by Randall Kenan
As far as Jean-Luc de Priest was concerned, the woods were darker than a million midnights. A million million million million midnights. The sounds. The sounds surrounded him, vibrated right through him. Chirpings. Snappings. Poppings. Rustles. Rumbles. Peeps and beeps and cheeps. Some noises he knew were cicadas and tree frogs. Some he knew were owls and doves. The flapping of bats’ wings. The buzz of mosquitos. The leg-songs of crickets. But some sounds he didn’t want to recognize. His heart was an over-wound toy and he could feel it winding tighter and tighter. And for the first time, since he had been snatched up against his will, he began to appreciate the hot, corked, smelly room and his fat, whining, sobbing roommate…
He had not run far from the house, that dark, hot, hot, nasty, stinky old house where those funky weirdos had kept him and the chubby white boy, where they were feeding him all those damn tuna fish sandwiches and bitter water, making him lie down all the time and where they had no real lights or TV.
Soon it came upon him that he had no idea how, exactly, to find his way out…out of where? Where was this place? The smell of pine and mud and surely bright floral things, musky things were like a bathroom before he got into the tub, but cooler than that damn house. Yes, he was somewhere in some woods. And that was about all he knew. Up above, dimly through the trees, he could make out a mere wink of moon, through the limbs, but it did him no good. Which way should he go?
In his mind’s eye Jean-Luc imagined stumbling upon a quaint country cottage, illuminated by a warm lamp glowing in the front yard, a cobbled walk leading to the front door, and the door was yellow, the door upon which he’d knock, and there he would be greeted rather quickly by a sweet faced, silver-haired old lady and an old man with a cotton white beard, and they would be alarmed and delighted to see this polite young man at their doorstep, and they would take him in and feed him pound cake and call up his father (“Oh, yes, of course we know Mr. Drummond de Priest, and we knew his father too,” they would say, thus knowing him), and they would call his father up, and his daddy would drive to this place – wherever the hell this was – in his grey Cadillac, soon and very soon, and Jean-Luc could go to sleep in the back seat, soft in the soft leather, only to wake up in Chapel Hill, on his road, in his house, in his bed. But first, Jean-Luc fretted – he’d have to find that silly old cottage.
With his next step the boy tripped and tipped over into the oily dark, coming down on his hands where something sharp pierced the fleshy part of his left palm. The pain gnawed at his resolve:
I can find my way back to that hateful house if I have to. Maybe I should. Maybe I should go on back. Maybe they’ll let me go soon. I don’t know where I am. I wouldn’t know how to find that nice old couple if they even live around here somewhere…probably not…
Jean-Luc knew he had a choice before him: go back to the freaks in that pitiful pig-sty, or keep on going in this scary blackness. And yes, it was scary. He could get out of this blackness…and yet, the idea that he might give up, that he might stop, that he wouldn’t be like his daddy and his grand-pere, made him sad, and that sadness was followed by embarrassment, which was followed by a feeling in the center of him that was a tar pit, all sticky and hot, right there in his belly. He wasn’t going to live up. He wasn’t going to make anything of himself, just like his grandmother said sometimes. He was lost.
But despite the feeling in the pit of his belly that felt like a tar pit, all hot and oozy and bubbly and like it was going to sink him down, he did what he always did at moments like this. He thought of Batman. He thought specifically of Detective Comics Issue #247, where Bruce Wayne is on vacation in the country and gets lost in a swampy dark evil place – just like this! – and Batman – protected and enveloped and duly empowered by that long blue cape – has to track down a killer deep, deep in those forbidding woods. Yeah. Jean-Luc was gonna be like Bruce Wayne. Yeah.
A twig popped underfoot so loud that it almost made Jean-Luc take flight. Something caught on his pants leg. Something brushed against his foot. The wood music seemed to get louder, to pulse and make foreign words in the air.
O how he wanted to be at home, back on Erwin Road, back at his house, with his mother’s garden and her stinky tomato bushes and the green back yard and his room and comic books and, hmmmm, some of Wisteria’s blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a tall glass of ice cold milk. That would be so good right now. So much better than tuna fish. He hoped he’d never see or smell or taste tuna fish again in his whole entire life and another day on top of that! Jean-Luc brought the heel of his palm to his eye to staunch a tear that was forming there. Bruce Wayne wouldn’t cry. I’m not gonna cry. I’m gonna get out of here. I’m going home. Just like Bruce Wayne would.
He forged ahead, even if it were one inch at a time, and, before too long, it occurred to him that he was seeing better, that he could make out outlines and see shadows and shadows within shadows, and this gave his heart a smidgen more hope.
Not many yards on, groping through bushes, Jean-Luc heard something distinct and different from the other night noises. Something that made him stop: this sound was more like a purr, only louder, deeper, closer even to a rumble or an engine idling. Just ahead. In the bushes. And before he took his next step the wind shifted and he was encased in odor: powerful and puzzling, a wet, thick, musky, unwashed smell, vaguely of rot, but at the same time electric and alive.
He was met then with the eyes, a quick zap of a glimpse, directly ahead of him, flashing faintly yellow.
Years later, Jean-Luc de Priest would describe what happened next in great detail and mostly with painterly accuracy. He would capture the sense of stumbling upon a bear cub (though he still thought it was some gigantic grizzly intent upon devouring him) with such animated vividness at to make his listeners clutch their throats. He would get a great many details right, and invent even more, except he would omit the most humiliating aspect of all: That was the first time in his life he had ever peed and ran at the same time.
Copyright 2011 Randall Kenan
Randall Kenan is the author of novels, stories, and nonfiction, including A Visitation of Spirits, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead,Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, and The Fire This Time. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Award, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.