One winter, Rudy got an infection in his testicles while he lay out drunk on coal company land in a one-room shack that didn’t belong to him. When the corruption began to smell, he washed his balls with creek water and put some plantain on the infected place. He wrapped it up in duct tape, and kept the whiskey bottle by the bed. He lay on his bunk until his dick turned black and started bleeding out pus, at which time he found he could no longer walk. He couldn’t even get up to light the fire. When he started hallucinating, he knew he would die if he didn’t get up, so he forced his feet to find the floor, and he forced his body upright. He made it to the road, where he began, somehow, to walk. He knew his only hope was a ride. But it was the middle of the night, and it was February, and he was miles from town, and no one came by. Rudy would count out fifty paces and then collapse. Each time he passed out, he tried to do it in the middle of the road so that any car that came would have to stop for him. He kept himself moving like that most of the night. Finally a truck passed, some poachers coming back from a run. They pulled him up into the cab despite his odor, and they drove him the hour into town, speeding the whole way. He stank like he’d dug himself out of his own grave, shit and piss, the high smell of white worms and the paste of decay, and the hunters hauled him into the emergency room and left him there, and he fainted away on the floor.
“What happened then?” I asked my boyfriend, the night before he left me.
“They put Rudy in a hospital bed,” he said. “He was dead to the world for three whole days.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then? Well, I guess then he woke up,” my boyfriend said.
“But what happened after he woke up?” I asked. We were lying in our narrow camper bed, not touching, but maybe about to.
“Come on, Helen,” he said. “That’s not the point of the story.”
“What’s the point of the story?” I asked.
“The point is that I’m quitting,” he said. “I can’t take working for Rudy anymore. He’s crazy. He’s spent too much time alone. He’s a first-rate blowhard. He’s impossible. And besides that, he’s sexist. All women are his mother, sister, girlfriend rolled into one. Every waitress, he says she wants it. Ranks them one through ten, that sort of shit. Like I’m gay if I want to talk about anything besides tits and ass, if I consider women to be human beings. He hates women and he’s obsessed with them.”
“Are you sure you’re not being too sensitive?” I asked.
Oh yes, he was a fine man. And yes, I drove him away.
* * *
I met my boyfriend the week after my thirty-first birthday, when he hired me on to his landscaping crew in Seattle. Some people might have called him two-faced but when I met him I noticed his wavy hair and how he smiled at me all the time, whether or not he meant it. It annoyed me right up until I couldn’t do without it. He had ambition. I didn’t. I’d barely graduated college, never really got around to dating. He wanted to leave the city, to get some acres and live off the grid, not that a person could expect to buy land in the Northwest at those prices, not that he’d managed to save much money, not that he had any credit. After we’d fumbled around for a few months, he said, In the Southeast you can get land cheap. The Southeast? I asked. Appalachia, he said. Never been there, I said. He said, Didn’t your uncle leave you some money?
The only thing keeping me in Seattle was my aunt, who was walking dogs and selling vintage clothes online, barely making the mortgage, busy grieving my uncle. What was I busy doing? What I’d been doing since college: seasonal work, mostly outside, circling around the city hoping my uncle wouldn’t get sicker and now he was dead. I thought my aunt might want me to stay, but how she put it was, Thirty-one’s not old, but you might as well see if you can hold on to that man. I really didn’t know him that well. I still wasn’t sure what he was smiling at me for. But I’d been waiting for my life a long time.
It was March when I followed my boyfriend to the oldest slope, not quite West Virginia but right there on the border. In a hill town with a land grant institution, a hardware and salvage store, an IGA, a diner, and thirty bars, we searched the nickel ads and went for a drive. After six miles we saw a FOR SALE sign scribbled on a paper plate. The paper plate was stuck to a mailbox. The mailbox was stabbed into the bank of a creek. Behind it, twenty acres of raw wooded hillside. A gravel driveway spiraled up.
We climbed it, maybe seven hundred feet but felt like a quarter mile. At the top, I looked back the way we’d come, but the road below had disappeared. You couldn’t even hear it. The driveway went nowhere, but ended in thorns, soggy husks, wide-faced grasses, trees that I didn’t take seriously at first, because out West forest means evergreen. No houses, no structures, nothing but mud, rocks, and not-quite-wilderness. What about neighbors? I asked. My boyfriend studied a map. He said, We’re surrounded by coal company land. Miles of it. Coal mines? I asked. Isn’t that dangerous? The industry moved on a long time ago, my boyfriend said. They left the land to itself. Untrammeled forest, he said. Post-trammeled, I said. He said, It’s cheap to buy around here. I said, I had this professor once who said that private property is a totally problematic concept. My boyfriend said, We can start from scratch. We can hack some trails. Clear some trees. Build our way. He pointed into a thicket. Do you see that? Buried in the roots of an elderberry bush, a cast-iron kettle spilled muddy water. A freshwater spring, he said. We’d be fools not to. I used my uncle’s money to make the down payment.
We bought a camper so small that the two of us could push it up into the woods, where we cleared a sugar maple, an ash tree, and a red oak. I learned their names as we cut them down. With a shovel and a grub hoe we dug out enough space to prop up the camper on a stack of sandstone so it was level. Only the barest bit of light came in the windows past the orange spray-painted declaration scrawled across them, THE MCCANN’S: STEP AWA, someone else’s feud.
