portion of the artwork for Roy Kesey's fiction

Stump
Roy Kesey

Donny’s out of a job again. It wasn’t even his fault this time. He’d passed the roach back to the night-shift kid but the kid fumbled the handoff, and they couldn’t find it in all those stacks of newspapers, and who the fuck saves newspapers for no reason? They locked the unit up and the kid took off, Donny went to sign in, and by the time he came back, boom, the whole row on fire. Now it looks like some kind of nuclear bomb thing, and Donny knows how that feels, that melted-and-slumping feeling. The melting is OK sometimes, but then there’s the slump and you’re fucked.

There’s no proof against him, he’s sure of that, but nobody wants to hear it so he grabs the charred brim of his Giants cap out of what’s left of his locker. There’d been a picture here too, taped to the inside of the door—Susana fifteen years ago, thick gray sweater, big bouncy hair. Nothing left but bubbles burned into the paint, so he slogs through the water and sludge, threads through the fire engines to the gate, heads for home. Past Tastebuds, past Niveen’s, past Java Stop, and the fog is so thick that he can barely read the neon. Past the Humboldt Credit Union where Mitch works, and any other day Donny would stop in to shoot the shit. Past Figueiredo’s Video Movies—there’s a name that needs a haircut—and he hangs a right on Murray.

Now the kids from McKinleyville High are blowing past him in their Mustangs and Camaros and mini-monster trucks. It’s three miles and change to Fieldbrook but he’s been doing this walk for months, knows better than to stick out his thumb. The kids flip him the bird just because they can, because they’re free, because they’re motorized and he’s not.

The fog thins as he follows the road east. There’s spruce and hemlock dense to both sides, and a couple of logging cuts on the ridge above. It looks like good country for tweakers, and he imagines them up there watching him, but more likely they’d all be busy, washing checks or cooking a new batch, slamming or running or crashing, whoever’s turn it was.

He hears a car coming, looks back, sees a middle-aged woman in a convertible. He waves what’s left of his cap at her just in case. She guns away. He watches her go, and wings the brim into a stand of alders just off the shoulder. It catches on a branch, teeters but doesn’t fall.

Redwoods, sparse and then thicker. As he passes the turnoff for David Road, the sun shows up, a flat white disc in the clouds. By Libby Lane it’s actually sun-colored, and he’s sweating hard as he hits the corner of Carson. Home at last, and he pours himself what’s left of an open beer. Throws the empty at the garbage pail. Misses, and these cans, they drive him fucking crazy.

He goes to the living room, sits down on the sofa, drinks the beer and stops breathing so hard. He can hear his mom banging things around in the laundry room, his dad banging things around in the garage. The old man’s also whistling. He whistles a lot, just something he does. Donny’s mom uses magnets instead of detergent in the washing machine. She says it’s something about ions and polarization. He doesn’t know what to think about that, but they get the clothes plenty clean.

His mom’s always telling his dad to stop whistling and Donny can’t imagine why: the old man can do any bird, any song, but make it prettier. Should be on CDs, the radio, something. Yesterday he told Donny that aside from humans, the only animal that can get leprosy is the armadillo. Donny doesn’t know what to think about that either.

His mom comes in, sets down the laundry basket.

–Least you could do is help, she says, as if he’d already said he didn’t have time.

–Don’t have time, he says.

–The hell you don’t.

He has a thing about her underwear, but he takes a look at the basket, sees nothing but towels and sheets, so okay. He pulls out a towel, folds it.

–You learn how to fold in a barn?

She takes it from him, folds it straighter. He finds a washcloth, knows he can get this one right, but first he smells it, and just like always, so clean it doesn’t smell like anything.

–Goddamn whistling, says his mom. He’d defend his old man, all those trills and runs and warbles, but he’s tried before and there’s no point. He folds and folds, thinks about Susana, then about how stupid it is to be thinking about Susana, stupid and gone and never was but it’s not like there’s anyone else. He sets down a dish towel, and it’s perfect. His mom refolds it anyway.

He stands up, walks to the front window. Across the street is the back of their neighbor’s corral. Donny likes horses, likes the thought of horses. If he had a horse, that night last year with the gin and the crank and his GMC and that ditch wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

–You lose your job again?

–Armadillos, he says.

–What?

–Leprosy, he says.

–Jesus, Donny, again?

–I’m just saying. We ought to get a horse. Allen would maybe let us board it for free. We could—

–No horses.

–I’m just saying.

* * *

Perfectly good Oldsmobile sitting in the driveway, but it’s been off limits since that other thing with the vodka and the ludes and the tree. Eighteen-minute walk to Mitch’s house—he’s timed it a bunch, and always eighteen no matter how slow he goes. Spooky. Horses, though. There was a stretch of time, early high school, he and Mitch would take a pair of Mitch’s dad’s horses out into the hills, ride for hours. Then the whole deal with the cheerleader and the divorce, the horses got sold, nothing for years and years until the one time Allen let him have a go, and that was something, faster and faster around the corral until Donny tried to get it to jump the fence. The horse stopped and Donny didn’t and four broken teeth, but still, faster and faster, and he’ll get right back on if Allen ever gives him a chance.

