One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)
Caitlín R. Kiernan
Caitlín R. Kiernan is the author of several novels, including Low Red Moon, Daughter of Hounds, and The Red Tree, which was nominated for both the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy awards. Most recently, her seventh novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, was published by Penguin. Since 2000, her shorter tales of the weird, fantastic, and macabre have been collected in several volumes, including Tales of Pain and Wonder; From Weird and Distant Shores; To Charles Fort, with Love; and The Ammonite Violin and Others. In 2011, Subterranean Press released a retrospective of her early writing, Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One), with a second volume planned for 2014. She lives in Providence, RI, with her partner, Kathryn.
I am dreaming. Or I am awake.
I’ve long since ceased to care, as I’ve long since ceased to believe it matters which. Dreaming or awake, my perceptions of the hill and the tree and what little remains of the house on the hill are the same. More importantly, more perspicuously, my perceptions of the hill and the house and the tree are the same. Or, as this admittedly is belief, so open to debate, I cannot imagine it would matter whether I am dreaming or awake. And this observation is as good a place to begin as any.
I am told in the village that the tree was struck by lightning on just after sunset on St. Crispin’s Day, eleven years ago. I am told in the village that no thunderstorm accompanied the lightning strike, that the October sky was clear and dappled with stars. The Village. It has a name, though I prefer to think, and refer, to it simply as The Village. Nestled snugly—some would say claustrophobically—between the steep foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, within what geographers name the Sandwich Range, and a deep lake the villagers call Witalema. On my maps, the lake has no name at all. A librarian in The Village told me that Witalema was derived from the language of the Abenakis, from the word gwitaalema, which, she said, may be roughly translated as “to fear someone.” I’ve found nothing in any book or anywhere online that refutes her claim, though I have also found nothing to confirm it. So I will always think of that lake and its black, still waters as Lake Witalema, and choose not to speculate on why its name means “to fear someone.” I found more than enough to fear on the aforementioned lightning-struck hill.
There is a single, nameless cemetery in The Village, located within a stone’s throw of the lake. The oldest headstone I have found there dates back to 1674. That is, the man buried in the plot died in 1674. He was a born in 1645. The headstone reads Ye blooming Youth who see this Stone / Learn early Death may be your own. It seems oddly random to me that only the word see makes use of the Latin s. In stray moments I have wondered what the dead man might have seen to warrant this peculiarly of the inscription, or if it is merely an engravers mistake that was not corrected and so has survived these past three hundred and thirty-eight years. I dislike the cemetery, perhaps because of its nearness to the lake, and so I have only visited it once. Usually, I find comfort in graveyards, and I have a large collection of charcoal rubbings taken from gravestones in New England.
But why, I ask myself, do I shy from the cemetery, and possibly only because of its closeness to Lake Witalema, when I returned repeatedly of the hill and the tree and what little remains of the house on the hill? It isn’t a question I can answer. I doubt I will ever be able to answer it. I only know that what I have seen on that hilltop is far more dreadful than anything the lake could ever have to show me.
I am climbing the hill, and I am awake, or I am asleep.
I’m thinking about the lightning strike on St. Crispin’s Day, lightning from a clear night sky, and I’m thinking of the fire that consumed the house and left the tree a gnarled charcoal crook. Also, my mind wanders—probably defensively—to the Vatican’s decision too little evidence can be found to prove the existence of either of the twin brothers, St. Crispin and St. Crispinian, and how they survived their first close call with martyrdom, after being tossed into a river with millstones tied about their necks, only to be beheaded, finally, by decree of Rictus Barus. Climbing up that hill, pondering obscure Catholic saints who may not ever have lived, it occurs to me I may read too much. Or only read too much into what I read. I pause to catch my breath, and I glance up at the sky. Today there are clouds, unlike the night the lightning came. If the villagers are to be believed, of course. And given the nature of what sits atop the hill, the freak strike that night seems not so miraculous. The clouds seem to promise rain, and I’ll probably be soaking wet by the time I get back to my room in the rundown motel on the outskirts of the village. Faraway, towards what my tattered topographic map calls Mount Passaconaway there is the low rumble of thunder (Passaconaway is another Indian name, from the Pennacook, a tribe closely related to the Abenakis, but I have no idea whatsoever what the word might mean). The trail is steep here, winding between spruce and pine, oaks, poplars, and red maples. I imagine the maple leaves must appear to catch fire in the autumn. Catch fire or bleed. The hill always turns my thoughts morbid, a mood that is not typical of my nature. Reading this, one might think otherwise, but that doesn’t change the truth of it. Having caught my breath, I continue up the narrow, winding path, hoping to reach the summit before the storm catches up with me. Weathered granite crunches beneath my boots.
