Truth hides in fissures and hollows, in broken places and empty parts. It can be buried, crushed, or burnt, but the truth will always rise. The specific truth Cadie Kessler stalked came in the form of the mountain pine beetle. She pried a strip of bark off a dying pine tree. Her fingers, blistered and raw from hunting the elusive creature, froze as a gush of insects writhed against the exposed wood. They scattered for cover, but not fast enough.
“Got you.” Her voice, scratchy and dry from not having been used in days, echoed off granite boulders in the sparse forest. She scraped the beetles into a small envelope and tilted her head up to the morning sun.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. She braced herself and answered her boss’s call.
“What’s up, Thea?”
“I looked at the images you sent yesterday. How am I supposed to present this? You’re clearly on restricted federal lands.”
Cadie didn’t respond.
“If we publish your research, we’d have to detail where we got the samples, then you’d get arrested for trespassing.”
“This is bullshit and you know it. This is public land. I should be able to collect samples on public land.” Cadie knew Thea agreed with her, but she needed to yell at someone. “If we don’t get control of the infestation now, it’s going to get out of control fast. And in this drought, it’s all going to burn. Look what happened in California. It’s the same beetle.”
“Getting yourself arrested isn’t going to help prove your case.”
Taking advantage of the clear cell signal, Cadie checked her messages as Thea talked on speaker phone.
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Thea said.
Cadie scrolled through messages, stopping at a subject heading that grabbed her attention. Bicknell’s Thrush. The tiny songbird, a favorite from Cadie’s childhood, had all but disappeared in the New England woodlands in recent years. The message came from a grad student named Piper. Cadie didn’t have time to deal with students. But the thrush.
“Are you listening to me?” Thea said.
“Yeah. I’m here. What do you want me to do? Pretend I don’t know the forest is at risk of a devastating fire because of some ridiculous regulation?” Cadie said as she read Piper’s message. Hey Cadence! I’m working on a project to re-create/protect habitat for Bicknell’s thrush and found what I think is a bark beetle infestation. Can you confirm? Piper included a photo dated three days earlier, although Cadie knew the government had closed off that particular forest to environmental research in April.
“Where are you anyway?” Thea said. “Please tell me you aren’t anywhere near Mount Griffin. That fire’s moving fast.”
Uptick in local temps are driving Bicknell’s north, plus ski resorts, turbines. Then hurricanes in the DR, Cuba + deforestation in Haiti are eliminating the winter habitat and they aren’t surviving to return to New England, Piper wrote. Same conditions attracting your beetles are driving out my thrush. Can we share data?
“Cadie, are you there?” Thea sounded annoyed now.
“I’m fine. I’ll check in tomorrow.” Cadie zoomed in on Piper’s photos, which showed the beetle farther north than Cadie realized.
“Don’t get yourself arrested.” Cadie could hear Thea’s fingernails cantering against her desk. “I want to defend your research, but you need to give me irrefutable data and a legal way to prove it.”
“There is no legal way. If this forest burns before I establish the beetles are here, I won’t have any way to prove my theory.” She looked again at Piper’s photo. “And it’s not just here. They’re farther north than I thought.”
“How close are you to the fire? This isn’t worth getting killed over.”
“Exactly my point. People are already dying in these fires. If we can prove they’re linked to the beetles, we can get the resources to get ahead of them.”
Thea took in a breath as if to say something, but did not speak.
“I’m not planning to get hurt or caught.” Cadie paused. “But if I do, I won’t bring you into it. As of right now, consider me officially rogue. I have to go.”
She hung up before Thea could respond. The idea that defying an executive order to collect insect samples could brand Cadie, a five-foot-two entomologist, as a criminal struck her as funny, despite the potential consequences.
Cadence Kessler: Outlaw Entomologist.
She tried to laugh at herself, but the gnawing worry in her gut reminded her the fire was serious. She needed to get down the mountain by nightfall. If they closed the road, she could be trapped, and since no one knew her location, no one would know to look for her.
When she got home she would storm Thea’s office, dump bags of dead beetles on her desk and her lap, and nail poisoned wood samples to the wall. No one who examined her evidence would be able to deny the insects had moved from the Rockies to New England. No one would dare arrest her when they understood the threat. “I told you so” burned sweet on her tongue.
Cadie shook the envelope to the rhythm of a song she couldn’t quite remember. The spirited rustle, like seeds anxious to be planted, emboldened her, even as her body ached under the fifty-pound backpack. She trudged on. Only fifty meters to Mount Steady’s summit.
She could get a better sense of how much time she had from a higher elevation.
Smoke scratched the back of her throat, confirming the late-summer wind was already pushing the forest fires east. She paused for a sip of water. Working alone in the woods, Cadie marked time in elevation and ounces of water. She was running out of both.
This drought. This spate of fires. This beetle. As the temperature ratcheted up four degrees in less than a century, New Hampshire had practically invited the tiny creature and the fires that came with it. Cadie could slow the wildfires if someone would just believe her. The anticipation of being right, of being the hero, had lulled her to sleep the past several nights under the canopy of stars. Cocooned in her sleeping bag, she’d written the opening to her imagined TED Talk. When someone says you’re overreacting, but you know you’re right, keep reacting until it’s over.
Cadie’s backpack grew heavier, compressing her knees and spine, as if she might crumble into the rock under her feet. She forced herself up the final incline. If gravity pulled from the dense fist at the center of the Earth, then the higher she pushed herself up the mountain, the farther she removed herself from the core, the looser gravity’s grip would be. It tugged at her heels and stole the oxygen from her lungs. Only on the summits did Cadie feel a lightness in her chest. She stood untethered in the rushing wind. Anything seemed possible from the top of a mountain.
