I named the monster Grendel because it resembles no godly creature on this earth and is an absolute terror to look upon. As big as a grown man, it shuffles across the ground with the gait of a Komodo dragon, draped in umber fur except for its face. That face! Its eyes like fireflies stuck deep in the sockets, flat white skin where a nose should be, gaping mouth perpetually slack-jawed. Grendel crawls just as easily up the bark of trees, and into the canopy of the Manitoba woods, where it watches. Always watching. Every time I go hunting, I turn to see those eyes peering down from the canopy, pale skin and open mouth, watching. Before I can react it scurries away—gone, leaving me alone with dark thoughts and a spooked bloodhound. Penny whimpers and curls into a ball of shaking surrender. I have to kick her and holler more and more every time. I go hunting without her, these days.
I am a hunter, and tonight I do just that. My rifle’s clean and loaded, extra shells in my rucksack. My cabin, a fortress, with a barbed wire crown, iron sheets bolted across every window. The smell of coffee fills my home as I sit on the edge of the recliner and stare, unblinkingly, at the television screen. The display is segmented into four boxes, showing black-and-white trees in various crooked angles. I only watch two of the boxes. Why? Because the other two are useless. Grendel moved them. It untied the straps and wrapped the camera around another tree, tying it back up again. It does this, you see, because it’s always watching. It always watches and wants me to know. After cleverness and schemes, and many long nights, I have two devices in their proper spots, unknown to the beast in the blackness. And so I gaze at the screen intently, forcing bitter sips from a tin cup, the midnight forest resembling sheets of white ice through the camera lenses.
Seconds fade into minutes fade into hours.
I turn on the stereo, the soothing sounds of Handel’s music helping the time pass. I almost smile. White trees, black shadows, white soil, fits of static. The soft cushions feel warm and inviting as I lean back, eyelids drooping. My rifle clatters to the ground but I hardly notice. The soft swirls of the symphony bring a mist to my eyes and I take one last glance around the cabin, my dimly lit refuge. Candles drip wax onto the table and Penny lies curled up by the television set, by the small quartered screen with the moving trees. Moving trees.
My eyes bolt open and I clutch the armrest, gaping at the telly. One camera is dragging, slowly, across the ground. The screen shakes, lurching through the woods in half-second bursts, showing skewed angles of trees and black quivering pine needles.
I pick my rifle off the floor and take a cold gulp of caffeine, fixated on the scene. I examine every branch, every rock, trying to make out the camera’s location, but the vague snowy shapes mean nothing to me.
Penny senses my discomfort and lifts her head, rumbling a concerned growl. I open my mouth to scold her but the words don’t come out. The camera stops moving, lifts itself from the earth, and captures the ghostly image of my cabin.
I scream. Penny shuffles away in a panic and I rush to the door. My foot slams into the wood and I find myself outside, the cold gnawing at my ears. I push the door closed behind me and bolt the lock with trembling fingers, turning to face the abyss.
Silence. My heaving, rapid breaths, framed by silence. As I blindly stumble forward, my feet echo crunching steps out into the night, giving me away. It’s watching, always watching. No point in being discreet. I reach up and flick the headlamp switch, projecting a circle of light into the black, onto rows and rows of bark and needles. Not fifty feet away rests the camera, firmly strapped onto a young conifer, glinting in the lamplight like an evil eye.
He’s watching. He always watches. I know this, it’s the only thing running through my mind as I lift the rifle and press the stock against my shoulder. I do not look down the sights, just hold the gun ready and scan the trees with naked eyes. Everything around me is pitch black except for the illuminated circle ahead, five or six trees at a time, fluttering branches, as I turn my head shifting the light.
That morning, I awake in bed to the sound of claws scraping against wood. I pull the knife from my mattress and tread quietly to the bedroom door, every creak of the floorboards making me cringe. I open it to find my hound scratching at the surface, whimpering. Her copper hide clings tightly to her ribs, legs shaking as she walks. She follows me to the kitchen where I fling open bare cupboards and an empty icebox. How long has it been since I ate? My stomach churns and complains, a dizzy blur creeping over my vision, as I pace to the living room and retrieve my hunting rifle. I continue to the cabin entrance and walk out into the blinding glare of the sun, latching the heavy lock on the door as I leave. Wind sings through the woods and shakes the timbers violently today, droning over the sounds of mine and Penny’s footfalls as we walk away from the house, down a game trail. Stupid fucking mutt, go home. I attempt to shout, but my parched throat sears with pain and I suffer a fit of coughing, hunched over, hacking up bits of blood-tinged mucus into the dirt. How long has it been since I drank water?
