CHAPTER FIVE — THE CLEARING
The domed tent, bright blue and new, stood shining in the sun. Two fiberglass rods stretched the shiny fabric so tight it appeared ready to split, like a tick, swollen and gorged with blood. Nate had hurried into town before the stores closed last night and purchased it on his brand new gold card. This was its “maiden voyage”, so to speak. He had never set up a tent before but, after some initial struggle, he had managed quite nicely.
Nate had then gathered firewood and was building a small fire in the same spot the mysterious stranger had chosen, while Zelda stood gazing at the view. She was dressed in a sweatshirt and cut-off denim shorts. Her legs were lean and bronzed. To Nate, she looked as though she belonged perfectly in this scene. She brought a sense of solidity and attainability to what would otherwise have been a setting so lovely as to seem surrealistic. It was as if a brilliant landscape artist, not quite satisfied with the picture, had decided to add a winsome, but haunting figure in the foreground to bring it to total perfection. At least, he decided, if he were painting it, that’s what he would do.
He had had a bit of trouble convincing her to come. When he told her of the clearing, with its spectacular scenery she hadn’t been particularly impressed. It seemed that vast open landscapes didn’t affect her the way they did city-bred Nate.
“How do you feel about camping there for the evening? Just the two of us alone in the wilderness.” He proposed.
It must have appealed to her romantic side. Whatever the reason, he was glad she had agreed to come, because she had been just as taken with the clearing as he had that morning. A gasp of stunned surprised escaped her and she had wandered over to the middle of it, dropping her backpack along the way. Shielding her eyes with one hand, she cocked the other on her shapely hip and turned slowly from side to side, taking in the entire view.
“This is incredible!” she said in an awestruck whisper. Beaming happily at him, she walked across and wrapped her arms around his neck. “We are going to have a marvelous time here. Honey, I’m so glad we came”.
Nate was thrilled to hear she liked it because he thought the trip through the cornfield hadn’t made nearly the impression on her. It hadn’t dawned on him, but coming, as she did, from a farming community, this was not the first time she had immersed herself in the corn. On the way over, she told Nate how, as children, she and her friends used to play hide-and-seek in the cornfields.
“It was a wonderful place for hiding,” she had recalled. “All you had to do was take a few steps over in the corn and it was like you became invisible.” To demonstrate, she had suddenly dissolved from view and left Nate helplessly calling her name. When she had failed to reappear, Nate began to grow nervous.
“Okay, honey, come on out now”. He had tried to keep his voice calm and measured. “I see what you mean, but we’ve got to get going if we’re going to set up camp.” He listened carefully, rotating in a slow circle to search through the cornstalks. The only sounds were the slight breeze stirring the corn and some crows sending their harsh, sharp cries from somewhere in the distance. Nate had looked up through the stalks at the slate blue sky and waited.
Suddenly, the thought had occurred to him that she may not be playing a game anymore. He had remembered those footprints from before, and his palms had begun to sweat. He’d swallowed hard and walked a little farther down the path.
“Zelda!” he called, struggling to remain calm. This had gone on entirely too long now. If she was in danger, he’d better be doing something pretty fast to help her. He had walked back to where she’d left the path. Still, there was no sign of her. His heart had begun to race, and he had pried two stalks apart, forcing his way into the corn.
“Damn it, Zelda this isn’t funny anymore!” he’d yelled tersely, and in a moment, she’d stepped out behind him. When she had tapped him on the shoulder he jumped and emitted a surprised little squeak.
She stood laughing as he gave her an angry look.
“Don’t do that.” He had said simply, and she knew he meant it.
“Darling, it’s just a game,” she had protested, “What’s wrong? Hey, this place really has you spooked, doesn’t it?”
He had snorted. “Me? You’re the one who wouldn’t come out here unless I brought this.” His hand had touched the handle of the chrome plated .357 Smith-and-Wesson, where it rested in a holster, strapped to his belt. “Besides, I’m just being cautious… that’s all.”
When they’d arrived at the clearing he showed her the hobo’s camp and it was obvious that the owner hadn’t returned. It was just as Nate had left it the day before, and the fire had long since grown cold. That had made Nate feel a little better. Apparently, his theory about the hobo had been correct. The man had spent an evening or two here and then moved on. Nate hadn’t had much experience with hoboes, but apparently, they shared a common trait with homeless people in the city: the only thing you could count on them for was to not be around long.
As the fire crackled into existence, Nate could hear Zelda moving around in the tent. When he stood up and turned around he saw she had laid out a picnic lunch and spread blankets over the cornstalk mattress the previous tenant had left. The basket of cold chicken and baked dinner rolls, with a cool bottle of wine, nestled on the brightly colored cloth, made for a picturesque scene. Nate smiled as he took it all in.
