by Ivy Reisner
Carl decided he knew how ancient man had managed to migrate all over the planet—he kept getting lost. The river in front of him looked enough like the river he’d just passed that he wasn’t sure if he was going in circles. The big rock to his left and the big rock he saw an hour ago, and the big rock he’d seen a few hours before that all looked like giant gray slabs, none distinct enough from each other to tell them apart.
He wondered if abandoning one’s husband on a mountain in the middle of nowhere during a camping trip was grounds for divorce. Alexis’s family went camping every year, and now that the kids were old enough she insisted on taking them camping. Well enough, Carl thought, but did he have to go too?
As for him, he’d never been camping before, never been a boy scout, never been to camp, well, to day camp but that didn’t count. They went to museums, did arts and crafts, swam in a pool and got home by four o’clock every afternoon. About all he had going for him was almost six feet of decent physique from working out at the gym, curly brown hair, dark brown eyes and olive skin, so he looked pretty good in these camping duds. And with that vast experience, off he went, on Alexis’s command, to get firewood.
There were trees near the camp. There were trees all over the mountain. He couldn’t see too far for all the trees in front of him, but “Cowboy Carl” had to find a dead tree rather than pull branches off a living one. Let’s not harm nature, he had said. He wished nature, and the insects that thought he was some kind of roving picnic table, felt the same way about him.
He’d gotten up pretty high. He could tell because the air was cold here, but the slope was gentle and he couldn’t be sure—with all the local little ups and downs of the path—which way was higher into the mountain and which was towards the base. And he wasn’t sure how high they were when he started. There wasn’t much in the way of landmarks to measure distance by past a certain point.
One more (or perhaps the same) river later, he vowed he would kiss the first road sign he saw. He just wanted to find something man-made, something that suggested he hadn’t gotten so lost on this fool’s camping trip that he’d passed beyond where mankind had bothered to venture. Were there such places left in the twenty-first century?
He gulped the last of the water from his canteen and looked dubiously at the river. It was a postcard river, no denying that. Alexis would set up her watercolors and vanish into her painting for hours if she saw it. The sunlight danced on the tiny, wind-blown ripples and lush vegetation overhung the banks. It meandered, no hurry, no worry, in its leisurely, winding way to the sea.
Well, ancient man drank water before filtration systems were available, right? He walked to the bank to refill his canteen.
His heart stopped at what he saw reflected over his shoulder. A demon—a real, red-skinned, horned, pointy-tailed demon—sat in a tree eating berries. It was so incongruous, so impossible, he stared at it for a long time, checking and rechecking that the red fluid on its hands wasn’t blood, and that the item he was eating was a berry, not the torn-out tidbits of some camper. The demon reached for another berry and put it in its mouth.
Carl stood up very slowly. The creature hadn’t seen him yet. It licked berry-juice from its fingers. Well, he meant to get away from it, return to camp, pack everyone in the car and floor it to the nearest town. Then he remembered he was lost.
Still, getting away from that thing remained item one on his “things to do” list. He turned to run and his foot slipped on the wet rocks. Instinctively he yelped and scrabbled in a failed attempt to regain his balance. He landed sitting in the shallow river.
“Nyah!” The demon looked at him and scurried higher into the tree, until Carl couldn’t see it anymore in the thick canopy.
Answering cries of “nee” and “nyah” came from many other surrounding trees, followed by a flurry of rustling leaves and branches.
Carl stood in the river, glancing from tree to tree, his heart pounding and his hands shaking. How far into demon territory had he walked without knowing it? How was there a demon territory? There were no such things as demons! But he’d seen one. He couldn’t edit the image in his mind to be anything but a demon. It wasn’t a red monkey or some other woodland creature. It was too human in appearance and the noise it made was like nothing he’d ever heard on those nature shows on TV or in the zoo.
