A Short Story by Ellen Heath
Luther drove his big white pickup at a fast clip down the rutted and dusty road toward home. Eyes the color of tarnished silver squinted under a red feed store cap in a face heavily trafficked by lines of disappointment, anger, and consternation. Yes, consternation. It had never occurred to him that she would leave.
He glared at the parched grazing land simmering under an empty sky—nearly eight thousand deeded acres, and he couldn’t make a living off it. Expensive loads of hay were taking a big chunk out of his county pay and his benefits check. Scrub ranching. He could imagine his father’s scorn, as though it were Luther’s fault. Scrub ranching.
His Saturday breakfast at the Holding Pen Café wasn’t sitting well either. Sunny side up had been runny again. Of course Betty knew the eggs were runny when she picked them up at the counter, and Luther wondered why she couldn’t give some up-front instructions to the cook of the day. There was a ritual afoot. Luther and Betty would stare at the mottled whites and Luther would mutter a curse.
“You want me to take ’em back?” Betty would ask.
In response, Luther would irritably fork a blameless yolk. Betty would top off his coffee and walk away, smooth haunches rolling beneath knit pants and a long top. He had recently noticed that a fancy comb in the seam of her blond hair roll always matched her outfits.
After breakfast, Luther had taken his dirty clothes to the laundromat to be washed and folded for Monday pick-up. Funny that Maria had hauled off the washing machine and dryer. The minute he realized they were gone he knew she was never coming back. He hadn’t gone after her. They had never formalized things; she had just stayed on after all those months of taking care of his father.
They had been at each other for years, but he had figured it meant the same thing to her that it did to him. His parents’ battleground had been silence, and the back-and-forthing with Maria over little things had seemed better. It had kind of kept him interested, on his toes, the way an ornery horse used to when he was still riding. Finding her gone that evening was like a real bad moment with a loose girth.
He didn’t want to think about the planning behind it. Buying that triple-wide down the road might have been the start of it, in spite of how good it had felt to bulldoze the old adobe homestead. Things had been all right until Maria started making him be orderly all the time, trailing him around like a guilty conscience. When she decided he couldn’t smoke in the house, he knew he had made a mistake; and that was when you could count on some rain every now and then. The bank would be after him soon.
His mother’s money might have bought some time for the ranch early on, but country living hadn’t agreed with her mind. While Luther was away in the Army, her sisters had come and taken her away to a place where people would take good care of her, he was told. His father never gave up, but his heart finally did. In the end, dying for the insurance money was the only thing left to do, and he had postponed that long enough to bring his only son home to take over. Luther hadn’t left much behind in Albuquerque, just a clock-punching government job, a couple of burned-out buddies from the VA hospital, and the fading tracks of a brief, bad marriage.
As Luther neared home, his scowl deepened. Down the road and parked halfway in the ditch was a yellow Jeep-looking thing. Damn. He should have fixed that fence. He pulled up behind the Wrangler and got out, his eyes locked on the distant figure crouching over a tripod to take a picture of the old cottonwood tree.
Luther grabbed the fence post and swung his leg over the remaining two strands of barbed wire. His trailing boot caught on the top one, and he cursed under his breath as he staggered. Straightening up, he paused to retrieve a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, tapped one out, and lit it. After an irritable exhale, he licked the match and put it in his pocket, picked a piece of tobacco off his tongue, and set off.
Luther’s shoulders were wide, his hips as narrow as ever. Of late, however, a round little belly had begun to rise above his belt buckle, and the metal in his left leg complained more. Frowning and limping slightly, he quietly approached the brown-haired, preppy-looking photographer. Coming to a halt behind his back, Luther loudly cleared his throat. The heavy young man wheeled around, tripped on a tripod leg, and lunged after the teetering contraption.
“Somethin’ I can do for you?” Luther rasped.
“Sorry. I didn’t hear you coming.” The round flustered face was rosy from the heat.
“Again. Is there something I can do for you?”
“No, no. I just saw this tree from the highway. I’m doing a book on trees. Is this your property?”
