Editors Note: This month we publish the second section of Erik Berg’s novel “A Place in the Shade”. The novel is a chronicle of several families set among the mountains and oil fields of California years ago. The novel is written in a reflective philosophical style with themes of woman’s influence on men, struggles against place and culture, and the ties that bind us to the land. The first section of the novel is published here.
Thumbnail Photo courtesy Orange County Archives
Around the room were lighter tones of music. At times they played slow like Shaupenhauer, and melodic as List, and then mostly they were rigid and tough—the way a child reads the notes the way they’re shown, but not the way they’re felt. Outside, the orchard was warm, and the day bright, and normally the mood would have suffered along with the music. But as it was, there was life and liveliness to the room, and all was well.
“Alice,” said the older woman, “would you quit that? Play something upbeat. It’s too nice out to hear something slow and boring.”
The young girl at the piano huffed and quit playing. She was too young to consider an artistic angle to her argument, and for that reason she kept quiet; what the world meant was no more than what was at hand, and she relented, and began a more upbeat handel piece she couldn’t play as well but could feel better.
The room became brighter, and the warm air began to circulate. The old woman was content again. She moved from window to window tying off the curtains so the room was full with blue and white sky and a view of the hills and the tips of the yellow green leaves of the orchard trees. Her content did not last, and she was eager again. She listened to the music, but watched the door and waited.
“Charlotte!” she said. “Where is Charlotte?”
“Here! You just passed me. Are you okay?”
“What are you doing over there? Oh yes, I’m fine, just the sun is getting to me, I guess. Come over here with me. Pull up a chair by the window. I’d like to talk with you. We never talk much to ourselves.”
“We talk often enough.”
“But not only to ourselves.”
“You seem hurried. Are you expecting something?”
“That’s what I’d like to speak with you about.”
Charlotte had been reading beneath the window on a sofa at the far side of the room. She was much older than the girl at the piano, and she’d grown out of the majority of her young self, though she was younger still than she looked. The warmth had turned the pastel of her skin to a subtle red, and when she put down the book, she walked reluctantly, as a talk with the woman was more of a chance to listen than to speak, and she was in no hurry to do so.
The girl sat beside an open window and she could see out onto the line of live oaks and blue oaks that covered the road, and where she could see the sun and the warm grasses, now yellow and dry whether shaded or not. The wind blew subtle, a bit like the dreariness that had been in the music, and now that it was upbeat, didn’t seem to fit either. Her mother stood behind her, watching the same roads anxiously. She played with the girl’s hair the way she had when they were both younger, and when talking had been easier.
“You’re so much older,” the woman said, “than you once were.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“No, it isn’t. Why are you not wearing the hat I gave you last week? It’s nice enough out today. It’s warm and the sun is bright.”
“Because I can’t move without it blowing away, and it bugs me.”
“But in the house? It’s a nice hat. All the girls are wearing hats when you go into town. None of them are blowing away.”
“It’s because they spend all their time holding their heads instead of spending it thinking.”
“Don’t be rude,” the woman said.
“I didn’t mean to be. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a woman acting fashionable in public. In fact, it’s almost necessary, don’t you think?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, that’s a shame then.”
The room became still again and the music played indifferent to the mood, and both were tuned to the other. Her mother pulled at her hair without speaking, tugging harder to relieve the agitation, and Charlotte did not pull away out of an old habit. She tugged harder when the slow winds blew, and the bows bent and caused shadows across the dirt road; the road was active though empty.
“I’d like to talk with you about something,” she said.
“What do you think of the Murray’s? They’re good people, aren’t they?”
“I don’t think much of them. Why do you ask?”
“You’re being rude again. What is your problem with people anyway?”
“I have no problems with people, but I’m not talking about their character, only that I don’t think of them at all. They own the ranch by the waterway, don’t they? And other than that, I don’t know much about them.”
“You know more than that don’t you? They made so good when the wells came in. About half their land was bought up and put to use. I’d say they’re better than good people, they’re fortunate people.”
“Well, I’d suppose they’re fortunate then.”
“I’m glad you think so,” the woman said; she gathered herself upright and took a deep breath the way one does after a victory; to Charlotte there was no defeat, though she knew the motions. “What do you think of their boy, Claxton?”
“I think of him little in a bad way,” she said. “He’s a vile and disgusting man.”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s the truth.”
“I wont accept talk like that in this house. It’s rude, and not very womanly.”
“Do you have a different opinion of him?”
“He’s very kind and charming. And then very much fortunate as you said.”
“There is no judge in character with one’s luck.”
“But a great judge is one’s status, and Claxton is a very well regarded boy in this town. You should know with the two of you being the same age. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him but you’re hatred toward people, and I won’t stand to hear him defiled that way.”
“He’s a pig and an idiot.”
“Charlotte no more!” the woman said, coming undone and throwing her hands into the air. “To be womanly you must have manners and you have none. There are rules to being a woman. No man in their right mind would have you if you don’t follow them. Is that what you want? To be lonely.”
“I want nothing the same as you want.”
“You’re a brat and a fool.”
The woman stood and walked out of the room. Her feet pressed loud against the floorboards and Charlotte realized then the music had quit playing and Alice had left the room quietly. She hadn’t expected anything different from the talk. Her mother paced the halls, breathing heavy. Once she had calmed enough to think she came back into the room, rosy and white from the heat.
“You need to sit up straight,” she said.
“Why? I’m comfortable this way.”
“Because you need to be on your best behavior.”
“You’re not telling me something, aren’t you? What have you done?”
“I ran into Claxton today in the market, and I’ve invited him to stop by. Charlotte you really do need to give him a chance. If you tried, you’d see he’s good enough for you, and he even said it himself, he wants children.”
“You’re just as big a pig and fool as he is!” Charlotte said. “I will not try and see him for anything but what he is and that’s a stump and an idiot with good fortune. And if you want children from him so bad, have them yourself.”
“Charlotte, be reasonable.”
“No! And if he comes, I won’t put on a show of myself for his pleasure. If he comes he can see me walk away and that’s as good as he deserves.”
“Now stop it! Just stop it!” the woman cried. “I won’t take the rudeness any longer. A lonely hag is rude but a woman has manners. This is not—”
Their shouting was interrupted by a soft knock at the door, and the two became quiet. The woman’s face sagged with embarrassment, as if the boy had stumbled into a mess. Then came another knock on the door, and she stirred into action.
“If you’d like to entertain him,” Charlotte said, leaving the room quickly for the stairs, “then do it yourself.”
“Just stop right there. Best behavior, remember.”
The woman made last touches to her dress and opened the door to disappointment. It wasn’t the boy, but the old teacher Mrs. Ellsinore. She nodded and let the woman in. Charlotte paused on the stair way and felt foolish.
“Mrs. Ellsinore,” the woman said. “I wasn’t expecting you. I almost forgot you were coming.”
The woman was old but moved fairly well and her age came mostly from life and the weather one gets from living it; she was sweet the way men are charming, and always stood her place until directed, as she did now just beside the door.
“Were you two shouting?” she asked. “Am I bothering something?”
“Nothing,” Charlotte said. “We finished talking.”
“We haven’t yet,” the woman said. “Now here is the perfect woman to add to this discussion. Mrs. Ellsinore, you have lived a long life, and you know better than any about womanly manners. Tell Charlotte about manners, and how she’ll be lonely and old and wasted if she doesn’t learn to use them.”
The woman looked up to Charlotte on the banister as if she’d been a part of the discussion all along. She had nothing to add, and stood still where she was, waiting her turn in the room.
“Should I be going?” she said.
“No,” Charlotte said. “If the boy comes, I’ll be upstairs.”
“You get down here this second,” the woman said. “You will not embarrass me by your rudeness. He’s a charming boy and this is foolish.”
“He’s a fortunate boy and that’s why you like him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with fortune. It’s good fortune that houses a woman. It’s good fortune that feeds her children.”
“I don’t want children.”
The woman became furious and she stepped toward the stairs. Mrs. Ellsinore calmly maneuvered her way between the stairwell and the woman, in a way that seemed almost accidental and innocent.
“It’s okay Mrs. Belle,” she assured her. “I’ll take Charlotte upstairs and talk to her about this. It won’t do any good to have the boy see her now anyway; it would do more harm than good. You handle the boy, and I’ll handle Charlotte.”
“Set her straight,” the woman said. “She has to learn.”
Mrs. Ellsinore gathered Charlotte from the banister and pushed her up into a small room and shut the door behind. The woman could still be heard pacing below, her steps like bad music, but the calm room was pleasant enough and warm. A window overlooked the orchards, down to the yellow pastures and the white bottom of the river bed. Charlotte sat on a white bed in the shade of the opposite corner and watched the woman. She listened to the door, and once the pacing calmed and things were once again quiet, she walked to the dresser and began to search the drawers.
“What are you looking for?”
“Something comfortable for you to wear,” she said. “Here is something lighter than that thick dress. Change into this.”
Charlotte slipped out of her dress without question. Her bare skin felt cool and she sat for a while on the soft bed while her sweat dried. There was commotion again downstairs and it was clear the boy had come after all. His voice interchanged with that of her mothers and she began to dress quickly in the clothes given to her.
“I can’t be here now,” she said. “Not with that boy here.”
Mrs. Ellsinore nodded her head.
“She won’t bother you for a while,” she said. “Impressions are very strong for your mother. She’d rather you be ill than rude.”
The old woman moved toward the window and slid aside the glass until the breezed rushed into the room carrying with it the scent of the drying leaves and the dying flowers in the fields.
“You have places to go,” she said. “I’ll stay here and watch for your mother.”
Charlotte finished by tying on her boots and she listened for a moment at the chatter below. It made her sick enough never to come back, though she was certain she would because she had to; she couldn’t leave forever, but only for moments, and she had to do the best she could with those moments until they were gone and she was back to where she was. She crossed the room to the window and caught the scent of the dead flowers and the warm season. It was a season either to die or to flourish and only those who were mobile could escape the heat. She crawled onto the sill and swung her body half way out before stopping.
“You’re a very nice woman,” she said to the old woman. “Why are you different than everyone else?”
The old woman smiled because she knew exactly why.
“In reverence to manners, overtime I’ve been many things,” she said. “I have been a good girl—a caring and devoted wife, a loving and always responsible mother, a grandmother, a teacher… and everything I should have been… But yet I’ve never been a woman, and I don’t know how it feels to be one. I don’t believe in those manners Charlotte. I don’t think they mean anything at all.”
Charlotte looked out over the small trees of the orchard. The sun was white and the sky blue and strong.
“In terms of manners,” she said, jumping free of the sill. “I feel it’s more prudent to be rude.”
Mrs. Ellsinore listened again to the chatter as she watched the girl disappear into the trees. The day was different than it had been in the morning. There were two very distinct seasons at play, and things at last were beginning to sway in the right direction. She took a deep breath and took it all in slowly.
Sometimes a man can be lost in his memories. And when they’re sweet, it’s just the same love, and when they’re bitter, it’s all the same horror, but either way he is not himself, and cannot be if he wants to or not. It is not glory, or prideful, it is painful, always, because there is no self. Only when a man forgets can he be alive again, like the sick regained, or a dead man risen. He can move on; he can stagger forward, though weak and frail, which is better always than standing still.
By the time he came back the boy had grown older. His hair was no longer fair, but darkened and strong above the eyes, though not enough to make him ugly. Even with the change he was always the boy and good enough to look at if one needed to. His shoulders and chest had grown thick from days with the axe, and were considered the best of his features, but Adam used them only for the work, and when there was no work, they would be useless and he didn’t mind. He did not swing the axe out of pleasure.
The trees grew little on the dry flat land where the home was, only in small patches in the hills. A few oaks grew among the pines, and sycamores flowered up from ravines and folds in the hills, and all did little for wood. One was lucky if they got to the oaks because the wood was stronger and worth more than the pines, and there were far more pines than there were oak. The ranch extended through small hills, patched in white sands and light brown grass, down to a flat land of poor soil that grew little; past attempts to grow strawberries left marks on the flatlands; white, torn plastic remained pushed aside from where the raspberries failed to yield. What was left to earn with was the cattle, but they foraged with as little as the feral animals and the meat suffered. And so there was always need for the oaks, as there was always need for money.
It was not beautiful country, and the two could see it clear from the hills as they worked in the trees, and together they knew it. Adam pulled the weight of the axe above his shoulder, and the pain of its repetition cut once more into the muscle. But it was good work because he felt none of it. His mind was not the same as his body, and when he thought, he was lost, and he felt it only when the ache became too sharp to ignore, and he had to rest. And then always he was lost again. The steel tore at a gash in the oak flesh and the tree wavered; he did it once more and rested. The light yellow green leaves passed with the breeze and they caught a partial glaze of the sun as it fell into the patchwork hills. At times he felt the oaks were beautiful; the land was ugly, and always would be, but the oaks were beautiful. They were impartial to the land, to the pines and sycamores, and he felt relieved in cutting them free from the others.
“You should be more careful. You look dazed again.”
A younger version of his father looked down from the hill above, only one with health and liveliness. His brother had taken a rest from falling a pine and he sat beneath the shade of the brown needles with his axe beside him. His mind did not leave the work and that was why he needed the rest. Adam heard him only in the distance, as he did the wind that fled through the knolls. He swung the head once more and the tree buckled; the bark snapped, and the bulk gave in and fell against the slope, into the deadening grass, muffling the sound.
They came upon the tree like animals to a carcass. They circled it once or twice and then rested upon the warm bark; fine lines fell from the sun even still as it faded. The death of anything is always quiet and somber, weather from the earth or the soil, and the two sat still and looked down at the small cabin leaking smoke into the yellow sky.
The brother pulled from his pocket a small bag of walnuts, and Adam realized how hungry he was though the food would only make him crave something larger.
“What do you think about?” the brother said. “When your eyes are like they are now, what do you think about?”
“How are my eyes?”
“They’re gone somewhere else.”
“I don’t think I can be here.”
“You should be careful. One of these times your axe will land in something other than the tree, and you wouldn’t know enough to care until you’re dead.”
Adam looked ahead at the setting sun. Streaks of orange spilled over the flatlands, and fragments of night grew from the ravines and the folds. Soon it would take over. He had thought of painting it again. He had not tried because the axe took what it had from his arms, and when he had to think, he felt the pain. While there was work, there was enough to cope and nothing more; and when the body could cope no longer, there was one; to work and to think were incompatible. The trees were primary. And though he still thought of it. His brother knew the look, and he looked around for the bag of supplies but Adam had left it behind. Adam was aware there was only enough life in a man for one necessity, and his body could cope little more than it had.
“Could you paint this place?” the brother asked. “How it is now.”
“I could to some, but not to everyone.”
“Do you know why?”
“Not with what I know.”
“I don’t know either, but I know what I see, and I would paint the ugliness. When places are beautiful, they paint the beautiful because there is much of it. And when places are ugly too, then I would do the same.”
“Then you should be a painter too.”
“No. It wouldn’t sell. People don’t want the ugliness. They know much about the beauty because they love it. But they know nothing about the ugliness. It scares them. Everything is hidden. They do it well enough that nobody knows but a few of us. It’s like this place. Only we know about it. All these beautiful places we see everywhere, we know so much about without ever seeing for ourselves. But these ugly places, only the few of us know about.”
“We grow to love the beautiful places more then. We are lucky.”
“To need them,” the brother said. “Sometimes we need them. And that is why I would not be a painter. I would paint things people would not want to see.”
“All of us do that. It’s why we have no money.”
“But I’d have no pride in it. I’d paint horrible things, and I wouldn’t be proud of them. There is no pleasure in that.”
“No, there wouldn’t be.”
“Do you need the beautiful places?”
“And that’s what you think about, don’t you?”
“Some people live places they aren’t. It’s what you can do when you don’t care for the things you see.”
The brother stood, a little regained from the rest. He pulled a smaller axe from his boot and began to strip away the smaller foliage and twigs of the tree, freeing the bulk.
“Can you learn to tame yourself?” he said. “Overtime you can make yourself love ugly things, can’t you?”
“You cannot love ugly things. Only when you come to find them beautiful, then you can love them. But you cannot love ugliness. And if you did it would be a shame and a waste. You’d resent yourself.”
“I resent myself now,” the brother said. “So I have little to lose.”
Adam felt the pain settle enough to stand and he took a deep breath from the warm evening and helped to strip the tree. The bark gave a strong scent as it broke, like the earth and the evening at once. Now the land was orange and pink like the flames of a smolder, and growing violet and yellow like the petals in the wild, and all the colors brought a lacking to the mind, about how little beauty the land could bring on its own, and how dull the white sands tempered the color—at how little the breeze sung through the ravines.
“He wants you to go,” the brother said.
Adam turned and looked down the hillside, toward the cabin. An evening shade covered the porch and the cabin looked nothing more than a small box on the ground. The home had been there long before they’d come to work the ranch and now was aged and weathered. At some point, Adam was sure it had been new; it had fresh lumber and paint, and good hopes; but like the land, and the ranch with it, the home had spent what it could and now only lingered as a poor memory. There was no movement on the porch, as he knew there wouldn’t be. The only signs of life were the swallows that grafted mud to the awnings and bred until their nests were destroyed; and even that too had stopped along the way, and the birds bred freely. Adam felt the shades shift and the house belittled beneath them; a home mimicked the passions of the men and women who lived it, and its passions had died long ago.
“He’s getting worse,” Adam said; he felt uncomfortable looking into his brother’s eyes because they were his fathers, and it was not something to speak about in their presence. “I think he’s getting worse.”
“He’s dying,” the brother said. “It won’t be long.”
“He’ll talk to you soon. He knows you’d like to leave and he wants you to go. He told me so already.”
“He’s said nothing to me.”
“But he will,” the brother said. “And when he talks to you, you should leave.”
“Sometimes we can’t.”
“Then it would be a shame,” he said. “Life is not beautiful. Always it has to be a shame. But only a few of us know that too.”
The two cleaned the tree in silence and threw aside the waste like hunters. They worked methodically, and they used what little light crept over the hills to aid them. It was difficult work in the evening, and as the light fell it was hard to see the ground and the trail down the hill and they moved only because they knew where to and because they had to; the money had no patience in the matter. By width the tree was thick and they both knew would take in well enough for what they needed. They worked the trunk into three large pieces, all too heavy for one. In daylight they would have taken more trips to make the load easier, but now in the dark they did the best they could. Adam led down the hill, while the brother lifted his weight from the rear, and together they descended the hill toward the flat land.
And by the third trip they rested just before the base of the hill. The evening no longer touched the land, only a faint line from above where the oak had grown, aged, and passed. For a moment, the moon was bright and made the earth an alien white along the sands; it cast shadows on the home and the two men, and the earth moved now more than it had before. There were no coyotes in the hills because there was no food in the hills, and the night was quiet without them, with light songs from the katydids.
Adam rested on a small thicket of bunch grass and felt an ache tense through the worn muscle. Tomorrow he would be stronger, and tomorrow he would work again. That was always the method of work; the body would be stronger.
“Have you been sleeping?” the brother asked.
“No,” Adam said. “My body knows everything, even if I don’t. It makes it hard to sleep.”
“I feel that too. It’s as if he’s already dead.”
“Maybe we know before it happens, like the dogs.”
“We do,” the brother said. “I know we do.” The warmth had weathered gently from the flatlands, and now the air was cold and each breath blew visible from his lips. “When he talks to you, you need to listen. You should leave.”
“Does he want you to go too?”
“No. But I don’t mind this place. He can tell that. It’s ugly, but I don’t mind it. Somehow I feel comfortable here. But you need to though.”
“Lets get going. I’m tired, and if I lay anymore I won’t get back up.”
“Nothing will mind you here,” the brother said. “Listen to the calm, somewhere in it there’s splendor. I feel tired now too.”
Adam fought the ache in his limbs and he pushed away from the sand and took his place. The two crossed the yard and gathered the three pieces of oak into a pile beside the home. An owl watched from the roof and called once, but they were too weary to take note of it. The work was done for the night, and that was what mattered until it was needed again—and that need was part of the thirst and hunger of life, if not more so vital; a man can starve, but he cannot deny sleep.
When they entered the cabin the door squeaked; the hinges were old and tired like the home, and the living room sung of the broken calm. They moved slowly, like children into the dark. Only faint lines from the moon crossed the drapes and lit the table and the chairs in the small kitchen. A flicker passed down the hall, from the room of their father, but they were alone. The brother fell onto the cushions of the sofa and his eyes closed quickly on themselves; each breath lengthened and he was asleep before he could settle his body squarely. Adam did not sit; if he were to rest, he would not wake until the morning, and that was too late. He stood watching the hall and the slight flicker of light conflicting with the moon. It made him nervous to watch the hall, and it made him uneasy to look at his brother—the image of his father distorted and strewn upon the sofa. He did not react to the feelings because he couldn’t. In the weariness a man does not think as he should but as the body enables, and for a moment he felt as real as the stones that lined the hills.
The wind blew quickly through the ravines, picked up swiftly, but faltered by the time it worked the flatlands, and it died to a slow moving calm that amounted to nothing. Outside the lands were confined to a chasm, away from the wilds, and too far beneath the stars and the moon to exhaust in the radiance. The cabin was alone, as Adam felt it; outside was a world meant for men to live, and for men to die, not to think, and not for longevity.
He passed through the moonlight, down the hall toward his father’s open door, not staggered by the tired any longer. His mother was asleep in a chair by the bedside. Her head fell against the wood of a small desk that held a few burning candles and she sat bundled to her chin in wool blankets. The candles had burned low on the wick, and gave only enough light to show off permanence in the room; it was the moon that gave light to the body. A poor mold of his father lay still beneath the blankets, and he traced the lines up toward his sunken face. The man had not been sleeping. His eyes were tired and damned, but open, and it was hard to look at the man because the eyes were the same, but the body had long changed. The blankets sunk as he took in breaths, and his muscles strained to a full churning of the cold air. For the first time in days, the man moved, and it hurt him as much as it did to lay still; he placed a finger by his lips to order quiet, and he motioned Adam into the room.
Adam pulled a wooden stool beside the bed, and he sat close so the man wouldn’t need to strain anymore than he had. His father’s face was gray except for the cheeks which had become a light blue and sunk so the shape of the skull was prominent above any other features; the moon spilled in lines along the man’s face so that his eyes were in the shades and his lips moved clearly in the green as he spoke.
“Do the dead frighten you?” he asked, weak but with as much pride as a child.
Adam looked to the floor, into the dark where his boots were unseen; he had no answer for the question, and that was what frightened him.
“I know it,” the man said. “They frighten me too. They frighten me a lot more.”
