“It will be dark soon,” Tristán said.
Arturo cleared his throat in response. He looked like he could be Tristán’s brother, but only in the way that the church ladies who welcomed the asylum-seeking families assumed everyone who arrived on that military bus were one big family tree, chopped down from a Central American war zone and relocated to the Canadian prairies for safe-keeping.
Arturo was battling through a second week of a throat infection—but he couldn’t miss their second-annual hunting trip, even for ill health. He had been sick a lot since summer ended. It didn’t seem to matter if he was one place or another.
Tristán wasn’t sick yet, but he was exhausted from slogging with their guns and gear since sunrise. When the pair were in the city they exchanged broken English, but a hundred kilometers from the nearest streetlight, they sweated and huffed and dropped any pretenses. Their Spanish crackled in the mist.
“Do we go?” Arturo asked.
“I don’t think we have a better choice,” Tristán said. “If we want to make it before night, we have to go down and through.”
But where down was and what they had to go through wasn’t so straightforward. There were six miles of crevasse, from rim to rim. That was mostly manageable. It was the land’s designation as tribal land that made it more difficult. The Tribal Council had a track record of frowning on trespassers. Particularly, outsiders with weapons.
The pair were not unfamiliar with that—they were outsiders to the tribe’s colonizers too, welcomed by the federal government as a political pitch for globalism. Tristán and Arturo came from different villages in Honduras. They met after they heeded the open arms policy the Canadian embassy promised on six-inch televisions they watched idly at refugee camps.
The two years since had unfolded that promise. After the Canadians set up a hasty refugee camp on the American border for the summer, and after a winter at a military base in Manitoba, they were provided housing in various towns across the country. It was an opportunity to return to sensible lives. No raids, no dirty bombs, no decapitations. Now there was sugary coffee, icy roads, and currency that didn’t become worthless overnight. Hunters by tradition, Tristán and Arturo were excited to go after the monster-sized Canadian game all the locals talked about toward the end of summer.
“That goddamn elk.” Arturo spat and cleared his throat again.
“He ran us crazy. What a waste.”
“That’s the worst part.”
“He will serve the wolves and ravens all the same.”
“Then he serves no good.” Arturo coughed and spat.
They shouldered their packs and lurched into the crevasse. There was half a hope that they might run into the elk and have a chance at hauling it to Arturo’s pickup truck. Short of that, they only had the vehicle’s heater to look forward to.
There wasn’t much besides dense bush in the crevasse. For a solid forty minutes they elbowed their way through shrubs taller than either of them. When they broke through the bushes with cheeks lashed pink from elastic branches, it was a relief to see the creek. Clear water ran through tall grass and willows—and in the open, on its chubby flank, their wounded elk.
The elk’s tongue lunged out of its mouth. They could see it, pink and bright, even in the misty day’s dying light. The animal didn’t move. They wouldn’t need their weapons, but Arturo kept his handy, just in case. Tristán set his pack down a few steps from the carcass so he could unload his field dressing kit. On one knee, he sharpened his skinning knife while Arturo looked over the antlers.
“It’s a monster . . .”
“You got yourself a nice mount, for sure.” Tristán nodded, still on his knee and missing the tremble in Arturo’s voice. “Twelve points? Fancy hat rack. I’m not so vain as you, naturally. All the horns tell me is that we outsmarted an elder.”
“Tristán . . .”
“I mean, he doesn’t look so wise now, but . . . we all go in our time, no? I say—”
“Tristán. Shut up and look.”
Tristán rose and joined Arturo on the back side of the carcass. Then he understood why Arturo wasn’t so interested in his trophy anymore.
When they spotted him in the field, and from where they had approached legs first, the elk looked like a robust buck. But on its back—erupted like a raw boil that stretched from its neck to its tail—was the torso of a man, face up. The man’s chest was bare, but busy with tattoos. His shoulders and head merged into the elk’s tawny fur. Along the torso’s side, from the shoulder blades to the hips, the skin was torn, exposing oozing flesh.
“That wasn’t there when I shot it,” Arturo said, so numb that he barely enunciated the words.
Tristán looked around. He scanned the trees, the bushes, the creek. It could have been a trick, or maybe an accident someone was trying to pass off on reckless trespassers.
There was no one else. They were alone, for now.
Arturo gagged at the stench that rose from the open flesh. It didn’t smell like a dressed elk would—although Tristán had smelled his first musky buck the year prior, and knew that it wasn’t all hickory smoked sausage in the field.
For some reason, Tristán thought that the man looked too warm, too fresh. He took a knee and felt for a pulse around the man’s neck.
