In the Woods Behind My House by Nicolette Barischoff
They were just some seventh grade kids who hung around the handball court and pretended to be playing all the time so no one else could use it. Nate had no idea why he’d told them about his griffin.
He just said it, out of nowhere, like it was something he had just remembered. “So, in the woods, behind my house? There’s a griffin.”
That was how these guys talked, Eric and Dash, and Jackson and all of them. They just started right in with anything that happened to them like it was something they’d just now found in their pocket: “I smoked the fattest fucking blunt yesterday… you guys should see the lazer tag arena I built in back of my dad’s house… you know I already got my pilot’s license? I don’t even need to learn to drive.” And then they’d smash a cigarette under the toe of their shoe, waiting to be challenged.
He had never talked about the griffin out loud before. He didn’t even think he’d had words to talk about her. She had always been something he’d go into the woods to watch, this silent, padding thing that sometimes stopped to cock her head at him, if he stood still enough, or took something he fed her into her curved black beak.
He had only touched her a handful of times, on the smooth, downy part at the top of her head, and she had watched him every time with hunting gold eyes, her lion’s tail lashing patiently. He’d never even tried to bring home any of her old scattered feathers or broken-off claws. He hadn’t even known, until he talked about her, if he thought she was real.
But he’d been hanging out at the handball court for two weeks, and Eric had started making jokes about how creepy it was that Nate just stood around laughing like an idiot and never saying anything. And Nate just didn’t have a story about how he had set fire to a car, or put out a car that someone else had set fire to, or made his parents buy him a glock… he’d never been that interesting.
So it was desperation that made him do it, mostly. Well, desperation and panic, because Princess Zelda had been walking toward them.
Zelda was a thin pale girl, with thin pale hair, and thin pale eyelashes, and no eyebrows, and fingernails she chewed down to the bloody quick. She smelled like Carmex, and like the Ricola throat drops she ate like candy. She had a spooky way of going too many seconds without blinking. And sometimes, when people called her Princess Zelda instead of just Zelda, she made a weird little sweeping bow.
Nate had never really minded her that much before. But one day, she lent him three dollars when he lost his lunch ticket, and Nate made the mistake of saying he’d buy her a Haagen-Dazs bar as soon as he found another one in the cafeteria freezer. She had shrugged, unblinking. “Whatever,” she said, and walked away.
But Jackson and Dash both decided this meant Nate wanted to stick it to her. And so now, whenever she walked by, they all did long, loud impressions of what Nate supposed it must sound like to stick it to someone, and Eric patted him hard on the back like he’d just put out a flaming car. Princess Zelda always turned her head to look, locking spooky eyes with Nate and smirking like she was in on the joke and the joke wasn’t all that bad.
Girls are immune to this sort of thing. All they ever do is hang around other girls. They never know how bad the joke really gets.
So this time, Nate had changed the subject before she came too close. “So, in the woods, behind my house, there’s a griffin. Like, a real one.”
Eric’s head turned, startled and lazy. “What?”
“I have a griffin. At my house. You know, like part lion, part eagle.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“They’ve got a body like a lion, right?” said Nate. “And a head, and talons, and wings like an eagle.” Jackson and Dash stared. Eric stared. “And no one thinks they really exist. But mine does… mine does.”
“So it’s like a dragon?” Eric said after a blink. Dash started to chortle and snort, but Eric threw back an arm and smacked some part of him. Eric never let anyone shit on you until he’d decided to, and he hadn’t decided to, yet.
“No…” said Nate, “she’s feathered. She’s got feathers, and fur.” It was strange describing her like this, dissecting her into her “look-alike” parts, without any of the things that made her alive. The musk of her big cat haunches, the oily brightness of her black feathers, the soft tap-scrape of her talons when the ground was dry.
“She?” said Jackson with raised eyebrows. Dash started to laugh again. Eric smacked him silent.
Princess Zelda passed by, looking straight at Nate. And Nate looked straight at Eric. Nobody did any impressions.
