They called it the summer of bereavement.
To the winter-weary people of Mill End, it seemed the barren season would never end, for the ice and cold had settled not only over the land, but into the very marrow of their bones. Darkness came early to the sleepy northern hamlet, yet the hours of daylight stretched on interminably. Outside, the snow lay like frosting spread in clumsy haste over a cake. In great camel humps, it choked the roads and barricaded doors and first-floor windows. Inside, the people sat and counted the hours to a respectable bed time.
Yet, despite their declarations to the contrary, winter in it’s time yielded to spring and the greening of the land. Each day the snow ceded more ground to the fertile earth. And each day the farmers — the audacious vanguard of Mill End — ventured a little further afield, cataloguing the atrocities committed by Jack Frost. And each evening they came home muttering, bewildered.
Spring came, but it was as if the trees remained frozen. The brush that littered the forest floor erupted into an ocean of glowing green-yellow buds. The wind tousled the spindly limbs of the pricker bushes, kicking up a delicate leafy spindrift. But up above in the tree line, all remained barren.
Dugan stood upon the hillock that marked the high-point of his land and looked despondently upon the blasted landscape. The wind whistled peevishly as it raced across the fields. It was a noise, like nails on a chalkboard, that set the nerves on edge. Of all the people in the world, thought Dugan, it should have been the farmers who understood the delicate balance of the natural world, the domino effect of excess or deficiency in the elements. Too much rain set the crops to rotting in the field. And then followed poverty and hunger and increased hostilities between husband and wife, between friends and neighbors.
Yet, when the trees had failed to leaf out, the farmers collectively shrugged their shoulders. It was a peculiarity to be sure, but peculiarity was a hard thing to gauge when you worked the land. Mother Nature was a mercurial mistress. Change was the only constant. Crises came and passed like the seasons, but man survived. It meant no apples come the fall, but there were still other crops. Privation was another constant.
Dugan’s heavy-lidded eyes narrowed at the row of trees that topped the neighboring hill. We’ve grown complacent. Too accustomed to risk. It’s made us numb. He snorted at the dark irony of this sentiment. A sudden gust of wind came moaning up the valley and set the barren tree limbs to creaking.
There was a certain patrician grace to the gnarled bone-like limbs of the barren trees. They were like old men who’d died in their sleep: regal in their repose, their age-worried features solemn and relaxed.
Would the residents of Mill End could relax. But their sleepy time-forgotten agrarian town had become like a purgatory sprung from the imagination of Dantes. Without the leaves to impede its helter-skelter pace, the wind raced up and down the valley, kicking up whirling dust storm dervishes upon the sun-scorched fields. Without the leaves there was no shade to give to tender seedlings respite from the beating noonday sun. Mill End was a patchwork quilt of brown and black. Brown were the packed-dirt roads and fields; black were the husks of the plants that had withered and died. The people spent the day scraping through the dust, wiping a heady perfume of dirt and sweat from their brows, then retired at night to their beds and fell asleep not to the soothing lullaby played by the whispering sigh of the wind as it caressed the leaves, but the shrieking laugh of the ever-blowing wind.
Behind him, Dugan heard the heavy plod of work boots clumping through the dust.
“You ought to save your energy, Ed. You know perfectly well I haven’t got your money. How could I?”
Dugan’s arm traced the outline of the barren fields laid out before him. The other man scoffed dismissively.
“You signed a loan, Doug. Agreed to make regular repayments. Shouldn’t have done that if you couldn’t expect to repay it. Should have planned for the hard times and set aside something to survive on.”
“Ed, if I could have done that I wouldn’t have needed the loan in the first place.”
“You think you’re the only one suffering, Doug? Would you have built this farm if it weren’t for the money I lent you? Would anyone in this valley have? I took just as much a risk as you did in tying your survival to the land. And I’m as hard up as you. My income’s dried up just the same. And even if I had the money I ought to, what could I use it for? There’s no food in the store, anyway.”
Dugan turned to look at the banker. He wore slacks and a button-down. They were deeply-creased from long use. Sand and dirt filled the creases. It formed dirty-blonde streaks in his black hair. Water had become a precious commodity; the reservoirs drew down quickly what with the sun beating down on them all day and the frequent watering the farmers futilely applied to their dying crops. There was little to waste on laundry and bathing.
He blinked to try and clear the film of dust from his eyes and shrugged.
“Seems to me there’s truth in both our positions, Ed. But what’s to be done?”
Ed kicked at the dirt with the heel of his boot, carving a divot into the dry land.
“You know what’s got to be done,” he muttered to the dead clump of grass at his feet. It crumbled easily into dust under his heel.
“Reckon I do.”
Dugan sighed and looked down at his empty fields.
“Isn’t much work for the harvester, anyway. When can I expect the repo men?”
“Listen, Doug, I’d like to think I’m a reasonable man. You got anything else of any value? I’d be open to taking that instead. Money’s money. I don’t much care in what form it comes.”
Dugan froze. Annabel’s silver.
“How long have I got to decide?” he asked.
“To the end of the week.”
Three days. The number shook him. He remembered another man who’d rendered a similar judgment.
“How long’s she got doctor?” Dugan had asked, his eyes fixed unblinkingly upon the prostrate figure of his wife in her sickbed.
“If she’s lucky, she might last the week.” the doctor had replied.
