I wasn’t really breaking the law. Maine’s a practical state. My ancestors knew they couldn’t slap a deed on something that slithers through fingers, so they made rivers and trout public property and left it vague how we’d get to them.
Last week my biologist boss thumped his coffee-stained map and complained about a billionaire buying up lands he used to fish on. I leaned over his shoulder, memorized Carla Monson’s streams, and, on my day off, drove north.
I parked next to a pile of naked logs that dwarfed my car and stared at Monson’s gate. Behind the wire she’d grown a green oasis where “No Harvesting” and “No Trespassing” signs swarmed the fence: signs that exclude people from large chunks of wild terrain are special invitations to me. I was a trespasser as soon as I could crawl away from my house toward woods and waters the wealthy used a few weeks a year. Behind Carla Monson’s gate, spawning trout had to be flinging themselves upstream under fall leaves as orange as their cold, swollen bellies. They were my kind of invitation.
Pock jumped out the window and crawled under the gate where his nose vacuumed the ground, and his wagging tail telegraphed urgent discovery. I slid my bike, pack, and fly rod under the gate, lay on my back, and skidded below nasty razor wire. Up on my knees, I rubbed my lumpy fingers, aware that arthritis was punishment for living past fifty, but strangely cheered that cold streams were my choice of painkiller. I saw serrated ATV tire tracks and muddy prints that didn’t fit my dog. Maybe a coyote—a large coyote. I groaned, stood, and yelled Pock’s favorite ice-cream invitation. “Let’s go, baby. Yip, yip. Zip, zip.”
No dog. I whistled and yelled again, annoyed I’d have to retrieve a Labrador retriever. When a rising breeze rained pine needles onto my shoulders and blew Pock’s frantic howls at me, I shoved loose hairs into my ponytail, shouldered my pack, and pedaled up Monson’s rutted road. Navigating an unfamiliar track I didn’t want to travel after dark, I crushed late-blooming goldenrod and bent low as the old road tunneled through birches twisted low by last winter’s heavy ice.
Behind a cedar swamp, Pock’s yowling rose to a frantic pitch, and he sounded squeezed for space. What could corner a ninety-pound dog? Officially, we’d killed off cougars and wolves years ago, but that hadn’t stopped rumors of them roaming the woods. I didn’t want to arrive home with a half-chewed dog—or not arrive home at all.
I dropped my bike and waded into the swamp. Muck oozed down my boots and glued my toes together before I found him, belly down in the dirt, ears flattened toward his back. Between howls he pushed his nose under a fallen white pine, its roots limp and naked over a dirty hole. Ancient mold stung my nose and eyes as I picked my way through amputated branches and pulled my dog away from the body.
Shannon Angeles lay under the massive tree. I knew her shocking red hair, her Flash Fire nail polish, even the smiling moon sticker on her left hiking boot. She wore the same pitch-stained clothes she’d worn days ago when she returned my battery charger and played tug-of-war with Pock. I saw only one collapsed cheek, but I knew my best friend was dead.
I knelt and slid damp hair off her nose and squeezed my eyes shut. I’d had my hands on dead people I didn’t know, but never a dead friend. I couldn’t smell death—couldn’t smell blood or bowels let go. Shannon smelled like rain and white pine. My head pounded as if I were underwater without air. Breathe, I thought. Breathe through it. Open your eyes and do this for Shannon. See this for Shannon. She’d want a full report.
I gulped pine-charged air, opened my eyes, and reached for her left side where I pulled broken branches from her face. Gray, pink-tinged fluid dripped from one ear, and one green eye stared at me the way she always stared at me when I didn’t have answers. I liked answers but I loved Shannon.
A tree limb had pierced her neck in a near-perfect impalement, and I had a bizarre moment remembering a line in a first aid manual, “object stuck in flesh, protruding from flesh.” When I saw bark glowing green under the wound’s stretched tissue, instant sweat glued my shirt to my back.