April, May, and most of June, my boyfriend worked up north in one of those new boom industries, drilling whatever, so we could pay off the rest of the land. Meanwhile, I was supposed to stay home and get shit done. But it was me against the land and I was in awe. No one was watching me all day but god, and I didn’t believe in god. I didn’t know how to get started. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It was cold and it was raining. I put on a poncho. I dug out the spring, buried a plastic bucket beneath the cast-iron kettle, called it a refrigerator. I strung a tarp, put another bucket under it, called it an outhouse. I tried to plant some onions, not knowing how much sun they needed, not knowing they were heavy feeders. Mostly, I waited for my boyfriend. I biked the gravel roads until I had enough signal to call him. He didn’t pick up. I biked to the bar and stood under the air vent, asked the bartender to turn up the heat. I played pool against myself. There were men in canvas, caps pulled low, college girls wearing miniskirts in the pouring rain, fuzzy boots to make up for it. No one found out that I was a good conversationalist. No one talked to me. I charged my phone. Tried my boyfriend again. At night I lay in the camper, figuring I’d get murdered or a tree would fall on me. I told myself I could always head back to Seattle and find another landscaping crew. Instead, my boyfriend came back with ducklings in a cardboard box. What did you do while I was gone? he asked. I gestured toward the buckets and the tarp. And I played pool, I said. There’s this bar in town. It rained a lot. You should have been planting, he said. I planted onions, I said. But peas, he said. Kale. Or I don’t know chopping wood. What would I chop wood for? I asked. It’s going to be summer soon. You’ve got no ambition, he said. We took down a hickory, pried apart some pallets, and built a duck shed.
That summer, Rudy hired my boyfriend to run his ropes. Who’s Rudy? I asked. Just one of these assholes, said my boyfriend. A tree trimmer. I saw him up in a maple on the way into town, so I asked if he needed a hand. It’s not forever but it’s a job.
When my boyfriend came home from work each evening, I was desperate for company, but he wasn’t much for chatting. Me, I could talk all night. We would get in bed, and I would begin. When I began talking, the raccoon crept by, and when I finished, the woodpecker hammered its spring-loaded head into the ash tree outside our window. I jiggled my boyfriend’s arm to keep him awake.
We almost made it to September.
The night my boyfriend quit working for Rudy, he was finally in the mood to talk. He’d come home with a cut on his face, but he didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to tell me the story about Rudy’s balls. “It’s not that I’m sensitive,” he said. “The guy’s a mess and that story proves it. I mean, what the hell kind of man trespasses on coal company land to hide out and cure himself with whiskey and duct tape? Just ask yourself that.”
“But what are we going to do for money?” I asked.
“We’ll think of something,” he said. “What about your aunt?”
“They’re about to foreclose on her house,” I said.
“What about your college degree?”
“What about it?”
“There’s a college in town, maybe you could I don’t know be a professor or something,” he said.
“You can’t do anything like that with a college degree, the only thing you can do with a college degree is get another degree,” I said.
“I could go back up north to work,” he said. “Plenty of money up there.”
“And leave me alone here again? I’ll die.”
He told me that I wasn’t going to die, and so I said, Okay but I want to die, and he said, No you don’t, and I said, Okay but I want to kill you. He opened his eyes then, but he didn’t say anything, so I told him that I was going back to Seattle. He told me not to leave, and I told him to give me one good reason.
“It’s not right that you should go,” he said. “I’ll go. I’ll find someplace else. I’ll go in the morning.”
That was how he outsmarted me.
* * *
After my boyfriend left, I packed up, too. But I’d spent all the money from my uncle on that infernal slope. I couldn’t even pay for a bus ticket home. I went to the bar and stood under the air vent. I charged my phone and called my aunt, ended the call before she picked up. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I knew she’d made some outlandish equation that if I would just get married all her struggles would be worth it. But now I was alone with a leaky camper, a flock of ducks, twenty acres to care for, little firewood, and no income to speak of. My aunt’s number blazed up on my phone’s screen. She was calling me back. I canceled it. The air vent blared. I went through my contacts, the guys my boyfriend had known, who’d been up north with him, or worked construction in town. Called Frank. “You know I can’t hire you onto my crew,” he said. “Why don’t you try Rudy? I hear he’s desperate. Your man left him high and dry.”
“Why can’t you hire me?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen a woman could work a full day like one of my men,” Frank said. “The economy’s too hard right now to do it out of sympathy. Besides, what would my wife think?” To be helpful, I told him that his crew was primarily made up of pill heads and drunks, that I could work circles around them, and that, as far as I could tell, he had never asked his wife what she thought about anything before, so why start now? These people believed strongly that the world was coming to an end soon because of solar flares and the shifting of the poles, not that they ever mentioned climate change, relentless war, or industrial capitalism, but he had hung up.
So I shifted my bike down to its lowest gear and I rode up to Tanner’s Corner, where Rudy was clearing a half acre of yellow pine. Tangled red ponytail sticking out from underneath his hard hat, pink safety goggles, hairy face so full of sawdust it looked like he’d been breaded. He had his Husqvarna 362XP gnawing out the hinge on a fifteen-foot stub when I leaned my bike up against his truck, but he let it idle when he saw me.
