I asked him to tell me ghost stories, haunted tales with so much falsity they became a novelty, continually passed from one friend to one fire to another fire and to another friend, time and time again. The one with the hook on the top of the car. I enjoyed that one. The color of rust. The cold C of the hook. The steel scratching at the lustful couple.
We nestled around the fire – a patch of snow melted to accommodate us – and I picked up the bottle of wine, poured another hearty glass, and shoved the bottle back into the snow. We used three fire starters just to get it going. He clamored down the camper steps with every blanket we had packed and piled them on top of me, then onto himself. We sank into the camping chairs and, as the fire warmed and cracked, we melted with the wine.
He picked the one about Bloody Mary. My stomach turned. I believed in this one, just a little. Enough, anyway, to avoid mirrors at night and to never, ever say the name out of complete fear. Worrying, even, that if I thought the name too hard, she might appear. It had lingered with me – this woman from the other side who harbored so much vengeful venom she could burst from the mirror and scratch the life out of me.
“Oh, shit,” he said, and the suspense dissipated as his narration ended and we snapped from the make-believe. He had skin darker shades than mine, a color that, against the snow, stood out in contrast, as if the background faded to black and white and only he remained in technicolor. The fire flashed on his face, its intensity flickering in his eyes. When I first met Marcus, I thought his eyes were black. About the third date, I blurted out, “Brown. Your eyes aren’t black, they’re brown,” and he cracked a knowing smile, likely having heard this before. “We’re out of firewood,” he continued, “but I saw more. A whole pile on the way into the grounds. The walk can’t be far, no more than fifteen minutes. I’ll bounce there and back in a flash, alright?” Empty trees towered above us: stalking and bare, intimidating but vulnerable.
“It’s that or to bed?” I suggested, but I knew he wasn’t ready to turn in. He’d invented this weekend getaway for the ice fishing, but didn’t have enough self-control to go to bed early in order to turn up early to the ice.
We would arrive later than others and stalk the frozen water just long enough to find lunch, then call it quits. He has an affinity for the process: collecting the supplies, assembling the poles, thrusting the chisel through the ice. “I’ll do it. Grab the wood, I mean. Stretch my legs. But after the fire burns down and I finish this bottle of wine, it’s off to bed.” I said this like a command, but I grinned hoping he knew what I really meant was to climb into the camper bunk, lay our naked bodies together and create a swarm of heat to endure the night. He returned a cheeky smile and eyed the nearly empty bottle.
The foggy path along the campsite, mostly dark and isolated by trees except where clearings had been made for campers, led me through each makeshift home’s personal moments. Each campsite stood humble, framed in trees, like a portrait at a museum, and I just a visitor.
On the left, a couple – two males and their dog – looked to mesh into one: a man behind the other leaning over him on a chair and the dog jumping onto his lap. I envisioned a three-headed beast, part human, part animal. A mythological nightmare tough enough to frighten, but timid enough to invite another look. Instead of a growl, though, the creature’s form emitted a laugh – a shared moment veiled with a whisper. I drifted from observation and fell into a daze. My feet created a rhythm that soothed and settled my mind.
Earlier that day, we had been on the trail. Lines of bare branches crisscrossed and swung in a sky of saturated blue. Below our footing, the snow crunched and cracked. It opened and teethed at our ankles, our feet lodged toward the ground.
We walked along the edges of the precipice – an overlook stretched above a gorge. Marcus’ body failed on some of the icy parts. I secretly wondered what it would be like out here alone. Or what sound would come crashing from his fall. I wondered the same of my body, just so not to only hypothetically throw his. I wanted to experiment without a final outcome. I wanted to touch into a violent daydream without reality. I tossed a rock and pretended its tick-tick-tick along the fallen leaves and trees meant the same.
I cut left onto the smaller path from the wide gravel one. I held the oversized IKEA bag of wood over my shoulder where its handles pinched and left a valley of imprints. I heard two men’s voices, a subtle yet deep rumble that grew more distinct as I drew closer to the fire. I had left Marcus alone, but now another, larger man sat across from him. I saw his form from behind as I came down the path – the light from my head lamp bobbled in front of me and the singular ray of light shone on his broad back. He looked thick, but that could have been from layers of clothes (maybe two lighter coats stacked on each other). Some snow drifted down – nothing that would stick – but flecks of white floating like slow motion confetti.
