John Lloyd Purdy was born and raised in Oregon and is active in environmental issues in the Northwest. A professor of English at Western Washington University, his poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in national journals, and his scholarly works include Nothing But the Truth: An Anthology of Native American Literatures, for which he received a Writer of the Year award from the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers. His works of fiction are in the tradition of classical humor, jerry-rigged in the service of social discourse.
It all comes back in one piece. Not just a smell, a bead of sweat trailing
down his spine, the sharp excitement kept small and deep inside.
Instead, he rose out of the dead sleep as he had for each of all those years, slowly climbing up out of that oblivion to the whine of his dogs penned up outside. They had to crap and wanted him up and out for their morning walk. His wife slept motionless beside him. The familiar began to unfold as his memory of the day before and the day before that booted up; but before the room took on its shapes and shadows, it was all there, in one piece, intact, with color and smells and heat and gut-wrenching. Not a rush, not a flood, not even a flash like they say. Maybe a low pop, like the muffled sound of an AK-47 letting off one round in deep bush. One minute rising up from the dark, the next sitting on the crumpled mass of their SH-3, its useless .30 caliber pointing to the sky as if to call attention that way.
M-16 laying across his lap, he stares up at the hovering CH-47 Chinook slowly winching down the cable that he would then attach to the dead chopper that was his hot roost. He can see the crew chief's head and arm, guiding it down, down, toward him.
All of it, bang. The sweat, the butterflies stirring the nausea, the taste of bile still sharp and distinct, although the grunts had swept in right after they were downed and the firefight had moved on and away up the hill and then died out, and the Huey had done its dustoff, taking the two wounded and Big out, dead as a doornail and limp as a rag. Still warm. Still wet. And the pilot, still screaming with his legs broken and dangling as they lifted him in next to Big's corpse, and the co-pilot sitting in the front jump seat unbuckled and still staring off at nothing on the tree line. Bang. Alone. Grunts gone. VC gone. Big really gone. Alone with the smell of his own fear, the smell of spent rounds and aircraft fuel and blood all mixed like a drugged cocktail that no wind seemed capable of hooking to and hauling up and out. All of it, pop.
He sits up. The dogs sense his movement and whine again, but beyond that, he feels it. It is coming his way, full speed, the whump whump whump finally dawning, full born in the morning still. A Chinook. Coming at his house. There is a moment of mild panic as he looks around. The 9-millimeter is in the drawer, but that thought is fleeting. He is here. Those smells and sensations and conflicts decades away, thousands of miles distant. Millions.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed and begins the ritual of pulling on socks, sweats, boots. Routine. The noise grows louder, and then bigger in his mind where he sees the awful deliberation of its coming, high above the earth, withdrawn and aloof and relentless. And this memory dawns slowly. They are coming to yard the old-growth logs off the hill behind the house. Regal Pacific dropping them like dandelions, like so many weeds whacked to bring in the sunlight, and there it is. The whole sad old story.
The dogs begin their short bark and dance as he approaches the kennel. "Serves me right," he says out loud to no one, "should have gotten up earlier, to match the sunrise and not the damned clock." The days begin earlier, last longer, the years stacking comfortably slower at some points. "Einstein was right. It is all relative," he tell himself. They move off into the tree line at the back of his house and wind their way along the path behind the neighbor's property and up the old logging road into the hills. The Chinook's rotors and engines grow louder with each step. He knows he should turn around, avoid it another day, and begin earlier tomorrow to avoid facing the inevitable. He knows this, because each step jars now and brings the knot of his stomach higher in his throat. He knows this sensation, too. He walks toward it. Leeches, locusts gnawing off trees that have lived a thousand years and leaving the scoured earth to fend for itself when the rains came. He sees their local manager at the community meeting, telling them that they'd replant the bare hillsides. "It's the law," he had said. "In three years. Those are the rules."
The old dog humps to do her morning ritual right in the middle of the road, so he slows, giving her time to finish her business and catch up before he picks the pace back up. She has arthritic knees, a hopping gait from them, but she keeps up, never staying behind when the sun comes up, but ready and eager. He has learned much from her.