Slow through the night. Jerkunica Street, Benson Road, and Mitch has done all right for himself. Family, job, house, couple of cars, volunteer this, volunteer that. Donny steps up on the porch, knocks his special Donny-knock, two-two-two. He hears Susana call to Mitch that someone’s at the door but it’s probably only Donny.

The light comes on and the door opens. Mitch has grease on his hands or something like it. Donny asks what the hell.

–Boot polish.

–Got to polish those fire boots.

–Fire boots are rubber, bud. And they stay at the station. Speaking of fires, though.

–Yeah. How come you didn’t come?

–I was already at the other one.

–Bad?

–Little grass fire up behind the totem pole, got into some trees but we kept it small. The fog helped. Saved the pole, anyway.

–Too bad—thing creeps me out. How’d it start?

–Kid from the trailer park had a bunch of firecrackers left over. You’d think the ground would be too wet, but …

–Yeah. Firecrackers. So. Beer?

Mitch looks at Donny, pauses longer than usual, nods slow. He leads out around the side of the house, and just as well, as talking to Susana messes with Donny’s brain. Not that she has any use for him, or ever did. By sophomore year she was basically already Mitch’s without him lifting a finger or ever once looking her way.

They step up onto the back deck, skirt the Jacuzzi, and the night’s warm and black and quiet. Donny sits down in a lawn chair. Mitch slaps in through the screen door, comes back with beers, passes one over.

They sit and watch the sky. A coyote starts up somewhere to the east. There are mosquitoes, but also bats knocking them down, and that seems fair to Donny. He unbuttons the top of his pants, sits back.

–So I’m guessing so much for your storage career, says Mitch.

–Yup. But something’ll turn up.

–Turn up faster if you go looking.

–What got up your ass all of a sudden?

Donny smiles as he says this. There’s no reply so he smiles harder, then remembers it’s too dark to see.

–We’re old, says Mitch.

–What?

–Us. Old. You know?

–I do not.

–Time to stop fucking around, bud.

Donny doesn’t answer. Mitch was the only one left who’d never said it. To show how pissed off he is, Donny goes to get up before his beer is even finished. Susana calls down that she’s going to bed, and Mitch calls up that he’ll be there in a minute. Donny sags back into the chair. The coyote’s still at it.

–I mean, the fucking storage, says Mitch. Of all places. Those were people’s memories, man.

–Fuck memories. Best thing you can you do is let them burn. I had stuff in my locker too, all of it fried crispy-clean, but you don’t hear me whining about it.

–Donny.

–It wasn’t my fault.

They sit there a while. Donny squeezes the metal armrests, harder and harder until it hurts, a bit harder still.

–I better go, says Mitch. We’ve got a thing tomorrow at Greta’s school.

The hell kind of name is Greta, Donny thinks. He stands up, says good-bye and walks out into the dark. The coyote’s gone quiet. He whistles for a second, lets it go. Harder than it looks, whistling.

* * *

Late Saturday morning: the banging in the garage stops, and a minute later out comes Donny’s dad. He’s holding a birdhouse. It’s perfect, painted and everything.

–Think the chickadees will like it?

Donny looks closer. Yellow walls with green trim, smooth round hole in the door, and is that copper fucking sheeting on the roof? He can’t compete with this. It’s been a hard five days of nothing and the insurance people keep calling and the sun keeps getting hotter so he tells his dad the house is OK except the roof is all wrong for chickadees and there should be a little post for them to stand on. Then he grabs his sunglasses and goes.

He walks all the way around Allen’s property. The horses look at him but don’t come over to the fence, not even when he calls and holds out a handful of grass. If Mitch hadn’t been such an asshole, Donny just might have gone to whatever that thing was at Greta’s school. Show some support. Not that he actually would have gone, but he’d have thought about it.

Walks around again.

He hadn’t meant that thing about memories, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. He comes up with a list of ones he’d torch on purpose, and a list of ones he’d save. He remembers a whole lot of melting, way too much slumping, and maybe that’s what he needs to burn, which doesn’t even make any sense.

Around again.

And OK, but hadn’t there been a deal? Mitch, of all people? Friends since kindergarten, hanging out nonstop except when Mitch was at college. Plus that one time a branch took Mitch hard out of his saddle, broken ankle, emptied Donny’s flask on the way home, Donny leading both horses by the bridles, slow as he could down the hills, careful like never in history.

Which gives Donny an idea. He heads back up the road to Allen’s driveway, stops in to chew the fat with the old geezer, ask if he’s got room for another horse. Except no one answers the door. Donny walks around the side, sees the camper is gone, remembers: vacation, something about grandkids down in Marin. Which feels like a window sliding closed. A moment of panic as he tries to remember if Allen asked him to take care of the horses. Not something Allen would likely do, he decides, and for a moment that puts him at ease, but then not so much.

