A House in the Woods by Jerry Whitus

His name was Rodrick and they called him Roddy.  He was fourteen, a little short for his age, restless by nature, smart enough and, due to his parents, devoted to doing the right thing, though if you told him that he wouldn’t think much about it.  When this happened, this unlikely occurrence, it was the middle of February, a freezing afternoon.  He had borrowed his father’s deer rifle, which was allowed now and gone into the woods to hunt for feral hogs that had invaded the community and his father’s property as well, first tearing up the cow pasture and then the orchard and then escaping into the woods to do their damage there.

Wild hogs were what everybody, meaning the boys at school, were talking about.  And then the town officials put a bounty on them, fourteen dollars for every pair of ears brought in.  That and, even more, the pride that would come with it had set Roddy’s heart on fire.

At his father’s insistence, they spent a morning sighting the rifle and shooting cans and bottles off a stump.  Once satisfied, his father scrubbed the top of his son’s head.  “Before you shoot, look for a tree to climb in case you miss,” he said, smiling a little.

It was a few days later before Roddy got into the woods.  The sky was low and dark gray above the trees, most of them stripped bare so a person could imagine they might never recover.  Needles of ice had formed along the banks of a creek that seldom dealt with ice even in the middle of winter.  Wearing a dark wool coat, a cap his mother had knitted, high-topped canvas sneakers and carrying the rifle Roddy came down out of the woods, over a fallen tree into the creek bottom.  By now, his cheeks were chapped raw and his big ears a shade of scarlet due to the cold.

All afternoon he had seen nothing stirring, not a squirrel or rabbit or even a bird, but there were fresh signs of wild hogs, the fallen leaves and black earth torn up to get at roots a foot deep.

Roddy stopped at the edge of the creek, took a sandwich from his coat pocket and lifted the white bread to inspect the jam, fig.  He chewed gazing down stream to where it turned under the branches of withered trees.  By this time, he had grown anxious, anxious with the silence and anxious for something to shoot. 

Now he kneeled, cupped his hands and drank from the creek, shivering.  With frozen fingers he lifted the rifle and started downstream.  Across the creek were high banks and on top of them dull green patches of gall berry and dried up cane.  He went on to where the creek turned, found a rippling shallow spot and crossed over soaking his shoes.  He climbed the bank and beyond it was a field covered with bush and brambles and beyond them the start of a pine forest.  It was there beneath the trees that he saw a moving shadow or thought he saw one.  In a rush, he started toward it walking fast and then almost running.  He slipped off the trigger safety, reached a clump of berry vines and stopped there beside them trying to locate among the trees what he was nearly sure he had seen.  There was nothing, not until he glanced to his left into the heap of briars and saw, not a hog or any kind of animal but a figure that seemed to be part of a man.  A man stretched out in there, nearly hidden. 

Roddy stepped back, looked around and then up at the sky sucking in a breath of air.  He looked again and sure enough it was what his eyes had told him.  He retreated a few steps and steadied himself to get a better look.  Gripping the rifle, he waited, watching, but the figure was stone still.  Mister, he finally heard himself utter.  Mister! he called out.  He eased closer.  It was a big man, laying on his side with his legs drawn up.  He wore muddy rubber boots, a canvas coat, patches on the elbow.  A hat with earflaps that Roddy could just make out through the briars.  Nearby, beyond the briars, as if tossed aside, was a cloth shoulder bag and small spade.

Run, Roddy’s mind and legs tried to tell him and he wanted to run.  But couldn’t.  At the very least, the man was in trouble.  He moved closer, observing how the man was tangled deep in the vines.  He lay the rifle aside, dropped to his knees and gripped one of the rubber boots.  He shook it back and forth, carefully at first and then more violently.  “Are you sleeping, asleep! are you asleep!” Roddy said and yelled and then listened to the silence.  He stood up and walked a circle, his knees jumping.  He looked down at his hands, showing points of blood where the thorns had bit him.

He went back, grasped the man’s boot with both hands this time, gritted his teeth and yanked.  Yanked and pulled, yanked and pulled, managing at last to get enough of him out of the briars to take a shoulder and shove him over.  It was an old man he was looking at, but not just any old man, a man he knew, a man they called Mr. McHenry.

Roddy backed up, sat down flat on the earth and placed the rifle over his crossed legs, light-headed, nearly sick.  Never had he seen a dead man who was not dressed in a dark suit and tie, carefully groomed, lying in a coffin.  This man’s face was lined, full of veins and indentions, bristled whiskers that could have been on a nettle.  One damp eye was open just a little and on his sunken cheeks and forehead were small dots of dried blood like those on his own hands.  

This Mr. McHenry was well known in town.  You would see him idling on one of the benches in front of the merchant store with his wife, a stout, chalky pale old woman who fixed 

her white hair in a braid around her head and wore a long dress with a collar, the same dress all the time it seemed.  