He can hear the tower signals now, the beeps that tell the controller to roll
the cable back in with its log at the end dredging up the humus of the steep
hillsides, or let it go slack so the next log can get the choker. Dragging the
dead uphill, or down, from where they've fallen and to the tower, loading them
on the trucks for their ride downhill. Then there are the dead that are too hard
to get to and need the dustoff. He freezes, dead
The big diesel motor throttles up and strikes the biggest of the trees at the tree line, and it topples, but not in slow motion. Some people say this stuff happens in slow motion, but that has not been his experience. It was not a large tree by his standards. In the Northwest, they grow tall and thick through the middle. Here, it's only eight, ten inches, tops, but it snaps like a twig as the Armored Personnel Carrier throttles through, right behind the SH-3, on its side and dead, with them squatting behind it, a .30 caliber pointing at the sky, useless, only one M-16 and the pilot's regulation .45 and co-pilot's 9 millimeter salvaged from the wreck and making pitiful periodic slowing fire across the elephant grass of the clearing, the co-pilot shooting like John Wayne with his two hands alternating pop… pop… pop, then ducking back to wait, conserving the ammunition. And he, too, slipping the muzzle, then barrel, out and over the tail section, sighting down the groove and thinking of deer, then pop and back, and all the time that stupid song in his head drowning out the panic he knows lurks below it: "Twist and turn, crash and burn, helis forever; twist and turn crash and burn…," and each time he leans over to sneak a shot the tempo climbs until the beat culminates in the pop and then back. It's only a matter of a short time before a decision has to be made. Make a run for it and leave the pilot and Big's corpse behind, and hope for the best, or all go down together. There it was. Sink or swim together—and then that big diesel barreling out of nowhere to drop that tree with a snap and thud, the gunner on top, not worried about ammunition, holding it down, sweeping the grass and the far tree line like a weed whacker.
Ask anyone who's worked in the woods: a tree makes a unique noise when it goes down after it's been cut through. There's a creaking at the moment when it hangs between that old existence and this new thing coming, and then it drops, slowly at first, grudgingly, groaning, but gaining momentum with gravity. The sound it makes as it hits is also unique, for it is more than sound. Even miles distant, you feel the shaken earth shudder through the sound itself. It is the paragon of finality, certitude, defeat.
He picks up his pace. They climb now, the young dog far out ahead. He snaps
his fingers twice in quick succession, and she returns to him. She is still a
puppy at three, too eager and forward, and if they were hunting grouse now, she
would jump them too far ahead for him or his son to get a shot. The grouse,
sometimes, when flushed by a dog, fly into a nearby tree to check out this
creature, and it is easy to take them then as they focus on the dog, but they
never do. Some things are just not right; some things you just don't do, and
this becomes a mantra as he takes the long, steep hill before the curve. Just
not right, just not right, each word a
step to carry him up the slope.
To his amazement, the first shot is on target. The man running at a crouch toward the downed and crumpled helicopter raised slightly at 100 meters, perhaps to check out how close he was or else to get off a shot, maybe, or maybe he was just tired of running in that awkward, stooped over position and so his back hurt. Before he thinks it the M-16 is at his shoulder giving him that familiar nudge and the man stands quickly upright and topples backwards in one jerking motion, falling as his arms begin to flip upward, his AK-47 a thing of that past life. And then he is back behind the fuselage and the co-pilot is John Wayning… pop… pop… pop.
Carolyn & Jerry
Josh wanted a pop tart for breakfast, but I told him no. A treat too often is no longer a treat I told him. Besides, I was in no mood to deal in treats. I moved about getting the kids' hot cakes ready, dull and grumpy and I know I shouldn't have taken it out on the kids, but what can you do? This thing had become so… so demanding. Yet, it had to be. I knew that. So did Jerry, I'm sure, though he's never said it in so many words, and the kids, too, in their own way. But it has so many wrinkles to it, and that's tiring, working each one over in your mind, ironing it out only to lose it in others. And that is frustrating, like you're not really covering any new ground but only the same over and over again.
