Editors note: This month we publish the first installment in serial fashion the new novel “A Place in the Shade” by Erik Berg.
There are very few constants that carry through generations of which man can be understood, and yet always through story there is a possibility to progress—and then maybe ideas will come from them after all is said and done, and we will know more about ourselves and our place as people. We are serializing the novel, A Place in the Shade, because it’s an artist’s attempt to detail not only the place of man within society, but the place of man within its nature: the wilds.
A Place in the Shade
At its primary, man has two basic conditions: love and hate. In hardship men have tendencies toward either, but a powerless, willing desire toward love. And that makes the difference between man and animal; that alone.
The same of all country, it was beautiful, but lonely. The valley ran from the soil in smooth peaks and ridges, spun the way it would by hand. It parted north and south by light sand colored hills, and in the east and west by a thick gray chaparral of manzanita and sage. The skies were blue with the warmth of the east, and solemn and cool with the draft of the west, departing the ocean. The oaks there grew thick and wild; they kept the land still and tame beneath the shade. And always it was a lonely place.
No trails cut the oak woods. Men knew the country well, admired it, and kept a good distance apart, as it was not the same as their own. They made mystics of the wind, gods of the sands and soil. Villages formed north and south, with respect to intrusion. Once in a man’s life they became curious, and traversed the sand colored hills, cut through the thick brush, until they could see it for themselves. And for a brief moment, they walked beneath the oaks as different men; they walked beside the brown rivers and wild streams very thoroughly, if not consciously. If they were brave enough, they took what they could, all with appreciation, as they could never go back. The land was a land for Gods and not men.
But then there are always different men. In the villages, these stories were common, and every man and woman, child for sure, knew of them. They were the few who wanted to live beside the Gods, who cut the brush and traversed the hills but would not leave, who worked and shaped the land as if they were Gods too. Always there were these men, a few from every village, no matter the place or direction. They were in the mud and labor of society, as they helped distinguish it. Their stories were hailed as examples of hopefulness and failure. The children learned; as they grew older they understood the outcomes. They envied the men, pitied them, prayed for their mercy.
And then always there were more men.
The valley had dense seasons, lively and dead. The spring brought showers, and rains, and the mornings brought a gray mist that kept till the sun burned through. On the hills and lowlands, grasses darkened to a heavy brown. Patches of orange poppies and light purple lupine spread in the fields along the buckwheat shrubs. Spring carried with it the stabs of gestation and the pains of birth. Roots tightened and took hold. The grounds became rich and pure. Pups and calves walked and played along the hinterland, kept safe in the fog and weary by the sun. The oaks settled, drank as they needed, and, as fathers, steadied and tamed the soil. Spring tended the vibrance, as would a woman.
But spring could be brief, and then came summer. The skies became stolid and clear. From the east, blew the warm winds, and the clouds quit coming entirely. The grasslands dried rigid and yellow. Showers came little if they did at all. What was left of the brown river pooled and died; the lupines hung low, and the meadows dried into a solid mass. The winds picked up dust swiftly and carried it along the valley, both west and east, in a tumult. Summer tired the soil, and the soil fought against it, reluctantly.
In the winter, what withered died. With it came the storms, and with them came the floods. The chaparral spilled with streams; the grasslands drenched and strained, and all the dead and weakened roots carried away with the torrentials. The skies grayed, and the river thickened with mud. Winter washed the valley of its weak and sick. It carried the dead from the hills to the valley banks. And in the deluge fed the beasts, the coyotes and the foxes, the vultures; the soil gluttoned on the waste, and the land became rich again.
And then come spring, the valley was supple once more.
By Edgar Wilmington’s time, the valley had forgotten men. It grew wild and the brush spread. The old villages had done their share, grown distant, and moved on. The chaparral had expanded and the hills moved further into the horizon. The closest towns were far off, small, and agricultural, on roads a good distance north, south and east. The men there made a living sweating out rows of alfalfa and strawberries, and had no business wandering. The land was consuming, and Edgar did his best to defy it.
A week before he found the valley, he was seen behind the curtains at mass on Sunday. He waited for the crowd to leave, and the room to quiet. Before then, the pastor wasn’t sure if he had seen him or not.
“I don’t see you often enough Edgar,” he said. “Have you had a sudden growth in faith, or am I optimistic?”
“All men have faith. It’s nothing special.”
“I guess I’m wrong then. You’re no different. How is your father?”
The pastor walked each corner of the room, spreading the curtains from each window. The afternoon was nice, and the room brightened.
“And the ranch?” he asked.
“Thirsty,” Edgar said. “Dry and dying, like everything else around here. And people just take it like it’s nothing. The land drinks more sweat than water. And people just keep taking it.”
“It won’t rain for a while, you know that. Have faith it will come when it’s needed, and it will.”
“But that’s it. We know the land is dry. We know it’s thirsty and dying and that’s all we do is wait till the next rain. Sometimes it’s not enough to have faith. There’s a perfectly good run of water north of here. We could spend our time sweating and digging a waterway now, and maybe we won’t have to die working a dry soil. At least it’s progress, wouldn’t you say?”
“You should never tinker with paradise.”
The room became quiet. The word struck the boy the same as if the pastor had slapped him across the face. He let the sting settle and stood in dispute.
“Paradise?” he said.
“Yes paradise. Anywhere a man can be a man, a woman a woman, is paradise.”
“You call this being a man. You call sweating to the death being a man. Working till you can’t move. Sleeping only so you can work again. It’s all stubborn, that’s what it is and I’m not doing it.”
“You don’t believe in paradise then, do you?”
“I do, but not here,” Edgar said. He was up at the window now, looking out on the dusty fields and the mules that rode through them.
“Not this place.”
“The ranch will be yours soon, if your father finds peace. Ownership does good on the senses. It’ll change you’re mind.”
“I won’t be here.”
“Are you leaving?”
Edgar watched the fields and said nothing. They moved predictably enough that the heavy wind seemed to make little difference. Their course was set each morning, and they played their part well the best they could.
“Edgar, why did you come here?”
“Because I’d like to prove you wrong.”
“Yes,” Edgar said. “Maybe about paradise, and faith, and all that good stuff. I’ll be on the lookout for something greener. Looking for it anyway. A man deserves something better than he has. And if it aint there, at least he can look.”
Edgar began toward the door. The church was silent, save the wind and the rustle it caused on the window pains. The pastor followed behind and stopped him. He spoke solemnly, as a teacher would.
“People like it here, Edgar. They don’t live right, but they live enough, and they love it that way. You can’t take them away from what they love.”
“Then I’ll find them something better.”
“You won’t find anything better.”
“I’ll make sure to show you when I do.”
Edgar rode away soon after. He left the town with no direction, but followed what he felt was instinct. By the time he met the sand colored hills, he was pale with hunger and sick with thirst, but he rode steady all the same. They rose from the horizon the way cliffs lifted from the sea, and he eyed them for miles before he could make them out for what they were. But the chaparral slowed him, kept them distant. He walked through heavy manzanita, cutting where the horse couldn’t follow. Each break and the hills were no closer; thick thistles and branches dug into his skin, but he kept moving. The land repelled him like water, and he moved with a fight, the way he’d seen fish fight upstream.
Finally, he entered the valley on a narrow stretch marked by the river. He made camp in the dry willow leaves on the waterside, and slept in a bed strung together with buckwheat brush. Once inside, the hills were less like cliffs, and more like borders. He made note of the moisture caught in the ravines, of the streams, and the water’s edge; he made note of the soil. The nights too were different, and he slept between the open sky, keeping watch on the stars through the oak tree leaves, and very quickly he loved them. It was hard not to love the country.
For the next few days, he kept his camp by the water, and traveled the grasslands and the hillside. Tracks of rabbit and fowl were abundant in the soil, and he hunted them for leisure. He fished the water until his stomach was satisfied. The nights were calm and settled by a low mist that lingered into the morning. And over the days he felt as if he knew the banks, the oaks and the hills. He felt as if he owned them, as if he deserved them.
On the third day, he drove his horse where there were no paths, to a point in the northern hills overlooking the valley in its entirety. The mass of it extended into a plush landscape, a landscape of color and movement, where the grasses met the wind in pastel, and moved always. There were the low bends in the muddy river, the peaks and shades of the live oak along the hills, and then he assumed he knew as much of love as any man would. And that was when he traveled home.
The pastor followed him back without argument. He was curious to see the boy return, a little annoyed, but curious all the same. Edgar rode in lead, with a cockeyed smile. He looked back only to judge distance and separation. There was no way to find the hills by direction, only by instinct and know how. They spoke about the ranches, about the dry lands. The pastor preached of nothing, only held his head down and followed piously.
“The brush is thick,” he said.
“It gets thicker.”
“How much further?”
“Behind those hills.”
“You can see them if you look hard enough. You just have to know there’s something other than the horizon and you’ll see them.”
“Yes…they have nice color.”
“Color, and other things too.”
The chaparral grew quick to cover the old paths, and Edgar had to carve new ones to make headway. The pastor chipped in and cut through the manzanita branches. They worked timely and with order. After a struggle, they entered the valley, tattered and bruised from the journey.
Edgar led the pastor to where he camped by the willows. The man dismounted from his horse, kissed the cross around his neck and examined the land without interest. It was beautiful country, but not one to own, and he was sure of it. The two talked little in the next few days. They ate together, drank from the river, watched the sky and the grasslands. Edgar waited patiently for the man to speak. But he said very little until the last day.
“We should be going now,” he said. “There are things to do back home.”
The two sat beneath the leaves of an oak tree, just above where the river passed the valley floor. The evening had begun to catch up on the hills and it cast shadows over the two.
“You don’t seem impressed,” Edgar said. “You don’t like it here?”
“I like it here enough. I just can’t stay. And we shouldn’t.”
“I like it here better. A man could live good here.”
“But there’s places a man shouldn’t be, and places he should. A man has a haven, and he has a home. Have faith your home will bring you what you need.”
“Don’t feel so special cause you have faith. All men have faith…even the bad ones. It’s what keeps us going. It’s what makes us live poor lives and take it without a fight. Don’t feel so special.”
“A lot would say that about love.”
“Love is different entirely,” Edgar said. “Faith is what keeps a man going when there aint no reason. Love is what keeps a man going when he aint got no faith. It’s one or the other, but it’s different. A man with a woman, is just that, a man with a woman. A man with faith is a dime a dozen. The special ones are the ones who don’t got either, but mostly they’re dead. So don’t feel so special”
The pastor sat very still. He watched Edgar, and his eyes were droopy and filled with a solemn brown shade. He did not like the boy, never had, and never would.
“What I feel special for is the arrogance,” he said. “I’ve avoided that entirely.”
“Faith is what keeps one man going. Arrogance is what keeps the crowd moving. It gives them something to follow, like flies to a fire.”
“You can stay if you like, but they won’t come with you. People are loyal to the land their blood is kept in. It’s something about the dead and the labor that connect families. That sweat you talk about. It means a lot to people. Not to you, but to people, and they won’t just give that up to have an easier time.”
Edgar sat forward. His hand disappeared in his pocket, and returned with a stone displayed in his fingertips. The stone was solid gold, malformed and natural, as if fresh from the dirt. The pastor sat quietly and looked off into the distance.
“There are things that change people,” Edgar said. “Some things turn people back into animals. And animals go where they’re led. They just need someone to help them in the right place.”
“Is it real?”
“Is there more here?”
“No. There’s a lot still left north where I found it, but not here. It does nothing for me, though. It does more for them. It brings out hope, and man needs hope as much as he does faith. Only a man with hope is volatile. A little bit of hope starts a fervor.”
The pastor stood. He wanted to leave, and knew he should. The clouds were coming in from the west and the bright orange sky was becoming cool with the evening. He did not like the place at all.
“The thing about men,” he said, “is they have no hope at all. But good luck to you.”
“I proved you wrong then?”
“Maybe in some places, but be careful with men, Edgar. A man by himself is easy to handle, but a crowd is something other. It’s too much for a man to control. Sometimes it’s too much for God to control. The fervor is like a big cloud of dust. You can see it coming from miles. You can hide from it but it still comes. It covers everything. It blinds you. It takes what it can, and it dirties what it can’t. And when it’s gone, you’re left with a big mess.”
The pastor stood and began away.
“Good day. Stay if you like, but if I’ve learned anything from the dry land, it’s very simple: When you see the cloud coming, don’t hesitate—kick up your horse and run as soon as you can.”
As soon as Edgar dropped the first piece of gold in town, word spread. People wadded the chaparral, sometimes cutting for days, and entered the valley, as travelers and pilgrims. At first only a few, and then many. The paths became sustained by a constant renewal. Then, soon, pilgrims came without interruption. And while canvas tents dotted the waterside, Edgar began construction on the first solid structure: the first home.
He built it large, above a rise in the hills, overlooking the valley entrance and the waterfront where the pilgrims camped. It was where the sun first touched eastward, and where it last dimmed in the west; it was a place the valley began and died. He was determined for the home to be the hills, as much as it stood beside them. And too, he was determined to stand above them, to tame them, the same as a man would a bull or a dog. He tore down the timber, and leveled the grasslands, so the home stood tall. The work became consuming, and he felt it ache in his bones, and yet still he worked. Days were spent mending the oaks, adding, tearing; and evenings were spent watching the men forage below in the river, at the growth along the waterside. The crowds grew by the day.
Over time, Edgar’s obsession grew into something beautiful. The pilgrims followed its maturity with curiosity and wonder. The details were direct and vibrant—beautiful in the way a woman was beautiful. The porch extended with a portico supported by large white oak columns that ran the face. Edgar crafted the cornices with polished sycamore, as well as the banisters, in a heavy brown hue. Above the columns ran a series of bays running the façade, glazed and bright by reflecting sashes in the sun. The gables were sealed with gray slate, and painted white to match the columns. Each muntin was crafted in diamond shaped progressions, and dressed red to contrast the white. The house had blood and body.
To craft the door, he looked deep in the wilds. The oaks grew thick and abundant, but only the oldest were wise enough. He found an oak deep in the heart of a ravine, a strong oak, old with age, cracked and robust with hardship. It took him half a day, and a weakened body to chop it down. He chartered a few pilgrims to carry it out of the ravine, back to the rise in the hills.
The home progressed, and Edgar was proud of it. More than anything, he was proud of the valley, at the growth, the way a rancher looks on a good harvest—the way he feels responsible. The men sifting the river found nothing, but they kept at work. In the morning, they went back to it again, hard as ever. And as the days went by, people still came, and more were always behind them.
