Swan’s Song

Mitch Wieland

When Rilla heads to Jackpot to bail
out her son, freedom’s thrill doesn’t hit Ferrell Swan.
Though Rilla is his ex, they’ve just wintered as wife and
man in his high desert home, and now Ferrell isn’t sure about
returning to the pleasures of solitude and retreat. Before the dust
of her car can settle he has bad visions in his head: his queen-size
futon gone too big, the dinner table half bare, coffee alone on
the porch in the quiet wake-up hours. He can’t imagine having
no one to hold when the coyotes go crazed.

As for Jackpot, Ferrell has seen billboards but never been. He pictures
some two-bit casino town seventy miles due south, across the Nevada
line. For the time being Rilla’s grown son Levon is dealing
blackjack at a place called Cactus Pete’s. Ferrell wonders
how many lovers the boy has left this time in his wake. He wonders
what kind of mess Rilla will find when she arrives.

Ferrell rises from the rocker to stand at the porch rail. In the
glaring noon his hundred acres look truly forsaken, a physical depiction,
he imagines, of his wasteland heart—sheep sorrel and ghost
fern, amaranth and Russian thistle, silver sage. Abruptly he feels
the need to move, to orbit someone’s personal space. His only
neighbor within miles would be the obvious possibility, but Levon
ran off with Cole’s wife in the spring. The twosome didn’t
last, it seems, but when Melody didn’t return after things
were said and done, Ferrell felt bad. He realizes with a start he
hasn’t been to visit Cole since.

Ferrell casts a long gaze eastward, toward his neighbor’s
land. Cole is a retired forest ranger who used to raise conifers
on an irrigated twenty acres. Every so often Ferrell sees him among
his now-dead trees, a tragic figure in all those trunk husks, the
twisted branches reaching like withered hands—a hell of a
painting, Ferrell thinks, if he were inclined to paint. Today he
really misses that block of green in the midst of endless scrub.

“Well, shit,” Ferrell says and heads off down the road.

Cole doesn’t answer the door, but his black Dodge diesel stands
sun-dazzled in the drive, so Ferrell heads into the trees. It’s
a bit creepy in there, surrounded by all that tree death, and Ferrell
can’t help but recall the black and white vampires of Sunday
matinees. Beyond the treetops a gorgeous redtail floats the neon
sky, its fanned silhouette corkscrewing down.

Ferrell sights each row as he wanders around, but there’s
acres of trees and just one him, and he soon gives up. He turns
for Cole’s house, then realizes he has no idea which direction
that could be. Ferrell checks the sun and figures his east-west
line. He’s about to set off when something clamps onto his
shoulder, a hand most likely. He spins to find Cole standing there,
sunken-eyed and pale, a self-made ghoul to fit his Gothic woods.

“Jesus, Cole,” Ferrell says, “you’ve taken
this abandonment thing way too far.”

“Why are you in my trees?”

“Looking for the dumb-ass ranger who did them in.”

Cole eyes him up and down. The man’s an emotional wreck of
spectacular proportions, and Ferrell isn’t cheered. It strikes
him that visiting his neighbor wasn’t the best idea to take
his mind off Rilla, and he works up an excuse to get himself home.

“It’s easier without her, you know,” Cole says
in his best Zombie improv. “She was tough to keep on an even
keel. She was hard work.”

“Amen to that,” Ferrell says, though he wouldn’t
know one way or another. “So why am I so miserable?”

“Can’t live with ’em . . .” Ferrell says
and shrugs to make up for it. He wonders if he can get free without
much more melodrama.

“Melody had this thing with her tongue,” Cole says,
“not a real sex thing, not like you’re thinking.”
His eyes glaze and go blank. “She’d put her tongue in
my ear and work it around like there was no tomorrow. I never liked
it, but now I miss it.”

Ferrell nods, at a loss for what else to do. He has never been good
at male bonding rituals. He wonders if he is supposed to offer Cole
something about Rilla’s real vigor between the sheets.

“You ever hear from my wife?” Cole says.

“I think she split with the boy a while back.”

Cole looks down his planted rows. “I sacrificed my trees in
her name,” he says. “I shouldn’t have done that.
Now everything’s dead.”

“You can grow new ones.”

“It takes them awhile.”

“You going somewhere?”

Cole turns his sad eyes onto Ferrell until the fault lines shift
and move in his heart. “Rilla stopped by this morning,”
Cole says. “She said she was going for awhile, that we should
look after each other, or some such nonsense. She said she was sorry
her son took my wife.”