“Could be,” said Luther, “that sign back there saying ‘Private Road’ and all.” The young man glanced distractedly in that direction. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see your sign. I ramble all over looking for images, and I sometimes lose my bearings.” Then he turned to the old cottonwood. “But that’s the most amazing tree. Can you tell me anything about it?”
“Well, yes, I can see that, but what’s it doing way out here in the middle of nowhere? Don’t they need water? Was there a tank here once? How long ago did it die?”
He seemed to be getting excited, his imagination taking off, and this irritated Luther even further. The encounter had already gone on longer than he wanted.
“I can’t answer any of those questions,” he said, “but I have one for you. How long will it take you to get off my property?”
The young man’s back straightened. “I’m good at this,” he protested, “and I wanted to try some other angles. How about if I give you a picture?”
“I don’t want your goddamn picture. I just want you off my property.”
The intruder held his ground, eyes locked on Luther’s shaded face, not irritated, not belligerent, not searching for a comeback, just looking. It was disconcerting. If the guy had made some smart aleck remark, Luther would have known what to do. His thumb nervously tapped the butt of his cigarette. “Well?”
The young man came to himself. “Yes, sir,” he said quickly. “Won’t take but a minute.”
He unscrewed his camera, gathered up his tripod and a canvas bag, and walked past Luther with a slight dip of his head in goodbye. At the Wrangler, he loaded his things into the back seat, climbed in behind the wheel, and made a U-turn without even putting his seat belt on. When the trail of dust reached the highway, Luther dropped his cigarette onto the dirt and ground it in with the ball of his boot.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered and headed back toward his truck.
Luther’s people had always kept to themselves, and this was respected. At the USDA office where he worked on the outskirts of Estancia, no one had asked him about Maria. They were all men and out on the road a lot, and this was the kind of thing women usually liked to get into anyway.
Maybe Betty was one of them. She sometimes whooped it up with the other diners, but she stuck to business with Luther. A few weeks after the incident in the pasture, though, she had more to say than usual. When he sat down at his favorite table, she walked up with the coffee pot in her right hand and a brown-wrapped package in her left.
“Some guy came in here for lunch the other day and left this for you,” she said, laying it down on the table.
“How did you know it was for me?” asked Luther. He stared coldly at the flat package, like he might give it back to her.
“He described you,” said Betty with a glint in her eye. “There aren’t that many men coming in here wearing jeans and feed store caps.”
Luther studied her fair round face, calibrating the humor he personally had never experienced before. What else had the boy said? He pushed his mug toward her and she filled it. “The usual?” she asked.
“Better than the usual,” he responded gruffly.
Luther watched Betty walk off as he took a slurp of the hot, strong coffee. She was all in pink today, with a pink rhinestone comb.
There was no label and no note on the package, but he knew what it was. He lifted up the taped ends, unfolded the points, and opened the flaps to reveal a black and white photograph of the cottonwood tree mounted in a simple black frame.
Luther lifted the picture out of its wrapping and stared intently at the dead tree transformed by the photographer’s lens. Darkly captured upon the pale field of barren ground and cloudless sky, it seemed to stand as a memorial in twisted trunk and contorted branches to some fierce, mysterious seeking. One limb grown over-long in its zeal had sunk to the ground, its reach transformed into rough seating. Luther sat with the picture for a moment, sensing a subtle reproof in the handsome gift. Before Betty could return with the runny eggs, he wrapped it back up and laid it down out of sight in the chair next to him.
Over the next few days, the photograph gradually disappeared under a stack of newspapers on the kitchen table, a loose point of the wrapping sticking out like a bookmark. One morning when Luther tossed yet another paper onto the pile, the point fluttered, reminding him of the image within. As he walked to the sink to empty his coffee cup, he glanced at the distant tree harshly framed by the dusty, spotted window. Diminished by distance and the dirty glass, it stubbornly held its ground, dead roots deep in barren soil.
