Death Spares Not Another Year
Originally published in Levee Magazine (Issue 2, May 2019).
Wind whips over the gentle hills of central Virginia in rattles of leaves turned yellow and orange a couple weeks ago. Red leaves are beginning on the soft maples now. Ballinger Creek, from which the town takes its name, is fuller than it has been in months. It was a dry summer, and crop yields were wanting, but September brought good, needed rain.
The old farmer moves through his field with his arms at his side, his weathered fingers skimming the tall grass that’s shot up. Used to be a cotton field when he was a young man, work he still carries with him in the bend of his spine like a sickle. It was then a goat pasture when he got older, but the goats were long gone now.
When a mourning dove coos from somewhere nearby, he stops and turns his head to listen. The dove calls again, unseen from the tree line. A male’s mating call, that soft swell of its whistle, swirls in unseen coils around him. He closes his eyes and listens. When the next call sounds further off, he drops his head and keeps walking toward the edge of his field. A modest barn sits lonesome in the distance, that mural on its side faded in time.
“I hope you find her,” he whispers, through a shallow smile and soft eyes. “Sure hope you find her.”
He’s too hot for sleeping, with summer hanging on like bad blood. He’s small in his queen bed, a fading echo of his former frame. The side opposite him was made and never again undone. Sheets old and unwashed still tucked under the mattress, and a pillow smooth and untouched.
He shifts his eyes from the ceiling to the window, its shape in the dark an apparition of what he knows is there. There is no moon light, and the night slides its fingers under the window’s opening in whispers. He wonders whether it really is that dark, or if his eyes are dulling the way his body had been.
Just then there’s a sound, like the branch of a tree just beginning to separate from the trunk, and it rips through the quiet in discordant snaps, distinctive and unnatural. He turns his head toward it. The snapping grows into a cacophony of splitting wood and then it settles like a passing freight train and then it’s quiet once more.
The glow of his kerosene lamp confirms what he already knew: his barn’s roof had collapsed in on itself like some great force pulled at it from inside. The shape of the open door is intact, but inside is a pile of debris. Wood that was once the loft and roof lay on the hay-covered ground, and the sky is brightening with dawn through the gaping wound.
He moves to the back of the barn, stepping carefully around the mess, and breathing short and anxious breaths. His small memorial is still there, unharmed: a framed photograph of a young woman propped against a simple stand, and a golden ring hanging from a plain, inelegant chain dangling from the corner. The black and white of it has aged into hues of yellow, but her smile is still evident, slight but genuine. Her eyes are radiant, and her dark skin rich with a deep flourishing. He swallows down the emotion that was building up from his belly and exhales the breath he’d been holding. He takes the small ring gently in his hand and runs his thumb over it and then finds the stool behind him and lowers himself to it carefully. He puts his fingers to his lips and then to the ground in front of the picture and rests there with his elbows on his knees. He closes his eyes for a long time there, but he does not sleep. He thinks of her: the palms of her hands, her black hair tucked behind her ear, the weight of her head in his lap. His lips tremble silently and in his mind he forms a prayer he’d made no conscious effort to make.
“Let me not forget her face, dear Lord, so that I may know when I’ve arrived in your kingdom,” he says, and repeats this until the words are no longer words, only noises.
The morning light through the open mouth above him changes to evening before he leaves her again.
Days are getting shorter and he notices. Winds are getting cooler, like snow is riding in after them. It worries him. That old barn just barely standing on its own as it is, and a heavy snow could take it the rest of the way down, he thinks. He watches from his back door the field like a sea of tan and that half-standing barn at its far side blurry through the door’s old screen. The mural on its side is hazy through the screen and his fading eyes. He closes them and imagines it in his mind: a man in a canoe, his arms reaching above his head, a giant bird in flight above him. He sighs, and his breath hangs in the cold air inside the house. The stove in the main room of the home is sitting cool and quiet along with everything else and hasn’t seen wood in more than a year. He knows already, knows it in his bones: this winter coming in on him is going to be a fierce one, and he’d have to find heat somewhere.
