An excerpt from a longish short story (I’ve been forbidden the term “novelette”) currently seeking publication.
The oak tree had been part of his family for generations, and coming home after the long tour in Afghanistan, the tree was all that Hector Gonzales had left. He had no plan other than this first thing, to visit the Grandmother Oak.
He hiked up the path to the tree’s hidden valley, shouldering both the foreignness and the familiarity of homecoming after so many years away. The sun had swung to the west and now punched straight into the canyon, so that the shadows fled to the small corners, and even the cicadas stuttered from the heat. Hector loved these times in Northern California, when the temperatures soared, and the north wind carried the incense of hot weeds and volcanic dust, so hot it pressed down on his shoulders and only an act of will allowed a man to stand upright. He took a drink from his water bottle, letting the drops fall on his chest, smearing across the sooty grit, then hooked it back to his belt, where his shirt hung around his waist. Reaching a small rise, he turned and looked back over the canyon. To his left, all was blackened from the fire that had destroyed Paradise. To his right, the fire had skipped like a stone, hitting this patch, but not that one, all the way down to the wide grasslands below, the landscape dancing in the waves of heat. Hector shook his head.
Home, and yet not home.
The Camp Fire had devoured his family—mother, father, & dog all found scorched to death along the Skyway in the old Ford F-150. His grandmother among the missing. Hector had watched the news, helpless, from the barracks in Bagram as his hometown and everything he knew exploded in mountains of flame. Discharged from the service, he’d inherited seventy acres of ashes on the edge of mortally wounded town, a graveyard of crumbling foundations, and a life without connections. His few friends from high school, equally traumatized, had moved on with their young families, chasing jobs, or just too busy to get together when he’d called. He reflected, as he walked, on the nature of these relationships, how—once uprooted—they cannot grow again in the same way. Joining the service had been the act of a bewildered teen. Leaving the military as soon as he was able, the act of a wiser, tempered man. He didn’t know what he would do next, but Hector hoped that visiting the oak might giving him some sense of normalcy, or home, or a jumping off point for the next move. His mother and grandmother had treated the old tree as a revered elder, one of the family, and made frequent pilgrimages themselves to “talk to the tree” when they didn’t know what to do.
This path to the valley had been a secret in his family for generations. The first Spaniards to explore here had found the odd hanging valley above the canyon and wondered at the enormity of the oak tree there, its mighty branches stretching from one rock wall to the other, its trunk as thick as a house, its knotted toes held fiercely to the rocks where countless snakes and marmots and ground squirrels had lived and then died. Even the Spanish, half blinded in their hunger for gold, had paused beneath its branches, felt the nearly audible thrum of something mysterious and old and powerful vibrating up from the earth or through the air around the old tree, and so they named it Grandmother Oak. The Spanish had named it, yes, but earlier threads of Hector’s blood had known this place as well. Before the Europeans, his mother’s grandmothers had gathered acorns here, and surely they, too, had wondered at the mystery of the tree, dwarfing any other oak for as far as a man could walk in a string of days.
The Hooker Oak, down in the valley, had been a famous tree for its size, but Hector’s father had stood beneath its branches as a young man, and had proudly declared their own Grandmother Oak to be twice as large. No one knew, for certain, how old the tree was. No forestry student from Chico State had bored into its trunk to count the rings, no placards had been placed, no parking lot for visitors. Only this: one single, difficult foot path traveled by Hector since he was a boy, and his grandfathers before him, extending back into the murk of history. As a child, his family would picnic in the valley every year, spread a blanket between the roots, sharing wine and food beneath the cathedral of branches, and Hector hoped that one day he would bring his own children here to do the same. Though all else was gone, the fire maps seemed to show that the secret valley of the oak had been spared.
He came, at length, to a small footpath that led north, away from the canyon floor with its rolled river rocks, up a few grassy slopes, thick with star thistle, to where a tower of basalt cliffs climbed to the Tuscan formation at the top. He loved this walk, first through the soft sedimentary boulders, long-ago blankets of underwater mud, up through the layers of metamorphic rocks, heated and tumbled by the earth, to the top strata of volcanics, all of it formed over millions of years and then carved again, just as slowly as it had been formed, by the creek below. Time, at this grand scale, comforted Hector, and gave perspective to all his recent horrors. He, his lost family, the Afghan villagers—all of human civilization, for that matter—were the tiniest blip on the radar expanse of geologic time, represented in only the top two inches of soil at the canyon top, of no interest to the thousand feet of history below or the thousand feet of rock that would one day form over the top, whether by water or volcanoes or the patient folding of the Earth. From this perspective he could look out over the blackened slopes—up to the southern ridge where his family home had stood for generations below the town of Paradise—and see the wiggling threads of life returning, and know that in the grand scheme of things, none of it mattered.