Just then, Zelda emerged from the tent… naked as the day she was born. Her long auburn hair flowed softly over her shoulders as she stood, shining white in the sun. She bore an air of confident womanhood and gazed shamelessly into his eyes.
“What the — what’re you doing?” Nate stammered. His voice sounded surprised, but far from disappointed.
She straightened her graceful back and stood with her hands on her hips, haughtily thrusting her bare breasts toward him. “Who’s going to see us?” she asked huskily. “Besides, it’s your land, your field… and I’m your woman.”
His breath quickened as he watched her walk lithely over to the blankets and stretch out, seductively, beneath the tree. The summer sun dappled her body with patches of shade as it shone down through the branches above her.
In a heartbeat, he shed his clothes and was beside her, enfolding her in his arms. Never in his life had he wanted her more. He found it remarkable that, after five years of marriage, she could still kindle this kind of passion within him.
When he entered her, it was slowly, each of them savoring the feeling of completeness, the joining of their bodies and spirits as one. She moaned softly and moved beneath him to match the rhythm of his body. The magic of this place, the total freedom of the surroundings, the warmth of the sun and the fragrance of the air — all combined to sweep them away in a torrent of ecstasy that precluded all outside influences of sight and sound. They were totally alone for the first time in their marriage, and each was determined to derive the utmost pleasure from the experience. There was a finality in their lovemaking, the sense of a circle closing, a coming home of sorts. They were closing one chapter and beginning another, exciting new one. Joining together beneath this tree, they were confirming, on a level not quite subconscious, that the troubles they’d had in the past were now over and forgotten. They accepted each other as they accepted their new life and the commitment they must each make to it.
When it was over, Nate lay beside her feeling the cool breezes wash over his skin and gently tickle the hair on his legs and buttocks. He stroked her forehead lovingly and gazed into her dark eyes.
“This is where we should’ve spent our honeymoon,” he murmured dreamily.
“Mm.” She lay on her back gazing up at the leaves. Taking a deep breath she said, “Don’t worry, Honey. We’re going to have plenty of time to travel. Our whole life is going to be one big honeymoon, from now on.”
“Hey,” he scolded. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”
She laughed and hugged him tightly.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in dreamy conversation and gentle, lingering acts of love. The couple was experiencing a closeness they had never shared before, and neither of them wanted to do anything to break the spell. As afternoon turned toward evening, however, the temperature began dropping and they felt the need to clothe themselves. September in Indiana consists mainly of warm, sunny days, followed by cool nights, heavy with dew.
“The fire’s going out,” Nate observed, tucking his shirt into his pants. Pulling his hiking boot on his right foot and hopping on his left, he picked up the two remaining logs and dropped them into the fire. In a short time, they would be blazing happily. He stood by the fire, gazing out across the fields. The beans had reached maturity and were patiently awaiting the harvest. In fact, as summer was winding down, everything was nearing its time. The corn stood ready for the picker and the trees were preparing to change into their colorful fall outfits. The insects buzzed loudly, singing quick, succinct songs that matched their short lives. He was filled with a contentment he had never known, and something else — a deep, satisfying optimism about the future.
“You know something, Zelda?” he said suddenly; and again she noticed that childlike excitement in his voice. “I’ve been thinking. We’ve got plenty of dough, right?”
“Uh-huh.” She replied cautiously.
“So we don’t really need to rent out these fields to old Sam Burchill, do we? I was thinking that maybe next year we could do away with all this corn and let the land go back to pasture.”
“Well, then we could get some horses and start, like, a riding stable. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Horses!” she laughed. “You don’t know anything about horses, Nate Malone. I think all of this money is making you a dangerous man.”
“Well, maybe I haven’t thought it through, but it’s something to think about, isn’t it?”
She gave no answer but sat shaking her head in wonder.
“That’s the last of the wood.” He glanced around the clearing.
After a couple minutes of searching, Nate walked to the tree under which Zelda, now sat fully dressed.
“I can’t find any more on the ground,” he told her. “Maybe there are some dead branches I can break off of these trees.”
“Just don’t mess with this one,” Zelda warned him. She pointed to a branch about twelve feet above her head.
“There’s a hornets’ nest in it… there, see it?”
“No,” he said, squinting up into the tree.
“There, in the crotch of this branch. I’ve been watching the hornets buzz around it all afternoon. It’s a big one, isn’t it?”
Nate moved to the other side of the tree where he could look without staring directly into the sun. Standing on tiptoe and leaning against the trunk of the tree, he strained to focus his eyes on the mass that hung in the shadows above them.
Suddenly he gave a strangled cry of alarm and staggered back from the tree. Zelda looked up into his ashen face, and worry drove deep wrinkles into her forehead.
