Chris Wooten decided on a whim to go backpacking.
Nothing unusual, just one of the perks of being thirty-five and single. While all his old high school buds (that same collection of never-say-die pot-heads that swore they would stay forever young) were off having kids and mortgages and divorces, Chris was keeping his word to be a free bird, giving him the leeway to escape the indoor climbing gym in Boulder where he instructed kids and talentless adults for $15 an hour to spend a couple of days trekking through the New Mexican wilderness all by himself. Living his best life.
It was the Chamisa trail. He had been recommended it by his coworker Lisa, the short-haired buff chick with the gnarly tattoos. Chris had a thing for tattoos and the women who had them All that multicolored ink, each with its own story. Lisa had shown him some tats, but he was sure there were more in places he would love to explore. Too bad she wasn’t interested in dudes. Damn shame, really. Would’ve been nice to share the hike with someone cool and freaky.
Alone though he was, it had been a gorgeous hike so far with rolling mountains and deep green forests alive with birdsong and all sorts of mushrooms growing on fallen logs. But it was the silence that Chris enjoyed the most. Coming out from the noise of the city and the howling wind on the highway with the Jeep top down and 90’s rap blaring on the stereo, the silence of nature greeted him like a long anticipated homecoming. After the hike in and a silent evening meal, he woke up to a silence only the lovers of nature could know. Before he broke camp, he reconnected with his own natural self with a little morning yoga to Salute the Sun (in the buff, of course). As he packed up his pop-up tent, Chris had the fleeting idea of just dropping it all and moving out into the wilderness, be a kind of modern-day John Muir or the guy who wrote Malden.
Or there was living in a cave outside of Moab. Some hermit who rejected the concept of money, electing to live on a self-imposed barter system with his neighbors for food and supplies. Chris could see himself out there, rejecting civilization, becoming one with nature in mind, body, and spirit—to hell with conformity. And it if didn’t work out, he could publish a memoir on his experience. Hypocrisy be damned.
The sun climbed over the tree tops, the morning mist that flowed between the tree trunks in wisps long melted away. Another gorgeous, late-Spring day without a cloud in the sky. But it was day two of a two-day hike, and that meant the reality of work and apartment rental payments were looming. Until then, he promised to enjoy every last moment.
The trees cleared into a wide opening that sloped down into a shallow ravine below. Rolling hills covered in the greens of pine and the white bark of aspen sprawled out before him. He lowered his pack, took off his shirt, and sat on a fallen log, popping open his water bottle studded with stickers from a dozen national parks. He drank deep and looked out over the landscape, taking it all in.
He thought about taking out his cell and snapping a pic, maybe to show Lisa when he got back (there was always a chance, right?), but Chris didn’t believe in taking photos, not of nature anyway. What was the point? Could anyone ever really capture all the beauty and feeling of the Santa Fe National Forest on a sunny day in May with a single panorama and a handful of megapixels? Hell, Ansel Adams was the only one in Chris’s mind that came close, and his work was decades old. Nope, best to just sit and breathe it all in.
Chris put thought into action and took in a deep breath. But there was something else in the air other than pine needles. Some distant stink, like old pool water.
When he opened his eyes, he caught a glint of metal just off the trail. Wading into the undergrowth, he found, propped against the side of a tree, a couple of trekking poles. He grabbed one and turned it over in his hands. Seemed nice...lightweight and tough. Someone was missing these, or did at one point. They must have been sitting out here for a good couple of months, as one side of the poles—the side facing the sun—was faded, bleached from overexposure.
“Finders keepers,” Chris said. He wasn’t a fan of poles, but he was less of a fan of littering. Anyway, he could probably get twenty for the pair back in Boulder.
He turned to grab his pack but then stopped. He straightened, his ears trained out into the ravine below. There was a noise, something other than the chirping of sparrows or the knocking of woodpeckers, but if it was a bird, it was one he never heard before. He stood, trekking poles clutched in his hand, listening.
There it was again. A kind of high pitched howling, like the yelping of a dog that couldn’t find its voice.
Or maybe a baby.
Chris looked up and down the trail, but he hadn’t seen any cars at the trailhead parking lot. As far as he knew, he was the only hiker in the entire national forest.
The cry grew again, louder this time. Now it really sounded like a baby, albeit a sickly one. One that didn’t quite know how to baby just yet.
“Hello?” Chris called down into the ravine. “Everything okay out there?”
He didn’t get a reply, but neither did the crying abate.
Chris told himself to leave, that surely the parents were down there with the child, that they would certainly know what to do with an infant more than lifelong bachelor Christopher Wooten. Chris’s idea of interacting with a baby was a friendly smile at a good social distance (babies were like llamas in a way—eerily precise projectile vomiters). Still, he couldn’t help but remember some of those old Greek plays. Wasn’t it Odysseus that was abandoned as a baby only to be raised by wolves? Or was it Oedipus?
Either way, the thought of a baby being exposed (that was the word) on a rock to be pecked by birds was pretty gruesome.
The odd baby-cry rose up again, stronger still, along with those baby hiccups that drove little daggers into Chris’s ears.
“All right, you little shit,” Chris said, setting down the poles, “I’m coming.”