Around again.

And now it’s time. Everybody in Fieldbrook knows him too well but there’s got to be places in McKinleyville where his face is still good—beer money at least, and nothing too skanky. Three miles and change, the sun dissolving in the fog as he closes in. A slow walk down Central checking for signs in windows, an hour in the library with the classifieds, and no pay dirt anywhere.

The Civic Center bulletin board is loaded, though, and he works through the columns. Full Moon Drumming Club needs more drummers—can’t imagine there’s money in that. Jonsteen Trees wants a part-timer, probably just moving manure. And Timber Ridge Assisted Living has a full-time thing, but that’s going to be mainly bedpans.

Then he sees one about stocking groceries at Ray’s. He makes the call, hurries down. From the look of things they haven’t heard about him and the fire. Half an hour later they tell him welcome to the family, be there Monday morning, and bring your best smile.

He makes up a thing about a car in the shop, gets a week’s advance, waves his thanks. He heads back into the center of town, walks in circles for a bit, ducks behind the Safeway for a quick whiz, and here’s the totem pole, pride of McKinleyville. The thunderbird at the top showed up in his dreams when he was a kid, and later in the melting times, sometimes just fucking with him and sometimes chasing him down bad dark roads. He walks past it, out through the charred grass, unzips with his back to the pole.

Zips up, turns around, steps closer. World’s Largest, says the sign, but he already knew that. A hundred and sixty feet tall. Carved from a single redwood that was almost 500 years old. Fifty-seven thousand pounds not even counting the base.

Closer. Yup, creepy. The faces, mostly. One on top of another, bright colors and angry eyes, rip your heart out if they had a chance and probably you’d deserve it. He glances up at the thunderbird, backs away, turns for the street.

Time to focus. He makes three quick stops, trades part of the advance for a twelve-pack, part for a box of cranberry muffins, and another good chunk at a gift shop for a tiny little weathervane that actually spins. Then he walks. The bag with the beers keeps getting heavier, but he didn’t buy them to drink alone, so he only has two the whole way home. You have to do what’s right: this is his new conviction, and he wonders how long it’ll last.

His dad’s in the garage sanding a short piece of dowel, and Donny stops him, says he was wrong, says the house doesn’t need a post, says the chickadees will love the paint job and the roof’s almost perfect except for one thing. He brings out the weathervane, holds it up and flicks it. His dad watches it spin, and it looks like the old man’s about to cry so Donny hands it over, punches him lightly on the shoulder and heads inside.

His mom’s in the kitchen and he gives her the muffins. She opens the box, nods, looks at him.

–Smells great. You, though.

–Yeah, well, maybe the shower needs new magnets, you ever think about that?

She kisses him on the cheek, and he does a thing where he jumps without leaving the ground. She laughs, turns away, and the phone rings. She answers and he figures it’s the insurance people again; he waves to her that he’s not there, was never there, is probably gone forever.

She shakes her head, holds the phone to her chest and mouths, Ray’s? He takes it, and nods as the guy talks. They’ve heard about the thing at the storage. They’re not sure they can really commit until everything’s straightened out. Also they’ll be needing the advance back, preferably today.

Fucking thunderbird, thinks Donny. Fucking Ray’s fucking thunderbird fucking ions following him around like leprosy. He slams the phone down, stares at his mom. She asks and he tells the truth: Nothing, he says. Just nothing.

The beer, though. He wishes he had a better idea but doesn’t, so the eighteen minutes, and by then he’s down to a nine-pack. Up onto the porch, and the Donny-knock.

There’s some quiet talk from inside the house, and maybe a little hissing. Mitch opens the door, looks at the bag, shakes his head.

–Can’t do it, he says. Got all kinds of stuff today.

–Like what?

–Jesus, Donny. Stuff. The rain gutters for one thing.

–It’s the middle of fucking August, Mitch. Not going to rain for two more months.

–That’s not the point. I promised Susana. And that’s not the point either.

Time for a new tack.

–Mitch, I packed these all the way from the 76 station, and you and I are goddamn going to celebrate. We—

–Celebrate what?

–New job.

–The hell.

–No joke. Ray’s. Assistant manager.

Now Susana walks up behind Mitch, puts her arms around him.

–Hey, Donny, she says.

–Hey.

His voice hiccups in the middle of the word, makes it two syllables, and he looks down at his shoes.

–We’re a little busy around here today, she says.

–OK. Well—

As Donny turns to go, Mitch’s pager goes off, four quick blips and the tone for Fieldbrook—Donny’s heard it before, and it lights him up each time. There’s a crackle, and what sounds like a woman laughing. Susana frowns and walks away. A short quiet, more laughing, and now the dispatcher pulls her shit together.

–Fieldbrook Fire, Fieldbrook Fire. Public assist. Horse in a stump, I repeat, horse in a stump. Address, 6400 Humboldt Heights Lane.

