I won’t be young forever, he said to himself one afternoon as he crossed the sunlit yard past the apple trees in which unpruned suckers stood up on the branches like witches wands and entered the woods. Arrived in his mother’s dog-nosed pickup he had found his brother reading in the swing; Effie told him Helen was in the woods; gone to pick jack-in-the-pulpits, he said; “She likes the meat-eating flowers,” his brother added, spitting a laugh that was so cold and controlled that Paul decided to go look for her. Under the tall pines the ground was covered with ginger straw and the air was cooler. He had not gone ten feet before he smelled the stink of dead animal. It was faint and almost delicate in his nose, faraway. He moved toward the smell through gallberry and myrtle bushes. In a clearing a water maple sported a single bright red branch low in the crown. That summer he had seen other trees gone half red for no reason he could figure. Along the roads, at the edge of peanut fields, oaks, maples and sumac bushes held up swaths of color, flagrant patches—sometimes half the tree—turned stunning red months before fall. Perhaps the county chain gang had sprayed defoliant but that still wouldn’t explain how trees far from any road had gone suddenly scarlet. He had mentioned it to his mother who looked at him with the usual mischievousness in her eyes—as if she was behind it all—and told him there were mysteries in the woods no one could understand. He walked over to the tree and plucked a red leaf from the drooping branch. It was just a leaf, vermilion streaked with green. He sniffed it but it didn’t smell different from any other leaf. The dead animal stink was stronger now, drifting like smoke from off farther in the woods. Here the land rose slightly, curving away from the river like the lip of a shallow bowl. In spring the river crept among the trees, transforming the world into a forested pond. Later there would be patches of water far back in the woods, mementos left by the receding tide in which tadpoles and the fry of bream and bass swam. In midsummer you could come on one of these dried ponds and find the black baking bottom covered with the silver putrefying bodies of small fish. But the smell now was something more than fish.
He moved toward the stink obliquely, through scattered bushes. The slant western light fell from behind him, streaking pine trunks, the frothy tops of gallberry and the matted straw-strewn floor. Night, sleep, death and the stars was what Walt Whitman said the soul sought to reflect on in repose. Effie had read that years ago at a Recitation, grinning luridly. For the last few years the woods had seemed larger every time he went into them. He thought it was supposed to be the other way around: places of the past diminishing as one grew older, becoming finally the toy constructions one might place along the tracks of a model train. But these woods were larger, denser, more impenetrable. A ground bird—thrasher or thrush—flew from pine to pine ahead of him, keeping just far away enough for him not to be able—if he had a gun—to shoot it. The smell grew stronger, fetid stink of rotting meat. He called Helen’s name, but softly, not wanting to alarm her, wanting to come on her silently. He imagined himself stepping into a clearing and discovering her, an Indian princess tending a small fire. She would look up at him and the flush of delight and love would spread across her face and she would get slowly up and run toward him—he would take her into his arms and then—and then he didn’t know. She was his brother’s wife, whom his brother had apparently already caused great grief to. Her body rolled hugely in his sleep, came to him in dreams. Her flesh in dreams was broad as a bed, sweet as fresh bread. It amazed him that there was so much of her. Sometimes he woke flailing, smothered.
The ground descended toward the river and he went that way. Nearer the river the pines gave way to swamp hardwoods: sugarberry, pignut hickory, tulip poplar—which gave intermingling way in their turn to the true swamp trees: tupelo, willow, black birch, pond cypress, and sweet bay. There were puddles of water under the cypresses; the twisted roots of willows were exposed. In the branches of a young tupelo the sunlight turned the leaves into globes of yellow that trembled in the slight breeze. The ground was thickly paved with leaves, a crust of them, fallen last year and the years before.
He came to the boggy ground of the river skirt. Beyond a mud thin sheet of coffee-colored water spread away knobbled with cypress knees. A high-heaped bank of myrtles rose between him and the river; beyond them cypresses interrupted the sky. He was near the source of the stink which was raw and aggressive, piercing like a flame run along skin, the air so dense with rank odor that it might have made sound. Then he thought he saw a flicker of white disappearing among the cypress trunks on the other side of the water. “Helen,” he called, but his voice was a croak. She had come to the back porch last week to get water for the haying crew, and the yellow twigs in her hair, the hay dust powdering her forearms, the yellow streak of dust curving across her forehead, made her seem one of the druid queens his father had told him stories of when he was a child. His father had said there were words that could evoke the legend world, the world where trees had souls and rocks spoke, and beautiful girls sang like birds. Believing, he had gone forth into the woods where he yelled out words and phrases, called out antidisestablishmentarianism—which was the biggest word he knew—yelled Octaroon, Revelation, Invertebrate, each time shielding his eyes from the glare of what would rise brilliant before him. Though nothing appeared, for years he believed he might find the word that would prick the spirit of the hidden world and make it sashay forth flouncing and grinning.
