By Dylan Smith
Heirs to an abandoned house in the mountains, my two bigger brothers and I came up from the city to confront our father, the town’s retired fire chief and an unhinged, binge-drinking dead-beat of a drunk, but he was gone.
Great clouds of towering grief gathered above the gate. Our barn had burned down two winters before, and though its absence had abstracted into an empty haunting presence beyond the doors of the gate, not a lot was actually lost. A tractor, some chestnut boards; some old chains and a few chickens and some rope. It was more about the insurance money our father had collected. It was about what had not been done with it.
Flowers of wrought-iron ornamented the family gate. Both my brothers are younger than me, but by then they had grown much bigger, and so they towered like these familiar trees, always swaying beyond and above me.
In spite of their strength and their grace, my brothers failed to force the broken gate. Something about the sensor was gone—this was years ago, the family gate was always broken, and so it only shut—and that’s when we phoned the gate guy again. His work would remain a mystery to me, yet another hour’s heaving from behind those iron flowers, and he said the sensor was beyond him still.
I imagined big flowers blooming between this gate guy and me. Maybe a mountain wind would part a maple limb, I imagined, laying it loudly along the gate. Then the gate guy might yell out, fall back, and we might have rolled around together out there in the gravel, laughing, or rolling beyond the gate and into town together, becoming one big cosmic rock together, maybe fucking even, our laughter like the rain.
I would not have put it past our father to have sabotaged the family gate.
“How else can you explain his always being gone and coming back, if the doors of the gate can only shut?”
Shrugging, the gate guy suggested almost anything was possible. As the newest volunteer at our father’s old department, he’d been first to arrive when our barn was burning. I admired the lean earnestness I found in his beardless features. His eyes were a sober blue, his working hands ungloved and noticeably clean, and now our breaths made shapes together, forming foggy blossoms of the winter air.
“But it’s more likely something to do with the weather,” the gate guy said. “It’s been a long winter yet. Sometimes these sensors just freeze.”
That’s when the tallest and youngest and brightest of my brothers walked into the woods to piss. As a kid he’d suffered a serious injury to his left leg, and so he mirrored our father’s ruined gait as he went. But his head was always way up in the clouds, curious and wandering, and appreciating art, and in spite of his chronic pain, he is still sensitive to the most subtle of emotive signals and shifts. You can watch him read your changing face. Through the leafless trees you could see he was contemplating the problem with our gate.
When he returned from the wood, which had really been rocked by the wind while he was in it, my youngest brother held up a sacred-looking stick. He said it had reminded him of the walking stick our father uses; that it had nearly beat him over his head as it fell from above.
He suggested the gate guy try striking the sensor with it.
To my surprise, this worked—and as the gate guy struck the broken sensor twice, holding up the miracle stick, our family gate opened to the first moments of spring, the clouds of winter parting briefly above my brothers, whose new shadows came together as one in a hug and stretched up that treacherous hill toward our house, where through the barn’s absence I saw the windows of our childhood home were glistening—or glittering in this new, glittery light—and I was reminded of how rainbows formed from sticky-notes had filled the windows once, the paper squares bleached by decades of exposure to the sun.
The rainbows were to protect the birds from crashing in—our mother’s technique—robins coming home from wherever they winter.
But by then my brothers and I knew better than that. Our mother was dead, and her sticky-note rainbows were gone. So was the barn, and our father was a stinking drunk, and soon the gate guy would be gone with our miracle stick too.
We knew the sky would shut. Soon it would be singular and threatening and near again. We knew the way the world worked.
With an air of camaraderie and confidence in our newly formed crew—and because beyond the gate our family’s farm truck had four flat tires—the gate guy offered to take us from farm to farm in search of our father.
When on a real tear our father sought refuge inside barns, or stables, and being as it was about midday, we agreed our first stop on the way into town should be Sissy’s.
Most farmhouse wells up there stink of dead snakes and sulphur, but not Sissy’s. Sissy’s land had been graced by a spring—perfect crystal water pouring from a pipe—and so she’d crafted a covenant with the town, one allowing her water to flow for everyone, and forever, in perpetuity, like a fountain in a fable.
All along the mountain road men outside trucks shoveled gravel into holes, and my youngest brother wondered why.
“I think the holes are formed by ice heaves,” the gate guy said.
