By Wes Blake
I sit drinking coffee at the kitchen table looking out the back window over the pasture, all the way to the fence where our land ends. I see our sycamore tree is starting to bloom and block out part of the neighbor’s junk pile. I look over the pasture, scanning from the big cedar in the middle, standing in front of a bigger pin oak, to the left—past the run-in, fenced paddock and honeysuckle, back over to the depression and sink hole in the far right corner. The people who lived here before had really let it go—the depression in the back right hadn’t been touched in years. Briars, weeds, and seven foot stalky growth took over. The fence rows were overgrown, and weeds had taken over most everywhere else, choking out grass.
“Oh my God, they found a body this morning right up the road from us,” says Stephanie from the couch behind me.
“Where?” I put my coffee cup down on the table.
“Right at the corner of Mundy’s Landing and Fords Mill.”
“What happened? That’s only a mile from us. I drive by there every day going to work.”
“The victim is a guy in his fifties. They’ve got the road blocked off for a mile and a half, and a house up the road is part of the crime scene.” She reads on silently. I drink at my coffee. “Oh my God,” she adds, “they said the body’d been dragged up the road for a mile and a half.”
“Shit, dragged up the road? That’s horrible. Any idea who did it?”
“I don’t think so,” she says, continuing reading. “The guy who found it was driving by this morning, saw the mess all over the road, and thought somebody’d hit a deer. Then, he saw the body at the intersection, on the shoulder.”
I imagine blood, hair, guts torn across the highway, a severed part of a nose laying in the grass at the shoulder. I shudder. I’m glad it’s Sunday, or I might have found it. I get up for more coffee.
My legs stick to the yellow rubber seat of the riding mower as it moves across the pasture. Keeping an eye on the fence posts, I weave closer to the fence boards between them. Ancient black paint remains in faded patches on fence boards and posts. In an hour the sun will be directly over the middle of the sky. A few small dense clouds contrast the deeper blue. Not even noon yet, and I can already feel sweat beading behind my knees. I keep close to the briar patch around the large oak to my left that leans fifty feet high and looks dead in the middle.
When we moved in last fall, this part of the pasture was nothing but briars, hemlock and milkweeds that reached up towards the sky, higher than my head. The trees were surrounded by patchy bushes, briars, ivy, and vines that formed an impenetrable circle of disorder. The seeds and roots of weeds and briars are already starting to show new growth.
I circle further out around the burn pile in the center of the field, cutting through stalks of hemlock. Even when it looks like they’re gone, the seeds and root systems are out of sight, preparing their attack. The motor makes a higher straining sound, like an old car accelerating up a hill, as the stalks go under blade. When Socrates was in prison they made him drink hemlock until he couldn’t feel his feet. King Lear wore a crown of weeds made of hemlock, and Hamlet’s father was killed by it. Now I run it over with my green John Deere mower and kill it with herbicides.
I twist off the beer bottle cap, put it in my pocket and sit next to Stephanie on the front porch. The sun is gentler here after noon and the shade from the balcony makes it cool. I take a drink from the cold bottle.
“It’s hot,” I say.
“I’ve gotten two of the fig trees planted today and watered a couple of the white pines.”
“Think they’ll make it?”
“I think so. I can see new branches growing—they’re a brighter color green. I don’t think they got enough water in the fall. By the way, I think we’ve got a baby bird nest in one of them. I can’t find it, but a robin keeps circling me when I move the hose around the third pine.”
I take another drink of beer. Stephanie looks back to her phone.
“I cut the grass short down in the depression. I think that’ll help kill off the weeds eventually. Any update on the body they found?”
“I’m trying to find out. They released the name of the victim—his last name is Salyers. And they released the name of the suspect and his last name is Salyers too.” She got quiet and read intently. She started, “Wait a second —they’ve got a house surrounded up the road from where they found the body and sent in a robot to collect evidence.”
“Same last name? That’s weird. Related?”
“Wonder what would make somebody do that? Maybe his cousin molested his kid, so he went Mystic River on him?”
“I have no idea. They’ve charged the suspect with degrading a corpse.”
I sling the backpack sprayer over my right shoulder, then ease my left arm under the other strap. I’d filled it with an herbicide called crossbow that’ll kill weeds, but not grass. It’ll kill briars too. I grab a bottle out of the garage fridge, drink it off fast, and toss it in the trash on the way around the house. I start down on the left side of the pasture by the run-in. I pump the backpack sprayer lever on my left side, that builds pressure within the tank, and aim the nozzle with my right. I follow the fence line along the inside of the paddock. Hemlock grows in bunches around the periphery of the corner behind the run-in. Keats said the comfort and numbness the nightingale gave him felt like he’d drunk hemlock. I soak this area with chemical. Its smell reaches me. The herbicide smells good in a strange way, like the way cigarette smoke smelled to me when I rode in Nanny’s car when I was little.
