Starkle, starkle little twink.
Who the hell you are I think.
In the summer after my first year of junior high school, we moved to a new home, out of town, where miles of forest began at the back edge of our yard. As adolescence drew me out into the world, it was the forest, rather than the daunting and mysterious intricacies of social life, that I sought to explore.
I was allowed to roam freely and I feasted on what could only be furtively scavenged before. I grew healthier and stronger. In the forest, I found the renewing energy I needed to heal my inner wounds. This is how I survived. The forest absorbed my sorrow because its own wounds directed its ambient energies into healing.
I became so incorrigible in skipping school to wander the woods alone that my parents recognized the strong likelihood that I would wander off to the woods with or without their cooperation, and things could get ugly in several ways, if the authorities got involved in our lives. They also knew that I was too proud to get really shitty grades. My mother wrote excuses saying I was ill, whenever my edginess and distraction rose to a fierce need to escape for a day.
I cherished freedom above all else. Any compromise to my freedom felt like injustice, even when it was positive or pleasurable in other respects. Though I loved learning, school attendance felt like undeserved punishment, a sort of jail-lite.
Baldy said, “This is a special truck—with it, I don’t have to pay any attention to speed limits.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I have limited speed.”
When John Kennedy won the Democratic presidential nomination, the standard rural northwestern Pennsylvania male beer rant was, “If they let a Catholic get in there the goddamned pope will be running the country.” That was after the first beer—after the third, it got worse. I knew the women would lie about their votes—Nixon’s grim visage looked too much like a dull, dark fate they had already embraced too often. In their lying, they were like me in my silent, secret unbelief. This was my first conscious glimmer of recognition that the wisdom of women had been shat upon by the dominant culture of testosterone and war, as well as my first recognition that I was not alone in the loneliness of living hidden. I realized that women lived hidden like me, long before I discovered that most, if not all, of the men did too.
My mother lamented the misery and injustice of a late April snowstorm.
“It could be worse,” Baldy said.
“How?” she asked with audible annoyance leaking from the edges of her voice.
“It could rain cow shit and rocks to splash it,” he replied.
A “free puppies” newspaper ad gave us an eight week old, female, part-collie pup. We named her “Sandy” partly as homage and partly for her color. Sandy became my constant companion on many-mile wanders in the woods adjoining our sixteen-acre property. Old enough now to take more meaningful responsibility and acutely aware of the capricious and deadly nature of my family’s complex currents of anger and deceit, I trained Sandy to stay close to home and close to me. The only times she left the yard unaccompanied by me were her full tilt dashes a hundred fifty yards to the school bus stop, when I arrived home after school each day.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy’s assassination, the real world of politics, war, and mayhem erupted out of the foggy, sterile distance of televised semi-abstraction into here and now. The adults around me didn’t get it (or me) on so many levels that they seemed as abstract as the news. The emptiness of their platitudes was as frightening as the violence leaking into the world through countless cracks in the collective adult sanity that I could no longer trust.
As Baldy’s emphysema progressed, he could barely cross a room without pausing to catch his breath, but he refused to give up trout fishing. He loved to fish little forest streams for native brook trout with a long fly rod, a bait casting reel, and night crawlers. He walked miles into the woods in twenty-foot increments, often alone. His daughters (my mother and aunt) were worried.
Aunt Gert asked, “Dad, what are we going to do if you don’t come back one of these times?”
“Wait a week or two and take a walk. You’ll smell me,” he replied.
In ninth grade, I enrolled in Latin as a preparation for a future life of study in science, but my inability to engage higher math with my heart had increasingly obvious implications about that imagined future. What I unexpectedly found in Latin was a flood of insight into language, semantics, and etymology. The world of language spilled open like a forest ecosystem. I was filled with desire for the spirit-lifting clarity of multi-layered eloquence.
My father was struggling with a minor but frustrating repair on the outside of our house. Sandy took a crap inches from his toolbox, and he flew into a wild, ranting rage. He picked her up and threw her against the side of the house and was about to kick her when I seized a wooden chair from the patio, raised it over my head, and got between him and the still stunned dog.
“Leave her alone.”
“I’ll do whatever the hell I please.”
“If you hurt her, I’ll break this chair over your goddamned head. Then, you can kill me if you want to.”
My father stormed into the house ranting and swearing. I went in via another door, retrieved my .22 rifle, and disappeared into the woods with Sandy, until after dark.
