This story contains references to harm to animals.
1. Fill the forest with magical sigils.
Look for them on your phone while you try not to jiggle your leg in the veterinarian’s waiting room, standing by for the verdict on Archie’s emergency surgery. Pick the scariest-looking ones. The ones full of watching eyes and angled edges, of ouroborean loops and uncanny geometry. It won’t matter what they mean, whether they promise you protection, good luck, or that it will hurt your enemy when they pee. It only matters that they scare the shit out of the guy who shot your dog.
When you get home, empty out Archie’s treat bag and fill it with chalk, then take yourself back to the forest for a hike. Mark the trees along the trail with your signs. Rub the chalk deep in the bark’s fissures. When you run out of chalk, gather sticks to make devil nets and twiggy dolls to place in trunk holes or arrange on old stumps.
When you run out of sticks, sit on the edge of the lake and listen to the crows croaking in the treeline. Squint your eyes until the sky becomes the water, the water the sky.
2. Create a sinister soundscape.
The silence gets to you while Archie is at the vet. But when he comes back, there are new sounds. The rattle of his cone against the crate. The papery scratch of his bandages as he adjusts his position. The way he whines, barely audible but steady, like a tea kettle, once the high of the drugs has worn off. You’re not allowed to give him the pills more than twice a day, and you hate seeing him like that anyways — weak, wobbly, dull-eyed and dry-nosed. It’s that whine that keeps you up at night.
But those sleep-deprived, worry-addled hours give you an idea. So you go to the woods with some rope, a climbing harness, and a backpack of gear, and you start reclaiming the forest, marking it as your own, using anything creepy to keep the douchebags out.
It takes two days to hang a length of hollow bamboo properly, but once you’ve got it tied to the top of a tall pine at the right angle, it catches the wind and moans. A few old bell-chimes hung far off the path, shielded by dense thickets, ring jangly and off-key through the woods. When you’ve run out of these, you string sticks, dry leaves, and fallen feathers up until the trails are plagued by a constant susurrus. At night, you dream about teaching the crows to laugh.
Your best trick involves Archie’s old chew toys. He’s not interested in them when he’s on the meds, but they’re durable as hell — and hard. You collect them in a mesh laundry bag, then take them to the lake. The water is low, and the culvert that feeds into the stream is wide. You wade into it, tensing your legs against the current, and tie the laundry bag securely to a piece of rebar that sticks out of the wall of the culvert, then duct tape around where you’ve tied it. The water sweeps the bag downstream and the toys inside bounce off the concrete. Their impacts echo out across the lake — thud, thud thud, thudthudthud — an irregular new heartbeat filling the forest.
3. Call upon a dangerous familiar.
When Archie can finally stand, balanced, for a full minute, the vet recommends short walks as part of his physical therapy. (“No more than five to ten minutes of walking at a time.”) You take him up to the stop sign and back. It’s March now and the whole world has greened in just three weeks. Archie sniffs the dandelions erupting in the neighbor’s yard thoughtfully, like a sommelier with a glass of wine.
You can’t rest, though; you feel spring inside your veins. That turns to rage when you return to the woods and see how much trash the hunters have left behind at the trailhead. Tins of chew, plastic wrappers for Slim Jims, endless holey cans of Busch. You find one of their empty, busted gas-station coolers and take it home. While Archie watches, you cut out two styrofoam blocks the length of your shoe and slightly wider. You carve away at the bottom until you create a new footprint. Four-toed. Clawed. Huge.
In spring, the ground is constantly damp. You strap the styrofoam to your own shoes and walk the forest in long leaping strides. In the distance you hear the bells, the leaves, muffled slightly by the squelch of your steps.
On your way back, eyes on the ground so you don’t trip, you see a spent shell. You look up. You’re on the dam — right where it happened. Up ahead is where you and Archie saw the hunter exit the woods, where Archie took off to greet him, where you called out, “He’s friendly!” and the hunter jerked the rifle to his shoulder—
Instead, take your own careful aim and step on the shell, crushing it inside the outline of your new footprint. Dig your feet into the ground until you feel the mud ooze between your toes, coat your claws.
4. Sow fear and discord.
Calling your local officials — this part’s easy. You did it before, remember? Found the number for the warden, left messages until they finally called you back three days later.
You had read the entire hunting code front to back, making a mental list of specific parts that the hunter violated. One: He was on the pedestrian path. Two: His gun wasn’t stowed but was loaded, in his hands. Three: The “warning shot” was fired horizontal to the land, not vertically into the air.
But the warden interrupted you. “Sometime’s hunter’s’ll shoot a dog.”
This excuse makes you lose track of your list. “But my point is that…. That they shouldn’t. Isn’t that what the whole code thing is for?”
This time you don’t need a list. Just an affected drawl and an incoherent message delivered from an unlisted number. “In the woods up by the abandoned water tower, you shoulda seen it, it scared my dog real bad, I don’t know what it was, but it was big!” A call to the warden, one to the sheriff, and a couple of anonymous posts on a hunters’ forum later, and your work is done.
