Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Spiders web our corners, stitch threads across doorways we break passing through. Mice burrow into soil hardening each day, squeeze through the cracked foundation, and scuttle under the silent radiators, scratching inside the walls in the dark—“Nesting,” Junie says. At night we hear birds settle in the eaves. Dust billows in streamers from the ceiling. Dangles and swings. Quarters, dimes, nickels—no pennies, only silver—fill rust-edged coffee cans. Junie makes a fire of twigs and rolled newspaper and we boil a pot of water for tea, sweeping the still-hot ash out the front door as soon as the water steams. On the plank floor a blackening circle grows daily.
We sleep on the plank floor, knocking ankles and knees when we turn over, breathing the dust from the cracks between boards. We roll, tangle, stretch, and settle. We are our warmth. The blankets that we have we pile on top of us, where they pool and wrinkle, bunch, in the trough between us. We light candles in the dark, sticking them one by one on the old nails we’ve banged through shingles pulled from the outside of the house. Windows rattle loose and small flames flutter—the curtains Junie has sold or used to patch ripped knees. Our breath floats free over the blankets.
“It will be a train,” Junie says, “and outside a country too dark to see. How can you leave a place but by the same way you arrived? When the light first comes it will be places and more places passing before us, places we do not recognize, places we will look on once and then never see again, never except in memory, if there is anything in them to remember.”
At night, when Junie talks, her words hang in the dark above us for a moment before they, too, float away.
Junie wears the dead man’s boots—how small he was, this dead man—small enough that even Junie must tug the boots on, stomping her heels into place. “Do you think it will give any, this leather?” Junie asks, lacing the laces into the dark grooves they’ve carved across the tongue.
“This dead man has walked all over this country,” Junie says, climbing a hill or cutting across a field to the bluff where the river loops and we watch all that water churning south.
We have kept pillows, and the clothes we’ve worn all season, a can opener and dishes, one place serving each, boxes of colored candles, wooden kitchen matches that splinter our fingers lighting wicks. My own rabbit’s foot I keep pocketed, touching those blunted nails and the tufted hair between them when Junie puffs out our lights with a breath. Pots and pans hold frost-cold water, slushy some mornings, edges ice-stitched. An old suitcase belted shut holds everything else: Junie’s rubber-banded photographs, needles slid through spools of thread, the buck knife Junie said she will use to skin anyone who gives us trouble.
“When we leave we will leave all this,” Junie says. “Nothing we can’t carry ourselves.”
What else there was we sold, Junie in the truck driving to pawn her rings and earrings though not, she said, ever the necklace I had once given her in a tissued box. Then when the tall man had handed Junie a stack of bills and driven off in the truck it was the other men who came in other trucks with dollies and leather gloves and loud boots, lifting out the table and chairs, the couch and scuffed dressers, the beds—theirs, big, the men tilted sideways to fit through the doorway; mine one man hefted to a shoulder while he walked to the truck—and lastly the stove and refrigerator. Soon the men, all of them, were gone. Soon it was what Junie called knickknacks and leftovers on a fold-out card table in the front yard. Old women stopped their cars on the way home from services and lifted tumblers to the sun to check for hairlines, overturned the salt and pepper shakers, examined the frayed cord of the iron, slid their arms into the sleeves of Junie’s sweaters. Their husbands lifted the lid of the rattly box of mostly rusty tools Junie said was all he’d left us, when he left; they poked through nails and washers and paint-handled screwdrivers and the blunted saw before letting the lid fall shut again. My job was watching hands and pockets; Junie counted out coins, plucked a fluttering bill from someone’s fingers. What was unclaimed after a week I brought to town to carry door to door, ringing bells and holding up peelers and pencil cases, coloring books only three pages used, the paperback mysteries Junie said she’d read one after the next those months she was big with me, lace doilies from a dresser drawer. Hands turned back the edges of curtains and faces looked at me, there, a cardboard box of all these things held before me.
“What do we need beyond a blanket to roll around ourselves?” Junie asks. “Somewhere far to the south is a place where at night, at any time of year, we can lie in sawgrass—a place where we will not need even that blanket to cover us. A gulf’s curve of lowlands where the trees and hillsides will not block our view.”
