Rocky Hirajeta

Land of the Mid-Night Strays

Written in response to the following from Reedsy’s story prompt: “Write about an animal who changes a person’s life (for better or worse).”

Nantahala, at over 530,000 acres, was the largest National Forest in North Carolina. Every year, thousands of nature-enthusiasts visited to touch what the Cherokees called “Land of the Noon-Day Sun.” Four main trails wound through the wilderness of old-growth forest, mountains, rivers, and wildlife; smaller paths extended, tangling through the land, but the trails could only go so far.

At least once a year, Elena Worthing, with her father Harvey and her little brother Nathan, made the hour-and-a-half-plus drive from their home in Asheville. These camping trips were some of Elena’s least favorite memories. The isolation, lack of WiFi, bug attacks—none of these features struck her as vacation-worthy. The only thing keeping her from insanity was scouting the woods for specimens for her rock collection.

It was mid-March, and Tuckasegee Point, the newest campsite somewhere to the South of the homonymous river, had just opened for the season. Her dad always jumped on the first-come-first-served bandwagon—even though this wasn’t one of the forest's most reserved sites—so here they were to set up camp, even as the claws of winter still clutched the land around them.

They each had their own tent. This was Elena’s third time assembling hers by herself, and even though she missed her bed, she had gotten quite the hang of this thing. Tuckasegee Point was a narrow stretch of cleared land, and their chosen spot (God knew why) contained tons of intrusive roots. She didn’t look forward to tonight’s attack against her spine. Finishing up, she went in to set up her sleeping bag. The trees shaded their site, and inside was already dark, but her phone’s flashlight gave her some idea what she was doing. The sleeping bag wouldn’t settle or lie flat until at least five minutes of wrestling with it.

“Can you help me?”

Sandy-haired and freckled, Nathan looked four years old, not eight, as he stood in silhouette in the tent’s opening, sucking his thumb.

“Help with what?” Elena stuffed her phone into her back pocket. It was still early, but she’d planned on a whole bunch of lying down and doing absolutely nothing as soon as she was finished.

“My sleeping bag. It’s heavy.”

“Can’t Dad help?” She turned away and crawled toward the back of her tent, reaching for her backpack and the snacks it contained.

“He helped with my tent already.” To Elena, it sounded like whining. “You can help with the rest, can’t you?”

She’d changed her mind. Sighing, she pushed her way past Nathan, and once outside, shrugged her backpack onto her shoulders. Relaxation would be impossible right now.

Her father saw her walking past. “Where are you going?”

“Done with my tent. I’m going for a walk.”

“Help your brother with his sleeping bag first.”


Her father stared at her patiently. “Because it’s the nice thing to do. He wants your help.”

“You’re the one who loves to waste time camping out here, you help him.”

This doused the good spirits on her father’s face. Then he turned stern again. “You’re his big sister, El-Bell. You’re supposed to help.” 

She hated when he called her that. It had been her mom’s nickname for her, and he’d never used it until after she …

It felt like cheap plagiarism to use it, that was all.

“You’re his father, you’re supposed to help, too. I’m going to look for rocks.” She walked off toward the trail marking before he could argue more.

“Keep close and keep your phone on you,” he called, but she only waved back her acknowledgment.

She failed to realize her phone’s flashlight was still burning a hole out of her back pocket.

The light slanting through the thick trees told Elena she had limited time to search. Green had started to flow back into the natural world as spring neared, and the swarming bugs surprised and annoyed her. At first she didn’t see many rocks, which made her want to angrily dump her collection into the nearest body of water. But she kept searching. She didn’t know how far to the North the river was, or even if it was within walking distance, but she usually found the best rocks near water. Eventually, though, she located a sprinkle of geodes—rare in the forest, she knew, and would treasure them. She scooped them all (one as big as her fist) into her biggest storage pocket.

She walked what felt like straight downhill, thinking more rocks would follow gravity. The trees clustered, and ahead the shape of them resembled a cave more than a forest. She didn’t appreciate nature in the same way her father did, but she had to admit the quiet was pleasant, the alone time. The only sounds to speak of were birds calling from a distance; even the wind was silent.

The rays of light became more horizontal by the minute. She didn’t want to go back, but she was hungry, and her rations of trail mix and crackers could only last so long. Plus, her water bottle was empty. She hadn’t found a good rock—or any rock, really—in at least twenty minutes. Time to call it a day, folks.

Behind her, the land sloped up, but beyond the fifty feet of trunks it was hard to see more. The sunlight poured in but was blocked in most directions. Nevertheless, she walked back that way. It wasn’t long before she crested the hill—or at least, reached somewhat level ground—and halted, looking one way, then the other. She turned her gaze to the right again, then to the left, thinking …. 

Now just which way had she come from?

