This is a simple story: a path, a predator.
Here is your bloodred coat. Here is your basket of treats. You know the rules. Good luck out there.
First: the path. A magnificent slick black double serpent that cuts through the land and races between cleaver-sharp slices made into hills, revealing the skeletons of ancient beasts who used to look at this emptied landscape and think, this will always be mine.
But this is not a landscape anyone but time can own in the end.
White staples of fluorescent paint catch in your headlights and streak like fireflies or comets underneath your wheels. Meteoric bursts of light mark the fiery passage of other vehicles for a while, though later there will be nothing but your own searching high beams. And, of course, the darkness beyond.
There is no moon in this story. But there are stars.
Second: the predator. Classically, a wolf, if we insist on being literal about it. Rangy legs, scraggly gray fir. This is not a well-adjusted, social animal, well-fed on the meat brought down in the spirit of the community; an animal spiritually nourished by romps in the starlight with younger cousins and nuzzles from older relatives. This is a different kind of wolf altogether—a hungry, desperate one.
You can’t see the wolf yet because you don’t know you’re supposed to be looking for it.
And now you’re starting to get distracted. You can’t stop glancing out at the stars, which are high, hard, and ever so beautiful pinned against the glittering tapestry of the galaxy. You’re beginning to feel the pull of the silent, dark horizon.
You had started out at dusk, planning to drive through the night to avoid traffic. Point A: your college dorm room in a tiny town in the upper Midwest. Point B: your grandmother’s house, some 700 miles to the south, where your family is gathering for the holidays.
You sang along to the mix CD your roommate made you while the sun sank inexorably out of sight. A large midwestern city erupted out of the plains and its traffic made you swear. The city soon gave way to strip malls, gas stations, exits to state highways, industrial complexes, and then, at last, it was just you and the giant trucks and the indifferent stars again.
You’ve turned off your stereo now and pass the time by making lists of things you know: words in Chinese, animals that are blue, the names of flowers, brands of jeans you’ve worn.
It feels like a nothingness you’re passing through, though of course, that’s not the case. You’re just ignorant of all of the elemental ghosts your noisy contraption of metal and plastic is rattling in between. A mighty primordial forest once stood here (because—and this is what no one ever tells you—no matter how hard you try, you’re never really out of the woods), and before that, an ocean. Everything changes, though, and eventually fades away.
Except for the path, and except for the predator. Those two are shockingly constant.
You’re tired and you need to stop. So you do.
You’ve been traveling too long and you’re under the spell of the path. Now things are beautiful to you that you’ve never considered capable of holding beauty—the brightness of the neon red station logo against the night sky, the cheerful jangle of the bells on the glass door as you enter, the odd green cast of the artificial lights.
You use the toilet, and even this unremarkable release is exquisite. You find yourself full of a sleepy, overwhelming love for your odd, enterprising species that built this road, provided this toilet, dreamed up the wall of chilled, brightly lit bottles of sweetness and air in the store. The world is truly full of marvels.
You buy a soda even though you rarely drink them, hoping it’ll help you stay awake.
The wolf is watching by now, but you are not.
The wolf doesn’t make himself known to you until after midnight, when you’ve pulled over at a large rest stop near the state line. You’re alone, and you’re beginning to wonder if this overnight solo road trip hasn’t been a terrible idea. You’re just so tired, and home is suddenly a lot further away than you’d thought when you set out.
You need to go for a walk, stretch your legs, wake up a bit.
There’s a large pavilion with a concrete floor and a brochure of local tourist attractions your eyes are too tired to focus on. Theme parks, caverns, state forests, wax museums, several household objects purported to be the largest in the world. There are bathrooms and vending machines. Everything is very well-lit and a security camera is suspended overhead like Charlotte in her web, benignly watching over you. This is all fine, you think.
You do a few laps around the pavilion to circulate your hot, sluggish blood, and purchase a bag of chips. Your starlit high from earlier has worn off, and now you notice the faint scent of sewage from the restrooms. You see the crumpled cigarette butts scattered on the ground. Your eyes are uncomfortably dry and you feel ill at ease within your own skin.
