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Fritz was barking quite a bit, the sound jumping back to me around cracked tree trunks and pushed back down to the forest floor by the overgrown canopy above. I usually didn’t let him get that far ahead of me, but I had become distracted looking at a plant I had never seen before. As I rose up, my camera, which was on a neck strap, fell back against my chest, heavy with pictures. There were probably far too many pictures on it, every angle of a recent subject documented as if I were going to publish in a professional forum, with notes and scholarly words and opinions presented alongside. Certainly I had no scholarly opinion, but I thought some of these pictures would turn out nicely, perhaps one even garnering a publication on some website. It had been a dream, after all, to publish something. Pictures, a story… I was handy in all of them, but didn’t excel in any. The plant I had become fascinated with was a very striking flower, its petals forming a face, almost. Getting lost in this remarkable plant via a camera lens, however, had caused me to momentarily lose track of Fritz. Fritz was a Dachshund, somewhat larger and smarter than the typical miniature beast, and typical for his breed in being among the first to raise an alarm if something with eight arms and five eyes was trying to crawl through the window, as long as such a thing didn’t actually MAKE it through the window, or even, perhaps, look at him. He seemed to have a good sense of the world, a sense of what made him happy go lucky and fun, and a sense of what I wanted, so he was a good companion, all things considered in his seventh year of being man’s best friend to me. So I didn’t necessarily become alarmed at his barking. Still, these were big woods for a little dog. Stretching out of my squatting position, I whistled. Waiting for a response, and hearing one, my eyes scrunched tighter trying to determine the direction that he had gone. His barking was seemingly off the trail, so, walking in that general direction, I left the path and slipped into the woods. Trees grew wide in girth here, wide enough that two people could reach around arm
to arm in a circle and be lucky to touch hands. Although they were not close together, they were frequent enough so that eventually they blocked my view in any one direction, no matter which way I looked. Of course, Fritz would be low to the ground anyway, but the May Apples were also out and provided a cover for anything Fritz’s size. It wouldn’t be easy to spot him from a distance and I began to feel a bit stumped. A colder spring breeze blew up from the river, against my back. The smell of damp earth and fresh vegetation that it brought was intoxicating. Breathing deeply, I pushed on. “Fritz!” I listened. I heard nothing but whispers of the wind through the trees, rattling the leaves above and coaxing some hushing response out of them. “Hey, Fritz! Come here, boy!” His barking started again, now becoming insistent, and seemingly in response to me. He, at least, now sounded stationary, and there wasn’t anything snarling back. So as long as I could continue to hear him I felt I would eventually find him and there was no need for rashness. Pushing through the woods around some trees heartened me as the barking seemed to become closer. Thankful for having worn long pants to protect against things that scratched, made you itch, or bit, my eyes searched for any hint of the dog, whether it be him or plants moving from his running underneath. However, no hint yet presented itself. Wiping my forehead with the back of my hand I pushed on. I must have turned in the woods, at some point completely rounding the trees perhaps, since I suddenly reached the path again. With the barking now to my left, I followed the path, relief beginning to settle in as the barking was clearly closer. Walking through irregular slots of mottled yellow sun coming through the dark green canopy above me, I reached a curve in the path and stopped. There, ahead of me, was Fritz. Barking as he held his ground, his legs rigidly planted against the earth beneath him and his tail straight up, he was within a foot of a human body lying face down on the path. Bringing myself out of a sudden trance from the shock of seeing this, I ran to the figure, shushing Fritz as I rushed by him.