There’s more laughing, and the dispatcher signs off.

–What the hell was that? says Donny.

–It doesn’t matter. I have to go.

–We sure do.

–Donny, come on. This is serious.

–Dispatcher didn’t think so. Horse in a stump. What does that even mean?

–How the fuck should I know?

–Oh. I thought it was code for something.

They look at each other.

–Maybe she meant on a stump, says Donnie. On a stump is something I could get behind.

–Whatever it is, man, I have to go.

–And I’m going with you.

But Mitch doesn’t hear him, is already back inside the house and shouting to Susana that he’ll be back as soon as it’s done. The screen door opens and he comes back out, fast down the driveway in a pair of half-polished work boots. Donny follows close out to Mitch’s pickup.

Which doesn’t start. Mitch curses, gets out and lifts the hood, stares at the engine.

–Can’t be out of gas, he says. I just filled it up.

–Sounded like there’s no spark.

–Plugs?

Donny checks them, shakes his head. He runs through the options, finds the distributor cap popped up. He cinches it down, leans back, closes the hood.

–Mitch, man, you were right. Time to stop fucking around, so I got the job, straight and narrow, the works. That ought to earn me at least a look at this magical whatever it is. After that I’ll leave you alone and you can clean all the gutters you want.

Mitch looks at him. Opens the door and gets in. Stares at the steering wheel. Now he nods, and Donny whoops and climbs in. Mitch starts the pickup. Then he turns the engine off and pulls the key out of the ignition.

–What?

–No point. Everybody will be gone already. The trucks, everything.

–It’s been five minutes!

–Exactly.

–So we go on our own. You’ve got the address. Rock and roll.

–All my gear’s at the station.

–It’s a horse in a stump. How much gear do you need?

Mitch rubs his face.

–I could go and watch, I guess. Maybe help out a little, communications, but …

Donny nods, looks at Mitch, nods again. Mitch starts the engine, pulls onto the road. Donny brings out a beer, tries to hand it over and Mitch slams on the brakes.

–OK, OK.

–Seriously, Donny, you can’t fuck this up. We go, we watch, we—

–Easy. Horse in a stump. Easy as cake.

–I’m not joking, man. You stay the hell out of the way.

Up through town to Rock Pit Road, slow east as the asphalt turns to dirt and the potholes start. Every third house is a trailer, the tweakers out front with their sunburns and bad teeth, the yards decorated with refrigerators and washing machines. Not a part of town Donny’s been to in a while, but he knows Mitch gets called out here fairly often. These folks are way out over the edge not even counting all the labs. Bad wiring, makeshift chimneys, the whole mess.

Donny catches a whiff of that sweet old smell, that not-quite-molasses smell, and smiles. Mitch is arguing with himself out loud—plenty of redwood stumps from back in the day, ten feet tall and rotted hollow, but how would you get a horse into one? Donny stays out of it. The twelve-pack is now a seven-pack. He opens another, and Mitch looks over.

–If this was a real fire, your ass would have been out on the road a mile back.

Donny toasts the thought, shifts his legs, and his foot hits something under the seat. Something awfully heavy for how small it is. He leans forward, pretends to scratch his shin, sees a crosshatched grip. He straightens up and looks over at Mitch, impressed.

Mitch doesn’t notice. Donny snickers and points at a Jolly Roger hanging from a pole stuck in a dishwasher. He smells molasses again, shivers, asks what happens when a lab blows, what the fireman protocol is. Mitch shrugs, says they make sure everybody’s out, and let it burn. No sense saving something that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Mitch looks at him, and Donny waits for the joke. It doesn’t come. Donny nods but Mitch’s eyes are wrong and then he gets it: Mitch thinks these people are Donny’s people too. Which is bullshit. Mitch looks back at the road. Total fucking bullshit, and Donny almost comes out and says so. He doesn’t know these people. He doesn’t even … Well, he might know people who know these people, but still, miles apart. He checks his teeth with his tongue, and there’s one in back that’s a little sore but the rest are fine, even the fake ones up front.

The ridges to either side are thick with timber and ferns and scrub. They hit the fork and the road gets even worse—switchbacks, ruts, washboard. Donny’s still angry, and now down to a five-pack. He wishes he’d put a little something in his stomach first, maybe one of those muffins. He wonders if he guessed wrong about what Mitch was thinking.

–All right, he says. So some days I’m nothing but an armadillo. So fucking what?

–What, like, armored?

–Not exactly.

–Roadkill?

–Warmer.

–I’m out of guesses, man.

–Leprosy.

–I’m not even going to ask.

–Suit yourself, says Donny, but it’s pretty cool.

A sharp left on Humboldt Heights, barely a road at all, and the air darkens as they push in, trees cutting off the light, a thin mist settling into the bracken. There’s a hell of a word, thinks Donny—fucking bracken. They see the lights, and a second later they hit a big red traffic jam. Mitch kills the engine, grabs Donny’s arm.