Roddy pictured them bent over a gadget the old man used to crack pecans.  He would set a pecan upright under a plunger and push it down so the shell cracked like there were seams in it.  He would peel the hull away, pick the meat out with a thin blade and pass the perfect halves to his wife, who filled small paper sacks you could buy for a quarter.  People stopped and talked with them.  They laughed.  They bought the oily sacks of pecans and passed them to the children.

As the picture lingered, Roddy’s eyes began to cloud up.  He rubbed his face with both hands and gazed down at them, red and chapped.  The walls of the stable world he had grown up in were beginning to crumble.  He looked at the sky above the pine trees and for the first thought of his father.  It was nearly evening and would soon be dark.  His mother could be in the kitchen by now but this time of year his father, who worked for the county, was never home until well after night had set in.

Roddy had no clear idea what he ought to do.  Head home for help his mind told him and then, he thought, stay with the old man, his father would come, shooting into the air to get his attention.  He considered one thing one moment and then the opposite.  He stood up and gazed at the old man again.  He seemed calm, comfortable like he had just decided to lay down in those briars and go to sleep.  At the same time, Roddy felt overwhelmed and without prospects and then came a new urge to start out toward home.  He retrieved the rifle and right away remembered the wild hogs, how they rampaged and tore up the earth.  

There beside the old man’s shoulder bag was the spade.  He opened the flap of the bag and found a muddy hatchet, a long butcher knife and beneath them a pile of hairy roots half-covered with mud.  An old man out alone in this cold digging roots. 

Restless, he took the hatchet, the spade and went down to the bank overlooking the creek, moved into the cane and started digging, chopping.  The ground was hard but he had strong shoulders and a renewed determination.  He took an armload of cane back up to the old man, spread it over him.  Three armloads he cut and carried, which pretty much did job.  He returned for one more load.  A mound of cane was the old man’s grave for now, Roddy telling himself it was some kind of protection, almost believing it. 

At last, he raised the rifle and shot towards the pine woods, three sharp explosions and then one more, something he had been itching to hear all afternoon.  The kicks against his shoulder were a comfort, the hope it would scare away any animal out there more comforting still.

It was nearly dark now, not a star or friendly light.  He made his way to the bank and slid down on his butt, crossed the creek through freezing water, went up the far side and continued on into the woods, which offered a sudden darkness he hadn’t expected, the deep darkness of winter.  The trunks of trees were pitch black, he couldn’t see his feet.  He started out through low branches and thick vines he didn’t see until they were on him.  He considered turning back to follow the creek which would be easier but a longer walk than going through the woods.  Without making a decision he went on, sure that if he kept a straight line he would end up at a neighbor’s fallow cornfield where he’d be able to see the lights of his own house.  

“Hell fire,” he uttered, at one point to hear the sound of his own voice; “hell fire,” he said a little louder to warn ghosts and devils that kept trying to float into his head.  Using the rifle to clear the way, he would start through a patch of thick or thorny bushes and then search right and left to find a way around them, all the while disturbed by the rustle of dead leaves under his feet.  

Suddenly he heard a long drawn out sound that seemed to be traveling through the treetops, a kind of pathetic moaning.  He pointed the rifle, shivering a little, and soon recognized the hoots and shrieks of an owl, the only living sound he’d encountered all afternoon.  An owl searching the frozen night for something to eat.  In a while, the canopy opened up a bit and there was bit of light.

Stretching his legs, he came out of the trees into a clearing.  The sky had changed.  On the horizon were a few frail stars.  He thought of his mother and sister, the warm light of the kitchen.  They would ask after him, peeved at first but then growing concerned.  And he imagined his father, wondering if he could be home yet and it came to him that he was totally ignorant of how far he had come or how much time had passed.

Hurrying now, he crossed the clearing and came to a growth of young pines probably planted by a logging company.  He couldn’t recollect ever seeing them.  It scared him.  His mind had been saying go straight ahead.  Now, which way was straight ahead?  

With some effort, he pushed through the small, prickly pines, came out of them, and suddenly found himself stumbling down a steep slope into a gully, lost his rifle, found it and clambered up the other side.  

He stood on the ridge breathing deeply, wondering how to go on.  He was lost, dead tired and had no idea which way to turn.  Then he heard the owl again—long, rising hoots and shrieks up ahead, as if they were traveling the same trail.  Without thinking, Roddy followed his ears to a path of sorts that eventually widened and continued under the limbs of big trees.  Before long he was circling a pond.  The wind came up, rippling the black water.  