Off to the right, across the pool, the ground rose slightly and the bushes were less dense; he stepped into the water and headed that way. As he came to the bank—which with its fret of myrtle bushes was higher than his head—he heard thrashing and the buzzing of flies. The light, sinking from the treetops, had the quality of sunlight underwater: it carried tones of gray and vermilion, hints of blue dissolved from the sky. A long streak lay on the water surface, as gray as a foxtail. He pulled himself up by bushholds, saying under his breath carapace, antediluvian, man, woman, placed his feet carefully in loops of rootstock protruding from the black earth and heaved through into a small clearing.
What he came on took his breath away. In the center of the clearing, which was smaller than a tenant yard and strewn with the splintered branches of a lightning stripped sweet bay, was a dead cow, huge and swollen and black and split at the gut, mouth a ripped cavity, neck and withers gouged and laid bare to the bone; half a dozen alligators, as black as anthracite, lunged and tore at the carcass. He had never seen such a sight. The alligators, all but one were fully grown, gray jowled, yellow bellied, their eyes glittering reptilian yellow sparkles, their four-clawed feet propelling them in short, mouth-open charges at the blistered and pusy and turgid corpse. The gators had rolled the cow; tan and gold leaves clung to its matted hair. The head was intact but just barely, the eyes glaucous welts, dripping as from monstrous sleep down the face.
Stunned, rooted, electrical in the gut, he saw all this in an instant, saw too the wheel and dart of a kingfisher—blue scrap—disappearing among the ferny tops of cypresses, and beneath its flight what had startled it—white flicker fleeing beyond blackberry bushes. He was briefly in the clear paralysis of time: the alligators didn’t notice him standing amid myrtle bushes he had hacked through, but one of them, a large bull with bulging jowls and racking tooth brown as tobacco stain, turned as if on a swivel from wrenching a great gout of thigh flesh, and lunged at him. He screamed out-loud, screamed for his life, fell backwards and rolled down the low embankment into the water, rolled until he found his feet as the gator thrashed through the scrub brush furiously, lurching and hissing like the royal voice of snakes and came after him. It was only the tangle of bushes that saved him. He raced through the water—for an instant his feet sticking—o dream, dream—and leapt onto the trunk of a bowed cypress, climbed ten feet up and hung there as the gator came on in its jerked springing gait after him. Hunter of heat and movement, that gator could follow his slidering run across the pool, but he could not follow him into the tree.
The bull drew up at the flared base, climbed over the out thrust strut of root, ticking its muzzled against the shredded bark, but it could not figure where he was, didn’t raise his head to find him. The muzzle opened to show the dead white core and then the jaw snapped shut with a rush of air. The tail thrashed once, clearing a wave, then the gator turned and waddled slowly back toward the bushes. It moved with a sinous horrible grace.
Paul clung to the trunk, his mind shooting, as one holds to the marooned mast of a foundered ship. For an instant the living thing inside him had tried to leap for the sky. Every cell screamed for flight but he forced himself to stay in the tree. The alligators were 30 feet away beyond the myrtle bushes. Sun brought a gleam to the dusty ovalate leaves. He heard the heavy gator tails thrashing, whacking against each other’s thick hide, against bushes. An alligator, he remembered, would tear off a gout of meat, swallow it, return to its wallow and vomit up the meat which had been converted by its belly juices in the interim into a stinking gelatin. He didn’t know how the cow came to be there; maybe it had wandered off or even been dumped, the woods havens now for wastrels and sporting characters, failed stockmen. Then something flickered beyond the bushes and he cried out—“Hey! Hey!” trying to get it to wait. Don’t you see I am in trouble here? The bent branches of a crooked willow trembled, he saw the sprig of white disappearing, but then the swamp fell silent; nothing moved or gave itself up. Druid poets had been able to turn people into trees, or birds. Mean-natured, fractious, and arrogant from all the intense labor of memorizing the complex myth-making formulas of their poetry, they had been quick to slap the unappreciative back into more primitive forms. Even kings were not exempt; more than one had found his mocking word offense enough to get him turned into an oak tree or a beech. He leaned away from the trunk, as if stretching out two feet closer to whatever fled past the bushes could help him see better. Tomorrow morning they would be haying in the Garden of Eden pasture near the river. Helen would be there, driving the baler, her white scarf wound around her head under a wide-brimmed straw hat. He hadn’t known about the scar. Even when he saw her naked at the pond he hadn’t noticed it. It was as if she had just produced it, whipped it up especially for him. His uncle said one day there would be a place for everyone in God’s kingdom. No one of us can be saved, he said, until we all are. He had not thought of his brother as one of the lost but the look in Helen’s eyes as she leaned toward him with her skirts updrawn, told him this was so. And his brother’s eyes, the cold amber of them, penetrating him, passing through his body like cold knives. He was not frightened, but fascinated.
