CHAPTER 1. THE MEASURE OF A MAN
A certain feeling comes from throwing your life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. She knew what a rash thought that was, how this thrill would not stack up in the long run against shame and disgrace, losses that would surely infect her children. She could see the veil of contempt that would cloud their tender years in a town where everyone knew them. Teenaged cashiers at the grocery, even, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family, exchanging looks with the bag boy: she’s that one. How they all admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when all hope leaked away like water through sand and the heart had only one word left: run, run. Like this, like a hunted animal or a Derby winner, either one would feel exactly this coursing of blood and shortness of breath. She smoked too much, that was another mortification to throw in with the others. But she had cast her lot. Plenty of people took this way out, looking future damage in the eye and naming it something else. Now it was her turn. She would claim the tightness in her chest and call it bliss, rather than the same breathlessness she could be feeling at home right now while toting a heavy laundry basket, behaving like a sensible mother of two.
The children were with her mother-in-law. She’d dropped off those babies this morning on barely sufficient grounds, and couldn’t afford to dwell on that now. Their little faces turned up to her like the round hearts of two daisies: she loves me, loves me not. All their hopes soon to be shot to pieces. The family would be totaled. That was the word, like a wrecked car wrapped around a telephone pole, no salvageable parts. No husband worth having is going to forgive adultery when the time comes. And for all that she still yearned for the ruin that waited for her today, the hand whose touch would bring down all she knew. She craved the collapse with an appetite larger than sense. Craving was an electric pulse that buzzed through her body like an alarm clock gone off in the early light, setting in motion all the things in a day that can’t be stopped.
At the top of the pasture she leaned against the fence to catch up on oxygen, feeling the slight give of the netted woven wire against her back. No safety net. Unsnapped her purse, counted her cigarettes, discovered she’d have to ration them. This had not been a thinking-ahead kind of day. The suede jacket was wrong, too warm, and what if it rained? She frowned at the November sky. It was the same dull, stippled ceiling that had been up there last week, last month, forever. All summer. Whoever was in charge of weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty-white sky like a lousy sheetrock job. The pasture pond seemed to reflect more light off its surface than the sky itself had to offer. The sheep huddled close around its shine as if they too had given up on the sun and settled for second best. Little puddles winked all the way down Highway Seven toward Feathertown and out the other side of it, toward Cleary, a long trail of potholes turned to jewels. How nice. If you didn’t need to drive on it.
The sheep in the field below, the Turnbow family land, the white frame house she had not slept outside of for even one night in ten years of marriage: she tried on the idea of losing so much certainty, and felt nothing. Dread, maybe, but not regret. It was a landscape of captivity, like a prisoner’s pocked walls and empty hours. The dumb confined sheep, her compatriots, stood in the mud surrounded by the deep stiletto holes of their footprints, enduring life’s bad deals. They’d worn their heavy wool through the muggy summer, and now that winter was coming on they would soon be shorn. She hated what they bore in common, a life that was one long proposition they never saw coming. Their pasture was eaten down to nothing and looked drowned. In the field beyond this fence the neighbor’s orchard, painstakingly planted all last year, was dying under the rain. Her world was a death tableau, fixed and strange. Even her house looked unfamiliar, probably due to the angle. She only looked out those windows, never into them, given that she kept company mostly with people who rolled plastic trucks on the floor. Certainly she never climbed up here to check out the domestic arrangement. The condition of the roof was not encouraging.
Her car was in the right place, though. That much at least was squared away. She’d parked in her own driveway, the only spot in the county where it wouldn’t incite gossip. Everyone knew that station wagon, had known it years ago when it belonged to her mother. She’d rescued this one thing from her mother’s death, an unreliable set of wheels adequate for short errands with kids in tow. Sometimes she had the spooky feeling her Mama was still back there, her tiny frame wedged between the car seats. But not today. This morning after leaving the kids at Hester’s she had floored it for the half-mile back home, feeling high and wobbly as a kite. Had gone into the house only to brush her teeth, shed her glasses and put on eyeliner, no other preparations necessary prior to lighting out her own back door to wreck her reputation. No dinner or movie first, that never seemed to be in her cards.
