The Prologue to Will Greene’s Book Forthcoming:

Prologue

            The child dives deeper than before—exhales a little, tries to see clearly what’s what along the river bottom. There she sets to working up her courage. Sunlight illuminates her father’s boulder from three sides. It stands up above her reaching a few feet out of the slow current there in the middle of the swim hole. She circles around it like an otter to no avail. As always it maintains a steady largeness. Down in its belly runs a dark tunnel through which she has watched her father guide his body as many times as the two of them have walked down here together to swim. As many times as she has seen him do anything—fell a tree, roll start the truck, plow under the clover in April, bend over and over in the harvest each August through September. If trapped in the passage he’d only have to outstretch his arms and shatter the stone to a cloud of silt. Or he’d just breathe river water until she brought him sledge and chisel.

The way through is dark and looming. The feeling in her belly reverberates the warning—you will get caught and drown in the rock. Some hundred times she has held her breath and poked her head into the opening before pushing back out up to the daylight and dry air. She tells her father she’s made it through plenty, shrugs it off like nothing only to go on dying there in her nightmares. The tunnel runs narrow for only two feet and then opens up into a pocket at the other side. A sort of crater in the rock. The mouth of a sunken cave or some soulless creature. It creates an overhang that she can nestle inside of to hide from kayakers or hikers if they ever bungle through while she’s alone with the water to herself. When she’s had to duck in there and stick her feet down the passage, inevitably a vision rises. This feeling of a hand taking her by the ankle, pulling her down, holding her in the rock until she fills up heavy with river water, fish spit, and crawfish puke. She tells herself there is no evil claw to drag her down, just her own weakness and hungry fear. Her body will be free before it’s given the chance to panic. Her body tells her it’s already panicking. Visions and visions and visions of death. If only her father could draw her through and into his arms, his chest much wider than the river, the muscle of his heart more powerful than any act of violence. She must simply push herself forward and through. Simply like a machine, like him, like any wild and natural animal. Then she will be strong.

And so the child watches her freckled hands reach into the darkness and grip either side of the tunnel mouth. Pulls her body in. Feels her flat chest and round belly glide over the smooth rock. The beating of her heart sounds like the firing of a cold engine. Inside, she pauses a moment so as not to miss the bursting of triumph before pushing on. Pushing on she feels her shorts catch on a jagged spot. The bolt. She whips her head back, bashing it hard on the sharp stone ceiling. Her father warned her. She nearly breathes water into her lungs, can feel it at her throat, gags in hysteria. Stay low, he said. She sees her hands still living in front of her face. It must have been driven there by some early homesteader and was not worthy of taking her faint, young life. Here is required a calming and a focus. Clarity in action. Exhaling spent oxygen, she reaches back to free her belt-loop. Love and right pried only just from the ory hand of Satan. She’s moving again and swims free into sunlight—kicks hard up towards a dark object hovering over the river. At the surface she throws her head back, takes in a long deep breath of air, and clears the hair from her face. She is alive and a dark gray helicopter spins its long blades invisible directly above. All that is good dies. Downriver a convoy of black SUVs and trucks crosses the car bridge heading up towards the house.  She touches her head. Swell quantities of blood. In the open bay of the airship sits a man in black clothing shouldering a machine gun—he wears a pistol on his thigh, smiles off in the other direction. She breathes it all in, dives, swims to the boulder, surfaces tucked within the overhang. There is space enough for her to wedge her body into the tunnel, just keeping her face out of the water. She becomes certain it will close like the jaws of a beast and end her right there. Her father’s instructions were always to remain hidden, not think of him. If they decided to come she couldn’t do him any good. She hears her father’s voice having said this and hears the helicopter moving away, shutting off of its engine up by the house.

There’s little to do but worry and shiver. She left him an hour before, reading some letter and finishing his banana and peanut butter sandwich. He would have started taking apart the irrigation lines or tenderly shaking the cornflowers—fawning over the magical sex of proud vegetables. Probably they caught him spraying the pot field for bugs. The look he would have on his face when the first DEA truck rolled up out of the woods—just a sigh at the confirmation of practical fears. This definitive end to the chance he had taken with their lives. His empty hands rising up over his head. Resolved defeat. Ruin. He’s now surely in the backseat of one of the SUVs, cuffed, hoping to not see her through the window. She drops her mouth into the water so as to drown any call of hope or pain.

He always said—if they come, hide. If they ask, I will tell them you went with your mother and that I haven’t seen you in years. Probably they won’t even ask as you hardly exist. Go up to Earthman Ranch where you’ll be safe with Mr. Wolfe.  Then we’ll just have to see.

In the breathing lantern-light he’d talk about quitting growing and focusing on his music, raising special crops to sell to rich people’s restaurants in the cities. Gourmet beans at ten bucks a pound. When she was old enough he’d be able to leave her and go play music for money, sell heirloom corn to Sacramento business-hippies. Fulfill some half utopia.

