So I’m a day late in posting this week’s story. Sorry about that. Been supra-busy. This was a story that sat half-finished for a while. Now it’s finished. Set in the deep woods of Maine…
The rain fell in thunderous sheets outside the cabin, ruining Noah Jackson’s vacation. On the radio, a weather bulletin interupted NPR’s broadcast of “Music of the Ancients” and announced a heavy period of rain for northeastern Maine which would continue late into the evening with severe flooding in rural areas. A supply of firewood sat safe and dry on the back porch, but he wished he had thought to bring along a satellite radio. The regular radio worked okay, but not great–at least there were books. The university English department owned the timeshare, and occasionally lent it out to other members of the faculty as the season and schedule permitted. Unfortunately, Jackson’s taste in literature ran more toward Michael Crichton novels rather than Ulysses or The Bell Jar
Jackson was sourly considering his chances at getting the deposit back for his kayak rental when the cabin phone rang. Surprised and startled by the sudden noise, and the presence of a land line, he answered it.
“This is Sally Fulton,” said a woman’s voice on the other end, “who is this?”
“Noah Jackson,” he answered.
“From the biology department? I know you; I thought you retired. Ah, that’s why you’re at the cabin instead of on campus.” She spoke quickly. “Good! I found something I have to show you and I need you here before the rain washes it away.”
“Eh? Fulton… you’re in English, aren’t you? I thought you were on sabbatical. The connection is bad, where are you calling from?” asked Jackson.
“From my sabbatical. I’m camping at a spot about twenty-five miles north of you. Not the best place in the world for cell phone reception, sorry. I can give you directions. Do you have a camera?”
“Good, bring it! I don’t suppose there’s any plaster of paris around, is there?” Fulton asked.
Jackson frowned. “No. But I’ve got a kayak I’m not using.”
“You’re kayaking in this weather? Nevermind. If there was any plaster mix down there, it wouldn’t be enough. Just come up here and bring your camera. Here are the directions.”
Jackson jotted the driving instructions down on the back of an envelope. What was going on? He was vaguely familiar with Fulton as a professor, and recalled that she had quite a reputation as an enthusiastic professor, but he had never actually spent any time with her one-on-one. Sciences and humanities rarely mixed at faculty gatherings.
“My phone’s camera lens is a bust. Any chance you have a video camera? Or your phone” asked Fulton when she was done giving out the directions.
“My digital camera can take better video than a phone,” Jackson said, but a crash of thunder broke through the sky and the phone went dead. Jackson swore quietly, and hung up. He wasn’t sure whose melodrama he was more annoyed with–Professor Fulton’s or Mother Nature’s. Such things didn’t impress him much. Still, his trip north had been a bust thus far. The torrential rain had begun soon after his arrival, and even during those brief spots when it looked light enough to chance a walk around the lake, no sooner than he set foot outside, the deluge would begin again.
Jackson flipped through a stack of New Yorker magazines when the lights flickered. The power would go out soon enough in this storm, he thought. With a sigh he found his camera, jacket, and keys, glad at least that he had had the foresight to lease an SUV this year instead of something smaller and more prone to being washed away in a flood.
The drive was far from pleasant, but still preferable to sitting and listening to the rain batter the roof of the cabin for the rest of the weekend. Fulton’s directions were fairly simple until he got off the main roads, then he faced a series of narrow, mud-slickened dirt roads heavy with growth spreading beyond the edges. The storm had knocked down trees on one road, forcing Jackson to turn around and search for an alternative route. He bounced over rain-carved ditches and eventually turned onto an old fire road that ended at a large glacial field. At the other end sat a red pickup truck with an orange tent erected over the bed.
Jackson crossed the distance, weaving between glacial till and rock shrub, pulled up behind the truck and honked.
A red-haired woman stuck her head out from between the flaps of the orange tent. “It took you two hours to get here?” Fulton called out. “Climb in! I’ve got hot coffee.”
Jackson tucked his digital camera underneath his jacket, wondering what this was all about, and ducked through the rain. He ran to the truck and clambered up the tailgate and into the tent. Inside, blankets had been spread across the floor of the truck’s bed and a raised sterno warmed a battered metal kettle in the center. “More like an hour and a half by my counting,” said Jackson wiping the rain from his face, “the weather’s hell and there are fallen trees blocking the roads.” He accepted a foam cup of black coffee and looked around the tent. Fulton, he recalled, was known as the English department’s resident adventurer. When she wasn’t filling students’ heads with Wordsworth and Coleridge, she was pursuing some Byronesque call of the wild. Jackson himself approved of nature on general principle, but he also maintained a deep respect for certain boundaries. He preferred warm, dry cabins to wet, wind-blown tents. More driving down country lanes. Less backpacking.
