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Worm Moon

by Benjamin Cruzan

This was my attempt at completing NaNoWriMo in 2008. Didn't quite get there. It's a story I'll continue to borrow from and maybe add to.


The Hunger Moon

1

Two hours from now, when he would return, Samuel Cull's mother would be drunk. He would be able to wake her and she would go to her bed. He would change his clothes, he would pray, and then he would go to his own bed, seven strides from his mother's, and again he would look out his window. Three hours from now he would look across the empty sandy campsites and the black trunks of pine trees to the log cabin where Rose Bender lived with her parents. He would hope to see light appear through her red curtains, then darkness. Then above the sheep laurel that blocked his view he would see the top edge of the door open and close and the chains of the porch-swing tighten. He would open his window and if the breeze was right he would smell cigarette smoke and he would leave the camper again. He would notice his hand too large and knuckled as he closed the door and his arm too thin, all sinew and bone. He would walk noisily so as not to surprise her. Four hours from now the sky would be entirely dark and the moon high. By then he would have already set his first fire in the woods.

But all of that would be hours from now. Now the sun was only beginning to set on a warm day in February. A premature warm spell had bloomed in Lost Creek Township during the past five days, and Twin Cedars Campground, where Samuel and his mother lived permanently in a camping trailer, was being prepared prematurely for visitors. In just a few weeks small groups of nature-minded middle-aged couples would spend cold nights in tents during the woodcock mating season. They would not, however, be sleeping in the campground. Their tents would border either of two clearings. In one clearing were the couples who wanted to observe the bird's ritual with no funny business. In the other clearing were the couples willing to hear the sound of each other's lovemaking beneath the piping woodcock. The women of one group had long hair, usually braided down their backs, and the men had unruly beards. The hair of the other group was more closely trimmed. Rose once told Samuel that she tried not to think about any of it. In the morning, wearing flannel shirts and down-stuffed vests, both groups would come together at the meeting hall for a pancake breakfast that was attended by much of the township and was used as a fundraiser by the Lost Creek Bible Church.

The work being done today, however, was not in preparation for the Woodcock Nights. Rilo and Carol Bender, the owners of the campground, arranged fire pits, dusted picnic tables, and raked the area of the hitching post that was used by a neighboring horse farmer who charged visitors for rides. None of these would be used for more than two months, but with five days of temperatures above seventy degrees and today with temperatures above eighty, the Benders had to be outside, and they told themselves they were working toward the Woodcock Nights and the pancake breakfast.

When school released for the day a group of boys went to the fishing dock next to The Village Inn with earthworms they had dug up the night before. The girls from their class rode bikes past the boys, who threw worms at them. The girls screamed, rode by two more times, and stopped to talk. Their mothers were home cleaning barbecue grills for cookouts that wouldn't happen for weeks, and their fathers were pulling rototillers from garages for gardens that wouldn't grow for more than a month.

The woods between Twin Cedars Campground and Lost Creek were more cautiously alive. The animals had spent the last five days strained against the dishonest air, suspicious of their own desires, reminding the impetuous that the real clock was spinning around the sun and could be read in the placement of shadow, not the fickle warmth of air. Squirrels would venture from their hot nests to forage, but return quickly; one caught tossing leaves in fervor was chastized by others from high above. A foolish young blacksnake lay in the pale sun, the rich colors of spring not yet present to conceal him, and he was carried off by a crow. Passions were allowed only during the nights, which were still long enough to hold them, when skunks mated and bit and sprayed  any animal audacious enough to interrupt the last quiet nights of winter that belonged solely to them.

Samuel had walked the woods during this last day of the warm spell. Now lying in his bed, his head was still woozy from the shards of sunlight that had fallen through the trees. The light and the warmth had outvoiced the cautious animals and the thin shadows of bare limbs that whispered too quietly, cold days, dark nights.

And now from his bed in the camping trailer, from a mile away, in the roots of his body he could feel the pull of the moon rising over the lip of the earth at Lost Creek. This was the night of the full moon of February. Two hours from now, when it was still a night of warmth, he would have set his first fire in the woods. This was the night of the Hunger Moon, a Thursday night, four nights before Samuel would die in the cold, five nights before he would be alive again, and eight months before anyone in Lost Creek Township would care.

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He skipped the metal grate step that hovered over a dusty ground, closed the aluminum door, and left Twin Cedars campground between the pre-spring smells of soil and skunk. He walked a deer path through the increasing dark and passed three large holes that had been dug last summer by an unknown person for an unknown reason. The newspaper from Salem ran two local interest articles about the holes last summer, interviewing Rose's father, Rilo, for both. He said that he doubted it was any of the campground guests who had dug the holes, but that he was as interested as anyone to find out who was responsible.

