A misanthropic professor prefers to walk home alone after a long day teaching students he doesn't like with coworkers he avoids. At first confused by his GPS directions, he realizes that the shortest way home is also the loneliest. Thrilled to be utterly by himself, he would have done well to know the history of his trail.
W A L K I N G D I R E C T I O N S A R E I N B E T A : U S E C A U T I O N
1 any of several unrelated venomous snakes … found in swampy, rocky, and wooded regions
3 during the American Civil War, pejoratively, any citizen in the North who opposed the war policy… in reference to a snake that sneaks and strikes without warning
– Encyclopaedia Britannica
Indeed, Jefferson County was the scene of some truly terrible infighting [during the Civil War]. As the war effort continued in [the territories between the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Appalachian Mountains] raids on Hoosier soil began to grow more desperate… Far more bothersome to the Unionist inhabitants than the troopers that sporadically crossed the Ohio to pillage their yields and humiliate their militias were the resident copperheads who abetted the Confederacy’s efforts to neutralize heavily-divided Indiana… Some were politically-motivated idealists – staunch supporters of states’ rights and agrarian, libertarian values – but others were misanthropes: bitter, asocial outliers who relished in watching their neighbors’ property fall prey to rebel raiding parties... A few of these saboteurs lived in the woody hills overlooking [the Ohio River], where they relished their privacy. These posts … provided a natural reconnaissance advantage, and copperhead hermits were paid handsomely by Confederate agents for the observations they sold in a bid to secure their civic and personal seclusion…
– Jefferson County and Madison during the Civil War – the fiftieth anniversary: James T. H. C. Churchfield, Sons of Madison Historical Association, 1911, pp. 232-233, 235
We sent a Patrol into the Hills over the Town. Four men and a Corpral. But they come back with two Dead and the Officer was shot through the Sholder and had to be carried… I am Mustering a larger Platon to inspect the area where they seen him Camping. This time I shall have one Fire Squad approch the [north side] of the Pass – theres high ground on that Side and a gorge to the South, all rocks and falln timber – while two squads come down, one [from] the east another [from] the West. The rest of the Platon will move in through the Brush and flush him out.
– Dispatch to Captain Solon B. Caldwell, Vernon Greys co’y., 9th reg’t, Indiana legion: Second Lieutenant Algernon Helm, November 5, 1864
ON November 4 Cody Lehman sat in on his class and looked out the window onto the rain-spattered bar of highway that rumbled past the community college where he had been teaching writing for the greater part of a year. His students clattered at the keyboards they had before them. The longer he scanned the sopping grounds outside, the more the two sensations – the clip of the keys and the watery view – created the illusion of oneness: as if the rain were actually landing about him. Perhaps it was actually wet inside and dry out there. His left eye strayed (it did this when he became lost in thought) and he blinked rapidly to correct his vision. He looked to the clock. It was a quarter till. Then he looked at the students. Three in the back corner were loudly gabbing, two within reach of a gently hurled pocket dictionary were engrossed in their iPhones, and a clump of five gazed stupidly into their monitors – hatefully. Four hadn’t bothered to show up. Generally the class sessions were vital, but today something had invaded the room – an ill vapor. He was contractually obligated to maintain them in class to the very minute (he was paid by the minute), but something groaned inside of him at the thought.
“You know,” he said groggily “I think we can probably leave it at that. Why don’t you guys take off. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Turn in your number four treasure hunts under the DB section of Blackboard by midnight tonight. Midnight. If it isn’t there I won’t take it. Have a good day.”
The archipelago of heads bobbed up, then dove down, packaging laptops and notebooks, before slinking out in a silent procession augmented with whispers and sighs. He couldn’t go home yet, so – after the last of them had plodded into the brown-litten hallway – he found a plastic couch to occupy, unpacking his lunch and laptop in a well-lit gallery whose wall of glass overlooked the same highway as his classroom. His car was in the shop, so he bummed rides from a colleague – really the only person he had formed a relationship with since he had moved to southern Indiana. Evans picked him up at 7:30 on Mondays and Wednesday (Cody taught writing from 9:00 to 11:00 on both days) and – after his third class let out at six – dropped him off. This had been a regular feature of the two men’s lives since Cody’s alternator fouled out last month. It had been a sluggish repair, and he was eager to pay the mechanic and never see him again. In the meantime, he was bound by Evans’ schedule. So every Monday and Wednesday he spent 7:45 to 9:00 and 10:52 to 6:05 sitting on one of the couches in the gallery, watching The Colbert Report, Parks and Recreation, and cheap documentaries on Hulu, or grading papers in the library.
