It was a simple pulley. Not weathered, maybe fixed-eye, with some plastic twine threaded through the sheave. It hung there from a bar, which had been bent in the middle by weight and poor planning. The bar was secured to two trees about five feet apart, wispy-looking quaking aspens with trunks about as big around as an average female’s thighs. Smooth like them, too.
Other than that, and the hundreds of casings scattered about and piled up in mounds, it looked like any other run-down, ordinary camp. If they were true hunters they would have recycled their casings instead of wasting them. These guys wouldn’t take to sizing and primers. They wouldn’t deburr, bell, chamfer. They wouldn’t know what a carbide die was. True hunters would have had a proper gambrel hoist for the deer they hung. They were weekenders. That’s if what they hung on that pulley was a whitetail. That’s if that’s what they crept into the woods to hunt.
Two of the dancers from Danny Taylor’s Body Shop—one of the only thriving establishments in town—went missing for a whole weekend. Taylor yammered about losing customers. “Get those girls back here. I want them dancing around them poles tonight,” he yelled to the other girls and collapsed his scraggy frame into his swivel chair next to the register, licked his thumb, and counted out the stacks of ones and fives again, all of those bills creased deep with sweat and booze. But no one went looking, and the girls returned, a little bunged up—scrapes on their knees, bruises circling their ankles—but back to their same routines.
Taylor never asked them about it. He said rumors only made business better for the girls. And him. They’d agreed. “Don’t go telling the pigs!” they said, raising their penciled brows to their reflections in the smeared mirrors. Mouths agape, they lined dark the watery edges of their eyes.
Many of the regulars noticed the one girl covered up a little more, was a little more tense when she gave laps.
Meggie didn’t know where it was located. She’d just heard a group of slick city hunters bragging about some camp they’d landed through a sweet deal when they came in to celebrate at Whitey’s. Whitey hadn’t heard anything about it. He missed quite a bit Meggie picked up on.
Whitey told everyone she was the best bartender he ever had; she’d tended bar the past five years since graduating high school. He called her scrappy. Said she could hold her own.
“You guys always drink girl’s drinks,” she chided one evening, as she served these same city hunters their Sloe Screws and Fuzzy Navels. One of the huskier ones ordered tequila just to call her at her game.
“You do the shots with me, though,” he said.
“Need some training wheels for that stuff?” She offered him a slice of lemon and slid the salt dip close to his hand. He snatched the shot and gulped it down, winced and waved the lemon away. She downed hers and smiled, poured a round for his buddies. “On my tab, ladies,” she said. “This is 100% blue.” She could tell the other three thought she was just sassy, causing no problems. They told the husky one he needed to lighten up. Whitey nodded.
The guy didn’t let it go though. Stopped in the next afternoon, before the rush. Asked her to come out to the camp for a few drinks after she got off. She politely told him no and put a bottle in his hand. She said, “Drink this on me. No hard feelings?” He stubbed out his cigarette right on the bar, next to the ashtray, and grinned.
The scent of burnt wood must have summoned Whitey out from the back. He pushed the guy away, said, “Out,” and rubbed the burn with a wet rag.
Meggie knew Whitey loved her. Like a daughter, he’d say to people, but she sensed he felt much more. Maybe a little crush. He told her many times not to rile up these kinds of guys during hunting season. He’d said, “They get like bucks in rut, Meggie. You want to keep them happy drunks.”
“How bad is it,” Meggie said, leaning down to take a closer look at the burn. Whitey mumbled something about matching the stain, something about polyurethane.
Then, finally, he shook his head at her. “What’d I tell you?”
“They’re harmless, Whitey. All talk,” Meggie said, settling her palm on his worn forearm, feeling his muscles tense up and then slacken under her touch.
You take your dog to the wrong party with some asshole hunters from the city who claim you as their new friend, too many thirty packs sucked down, and the next thing you know you’re sweating out hops and digging a hole. Next thing you know these new buddies make some sorry excuse for a cross out of some leftover lumber scraps and promise they’ll fix it all up real nice. Find a good stone for the marker, too. Maybe even have a service if you want. Give a little eulogy. One of them slaps you on the back and says, “Hey, man, I was wasted. I’m a prick.” He shakes your hand.
Boon was the dog’s name. A chocolate Lab. Could look like a bear if you were too sauced up on Yuenglings to see he was just a dog. That was the excuse. That and the fact that the dog wouldn’t stop barking the whole time the girl hung there.
“He just wanted to shoot something, Jimmy,” one of them admits later. “That’s how he gets.”
“He’s got a screw loose,” another one says after a few more beers.
“You’ve done some pretty sad shit, too,” the first one counters.
“I didn’t do no weird shit with some local girl.”
“She’s fine. Back at the bar, serving up drinks again.”
“It could be a mandrake,” the old woman, Chick, from the Thrift Drug store on the corner of Main and Willow said when Marion told her about the plant. She squinted, looking closer at the picture of it, and then she whispered, “Was there any semen spilt where you found it?”
Marion just laughed and shook his finger at her.
She said, “I’m serious.”
Marion said, “I know you are. You and your theories all the time. You sound like Crazy Miss Jean.”
