The river pulled like an ocean. It had been many years since Ben had seen the current so strong. Each time his paddle sliced through the waves, the water yanked at the oar like it was a spider’s web, sticking to the wood and trapping it in it’s tenacious web of streaming rapids.
“Take it slow. Okay, love?” He called behind him to his wife who was breathing loud and heavy.
“Oh god, Ben. This isn’t exactly what I expected,” Lydia said. Ben looked over his shoulder. Lydia heaved and pushed the oar into the water, sweat dripping down her neck and absorbing into her jacket. Her blonde hair was sticking to her forehead, slick with shiny perspiration and river water. She continued, yelling over the sounds of the sloshing waves.“‘Easy canoe ride,’ he said. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said, even though his wife hasn’t canoed since summer camp a thousand years ago!”
Ben gave a small laugh.
“It calms down up here.”
Ben gestured ahead of them with the paddle before placing it back into the water and pushing them forward with three great strokes. The muscles in his back and shoulders rippled with every paddle, reminding him that he wasn’t 19 anymore and the rides that had once felt like floating, now felt like laborous torture. But he wouldn’t admit that to Lydia. Not until they were docked, at least.
The water rocked them backwards as Ben and Lydia hurdled forward. The riverbank was thick with poplar trees, fallen foliage and metre-tall thistles that rustled in the wind, stroking the air with delicate streaks of purple. The day was grey. Overcast skies ensured that the beauty of the forest was tucked away and replaced by a mediocre landscape of weeds.
The river began to calm.
The rapids slowed to smooth ripples on the surface and continued until they became nothing but slow black slopes, rising and falling along the bottom of the canoe.
“Well, at least you were right about it calming down,” Lydia said as she let out several wet coughs.
“Trust, Lyd. Trust.”
“Didn’t I? That’s the whole reason I’m here.”
Ben felt a splash of water on the back of his neck. A fluttering shiver ran down his spine. He turned to his wife and grinned, picking up and splashing her back with his own paddle.
“Oh no you don’t!” Lydia sent a wave of river water at him, completely soaking his right side. Ben looked back. Lydia tucked in her lips and stifled a giggle. The water entered his jacket and the pocket of his jeans, it soaked into his skin. The cold enveloped him, tracing and penetrating into his bones.
“I must have revenge!” Ben shivered and exclaimed. He picked up another piece of the river and slung it at his wife.
“Ben!” Something hit the bottom of the canoe. “Gross!”
Ben lifted his paddle out of the water, laid it across his lap and turned himself around so he was facing the river that they had already crossed. A dead fish sat in the middle of the canoe by Lydia’s feet. She tucked her sneakers underneath her seat and stared down at the fish with furrowed disgust.
“Oh.” Ben blinked and sighed. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know it was there, obviously!”
The fish was as grey as the day. It’s once shining scales were dull and murky and it’s eyes had been emptied from it’s carcass, leaving behind scooped-out holes in between it’s lackluster scales.
“Ick.” Lydia pushed the fish towards Ben with her paddle. “It’s been dead awhile.”
They both sniffed the air. It reeked of death.
Ben picked up the fish. It squished against his palm, nearly disintegrating into a mushy pile just from being lifted.
Ben threw the fish back into the water and said, “it doesn’t have any bones or organs. Something must have eaten it.”
“Gross!” Lydia exclaimed again.
Ben laughed at her pursed lips and scrunched forehead.
“That’s not fair. You were Mr. Outdoorsman when you were a kid. I didn’t take Fish Guts 101.”
Lydia squeaked her sneakers against the bottom of the canoe, avoiding the spot where the dead fish had been thrown.
“What’s not fair? I’m allowed to laugh,” Ben replied with another chuckle.
“At me, Ben. You’re laughing at me.”
Ben shook his head and turned back to the front of the water. He placed his paddle back into the water but was met with a semisolid resistance. He peered over the side of the canoe.
The river was thick with dead fish. Just below the surface of the water was a gelatinous layer of silver and green, the thin layer of river overtop acting as a barrier between the dead and the living. The fish were frozen with gaping mouths and scooped out eyes. Like the one on the canoe, they had no insides. All that remained of them were their fleshy carcasses, shining vessels of fish carnage stacked one after another in a pastelike, glassy blanket.
Lydia was vomiting. She had taken one look over the side and emptied out her stomach, adding to the layer of death with her potato salad and salami sandwich. Ben closed his eyes so he wouldn’t also begin to vomit.
“What the-” Lydia retched again.
“I’ll try to get us on shore. Just hang on, love.”