So no pop tart. The meeting the night before had killed all our hopes for an early treat. We'd filed three Forest Practices Appeals against the eleven applications Regal Pacific had made to clear cut their land up the creek, and thought it a done deal: our lawyer told us it's as good as decided. They'd have to stop logging until they could prove that cutting so many places at once wouldn't hurt anything. "It's the right thing, only neighborly. Any judge would have to side with us," the lawyer had said. They was logging 1581 acres there, right there on and above the creek in plain sight for all to see, and a blind man could see the damage, the damage that was yet to come, as truck after truck rolled out. We had to do it; there was no other way, except to sit by and watch. The flood was coming, and it'd be a big one.
So, all thirty neighbors sat there looking around at each other stunned, looking for all the world like they'd been hit over the head like a steer at a butcher's. We were going to win the appeals—"No doubt about that," the lawyer had told us—but by the time it went to court, the trees would be down, dropped like that self-same steer after the mallet had fallen. No treats this time around.
Some took it better than others. Kim said we needed to get the rules changed, get Department of Natural Resources on the hook and swing them a bit; Charley said we ought to take the fight right at the capitol, make `em squirm and reconsider who they're really working for. Made sense, and there was a murmur through the group, but there was still the noise of the trucks passing by right outside the school, six-thirty at night and still hauling, as they did every day of the week. Even our Easter meal had the growl of chainsaws loud in the background. I had to look up at Jerry's bowed head as he spoke the meal's prayer, and he looked up to me with those sad eyes that had captured me back in high school.
Fall of `72, Jerry was graduated and was logging with his dad up the North Fork making lots of money and feeling on top of the world, and then the draft notice came and those sad eyes drilled me to the soul. I'll say it to anyone who asks: I prayed my mind out that he would not go, and I do not regret a one of those prayers, including the one that worked. By the time I graduated the next year, the war was over, or nearly over, and we was one year married, so we stayed home and we worked to make this life, these lives.
Now, I don't know.
Part of my grumpiness was because of that damned, forgive my French, helicopter they was using now. It come up the river that morning, and was there most of the morning, going up and down, up and down, up and down making that awful racket, that dull sound that kind of echoed off of the hills up behind the house. I hate that sound, and still think that they brought it in from out of the country just to scare us, or show us who was boss here, them or us. Obnoxious damned thing. Sorry. But that's how it all started and things worked out about the way you'd figure. Anyway, I was at home that day as usual.
You know, though, now that I look back on it, there is more to it, more than this feeling, this anger, I guess. It's truly a wonder. It's something I can't quite put my finger on, but, well, I guess it is this way we look and talk to each other now. Jerry and me, too, but all of us. Odd. Been in this house nearly fifteen years, driving up and down the same road home, shopping at the same I.G.A., going to the same school plays and programs—and now the high school for our oldest—as everybody else since we moved here from up the North Fork. Jerry's been working at the same place, with the same folks, and in all that time, you know what? I never felt at home, welcomed. We have our individual lives to tend, I know, but it seemed more. And I know how small towns are. They don't abide new arrivals gladly. I know it takes a long time to feel a part of it, but, when we started all this legal stuff, well, it was different. It was different. Surely odd.
Larry & May
Nothing in Hatfield School of Law ever prepared me for this. They looked for all the world like I had shot one of them. They just stared at me and each other, dull and silent and unbelieving. I guess I can't blame them. I'd carried my own share of bad news to clients over the years, and it never got any lighter. At times like that, I think hard about another job. At times like that, I want a cigarette more than anything, but I'd promised May that I'd stay on the smoke wagon, and that I'd stay at my work, odious as it was at times dealing with folks and phonies. It was her who got me into this line of law anyway, her and what she had no way to defend—so lost the first time around.
And these were folks, the kind I had known my whole life, well, most of them, half. The others were transplanted city people moved here for the natural beauty or jobs or to raise their kids far from gangs and metal detectors in the schools or whatever. Most with good intentions, it seemed. But, you know what the road to hell is paved with, and that's what I had brought them: their own little bit of hell road, the reality of laws and rules and untouchables.
There was a store right across from the school, so I thought I'd pick up a pack of smokes on the way out. I could roll down the car window for the drive home, and May would be no wiser. A few breath mints, too. I put the thought away as I looked out around the circle and tallied those thirty-one faces. It was all about trust, and theirs had been violated.
