He sits in darkness on his steps made of log rounds and flickers his flashlight. His light illuminates the orbs at the edge of the forest, like wicks waiting for a flame. Some burn blue, some white, some green. He remembers why they glow as he remembers the touch of paper and leather, of binding adhesive, the smells of his childhood encyclopedia.
The tapetum lucidum /təˈpiːtəm/ (Latin: “bright tapestry) is a membrane at the back of the eye. Not his eye, but most vertebrates—those that move in the night—not primates. It is why they, those that lurk, can see better than him. It is why their eyes reflect back at him in the moments they dare step into his plain. Sometimes blue, sometimes white, sometimes green. Some hunter, some hunted, some in between. The bright tapestry of animals, shining back at him in the dark.
He used to see their eyes each night, every night, when he first arrived, escaped, hid out in his makeshift redoubt. Now they slink more and more beyond his reach. He tells himself they have become shy and shakes his flashlight again.
In the daylight, he sets traps. In the night, he lies in bed and listens for the click, for the snap, for the grumble of his emptying stomach to acknowledge he has at least one meal more. The time between the clicks and the snaps grows longer over the space of what he used to mark as months.
In the morning, he collects his dinner; he counts his gloves, his mittens, his hats, and his boot liners. He used to have more to count, but still he has work left from the preceding days. There is little else to do in the few hours of daylight that feel no brighter than dusk. He has time for the red eyes of the rabbit in his soup pot. Hours to work the white eyes of the deer, to reshape the creature to warm his frame. What must be days to work the slow needle threaded with coyote sinew.
He fed their offal to his hound, until the day he ate his hound’s offal.
Not before he flung the dog’s eyeballs into the woods.
He hoped their look would stop the cougar the way it stopped him.
Her heavy-lidded eyes of lust, her yellow globes a galaxy foreign to him orbiting his shelter at night.
His eyes don’t glow—he has no tapetum lucidum, no inner light, no capacity for reflection—and he knows she knows this.
Some time ago his fuel ran out, his box of fresh batteries emptied, and the bears ate the last bits of his nourishment. Some time before that the sun went dim after the long deep boom and the subsequent clouds.
Some time from now the cougar will come and he will shoot her with his final round. Shoot her before she can come close, before he feels her teeth in his neck. Somehow he will know she is inches from his spine, though she will spend hours creeping through the woods, minutes to take even one step, minding that her toes don’t touch the crackling, starving branches of a bush. She will commit weeks to circling him, the unlit center of her universe. Because some time before that her food will have run out and her body will be low on fuel.
Her breath will give her away. The ketogenic stench of metabolizing protein. The telltale scent of muscle wasting.
He knows it.
He will know her before her teeth sink into his spine. Before she scalps him. Before she paralyzes him.
He will know it only seconds before.
He will shoot her, then eat her, then starve another day.
Imagining her golden light at the edge of the wood as he shakes the last bit of illumination from his flashlight and wishes she were still there.
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing or forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, concis, The Forge, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jersey Devil Press, and Corium. She and her husband spent the last year living off grid in a remote part of North Idaho, and now roam North America in their RV.