Ben forced his paddle through the dead fish with a defiant slogging of the wood. He pushed on either side, ignoring the sounds, the smells, the feel, until he had placed the bow of the canoe on the rocky riverbank.
Ben rushed to help Lydia out of the boat, rubbing his hand over her back and clutching his non-fish covered hand to her forearm. He sat her down on a rock and gently placed her head between her knees.
“The smell,” Lydia moaned. Like sweet, rotting garbage, the smell of the layer of dead fish followed them and wafted between the trees.
“I’ve heard of this happening up in Alaska and Canada.” Lydia lifted her head, looked at her husband and then put her blonde hair back between her knees. “With Salmon. They spawn and then they die because they are coming from the ocean into freshwater. But this… we’re not even close to the ocean.”
“Not to mention the missing innards,” Lydia muttered.
He scanned the riverbank. Dead fish were scattered along the shore and down the rocks, a beige lump stuck out amongst the weeds and stones.
Ben put up his hand but Lydia didn’t even look up. She was doing her yoga breathing, inhaling and exhaling in between her legs.
His heavy hiking boots crunched along the rocks, he avoided the fish carcasses by hopping from one stone to the next. His heart was in his throat, hammering against his neck and temples like he had swallowed a grandfather clock. The beige lump was becoming clearer with every hop.
It’s legs were twisted like bare branches, sticking straight up into the air. It’s antlers had been stuck in the mud of the riverbank causing its neck and head to tilt back so far that it’s pointed ears were almost touching it’s shoulders. Just like the fish, the young buck had been split down the middle and everything that had once made it living had been emptied from its torso. His eyes were blank holes, pupils scrubbed clean from his skull.
This death was much fresher than the fish. The blood was still dripping from its cut flesh. A trail of red led underneath trampled thistles and into the forest.
“Do you think it was a bear?”
Ben jumped and turned around to Lydia standing behind him. Her face was bleach white and her lips were pale and trembling.
“Lyd, go back to the canoe.”
Ben put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. She stared at him with her convincing light eyes, blinking away tears from her vomit session. He knew that he could not convince her to sit pretty, he never had been able to. When they had gone to Six Flags, he had tried to talk her down from getting on the highest rollercoaster. She had sat in the first row. When a few teenagers had broken into their garage, he had told her to stay in bed and she had gone out into their yard flailing a baseball bat above her head.
“It doesn’t look like a bear. There aren’t even any grizzly’s near here, only black and brown bears,” Ben replied and took his hand off Lydia’s shoulder. She rounded the deer, grimacing more with every step. Flies buzzed in and around Ben’s ears and landed on the edge of the ripped open stomach of the buck. Ben watched as Lydia’s eyes traced the buck and then landed on the trampled bush of thistles. She stepped onto the trampled bush, her boots squishing into a small pool of blood.
“Yes, we are.”
“Come on, Ben! We can send pictures to conservation, they can get someone out here to take care of it. It’s for the greater good.” The colour in her face was beginning to return in waves of blushing pink. “Also, what if it’s sasquatch?”
Lydia barged into the woods. Ben hurried after her.
“If it’s sasquatch, it’s a real sadistic kind of sasquatch that I’d rather not be pulled apart by.”
The forest floor cracked underneath them. The poplars and occasional pine swayed in the wind, their branches rubbing and cracking against one another. The sounds from the river were still loud, filling the air with rhythmic, rushing water until the trail of blood began to turn to pools of blood.
“Lydia,” Ben said warily.
He brought his foot down and a great crack echoed out from underneath his boot. Lydia froze and turned to her husband. Ben lifted his foot to reveal a large split bone, sitting atop the ground of the forest like it was a regular piece of nature and not evidence of something much darker and much more terrifying.
Lydia looked back over her shoulder towards the deepest parts of the woods.
“Please, Lyd.” Ben pleaded with his eyes. He wrapped his fingers together, begging his wife to turn back.
“Look,” she said, lifting her arm and extending her finger. Ben followed her pointed finger to a clearing up ahead. But it wasn’t a sunny, valley clearing like from a children’s story book. It was an area with no trees and yet it was completely shaded overhead by a thick dark green canopy. In the middle of the blank dark valley was a pyramid of white and red.
Ben reached out to Lydia but she was already moving towards the clearing. Drawn towards its darkness like a moth to the brightest light.
A line of dead deer, flipped upside down, antlers stuck in the ground, just like the one on the riverbank, greeted them at the edge of the shadowy circle. All bucks. Some young, some old, all gutted and eyeless.