“If you come any closer, I’ll take it you want to be killed by this tree,” he yelled above the motor. I stood back while he made the back cut. We watched it fall. Rudy turned off the saw and lifted his goggles. “You expecting your man back anytime soon?” he asked.
“Seems like you’re having a hard time holding on to ground crews,” I said.
“Must be due to my bad attitude,” he said.
“I don’t think he’ll be back,” I said. “But I need work.”
“Any experience?” he asked.
“Landscaping, tree planting, firefighting, flagging, clearing debris. I’ve taken down my share of trees,” I said. “And I have a college degree.”
“Oh my,” Rudy said. “Slumming it with the hill folk.” He knelt and began to oil his saw, judiciously dripping it from an unmarked plastic bottle.
“I’m saving money to go back to Seattle,” I said.
“What did you go to college for?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Sounds like you got scammed,” he said. “Do you know your knots?”
“Of course I do,” I said.
“I’ll probably yell at you. It’s not that I’m proud of it, but that’s just how I am.”
“If you yell at me, I’ll walk off the job,” I said.
Rudy screwed the lid back on the bottle of chain oil and stood up. He wiped his hands on his shirt. He pulled wood chips from his beard. Coarse red hair crept from his cuffs and his collar, laced with sawdust. He reached in and scratched. “Might as well start today,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that you have anything better to do.” I stashed my bike. He handed me a hard hat.
While I watched, Rudy set his climb line on another yellow pine, and strapped on his spurs. Then he threw his body upward, making his way up the tree by launching himself up into the air, an eel, gaining inch by inch up the rope. He moved as a current, sending his Blake’s hitch up ahead of him, until he reached the lower branches, twenty feet up. Then he dug his spurs in, hugged the trunk like a bear cub, and went higher, using the small handsaw in his holster to cut twigs and small branches out of his way. Finally, he looked down at me. “Turn a quick-hitch on my climb line and send me up the Echo for limbing,” he called. So I sent him up the little saw. I tied on the bull rope, and he hoisted it up. “Come-along’s hooked onto a cherry tree,” he said, swinging in his harness and pointing into the woods. I took the highway of a fallen pine and found it.
Fifty feet up, Rudy tied his bowline, then drew back and launched the end of the bull rope. A long white arc, it sailed through sun and shade, snaking down into the forest. I went for it, pulled it out of a greenbrier. I hooked it up to the come-along by wrapping a klemheist three times around, then yelled up to Rudy, and waited to hear his saw begin working. When I heard him knock out the wedge, I fit the steel handle into place, and cranked it hard as he made the back cut. Three clicks forward, two clicks back, then two, then one, rowing it to and fro until it was almost too heavy to pull. Rudy dug his saw in again, while I heaved back, and then the rope went nearly slack, and I cranked hard and fast and looked up to see the top of the tree moving. Far up in the sky like it had nothing to do with me, the fringe of green began to flinch and duck, and I dropped the handle and got the hell out of there. I skidded sideways down through the saplings, then turned to watch it go. The pine toppled, dizzy and slow in the first moments, then picking up speed. It hit like a trampoline, the matted pelt of branches and trunks leaping up together, then shuddering back to earth, crushing one another, making new hollows and hiding places beneath the boughs.
Rudy whooped, and I whooped back. That was to tell each other we were alive. Then I unhooked the come-along and hiked back up, pulling the bull rope out with me.
“You didn’t kill me,” Rudy said, stepping out of his spurs. “Maybe you really do know your knots.” He went to the cab of his truck and came back with a gallon jug of water and a bag of super-spicy red-hot Cheetos, the bold hue of artificial cinnamon. He passed me the bag.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?” he said.
“Where did you learn your knots?” I asked.
“My dad,” he said. “That motherfucking cocksucking piece of shit. He taught me everything I know about tree work.”
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“What is it with you fucking anthropologists, you want me to speak into the mic? Of course I grew up around here. My family’s been here since 1840. Basically stole their land directly from the Shawnee.” He teased some Cheetos from his beard, tipped them into his mouth. “But that’s over now,” he said. “No family. No land. Lost it all to the coal company.” He took a long drink, then stretched out on the ground with his head resting on his hard hat. He reached into his tool bag and brought out a thick book, opened it to a folded page. When he caught me looking he waved the cover at me. The Count of Monte Cristo.
“You want to say something to me, college girl?” he said.
“I’ve never read it,” I said.
“Philistine,” he said. “It’s the classic tale of revenge. I read it at least once a year. Come on, English major.”
“Liberal studies,” I said.
“Well, mind your own fucking business,” he said. “I’m taking a break. And I’m not paying you to ogle the locals.”
* * *
I worked for Rudy most days twelve hours. Each morning, he waited for me in his truck at the bottom of the driveway. At dark, he paid me in cash and dropped me off at home. According to Rudy, the big-animal vet only called him up to work if her husband wasn’t home if you get my meaning, and according to Rudy, a group of sorority sisters from the college had asked him in for a beer after he dragged a maple out of their yard with no shirt on if you catch my drift. He’d had a steady girlfriend, he said, but things had ended poorly between them because she had two-timed him. When I asked why she had two-timed him, he told me he didn’t know but she sure liked to talk about her feelings a lot, and one day she found someone else to talk about them to.
