The Sound of the Trees: A Novel

The Sound of the Trees: A Novel

by Robert Gatewood

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312421885
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/01/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Robert Gatewood lives in New Mexico. The Sound of the Trees was a Book Sense 76 pick and is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt


THEY RODE OUT from the house in the predawn quiet. Against the cold brown sky its appearance was wind-broken and funereal, and neither looked back once they passed.

Lord, the boy whispered to no one.

They rode the horses at a trot to the north. They passed the town still shrouded in darkness and they did not speak. They rode away from the main road, through sedge and willow, past the lake where fog pooled so thick it looked like grounded cloud. They rode under the low sagging telephone wires and into the arroyo where they disappeared around a small bluff gouged out of the rock by waters that no longer ran there.

Once the boy looked back at his mother and she was crying, her hair spilling out from the clothespin bun and her shadowed face averted. He held her a moment with his gaze, then turned ahead and kicked his horse onward.

Trude, his mother called out as they came onto level ground. Trude.

The boy stopped and waited, his hat held low to his head with his free hand and his shirt collar drawn up high on his neck. He quartered the horse and faced her. As she came on he noticed her delicate hands wringing the bridle reins. In light of everything that had gone to packing the night before, she looked small and unaccounted for.

Trude, she called breathlessly when she finally shouldered her roan to his side. Darlin, are we sure about this?

Jesus, Mama. He did not lift his eyes from his saddle nor did he take his hand from his hat. Just look at your face.

She put a hand across her cheek and turned away. They were quiet for a long time, sitting there in the cold country morning.

Colorado ain't that far, the boy said, placing his own hands on his knees to give brace to the idea. And the way they talk about it. Most beautiful country in the world. And the biggest ranches.

His mother let the reins fall and brought both hands to her face.

We barely got any money, she said. And we don't even got the truck.

Shit, the boy said, neither of us can drive anyway. Besides, the bank can take the ranch from him all they want. But they ain't takin Triften. She ain't dollars, she's my horse.

So we're ridin all the way up to Colorado with scarcely any money at all?

Name a better way, he said.

He paused briefly and studied her with her eyes near frantic and lost on the vast landscape before them. Away from the town all detail washed away. Even the trees, which clambered out toward the hills, appeared formless and bleak. The boy heeled his mare and squared up to her. He reached out for her shoulder and said more gently, We got to, Mama.

His eyes were the clear blue of his mother's, but without the sick sparkle now alight in hers.

Don't you see that? Mama. I know you see that. We got to.

* * *

When they reached the edge of town the boy's mother whoaed her horse and gathered her hair back up in the clothespin. The boy sat and waited while she looked with a furrowed brow down at the town where trucks were warming the air and the sound of storefront shutters being pitched open came dull and insignificant across the gulch.

I can't up and leave without havin said my piece to the girls, she said. It won't take but thirty minutes.

The boy squinted hard, looking out at the lightening sky to check the sun's progress. His mother shook her head and stared at her hands that worked the bridle reins methodically.

I've seen it take six men to clear him out of a bar. And prohibition ain't even seemed to graze him. His daddy bought that land in '01, but once he was gone. Well. She looked out at the hills. Hatley, she said. She looked at the boy. Your father. He didn't take no shame in drinkin it away one acre at a time.

The boy's mother turned and surveyed the dark plains, her knees bent up high against the horse's barrel, her back all bone and wrenched muscle in the paling light.

I guess some things can't be fixed, she said finally. I guess no matter how much straightenin you may do in your mind, some things always come out crosswise.

The boy watched his mother keenly now. Though grayed and neck-bruised, he could see her old beauty yet, and he saw by the tightness of her mouth that she had at last resigned herself to their leaving.

Alright, Mama, he said. I'll meet you here come the half hour.

His mother smiled at him with a brightness that he could not remember seeing for a very long time. Something in it that reminded the boy of how she had been when he was still a child. He could not help but smile himself and he lowered his head and put his hand atop the crown of his hat to hide it from her.

I'll drop in and see Doc, he said.

His mother gave him a firm nod and told him again thirty minutes and she told him not to worry. But the boy was no longer worried. It was as if the idea alone of leaving his father behind were enough for him to become a man. A new man in a new world where things were as he remembered them once to have been, and he presided over his horse with great dignity, turning her in a sidestep down the path as the moon collapsed under the earth and the sun rose red upon the shivering grass.

* * *

HE REACHED THE doctor's yard with a long shadow coming off him and the fog clearing and the night all but over. On the front porch a brass lantern struggled on its twisted chain. The bulb hung dead and black in the gloaming. The boy's mare stepped backward nervously by the side of the porch and he eased her down with a low whistle. He dismounted and struck a hand across his pant leg and pulled off his gloves.

