Read An Excerpt
He slept that night on the edge of a raggedy field, between towns. In the morning, his stomach felt barren and cold. He lay for a long time mummied up in his mummy bag and watched the mentholated stars burn above him with a pure and gleaming light. The moon was down. He thought of running. He thought of his mother and he thought of running, and after a while he got up and dressed in the open air. He repacked his sleeping bag to the size of a small log, then he stuffed that into his duffel. It was still very dark. On the eastern border of the field, a small stream hissed through the reeds. He walked over to it. He stood for ten minutes along the sandy banks, staring across the narrow water. There were aspen trees on the other side of the stream, and to him they looked like skeletons glowing in the darkness. He turned and walked three miles into the village, following a white gravel road. Diaphanous vapors swirled above the ground. At length, he came to the first building, a brick filling station just now opening, a building still advertised with an old Pegasus beneath which pumpkins-for-sale were piled up like basketballs. He bought a styrofoam cup of coffee and drank it quickly.
He went around to the back of the building and used the restroom.
He dropped his army bag in the corner behind the door. He washed his hands in blood-warm water, then he washed his face. His fingers were stiff; the water felt good. He carefully shaved. He stood alone in the acoustical room with water splattering onto the checked tiles. The bathroom was chilled and smelled of urine and spearmint. He finished shaving and next he brushed his teeth for minutes, flossed, laved more water over his face and head. He clawed his hair straight back and changed into a clean T-shirt and a pair of gray-camouflage pants. By the time he was finished, the narrow window above the sink had begun to lighten.
Outside, the wind had picked up. He walked swiftly through the empty streets of his old hometown. It had not changed much, but what he had forgotten was the stillness, the immediacy of the mountains, the melancholy light. His pants hung highwater, and you could see the flash of his white ankle socks. Unbeloved hounds yapped at him from the alleyways. Passing the butcher shop, he saw skinned game hanging from the ceiling. At last he came to the final houses. He crossed the highway and climbed up a rocky escarpment that led into the cedar trees. One mile farther, he topped out, and then he was high above everything. He could see the entire valley below opening into the canyons, and the canyons beyond opening into the pastures, and after that the thin blue pencil-line of the horizon. The land was filling with light. Still the coldness of the night clung to his bones.
He kept walking and soon he began to sweat. He followed game trails that petered out over large patches of bare rock and picked up again on the other side. In the delicate morning light, the mountains hulked hugely into the tinted air, so close to him now that they subsumed the whole horizon. The sky above grew rose-of-blue, packed deeply with blue, beyond which lay more blue and more, until finally, beyond that, there was only the blackness of space.
After an hour, he came out on a high bluff. He stopped walking and gazed down. A teaky river flashed in the distance. The village, for a time, teetered on the edge of day. The houses stood far below him now, small buildings scattered like tinker-toys throughout the fir trees. Cars were starting to crawl along the highway. He watched for several minutes. Then he unshouldered his duffel bag and stashed it in the brush. He walked off the rock bluff and began to run….
Joel was always the fastest runner. All his life, he was small for his age, but he was always the fastest.
He was ten-years-old when his father first took him to the fair. It was a misty afternoon in early autumn. The ground lay muddy and trampled. Colored balloons floated in the gray air. There were barkers and a Ferris wheel and vats of candy floss, and in the early evening a running race, a three miler. Joel watched the first runners gather around the starting area. He had never seen an actual race before, and after a while he asked his father if he could participate. His father said yes.
Joel stripped himself to the waist. He wore corduroy pants and high-top sneakers, nothing else. With curiosity, his father watched as Joel trotted down among the adult runners: pale and skinny Joel, always so silent and determined, the youngest of the entire group by far and the smallest, perhaps one hundred competitors in all. His father watched as Joel darted off the starting line and immediately into the lead, disappearing around the first bend, going out too fast, far too fast, only a quarter-mile into the race and Joel was already seventy meters ahead of the next runner. To his astonishment, then, he watched as, fifteen minutes later, Joel came pounding in from the other direction, still leading, the gap between him and the second place runner even wider now, up over the brow of a grassy slope, under a half-mile to go, around a smoking pond, Joel in his corduroys and no shirt, his chest beet-red and heaving. Joel moaning from exhaustion. His father exploded off the bleachers and bound down to the finish line. (“Come on,” he yelled, “you cute little son-of-a-bitch!”) Joel broke the tape in 16:30. The next runner was a full minute behind him.
