Pin it


Wood by Barry Yourgrau

I’m on holiday with the new woman in my life. She’s behaving very strangely.
     We’re off at an old, picturesque resort, by a lake deep in the forests.
     One night before turning in, as I’m brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I hear noise from the bedroom. I stick my head in. I blink. My new love squirms about slowly on the pillows, her hips rolling and luring under the bark-brown covers. She hisses at the sight of me, like an animal. “Sweetheart?” I pipe, over my foamy toothbrush. I shuffle toward her in my slippers, in drowsy approval. The covers slide away as I come up. “My God,” I murmur, at the sight of her nightgown up around her waist.
     I sink down beside her, next to her heat, my toothbrush still lewdly in place. There’s a tiny molten pause. Suddenly we grapple, as if possessed. We roll right, then left. I thrust and plunge and grab, in delirious, disbelieving fever. She wheels on top of me. “Oh, yes!” I yelp, writhing minty-mouthed and ecstatic. She bares her teeth, gaping. Her eyes seem to glow with odd, yellowish light. “Sweetheart?” I sputter. She lunges over, and seizes one of my out-flung hands. She sinks her teeth into my thumb.
     I screech and thrash loose and wrench against the wall, jamming the toothbrush so hard I almost crack something. “What the hell!” I squawk, spraying paste. I struggle erect. “Are you nuts?” I cry. “Why’d you bite me — look at the blood!” She huddles down into the pillows, hissing softly, grinning. I stare at her. I follow her eyes to my monstrous pajama pants. I swallow in consternation and edge away, back into the bathroom.
     In the morning she’s full of apologies, meek cuddles. I cuddle in return, my thumb heavily Band-Aided. We put it all down to new surroundings, food, what have you. She’s again her sweet demure self, if a bit wan-looking. She doesn’t feel up to our planned excursion to a glassblower’s. So instead we just go for a walk along the wooded lakeshore.
     “Atmospheric” is how the brochure describes this forest. “Dark and forbidding” is how it strikes me. As we huff along under the towering gloom, my companion seems to grow agitated. “Yes, probably just something you ate,” I murmur again, uneasily, about last night. I watch her pale head twitch from left to right at the noise of the resort workmen off in the foliage, thumping and trimming, at the darting rustle and wriggling in the undergrowth all around.
     The “eating” theme comes up again at lunch, in the dim knotted wood of the hotel dining room.
     “Sweetheart,” I exclaim softly, “easy does it there!” She hunches over her second plate of frog legs, snorting and sucking. “I just can’t get enough,” she grunts. “Yes, but people are watching” I whisper, finding my own eyes weirdly riveted. My mouth goes inexplicably dry. I stare at her lurid throat. I force a prim, congenial laugh, glancing at a table of oldsters nearby. They exchange haughty, in-the-know looks and sip their goblets of water.
     In the middle of the night I’m awakened by sounds of lunch. I struggle around blearily, and then I jolt. My beloved squats in her plaid nightgown by the wall. A window is open to the leafy night. Parts of live frog lie scattered around her, torn and twitching and flopping. She swings her head around to me. I garble a scream into my hand. Her mouth is red, messy. She giggles hungrily in her throat. She flips a webbed hunk aside. She wrenches at her nightgown buttons and puckers up gory lips. “Kissy kissy!” she growls, coming for me with glossy fingers and arms, eyes flashing yellow. I squawk. My blood seethes in revulsion. We have an awkward, gruesome tussle in the darkness. She gets a hand into my pajamas, which I pry away, but still it takes me several long moments. “Sweetheart — I’m not — in the mood!” I hear myself gasping ludicrously, fending her off.
     I spend the rest of the night in the bathroom on a blanket, with the door locked. The stark phrase, “not in the mood,” blares through the turmoil of my conscience.
     Because it’s a big fat lie. Three times my horrified, bestial heart urges me back toward the bedroom, where my pajamas are pointing. Somehow I manage to resist.