The roiling feeling that churned through Dugan’s gut at the banker’s statement was the same he’d experienced when he heard the doctor’s verdict.
Annabel’s silver would settle the debt he owed, but at what cost? It was the last memento he had of her, just as it had been her last memento of times her family had been more prosperous. His last link to the life they’d shared. She’d heaped her love upon that silver, polishing it near every day, talking all the while she did, reminiscing about the dinner parties her grandmother had hosted.
The day they’d got married, he’d brought her up to the same spot on which he now stood.
“All you see in the valley is ours. There’s a bounty here, ripe for the picking. I’ll make a queen of you, Ann, just you wait and see.”
She’d smiled indulgently, but said nothing. There was a skeptic light in her eyes. It had proven right in time. Try as he might, Dugan was only ever to eke just enough to pay off last season’s debts and buy the seeds for the next harvest. But Annabel had laughed through the hard times, always a song on her lips as she flitted about the house cleaning and cooking and sewing.
Now, the house stood silent, punctuated by the creaking of the old timbers in the frame. And the silver sat in its case, tarnished and spotted.
Dugan turned back towards the banker.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Look, Doug, I wish there was another way. Believe me, it’d be better for both of us.”
“I know, Ed. I know it’s not personal. But it is. For all of us. It’s a matter of pride.”
Night came, but it dispelled none of the heat of the day, in the land or its denizens. The wind continued to rush up and down the valley, carrying with it the dusty topsoil that the land wore like an overcoat. It flung these particles in the faces of the men who ventured out. The tiny particles stung the cheek like a knife blow; they burned the throat like acid and drew from those who wandered the street a cacophonous chorus of choking and coughing.
But Dugan found this preferable to another lonely night in the dark, drafty emptiness of his parlor. He couldn’t afford the meager stew of beef and last season’s potatoes the pub served every night, but he couldn’t muster the strength to peer into his empty cupboards, to listen to the rattle of pots bounce from wall to wall. He couldn’t bear to stand before the hard, scrutinizing gleam of the silver reflecting the firelight. It seemed the earthy brown of Annabel’s eyes was reflected in the shameful mottling on the silver. And it was no soft, indulgent light contained there, but a harsh and judgment mental one. It conveyed a single thought: You’ve failed, Douglas.
So, he walked the mile to the pub, pulling his collar tight against his chin as a defense against the gritty, sandy air. It was a depressed and depressing scene. The lights were dim; the tables sparsely populated. There were no glances raised in cheerful greeting as the rusty hinges made the squealing announcement of a newcomer. Even old Joe Collins, the long-serving bar man, didn’t pause in his wiping of the pint glasses to acknowledge Dugan’s arrival.
“Usual?” he muttered at Dugan as he plopped down on a bar stool.
“Yeah.” Dugan grunted back.
Dugan looked over at a bundle of rags slumped over in the corner.
The bundle of rags shifted, and two blood-shot eyes appeared. They were lucid eyes; it was exhaustion, not liquor, that caused the bleary-eyed blinking.
“Evening Doug.” the man returned.
“Any more clues?”
The bundle of rags slumped back in on itself.
“Damned if I know, Doug. I’ve run every chemical test I can think of on those blasted trees. Got to be some kind of blight, some kind of disruption to the ferrous cycle. That would make the most sense. But I can’t make heads nor tails of what caused it.” came the muffled reply.
Dugan crooked a finger at old Joe Collins and directed the barman to get Nolan a drink. The man looked as if he could use it, and a good few more besides. Since the spring, Nolan, the soil specialist up at the college co-op, had been working virtually nonstop to unravel the mystery behind the dormancy of the trees.
“Ours is not to wonder why. Ours is but to do or die.” Dugan muttered.
The scientist snorted.
“Aye. Seems that way sometimes.”
“I heard someone say it might be something from space. Like maybe a meteor came and shook up all the soil. Left some weird element behind.”
Nolan shrugged into his drink.
“Could be. Could be ‘most anything, seeing as we don’t have any evidence one way or another.”
“You men of science. Ever think the reason you can’t find any evidence is because there isn’t any in the first place?”
From the hiss that erupted from Nolan’s suddenly-curled lips, Dugan could tell this wasn’t the first time tonight Cameron Ross had made a nuisance of himself. Nolan whirled round in his chair, his back suddenly a steel rod, tempered with rage. His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“You know, Cameron, I hadn’t thought of that. Must be all those years of scientific training, blinding me to plain ol’ folk wisdom like that. Do go on, Cam. Shower us with your wisdom that this crisis might sooner pass.”
Cam sniffed, forcefully. His nose was red and raw, as much from exposure as the drink. No comprehension of the other man’s snark shone in his watery brown eyes. He took a long swig of his drink, neither meeting nor avoiding the gaze of the two men seated at the bar. Dugan had witnessed a lecturer do the same thing once: dawdling and playing with time until he had the whole audience’s attention. Not for the first time, Dugan wondered whether Cameron Ross was a lot more than he seemed, whether there was a cunning mind disguised beneath the mask of a sloppy drunk.
Cameron sniffed again, as if to punctuate the silence.
“Divine judgment. That’s what it is. Land’s angry, when men like that,” he whipped his head round to where the banker sat alone in the corner booth, “can make a living exploiting us who work the land. We understand it. Respect. He don’t care at all, long as his safe is full of our money.”