–One more time. I’m only here to watch, maybe help out a little, from a distance. And you’re here … I have no fucking idea why you’re here. But you’re not going to get in the way.

–Horse in a stump, says Donny. Code purple, over and out.

He opens the door and jumps down, and the ground jumps up at him; they meet in the middle and he falls to his knees, barely keeps his face off the ground. Gets up. Looks at Mitch.

–Shoelaces, he says. My kingdom for a muffin, he says.

Mitch doesn’t answer, walks along the line of trucks, and Donny follows. Fifty yards up there’s an old barbed-wire fence around a clearing on a hard slope. There’s a beat-up trailer in the middle, but no people Donny can see except firefighters, all of them decked out in yellow, all of them smiling.

Mitch leads through the gate into the clearing, nods to the rest of the team. In front of the trailer is a tight ring of redwood sprouts around a stump. Got to be the stump, Donny thinks. Eight feet high and maybe sixteen across, a couple of two-by-twelves on the uphill side forming a ramp right to the top. The fire chief is standing on the ramp in his red hat and jacket, feeding a rope through a block-and-tackle hooked to a branch overhead.

They head up, and the chief looks from Mitch to Donny and back again.

–Nice you could join us. You bring him for show-and-tell?

–He’s all right, says Mitch. Thinking of signing up.

–Sure he is.

Donny steps to the edge of the stump. The walls are two feet thick, just enough room to stand. He sways a little, looks down into the hole, and it seems like he can see all the way to the bottom but there’s no horse to speak of.

–You get her out already? Mitch asks.

The chief hands Mitch a flashlight. They look down in again. The light works its way around the edge, and in one corner is a horse’s head, dark brown with a long black mane. The eyes blink at the light, but otherwise the head doesn’t move.

–Holy shit.

–Hamlin’s already been down—looks like one of the root cavities is rotted out, and the horse is wedged in there kind of sideways.

–Where’s the owner?

–Don’t know. Trailer’s empty. Probably ran when they saw the lights.

–But, so how—

–I’m guessing they were using the stump as a, whatever, a place to hang out, and last night or maybe this morning the brain trust decides they need a horse up here too. There was a few inches of good wood on top, but it couldn’t take the weight. Classic goose-pen cavity, except no goose.

Mitch and Donny nod.

–Textbook case, says Donny. Textbook horse in a stump.

Mitch looks at him and he shuts up.

–Why don’t you just cut her out? asks Mitch.

–Thought about it. Too dangerous to run a saw from inside, and from outside there’s no way to tell where the horse is at. Even with a guy on the radio down in, you’d end up with steaks and gristle.

Donny opens his mouth, gets the look from Mitch, and then there’s four quick blips from half a dozen pagers at once. This time the dispatcher isn’t laughing.

–Eureka, McKinleyville, Blue Lake, and Fieldbrook Fire, she says. Mutual assist. Fire at Arcata Lumber, 1296 Eleventh Street.

The chief shouts at everyone to get their gear and head back to the trucks. He walks fast down the ramp, and Mitch follows.

–What about the horse? asks Donny.

–Just a horse, says the chief, and half-dead already.

–Hold on, says Donny.

The chief stops. Looks at Donny. Looks at Mitch and shrugs.

–You’re no use to us anyway, naked like that. Where’s your turnout?

–Didn’t have time to hit the station. Pickup wouldn’t start.

–So you stay here with Show-and-Tell. I’ll leave you the block-and-tackle. Your rig have a winch?

–Yeah, but I’ll need somebody to run it if I’m down inside.

–You run it. Send Show-and-Tell down in. He works out, maybe we’ll let him volunteer after all.

Mitch grabs a pair of shovels and a cargo net off one of the trucks, asks for strapping and cribbing, and Donny wonders what those are. In three minutes everyone else is gone, and the afternoon feels darker. The mist is thicker than before, comes at them slow through the timber, and the temperature’s dropped a few degrees. The air smells like resin and diesel and damp.

Mitch brings the pickup in close, pulls twenty feet of cable off the winch and drags it to the stump. Donny closes his eyes, almost loses his balance. He thinks about the inside of the stump, about being in there with that horse.

–How about you let me run the winch, he says.

–Nope. Not much room down there to work. I’m up around 210 these days, and you’re, what, 165?

Strapping turns out to be thick lengths of canvas with steel rings at both ends, and cribbing is just big blocks of wood. They haul the gear up the ramp. Something moves at the edge of the timber, and they both look up.

It’s people. Tweakers. Twenty of them or so, black teeth and vacant eyes and greasy hair, men and women and a couple of kids. They walk out of the trees, a stinky little army of whackjobs, and Donny watches, tries to sort out which ones are strung and which ones are coming back together, but something else is going on, something he’s never seen, as if they’re all ending a run together and set to crash.

–Now what? asks Donny.

–Now nothing. Now we get the horse out.

–What about Zombieville?

–They’ll just watch. It’s all they ever do.

