Jack explored the million worlds hidden in the depths of the forest; ant armies issuing from pyramids of dirt that rose up out of the roots of crackened, red pines; white grubs curling into balls as he rolled away the thick, wet slate they had been burrowing under; centipedes darting past miniature forests of mushrooms in the shadows of the ancient, massive trees; spiders haunting their grand silken palaces and tending their collections of insect mummies. He moved deeper into the forest, under murmuring shadows of emerald and gold, climbing over soft fallen logs and huge moss covered rocks rising like forgotten altars out of the underbrush. The farther he wandered from the farm house, the more the angry voices faded. He wandered until he was far enough that he could imagine that the trees were all there was, miles and miles of trees in every direction, and the voices didn't exist any more.
He found a clearing and a small lake, and an outcropping of rock at the lake's edge. He clambered up onto the rock and sat for a while with his arms wrapped around his knees, watching the reflections of the clouds in the water. Jack, considering the palisade of trees, and the trees beyond the trees, and the clear lake inside like the keep inside a fortress, and the stillness of the air and the warmth of the sun, removed his clothes, folded them neatly, placed them aside on a dry log, stretched out naked on the rock, and closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.
The sun had sunken low in the sky when Jack suddenly woke. He was roused by what he thought were the voices from the farm house and he sat up disoriented. But then he found himself in the quiet, in the growing dusk, in his forest solitude. His eyes fell on the lake, dark and green now in the shade of the trees, and he saw a large carp below the surface, gazing up at him. He hesitated. Then he threw himself into the lake with a shout of abandon.
The water caressed Jack and excited him. He ducked beneath the waves, holding his breath, trying to hover like the carp, moving his limbs freely as he imagined a fish might move its fins. The lake was shallow, and Jack soon found himself sinking into mud and rotting plants. It startled him at first, might have panicked him if the gentle convection of the lake were not so pleasurable. As soon as he caught his breath, instead of hurrying out of the coffee colored water, he found himself standing up with his chest stretched out toward the red twilight sky while his feet spread slowly apart in the soft clay below and the stirred-up muck eddied about his thighs and muddied the clearer water dancing around his waist. He held himself as the water had held him, caressed himself, let his hands move freely where it pleased him.
And that was when Jack experienced the eagerness and the release of sex for the first time, and watched in horror and fascination as thick white clods of his own semen spurted into the murky water and, by the eddies from his own shuddering movement, were pulled down to the mud and weeds below. He stumbled backwards, bumping up against the great rock he had leapt from. That is how the lake seduced Jack.
Perhaps a drop of his sticky semen was gobbled by the carp, perhaps a few globs clung to the slimy tendrils of lake weed that had wrapped about his ankles, and perhaps some clung to Jack's own calves as he heaved himself out of the water and into the evening air where he shivered and dried himself on the smooth rock. But a droplet of Jack's semen joined with the mire below and became the embryo of some strange creature, some homunculus that began to grow at the bottom of the lake.
Jack came back habitually to this hidden lake, far away from the farm house, deep in the heart of his forest sanctuary, far away from the angry voices. Jack often remembered the day he had had sex in the lake with a quickened heartbeat. But the memory frightened him. The pleasure was almost forgotten. He never let his guard down again, never again experienced the intensity of that day.
But the homunculus was there, just beneath the mud. Each time Jack stole away to the lake side, it dared to rise just high enough to see him through the shimmery water, to watch him sitting on the rock with his arms wrapped around his shins, his head buried in his knees, his shoulders occasionally heaving as he sighed. And then suddenly Jack would be gone, and it would sink back to the bottom, where it fed on mosquito larvae and the eggs of water spiders and the leftover vibrations of Jack's despair.
For nine years Jack visited the lake. One evening he brought someone. "My friends call me Marty," he grinned, stomping ahead of Jack down toward the lake. Marty was tall and husky, with thick, curly blond hair. His voice echoed loudly across the water, scaring the minnows and the carp away from the edge of the lake. Only the homunculus clung to the beach, hiding behind the lake weed, watching them with spider eyes and mosquito thirst. Marty held a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. He was shouting, "Here, have another, I can't drink this all myself!" Jack was drinking and Marty was urging him on, "Drink faster! Here, drink more!"
Jack and Marty were sitting next to each other on the rock now, and Marty was asking, "You don't have a girlfriend, do you?" And Jack said no and shook his head, and took a sip of whiskey out of a plastic cup. "I have a girlfriend," Marty growled, "but she's a bitch." He was eyeing Jack intently. "Why don't you have a girlfriend? Are you gay?" Jack shifted nervously, and kept silent, but Marty reached over and untucked Jack's shirt, unbuttoned the top button of his trousers, and reached down into the front of his pants, pushing the zipper open. "Let's see it," Marty coaxed. Then Marty opened his own trousers, pulled down his shorts, grabbed Jack's hand and placed it on his stiffening penis. Jack pulled back, tried to zip his pants up, was stammering an apology when Marty grabbed his hands and yanked him closer.
