All Stories, General Fiction

Child at the Edge of the Wilderness by Harrison Kim

Ten-year-old Josh walked to school on an already hot May morning.   The bulldozers roared and pushed along the river, clearing the bush and the cottonwood trees for new condo development.  Josh’s skinny white pony-tailed neighbour, landlord Glaser Neil called out from his yard “hey, take a look at this,” and Josh stopped.  Neil often acquired odd things.  Odd but interesting.  Neil pointed behind his lilac bush.  Josh looked over and smelled the lilacs.  Glaser motioned for Josh to come in, and the boy opened the gate and peered at the back of a cage.  “What’s in there?” he asked.  He heard a growl.

“Bobcat,” said Glaser.

“Wow,” said Josh.  He came around to the side and stared at the cat through the cage’s wire mesh.

The cat stared up at both of them with slit amber eyes and snarled some more.  Josh looked at its tawny head bumping the top of the cage.  He liked the look of animal wildness.  He reached forward and stroked the cage top for a second.  He felt bobcat fur.

“The bulldozers at the new development drove out all the gophers and mice.  This guy’s taking advantage.”  said Glaser.  “I baited him in here before someone shot him.”

“What are you going to do with it?” Josh asked.

“Take him back up to the hills,” said Glaser.  “This area’s no place for a beast.”  He pointed at the sun.  “The wilds are drying out, getting smaller.”

He continued. “And the wind is stronger.  In my day, the trees stopped the wind.”

“Well, that’s a real fierce cat,” Josh said.

“He’s not fierce,” said Glaser.  “He’s scared.”

 

At 330 p.m,  Josh loped back home along the river.  He thought he’d go back to Glaser’s later, to take a look at the bobcat.  Josh moved through what remained of the woods beside his Mom’s old trailer, which stood with a few others at the edge of the Salmon River.  There weren’t any salmon in the river these days, but Josh still heard a few birds, crickets, and frogs in the  woods around it.  He hoped there would be an owl.

He thought what it’d be like to be a bobcat.  He lay on his stomach, ear to the ground.  A bobcat stayed close to the ground, too.  Josh listened closer.  He heard the river water surging at its rocky edges.    He turned, and perceived a breathing, a scratching, like something trapped, trying to get out. He pressed his ear into the ground.  He stretched out his arms, his palms.  The bulldozer engine started again.  Josh smelled gasoline and diesel.  What would a bobcat do?  He threw himself into the sound and smell, twisting with the roar of the pistons.

“What are you doing?” yelled Glaser Neill.  He stood above Josh holding a long piece of white styrofoam. “Are you making love to the dirt?”

Josh leaped up.  “Being a bobcat,” he said.

Glaser rubbed his white whiskered chin.  “You’re going to have to blend in more than that.”  He banged the styrofoam on the ground. “ I’m going to have a talk with your Mom She owes me a couple months rent.”

“She’s not feeling well,” said Josh.

“Well, you go home now,” Glaser told him.  “Don’t be playing in the dirt .”  He walked away still holding his giant piece of styrofoam.

“Why is he picking on me?” Josh thought.  He brushed off his pants.   In the cottonwood grove, a bulldozer pushed up against a tree, forcing forward til the trunk splintered and the tree tumbled, crashing.

“All this mighty power,” thought Josh, “it’s bigger than the wind,”  and as he walked home, he pretended to be a giant on the ground moving with the machine’s engine, conquering the earth.  Josh stamped his runners deep like caterpillar treads and imagined his steel heels flattening everything beneath them, the grasses, the trees, the stones.

As he ran by Mrs. Wright’s rundown trailer he saw the old lady stagger out her door and throw a cloth bag in the river.  She often tossed out vegetables, batteries, bottles of insecticide, she was huge like a gas tank with bowling pin legs.  Mrs. Wright heaved away and Josh watched the discarded bag fly through the air, hit the water and swirl along the river current.  It moved down under the bridge, where it caught on a branch.  Mrs. Wright turned and limped back into her yard.

Josh walked carefully over the berm rocks and down to where the bag tugged against the branch.  He heard a mewling sound.  He reached out, stepped into the water and grabbed the bag, opened its top.  A black kitten stared back at him.   He grabbed the wiggling thing, carried it over and placed it by the river embankment.  One of its eyes was closed, seeping wetness. Josh carried the animal up to his trailer.  He went inside to show his Mom.  She sat on the couch eating corn chips.  “It’s a kitten, Mrs. Wright threw it in the river,” he told her.

She looked up from her phone and lifted a pale, many ringed hand to her face. “It’s filthy.”

“I think its hurt.”

“It’s not ours.  Give it back to Mrs. Wright.”

“She doesn’t want it.”

“Well, I don’t want it either.  I’m allergic.”  Josh’s Mom began to cough.  “I need some air, Josh.  Get that thing out of here.”

