Soul Driver

I drove through the hot day and only stopped for some quick drive-through road food, saying nothing other than to make my order through the mechanical head at the entrance. Otherwise, I kept on moving. Later, I stopped in an empty stretch of road and pried off my old license plates and put the one I took from the old man onto the back of my car. It looked like it belonged on a Model T. Then again, my machine was so old the plate didn’t look too out of place on there. All in all, it was a minor tactic on my part to stay hidden, a small diversionary label. But once I had put it on, it seemed to wrap a cloudy little cloak around my vehicle, like a chameleon blending into the leaves.

For a while the blond road dipped and rose but never turned, and it came out of the distance in a shivering wave. The white spikes of the mountains leaned in the distance but stayed there on my left like an ongoing EKG. Theatrical clouds drifted into high anvil thunderheads off to the south, full of life and flashing with their canny thoughts.

The valley floated in swales of heat, and a silver river flowed with its serpent scales flashing in the dream fields and long grass. I followed it parallel as I went. And time rolled slowly in mile on mile of road. I felt warped out, brain-blasted. At one point I looked down, and my hands became my father’s hands. I felt myself dissolving in the droning driving monotony until I couldn’t tell where my legs ended and the vehicle began. My arms went numb and my mind shut down. I drove until I was simply motion going forward, road endlessly unfurling, horizon and wind boiling until something new appeared: a meadow, a water tower, a town, a man emerging from plowed tracks under a pyramid of smoke. And the sun like a fierce examining eye was always there looking down on me. What do you want, I asked. What could my mystery mean to you? And the sky answered back go moan and roll your bones and speak your visions well and true. Or something like that. I was a high receiver at this point. I tried to listen to the radio, see what I could pick up. All I heard was old timey preacher talk and static and the deep empty nothing at all.

And the sun swung round on its invisible thread pulling the day away with it, the earth grinding on its black axis with a darkening sky on the rise. I was a hum, an idea among galaxies shining in the woods like green phantom lights. And the evening spread out before me, the forest creeping out from itself, my vehicle shadow form leaping darkly ahead. I had to stop soon, pull off the road somewhere and just sleep.

Just before sundown I went into a sleepy little town with old time boardwalks and bars and a few weathered shops with local art and furniture and a real estate office with faded photographs in the window of land perfect for building a dream home and a few with homes on them from dreams that started but moved on. It was a life almost within reach. But I didn’t linger. I didn’t speak to anyone. I went into the hardware store and bought a few camping supplies: a little propane cookstove that folded down to the size of a book, a cookset, a knife, rope, a flashlight, a tarp and a few blankets, and a large, sturdy backpack. Then I went to the market and bought some food: eggs and bacon and beans and bread and canned hash and soups in both cans and packets and coffee and finally two jugs of water. And I was gone from that town before I could even disturb the dust.

I drove with one intention, and that was to find a spot to hide for the night. I had to find someplace soon before it was dark. The last rays of sunlight were dissolving in the upthrust of clouds along the mountain peaks, and I headed up into a smaller range of hills, the pine trees accumulating again along with a grove of Aspens and the watching birch trees with a million eyes. The river stayed with me, disappearing and reappearing on the other side of the road, then dipping down again as I crossed a small bridge and caught sight of its white surging force below. It was the thread, the guideline. I made another turn and drove off onto an old forest service road, following the river as it flowed through the hills, going until the road dwindled down to a rut that faded out in a grove of Cedar trees. I continued off road a while longer and maneuvered my car between four trees with their limbs hanging down like a perfect hide-out. No one would be able to see me, especially in the dark. I was safe.

I worked fast to set up a camp. I laid out my blankets and rigged up a slanting lean-to with some branches and a rope, over which I draped my tarp. If it rained, I at least had some cover. Then I dug out a fire ring and built up a rough kitchen on one side of it with a stack of rocks, angling the flat stones on top towards the center to use as heat shelves. I gathered up some sticks and branches and broke them down over my knee and tore up one of the paper bags and wadded it up and stacked the sticks over the paper and lit the paper and blew life into the flames and started up a nice little fire. I dropped in a few more twigs and leaves and bigger pieces of wood to get it going. Then I sat down on the edge of my blanket, my body still jittering from all that road time. Everything was swirling inside me, and I zipped in on my brother, the police, Natalie and Thane, my kids, the guard on the floor bleeding out, the road. The nebula of it all kept flickering through me. My mind was a spider web of anxiety. Be here, be here, I had to tell myself over and over. I reached my hands out and felt the warmth of the fire as the big forest and the granite peaks around me melted into night.

I listened to the ticking of the car engine, the click and skitter of squirrels and a nightbird out there singing the dark sky in. I listened and at last heard the voices of the river talking out there in the big conversation. I need to be near that, I thought, I need to be closer to that source, the dynamo at the heart of the mechanism. Getting close to it would blast away all these ghosts. Such were the thoughts that came to me there in my off road camp. So I got up and hiked toward the river. Then I stopped. I heard something else: other voices, the voices of people nearby. I went back to my camp and knelt down and listened, and I distinctly heard the voices of people out there somewhere. My heart beat faster. I walked toward the voices, crouching low, sliding up next to trees, stopping, listening, trying not to be seen. Why, you don’t exist, my brother said. Didn’t he say that? I don’t exist. Thoughts are things and bring things into being. That’s how hard I was working on my magical thinking. It had gotten me this far. You don’t exist, he said. I don’t exist. That’s even more powerful than being invisible. The thought was a lightning sword cutting through my fear as I went forward through the trees. Then, I stopped again and waited and listened and heard nothing. I looked around and saw nothing. What was it? What was going on out there? I waited for a long time, remaining very still, but nothing appeared and I heard no more sounds, so I went back to my camp.

