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 anything.

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.

‘Too long’.

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 safe.

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 them.

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 to act.

N    o    t    h    i    n    g

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, provocative:

“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 money.

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 escaped prison.

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 that.

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, nearly destroyed.

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.