Fine Rifles: Part 1 Something Buried
CW: Some drugs, a story of being stalked at night
IF you were fixing to combat them that had the fine rifles, the first thing you would do would be to get yourself the nearest thing to a fine rifle you could borrow, or steal, or make, wouldn't it? — Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
This is less a story and more an auto-biographical recollection of things buried. I don't know what its purpose is, I don't know where it's leading; all I know is that I was once someone else, something else, and I dallied long enough in the world of the mundane to forget that. My memories were like scenes conjured from a book, images associated with words but disconnected from self, as I lived a little life of dried tubers in a respectable career on the sterile path of normalcy laid before me.
Then I told someone of that time, of the simple terror of being stalked in nature, and I saw a life abandoned poking out of it. Like the Sphinx of Giza out of the sand.
I remembered that at one time I practiced magick (yes, pretentiously with the 'k'), initially out of curiosity but then out of terror. I practiced because I needed to combat a fierceness in the world around me. A fierceness perhaps unreal, perhaps constructed solely in the imagination, but felt nonetheless. If reason and skepticism could not counter it, so I argued, then I needed weapons of the supernatural to fight it.
Fight like with like; build, borrow, or steal fine rifles.
I was in college and rooming with a friend from high-school who was lanky, into drugs, and in retrospect probably dangerous. We occasionally smoked, he more than I, weed, salvia, K2; whatever we could get our hands on and had time for. There were large patches of undeveloped swamp land choked thick with trees around our campus that we could sneak into, and when the weather was fine we'd work on assembling a makeshift fort out there from fallen branches and baling twine to lean against while we tried to anesthetize our minds.
One weekend we decided to take a trip to a nearby state park, leaving our car near the trailhead of a gentle sloping path. We followed the markers on signposts and trees, across a few bridges in minor disrepair and then up towards a pavilion that abutted a gravel road. The whole thing was probably a mile of a slow, gentle hike. At the pavilion we stopped for a rest and looked back down the hill where our friend thought he spotted the white flowers of a Datura plant maybe a hundred feet off the marked trail.
Of course we had to go see it; drugs and psychoactive plants were his whole personality.
We tramped down the hill over crunching pine needles and leaves, the sun still warm in the sky, to see the white flowers blooming near a cliff edge. He wasn't sure if they were Datura or not when we reached them. His phone was dead and I was still sporting a old-model blackberry Tracfone because my hometown still lacked cell service. As we turned to leave and rejoin the trail back to the car however, something else caught our eye: a small patchy path of rough ruts, not made or maintained by man but trampled by animals and suggested by crooked lines of tree trunks. Short, verdant arches bowed low over it, three or four feet off the ground.
Of course we followed it. What possible dangers could it hold?
It wound along the cliff's edge, a forty foot drop into a shallow body of water that was too large to be a stream but seemed too small to be a proper river. We ducked under a few more archways of branches and leaves, hopped over a few protruding roots, and found maybe three-hundred feet along an old, abandoned campsite nestled in a small, bowl-shaped valley. The foundations for tents were still rotting in the ground. An old sign, faded beyond decipherability, held together its few remaining fragments on the other side of the camp, facing a road or path that no longer existed (and was hard, by my reckoning, to understand how such a path would exist with the slope of the hills as they were.) We thought we could spy a marker for the manmade trail just over the crest of one of the further hills. Surprising, because we hadn't seen any sign of the camp as we'd hiked in.
The forest-made trail (my friend referred to it as a 'deer trail') continued past the camp and we followed it after five minutes of poking around the wooded ruins. It ended near a rocky outcropping that jutted out over the waters below. Trees ringed the rounded cliff-edge, their roots weaving their way down rock and loose shale. In the near distance were two waterfalls, twin streams we knew we had spotted on our way in from the upper side. In fact, we could see one of the bridges that were part of the man-made trail we'd hiked in on, far away and above us. It was nice to know where we were, at least approximately.
The spot was beautiful and peaceful, quiet but for the steady sound of cascading water. We tarried there for maybe an hour, climbing down the cliff to the shore at the base of the waterfall and then struggling to lunge our way back up the slippery, loose shale. It was so beautiful that we resolved to return there the next weekend with food and drink and drugs and music.
A week passed and the weather held so we returned to the park. We left our car near the trailhead, this time a little further down as the two parking spots at the trailhead were taken. We hoped, this time, that we could spot the abandoned camp on the way in and turn early, cutting through the unmarked woods and sliding down the hill to reach it. Somehow we still didn't see it on our trek in, even though we knew the spot it should be.
(I have since confirmed that this camp exists on maps. I'm sure it's accessible in normal ways and that we were just wrong in where we thought it was or missed it because we were young and dumb. But it continues to strike me as odd that we could never find it from the man-made trail.)
So we retraced our steps from the previous time, hiking to the pavilion then down to the white flowers (that my friend still couldn't properly identify as being or not being Datura), then through the green archways of the deer trails. We made it to the spit of rock that jutted out over the river below and sat against the trees. We searched for some kindling and branches, swept clean a spot in the dirt so no pine needles or leaves would ignite, and lit a small fire to cook over. The meal was nothing special: potatoes, carrots, and meat cooked in tin foil as we smoked and listened.