“She means that true, Cole. Her Levon leaves a path of destruction
wherever he goes. The boy’s a calamity magnet, always been.
He’s neckdeep in some trouble right as we speak.”

“What I’d do to him?”

“It wasn’t about you.”

“It is now,” Cole says and walks west, toward where
his house must surely be. Ferrell lets him get a good lead, then
follows dutifully behind.
• •

The next morning Ferrell rises before the sun. He rocks on the porch
as light comes, watching the desert dark shape itself into tangible
things—the dense clumps of sagebrush, the spindly halos of
tumbleweed. On the wind rides something blooming for all it’s
worth. He has forever loved first light, when the coming day could
be any day from his rural Ohio youth—some morning, perhaps,
long before he screwed up his life in ten thousand imaginative ways.

The horizon brightens, and Ferrell finds himself staring down the
road at Cole’s defunct tree farm. Where the trees stop the
chaparral takes over, oddly green from the meager spring rains.
As Ferrell sips his coffee, a light dawns inside his head, the warm
glow right behind his eyes. He knows what to do before the cup is
empty.

In the barn, Ferrell hoists his shovel and rake and heads into the
scrub. He moves with a purpose he hasn’t felt in a good long
while. In the crisp morning air, in the feel of the worn handle
shafts in his palms, Ferrell feels his youth inhabit him like a
ghost—as if his younger self has slipped beneath his skin,
a special guest star from days gone past. He welcomes the sudden
vigor thrumming his veins.

At the first dead tree Ferrell stops to gather his wits. He is standing
at the far side of Cole’s property, along the boundary to
his own land. He chooses the conifer in the near corner of the twenty-acre
square, then sights down the trees marching off in Cole’s
straight true rows. He glances toward his own house, where porch
and rocker await, then drops the rake tines down, as his granddaddy
had taught him. He hefts the shovel, reassured with its familiar
weight. He studies the roots spreading from the base of the trunk,
then sets the shovel point and pushes his boot heel down.

Past noon the sky clouds, and Ferrell is thankful for that little
mercy. He has dug out seven trees and dragged them to the edge of
the property. In the way he’s lined the trunks, he can’t
help but see victims of some terrorist act, though it was just Cole
shutting off his drip lines that did in the trees.

Ferrell stops to take a good lean on his shovel. He can feel the
work between his shoulder blades, a dull ache that’ll be full-blown
hurt tomorrow. His low spine is talking too, at the place where
he flattened some disks bucking hay when he was young. His soaked
shirt clings like some second skin. All in all, he feels reborn.

“What the fuck?” Cole says from behind him.

Ferrell wrestles a smile onto his face. “You must have been
a ninja in a former life,” he says and turns around. “I
can’t hear you coming for the life of me, and you such a big
man to boot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Now, Cole, don’t get yourself in a state. What we got
here is some constructive thinking at work. We got to give God a
hand.”

“God?”

“We can plant ourselves some seedlings and restart this miniature
forest of yours. It’ll be like Arbor Day times ten. God’s
got to love the little trees, don’t you think?”

Cole stands squinting, and Ferrell can tell the circuits have jammed.
He didn’t mean to bring God into the discussion, but he needed
help fast. Cole closes his eyes, sways a bit on his heels. Ferrell
worries a system-wide failure is on the way. At last Cole opens
his eyes and stares right through him.

“You’ll help me, Swan?” Ferrell lifts the shovel
like it’s some special prize. He sinks the point into the
ground. Cole’s question sounds a bit too all encompassing,
but Ferrell will take what he can get.

“Damn straight,” he says.

He steps forward and reaches out his hand. Cole studies the hand
a moment, then slides his rough palm into Ferrell’s.

• •

Sometimes when sleep won’t come, Ferrell aims his old pickup
down the road, his tunneled high beams the only light for forever
and beyond. Above the curve of his windshield the stars cram the
sky, so many it scares him if he looks too long. As he drives he
carries his one secret truth deep in the marrow of his bones: his
failure at life has been fantastic and complete. Sure, he’s
given himself some good moments in the classroom, times when he
was speaking pure poetry and knew it, but in all areas that truly
matter—sonhood, husbandom, fathering—it’s been
multiple strikeouts for his team––big wild swings and
nothing but air.