You sit at a picnic table next to an overflowing trash bin that smells like dead flesh and stare out at the no-man’s land beyond the rest stop. You’ve flown over this stretch of the country before, and you’ve seen the jeweled clusters of cities and towns that bulge out of the cracks between the neat green squares of pasture and farmland out there. That endless expanse you gaze into now can’t be as endless as it looks. You know it has boundaries.
But you still wonder how far back this unpopulated shadowland stretches, if perhaps this broken, burning world still holds a mystery or two after all. And you—stupid child—take a step toward it.
And that, of course, is when the wolf finds you.
And sure, maybe I’m being unfair to the wolf here. It can’t help what it is.
And maybe it means every word it whispers to you. It’s true, after all, that the wolf is all alone in its starlit kingdom, black and unknowable behind the bright lights of the interstate. Maybe it really does want to show you some of the wild, savage beauty to be found there.
It is a very lonely animal after all, and you are such a good listener.
But still, why do you do it? Why do you allow this mangy carnivore to strike up a conversation with you in the concrete pavilion outside the rest stop somewhere in this nowhere world vaguely south of Des Moines?
Is it because the wolf’s eyes are so big and sad? Does something in them spark a wild filigree of something inside you that you haven’t been tending to? Is there a buried feral chaos at your core that won’t help you succeed in school, won’t attract friends or lovers to you, won’t prepare you to enter the workforce, won’t help you maintain your fitness level or your macronutrient ratios?
Because you, like this predator, are hungry for something. And you and the wolf stare at each other, wondering if what you need is locked inside the other.
And this is how you leave the path.
I lied earlier, you know. There is a moon in this story. There’s always a moon. You’re just not seeing the blacker-than-night disc occulting the stars. This moon shines a different light. No pale, silvered reflection of the sun here, but a dark light that tugs in all the right places, and the wolf feels it. And so do you.
And so you’re gone, astride the back of this hungry, anti-social beast you found outside the bathrooms at a truck stop.
What happens next is unclear.
There’s the obvious version, of course: a seduction, then a rending, a black pool of your heartsblood oozing from your torn throat and seeping into the earth beneath the glassy gaze of your sightless eyes. Animal attack, serial killer, suicide, who can say and who would care how the wolf finally showed itself to a naïve young woman on her own in the middle of nowhere?
But the empty spaces of this vast and impossible country, which you’ve pledged your allegiance to but which certainly never belonged to you, will never give up all their secrets they keep tucked in the blank pockets between the lines of your road atlas.
One of those secrets has you in its jaws now, and your red coat is in shreds on the dark ground. But above you, you see the stars, and you see the dark moon, or rather you feel it in the pit of your stomach, an aching, beautiful pull that tethers you to this monster.
And maybe the wolf is devouring you, but maybe there’s another interpretation. Maybe the wolf is on the ground, between your thighs, and maybe you are fucking your monster back down into the ground. Maybe you are the one who’s doing the consuming under this cold black moon.
Because this shit gets really slippery, as you now know, once you step off the path.
Here are the facts. A young woman arrives at her grandmother’s home in a red coat that’s far too warm for a southern climate. She is embraced and welcomed into a house full of light, love, and warmth. This young woman will grow up. She will have many more adventures, and the path is always right there underneath her feet, unswerving and dependable, right until it deposits her old, lifeless husk at the doors of the crematorium. A full life. A good life, well-lived.
Is she you? Or me? Depends on how you’d like to tell this story to yourself. I don’t mind, either way.
But here’s another truth. You, the shadow-self monsterborn I left behind in the tall grass that used to be a forest that used to be an ocean, are still there, loping along the spines of low empty hills under a dark sky. You’ll hunt along the edges of the world you’ve given to me until you find someone stupid, lonely, or lucky enough to follow you back into the woods.
It is a difficult existence. You are lonely, and ever so hungry.
But it’s more complicated than that. Because it’s also beautiful. You see it all, the flare and fall of the highway, the swell of the hills, the gradual weathering away of all rock and life and blood and salt back into elemental truth.
You are just so hungry. You’d like to devour everything you see.
And my, what big eyes you have.