Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition: 2019 First-Place Winner: tc hand for his story “snow trees”
With his back to the cold earth he followed the footsteps above, mapping her precise location in his mind with the unique cadence of each creak and moan of the ancient floorboards. Down the first set of steps, pause at the landing, then gently down the next three, and skipping the last-which was unusually short for a first step. He turned his headlamp off and listened. Above him in all directions thin slats of light crept through the floor gaps and mingled with the dust he had stirred. He listened as she passed slowly through the Roosevelt Room and crossed the liberty seat; a short, unlit corridor not unlike that last step. The Lincoln Library was little more than a den with a small coal burning fireplace, a tired blue loveseat, and in the corner an old walnut bookcase with a crack in the door glass that gave him a shiver every time saw it. Upon reaching this room she took a few slow and deliberate steps before stopping abruptly, just above him, as if she too knew where he was.
Clara, he said. I’ll be right up.
He clicked the light back on and felt around for his hand trowel and when he found it, slid it into the side pocket of his pants alongside the metal detecting wand. With hardly enough headspace to crouch he rolled carefully back over to his front side and, using just his forearms and the inside of his knees, began slowly to pull himself forward, like a tank fumbling through a mine. Back in high school they started calling him Tank because once in a game with the rival school, he hit a kid so hard that it sounded like a balsa wood plane snapping in two. His coach, a sinewy and stolid man who’d weathered many storms of his own, had said that he was like a gale force wind. That terrible riving sound never quite left him, and though he never warmed to being called Tank, he did take to drinking like one, especially many years later, after she was gone. It was on one of those nights, when his heart was banging around like a blind bird in a cage, that he cut the hole in the floor.
The hatch door landed with a thud on the kitchen floor. The light from his headlamp bounced clumsily from wall to wall as he hoisted himself up, every joint in his body applauding this effort in a crescendo of snaps and pops.
What brings you about? He said. Trouble sleeping?
Clara nodded her head drowsily. She was wearing one of his old flannel shirts, her small and curious hands buried deep beyond the cuffs; the hem skirted the floor like a curtain.
Look what I found, he said. He cradled the object in the palm of his cracked and callused hand.
Clara stepped closer to have a better look. What is it? She said.
I think it’s an old clay marble. See the green and the blue?
It looks like the world, she said.
I suppose it does.
He wiped it carefully with the threadbare corner of his shirt, then lending it a quick stroke of breath held it out to her. He towered over her; not like a gale force wind, but like a warming sun.
Take it, he said.
You should keep it daddy.
How about I clean it up better and put it with your microscope, he said.
He dropped the marble into his breast pocket and reached for the ceiling until his ribs felt like harp strings being plucked. Glancing at the countertop he took note of the little trails the cockroaches had carved through the diatomaceous earth that lay like a dusting of snow all along the fringes. He imagined their nightly commutes, over pot lids and etched floral plates like vast plateaus, grinding themselves unwittingly to bits with each step. He recalled the magic in her eyes when Clara told him how it looked under the microscope: Like shards of glass daddy. Clara had thought he was pulling her leg when he told her that some folks stirred it into their coffee. She called it die impatient earth.
Something is clawing at the walls, she said.
I heard it the other night, he said. It’s just a raccoon. When it starts getting cold they go looking for someplace to hunker down. They like to climb up that old walnut tree and head to that spot just outside your room where the roof isn’t sloped so much. They like to walk the ridgeline checking the siding for weak spots – like burglars checking doors.
Will he get in? She said
No, of course not. I won’t let him.
What if he’s already here?
Fear not, he said. For I am the gale force wind and I will sweep him away.
He smiled down on her and wiped at his eyes with his fraying shirt cuff.
Don’t be sad, she said. You have the world in your pocket.
With his back to her now he reached for the bottle of wine on the countertop. He thumbed out the cork with one hand and allowed himself several long pulls. He looked about and shook his head exhaustedly. Lining every ledge and sill were old mugs and bottles, some meticulously mended by glue while others, scuffed and bruised, had managed somehow to remain mostly intact. Resting on the windowsill was a jam jar filled part of the way with Indian head pennies and mercury dimes. And next to that rusted old door hasps with dirt still hugging the engravings rubbed shoulders like old friends. A chipped ink bottle filled to the brim with buttons, some of which were webbed with tiny fissures like those found in ancient, weathered stones. It was once an old school house and the floors were a deep, dark yellow and bronze with occasional saw marks flecked about the boards’ edges like puzzled eyebrows.
When he turned around she had already gone.
I used to have it in my hand, he said.
After he made the short hike to the shed he was able to wrestle the trap from the grips of a chair leg and some fencing remnants without too much fuss. Once back inside, he climbed the stairs toward Clara’s room, stopping at the landing to raise the window and pop the screen.
Little piles of scat dotted the metal roof and he had to watch where he stepped. Tufts of wall insulation were strewn about like the guts of a finished dog toy. He knelt down and examined a spot where the siding had been pulled away. Not knowing whether the raccoon was tucked away somewhere in the walls or watching him from a tree limb, he decided it best to just focus on setting the trap.
