(Published in Red Rock Review, 2007)
The Cornrow Fire
The fire took off as though it were a living thing. Hissing, it danced over the dry grasses and up into the resinous pines. As though it were a strange recital, the blaze tangoed onto the boughs where its dance widened in skirts of flame. Snaps and crackles from falling limbs bruised the air; popping sounds slid through the canyon as the fire grew higher; pine trunks burst, smudges of smoke blemishing the sky.
Firefighters arrived at Roy McCartney’s trailer to advise he promptly leave. They explained that the winds suddenly shifted, and that the fire bent back on itself to switch directions. Better pack up that tin can, get what you absolutely need they warned. Did he know if anyone else lived off these back roads?
Roy pointed south toward a house across the dry field, just barely visible through the foliage, although the porch was easily seen with binoculars and Roy practiced checking on the place. A woman who lived alone needed a man’s keen eye, needed someone to hold safety in check. From a distance his neighbor looked like a small twig, and sometimes when Roy honed his binoculars on her house, he completely missed her. Roy supposed himself an old-fashioned sort.
“That’s my landlady, Emmy Adams, over there,” Roy pointed.
When the fire crew drove off, dust billowing behind them, he tried his telephone to warn Emmy before the firemen got to her place, but the line was dead. It was a silence like his son Lad, the one who never learned to talk despite his coaching, despite all the extra help the school offered poor folks. Even his lightly cuffing his son alongside his head to knock a clear channel straight into his hearing did little good. The lad was entirely clogged, or so it appeared.
“I’d better have myself a look,” Roy concluded. The fire was only an idea until he pegged it onto sight, but he could see puffs of smoke on the horizon, their dreamy impression against the sky, and there was a burnt pine odor in the air. He slugged a wad of chew into the thistle burs, fetched a fresh batch from his pocket, and went back inside to find his field-glasses.
Somehow, the encroaching smoke reminded Roy of Lola, how things level off once they get burnt. He’d slugged through his days, got by on Unemployment, and Emmy his landlady spared him a few rough times by letting him work off the rent. He cleaned out her garage, fixed water pipes that froze up, and replaced two broken windows blown in by heavy winds.
He’d been married until his lay-off from Wilder’s Lumber Yard. This put his luck back some. Lola, his former wife, liked to shoot craps, play poker and all that entertainment dearly cost a man. He hardly noticed Lola’s absence. She’d been out late most nights, and when she was home she’d sit on the front stoop, smoke and look through old film star magazines. Sometimes she’d point out to him, “I look as good as that broad.” Her hair was broom colored and about as stiff as dry wheat from all the peroxide she’d sopped over it, the ends split like forked tongues. Roy called the duration of their marriage a baker’s dozen, thirteen years doing hard labor in kitchen’s trouble.
One day Lola simply lifted off the trailer’s stoop to say she was heading out and that he’d not likely see her again. He did nothing to stop her. He actually sighed from relief. Freedom. Freedom, at last, Roy thought. There hadn’t been much between them since the kids left. Penny worked a casino in Reno. Lad was missing—no one except Roy and one other person knew where, and there’d been several rescue teams scouring the woods for traces of him.
He wasn’t telling anyone what he found by the river. No, that was one hell of a window that looked straight out onto trouble. Some things a man holds close to his chest, needs to honor the secrecy which, like the winter woods, were plum out of light.
“Darn, why did Lola leave her underwear behind?” Underneath the phone table a crumpled pair of panties rested by the phone cord. He reached down and plucked the panties, her silk in his fist. He couldn’t figure that one. Did she think he’d stop by Burger Barn in Doyle where she waitressed on one of his long drives into Reno?
No, he’d best burn all her remaining stuff, take it across the river. He’d already hauled off a goodly amount of her clothes, set fire to them near the same spot where he’d found Lad after the kid went astray two years back.