Luther returned to the table, pulled out the brown package, and removed the photograph. After propping the image up on the stack of newspapers and staring at it for a moment, he walked to the back door and out onto the stoop where he paused briefly to light a cigarette. How long had the cottonwood been there? As he headed across the pasture toward the tree, Luther recalled sitting on that dropped limb as a kid, but he didn’t remember any tank or standing water, and there was no sign that an irrigation ditch had ever run nearby. How had it survived?
The disorderly energy that informs the growth of cottonwoods was familiar to him, but this tree had been unusual even within its scrappy species. Some branches were almost as thick as a trunk, others were weak and spindly, and many seemed to have rethought and changed direction mid-length. The capriciousness of the limbs suggested that there had never been anything like a command central.
Luther circled the base, studying the random growth, the welted attempts at healing around broken branches. The thick, tortured roughness of the bark suggested that the tree had been deeply scarred by its upward struggle and had lived desperately at times, contending with brutal forces known only to itself.
Luther took another turn, searching at the tree’s base for a sign of the seeds he could remember in earlier years. Every spring, probably May and early June, it would release a blizzard of downy white fluff that the prevailing winds would carry to the house. Maria had complained loudly about the seasonal litter all over her pampered lawn, lying in drifts on the porch, and stuck in the screens.
How long ago had it stopped? With so many other losses afoot, Luther could not remember. Maybe two years ago. There was no sign on the ground of the tree’s last, valiant effort to procreate. It had gone through this hopeful cycle for decades in spite of the absence of any nearby male tree.
He took one last look at the incoherent reach of bare limbs and then turned back to the house. From the cabinet below the kitchen sink, he retrieved glass cleaner and rag and proceeded to polish the window inside and out. A few days later, he hung the photograph over the table where he could see it when he ate.
There was a skylight over Luther’s bed, somebody’s very bad idea that Maria had covered with a shade that could be closed on bright nights. He was usually too tired to care, but one evening the light of a full moon woke him up. By the time he returned from the bathroom, he was in the grip of an idea.
He pulled on the jeans draped over the end of the bed, dug yesterday’s socks and shirt out of the laundry basket, and got dressed the rest of the way—except for tucking in his shirt and putting on a belt. Luther tucked and belted even when he was sick, and he was aware of doing something extremely unusual as he walked to the front door in his shirttails. There he pulled on his boots and headed across the bright, packed dirt to the tree.
The moon shone down pitilessly on the cottonwood’s spectral disorder. When he reached the base, Luther sat down and leaned against the rugged bark of its massive trunk. Backed up against its peculiarities, he lifted his face to the silver light.
“This is weird as hell,” he conceded. Above him rose the dead limbs bristling with twigs like pale hairs standing on end. Thin clouds wisped beyond along with sprays of stars, their usual splendor yielding to the moon’s overbearing moment. Nothing in the tree moved in response to a gentle breeze.
Luther tried to remember the feel of the living tree when he had been a boy listening to the clatter of heart-shaped leaves. His mind paged through memories of life in the old adobe, childhood’s isolation as severe as the photographic image he had entered. After a while his back began to hurt, and he stood up stiffly and headed back to bed.
The time of the monsoon approached, but it had been pathetic for two years running. There were farmers who irrigated, and their alfalfa and corn began to turn the earth a garish green under wheeled water lines. Miles of grazing land were eaten down to the dirt, though, and the cattle were costing a fortune in hay and liquid feed.
There were ranchers who had reserves, ranchers who had done some improvising, but Luther’s father had been a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, and his way was the old way. He had never been open to the possibility of doing any cultivation, leasing or selling off acreage, allowing hunting on his land, or raising anything but cattle. Luther kept that in mind, but he stayed in touch with what was going on.
One of his sources was a cattleman’s magazine, and the cover of the latest issue lying on the kitchen table caught his eye one morning. After studying the photograph of hands branding in traditional dress-up, he went to his bedroom closet and retrieved the expensive Stetson he hadn’t worn in a long time. He walked into the bathroom with mirrors on three sides and put the hat on, rocking it like a hen settling into a nest. With forefinger in the crown, he adjusted the angle a quarter inch or so, ran his thumb beneath the brim, and tugged slightly. Satisfied with the effect, he leaned forward and addressed his reflection.