He tunes his mind to the only station he gets out here, an oldies
station from Boise. In the depthless dark, with the world thrown
only as far as his headlights, the songs put him behind the wheel
in 1965. He likes the lonesome numbers best—an Otis Redding,
say, or some Diana and the Supremes—melodies which uncover
the places he hides his youth. He cranks his window down, and in
the blowing dark feels the old notes to the tips of his toes, his
nerve pathways primed for what cannot be again.

When the songs cut too deep, Ferrell twists the dial to nothing
but static. He once saw a show about astronomers hearing big bang
tracings in a radio’s empty crackle and snap. He is not sure
if he’s listening to echoes of his cosmic past, or to the
whispers of God herself, but he pushes the truck hard just the same,
rockets himself into the black velvet night.

 

• •

Ferrell wakes the next morning still in his clothes. When he lifts
his head he senses with absolute clarity every ligament and tendon
he owns, each muscle sheath and its exact location. There’s
an anatomical chart alive under his skin, and he pictures the workings
of his musculature in great detail. He stands and his back flares
into heat, then his shoulders sing their individual praises. Despite
this world of hurt, Ferrell is one happy man.

In the kitchen he spends a good long while staring at his boots.
He lifts his coffee mug, and the intricate bandings in his hand
burn fiercely, his fingers and palm swollen from the shovel handle.
The brutal ache is a direct line into his past, and Ferrell feels
haunted once more by his teenage years, when summers were hundred-acre
fields to bale and load. He recalls sweating through the endless
hours, witness to the sun rising from one horizon, falling into
another. At the time his granddaddy would have been in his sixties,
the age Ferrell is now. Brimful of piss and vinegar, Alton worked
like it was the last day on earth, and he wanted things right when
the angel trumpets came blaring down.

The truth be told, it was these hours of toil that had chased Ferrell
from the farm, sent him off to Kent State for his history degree,
then to the classrooms of Dover High. Even years later, standing
between the desk rows of his homeroom class, he would imagine the
old man in the vastness of the fields, the white-hot sun as if to
burn out his mind, and Ferrell would thank his lucky stars it wasn’t
him. Sometimes, while the kids were watching a film on one war or
another, Ferrell would put his feet on his desk in the flickering
dark, just because he damn well could.

But now, retired to his own chunk of Idaho, Ferrell feels the curious
call of hard labor. Yesterday, he had actually enjoyed the good
thomp-whomp of his heart, had liked sucking breath into his lungs.
When the salt sting burned his eyes, he wiped them with the muddy
hem of his shirt and kept right on working, as if that was what
somebody wanted him to do.

At last Ferrell pushes himself from the chair. For the first time
in a long time he has found something worth doing. Here he is, a
man who lived his life in the glorious cathedral of his head, a
man who wore ironed slacks and shirts, and paced a path within four
painted walls, and now, at least for the fragile moment, he is craving
the life his grandfather had. In the days to come he wants nothing
more than to surge his bright blood through the complicated run
of his veins.

On the porch the morning cool caresses his skin like air imported
straight from heaven. Ferrell soaks the chill into his bones, stores
it there for the noon heat to follow. He drains his coffee, the
motivation slipping straight into his brain, then creaks down the
steps, his soreness biblical in its implications. He pulls the air
far into his chest and holds it, savoring what there is.

• •

By week’s end Ferrell has slipped into the routines of a working
man. During the day he and Cole labor like men possessed. They head
down the row without much said, digging out the trunks one shovelful
at a time. When they yank loose a tree, the dust drifts from the
wiry roots like smoke. Ferrell tries not to race, but feels the
keen edge of competition nevertheless, Cole’s huffs and puffs
spurring Ferrell into efforts all his own. At times they both stop
as if a buzzer has sounded, and Cole stands there wild-eyed and
panting, the sweat raining down his sorrowful face. Ferrell strives
for words to say, but there are no words for moments such as these,
and he just holds Cole’s gaze. We’re OK, he tells him
with his eyes. There isn’t anything beyond this.

Toward Saturday dusk, he and Cole reach the end of the first three
rows, seventy trees in all. Ferrell drags over one last conifer
and sits on the rough trunk. He has come to love this moment of
the day, when he is drained beyond himself, depleted down to some
elemental core, and all he can do is sit and watch the light show
above the Owyhees.

Cole staggers over and parks his fatigue in the dirt. Ferrell waits
for the world to swing them around into the dark shelter of space.

“I feel like there’s nothing left inside,” Cole
says, as if robbing Ferrell of his thoughts. “It’s like
all that was inside me is burned up and gone.”