     I decide things are clearly now a matter for a doctor’s care. I go see the concierge for a discreet recommendation. The concierge is a stooped little man, in a cold, shadowy office. He coughs bronchially into a handkerchief. I flinch in my chair, thinking the flu would be all I’d need, on top of everything else.
     “Someone sick?” he asks, seemingly unaware of the irony. “Not — not in the usual sense,” I begin uncertainly. “A lady behaving strange?” he demands. I’m taken aback. “Well — yes, as a matter of fact,” I stammer. Flushing, I recount to him, unexpectedly, much of what’s been going on. I exhibit my bandaged thumb and bare my still-sore tooth. I describe the frogs and the craze for kisses. I touch on my own darkly troubling angle, as much as I dare from shame and modesty. He nods, grim.
     “A doctor won’t help,” he mutters.
     “What do you mean?” I protest. He coughs. He squints at me over the cupped handkerchief. “Do you know a thing or two about life?” he says. I feel myself blush at the question. I blink. “Well, actually, I’ve been on my own many years,” I mumble. “If that’s what –” “Some women get affected, out here,” he goes right on. “Maybe it’s being near so many big trees. Maybe from all that clammy water, out in the lake . . .”
     The faint din of labor in the branches drifts from the window. “Well then we’ll just pack up and leave, right this minute!” I exclaim, mentally despairing of the lost room deposit.
     The concierge flaps his hand.
     “It’s too late for that now,” he declares. “Once she’s this way. Once you’re both . . .” His voice trails off. He narrows his eyes, and scans me up and down. “I’ll tell you what you have to do,” he says. “But you won’t like it.”
     He tells me. I clamber to my feet. “You must be criminally mad!” I sputter. “A wooden stake? What d’you think she is — some kind of ghoul?”
     He shrugs. “Alright, try taking her to a church,” he says. “Go ahead, see what happens.”

“Sweetheart, why don’t we go visit one of these quaint old chapels the brochure talks about around here?” I suggest, with strained nonchalance, after some chaste cuddling back in the room. The notion provokes such a storm of howling and writhing that I have to ring for the bellhop to help restore order, which finally comes as an exhausted, weepy dozing-off.
     I wander out all afternoon long, in anguish at what things have come to, for everyone involved. Having no alternative, my footsteps take me into the infernal forest. This has not been my idea of a vacation in any way, I brood, glaring accusatorially at the grandiose uprights crowding and preening all around. My thoughts and worries so distract me, dusk is falling by the time I start back. I pant along, more and more uneasy in the mottled dimness. Something wriggles past and I jump. Then I whirl about, at furious commotion up from the path. I scream.
     My companion is there in the undergrowth, in her nightgown, up against a thick-barked trunk. Her hair streams over her shoulders, a rat whips its tail, squealing in her grip, high over her thrown-back jaws. She sees me. She screeches in joy, churns the squirming thing against her and heaves it aside. She comes crashing toward me, wolf-eyed, nightgown flapping wide open. “Sweetheart . . .” I burble. I scream again, but without sound, thrilled by bare predatory flesh. At the last moment I lurch about and flounder off down the darkened path. She chases me all the way back to the resort. On the lamplit terrace, an old geezer sits with a blanket over his knees. He snickers as I come clattering past.
     Another stark night in the bathroom, with the door locked and re-locked, gnawing at my thumb, in despair for both our mortal souls.
     At dawn I go around in the mist to the workmen’s sheds, to find myself a wooden stake. I poke through a stack of them, long and nasty-looking. I grimace sleepily, to think of the work ahead.
     “What d’ya want?” a gruff voice demands.
     An ill-shaved foreman in overalls scowls at me. I swallow. “I’m a guest here,” I inform him. “I’d — I’d just like to borrow one of these stakes, if I may.” “For medicinal purposes,” I’m about to add, but the words sound too bizarre.
     “So go find your own!” the foreman retorts. “We need all we got, for extra work we gotta do ourselves.” A couple of his workmen step out into view, mallets up, to make sure I get the point.