“Heh. You probably dawdled before getting on the road then,” she said. “Too bad. The rain washed most of the evidence away an hour after I called you, but I did manage to protect one footprint.”
“Only one?” said Jackson, warming his hands around the coffee.
“It’s a good print. You’ll see.” Fulton assured him.
“You have strange hobbies, Professor Fulton.”
“Call me Sally, and didn’t you ever go exploring when you were a kid?”
“Of course,” Jackson said, “I grew up in the middle of Connecticut. The woods are impossible to avoid. We packed peanut butter sandwiches, spent all day scouting those woods, looking for arrowheads, and, more often than not, returned late for supper.” Jackson took another sip of coffee. He looked some more around the tent. In one corner was an enormous backpack with a rolled-up sleeping bag stuffed into the bottom of the frame. A long rifle sat next to it. “What are you doing with that?”
“The plan was to go hunting, but I’ve not had much luck.”
Jackson quirked an eyebrow, somewhat surprised. He hadn’t heard anything about Sally Fulton being a hunter. He assumed, perhaps wrongly, that like most of the younger members of the faculty, she was more of a tree-hugger than a Bambi-hunter. As for Jackson, he preferred the meat aisle at his supermarket. “Barbarian,” he commented.
Fulton shrugged and finished her coffee, placing the empty cup into a white plastic trash bag, “Our prehistoric ancestors didn’t seem to have a problem with it.”
“Our prehistoric anscestors also abandoned their elderly to starve.”
Fulton extinguished the small sterno flame and poured the remains of the kettle’s contents into a bullet-shaped thermos. “Speaking of which, how are you enjoying retirement?”
Jackson scowled. “Not funny. Not in the slightest. And you’ve just lost your invitation to come back with me to a dry cabin and an honest-to-goodness warm fireplace.”
“Sorry. Poor humor,” grinned Fulton. “Blame it on the weather. I’ve been out in this rain for three days and have yet to spot a single buck. Not even a rabbit. This damn rain has them all in hiding. Thank God for military surplus rations.”
“Thank God you’re not a prehistoric ancestor,” Jackson chuckled. “You’d be eating your prehistoric shoes by now. All right, I’m rested–what’s so important you got me risking life and limb driving up here? Did you find Bigfoot’s missing sneakers?”
Professor Sally Fulton grinned and handed Professor Noah Jackson (retired) a bright yellow rain parka, “Come on. I’ll show you.”
The rain continued, and in the distance lightning cracked the sky. The two, clad in bright wet weather gear, trudged over slick stones and slippery mud as narrow rivers of rain and earth flowed between the standing rockface and coarse soil of the glacial field.
Fulton pointed at flattened pile of leaves and branches that Jackson recognized as once being part of a large, spreading canopy of rhododendron. “The brush all along here has been crushed or pushed aside. At first I thought it might have been a herd of off-road enthusiasts on a rolling holiday, but there are no tire tracks.” She spoke loudly over the rain. “Say, you said there were a lot of trees down on the roads leading up here. Did you see anything else?”
Jackson paused a moment and shook some rain off the hood of his parka. “Like what? None of the roads around here are paved, so it was a little rough going. If I was still driving my tiny Escort I’d still be in some rain ditch.”
Sally looked at him oddly, or perhaps, thought Jackson, it was an effect of the storming weather. Then she pointed down the slope. “It’s down there. I almost stepped into it when I discovered it,” she said.
Jackson looked down from the rocks and saw a large blue tarp, about the area of a backyard swimming pool, stretched over the ground. The center of the tarp dipped low in the middle, filled with water and mud, but the edges of the tarp were held in place by bright orange tent pegs. They walked carefully down to it.
“I found more tracks beyond this, but I didn’t have enough tarp to protect them all from this weather. With the all the rain, the ground’s too soft and the impressons have already filled in with runoff. I have no way of knowing how old these tracks are.”
Jackson peered through the downpour at the treeline a hundred yards away. He looked at the ground and tried to make out any sign of animal tracks that might have remained. On muddy ground, he knew, deer could leave impressions over an inch deep. Wolves or coyote, would be less easy to spot, and he doubted that Fulton called him up all this way for rabbit tracks. Halfway to the treeline, the mud gave way to a surface of granite rock veined with quartz. Mountain laurel and small rock pine took root in between the cracks in the rock, but otherwise it was bare until the exposed rock receded back under the earth and mud and low brush took up the rest of the space to the trees. It looked like the old fire road might have once continued this way. “Where do your tracks lead to?”
