All of this land had once been the province of Cherokee Indians, had become that of the Scots-Irish – those hard-nosed homesteaders who took the mountains upward and shook the dust out of them and used it to flavor their stew. The woods had been cover for bootleggers and thieves and were now the dominion of pot growers, true hippies, entrepreneurs who lived in log cabins with their curtains drawn and who walked for miles to reap their fields.
The fire tower had sunken into the sod enough that moss had grown up its legs and covered the underside of the platform. The young man pushed off the cross brackets in a lame attempt to check the structure’s strength, his hands returning wet and cold. In one move he swung himself up onto the third rung of the ladder and scaled it despite its old nails groaning inside the wood. He ignored the flimsy, waterlogged caution signs and came up onto the platform on his knees and went silent for a second while his eyes adjusted to the shade. Sunlight came in through the corners where the boarded windows had expanded with weather and he shuffled across the floor and pushed at a side. When it budged he lifted his boot and kicked it and its plank came unhinged and fell twenty feet to the ground and rolled on its side halfway to the river. The pink sun came into the tower and covered his chest and he squinted his eyes and the building swayed on its legs through a gust of wind from up and over the hill.
He sat with his knees bent over the side of the tower’s door and took a picture of his wife from his wallet. She was resting on a suitcase in the airport in Seattle, her arms around her knees, her thin brown legs in shorts dirtied from a week of camping on Bainbridge Island, looking at his camera but not at him, a tired smile easing its way through a pair of cracked lips and her dirty brown hair. Her sneakers were untied and she wore a bell clipped to her belt loop in case she’d gotten lost out looking for chanterelles. Six months after the picture was taken they would be married. Sixteen months and she’d be dead.
He began to cry quietly and the forest drank up the sound and sent it spinning out over the running water and buried arrowheads, the rusted stills laid out on their sides against the roots of birch trees. The loaded pistol stuck out of his vest pocket.
That second night at the trailer he set a pile of sticks and leaves on fire and watched the cinders grow taller toward the sky. It had been three days since he’d talked to another human being, and even that had only been the clerk at the electric company who’d processed his request to discontinue service at the farm. He’d spent his first morning as a widower rounding up the sheep and letting them escape the fenced paddock and driving their two dogs around to the neighboring farms until he’d found one that wanted to take them in. He cleaned out the truck, the blood from his wife’s nose that had come and come and come, stuffed his dad’s army rucksack with clothes, mostly at random, threw a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment and drove the long, deep-rutted path out to the main road. He left the tractor uncovered and the keys in the ignition and the lights in the farmhouse all shut off at the same time an hour after he was gone.
While his fire burned down in the front yard, he went inside and started opening doors. The bathroom cupboard smelled like a bag of vitamins. Inside he found a small cardboard box of bobby pins, a military-issued set of fingernail clippers identical to a set his grandfather had used, a metal tin of band aids, a bar of soap still in its wrapper. In the hall closet a sweeper leaned against a box of blankets with collapsing sides and chew marks up through its corners. He took a stack of yellowing pictures from a shelf and thumbed through them. There were pictures of children playing in the front yard of a house, tiny among the trees behind them. An old woman with a guitar leaning against her leg sat in a camp chair, smoking a cigarette. A girl he guessed to be around sixteen or seventeen sang and played what looked like the same guitar. The last picture was a group of people, twenty or thirty of them, standing close together on the porch of the house. The men wore short-sleeved button-downs and pencil neckties. The women wore floral-print sundresses. The older wives had tightly curled hair and sour faces. The younger daughters all had blonde hair falling down their backs and bright red lips curled up in posing smiles. A tall man, taller than the others, stood in the corner of the group, staring into the camera as if his concentration alone could burn the film. He clutched a black book against his belt buckle and wore his hair high-and-tight, like a football player or a marine. He was clean-shaven and proud, like he’d just beaten the devil at cards.
In the cabinets at the base of the kitchen sink, he found a rusty coffee can full of nails, a ball of plastic grocery bags, and a tube sock filled with pennies. There was a small tool kit with a hammer and an adjustable wrench. He left it all where it was and smelled his hands, copper and oil, the sweet smell of a mechanic’s office.
When he pushed himself up from the dirty linoleum, he caught a sharp pain in the ball of his thumb. He opened his hand and pulled a tiny ball-bearing from a dimple in his flesh – buckshot, and more of it than just this, all across the kitchen floor. In the far wall, above the table, faint bits of moonlight seeped in through a thousand tiny holes.