The house needed the woodstove for this kind of cold, but it wasn’t burning because there was no more wood. Old Elmer knew it was the kind of cold that would have made each strike of the hatchet vibrate through the bones of his hands and arms, hitting him in that one sticky spot at the elbow, the funny bone, that would make his knees feel dry in that spot where the top of the leg met the bottom. He saw the wood splinter into little cold pieces around him as he chopped, small chunks sharp as knives. Then he had to remind himself that he was sitting inside the house, and was not up on the hillside. His mind easily took him there if he didn’t stop it.
He was inside, his hands not around the handle of a hatchet but in the chest pocket of his overalls, elbows splayed out to the sides. His hips rested into the lopsided old sofa cushion, worn in the one spot where he always sat, where it had been sinking closer to the floor for years. The long, rounded fingertips of his left hand grazed those of his right. With the soft pads on the tips of his fingers he felt the square edge of the red rubber band, and underneath his thumbs fondled the thickness of the wad. The paper was worn soft from years of forming into this ball-like bundle, big enough to make a bulge at his chest, big enough to rest his tired hands around it in the shape of two C’s.
He wanted just one more minute to rest, without having to think about who would find the bundle of money without knowing or understanding how many Fridays he had come home, wrapped another fifty dollars around that bundle and pocketed the rest, binding, sometimes replacing, the rubber band, and finally re-depositing it in the foot of the long white sock with a gray heel, in the back of the drawer filled with socks now twenty years old. The chest of drawers was older, and momentarily he thought about that, how he had made it when Alice was still alive. Sitting there, he felt that the money had a pulse that matched his own. He started to think it could really be a part of his body, the amount of time he had spent treasuring it. Maybe, he thought, I should take it with me. But no, it seemed wrong, he must go out the way he came in. With nothing. And he wanted to leave something behind.
He hated to admit to himself that it would most likely be his son, Elmer Junior, who found the money. He thought that Elmer was too young to understand the patient rhythm of saving wages for twenty years. Recently married, he was also sure his son wouldn’t ever understand his father’s futile regret of never having found another woman he loved enough to spend the money on. Sitting there his anger welled up in him. Elmer Junior had left his father alone in the house for the last fifteen years. He came back to visit and acted like he still knew the place, but Old Elmer saw how his son had changed since then, bringing his plastic-y glow from outside the valley. Old Elmer never thought he’d have a son like that and didn’t see how he could’ve gotten that way. He thought his son didn’t know anything about the land or about the house, not after all this time. He hoped that his son didn’t find the money. “I’ll take it with me,” he said out loud, just to spite him.
From the sofa he had a clear view of the sunset across the expanse of trees down the valley. He gazed through the long wall of windows that he always cleaned himself. It was a clear pink night, the sun just dipping down behind the base of Teleco Mountain although it was only 6 o’clock. November. He knew there would be a family of deer, making their way through the brush behind his house around this time. He also knew just the way the mountain shadows were falling across the front porch, the deepness of the shade in the river. He knew all of it and more, the way the sounds and rhythm of the day had swelled and dwindled and would rise again, in a different way, for nighttime. His had been a life of listening and watching when he wasn’t working. Everything he knew about the land, it was just a reminder to him, of all the years since Alice’s death he had spent alone, holed up in this house and waiting for a sign that she would come back, or any sign about what he was supposed to do. But it seemed what he thought he saw and heard had trapped him, only to slip through his fingers like silt.
He had moments of clarity where he realized the land wasn’t really his. It existed apart from him and his memory, and would keep going once he was gone. He needed the land and it spooked him that the land didn’t really need him. He remembered that there was a time when he hadn’t looked for signs and hadn’t depended on the land in that way but he wasn’t sure how to get back to that. He was embarrassed that he wasn’t his own person anymore. Sometimes Old Elmer made plans, real plans to move away from the valley. But then he was lulled into placidity by the land’s songs. The age of the house, its grumbles and complaints as the seasons changed, it reminded him that he was too old to be on his own. So this was the only plan that he could manage.
It almost felt like too much work to stand up from the sofa. Sinking down into the cushion it felt like he could just dissolve. But he was going to stand and open the windows. He had a plan. He wouldn’t be helpless at the end. Just one more minute. He told himself this like someone not wanting to wake up from the warmth of a morning bed in winter. Just one more minute.
In that minute it seemed the house sealed up closer to him, like he could feel every inch of it pressing close. He built it, with his father, but that was a long time ago. He didn’t feel close to the house because he built it or because he had lived in it so long. He felt like the house was close to him. It crept up on him sometimes like a child asking a question and not going away, or a dog that looks like he needs to tell you something and can’t find the words. Lately it was more like somebody clinging, using their weight and size to trap him there.
“Okay, okay,” he mumbled to himself.
He used his hands to press him up out of the sofa. He extracted the wad from his pocket, dropped it heavily onto the sagging sofa cushion, where it landed with a soft thump and rested in the crevice just between. “There.” He said it with an air of finality, but he was uncertain. He had spent so long saving that money, he wanted to know what would come of it. He wished he was able to do more with it. He forced himself to turn away and start pulling open the windows.
There were two long walls of them, one looking down the valley to the West and the other at the river below. He pulled each window all the way up, shoving as hard as he could. There was the dry scrape of wood against wood and then the heavy sound where it had to stop, at the joint between the two.