“There’ll be some money coming in. We worked into the evening tonight. It should pay off what we need for now. There’s still enough timber in the hills.”
“It’ll be gone soon enough. The trees aren’t like cattle; they grow slowly you know.”
“There’s ways to live otherwise.”
“Yes,” the man said. “There’s always a way when you want to live. But when you’re somewhere else, you don’t have the pleasure. I don’t have the pleasure any longer and I know it. You’ve never had the pleasure, but you hide it.”
“If it was my choice I would go,” Adam said. “I can’t leave.”
“You can’t. But you’ll leave because you need to.”
“Even the worst of places can have a hold on you. Even places you don’t want to be; they’re like roots.”
“It’s the dead that have their hold. Soon enough I’ll know about roots better than you,” the man said; his chest sunk further from the strain of speaking and each breath came heavy and with pain. “Look at my body. I know as much as you that it’s passed away; I have the dead of my own self as the roots. I’m no more alive than the rotting stumps alone in the hills.”
“But your head is still with you.”
“My head has always been with me. And I’ve known always what was coming to me—that’s how I accept it, because I understand it as much as the work that made me this way. I’ve worked the ranches. I’ve done my dues. I’ve felt my pain. I accept the tenure of my body. But for a man to dream of another way—to work his body to a pain he doesn’t understand—that is frightening. More than the death…the life becomes an illness. And the pain I feel now you understand as much as I do. I didn’t know that until I felt it, but now I know.”
“Our pains are not the same,” Adam said.
The old man moved his lips to grin, but it fell short of expression.
“Our aches are always the same in the end,” he said. “It’s our pleasures that makes us different. A father cannot watch his son get sicker.”
“I can’t leave,” Adam said. “They’ll be alone.”
“They’ll be alone,” the man said. “But they’ll live the same as you’ll live, and they’ll live here, where it’s not so beautiful, because I’ll be here below them. The roots that tie you now are young. There is a bond between the land and the blood of people. Where we lay our dead becomes our own, and never truly until then, no matter the deeds or the law; this is a fact of all people—you will not leave when I’m gone, and you will not be alive here either. That’s why you need to go.”
Adam looked to his mother. The candlelight flickered against her cold cheeks and she gripped strong at the blankets up to her neck.
“Will she understand?” he asked.
“No,” the man said. “Life is not easy. And that’s how we suffer.”
For a moment, the two were still, and the breeze pressed forward through the ravines into the flatlands and then gently onto the cabin. Somewhere over the hills, the clouds were gathering in a deep violet, and they passed now along the moon until the room was dark, and Adam could see only the pale of the man’s skin, and how he shivered where he lay. The man reached forward and grabbed Adam’s hand into his own; the skin was cold like water, and he felt the tremble.
“Tell me,” his father said. “Where is it you’ll go?”
“We all have our own paradise.”
“We do,” the man said. “You’ll be there soon. And I will too.”
The man let go and collapsed into the pillow. What was left shrunk toward the shadows and the moon no longer showed the streaks along his face. He trembled beneath the blankets, and Adam felt the wind push stronger through the ravines and press against the windows. He would die very soon, and he was sure of it for a reason he didn’t know, but understood.
Adam stood and blew the fire from the candles. The room fell into a light green stage of the moon, and the shades no longer danced along the walls but were fixed to where the life had been. He straightened out the blankets on his mother’s body, but he did not look at her.
He gathered his things in a small bag and dressed warm. He moved calm through the living room as he had when they entered, and by now the clouds had covered the moon; he was sure now of the answer—it was not the dead that frightened him, but the passing of life. He moved by his brother on the sofa to the door. The hinges squealed and he lowered them slowly until the cabin was alone again and quiet as the night.
The brother stirred as the door closed. He shivered from the cold and his eyes grew weary once more, though he was happy.
“You needed to,” he said; the wind howled and the world was rough. “You need to.” And before the pains could return to the body, he fell back to sleep from the ache and the tired.
“The world is a world
And of jungles
With worlds of
–The Magpie (Of Tides and Lemmings)
Along the hills, the spring brought with it water, and little gullies formed in pockets of thick rock and dripped till the plants were green and the stones thick with lichen. This made the valley green, and the hills rich and brown from a distance, and visible enough through the fog to find if needed. The land was masculine around the valley, but the hills rose softly, like the folds of a woman, and kept its tenderness from the earth much womanly too. Adam waded the thorns and the chaparral like a pilgrim, and when he saw the outlines of the valley, they floated briefly beneath a sheet of white fog, and drifted till he had to move quickly to catch them.
He entered the valley through a high pass in the hills, and by that time the clouds had moved on through the morning and left only a gray layer of mist between the trees. The earth was wet and loose from the rain, and he stumbled along shelves of slate that grew from the hills until he came to where the land steadied into a clearing full with lupine and poppy. North of the clearing, as it rose, jutted with sand colored stone, and small weeds grew onto the landings; water dripped into small streams and pooled where the stones dipped and caught the shade. He climbed the rocks until he came to a basin in the hill and there he stopped and rested. A flock of blackbirds perched above the basin and drank from the cracks and moved only to feed from the worms washed free from the rains. Adam drank from the pool until he felt well enough to lay still. Small patches of sage and chamise grew from cracks in the stone and they made the air bright with the scent of rain, and cushioned where he lay.
There would be no more rains through the summer. Adam knew this as well as the earth, and he enjoyed the water more so. He cleaned his face in the pools, scrubbed his wounds from the dense wild. Inside the hills, he felt sheltered, the same as closing doors. There he could relax and look into the pool. His face had changed since he’d last seen himself; he looked too wild to be a person, and he looked too wise to be a man. His skin had darkened and his eyes had become predominantly green and black, with a progressive mix between the two. Even if so shortly, he had become older. He shaved his face to the bare skin, but still he looked older. He looked nothing like his father, nothing like anybody but himself.
From where he sat he could see the sheet of moisture that wet the hills gray like a blanket; the face of the foothills became only a short outline, seamless and smooth beneath it, and he tried to make more of it but couldn’t. Below, in the clearing, a road split the heather and ran through the oaks a good way and disappeared with the land it covered. At times, the trucks would pass, heavy and weighted, and the moisture would phoenixspin to a thick wind and resettle where it began. The road was impressive, even from the little he could see beneath the fog. There were smooth curves of dark gravel showing through the trees and bringing with them a scent of flint and stone as the winds carried upward. It disappeared into the woods where Silas had fled, and he knew the valley had changed. The woods were no longer quiet.
There, among the stones, he painted. He hadn’t done so since he’d tried in the cold evening by the cabin, and it felt good to do so. His things were in poor condition, and the paints had eddied long enough to become dull and thick, but he did his best until he realized there was no good in it, and he stopped and packed his things. He would see the old man soon, if he was still in the valley. If anything could exist in what was left of the wilds, it would be the cabin.
In the afternoon he climbed free of the slate down into the clearing. The earth smelled thick with peony and small flowers, and they shown their colors as the white lifted and the air became clear and blue. It was as good a place as any to see the valley and there were often patches of shade spread between the oaks and the sycamores to rest in. First to appear in the distance came the image of the boundaries, and then the smooth wakes that rolled below them. And the first to come clean in the sun was a patch of hill, dense with wood, but opened to an old white house. It was a house he had seen often, but taken little note of. Now it seemed to grow along with the trees, as one of them, as an extension of the hill, higher and bolder than the rest the valley like a jewel, and like a statue; its filth and brilliance gave birth to the low gleam tandem to the light of the morning, and it drifted calmly with the wind until it was known all over. The columns had grown over with vines on the porch banisters, and the portico was green and yellow with fallen leaves until not much was to be seen but short glimpses of white where the wood had been before. He had a sudden urge to go there, to leave his path and enter the hills toward the knoll, and wasn’t sure why, but he held himself back, as there were more important things to do.
The valley was waking now. Trucks moved along the road steady, followed by lines of smaller trucks, and engines. A calm breeze sputtered from the valley floor and choked out before clearing the mountains. And now he heard only the sounds of engines, and they moved too quick, regardless the machine.
As the day warmed, the wet ground clear of the shade and the trees was warmed along with the air, and it smelled of heat. Adam kept to the open fields, and when there were no trails, climbed where the ground was still wet and too thick to walk beneath the brush. The sun was worst in the open fields, but the mud clung to his boots, and he preferred to walk in them. He thought about walking the roads, and hailing the cars, but he had no money, and it was no good to be with people if you had no money. He stopped at times when he came to the tall oaks, scrapped his boots of mud, and let the wet ground cool him before he moved on.
Once he got lower he looked down to the river. As a boy, it was easy to gauge direction by the bends and curves, but there was no river. There were outlines through the land of old banks, and small pools left from the morning, but they weren’t the same and he didn’t trust them. He was too hungry to trust them, and he didn’t want to get lost and loose time. He was looking for the citrus fields. The breeze was strong but he couldn’t smell them. When they had been large you could see them from anywhere on the mountains, like ruts in a road, and you could smell them. They were thick, and like the way you smell berries when they’re cooked. But the groves weren’t large anymore and he could smell nothing.
He moved lower in the valley, and began to recognize the paths more thoroughly, and when he knew where he was, it was a good feeling. He came to where the chaparral broke into a small dirt service road, lined by yellow green poplars on either side of the road. Behind the trees was a small ditch that ran the length of the road and was about half full with mud. The sides were still wet from the shade of the poplars, and his boots stuck as he jumped it. He dropped a foot into the water, and it was cold, and it ran up his legs until his body felt cold too. There were trees then, in rows, and more yellow than green, but with spots where the fruit hung and too where it fell on the ground below. The citrus did not smell even then. The rotting fruit on the ground did not smell either. A few rinds were scattered and opened from where the coyotes had picked them; it was only when they were hungry that they ate the fruit; when they left the hills they were sunk to the bone, and they did not run when they saw you.
Adam tore a few of the brightest lemons from the tree. Many of them were green and sour and not good enough to eat, but he was hungry and ate them anyway. They would have been okay with sugar. He had eaten them last with sugar. He had eaten them more often without, but just that once had spoiled the taste, though he ate them anyway. He sat on the earth beneath the trees and ate. The trees weren’t healthy. They were old trees, and beaten by the wind, and the leaves shed dust as he tore the fruit. He spit the seeds into the dirt and tore at the rind of another. The breeze had picked up again, and it blew the leaves toward the ditch where there were piles of them in the mud. There was a rusted windmill a few rows down and it caught the breeze enough to turn partially and then falter. The orchard had not been used for some time.
He heard an engine above the breeze and he stood just in time to see a truck turn from the service road to the dirt channel of the grove. There were men in the bed of the truck, a few men standing, and one man sitting and looking east toward the poplars. He waited to see if the truck would turn off, but it kept coming, and he ran for the ditch. The water was cold as he dropped into the ditch, and it spilled over the linen of his jeans, up to his knees. He pressed his head to the slope so he couldn’t be seen from the road. The truck pulled to the end of the channel and stopped.
“All this,” a man said.
“Yes, all this,” another said. “From up here down to a few yards from the house. That’s what the lease says.”
The three men from the truck bed jumped to the dirt and began to look at the lemon trees. The man who had been sitting wore a brown coat and a cap. He looked too nice to be a worker. The other men had no business there. One kicked a lemon through a grouping of weeds, and they went off examining the grove. The man who had been driving was a big, Indian man, and he got out and stood by the truck and didn’t speak. Another man got out of the cab and started the talking.
“They found a leak just down the grove from here,” he said. “But I bet this ground is full of it.”
“This whole valley’s full of it,” said the brown coat. “What happened to these trees? They look sick.”
“Are you familiar with them?”
“No, but they look sick.”
“There’s no money in them.”
“No,” said the brown coat. “I’ll have to look around before I sign anything. I have my boys taking samples of the soil right now. We’ll take some cores today.”
“The land’s full of oil. It’s not too deep either.”
“Anyway, we’ll look to be safe. There’s no money in the dirt if it’s dry.”
The brown coat looked at the Indian but the Indian said nothing. He walked to the trees and moved the fruit so he could look at the yellow green leaves. He did not mind the dust.
“They do look sick,” he said.
“You seem interested in farming.”
“I’d like to someday. When I get old, I’d like to.”
“I have family back east. They say the land there is good. I’d recommend it.”
“The land is no good around here?”
“Not anymore. But if you go, it’ll be good there only for a while. Once the people show up it won’t be good either.”
“Then it will be good here again?”
“Yes, but not as good as it is now.”
The brown coat lowered to the ground, collected a handful of dry soil from where the tires had torn into the dirt. He smashed the clods in his hand and looked again to the Indian. The Indian was very stern. He did not smile when the other did.
“The Indian says there used to be gold,” said the brown coat.
The Indian nodded.
“I heard that too.”
“They tore up the ground, and they tore up the rivers and the streams. I think they did it with pick axes then.”
“And it all grew back,” the other said.
“Not the same. It never comes back the same. But you’re right. It always comes back, and I wish I were alive to see it the next time around. I hope then, they plant flowers and not these sickly trees.”
“Will you farm flowers then?”
“If there was enough time I would. But now I need those samples. Show me where they found the first leak. We’ll take them there first.”
The man lead the brown coat into the trees and their talking lowered until it meant nothing, and the wind blew softly. Adam watched the Indian open the truck door, fumble through the seat, and return to his post by the hood with a small canteen. He wasn’t planning on leaving until the others returned, and he moved only to bring the canteen to his lips and back to his side. The few lemons Adam had kept were now muddied by the cold water and he let them go to float alongside the rinds. One man could stop him from leaving, and he was a big man, but it wouldn’t be as much of a fight as with all the men. He pulled himself from the mud and walked out onto the road.
The Indian did not mind. He saw Adam come onto the road, and watched him the same as he would a dog covered in mud.
“I saw you run into the ditch,” he said. “I didn’t tell them.”
“Because in a few weeks all these trees will be gone. All the fruit will be gone. It means more to you. They shouldn’t mind if you take them. But they would. Take some more, while they’re here.”
“I’ve eaten enough.”
“I have food,” said the Indian. “Not much but enough for the both of us.”
“I’d like to be gone when they come back.”
“They won’t be back for a while. It takes a long time to drill those cores. Come sit with me.”
The Indian opened the bed of the truck so it lay flat, and brought from the cab a few small bags of walnuts and dried fruit, along with an opened bottle of wine that tasted stale and smelled the same. The two sat in the bed and drank the wine from the bottle. It was strong, and went well with the fruit. It washed the taste of the bad lemons from Adam’s mouth, and the walnuts were fresh and good to eat. The Indian was still very stern and quiet, even after drinking the wine.
“When will the trees be gone?” Adam said. “Are they taking them all?”
“Yes, all of them. Once they drill the cores they’ll sign the lease. The trees aren’t healthy, they’ll come down quickly.”
“They’ll cut them.”
“Dynamite,” said the Indian. “They’ve moved to dynamite. It’s quicker.”
“There’s a lot of oil in these hills.”
“You’ve heard about it?”
“Yes,” Adam said.
“Where did you come from?” the Indian asked. He looked around toward the poplars, and off toward the slope of the hills. There were no more clouds in the sky, and the sun was bright and the hills were drying quickly.
“From the hills,” Adam said.
The Indian said nothing. The two drank together and ate the rest of the walnuts in silence. At times, the leaves rustled as they blew along the ground, and again as they gathered in the ditch. Adam wondered how far the men had gone, but the Indian did not seem worried.
“You’ll need work then, won’t you,” said the Indian.
“They’ll be plenty of it now.”
“I won’t take out trees.”
“You won’t feel anything when you blow them up. It’s not very personal. The same as if you blow up men.”
“Don’t you worry?” Adam said.
“I do,” said the Indian. “The hills scare me. They scare me a lot, and I don’t like them. That’s why I don’t mind doing what I do. None of us do.”
“I think they’re like people. Just as much as people are.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that around anybody else. People are afraid of people like you.”
“How many are there like me?”
“Just one,” said the Indian. “I’ve never seen him. He lives in the trees, and he comes from them like you. He hides in them too. I think he’s at war with us. He attacked a pump the other day. He tried to set fire to it.”
“Did they get him?”
“No. He’s good at hiding. Most people are too scared to go where he goes. But when they find him it won’t be good. You talk like him, but I don’t think you’re like him.”
“Because you don’t scare me,” said the Indian. “I’ve never seen the man, but he scares me.”
“Maybe I’ll see him soon.”
“You’ll see him if he lets you.”
“I’ll look for him then.”
“You’ll come work too?” said the Indian.
“If there are no trees.”
“There will be trees. But we’ll find other things for you to do. We’ll need men soon.”
“I don’t know anything about the work.”
“A lot of people come here and know nothing about it,” said the Indian. “Especially the young like you, because the war.”
The Indian did not answer immediately. He drank the last sip of wine and tipped the bottle to his lips till it was dry. He looked at Adam strangely, the way one stares at a painting or a scene.
“The young men come here because they do not look here,” he said. “Not too many people are taken from here. They let the others fight first. Once they’re dead they’ll come here too, but not till then.”
“What are they fighting for?”
“I’m not sure. You don’t have a side?”
“I don’t which sides are which.”
“I don’t think they do either.” The Indian rose and looked off into the grove. A flock of black birds rose, scattered, and fell again out of sight. “They’ll be back some time soon. You should be leaving.”
Adam rose too. He brushed the dried mud from his clothing the best he could. His boots were still damp and the bottoms of his feet hurt. He would dry them off as soon as he could, but for now he walked. He went a few yards and turned back to the Indian.
“Why didn’t you tell them?” he asked.
“Tell them what?”
“When you saw me crossing the grove.”
“Because of a story my grandmother told me,” said the Indian. “She told me the world did not start until a man came from the trees. I thought you were that man.”
The blackbirds rose and fell again, this time moving closer in the orchard. The men were on their way back.
“Where are you going?” said the Indian.
“Back into the hills.”
“Be careful. And don’t talk like that around other people.”
“I won’t. Thank you.”
As the breeze picked up again, the men were closer and crunching at the leaves in the channels of the trees. The Indian turned to look at the men. The brown coat was very happy, and so were the others. The samples had gone well. By the time he turned to look again down the road, Adam was gone, and there was nothing more than the poplars and the green hills behind them.
Adam came to the cabin in the evening. The light fell little to the ground by the shade of the oaken woods, and the cabin was dark and hard to find. He found the cabin by heart, which he swore was instinct though the old paths had grown wild because no one came and no one went. There was no sign of the old man either. The chemise had grown thick into the clearing around the cabin, and the sage and the grasses had grown thick too, until the clearing was true only yards from the porch steps, and it seemed as if the wilds had taken an edge since the boy had last been around. He stepped through the plants toward the cabin. The sun was setting in the hills behind the cabin, orange and bright as a fire, and the weeds had many different colors in the shade. The roots and the limbs had been given time to grow, and now spread across the clearing like ropes and chains, spinning onto the steps of the porch, and up the steep wood siding of the patio. Small flowering plants roosted in the seams of the porch steps; they grew into the cracks on the banister, and flowered as bountiful as they would in the dirt.
There were no lights in the cabin. The steps were dark, and he tripped over the weeds as he climbed toward the door. The cabin was not pious any longer. It smelled of the wet mud that washed clean of the hills, and he thought for a moment the man must be dead. It smelled like death too, from what he knew of it. Inside it was very quiet. From the end of a dark hall, a small light flickered from the wick of a candle. If the man were to be dead, he had died soon, and either way Adam did not want to leave. It caught his eyes gently. He didn’t know why, but he felt safe in the cabin. His eyes focused on the light, and he followed the candle to a small room, where the man slept with his back to the door on a bed just out of reach of the candlelight. There was no moon, and he could see the man only faintly; his breath came long and tenured, the way all men sleep. The man was not dead.
Adam sat in the hall, in a wooden chair beside the door of the room. He wished at times there had been a moon, and that he could see things outside of the shadows. He knew there were paintings on the walls, like the ones he had known, like the ones of the woods, but he would look at them in the morning when the sun rose and things were bright again. Maybe then he could learn them again too, if the man was still himself, and he was still he. Into the night the coyotes could be heard very close in the hills, and their call echoed through the cabin walls like music, and he thought sometimes the man would wake; his breath could be heard once the animals stopped, and he knew the man slept sound and little could wake him. It was good the man was alive. He was sure the man had been dead for long. And that there was no point in coming back.
He slept late into the morning, and by the time he woke, the hall was lit, the paintings were abundant, and the man was gone. He walked to the window at the end of the hall. The day was already warm, and what was left of the rains appeared to be brought back into the atmosphere from where it came. The porch was empty still. Beneath the awning, the rooted flowers bent toward the light in the afternoon, and the ones that did not need it stood very still; the day would be calm; spring would be harsh; and the summers would come to take those which did not go in the spring.
He found the old man in the kitchen, drinking from a white cup, with his eyes toward an open window. He did not startle when the boy came in. Adam stood in the doorway, until the man did not ask him to sit. Then he pulled a chair opposite the man, and sat beneath the window.
“It seemed almost stupid then,” the old man said. “But I knew you were coming back. How’ve you been?”
“Not as bad as here,” said the boy. “The cabin looks bad.”
“But you don’t look any older.”
“I don’t?” the man said. He did not seem flattered. “If I don’t then I wish I did. It does me no good not to look older, if in the end I’ll die regardless. Do you think I’ll die, or do you think I’m immortal?”
“That’s up to you.”
“Then I will die, because I don’t know how to be immortal. Some people do and some people don’t. And I don’t. I’ve tried, and I can’t do it.”
The man began to cough, and for the first time he looked aged. Everything on the outside appeared the same as he had once been, but his movements were weak, and his eyes were old and dark like the knots of a tree.
“Have a drink,” the man said. “You look pale.”
The man stood and brought another white cup from the cupboard to the table. Then he filled it from a steel pot on the stove. It was a sweet tea, and the boy drank it, and it warmed his stomach enough to forget he was still hungry. The man sat down again, and drank from his own. He was still very dignified in the way he moved.
“I’m like an old soldier,” the man said, when he saw the boy had noticed. “I can still wear my colors to the battle. And I can still hold my chest straight like a fighting man. And I can still bring the same guns, and the same boots, and the same eagerness. And then I can die in the battle with all those same things.”
“I heard there was a war going on,” the boy said to change the subject.
“I’m not much for wars.”
“I’m not sure what they’re fighting for.”
“I don’t think they fight for anything.”
“Will they take men from here?”
“No,” the old man said. “We’re only new men here. They want the old ones first, and then they go to the new ones.”
“And when the old ones are gone.”
