Bad Survivalist: Jennifer Makowsky
I know something bad will happen by the end of the night. Maybe it’s the trees overhanging the winding dirt road, blocking out the daylight and making it look like midnight even though it’s only four-thirty on a June afternoon. Or maybe it’s that this area is always off in some way and gives me the creeps whenever we come here. Perhaps it’s the dreams I’ve been having lately in which I see tree tops the way they are now—intertwined like rusty rebar—accompanied by a disembodied voice saying, “Water, fire, run from me, run.”
Caleb pulls up to the trailhead that leads to the spot we like to camp in. He parks the truck up on the grass and we get out and walk around to the back of the truck to pull the boat from the truck bed. There’s a slight chill in the air despite the damp summer heat. I pull on a hoodie as Caleb loosens the straps holding down the boat. I like to watch him do this. His forearms are powerful beneath his rolled-up sleeves, and the grizzly bear he has tattooed on the inside of his arm seems to dance as his muscles move. I help him pull the boat out and drag it down to the shore where we usually leave it on the rocks. We never worry about securing it because nobody comes to this part of the lake. The official camping site is about two miles away, but we like to stay in this area where nobody else does. Caleb says he likes to piss in the woods and screw me out in the wild without anyone taking notice.
Our camping spot is set back in the woods where a group of trees surrounds a bed of pine needles. It’s so dark that we need to switch on the lanterns to set up the tent.
“Go get some kindling now before it gets any darker,” Caleb says, looking around at the dim trees. “I’m going to go down to the truck and set up the gear.”
He leaves me with a flashlight and while I know it’s safe and only five o’clock in the afternoon, I’m still a little spooked. The area is called Devil’s Hopyard for a reason. Legend has it that the devil comes up out of the ground at night and pulls unsuspecting victims back beneath the earth with him. I’m fully aware and suspecting, so does that make me safe?
I hear the truck door slam down by the road. Caleb is getting his tackle box and feeding the fishing lines with night crawlers. I’m too squeamish to help him, so he lets me stay behind and do other things. With a flashlight and paper bag, I stumble around looking for dry twigs on the ground and small branches to snap off of trees. I grab a handful of pine needles and toss them in the bag because I like the way they crackle when I toss them onto the fire. For a moment, the voice in my dream comes back into my mind: Water, fire, run from me, run.
The sound of leaves crunching behind me causes me to stiffen and for a moment I imagine a devil like the one on a can of Deviled Ham with his pointy red tail sneaking up behind me. But it’s really Caleb.
“Let’s go,” he says. “I’m hungry.”
The sky is overcast as we push out away from the shore. There is nobody else on the water. In the distance, near the public campground, the faint laughter of children and the yelping of a dog emerge, but other than that it’s quiet. Caleb cracks open a beer and hands me one.
“Cheers, baby,” he says, tapping his beer can against mine. “I know you’re gonna get us some good dinner even if the water looks like shit today.”
We fish this lake at least once a month because Caleb likes to camp here, but the fish are slow to bite. Caleb says it’s because it’s a brown water lake, so it doesn’t have a lot of light coming in and is acidic. He’s smart about stuff like that. Even though he knows a lot about fishing, they don’t bite for him much. I think they sense his hunger to clock them over the head with his “fish banger” and fillet them, so they stay away. But they always bite for me.
We put our lines in the water, but secretly I dread anything biting. I can’t stand seeing a fish with a hook in its mouth, looking back at me with its unblinking eye. But I do it for Caleb. He says I’m his good luck charm.
Today when I feel the familiar tug on the line, I reel it in and Caleb’s eyes light up. He puts his beer down and rubs his hands together in anticipation. After I hand him the pole and he takes the flapping trout from the hook, I turn away. As he knocks it over the head, I’m looking into the muddy water when I see something long and dark slither by the boat.
“Something just went past the boat that looked like a snake or an eel,” I say.
“Probably a water moccasin,” he says with a shrug as he tosses the fish into the livewell. “They like this kind of water.”
I shudder audibly.
“Relax,” he says. “We’re not swimming. We’re in a boat.”
After I catch a couple more fish, we row back to shore and leave the boat half in the water and half on shore with rocks in the bottom so it won’t drift off. I can’t watch him fillet the fish, so I go up to his truck and toy with the CB radio he has hooked up on the roof. I try to contact Luna.
“White Witch to Black Witch. Over …”
I repeat it a few times and get a couple truck drivers wanting to know where I am and one requesting a blowjob. Finally Luna’s voice comes through the static.
“Black Witch, here,” she says. “Did you guys go fishing yet?”
“Yeah,” I say. “We went a little while ago. Caleb’s cleaning the fish now.”
“Make sure he’s careful with that knife.”
She’s referring to the time Caleb threatened to stab me if I didn’t give him the keys to his truck after he drank half a bottle of Jack Daniels. He apologized the next morning and bought me breakfast at Denny’s and cried into his coffee. I regret telling Luna about it because she hasn’t failed to mention it at least once a week since it happened a couple months ago. She says I’m too good for him. She thinks I have low self-esteem because my father was a drunk who banged me around. “You go for these shitty men like your father and try to make them love you. You can’t polish a turd,” she says.
This is all true, but what I haven’t told her is that Caleb has stalked me when I’ve tried to leave him in the past. He even locked me in the trunk of my own car one night and told me he would drive it off a bridge with me in it if I ever tried to leave him again. And then he cried afterward and I felt sorry for him. I even held him and told him he’d be all right. I don’t know what is wrong with me.
“He’s been careful,” I say, looking out at Caleb who is by the boat, wiping his bloody hands on a rag.
“He better be,” she says. “Look, I gotta go. I have a coven meeting. But be careful and make sure he doesn’t drink any Jack.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him.”
