When newscaster Abby Waite is diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, she decides to do the logical thing… break her twin sister Martha out of prison and hit the road. Their destination is the Waite family cabin in Minnesota where Abby plans a family reunion of sorts. But when you come from a family where your grandfather frequently took control of your body during your youth, where your mother tried to inhabit your mind and suck your youthful energies out of you, and where so many dark secrets—and bodies, even—are buried, such a family meeting promises to be nothing short of complicated…
Soon they’d moved from the area that Abby knew like the back of her hand to the area she knew more like … well, the back of her shoulder, not as well as she should, not from direct observation. It wasn’t a direction that had anything interesting in it, not until you got well beyond the boundaries of the local news; even when people shot their lovers and exploded their meth labs in this neighborhood, it only merited a few minutes of coverage. No one bothered to do ground-breaking stories about children slipping through the cracks out here. The whole place was a crack, and the best thing to do was just slip on through as fast as they could.
But then Martha sat up straighter and made a little noise of distress. She choked it off immediately, but Abby couldn’t have missed it if she’d tried. And the worried glance after to see if she’d noticed would have tipped her off anyway.
“What’s wrong?” She looked right at Martha, long enough to make sure that she wasn’t going to try to lie.
“I’ve been here before. I was lost here once. Please watch the road.”
There was nothing in the road. Abby turned her head all the way and surveyed the roadside with renewed attention. No, she’d never seen it. Although it did look like the right sort of place; lonely, boggy, the trees half-drowned and burdened with wild grape and poison ivy. And there was a feeling that she hadn’t felt in years, half-memory and half a living thing. She slammed the brakes and reversed.
“What the hell, Abby?”
“Just checking something.”
There was no shoulder really, but there was a place where they could pull off far enough that they probably wouldn’t get hit if someone came down the road, assuming that someone was more or less sober and traveling in the general vicinity of the speed limit. A chance they’d have to take.
She stepped out of the car, left the door hanging open behind her, not looking at Martha. Normally it would all be swamp here, but it had been a dry summer. It was walkable, though the sedge was almost up to her knees. Black flies swarmed around, and somewhere nearby she heard the drone of a horsefly.
Bug spray. She’d forgotten to fucking bring any. They’d have to pick some up.
It would be a lot easier if Martha would quit curling into a pill bug in the passenger seat and come help her. But she saw from here what Mom would have seen. The lone oak she would have put to her left hand, and … yes. Directly in her sight line, a tree that had been struck by lightning despite being shorter than the others all around it.
The horsefly closed in on the back of her neck, and she smacked it, not hard enough to kill but at least it was stunned and tumbled away. She wouldn’t have time to dig deep, but Mom wouldn’t have either.
But Mom would have had a shovel. Abby turned back to the car, ignored Martha and tried to think. Under the driver’s seat, in the trunk …. there had to be an ice scraper somewhere. She almost snapped at Martha to come help her look, but that wasn’t ignoring and Martha’s help was unlikely to be worth much. Anyway, she found the scraper under the spare tire (half deflated, and of course she wouldn’t have a chance to get her money back for that either) in the back. It was cheap and flimsy, but it was better than scratching in the dirt with her fingernails.
As she stood up, she spotted a hawk perched on a telephone pole a few yards away. It didn’t mean anything, necessarily. There were always hawks along the roads, looking for careless woodchucks and stupid mice and basking snakes, she remembered that from their drives to Minnesota all those years ago. But she closed the driver’s-side door as she walked by. The hawk lifted off and flew away. It was startled by the noise. It didn’t mean anything.
Heartened by the sound of the slamming door and the hawk’s reaction—she was the dominant species here, not any bird—she walked towards the lightning-struck tree. The serrations on the sedge grabbed her legs and sliced her skin as she pulled free—slices that hurt, and worse, would turn into red itchy welts in a little while. She lengthened her stride, trying to get across as quickly as possible, jumped over the remaining puddle at the center of the marsh, sank into the rot-smelling mud on the other side and sent a few terrified frogs scattering. But then she’d reached her goal.
Even looming above her, the tree was objectively shrimpy. A black mark ran down one side of the trunk where the heavens burned the old life out of it. Woodpeckers had been at it, and the bark had flaked away. She reached out and touched the gray, weathered-smooth wood; she could feel a tingle, like static on a dress coming out of the dryer. She couldn’t miss it any more than she could miss the smell of her mother’s face cream or the timbre of her grandfather’s voice. If anyone had actually been paying attention, if anyone wasn’t too damn dumb to notice, they might have wondered why a dead tree kept growing.
