portion of the artwork for James Cato's short story

The Lingering
James Cato

Ely
On foggy weekends we cruise for snakes and possums to save from becoming highway pancakes while everyone thinks we’re out killing deer. We help box turtles cross the road like old ladies and draw symbols with muddy fingers on every shell we rescue. I try to stare at the sky while Jay drives, but only see mist and a hazy blot chasing the white corner of my eye. It grows, closing in.

There are so many gray things. The dying dog in the shop window curled like a croissant. Jay and I, secret people in a crowd. People spraying Jay’s tie-dye sweatshirt with oils in chemistry class until he eventually stopped wearing it. Me, sitting on the basement floor, unable to rise even for coffee, melting in blankets, with my father snarling, That’s quitter talk! To contend with gray things, I hunt for light on a cloudy evening.

We pass three live possum kits clinging to a red stripe (Momma). I pinch their napes into a shelter crate, their legs pedaling until they touch down. The cliff overhead is netted to prevent crumbling. At the tail of our route, we find a stag with antlers full as thorn bushes dead on the white line. “A g.d. straight shot from our old fort,” Jay says. I stare directly at the sun. There’s a blind spot, a smudge, in my left field of vision that blocks light like an eclipse.

Yes, we wove sticks under sycamore roots where soil had calved away, creating a hollow, then keeled slate scales above for a fort. I remember every wedge of every leaf in that pebbled hole, every word in the language of timber, every inch of our bodies. We quit visiting when one evening we saw a figure squatting in our pit with inky eyes where nipples should have been. Our parents considered it the work of our overactive imaginations, but we’ll swear by it forever.

We pull over and change into orange coats. We like changing in front of one another. I get out and prod the stag’s belly with the rifle, swelling bloat toward its hindquarters and seesawing its stiff legs. Jay lays a hand on its neck and cries a little. He cannot help himself when an animal like this is trucked to death—he’s a sweet plum so ripe it bruises under the faucet when washed. Dead eyes have silver in their creases. It’s exactly what we need. I shoot it in the chest for appearances and together we hoist it on the hood.

We can’t hunt, but have no quarrel with those who can. A one-way policy.

I am told tiny seizures cause my vision hole. The optometrist called it a brain trick. Agree to disagree; I know spirit contact when I see it. Jay asks if I want to get some g.d. lunch. He needs details about me kissing Leatra Feridun, a secret nobody would guess; she’s in high demand and goes for sign-shooting guys or bony girls with popular online fursonas; it’s almost unbelievable she’d choose me. We may never discuss the truth because my smear is descending like a flattened moon.

So I raincheck. He can mount the prize, have the taxidermist curl its neck for his garage, pop in glass eyes. We share a smile because our memorialized buck will flabbergast the real hunters. He pulls away, hooves drumming the bumper, leaving me a short hike from home. My blotch connects the trees, gathering darkness in branches. The forest is having its own spring. I see that figure in these pines, in tire piles, in flies making nets in the clearings. I see it in edgeless shadows on my wall and recognize it in the shape of my smudge.

Swimming through ferns I seek out our fort, seek out light. There are so many gray things. Men bragging about what they do to Leatra. How I lied to Jay about kissing her. What she said to me. Sleeping alone with the lamp on. Nude collections circulating in horrific groupchats, a trace of natural light in each bare-chested selfie. Fathers visiting the groupchats through their son’s accounts. The predator-prey graph of symptoms and SSRIs locked in sinusoidal battle. Fog slimes my inner ears.

I find our fort coated in orange needles—inhabited. A box turtle filigreed with finger paint drops eggs in a neat hole, one of our rescues. Her children will dig toward the light like nothing else matters. Behind her, the terrible thing inside the cavity fills in my smudge perfectly, clotting like a spider in bleach. It speaks a choice into existence. I could remain in this beautiful scene forever or return home to so many gray things, chum thrown in water, where the blotch will expand in my eye until my whole view is black, until I am buried alive hunting for light. This time it is no choice at all.

Selene
Who but Leatra would sashay onto my lopsided porch late for a 6 p.m. appointment, her pink top with ribbons tied tight across the front. I didn’t correct her when she called me a masseuse, but felt the beginnings of dislike before she lay naked with a towel slack at her hips on the table. Resisting the urge to yank her platinum braid, I ran oil on her back in a drizzling loop.