Outside, you hear cackling in the trees.
5. Prepare a sacrifice.
You didn’t plan for this step. You couldn’t have. Serendipity landed it in your lap, as she sometimes will, fate’s gift for those who make themselves ready.
The gift is not usually a dead calf, though.
You find her while you’re checking your sound traps in the woods. She’s not in too bad a condition yet; it looks like she wandered off of an adjacent farm, got her leg caught in a loop of rusty barbed wire, then starved. The wire snaps easily in your hands, and you drag her through the woods to a place you have in mind.
She’s heavy, and you’re not sure you’ll be strong enough. You remember how heavy Archie was, all thirty pounds of him, as you jogged him back to your car. How you sobbed harder each time you had to stop, catch your breath, and shift his body, slippery with blood, in your arms. But the calf seems to get lighter as you go, as though her mass is sloughing off into the dead leaves and humus of the forest floor. You make it to the site of an old homestead, an open spot where grass and daffodils mingle. Drag her around the area, flattening the grass in a wide circle before depositing her in the center. In the sunlight, her hide gleams chestnut. It looks like Archie’s. Her head lolls, her tongue black and protruding, but you arrange her delicate fetlocks as though she’s primly crossing her ankles, then step back to view your work.
That’s when you catch sight of it. The hunter’s lean-to, perched on a rise in the woods. It’s just three timber walls and a metal roof. You go check it out, find fresh boot prints outside. Inside, there’s a stool, a battery-powered lamp, and a couple of knives on the walls. The floor is littered with empty shells. It smells like mildew and stale whiskey.
Before you leave, you check on the calf one more time. There’s a ring of mushrooms circling her body. They stand a couple of inches high and most appear to bend slightly inwards, as though bowing their cream-colored caps toward the dead cow at the center. You wonder how you hadn’t noticed them before.
6. Transform the land and yourself.
It’s a fine April day when you finally take Archie back to the woods. The two of you have been preparing, doing the physical therapy the vet recommended. Now he’s agile again, hopping along on three legs as if he was born to it. He’ll never be as fast as he was — your “bullet,” though that word has lost its playfulness now — but he seems to know his new limitations. He stays closer to you and startles, cowering, at loud noises.
You’ve been preparing, too.
It’s wonderful, the kinds of things you can buy on the Internet. Fox piss. Deadly nightshade. Human cremains. Unholy water. Skunk terpenes. Mix these in a bottle with a few deer teeth you found, months ago, until it rattles and froths. Tighten the cap on the bottle, wrap it in plastic bags, and put it in your backpack. It’s the most powerful curse you can think of — a hex to stop your enemy in his tracks, to stink up his home, to poison his deeds on this land.
Tie Archie up at the edge of the clearing and give him a rawhide to chew. When you reach the hunter’s lean-to, put your face mask on and uncap the bottle. Pace around the shack three times clockwise, six times counterclockwise, sprinkling as you go, until the ground around it is soaked with something funky, something sour, something dangerous.
It’s not enough, though, is it? Get closer. Pick up a branch and start beating the walls of the lean-to until the boards groan, the tin roof clatters. A flock of birds takes off from the trees above you, and you scream to echo their calls, a battle cry unspooling from inside your ribs. One of the boards fractures under your branch; take half of it in your hand and pull. The wood is old. It pops out easy, a few jagged nails stuck in the end, and you toss it from hand to hand, marveling at how light it is.
They will try to explain it, later, on the hunter message boards. They will say that a freak tornado must have touched down, or a bolt of lightning. The hunter himself will build a new shack somewhere else, the other side of the county, and for years he’ll claim it was vandalism from local punks or bluster that his sanctuary was invaded by environmental nutjobs.
You know better. You come to, barefoot, dirt and splinters underneath your toenails. Something is different. Your skin buzzes with rage and energy. Your shoulder blades and calves feel stretched, as though they’ve recently bloomed. When you examine the backs of your hands, there are tendons there you’d never noticed before. And your throat…. You cough out a wet black feather.
Twenty yards away, the bent metal of the roof rests high in a tree. The shack is no longer there. Broken timber radiates out from where it stood. In the center of this debris, two hundred rusty nails have been driven into the ground.
It was inevitable, from the moment you sat in that waiting room and decided to look up curses. The first rule of magic: Whatever you put out into the world, you should be ready to reap in your own life. Magic, like violence, changes you. After today, you’ve become the threat in these woods.
At first, you won’t notice it. How the bees go silent when you walk by. How snakes, stretched sun-warming on the trail, slither away before you get near. The only birds that sing around you now are the crows, and you can’t exactly call it singing.
It won’t matter, though, because whatever’s happened to you — however you’ve transformed — Archie doesn’t seem to mind. When you finally make your way back to the clearing, he’s there, panting happily in the sun. You let him off the leash again, and he wanders over to what’s left of the calf — a twisted rib cage, some long bones, and spring’s last daffodil winking through the eye of the skull.