the line. I didn’t dare speak.
‘Don’t call this number again,’ he said softly.
I sat with the receiver in my lap and watched the sun rise in the east. It emerged from the earth as if escaping some sunken place where the dead reside, their souls inky and nameless and otherwise lost to time. Soon, I knew, people would begin to rise, and with them too the clamour of life. I sat quietly and revelled in the silence, and it was then that I heard it. The faintest utterance. A vibration deep in the earth that rose through the tenements and radiated into my bones.
The hum of the universe.
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