They were hitting. The two boys along the streambank, angry as Cain and Abel and oblivious of paradise vanishing, and just by the water’s edge, they were hitting. Eddie saw them. He felt sick. He saw William get knocked down to his back in the tall wheat and the other bigger boy kicked William hard in the gut, then in the face. Eddie felt sick. The other chubby boy wandered off down the embankment and into the tall wildflowers along the hill toward the pasture. Eddie went to his brother and stood there looking. He could smell him. William smelled like leaves and copper and smoke.
“Why are you on the ground, Willy?” Eddie said. “Why’d Nick Granger do that to you?”
“Never mind it,” William said.
“Your nose is bleeding,” Eddie said.
He seized the opportunity and took the handkerchief from his back pocket. He’d seen old men do it and they seemed like real honest men and he liked how they carried themselves. He started carrying a handkerchief as they did.
“Here.” Eddie reached his hand out to William.
His brother knocked the linen away and got to his feet. “Don’t need it.” William wiped his nose with the back of his hand and the blood smeared like paint across his dirty cheek.
Black smoke billowed down the hillside from the pasture and toward the stream. Along the horizon, great stacks of smoke like some endless factory rose toward the midday sun. The smell of fire filled their noses and the boys stood and watched the sky.
“They’re burning again,” Eddie said. “I saw flames as high as the house walking here.”
“They’ll burn it all soon enough. That’s what Dad said.”
“Why’d he get at you, Will? Why’d Nick do that?”
“Because he wanted something,” William said. He took out a pack of Camels and shook one out. He held it to his nose to smell it but remembered the blood. He put it in his mouth and lit it. From behind his back, he pulled out a glossy magazine that was speckled with dirt and rippled like water from fingers turning the pages for what seemed like years. On the cover, a half-naked woman sat with her tan legs spread on the hood of a shiny red Mustang. Eddie’s eyes widened and stared at the magazine.
“The cover ain’t nothing to what’s inside here.”
“Where’d you get that?” Eddie said.
“At the gettin place.”
“Did you steal it?”
“Nope. But there’s plenty more where it came from, the smokes too. Found a whole bunch of magazines in the woods and only I know where they’re at.” William folded the magazine and stuffed it in his back pocket again.
“Mom’s gonna smell that smoke on you,” Eddie said. “She always smells it on you, then Dad whoops you.”
“I’ll tell her it was the pasture. She’ll have to believe me too.”
“She’ll smell your fingers though. She always does.”
“Jesus Christ, son, lay off it,” William said.
William rolled up his pants to the knee and kicked off his shoes. He stepped down into the water taking slow cautious steps.
“Holy hell that’s cold.”
“You’ll get your pants all wet before church,” Eddie said.
“Water’s so cold, shriveled my nuts right up to raisins.”
Eddie rolled up his own pants and kicked off his shoes and ran into the water.
“Holy hell,” Eddie said.
“You get used to it after a minute,” William said. He walked along in the rock shallow stream, smoking and watching the water.
“Mom’s gonna smell that cigarette on your hands.”
“I’ll wash them in the creek and tell her it was the pasture burning. She won’t know unless you go blabbering. And don’t you dare, son.”
William walked along looking down in the water. Sunlight angled through the clean water and shimmered on the smooth stones and silt.
“What are you looking for?”
“There’s no gold in the creek.”
“Sure there is. Creek’s damn near full of gold. Look here.” William held the cigarette balanced in his lips and reached down into the cool water. He picked up a glittering rock and twisted it in the sunlight. “Whatcha call this then?”
“That’s just fool’s gold,” Eddie said. “It’s not real.”
“Real as the devil. Worth right around a thousand bucks I’d say.”
“Let me see it.”
“No. You’re an unbeliever. No reward for unbelievers.”
“Come on, Will, let me see it.”
William tossed the rock to his little brother. A droplet of blood dripped from his nose and fell into the water. It bled into the water and looked like red smoke. He smoked and watched the blood and water swirl amorphous in the stream. He looked up at the hills and further past them. Smoke from the fires rose to the sky turning the bright shiny morning black along the horizon the hills made.
“Where do you think Dad is right now?” William said. His voice was quiet and far away.
“Should be here soon. Mom said he’d be in by dinner time.”
“Wonder if he’ll really come home this time.”
“Course he will. Why would you say that, Will?”
William walked farther downstream.
“Will, why’d you say that?”
“He always says he’ll be home on time but never is. Remember Christmas, remember all the times?”
Eddie was quiet and turned the gold rock over in his fingers. He breathed and the air tasted like leaves and smoke and ash and he looked at the hills.
“This ain’t real gold. It’s just fool’s gold.” He threw the rock and waited for the splash and then ran downstream to catch up with his brother.
“Damnit, Eddie, quit all that splashing.”
“You really think he won’t be home?”
“Would you come home? If you got to see the whole country wide, all the cities and restaurants, would you come back home to all this nothing? All the pastures burning and the mountain on fire?”
“He drives a truck though,” Eddie said. “He’s not seeing all that stuff. All he sees is road.”
“Yeah, and the road is a lonely business. Every time he goes out he loses a little bit of himself. He told me that once. Said, when you’re alone on a long haul things start to just pull apart.”
“And he probably has another family somewhere out there. A wife and kids in El Paso, Texas for all we know.”
“No he don’t. Don’t say that, Will.”
“Who knows,” William said.
The boys stopped in the water as they heard men yelling somewhere just over the hills. Smoke creeped down into the stream in great breaths. White ash began to float toward them and got caught in the trees and cherry blossoms and in their hair. It looked like snow on that Good Friday in mid-April and the boys were suddenly lost in the blizzard as they watched the ashes dance and dissolve in the water.
