Home > The Weight of Silence(6)

The Weight of Silence(6)
Heather Gudenkauf

I know I was pretty rotten to you that day, but on a guy's first day of fifth grade first impressions are really important. I tried to make it up to you. In case you didn't know, I was the one who put the Tootsie Rolls under your pillow that night. I'm sorry, not watching out for you those first few weeks of school. But you know all about that, being sorry and having no words to say something when you know you should but you just can't.


Griff sat with his back propped up against one of the aged willows, his head lolled forward, eyes closed, his powerful fingers still wrapped around Calli's wrist. Calli squirmed uncomfortably on the hard, uneven ground beneath the willow. The stench of urine pricked at her nose and a wave of shame washed over her. She should run now, she thought. She was fast and knew every twist and turn of the woods; she could easily lose her father. She slowly tried to pull her arm from his clawlike clasp, but in his light sleep he grasped her even tighter. Calli's shoulders slumped and she settled back against her side of the tree.

She liked to imagine what it would be like to stay out in the woods with no supplies, what her brother called "roughin' it." Ben knew everything about the Willow Creek Woods. He knew that the woods were over fourteen thousand acres big and extended into two counties. He told her that the forest was made up mostly of limestone and sandstone and was a part of the Paleozoic Plateau, which meant that glaciers had never moved through their part of Iowa. He also showed her where to find the red-shouldered hawk, an endangered bird that not even Ranger Phelps had seen before. She had only been out here a few hours and it was enough for her. Normally the woods were her favorite place to go, a quiet spot where she could think, wander and explore. She and Ben often pretended to set up camp here in Willow Wallow. Ben would lug a thermos of water and Calli would carry the snacks, bags of salty chips and thick ropes of licorice for them to munch on. Ben would arrange sticks and brushwood into a large circular pile and surround them with stones for their bonfire. They never actually lit a fire, but it was fun to pretend. They would stick marshmallows on the end of green twigs and "roast" them over their fire. Ben used to pull out his pocketknife and try to whittle utensils out of thin branches he would find on the ground. He had carved out two spoons and a fork before the blade had slipped and he sliced his hand, needing six stitches. Their mother had taken the knife away after that, saying he could have it back in a few years. Ben handed it over grudgingly. Lately, instead of carving out the silverware, she and Ben smuggled dishes and tableware from their own kitchen. Under the largest of the willows Ben had constructed a small little cupboard out of old boards and hammered it to the tree. They kept their household goods there. Once, trying to plan ahead, they had placed a box of crackers and a package of cookies on the shelf. When they returned a few days later, they found that something had been there before them, probably a raccoon, but Ben said, in a teasing voice, it also could have been a bear. Calli hadn't really believed that, but it was fun to pretend that a mama bear was out there somewhere, feeding her cubs Chips Ahoy cookies and Wheat Thins.

She wondered if her mother had noticed that she was gone yet, wondered if she was worried about her, looking for her. Calli's stomach rumbled and she hastily placed her free hand over it, willing it to silence. Maybe there was something to eat in the cupboard two trees over. Griff snorted, his eyes fluttered open and he settled his gaze on Calli's face.

"You reek," he said meanly, unaware of his own smell, a combination of liquor, perspiration and onions. "Come on, let's get going. We've got a family reunion to attend. Which way do we go?"

Calli considered this. She could lie, lead him deeper into the forest, and then make a break for it when she had the chance, or she could show him the correct route and get it over with. The second choice prevailed. She was already hungry and tired, and she wanted to go home. She pointed a thin, grubby finger back the way they had come.

"Get up," Griff commanded.

Calli scrambled to her feet, Griff let go of her arm and Calli tried to shake out the numbness that had snaked into her fingers. They walked in a strange sort of tandem, Griff directly behind her, his hand on her shoulder; Calli slumped slightly under the weight of his meaty hand. Calli led the two of them out of Willow Wallow about one hundred yards, to the beginning of a narrow winding trail called Broadleaf. Calli always knew if someone or something had been walking the trails before her. During the night spiders would knit their webs across the trails from limb to limb. When the morning sun was just right, Calli could see the delicate threads, a minute, fragile barrier to the inner workings of the forest. "Keep out," it whispered. She would always skirt the woven curtain, trying not to disturb the netting. If the web dangled in wispy threads Calli knew that something had been there before her, and if closer inspection revealed the footprints of a human, she would retreat and wind her way back to another trail. Calli liked the idea that she could be the only person around for miles. That the white-speckled ground squirrel that sat on an old rotted tree branch, wringing his paws, would be seeing a human for the first time. That this sad-eyed creature before it didn't quite belong, but didn't disturb its world, either. Today she carefully stepped around a red maple, the breeze of her movements causing the web to sway precariously for a moment, and then settle.

A flash of movement to the right surprised them both. A large dog with golden-red fur sniffed its way past them, snuffling at their feet. Calli reached out to stroke its back, but it swiftly moved onward, a long red leash dragging behind it.

"Jesus!" Griff exclaimed, clutching his chest. "Bout scared me to death. Let's go."

Only one animal had ever frightened Calli in her past explorations of the woods. The soot-colored crow, with its slick, oily feathers, perched in crooked maples, its harassed caw overriding the hushed murmurs of the forest. Calli imagined a coven of crows peering down at her from leafy hiding spots with eyes as bright and cold as ball bearings, watching, considering. The birds would seem to follow her from a distance in noisy, low swoops. Calli looked above her. No crows, but she did spy a lone gray-feathered nuthatch walking down the trunk of a tree in search of insects.

"You sure we're going the right way?" Griff stopped, inspecting his surroundings carefully. His words sounded clearer, less slurred.

Calli nodded. They walked for about ten more minutes, and then Calli led him off Broadleaf Trail, where brambles and sticky walnut husks were thick. Calli examined the ground in front of her for poison ivy, found none and continued forward and upward, wincing with each step. Suddenly the thicket of trees ended and they were on the outskirts of Louis's backyard. The grass was wet with dew and overgrown; a littering of baseball bats, gloves and other toys surrounded a small swing set. A green van sat in the driveway next to the brown-sided ranch-style home. All was still except for the honeybees buzzing around a wilted cluster of Shasta daisies. The home seemed to be slumbering.

Griff looked uncertain as to what to do next. His hands shook slightly on Calli's shoulder; she could feel the slight tattoo of movement through her nightgown.

"Told you I'd take you to see where your daddy was. Just think, you could be living here in this fine home." Griff guffawed and rubbed his hand over his bloodshot eyes. "Do you think we should stop in and say good morning?" Much of his earlier bluster was fading away.

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