Fiction

The Hollow

James Lasdun

The Parkers, father and son, came over to introduce themselves when we moved in, five years ago. Dean, the father, was slow to speak, awkward when he did. But Rick was talkative, his eyes roving inquisitively over us and our boxes of possessions. A fuzz of reddish stubble covered his neatly rounded head and pointed chin. His voice was soft, almost velvety, with a sprung quality, each word like a plucked banjo note. He told us he did a variety of odd jobs in landscaping and construction. Tree work was what he enjoyed most, the more difficult the better. He would climb up in a harness and spiked boots to drop limbs from trees that stood too close to people’s houses to fell conventionally, or he’d drive out in his pickup to haul storm-tangled, half-blown-over trees out of each other’s branches, then cut them up for firewood. Any jobs like that you need doing, he told us, I’m your man. 

Some time after that visit my wife and I passed two small children climbing the steep slope of Vanderbeck Hollow. They were both in tears, and we stopped to see if we could help. Their mother had put them out of the car for fighting, they told us, and they were walking home. 

Home, it turned out, was Rick’s house. Rick had met their mother, Faye, a few weeks earlier, at a Harley-Davidson rally, and she’d moved in, bringing her kids with her. Rick’s father had already moved out. Faye herself we met when we dropped off the children. She didn’t seem to care about our interference in their punishment. She was a thin, black-haired woman with pitted skin, bright blue eyes, and a dab of hard crimson at the center of her upper lip. She didn’t say much. 

They had their first baby the next year, a girl. Rick used to tuck her into his hunting jacket while he worked in his front yard, fixing his trucks or sharpening his chainsaw blades. He liked being a father—from the start he’d treated Faye’s two elder children as his own—but it was soon apparent that his new responsibilities were a strain for him. After a day operating the stone crusher at the Andersonville quarry or cutting rebar with one of the construction crews in town, he’d come home, eat dinner, then turn on a set of floodlights he’d rigged up to the house and start cutting and splitting firewood to make extra money. He sold it for seventy dollars a cord, which was cheap even then. I often bought a cord or two for our woodstove. Once, he asked how I made my living. “Gaming the system,” I replied, intending to sound amusingly cryptic. “You must be good at it” was all he said, pointing to our new Subaru. 

He bought a car for Faye, cutting wood later and later into the night to pay for it, renting a mechanical splitter from the hardware store and erecting huge log piles all around his house. A note of exasperation entered his talk; he seemed bewildered by the difficulty of making ends meet. Here he was, a young man in his prime—able to take care of his physical needs, to plow his own driveway, to fix his own roof, to hunt and butcher his own meat—and yet every day was a struggle. If it wasn’t money, it was offenses to his pride, which was strung tight, like every other part of him. He was always recounting (reliving, it almost seemed) insults and slights he’d received from various bosses and other representatives of the official world, along with the defiant ripostes he’d made. When Faye got a job on the night shift at Hannaford and was kept past her clocking-out time, he called up the manager at the store: “I told that freakin’ weasel to get off her back,” he said to me with a satisfied grin. She was fired soon after. 

To blow off steam he would barrel up and down the hill in his truck, churning up clouds of dust from the gravel surface. Or he would carry a six-pack up to the woods above the road and sit drinking among the oaks and ashes along the ridge. I would often find a can of Molson by a rock up there in the bracken where he’d dumped it—his gleaming spoor. He was building a little cabin on the other side of the ridge, he told me once. It was state land there, but he figured no one would care. What was it for? I asked him. He shrugged. “Just somewhere to go . . .” 

Another time he told me he’d seen a lion up there.

“A mountain lion?” 

“Yep. A catamount.” 

“I didn’t know they lived around here.” In fact I’d read that despite rumored sightings, there were no mountain lions in this area. 

He gave me a glance and I saw he’d registered my disbelief, but also that he didn’t hold it against me. “Yep. Came right up to the cabin. Sucker just stood there in the entranceway, big as a freakin’ buffalo. I kept one of the paw prints he left in the dirt. Dug it out and let it dry. I’ll show you someday.” 

