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He grinned and pressed the nozzle. His fingers turned wet and cool from condensed poison, and he listened: mosquitoes and Junebugs, dawn crickets, dawn birds, dragonflies and larvae and caterpillars, morning moths and sleeping flies, bear and moose, walleyes and carp and northerns and bullheads and tiny salamanders. It was dark everywhere. The black can hissed in the dark, ejaculating sweet chemicals that filled the great forest and his father’s house. He sprayed until the can was empty and light, then he listened, and the odour of poison buoyed him.
He sat on the bed. Harvey was coming home, and he was dizzy.
‘Bad night,’ Grace whispered.
‘Shhhhh,’ she always whispered. ‘Shhhh, just lie back now. Come here, lie back. You’re just excited. Phew, what a stink! Come here now. Lie back.’
‘Killed a billion of them.’
‘Shhhh, lie back.’
‘No use. What a night. Lord, what a crummy awful night.’
‘Relax now. I heard you all night long.’
‘Mosquitoes, the blasted heat, everything.’ He sat on the bed. He was still holding the defused can of insecticide. Poison drifted through the dark room.
‘Poor boy. Come here now. Here, lie back. Lie back.’ Her hand moved to his neck. ‘Here now,’ she whispered. ‘Lie back and I’ll rub you. Poor boy, I heard you tossing all night long. Just lie back and I’ll give you a nice rub and you can sleep and sleep.’
‘I’m going for a walk.’
‘None of that. You just lie still and I’ll rub you.’ Her hand brushed up his spine and rested on his shoulder. Vaguely through the cloud of poison he heard the hum of returning insects, thousands and millions of them deep in the woods, and he began scratching himself. He was flabby and restless. ‘I’m going for a walk.’
‘Poor, poor Paul,’ she said. She removed his glasses. ‘There now. Just lie back and I’ll give you a rub. There. There, how’s that now? Better now? Poor boy, you’re just excited about Harvey coming home, that’s all, that’s all. Just lie back and I’ll rub you and you can sleep.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Shhhhh. Plenty of time. Still dark, see? You just lie still now.’
‘Lord,’ he moaned.
‘A nice rub?’
‘I’m going for a walk.’
‘Shhhhh, none of that. Let me rub you.’
‘Scratch. There.’ He lay back. He grinned. ‘Guess I killed myself some lousy mosquitoes, didn’t I?’
‘I guess you did.’
‘Massacred the little buggers.’
‘Hush up. You killed them all. You’re a brave mosquito killer and now you can just go to sleep. Roll on to your tummy and I’ll scratch you.’
He turned and let her scratch. He felt better. The room sweated with the poison. He lay still and listened to the returning mosquitoes, the dawn insects, listened to Grace murmur in the dark: ‘There, there. Is that better? Poor boy, I heard you all night long. Just excited, that’s all. Aren’t you excited? Harvey coming home and everything, I don’t blame you. Poor boy. Now, how does that feel? Better now? You just go to sleep.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Sleep time,’ Grace said. ‘Plenty of time.’
Her fingers went up and down his back. He felt better. ‘There, there,’ she was whispering, and Perry grinned and thought about the poison sweeping like mustard gas through the screen windows. He felt better. He pressed his nose into the sheets, lay still while she massaged his shoulders and his neck and his scalp. ‘There, there,’ she was whispering, softly now, her hand moving lightly. She whispered like a mother. She smelled of flannel. He felt much better. Gradually, she stopped rubbing and after a time he heard her slow breathing. Her mouth was open and she was asleep. Her teeth were shining.
Then he tried to sleep. But soon he was listening and thinking again, thinking about Harvey.
He tried to imagine what great changes the war might have made in his kid brother. He wondered what they would first say to each other. It was hard to picture.
All night, he had been thinking.
There would be some changes. The wounded eye, for sure. It was hard to imagine Harvey with a wounded eye. Harvey the Bull. The blinded bull. It was hard to picture. In a stiff and static way, he remembered his brother through a handful of stop-motion images, a few images that had been frozen long ago and captured everything important. All night the images spun in his head: Harvey the Bull; Harvey digging the bomb shelter; Harvey off somewhere in the woods with the old man; Harvey playing football; Harvey the rascal; Harvey boarding the bus that would take him to a fort in California and from there to Saigon or Chu Lai or wherever.