Ferrell only nods. He doesn’t want to spoil what’s in
his head by voicing it. He has long known how to ruin something
pure by putting it into words.

Cole turns from the fiery sky to stare in the direction of the trees.
“Took me two years to plant all these. I planted every one
like it was a child of mine.”

“You ever have kids?”

“I never was married till Melody came along, and she didn’t
want any. Before her, I lived out alone in the national parks. I’ve
done time in almost every one you could name.”

From up above comes a high shrill shriek, and Ferrell looks to see
a redtail winging for home, its feathers black against the violet
air. The hawk passes overhead and aims straight into the burning
horizon, a sneak peak at the apocalypse, if there ever was.

“I couldn’t help but note you had a few years on the
girl,” Ferrell says, when the hawk moves beyond the reach
of his eyes.

“Twenty years my junior.”

“How’d you get that started?”

“She used to come camping with her family every year at Yellowstone.
I watched her grow several years straight; then she hit eighteen
and came alone that summer. She kept showing up on my rounds through
the park, and we’d cross paths a dozen times a day.

“Before I knew it, we was doing things around those geysers
that wouldn’t have pleased her daddy. I thought I’d
discovered the Holy Grail, the lost city of Atlantis, all the rest.
I thought love was something we just invented.”

There comes a long silent stretch that Ferrell knows isn’t
good. He thinks he hears a few muffled gasps escape into the air.
When Cole stands in the faint light, his shoulders hunch as he grapples
with the demons of gloom.

“Shit,” Cole says. “I done sweated her out of
me today, and now she’s taken back all the space in my head.”

Ferrell bites his lip, understanding he is at fault for raising
her ghost. He knows women aren’t ever gone once you let them
inside your skull. Here he made Cole open the door, and in came
his wife with her suitcases and trunks and overnight bags. Cole
has been condemned to a bad sleep.

As if he wished it on himself, Ferrell wakes when the night is not
half done. He does the toss and turn for most of an hour, then gives
up and takes a beer onto his second-floor deck. No sooner does he
get the rocker going when the coyotes start their moonlight rituals.
First comes a lone yapping from the dry wash to the north, then
an extended mournful howl like something from a fever dream. Ferrell
has listened to the coyotes since building the place, and their
devil cries never fail to crawl beneath his skin—as if, it
seems, he is listening to some personal invite from the guardians
of the netherworld.

During sleepless nights Ferrell has shaped his own beliefs about
the coyote. He has never seen one in three years of living on the
land, and he’s come to believe the beasts aren’t even
around in sunlit hours, that in the first stirrings of dawn they
cross the border to some other place, gone entirely from the physical
world. At sunset they return with news of what they’ve seen.

What he hears now, he’s convinced, is their nightly update
from the cramped caverns of Hades. It’s a vital truth delivered
in a language he cannot understand, a coded message just out of
reach. If he listens hard enough, he will one day translate these
moonscape messages. When that happens he promises to keep the secrets
to himself, to keep his mouth closed of what lies on the other side.

• •

For the next month, he and Cole stay the course of work and bone-weary
sleep. If this were a pilgrimage, Ferrell thinks, they’d be
far along the route, their hearts closed against the world. Over
the weeks, their skin turns the color of saddle leather, and Ferrell’s
muscles tighten and grow thick. In the hours of honest labor he
has melted off the softness in his body and his head, distilled
himself down to an essence he’d almost forgotten was there.

At siesta one June day Ferrell decides that Cole, not a man usually
given to easy gabbing, is more silent than usual. He sits the rocker
in the porch shade and doesn’t rock, just stares into the
bright like he’s seeing visions there—his wife splayed
beneath Ferrell’s stepson, or some such rubbish. Though Ferrell
has never been keen on the constant prattle of the human mind, Cole’s
stilled tongue unnerves him.

“You napping in your head?” he says at last. “Sleeping
with both eyes open wide?”

Cole gets the rocker moving, which is better than no response at
all. Ferrell will take what he can get.

“I woke up this morning,” Cole says.

“A good way to start the day,” Ferrell says, trying
to take the edge off what is coming. Cole gives him a look that
could fell a tree.

“I just made my eggs and buttered my toast and spent some
time figuring what kind of juice I wanted, orange or apple. It wasn’t
until I got a look at all those killed conifers that I remembered
there was a Mrs. Melody Cole somewhere in the U.S. of A., trucking
my last name around.”

Ferrell waits for a few beats to pass, then breaks into a round
of hand clapping. He reaches over and slaps Cole on the knee.

“What the hell?”

