From Only Bullfighters...
I was out among the trees, a small wooded area behind our house in the small middle Tennessee town of Forrest, my home. The woods were filled with tulip trees, thin small muscle trees, straight hickories, and large crooked-armed oaks. This time of year, they had no leaves, with exception of some oaks that have leaves persisting on the limbs, brown and crinkled, for most of the winter. "Tardily deciduous," they are referred to as. I was looking for a Christmas tree, a cedar tree, in these woods where I used to scamper when I was younger, and still do. The woods are thin now where men with chainsaws and trucks have invaded. It wasn’t the same place. Too much light coming through. Trees and limbs just left lying about the forest floor, it was as if an old friend had been defiled and left to die. There were no trees of the right height or shape for Christmas anymore, just scraggly, thin, helpless Charlie Brown Christmas trees.
Christmas trees: Gone.
I could almost cry, which I don't do anymore. I don't know why.
Ice lingered in leaf pockets on the northern slopes. At the top of the ridge, winds came across the copper sagebrush fields shaking the tree tops creating a sound, a song all its own, flowing through the naked trees. Some say different trees make different sounds and some say they can name individual trees just by the noise the wind makes sweeping through them, a special song all their own. I don't know.
I climbed up to the ridge and watched large black crows harass a marsh hawk. The wind-sound was covered by the loud "caw-caw" of the crows as they dove and chased the harrier marsh hawk across the tree crowns. These light-colored hawks only come here during the winter and crows chase them across their sky-world, saying “This is our home. Go back to your home! This is our home!” The shining sagebrush fields up here reminded me of when daddy, Mr. Arlie, and I hunted rabbits here. We don't anymore. I could almost hear the beagle's harsh howl echoing still from the rustling wind-furrowed fields. Their voices sounded so very rich, so good and right. I used to marvel at how the dogs, with their low-set bodies and short strong legs, knew to run the rabbit in large circles, while all the time, bringing it back to us where they found it first. I used to think how smart and well-trained the dogs were, until daddy told me that the rabbits ran in circles anyway. I wished he hadn't told me that. I wanted to believe that the beagles had this extra sense, hidden deep within their DNA, passed on from mother to pup, from father to dog. I wanted to believe the dogs ‘cut’ the rabbits, like a quarter horse would ‘cut’ cattle, and knew how to run them back to us.
I still wanted to believe.
We would sometimes come to a woven wire fence, where the rabbits could bound through, but the dogs could not. The dogs couldn't find a place to go under or around, so they'd somehow climb the fence. They would sometimes become tangled in the fence and we would have to pull them out. When I thought about that, I remember a red and white beautiful beagle I used to have: Freda. She would go hunting by herself, as dogs are apt to do on cool fall or spring days. A few would not come back. Either they were caught by someone else or killed. Anyway, Freda was hunting one fall afternoon and didn't come back. I didn't go looking for her; maybe if I had, I could have heard her cries. She was hung in the fence down below Charlie's Field, not too far from our house. Coming home. They called it Charlie's field because that was where Charlie Connelly, my great grandfather, hid his mules during the Civil War, when he heard that General John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate cavalry were coming through. The field used to be well hidden in a hollow, through a brush thicket and surrounded by thick woods. Not too far from the field was a cave. It is now only a small opening beneath a shelf hanging from a bluff and almost completely closed with soil washing of the rocks above it. But the cave, my father said, was where my great-great-grandfather, Zachariah Connelly, lived during one winter while he built the cabin, when he first came to Tennessee. I don’t remember ever seeing the cabin; daddy said that it used to stand where Mr. Arlie’s house is now. Daddy said his father tore the cabin down and used some of the logs to build the log cow barn down the hill. Why he did that, no one knows. Daddy has not told me much about his father or grandfather. He has not told me much about our family at all, who they were or where they come from. What I know now came from Mr. Arlie, who supposedly was my grandfather’s best friend when they were young, but they had some sort of falling out and Mr. Arlie never got a chance to tell me much about it. Daddy never wanted me to be around Mr. Arlie much, saying he was a lazy old man. For some reason, that scared me of him when I was young, even though he would go hunting with us sometimes, and I worked around the fields planting corn, cutting tobacco and working cattle with him. Mr. Arlie wouldn’t talk much about things when daddy was around, but he told me a few tales the few times daddy wasn’t around.
I used to play near the cave where my great-great-grandfather, Zachariah Connelly lived, and once I even took my tent down there to spend the night. I came home before too long. I thought I heard noises. There was a strange feeling down there, especially in the middle of the night, all alone. I thought I heard horses and men and wagons coming through, as if Morgan or Bragg had found the hiding place.
