Overhead, an oak tree dangles its murderer from a stout branch in the still February air. The cluster of mistletoe shows stolen verdure in a brazen inversion of its gray-barked host; fulsome leaves, ready to sever themselves and drop to earth with the least of breezes, form something like a baby tree just yanked from a green womb.
Standing near the foot of the tree, Heygee points at the pendant growth, says nothing as he meets Mikhi’s gaze. The two men nod as if yoked.
Heygee turns again and lifts the double barrels of his shotgun to his still-pointing hand, aims, and fires once. The wood above the hanging plant scatters into a splintery cloud, and the mistletoe plummets.
Mikhi, gripping the bottom corners of a dark apron looped over his neck but uncinched at the waist, races to intercept the falling greenery.
Apart from the mistletoe, everything around the two men bears that drained forest-in-winter palette: their coats, the bare branches, the lichen-crusted trunks, the spent leaves and dead grasses, all beneath a steely sky. With the apron’s black cotton stretched before him, Mikhi overlooks an oak root in his path. He trips and falls onto his extended arms. Breath leaves him in a sound somewhere between bark and cough. The unloaded shotgun slung across Mikhi’s back slides forward, and its butt conks the rear of his skull.
The younger man groans as he rolls onto his left side.
Heygee squats beside him. “You okay?”
Mikhi nods as he stares, not at Heygee but at the mistletoe on the ground, ten feet away from them. “Shit.”
“No worries. We got enough time to find another one.”
Scowling, Mikhi rubs the back of his head. “Tell me again why it can’t touch ground.”
“You tell me. Druids started that b’iness. Anybody who knows what the stuff’s good for knows windfall mistletoe ain’t worth shit.”
“You make it fall, not wind.”
Heygee looks up to examine the network of branches. “Same difference. Once it touches the ground, the shit don’ work. Tha’s how I learned it, and I got no interest in testin’ that rule.”
As Heygee stands, Mikhi sits up. The older man extends a hand to the younger one.
As Mikhi regains his feet, he says, “Too many god-damned rules.” His accent is most obvious around the strand of emphatic Ds, at the slightly rolled R, in the clipped trailing S. “Which way?”
Heygee retrieves a shotgun shell from his right coat pocket and reloads as he stares at the darkened remains of another fallen mistletoe cluster, which lies like a burnt offering at the base of an adjacent oak. “You pick. I been out here too much. In fact, remind me never to come out here again for supplies.”
He looks down at his feet. “By the way, I brought somethin’ in case we need to make an emergency exit, but … I don’ want to use it if we don’ have to. So, choose a direction and le’s hope it doe’n’t take us too much deeper into the woods. If possible, I wan’ to stick wit’ the plan and leave by boat.”
His breath visible in the cold, Mikhi faces right, then left, then right again. He upnods in that direction.
Heygee recognizes the gesture and smiles. Like so much else, it’s something Mikhi assuredly learned at Heygee’s side. In lockstep, they head that way, frozen stuff crackling beneath their feet.
The two men examine the canopies of many more trees before they speak again.
“How you find out about all this stuff, Gee?”
“From my dad. A lot from him, anyway.”
Even before Mikhi can complete the word, Heygee holds his upturned palm toward the other man. Mikhi fishes forth his wallet, extracts a five-dollar bill, and places it in Heygee’s hand.
Heygee stuffs the cash inside his coat’s breast pocket. “What do we say, Mikhi?”
“You should be. Loose lips sink shit.” Heygee gazes right, left, focuses again on the forest floor. Ahead, the leaf litter supports or partly conceals many more dead limbs than does their path to this spot. The flesh around Heygee’s right eye twitches.
“Your father taught you about ’lifers? I thought—”
Heygee raises an open hand for quiet. “There’s something wrong out here.”
Mikhi jerks his head at the ground they’ve already crossed. “Sure. In trunk of Wriggle’s car. At edge of lake, where we leave it.”
“Yeah, not the fresh kind of wrong. Up ahead? Tha’s a dead zone.”
“Left alone, mistletoe kills tree, da?”
“Da. But ….”
Mikhi scowls. “But what?”
“I spent the last decade takin’ mistletoe from this stretch of woods. You’d think that would’e saved some of these trees.”
They stare along a corridor of ghostly, rotting trunks and fungus-riddled logs. “Looks like forest is not grateful for help, Gee.”
“Yeah, no lie.”
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