When the first
real cold of winter arrives, Braf feels suddenly
awakened and at the same time caught off guard.
The former is welcome, the latter worse than
As though the icy drafts coming in through the
flimsy walls of the cabin actually sweep under his
skin and touch nerves, his attention shifts
inward. He looks around the open first floor of
the two-story cabin self-consciously, as though
there is someone staring at him. When he sees that
there’s no one, he settles back and lets himself
think about how long he’s been in one place. He
takes in a deep breath. Almost three months.
He knows there could be forces moving in on him.
Forces, and people, very capable of taking away
his freedom, again.
‘Okay’, Braf whispers, responding to the
sensation, and his thoughts. ‘Got it.’
He sits up and starts ripping and cutting leaves
of tobacco American Indians offered him as a good
luck gesture when he told them his story and they
agreed to include him among the contraband they
smuggled into Canada—mostly American cigarettes
the got tax-free on their reservations.
Like Braf, the Indians dried, cured, cut and
rolled their own cigarettes from fresh tobacco
leaves. Sitting by himself in the cold, empty
house of a friend, the brief reminisce about one
of the peculiarities of growing up in the American
South makes Braf feel lonely, and sleepy. He sees
that there are still red-hot embers burning at the
bottom of the steel oil drum he converted into a
wood-burning heater by burning off its residue,
raising it onto bricks, and cutting hinged
airtight doors into it large enough to feed large
chunks of wood. The large container, however,
still burned wood so fast that one could not sleep
a full six or eight hours without either waking to
feed it, or freezing.
Braf sneers. His friend worked full-time night in
a modern house monitoring people with no incomes
so she could pay rent on a place that lacked
basics. The furnace in her basement ran so badly
that it filled the cabin with a constant rumbling
noise and eye and throat irritating fumes.
Braf adjusts his weight onto a flat portion of
another of his makeshift contributions to the
house: a couch constructed from tree stumps and
ax-cut, knife-trimmed wood.
He closes his eyes and checks out how he feels.
Notices that he’s become a bit soft around the
middle, and weighty on his right side. Opens his
eyes and stares straight ahead. The bit of rest
and comfort he’s received from being here the last
few months has been good for him in some ways.
He’s feeling less jumpy and introspective, more
relaxed and extroverted. But he can’t let those
feelings seduce him into thinking he is secure, or
He puts an end of a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette
between his lips and stretches. The tattoos he
made himself in prison ripple across his chest and
biceps, reminding him that unless he can find a
way to be on the offensive against the forces
after him, which does not seem very likely, than
he better keep moving, and stay alert.
Braf figures he has three options: he can keeping
running away, he can just give in and let them
take him, or he can find a way to act against
There’s only one thing Braf knows for certain—he
will never again let
them take him away from his
freedom, even if it means costing him his life.
He pops off the couch using just the muscles in
his legs and grabs hold of one of the largest cuts
of firewood, more than a quarter of a stump, and
chucks it into the opening in the drum. It hits
bottom with a loud thud and then crackles and
hisses amongst the burning sticks and embers. The
drum pops like it’s about to explode and then
sends out a wave of heat that pushes Braf back
toward the couch. The burning stump will give him
time to think, and perhaps nap. He has a paying
job early in the morning, repairing horse paddocks
for a breeder named Monsieur Lebeaux.
Braf sits on
the edge of the couch and lights the tobacco.
Draws in, and when he releases, he allows his
upper body to move forward behind the ringlets of
smoke. He stares at the one door in or out of the
cabin and then opens his mouth and begins emitting
animal soundings, softly:
He listens if anything, or anyone, sounds back.
But only an eerie silence follows, so he closes
his eyes and lets his mind drift. To see if it can
come up with a plan of action, or recall a memory
so painful or frightful that it will inspire him
t h i
He strains and feels a sharp pinch in the small of
his back that makes him flinch. The pinch belongs
to a memory of him sitting just like this, not
that long ago, sometimes for twenty-three out of
the twenty-four hours in a day, surrounded by
steel bars. His whole life and world reduced to
sitting in a six-by-eight cage.
Braf makes a semi-circle with his upper body,
flattening the small swell of flesh at his waist.