"Look," I said, "I'm truly sorry. I thought they would proceed in good faith, wait until the court had ruled and then decide what to do. I was wrong." They shifted in their seats. "When they moved into the county from out of state to buy out the Fleur-de-lis Corporation's tree farms, all 55,000 acres, I figured, like you, that they were here for the long haul, wanted to manage the farms so that they'd have trees for years to come." I let that sink in, watching a third of them nod and look at one another. It made common sense. "Then, when they brought in crews from out of state, too, I knew we had a problem. I made some calls to lawyers I know who operate near Regal's home base. That's when I started getting real worried and checked all the DNR files on them. I'm sorry. They're cutting faster than before. Not only that, they're bringing in more crews and equipment to expedite the harvest. There's nothing we can do. I've tried. If you file a motion for a stop-work order, you're liable for any revenues the company loses as a consequence."
That's when they took the obvious fits and starts of frustration: boycotts, blockades, civil disobedience. And I had to tell them that this had been tried before, all of it had worked out time and time again and the results were usually pretty much the same: some do jail time, others get hurt, some lose their homes to law suits from the company. "But," I told them, "sometimes battles are won, too." I cited the few recent court decisions, and then implied that any result from their appeals may influence some politicians up for re-election, so they might be advised to organize officially, get a war chest of cash ready and all that. Same old ground—new place and new set of faces.
We parted quietly, they to their homes in the woods and me to my neighborhood of wood-framed homes. The store loomed large in my vision as I walked to the car, but I didn't buy that pack.
Zack & Anna
On the way home in the waning light, he is silent. His wife of most his years stares straight ahead, as quiet as a morgue. It was that lawyer fella, he thought, just like them all. They had put their faith in him, and he was only after their money, he bet. That fella kept talking about politicians, but he had met enough of them to look beyond their smiles and nods and you bets. He was no hayseed, although that's what they thought. When that big city governor candidate come around, he had carefully dressed the part: bibbed overalls, rubber boots, and went to the school to hear him talk about all he was going to do for county folks. When the candidate was winding down and gearing up for the final joke, he stood up, cleared his throat, and in his best hick drawl asked the questions, one at a time slowly, using the specifics, the end results of political decisions that all could see within reach of the room if they just looked out the window. He'd asked about logging, and the candidate took him in at a glance and readied his package of appeasement. He was here to win the hearts and minds of the people, and as many terms in office as possible. He talked about economics, timber money for schools and universities, and by the third wave he felt them all slipping away and slowed his spiel. The old man shuffled a bit and turned to walk out to the aisle where he turned back and said, "Sorry, I gotta leave… for I only wore my knee boots." And that was it. When the candidate left, people were still sniggering as he walked through them.
The candidate got only a small fraction of the county's vote. Now, the long arm of consequences was reaching into their homes and lives, and he and his wife of sixty years rode in a confusion of silence. She had never been one to hold her tongue, `specially when she saw something that grated against her unerring sense of right and wrong. As he well knew, her sense of moral outrage knew no bounds, and now, here beside him, returning from that meeting, she was lost for words. That told the whole sad story.
"You know, maybe it's about time we moved into town. You're no spring chicken, and neither am I, so maybe we should move in where we ain't so alone all the time, could get to the hospital fast if need be."
She didn't hesitate. "Zach, you may be a fool, but don't make me one. What do you mean, alone?"
He slowed to make the last curve before their home of thirty years, past their son and daughter-in-law's new frame house, white against the new moon. The hills of the Valley rose abruptly on both sides of the road, allowing only a few small pastures here and there, each with its guardian house. Wetlands took all else, and the forests rising above. "What do you mean what do I mean?"
"We got people all around us. More friends now than we had two months ago even, before all this stuff started. It ain't like we're out on some far away homestead in Alaska, for Christ's sake."