There was more.  The path descended through a shallow marsh, thin plates of ice crunched underfoot.  Overhead were wisps of clouds and scattered stars and it seemed the owl, which had been calling out to him from time to time, had left him on his on.  He came to an old tumbled down rock wall the kind people built a hundred years ago.  Farther on was a fenced-in plot that seemed to have once been a garden or orchard, skeletons of ruined trees.  It was all strange to him.  He pushed through a hedge onto a dirt road, narrow and two-rutted.  Up ahead was a small house with two lit windows.  It looked settled, as if purposely set there waiting to be found.  There was a bottle tree out front and nearby a small shed.  Roddy expected dogs, country people kept dogs.  None came out for him.

He crossed under the porch roof, leaned the rifle against a stack of firewood out of sight and knocked softly.  When nothing happened, he knocked again louder than he meant to.  In a moment, the door cracked an inch.  It swung open. 

“Well?” a woman said, stepping back into a dim light. 

Roddy lowered his head.

“What’s that you’re doing?” the woman said.  “Come on closer, so I can see you.”  She squinted at him.  “You a boy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What are you doing out there?”

“I got lost.”

“Lost?”  She stood eyeing him for a moment.  “Well then, come on out of the cold,” she said, and Roddy stepped inside, immediately grateful for the warmth, the pale light.  It was a large room, a kitchen, but more than a kitchen.  It smelled of cedar and something cooking.  An iron stove stood in the middle of the room, flames dancing about in cracks around the door.  A table with two lit kerosene lamps on top of it.  Cane chairs.   Long shadows lay across the floor.

“Your feet’s wet,” the woman said to him. 

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You better take’em off before they’re froze stiff.”

She was a small woman, shorter than him and quite old.  She wore a long dress with a bib apron over it, hair white as combed cotton fell down her back, her face was pink and deeply creased in the lamplight, a nose with a hump on it.  More than anything, it was the long hair that confused him, made him hesitate, unsure.  But sitting before the stove removing his shoes as she had ordered, he glanced up, searching her features until there was no doubt he knew who she was.

“Lay the socks there,” she said, indicating the stove top.  “And your cap too.  What’s your name?”

Roddy couldn’t speak, nor breathe, nor work his mind either.  He sniffled, wiped his nose with the back of a hand, tried to swallow the knot in his throat.  

“Shy.  Boys your age are usually shy.  Or has the cat got your tongue?”

“You got a cat?”

She laughed.  “That’s a good one.  You got me with that one.”

She folded her arms, lowered her eyes, as if trying to figure him out.  There was a sink with a hand pump for water, a stove with pots on it.  “You are about froze, I guess.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You look old enough for coffee,” she said, at last.  “You drink coffee?”

Roddy nodded his head, the most he could do just now.

“I was about to make some, so I’ll fix yours with hot milk, and see if it don’t warm you inside-out, while you take off your coat and dry off and get your tongue back.”

When she turned to draw water at the sink, Roddy stood and removed his coat, examining the room.  There was a collection of calendars on one wall, some smoky old pictures in frames.  In a far-off corner was a high iron bed and shelves led back into shadows.  Farther back were sacks and things of different shapes and sizes, some hanging from rafters.  

“Have I seen you before?” the woman said, again examining his face.

Roddy told her he went to town sometimes with his mother, his sister.

“What’s your name?”

He told her.

“Roddy, huh...” she uttered, as if she didn’t much care for it.

She came from the cook stove and sat a glass on the table, poured in an inch of thick black coffee, which swirled through steaming milk as she added it.  “You’ll like it sweet,” she said, spooning in a ribbon of syrup from a fruit jar.  Satisfied, she beat all that together until it might have been chocolate or muddy river water.

She watched as he lifted the glass.  “Good,” Roddy said after a sip, the smooth, sweet drink warming his throat.

“Our kids were drinking milk coffee long before your age.”  She sat down across from him with her own coffee steaming in a blue cup.  “You probably didn’t know it, but it’s going to snow soon,” she said, breaking a silence.  “I can always tell from the minute I get up.  I told Henry this morning he better get home early and now it’s far after dark.  He used to be by the clock.  Our supper is on the stove, though.  We’ll wait a little if you can hold out.”

When he didn’t say anything, she went on.  “He’ll be happy to see a boy here.  Corn soup’s what we often have on nights like this, and bacon.  Cornbread too.  No greens this time of year.  What are you doing way out here?  Huntin’?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I mean no, ma’am.”

She laughed.  “Which is it?”

“Not huntin’.   Walking.”  Holding the glass with two hands, Roddy drank the hardy mixture.  It was satisfying.  “And I was chasing a hog,” he added.

“A hog?  Who would think that?”  

Stupid thing to say.  He blushed, not knowing why he had lied.  “Anyway, I just got lost.”