Now there were at least twenty of the holes in the two hundred acres surrounding Twin Cedars. The first two had been found earlier last summer by Rilo, who at first did not think enough of them to mention them to anyone. The first was only two feet deep and may not have been connected with the others. The second was at least six, but the soil had been carried off or had been spread out, and a few rain storms removed the evidence to determine the hole's age. The first fresh hole was found in late July by a boy camping at Twin Cedars. Rilo heard him mention it in passing and had the boy take him to it. Beneath a foot of white sand the walls of the hole showed fresh cuts of a shovel through a foot of clay that was still shining wet like steel, and then through four feet of course orange gravel that lay in a mound next to the hole. By October the holes had stopped appearing. No explanation was ever made, and Lost Creek Township moved on to other concerns. Now, five months later, the holes were well-worn and familiar to Samuel.

Fifteen minutes from the campground he came to a wall of greenbriar, which he knew by memory more than by sight. He pushed against it with his back and turned through it with the thorns picking at his clothes. He slid down a bank onto a broad path--Drunken Bridge Road--which was so long-abandoned that it was now just a leaf-filled gully growing small hollies and oaks. When walking the quiet mossy parts of the road he could hear night sounds, more than the silence of winter but not yet the hum of spring--the drop of an acorn onto leaves, the slapping of a night bird's wings arching from left to right and away, the nuzzling sounds of search and rest, the quick and hushed sounds of retreat and attack. Before he could see or hear the stream he smelled its salty marsh smell, its crab and mud smell.

Lost Creek curved around a tongue of land where Drunken Bridge Road ended at a pair of ragged wooden pylons from a bridge washed away before the memory of anyone Samuel knew. Fifteen yards into the stream a second set, water-worn, pushed through the surface, and a third set of pylons was on the far bank, in the next county, where Drunken Bridge Road continued through another forest.

The moon had pulled free of its oblong reflection and the sky began to pale in its light. The stars receded behind the white gauze growing over them.

Samuel had come to the water to enjoy the simple incongruity of winter and warmth: of being surrounded by leafless branches that clicked against each other in a summerlike wind, of seeing the stream's surface shiver coldblooded scales at a shore of warm mud. But the moon and its fragmented reflection grew apart so quickly that he could only think that the night was already over. Every two minutes the moon covered the distance of its own width. In his mind the moon was already setting behind Rose's house. The sun was already coming up in a cold day. Twelve hours from now, or maybe with his next breath, winter would return. The mud would begin to freeze. The cautious animals would bristle against the sharpened air with smug recognition. Tonight he had to do more than observe. If the water were warm he would join the night by sinking into it. He touched the round pink scar on his right cheek.

In the air and in the look of the moon, summer was here now. He kept his face upturned, ignoring the bare trees and the brown reeds, imagining a rhythmic whir of insects murmuring and toads rattling. He knew only light and warmth, and to join it he would need to float up and dissolve into the air. To disappear. To be destroyed.

He took a matchbook from his pocket, struck a match, brought the light close, made the heat his. The match shriveled black and the flame shrunk blue and neat and crept down to his finger and thumb. He did not let go when his skin blistered. He pinched tighter and the flame disappeared into blackened skin and a line of smoke.

He lit another, pulled a dry reed from the mud and held the flame to the tip of its ruffled top. It started with orange embers growing outward. He held it to the sky.  The embers took flame and erupted with a sudden burst and a rushing sound, then shrunk back to embers and a trickle of fire around the stalk.

He lit the top of a reed still in the ground. It rocked in the breeze and touched another, touched another, another. Samuel stepped back from the heat. Soon it hurt to look at the light. He was panicked and thrilled. Only the sandy open space kept the flames from the forest behind him. It was more than the moon. The small point of land jutting into Lost Creek burned for nearly an hour while Samuel stood in the separation between blazing fire and forest, a terrified gatekeeper between destruction and the coming birth of spring. A crow flew from Burden Island, called as though day had come, and flew over him and toward Twin Cedars.

 

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Between the camper and the cabin Samuel kicked a pine-cone into a metal fire ring and it clanged louder than he intended. The blood was still surging in his neck and in his temples. With his hands in the pockets of a fresh pair of jeans he pressed his shoulders down and exhaled to calm himself. He cleared his throat and walked past the overgrown bushes around the porch.