Now, he began to worry in earnest. In all their time together, he had heard her take the Lord's name in vain only three times. One was when their first son died in the war, the news reaching them along with a letter from his commander telling what a good soldier he had been, how friendly and hard-working. She had read it slowly, never crying, and then read it again, stunned like the people at the meeting tonight, and silent, and then she had said only "God damn…" and walked out of the house and down to the river where he found her sitting in one of their chairs sobbing. This was not good. He took the turn into the driveway in silence.
Larry & May
No, I didn't buy that pack of smokes, but I did stop at Rocky's for a drink before I took those last two blocks home. I needed it, and I needed to think. It was late for the place, never a night spot on a week day, the only bar in a town where most of the customers knew each other enough to stay away from the table if it looked like a person was digging deep into the problems of modern life or rocky marriages.
Snug in my booth, I started to, once again, wonder at the twists and turns life had to offer. At one time, I had been happily dumb in my own practice, plodding along toward some undetermined future, and then I did the natural thing and helped an old friend who was about to go under. The end effect of my help was that he did, in fact, go under. Lost his farm, family, and sense of purpose. Arrested, jailed, flipped out and locked away in a mental institution for five years before he convinced everyone he was well enough not to pose a threat to himself or society, and once released he pulls the disappearing act. That was curious enough, but for me to be married to his ex-wife was even more so.
Here May and I had been together for nearly ten years, and we talked about the oddity of it all only that once, just before we were married. After that, it was respectful avoidance, that and the easy escape into raising, schooling, and seeing her kids off on their own lives. It has never been easy, never been easy.
And through it all I felt useful, for the most part. I know my business, know human nature, know the law more than I'd care to, and know when to dig in my heels and when to fold my hand, but it certainly has never been easy, and lately, lately it had been getting worse. More people, more demands, more conflicts, and me too often the only avenue of resolution.
On the third drink, I realized that I was getting moribund and too self-important, which is a deadly combination, so I got up, set the glass on the bar, nodded at the bartender as I walked by, and looked away from the cigarette machine near the door as I went once more home.
The next day, all hell broke loose, so that night was the last when I'd had the luxury of time to sit and wonder about my sorry life.
The old dog lags behind as they reach the crest, so he slows and finally stops. She comes hobbling up, sits and looks up to him, her tongue out and panting. "We don't get any younger, do we, pup?" The dog agrees, he can tell. "Come on." He slows his pace and, after the curve, he stops at the base of the next incline where one ditch runs deep with one of the creek's feeder streams. The water is murky with runoff from the work above, but the dog steps gratefully in up to her knees and stands still, lapping water. The young dog dives in beside her, knocking her off balance, but she rights herself, ignores the intrusion and finishes her drink. When she steps out and shakes, they move on, up the incline, slowly. As they climb, the trees grow taller, bigger in girth, and farther apart, but forming a dense canopy above them that shuts out the direct rays of the sun and cools their way. His sweat begins to chill his back and under his arms.
The sun had been unrelenting. Now, the Chinook cable close at hand, he slides down from his perch to catch the turnbull and line and pull slack enough to get to the reinforced eyes where he would fasten them. This will be interesting, he thought. The SH-3, especially the ones designed for search and rescue inland, were heavily armored on the bottom, and this, added to their awkward normal weight, would strain the Chinook. He's glad that a Huey is on its way to pick him up with the rest of the grunts who had emerged from the rear of the APC like so many baby snakes to sweep across the clearing and disappear into the trees. They had returned to sit smoking in the shade in the trees, waiting their ride back to base camp. One auto-rotation a day was enough for him.
And it had been a mixed bag of sensations as they twisted and turned, banked and dropped, Big, dead at the rear gun, and the engines above groaning under the stress. He had felt oddly safe in this job. The thick armor, the dual guns, the infrequency of coming into some heavy shit. Now, his faith was challenged. They had made a sane approach to pick up the Navy pilot whose beacon signal was on although his voice radio was not working. They came in at a sharp angle past a low-rising hilltop to drop down to catch the first edge of the mountain clearing. Get in and get out. Simple. It was only common sense. And that was the mistake of the hunted.