She picked her way now through churned-up mud along the fence, lifted the chain fastener on the steel gate and slipped through. Beyond the fence an ordinary wildness began, ironweed and briar thickets. An old road cut through it, long unused, crisscrossed by wild raspberries bending across in long arcs. In recent times she’d come up here only once, two summers ago, berry picking. She’d been barrel-round pregnant with Cordelia, that’s how she knew which summer, so Preston would have been four, holding her hand for dear life while her husband Cub scared them half to death about snakes. The raspberry canes were a weird color for a plant, not that she would know nature if it bit her. But bright pink? It was like a frosted lipstick some thirteen-year-old might want to wear. She had probably skipped that phase, heading straight for Immoral Coral and Come-to-bed Red.
The leggy saplings gave way to a forest’s edge where trees clung to their last leaves, and something made her think of Lot’s wife in the Bible who turned back for one last look at home. Poor woman, struck into a pile of salt for such a minor disobedience. What a strict and unforgiving arrangement, family life. She did not look back, but headed into the woods on the rutted track her husband’s family called “the high road.”
As if, she thought. Taking the High Road to damnation, that particular irony had failed to cross her mind when she devised the plan on the phone. The road leading up this mountain must have been cut in the old days, probably for logging, but the woods had since grown back. Cub and his dad drove the all-terrain up this way sometimes to get to the little shack on the ridge they used for turkey hunting. Or they used to do that, once upon a time, when the combined weight of the Turnbow men Senior and Junior was about sixty pounds less than the present day. Back when they used their feet for something other than framing the view of the television set. The road must have been poorly maintained even then. She recalled their taking the chain saw for clearing windfall.
She and Cub used to come up here by themselves, too, for so-called picnics. That was in the early days. Not one time since Cordie and Preston were born. It was crazy reckless to suggest the turkey blind on the family property, where she’d been with her husband, as a place to hook up. Trysting place, she thought, words from a storybook. And then: No sense prettying up dirt, words from a mother-in-law. But where else were they supposed to go? Her own bedroom, strewn with inside-out work shirts and a one-legged Barbie lying there staring while a person tried to get in the mood? Good night. And the Wayside Inn out on the highway was a pitiful place to begin with, before you even started deducting the wages of sin. Mike Bush at the counter would greet her by name: How do, Mrs. Turnbow, now how’s them kids?
The path became confusing suddenly, her way blocked with branches. The upper part of a fallen tree lay across the path. The terrain was steep and the tree so immense she had to climb through it, stepping between sideways limbs with clammy leaves still clinging to the branch. Would he find his way through this, or might the wall of branches set him onto a different track? Her heart bumped around at the thought, unwilling to bear the ache of losing this one sweet chance. She considered waiting here. But he knew the way. He’d hunted from that turkey blind some seasons ago, he said. With his own friends, no one she or Cub knew. Younger, his friends would be.
She smacked her palms together to shuck off the damp grit and viewed the corpse of the fallen tree. It was a monster, more trunk than two people could get their arms around, and intact, not cut or broken by wind. That seemed a waste. After years of survival it had fallen out of the ground, roots and all, the wide fist of its root mass tearing open a dark clay gash in the wooded mountainside. Like herself, it had held on, held on, and then come loose. After so much rain upon rain this was happening all over the county. She’d seen stories in the paper of massive trees simply keeling over in the dead of night to ravage a family’s roofline or flatten the car in the drive. The ground took water until it was nothing but soft sponge, and the trees fell out of it. Near Great Lick a whole hillside of mature timber had plummeted together, making a landslide of splintered trunks, rock and rill. People were shocked, even men like her father-in-law who generally met any terrible news with “that’s nothing,” claiming to have seen everything in creation several times already. But they’d never seen this, and had come to confessing it. In such strange times as these, they may have thought God was taking a hand in things and would notice a fib.
