The words he tossed into the river were salty and brazen. Ancient, holy carcasses that often strangled him in his sleep. He let them drift like dead wood slipping into the current. They bubbled as he tossed, one by one—bitter, salient, half-truths. He watched as they frothed and turned inside out. As a boy, the words had made sense. As a boy, they clenched at his white knuckles and cowboy boots, and perverted his jaw when coming out.
The woods were denser than he remembered, high towers of trees onlooking the small cabin of his youth. The stream was a mere hundred feet from the wooden door left ajar that morning—thrumming and gurgling in the distance as he woke. His conundrum had become clear only the night before. Sitting in the middle of his father’s formation—tenuous logs assembled carefully over the span of years. A structure left both sturdy and vulnerable to winters.
On the wooden steps, he found a small bottle of whiskey hidden behind its panels, and began slowly sucking, letting the amber liquor loll on his tongue. His father’s voice was now gone. The harsh, punishing words he grew to know as a child were now inherited along with this cabin made of oak. He swigged more whiskey and listened to crickets bellow from adjacent trees.
His first reaction upon learning of the acquired estate was to burn the entire wretched thing down. Had it not been for his summers spent as a boy, building its walls and sweating through heat waves, or the memory of fires brimming with his mother’s laughter, the small encampment would have long been disheveled next to his father’s ashes.
Vestiges that accompanied him now, planked down on the other end of the deck in a bronze urn. He stared into the black thicket of the woods, letting his gaze turn surly and blank. The words had returned in full force since the memorial. They slipped from his subconscious with the ease of malt liquid. Bastard surged from his esophagus and flooded his veins like poison.
His father’s lawyer had been clear. Remains are to return to cabin upon death. The old man’s last request before succumbing to liver cancer.
Over twenty years had passed since last visiting the small structure. Now vacant—with only a few wooden shelves and tables lining the entrance. His face brushed a string of cobwebs as he strode through the doorway. Dirty dishes lay moldy and mottled in the sink. Cracked fishing rods left hanging on an old rack. At forty-two, he was no longer afraid. The crackle of leather belts no longer intimidated his six-foot frame. The old man had liked his drink strong, preferring the company of Black Daniel’s to his wife or son’s—its stench often seeping from his ample beard and woolen coat. And though his father’s derisive jeers had long vanished, their sacral remains were kept intact. The bequeathed words, both vile and surreptitious, had burrowed deep within his skin, leaving tiny indentures that were only assuaged when exposed to unsuspecting victims. At best, the words had found home in aloof waiters and passing motorists; and at worst, in his ex fiancé, who referred to him as having a disease of the tongue. “You’re just like him!” she shouted the night before moving out of their loft of four years.
* * *
It was the whiskey that jolted his memory of the deer. That fragile animal dragged by its furry legs and hung by antlers outside the lodge when he was barely six—a sizeable beast that stunk of death above chrysanthemums. His father had expected more of him that year, slapping his fixed blade along the deer’s sternum before peeling back warm flesh. Not flinching as he removed the internal organs. “You goin’ to stand there, you little bastard, or you goin’ to help your old man?” he sneered, clenching a raw lung in his fist. His father’s threats to do him worse had caused him to scramble for ice, before hastily placing it inside the deer’s cavity. Its blank eyes making him wince. Too afraid to cry out, he preferred stillness, measuring each breath to an inaudible sound.
* * *
His mouth now burned from the fermented brew, and he wondered how many years it had lain hidden behind the panels. The old man’s secret stash of booze was often kept hoarded away from his small prying hands. At ten, he squeezed fingers into the rotting wood, taking swigs of the hard liquor and making a beeline with his lips on the glass. Stealthily leafing through his father’s mint Playboys. From his understanding, the old man never suspected, or was too smashed to care.
After guzzling the remaining drops, he tossed the now emptied bottle into the grassy mound, and greedily reached behind the panels in search of old treasure. His hands rummaged through old cigars before grasping at a small envelope tossed into the dark space. Its dark yellow corners pricked his thumb under the moonlight. The time stamp on the paper caught his eye: 1978. He let the contents fall onto his lap, revealing a small child with cowboy boots staring up at his father in admiration.
* * *
That night he fell asleep in the open air, beneath stars and sky. Under the spittle of buoying algae, and dragonflies emerging from their eggs. An hour before sunrise, he was awakened by the muted sound of footsteps, causing him to stand breathlessly. The crisp noise quietly heaved toward him. A flash of antlers and glimmering of eyes fixed on his from the woods before quickly disappearing.