Attracted To The Executioner

as published in West Branch and Willow Review

I can't help watching him. It's been such a long winter, so isolated. He comes on Wednesdays, I think, I always forget. I look up and see him, then duck back from the window where I've been staring out, watching the waves and the seagulls, and the crows hopping stiff-legged. I move behind where my desk is positioned against the wall and then I stand feeling stupid, breathless. He walks down to the sand, dragging behind him large branches of fallen trees as if they are a part of him, long extended tails, green plumes, as if he is one of the birds going down to the beach, his red shirt ruffling like wings. A cloud of pine and alder comes into the cabin, his trail of fresh scent.

The first time, he frightened me. There had been no one for months, just Samantha, the owner of the cabin and the larger house, passing by the window to walk a short distance on the windy point. There had been no one, just the rain coming icy and oyster-colored, oyster smelling, against the window, and the wind bending the tall trees so that I could hear them creak and yawn at night, the birds calling for each other, and in the morning planing and diving, all of it going around in my head in the otherwise silent and unmoving days and nights of winter. At first, I thought I had created him, had taken brushes and paints I had brought with me, coppers, golds and fuchsias, had painted him on my window walking across, his plumes fanning behind him, thought I had painted him as I had imagined painting tropical plants and flowers on the walls when the gray days and dark skies of February were getting to me.

I am Janice, the ice pronounced eece. I am working on a book about women who love prisoners; serial killers, mass murderers, how they "reach out" to them, marry them, have children by them, call them their love. I wonder, looking at some of their photographs, what would make them accept what is so reprehensible? I have been going through pages of crimes committed, blood spilled, secrets behind walls and beneath frozen ground. I jumped when I saw him, as if he had come from the corner of my eye, from the words and pictures, I thought, before I thought about him being a bright mural sweeping over my window, a chromatic stream of consciousness.

I have felt safe here. I am on an island at the edge of a spit of private land, and at the end of a long, unpaved, gated road. This is Samantha's world, Samantha's acreage of dark pine and windswept waterfront, which has been in her family for a hundred years. I've rented a cabin from her for the winter, the original house, I have guessed, where she must have played as a child, must have run to the shore, and through her own primeval forest. I have felt safe here, as she must, safe from the guns and arsenals of cities, from things I have been reading about.

She seems to trust him. I see her giving him directions to chores, gesturing with her cane. He shifts his body, nods his head, his profile avian, dendroid, evolving from Samantha's world as if from deep roots of trees. She is indifferent to me. I am tolerated for the rent I pay, for keeping her cabin warm in the winter so that the pipes don't freeze.

Thinking violence, I see violence. Looking out, I see small things eaten alive, legs flailing, limbs plummeting to water, grass, bodies dropped to break against rocks, then pulled from dying, pulsing lives. An eagle rushes from the pines and holds a gull under water, then carries it away, its white feathers spiraling. Everything seems exploited, all about survival. Still it is remote from me. I am a witness behind glass.

I watch him taking down young alders to make room for Samantha's rose gardens, watch him stack their trunks and limbs, watch him pour sulfur down mole and gopher holes, frighten away small birds from her lilacs, string wire to entangle deer that come invisible at daybreak. I watch him ignite the sulfur like small golden volcanoes.

When the first shot was fired, I thought it must have been at something in the air, or sea, or near Samantha's gardens. I expected him to be carrying something, a small body over his shoulder or the case he carries tools in.

The signs at the point and along the fences say "No Trespassing," "No Clam Digging," "No Campfires." I can see them through binoculars and know she follows my movements when I am picking up shells or looking into the brothy surf. I walk behind dunes and out of her sight.

"Tourists," Samantha said a few weeks later, coming down to where her roses were beginning to bud. I had been walking. "Summer people," she said. She is ninety and her conversations seem to emanate from monologues she trails behind her like loose threads from inside her house; she looks at me always as if she can't remember who I am. "It used to be like a lawn," she said, "eel grass like a lawn." She looked over the expansive view of her property, over the sand and water. "Polluted," she said, and walked away.

I can hear him in the woods, hear his footsteps, his chain saw cleaning and trimming, branches being torn, dull poundings, grindings. I hear his truck coming and going, his fine red truck with double wheels, expensive chrome, hear it shifting gears, feel the sound of it in the walls of the cabin before I see it through the trees.

He is tall, thin, ugly. His hair is curly and he wears a pigtail from under a woodsman's hat. He walks on his toes, springy. I watch him because his movements seem biological as searching vines, bushes spiking over ground in the wind; because he is close, and I can feel his presence like the lap of waves at the water's edge. I want to see if he smells of alder, if his long fingers are rough and adhering.

All winter there has been a muted, muffled transmitting of nature's sounds into my thoughts and senses, circling around me, beautiful and serene, snow falling into a softness I had forgotten about, padding me and other, minute lives into protective cocoons, pulling from somewhere where the light of the moon alters the night blue-white, lucent to the edge of the water; the snow melting to flat, languid flakes; the aurora borealis streaking across the sky and onto my ceiling; the slow moving amber lights of occasional boats passing soundless and far away. Mornings, Samantha walks slow and certain on the beach, always as if against the wind.

I've become aware of out there, beyond the channel of sea and shadowy belt of mountains, the dull pink halo of mainland like some kind of dead Oz. I've looked again and again at the photographs, eyes that stare into the camera and at me, words weaving through my dreams, dark strands: lured, clubbed, bludgeoned, torso, decapitated, I killed her, killed them; Samantha's world a delicate silver ribbon above them.