As a boy, when the Parkers’ property had marked the end of the road, he’d had the run of Vanderbeck Hollow, hunting deer and wild turkey, fishing for trout in the rock pools along the stream that wound down the deep crease between Spruce Clove and Donell Mountain. He wasn’t exactly a model of ecological awareness, with his beer cans and his oil-leaking ATV that he used for dragging tree carcasses down to his truck, not to mention the roaring, fumey snowmobile he drove along the logging trails all winter, but he knew the woods up here with an intimacy that seemed its own kind of love. I walked with him up to one of the old quarries one spring morning and found myself at the receiving end of a detailed commentary on the local wildlife. To my uninformed eye, the trees and plants were more or less just an undifferentiated mass of brown and green matter, and the effect of his pointing and naming was like having a small galaxy switch itself on star by star around me. “Trout lily,” he said, and a patch of yellow flowers lit up under a boulder. “Goat’s rue,” and a silvery-stemmed plant shone out from a clearing a few yards off. “Mountain laurel,” he went on, gesturing at some dark green shrubs, “blossoms real pretty in late spring. Won’t be for another month or more yet. They call ’em laurel slicks when it grows in thickets like this. Sometimes heath balds. It’s poisonous—even honey made from the flowers is supposed to be poisonous. See here, the burl?” he put his finger on a hard, knot-like growth—“old-timers used to make pipes out of ’em. My dad has one.” 

In his lifetime he’d seen the road developed a mile and a half beyond the family property, the surrounding land sold off in twenty-acre lots, with timber frames and swimming pools and chainlink fences and NO HUNTING signs going further and further up the hill every year, and he hated it all, though his hatred stopped short of the actual human beings responsible for these incursions. One afternoon he was standing on the road with me, complaining about the arrival of backhoes to dig the foundation for a new house on the property of Cora Chastine, the neighbor below him, when Cora herself rode out of her driveway on her chestnut mare. Seeing him, she began thanking him for a favor he’d done her the night before, pulling a dinner guest’s car out of the ditch at one in the morning. Smiling gallantly, he assured her it was no problem and that he hadn’t minded being woken at that hour. “Nice lady,” he said in his purring voice when she rode on, as if there were no important connection in his mind between the person herself and her contribution to the destruction of his haunts. 

He and Faye had a second child, another girl. A hurricane—unusual in these parts—struck that year. Torrential rain had fallen for several days before, loosening roots so that the trees came crashing down like sixty-foot bowling pins when the wind hit, turning the woods into scenes of carnage, the trees lying in their sap and foliage and splintered limbs like victims of a massacre, the vast holes left by their roots gaping like bomb craters. Within the hurricane there were localized tornadoes, one of which plowed a trail of devastation through our own woods. Rick offered to do the cleanup for us, pointing out that there were some valuable trees we could sell for timber. He proposed doing all the work himself over the course of a year: to use a cousin’s team of horses to drag the timber out so as to avoid the erosion big machines caused, to load it with a hand-winched pulley (a “come-along” was his quaint name for this), to chop up all the crowns for firewood and haul off the stumps to the town dump. 

I hesitated, knowing he had no insurance and anticipating problems if he should injure himself. A lawyer friend told us on no account to let him do the work, and we hired a fully insured professional logging crew instead. They brought in a skidder the size of a tugboat, a bulldozer, two tractors, and a grappler with a claw that could grab a trunk a yard thick and hoist it thirty feet into the air. For several weeks these machines tore through our woods, bulldozing rocks, branches, and stumps into huge unsightly piles and ripping a raw red trail across streambeds and fern-filled clearings to the landing stage by the road, where the crew loaded the limbless trunks onto a double-length trailer to sell at the lumber yard. I ran into Rick several times on the road during the operation. He never reproached us for passing him over for the job; in fact he offered good advice on how not to get cheated out of our share of the proceeds. But I felt uncomfortable seeing him walk by, as though I’d denied him work that was his by rights. 

