Dog walks around here are a little different. Flowing mountain springs, homeless tent villages, lion kills, abandoned mine shafts. Last year around this time we found a dead guy hanging from a tree. Here’s a little piece I wrote about that…
How to cut a dead guy out of a tree.
First take the dogs for a walk. Wander up the hillside above your house, past bear scat and blow downs and paw-scraped earth. You’ll find a deer path. Follow that, relieved to contour for a bit instead of climbing. You’ll pass old mines. Don’t worry – the BLM filled most of them in back in the late ‘80s. Miners wandered these hills long before you, captivated as you are by the prospect of discovery, by the prospect of a lode beneath their feet. Most fell victim to their own failed efforts.
It will become steeper. Somewhere near the moss-cloaked boulders on the shoulder of the ridge the path will falter. Doesn’t matter. When you can’t see it anymore look up. Always look up. Don’t let gravity pull you down, back to the road and cars and people and dinner on the table. Instead step up into the witches broom and dog hair pine, to the place where foxes hide their bones and wolf spiders’ eyes glint like emeralds. Oh, you’re brave. To witness this is to understand God’s most unspeakable acts. There’s sacrifice in not turning away. But there’s also sacrifice in refusing to see.
You will come to a stone with a cave beneath it. Your boots may slip on slick granite hidden beneath toupees of wet soil. Touch the stone with your hands, feel its coolness. You’ll smell the natural smell of decay in the earth at your feet. And then you’ll smell something else. You won’t be able to place it. Sweet and disgusting and earthy all at once. It’s not terrible at first. Just strange. Suddenly you’ll notice a sweatshirt on the ground—maybe the foxes carried it up here. But beside the sweatshirt a backpack, pristine and sitting just so, as if someone had dropped it from a tired shoulder. Its side pockets hold water in old 20-ounce Mountain Dew bottles.
The hairs on your neck will stand on end at this point and you will begin to think very quickly. “Could someone be watching me? Maybe the person who dropped that pack is…” And as that thought crystallizes you will see a figure just right of the pack, obscured by pine boughs and standing stock still. Hiding? No. there’s something about his form—it’s not natural, not human. Strangely you will not feel fear. You’ll move slowly past the pines and closer to the figure, like you know what you’ll find. As you push the pine boughs out of the way you’ll see his head, canted acutely. You’ll see the rope around his neck, made of blue and white nylon. You’ll marvel at his tongue, hanging like a length of knotted rope well below his chin. His eyes ragged holes in parchment. His nose nearly gone, mouth gaping so wide you see his molars and the back of his throat. This is quite literally the face of death. And you will slide into a hollow in the rock and gaze upon it. You, the emissary of living things in this cathedral of firs, are a dead man’s final vision. Alone to witness the particular, irrevocable stopping of time he experienced. Beyond the taut rope and the awkward arc of cervical vertebrae pushing against the leathered skin of his neck the town’s lights twinkle. Traffic has slowed. The sun’s final rays slide across the plains and into shadow.
There’s the business of his pants. They’re around his ankles. Underwear too. You will learn, when the detectives come, that this is because he’s “lost weight.” Animals have eaten away his crotch and inner thighs and stringy, decomposing muscle hangs loose like the frayed hems of a pair of old jeans. The rest of his body is virtually untouched. He is mummified and blackened, his skin peeling in layers and hanging like linen from his hands. He has thrown up on himself—the evidence is on his shirt. He has crapped his pants. He wears a faded blue short sleeved tee that says Motorola and hides the bloat of his belly. He has stretched to nearly eight feet, the skin on his neck drawn and pinched like the top of an onion, his feet firmly on the ground, slew footed.
Later, after detectives have taken their pictures and inspected the scene, and after the coroner’s investigator has taken her pictures and surveyed the scene, and after deputies have rummaged through his pack and found toothbrush, soap, q-tips, a change of clothes and some other very average stuff, after rescuers have slipped two body bags over him and eased a gurney into place beneath him, you will be asked to cut the rope that holds him up.
You will agree, of course, because what else is there to do? It won’t be hard. The tree to which he is tied is short—no more than 6 feet on the uphill side. You’ll borrow a knife. The coroner’s investigator would like you to wrap a piece of tape around the rope and cut through it. You will cut the rope when they say to, wondering if you’re doing it fast enough, or if by some embarrassing fluke you’ll fail to do it at all. Because you don’t want to fuck this up. There’s an audience, not just for you but for the man himself, and even in his soiled and rotting state there’s some dignity in making a success of this. When the rope slips away from the branch you’ll see that it’s left a deep furrow. A scar that will last years, until the tree has grown over it.
And after the body has disappeared on the shoulders of young, unconcerned men you’ll follow your tired dogs back down the hill, past the ponderosas and bear poop and glinting spider eyes and into the dunn-colored fields of your own land, so close, and to the front door and your waiting wife. And she will see in your eyes that you know how to cut a dead guy out of a tree.