“Were I you,” said the old man who runs The Village’s only pharmacy, “I’d stay clear of that hill. No fit place to go wandering about. Not after…” And then he trailed off and went back to ringing up my purchase on the antique cash register.
“…the lightning came,” I said, finishing his statement. “After the fire.”
He glared at me and made an exasperated, disapproving sound.
“You ain’t from around here, I know, and whatever you’ve heard, I’m guessing you’ve written it off as Swamp Yankee superstition.”
“I have a more open mind than you think,” I told him.
“Maybe that’s so. Maybe it ain’t,” he groused and looked for the price on a can of pears in heavy syrup. “Either way, I guess I’ve said my peace. No fit place, and you’d do well to listen.”
But I might have only dreamt that, as I might have dreamt the graveyard on the banks of Lake Witalema, and the headstone of a man who died in 1674, and the twisted, charred tree, and…
It doesn’t matter.
I live in The City, a safe century of miles south and east of The Village. When I have work, I am a science journalist. When I do not, I am an unemployed science journalist who tries to stay busy by blogging what I would normally sell for whatever pittance is being offered. Would that I had become a political pundit or a war correspondent. But I didn’t. I have no interest or acumen for politics or bullets. I wait on phone calls, on jobs from a vanishing stable of newspapers and magazines, on work from this or that website. I wait. My apartment is very small, even by the standards of The City, and only just affordable on budget. Or lack thereof. Four cramped rooms in the attic of a brownstone that was built when the neighborhood was much younger, overlooking narrow streets crowded with upscale boutiques and restaurants that charge an arm and a leg for a sparkling green bottle of S. Pellagrino. I can watch wealthy men and women walk their shitty little dogs.
I have a few bookshelves, crammed with reference material on subjects ranging from cosmology to quantum physics, virology to paleontology. My coffee table, floor, desk, and almost every other conceivable surface are piled high with back issues of Science and Physical Review Letters and Nature and…you get the point. That hypothetical you, who may or may not be reading this. I’m making no assumptions. I have my framed diplomas from MIT and Yale on the wall above my desk, though they only serve to remind me that whatever promise I might once have possessed has gone unrealized. And that I’ll never pay off the student loans that supplemented my meager scholarships. I try, on occasions, to be proud on those pieces of paper and their gold seals, but I rarely turn that trick.
I sit, and I read. I blog, and I wait, watching as the balance in my bank account dwindles.
One week ago tomorrow my needlessly fancy iPhone rang, and on the other end was an editor from Discover who’d heard from a field geologist about the lightning struck hill near The Village, and who thought it was worth checking out. That it might make an interesting sidebar, at the very least. A bit of a meteorological mystery, unless it proved to be nothing but local tall tales. I had to pay for my own gas, but I’d have a stingy expense account for a night at a motel and a couple of meals. I had a week to get the story in. I should say, obviously, I have long since exceeded my expense account and missed the deadline. I keep my phone switch off.
It doesn’t matter anymore. In my ever decreasing moments of clarity, I find myself wishing that it did. I need the money. I need the byline. I absolutely do not need an editor pissed at me and word getting around that I’m unreliable.
But it doesn’t matter anymore.