“You threw the woman out of your mind. Next you’ll start
housecleaning up there. You’ll dust off those memories of
who you were before you two met.”

“I’m not sure I remember who I was. I’m not sure
I could ever be him again.”

“Oh, hell, you won’t be. You’ll be new and improved,
stronger in all the hurt places.”

Ferrell sips his weak diet soda but wishes for the potent bite of
beer. He’s talking total hooey here, acting like words can
change perspective when he knows they can’t. Whatever’s
in Cole’s head will stay put till time runs down, and Ferrell
could quote Freud and Kant, Buddha, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, and
it wouldn’t mean squat. Hell, Jesus himself could whisper
sweet nothings in Cole’s ear and the man would probably just
shrug. Your thoughts stay put, Ferrell knows, no matter what, and
he’s just talking out his behind to pass the noontime hour.

“My problem,” Cole says, slipping deeper into the tar
pit of introspection, “is how guilty I felt for not remembering
her. If I can forget her so easily, does that mean I didn’t
really love her? I could have sworn I felt happy eating my little
breakfast there all alone.”

Ferrell stands and leans on the rail, his favorite pose for thinking
things through. If he smoked this would be the time when he lit
one up, blew dramatic smoke rings into the hot still air. Instead
he goes inside and gets two beers from the fridge. He stares at
the boom box above the sink and grabs that too, then heads back
to the porch and hands a bottle to Cole.

“What’s all this?” Cole says.

“We need to slow down that mind of yours before you hurt something.”
Ferrell sets the boom box on the porch rail and adjusts the knob,
fine-tuning the oldies station. He keeps the sound low until he
has something clear, then cranks her up and out pours, “Dock
of the Bay.”

“What’s the year, Cole?”

“Two and triple zeros?”

“No, buddy boy, it’s 1968 and you’re where?”

“Yosemite, in ’68.”

“That’s the ticket,” Ferrell says.

With his feet on the rail he draws hard on the bottle, the beer
so icy his teeth throb. He waits for some Jimi to come next, or
maybe another hero from the battalions of the rock and roll dead.
He’s going to drink more than he should this afternoon, and
he’ll regret it in the morning, but for now things are just
fine, and these days that is all he can ever ask.

• •

In the night, under the thin damp sheet, Ferrell reaches down south,
but his own touch opens the floodgates of despair and he just stops.
He lies there, tingling and raw, in the barren space of his futon,
lost in the electric needs shooting his veins.

For years Rilla was pleased to find Ferrell waiting in bed for the
green flag, night after festive night. She and Ferrell could have
been highschoolers, she said, desperate enough to steam the windows
in the fierceness of their desire, but over time Rilla didn’t
want the lust without the love. She said Ferrell needed to woo her
in the day if he wanted things at dark, claimed he had grown so
used to her he’d lost all manner of seduction and charm. In
the commonness of their lives, she told him, he forgot all that
was still unknown between them, and their end is a piece of history
often replayed: Rilla sending him packing after twenty years. As
Ferrell left town in his U-Haul that fateful day, Rilla said he
belonged in the wide open west, where he could ride with
the spirits of the cowards and misfits that had come before. Tonight
he wonders about the wisdom of missing his ex-wife after all that’s
come to pass, wonders why his heart won’t leave the rest of
him the hell alone.

When sleep at last comes, Ferrell dreams of the sound of loneliness,
of emptiness wrought into the wonders of pitch and timbre. His mind
fills with a howl sustained on the indigo air, a cry haunted with
the ghosts of pain and loss, of grief and unmitigated woe. It’s
melancholy made manifest, all the suffering in the world channeled
direct into his head. In his dream the wailing glides along the
scale, each note sunk true into his threadbare heart. For eternity
plus a day the cry ignites all the hurt Ferrell has ever felt, proclaims
his sorrow to all who will listen.

When the sound threatens to consume him, to reach a flash point
of his incendiary emotions, Ferrell opens his eyes. He lies in the
lingering mists of sleep and dream, listening through the window
screen to a coyote in the scrub. The beast must be near the front
door, just beyond the yellow pool of the porch light—the closest
he’s heard one in all his years. Without the muting of distance,
the coyote is loud enough to consecrate the entire night, the whole
world, all that ever was and ever would be.

Ferrell shuts his eyes tight, knowing the song is meant just for
him.