Fulton crouched by the corner of the tarp and pulled up one of the tent pegs. “They appear to go through this field to the rock basin, then the treeline breaks, as if something plowed through it, pushing away trees in its path. A hundred yards further there’s another field like this” she pulled the spike free and moved down to the next one. “That’s as far as I’ve gone so far.”
She continued pulling up pegs. With each one, the rain-heavy tarp dipped lower into whatver it was concealing. “Before I follow it,” she continued, “I want to know what it is. I took a chance that someone would be using the faculty cabin this weekend, I’m glad it was you and not someone else from the English department. You’ve got the sort of expertise I need.”
“I’m a biologist. A retired one at that, as you so delicately pointed out,” said Jackson.
She pulled up another tent spike. “A biologist is going to know more about this than a poet.” She pulled the last spike free on her side. “Help me pull this back.”
Jackson grasped a corner of the tarp as Fulton took the other. Together they pulled the rain-laden tarp back. “You should have called Andy Tarica from my department,” Jackson said. “She a zoologist and would be more helpful at identifying animal tracks.”
She shook her head, the parka obscuring her face. “The university is too far away, and she’d have hung up if I tried to describe this. Even if all I got was someone from English at the cabin, I could have used them to verify my measurements.” Water from the tarp drained into the ditch underneath.
“There!” she exclaimed.
Jackson leaned over and looked into the shallow pit. Raindrops were already pelting the muddy bottom and the sides were crumbling in under the rainwash. “I don’t see any tracks down there. Too much water got under your tarp.”
Fulton grinned, rubbed her hands together in the rain and shook off the mud.
“Give yourself a minute and you’ll see it.” She walked to a slab of beaten granite jutting from the ground and climbed it. “Look from up here.”
Jackson dropped his corner of the tarp and joined her. The weathered rock was slippery with rain and the mud from his boots. He faltered once but Sally grabbed his arm and steadied him. He felt foolish coming all the way out here to look at animal tracks. Doubly foolish if it end up with him twisting his ankle in the process. It was a testament to how bored he had been sitting in that cabin. Fulton pulled him to the top of the ledge and they stood there, looking down at the ground below them.
Jackson rain from the brim of his parka. In this short time he’d been with her, he felt that Fulton was one of those people who let their enthusiasm get away from them at times. That, combined with the unceasing rain, dampened Jackson’s sense of adventure. He peered at the ditch through the rain.
Then he saw it.
“Good God,” he said.
Fulton left Jackson behind on the rock and jumped back down to the animal track. Jackson wiped the rain away from his face and looked again, seeing Fulton standing at full height next to the track left in the mud. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called through the rain, “Now tell me, how big of creature would leave something this size?”
Jackson slid down the rock. He examined the edges of what looked to be a single, impossibly-immense animal print. The blunt back-end appeared to be a heel, which branched out into three toe-like impressions–now that he knew how to look at it.
It couldn’t be. And Jackson decided that it most certainly wasn’t.
He sighed and shook his head. Briefly–but for a longer moment than he’d be willing to admit–he was fooled. Instead, he found himself more disappointed with Fulton and disappointed with himself for the foolish waste of time and energy–soaked to the bone for a hoax. The deep impression was already filling up with water as erosion obscured the outline. He walked around it and stopped next to Fulton.
“I’d estimate the footprint itself to be twenty feet wide and thirty feet long,” she said, “with each of those three toes extending out another ten feet or so.”
“How far away was the next one?” Jackson asked.
“That was only a partial of the left-most toe, but it was along the edge of those flat stones about 25 yards ahead.”
Jackson looked ahead through the heavy rain and failed to see any sign of anything similar. “You know something, Sally? If your hoaxers hadn’t been so ambitious, I’d say it could be almost convincing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that someone thought it would be a great joke to create a set of dinosaur tracks in the middle of the woods for some fool hunter–no offense–to stumble across. Problem being, they got carried away and constructed footprints for an animal that could never have walked the Earth.”
Fulton shook her head, “I don’t think so. If there were only one or two, I would have thought the same thing and never have called anyone. But there were over a dozen tracks like this, whole and partial. That’s too many–even for an ambitious prank.”
She crouched down beside the edge of the impression. “And look, this wasn’t dug, this was pressed in–deeper by the toes where the animal dug in to keep from slipping. There are no tire treads around here, and the only bootprints are our own.”
“No animal alive or dead ever made this print.” said Jackson,
“Look at the ripped brush. Come with me to the treeline and I’ll show you where something big pushed its way through.” Fulton continued. “Maybe it’s a new species.”