The bottom and sides of the chopper are thick with metal, not the top. They started taking small arms fire immediately when they got within range of the hilltop. He opened up with the .30 caliber, spraying every bush he could see near the top. The pilot pulled up, hoping to bank the belly of the ship to put it between them and the fire. The chopper groaned, turned, but the damage had already been done. The engines' arteries had been hit so they were spitting smoke and stuttering as they broke into the autorotate and that's when Big took a round through the back door. The hit and the centrifugal force threw him against the bulkhead behind him, and that was it. The ship twisted down and then, twenty feet up, pitched over and dropped like a heaved rock to its side.
He shook himself awake, although he had never really lost consciousness, only slipped into a zone of curious disbelief. He was lying against the main circuit-breaker board and the co-pilot was struggling to unstrap and right himself. He cut his shroud line and got to his knees to help the co-pilot from the cockpit. They were both out and tugging on the pilot when they began taking the first fire from the far tree line. The sun was intensely bright, and the air was thick and humid.
He's sweating heavily, the incline growing steeper as they take the first switchback. Then, it levels again and he slows near the first culvert. The small stream, here too, is murky but the dogs swim in the deep pool below it. He sits down in the shade, drawing in the smells. The dogs come out shaking, curious. They love long walks, but they wonder when they go beyond the daily perimeters. Usually, fishing or hunting, or simply to see what they could find, and these parameters were wholly sufficient for them. He wishes the old dog could simply lie down here in the cool shade and sleep while he and the young one continue on, but he knows it will not happen. It is getting late; they have to move.
Zack & Anna
Jake was at his brother's door early the next morning. He didn't even bother rising from the kitchen table, and Jake was never one to let a closed door stop him for long. That's how he lost the first wife. When she locked him out and told him to come back when he'd calmed down, he plowed through it like John Wayne trying to get to Maureen O'Sullivan—or was that O'Hara?—but it was she who took out for town and never looked back. He helped himself to the coffee and sat down across table.
"How'd the meeting go?"
Somewhere in their fiftieth year, Zach had gotten wise, or tired. Rather than draw out his brother's questions, frustrating him with what Zach knew and he didn't, he began to cut to the chase, drop it on the table, and watch Jake fidget his way through it until all the chaff had fallen away and the bare kernel of truth lay bright upon the plate. Or, until he gave up and walked out. Either way, it saved time and energy. He told him in detail the elements of the story, describing the lawyer's eyes as they scanned about the room, the initial reactions of their neighbors, one by one, and then the concluding silence and drive home, carefully avoiding the blaspheme although, or because, Jake would have found it terribly funny.
"It figures. Didn't I tell you so? We need some leverage and can't get a good grip on this slippery situation enough to heave." Jake always used metaphors that had to do with manual labor. In his whole life, though, he had held very few manual labor jobs, and no job longer than a year. A Jake of all trades, the family joked. But, he was solvent, happy, alive and a storyteller of biblical proportions. Zach had always thought that all Jake's experiences had allowed him to see things that were invisible to Zach and others. On the other hand, they were twins; so he doubted it, believing instead that Jake was a master of disguise, who could, through words, dress himself any way he wanted to escape tight situations and unwanted affections. Anywhere but here.
The coffee gone, they were standing up when Anna came from the bedroom buckling her belt over her dress. She had told him in the first light of dawn that she was going into town with three other women from the community, and that they would be back by dinnertime. That, and nothing else. With a lifetime lesson of accommodation behind him, he asked no questions. Now, she was nearly ready for breakfast, so they stepped through the door and outside where Jake could smoke, one of the only conditions on visitors Anna had ever imposed.
The morning was cool despite the season. The river beyond caught the first rays of the sun popping up over the ridge. They breathed deeply. In the final analysis, it was all they actually knew or really needed. "Remember that story about the drummer in Scio?"
Although he had learned to cut, Jake had not. That, he thought, was the basis of his telling. "Okay. What drummer, what story?"
"You know. He's staying in the old hotel and comes out on the porch in the morning for a smoke, stretches, and notices the old-timer sitting there?"
"Oh, you mean drummer, salesman."
"Yeah. That's what I said. Anyway, he looks around and says, `Pretty little town you got here.' And the old-timer says, `Yep,' and goes on smoking his pipe. The drummer, being a drummer, tries to stir up a conversation, so he asks, `Lived here your whole life?' and the old guy looks shot and blurts out, `Not yet!'"