"You want it," Marty said, "You've been looking at it all afternoon, you faggot. Don't you want it?" He grabbed Jack by the back of the head and pulled his face down toward his crotch. "Open your mouth, faggot." Jack pulled away, tried to stand up. Marty pulled Jack off balance, pushed him off the rock into the lake. While Jack splashed around, sinking into the mud and trying to find his footing, Marty reached into his back pocket and pulled out a set of brass knuckles, and slid them onto his right hand. "Come on, cocksucker," he said, following Jack into the water and pushing him up against the rock.
The silence of the forest was broken by splashing and shouting. Then finally there was silence again. Marty heaved himself up out of the lake, in his leisure took off his boots and his jeans and wrung the jeans out in the still air, on the rock. He finally dressed and stalked away into the forest. Jack clung to the edge, trembling, letting the water sooth the pain. He did not know that, intertwined with the leaves of the lake weed that brushed against his naked calves, were the fingers of the homunculus, that it was the tongue of the homunculus and not the muddy water that licked away the blood and the semen clinging to his bare thighs and his back side.
Only when the pine and the birch had fallen into shadow, when the underbrush was filled with the chorus of crickets and frogs and the light of the moon and the stars shimmered through the tree tops, did Jack stop shaking enough to stand up and stumble toward the lake shore, away from the rock, and pull his muddy trousers on. He sobbed as he thought of the voices back at the farm house, as he thought of what they would say if he returned wet, muddy, and bruised. So he sat on a log in the forest and waited, waited until the voices were gone from his head and the moon had begun to set below the tops of the trees before beginning to trudge back.
After Jack was gone, as the forest sky began to turn rosy, the homunculus crept out of the water with its shiny new skin formed from blood and mud and its muscles toughened by the mud and semen. It sat on the edge of the rock by the lake, intoxicating itself, gulping down the left-behind whiskey and beer and dreaming of building a great spider palace on the edge of the lake.
After that, Jack could no longer find peace in forest walks. Instead, at night, after the last lights in the farm house winked out, he would creep out the front door, steal away past the barn, past the cow pastures, the rock piles, the hay fields, and slump down next to the fence on the edge of the clearing. For hours he would watch the stars, the moon or the silver-black clouds drifting past, sometimes waiting until the eastern horizon started to turn gray before sneaking back red-eyed and exhausted. But he never went further than the gateway of trees. "It was foolish of me to try to escape," he would whisper to himself, "I have to accept that there are no escapes."
Jack stayed away from the lake for over a year. When he returned, he found bare trees, black, twisted branches crisscrossing the sky, thick, thorny brush crowding the old, easy pathways, pulling at him with cutting tendrils and lash-like branches. The moonlight was stark and cold. The chorus of insects had fallen silent, replaced by restive fluttering in the brush and the mournful calling of owls. Jack found one carcass after another, a racoon, a deer, a moose, twisted, dried-out animal husks.
When Jack reached the lake, he sat down on the rock. He rested his head on his knees and listened to the unnatural silence. The homunculus slept at the bottom of the lake, but when Jack arrived it awoke from its dreams of tending its mummies.
Jack shivered in the cool air, but after sitting for a while he slowly unbuttoned his shirt. He removed his trousers, socks, underwear, shirt, folded each carefully and laid them in a tidy pile on the rock. There was something heavy in one of his trouser pockets. Jack fished it out, a switch blade, flipped it open, and studied it in the bright moonlight, the moonlight that made all the barren birch trunks around the lake look like a circle of giant bleached bones.
He shifted the blade from hand to hand, first holding it against one wrist, then against the other, then back again. Which wrist to cut first? He breathed deeply, then sighed again, and gazed at the still reflection of the white moon in the black water. The water will help me decide, he thought, and eased himself in, gasping, breathing quickly and unevenly as he sank to his navel in the chilly wet.
Then he took the knife firmly in his left hand and pressed the point of the blade deep, deep, deeper into his right wrist, until he cut the skin and the blood spilled freely down his arm and into the murky water, and he pulled the knife, slicing his skin toward the inside of his elbow, toward his heart. Then he took the knife in his right hand and cut his left wrist. Then he carefully placed the knife behind him on the rock and lowered his hands, brushing his chest and then his stomach with blood, finally resting his hands on his thighs under the water, and then leaning back against the rock. He let himself sink until the waters rose to his chest, and just rested. The voices of the forest are silent, he thought. Just silence.
The homunculus stirred just beneath him. It wrapped its fingers around his legs, it rested its head against his thigh. It could hear his heart beating in the water, thump, thump, slower and slower. It drank the blood in the water, the flavor of it sweeter than all the sweet, thick wine it had drunk in all its spider dreams.
And finally the heartbeat stopped and the blood was all drunk, and the homunculus pulled Jack down, pulled him down beneath the mirror-still surface of the lake, and kissed him on his pale lips and closed his glassy eyes with its claws and laid him on the bottom in the mud and clay, wrapping him in the lake weeds. The homunculus lay down next to Jack and drifted to sleep, growing fatter, its claws and teeth and eyes growing sharper as it slept.
And when the sun rose and the sky turned red above the black, bare branches, the homunculus woke from a peculiar dream of a farm house on the edge of the woods and wondered about how loud and harsh the voices there were. It climbed out of the lake, crawled up onto the rock, and began to dream of creeping out of the forest, toward the voices in the house, toward the light shining out of the windows.