“Then they will take the new men. But don’t worry. There’s no room for a painter to kill men. You’re free to do as you wish.”
“I can paint well now,” the boy said. “I’ve learned things.”
The man did not answer. He drank from his cup, until the cup was empty. He pulled a flask from beneath the table, poured it into the cup until the cup was full again, and then he was ready to speak.
“I’ve learned things too,” he said. “It does good for the painting.”
“It does. But I cannot paint as well as you.”
“Because you haven’t learned as many things.”
“You said before you would teach me.”
“That depends,” the old man said. “Are you still a shepherd?”
“Not any more.”
“What happened to your family?”
“They left with the shepherds. The same with the hands, and the pickers.”
“The Lasseter’s are no longer in need of shepherds?”
“They’re no longer in need of cattle. They sold their land as quick as any, and we had to move on. We left even before the drilling began.”
“You went far.”
“There is no land left,” the boy said. “And my family will die with it.”
“And you came back.”
“The land was never mine to die with. I’m not a shepherd. I’ve never been a shepherd.”
“Then what are you?” asked the old man.
He did not look up from his drink any more.
“You’re a shepherd,” the old man said. “Just a different kind, and I disagree with you. People need shepherds always, if not for the cattle, then for themselves. You are not a painter, because you cannot paint well.”
“I’ve gotten better.”
“Have you been to the clearing?”
“Not since I’ve been back. Is it still there?”
“Maybe,” the old man said. “And you still cannot paint it.”
“You said you would teach me.”
“I’m not a teacher when I’m angry. You still won’t do what I ask. And that makes me impatient. And that makes me angry.”
“What do you ask?”
“That you get out of my house, and leave me be.”
“I have nowhere to go.”
“Then I will leave you be.”
The man drank the remainder of his cup, pushed it aside, and stood with difficulty. He was drunk, and used the table to gather his balance. Once he stood, he looked to the boy, with his eyes red and solemn like blood.
“If the clearing is still there,” he said, “then I don’t know it. I haven’t been there to see. My legs aren’t what they used to be.”
“I never knew who owned it. The land around was bare.”
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t bother going anyway. The earth has no use for shepherds. Shepherds are for people, not for solitude.”
“I told you I was a painter.”
“And I told you you weren’t,” the old man said. “You are a shepherd. You can paint, but you cannot paint good, because you can’t paint anything the way it is. You’re the same to me as a liar.”
The man coughed and nearly stumbled free from the arch of the doorway where he held himself stable. The words and the speech were very similar but the man was not the same. His body and his limbs were antique and pale, and when they moved they moved to the drift of the liquor.
“You’re too weak to leave the cabin,” the boy said.
“Yes, and soon the earth will get me.”
“It will get me too.”
“It will consume you like a fire,” the man said. “And you won’t know any difference.”
The man left the kitchen and the boy was alone. He heard the door close down the hall, and he knew then why the cabin looked the way it did. The man could not fend for himself any longer, the way an animal is thrown alone in the fields, and when he has nothing left to give, lies down and dies. And it was no more graceful.
The Indian did as he said he would, and he found Adam work quickly. Overnight the lease had been signed, and the orchards that were only orchards and trees before were now filled in the channels by tents and men. At first the work was always eventful. The ditches were filled around the poplars, and sturdy roads were constructed to make room for the large trucks that brought in the freight. There were no more horses or carts that ran the roads. Everything was done heavy, and in big masses. They were first to drill down further in the orchard, more by the riverside, and by the time Adam made it to the sight, part of the trees had been blown already to make room for an accessible road down to the drilling. He was able to hear the other explosions while walking with the Indian through the channels, and they were more subtle then he had thought, and it bothered him a little when he did not mind them.
“It’s much quicker than taking them out one by one,” the Indian said.
“I didn’t hear the first one.”
“Well here’s your chance. Here comes another.”
A few men had gathered in the channel to watch in the distance. There was a loud rumble, followed by well-lit wind that surged through the trees, and then the smell of gunpowder and smoke. The men clapped and said they could see the flames from where they were, and a few claimed they could see the trees torn like stems from the dirt.
“I like it this way,” the Indian said. “It gets it over with quicker.”
“Almost too quick.”
“Look at it this way. If somebody were to tear your hair out of your head, would you rather them do it one by one, or all at once.”
“It would depend on how much I loved my hair.”
“I love my hair too much,” the Indian said. He never smiled once, and Adam considered that he never contemplated the remark as a joke.
They walked for a while in what was left of the orchard. Occasionally the blasts came and went, and then they, including the men working in the trees, lost interest and paid no attention each time they did.
“Where are we going?” Adam asked.
“To meet the man who hired you.”
“He knows about me working with the trees.”
“No,” said the Indian. “But you won’t step foot anywhere near the well. Something happened elsewhere. They’re scare around here.”
They came to where the orchards ended abruptly, and where the earth had been cleared, the trees churned into the soil, leveled and settled. The clearing was wide open, and there were trailers parked in the center of the clearing, surrounded by tables and sheets spread and tied to poles beside the tables in order to make shade. They entered one of the trailers and inside was the man in the brown coat Adam had seen the day before in the orchard with the Indian. His name was Alfred Thomas, and he stood when the two came in, and shook with a strong hand that meant he was in charge.
“This is the man,” the Indian said.
There were a few other men in the trailer, though they made no move to introduce themselves. They did not look like they belonged, and they looked worried.
“The Indian says you know the hills,” Mr. Thomas said. “Is he right?”
“I know them as good as anyone.”
The other men seemed to ease a little. Mr. Thomas was straightforward and he didn’t change one way or another.
“Do you have a gun?” he asked.
“That’s fine. We don’t need to shoot him. We just need to find him and beat him around a little.”
“He hasn’t heard of the man?” Mr. Thomas said to the Indian.
“I told him a little,” the Indian said. “I told him he’s hard to catch.”
“That’s fine because I don’t need him caught. I don’t mind if he runs wild in the hills as long as he leaves me be. There’s a lot of money here and I can’t afford to lose it. Last night he set fire to a few of the trees, and he scared the men to death. A few of them left already. He put a knife to a couple of our trucks. The men were flat in the morning and it slowed us a hell of a lot down from where we should be.”
“You don’t know anything about him?” Adam asked.
“Nothing,” said Mr. Thomas. “Except that he comes quick, destroys and runs like a vandal. It’s good that you know the hills. Maybe you won’t be so quick not to chase him. You might just be able to keep him away from here. It’s usually not my priority to secure any site, but our investors are scared, and they want the added protection just to be safe.”
Adam knew then who the other two men were, and why they looked as pale as they did. They looked genuine in their fear. They weren’t from the valley, and they weren’t pioneers like the other men. They had fear like tourists in the jungles, and he did not like them.
“Then I’ll guard the well?” he asked.
“Not the well. He never attacks the well, just everything else. One big thing about drilling anywhere is the power it takes to do so. We have generators here, but they aren’t reliable and they’re much more expensive. If possible we would like not to use them. He’s attacked the power on the other wells before. If he tries anything, he’ll try that here too.”
“Where will I be?” Adam asked.
“Power on the ranch is central to a small building that’s outside of the drilling zone and the lease, near the stable and the horse fields. Mr. Belle has given us permission to put men there so he isn’t out of power as well. There are already men there. You’ll meet them when you go. The Indian will show you the way.”
“Are they armed?”
“One man has a rifle, but I don’t want anybody killed. If you catch him, beat him badly, and leave him to die. Then, we won’t be liable.”
“What if he runs?”
“I want him to run. And if he doesn’t bother here than he can run all he wants. There are many people who want him dead, but I just want him to leave me be. I have no grudge against him. I only hate him.”
“And you don’t know who he is?” Adam asked.
“As far as I know he’s a devil. But that’s enough for now. I hate making a legend of the animal. Let the Indian show you the way, while I ease everybody’s fears, and keep things moving the way they should.”
The Indian never changed his expression. He looked on sternly, and led the boy out of the trailer. Another explosion happened very close and the smoke clouded the air. A few leaves shuffled in the warm wind, and it smelled like fire.
“It’s much better this way,” the Indian said, to assure himself.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Well it is. Trust me.”
They went down the slope of the ranch, through what remained of the orchard. The ranch was large, and the lease had signed a good amount of land down to the water, from east to west on mostly rolling land. When they left the grove, they came to a crossing of dirt service roads, where only a few trucks passed. Mainly the men were up at the well, or somewhere close to the explosions to get a better view. They felt alone as they walked further. The hills were quiet once again, and they felt the warm breeze roll over the dense gray brown grass only slightly, and they heard the explosions when they listened, and smelled the fire only when it came their way. They moved away from the roads, into the bunch grass and the open dirt where open plants like the cattails grew. The hills fell suddenly into a creek running with muddy water, and they crossed the creek and could see most of the ranch as it rolled away from them. Then the lands became flat, and opened into a field where the cattle had once been when there had still been money in it. There was a little shack in the field, and a man stood outside throwing darts toward a small board posted on the shack wall. In the distance, they could see the stable, and a small dirt track in a fenced in field, shaded by poplars on all corners of the post. It was a very nice place, and a place he had been only once but knew well.
“I’ve been here,” he said.
“That’s good,” said the Indian. “I hoped you had.”
The man playing darts did not look up when the men approached. He closed one eye to aim, cocked the dart and threw just left of the board. He was young Mexican, with a dark brown face, and a flattened nose. He looked at both men, did not smile, then cocked another dart and aimed.
“This is Miguel,” the Indian said. “And here is Adam. He’ll be here with us. Where is Adrian?”
“Shhh,” said the Mexican. “Do not speak.”
He concentrated hard on the target. Once the dart released from his hand he cursed and it sailed high of the board and stuck in the wood of the shack.
“You’re bad luck,” he said. “If you’re ever up for luck, then don’t let this man anywhere near you. They say some Indians are good luck, and some Indians are bad luck. And this man is bad luck.”
The Indian ignored him, but the Mexican didn’t mind.
“Where’s Adrian?” he asked again.
“Looking for girls,” said the Mexican. He shook Adam’s hand and threw the remainder of his darts at the board in defeat. “Would you like a drink?”
“Right now we have some gin. There’s water too, but it’s from the pumps at the stable and I don’t like it. It tastes like stone.”
“They don’t mind?”
“We are alone. They’re too busy with what they do to care. And we’re doing what we do here. There is no shame in a drink. Only the Indian does not drink.”
The Mexican disappeared into the shack and when he came back, he came with a few glasses, a bottle of gin, and some water for the Indian. There was a table just outside of the shack, and an old hide tied against a few steel poles in the ground to create shade, which it did well.
“The Indian cannot drink,” said the Mexican. He looked at the Indian to see if it made any difference, and he laughed. “That’s because Indians cannot drink. It kills them from the inside like poison.”
“That’s true,” the Indian said. “And I don’t like it.”
“I used to know an Indian who drank. He threw up every night from only a little, and he would drink all the time. Some people don’t mind if it kills them.”
“Some people would like to die,” Adam said. “Or else they would drink water.”
“I wouldn’t like to die,” said the Mexican, for the first time very serious. “I think my father wanted to die, and he drank just like me, and I drink just like him, but I don’t want to die.”
From the table the view looked onto the stable, a large wooden stable tiered slightly by bright shades of sun falling through the poplars. A fenced in grass field ran a good distance for the horses, and around the corral ran a dirt track, stained red and brown to blend with the colors of the horses, which there were none.
“Why is the power here?” Adam asked.
“It should be in the city, with beautiful girls, and music,” said the Mexican. “This place doesn’t need power.”
“It was built to power the stable,” the Indian said. “They powered the stable first, and when they added on, they ran from the same source.”
“There were beautiful girls at the last place,” said the Mexican. “I even loved some of them.”
“I didn’t think they were very pretty.”
“Beautiful girls aren’t pretty girls.”
“Are there no girls here?” Adam said.
“Yes, and she was very beautiful.”
“Who was she?”
The Mexican smiled.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “But she is with Adrian, and you stand no chance. I’ve seen him take down the best of them like a buck on the run. And they fall just as graceful, and it’s very ugly too.”
“You are a hunter?”
“I was before I came here, but now there is nothing to hunt. I’ve looked and seen nothing.”
“I’ve seen him shoot at rabbits,” said the Indian. “He cannot shoot.”
“Rabbits move too quick,” the Mexican said. “And there’s no fun in it if you hit them.”
“There are deer too,” Adam said. “They come here often.”
“You’re a liar.”
“He’s from here,” said the Indian.
“I’ve seen no deer.”
“I’ll show you the tracks, if you’ll tell me who she is,” Adam said.
The Mexican put down the bottle of gin. He looked happy to hear the news, and he looked to the Indian to be certain of the boy’s honesty.
“I’ll tell you when I see the tracks. The Indian will watch over things.”
The two shook on it.
Adam led the Mexican away from the shack. The country was familiar and open, and he felt comfortable because he knew every step of it. They were steps he had taken before, and steps he remembered well. He led down the field, away from the stable, to where the brush thickened. They crossed a few small creeks, dry of water, and jutted with large stones and lizards between the stones that ran as the men used them to cross. Soon they came to where the chaparral was tight, and they walked slowly. Then the brush opened to a wide lane of dirt, and the brush ended where the banks of the river had once been. Small pools had gathered from the rain and puddled into mud beneath the dry willows and cottonwoods. Adam had not yet seen the river, but it looked the same always, dry or wet, it was always a road that wound the plains, and one he knew well.
They walked to the center of the old river. The Mexican was cautious. He did not like the heat or the moisture, or the sand, or the breeze that tossed the beads against his feet; it reminded him of where he came, and why he left it. Adam knelt to the dirt, gathered a handful of sand and let it fall again. There were too many things to see in the dirt, but only one he needed. The Mexican saw it too, and his eyes brightened.
“More then one came through here,” he said.
There were dog like tracks in the sand from the coyotes, and beside them a line of hooves too large for pigs.
“I haven’t seen them.”
“I bet they’ve seen you.”
The Mexican walked around for a bit. He threw some stones at a few rabbits that walked across a clearing along the bank. A different scent came down the river, channeled through an old fault in the valley, spun like a tornado and baked from the hot sun. It smelled of the dead, and the Mexican shivered.
“I don’t like it here,” he said, walking back to the boy. “We should head back to the watch before the Indian gets the notion for some gin.”
“They’ll be more deer soon,” Adam said. “I bet they’re always here.”
“If they’re here, I’ll leave them alone. This is a strange place.”
“I know it well.”
“I wouldn’t like to know it,” said the Mexican. “It feels like it would change me. Let’s head back.”
Together they climbed again up the bank, and Adam led while the Mexican followed close behind wondering how they managed to walk the same path without a trail.
“Who is she?” Adam said.
“She is the rancher’s daughter,” said the Mexican. “But don’t bother. Adrian will have her, and then she’ll like no one.”
When they got back to the shack Adrian was there with the Indian, and the two were drinking together at the table. He was younger than the Mexican, but not much more attractive, though he did his hair well into a part on the side because he thought he was. Once he saw the two come around the side of the shack, he slammed his glass against the side of the table, and it shattered into several shards that reflected the sun.
“She’s vile,” he yelled. “A wicked creature. Like a witch.”
He shouted to the stable as if somebody were waiting for the call. His face was red like a sunset.
“Now we only have three glasses,” said the Mexican.
“If I could, I’d smash it over her head,” he said. “The nerve of that girl. Who does she think she is, huh? I’ll tell you she’s a witch. A genuine witch. You can see it in her eyes. She’s uglier than I thought too.”
“She hit you,” said the Mexican. “Didn’t she?”
“What kind of a woman hits, huh?”
“One with good taste.”
“She hits like a man. I don’t think there’s even woman in her. She kicked me too, without even thinking, she kicked me. A woman at least would think before something like that. And you should of heard the way she talked. I’ll tell you, she’s like a heathen.”
“You don’t love her anymore, then?”
“I hate her, like I would a dog.”
The Indian lowered his head down on the table. He had gotten into the gin, and now he was sick.
Just as Adrian began to shout again, the stable doors pulled slightly open. A chestnut mare flew from the opening, into the field, and on its back the girl rode steady and strong like a man. Adrian jumped from the table, grabbed the largest stones he could find at hand and chucked them across the field. They fell a few hundred feet from the target, and the girl turned the horse and did not run further. The sun reflected from the mare into a brown ray against the grass. Adam watched the girl, and he felt as if there were no other options but to watch her. She was beautiful and pale and bright, and she held her head high, and her hair fell onto the breaks of her shoulders and moved in the same flight movements as the horse did.
Adrian ran to the shack. He returned with his rifle, cocked it, and fired without thinking.
“Run, you witch,” he shouted.
The shot landed far from the running horse, but the sound echoed through every channel and ravine in the valley, and it sounded as if it hit anything and everything, though only a small cloud of dust blew into the air.
The girl pulled at the horse, and the horse lifted on two feet, its chest heavy and brown like a bear. She was facing Adrian now. He aimed the rifle again.
“I’ll shoot again,” he shouted. “Let me tell you. I won’t miss twice.”
She kicked at the horse and it ran into the field, about half the distance from the stable to the shack, and perfect range for such a rifle to shoot accurately. Her eyes did not move from Adrian. They were fearless and wide, and the men respected her as much as they feared her at that moment.
“She’s crazy,” Adrian said.
“Then shoot her,” said the Mexican.
The horse brayed, and the rifle fired once more. The shot sailed wide, into a cloud in the dirt. The girl smiled. Adrian threw the rifle against the shack and cursed. Then she brought the horse into the air again, and when she came down, the two ran the course of the field in seconds, and were gone into the trees and the oak leaves.
“You missed her,” the Mexican said.
“Did you aim for her?”
“And you missed her?”
“I did,” Adrian said. “I don’t know how but I did.”
It was late when the boy returned to the cabin. The sun had broken into the hills, and the night was warm like day. There was no moon, and no lights to be seen. If the boy weren’t sure it was there, he would not have seen the cabin. He crawled through the brush and kicked himself free of the growth on the porch. He sat in a chair overlooking the clearing. There was no more clearing. The land was a shade, a tremendous shade that existed as one moving mass, like the bottom of a pond. He kicked some dirt over the awning. The brush rustled, and whatever existed, mice, a fox, fled; the shade was no longer a place safe for the wilds either.
He went inside when the cold poured into the valley from the sea. With it, the clouds moved on, and the moon was there again. A thick fog fled onward from the ocean. It moved slowly, and the boy watched it press against the windows, and crowd the trees, and the grass, and the leaves. He was glad to be in the cabin. The clouds moved often, and the moon came, and the moon went, like a candle flickers, and the cabin was bright, and dark all the same.
The old man was asleep down the hall. The boy wasn’t tired. The room turned green and white as the skies moved, and he could see nothing had changed beside a few paints left open on the table, and a canvas left to rest on the sofa. The old man was very much alive. He sat down on the sofa and studied the canvas. There were no more fauns, or dark woods. They were painted in bright orange and yellow, and what was green and dark burned among them, until the canvas itself seemed to be on fire. The painting was clean and true, and the boy wanted to paint just like it, though he knew he couldn’t.
The man was awake before the sun rose. He stood in the corner of the room, sunk into the shade of the dawn, and his body was weak and meant nothing. Adam could hear him drink, and then he could smell him; the scent of a man is stronger than the absence of a man. He coughed a few times before he spoke.
“Have you been to the clearing yet?” he asked. “Does it still exist?”
“I haven’t gone.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“You can’t go alone?”
“I can’t go far,” he said. “When you get old, you have limits.”
“I’ll help you then.”
“You cannot be helped to a place like that.”
“You helped me.”
“Because you were lost. I know good and well where it is, and that’s the bad part about it.”
“I’ll go soon,” Adam said. “I won’t tell you if it’s gone.”
“It won’t hurt me,” said the old man. “I know it’s gone, and if it isn’t yet then it will be soon. It hurts you more than me.”
The old man didn’t move, even to drink. His body shivered when he took deep breaths. He looked like a nightmare.
“You don’t paint like you used to.” Adam said.
“You paint your feelings and what you know,” the old man said. “Those things change. If you paint the same then you aren’t a painter.”
“Then you know the clearing is gone?”
“To me it is. But to you I don’t know.”
“What happened to the other paintings?” Adam said. “The old ones, with the faun and the men. They were good.”
“Only before I painted these. Now they mean nothing. They died,” said the old man. “Like people.”
“I tried to paint the faun, like you had him, running. I never could do it.”
“They were chasing him.”
“Where did he run to?”
“To a clearing,” said the old man. “To somewhere safe. They took him down long ago.”
Adam looked again to the canvas in the room. The orange was like bright fire. There was little light in the sky, and still he could see how bright it flickered.
“I can’t paint that good,” he said.
“Neither can I,” said the old man. “An artist exists as two people. And they don’t exist together, and neither at the same time. I don’t think they like each other either.”
“Why is everything on fire?”
“Because fire is what cleans it all.”
“Even the woods.”
“All of it,” the man said. “The world begins again with fire.”
“It consumes everything.”
“It consumes nothing. It only creates new things. It gives a chance for the old things to be beautiful again.”
“You’ll teach me,” Adam said. “Won’t you.”
The old man shuddered, coughed, and took a long deep breath that was thick from the lungs and difficult to listen to.
“Not now,” he said. “Now, I sleep.”
The old man didn’t wake again that day. He slept sound as the sun rose, as the cabin heated and it became unbearable to stay inside. There were no clouds above the hills. The sky was pink in the morning, like an ember, and the heat rose high above the hills, and clung to the land like dew. A group of sparrows landed on the patio, and they were quiet and restless as the hawks circled the pink sky. There would be no wind in a day like this. When the mornings were crisp, the day would be clear and barren, and one could only wait for the evening. The evenings then were like good days. The nights would tell what came next.
Adam came onto the patio, kicked at the thinly clustered roots of the clover that grew on the top most step of the patio, and felt the heat. He wished he had come in the winter. In the winter it was still warm, but the air could be moist and sweet. Now the air was stale and dry from the morning on. Outside of the clearing he could hear a racket grow and swirl in the air like music, shifting, spilling, through the trees. The wells were alive like rivers. Even from a distance the smell was strong and bitter; it smelled how the Indian smelled, like the remnants of a fire, a great burning that took over the valley, and the people; the scent of the earth became the scent of underground, and that gentle breeze of the fruit trees was no more.