The rustling quieted and he peered up into the trees, trying to find the demons. Slowly, looking around wildly all the while, he walked down river, not leaving the water. The demons were in the trees. The water was the furthest path from the trees. He was going to stay in the water. He lost feeling in his legs and he didn’t care. Nothing was going to make him get any closer to those creatures. Soon he was shaking from cold as well as from fear, and he hadn’t seen another demon. Nor had he seen a path away from the river that didn’t require him to come within arm’s length of at least one tree and that was something he refused to do.
Small silver fish swam past him. Some of them pecked at his legs. He wished fervently he were anywhere else. In his office. In his house. In a traffic jam. Anywhere other than the middle of nowhere, surrounded by demon-filled trees.
When night came to the mountain, it came quickly. Night this far from civilization was nothing like night back home in Brooklyn. Back home he wasn’t sure why the cars needed headlights. The city was so brightly lit that one could read standing on the sidewalk. Here the night was thick and so deep he could barely see a yard ahead of himself. The stars reached back into the sky, an endless vista of them, but their light wasn’t even strong enough to reflect off the water. The half-moon didn’t provide much real light at all. The river trailed off into the darkness and if there was a path through the trees, or a demon standing just a short ways upriver of him, he wouldn’t see it.
Every noise, every rustle, was a demon out to get him. Every splash of the river meant one had stepped in to grab him. He stood still, listening and unwilling to make any noise with which to give away his position or cover the noise of their approach, and held his fists up at the ready.
About an hour after sundown, the demons sang. It was sweet, melodic, almost hypnotizing. Every voice was a soprano and, had he not known the source, he might have thought of angels singing. Or maybe they were angels and they meant to rescue him. But then, why were they singing? It was getting harder to think. He wondered if this was what possession felt like.
He shivered in the water, but he couldn’t bring himself to move closer to the shore and those… things. He knew it was getting bad when he couldn’t feel his feet. By the time he couldn’t feel his legs he was a bit too mellow to care. Lazily, he lowered his arms, uncertain why a few demons should scare him. They hadn’t bothered him after all…
* * * * *
Carl woke up dry and cocooned in blankets. He rubbed his eyes, laughing at himself. “Hey, Alexis. You have to hear this crazy…”
When he opened his eyes a demon sat beside him, holding out a cup of tea. Frantically, he struggled free of the blankets and fell out of the bed and onto the thatched floor. He was in a small, one-room hut. There were windows in every wall, but too small for him to climb through, and the demon sat on a wooden chair between him and the door.
He looked around for a weapon but the pickings were sparse. There was a table and a bookcase overloaded with books. There were three chairs in the room, which, perversely, brought to mind Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond with its three chairs for society. The bed was the last item in the room. All of the furniture was made of wood, perhaps from local trees. The table had paper, ink, feather quills and a candleholder on it. The candle had all but burned down. The holder itself looked too small and light to be used as a weapon.
“You’re sick,” the demon told him, in a high, squeaky voice. “You need to rest. Drink the tea. It’s good.”
The demon scratched the top of its nose and nodded. “I’m Peach.” It smiled and pointed its tail at him.
“You’re a demon!”
She nodded again. “I’m a good demon.”
“There is no such thing as a ‘good demon’!”
“Nee!” She jumped out of her chair and backed away from him, clearly frightened.
“What did you do to me?” he demanded.
“Put you to bed,” she said tremulously. “You fell down in the water.”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want you to drink the tea.”
“Is that how you’re going to steal my soul?”
The demon, Peach, looked confused and scratched her nose again. “No. It’s going to warm you up. You caught hypothermia. That’s not good. Please go back to bed.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “I want to leave.”
“Okay. But if you want to stay, you’re welcome to.”
“Are you going to follow me?”
She shook her head. “You’re a human. Humans are scary.”
“I’m scary? Look in a mirror!”
She pouted at him. “I’m a cute demon.”
Another demon came in. This one was taller. Even so, he was barely five feet. His tail was longer and where Peach’s horns were curved inward, so that they pointed towards each other, this newcomer’s were pointed outward. Both demons were very skinny, thin-boned creatures, but the taller of the two was a bit heavier. Nevertheless, it looked as if Carl could break him in half if he wanted to.