It was a far cry from the life he had envisioned going into his graduate program upstate, but after two and a half years study theory and acquainting himself with the politics and ass-kissing of the PhD route, he had determined that this was as far as he wished to go in academia. He earned an M.A. in English literature and applied to any community college in need of an adjunct. Here he found an opening, and within four weeks of graduating he was teaching three online classes and two face-to-face courses, all in derivatives of the same subject: Introduction to College Writing, Technical Writing, Writing and Research, and of course, Writing. His friends were in similar situations – Kris bussed tables in San Francisco; Jon stirred paint cans in Nashville; Kenny slaved away at an unending PhD in Connecticut; Richie and Brent worked at the old hometown gas station in Berne (worse off than any of them) – but he hadn’t bothered to keep in close contact with them. He enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that a new town afforded him. He had shelves of DVDs and books, and plenty of free time. The downside was terrible pay and the precarious lack of insurance that part time teaching demanded, but his health was consistent and he had few material wants outside of some odd $680 in monthly bills. His pay covered that adequately, and the rest fell into an untapped reserve. He didn’t care to think that Kris, Jon, and Kenny were married or engaged to warm women, or that Richie’s parents let him live with them while he saved up, or that Brent loved their hometown and enjoyed talking to customers. He ignored these inconvenient inconsistencies in his philosophy. They all, he imagined, were unhappy. But he knew it wasn’t true. He was unhappy. He was caught in a world that was neither welcoming nor restricted – a no-man’s land that lacked both the belonging of brotherhood and the indignity of exclusivity. It had allowed him to live in its environs without hospitality – simple indifference. Perhaps that was to be expected. He was an outsider, and although he had never felt the disdain of the locals, he did feel their apathy. Perhaps it was good not to be noticed. Not to be monitored. Not to be missed. He floated in and out of this little community with anonymity, his only responsibilities to two morning classes of apathetic teenagers and three disembodied online courses inhabited by faceless pieces of writing: Sally Henderson, Grant Overlook, Sidney Terrence. He didn’t even know if Sidney was a man or a woman.
Evans drove him home that night and they said little, listening to the radio – a Christian station that touted its benefits to mental health and family – and Cody went to sleep early that night.
… … …
…One such loner was the source of much antagonism during the fall of 1864. Twelve regulars from the Vernon Greys were dispatched to Madison that November to uncover the whereabouts of a hermit living in the woodlands of what is now Hatcher’s Hill. Folklore still surrounds the man, whose name is unknown. Typically melodramatic, local myths associated the old man with the disappearances of several children who failed to return from leading pigs or sheep to the town markets, and several members of the synagogue spread the rumor to the Christians that when he was seen collecting rabbit traps in the hour before dusk he was known to give errant travelers the evil eye, and their horses or houses or health were said to spoil soon after. Despite these rumors, the Greys hardly needed a priest to exorcise their local haunter, although the circumstances of his death are certainly bizarre enough…
– Jefferson County and Madison during the Civil War 1854 – 1868: James T. H. C. Churchfield, Sons of Madison Historical Association, 1924, pp. 235
Rounded up enough Local citisens to form a Platon. Carried out Plan of Attack in the late hours of the Afternoon when the Old Man is supposed to be out foraging victuals. We found Him, or He found us. At any rate, we lost three Good men, and to what purpose I can’t say. The Bastard is dead though. We didn’t bother burying him. Found his den. God. My God…
– Dispatch to Captain Solon B. Caldwell, Vernon Greys co’y., 9th reg’t, Indiana legion: Second Lieutenant Algernon Helm, November 6, 1864
On Wednesday morning the rains had evaporated, and while a ceiling of low, smoky clouds obscured the blue sheet of sky that peered through chinks in the vapor, the forecast was positive: no rain until Thursday night. The school was on the top of a hill that overlooked the Ohio River, some six miles from his apartment. He thought about Evans and the prospect of his bland company that night. The school wasn’t far away, he thought. He opened the Maps app on his phone, routed the difference between the two buildings, and tapped the “walking” feature. The line changed from a straight bar that climbed the surface of the Clifty Hills to a serpentine ribbon sliding oblique to the highway. The distance was, it said, 3.9 miles. The time was, it said, 1 hour 10 minutes. The stupidity of his old routine struck him like an unexpected cough. Only that long? Seventy minutes? The clock read 7:28. He hurriedly gathered his work. But wait. No. No, he didn’t need it. Only the monitor in the classroom. No need for the laptop. Instead he stuffed his hiking shoes in a backpack, followed by a flat cap, scarf, and gloves. He would need those today. Evans pulled up as he stumbled through the door, buttoning his peacoat and urging the stray shoulder strap of his backpack off of the doorknob.