     The concierge supplies me with a wooden spoon from the kitchen. “It can be just as effective, believe me,” he says. “Forget about size considerations and such.” I regard the flimsy utensil in my fingers with dismay. Suddenly he leans across and murmurs that for a small extra charge, he’ll come along and lend a hand. I look at him. I have half a mind to say yes to this quirky proposal, but right away implications start to suggest themselves. Then he coughs into his handkerchief, and that does it for the notion.
     I spend the morning on the terrace with my listless beloved, so meek in the daylight. “Forgive me, it’s been such a demanding holiday for you,” she sighs, shadow-eyed. I smile and pat her limp wrist. I turn my head and stare off at the dark shimmer of the lake, at the colossal, creaking insidious trees. I grit my teeth.
     “Not hungry?” she growls at lunch, over her clumps of smoked eel and asparagus. “No thanks, just feel like a drink,” I answer, struggling breezily for a grin as my own loathsome blood heats. My glass rattles against the silverware. “I think I’ll have another,” I add faintly.
     I tuck her in for her nap, trembling. “You’re so sweet,” she murmurs, as I draw the curtains. Hazy dimness descends. I settle in the armchair, ostensibly to read. A stupendous booming fills the room. I realize it’s my heart. I strain through it to catch the slowed breathing of slumber. I rise up stealthily, to peer.
     Her eyes are closed fast.
     I reach over into the bureau drawer and ease out the lethal spoon from under my socks. I pick up a sturdy walking shoe from the carpet. I creep over to the bed. My hands are shaking so hard, I look like the fool in a vaudeville act. I set the wavering spoon in position over her nightgown and raise the appalling shoe. Her wan, snoozing head on the pillow seems so innocent, that I falter. I close my eyes in despair. A hiss jerks them open.
     Yellow-glowing eyes blaze at me.
     She snarls, open-fanged, and writhes. I gasp. I force myself to ram down the spoon. I strike it with the shoe. She screeches. She claws at me furiously, twisting side to side. I sprawl on top of her. I batter and slog at the utensil, woozy like a drunk from her putrid breath, hot in my ear. “No — no — no,” she screeches. Her nightgown rips full open. “Oh god — oh go — oh god,” I cry, hammering on, hearing the gruesome, delirious squelching of flesh. She bites me and flails with her bare knees. I pound with every last inch of my might, as if fighting through syrupy tides. All at once she screams horrendously, and sways up, rigid — and then swoons back, splayed and lifeless.
     I lie there on her grimy breast, bleating, spent. After a while, I roll off. I look at what I’ve done, and I groan in awe and horror, trembly with relief. I lurch from the bed and totter into the bathroom and turn on the shower.
     As I’m drying off with a leaf-green towel, I hear a low laugh behind me. I turn slowly around.
     She leans against the doorway, naked as an infant, an arm over the crimson wound in her breast. She smiles at me, intimately, radiant and dewy pink. The slimy spoon dandles from her hand. I smile slowly, intimately, back. I step over to her, and sweep her in my arms. “Oh my true love,” I whisper. “Brutally butchered, to save us sweetly here in life!” We kiss, tongue onto tongue.
     At dinner the concierge sends over a bottle of ersatz champagne to go with our trout, and a table of old geezers show me thumbs-up and a wink. I nod, pursing my lips coolly. I dab at the trophy scratches on my cheek.
     Afterward my reborn beloved and I join the dancing in the nippy moonlight on the terrace. She whispers something about forests and trees and I laugh and give her a private squeeze, so she yelps and squeezes in reply. At this point someone coughs beside us and tries to cut in, but we decline.
     The next day, in fact, a jarring note arrives, offering to buy the spoon back — or at least get a long look at it. I grunt and tear the paper into pieces, with a shake of my head and a shudder. Of course I keep this nasty business from my companion. But I add it to my newfound wisdoms about life. And to what can go wrong, when you’re on holiday.

©1997 Barry Yourgrau and