"What happened to you?" Rose asked. The cigarette was half gone. Her bony wrist was bent and her palm upturned. She held the cigarette between two fingers. Her thumb sealed the smoke inside the filter end.

"What?" Samuel shifted into a shadow cast by a porch post, wondering if his face was blackened with soot.

"I don't know. Your eyes are big."

He stepped onto the porch and sat in a brown wicker chair across from the swing. Rose dropped the cigarette into a bottle of orange juice and put the bottle on the railing.

"It doesn't bother me."

"It's bad for me," she said. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Samuel thought it made her face look too sharp and bony and her shoulders too thin. She wore a strapped shirt that emphasized her straight boyishness. There was a quiet rustle in the leaves below.

"Skunk," Samuel whispered.

Rose pulled her legs under her on the swing. She wore blue pajama shorts covered with flying pink pigs. Her bottom half was rounder than her top. From behind Samuel thought she looked like she was wearing a diaper. "Skunk mating season. Very sexy," she said. They sat quietly until the animal moved on. "Charlie came over for dinner. He's more in love with my mom than with me. He did the dishes with her. He loved her new pottery." The moon was high now. There were no stars. Samuel thought he could still smell smoke. "Is your mom drinking tonight?" she asked.

"She's asleep." He wanted to tell her that tonight he had felt the entire universe alive. He fingered the scar on his cheek. It was a habit. It was soft like mushroom gills.

"I should be too. Some of us have school tomorrow."

"I read the books we get. It's a whole curriculum," he said. The sheep laurel started to shake in a new breeze.

"It's supposed to be cold tomorrow."

Samuel couldn't think of a response that would sound natural. "Do you still want to leave?" he asked.

"Leave where?"

"Like we said before. Take off after high school."

"Sure, where you do want to go? You can take off now."

"I'm serious." Samuel pressed his finger and thumb together testing the fluid beneath the new blisters.

"Me too. I'm sick of this place. When June comes we're gone. Pick the place."

"The Badlands."

"What's that, Iowa? Wyoming?"

"South Dakota."

"I was thinking New York or the Rocky Mountains or something. But okay. South Dakota."

Samuel felt the chair growing harder under his body. The whicker began sticking into his back as they spoke, and he was sad that Rose didn't know how to be serious.

"I'm going to go finish a paper and then I'm going to bed," she said. "You got here too late."

"Want me to read it for you? I'll be up."

"It's not an important one." She was already in the doorway. He was on the steps. "Go get some sleep."

Earlier in the school year Samuel read a paper Rose wrote for her senior level art class, about whether art could be found in nature. She wrote it just after the two of them had gone for a walk to see the holes. He helped her with the ending.

There's something frightening about the parts of the forest where things are uniform. There's something eerie in evenly spaced trunks of pine trees. They make a pattern. Pattern means design. Design means intent. Intent means that in the woods, even when we are not there, lay plot and purpose unknown.

 

------------

 

Samuel slept a few hours before the cold woke him. He rubbed his nose and cheeks and pulled aside the vinyl curtain that separated his bed from the rest of the camper.  He put his feet on cold linoleum and turned the dial on the heater. A rumble started from under the small countertop. H e pulled aside the curtain to his mother's bed so the heat would get to her, and he went back to his bed. It was just before dawn. Above the pine trees the sky was dim, ash-colored, and clear. Samuel grabbed some blankets from the corner of his mattress. They hadn't been used in five days and now they were cold from being pressed against the aluminum wall. He pulled them over himself and rolled into them. Thick frost covered the world outside the plexiglass window that he had closed during some sleepless part of the night when he couldn't move his mind from the image of the fire, from the fury in its burning, from the smoke that rolled off of it, and mostly from how quickly the fire exhausted itself and left black stubs where reeds had stood for centuries. The image was with him again now and it mixed with the smell of burning propane, the comfortable smell of home, and he slept again.

His mother was awake early, sitting at the table that could be converted into a bed, eating a granola bar and drinking coffee that steamed in the cold.

"Good morning, sunshine." She was almost always cheerful in the morning. Usually it was genuine and when it couldn't be genuine she forced herself. Samuel came to understand that she chose to start each day as a good mother. Today it was genuine. "We knew it couldn't last. It's cold out," she said.

"It's cold in here." Samuel was still in his bed.

"It's not so bad. Come sit with your mother." She patted the upholstered bench. Samuel got out of bed, still in his jeans. He sat across from her with a blanket over his shoulders.

