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From the roof of my cabin I can see only forest, an endless canopy of pecan and hickory, ash and beech and sugar maple. Wind flows through the trees and down the mountain, and the clearing seems like nothing but a step in a great green waterfall. Even the freshly split shingles make me think of water. Cedar is an aromatic wood; warmed by the autumn sunlight of a late North Carolina afternoon, it smells ancient and exotic, like the spice-laden hold of a quinquereme of Nineveh. It would be easy to close my eyes and imagine a long ago ocean cut by oarswater whispering along the hull, the taste of spraybut there's no point. There's no one to tell, no longer a Julia to listen.
Grief changes everything. It's a brutal metamorphosis. A caterpillar at least gets the time to spin a cocoon before its internal organs dissolve and its skin sloughs off. I had no warning: one minute Julia was walking down the street, sun shining on black hair and blue dress, the next she lay mewling in her own blood. The bullet wound was bigger than my fist. Then she was on a white bed in a white room, surrounded by rhythmically pumping machines. She lasted six days. Then she had a massive stroke. They turned the machines off. The technician stripped off his gloves, and grief stripped me raw.
I set the point of a roofing nail against a shingle, lifted my hammer, and swang. The steel bit through the cedar right on a hidden imperfection, and the shingle split. The hammer shook in my fist. I put it down and laid my hands on my thighs. The shaking got worse.
A plane droned over the forest, out of sight even though the sky was clear, a hard October blue. Birds sang; a squirrel shrieked. The droning note deepened abruptly, grew louder, and resolved into a laboring car engine. There was only one road. I didn't want anything to do with visitors.
The ladder creaked under my boots, but once on the turf I moved silently. Truck and trailer were locked, and the cabin did not yet have windows to break. I collected the most valuable of the hand toolsthe froe and drawing knife by the sawhorse, the foot adze and broadaxe by the sections of split cedarstowed them in the old hogpen, and walked into the forest.
Parts of the southern Appalachian forests have been growing uninterrupted for two hundred million years. Unlike the north, this area has never been scoured to its rock bones by glaciers. It has been a haven for every species, plant and animal, that has fled the tides of ice which creep across the continent every few thousand years: the ark from which the rest of the East is reseeded after the ice melts. A refuge, my refuge.
On my right, brilliant white-spotted orange puffballs bloomed from the horizontal trunk of some huge tree that had fallen so long ago it was impossible to identify. It was being absorbed back into the forest: carpenter ants and fungi broke down the cellulose; raccoons and possums lived in the cavities and salamanders in the shade; deer and wild pigs ate the mushrooms. When the whole thing collapsed into rotted punk, more microbes would turn it into rich soil from which a new tree would grow. I touched its mossy bark as I passed. This was the world I belonged to now, this one, where when a living thing died it fed others, where the scents were of mouse droppings and sap, not exhaust fumes and cordite, and the air hummed with insects rather than screams and the roar of flame.
Ninety feet over my head the canopy of ash and white basswood shivered in the constant mountain breeze; it was never quiet, not even at night. I stood for a while and just listened.
The sudden, rapid drumming of a pileated woodpecker echoed from the dense growth ahead. I pushed through fetterbush and fern and skirted a tangle of dogwoods, trying to pin down the source. It drummed again. North.
I found it forty feet up a huge yellow buckeye on a stream bank orange with jewelweed: big as a crow, clamped onto the bark by its strange backward-and-forward claws, and braced against the tree with its tail. Its scarlet head crest flashed forward and back in an eight-inch arc, over and over, a black-and-red jackhammer, and almost as noisy. Wood chips and plates of bark as big as my hand showered the weeds. When it reached softer wood, its tongue went to work, probing for carpenter ants, licking them up like a child dipping her tongue in sugar. Perhaps woodpeckers developed an instinct for which trees were rotten with ants, the way a police officer can spot the criminal in a crowd. It was efficient and brutal. When it was done, it launched itself from the tree and disappeared downstream, leaving the remaining ants wandering about in the wreckage of their shattered community. I wondered if the bird ever gave any thought to those left behind. I never had.