He and Faye got married the following summer. We were invited to the celebratory pig roast. It was a big party: beat-up old pickup trucks lining the road halfway down the hill and twenty or thirty motorcycles parked in the driveway. We recognized a few neighbors, otherwise it was all Faye’s and Rick’s biker friends in leather jackets and bandannas. At the center of the newly cleaned-up front yard a dance floor had been improvised out of bluestone slabs that Rick must have dragged from one of the old quarries up in the woods. Beside it a band was playing fast, reeling music: two fiddles, a guitar, a banjo, and a mandolin, the players belting out raucous harmonies as they flailed away at their instruments. 

I liked this mountain music. I’d started listening to it a few years before and found myself susceptible to its mercurial moods and colors—more so than ever since we’d moved up here to mountains of our own, where it had come to seem conjured directly out of the bristly, unyielding landscape itself, the rapid successions of pain and sweetness, tension and release, frugality and spilling richness, arising straight out of these thickly wooded crags and gloomy gullies with their sun-shot clearings and glittering, wind-riffled creeks. I would listen to it in the car as I drove to work, an hour down the thruway. The lucrative drudgery of my job left me with a depleted sensation, as though I’d spent the days asleep or dead, but driving there and back I would play my Clinch Mountain Boys CDs at full volume, and as their frenzied, propulsive energies surged into me I would bray along at the top of my lungs, harmonizing with unabashed tunelessness, and a feeling of joy would arise in me as if a second self, full of fiery, passionate vitality were at the point of awakening inside me. 

A van drove into the yard shortly after we arrived. In it was the pig for the pig roast. As a wedding joke, their friends had arranged to have the animal delivered alive instead of dead. Two of them helped the butcher lead it from the van, roping its bucking, scarlet-eyed head and shit-squirting rear end, and dragging it over to Rick. One of them handed him a gleaming knife. 

“What’s this?” 

He stared down at the animal, writhing frantically in its ropes. 

Faye had appeared, dressed in a denim skirt and red cowboy boots. She looked on, smoking a cigarette with an air of neutral but attentive interest. 

“You gotta do the honors, buddy,” one of the bikers said. “Duty of the groom.” 

There was loud laughter, a shout of “go on, cut his goddamn throat.” 

“I’ll cut your goddamn throat,” Rick muttered. He went into the house and there was a brief, awkward hiatus. He came back out with a shotgun. Faye turned away. 

“Hey, you can’t do that, he has to bleed to death, don’t he?” A guest said, looking at the butcher, who gave a noncommittal shrug. 

Ignoring them both, Rick loaded a cartridge into the gun and fired it straight into the pig’s head, splattering himself and several others with blood and brains. This set off guffaws of laughter among the bikers, and Rick himself cracked a smile. “I’ll get the come-along,” he said. They hoisted the pig up with the device—an archaic-looking assemblage of cords and gears and wooden pulleys—hanging it by its hind legs from a tree branch, and the butcher slit it open, spilling its innards into a bucket. Then they drove a spit through it and set it up over a halved oil drum grill, and the band, which had fallen silent during this episode, struck up again, three high voices in a blasting triad calling out, “Weeee-ill you miss me?” followed by the single morose rumble of their thick-bearded baritone: “miss me when I’m gawwwn . . .” 

Rick came up to us with a bottle of applejack that he claimed to have brewed himself with fruit from his grandfather’s old prohibition orchard at the back of their lot. He insisted we take a swig from the bottle—it was pure liquid fire—then reeled away, grabbing Faye for a dance on the stone floor. 

It was at this moment, watching him cavort around his bride with one hand on his hip and the other brandishing the bottle high in the air, while she stared out across the valley at the dusty emerald flank of Donell Mountain, that I registered, for the first time, the tinge of sadness in Faye’s expression, underlying the more visible cold severity. 

