By Watt Key
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2006 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Just before Pap died, he told me that I'd be fine as long as I never depended on anybody but myself. He said I might feel lonely for a while, but that would go away. I was ten years old and he'd taught me everything I needed to know about living out in the forest. I could trap my own food and make my own clothes. I could find my way by the stars and make fire in the rain. Pap said he even figured I could whip somebody three times my size. He wasn't worried about me.
It took me most of a morning to get him into the wheelbarrow and haul him to the cedar grove on the bluff. I buried him next to Momma where you could see the Noxubee River flowing coffee-colored down below. It was mid-January and the wind pulled at my hair and gray clouds slid through the trees and left the forest dripping. I felt the loneliness he'd told me about crawling up from my stomach and into my throat.
I didn't put a cross on the grave. I never knew Pap to believe in things like that. The only way you could make out Momma's grave was the ground that was sunk in over her and 1972 scratched on a limestone rock nearby. I don't remember her face, but I remember somebody else in the bed at night, keeping me warm from the other side. Pap said she reminded him of a yellow finch, which is how she stays in my mind.
I found a rock for Pap and scratched 1980 on it with a nail. After placing it beside the dirt mound, I put the shovel in the wheelbarrow and started back for the shelter. The cedar grove trail was the only one we used enough to wear our tracks into it. It was worn like a cow path from years of walking it with Pap. Not only did he like to come see Momma up on the bluff, but we used it as a main trail to check the northeast trap lines. It had been almost a week since I'd run any of them because I hadn't wanted to leave Pap's side. I was sure the traps were tangled in the creeks, and it only made the sickness in my stomach worse to think that whatever was in them was most likely dead.
Pap had tried to explain death to me, but I couldn't make sense of it. Pap said you passed on and came back as something else. It could be a squirrel or a coon. It could be a fish or an Eskimo. There was no way to tell. The most confusing part of what he told me was that even though he would come back as something else, there would still be a part of the old him that floated around like smoke. This part of him would watch out for me. I couldn't talk to this thing or touch it, but I could write to it. I could make my letters and then burn them, and the smoke would carry my message to him.
When I got back to the shelter, I put the wheelbarrow and the shovel away and went inside. I took off my deerskin jacket and hat, lay down on the pile of hides that we hadn't been able to sell, and stared at the roots in the ceiling. There was always a lot of work to do and no time to rest. But now Pap was dead and things were not the same.
I thought about death again. Most things he told me made sense real quick. You boil steel traps to get the scent off. You overlap palmetto roofing so the rain slides down it. You soak a deerskin for two days and it comes out with two days of softness to it. I could understand these things. But what he said about dying and the smoky messages and his hate for government — they were the hardest ideas for me to understand.
He'd said the government was after us ever since I could remember. The shelter we lived in was set miles into a forest owned by a paper company and was a place no person besides us had any cause to be. Even had someone come by, he would have to just about run into our shelter before he noticed anything unusual. It was one small room built halfway into the ground with low ceilings so that Pap had to stoop to walk inside. The roof was covered with dirt, and bushes and trees grew from the top. Over time tree roots had come down into the shelter and twisted through the logs and made their way into the ground at the edges. Everything that showed above ground was from nature. Even the stovepipe sticking up through the ceiling was encased in limestone.
We practiced with our rifles three times a week. Our windows were narrow slits for shooting through and the trees that you saw out of these windows were pocked and chipped from years of Pap and me practicing a stage-one defense. In stage two we moved into the hole at the back side of the shelter where a muddy tunnel led to the box. The box was about a quarter the size of our shelter and made of steel sheets that Pap took from an old barn. An air pipe went up through the ground and was hidden inside a tree stump. Pap said if we ever moved to stage two, we'd cave the tunnel in behind us. We had dried food and water in the box that would last for a week or more. Pap said a stage two would be hard, but the box was made to keep people alive when things got really bad.
"It would be a while before they'd find us," he'd said.
There were no power lines or roads nearby. Except for the path to the cedar grove, we switched our trails every week so we wouldn't wear our tracks into the ground. We made most of our fires in the woodstove to hide the flame. If we had to make a fire outside, we used the driest wood we could find to cut down on the smoke. We couldn't carry anything shiny in the bright sun in case a plane caught the reflection. Our knife blades kept a thin coat of rust on them for that very purpose. Pap even went so far as to sneak up on his game from the south so that the sound from the rifle shot would be aimed down into the river bottom.