My Scout training set in, just in time, and I resisted immediately turning the body over. I paused next to Fritz and scanned the area. There were no animals or signs of a struggle or danger. Looking closely at the body, there wasn’t blood pooling, stains, or obvious broken bones. My heart raced, thinking what should be done next. “Hey man, are you okay?” As I said this I moved to the other side of the body. Not hearing a response, my face lowered to the ground, trying to look at the stranger’s face. However, the body was face down, planted nose first, almost, in the dirt, shrouded by the grass and weeds at the side of the path. I could not see anything of the face. Screwing up courage, and wondering if this was the proper response, I touched his neck but I felt no pulse. With a hand on the body’s back, I opened my palm with fingers spread apart and gently pressed down to see if I could feel any breathing. Feeling none, I felt I needed to flip the body over, but was unsure how to do this without damaging the neck. Trying to hold his head steady with one hand I pushed the body over with my other. Fritz backed out of the way as the body came to a rest on the trail. “What the…?” I yelled, jumping back, adrenaline jerking me and causing me to land on my seat in the weeds on the other side of the trail. I sat there, unsettled, for long moments, and stared. The face on the body, lying on the ground on the other side of the path, was mine. Lifeless. But quite obviously me. I had no twin, and it was wearing the clothes I wore. It was me, and I was dead, over there, across the path. I looked up to the sky, at least what could be seen of it through the canopy. Suddenly, the woods were more than quiet, without call of bird or rush of wind, completely empty like a vacuum, and seemingly larger than they had been twenty minutes before as the air was sucked out of me. Looking back up and down the trail revealed no other people, leaving me even more alone, although I was unsure if this was a comfort or not. I shook my head, rose, stood looking at me. No training, scout, religious, or otherwise, prepared me for this. I decided, however, that whatever I thought could be sorted out later and I would be best to treat this as another person, which it oddly could still be, though I didn’t believe that for a second. Not really. Bending down I began to pound on my other chest, eventually pushing two-handed in an attempt to get the heart going, to get the breath working again. Minutes passed, and more minutes,
until I realized I had given up and laid my head on the other chest, facing into the woods. Staring blindly, until my vision came back into focus. On the ground nearby, smashed where my face had been, I saw the plant I had been photographing moments before, white petals now living their pure beauty in a face that seemed more radiant than before. Then I noticed it, a yellowish pollen left behind on my other face as my eyes focused closer. What had I sniffed? It was too late for regret, but I still had it. Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice in my head telling me to leave things which you don’t know about alone. No need to find out some things, she said. You can get along fine in life without certain knowledge. A bit late now for the remembered warning, I thought to myself, maybe even AT myself. Lifting my head and taking a deep breath, Fritz came into view, no longer barking, but not wagging his tail, either. Backing up a bit, his ears were pinned down and he gave me a careful look and an even more careful sniff. “Hey, Fritz!” Tentative. He did not respond. I stood up. “Fritzie!” I moved around and over to the dog. “It’s me, boy. Do you know me?” I waited as he sniffed the air, looking at me, but was he seeing me? Or was he looking at the spot where I thought I stood? Reaching down and petting him made his tail wag which made me want to cry. Relief swept through me. As I stood, ridiculously trying to “man up” and get a grip on this situation, a light rain began to fall. My head craned back, looking up into the rain, but no tears would come to mix with the soft water falling through the canopy onto me. Evidently the dead cannot cry. My hands flexed at my sides, in rhythm to the swaying of tree limbs above. I ran through the things I would never have. Wife, kids, a legacy. The places I would never visit. The secrets of life never to be revealed to me…but then I thought, Wait! The world is still out there for me, and somehow, I am still in it. My dog knew me. I could see the trees, the path… somehow... Looking down, taking a deep breath, I asked “Are you still with me, Fritz?” He chuffed, took a step forward, wagging his tail, then stepped back. His eyes and ears were big and inquisitive. Satisfied that something about him said “yes” to me, that he was with me, I nodded. “Excellent. I think we should get out of
here, my friend.” Fritz cocked his head in my direction, and as I walked past him I patted my leg. He sniffed at me as I passed, satisfied it was me, and followed me down the path. As long as I wasn’t that eight-legged monster to Fritz, I would figure this out.
© 2012, The Jotter