Seven years later, in high school, all alone at a dog-eat-dog track meet in Salt Lake City, Joel won the metric mile in 4:09.53, four thousand feet above sea level. Three hours later, he won the two mile in 8:55.10, the fastest in the country.
His father nudged him awake in darkness. Neither spoke. Joel rose from his bed and dressed in the icy room. He had just turned twelve. The night before, for a birthday present, his father had bought him a new hunting rifle, a gleaming 30.06 with a Leopold scope.
They left the house before first light. They walked up a steep path that began behind the shed, above the caves, and then zig-zagged into the hills. They moved steadily, his father limping the old limp but tireless and strong. It was black out and excessively cold. When the first light of day broke over the eastern mountains, they received it upon their backs.
At the end of three hours, they passed the remnants of an old mine, with cables and cogwheels jumbled about the site, huge rusted axles, a dilapidated wooden shack all sun-bleached and gray. The grass blades lay welded to the stones in claws of frost. His father knelt here for a long while and studied the ground. He did not say anything. He picked up a rock and touched his tongue to it. He stared carefully about him. Joel tried to see what his father saw, but he was not able to. They walked on.
Soon they came to the edge of a dark forest. Here they waited out the rest of the morning, and after that they waited the rest of the afternoon. They waited and waited. The air remained cold all day long. The sky grew blank and gray. They did not eat, they did not talk. They stood. A wild and ancient basin, home of grizzly bear, bobcat. They saw no game. The sun flew by—an irritated eye-rim bagged in layers of smoke—flew past its apogee and then slid down into the smoldering west. Clumps of littered snow stood in the tree bowls. The air reeked of pine needles.
“Keep waiting,” his father said to him once.
Toward dusk, Joel caught sight of a pair of golden eagles wheeling away, far off. He watched them for close to an hour. The eagles grew more and more remote, describing slow parabolas across a voided sky. Joel watched them until they were tiny black specks, like flies, one male, one female, shrieking faintly and chasing after the life-giving, meat-eating, thunderously silent sun, which he and his father could no longer see. Then the birds were gone. For a long time, with his sharp eyes, Joel tried to pick them out, but he could not. The sky cleared. It grew even colder. Joel was shivering now. He had given up on the hunt. Just then, a ripple of motion broke across the edge of his vision, and he turned.
A café-au-lai elk emerged alone from the forest and stood in a narrow clearing, two hundred meters to his left. It was a massive bull. It was eating wild apples off a tree, head tipped back, its antlers nearly touching its rear-end. Joel didn’t hesitate. He raised his rifle to his eye without any sound, but still the animal turned. Only now did his father realize what was going on. The elk loomed up gigantic in Joel’s scope and gazed at Joel without malice and without fear.
Stay calm, thought Joel, hit him between the eyes, or in the neck. The animal stared at him for one second—one second too long.
Just as Joel’s father started to hiss something in his ear, Joel squeezed the trigger: a stiff recoil that he didn’t feel and an explosion resounding outrageously in the dead silence, the subsequent landscape filled with a diminishing report. There was a cottony puff of gunsmoke and the bull crumpled. No falter, no misstep, just one moment standing and the next heaped up onto the rocks. Joel took a deep breath and leaned his rifle against a tree. He closed his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered to himself.
“By God, you got him,” his father said, “like Grant got Richmond.”
But Joel didn’t hear him, because he was already running up toward the fallen elk. Which was still alive and agonizing on the ground. There was not much blood. Joel had hit him right above the bridge of the nose, a small hole drilled there, as if bored in with an auger, a thin rivulet of purple leaking out of the hole and already drying in the cold air. One of the antlers had been chipped from the fall.
Joel thought: I must cut its throat.
He unsheathed his hunting knife to do so, but as he reached in to pull back the antlers to expose the neck, the elk began twisting its head, swinging the tangled rack back and forth, bawling. In that instant, Joel felt something he wasn’t prepared for: he felt revulsion, even fear. For in that moment, he realized how wild this animal was, how living, how vital. The thick fur shirred up at its throat looked impenetrable to him, a brow like brickwork. He could smell the gamy breath, the chemical reek of its urine. The mouth hung open, huge and hinged, with apples mashed between the big cubic teeth, half-masticated chunks of apple and an admixture of pink froth slobbered down into the billy goat’s beard. Bloody bubbles popped all around the outer nostrils, and the nostrils were like leather, the eyes crazed and dying: this animal was dying, thought Joel, with beautiful crazy eyes.