Adam found a rusted shovel grown into the side of the cabin by a thorn thistle. The steel was weathered, but strong, and he felt strong with it. He stabbed into the roots first below the patio steps. Clovers, and thistles grew high in the crevices of the wood, and he cut them free and threw them aside. He sweated, and his hands blistered, but he didn’t mind the pain. He felt strong, not of his own, but something outside, almost pious-like amid the clearing. The cabin became alive again, like a ruin left to grow into the nature it existed, and he felt like a savior then. He swept the patio of dirt and dust, and cleared away the webs from the awnings. The spiders fled, and the birds crowded the awnings to feed and fly off when fed.
For the while he heard the machines work in the distance, he worked with them. And they didn’t tire, while his hands blistered and bled; he felt more human. And to the plants he felt like a god. They tore without a struggle, they died without a fight other than to grip the earth as much as they had strength; they died without sound, and without a cry, very honorable deaths. And he knew very well they would be back again. They would come again, and again, regardless who tore them free. They were strong in that way if in no other.
He worked into the afternoon, breaking only to drink. The old man did not wake. His troubled breathing clustered with the sounds of the wells, and the two were like one grind, and indistinguishable. Adam made cups of tea, and drank them while he circled the cabin, very proud. When he was finished, he threw the waste into the chaparral; the brush danced and they were gone into the dead of the oak leaves and shrubs. Then he threw water onto the broken roots, onto the scars left starkly from the clip of the shovel. He respected them, though he hated them.
He checked to see if the old man was still living. He had fallen onto the bed awkwardly, as if he’d fallen asleep before lying down. His pale face was sunken and drawn tight to the bed. There was the old man he remembered by the riverbed; it was the same face, but lost behind the lack of strength to use it. Soon he would die, and if not soon, then he would not enjoy it.
Adam gathered supplies before he left. He borrowed a leather bag he found by the door, and filled it with the extra jars of paint the man kept beside the canvases. He put his old things, the brush, and a few small canvases into the bag. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and sat for a while. The sound of machines came softly with the heat, and he thought about the wilds, and for a while, tried to consider which was stronger.
Adrian was alone when the boy came. He sat outside, in the shade of the cows hide looking off toward the stables. He was drunk, and his face was wet and red beneath the sweat on his forehead. The bottle of gin was half empty on the table and condensed from the heat until the water had distilled to the glass, and every drink was stronger than the next. Adam threw his bag on the table and sat with him.
“Where is the Indian?” he asked. “And the Mexican?”
“They went off into the hills, to shoot deer.”
“It’s too warm. They’re only this low when it’s cool.”
“I think they only want to see them. The Mexican couldn’t shoot one. The Indian could but he wouldn’t here.”
“He said he used to hunt.”
“He used to do many things. That’s why they have him here with me. He does nothing now. But I like him anyway.”
Adrian was calmer when he was drunk. His shirt had stains beneath the arms from the heat, and he let the sweat drip from his brow to his cheeks. More explosions came from the drilling site. The earth rumbled and clouds rose in the distance. They were far enough not to see the commotion, but they could hear when it grew loud, as it did often. They were going to level the earth, and then drill it, and everything moved quick with excitement except for where they were now. Now, it was all very subtle; not even the air moved.
“I don’t like that girl,” Adrian said; he nodded off toward the stable. “Something about her I don’t like.”
Adam turned to see what Adrian saw. The girl flashed between the poplars and moved quickly along the open fields of the corral. She had the mare running full sprint, and at intervals, she picked the horse onto its hind feet and rose tall into the air like a warrior and a wind, and then she was off again. The earth tore into clouds as she hit the dirt, her movement was solid and fluid as should a weapon.
“She’s out here a lot.” Adam said, watching her now too.
“Everyday now. Maybe when the Mexican comes back with the rifle, I’ll take another shot at her.”
“You don’t like her.”
“I hate her. I don’t know why, but she’s no good, and I hate her for it.”
“You’re jealous of her.”
“I am, because she can be evil. We all want to be that way and we never can because of our own selves.”
Adrian pushed the bottle of gin across the table. Adam drank until he felt the warmth and wanted no more. He was sweating now too. Then came a rumble from up the hills, and they both knew the rifle had been fired. Then another came, and they knew the shots were practice. The day was too still for a good hunt.
“What were you before?” Adam asked. “Why did they want you here?”
“I was in the war,” Adrian said. “I saw some of France, and Italy too. But I didn’t like it.”
“They let you leave?”
“No. They gave me a few days, and I didn’t go back. I’ve seen people killed, and I’ve killed them, but I’m not a soldier. When I got back home, I took the first train heading west. My cousin said he knew I’d leave; he said I looked like I lost my honor, but if that was honor than I’m glad I lost it; it did me no good. I stopped here to work, the same as most of us, and probably like you.”
“Not like me,” Adam said.
“Then why are you here?”
“Nowhere else to go.”
“That’s exactly the type of man they like to get. I met a lot of those men while I was over there. They’re good people.”
“I have a feeling I’ll go sometime soon.”
“Not from here,” Adrian said. “They won’t take the boys that make them rich. We bring up too much gold right now to start bothering us.”
“What’s it all about anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Adrian said. “Nobody does either.”
Another shot rumbled down hill, followed by an explosion off in the distance. The earth was loud, like the war, and the two men sat and waited for another barrage but it never came.
“What’s with the bag?” Adrian said.
“I’m a painter.”
“You don’t look like a painter.”
“I don’t,” Adam said. “But that’s not my fault.”
“What do you paint here?”
“The beautiful things.”
“There are no beautiful things here.”
“What do you know about beautiful things?” Adrian said.
“I know as much as you.”
“And I know nothing.”
Adrian stood slowly, pausing part way through to gather his balance. He walked to the shack, and then back to the table until he felt comfortable. His skin was bright red from the heat and the drink. He looked sick, and he took a deep breath and looked out over the pass that separated the shack and the rise in the hills.
“I think it will rain soon,” he said.
Adam looked above the valley. The sky was solid blue, like clean water, and there were no clouds. It wouldn’t rain for weeks, and maybe months. Without a river, there would be nothing other than the dry sands, and the dry earth, and he wondered how everything moved on without it.
Adrian began away.
“Where are you going?” Adam said.
“To find my rifle,” he said. “Maybe a few bullets to the blue will make it rain. And if not, then I get my satisfaction.”
“You don’t think he’ll come?”
“He doesn’t scare me.”
A few larks scattered in the field where Adrian walked. When they fell again, the man was a good distance away. The rifle fired once more, and he moved toward it like a blind man. Adam watched him scale the tough terrain, onto the dirt that rose with the hill, as if the heat had taken its toll on the drink. Good men died in the heat, and the worst of them lived on better.
The shack was quiet now. A low hum came from inside, but he didn’t know from what. He had no desire to look, the same as he had no desire stay and keep watch over it. Now the men were gone and he was sure he wouldn’t stay, regardless of the heat. He sat still and looked off toward the corral. The girl wasn’t there. The mare walked the corral alone, and she looked much lighter, and much smaller without the girl, the way a lion looks without a mane, and he felt sorry for her.
He walked across the field and stood for a while against the white oak fence of the corral. There were small pockets of shade from the thin poplars and it felt good beneath them. The mare ignored the grass and foraged on the weeds and thistle that grew beside the fence posts. She didn’t mind the boy, but nipped at the birds that rested in the shade.
It was nice and dark inside the stable. The doors opened to a wide room, with pens along the wall, and bales of yellow hay stacked in the center. Small lines of sun spread along the floor, and it smelled of the horses. The scent was strong and he was sure there were more than one, but he counted only three. Two were penned but the smallest was tied off to a steel hook away from the others. It was a young colt, but nervous and wild, and tugged hard at the rope when it saw the boy come into the dark. The stable grew loud with force—her breaths were like wind, sustained by a chasm of the open room. But always, the earth was calm, and the boy moved forward slowly.
“There’s a good chance he’ll kill you if you step any closer,” the girl said. She sat away from the colt, on two strong bales of hay. She was louder than a girl, but less than a beast, and her voice was strengthened by the fact that she didn’t mind it. “He doesn’t like me either,” she said. “There’s something wrong with him. I’m going to shoot him.”
The horse pulled forward strong on the line; the steel buckled slightly, but held its ground; it opened its lips and grunted in fear.
“He’s scared of something,” Adam said.
“No. There was an infection when he was born. Now he’s wild.”
“He needs to be calmed.”
Adam quit moving. The horse tensed. He was close enough to the feel the strength, and the fear in every breath. Slowly he snapped his fingers to focus the horse, and with the other hand ran along the coarse light brown muzzle until it eased.
“That’s a good trick,” the girl said. “You know horses then.”
“I grew up to a shepherd but I know nothing about them.”
“You’re a shepherd. Then you should be a good leader. Show me how to do that.”
The girl climbed down from the bales and came forward. She was wearing blue jeans with a white blouse tucked in at her belly, and she looked very beautiful. Her hair was tied behind her, and the sweat from her forehead clung to the displaced bangs; she brushed them from her face and she was beautiful even then. She looked to the boy, and then snapped her fingers in the same manner. The horse distracted and eased while she brushed its snout.
“I’ve never touched him,” she said. “He goes too mad.”
“He’s confused. That won’t be fixed, but it’ll keep him calm while you shoot him.”
Then the horse sputtered and tossed violently. The girl retracted her hand before it opened its lips to the jaw, barring yellow teeth, and snapped out. They stepped away and the horse kicked until it noticed their distance and eased.
“I’ll shoot him soon,” the girl said. “He won’t calm.”
“Where will you shoot him?”
“There’s a place quiet enough,” she said. “It would be a good place to die.”
“Is it far from here?”
“Just through the trees.”
“I’ll go with you then.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Neither do I,” Adam said. “But I’d like you to show me.”
Her eyes were melon bright and they were daunting, and he could see why Adrian did not like her, though he liked her more for the same. There was an old pistol beside where the girl had been, and she picked it up and tucked it where the blouse met the rise of her jeans on her thigh.
“Then you can follow me,” she said. “My name is Charlotte. But don’t be slow, because I’ll leave you.”
The young horse went to its feet and bellowed as if it knew. Adam untied it, and the horse walked with a slight tug, but gave no resistance; it knew but it didn’t mind, and they were both sure of it. Charlotte walked ahead into the field. Adam looked first to the shack in the distance, which was meager, and lonesome and he was glad he wasn’t there in the heat and the thin shade of the animal skin. Then he looked to the hills and hoped there would be no shots fired; the horse was timid and young but always strong when frightened; his hands would do no good.
They moved quickly away from the field, opposite the corral. The grasses ended abruptly in a light growth of oak that rose with the terrain, and then became dense and the field was no more. There the shade was muggy and warm, and, like rain, small stems of light passed down through leaves, drop by drop. Dead and dry leaves covered the floor until they were swept clear by the three, and they passed slowly beneath where the boughs grew as one, and there was no more blue, only a solid canopy of yellow green.
“I’ve seen this place before,” Adam said.
“Nobody comes through here. They’re frightened of it.”
Now, they moved very slow, because they felt it too. There were spirits that grew from the dim ground, that made light and noise into the dense air, like magic, and they couldn’t be seen, but they were felt, and they weren’t sure if it was frightening or the most comfortable sensation of anything left in that dry day. The horse was less nervous, and Adam relaxed his grip and studied the corridor, which, now he was sure he had seen, and he knew the old man had been there, and the wilds too.
“My name is Adam,” he said.
“And you’re a shepherd?”
“No. I’m a painter.”
“A painter is better than a shepherd.”
“It is to me.”
“A painter is better than a man. There are too many men, and not enough painters. But if you’re a painter and not a shepherd, then why are you here?”
“Because I have nowhere to go.”
“Me too. But I know there are places to go, and this is no place to be.”
“Where would you go?”
“Away. Far away. I’m not staying here.”
“You’re a traveler then?”
“A traveler that’s better than a woman. There are far too many women, and not anything other. We’re here.”
The canopy lightened suddenly, and the boughs broke to groves of blue once more. The girl walked forward into the clearing, while Adam stood with the horse and thought of the old man. They had not gotten to it. With all its life, and all its calm, there was no harm, and there were no men. The grasses rolled onto the gentle rise of the knoll, that apexed to the hull and roots of the large oak overlooking the others.
“This is far away for now,” Charlotte said. “They won’t find him.”
She took the horse and led him to a thick manzanita where she tied him off. In the sun, the colt was bright, like the color of sand and hills, and it reminded Adam of the spoiled earth from where he had come. The horse did not look worried any more.
Charlotte turned away from the horse, brushed the wet bangs from her eyes, and pulled the pistol from her waist.
“Not yet,” she said. “This is a place to die, but not yet.”
The two walked to the top of the knoll. Adam sat in the shade of the oak, which was cool on top the moist earth surrounding the roots. Charlotte placed the pistol in the grass, and she stood on top a large root that came free from the earth, and she looked lovely, and rose white in the shade.
“They wont get here,” she said. “There are places away from people, that they won’t get to. Look over there.”
Adam looked over the trees, to where the hills rose like waves, and the green like water, and in the peaks there were mounds of tangerine from the setting of the valley. The air was clear; there were loud petitions from outside the clearing, from the moan and groan of life, but still the air was clear, and he could see into the distance a good ways.
The old white house eclipsed the peak, and he recognized every quarter and every imperfection as if it were never gone and always part of the horizon, like the sun and its setting. It was still and white, like the dead, and all that embraced it was the green of the earth, and the rash of the soil.
“Nobody bothers that house,” she said. “As long as I remember it.”
“They’ll be there too.”
“Not there. It doesn’t belong to them.”
“Who does it belong to?”
“I don’t know, but something larger than people,” she said.
Adam looked to the home, and he knew she was right; the home was no shelter for the hearts of men.
“Are you a good painter?” the girl said.
“No,” he said. “Sometimes good, but never great.”
“And I’m neither, but we’ll be there at some point. At some point I won’t be here any more. I’ll be long gone away from here. The second I can, I’ll be as far away as anyone can be, and then I won’t be good, I’ll be great.”
Somewhere in the moment, the evening came on. The heat grew into a warm wind that carried the drift of the oil fields into the clearing, and then they felt too close to be far away. The sun was setting behind them, and the horse became dark below in the shade of the knoll. Charlotte picked up the pistol and tucked it back into her waist.
“It’s getting late,” Adam said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“That does me no good. I don’t want to go home.”
Then the clearing rang with a blast, not once but twice in concession. Adam recognized the fire from Adrian’s rifle, but they weren’t firing for practice; they were no longer in the hills but just in the distance, and the thunder was robust and lit across the valley like a tremor that stirred the birds. Another, followed by another. The young colt became fierce. He rose to the air, and screamed with power; he tore at the manzanita, and it shook and tore till it snapped in two. Charlotte put her hand on the pistol, but never drew. And as the distance fired once more, the colt was gone into the brush, screaming of the wild and fervor.
“I have to leave,” Adam said.
“Tell your friends it won’t do them any good practicing.”
“They aren’t practicing.”
Adam sprinted through the thin corridor of oak. There were no longer mystics, but an obtuse anticipation of what he heard. Another shot rang, then he heard the shouting. As he came into the field, he could see the Mexican running from the hills toward the shack, and close behind him the Indian. Adrian was just off, on his knees and aiming toward the end of the field where the trees still shook from where the hunted had fled.
“We got him!” yelled the Mexican.
“Yeeehaw!” Adrian shouted from the distance.
They converged on the shack like wolves. The door to the wooded room was open wide, but nothing had been tampered inside, and the hum from the engines still roared very sound.
“He’s been hit,” the Indian said. “He’s bleeding.”
A trail of blood spread into the field where the man had run. He had been hit somewhere solid enough to bleed, but not to take him down. The Mexican grabbed the rifle, and pointed off toward the river.
“You and Adrian head him off by those trees,” he said to the Indian. “We’ll head to the river so he can’t get free.”
Adam was tired but he sprinted at speed with the Mexican. They followed the blood, which fell thick at points, and splattered into patterns in the sand, like water. It was the blood that damned the hunted; it negated speed and stealth and there was no match for a trail, and there was no match for attrition. They jumped across the creek and the gentle downslope of the valley. Then they spread quickly through the brush, until they hit the sand. The Mexican couldn’t hold his speed and caught his foot on a thick grouping of foxtails, and fell head first into the sand. The rifle fell beneath him; it knocked the wind from his lungs, and he gasped as the boy pulled ahead.
The blood continued where it should. Adam knelt to the sand, and covered the bright red beads until they were gone beneath the earth. The Mexican regained his composure, and he came running more careful, but stopped when he saw the boy.
“Did we lose the trail?” he said, breathing quick.
“The bleeding stopped. It looks like he ran off into the trees. Adrian will find him if he went that way.”
They waited for some time while the evening darkened, and while the air cooled and they caught their breaths. Then the Mexican kicked at the dirt, and they began off from where they came.
“I shot at him first,” he said, somber now. The excitement was gone, and they were both calm. “I think I hit him.”
“He moves quick. But if you hit him good he’ll die.”
“I didn’t hit him good. He’ll be back.”
They walked quietly and slow back up to the field. They crossed the creek and the air hummed with the final hours of the gnats and mosquitos, and soon the crickets would sound and the night would be more lively than day. The Mexican stopped suddenly and turned. He looked at the boy, took a breath, and fired his rifle for the fun of it off at some sage a few yards away.
“It’s interesting,” he said.
“He took exactly the same path you did when you showed me the river. Why is that?”
Adam didn’t answer. The Mexican didn’t seem to mind or wonder, and the two walked back quietly until it was night.
“What are you trying to say?” the old man said.
He was awake when the boy returned, in the cold of the night, in the green soft lights of the moon. His shadows grew into the southern movements of the dark, and the trees were like walls to a marsh-wet floor; the bats hung where they were alone in the cottonwoods, and the katydids sung in the distance.
The old man looked well again. He sat on the porch and studied the boy’s canvases, the three there were; he shuffled them like cards.
“I don’t know yet,” Adam said. “That’ll come later.”
“You’re trying to say something.”
“I’m sure I am.”
“Do you want to?”
“Do I have to?”
“You will, regardless. Where did you see the horses?”
Adam rested on the banister. New webbing had formed over his work from earlier, only now the strands were glowing through the filaments, and there were spiders for the birds to eat.
“There’s a corral in the ranch opposite here.”
“Why is the small one running?”
“Because of us.”
“You need to practice,” the old man said. He handed back the canvases. “It looks to me like the larger one is being ridden.”
“Are they any good?”
“No. They’re horrible. They look like the speech of a mute man. Or maybe a blind man.”
“I can see well enough.”
“Then you should see the horse is being ridden.”
The old man began to laugh, an archaic muttered laugh, like an old song from the marsh night trees. It was the first Adam had seen the man smile. He held his hand to his chest, and laughed good and long. After he stood and walked around the porch. He was well alive again, as a man younger and sprite, and almost pious the way the cabin looked away from the weeds.
“You know over there,” the man pointed above the hills, to where the fog rolled in gray like water, “the sun is up. Somewhere it is raining, and somewhere they are fighting.”
The man paused for a moment.
“Yeah, the war they fight too.”
“Have you painted anything more since the other day?”
“No,” the man said. “I threw them away.”
“They were good. I liked them.”
“They’re no good from me. I learned something even myself.”
“That I’m no good either. I’m no teacher. I’m no shepherd like you.”
“My father was a shepherd when it was good, and a woodsmen as soon as it went wrong. And once his life went with it, he was just as loyal to the bed of dirt where he is right now. There’s no blood in a trade. I am an artist; it’s done me no good, and still I do what I am.”
“A shepherd isn’t a trade,” the old man said. “When I first got here, there was a wanderer, an Indian man, that would come through the valley and tell stories for change. He was never good, and the people hated him. Before he left, I threw him all the change I had, only it was nothing and the man told me the smallest story he knew. He told me about a shepherd who lived high in the hills. He was neither a good, nor bad man but the size of his flock made him a wealthy man, and coveted by others, which he loved. Then one day a sickness came into the hills and the flock became ill. A few died, and others would only lay and bleat through the night. Afraid, he took his wealth and hired a doctor to heal them. He claimed the sickness would pass through, but only if the herds would keep to water. So the shepherd brought his flock to the banks of the largest river. He brought them one by one to the water, but none would drink. He camped by the water, but the herd would not drink, and the moaning became horrific and lasted through the long nights into the long dawns, and the shepherd felt every sentiment of pain and horror brought into the lambs. He prayed, and beat at the lambs to drink, but none could do so. They lay in the grass in horror, like a cotton field of dying earth, and he felt all the anguish and grief carried through the night in the helpless bleating; he could no longer sleep but cry in agony alongside them through pity.
‘And in the morning the shepherd could take no more. He brought his lambs again to the water, despite their pain, but he did not have them drink. Instead, he walked himself into the running water, and when far enough, the current ran quick and the shepherd was swept from his feet to drown. Then the lambs followed for their shepherd into the deep. And one by one they too were swept into the tides.
‘The Indian man pocketed the change, smiled, and I never saw him again.”
“He knows nothing about shepherds,” Adam said.
“He doesn’t. That’s why they ran him away.”
The old man walked over to the banister, and pushed his body over toward the dark green tinge of the oncoming light. He looked at the cabin steps and the freshly cleared wood.
“You did all this?” the old man said.
“It needed to be done.”
“For the time being, it did. It grows back quicker than you think.”
“Not quick enough.”
“But when you’re old and weathered. Will it be quick then?”
The old man laughed again. A bat came into the clearing, moving in quick, un-restrained circles, like a downed plane, then it cleared free back into the trees. The night turned bitter and quiet then.
“The clearing is still here,” Adam said. He wasn’t sure why he said it, but he felt it strongly in the quiet. “I’ve been there. They haven’t gotten there yet.”
The youth in the old man’s face flushed away, and he looked wise again. He returned to his wooden bench on the porch, and he sat, and he looked off into the dark, moonlit canopy of the wilds.
“That is why I was wrong,” he said. “It is as it always is, and is as it always will be.”
“Do you not believe in the fires anymore?” Adam said.
“I do. I do very much, but not from me.”
“Then from who?”
“From a martyr,” he said. “Sometimes a good shepherd is not the one who pines, but the one who leads them to drown.”
The man said nothing more. Adam gathered his things and left the warm night to the cabin, and there he fell asleep, listening to the katydids ramble on; the old man was not youthful again.
The next day Adam listened to the Mexican shooting rabbits in the field. There were brown shoes, and calico that fed in the field, but the Mexican aimed for the larger jackrabbits, and he missed every time. The man was not a hunter; he knelt behind a large growth of coyote brush, and crept forward in the grass. He smiled when the rabbits didn’t stir, but they weren’t afraid; they knew too the man was no hunter. He had never hunted in Mexico before, Adam was sure of it. The man had grown in the houses, and the homes, and the noise, and now he looked like a boy crouched into the grass, eyes filled with excitement, as even the minute things exist little in the noise, and now they were almost novelty.
