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Dean Koontz

WILDERNESS

1

My mother claimed that in any mirror I had used, she could see my face rather than her own, my face and my singular eyes, and she could not thereafter have the mirror in the house. She shattered it and swept up the pieces without daring to look at them, because she said that somehow every shard contained a full image of my face, not merely a portion of it. She could hardly tolerate the sight of me even occasionally, and she most often looked past me or at something else altogether when we were in conversation. Consequently, seeing my countenance replicated in a multitude of jagged fragments of silver-backed glass, she nearly came undone.

Although my mother drank and used some drugs, I believed she told the truth about the mirrors. She never lied to me, and in her troubled way she loved me. Because of her beauty, I thought that she, perhaps more than some other women, must have been anguished to have brought into the world someone of my appearance.

Encircled by a vast forest, we lived in a cozy house at the end of a long dirt road, miles from the nearest neighbor. By some means she would never discuss, she’d made all the money that she would need for a lifetime, though in acquiring it, she had also acquired enemies who would have found her had she taken refuge anywhere but in a place as remote as that where she had settled.

My father had been a romantic who loved the idea of love more than he loved her. Restless and certain that somewhere he would find the ideal for which he yearned, he left before I was born. Mother named me Addison. I share her last name, which is Goodheart.

On the night of my birth, which followed a difficult labor, a midwife named Adelaide delivered me in Mother’s bedroom. Adelaide was a good country woman and God-fearing, but at the sight of me, she would have smothered me or broken my neck if Mother hadn’t been able to draw a pistol from a nightstand drawer. Perhaps because she worried about an attempted-murder charge or because fear motivated her to escape that house under any terms, the midwife swore never to speak of me and never to return. As far as the world was concerned, I was born dead.

I could use only the mirror in my small room, a full-length looking glass on the back of my closet door. Occasionally I stood before it to study myself, though less often as the years went by. I couldn’t change my appearance or begin to understand what I might be, and time spent in self-consideration gained me nothing.

As I grew older, my mother found herself less able to tolerate my presence, and I was denied the house for days at a time. She was a woman of hard experience, as tough as she was lovely, and until I came along, she’d been as fearless as anyone could be without being foolish or reckless. She detested her inability to adapt fully to my presence, her failure to control the anxiety that she could relieve only by banning me from the house now and then.

Soon after sunrise on a day in October, a few weeks after my eighth birthday, she said, “It’s so wrong, Addison, and I despise myself for it, but you’ve got to get out, or I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe for just a day, maybe two, I don’t know. I’ll put the flag out when it’s okay for you to come back in the house. But right now I don’t want you near me!”

For a flag she used a dish towel hung from a hook on a porch post. Whenever I was banned from the house, I checked every morning and again in the late afternoon to see if the flag had been hung, and every time that I saw it, I was elated. For me, at least, loneliness was a terrible hardship, even though it was the basic condition of my existence.

When not permitted in the house—which included the porch—I slept in the yard if the weather was warm. In winter, I slept in the ramshackle garage, either on the backseat of her Ford Explorer or on the floor in a comfortable sleeping bag. Each day she left food for me in a picnic hamper, and I did not want for anything except what mattered most—companionship.

By my eighth birthday, I had spent so much time roaming the forest that it was as much a home to me as the house. Nothing in nature’s greenwood feared me or was repelled merely by the sight of me. Because I had no memory of the midwife, I had never seen a human being other than my mother, and she had impressed upon me that such an encounter would almost surely result in my death. But what traveled on wings or four feet did not judge me. Furthermore, I possessed considerable strength for my age, and quickness, and at all times an intuitive sense of where I was in the woods and of how best to navigate there. I wore hiking boots and blue jeans and a flannel shirt, and in one pocket I carried a Swiss Army knife with numerous tools. I was eight but older than eight in many ways, a boy but not a boy like any other.

The most beautiful works of humanity, which I had seen in books of photography, were not as bewitching as any mixed hardwood forest. Oaks and maples and birches and cherry. And there were alders, the humble tree that even experienced woodsmen often fail to notice, so hardy that half the city of Venice, Italy, is still supported by alder piles that have withstood the ceaseless action of the sea for centuries. Wild acacia blooming red in summer. Wake-robin with its enormous white flowers. And all the graceful ferns, holly fern and licorice fern and daintily cut pulcherrimum and ostrich ferns with their fronds arranged like shuttlecocks. Because my mother loved nature and had a library of reference books, I knew the names of things. I loved the forest, and on that early October day, banished from the house, I took refuge in the wilderness, which at that time of year stood ablaze with autumn color.

More than a mile from the house, I came to a favorite place, a formation of limestone sculpted by millennia of weather into soft flowing forms that made it appear to be melting. Perhaps forty feet in diameter, the mass was cored through here and there with natural flute holes leading to hollows within, some of which could be accessed through openings around the base. When the wind was strong enough and blew from the north, it made a worthy instrument of the limestone and piped from it the most haunting sounds.

I sat on the highest point, seven feet above the forest floor, and offered myself to the sun, which slanted through the overhanging trees in warm golden shafts. The resplendent woods were filled with nearly as much birdsong as color, mostly juncos and orioles, but the hairstreak butterflies that had dazzled with their blue wings were gone with the summer. I mourned the summer that autumn had recently dispatched, for soon the forest would be less welcoming, and many creatures would grow less active or migrate farther south—or die.

When the wolf appeared, I was not surprised, for I had seen a few before, whidding through the trees, so silent that they might have been ghosts of wolves long gone. For years, these mountains had been purged of wolves by people who misunderstood them and wrongly supposed they were a threat to human beings, but they were returning now, as shy as they were magnificent.

Wolves rarely will make eye contact, for they are highly social animals who understand that a direct stare can be a challenge. Their tendency to study other creatures indirectly has been misinterpreted as sly cunning. This one, a large male, emerged from the gracefully arcing fronds of a mass of ferns, almost as if materializing from a spray of green scarves cast down by a magician. He stood before the stone on which I sat and stared up at me, making eye contact for a moment before lowering his gaze submissively.

We didn’t fear each other. And as I would learn in the years to come, I would be in far greater danger in the presence of people than I would be alone in the woods with a wolf.

I rose to my feet and peered down at him. He looked directly at me again, and then away. Because I had no one else to talk with, I spoke to him. And why not? The least strange thing about me might be that I talked to animals in the absence of human company. “What do you want?”

He circled the stone formation, sniffing the air, staring off into the woods, ears pricked forward. Abruptly, as he faced east, the fur bristled along the back of his neck. He whined with distress and tucked his tail and looked at me and whined again and sprinted due west, into the brush and gone. If he had possessed a voice, he could not have expressed more clearly that a threat approached from the east. He seemed to have sought me out merely to warn me.

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