She stood up, holding onto one arm of the couch. “Glaser Neil phoned and said you were acting like a randy bobcat in the woods.”

“No I wasn’t” Josh answered.

His Mom wiped her face with a cool sponge. “What were you doing then?”

“I was listening,” he said.

His head swirled, he couldn’t explain.

“That’s not what Mr. Neil told me” said his Mom.  “You’re ten years old.  You’re not four.”

She fumbled in her army green shirt.  “Are you ever gonna grow up?”

She put a cigarette in her mouth. “I asked you,” she said.  “Do you get it?”

“ I understand.  But I wasn’t doing anything.”

His Mom sighed.  She sat back in the overstuffed chair. “It’s so hot,” she moaned, and coughed a few times.  “You gonna take that animal back?”  She smoked some more.  “You got fur all over your shirt.”

Josh looked down to where he held the kitten.  He walked out of the trailer, and carried the thin, mewling animal back underneath the bridge.   He dug a hole in the rocks and put the creature in the hole,  so it couldn’t crawl out.  He gave it some luncheon meat he’d taken from the kitchen.  The kitten walked around and around the meat at the bottom of the hole, mewling.

Josh hiked upriver,  The sudden May heat wave had melted the mountain snow and caused the current to roil and swell.  He saw his friend Larry jumping around on the embankment, tying red baler twine around some logs.

“I’m making a raft,” Larry said. “Can you help?”

“That sounds cool,” said Josh.

“Yeah,” said Larry “We’ll have a great ride with the river so high.”

The boys pulled wood from the fallen forest and wrapped the pieces together with the twine, fastened them with reef knots Josh had learned to tie from Glaser Neil.  Josh nodded at Larry.  “I found a kitten. But my Mom won’t let me keep it.”  He paused. “You want to have a look?”

The two boys crawled under the bridge.  Larry picked the kitten up and stared into its face.  “Her eye is pretty well gone.  She’s probably suffering.”

“What am I going to do?” Josh said.  “I don’t think it ate anything.”

Larry put the tiny cat down.  It tried to crawl out of the rock circle.

“Well,” said Larry.  “You’ll have to knock it on the head with a rock and throw it back in the river.  That would be the merciful thing to do.”

“Maybe I’ll have to,” said Josh, although the thought made him sick.  “But couldn’t you do that for me?”
“No, Josh. It’s your kitten.”

The two boys climbed back to the raft.  Josh’s body shivered with energy.   He wanted to get away from the bulldozer noise, the bobcat, his Mom and the kitten.  “Let’s get some poles and ride down the river,” he said.

“Yeah,” Larry said.  “Let’s do it.”

The two boys heaved the heavy craft into the brown swirling water and leaped on board, using their poles to balance.  The raft angled out into the current and spun, then hurtled forward, around a corner and under the bridge.

“This thing is shooting like a rocket!” Larry yelled.  “Watch out for rapids!”

Josh forgot everything else, focussed on  the poling.  He’d never strained his muscles so much. Larry pushed his stick hard into the water to avoid a hanging tree and the pole snapped.

“Damn!  I didn’t think the current was this strong.”

Up ahead, another corner, and on that corner, a log jam seethed, held to one side by the pressure of the current.

“We’re heading right for it!” Larry yelled.  “Use your pole, Josh.”

Josh tried his best but his pole wasn’t long enough to reach the bottom and it slipped from his hands.  The raft crashed up against the trapped logs and the force of the current shoved the front end down.  Larry leaped onto the logjam, but Josh was at the rear and he jumped too soon.  He plummeted into the cold runoff water, the raft forced underneath.  Josh felt himself pushed against the log jam.  He slid beneath the river and the logs.  The water pressed his body and head under.  He opened his eyes and saw the yellow brown current flowing above him. He couldn’t move, or breathe, the river held him in its flow, up against the bottom of the log jam.

“I’m stuck,” he thought. “I have to let go.”

He pushed his hands against the log above him. It moved and he heaved it over some more and flung his head above the water.  He hung onto the saviour log.  Larry stood a few feet away, balancing on the churning pile.

Josh pushed himself sideways, then rolled up onto the log jam.

“I thought you were gonna drown!” Larry yelled.

“Help me out of here,” Josh crawled along the logs towards him.

That night, Josh lay in his bed listening to the frogs croaking from the forest.  He’d come home and thrown his clothes in the dryer, snuck off to his tiny room at the back of the trailer.

“What’s this water all over the porch?” his Mom yelled from the kitchen.

Josh ran out and wiped everything down with a towel. “Sorry, I slipped.”

“I saved myself right out of a drowning,” he thought, picturing his head popping from between the logs.  He thought back to being underwater, being breathless against it, with the current pushing up.  He remembered holding air. After a while, lay back in the bed again, felt his lungs pull in, and pull out,  and after a while he slept.

