By Dylan Smith
Today I lit a candle in my apartment before I poured my coffee. This wavering flame takes me back, like way back up that spiraling path to my shack where there was no electricity or running water. Mountain birds lift into the mountain air in my head—hang high above Art’s barn, and shit into the blue mountain air in my head. I found this candlestick in the scrap pile at the dump. Alma loved it. A flowery brass ornamental-looking thing which lifts my daily flame up way above my desk, about midway up my window pane, and until this candle melts down and away and the sky alights again all yellow pink blue gray, my morning flame wavers like the sail of a boat by itself on the water. Everybody outside seems so alone. Above the flame I see cranes and the circles made by birds and the arches of bridges made of steel and massive yellow rock, and on top of most of those buildings across the river I see wooden towers that look like big beautiful barrels of whiskey. Or maybe beer. Art once told me the city’s water towers are all made of redwood trees and cedar—and the one thing nobody down there seems to wonder much about is what happens to all the bags of trash we drag out onto the street. I watch tug boats haul proper mountains of it north to God knows where, pushing whole landscapes of trash past my solitary flame as it wavers like a sail alone on the water. I bet Art would know where they take it. Art loved trash. Probably to some landfill out in New Jersey.
The spiritual path I shaped for myself upstate is that of the outlaw or the sailor, the path of the hippie cowboy saint. It is the poet’s path—no, it is the sober poet’s path, by which I mean to suggest that poems are dangerous and holy and rare. This is the kind of thing my half-brother Chris would probably scoff at. Poems being holy and dangerous—pssh—Chris would roll those explosive blue eyes and spit. But Art and I did a lot of dangerous work together. A lot of wobbly wooden ladders in bad weather. A lot of icy roads, downed wires—a lot of charred black trees felled drunk after wild summer fires.
And all of that felt safe compared to the traumatic childhood secrets I uncovered in my poems about Chris.
This night last year Alma taught me there was once an order to the blossom of flowers in spring. I told her flowers were still sort of new to me. Chris and I grew up in the desert. I never knew they bloomed in order.
“But not anymore,” Alma said. “Not with the warming earth. Now everything just flowers all at once.”
Alma had hiked up the muddy path to my shack with this basket full of shack warming gifts: a bouquet of bright spring flowers, a box of homemade candles, some food—but the main thing was she brought up this battery powered radio. Said she worried I’d become some sort of weirdo hermit way up there alone in her woods. This was toward the end of May, and Alma had been hard at work all day in her garden. I remember dried mud on the knees of her jeans, a hole in her big green shirt. Chris had only been gone a few weeks. Alma didn’t seem so alone.
I’d left my big book of etymologies open to the V’s on my desk. Had just looked up the the word veil, I remember—which comes from the Latin root vela, meaning candle in Spanish, but in Latin it means sail.
Alma leaned over the book for a while, then shifted some poems around.
“I wonder if revenge works,” Alma said.
I thought to myself, Haha. Uh-oh.
I stood beside her at my desk. Poems and drawings all over. Alma pointed to the word vengeance in the book. I could smell summer in her hair.
“It does,” I said. “I heard revenge works great.”
“Does it? Who told you. I’m talking about even in the long run.”
“Me too, look—my book says it means to set something free. I’ll bet you revenge works great in the long run.”
I turned the radio on to static.
Felt my heart beat.
Turned the dial, found a song.
Alma and I wrapped ourselves in blankets and went out to eat on my deck. Scooched our lawn chairs close. The food was soup kept hot in a blue thermos. This wonderful whiskey-voiced crooner croaked out a song about the wind—and after that, someone predicted another thunderstorm was coming. Days and days of rain. Alma looked out. Steam swirled up from her bowl. I felt doubtful about the storm. I told her Art’s radio had predicted it would come earlier that afternoon. We’d rushed around all day to beat it, and then it never came.
Slowly though, the mid-spring air shifted. You could feel it. A summer-warm wind sort of swirled down through the trees and sounded like a channel of water in the branches above my shack, which is when things weirdly deepened, and a darkness rose up through the black blue green of the neighboring mountains to the east of us.
Imagine the wind sort of wafting in through my shack, turning the pages of my book.