The porous wetlands beside the river were the first to be purchased, as wetland is the easiest sifted. People bought little stakes of land no bigger than they could afford, and made small camps of them out of the waterways. The camps became communities because it was in the pilgrim’s nature. Children played in the reeds and the shallow pools while their mothers kept watch, and their fathers sloshed through the river without return. On the rocks beneath the cottonwoods, the boys would lay lines for fish while the girls readied fires in the evenings, and while the moon came up high and the sun set bright gold, the men played music. They did this every night, and they found nothing every day but it made little difference. It was a hopeful work, a work much like gambling.
Only when the hope shuttered did they go to see Edgar. They found him mostly beneath the portico, in the shade beside the banister, watching the road always, as if he knew they were coming.
“The home’s coming along good,” a man said.
“I never doubted it.”
“It takes more than a nugget to build a home like this. It takes more than a nugget to feed a belly, and hell, nobody’s finding the nuggets either.”
“Have you given up?”
“I wouldn’t say anybody out there’s given up, else they’d be out of here. But a man can only fail so many times before he wonders why.”
“This valley’s rich,” Edgar said. “The hills and everything with it.”
“Is there more in the river?” the man asked. “Hell, let me know where you found it. I’m not a sifter. I’m a merchant. Now it’s everything I got and I’m no good at it. None of us are, I guess.”
“A fortune is enough alone, but split it up between men and it means as little as it did before you had it. The gold is in the people. There’s so many people down there. A merchant should feel blessed.”
“I’ve been thinking of setting up shop here. It’d be a good idea. Do you suppose it would go over well? Or would it be wasting my time?”
“A man should always do what he’s good at. That’s what I’ve always thought, and it’s done well enough for myself. What you don’t do, somebody else will, and you’ll just be looking back as a fool when it’s all said and done. But that’s up to you anyway.”
“Well then,” the man said. “A good day to you.”
As the home progressed, so did the valley too. Merchants became merchants, and campsites were turned into makeshift markets, and carts, and trolllies. Women charged a nickel a hot meal. Brewers converted basins into fermenters. And even thieves became thieves. Each piece of land became specialized. And as the population grew, so did the market, and the valley was again bountiful. The owners of the small wetlands became the builders of small shops, and food houses, and bars, and inns. Construction began over the old canvas tents. And after a while, things progressed very smoothly in a civilized manner.
The pastor rode through the waterside a few years later. He rode very steady, and piously, not stopping to marvel at the growth that had taken place since his last visit. The old oak and grassland where the boy had taken him were gone, displaced by the framework and skeleton of a small home. But he headed straight where he knew the boy to be, at the white house on the hills.
He found Edgar chopping at a large oak tree a few yards away. The boy did turn when he heard the mule, only stopped for a moment, and slapped the axe once more along the trunk of the tree.
“Have I proved you wrong now?” Edgar asked.
“Always arrogant still.”
The pastor did not dismount. He sat still on the mule and studied the home. The dedication was like no other.
“Your father is dead, Edgar,” he said, without remorse. “He struggled to live, more than he should have. He lived longer than we thought he would. I didn’t want to see you again Edgar, but I think I had to.”
“Why did you come then?”
“To give you the ranch. It’s all yours now. What you do with it is up to you. The deed is back in town when you want it.”
“Why don’t you burn it?” Edgar said. “It might give it some relief.”
“It’s a man’s land. I don’t think you deserve it.”
“What I deserve are the people. Everything I got here.”
“Not everybody followed.”
“Enough,” Edgar said. “Enough to mean something.”
The pastor looked back onto the riverside. Spotted through the trees were shades of liveliness, subtle motions of life and its course. The river ran quick and brown beside it, moving at the same speed, as if everything together at once. He did not seem surprised.
“It is something important,” he said. “A town is always something important.”
“It’s not a town yet.”
“It has the good and the bad. What’s it lacking?”
“The dead,” Edgar said. He swung over his shoulder and hit the tree once more in its open white flesh. “There’ve been babies, yet no dead. It takes a man to die before it truly becomes a man’s place. You were right what you said that day. A man is loyal to the land of his blood. Something about his body in the soil that makes the connection. Once a man dies then this land is owned for all of us.”
“It doesn’t mean as much as you think,” the pastor said. He made a motion to the house. It stood separate from the soil, as if on a pedestal, built apart from the oak and grind of the hillside. He knew Edgar had made it special. “The house, I mean. It’s important now, as much as it can be, but that’s fragile. It’s too delicate to exist in a world like ours. You’ll see.”
“Maybe we see differently on that matter.”
The pastor kicked the mule and the animal grunted before riding off.
“You’ll see,” he repeated in the wind. “You’ll see.”
And then he was gone.
Edgar threw another punch at the trunk. He looked to the home, proudly, and swung again. He would make it larger, extend it to something grander. But as it was, still he loved it. The sun was still high, and rugged, and his sweat became stolid against his skin. The oak was stronger than he had thought; it was taking twice as long. As he delivered another blow, the breeze carried eastward in a rush over the hills. It whistled as it blew, as if beckoned, and Edgar turned just enough to knick the tree off mark. The oak buckled. Its broken flesh gave and the tree pummeled downward. Edgar realized with just enough time to dive away. But his ankle rolled and his knee shattered into the ground. His hips were pinned and crushed beneath the weight of the trunk, and his arm bent awkwardly and immobile behind him. He had feeling enough to reach out with his free arm for the axe, but he had thrown it in the dive, and it was a few yards in the distance.
He struggled to push against the weight, but his bones were too badly shattered to budge the tree. He let out a cry for help, in hopes the pastor might hear and hurry back. But the pastor had ridden quickly away, as he did not like the place; nobody could hear behind the liveliness below. Moving the tree would be impossible and he was sure of it. The weight was crushing him. It was hard enough to breath, but to move took as much pain as it did will. He looked desperately toward the house, at its body, its heart, and its blood that made him proud. He cried once more, but only the house could hear. And it did nothing.
His body was not found until a good time after. A group of men hiked the knoll out of curiosity. Edgar had not been heard of or seen, and the pilgrims had begun to wonder. They found his body thin and frail beneath the stump, stretching toward the home in vain, with the posture of a dead rodent. It was unclear if he had died soon, or if by attrition, but either way it was painful. The earth had taken its toll, and now the man was more of the earth than he was man.
They carried a procession out of principle. Nobody knew the man, but they were part of him enough to treat him as one of their own. Always he had been there in the hills, watched over them, like a father, a bad father, but a father nonetheless, and just as good as any blood. A small plot of land was procured for the burial. It was Edgar that led the people into the valley, and it was his death that brought them together. They watched him bury with sadness and grief. Some cried. Some watched in stillness. It was a mixture of man’s blood and soil that made generations.
And then, from that point on, the valley was owned. It was something to care for, to fight for, to claim. The town was a town. And the men were loyal.
The white house sat lonely on the hills. Nobody claimed it following Edgar’s death, and nobody had the heart to bother with it. It was part of the hills as much as the oak had been, a landmark to the valley. Nothing claimed ownership but the wilds. It laid to rest, and the vines came first. Then grasses encroached the porch, still but surely. Weeds grew between the planks, shattering them with time. The white faded to a lackluster green, and soon it was forgotten. With time, the valley reached and took it whole, and the house was lost.
But the town was too deep not to progress. Babies were born. Graves were filled. People kept coming, even without Edgar. The engines of life and man kept turning.
Conducts were put in motion, and furthermore, laws in place, and people to carry these out; thieves put their hands in politics, and politicians played their part in thievery, and never once was there a difference. The lands were bought more inland, and homes went up as quickly as the land was bought. Then more land to feed the new homes, and the oak and the sycamores were displaced for apple trees and wheat fields.
Families were placed, and families grew, and generations grew distinct to the valley. Then what grew beyond the hills were alien trees, and alien fields. People grew in the valley, and they died in the valley, and it became them as much as their mother and father. Their foods were the cattle that tamed the hills, and their fruits the vines that tamed the soil, and in every which way they were migrants like them to the valley too, but over time there’s a bond that grows with birth and death and soil. After that, it all becomes one.
“The man is only half himself; the other half is expression.”
Briefly the bank was still; it was when the brush began to rustle that it began to move and take life; and from this rustle, came the boy. The boy with the light, fair hair lowered himself quietly from a line of cottonwood, down to the running water of the river. He stood a moment near to the bank, letting the water lap by his feet, almost forgetting to keep quiet. The afternoon was warm, and the winds had begun to rush the hillside flowing east, making a slight hymn as they passed along the cattails. Yellow rushes lifted from the damp sand and swayed side to side. The boy felt comfortable among them. He cleared an area free of stones and sat.
From the clearing, he could make out a soft beach downriver, shaded by a single oak tree. There he saw the old man at work. The old man faced opposite the wind, his canvas just below the tree, and his body protecting it from the breeze. He worked without noise and with patience, gray and weathered, but not even a little frail. His arm passed in sharp strokes along the canvas, little by little, but progressive, creating a harmony of light, supple, scratches in the wind.
The man came to the river every morning, set his place in the beach, and worked solemnly. He set his station the way a preacher sets his alter, with system and custom. And when the boy came to watch, he was not always painting. Often he would sit, wander, sometimes east, west, and on with the river. Sometimes he spoke. Sometimes he sat still and listened. Sometimes he would pace the beach, gather debris, study it, and let it be. Either way it was meticulous, whether he threw stones on the water, or kicked at the dead leaves, it was important. The smallest motions were important, and even the boy could see that.
But what made the boy curious was the ethic. It wasn’t a man’s work. Not the sweat and toil in a harvest, but more difficult. The old man’s ethic was consistent. From morning to dawn, his demeanor never wavered. The men he knew were different. They didn’t have the capacity, and if they did, they quelled it with expertise. Some days they gave their all, aching and broken, the fields stripped and fed. And others barely dripped with sweat, but felt it was equal enough; they gave the earth what they felt, not what was required: a man’s way. But this work was something else—as animal and foreign as a growl or bark. It was not a work for the sake of living, but a living, and he wanted to understand it, as much as a boy would like to know why moons set and suns rise, with the same stubbornness.
The boy pushed aside the rushes. The man was painting, and he settled in to watch. The river made light beating sounds beside his shoes, and the air smelled thick with the mixture of oil and water. Again he felt comfortable in the rushes. His body sunk into the damp sand, as the reeds or the hollows. He brought out a pad of paper from his pocket, a small pad, torn at the edges and the paper aged, but good enough. He began to sketch, with a short, graphite pencil, the water, the creases, the folds. His arm moved in unison with the man’s—short, fast strokes, the way one writes a letter. Thoughts were meant to pass faster than actions, but the work required them to move together, like music—a quick paced music. And if one slowed, the overall suffered. The boy did his best to keep pace. His mind strained, focused, and his hands wavered. And then he began to tire. The song continued downstream, but the boy was done.
He stood, dusted himself of sand. There was not much left he wanted to watch. He had done enough for the day, enough to know he had lost. If only to himself, he lost and it stung nonetheless. He tore the paper from the pad, waded it into a ball, and let it splash in the water. In a way, he hoped the man would falter from the sudden noise, but he didn’t flinch. The supple scratches continued upstream. And the boy followed them in that direction.
Adam walked along the stone edges lining the water, and along the damp, sandy banks. At places, the current heaved, and the water swept into the reeds, creating shallow pools and eddies, thick and brown with mud, yet cool and refreshing to wade. He rolled his jeans up to his knees and held his shoes while his feet sunk into the mud. Soon, he came to a place where the pools dried, and the bank returned. Then came the sounds of splashing, and he knew he had found John once more.
“Get away from the water!” He yelled. “If there’s fish out there you just scared em back to hell.”
A large granite slab rose from the water, above the bank, and dried to a rust color from the sun. John sat with his feet hanging apart from the edge. He swung a makeshift pole side to side—a sycamore branch tied with string that floated on the surface, and somewhere beneath a hook of torn metal. He was the same age as Adam, though he looked younger because his clothes were too large for his body, yet he looked older where his eyes were dark and honory.
“Oh be quiet,” Adam said. “You’re screaming scared em more than my walking. Besides, you won’t catch a minnow on that pole. A good fish would just pull you in.”
“You don’t know good fish,” John said. “A good fish would expect a better pole. It’s good strategy. And anyway, I don’t want a good fish. I want the big one.”
Adam threw his shoes up to the slab, next to John. He found his footing and climbed, and the stone was warm and slid smooth against his skin. The river was its widest at this spot, and probably deepest, and threw all types of reflection, from sun to blue sky, like shattered glass. John held onto the pole with a sportsman’s hope, every second he watched the water, and every second he expected the string to tense; it was a hope as hard to watch as it was to endure, but Adam did so solemnly. John spoke to the water, gathering angst.
“The big one,” he said. “I followed it here. Oh boy, it’s a big one. A real big one. A monster, I tell you. It lives here. Just saw it come up the other day.”
“You said that at the other place too. Only that place there was fish jumping, and you had a shot of catching one. I haven’t seen nothing here. Bet there’s more leaves out here than fish. What happened at that other place anyway? I liked that place.”
“Forget about that place,” John said, solemnly. “That place was for knuckleheads and idiots. Real men fish here.”
“They run you out?”
John turned red in the cheeks and scowled. He had a tough face when he scowled, like a boxer. His eyes squinted, and his face shrunk until he looked mean. “Nobody runs me out,” he said, full with pride and anger. “Only a bunch of fools that don’t know where the fish are swimming to.”
“Did they knock you good?”
“A little, but I knocked em harder. Got a couple good shots. Bet it hurt em good too. Can’t tell a man he can’t fish. It’s his right… And that’s when I saw this one swimming down here, and I just let em have that place. Can have it all they want. This ones a whopper, and I’m gonna bag it. Let em have the others. This one is different. A fish that size could be a legend.”
“No fish are legends.”
“Anything can be a legend. It just has to be wanted enough. Hated or liked, all the same it’s a legend. I don’t know if I hate this fish or like it, but either way, I want it. I have to have it, and I’m gonna reel it in myself, if you help me or not.”
“I’ll help, but I won’t do anything stupid over a fish.”
“It’s not about the fish. It’s the principle.” John tipped the branch and swung the line through the water. The redness hadn’t quite left his face. “The fish is just secondary. It’s a man’s right to fish. People always forget about that. They always try to tell people what they can do. Tell us to move along. Nobody’s gonna stop me from fishing. Nobody.”