From what I could see, most women wanted nothing to do with Rudy, yet I noticed that he maintained something of an association with a couple who lived on the Women’s Land Trust out near Scupper Ridge. Lily worked at the hardware and salvage store, and her partner Karen was a nurse at Community Health. I had seen Karen giving people spinal adjustments in the IGA parking lot, so that they cried out in pain, tears of gratitude running down their faces.
Rudy was one of those men whose feelings were hurt by the very existence of lesbians. He was furious because Lily was pregnant, which Rudy insisted just wasn’t fair. Still, Lily and Karen sent him on all manner of errands, and requested numerous favors of him, which I never knew him to resist. Once, we dropped off a trailer load of wood chips at the top of their driveway. “For their fucking new moon garden or some shit, you expect me to know?” said Rudy. Another time, he put an extra bar on his Bailey’s order. “The one with the mustache says her saw finally bit the dust. You think that’s my problem? Jesus. I should give her shaving tips,” he said, dialing in the order from the front seat of his truck.
One morning, as I untangled Rudy’s throw line, he said, “We’ve got to knock off early today. One of those dykes needs a ride home. She gets off at five.”
All day he talked about it, continuing to check his watch. “Don’t know how it’s even possible for me to give her a ride home, seeing as men aren’t allowed on her piece-of-shit land. Of course I wouldn’t set foot there even if they expressly invited me. Which they have. Oh, it was rich when they brought me onto their land to take out that ash tree. That’s feminists for you. They still want men to do the heavy lifting.”
“How did you meet them?” I asked.
“Like I said, me and your man cleared an ash for them,” Rudy said. “He didn’t tell you?” He looked at me strangely.
“No,” I said. “He never told me. So, what? So men are allowed on their land after all?”
“It still proves my point,” Rudy said. “They don’t need men until they need men. And now one of them is pregnant. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. Goddamn, have you seen her? She must be as big as a house by now. But I’ve still got my standards,” he said. “I’ll give her a ride, but I won’t stop the car all the way to let her out. I’ll just open the door and let it roll. I have to show them I have some self-respect. They always think they can get the best of me.” He shook his head. “Goddammit,” he said. “She’s as beautiful as god himself.”
* * *
That afternoon at the hardware and salvage store, I followed Rudy toward the back, where a pregnant woman in overalls lay with her head underneath a jacked-up cabinet. Her belly domed above her. Lying there, she could have been a snake eating an elephant. Rudy stood blushing behind his beard, chewing on the end of his matted ponytail. She kept working. No one said anything.
“Are you Lily?” I finally asked.
“We do everything here,” her voice came from under the cabinet. “Scratch-and-dent. We fix it up, sell stuff out back. Hardware in front. You need something?” She pulled herself out from under the cabinet, but stayed on her back, holding a screwdriver in one hand, her long black hair spilling out from under a baseball cap.
“Rudy,” she said, “would you mind putting this stuff away for me?” She pointed her chin at the tools strewn on the floor.
Rudy scooped them all up and disappeared down an aisle. Lily closed her eyes and put her hands on her belly. She seemed to be sleeping. I wasn’t sure what to do. Then she opened her eyes and looked at me a long moment. Carefully, she mentioned my boyfriend.
“He left,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “How are you getting along?”
“Just fine,” I said, to see how it sounded.
She continued to lie there, her sharp white chin pointing up at me. “It can be hard on your own. Especially when winter comes,” she said.
“I won’t be here that long,” I said.
“Are you selling your place?” she asked. I hadn’t thought about that part of it yet, so I just shrugged. She turned over onto her side, pushed herself to hands and knees, laboriously rose to her feet. Rudy rushed over and tried to take her elbow, but she shook him off. She clocked out.
We squeezed into the truck, me with my knees up over the gearshift, Lily’s belly pressed against the glove compartment.
“How’s working for Rudy?” she asked, like she already knew.
“Fine,” I said, glancing at him, but he kept his eyes on the road, except when we hit a bump. Then he would look around me to see how Lily had taken it. She never noticed.
“When are you due?” I asked her.
“January,” she said. “Karen’s home right now figuring out how to hook up a pump so we can have hot water in the birthing tub. It’s a real pain in the ass. Our cabin’s only sixteen by sixteen. Karen built it. We got hot water just for the birth. We moved a propane water heater into a little shed out back.”
“You’re not going to the hospital?” I asked.
“Where they’ll treat Karen like she’s just some stranger, and all that hassle?” Lily said. “No. We’ll just do it ourselves.” She smiled and closed her eyes, leaned her head against the window.
“Fuck the hospital,” Rudy said, and stuck his ponytail in his mouth again.
Lily opened her eyes and raised her head. “Has Rudy ever told you the story about how his balls almost rotted off?” she asked me.
“My boyfriend told me that one,” I said. “He said Rudy got to the hospital just in time.”
“Is that what he said?” Rudy said around his hair. “I guess he didn’t tell you what happened next.”
“I wondered about that,” I said.
“Lily’s already heard it,” Rudy said.
“I don’t mind,” Lily said. “I like the way you tell it.”