“Easy, Cameron. He’s just trying to make a living. Same as the rest of us.” Dugan cautioned.
“By sucking the life out of his fellow men? I heard tell from old Frankie he was up at your place today. And he was at mine the day before. And Frankie’s the day before that. Threatening to take away our property. The tools we need to make a living. To pay him back. Someone ought to teach him a lesson.”
Cameron’s knuckles were white around the pint glass in his hands. Nolan snorted.
“That wasn’t your attitude when you went to him for the money to buy that new barn of yours, was it? And remind me how the old one burned down? Something about engine oil, old rags and a cigarette spark wasn’t it? You’re a slob, Cam. You’ve got no respect for the land. How can you expect to get anything out of it? But Ed leant you the money just the same, despite all your bumbling failures, didn’t he? So who’s the real leech around here?”
“You blaming the trees dyin’ on me? This ain’t my fault. Yet, I’m paying for it.” Cameron roared.
It wasn’t the volume of his voice that rang in the dingy space of the bar, but the tone. A dozen pairs of bleary, wrinkled eyes turned to the spot where Cameron stood. He paused a moment, his nostrils flaring in time with the rapid rising and falling of his chest, and then threw his glass at the dark outline of the banker’s profile in the shadowy back booth in the corner. The glass fell well short of its target and dashed itself against the flagstone floor. The banker didn’t bat an eyelash. He took a sip of his drink, delicately placed it upon the oaken table and folded his hands before him.
“Right, that’s you cut off.” old Joe Collins growled.
He rolled up his sleeves and came lumbering around the bar, the muscles of his arms taut as those on a man several decades his junior. He hooked a finger beneath the collar of Cameron’s overcoat and dragged him towards the door.
“You don’t come back here ’til you’ve got the money to pay for the drink, the glass and the wages of the boy who’s got to waste his time cleanin’ up after your mess.” he called out into the night.
An uncomfortable silence settled over the bar. Most of the eyes in the room were still fixed upon where the banker sat, unobtrusive and silent in the corner. Rage gleamed in more than a few of them.
The banker downed his drink and reached round the table to grab his hat from the hook on the adjacent wall. He stood up, tried unsuccessfully to brush away some of the wrinkles from his suit and took a few long, casual strides into the center of the room.
“Any of you share that sentiment?” he asked the crowd.
His question was met with silence.
“Good. ’Cause I don’t take any pleasure in this particular part of the job. We’re a community. The whole thrives only when the individual parts thrive. Your misfortune doesn’t work in my favor. But I can’t help the banking laws. You all gave your word when you signed your loans. I’m open to taking repayment in whatever form you can spare. That’s a personal kindness from me to you. I hope you all keep this in mind. Good evening, gentleman.”
He tilted the brim of his hat politely as he dropped it upon his head and strode out into the night.
Old Joe shut the door behind him and stood, his bulky arms crossed menacingly across his chest, barring it.
“Now, I’ve known you all for a good many years. So I hope you take this warning in the spirit of friendship in which it’s offered. If there’s any violence in this town, tonight or any other after you’ve come drinking in here, you’ll have me to answer to. I’ll not be drawn into any hot-headed foolishness that occurs because you’ve come in here and filled yourselves with liquid courage. If you ain’t got the nerve to take your troubles up with the man face to face, you’d best hang your heads in shame at any thought of any underhandedness. You think on those words, the lot of you. Consider it final call for the evening.”
The barman stood beside the door as they all shuffled out. He grunted the name of each man as a parting shot. He let out a long sigh as he closed the door on the last of the men.
Dugan and Nolan remained at the bar.
“You know, you two best be headed home as well. A good night’s rest is what you need Nolan. You’ve got a wife to go home to. There’s a lot more comfort to be found there than in the bottom of a pint glass.”
“Reckon you’re right, Joe.” the scientist sighed.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few crumpled bills. The barman held up a palm in protest.
“Solve this. That’ll be payment enough.”
Nolan nodded his thanks and took one last swig of his drink.
“I’m much indebted to you, Joe.”
He rose, unsteadily, and began to shuffle towards the door; it was exhaustion rather than drink that made him waver beneath his own weight.
With his hand on the door handle, he turned back to the barman.
“You’ve seen a good spell of things in your time, Joe. Anything like this ever happen before?”
“No, not like this. There’ve been iron deficiencies in the soil before. Too much clay washed up from the river banks when it flooded in the thaw. Turned the leaves kind of anemic and sickly. Made the crops pretty poor for a few years. But the leaves still came.”
“Aye. That’s in accord with the records up at the university.”
His voice was forlorn and hopeless. It seemed to the two men left at the bar that the banging of the door as it closed in its frame behind him resonated with the same despair.
“You ought to follow his lead.” Joe said to Dugan as he began to clear the glasses from the tables.
“I just couldn’t face it, Joe. The silence. It was like Cameron said. Ed was up at my place earlier. Said he’d be round tomorrow to collect on the debt I’ve defaulted on. Said he needn’t take the harvester if I’ve got anything else of value. Which is all very well and good, but the only thing I’ve got is Annabel’s silver.”
“Ah. And you’re wondering whether giving that up would amount to a personal betrayal?”
“That’s about the sum of it.”
“Well, you’ve got to answer to your own conscience, Doug, but I reckon if she were here, she’d tell you to sell and not give it a second thought. She was a practical woman was your Annabel, despite her rich family upbringing. Seems to me she was concerned more with the value of things than the things themselves.”