Most of the group stops around the base of the stump, but there’s one tall guy, bad mustache, no shirt and no pants, just boxers and boots and a Copenhagen hat, comes part of the way up the ramp. He says something about shadow people. Mitch says he knows, they’re a bitch. The tall guy nods, scratches himself, backs off a step.

–I’m guessing it’s his horse, says Mitch. Not that it matters. All right. Dig her out as well as you can, and I’ll show you how to hook her up. The winch will do all the real work, and we’ll get the hell out of here.

–How do you know it’s a girl horse?

–Him, her, whatever.

–OK, says Donny. Textbook. How do I get down there, though?

Mitch hands him the flashlight, drags the net around to the far side of the stump, pulls one side of the bundle open and kicks the rest down in. Donny takes another look at their audience. My kind of people my ass, he thinks, then remembers his own Copenhagen hat back home. They’re all mumbling, a sludgy kind of chorus, though there is one girl, not quite as gone as the rest of them. She smiles, and all her teeth are there, and she’s actually almost cute—he figures she’s the one they put in charge of forging signatures, and she’ll handle it perfectly and disappear, do crossword puzzles night and day for a week in some grotty motel.

There’s something else about her, and Donny tries to think but nothing comes. Copenhagen yells some kind of word, and the girl calls him a spun monkey and sticks out her tongue. Donny looks at them both, nods, climbs down the net.

He is nowhere near ready for how quiet it is inside. No sound at all except his heart and the slow breathing of the horse. The smell, too, centuries of rotten wood cooped up: not all that bad a smell, really, just earth and old wood and wet, but dense and a little sour.

There are whorls in the walls like faces, and the ground is soft, springy almost, a couple of feet of duff. He waits for the horse to do something, whinny or snort, but nothing happens. He shines his flashlight, sees flecks of gold in the horse’s coat, a small white star on its forehead. He decides for no reason that Mitch must be right, it must be a girl horse. Then the whole head lifts, the eyes blink, and the head sets back down.

He turns the flashlight off, waits for his eyes to adjust. There’s something like voices but it’s hard to tell if they’re real. A slight shadow passes overhead. He looks up, sees Mitch in silhouette.

–How goes it?

–Fucking weird.

–How’s the horse?

–Alive, but pretty tired. Can’t move at all.

–Been down there all night, I bet. Dehydrated. First things first, though. Shovel, incoming.

Donny jumps back as the shovel comes blade-down.

–Not funny, he says.

–A little funny. You probably won’t need it right away—just scoop the duff with your hands.

–What if the horse freaks out?

–She will most likely kick you to death. So try not to freak her out.

Donny moves the shovel out of the way, decides to make friends. He hunches down close, reaches out, expects the horse to flinch but she doesn’t. He traces the star with his fingers, tells her everything will be fine. The horse closes her eyes. He gets started on the top layer of duff, piles it against the far side. He hears a shout, almost definitely real this time, and stops, listens, but nothing else comes. More scooping. He wonders when Allen’s getting home from Marin. He thinks of the tweaker girl, pictures her face, tries to remember the rest of her but can’t quite bring it back.

When the horse’s neck is free, he grabs the shovel, and it’s awkward work. He tries not to touch her with the blade, but now the duff is packed tight, almost like regular soil, and he has to lean in hard. He starts to sweat, and it feels good, sweating the beer out drop by drop.

He can see part of the chest, and still the horse is quiet. He pats her on the neck, takes another long look. Beautiful animal. The kind you could ride away on. Again the shadow, again Mitch’s head, his voice echoey and strange.

–Everything OK?

–Swell. Up there?

–Restless natives, the usual.

–Thought I heard somebody yell.

–Yeah. The dude in the hat. His girlfriend tried to climb the ramp and he pulled her off.

–Fun bunch.

–The horse?

–Doing OK. I’ve got the neck clear. I think maybe she has one leg folded up under her chest.

–Good. Get that leg free, and you’ll be able to hook the strapping under it. Here comes a walkie-talkie.

Donny waits, sees it coming, catches it just off the ground. Turns it on, listens to it pop.

–For whenever she’s ready to go, says Mitch. I already put it on the same channel as mine. You need anything, just give a shout.

Back to the digging. Donny gets a flash of the tweaker chick, all of her, nice curves, wonders if he’s remembering or just wanting. It’s darker now, and he turns on the flashlight, props it up on the far side. The faces, their mouths, and there’s something buzzing around him, something off balance but he keeps at it. Sore spots in places on his hands, be blisters by tomorrow. He leans against the wall for a second, straightens back up, and where his hand was there’s a sweat stain on the wood, wings spread out like a thunderbird, and he wonders what he ever did to piss it off so bad.

Twenty minutes or so, and he’s got a hole dug under the horse’s armpit, legpit, whatever you call it. The ground’s too hard for any more digging. The horse is getting twitchy, swings her head around, snuffs at him. He keys the walkie-talkie, tells Mitch to come down and take a look.

