The night was a hot mouth that had closed around us, unseen molars to come down on us and a tongue to fling us into oblivion.
It was Em and I in our tent, and acres of damp blackness in every direction.
“What was that?” Em asked, and she froze, and I froze, and I could feel her body beside mine, a living thing among living things, and I wasn’t sure what was beyond it.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said.
And then there was a rustling again, and Em wrapped her cold hand around my waist and pulled me close to her.
I blinked, but I couldn’t see anything, and blinked again to make sure my eyes were open.
“It’s probably just a squirrel or something.”
“It sounds bigger than a squirrel.”
“A racoon then.”
The forest was breathing, and we were breathing, and I tried to remain calm.
Em and I had been living in our bus for over a month now, and that day we hiked 14km into the heart of Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia.
It had been a beautiful hike, lush forests and the feeling of using of bodies to haul everything we would need in the wilderness for three nights and four days. We stopped and picked blueberries along the way, and talked about the people we’d become, strong people, adventurous people, the people we always wanted to be, but didn’t realize until then.
Only now, night was on every side of us, and it was hard to feel the way we had in the daylight.
A branch broke and maybe there were footsteps, and maybe there was nothing.
“Maybe it’s two racoons, or a porcupine,” I said, and I checked my phone, but there was still no service that far into the woods.
“Those were definitely footsteps,” Em said.
“A deer then. It’s a deer just going home to its den.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Here.” I flicked on our flashlight and opened the tent. The zipper was too loud, and the darkness poured in, blackness like a hand over an open mouth, and our little light couldn’t reach the end of it.
I pulled back in and closed the tent.
“What was out there?” Em asked.
“Nothing.” My blood felt thick like the darkness outside had gotten in and was clogging up my veins.
“It’s fine,” I said, but I didn’t sound as convincing as I wanted to.
I lay back down on my sleep pad, and Em did too. I listened to the stream we were camped by, and then the wind maybe with a voice on it, and then came the coyotes.
I felt Em’s body stiffen beside me.
“Their voices carry,” I said. “They’re probably miles away.”
Only their call came again, closer this time, and maybe there were footsteps outside our tent again, something that had been hiding in the shadows waiting for us to sleep.
“We know you’re out there,” Em called.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I have a knife,” she said loud, and then she turned to me.
“What if it’s a person?” she whispered.
“It’s not a person.”
“It could be. It could be someone who lives in the forest, waiting with an axe to cut us up.”
“You think a knife will help then?”
“I have a gun, too,” Em said, loud again. “I’m a trained sharpshooter.”
We waited, and the coyotes came again, heavy breaths outside out tent, the wind, the violence of the darkness and the dangers tucked inside of it.
“It’s just amazing,” I’d said that afternoon. “We can walk 14km into the woods and not see another person the entire time.”
It had seemed like a pilgrimage, some ancient sojourn back to our ancestors, two-hundred-thousand years of homo sapiens surviving in the wilds and the connections they had with nature and the world around them.
We had followed streams and gathered food, and now we would die like our ancestors, too, overcome by the wilds and with no one around to hear us scream.
There were more footsteps, louder this time, and the coyote’s howl and the call of the wind.
“It could be a cult,” Em said. “A group of forest people, looking for human sacrifice.”
“It’s not a cult,” I told her, but maybe I heard chanting, far, far away but coming closer.
“Do you think we can fight them off?” Em asked.
“What do we do then?”
I was quiet and she was quiet. The coyotes and the pounding of footsteps.
“This isn’t the seventies,” I said. “There aren’t cults anymore.”
But Em didn’t seem sure. I heard the swish of her sleeping bag as she settled and resettled, and I repeated to myself that these things didn’t happen in 2019.
We had the internet, and it was a golden age in television. People had better things to do than cut up strangers in the wilderness as a ritualistic sacrifice to the goddess of fertility. Who even went into the wilderness these days anymore anyway?
Only Em and I were both there, staring into the blind eyes of the night, and maybe those coyotes weren’t coyotes but people, enchanted with the need for human blood.
“I’m not a virgin,” I shouted, in case that helped. “I really slutted it up in university, so you’ll have to go somewhere else if you want a pure sacrifice.”
“She’s right,” Em added into the blackness. “We’re probably both full of diseases.”
“It’s true. I get raging cold sores all winter.”
“Big ones full of puss,” Em added. “It’s disgusting.”
“Hey,” I said.
She shifted and kept going.
“And we’ve mostly been eating chickpeas,” Em called out. “So if you were planning on eating us, our meat’s probably all stringy and not very tender.”
“Yeah, two scrawny vegan humans. You’d probably burn more calories killing us than eating us.”
“Not to mention the gas,” Em said. “I’m close to raging diarrhea at all times.”
“That, and we haven’t showered in almost a week.”
“And I think I peed on my sock when I went pee before.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Just a little,” Em said.
She laughed, and I laughed, too.
“That’s right,” Em shouted. “Stay away from us before you catch something nasty.”
“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross,” I started chanting, and Em joined in. Our voices filling up the blackness and pushing it back.
“I have a weird mole on my neck!” I shouted. “And my toe kind of bends to the side.”
We went on like that for an hour maybe, proclaiming to the darkness everything that was wrong with, and using it as our power.
“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross.”
We were alone with the untamable night in every direction, but we were untamable, too, our blood hot and some memory wildness, our feral ancestors calling out into the blackness, the light of unnamed stars and feeling of being alive with everything else alive.
“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross,” we called again and again.
Our voices and the voices of coyotes joining together and calling up to the heavens.