The valley had changed quickly. The fog had spilled like water into the channels and drifted through the hills seamless into morning. And now the sun sat behind a bank of gray clouds, while the more violet of the few carried still from the west and the ocean; it wouldn’t rain, but the clouds would carry—the air would be moist, and humid, and the hopes of rain would float above endless until the torrent disappeared to the east.
Adam looked back to the shack, which was now in the shade of the clouds, and looked many colors. Adrian and the Indian played a makeshift game of horseshoes with a wooden pole stuck into the ground a distance from the shack; they used a real horseshoe and it knocked the pole to the ground with every ringer. The Indian walked to fix it, and Adrian continued on, a little bit drunk already.
A large jack sprinted in long bursts across the open space of the field, into the shadows of the landscape. The Mexican let him rest. He crept forward without need to and cocked the rifle. The other rabbits took to cover, but the large jack stood still on its hind feet, tan like the dry soil, and a large target. The Mexican stumbled a little, regathered, and took his shot without fully setting again. The jack did not move. The soil shot up about ten yards from the target. It was sad to see, and the Mexican felt it this time. He stood away from his cover and walked back to where Adam was sitting on a large stone.
“I’m no good today,” he said. “I feel sick.”
“I don’t know, just sick. All the way around. Or maybe just in the head. But it’s one of those.”
“I know those. Like when you’re hungry.”
The Mexican nodded but he couldn’t relate the feeling. He looked to the hills, at the swirl of orange and pink clouds, and the violet clouds slowly coming. Adam took the rifle and aimed across the field but didn’t shoot. The jack had gone away, and there were no more rabbits.
“I didn’t think it would rain so soon,” the Mexican said. “It’s good though. If he’s down there hiding in the river, that should flush him out.”
“That would be if he couldn’t swim.”
“This weather is strange. I don’t get this valley sometimes. At one moment it can be hot like a desert, and the other there is rain. It has a mind of it’s own. It thinks, I know it, not the way we think, but a different way.”
“You’re right,” said the Mexican. “No different. Our thoughts have come from somewhere. We all share it equally.”
“It’s not going to rain,” Adam said. “You can hope, but it won’t.”
The Mexican looked to the hills with disappointment. Then he fell quiet and looked around the empty field. It was something he didn’t understand and it made him uncomfortable and that’s what they all felt, all the new ones. Soon there would be no field and rabbits, and there would be the structure and the noise, and then he would feel comfortable again.
“Where did you come from?” he asked.
“From just east of the river. My father was a shepherd, and then a woodsmen.”
“But you claim to be a painter?”
“I’m no shepherd.”
“My great grandfather was a vaquero, back when there were only vaqueros and if you weren’t one then you were in jail or dead.”
“And your grandfather?”
“He helped build almost every building in the ciudad with his own hands and his own will.”
“And your father?”
“A factory man. He made gloves, the way my mother made gloves, my brother too, and both sisters.”
“I am a hunter.”
The Mexican took back the rifle, and held it with pride again. He turned back toward the field and looked down the sights. There were no more rabbits, just the empty earth.
“Why are you here?” Adam said.
“This valley is the end of a long river,” said the Mexican. “And it takes with it the lonely and the lost, and just leaves them here to be, all caught in the drift.”
“Then you can pull yourself out, can’t you?”
“Maybe, but I don’t think we know how. Sometimes it takes help. The river is strong sometimes. And then others, you just don’t swim in the right direction.”
While they were talking the Indian had come up the hill to join them in the field. The man was tall and straight-faced compared to the Mexican; there were no tricks and gimmicks and Adam could see he was what he was and nothing more. Adrian was still with the shack, tossing shoes alone down field, and now cursing when the pole fell, and drunker than ever.
“I can’t be with that man,” said the Indian. “He’s too wild.”
“Good timing,” said the Mexican. “Let’s ask him the same question. Why are you here?”
“For the money.”
“No, here. Not right here, but here in the valley. You’re in Indian from the south. You’re not from here.”
The Indian wasn’t puzzled by the question at all, as if he’d been asked before and often. He looked around, brought his thick lips upward and spoke thoroughly.
“I have nowhere else to go,” he said.
“That is why!” said the Mexican. He fired the rifle and the bullet sifted through a thrush of sage and hit the soil with no effect. “Where do we go then? I don’t know and neither does he. But why are you here? You’re a painter. We are the men with no reason or skill. But you should know why you’re here.”
“I know now,” Adam said.
The Indian seemed interested then. Above him, the clouds shifted along the sky and a shade drifted seamlessly over the broad ground of the field.
“Why is that?” he said.
“I’ll show you. It’s a short walk from here.”
“You talk crazy,” said the Mexican.
“Then you won’t come?”
“I’ll come,” said the Indian. “It looks like it’s going to rain soon.”
“It won’t rain,” said the Mexican.
The Indian looked to the sky in the same manner the Mexican had before. The clouds were pink and gray all the way through, soft and smooth like the skin of a child, and they looked to weigh in from the sun, drenched in water. He looked in wonder, but asked nothing.
“I’ll come too,” said the Mexican. “Let me leave the rifle with the drunkard. In case there happens to be some action here he’ll be fine alone.”
Together, they walked back to the shack. Adrian was resting on the table outside, looking up toward where the sun should have been. His eyes were red and full.
“You’ll leave me alone to sit in the rain,” he said. “We’re truly like soldiers. None of us give a damn. Leave a man alone in the rain. And it looks like a storm.”
“There’ll be no rain,” said the Indian.
“You don’t know your clouds for an Indian. Not only will it rain, but this valley might flood. And I’ll be like Noah. I might build a lot while you’re gone. But go anyway. I’ll either float or drown, and I might just drown on purpose.”
“Let’s go,” said the Indian. “He’s too drunk to hear.”
Adrian began laughing while they walked off.
“No rain,” he said. “You hear that sky. The Indian knows nothing about you. What a fool he is. What a fool is everyone.”
Adam led the two past the stable, toward where the field converged and rose into the growing oak. It was a feeling deep in the mind, like the tension pull of magnets that led his feet. There was a mystic in the air, like a wind and like a scream, and sometimes then like a soft voice that grew with the breeze, into the cold, and into the green, and Adam was sure of it. And somehow he felt pious in front of the men. And he knew that they too felt the same. The wind rushed into the dark corridor beneath the oaks, and blushed with the leaves until they collected enough of the gusts to sing then like music and more then like poems.
Suddenly the Indian stopped. He lifted his hands to touch the bottom leaves of the boughs that crossed the oaks and closed out the sky. He was nervous, and when Adam looked to the Mexican, he could see fear along with the nerves.
“I’ve seen places like these,” said the Indian. “They aren’t good places. Not for men to be.”
“I’ve been here many times,” Adam said. “It’s just further. Not much more to go.”
The Mexican began to walk again, but the Indian held his ground. He was looking about the paths, and along the floor, and then he began to listen as well, and hear the same poems that blew steady. The Mexican put his eyes to the floor. The Indian was stern as ever, and too frightened to move forward.
“I won’t go anymore,” he said. “I don’t like this place. Too many bad things happen in a place like this.”
“I feel it too,” said the Mexican. “My skin shivers.”
“This isn’t a place for me. You should leave it alone. Men don’t come here. They have no place here.”
“There are no ghosts here,” Adam said.
“No, there aren’t ghosts either. You go then. I’ll go back and wait for you.”
“I don’t like it,” said the Mexican. “But I’ll keep going.”
The waited till they could hear the Indian slowly trample free of the dead leaves, and they listened till the shuffle became dim and then he was no more. They felt alone, more than anything alone, more than the night alone, and more then dead alone, and Adam could see the fear in the Mexican’s eyes, but he felt none of it.
“It’s just a little further,” he said.
They continued on till the clouds shifted again. All the deep shades in the earth pushed onward east, and the sun opened up into a pale light that drifted over the valley, down through the leaves. Then the oaks lessened, and the leaves lifted to a rise in the earth, and then opened into the clearing. There was quiet then, a serene quiet, and the walls of the clearing were chapel like, tall to the world, and only the valley and the surrounding foothills, purple in the pale light, lifted over and could be seen.
“There is something here,” Adam said. “Isn’t there?”
The Mexican kneeled to the grass, lifted a few of the chutes, and smelled them. They were fresh, and wild, neglected by the dreadful sun in the shade of the knoll that rose in front of him.
“The Indian was right,” he said. “I’ve seen places like this too.”
They climbed to the point where the oak tree grew. The Mexican walked beneath the boughs, studying them.
“What are you looking for?” Adam said.
“There was a place like this in Mexico,” said the Mexican. “Before, when there were the vaqueros there many places like this. They would hang items from the tree for good luck.”
“Sometimes small things, like the ropes that tied the cattle, boots and spurs like that. My uncle took me to a place like this once. He told me they tied the first kill to the lowest bough, closest to the roots for a good season.”
“The earth,” said the Mexican. “I don’t understand it, this place.”
“You would over time, like I have. There aren’t many places like this. This is why I’m here. It brings you here. This is the current you were talking about. This is that river that pulls you here. It’s strong.”
“No, not here.”
“This is what I need to paint. This is my deer.”
The Mexican stood overlooking the clearing. The breeze brushed slightly along his skin, and though he shivered, he wasn’t cold. He looked out from the clearing, to the hills that rose and fell like waves. He saw the house immediately. In the pale light, the house stood out in fragments, like a fine metal in the soil, covered in part by the black of the earth, but the wonder still present.
“I’ve seen that house before,” he said. “When I first came here. It’s very old. I bet someone important used to live there.”
“I’ve heard of no one.”
“On the road in Mexico there are many houses like that, from the ranches that failed. Many people had to leave and they had to do it quick.”
“What happens to the homes?”
“They just go away.
“And the ranches?”
“They become wild, as if they knew no better.”
Suddenly the calm that was there lifted to the sound of a rider. They both turned to where the brush parted, as if by wind and hand, and out came the large mare, Charlotte above. They rode into the clearing and rose together before the hill, the girl rose-toned and white above the large chestnut breast of the mare and they were like the color of the earth and the horizon, all together as one.
“Do you think she is beautiful?” the Mexican said.
“She has to be.”
“She’s something,” he said. “But I can’t place it. The Indian is right though. This is a bad place. I can’t be here anymore.”
Charlotte led the mare up the slope of the hill, toward the oak, and against the sun The Mexican nodded in respect, though he wasn’t sure why. He said goodbye to Adam, and the three met in crossing.
“Your friend shot at me again,” Charlotte said. “Will you tell him to hold his breath before he aims next time. He might have better luck.”
“He’s not one to listen,” said the Mexican. “But I’ll try. I’m on my way to see him. I’m leaving quick, before the rain comes.”
“There’ll be no rain. It’s only a trick for the newcomers.”
“That’s right,” said the Mexican. “I almost forgot.”
The Mexican followed the trail left from the fresh steps of the horse and disappeared into the line of darkening brush. Adam kept to the oak and watched the girl coming. She was red in the cheeks, and looked hurried, though she walked steady with the horse. She didn’t dismount when she came near.
“I was looking for you by the shack,” she said. “That’s when you’re friend shot at me again.”
“He isn’t my friend,” Adam said. “I’ve just met him.”
“I figured that much.”
The girl dismounted. Up close she was breathing heavy, and wearing a blue cotton blouse, with white spots, tucked into the jeans. She tied off the horse to a bough in the oak, and sat over Adam. Her cheeks were soft and wet and her hair stuck to the folds of her neck as the wind blew.
“You look like you’re running somewhere,” Adam said.
“I was running,” she said, very soft and confined. “I was gonna go and keep going, like I told you before. The horse could make it, she’s strong enough.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“Because I’m stuck here. And I thought to myself I have nowhere to go, and no way to do it.” Now he could see her eyes, and they were drift into the wind and pastel and light red and orange the same as the sky. Up against the oak, she was an extension of the earth, the blue and uplift of the lupine carried from the spires of green grass behind her, and he knew then he knew nothing about her.
He sat up, away from the ground.
“Why were you running?” he said.
“Because they want me to marry,” she said.
“I thought most women enjoyed that.”
“I, am not most women. But that’s true. It’s why women are flaccid and frail beings.”
“I thought it was their will.”
“Their will?” she said. “A woman has more than ten times that of a man’s, only she has it for awful things.”
“What awful things?”
“To have children is an awful thing? ”
“To have them when you want them no. But to have them when you do not want them, yes. And I don’t want them. Not at all.”
“A woman not as a mother…”
“Is then a deeper woman. A woman not as a mother, is a woman as a woman. Whatever the stronger of the two is, I don’t care. I’m the other, and that’s what I’ll be.”
“In a strange way it’s unprogressive.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “What are we progressing to anyway? Maybe there needs to be a different way of heading forward. Something a little bit deeper then what we’ve done for so long.”
The girl had passion in the way she spoke, and it reminded Adam of the paintings he’d seen in the old man’s hall. He wanted to paint her then, breathing heavy and still, but in movement, blue in the blouse, and pink where her bare skin rose and became her neck, like flowers.
“I’d like to paint you,” he said.
“Because I’ve seen nothing like you, and I think you’re on to something.”
“I’m on to nothing. That’s why I’m here.”
“That’s why we’re all here.”
“Not you,” she said. “You came here because of something, you’re a wanderer remember.”
“But I don’t know what.”
“Yes, but I do know what I dislike.”
Adam stood, and the girl kept sitting. The mare flinched and tore at the tree but the boughs were solid and held firm. Charlotte let herself fall into a niche in the roots of the tree, her legs outward, and strong as the boughs in the grass, and her breast breathing in heavy, same as the mare.
“You were looking for me,” Adam said. “Down by the shack where you were shot at. You went there for me. Why?”
“Because you can do something I need,” she said. “You have a reason to wander. I would like to wander too, but I would only do it aimlessly. I don’t want to be aimless. That’s why I can’t leave yet. I’d like to paint like you.”
“You’re a painter?”
“No,” she said. “I can play music well. I can speak fluent in French. I can shoot better than any man. But I cannot paint.”
“What good would it do for you then?”
The girl looked off into the distance, at the smooth incline of the hills as they dove into the shades that grew from the evening.
“Because I need a reason to leave here,” she said. “Those other things give me no reason to leave here. Everybody can show me this, and they can show me that, but nobody can give me a reason to leave. I don’t like it here. I don’t want to be just another woman here, like our mothers, our aunts, our sisters—live just long enough and sane enough to give birth to another something just as mindless and lost as your own soul. There’s no pride in that.”
“You’d like me to teach you then?”
“I thought I implied that well enough.”
“I can’t teach you to paint,” he said. “I can’t do it well enough myself.”
“Then tell me what you wander for,” she said. “Show me what you’re looking for. Show me what brought you here. All I need is that reason.”
The boy looked over the clearing, down the knoll, and into the winds as they passed. The clouds were lighter from the west, and the sun came through in an array of colors, faded pink, to a brazen blue along the rims of the land. All should be sure now there would be no rain; the tricks were over, and he felt lost, just as the Mexican, and the others felt lost.
“I understand,” he said.
“I know you do,” she said. “That’s why I came to you.”
“If you could paint anything here, what would you paint?”
There was no hesitation with the girl. She was sure as her heart was sure, and she looked out over the clearing, with the same ambition as the Mexican, toward the shackled house in the foliage, now pink and light green from the light, though she had no fear of it as the other had.
“I would paint that home,” she said.
“It doesn’t frighten you at all?”
“No. I envy it. And at the same time I think we’re the same. Because it can’t go either, and it sits and it waits, and nobody listens.”
“That, I don’t understand.”
“But something wants me to. And that’s what I’ll paint.”
Suddenly the clearing became very still, and the breeze quit its rattle through the grass, and the earth seemed to quit turning for just that moment. And when the air picked up once more, it came in a sudden rush, and carried with it the dreary, charred scent of smoke. A cloud rose to the south, toward the tip of the sky where it swallowed the many colors, and turned them black. Charlotte stood now. The mare frightened and pulled hard against the tree, but still it wouldn’t budge.
“It’s a fire,” she said. “The well is on fire.”
“No, the smoke isn’t thick enough. Oil burns solid black,”
“The whole world will be out now. They’ll be looking for me. I have to go.”
Charlotte untied the mare, calming her. The cloud grew quickly, and now the south was black and glowing, and together they could begin to hear the fuss and the commotion. She mounted the horse, and looked to Adam.
“Meet me here again,” she said.
“I’ll be here.”
“Then I’ll find you.”
She kicked at the horse and the mare jumped onto the path it new by heart and blood, and soon they were gone.
“If you ever wondered what it feels like to be a soldier,” Adrian said, “then I would tell you it feels like this exactly.”
The evening had not yet become dark, but the grounds and the sky were black from the cloud of smoke, and even still at a distance they could feel the heat. Adrian was driving the Indian’s truck through the dirt trails, bouncing and lifting unsteady above every stone and divot, toward the scene of the fire. What was left of the sun speared through the cloud cover, into the channel of ash, and out into the cab of the truck just enough for him to see Adrian was still drunk, red and sweating, but driving better than he ever could have sober. The Mexican and the Indian had stayed behind to guard the shack, both turned to the sky in awe as the others drove away.
“What is that feeling?” Adam said. “To be like a soldier.”
Adrian was calm at first, recollecting.
“Like this,” he said. “It’s the most unnatural of things.”
“We’re brutal animals.”
“Not at all, animals I mean. Once you are a soldier you are nothing animal. And that’s what it feels like to be a soldier. An animal runs better than anything can ever run; oh my how an animal can flee. But look at us now. There’s nothing animal in us now.”
“Moving toward the fire.”
“Exactly,” he said, swerving a little on the path. “We’re going exactly opposite of where we should. Nothing moves toward a fire. From a fire, nature flees—it runs like cowards. All the animals: the bears, the deer, the cougars, the birds, the squirrels, goddamn even the bugs, the ants, the beetles—everything. If the plants could run, then damnit, they would…and that’s why they’re plants and not animals. But a solider is not an animal at all. You can hear it from a distance, the chatter, the spitting, and the explosions. You can even see the smoke just like this, and often the planes, and you can smell the death just as strong as you could smell the ash. And you keep going.”
“Does anybody run from it?”
“Many,” Adrian said. “And all of them were shot.”
The dirt road climbed through the open fields, onto a flat of oak, and then into the swollen earth, regathered with budding brush where the orchards had once been. The grounds were mixed of loose dirt and the dead, and Adam did honestly feel like a soldier then, and he could feel the cockiness in Adrian subside for just that moment.
The site was just ahead, and in shambles. Every worker had come to the scene and there were automobiles and men everywhere in between the work zones, and then they could see the towering frame of the well through the clouds of ash, alive and daunting, but safe. The fire was not in the well. They came to a place where a mass of men had congregated beneath the growing plume of smoke. The fire had been set to one of the trailers, the one Adam had been to prior, with the business man, in the business suit. Men ran about, while a few ran hoses onto the fire, creating a hot steam that sizzled the air. Flames poured from the broken windows, and already the trailer leaned to one side where the blaze had eaten the foundation—there was no saving the building, only containment for what they really cared for: the tower in the mist.
As they pulled up, they could see Mr. Thomas, dressed in suit and tie, standing alone, and watching the fire fight the water in billows that caught in the window and choked the air of anything resembling the scent of oil. They had to park a distance and walk through many men, and Mr. Thomas didn’t look at them when they came, only up toward the billows.
“Thank god it’s not the well,” he said, then he sighed up to the fire and shouted at the men operating the houses. “Keep spraying it toward the east! I don’t want that ash touching that well. No matter what!”
“Was it him?” Adrian said.
“Yes, yes, that bastard. Set it just about a half hour ago.”
“They know it was him?” Adam said.
“Has to be him,” Mr. Thomas said. “I didn’t see it myself but they chased him a good ways. They didn’t pursue past the tree line because of the dark. He’s like a phantom that man.”
Mr. Thomas looked to Adam, and then eased when he realized there were only two present, and two guarding the outpost.
“Remember kid, how I told you not to kill anybody?”
“You said don’t shoot him.”
“You know what,” he said. “Fire at will. This here’s a warning of foul play. Maybe a diversion. The other’s are still with the power right?”
“You think he was trying for the well?” Adrian said.
“I know he wasn’t,” said the man. “Hell, he could have if he wanted to. But no, this is a warning. Shocked us enough though.”
“Where was the watch here?”
“I sent them off to get things ready for the rain. Those clouds looked like trouble, and hell, look at them now. This guy’s a real maniac though, like he knew the rains weren’t coming, like he did it all himself.”
“There’ll be no rain,” Adrian said.
Mr. Thomas looked once more to the sky, unsure.
“I know that now,” he said. “Don’t think I’m an idiot.”
Adam let the two alone. There was a grouping of men moving about from the remaining trailers, armed with hand lights, and from what he could see, large rifles, each with his own. A few of them were drinking while resting on the base of the trailers and watching the blaze continue on. As Adam came up, they shined their lights to his eyes, despite the brightness of the flames.
“Are you going after him?” Adam said.
“I think we are,” said one of them. They were both too unsure to know one way or the other. “We’re supposed to anyway.”
“No,” the other said. “They just like to get us up and moving, just like we’re doing something and all, but really we’re just gonna walk around in the trees with lights and guns till we know there aint nothing to be found. Then we come back and start again.”
“Nobody saw him go?”
“A few people saw him running off, but not real good.”
“Where you going to look then?”
“There’s a few places we could. He could have took a line straight for those hills, and now he’s watching us up there looking like fools. Or he could of gone down through the trees and crossed into the riverbed.”
“Any place first?”
“I think we might check down in the river just so we don’t have to climb.”
“That wouldn’t be the smart thing,” Adam said.
“On account of the rain. Look at those clouds.”
The two looked up, away from the flaming black ash and the sky was shifting still with deep purple clouds as they moved east.
“Don’t look good,” one said.
“Yeah I’ve seen clouds like those,” said the other. “It’s gonna rain for sure.”
“I don’t think he’s dumb enough to drown in the river if it fills up tonight.”
“No,” one said. “He’s a smart one.”
“We’ll go put that one in with the others. Thanks for the hint.”
The two men finished their drinks quickly and gathered with the other men. Within minutes they’d loaded their rifles and began out toward the hills, hunting with no pleasure other than to finish in time to see the blaze run through.