The question in her mind was casual at first, conversational, but as she looked first to one side, then to the other, then straight ahead where, after a distance, the hill began to rise again, panic swelled. This panic was a pinprick, but it would grow in minutes. Oh, how it would grow.

She tried to squash it, convincing herself she had only to walk back this way awhile (choosing the left arbitrarily), and she would find the trail again. Minutes later, she checked her phone, looking for missed texts or calls, only to discover that it was dead. Just another rock for her collection. Okay, that’s fine, she thought. It wasn’t like she was lost. In this area, there was no path to be found, but she trudged along the spaces between the trees as though it were a marked trail.

As she rounded a particularly rotund tree, a tiny pair of eyes peered from a furry face, making her heart jolt. The small creature huddled against a pile of leaves amid tree roots, shivering. In her own neighborhood, she might’ve mistaken it for a dog. Fur of light earth tones, swirled with white, covered its miniscule body. Whether a wolf or a fox, she didn’t know, but she could tell immediately that it was a baby. 

There was no other creature in sight. She and the youngling were alone. 

Its eyes caught her a moment—it was unbearably cute—but shadows shifted across its hairy body, reminding her that the day was fading and she only had so much light left. Only so much time. So she walked on, ignoring the sound behind her as the baby started to whine.

Judging the sun’s position, she forged her path in what she thought was south-southwest. Yes, this felt right. The pines and birches looked unfamiliar, but she had a sense deep within that this was the right way. She could almost smell the campsite she had left behind. And speaking of smell, the phantom scent of dinner arrived, the dinner her dad was no doubt prepping at this moment: beanie-weenies, his camping specialty. Normally she turned her nose up at such cuisine, dreaming of civilized food like pizza and Chinese and sushi, but right now it sounded like heaven. Harvey Worthing also had a habit of percolating coffee over the fire, late into the night, and even the bitter taste of that elixir now was angelic to Elena’s mind. Her stomach rumbled, sounding like a forest creature itself.

And s’mores. Oh, yes, the thought of s’mores made her salivate something fierce.

But as her worn sneakers traversed and tripped over webs of tree roots, she couldn’t get that animal’s lost face from her mind: eyes shining like sparks, little snout upturned as though frowning, the little guy (she thought of it as a guy) asking wordlessly for help. Had her phone been alive, a quick search would teach her it was a baby coyote. 

She knew she couldn’t turn back, couldn’t even find the little dude anyway, even if she tried. It was too late; she had to focus on her own plight.

This was only her family’s second time at Tuckasegee Point, but still she strained to remember … the positioning of the river, the location of the campsite, and where she might fall in the mess in between. It was fruitless, like trying to remember a specific book’s location in a vast, unorganized library without any signs, or help.

The path, or what path there was, looped—yes, she was sure this was the curve she remembered from earlier, with the giant tree trunks and the ridge she had rounded—and she almost jumped out of her skin when she saw two dots of light glinting out of the deepening darkness. Her eyes adjusted and she saw the little coyote sitting there, watching her, looking helpless as ever.

“What! What do you want?” Her voice sounded spookily loud in the evening quiet.

The baby stared back, gave a little whine, and dug at the air with its snout, as if to get her attention. Elena thought of turning on her heel and walking back the other way, even though she was almost one-hundred-percent positive that was the complete wrong direction; instead, she started again and made to walk right past the little guy.

Then she stopped. 

He was staring up at her. He looked tiny, yes, and helpless, but he also looked wise. Like he knew she was lost, and he was lost, and why not join and be lost together? During the brief staring contest, he didn’t back down. His face seemed to soften with each passing second. The final fragments of sunlight glinted on his fur, highlighting him. How young he looked, how afraid.

Elena sighed and knelt down, setting her backpack between them and unzipping the middle compartment. She reached toward him, hesitating; he didn’t blink, but let her pick him up. His fur was as soft as velvet, and he was as light as a blanket as she lowered him into her bag, with his face and front paws sticking out. At this new development, he looked around in awe.

“Come on.” She slung the bag over her shoulders again, and walked on.

What her plan was at this point, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t expect to come across his pack-mates, but hopefully carrying S’more (as she’d decided to call him, at least for now) would keep him from harm, and when she found her way back she could get him to a park ranger, or something.

The darkness was almost complete, but the way was easy-going at first, with S’more resting peaceably in her sack. Her eyes adjusted enough that she avoided falling off ridges and into dips, but she couldn’t see much beyond twenty feet. Glimpsing the moon among the treetops, fear finally gripped her. Tears leaked from her eyes, and she sniffled, and S’more seemed to sense it, whining from behind her.

“Hush,” she said softly, and trudged on. For the first time, the possibility entered her mind that she would be lost forever. That she would never find the campsite. Who was to say she hadn’t ventured miles in the wrong direction?

