Zac B. Hancock
More Human Than a Human
Leaning, finger held gently on the trigger, with the breath of winter's kiss upon his face, caught within his sights a black dog. Mangy with patched fur, yellow eyes of amber like sap spit forth from cedar bark, and maybe in them the remains of a lost world was fossilized. But it could not see him or sense him and he pulled the trigger. Bullet tore through the dog's gullet, crimson mist, and then it was in the snow. Emerging from his place in the shade of brush and vine, slinging the rifle over his shoulder, lowering the goggles down from his head over his eyes. Bending down and laying a gloved hand on the dog's chest just below the fatal puncture. Blood leaked out over his gloves. He could feel a low, thumping and he could hear the dog gasping and sucking for air. Raising a boot up and bringing it down upon the dog's neck. Spine crunched under the pressure but he did it again just to be sure. He threw the carcass over his shoulder and started off, droplets of blood from the dog's throat leaving a trail behind him like bread crumbs. Hunkering down not far from where he'd shot the dog, he took out his knife and thrust it into the dog's chest. He gently carved through its sternum and down its belly, spilling out its intestines and when there was an opening he reached in and took out everything that was inside. He laid the contents of the dog's belly to the side of him in the snow. He worked his knife around the layer of furry skin and slowly, delicately, began to remove its hide to reveal its red, sinewy muscle beneath. Not much there but it would do. He sheathed his knife and drew his machete and planted a boot against the dog's shoulder while he swung with such force that the blade dug halfway into the dog's broken neck. Didn't sever the head completely, so he did it again. When it was hanging on by merely a few threads of tissue, he leaned down and bit into them, salty copper taste filling his mouth and running down his chin, and tore back and ripped its head from its body. He tossed it aside. He then tore off each leg, one by one, until he had all four of them stacked neatly in a pile in the snow. He took out his bag of salt and covered them before packing the snow around them. He then salted the torso as well and packed it next to the legs. He rose and started towards the forest to gather wood but then turned back. He stood there over the bloody snow starring at his work. Flakes of fresh powder descending upon him like artwork of the sky. Breath turning to smoke in front of him. Reaching up, he wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. Had gotten in his beard some but he'd wash it out later. He shifted his weight to the other side. He was looking at the legs and out from beneath the snow four padded paws emerged. Waiting and perhaps even thinking a little, he rested his hand on his machete. Decidedly, he approached the legs and bent down and with his knife cut off each paw and then tossed them one by one into the forest as far as he could throw them. Content that they were just meat now, he made his trek to find dry wood.
Later, once the sun was sleeping and the moon was prowling the sky with its thousands of shiny minions hovering around it, he sat by a pile of snowy wet wood, flint in his hand, leaning against his rifle as if it were a crutch. Wood was too wet and he wouldn't be able to get a fire started. He could barely get sparks from his flint. Curling up next to the mound of wood that was gathered with the intention of filling his empty belly but never would, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He shivered throughout the night for it was very cold. Breathing was like sucking in needles.
By the morning, sun just starting to make its rounds over the treetops, the dog meat was frozen and no good to him. Too heavy to carry and he wouldn't be able to get a fire going with the snow falling like it was. So he just kept walking until the ground began to curve at a rising angle and the big evergreens became more sparse until there was nothing but wet rock and mud with a fresh layer of powder from the night's snow. Climbing and climbing now, hands in the snow and on all-fours like an animal, he crept up the bloated terrain. Wind cutting into his face, sun blinded by the gloomy clouds, shadows cast across the forest below, looking down he thought he saw an army of thin black shades. Phantoms, souls from within the bark and deep down into the heartwood, exorcised forth and displayed before all who dared to look—though there were none—in the wake of this lonely mountain. Looking up, he imagined birds flying through the broken sky on skeletal wings stretched out and tugged by white tissue with a thin layer of glossy film over them, red muscles shining bright in the depressed land, echoing forth from its beak a song to all those lost so many miles behind. Thinking of himself now from the view of the bird, he would be one odd caricature as if thwarted onto a beautifully artful canvas and he being merely a black smudge. A fingerprint. An ugly mark left behind by the artist—by the creator. Be he the last of the grotesque marks, he knew not for sure, but he knew that he hadn't seen any others in a very long time. Maybe in forever.