“Hey,” Cody said.
“I had some this morning, thanks. Thanks,” he said again as Evans cleared the passenger seat of McDonald’s wrappers and student papers.
The rattled when he shifted it into gear, and with a shaky jolt, they started up the highway that ran past the college.
“Evans, I should probably mentioned that the car is ready.”
“Oh, awesome, man! That’s great.”
“So you won’t need to be concerned with picking me up anymore.”
“No problem. It’s right on the way. Do you need a ride there?”
“No. No, I’m going to walk there. It’s only a quarter mile from campus.”
“Okay, man. Cool, cool.”
Cody leaned his arm against the passenger door, and smiled as he watched the sky bloom from peach to orange to neon blue on the morning of November 6.
The students were no less lethargic on the 6th than they were on the 4th. Three were absent – two different students and one who regularly cited the health of her grandmother as an excuse. He knew that she had probably failed the other classes she was using this explanation for – five absences in a semester that had sixteen meetings was grounds for failure – but he took her at her word and excused the absences as a favor to a grieving teenager. The rest of the class glared accusingly as he occupied their time with rhetoric, appeals, paragraph lengths, topic sentences, and reference pages. Smoldering somberly in their uniform swivel chairs, he avoided eye contact, relying on a 40 minute video to consume the hour-glass and to satiate their thirst for darkness and anonymity. The fellow with the perennially puffy face, red eyes, chapped lips, and distant, glazed stare bedded his head in his hands – as a matter of course – and the justifiably bitter single, teen-mother glowered from the far right corner, the white screen reflecting off of her round, contorted face.
At a quarter till he released them – once more early, once more against school policy – and after the last one – the red-eyed, meth-crispened fellow – stumbled past the door jambs and into the syrup-toned hallway lighting, he closed the door, unpacked his hiking shoes, and traded them for his cracked loafers. These he replaced in his backpack, and after cushioning his throat with a scarf, he donned gloves and hat and hurried into the November air.
After walking a quarter mile down the highway, he opened the Maps app and plotted the course once more. It curtly announced: “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths,” but he closed the proclamation and enacted the map. “Point seven miles to Michigan Road,” it said. And so he walked.
The air was bright and voluminous. He felt as though it was made to invade and occupy. The highway was underpopulated for eleven in the morning, and he didn’t mind it. The clouds streaked across the glassy blue sky, and the intermingling lights sent a mixture of warm bronze and cold silver tones, which cast the entire world in crisp white gold.
He felt even better when the device in his pocket directed him: “turn left… on Michigan Road.” The muffled female voice reminded him of a secretary – detached, professional, unobtrusive. The highway was pleasantly unpopulated, but Michigan Road was dead. Only the occasional sedan rumbled past him. He looked again at the phone. Within the cradle of his black leather glove he saw a bright sheet of tan punctuated by a series of blue dots which crooked to the right, then curved subtly – right again – then twisted in a long, snakelike arch. That first turn – Hatcher Hill Road – was just before him (the phone announced it just a moment later), and when he took it, he was never more pleased with a decision in his entire life.
A gated community, quiet and asleep, lay scattered throughout a series of hillocks and dells, muffled in a great quantity of brown and yellow leaves like a delicate watchpiece packed in cotton. That November was particularly vivid, and the leaves had in large part maintained their relationships with their respective trees. Roasted gold tones intermingled with sagacious leather browns and flashes of stop-sign scarlet. He passed – in fact – a stop sign muffled from behind by an encrimsoned maple, and the effect was particularly unique: the word STOP seemed to hover, disembodied in a backdrop of ragged maroon.
