Sunday, May 14, 2017

Howler

This story was originally published in Tickled By Thunder 28 (fall 2001). It is based on Screamer, one of the more original hikers we met  on the Appalachian Trail  in 2000.

Howler

"Says here all you need to do is add water," Joel said.

Serena unrolled her air mattress. "What's on the menu?" she said.

"We got three cheese lasagna, lemon chicken or macaroni and cheese.What do you want?"

"Mac and cheese."

Joel produced a fluorescent nylon sack from his pack. In the sack were freeze-dried dinners, nutrition bars rubber-banded together, oatmeal packets and dried fruits. Joel picked through the dinners.

"Here it is," he said. "All you need is water."

"You said that already," Serena said.

Joel sat in the cool quiet of the shelter and looked out to the forest. He and Serena were the only ones at the shelter. It was mid-afternoon. Joel noticed he couldn't hear the low hum of traffic.

A gray jay, smelling Joel's food bag, swooped from nearby pine to edge of the shelter's tin roof.

Serena sat at the edge of the shelter and searched her pack.

"I can't find anything," she said.

"What are you looking for?" Joel said.

Serena turned and said, "The mini coffee grinder. I can't find it or the coffee beans either. I think I forgot it. It's probably in the back seat of the car. All we got are hot chocolate packets."

"No coffee?" Joel said. He groaned as he got up and went to the picnic table with an armful of cooking supplies and set up the stove. He opened the fuel valve, but did not close it. When he lit it a ball of flame exploded in his face. He jumped back to avoid it.

"Turn the fuel down!" Serena said.

Joel did and when it simmered he opened the valve until the flame burned blue and even. He poured water in a pot and placed it on the stove. He heard a strange sound, like a scream, and at first thought it was the stove.

But then he heard it again.

"What's that?" Serena said.

"I don't know," Joel said, and stood up. "Sounds like somebody's in trouble."

Five minutes later Joel poured water into freeze-dried pouches and set the alarm on his watch.

A hiker appeared in the clearing. The first thing Serena noticed was his mane of black hair, thick, lilting half-curls past shoulder blades, and the equally thick, woolly beard which framed his ruddy face.
Joel saw shabbiness. Overalls stained a reddish brown, frayed straps, and a
gray cotton windbreaker. Holes and patches. No backpack. The man had an
Army-issue duffel bag with rags and t-shirts duct-taped to the one shoulder
strap for cushion.

The stranger wore the most beat up pair of Chuck Taylors Joel ever saw. Blackened, sooty stub toes poked through rubber. Serena looked the man in the eyes, deep, brooding in their sockets, brow

like a cliff ledge keeping them in shadow. His eyes were calm, and, to Serena's
surprise, alert, resolute and distant.

Joel assumed the stranger was homeless. He looked around to take survey of his belongings.

The stranger was the first to speak: "Have you seen my crow? He's gone, but I'm sure he'll return." He looked at Serena.

"Micro? Is that the name of a through hiker?" Joel said.

The stranger turned to Joel, looked him in the eye and then looked up.Then he screamed.

Joel stood up and away from the picnic table. Serena stayed.

"Are you all right? What's wrong?" Joel said.

"All right? All right? Nothing's wrong. I'm good." the stranger said.

"Then why are you screaming?"

"To call Him.To call crow."

"Who is crow?" Serena said. "Is he a hiker?"

The stranger laughed to himself and shook his head. Then he laughed again. "Well, yeah, I guess you could call Crow a hiker.You'll see."

Joel's watch beeped.

"What's that?" the stranger asked.

"It's my watch. It's telling me it's time to eat."

The stranger shook his head and turned away. He spread a blue plastic tarp on one side of the shelter and unrolled two wool blankets on top. Joel joined Serena at the picnic table.They ate in silence.

The stranger sat on the edge of the shelter and watched them eat.

"Do you want any?" Joel said. "I've got more where this came from."

"No, thanks," the stranger said. "Too many preservatives."

"So, you out for the weekend, or longer?" Joel said.