“Calm down before you get too into it,” Adam said. “You talk to much when you get mad. I don’t feel like listening. It’s too quiet here to listen.”
“Sorry. Sometimes it just gets to me. If I start talking I can’t quit.”
Adam scouted the water. There were slight waves and wakes from where the wind broke the surface, but overall it was calm and slow moving. Nothing stirred from below, and he was sure of it. They both knew the river enough to tell. The trees whistled and howled, and leaves broke from their home and spiraled downward.
“Look there!” John shouted. He jumped to clarify, but with no direct position. “A fish, coming up to the surface.”
Adam saw nothing. The water ran dreary and quiet.
“Was it the big one?”
“Don’t think so.”
The two sat quietly and the water passed by uninterrupted. John kept alert with hope, red and hiding his anger. Adam watched in wait for a surprise, but little came from the water. Slight ripples circled from fallen leaves, and the rings carried onward downstream. The excitement passed quickly. John tugged on the line and began to pull it upward.
“He’s out there,” he said, standing. He spoke to reassure himself as much as Adam. “Just not biting today. I’ll try tomorrow.”
Adam kept his eyes on the water. Nothing had changed, and he was sure of it.
“Yeah, I saw one surface too,” he said. “Could be a good spot after all. Maybe the fish are coming down this way.”
“Yeah,” John said. His face wasn’t red anymore, and his scowl faded to a normal glare. “Maybe.”
The road ran a little way off the river, coming close at certain points, and furthering at others. The boys walked alongside it, John with the sycamore branch resting on his shoulder, the way a man sets a rifle. The dirt was dry and tough where the sun did it’s work, and where the shade set was soft and light to walk in. At times, the air was tepid with the scent of the lemon groves not far off, and then wavered with the drying leaves of the shrub land. And other than the larks, the boys were alone.
John stopped walking when they came to a place in the shade. He picked up a stone and threw it into the brush, as if aiming, but he wasn’t sure at what. Adam heard the rustle and paused.
“You hot?” he asked.
John wiped his brow. There was little sweat, but it felt like enough.
“Yeah,” he said, calmly. He picked up another stone and threw it too. “Don’t feel like going anywhere either. Let’s stay here for a while.What do you say?”
“Maybe. The air is nice here.”
“And it’s cool. It tastes like lemons around here.”
“No. Let’s go. I’m getting hungry.”
“Me too. Haven’t eaten since…”
“Hey! What you shhhing me for? Huh?”
“Stop throwing those damn rocks. I hear something.”
From up the road came a sharp note, something like a holler from behind the tree line and the boys looked toward it. Just ahead was the turn off to the McClelland’s ranch, a small dirt inlet hidden in the hills, and they could make out faintly the source of the holler. One of the McClelland girls came barreling onto the main road, her face reddened by the run and her voice strained by screaming. She was incoherent at a distance, but when she saw the boys, she ran for them.
“They need help!” she cried. “Mamma and Pappa don’t know what they’re doing. It’s gonna kill her. They’re just standing there.”
“Gonna kill who?” Adam said.
“A lemon seed,” she said. “Little Riley got herself choking on a lemon seed and she’s gonna die. They just don’t know what to do. They’re just standing there watching her choke, and they don’t know. But it’s gonna kill her. She’s turning colors.”
“Well, where at?”
“Back at home. Follow me.”
The boys kicked off after the girl, down the road. They had never been to the McClelland side. The road turned steep, shaded on both ends by thick grasses, and then up further, the orchards. The girl ran like a dog, the purple lupine stem keeping hold in the braid behind her ear. Then the orchards broke into the stable and a little well kept clearing where the home was. The boys leapt onto the patio at full sprint. Inside, the home was cool, and quiet and smelled like the calm before a funeral. They found the little McClelland girl convulsing on the couch in the living room. Her skin was strained to a deep pigment, the color of rain, and her small hands fought at her neck where the seed stuck in. Her mother cried across the room, on a little chair, only watching out of desperation. And her father stood by, watching stone like, without expression; his eyes, empty-the way a man dies. Adam rushed by. The girl took him by the arm, eyes blood shot and lips purple. He turned her away and smacked her the only way he knew, the way one would a baby.
“I’m gonna find Silas,” John said from behind. His steps were heard slapping in the hall and he disappeared.
Adam pulled the girl tight to his body. She was soft and frail and he felt the pain every time he slapped her back. She hurled forward out of desperation, convulsed, and pushed away. Beside the girl, the room was quiet, like midnight. Her eyes rolled behind her lids, cheeks purple like the cold is purple, and he smacked her once more in the back, but it did nothing. The room echoed with each choke; she was near to it and he could feel it, just as much as he felt the girl, he could feel it. He looked each time to her mother, then her father. There was no fight in them.
The girl fell still. Adam dropped her. There was a moment where the color dripped away from her lips, where her face erased in shape and became lifeless and limp. Then the door slammed and there were steps coming in through the foyer, more than a few.
It was John coming in the room with Silas beside him. Silas was twice the size of the McClelland man, a giant to any man, but much to the McClelland. He was a big black man, strong from work, and stained with dirt from the stable. Standing next to John, he was about three of him in one person. He stepped into the room and looked to the girl, and then at her mother, and to her father, but never spoke. He stepped close to the McClelland man, solemn, and glared. His eyes were deep and fixed, as if looking at something wild, like fire. They tried to act without luck. Then he gave up and walked slowly across the room. He shooed Adam and took the girl in his arms, frail like a baby. Her hair dangled without life, and he eased her slowly away from the room, to the porch. The boys followed but the room kept still.
Silas let the girl down on the porch. He worked diligent and methodical, not like an artist, but like a doctor. He opened the girl’s mouth with his large hand, and with the other let a finger into her throat. As he pulled upward, her color returned; her eyes shook, and her cheeks flushed pink and white. Her body threw forward and choked the seed onto the steps. It rattled like a bullet onto the ground. The girl was alive.
She stumbled to her knees, eyes wet, and her white cheeks spilling. Before she could catch more than a few breaths, Silas snatched her by the arm. He pulled her close, and spoke stern, like a father.
“Go inside,” he said. “Inside now.”
The girl listened without argument. Silas sat still on the steps, his back turned to the door. Inside the house came the sounds of the mother screaming from joy, followed by the rebirth of her father. The man could be heard thanking god as loud as he’d been alive the whole time.
“Never again!” the man shouted. “Never again am I gonna let you eat another lemon. And God damn the person who let you have a lemon in the first place. It’s a miracle you’re alive.”
“Oh my baby!” cried her mother. “My baby’s alive!”
John walked to the steps and gave Silas a pat.
“A hero,” he said. “A true hero.”
Silas said nothing. He sat watching the heat above the tree line in the distance. It grew in ripples alongside the wind and danced as the leaves danced and the fruit danced. He had no intentions of going inside, but kept the same calm as if it were morning. The boys felt awkward interrupting.
“Funny how people is,” he said, very low.
“How are they?”
“Just the way they is. Don’t know what it is but it’s something. Tell you sometime latter. You boy’s go on home now. You gotta let people be when they need to. You seen enough, and you done enough. Enough is about all kids need to have. Now get before I make you.”
As the heat blew with the breeze, the house cried. The boys left down the road the way they came.
At certain points, there is a distinct friction between curiosity and inception. The personality has its tendencies, as a stomach to its food, thirst to the liquid. And what becomes of them shapes and mends, constructs. And at these certain points foundations are laid. Whatever is brought about after, just adds another level. The personality does not quit growing. It acts like a fire and devours. At some point then, too, it destroys, or makes it something new. But whichever way it is alive, always.
About morning, the valley was anything but concrete. It changed in shape the way a fire twisted and crackled. When the sun rose pink in the east, the hills melted west. The hillsides rolled, flattened and fled into the grasslands; the oaks wavered and stood strong, fathering shadows that grew apart in the meadows—stark against the daffodils. What walked at night began to settle in a white mist. The lupine stalks tipped toward the afternoon, and the sage brush flustered only when the night moisture crackled and fell. And in the brush, the trails were thick and thin, to where a man had to know them to use them; a stranger knew no difference. One had to know the valley to move through it, as Adam did.
He moved swiftly through a white mist, among the manzanita stalks, into thicker wood, treading the way an animal learned, with trial and discipline. The branches slapped his cold skin, but he kept on. He hadn’t seen the old man that morning. The beach and the oak were empty. The old man was a man of custom. He came in the rain, wet and dripping; he came in the extreme heat, storms, cold. And too, when the man left, he left for good. He wouldn’t be back.
The old man lived away from the river, in a small cabin into the hillside, where the brush grew thickest in the valley. There was little clearing between the wood and cabin. The oak crept to the patio, the shade and cold from the wood coming close enough to swallow it whole, but it held ground. The woods were wild, but the cabin was clean and civil, like a temple civil.
Adam came into the clearing, sat on a fallen oak, and looked around the house. The wilds were thick, white with the morning, and gray as they came into view. Always they seemed to move closer, even though it wasn’t possible, they moved. Each time he came they were closer, the roots like fingers, like hands, feeling out toward the cabin, and he wasn’t sure what they’d do with it; but still the cabin was strong. A few larks flew into the clearing, landed on the banister, and flew away as if they felt it too.
The old man wasn’t home. Adam listened, but heard nothing over the larks. There was a strong scent in the air, one he didn’t recognize, but made him nervous. It was the odor of smoke, of fire, and at first it had been soft, but now it was stronger, and close. He stood and walked through the clearing, watching the brush for signs of crackling or smoke. The scent grew stronger as he moved toward the cabin. Then he caught sight of a gray stream leaving the window, rising with the white air and thickening as it moved upward. The cabin was on fire.
Adam moved to the patio steps. He thought about the old man, where he could be, but he didn’t care. And he wasn’t positive if it was curiosity or the fire that made him go in, but he moved either way. The smoke hissed as it spiraled upward; his footsteps cracked on the dry leaves blown onto the steps. When he was younger, he remembered the way wild fires ran quickly, how they filled the air with ash; he remembered the taste distinctly, the color, shine, the fear. He looked back toward the trail. There was no sight of the old man and he moved on.
The door wasn’t locked and he pushed it into a cool room. Smoke had only begun to seep through the halls, blended with the scent of Eucalyptus leaves placed in glass flasks around the room. The boy lingered. It was different than he thought of the old man. The room was neat, orderly, clean. The furniture was aged but well kept and decorated. On the walls, hung a scenery of canvases, hand painted, of the valley, he could tell, though not for sure, as they had characters he couldn’t recognize. Light spilled from the open door, and the room focused slowly and became venerable, the way it would in a church. Adam studied the canvases. He recognized the water, the oaks, the colors, the knolls, even certain bends, certain breaks—and each picture had mysteries. In certain paintings, there were men and woman, others just the footsteps and outline of a faun drinking from the waterside, but all were different. The latter canvas depicted the faun snared, piously kneeling while taking on arrows from the oak shadows. Adam looked into the faun’s eyes; he saw no remorse, no death. And then he remembered the smoke.
The smoke led him through a darker hall, into the kitchen. From there, he could see out a small window onto the clearing, onto the trees that crept in steadily. The fog was lifting from the morning, and the white air was becoming thin. Soon the sun would be out and the day would be the day. In the corner of the room was an iron stove, and Adam moved toward it. Smoke hissed from a single pan left burning on the fire, and he removed it. It appeared to be tea, but boiled down to a thin film of blackened herbs. The old man hadn’t been gone long. Adam considered if he was gone at all.
That moment came footsteps on the patio, followed by the door being pulled open. The boy froze and watched the doorway. Soon enough, the old man entered. He paused for a moment when saw the boy. He didn’t startle, but walked in casual as if he saw nothing. He looked down at the burned tea, and then back to the boy. Adam said nothing.
Up close the old man was hardened like a statue. His skin was weathered and his eyes honory. His hair was fair and graying, combed properly to the side beneath a cap. No man looked that way in the valley; only those that came and couldn’t make it, but never those that stayed. His checkered sleeves were rolled to his elbows, and he rested his body against the doorframe as he studied the situation.
“I’d offer you some,” he said. “But then I’d have to make more, and I’m not in the mood for it now. Funny, how things change in a moment. ”
The old man pulled a chair free from the kitchen table. He shuffled in his pocket for a rolled cigarette, lit it, and looked again at Adam. In his eyes were the same shades as the faun, black as a hole, and endless.
“It’s never a good thing to be where you shouldn’t,” he said. “Bad things happen that way. What are you doing in my house?”
Adam slid the hot pan across the table.
“There was a fire. I came in to put it out.”
“A smart man knows smoke doesn’t always amount to fire.”
“Sometimes it does. A smart man knows that too.”
“And still it’s not a damn reason to be where you aren’t.”
Adam moved slowly to the doorway. With the lightening fog, the room had brightened, and now filled with smoke from the man’s lips. He felt no urge, no fear, only curiosity, the way he had watching at the river’s edge. The man acted no less of himself.
“You’re business is done. Isn’t it?” the man asked.
“In a way.”
“Then you can go now.”
The boy didn’t move. He had no desire to leave. He wanted the man to leave, to look at the paintings longer, to study the canvases, learn them. And then there was the latter again, of the faun, the snare, and he thought it over to the smell of growing tobacco and Eucalyptus.
“Did you hear me?” the man said. “Your business is done. Be on your way.”
The boy stepped forward from the doorway. He pulled free a chair and sat opposite the man.
“I’d like you to teach me to paint that faun,” he said. “The one in the last canvas especially, the snared one.”
The old man grunted.
“You want to be an artist,” the man said. “How is it a boy runs into fight a fire and notices the subtle things? Maybe if you’d have run quicker, there would be tea left to drink.”
“You’ll teach me then?”
“I’ll escort you to the door and teach you to leave. That much I can assure; to the leaving part, I’m a very stern lector. I’ll see to it that it’s done.”
The old man pushed back his chair and stood. Adam did the same, only turned toward the doorway and began back through the dark hall. The old man did not follow, only watched.
“I’d advise you not to come back either,” he shouted. “Bad things happen to people when they’re not wanted.”
At points the trail lifted, the shrubs rattled, the oaks shifted and the ground became soft and flaccid. It was warm that day, and the boy wiped sweat from his brow when he paused to listen. The rumble lasted briefly, enough for Adam to wonder if it was the earth or his stomach that created the motion. He watched the horizon spotted through light patches in the oak brush, nice blue fine lines, clear in the day. Nats swam in the air, landing often to drink the sweat from his arms, and a soft rattle of bees carried in the stillness.