But that would soon change as he found his way onto a gravel trail lined on both sides by wet, leafless bushes. He thought them creatures stripped of their skin. Partway down the path he heard footsteps. Something heavy, moving—running?—through the snow just off the side of the ridge. Broken branches soon followed and the rustling of winter-hardened pine needles. He crouched low, rifle out in front of him, butt pressed into his shoulder, eyes ahead. Waiting and watching. Waiting and watching. Watching, carefully, exhaling. Closer now. He took hold of the bolt and thrust it forward, slamming a shell into the chamber.
Out of the forest, stumbling onto the trail like a drunkard, came a man in a puffy green jacket with mittens over his ears. When the man saw him crouched with the rifle, he stopped. They watched each other for some time. Blue-green eyes like a stagnant lake and skin pale as white-wash. Boils rising up his neck from his collar and over one ear making it look bent and distorted. They did not move. Nothing breathed. Only the steady thumping of his heart gave indication that he was still alive. His eye was down the sights, fixed on the man, and his finger on the trigger, slightest movement and he would squeeze. Had before and he would again. One more body on the foundations of survival is one that he would be willing to add.
"I ain't one of them," the man said, slowly, sounding pained.
"I know you ain't."
"Why don't you put down that gun then?" he says, taking a step forward.
"Move another inch and I'll put a bullet in your fuckin head."
Nodding, the man retraces his step back. Eyes downcast at his boots for a moment, shifting his weight back and forth. "I ain't one of them."
"You said that."
"Then why you aimin that gun at me?"
"I reckon I'm gonna shoot you."
"Why would you want to go and do that? I ain't done nothin to you."
"You would've, if I hadn't of seen you first."
"That ain't true. I was just out here lookin."
"Oh yeah? What you lookin for."
"Dead. I killed it last night."
"Stomped it to death."
"Oh. Just a dog."
"Yeah, and you're just a man."
"Yeah. What are you?"
He thought about it for a moment. "The same, I guess. Human."
"Why'd you kill my dog?" There was sorrow in his voice that was queer—something like genuine sadness twisted with hopelessness.
"Would've killed me."
"It was just a dog."
"Yeah. You said that."
"You gonna shoot me?"
"Reckon I am."
"I ain't gonna do nothin. Let's just be calm, okay? Why don't we head on back to my cabin. I got a little cabin on up the ridge there. Just a little ways up. Not far."
"Not too far."
"About a mile or so."
"A mile or so."
"Yeah. I got food."
"You ain't got no food."
The man's lips begin to quiver. He starts bouncing from one foot to the other, teeth chattering, eyes watering and red, hands together in front of him, sweating and fiddling.
"You ain't got no food," the human says again. "And you ain't gonna get no more. That dog's dead."
"I got some pears, maybe. I think I do. A little left. In a can. I'm telling you."
"Which way is the cabin?"
"Which way is the cabin?"
The man turned and pointed north. "Not too far. Just up there. I'll show you."
"You'll tell me."
"You'll get lost."
He bit his bottom lip. Glancing down at his hands as if he were holding a deck of cards, the last deck he would ever hold, and he had to decide here and now whether he wanted to cash in or fold. Not much time in a place like this. Creeps up and you aren't ready for it when it does, though you've had those cards all this time, it just creeps up and you aren't ready and time-man-god just gobbles you up. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, coughed out something, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as spittle ran down his chin.
"Up the trail," he choked out. "Follow it. It'll curve at a big ole elm. Can't miss it. Take you right to it. Okay?
He nodded. "Ok."
"Now we go?"
"Now you go."
"I ain't got no food."
The man's eyes grew wide. "Oh God oh mister oh God oh please mister… you ain't gonna shoot me are you?"
"Reckon I am."
He squeezed the trigger and the rifle exploded, echoing for miles off the jagged cliffs.
