The Clearing



They hear the one from a few months prior, coming from the mossy clearing behind the house. Like a young girl with precocious opera lungs being murdered over and over.
     A coyote? A lost fawn? The squall of a horny house cat?
     In bed Heather scrolls through a catalogue of online animals, trying to match her memory of the sound with that of her cell phone’s tinny speaker.
     “Not that,” she says. “Not that, either.”
     A fisher cat shrieks from the phone. Repeatedly. But while not unlike a woman being murdered the shriek isn’t a young girl either. Not exactly. “But who knows what sounds an animal might make in the throes of passion?” she tells her husband: Vic.
     “I wouldn’t worry.”
     “I’m not.”
     Now Vic excuses himself, mutters off down the hallway. His footsteps stopping where Heather hung the sofa art that morning—a snow-draped barn. To cover one of the many peepholes they’d discovered after the tenants left a few months prior. Before he continues to the kitchen again, the liquor cabinet he stripped that summer they created the chicken salad game.
     Remember the chicken salad game? Heather thinks.
     With a jingle of ice Vic returns to lie atop the comforter. Silent and sweating. His mouth partially pried and poised for what she worries will become talk of the tenants again. Something like, “There’s no way, Heather. We would’ve heard her drill. We would’ve known.”
     But tonight, thankfully, no—Vic flips his reading lamp off and proceeds to knock the ice in his glass against his teeth in the dark.

Next morning, Heather’s back over in the empty half of their home. The side they sealed off a couple of years ago with heavy locks for the monthly rental payment. Where the ex-tenants must’ve drilled these peepholes into the antique wallpaper. Into these beautiful, frenzied blossoms.Can you believe she had to fight Vic to not peel off the wallpaper, spackle the holes, and paint the sheetrock?
     “We’ll just hang artwork and photographs,” she said.
     Heather picks up another piece, looks at it. This framed daguerreotype of a dour-faced wedding. See that hole over there? She taps a hanger in and hangs it. The strangers stare back at her with silver eyes, already sullen in their marriage.

Then, here they are again—in bed and listening to the bullfrogs and peepers in the swamp. A summer wind pressing the warbled panes of glass into the bedroom’s French windows. As the ice knocks against Vic’s teeth and his mouth poises to talk.
     This time he does: “We would’ve sensed them, Heather. We would’ve felt their eyes.”
     She’s mouthing along in the dark.

A package arrives the next morning. Vic stabs at his oatmeal while she opens the cardboard box. A motion sensor camera. Night vision and extended battery life, a small screen for instant playback.  
     After he drives off for work, Heather carries the camera into the woods. To a clearing strung bearded with comfortable moss. She straps the camera to a diseased oak riddled with lumps. Carefully, she adjusts the shot.
     Back at the house she spends the day hanging more sofa art—a thickly painted hunting lodge, an orchard strung with pink blobs, a flock of sailboats bending over on a windy lake—over the few remaining peepholes. Until dinner.
     “Remember that game we used to play?” she says, standing at the counter.
     Vic sits at the table, scoops a whole grain cracker through the deep bowl she’d made in hopes of jogging his memory. “What game?”
     Heather watches him chew. And he chews just like the deer she watches on the camera’s playback the next morning.
     Crouched in the clearing, they parade across the frame at 10x speed with green glowing eyes in undeserved majesty. “Mange with legs,” her stepfather used to say.
     She deletes the deer, repositions the camera. Curses.

Every morning, out the back door, through the silvery grass and stinking dead leaves into the shadowy trees, the camera sits waiting. Waiting.
     And she tries everything—heaps of vegetables, birdseed. Lunch meat and Vic’s dry oatmeal she buys for his health. But only deer come to this party. Her stepfather’s tormentors. A part of her wishes she hadn’t sold his stockpile of guns. Or that he’d be momentarily risen back to life to answer one question: Old and ugly man, how can I draw this mysterious animal out of the night? 