He stayed in the tree for half an hour, afraid the gators might come back. The cypress curved like a rainbow, and he hoisted himself up and sat on the hump trying to see through the screen of bushes. The alligators apparently meant to stay with the carcass all day. Once the bushes surged and he could see the end of a swinging tail as one of the gators pushed a smaller one back, but none came his way again. He had loved the woods always but only to wander in. His brother didn’t love them at all. If Paul tried to tell him how beautiful the light was as it swept like a sail over the bullrush prairies, flared in the ferny top of cypresses, his brother would laugh. It’s a canvas with no edges, he would say; we can’t have that. The only farm work his brother had ever done was to cut firebreaks along the river woods, plowing 20-foot wide tracks through the broomgrass to stall out fires. Paul suspected it was not fire but the woods themselves his brother wanted to keep back.
Then he thought of Helen, the white flicker of her running away. He still wanted to find her. Carefully, afraid of falling, of anything that might bring the alligators back, he eased down the tree, digging his heels. He thought how solemnity could turn to ludicrousness: this silly moment when an alligator had him treed. Willing his body into silence he slipped down the trunk the bark of which was shredded as if it had been clawed. In the still water of the pool he could see the reflection of the sky and clouds firm as spuds. The myrtle bushes trembled and surged, small glossy leaves tossing as in wind, but nothing came through. The alligators hissed and romped behind their curtain of green, pummeling their dead one. In his brother’s last painting, watery, wavery lines thrust out of cobalt, like arms reaching from a mire. They’re like corpses, his brother had said, speaking of his paintings—corpses in that you can stare at them all day and they’re not going to jump out on you. At this moment he was in a suspension of time, his life hooked to the brainless lives of reptiles. Who could jump out at him. They could turn and kill me, he thought; seconds from now I could be a torn body.
His feet touched the water and he slid carefully in, not making a sound. He felt for the bottom, found it a foot down and settled his weight. Each flutter of bushes stopped his heart. Alligators pursue relentlessly, but with them, out of sight is out of mind. Something inside him chattered and screamed, sang for flight, but he made himself walk carefully backwards, eyes locked on the trembling bushes, toward the rise of solid ground. It was as if moments were endless, as if movement took hours. A water strider darted before him, its thready legs hardly denting the surface. Virginia creeper hung down in loose strands from the branches of a tupelo. A thrush sang and stopped, sang again and stopped, as if fingers pinched its throat. His back ached. Moving in a crouch, he groped behind him for tree trunks, sliding slowly so as not to stumble over the cypress knees. Once he knocked against a loop of root and nearly fell, but he caught himself on a willow branch and pulled himself upright. Finally he was at the bank. Tadpoles lined the land edge, their heads just touching the line where water and ground joined; they looked as if they were waiting for the moment when they became frogs, didn’t want to waste a second longer in the water than they had to. He backed up the bank, sure now that the alligators would spring from greenery after him. O Lord, Lord.
He would not let himself feel relief. The light fell on him, as it fell on the scattered leaves and on the mud and on chunks of gray limestone poking like the bones of a skull out of the black ground. It fell obliquely through the trees groping for the dark waters. He backed away until the myrtle bushes began to disappear behind a tracery of tree trunks, then with a yell he turned and fled, sprinting through the dense woods.
He leapt as he ran, a sound issuing from his mouth like the whining of a beaten dog, his feet—it seemed—hardly touching the ground. He was sure now they would spring after him, mythical beasts charging across the shallow pool. He prayed outloud—he guessed it was praying—whining and yipping, trying not to touch earth, trying to take wing. Vines, catbriar, gallberry whipped at him, caught at his clothes but he ran on, leaping over tussocks of fern and rotting logs. And as he ran, he began to forget the alligators, forget or lose them in the running itself, the clean strong sweep of his body over ground, the dodging of branches, the spring of the grass in the clearing he passed through whipping back against his stride; he was flying, running for joy, for speed, for his body flowing, and he thought: I would like to do this forever, run on and on, see the world this way, live this way, at this fine speed, my body working so well and harmoniously, a jackrabbit man, excellent in action. He leapt, flinging his stride out like a dancer, coming down on his toes, on the balls of his feet, rising again before the heel could hit, his arms swinging in rhythm, hands slightly open, slicing air—he ran on into his momentary freedom, full of himself now, and at the same time free, aware—it seemed to him—of everything, of the shag of fox grape high in a hickory tree, of the lightning-splintered bole of an oak, the dried runnels the last rain had cut in the pine straw, the flicker and flash of a jaybird crying out as it streaked through the leaves of a sweet gum. He broke out of woods into the yard which was brilliant with sunshine and empty of human presence, and it seemed to him as he slowed to a walk that the house, leaning out on its stilts over the river was an odd and foreign invention and so the green canoe on sawhorses and the unpainted shed which was his brother’s office and even the pink nets Helen had strung in the chinaberries for birdfeeders. The river was sleek and dark as a bear’s summer coat and above it floated a single osprey, and for a moment the sky seemed to wheel above him, as if it were flipping suddenly over, about to slam into the earth. His guts wrenched violently and he vomited.