The road turned steeply up toward the ridge and petered out to a single track. A mile yet to go, maybe, she was just guessing. She tried to get a move on, imagining her long, straight red hair swinging behind her might look athletic, but her feet smarted as badly as her lungs. New boots, there was one more ruin to add to the pile. The boots were genuine calfskin, dark maroon, hand-tooled uppers and glossy pointed toes, so beautiful she’d nearly cried when she saw them at Second Time Around where she’d gone to find something decent for Preston to wear to kindergarten. The boots were six dollars, in like-new condition, the soles barely scuffed. Someone in the world had such a life, they could take one little walk in their expensive new cowgirl boots and then pitch them out, just because. The idea irked her to fury, even though she was the beneficiary. The boots were a half-size off but they looked perfect on and she bought them, her first purchase solely for herself in over a year, not counting hygiene products. Or cigarettes, which she surely did not count. She’d kept the boots hidden from Cub for no good reason, just to keep them precious. To have something that was hers. Every other thing got snatched from her hands: her hairbrush, the TV clicker, the soft middle part of her sandwich, the last Coke she’d waited all afternoon to open. She’d once had a dream of birds pulling the hair from her head in sheaves to make their nests.
Not that Cub would even have noticed if she’d worn these boots, and anyway she’d had no occasion. So why in the name of Pete had she put them on this morning to walk up a muddy hollow in the wettest fall on record? Black leaves formed a gummy layer beneath her instep and clung like dark fish scales to the tooled leather halfway up her calves. This day had played in her head like a movie on round-the-clock re-runs, that’s why. She had little other call to use her mind, in a world perfumed by urine and mashed bananas. Daydreaming was one thing she had in abundance; the price was right. She thought about the kissing mostly, when she sat down to manufacture a fantasy in earnest, but other details came along for the ride, the setting, wardrobe, everything in its place. This might be a difference in how men and women devised their fantasies, she thought. Clothes: present or absent. The new calfskin boots were a part of it, and so were the suede jacket borrowed from her best friend Dovey, the red chenille scarf wrapped around her neck, and other things he would slowly take off of her. She’d pictured it being cold like this, too. Her flyaway thoughts had not blurred out the inconveniences altogether. Her flushed cheeks, his warm hands smoothing the orange hair at her temples that he said looked painted on in brush-strokes, all these things were part and parcel. She’d pulled on the boots this morning as if she’d received written instructions.
And now she was in deep, though there had been no hanging offenses as yet, or none to speak of. They’d managed to be alone together for no more than about ten seconds at a time behind some barn or metal shed, hiding around the corner from where her car was parked with the kids buckled up inside, whining at full volume. “If I can still hear them they’re still alive” is not a thought conducive to romance. Yet something drove her. His eyes, like the amber glass of a beer bottle, and his face full of dimpled muscles, the kind of grin that seems to rhyme with “chin.” Just thinking of it made her skin prickle. And his way of taking her face in both his hands, dear God. Looking her in the eyes, rubbing the ends of her hair between his thumbs and fingers like he was counting money. These things brought her to sit on the closet floor and talk stupid with him on the phone, night after night, while her family slept under sweet closed eyelids. As she whispered in the dark, her husband’s work shirts on their hangers idly stroked the top of her head, almost the same way Cub himself did when she sat on the floor with the baby while he occupied the whole couch, watching TV. Oblivious to the storm inside her, Cub seemed to move in slow motion. His gentleness made him seem dumb as a cow. It made her mad. There was no end to that anger if she let it out to run: the way Cub let his mother boss him around, making him clean his plate and tuck in his shirt-tails like a two-hundred-pound child. The embarrassment of his name. He could have been Burley Junior if he’d claimed it, but instead let his parents and everyone else in the county call him Cubby, as if he were still a boy, while the elder Burley Turnbow, his father, went by “Bear.” A cub should grow up, but at thirty years of age this one still stood blinking at the door of the family den with his long face, the shock of blond hair in his eyes, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Now he would let himself be shamed by his wife’s hardheartedness as well, or fail to notice it. Why should he keep on loving her so much while she lied through her teeth?
