You were late, Jay. By the time you arrived the morning had warmed enough for us to ditch our jackets and raise a sweat. The work of tearing down the two sheds had gone fast. Steve grabbed one rotted door jam and I the other, and when we pulled the walls collapsed in an explosion of dust and the ceiling caved in and a big rat dashed out, its beady little eyes blinking as if in disbelief. We almost lost Nancy there. She was ready to bolt, even as I’d promised to if we disturbed a hornet’s nest. We all have our phobias, I guess.
Fred maneuvered his dump truck under the overhanging trees and we loaded the scrap. Long after we’d considered it full you kept at it, methodically finding niches and slots for the remainder of the debris. When you were finished the wooden sides of the truck bulged under the mass. We settled a tarp over the mushroomed crown and lashed it down with tie straps. In the cool shade of an early autumn day we sat back to relax and let our muscles unwind. You kidded us for quitting too soon and we kidded you for being late. You smoked a cigarette. It felt so good being together, united in helping a neighbor.
And then you died and the nightmares began.
The sky was a burnished red glare as if seen through a welter of blood, and before me our town spread along the wooded shores of the Big Blue River. The grain elevator rose stark against the rising hills, an upthrust bone or grave marker, and on a broad plain fronting the clustered houses the entire assemblage of residents talked and laughed, unconcerned or aware of an impending doom. Rooted to the soil, immobile, I watched as one by one they guttered out like snuffed candles and disappeared, leaving gaps in the ranks that slowly expanded as if they had never existed. And as each flickered and darkened, a crushing sense of grief hammered me to the ground, and I knelt there sobbing as they passed, and wondered who would replace them. How a small town could withstand such losses and still survive. How I could survive without them.
In another, a dream within a dream, I woke from a troubled slumber to a great terror. Was it a noise that disturbed me? I slipped from bed in total darkness and slid the nightstand drawer open. The pistol shucked from the holster with a leathery rasp, the flashlight from its holder with a faint click. I padded down the stairs as lightly as I could. Past the nightlight, down a long dark hall with doors opening on either side, to an entry with a large room to the left. I felt air moving and saw the curtains blowing in a breeze—it was closed when we went to bed. Where are they?
I moved toward the window though I wanted to flee. Bumped into a chair or couch and crouched behind it to gather my thoughts. Too scared to move. Another noise, almost a hiss, a whisper of something moving across carpet, coming down the hall from the left. I raised the pistol and touched the rubber switch of the flashlight, but kept it off.
Was it coming closer? In the utter darkness I couldn’t tell, but I sensed it was, and not upright, either. Fear paralyzed me. The pistol grew heavier, the grip sweaty. Closer still, the whispery sound louder. My mind was screaming to turn on the light but my finger wouldn’t budge. Closer. Closer. The carpet shifted beside my knee—it was upon me. I snapped on the light and felt a scream rising. Eyes stared back—huge eyes, blinding in the sudden glare, eyes attached to something long and sinuous. Eyes mere inches away. Eyes that swallowed me.
My scream, like my sobs, resounded far into the coming weeks.
Your death cast a pall over this entire town. It was standing room only at your funeral, and I was almost late, hesitant to attend without Lori to prop me up. I snuck in, more shadow than substance after the disconsolate nights, and aligned myself with a column of mourners stacked like cordwood along the walls. I kept close to the exit in case I had to run. And as I looked around I thought of how loved you were, how so many had gathered to remember you, and of how so many were missing, too. And remembering the dream, I wondered who among these would be next.
Maybe things would have been different had Lori been with me. But I felt like an outsider, a voyeur looking in on matters that did not concern me, though most of the faces were familiar, and many could be named. A strange loneliness swept over me like another form of grief. And I don’t mind admitting that I railed against your God for cutting you down at such an early age, that what little faith I owned was shredded to confetti. Rage and grief battled for dominance. Your brother’s pentecostal joy in your passing left me nauseated, so that when the congregants departed to make their way to the cemetery I could not follow, but limped home like some wounded beast.
Along the fringe of plowed earth to the narrow treeline bordering the road I paced, and across the ruts to the brush pile beneath the old hackberry. Walking our land to clear my mind. Looking toward the house I saw the elevator rising in the background and turned my back on it and suddenly found myself at the cairn of our beloved rabbit. Low clouds pressed down. A scent of rain hung in the air.
Here was a mark upon the land created entirely by this outsider. Something new. And as I questioned marks and legacies—yours included—I recalled the first time we came here, and I realized that everything I thought I knew about this place was wrong.
(Conclusion next week)