The Back Mile

The Back Mile

Posted on Posted in Short Story, Uncategorized

An unhinged scientist hungers for reason. But reason provides strange nutriment. Want to hazard your own moral sanity?

Read how they feed.




The Back Mile

by Nate Slade


Hunter’s tawny curls blew in the gentle evening breeze as he proceeded down the gravel road. The familiar light of a red sunset painted his skin with rust. Only the rust was deeper this evening, and the road seemed new and perilous.

Hunter paused.

He stretched his frame and the jaunty angles of his bones popped out in stark relief against the soil at his feet, which danced as with shadows of the many skins he’d stretched over different frames.

Hunter was a scientist, specifically an osteologist, but he’d left urban sprawl behind to strew traps throughout the quieter quarters of Northern Minnesota. He hadn’t bothered to purchase much more than a couple back forties abutting a nameless wooded lane. In truth, he was more attracted to the seller than the sold, and he hadn’t yet known what he was going to do with himself when he—or, rather, “Roth Frode”—made the purchase. So, he mostly trapped public land, his own not being enough to live by.

Hunter continued.

Trapping was hard work, and he didn’t have time much for thinking while he earned his keep. So evenings were reserved for that: working out the kinks in his legs and just what he thought about everything.

Hunter picked up his pace.

Walking this road had the same effect on just what he thought as a grader has on the very road he was walking: it gets things on the level, but, boy, it sure gets them rough and soft, like the earthy counterparts of a spoiled carcass.

Guess bad ideas make good soil, too.

Sometimes the county takes forever to come maintain the back mile, but that makes the treatment all the more appreciated. And Hunter felt much obliged that he’d finally gotten some work done. The last few evenings made a good deal of fertilizer.

It all started when he accidentally licked his fingers after skinning some coons; the blood reminded him of sunset, and the way their bones jutted through the meat, well, it just struck him as beautiful. Not least, they also called to mind his lovely collection of skeletons, some human.

Once a bone man, always a bone man.

Alas, his collection was like the country beauty at end of the lane, perfect in outline, but a little flabby around the middle.

Fact is, my collection’s actually a little spare around the middle.

(Might be that they could both improve now that she’d sold him the land.)

Anyhow, Hunter got to thinking about values. Who’s actually established that the sunset is nice, but the bones aren’t, say, once you brush off the flies? No one! Not in any journal he’d ever read, anyway. Who’s to say, then, that there is any more beauty in a sunset than there is in the dark recesses of life’s flesh, e.g., where bones hide?

No evidence, no precedence.

Then Hunter really got to thinking; he’d out the truth like he had so many white trinkets over the years.

Who’s to say there is any genuine beauty at all? Bones are facts. Sunsets are facts (even though you can’t pick them up and arrange them however you please; you could maybe even taste them, however, if you licked your fingertips at an “inappropriate” time). Beauty isn’t in them any more than flesh is in the bone—less so, in fact, because bones at least have marrow.

“Ahyuk,” he laughed.

Later, Hunter set his trapper-pack down and he could taste something like blood in the dust churned from the iron range’s rufous dirt. The dust wouldn’t handle the elemental requirements of a healthy diet, but that was okay.

Blut und Eisen.

He let out another yawp as he rested. Here he was, almost out of sorts, like he was all laid up. It was more work walking a freshly churned road, more work than usual, and it’s no less work cleaving to the truth. He enjoyed cleaving to it like a boning knife through diseased flesh, but age was starting to betray that not all truth has the luster of crystallized calcium. Funny how compasses don’t always work after a good grading, he thought and then re-shouldered his pack.  Funny, too, how a little extra weight can slow an old fellow. He felt better and laughed again before continuing.

Hunter moseyed down the road and wondered into twilight whether moral compasses ever work. His own private road had been resurfaced, after all, and he valued reliability. Yet he concluded that navigation was a matter of destination, and he could resign himself to past destinations, compasses be damned for not telling him which to pick. In any case, his nameless lane led where he wanted. His clothes were sopping from what was supposed to be a nice jaunt. He smelled bad. Taking a nice, relaxing shower just seemed more sensible than worrying about things you can’t see, things that are ever in the dark. His road led in a sensible direction. Of that much he was sure. It would get him where he was going.

Hunter made it home well past nightfall, put reason to bed after washing, and dreamed of the world’s framework. He woke early, ready for a new day, and stretched his own. As per usual, the day demanded that he stretch more than that—but, with the taste of sunset still in his mouth, he was eager to finish last evening’s job.

Fact is, it’s always nice to see a good woman trim up a bit.

Call it breakfast.

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