“Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move,” He told himself over and over standing at the window. For fifty-one nights he stood this post, repeating the same line and staring out into the dark void of the woods surrounding the cabin. “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move.” Fifty-one nights of pounding heartbeats and moist, nervous hands gripping the slick steel of the shotgun he held close to his chest. He didn’t dare sit, fearing even the slightest bit of comfort would make him vulnerable. He had to be ready to fight for his life, he needed to be alert. “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move.”
The descent into madness can be slight. So, much that one could begin that slow decline into mental turmoil and fail to realize the shift until it is too late to seek help. Crazed anxiety and paranoia stalked him begging him to come and join them in the dark corners of his mind. He was sure he wasn’t going mad, for fifty days he convinced himself of it. But on the fifty-first night of the fifty-first day, his certainty wavered and he wondered if the fear that kept him at his post every night was coming from madness corroding his mind or a true threat from beyond the cold glass that separated him from the night air.
He wondered if his constant solitude created a fertile bed for insanity to grow. He had come to the cabin to be alone, truly alone far from civilization and distractions. When he left the busy city encouraged by his agent to reacquaint himself with his artistic talent, this had been the goal. He wanted to find a space to create uninhibited. The cabin was to be the birthplace of his renewed dedication to his painting. And, it had worked. In the 427 days he lived in the cabin, he had managed to create some of the most astounding pieces he ever saw. For 427 days he lived and worked in the forest surrounded by beauty and the sweet silence of nature punctured with the sounds of the living earth.
It could be that 427 days of solitude is the limit for a healthy mind to survive on its own. That this is the threshold one shouldn’t cross if one wants to remain in control of his faculties. Maybe this is the number of days a mind can exist without any companionship before the imagination takes over and the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Maybe 427 days was his own personal breaking point and his psyche could take no more of the seclusion. But on the 427th night of the 427th day, he saw something that held him at the window for 51 nights to follow.
He had developed a routine in his time in the cabin. A delightful routine based solely on his own rhythm and schedule. That routine placed him in a rocking chair with lemon tea, reading as the skies darkened in the evening. Taking a moment to rest his eyes he stared out at the treetops just below the twinkling stars. He sat there staring with his book resting on his chest doused in his comfort and mused about the success of the decision to come to the woods when his world changed. Very slowly, like someone standing with a stiff back after sitting too long, a few of the tree tops began to bend from side to side. His sane mind told him it was a strong wind causing the trees to move that way. But in the fringe, those dark corners where madness and doubt go to play, his inner voice spoke and reminded him that the wind would disturb all the trees, not a sporadically selected few.
He shook from his comfort and stared with more alert eyes, waiting with his heart bouncing inside his chest. Again the trees moved in ways trees should not move and he jumped to his feet. There is truly nothing more terrifying than the fear of the unknown. In those seconds when something happens that cannot be deciphered, before the natural psychological reactions to fight or run can activate, desolation and vulnerability chills the blood and true terror takes over. For three hours and forty-nine minutes on the 427th night of the 427th day, he watched the trees move in impossible ways bending and relocating. And when they were done, the movement stopped so abruptly that he couldn’t be sure if he had imagined the entire thing.
He did not sleep on that 427th night. He could find no comfort in his mind that would allow him to shut down his senses for slumber. He sat at the window until the vivid sun broke free of the tree line, and then he sat some more. There was no one around for miles in every direction. Every few months a forest ranger would rumble up in a rugged SUV to do a well-being check on him and deliver supplies but the visits were very short. He had purchased a satellite phone for emergencies when he came to the cabin but in those moments when the clarity and safety of the dawn fell on him, he wondered what he would say if he used to phone to call someone.
He did not paint on that 428th day. He didn’t read, he didn’t write, he didn’t eat. He didn’t do anything more than sit and stare and wonder if he hoped to be going mad or if he hoped he actually did see the trees activated and moving around the forest. Neither scenario brought him any peace. Both were evidence of the end of normalcy.
Fifty-one days of chronic insomnia had thrown his health out of control. His head was searing with fever and cold chills from his constant sweating sent uncomfortable shivers up his spine so often his muscles began to grow sore. Each second that passed, as the day ticked away, was only a prequel to the evening when one or both of his fears might be confirmed.