Emmy lingered at her kitchen window, her bobbed hair flat against her neck and so straight across it that she joked to him that only a guillotine was capable of such accuracy. She thought it a little hazy outside but counted herself fortunate that she didn’t live down where those flatlanders were in the San Joaquin Valley. No, the air was bad there with all the crop dusting and chemicals. There were massive amounts of pollution to contend with there that breezed in from Fresno and LA and drifted across the orchards to settle deep underneath the soil itself. Emmy wondered what happened to crops raised from tainted soil, if the resulting food made learning more difficult for youngsters.
Here, in the mountains, you could almost drink the air. It was that pure, that good, and it tasted like an untouched mountain stream, although she was somewhat hesitant to think of streams, especially when a certain memory kicked in. But it hadn’t always been that way. She’d spent many picnics with her classes on nature hunts alongside the riverbanks and paused as she heard the sweet sound of water strum over rocks.
Sometimes when Emmy sat on her front porch to watch dusk fall and charcoal-in the trees, she’d suck in a gulp of early evening air and smack her lips, running her tongue over their chapped surface. She counted her blessings, thanked the Lord for her good fortune that made her home a country home.
Her life wasn’t lonely either, although she did live alone. It was by choice, not by circumstance that she never married. Emmy Adams liked to recall her three proposals after finishing college and her teacher’s training, how she’d quietly turned them down, not that she didn’t care about the men. She just didn’t want to be ruled over. No, a man was best kept from a safe emotional distance. Let one too close and he’d come to think he owned her outright.
As a young girl, sensitive and shy, she looked through the window of marriage by observing some of her relatives quarrel with their partners. No, she didn’t want to hold her will ransom, didn’t want to gnarl her mind with contrary opinions. With her teaching years behind her, she lived exactly the way she’d always intended, simple and without frills. She breakfasted when she wanted; she ran errands when she wanted; she walked her Great Dane, Spike, when she wanted.
The growing smoke irritated her eyes, but not enough to set forth and charge into its origins. What was aging if not reverie? Did she hear sirens? Oh well, she wasn’t entirely sure and not motivated enough to look into what seemed but hints of trouble. No, she’d post her eyes to the trees and their long trunks of bark, the way light silently laddered up them.
The poplars, aspen and pines shimmered in their green. Emmy couldn’t count all the fascinations of the seasons. In March the frogs returned, their songs enchanting the night air. Come May, songbirds returned, and wildflowers grew in the meadows. Nature was her book and she carefully turned its pages.
But there was a time when nature didn’t seem so calm, a time when fear riveted through her and she nearly tripped over a bed of rocks on the other side of Gray Eagle River.
She’d been out berry picking, her bucket full of plump blackberries, and she’d been humming “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes,” as she headed back to her cozy yellow clapboard home where Spike eagerly awaited release from his pen. Emmy couldn’t pick berries and keep a dog on a leash at the same time. He always tugged at the end of his tether nearly tipping her over, and although she felt bad hearing him whine when she left, she concluded firm footing more important.
“What’s that lying over there? Hey, you taking a nap or what?” she’d called out.
She could see the lengthy torso of someone stretched near the riverbed and she thought rocks a rough spot to catch a nap. Thumping her leg with her hand, the berry pail set on the ground, she snapped her attention wide-eyed awake. Perhaps I stumbled upon this for a reason, she thought.
“You got a problem not answering me? Are you trying to make an old lady fearful?”
Odd, she noted, not a mumble from the heap. Emmy used branches to hold her footing steady as she roped her way downhill, hands clasping upper branches for support.
The man, she assumed the pile resting there was a man due to the camouflage clothing and sheer size, was on his side facing away from her, his arms jumbled like he’d taken a bad spill, a tear alongside the leg’s cuff. His hands were strangely bent, a few deep gouges around his wrists.
Emmy was fearful to grab his collar to turn him. She heard the river roiling downstream and that gave her strength enough to tug him full round. There was a sour smell to the air, like cider gone rancid. Holding her breath, she rolled him over and let out a gasp.