"It's cold," he said again. The center section of the camper, where the heater was, usually stayed warm on cold nights, and with the curtains open the sleeping areas at both ends were usually tolerable. Samuel wondered if there were something wrong with the heater, but it was still rumbling from under the sink.

"There's frost on the ground," she said. Peggy Cull was thirty-eight but people usually thought she was younger if they didn't look too closely. Teenage boys who came to Twin Cedars during the summer liked her attention. And although he could never see anything different in the way she treated them and the way she treated him, with others it always seemed more like flirtation. Her hair was blonde. Over the last few years it had grown lighter at the temples. Creases had begun to form around her eyes that were only noticeable when she first woke. "I have a favor to ask," she said.

Samuel turned on the bench and opened the narrow door a few inches. Cold bit at his foot and his hand. He closed it. "What?"

She said she had to be at Caramel Farm early. Today was the livestock auction and she had to make lists for the auctioneer and help sellers label crates. The auction started at ten and she had to be there by eight. Eli was coming for his tarot reading at ten, since today was the first Wednesday of the month, and he was probably already out on the road, and she needed Samuel to tell him they would have to do it tomorrow.

For as long as Samuel could remember Caramel Farm had not been a farm. It was a flea market on the old farm grounds, where each Wednesday people with various strong accents hawked pirated movies, counterfeit brand-name sneakers, home-made carpet cleaning solutions, and stuffed animals filled with hard styrofoam. Every few months they had a livestock auction where farmers and youth club members could sell single head of steer, cows, sheep, and pigs to other youth club members or to "weekend farmers" as the Carmel Farm staff called them. Small crates of chickens, quail, rabbits, and pigeons were common items for sale. A woman once sold the same homing pigeon at three consecutive auctions. Peggy worked in Caramel Farm's office two afternoons each week.

Peggy also read tarot cards out of the camper. Summer was the busy time, when visitors to Twin Cedars came to site number sixty-three for their weekly reading while away from home, or for vacation-time entertainment. During the off-season a few people from the township would visit regularly. Eli was one of the regulars.

"I'm going to do some history work this morning anyway. I'll tell him."

Samuel went to the campground's bath house to take a shower while his mother showered in the camper's miniature bathroom. Samuel stepped down onto sand that was frozen into solid cakes. The sun was up and blazing cold through a blue sky onto a shimmer of ice on everything. He pulled on the hood of his coat. The air went through his jeans and pinched at his face. The knob of the bath house door was painfully cold to touch. In the shower steam billowed and any skin not being covered with warm water felt like it was freezing.

As he jogged back toward the camper he saw that his mother's car was already gone. Carol's and Rilo's car and truck were gone too. Rose was already at school. He was alone.

He sat at the convertible table and felt his hair lying against his head in frozen chunks. He opened the history textbook that had come in the mail the day before. On page one hundred thirty-one was a drawing of a Viking ship and a large red-bearded man in round armor.

The caption mentioned two crows that went thither each night to gather knowledge and brought it to their master in the morning. Sacrifices done by hanging or with burning spears. A prophesy of a tree that would shake in end times when decay began to outweigh renewal. In the woods, Samuel thought, even when we are not there, lay plot and purpose unknown.


 

 

2

 

The Lost Creek Bible Church sat on Gum Tree Corner, a three-road intersection that did not appear by name on any map or sign but that locals used as a reference point, saying, "Jimmy and Becky just bought a house near Gum Tree Corner," or "The bridge is out between Gum Tree Corner and the county line again," or "Pastor Rankerson saw a red fox at Gum Tree Corner." The first known record of the name was in the minutes of the church's 1815 winter business meeting, where it was noted that Abraham Cull donated five acres of his farm at Gum Tree Corner for the building of a new church. Today the church was more often called The Church at Gum Tree Corner than by its formal name. This was partly because the tree predated the church and partly because a hundred years ago the church's name had changed from The Lost Creek Methodist Church to The Lost Creek Bible Church and  the township was holding off on using the new name because denominational affiliation was apparently changeable and because, even a hundred years later, to use the phrase, "Bible Church" was to take sides on the issue of whether to leave the Methodist denomination.

The Gum Tree had grown enormous. The roots were a tangle of shrugging knuckles that were as thick as the trunks of other trees. The bark was deeply furrowed and the first limbs reached from the trunk high above the church parking lot on one side and above the gravestones on the other. Each limb was wide and solid, cured by age, and curved into an unmoving sculpture of strength. Upward into the tree was a whole world of thick twists and shadows that reached up to woozy heights. Some of the upper limbs now remained leafless all year, but each winter the tree still dropped its spiky fruit over the church property by the thousands.