• •

Independence Day approaches and he and Cole plan to miss the celebration,
too tired nights to bother with much else but eating and sleep.
For weeks Ferrell has had those final rows in his sights, and he
has pushed Cole to keep the daily routine of shovels and sun. At
the border where their properties meet, the trees lie gathered into
an enormous brush pile, which Cole plans to chainsaw for the winter
cold. Where the trees had been, the open acres stand ready to plant,
and Ferrell wants bad to wrench that last dead trunk from the ground
and dance upon the spot.

On the Fourth, the day clouds at noon, then cools as rain pocks
the dust with fat marble drops. In the sudden chill Ferrell works
harder than before. He feels as if his heart will never throttle
down, as if he’s driven beyond what he can physically do.
He wonders if desire alone is enough to sustain.

When twilight moves in, Ferrell sits with Cole in the yard for the
nonfestivities. The rain has scrubbed the sky, and now the sage
blows strong off the land, filling his lungs with something close
to hope. At their feet he has built a fire to ward off the sharp
nip the rains have brought. Despite the day’s hard efforts,
Ferrell still has something left in the tank, and he can tell Cole
does too, his boot heels tapping out some Morse code of his own
making, a private message sent into the dark cool.

“It’s not enough tonight,” Cole says after an
hour of saying nothing at all.

“I know.”

“We’re just two old men digging their asses off for
no reason under the sun, other than to forget their women.”

“That’s one way to look at it.”

“What’s another?”

“We’re planting some fucking trees.”

“I’m feeling it tonight, Ferrell.” Cole drains
his beer and tosses the bottle into the dark. It hits something
and clinks softly in its breaking.

Cole turns to him and shrugs. Ferrell drinks from his own bottle,
but the beer goes metallic on his tongue. He’s remembering
Rilla and the extended sadness of their last years together, all
those days of waking in their separate lives—how astretch
would pass of sharing meals, paying bills, wrestling on occasion
beneath the covers, then over television one night she’d describe
how amazing his defeat at manhood and at life, how he didn’t
know any more about pleasing a woman than a fence post did.

“You only know the past, Swan,” she would say, the words
scripted over time until he could recite them, “but it’s
jack-diddly-squat about the present, and Lord knows what you think
of future moments.”

“We share the present,” Ferrell would say, his own line
in the play it was their fate to perform without audience or acclaim.
“We talk. We make love.”

“We make chit-chat, Ferrell. We fuck. It isn’t much
more beyond that.”

Ferrell would sit in the television’s blue glow until deep
in the night, listening to Rilla lay waste to all that was his life,
to each and every way he conducted himself through the day—a
real seek-and-destroy mission that left little to rebuild. And yet
rebuild he would, rising from the ashes to put on his clothes and
drive to school, where he would stand in tatters before the kids
and pretend one does truly learn from the past, pretend
one studies what has come before in order to improve what will happen
tomorrow. He didn’t want them to know they were all so terribly
doomed.

Ferrell stands and lets the rocker creak on without him. He walks
to his truck for the whiskey bottle he keeps under the seat, then
squats at the fire. He lifts one of the branches and pokes at the
coals. The sparks roil about, swirl high like fireworks in the night.
He raises the branch and studies its deep-orange tip, the guiding
light of caveman days. When he waves the stick, tiny sparks leap
forth, showering Cole’s feet.

“What are you doing?” Cole says, but Ferrell can hear
more curiosity in his voice than anything else. “Celebrating,”
Ferrell says. He sets down the stick and sits in his chair. He lifts
the whiskey high in the air, offers a toast to the white chaos of
the stars.

• •

When Ferrell wakes sometime in the night, he believes the world
has gone to flame. In the moonless dark burns a great conflagration,
a shifting mass of orange and red and black—the sun fallen
at last, he thinks, the end of all that has come before. With great
abandon the flames reach far into the sky, reckless and wild, arduous
in their burning. It’s a color plate, Ferrell decides, from
a leather-bound Dante, or perhaps some textbook depiction of the
Druids in action, maybe a routine night of Viking pillaging. In
due time Ferrell understands Cole’s huge brush pile is on
fire. Cole is nowhere to be found, his chair empty by their little
fire, now just spent coals.

Ferrell leans back in his chair. He tries to reclaim his thoughts
from the whiskey sloshing in his head. Even at a distance he can
hear the terrible whoosh and draw of the flames, the scaled-down
explosions as wood bursts into heat. Above the fire the heat has
distorted the air, the haze-light shimmering in garish colors, a
surreal dawn that only the mad or those touched by God should ever
witness. As Ferrell watches, a small tongue of flame separates from
the rest and hovers low, then moves into the remaining trees, flickering
among the dark branches. With an urgency that startles, one of the
trees erupts into flame, then another tree goes to fire.

