By Jack Smith (not his real name)
“What do you and Younger Son have planned?”
“Nothing, I swear.”
Father’s raised fist was poised to eliminate Mother’s look of contempt. He paused and for a moment Mother hoped that he would see himself clearly, as he had a few times before; lower his fist, go into the house, take a six pack out of the propane powered fridge, take down his fly rod and go to the river leaving Mother wondering what would happen in the future to recreate this tableau and wishing Older Son would return from a gathering of The Voice.
Father’s dream was ordinary, the dying of it erratic, no day marked on a calendar, no admission of a final abandonment. It was a dream of a good life on ten logged but newly replanted acres, in a home-made cabin without a mortgage, his wife of twenty years by his side, his two sons, hardworking and respectful.
When the gavel came down on a sentence of six months for cutting federal trees beyond the border of a timber sale, Father’s reserve of anger and frustration in his life became a constant theme instead of background music. He had only worked four months that year. He had debts. He had been attending secret meetings of The Voice with Older Son. Mother objected. Younger Son tried to stay out of the way.
“There are real trees out there waiting to be cut down by real men. Now I see log trucks go by loaded with pecker logs and it almost makes me cry. Who cares about spotted owls? I shoot them on sight and one of these days I’ll shoot a guvment official and mount his head on the wall next to the elk head and invite neighbors over to see it.”
Before the coming of The Voice, Father and Older Son had been mostly happy loggers with a confused view of the world. They got together with friends to drink beer, shoot guns, and tell racist jokes. But the radio broadcasts of The Voice had more powerful words; words twisted into a gnarled and ugly philosophy that over the months seemed to connect point to point with Family’s isolated existence. Other than the believers no one visited. Even the local school district didn’t know Younger Son existed.
During radio time, Father, Older Son, and Mother sat together on the couch while Younger Son sat at the kitchen table taking notes. His job was to help Father gather the words of a big, yet intimate, truth-conspiracy of anarchy and racism. This responsibility scared him. He knew, at age fourteen, with a heart still hopeful, that he was helping to harvest a crop planted by the devil. Father watched him. Younger son talked the talk and walked the walk when he had no choice, but Father suspected him of not truly believing. Still, there never seemed to be enough to justify a beating. Younger Son’s face usually looked calm, but his body was tense, and his eyes seemed always to stare to the right of whatever he was looking at.
Younger Son did not have a specific escape plan, but he knew where Father had hidden a plastic bag of cash that a friend had given Father for helping to harvest a marijuana crop.
Father’s beliefs were bound, almost book-like, by a self-imposed code of honor that Mother found unable to follow —- her lack of understanding often leading to a beating. Older Son sometimes intervened, not out of disagreement with the idea that wayward followers should be punished, but that Father went too far.
Those beliefs helped him decide what was acceptable in speech and action. Older Brother seemed to follow these rules easily. He was completely confident in the rightness of the cause. He had no sense of humor. His world was grim. His face, like his workman’s hands was hard and steady. Older Son was moving up in the Voice.
Like a wind driven eddy of snow around the corner of the cabin, a sideways madness behind his anger appeared at the edge of Father’s mind. Mother and Younger Son could see it but were unable to name it, to call it out. The Voice inflamed the anger until Father stood with them at a blockade of a wildlife sanctuary and was arrested again. The same judge slammed down the gavel with his own anger and sentenced Father to a year in jail.
The Voice took care of the family. Father was out in eight months. The feud was on.
All manner of revenge schemes kept Father awake at night after the logging season was over when fatigue had allowed him to sleep. Most mornings fueled by several cups of coffee, he wrote in a notebook the way of the world as he now saw it. He split firewood with a vengeance, fished and hunted out of season. Whenever he drove past the Bureau of Land Management office on the way to town, he had such a strong desire to turn off the road and drive his pick-up through the front door that when he got to the post office he had to sit in the cab for several minutes until his hands stopped shaking.
Younger Son spent part of each day setting snares for rabbits and gathering edible plants. Every morning when he passed out of sight of the house, he could feel himself breathing easier. The food he gathered was an important part of the family supply. When Younger Son walked in the woods, he sometimes had a feeling of hope that Father and Brother would leave to join the violent underground battalion of The Voice. Perhaps then Mother and he could move away and he could go to school. He sensed, at a level just below belief, that Father’s depending on The Voice, would, without the relief of violent political action, wither away to a surly, non-verbal existence that Younger Son could escape when he turned eighteen and joined the army.
When Younger Son checked his snares and gathered plants, Father insisted that he wear camo, combat boots and carry an AR-15, a gift for his twelfth birthday. He was charged with patrolling the perimeter. He remembered with some small shame that when he and Father had pumped round after round into an abandoned car off Forest Service Road 42, he had felt some of the joy his father was feeling in the power of the weapon. If he did come across any federal agents, he planned to surrender. He practiced placing his weapon on the ground and raising his hands in a way that would keep him from being shot.
In warm weather, Younger Son removed his boots and walked barefoot in the forest. He felt the earth giving him some sense of steadiness. He often ran the trail that connected his snares so he could spend a few minutes at a spring he had discovered. The spring came out of the ground between the roots of a giant oak tree with a forceful, quiet purpose that he found comforting. The cold spring water, especially on hot summer days, was delicious.
Younger Son came around the corner of the shop just as Father’s fist smashed into Mother’s face. Heart blood spurted out of her nose. She was pinned against the side of the pick-up. Younger Son moved to the left, so he was in Father’s line of sight. He raised his weapon. He pulled from deep inside himself the courage to yell one word: “Stop!” Father turned toward him. Mother struggled free and slipped under the truck. Younger Son clicked off the safety. The gun was steady in his hands. His vision was reduced to a cone shaped tunnel with Father at the narrow end.
“Put down that gun, you young pup,” Father snarled as he advanced bent sideways and crouched over like a mad dog. Younger Son was not afraid. The weapon gave him all the power he needed. As Father slowly advanced Younger Son looked directly into his eyes for the first time in many years. First, he saw fear, then he saw anger blinding the fear. He pulled the trigger. The first bullet struck Father in the chest, but he stayed upright. The second bullet knocked him down. With each of the bullets Younger Son heard a voice inside him assuring him that this was the end. Father tried to rise. Younger Son held the trigger down and Father became a twitching, bleeding bundle of rags.
Vision returned to normal. Younger Son saw that the crumpled man on the ground would never hurt his mother again. He saw his mother give him a look of joyless gratitude as she crawled out from under the pick-up truck. He threw the weapon, now a useless artifact of a civilization that no longer existed, into the bushes. The indifferent woods returned to quiet.
Mother and Younger Son knew what had to be done. Only fire could cleanse this place.
They dragged the broken body into the cabin and pushed it under a bed. They loaded the pick-up with camping gear. They pried up a floorboard in the shop and retrieved the cash Father had hidden. Younger Son made a torch out of kindling wrapped in an old shirt. He soaked it with gasoline from the storage tank. While he held the torch, thinking half coherently of the Statue of Liberty, Mother lit it for both of them, for the hope of future light. They walked together into the house. Younger Son set the torch against a bookshelf filled with books on revolution and firearms.
They stood arm in arm, watching the flames take hold.
Copyright Smith 2022