The sun is shining and everything is beautiful at the nature reserve including the blood on my loafers that sort of dimly glitters in the god-rays of the red cedar forest.
It’s a red cedar forest because it was once a place where cows were born and raised and milked and forced to give birth and then slaughtered and they gorged themselves upon the land, stole every nutrient from the ground and left the soil shit and so now the only thing that grows here is red cedar, which is as ugly as hell—but like I said, everything is beautiful. There’s blood on my loafers because I get really bad nosebleeds.
I’m hiking but it was real bad idea. I wore loafers for some reason and my feet are crammed into them because they’re too small and so I’m in excruciating pain from walking for miles and miles on rough terrain in terrible shoes, and I’ve been having nosebleeds on and off for the past hour. The nosebleed problem is because of a condition I have and I have medicine for it and everything but I haven’t been taking it for a while now.
Something I like to do is imagine everything I’m seeing is part of some movie, like my vision is the view of a camera recording a movie or a T.V. show or whatever. Sometimes I do it when I’m bored or in pain and sometimes I do it because I want to disassociate from myself and in this case I do it because I’m feeling all of those things.
The camera hangs just about eye-level above the ground and it glides like a ghost through the woods for about an hour in complete silence, lovingly framing every shot with a certain quality of obsession. Every once in a while, the camera might look down at bloodstained hands trying to plug up a bleed.
I’ve been thinking about it, and the reason I probably wore my too-small loafers is the same reason I’ve stopped taking the nosebleed medication.
Anyway, the camera stops as I also figure out that I’m probably completely lost, and I think it would be dramatic to say it out loud, so the camera catches it as I say it— “I’m lost.” And it’s quite poignant, honestly.
I’m feeling lightheaded and my feet fucking hurt but it’s like, if I don’t keep going I’ll probably die so I stay there for a while and think. I fiddle with the last of the burger king napkins in my pocket as my nose starts bleeding again and the light now has a red quality and I realize it’s probably sunset. And with the red light and the red blood and the red cedars I’m thinking about how I’m surrounded by an ocean of red.
Standing there in the middle of the woods and I think I can feel an insect on my arm so I swat at it and the sensation is gone. Red cedars and moss, actually. There’s a lot of red cedars but there’s also a bunch of moss in spaces where the trees can’t grow.
I hoarded those burger king napkins yesterday when I went there for lunch in these same damn clothes, down to the loafers. The camera in my mind stared for a long time at my Wopper With Extra Cheese and I imagined that I was a photographer trying to capture how I felt about the burger and I’ll say right now at the time it wasn’t a positive feeling, but the camera couldn’t quite capture it and in the end I threw it away without eating it and that was probably a waste of perfectly good cow-flesh but I couldn’t and I didn’t eat dinner or breakfast or lunch again either. A pine needle dropping on my face reminds me I’m probably in a near-fatal situation and I fucking project an inferno of hate onto the red cedars but then I remind myself that everything is beautiful including the moss and the trees and mountains of cow shit. So I think to myself, I should probably keep walking.
So I sprawl out on the moss while my head feels real light and it tickles against the back of my neck and I realize I should be worried about the next nosebleed suffocating me, and I keep lying on the moss. My mother had also been to burger king and she had been trying to have a conversation with me and it ended badly. The light is turning a darker red every moment.
She called it an intervention. I’m lying in ancient cow shit.
Blood gushes into the back of my throat and I can’t breathe for a moment so I instinctually sit up and spit some reddish phlegm onto a patch of barren earth beside me. As far as I can tell, there’s no other life around save for the trees and I and I manage to stumble to my feet despite my throbbing head and I start walking again, finally, at a really slow pace. The camera starts rolling, rolling over the hills.
The nosebleed dries up and I realize all my burger king napkins are sopping with blood and I scrunch my forehead up and throw all the completely unusable ones on the ground behind me in a trail.
I remember that my feet are aching. I figure at this point that the loafers are doing more harm than good but I leave them on. I don’t like my mom. When I was a kid my family owned a farm and they had corn and chickens and pigs and fucking cows but a big company bought them out or something and now they live in an apartment in Cincinnati and now they talk all the time about the reds and I moved out recently.
I’m probably turning inward and thinking about all this me stuff because I’m in pain and I’ve convinced myself I’m probably going to die in this red cedar forest and I don’t know why I went hiking in the first place.
That’s a lie.
My head is hurting. I moved out last month in a big huff and a puff and I was in a big hurry and I packed like three suitcases of my stuff but I forgot the really important thing which is a piggy bank shaped like a cow, which I use to remind myself. So the burger king thing was actually about that but my mom turned into an intervention and she refused to give me the cow bank and she asked me to come back home and I said no and I threw away the Whopper and of course now I’m walking lost in a red cedar forest and I think, I didn’t make these last moments worthy.