"The woods are my home," the stranger said. "I go where crow leads. Mountain. Valley. River. Desert. Gotta go with crow."

"Well, we're just out for the weekend. A friend of ours thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago and has been trying to get us out here ever since."

The stranger nodded and smiled. He got up and disappeared in the woods behind the shelter.

Serena craned her neck looking for the stranger then turned to Joel. She
whispered, "This guy's going to be sleeping next to us tonight."

"What do you expect me to do? Kick him out?"

"No.You can't do that. Maybe we should move. Maybe we should set up our tent."

"Do you know how to set up the tent?"

"No."

"Neither do I."

The stranger returned with an armload of twigs and branches. He sat down next to the fire ring and laid three rocks at his feet in a triangle. He took a pinch of cotton like fabric and a single match from a pocket in his overalls, placed the tinder along with some pine needles in the center of the rock triangle, lit the match and set it afire, creating a neat column of light and smoke.

There was no breeze.

The stranger added larger pieces of wood until flame filled the triangle.

He reached into his duffel bag and got a round metal grate and a tin juice can with the top cut off. He took a two-liter plastic soda bottle and poured water into the can.

The stranger piled embers together with a stick and placed the grate on top of the charred stumps of wood, followed by the can. He put his cheek to the ground and blew gently on the embers.

"What are you cooking?" Serena asked.

"Creamy chicken ramen noodles.They're my favorite."

"Don't they have preservatives?"

"No." The stranger grabbed a couple plastic-wrapped noodle packets out
of his bag and as he crushed them against his chest he screamed again.

Another hiker came into the clearing. He was shirtless, bandanna wrapped around head. No beard. Clean cut. Military.

The new arrival nodded at Joel and Serena, but quickly turned his attentions
to the stranger. "I thought I heard you! Man, it's great to see you."

The stranger smiled, "Crow led you to me. We're gonna have good fire tonight."

"You bet we will."

Joel spoke up, "How are you doing? You guys know each other?"

The new arrival nodded his head. "Yeah, me and Howler go way back to around Waynesboro. Wasn't that about right?" Howler nodded through a mouthful of noodles.

Serena had never heard of Waynesboro. She wanted to ask if it was a town
along the trail, but didn't want to appear naïve. She knew it had to be at least
a day's drive from Kent.And she couldn't imagine the distance on foot.

"What's your trail name?" Joel said.

"Mudslide," Mudslide said.

Howler got up and disappeared into the forest again. Joel and Serena decided
to set up in the shelter, more secure in the presence of Mudslide.

Mudslide was still cooking dinner when another hiker appeared. He was older, short and skinny with long, straight gray hair, gray beard and wire-framed glasses.

"Is he here?" the man asked Mudslide.

Mudslide nodded. "He's out getting firewood."

"Is it true about the bird?" the new stranger, whose trail name was Slim,
said.

"Yes.You got to see it to believe it."

"What else do you know about Howler?"

"As far as I know he's got no money, tent or sleeping bag and lives off trail magic and hiker boxes. He's a strange fellow, with that screaming and all, but
everybody likes him."

Howler came out of the forest dragging two clumps of deadwood. By the time he got the fire roaring, it was dark and everyone settled. Joel, Serena,

Mudslide and Slim sat around the fire. Howler stood.

"Now is the time to call crow," he said. He screamed. Mudslide and Slim followed in chorus. Joel and Serena looked at each other and smiled. Then they screamed.

Howler let out another, long, sonorous yell and looked out across the tree tops. All paused when they heard the flapping of wings. Howler turned and looked to a pine bough. He raised his arm. A crow, black and shiny, a stygian shadow against the haze starry night, flapped and landed on Howler's arm, careful not to dig talons into raw flesh.

Everyone looked at the crow as Howler stroked waxy feathers on trusting head. No one spoke. Words were unnecessary to make sense of the situation.

Crow gurgled and bobbed its head. Howler raised his arm and watched as
crow took off and disappeared over the treetops. He screamed one last time,
then smiled and sat in the circle.

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