It was one more measure of her betrayal. She shocked herself. Putting Cordelia down for extra naps she did not need while Preston was at kindergarten, just to steal a free minute to call and make intimate bargains with a man who wasn’t her husband. The urge was worse than wanting a cigarette, like something screaming in both her ears. Too many times to count she’d driven past where he lived, with the kids in the back seat, telling them she’d forgotten something and needed to go back to the store. She would say it was for ice cream or bullet pops, to shush them, but even a five-year-old could tell it was not the road to any store. Preston had voiced his suspicions, even though he could see hardly anything but the passing trees and telephone lines.
The telephone man, as she called this obsession – his name was too ordinary, you wouldn’t wreck your life for a Jimmy – the telephone man was barely even a man. He’d said twenty-two, and that was a stretch. He lived in a mobile home with his mother and spent his weekends doing the things that interested males of that age, mixing beer and chain saws, beer and target shooting. There was no excuse for going off the deep end over someone that young. She longed for relief from her own wanting. She had put her hands in scalding dishwater on purpose, and chewed her lip to the rusty-nail taste of blood while lying in bed next to Cub. Exhausted and sleepless, she’d even tried taking a valium, one of three or four still rattling around in the ten-year-old prescription bottle they’d given her back when she lost the first baby. But the pill did nothing, had expired probably, like all else she had. A week ago she’d run a needle through the tip of her finger, with full intention, while sewing up a hole in Cordie’s pajamas, and watched the blood jump out of her skin like dark red eye staring back. The wound still throbbed. Mortification of the flesh. She reprimanded herself with hateful words and none of them stopped her thoughts from going back to him. Or from speed-dialing him, making plans, driving by where he’d said he would be working that day just for the sight of him up the pole in his leather harness. Her desire felt like sickness. Such a strange turn of fortune had sent him her way in the first place: a tree falling and bringing down the phone line in front of the house on a cloudless, windless day. Everything that came after seemed unexplainable, like a spell of rain that falls in a week of predicted sunshine and mocks everyone by flooding out roads and fields. There is no use in blaming the weather predictors, and certainly not the rain or mud. These are only elements of the disaster, not the disaster itself.
Now here she was on a trail so steep it was killing her, out of control entirely, walking unarmed into the shoot-out of whatever was to be. Heartbreak, broken family. Broke, period. What she might do for money after Cub left her was anyone’s guess. Nobody would even hire her as a waitress, they’d all side with him, and half the town would say they’d seen it coming, simply because they thrived on downfalls of any sort. Wild in high school, that’s how it goes with the pretty ones, early to ripe, early to rot. They would say the words she’d once heard her mother-in-law say to Cub, that Dellarobia was a piece of work. As if she were lying in pieces strewn over a table, pins stuck here and there, half assembled from a Simplicity pattern that was flawed at the manufacturer’s. Which piece had been left out?
People would probably line up to give opinions about that. The part that thinks ahead, for one. A stay-at-home wife with no skills to speak of, throwing sense to the four winds to run after a handsome boy who would not look after her two children or even stick around, probably, when the time came. Acting like there was no tomorrow. And yet. The way he looked at her suggested he’d be willing to bring her golden apples, or the Mississippi River. The way he closed his fingers in a bracelet around her ankles and wrists, marveling at her smallness, gave her the dimensions of a rare, expensive jewel rather than an inconsequential adult. No one had ever listened to her the way he did. Or looked, touching her hair reverently, trying to name its color: somewhere between a stop sign and sunset, he would say. Something between tomatoes and a ladybug. And her skin. He called her Peach.