He lifted the trap door and held it open with one hand while hooking the lever to the trigger plate with the other. Before heading up he had thought enough to grab a can of tuna, which he pulled out of his pocket, pried the lid off, and dropped carefully to the back of the cage. Now that the trap was set, he placed it strategically a few feet away from where he was sure it was getting in; then he found a clean patch of roof and had a seat. Thinking enough to bring the bottle of wine as well, he pulled the cork and took another drink. He turned the headlamp off and gazed up at the near starless sky; the moon was like a light bulb covered with a wet grey towel.
A car approached steadily from far away. He watched as several times its lights got lost in the crest of a hill only to reappear again. As it passed the driver flicked a cigarette from the window and it bumped and skittered across the pavement like a spent firecracker.
He thought about what Alice had said to him before she left. I don’t know what you’re always looking for, she had said. If it’s peace, I hope you find it. I hope you find so much it fills every goddamned jar in this house. Occasionally he’d still catch himself reaching out to touch her cheek or to stroke her long dark hair, as if she were there beside him, quietly reading a book or taking in the view, while tenderly extending her arm in such a way that meant to do the same. Muscle memory is a dream of the heart.
It was cold like the time when he woke up on a beach and all that he had for cover was the moon’s damp towel. He was dreaming about the shoebox beneath Clara’s bed where she kept every card she had ever received. Tank, he heard a voice holler as if from the far end of a tunnel. Across the room on a short table, near the window, was where her microscope sat. And next to it, a small box with little glass trays. Tank!, he heard shouted once more. On one corner of the table, perched upon a pale green wood scrap was an unearthed ink jar with a whisper of dirt embedded in a single hairline crack. Housed within it were her specimens: one snip of kite string, an oat fleck, a cicada shell, a thin grey feather ruffled slightly at the tip, and one square cut nail bent inexplicably so. I know how you like your coffee, he heard Clara say. How’s that? He seemed to reply. East coast not West, like the color of the sand. He could almost smell the coffee. Tank! Again with that dreadful name. Would you like me to bring you a cup?
The low sun called out with its mournful arc of light, while off in the distance some lone bird set out to defeat it. His shirt and pants were moist with dew and his left arm felt inoculated from having slept on it wrong. He sat up and found Ewing, his early rising neighbor, staring up at him from the yard below.
You’re alive, Ewing said. I nearly called the sheriff.
You been here long? He asked. There was a small clump of feces not three feet from where his head had been, and the window was wide open. The trap was nowhere in sight.
Long enough, Ewing said. He was wearing his black coveralls and an old blue farm implement hat with a bent bill from where he sometimes kept it in his pocket.
Sorry, he said.
Why the hale are you up on that roof while this banged-up raccoon is crammed down here in this trap?
I don’t really know, he said. He must’ve gone berserk and flipped the cage over a few times.
Ewing took off his hat and rubbed at the thin wisps of hair that were matted about.
I need to cut a fish off the line with you, Ewing said.
When are you gonna come and fix my rock wall?
That why you’re here?
No, Ewing said. Judith sent me ’cause she spotted you sprawled out on the roof from the kitchen window.
You can tell her it was the best sleep I ever got.
Ewing put his cap back on and stared out across the pasture toward his house. Thinkin’ a getting me a horse, he said.
Is that so?
Be a hell of a lot quicker that way.
I’m coming down, he said. Taking a few steps, he picked up the wine bottle from the gutter and tossed it in the yard, startling a couple of chickens that were drinking rainwater from the head of a shovel he’d left lying in the grass.
We’re worried about you, Ewing said.
Don’t be, he said and made his way through the window.
Once inside he found himself outside Clara’s door. With his hand on the knob he started to speak. He stared fixedly at a small gouge which revealed, in precise layers, all of the colors it had ever been painted. Just as rock strata could explain a hill, that tiny cavity told the story of her door, which was, for all of its intricacies and depth, nothing more than a small hinged wall.
Before heading outside he went to the wash room and splashed cold water onto his face. With the towel draped over his shoulder he looked into the mirror, hardly recognizing the man who stared back at him. His arms, thick as gym ropes from the work he did lifting and breaking stones, could hardly raise a mug or pen without trembling. He had lost weight, but still carried much more than he should. His puffed and sagging jowls were littered with ashen stubble. His eyes, once so engaging, were no more than boarded up windows. He pulled the light cord and stood for a moment, gazing down to where he knew his hands to be. Then grabbing his keys made way for the door.
Well there he is, Ewing said.
He knelt down to have a look at the raccoon, which cowered at the far end of the cage, averting his masked eyes, but still warily observant of his captor. Balled up clumps of earth and grass littered the floor of the cage where it had tried relentlessly to escape.
There’s a cut on his nose, he said. Other than that, he looks fine.
Pete takes ’em just like this and drowns ’em in a barrel, Ewing said.
Well I ain’t Pete.
What do you do when you get one?
Shoot ’em. Regretting immediately what he had said, Ewing rested a hand on his shoulder. I’m sorry Tank, he said. I wasn’t thinking.
He got back to his feet and brushed some dirt from his knees with a habitual swish of the hands.