“Dad didn’t know how to wear a hat,” he said, “but you do.”
A little later at the Holding Pen Café, Betty came up with her pot of coffee and poured him a cup.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, eyeing the Stetson. She was wearing aqua knit pants today, and her comb had a bit of turquoise in it.
“Nope,” said Luther. He removed the hat and set it on the table. “Just needed a change.”
“How about scrambled?”
“Don’t push it,” Luther frowned, and Betty smiled as she turned away.
The skies became restless, troubled in the evening. There was a heaviness in the air, a rumbling around the edges of the horizon. Big clouds piled up over the mountains, and everyone watched hopefully only to see them move on. As an outlet for frustration and anxiety, some began to mock the vanishing afternoon displays.
As he continued to observe the cottonwood from a distance, Luther realized one day that it had divided unusually low to the ground, and a possibility occurred to him: perhaps it wasn’t one tree but two. Walking out that evening to see what he could tell up close, he concluded that it was, indeed, possible. If there were two, though, they had merged into one. The limbs on one side had grown mostly skyward, and that was where he remembered clusters of seeds; on the other they were more rangy and adventurous, and it was here that the big branch had overtaxed itself in its outward push and sunk to the ground. Luther leaned against the limb and shook out his aching leg.
It was natural to think of it as one tree; they had certainly died as one. If one side was male and the other female, they had stood together for a lifetime doing whatever trees do to survive and produce other cottonwoods. That must not have worked too well, though, because there was no other tree around except that sorry looking thing along the highway. Dark clouds had begun to gather in that direction as usual.
The air kept getting heavier, and by the time Luther was ready for bed, lightning was flickering on the horizon like a sputtering neon sign. He sat on the front steps for a while, smoking and watching the distant, soundless display.
A few hours later, he awakened to thunder and the flashing skylight. The blinds brightened intermittently all over the house. At the kitchen window, a blast of white light exposed the cottonwood’s towering vulnerability.
“Damn it to hell,” Luther muttered.
Quickly throwing on yesterday’s clothes, he went to the front door, put on his boots, and grabbed the yellow slicker hanging in the closet. Maria had given it to him years ago, and he had thought it was silly at the time, a movie slicker. Pulling the front door hard shut behind him, he headed into the battering wind.
With another curse, he broke into a halting lope, feeling unreasonably urgent, agitated to a degree that made no sense―until another strike hurled him into a violent memory decades old. He had been in this place before, running head down through blinding, smoking bombardments, indifferent to the shock waves, the flying dirt and shrapnel, the wound in his dragging leg. Suddenly another explosion had blown him skyward, and his goal had disappeared in a thunderous blast of heat and light and loss.
With reality untethered by the storm’s violence, Luther ran again through the nightmare, adrenalin flooding his system with the same anesthetic, the same indifference to self, and the same powerful beat of a fearless heart. Breathing hard and pouring with sweat, he slammed into the tree and squatted down against its back. The big trunk provided some protection against the wild gusts of wind, but pea-sized hail soon launched a stinging assault. Luther pulled the slicker’s hood down over his head, crossed his arms, and hunkered down.
Amid the incessant flashing and thunder rolling horizontally with the timbre of ancient rage, the hail rapidly turned the hard-packed dirt into a moonscape. Finally the rain came, and it too was of epic intensity. It didn’t pour; it crashed down in waves. When Luther finally sat down on the hard ground to save his knees, he was fixed in mud and icy water. Still he stayed, conjoined with the dead tree and its fate, his back pushing hard against the rough bark in painful alliance. The tree held; far into the relentless chaos, Luther broke. Here in this time and place, where no one could hear, where no one could see, where no one would ever know, he finally wept.