 The tree was so large that last year, after it had won the first three years of the Largest Tree Trunk contest, the Lost Creek Township Elementary School eventually declared the Gum Tree off-limits for competition. At last measurement its circumference, measured three feet above the ground, was twenty feet--more than six feet in diameter. No tree in the township could compare. Some families complained about the new restriction because the second round of the contest pitted Lost Creek against neighboring elementary schools, and the Gum Tree guaranteed a win. But the declaration of off-limits actually became a blessing. Jeremy Leonard--a local sixteen-year-old considered by most of the township to be a cocky moron--had run his motorcycle into the tree a week before that year's contest, and parents, including those who had originally complained, were glad they would not have to explain to their children the stain left on the trunk where Jeremy's head and chest had spilled their contents.

The unofficial story of the Gum Tree, which hovered between local history and folklore, was that a circus had traveled through the township in the late eighteenth century and that its oldest and largest elephant had died at the intersection and was buried where it fell. As the story went, the gum tree was planted over the elephant's grave and the elephant then spent the next two hundred years feeding the tree. Some even claimed that local feral peacocks--sometimes heard in the surrounding woods or seen in fields with turkeys--were descendents of peacocks that had escaped from the circus procession while clowns, local farmers, and swamis worked together with ropes, sticks, and log fulcrums to roll the massive body into the hole. Folklore further credited the peacocks with removing an infestation of blacksnakes from the church basement during a time that only the oldest member of the current congregation--Lila Gable, who was ninety-eight years old and senile--could now recount with firsthand knowledge. It was said that it was during the time of the snake exodus that ladybugs began to enter the church by the hundreds.

Now, eight decades later, ladybugs were still a problem for the Lost Creek Bible Church. On unusually warm days in fall, winter, and spring they spilled into the sanctuary around loose-fitting window panes and through cracks in the plaster. Rippling red and black piles of them gathered in the corners of the vestibule. They marched in curved lines across the rounded backs of pews and distracted congregation members who pretended not to watch them. Children scooped them up and had them walk to the tips of their fingers, watched them spread their under-wings, and then knocked them back into their palms to try it again. Some of the people used their Bibles to smash them into acrid yellow smears. Offertory ushers ducked their necks to dodge the herky-jerky corkscrew flight. Patrick Patrick, the retarded thirty-three-year-old son of John and Mary Patrick, occasionally ate a ladybug during silent prayer or a personal testimony and yelled "yuck!"at the worst possible moment, which his parents and the rest of the congregation learned to ignore.

The ladybug bloom during this February's warm spell drew no particular attention at last Sunday's service. This evening, however, when the first of the congregation arrived for the business meeting they found in the unheated vestibule a huge mass of ladybugs, shocked and torpid from the overnight freeze. The temperature had fallen sixty degrees in six hours during the night and had not risen above twenty degrees all day. Now, at four o'clock, the frost that had covered Lost Creek Township during the night still remained in shadowy areas. When Patrick Patrick saw how many of the bugs had gathered together in the vestibule he said, "God damn!"--his new favorite phrase that his parents were trying to help him forget by not rewarding it with attention. Mary Patrick took a broom from the downstairs closet and swept the bugs through the door and onto the concrete steps where they froze solid.

Samuel was home even though his mother asked him to go to the business meeting with her. Although this was the normal bi-monthly church business meeting, Samuel expected it to be better attended and to last longer than most. Pastor Rankerson, who had been hired by the church just  a few months ago, had recently been preaching about the Sabbath, that it was not supposed to be only a day to go to church, but also a day for rest, a day dedicated to God, and furthermore that Saturday, not Sunday, was the historical and biblical day that was blessed by God. The congregation could feel it coming: Soon, at some business meeting, he would propose a change in the day of worship services.

Normally fifteen or twenty of the most involved members attended business meetings, but Samuel could picture the parking lot half-full. Tailpipes breathed out warm steam that disappeared upward in the cold sideways sunlight of late afternoon; Phil Anderson held the door of the church open for Loretta Davis, who trotted across the parking lot so he didn't have to wait; people made small talk about the ladybugs and the odd weather; they were an extended family rejoined and huddled together in the warm church. He could picture his mother arrive. The ladybugs on the steps were like thousands of crunchy pebbles that stuck to her shoes. As the rest of the congregation had, she scraped her soles on the edge of the top step before entering. A few dozen people were already in the basement when she descended the stairs. She took off her coat, rubbed her hands together, and said it was a good thing she hadn't put her winter clothes away yet. Under the coat was a tight sweater that dipped low in the front exposing a tight shadow of cleavage. From the corner, at a table by himself, Patrick Patrick said, "God damn!" and then lowered his head back over his coloring book. Peggy sat a row behind Eli and Jan Jameson.