Worthy for what. For whom.
I feel something warm in my right shoe and now I’m even more lightheaded and I realize it’s probably that my foot is bleeding from the shitty shoes. So I take off my loafer and my sock is all red on the bottom so I take off my sock, too, and I take off the other shoe and the other sock, to match, and I unbutton my shirt because why the hell not and I leave all my footwear at the base of a cedar and I don’t look back and now I have to walk gingerly over the rocky earth. And its dark and I try to feel despair but I don’t so I keep walking.
This would be the worst film. Hours and hours of fucking cedars.
Wal-Mart parking lot.
I blink, mildly surprised. My nose starts bleeding and I get it all over my chest. My father understands, so he doesn’t press the issue but mom does and so it’s trouble for everyone and that’s how it is and I turn around and walk away from the Wal-Mart.
Something I’d do when we had the farm was that I would try to help with the cows and now I realize I was an idiot child for precisely this reason. Wal-Mart was all bright and beautiful and shining in the near-dark and the neon logo and a couple of lights of cars in the distance peppering the parking lot had given everything an unearthly glow. To contrast, the forest was dark and dim and the needle-scales of the forest were like alien fingers in the greyness and it was all very wild and unordered compared to Wal-Mart but in the end it was also beautiful even though it was rather ugly. I’m walking away and there’s another nosebleed.
So one morning when I was an idiot kid I decided I was gonna milk the cows and clean their shit and be all grown up and my parents would be proud of me and it’d be the best day ever. It might be because I’ve been rapidly losing blood all evening, but I could almost see myself walking in the predawn lightlessness, heading for the cow pen. I wonder about when this red cedar forest was once a bovine den of slaughter, what it looked like, what it smelled like, what the owners were like. The farm was converted into a nature reserve several generations ago, probably at least forty years ago if I’m trying to judge by the size of the trees. Long before I was born and long before my parents up and decided they wanted to be farm folk and what do you know they started farming and my life began and I was their only child forever and ever and my mom told me I was a disappointment at Burger King while I was refusing to talk to her unless she gave back the cow bank and thinking about how beef is the most horrible thing in the world.
Sometimes in order not to think about things the camera will just take over my mind and there’s all these finely crafted shots with my eyes in the moonlight darkness zooming across time and I can forget about the nosebleeds and my fucked up feet and my open chest shivering against the chilled nighttime, and all of a sudden it’s nighttime and I didn’t realize it, it’s night. I blink and the director calls a cut.
My mother is the one who told me about how everything is beautiful, in its own way, when she took me out in the middle of the summer night, like this one, which is how I’m onto thinking about it. She brought me out into the middle of one of those big semi-unowned woods you end up finding in the country, pieces of land that legally beyond to such-and-such but in the end cannot truly be possessed. It was dark and scary and I wanted to cry but Mother told me to look up into the sky and I saw the stars and I wasn’t afraid and that’s when she told me that everything is beautiful in its own special way, and I was like, okay. As my head turns the camera pans through the vertical-brown forms of the forest and there’s a bright horizontal rectangle of light in the distance and it’s all, oh, and I think about how I’m saved and this would be the dramatic climax of the movie and I’m in a lot of pain and I start walking towards the light, transfixed.
And what I didn’t realize that day when I was kid on the farm was that it was slaughter-time.
So it turns out the light is a gas station. Next thing I know I’m stumbling across the street, into the parking lot and I trip and I’m face-down in the gravelly tarmac and I can tell I hit my head pretty hard and my left hand is all cut up by a smashed beer bottle and I’m puking and it mixes with the blood. Intercut are shots of a ten-year-old me climbing over the fence in that unfocused way you associate with childhood and landing face-first in a cow pie, and this child tries to wipe the shit off of themselves lying on the ground but it doesn’t work and they end up covered in cow feces. But then the cows are issuing their primal cries and the child forgets. The child stands up.
Suddenly, I’m halfway across the parking lot, the camera half-stumbling as I walk towards that window of too-bright fluorescence and there’s a half-formed thought about damaged footage and I take a deep breath and then I’m coughing and I don’t think about the fluids that come out of my mouth. Where are my loafers?
The child is now at the mouth of the barn, one door slightly opened, like the gap in my mother’s perpetually slightly-pursed lips. It swallows up the sky and the earth and I might be projecting but for the first time the child feels small and aware of the human body’s permeable borders. Yet the child steps forward and where are my loafers?
I don’t know where my loafers are.
I flop onto the door with the last few ounces of my strength and it doesn’t open. I take an unsteady step backwards and I look at the entryway, confused. In half-destroyed, block-letter-decal text, the glass reads, “Pull.”
Pulls the barn door further open with a tiny heave, and there’s a shot of Father aiming his rifle point blank in-between the unknowing eyes of a for-beef heifer.