The newcomer asked, “Is he okay?” His voice, while still high-pitched, was lower than Peach’s.
“I think so,” Peach said. “He woke up and I think I scared him.”
The new demon turned to Carl. “I’m sorry she scared you.”
Carl nodded. “It’s okay. Let’s make a deal. I leave. I never bother you. You never bother me. We’ll both be happy.”
“You don’t seem so bad,” he said.
“We’re not like the legends, right? I’m Apple. It’s nice to meet you.” He pointed a tail at Carl. Carl wasn’t sure of the gender, but this one looked more masculine than Peach, sturdier.
“Is that how you say ‘hello’? Peach did that before.”
Apple nodded. “You tap the tail.” He held it out, patiently.
Nervously, Carl tapped it gently. It was smooth and warm.
Apple smiled and tucked his tail behind him.
“I don’t have a tail to extend,” Carl said. He offered his hand, palm down, instead. Apple tapped it with his hand. He had claws, but he didn’t scratch Carl. They were probably meant for climbing. The demons he saw last night were obviously very good climbers.
Carl asked, “Do you always name your children after fruit?”
Peach nodded. “I think that’s why people think we eat babies.”
“We’re herbivores,” Apple added.
“You speak English,” Carl said suddenly.
Apple said, “We’re American demons.”
“Oh, so Japanese demons speak Japanese and French demons speak French?”
Peach and Apple both nodded in perfect unison.
He sat down on the bed. Peach offered him the tea again and he accepted it.
“Demons are supposed to be evil,” he said. “They’re supposed to ravage towns and steal souls.”
“That’s just a fairy tale,” Apple said.
“Sometimes humans scare us, and we ‘Nyah’,” Peach said.
Peach nodded. “It’s our natural defense. We can make really loud ‘nyah’ sounds. People don’t like that. If a whole bunch of us ‘nyah’ at once, it can make people dizzy and headachy.”
“Well, if you ever find yourself down in Brooklyn, you can look me up. I’m not scared of you, but no ‘nyahing’, okay? I went through something similar with my own two demons when they were small. But I do need to be going. My family will be worried.”
Peach asked, “Are you sure you’re up to traveling?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Thank you.” He gave her back her teacup.
“Say, do you know the way back to the main road?”
“I can show you,” Apple said.
* * * * *
Alexis ran to Carl as soon as he came within sight of the camp. “I was so worried about you. You were gone all night. I have the park rangers looking for you. What happened?” She threw her arms around him.
Donna and Gail, too old now to push between their parents, hung back a little, but they looked just a little scared.
“I’m fine.” Carl pulled a twig from Alexis’s long black hair. “I got lost. But you won’t believe what I saw.”
“A bear?” Donna guessed.
“A rabbit?” Gail asked. Gail had an obsession about seeing a rabbit in the wild that started when she heard about this trip and still hadn’t subsided.
“A demon,” Carl told them.
Alexis rolled her eyes and smiled. “Oh, and he stole your firewood?”
“No, I, forgot the firewood.”
“That’s okay. I’ll send the girls out. They won’t get lost.”
“But wait. You have to hear about these demons,” he said, before the trouble twins could run off. “There were a whole bunch of them, and I got to talk to two of them. One showed me the way back to camp.”
“Now I know you’re making this up,” Alexis said. “Men never ask for directions.”
“It’s true. They’re really nice creatures.”
“Demons aren’t nice,” Alexis said. “They are angels fallen into sin.”
“No. Well, maybe those kind of demons exist too, but these were okay. They eat berries.”
“Well, then we’d better hide the fruit. C’mon girls. Let’s show daddy how to get a fire together and then we’ll catch us some fish.”
The girls squealed and ran off with their mother, after each giving their dad a big hug first.
Carl looked up into the berry-laden trees. Perhaps it was better no one believed him, that way no one would bother the demons, either to destroy them out of fear or capture them in the name of science. Perhaps he’d see them again, during next year’s camping trip.