I. Mister Tinn
There is a constant thirst in this late September air, at least three degrees of distress waiting to undress my poor pecan branches. Their season may be ruined, Mister Tinn, but there is still time. This is not your problem, of course. Come with me, I will tell you about the Gleason boys.
If you look over there, in front of that buckled cowshed, you will see the three boys I taught to shoot pheasants with their father’s Ithaca back in ‘78. Oh, Lord, those were cleaner days, were they not? Not easier, but cleaner. That was back when you could extend a hand and not have it bitten. The boys were still respectful, and sometimes they even listened to me. Not anymore. They turned out to be conscientious shooters then, and now, contentious brothers. Just like their grandfather, Mister Jeremiah. Rotting fruit falls from that particular tree, forgive me for saying.
They are all grown men now, of course, but I still think of them as boys. Wallace, who is seated on that pretty blue roan, was the runt of the litter, and he never learned how to be anything but mean. He is probably the best marksman of the three and, I think, someone who warrants close attention.
Notice they do not acknowledge one another as they fall into their routine. They check the batteries in their flashlights, adjust their reins, examine their watches. Their rifles are holstered, canteen caps are tightened, tobacco tins secured in shirt pockets. They are ready for the long hunt, but they do not speak, not even to offer each other luck. Now watch how Wallace falls in behind his younger brothers. I wonder how much he thinks about that, if it is a conscious consideration. I have never been able to read his face, even when he was a boy.
If you glance over to the southwest field, you will see we have planted almost three hundred acres of sorghum this year. It is a blessing that it still thrives in spite of this drought. Beyond that field, there is a river, but not the one you may be considering. The little river I speak of is the Río de Caballos Perdidos — the River of Lost Horses — and it is now almost a dry bed, barely viable even as a watering pond for the livestock. The illegals cross there at night, you know, and they bring their entire families with them: their grandmothers and cousins and sometimes even their sweethearts. Some have chosen this homestead as their destination, but most will avoid it. They know of Mister Jeremiah’s reputation. According to him, they trespass inside the fence line out of spite; they build their fires and leave their trash where it falls. Most of the time, they will cut around the field to the adjacent dirt roads, and then disappear. Sometimes bad things happen to them. No, I cannot say, that would just be repeating the rumors of the supper table. But they know they are not welcome here. Unfortunately, that is the life of the exiles.
You may think you are familiar with how much Mister Jeremiah dislikes them, but you do not know the depth of his discordance. Everything in the world that is wrong, he would tell you, it is wrong because of them. He can barely tolerate me, and I have been here for over thirty-five years. I came here as a young married man, and now I am an old widowed man, and this is the only place on earth where I wish to one day be buried. If he tolerates me, then it is with much equanimity that I tolerate him.
Have you ever seen a field filled with cicadas, Mister Tinn? They are a blur of motion, not just a gathering of insects, but a singular scheme, indiscriminate and erosive. And the sound? A grinding, claustrophobic cry that follows you into your sleep. Now imagine seeing such a thing of humanity cross that same field of sorghum. That is Mister Jeremiah’s fear, that relentless gathering. No wonder he sends out his hunting parties every month, to calm that surge.
A man like me, who does his job quietly, who tends to his orchard carefully and successfully, a man who stays out of the way when conversation turns serious and perhaps a bit dangerous, he is a man who can be trusted. Not for his character, no, but for his discretion. He develops a blindness to certain things. But am I blind, Mister Tinn? I can tell you what I see before me: the three boys I came to love back in ’78, and who have since probably forgotten my name. I am just the orchard keeper now. That is all I am to everyone here but my few close friends who are not nearly as well sighted as I. Thirty-five years as the trusted, unremarkable orchard keeper. Do I tell you what I know? I value my throat more than I value those boys, though that was not always how I felt. You understand if I remain cautious and bitterly silent.
And if you will excuse me, sir, my pecans are still distressed and I need to tend to them while there is still time. I must go back to being unremarkable.\
I heard rifle shots last night, Adella, and I am almost certain it was not a dream. Almost, I hear you say, and I imagine you raise your eyebrows. You think I dream of trouble too much. I can almost see your pretty brown eyes, but it is all from memory. I wish I could forget everything but you.
No. I will not be sad, you would not want that, and I still value our nightly conversations.
Yes, I am certain the shots were real, and they were close. I could hear the nervousness of the horses in the paddock. Yes, my sweetheart, I still have his cuff link in my saddlebag.
III. The River of Lost Horses
Above your altar, Padre: “Come with me, ye unwanted child, and I will give you refuge from your beggar’s heart.”