Darkness began to fall as he watched, ridged and still from anticipation. The stars reigned unchecked here, with no city lights to challenge them for attention. The tiny twinkling lights he was used to seeing foolishly led him to believe they were all the sky had to offer. Over the dark forest, the thick battery of stars sloped so low the separation of the Heavens and Earth blurred. He rubbed his irritated eyes, dry from insomnia and his efforts not to blink. Tremors had sprung up in his hands from the deprivation but, he had to watch. He had to know for certain if he was losing his grip.
It was just past two in the morning when a strong wind began to ruffle the leaves. It sounded like a tidal wave rushing up to the cabin to drag it out to open water. The rush of air powered up his fear and he gripped his weapon. He watched the trees carefully and willed them to move. At some point, he had come to the conclusion his fear of insanity was greater than his fear of an unknown phenomenon. Nocturnal predators screeched and skittered their way towards their dinner outside the knotty walls of his cabin and he wished he could call out to them. Maybe the connection with something else desperate and determined in these woods would ease his tension. Then a chilling thought trickled up his spine, what if the sounds he heard were not of hungry animals at all? What if they were fleeing from the same unnatural thing that left him restless and alert at his window with a gun.
It wasn’t until a couple hours before dawn when he heard the rickety stiffness of bark began to stir. He pointed the rifle at the darkness outside of his window. Frantic energy flooded from his heart through his veins with hot urgency waking all the muscles that had slipped into stasis as he waited. They began to move, same as before, with laboring clunky motions that swayed their tops back and forth with the effort. Branches stretched and bent in the moonlight, knobby joints cracked crisp sounds against the night. He tried to point at them all swinging the barrel of the rifle, left and right. But, there were too many. He was an ant to their towering parade and they’d given him not even the slightest rumble of vibration to warn him of the start.
He didn’t belong here. It was possible that trees this old and remote were accustomed to stretching their limbs every once in a while to stave off the Riga Mortis of being stationary for so long. It was possible that there were some parts of nature where people simply shouldn’t go. These were the secret places where mother nature displayed her beauty in all its grand and glory. Where the sight of the Earth unleashed and unbridled would drive a man mad. If a tree falls in a forest with no one around, does it make a sound? He pushed that cynical question out of his head and focused his gun on the young trees twisting grotesquely just outside his cabin.
He backed away from the window still training his barrel at the pane. As their movements continued more trees begin to join in with the rebellious fauna. The sound of their trunks moving simultaneously stomped out an unbearable thunder that shook the loose wooden planks beneath his feet. He let the gun barrel drop slightly and pressed his free hand against one of his ears trying to filter the sound. He returned his hand to the gun steadying the barrel. They seemed to be closer now he could see their movements in the darkness like a wall of shadow demons taunting him before the kill. He was one David against a race of giant Goliaths and his Winchester pump-action shotgun was only a pebble in a slingshot.
Hopelessness should be ranked higher on the unofficial scale or emotions. We go through life thinking the strongest feelings humans are capable of are love and hate but hopelessness goes unnoticed. Losing hope is like expelling every emotion, every memory, every spark of consciousness in one long exhale. It sends your entire existence plummeting into an abyss of nothingness. Hope is what holds us together. It’s the reason we decide to keep going every day. It’s the stopper that keeps our will to live from seeping out. Hopelessness had found him standing there holding a shotgun with which he intended to stave off a forest of trees doing things that trees were absolutely not supposed to do. It crept up his legs swallowing them up in darkness as it went until it forced all of the air out of his diaphragm up and past his lips. A deep boom shook the windows of the cabin violently. What was to become of him? Crushed under the weight of a passing tree, entombed forever in a burial plot beneath ancient roots?
One of them had gotten close enough to scrape its spindly branches against the window and sides of the cabin. The scratching sounds were slow and deliberate like the trees intended to wage psychological warfare on him before they crushed him to death. More scrapes came from the opposite side of the cabin. The psychopathic tree brought a friend. Their branches carved out the contract guaranteeing his gruesome death and signed it with him as a witness to the authenticity. More branches begin to scrape surrounding him with a storm of trunk thunder and audible lighting being etched into the wood. The hopelessness reached his mind and he rationalized his likelihood to survive the unlikeliest of predicaments.