She’s left the hardware store one day when she gets the idea, like he’d whispered hot and soft in her ear, pulling up to a blood-matted raccoon carcass on the shoulder of the road. Its yawning mouth has dried up stiff with her stepfather’s words: “Take me with you!”
     So, she shovels its body into the bed of the truck. Drives home with the sick-sweet taste of the animal hovering in the cab. Then she lays the carcass in the clearing, as per the instructions.
     But in the days to come the reeking raccoon only sinks deeper into itself. Meanwhile, it’s the same deer, the same incremental work re-inhabiting the side of the house, the same nightly ritual of her husband, followed by the same silence.
     “How long are you going to mope around like this?” she says, finally. “For Christ sake forgive yourself.” The heavier furniture in the basement needs to come up—the oak desk, the swivel chair. She, they, needed an office to work.
     “Okay,” he says, staring into the ceiling fan that churned above their king-sized. “Tomorrow. I’ll come home during lunch.”
     “We can make chicken salad.”

Heather rises early the next morning to watch the playback—the same collapsed raccoon, the deer parade. Blah, blah, blah. Until another raccoon lumbers across the ghastly infra-green frame. Boy is it big. It orbits the dead one then leans in and hugs it. Seems to whisper sweet raccoon nothings into its ear.
     Just watching makes her ear tickle.
     The camera’s playback is soundless but before dismounting, you could see the mouth of the live raccoon form an upturned flute. No doubt an operatic sound.
     At the house, Heather looks up Raccoon Necrophilia Sound. No dice. But there happens to be a few articles about the phenomenon.
     Apparently, it isn’t unusual among the species.
     Heather isn’t surprised. Come to think of it: she’s never been surprised. Not once in her life. Not even when she discovered the peepholes. Not even when she told Vic she was pregnant just a few months after reappearing into his life, and he dropped to his knee to beg her to marry him. Not when a vein exploded in her stepfather’s stomach and blood shot across the room from his large mouth.
     She plugs a USB drive into the computer, clicks to print and the thick, sheeny photography paper rolls out like a slow tongue. She holds it up in the morning sunlight:


Like a Harlequin novel, she thinks.

Chicken salad again for lunch. Heather holds out the photograph, “Check this out.”  And Vic stares at the raccoons for a long time, smiling in a way that tells her he doesn’t understand the vacant gaze of the dead raccoon beneath.
     A plaque of crackers coats his sudden smile.
     “I love it,” he says before Heather can explain. He loves the photograph so much, in fact, he wants to hang it on the wall of their new office. “Right now.”
     “I’ll slip this into a frame then.” Heather does like she says and wraps the chicken salad up in the refrigerator and follows him upstairs. She leans the newly framed photograph against the wall and tells him to take off his clothes and lay down naked on the floor, and he obliges. Then she strips down as well then mounts him. Her body moves in the reflection of the glass enclosing the photograph. The floor creaks steadily beneath her knees. Then faster. Until her husband begins to grunt, like something sputtering back to life.
     Only then, in a sudden spasm, does Vic seem to remember the chicken salad game they used to play. How flavor was all about the appetite. She sees all this very clearly in his blue eyes.
     Then he helps her carry up the oak desk and swivel chair from the basement.
     He hangs the photograph on the wall where he can see it, the final peephole covered now.
     And he comes home for lunch regularly, starts spending his nights in there.
     And not too long after it’s like the previous tenants never happened—Vic comes when she calls, looks at her without looking past her now. Before bed, he runs his fingers through her hair. Like he used to. Whispers sweetly.
     And when she can’t sleep, sometimes, she comes in here. A glass of vodka. She sits in the chair and contemplates that moment when she saw what it was. Over and over. That same realization. The moonlight over that mossy clearing, now blazing so perfectly upon the photograph’s surprise. What’s so easy to forget. Over and over, across her brain, she does this. Like a homey flavor on her tongue. One she can only place on the moment she stares into this other creature’s eyes.

Blair Hooper work is forthcoming or appeared in Bomb, Ninth Letter, and New York Tyrant. By day, Blair paints houses in the Hudson Valley for a living. By night, Blair edits fiction for Fence and Post Road. Blair recently finished a novel titled The Foreclosure Gothics, from which "The Clearing" has been excerpted.

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