These thoughts, and similar ones, had made him a poor fit for high school, a worse fit for the military, and an awkward guest at keg parties. Women, at least those his own age, tended to blink, giggle nervously, then wander away. The men just shook their head. “Chicks don’t dig that shit, man.” And so, now, Hector hiked alone, making this pilgrimage in the space between his deployment and whatever he decided to do next. He had no plans, or at least none that seemed to take root. He placed each foot carefully, alert for rattle snakes and sharp scree that could send a man tumbling backwards when the path grew steep near the canyon wall. A red tail hawk cried high above, and Hector smiled at the sound he had not heard in years, had a momentary vision of himself from the bird’s perspective, glistening brown shoulders, the black pebble of a head.
The trail ended at the canyon wall, where the cliff swallows clustered by the dozens, weaving the air around their nests. Or, at least, the trail seemed to end at a clump of thick alder scrub fed by a small trickle of water on the mossy face of the basalt. Hector wiggled into the shrubbery, first an arm, then a foot, then—turning sideways—the rest of his body squeezed through to the center, where a long narrow crack had formed in the rock wall. He pushed into the narrow slot canyon, shaded and cooler than the exposed furnace of rock just beyond. This cleft ran thirty feet deep into the cliff face, a tunnel of shade that opened at the end into the valley of the oak. They called it a valley, for lack of a better word, but in truth the oak sat in the center of a nearly perfect circle of hard rock walls, like the Devil’s Tower in reverse, and all who saw it agreed they had never seen a place like it, as if the basalt had formed millions of years ago around some softer rock that had long since been worn away. Hector paused in the slot canyon to catch his breath and enjoy the chill of moist rock against his back. He took another drink of water, then pushed on.
At the end of the narrow rock alley, Hector blinked, eyes bedazzled by the burst of open sunlight in the valley of the oak.
“No! No no no! Grandmother, no!”
The tree was gone.
Hector ran forward into the open sunlight, all that should have been dappled and shaded from the arms of Grandmother Oak.
He found only a stump, two feet high, wide as a house, and riddled with carved graffiti.
“SAM + JULIE = FOREVER” “OROVILLE HS 2016” “BLAZZO” “ROCKET MAN” “CHELSEA IS DUMB.”
Why? How? The fire had not come here. He stepped closer to the trunk, reached out both hands to touch the wood rings, and felt…nothing. That hum of life was silent. Old beer cans littered the now dry and barren ground. A firepit of lava rocks overflowed with garbage, and a yellow plastic sack fluttered from a clump of dried thistle.
Hector stepped back from the tree and looked around, seeing for the first time that the valley of the oak was all wrong. Behind the tree, what had once been a hundred feet of vertical curving basalt wall had been blasted, and a sloping road had been graveled into the hole, leading up to the top of the canyon. Leaving his pack on the stump, he jogged up this road to the top, finding himself on the wide grass plain above the canyon. Paved roads and cul de sacs had spread like a cancer across the grasslands: empty foundations, the melted remains of electrical hook ups as far as he could see. The fire had skipped the valley of the oak, it seemed, but had hit a new housing development, at the top of the canyon, now abandoned. Hector heard the hot wind in the grasses, had a moment of ancestral memory— this wild open plain, before the white men, thick with antelope and deer and wandering bear. Turning back the way he’d come, he could see the present moment, the scorched remains of a sign overlooking the secret valley: “Coming Soon: Oak Valley Spring Resort & Spa. Bathe Yourself in Nature’s Luxury.” Along the road, unnoticed before, the fluttering orange shreds of developer’s flags made a dotted path to the valley below, and from this distance, Hector could see the pattern of them, rectangular grids for the marble lobby, the fountains, the smiling people what remained of the scorched sign and its aspirational imagery.