Rudy grinned straight ahead, chewing. Then he spit his ponytail out and said, “They asked me, Why didn’t you come in sooner? Why did you get this infection? I said I got a wound and I tried to stitch it myself, but it went bad. Where do you live? they asked. I told them I slept on a rock, or in the shack when it was too cold, but mostly on the rock if it was clear. Where? they asked. On my family land, I said. Address please, they said. There’s no fucking address, I said. It’s the coal company. It’s just everywhere. It’s everything. Acres and acres. Then the pain shot up through me again, and I groaned, I howled, Oh, I want to die, I hope I die, I’ll do away with myself, give me an implement, I’ll do it! I woke up in the psych ward. The note they wrote said I’d threatened to harm myself, and was acting unreasonable, attempting to perform surgery on myself and living outside the bounds of civilization. Put me down for vagrancy, trespassing on private property, et cetera. They brought pills. They said if I took them I would calm down. They came around every afternoon at the same time with those same pills for everyone. They wouldn’t quite tell me what was in them. I won’t take your fucking pills, I said. I’ve been through all that. I don’t take pills anymore. And they marked me down as paranoid and noncooperative.”
Lily nodded. “So then he called us in the middle of the night, and Karen was pissed. She said, Rudy, if you think you might be crazy there’s no need to tell the people who can put you away for it. But we went down there and brought him some Cheetos and carrot juice. I’d never seen his beard without sawdust in it.”
“My boyfriend left out the part about the psych ward,” I said.
“There was always something off about that guy,” Rudy said. “He had an angle. You could never quite tell where you stood. Someone should have told him you can’t please everyone.”
Lily took off her hat, and twisted her black hair once around her wrist, then tucked it up off her neck, resettled the hat over her eyes. I could see her take me in sideways. “Me and Karen have been thinking about you up there,” she said. “Twenty acres and just you by yourself? You got any animals?”
“Ducks,” I said. “We got them for laying, but they haven’t laid yet.”
“Are you sure they’re ducks? Have you sexed them yet?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I admitted.
“Have you ever done that before?” I hadn’t, but I didn’t say so. She laughed. “Could be that you’ve got drakes,” she said.
“So I’ll kill them for meat,” I said.
“Duck killing’s hard with just one person,” she said. “Takes a long time to pluck them, all those pinfeathers. Rudy, you could help her.”
“I could,” Rudy said. “But I’m trying to keep things professional.” I have to admit, it stung.
“It’s all right, I can manage on my own,” I said. Lily didn’t say more, just closed her eyes and reapplied her cheek to the window.
Rudy pulled onto Scupper Ridge and idled the truck across from the Land Trust driveway. He got out and walked around to open the door for Lily. She reached for his arm and pulled herself up, then walked down the long driveway toward her mysterious separatist land. Even to me it was mysterious. Even to me, a woman. I knew I could never be allowed there, because I still thought about my boyfriend. Why couldn’t I hold on to him? If I didn’t want to be alone in the woods, why was I alone in the woods?
Rudy chewed on his ponytail in silence until he turned back onto the main road. Then he thumped his fist on the wheel. “Shit, I want to have a baby so bad,” he said. “Sometimes I hear a baby crying and saliva rushes into my mouth.”
“Oh, it does not,” I said.
“You mean that doesn’t happen to you?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, it will,” he said. “It’s been worse ever since the dykes started doing it. She’s like the fucking earth or something.”
“Don’t make me throw up,” I said.
“Maybe it’s my age,” he said. “I’m thirty-five. About the same as you, right?”
“Thirty-two,” I said.
“You probably know how it feels, now that your man left. Your hormones are probably talking to you real loud right about now.”
“You don’t know a thing about it,” I said.
“What about me and you?” Rudy said. “We could have a baby.”
“Real professional,” I said.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want to go back to Seattle,” I said.
“What’s so fucking great about Seattle?” asked Rudy. “You act like you own the fucking Space Needle or some shit.”
“There’s nothing so great about it,” I said. “But it’ll be winter soon. What am I supposed to do, hibernate?”
“That’s what I do,” Rudy said.
“What, just hole up in my camper? I don’t even have electricity.”
“You’ve got twenty acres and ducks,” Rudy said. “No one to tell you what you can and can’t do. No one to bother you. Goddamn. There’s no pleasing some people.”
* * *
Rudy dropped me at the bottom of the driveway just as the rain gathered itself and became a storm. I climbed the hill, fed the ducks, shut them into their shed for the night. They made one downy animal of themselves all plastered together, heads tucked down. I burrowed into my sleeping bag. In the night, the camper sprang new holes, the wind and rain coursed through it. I could hear water rushing and roaring down the gullies all around me, the wind beating against the slope, and behind me in the forest, beech trees snapping, smacking the ground.
In the morning, I came out to face the calm. The ducks climbed into their drinking trough, dipping and splashing in the rainwater. The drainage ditches sent runoff down toward the creek. After all, my place didn’t get hit too hard. It was hiding behind bigger hills, deeper valleys. The big weather passed it over. It was good that way, my place. I was starting to know it.