“Bring me the whole plant. Root too,” Chick said and winked slowly, dusting off the shelves where the decongestants were lined up.
The guy from Penn State extension told Marion over the phone, “Mandrakes, if you mean Mandragora, well, they don’t grow native here. Bring it in, though, and we’ll check out what it is you did find.” He’d had them ID mushrooms for him many times when he was first learning to forage—then mostly Armillaria mellea from Galerina autumnalis—and he trusted what they said. It was growing, though, that mandrake, plain as day, right below where the pulley hung.
Marion noticed the plant after he saw the pulley, but he didn’t tell Chick or the guy from Penn State extension about the pulley or that gambrel he spotted in the high weeds. He didn’t tell either of them about the hump of dirt he saw a few yards away either.
Never can get all that dirt back in the same way after you’ve buried something.
No one knew who actually owned the campsite. Hell, it would have been simple to go in to the courthouse and ask a few questions, but this was the valley and one never went to the courthouse except to get a marriage license or beagle dog license or do jury duty. More you stir the shit, more it stinks was what everyone said. So no one was going to ask questions there. Plenty other ways to find out.
All spring and summer long the campsite sat abandoned. Plenty went there to check it out but all they found besides the hump of dirt, casings, and pulley were some broken, faded lawn chairs and cases of empties, piles of half-burned Styrofoam plates, an old rubber stuck on a limb. Nothing.
Delmar’s son, Harley, who always was a little off, found himself lost near the campsite in early fall just as archery season was starting up and asked for help getting back. The men made him sing songs. “Just sing the right one and we’ll drive you home,” is all he told of the night.
The boy didn’t come out of the house for weeks after, and when we asked Delmar how his son was doing, he just shook his head and held a palm up, waving away any more talk of it.
Cheezer, who volunteered at the library and fixed their computers on the side, found a YouTube site one night after he’d shelved all the returned books and organized the rental DVDs. He’d stumbled onto the site after laughing through the usual hunting funnies, goofy clips of guys holding beers up to the tongue-lopping mouth of a doe, or a shot of a cigar stuck in the rough muzzle of a slumped bear, or some ass-wipe with a corncob for a dick pissing out through his trousers.
But the ones that he clicked on next shook him up. He watched five clips. Couldn’t believe what he saw. A bunch of wasted guys at some campsite messing with people, holding each for hours according to the time stamps on the videos. Saying something about how they’d need to gut them out since they hadn’t yet tagged a whitetail. Said hunters couldn’t just leave the woods empty-handed, without meat or rack, could they?
Then the men hoisted them up, upside-down from each ankle, slow-like. They hung there naked, so long their faces turned colors. A few of them looked like they came close to passing out. All this just to piss on them, or pour beer over them, or spit long lines of chew at them. All this just to make them hang there, begging, ankles wide apart, a permanent marker line drawn from their neck to their pubic bone to show where the cut would’ve been. Same thing happened at the end of each clip. They promised they’d let each one go if they’d recite some nursery rhyme, remember some line from a movie, or hum a tune. Some cried, some didn’t, but each clip was the same in one way: each person hesitated, unblinking, when they crumpled to the ground and were told they could leave. The men laughed and cheered them on, “Faster, faster, now,” watching them take off through the woods when they finally decided they could run.
The next day Cheezer whispered to his other geek friends about how bad those movies were. Wouldn’t give up the URLs for nothing, though. Said he didn’t want no one seeing that.
He also didn’t tell them that he recognized one of the girls from Danny Taylor’s Body Shop and one from Whitey’s bar, even one from his old church youth group. And he recognized a boy, too. A brother of a friend. He also thought he might know where the camp was, based on the gas line clearing in the background.
That evening, he volunteered to lock up and said goodbye to the librarian, watched her unlock her car door, turn on her headlights, drive away. Then he watered the spider plants, careful not to trip on the cascading spiderettes. He shut down the lights over the front stacks and headed back to the blue glow of his laptop to watch the videos a second time just to see if they were really as awful as he’d remembered.
When buck season came around again, some local hunters hooked up at Whitey’s with this group of slick city hunters who’d been there the year before. They promised, sure, they could get them to the trophy bucks. The local guys talked for hours about the racks on these beasts, how they’d fed the deer all summer—mineral blocks, apples, shelled corn—and watched them grow. They told the city hunters they’d show them how to read the rubs the bucks had horned up. They’d show them the scrapes. Whitey gave out rounds of drinks for free. The snow came down, guaranteeing prime conditions for tracking whitetails.
Hard to pin down exactly what happened that opening day. Some of the guys got the signals for the drive mixed up, crossfire, high-powered scopes clouded over, or maybe just buck fever? Somehow those city hunters got shot up by mistake by their own buddies. One, a husky guy, suffered a fatal neck shot. Bled out quick, before ambulances could get to him, so deep into the wood line, so far off the township roads.
Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears online at Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, LitroUK, Prime Number, Atticus Review, Fourth River, and elsewhere and was recently nominated for three Pushcarts, a finalist for both 2018’s Best Small Fictions Anthology and Glimmer Train’s Top 25, and semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter prize and American Short Fiction’s contest.