From my place on the hide pile I could hear the birds through the small window slit as the forest grew dark outside. I was used to paying extra attention to the late-afternoon and night sounds. Pap said if the government was coming for us, that's when they'd come. He got nervous and quiet when the sun started dropping. He liked to sit inside the shelter and work on chores that didn't make noise. The two of us sewed, whittled, scraped hides, and repaired traps while we studied the forest sounds. But I didn't do any of these things the afternoon after Pap died. I couldn't. I just balled up like a squirrel and cried.
It seemed like everything started going wrong the summer before Pap's accident. We heard through Mr. Abroscotto, who owned the general store in Gainesville, that International Paper Company had run into hard times and was selling off some of its land. Pap said that the paper company had owned the forest as long as we'd been there and that they were too big to know about us. If they sold out to smaller landowners, we'd likely be found.
I could tell that Pap was worried. He told me that the swimming hole was off limits and that I was to stay close to the shelter unless I was checking traps or getting drinking water. Without the creek to swim in, the days were hotter than any I can remember. We spent afternoons sitting in the shelter, covered with the tannic acid from boiled acorns to keep off the ticks and mosquitoes. Pap had me practice my reading while he carved fish hooks from briars and bound sticks to make catfish traps.
It wasn't two weeks after our visit to Mr. Abroscotto's store that surveyors found our shelter while we were out checking the traps. When Pap and I returned, we saw their orange vests through the trees and we ducked into the bushes and watched them as they walked around the shelter. They stayed there for about an hour, poking at our things. I asked Pap if they were the government, and he said no, but they weren't much better.
"Should we shoot at 'em?"
"If they're not any better than —"
"When the war comes, you'll know."
"I'll tell you."
The next morning, Pap woke me at daybreak. "Get up," he said. "We need to go into town and find out what's happenin'."
I got excited about going to Mr. Abroscotto's. It was the only time I saw any of the outside world. But I was careful not to let Pap know how I felt. He said showing ourselves to outsiders was the most dangerous part of how we lived. One slipup and the law would be all over us. A trip to the store wasn't anything he wanted to see me excited over.
"We gonna take somethin' to sell, Pap?"
"Ain't got time. Get your britches on."
As the sun slipped over the trees, we made the six-mile trip to Mr. Abroscotto's. We used to sell our furs to him, but it had been more than three years since we'd sold any. He said the prices were so low that he lost money just paying for gasoline to get them to Birmingham, where he sold them to companies that made clothes and things out of them. Since then, we had sold him the meat instead, along with vegetables we grew in the garden, and we bought what we wanted of the outside world with the money he gave us.
Most of the journey was through the forest, but the last half mile was on the road to avoid the big swamp. Pap said this was okay because the road was straight and long and we could hear cars coming in either direction before they saw us. We had time to slip down into the ditch and lie still until they passed.
The store was on the outskirts of town, and the only building nearby was a small brick one that Pap said was owned by the power company. We could see a traffic light another half mile up the road which Pap said was the only one in Gainesville. I liked to watch the light as long as I could before Pap hurried me past the gas pumps and into the store. I'd seen a tractor go under the light once and even a yellow school bus.
Mr. Abroscotto was a strong man for somebody his age, like he used to be a logger or a policeman. His skin was dark as leather and his snow-white hair stood out against it. This time he told us that a lawyer named Mr. Wellington had purchased eleven thousand acres from the paper company. The property went from the Noxubee River to the big swamp and from the highway to Major's Creek on the east and west sides. By Mr. Abroscotto's landmarks, I figured our shelter was just about in the middle of Mr. Wellington's property. Pap must have been thinking the same thing. He walked out of the store without even saying goodbye. I hurried after him and had to walk fast to keep up.
"Slow down, Pap."
He didn't answer me.
He turned quickly and grabbed my arm and jerked me along beside him. "You keep up this time," he said. "Run if you have to."
* * *
A couple of weeks passed before heavy equipment started making a road and a clearing three miles away. Pap was nervous all the time and snapped at me when I made the smallest mistake. He got particular about me stepping on sticks and making noise when we walked through the forest. He kept stopping and touching my shoulder, which meant for me to be still and listen. I could tell by the way he acted that all those workers and equipment meant trouble.
We began to check our catfish traps at night, slipping down the banks of the Noxubee River by moonlight. In the mornings we remained close to the shelter unless we had something special to do. We worked the garden, tending our cucumbers, eggplant, and beets. All of those vegetables, when spaced the right way, grew hidden among the natural forest plants and wouldn't give us away if someone was to come across them. In the heat of the day, we'd get back into the shelter again and stay there until late afternoon. Pap began to watch and listen out the window slits as much as he worked on things. Even my reading began to make him nervous.