The iPhone interrupted the phantasmagoria: “Turn right… to continue on Hatcher Hill Road.” A three-prong fork of roads – two branching right – faced him. The sign “Hatcher Hill Road” was obnoxiously ambiguous. He took the rightmost. It ran perpendicular to his previous course, and stole through a dell overlooked by two grand old houses (probably Victorian, he thought). The road clipped sharply to the right, running alongside a wooded ravine, where it ended at a guardrail behind which was a thicket of brambles and briers. His reverie was entirely broken. He had gone the wrong way, clearly. The middle road. Why couldn’t the phone be clearer to interpret? By looking at it he could see no other possibility: it certainly appeared that this was the right way. He backtracked. By this point, having walked two miles mostly uphill, his shirt was drenched in sweat. He removed his gloves and scarf, stuffing them in the backpack and carrying on.
Up the hillock he went, past the grand old house that sat on the corner where the street turned into a dead end. But this road ended in a private driveway. He consulted the device: the barbed arrow denoting his position was clearly off the trail of blue dots – a trail which wound around the grand Victorian. Are you kidding me? Seriously!? He muttered angrily. The sweat was soaking the back of his shirt. Was this what the app meant when it had warned “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths”? One more time, he thought – though he was skeptical – I’ll check that dead-end; maybe I was wrong.
In the space of two minutes he had backtracked his backtracking, crossed the road in the vale, and turned to where it had apparently ended. Two three-yard struts of guardrail were laid across the road’s width at intervals: the first spanning the left lane, the second the right. They were old and corroded, like the blades of rusted straight razors, and the wooden 8x8 posts that supported them were grey with rot and lichens. On first glance he had envisioned the road ceasing at this guardrail, but upon closer look he realized that these barriers did not denote the conclusion of a roadway, but merely prevented automobiles from tracing a trail. He passed between the two bars, pushing aside a wiry tangle of briers and brush.
Behind them he found a landscape of unsettling beauty. Seemingly chiseled into the side of a rocky slope was a narrow trail that skirted one side of the ravine. On the other side of the barrier it had seemed slight and unremarkable, but behind the curtain of foliage it was ungovernable and immense, tapering to a rushing brook below, and formed by two slopes made up of monstrous boulders, dashing waterfalls, and thick, sprawling woodlands. Ashes, maples, walnuts, beeches, firs, pines, elms, hickories, tulips, birches, and poplars sprouting from every square fathom – craggy elders, tender saplings, and proud adolescents – filling his eyeline with a cacophony of color. But most majestic of all was the pathway he was to take. It was lined by a phalanx of beeches and hickories, whose dazzling yellow leaves carpeted the path, four deep, and as they continued to float downward in silent swarms, he was struck by the bizarre impression that they resembled the bodies of tens of thousands of butterflies. Whether it was beautiful or morbid he wasn’t interested to muse. Instead, he stepped forward, feeling the cushy blanket yield to his footfall, smelling the syrupy odor of dying leaves steam from every inch of his new habitat.
It was entirely uninhabited. The residue of years of leaves – a black, congealed matt – lay thick beneath the present year’s contribution. There was no sign of any human investment within the past decade at least. The path was – he supposed after scratching at the carpet with his toe – made of compact dirt and conservative amounts of gravel. So human industry had been employed here – it wasn’t a deer trail or some freak of nature, but it had long been abandoned to the elements. The GPS in his phone knew of it. This diminished his romance somewhat, but pulling the device out and looking at it, he saw only a thin grey wire rather than the bold white band of a road. Pulling back on the touchscreen he confirmed that this was no road. Indeed, it had no name at all. It was nameless, purposeless, and peopleless. He smiled, looking around at the vacuum he had entered. It was like a vacuum, too – vast and voiceless, only disturbed by the crackle of leaves rolling in the soft billows of wind that whispered through the ravine. It was an unvisited Eden, he thought, a place which would not be ambivalent to his arrival.
He unbuttoned his coat, slipped from it, and replaced it on his shoulders, arms dangling un-ensconced beneath. Holding his backpack in one hand, he decided to deposit in under a black rock jutting from the cliff face like a cruel overbite. He would be back, that is for certain, perhaps even tomorrow. No need encumbering this experience with a ratty old backpack. He wanted to stroll, not hike, and he covered it with leaves. Just as he was about to continue he recognized the telltale symptoms of over-hydration burning in his lower abdomen. I should take care of that here, he thought. It might be a beautiful spot but it’s hardly a church. Looking several times to ensure his alienation (despite the place’s remote nature, he had already sensed that he might not be quite alone), he stole into a nook between two slabs of granite and executed the necessary act, leaving a black stain on the grey boulders (he did not choose to steady his aim) which, so he imagined, looked nearly like his initials. Readjusting himself, he pulled his coat closer around his shoulders – he had nearly gotten the impression that someone had tried to pluck it off by the collar. It was odd the power that such a slight breeze could employ when shuttling through such a deep ravine.
