Every Moment Shines, When You Cut It OpenJoe Wilkins
Bill brushed at the night’s cobwebs and paused to consider a single oak leaf caught in one of the strands. It trembled and wavered in the early breeze. He brushed that one off, too, and shaking the mess from his hand lifted the old shake-and-pole door and slowly shouldered it open. Henry had built the shed years ago, and by the day now it settled ever deeper into the mountain slope, into a stubborn fragility. Some days, Bill could barely get the goddamn door shoved open. Other times it felt like a strong sneeze might knock the whole thing over. In the oily dark he blinked and reached up into the low rafters, pulled down the wooden ladder. There was a rope that went with it, somewhere, and as his eyes adjusted he spied it coiled under a rusty canning pot. It was getting so he couldn’t quite take the meadow at the pace he used to. The slope was hard on his knees, the grassy lumps and clefts had him teetering like an old man. Well, he was an old man. Old for this country, anyhow. As far as he knew he was only the second white man to live on the meadow. He’d found a few arrowheads, the stones of a couple of their hammers, but for the most part, there was nothing left to suggest that the Indians had once called this canyon home. Sometimes he thought it was too bad, and other times he thought it was for the best. Most of the time he didn’t think on it at all. It was just the way it was.
He started with the tree farthest from the house. Got the ladder balanced and the rope tied around the trunk and set himself to the picking. Hotter than usual, and not a lick of wind. Took him nearly until noon, but he picked the tree bare, his hands curled and aching as claws. Bill came carefully down the ladder, right foot first each time, and when he reached the ground he slung off his slouch hat and wiped at his forehead. He was shaking like a leaf, that squirrelly nerve in his shoulder running away on him. He fumbled untying the rope and didn’t even try yet to lift the ladder. Goddamn. He turned an empty apple crate over and sat in the shade, leaned up against the trunk, closed his eyes. Maybe even drifted into sleep. He sat up later and wasn’t sure.
He lunched on apples. Three of them, the juice hot and sharp, just the thinnest edge of sweet. Then screwed open his thermos and poured a cup, the coffee still hot. There were piles of bear shit scattered about, and on the way down he’d seen a couple of trees nearly picked clean, even stout branches broken where the black bears had pawed and pulled at them. He couldn’t stay up like he used to, which was the problem. Used to be he could pour a quart of applejack, load the rifle, and sit on the porch steps all night. He’d shoot the first bear of the season and scare the rest, put a bullet or two beneath their feet, over their heads. Yet even back when he was full of piss and vinegar, butchering out a bear was a full day’s job, and, shit, he had cans of bear meat going back ten years in the cellar. Didn’t need any more than that. Not when it was just him. Henry had been skinny, but, Christ, the man could put away some bear meat. Used to eat it with noodles. He missed Henry, at times. Mostly just the knowing that there was another body about. They’d never really said much to one another.
Bill pushed himself up, his hands on his knees. One step out from the shade, and the temperature spiked. The sky was that high, dry, gutless blue. Goddamn. Hauling the empty crates and the ladder, his breath coming in short, hard gasps, he hiked up the meadow to the next tree. The bears had been at this one, half the branches broken and hanging. Not much more than a couple dozen apples up there. It wouldn’t take long, so he didn’t bother with the rope, just leaned the ladder against a limb and started up.
He got his sack settled just so over his shoulder and reached for an apple, a beauty, green and gold and shading to red, nearly as big as his two fists, when the ladder slipped.
It seemed like it took a long time.
After he landed he wasn’t really sure he had fallen at all until he moved his head back and forth a bit, felt the scratch of grass in his hair.
He closed his eyes and moved himself up through the air and onto the ladder and back down again, held himself a moment above the ground, slowed way down and, yes, there it was—a great, loud crack. Like when lightning splits a tree. He hadn’t noticed it the first time, but as he settled into himself again and opened his eyes and blinked, taking in that wide bowl of faded blue—he was sure the crack had been in his back.
He could move his head a bit, his arms. By pushing hard against the heels of his hands, Bill thought he might scoot himself an inch or two up the meadow, further into the shade, and he did—but goddamn. The pain rivered up from his dragging legs and stabbed through him, like a red hot poker jabbing up his spine, his ribs squeezed in a clinker fork. He lay there and panted, his heart whanging. He was all jittery inside. A hive of spiders. Goddamn. His vision thinned. He felt himself drift away.