“Mom said that on the news they were saying the fire got away from them. It’s a wildfire now,” Eddie said.
“All fires are wild. They’re gonna burn everything one of these days,” William said.
“The whole pasture?”
“What about the woods?”
“Yeah, the woods too. All of it. They’ll burn it all to black dirt and ash, then they’ll burn the ashes.”
“Why? Why would they do that?”
“It’s just what they do. Like how this creek moves. It’s just what it does. Some people just want to set it all on fire.”
They walked on farther and more ash came with the southerly breeze.
“It’s like snow.”
“It ain’t snow.”
“Remember when daddy was here that one Christmas. It snowed and he took us out to sled and eat snowflakes with sugar. Remember that?”
William reached into the water and picked up a stone. He threw it and watched the water ripple after the splash and the rings swam out downstream and through time for a thousand years.
“Snow fell just like this, remember that, Will?”
“It ain’t snow, and get your tongue back in your mouth, Eddie.”
The boys walked on and heard the men yelling louder and could hear the fires now, too. They stood in the water and listened to the fires and the sound of the trees falling and watched the white ash fall and cover everything like dust.
William stopped suddenly in the creek and stood staring down toward his bare feet. Eddie looked at his brother, standing close at his side.
“What—what is it?”
William said nothing and Eddie followed his dead-like stare. On the shallow bank of rocks and silt before them Eddie stared at the blackened fur of a red fox. The creature lay sprawled on the rocks, barely breathing, as the weak current lapped at its hairless burned tail and back. The red fur was black and charred to the bone in places. Its tongue lay limp and lifeless between its sharp teeth.
“What happened to it?” Eddie whispered.
“Got burnt,” William said. “Probably trying to escape the fires.” William walked up to the fox and poked it with his toes. It squirmed for a moment then lay there perfectly still.
“Is it still alive?”
“But it moved.”
“That was just its soul leaving. It ain’t alive.”
They stood looking down at the tiny animal. The smell of the fires filled the holler they found themselves in. The ash fell harder like a hot blizzard and the breeze shook the white-pink blossoms from the dogwoods and cherry trees lining the stream.
“What do we do?”
“Does it have disease?”
“Doesn’t matter. We need to bury it. The Indian’s would’ve done it. It has to be buried. It’s the right thing to do,” William said. He knelt down beside it, stroking its blackened body carefully.
“Where should we bury it?” Eddie said.
“Over there, in the sand bank,” William said. He walked through the water to the bank and began digging in the rocks and sand. His little brother knelt down beside him and helped.
When it was deep enough, William carried the fox over and laid it in the ground. Speechlessly, they pushed the sand over the burned creature and then gathered smooth stones, laying them atop the mound. Water moved past the little sand island and the everything glimmered with sunlight and shadow.
“Should we say something?” Eddie whispered.
“A prayer or something?”
“Won’t do any good. Prayer won’t bring it back.”
William clamored through the water with long splashing steps and climbed the far bank. He stood and looked at the copper sun burning behind the blue-black haze of the smoke and the mountains beyond that. Smoke crawled across the grassy hills in the morning light, pastoral and
unearthly, the aboriginal shape of the only landscape he’d ever known being assembled and torn
open in the shadows. The birds had all vanished into the deep hemlock sky, scattered and safe among high branches. He walked farther into the grass and then climbed over a fence post. Eddie walked just behind him, a novice disciple on a grief’s pilgrimage.
William walked to the rise of the hillside and stood watching the licks of fire flap and dance in soft random among the far fields. The smoke rose from the earth like some ancient and terrifying beast, born of loam and pine and everything that could burn.
“You know they say all life was born out of fire,” William said.
“Who says that?” Eddie said.
“I don’t know, I read it somewhere. Or heard it.”
“Fire just burns stuff. It doesn’t make anything.”
“It is something, it’s all things kind of.”
“What’s that even mean?”
“Shut up,” William said. “I don’t have time to teach you everything.”
They were quiet and stood watching the men who couldn’t do anything and could only stand and watch the fires. In the moment, it was as if they all stood at the center of all beauty, together, alive at both the origin and apocalypse of all things, everything empty and stunned in its immaculate silence.
They moved on in tandem through the field. Far off, Eddie saw a small herd of deer haul-ass out of the forest and across the sloping valley, their white tails fluttering and moving in their synchronized dance. He stopped as his brother moved on along, and looked at the landscape, the grass and hills, at the mountains in the pale distance. The land mute and immaculate, and he but a seeker on the edge of the shadows, lungs filled with the smoke of burning things.
He came back to himself and ran to catch up with William. His brother’s face smeared with dry blood and dirt.
“What are you gonna tell mom?” Eddie said.
“That I fell down,” William said. He lit another cigarette, wiping his nose.
“She’s gonna smell the smoke on you. And won’t believe you.”
“Well, I’ll just have to carry that cross when it comes then.”
Eddie stopped, and then William stopped, turning toward him.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“You really think dad’s not coming home?”
William walked over to his little brother, seeing the tears in his eyes, and wrapped his arm around him. “Sure, he’ll come home, Ed. He will. I was just messing with you.”
“And what if he sees everything’s burning? What if he just leaves again cause it’s all burned and ruined here?”
“Well, then we’ll carry on, Ed. You and me. But stop whining now, son. We gotta get cleaned up before church and I gotta hide this magazine.”
They walked on through the pasture and through the smoke as the hills and sky dissolved in the haze.
Eddie stopped again, turning his head skyward.
“Remember that snow, Will? It fell just like this,” Eddie said.
“That ain’t snow, Ed,” William said. “And I told you, get your tongue back in your mouth.”