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Tree Line, Matt McGuirk

Our house sits in the middle of a cleared lot with tree lines that creep up. Shadows wave as the sun rises behind a stand of maples to the east and descend toward the house with the shifting sunset behind great pine branches. Night casts them all darker cutouts on the black backdrop. The revs of engines to climb the inclined dirt road don’t break the silence of the clearing or the woods beyond frequently. The night’s rife with silence beaten back only by an owl with yellow eyes, whose voice caroms towards the house or the inconsistent nights of howling from coyotes edging somewhere in that tree line, but always feeling like they’ve come to that clearing. The frayed cloth of moonlight slits through the trees, but the light doesn’t capture howling bodies and floodlights that were on our previous house aren’t on this one, making the darkness more of an entity than it ever was in the old house.

A single yip cuts the silence of sleep. Ellie, our French Bulldog, needs to go out, an inconvenience at two in the morning. My eyes linger between sleep and the bark until I hear a second one. The heat from the wood stove has burnt off and the house lingers between the normal, sometimes oppressive heat and that moment where the thermostat sends the signal to ratchet up the heat because the house is getting too cold. The room is dark, the moon hidden behind a wash of early March clouds.

I meet her at the backdoor and see that dark world through the beveled glass. I hook her to her leash and flip the small light that illuminates a circle in that darkness. She pulls me out the door and the early spring breeze sets pricks of hair to attention on my arms and makes her whimper a little. She steps down off the steps and noses her way along where snow used to coat the ground and has now been replaced by a melted sheet of ice that has frozen back over after darkness descended. Two in the morning always feels like the worst time to wake up; sleep hasn’t run a full cycle; the alarm is set for two hours from now and it always feels like eyes. Eyes along that tree line, or eyes just outside that semicircle of light, or eyes from under the porch waiting for Ellie to step close enough to the opening to give those eyes room to reveal teeth.

You’re there, along that wood line. You’re there with raised fur, ready to show us this is your territory not ours, that the tree line belongs closer to the house or the house belongs nowhere near the tree line. The warm breaths that slip from your mouth through those sharp teeth fog the air. Your heart beats as your feet carry you closer, knowing your body is hidden from the light, but also knowing the eyes on that porch are scanning the area, feeling your presence as you move closer and closer. The light is warm, that small semicircle cast off the porch and you realize the man and dog shiver against this wind, but you’re used to the wind and used to the darkness; the darkness is a comfort, camouflage in that night. Your feet are steady against a slick surface and your teeth are sharp with meals pulled from bones and carcasses. The footsteps overhead don’t alarm you, the padding of a dog or the heavier footsteps of a man, you’re used to this and know the spot well. There’s a warmth under the porch, a warmth against that wind and that light. Darkness keeps you hidden, but somehow you feel the man is nervous, how does he know. He must not know you’re under that porch, breathing grey bubbles against the cold March night. The heart beats in your chest and your mind races, but you are calm. You know the taste of flesh and know the dog would be an easy meal, but wonder what the man would taste like on a night like tonight. Would he put up the fight that so much of the prey you hunt could not, is that what you want?

I feel the steady breaths from under my feet and the nerves edge up the back of my neck, my heart beats too fast and my mind is too alert. The night is dark and the small wash of light is brushed off with little effort by the darkness. I imagine the nose running along the underside of the two by fours and know the teeth are out. I wait for Ellie to finish and she bolts up the stairs knowing we both need to get back in the door. I put my hand on the handle and pull the screen door, needing to take a step back in order to let it open. For a moment I teeter on my heels feeling hot breath and sharp teeth. My peripherals know they see a shadow against that light, or a paw emerging from under the porch.

The screen door clacks in the early morning and the tree line is closer than it was before. It’s a secluded clearing full of light and dark, quiet and loud and teeth and eyes.


Matt McGuirk teaches and lives with his family in New Hampshire. BOTN 2021 nominee with words in various lit mags and a debut collection with Alien Buddha Press called Daydreams, Obsessions, Realities available on Amazon and linked on his website.

Website: Twitter: @McguirkMatthew Instagram: @mcguirk_matthew.

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