He woke up with cottonwood seed wisps floating by the night window.  A few dragonflies buzzed.  He looked out at the warm moonlit night, glad there was no sun.  He put on his other pair of shoes,  lifted his body up and squeezed himself through the window opening.  “I’m different now” he said to himself, and  padded over towards the summer woods, along the deer paths.  He felt the trees had a presence. When he was in the forest he was part of it.  He remembered Glaser Neil saying “The wild land’s disappearing, there’s nowhere to hide, not even for the wind.”

He reached the clearing where the bulldozers parked.  The machines’ edges glowed, outlined against the rushing river by the moon shining on the water.   All around the bulldozers lay piles of trees.  Josh ran his hand over the caterpillar tracks, caked with drying mud from the marshes.  He pulled himself up to a cab door, tugged on the handle.  It opened.  Half a cigarette and a lighter lay on the seat.  Josh knew it was a marijuana cigarette because his mother smoked it sometimes.  Nick noticed a key on the floor.  He picked it up, and put the cig and lighter in his pocket.   He wondered what it would be like to start the tractor up and crush things. He stared out at the  pile of trees in front of the cab window,  tried to turn the key in the ignition.  It didn’t fit.  He jumped out of the cab, walked along the side of the machine.  Behind the cable winch at the back he noticed the locked gas cap.  He reached up, put the key in the cap and turned. The mechanism opened.  Josh flipped the cap and looked down at the long dark hole.  He looked down there a while.  He stepped back and squatted,  filled his two hands with dirt, reached up and poured the dirt in the hole. He did this a few more times.  Then he replaced the gas cap, locked it, climbed back into the bulldozer cab and put the gas cap key where he found it.  He descended from the cab and walked along the river, under the last remaining cottonwoods.  He sat on the bank, pulled out the marijuana cigarette and lit it with the lighter.   Josh smiled to himself.

He thought “Yeah, it would be good if Glaser Neil and Mom got together,” and he laughed out loud.

His Mom was sick, she’d always been that way,  and he kept seeing Glaser Neil carrying the white styrofoam.  He took a few puffs of the cigarette before putting it out again.  The stuff smelled like the wind from the pulp mill up the valley.

He watched the river current swirl, and the world began enlarging above the water.   It seemed to expand all around him.  Space fell away on all sides, and left him a pinpoint.  He became certain that something watched him.  It had been there all along.  It was the thing he sensed as the current pulled him under earlier that afternoon, and when he touched the bobcat’s fur.  It was the presence stuck under the log jam.  It was the thing he heard breathing as he lay on the ground.  Josh sat and listened.  He listened until the  light of the new day began to rise behind the hills.

He hiked down under the bridge to see the kitten.  It was still shadow upon shadow dark there.  Josh trod very carefully,  moved towards the mewing voice, the slight shadow in the hole.  Here was life,  the sound of it, in all its weakness.  It was like Larry said. He should hit it on the head.  He picked the kitten up and walked to the top of the bridge. He held it in his arms. Now the kitten wriggled between his hands.  Josh held it out above the water.  It kept wriggling, harder and faster. He wondered how long he could hold it.  He pressed down. The holding seemed to go on a long time. Tiny claws scratched up his arms.  He couldn’t hang on any more.   He let the crying body go. The kitten fell, across the growing light and into the river current.  The animal’s limbs flailed and it cried out.  It disappeared around the corner.   Josh stood there a while, feeling his scratched arms bleed, listening to the water rippling below.   He thought “I just let it go.”

Josh stepped back along the bridge, towards the light in the Eastern sky.  He’d hike by Glaser Neil’s place to see what his neighbour had done with the bobcat.  He wondered how the bulldozer would sound this morning, with its gas line full of dirt and leaves.

 

Harrison Kim

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

 

4 thoughts on “Child at the Edge of the Wilderness by Harrison Kim”

  1. Hi Harrison,
    Excellent story, that, as with all of your work, leaves us much to consider.
    There was a lot of trauma in the boys life, with him having to deal with the way his mother was. You get the idea that she had some problems.
    His world was changing from something natural to something more concrete.
    I suppose when you think on the section about the wild cat having to be saved and the domestic cat being drowned, that is telling us something.
    You get the feeling that the boy won’t end up anywhere happy but you don’t know why you feel that way.
    I really enjoyed this.
    Hugh

    Like

  2. Thanks for the comments, everyone. When I was a kid they did tear down the forest near my home. They made cornfields, though, not condos. A trapper did bring a bobcat in a cage to our school. I never touched it, but I told my Mom and she said “That’s cruel.” That was the first I’d heard of that word. There was a Mrs. Wright who threw things in the river, and I almost drowned in that river on one of those home made rafts. Lots of “free range” kids back in the day made for quite a different scene. Josh though is a more modern individual and is pretty restless and troubled. Indeed, the environment is changing from its natural state to a more human made one, one world is giving way to the other, there’s positive and negative consequences.

    Like

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