Wednesday, one week ago, I got my ever-ailing, tangerine-and-rust Nissan out of the garage where I can’t afford to keep it. I left The City, and I left Massachusetts via I-493, which I soon traded for I-93, and then I-293 at Manchester. Then, it will suffice to say that I left the interstates and headed east until I reached The Village nestled here between the kneeling mountains. I didn’t make any wrong turns. It was easy to find. The directions the editor at Discover had emailed were correct in every way, right down to the shabby motel on the edge of The Village.
Right down to the lat-long GPS coordinates of the hill and the tree and what little remains of the house on the hill.
N 43.81591/W -71.37035.
I think I have offered all these details only as an argument, to myself, that I am—or at least was once—a rational human being. Whatever I have become, or am becoming, I did start out believing the truths of the universe were knowable.
But now I am sliding down a slippery slope towards the irrational.
Now, I doubt everything I took for granted when I came here.
Before I first climbed the hill.
If the preceding is an argument, or a ward, or whatever I might have intended it as, it is a poor attempt, indeed.
But it doesn’t matter, and I know that.
I imagine that the view from the crest of the hill was once quite picturesque. As I’ve mentioned, there’s an unobstructed view of the heavily wooded slopes and peaks of Mount Passaconaway, and of the valleys and hills in between. This vista must be glorious under a heavy snowfall. I have supposed that is why the house was built here. Likely, it was someone’s summer home, possibly someone not so unlike myself, someone foreign to The Village.
The librarian I spoke of earlier, I asked her if the hill has a name, and all she said was “One Tree.”
“One Tree Hill?” I asked.
“One Tree,” she replied curtly. “Nobody goes up there any-more.”
I am quite entirely aware I am trapped inside, and that I am writing down, anything but an original tale of uncanny New England. But if I do not know, I will at least be honest about what I do not know. I have that responsibility, that fraying shred of naturalism remaining in me. Whether or not it is cliché is another thing which simply doesn’t matter.
I reach the crest of the hill, and just like every time before, the first thing that strikes my eyes is the skeleton of that tree. I’m not certain, but I believe it was an oak, until that night eleven years ago. It must have been ancient, judging by the circumference and diameter of its base. It might have stood here when that man I have yet to (and will not) name was buried in 1674. But I don’t know how long oak trees live, and I haven’t bothered to find out. It is a dead tree, and all the “facts” that render it more than a dead tree exist entirely independently of its taxonomy.
Aside from the remains of the one tree, the hilltop is “bald.” The woods have not reclaimed it. If I stand at the lightning-struck tree, the nearest living tree, in any direction is at least twenty-five yards. There is only stone and bracken, weeds, vines, and fallen, rotten limbs. So, it is always hotter at the top of the hill, and the ground seems drier and rockier. There is a sense of flesh rubbed raw and unable to heal.
Like all the times I have come here before, there is, immediately, the inescapable sense that I have entered a place so entirely and irrevocably defiled as to have passed beyond any conventional understanding of corruption. I cannot ever escape the impression that. somehow, the event that damned this spot (for it is damned) struck so very deeply at the fabric of this patch of the world as to render it beyond that which is either unholy or holy. Neither good nor evil have a place here. Neither are welcome, so profound was the damage done that one St. Crispin’s Night. And if the hill seems blasphemous, it is only because it has come to exist somewhere genuinely Outside. I won’t try, to elaborate just yet. It is enough to say Outside. Even so, I’ll concede that the dead tree stands before me like an altar. It strikes me that way every time, in direct contradiction to what I’ve said about it. Or, I could say, instead, it stands like a sentry, but then one must answer the question about what it might be standing guard over. Bricks from a crumbling foundation? The maze of poison ivy and green briars? A court of skunks, rattlesnakes, and crows?
The sky presses down on the hill, heavy as the sea.
From the top of the hill, the wide blue sky looks very hungry.
What is it that skies eat? That thin rind of atmosphere between a planet and the hard vacuum of outer space? I’m asking questions that lead nowhere. I’m asking questions only because it occurs to me that I have never written them down, or that they have never before occurred to me so I ought to write them down.