When we returned, my father ignored us. My mother gave me a long, stern lecture about how utterly and shamefully wrong I had been to disrespect my father like that. She couldn’t understand what she had ever done wrong to deserve a son who behaved this way. I listened, silently seething.
I wasn’t nearly as strong as my father, but I had an ace up my sleeve: I was crazier than him, and he didn’t know it. Past a certain point, I didn’t care what happened to me and allowing him to harm Sandy was inconceivable. I would do whatever was necessary to protect her.
Reminiscing about a time many years before, when one of his children had been bullied, Baldy said, “I went and had a talk with the boy.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him the next time I needed to have a talk with him, I was gonna spike his pecker to a stump and push him over backward.” He laughed softly and shook his head.
On a dead-end logging road, I rounded a bend, and surprised a feral dog. He snarled and bounded toward me. I shot him between the eyes with a movement so fluid and quick it was hardly more than a graceful twitch. The world acquired a harder, sharper edge before the brain-shot dog even stopped twitching. This wasn’t a dream, an achievement, or a victory. No bragging rights had been conferred. The incident was bloody, scary, real, and utterly unforgiving.
That winter, on opening day of deer season, a nine-point buck stepped into the open at fifty yards, and I shot him squarely in the heart. Once again, the feelings were not of triumph or victory, but recognition of the world’s fierce, unyielding otherness. It was a rite of passage, a step across the threshold of adulthood. Unlike earlier transitions of growth, I was conscious of having crossed over into territory from which there was no turning back. I knew that I didn’t know what it meant.
Baldy drove a succession of battered old jalopies—hundred dollar vehicles that only needed to get him around town and trout fishing now and then. After his old truck finally died, his mobility was compromised for a while, until he found a baby-shit brown Volkswagen, which had most definitely seen better days.
That summer, Baldy was late for a family gathering at Aunt Gert’s camp. Just when people were beginning to worry, he drove into the yard. Branches, leaves and ferns were stuck in the windows, doors, trunk lid, and bumpers of the Volkswagen, making it look like he had driven wildly through a clearcut jungle. He got out of the car wearing one of those novelty fake arrows that give the appearance of one’s head being transfixed, danced a little jig, and said, “I was ambushed!” The glove compartment was stuffed with crumpled, wadded currency. He’d had a great afternoon betting on (illegal) cockfights.
When I joined the rifle team, practice meant coming home from school late twice weekly. Sandy still made her joyous rush to meet the school bus and then returned to the patio to wait. One day she didn’t greet me at the door when I came home from practice. My mother told me that she had been hit and killed by the school bus when she raced it to the bus stop. My father had already buried her. They assured me that she hadn’t suffered.
I was shattered. The world turned very dark for a while, and some of the light never came back.
My parents tried to console me with a new dog, but I was beyond consolation. I kept my distance, and after he dug up Sandy’s decomposing body, I shunned him altogether. When he shredded a rolled carpet stored in our garage, I led him into the woods and shot him. My father approved—even joked about it. He seemed to have no idea of the hardness forming in my heart.
I was sitting beside Baldy on Mayburg Old Home Day. His morbidly obese, fundamentalist sister-in-law, Lottie, walked past. “She’ll grow a lot of nice flowers on her grave when she dies,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“Lotta shit there.”
I bought a guinea pig. He lived safely in a cage in my room, but he was hardly Mr. Personality. I needed more. Meanwhile, a friend had purchased a de-scented skunk, without prior parental permission, and his parents weren’t happy about it, so we traded. He had named her Petunia, which I found embarrassing, but since she already seemed to know her name, I kept it.
My father was surprisingly supportive and helped me build a cage in our small barn. Petunia had a vivid, bright-eyed presence, and we became friends quickly. She stayed reliably by my side on walks around the yard. I was enthralled with her quirky intelligence and incessant curiosity.
I trusted animals more than human beings. I identified with the raw purity of their feelings.
My father said he needed to talk to me—it was important. He said that my mother was in great distress and had confided to him that she was “contemplating suicide” primarily due to the way I had “turned out.” He didn’t say what it was about me that was such a burden, and I didn’t ask. Since speaking in my own defense would have been regarded as an attack on my mother, I said nothing.
Baldy invited me to spend a few days in Mayburg with him and my cousins, Scott and Dean. Fishing was our ostensible purpose, but mostly it was about time together in the quiet of beloved ancestral territory. Mayburg was deeply, truly home to Baldy and sharing it with his grandchildren mattered. I gave my parents careful instructions for the care and feeding of Petunia, and they seemed earnestly attentive to my concerns.