No one else had ever called her anything. Only the given name her mother first sounded out for the birth certificate in a doped anesthetic haze, thinking it came from the Bible. Later on, her mother remembered that was wrong, it wasn’t the Bible, she’d heard it at a craft demonstration at the Woman’s Club. She found a picture of one in a ladies’ magazine and yelled for her daughter to come look. Dellarobia was maybe six at the time and still remembered it: a dellarobia wreath, made of pine cones and acorns glued all over a Styrofoam core. “Something pretty, even still,” her mother insisted, but the fall from grace seemed to presage coming events. Her performance to date was not what the Savior prescribed. Except marrying young, of course.
That was the Lord’s way for a girl with big dreams but no concrete plans, especially if a baby should be on the way. The baby that never quite was, that she never got to see, a monster. The preemie nurse said it had strange fine hair all over its body that was red like hers. Preston and Cordelia when they later arrived were both blondes, cut from the Turnbow cloth, but that first one that came in its red pelt of fur was a mean wild thing like her. Roping its parents into a shotgun wedding, then taking off with a laugh, leaving them stranded. Leaving them trying five years for another baby, just to fill a hole nobody meant to dig in the first place.
Something in motion caught her eye, yanking her glance upward as if jerked by a chain. How did it happen, that a thing outside of view could grab a person’s attention? It was practically nothing, a fleck of orange wobbling above the trees, crossing overhead and drifting off to the left where the hill fell steeply from the trail. She made a face, thinking of red-headed ghosts. Making things up was beneath her. She set her eyes on the trail, purposefully not looking up, as if it were some unwelcome person up there waving hello. She was losing the fight against this hill, panting like a sheep. A poplar beside the trail invited her to stop there a minute. Fitting its smooth bulk between her shoulder blades, she cupped her hands to light the cigarette she’d been craving for half an hour. Inhaled through her nose, counted to ten, then gave in and looked up. Without her glasses it took some doing to get a bead on the thing, but there it still was, drifting in blank air above the folded terrain: an orange butterfly on a rainy day. Its out-of-place brashness provoked her, like the wacked-out sequences in children’s books: Which of these does not belong? An apple, a banana, a taxicab. A nice farmer, a married mother of two, a sexy telephone man. She watched the speck of color waver up the hollow while she finished her cigarette and carefully ground out the butt with her boot. Only you can prevent forest fires. She pulled her scarf around her throat and walked on with eyes glued to the ground. This boy had better be worth it: there was a thought. Not the sexiest one in the world, either. Possibly a sign of sense returning.
The last part of the trail was the steepest, that much she recalled from her high-school frolics up here. Who could forget that ankle-bending climb? Rocky and steep and dark, as she entered the section of woods people called the Christmas Tree Farm, fir trees planted long ago in some scheme that never panned out. The air grew suddenly colder, as if the looming conifers were holding an old grudge, peeved at being passed over. The fir forest felt spooky with its own weather. What had she been thinking, to name that hunting shack for a meeting place? Romance felt as unreachable now as it did after any average day of toting kids and dredging the floor of doll babies. She could have made things easy on herself, wrecked her life in a motel room like a sensible person, but no. Her legs were tired and her butt ached. She could feel blisters welling on both feet. The boots she’d adored this morning now seemed idiotic, their slick little heels designed for parading your hind quarters in jeans, not real walking. Worthless, in other words, like anything else she’d ever have. She watched her step, considering what a broken ankle would add to her day. The trail was a cobbled mess of loose rocks that ran straight uphill in spots, so badly rutted she had to grab saplings to steady herself.
She was relieved to arrive on a level stretch of ground carpeted with brown fir needles. But something dark loomed from a branch over the trail. A hornet’s nest was her first thought, or a swarm of bees looking for a new home. She’d seen that happen. But this thing was not humming. She approached slowly, hoping to scoot under it, with or without a positive ID. It bristled like a cluster of dead leaves or a down-turned pine cone but was much bigger than that. Like an armadillo in a tree, she thought, with no notion of how large that would be. Scaly all over and pointed at the lower end, as if it had gone oozy and might drip. She didn’t much care to walk under it. For the second time she wished for the glasses she’d left behind. Vanity was one thing, but out here in the damn wilderness a person needed to see. She squinted upward into dark branches backlit by pale sky. The angle made her a little dizzy.