Anger and sorrow shot through his body in alternating waves of heat and icy cold, eventually giving way to pure rage. He bellowed like a wounded bull, picked up a chunk of abandoned rebar, and swung at the sign, shoving the cindered posts until they toppled. He ran down to the violated oak, swung the bar at the beer cans, at the garbage, screaming and smashing everything he could reach. He had borne all of the losses of the last four years by holding his place in the scale of time, against the scale of things that last, but this…this act against the tree, against this last secret and sacred place had been an act against time itself, against the inherent goodness of living things, against the structure of his world, and Hector raged. All the violence that had failed him as a soldier now surged in him, and he could have killed every last one of those knife-wielding vandal fuckers who had carved her stump, the construction workers with their disrespect and dynamite, smashed the heads of developers like rotten pumpkins. He hollered and wept and bashed at the ground with his rebar club until, exhausted, he fell to his knees and sobbed like a toddler. Time had caved in on itself. There was only death. He curled into a ball and waited for the rage to end him, as the fires had ended all else.
Time passed, but Hector remained, a lump of coal burnt out beyond the rage. When he opened his eyes again, feeling bruised and puffy, the early afternoon had become evening, and he lay spread eagle on the dirt, two turkey vultures circling in the updrafts overhead. His body was lead and ash, and he struggled to sit up, his back against the squat trunk of the tree.
Now what? He had not planned a second of his life beyond this pilgrimage to Grandmother Oak, had in fact nursed a hope that his visit here would somehow give him wisdom for what ought to come next. But that was all dead now. He found an acorn laying in the dirt next to his knee, picked it up, rolled it in his fingers.
Years earlier, when his grandfather died, Hector had peered into the urn and been surprised to see that the remains were not ashes like those in a fire pit, but a grainy substance, with bits of bone still visible. On an impulse, while the rest of the family gathered around casseroles and flan in the other room, Hector had plucked a small bone from the ash—Was it a pinkie toe? A bit of inner ear? —and popped it into his mouth, swallowing in one guilty gulp. His grandfather with him forever. In a similar fit of impulse, Hector separated the acorn from its cup, put the smooth seed on his tongue, and swallowed. The nut was far too big, and lodged in his esophagus, an ache behind his breastbone. He drank from his water bottle, gulping over and over until the thing had passed into his stomach. He remembered, too late, that acorns were meant to be leached before eaten, but he couldn’t muster the energy to care, or to remember why. The act had comforted him, and Hector imagined he felt once again the subtle hum of life, finding focus in his belly where the little acorn was even now perhaps poisoning him with whatever it was that made an acorn a thing one wasn’t supposed to eat raw. Under his butt he felt the old roots of the tree, not dead, he suddenly imagined, but pushing their nutrients out and down, into the soil. He sensed all the little acorns, the children of the great tree, underground, waiting for the fall rains to send out their sprouts and shoot their heads to the surface. He thought of the worms and the mycelia of fungus beginning their growth on those nutrients, communicating underground through a vast network of webs, like an enormous brain, so that they told the story to oaks farther down the valley. He imagined a time when not his children, or likely any human children at all—perhaps a family of coyotes—played under the roots of the next great tree that might grow here, hundreds or thousands of years into the future, and this thought made him feel a bit better.
Better enough, anyway, to stand up and brush off his jeans. Evening was coming, and the hike down would take an hour, at least, and he had nowhere to stay for the night. He turned to the tree, putting both hands on the scarred carvings of the trunk, and said a prayer. Part apology, part blessing, part thanks, for all that the tree had served all these years. Finding a few more acorns on the ground, he picked them up and put them in his pocket thinking that when the place was right, he would plant them, then he turned, slope-shouldered, back down hill to the shadowed and narrow entrance to what had been his secret valley.