I move around the outside of the paddock’s fence row and up the left side of the pasture until I reach the large pin oak I mowed around earlier. I look at the briars and hemlock forming an impenetrable ring around the tree. I build pressure with the lever and spray the hell out of them.
I feel like I’ve been moving through here for days. I wonder how much time I’ve spent back here. And I wonder if it will even make a difference. My legs feel tired after moving around the hilly lowlands. I watch the decaying stalks. Sighing, I walk up the left side of the hill beside the fence between the trees, out of the depression. I get to the middle ground.
The sun’s fallen further and it feels like there’s only a couple hours of daylight left. I pump the lever and realize my backpack is empty. I refill it.
The garage fridge beckons but I re-hoist the full backpack onto my shoulders. Moving back down the hill through the yard into the field I notice robins, doves, and sparrows circling the largest pin oak. It must be at least fifty years old and is king of trees in this field. If you get close you can hear the buzz of bees circling the hole in its center.
The grass reaches the tops of my ankles. My boots sway through the grasses and it feels comforting to brush against the softer earth before finding the next step. I move back and forth, for what seems like years. If I walked inside to find the murderer up the road has been on death row for two years and I have a white beard, I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed. When I was a kid, my friends and I would find the nearest field bordering our suburban neighborhoods, hop a barbwire fence and explore the rivers, fields, and woods, running from cattle and the farmer’s truck. I used to ride a metal green toy mower just like the one I now have. I’d always lived in neighbor-hoods, cities. It felt different here, and I didn’t always know what I was doing.
Shit, I say aloud, but no one can hear. On the ground, I see a nest and tiny new birds with no feathers and open mouths. I hope I didn’t spray the nest without realizing it. I worry that I did. I’d mowed over before without seeing them, but they seem fine. The mower deck must have been higher than their nest. Why in the hell would a bird put a nest here in the middle of the field? I eye the fence posts and count from the corner. Five. They’re exactly five posts over. I want to make sure I don’t accidentally step on them or spray them later. I look closer. They’re no bigger than the final joint on my pinky finger. I doubt they’ll make it through the night, exposed like that now that the grass is short. Watching them for a few more moments I sigh and move on up the middle ground.
I pull my old boots through the grass then down, row after row, keeping the lever in my left hand to keep the pressure up. The five-gallon backpack feels lighter and the sun seems almost gone. Moving through the fields in the twilight feels better. There is a gentleness that almost forgives. Finally, the backpack lightens to emptiness. I rinse it out with a hose in the front yard, place it in the garage, grab a bottle from the garage fridge and find Stephanie sitting, again, on the front porch.
“You got a lot done out there.”
“I sprayed most the field. It’ll get better in a few years if we keep it up, I think.”
“You did a good job.”
I stare at the farm across the road.
“Have you heard anything else about the murder?” I say.
“Let me check,” she says, and picks up her phone.
I take a drink from the bottle. It feels cool in my hand. Quietly she reads and I look across the road.
“They were brothers,” she says. “They arrested the killer. His younger brother was up from Florida and he thought he was an intruder in the night. Shot him. Then, he tied him to his truck and dragged him a mile and a half up the road.”
“For some reason, I feel better that they’re related. There’s not a random killer up the road.”
“I agree. Can you imagine?”
“No. How do you drag your dead brother up the road like that? Tie him?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’m glad I don’t work tomorrow. I don’t want to see the mess in the road.”
The last light sinks behind our house at our backs. Fireflies begin to flicker here and there, but it’s not dark yet.
“A bird built a nest in the middle of the field. They’re tiny, no feathers. I accidentally mowed over them, but they’re ok. They must have been scared shitless staring up at the mower. I don’t think I sprayed them.”
“Really? Show me tomorrow.”
“Okay, if they’re still there. I’m too tired to walk out there now.”
“Me too. By the way, there’s a nest of robins in one of our pines. Want to see?”
We walk out to the pine and look down at the nest. They’re bigger than the ones in the back, but they don’t have any feathers either. Stephanie tells me she is going in to get cleaned up. I tell her I’ll be in soon. I walk back to the front porch and pick up the bottle caps sitting on the table where I left them, and put them in my pocket.
On the back deck I stand and look out into the field. I take a pull from my cigarette and a swallow of beer. I don’t feel like going inside yet. It’s almost completely dark.
Copyright Blake 2017