The path clearly lead downward: he began noticing that he had to struggle to maintain balance. It was a slight tilt in gradient, however, and he bid it no notice. The trail curved in subtle scallops drawing him deeper into what was proving to be a tremendously wide ravine. No longer could he see the bottom where the water dashed in white flourishes; only the golden-brown canopy of old trees punctuated by black pines jutting through like nails on an upturned board. Animals he had seen none. But the insect population was chipper: he had noted the grasshoppers flitting to and fro in the dry foliage on the side of the road. At least he had heard them – they must be too small to see without looking purposefully, he thought, for he had only heard the rhythmic disruption of the underbrush. A flash of white sky with purple lacerations caught his eye. He smiled. Certainly no rain. He almost wished he hadn’t brought the coat. It was becoming a bother to take with him now, constantly being tugged at by the wind and slipping off his shoulders. Funny that the wind seemed to be going in his direction, but it eddied in these chasmic ravines, and its ways were mysterious.
He began to think, however, that the area might not be quite as remote as he imagined: he had begun to smell cooking meat. Well, burnt meat, actually. Like charred sausage or blackened hamburger. The scent was specifically reminded him of an occasion that summer where he had casually left two sausage patties frying in a pan, only to be reminded of them fifteen minutes later. They were black and blistered, the red flesh peering through gashes in the thick, tarry epidermis. Someone was camping, he imagined. No smoke could be seen issuing from the ravine. Perhaps on the crest of one of these peaks there was a campsite. The idea of company somewhat spoiled his pleasurable loneliness, but he endeavored to pour himself into the trail and enjoy his walk.
Turning a sharp bend he thought something fell from one of the trees behind him. It startled him for the first time, and he turned with a jerk. Something black and large was in the bed of leaves, something moving. Was it? No. He had glanced ahead to check for a means of escape, and upon looking again, he saw nothing but a tangle of rotting brush. It was concerning, however, now that he thought on it, to imagine how long it would take help to arrive if he tripped over something and had to call for paramedics. A stupid thought. He ran his fingers of the trunk of a grey hickory. With his eyes on the trail, his fingers retracted as if having touched fire. He looked at the vegetable – surely it hadn’t just felt like leather, like skin. No. No, rough and fibrous. He quickened his pace, but put his arms in his sleeves again. He was having so much trouble keeping it on, and should need his arms to be covered in case he should fall and need their protection. A weird thought. A paranoid thought. He still smelled something roasting or roasted. Sweet and burnt. Blistering sausage. Charred hamburger.
The gradient had, however, continued to steepen. He found himself clutching at branches and shrubs to steady himself, though he now found their touch detestable. He didn’t muse about this; it was an illogical aversion to the trees and foliage of a beautiful landscape. Senseless. But still, he reasoned, he must get on. The grasshoppers continued to flit amongst the brush beside and behind him. They were moving faster. They were not grasshoppers perhaps. But what? He buttoned the coat. It had tugged at his arms as if plucked at from behind. He pulled out the phone. How much further? Recalculate course. No signal. It made sense, he supposed, but it infuriated him. He shoved it in his hip pocket and hurried his pace. The grasshoppers stopped at nearly the same time. For some reason their sudden cessation disturbed him even more. He looked behind him. Nothing was there. But then he faced forward.
The path wound downwards, skirting a large bulb of jagged granite – in size comparable to a large minivan. This formation jutted out over the trail; in fact it appeared that the rock had been cut through to create a passage for the path. Indeed, there wasn’t a spare inch of earth beneath the overhang, only two yards that ended in a direct plummet to the crags. This doorway was filled by a human shape. It was wiry – almost hatefully thin – and black, entirely black, with the exception of its uncomfortably tall, corn-colored teeth and its blistered, dun eyes. The hair on its head was stiff and greasy, and the entirety of its body was moist and crackled, as if covered in black, drying mud. But it wasn’t mud.