He never actually resolved to suicide. He did, however, resolve to sit down in one of his kitchen chairs. He resolved to give up on that carnal instinct of fight or flight. He resolved to do nothing and sit. The symphony of destruction outside the cabin continued on but there he was in the middle of it calm as an undisturbed lake. Hope must be awfully heavy because now he felt light enough to float away.
He had two choices, he could sit there and wait for the crushing blow of a massive tree trunk or he could skip to the end of his story with the assistance of a three-inch shell. He’d chosen to come here. This was a fate all his own resulting from his decision to escape to seclusion. He didn’t want the end of his life to be chosen by anyone else, not even a tree. He’d been alone when he fired the starting pistol on this entire adventure and he would be alone at the finish.
The scratching had grown so loud that it sounded as if the cabin was surrounded by a nest of grabby branches trying to feel their way to the door. He leaned forward and balanced the gun on its butt and placed the underside of his chin on the barrel. There wouldn’t be much of him to blow away now that hope had left him feeling flimsy and frail.
Christopher Renner had always thought of himself as a hybrid. He wasn’t quite human enough to fit into civilized society and not quite animalistic enough to survive the wilderness without assistance. He’d held his post as forest ranger of his stretch of the dense Boreal wilderness for twenty-five years and he knew there was no other place in the world for him. When he was still a rookie, fresh out of school, he’d trained in an area of the forest where tourists frequented for the scenic hiking trails and campgrounds and he hated every second of it. The forest felt tainted there. Stepped on and tarnished by the disruption humans bring with structures, artificial aesthetics and cell phone towers. He longed to be deeper in the woods where only the brave ventured seeking the most authentic natural experience possible.
When Mr. Milo Hanson checked in at his ranger’s station on his way up to the cabin he’d rented a little over a year ago, Christopher could tell immediately he wasn’t likely to last long out in the thick quiet of the forest. The man didn’t seem weak in the least bit but more than physical strength is required to withstand the unpredictable harshness of the great outdoors. Milo explained his desire for solitude to paint saying he needed to rediscover the creative spark he’d lost somewhere along his career. Christopher gave the man a few words of encouragement and told a few anecdotes about the writers and photographers who’d visited his stretch of the forest for the exact reason. He made sure the man had emergency instructions and his personal cell number to call if he found himself with a problem he couldn’t handle.
Christopher understood the need for seclusion better than anyone. When the rare traveler came to stay in his woods, he visited them sparingly to do safety checks as to not intrude on their space. He treated Milo just the same coming only once every few weeks to check in and drop off mail and supplies. When he visited, he always found Milo in good spirits. He always had a new impressive abstract oil painting to show him that Christopher didn’t entirely understand but could appreciate. When he departed he always reminded the painter that he was only a phone call away if he ever needed anything.
Standing in Milo’s kitchen staring at the dreadful display of brain matter and blood splattered over the walls and ceiling, Christopher wasn’t surprised. He wished he could say this was the first time someone had ended their life in that cabin and decades of service taught him it wouldn’t be the last. Milo was slumped over on the floor with the butt of his rifle sticking out from beneath him. He’d chosen to go sitting in a chair. Others chose to swing from the rafters with rope or re-purposed sheets. In the end, he guessed, it was personal preference.
The easel in the corner of the living space displayed an unfinished rendition of the trees standing just outside the front windows. The detail was remarkable. He wondered how long Milo had studied them to create something so exact. He left the body undisturbed and stepped back out to his truck. Christopher called the coroner and Milo’s emergency contact number he collected on his arrival. Once he was done he stood for a moment in quiet observation of the pleasant painter and his unfortunate end.
Christopher climbed into his truck and turned it in a wide circle to return to the ranger station. He looked over the worn log walls of the old cabin. Over time, erosion had carved gaping scratches into its wood. If those walls had a voice for one day, he thought, they would probably wail uncontrollably from all they’d seen. Yes, Christopher knew very few survived the harsh forest. Every day was a test of will, and every night was a test of sanity. His truck’s rugged, thick wheels spun in the dirt and Christopher drove away from the cabin leaving Milo in his secluded peace. He liked to think, the people who perished in the woods were awarded a special sort of paradise. Milo’s spirit would rest in the majesty of the wilderness he’d craved, surrounded by the enduring protection of the sturdy trees.