It was annoying. The few sharp images were all Paul Perry really had. It was as though he’d lived thirty years for the sake of a half-dozen fast snapshots, everything else either forgotten or superfluous or lost in the shuffle, and all night long the few sharp images flopped before him, gaunt summary of three decades, growing up on the old man’s sermons and winter stories, learning to swim as the old man watched without pity, college, marriage, returning to Sawmill Landing, the bomb shelter and the old man’s death, a job, winter and summer and millions of pine and Norway spruce and birch, billions of bugs. All collapsed around the few images. But even the images offered no natural sequence. They were random and defiant, clarifying nothing, and Perry spent the long night in myopic wonder, trying to sort them into an order that would progress from start to finish to start.
He lay still. The mosquitoes were back. On the far wall, the first light formed patches against Grace’s dressing mirror.
Again he swung out of bed. He dressed quietly and carried his shoes to the kitchen. Outside, the sky was chalk coloured. It would be another dry day. Sunday. Standing on the porch, he urinated into Grace’s green ferns, then he laced up his shoes, hurried across the lawn, passed the bomb shelter without looking, followed the path by memory to Pliney’s Pond.
There he sat on the rocks.
He practised melancholia and self-pity.
He scooped a handful of green water from the pond and let it trickle through his fingers, indifferently inspecting it for life. Harvey the Bull, he was thinking. The blinded bull. It was hard to picture. Hard to tell where it all started or even why. He took more water from the pond. Swirling it in his hands, he captured tiny capsules of cellulose, tiny larvae and mosquito eggs.
He waited for the sun to rise.
The forest stood like walls around the pond. Roots of older trees snaked along the rocks and disappeared deep into the water.
‘Pooooor me,’ he moaned.
It was hard to tell where it started. He squinted into the algae, dipped in for more water, let it dribble through his fingers.
It may have started that October in 1962, the October when Harvey quit high school football in order to finish the old man’s bomb shelter. It was one of the images: the October in 1962 when the old man’s prophecies of doom suddenly seemed not so crazy after all. When the Caribbean bustled with missiles and atom bombs, jets scrambling over Miami Beach and everyone in Sawmill Landing sat at their radios or hunched over coffee in the drugstore, saying: ‘Maybe the old gent wasn’t so crazy after all.’ When people were asking one another about the hazards of nuclear fallout, asking if it really rotted a man’s testicles, does it hurt, would it reach into northern Minnesota, would the winds be from the north or south or does it matter? That October in 1962, eight years ago, when the Arrowhead blazed with red autumn, when Harvey dug a great hole in the backyard, poured cement, strung lights from the pines in order to work in the night so as to finish the bomb shelter for the dying old man.
It may have started then.
Or it may have started further back.
He couldn’t remember.
That day when he dressed up in his father’s vestments, practising to be a preacher, to follow the old man into the pulpit of Damascus Lutheran Church. It may have started or it may not have started. It may have been the afternoon when the old man ordered him to swim in Pliney’s Pond. ‘Jump in,’ the old man had said without pity. It may have started then, at the moment when he waded bawling into the fecund pond, or it may have started another time, that day, that day, or innumerable other days that washed together, that day when Harvey boarded a bus for California and the war. Or the day he married Grace, a day he barely remembered. ‘Looks like somebody’s mother,’ the motherless old man had once said. Or other days.
It was the perfect melancholy hour, and he practised silence.
He sat on the rocks and peered into Pliney’s Pond. Pushing his glasses close, he leaned forward and scooped a handful of algae from the pond and rubbed it between his fingers until they were stained green.
It may have started or it may not have started. It was partly the town. Partly the place. Partly the forest and the old man’s Finnish religion, partly being a preacher’s kid, partly the old man’s northern obsessions, partly a combination of human beings and events, partly a genetic fix, an alchemy of circumstance.
Harvey was coming home and the sun was already coming up.
He was restless and afraid. It was hard to imagine Harvey with a wounded eye. Harvey the Bull, the old man’s pride, the brave balled bullock. Careful not to fall into the stinking pond, Perry sat on the rocks and peered into the waters and listened to dawn respiration. It was Sunday. He sat quietly, practising silence, letting the night restlessness drain, listening as the forest swelled and expelled like a giant lung: oxygenation, respiration, metabolism and decay, photosynthesis and reproduction, simple asexual chemistry, conversion and reconversion.
Finally, when he was ready, he returned to the house. Grace was still sleeping.
The old timbers creaked. He put coffee on the stove, moved into the bathroom, showered, scrubbed the algae from his hands, dusted himself with his wife’s baby powder. It was six o’clock. He drank his coffee, watching the sunlight come in patches through the woods. He was sluggish and lazy and soft-bellied. Sipping his morning coffee and sitting at the table, he considered knocking off some sit-ups. Instead he fixed breakfast. When it was ready, he crept into the bedroom and woke Grace. ‘Breakfast,’ he said.
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