There was a tattoo of a combination lock on the man’s trachea, right where Tristán jammed his fingers. As Tristán searched for the pulse that wasn’t there, the tattoo spun. Tristán tried to move the dial alone. With little resistance, he could wheel the man’s tattoo to the left and right.
“What the hell is going on?” Arturo asked.
“You see this? Get your camera.”
“My camera? Let’s get out of here.”
“Did you have a locker at school?”
“Of course not. Who the hell cares?”
“Once, I saw a lock like this. It was on a trunk,” Tristán said.
“Don’t be such a coward.”
Tristán’s blood pressure rose. He almost stood up, wanting to shout Arturo down for forgetting all the terrible reasons that made them uproot everything familiar for them and their families. It had been a long road to a steadier life, and forgetting that made them no different than the torso: decorated, but half-formed and lifeless.
The memories would never be easy. Tristán would give his wife and children a new life, but he never could leave where he came from. It was as lasting and legible as the tattoos on the man’s corpse.
“They didn’t bring any trunks to your town?” Tristán pushed on. “Just food and firearms? And the direction to shoot first and fuck the women before asking any questions?”
“This is not the time for that.”
“No, of course not. Never the time. But tell me, how much of your time did it take away?”
“Grab your things, we need to leave.”
Tristán ignored Arturo, staring at the throat tattoo once again. The combination lock he remembered was on a trunk that gangsters dropped off at his house. His uncle freaked out and cut the lock with bolt cutters. He didn’t want Tristán to see the contents, but Tristán was stubborn and his uncle was impatient because blood seeped from the corners.
“My uncle carried my father out of the box.”
“Animals . . .”
“My uncle didn’t want me to help. So I carried the lock. Nobody wanted it. I kept it. It took me six months, but I finally cracked it.”
“That’s very precious, Tristán. Tell me more as we walk . . .”
“We can go . . . but . . .”
“Leave it alone, man. We need to go. We need to get back to the truck before it gets dark.”
“I remember the combination . . . something like . . .”
Tristán gave it a go. 31 left, 27 right, 9 left. He heard a click and looked up at Arturo, who only shook his head and stepped back. When Tristán looked back at the carcass, he saw the two skins part even farther, the flesh itself peeling away and opening up onto darkness. Tristán couldn’t look away, and didn’t need to—there was nothing else to see.
Tristán’s clothes crumpled as his body turned to leaves. They blew against Arturo’s back.
There were six miles to the truck, and Arturo would have made record time if it wasn’t for the uphill battle through the undergrowth. The alders and hazelnut thrashed at his face and forearms, but he didn’t care. He didn’t let himself think about what had happened. He focused on each step as if it were his last.
Which wasn’t the first time Arturo had to count his steps like that. When the gangs first came to his town, they didn’t bother with the girls. They went for the boys. They needed soldiers more than they needed pleasure. Arturo had been collecting butterflies in the trees behind his house. He had never fired a gun, nor had he ever heard a gunshot. When he heard the tattering stutter of a machine gun ring off in the town square, he leapt to his feet and flew off with the butterflies.
But it had been a while since Arturo had to run like that. His throat throbbed in the thickening fog. He stopped for a gulp of water and decided to load his gun. Arturo’s hands shook, but he was able to load it quickly, like he had done dozens of times in front of his commanding officers, who assumed the role of guardians and drill sergeants for the boys of the villages they claimed.
Then back into the bush, lungs and soggy boots be damned. The gun occupied both of Arturo’s hands, so he could maneuver around tree trunks but he couldn’t keep the branches out of his eyes. A tree creaked and made him jump into a trunk. Arturo swore he heard Tristán’s voice calling to him, but when he stopped to listen he only heard birdsong.
Arturo exhausted himself beyond fear. Now he was angry, fuming as he jogged. If Tristán had not insisted that they could revive their boyhood joys of hunting in the forest, albeit a bit colder—and if Arturo had not agreed to drop hundreds of dollars on gear—and if gun rentals were available, so that he would not need to own the last thing he wanted in his new house—if all these things had conspired differently, maybe Arturo would not have felt so dizzy and drained.
There was clearing for a pipeline corridor, thirty yards or so of grass in the otherwise untouched forest. It was the first thing that slowed Arturo down. He stopped at the edge and listened.
Besides a squirrel’s trill somewhere overhead, he heard nothing. But as soon as he set his first boot into the clearing, he stopped again. Behind him, his friend had disappeared. Somewhere up ahead, their vehicle was parked off the road, just feet from the long black asphalt highway Arturo could ride home. Under his boots, he noticed a patch of Canadian thistle.