Instead Eric said, “What’d you say this thing was called, a…?”
“And you said the thing…. this giant fucking lion-bird thing lives at your house? Just lives there?”
“Yeah. In these woods in my yard.”
The wire-thin smile that Eric more or less always wore spread itself a little thinner. “Bullshit.”
“I swear. To God.”
“It’s not bullshit. I swear to God.”
The older boy paused, blinked, stuck out his chin “What do you feed it? Her?”
“She hunts. Moles and rats and possums and birds, and things. She ate a dog, once.”
“A dog? Nah-uh. Nothing eats dogs,” declared Jackson suddenly, with aggression. Nate ignored him.
“And I bring her steak, sometimes.”
“You cook her steak?” said Eric. His eyes had narrowed to go with the smile.
“No. Bloody. Raw, I mean. She won’t eat cooked stuff.”
Another pause “Ever ride her?” he asked.
“She’s got wings, right? She can fly around? You ever ride her?”
Dash piped in, gave an exaggerated pelvis thrust. “Yeah, Nate, you ever… riiide herrr?”
Jackson deadened his friend’s arm, and laughed. But Eric waited for Nate’s answer.
“No,” said Nate firmly, “No.”
Nate blinked. What a strange, what a meaningless question “You don’t ride griffins. That’s not what they’re for,” he said.
“What are they for, then?”
“They guard things. Treasure.”
“What kind of treasure she guarding?” asked Jackson. He talked almost more than anything else about being the only kid in his family who knew how to use his uncle’s metal detector.
“I didn’t say she was guarding anything. She’s not guarding anything. She just hangs around in the woods behind my house.”
“I’ll bet you could ride her if you tried.” said Eric. He was suddenly wearing the same expression he wore whenever he thwacked Nate on the back to congratulate him for doing something he had never actually done. “I bet you could make her give us a ride if you worked her a little.”
“No, I couldn’t,” said Nate, “not even close.”
“Why? What would she do?”
“She… just wouldn’t come near. She’d hide.”
“Then we’ll hunt her down and surround her, right? She can’t go anywhere without us if she’s surrounded.”
“Right. Well, you hold her, and we’ll all jump on.”
More sniggers. Nate licked his lips. Eric licked his, his eyes incredulous and shiny. “So, what about it, Safari Man? When do we go hunting?”
“I don’t… it’s not…”
“Maybe. If she’s not asleep. She sleeps in the afternoons, I don’t know where…”
“We’ll go at lunch, or we’ll cut last period.” Eric’s smile went wide, like a disbelieving Jack-O-lantern. “You and me. We’ll hunt her down and shake her awake.”
Nate didn’t wait for the return bus. He ran all the way home with the acidy taste of puke in his mouth, drops of sweat running cold off his nose. He ran straight through the house and out to where the trees grew closest, and crookedest. There, he wandered, and waited until she appeared.
She was never graceful when landing on the ground. She was never exactly ungraceful, but her bird-grace and her cat-grace always seemed to be working against each other, to make the landing sudden and hard. There was always the surprisingly hard clap of padded paws against the dirt, and the scuffling scrape of claws as she slowed herself, and the wild flap before she settled her wings down on her back. She was always stranger and wilder than Nate ever expected her to be, though he saw her almost every day.
Some days, she was coy, making him come to her, or stretching her white head around to preen with her black beak before she bothered to look at him. But not today. Today she landed close to him, stretching her neck out with extra expectancy, her gold eyes extra wide. She had no idea what he’d done to her. “You should be more careful,” Nate said to her. “You shouldn’t come running every time you hear somebody.”
The gold eyes did not blink. She made a kind of throaty cooing noise, like a dove, cocking her head invitingly. “I don’t have any food for you right now,” he said. But he reached out a heavy, shaking hand, and stroked her neck, all the way down into her thick white fur. Her black wings gave another lazy twitch, her white tail softly swatted an imaginary fly, but her powerful back muscles did not even tense with a big cat’s ordinary alertness. Nate might have done anything to her. Might’ve let anyone do anything. “Stop,” her betrayer said, kicking a little dirt in her direction, “stop.”