• • •
Trail curving sharply, winding down into a place guarded by rising hills on either side, narrow, hollow, with jutting stones protruding out like faces pressing forward as if trying to pry out of the ground. Wind twirling through, carrying with it wisps of snow and howling an awful, mournful sound. Like the voice of the damned in an endless chasm of rock and earth. This was a path seldom walked and often trekked. Black mud-snow layered over frozen soil that hadn't ever produced anything living. Carrying the man's carcass slumped on his shoulder, he bowed to the dreary way and began moving, each step taken carefully and his eyes ever watchful for falling rocks. A heap of snow slid from the top of the hill and fell a yard away from him. Rocks, two, three, the size of golf balls, rolled down on the other side. Unsteady, uneven, he felt as if man did not belong here. Slipping on a patch of ice, reaching up and grabbing hold of one of the boulders leaning from the hill, he felt its cold flesh through his glove. Too much weight. He threw the man's body down onto the snow and bent down and began to remove the clothes. Casting the jacket aside, pants, long-johns, and all, he kept only the boots. A naked heap of pale, bleeding deadness was draped over his shoulder, eyes still open, mouth curled in a scream that would never come, face half gone. Down, then coming up again, around a formation of gray stone with a fallen pine stretching mournfully out across the path. Up ahead, he could see the cabin amidst the collection of saplings. Gravel driveway with a rusted truck parked, tires flat to the rim, windows cracked and busted, like something from another world—another life. A cozy little homestead, so homey that it seemed almost eerie, and he approached it with caution. Layered redwood and brick, black shingles with many patches made up the roof, barred windows welded in place by a being that was not well trained in the art. The door stood open and a mound of snow had gathered there. He sloshed through it and into the cabin. A fire was dying down in a hearth to his right. A table of oak with pewter bowls scattered across it. There wasn't a single morsel of food in any of them. The cupboards were against the far wall. He tossed the dead man's body onto the floor on top of a bearskin rug, and then began scrounging through the cabinets. Plates, cups. Nothing useful. No food. No water. He walked over to a pot sitting on top of a gas burning stove. He turned one of the brown knobs. Nothing happened. He leaned down and sniffed. Smelt nothing. He opened the oven. Nothing inside. Moving over to the fireplace, he took some of the firewood stacked neatly beside it and began feeding it. Once it was warm enough, he took off his gloves and shut the door. He laid his rifle and pack onto the table, knocking off the bowls and plates. They shattered into pieces on the floor.
Smells like shit.
Been here for a while.
Maybe years, just hiding here. A man with no purpose or place.
Just here, where he was before.
Dangling from the threads of a memory.
There was no light in this house. Candles without wicks. Only the dim glow of the fire casting its orange hand out across the ugly yellow papered walls. Stained with some dark liquid, blotches of aggression, tainted with too much rigor. Dried feces scattered across the wood floor. Yellow stained tiles in the kitchen from dog urine. Sink filled with black, mucky water. Staring down into it, he could see the whole world. Just in this sink, amongst this stagnant filth, was the world entire.
"Hello?" he said, stumbling away from the sink and over to the table where his rifle lay. "Hello?" picking it up and holding it out. Now he thought he could hear the wind. Could hear the wood crackling in the hearth. Could hear his heart thumping and his own breathing, quick and raspy.
Movement. Something was moving back there.
Down the hallway, just a ways. The back room? He edged around the table and took aim at a door at the far end of a dark hallway. He could see, faintly, light from under the door. Candlelight.
"Hey!" he yelled.
He crept forward, feeling his hands becoming sweaty against the gun and the hairs on the back of his neck rising to attention. He didn't want to go down the hallway. But there he was, walking into the darkness, eyes fixed on the light beneath the door. "Hello?" he said again. How many times had he said it? Again and again, but nothing spoke. Had heard something, hadn't he? A voice. Yes, there had been a voice. Something had spoke. Spoke? No, something had groaned.
A shadow moved across the light.
Panic swept over him and he squeezed the trigger. Wood splintering and old, rusty hinges giving way, the door flew open. He could see now a candle sitting on the floor in a puddle of hot wax. No, hundreds of candles. A bed in the center of the room with blood-stained sheets. Chains bound around bed posts. Four in all. A tin pail sitting next to the bed on the floor, overflowing with greenish vomit. After a moment, the smell reached his nose, stronger even than the gunpowder, and he coughed and choked, bringing his hand up to his face and covering it. Turning, he rushed back to the table and reached into his pack. Sifting through the array of collected items, he brought out his bandana and tied it over his face.
Christ, there's someone in there.
Oh God, there's something in there.
Breathing heavily. Chest rising and falling. Rancid odor still reaching his nose and he was feeling his stomach threatening to hurl and he leaned over and began to dry heave for there was nothing for his stomach to throw up. He sat the rifle down on the table and took his pistol out of its holster. Pulling back the hammer. Crisp clicking as the bullet was forced into the chamber. Still, crackling of firewood behind him and wind beating against a screen door somewhere—in the back?—but there was nothing else. Ears still ringing from the blast. He took a step into the dim, candlelit hallway. Old wood creaking beneath his feet as if alive and wincing from the weight of his boot. It startled him and he jumped back. He leaned against the wall, trying to compose himself. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. From out the window in the den he could see that it was getting dark. Turning back to the task ahead, he aimed the pistol in front of him, towards the open door. Walking on the soles of his feet. Walking on pure instinct, fueled by fear, heart pounding—a steady thump thump thump—and somewhere deep within him was the slightest hint of curiosity. Too much of a human emotion for him, but it was there, nonetheless.