When Peggy returned home she told Samuel that Reverend Rankerson's opening prayer was interrupted--just as it was really getting started--by a loud crack from outside, which was followed by a long slow squeak of wood pulling apart from wood. Most of the people did not move, and many did not even open their eyes. But a few of the men, including Eli Jameson and Rilo Bender, quietly left the church basement. Peggy assumed someone on Tinker Island Road, one of the three roads that joined at Gum Tree Corner, had run a car into a pole. But when the men returned they said that one of the three maples that lined the cemetery had split in two, spontaneously, razed by the sudden freeze. Everyone went outside. The maple closest to the church was forked a foot above ground level, split up the middle, up to where the first branches now tilted downward in an unnatural  angle. The trunk's blond wood was exposed to the air, faintly fragrant and with splintered woodgrain tendons connecting the mirrored halves. Eli said he could come by the next day, Saturday, to cut down the tree but that he would need some help.

When they returned to the basement, chased in by the cold that increased as the sun fell, all talk revolved around the trees. Phil Anderson felt that, while they were on the topic if trees, the church should consider removing the Gum Tree, that the dying limbs were a liability and that it was just a matter of time before someone's car or a congregation member was crushed by a falling limb. Suggestions moved to having the tree limbed rather than cut down entirely. Some felt that to touch the tree at all would be too much of a blow to the community, would make the church unpopular, and was not a way to try to increase membership. The discussion was tabled until trustees were able to get estimates on the cost of services from a tree surgeon. Pastor Rankerson then said that he was concerned about having the congregation work to remove the split maple tomorrow. Saturday, he said, was not the day to be doing physical labor, especially not in the church yard. As a peace offering from the group--and as a delay tactic for the inevitable--the congregation conceded. The date for tree cleanup was changed to Tuesday afternoon, and all able bodies were asked to be present. Peggy volunteered to bring dinner for the group.

 

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Anxiety began to slide into Lost Creek Township after a few days of temperatures colder than those normally felt even in mid-winter. The last days of February normally start to reveal hints of spring--secretive plants pushing through frost and leafmeal; crows and ground hogs beginning cautious activities of courtship. But not in this oppressive shock of cold that screwed deeper into the ground, the trees, the animals and the people. Even the creek had frozen over. The bright crisp energy of cold had diminished into silent and anxious expectation. The first suggestion of relief came on Tuesday, when clouds began to appear. The temperature had still not risen above twenty degrees, but a gray blanket now rolled across the sky and provided a buffer that slowed the leaching of warmth away from the earth.

Samuel and Peggy were the first to arrive at the church that afternoon. At the business meeting she thought the weather would have been different by today, and she was planning to pick up sandwiches, but because of the cold she spent the last two days making small batches of stew on their two-burner stove. She set each batch outside to freeze and today she reheated those batches, one at a time, and poured them into a large orange water cooler.  She and Samuel now lifted the cooler from the trunk of her car and carried it to the church basement.

Samuel went outside to look at the split maple. Rilo was unpacking two chain-saws and rope from his truck. "Hey Sammy, can you give me a hand?" he said.

Rilo was a smiler. He had a solid squat body, a round belly, and an ability to talk to anyone. Rilo was also the only person who called Samuel Sammy, which used to make Samuel feel wanted and important, but now the sound filled him with a foggy feeling of obligation, as though he were in permanent debt for something he couldn't remember.

Samuel went to the truck and lifted a gas container labeled, "mix." He had learned from Rilo that chain-saws need to be fueled with a mixture of gasoline and oil. Rilo also taught him how to keep the chain oiled, to stay in cautious control of the tip, to properly notch and fell a tree, to limb it, to leave only a thin naked stick waiting to be separated into manageable lengths. Samuel carried the can toward the tree and set it down next to a gravestone. Everything felt heavier in the cold, Samuel thought.