“Your mother’s going to be worried.  I used to worry about my boys and the girl too.  Now there’s just Henry to worry about.  He knows better but goes out in the cold anyway and has no sense of time.  By the time you drink that he’ll probably be here.”  A slight smile bunched the wrinkles in her cheeks.  “And we can have supper and he’ll walk you to the Bridgers down the road.  It might be snowing by then, but the Bridgers own a telephone and car and they’ll get you home.  You don’t need to worry.”

At once, she coughed into a frilly handkerchief, settled herself, moved her cup aside and told him she was going out for firewood.  As she stood up, Roddy jumped to his feet.  He remembered the rifle on the porch and didn’t want to be caught in a lie.  “I’ll get the firewood,” he said in a hurry.  “I always get it at home.”

Barefoot, bareheaded, he went out and closed the door tight behind him. There were no stars in sight, but the wind had increased.  And somehow the bottle tree, shown in its perfect solitude, faintly chimed.  Listening, straining his eyes to peer as deep as possible into the night, he noticed a movement in the yard.  As his eyes adjusted he saw a dark figure rise up, hesitate, and come toward him, one ghostly image at first, then another and another.  Three large hounds they were.  They came on to the edge of the porch and gazed at him down long noses, as if sizing him up, their eyes glinting in the faint window light.  One of them, the largest, whined, whimpered, but there was no barking, no growling, no coming at him.  Nonetheless, Roddy reached for the rifle and they sat back on their haunches the way experienced dogs would.  He held the rifle loosely in his hands, and then quickly put it back, gathered sticks of firewood and made his way inside.

 “Told me he was going out to dig sassafras roots,” she said, opening the door to the stove as soon as Roddy had come in.  “He said he knew where some was and he’s been promising me a bunch to cook with.  People make tea but I like to pound’em and boil’em in my cooking sometimes.  That’s what my mother did.  And that’s a long time ago.”

She stoked the crimson bed of coals with a metal rod and told him to lay in a few sticks.  Then she slammed the iron door, latched it shut.  With smoke dissipating in the air, Roddy eased into his chair, slipped on the warm, dry socks, slid his feet under the stove and opened his mouth and told her about the dogs.  “There’s three big dogs out front,” he said, his voice gaining strength.  He described them hunched under the bottle tree.

“They’re out there waiting for Henry,” she told him.  “As soon as we came to this place, they took up with him.  He feeds them.  But often they eat out of the woods.  Follow him through the thickets or else come back here and wait for him just about every day.  On nights like this he fixes a pallet in the shed.”

She rattled the pots on the stovetop, took down a skillet from an overhead hook, and in a minute, he could smell bacon frying.  Her movements were quick, vigorous, like his mother’s when she was working over the stove.  The bacon began to pop.  She nodded toward the water pump over the sink and told him to take the bar soap and wash his hands.  “Scrub’em good,” she said, with a familiarity she hadn’t used before.  “Clean hands, clean heart,” she told him.

A few minutes later she came to the table with two bowls, heat rising out of them along with spoon handles.  “It’s too hot to put in your mouth.  We’ll wait a minute,” she said, and placed before him a square of cornbread and thick strip of bacon on a platter. 

Instead of sitting down, she went to one of the front windows, cupped her hands against the glass and peered out.  After a minute, she went to the other window and did the same.   “Nope,” she said, turning back. 

I can wait if you want to, Roddy almost said.  But then was glad he hadn’t, hadn’t told such a terrible lie.  More lies had already spun in his head and out of his mouth than he could deal with.  His stomach was churning now.  He was scared, scared of her, of what he knew.

  Miz McHenry went over, warmed her hands at the stove for a moment.  She sat down and reached across the table.  “Give me your hand,” she said.  He slid a hand toward her.  She covered it with her warm, surprisingly soft one, dropped her head and muttered a prayer, which he couldn’t make out.  She raised her eyes.  A blue vein in her neck stood out.  “Well,” she said, “we’ll go ahead then.”

But as he started to eat Roddy couldn’t bring himself to lift the spoon.  He was too drained, shaky, not because he was tired, but because he had done everything wrong.  He wished he had been forthright and had had the courage to take her hand and comfort her.  That he hadn’t left Mr. McHenry alone in the woods with all that could happen to him.  That he hadn’t believed he could handle about anything when there were so many questions in his head.

What he did know is that he was going to have to tell her.  Not right now but soon.  That’s the reason he had been brought here.

Jerry Whitus’ stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Manoa (a “distinguished story” in Best American Short Stories), Chicago Quarterly Review, Carolina Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, Confrontation, The Literary Review and other journals. He studied fiction writing in the graduate program at the University of Texas and for a number of years made a living as a freelance writer specializing in film and video for education, industry and entertainment, with a large number of national awards. He has also been an administrator, teacher and teacher-trainer in universities in the USA, Japan (where he also served in the Marine Corps), Singapore, Vietnam (on a USAID grant), and Colombia.