Monday, October 26, 2015

Blood on the Trail, Death on the Ice

           Looking west over Cane Creek Lake
           The episode started with a phone call one Wednesday morning in February. I’m not sure why that call was the start of the story, but it seems to be the case. In truth, it did in a way frame what later amounted to a story that I didn’t then know was happening. It wasn’t an ominous call either, rather a lucky one. A young reporter for the local daily wanted to interview me about a book I’d recently published. I was in favor of that. Any notice for a languishing book is good news.
            I suggested meeting for lunch and mentioned a Thai restaurant. It turned out to be one of her favorites. We set the date for Monday of the following week. I was looking forward to it.
            That Monday rolled around. I did what I normally do and went out for a run, a twelve miler. The route of that run meanders through town, down a street the police call “Crack Alley,” heads toward the western edge of town, circles a fifty-six-acre lake and then returns. The two and a half miles around the lake is the highlight segment of the course. A paved path winds over rolling hills through a hardwood forest, cuts across a quarter-mile-long levee that dams the valley and then follows the north shore. The levee and north shore offer sweeping, open views of the lake.
            Approaching the end of the levee that Monday morning, I happened to look down. There I saw a bleached-out spot on the pavement; it was the size of a saucer. I should not have been startled, but it changed my day. It was strange that I was surprised to see it. I knew the spot well, its shape and location. It was near the right-hand edge of the pavement just before the right-hand turn off of the main levee. Some of my recent runs had been on other loops and I hadn’t had much occasion to consider this bleached spot in a while. But now, once again, all over, I stood recalling. The spot took me back nearly two years. It’s a wonder that it had that power; the spot didn’t look unusual; a bystander would have been puzzled. After all, it is normal for weathered pavement to exhibit a scattering of spots of one kind or another. It may’ve looked ordinary, but this spot was different. I knew what caused it. Blood.
            Blood. Nearly two years before this morning, I’d been running along here when it brought me to a taut stop, a shallow pool of blood, irregular in shape; it spread to twice the size of my hand. I bent down for a close look. It was bright and fresh. Immediately I looked around to see if I could spot an injured animal or human. Something or someone injured ought to be nearby; the blood was that fresh. There was nothing, no one. Short pasture grass made a turf all around, no place where anything could hide or go unseen. The blood was fresh enough it seemed impossible I couldn’t look up and see its source, living or dead.
            The mystery baffled me. Somewhat experienced in tracking, I took a closer look. Had a deer been shot here by a poacher on park property? There was no evidence of it. A bullet or arrow cuts hair. Sometimes just one hair provides a valuable clue, tells where an animal was standing when it was shot or helps extend an intermittent blood trail after other signs fail. I turned up not one hair—or feather. The blood itself was pristine, wet. I inspected for traces of the pinkish coloring left by the tiny air bubbles of a lung shot. Nothing. Nor were there any tiny pieces of grass fibers that would indicated a gut shot. The blood was pure and unblemished. Perhaps an animal injured at another location ran to this place, stopped and bled out the pool. But no blood trail led to the spot that I could find, not even a drip. I gave up on the gunshot idea.
            Maybe two animals had been fighting, competing males, say, and one was injured. Again, there was no evidence. The blood was adjacent to the grass. A fight would have raised tuffs of grass, scattered tiny clods from toenails or hoofs. But the ground and grass were undisturbed. I ran out of possibilities.
            In the end, I had no clue, just the blood. The mystery was complete. It was as if living blood had suddenly appeared without the presence of any living thing accompanying it, as if from the very air overhead.
            That spot of blood from two years ago changed with time, but it remained there on the pavement over the following days and weeks. I was surprised by its endurance. I found myself brooding about it, and I anticipated seeing it each time I ran that route. In whatever way it changed, it remained indelible. The color turned to dark rust. It turned still darker and the surface took on a scaly appearance such that no one seeing it now could ever guess that the spot was blood, or had been. I began to think it might never go away. I wondered if anyone else had seen the blood when it was fresh and if they’d wondered about it like I had. I doubted it. It was my secret, this mysterious spot.
