by Forrest Aguirre


I woke to that twisty, smoky ache in my back and neck that only comes from fitfully tossing in a sleeping bag on hard ground.  My nose was freezing and a campfire-ash-ridden grime filled the creases of my weary eyes.  The sun shone through the blue tent fabric from an angle I thought altogether too high for the time indicated by my watch.

After a cardboard and syrup pancake breakfast (served, as always, by Mister Dillington, who rose daily with the sun and lay down with Apollo’s descent) and a splash of cold water to the face, we set off on a spontaneously organized hike, leaving the scoutmaster snoring in his tent (much to Dillington’s consternation).

Our group trudged through dew-dappled grass, brushed stinging nettle and tree bark until the city abraded out of us.  We could hear the highway traffic only a couple of miles away and knew that at any moment we might wander into the backyard of one of the city’s more affluent residents, but spurned these reminders, choosing instead to immerse ourselves in the illusion of rurality.  Here, in the woods, we were invincible.  Our walking sticks turned to long swords, rifles, or laser blasters as any given game demanded.

Mark Mueller initiated the creation of the stickmen.  We were odd on a role-play that needed even teams.  Mark, being, quite truthfully, the runt of the bunch, was left alone after pairs were chosen.  But he had learned a certain shrewd but playful resourcefulness by being caught like this in the past and had come to the seemingly genius idea – for Mark was intelligent beyond his years, a trait that further decreased his chances of mainstream social acceptance – of simply creating a partner when one was needed.  He fashioned his crude team-mate from the materials at hand: thickly-veined shag bark hickory arms and legs vine-tied to a reed batch torso, atop which rested a diseased box elder-bole head.  Mark was careful in his anthropomorphization – the end of each arm ended in thick, curled fingers; legs ended in clubfoot boots; and the head was creased into a shelf where the eyes would be, giving his comrade a sort of Neanderthalensis heaviness.

Not all were impressed with his creativity.  Kevin Melikan, an abdominous giant of a boy, one who most resembled Mark’s creation, sneered in derision.  “Have fun with you girlfriend!” he mocked.  Mark’s green eyes lit with fear beneath his disheveled black hair, but Kevin turned his short attention span elsewhere, laughing and whipping Ken Whitman (affectionately known as “Shitman”) with a stinging nettle lash.  After the pair’s screaming and laughter disappeared into the brush, a few of us remained, staring at Mark’s compatriot (adoration was safe now with Kevin gone).  Without a word we took our places in preparation for our game of “Revolutionary War.”

No one’s thoughts were on the game.  We all gave the shell of a care, but our minds were elsewhere – in a mad castle laboratory, creating floral Frankensteins replete with muskets, epaulets, powder horns, and Hessian brass mitres.  Our ambitions embraced armies.  We led our thousands, our tens of thousands across apocalyptic vistas laid waste by nuclear fallout and pathogen bombs.  Whole forests of Gog and Magog converged on the battlefield, marching in goosestep to the distant rumble of krupp guns and tank treads.  We rode ahead of our bark-skinned warriors on stiff-limbed, gnarled wooden steeds, on to the final reckoning.

Then, when we had settled back again into the flow of time, as all child-minds must, we set to work.  Trails were denuded of limbs, the underbrush raided for material in a moil of gathering.  We were frantic to create, a whirling of twine knots and leaves, shredding, discarding, combining until we were threatened with weaving ourselves into the very landscape from which we birthed our constructs.

Our attempts were clumsy, but we were all able, by afternoon, to cobble together the first of our mercenary armies.  We resembled our statues – hands and knees covered in dust, leaves and pine needles tangled in our hair.  We were one with the forest and the forest was one with our stickman soldiers.

We had been so focused on our own work that none had looked up to see another’s efforts.  My eyes rose to the woods to see wooden men peeping from behind logs; sitting, weapons in hand, as if in a foxhole, waiting for war; leaning up against trees smoking Lucky Strikes like the soldiers we admired in those old war movies; even laying in the mud, sleeping in trenches and dreaming of home.  We were justifiably pleased with our rough-hewn heroes.

But in the time it took most of us to pick up the rudiments of stickman design, Mark Mueller had taken his metier to a higher level.  Indeed, he was a prodigy, clearly the doyen of his craft.  His skill had increased exponentially, while we remained mired in mediocrity, lost in rudiments.  We knew we could not match his genius when we saw what he had made. 