My brothers had climbed into the back of his van and were laying among the gate guy’s tools and cords; his hinges and latches and spare iron parts. The gate guy’s fire pager was mounted to the dash. When I looked up into the rear-view mirror, my middle brother was there on his stomach, holding our miracle stick and smiling.
The gate guy drove us down the mountain, past the old library building, then the place that sold beer and chips and gasoline, and past our father’s old firehouse, where all the red garage doors were shut, we came to a familiar clearing with a view of the reservoir.
Above us the wind had brought about more towering clouds, and the reservoir reflected a single windswept tone of monotony and gray beyond us. The gate guy had been explaining ice heaves; how water gets into the pores of the asphalt, then freezes, forming little wedges that break up the road.
“Do you know Sissy very well,” I asked.
“Oh, sure. I lived without plumbing for a while. Came down to her spring for my water. Saw her standing out there all the time.”
“Is she still painting?”
“I didn’t know she painted. I heard she’s getting old.”
My youngest brother told the gate guy how Sissy used to come to our school to teach us art. How we’d heard she kept dead birds in her freezer.
“Legend was that if a bird crashed into the schoolhouse window, she’d probably try to scoop it up and take it home and freeze it for her paintings of birds.”
My youngest brother loved this myth. He looked up at me in the rear-view mirror, and both of my brothers were laughing.
“One of her out-sheds has a view of the reservoir,” I said. “We haven’t seen her stuff in a while, but she used to use the out-shed as a studio. Our mother and her were close.”
The gate guy touched his fire pager in a nervous gesture that reminded me of my father, then gently turned on the van radio. A panel was discussing the previous summer’s drought. The consensus was that soon there would be no water. My youngest brother had started to ask an earnest question about our father’s replacement at the department, but before the gate guy could answer him, we’d turned onto Sissy’s road, and soon we’d arrived at her spring.
People from all over came to Sissy’s to fill their plastic jugs with water from the roadside pipe. From spring to road, the pipe had been run underground, passing under her gate, so Sissy was not disturbed by the cars idling constantly across the way.
By design you had to push open Sissy’s ancient gate. I got out of the van to do it, and through the bars I noticed Sissy’s famous maple trees were gone. There had once been a kind of grove of them protecting her old stone house from the wind and the road, and the syrup Sissy made was well known around the town. Hills of hay fields rolled up, then down to the right, and you could see her out-shed studio and the many stables, and her barn, and above the willow trees that lined her creek you could see a gray glimpse of the reservoir, and beyond the reservoir was the town.
But now, without her maple trees, you could see directly into Sissy’s old stone house.
I got back into the van and told my brothers about the missing trees. They heaved a single mournful sigh. The gate guy touched his fire pager again. The presence of these pagers had always made me anxious. My memories of childhood are haunted by the inevitable threat of their sound.
All down Sissy’s gravel drive, wooden ladders leaned against squat apple trees. We found her atop the ladder closest to the house, preparing for an afternoon of pruning. Sissy stepped down slowly off the ladder to say hello, but right away I saw the way she’d aged. It was more in her eyes than anywhere else. They were blue but bloodshot, or dulled, and kind of sagging, their edges raw and red in the wind. As she wiped her hands on a cornflower apron, nodding hello, it was clear she wasn’t sure of who we were.
“Sissy,” I said. “Our father—the fire chief—have you seen him? Our mother was April. Your old friend.”
Sissy said hadn’t seen him, our father, and then started in about the history of her spring. Both my brothers stood over her, nodding and smiling. The willow trees by the creek went bending in the wind, and the gate guy was leaning against the miracle stick.
We’d all heard the speech before, but I’d heard it a thousand times. As much a history of our mountain town as it was a history of her family and spring, her speech always started with the fact that one hundred years ago, the state had flooded her family’s farm in order to build the reservoir, moving them farther up the mountain. When the state transplanted Sissy’s family, no one knew of the spring. But Sissy’s grandfather found it, and he drilled an artesian well when Sissy was just a girl. When her parents died they left Sissy the land, and on and on, and later she’d marry an old hay farmer named Mick. Together they created a covenant with the town. Now when Sissy is gone, no matter who takes ownership of the property, the spring is to be protected.
“In perpetuity,” Sissy famously said.
But by the end of her speech, Sissy had all but forgotten we were there. This used to happen to my father when he was drinking. Sometimes he would catch a familiar rhythm, some deeply familial pattern of speech to sweep him away, or out of whatever barroom he’d trapped us in. As a teenager, I found it’s about breaking up this familiar rhythm. Once interrupted, my father could usually snap right back.