Standing on the edge of the threshold for several moments. Taking deep breaths now. He stepped over and into the room. Stench very foul. A vanity against the wall beneath a shattered window, cracked glass, various pieces of jewelry scattered across its stained top. Drawers hanging open, empty. A brush with silver hair in it. A closet door stood open, only darkness inside.
"There's nothing here," he said. Walking around the bed to the bedside table, kicking away the pail of vomit, daring not to look inside, he reached down and picked up an old, tattered book. On the cover were the words: KING JAMES VERSION, and beneath that were HOLY BIBLE. WORDS OF CHRIST IN RED.
A sound then like metal dragging across wood.
Just at his feet.
His eyes slowly turned south and there, just below him, was a link of chain. It ran from the closet to under the bed. His eyes followed it both ways. He let the book fall onto the bed and pointed his pistol at the closet. Chain moved slightly again. Attached to something. Something moving. Something alive.
"Hello?" he called into the closet. "Come out."
He leaned down and carefully—very, very carefully—lifted the chain. He tugged it gently. "Come out," he said again, one hand holding the chain and the second pointing the pistol at the closet. Shaking so badly that the gun threatened to fall right out of his hand. He tugged again on the chain, a little harder this time. Attached to something solid. "Shit," he said. "Oh shit oh shit." He moved to the closet, edging, creeping, every bit of him screaming and pulling him away. "Shit shit shit." He kept the chain in his hand as he went forward, slowly rising up to a standing position, pistol at the darkness, mouthing shit shit shit.
Standing just outside of the closet darkness now. Just standing there. Lips quivering. Prying them open, he whispered, barely audible, spittle slipping down over his chin: "Hello."
Clenching his teeth together he yanked the chain with all his might and pulled the trigger, chain tearing loose from something and the light from the fire blowing out of the barrel temporarily lit up the closet. He stood there, dumbfounded. He lifted the broken chain up to his face. Had been mounted to the wall. Old, rusty screws holding it in place. He brought a candle around, ignoring the burning wax leaking over his fingers. He offered it to the darkness of the closet. Closet, as if slyly smiling, offered nothing but an empty clothes rack and, against the wall, a place where two screws had been drilled in place but now tore up to reveal insulation. A hole above that where the bullet had entered. Nothing more.
He lowered his pistol and dropped the chain, smiling to himself at having been so afraid. Turning, not looking anywhere, really, but thinking himself safe now, he never saw the woman creep out from under the bed, crawling on all fours, chain wrapped around her neck. Hair iron-gray, silvery, eyes black and empty, skin green and missing flesh over her right cheek to show jagged teeth and rotting gums. Fingernails a yellowish-red, blood stained, tainted, horrific. She let out a scream, his back turned to her, and she lunged forward, wrapping her arms around him. In his panic he pulled the trigger, firing a hole through the floor and tumbling onto his face. His head smashed into the floor and his vision blurred. The woman was screaming and screeching and clawing at him, crazed and frantic, vicious and wild. He managed to turn over and bring his arms up to block his face from her blows. He brought his feet up and rolled, bringing himself into a sitting position and her in his lap, he slammed both fists into her breast, throwing her back into the wall. Scrambling now, looking for his pistol—where did I drop it?—he lost his balance as he was walking over a pool of wet candle wax. Feet above him and staring at the ceiling now, sharp pain jolting through his back, he smelt something catch fire and he turned just to see the curtains over the busted windows ignite. Woman standing over him, green ooze dripping from her jaws, the hole in her face, out of her nose, ears. Fire shot out across the walls as it burned through the wallpaper, the many candles helping it spread, and soon the room was filled with black smoke.
His pistol was against the wall, too far away. She came down, mouth wide and eyes empty, and he rolled out of the way but she managed to scrape her claws across the back of his neck. He grimaced and his hand went to the fresh wound, warm blood seeping over and through his fingers. He backhanded the woman, fist clenched, and he heard her jaw break as she fell onto her back.
Running now. Nothing else but run run run. Run! His eyes were on the rifle on the table in the den. So far away. She was screaming again and back on her feet. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw her standing in the doorway, shadowed by the flames, nothing but a dark silhouette of what she might've once been. He grabbed the rifle with both hands. He turned as she was coming down the hallway, arms outstretched, nothing in her eyes or mind, screaming. He squeezed the trigger. Click.
Cock it, you fool!