I just think he’d be happier someplace else, he said.
Take him out to Nonesuch, Ewing said.
That’s out of the way.
Out of which way?
He let his eyes settle upon a distant hill, pretending not to hear what Ewing had said. Lush blue-green cedar dotted the landscape in confident packs. Not far across the road a giant white oak rose dutifully from a shallow pocket, the top of its central lead charred black from lightening, the grey remainder blanketed in a dull autumnal red.
I think I’ll take him out toward Asbury, he said.
Judith took a pottery class there once, Ewing said.
Taking the towel from his shoulder he placed it over the cage and carried it over to his car; it was a sky blue 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that an old farmer had given to him in exchange for some foundation work. He slid the cage onto the backseat and eased the door shut. Then he got in and started the engine. After he was finally able to work the stubborn window down, Ewing stepped closer in order to hear over the motor’s thunderous growl.
I’ll come have a look at that wall when I get back, he said.
Ewing simply nodded and raised a hand as farewell.
It was like trying to talk through a hundred hooves stomping in the dirt.
Classes were just beginning when he pulled into an empty space in front of the school and shut the motor off. It was a simple two story brick building with a flag out front and a dedicated wooden bench beneath it. Tucked off to the side was a small marquee that seemed always to be lathered with quotes and old news. Two armed policemen stood out front talking. The new protocol. He watched as a boy stepped out of a car several spaces away and walked toward the policemen with a slip of paper in his hand. The boy’s mother, he noticed, had backed out and sped away before her son was even halfway up the walk. One of the officers checked inside his bag while the other seemed to make small talk. Before he could enter the one making small talk pointed to his head, and the boy removed his baseball cap. He sat there and remembered how they called it an incident; some people did. Some proclaimed loudly about the wrath of God, while others, in voices soft as veils, spoke solemnly of freedom’s cost. They said the kid was crazy. They said he had it all mapped out when he burst through the double doors; that he shot them while he was running, without ever really needing to aim. They could be seen weeping into their hands when they leapt from the windows. Good thing he took off his hat before he went inside.
At a filling station just outside of Wilmore he idled slowly in, parking beneath the dubious shade of a stunted maple tree at the edge of the lot. A cold soda sounded good. On his way toward the entrance, a guy wearing a mechanic’s shirt with an embroidered name patch on the pocket glanced at his Delta 88 and gave an accepting nod. After grabbing a drink from the back, he then got in line behind the guy with the accepting nod. He looked on as the man with the accepting nod fidgeted with his shirt and rolled his neck restlessly about, as if some unseen force sought to grind him away. Occasionally the man would stop to look over his shoulder and toward the door. A crucifix tattoo ran down the back of his neck, trailing away behind a faded navy collar.
The national news was playing on the television behind the counter, the volume so low that only muffled hums of disarray could be heard. Crowds of people shouted and marched in ruined streets, their fists raised indignantly. Men with machine guns walked cheerfully about. Small children bustled in and out of frame. One of them stood defiant and still, as if lost in a once familiar place. Another one, sobbing, walked out of view and never returned. Some of the buildings smoldered half-heartedly; piles of rubble were all that remained of the rest. Moments later a woman picked up the lost child in the once familiar place, and carried her away.
He should just blow them off the map, the man with the accepting nod said to anyone who would listen.
When I was in the nuthouse all I took with me was my daughter’s coloring book, he too said to anyone who would listen. It was endangered species themed, he continued. She colored every animal except for the polar bear-but I saw where she tried and just gave up. They have black skin and translucent fur. Tell me who could color that?
Tell me, he screamed.
But they all just looked away.
With a spider stringing along from the cracked side view mirror, he followed the winding road through slow and strangled bends of locust, ash, and winter creeper. On the radio Dion sang Ruby Baby with his cool and careful urgency, while in the passenger seat several cold chisels clanked together like mechanical fingers snapping. He found a densely wooded spot on the outskirts of the college campus and pulled onto the shoulder just before a small bridge. With the engine off he sat and waited; for what he did not know.
He crossed the road with the cage at his side like an odd piece of luggage, then stepped over a mangled guardrail that deserved a medal for its service. After a short walk into the forest he stopped at a gentle rise that overlooked the creek below. Lifting the towel from the cage he was surprised to see his new friend looking directly at him. He knelt down slowly and with the opening facing toward the woods, lifted the trap door. The raccoon shuffled sleepily out, shook himself off a few feet from where he stood, and then ambled off toward the creek.
It was nothing, he said.
Before heading back he found himself gazing up the massive, scaly gray trunk of a Sycamore tree, its branches white, like empty pages. Clara, he remembered, called them snow trees; because everything else was so dull and grey. It sent golden brown leaves, their apexes curled skyward, floating downstream like little ghost ships. The quiet, the current, it all made his heart start to rattle the bars. Remembering the marble, he pulled it out of his breast pocket; held onto it for a moment in the palm of his open hand. Then he tossed it into the water below. He walked away feeling relieved that it was down there, bouncing the light, embracing the shadows. It is what the world has always done. He just couldn’t color it.