The smell of absolute death had grown stronger. It was sour, rotting meat mixed with a few drops of cheap perfume. Ben gagged as Lydia stepped in between the sacrificed bucks.
At the end of the deer, there were two torches, burning such a bright flame, almost white, Ben was surprised they hadn’t seen them from the canoe.
The cairn of white was made entirely of bones. The glue that held the cartilage together was bright red, slowly oozing organs. Livers, lungs, kidneys and hearts that when caught in the bright dancing torch light seemed to still be beating.
Ben could hear Lydia’s breath quicken. She put a hand over her chest. Ben grabbed her shoulders, pulling her back and away from the valley of death.
“What a nasty day.”
A woman’s voice echoed off the trees.
“Quiet down, dear. Don’t scare away the animals,” the woman said as she stepped out from between the poplars, teetering on the edge between the forest and the clearing. The woman had hair so dark it seemed to pull all the colour from around her, it was knotted into sections and fell to her hips. She was wearing a brown dress of which the front was covered in blood and pieces of fur and flesh. On her head she wore the antlers of a deer and at the end of the antlers, glassy fish eyes had been skewered like precious jewels on a crown.
“Run. We need to run,” Ben whispered into Lydia’s ear. She could not tear her eyes from the black-haired woman. The woman smiled a half-toothless grin, one of her canines had been replaced by the tooth of a badger. She had shoved the tooth into her bottom gum, the skin around it was inflamed and it wiggled and bled when she smiled.
“The top.” The woman lifted a crooked, bony hand and pointed to the pyramid. “It’s reserved only for the pieces of humans.”
They ran. Ben yanked on Lydia’s elbow and they took off back towards the river, sprinting and hyperventilating through the woods. Ben let Lydia pass in front of him so he could watch behind them. His heartbeat was so loud and hammering that he thought it could be heard over the sounds of the river and wood. Sweat poured down his back. Lydia’s blonde hair bounced ahead of him. It felt like they had barely walked into the wood but it took minutes upon minutes to get back to the river.
The two of them slid through the thistles onto the rocky riverbank. Ben grabbed Lydia’s elbow again, preventing her from sliding straight into the first deer corpse.
Lydia stumbled her way over to the canoe and picked up the paddles. Ben slipped on one of the smooth shale rocks, he felt his head split and then the sky. The sky broke open to stars, bursting like broken glass.
When his eyes opened, he was staring directly into the empty eye socket of the dead buck. He grimaced. Gagged. His head pounded with pain.
He was pulled to his feet.
He turned around to face the black-haired woman. She smiled, her crooked, bleeding grin. In between her wrinkled fingers, she held more antlers but these had been sharpened, fashioned into knives with handles made of bone.
The knife sunk into his stomach.
His head. No, his stomach. Everything hurt.
He almost tripped over the dead buck behind him but the woman grabbed him by his jacket and pulled him towards her.
“You’ve come at such a good time,” she whispered. She put the knife back in the hole she had created, twisted and moved upwards. Ben could feel himself splitting open like either sides of his flesh were being peeled away from his bones. Heat poured out of his stomach, radiating down his front and onto the rocks.
Then with an exceptional swing, Lydia brought down a paddle on the back of the woman’s head. It made such a loud sickening crack that blackbirds erupted from the tree behind them. The woman fell to the ground, her antler crown scraping against the riverbank like nails against an icy window.
Lydia gathered up her husband, tossing his arms over her shoulder and heaving him so he was balanced on her hip. She half-dragged him towards the canoe.
“Stay with me, Ben,” she whispered. “Stay with me.”
She placed Ben in the canoe, rolling him over the edge. Blood immediately pooled into the bottom of the boat, covering their fishing tackle, their blankets, their lunch bags with the salami sandwiches.
Ben listened to his wife struggle, half-way in the water, pulling the canoe out onto the river of dead fish. It was minutes later but to Ben it felt like only seconds when Lydia finally got in the canoe and put the paddle in the water. As she pushed them off the rocks and drifted them back into the sea of carnage, Ben raised his head.
Along the river, Ben could see where they had come from.
From the pyramid of bones and organs, the torches burned brightly.
As Lydia advanced down the river, back the way they came, Ben noticed a second set of lights, then a third. The torches danced in the woods like blinking satellites, too close to the Earth. The riverbank was lined, on both sides, with torches, with pyramids of bones and with death.
Ben laid back down in the boat, closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his blood seeping from his body, bones crunching nearby and the river rushing past Lydia’s paddle. He took two deep breaths, leaned back his head so he could see his wife and said,
“Take it slow, love.”