EVERY WINTER, Uncle Jack stayed on the mountain plateau where the walnut trees brushed against each other. On each Sunday, from November to the end of January, he would wait for me on the plateau. Jack would sit on a pile of quartz rocks, his rifle leaning against the nearest tree like a broom in the corner of his kitchen. The last time I saw him, he cocked his head to the side and watched me approach.
“I’ll bring you a blanket next time It’s supposed to get cold soon.”
The color of Uncle Jack’s eyes reflected the leaves around him. Though we both knew he wouldn’t take a blanket from me, he nodded gently anyway. The massive black walnut creaked behind him.
I opened my frayed duffle bag and emptied its insides into the leaves: cans of spam and corn, bottles of orange juice, dried hiking meals, antibacterial soap. There was a new razor that my mother added Uncle Jack simply passed it back to me and began to unhinge a can of ham. He ate a fistful of can-shaped pink meat. I shuddered a bit as the cold, processed protein disappeared between his peeling lips and into his jaw. His body was void of any body fat now. I noticed the shadows pass across his sharp cheekbones—he was beginning to look gaunt. After he poured the juices into his mouth over the sharp metal rim, he let the empty can land in the leaves, and Uncle Jack came to rest his thick, callused hands on his legs.
“The wind picks up here The plateau sees rough winters.”
Jack’s voice was comparable to my father’s, but due to the years my uncle spent in solitude, his words had the consistency of sawdust. He saved all of his words for a few sentences on Sundays like this one. We slowly moved through conversations as he retrained his tongue.
"Then you picked a bad place to set up camp."
“No,” he said, “no, I like the walnuts. They roll down and I can hear them when they hit the pool at the bottom.”
He looked down at the empty can as I listened for the walnuts. The trees creaked instead.
“Dad wanted to come with me I told him I needed permission first.”
Uncle Jack shook his torso. The tree behind him moved the same.
“No, tell him to just leave me alone. He’s done a fine job so far. Just woods and me.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I mean, it’s been like twenty years. He is your brother.”
“You can’t talk to a man like your father. It’s not talk,” he said, slicing the air with his left hand. He added, “I don’t want him to know where I’m camping.”
A walnut fell near us It joined a crowd of others already browned with ink. Uncle Jack watched it for several moments after it had become still.
“How is that wound from this summer? Heal okay?” I asked, wavering.
He shifted to look at me. I felt like I was having a conversation with one of the trees behind him.
“I heard four rifle shots today,” he said “Yeah, but two of them were misses.”
He sighed and stood. His knee cracked as he lifted his weight up. I could see his entire body now. Even his ripped, stained hunting clothes, his thinning hair, the long scar along his neck.
He nodded and gathered his supplies into a large canvas bag he kept. I stood and was the first to turn to leave, pressing the inside of my pockets with my palms. My tracks pushed through the chafe of dead leaves. I didn’t have to look behind me to know he climbed the second largest walnut without a rope or ladder. There was a platform at the curve of the trunk where it divided into branches and he would kneel there and watch me go. I made my way back home, but he was already bunking in his.
The road curved naturally along the hill’s spine. Aged tire tracks left two parallel ditches filled with water and decaying leaves. Old mounds of mossy stumps and fallen trees framed the way. After about a quarter of a mile, I turned back to make sure that Uncle Jack’s tree wasn’t visible from a distance. The horizon line consisted of rows of branches with a few limp leaves. For the most part, the forest had taken on a grey color preparing for winter. And I couldn’t see Jack’s tree platform. Daddy wouldn’t be able to find him after all.
The house was a distant lodge in a field. The hunters had left their orange vests across the porch railings. A gunshot rang out once, twice, three times. Someone was target practicing down the hill. A deer carcass hung from the oak tree. Her remains lay below in blue buckets. I knew what was there without looking. Venison organs were gathered in gallon zip bags, pooling in the creases like egg yolks in fresh blood. There were red splatters in the grass beneath the body. She creaked back and forth, the rope around her neck. I skirted the blood, passed up the steps to the porch and let myself in through the kitchen door.
The next Sunday I was there in the kitchen under the hanging frying pans. I gathered the supplies for the hike up to the plateau. This time I would bring a can of root beer for him. Maybe he would feel sentimental. The can slipped into the bag, looking out of place with the packaged meals. Uncle Jack probably wouldn’t take the root beer, but shrugging off the thought, I took a step out the door and into the hard November noon. Now there was a spike buck hanging from the oak. He was swinging back and forth to the movement of the wind. The doe had since been processed, her heart cooked in butter for the old fashioned dishes, her meat ground through a crank and collected into freezer bags. This new one was small for his spikes, his shoulders narrow and hips narrower. The cut down his center colored his belly hair pink.