A cloudless night sky struck at the hill, drawing something out, even if I am unable to describe what that something is, and so I will say this event is the author of my questions on the possible diet of the sky.
Even after eleven years, the top of the hill smells like smoke, ash, charcoal, cinder, all those odors we mean when we say, “I can smell fire.” We cannot smell fire, but we smell the byproducts of combustion, and that smell lingers here. I wonder if it always will. I am standing ay the top of the hill, thinking all these thoughts, when I here something coming up quickly behind me. It’s not the noise a woman or a man’s feet would make. A deer, possibly. An animal with long and delicate limbs, small hooves to pick its way through the forest and along stony trails. This is what I hear, but, then, most people think they can smell fire.
I take one step forward, and a charred section of root crunches beneath the soles of my hiking boots. The sound seems very loud, though I suspect that only another illusion.
“Why is it you keep coming back here?” she asks. The way she phrases the question, I could pretend I’ve never heard her ask it before. My mouth is dry. I want to remove my pack and take out the lukewarm bottle of water inside, but I don’t.
“It could open wide and eat me,” I say to her. “A carnivorous sky like that.”
There’s a pause, nothing but a stale bit of breeze through the leaves of the trees surrounding the lightning-struck ring. Then she laughs, that peculiar laugh of hers, which is neither unnerving nor a sound that in any way put one at ease.
“Now you’re being ridiculous,” she says.
“I know,” I admit. “But that’s the way it makes me feel, hanging up there.”
“What you describe is a feeling of dread.”
“Isn’t that what happened here, that St. Crispin’s Day? Didn’t the sky open its mouth and gnaw this hill and everything on it—the tree, the house?”
“You listen too much to those people in the village.”
That’s the way she says it, the village. Never does she say The Village. It is an important nuance. What seems, as she has pointed out, dreadful to me is innately mundane to her.
“They don’t have much to say about the hill,” I tell her.
“No, they don’t. But what they do say, it’s hardly worth your time.”
“I get the feeling they’d bulldoze this place, if they weren’t too afraid to come here. I believe they would take dynamite to it, shave off the top until no evidence of that night remains.”
“Likely, you’re not mistaken,” she agrees. “Which is precisely why you shouldn’t listen to them.”
I wish I knew the words to accurately delineate, elucidate, explain the rhythm and stinging lilt of her voice. I cannot. I can only do my best to recall what she said that day, which, of course, was not the first nor the last day she has spoken with me. Why she bothers, that might be the greatest of all these mysteries, though it might seem the least. Appearances are deceiving.
“Maybe there were clouds that night,” I say. “Maybe it’s just that no one noticed them. They may only have noticed that flash of lightning, and only noticed that because of what it left behind.”
“If you truly thought that’s what happened, you wouldn’t keep coming here.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” I say, though I won’t to turn about and spit in her face, if she even has a face. I presume she does. But I’ve never turned to find out. I’ve never looked at her, and I know I never will. Like Medusa, she is not to be seen.
Yes, that was a tad melodramatic, but isn’t all of this? The same as it’s cliché?
“It’s unhealthy, returning to this place again and again. You ought stop.”
“I can’t. I haven’t…” and I trail off. It is a sentence I never should have begun and which I certainly don’t wish to finish.
“…solved yet? No, but it is also one you never should have asked yourself. The people in the village, they don’t ask it. Except, possibly, in their dreams.”
“You think the people in The Village are ridiculous. You just said so.”
“No, that is not exactly what I said, but it’s true enough. How-ever, there genuinely are questions you’re better off not asking.”
“Ignorance is bliss,” I say, almost mangling the words with laughter.
“That is not what I said, either.”
“Excuse me. I’m getting a headache.”
“Don’t you always, when you come up here? You should stop to consider why that is, should you not?”
I’m silent for a time, and then I answer, “You want me to stop coming. You would rather I stop coming. I suspect you might even need me to stop coming.”
“Futility disturbs me,” she says. “You’re becoming Sisyphus, rolling his burden up that hill. You’re become Christ, lugging the cross towards Calvary.”