She backed away a couple paces, made a deeper cooing sound that had much more of a growl in it. But she did not fly away. Would she fly away, if it came to that? If other things came tromping into her woods with their metal detectors and their loud laughs and their cigarette butts, would she know to fly away?
She ventured toward him again, twisting her head, stretching her neck. “I don’t have any food for you right now!” Nate picked up a clod of dirt and chucked it at her, hard. She flapped backward, gave an irritable scream. “Piss off,” he said, “go back to your nest.”
Nate lied on top of the blankets all night, listening to her hunt. He felt every swoop, every wingbeat like she was right at his window, giving the pane an angry rattle. Go away, he telegraphed to her. Go away. Go the hell away. Only in the times when her shadow flitted across the moon, or he heard the scream of some bird in her beak, did Nate remember she was high in the sky somewhere, a white and black and moon-streaked blur, swallowing her dinner whole and not thinking of him at all.
Nate rolled over, smashed his face into his pillow. Of course she didn’t get angry, or know things. Those gold eyes only made you think she did. In reality, everything was a complete surprise to her.
They would make it a party, Eric and Jackson and Dash and whoever came with them. They’d come in a screaming caravan with jokes and wine coolers and whatever raw meat they could get, ready to thrash around in the woods looking for a thing they didn’t expect to find. And it would be fun. That was the thing. Even for Nate, it would be fun. It would be noisy and funny, and easy, like going to find a good place to set off a bunch of fireworks. It was the part after that, the part where they actually found her, or she found them, that Nate didn’t know what to do about.
He had only ever seen her in pain once, when she’d landed hard in the wrong tree, and a sharp branch behind her had gone straight through her wing. She’d screamed like nothing Nate had ever heard, a pain scream and a fear scream and a pleading scream, and a wild, wild anger scream all at once.
He’d climbed the tree in one crazy jump, but once he was up there, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to pull the branch out (was he afraid of the blood, or of making it worse, or of what she might do to him, a wild animal after all?) In the end, she’d reached back with a frenzied flapping and torn at it herself, bit by bit, with her own curved beak until it was gone, or mostly gone, and she was free. The wound had got infected for a while after that.
Nate smashed his face into his pillow until it hurt, then rolled over again to stare at the ceiling-shadows. He listened to her make another far-away swoop at something, gleeful and quick. Probably an owl. She always went after brown owls when she could find them. It was a vivid picture to him, her dropping free out of the air to snatch things into her claws or beak, but so was the frenzied screaming picture of her being held down while Eric or Jackson took handfuls of feathers, or took a ride, and Dash laughed and threw clods of dirt and wine cooler bottles, and Nate did nothing.
But she wouldn’t hold still for it like that, would she? There was always that funnier, fainter, more horrible picture of the big cat in her suddenly rearing up and deciding she’d had enough, that she wasn’t going to tolerate strangers… Nate laughed. The puke came back up in his mouth. He rolled over again.
He would have to make the party part, the fun, tromping camping-trip part all there was. He’d have to lead them off into some different woods, some bigger woods (he didn’t know where) where they could all laugh loud, and drink, and whack trees with sticks, and make a campfire out of piles of leaves, and roast the random things they found in their pockets, and no one would even remember what it was they were supposed to be looking for. Other kids in class seemed to be able to do this sort of thing all the time, without thinking or planning. The bright, lazy adventure that wasn’t meant to end up anywhere or accomplish anything. That was what kids without Griffins in their backyards did with all their Saturdays.
But Eric wouldn’t forget, Nate knew. He’d come into the woods grinning wide, expecting not to find her. And when he didn’t find her, it would be the beginning of a very long joke, and the end of everything else. From then on, whatever he said, whatever he did, there would only ever be one thing to talk about. It would be worse than Princess Zelda. Longer, and worse.