He set off through the trees and down the slope toward the sound. It wasn’t easy to miss. Every step forward seemed to make it grow louder and louder, almost to the point where the wailing was reverberating off the inside of his skull. With a noise that loud, the parents had to have heard it. Surely they were nearby. Just bringing their infant child for some off trail backpacking down a hole. You know, like you do.
So what the fuck was he doing, scurrying down the a ravine, bare-chested like some modern-day Tarzan? Playing a hero or something? It was not like he liked babies or anything, but he couldn’t live with it on his conscious. If that baby got eaten, which was inevitable out here, he wouldn’t be able to take a hike again without thinking about it. This little shitfactory had ruined the mood already, and Chris wasn’t about to let him ruin every hike in the future.
At the base of the ravine, the land flattened out. The trees and bushes thinned, opening up into a clearing of thin, sickly looking grass. Mosquitoes chewed at his legs and torso in thick clouds—must have been a pool of stagnant water here somewhere.
No answer except more wails coming from the center of the clearing. Chris took a stepped forward into the soft grass, his boot squelching in the mud. A rank odor of rotting meat and bad eggs came out to greet him from underfoot. What kind of idiot comes hiking out here, and with a damn baby? New Mexico had its fair share of meth heads— Breaking Bad had taught him that—but there was never a mention of them wandering out into the wilderness, infant in tow.
Chris started crossing the meadow toward the source of the wails, calling out for the parents as he did (and swatting at the incessant bloodsuckers along the way). This was no fucking way to spend his weekend. When he got back to town, he was going to chill on the couch with a bowl and forget all of this ever happened.
Finally, he saw it. The baby—and it was a baby— howling and twitching out there in the wet grass, probably contracting cholera or intestinal worms. It was a small, pale child, naked and pink in the hot sun, like some kind of sacrifice for the forest gods.
“Anybody out here? You forgot your damn baby!”
With no reply other than the baby’s cries, Chris continued his slow way through the
squelching mud. As he got closer, the baby’s features sharpened—or didn’t sharpen since there were few features to note. It had human-ish shape, with fat arms and legs hugging close to the body, but it looked more like a huge kidney bean than a child. Standing over it now, he saw that there were no hands, just pale stumps at the end of its arm-like protrusions. Its face, if he could call it a face, was just shallow pits in the otherwise smooth body where shadows pooled, kind of like that human face on the surface of Mars.
For all the world, it could have been an aborted baby that somehow managed to survive and grow.
“Yeah, right,” Chris told himself. A fetus surviving on its own at the bottom of a ravine in the New Mexican wilderness exposed to all the elements nature could throw at it? Chris doubt if he could do it, let alone this undeveloped child—but what else could explain it?
Whatever it was, it was moving, rocking back-and-forth in place, making that ungodly baby noise. But from where? Where was its mouth?
He bent down and rubbed his hand along the baby-thing’s smooth head, but his face screwed up with revulsion as his hands came away sticky, covered in some thick, syrupy sap.
“The fuck are you, little man?”
The baby cried again. With a resigned sigh, Chris took the baby-thing in his hands, supporting the neck on instinct, and began to lift. But the child didn’t budge, like it was tethered to the ground. The baby cried and wailed in his arms.
“The hell, little man?” Chris said. “”I don’t have all day to be hanging with you and these damn mosquitoes.”
Chris tugged on the child again, hard, trying to break whatever tied it to the ground, which became the last thing he would ever do. He did not notice the sharp teeth spring out of the wet ground until they snapped through the meat in his calf and the bones in his arm. Pain exploded in his limbs as warm blood poured out from the gaping wounds and down the hard, sharp spikes.
Wide-eyed with shock and surprise, Chris still cradled the baby in the ruins of his arms, which was at the center of this thing like bait in a huge bear trap. He struggled to free himself, squirming in the trap, which only ripped and tore the muscles in his arms and legs all the more, loosing a fresh wave of pain up through his body.
The pain was enormous, but so was the terror.
He screamed. Screamed in pain and for help, but the memory of that empty trailhead loomed large in his mind.
But that was yesterday. Maybe someone was on the trail now. If he could just keep from bleeding out, he might still make it. He just need to hold on and keep shouting.
Then the second set of jaws started to close. Chris watched with uncomprehending certainty as the ground began to rise, spilling out the stagnant water and sending out a cloud of biting flies.
The spikes that came from the ground make their slow but steady way toward him, the points trained at his eyes.
Chris let out a scream as the spikes pierced the soft flesh of in his sockets, spilling the jelly inside along his cheeks. He writhed, still cradling the baby in his arms, as the spikes worked their slow way into his frontal lobe. His life winked out along with the sunshine above as the jaws closed around him.
Silence fell over the Camisa Trail. Woodpeckers went to work in the trees as a gentle westerly breeze swayed their branches. Down in the marsh, the mosquitos buzzed with mad fury as they tried to pierce through the living trap that had encased Chris Wooten.
Over the next several weeks, the hiker’s bone and sinew would be subjected to primitive enzymes oozing over his rotting flesh, breaking him down into a digestible paste fit for any living creature, even a carnivorous plant. After which, when the New Mexican sun baked the marsh on a hot summer day, the great trap would reset.
Up on the trail, high above the marsh, a pair of hikers were getting away for the weekend. Stopping for a water break, they found a pair of trekking poles, a worn Osprey backpack, and a half-empty water bottle covered in stickers. As they looked around for the owner, they heard, high in the still air, the cry of a baby.