I don’t disagree.
“Loki,” I add.
“It hasn’t gotten as bad as what happened to Loki. No serpent dripping venom, which is good, because I have no Sigyn to catch it in her bowl.” The story of Loki so bound puts me in mind of Prometheus, the eagle always, always devouring his liver. But I say nothing of Prometheus to her.
“It is the way of humans to create these brilliant, cautionary metaphors, then ignore them.”
Again, I don’t disagree. It doesn’t matter anymore.
“But it did happen, yes? There were no clouds that night?”
“It did happen.” She is the howling, fiery voice of God whispering confirmation of what my gut already knew. She has been before, and will be again.
“Go home,” she says. “Go back to your apartment in your city, before it’s too late to go back. Go back to your life.”
“Why do you care?” I ask this question, because I know it’s already too late to go back to The City. For any number of reasons, not the least because I have climbed the hill and looked at the silent devastation.
“There’s no revelation to be had here,” she sighs. “No slouching beast prefacing revelation. No revelation and no prophecy. No מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin) at the feast of Belshazzar. She speaks in Hebrew, and I reply, “Numbered, weighed, divided.”
“You won’t find that here.”
“Why do you assume that is why I keep coming back.”
This time she only clicks her tongue twice against the roof of her mouth. Tongue, mouth. These are both assumptions, as is face.
“Not because of what I might see, but because of what I’ve al-ready seen. What will I ever see to equal this? Did it bring you here?”
“No,” she says, the word another exasperated sigh.
“You were here before.”
“No,” she sighs.
“Doesn’t it ever get lonely, being up here all alone.”
“You make a lot of assumptions, and, frankly, I find them wearisome.”
I doesn’t even occur to me to apologize. A secret recess of my consciousness must understand that apologies would be meaningless to one such as her. I hear those nimble legs, those tiny feet that might as well end in hooves. There are other noises I won’t attempt to describe.
“Is it an assumption that it is within your power to stop me?”
“Yes, of course that is an assumption.”
“Yet,” and I can’t take my eyes off what’s left of the charred tree, “many assumption prove valid.”
She leaves me then. There are no words of parting, no good-bye. There never is; she simply leaves, and I am alone at the top of the hill with the tree and what little remains of the house on the hill, wondering if she will come next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. I pick up a lump of four hundred million year old granite, which seems to tingle in my hand, and I hurl it towards faraway Mount Passaconaway, as it I had a chance of hitting my tar[e]get.
One thing leads to another. I am keenly aware of the casual chain of cause and effect that dictates, as does any tyrant, the events of the cosmos.
A lightning-struck hill.
A Village hemmed in by steep green slopes and the shadows they cast.
A black lake, and a man who died in 1674.
I had a lover once. Only once, but it was a long relationship. It died a slow and protracted death, borne as much of my disappointment in myself as my partner’s disappointment in my disappointment of myself. I suppose you can only watch someone you love mourn for so long before your love becomes disgust. Or I may misunderstand completely. I’ve never made a secret of my difficulty in understanding the motives of people, no matter how close to me they have been, no matter how long they have been close to me. It doesn’t seem to matter.
None of it matters now.
But last night, after I climbed to hill, after my conversation with whatever it is lives alone up there, after that, I made a phone call from the squalid motel room. I have not called my former lover in three years. In three years, we have not spoken. Had we, early on, I might have had some chance of repairing the damage I’d done. But it had all seemed so inevitable, and any attempt to stave off the inevitable seemed absurd. In my life, I have loved two things. The first died before we met, and with my grieving for the loss of the first did I kill the second. Well, did I place the second forever beyond my reach.
If I have not already made it perfectly clear, I have no love for The City, nor my apartment, and most especially not for the career I have resigned myself to, or, I would say, that I have settled for.
Last night I called. I thought no one would pick up.
“Hello,” I said, and there was a long, long silence. Just hang up, I thought, though I’m not sure which of us I was wishing would hang up. It was a terrible idea, so please just hang up before it gets more terrible.