Her heart thumped. These things were all over everywhere. They dangled like gigantic bunches of grapes from every tree she could see from where she stood. Fungus was the word that came to mind, and it turned down the corners of her mouth. Trees were getting new diseases now. Cub had told her the strange weather of recent years, wetter summers and milder winters, had brought in new pests that apparently ate the forest out of house and home.
She pulled her jacket close and hurried underneath the bristly thing, ducking, even though it hung a good ten feet above the trail so she cleared it by five. She shivered and ran her fingers through her hair afterward and felt childish for fearing a tree-fungus. The day couldn’t decide whether to warm up or not. Now it felt cool. She’d rounded the bend into a hollow where the evergreen shade was deep. Fungus brought to mind scrubbing the mildewed shower curtain with Mr. Clean, one of her life’s main events. She tried to push that out of her thoughts, concentrating instead on her reward at the end of the climb. She imagined surprising him as he stood by the shack waiting for her, coming up on him from behind, the sight of his backside in jeans. He’d promised to come early if he could, and hinted he actually might be naked when she arrived. He was bringing a big soft quilt and a bottle of Cold Duck. Lord love a duck, she thought. After subsisting for years on leftovers and juice boxes, she’d be drunk in ten minutes. She shivered again but hoped it was a pang of desire, not the chill of a wet day and a dread of tree fungus. Should it be that hard to tell the difference?
The path steered out of the shadow into a bright overlook on the open side of the slope, and here she slammed on her brakes, here something was wrong. Or just strange. The tree limbs above her had more of the brittle things, but that was the least of it. The view out across the valley was puzzling and unreal, like a sci-fi movie. From this overlook she could see the forested mountainside that lay opposite, from top to bottom, and the full stand of it was transformed, thickly loaded with the bristly things. She studied those fir trees in the hazy distance, for they were like nothing she’d ever seen. Their branches looked droopy and bulbous, disproportionate. Trunks and boughs alike were speckled and scaly like trees covered with corn flakes. She had small children, she’d seen things covered with corn flakes. Most of the woodland she could see from here, from the valley all the way up to the ridge, seemed altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. But these were evergreen trees, they should be dark, and that wasn’t foliage. There was movement in it. The branches seemed to writhe. She shook her head and backed up a step from the overlook and the worrisome trees, though they stood far away across the thin air of the hollow. She reached into her purse for a cigarette, then stopped.
Those trees were alive. And not trees. The light changed somehow, a slight shift of cloud and sun, causing the whole surface to rearrange and brighten before her gaze. A forest lit with its own internal flame, grown wild upon the land. Really there were no words for it. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she didn’t consider the man a close friend, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped a little further from the clouds, just a degree, passing its warmth across these trees or not-trees on the mountainside and she saw them light up like an explosion of candles. Each drooping bough glowed with its own orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again. No other words came to her that seemed sane. A tree has turned into fire before my eyes. Just her luck, a burning bush.
Bits of flame lifted from the faraway treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when you poke it. The sparks swept upward from the pointed conifers into violent swirls, like tornadoes. Exactly that shape, like funnel clouds twisting their dark, long-waisted columns over a prairie, but these were tornadoes of brightness against a gray sky. In broad daylight with no comprehension, she watched. Flints of orange light lifted up out of the funnels and sailed undirected above the dark forest, like sparks of free will.
It made no sense. A forest fire would roar. This consternation swept up the mountain in perfect silence. The air above remained cold and clear. No smoke, no crackling howl. She stopped breathing for a second and closed her eyes to listen: nothing. Only a faint patter like rain on leaves. Not fire, she thought, but her eyes when she opened them could only tell her fire, this place is burning. They said get out of here. Up or down, she was not sure. She felt trapped, eyeing the dark uncertainty of the trail and uncrossable breach of the valley. The sun lit more trees, reaching deep into the woods, and it was all the same everywhere, every tree aglow.