Unlike the name suggested, the thistle was native to Scotland and was considered a rampant pest in North America. Arturo knew that, because his neighbour threatened to call the bylaw officer after Arturo fortified his back fence with those towering, thorny stalks. His wife and daughters loved the flowers, but apparently, they started an epidemic in the neighbourhood that led to shortages of herbicide at the hardware store.
It had never occurred to Arturo until he saw the weed there, so far from his fence, that he had never been the problem. It was becoming so clear that Arturo bent to pluck the last flower on the thistle. But the combined act of reaching for the pokey bud and bending forward made Arturo cough until he gagged.
Arturo could hear voices after he lifted his head and wiped spittle from his lips. Arturo dug his rifle deep into his shoulder. There were three men, their guns raised in the middle of the clearing. Arturo stepped out and shouted to them.
“I just pass. I go to my car.”
“Whoa, not so fast. You stop right where you are.”
“No, I just pass,” Arturo said, struggling to find the words in English. “No problem. No problem for me.”
The trio stepped forward and one of them let a shot ring off in the air.
“Don’t do nothing stupid. Put your gun down. There are three of us. Don’t be an idiot.”
“Yeah, buddy. You’re on our land. Put your gun down.”
“Why are we talking with this idiot?”
“He’s going to get his empty brain blown out the back of his skull.”
Arturo couldn’t fully understand their insults, but he wasn’t listening anyway. He was still trying to understand how he had been born in a country that had wanted to draw blood, only to move to a different country that only wanted to draw boundaries. How one was a hatchet and the other a scalpel, but he couldn’t tell which was which, or which was better.
One of the men let off another warning shot. Arturo was juggling hatchets and scalpels in his mind and let himself forget where he was. When he heard the shot, he was fifteen years old again, with a rifle in a damp tropical forest. The man who had fired the shot had his gun raised above his head, leaving his chest clear. Arturo targeted the nook in the chest bone where he liked to feel his daughter’s heartbeat, and he pulled the trigger.
Once his first shot was fired, the next two were easy. Arturo had to work fast, finding the clearest kill shot by instinct and bracing for the rifle’s kickback.
Arturo leapt into the bush on the other side of the clearing while the shots rang in his ears. He leaned against the thickest tree he could find and reloaded his ammunition. He coughed again, shaking so hard he dropped a couple bullets that he didn’t bother to retrieve.
After another thirty minutes of bushwhacking, Arturo had to stop. His thighs burned. His lungs ached. The compass told him he was keeping a straight line, but somehow, he still had not reached his truck.
That was when he heard movement in the bushes behind him. It was the first thing to sound louder than his speeding rampage, so it startled him. Arturo flipped around—but it was only Tristán. Tristán’s hands looked bloody, but otherwise, he looked the same.
Tristán couldn’t say the same. He saw very differently now. Arturo wasn’t of Tristán’s kind any more. He was weak. He was foolish. He was food.
“Where the hell did you go?” Arturo asked, stunned.
“I didn’t go anywhere. You are the one who ran.”
“You disappeared in front of my eyes. What was I supposed to do?”
“You didn’t need to hurt those men.”
Arturo realized he had lowered his gun, but he quickly tucked it into his armpit and stood ready to keep the barrel warm.
“You could have come with me,” Tristán said.
“Where did you go?”
“You don’t see. What a shame.”
“You have lost your mangos.”
“Says the tree who could never grow mangos. You killed those men.”
“I should kill you.”
“Arturo . . .” Tristán put his arms out and bent his head. “I am unarmed. Please, it’s good to see you.”
“It’s fucked up to see you.”
“That’s only because you will never see. Not now.”
Arturo set his rifle down and marched toward Tristán. Arturo had no interest in shooting his friend, but he was done with talking. Everyone wanted him to talk. Talk about the war, talk about his hometown, talk about how flushing toilet paper was a novelty. If Tristán couldn’t understand that they lived it every day, talk or no talk, then no one would.
“Then no one will,” Arturo grumbled.
Arturo launched his hands to his friend’s throat.
Tristán saw the chokehold coming—as clearly as Arturo noticed Tristán drool when his hands were knocked away. Right when Arturo realized he would regret touching someone he saw transform to foliage, he felt Tristán’s teeth sink into his throat.
Before he was full of warm flesh, Tristán’s skin had already sprouted fur. It was dark and tawny like the elks, but almost luminescent. Something like morning twilight breaking through a moonless night. When the Canadian government investigated the following week, they would not be able to close the five missing person files. They would find nothing, even if it was as lasting and legible as the tattoo of a combination lock that rose like a rash on Tristán’s neck as he scampered off into the crevasse.