            But weather changes many things. After a few weeks, a siege of rain came. I got up one morning after hard overnight rain. It was still raining. I sat in a rocking chair drinking coffee, delaying my run and looking out the window as the rain poured down. This will finally wash away the blood, I thought, dissolve it and flush the pavement clean. I trusted the cleansing power of the rain. It pelted down. I was confident the blood spot would finally wash away.
            A few days later, after the ground had dried, I ran the levee again. Perhaps I should have looked away, but I couldn’t. I knew the spot’s location too precisely. I didn’t need that perfect knowledge. The spot was still there; it was telling me it was still there. It had endured the rain. And it would endure more. It was still there. Although incredulous, I accepted that fact; I could see it was true.
            I accepted the spot and came to believe it would never go away. It endured, identifiable to me, all through the summer and fall. A hard winter followed that. Rain fell many times, but the spot stayed there. Then the snow came. The spot went under the freezing and thawing and refreezing snow and ice—out of sight and eventually out of mind.
            While the snow was still on the ground an especially hard freeze came and stayed several days. My runs grew more challenging. For traction, I screwed ten sheet-metal screws into the sole of each of my shoes. The screw heads acted as cleats and kept me from falling. I tried to keep my fingers warm by wearing thick fleece gloves like hunters use. When that wasn’t enough, I put hand warmers in each glove. That arrangement would keep my fingers warm enough for a while, but on a run as long as the twelve-mile route around the lake they’d start aching. It felt like frostbite.
            The lake behind the levee froze over, hard and thick. The cold weather brought in waterfowl from up north. Duck hunters here know that that will happen and welcome the cold air. As I circled the lake, I could see hundreds of ducks standing around on the ice, maybe even a thousand. I identified many kinds, including Gadwalls, mallards and coots.
            I wondered about that, the standing around. The first two days after they arrived, they simply loitered on the ice doing nothing. They’d better be hunting something to eat, I thought. They stood there like they were waiting for room service to bring shelled corn on a platter. But food wasn’t coming to them.
            The ice was a dangerous hangout for the ducks. Predators like coyotes and foxes could come out after them. For refuge, they only had one spot of water in the otherwise hard-frozen lake. It was not much larger than a tennis court, just off the north shore. I’d come to it shortly after I passed the blood spot. It was close to the trail, and gave me a good view of the ducks gathered around it. Perhaps there is an underwater spring at that place that makes the water warmer. A few ducks worked hard swimming about in it, keeping it stirred up, keeping it from freezing. The rest simply stood around and looked on, like humans, letting a few do the work for them.
            The cold siege dragged on. After a few days, three or so, the ducks began leaving out. I watched as they took to the air, a dozen or two at a time. They were finally heading out to hunt food, I figured. They didn’t get to be ducks by waiting for a handout. They headed northwest. I knew where they were going. Cordell Hull Lake, a shallow lake twenty miles away on the Cumberland River, would have open water. And there were soybean and corn fields scattered around it. They could find food there. But they seemed to come back to Cane Creek at night because the crowd of ducks remained constant.
            It was a show, seeing them fly. Then one morning, I saw another type of bird circling over the lake, drifting slowly and disorganized, not sleek and fast like ducks. My first open view of the lake comes when I leave the woods and hit the levee. I came out of the snowy woods that morning and then I saw them: Buzzards. Here was something new. I continued on across the levee toward the blood place and then I saw why the buzzards had come.
            A deer had gone out on the ice. It hadn’t gotten far, maybe twenty-five yards from the shore, just past the blood place. I was late to the show. Buzzards had stripped the skeleton. A few stringy tendrils of gristle hung from the naked bones. The wind blew through the rib cage. Even the deer’s cape lay separate from the bony carcass, crumbled on the ice like an old Army blanket. The plunder was complete.
