The Devil

The Devil lives out in our woods
birch tops
Photo: Todd Tanner

The devil lives out in our woods. I don’t know if he’s the devil, but he’s sure as hell a devil. You’d think that being a devil, he’d be crouched down low in the scrub and the water hemlock. You’d think he’d slide right down into that black ooze around the spring, where the birch trees are dying and the tops have all broken off. They come straight down, those tops do — devil spears sticking into the mud with their ends all rotted and woodpecker-drilled. Lord save the man, woman or child who happens to be standing there when the wind comes up and those birch shards fall, ballistic-like, with deadly intent. It’s the devil’s wood, through and through, and while there are a handful of safe places on our back forty, that spring coming up from the black ooze isn’t one. It’s a trap, well-laid, for any poor soul who happens to wander by. A little breeze is all it takes, just enough to shake the branches where the leaves have died off and the too-white, mushroom-decked tops are ready to fall. The only thing more certain than decay is gravity.

What a perfect place for the devil to live, down there in the black muck where eternity can rain down on your head in half an instant as dead birch limbs succumb to Newton’s constant pull.

It’s strange, but the devil doesn’t camp out near that spring. I’m not sure why, but he resides elsewhere, in a spot I can’t seem to find.

My dog’s name is Earl. He’s sweet, Earl is, and he loves to bark and chase squirrels. His hair is golden — almost like aspen leaves in the Fall — and long, and it snarls up a bit when he gets in the burdock and the hound’s tongue. Sometimes he rolls on his back and his feet peddle like the dickens while he scratches and wiggles to beat the band. He’s a hunter, too — he’ll chase deer and rabbits and anything else that happens to wander into our meadow - but he’s not much for the woods. He knows the devil hides in those trees and he doesn’t care at all for the feel of the place.

“Shitaree,” is what I told Earl the day I decided I’d had enough. “Shitaree. Why should we just sit here and take it, knowing the devil’s back in our woods, hatching plots and making plans and up to no damn good? Well, he can kiss my ass, devil or no.”

Seriously, screw the devil. Who does he think he is, messing around, raising cain and scaring the living bejezus out of my dog whenever the spirit moves him? What a prick. I mean, damn, Earl’s a good dog. He’s sweet. He never hurts anyone. Why does the devil have to keep taunting him — howling like a wolf, shrieking like a monkey, shouting all sorts of gibberish — when nightfall comes and the forest gets all dark and quiet and spooky-like?

So I put Earl on his lead, grabbed my fly rod, and we walked back into the woods, back past the sandy spring, and then past the black-ooze spring, and past the birch as deadly as vipers, until we hit the little cold-water creek where the brook trout live and the mayflies hatch.

The devil was waiting there, of course. He knew we’d come to challenge him, and to kick his ass if we could, and he rubbed his hands with glee and gnawed his fingernails into grotesque sharpened points in anticipation of stripping off my skin an inch at a time, and turning Earl into a vest he could wear to the local demon dance on All Hallow’s Eve.

His face was flushed, his hair was orange, his eyes were red, and he looked like the kind of devil who’d push on a dead birch and smile when the top broke off and fell from the heights to impale a baby deer or a tiny racoon. Some of his teeth gleamed, and some were broken off and festering, and he said, with half a laugh and half a sneer, “Why did you bring a fly rod? It isn’t going to save you now. I’m a winner. I always win.”

“Shitaree,” I told him, with my left hand on Earl’s collar and my right hand holding my rod. “Shitaree. Seems like you’re pretty damn cock-sure for such a tiny-handed imp.” Then I reached out with the rod tip, and stuck it right under his nose, and told him that he might want to do something anatomically challenging to himself.

He sputtered, and fussed, and his puffy lips quivered while his orange mane bristled — and then he let out a roar that sounded like a thousand feral hogs passing gas. There was a flash of light and clap of thunder — as well as the overwhelming smell of brimstone and decay — and then he held up a fly rod of his own.

I looked at the rod’s label. Turns out it was the devil’s own brand, made in Taiwan. I laughed at the cheap rod and then we got down to it.

We thrust and parried and lunged and hacked as our fly rods flashed in the dim light and my boot heels clicked on the stream-side rocks. Honestly, it’s hard to fight a devil when his ugly-ass goat feet are skittering around like annoying cockroaches, sending off sparks and stinking like fetid swamp gas — but fight him I did. Earl helped out as well, once he got the feel for how to avoid the devil’s too-stiff Taiwanese rod, and he bit the son-of-a-bitch right in the calf when the opportunity finally presented itself.

“I’m winning!” the devil kept yelling, and since the only way to shut him up was to stick my rod tip in his mouth, I did just that. My tip top burst into flame, of course, but I had the satisfaction of seeing one of his teeth fly into the air and land hissing in the creek.

We went back and forth, and round and round, and back and forth again, but at the end of the day the devil had no chance. Devils rely on fear and deception, and while those weapons can be awfully effective, I was girded with candor, and willing to employ honesty to its full effect, and the truth, as it’s wont to do, set me free.

“You’re not winning,” I told him, and my rod bit deep in his side.

“You’re a lying asshole!” I shouted, and my rod slashed his cheek down to the bone.

“You wouldn’t know a brown trout from a brook trout if you saw them swim by together,” I said, and I stabbed the devil where his heart would be if he’d had a heart — which, of course, he didn’t.

He mumbled something then - it sounded almost like, “I’m the best. Everyone thinks so.” — and then I took off his head with a mighty swing of my 5 weight. (In case there’s any doubt in your mind, American companies make stout rods, and they hold up well even when things get a bit rough and tumble.)

We couldn’t just leave him laying there, of course, decapitated and stinking up the forest, so Earl grabbed the devil’s huge orange head by an oversized ear, and I took hold of one of his tiny hands, and we dragged his remains over to the black-ooze spring, where we dumped him into the muck and watched as his body sank down out of sight. I tossed his cheap Taiwanese rod into the muck, too, just for good measure, and then we trudged back through the woods to the house.

The lights were on, and there was venison stew bubbling on the stove, and Molly, who’s more woman than even a devil-whipping man deserves, looked us over and then asked why we seemed so tired and disheveled.

“We just whupped that ol’ devil down by the creek,” I told her.

“Good,” she said. “Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll get you some stew.”


May I please deconstruct this through a Richard Slotkin "Gunfighter Nation" lens? We all have to experience our own Puritanical expedition into wilderness to come out a better person.