Cody’s scream lacked air to preserve it, and as he stumbled blindly up the pathway, it dissolved into a wallowing whimper, a noise which only his mother would have recognized. He heard the grasshoppers, earnest and loud now, as the nearly fleshless feet carried that thing nearer to him. He felt thorny fingers pluck at him, and heard breathing like air being forced in and out of a bellows whose leather had grown crunchy and stiff. The moist breath vaporized on his ear lobe when the being finally threw himself upon him like a monkey and bore him down into the leaves.
“It’s all fer me,” it wheezed asthmatically. “Alone, all alone fer me. Yew come heer cuz ye like it alone. I do too. But, you pisst all over it wit’ yer pizzle. Puttin’ stuff whur it don’t belong. That weren’t a right thing, now. This heer’s not yer land. Best if yew was alone, too. Ye’d have time tu think bout wachee done. Little pisser. That weren’t a right thing, now! Conduct unbecoming they tolt me! Conduct unbecoming I tells yew!”
The thing’s weight was gruesomely light, like that of a child, and with each movement its sinews crackled like stiff parchment paper. A hand clasped across his lips, and fingers – scratchy and damp – began probing for admittance. With the other hand, it began tearing at Cody’s coat, trying to turn him over, but with a vault inspired by horror’s adrenaline, Cody wrenched himself out of the jacket and tore up the pathway. He yearned to see houses and cars and to hear voices – to see his student’s living faces and to hear their living sighs – to be in the company and congress of humanity – to feel the embrace of life, warm and receptive. He would run back, back to school and to his class. He would take Evans out for dinner, call his family when he got home, have the neighbors over for the football games. But before he had carried himself thirty feet he saw the seared figure crouching viciously in front of him, skittering forward on spiderlike limbs, glaring with resenting eyes.
… … …
A second lieutenant mustered up a platoon mixed with regular troops and local volunteers armed with hunting rifles and boat pikes. They converged on the sniper’s nest on the afternoon of November 6 and caught him on the pass that snakes down Hatcher Hill down to the Cemetery. In the skirmish that followed, three men were killed, and the hermit was flushed from the hovel he used as a base of operations... The officer reported that they “noticed the light of Fire” and the “strong Smell of Tar spirits” coming from the recess. The shooting had stopped, so the men approached with bayonets, only to see “a Man of Fire” coming to meet them. Desperate to avoid capture and to maintain his autonomy, the hermit emerged from his hiding place daubed in turpentine, and flickering with flames until he erupted in “a Awful White Blaze.” Without making a noise, he walked into the arms of the nearest man and pulled him down to the ground before anything could be done. Both men died, and one of Madison’s strangest stories became a legend. Even today rumors persist that the cavern held a secret which no journals or letters record. Despite a lack of evidence, the pathway continues to be surrounded in superstitious intrigue, and Jefferson County children are generally not allowed to use it when running errands, although it is the shortest route from the Hilltop to town.
– Jefferson County and Madison during the Civil War 1854 – 1868: James T. H. C. Churchfield, Sons of Madison Historical Association, 1924, pp. 235-236
Gone? No sign of derelict wanted for theft and arson. Supposed to have left town.
– Madison Daily Democrat, August 8, 1894
Delinquent gone missing. Escaped from the school for boys. Last seen Monday.
–Madison Daily Courier, November 9, 1905
Runaway, 13 missing. Community organizes search. Trail leads to Hatcher Hill.
–Madison Weekly Herald, December 7, 1924
Local man disappears. Garbage collector failed to come to work Sunday.
–Madison Courier, October 10, 1955
Family inquires: drunk disappears after all-night binge. Police request leads.
–Madison Courier, November 8, 1977
Search continues: hoarder has been missing for at least 3 weeks after eviction.
–Madison Courier, November 29, 1993
Parolee flees town. Relatives assist search. Police offer reward for information.
–Madison Courier, August 9, 2005
Cody Lehman had no appointments, plans, or phone calls scheduled for Thursday or Friday or Saturday or Sunday. When his class assembled he didn’t appear, and with little complaint, they dispersed after a polite fifteen minutes. Cody Lehman had no appointments, plans, or phone calls scheduled for Monday night, Tuesday, or Wednesday night. Evans wasn’t surprised that he didn’t bump into his colleague that week – they taught at the same time and Cody must be happy with the auto repair. It was the red-eyed student who complained to Cody’s supervisor.
“I come to two classes this week; an’ he ain’t come to none. If he don’t show, I wanna know ‘head ‘a time so I kin sleep in on them days.”
The supervisor was shocked.