His hand rests against his belly, sunken in from age and poverty. It hurts him to have it there, but it hurts him when it isn’t there too. Just then he coughs, and his coughing turns into a fit he can’t control, buckling him at the waist so his hands find his knees for stability until the fit too takes his knees from him and he’s there on the floor on all fours, coughing and scared of himself.
He feels the wet from blood on his lips before he knows its blood. He wipes his mouth with his hand and it comes away red, a smear the color of dark wine on its backside. The grimace on his face as he starts to correct himself from the floor turns to a groan when he finally stands upright. His stomach feels like it’s just been run over. He lifts his shirt and sees the bruising there around his navel, deep purple and near black. He stands and looks at himself and feels betrayed by a body that used to work.
The wind outside sighs through a crack somewhere in the house and it sounds like moaning.
The sound of ripping canvas fills his room over the tapping of rain on the tin roof. He rips another piece of the tarp and lays it out over his lap, the whiteness of it drapes around his knees folded under him and bunches up the way a young girl’s wedding dress might. He finds a corner and folds the canvas over itself. He finds the needle and thread on the floor at his side and slides the thread through the needle’s hole and begins working it through the heavyweight material creating a whipstitch around the outer edge.
Before nightfall, he’s sewn the canvas into a bag of sorts, a strip of old bridle leather as a shoulder strap. He hangs it against his withering frame, ribs rippling the sides of his torso under pale skin beneath the thick mackinaw he’s wearing, too big after all of his shrinking. It hung previously in a closet he never opened, hiding the standard issue uniform he’d worn forty years prior as a cavalryman. He nods to himself and sighs the same sigh he had done on a doomful morning in the badlands of South Dakota, some memory he’d long ago repressed as his life’s foremost and paramount mistake.
The rain falls against the window and the barn looks far away out there. He sits in the creaky chair he placed there days ago and watches the rain fall on the barn, the canvas bag at his side and his head just barely rising above the windowsill so he would look body-less from anyone watching from outside. Night comes before the end of the rain, so he decides to wait and shuffles his way to the bed and falls asleep without praying.
Rain turns to sleet in the cover of night and makes the ground a frozen refuge for the year’s first snow: something cold, of itself, to land on safely and without the threat of warmth.
He goes to the fallen barn out back and collects scrap wood from the debris. His winter mackinaw is worn through in places but it’s still the warmest one he’s got. His bony fingers wrap around the handle of his canvas carrier, knuckles knobby and red with cold. The sun just dipped below the hills, but he can still make out the pastures working their way up the hillside in front of him, lines of naked trees marking their borders, and he remembers how it used to be clearer, convinced now of his coming blindness. Grass under him is tan and pale, turned from their bright green with the low light and coldness of oncoming winter. They’ll be white with snow soon enough, and he feels the promise of it in his weak bones.
A few small manageable pieces break off the sunken barn roof like tree bark, and what he can’t fit in the carrier he places under his arm and walks back to the house.
Inside the house is dark from twilight, with everything the same shade of deep purple. With tears brimming from his bottom eyelids, he puts the wood in his potbelly stove on the small fire there, moribund with time. The wood crackles and settles, and the fire builds once more. The streams on his face glow orange in the fire’s light in little rivulets of molten iron. Sparks that fly at the small window of the stove reflect in his glassy eyes like lightning bugs trying to escape, looking for some vent that isn’t there.
Softly, he whispers, “Sorry, love. Couldn’t be helped.” And for the first time in weeks he feels warmth on his face, massaging through the paper skin of his neck and into his chest.
Above his stove hangs the dreamcatcher his wife made. Next to it a sign with an old Occaneechi greeting. He was never sure what it meant, and never convinced his wife knew either. Too much time between the fluent speakers of the Occaneechi language and her. Between he and that native tongue, entire universes.
Night and the cold it holds onto has settled completely now over central Virginia. A barred owl rests easy on a tree limb. From its perch on the hilltop, the little farm below sits cradled in its small valley like a droplet of water in the bend of a leaf. Smoke from an iron pipe in the roof billows slowly upwards, catching the moonlight. The owl blinks and turns its head.