Against this bright raging Ferrell spots Harrison Cole—phantom
of the desert night, caretaker of an inferno of his own design.
The man sprints down the rows, pausing just long enough to light
each tree in turn. Ferrell debates if he should play a role in the
climactic scene Cole is acting out. He considers holding Cole in
check, preventing him from burning up the reach of their land, but
decides the most the fool will burn down is his own house and barn.
If he does, it’ll give him something better to worry about.

The rogue flame separates from the trees, and Ferrell makes out
Cole running toward him, his torch held high. He stumbles to where
Ferrell sits, then stands there sucking wind, mute and crazy-eyed—as
if he has moved beyond language and can’t recall the ordinariness
of words.

Cole’s face is wet and glistening, streaked with dirt and
ash. In the weak flame light he looks demon or mystic, Ferrell can’t
decide.

“You can’t miss this,” Cole huffs, finding words
at last. He holds the torch out to Ferrell, and in the action he
sees the demands of ceremony. Ferrell rises from his chair and grips
the flaming branch in his right fist. Cole grins hard, his teeth
white in the charcoal of his face.

“Let’s burn the mother down,” Ferrell says, a
favorite song lyricfrom his younger years. He sprints to where the
trees blaze like monumental candles in the night, a tribute to those
watching from above.

• •

In the morning he is lying in the powdery dust of his driveway,
soot-streaked and reeking of smoke. What was inside his skull has
shriveled and now floats free in the whiskey bowl of his head. When
he opens his eyes the harsh noon light slams home. He struggles
to his feet, then manages his front porch, where he sits and contemplates
what the night has wrought.

Across the road, thin white spires rise from the black trees. The
remains of the brush pile crackles as it settles down. Near the
barn Cole lies spread-eagle in the weeds. Ferrell tilts an ear to
a distant engine hum. As if on cue Rilla’s car glimmers on
the road like a mirage. She takes his long lane slow, her dust rising
up to curl with the smoldering trees. When at last she parks beside
his truck, out steps the whole ragged crew—Rilla and Levon
and Melody Cole herself, a regular family reunion of the new world
order.

“Jesus, Ferrell,” Rilla says. “You were supposed
to just wait quietly for my return. Maybe weed the garden or something.”

“He’s just livin’ large,” Levon says, happy,
it seems, to not be in jail.

Melody stands shy behind Rilla, looking a little worse for wear
from her ordeal, but otherwise intact. She spots her husband in
the shade of the barn.

“Is he dead?” she asks.

“Not even close,” Ferrell says.

Rilla takes Ferrell under his arms, helps him to stand. She wets
a fingertip and rubs his cheek. She smells hotel clean, fresh as
flowers blooming, like morning time in the throes of spring. She
looks like all that is right and true in the big, bad world.

“Come inside, Pyro-Man,” she says, winking with false
exaggeration. “You come tell Mama what you’ve been up
to.”

With the women returned, Cole and Ferrell loosen their male bonds,
at least for the here and now. Cole retires to his trees, and Melody
keeps herself indoors, the curtains drawn like she’s seen
enough of the world. Mornings, Cole plants saplings ordered from
some tree farm backeast. He kneels in the powder of his fresh-plowed
twenty acres, his daily progress barely visible to Ferrell’s
watchful eyes. By high noon Cole is gone from the land as if he’s
never been. Ferrell knows he is mending up Melody in the familiar
rooms of their little house. He pictures rough palms blessing pale,
smooth skin, as if touch alone can say all there is to say.

As for Levon, the boy hangs around the place for a handful of days,
then speeds into the dark after supper one night, borrowing Rilla’s
car without bothering to ask. He’s got Boise in his sights,
the nearest place with enough people to lose himself among.

Weeks unfurl and Ferrell’s at a loss to know what to do. He’s
gotten so used to the ways of the working man, of sweating beneath
the morning sun, that he wakes each day fired up with no place to
go. He stands all twitchy at the window, sipping coffee like he
needs even more edge, and stares at Cole crouched in the distance
before his sapling trees. In the absolute clarity of morning light,
Cole is etched in bold, clean lines. Ferrell swears he can even
read the stitched Yellowstone on Cole’s eternal baseball
cap, and this despite the whole lot of air that separates the two.
He ponders giving himself his own jobs to do—hand dig a few
dozen postholes in the sunbaked ground, stretch some angry barbwire—but
nothing quite suits the magnitude of his desire.