There’s a crackle over the CB and then her voice comes through again. “I may cast a little spell tonight.”
“What kind of spell?”
“One for your protection.”
I sigh and say goodbye as Caleb comes up with the livewell and sets it down and opens the driver’s side door.
“Sounds to me like you could have been talking to that witch bitch.”
I bite my lip.
“No, I told you we aren’t friends anymore.”
This is a lie. He hates Luna. For months, he forbade me from speaking to her. I sneak out now to go to her house. He’d freak out if he knew we were still friends and that I’ve joined her coven where the meetings are all that keep me feeling in control of anything lately.
I stiffen as he reaches down for the bottle of Jack Daniels between the two front seats.
“Come on,” he says, taking a swig. “Let’s go eat.”
We make a fire with the sticks I gathered and some big logs Caleb finds on the perimeter of our camping site. He pours kerosene on the wood from his fuel canister and drops a few matches into the middle. I watch the fire swell up and lick the twigs, making them glow bright orange and yellow as Caleb takes the fish out of the livewell. Even though I don’t like catching them, there’s nothing like freshly caught fish and tonight they taste the best they ever have. I almost wish I had caught more to bring back, but there’s always tomorrow for that.
While we’re eating, I’m watching Caleb. The way his eyes take in the fire and seem to absorb the color, making them look like glowing amber. In the firelight, his eyebrows are extra arched, making him look almost like a cartoon villain. He takes another swig of Jack. I tense, but so far, he’s been in a good mood.
It’s not until later after the fire dies down that things take a turn for the worse. As he’s peeing in the dark, he calls out for me to get the fire going again.
“Use the fuel canister. It’s in the knapsack.”
I get the canister and pour kerosene on the fire to reignite the flames when I let go of it and drop the whole thing into the middle of the flaming firewood. A fireball temporarily swells up, causing me to gasp and step back. I know how fond he is of that canister. He takes it with him every time we camp. This plus the fact that he’s been drinking Jack turns him into a monster. It’s like he becomes the bear tattooed on his arm with gnashing teeth and claws, standing up on hind legs and roaring. He comes out of the trees with a crazed look, the bright fire making him look even more ferocious as the shadows jump on his face.
I’m telling him it’s an accident as he twists my arm behind my back and pushes me up against a tree so hard it cracks the breath out of me and the words I’m trying to say are lost. I can already predict how this will go. In a few minutes after he’s called me a string of nasty names, he’ll fuck me and pull my hair so hard my scalp will hurt for a few days. And then he’ll be apologetic and sweet and we can go to sleep and forget it ever happened. At least for a little while. At least until the resentment starts to build up in me again and I hide his tackle box or his truck keys or drop another one of his fuel canisters into the fire again.
And this is exactly how it goes. We sit by the fire afterwards and I’m tossing the pine needles onto the fire, which has been burning steadily since I dropped the fuel canister. The crackle they make as they hit the fire reminds me of firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
“I want to roast marshmallows,” I say.
“Did you bring any because I didn’t.”
“Yeah, but I left them down in the truck.”
He stands up and pats his back pockets. “I forgot my knife in the boat, so I need to go down there anyway.” He sleeps with his knife. He says he needs it for protection. “I’ll get the marshmallows on the way back up.”
A swell of anxiety rushes through me as he disappears into the trees and down the hill, but I tell myself he only threatened me with the knife one time. Well, two times if you count the time he held it to my throat while we had sex because he said it turned him on.
While he’s gone, I stare into the fire at the licks of blue that hop in an out of the orange flames. They remind me of the divining we did with candles at the coven meeting a few weeks ago. As we stared into the flames, Luna said if they burn mostly blue, it means we are willing things into existence. We are manifesting our destiny, she said. I hear the words from my dreams again, but it’s as if someone is standing behind me whispering them right into my ear. And then they sound like they are coming from somewhere inside of me:
Water, fire, run from me, run.
I turn around, but there is nothing but darkness. No Deviled Ham devil staring back at me with his pitchfork. I think I’m safe for a moment. Then a howl hits the night air. I gasp and jump to my feet with my breath halted in my throat, thinking the rumors about Devil’s Hopyard are true. But the second time the howl sounds, it’s clear it’s no devil. There is something familiar about it. It comes from the direction of the water. I run to the edge of the trees and look down, but can’t see anything. There is a rustle in the brush before Caleb appears at the bottom of the hill as a shadowy figure only illuminated by the light of the moon. He is limping, gripping his leg. I hold my breath and stand as still as possible behind a tree.
“Erica!” he shouts up the hill. “Erica, get help. I was bit by a snake!”
My heart thunders in my ears. It’s one of those moments in life when you find yourself at that metaphorical fork in the road. In my case, it’s a literal trail in the woods. I could take the path to the main campground and get help or I can take the trail to the south toward the main road and leave him to die. In the few seconds this takes place, I imagine his funeral—the twisted look on his mother’s grief-stricken face and my mock devastation as people console me. I could be free—free to go back to the friends he hasn’t forced me to abandon, free to have my apartment back to myself, free to talk to my mother again. But the guilt would crush me, wouldn’t it?
“Hurry,” he calls with a helplessness I’ve never heard in his voice before. “It’s like fire!”
I walk in a circle before I find myself walking back into the trees. Briefly, I wonder how long the poison will take to reach his heart. Each time he calls my name and howls in pain it feels like a hand is squeezing my neck and I’ve forgotten how to breathe. But his voice is getting fainter with each step I take, eventually heading in the direction of the main campground.
Water, fire, run from me, run.
I’m amazed at how slowly my feet travel over the forest floor.
Jennifer Makowsky received her MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, 2 Bridges Review, Pamplemousse, and others. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she teaches English to refugees and writes about the desert.