Nate laughed a burbling laugh, and choked on it, and laughed again and choked. He kept laughing, and kept choking, until he got up out of bed and puked, a real, great big awful puke in the bathroom sink. Then, he went to lie down again, and stared some more at the ceiling.
He must have fallen asleep, because he woke, shivering in his sweat, to the soupy grey light of morning. He lay there, shivering, listening to a big-lunged bird pipe out a long, low scrap of song. When his alarm clock went off, he let it ring, and ring, until his mom came in to see what was what, and he told her with genuinely chattering teeth that he didn’t think he could go to school.
Once she left for work, and the house was nice and empty, Nate began to feel better. He lie half-sleeping in bed for a while, trying to think of nothing, listening to the song of the bird, drawling and persistent and repetitive. Finally, he sat up, shook himself, shook the windowpane to shut the bird up, and went downstairs.
He sat in a square of sunlight at the kitchen table and ate a whole box of cereal out of a metal mixing bowl. And while he ate, he thought about his griffin. Why had he been so sure how everything would be, last night? Why should he even think she’d let herself be looked at by strangers at all? Didn’t she hide well enough from everybody but him? Probably, he thought, she would just be able to keep her distance. Disappearing here, reappearing there, a strange, enticing furry, feathery flash in the trees. Eric and Jackson and Dash could troop along with their eyes glued to the treetops, hooting and hollering and pointing, while Nate behaved like an expert trapper, finding feathers, and droppings, and telling them which kind of claws were which. That wouldn’t be unsafe at all.
And even if he did lead them to her. Even if he did. There was no telling what they would do. They might stand there with their mouths open while her cat muscles rippled and her eyes flashed. They might stand there holding their breaths, until Nate stepped forward, and the griffin ate a steak out of his hand. That was just as easy to picture. Nate the lion-tamer. Eric and Jackson and Dash as the audience, eyes and mouths popping, brows up. “Fucking hell!” Eric would say.
Nate stood up and went to the screen door, smiling out at his woods, for a moment. He mouthed the words over. Fucking hell! Fucking hell, Nate! What, do you have a death wish or something? You’re one crazy mofo!” And then he went to watch TV.
It was late in the afternoon when the cordless phone rang.
Nate forgot to sound sick when he answered it.
“Hey, Faker, where the hell are you?” said Eric on the other end of the line. At least Nate thought he said Faker.
“I didn’t go to school today,” said Nate.
“I didn’t sleep,” he added.
“Well, punch yourself in the face or something. We’re on our way over. We wanna see your bird-lion. You still have one, or did you shoot her and eat her?”
(There were some snorts and matching cackles behind him, much louder and shriller through the phone).
“Maybe a different day,” said Nate, licking his lips. “I’m… she’s sleeping already.”
“Wake the lazy bitch up! Tell her we’ll bring her a whole dead horse, or something!”
A full minute went by of nothing but laughter, high and distorted. Eric’s voice barely came over the top of it. “…on our way! You still live in the same house, right?”
And then a click. The call was over.
Nate swallowed a hard, dry swallow. He exploded out of the screen door toward the woods, the cordless phone still clutched in his sweat-slick hand. His ears pounded. His legs pounded. He breathed in flurries of hot dust and leaves and pollen. I wasn’t serious, he wanted to telegraph to her. I wasn’t really going to let them. I wasn’t.
But Eric’s words kept coming in over the top of his: Wake the bitch up! Wake the bitch up! Shake her awake!
He didn’t go in deep to look for her. He planted himself under the first skinny cluster of trees, in a spot where he could see the front door, and waited. When they came, they made noise like a biker gang. The sound of their skateboards on the sidewalk was a long, slow, thundering sound. It didn’t drown out the shouts and whoops and curses. They had brought other kids, like he thought they would. Kids from other schools, and street corners Nate had never even been on.
The first one he saw was Eric, sliding up to the door, and ringing the doorbell three times. Then three times more. “Wake up, Faker!” Eric hollered up to the bedroom window he thought was Nate’s. “Time to get your ass out here! Time to go lion hunting!”