Then he tries to slow down his breathing in order
to keep his thoughts from running to places he
doesn’t like, and can’t control. Memories that can
render him suddenly nauseous and pulverized; or
else settle and later send him off on a binge of
desperate, reckless action.
He hasn’t found the on-off switch, so he deals
with it by using a technique taught to him in the
military for staying calm in extreme situations:
he sits straight, stares ahead, breathes deep.
Leaning forward, he howls again, this time loud,
“Ah- Woooa! Whaaaa! Ah-Woooooo…”
The door braces and bows against the howling wind
outside, but doesn’t open. Braf settles back and
maintains vigilance throughout the remainder of
the night. He doesn’t fall asleep until the warm
gauze of morning light covers him like a
blanket—well past his opportunity to make some
When Braf crossed the border into a kinder and
gentler America, about six months earlier, he felt
nearly as liberated and uplifted as when he
The lush open spaces welcomed unconditional, and
the people he encountered minded to their own
business and did not impose on him, or others. He
felt as though he’d traveled back in time to his
boyhood in rural Tennessee, only as a man, and as
a man with a guarded past.
In due time, he expanded his mode of operation
into the heart of the woods where he made an open
encampment along a river that no one came to save
the occasional fisherman. When he’d see the same
person twice, he’d move his settlement to another
part of the river.
Braf came to feel akin to the hawks, owls, eagles,
wolves and coyotes around him—who were also
content to limit their interactions with humans to
a minimum. He converted to their languages and
listened when they told him that he was living
like a human, in his mind, and respected their
guidance when they directed him to just being
present, like them.
On the rare
occasions when Braf missed human company he’d
visit an estranged cousin who had expatriated to
Canada with her boyfriend about twenty years ago
during the Vietnam war. She stayed, married a
Canadian, and her vocation now was raising and
home-schooling their two children.
Braf enjoyed the kids, a twelve year-old girl and
ten year-old boy, and they liked him. Though his
cousin made it perfectly clear to him that he
could visit, but not stay with them. And
furthermore, that he was prohibited from talking
to her children, or any of her friends and family,
about his past, and about what brought him here.
Braf didn’t mind not talking about himself with
his cousin’s friends or new family. He sensed it
would be like an African hyena trying to explain
its life to a Labrador retriever. But Braf
cherished his time with the children teaching them
things she couldn’t – like how to catch and clean
fish, and forage. It was a way for him to regain a
sense of innocence and vitality, something he felt
she should have better understood. Braf resented
her for not, and for limiting and guarding his
interactions with the children. Though the
resentment added only little more weight to what
he was already carrying.
To the people his cousin introduced him to outside
of her family, he was ‘just visiting for the
summer’. When they’d press him about what he’d
done before he came here, or what his plans were
for the future, Braf would shake his head, grin,
and tell his foreign though American hosts that
he’d had troubles back home and simply had to get
away for a while. Away from that other America
that was so close yet so distant.
They’d look back at him wryly empathic. They
watched TV and saw what was going on down there:
all the violence, drugs, gangs, homelessness,
racism and a military hell bent on finding excuses
to fight wars in every nook and cranny of the
world. Was a terrible shame.
Some of them would give him work and even take him
in for a while. But when they’d get too familiar
and Braf began to feel as though his story was
just about to pop out of his mouth on its own,
he’d flee back to his encampment in the woods like
a sneak in the night, or thief. He hated doing
He wasn’t ashamed of anything that happened to
him, or what he did. Therefore, the pressure he
was putting on himself not to tell them – in order
to keep his word with his cousin—made him feel as
though it was better for him to just stay by
himself rather than lose himself in the pretense.
It was not in Braf’s nature to be circumspect, or
withhold from people. He’d been born with the
attitude and demeanor of a swarthy American pond
bass, taking whatever came at him and going with
it full out. And felt as though he’d offered that
pure vitality to life, so far only to have it
corrupted, defiled, dehumanized and in the end,
But not quite, and his story’s long from over.
Braf knows that he can’t think these things out on
his own, and that he’ll need to be patient and
wait to meet the right people to talk with about
his feelings and act on.
In the meantime, though, to an animal, person,
faux-angel, real-devil, or any combination
thereof, anything or anyone capable of
understanding, and strong enough to trust, Braf is
dying to tell his story.