“Why are you calling me?”
“I’m not entirely certain.”
“Its been three years. Why the fuck are you calling me tonight?”
“Something’s happening. Something very strange, and I didn’t have anyone else to call.”
“I’m the last resort,” and there was a dry, bitter laugh. There was the sound of a cigarette being lit, and the exhalation of smoke.
“You still smoke,” I said.
“Yeah. Look, I don’t care what’s happening. Whatever it is, you deal with it.”
“Maybe you’re not trying hard enough.”
“Will you only listen? It won’t take long, and I don’t expect you to solve any of my problems. I need to tell someone.”
Another long pause, only the sound of smoking to interrupt the silence through the receiver.
“Fine. But be quick. I’m busy.”
I’m not, I think. I may never be busy again. Isn’t that a choice one makes, whether to be busy or not? I have, in coming to The Village, left busyness behind me.
I told my story, which sounded even more ridiculous than I’d expected it to sound. I left out most of my talks with the thing that lives atop the hill, as no one can recall a conversation, not truly, and I didn’t want to omit a word of it.
Whether or not each word is of consequence.
“You need to see someone.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“No. Not maybe. You need to see someone.”
We said goodbye, and I was instructed to never call again.
I hung up first, then sat by the phone (I’d used the motel phone, not my cell).
A few seconds later, it rang again, and I quickly, hopefully, lifted the receiver. But it was the voice from the hill. Someone else might have screamed.
“You should leave,” she says. “It’s still not too late to leave. Do as I have said. It’s all still waiting for you. The city, your work, your home.”
“Nothing’s waiting for me back there. Haven’t you figured that out?”
“There’s nothing for you here. Haven’t you figured that out?”
“I’m asleep and dreaming this. I’m lying in my apartment above Newbury Street, and I’m dreaming all of this. Probably, The Village does not even exist.”
“Then wake up. Go home. Wake up, and you will be home.”
“I don’t know how,” I said, and that was the truth. “I don’t know how, and it doesn’t matter any longer.”
“That’s a shame, I think,” she said. “I wish it were otherwise,” and then there was only a dial tone.
You can almost see the hill from the window of the room. You can see the highway and a line of evergreens. If the trees were not so tall, you could see the hill. On a night eleven years ago, you could have seen the lightning from this window, and you could have seen the glow of the fire that must have burned afterwards. Last night, I was glad that I couldn’t see the hill silhouetted against the stars.
The three times I have visited the library in The Village, the
librarian has does her best to pretend I wasn’t there. She does her best to seem otherwise occupied. Intensely so. She makes me waiting at the circulation desk as long as she can. Today is no different. But finally she relents and frowns and asks me what I need.
“Do you have back issues of the paper?”
“Newspaper?” she asks.
“Yes. There’s only the one, am I correct?”
“Do you have back issues?”
“We have microfiche,” and I tell her that microfiche is perfect. So, she leads me through the stacks to a tiny room in the back. There’s a metal cabinet with drawers filled with yellow Kodak boxes. She begins to explain how the old-style reader works, how to fit the spools onto the spindles, and I politely assure her I’ve spent a lot of time squinting at microfiche, but thanks, anyway. I am always polite with her. I do ask for the reel that would include October 26th, 2001.
“You aren’t going to let this go, are you?”
“Eventually, I might. But not yet.”
“Ought never have come here. Can’t nothing good come of it. Anyone in town can tell you that. Can’t nothing good come of prying into the past.”
I thank her, and she scowls and leaves me alone.