The boy moved on, sure now the earth had been still the whole time. The trail he followed wound down to the water, cooling slightly, then lifting back into the hills. He stopped only enough to wonder where he was going; a faint aroma of citrus clouded beside the heat, and his legs moved toward it instinctively.
The trail brought him to a rock face, jagged sandstone and warm from the sun, but he scaled it with ease. John was already up top, sitting with a full sack of lemons at his side. The river ran below, low and dry, but still fighting along. John was dripping still from where he waded in the water; his wet trail cut into the rock, and the sandstone crumbled a little from where he’d pulled himself up from the river. When he heard Adam, he turned, a lemon cut open and stuck to his teeth. A few rinds were thrown about the rock and he used his arm to slide them over the edge and into the river.
Adam sat beside him. As the water hit the sandstone it plumed and it felt good to feel the drops of water if they made it high enough.
“Where’d you get em?” Adam asked.
“The McClelland’s,” John said, proud and reserved at once. “I figure he owes me anyway. He owes the both of us. He’d have a dead girl and a broken spirit if it wasn’t for us. It all figures into it. He didn’t say as much as thank you to me. Did he to you?”
“There, you see. He owes you too. You can have some if you want. Should go fetch another bag of em too. They’re sour, and not the plumpest but they do. When you’re hungry, they do.”
Adam felt the water move, and the brush shift again. This time he looked to the hills and saw how still the leaves kept; the lemons made his mouth water. He picked one up and gave it a look over. Little black dents covered the yellow rind. He tore into the flesh and the juice stung beneath his nails.
“How did you get in? Man McClelland put a fence around the grove. Said he don’t want anybody stepping in that don’t belong there. I heard he was strict about it. Someone told me he bought a gun.”
“I don’t know nothing about a gun, but a fence aint gonna keep me out. Could be up to the sky and aint gonna keep me back.”
The two ate as quickly as they were hungry, finishing, tossing the rinds into the water below and grabbing another. The flesh was sour and without sugar, hard to eat, but they got used to it after a few.
“I was gonna go,” Adam said. “I thought about it today.”
“You wouldn’t have gone. You don’t think like I do.”
“No. Maybe I wouldn’t have. These are good though.”
“They’re terrible. Most of them aren’t even ready to pick, but I had to do it. It’s funny thinking of the man McClelland walking about with a gun. I think he’d about freeze before he shot it.”
“They caught somebody the other day, on the Tennyson ranch. I didn’t get to see him, but they say they got him good. Beat him till his eyes were thick with blood. I heard he was a wanderer, just some hungry guy looking for food. Those boys found him first, and I heard they started hooten and hollering like a bunch of monkeys. They said the man nearly fell in fear with an orange in his mouth. Then Old Tennyson came and they gave him a beating. I heard he didn’t even fight back. They almost killed him.”
“I don’t like Old Tennyson.”
“You don’t like nobody.”
“I like some people,” John said. “Just not the Old Tennyson.”
“Cause the man stole that property. I got as much right to it as he does. And those little kids of his. They’re jumping around, acting like fools on my land.”
“Why’s it your land?”
“My pop’s pop owned halves with Tennyson’s pops on that whole hillside. Half those trees they sowed together. We were in good till he cheated him. They were good pals and trusted one another, but when my pop’s pop died, Tennyson’s talked my grandma into something useless. He said she couldn’t run a ranch alone, that he’d let her stay in the house and he’d help and all if she gave up the other half. He worked her something real good and she trusted him and didn’t know no better, so she let the rat do it. And soon enough, he’s raking all the money, and my grandma had none. And then guess who’s there to buy her home when she couldn’t afford it no more.”
“That’s right. And ever since we’ve been what we’ve been and they’ve been what they’ve been and at no fault of our own. Now my pop’s does his best with nothing.”
Adam tore the flesh free of another rind and tossed it in the water. Soon the lemons were gone and the two sat calmly watching the water, stomachs pacified but momentarily. Occasionally flies caught scent of the lemon drippings, swooped by, sucked at the boys skin and were swatted away.
“My grandpa had some good stake down there by the water,” Adam said. “He was gonna build up some things, built a little store and it did good too. Then some other folks didn’t like him much. Sent a few people to burn it down. Without a store, you can’t make money, and you can’t keep things either. Next thing you know, he’s working for the folks who burned him. And now we’re sitting here hungry.”
After awhile, John stood. He gathered the empty sack, shook it loose of dirt and tucked it to his side.
“It’s good,” he said. “But not enough. Maybe I’ll get some more. Something other than lemons.”
“They’ll catch you if you do it to much.”
“Aint nobody gonna tell me not to eat. It’s not fair anyway. One man gets a whole hillside to grow anything he wants. Got food falling off the branches, getting picked at by birds when it could be eaten, just cause they couldn’t get around to picking it themselves. Meanwhile, they got fences. That poor fella they beat up. They just want him to lay around hungry while the fruit is dropping to the ground.”
“They’re getting serious about it. Worse than they’ve ever been. Something’s really got into them lately.”
“I’d grow them too if I could. Give me the land and I’ll work it. But where is it when it’s already owned. They act like it’s our fault.”
“Calm down,” Adam said. “Your face is getting red.”
John snapped out of it. He rubbed his forehead, wet now from the heat. His clothes were stained by sweat and damp. He sat down again, relieved, the way one feels after vomiting.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was getting too hot there.”
“We won’t be able to eat much more anyway. Or else we’ll get sick.”
“It just feels like they keep claiming more. They keep taking until we don’t have much room left to back up. I like my room.”
“We live with what we got left. If you look around, the hills are big enough.”
“Yeah, but something about people: they just don’t quit. And then what happens when they take it all.”
“Then things do what things do. Right now I’m not hungry no more and I’m fine.”
“We’ll have supper tonight at least.”
“And we’ll keep on going.”
John stood again, but this time for good. His face returned to a light white and he was calm once more. He let out a faint laugh and began toward the edge, taking off his shirt to his thin white body.
“We do, don’t we,” he said. “Somehow we do. And they can’t stop us.”
As the breeze picked up, he lept from the ledge. Adam didn’t look down, he trusted the splash for what it was, felt cool from the mist that came from it. He looked at the branches, at the trees still in the heat, the open expanse that grew in the breaks and bends in the horizon; it was the space, all that room, that kept watch on the people, not the people. With all that space it bothered him little. And before John could climb back up the ledge, he was gone.
It was just before dusk when the boy came through the brush, toward the cabin. His shadow was thick, sluggish in the weeds, and grew out, the way the roots tore out and the way the shrubs crept in toward the home. The sun spilled faint lines along the oak leaves, and the boy crunched through them, not caring who heard. The cabin held its place in the clearing, throwing a stubborn fight while the wilds kept their distance, the way buzzards wait out prey. The structure had resilience; though ghostly, its shade was divine. As the boy moved toward it, he felt the sage tug at his ankles, the oak dip and the manzanita hiss and pull away—the wilds left behind, somewhere forward a smooth veneration.
Before he could reach the patio he quit walking and looked forward. The old man was sitting behind the banister, on a rocking chair in the shade. His eyes followed the boy, as they had before his silhouette made it into the clearing, the same as they trailed a fallen leaf or a butterfly. Adam froze and waited for the man to speak.
“I thought I’d see you sooner,” the old man said.
“I got other things too.”
“Not if you want to be good. Things only slow you down. The best have nothing and sometimes even that’s too much.”
“You’ll teach me then?”
“Why you bugging me, kid? Why aren’t you off at school like the others?”
“Not everybody goes. Not unless you got privileges. People like me don’t got privileges. Ones that live from the land have to live with what they got. We don’t go unless something special is up.”
The old man nodded, stern and solemn. As he spoke he looked north always, at the trees that crept in steadily. He was as well aware of the movement as any.
“Sounds to me like you have all the privileges you need. It’s all what goes with you. Some people need those things. Some people don’t.”
“What I got a lot of though is time. And time enough I’d like to do something with. If you won’t teach me, I’ll sure as hell use it to keep on asking you.”
“Don’t be too eager kid,” the man said. “Sometimes it’ll turn you the wrong way. I can’t teach you, but what I can do is show you how to learn yourself.”
“I’d like to paint the faun.”
“There’s that eagerness. Do me a favor and do your best to kill it, stab it real good and let it bleed all out. Don’t feel apologetic afterward either. All dumb men are eager, and the good ones know enough to keep it aside.”
The old man stood, his shade lifting. Every stride he took shifted flawless, as if rehearsed. Little balls of glowing yellow light slipped through the oak leaves and across the porch, onto the man and off as he moved. Without saying any more, he disappeared into the cabin and shut the door. Adam stood quiet, watching the brush as the sky turned deep and the moon lingered bright orange in the east; the breeze began to whistle and pick up slightly as the evening progressed. Adam didn’t care if the man ever came out again; he made up his mind to hold his ground. He thought once more of the faun, of the eyes and the thickness of the black as they held theirs, of his body in the snare, no fight and no pity, and while the arrows set to fire, they set to wander. He kicked at the leaves and looked to the cabin, but it was still. The sun caught fire, choked and sunk toward the western hills and the air was becoming pink and cool. The boy shook, held himself to warm, but kept where he was.
After a while the man returned. He carried with him a small canvas and little sack at his side. He paused for a moment, not sure if the boy would be there still, and when he was he gave a slight smile.
“The best way to kill eagerness is to make a man wait,” he said. “Now follow me.”
The old man led Adam away from the clearing, into the brush, through tight veins of stalk and weed, over trunks of wild Sycamore, footstep-by-footstep of small inlets in between manzanita and sage, ones a man walked only when he was sure of them, of the ground and the soil, and had no fear of himself. Sparrows scattered into the remaining sun, black as shadows and momentary; ground squirrels perched on the arches part fire and darkness from the evening. The man walked every step with certainty, as if the earth did not change by day, but was carved by his own feet and set in his name. Adam struggled to keep pace. The tug came like a current. He walked as he could, and the man moved as he did, passing ground and drifting into the green until what was in front was the crashing of man and nature and the man was no more—their shape twisted, intermingled until the gray figure that was the old man became green and brown, once of foliage and limbs, and then of roots and body.
They came close to the river. Somewhere by it whipped at the bank, tending a quiet that spanned as they walked. Adam thought of the beach, of the place in the shade, of the calm, and how violent it seemed at the moment. But the thin corridors turned quickly, and they began to climb. The man now wasn’t man nor wild. He was a mixture of either, what to Adam appeared a monster, a sprite that came and went as the light came and passed. At times the man paused, gathered his senses, turned to see the boy, and as Adam came close, the wilds lifted and the man was man once more. They headed off, up a steep knoll, one the boy couldn’t place by the surroundings; it was a place different than what he was sure of.
After some time, the brush lightened. The rough sage gave way to light grasses, flowered and soft, and the manzanita fell behind; the oak took root and tamed the fields. Soon, they left the brush and climbed into a clearing, a green field that ran the length of a small knoll. Around the hill was flat, and the rise at points was crafted, often synthetic and pulpit looking. Sparrows sang by larks to a pink and orange air. Oaks grew above a light gray green cover of grasses, shading poppies and purple lupine where it grew thick and high. The clearing smelled of every air in the valley, every stench and aroma, as if the winds met and mingled where they were. The slope reflected all shades of color from the sky and tossed and turned as the wind grooved in between the blades and settled, much like a fire. Along the edges, the brush sustained and died quickly, and then came the meadow, with thick walls and rims, more like a garden than earth. Without thought, the old man continued to the top. He stopped below a solid oak, savage with limbs and old and thick with age. From there, all the hills were visible, all the lines and shapes.
“This is it,” the man said. He motioned for the boy to sit, and he set down the canvas and the sack beside him. “I want you to paint this. And I want you to do it honest.”
“Where are we?”
“A garden of no men.”
Adam looked around the clearing. It was a dense landscape, but one altogether; if one was another, there was little difference.
“It’s beautiful. I like it here, but I wanted to paint the faun, not a landscape. I could do that myself.”
“Some things about you are burdensome,” the man said. “I told you back there to kill that part of you—the eagerness. If you can’t, be on your way home. I told you I couldn’t teach you. Some men are meant to teach and I’m not. But what I can do is show you how to learn. Here is how you learn. By all of this. Once you can paint honest, then you can paint anything.”
“Anyone can paint this. I’ve seen it done plenty.”
The man looked off into the dieing sun.
“For just men, you’re right. But as an artist you’re dumb as ever. A lot of men can paint this. You can find this scene in every market, on every shop wall. They can paint it. They think they can anyway. But they can’t do it honestly. You see, you have to perceive. They don’t perceive; what they know to do is paint. There’s more to it.”
“Does it take long?” Adam asked. “To learn what you say?”
“For all good things, yes.”
“It depends on what suits you. It’s not enough only to perceive. For some people it is, but not the good ones. If you’d like to be good then yes, but it’s up to you. That’s why I cannot teach you. It’s like shooting a bow. Have you shot a bow before?”
“Once when I was little.”
“But are you an archer?”
“It’s the same. You aren’t an artist the same as you aren’t an archer. Shooting arrows from a cocked bow doesn’t make you an archer. What makes you an archer is to hit the target, and do it repeatedly. And that takes time; takes patience.”
Adam felt the cold wind kick up the hill and spill over his skin. His skin rippled and he reached for the canvas. Inside the sack were small jars of paint, a few colors, and an ivory brush. He looked down the hill, toward the line of oak and undergrowth that kept it secret from the valley.
“What do I perceive?” he asked.
The old man didn’t speak. He started back down the hill.
He stopped, startled.
“I’ll give the time I can spare, not all of it,” he said. “Don’t bug me, kid.”
“But what do you want me to perceive? There’s a landscape. I can perceive that fine. But you want something else. What is it?”
The man stood for a moment, the breeze catching up to him too, picking up chunks of his combed gray hair and lifting it.
“A lot of men can take up a bow. Many of them want to hit that target more than the men who can without trying. They give it their all, everyday shooting. And then still there are men that just can’t hit it when they want to. No fault of their own. They gave it what they could. Some men aren’t archers; some aren’t artists.”
“The canvas and the paints?”
“Paint what you can. Bring them back to me when you’re done. I’ll let you know how bad you’ve missed.”
Adam didn’t paint that evening. He left as the sun set, fell and blackened from the west, and the hills fell to shadows and the dogs and the coyotes could be heard roaming the clearing behind him. There were no thoughts to perceive of the cold, and no dreams of the dark worth noting. He returned early in the morning, with the canvas and ivory brush. He took position atop the knoll, beneath the oak where the man had left him. It was different in the morning than the evening. The oak protected, kept the white mist and the morning at bay. It was a place comfortable and a place lively at once and the boy could settle in and do good work.