After our tea we step to the yard, the grass that went to seed in summer now pale and brittle, the ends frayed but still taller than my head. “Can you smell it?” Junie asks, and on the wind I smell woodsmoke, the wet bark of trees, and a smell I think smells like the cool barrel of the gun Junie kept in the closet until the end of summer, when another man came to the house, peered its length, and gave to Junie more bills, a clump of them he carefully unfolded and smoothed out on the leg of his jeans.
“I came through the hills, along the river, looking through the window of a train,” Junie says. “North. It was night and my own face looked back at me. Do you think I saw where I had come to before I stepped down from the car, to where he stood waiting for me on the platform? Do you think I would still have come?”
Of him there was usually so little that now, remembering, mostly what I remember is nothing except him being somewhere not there, or asking Junie where he was, or waking under a blanket’s spill over me on the couch, the television a field of flickering snow, to see her at the dark window, breath a blur on the glass.
“What use is there in remembering him?” Junie says, if I ask now. “You’re the one good thing he ever gave me.”
On nights the sky is cast over with clouds there is no light but the stutter of our candles. Wax drips, puddles, dries: red and white beads on the floor I scrape with a fingernail. On the wall our shadows shiver and jump.
“What is a pillow,” Junie says, “but a place to hold the sad shapes our heads make while we sleep? Is that comfort?”
We wake to geese at night, the faint sound of their passing drifting down to us from skies too dark to see them in. Their sleepy bleat a lullaby like the rain that freezes as it hits the window, a clock’s click and whir of toothed gears, though Junie and I no longer know any hour.
There is always something to wake us.
A train’s long whistle through the hills will keep us up half the night.
Each night we wait for the snow, for that snow we can feel already in the air, for the tick of rain and sleet to change to a sound we can no longer hear.
In the morning frost whitens the hollows in the grass. The man from the bank comes to look at the sign he pounded into near-frozen earth two weeks ago, the wood stake gray and splintery. Heads just below the windowsill, we can hear his car pull off the gravel road, hear the thump as his door swings shut, hear the swish of the dry grass against his pants.
The man from the bank calls out to us, saying what he has said already so many times about papers and properties and about how what he wants, least of all, he always says, is any kind of trouble. Junie says that he cannot see us and does not know where we lie hidden. “He isn’t even sure he’s not talking to himself,” Junie says.
The man from the bank shades a hand over his eyes to look.
“Never,” Junie says, “listen to what a man says when there is something of yours he is after.”
The man from the bank never stays long. We watch him, this slouching man trying to fill his suits. We watch him circle the house, lifting his feet as he steps through the grass, and clutching to his chest always a supply of papers, or a clipboard of fluttering papers, or a briefcase which must, Junie and I imagine, hold papers and more papers, stacks of papers. We watch him approach the door, lift two knuckles to the wood, and squint through a dusty window; we watch him tuck those papers up under his arm and turn to leave. We watch as he eases himself back into his car to back it over bending grass, as its white smoke rises in the cold air, as its lights blink red for a moment before he drives the car away.
And then we are walking, Junie and I, walking always to our bluff, Junie walking the dead man’s boots to places, she says, she doesn’t know if the dead man has ever been, or else to places, she says, that his boots may know well—across ground as familiar as the feel of the dead man’s foot once was. It was the dead man’s heart that failed him, a little heart that Junie says must have had to beat harder and faster as the dead man climbed these hills that ring us, these hills that before long we must always climb to some hilltop or another, where, if there are no trees, we can see only hills and more hills, where the clouds are low enough to touch. But when his heart failed him his boots were still not old, the heels not worn down, the leather still glossy with the dead man’s polish—not old enough to throw out with the rest of the dead mans things, the dead man’s widow told the woman at the church sale, who gave the boots to Junie in a paper bag crumpled and curled over at the top.
At the bluff the trees lean out over the river and from one, Junie says, her hand against it and bits of its loose bark floating down to the water, it would be an easy drop, a matter of feet, at worst a bump and a bruise. The river curves against the hill and currents cross; a stick dropped in here spins and spins before the river takes it with it to the places Junie tells of—or not even that far, since it is not the river we will follow to those places but the train tracks that here follow the river, trace the curve of hill and water, the twin rails rusty along their sides but polished to a dull sheen on top. Each evening the train comes, the shim of metal wheels against metal rails we hear as the train snakes along the valley, the train men braking the train to keep it, here, from falling into the river. Below us, it moves no faster than we, on top of the bluff, could walk beside it.