“Aye, that she was, Joe. But she put such work into the keeping of that silver. Took such pride in it. Just as I do in keeping the land, and just as you did. It’d break my heart to have to sell my farm. It’s a part of me. Seems that silver was much the same for her. Aren’t I selling a piece of her soul if I give it over to the bank man?”
“Maybe so. But is that the way she would have seen it? Seems to me if you want to honor her memory, you’ve got to look at things from her perspective instead of projecting yours onto the situation.”
“Aye. Reckon you’re right again, Joe. Reckon I ought to take your advice and go home and sleep on it.”
“Glad you’re still listenin’ to your senses, Doug. Not enough of that goin’ round these days.”
Dugan grimaced as he slid from the bar stool.
“How long you think the tension’ll hold?”
The bar man’s sigh was accentuated by the swishing of the broom stalks over the floor.
“Don’t know, Doug. Something’s gotta give soon. It’s always the way. Too many men without enough sense to see action for the sake of action won’t solve anything.”
Dugan awoke the next morning to the harsh glare of the sun’s rays blinking an urgent Morse code message in the bureau mirror. He grumbled and struggled against the covers to roll over and see the clock. It was late, nearing nine o’clock. Another effect of the tree death: the early morning chirping and twittering of the birds in the trees — the alarm clock nature had gifted to the farmer — was absent. The winged things had up and fled to greener pastures.
Dugan stumbled from the bed and through his morning routine. It was as if his body was running on automatic, leaving his mind free to think of greater things than the mechanics of dressing and breakfast-making. Sometimes, when he was out working the land, he’d point the wheels of the great combine harvester straight along the long field rows that ran as an endless highway to the horizon and set the guidance system to automatic. Then he could sit back and contemplate the beauty of the land as it rolled by the windows of the tractor cab.
But this morning his sight was turned inward. It made it easier to keep his eyes away from where the silver sat in its cabinet, gleaming in the early morning brightness with an accusatory light.
As he was clearing away the breakfast dishes, Dugan heard a rapping on the front door. It was a heavy, even staccato noise. It seemed to Dugan a metronome against which to measure the sudden pounding of his heart. He stood in the front hallway, hearing the booming pulse of his blood ringing in his ears, staring at the door. The voice of Annabel rushed suddenly at him from out of the cool stillness in the still-waking house.
“Why delay in a thing that gives you worry? You only prolong your torment. Best to accept the challenge that the thing may be done and you may know yourself better.”
Dugan sighed and stepped quickly towards the door. He felt the cold metal of the knob beneath the flesh of his palm; it conveyed strength. It seemed to radiate up his arm and provide the pulsating shock his muscles needed to open the door.
Ed Norland stood on the front stoop; a pair of stocky men in rumpled denim jumpsuits flanked him. The repo men.
“Morning, gentlemen.” Dugan said.
He nodded at the trio on his stoop. The banker returned the greeting with a grim-lipped smile. The repo men just stared straight ahead, their eyes expressionless. They reminded Ed’s of the crows that patrolled the perimeters of the wilting fields, searching for any scrap of life they could find to pick clean. It was always the way, in the worlds of animals and men, that the feeders on death were the last to flee. So it was with the glossy-eyed crows. Mill End’s time of bereavement was their time of abundance. Many things lay dying. And for the crows, this was a time of feasting. But there was something about their eyes: the black glossy marbles of their eyes. They were dead and expressionless, as if, in feeding upon the dead they killed something of themselves. Dugan wondered if it was the same for the repo men; he hoped this was the case. It made their carrion role more redeemable.
“Come in. There’s coffee in the kitchen, if you’d like.”
“Thanks, Doug. We’re much obliged.” Ed replied.
And there was a hint of genuine gratitude in his voice. Doug wondered at the reception he was used to.
Dugan dragged his heels in making the coffee, taking longer than necessary to stir in the cream and sugar that was requested. But the time came, too soon, when the coffee was on the table and he could delay no longer. Ed, whose gaze was conspicuously directed at the grain of the tabletop and away from the possessions displayed about the house, cleared his throat.
“Have you made up your mind, Doug?”
Dugan had not made up his mind. His whole insides convulsed as he replied.
“There’s a whole silver service in the cabinet. Would that cover the cost?”
One of the repo men rose and walked over to the cabinet. He stood a moment scanning its contents then made a low grunting noise in his throat.
“Needs polishing, but it’ll do.” he said in a low monotone.
“Is that your wish, Doug? Surrender the silver instead of the harvester? It’ll cover the rest of your loan. The harvester will be yours.” Ed said, his voice gentle.
Dugan felt his insides deflate. What was that line from Dumas? All human wisdom is contained in these two words: Wait and Hope. It was what Ed was offering. God willing, a swift end to this crisis, a season or two of bounty. And he could thrive. And buy back the silver.
“Yes.” Dugan whispered.
Dugan had left the repo men to do the work of packing the silver. He felt as if time was collapsing in on itself. With each greasy fingerprint the workmen pressed upon the silver, another bit of Annabel’s meticulous work was undone. It seemed his memory of their life was being obscured beneath a hazy film of oil and dirt. He had to get out, to feel the power in his leg muscles propelling him forward into space, to know he retained some sort of control.