I wondered how high the creek might be, so I went down the long driveway. I saw a small orange turtle, spotted like a frog. I saw a black rat snake stranded and slow in the cold morning, flung out of hiding somehow. I saw that the persimmon tree had dropped some chalky fruit, and at the bottom of the hill, above the high creek, Lily and Karen leaned against Karen’s pickup, two bright orange traffic cones on the ground at their feet. Karen, her long frame zipped into a big hooded sweatshirt, a loose braid falling out from beneath her hat, stepped forward and stuck her hand out. “We came by to see how you made it through the storm,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, shaking her hand. “You?”
“Not too bad.” She looked around. “You’re living right on the pipeline,” she said, thumbing toward the cleared easement, fifty feet wide, that careened down the hillside and met the driveway. My boyfriend and I had never bothered talking about it.
“Do you know much about it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Probably the same one runs near our place,” she said. “I know it runs all the way from East Texas to northern Ohio. Supplies gas to houses up north. Or used to. A lot of these old lines are abandoned. Though maybe this one’s not. Looks like they still mow it.”
Lily said, “My grandma told me she sat on the bank of the creek and watched them bury this line the same year they buried John F. Kennedy. Those steam shovels turned up arrowheads by the dozen. Grandma filled her pockets with them. By law the line’s supposed to be buried four feet, but you can see it surface in places. Cast-iron.”
“Damn,” I said. “What if it explodes?”
“What if the world explodes?” Karen said.
Lily laughed. “We can help you sex the ducks,” she said.
“Or slaughter them if they turn out to be drakes,” said Karen. “It’s no problem. Might as well do it today, before it gets colder.”
“Thanks, but I don’t have a place to keep the meat,” I said.
“I already thought about that,” said Lily. “You can borrow our pressure canner. Jars and lids, too.” She turned to lift it all from the bed of the truck.
What was I supposed to do? The sun was coming out, and steam rose up off every jutting muddy piece of the land, which sparkled in a great show of democracy. A discarded truck bumper shone just like the sandstone, just like a scrap of metallic insulation and the white of yarrow flowers and the flash of blue jays’ wings, a coil of chicken wire, an old license plate half entombed in mud. Karen picked up the traffic cones. Lily handed me the canner and shouldered the bag of jars. We went up the hill.
“What are the cones for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Karen said.
“I hear you’re a nurse,” I said.
“I hear you’re from out West,” she said. “City girl.”
“But I’ve been outside a lot,” I said. “I mean, I’ve worked outside.”
“Sure,” she said. “I was in Seattle once. Hitchhiked there after I picked apples in Wenatchee when I was young and stupid.”
“What did you think?” I asked.
“There wasn’t much to see besides too many goddamn mountains,” she said. “But Lily told me you’re going back soon.”
“Probably,” I said.
“If it suits you,” she said. “Me, I was glad to come home.”
“I’ve seen you at the grocery store cracking people’s backs,” I said.
“It’s true that I do that,” Karen said. “But I’d rather you think of me as a whittler.”
“What do you whittle?” I asked.
“Useful things,” Karen said.
“And not so useful,” Lily said. “You should see it. She can’t just carve a spoon without she has to put a captive ball in the handle.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Whittling’s just subtraction,” Karen said. “Start with the spoon handle, then carve out a case for the ball to fit in, carve the ball at the same time, last thing you do, you wick off the tiny piece holding the ball to the case, watch it rattle around inside. Seems impossible when you see it, like elves made it or some shit.” She set down the traffic cones and took a knife from her pocket, pulled the short blade from the cork it was plunged in. “That’s what you call a sheepsfoot blade,” she said, holding it out to show me.
“Karen’s a perfectionist,” Lily said. “She spent hours carving a tiny thimble-size skull out of cherrywood, and then she gave it to me for my birthday.”
“She lost it,” Karen said.
“I put it in a safe place,” Lily said.
“How can you lose a skull in a sixteen-by-sixteen cabin?” I asked.
“Oh, you can,” Lily said. “You can lose anything anywhere.”
* * *
Back up the hill, I knew enough to get the propane burner going full-bore, and to fill my largest pot with spring water. Lily and Karen went to the duck shed and picked out the drakes. It’s only the female ducks who quack, Karen told me. Drakes make a choking whistling sound. They held each bird and listened to it, then Sharpied each duck with an X on her beak. It turns out I had seven drakes and only four ducks. Soon the water roiled and steamed. Karen took a utility knife from her belt and sawed off the top of each traffic cone, letting the stubs fall like candy corn near the firepit.
I took a chance. “You’re the first people up here since my boyfriend left,” I said.
“Do you miss him?” asked Lily.
“He was a pretty good boyfriend,” I said. “But I talked too much. I didn’t know when to shut up and leave him alone. And now I’m on my own.”
“You think he left because of something you said?” Karen said. “That’s horseshit.”
“And he said I wasn’t ambitious,” I said.
“That might be true,” Karen said. “But that’s not why he left.”
“I didn’t really know how to get started out here,” I said.
“If we’re going to do this, we’ll need buckets,” Karen said.
“At night, sometimes, I bet it’s hard,” Lily said. “I wouldn’t want to sleep out here all alone.”
“Buckets,” Karen prompted.