I do not recall that as scripture, though it has been many years since I stepped inside your church. You must be weary of that excuse; at least you have been spared from the worst of my hypocrisy. Did you write that little homily, because it is striking and it is artless. No, I am not making fun. Those are damaged words from a plaster saint. There is no refuge here, and no one is offering it. How do you not know that?
These are the words that are spoken and true: blood and soil. That is who we are. What more is there to man? Guilt? Yes, we can add that to the list, I think, if it even exists. This is our natural pathology. Faith does not come naturally, and neither do gold cuff links.
Would you like to see it? It has a small diamond in the center.
I have held onto this for over thirty years. I suppose it could be considered theft, since it was not mine, but I have earned it. I found it under my bed the morning of my wife’s death. I saw its match two weeks later in the shallow silt of the Río de Caballos Perdidos. It was near the boot of Wallace Gleason, a 12-year-old boy. His grandfather accused the boy of theft and demanded both cuffs be returned. Of course they did not find the second one. I have kept it hidden and safe. The boy may still be looking, and I am almost sorry for him.
Why have I not spoken of this before? Who would trust my word over that of the esteemed Mister Jeremiah? It is pointless, and it is my sin I came here to confess, not his.
Father, you see, she was a kind of elevation for me, of kindness and elation, simplicity of character, but not simple with her thoughts. Wrong was never right, bad was never good, and she, with a clarity of spirit, an airiness of poise and surety, had suddenly passed from this life. Of course I was devoted, never let that be vague. When I went to wake her that morning, I knew something was gone. The water glass on her bedside table was untouched, her hair was unmussed by her typically restless rest, there was a dullness to her skin, as if undusted by the prickly morning light. How did this happen, how could this happen? She was young, and now gone. The world would mourn her, I thought. Surely grief would shade every corner of this land. But no. The day moved on, lives continued, conversations progressed from where they were left off. I fell to my knees when she was removed from the bed, and the fall bruised my shins, I fell that hard. When the sheet covered her face, I thought of that same sheet fluttering on the clothesline days before, her hands pulling the wet cloth across the line, fastening it with wooden pegs, days before. And I wanted to hide inside myself, or under the bed, in a small knot, and then I saw it, so out of place in this simple, private space. This fancy little thing would pay my salary for a year. There was never a question of who it belonged to, but why was it here? Oh, Father, I could tell you what I thought then, but I think you, of common sense, would know. For mercy’s sake I cannot say. I did not need further evidence, or corroborating statements from witnesses, or whatever they would serve me in the name of the law and to soothe my aching, praying knees. I knew who committed this sin against her, against us.
And I said nothing. And I did nothing.
I did not weep and he did not stammer when he asked me to accompany him to the river. He, his grandson, his ranch manager — a man named Doyle — and I, and I have no idea why he asked me to go. It was under the pretense of soil samples and irrigation, but I don’t recall any samples being taken, any measurements being jotted down. We all stared at the river and walked east and west, and swatted at horseflies and yellow-jackets. He did not mention Adella by name, only mumbled something about regret and age. We both saw the cuff link in the river mud, and he showed some alarm. That may have been a trick of the light, a bit of sunshine reflecting from the current.
What could I do? What could I say, Father? I am ashamed of my dishonor, I was a coward. Yes. Yes to all of it. I only knew what I knew, and felt what I felt. I was nothing to him, and I did not have the words to convict him.
These are the words that are still spoken and true: blood and soil
IV. Over the Bristlegrass
There is talk of invaders crossing the river soon. Not the river you may be considering, but the small one beyond the fence-line. The lost one. I have seen these people cross the river, and they are not the hordes of marauders and thieves and murderers someone may have claimed. They are fathers lifting their children over the bristlegrass, mothers stumbling over river rocks as they carry the last dry blanket in their arms. They are grandmothers with eyes as large as fear, they are uncles and cousins and sisters and brothers, and they are desperate and sunburned, thirsty and burdened, and mostly exhausted by the fear sickness in their bellies. Let them come forward, I say.
I have walked Mister Jeremiah to his grave and I have seen others pass by his dirt and spit a bullet of chaw on his stone. His hate did not carry him to glory. And now, for now, the hunting parties have stopped.
His two youngest grandsons run this farm now, and they are as ruined in reputation as he. Young Wallace disappeared after Mister Jeremiah died, and no one can say where he is, but I do not think anyone has offered to look. Perhaps he is still looking for that lost cuff link. I dropped that thing in the old man’s coffin before lid was finally shut.
I cannot say the Gleason boys will pay a decent wage, but they will not be pointing their shotguns at the fence line. They are tired, too. I will share what I can, and I will teach the ways of the orchard to anyone who wants to learn. My pecan trees will listen if you know how to speak to them, and I know their language well. I have been the orchard keeper here for almost forty years.
Let them come forward, I say.