The mosquitoes would be thick this year. I knew this because the old man in the gas station at the base of the mountain smacked his gums and drawled through an explanation of the fact that temperatures and rainfall averages throughout the season didn’t matter at all compared to the tingling of his nostrils. On clear nights he would walk outside and face westward. The tingling he felt in his left nostril was directly proportional to the amount of mosquitoes spawning in the surrounding area. The tingling in his right nostril told him how big they would be. Generally I’m disinclined to believe in such unconventional ways of foretelling nature experiences, except for the fact that I get arthritic in the joints that I’ve broken before when there’s a storm out over the ocean where I live. I don’t know how that old man deals with tingling nostrils every spring and summer, because my wrist and fingers drive me crotchety even though I’m in my 20s. I guess you’d learn how to deal. And then buy mosquito repellant accordingly.
The dock I stood on stretched out about 30 feet into Posey Lake. Even the 30 feet couldn’t save me from the swarms of mosquitoes descending on my bare arms. These are the kind of mosquitoes that will bite you right in the ass if you peel off your clothes to take a piss in the forest. They’re the kind you think might be some other species of bug because they’re so huge. But you can’t mistake the bite, that delayed sting and the nagging burning itch. I hate mosquitoes. I wanted to jump into the lake. Instead, I stood there, hands on hips, watching the clouds swirling over the lake like water circling a drain. The lake sits in a depression on the side of a mountain, surrounded on two and a half sides by much higher ridges. During monsoon season the wind hits the ridges just the right way and stirs the clouds. It can be menacing. But tonight it was beautiful. I’m a city girl, but I knew that there would be about 45 minutes of good light left. Time to pitch a tent.
I ambled back toward our site after my survey of the lake. For all appearances the campsite was empty, and even the camp host’s vehicles were gone, so I assumed that tonight was the night the couple went back down into town for a nice dinner and some supplies. The same couple had been hosting the small campsite for years, and I remember coming up to this site as a kid when I was 5. Posey was a great lake for fishing because it was large enough to find some great fish, but not big enough for water sports or too many people to spoil the serenity of the water. There were trails around the perimeter, and even a hike up to the watchtower above the lake. That hike is pretty short, about a mile, but it’s up and down the side of the ridge. For people with asthma like me it’s a killer hike. Especially if, like me, you happen to be shapefully less than in-shape. It was almost strange that there was no one there to enjoy the hiking and fishing and scenery.
I was camping with my crazy Uncle Steve from my mom’s side, along with my cousin Kendall, his daughter, my dad, and my sister Rachel. Everyone else was down the mountain at my grandma and grandpa’s house. We usually only came up for some day fishing. Sometimes we came to camp for a few nights at most. We had claimed the best site in the camp. It was a slightly bigger clearing up near a shortcut to the watchtower hike trailhead, right on the edge of a steep incline that led down to the lakeside trail. Usually a bunch of out-of-town hick men got to it first and set up camp with a big roaring fire and lots of beer. I never liked walking by them because they jeered at anything female with two legs, old, young, skinny, fat, whatever. I guess they’ll take what they can get in the woods.
At our site my uncle had the tent inside out looking like a nylon-polyester blend shish kabob. Uncle Steve was the nut in the family. It started with him being the only son in my mother’s side of the family. He never really grew up. He got married, had a daughter, and then got divorced and re-socialized as a 30 year old adolescent. Always drinking and smoking and playing cards, always doing something a little wacky, always telling ridiculous scary campfire stories… that was my uncle. His favorite campfire stories were about the Chupacabre and Hatchet Woman. I couldn’t figure out how he could have shish kabobed his own tent, especially since I consider him more of the mountain man, self-sufficient type, but my sister and Kendall were busy trying to turn it right side in. He started reinforcing the fire pit with his shovel.
I lent my helping hand by grabbing the hammer to drive the tent pegs into the ground. The ground is unpredictable on the mountain. In clearings it can be soft, silty even, like a softer version of sand. It’s hell to drive a truck or car anywhere near that silty ground because the tires lose traction and sink up to the axle, usually involving a lot of sweat and innovation to rescue yourself. Unless you want to wait for a friendly but unsightly hickish man with a winch on his truck to drag your vehicle out. If that silt got wet it turned into a slippery deep red mud, the blood of the earth, sucking at the tires and staining everything it touched. I can’t tell you how many pairs of my white socks are now permanently dirty red. Sometimes the ground is hard and rocky. Sometimes it’s the dense kind of hard, where rain has continually pounded the soil until the only thing that grows is the sparse, coarse grass and weed that can gain purchase. Sometimes you really need a strong arm and a hammer to sink the tent pegs into the ground. My sister and cousin situated the tent and looked at me expectantly.
In the fading light, the ground in the site looked like it had been recently churned. Maybe the latest occupants had aerated the place to make it softer to sleep on. Maybe a bear had brought its cubs to daycare here. It didn’t matter to me as long as I didn’t look like an idiot trying to drive the peg in. At least they weren’t plastic pegs, the kind that bend and split and never really dig deeply enough to fortify the tent against wind, weather, and Uncle Steve. I aligned the first peg at an angle and started tapping the hammer against its head. The earth gradually dulled the clinking until the peg was far enough in to hold down the tent. I moved a few feet over and angled the next peg. It was cold against my palm.
Suddenly my uncle staggered back from the fire pit with a strangled yelp. He was doing some kind of dance that I associated with gross buffoonery, as if he had shoveled his foot. My father was hopping toward the circle of stones hunched with interest. Men.
I chuckled to myself and tapped the peg. It dully clanked, but didn’t break through the earth. I tapped it harder, and again it clanked. I made a frustrated grumble and my sister and cousin leaned over to watch me give the peg a square hit. It made a thunking sound and sunk into the earth with an audible squish. Immediately a thick dark fluid surged out around the head of the peg and spilled onto the ground, gleaming in the light that was slowly disappearing over the western ridge. I jerked my hand back in horror and made a gagging noise in my throat as uncle Steve yelled something garbled. Kendall and my sister stuttered “Wha what is that?” It was blood. I stabbed the earth and it bled onto my hand.
“It’s a friggin’ skull! It’s a friggin’ human skull!”
A flurry of movement by the fire.
“There’s blood over here, I think she stabbed a body!”
My sister’s wide eyes and tense hand gestures.
“It’s a friggin’ skull in the fire pit, oh god, it’s got some of the scalp still…”
My dad with a hand over half his contorted mouth.
“Where the tent peg is, it squirted out blood, there’s gotta be a body in the dirt…”
My cousin retched loudly in a bush near the entrance of our campsite.
I felt a rushing in my ears, and for a moment became very acutely aware of every detail of our campsite. A beer was perched precariously in one of the indentations of the tailgate on the Jimmy, which was down and holding the red cooler. The fishing poles were leaning against the right side of the tailgate. One fishhook was caught in the upholstery of the spare tire cover. My father had abandoned the bag holding the utensils at Uncle Steve’s initial outburst, and it rested lumpily against the left tire. Except for the sounds of revulsion coming from our camping party, a hush folded thickly over the clearing as all of the birds and little animals recoiled in horror along with us at the gruesome discovery. The mountain held its breath.