Who but Leatra would tighten at mention of my brother Ely. I told her how this therapy studio had been his bedroom before he vanished, before we slid posters in windshield wipers, before he was no longer considered missing. We had found and buried something. But he was not found. My body moved with my hands over her bony landmarks. The lingering spoor of Ely clung in this room on hot days like today with no AC and damp towels and blackout curtains.

Ely had been hellishly fixed on Leatra back in high school. She’d knocked him flat on his ass—in one long scroller text she stated he could not be with her, ever, he was unfit, too passive, too cockeyed, too short; he should get the notion permanently scrubbed out of his brain. I’ve often wondered if her cruel words helped punt him down his dark path. Even a big sister beer-run failed to console him. I wanted this patient of mine to make amends.

And who but Leatra would change the subject as I cleaved her spine with my hands in blades, her sweating shoulders soft as tomatoes in the oven. She described how she dated Ammon, Benny B, and Lela on and off and sometimes all at once, because, and this went unsaid, Leatra Feridun needed the affection of not one but three of the most attractive people in town. I chewed ice while I rubbed and she complained about its glacial creak against my teeth. I was attracted to her. I understood Ely’s sickness for her unflinching demands.

And she had talent as an open ear. I kneaded her trapezius which puts most patients in a trance, yet she listened thoughtfully to my theory about how spirits in the woods had taken Ely when he walked into the trees with dad’s gun, how once he’d disappeared, box turtles started bobbling through my yard with smiley faces and stars drawn in mud on their carapaces. Even in pre-colonial times stories of shapeshifting skin-walkers had haunted these hills and it was crazier to doubt centuries of indigenous accounts than to believe them.

I wondered: what would Ely think of Leatra undressed here in his old bedroom, speculating about him? I shared how the graffiti on the wildlife wasn’t the only sign of Ely’s spirit while pulling her shoulders away from each other, believing her honey skin could disguise ill will as well as any deer skull beast screaming for help in the night. Ely’s online profiles also persisted as if linked to his soul. His cell phone gathered dust and voicemails of garbled wind. I even drove by roadkill mutilated, skinned and headless.

“That’s just the men who can’t hunt,” she butted in. “They drive around and steal the antlers and hides and heads and mount them in their garages. Ammon told me. He’s a real hunter; I know because he invites me sometimes to come along and watch. I don’t mind deer or the killing of deer, but I never go.”

Just like Leatra Feridun, I thought, to not mind a thing and also not mind the killing of that thing. But there was excitement in her voice. Because maybe my brother Ely, who never hurt an animal in his life, really did stroll into the woods with a gun and had his essence eaten. Maybe he’d actually convinced a monster to feast on rumble strip corpses rather than stalking live victims. I noticed skin crumpled under Leatra’s ear, a scar from a bottle thrown by real hunter Ammon, gossip the whole town had heard but tuned out. I liked her more now than when she first walked in. It was important to her to believe, even a little, with me.

When she left, she took a fistful of mints from the bowl and I waved her croupy truck down the slithering road until it was eaten by trees in the dusk. Her face gave nothing away except a tilt toward the forest. Mosquito larvae flexed in the bird bath as if celebrating with me. I swept a flashlight across the creek rippling reeds on the edge of the yard. The beam caught the eyes of a standing animal and I held the contact for a few seconds. Then I clicked it off, leaving the night darker than ever.

The Blotch
A team of hounds found the dead boy near a sod house in the hollow of a tree. When searchers lifted the body away, it left a print, a peat silhouette from oils in the skin and the yellow-brown creep of old blood. The boy had given himself to me willingly and so my entity joined his, my terrible past melded with the sweetest child the town ever knew.

I am attracted to one searcher named Ammon. The boy had known him, so I follow.

On the highway shoulder, this Ammon waits for an ambulance with the body behind his truck. The other searchers have turned their backs, already whispering about unnatural footsteps crunching in the fog. Overcome with a sick compulsion, Ammon unclips a folding knife from his pocket and cuts a pinky finger off the boy. It fits snugly in his pocket, crimped like a shrimp.

In bed that night he can hear two sets of breathing.

Although only an hour’s drive from the city, Ammon’s town is all but unknown, inhabited mostly by campers and lot lizards. Houses hide in the creases of the landscape’s edgeless hills so those driving by only notice them when close enough to shout. Red pines and foliage dense as furred animals carpet the ground. City dwellers call its people superstitious. Ammon is no exception.