I was away much of the following year and aside from a few fleeting glimpses didn’t see them again until the fall, when I ran into them at a neighbor’s party. Arshin and Leanne, the hosts, were therapists, Buddhists, members of the local “healing community”: Leanne shaven-headed like a Tibetan monk, Arshin gaunt and dark, a set of prayer beads forever clicking in his fingers. Their friends were mostly either acupuncturists or qigong practitioners. Rick and Faye were standing in a corner, drinking beers with a tall man in a scuffed leather jacket and a pair of muddy work boots. The three of them looked out of place among these shoeless, tea-drinking wraiths. I went over to say hello. Rick introduced their friend as his “buddy” Schuyler. I noticed a string of numbers tattooed across the back of his neck, like a serial number. He gave a nod, then faded swiftly back into what appeared to be some immensely pleasurable private reverie. Purely to make conversation I asked Rick if he was planning to sell firewood again this fall. 

“Maybe.” 

“I’d like a cord if you are.” 

“Okay.” 

He didn’t seem all that interested in talking. I moved away, wondering if I’d offended him by talking business at a social gathering. Schuyler and Faye left the party but Rick stayed on, drinking steadily. At one point he started asking women to dance, even though it wasn’t that kind of party. One or two of them did, just to humor him. 

The next night, at two in the morning, he started firing off his gun. The same thing happened for the next several nights. I called to ask what was going on. He answered the phone with the words “Hello, you’ve reached the Vanderbeck Hollow Cat-House and Abortion Clinic,” then hung up. A few days later I came home from the train station to find a pile of logs dumped over the lawn. It was true that I’d asked for wood, but normally we would discuss the price and the time of delivery before Rick brought it over, and he would help me stack it. I called him that evening. Without apologizing for dumping the wood, he said he wanted a hundred and twenty dollars for it. 

“That’s quite a bit more than you usually charge.” 

“That’s the price.” 

I stacked the wood. It seemed less than a full cord, and I said so when I took the check down to Rick the next day. He was outside, talking with Faye by the stone oven he’d built in their front yard. He barely looked at me as I spoke. 

“That was a full cord,” was all he said, taking the check. “I measured it.” 

It was only when I spoke to Arshin a few days later that I began to understand Rick’s behavior, and it is only since I’ve spoken with a cousin of Rick’s who works at the post office that I’ve been able to piece together the sequence of events in the month that followed. Schuyler, their companion at Arshin’s party, was not a friend of Rick’s at all, let alone his “buddy,” but an old acquaintance of Faye’s. The exact nature of their relationship was not made apparent to any of us at this time: all we knew was that he had turned up at Rick’s house, having just come out of jail where he’d spent eighteen months for selling methamphetamine. Faye ran off with him the day after that party, leaving the four kids behind. She was gone for five nights. Those were the nights Rick fired off his gun. She came back, they had a fight, a reconciliation, then she took off again. The sequence repeated itself a third time, after which Rick told her to stay out of the house for good. She could take the children or leave them, he told her, but she had to go. At this point Faye became violently angry, throwing furniture and dishes at the walls till one of the older kids called the cops. Before they arrived Rick chamber-locked his gun and set it outside the house. “That was so the cops would see there wasn’t no gun violence in the house,” his cousin told me. Faye had cooled down by the time they showed up. Very calmly she told them that Rick had threatened to kill her and the children and then himself. The police, obliged to take such threats seriously, carted Rick off to the Andersonville hospital psychiatric wing for a week’s enforced observation. By the time he came out of the hospital, Faye had obtained a protection order, barring him from coming within a mile of the house. 

The next few days are a mystery, obscured by conflicting reports and gaps in the record. What was known for sure was that Rick spent them at the home of a relative, a woman named Esther whom he referred to as his “second mother,” his first having disappeared when he was small. He was distraught, drinking heavily, but also looking for work: intent on supporting his family even though he wasn’t allowed to see them. The Saturday after Thanksgiving he took a job with a landscaper who’d been hired to do tree work on a property in town. We first heard about the accident when Arshin called on Sunday to ask if we knew whether it was true that Rick had been killed the day before: hanged, up a tree. An hour later he called back to confirm the report. A heavy branch, roped to the ground to make it fall in a particular direction, had been caught by a gust and blown the wrong way, slashing the rope across Rick’s neck and chest, asphyxiating him. He was seventy feet up in the air and the fire department couldn’t reach him with their cherry picker. They put out a call for a bucket ladder. A local contractor brought one and grappled him down. He was blue. The emergency helicopter on its way from Albany was sent back. 