Bill woke to a cool breeze on his face. Woke to find the sun nearly down, just little squirts of light leaking from behind the firs and pines. The breeze was nice. Though once he wiped at his face he realized the breeze only felt so cool because his skin was so hot. Sunburn. Goddamn.
He looked about, saw his thermos right there, on its side against the tree trunk. He could probably get to that. And there were a few apples that way as well. Which was something. The wind turned and pulled in earnest now, pulled toward the night, toward the great tall sugar pine at the farthest slope of the meadow, which drifted this way and that in the wind. The dancer. That’s what Henry called it. Though he had thought Henry soft in many ways, he liked that right from the start. The dancer.
Bill waited until the last light faded from the ridge and the air had cooled, then he jammed the palms of his hands into the dirt and dry grass and heaved with everything he had. Again and again he plowed his hands into the dirt, pushing and shifting and skidding himself across the grass. He tried to give a look over his shoulder, to his thermos, to judge how far he had to go, but the night swam in his eyes. Stars of pain whirled through the trees, the crackling meadow grass, the starry sky.
Bill pushed his palms against the ground once more and slammed the back of his head into the tree’s knotted trunk. Pitched over.
Everything still, dark.
The throb of his face woke him. Waves of heat rose from his tight, burnt skin, rose and eddied in the cool morning air. Bill licked his lips, tried to swallow. He remembered the thermos and felt about him. Latched onto it, pulled it to his belly. He unscrewed the cap and set it on his chest, then unscrewed the plug and poured a splash of lukewarm coffee into the cap, tightened the plug back up. How his hands shook. And even with the cool, early blue of the sky overhead, sweat beaded across his forehead, ran down his face.
Bill tilted his head up, which wasn’t as painful as he thought it might be, and took a sip, another. Drained the cap. He wanted more, his body wanted more, but he screwed the cap back on and tucked the thermos into the crook of his arm.
He found himself thinking of Henry, which made sense. Considering the situation. He had to remind himself, as he often did, that Henry had asked him to do it. Said he’d gotten so feeble, so stove-up that he couldn’t face the mountain anymore. Said it pained him to look out on this place and not put his feet down firm on the ground. “Go ahead, Bill,” he’d said, “Get your rifle. Shoot me, would you?”
Bill had done it. He stood there a time after, considering. Henry had asked to be buried in a little clearing he liked below the ridge. But once things were as they were, Bill didn’t quite see the utility in all that digging, in making a proper grave no one would ever come see, that would soon enough melt back into the meadow Instead, he slid Henry down the mountain and in a blind creek below the meadow covered him with rocks, which he thought might make it harder on the coyotes and the crows. Though when the creek flooded in the spring, they’d get at him, what was left of him.
“Hey, old man. Wake up.”
A voice. A finger in his ribs. Bill swam his way to consciousness, the light of noon filtering down through the broken limbs of the apple tree. He hadn’t realized he was sleeping.
A young man was squatted down by him. He wore a round, flat-brimmed hat, shocks of yellow hair peaking out from underneath, and an old-fashioned brown suit. Like a preacher or a traveling salesman or something. Bill tried to speak, to explain, but all that came out was a croak, his throat swollen and dry.
“Oh, don’t strain yourself.” The young man got down on his knees and unshouldered what looked like a fishing creel. Then reached over Bill and gently dislodged the thermos, took it up and unscrewed the cap, poured a small cup. “All right. Here we are.”
Bill tilted his head up as much as he could, but the young man made no move toward him. Instead, he sipped the coffee himself.
“Ah, well, you’ve been here a while. Coffee’s gone cold.” The young man pulled a face and pitched what was left of the coffee off into the grass.
That jitteryness in his heart again, the heat in his face. Just what the goddamn hell was going on. “Goddamn,” Bill managed. “I need some help, some help here. And you, and you—.”
“Oh, now, like I said, don’t strain yourself. You haven’t got much time, I imagine, and if we’re to talk we ought to talk on important things. No use trifling over cold coffee.”
Bill couldn’t put his mind around it. “You—why, what do you mean? I don’t know what you mean?”
“Of course you do. Here you are. I mean, you’re a goner. Look at you! But then I come along—right? What luck!—and I’m ready to hear your confession.” The young man sat all the way down, cross-legged, like a child, and put his fists up underneath his chin. “There. Now, go ahead.”