The storm’s fury deprived time of all meaning, so there was no telling how long he endured it. Like a satisfied bully, it finally moved on out, leaving the rain to settle into a steady, soothing downpour. Aching and chilled to the bone, Luther got stiffly to his feet, briefly supported himself against the trunk, and shoved off toward the house.
Within twenty-four hours the land began to respond, the reddish dirt darkened by damp then misting pale green as eager seeds came to life. The clouds became steadily more dramatic in the afternoon as they boiled over the mountains. There were new formations, new routes, the rain falling here and there as in a game of hide and seek.
The clouds were rimmed in white light and threatening in purplish gray; they formed billows, arcs, and tunnels; they smeared themselves here, towered there, and rolled in like breakers on a stormy beach. It was as though celestial creativity, invigorated by a time of drought, were erupting in a dazzling display of new technique. Finally the performance steadied and the rain began to fall—every afternoon, every single day for weeks.
The landscape was soon transformed, and Luther observed with a forgotten sense of wonder. The monsoon season had been good before, but this was different. Grasses grew tall and formed luxuriant heads, forgotten wildflowers erupted from cached seeds, puddles swam with primeval life, and swarms of mosquitoes hunted for prey at sundown.
The only thing unmoved in the landscape was the cottonwood, which remained as stark and remote as ever amid the overwrought flamboyance of nature in estrus. Luther searched in the new growth around its base for a sign of resurrection from an aged seed. In some way the dead tree’s fruiting had come to matter more than all of the other signs of preening renewal.
Staring at it as he ate a cheese sandwich at the kitchen sink one day, he was interrupted by the ring of the wall phone. The familiar voice of the banker greeted him.
“How’re you doing, Luther?” he asked jovially.
“Fine, thanks. I’ve been busy though. Haven’t been able to get to your letter.””
“No problem. It can wait. Got yourself an ark yet?”
Luther hated this kind of thing. “No, Ben, can’t say that I have.”
“Well, we may have an alternative, if you’re interested. A fellow came in here yesterday who wants to get into ranching.” There was that tone in his voice that spoke volumes—about somebody escaping from a city somewhere with money made from smarts he thought could turn him into a cattleman. Luther started to cut the whole thing off at the pass, but the banker forged ahead.
“He’s inherited some land he’s going to build on,” he said, meaning the man wasn’t a buyer. Luther’s eyebrows lifted. Inheriting meant something.
“He believes this summer is the beginning of something new,” the banker went on. “A shift in the earth’s axis or something, you know.” His careful tone suggested that the new customer’s stature had given this idea a degree of credibility. “He wants to do a long-term lease on some land and kind of see how things go. I thought of you and that fenced parcel on the south side of the mountain. He could maybe do a little drilling on that old well, and it wouldn’t cut into you too bad.”
Luther was silent, what the banker had not said suspended in the space between them like a white flag: he could tear up that unopened letter lying on the kitchen table; they would work with him. He turned instinctively to look behind him, half expecting to see his stooped father glaring at him as he waited for Luther’s answer. Instead he saw the tree beyond the window, pale arms reaching.
“What’s the time frame on this?” he asked as he turned back around.
“He wants to get on with it. One of those types, you know. Any chance you could come in around 2:00? Just you and me to begin with.”
Luther looked at his watch. He was still holding the remainder of the sandwich that no longer interested him. If he went right now he could get a cheeseburger at the Holding Pen. He tossed the sandwich into the nearby wastebasket. “Thanks, Ben,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
“Sure enough,” the banker responded pleasantly, and then he was gone.
Luther replaced the phone and walked over to the sink where he absentmindedly washed and dried his hands. Suddenly the starch seemed to go out of him, and he leaned forward and gripped the counter for support, head down, his body falling still.
The moment passed quickly. Luther stood up straight, removed the feed store cap, and rubbed the crease across his forehead as he took one last look out the window. Still rubbing, he walked over to the kitchen table and tossed the cap onto the latest newspaper. With a smooth turn and a subtle little slap on his right hip, he strode toward the closet where he kept the Stetson.