He came to with his throat burning, still on his knees and it was as if he had arrived from a far place, come back as from a dream from another world. His brother, he supposed still on the porch, could not see him for the bamboo screen hung above one end. Maybe he had heard him but to Paul the noise he must have made seemed part of the dream world he had fled from, impossible to hear in light of day. Then he saw his sister-in-law in a white dress, that was blotched with what he first took to be red paint but realized—against his will—was blood, creeping along the ground in front of the porch. Boxwoods and the floribunda roses hid her, hid the knife that she gripped in her right hand. Her hands and arms were speckled with blood dripping from cuts on her forearms and on the backs of her hands. He started to call out to her but something told him not to. He got slowly up, watching her, amazed to see her, fascinated. She crept carefully along the hedge, stopping at the edge of the bushes and drew her legs up so she was crouching. He stepped back and began to walk along the edge of the yard to get a better view. Helen did not notice him; she raised the fingers of her free hand and scratched her cheek, leaving a line of blood. Paul could see his brother on the swing; he held the book up to his face. As he watched Effie licked his thumb and slowly turned a page. As he did this Helen sprang up, sprinted up the steps and leapt at him. Paul cried out, a cry of wakin—Jesus, Stop!—and ran toward the porch. Helen stumbled as she leapt the steps, but she didn’t fall; the dress swirled around her; the blue ribbon that held her hair tied back was smeared with blood, as if after she had been cut she had thought to tidy her hair. His brother lowered the book as she came but he did not attempt to rise. A thin smile darted across his lips, compressing them; a smile that was arrogant and hostile and unconcerned, a smile Paul thought as he crunched through the oyster shells lining the walk that was as mean as anything he had seen in his life. Helen raised the knife as she ran; all at once her body seemed to fall—she did not so much spring as collapse—and fell, like someone thrown down from a height, her arm coming down overhand, the blade dull in the shadows under the eaves, plunging at the center of his brother’s chest. His brother caught the knife with the book—the blade stabbing through the spine—twisting it away violently, breaking her grasp, and flung it across the porch. Helen fell on her side against him, collapsing, coming down on top of him blood and all—which spattered his white clothes, his face—into his arm which grasped and held her tight as if she were only his child bringing to him her hurt.
Paul stood on the top step looking at them. The sweet perfume of the roses was intense in his nostrils, and the smell of blood, and the metallic smell of his vomit, a streak of which shone green on his wrist. He sat down on the steps and looked at them. They did not stir. His brother, holding Helen’s head buried in his shoulder, said, “At Shiloh they came out of the woods at us. There were so many of them you couldn’t miss. We could have been blind men firing and still brought them down. Their bullets cut the peach flowers out of the trees. When it was over we lay there covered in blossoms.” Helen struggled against him, but he held her. “You’re going to have to stop this, girl,” Effie said. “This is the last time.” He touched his finger to her arm—there were cuts, slices—she must have cut herself—brought it to his mouth and sucked the blood off. “Once,” he said to Paul, “before we were married, once when she was in her period, she cut a hole in my chest with a scalpel and mingled our blood; we combined the blood and drank it.”
“What are you going to do?” Paul said. He meant to say what are you doing to her, but the words changed in his mouth. He thought of his uncle polishing the aluminum discs in the wall of his chapel. All we can ask for is that God’s will be done, his uncle said. Whatever that is, we’ll love it. “Helen?” Paul said, “Helen?” but his sister in law didn’t answer.
“There’s nothing I can do,” his brother said. “What you’re looking at here can’t be fixed. It’s a conundrum.”
“I have to go,” Paul said.
“Yes,” his brother said, “you do.”
Paul started to go then he turned back. “What is going to become of you?” he said. He meant both of them, either.
“Someone will get away,” his brother said as he stroked his wife’s hair, “We just don’t know who.”
On his way up the long drive Paul stopped the car and looked back. The white house was small under the huge crowns of the live oaks, a dwindled thing, mirage or replica. When people spoke of the world they only meant the place they walked around in, the people they knew. That was what the world was, nothing more.