I press an off-white plastic button, and the days whirr past my eyes. I have always detested the sound of a micro-fiche reader. It reminds me of a dental drill, though I’ve never found anyone who’s made the association. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone how they feel about the click-click-click whir of a microfiche reader. One day soon, with so much digital conversation going on, I imagine there will be very few microfiche archives. People pretend that hard drives, computer disks, and the Internet is a safer place to keep our history. At any rate, the machine whirs, and in only a minute or so I’ve reach October 26th, the day after the lightning strike. On page four of the paper, I find a very brief write-up of the event at the crest of the hill. One Tree, as it seems to be named, though the paper doesn’t give that name. It merely speaks of a house at the end of an “unimproved” drive off Middle Road, east of The Village. A house had recently been constructed there by a family haling from, as it happened, from The City. The world is, of course, filled with coincidence, so I make nothing of this. I doubt I ever shall. The house was to be a summer home. Curiously, the family is not named, the paper reporting only that there had been three members—father, mother, daughter—and that all died in the fire caused by the lightning. Firefighters from The Village had responded, but were (also curiously) said to have been unable to extinguish what must have been a modest blaze. I will only quote this portion, which I am scribbling down in my notebook:
Meteorologists have attributed the tragic event to “negative” lightning, a relatively rare phenomenon. Unlike far more commonly occurring “negative” lightning, positive lightning takes place when a positive charge is carried by the uppermost regions of clouds—most often anvil clouds—rather than by the ground. This causes the leader arc to form within the anvil of the cumulonimbus cloud and travel horizontally for several miles before suddenly veering down to meet the negatively charged streamer rising up from the ground. The bolt can strike anywhere within several miles of the anvil of the thunderstorm, often in areas experiencing clear or only slightly cloudy skies, hence they may also be referred to as “bolts from the blue.” Positive lightning is estimated to account for less than 5% of all lightning strikes.
The meteorologist in question is not named, nor is his or her affiliation given. I do find it odd that far more space is given to an attempt to explain the event than to any other aspect of it. Also, it appears to have been cribbed from a textbook or other reference source, and deviates significantly from the voice of the rest of the article. There is, reading over it again and again, the sense that explain the lightning was far more important to whoever wrote the piece than was reporting the deaths of the family or even the general facts of the case. A single anonymous source is quoted, a resident of High Street (in The Village) as a witness to the lightning strike. There is also mentioned a “terrific booming from the sky” that occurred an hour after the strike, and I can’t help but wonder why the paper went to so much trouble to make plain that there was nothing especially peculiar about the lightning, but records another strange incident in passing which it makes no attempt to explain.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” the librarian asks, peering into the small room. I notice for the first time, the room smells musty. Or maybe it’s the librarian who smells musty.
“I did,” I reply. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”
“I do my job. I do what the town council pays me to do.”
“Then you do it well,” I say, determined to inflict upon her a compliment.
She grumbles, and I leave while she’s busy removing the spool and returning it too it’s yellow Kodak box. I step out onto the tiny courtyard in front of the library, and it’s just begun raining. Cold drops pepper my face. I stand, staring up into the rain, and consider calling the editor, apologizing, and asking for a second chance. Telling him there really is no mystery here, so it could be a great little piece debunking a rural myth, a triumph of science over the supposedly miraculous. I could return to The City, to my apartment, and wait for other jobs. I would find a way to forget about whatever lived at the top of the hill. I would tell myself I’d imagined the whole affair, mark it up to weariness, depression, something of the sort. The rain almost feels like needles.
I awake from a nightmare. I awake breathless to sweaty
sheets. I think I may have cried out in my sleep, but I don’t know for sure. Almost at once, I forget most of the particulars of the dream. But it centered on the charred tree. There was something coiled in the branches of the tree, or perched there. It was gazing down at me. A shapeless thing, or very nearly so,clinging somehow to those charcoal branches. I wanted to turn away, to look away, but was unable. It felt the purest spit spilling from it, flowing down the gnarled trunk and washing over me. I have never believed in evil, but the thing in the tree was, in knew, evil. It was evil, and it was ancient beyond any human comprehension. Some of the eldest stars were younger, and the earth an infant by comparison. Mercifully, it didn’t speak or make any other sound whatsoever.
I awake to a voice, and I recognize it straightaway. It’s the voice from the hill. Near the door, there’s the faintest of silhouettes, an outline that is only almost human. It’s tall, and begins moving gracefully across the room towards me. I reach to turn on the lamp, but, thankfully, my handle never touches the cord.