–Can’t. They’re starting to get interested in the pickup. I’m down there thirty seconds, there’ll be nothing left but bones.

–So …

–So it’s your show. More stuff incoming.

Mitch tosses down a half-dozen lengths of strapping, holds up another.

–As far down the chest as you can, he says, and hook the rings to the shackle.

–What shackle?

–The one at the end of the rope I’ll pass you in a second. Get at least two straps in place to spread the load. I’ll pull the net out so nothing snags when we start the winch.

–There’s not really room for two pieces around her chest.

–The neck, then, if you have to. Here comes the cribbing. Wedge them in under her after each pull so we don’t lose any ground.

Mitch kicks four wood blocks down in, draws the net up and disappears, comes back with the end of the rope. He feeds the shackle to Donny, disappears again. Donny talks to the horse—baseball scores, dirty jokes, the tweaker girl’s sweet ass. He comes in close, gets a piece of strapping cinched around the horse’s chest, hooks another around her neck.

Which looks like a terrible idea, but there’s nowhere else to put it. He sits back on his haunches, wipes his forehead. The horse looks fine, just really tired, and the tweakers have never done anything in their life to deserve an animal like this. What kind of fuck lets his horse fall in a stump? He looks around, presses his body against the far wall, keys the mike and tells Mitch they’re good for liftoff.

The rope goes taut, and the strapping’s tight at the neck but the horse doesn’t seem to be choking. Donny hunches down, wonders which parts of his body they’ll find if the rope snaps. There’s a lurch as the horse comes six inches out, and he shouts for Mitch to stop.

The next hour is pull a little, lay the cribbing, adjust the strapping, pull a little more. The flashlight is down to a low glow in the corner but Donny’s eyes can see like magic. The sweat stain is still there, bigger than before though that makes no sense.

The horse’s shoulders are covered with dirt and grime, but the more Donny can see of her, the more beautiful she is. There’s still the buzzing around him. Another pull, and the horse is halfway out. Donny grabs the walkie-talkie, tells Mitch to hang on. He strokes the horse’s face, says everything’s cool, says they’re almost done and how about a little ride afterwards? He pictures himself, full gallop, reaches an arm down and the girl swings up behind him, bareback and away and maybe that’s the trick: those memories, melted and slumped, you don’t burn them, you just ride away.

He gets another piece of strapping around the horse’s chest, hooks the rings to the shackle. The walkie-talkie hisses and spits, and Mitch asks what’s the delay. Donny looks up, sees a dozen heads in silhouette. He nods, says, OK, brother, fire it up.

The rope strains and he hears the far staccato grind of the winch. The flashlight goes out and he grabs the horse’s neck, pulls, fumbles the walkie-talkie, the horse stretches forward, a jolt as her body comes all the way out and then hinges downward as she’s lifted, the hindquarters swaying beneath, the body swinging against Donny, pinning him to the wall, the horse clear of the ground and Donny tries to guide her up but she spins and he’s looking at all four hooves and he covers his face and ducks.

Nothing happens. The horse never kicks. She slides higher and higher, rises up and out of the stump, hangs there for a moment, drifts out of sight. Donny sits down in the pile of duff. Doesn’t feel drunk anymore. Son of a bitch, he thinks. First thing I’ve ever done.

He wonders how it will feel—the kick over the top, the fistful of mane. He gets to his feet, looks around for the net, remembers Mitch pulling it out. He finds the walkie-talkie, keys the mike, calls. No answer. Calls again, and nothing. He cups his hands and shouts. He waits, looks at the faces in the wood, throws duff at the thunderbird, hears voices, and then nothing.

He scrabbles at the wall but can’t find a handhold. He tries jumping, and not even close. He calls one more time, and now Mitch answers, says to hold the fuck on. Donny looks up the funnel. The circle goes darker, pure gray, like fog or smoke. He waits. Silence. He waits. Again the buzzing, maybe hornets, but he can’t see anything moving. It gets louder, and maybe there are magnets in the wood, polarization, ions swarming like rage but maybe there’s some other kind of leprosy, some good kind that no one ever talks about where only the bad stuff dies and sloughs away, and that’s how you become a thunderbird in the first place, your wooden wings go feathered and strong, you fly clean.

There’s a shout and the buzzing stops. Donny looks up. It’s Mitch. He kicks at a mass of black and it slides down the side. Donny climbs the net hand-over-hand, and as his head clears the top of the stump the world goes loud, then settles into itself—the moaning crowd of tweakers below, a rain crow that whistles and falls quiet.

–Time to go, says Mitch. Come give me a hand with the gear.

Donny doesn’t answer. He’d thought it would be brighter out here. The air’s fresh but the mist slides thick through the trees. He climbs the rest of the way out, trots down the planking, sees the empty shackle, a piece of strapping loose on the ground. He pushes into the crowd, looks around for the girl, doesn’t see her anywhere but the guy in the Copenhagen hat is on his knees, his arms wrapped around the horse’s neck, and he’s blubbering and stroking the horse’s face.