I found some, and Karen rigged a long line and suspended the traffic cones like funnels over them. She held the drakes until they were calm, and then two by two we lowered them upside down into the cones, so their necks stuck out the narrow end. They did not struggle but opened their beaks and gazed at the woods, the firepit, the razor knife. We slit their throats at the jugular.
The sun grew hot and the yellow jackets came. We sat by the firepit and ripped feathers out by the fistful. It was true that to get all the pinfeathers out was nearly impossible. The hot smell of boiled feathers and blood choked the air. We cleaned the drakes. We set up the pressure canner. We rinsed everything down. I hoped that Lily and Karen wouldn’t leave.
“Do you want to go swimming?” I asked. “It might be the last warm day. And we’re covered in gore.”
“Where?” Karen asked.
“We could get in the creek,” I said.
We pushed down through the woods until we found a place where the elderberry bushes dipped into the high water. There was a honeybee hive on the far bank, the bees gone sleepy and slow this time of year. Lily and Karen peeled off their clothes and plunged in, scooping handfuls of water over Lily’s belly, whooping at the cold. I stripped down and followed them. Together, our bodies showed the marks of elastic waistbands, of chigger bites and peeling scabs, stretch marks, birthmarks, ingrown hairs, generous ripples of fat around thighs, jellied parts, furry belly buttons, sunburnt clavicles. Caked with grime, our toenails were sharp and filthy as hooves.
After, we sat on the bank.
“Why do you live at the Land Trust?” I asked.
“Because that’s where Karen is,” Lily said.
“I needed a place to stay while I went to nursing school,” Karen said. “They said I could build out there.”
“But why land that’s women only?” I asked.
“I used to think my trouble was that I didn’t want to live around men. That place brought relief for a while,” Karen said. “Now I’d just as soon not live around women, either. It turns out my trouble might be that I don’t want to live around anyone at all.”
“Even me,” Lily said. She laughed. Karen didn’t.
“My boyfriend said too much solitude is what drove Rudy crazy,” I said.
“Do you think Rudy’s crazy?” asked Karen.
I thought about how to answer. “I trust him with my life every single day that I work with him,” I said.
“That counts for a lot,” Karen said. “Maybe for everything.” She spat a wad of sticky saliva into the water, watched the current carry it away. Lily leaned back onto her elbows. Stretch marks traveled from her pubic hair to her belly button, pressed inside out.
“How long have you known Rudy?” I asked.
“Karen went to high school with him,” Lily said.
“Not really,” Karen said. “Neither one of us ever went to class.”
“How can you be friends with him?” I asked.
“We’re not friends with him,” Karen said.
“Well, we sort of are,” Lily said.
“We’re associates,” Karen said.
“I don’t think he has anyone else,” Lily said. “Except maybe for you.”
There was silence, and I thought, What am I doing? What am I doing inviting these two women down to the creek? Setting up insurance? Is it appropriate to spend time with people so that later you can call them from jail? So that they will miss you if you lie out on the coal company land too long? If Rudy was isolated and weird, so was I. To map it out: Karen and Lily sat side by side in their small square cabin, waiting for no one but their unborn child. A few ridges away from them, my camouflage camper was as far away as a comet, spectacularly wrecking itself in outer space.
They must have known it. They must have known it much better than I did. Why else would they have come to help me with the ducks? But if that’s what Karen and Lily thought of me, they did not see a need to say it out loud, and maybe it was then that I began to love them.
“We know about the names Rudy calls us,” Karen said. “We know about his bad attitude, but we have a certain relationship with him.”
“It’s because of that day with the ash tree,” Lily said. “That changes things between people.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“The ash tree,” Lily said. “Oh Jesus, Shane really didn’t tell you why he was leaving?”
“Lily, stop it,” Karen said. “Don’t gossip.”
“What? You think I should just keep quiet? Is that it?” said Lily, going red.
“You’re emotional because you’re pregnant,” Karen said, stone-faced.
“Oh good,” Lily said. “The diagnosis of a medical professional!” She sat up and plunged both feet in the water, splashing Karen and me. Her voice rose to a shriek. “Fuck! What’s this tumor growing out of my stomach? Why is it kicking? It’s alive!” Her chin crumpled and her lips were wet. She turned to me. “Why do I put up with this?”
“It’s not gossip,” I said. “Or it is gossip. Tell me.”
Lily began to cry, gulping in air. On the far bank the honeybees took slow laps around the yarrow. Everything was doing what was built into it, and would keep on until it died. Karen started talking.
“Rudy and Shane showed up at the Land Trust one morning,” she said. “Me and Lily were at our place. I was whittling. Lily was weeding. It was a workday. We heard the chain saw going back there at first, but then we heard shouting, a lull, then buzzing. A low whine, something shrill, I can’t say what it was. But I stopped whittling. And then Shane came out of the woods, white in the face, a gash on the side of his head. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there.”
“Didn’t you ever see that gash?” asked Lily, passing the backs of her hands over her eyes.
“He came home with his face cut up,” I said. “But he said it was nothing.”
“Right. For him it was nothing,” Lily said.
