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 a quinquereme
of Ninevah. It would easy to close my eyes and imagine a long ago ocean cut by
oars--water whispering along the hull, the taste of spray--but 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 labouring 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 tools--the froe and drawing knife by
the sawhorse, the foot adze and broadaxe by the sections of split cedar--stowed
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
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,
savouring 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 suddenly plumped and warmed as adrenalin 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 unlabelled 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 colour they would be: Irish blue.
He was whistling "Kevin Barry" through his teeth as though he might sit there
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