By the time Eli arrived with a township-owned tractor on a small flatbed truck, several men were around the tree in knit hats and gloves thicker than they would normally wear for work. They were looking up at the tree, deciding how to best disassemble it without crushing any of the grave stones. In this part of the cemetery the grave stones were at least one hundred years old. Most were weatherworn past the depth of their inscriptions and were now wafers of anonymous blank stone. The exposed wood was glazed with frozen maple sap.

 Eli yelled as he descended from the cab of the truck. He moved to the back of the truck, released the hook at the end of a heavy chain across the tractor's axle, and pulled it free. "What do you say, boys?" he shouted to the men around the tree.

"I say all we need is some pancakes and we've got ourselves a good breakfast here," Rilo yelled back, pointing at the sap, smiling and adjusting his belt under his stomach.

Phil Anderson's nephew went to the rear of the truck and helped Eli lower the ramp gate. Eli walked up the ramp and mounted the tractor, started it, and backed it off of the truck.

Phil Anderson's nephew was a mystery to Lost Creek Township. He appeared about once each year when his family--the Adamses--visited from upstate New York. He would be seen at church one Sunday morning, and not seen again for many months. The same was true for his parents and his older brother, but he was noticed more than the others, first because of his red-brown hair, and later because of his size.

He was Samuel's age, and once when they were twelve he attended Sunday school in Samuel's class. He said nothing except when the teacher--trying to get the newcomer involved--asked what his Sunday school teacher's name was at his home church, to which he responded that his family did not go to church. That year he was about the same size as Samuel. Samuel hadn't heard him say anything in the six years since that day.

When his family returned the next year it was as though they had traded their red-headed child for some new person with the same hair but who was twice the size. At thirteen he was almost six feet tall. He was thin, but his shoulders had broadened and his forearms were long and appeared to have a restless power below the skin. Every year since his size seemed to double. The next year his hands looked as though they were borrowed from a large marble statue. The next year his shoulders grew into bowling balls. The next year his pant seams looked as though they would split and the congregation was nervous that his thighs would spill out with every next movement. Then his round face began to square, and his jaw hardened. This year, once again swollen beyond last year's size, the men and women watched him with wonder and suspicion on Sunday morning; there were rumors that last year he had visited with Loretta Davis, a thirty-one-year-old unmarried member of the congregation, for several hours after church.

Here, at the tree, he moved like one of them. He knew where to stand, where to throw the rope, how to tie it off, and who would connect it to the hoist hook and to the tractor. His neck muscles were intimidating and his facial hair seemed to grow before their eyes.

"What's your name, son?" Eli asked as he mounted the tractor again.

"Gentry Adams," he said with a great puff of steam rising from his mouth, and then his nostrils. It was the second phrase he had ever spoken on the property of the Lost Creek Bible Church.

By the time they had finished removing both halves of the maple, the darkness in the sky had begun to descend around them. They went into the church, ate stew, and went home.

 

 

 

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Snow started to fall sometime around eight o'clock. It began with small hesitant flakes, each one independent of the others, almost denumerable, falling from the dark flannel clouds that hung low over the township. In the camper Samuel's mother filled the cooler with soapy water and rested it on the floor, sat next to it, and washed it with a thin gray rag. A new bottle of Canadian Club was already opened and sitting on the veneer counter, with a few sips missing. The thirteen-inch television flickered blue. The camper smelled of boiled meat.

Samuel went outside in only a sweatshirt, but regretted it half way to Rose's house just fifty yards from the camper. The wind was blowing and it brought painful cold straight to the skin beneath his clothes. The snow was increasing. His hands were red by the time he arrived at the back of the cabin at the walk-in basement's door. He raised his hand to knock and the redness of his skin made his hand look larger, which made his arm look thinner than normal. Rose let him in.

"Charlie is upstairs," Rose said and rolled her eyes.

"Helping Mom?" Samuel asked. Rose sat at one end of the couch next to the pool table. Samuel blew into his hands and rubbed his nose. He sat in the chair that they called the Sasquatch chair. It was large enough to hold three normal-sized adults and was upholstered with a pattern of tree leaves and bark. Above Samuel hung the head of a large whitetail deer.

"He'll be down soon. What do you want to do tonight? Cards? Pool? Ouija?"

The door at the top of the stairs opened. "Sam, you know your mom is hot, right?" Charlie said as he came down the stairs.

"Shut up," Rose said, "Do you want to play cards? And who calls him 'Sam' anyway?"

Charlie was thin, like Samuel, with a flop of thick black hair that usually hung over at least one of his eyes. Like his father, Eli, Charlie almost always spoke louder than he needed to. "Sure. Poker?" He poked at Rose with his index finger as he sat in the middle of the couch.