The horse’s eyes are open. Copenhagen gets to his feet, tells the horse to stand the fuck up. Donny sneaks a look, and sure enough: girl horse. He turns and now Mitch is beside him.

–What she needs is some water, says Donny. You see a bucket anywhere?

–Donny. The back leg.

Donny shoves a tweaker out of the way, steps forward, looks. Broken near the ankle. Not hanging limp or twisted at an odd angle but fucking bone coming out through the hide. Donny looks at Mitch, and Copenhagen screams at them, pushes out of the circle and runs.

–Donny, seriously, time to make a move.

–I don’t believe it.

–I know. It sucks. But things are about to go bad, and we need to leave.

He pulls on Donny’s arm, and Donny goes with him, wishing things would hold still in his head. The rain crow whistles again. They’re halfway across the clearing, tweakers to either side like an escort, when there’s a shout.

Copenhagen is walking toward them, and he’s carrying a shotgun. Donny glances at the pickup, then back across the clearing. A few of the other tweakers reach toward the guy as he passes, but don’t touch him. Donny asks Mitch if they should call for backup.

–Backup, right, like maybe a ladder truck? We’re an hour from everywhere. Just stay cool.

–Cool.

–All part of the job. He’ll figure it out. But don’t, you know, nothing stupid.

Copenhagen walks up, shouts again, puts the muzzle of the shotgun in Donny’s face. Donny and Mitch lift their hands. The circle has closed behind them. Copenhagen jabbers, howls, points the shotgun at Mitch and back at Donny.

The mist curls around everyone’s heads and the redwoods lean in. Copenhagen points the gun at the woman beside him, pretends to pull the trigger and shouts, Boom! The woman raises her hands and lets them fall. A few of the tweakers wander off, and everyone else comes in closer.

Mitch starts talking, quiet and calm, working through how things happened. Copenhagen growls and grunts but Mitch keeps at it. The barrel lowers bit by bit until it’s pointing at the dirt.

And Donny’s had enough of that. They were too stupid to keep the horse safe and they’re too stupid to end her hurt. He turns, hears Copenhagen shout but doesn’t stop, pushes his way out of the circle and now Mitch is shouting too. Donny walks straight to the pickup, roots around under the seat.

He pulls the pistol out, undoes the strap, lets the holster fall. He flicks the cylinder open, spins it and snaps it back into place. He walks around the circle and up behind Copenhagen. He hears Mitch say half his name. Copenhagen turns and Donny puts the barrel against the man’s forehead, whispers boom.

Copenhagen drops the shotgun. For a moment nobody moves, and it all seems over but it’s not, they’re coming, and Donny swings the pistol left and right, tries to cover them all. There is no sound in the world. Copenhagen bends down to pick up his gun and Donny almost shoots him but sees that he’s reaching for the tip of the barrel. The other tweakers open up to give him room, and he turns away and wings the gun into the mist. Donny hunches, waits to hear it land. Still no sound. Copenhagen nods and heads for the trailer.

The mob tightens around Donny as he backs his way over to the horse. She’s not moving at all, maybe dead already, but then she shivers, and so does he. He steps up close, but how do you do this? How do you even go about starting a thing like this?

There’s a hand on his back and he whirls and the pistol goes off. Mitch, just standing there. Donny looks him up and down. There’s no blood he can see.

–Holy fuck, says Mitch.

–Sorry, says Donny.

–You fucking shot me.

–Where?

Mitch looks at himself all over.

–You tried to shoot me.

–No, I didn’t. You scared me. The gun just went off.

–Fuck you, Donny. I had everything under control and you …. Fuck you. For all of this. I’m done.

Mitch turns and walks toward the pickup, and the tweakers are coming again. Donny raises the pistol. The tweakers are getting closer, and he will kill every fucking one of these motherfuckers.

Then the girl comes out of the trees and the mist. Donny watches her come. He hears Mitch gunning the motor, hears the horn, and this girl—then he has it. She looks a bit like Susana. Just enough like Susana. The eyes maybe, yes, the eyes.

Which is why Donny lets her come so close. She’s talking to him and he wonders what she’s saying. She reaches toward the pistol and everything’s slow and smooth. Her hand wraps around the barrel and sits there for a second. Donny looks at her, at her eyes. She pulls on the gun just a little. Donny holds on, then lets go. She nods. She turns around, shoots the horse in the head, and now Donny knows he’s in love.


Roy Kesey’s Comments

The story’s core situation—what happens in and around the stump—takes many elements from a similar situation that occurred a few years ago in northern California, near where the story is set. The character of Donny is mostly invented; the character of Mitch is based loosely on a friend of mine, who happened to be the volunteer firefighter who showed up without his turnout to the call in question.

This story, first published in Subtropics, is from my latest short-story collection, Any Deadly Thing
(Dzanc Books, 2013).


Table of Contents



FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 43 | Spring 2014