Baldy, Scott, and Dean fished, but I tended to wander away from even marginally purposeful behavior into forest solitude for portions of the day. Campfire storytelling anchored wisdom in laughter and vice-versa.
When I returned, my mother told me that she had absent-mindedly left both the cage door unlatched and the barn door open. Petunia was gone.
“She’s a wild animal—she’s probably better off anyway.”
“Mom, she’s de-scented—she’s defenseless.”
“Well, it was an accident.”
I searched and called for her, to no avail. Though her defenseless fate in the wild would probably have been ugly and fatal, I hoped the falsity of the “accident” had been the extent of the lie, and that Petunia hadn’t been on the receiving end of a bullet. She deserved at least a chance to make it on her own—even a rough, poor chance. She didn’t deserve to be executed. I tried to think of her reveling in newfound freedom for at least a little while before an owl, dog, or fox took her, but I missed her shining eyes.
After I came out of the woods bearing an out-of-season grouse and a squirrel, Baldy nicknamed me “Snaky Dan” in homage to a Mayburg character from his youth, who lived in a shack and only worked when his hunting luck was bad.
On the way to Mayburg with Gert, we came upon a dead adult raccoon and several shocked and bewildered young raccoons by the roadside. We couldn’t save them all and perhaps, they were big enough to survive on their own. Though Gert had great respect for wild creatures, she had little love for animals as companions. But she also knew my tender proclivities and probably something of my wounds—we took one of the frightened kits to Mayburg with us. A nearby camp owner gave us some dry dog food, which the raccoon devoured eagerly, after carefully moistening each piece in a bowl of water.
I brought my new pet home and refurbished Petunia’s cage. I loved his obvious intelligence and we had an instant rapport. He was a one-human animal, at ease with me, but he was afraid of my father and didn’t like Denny.
I tried to teach him skills he would need in a wild life by putting crayfish in a large pan filled with water and rocks, so he could catch and eat them. I gave him unshucked corn and live frogs. He followed me around the yard and returned to his cage voluntarily. He looked into my eyes and recognized me, and I him. We were friends.
My father had been working on something in the barn and, when he came into the house for dinner, he said, “I opened the cage and the little bastard growled at me, so I smacked him on the head with a Crescent wrench.” He thought it was funny.
I knew my raccoon was doomed. I went out to the barn, took him out of his cage, put him on the lawn, and said a tearful goodbye. He walked to the edge of the woods, stopped, and looked back at me intently. I said goodbye again, turned away, and went back to the house.
Something inside of me turned hard and fierce in a dark, secret way. I realized that the brightness of eyes that my parents extinguished with relentless, intuitive mendacity also lived in my eyes and that it was only my own brightness that I could hope to protect. But I didn’t realize they were crazy. I thought this was the way of the human world and I was a misshapen piece that didn’t fit.
I showed Baldy an odd-shaped machine part I had found in the woods near Mayburg and asked, “What do you suppose this was for?”
“It looks like a hooty-cackle for on the butt end of a sneeze bar,” he replied.
 Rollin David Wilson was my maternal grandfather. Almost everyone called him “Baldy.”
 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hills and valleys of the Allegheny Plateau were ravaged for oil and lumber in the spasm of half-blind greed that shaped America into weird empire. I grew up during the peak of the land’s recovery.
 Such humor may have been my first conscious appreciation of multilayered meanings as he separated my mother’s complaint from her self-pity, affirmed the validity of the complaint, and substituted laughter and irony for lamentation.
 When we lived in town, a previous Sandy had been banished to a great uncle’s farm, ostensibly for his wandering ways, and died on the road, a victim of his freedom in exile.
 He had scorched his lungs in an industrial accident during World War Two.
 When Mayburg, my mother’s family’s ancestral village became a ghost town with the closing of the Mayburg Chemical Company in 1943, Aunt Gert and Uncle Ed bought one of the company houses, and it became a communal hunting, fishing, and gathering place for a circle of friends and family.
 In those socially milder days, when the parameters of delinquency were largely defined by cigarettes and beer, shooting a rifle was a varsity sport.
 I still feel stricken when I think of it.
 He laughed, and the laughter was genuine.
 It seems strange and sad that I do not remember his name.
Reg Darling lives in Vermont with his wife and cats. When he isn’t writing, he paints and wanders in the woods. He was an outdoor writer of sorts in a previous literary incarnation, but has wandered off into the rest of his life.