            The deer had lost its struggle in a spectacular way. It should never have gone out on the ice, a very dangerous place for a deer. It’s too easy for the hooves to slip. Once a deer does the splits with its back legs it tears tissue that binds those legs together. The deer can never gather its legs underneath its body again. It can never get upright again. The rupture is deadly. Cows have the same problem. Ranchers and farmers know this. A cow down with that ailment must be destroyed. This had been an unlucky deer. Predators and buzzards probably starting feasting before it died, almost certainly did. Food was scarce and urgent for them too.
            The deer should have known this. Why did it make the terrible decision to venture onto the ice? It had started across the lake near its widest point. If it had veered to the right, past the blood place, it could have run in retrograde to my route across the levee, or cut down the levees’ back slope and across the field. Dogs or coyotes might have been chasing it. Maybe they cut off its escape and the deer panicked. I was too late to see what happened, and anyway it might have happened before daylight.
            I could stand on the blood spot, which was now under the snow, and from there see the remains of the deer on the ice. I stood on one mystery and gazed at another, two mysteries I suppose I’ll never solve. It’s frequent that one can’t settle things for certain. I am content with that. My fingers were cold. That much was certain. I would continue my training runs. That much was certain, too. More than that, I couldn’t claim.
            The weather warmed. The deer’s lank skeleton gradually sank into the ice, inch by inch, a little each day; the ducks went back north; the lake thawed; the mysteries faded. I quit using cleats. Spring came. I went off to the Boston Marathon and other spring races. Thoughts on the mysterious blood, the mysterious deer death, or the hungry ducks receded in the warming spring.
            The seasons passed, as they always do. My thoughts turned to other places. I ran many roads. Sometimes I did long training runs with a young friend. We planned adventure runs on the steep hills in rural Jackson County, picking loops off a county map. I’d ridden my mountain bike over those primitive roads years earlier. We explored the county on foot now, without bikes.         
The next winter brought mild days with scarcely any snow or ice. I continued to run and didn’t have to use cleats or deal with cold fingers. That easy winter shaded into mid-February, and that was when reporter Megan Trotter called me about the interview. And on the morning of our scheduled meeting, I ran across the levee at Cane Creek, looked down and in that moment saw once again the familiar shape of the pool of blood, nearly two years old.
Some chemical in the blood had bleached and discolored the pavement precisely to the shape of the pool that had grown so familiar to me. I stood amazed again. I bent down to look closer. Photographers know that weathered asphalt is a good substitute for a neutral gray card, good for taking light meter readings. This asphalt had weathered to that soft color, except where the blood had spread; there, the asphalt was bleached white. I could see the limestone aggregate embedded in it, the tiny distinct stones. The thought hit me: if you examined one of those stones in an electron microscope you’d find yet traces of blood in the pores, iron molecules maybe. It would be there, its sign would.  And the thought grew: Blood is strong. Blood endures long. Blood gives its evidence.
            I stood pondering. The blood on the trail, the death on the ice, even my own struggle to run with cleats and frozen fingers, all these events coalesced somehow. Surely, they did. Each one seemed a piece of a larger principle. All merged into a symphonic whole: the unending struggle for survival. Survival necessarily subsumes mystery, striving and suffering. I’d witnessed this here, had in a small way been part of it. In time, maybe I would devise a unifying summation of it, one I could write down in a single canonical sentence. In that moment, I could only note it as mere demonstration: The terrible need to live. A larger, more profound meaning evaded me.
            I was looking forward to my meeting with reporter Megan Trotter. I trudged on toward home, toward a warm shower and my lunch with her. On the way, I realized I knew the story I wanted to tell. It was this story. And once I arrived at the House of Thai and Megan got her recorder going, I laid out the whole story, even though I knew it was too complex and too long for her to use in a Herald-Citizen feature. It was a story I had to tell.