“Lily, stop interrupting,” Karen said. Lily began to cry again, quietly, but Karen kept talking. “Where’s Rudy? I asked him. Rudy, Shane repeated. Tell us, I said. Where’s Rudy? Then I just dropped my knife and took off at a dead run through the woods. Rudy was back there on the ground. He was out. There was vomit all down his beard, a blue and red bruise at the front of his head. His shoulder was pinned beneath an ash branch. I pushed at the branch, but couldn’t move it. Shane had followed me, but he just stood there with his mouth open. He said, I dropped it on him. I killed him. It was an accident.”
“But he didn’t kill him,” I said.
“Nearly did,” Lily said.
“Why didn’t he roll that branch off Rudy?” I asked.
Karen looked at me, long and cool. “How should I know why your boyfriend does things or not?” she said. “All I know is I tried to push that branch off Rudy. He’s not dead, I told Shane. You have to help me. I can’t move it on my own. I can’t, said Shane. You have to, I said. Okay, he said like he was waking up. He knelt down and heaved on that branch, and it rolled off into the leaves. You could see the marks up and down Rudy’s chest. He wasn’t breathing.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I started breathing into him,” Karen said. “Finally he breathed back. He came to. The first thing he said was, No hospitals, no doctors, no nurses, they’ll put me away again. I’m a nurse, you stupid idiot, I told him. He turned over and threw up again.”
“And my boyfriend? Where was he?” I asked.
“Shane left,” Karen said.
“He walked right past me as I went into the woods,” Lily said, wiping her dripping nose on the back of her hand. “He looked right through me. I found Karen back there, and she and I carried Rudy out of there. We don’t know where Shane went.”
“He came home to me,” I said. “He came home to me and told me he quit. He said Rudy was crazy. He said he couldn’t bear to work for him anymore.”
“Well, now you know it wasn’t quite the way he said it was,” Lily said. “I always liked your boyfriend, though, really. Hard not to, he was so nice.”
“Nice,” Karen said. “That’s one way of putting it. You could see he cared a lot what people thought of him.”
“What about Rudy?” I asked. “Did you take him to the hospital?”
“We kept Rudy on the land overnight,” Karen said.
“Isn’t that against the Land Trust rules?” I asked.
“We drew the curtains, is all,” Karen said.
“Do you know where Shane is now?” asked Lily.
I could hear up to the tops of the beech and sycamore. I could hear the flapping of turkey vultures. I knew how to answer. “Somewhere that no one really knows him. Somewhere that he can be new,” I said. We gathered our clothes and headed back up through the forest.
* * *
Winter came hard, and tree work ended for the season. Rudy gave me my final pay and said, “I’ll see you in the springtime, if I still have a liver.”
“I probably won’t be here in the springtime,” I said.
“Don’t be so fatalistic,” he said. “Most people make it through.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“What do you think I’m going to do?” he said, starting up his truck. “I’m going to go dormant with whiskey.” I watched him drive away.
I told myself I could leave anytime. But first, I taped an extra layer of plastic in the windows of my camper. I sealed the door of the woodstove with new rope, and I cleaned creosote out of the pipe. I can get a bus ticket as soon as there’s a thaw, I thought. But when the thaw came I didn’t bike to the bus station. I didn’t even bike to the bar. I biked to the public library and checked out some books with pictures of local animals and trees, encyclopedias of primitive skills, accounts from old homesteaders that must have been scrawled when they were hungry or irritated. At night, alone in my camper with a headlamp, I hunched in my sleeping bag and read every page. I took notes in the margins. I never returned those books to the library.
By the end of December, I’d eaten my way through the drakes. I’d boiled the bones. I checked my notes and went outside. I took the .22 my boyfriend had left. I aimed. I shot. I missed. I dug roots from the frozen ground, ate bark, set snares. I began to recognize tracks. I began to follow them.
In January, I heard from the mailman that Lily climbed into the tub and gave birth to a boy, which meant that they would have to leave the Women’s Land Trust and start over someplace new. According to the mailman, boy children were only allowed on the Land Trust until the age of five. The mailman told me that Rudy celebrated the birth by inviting someone at the bar to punch him in the teeth. He spent one warm night in jail, the mailman said. But I didn’t see any of them that winter. I didn’t see anyone, really, unless you count the mailman.
In February, after not speaking one word out loud for two weeks, I wrote a letter to my aunt. I wrote that I’d be home soon. I crossed it out. I wrote it again. I meant to mail it, but I didn’t have stamps. Then the ducks began to lay small misshapen eggs. They tasted like wet feathers but still I wanted more. I was hungry. My aim with the .22 improved. Following shadowy diagrams, I took apart and cleaned small animals. Mostly what I could catch were raccoons and possums. One tasted much like the other.
By March, I was so lonely I considered eating snow until it drowned me. One cold day, I was looking a raccoon in the eye. Its eye was dead and I was skinning it, and I knew I should go visit Karen and Lily.
Those women had told me that my boyfriend had not left me, that he’d simply left, and I had stayed. I’d made it through the winter on the strength of it. You could say I was proud of myself. You could say, in fact, that I wasn’t myself, but someone new, someone newly ambitious, and if crazed, if disturbed, if hungry and desperate, then so much the better. I gave up pretending I was going back to Seattle. But I’d had enough of being alone. I looked at the dull raccoon eye and decided to remind Lily and Karen that I had twenty acres. There was a place for them and their boy if they wanted to try it.
Copyright © 2019 by Madeline ffitch