Silently his father strode up behind him and took the knife out of his hand. With a strange celerity and sense of timing, he dipped in until he was right up against the animal. In the same motion, he elbowed back the dripping muzzle and sunk the knifepoint deep into the thick hide. The animal screeched. There was a dull ripping sound like torn cloth, and then enormous gobs of blood came spilling out, thick clots dropping forth from the gash with each beat of the heart. The heartbeat slowed. Joel watched the blood come, shining slabs that lay quivering by his knee. Gallons and gallons of blood, he couldn’t believe anything could contain so much. His father was pressed right up against the elk, almost tenderly now, almost hugging it, this living vessel no more. The old man finished the job of jugulating and then looked up at Joel. He grinned. He had blood on his hands and blood smeared across his forehead and blood splattered in his hair.
His hair was the color of ashes, one thick forelock dangling over his left eye.
Joel’s fingers were getting very cold now and starting to ache. Still, he felt elated and would not let this moment—goddamn it!—would not let this moment be spoiled.
“Now,” said his father, and showed him how to dress it.
They dragged the animal over to a wide patch of grass—no small job—exposing the midsection as best they could. Without any squeamishness whatsoever, his father grabbed hold of the furry cock and cut out the genitals. Then he made a long slit up to the sternum. The knife slid easily through the glowing skin. Next he pinched up the anus with his first two fingers and carved a ragged circle around the entire asshole, rapidly eviscerating the animal and leaving armloads of blue rubbery entrails steaming beside him in the dirt. He placed the teardrop-shaped heart and then the liver trembling next to him in a patch of old snow, turning the snow instantly to purple slush. It was getting dark now. The moon had risen and it stood on the horizon like a blind eye gazing down. Joel’s hands were freezing. His father worked fast, surely. Joel watched him. His excitement had not died—why then this sudden feeling of emptiness?
“Now reach into his chest,” his father said, “and pull out his windpipe.”
Joel knelt down and went shoulder-deep into the moist cave. His cheek touched the animal’s fur. The smell of blood was clangorous. Numb-fingered, he groped around: ridges and more blood, but he was not sure what the windpipe felt like.
“Do you have it yet?” said his father.
“I don’t know,” said Joel.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I feel something, but I don’t know if it’s the windpipe.”
“Well, what is it?”
“The esophagus, I think.”
“Goddamn it, Joel, the esophagus is the goddamn windpipe.”
With that, he backhanded Joel out of the way and reached up into the chest cavity himself, clenching his teeth as he did so, giving him that fierce and dangerous-looking underbite which Joel had so much come to antipathize. In a heartbeat, then, the man yanked out the entire bronchial apparatus, bringing forth the two huge lobes of lung, vascular and raw and complicated, like an alien organism. More blood had gotten smeared across the old man’s face. He threw the lungs into the rocks; they wobbled when they struck. Joel’s hands were totally numb now, and shooting with pain.
His father quickly finished the rest of the job, and together they strung the animal up over a tree limb. His father, no longer young, displayed his inhuman strength. The remaining animal blood dripped down into the exposed grass. They made a hasty camp and sat down to finally warm themselves beside the fire. The old man, across from Joel, looked at Joel through the tongue-like flames. He smiled. “You did well,” he said. His teeth shone phosphorescent in the dark.
Joel did not say anything. He gazed into the pulsating heat. He held his palms out to the fire, as if to halt the flames. His fingers were in such a state of pain that, despite himself, it was all he could think about. Above them, the stars burned blue and bright, and the ovoid moon hung profoundly in the sky. Big sparks popped from the gray wood and went fishtailing into the night. After a time, when his fingers started to normalize, Joel raised his eyes a little, furtively, and stared across at his father whose sleeves were folded off his wrists, disclosing the caked and drying blood all along his forearms. Joel watched him. The mountainous man sat with his legs crossed Indian style; he looked lost in contemplation. Joel could also see now that blood was flecked everywhere in tiny polka dots all across his father’s face—a whole constellation of blood—and as his father stared hypnotized into the fire, Joel suddenly thought that the man looked like an abortionist, or a butcher.