"Read to yourself, boy. You're too old to read out loud anymore."
A month later, Pap and I were traveling a trail to the southeast of the shelter to get some red clay for pot making. We were less than a mile from the new clearing when Pap suddenly held his hand up in the air. I knew the signal and stopped. We stood there for several seconds and then, through the whine of mosquitoes, I heard hammering.
"Somebody's makin' somethin', Pap?"
I saw him clench his teeth and narrow his eyes. "Shhh!" he said.
After a few more seconds, Pap continued down the trail.
"What is it, Pap?"
"Somebody gonna live there?"
I could tell Pap didn't want to talk about it, so I followed behind him and didn't ask any more questions.
After we heard the hammering, Pap couldn't keep his mind on his chores. He'd get me to working on something at the shelter and he'd say he had to walk off in the woods and tend to things. He was usually gone for a couple of hours. He didn't want me to know where he went, but I knew it was to watch the hammering.
One day he said, "You finish scalin' those fish. I got to go look for somethin' I left down the trail."
"I wanna go, Pap."
"Just a one-man job."
"I've only got two fish left."
Pap stared off at the treetops and bit his bottom lip. "All right," he finally said. "Come on, then."
Pap never meant to look for anything. We slipped through the forest using gallberry and cane for cover until we got to where the house was being built. They had cemented concrete blocks together and run timbers across them for the floor supports. The yard was stacked with lumber for the rest of the framing. I turned to Pap, waiting for him to tell me what it meant. His face was worried pale.
"Gonna be a big house, Pap?" I finally asked.
"Big huntin' lodge," he mumbled.
"I've never seen somethin' built that big."
He nodded his head and motioned for us to head back to the shelter.
We didn't go to the lodge together again. The days began to grow cooler and the breezes told us that fall was arriving. Things had changed between Pap and me. Even though I was with him just about every minute of the day, I didn't feel like he knew I was there. He was far away in thought most of the time, and even though I watched his face, I couldn't get clues to what he was thinking.
We got the steel traps out of storage and oiled them and wired the parts that were broken. The maple leaves had just started to turn and I knew we were over a month away from trapping season. But Pap didn't seem to be doing things in the right order anymore. One day he told me to go gather mulberries. It had been five months since the last mulberry dropped.
"Pap, there's not any mulberries."
"Just do what I tell you," he said.
I waited for a few seconds to see if he would realize his mistake, but he went back to sharpening his knife. I didn't know what to do, so I stepped into the forest and started walking, thinking that if I stayed gone long enough it would convince him that I'd tried my best.
Once I got away from the shelter, it felt good to be on my own again after such a long time staying close to Pap and feeling his worries. I looked up into the trees and studied the yellows and reds of the changing leaves. The birds flitted about and made shrill cries from deep in the bush. It felt like I could breathe easier, and the smells of cedar and stinkbugs flowed into my nose.
Without meaning to, I wandered within hearing distance of the lodge. Once the sound of power tools and hammers reached my ears, I was too curious not to slip closer for a better look.
The workmen had moved a house trailer onto the site, and they seemed to be living in it. More lumber was stacked in the yard, along with roofing material and bricks. The lodge was already framed two stories high. I wanted to stay and watch the men working, but Pap's warnings about contact with outsiders started to play in my head. I crept back into the forest and took a different trail to the shelter.
Pap was sitting outside, weaving a basket from muscadine vine when I walked up. I stood in front of him, ready to tell him why I didn't have any mulberries, but he didn't ask about them or anything else.
Finally I said, "They're puttin' walls on that lodge, Pap."
His fingers stopped and he looked up at me. "I don't ever want you goin' near it again."
"But it's not even finished."
"I don't care. You heard what I said."
"You think maybe when the lawyer moves in we could talk to him and he'd let us stay on?"
Pap looked at me again. "I don't know, son! Why don't you get back to work and forget about that lawyer and his business."
* * *
As fall passed, the leaves began dropping from the trees and the forest canopy became a solid green fan of pine needles. We pulled our deerskin jackets from between the cedar boards and waterproofed them with mink oil for the season. The carrots would stay in the ground for a while longer, but the other garden vegetables needed to come out before the first frost. I was always excited about the last harvest of the year because I knew it meant we'd go to Mr. Abroscotto's store to sell whatever we had. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Alabama Moon by Watt Key. Copyright © 2006 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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