My dog and I found a body in the woods yesterday. Actually…we found several.
The first one had to have been dead at least a month. She was naked. The sun cast an eerie living light down through the branches of the trees. Even before we approach it I can see her stomach undulating slowly. This is not a trick of the light. She is moving like a mold of gelatin. The kind with fruit inside. The kind they give you on your tray in elementary school, except I imagine the bits and pieces in the gelatinous mass are probably not so sweet a surprise in this jelly. As we get closer I have to cover my face with my shirt to ward off the smell. Max, my dog is unphased by the sickly sweetness of it. Dogs are made of stronger stuff. Right now, it’s like opening that Tupperware container you discover, forgotten in the refrigerator–hidden away so long it transforms into something unidentifiable. To a canine nose every interesting rotten smell is appetizing. I know what he’s thinking as I gag against the wind that carries a waft of it to us…he’d eat it if I’d let him.
My instinct is screaming through my body. Compelling me back to the car, yet something else compels me forward. Call it “morbid fascination.” Call it “curiosity.” Call it what you will. I’m a high school biology teacher. That might be the reason I have to get a better look. Why I am not struck into shock at the sight. It might not be the reason. Maybe I’m just sick.
A part of me knew there had to be a logical explanation as to why her chest rose and fell like breathing. Max is unleashed but stays at my side obediently, unsure of what to make of this. He’s well trained and I haven’t told him to inspect it, so he doesn’t. Training a dog to listen is easy. They’re pack animals. You have to identify yourself as the Alpha. He looks up at me; suspicious curiosity sparkles in his eyes. He wants my permission to take a look. I shake my head at him, yet curiosity gets the best of every man and beast, trained or no. Alpha or no. He inches forward.
I came out here with him for a picnic. This is one of his favorite spots. Mine as well. Setting the basket down, I take him by the collar and lead him back to the turn off of brush where I’ve parked the car. After his water is filled on the floorboards, the air conditioner running high and he is safely inside, I begin rummaging through the trunk until I find what I need: my school bag. Amongst the ungraded essays and test papers is a small box of latex gloves.
Approaching the body again, I realize it’s moving because something has burrowed inside. I slowly make my way foot by foot past where I’d left the picnic basket. It’s a cautious compulsion for understanding which drives me.
“How did you get here?” I ask her wiping the sweat from my brow. She gazes back, empty. No answer stares out from her wriggling maggot-filled eyes. There is no sign in the sparse, unruffled leaves that lay delicately in the mud around her that she was dragged to this spot. No rut, no broken twigs lead to where she lay. There is a trail to track, though it was not what I had expected to find. Instead, the delicate impression of feet in the damp ground lead to her, as though she walked there. As though she came here, to find the perfect spot to lie down and die.
I leave her for the moment and trudge further into the woods, following the path she had taken, toward the clearing. I knew the clearing would be there because this was where Max and I had been headed.
Next I come upon a naked man. And another. And another woman. Five in total mark the path into the clearing. Each one older than the last. Dead one month, then two, then three, four, five. The path of each traced in dotted line to where they lay by muddy footfalls. Each one writhing slowly as if alive. In a way they are alive. Hosts for parasites. Their curious placement only raises more questions.
When I reach the clearing, I see the hole they escaped from and having seen enough I return to the car to retrieve my hazmat suit. I cannot leave any evidence behind. I’m not sure how they were able to climb their way out. When I buried them, they were well and truly dead. I haven’t got much time to put them back where they belong before nightfall makes it impossible.
“Sorry Max,” I say, “the picnic will have to wait.”
I drag each of them back to the hole with little trouble, save for the last who is five months dead and so bloated full of maggots that when I drag him he splits in half. They all spill out of him like the prize of a battered piñata. Once I’ve cleaned his mess up, I toss him in with the others. The sky is varying shades of violet and night is setting in by the time the bodies are all back inside the hole where they’re kept.
Today, I can’t wait for the school day to end. I should have called in a substitute but I realized too late. I’m not sure how or why the bodies climbed out of their grave. It’s strange, but that isn’t the troubling thought that weighs on my mind. The mystery of it definitely should be…but stranger things happen in this town…that doesn’t matter much. I can bury them back again every time.
I have to hold my desk or the students will see my hands shake.
Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.
It’s hard to stay and continue teaching. The panic just won’t abate. I realize the mistake and I’m pray to God nobody treads my hidden path today…
Yesterday, after a brisk walk back to the car, there is still enough dwindling light to allow me to turn off the ignition. Max is beside me again, tail wagging and spinning in happy circles. I’m nearly undressed, only my socks are left, but the change begins whether I’ve had time to prepare or not.
The moon parts the clouds and greets me like an old friend and before I know what’s happened, I’m wild again. My claws have ripped my socks to shreds. My sharp ears perk at the song in my head. The lullaby of the woods at night. My tail wags and I spin in happy circles with Max at my side. Together we howl at the sky.
Together we return to the clearing and fill in the hole with our paws. I do twice the work of tamping the earth back down because his paws are half the size of mine. I can smell their rotting meat below, but it isn’t so bad with my canine nose.
Together we bury the evidence. There can be no evidence.
After, we run in the cool wind of the night.
At dawn we wake next to the car and head home. I work today. I’ll transform the next two nights before the moon changes phase. Three nights a month we stalk those woods.
Breathe…don’t fret…don’t cry…everything’s fine. Don’t let anyone see the fear in your eyes…
…nobody will find the picnic basket I left behind.
But probably someone will. Probably someone will set up camp nearby. That’s how those people became bodies in the first place. We happened upon them in their tents. Something about the full moon draws people into the woods at night. My head is howling loudly with anxiety and I can’t make it stop.