Joel slackened his pace now and came trotting into a red forest grove. Incarnadine woods, trees shot with murky light. He passed through. The woods thinned gradually, the grass gave way to stony ground. Joel came out into the open. He stopped running and gazed about him. A final shadow, the last vestige of the morning, advanced like a wave. He waited for it to slop over him and it did. Rims of rosy-pink stood out upon the western hills, the hills just tipped with sunlight. Then the final shadows of night receded and were swept away, and all the land pressed in around him as, little by little, the whole valley gave way to light.
Below him, a broken heap of rocks lay along the dry floor of an old quarry. He paused for a long moment looking down, catching his breath. His sweat dripped lavender into the dust. An old landfill stood adjacent, two hundred meters to the right: a rusty washing machine foundering in a sea of honeysuckle; a rimless Mercury Cougar that looked as if it had been brought down with a Gatling gun; bottles and aluminum cans scattered all throughout the grass; bald tires; bluish glass like sea pebbles winking everywhere among the rocks.
Joel descended a natural limestone staircase and walked across the floor of the quarry.
On the other side, around a high outcropping, he came to a quadrate pool, deep and emerald, with chalky cliffs inverted on the still waters. He did not stop walking but turned his head to view the pond as he passed. The stones all around were purplish and covered in a thin layer of silica dust. There were dusty smells in the air, a mineral tang. The sweat on his skin began to cool. Mats of algae wheeled imperceptibly across the surface of the water, discharging a lemon light more brilliant than the water itself. A thick cable, powdered with rust, hung from high up on the rock walls and came slanting down into the pool, impaling it. Wind sifted through the grass. The wooden door of a decrepit quarry shack blew open and slapped shut. Joel looked around. Was there someone watching? All of a sudden, he felt sure that there was. Apprehension crept over him with the breeze, an ominous tremor in the gelid light. His sweat dried rapidly. He felt his skin prick.
Quickly, he continued through the quarry and came out onto a derelict logging road. The road led back into the trees. He walked past an abandoned mineshaft that consisted of a ramshackle tin building with a corrugated roof and, at the back of the building, a hole blasted into the side of a black mountain. Small cones of tailings stood around the site like lunar volcanos, and a deep floodwater shimmered just inside the cave. Joel could hear within a steady echo drip, and he saw a railbed vanish into the floodwater, only one-and-a-half of its ties visible. Gray tanagers peeked out at him from the trees but made no sound. He approached the cave.
A dead bat slept at the mouth. It was folded up like an umbrella. The small eyes were closed; pointy ears, a pug nose, the sour face almost human-looking to him, or hobbit. The tiny paws clutched at the magnificent cape. In the trees beyond the shack stood a rank sump the color of blood. The surface of the water was rippled, and a silver-gray tree on the other side lay sand-impacted and bent in the water like a drinking straw. Red leaves fell upon the red water. The wind, the water, and the blood. A vampiric palpation. He passed through. Silence filled
Thirty minutes later, he stood before an old brick schoolhouse. A rusted chain and padlock hung on the door of the main entrance. The door itself was half ajar on its hinges; all the front windows were starred through with stones. He saw his miniaturized image reflected in the jagged shards: Indian-black hair, acne-scarred face speared horizontally with long daggers of glass. The school grounds had been overrun with weeds and brown jasmine, virid moss and lichen, the front steps cluttered with glass and nails, busted cement, the sidewalks greatly upheaved. He stood for five minutes looking at the facade of the building. Then he mounted the steps and went inside.
Something eerie was seeping out of the walls. The building itself felt cold and empty. Yet, for a split second, he again grew certain that a pair of eyes burned down on him from above. He looked up but saw nothing. As it was, he was not feeling well—dizzy and a little shaky, and he was even beginning to suspect now that his old sickness was there, tugging at him tirelessly, like an undertow, threatening at any moment to recrudesce. Perhaps it is only my imagination, he thought. He went deeper into the building.
He walked through old classrooms completely gutted and smelling of chalk. Each of his steps left full footprints in the dust. The floorboards screeched beneath him, piercing cries that went volleying throughout the long corridors. One-armed desks, a few, stood scattered about the hallways. Black music stands and metal chairs. More dust came snowing down through the cracks beneath him. Insects clambered up and down the mounds of rubble on the floor. There were mice chamferings along the wainscoting, and several sections of the floor had huge warps in it, like wooden swells in a wooden sea. Drifts of dry leaves had collected in the windless spaces.