He watched the morning lift, the sun’s return, and how the air warmed and the oak kept him cool. And he could paint nothing. Inside the clearing he watched it spring, move, live in motion of shadows and winds as the day progressed. A deer moved along the border chaparral, entered, caught scent of the boy, and took off once more. Nothing came into the clearing again, only butterflies and bees that wandered free, picked off by lark through the accident of open flying. Morning came and passed; the boy ached with hunger, cradled his body into the open alcoves of the oak roots and fell asleep. When he woke, he painted.
He had never done so without difficulty, but now every move came defined. Strokes were tight and precise. The paints splayed in smooth color, unlike the pencil he was used to. By high noon he was sweating, and had a canvas he was proud of. Once he set the canvas down, he felt real. He felt awake.
For a while he stayed under the oak, if not for the cool, then for the quiet. The fields were tranquil. They moved often when they had too, when the sun drifted and the breezes flourished. He realized then it was hard to focus on one point and keep it; like water the planes moved and the eyes blurred into one scene. It was because of this Adam nearly missed the tan hat that bobbed and floated above the green. He jumped when he saw it, startled. It was very unusual in the way it moved and fluttered, free and sudden, with a purple ribbon tied to the brim, catching the wind and parting; it took him a while to see it not as a bird but an object. It moved just above the yellow grasses in the distance, and soon Adam realized there were more than just grasses, but a trail and movement.
He ran toward it quickly. The breeze gathered strength, a nice cool breeze, and picked up in a sudden. The hat lifted a few feet in the air, alone. It spun, clambered into the field, picked up again, and did the same motion. When it came to rest finally, there was a stark clamor in the brush and from it came a girl, flustered and red in the cheeks. She looked at Adam, paused. She wore a light blue dress, every other color of the lupine, yet one not fit for the wilds. As if she wasn’t aware of the leaves that clung to her shoulders and her dark hair, she brushed them free quickly. To the boy she stood proper.
“Have you seen a hat?” she asked.
“One just blew by. Would you like me to get it for you?”
The girl looked at him starkly. Her eyes were strong and a light brown, the color of melons. She looked to the hat in the field, then again at the boy, prideful and red in the cheeks.
“No,” she said. “I’ll get it myself, thank you.”
“How did you loose a hat here?”
“Why?” she said. “What’s this place to you? It looks as good a place to loose something as anywhere else.”
“But not a place to loose a hat.”
The girl retrieved the hat, returned it clumsily to her head. She shifted the ribbon to the front; the bands trailed her, swinging. The red in her cheeks withered and now they were white and smooth, like pastel.
“They’re horrible things anyway, hats,” she said. “If it were up to me, I’d see to it they were all burned. I bet it would make a good fire at the end of it. We wouldn’t have to wear them again.”
“That’s strange,” Adam said. “Why do you wear them then?”
“Because we can’t burn them. Our mothers would be horrified.”
The wind picked up strong once more. The hat lifted, spun free of her reaching fingers and into Adam’s hand. The girl huffed, angry and red once more, snatched it from him and refitted it.
“I really do hate these things,” she said. “Are you laughing at me?”
The boy smiled.
“Huh,” she said. “Then so be it. I’ll be leaving then.”
The girl huffed, brushed herself once more, and began off toward the grass where she came. Her starkness was cordial, and the boy nearly made steps to follow, though he thought of the redness in her cheeks and thought better of it.
“My name is Adam,” he called out.
The girl paused. She turned, tipped her hat courtly.
“Charlotte,” she said. “Charlotte Belle.”
Before the wind could pick up once more, the girl was gone. Adam waited for the hat to spiral back into the clearing, and when it didn’t, he walked up to the oak, retrieved the canvas, and began off toward the river.
The sun broke in medial light through thick leaves, and the sky, the sun, the clouds projected thoroughly above the leaves, though not visible. Adam made his way toward the old man’s cabin, by this light, as the wild grew thicker. He passed old trails, heard shuffles, with no difference in man or animal; the day was young, and he felt it passing too slow to move straight, and he strayed toward the noises, eventually to a familiar place by the waterside. There were slow movements on the granite slab and he scaled it difficult with the canvases, but overall made it with effort. He found John, head over the edge in a seasick way, looking over the water with no intentions; his makeshift sycamore pole lay next to him, in pieces, the head and the yarn missing. When he heard Adam, he turned around, not shameful of his face at all. Both of his eyes had been mashed, a purple like a storm, and his lips torn and cut and red with dried blood. There were small cuts between his cheeks and his nose, ones he’d cleaned but left open to sting. His nose had been bent enough to disrupt recognition, with bruises where the knuckles had hit him good; little spots of blood remained where he couldn’t wipe them in his nostril. And still though, he looked happy; more so than ever.
“What happened to you?” Adam said.
“Good things,” he said, riled up, but for once not red. “Sit down, I’ll tell you. What’s with the paintings?”
“Been practicing. All morning.”
“Oh, well sit them down and listen. I’ve never had this much a day in my life and it happened quickly.”
“Looks like you’ve had enough happen today. We should clean those. A few might need sewing.”
“All those things can wait. Good stories come and go fast, and before you know it, it’s not true anymore. So let me tell it to you while it’s fresh and I can get into it.”
Adam set the canvases aside. John bent over the granite slab, pooled water into his palms and splashed it onto his face. He wiped the wetness with his loose shirt, and the wounds didn’t clean but smeared like paint.
“Ok,” he said. “Where do I start?”
“I thought you knew this already.”
“I do now,” he said. “I’ll begin here: You know those three dumb idiots, Claxton, Jess and Harden, don’t you?”
“I do. The Murray, the Roethaker, and the Williams.”
“Yeah. Those idiots.”
“The ones who beat you good. Did they get you again?”
“Just listen. Be quiet for a little and let me tell you,” he said; his eyes were lit and busy with thought. “It started this morning, cause everybody else was at church and I knew the river would be mine for the while. Well, it all started out good. I took my pole and found a good spot upstream a little, didn’t catch nothing but it was a good spot. And after awhile of sitting there, I just got mad, mad as hell. And I really don’t even know what at. Just that good mad you get out of the damn blue and you want to just run about smashing things to bits, breaking sticks and glass and things, the one that catches you off guard.”
“You always get that.”
“No, Adam. This was different. Something came over me, and the first thing I thought of naturally was those damn fools and that good spot over there. Nobody was gonna chase me out of a good spot. For what reason too huh? And I knew that beast of a fish was there. I’d seen it with my own eyes, and I wasn’t gonna leave it for those idiots to nab and crack about. No way.”
“Were they waiting?”
“No. I got there all right. I snuck up through the rushes good as a cat could, through the Roethaker part of it, the apple trees and all, came up through the sycamores and set up a nice spot. And I was proud as I’ve ever been fishing. It felt good to be back where I belonged. Only I made a mistake though.”
“Church didn’t last all day.”
“It does for some people, but not crazy idiots like that. I was comfortable as ever, and after a while I stopped listening, and got to watching the water for signs of the beast. The next thing I know a stone goes whizzing by my ear, just missing, slaps the water just in time for another to come by and smack me on the shoulder. Look at this cut right here, nearly stuck right in my skin, like a bullet. By the time I was about to start fighting, Jess and Harden had already pounced, and the big fat one had me in a hold with my arms up over my head; against weight like that I couldn’t move.
“Claxton chucked another stone and it cut my cheek pretty good. That’s this one right here, the one that’s open still; it bleed for a good while. Got me madder than ever, but the big one had a good hold.”
“Might need that one sewn,” Adam said. “It looks bad. I can see the meat inside of it.”
“Maybe. It’s okay for now though. Let me keep going, anyway, before I forget… Then Claxton came out of the brush, rat nosed and dumb as ever. ‘Didn’t I tell you this place aint for poor farmer’s boys?’ he comes up saying. The boys were still in their good clothes from church, all white and clean. ‘I guess you need more than what we did last time to get it through your poor head. This is our spot. If you want to fish, then fish on your own land. Oh…wait. You don’t have any.’
“I would have leveled them if that fat one didn’t keep my hands clear. And then the other two got to throwing punches, pretty good ones too on account that I couldn’t dodge or anything. As you can see they got me pretty good. Punch after punch, and each one I could see the blood on their knuckles.”
“Looks like they killed you,” Adam said.
“Could have. But then Claxton got to talking again.
‘What’s your pops up to?’ he said. ‘Out shepherding other peoples property. Is that what your gonna be too? Just like your pops. Taking care of other peoples goods. Worthless.’
“And I felt it then. All that anger I felt back on the river spilled into me somewhere deep and wholesome, something horrifying, I think. I don’t even know what I was then. Something like a fire… and maybe worse. Claxton pulled back for another blow, but time slows when you got that rage going; I watched it coming and it came slow like a snail slow. It felt like something was in me, like I wasn’t me but something stronger. I threw my leg back, right into Harden’s gut, and the fat glutton tumbled and fell away. As soon as he released I dove free of the punch and Claxton’s fist passed through me like air, good air, great air, and the idiot was coming with so much force that he couldn’t stop it; his body just kept on with the momentum. He fell head first in the river, like a stone.
“Naturally I shoved off into the brush. But I heard a commotion behind me and I had to stop. Claxton had taken to Harden. He had that cow on the riverbank, throwing punch after punch, straight punches, the kind that blacken and swell on a face. Jess went running to help, but Claxton came off just in time to lay him out into the mud. It was a good commotion to see, gratifying.
‘These are my good clothes,’ he kept saying. And each time his fist slapped against Harden’s fat cheeks he let out a dog’s cry, a whimper and a wail.”
“Did they see you watching?”
“Nope. It’s like when you get a couple dogs fighting, they don’t know what’s going on but what’s right there. And I felt around for something big. I got myself the biggest, jaggedest stone, and when Claxton turned around to go for Jess, I let it fly. It was the best throw in my life, and you know I’m not much for throwing. But this one was straight and hard. It landed right beneath his eye and I could see the cut bleed then, and then his face shudder. And I took off, like a squirrel, proud as hell too knowing that was gonna scar.”
“Now they’ll be looking for you,” Adam said.
“They’ll always be looking for me. They got me enough anyway. Can’t beat me much more than they did, so I can take it. What I cared for was the fish anyway. And that’s where the good part comes in.
“I didn’t run too far off, just enough to be safe and in a good place; I knew they wouldn’t come looking for me right then, all muddy as they were. So I let down my pole in the water, got comfortable, let it sit a bit. At first, I felt the line tug, but it surprised me cause it came so quick. But then it really pulled, a fast strong pull, almost threw me into the water. It felt like a couple horses had my line, and I just dug in and held on.”
“I didn’t know at first. I pulled hard, tried to hold my ground, but it pulled back and I lost it quick. It carried me upstream like it had me. Then I saw it surface, all black and godly, and I knew I had it. See, all that energy came in handy then, cause normally I wouldn’t have been able to keep with it, but I was all riled up and all that anger becomes something good when you need it. It tore me through the brush, anytime it wanted to, and I could either let go, or go with it. All I could do was to run with it, let it tire. I lept from stone to stone on the bank, tore my skin in the brush when it closed in. After a while, I realized I was running. My body sweat, my eyes burned, my cuts screamed, but I kept on. I climbed that rock face down there, fell and it tore up my knees as it pulled me. I felt like a criminal strung up on a horse, but I loved every second of it. And I knew exactly what I was doing too; I was leading it away, toward my territory.
“When I came to this slab, it slowed in its pull and I knew had to take my chances cause I wouldn’t be able to go anymore. I dug in and pulled back and I felt it give slightly and the fish buckle but then resurge and attack once more. And then I realized I wasn’t fighting a fish out there, but a little bit of myself; we both were near dead but had enough to keep fighting and I knew I loved that fish more then. I cared for it. Don’t know how, but I did, a genuine care.
“And finally, the fish relented. I began to pull it toward me, gaining ground. Its black silhouette lingered on the surface, submitting, and I felt proud then, like I had it accomplished. All my strength went into a final pull. The fish’s head came into the air, and his eyes met mine and I knew then I had finally won. But then the pole gave in. That sycamore couldn’t take the full weight of the beast. It snapped as you see it now. Three whole pieces of solid wood. I fell back, nearly busting my head on the slab, and the beast got the best of me again. It was exhilarating.”
“You’ll die someday,” Adam said.
“Yeah, that’s the bad thing about people.”
“I guess so. You think that fish will stay around here?”
“I bet it will. This place isn’t all that bad when you stick around here enough. Once you stay around a place long enough you get to know it a little better. I’ll catch it soon. I think I have to.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Hey, where were you today?”
“Somewhere out the way. I found a nice place, somewhere I’ve never been before. Out in the thick.”
“Painting? I’ll have to see it someday. At least know where to find you if you never come back.”
“If I was there, you think they would have licked me too?”
“Yeah,” John said. “Then we’d both be black and blue. Don’t worry though. It scares them.”
“Our people. That’s why they act how they do. Scares them to death. If we got us then we got something, and they don’t want us to have nothing.”
John fell back onto the rock. He bent once more to the water, filled his palm, and splashed his face. His eyes were thick and dark at the pupil, hiding something of the pain he felt from the water. He slid the back of his palm from ear to chin and the dried blood turned smooth and left a streak. The water did its best to clean, and the blood its best to stain.
“Hey,” Adam said. “Is that girl doing alright? The one we saved.”
“I think so.”
“And what about Silas?”
“Let’s go see him.”
“What about your things?”
Adam tucked the canvases between a thicket of cattails and sage beside the granite slab, and he stood, watching the water move quickly through the mud.
“They’ll be alright,” he said. “But I don’t feel like being still today. I feel like I have to keep moving.”
All about the McClelland home was quiet, from the orchards, to the still patio. The wind marshaled little other than a breeze, and from time to time the lands would shift, the leaves sway, and a lemon fell briefly and bruised along the floor. The boys walked calmly. The sky was open, the clouds light and airy, and the ground spread apart with dust. They listened for the sound of horses, for the sound of iron smashing iron in the workshop, but nothing came. After some time, they wandered to the stable. They found the older McClelland girl resting on a banister beside the horses. In her hair blew the purple ribbon that led them prior; she startled as they entered, turned; her face reddened at the cheeks, and she nodded.
“I never got to thank you,” she said. “If that’s why you’re here, then I’m sorry.”