Adam walked to the outskirts of the field, where the evening was electric still and the small weeds were young and budding from the blown soil. Adrian had followed Mr. Thomas closer to the blaze and they never wondered where the boy went until he was gone for good. He walked until he was free of the orchard lines, where the lease was up, and the trees grew wild once more behind the ditch that bordered the land. Adam climbed the ditch and disappeared into the rows of cottonwoods and willows that grew thick there. He listened to the blaze and the uproar behind him—it grew less as he walked, and then he could hear the rustle of weight as it leveraged the tight spaces between the brush, and his boots as they cut into the ground and the dead leaves; but never did the sounds completely go away.
He knew exactly where he was, by heart and scent and home. As he walked, the sun fell in the west, and the sky became dark quick with the ash, but the moon was nearly full and shone pale and mystic through the leaves, down to his steps. He dropped with the hill as it carried to the valley floor. The sparrows gathered in droves upon the boughs above him, and they sung little as they watched the flames in the distance. The heat could be felt in every breath of the wind; the scent was obscurely touched with the scent of the oak and the gum leaves, almost wholesome, yet acidic like medicine.
When he was close to the river, then the earth became quiet. There was still a flicker of burning orange in the distance, but he could hear nothing over the turning of the leaves and the scattering of mice on the river floor. He stepped into the bed, the moon bright and illuminated white on the river sand. It looked so cold, but he felt none of it, only the loneliness—he felt too alone.
He followed the river for a good distance. A few times the owls flew overhead to see the bright of the fire, and then returned to the safety of the oaks and the willows. They weren’t hunting. Nothing seemed to hunt, and everything was calm as if the moon and its spots were the only eyes to look on this open place, turn from the frightening ash and look down.
Then he came to the place he knew more than anything. The bank was free of brush at its bend, where the sandstone grew and rose abruptly, cliff-like, onto a long flat slab where they had enjoyed the water where it used to run. Adam stood still in the moonlight; the earth was white and shaded, yet subtle. There were soft patters in the sand from a wild cat, and he watched a pair of yellow eyes disappear into the brush. There was nowhere to go from here, only to listen. The earth moved slowly, and minute. For a moment the leaves rustled, then went dead.
Quickly came a sudden rush beside the river. The weeds and the trees opened to nothing. And then it went dead again. The bed was wholesome. The air was wholesome and light, and often drifted.
“Hell, is that you?” the wind said.
A black figure came to be on the sandstone slab above the bed; his voice was deep, more than a man’s, and he was solid and built into the night. Now, not only the moon looked away from the fire. John had grown much in the chin, the way a man grows, his hair rough from the sides of his head and thick beneath the lip. The moon lit him partial into the stone; he held a rifle aimed into the bed.
“They put a search for you in the hills,” Adam said. He stood still and looked into the rifle.
John looked over to where the flames leapt above the line of oak and sycamore leaves, and he looked proud.
“Did they? How many?”
“About eight of them. With rifles bigger than yours.”
“They’re putting more and more out for me. They’re not scared of me now. They’re frightened.”
“I came to tell you they’d be here next. All eight of them in the bed, with lights and dogs. They’ll find you.”
“Not me,” John said. “Where I am they’ll find dirt and air and nothing more.”
While the men stood idle, the wind blew rough across the dirt, carrying with it the ash from the fire and the heat from the flames. John let down the rifle. He looked to the fire once more, and then to Adam. Then he leapt from the stone platform to the upper rise of the bank, and from there to the floor, animal like, dog like, into the sand. He met Adam in the middle of the bed.
“Adam Watt,” he said. “God, it’s been long.”
“I’ve been away.”
“Me too,” he said. “Me too. Come with me. I’ll show you somewhere safe. It’s just a walk from here, but it’s safe.”
John’s boots dug into the sand, and they were both moving quick along the white earth. They carried along the bank until they hit the bend; then they crept into the brush, where the ground broke into stones, and then into a basin and a small creek that fed the river, but was dry the same. Cottonwoods bordered the creek, and they slipped among them, calm and quiet as the air, moving in stints of the moonlight. John moved like a fox, becoming faster the darker the air grew, but was quiet as the mice that fled as they walked.
They came to a dip in the soil, where the ground flattened, and rows of wild vines and azaleas grew into the floor so it was soft and wet beneath their feet. Adam could see nothing other than faint flashes of moonlight that fell as they walked. He relied on the sound of their breathing to navigate. Suddenly they stopped and listened. Opposite the dip, the earth rose higher, and it cracked and split into several small grooves where the sycamores grew tall and heavy. There was a canopy of vines and wild flower tied between two of the larger trees. John urged him forward but he could see nothing until the man pulled aside the mats of leaves that opened to a black room, glittered from dots and slivers that spilled of the moon.
They climbed inside together. Adam banged his knee against the stone floor and stopped where he was to rest. He could hear John move very subtle about the room. When his eyes adjusted he could see faintly the outline of several things but he could see nothing clearly, other than the man’s deep silhouette apart from him.
Then it was quiet. They were no longer in reach of the blaze, and could hear none of it, and could only smell faint traces of smoke that carried with the night. A few owls walked above in the boughs, scattering leaves that fell above the canopy and softened the night.
Where John lay in the stone the white light of the moon fell through holes in the canopy and his face was at once pale and dark in layers.
“What happened to your father?” he said, his voice carried with the stone and was low and rich with the echo. “When you left, did he find anything worth it?”
“He moved across state to cut wood.”
“Did it do well?”
“There weren’t many trees.”
“Why’d he stray from cattle?”
“There weren’t many of those either,” Adam said. “What about your father?”
“He drank,” John said. “And I’m not sure what else. He took everyone northern. But I’ve been here all along. Just can’t go away from here. They can’t make me leave here like they did everyone else. Not me.”
John turn his head to where his eyes were lit with the moon, and they were bright and hungry, like those of a wolf, though he had no ability to close them. There was everything wild in those eyes; he had gone serene, not like a man, but a like a dog let free, and set to roam.
“Have you heard about me?” John said. “Like the one where I took two trucks off the road with a single stone. And, my favorite, the one where I can travel beneath the ground, like a rabbit, in a chamber of tunnels running right beneath us. I’m a legend now, a good bigfoot, a noble sorcerer.”
“None of those.”
“There’s one also about the Henry’s daughter. Have you heard about that one?”
“They claim I stole her. She went off in the morning and went missing through the night; they didn’t find her till the next morning. In all actuality she was probably just out too late with her boyfriend, and took the opportunity to evoke a legend to save her grace. But that’s the point of it. Once you’ve made it, then the stories come one by one like clockwork. I took her, and I made her, and I’m then without compassion forever more.”
“Did any of them happen?”
“No. Most of them I made up. The way all legends are made.”
“What happens when they find you?”
“They won’t find me,” he said. The owls had begun to speak above, and the field mice could be heard rustling to their stations. John looked up to the moon and laughed without a sound, the way the feared laugh. He sat up, the white lines of the night shifting the shape of his body.
“Did you hear that?” he said.
“I heard nothing.”
“The wind,” he said. “They won’t find me. Because I’m the wind now. I am the trees, the rocks, the dirt. I feel like god here, and, hell, I’m just about God, aren’t I?”
“I know nothing about god.”
“Yes you do. The hell you don’t Adam.”
John fell back down onto the mat of grasses he’d laid into the stone floor. The night was dark and blue and the man looked gone with it. He was wearing a weathered white shirt and roughened pants, and there was a fox fur rolled up beside him in the stone; he needed no coat in the cold; and he needed no light for the dark. He lips were pale and his body tenured as the dead, though his eyes were full with color, deep blue and drenched with fire—as the night.
“All of us do,” he said, very low now. “It’s in us, you know: the people. God is in the people. Me and you. He’s here right now, hell, she’s here right now too. All of us are gods, and let this world be our heaven—as sick as it is. Hell, how sick it is too. We’re powerful, Adam. A man is a very powerful thing. But to hell with the gods. That’s what I’ve found out over the years: to hell with the gods. You know why, cause there’s greater things than men and gods out there.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “And maybe I’ll never know, but there’s something. It’s what’s here right now. It’s what’s in the wind, in the earth. And to hell with us anyway.”
“To hell with the gods.”
“That’s it—the spirit. It’s contagious among good men. Our heavens and our hells have subtle differences.”
The cold blew outside the lee of the vines, but nothing came in and they were warm and quiet. John kept his eyes on the light of the sky, taking breaths to match the rhythms of the wind. Adam could see only him, and nothing more. He felt for his own body, but it was gone into the deep blue of the room.
“I have big plans,” John said. “Big plans for all of us, and big plans for the valley, for all these men.”
“It has to do with the wells.”
“I’m going to burn them, like candles.”
“The big ones.”
“All of them. Each one together. It will be beautiful. Fire is beautiful, it erases all the negatives and turns them to scratch. Then we just have to stand back and watch. That day will be great.”
“You can do that?”
“No,” he said. “At the moment no. I can’t alone. I just need men. One day I’ll have men.”
The quiet startled and the brush rustled outside the dark. Adam pulled open the vines and looked but could see nothing over the white glow of the moon against the dead leaves.
“There’s nothing there,” John said. “You can look but you’ll see nothing.”
“Soon they’ll have dogs down here.”
“And the dogs will turn their noses in the wind. They’ll be on the hunt for a beast and be surrounded by them on all sides.”
“Soon they’ll have rifles.”
“And soon they’ll have me dead, but I won’t be gone.”
Adam pulled apart the vines once more. He could hear the padding of a skunk in the distance, and the flourish of the mice as the owls rested above. But there was a greater sound off in the trees, one he heard echo when it reached the basin. It was the sound of movement, the sound of shifting sands and loosening earth.
“I hear it too,” John said. “I hear it often.”
“How far is the river?”
“It doubles back just feet over the incline.”
“Doesn’t it make you nervous?”
“When you’ve lived as the hunted, you understand what sounds signify a greater hunter from a wandering fool.”
Adam gathered himself and lowered out of the darkness. He looked back to John but the man had not moved, and lay vibrant and white, and Adam expected at any moment a howl, but it never came.
“I could do it at any moment,” he said. “And when it happens, you will watch it and see what I mean.”
“Maybe then,” Adam said.
He ducked out of the dark and let the vines trap the man as he lay. Then he was with the moon and the night and he could smell the ash once again. He climbed the stones of the incline, up through the sycamores. At the top point, he could see the dark of the smoke as it clouded the stars, but the fire had burned its course and only a slight shimmer of the last flames lingered above the oaks.
He began to walk once he found the river. His feet passed above the white sand slow enough to listen. There were no shades among the rushes but he could hear the earth turning, then pause, and shift position. There was a lowly hunter, one that wasn’t a group of men with rifles and dogs, but a man who knew no better and had no skill at the task.
“Keep still or I’ll fire,” cried the Mexican. Long before he had shouted, Adam could see his silhouette tucked away from the rise of coyote brush where he hid. The rifle was pointed a little to the left, but caught the reflection of the bright night and the white moon and there was no chance the man had hunted in Mexico unless the animals were blind and deaf.
“There’s a good shot you’ll miss me,” Adam called back.
He watched the figure ease and then show itself from the brush. The Mexican came into the open, wielding the rifle off to the side. In a way he was disappointed, the way he had been with the rabbits. But he had not wanted to shoot, and now the excitement had run its course and he breathed easy.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “I was about to shoot. You’re lucky I gave a warning.”
“Did the Indian come with you?”
“No, he stayed to guard the shack. But I had a notion.”
“He’s not here. I’ve been through the whole bed.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Because of the same notion.”
“But he isn’t here?”
“Damn,” the Mexican said. “I felt it this time. It felt true. So how was the fire?”
“I’ll tell you about it.”
Together they walked back toward the shack. The Mexican kicked at his prints to hide them, embarrassed he had dug so deep into the ground during the hunt.
“You’re lucky,” he said again. “I was about to shoot.”
And he said nothing again until they were free of the river.
In the morning the old man was gone. He left without a sound, and the boy slept steady, and he dreamt of the wolves that crept into the riverbed, of the eyes and the pale skin. When he woke, the cabin was open, the windows wide, the doors letting in light, and for the first time the rooms were well bright and glowing. The rains had not come and the air was dry but not hot and there was a stray wind that blew in what remained of the fire that passed in the night. Adam ate in the kitchen and looked into the clearing for the man, but he was long gone. He heard no coughs or shuffling in the dead leaves.
He worked to clear the yearling roots that clung to the patio. Here, the earth moved quicker than in the fields, if not scarred by the out and the open. They had grown strong from the last point severed, and were tougher now to pull. Small yellow flowers bloomed on the larger of the leaves, and they seemed to do so in spite. Clovers coupled into the inlets of the rotting wood; they grew as the old ones grew, and died as the old ones died—by his hand.
He sweated through morning until the steps were again clear, but he wasn’t proud anymore. There was no piety in the day; there was nothing special in his hands, in his work—and he wondered of the old man. The air smelled nothing like death, but then nothing like life, and more of a place between, in the blue sky and flat mat white clouds that carried the earth when it was between one or the other.
Inside he sat on a chair in a corner of the bright room. Windows bordered the south and the east, overlooking the drying green brush of the oak woodlands. The curtains were tied and the world open. There were no more paintings. The old man had moved them in the night, and where they once were, were blank white spaces, weathered around the edges with dust. His own canvases were gone too. He looked for his bag, but there was nothing—the old man had taken everything.
The man left a trail through the dead leaves. It was a familiar trail Adam didn’t have to try hard to follow. He had walked it several times before, in the same steps, the same turns and dives into the brush and from it. And it occurred to him nothing had broken rhythm—the old man kept his paces as they always had been; he remembered everything the same as the boy, like a migration.
At any moment he expected to find the old man dead and strewn on the forest floor, but that never came. Instead, he emptied onto the river, precisely at the bend where the soft beach lay when there was a need for a beach. Now the beach was a gentle incline to the bed of white sand of the river floor, and strewn with small clump grasses and newly sprouted tufts of chemise too youthful to flourish. But the oak was there, more alive than anything, it existed robust and strong, as well as the shade beneath it. And there was the old man too, lively as he’d ever been younger. He had a canvas set into the shade, overlooking the white bend, now a canyon in the earth, and he worked at it deftly.
Adam walked up behind him. The man kept working. The picture was no longer of the fires. It was of the steep walls in the bed, of the growth that sprung from the loose dry sand. He saw his own bag aside from the man, his own pictures. He rested against the oak, in the shade where no breeze blew.
“You look alive again,” he said.
“I’m no more alive than I am dead.”
The nature was vastly different than he remembered as a boy. There were no more waves of green water, and no more chutes and rushes that rose from the damp soil of the banks. There were no more birds that nested and courted in the reeds, but only those that watched and hunted the dry bed for game that shuffled from cover to cover along the white floor. It smelled of exhaustion and defeat. But the man painted it true, down to the hurt and the anguish.
“Well,” the boy went on, “you look more alive than it now. To me, it looks dead.”
“What is the art is the death,” the old man said. “Art is what becomes of the grace of our deaths, man and nature—both are the same.”
“I’ve seen death.”
“And you’ve seen no grace?”
“None I can perceive.”
“Because there is the death of the hunter, and there is the death of the hunted. They died a hunter’s death. An artist dies that of the hunted.”
“Hunted from who?”
“The hunters,” said the old man. “Think of an elk as it’s stalked. There is a brutal, unrelenting pursuit, maybe from a wolf in this case. And then there is an ugly, daunting flight from the other. It’s a game ongoing, with everything. But it’s the consent that’s graceful.”
“The consent to die. At some point in the flight there is a moment of relief, of renewal, whereas the animal no longer runs, but consents to the hunter to be killed. Then the hunter administers death with compassion and gratitude. This is the moment of grace and beauty. That moment is art.”
“That would make the elk an artist.”
“Yes,” said the old man. “An artist is not a painter, a writer, or anything of man but of everything hunted. An artist is the relenter of life.”
“Then what is our point to it?”
“We’re like the elk, and other men are like the wolves, and forever we’re pursued, always and endless. To be an artist, you must truly be in flight—away from the men and away from their causes, their lashing teeth. And like the elk, when it’s right, we lay down graceful to die. But our point is that we never go away. Our death is our mercy, to our extent hunted—our reward is our immortality.”
“Is everything then immortal?”
“No,” he said. “The sad part is nothing is.”
All across the riverbed the air was still. There was no fog in the morning, and the oceans were drained to the east, but there in the valley it was stale and heating from the bright sun. The oaks dug deep into the bed of the river, where the rushes had once been. Of everything, they were still green, and always strong.
“Where are the paintings?” the boy asked.
“My own. They were by my side when I slept.”
“Those,” the man said. “They’re on the floor, by the bags. But they’re no good. You should leave them where they are: in the dirt.”
“You don’t like that house either?”
“No, the house was done well, but it wasn’t yours.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“And who’s there with it?”
“I drew it alone.”
“You drew it in the oaks and the vines but not alone.”
“Then I missed something along the way.”
“Yes,” the man said. “You did.”
The man quit painting. He let the brush by his side, and wiped the sweat from the bridge above his eyes. His skin was no longer pale, but pink and flushed with blood. His breaths came fluid, and not choked, as they had before. Adam looked ahead of the man, and then to the canvas, and where one was dead and parched, the other was the same.
“That’s what I need to do,” he said. “I need to paint that way.”
“It’ll come in time.”
“In time of what?”
“When you find yours to paint.”
“And where will that be?”
“In the clearing,” the man said. “I told you before and you don’t listen.”
Adam gathered his bags and left the canvases in the dirt. The old man began to paint again. He was stronger, and younger, and quick, as if he had never been old at all, and even his eyes had no tenure in the green.
“I thought you would be dead,” Adam said. “But you look more alive than myself at the moment. What happened to you?”
“I smelled the air in the night, and it along with it.”
“Fire,” the man said. “I smelled the flames.”
The tree held her solely. Charlotte rested in the basin of the big oak, flat against the curve of the trunk as it went beneath the fading grass. There was a very fine light in the clearing. The tips of the bordering trees were prominent in shades of light yellow; the sky had no clouds, and above was a going field of soft blue. Every now and then, the air turned, but did so calmly—that the edge of the dry fields slowly tipped and held firm. The brown mare grazed in the darker grasses at the base of the knoll.
“They want me to marry Claxton Murray,” Charlotte said.
Adam looked behind him. She was dressed bright and was stark to the ground, her legs straight on the floor as she watched him paint. Her hair fell into the wind and snagged on the bark, and on her chin.
“The Murray’s boy?” he said, returning to paint.
“Yes, that one. Do you know him?”
“Not at all. But I knew a kid who was beaten by him and a few others when we were younger.”
“Sounds like him. Did the kid ever get back at him?”
“Not yet, but he will someday.”
“It’s a shame. He needs to get beaten, and beaten badly enough that his ego is crushed more than his bones.”
“Does he like you?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she said. She sat upward a little and studied the painting for a while over his shoulder. He hadn’t been painting for long, but the picture was near finished. “What makes you shade it like that?”
“For some reason, I like it when it’s brighter.”
“To me it should be darker.”
“At this point.”
“I’ve never seen it like that.”
“I’ve never seen it brighter,” she said, sitting back down. “My mother is in love with him. My father too, and of his father. To me, he’s a red-headed, rat-faced bastard, and I hate him.”
“Why does your mother like him?”
“Because he’s not my father.”
“Why does your father like him?”
“Because he’s of the mind state the boy would make a good soldier. He claims the boy could be a hero, and it’s a man’s honor to be a hero. My father wanted to be a soldier; he wanted to be a hero. According to my mother, he’s a coward.”
“This is a good time to be a soldier, with the war going on.”
“No,” she said. “It’s a bad time for the unfortunate few chosen to go. But that’s my father’s business in this valley.”
“What’s it to your father?”
“He is the director with the board here. And he would never send Claxton. He’s too upper class for that.”
“And what about the other men?”
“Business,” she said. “The men work in the wells. The wells are what make my father money. It would be bad business.”
From below they could hear the mare yearning. Her thick breasts took in air and bellowed in echo along the wind. And on occasions, she would lift her head, straighten her ears, and tense toward a notion in the east, and then she would settle and become tame again. Her calls were full of sorrow.
“She’s in mourning,” Charlotte said.
“That was her colt from the other day, the one that got away. She misses him. And now she’ll mourn forever. I pity her, she’ll never be the same.”
“In time she can be.”
“No,” she said. “That’s the curse of procreation, she cannot be. To love and care for a child is stronger than hunger; to mourn for their loss is no different.”
“But you don’t want children?”
“Because I have not had them. But there’s a change that takes place in the process; a woman becomes different, entirely. You can think of a birth as three phases in a woman: the death of the woman, the birth of a child, and the birth of the mother. Every thing about a woman changes—she becomes different, she has to, in the same way we grow when were young; the same as the heart beats and the body breaths. You cannot fight it. It occurs regardless. Some could even think it’s a madness.”
“Then a women lives two lives to our one.”
“That is the nature of a woman,” she said. “The end of a woman, her death, and the growth of something maternal. To be sterile is to defy that death, and to be a woman immortal, to be a woman always. Do you know what comes from endlessness?”
“Something like that,” she said. He looked to her again, and her eyes were off toward the mare. The light sifted through the leaves and fell on her pale skin the same as it did the oak. “And then maybe it’s the end of man’s ascent to rise as a man, and to go where it’s never gone before, in the woman’s way.”
Adam let the canvas rest at his feet. He had no desire to draw the clearing any more.
“Or to reflect the art, and not the opposite,” he said.
“Maybe it is the same?”
“Both are deadly.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think so too.”
Adam began to pack his things into the sack spread out in the grass. He pushed the canvas into the sun so it would dry. He considered leaving it, and seeing what became of it the next day. If possible, the wilds could take pleasure from something forgone. Charlotte watched him fumble with the sack, in brown and base eyes, the same as one watches a rabbit scuttle along the field.
“You’re leaving?” she said.
“I have to be back soon. It’s my turn to post on watch.”
“What about the drunken fool?”
“They don’t trust him alone. And the Mexican and the Indian are going into the hills to track a deer.”
“They’re really scared this time,” she said. “He’s got them all on their feet. I think they’re frightened.”
“If not frightened, then prepared.”
“Does he frighten you?”
“I like what he’s doing. I wished he’d done more than a trailer. I wish those wells would go up along with it.”
“Soon they will. All of them.”
“I know,” she said. “Soon enough. That’s why I need to leave here.”
Adam threw the sack over his shoulder and kicked the canvas further into the grass. Charlotte stood; she brushed herself clean of the dead leaves that clung to her body, and ran forward to meet him. The air smelled of the sages lost somewhere in the chaparral, and of the colt; the mare bellowed below.