A hot wind blew up the draw like a chimney, carrying the scents of fire and a whiff of exhaust from the valley. The switchbacks down the canyon were treacherous and steep, sometimes running out over exposed outcrops of basalt that dropped hundreds of feet to the slope below, so Hector walked head down, focused on his feet. And because he watched the ground, he noticed the rattlesnake first. An ancient, prehistoric thing, its coils as thick as an arm, spiraled around itself, its head swayed back and forth, facing away from Hector, tongue flicking. Hector tripped, sent a heavy stone tumbling, and the snake turned to face him, disturbed by the vibration, then looked away again, offering only one brief, irritated buzz of its rattles. Even that small buzz sent Hector’s blood vibrating in a way that only those raised in rattlesnake country can appreciate, but the snake was not interested in him. Hector followed the snake’s gaze. An old woman, as dark and dry as tree bark, hunched over on a fallen log. Her hair was a white puff, barely hiding the scalp underneath, with a few twigs and leaves tangled in it. She wore ragged wide-legged jeans so that her ankles thrust out, completely exposed above a pair of dirty red sneakers. Her sweatshirt was dusty, smudged from a fall, it seemed, and Hector wondered how she had gotten herself up here in the heat. She clutched a gnarled walking stick, one worn smooth from use, and on either side of her on the log sat two plastic Walmart sacks, bulging from the contents. She muttered, swaying side to side, eyes closed, bobbing her head as if listening to music or nodding in agreement. She didn’t see the danger coiled within inches of her feet.
“Don’t move!” Hector shouted. “Don’t move. There’s a snake.”
At the sound of his voice, she turned to him, still bobbing her head, and opened her eyes. They were the milky white of the profoundly blind, and Hector, despite himself, drew back at the sight. On a tree branch above her head three turkey vultures gazed at Hector, rustled their wings in agitation. Hector shuddered to think what those birds would have gotten up to had he arrived just a few moments later. They made a few woofing sounds, not unlike a dog, then leapt from the tree, one, two, three, and with a few flaps of the wings soared out over the valley below. Hector turned in time to see the snake’s tail disappearing into the brittle brush on the other side of the trail. He had arrived just in time.
“Ma’am, are you okay? There was a snake. Did it get you?”
He rushed to the old woman’s side and took her hand, but gasped and nearly dropped it when he found an IV needle inserted and taped to the back of her hand with medical tape.
“Ma’am. What happened? Can I help you? How did you get here? Is there someone with you?”
The old woman tipped her head as if hearing a distant, curious noise and swiveled her face in his general direction. Her mouth opened in a toothless vague smile, and she patted her hand in his general direction, as if searching for something. Her sweatshirt, a sea foam green with sparkly appliques of panda bears, was smudged with rusty stains around the middle that might, Hector feared, be blood. Some were more maroon in color, and moist.
There was no way she had come here on her own. The hike was a vigorous one, even for Hector, fresh from the Army and in the best shape of his life.
“Is there someone with you?” He asked. But then, receiving no answer, he shouted back up the canyon. “Hello!” he called. “Is someone here?”
The buzz of cicadas swallowed the place where his voice had been.
“Hello!” He yelled again but was answered with an echo.
Had someone brought her here with some evil intent, and then fled at the sound of Hector approaching? The hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the thought, and he spun around a few more times, reassuring himself that each shadow in the canyon wall was only that – a shadow.
He cursed himself for leaving the cell phone in the car. He had no way to call 911, and to leave her alone in a place like this would be to kill her.
“Can you hear me?” he asked. “Do you need a drink?”
The old face cracked open into another smile, and she nodded.
Hector unhooked the flask from his hip and held it to her lips. She wrapped her hands around his and eagerly tipped the jug back, taking deep swallows, stopping only to gasp in a raspy breath before greedily chugging more. How long had she been out here? On closer observation, the stains on her shirt were most definitely blood.
“I think…Ma’am, I think you might have hurt yourself. You’re bleeding. Do you mind if I look?”
Again, with that strange bobbing motion of her head and the toothless smile—well, not toothless, exactly, she did have at least one—she shook her head that she didn’t mind.
“Ssss’okaaaay,” she said.
“Okay. I’m just gonna…” Frightened at what he might find, Hector reached out to the hem of the filthy sweatshirt. “I’m gonna lift your shirt a bit and….Mother of God!”
Her torso was wrapped in a sticky bandage, frayed and dirty, with blood seeping through on all sides. Hector dropped the hem of the shirt and stood, his thoughts fragmented into several options. He needed a rescue helicopter, or a team of rescuers to carry her down on a stretcher. He considered running down the path for his cell phone, but the vultures had returned to a branch a little further off, and even now, one had landed up the trail and was hop walking in cautious little leaps toward them. No. He’d have to carry her, though how he’d do it without hurting her more, he couldn’t imagine. Again, he scanned the surrounding area for signs of whoever had brought her up here. Only a psychopath would do this. That sharp tang of fear gave him resolve.