They laughed at the old joke. But they did not laugh as long as they used to. As their coughs of finality died down, they heard it, coming up the river. At first they could not place it, could not fit it into the morning, the sun, the river, the scene before them; and then it dawned, ascending above the ridge and moving fast, the terrible noise of its coming catching in their throats. Anna burst through the back door, frying pan in hand, looking off to the south and the river. It came over the tree line fast, the awful deliberation of its passing stirring the winds and whipping the trees.
Anna slumped down on the top step of the porch and set the pan carefully down on the worn wood beside her. Jake snubbed out his cigarette on his boot sole. Zach took one last deep breath, the air tinted with the smell of fuel. He and his twin glimpse the future through the lens of long ago. Why should they be shocked as it unfolds once more?
By mid-morning he had climbed two-thirds the way up to the tree line of the nearly bare hilltop where rock outcroppings mark the summit on the last slope of the ridge. He had been here before, had sat and looked out over the whole Valley and all the houses of the people he knew here, his home for all these years. He knows the terrain like his own hands, but even at that, he feels isolated at times. He realizes that it has been true for more than the time he has lived, that for thousands of lives the land has grown deep, but now… he stops. There is this disquieting sensation, and he is still unsure of what he actually feels, but it is there, burning slowly in his chest like a smoldering fire. He walks on.
He thinks of this new group who meet every week without fail at the school, or other times at people's homes over food. An odd group, a mix of eclectic warriors: kids, elders, women stirred up to heated emotion and who did things, veterans of the long war who are restless in their place, neighbors—and he sees how formidable. He walks on, weary. The clearing comes before he is fully conscious of it, so he breaches the tree line too quickly and freezes stalk still, then backs slowly into the brush.
Dropping, he crawls to the edge of the clearing on the short slope of the hilltop before it drops steeply into the valley. All is quiet. The noise had gone away, although he can't be sure about the passage of time. He and the dogs had been in the deep trees, under their canopy, so the sun was no clock, and now he is sweating again from the exertion of the climb up to the top. His black shirt sticks to his sides and the familiar feeling of nausea is lurking somewhere below the lid he learned to form early in the war. He wants to go home, deeply and resolutely. To simply turn around and march back to that other life of family and friends and feasts. For too long, the road had been closed, but now, though, he knows he will. It is only a matter of time, of doing what needs to be done, the right thing, and then waiting for the right time to move in that direction. The homecoming will take care of itself, if he has the faith to believe in the future. It is a long out-waiting.
Hearing a loud noise, he rises, using a low bush for cover. He can now survey the open area below, slowly pulling his weapon to the ready. When he is satisfied that there is no motion nearby, he runs in a crouch to another clump of bushes to his left, one of the few remaining on the hilltop. He drops roughly to his belly behind its scant protection. When all is quiet he peeks over, and still no movements. The noise comes again, though, so he keeps his gaze in its direction. It grows louder, deafening, and then it rises like a fire-breathing dragon above the trees to the south. It comes in high, but then drops sharply below his position. Focused on the opening below, they have not seen him, for they are moving at an angle in his direction but slightly off to his left, to catch the closest end of the clearing. He can see the crewman in the rear door, looking forward, but not at him. It comes closer, he raises his weapon, sights along the blue of its barrel, and squeezes off the first round, then a second, and then the whole clip. He knows where to aim, there, below the rotors where the heart of the beast pumps power and hydraulic oil to its only means to stay up and out. The chopper veers off, but it is too late. The damage is done, and he watches it begin its autorotation to the clearing below, making a bad show of it, swinging and swaying as the twin rotors fight their losing battle for stability. Gravity will win.
He stops near the dogs and stoops to scratch the old one behind the ears. Always here and never requiring an answer. The young one gets her share. "Let's move on, ladies." They trudge ahead. "It's all downhill from here." After five steps, though, he stops and turns back to face the tree line and clearcut beyond and below it. A coyote yips in the deep forest. His words fall muffled to the deep humus. "Pass it along." And then they disappear into the forest.