“You don’t get it,” Jackson said. “Nothing can make a footprint that big. It’s a physical impossibility.”
“Nothing is impossible,” said Fulton.
“That’s lazy thinking, Sally. Okay, you want to know how big something would be to make this foot print? Judging from the depth and size and length of stride, you’re looking at something around fifty meters tall, and weighing over fifteen thousand tons. Nothing alive gets that large; not the African elephant, not even the blue whale.”
“I was thinking of a dinosaur. They were common enough once in North America.”
“Over a hundred million years ago, sure. If you know that, then you should know that it was a different world back then. Different environment and different climate as well. But take look at your evidence. Your hoaxers modeled their print on a something like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They probably saw Jurassic Park a few times. Trouble is, they also probably saw Godzilla movie or two. The T-Rex didn’t get over seven meters tall and only weighed about ten tons. If they really wanted to try and impress you with size, they should have chosen a brachiosaur, but chances are they didn’t know what the print looked like.”
Fulton nodded. “I thought of that. But I’m not suggesting it’s a T-Rex. From the looks of things, it’s much bigger. Maybe ten times bigger.”
“Now you’re just being juvenile,” said Jackson. He regretted his tone as soon as he said it, but it was better to get things clear before Fulton’s wild imagination ran completely amok. “Look. Take a T-Rex, triple it’s size, and you have an animal that’s twenty-one meters in height; but it’s a three-dimensional creature, so now it’s not sixty tons–but a thousand. It wouldn’t be able to support its own weight on just two legs.”
“Make it more muscular, and with stronger bones or an exoskeleton like insects,” Sally suggested.
“It would still be too heavy for self-locomotion,” explained Jackson. “Some insects support weights heavier than one would expect, but remember you’re reducing the scale quite a bit. Also you have to consider temperature. A body mass of a thousand tons is going to produce a lot of heat, but despite the size, the total area of skin surface still won’t be enough to compensate, so your beast would not only be unable to walk, but it would overheat. If it were a sea animal, water might draw some of the excess heat, but I don’t think anything as big as you’re thinking is going to find a large enough body of water for it in these woods.”
“This rain could be helping,” said Fulton.
“Not even barely, and it certainly wouldn’t be running around.”
“Damn. I wish I had a Geiger counter.”
Jackson gave Fulton a disapproving frown. “Tell me I’m not hearing this.”
Sally glared at him briefly, then gave an embarassed grin. “It’s a thought. I’ve taught classes in science fiction.”
“This is more like fantasy. You should know your science better”
They stood there for a moment in the rain, watching muddy water fill in the ditch and obscure the impression further. Fulton looked over to the treeline. “What about the lack of animal life? The low brush? Or the damage to those trees?”
“Call the state planning commission. I’ll bet your little hunting preserve is going to see some construction soon–a cellular tower perhaps–and your deer are smarter than you give them credit for.”
“You know, these rocks have been here for millions of years; glaciers scouring back and forth over the land. Mankind has been here for barely ten thousand of those years. Who’s to say we have all the answers?”
“No one,” said Jackson, “But even with that timescale, everything falls within certain bounds of common sense. All your hoaxers have proved is that they’ve too much free time on their hands.”
Fulton sighed and shook her head. “I’m tipping my king. I won’t apologize for having an active imagination, but I’ll apologize for dragging you out here for nothing.”
“Don’t bother,” Jackson said with a wave of his hand. “I grew up in woods like these and, believe it or not, I know how you feel. There’s something about being alone in the middle of nowhere with not a spot of humanity around that inspires even the most stodgy imaginations.”
Fulton nodded as she began pulling up the rest of the tent pegs from the other edge of the tarp. “I grew up on the streets of Chicago, so I didn’t get as many woodland opportunities as a child. But my uncle liked to hunt deer, and I went with him once to Wisconsin. I remember one morning–I wandered off exploring and got myself more-than-adequately lost. Searchers found me the next day over fifteen miles away from the camping grounds, still trudging along. All that time I had been entertaining this fantasy that I had crossed some kind of dimensional zone and was exploring virgin land from prehistoric times. I don’t even remember eating.”
“Amazing what we do as kids. Were your parents upset?” Jackson asked.
“Livid. I never got to go hunting or even camping again until I started going out on my own after college. But for that single lost day in Wisconsin, I was in a whole other world. And even now, when I’m alone in the forest, I get that same feeling. that I’m someplace magical and far from our normal space and time.” She pulled up the last tent peg and pulled the tarp away from the rain-filled hole.
Jackson took the other and and together they drained the tarp and began folding it.