Anyway, Freda was a pretty beagle. Her brother, Fred, also took off one day and did not come home. I didn’t know what happened to him. Maybe it was best. Mr. Clemets, from across the hill, came up on Freda, where she was hung in the fence, and called us. I went down and found her where she had been trying to climb it. Her hind leg was tangled in the woven wire.
What a horrible way to die.
She had been struggling for hours to free herself from the fence-hold and the ground showed signs of where she had dug at it with her front paws. What a horrible, horrible way to die. I buried her where she died and placed some rocks to mark her grave and prayed to God to be kind to her. I cried -- I don’t anymore.
As I was saying, I couldn't find a Christmas tree. There were none. I grew tired, looking for a tree that was not there. It grew colder and darker. I quickly made my way back down the hill. I didn't want to linger in these woods that were not mine anymore. As I left, I crossed near Charlie's Field and restacked the small pile of rocks that marked where Freda was buried. Only the rocks showed. Only I remembered.
I trudged down one hill and up the next, toward the house and I walked by where Mr. Arlie used to live. George saw me from momma and daddy’s back porch, just up the hill, and began barking as if he didn't know me. I yelled at him: "George, it's only me." He continued to bark. I guessed he was just getting old and didn't recognize me that far away. "It's just me, George!" He stopped.
I paused at the old house and looked in the dirty window. All I could see was my reflection. Mr. Arlie had lived there many years with Leah, his wife. After Mrs. Arlie had died, he even lived here by himself for a year or two. I didn’t know how. It seemed to me that he depended on her for almost everything that was done around the house and he must have been in is late 70s when she passed. Evidently, he didn't miss her that much or he was more resilient than I thought. Mrs. Arlie had raised chickens and sold eggs to make a few extra dollars. She often gave us a dozen or so just because she wanted to.
She was like that.
I liked her because she was always friendly to me. She seemed to be a hold-over from the past, with long gray hair piled on top of her head, and long solemn dresses, and the cloth hat she wore.
It was a big change for him when she died; it just had to be.
When I visited Mr. Arlie, almost a year after Mrs. Arlie’s death, I didn't recognize the house. He slept in the living room by a wood-burning stove that heated the entire four rooms. It had only been in the last ten years that daddy had put in an ‘inside toilet’ for them. Paper and clothes were scattered about the dark room, almost covering the dirty buckled tile floor.
He always wore dirty overalls and worn out shirts, in the winter; the rest of the year he seldom wore a shirt. About his mouth collected residue of tobacco and Tums for his a stomach problem he that seemed to always have.
"Come in here and let me show ya my pictures," Mr. Arlie said, grinning. His remaining teeth were bad and wore a dirty brown patina. He led me back to a musty room that looked as though it only held cast away items. A large, ragged, dust covered picture album sat in the middle of a small table. He picked it up and started slowly sliding out pictures with dirty stained hands.
"Looky at this here picture. Reckon I was 'bout twelve there. That there mule's name was Joe." He pointed to the large animal drawing the wagon where he and his mother, father and brothers and sister sat. It was as if they had been frozen in a time when things were only black and white. It didn't strike me at first, but later I realized that he didn't say a word about his family, only the mule. He continued to ramble on about his pictures. He asked me to get him some more pictures of me and my girlfriend, Jessie, and the rest of the family. He wanted any and all pictures I could find. It was as if they were his memories. I don’t think he even had a camera.
The small room was lit only by a naked light-bulb suspended from a long spider web tangled cord. A rotten sulfur odor drifted through and mixed with the house's musty stagnant air. In the corner of the gray room was a box brimming with eggs, wasted eggs, but he kept them like the pictures.
Mr. Arlie wanted to talk, but as usual, I didn't have time to sit and spend all day, so I slowly eased my way to the front door. I continued to try to be interested in the things he talked about. I didn't want to be rude. He showed me a box full of small Christmas ornaments which he had carved; there were some simple birds, cows, and other animals with a spot of red paint for eyes. He gave me a bird. The spot of paint for an eye made me feel bad. It reminded me of his faded eyes.
As I walked toward the door he pulled out his shotgun, which he had shown me many times. He told me again how he had made a new stock for it from wood he had selected himself and how he had pieced it together. I thanked him two or three times, and finally made my way out the door. I walked toward the house looking at the carved bird, with its one red eye, and felt bad again. Lately, daddy has been fixing up Mr. Arlie's old house with its slanted floors and exposed wiring, using it to store his duck blinds.
“He's making a storage building out of it,” Momma said. "Either fix it up or tear it down." I was sad that he didn't tear it down and get rid of all these things.
Don Green lives in Brentwood, Tennessee. He has worked as a water quality biologist for over 28 years with state and local governments (city of Franklin and currently with the city of Chattanooga). He is also a LEED AP with the US Green Building Council. This submission is an excerpt from Only Bullfighters..., his first novel. It takes place in a small middle Tennessee town called Forrest, Tennessee.