On the first night of vacation I see a human silhouette out the cabin window — a horror film come true. Should I run for the pistol or call for help? Midway through phoning the authorities my wife stops me, waving a plastic card. “Let him be,” she says. “Remember my mother’s gift? I used it.” Decent Exposure, the tag reads. One-use gift card.
Oh, yes, I remember. I avoid her mother’s presents as a general rule of thumb but my wife, it turns out, can thwart my diligent distrust of the old woman quite easily. The back of the gift card explains: Send an address. We bring nature to your doorstep. I’ve seen the advertisements. Creepy freelance people roleplay in your yard as “nature” for money, calling themselves Loraxes.
My wife and I argue. She declares that we’re spending the weekend in a Quonset hut on a tree farm, the nearest thing remaining to nature. Never a better time to employ this Lorax. I contend that I never wanted to use it and now a mysterious man will lurk in the cedar grove for the entirety of my weekend getaway.
The battle is won by someone. Doesn’t matter who.
On the porch we sip cola mixed with whiskey as a summery treat. The crop lines of trees gather darkness in their branches and we hear our Lorax whooping solemn trios, a sound folding like velvet into the sky. “An owl,” breathes my wife. I plant my lips on her forehead because the human hoots do beautify the empty air. The trimmed branches scrape and rattle like maracas.
The next morning, we strike out for a hike along geometric farm trails and find a snake draped across the path, a real snake. My wife pets this docile serpent and we continue on our way to discover a jackrabbit munching on a trail of raisins. Though socialized by the Lorax, the fluffy hare clearly lives in fear, quivering at every whistle of leaf in the breeze as it tracks the treats.
My wife suggests we follow it. While doing so, we breathe in a complex wilderness medley — petrichor, Queen Anne’s lace, musky ladybug — each wafting from wax candles along the path. “These scents combined,” my wife says, “relax me, drain my stress. How can they do that?” Fake bird calls trill out from hidden glades. I catch glimpses of the Lorax through trunk slats: torn pants, a bucket hat, a wide grin.
The raisin trail loops the hare back to the entrance of the grove. We realize the tame snake has waited for us. Twitching its nose, our hare smells danger but cannot locate it — the serpent spoors in the air like a reed, drawing closer. When the reptile strikes I see only a dusty ball of coiled ribs, kicking paws, and basketball skin. My wife screams. The hare goes slack, not dead but giving up with bleak black eyes.
Back at the cabin, my wife gushes while I brood. “Imagine those battles happening everywhere like the old days. It would give us perspective! Did you see how the rabbit submitted so gratefully at the end? Death was a relief after years of anxiety, but he only understood how tired he was of life seconds before croaking. And the constrictor… he embraced his prey, appreciating every whit of flesh soon to be transfigured into his own muscle.”
Personally, I find predation disturbing, not quaint. We argue again. I want the Lorax to leave. This horrid spectacle reeks of a plot by my wife’s bitter mother to frighten me from the nursing home. That old crone never got over the place’s business slogan — We treat our customers like our mothers: we put them in nursing homes! My wife tells me to enjoy the rest of the day in solitude and departs in a huff. I finish my dinner of hard-boiled eggs, swarmed with pellucid flies released from jars by the Lorax. The bastard works overtime.
By nighttime I begin to worry. Lorax shrieks echo in the dark (a fox?), but I can’t find his shape against the horizon — still, I feel his stare. I’m beginning to suspect his idea of the outdoors does not cater to my comfort. It takes too long for me to realize the shrieks are contrapuntal: two voices, two humans howling together. Delirious, I grab the .45 before charging into mazy curlicue trunks. Has he kidnapped her, harmed her? Has she eloped with him? I hurdle down agricultural scarps toward the sound until I’m inches from it.
Here sits the Lorax’s parked jalopy. In the backseat I see rows of creatures in luxurious enclosures. Porcupines, box turtles, bushy skunks, even the snake from earlier, bulging at the belly with mucilaginous bunny but still managing to mate with another of its kind. They wind and twirl in the caduceus, a strangely intimate thing.
“Welcome!” cries my wife. I spin with the gun. She whisks in the shadows, painting a landscape with her fingers on a formation of cedars. “The Lorax gave me paint. This is how we become wild, do you see? We make an impact on this place the same way as cave people. We belong here. Art.”
The Lorax comes hurtling out with brushes and a palette, as if he hasn’t ruined my vacation and shattered my peace. I point the pistol. “You’re my enemy,” I hiss. Yet his eyes glow with a lunar calm, peaceful as the dying jackrabbit.
“Unless,” he says.
He motions, suggesting a brush, something to make my own little mark on mother earth, to become part of the scene, to be digested in a complex network. Like maybe wilderness is not only for relaxation or meditation or sights and smells or vacation; it’s for offering up oneself. “Unless you help me.”
James Cato writes with a turtle by his side and his novel, Litter of the Waste, is in orbit. He has previous publications in The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, Litro, Atticus Review, The Colored Lens, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction.