Driving across Lawrence County was like heading back into prehistory. With their ragged clefts of burst rock, the hills seemed freshly buckled. Even the locals had a primeval look, rough-hewn and heavy-set, cruising around in muddy pickups or low- slung reptilian sedans. Blasting through to make this stretch of highway ten years back, the road crews unearthed a trove of fossils. There were three hundred million year old shark’s teeth, millipede and scorpion fossils etched into the outcrops that loomed like cathedrals as Maitland sped beneath them, a pop star caterwauling on his car radio.
He squinted, recalled the singer gyrating in a skin-tight dress on a music video and then fiddled with the dial to find the weather report. He didn’t like too much sun: the glare skewed his aim. He took his exit off the highway, waved at the pump attendant as he drove past McCalley’s gas bar and motel, then turned onto the red dirt road that swept down to where the land broke into jigsaw puzzle pieces in the lake.
A few moments later his SUV was creeping underneath a canopy of low-hanging trees towards the weather-beaten group of outbuildings where his mother Selma had lived with her second husband Barry until her death three years previously. They had been among the first to build hunting camps out here on the cusp of what some now called wetlands but older folks called swamp. Their acres were buggy and humid, full of rotten boughs colonized by yellow ear-shaped fungi, ankle-snapping ditches and gulches that widened into emerald ponds during the wetter months.
Barry had been in the family for over forty years but even so, nobody knew too much about him. They knew he was Irish, crooned off-key folk songs that made Maitland’s stomach sink to his shoes. They knew something had happened between the day Barry was born and the day he stepped into Selma’s living room, smothered in brill cream and Old Spice, to see them all piled like a raccoon family onto the caved-in sofa. Something that made him prowl up and down on the kitchen linoleum, groan in his sleep, slump on the porch with his head in his heads.
Whatever he was, wherever he’d been, Barry was big on justice with a small ‘j’. Red- faced and flying off the handle, he was always getting fired from this or that factory job, coming home with stories in which he was the underdog or unsung hero. But he’d stuck by them all these years, piously shaking his head whenever their real father, who had walked out on them without a goodbye or explanation, was mentioned. He’d put food on the table and had taken care, in his rough way, of Selma when she had her stroke and went into her long fade.
Maitland pulled up next to a freshly delivered mound of the gravel that was forever being raked around by locals to stave off the encroaching marsh. As the years passed, Barry had added more and more rooms to the camping shack, until people joked that it looked like a fugitive’s long-term hideout, the kind of lair a drug lord would lie low in. Selma had decorated the hell out of it in her final years. There was a wide-screen TV and a microwave and a million frilly pillows that Barry threw around the living room when he was mad.
Maitland stepped onto the porch just as his brother William, having heard his car on the gravel drive, emerged from the hammock he was partially cocooned in. The two brothers stared at each other. Then William, standing at his full height, looked away through the trees to the lake’s edge, alive now with the sound of splashing. Through the leaves Maitland caught a glimpse of William’s blonde children and golden retrievers, the vivid pinks and greens of his younger wife’s dress. He turned back to face William again.
“Where is he?”
William nodded towards the screen door. Maitland peered into the shadows, made out the brass spokes of the sunburst clock mounted on the wood-paneled living room wall and the muted sound of a television or radio in a distant room.
“They called. Won’t know
any more until later this week,” said William. “That doesn’t change anything.”
Not wanting to waken Barry, the two brothers stepped down from the porch and onto the gravel drive. They were fit, long-legged, middle-aged men, often mistaken by strangers for twins although Maitland was five years older. William was still golden-haired, Maitland was ashy, had always been darker. In their youth they had both been champion runners, and still ran now although they’d worn away so much cartilage in their knees that they hobbled out of bed each morning. William was faster, came a few seconds shy of making the Olympics while his college rival had raced on a shorter track in the States and qualified, a story the family retold in the mordant tones of a Greek tragedy.
But what they did on a racetrack with a stopwatch in the broad light of day was nothing compared to what they’d done out here in the woods. It made Maitland catch his breath just thinking about them racing on cloudless nights, so fast they felt weightless, two disembodied spirits flying over the raised logs that Barry set up as a makeshift obstacle course, the ruins of which still rotted in the undergrowth beside the driveway.
“There will be hell to pay when he finds out,” said Maitland.
“It’s not up to him anymore,” said William. “There are other people now. People who might get hurt.”
He gestured towards the small beach that Barry had carved out when the grandchildren started to arrive, heaping bulrushes onto his boat, slashing the high weeds on the shoreline. Maitland followed his gaze, glanced at the bright colors flitting in the sunlight, made out a child’s bonnet and snatches of picnic things. It was an Indian summer, July in September. If he wasn’t too cranky or exhausted, Barry might tell stories to the wide-eyed children by the flushed light of the woodstove tonight, his voice pitched to a disturbing sotto voce.
He was always the life and soul of any party. When Maitland and William were small, their faces, terrified or elated, followed him from their nest of comic books and afghans as he whirled their mother around the kitchen or staggered back and forth with a quart of whiskey. Even after he joined AA there was never really anyone else in the room when Barry was around. He didn’t get old the way other people did. He just got Barry-er, his body wizened to beef jerky, emerging from the wall of green undergrowth like some creature out of a legend whenever their cars pulled into the driveway.
His hold over them was still powerful enough that they had dropped their weekend plans when he summoned them here, ostensibly for an off-season duck hunt. The summons wasn’t unusual, he had a long and flagrant history of flouting local enforcers. What was unusual was his tone of voice on the phone: harsh and hollow, as though calling out from a great distance. It made Maitland wonder if Barry was hitting the bottle again.
William was too young to remember, but in the beginning Maitland had been the retriever, wading up to his waist in the marsh to clasp the ducks by their limp necks. He stacked them on land with their beaks facing the same direction, marveling at the ovoid skulls, peacock sheen and sculpted nostrils, the occult mystery of their lifeless eyes, staring out into blackness.
Lying in bed at night in town, he could still hear the rhythmic plash of the oars dipping into silty water as he drifted off to sleep. His keenest memories were of gliding beyond the craggy inlets past chamber after chamber of walled rushes, a vast, rustling palace in the pre-dawn night. The darkness felt so endless and absolute he was surprised each time the inks faded into the chilly steels and blues of early morning, his body stiff from crouching beneath the camouflage nets that Barry draped over the boat as a blind. Maitland was nine years old when he shot his first duck, could still remember the surge of startled panic, the hollow sound of the flapping wings, the hull tilting beneath him as he fired and watched the bird softly crash through the rushes.
Barry taught him it was better to not shoot or at least miss altogether if you couldn’t make a clean kill. A wounded duck will flee and warn the others. Word spreads from flock to flock, passes down through generations. But if there’s a legend of dead spots the ducks avoid or fly high out of range over, Barry has the inverse map, knows the pools and coves where he can lure greenheads from the sky with a wooden reed until the air is alive with wings and the green fire of their feathers, pike twitching in the eelgrass below.
The three men had headed out into the indigo mist the previous morning, paddling past the rocky point where Barry’s hunting dogs were buried beneath stone cairns hauled up from the shore. Dressed in camouflage, faces scribbled with greasy pastel, they almost disappeared into the landscape as they rowed past the branches of a newly toppled tree. It was here that Barry broke down and told them what the doctor said. How the secret he’d been keeping had spread into his bones and other organs. He spent the trip back to the camp in silence, his head cradled in his splayed hands.
The brothers had stared at each other across the curve of Barry’s spine with the same expressions they wore now, a day later, standing on the gravel-strewn driveway. The silence deepened between them, the shrieks and splashing of the children having paused at an earlier point. Through the trees Maitland caught another flash of pink, a child’s blonde head darting from view. They were all still there, lost in a quiet game or contemplating the delicate life forms that teemed in the shallows. There was a stirring from within the cottage and he glanced over William’s shoulder into the shadows beyond the screen door. Wordless, they moved down the rough stone path and into the woods.
In the beginning there was a one-room shack with a splintered porch and a bug net more duct tape than mesh that Barry called his getaway. The two of them, Maitland and Barry, left town on a Friday evening after Barry’s shift at the pulp factory, drove out into miles of forest interrupted only by the odd waterfall cascading from the rocks, ivory-white in the gloom. Exhausted from a week of humping sacks of wood-chips, Barry lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove while Maitland opened cans of Vienna sausages and potatoes they wolfed down lukewarm. If it was off-season Barry sat by the stove’s roaring mouth and drank bourbon by the quart until he blacked out, the canvas chair tipping him onto the rough planks in the early hours of dawn.
For the rest of the weekend it was Maitland standing tip-toe on Barry’s tackle-box to make himself a sandwich on the splintered counter. Maitland lost in the woods for hours, riddled with black fly, miraculously spotting the river of red road through the trees just as the sun dipped out of view. Sinking into the river on a homemade raft. Soaked to the skin in cold rain, shuddering between the burnt-out mouth of the woodstove and Barry’s prostrate body. Sneaking Barry’s .22 out to shoot rabbits and squirrels, turning their slack bodies with the tip of his shoe to stare at their dead faces.
It wasn’t like Barry didn’t try. Sometimes at night he told Maitland stories, tales that dissolved into a mist of unremembering or the saw-toothed rasp of a snore. If Maitland prodded him awake and pleaded with him to finish, Barry scrutinized the woods from his sunken armchair on the porch as though an ending might emerge from the foliage at any moment.
Maitland had waited for his real father to come for so long, listening in rapture for his footsteps on the bungalow’s front path. He would come and save them all, take them to the white mansion in the hills they were sure he lived in. But in the end there was only Barry in his grime-stiffened pants, pulling into the driveway after a double shift, his Dodge Ram cankered with rust. No matter how often Maitland ate moldy Cheerios from the box, no matter that the shack reeked of Barry’s pissed pants, he never breathed a word about what happened on those weekends to his mother or anyone else. Because anything was better than waiting for a man whose face was no more than a blank white oval to never come home.
They made an effort to be more civilized when William started coming along. Maitland could recall the bursts of love and panic he’d felt in his chest watching William’s golden head, as fragile as a Christmas ornament, leaning from the car window as he reached out to frisk the passing branches, hovering over the boat’s stern to watch the fish flickering in the deeps. There were weeks, maybe a whole July, where Barry kept his cool, blew smoke-rings with his feet dangling over the gunwales, and the three of them ate beans by the stove, dozed off in a mess of old sleeping bags under the stars. Maitland thought he could even remember singing, by the stove-light and on the winding drives home.
Then it was Barry muttering at his own reflection in the window on the porch. Pacing back and forth, shielding his agitated face with his forearm, as though an unseen man was jabbing him. It was Barry, sick of his own torments, piling the kids into the Ram Charger and heading out, rifle on his lap, bourbon wedged between his knees, each rambling drive more reckless than the last.
Sometimes he got Maitland to lean across his lap and steer the wheel while he drew a bead on whatever he saw alongside of the road, which was sometimes a living creature, sometimes just the wind stirring in the brush. And once, a police car’s high-beams on a hill-top, illuminating Barry’s hunched silhouette and cocked rifle to a radiance. The chase went on forever, William and Maitland rolling loose in the back after Barry told them to hunker down. The excitement jolted Barry out of his funk, seemed to give him a heightened awareness. Drunk, he handled the Ram like a race track driver, had the cunning to sling his rifle out of the window on a curve so the police car headlights didn’t catch sight of it flying into the woods.
They ended up lost, creeping along a logging road with the lights off, the Ram sinking into ruts so deep the wheels sank into the mud and squealed. They arrived at an escarpment, a rash of stars overhead and the blood still buzzing in their ears. A maze of bulrushes lay beneath them, as intricate as a figured carpet and overhung with a haze of fog. Barry rolled down his window. The air was clogged with the smell of fungus and rotting leaves and the drone of insects and frogs.
“Listen,” he said. “Both of you, because he needs to hear it too. Take those fancy places in town, all those towers and fountains and pretty wallpaper and lists of what to do. Your mother cleaning the house in case someone important happens to swing by and ring the doorbell. It’s all just bullshit people make up to fool themselves. This is all there is. There isn’t anything else. I want you to remember that. The rest is bullshit people make up just to get by.”
The next morning Barry lay wide-eyed and motionless on his bunk, even after Maitland waved his hand over his face and offered him a bowl of cereal. Maitland and William
rooted around in the bushes along the roadside until they spotted the rifle’s muzzle in the crotch of a trembling ash.
Golden-haired and smooth-skinned at fifty, dragging his pretty wife and children everywhere he went like the good luck charms on a bracelet, William had been too young at the time to remember any of this. Meanwhile Maitland had two broken marriages behind him, had never settled down. Was always rushing straight into the heart of any crisis. The two brothers faced each other once again. They had become estranged over the years, had headed out in different directions but had nonetheless both ended up back in the gloomy nave carved out of the woods by Barry, equidistant from the cluster of buildings and the shore, surreally bright beyond the undergrowth.
During hunting season there were trips out into the bay and up the river’s wide mouth to meet grizzled men at the bottom of fire roads and on the porches of half-toppled shacks. Stinking of beer and three-in-one gun oil, muttering about sports or war, rolling cigarettes from cut-price jumbo tins. They all shared a sour reverence for Barry. He had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He was luck personified, a mascot whose roughhousing and hi-jinxes were tolerated because you were sure to bag a kill if Barry came along. On one trip the men had a large gathering and a bonfire at a shack ten miles up-river from their swamp. They never spoke of it, but Maitland and William both felt something not quite akin to terror as they watched the men nearly coming to blows and breaking off into fits of convulsive laughter, their faces devil-red from the flames.
The moon was nearly full and they rowed home that night on a ribbon of blue glass, the bonfire shrinking to the size of a struck match behind them. Wrapped up in an old rain poncho, William nodded in and out of sleep. Barry crouched in the stern taking swigs from his bottle. They had arrived at a strait with a swifter current when Maitland saw the shape in the water ahead of them. He thought at first that it was a felled bough, or a mass of wood broken loose from a beaver dam and snagged on a rock. Then Barry, possessed once more with that uncanny awareness, rose to his feet and shone his flashlight on the largest stag Maitland had ever seen, a twelve-point antlered giant heading upstream, its white chest like the prow of a small ship.
Out of its element, struggling against the current, the stag’s eyes seemed already to be turning inwards to some hidden sanctum, as though it knew what was going to happen even before Barry groped for his rifle with his free hand and took aim. He waited for the boat to steady, squinted into the shadows at Maitland and William to make sure they were watching and squeezed the trigger. He looped a rope around the stag’s antler and tied it to a cleat then climbed over the seat to the bow, took a long, deep drink from his bottle. “It’s all such a goddam struggle,” he said. He lay down in the hull next to dumbstruck William with his face turned up at the stars. At first Maitland thought Barry was laughing but when he looked over at him he saw tears silvering Barry’s cheeks. The sobs grew louder
and louder, swelled into an outpouring of grief that Maitland had never heard from anyone before or since, not even his wife after her miscarriage.
For forty years Maitland has dreamed about the stag trailing behind the boat beneath the water’s surface while Barry’s ragged sobs tore the air. In his dreams the antlers branch upwards, furnish the river’s narrow corridor with their primordial elegance.
After what felt like a cold eternity Barry’s sobs began to diminish. When the only noise Maitland could hear was the sound of the oars dipping into the water, he glanced at Barry’s tear-streaked face and wondered what his own life might have been if this man hadn’t turned up on their doorstop with his recklessness and his Ram Charger. Then, when he was sure that Barry had dozed off, he rowed inland and grabbed the bough of an overhanging tree, undid the slipknot around the antler with his free hand and watched the stag’s silhouette flow back into the expanse of darkness, like the final piece in a puzzle.
The next day Barry drained his remaining liquor bottles into the sumac grove, tossed the empties into the lake where they bobbed in the rushes for years. Every now and again one of William’s children would find dig one up on the beach, the dirty glass streaked with green. After Barry joined AA the wild drives were replaced by pilgrimages to the nearest towns that hosted meetings in church cellars. The boys waited out by the Ram Charger for Barry to emerge, head down, hands shaking so hard he couldn’t get the keys back into the ignition.
There were good years. When Barry found out they could run fast, he took them out into the woods and urged them to go faster and faster, until Maitland felt as though he was being hauled along by the power of Barry’s voice alone, lashing at their backsides like a bullwhip. When they started to train seriously for races, he chased them up-hill in his Charger with the brights on so they could see the road ahead at night. For a few years the two boys were like Barry’s own creation, a single two-headed animal racing through the woods at breakneck speed. Then William started to pull ahead and leave Maitland retching and bent over at the waist behind him, the world a pounding, dizzy blur.
Maitland always had the sense that it was never enough, that while they were dropping their medals into the new, reformed Barry’s lap for him to shine with an old pajam- striped flannel, they were doing it all for the old Barry, who they hoped somehow to summon up like a genie from the place deep inside himself that he had retreated to.
He never shot at anything other than waterfowl after that night on the water. Right or wrong, Maitland had always yearned to have the old Barry back with his fiery grief and restless rages, his face twisting into grotesques that had him and William rolling on the floor in laughter, and at the same time quaking inwardly in fear.
But now the wild, hectic look was back in spades. Last night William had taken Barry out by the waterfront on a pretext while Maitland crept into his room, stuffed all of Barry’s hunting rifles from the gun cabinet at the back of his closet and the .44 from his night table into a duffel bag that he shoved in his trunk when nobody was looking. Not
knowing what else to do, he had driven back to town and shoved the bag under his bed when he got home. It was William’s idea to take the guns away and Maitland had agreed. But he spent a long night awake in his bed, conscious of their cold mass and weight in the darkness beneath him, their acrid oils perfuming the air. Stepping out onto his driveway in the morning to head back here, he had an urge, an impulse that he didn’t trust, to run into the house and grab the .44. Sneak the gun back into Barry’s night table drawer. Let him make his own choices out there in the woods.
“They have pills,” said William. “Things he can take to make it easier on him. They know what they’re doing these days.”
The stern, somewhat impatient expression on his face made Maitland wonder briefly if William remembered more about the past than he claimed to. There was, just then, another commotion by the lake and the air was filled with cries and glittering arcs of spray. William turned to step through the last of the foliage towards the shore. Maitland swiveled back to look once again at the low buildings where Barry lay asleep or awake, or in a world somewhere between, deep in the cave of his bedroom.
“Just tell me we’re doing the right thing,” said Maitland. But William didn’t answer, or was already too far ahead to have heard.