For music we had brought along an emergency radio that doubled as flashlight with a crank generator. It could operate off batteries, of course, but being cheap college students we never replaced them after they died and the old ones had started to corrode under the panel. The thing was chunky enough that you had to hold it with one hand as you cranked it with the other, getting maybe ten seconds of charge for one second of cranking. I did most of the work in keeping the music going, it gave me a steady something to do while we waited for food and watched the sun sink in oranges and yellows over the tops of the twin waterfalls.
When it was dark, I began to pack up. My roommate, a very bright person when it came to physics and chemistry but not in many other regards, decided he wanted to walk on the coals of the fire before we left. I attempted to dissuade him, but of course he wouldn't be dissuaded. He walked across the coals, let loose a yip of victory, and I doused the hot embers with the remaining water. We hiked back through the abandoned camp, back to the maybe-Datura, and up to the pavilion where my roommate announced he needed to stop.
He had burnt his foot walking on the coals. Of course.
Being dark and with one of us injured, we decided not to walk the man-made trail back to the car but along the gravel road not far from the pavilion. We didn't have anything for light save the emergency radio/flashlight, and we were sure the road would eventually wind back to the car, so we followed it. We followed it a long way. It wound out away from the place we'd come from as clouds effaced moon and star from the sky. I kept the music going as we walked, cranking the radio like a hurdy-gurdy and trying to keep the flashlight ahead of us.
We passed an empty ranger's station, closed either due to the time of night or the time of year, but a sure sign we were on the right road. The gravel curved long around the edge of the woods and back in the direction of the car. We were sure things would be easy from there, a nearly straight-shot to home and rest. But behind the crackling radio music I could hear a rustling in the woodline. As I slowed my cranking of the radio, I felt a tingle on my spine.
Something was watching us.
I let the music dim and then switched it off entirely. I asked, repeatedly, if my friend could hear the jostling of branch and leaves trailing slightly behind us. Repeatedly he told me he could not. Officially it was always stated that there are no mountain lions in the area, but every year someone catches one on video. That was my worry, that a large, feline predator was skulking at the edge of the woodline in the dark, waiting to pounce.
I considered shining the bulky flashlight into the woods to search it out, to know what was creeping in the shadows, but my brain told me that was unwise. To shine a light on it would force the issue of whether it would fight or flee, and the former option would be far worse than letting it rustle through the underbrush. Besides, I told myself, the car isn't much further.
We were still nowhere near the car.
I don't know how long, exactly, it took to reach the car after feeling my skin crawl with the certainty that we were being hunted, but it felt like an eternity. An actual guess would be another twenty minutes, but I don[t know for sure. The entire way this entity in the dark followed us, crashing and snapping just out of sight. My friend finally admitted that he heard it, but said it was probably just a squirrel. A squirrel making that much of a racket and following us for three-quarters of a mile. I did not agree with his assessment.
Finally we reached the car and I scrambled for the passengers seat. With safety in sight, I dared to look at our pursuer. I cranked the flashlight and skimmed it along the treeline where two reflective eyes glared back at me. A deer, not unreasonably large but large nonetheless, stumbled to the forest's edge, reared up on its hind legs as if to shoo us off, and then ran back into the shadows of the woods. I pulled myself into the car and told my friend that we should really get going.
We left and never went back to that place. Not the trail, not the pavilion, not the abandoned camp, and not the rocks near the waterfalls. We never talked about it, and after another year we didn't really talk to each other at all. But the experience stuck with me, haunted me in the back of my mind.
We had been followed, stalked, and hunted by a prey animal for almost a mile. It had, for no discernible earthly reason, cloaked itself in shadow and pursued us. It hooves kicking at us as we left seemed to me a grim warning: Leave this place and don't come back. You will not be allowed to leave if you return.
Occasionally in the following months I would feel that prickle on my spine again, of being hunted on the lonely curving streets at the edge of our college campus. The street lights would flicker out as I approached the apex of the turn and walked by the marshy woods. (I later learned this is a common phenomenon attributed to increasing failures at the end of a sodium bulb's lifespan.) There was never anything more than that feeling of being watched. There was no rustling or crashing through the dark. I wasn't being hunted again, not yet at least; just being watched.
I had already been interested in magick, mostly just perusing some interesting occult books that I could find at the bookstore. But I began to worry that maybe I had angered something. And that even if that something was fictional, constructed only of subconscious terror and trauma, existing only in the unreal; that it still could have life enough to do me harm. Our minds are powerful things and we can conjure our own hells from them. If mine was deadset on doing so, then I would have to learn to fight back on the level not of logic and the provable, but in the world of dream, symbol, suggestion, and ritual.
I would assemble some fine rifles and be ready if danger came calling.
(PS: My friend and I had dwindling interactions over the next year and then drifted apart entirely. There were some stories of him from my hometown via other friends who still lived there, and not very nice ones. Then I stopped hearing about him altogether. I've never been able to find anything about where he lives or what he does now since.)