“Where’s Silas?” Adam asked.
“Silas? Oh, you haven’t heard then.”
“My daddy was so grateful, you know, for what happened, and he gave Silas a little square of land up in the high ranch. He said he could have it, his name on the deed and everything, and he could do whatsoever he chose. And you know Silas. He’s up there right now building.”
“A whole square of land!” John said. “And I didn’t even get a thank you.”
“I apologized for that already. I don’t have much reason to leave here and if I had seen you, I would have told you sooner.”
“Is he not working here still?” Adam asked.
“Oh no, not with Silas. I always liked Silas. And one thing I liked was that he could always do a whole lot with a whole little. That land was nothing useful to us, way up there like that in the oaks, but I bet Silas gets some good use out of it, enough for him to live anyway. He doesn’t need to work if he can live. He’ll be lonely up there though.”
“He won’t be if we visit him,” Adam said. “Is it just straight up the ranch.”
“Go past the trees a little ways where things become wild. You’ll start to hear sounds then, clanking sounds. If I know Silas than I know he’s working and will be working until things are through. Follow those sounds and I’ll bet you’ll find Silas. Good day, and even late, it’s appreciative nonetheless, thank you.”
The boys left the stable behind. The grunt and sigh of horses faded into stillness as they entered the orchard once more. Shadows were thick and stalky in the leaves and the air cooled in their shade. The earth between the orchard was loose, tilled and tamed, and it wasn’t like walking by the river. Each step peeled a layer, kicked up dust and shed the dead skin; the earth wasn’t natural, but mended, shifted, and as much earth as cattle is to a wild breed, pilfered of his coat and horns, of its toughness and muscle. When they came to the high ranch, the trees ended abruptly, and the brush and the grasses became feral once more; the oaks took place, and the trails ended. The line between the wilds was stark, yet permeable, and it carried along a distance the way a fault splits the earth. That’s when the boys heard a jolt to the calm, a faint clanking, the systematic and manual beating of a hammer.
They followed the noise into the oaken woods. Silas was a large man and he hadn’t been subtle. They picked up his trail as it broke into the thick, the way a bear tears across the earth. His steps were distant and quick paced, what a man runs to leave the land of others toward his own, but they kept stride to the sudden clanking. A chasm of shattered light tampered the floor; the leaves crunched as they scaled further. The land was useless to all men who had a use for it; it was a land for men who couldn’t put it to work, but worked alongside it.
At a point the leaves lessened and submitted to the air and sky. Water began to run, nothing large but enough to be heard echoing through the plain, little streams that parted between the leaves, left over with water from the rains. The land became a semi circular clearing, hard and solid, but level, and sprouted with poppies and tall grass sheared to ankle length already by Silas. There were small piles of lumber beside hand fallen oaks, and the beginnings of a foundation plotted into the level land. Already the likeness grew civil, though with work to go.
Silas knelt beside the foundation, wielding an iron pick, rusted but still of use, and drove it into the hard floor. When the boys came, he stood, wiped his brow of sweat. He glanced at John, at his bruises and the blood, his face always stern.
“What happened to you, boy?” he said. “Looks like the dogs got ya.”
“A dog would be a compliment. More like the rats got to me.”
“As long as you delt them one in return, doesn’t matter much.”
“I think I left a scar.”
“Then, I suppose, all is well with you.”
Silas brought the pick to rest at his side. His skin dripped of sweat and his eyes squinted into the sun. His body was tired and he took long, deep breaths, heaving his thick chest the way a lion would. He looked no different than ever, no solace, no damnation, just his own self. A man could drop a stone on Silas and he wouldn’t change.
“I thought coming out here would be different,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d see nobody much anymore. And then look, here’s as much life as I ever had.”
“Boy, this place is something,” John said. He had taken to the clearing, studying and looking things over. Silas followed every step with his eyes alone, the way a man watches things subtle. “You know, we didn’t get as much as a thank you. I’m glad old McClelland had a heart for you though. It’s not worth as much as a life, but it’s worth more than anything else.”
“I don’t suppose it’s as much heart as it is guilt. He kept looking on me funny after the girl got better, like he didn’t know what to do, like I’d done something wrong and he wasn’t sure yet what to do with me. And I suppose this is what he felt made him look the most gracious and the least bad, but nothing of a heart. My great momma worked for that family, and her momma, and my momma too. And I suppose he felt he had to, out of guilt. But I don’t think ever was there heart in it. Some people fear ghosts more than they do real people. Not me though. Not me. ”
While John walked about, Silas took up the pick once more. He swung the wooden handle high over his shoulders. The weight pressured his arms, strained, and made it clear the power he truly had. Iron struck the ground with a clash. Stone came apart in bits, shattering into the next wind. Adam moved toward the foundation, where the earth trembled, and sat on smooth bench of new lumber. The clearing was an ugly clearing. It was a place a man would go through and pass on without considering to stay or return. There were no wildflowers, but weeds and stolid grasses; it was a bed for dead leaves and a gully for hard soil and stone; it lacked color entirely. But it was owned now, and that made it different; now it had pride
“Is it good land?” Adam asked. “I’ve never known anybody with land before. At least nobody worth talking about it with.”
“Only a fool gives up good land, boy. And that’s why bad land is the best land. If it was good land I wouldn’t have it. And I don’t mind. I’ll do my best with it.”
“What are you doing?”
“Leveling these stones. Best place for a home would be right here, I suppose, but it’s covered in stones, and you can’t build on stones. And over there by the water, I’d like to build a little canal. Make do with what I have. But I can’t make it too good though. I have to keep it bad enough. Can’t get ahead of myself.”
“Cause once it’s good land, they’ll want it back. Only reason I got it now is cause it aint no good to them. So that’s what I love is bad land. The way bones and scraps are good for dogs, cause we don’t have no need for them. If they were good to us, you think the dogs would get some. But they love it cause they just don’t know any better. And that’s like me now, cause I love this land, bad as it is. I don’t know any better either. I just have to be smart and make it last.”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” he said. “I suppose I’m just afraid.”
“What are you afraid of, Silas?” John said, who came kicking through a growth of weeds Silas had missed while leveling. “You just got a whole heap of something good and you’re gonna be afraid.”
“It’s just something you can’t explain too good, but I don’t feel it in the blood. Those types of things gotta be in you somehow. You gotta expect it. You gotta know better like those dogs. My great momma, and her momma, and my momma, all worked for that family, and every single one of them did better deeds than I did, and none of them got nothing. All the things I done and what I did just then was so little; I aint ever got nothing before and don’t expect nothing now. After a while it just becomes a part of you to expect what you get. And this isn’t something I get. The way you feel when you’re young and you get something special. Aint ever a chance to enjoy it cause you’re so scared somebody’s gonna up and take it away. Feels a little bit like that. Every time I strike this land, I pray it isn’t wasted.”
He struck the land again; it shuddered, shattered, and the rocks tore and shot beneath his feet; the sound’s bellowed like thunder. The open air was empty in the silence. All the trees, the river, seemed far away.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re here anymore,” Adam said.
“It’s strange, but I suppose that more than the land gets me happy. Just to get away from it, all the people. They’d been getting at me.”
“You really think the old McClelland would want it back?”
“I don’t know nothing about old McClelland or what he thinks,” Silas said. “And I won’t speak for him either. But I’ve known him long enough, a lifetime enough to know there were things done without heart, cause he doesn’t have one. My momma once told me when I was little that you could always tell good people from bad people by the way they act when times get tough. Good people act, and the bad freeze and let it happen. When things get tough they can’t cope; they’d rather watch the ill take over. And that’s what they did in there, all of them. How they could do nothing, I don’t know. Only bad people let bad things happen and do nothing to help it.”
“But you did it,” Adam said. “She would have died without you. We didn’t do anything.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you did something, whatever you could. That’s cause you boys are good people. And the world needs good people. Cause all you got really is people, and when you aint got people, you aint got nothing. There aint enough good people left around us. I’d rather be out here, alone, where the woods can take me and do what it wants than be in the valley again. People scare me. I’m not afraid of the animals, of the dark. But people are different. You know what you get with the animals, with nature. But with people you never know. I suppose that’s frightening when you get to thinking.”
As he spoke, his eyes became lit and his voice deep. His muscles tightened around the pick handle and he wielded as well as a soldier could. With such force he bore the rusted tip into the shattering stone and the earth lit with the same spark in his eyes, and fumed until the pick tore through the earth as it would flesh. Then from the wound, it bubbled, and bled. A black crude ran onto the grass, thickening and spreading. Silas stepped back slowly. His expression had changed, the stern gone to the horror. The clearing became quiet, as if the wilds had smelled the crude scent, took a breath and grimaced. Nothing moved but the black of the earth. Silas dropped to his knees, tepid with sweat. His eyes fixed to the spot of contact, as if his hands hand torn the earth by bit. From where the pick kept fast in the stony ground, bled more black crude, until the sun shone bright on its surface and it was unmistakable. Even to all who had never seen it, it was unmistakable.
John ran to the foundation, confused at the sudden calm, but when he saw the wound he stopped and grew dead still. Adam watched it bubble slightly, then trickle the way water shifted through mud. The boys turned pale, weary at the sight. Adam looked to Silas, whose eyes were deep, and his thoughts went to sorrow. He felt grief for the man, more grief than for the dead, if there were differences.
But after some time, Silas stood. His face had not changed. He watched the crude the way a man watches fire, with wonder and angst. He picked up a large stone among the grasses, one that gave even his arms a struggle, and he carried it to the foundation. His boots slapped through the crude, but he paid no mind. He kicked free the pick, and the earth bled freely. Then he dropped the stone over the wound; the earth sputtered, tried hard to gush, but was held at bay once again, and the bleeding quit.
Silas took up the pick, swung it over his shoulder. A group of sparrows took to the air behind him.
“I guess this wasn’t the right spot for a home after all,” he said. “I suppose I was mistaken. You boys should leave.”
The two took their eyes from the stone and began away into the stillness without argument. Their small steps crackled with every yard of dead leaves. An eeriness to the wild came upon the wind, and it blew again, now furious.
“Adam,” Silas called out, and the boy turned without will. “This aint no good land. It won’t do no good for people. Worst land you’ve ever seen. Worthless.”
Adam gave a nod, but Silas had turned. His back was weathered and aged from work, and blended slowly into the dry clearing until the boy could see nothing but the way the earth bubbled and moaned.
“Not at all,” he said. “Isn’t worth a thing.”
Night to the valley was something wicked, though not good or bad, only lacking repose; and it’s a man’s good fate that he knows nothing of it; all that he knows truly are its spoils and gains, of which he notes the slow movement of what slumbers in the morning, and which stalks without impediment into the moonlight. And so the valley came to morning sometimes steadily.
By morning a mist had slipped along fissures in the hillside, departing east from the ocean, and settled as a white fog among the trees. The layers were thick and wet, catching the cold as much as it shuttered the sun, and wrapped the leaves, the thickets, and the trails all in one steady piece.
Adam could only see the soil before him but he pushed on. Soon enough he shuffled among the damp leaves of a clearing, and into the light of the old man’s cabin. It had no structure in the fog, but a clear definition, as if a silhouette of something larger. The patio grew dark, and the steps darker, until the old man’s shape became of the same piece and there were two present.
“I don’t really like you much,” the old man said. “You come when I don’t have time for you.”
The man was on his knees just below the patio steps, gripping a small iron shovel. The wild was present even in the fog and the brush had consumed a good part of the distance between the cabin and the wood overnight; it grew rapidly onto the foundations, onto the steps and the banisters wherever it could reach. Small tubers and limbs had been gathered into piles beside the old man and he acted quick to sever the remaining roots. The man was clean cut and ethic in his work, though he toiled with the roots as if they fought back with as much discipline. There was composure with every slap of the shovel, and as he gathered the severed roots, he did so with construct of either something wild or something civil, though his eyes, at times, were hard to decipher.
As he heard Adam, he did not turn to greet him, but gave him a scowl and continued to work. He tore the roots where they encroached from the soil, with no body but the earth, and he ripped them free without delicacy.
“They grow fast in these hills.” Adam said. “I’ve never seen the plants move like that. Maybe they should plant here and not down in the valley.”
“They move as they want to,” the old man said. “We don’t see them move until we notice they’ve overgrown their space. And even so, they’ll get closer and closer. And I’ll get older. And then soon enough they’ll have won entirely.”
“You sound disheartened.”
“Sometimes we get this way, kid.”
“I brought back the canvases, like you said.”
“It’s something I’ve done before. I told you, any man could.”
“I don’t have time to be wasted.”
“Neither do I.”
“But you lack the sense to know what good time is. Go home before the fog gets thicker.”
The old man scraped up a pile of tubers with the shovel and threw them into the brush. The leaves opened, the vines engulfed the flesh back into the green. A few sparrows came through the white just to fade again with the color.
“They say it’s a sign of savagery to devour your own,” he said. “But it’s all very natural.”
“I’ve done what you asked,” Adam said. “The least you could do is look at them.”
“I could,” said the old man. “Where are they?”
Adam handed the canvases to the man, and he fanned through each piece one for one. When he finished, he let them to his side and said nothing. There was very little means to speak in the calm; the density and the grandeur had little effect, if any at all and Adam stood with pride.
“You don’t need to show me the little things,” he said. “Those I can do well enough. I want to learn something I don’t know.”
The man gathered up the canvases, the same as he’d done with the tubers and roots, and threw them casually into the brush.
“Hey!” Adam shouted. “What’s your problem?”
“They’re worthless,” the old man said. “You care too much about the big things to know anything about honesty. Now get the hell out of here! And don’t come back until you’ve done something honest. Else you’re wasting my time.”
“Maybe you’re wasting mine.”
“Then it would do best to leave.”
The boy didn’t move, but turned as if by will; his mind forced a steady hold on his limbs and he kept his place in the wet leaves by the cabin. The fog had yet to lighten and the old man grew into a haze, but deep and shadowed by the light of the dark cabin. There was no wind to move the air, none to toss the leaves and to rustle the ground. All was very still, and if not by the cover of mist, silent.
Then the old man came to again. His figure appeared above the patio, gliding across the air until he was close enough to the boy to be himself. He stood calmly for a moment against the banister, took an old man’s breath, and sat on the wooden chair overlooking the clearing.
“You’re a Shepard’s boy,” he said. “Am I right?”
“Not only a Shepard,” Adam said. “We work and live by the Lasseter’s land. They have cattle, but fields as well. My father does more than Shepard.”
