This story was first published in August 2018, nestled within a forest of pieces in The Writers’ Cafe Magazine (RIP). Walk quietly or you might frighten it. The theme of Issue 11 was “Into The Woods” and you’ll find an amazing amount of quality poems and stories to read. My story is reprinted below.
by DL Shirey
Trees masked the remains of daylight, the forest floor now darker than the sky. Greens and browns of pine and fir barely colored the cold, gray shadows. It was time to camp, but a distant, interminable howl kept me hiking forward. This was animal sound; a creature’s lament, the last, weak fragments of pain. There was no other noise, not even wind. Nothing but still, feral death.
The sound came from down a dry streambed, the steep shoulders tangled in ivy. My flashlight lit nothing more than a choke of plants, downed branches and no visible path inward. Night had won the day so I hunched off my pack. And as kindling sparked to flame, the moaning stopped. I’m not sure if the campfire startled the beast to silence or if its misery simply ended, but no insect, frog or nightbird uttered a peep thereafter. A strange hush gripped the forest until first light.
Dawn revealed the pathway into the streambed, a trace of trail up and around a fallen tree. I picked my way past roots and snags, down again to packed sand and rounded stones. The dapple of sunrise barely lit this hollow. Long-armed ferns reached down from both sides of the surrounding embankments. Full sunlight was as foreign here as the metal stake pounded into the clearing before me.
Then I heard it again. This time the sound was a brittle, labored breathing; whimpered exhales, slow and thin. It was coming from the base of the stake, yet no animal was there. Not a carcass, no fur or bone, only the cry of what used to be. Like an echoed memory of pain so great that the sound still remained, caught in the teeth of an empty, sprung bear trap.
By the looks of it, the trap had been there for years. A rusted half-circle thrust up from a pile of dry pine needles, its jaws clamped, hinges corroded permanently closed. I unearthed the cable that held the trap to the stake and the wires crumbled like straw under my hand.
As I knelt there, I heard the animal’s death. It was a whispered pant straining for air, ended by a slow, relaxed release of breath. I thought I smelled copper and musk.
There was a sad stretch of silence before the wind picked up and all the sounds of the forest blew in again. I dug a hole in the soft sand and buried the trap, the stake now a marker for a grave. I tied a fallen branch as a crossbar and said a prayer to help the spirit move on.