He reached down and yanked the lever.
She stumbled, her leg breaking and bending forward, blood—so much blood—poured out, soaking the floor. Walls stained that color, he knew now. Bed stained that color. House stained that color. World stained that color.
The bullet blew part of her head off and when she crashed onto the floor the rest of it cracked open and began leaking like a rotten pumpkin.
• • •
As an effigy.
Head warm and itchy. Eyes red and watery. Watching the house burn down from a good, safe distance. Over his lap he held his rifle. Lungs fill with black smoke. Probably could be seen for miles if there was anything to see it. So hungry now, but would not eat. Not anything to eat. Handful of snow. Dripping down his beard. He thought: this house that's burning is a eulogy, final markings, last carved, eternally after but never remembered. Soon to be nothing but black, charred remains. Snow will come and cover it all up.
Days still left, so he walked some. Mostly he was too feverish, but he walked when he could. Moved when the burn would allow him. If only a moment to keep moving. If just one more step. Maybe he thought that the further he got away from the burned house the further he'd be from the inevitable. Always had been inevitable though, hadn't it? Some say we're born into the grave.
Sleeping wrapped up in his jacket next to a wet pile of wood that would never offer him heat, he dreamt. When he awoke, he would not remember it. But while he was dreaming, he saw it all too clear. Hills flowing green elevated with blue-yellow flowers and swaying trees with leaves so bright and above, in the heavens, a sun opened its eye and there was warmth on the earth again. A white-spotted newborn fawn skipped clumsily out into sight, waited, watched. Above, in the sky amongst the clouds, a flock of bluebirds soared, singing beautifully. A soft song, a proud song, an old song. He was watching the fawn. Legs too long and body too small but there it was, shaking and odd in this stillness. Should be running. Should be fleeing but it wasn't. There was nothing for it to run from and it knew no fear. In his dreamy wisdom he knew that he could walk forever and he'd never find a being of his own likeness. He'd find only serenity, a delicate, prosperous land unknown to anything now living, and though he may search, in life or death, he knew—only then and soon forgotten—that this place wasn't meant for him and he wasn't meant for it.
Eyelids sliding open, chest hurting, mouth letting forth a groan. On his knees he spewed green liquid out onto the whiteness of the forest's belly. He saw in it, next to a group of tiny air bubbles, a single tooth with blood that sat on top of the green. He reached into his mouth. Bloody fingers. Behind his head he scratched, peeling back the skin where the wound had been taken from the fingernails of…
Not much had changed. Standing outside a deserted town where cars were parked half onto the sidewalk and windows were busted out of the various stores that lined the streets, he knew that nothing much had changed. He started off down the street, slick with black ice, rifle over his shoulder. Coughing. Hacking. A withered corpse sat half frozen up against a wall. Above its head, written in red spray paint, was: ALL DEAD HERE. On a billboard over all the town was a smiling face of a man in a suit looking very handsome and trustworthy. Looking like someone whose hand could be shaken. Written across the sign in big, bold white-paint letters were two words that had been pushed together to form one.
A newspaper clipping caught in the cool wind's grasp danced out over the road and just over his boot. He watched it float down an alleyway and out of sight. His rifle was in his hands. Now he was sitting down. Throbbing. Hurting. I shouldn't know how to do this, but I do. I shouldn't know how to stop this, but I do. If he had remembered his dream, maybe he would've thought of the fawn. He would've thought of how the fawn had kept on living, years, and produced its own. Lived even when it shouldn't have lived. Lived even when it would've been easier to die. Looking into the rifle, he thought: it shouldn't be this easy. But here, even now, not much had changed.
"Put that gun down."
A man was standing not ten yards in front of him. Shotgun against his shoulder.
"I said put it down."
He set the rifle aside.
"I ain't got no food," he said.
"I know you don't. What are you doin out here?
"Same thing you are."
"Reckon so," the man said.
"You ain't got no food."
"No," he said. "I ain't got no food."
He leaned back on his haunches. "I ain't one of them."
"You got blood on your hands."
Glancing down, he saw that he did. He leaned over to a nearby puddle and let his hands into the icy water. He rubbed them until the blood was gone. He showed them to the man, palms out.
"Yeah. You gonna shoot me?"
"Reckon I am."
He stared into the man's eyes. Gray and plain.
"Good. I was gonna do it myself."
"I'll save you the trouble."
"I wasn't gonna hurt you."
"Maybe you was. Maybe you wasn't."
"What you got in that pack?"
"Nothin. You gonna shoot me now?"
"Reckon I am."