He didn’t look at the landscape all around: the dried-up mud-flat that had been the farm’s pond, the dusty canyon between the stone retaining walls where the clover and honeysuckle bunched in greener years. And he most especially did not look at the horror-film copse at the top of the ridge, all peeling bark and brambles, where once he’d run with wild abandon as a child, shrieking and laughing as the village children darted between the tree trunks in their massive game of hide-and-seek.
He was rounding a corner by the old oak tree when Cameron Ross stepped out from behind the massive trunk. Dugan nearly jumped from his skin. Cameron was backlit by the blaring noonday sun: a wraith-like study of a figure in black. He clenched a paper-bag shrouded bottle in one gnarled fist.
“Saw that vulture and his lackeys carryin’ great big boxes out of your house this morning, Dugan. Ready to come ‘round to my way of thinkin’, yet?” Cameron slurred.
“You’re drunk, Cam. Go home.”
“Jesus, man, have you no pride? They’re robbin’ you blind and you’ve got no heat in your blood about it?”
“You know, Cam, if you’d put the bottle down long enough to clear your head and think straight, you’d see the truth of it. We all made promises to the bank, promises we can’t keep as it turns out. Was a day you understood the meaning of a man’s word as a bond. Ed’s doing as much of a kindness as he can for those of us who can cooperate. Kind of neighborliness that makes even a hardship kinder.”
Cameron threw his head back and roared with laughter. He threw his arms open, palms turned up to the sky.
“Listen to the wise man preach!” his voice boomed across the dead and empty landscape. “He walks off with your property and you call it a kindness? Do you hear yourself? By God, they’ve got you dancing to their tune.”
“Something’s got to be done. That man needs to face justice. He’s a leech. A no-good, blood-sucking leech. He’s stealing what’s ours. And he’s got you so twisted you’re defending it. You’re not a man anymore, Doug. Do you here? Your father’d be ashamed of you. Where’s your pride? Huh? Should be in the land? That’s all we farmers’ve got. And that’s what they’re takin’ from us. Someone’s got to put an end to it.” Cameron snarled.
Dugan stepped forward and took Cameron by the collar.
“It’s your mind that’s twisted, Cameron Ross. And your bile’s tolerated in this town only because we all know how your daddy abused you and your ma growing up. But if there’s any trouble — if there’s even a whispered rumor of trouble — that patience will come to an end. Go home, Cam. Sleep it off.”
He shoved the drunk man back roughly; Cameron stumbled back against the boundary of the rock wall.
“War’s coming, Doug. And there’s nothin’ you and I can do about it. It’s in the air. I know you can feel it. Just you make sure which side you’re on when it gets here.”
Dugan hightailed it back to the farm, hopped in his battered pickup truck and drove straight to town. The urgency of the moment was worth the expense of burning the fuel. Cameron was right about one thing; war was coming. Too many men hot and frustrated and unable to find relief for too long. It buzzed in the air alongside the humidity. Dugan just hoped there was something that could be done about it.
The sheriff’s office was shuttered and dark, but the air within it was stale and sticky. The sheriff was out somewhere in the county.
“Reports of poaching.” the deputy barked by way of explanation.
Dugan’s look of skepticism was met with indifference by the deputy. The lawman knew this wasn’t a plausible tale. There was nothing left to poach; the woods were barren and the animals had left to find food elsewhere. But the look he shot the farmer dared him to question it. He was comfortable in the mantle of authority.
“Just tell him I called, would you? There’s trouble brewing. I think Ed Norland might be in danger. There’s a lot of pent-up resentment being directed at him.”
The deputy shrugged.
“Then maybe Mr. Norland ought to reconsider his actions, avoid doing things that provoke his brethren.”
Dugan remembered suddenly the deputy’s brother had had his tractor repossessed a few weeks back.
“Remind me, Deputy Loman, the law you swore to uphold, it champion reason or petty emotions like revenge?”
The deputy leaned forward in his chair.
“A man’s got a right to defend what’s his.” he growled.
“That include a man’s life?”
“Sure. Unless he’s done something against another. If he ain’t got no respect for others, why should he get any respect? Or has all that scraping in the dirt made you forget about the golden rule?” the deputy sneered.
Dugan felt the blood turn to ice in his veins. His instinct, honed by decades spent interpreting the secret language of the land, shouted a warning to him that there was conspiracy here. He turned on his heels and jumped back in his truck. The dusty packed-earth farm tracks sent a billowing plume up into the air as he raced into town, like a herald announcing his presence. The silty grit of the desiccated soil was so light it hovered in the air, slowly diffusing on the limpid breeze that moved lackadaisically, like a man dizzy and exhausted from the heat, over the land. It gave to the sky the same dingy brown tint as the shriveled-up fields.
As Dugan rolled into the bank parking lot, he noticed a crowd gathered in the woody boneyard of what had once been a meticulously landscaped garden bed. They were simultaneously shifty and listless, huddled together as from their proximity they drew strength, a vampiric hive mind. They turned and watched Dugan as he hurried across the asphalt and up the bank’s front steps, each face a mirror reflection of the one to either side of it:
“All of you should go home. Is standing here making your predicament any better?” Duncan growled at the throng as he passed.
“Is having our homes raided by that vulture making anything better?” a voice from the back of the crowd called.