“Don’t it seem like all the poor folk live by the Lasseter’s land?”
“Cause they don’t mind us. Other folk do. But we just live and go our way. It’s the only place left to go by now.”
“It never used to be like that.”
“So I hear.”
The old man pulled a flask from his pocket and took a quick drink from it. He motioned for the boy, and Adam reached up, took a drink himself, much lighter, but with an ill effect. He swallowed as much of the distaste as he could, the rest he coughed and winced.
“But people are people,” the old man said. “And they do what they do as much as these plants and these animals do what they do. Say, what does a poor Shepard’s boy like you want with painting anyway?”
“Nothing that I know of. But I guess it’s the same as a man wanting to catch fish with a pole, and a man wanting to beat up on people.”
“I guess so. But it’s something different to be an artist.”
“I don’t know that either. What I do know is there are two different types of us. First, there’s the kind that has the power—the money, the friends, the right people. It makes a difference to the artists all these things, a big difference. They grow into it. They do it cause they should, and they get good cause they should, just as good as us even. And second, there’s the people that don’t have none of those and just do it cause they don’t know why. They live the same as anyone else. Only while everyone else is sleeping they’re painting, or they’re writing, or they’re just thinking about it one way or another. Without all those other things it really don’t mean much. But we don’t get bored with it. And we just keep doing it nonetheless.”
“Why do they get bored with it?”
“All things fed with glory eventually starve. Once it runs out, there’s nothing left to feed the thoughts, and they just shiver and tremble until they run out too.”
“Then there’s nothing in it?”
“For us, no. Does that bother you?”
“Somewhat. I think it does.”
“It does to me too. The sad part is it always will. That’s our tragedy, and that’s how we get good.”
The old man said no more. It was as if his words were direct to the wilds somewhere in the mist, and dissipated through the boy entirely, as if by echo. Adam stepped away from the patio. He had no desire to be there any longer. There was a gloom that caught in the wetness and clung to the still air. Only the birds scurried free as he walked. The earth passed on reluctantly.
For a short while there was only the few grass blades that fed the small knoll in the clearing. And then came the sun hard fought through the fog, in small beads that fell through as if the mist could hold the weight no longer. Adam had no intentions to paint the hillside as it was. His eyes trailed the receding fog toward the brush, down to where the flowers grew purple and gold and the brush dry and toiled. What was in the air that morning passed from somewhere off in the distance, possibly further off than the mist, though similar in its cold. He was comfortable below the oak limbs, and he moved only to listen to the white breaking, and the voices along the way. The clearing could speak well; it was something he couldn’t break, but could hear all the same, something in a foreign tongue, strong and tenured. Somewhere between the time he had last come to now the earth had changed in tone, and what could seem like nothing before, at once felt so dire, though nothing could be done, but listen.
That chatter the animals heard all the same, and they moved about with unrest. The leaves shook and shuttered with small birds and rabbits and squirrels. A few times a pair of foxes entered close enough to view through the breaking fog. A doe and her child passed the clearing, gallant and without care. Adam made no attempt to conceal his presence. What the animals sensed they cared little of, and they moved with urgency, all with the same calm and the same fear.
Part way through the mist, a mule brushed through the chaparral, extending its wide body into the clearing, walking in stubborn faults on a limp foot. It came just feet from the boy, looked on with black eyes, and rested in the grass. Its body shuddered from the added weight, and it crashed with reluctance into the soil. The boy stood, but the animal moved little. As much as it gave to leave the chaparral was enough; it huffed and turned to lay at ease of the lame foot, the way a dog would casually on the floor. Its horns stuck to the soil and dug in deep. The boy moved forward slowly. Only when he could touch the animal did it stir. In one strong fit, the animal corrected its faults, spun, thrusted and was once again on its three good limbs, galloped slow and stubbornly off, into the brush. It was good for the animal to leave. The clearing was no place to be as it was, neither for the living nor the dying; once away from the oak, he felt much of that urge himself.
The sun had begun to clear at a distance. Small rays rushed in from the blue hills, and the air was warm and he could see the oaks growing tall and wild. And just before the day could become what it was, the ocean would not relent, and the mists worked quickly to fill where they had been ridden. He looked off toward the patchwork of blue skies, and there he caught the reflection of an old landmark. It was from a time before his own and it meant little more than an oddity. But there it was, as a picture in a white frame, and as the mists hurried to reclaim the land, they couldn’t close in enough on the weathered structure to clear it from sight. It was badly beaten, sovereign only in the last glow of paint seen beyond the growth. Sometime back it had been a nice place, Adam was sure of it, and now the wilds had done what they could—vines and moss grew up to the rift on the portico, and made pedestals of the large white columns that supported it; wildflowers crafted gardens beneath the bays, and the windows grew thick with brown silt from the blowing wind. It decayed alongside the oaks as if it were no other, and he knew why now he hadn’t noticed it until this exact moment. It was part of the hillside rather intended or not, and to see, one had to look clearly and with time, the way one views a bug in a garden of weeds.
While he thought, the chaparral picked up from its quiet and began to rattle. Adam braced himself for another beast to part the trees, but nothing entered. The rattling passed quick and flustered, too wholesome to be the breeze, and too rapid to be animal. A wicker hat became visible above the greenery, floating just above the sage line, with a purple bow pious to the girl beneath it, but she couldn’t be seen. As he had the mule, Adam watched the hat curiously; the girl wasn’t coming toward the clearing. Rapidly, she was moving around the clearing, in a run through the tight trails of oak wood. He thought about gathering his things and investigating, but the girl was gone too quick. He trotted toward the brush, toward the tumult, and the hat was clear again through the mist, but only for a moment, and he didn’t care any more for his things and ran after her.
She fled through a narrow corridor of manzanita and hard oak; it was a path used primarily by animals such as the mule, and not for men; lion tracks and hooves trekked the dirt alongside Charlotte’s boots. Adam followed quietly. It was his nature to move in the brush, as much nature as it was to keep still, and though she ran quickly, he kept pace and wasn’t seen. It was clear nothing trailed the girl; she sprinted from her own free will, though pressed and frantic as she was. Her dark hair whipped the fog and her breath carried a gale to it and she kept steady as if nothing could keep her still, not the earth, not the trees, the body neither.
Through a coarse of dense thicket, the heather broke, and the ground emerged plain and yellow green pastured grasses. They were no longer hidden, but open to a wide field spread a good distance north and east, broken only with green patches of wild weed and flower; it was cattle ground, ground for taming and use, sloping gently and mild to where it caught color and cradled the fog at once. An oak beamed fence closed the pasture, painted white and fresh enough to keep its purity. Charlotte jumped it with ease, and kept her steady run through the pasture, toward a bright red wooden structure that had to be the stable. But Adam stopped at the fence line. He took a deep breath and rested; if it weren’t for the cold then he would have been tested enough, and he didn’t need to go any further. Charlotte had reached her focus.
She was gone for a short while, off into the white. The sun beat clear sections in the fog, into spots on the field bright with color. Charlotte reappeared on horseback, through the sun moving quickly, sprinting at points with a fierce kick. The pasture became hollow and loud with the roll of horse hooves, like thunder but like wind, cordial as a march. She drove her boot into the mare’s belly and the two sped, clearing the knolls the way a bird clears the clouds, toward the edge of the pasture fence, then a whip and back again. Adam climbed the oak beams and rested on the top most. Every spread in the trot was disciplined as if danced to, and Charlotte carried it out like so, only swift and no reluctance; what she felt was very real and sustained, and Adam felt that too just by watching.
She broke again for the distance, but mid trot, she drew back on the mare’s neck, and the animal bellied into the air, carried a pirouette, and spun free. The mist covered the field with fine lights, and the two balanced in and out as if it all were natural, but Adam knew the dance was over; he had been seen.
From the field the horse beckoned and charged. It covered ground with ease, in a direct route to Adam. He thought once to drop and take his chances on the run, but he had only time to consider Charlotte’s face as she came toward him and she was very sincere. Just before the fence, she tugged fiercely, drawing the mare up high, so that Adam could see the size and glory of its heaving chest and pulsing heart. Then she snapped back, spun the horse, and looked down casually.
“You know, If it were my will,” she said, “I could kill you easily with this girl.”
“Then I’m glad you’re kind enough. I began to wonder by the look on your face.”
“I’m only angry because you followed me. It’s a deplorable thing to follow people. That’s how horrible things happen.”
“I’d apologize, but I’m glad I did so.”
The mare huffed and blew warm air into the mist. Charlotte moved at ease on the animal. She removed a brown riding helmet from her head and her black hair fell down to her shoulders. The mare held steady.
“You’re not welcome here,” she said. “That fence is private.”
“I don’t mind leaving.”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway. I’d run you off if you tried to stay.”
Adam fell from the top beam. The horse towered above the ground and held its presence with the girth of a warhorse. He stepped back a few paces and sat in the damp grass.
“And now that I’m part of the public land,” he said, “you can go back to riding, and we’ll mind our own business.”
Charlotte turned red and the horse buckled slightly from her pressure.
“You think you’re funny,” she said, promptly. “I could jump this fence easily.”
“I don’t think you will.”
“Don’t try me. It would be a bother to the horse and not myself, but if I have to I will.”
“I’ll leave you be then.”
Adam stood, brushed himself, and began away from the clearing. Behind, the horse gave a quick thrust, and then Charlotte’s voice followed subtler than before.
“Why did you follow me?” she asked.
She had become very comely on the horse. Her figure wound into the chestnut body the way a stem melds the earth, and she turned the horse quickly left and right with ease, but always she looked at Adam.
“Because I knew you were going somewhere you wanted,” he said. “Somewhere different. And I had nowhere to be. I wanted to be there too, at least see it.”
“It’s not good for you to be here,” she said. “But it’s not good for me to be here either. This is my father’s land. This is his pasture and these are his horses.”
“What were you running for?”
“Time. I only have as much as Mrs. Laramie can give; she is at the moment in the process of educating my absent self, but she does have a heart, yet only enough for a short while, until her session is up. Girl’s are not to ride horses, you know.”
“It looked to me like you can ride them fine.”
“But girls have a place to be and a way to do it, and horses do not fit with any of them. At least for the good ones, according to our mothers.”
“The same mothers who make you wear the hats?”
“Yes. The very same ones.”
“If I could watch you ride, I could judge for myself. To me it looked like dancing.”
“It’s very much like dancing, only with a chance to get hurt badly.”
“But I liked it,” Adam said.
“Thank you. I enjoy it myself.”
Charlotte kicked at the horse and it trotted slowly along the fence line and then back again. She surveyed the field for a place to begin, but then turned back toward the boy.
“You know, I’m surprised you’re here,” she said. “With all the commotion and all. Everything is hectic in town.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“It’s the biggest thing going around. I thought everybody’d heard.”
“What is it?”
“A few planters were chopping free land up in the hills to see if they could plant outward instead of just in the valley, and they struck into a big sap of oil. Now everybody’s going nuts. Anyone with anything to give is putting it towards buying a strip of land. They say it might be everywhere. And the few that don’t have money are making sure they get a bid on the jobs. ”
Adam felt a sharp pain carry from his heart, into his lungs, and then drop very hollow in his stomach. The word oil was one they hadn’t yet used, but now it had the damning ring of a curse from her soft lips. He forgot about the dance, the pasture, and the hills at once. His thoughts passed to the scene in the clearing, of the dreaded looks on their faces, and now what they dreaded was real.
Charlotte was receptive to his change, and from up on the horse, she felt every bit of remorse, the kind that’s felt when the air has changed for the worse and it’s your fault entirely, though she wasn’t sure of why.
“What’s wrong?” Charlotte said. “You look sick. Your skin is pale.”
“I have to be going,” Adam said.
He did not answer. Charlotte readied the mare suddenly, as if ready to chase, but she held her ground. At first Adam moved quickly away from the clearing, and once he disappeared into the oak wood, he began to run.
The high ground had not had the luck of the valley because it was thicker and greener and the fog had many places to hide. In between the live oaks and the thicker sycamores, the sun couldn’t reach, and unlike the valley, the fog was muggy, gray, and opaque, and not pleasant. But in the clearing the sun had settled partly enough to lighten the foundation of Silas’s new home, one that showed little progress since the time before the boy had seen it. He came into the clearing tired and wet from the muggy under growth, and when he came to the foundation, he paused and rested.
“He’s not here,” John said.
Adam had been too tired to see John before, but now that his voice came his figure grew with it. The boy sat on the wooden beams laid out in preparation, and his eyes were fatigue and dark as the downtrodden; Adam realized then his own face had the same dimensions, and he took a deep breath to calm himself.
“Then where is he?” he asked.
“He’s gone,” John said. “I came as soon as I heard cause it scared everything it could out of me. I bet it did the same to him, and now he’s gone. I suppose he left the second he heard it too.”
“What do you think they’ll do? Maybe we should look for him.”
“I thought about that too. I just don’t know where to go about looking. This valley’s big enough to hide bears and lions and I don’t think it’ll have problems hiding another man, specially one who doesn’t want to be found. I suppose he’s already gone as it is.”
“He should’ve waited, seen what they’d do. The old McClelland isn’t the best of men, but I don’t think he’d cross that line.”
“I don’t know myself. And I don’t think Silas did either, and I think that’s what got him scared the most.”
John stepped away from the beam and walked a little into the clearing. Across the fields the grass lay beneath the shades of white and sun and, where the warmth hit, stretched a flower here and there for its protection. There were signs of Silas everywhere. He had taken nothing with him and his tools and his provisions were still piled neatly beside the last place he worked, as if the man had only walked away, and would return in the evening.
“What a shame,” John said. “It’s funny how these things work.”
“I don’t know about funny, but its something strange.”
At that moment there was shuffling on the main trail, and two men came past through the gray fog, into the white fields of dead leaves and wild weeds. The boys recognized immediately the old man McClelland, but the other took some time to identify, and as soon as they did they knew him to be the sheriff, though he was dressed casually.
“Silas,” the old man called out. “Silas! I know he’s around here somewhere. Where else would he be?”
The sheriff was the first to spot the boys. He stopped, looked about the clearing as if he did not trust his eyes, and he did not smile. It was conscious not to smile more than it was unfriendly; a man who does not smile is occupied, and fast at work.
“What are you boys doing out here?” he said. “A couple folk like you should be down at your leases helping out.”
“This is our friends land,” Adam said. “We’re welcome here.”
The old McClelland gasped as if he’d misheard a joke.
“Your friends land,” he said. “You must be mistaken, because this is my land. All this here to the river.”