Beware. Betrayal. Haha. Bible and Berth and Beauty, and Chris.
I remember the guilt and fear I felt come alive with the changing light. Elbow to elbow with Alma on my deck. I’d recently lent Chris my Volvo—had helped him pack it full of clothes and books to be taken back down to the city. He was supposed to bring it right back up, but never did. I pictured Chris’s blue-eyed violence. Knew exactly what he’d do if he could see Alma and me, and as the trunks of all my favorite trees began to blacken, I thought about the things Art had told me at work that day, and about how all afternoon we had been in such a hurry to beat the rain.
The Glasshouse was this empty mansion at the top of the hill above my shack. Art’s main client owned it. Some billionaire who rarely if ever came up from the city. I remember tens of thousands of little yellow flowers blooming like bright candles on the roadside, and how all along that long gravel drive we’d leveled little hills and holes in the road, holes in the road formed by ice heaves. Red shovels. Red rakes. Art found a water bottle under one of the yellow bushes, he was always finding trash, and somehow the unopened bottle was half-empty.
“Half-full, Sunshine,” Art corrected me.
The bottle got him going on about permeability again. About how everything has it—like even plastic bottles—and once the ice heaves had been leveled and the bed of the truck was empty of gravel again, Art and I flew back down the mountain for some beers. It was rare to see Art in such a hurry. Outside the barn I looked up the hill to where Alma worked in her garden. Art filled the cooler with beers and I lifted the generator into the bed of his truck. The generator ran on gasoline, so I lifted two red five gallon containers up into the truck bed too. A hawk hung in high, hay-colored circles up high above the barn, then the thunderclouds rolled in.
I made a big whistle. Waved up to Alma on the hill.
Alma turned, laughed. Made a big wave back down to me.
Art said the plan was to replace the tractor’s rusted power steering piston. We’d abandoned the tractor below the Glasshouse all winter, in a dark hollow in the woods below the pond. A culvert had clogged but the tractor broke down mid-job. Art pulled his truck up onto the green grass growing beside the pond below the mansion. A handful of goldfinches lifted out from the flowers and reeds. A quick break in the clouds. Green water sparkled. Outside the truck Art opened one beer, then reached into the cooler for another—but I said no thanks. Surprised us both.
“Suit yourself, Sunshine.”
West of the pond was the orchard where Art and I had just pruned a bunch of trees. A dozen red empire apples rose and reached in three rows of three. I loved pruning apple trees. The way Art taught me to prune was, you think of the branches of the apple trees as pipes. “It’s all about directing the flow,” Art told me. He added an extra syllable to the word water. “Imagine your tree is a house. You design the flow of the plumbing in the house. It’s a series of decisions about the pipes. You direct the flow. The shape of the tree. It’s about designing the flow of your worter.”
My shack had no bathroom, no toilet or pipes or sink. I got my water from a nearby spring and broke into the Glasshouse every Saturday night to wash my dirty work clothes and to shower.
Thunder rolled above the mansion, and in a hurry I hauled the generator down the muddy hill through the woods. The tractor looked like a big green horse injured down there in the mud. I set the generator beside it. Hiked back up for the air compressor. Art had brought down the gasoline and some tools and when I got back, he’d put down some flattened cardboard boxes. He knelt there next to the rusted piston with his beer.
And soon our working movements would merge, the tasks at hand fluid and familiar and mechanic.
I used the generator to power the air compressor, and filled up the flat tires with air while Art unwrapped the new piston—I reattached and jumped the dead battery, while Art jacked the tractor up—and together on our backs we fought to remove the rusted piston, two wrenches wrapped around the part as we took turns torquing at it, and torquing, and torquing at it—but the rust had blurred and merged the line between the tractor arm and the part.
Thunderclouds darkened close and low, and a great big thunder clap rippled down the mountain.
Art opened the second beer, the third beer.
“Speaking of rust,” Art said. “I just read about this new type of battery.”
“What does battery have to do with rust?”
“To supplement with solar and wind. A rust battery. Like instead of lithium.”
“You’re saying rust, Art. Like the rust that ruined this piston. Like the rust that’s ruined your truck.”