“Oh, my God. It’s Lad. Hey, Laddy, it’s time to wake up.”
But Emmy knew from the stone-cold face, the bluish hue of skin and the god-awful rolled eyes that it was unlikely Lad would be waking anytime soon. She let go and squatted next to him, lifted his wrist to check for a pulse. Nothing in his veins ran like a river, and his mouth remained ajar like he was ready to poke out a few words.
I’ve got to rest him back on the rocks, find someone to help me. Roy came to mind. Fetch the boy’s daddy. Yes, she’d head for Roy’s place, but if she ran into that wretch Lola, she’d exchange no pleasantries. There were some people so down under, so done in by life and by what they’d done to themselves that they were not only seedy, but soulless. Emmy never thought of someone as soulless until she’d met Lola who lived on the cusp of life by ignoring things. No regard for the trees into which she snuffed out her cigarettes, no regard for her own children who’d run naked most summers, not for Roy or anyone. Sucking on a fag meant more to that woman than her family.
Emmy parked the berries in a ditch alongside Waverly Road, a dirt road as most were in these Northern California parts, hitched up her corduroy pants, and headed for Roy’s place. She practiced in her head what she’d say to him and how she’d say it.
Can’t say too much until I ply him away from the trailer. Don’t know if I should extend my sympathies or offer hope that his son might be ok. It could be Lad will rouse himself while I’m off fetching his daddy, but she didn’t really think that possible. No, that was death I saw back there.
She dug her hiking boots into the gravel as she walked, stuffed her hands in her pockets and started to hum, She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes. Tunes never failed to sooth her frayed nerves. It was her way of being a river, something flowing. Rivers, to her, were the earth’s sweetest songs, but after Lad’s demise their melody changed.
Roy was working on his truck’s engine, rags hanging out his jean pockets. He was so far into the engine he was nearly off the ground and tunneled under the hood. Emmy didn’t see Lola’s Camero and sighed relief she wouldn’t have to deal with the woman.
I’ve got to handle this right she thought. Her heart pounded harder as she approached him. “Roy, you got time to talk?” He swung himself down from his truck, eyes squinting in the full blast of sunlight. “Yup,” he said as he fished a rag from his pocket, wiped grease from his face.
“Well, I think we’ve a problem back there in the woods on the other side of the river.”
“What kind of stew are we speaking of?”
“Lad’s not well. I found him by the river all stretched this way and that like broken rubber bands,” she explained, her eyes fastening themselves on the propped hood of the truck.
“That kid gets himself into more messes. Knowing him he’s napping from taking too much of that pot weed.”
Emmy thought on that. Lad won’t be getting into any trouble now, but she’d say nothing until Roy took a look. She needed verification of another set of eyes. After all, all those years of grading papers she saw things at a slight eclipse.
Roy put his things down, and they walked back along the road she’d just tromped over. “We’d better take Sneed’s Bridge across Gray Eagle,” he said. The worn planks of the bridge creaked as they hurried over it. In the distance frogs began singing. Kingfishers dove alongside the river’s little eddies, snagging hatchlings and a few velvety moths.
When Roy came upon Lad, he let out a gasp. He cupped the boy’s head in his hands; softly spoke like a mother would when rousing a baby for feeding. “Son,” he said. “You’re daddy’s here. Now you look up boy and answer your father.” Only silence rang through the woods.
Emmy covered her face with her hands and wept. She’d never seen this tenderness between the two and never believed Roy filled with an abundance of compassion. She’d suspected he might be a feeling man when he shot her dog Pepper after Pepper got mangled in her neighbor’s farm machinery. Roy talked to Pepper, told him he was sorry on account of what he must do. Pepper raised his head as though nodding, “OK, do what you must.”