Confused, disoriented, I’m scrabbling at the handle and I can’t get a grip and my nose is bleeding and I can taste blood I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive my mom. For such a beautiful lie. My fingers won’t work.
And then the crack of the gun and then Father is on top of the felled cow and slits the throat with a deft motion, like he’s done this many times before. The legs are twitching erratically as the blood spills out onto the concrete. The shit-covered child watches.
The door jingles when I finally open it and I collapse on the tile floor, surrounded by fatty snacks and magazines, my nosebleed running sideways down my lip, running onto the floor in a small puddle. Distantly, I hear the clerk scream but it doesn’t bother me.
The camera pans backward, upward from my body, as if this were some sort of out-of-body experience and I’m watching somebody running over to me with a wad of napkins and trying to stop the bleeding. It’s absolutely silent and it’s almost like everything is in slow motion, it’s so serene and without realizing it I’m following shitstained me ten years ago from above, following like an angel and the camera swoops into my prepubescent body and I’m there.
This is what will happen:
I will run into the forest, thick with cedar trees and for hours I will huddle in the brush, scared and alone and my parents will be unable to find me and it’ll be evening when, for the first time ever, I have a nosebleed.
I will be crying, covered in dried shit and fresh blood and died blood and scared piss as I cross the autumn field, barren and harvested and at about halfway there my Father will run out to me and he will hold me tight to his chest and tell me how much he loves me and how worried he was but I don’t hear it, I just stare at the cow’s-blood still on his hands.
I will be carried back home to Mother. For every moment for the rest of my life I will remember the look on her face as she saw me as I was, how this woman who had confidently told me that the world was beautiful instantly broke that promise, disproved that conjecture with a look of pure, visceral revulsion.
And then: the next ten years.
Something that’s stuck with me is a conversation I had with some friends last week while they were dropping me off at my apartment, about how we were talking about this kid who had laid down on a set of train tracks the night previous and could only be identified as a “male” that morning. It was like, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the whole ordeal but my friend, she was absolutely distraught, and she was flipping out and acting all horrified like maybe how my mom would be horrified, and she said something along the lines of how it’s so horrible because all it was, was that they had made a small mistake and you end up wishing that they could’ve come out of that mistake alive and learned from it but instead they’re dead and sometimes life doesn’t forgive mistakes.
I swear, I have no idea where my loafers are.
I’m pretty sure I’m dying. I’m bleeding all over this kind shop-clerk who’s cradling my head while I scream and cry until my throat grows hoarse and she’s already called 911 and she looks serene, sort of. She brings a cup to my lips and I gulp it all down and it’s cool and sweet and it tastes like how you’d imagine water tastes in a commercial. The thing is, though, space and time are slowing down or they aren’t making sense or my brain is acting like it isn’t making sense and it’s because my body is shutting down, I’m fairly certain, and physically I’m in some gas station out in the country but my consciousness is in a void, a space created by oxygen and/or blood depravation and the camera sends me back in time again, despite everything.
I’m a cow shit huddling in the brush sniveling. Maybe I came back here to be clean again, to be worthy.
For what. For whom.
A squirrel alights on a nearby branch, cocks its head inquisitively. I stare at it, absolutely still, and apparently I intrigue it in such a way that it draws closer, so close that I could touch it, so in a quick sudden motion I grab it and snap its neck except I don’t do it right and so instead it’s just kind of broken and bleeding but still alive and clawing at my hands and I can see its tendons and bones and it shits and pisses on me and I peel back its flesh.
The tiny heart beating so fast and afraid. One of the lungs collapsed. Ribs like a broken cage.
The distinct impression I’m missing something. A puzzle piece that doesn’t fit.
The camera cuts back to the present. I’m delirious, trying to stand up, laughing hysterically, insisting that I take my shirt the rest of the way off and so I do despite the clerk’s best efforts and then my pants and the rest and I’m naked and I ask, if this was a horror film, who do you think the monster would be? And I say it would be me and even now I’m lying.
For what. For whom.
Somehow the sunlight hits the damn cedars just right and a singular god-ray streams from beneath those gnarly branches and it hits the squirrel right in the chest, right on its tiny heart and it glows.
The veins throbbing. The muscles tensing and untensing. The loafers I left behind.
I stare it in the eyes, big black circles full of fear, maybe crying. What did I do. Why do I do. For What. For Whom.
My hands are trembling, and the camera reel starts to run out as I bring that broken creature up to my face and I kiss it more fully than I did any lover. The sun is shining and it throws into ugly detail every ugly detail.
I can taste the blood in my mouth and the kiss on my lips and I take a deep breath when the heart stops and the movie ends.
Andrew Hofmann currently lives in Ohio, where he is “being educated.”