From the hill where the doctor's house stood the boy could see far off in the distance to where the mountains loomed like polished bowls of stone turned asunder. They appeared to him the same way in which they did in his dreams, and he recalled how often as a child he had dreamed of the roaming bears that ruled them. He remembered how he had dreamed a sky the color of the blue flowers that grew on the tree outside his bedroom window and how he dreamed of the blunt brown heads working beneath it like stones pushed along the bottom of a clear running stream. He dreamed he walked in the deep green grass among them, following the tracks of their lead-black paws out upon the snow to where the waters froze and the world itself seemed to pause to let them pass. He recalled also how he had dreamed himself into the warm folds of their skin and the tremorless pools of their black eyes. And in the dream he began to call to them in their language, which was absent of words, and his throat became clean with the sound, but when they reached the forest they would no longer let him follow.

He went up the porch steps and knocked on the frame of the screen door that was pitched open and creaking in the wind. When the doctor finally rose and came to let him in the boy stepped back and pushed his gloves into his back pocket.

Trude. The doctor pressed his hair back with the palms of his hand. What time is it in your world?

The boy raised a hand in apology. I know it Doc. Sorry. I just wanted to say you a good-bye.

Where you goin at this hour, son?

Up north.

North you say? Well boy, there's a lot of country to the north you know. It ain't New Mexico all the way up on into heaven.

I know it, the boy said. We're goin to Colorado.

The doctor's face was broad and stubbled and high in the cheekbone yet all sense of meanness in his sharp features dissolved when his heavy white eyebrows slackened. After a moment he took the boy by the arm. Well what are we standin here with the door open for, he said. Get on in.

He led him down the hallway past the standing clock and the bookshelves filled with the hand-worn medicine journals and past the parlor table where the phone sat mute in its cradle and into the study. The doctor stepped aside to let the boy pass. The room smelled thickly of leather and cigar. Trude sat in one of the heavy green armchairs. The doctor turned the hot ash of the fire and slowly gave it kindling and lit a cigar and sat facing him in the other armchair. The boy shifted his feet upon the dark rug.

Well, you got me up and smokin now. You want some coffee?

Thank you. No sir. I'm in a bit of a hurry.

That's right, the doctor said. He wiped the loose ash from his knee and folded his hands in his lap. Now who is we, and where are you goin?

Me and Mama. We're goin to Colorado. And you know about the ranch.

The doctor worked the waist belt of his bulky robe tighter but did not take his eyes from the boy. The boy shifted his feet again and just then realized he was still wearing his hat. He took it down and set it in his lap.

I know about the ranch but you all got a few more days yet. And what about your father? I thought he said you'd go to Utah to stay with his sister for a while.

He ain't comin.

The doctor stopped pulling on his belt. He fixed his gaze on the boy.

What? he said. Now what does that mean? Why?


The boy looked down at his hat. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to stay himself. After a moment he breathed out and looked up squarely at the doctor. The doctor saw how it was in the boy's eyes and lowered his chin.

Yes, he said after a long while. I see.

The sun rose in the window behind the boy and a long pallid ray ran along the arm of his chair. He held it in his hands and watched it, weak and quavering on his skin.

I guess I always knew it was the right thing to do.

Yes, the doctor said. Yes. But Trude, you ain't but seventeen.

Eighteen, sir. And I don't see how that's got anything to do with Pa losing the ranch nor balling fists at her.

They sat. The doctor ran his fingers along his eyebrows. The boy stared down at the rug.

Why's it got to be Colorado? Why not just down the road? What's wrong with Jimenez? Or Bayard?

Because, Doc. Down the road ain't leavin. It's just a ride.

But why Colorado? Your ma and you. You ain't Lewis and Clark.

The boy fiddled with his hat. I know it, he said. But we want a fresh start. God knows she needs it. Colorado, it just feels right.

The doctor studied him. I want you to take my car, he said at last.

No sir. No. The boy's eyes quickened and he shook his head. Not a chance, he said. You need it to get to the sick. Besides. Me and Mama been over this already. I can't drive a lick and she's no good at it neither. I doubt there's even roads to get us up there. Not ones I'd know. Not through the mountains.

Maybe not through the mountains. But you can go ahead and take a train that skirts around east a bit and can get you straight to Santa Fe. Or Albuquerque. Hell, if you take the car it's not but sixty miles before you hit paved road.

The boy shook his head again, almost a lament in the slow sway of it. Too much money for the train, he said. And I don't want yours and neither of us can drive, like I said. Besides, I can't leave Triften. You know that. She just wouldn't have it, and I guess neither would I. Most times in the last few years she's the only company I've had. I'd just as soon make a clean cut. We'll make it. We will.