“Have you seen enough now?” she asks. “What you found at the library, was that enough?”
She’s very near the foot of the bed now. I would never have guessed she was so tall and so extraordinarily slender. My eyes struggle with the darkness to make sense of something I cannot actually see.
“Not you,” I whisper. “It hasn’t explained you.”
“Do I require an explanation?”
“Most people would say so.”
If this is being read, I would say most readers would certainly say so. There, I have said it.
“But not you?”
“I don’t know what I need,” I say, and I’m being completely honest.
Here there is a long silence, and I realize it’s still raining. That it’s raining much harder than when I went to bed. I can hear thunder far away.
“This is the problem with explanations,” she says. “You ask one, and it triggers an infinite regression. There is never a final question. Unless inquiry is halted by an arbitrary act. And it’s true, many inquiries are, if only by necessity.”
“If I knew what you are, why you are, how you are, if there is any connection between you and the death of those three people…” I trail off, knowing she’ll finish my thought. “…you’d only have another question, and another after that. Ad infinitum.“
“I think I want to go home,” I whisper.
“Then you should go home, don’t you think?”
“What was that I dreamt of, the thing in the tree?”
Now she is leaning over me, on the bed with me, and it only frightens me that I am not afraid. “Only a bad dream,” she sighs, and her breath smells like the summer forest, and autumn leaves, and snow, and swollen mountain rivers in the Spring. It doesn’t smell even remotely of fire.
“Before The Village, you were here,” I say. “You’ve almost always been here.” I say. It isn’t a question, and she doesn’t mistake it for one. She doesn’t say anything else, and I understand I will never again hear her speak.
She wraps her arms and legs about me—and, as I guessed, they were delicate and nothing like the legs of women, and she takes me into her. We do not make love. We fuck. No, she fucks me. She fucks me, and it seems to go on forever. Repeatedly, I almost reach climax, and, repeatedly, it slips away. She mutters in a language I know, instinctively, has never been studied by any linguist, and one I’ll not recall a syllable of later on, no matter how hard I struggle to do so. It seems filled with clinks and glottal stops. Outside, there is rain and thunder and lightning. The storm is pounding at the windows, wanting in. The storm, I think, is jealous. I wonder how long it will hold a grudge. Is that what happened on top of the hill? Did she take the man or the woman (or both) as a lover? Did the sky get even?
I do finally come, and the smells of her melt away. She is gone, and I lay on those sweaty sheets, trying to catch my breath.
So, I do not say aloud, the dream didn’t end with the tree, I dreamt her here, in the room with me. I dreamt her questions, and I dreamt her fucking me.
I do my best to fool myself this is the truth.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
By dawn, the rain has stopped.
I have breakfast, pack, fill up the Nissan’s tank, and pay my motel bill.
By the time I pull out of the parking lot, it’s almost nine o’clock.
I drive away from The Village, and the steep slopes pressing in on all sides as if to smother it, and I drive away from the old cemetery beside Lake Witalema. I drive south, taking the long way back to the interstate, rather than passing the turnoff leading up the hill and the house and the lightning-struck tree. I know that I will spend the rest of my life avoiding the White Mountains. Maybe I’ll even go so far as to never step foot in New Hampshire again. That wouldn’t be so hard to do.
I keep my eyes on the road in front of me, and am relieved as the forests and lakes give way to farmland and then the outskirts of The City. I am leaving behind a mystery that was never mine to answer. I leave behind shadows for light. Wondrous and terrifying glimpses of the extraordinary for the mundane.
I will do my damnedest to convince the editor to whom I owe a story—he took my call this morning, and was only mildly annoyed I’d missed the deadline—that there is nothing the least bit bizarre about that hill or the woods surrounding it. Nothing to it but tall tales told by ignorant and gullible Swamp Yankees, people who likely haven’t heard the Revolutionary War has ended. I’ll lie and make them sound that absurd, and we’ll all have a good laugh.
I will bury, deep as I can, all my memories of her.
It doesn’t matter anymore.