The wind, sometimes, carries with it the smell of the paper mill downriver, the brick buildings where huge bundles of paper sit on loading docks, where the foaming waters turn different colors some days, where smoke rises straight into the low clouds and just makes them darker. Before the tall man drove away in Junie’s truck, we, driving past the mill, would see men clustered on those loading docks, holding cigarettes by their hips, lifting thermoses of coffee, staring out into the rain at the cars splashing by. Their hands, we knew, carried the stink of pulp and dye. And with the scrape of wipers over glass, Junie would say, looking at me looking, “Don’t bother, he isn’t there.” Now, sniffing the air, Junie crooks her elbow over her nose and mouth, and when she talks like that the words come muffled from her sleeve. “It was a good trick,” Junie says, “he played, bringing me here. He told me of fall’s red leaves, of winter moons, of trees shining silver in afternoon light. A house with a view of the hills, a bed he would build for us himself beside a wide window. How pretty it will all be, I thought, and the train windows showed me only my own mute face.”
All around us the curled shapes of leaves still stuck to bare branches rattle in the wind.
“This,” Junie says, looking at her feet, “is the best kind of man to have.”
“Any man’s heart may fail him,” Junie says.
These days the dark gathers the bare trees and hills and empty roads into itself so quickly, and sometimes by the time we are headed back we are heading through branches we can no longer see before us, along a road we cannot tell where it leads until a car crests a hill or rounds a curve and catches us in its lights. Then Junie is parting the grass before our dark house, walking to the door, while I am untangling a sleeve from a clump of burrs, yanking a cuff caught on barbed wire.
“What is a roof but something to shut out the sky’s own canopy?” Junie says. Or reminds, “We will wait for the snow—the snow will be our sign.”
“Do you think the dead man was an old man first?” she asks.
“We will pack,” Junie says, “bundles of those things we will need to bring with us. We will drape the blankets around ourselves, and, holding our bundles, drop down. Did you ever see a train take a mail bag?” she asks. “Do you know how much ground a train may cross while everyone else in the world sleeps?”
We eat crackers from the boxes and boxes of them Junie bought in town the day before the tall man came to give to her the money for the truck, crackers and bites of apples we take from the heap of them in the corner of the room we called the kitchen, apples we, weeks back, gathered and heaped there from the orchards that grow up all over this country. Junie, making tea, leans into the kettle’s plume of steam, rubs her hands together in those vanishing clouds.
“Just think,” Junie says, “how we will take the dead man with us, take him too away from these hills. But when we arrive, when we get to the place where the grass grows thick all through the year, where the air smells of oranges and salt, where no hills rise to block our view, where the only winds are warm and at night we will need no blankets, then there will be no more need for boots, no more need for feet to be wrapped inside anything.”
“Where will we leave the dead man, then?” I ask Junie.
“We will leave him on the train,” Junie says, “in the car that carries us those nights, in the car that, when we jump from it into that soft grass, will continue on its way wherever the rails lead it.”
Junie blows out the candle.
We wrap the blankets around us, hearing as we do the geese flying through the night, and, rolling to one side and then another, knock the plank floor with our ankles, our elbows, our knees.
This is all there is to it.
In my pocket, my hand strokes the fur of my rabbit’s foot.
We dream snow.
I try to imagine our house, then—the grass poking up through the snow or else bent and buried beneath it, the snow covering the roof, the snow thick on the stairs when the man from the bank comes that morning, carrying papers, to call out to us from the driveway and then, squinting his eyes against all that whiteness, to walk to our door where, waiting, he will tap his knuckles twice.
And in that snow, that first snow—the flakes around us a world of moths, every branch and bush outlined in white, the train men peering through it to slow for the curve where the river and tracks loop to the south and the bluff rises against pale clouds—in that snow, when we have gone, anyone may come to one of these sparse fields, one of these stretches of bare trees where the snow covers the gray grass and the blankets of old leaves, where the pulp’s sour reek hangs in the air, and follow the tracks of the dead man’s boots to see the way we got away—but hurry: already the footsteps fill with what is still falling.
Joshua Harmon’s fiction has appeared most recently in the Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Witness, Black Warrior Review, Chelsea, Massachusetts Review, Fiction, Agni and American Letters & Commentary. He lives in Pennsylvania.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.