Roy got down close to his son’s face. “Boy, I’m awfully sorry for what’s happened to you. It was never my intention you’d stumble out here and crack your head open. You should’ve listened to your daddy about taking off on your own. You were never quite right, but I loved you just the same. My only son. My only…”
Roy didn’t finish his sentence, but looked at Emmy and said, “Not a word of this to a soul. You know how those town-folks are about rules and regulations and you can’t bury your kin where you damn well please, only in the village cemetery. Rules. Rules. Rules. Remember how they made me dig up my mama from the garden where I’d put her after she’d died from lung cancer?”
I’m going back to fetch a shovel. Lad would want to be buried by this river he swam and fished in, and that’s my intention, honor his love of the place. If the boy ever had a mother, it was this here river. You sit with Lad until I return.”
Emmy sat by the boy. Dusk was beginning to fall, and the river seemed to hum louder in the absence of light. Emmy sang lullabies to Lad, the words splashing in the air. Blue jays sat on pine boughs harping for food, but she’d left the only food, the berries, back in the ditch. “Shoo birds,” she hollered at them and picked up twigs and tossed them at the jays.
It didn’t take long for Roy to return and to dig the hole. The man was riveting motion once he got started, and he dug deep too, reaching down with his gloved hand to clear away stones, anything that might make his son’s sleep uncomfortable. His hair hung in damp strings as he worked. Emmy admired his stubborn strength.
She took hold of Lad’s feet while Roy clenched the boy’s under-arms and they guided him into his resting place. Roy took off his bandana and folded it into a pillow for Lad’s head. Out of his pocket he pulled a penny and placed it on Lad’s tongue. “For the ferry-man,” he told Emmy. Quickly, the place returned to its natural state, Roy pulled some twigs, leaves and a few stones and scattered them over his son’s spot in the earth. Afterwards he rinsed his hands in the river, and the two broke for the road before dark locked them out.
“Don’t say a word to anyone,” he told Emmy as they sauntered back. “They’ll come in here with dogs and a crew to search for my son but say nothing. The coming rains will soon wash out any scent.”
Emmy promised her word was good and the two parted at the bridge, damp moss emitting a pungent, nutty smell.
The tall pines bordering the road guided Emmy home, the place as dark as a gopher’s hole, only a wedge of light left. She tugged her cardigan around her. Yes, Lad was out there by the river, and soon she’d be making for bed, a slice of salted water-melon on the bedside table, her spectacles on the bridge of her nose as she caught up on her mystery novel, a flashlight on the night-stand aimed at the book’s opened pages.
By now Roy could see the flames heave and spit at the edge of the forest. It was like a storybook, everything coming to life, animals running for safety as though driven by a giant shepherd. He wondered if the fuel breaks would keep his place safe and if Emmy was ok. His eyes were starting to burn. The flames jumped from treetop to treetop in the form of a crown fire and he heard the growl of tankers overhead. He wished the fire crew had thinned out the forest like they’d promised the community earlier in the year, but he didn’t ponder long.
It seemed the heat was rising, and he wondered if he should head back for his truck but decided otherwise.
He wasn’t sure if it was gravel or bark from the trees in his mouth, but his mouth and throat felt clogged, and dang it was hot as a devil’s pot of black beans pitched over a campfire. His clogged throat made him think of Lad, how the boy never spoke a single word.
Roy reminisced backwards onto Lad and Penny sitting next to the campfire when they camped out at Hog Flat one summer, the reservoir smoother than a griddle cake. He heard Lad laugh at one of Penny’s jokes, both kids roasting marshmallows black as embers. The sky had turned the color of fresh picked apricots and he sank back in his Coleman sling-chair, a Coors’s in the arm-rest pocket, thinking himself a lucky man to have clean country air, no one looking down their backs and enough food to keep them healthy.
Although Lad never spoke a single distinguishable word, his boy wore a grin that shot straight for the heart, and the kid could laugh as though such laughter were words. Roy wondered if the penny was enough to get Lad from one life to the next. He wondered if the river spoke to his son in his sleep.