“Right. Rust. Picture iron pellets. Now expose those pellets to oxygen. Rust could generate your energy. Your electrons. You reverse the rust back to iron pellets to eat the oxygen—and that’s what gives your battery its charge. Green energy stored by way of rust.”
“That makes very little sense to me.”
“Yeah. Well I knew this one guy who worked with lithium. A battery recycling factory in the city. You had to worry about your lead. The lead dust settled on your clothes. Settled in your hair. You take off your street clothes when you get into work. You put on your hazmat suit and you shower before lunch to get the lead dust off your skin. Off your hair. The factory gives a bonus if the lead in your blood stays at the regular levels. The goal is to keep the lead dust off your sandwich. It’s a liability. You’re in there for a test every six weeks. This guy I knew only got the bonus once. Fifteen hundred dollars. But of course you get fired eventually for having bad levels. You get lazy about it I guess. Like with anything.”
Art stood. Finished his beer. Hiked up to the truck for more.
Nothing but bird song now, the silence leveling and sudden.
Art hiked back down quick. Arms full. Knees wide and in a hurry.
“Because with lithium you can store your energy for five hours—or for six hours when a storm shuts down the grid. But the point is that your generation doesn’t believe in God anymore. Or in free will either. You have no faith. No belief in your power to change the course of things. Take the old hay farmers for instance. What you probably don’t understand is that decomposition is a chemical process. You can’t rush hay. Compost generates heat. So it’s all about the moisture content of your harvest. It’s about human timing and science and faith and worter. You can’t rush these things. Fear is stupid. You have to take everything that happens as it comes.”
“We’re not hay farmers though, Art. What are you trying to tell me.”
“That if you take your bales to the barn too early you don’t give it time to dry.”
“But we don’t do hay. You said nobody’s done hay in the barn for thirty years.”
“It takes six weeks. Your moisture content’s got to get below twenty percent. You can’t rush it. Because if the moisture content is bad your bales will decompose and smolder and soon your farm is up in flames again and the barn is burning because you didn’t have faith or slow down enough to just listen. Fear is useless and stupid. You have to have faith, Sunshine. Faith in anything. It’s all about discovery and achieving the balance. Because if somebody your age could just learn to harvest green energy from something as simple as rust. Your solar energy would store for five days—for six days. You’d have green energy stored off the grid for a week.”
And with our next effort with the wrenches, Art and I removed the rusted piston.
The new part installed easily as Art downed the fourth beer, the fifth beer. The diesel fuel I poured into the tank was blue, and then the tractor came alive. Blue black smoke whirled out from a vertical pipe, then cleared. Art mounted the tractor as if it were a healthy horse. I followed him down the mountain, listening to the radio in his rust tortured truck, and later that night in my shack Alma said:
“First it would be the crocus and the snowdrop. Forsythia. Hyacinths. Then the tulips, and then the magnolia trees would go blooming, and the irises—and then it would be the bleeding hearts.”
Inside my shack and out of the rain, Alma built a fire.
Last big storm of spring. Our radio predicted days and days of total rain.
“Looks like I’m stuck with you,” Alma said. “Shipwrecked up here in your cabin.”
I lit ten thousand tiny candles and man—I couldn’t believe my luck. Thunderclouds boomed bright blue black pink and I fiddled around with the radio some more. Found the classical station. Alma’s eyes burned like perfect fires. We stood side by side before the stove, our shadows swaying against the ancient wood. We laughed. I read her some Chris poems. We danced. Alma put out a bucket to collect the rain and we drank from it all sloppy and splish-splashy, our dirty clothes drenched wet. The rain had become a column of water against the mountainside, against my life, and it would go on and on like that all night.
Embers of the lightning struck black locust tree radiated white heat.
A kind of veil had been lifted, and I saw Alma in new crystal colors.
We laid down before the embers. Now there was no going back.
But I wasn’t afraid of anything.
Not the past, not the future. Not Chris.
I told Alma I believed in God.
For money Dylan Smith plants flowers on rooftops in New York and has a website with links to other stories online. Oh and check out The Other Almanac. A piece of Dylan’s will be published in print with them this fall.