I inspect the fence post, and Beechie trots over and nudges my hand with her nose. She’s always asking me for a pat on the head or a handful of grass. She acts more like a dog than a goat. The other goats are always out in the field standing on one of the old cars, pulling up weeds with their wobbly lips, or singing monotone songs. It seems like they’re all waiting for what’s next. The horses watch me with their black pearl eyes and follow me with their pointy ears. All of them, the horses, the goats, even the rattle snakes, they all know what’s going on.
I’m thankful for the job, but Mr. Crawford didn’t mention the long stretches of time between seeing an actual person. I thought I'd enjoy it, but after the first two weeks, I realized I need social interaction from time to time. The only other people I see out here are the butchers and, sometimes, equestrians. Once a month the butchers arrive, all greedy and bug eyed. They leer at the goats, rubbing their hands together. I saw one of them lick his upper lip while inspecting a billy goat the last time they were all here.
I turn to the goat trotting beside me. “Not you though, Beechie. Nobody’s interested in you.” She thumps her front hoof on the ground and bends down to uproot a few dandelions. She stares at my nose as she chomps the weeds.
After pouring some feed into the trough, I check each stall. Only one needs scooping this afternoon. This is my life, now: talking to an old nanny goat and scooping horse shit inside of a stable that’s nicer than the cabin I sleep in.
I grab the chain saw from the barn and make my way across the field to the tree line. The tree woke me up last night when it fell. Louder than anything I’ve ever heard before. I rode the four-wheeler over to inspect it this morning first thing. It’s a fallen hickory and if I remember right, it’s just beyond the edge of the forest.
Working out here, I realize why so many fables are set in the forest. I’ve already started seeing things our here, hallucinations, I guess you could say. Two tall dark figures in the woods. They weren’t actually there, I know that. But the shadows out here are deceiving. The mind wanders, you know.
A branch cracks above my head and a bird cackles behind my back. The tops of the trees sway, and the wind whistles through an alley of pines. This is where some songs come from: the plump silence here. It swells if you stand in it long enough.
Mr. Crawford not only sells goats, but he’s got about four hundred acres of pine forest out here that I’m in charge of. Row after row of pines, all for paper. As part of my job, I also have to maintain the logging roads back here in these pines. Got to make sure the trucks can get back here and scoop all the young trees up.
I yank the pull-chord, and the chain saw jolts to life. Rattling and wailing, its echo bouncing around the forest canopy. Sending all the fauna back to their burrows. I assess the angle of the cut. After careful consideration, I slice into the massive tree trunk.
Cutting into a freshly fallen hickory smells dense, like my grandfather’s sweaters, like dirt and campfire, a hint of old tobacco. Before I slice my way to the middle, I back the saw out and start a cut from the bottom. Almost everyone that uses one of these things eventually gets hurt. My moment with this chainsaw hasn’t happened yet, but it’s probably coming.
Mr. Crawford happened to be here inspecting the property on the day the last farm hand got his (chainsaw lesson, I mean). Mr. Crawford picked up the guy on the other side of that ridge. He nearly bled to death in Mr. Crawford’s truck. The hospital had to amputate his leg, and he lost this job. Mr. Crawford said he couldn’t use him on the farm anymore after the accident. No severance. No help. No nothing.
He said he hired me to help get me back on my feet. I’m not complaining. Since getting out, I can’t even get a job at Burger King. I always have to check that box:
PREVIOUS CONVICTIONS YES [ X ] NO [ ]
And then fill in that section below that says explain. It doesn’t matter if I’m honest or if I lie on those applications, they all know. They can look it up. And they do every time.
The guy that lost his leg was a former prisoner too. Mr. Crawford probably thinks people like us are expendable. He works in the city as a stockbroker. He says he bought all eight hundred acres for the day when it all collapses. The way he talks about it (the market, the economy) makes me think running a chainsaw and trading in the stock market are equally dangerous. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, something unexpected can happen, the chain gets hung on a knot and kicks the blade back at you, or some bit coin bro fucks with a stock no one’s ever heard of, and the bottom falls out.
Still, the life of a stockbroker and a farm hand look pretty different to me. Mr. Crawford’s co-workers and their families came out here two weekends ago. He asked me to be one of the bartenders, but I told him I couldn’t be near booze since getting sober in prison. So, he asked me to run the coat check at the front door. That’s the only time I’ve been in the farmhouse. I saw all those families pulling up in their black Benzes and yellow Porsches. One family drove up in one of the first Lucid electric cars. The guy said it was built by one of his friends who is a prince in Saudi Arabia. Then he threw his coat at me like I was a rack on the wall. I spit in the breast pocket before I gave it back to him at the end of the night. It’s probably all dry and crusty now. He'll never know. No one ever uses those pockets.