“He’s doing his job in a hard time. Which is more than can be said for you. Fate dealt us a bad hand. So what? The smart man figures out how to make the most of it. All you people are doing is making things worse. The damage to the land will heal in time, but can you say the same about the damage you’re doing to the community?”
Dugan didn’t wait to see whether his words had any impact on the gathered crowd. Standing before all those pairs of dull, glossy eyes he felt as if he were shouting futilely into a great vacuum of nothingness. But it didn’t much matter; it wasn’t for their sake he was speaking. It was for his own. He felt like Sisyphus: the great weight of the hot, immovable air pressing down on his chest. He had to relieve the pressure; he had to give voice to the truths he saw before him, which everyone else seemed so inexplicably blind to.
The interior of the bank was as hot as the street outside. Air conditioning, always a luxury, had become an even greater extravagance. The unrelenting heat of the sun, which knew no refuge from shade or breeze, was too much for the electrical grid. Brownouts were regular; an emergency session of the town council had enforced a strict ban on energy use during the heat of the day.
Ed was alone in the bank office. He had pulled the curtains and sat deep in a corner where the shadows pooled. The place felt like a cave. Dugan had never liked enclosed spaces. He spent his time in grand, borderless spaces: working out in the rolling fields or in the barn, the vaulted cathedral of the farmer. It was impossible to feel limited in such an environment; the scale made one feel powerful: it only took a little care, a little sweat and the earth bended to your will. But here, with the walls pressing in: Dugan was aware of his own limitations. He felt trapped and helpless.
Ed rose and extended a hand in greeting.
“What can I do for you, Doug?” he asked; his voice was slurred and heavy. He was exhausted.
“Ed, you got to get out of town.”
“Because of a little hostility? They’re just expressing their anger. It’s their right.”
“But I don’t think it’s going to stop there, Ed."
“I’m not about to be chased away, Doug. You think they’re bad now, how much worse you think they’ll be once they’ve won?”
Dugan shrugged defeatedly.
“I suppose you’ve got a point, Ed.” he sighed.
He rubbed the heel of his palms against his eyes. The pressure felt good: it was something concrete, something measurable. Something that could be understood and addressed, unlike all the other goings on in Mill End.
Ed looked at the man standing before him, his lips pulled into a thin, grim line by worry.
“You’re running yourself ragged worrying about everyone else. How are you doing, Doug? That silver…Joe told me it belonged to your wife.”
“Suppose that’s why I’m running around worrying about everyone else’s problems. It’s easier than dealing with my own.”
“I’m sorry, Doug.”
“It’s not your fault, Ed. It’s my own. There were a lot of years where I could have worked a little harder, saved a little more. If only I’d been a little more conscientious in my youth, maybe I wouldn’t be in this position. Maybe I would have been a success, not a failure.”
“A man’s more than one action, Doug. He’s the sum of all the things he does and thinks. Don’t give up yet. You’re the best hope we have for coming through this crisis. Aren’t many people who keep their head and their beliefs in a time of crisis.”
“Thanks, Ed. You sure I can’t convince you to go out of town for a few days?”
“No, though I appreciate your concern. I’ll be fine. Things will blow over. Or not. But either way, I’m not going to run from a mob.”
The two men shook hands and Dugan left. He didn’t bother to look at the mob as he passed. There was no need; he could tell by the heat that hung in the air around them that their attitude had not changed. They were humming with nervous energy, the kind that eventually consumed itself. Only question was, would anyone be around to be consumed along with it when the time of reckoning came?
Dugan couldn’t answer this question, so he decided it was time to grapple with one he could. He went home and confronted the glaring emptiness of the display cabinet, at the empty shelves that had once housed Annabel’s silver. He sat at the dinner table, aimlessly stirring the thin stew of leftover farm scraps — potato peelings and chicken gristle and the few measly herbs that, earlier in the season, had poked their heads up inquisitively from the kitchen garden — that had been in his fridge for months now. Each day he ladled out another bowl. It was Annabel who had long ago first made a similar stew for their dinner, back in the first lean season they’d gone through. It was, she’d said with her usual dry wit, an old recipe her mother had perfected during the last world war. Dugan had come in, dusty and sore from long hours in the fields, and found Annabel laying out the pieces of the silver service, the table groaning beneath the weight. On each plate was a misshapen loaf of under-yeasted bread. As he watched, she dipped the label into the glistening soup tureen and poured it onto each plate.
“Now, isn’t that a feast?” she’s said in response to the skeptical expression on his face.
There was no silver service now, only simple earthenware from which the glaze had faded long ago. How hard, Dugan thought, she’d tried. Not like the other blue blood elites of Boston. Her family had built their fortune from nothing, lost it during the war, and built a new empire later. She’d eschewed the brick and ivy streets of Cambridge for bare boards and dusty fields. The silver had been a symbol, not of the world she’d come from, but the work that had made such a lifestyle possible. But for Dugan, it was a symbol of failure: of all he’d promised Annabel and failed to achieve.
He should, he thought bitterly, be glad to have it gone. Out of sight, out of mind, No longer able to wheedle and nag him about his failures.
“Failure is an opportunity, Doug. It’s a chance to show who you are, what you’re capable of. This crop failed, so what? Next year we’ll plant something we know will be better suited to the soil.” came Annabel’s voice whispering from behind him.
He jumped up and turned around. But there was nothing there. Only the shrill whistle of the wind racing across the wide-open expanse of the fields.