As I battle vertigo to stand upright, I feel the brush of fur against my skin, and thoughts of Grendel impart limb-rattling shivers. I strike out with my fists, thrashing the beast, grunting in the only manner my swollen throat will allow. World spinning, skull throbbing, knuckles bleeding, I straighten my back and lean on quaking legs to examine the creature. Streaks of blood mar the rust color of Penny’s pelt, with a purple bruise welling around one of her eyes, those defeated eyes, which pierce straight through my stomach and twist the guts. I cannot cry out her name as she hobbles away down the path, toward the cabin.
I turn and stride deeper into the forest, lifting my rifle to a ready position and gritting my teeth, as the sun dances across the sky in zig-zagging patterns. The horizon bends and dips, curving and straightening, while nauseous bubbles wrench their way through my belly and up my throat.
I glimpse a mass of pelage nestled against a stump in the distance, and the hair on my neck prickles up to attention. Keeping my gun trained on the thing, I circle around carefully, silently. I spot the pink nose of an opossum and exhale with relief, lowering the rifle. Flies swarm at its eyes and the fetid stench assaults my nostrils, but I pull out my knife and cut it loose from the snare, taking a moment to gouge at the critter’s face, hollowing out its eye sockets like a jack-o-lantern. A jack-o-possum. I wrap the miasmic animal in a blanket from my rucksack, then stuff it inside.
Water streams from the bucket, down my throat, while my eyes scan the twilight sky and crisscrossing boughs of conifer needles overhead. My vision is clear, but the frigid grips of the oncoming darkness fade the details of my surroundings into obscurity. I push through the foliage in a frenzy, trying to outrun the dying light, when at last the dull glow of my cabin finds its way through the trees and my steps quicken, grip tightening on the wooden handle. I trample the last portion of brush and bolt into the clearing. My house stands immaculate, front door firmly locked, but Penny is nowhere in sight. Her usual spot by the corner is empty, her favorite elk bone sits unattended. I holler and pace a few laps, the welling sense of fear and concern making my fingers twitch. I can take it no more, it’s watching, always watching, I walk to the door and unbolt it, retreating into my shelter.
It’s cold tonight. I don’t use the fireplace anymore; I blocked off the chimney to keep Grendel out. No, I use the stove, and candles, and blankets. I can see my own breath as I curl up on the recliner, holding my rifle, staring at the television screen. White trees, black shadows, white cabin, black needles. I bring a hunk of charred meat to my lips and swallow the piece after two quick bites, malodorous steam clogging my throat and nose. I suffer it down with the aid of water and continue to gaze intently.
Movement. Two luminous bulbs appear on one of the cameras, attached to a mass of hair. Jitters creep through my neck, and down into my ankles. The monster crawls toward the lens on all fours. It does not move like Grendel, no—it’s Penny! I leap out of the seat and scramble to assemble my gear, knocking books and plates from the table as I swing the knapsack around my shoulders. I am still zipping up my jacket as I bust through the front door and sprint into the icy, howling blackness.
The whoosh of the air pervades the forest, a constant murmuring backdrop to the thud of my footsteps. The quivering mass of sky-needles above make me nervous. Always watching. The headlamp shines a tunnel through the woods, always fleeing from me, guiding the way. I chase it and chase it and chase it and hope that Grendel isn’t watching, but I’ve heard of things like false hope. Fall soap.
The camera winks at me when my light-tunnel meets it. I halt and glance around, swinging the bulb frantically, searching for signs of my companion. There’s nothing here but wind and rocks and bad thoughts, always watching, so I move toward a pile of stones on a whim. The mound gets bigger and bigger as I approach, almost as tall as me, with a cavernous opening on one side. The headlamp reveals a scattering of debris at the cave entrance. Bones. Various bones, picked clean, litter the earth leading into the darkness. I guide the beam into the cavern, illuminating grey walls, white bones, and a heap of chestnut fur. Penny lies sprawled in the dirt, legs fully extended, still as a rock.
I flee. Teardrops trail behind me as I wail and dash through the woods. Logs whip past, needles shake, and the earth shifts beneath me like a pile of soft clay. I hear a noise—a screech? a growl? Something awful and unnatural echoes from the canopy above. Ahead, in the distance, I see a light—a glimmer of hope. My legs and fingers and heart are numb as I crash through the bushes, into the clearing, toward the narrow band of light shining through the ajar cabin door like a beacon. I hurl it open and run inside, slamming it shut, clicking every lock tight.
I press my spine against the door and slide down its length, sitting on the floor, and let my rucksack fall. The soft candlelight soothes me and warms away the stress. I unpack my belongings, placing the rifle on its rack and my boots in the closet. Stripping off my clothes, I climb into bed and let my eyelids drop. As my head sinks into the pillow, and thoughts drift into limbo, a pang of discomfort tugs at my mind. My fingers clench the blankets tight, white-knuckled, and my eyes open wide. I stop respiring, and silently hold the breath in my chest, but the rattle of a breathing sound continues from the shadows of my room.