Cadie dropped her pack to the ground. A gust whipped her hair across her face, carrying traces of pine and the reedy flute of a distant hermit thrush. Wind stretched the clouds below her like raw cotton on a comb, allowing the rusty tips of dead pine trees to peek through. She pulled samples of tree bark and pine wedges from her backpack and laid them around her in a semicircle. The invasive beetle she had been hunting the last four days had carved lacy lines into the wood. The pea-sized creatures were killing off trees and leaving them as kindling in the parched woodlands. She stroked the delicate destruction with her finger. The beetles’ telltale blue fungus—the color of the autumn sky before sunset—stained the wood. That color meant death to a pine. She held a wedge to her face and inhaled the freshly cut wood. The tang of sap should have rushed in. But dead trees don’t bleed. They burn.
Smoke blurred the edge of the mountaintops to the west. Mount Griffin rose from the mist, green on the north slope with a slow-burning char on the south. When she finally convinced crews to start thinning the pines, she would salvage a few trunks to mill into floorboards for her home. If she ever stayed still long enough to own a home. The grooves the beetles carved would feel better under bare feet than the slick linoleum in her one-bedroom apartment.
From the mountaintop, home felt distant, as if it might not be there when she came down. Time moved more slowly in the woods, sliding by like the lazy flow of pine sap. As a child, she used to imagine the outside world slipping away as she leapt from rock to rock through the ferny woods surrounding her home. The pine and beech trees had been her friends. They had guarded her, swallowed her secrets whole.
It was her turn to protect the forest.
Silence enveloped the summit, an island of stone floating in the low-hanging clouds. If only time would stop. Right here. Right now. The fires would stall, the beetles would stop their assault, and Cadie would remain at the top of the world, where she could hide from gravity.
She tried to quell the twisting in her gut that reminded her the fires presented an opportunity. If they proved to be a bigger threat than expected, and if Cadie’s research stopped an inferno, it would transform her career, her future. She did not want to want that fire, but a small voice inside called out to the flames. Come if you dare.
Cadie selected a potato-sized stone from the ledge and dusted it against her thigh. She pressed her tongue to the rock, leaving a wet oval to reveal its hidden mineral life. The dull grays and browns of New Hampshire granite burst into streaks of silver and layers of radiant amber at the touch of her saliva. A creamy, jagged vein glowed in the sunlight. The oval shrank as wind sucked the light from the rock until it reverted to its flat finish. The iridescence of veiled colors fizzed on her tongue. Her mouth watered.
She tucked the stone in the bottom of her backpack, cradling it in the center of the tambourine she carried to scare off bears. It’s just one stone, she told herself each time. When she built her own house someday, the rocks she’d collected would form the skirt around her hearth. Stolen pieces of every mountain she hiked, markers of time. The stack of stones—at least thirty by now—formed a cairn in her apartment. She often wondered if the dilapidated building could bear the weight, or if one day it would all come crashing down.
Her cell phone buzzed against the granite slab as a text came through.
It’s Daniela. They found him.
The minerals on her tongue turned to acid. She read and reread the words until they became a jumble of illegible letters, and the screen powered down. She hurled a rock off the ledge and held her breath until it struck the slope below, unleashing a torrent of cascading stone. This couldn’t be happening.
I’m home. I need you here, Daniela texted again. They’re questioning my dad.
Cadie imagined the text message in Daniela’s childhood voice and didn’t restrain the sob that burst out with decades of compressed guilt. More than twenty-five years had passed since she had spoken to Daniela Garcia. If she acknowledged Daniela, Cadie would no longer be able to pretend that long-ago summer had never happened. The fiction of Cadie’s childhood, rewritten and edited so she could sleep at night, would come undone. The single gunshot echoed in her mind.
Or she could stay on her mountaintop and turn off her phone. She could hide for a little longer, at least until the fires got too close. She put her head between her knees and stared down at the fissures in the slab. She scratched a rock on the surface of the ledge, leaving white letters next to her wood samples. Cadie was here. It felt childish, but she traced over the letters until they stood out in bold blocks. Cadie was here.
Horizontal lines in the granite recorded time, a hundred thousand years between lines of crystallized minerals. Climbing her mountains meant traveling through time, treading on scars of each millennia. Unknowable catastrophic events had bent the stone, folding time in on itself. Moments that were never meant to touch, fused together in geological history.
She imagined the panic in Daniela’s dark eyes. As much as Cadie wanted to hide in the woods, the ferocity of the bond Cadie once shared with Daniela swelled in her chest, shaming her for wanting to abandon her friend again, as she had done so many years ago.
Her thumbs felt thick and clumsy as she typed a response.
On my way to the cottage. Meet me at 9 tonight? The tacky layer of sap, which felt like part of her skin after four days of climbing trees, stuck to the screen as she typed. She added three rocks to a cairn someone else had built. An offering. A prayer. The chilled morning air telegraphed the metallic peal of mineral against mineral, broadcasting her location into the valley.
Daniela—like the forest—had been her ally, her friend, a keeper of her secrets. Cadie had played everything like a grand adventure back then. Until the game became real. Maybe she had always hoped the truth would rise one day. Or maybe she had convinced herself that the deeper she hid in the woods, the more gently she walked this Earth, the more likely their secret would stay where they left it—where they left him. Buried in the woods.
Copyright © 2020 by Julie Carrick Dalton