“I’m losing it.” Dugan muttered to himself. “Exhaustion. Plain and simple.”
And he lumbered up the stairs to bed.
Dugan awoke feeling completely disoriented. It took him a few moments to orient himself in the darkness. He felt as if only seconds had passed, but the clock on the bedside showed hours had passed; it was past midnight. The moon was full; it hung low over the horizon and shone with an eerie orange light, as if it too were dead and withered. As if it too was covered with the silty topsoil that blew interminably around the desiccated farm fields.
But there was another source of light too. Dugan shivered as he saw a cluster of lights blinking its way down the distant hillside. In the darkness, he couldn’t tell whether it was on his fields or out in the lane. He grabbed the phone from the bed stand and dialed the sheriff’s office. It rang three, four, five times. Dugan hung up after the tenth. He was not surprised. But he was growing increasingly alarmed. He dialed Nolan’s office up at the university.
“Please be in, Nol. Please be in.” he muttered into the darkness.
“Hello?” a gruff voice answered after a few rings.
“Nolan, it’s Doug. I think you’d better get over here. There’s a group of lights moving in the valley. I can’t reach the sheriff. I think something’s going on.”
“Right. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Doug hung the phone up, counted to three in his head and picked up the receiver again. He dialed Ed’s home. There was no answer. He dialed the bank. But, again, there was only the infinite echo of the phone ringing.
He met Nolan at the edge of his property. Nolan leapt from his truck.
“It looks like they’re headed towards the birch copse.” Dugan said.
Nolan nodded grimly and both men took off at a quick trotting pace into the darkness.
“Any luck with the sheriff?” Nolan asked.
“No. And I couldn’t get in touch with Ed either.”
“Well, could be he’s asleep.”
“Yeah. Could be.”
The flat tenor of each man’s voice betrayed neither was convinced by that explanation. They continued hurrying forward, punctuating the silence of the night with their heavy breathing. It was eerily quiet. There was no gentle cooing of birds up in the tree line because there were no leaves to shelter them. And without the leaves, there was no soothing, swishing lullaby of the wind rustling the foliage. There was only the eerie ambient soundtrack of the wind rubbing tree limbs against each other.
And, growing increasingly louder, there was the sound of voices. They had the pitch of an old-time religious revival. But there was something much more sinister in the tone. The sounds that carried from the woods weren’t the long vowels of religious worship. They were short, punctuated sounds, coming in rapid fire like a machine gun, that spoke to wild abandon and a lack of control.
Nolan and Dugan paused on the hard dirt road and exchanged a dark look. The jaundice yellow tint of the beam of Dugan’s flashlight deepened the shadows that welled in the cavities of the men’s skulls. It accentuated the grim atmosphere. Dugan shivered, though it must have been near eighty degrees, even at the late hour.
“I don’t suppose you two have come to your senses and are here to facilitate our collective redemption?” Cameron’s voice came booming from the darkness.
There was a rush of black, blacker even than the night, as a great mass plummeted to the ground before them. It righted itself and the pair found themselves confronted with Cameron’s leering grimace. His teeth flashed with the luster of diamonds in the beam of the flashlight.
“You’re either drunk or you’ve finally snapped.” Nolan snarled.
“On the contrary, I’ve never been more sober than at this moment.” Cameron replied. He turned towards Dugan. “I told you there would come a time for choosing, Doug. That moment is now. Are you with us or against us?”
“I don’t know who ‘us’ is Cam, but I’m definitely not with any group that takes you seriously.”
“Pity.” Cameron said in a voice dripping with faux sweetness.
He reached behind him and pulled a gun.
“Gentlemen, if you’d be so kind.”
He motioned Dugan and Nolan forward. The two men exchanged a look and began to walk deeper into the night.
“You care to explain what’s going on?” Nolan growled over his shoulder.
“All will be revealed in time, gentlemen. But rest assured, what happens tonight is done for the good of Mill End. We’re exorcising its demons.”
“Patience, Doug, patience.” Cameron cooed.
An uneasy silence fell between the members of the trio. Cameron began to whistle a jaunty tune; unimpeded by a leafy canopy it was carried effortlessly by the wind and mingled with the sound of chanting in the distance and the staccato crunching of forest detritus beneath the footfalls of the prisoners.
In the distance the men could see flickering orbs of torchlight. As they grew nearer, the light revealed more detail: people moving in a circle, their bodies jerking with the woodenness of each step. They moved with metronomic regularity. As they moved closer, Dougan began to recognize their chant. It was from the Latin Mass. Parce, Domine, parce populo tuone in aeternum irascaris nobis. Spare, Lord, spare your people. Be not angry with us forever. There was something inhuman about it: in the mindless repetition. The supplicants gathered in the wood did not change their intonation: their voices rose harmoniously to a wailing pitch of desperation each time they began anew, then fell to a sober, pleading sob as they finished the chant.
As they reached the edge of the clearing in which the group was gathered, Dugan began to recognize faces. The sheriff’s deputy. Johnny Jay, who owned the land next to Dugan’s. Richard Entwhistle, who worked up at the university. Mrs. Perkins, who ran the weekend farmers’ market. Of all the faces Dugan could make out through the smoke that hung thick in the clearing, he recognized about half of them. Some of them he knew had defaulted on loans from the bank. Some were just poor and desperate.