I emerged from the jewelweed and sat on a boulder by the rushing stream. Damselflies hummed; a chipmunk chup-chup-chupped next to a fallen pecan; birds began their evening song. Tree shadow crept to the edge of the far bank, then across the water. I let it all pour through my head, emptying it.
When I stirred, it was twilight under the trees; in the valleys it would be full dark. If my visitors had been smart, they would have turned their lights on to drive back down the mountain. I stretched, then walked along the stream bank, savoring the cool scent of moss and mud, following its curve north until it met the trail that led south and west to my cabin.
Three hundred yards from the clearing there were no birds singing, no squirrels scuttling through the undergrowth. The long muscles in my arms and legs and down my back plumped and warmed as adrenaline dilated blood vessels. I flexed my hands, moved silently to the tree line.
Woods surround three quarters of the clearing, but the southern quarter falls down the mountain as a heath bald and, unhindered by trees, the last of the evening sun slanted over the grass and splashed gold on the windscreen of a dark blue Isuzu Trooper parked by the trailer. A man sat on the log by the fire pit, one leg crossed over the other, an unlabeled bottle by his foot. He was slight, with black hair long enough to hint at ringlets where it touched his collar, and although I couldn't see his eyes I knew what color they would be: Irish blue. He was whistling "Kevin Barry" through his teeth as though he might sit there forever.
I know how to look after myself; I have the money to buy whatever I need. Neither of these things is any protection for the raw wound that is grief, and this man sat like a sack of sharp salt in the middle of the only safe place I knew.
He didn't hear me step from the trees, didn't hear me cross the turf. It would be easy to break his neck, or pull the hatchet from its stump and chop through his spine at the sixth vertebra. But he had met Julia, once.
I stood behind him for nearly a minuteclose enough to smell the familiar bitter hint of coffee groundsbefore he jerked around and whipped off his shades.
Aud rhymes with shroud. After a moment I said, "Dornan."
"I was beginning to think . . . But here you are."
There were dark circles around his usually bright eyes but I didn't want to see them. "What do you want?"
"Would you sit down at least? I brought a drink." He held up the bottle.
"Say what you have to say."
"For the love of god, Aud, just sit for one minute and have a drink. Please."
I didn't move. "It's almost dark."
"We'd best make a fire then." He stood, tried to look cheerful. "Well, now, hmm, I'm no expert but that looks like a fire pit, and this, over here, is no doubt firewood. If I put this in here, then"
I took the hickory log from him. "Kindling first."
"And where would I find that?"
"You make it."
"I see. And how do I go about doing that?"
His forehead glistened. He knew me, what I might do if he pushed too hard. Something was so important to him that he thought it worth the risk; I would have to hurt him or listen. Briefly, I hated him. "Bring the bottle."
Inside the trailer, I turned on lights and opened cupboards.
"Well, would you look at this! You do yourself proud." He ventured in, patted the oak cabinets and admired the Italian leather upholstery, then stepped through the galley to the dining area. "A satellite television!" He pushed buttons. "It doesn't work." I had never bothered to connect it. "And a real bathroom." The trailer, a fifth-wheel rig, was a treasure trove of hidden, high-tech delights. I let him wander about while I assembled plates, bowls, cutlery. "I had no idea these things could be such little palaces," he said when he came back. "There's even a queen bed."
After five months of solitude, his prattle was almost unbearable. I handed him a chopping board and knife, and he frowned.
"So where's the food?"
I picked up a cast-iron pot. "Bring that flashlight."
"There's no electricity?"
Only when I ran the generator, and I preferred the peace and quiet. He followed me to the water pump, where I handed him the pot. "Fill this. Less than a third."
While he pumped inexpertly I jerked the hatchet from the chopping stump, split the hickory into kindling, and carried it to the fire pit. Beneath the ash, the embers were sluggish. I blew them to a glow. When the kindling caught I added a couple of logs and went to the bearproof hogpen to get the food. The sky was now bloody, the trees behind us to the north and east a soft black wall.