He brought springtime as if he had seeded it, hyacinths and cyclamens, white as sea caps across the lawn. All at once the ferries from the mainland are full on the weekends. Coming from the grocery store, I see them, decks of people carrying cameras, backpacks; cars and campers with bicycles, rafts and tents. The waves are high and dark blue, now, by the cabin, and the birds carry nesting materials, moss and strands of kelp. At night with my windows open, I listen for mating sounds, softer winds; they ripple over me, winter's blankets falling to the floor. I wake up from dreams full of rivers of people, clouds like ocean liners, faces. I look out at the alders and pines, at Samantha's perfect rows of variegated tulips, her fluted, butter daffodils, at the logs that have rolled into her lagoon for years, to stay captured and basking; at the mountain ranges and curved inlets where the sun catches mirrors of window glass inside other private acreages. There was someone walking on the other side of Samantha's fence. It got my attention, I remember, remember thinking how the outside could leak in, could creep like sand under the fence into Samantha's world, my world. I imagined kayaks, canoes, and wind surfers, clam diggers at the tide line, oceanography classes.

The first shot had sounded distant, from north by Samantha's well and pump house where I've never been, or from under the cliffs where there are swallows' nests, or along the rocky part of the beach where the seaweed makes it unsuitable for walking. Another echoed as though it was from the winding trail preceding the cliffs, the trail where the distant peninsula can be seen, the peaks with snow, the rain forest's high foggy blanket; from under the fir pines where the eagles nest.

Another day, they sounded from the other side of the cabin. I looked up to see someone beyond the lagoon, a small colorful blur on the sand. I focused my eyes to follow, but it was gone like the flight of geese into the shimmering horizon.

His eyes caught mine that day. He came from behind the cabin, and there was no place for me to move from his sight. I stepped onto the porch. "It's nice here alone, isn't it?" he said. "Too bad about the summer." His eyes were small, brown, his face scarred. He wore a sweater, high boots, bracelets around both wrists that jangled with the movements of his arms. He wore an earring. If I were his creator/artist I would have erased the center of his face, smoothed out his skin, broadened his forehead. Other than that, it was nice; the way his hair curled, the shape of his mouth. I started to reply but Samantha called to him and he went up the path to her.

I lose count. It has begun to happen more and more with summer coming, blossoms hanging heavy on trees, warmer temperatures.

A car has driven in, somehow, full of adults and children pointing toward the beach. They ring out often, the shots, breaking clear, pristine silences. Samantha has decided, suddenly, to let him have the cabin. "Exchange it for labor," she says, "too much to be done." "Overrun," she says, "Terrible," and I imagine plagues of rodents and parasites. I remind her that we still have two months left in our rental agreement, I tell her my work is not finished, that I've barely begun, that I was hoping I could stay past what we had agreed upon, even, stay indefinitely, I tell her, pay more rent, make some kind of permanent arrangement. She looks at me, not remembering who I am.

I try to work, realizing I haven't really done anything, realizing I've spent all my time at the window or gathering shells and driftwood, reading bird and marine books. I push them aside and search through my notes, brushing sand off them, and feathers. "Loneliness," I read, "desperation, someone to belong to, anyone." The walls vibrate the deep bass of his truck in the driveway. I try not to pay attention. "To find the good in the worst of evil," I continue, "a willingness to tolerate evil. Not belonging anywhere else, to go over to its side, a form of self death, or self preservation, of survival." I look up and see my reflection in the window, my face appearing and disappearing with a brush of leaves on the glass. I think about the city, my apartment, the future bleak, empty, lonely, the neverending river of people, me disappearing there.

I lean back against the chair and look at the clouds over the channel, the sun coming through them, a flock of crows like a black shade across the window. I listen to the fire in the fireplace, look at Samantha's young drawings of the seashore, the spiny starfish, noctiluca, the swirled chocolate and cream-colored conch, see her gathering them at the water's edge, her mother and father straight and practical beside her, the water aquamarine, the meadows of yellow eel grass behind volumes of lavender lilacs. I see porpoises diving, gulls lifting.

He is in the water at the end of the point. There is a flurry of movement. I pick up my binoculars. He is like the eagle, his body taught, his head alert; he looks as if he is condensing his strength, doing something beneath the water. I press to the window, adjusting the lens of the binoculars, bringing him closer to me, sending him away, clarifying him, the swells in the sea. The window is cold against my body, as he would be, cool and supportive. Something surfaces, a billow of cloth. I move to see better. He is struggling, and then he stops, and I half expect him to fly away like the eagle. I move the binoculars over the sand and dunes, driftwood glistening with creosote; see the fence, someone's belongings. I look back to him, his eyes seeming to engage mine. He stands motionless and waiting, as if to read my thoughts, I feel. I can't move from him. I try but I can't. I follow him as he comes up the shoreline still looking at me, the glint of his earring magnified, the beads of water in his hair. He comes up on the grass and crosses into the trees. I look back toward the point. I see something, someone running.

I lay the binoculars down. At the lagoon, the blue-gray reflection of a heron sends a twin shadow across still water. Two geese walk one behind the other, the female foraging, the male guarding. The heron rises and swoops low over the lagoon and into a gold band of sunset. He is coming back, walking springy across the lawn. I move from the window and go to the door. The air is fragrant with branches he has cut earlier, warm with summer almost here. I step out to him and point to Samantha's beach where a figure can still be seen, blue jacket, white hat.

"There's one," I say.