“You gave it to Silas. We’re both witness to the act. If not your daughter would be blue as the water and you know it.”
“Nonsense,” he cried back. “I let him build here and that was all. They’re trying to protect him because they know what he’s done wrong.”
“He’s done nothing wrong!” John yelled from opposite the clearing. “You’re a liar!”
The sheriff became very stern. He was a pudgy man, old as the McClelland, but fit in the upper body and able to cause a little fear if needed. He stood above the two boys, the way a statue hovers.
“Now,” he said. “What does a couple poor boys like you want to start getting in trouble for. Maybe for trespassing. Might hurt your families a good deal.”
The two boys became quiet, and the sheriff smirked in triumph.
“What did Silas do wrong?” Adam asked.
“The man came at my poor daughter just this morning,” the old McClelland said. “Tried his way with her and took off up here when he was about to get caught red handed. Now I love Silas as much as family, but those crimes cannot go unpunished in this valley or we’d have a hectic place wouldn’t we.”
John was ready to throw into the old man, but the sheriff humbled him enough to keep still and quiet.
“Silas isn’t here,” Adam said. “He’s gone.”
“He fled,” the sheriff said. “All the guilty ones flee. Doesn’t matter. When he comes back he’ll have to answer for what he did.”
“He won’t come back,” John said.
“Maybe he won’t. He’s not wanted here anyway.”
The old man McClelland dropped the conversation entirely. He crossed through the clearing, grading it as he would a piece of stock or a new home. He kicked aside the tools as if they were garbage.
“This would be a good place to drill,” he said. “I bet there’s a lot under this soil. It looks solid enough.”
The sheriff nodded.
“You’re a very lucky man,” he said. Then he turned to the boys. “I think you two better leave this man’s property, or there might be something to find out on those leases of yours. All of you people make it to easy.”
The boys did not think of staying. Without Silas the land meant nothing, and always it would mean nothing.
“And tell your friend,” the sheriff called out, “if you see him, that he knows where to bring himself when he comes to his senses. If he thinks he’s got claim to this land we’ll settle it after justice has done its course.”
By the evening the land was clear and the air was soft and cool once more. The sky had begun to set, with bright orange tones into the west, while the eastern skies gradually phased violet in shadows. The moon had no shine to it yet, but as it was, was large and as near to whole as a moon could be, and Adam knew the night would be well lit. He rested in the roots of the oak unhurried. The world was sharp and new again after the fog and he had no intentions of leaving it. The lupines rattled beside the golden poppies beneath a breeze and the cold of it only made him stronger.
He looked on to the hills and the broken home, flush with the trees and greenery. The difference was stark now, and now that he knew it existed, he felt a shame that he hadn’t known of it before. The columns were indignant, scuffled by the vines that grew between and without and the birds and the nests at home in the cornices, yet they were still white and structured from the past. He imagined the same of the dead; what was left consisted only of structure, fossilized and white to the bone, and where there once had been a soul, existed a cavity only for the plight of others to grow and die the same. He felt as if he’d only stumbled on something long dead, yet the home had a story; and somewhere deep he was sure it had glory along with it too. The dead sometimes had more glory than the living.
Adam took up his things and began to sketch. His thoughts were on the home, and his eyes too, though his hands worked something different into the canvas. By the time his conscience had gathered, he’d sketched the figure of a dead mule, the one that crossed him earlier in the day. The mule had been living at the time, but it would be surely dead soon, and maybe at the moment too. And all that solemn nature, the exhaustion and the diligence would be there with it, and he wondered if it had the nerve to hold up strong as the wilds neared, if it had the will to be there always. But he stopped the sketch before it could materialize. It was a subject he could not paint because he knew nothing of it, and until that point, he resigned to leave it be entirely.
Something had stirred in the clearing, the sound of footfall on the drying leaves. He expected to see the old man come through, but instead it was a larger man, a solid build and broken eyes. It was Silas, and the boy jumped and ran down the knoll after him. At first, the man’s head fell low, but when he saw the boy, he regained his nerve. This wasn’t his nature out of the McClelland land, as he had never had the need to leave it, not for anything, and he looked as out of place as a palm tree or an orchid would.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Adam said. “We went looking for you, up in the clearing, but you were gone. I thought you’d be out of the valley by now.”
“This lands big enough to keep me for the night. But I won’t be around tomorrow, no way. I suppose I should leave faster than I stay.”
“There’s people looking for you.”
“I did something wrong, didn’t I? I thought for a little while they might just ask me to go away. I didn’t care enough for that land to bother, them or myself.”
“They’d like you to turn yourself in.”
“Well, I guess they’ll look around for me soon then. I suppose for now it’s enough that I’m gone. But they won’t want no folk saying they own nothing worth anything, and they’ll come looking for me before I do. I’ll have to leave in the morning.”
“What about tonight?”
“I don’t know,” Silas said. “From now on I guess I won’t be too sure.”
“You could sleep here.”
Silas opened his eyes for the first time to the clearing, as if he hadn’t been aware before the moment. The shades stretched along the fields and the world spread as the light crept to a distance.
“Is it a place with people?” he asked.
“None,” Adam said. “That’s why I’m here. Sleep on the knoll, up where the oak is, and nobody will see you. Even if they pass through they won’t see you. You’ll be safe here.”
Adam brought the man to the base of the tree, and Silas moved slow and cautious beneath it. He circled the roots and the trunk, as if it were something new entirely, but he was more than exhausted enough not to settle and rest. His eyes were darker than they’d ever been; the way one looks in the night without sleep. Adam sat on the roots, and Silas prepped the dirt where he positioned himself and lay with his eyes upward and his hands between his head and the earth. There was an ache in every move the man made, the way a man moves tired and dreary after a long days work. Adam felt the man would be asleep quickly, but his mind never went to rest, and they talked on as the sun set, and the valley grew dark.
“Where are you gonna go, Silas?” Adam asked.
“I’ve never been anywhere than the little places I’ve been,” Silas said, “but I know enough about things to know there’s always gonna be people who need people. That’s a good fact; always people need people. As long as there’s people needed to mistreat, I’ll always have a place to go.”
“I always thought the world was big, but maybe it’s just the same piece over and over again.”
“No the world is big,” he said. “It’s too big for people. I put a thought to it before. I thought about just walking into the world a bit, somewhere out where there aint nothing but the world, and just stopping. It might be hard; it might be hard enough to kill a man, but I’d have a shot. And that’s more than most get. Just a shot is all I want.”
“Do you think people will change around here now? Like the old McClelland did.”
“No,” he said. “Nobody changed. I told you what my momma told me about good and bad people. The bad people can hide it sometimes, but always it comes out in the end. Nothing in that man changed, and nothing in these people is gonna change. If bad things do come out they were just waiting for the right time…Adam, I want you to know one other thing my momma told me, before I go. I aint ever told nobody before.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Then I’d like to know it.”
“Well, my Momma was a never a church woman,” he said. The clearing was covered in shadows now, and the man’s lips reflected the bright moon and growing stars, like moving water. “Every Sunday, all us children would dress up and do our deeds on Sunday, and we learned all about Jesus, and love, and God, but never Momma. She never dressed, or prayed, or showed any of that love. Never once did I see her pray, though she was always a good woman. And then just as she died, I stepped beside her and let her know Jesus would save us children, and there was no need to worry or care. She said this only: ‘If Jesus ever does come back, let him come as the dirt, or the air, or the trees; and if he don’t, let’s ask him back from where he came. This world has enough men. One more only makes things worse.’ Then she died, and what I knew wasn’t to fully understand it, but I got enough to hope on myself, and so far that’s what’s keeping me through. If it don’t mean a thing to you now, maybe someday it will. It’s not much but it’s the last I can give. ”
“I don’t know much of the world either, but do you think you’ll be okay?”
“No,” Silas said. “But I’ve had a shot. And that means I’ve lived more than enough to die.”
The man grew quiet, and as the moon wavered, he spoke no more. Adam gathered what was left of his things and stood. A calm had parted along the clearing and carried into the sky and he knew then things had changed for the worse. There was no desire to leave, but he left the man to be alone, and Silas slept sound until morning. And then he was seen no more.
The clouds ported a clear sky, and when the days came there was no longer fog, but heat. What was green in the brush dried and thirsted; the hills grew sparse and yellow and the bugs spread rampant and flew in swarms until they died along with it. The oaks were strongholds, oases for shade, and a place where animals and men sheltered and mapped their next steps. There was not much movement through the wilds; the hills were at a fervent pace, with men and horses, hauling carts of steel and mechanics—of which many came to watch trek the steep trails—and the men who sweat to carry the loads could look around and feel good about themselves though without reason why; but the wilds were still.
Adam had watched the men and the horses earlier in the day. There had been commotion among them, with the poor and the wealthy alike. He had seen a group of men carting a load of steel up a steady trail to the McClelland land. At intervals, they broke into song, and then laughter, like children, but bright with sweat and dirt, like animals. He followed them, until they steadied the horses in a flat clearing and rested before another trek.
“What’s in the cart?” he asked. He tried to look over the rim, but could see nothing over it’s bright glare.
“We don’t know, kid,” a man said. “And we’re not supposed to know either.”
“None of our business.”
“Well,” Adam said. “Where’s it going?”
The first man who spoke pointed up the hill line. It was just east of Silas’s land, and he thought of the foundation and the tools, but of all that, the man knew nothing and smiled happily.
“McClelland ranch,” he said. “Lucky bastard. Of all the folks to find oil… though, he’s one hell of a guy.”
“I don’t like him much,” Adam said.
“You’d like him better if you worked for him. What do you know anyway, huh?”
Another man swallowed a mouthful of water from a canteen, and came over to join in the conversation.
“Say, kid,” he said. “Why don’t you head on to town? They’re still looking for folks who can lift and work, and they’re paying good.”
“Better do it quick too, before they go out and bring people in.”
“You think they will?” Adam said.
“Sure they will,” the second man said. “There’s a lot of money in this ground, and they’ll sure as hell dig it up before they let it sit and dry up. Better get in line quick before you get left behind.”
“I think I’ll stay out of this one.”
“Ah, what do you know anyway? More work for us after all. Common, gather the cart and let’s get on to our money.”
Adam stayed behind and watched the horses and the cart disappear into the warm air, and he went his separate way. Now he stood in the shade of an oak, watching the hills, and fighting with the bugs as they stuck to the sweat of his wet skin. Every little distance there were men working; they spread the brush as well as bees, but with little as much discipline. Even where there hadn’t been oil, there were men prodding the soil, the way a bird prods a tree for grubs. If more were to come, then they’d find nothing, as everything there was to give was in the process of taking; and the valley did so generous, and Adam wondered why.
But as little as he knew he felt uneasy about the day. There was a gradual buzz with the wind, one that carried warmth as much as it did the sputter of drills and bored earth. It wasn’t the noise that bothered him, but the lack thereof of echo; the sound of water was absent. In the heat the river had dwindled, but not enough to dry into the bed as it did in the summer; only in the dead summers did it soak and dry the soft bed soil, and only then did the earth sound quiet and still.
Adam swatted at the air to remove the bugs momentarily. They returned as soon as he relaxed his hands, though they flew off again once he stood. It’s not easy to move in the heat once in rest, and the boy took a moment to strengthen his limbs for the hike. Then he moved quickly through the sun, stopping at times where the manzanita grew tall enough to cover the dusted ground, and he moved on toward the river.
The boy pulled himself onto the flat stone along the bank; his skin burned red where it touched, and he was on his feet quickly to cool. Where the surface had run blue and green in the sun, the river had shriveled to a thick brown mud, and there was little left of the water save for small pools that lasted in the shade. At times he felt a gleam cross the mud and a mirage of water dripped along the exposed roots and reeds of the bank, but then came the warm winds and the river was dry again.
He climbed down into the mud and let his boots sink to where the water was still strong beneath the earth, and the soil bled and gushed what little it could while he walked. The air was cooler because of the mud, or maybe because of his memory, but it felt bearable to be there where the water once had been. He moved a length along mid river. At certain points, pools remained large enough to house small fish, and the fish were still and mild as if dead, or conscious.
He came to a point where noises joined him in the bank, soft pattering noises, and he found John standing among the mud, tossing stones to pass the time. He was covered to his ankles in mud, and streaks of brown crossed his cheeks and neck. When he saw Adam he dropped a handful of stones as if he’d done something wrong, but then he picked them up one by one and tossed them without direction.
“They did this, you know,” he said.
“I tried to ask them, but they told me to go away. They dammed it off somewhere far east. It’s like this all the way through the valley, as much as I’ve walked of it anyway. How’s someone supposed to keep his cool without water?”
“Now they can cross it,” Adam said. “With the horses and the carts. They won’t have to go around. Takes too much time. They’ll let the water back once they’re done.”
“Doesn’t matter,” John said. “It’s been gone long enough. Come see this.”
John led Adam solemnly through the etching of the water, past a few gathering pools where the birds remained. He did not look up or around, but walked direct and slow, and Adam wasn’t sure if the boy had lost his heart from the heat, or his will. John stopped just before a grouping of black birds in the mud, and he kicked at them, and they flew off nearby into the sycamores and watched. They had been feeding on a carcass, covered now with graying dirt, but large enough to pass at first as either a lion or small deer. It was only after John gave it a kick that it shed its cover and the gills became present alongside the fins and tail, half torn away and half eaten. John looked down with hollow eyes, dark and weathered, as if it were part of his own self in the mud and not a fish.
“There it is,” he said. “It was too large for the pools. When the water went, he went with it.”
“You sure that’s him?”
“He’s bigger than I thought.”
“And that’s him dried and half gone. He was a monster. I told you.”
“Then you were right. You got him after all.”
“Yeah,” John said. He kicked the carcass one more time and it relapsed back into the sun, limp and stolid. “You know what, I don’t want it anymore. They can have it.”
The two stood quiet while the breeze picked up and crackled through the dead leaves and the yellow reeds. There was not much to say when things had been said so clearly. John gathered a few more stones from the mud, and Adam waited to hear them pang against the bank, but John walked off instead.
“Where are you going?” he called out.
John turned and pointed toward the high hills. The bees were at work still, and their hum was loud and constant.
“I’m gonna do something,” he said.
“It’ll take more than rocks to do what you want.”
“Maybe,” John said, and he looked off toward the hills. “But for right now, maybe it will hurt.”
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April 24, 2017
April 21, 2017
April 06, 2017
Judging a creative writing contest is to pretend authority and, even m
Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th