There were a bunch of high-pitched laughs. Dash banged on the door with both fists. Then Jackson. Then two or three others. “Get your ass out here! Get your ass out here!” The door screamed a little bit on its hinges.
Still staring up at the bedroom window, Eric pulled out a cell phone. The cordless phone chirped in Nate’s hand. Nate answered it, quick.
“Hey, we’re here. Where are you?”
“Who is this?” swallowed Nate.
Eric scowled. “It’s Eric, Faker, did you fall back asleep?”
Nate paused. There was a kid throwing those tiny, sulphery snap-pellets at the ground. The kind you throw at the cat when you want to make it scream.
“You’ve got the wrong number,” he said, and hung up.
Eric craned his neck, confused. Nate tensed to stay still. The phone chirped again. Nate picked it up, and hung it up, before Eric could speak. The kid with the snap-pellets, and another one with something plastic under his arm (an airsoft gun?) stretched their necks around the corner, toward the back of the house.
The phone rang again. Nate let it ring twice, then picked up the call.
“What the hell’s going on, man?” said Eric, maybe louder than he’d meant to. “Let us in. It’s a hundred-and-fuck degrees out here! Hello?”
“You better go the fuck home,” said Nate, dead as air. “She’s pissed because you woke her up, like I told you she’d be. If you try to come back here now, she will rip your fucking throats out, I swear to God.”
And he ended the call.
It worked. They all milled around for a few minutes longer, looking squirmy, and spinning the wheels on their skateboards, and trying not to look too far around the other side of the house. And then Eric shouted “Psycho!” up to the window and skated off, with most of the others following him.
“They’re all gone,” Nate called out to her. “I didn’t let them past. You can come out, now. If you want.”
There was a rustle somewhere in a bigger, darker clump of trees. It might’ve been her. Or it might’ve been the wind.
That night was still. There weren’t even the regular night-noises at Nate’s window. The shadows were all stationary. He had hours to lie there, and think, and blink, and wait for it to get light outside.
The next morning, he lied there like a dead person until his mom stopped feeling his forehead and went to work. And then Nate got out of bed and went to the garage. He took two ice cream bars, and two bloody steaks from the freezer in there, and a camping lantern, and an old dirty pup tent from a big jumble of camping equipment. And then he went into his woods. Her woods.
He went further in than yesterday—to a clump of thick old broken trees he’d seen her scratch her back on before—but not too far to see the front door in case Eric and them decided to come back and hop the wall into the backyard. He set up the pup tent, and sat very still in the open flap, holding one of the steaks out so she’d smell it.
There was a rustle. He waited. Another rustle. He waited. But then it was completely still again.
“There’s no one here,” Nate told her, or the breezes. “I didn’t let them.”
There was a rustle, so far away it could have come from anywhere, so small it could have been anything, and then nothing.
And nothing, and nothing and nothing. Nate ate one ice cream, and then the other. Inside, the tent got hot, and then cold. And the steaks got hot, and then cold, and then started to stink.
Eric did come to the front door again, and he and Jackson and Dash skated up and down the sidewalk and rang the doorbell five or six times. But they didn’t shout or bang on the door. They just skated up and down, back and forth, with their eyes on the bedroom window, until Eric was satisfied that Nate wasn’t going to come out. And then they thundered away.
“They’re gone, now.” Nate told her, “and they’re never coming back. So please come out.”
When all he heard was more of that low, drawling birdsong, Nate crawled miserably into the pup tent and played on his Nintendo DS until he was almost asleep.
When his mom came home from work that evening and found him in his tent in the backyard playing video games, she told him he was obviously well enough to go to school the next day, and screamed at him for ruining two good steaks.
Nate didn’t even try to argue with her.
It was easy enough to avoid them the first part of the day. There were classes to go to, and at Nutrition, Nate just sat by himself on a bench somewhere and didn’t look at anybody. Probably Eric and all of them were giving him looks from the handball court, but that didn’t matter as long as he sat there pretending he couldn’t see them. Nobody sat next to him. Nobody talked to him. Nobody asked him any questions. He might as well have died, or never existed.