“I’m leaving too,” she said. “I’ve done enough.”
Together they returned the mare to the stable. The Mexican was down in the field, shooting at sparrows from ground point, and missing terribly into the oaks. He sat up when they came from the tree line and saluted; the birds scattered back into the trees.
“Where are you going?” Adam asked.
Charlotte opened the half-door to the horse’s pen, and corralled it. It began to whimper, and lifted its snout to the air.
“Home,” she said. “They don’t think I’m gone.”
“Where do they think you are?”
“With a women hired to teach me.”
“Teach you what?”
“I’m not sure. But the things a woman should know, I bet; not the things she will know, but the things she should.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Aren’t you on schedule?”
“I have a little time.”
They walked away from the stable, beneath the shade of the poplars along the post line. No matter the heat, the poplars were bright, and linear, and the sparrows hid among the yellow leaves, quiet as they waited for the Mexican to leave the field. Just inside the trees, a brook ran from north to south, dry and filled with stones and dogweed. They crossed over an old board that cracked on their steps but held the weight. They were moving down in the valley, alongside the river. Adam knew the lay well, but it was forbidden. It wasn’t a shepherds land.
Ahead in the path, a cottonwood had fallen recently, and just now began to gather small buds of fungus on its rims. Charlotte jumped on top; she had the same pistol tucked into the waist of her jeans and it glistened as the sun broke the oaks.
“Do you always carry a pistol?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
She pulled the pistol from her waist. She pointed to a notch in a sycamore a distance away from the trail; she aimed briefly and fired. The white bark split, and broke into shards along the notch, to a clean white flesh. She handed the pistol to Adam. He fired just to the left, and she smiled.
“I do better with a rifle,” he said.
“Me too. But fire it again. This time shoot to the left of my mark.”
He did so, cocked and fired. The notch split again, over the old wound.
“You’re a marksmen,” he said.
“No. I’m a woman. But the breeze is moving to the right. There’s no power in a pistol. You have to shoot it knowing that.”
She tucked the pistol back into her waist, and they began walking again. Soon, the wilds tamed abruptly, into cut grass, and a road that ran along the river too, and onward through the kept grass, bordered by blue and live oaks at intervals as they rose to a large ranch home, hidden by the rise of further poplars. On either side of the home, and behind it too, were the last of the orchards. The air smelled again of citrus. The way it once had.
They walked together up the road. In front of the house, the road doubled back in front of the patio, into a circle around the poplars. Parked at the end of the road were a few trucks, not work trucks, but black and washed clean, the trucks who ordered the work to be done by those still using carts.
“We’ll go around to the back,” Charlotte said.
She sped up and Adam followed. But as they got closer, there weren’t only trucks, but men along with them.
“It’ll do us no good now,” she said. “They’ve seen us. That bastard is there with them.”
Her father stood on top of the patio stairs looking down as they came forward. He waved to the other men, who were fumbling into the trucks, and they quit and looked to Adam; they all looked first to the girl, and then to Adam. This was no shepherds land, and it was no shepherd’s home either.
“Thank god you’re not dead,” her father said from above. His passion was pretentious, Grecian-like. “We all heard gunshots and went to find you, and to our surprise we find Mrs. Ellsinore up there all by herself. Scared us all half to death… not to mention your mother. Good thing Claxton happened to stop; he’s a good man you got there. He was just about to look for you.”
Claxton was leaning on the hood of the truck now. He wore a cap above his red face; his eyes were set close together and his nose long and set high. He nodded according to the man’s speech, as if they were his own words. The men around him looked to Adam, black in the eyes, like dogs.
“I don’t know what you’re all fussing about,” Charlotte said. She moved forward and began up the steps toward the home. She stopped midway, on a parapet. “Jesus, do gunshots frighten you? You don’t act like men at all. It’s got you running about like a bunch of a rats and cowards. I went out for air, Ellsinore knows all about it. It gets hot in that house and you’ll be damned if I sit in there all day.”
Her father ignored every word, and he looked passed her down to Adam.
“Well whose this?” he said.
“A man not frightened by quick noises, and a friend who came to see me home.”
“What’s your name?”
“Where do you work, Adam?”
“For the new well on your land, where the orchards once were.”
A subtle laughter came from the men in the trucks.
“You work the wells?” Claxton said. “A driller?”
Her father smiled. A woman appeared in the doorway. She noticed too the immediate focus below the steps, and didn’t come further.
“Charlotte come inside,” she said.
Charlotte stood still where she was.
“Drilling is hard work,” her father said. “But this a long way from any well. I think you’re a little lost. Claxton, why don’t you thank the man for bringing home Charlotte in one piece. And then maybe you could show him the way back to that good well of mine.”
“He knows his way as good as I do,” Charlotte said.
Claxton jumped down from the hood. He let out his hand and the two shook while he leaned close to speak.
“I appreciate you bringing her back,” he said. “Sometimes she gets a little over her head. I’ll take the reins from here. Jump in, we’ll ride you back.”
“I’ll walk from here.”
“No, no. I bet you have places to be. At least a ride to the gate to show thanks.”
He fired up the truck while Adam climbed in as a passenger. The other men disassembled back toward the steps of the home and then disappeared inside with the girl and the man. The truck rounded the poplars. Soon they were gone beneath the shade of the live oaks, moving slowly on the road.
“Sometimes she’s a hassle,” Claxton said. “She’s very headstrong, that one. I apologize for her. After you put her in line, she’s not half that bad. Hopefully she didn’t cost you time.”
“Not at all.”
“You’re a driller?” he said.
“Then what do you do?”
“I’m a watchmen, for the power by the stables.”
“Oh, yes. Is that how she met you, by those stables?”
Soon the road leveled onto a solid plain, and they came upon the main gate. The steel doors were tied off, and the road was open, and at one point had looked upon the green waters of the river, but now only overlooked the drying shrubs that grew in its place. The truck slowed; the engine ran with a low newly conditioned idle.
“One more time, thank you,” he said. “And if she gets in your way again. Just bring her right back here. This is where she belongs.”
As the truck turned again up the road, it whipped at the dead oak leaves in the dirt. And from those falling, glistened a yellow green, and there was a sense of color in the earth, and a sense of smell from the orchards, and everything was vibrant and lively again until the truck was too far up the way to matter; then the earth lay still.
The windows were sealed in the cabin, the doors too, and the drapes and the curtains, till the cabin hid in the growing weeds. There was a half moon, dark to the west, and bright green to the east, and life was in half shades to grow in time to the color of the sky. Purple flowers had bloomed along the banisters. Rudiments of clover grew from the morning wounds; the bats stirred; the spiders bred in patterns of silk. There were no longer paths enough for the body, but only for the steps. In the katydids came music.
Adam took careful steps on the patio. The cabin had been joyous in the morning, bright and open, and now it didn’t appear at all. There was symmetry, but no soul, as a lost art to the wild. It took in the night well, held its shape and its symphony, but it gave no light of the moon in return; what it took, it kept well, and it gave to the world nothing—and quickly the earth became the void. He was no longer pious. It wasn’t godliness he had felt, but control. That control was gone.
Inside, there were no lights. He moved out of memory; his hands felt for the table, and from there, a long, half worn candle, which he lit. The air was stale. Nothing moved. There were men who walked in old worlds, who moved in the same manner, reluctant, but curious, like the men of Egypt. The cabin was cold, with no wind, and the flame only stood straight and brought out very little.
He walked into the hall. Outside, the earth didn’t speak. It was a quiet night, a night where big things rested, and the small made their move, very subtle. He listened to the hall. All doors were closed. Then he heard the old man, and then he could see him. The man was outside the door, on the chair in the hall, near dead to white. He was no longer young, and he moaned from the tenure. It was a moan that wasn’t awake; it was unconscious, what comes from the dreams that cannot be dreams any longer. His eyes half turned, in moon shade, toward the light of the candle, and he nearly fell. Adam knelt and lifted the man. Every move was limp; there was no longer strength to dream, to ease.
He brought the man into the room and covered him. He pulled the blanket to his chin, not to deafen the moaning. There were sounds the body needed to free in the old; torment and anguish were of the many.
Adam placed the candle by the bedside. The old man could lift his eyes only partly, and they drifted toward the light. They saw nothing any longer.
“Soon,” Adam said. “You will die soon.”
The coyotes howled above the music of the hunters. The old man turned and grimaced from the pain it caused. He looked to where the sound came, but he never knew where.
“I,” he said. “I.”
“There are no good words to say before a man dies.”
“I am as I am,” the old man said. “And I will never die.”
Soon his breaths were no longer in rhythm. They came short, and then long, and then beaten and choked. His last breaths were to voice the pain. Then his eyes fell back on themselves, and he slept sound.
The boy sat in the dark and let the candle burn its course. He watched the old man sleep, he watched him flinch and convulse in pain. And he wondered what dreams their may be of anguish.
Outside, the flowers bloomed full by the moonlight.
There was the sound of horse fall outside the cabin. Adam woke and could hear the stirring, the angst outside in the weeds, followed by the grunt of a mare. He moved quietly not to wake the old man. The candle had its course and now only a small line of the moon passed over his body. If he were gone, then his death would be peaceful, and if he lived, he’d live for little and no more.
Adam moved on to the patio. The clouds had parted to a bright moon, and the sky now was vibrant, and all shades existed in its two colors of white and dark. The mare startled when Adam passed into the light. Charlotte steadied her, and she looked onward, to the dark of the cabin, with eyes as you look on the dead.
“Why are you here?” he said.
Her eyes were fixed and they didn’t stir but went through him to the mass of the cabin. The mare pulled back, without ease, and the girl turned her, reassured her, to face the boy.
“I had a dream,” she said; there was a soft echo in the night, returned by the beating of bats above. “But I dreamed none of this.”
“Of what then?”
“No,” she said. “This was horror, though. But I don’t fear death. There are other things to fear, but not death.”
Charlotte looked to the floor as if to dismount, but then looked to the cabin and held her position, frightful and pale. There was no floor in the darkness, and only the moon shone the tips of the clover, but no earth.
“You said before that the fires will happen,” she said. “And I believe you.”
“Yes, they will.”
“But it’s not my point to be a part of that. It’s not my desire and it’s not my fate. All my life I’ve been caught up in other people’s messes, like a leaf in a whirlwind. And I can’t do that anymore. Sometimes it goes too fast for me, for anyone who’s not as overblown as the rest of them.”
She paused; her eyes fell to the floor. She was white like the moon, and dark around the rims of her face where the lines of her black hair fell and lay still. She had become passionate as she spoke before, but just as soon she was calm and humble again.
“My dreams are different though,” she said. “They damn me. It will be one hell of a mess around here when things go bad.”
“That’s the point of it all.”
“But it’s not my fight, and yet I dream it.”
The clearing became hollow. The winds that blew were cold, and damp, and would be until morning. The earth began to wake in slow rustling movement; soft taps in the clover from the waking mice; the bats began to silence overhead. Charlotte looked around, at the sky, and about the clearing. She began to shiver.
“I’m going to the house on the hill,” she said. “The one in the vines. The old one, and the alone one. I don’t think there is anywhere else to be, or anywhere else I can be, because I dreamed it too.”
“Then what brought you here?”
“For you to come with me.”
“A man told me never to go there.”
“It needs you there.”
“Because I dreamed you too.”
She led the way on the mare, looking often to the trees, and then to the stars and the sky. The clouds gathered in patches along the eastern hills, and all around the stars were in season; one could understand the world from those seasons, and one could walk the world too, and never be lost. Adam walked beside the mare, guiding himself by the clusters of velvet oak leaves that overlooked the route. The horse walked slowly. They walked away from the moon, each step in a new dark.
They came through the trees into an open field of thistle and old soil. The remnants of a never completed workstation shone in the moonlight, reflecting in its rust the beginnings of a shed. The weeds grew around the perimeter where the drill had been set months before. Pieces of the old grove remained in the dead leaves that scattered the earth, and now the snakes and the rodents used them to forage. An owl roosted on the only beam that remained of the shed; it watched the horse and the two of them as they walked by, and never flew away, as it wasn’t frightened.
“Why didn’t they drill here?” Adam said.
“They did. At least they did for a while. They found oil when they first drilled and got excited like they always do. They knocked down the orchards from here west, thinking it would be something. They cleared the woods that way down to the river. The Bierce’s Ranch went mostly away. They sold what they had left after they leased this, and moved on.”
“It didn’t last though.”
“It would have,” she said. “But it was part of larger pool on the other side of the hill with easier access there. The Hamson Ranch leased out then; they gave up most of their woodland, and that’s why it’s flat now.”
“At this rate, they’ll level the whole valley.”
“They intend to. Oil is more profitable then earth and trees.”
They crossed the field into several thin partitions of brush, and came onto other pockets just like it. The air smelled of rust and rotting steel. A few coyotes looked out from the remains of an abandoned work truck; they gathered around a recent kill, and looked on worried with yellow and red in their eyes as the strangers passed. A fire had burned the truck to black and the moon had no reflection.
“It never used to be like this,” Adam said.
“I bet there was a time.”
“When they left that house to die.”
Charlotte pointed to the distance. There the hills rose into the black sky, and the oaks had fortified into a stronghold against the barren fields where they trekked. The house was of the many, but of remnant white and pearl pristine in the green of the fresh moonlight. They crossed into the woods and rose with the land. They seemed to rise into the sky itself, lifting above the valley floor, till they could see stretches of bare river, and the long constructions of wells across the way. The mare sped up, and the girl no longer guided herself with the sky. They were near to running now, as the world was a familiar place again.
Then they came to the apex and they rose no more. Now they were walking on ancient roads, ones rolled over with clover and foxtails strands that dried and withered where they grew. The mare ran ahead as the wilds opened up. The horse grunted, and the girl turned it fast to its hind feet. They rose in the façade of the ruin, like champions and gods alike. The house had once been great, as it carried that in every crack and ruin. Its grand façade began with a collapsing portico, dripping of vines in the way once intended to shed water. The paint had been washed in earth and toiled in the winds until every plank shown bare and covered in dust and dirt. A series of bays ran behind bending columns, the windows shattered and were now overrun by thistle and wild flower. The house wilted in the way a flower wilted, and the oaks on either side held fast, supporting it more now, than the large columns ever had. Adam came to it humble, at once proud of it, and frightened with no means to decipher either.
The mare had stopped before a collapsed oak in what had been a yard now overgrown with groves of chemise and sage.
“She always stops here,” Charlotte said. “Something about it intrigues her.”
“There are ghosts here,” Adam said.
He took a step on the patio. The wood had fallen through and rotted in patches, like a disease, but his piece held firm. He didn’t trust it any further.
“There are ghosts in the wind and the stillness,” Charlotte said. She dismounted and walked the mare to the steps. She let her go and the horse began to graze in ease. She was at home. “There are ghosts in all stones and all walls. The earth is a ghost itself, I believe that.”
She walked with no hesitation passed the boy and up to the leaning banister beneath the portico. The swaying vines shone with flowers, and the girl walked beneath, catching light from what remained of the moon. She stopped beside the banister, leant her body forward, letting it take her, and looked up to the sky.
“This earth is frightening me,” she said. “All of this. I think I should leave now. Although there’s nowhere to go, I think I just have to leave. But I can’t do it alone. This world is no place for a woman alone. We could do it together though. I know we could”
Adam turned away from the steps. He didn’t trust the home, and he walked out into the lighter fields that capped the hill. The mare grazed in the distance, and he came upon a well, alone in the grass. He leant on the edge and looked down, like looking in the sky, full black. When he looked up, Charlotte was in the field too, looking down on the valley. Below, they could see the clearing, dark and hidden, but lovely still.
“Where did this house come from?” he said.
She shook her head.
“From a great man I assume. But nobody knows of it. They’re all frightened of it. But somehow I think it’s telling me something. I just can’t make with it what I want from it. The problem you have with your clearing.”
Charlotte brought out the pistol from her waist. She rested it on the rim of the well, glowing steel brightly. She sat beside the well, in the grass, turned toward the home. The breeze blew gently. Adam sat beside her.
“It does need to be burned,” she said. “I can see that. With those fires. The ones of my dreams. When I was young I wanted to build it up. Let it live again. And live here with it. But now I understand it needs to be cured. It’s sick like me.”
“I didn’t know you were sick.”
“We’re all sick. Some of us just understand it quite different.”
“Why would you paint this place?”
“Because I can see its faults. I know nothing of painting, but I know there are goods and bads; there are things beautiful, and then things ugly. I’d like to paint them both.”
The breeze picked up into a wind, and it was cold and wet. The girl began to shiver. She laid her head onto the Adam’s lap, and her skin was cold to the touch, and he placed his hand over her neck to ward the weather.
“I will paint you,” he said. “Sometime I should paint you.”
“But you won’t leave with me.”
“I can’t leave here.”
“And still I need to leave.”
“I came back to learn something and I haven’t learned it yet.”
“I know,” she said. “But it could be done. We could do it. Not myself alone, but us together. It could be done.”
“When you dreamed, did the fires come here?”
“They burned us all.”
“There are no wells here.”
“No. We’re alone here.”
Soon, the night was too deep and they fell quiet. Charlotte slept where she lay. The boy stayed awake into the morning. The sun burned like a fire above the eastern hills, and the earth was warmed at once. The valley seemed to live and die where they lay, and only the mare howled for her lost love; in its entirety, the morning was quiet. The earth swung soundly.
There was a shot from out in the field, but the Indian didn’t stir. He sat noble, looking over Adam toward the field where the Mexican had once been. One eye remained in the shade, and the other looked into the sun with indifference. The man was archetypal, but not of man, of its idols—unnerving and melancholic.
Adrian threw a few darts toward the shed, and neither hit their mark. He sung a song beneath his breath. It was one everyone knew, but the words had been changed to fit the occasion. The shed hummed with vibrance and the day was loud.
Another shot fired, because the first had missed its mark.
“I made love to two woman that day,” Adrian said. “It was the best day of my life. And do you know the greatness of it?”
“Not at all,” Adam said.
“They were sisters. Both from the same village, but on separate occasions, and both loved me very much.”
“Did you love them?”
“No,” he said, smiling. “I haven’t thought about them until today. But, man, were they something to look at. The older had the edge on the other, and the little one knew it. But she was a viper, a jealous little thing.”
“She found out?” the Indian said. At first, neither believed he was listening, but now he turned to look at Adrian, astute.
“I told her,” Adrian said. “I have a sense of accomplishment when it comes to feats like that. And I had to tell someone. We lay in bed together, she next to me, and I told her everything.”
“And what then?”
“She began to cry, as women do. Then she was on her feet, quick as a mongoose, eyes dried and rummaging through my uniform on the floor. I knew what she was looking for, so I directed her to the holster on the armoire. There’s no gallantry when a woman holds a pistol. They have no dignity when they carry it—she looked like a child throwing a rifle over her shoulder, but she was determined. She was hysterical, screaming gibberish and then all those damn tears came again. And then she left.”
“For the sister?”
“Yes,” Adrian said. “And I dressed in my pants, and lit up a cigarette while I waited for the shot to ring out. It was all in the same house, her sister was in the room down the hall, playing at some sheet music on the piano. Women are jealous, and they have no way to hamper that, sad things. But there was never a shot.”
“Maybe you just couldn’t hear it.”
“No. There was no shot. The music continued playing down the hall. After I finished the cigarette, I dressed completely and readied myself to leave when the girl came back in. But now she was all smiles, not joyous smiles, but shrewd arrogant smiling.”
“Had she done it?”
“That was the curious thing,” Adrian said. “I asked her exactly that. She shook her head no, beautiful as a woman can be beautiful, and returned the pistol to its holster. Then she thanked me.”
“She thanked you?”
“Yeah, she thanked me. She told me she went down the hall, stood by the door with that pistol cocked and ready to fire, and she listened to the music. All that time she listened to the music and she just walked right back.
“I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you do it?’
“And she goes, ‘Because it would make her greater. To be murdered makes one loved.’
“Then I made her again right there on that same bed. But when we finished, she got dressed immediately and went to the door. That music still played, and she smiled.
“ ‘Now I am the greater of the sisters,’ she said.
“And, damn,” Adrian said. “I think at that moment she was.”
Adrian threw another dart and began to sing again. The Indian watched him for a while with no interest in the man. Another shot came, followed by the loud stirring of the Mexican out in the field. The Indian looked away again, back out toward where the shot had come.
“Was she devout?” he said.
“Hah. She was as devilish as the devil himself.”
“No, she was a good Christian.”
There was a holler of pride, followed by the Mexican who came up to the table. He carried with him a rabbit, a large brown jack, which he held from the neck so that its held fell limp onto its body. He didn’t smile, though his face was bright, and he tried to be humble because he knew he should. He placed the jack on the table; the wounds fresh and warm near the shoulder.
The Indian looked down.
“What next?” he said.
The Mexican looked to Adam because he didn’t know.
“We can all have stew,” Adrian shouted.
“Bury it in the field,” the Indian said. “It will bring you luck.”
“A hunter needs luck,” said the Mexican.
“The first dead should go back to the earth. I’ve known good hunters who do that. They say it gives more in return.”
“I knew an uncle who did the same,” said the Mexican.
He sat down at the table beside the jack and he looked at it morosely. A hunter at once has those eyes, and then after time they have them no more. He didn’t touch it, only looked at it. All that pride was gone, and he looked like the Mexican again.
Adrian continued to sing.
Adam looked away from the jack. The Indian was starring off into the horizon, which was finite and sand-toned, white capped by bursts of ocean clouds from the west, and the hills seemed to grow onward, Icarus-like, as they died in the sun.
“Why devout?” Adam said.
“Devout?” said the Indian.
“You said the sister was devout: a good Christian.”
“Yes. It reminded me of Cain and Able. Do you know that one?”
“She was better than Cain.”
“No,” said the Indian. “She was more god like. She understood the importance of the dead. Martyrs are important.”
“And what is that importance?”
“That men need them. God is the same always; he favors those who die. That’s why he punished him the way he did.”
“He wandered,” said the Mexican, still looking down on the table. “Like a dog he wandered, in the desert to suffer the heat. And what heat that must have been.”
“No,” the Indian said. “Able was a wanderer before Cain, and that was his gift from god. There is no punishment there.”
“I don’t like the heat,” Adrian said from behind them; his song broke for a moment then began up again.
“His punishment was not to die,” said the Indian. “Not to be killed. Not to be a martyr. To live without death is to die, and to be killed is to exist always.”
“I never knew it that way,” said the Mexican.
“And what are martyrs for then?”