The boy roused his head from his lap and looked into the doctor's eyes.

Don't you believe it?

Yes. Of course I believe it, son.

The doctor took the belt ends in his hands again and wound them deliberately over his fingers. As if to demonstrate some procedure of thought. At last he looked up at the boy and sighed.

You best take care then, he said. You hear me? You best stay as close as you can to the towns. Now I know you ain't never been one for signs and borders or the like. But remember, you ain't never been out of Grant County before. It's rough country up there if you're plannin to shoot the mountains. It's country most folks ain't never heard of, let alone seen. And I don't care how many trucks or trains you got to get you there.

Yes sir. We'll be careful. I'll make sure of it.

The boy paused, staring blankly at his hat and the shadow it cast upon his hands. The doctor watched him through the dusty slats of light that were now unfurling from the window. Then the boy raised his head.

Now I know you all are friends and I don't expect you to like it, but I came to say you a good-bye and I do expect that he won't get wind of my plans from you.

At this the doctor straightened up in his chair. His face fell grave and he puffed his cigar, looking at it momentarily then setting it in an ivory ashtray and turning the ashtray with his strong fine hands and finally turning his eyes to the fire. I reckon you're right, he said. It had to come to this.

The boy peered into the fire and they both did so for a long time. Upstairs the boy could hear the doctor's wife splashing quietly over a washbasin. He looked at the mantle clock and it ticked the seconds in the stillness, and finally he rose.

The doctor pulled long on his cigar.

Have you considered that he may follow you?

The smoke crossed the room. It rose up at the boy's waist while he turned his head and gazed out the window behind him.

I done considered it, yeah. Depends on how he feels when he sobers up. Depends on whether or not he's stashed enough money for himself. Depends if he even wants to find us. But just the same, if we go on up through the mountain passes, can you imagine him givin chase? I mean, if you want another reason for not takin the train or your car. There it is. You think he could stay set on a horse anymore? I don't know. The boy lowered his hat, then placed it atop his head again. He raised his hands as if he couldn't think what more there might be to say. Depends on a lot of things, I reckon.

The doctor set the cigar in the ashtray again. He swept a hand across the rubble of white hair on his chin. Then he took in a deep breath and rested his fists on the chair arms.

Sometimes your father used to come here at night when he was very drunk. I'd let him sleep it off on the cot in the back and in the mornin I'd feed him eggs and coffee. We were always good friends, your pa and me. He'd tell me he didn't want to go home because he was afraid of himself. I always thought that was a curious thing, but your father is a curious man. But you know, the doctor said, raising a hand toward the boy then placing it on his chest, he does have somethin that at least resembles a heart in there.

The boy stared at the hand on the doctor's chest. How long we known each other Doc?

The old man shrugged. He strained his eyes in remembrance, and it was clear from his frown that such memories were of little use to him. Long as you've been around, he said cautiously.

And you've always taken care of me with my ridin injuries and the like. Right?

Oh well yes, the doctor said, straightening up in his chair again, but look at all the ribbons you took in on account of your roping. Best young rider in the tricounty district last year.

Well sir, with all due respect, I ain't but once been injured by horse or cow.

The old doctor slouched down in his chair. He turned his head back toward the fire.

I got one more question for you, Doc. The boy now stood full in the wake of light, and it flooded over him from his back and shoulders. Is the story they tell about when I was born true? I mean, I'm leavin now and I won't see him again I reckon and you're the only friend around here I got. It'd mean a lot to me if you could just go on and say it.

The doctor rested his chin in his hand. He looked at the smoke drifting up his fingers. At long last he thumbed out his cigar in the ashtray and rose into the light of the coming day. He crossed the room and put his hands on the boy's shoulders. For a while he studied his face. Smooth and sunken as if drawn out by some indelible sorrow, yet with the boy's wheat-colored hair spraying from his hat brim and fluttering over his long eyelashes, the doctor once again saw the child he knew, and he moved his hands from the boy's shoulders to cup him under the jaw as though he meant to bear the boy's soul where he himself could not.

It's true, he said, now correcting the boy's hat on his head and trying for a tender smile. He damned you when you were born.

At the door the doctor waved him off sadly and the boy turned and regarded him and put a finger to the fork of his hat. He saw the doctor's wife descending the stairs with her long gray hair coming down over her shoulder and he wished the doctor well and began to walk his horse back toward the north and into the ashen country that awaited him.


Excerpted from "The Sound Of The Trees"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Robert Payne Gatewood III.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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