Next, he opened the front door, and that’s when he felt the cross breeze. A cross breeze was necessary in the hot Tennessee summers, sometimes even in the winter with the heat of the wood stove. He stood in the middle of the room, his hands shoved in his very thin and soft cotton pockets, stained blue long ago in the laundry. The wind ran around him in circles, reminding of all the days and nights he had enjoyed a cross breeze like this one in the house. Standing there he thought he could hear the holes in the attic walls, the whistling of the wind through those tiny cracks he hadn’t fixed up this year, or the year before. For the first time the house felt empty and far away, like something somebody had left behind. Even though this had been the plan, he didn’t like to see the house like that. He wished there was another way that he could break free. He didn’t want his son to think of him as giving up. He suddenly remembered that when he was young he had thought of this as a selfish thing, and didn’t understand why someone would do it. There was a seed of shame sharp in the back of his throat, that this was the best he could do. He dug his hands deeper into his pockets and shrugged, against the wind.
He bent his right knee and straightened it, the one that always gave him more trouble. Maybe rain is coming, he thought. No, he corrected himself. It’s a clear night. Don’t think about those kinds of things. The sound of rain filled the room. He looked down at the river through all the open windows. It’ll be alright, he thought, forcing himself to a clear place, and just wanted to get it over with.
The hillside down to the bank is steep enough that Old Elmer has to resist with his legs as he makes his way down to the river. He stands on the bank admiring the spread of many smooth, gray river stones, settled into the mud. The tall shadows of Chilhowee Mountain send a shiver down his spine. Everything is so quiet it is as if he can’t hear for a moment. He scans the trees with his eyes, looking for the shaking of branches from a bear or even a bird. Please please please, he asks, anything. It is a kind of prayer he does sometimes. Just show me something. But there is nothing.
He can almost taste the mud grasping at the stones, smeared up their smooth sides. Gritty, like chalk, or childhood games.
The mud doesn’t give them up easily. It is almost frozen. Each one he takes for his pockets leaves an empty bowl, a mouth that needs feeding. They knock together like bells until his pockets are very full and for a second he feels as if he is carrying a treasure home to show somebody, a lover or a mother. But then he remembers that he is wading into the river and settling himself down. He is aware of the ice cold water filling his boots and moving up his pants. His feet are pointing West, towards the sunset, and he adjusts his hips atop two large rocks, slick with algae.
The water wraps around his back and stomach. He thought he would do it quickly but he doesn’t want to just yet. After twenty minutes the water doesn’t notice him, and then it is very dark. The trickling of the water and the sighs of the night settling down, it all circles close to him, confusing time. He hasn’t moved in hundreds of minutes and doesn’t feel his legs or hands, just his brittle back, holding up his heavy head, and the cool, smooth water. He tries to move his leg once, feels the old creaking in his knee, and decides against it.
The smell of the water like moss and bark, it takes him back to boyhood games with his brother Adam in the shadowy woods by the their house. Cloppity clop, there was a donkey, wasn’t there, for his father. The darkness takes him back to the sounds of his mother rising in the early mornings, not too different from this, he thinks. He remembers a game he used to play, in the dark, at night, quickly opening and closing his eyes beneath the sheets and trying to tell if the darkness was that of his eyelids or of the night. It is like that now, except more still, and he doesn’t need to know which is which anymore.
He is unsure of how deep the darkness is, how close he is to sunrise. He tries to listen for the quiet chattering and scratching of raccoons paws, or the early rustling of birds, readjusting themselves in the branches, any indication of time. But again he hears nothing, only his own thoughts, becoming too real with the darkness before him. He thought he wanted this, but now he isn’t sure.
No battle is ever won, Alice used to tell him that, the shadows of the mountain settling deeper into the river, or was it choose your battles wisely? He wants to remember which one she used to say, he feels he might cry, not able to remember now. It is so silent, there shouldn’t be anything keeping him from remembering. Except he is old, and they were young. In his clear place he knows that person is not the same person he is now, but it feels so close and so much the same. He can almost taste what it was like to be young, climbing up, up, up like ivy, fingers clinging to brick and mortar…He thinks of the roundedness of her shoulders when she bent over the bed folding the laundry, the roundedness of her pregnancy and then he remembers that she cried and looked up to me with those eyes like a hopeless animal, back broken, knows its going to be shot, and then her eyes were like round stones in her face. Still as a statue.
He sees her there, and all of it feels so close he can almost touch it. Then he remembers the stones in his pockets, and the water moving in heavy streams. Her eyes were like shattered plates in the moment before her death, she was afraid.
He is not able to see where the darkness begins above the water, or the water sits below the darkness. It is all soft and chalky, but he can hear the ringing of the air around his ears. His fingertips graze the silt of the riverbed and he becomes aware of his arms, like reeds in the water. He has the feeling he should have done it quickly because now he isn’t sure how many minutes have passed. He tries to turn his head to look up at the house. He wants to call out, to hear his voice echo down the valley. That is something he has never done. He has the feeling that he has been living outside in all of this time, like the house and the river will be pressing in on him infinitely in the past and in the future if he doesn’t say something to free himself.
“This is why I’m leaving you,” he says, but it comes out as a whisper and he’s not sure if anybody heard him. He can’t even turn his head for how cold he has become. A feeling comes over him like an egg is being cracked atop his skull, the yolk and the white dripping hot and cold down his face and spine.
No battle is ever won, her advice is out loud this time, her voice in the back of his throat as he lowers himself under. That was what she said, he is sure of it now, and he swallows it. There is a steady ringing. It moves down through the soles of his feet, out through the drums of his ears and the quicks of his fingernails. This ringing, it has been here all along, he thinks, and is comforted by that knowledge.