There, at the head of the main clearing, stood a throng of knee-high worshipping acolytes whose fine features shamed the best or our soldiers.  Even the beauty of this congregation, however, could not compare with that of the object of their adoration: A xylemic Adonis, replete with flowing gold dandelion hair, hung cruciform from a vast, ancient yew.  Its hyper-athletic torso hung between extended vine arms, anatomically perfect to the smallest detailed veins of bark-twine.  Delicate fingers inset with smooth pebble finger nails curled around the palm-piercing thorns from which the martyr hung.  The lower half, likewise, was stunningly realistic.  No one dared look under the Adamic maple leaf loin cloth to test the artistic integrity.  The tree-god looked down on us through softly shimmering pyrite eyes that reflected a certain reverent sadness.  A crown of stinging nettle surmounted His brow.

We all turned to Mark, who looked at the ground shyly, as if ashamed.  I could hear my heart beating in my ears.  I thought I saw Ken Whitman’s eyes water as we looked back and forth to the yew, to Mark, to the yew again.  The air suddenly felt warmer, the sunlight a bit brighter.

Kevin crashed through the brush, shattering the solemnity.  He looked at Mark, again in utter disgust.  The larger boy spat in the smaller’s face.  Mark, in a move entirely uncharacteristic of his meek demeanor, bum-rushed Kevin, who gut punched the runt, then kneed him in the face, causing blood to spatter across the pair.

Mark knelt in agony as Kevin slowly walked over to the yew, crushing worshippers as he went.  He circled the tree, studying the figure with growing anger.  He snorted at the pinned-up god, a tick rapidly twitching in one eye.  Then, like a striking rattlesnake, he uncoiled, thrusting his hands into the abdomen, blood from his scratched fingers and palms mingling with the insides of the deity, then pulling the idol down to the ground where he ripped the head from the disemboweled body.  Kevin’s feral scream echoed through the forest as he held the head aloft by its golden dandelion hair, then threw it into the forest.  We knew then that the game was over.

We shuffled back to camp, Kevin in the lead, Mark stumbling up the rear with assistance from a couple of the other boys.  As we turned a bend, Kevin stopped us, then, pointing to a spot off the trail, he said, simply, “there’s mine,” and continued on ahead of us.

Back from the trail, under a canopy of dead leaves, stood a gargantuan, lutose, briar-infested golem, eight feet tall at the crown.  It was crude – intentionally so, it seemed – and possessed a sort of glowering malevolence, as if the oversized bully had injected it with his own spite.  Its body and limbs were made of thick logs, with a mail-coat tunic woven of thorny rose branches.  The head was constructed from a small tree stump, a blank saw-cut face staring down without eyes, breathing decay without nose, voicing stygian syllables without mouth. Its hair spiked back from its featureless façade, a system of sharp pointed roots tangled in a writhing gorgonic mass. 

Kevin’s “Hurry up!” broke us from the tree-demon’s paralyzing non-gaze.

*     *     *

A few weeks after camp was over, my father and I returned for a hike through the forest.  The trail was well-worn, but difficult due to a scattering of limbs and detritus from tornado that had touched down in the woods only a few days before.  I looked for signs of our stickmen, but the soldiers were not at their posts.  They had, it appeared, been cast about by the whirlwind, their constituent parts flung abroad.  I looked in vain for the yew-god and his followers, but the clearing had been erased of evidence, as if we had never been in that place.

*     *     *

I return to those woods frequently, always looking for a remnant, just a piece, of Marks apotheotic being, of Kevin’s troll, of anything to substantiate our creations.  I hope against logic that something has survived decomposition, that, perhaps, entropy has missed an oaken musket or a birch skin marching boot.  Only the yew tree remains, stripped of its sacrosanct decoration.  I suspect that tree will be around long after my childhood friends and I have become one with the earth, beneath the roots.  Yet still I search.



About the Author:

Forrest Aguirre's fiction has appeared in such venues as American Letters & Commentary, The Journal of Experimental Fiction, 3rd Bed, Polyphony, and Farrago's Wainscot. His novella, Swans Over the Moon, is available from Wheatland Press. He has won the World Fantasy Award for editing the Leviathan 3 anthology and continues to edit the Text:UR anthology series. He recently completed his first novel, From Caina to Jedecca. Forrest lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and four children.



Story © 2007 Forrest Aguirre. Photo by Ancheta Wis.