And then one wild dusk he’s out in the yard while Rilla does
her daily Tai Chi. He watches her through dragon-sweeps-its-tail,
then looks to where the horizon flares like an explosion without
sound or speed. Amidst this fanning light come his neighbors, walking
side by side. Cole and Melody stop at the edge of the yard. Ferrell
looks to Rilla with her underwater moves, then back to what he was
born to see. Melody is walking toward him with the greatest of care.
She’s big as his barn, and Ferrell flips through the calendar
in his head—she and Levon first commingling in the desert
night seven months ago, Levon’s potent seed taking root in
the dark fertile places inside her.

Melody stops before Ferrell and waits. He goes a moment without
words because he must. Behind her, Cole nods and heads to where
Rilla is looking from across the yard.

“I’m soon to be a grandpa?” Ferrell asks.

“Why I’m here.”

Melody steps closer to him, her enormous belly leading the way.
She looks beyond mortal health, as fresh and vibrant a woman as
any man could paint.

“You’re beautiful,” he says.

“I’m radiant,” she says. “I feel like I’m
competing with the sun.”

“And winning.”

“Kicking ass even.”

Melody glances at Rilla and Cole talking on the porch in hushed
voices. She gives Ferrell a look that speaks a language he can’t
understand.

“Levon?” he says.

“He has some fool idea I’ll run off with him again,
have his boy in a motel somewhere, I suppose.”

“Cole?”

“Harrison’s converted his den into a nursery. He acts
like this is the event of the ages.”

Ferrell nods, hoping the gesture says whatever she wants to hear.
In the dusk light pouring over them she seems otherworldly indeed,
her eyes the eyes of someone who knows more than he ever will. She
places her hands over the baby, rubs perhaps a shoulder or a knee.
He knows it is gift or burden in there, depending on the moment
and the direction of her thoughts, and he prays for all of them
at once—for Rilla and Cole, for Levon out there running from
his soul, for Melody and her little one and for himself as well,
a makeshift granddaddy in a makeshift family of these famous times.

When he opens his eyes he is surprised they have been closed. Cole
stands before him, his own eyes like twin suns shrunk down. The
women sit in the rockers on the porch, talking in conspiratorial
tones. Ferrell smiles and reaches out his hand. Cole slides his
palm into Ferrell’s, their calloused hands still strong from
the handles of shovel and rake. In Cole’s face Ferrell spies
every emotion ever felt, then he sees only fatherhood in all its
impending glory and fear.

“You all set for this?” Ferrell asks.

“Damn straight,” Cole says, letting loose, at last,
of Ferrell’s hand. Rilla calls for them to come inside.

Ferrell turns to what is left of the sky. The sun has spun beneath
the horizon rim, trying one last time to set the world on fire,
and Ferrell understands he’ll have a few things to tell this
young Levon, this child of fiery night skies and coyote howlings.

Cole waves at him. “You coming?”

Ferrell gives him a shrug.

• •

That night Ferrell rises in degrees from the black depths of sleep.
Most of his brain stays down deep, but a single rope runs to the
surface, pulls a lone thought up like a bucket from a well. When
he reaches the top he lies in the pitch-dark and listens for what
has waked him. In the far distance comes the muffled bark of Cole’s
beagle, relentless and hoarse, urgent in its message. Ferrell rises
naked from his futon, where Rilla sleeps the sleep of the blessed.
He stumbles a bit, then navigates to the door of the deck.

When he steps into the cool, the blue-black blazes with swirling
galaxies and suns, an outright celestial storm raging not too far
above his head. Ferrell stands stunned beneath the wild enthusiasm
of the sky, as if the heavens have gone too vibrant for his eyes.
Or maybe, he decides, he has stepped into some dimension other than
his own, into a place where things seem the same, but are not. His
skin prickles at the thought. Ferrell raises both arms, in defiance
or embrace, he knows not which. He reaches far into the heavenly
zeal, takes handfuls of planets and stars into the sanctuary of
his fists.

Something makes him look down, and he knows what is there though
his eyes can’t see. A dozen yards out a pack of coyotes stands
mute in the dark. He can feel the heat of their eyes upon him, can
almost hear the breath leave their lungs. If he listens hard enough
he believes he can hear the steadiness of their hearts, those ruby-red
miracles caged in the hoopwork of their ribs. Tonight they will
not speak of what they’ve seen.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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