The funeral service was in town, at the Pinewood Memorial Home. It was already crowded when we arrived: young, old, suits, overalls, biker jackets, everyone in a state of raw grief. We signed the register and made our way inside. Loud, agitated whisperings rose and fell around us, anger glittering along with tears. Already there was a sense of different versions of Rick’s last days forming and hardening, of details being exchanged and collected, variants disputed. The two older children sat on the front bench on one side of the chapel, fearful-looking as they had been when we first saw them, walking alone up the twilit slope of Vanderbeck Hollow. On the other side were Rick’s relatives, his father sitting rigid, hands on his knees, broad back motionless. 

Faye appeared from a side room with the two little girls and slid next to the older two, glancing briefly over her shoulder at the congregation, her face stricken, though whether with grief, guilt, or terror was hard to say. Even among her four children she seemed a solitary, unconnected figure. 

A minister came in and told us to rise. After he read from the Bible and we sang a hymn, people went up to the front to speak. High-school anecdotes were recounted, fishing stories, the time Rick was chased out of his front yard by a bear. A tall, silver-haired woman stood up. As she began speaking, I realized she was Esther, Rick’s second mother. She said she’d had a long conversation with Rick a few days before his death, when he was staying with her. 

“In hindsight,” she continued, “unbelievably, I see that I have to take this conversation as the expression of Rick’s last wishes.” 

With a firm look around the crowded chapel, she announced that he’d said he still loved Faye. 

“He told me he still hoped to have another child with her, a son.” 

She paused a moment, then concluded: 

“Therefore, Faye, I honor you as his widow, and I love you.” 

An unexpected brightening sensation passed through me at these words. I, like everyone else no doubt, had arrived at the funeral believing Rick had been up in that tree in a state of impaired judgment, if not outright suicidal despair, and that this was a direct result of Faye’s behavior. I still did believe this to be the case, but I was caught off guard by the implicit plea for compassion in Esther’s speech. I found myself thinking again of the expression I’d glimpsed on Faye’s face at the wedding, gazing off into the late summer greenness of the hollow, and although I still had no more idea what it signified than I had at the time, I wondered if there was perhaps something more in the nature of a torment underlying her behavior than the purely banal selfishness and manipulation by which I had so far accounted for it. 

The service ended. Whether by design or some unconscious collective assent, our departure from the chapel was conducted more formally than our arrival: a single, slow line formed, passing out by way of the casket. It was open, and there was no avoiding looking in. Ribboned envelopes were pinned to the white satin lining of the lid. Dear Daddy, they read, in childish handwriting. I mounted the single step, bracing myself for the encounter. There he lay: eyes closed, beard trimmed, cheeks and lips not-so-subtly made up, chalky hands together holding a turkey feather. I stared hard, trying to recognize in this assemblage of features my neighbor of five years. For a moment it seemed to me that I could make out a trace of the old mischievous grin that floated over him even when his luck was down, and it struck me—God knows why—as the look of someone who knows that despite everything having gone wrong with his life, at some other level everything was alright. 

That was November. Knowing what I know now—what we all know now—I go back to that ghost of a grin on Rick’s face and find I must read into it a note of resignation as well as that appearance of contentment: submission to a state of affairs as implacably out of reach of human exertion as the shift of wind that took his life. And by the same token I go back to the look on Faye’s face at their wedding and find in it, beyond the general sadness, the specific expression of a person observing that nothing after all, not even the charm of one’s own wedding day, is powerful enough to purge the past or stop its taint from spreading into the future. Whether this disposes of the “banal” in her subsequent actions, I am not sure, the situation being, in a sense, the precise essence of banality. Schuyler had been her foster brother from the time he was fifteen and she eleven. Arshin had the story from an acquaintance who used to work for the Andersonville Social Services. Over the course of several years, in a small house in the section of town known as the Depot Flats, he had—what?—seduced her? Taken advantage of her? Raped her? No word seems likely to fit the case, not in any useful way, which is to say in any way that might account for the disparate, volatile cluster of wants, needs, aversions, and fears the experience appears to have bequeathed her: the apparent determination to put a distance, or at any rate the obstacle of another man, between herself and Schuyler, her equally apparent undiminished susceptibility to him, her cold manner, her strange power to make a man as warm and tender as Rick fall in love with her nevertheless. 