I sat there by my fire trying to penetrate the space around me with my subtle mind, the ground, the trees, the air, the river, listening hard. We are going to determine if this is real or not, right now and for good. Then I heard the voices again, and again I crept out wandering in search of them. I was freaking out. I was probably just hearing some other campers. Why did I care? I had no desire to actually talk to anyone, to engage with them. But I had the irresistible urge to find out if they were really out there. Who was talking? But the closer I came to where I thought the voices were, the farther away they sounded, until I heard nothing at all. It was like they were moving away, then coming close, then moving away again. Like some game. Class dismissed. I looked up through the trees. I saw nothing. Sight was useless. The forest was utterly dark. I moved slowly with hands out before me, keeping my breath quiet and close. I stopped. I waited. Nothing again. I went back to my camp.

I stoked up my little fire with some more sticks and sat there listening. Beyond the crackle of the burning wood I swear I heard the voices again. Like regular conversation, observations, pointed insights and maybe a little argument. Very close. I took out my flashlight and turned it on and scanned the darkness around me. Then I saw something.

It looked like an orange hunting cap out there in the trees on the other side of my camp. I remained still and held the light on it waiting to see if it would move. Was someone out there? Was someone watching me? Wasn’t it obvious that I could see? That I was looking back at the one looking at me? What are you looking at? I thought. What do you want? I stood up and went over that way, keeping that light shining in the direction I was going. But when I got to where I thought the hat was, there was nothing there. No hat. It had vanished. What had I seen? Where had it gone? I waited there in the grove, in the open, just outside my camp. Then I backed away to see if what I had seen would appear again. Maybe what I had seen was just a trick of the mind and the way the light hit the bark of the tree. I got back into my camp, but I didn’t see the hat anymore.

I sat down beside my fire again and poked at it and corralled the outer pieces of wood into the middle, and it burned clean throughout with a nice set of golden coals collecting in the center. Then I saw movement on the perimeter. I got up to follow it, moving deeper into the trees, limbs feathered around me. But I found no one, nothing, and I thought, what the hell am I doing? It struck me that I might be going mad.

Whenever I became still, I saw something or heard something. You’re going crazy, I thought. Just stay put, and stop chasing down every phantom you think you see. My heart was racing. My hands were shaking. All of this, I thought, is coming from my mind. I’ve been here before. These are fears I’ve carried for lifetimes pouring out, nothing more. So I went back to my camp and stayed there.

I mustn’t panic, I thought. I lit a cigarette and sat by the fire and grabbed hold of my brother’s medicine pouch. No matter what, I decided, I’m not moving from this spot. I will just stay put. I’m not the first person to be in this space, and I won’t be the last. How I handle this now, though, could make all the difference.

I was assaulted by voices, then, by intense conversations nearby, arguments rising and falling, indictments, monologues, debates, harangues and laughter, insane laughter.

And other sounds. But I didn’t move. And shadows flowed just beyond the edge of my camp, flickering, flashes of color, and looking eyes, searching, examining eyes, clue-hunting, meaning-making eyes. But I didn’t move. It became like some pageant of absurd forest monsters chattering, jumping, taunting me as they moved in closer and closer, my hands shaking, my heart racing, my guilty fearful mind fighting as I said over and over again, they’re not real, I’m not real, they’re not real, I’m not real, they’re not real…trying to believe it, trying… and I began to sing a little song to myself, trying to fight it off, singing, home home heya home, home heya home, and it vibrated in my mind, creating an invisible cloud of sound around me so that gradually the voices subsided and the shadows fell back as I rocked and sang and rocked and saw a deer appear there suddenly before me in the firelight, a notch-eared black-tail deer standing at the edge of my camp. I went silent and gazed at it and it at me in an eternal moment during which neither of us moved, and my heart went calm and my mind went still and I just gazed into the black infinity of those eyes there in perfect trance communion without words. I mean, if a deer appears, that’s a good thing, right? Means things are pretty safe, no monsters around. Wouldn’t a deer know if monsters were around? Wouldn’t a deer stay as far away from monsters as possible? And doesn’t that mean
I’m not a monster?

Then the deer faded away. I got up and tried to follow, but I only took a few steps. No, no, I said to myself, stay put. And so I let it go, knowing I had whatever it could offer. I stood there now in the darkness with a blanket over my shoulders and listened and heard nothing in the night that was not there and the nothing that is and felt for the first time in…no time that I could remember…peace.

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Douglas Cole has published five collections of poetry and a novella. His work has appeared in anthologies and in The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Galway Review, Chiron, The Pinyon Review, Confrontation, Two Thirds North, Red Rock Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry and the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House. His website is