The woods lay behind the last street of the most recent housing development. It had been an ever-shrinking territory for fifteen or twenty years and now consisted of a quarter mile of mixed oak, maple, and birch stretching back to the creek, then another hundred yards to Tomahawk Rd. On the east side the march of houses had pinched it off into a narrow neck through which the creek flowed into Tomahawk Park. On the west side a barbed-wire fence tacked to the trees marked the interface where a pasture met the woods. Two or three years earlier the pasture was a cornfield, the rows extending all the way back to the creek. Now, around and above the rotting stalks, grew tall grasses mixed with tiny flowering plants like buttercups and the thistles beginning to creep in.
This was the place where The Bull lived. The Bull was a magnificent black beast, sweat glistening in the sun off its smooth hide, its muscles rolling down its flanks firm as a line of hills. Steam puffed from its nostrils as it pawed the earth with menacing grunts. Its horns were huge and curved toward the sky.
Two boys from the neighborhood rode their bikes to the edge of the woods where the power line cut through, hid their wheels in the undergrowth, and ran down the trail into that green world. This was deep forest for them, a place that still had spots to be explored, still had unknown vicinities where neither they nor anyone they knew had ever been. It was a courageous and exciting thing to follow one of the two trails they knew of all the way back to the creek. The creek was a rare and wonderful place where they found salamanders and occasionally saw a fish, once saw a snake, and once, even saw a muskrat slide beneath the surface and disappear into the bank. It was a whole different world from the gridlock of parallel streets and homogenized houses and manicured landscapes with their networks of wires and cables strung overhead.
Jack and Stew dove into the green canopy like escapees, like adventurers, like pioneers, like little men.
“I wonder if anyone else is back here?” Jack listened intently as he asked his question. Davey Green the bully, and his buddies from over on Oak Dr., sometimes came down there. Kids from different neighborhoods would build forts in the woods and take turns destroying what their counterparts had created.
“Naw, I don’t think so.” answered Stew. “But let’s be quiet anyway. You heard about the mad axeman who escaped from Bellevue, didn’t you?”
“Naw, what axeman?”
“Some crazy guy who kills people with an ax. Chops ‘em up and buries ‘em all different places. Somebody saw him over in Cranberry the other day.”
“There ain’t no axeman down here.”
“There could be though. Someone could probably live down here and no one would know about it.”
“We’d probably know about it.”
“We’d be dead. All chopped up.”
“Shut up Stew. I like it down here, man. This is my most favorite place. It’s like nobody’s ever been here before. We can pretend that we’re the first ones. And we don’t have to worry about our parents watching us and tellin’ us not to do this, or that, or anyone else either. No teachers, no adults at all. We can just do whatever we want to do.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. You want to go down to the creek?”
“Naw, I gotta be home pretty early.”
“Let’s go see if we can see The Bull.”
They followed a small side trail that led to the edge of the old cornfield. Crouching beneath the last trees they scanned the waving grasses for a glimpse of The Bull. Its existence was a part of the oral lore of their neighborhood, a story told by bigger boys who had confronted it. One had been chased through the field by the lumbering monster. It was his red shirt that had incensed The Bull, the story went, and he was forced to run for his life, leaping tussocks of grass and tripping through tangled mats of decaying cornstalks. Jack and Stew crept into the field cautiously, feeling the thrill of danger, the cockiness of the challenge. No one ever knew when Old Man Gunther let The Bull out into the field. He might be out there now, patrolling his realm, or he might be back in Old Man Gunther’s barn – the last barn in town.
“See him?” Stew asked from his crouch as Jack stood, gazing across an expanse of what seemed to him like a sea of green and brown.
“Naw, I don’t see anything. Old Man Gunther must not have let him out.”
“Old Man Gunther sure is a weird old guy. Who ever heard of being a farmer around here?”
“I think it’s neat. He’s got all these fields and those woods on the other side of the tracks. It’d be neat if you were his kid so you could have it all to play in and explore and stuff.”
“I wouldn’t want to be his kid. He’s a grouchy old bastard.”
“I don’t mean his kid. I mean if your parents had his place. You could have all sorts of secret places that only you knew about. Who knows what you might find? Hey! Is that him, way over there?” Jack pointed to a spot far away on the other side of the field, almost to where it met Tomahawk Rd. A dark and stolid object stood out against the rippling of the pasture.
“Yeah, that’s him!”
“Hey! Hey, you old bull you!” shouted Jack. “C’mon and get us!” He jumped up and down in an effort to provoke The Bull. Stew began jumping too, both of them leaping and shouting, ready to bolt into the woods and be gone if The Bull were to charge.
“Hey,” whispered Stew. “guess what I got?” He pulled from his jacket pocket a long, red bandana and dangled it in front of Jack’s nose.
Stew began waving the red bandana around over his head, both of them yelling at The Bull, taunting him to charge them, two small but courageous warriors from the split-level territory of Macadam Dr.
“Here he comes!”
They turned tail and disappeared into the woods and within ten minutes were under the sycamore tree on Jack’s fresh-mown lawn as all the fathers of the neighborhood began pulling into the driveways, home from the offices.
Back in Old Man Gunther’s cornfield, now fallow for the last three years, an ancient heifer, brown and white-spotted with drooping folds of flesh and rheumy stupid eyes, chewed dumbly on tufts of grass. Across Tomahawk Rd. in the old man’s other five acres a bulldozer fired up and began to move the earth.
Copyright © 1988, 2007 by Doug Downie, all rights reserved