As I cut nearly all the way through the fallen Hickory, the crack of the tree trunk thunders over the buzz of the saw. I kill the motor and set the machine on the ground. There’s that hazy quiet again. I take it in before the wrens start warbling again. With all my weight on top of the cut, I stomp. The tree fractures into two pieces and my heel slips on the bark. The two pieces thud down to the forest floor, and I land hard, my ribcage on top of the tree’s trunk, graceless and exhausted.
I remain in that position, feet resting on the earth, fingers dug into the dirt, my body twisted and arching over the hickory’s carcass. One broken and limp body on top of another. The squirrels emerge, then the wrens. I lay there until I see a red-tailed hawk fly overhead. I’ll finish the job and drag the pieces to the fire pit tomorrow.
The saw is still warm when I pick it up. By the time I reach the cabin, the cicadas are crooning and the sky is blushing. I thump my boots on the edge of the porch. The mud, manure, and hay crumble down on top of a growing mound of dry earth. The screen door grinds along the floor as I open it. I turn to take another look at the field. I really can’t believe this is where I’ve ended up. I thought I was going to end up in San Francisco. Ebby thought that too.
The metal spring quivers, and snaps the door closed. I look down at my rug. It’s not really mine. After the accident, I just took the rug. Every time I look at it, I think about the first time I slept on it. Ebby had hosted a birthday party for one of our friends in San Francisco. She had made this incredible Birria from her mother’s recipe. I ended up helping her clean up after the party. The stew was amazing. The meat was tender and the adobo sauce was divine, but someone spilled a huge clump on her rug. I don’t think we ever figured out who it was. After a cleaning session where we had a debate about which method worked better to take care of the gleaming red blemish on her treasured rug, we split what was left of an open bottle of wine and sat in her kitchen talking until three in the morning. She offered her freshly cleaned rug for me to sleep on for the rest of the night. After a few months of us seeing each other, I moved upstairs to her bedroom. We had three good years before the accident. It seemed important to grab the rug before Ebby’s parents came and got everything else.
My side throbs in unison with my heartbeat. I grab a blanket and pillow and lay down on my back. I center my torso in the medallion of the rug, take a deep breath and glance out the window toward the tree line. There is a small shred of orange light left in the sky. The trees are outlined by what’s left of the day’s light. I always try not to look into the forest after a certain time. I can’t stop thinking about Ebby and that day she lost her sunglasses riding on the back of my motorcycle. I had told her how to ride on the back but it was still my fault. I should’ve slowed down when I felt her lean over like that. Should’ve known to stay away from the curb, that fucking fire hydrant.
I don’t want to keep looking at the forest tonight, but I can’t look away. The trees sway. The moon is dim and blue. The sky ripples above the treetops. One shadow in the forest seems different, more energetic, than the others. I’ve never tried talking to the figures I imagine I see out here, but tonight I pose a question. I hesitate and brood about whether the figure is truly there. “If you are there,” I whisper, “why don’t you take me with you?”
The spring on the front door tings. I sit up and snap my head toward the door. My ribs sting my insides. I palm my side and watch the door. The spring crackles twice more. It’s just the coiled metal cooling off from the heat of the day. I turn and look back out the window. My eyes widen and my back stiffens. I lean forward, toward the window. It’s undeniable.
“Ebby,” I say.
Her thick black hair glistens in the moonlight like coal shimmering in a flickering fire. Two of her fingers rest on her collar bone. She says nothing and stares at the bookshelf on the other side of the cabin. She must know that I’m down here on the floor. I stand up. Her gaze doesn’t falter. She still seems to be looking past me, through me. I wave my hands.
She turns away from the window, like she’s in an orbit with the forest itself.
“No. Wait.” I bolt out of the cabin without any shoes on, one hand waving through the night air and the other grasping my rib. I trot around to the other side of the cabin. Panting, I shake my head and look down at my feet. Chasing ghosts, with no shoes, and what feels like a broken rib. I wish someone else was here to see this.
Before I round the corner of the cabin, I hear it. A deep and big inhale breath. I can hear the loneliness and the surrender in the exhale too. Before turning around, I hold still for a moment and listen. The breathing was coming from a few yards behind me, toward the tree line. I hunch down to line up the moonlight with the horizon. I see a silhouette laying there, and know right way, it’s her.
The ryegrass crunches under my socked feet. She doesn’t move as I get closer. She’s barely alive when I kneel beside her. Her feet are stretched out; head thrown back. Mr. Crawford told me this might happen soon. Her body is not as warm as usual, her belly is rising and falling, peacefully, slowly. I place my hand on her forehead and rub my thumb on the knot in-between her eyes. I swat a fly away from her open mouth. Her yellow eye meets my green eyes. Beechie’s mouth opens wider. I hear her breathing change and I begin to stroke her neck. She lets out one more breath and closes her eye. I gently close her mouth.
I stand up and survey the field and the darkness beyond the tree line. My shoeless feet plop through the dry and prickly grass once more. Inside the cabin, a fire glows inside the iron stove, and I can smell the faint yet tender aroma of warm birria.