It only took a few steps to circle the corpse of the tree, but she walked it slowly, treading down the sedge with care, looking for any clue. There were a half-dozen places that seemed disturbed, the sedge not as thick, the earth looser, but those weren’t what she needed. She made a complete circle, counterclockwise, without seeing what she was looking for, but on the second transit a root caught her eye. It was humped up out of the ground like the root of a very old tree, a tree that has battled rocks and erosion for a century. But this tree died young.
She squatted and pulled up a few tufts of sedge on either side of the root, ignoring the pain in her hands. Clumps of dark mud full of half-rotted leaves came up with each bunch, shiny beetles and centipedes fled the sudden light. The damned sedge was tickling the bare insides of her thighs now that she was so near the ground. She shifted carefully, only to be brushed by another stem, and then she shifted not carefully and got a welt she wouldn’t be able to scratch in public. Fuck it. She tore sedge out of the ground by the handful and began to gouge dirt from under the root with the ice scraper.
It wasn’t long before she hit something that sounded too hollow for a rock; a little bit more digging and she saw it. The bone was dull and the seams were loose. It would take finesse to get it out. She breathed deep, let her burning hand clutch the scraper so tight it dug into her flesh, then slowly, consciously relaxed.
The root had grown over the skull, but not into it. She supposed it hasn’t had enough time, though what did she know about how fast roots grow? No more than Mom, and Mom obviously didn’t know enough or she would have buried the old man deeper. Too deep for Abby to ever find.
She worked the scraper down until it hit a pebble. Pried the pebble out and threw it aside. And again. And again. If the summer had been a little drier, if the ground right here wasn’t soft, it would have been impossible. As it was, there were an awful damn lot of pebbles for such swampy ground. Every one she hit with the scraper jarred her arm and slowed her down. Chunks of quartz, mostly, some granite, even a fossil clam. She stuck a few in her shirt pocket, just in case. She was so close—one side of the skull was completely free, and if she could just get it loose on the other side it was hers.
She found a piece of slate, the kind laced with iron oxide, in her way. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck as she worked the blade of the scraper under it, pried hard—and then fell back, her hand stinging and the snapped-off handle slipping out of her grasp.
“Damnit!” She would have sucked her finger—it was bleeding where the sharp edge of the plastic caught it—but that seemed like a good way to catch worms. The blade of the scraper stuck out of the mud, taunting her. She pulled it out and threw it as far as she could.
Her nails wouldn’t have to be nice when this was over, but the habit of taking care of them was hard to break now. She shuddered as she pushed her fingers into the dirt, but she did it. Shuddered and scraped at the slate until she found the edge and pulled it loose. Shuddered and worked her way beneath the skull.
Her efforts must have loosened it; it came up right away. She rocked back, but didn’t fall this time, and it was in her hands. The right incisor was missing, as it should be.
It seemed like the thing to do would be to wipe it clean and see the bone glint white, but she didn’t have anything to do that with but the hem of her shirt and she’d made enough of a mess of herself. Grandfather had been muddy a long damn time, he could put up with it a bit longer.
The marsh didn’t seem anywhere near as wide going back as it did coming across, although the grass still sliced her and the bugs still droned around her head. A wave of triumph washed her — the universe loved her, and she could do anything; she never needed to be afraid. Things always worked out right for her, don’t they? The humidity, the little bit of breeze, made the air feel like a caress.
The hawk screamed again, but when she glanced up, it was too high to see.
Martha was still huddled in the passenger seat, but at some point she’d rolled the windows all the way up. Abby considered holding the skull up like a mask and rapping on the window to get her attention. That’s what she’d have done when they were both twelve. But they had a long drive ahead of them.
Martha saw the skull when Abby climbed into the car anyway. But she just rolled her eyes and stared out the window in silence as Abby pulled the car back onto the road and accelerated away.
Excerpt from A Hawk in the Woods
Carrie Laben grew up in western New York. She earned her BS at Cornell and later her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens, where she spends a lot of time staring at birds. Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, Clarkesworld, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place”. A Hawk in the Woods is her first novel. She is currently at work on a book of essays about urban environmentalism.