After a time, S’more began to whine more fervently, wriggling around as if to free himself. Elena ignored him, at first, but then she couldn’t take it. She stopped, removed the bag, unzipped and lifted him out, his body warm against her hands.

“What is it?” she snapped.

S’more climbed down and pounced ahead, pausing and looking back as if to say, You coming?

“I thought you wanted me to carry you.” S’more made no reply except to charge farther, half disappearing over a hump.

“If you don’t wanna stay with me, have fun being alone again.” She walked on, passing him and keeping to higher ground; then she felt him staring, and looked back to where his eyes shone at her. “What is it? I don’t have time to chase you around all night.” It hurt just to talk; her throat was like sandpaper.

S’more trotted on, his little paws stuttering over the leaves. Elena tried to walk on without him, but, despite herself, she couldn’t leave. At least for now, she would follow.

Another sinister thought crept in: after realizing Elena was missing, her dad and brother had searched for an hour or so, then given up and went back to camping, having a better time than usual without her. She was a damper on the camping spirits, moping in her tent most of the time until it was time to eat, which she did in even more moping silence. Why would they care if she was gone?

Ahead, S’more leapt over a fallen tree and then gave a single bark. She hurried to catch up, finding him standing and looking at her excitedly. In a moment she saw why; glinting in the moonlight was a sliver of a creek. In that moment it was the most beautiful sight in the world. S’more seemed to have the intuition the same time as her; together they knelt and drank, her with her hands cupped, him with his tongue lapping. The water was metallic but sweet; Elena had never tasted anything so refreshing. She had a brief lucid thought that this … wasn’t so bad. She could live here, as long as she had water.

And then, they’d had their fill, and moved on. She tried to put S’more back into her bag but he struggled and resisted. His thirst quenched, he was ready to roam free, and she let him.

They walked a slow downhill trail, and to Elena their path now seemed as aimless as ever. She was beginning to become hypnotized by the sameness: an organic maze that would never end, trapping her in its repeating visuals, making her forget what the outside even looked like.

Her legs hummed with low aches, and her jacket was a poor protection against the chill; she wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. She knelt before S’more when she caught up to him, putting sternness in her words, although her voice was tired, too: “Only a little bit more, okay? A little farther and then, I gotta sleep. All right? You don’t have to stay with me, but . . . I hope you do.”

Deep inside, Elena knew she couldn’t leave S’more to fend for himself in the cold; when she did sleep, she would wrap him inside her bag again.

The coyote pup (although Elena thought of him as a fox-wolf) stared at her patiently and then gestured ahead with his snout. Exhausted, Elena followed.

After fifty feet, a sound lashed out, chilling her to the bone: a morose, drawn-out howl. It was so wild and bare that it was a moment before she recognized it for what it was: a coyote. S’more lowered himself in his excitement, looking back at her, and then pounced ahead. Pulsing with adrenaline, she rushed to keep pace, but she knew she had to be very cautious.

The hill ascended, then crested, and ahead lay a collection of boulders and rocks, most low and flat, some rising sharp and strong. In the shadow of the largest stood a creature smaller than but just as majestic as a wolf. It seemed to glow in the darkness. S’more ran toward it without hesitation, while Elena hung back.

The two greeted one another. S’more communicated something, and the adult looked in her direction, eyes piercing. In those eyes, she saw the calm wisdom of every mother, every grandmother who ever lived. And Elena saw the eyes of her own mother, which seemed to speak in a caress: Well done, El-Bell.

Tears sprang to her eyes which she didn’t think to wipe. S’more, small beside his mother, cast her a final look, and she waved at him as the two creatures pounced away into the night.

It was a long time before she turned away, thinking to walk back downhill. But when her eyes swiveled, the sight stopped her heart: a wooden sign saying “Dills Trail.” One arrow pointed to the left saying “Cowee Bald,” and the one to the right “Tuckasegee Point.” The tears came again, and boy, did they come strong.

Her sleepiness fled, though her body’s exhaustion didn’t, and an hour later, she pushed aside the last branches in her way, stepping out to the site. Who knew what hour it was? She was sure her dad and Nathan were asleep, and that was fine; she’d sneak into her tent and sleep the ordeal away.

But Harvey Worthing was there; the blazing fire lit the site orange, and he sat beside it, his body slumped. At the sound of Elena’s approach, he leapt as though electrified and ran over to her. “Where have you been? Oh, thank God. I was so worried. There are rangers combing all over—”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was quiet.

“What …?” He stared at her, speechless.

Elena looked back into the shadows, and for a moment was sure she saw S’more huddled there, watching; then he was gone. 

“With a friend …” she said, low. When she turned back, she gave him a worn smile. “Got any more beanie-weenies?”