She cupped her hands over her face and tried to think. She was miles from her kids. Cordie with her thumb in her mouth, Preston with his long-lashed eyes cast down. The child soaked up guilt like a sponge, even when he’d done no wrong. She knew what their lives would become if something happened to her up here, on a mission of sin. Hester would rain shame on those babies for all time. Or worse, what if they thought their mother had simply run off and left them? What else could they think? No one knew to look for her here. Her thoughts clotted with the vocabulary of news reports: dental records, next of kin, sifting through the ash.
And Jimmy? Jimmy. She forced herself to think his name because he was a person too, not just a destination. He might be up there already. And in a single second, that worry lifted from her like a flake of ash. For the first time she saw the truth of this day, for her the end of all previous comfort and safety, and for him, something else entirely. A kind of game. Nothing to change his life. We’ll strike out boldly, she’d told herself, and into what, his mother’s mobile home? Somehow it had come to pass that this man was her whole world, and she’d failed to take his measure. Neither child nor father, he knew how to climb telephone poles and he knew how to disappear. The minute he sniffed trouble, he would slip down the back side of the mountain and go on home. Nothing could be more certain. He had the instincts of the young. He would be back at work before anyone knew he’d called in sick. Even if she turned up in the news as charred remains, he would keep their story quiet, thinking to protect her family. Or so he’d tell himself. Look what she’d nearly done. She paled at the size her foolishness had attained, how large and crowded it was, how devoid of any structural beams. It could be knocked down and flattened like a circus tent.
She was on her own here. A woman alone, staring at glowing trees. A cool fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet, the elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself for once, the pleasure of solitude. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such room for being. This was not just one more false thing in a life’s cheap chain of events, right up to the sneaking-around romance in someone else’s thrown-away boots. That ended here. This unearthly beauty had appeared to her and to no one else as a vision of glory to halt her in her path. For her eyes these orange boughs were lifted up, these long shadows transformed to a chorus of light and a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.
She could save herself. Herself and her children with their soft cheeks and milky breath who believed in what they had, even if their whole goodness and mercy was a mother distracted out of her mind. It was not too late to undo this mess. Walk down the mountain, pick up those kids. The burning trees were put here to save her. It was the strangest conviction she’d ever known, and nonetheless she felt sure of it. She had no use for superstition, had walked unlucky roads until she’d just as soon walk under any ladder as go around it. She considered herself unexceptional and by no means important enough for God to conjure signs and wonders on her account. The one thing that had set her apart, briefly, was an outsized and hellish obsession. To stop a thing like that would require a burning bush, a fighting of fire with fire.
Her eyes still signaled warning to her brain, like a car alarm gone off somewhere in an empty parking lot. She failed to heed it, understanding at least for the moment some complex formula for living that transcended fear and safety. She wondered merely how long she ought to watch this spectacle before turning away. It was something greater than fire. If not a sign, then in any case a wonder.
* * *
The roof of her house when she saw it again still harbored its dark patches of damaged shingles, and there sat her car in the drive where she’d parked it. The life she had recently left for dead was there, laid out like a corpse for the wake. The sheep remained at their posts, huddled in twos and threes around the pond. On the hillside beyond the pasture, the regular dots of the neighbors’ dying peach orchard still exposed that family’s bled-out luck. Not a thing on God’s green earth had changed, only everything had. Or she was dreaming. She’d come down the mountain in less than half the time it took to climb, and that was plenty long enough for her doubt the whole of this day: what she’d planned to do, what she had seen, and what she’d left undone. Each of these was enormous. If they added up to nothing, then what? Of all things, it was emptiness she could bear not a minute longer. She would not walk back to a life measured in half dollars and clipped coupons and culled hopes, served out inside uninsulated walls. She’d pined for loss and wreckage, as the alternative. But there might be others. A cold fire on the mountain had brought her back here to something.