They stopped their chanting and rushed forward to greet Cameron. And as the circle fell apart, Dugan saw what stood at the center: it was Ed, lashed to a great piece of fieldstone sticking up from the ground.
“Oh, Jesus. Ed!” Dugan called out.
But there was no response from the banker. Dugan whirled around to confront Cameron.
“What have you done to him?”
“A lot less than what he’s done to us. But that will soon change. He has offended the natural order. He will be made to repent for his sins. And we shall have retribution.”
Dugan growled and lunged for Cameron. But the other man was quicker. He whacked Dugan on the back of the head with the butt of his gun then gestured to two of the chanters. They grabbed Dugan roughly and dragged him to his feet. Dugan and Nolan exchanged a look. Their expressions were a twinned gaping look of fear. As Cameron’s followers began to haul Dugan towards the stone to which Ed was lashed, Nolan stepped forward and called out.
“Listen to me, all of you. We know why the trees didn’t leaf out. It’s a disruption of the ferrous cycle.”
“You said that wasn’t possible.” a voice called out from somewhere in the crowd. Dugan recognized it as belonging to one of the men who’d been in Joe’s bar the other night.
“That was before we took the wind into account. When certain materials break down, they release iron. It’s carried as dust on the wind. But the wind patterns affecting this valley have changed in the past few years. It’s like were stuck in a vortex. They’re stuck in the bowl of the valley, blowing the same mineral-depleted dust around and around. Cam, now that we know what’s causing the problem, we can fix it. You don’t need to do this, whatever it is.”
“Au contraire, Nolan. You can’t explain why the winds suddenly shifted.”
“It’s climate, Cam. Everything’s connected. Everything’s constantly in flux.”
Cameron smiled; it was the expression of a wolf looming over its cornered prey, knowing it had full advantage of the situation. He turned to the townsfolk gathered in the woods.
“Are you satisfied by this explanation?”
There was a disapproving chorus of guttural noises giving off the general impression that they were not satisfied. No one voice was distinguishable. They were a timorous lot, answering only because it was expected of them, because each saw their neighbors behave as expected and was afraid to stand apart. They had before them an example of the fate of those who stood apart. Cameron smiled again and turned his gaze back towards Cameron.
“You see? They see right through the thin veneer of scientific reason you use to sell your worldview to the masses. But at its core, Cameron, it’s hollow. You can’t really explain the reason any of these things happen. And that’s because the true answers lie not in science but in another world.”
Cameron turned towards his followers.
“We’ve strayed. Each of you sees this. The land gives to us, as long as we give to it. We nurture the Earth and it provides. And what happens when we turn away from the Earth? When we break that sacred compact?”
He sauntered over to where Ed lay.
“What happens when we cease cultivating the land and instead take to cultivating people, as this man has done? When we take from others without any personal risk? Farming is clean. Our livelihood is tied up in the way we treat the land. But can the same be said for this man? Did he risk anything in his dealings with you?”
“No!” an indignant shout rose up from the thronged followers.
“Nonsense! Did Ed force any of you to sign the loans you took out from the bank?” Dugan called back.
Cameron gestured to the men holding Dugan. They began to beat and kick him; one reached for a bandana and stuffed it in his mouth. Dugan felt himself choking on the gritty silt impregnated in the fabric. Nolan lunged to help Dugan but was himself set upon and gagged.
“Bring them over here.” Cameron commanded.
His men complied.
“Collaborators! Men with attitudes like these pave the way for those who prey off those who work the soil, who keep nature’s covenant. They too must be expunged so that sin may be washed away and our balance with the earth can be restored.”
The men dragged them forward and heaved them upon the rock. Neither man fought their captors; neither men felt the force of their forms colliding against the fieldstone. Their consciousness had slipped away along with the oxygen deprived them when the gags were placed over their mouths and noses. And this, perhaps, was a small mercy. For they did not see the drawing of the blades that would, ultimately, end their lives. They did not hear Cameron cry out:
“So, the soil is depleted of iron. Well, there’s iron in the blood.”
Nor did they hear the roaring cheer of approval that met his words.
Winter came to Mill End once more. And the snow fell thick and heavy upon the land, a thick eiderdown cover swaddling the little town. But the snow that fell that season was not white. There was none of the idyllic purity of a Christmas card landscape in Mill End that winter. The snow was dingy and brown, every ice crystal tainted by the dust of desiccated topsoil that blew interminably around the town.
It was a mild winter, but a hard one nevertheless. It was a season that emphasized isolation, a state in which one could not help but reflect on the preceding seasons and how they had been greeted. For more than a few members of the town, this led to many sleepless nights. The furor of the moment over and away from the pressure of communal conformity, they lamented the blood upon their hands. But there could be no retribution for whatever personal sense of guilt each resident of Mill End felt was necessarily silenced as soon as he or she stepped away from home. Each put on a face of stoic calm and appeared to the rest of the town utterly unfazed by the grisly events that had passed one fated night. And each other resident strengthened their resolve to move on with their life, for fear of being called out by his neighbors. And when Old Joe and Nolan’s wife and a few other of the town elders began to question the disappearance of the three men they shrugged their shoulders. There was a lot of land out there; easy to get lost. Easy to come to harm.
Out in the clearing of the woods, the snow washed away the telltale stain upon the fieldstone. And in the woods that spring there was a great swath of green, like a stripe on the back of a skunk.