My image is discussed on lopsided porches. I have returned, they say, even more hideous. Nowadays I lure people into the woods by screaming for help in the voice of their beloved. The sweet boy heard the calls of his high school crush, Leatra Feridun, but he should have known it wasn’t her—she never liked him back. Or so they say.

Ammon preserves the boy’s pinky in a marmalade jar and places it in a drawer beneath his socks. It has company: a missing poster of the mutt he ran over, a .38 shell spent at a bar fight, and a shard of the bottle he threw at his girlfriend Leatra after one of her affairs. He makes his teenager friends laugh with dark humor, and this intimate hiding place is his museum.

Shame of this compulsion can overtake him for hours at a time.

I wind up with skin wet and textured as the flesh of a grape. Organs pulse inside my wrists. My feet face backwards but I move faster than any man. They even give me an extra set of miniature arms on my knees. It’s scary enough to set a sort of informal curfew.

On weekends I follow Ammon as he hunts illegally along a fast river called Roaring Run. When he succeeds in killing a deer, he flings it in the rapids to break apart on the rocks, settle like sediment on river’s bottom. He avoids scrutiny by taking an abandoned access road that chases the waterway for 36 miles and finishes at an overgrown slag pile.

I stick to him like a grain of rice to a wet finger. He’s irresistible.

On social hunting trips, he makes his teenager friends laugh by swerving to hit raccoons, turtles, and turkeys on this road. One baby rabbit even landed in a tree. The animals are all attracted by mulberries in the ruts. When Ammon returns alone, the corpses have an animate quality, fur and wings catching the wind cast by the river, bunny bobbing on its branch.

This unsettles him.

City folk argue I am only a moral reaction, maybe Christian-rooted, to terrible things that have happened. I am a way to explain and personify a community’s moral failings that culminated in an adolescent who died by suicide in the only beautiful place he knew. Nothing but a story to add meaning to their own lingering horror.

I agree. I will tell them when they see me.

When Ammon hunts by himself, Leatra, 12 years his junior, dates his teenager friends. The teenagers congratulate him on their shared conquest as if they are getting away with something, as if it is not Leatra who is winning twice over. Ammon is built of mostly hidden things and laughs with his friends through the hurt, jealousy, and real affection.

One night I let myself into Ammon’s house while he sleeps and allow him to see me in the corner, tall to the ceiling, my featureless face gleaming. I get close enough for him to see the teeth in my neck and the wet eyes on my chest. It is impossible for a person to look at me and not shudder, the same way one shudders to touch the nervy whiskers of a channel cat.

The finger tweaks in the jar, tapping and tapping long after I leave.

Ammon wakes a different, frantic creature. He vows to bury the finger in the slag pile at the end of the old road. When he comes, he does so alone and fast, bringing all of his morbid trinkets clumped in a box. He plans to stash them all, then flee for a fresh start. He speeds by dozens of his slaughtered animals, which seem to be vibrating, awakening, flesh turning to flies.

Then a deer dashes in front of him. I am the deer, in Ammon’s telling. Fair enough. What am I to a paranoid man if not a deer in the brush, something blurry and breathing in earshot? It gallops in front of his fender, another animal to cream and crush and leave to rot. But Ammon has changed, on account of the sweet boy, as have I. Neither of us can kill anymore. He yanks the wheel, banking left, skipping his truck into a tree. The box of trinkets blasts through the passenger window and the airbags deploy. The jar shatters and the pinky disintegrates, softer now than a circus peanut.

Ammon breathes, absorbing his change in circumstances, watching the leaping white tail as it shrinks through the smoke. He is 36 miles down an abandoned road. His truck is shot, half-twisted around a cedar. Nobody knows his whereabouts, and he has no food nor a phone. As he wobbles out, there is something like the tug of a fish in his gut. Fruit pops underfoot. Down the long road, there is nothing to eat but mulberries, unless, Ammon realizes, unless he resorts to eating roadkill. The dangling wing of a smashed turkey waves at him when the wind whips.



James Cato’s Comments

“The Lingering” was born out of my memories growing up in North American woods (Pennsylvania, specifically). The whole thing started out as a flash piece, most similar to the middle section here from Selene’s point of view. I wanted to write something blurring the lines of superstition, truth, and experience in a setting I’ve always found to be beautifully gloomy in the day but busy and frightening at night. Ely’s section practically flew onto the page after Selene’s, and the final leg, a beast living somewhere between reality and folk tale, seemed to me a fitting finisher.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 58 | Fall/Winter 2021