"His mom is hot though. I could definitely see the two of you together."

"You're disgusting," Rose said, laughing.

"Couldn't you see that, Sam? And me right between them."

"Are we playing hearts?" Samuel said. He knew Charlie and Rose hadn't had sex yet. In fact Rose hadn't yet had sex with anyone, which seemed appropriate to Samuel since she hardly looked like she had entered puberty.

Samuel and Rose had known each other for years. Rose's parents were friends with Samuel's Aunt June and Uncle Mel, who moved to the Midwest years ago, and to a lesser degree were friends with Peggy. Six years ago, when Rilo and Carol loaned Peggy their camper and let them take up residency at Twin Cedars temporarily, the Samuel and Rose had become closer. Now they shared nearly everything.

Two summers before, on the night Samuel and Peggy returned from a trip to see June and Mel, Samuel and Rose went for a walk in the woods. They walked to Drunken Bridge Road, sat next to the pylons under a high crescent moon, and talked about leaving Lost Creek together as soon as they could. They swam in the stream that night, swam to Burden Island, and lay in the warm smell of cedar and the electric buzz of insects around them. She asked him how he burnt his face, which at that time was a fresh wound.

He was quiet for a time, and then instead of answering her he said, "When I was thirteen somebody touched me." It came out of him as though the words had been gestating for years, waiting for birth.

"Who?" Rose said after waiting too long.

"A man. I don't know."

Rose didn't ask anything else, and he said nothing more. Her silence felt like discomfort, and he regretted that he had told her, not because he didn't want her to know, but because she didn't know what to say. In the last two years neither had mentioned it again.

"Did you see What's-His-Name in church? That guy is huge. I mean huge," Charlie said loudly.  He looked at Rose. "I bet he's got a tiny dick though." His hand was high on Rose's leg. "So what's the game? Spades?"

"I should go help my mom clean up. She made all this stew." Samuel got up from the Sasquatch chair and walked toward the door.

"You don't have to go," Rose said.

"Don't stop a guy from helping his mother, Rosey." Charlie kissed her on the cheek. "Hey Sam, we should go camping some time."

As Samuel closed the door behind him he heard Rose telling Charlie he had gone too far.

 

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Around midnight Samuel lowered the table into a bed closer to the heater. He woke his mother from the small chair in front of the television, helped her lie down, and reached over her for the blankets where she normally slept. The wind was blowing now, and the snow was falling harder.

"Thank you."

"Go to sleep."

"These beds aren't good. They aren't made for so many nights."

"Go to sleep."

"I didn't mean this. It wasn't going to be like this. I was--"

"Go to sleep."

"I'm sorry."

"Mom, go to sleep."


3

On Drunken Bridge Road the morning was bright and quiet. The vacant woosh of the world's noise was dampened. Sounds made in the woods hit without echo as though heard in a head filled with cotton. The snow at Samuel's feet separated and swirled around his steps. Blue had returned to the sky, pale along the horizon and dark blue straight above. It was still cold, but the wind was gone. Samuel's shadow was a long narrow silhouette with a small head far ahead of him on as he walked.

At the tongue of land that extended into Lost Creek the stumps of reeds that had burned six days before now hid beneath slight mounds of snow. Otherwise the white spread out flat from the woods behind Samuel, across the frozen stream, beyond Burden Island, and to the woods on the other side where the white was broken by gray-brown trees. On the island, at the top of the tallest cedar, a crow called. Samuel knew it was announcing Samuel's presence to any animal within earshot. A warning call.

Samuel stepped forward cautiously, testing for the line where the stream began beneath the snow. When he had tested farther forward than he thought he would need to, he brushed the snow away from the ground with his gloved hand and found that ice was under his feet. He stood and steadied himself, expecting the new knowledge to cause his fall. But there he stood, steady and solid, inches above flowing water.

He began walking, testing each step, toward the island. As he approached, the crow continued to call and didn't fly until he pulled himself up the island's steep bank. 

 

 

felt the light snow beneath compress and squeak against itself. He then heard another squeak, felt another compression, a muffled crack. He shifted his entire weight to his left foot and the floor opened beneath it, freefalling him into freezing water that stabbed the skin then the muscle then the bone of his left leg. He gasped. His chest locked at the cold squeezing. The rest of him went down, his arms stiff reaching for firm ice, over his shoulders, head taking snow with it, eyes open like _. After he was under, his tendons pulled him into a tight ball that his shocked muscles could not loosen.

[vision]