“Ma’am, I am going to carry you out of here, ok?”
She nodded, and her hand fluttered on his shoulder like a moth in an encouraging gesture. She couldn’t weigh more than ninety pounds, and he’d carried men twice that size in training exercises, after all. He untied the long-sleeved shirt from around his waist and crouched down by the log, backing up to where her legs dangled over the log.
“Ok, I’m gonna…”
He’d meant to explain his actions to the blind old woman, that he would carry her piggy back, but she had already flung her arms around his neck, and her legs wrapped around his waist with a surprising agility. Hector wrapped his shirt like a kind of sling around her bottom, and tied the sleeves around his belly, then stood, holding her legs. He hadn’t been sure how to hold her to him, but she clung like a vine, a surprising length in the bony limbs. In fact…he experimented with loosening his grip, and she clung to him tighter, so that she felt nearly grafted onto his body. He could do this. His combat gear had felt twice as heavy.
Hector took several experimental steps away from the log.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” She cried out in pain, her voice dry as old leaves.
“Did I hurt you?”
Hector sat back on the log, gasping, more from fear than from effort, and she pointed, long bony finger, toward the two plastic Walmart sacks sitting there.
“You want these?” He asked and felt her nod against the back of his head.
He leaned to grab one of the bags and slid it awkwardly onto his lap, peeking inside.
Each double-bagged bundle was an old Walmart sack full to bursting with acorns, and he couldn’t imagine how he might hold those and her as well.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. But we’ll have to leave these here. I can’t carry you and them.”
She let out another wail of despair, or pain. Had she been out here, gathering acorns all day? Perhaps she’d eaten acorn meal as a young girl, and now, lost in some kind of dementia, was remembering days of her youth?
“Look, we can empty the bags, and I’ll fill them up for you again at the bottom. How’s that? There are acorns all over the valley.”
Hector moved do just this, but her grip tightened on him, and the tips of her fingers dug into his chest, hard and strong as old wood.
“No…” she whispered. “No. Theeese oness.” Her voice was strange, as if growing up from a hole in the ground, the accent of a person who had never spoken a language before but, having learned a phrase would try it, halting and foreign.
“Ma’am, we can’t do that.”
“We cannn.” And as if to prove her point, her arms and legs wrapped around him, even tighter, and the unbidden image of a spider leapt into his mind. In a shameful moment of fear and disgust, Hector wondered if he’d be able to get her off. She was that strong. “You…caarrry,” she said.
With a shake of his head, Hector took a bag in each hand and stood, expecting her to loosen her grip and stay on the log, but she clung to him, light and secure as an empty backpack.
“You okay?” He asked.
“Yessss.” Her breath, across his shoulder, smelled of rotting leaves and old mushrooms.
Hector set off on a walk that soon became a jog as he learned to trust that the old woman would not let go and that he could handle the weight without slipping. He feared worsening her injury with the impacts of his feet on the trail but feared the effects of time and heat exposure even more. Surprised at his own energy, Hector reached his truck in under an hour, and was relieved when the old woman let go and crumpled into the passenger seat. He stashed the sacks of acorns at her feet and raced down the Centerville Road into town.
By the time Hector tore into the parking lot at the ER, the old woman had slumped against the door, old parchment folded in half, and he paused, hand on the ignition key, staring wide-eyed in her direction until the fabric of her sweatshirt fluttered up, and then down.
He gathered her from the passenger side, careful that she would not tumble out, then jogged through double doors meant for the ambulance and past the emergency reception, her weight like an empty sack in his arms.
“Sir, you can’t…”
A young woman with dark hair called out to him, rounding the front desk, but then stopped when she saw what he carried.
He had not planned the lie. It just slipped out. The young woman had kind eyes that reminded Hector of soft things, and of home, and he wondered if her cheeks might smell like apples, and the lie hurt inside his chest. “She’s been hurt,” he said.
She looked down at what he carried and snapped upright.
“Follow me.” She led him through another set of double doors into a sterile corridor and shouted out to someone he couldn’t see. “She’s back, Mark! Get me a bed, and Dr. Morse!”