She tried to study in some born-again way the cheap ranch house with its white vinyl siding, its yard devoid of landscaping save for one straggling rose by the porch, a Mother’s day present from Cub, who’d forgotten she disliked roses. The silver Taurus wagon in the drive, crookedly parked in haste. It could not be more tedious or familiar. The sadness of that filled her up like water. And yet she was a person who had not fled. The choice she’d left herself was to scrutinize ugliness as a treasure map, puzzling out the hidden worth in a lawn strewn with weathered plastic toys. The black nursery pot she’d meant to throw out after planting the rose, months ago. The car keys where she always left them, in the ignition, as if anybody around here would drive it away. The faint metal sound like a pipe dropped on its end when she put the car into gear.
She turned out onto the highway and clicked on the radio. Kenny Chesney was waiting there to pounce, crooning in his molasses voice that he wanted to know what forever felt like, urging her once more to gallop away. She clicked Kenny right off. She turned up her in-laws’ drive to their farmhouse with its two uncurtained upstairs windows like the eye sockets of a skull. Hester’s flowerbeds had melted under the summer’s endless rain, as had the garden. They’d finished tomato canning almost before they’d started, anything red was long gone. Hester’s prized rose beds were now just thorny outposts clotted with fists of mildew. It was Hester who loved roses, their cloying scent and falling-apart flowerheads, for Dellarobia they only opened doors straight into the memory of her parents’ funerals. She got out of the car, surveying the front yard where only a single bright spot of color stood out: one of Cordelia’s tiny acid-green socks lay on the stone step where she must have dropped it this morning, bringing the kids in. This sock was not the measure of her worth. She swiped it up on her way up the steps and stuck it in her pocket, abashed to confront the woman she’d been just a few hours ago, dying of a sickness. She opened the door without knocking.
Cramped indoor odors met her: cat, carpet, spilled milk. The kids sat together on the living room rug in a tableau of brave abandonment. Preston sat close behind Cordie with his chin nested on her fuzzy head and his arms around her, showing her a picture book, with the two collies stretched on either side in alert recline, a pair of protective sphinxes. All their eyes flew up to her as she entered, keen for rescue, their grandmother nowhere in sight. Preston’s dark, plaintive eyebrows were identical to his father’s, aligned across his forehead as if drawn there by a ruler. Cordelia reached up both hands and burst into tears, her little mouth turned down in a bawl so intense it showed her bottom teeth.
The TV drone in the kitchen died abruptly and Hester appeared in the doorway, still in her bathrobe, her hair coiled around pink foam curlers. Hester’s hair was too thin and too gray to wear it as long as she did. The rollers seemed a slight improvement. On her kids’ behalf Dellarobia gave their caretaker an indignant look, probably just a slightly less toothy version of Cordie’s. It wasn’t as if she asked Hester to watch the kids every day of the week. Not even once a month.
Hester returned the glare. “The way you run around, I wasn’t expecting you back till after dinner.”
“But here I am. It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”
How like that woman, Dellarobia thought, to cover her own neglectful behavior with an armed assault. Cordelia stood up precariously, red-faced and howling. She was wet, and probably had been all morning. The diaper bulge inside her yellow footie pajamas was like a big round pumpkin. No wonder the child couldn’t balance. Dellarobia took a drag on her almost-finished cigarette, trying to decide whether to change Cordie here or just get out of Dodge.
“You shouldn’t smoke when you’re around them kids,” her mother-in-law announced in a gravel voice. A woman who’d probably blown smoke in Cub’s little red face the minute he was born.
“Oh my goodness, I would never do that. I only smoke when I’m lying out getting a suntan on the Riviera.”
Hester looked stunned, meeting Dellarobia’s flat gaze, eyeing the boots and the red scarf. “Look at you. What’s got into you?”
Dellarobia wondered if she looked as she felt, like a woman fleeing a fire.
“Preston, honey, say bye-bye to your Mammaw.” She clenched the filter of her cigarette lightly between her teeth so she could take Preston’s hand, lift Cordelia to her hip with the other, and steer her family toward something better than this.