A twig cracked under my foot and their heads craned toward me. It was then that I noticed he had a hook for a hand. The beam from my lamp reflected against the steel and I gasped.
“Margauex,” Marcus beaconed with a hand, “Come, sit.” I lowered the bag of wood and rubbed at where the handle had smarted. On a third makeshift chair from a log, I secured a blanket below and above me. Marcus then invited the newcomer to play in our storytelling game, asking him of a tall tale or ghost story.
He thought for a moment. A humble solitude hung around us. The fire warped and hypnotized us. I added two more logs and the orange flames licked upward.
He said, “I’ll begin in the middle of the story,” then after a resolved pause said it was the right place to start, and perhaps he would work backwards or maybe not. Maybe he couldn’t produce the story in total. Stories can be like that, he said, incomplete but complete all the while. He liked that, we could tell, as he smiled and looked down. Perhaps he remembered this way, to tell a story from another storyteller at another fire at another camp in another life he lived before this one. Those shared moments became our shared moments. I smiled then, too, thinking of this invisible link between our small circle and others before us. It made me wonder who else sat at this fire ring and what stories they had told. I held onto the moment, but his story startled me back into time.
“The arm lay over top the fire and it sizzled back to life. It had grayed with death – after amputation – but now with the heat it looked peach again, red singed on the end and it looked like a fresh cut. I thought the smell would be worse than it was, but it wasn’t.”
He spoke in a calm, unterrified voice. I communicated with my bunkmate through a glance, ‘Where did you find this guy?’ but his gaze fixated on the storyteller.
“The embers under the arm warmed us while we waited. I’d have to be careful not to touch the hot iron of the cooking pit. The black still looked cool but I knew otherwise.”
While he spoke, I studied his face for the first time. He had a layer of hair, not a full beard, but a gruffness around his mouth. His skin was blotchy, cratered, but not wholly unpleasant. His wool hat hugged his head and pulled taut to the brim of his eyes. He looked up from the fire and matched my stare.
“The people who did this to me,” he held up his arm which I understood as not just a hook but an entire prosthesis of sorts, “were hungry. Needed my strength to feed their strength. I told you I would begin in the middle of the story, and I have. I have neglected to tell you what brings a man to cook another man’s arm and eat it in front of him. What weaknesses simmered in the depths of their souls, well, I guess I’ll never really know.”
His eyes grew dark and he retreated them from mine, once more to the fire, which popped abruptly. “Stories,” he said as he stood, “ol’ campfire stories. Take that one with you to your next circle.”
“Is it true?” I blurted because so much of it had felt like a vision from his past.
He smiled, put his working hand toward the fire for warmth, then replied, “That depends on what you are willing to believe. Isn’t that how any campfire story works?” With that he tipped his head toward us as a way of saying good night, then turned toward one of the paths that branched from our campsite.
The next day was dryer than the last. In the end, the sun – at first just a swollen glob behind a grey veil – brought heat to the day. Not enough to warm the atmosphere, but enough to cause a slight thaw. A drip, drip, drip of snow off the tall trees.
We returned to our campsite, eager to clean our fresh catch’s carcass and supply our bodies with its energy. Granola breakfast and a coffee buzz blasting into a crash had me on edge.
Marcus flopped its body over the fire and I couldn’t help but think of that man’s arm. Even as we ate, I envisioned human flesh, the whiteness of the fish transforming under each bite. His question crept in like a subtle fog – what brings a man to cook another man’s arm and eat it in front of him? Selfishness, I answered. In my mind’s eye I spoke over the fire to the man. Selfishness so profound that all empathy ceases to exist. He smiled in response, the same smile that crossed his face when he thought of this tale. Then as he retorted, his face darkened and I felt afraid – even in this imaginary, pretend conversation – I felt a ripple of nerves trickle from my throat to my stomach. He said to me, “It’s humans. It’s humanity. Whether or not the story is true, doesn’t matter. We can believe that story because we can believe what we’re capable of – how much unjust harm we’re willing to bestow upon each other – upon this Earth, even – only to reserve our best interests.”
Marcus served me a plate and I bit into the meat – my other-worldly, bottom-dimension denizen. Its fish head had flopped off swiftly with a clean cut and now it eyed me from its place on the frozen ground, a ray of sun bursting behind it enough to illuminate in it and in me our storyteller’s very point.