To Name a Monster
I have a tendency to wander.
It’s a desire that approaches unbidden, perhaps even unwanted. When I was a child, it manifested itself in a compulsion to stray through the woods, the marshes, and the suburban streets—gone for hours, but always back by nightfall. When I reached my teens, my feet had become dissatisfied with those tedious and long-ago memorized paths, and they inevitably found themselves treading new routes into darker roads and secret places. Some part of me was always pursuing that slight movement in my periphery—a sense of a shadow passing, beckoning, calling me further.
By the time I was sixteen, I was no longer simply wandering, I was searching for something, some experience all my own and no one else’s—some truth, some secret uncovered. I was bold. I enacted the fantasy of spinning a globe and blindly touching a fingertip to the surface, the friction and decisive force between finger and paper topography causing a shuttering halt, pinning down a continent. And where would I go? Australia.
I don’t remember how I found my way once I was there. I do remember being taxied from the Melbourne airport three hours north, past the glamour of the bay and the skyscrapers, into rough and barren terrain, wildly beautiful, orange groves, flattened earth, and the most enormous sky I’ve ever seen.
Something about that place humbled me. Maybe it was the largeness, the emptiness, or the brash contempt for anything outside itself. I lived with people who worked themselves raw, took pride in what they lacked, whose humor was as dry as the earth they claimed. We hatched chickens, collected rainwater to drink, and in our evening hours, watched the endless sky blaze red with the dying sun, then quiet into the deepest indigo as the black blanket of night descended.
I was humbled, but still I wandered.
I was fortunate to keep the company of kind, genuine, and good-hearted people. There were, however, exceptions.
Jack had somehow fallen into favor with my friends. We worked together, ate together, and laughed together. I was sixteen, and though he was older, had authority at the hatchery, and was someone who could (and occasionally did) help navigate this strange land, I was never entirely at ease when he was around.
One summer weekend, when work at the hatchery was slow, seven of us followed the lazy, meandering shores of the nearby Murray River in a giddy caravan. After trekking untold miles, we chose a place to set up camp. It was a grand occasion. We hoisted tents, set fires ablaze, and toasted each other with boisterous and irreverent humor. As the night wore on, I, true to form, grew tired of the familiar crackle of the fire and quietly set off to explore the darker areas of the river.
After hours of carelessly ambling down narrow, twisting paths, I realized I was no longer wandering; I was lost. I tried unsuccessfully to wind my way back to camp and was on the verge of panic, when suddenly in the distance I heard voices calling my name and an engine softly revving. Relief. Grateful that my company would keep me from wandering too far, I rushed toward the sound of my searching friends and was playfully chided as they pulled me into the bed of the rusty blue pickup truck.
Jack was driving.
Rushing along the sandy, wooded trails, we did not turn toward the camp. Instead we penetrated a deeper area of the forest. There were four of us in the bed of the truck, the wind whipping our hair across our faces, blinding us. Suddenly the gum trees cleared, our speed slowed, and we were in a large meadow, moonlit and scattered with a herd of kangaroos. It was terribly beautiful—the soft night breeze, the star-littered sky, and these strange, lovely creatures all around. It was everything I’d hoped to find in that far land.
Suddenly we were moving faster. At the sound of the truck’s engine, the kangaroos loped together and began to head toward the tree line. From the bed of the truck, I tried to catch Jack’s eye through the rear window, but he was staring straight ahead. In the mirror, I could see a sickening grin smeared across his face.
“Don’t,” I whispered, knots tying themselves in my stomach.
“Let’s go,” Jack growled.
The kangaroos were rushing to the trees, but the truck was gaining speed. Jack was laughing as I began to scream.
It happened in an instant. A dull thud, the truck rose and fell over a crumpled form, and finally, we stopped. The kangaroo lay unmoving on the ground behind us.
Welling up and bursting from inside me came aching sobs and hysterical wails. My whole body shuddered as I heard myself scream, “Who are you?” It was all I could say. Over and over again, as if naming a monster gives us power over it—as if by naming it, we could tame it back into the realm of reason.
Jack’s gaze was stone. He was smirking; his features, void of emotion, formed an unreadable, empty mask. His eyes were deepest indigo as he turned toward me, and in my frenzied grief, I understood that Jack had wandered too far—at some point in his life, too far—and was lost in an immutable emptiness.
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