It’s growing ever colder and she can only see a thin strip of woods at the edge of the river—really just the water up to the rocks and roots of trees. She tries to count the hours but can only think about the stiffness in her legs and the ice water digging with skewers through her hands. The sounds of doors being ripped open and men calling to each other come through the pine and oak. She can’t quite understand them except the laughter. The afternoon shadows must all together be stretching themselves out as the sun rolls down beyond the horizon. All is lost and the afternoon goes on the very same. The squat mountains with their new growth and bald spots have sat just this way for her entire life and she thinks about how long they will sit after she is dead at the bottom of the river. After she is shot dead by the gun of some government foot-soldier. After she is dead at the hands of this incomprehensible universe. Her eyes are closed and she pictures this last sunset on her house and piece of water. This river that has always wandered down through here beneath the structures her mother and father built. Their two names fingered together in the white concrete landing at the back door—that, the only evidence of her ever having been at all. Before she was old enough to speak her father had either incinerated or given away anything that reminded him of that woman whose eyes were probably blue. It has seemed this wraith figure would reappear any day now with some tale of trekking Asia, collecting jewelry and stories for campfire light. The sound of a chainsaw and more hammering echo from the house. All is lost and the river rolls unfeeling. The earth does not shrug or sigh for the life and love of one child or a thousand. Water over water over stone.

Once, after he’d stayed up drinking and arguing with Mr. Wolfe, her father had climbed to the loft and lain tired across her bed. He’d told her that if she were taken, the government people would carry her to the city and put her in a house with strangers. That she would have to be enrolled in school and they wouldn’t keep the land. That she should run away if she didn’t want that. Then he handed her an amber necklace that Mr. Wolfe had brought from a store in San Francisco—that necklace later lost jumping rocks up river.

Suddenly, the helicopter engine fires up and after a minute she can feel it hovering above. As it groans softer and softer into the distance she hears the sound of trucks disbanding. She waits until they are gone before swimming out from the overhang. Blood flows well and her legs feel alive again, stretching and bending, cutting through the water. Turning, she sees an SUV parked on the bridge and a man in a state trooper’s uniform facing her. He is about eighty yards off and straining his neck. She tries to freeze there but he has started towards her. She can’t make it to shore. She drops under and returns to her hiding place where she will now most surely die. If he forces her to, she will kill him with bare hands or tree limbs. Swim up to him and bash his face with a wet rock. She waits regaining her shivers until his legs appear on the shore directly across from her. He will not take her to some strange family in some bright house. She will grab the wheel and drive the truck off the road. He bends so she can see him, lays down a rod and reel, then pulls a glowworm and a small pair of pliers from his pocket. After tying off the lure and flattening the barb on the hook, he begins his casting. She breathes as long and soft as she can manage. Shocks run over the surface with the tremors of numb muscle to meet the concentric lines of his angling. Next the trooper casts across into the shadow of the rock and the lure splashes just in front of her face. She could grab the line and let him pull her in. She could shove the rod down his throat and leave him flopping on the shore. Suddenly though, the tip of his rod dips and he begins to crank the reel. A small but dignified female brown trout emerges from its known world. The man lays it out on the bank and watches the stretching of its gills, the flexing of its tail in meek protest. Then he slips the hook out of the fish’s mouth and returns it to the river. The trooper watches the fish go before shaking his hands clean in the bank-water and walking off out of view. Lucky for both of us, she thinks to the fish collecting itself somewhere below.

The girl waits for the sound of his truck to wane before she swims to shore and runs shivering up the path to the house, rocks and twigs biting at her feet. If she doesn’t get warm soon she’ll have to collapse and cry herself to death. She crushes one toe against the evil chunk of concrete that has been outcropping there at the edge of the trail since the dawn of time. More blood. It doesn’t matter if there are tall uniformed men at the house waiting to rape her—drag her to poison death. She runs feeling the dirt stick to her feet, the fang stuck in her toe, the nails hammered into the back of her head. Everything is covered in government signs, warnings, and yellow tape. The seal on the cabin door breaks easily. Empty. Quiet as dusk inside nothing.  She throws her clothes into a corner and dries her bluing flesh.

Drawer—clothes enough to stay alive.  Cupboard—food enough to not die.  Using a table knife she pulls up the false floorboard and grabs her father’s ammo-box. Inside are his skinning knife, his .22 pistol, and the little money they’d managed to keep from the last year’s harvest. She puts it all into a game bag and looks around. Checking through the windows, she changes into warm pants and jacket. The cut on her head has mostly dried up. The mirror above the stove offers a picture of her face, stained brown around the eyes, woeful gray at her lips. Her daddy in handcuffs. Her daddy in jail. All is lost and the body still warms itself to go on living.

It will be ten miles to the road and who knows how long before catching a ride. She fills two bottles of water and a Thermos of apple wine as a gift for Mr. Wolfe. Her father’s rifle, his guitars, all his books—all these things that will now mean nothing to nobody. This room, this space and time. Screaming deep and low in her throat, she slams the front door as hard as she can, registers the cracking in the frame, registers the sound of her boots striking the deck. Can’t begin to imagine how these last hours will evolve as she runs them over ever in her memory until the warm and distant evening in which she finds a way to die. In the pot field she sees the pyres the men had built so that they may start burning the crop first thing in the morning. The winter path out to the highway begins on the far side. The sky admits a last weak shade of blue before nighttime. Burning cold, all is lost. She marches herself into the woods.

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