I took off my gloves and clapped into the cold wind.
“Sissy,” I said, clapping. “Sissy—what happened to your maple trees?”
“My maples. Yes, you remember my maples. The tree guy said they meant a danger to the house. All this wind, he might have been right. It happened in the autumn. The tree guy came with a crew and took them.”
“Will you show us the stumps? Will you walk us up there so we can see?”
And as our crew moved toward the old stone house, I took my middle brother by the arm of his winter coat. I told him to go looking for our father.
“Just the usual spots,” I said.
The gate guy turned, having heard me, and offered to go looking for him too.
“Good. Then I’ll try to get Sissy to take us to the out-shed.” I gestured toward my youngest brother, who was helping Sissy up the hill with his limp. “We’ll buy you guys a little time, but also I think he’d like to see Sissy’s paintings.”
“Okay. And while we’re at it we’ll check her freezer for birds.”
“Wait—no,” I said. “Man, no. Please. Don’t go into the house. Just the usual spots. Stick to around the stables and the barn.”
But my middle brother had already gone, pretending not to hear me.
Shrugging, the gate guy handed me the miracle stick.
He turned toward the wind, and with his back to me he was laughing.
Sissy’s out-shed windows made up the whole south wall, accepting as much winter light as a structure could, and like all great studios, hers had become completely encased in the remnants of her work.
I remember the last embers of a fire glowing red in a stove to the right, but everything else was blue. Three heavy tables at the center of the room held tin containers of thinners and brushes, pencils and paints, but because Sissy worked by easel, my eye was constantly brought back to her canvas at the center of the room.
Sissy seemed to paint a single motif: an oval pool of shining water in the saddle of two blue mountains. Sissy’s studio sheltered hundreds of these works. Yet each of the paintings were distinct, each canvas alive with something refreshing and totally new.
Beside the work in progress was a palette of varying blues, the paint applied so thickly that the picture had taken three-dimensions, with the mountain’s textures casting shadows down the work and falling into the shining oval shape, as if it were a carving or relief.
Sissy entered the studio behind us.
“Sissy,” my youngest brother said. “Sissy, these paintings.”
Sissy filled a glass of water in a slop sink beside the stove. Slowly she drank it, then went to a stool before the wall of windows. Black and blue clouds rolled in above the willow trees, and beyond the willow trees was the reservoir. A shining blue clarity had returned to Sissy’s eyes.
“When I was about your boys’ age, long before I met Mick, I used to hike that mountain to the fire tower with my paints. They kept the tower unlocked in those days. A few nights’ rations, a jug of water and a good bucket. All you’d ever need. And those windows. It’s where I painted best. Mick built me this studio. On good days I’m able to find my fire tower feeling in here too.”
Sissy stood, scanning a shelf of art books against the left wall. Then her eyes fell across the closest work table, where from the materials of her art she lifted a bottle-sized hourglass.
The studio windows shook. The sand inside the hourglass was black.
“Your mother gave me this hourglass as a gift after Mick. She said to imagine each grain of sand is a day passing, and the little pinch in the glass is my grief. All the sad days passing so swiftly through the pinch. It’s from a poem. I never understood it much until now, seeing you boys here and all alone.”
Sissy handed my brother the hourglass and my brother, the giant genius that he is, handed Sissy our miracle stick.
“Sissy, it’s a magic stick. Maybe you can use it to hike to your tower.”
“Yes—wow. Magic. Thank you, son. It seems it.”
And that’s when the fire siren rose slowly out of the blue, slowly through the windows and rising high above the wind as it rose from the center of town, and soon the sound had filled the room.
Outside Sissy’s studio, we found the gate guy’s van pulling down the long gravel drive. Blue lights flashing. We met my middle brother beside the maple stumps. The gate guy had already pulled open Sissy’s gate.
“His pager said limbs down on wires,” my middle brother said, his voice rising over the siren and the wind. “His pager said, limbs down on wires with sparks and fire.”
The four of us watched him shut the gate against the wind, wave without ceremony, drive away.
The town’s fire siren stopped.
Sissy stood beside me with the miracle stick. Over the storm, you could hear trucks and cars idling in wait for their water.
Dylan Smith is a writer working in New York with stories in X-R-A-Y Lit, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere online. Also he tweets sometimes @dylan_a_smith