She stayed in the house all December and January, though I barely glimpsed her. Arshin claimed Schuyler was living with her, sneaking up there at night and leaving first thing in the morning, but we saw no sign of him. In February we went on vacation. When we got back there was a realtor’s board up outside the house. Faye had left abruptly—for Iowa we heard later, where she had relatives—and Rick’s father had decided to sell the place. It sold quickly, to a couple from New York who wanted it for a weekend home. 

A few days ago I met Cora Chastine coming down the road on her mare. We stopped to talk and at some point I remarked how quiet Vanderbeck Hollow had become without Rick roaring up and down it in his truck. Cora looked blank for a moment and I wondered if she was growing forgetful in her old age. But then, in that serene, melodious voice of hers, she said: 

“Do you know, I realized the other day that Rick is the first person whose life I’ve observed in its entirety from birth to death within my own lifetime. I was living here when he was born and I’m still living here now that he’s no longer alive. Isn’t that remarkable?” 

I nodded politely. She gave the reins a little flick and glided on. 

I’d been planning to take my usual late-afternoon walk to the top of the road and back, but something was making me restless—some faint sense of shame, no doubt, at having failed to protest that Rick’s existence might be regarded as something other than merely the index of this genteel horse-woman’s powers of survival—and instead of turning back I continued along the logging trail that leads from the end of the road up through the woods to the ridge. 

It had been years since I’d been up there. The trail was muddy and puddled from the late thaw but the service blossoms were out, ragged yellow stars, and the budding leaves on the maples and oaks made high domes through which the last of the daylight glowed in different shades of green. Reaching the top of the ridge I followed the path down the far side, past the rusted swing gate with its STATE LAND sign and on down the uninhabited slope that faces north across Spruce Hollow. 

The trees here were different: hemlocks and pines, with some kind of dark-leaved shrub growing between them, its leaf-crown held up on thin, bare, twisting grey stems like strange goblets. It took me a moment to recognize this as mountain laurel—deer must have stripped it below shoulder level, creating this eerie appearance—and I was just trying to remember the things Rick had told me about this plant the time we walked up through the woods together when my eye was caught by a straight-edged patch of darkness off in the distance. I realized, peering through the tangled undergrowth, that I was looking at a man-made structure. 

Leaving the path, I made my way towards it, and I saw that it was a hut built out of logs. It stood in a small clearing. The walls were about five feet high, the peeled logs neatly notched into each other at the corners. The roof had been draped with wire-bound bundles of brush. A door made of axe-hewn planks hung in the entrance. I pushed it and it swung open onto a twilit space, and by a swift chain reaction of stimulus and remembrance, I became abruptly aware that I was standing in the cabin that Rick had built himself in order to have, as he had put it, somewhere to go. 

The top few inches of the rear wall had been left open under the eaves, giving a thin view of Spruce Clove. On the dirt floor below stood a seat carved out of a pine stump, with a plank shelf fitted at waist height into the wall beside it. An unopened can of Molson stood on this, next to what looked like an improvised clay ashtray. 

I sat on the stump, struck by the thought that this would make a good refuge from the world if I too should ever feel the need for somewhere to go. And then, as I was sizing up the shelf for possible use as a desk, I saw that what I’d thought was an ashtray was not in fact an ashtray at all. I picked it up: it was a piece of dried clay that had been hollowed by the imprint of an enormous, clawed paw. 

A sudden apprehension traveled through me. Despite a strong impulse to swing around, I stopped myself: I dislike giving way to superstition. Even so, as I sat there gazing up at the granite outcrops of Spruce Clove streaked in evening gold, I had an almost overpowering sense of being looked at myself, stared at in uncomprehending astonishment by some wild creature standing in the doorway. 

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