Dornan handed me the pot and I hung it over the fire.
"Pumping's thirsty work," he said, and uncorked the bottle. He drank and gave it to me. The poteen smoked in my mouth and burned my gullet. I shuddered. We passed the bottle back and forth until the water came to a boil. My forebrain felt strange, as though someone were squeezing it. I added rice, and opened plastic tubs of sun-dried tomatoes, green olives, olive oil, and cashew nuts.
"No meat I see."
"You're the cafe owner. Next time call ahead."
"I tried. Do you even know where your phone is?"
It was around somewhere, battery long dead. The fire burned hotter. I drank more whiskey. When the rice was done I handed him the slotted spoon. "Scoop the rice into the big bowl. Don't throw away the water. It's good to drink cold."
He gave me a sideways look but spooned in silence. Sudden squealing from under the trees made him jump. "Mother of god!"
"Wild pigs," I said. The rice he had spilt in the fire hissed and popped.
"Would they be dangerous?"
"Not to us."
He handed me a bowl of rice. I added the dried ingredients and olives, a little oil, and salt and pepper.
We sat on the log side by side and ate quietly while the sky darkened from dull red to indigo. Firelight gleamed on my fork and, later, when we set the plates aside, on the bottle as we passed it back and forth. I rubbed the scar that ran from my left shoulder blade and along the underside of my arm to the elbow.
Only inside. "Tell me why you came, Dornan."
He turned the bottle in his hands, around and around. "It's Tammy. She's missing. I want you to find her."
He had disturbed me for this. "Maybe she doesn't want to be found."
"I think she's in trouble."
Overhead, the first star popped out, as though someone had poked a hole in a screen.
"Now, look, I'm not a fool. I know you're hiding up here, eating this, this rabbit food, because you want to be left alone. But I've tried everything, phoned everyone: police, family, her friends"Tammy didn't have friends, only male lovers and female competition"and I've nowhere else to turn."
His face was drawn, with deep lines etched on either side of his mouth, but I turned away. I didn't want to know, didn't want to care. Stay in the world, Aud, Julia had said from that metal bed in that white room.
"It started in July. Tammy changed jobs, left those engineers she was doing business development for and joined some new outfit. Something to do with shopping complexes."
Stay alive inside. Promise me. And I had promised, but I didn't know how.
"So off she goes down to Naples, Florida, to talk to some people who are putting in a new mall. Said she'd be gone a week or ten days. Then I get a phone call saying no, it'll be another three weeks, or four. But just when she should have been coming home, she calls again. From New York. She's learning a lot, she says, and she's decided to spend a bit of time in New York learning firsthand from the consultant who was advising the Naples group. His name is Geordie Karp. He's one of those psychologists that study shoppers and shopping. You know: how to design the front display to get shoppers inside, where to put what so they'll buy it."
He waited. When I said nothing, he sighed.
"She called at the beginning of August, and she sounded happy. So now you're probably thinking: Tammy met someone and decided to leave me. After all, it wouldn't be the first time she's seen other men, would it? No, you don't have to answer that."
The bottle in his hands turned round and round.
"The thing is, you see, I know Tammy; I know who she is, what she's like. I know you don't like her, and you're not the only one. But I love her anyway. Maybe I'm a foolish man, but there it is. So I gave her the ring. I can't help hoping that one day she'll look at that ring, she'll recall I have money in the bank and I've promised to take care of her, and love her, and she'll think, You know, maybe Dornan isn't so bad, and she'll come home and marry me."
He drank, wiped his mouth, remembered me and passed the bottle.
"She was so happy when she called. Do you know what that's like? That she was happy with someone else? But I've been through it beforeshe drops them as quickly as she picks them up, and she always comes home. But it's different this timenever lasted as long before, for one thing. For another, she didn't give me an address, or a phone number. And she hasn't called again. It's been two months. That's not like her."