It wasn’t until hours later, at lunchtime, that Jackson finally broke Nate’s barrier of non-existence and came over to where he sat. “So what’s wrong with you, anyway?” he asked.
Nate looked up from his DS. “What’re you talking about?” he said.
Jackson blinked aggressively. “You’re full of shit,” he said. “You’re so full of shit, everybody knows it.”
“About the other day!”
Nate looked blank. Jackson’s mouth split into a combative grin. “Stupid-ass story. There’s no half-eagle, half-lion going to tear our throats out. You made that shit up. There’s nothing there.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Nate, twisting out his own smile, “that. I didn’t think you thought I was serious about that.”
“What, did I scare you or something?” Nate asked him.
“No,” he snorted. “Was that what you were trying to do, scare people?”
“I mean, did you think I was serious?”
“No one thought you were serious,” he said, caustic, and triumphant. “It was a stupid-ass story. I knew there was nothing could eat a dog.”
And he went back to the handball court, scowling and grinning. For the rest of lunchtime, Dash stared at him with a partly-opened mouth, and Eric watched him with a strange, close look, slamming the same ball over and over again on the same piece of wall.
Princess Zelda passed by him several times, so many times it had to be on purpose, smiling her smirky smile every time. But Nate had his head in the DS. He could ignore her at least until it ran out of batteries.
It was out of batteries by the time Nate made it to the bus stop. He had to stand there on the curb with nothing in his hands, staring straight and hoping that the blonde kid who looked like Eric’s older brother wasn’t Eric’s older brother. So he didn’t even see her coming. She’d been standing there not blinking at him for a crazy long time before he saw her.
“So what is wrong with you?” she asked him, cheerfully.
Nate felt like throwing something at her. “Nothing,” he said.
“I tried to bring you your homework yesterday, but you were asleep in your tent.”
“Oh,” said Nate. “Sorry.”
Princess Zelda blinked, finally. “I don’t care if you do your homework. I was trying to see if you were sick or something.”
Princess Zelda tilted her head at him so that all her pale hair waterfalled off to one side. “She’ll come back, you know,” she said.
It was a split-second too long before Nate answered. “What are you talking about?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t. She can’t come back, I made her up,” said Nate.
“She’ll come back,“ Zelda said, and went back to not blinking. Her large, light eyes were brighter up close, one a silvery kind of blue, the other a silvery kind of green.
She chewed the nail on her left pinkie finger. “Why’d you tell them about her, anyway?”
“What do you mean?” He glared at her. “Why does anyone tell anyone anything?”
“I mean, why did you tell them about her? They don’t even know what she is. Why didn’t you just tell them something else if you needed a story so bad?”
Nate sputtered, chewed his lip. “Something else like what?” he asked, finally.
She shrugged. “Tell them your dad’s a racecar driver who died in a huge car-crash. Tell them you swam with sharks and punched one in the face, just to see if you could. Tell them you saved like, five babies from a burning Baby Gap and that’s why you don’t have to pay for stuff at the mall anymore. Tell them whatever you want. But for God’s sake, Nate, don’t tell them anything that means anything. Don’t tell them anything true.”
Nate studied her face. He tried to hold her not-blinking.
“They’re not better than nothing, you know,” she finished suddenly.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told her. “No one knows what you’re talking about.”
Princess Zelda smiled at him, not her little smirky smile, but a wide, laughing one, with bright, slightly crooked teeth. “Anyway, like I said, she’ll come back. She’s still singing for you, right? That’s her I heard singing?”
And she turned and walked away toward a dry little hedge, where she would probably sit happily not talking to anyone until the bus came.
Nate watched her for a minute. And then ran all the way home.
He did not stop running until he’d reached his pup tent. But he didn’t shut himself inside. He sank to his knees in the leaves and grass, and wispy forest air.
And listened. And waited.