“I admire your sense of imagination,” he said, “but even out here there are dirt roads and electrical lines. Planes flying overhead leaving contrails tend to diminish that romantic sense of total isolation, if even only a little.”
Sally grinned. “So don’t look up. And the deeper into the woods, further from the roads, you get to a point where you don’t hear anything but the natural world. Civilization ceases to exist. The world becomes a blank slate and you can fill it in with whatever you want. The land that time forgot.”
Jackson looked at the sky. It was still dark with clouds, but the rain was easing up a little. “Is there any coffee left in your tent?”
“Maybe in the thermos,” she replied
“Then I’m helping myself to a towel and a cup for the road. Look, Sally, all kidding aside, it’s going to keep raining for quite a while. You’re invited to come by the cabin for a civilized meal and a dry bunk. Hopefully I still have electricity. If not, you can show me how to cook food in a fireplace. As for me, I’m too old to be standing out here in the middle of all this.”
Fulton grunted thoughtfully as she watched a break of water wash out the wall of mud between the toes in the quickly-disappearing footprint.
“I’m going to stay a little while longer. Woman against the elements, and all that,” she said. “Could I borrow your camera for the next day or two? If I can’t shoot a buck, maybe I can shoot a rainbow.”
Jackson thought about it and nodded. “Try to keep it dry, and come by the cabin at least by the day after tomorrow. I’ve paid my way until the middle of next week, rain or no rain.”
Five minutes later they were back inside the tent with their rain parkas hanging off the tailgate and the tarp stowed underneath the truck.
Fulton sat beside the sterno and handed Jackson her thermos. “Even with the rain, this is beautiful countryside. I suppose that will have to be enough. Sorry to have gotten so carried away.”
Jackson unscrewed the lid of the thermos and poured black coffee into his cup. “Don’t be. What’s that line from Shakespeare? There are more things of wonder on this Earth…”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Sally, “Hamlet, act one.”
“That’s it,” Jackson said. “Well, the way I read it is that there are enough interesting things in the real world without needing to go fill it up further with creatures of fantasy.”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Sally said with a wry smile. “That’s from The Tempest.”
Jackson arched an eyebrow at her and sipped his coffee.
Fulton watched Jackson climb back into his SUV and drive off into the rain. He beeped once before turning onto the road and drove out of sight. The rain lessened a little, but the sky remained completely overcast. She figured she’d have about three more hours before it would get dark. She went back into the tent and started stuffing a small backpack with emergency items: flashlight, batteries, compass, maps, dry rations–she didn’t weigh herself down with water. There was plenty of rainwater to be had. She took the camera Jackson had left with her and checked its battery. She placed it into a plastic seal bag, wrapped it inside a spare jacket, and stuffed it into the center of the pack. As an afterthought, she added her journal. She wondered if Thoreau ever had the sorts of thoughts she was having right now.
Too soon she’d have to return to the university. Back to the worn beige-carpeted halls of the English department, the office politics, the term papers, and the publish-or-perish mentality. These little excursions to the woods were her mental therapy. In truth, she didn’t really care if she shot something or not. Hunting was an excuse and the mindset that went with the stalking a prey appealed to an atavatistic corner of her psyche. In truth she was still looking for that same magic she felt she did when she was lost in those woods in Wisconsin so long ago. This was healthy for her. Not for everybody, certainly; but it worked for her.
Outside, Fulton heard a deafening boom and the skies opened up again, pouring rain down over the trees and fields. The noise had been loud and startling; she fell back and clutched her rifle to her chest. From outside the tent she could hear a deeper, thunderous sound. The bed of the truck lurched and shook.
Then she heard only the rain.
Slowly, she opened the flaps to the tent and peered out. A moment later, she ducked back in and gathered her rifle and backpack. She tucked her cellphone into her pocket, but she didn’t think she’d be using it again anytime soon. Maybe in a day or two she could tell Jackson about it in person. Maybe she could even show him pictures.
“I am mad north-northwest,” she muttered to herself as she swung her legs out the tent and onto the ground, “but when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” That was also from Hamlet, she reminded herself. Hamlet sought the truth by chasing ghosts. What phantom was she chasing? In front of the truck were a pair of twentyfive-foot-wide tracks that hadn’t been there minutes before heading northward to the trees. The tracks disappeared when they hit the exposed wet rock, but the path had been spread further than it had been when Jackson had been around. She looked and saw nothing towering over the branches, but this time she could smell it. An earthy odor–even through the heavy-falling rain.
Without another thought she began following the tracks north.
Jackson swore as another tree lay blocking the road. It hadn’t been there on his way up; he was sure.
“Damn storm” he said, and turned around to search for an alternate route.