“Good things stir from martyrs,” said the Indian. “Man became of martyrs.”
“Man became of murderers,” said the Mexican.
“Man became of the jealousy of martyrs,” Adam said. “And maybe that’s why we love them so.”
“Yes,” the Indian said, satisfied. He was done talking, and looked back again toward the hills. The clouds were now moving fast.
The Mexican poked at the jack. He pulled up an ear and let it fall limp once more. He was disappointed—they all could tell, and he could too. He stood and walked the rifle back to the shack; he left it leaning by the door. Adrian threw the darts right by his head, missing by inches and hitting the board just shy of the spot. When he came back, he didn’t look the same.
“Will you come with me?” he said to Adam.
He grabbed the jack by the back of the neck and the two walked out toward the field, where the deed had been done. The crows had already gathered around the blood. They stirred and cackled as the men came near. Then there was a flurry into the air and they were alone again. The other rabbits had gone, and only songbirds foraged in the fields. But they were silent; there were no songs to sing.
The Mexican knelt to the floor. He knew exactly where the killing had been done, down to the very spot where the clovers bent and the jack fell. He reached into his pocket and brought forward a knife, which he stabbed into the earth and began to dig.
“It was powerful,” he said. “Very powerful. My uncle once told me that he felt powerful every time he did it. And I knew it was true because he was a weak man most of the time. He drank, and his eyes were low, and he wasn’t much of a man. But he would go every so often to the Occidentals to hunt for the rams there. They have big rams there I’ve heard, bigger than anywhere. And when he came back he looked strong. He looked sober, and he looked like a man.”
He dug until the whole was wide enough to take the jack, and then he dug some more to please himself. Then he took the rabbit and placed it softly in the whole. It’s eyes looked up toward the sky, and the Mexican tried to close them, but couldn’t, and he began to bury it.
“I won’t hunt again,” he said. “It’s not what I expected.”
“Yes. For some people power is good, and for others they don’t need it. I don’t need it. I heard what the Indian said back there, and he’s right. That power is for the martyrs; I am no martyr. I am man among men—I am like Cain.”
Once the jack was in the earth, he tried to cover it with bits of the clover he’d turned apart, but there was no hiding it. The crows swung onto the open rows of foxtail off in the distance and watched for the men to leave. And when they did, they flew in and tore at the earth, hound-like.
Adam listened until the sound of the wind flourished and settled back into the leaves. There was no moon, and there were no stars, and the sky was as dark as the earth; only he moved, and he did so with trouble. He followed along the bank so he would know how far he’d gone. He knew the river well by the bank alone, and he needed no more to guide him.
He came upon the bend subtly. There was no life to the night; even the owls kept quiet in the trees—nothing moved in their absence. He crawled up the sanded bank and fell into the rise of old cattails and rushes. Then he was in the brush moving slowly, as there were no trails in the dark, only memories.
Soon the sycamores rose and the earth fell. The ground became jagged, and he held the trees to guide himself down. He expected to see fire, to see light of any sort, but there was nothing. He came to where the cave opened, but there was no John, only a darkness that was deeper than sky, the dark of absence. He felt as if time had moved on, forgotten men, and become its own again.
Adam stepped back to where the ground steadied. Soft rustling poured from beneath his boots. He listened—the trees moved slightly, the wind blew subtle. The earth had grown sterile, immobile, but there was something to it. Then he could see him. The man was laid into the earth, a few feet in the distance, watching him. His back rested against the fallen timbers of a pale sycamore, and he sat in the posture of a king.
His eyes went forward always, as the color of a wolf’s.
“I am poverty,” he said. “I feel ashamed.”
“A shepherd is accustomed to poverty.”
“A man must know poverty to love. The same as a man must know hate to love. Poverty and hate are the same in most cases.”
Adam moved through the dead leaves, toward the silhouette. He climbed a stone face just below where John sat, and he rested beside him. He knew then what the man’s eyes dreamed, and why he looked forward. Ahead, the trees split, and the sky was a void; somewhere beyond the moon fought to part the darkness; but a moon is a lesser child of the sun—there is no warmth, and when daunted, there can be no light.
“Even though we can’t see it,” John said, “it’s pulling. Always and always picking up and turning the tides. The oceans are heavy. That’s some burden when you consider it.”
“Are you out to look for it?”
“No. I heard you stumble along the banks. Your feet were heavy. The same as the others.”
“Do you fear when they come for you?”
“No. They can’t find me.”
“Men can’t, but I’ve seen them with dogs.”
“Dogs are dogs and mislead,” he said. “They’re out with their jowls in the ground sniffing what they are led to find and I’m not what they what they’re led to find. A dog is fickle. They smell the blood of a beast, but I am only a man. In other words, they go on by—on a hunt eternal. Where this beast is, I don’t know. They might find it soon enough.”
John dug his hand into the pocket of his coat. He handed Adam an iron flask and he drank from it. Inside was a warm gin and it coated his stomach and he was no longer cold.
“I came to help you,” Adam said. “With the wells, with the fires.”
John looked away from the part in the trees, and he looked like a man again.
“Once again, we’re old pals,” he said. “Just think, the two of us turning this valley upside down. After what’s been done to it, and we put it back in its right place. But just the two of us is a dream. This will be a war.”
“About how many men?”
“Not an army, but men enough. And the weapons too.”
“Do you have any now?”
“Only a rifle, just over there in that cave.”
Adam dropped to a lower plate in the stonewall, and then he guided through darkness to where the cave mouth opened. He disappeared, and returned into the moonlight holding the rifle toward the dark sky. He moved back to his seat below John, and studied the rifle in what pale light came to be.
“And what makes you interested?” John asked, watching him.
“It’s my place, and my fight.”
“It should be every man’s fight, but where do you see yourself.”
“Where the fires start, I’ll be.”
“An army begins small,” John said. “And so do wars, no matter the size, they begin by one action. That action can never be planned; it’s beauty, and a miracle, and it makes men begin. That is the hardest thing to do, make men begin.”
“It’s done by leaders.”
“I read a piece once on leaders. It said that there are many leaders but only one is capable of moving men. And they do this by trade. They are born with the blood to lead, and I’ve always wanted that blood.”
There was a shuffling through the trees just off the clearing. Both men became quiet and they followed the sway as it came to sight through the brush. A cougar jumped down among a grouping of distant stones, and landed quiet among the dead leaves of the clearing floor. It knew the men were there long before, and it came forward until about twenty feet in the distance; it’s gold skin inflected by the dark into the shade of a panther—its eyes slit and fierce like fire, and it stood still, eyes on the men.
Adam lowered the rifle and spotted it between the cat’s eyes. John didn’t stir, but watched Adam only. The lion persisted into a stalemate, and neither moved.
“The shot is yours,” John said. “Take it if you need it.”
Adam readied to fire. The lips of the cougar rose into white fangs.
“There are only a few moments to kill,” John said. “If those are missed then all hope is lost.”
The cat pushed something archaic from its lungs, the chants of the old tigers—the beasts of men. The night filled with a roar of passion. One paw came forward without a sound.
“That moment is lost,” John said.
He had begun to sweat without knowing it, and kept his watch on Adam. Adam took a breath—he had no mind for the beast. He steadied the rifle, watching the eyes move forward, and he placed it beside him along the rocks.
The night became quiet once more. The cat relaxed and backed off toward the trees. It jumped the stone face in one leap, and stood above the cave looking at the men. Then it was gone, off toward the river.
“There are leaders,” John said.
Adam felt the moon beginning to win against the void; somewhere the tides were always turning; the world was becoming brighter.
“And it’s always in the blood.”
The morning was clouded and satin white by a thick fog. By afternoon, the sun had done little to clear it; a warmth kept to the grounds, and the air was placid and muggy—the tree tops wove into the mist, became and ended without notice. Adam stood atop the clearing and listened from the knoll. The sounds of iron and steel broke into the running of engines—machines and trucks resettled, and men worked mobile because they had run their course. A new well was beginning, and soon the iron frame would grow above the treetops. And even so still, he could forget them.
He placed his canvas below the oak, rested on the upturned root and began to paint. He didn’t paint as he knew because he knew then he knew nothing, as a man knows nothing, and a man does not paint. He drew first the growth of land among the white steam. He drew the mighty oaks, with their heavy limbs and steady bodies, but then too, he drew the weeds. They were difficult because he could not see them, but he knew they were there; they were always there. Life did not breach beautiful from the soil in many things.
Then he drew what would be there. Above the trees, he crafted the iron rig, piercing the mist the same as it pierced the earth. And you could not see it, but you could feel what it felt, taste as it tasted, and there was no angst but piety. He could tell in structure there were no lines, but physics and color. He felt as the men felt who strung the bolts and hammered the wood; he knew what they knew. It was synthetic the same as the oaks were synthetic, and neither by the hands of men, but by gods.
When he finished, he laid it to dry, and he rested on the moist earth, drained as he had been at the cabin, though he knew it was different. A warm mist blew, followed by the sounds of thunder. He looked to the sky for signs of the storm, but the heavens were white and white alone. But this thunder was constant, moving near in rhythm as the sound of drums, the sound of marching, the patter of gunfall, and he recognized it then as the gallop of a horse.
The barrage continued into the clearing. Charlotte came too, white as the light of her skin, her dark hair tied to a braid along her back. She saw Adam above the knoll, and she kicked into the hide of the mare, causing a loud hiss from the snout of the animal, and then they were scaling the fields. She pulled up sudden before the oak, the animal wild, and she looked down horrified.
“We need to leave,” she said. “Now, we need to leave now.”
“Something. I can feel it. Something’s not right.”
She would not dismount from the horse. Instead they paced beside the boy. She was frightened and desperate, and the mare seemed to carry all that same feeling as well.
“Leave with me,” she said. “We could go now, you know that much. Together we could go, but we can’t go alone. And I’m stuck here alone.”
“We have nowhere to go?”
“That’s wrong because we can go anywhere but here.”
The girl was anxious. Her leg shook on the horse, and now she was red in the face with frustration. The mare pulled back in the grass, smashing the fresh canvas into the dirt. Charlotte pulled the pistol from her waist. She cocked it and fired straight above the boy’s head, into the stump of the great tree.
“There are people who don’t want you here anymore,” she said. “And the wrong people that get what they say.”
“They can do no worse than kill me, and that would keep me here forever.”
“They’ll do it.”
“I know they will, but I’m not afraid.”
“But I am,” she said. “Don’t be an idiot. There’s not a damn thing here for any of us. Just a bunch of fools and their money.”
“There’s something here.”
“And what is that?”
“Beneath your horse’s feet.”
The girl pulled the horse back. She dismounted and tucked the pistol back into her waist. She was dressed in jeans and a blue blouse with white spots the color of her skin. She knelt to study the canvas, which had cracked into pieces from the mare.
“What’s here I don’t want to be a part of,” she said. “And you’ve done it all wrong.”
“In what way?”
“This world is ugly, and you’ve done it too much justice.”
Charlotte came and sat on the root of the oak, her elbow on her knees and her chin in the palm of her right hand. She looked off toward the white, to somewhere further than the hills, and she looked famished from the longing.
“I should paint you,” Adam said. “I don’t want to paint anything but you.”
“Can you see me then?” she said. “I won’t let you paint me unless you can see me. And I don’t care what you think you see.”
“I’ll paint what I see of you. All the injustice.”
Adam gathered his things, and he set up a new canvas before him. Every stroke he made simple, and there were no longer restraints; he did not have to look to see, or know to understand.
“We are too idle here to be people,” she said. She looked forward onto the boy as he painted. “Remember I’m too heavy in the waist—that’s what they tell me.”
“Not what I see of you.”
“You’ll kill us both if we don’t leave now,” she said. “And my ears are too small. They say that too. My legs are too thick for a woman…”
“They’ll kill me alone.”
“But I die with you, because then I’m alone.”
“You can do great things alone.”
“A man can do great things alone,” she said. “But I’m just stuck. I’m stuck here with all this mess. I won’t be a part of it.”
“I will make you immortal.”
“You will kill me.”
The boy finished the canvas, looked it over, and cared nothing for the other shattered in the grass. He felt divided himself. He had done something he could not repeat and there is always a sense of glory followed by a sense of loss.
“Let me see it,” Charlotte said.
She reached out and grabbed the canvas. She studied it for a while. Her eyes began to wet, and then she began to cry. She set the canvas aside in the grass.
“Why are you crying?” Adam said.
“Because I don’t want be a part of this mess,” she said. “But I know I will.”
“I have feeling great things will come of this place.”
“I know,” she said.
“There is nothing wrong.”
“There is. We aren’t leaving.”
Charlotte stood. The horse had grazed on the slope of the knoll and when she heard the stirring she returned to the tree. Charlotte mounted her. She took the pistol from her belt, studied it, and threw it into the field.
“You will be something great,” Adam said. “I can tell.”
“That’s what they said to Mary, and all she had was a child.”
Charlotte pulled tight on the mare, and the horse kicked up her legs and came back steady. The mist and the fog swirled in a white sea beneath them.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” she said.
“I’ll come see you then.”
“I’ll paint you again.”
The mare began off down the field. They stopped just before they were gone to the white. Charlotte turned toward the boy. She was no longer crying, but triumphant. She stopped where she’d thrown the pistol, dismounted and recovered it.
“They won’t win against me,” she said. “I’ll always be me. I won’t be conquered.”
She returned on the horse and kicked into its chest. She aimed the pistol toward the white heavens and fired. The shot rang electric and the birds fled the trees, and the winds woke—the world began. The horse jumped off in fear, into the sound of rapid thunder. And white fogs split like satin beneath the weight of the gun, and finally then the sun shined through.
A new lease had been signed further down the ranch, and now the smell of fires were thick, and they could hear a bellow in the ground every time they blew another twenty yards. But now they were no longer on the orchards. The trees they blew were wild, and the brush thick, so more dynamite was used, and more machines to clear the waist. The effects were loud—the earth rumbled. Adrian wasn’t drunk, and no longer angry; he sat at the table and looked toward the sounds of thunder.
They had worked through morning and were near to finished. The land appeared naked, and soft brown where the earth had been stripped. And now the slight rises in the land rose no more, and lay flat, and the great hills behind them were no longer great, but alone. Now, they could see the road as it wove from the north; of all things, the road went unscathed—at points, it ran beside the river, which had died long ago.
Adrian sat with his hands behind his head, looking off toward the road. The fog had cleared and dried completely. But there wasn’t warmth. New clouds appeared from the sea. At once Adam knew they were the ones that brought thunder.
“I see something out there,” Adrian said. “Out there on the road…looks like a truck or something.”
“Probably heading to the well.”
“Not this one. This ones a nice one.”
“You can’t see that far,” said the Mexican. He and the Indian had come from inside the shack, and now they stood watching the same distance.
“Sure can,” Adrian said. “Today is beautiful. I’ve never seen so far in my life.”
“It’ll rain,” said the Indian. “A storm?”
“Looks like a car to me,” said the Mexican.
“It’s a truck. Can’t you see?”
“Never well enough.”
Adam didn’t care about the truck. He watched the skies as they poured into the valley. The Indian was right. There would storms. There would be rain, along with thunder, and along with lightning.
“That’s why they’ve been moving so fast out there,” Adrian said. “They know the rains are coming. They’ll have to stop when it starts.”
“It shouldn’t rain,” Adam said. “Not in these months.”
“God is forgiving,” said the Mexican.
“No,” Adam said. “To the old men it would be everything. But not now.”
“What good is it?” said the Indian. “What do the rains mean with no earth?”
“I watched this place dry to nothing but frail leaves…every year the same, and time and time again, until the cattle was thinned to the bone, and the flies swarmed the dead and the starved…It shouldn’t rain; not now.”
“Those clouds are thick,” said the Mexican. “Not rain, but a storm.”
“It’s amazing,” Adam said. “I’ve seen men cry when their fields turned to dust. I’ve seen them fall to the floor and pray.”
“Bet they still do the same,” Adrian said. “They’re working faster now. That truck is still coming too.”
Suddenly the winds picked up heading east. Drops fell from the sky, taping their skin. Pangs hit the earth, and the dust was no more. The others still looked to the road, watching the truck coming near. It was moving fast, and not toward the wells. It turned off with the road and disappeared. And now they were left with the rain, but neither cared.
“Men would pray,” Adam said. “All day long they would pray.”
“My uncle would kill a goat,” said the Mexican. “If it got bad he would take his best and slaughter it. The rains would still not come.”
“They never came here either…until now.”
“And now they don’t want them.”
“I bet their running around like fools now,” Adrian said. “Time to get out the tarps and pray.”
“Should we bring them a goat?” said the Mexican.
The men had begun to move beneath the small awning of the shack when they heard an engine sound in the field. There were no roads, but the vehicle ran along the wetting grass with ease, coming towards them. It was the same vehicle they had watched along the road, but now they could see it wasn’t a truck either. It was a small, open toped vehicle, with one man beside the driver, another in the back giving directions.
“I told you it was no truck,” said the Mexican.
“It’s military,” said Adrian. “I’ve driven them before. They’re no good. Not like a truck.”
The vehicle pulled up before the shack. Mr. Thomas jumped from it immediately, his brown suit spotted from the rain; he moved quickly toward the men. The other was Claxton Murray, who looked to Adam and tipped his cap.
“Just who we came to find, kid,” Mr. Thomas said. He shook Adam’s hand and nodded to the others. “Fine group of people here, but I came for just you. There’s been some news.”
He pulled a paper from his pocket and handed it to Adam.
“You’ve been selected,” he said. “So your no longer working with me but with the government. It’s a good fight kid, to fight for freedom.”
“Did the board select me?” Adam said.
“No, no, no… These are random kid. It could have been any of you guys. But one has a duty to go where one is needed. It’s none of my say.”
“Why is he here?” Adam said.
“He was asked my Mr. Belle to give you a goodbye. I was told you are old friends.”
“We’ve met before.”
“Yes,” Mr. Thomas said. “But the rains will cut my thanks short. In the letter it will tell you to report to the board ASAP. From there, they will get you on your way. And by ASAP I mean morning.”
While they were speaking, Claxton had moved from the car. Now he stood near, with his cap held to his side; in the rain his hair was thick and dark red, the color of blood.
“This is an honor,” he said. “And only for the best.”
Mr. Thomas shook Adam’s hand and returned to the vehicle. The rains picked up and the driver was getting worried. He yelled to Claxton, but the man stood still. He shook Adam’s hand and smiled.
“An honor for hero’s,” he said. “But hero’s aren’t needed here.”
“Will you join me?”
“That is up to luck,” he said, returning his cap to his head. “Few men can ever play the role of luck—that is a game for the gods, and we both know that few men are ever gods. Her father enjoyed your company very much that other day. But good luck anyway, it is truly an honor. We both wish to see you again when you return.”
“I’ll visit with you first thing.”
“That’s good, very good.”
Once Claxton was in the vehicle, the engine began with a high rumble. They backed off into the grass and were off into the mud of the field. The rains were strong now, and all the men were wet. They watched the road as they had before, but neither cared any longer. Soon would come the thunder, and that would mean much more.
The rains kept up through the night, and there was no light of the moon, just phantom bursts of lightning. The rains were heavy. They hit the cabin strong and shed onto the clover leaves, and spilled from the porch onto the waiting thrush of vines and flower. And Adam felt there was a cabin no longer. He could fight it no more, and even if he stayed, he meant nothing to it.
He sat in the hall and listened for the old man. At intervals to the rain he could hear breathing. He knew there were breaths of life, and those of death, though he felt no way to distinguish one from the other. Once he stood and cracked the door. The man couldn’t be seen in the darkness. A flash of lightning brightened through the curtains, a fragment of pale white light where the old man lay, and he could see in it his eyes, open and solely apart from the man; they looked upward, toward the skies, and darkened as they darkened too. And Adam closed the door and waited.
The man would be dead soon.
When morning came, the rains had come and gone, and the earth was quiet once more. The air smelled fertile and lively, and the sparrows called from out in the trees. The night had been harsh, and from harsh nights the world begins greater than calm nights. There was no sound un-solemn, and even the winds blew humbled.
Adam dressed. He couldn’t hear the old man any longer. At points in the night, he had moaned, the way the dying moan; they either moaned from the pain or from the sad fact that there wasn’t any, but just as soon they died. But the day was beautiful. Clear light fell into the room, from all places, leaving silhouettes of the vines and flower that fell from the awning above the windows. The day was like spring and not like summer, and he thought of his paintings but they were gone.
There were sounds from the kitchen, small movements of a chair across the floor, and the beating of water from the small tin kettle that burned of tea. Adam stopped in the entrance; the curtains were drawn and the windows blue and looking onward. The old man had not died; instead, he looked well. His skin was red with running blood, and his movements young and quick. He held Adam’s canvas in his lap, and drank from a cup of tea while he looked it over.
When he noticed Adam, he smiled.
“What is this?” he said.
“And what of the girl?”
“Did it come out well?”
The old man placed the canvas on the table. His eyes had color again, blue and Germanic. And Adam thought then the man would never die.
“Are you better?” Adam said. “I thought you had died.”
“Me too,” he said. “But not yet. Not exactly yet anyway… This is good. You’re getting better. Sit down, have some tea.”
“That’s okay. What about it is good?”
“There is something about it horrifying. And then also something about it distant, almost like a fortune.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“And why does it have to be horrifying?”
“I don’t know,” the old man said. “I didn’t paint it. But it’s there. And sometimes what’s horrifying is the fact that it’s so clear. Can I keep it?”
“I won’t be needing it.”
The old man finished his cup and placed it on the table beside the canvas. Outside they could both hear the rustle of the wilds. The clearing was all but gone and the cabin was no longer a separate place, but one in the same.
“You look like your leaving,” the old man said. “Where are you going?”
“To fight, they say.”
“I don’t know yet. But they’ll tell me soon.”
“When are they going to learn that shepherds don’t make good fighters?”
“That’s only in my blood.”
“Artists are worse than shepherds. You’ll be back.”
“I don’t think they want me here.”
“That’s why you’ll be back.”
“I’ll come to see you then.”
The old man did not look the boy in the eyes. He looked down at the canvas, then turned to see the trees and the light that made them dark and green.
“Do you love her?” he said.
“I’ll tell you when I come back.”
“Yes. I’ll wait till then.”
As the boy left, he stepped over the vines that lined the patio steps. He stopped in the brush to look back at the cabin. It was a relic in the sun, barely apiece away from the lush green that grew from the rains. And he felt like a god again. If not like god, then like a man, which at times made no difference. There was in the earth one image, and not of gods and men, but of wilds.
(0) Readers Comments
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