The cheek I could see was whole, raked raw into purple bruises, and the cheek I couldn’t see seemed propped on a metal box and jagged strap that didn’t look like her tools. I leaned toward her outstretched arm and my stomach heaved as I saw it all. Dirt lifted her nails—nails that had clawed the ground around her into a frenzied semicircle. How long had she known she was dying?
“Oh, Shannon honey. What happened? What went wrong?” I sobbed and rocked and stroked her hand. “Don’t go. Don’t go. Please don’t go.” Pock crawled to me and licked Shannon’s fingers each time my rocking brought them to his nose.
I don’t know how long I held her hand trying to rub warmth into it. Shivers rattled my teeth, we’d lost the sun, and I wanted help on the scene before animals grew restless in the dark. Thinking about hungry wildlife, I pulled an emergency blanket from my pack and covered the parts of her I could reach. The blanket wasn’t big enough to discourage visitors. I needed a language animals respected—a language one large coyote might understand.
“Pock,” I ordered, “pee here.”
We’d lived in suburbs and cities, so my dog knew how to urinate on the tiniest blade of grass. He wetted the edge of the cloth and backed off, ears cocked at the strangled sound of my voice.
My turn. I bent toward Shannon’s ear. “You’d understand why I’m doing this, sweetie.” I dropped my pants and squatted near her face, pouring a perfect puddle. “Pock and I are marking our territory. Our territory,” I whispered, zipping up my fly.
Then I yelled. “Listen up! This is my friend. Anyone who touches her answers to me.” I grabbed a large branch, and when I broke it over my knee, the snap sent Pock between my legs. I piled broken pieces over the cloth and raised my voice until it was more screech than sound. “I mean it. Don’t mess with me.”
I thought about leaving Pock on guard, but I knew he’d flee anything that howled in the dark. I tugged his collar and waded back to my bike.
I don’t remember much of the return ride over the woods road unless it involved pain. I crashed into a frost-heaved rock and somersaulted over my handlebars, landing on my pack and exploding my water bottle so it soaked my back. Then I picked up my bike and pulled out my headlamp. Its ribbon of light narrowed the forest’s gloom into a path I could follow. I didn’t bother to load the bike.
In the car, Pock leaned from the passenger seat into my lap, and I gripped his fur as if it were the last firm rock on a collapsing wall.
I drove east, away from the gate where hours ago I’d registered my travel plans and entered Great Nations Forests’ timberlands, lying to the gatekeeper, Sam, about my destination. I always lied to him and encouraged others to lie too. Before she could wear a bra, my daughter Kate had leaned away from the window when Sam leered in. “Let’s call him Sketchy Sam,” she’d said, “so we never forget what he really is.”
As Great Nations’ gatekeeper, Sketchy Sam had control of millions of acres under his twitching thumbs, and he liked to think he knew everything. His pickled, beet-red face vibrated under sharp hawk eyes. He knew more than he had a right to know. I didn’t want him to know about Shannon.
I headed toward the nearest north woods phone booth—a tree limb wedged into a pothole with flagging tape and a battered cell phone case advertising a working signal. I dialed 911 and said I’d found a friend dead in the woods. Under a tree.
The dispatcher asked me if I was safe, and then he surprised me. “Do you have any reason to consider her death suspicious?” Were 911 folks supposed to ask that?
“Why would you ask me that? I don’t know. She’s under a tree.”
“I need to contact the appropriate first aid and investigative response teams,” he said. “Do you know if there were witnesses to this event?” I knew what that meant. No witnesses to an unexplained death meant he’d call it in as a suspicious death, but I didn’t want to play.
“Trees,” I said. “Maybe some squirrels. You going to send the cavalry, or what?”
“Please give me your GPS coordinates.”
“I don’t do GPS,” I snapped. “I’m parked in a phone booth east of Bluffer Brook and any game warden on any road in Maine will know where I am.”
The dispatcher’s voice slowed to the drawl emergency personnel use for people who are not quite right. He told me to lock the car doors and wait.
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