“He can’t even cancel class; he’s obligated to arrange a substitute if he can’t attend. He can’t even let class out early; he’s paid by the hour and the minute.”
“Done that, too – last week both days.”
The supervisor had difficulty contacting Cody to inform him that he would not be paid for the previous week and that his contract would be canceled at the end of the year due to “gross misconduct” and “falsification of pay records.” It was so difficult that she asked Evans to see him personally. At this point the police became involved. It was November 18 when a search was called. The mechanic was contacted, and when the lie was exposed, the most obvious possibility was that Cody had either gone somewhere unusual, desirous of privacy (pawn shops, open clinics, and banks were checked out and their employees questioned), or he had walked home. This possibility was shelved at first for being too illogical: why lie about a car’s availability to your carpool in order to walk home? On November 22 a search was made of the three most likely routes to his downtown apartment.
… … …
Deputy Sherriff Lee Davis Jackson led a detail of deputies and volunteers down the highway, scouring the ditches, then down Michigan Road. He calmly dissolved a spearmint lozenge in the pocket of his cheek, and swiveled his heel on the soggy carpet of rotten leaves feeling the course gravel beneath the pulp. The search party was extending down Hatcher Hill Road, knocking on doors and questioning locals. Outside of a tall Victorian house an old man played with a golden retriever while his wife and three grandchildren looked on. The porch and eaves were edged in faded gingerbread work and the blue slate roof was stained with copper-green streaks, and the man who owned it was brown and wrinkled and bent. Jackson approached the house while the detail wove between the guardrails and through the brambles. The old man caught his eye and shooed his family inside while he met the officer on his sidewalk.
“I haven’t seen anyone like that around here, sir… Wednesday the sixth, you say?”
Jackson shifted the lozenge to the opposite side of his mouth and licked the fringe of his moustache.
“Yessir. We think he might have walked behind your house to get downtown. Might’ve tripped. On the maps it looks steep on some angles.”
“You’re not leading a rescue party then?”
“Body recovery, I’m afraid. That’s off the record, though.”
Some brush crackled nearby behind the leafless trees that stretched upward like iron bars. An even louder snap, then a garbled clatter of rocks against rocks followed by a series of gulping splashes. The two men paused mid-gesture. The old man’s hands crawled into his cardigan pockets, and he began to look like a person who would dearly like to be in another place.
“Well it would be easy to fall off that trail. I only went there once when I was growing up. My two older brothers followed me down there and made me come back. After that my pa had those guardrails put up.”
“You folks have had this place that long, eh?”
“Yessir. It was built in ’87 – 1887 – by my great-grand-pap.”
“He bought this land, then?”
“Well, more took it when no one else would. People kept off that trail back there. Some gone missing in my pap’s time and in my grand-pap’s. That’s why they closed it off. The folks in the hills said it wasn’t a right place, and when I was schooling there were all manner of stories of witch charms and floating skulls and men that walked like spiders But I never worried too much. Still… it just ain’t a right place, you know?”
The radio buzzed. Jackson started, accidentally swallowing the lozenge. It was sucked down his throat and he coughed up a fleck of spearmint before he reached to his shoulder to engage the radio clipped to his epaulette.
“Just a sec. Yeah, go.”
“Sir, we found a backpack and a coat. And, uh, there’s smells, sir.”
“I’m comin’. You folks you all have a nice day, y’hear.”
The old man watched the younger man walk down the hillock and fling a leg over the rusted guardrail. Within three strides he had been swallowed by the fat trees and the shaggy brush. Overhead the sky had changed from jade to lilac, with grey piles of vapor collecting in the west and dampening the submerging the sun. He thought back to the day that his brothers had saved his life and nervously rubbed his thumb along his right forefinger where the flesh had been torn off and the bite marks still pursed his brown skin. Rapidly he turned back to the house, whispering a curse on the land and wondering how he managed to sleep so near to It.
When Jackson’s detail managed to rig scaling equipment to the old overhang, they followed the trail, similar to those made by wolves and cougars dragging prey to their dens. They found Cody Lehman fat and black at the bottom of the ravine, in a burrow eaten out of the flint wall by melting snow. He was not alone. They were arranged in a quaint order, like dolls seated around a plastic teapot, generating a laughless, expressionless, lipless company. The forensic anthropologists brought in from Louisville closed the road off for three days while they unearthed, cataloged, and documented the collection.