Presently he came to the library. He stood just inside the doorway, gazing about. Across, on the other side of the room, a slate chalkboard stood propped against the wall. He walked into the room and scanned everything. There were still many books on the sagging shelves, all covered with chalky dust. He sat down in a swivel chair with only three wheels and began sorting through stacks—searching for precisely what, he did not know. At the end of ten minutes, he came upon a large pile of high school annuals, dating from as far back as 1910. He went through each of these in turn, checking them methodically, studying every page. The pages were brittle and discolored, the photos all black-and-white.
And then he found something.
He found pictures of his mother when she was a senior in high school. He did not recognize her at first, not until he saw her name—Kristiansen—and then it became obvious to him. In the photos (and he realized this with a shock) she looked virtually identical to the way she had looked when he had known her, twenty-five years after this photo had been taken. Her beauty, he thought, was ageless: the long sable hair, the Cherokee cheekbones, the lambent black eyes. She was not smiling in any one of the shots, but invariably a trace of amusement played across her lips—something arcane (he thought) and as if directed specifically at him. The year was 1935. Valedictorian. Voted prettiest girl in school. He examined each page carefully.
He came next across a picture of a man holding her hand.
He sat looking at this photo for fifteen minutes.
The man’s name was Shelby Morgan. Joel knew it well. Shelby Morgan was a tall and slender man, a handsome man, with a slab of hair hanging thickly across his cheekbone. He was kissing Joel’s mother on the forehead. The caption read: couple most likely to get married. As Shelby Morgan kissed her, she stared straight into the camera, the same strange expression stamped upon her face. It was a knowing expression, somehow timeless.
When Joel was finished, he searched the shelves for more yearbooks that might contain her pictures, but he could not find any.
He was in the room a long time before he realized that he was not alone.
He glanced up from what he was doing and saw someone standing in the doorway. For a moment, this person was in plain view. It was a young girl. His heart went into his throat. The girl was dressed all in black, cloaked to the throat in black, a long black dress, little arms poking from the sleeves like the limbs of an etiolated tree. Her hands hung down at her sides, fingers partially bent. Large flaxen braids pinioned like horns her narrow skull. Her face looked blue. She wore a blank expression but stared directly at him. At first she did not move.
Not until he stood up and approached her. Then she turned and went unhurriedly into the other room.
He made to follow her, but when he came out from behind the desk and into the doorway, she was no longer anywhere to be seen. He thought he heard the soft clop of her shoes. He walked out into the hallway and entered the opposite room. He looked about; he saw nothing. Overhead lights lay smashed across the floor. Bird droppings stood piled like young stalagmites beneath the broken windows. Those were perhaps faint footprints tracked across the dust. He followed the tracks to the other side of the room, up a narrow stairway, then down another acoustical hallway. But when the wood gave way to tile, the tracks disappeared, and he could find no trace of them again anywhere. A door of solid maple had slid off its hinges and stood leaning against one of the hallway walls. The door was split its entire length with a fibrous gash. He walked in turn through each upstairs classroom. He could not find her. Finally, at the last room—first grade—he went in and stood before the western window and stared out over the abandoned grounds below. The glass of this window was still intact, though deeply flawed, and like a landscape viewed through heat, everything outside looked rippled.
The land was quiet and empty. Missile-shaped clouds had amassed in the south. A ramulous red apple tree stood up in arms against the sky. Scuffed-up fruit lay scattered all about the cakey dirt. Far off, a pasture of legless cows were grazing in a field of alfalfa.
Joel walked out of the building and made his way down a clay road that ran in the opposite direction from the one by which he had come in. Twenty-five meters away, he turned and looked back.
She stood at the window of the room he had last been in.
Through the warped glass, she looked frozen: a lady locked in ice. He raised his hand to her, but she did nothing in return. She did not move.
Suddenly, then, for a moment’s fraction, Joel glimpsed the exact nature of what was happening—and as he glimpsed it, he felt himself seized with a sense of despair greater than any he had ever known before. In a span of seconds, thus, it seemed to him that his entire life could only turn into one and just one indistinguishable color: black, black, and blacker.
But shortly after that, the stranger appeared.