On his back in the grass, broken, confused, dappled by the light falling through the limbs and leaves of an apple tree, Bill felt something in the pit of him yawn open and all the sniveling, yellow-eyed things in there begin to yammer and howl. He didn’t know the last time he talked to somebody about anything more than pruning trees or fetching up a can of bear meat from the cellar. He licked his lips and tried to work his mouth around the words that felt so foreign on his tongue. He told the man about Henry. About not burying Henry where he’d asked.
The young man sucked his teeth, shook his head. “Oh, gosh, that’s pretty bad. But there’s more. Come on, old man, look around. How does someone get out here in the first place? That’s what I’m wanting to hear now. That’s the real story.”
And so Bill told the boy—for he could see now that the stranger couldn’t be more than twenty, his face raw and white and wide-boned—about his wife and family, about how he and his wife got to arguing one day about how he ought to hang the door to the chicken house—this was back in Prosser, Washington, where they’d had a little farm—and he got so angry he just walked out the gate. His daughters, two of the three anyhow, sitting there on the steps, watching him go. He kept walking. He caught trains. Worked the grub line—chopping wood, spading up a garden, whatever might earn him a meal. He stole things, too. Got pretty good at it. Even took a lady’s purse in Portland, over by the train station. She didn’t say a thing but held on for a time, before he wrenched it from her grip and pushed her over, right onto her backside. He ended up on the coast one day, and it was so damn foggy and cold. He turned and walked in the exact opposite direction, up the river canyon. Found himself out here.
The young man stared at Bill, studied him, took the whole of him in, the broken roses on his nose, the slack flesh of his cheeks and chin, the sunburnt wreck that was the rest of him. The young man was close to crying, eyes watery, lips trembling.
“Daughters,” he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Oh, my. Two little girls watching their old dad go on down the road. That is bad. Not as bad as I’ve heard, but bad. I don’t envy you, having to think on that.” The young man got up and brushed the dust and dry grass from his trousers. Picked up an apple and stuffed it in this jacket pocket. Lifted his wicker creel and slung it again over his shoulder.
Bill blinked up at him. “Wait now. Aren’t you going to do some kind of—thing? Say some prayers or something?”
“Oh, no. No, no. Where’d you get an idea like that?” The young man lifted and patted his wicker creel. “I keep them here, you see. The stories. I’m a collector. There’s a bundle of sadness and sin and terrible mean things in here. If you look about, you’ll get fooled. It’s all so beautiful. This little meadow and the apple trees and such. But I like to remember. I guess I’m just bent that way. To the remembering.”
The young man tipped his hat, and though Bill called after him for a good long time, called after him and cursed him and screamed all kinds of things, the man kept on down the slope of the meadow, picking his way through the tall yellow grass and finally slipping into the trees, disappearing near where that pine was at it again, shifting this way and that in the wind, dancing.
Bill slept and woke and lay there a long time alone. He conversed for an hour with a black bear come to gnash apples. He called up Henry’s ghost and had it out with him. He transported himself into the skull of one of the circling buzzards and saw all things as they were below—the many creeks and the canyon and the serpentine river, in the distance the metallic winks of cities, the shimmering lengths of roads, the dramas of want and war and ordinary selfishness. He did a lot of living there, laying there all busted up like that, and near the close of day, the light gone to rosehip and gold along the ridge, Bill thought that the young man was right. It was so goddamned beautiful you could almost forget. And he almost did. He almost went and spent his last breath without thinking on his daughters. But he caught himself and willed himself back to that scrabbly little farm. He came out the door of their clapboard house and saw the one singing and spinning herself around, the dust of the dirtyard lifting about her. The other sat on the porch steps, just below him. She moved her hands through the rising dust motes, moved her hands as though she was swimming through the dust, through the thick, slanted light. Both the girls barefoot, wearing sack dresses. The one with a splash of freckles across her nose and cheeks. The other dark-haired, like him.
But didn’t they have three daughters? Where was the third one? And just as the question rose and rippled through him he saw her, laid out in a little pine box, a bouquet of wild roses in her hands, a small line of strangers shuffling up the nave to gape and cry. He studied the situation a moment and couldn’t make sense of it beyond the fact that he was worried the thorns on those roses would prick her, the stuff they pumped into her leak out. “Those thorns’ll prick her,” he whispered to the woman in the seat next to him. “Goddamn but that would be a mess. We got to do something about those thorns.”
“Oh, Bill,” the woman said, the lace of her voice shredding. “Oh, Bill, what is wrong with you? Whatever is the matter with you?”
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.