“What’s wrong? Nate, what is it?”
Rushing around to her side of the tree, he seized her by the wrist and yanked her to her feet. “We’ve got to get out of here!” he said. His voice sounded strangely tight and his eyes were wild. “NOW!” he barked at her.
Then, just as suddenly, he dropped her arm and took a few steps toward the bean field. He doubled over and vomited violently as he dropped to his hands and knees.
Now Zelda was frightened. She ran to his side and wrapped her arms around his waist, waiting for the wracking spasms to pass.
“Nate, are you alright?” She kept her voice low and even. It was the voice all women used on instinct when they were struggling with calamity. Restrained and desperately rational, it strived to shout down the inner voice of panic and compel by force of will, everything to be right with the world. It was the voice nurses used when a patient is suffering terminal pain — pain that neither they nor the medicines can do anything about. And it was the voice all mothers, even young ones, summoned up when their children have injured themselves and came running to present their bloody wounds, like trophies, to be healed. The voice said, “I know disaster stalks my world, but I will deal with it now, and the time for grief will come later.”
Slowly, Nate sat up and wiped the back of his hand across his lips. His eyes were red and watering and he stared sightless, straight ahead. He was visibly making an effort to pull himself together. With a shudder, he turned his anguished face to her.
“God, Zelda, that’s no hornets’ nest…” His throat worked convulsively as he swallowed several times rapidly. His adam’s apple bobbed like a cork on a fishing line.
Nate made a feeble effort to stop her, but she pulled away from him and ran to the tree. She leaned against the rough bark with her hands and craned her neck to see.
Wedged in the convergence of tree and branch, flies buzzing thickly about it, was the head and one shoulder of a man. The skin on his face was lividly white and the stubble sprayed across his jowls stood out deeply black by contrast. His eye sockets were dark with the squirming bodies of flies and his tongue protruded from purplish, swollen lips. The hair was spiked and stiff with dried blood. His arm, which nestled tightly against his cheek, stuck straight up into the air where the hand hung limply at the wrist. Beneath the branch, dark, sticky blood covered the bark in a large patch — ghastly moss on the south side of the tree. But worst of all, and the thing that finally brought the screams to Zelda’s throat was the slender strand of the spinal cord which hung down, swaying in the breeze, while a column of ants marched up and down its length like the stem of some grisly flower.
Her screams stopped only when Nate buried her face in the crook of his neck and held her tight against him. She clung to him feebly and sobs wracked her as she felt blackness closing in on her. She was going to faint and she knew it. A strange, detached voice from somewhere in the back of her mind told her to put her head between her knees…
That’s what they always did, didn’t they? When you’re going to faint, you put your head between your knees…
MY head? she wanted to know. Mine or the one up there? If you put THAT bloody thing between my legs, I WILL faint!
Dimly, she heard Nate’s voice, soothingly repeating, “It’s all right. It’s all right. Shhh-h-h… It’s all right now.”
Zelda’s screams had returned Nate to himself, and he rushed to take her in his arms and comfort her. Gradually she came around and he took her face in his hands and asked, “You okay?”
She nodded, but her eyes were drawn back again to the horror in the tree. “No!” Nate stopped her, pulling her back from it. “You don’t need to see it again.” He gently guided her back toward the tent as she pulled herself together.
Nate began gathering some things together and throwing them in the backpack. He talked feverishly as he worked.
“Obviously something terrible’s gone on here. Now what we’ve got to do is keep our wits about us and get back to report it to the authorities.” His voice sounded dry and colorless, like the narrator of some type of training film. “We’ll leave the tent and the sleeping bags for later. Are you ready?”
When he faced her, she noticed the pistol in his hand. It served to illustrate the point that the world had suddenly turned upon them. Their idyllic afternoon in the country sun had switched to a situation fraught with danger.
How quickly things could change! The rapidity of it made her head spin as she strove to cope with this abrupt shift in gears. She tried, bravely, to shake off the terror that threatened to force everything out of her mind. Suddenly, the only thing she wanted in this whole world was to be back down that path and home, safely, in her own kitchen. She wanted to tell this to Nate, but she was afraid to open her mouth, fearing she would erupt in another screaming fit. Apparently, though, he could sense what she was thinking and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She leaned into him, drawing on his strength. After a time, he gently eased away and looked directly into her eyes.
“Zelda, I need you to be strong. Can you do that? We’ve got to get back down that path, and it may be dangerous. But like it or not, it’s our only way back. Are you with me? I need to hear it, babe.”
Nodding, she stammered out a shaky “Y-yes.”
“Good girl.” He stooped and picked up his pack.
“Let’s go,” Nate said, and he led the way back into the corn.