I eyed his antlers momentarily before heading for the backfield. Not long into the walk along the border of the field, there was a shot from the South, or maybe the West, probably somewhere along the tip of the property. The burst of it rose from the source and beat against the landscape repeatedly, but all at once. Like my father, I had the gift of triangulating such a confused sound, so I started running, letting my bag drop into the grass behind me.
Jack was a mile away, cutting the fur from a dead squirrel. There was probably a crash and struggle of does retreating across the plateau, and the bullet broke away from the target. The metal sped, slowed and drove downward with gravity into the side of Uncle Jack’s head. He slumped violently to the left onto an avalanche of black walnuts, and his body rolled in the shells downhill until his ankles dipped into the shallow ravine below. That is where I found him. A trail of mud and leaves revealed the route his body took.
I have to pause. Something needs to be said up front here. I’m breaking laws. When I talk about my uncle, I am supposed to leave that part out, in fact, a lot of his story out. Instead, I’m supposed to say that he disappeared before then. We decided that my uncle never came to live in the walnut tree that year. We picked a story for him so dependable that even when we’d look at photographs from Daddy’s childhood, we would wonder when Uncle Jack might come home. The part where he doesn’t respond to us, where he disappears entirely without a message—it’s my Daddy’s creation.
This is how we say it: I did not see him for six months before November. We lost his trail in the summer when the neighbor sold the river acres to a realtor. This loss of territory drove Uncle Jack into his own head. Jack stopped accepting food, stopped visiting with me on Sundays.
But what we say is different from what I know.
What we say was decided over a game of blackjack the night after I found Uncle Jack in the gulley with a bullet lodged above his ear.
Chips and cards set in front of the last generation of plaid men, tobacco men, my father and the hunters. The poker game that night was a quiet affair of beer and chili. They rolled their cornbread in chili dregs. I could hear their negotiation through the vent without even concentrating. Their voices gathered in the heat from the furnace. I didn’t have to be in the room to know how they were sitting at the table, waiting for the next game to start. My father stood with his back to them as he washed his hands at the sink. He was obsessive about this, using a rough brush to clean the bloodlines from his fingernails. The beat of the brush was a consistent buffing sound It continued even when somebody else brought up Uncle Jack. I couldn’t pick out the voice.
“What do we do now?”
The brushing continued.
“I don’t think that’s a real question, Alec,” my father replied.
Alec. He was the youngest and an employee at the meat processor. He drank instant coffee and talked about all the deer people brought into the plant, the does with spikes and other oddities. Even now I heard the kettle start to sing and a chair scrape out from the table. All the while, my father’s brush continued.
“All together, three men took a rifle shot this afternoon, and all of them missed. All three were in range to reach Uncle Jack’s plateau. Any argument there?”
No one disagreed with Daddy. The sounds of my father owned this conversation. “I just don’t want one man blamed for something that was nobody’s fault. Jack was right in the most populated hunting spot. What did the fool expect?” he asked.
I was unused to this version of my father’s voice. Somebody coughed and everyone else agreed in murmurs. I pulled the blanket above my head and gathered the stitched quilt around my ears, but I could still hear. I recognized a couple murmurs now, deep ones from Barry and Greg, both second cousins. I couldn’t even ignore the sound of my father’s hand brush. My mind stayed awake through it, listening to plans of hiding memories and burying Jack.
“The cops would charge us if the body’s ever found. Nobody wants that attention.”
This was George Merrick from two counties over. He slept on the living room floor during the season. His statement started more baritone conversations. The opinions of the hunters didn’t matter though because my father leapt in.
“Damn, when was the last time the police came looking up here? Moonshine season in the 20’s I expect.”
Their deep drifting voices submitted, the vents of the house heavy with the sounds of agreement, so I closed my eyes I gave in too, focusing on their words.
“Why did he leave in the first place? He was always a smart guy when we were in high school. What the hell happened?”
George Merrick again. I knew because his sentence ended with the sound of his tobacco spittoon, a coffee can, hitting the table It took my father a long time to respond:
“It doesn’t matter. When my Daddy died, Jack couldn’t talk for a week and he never picked up another farm tool.”
I closed my eyes tighter, trying desperately to remember the chorus from the old disco song my mother loved. Nothing came to me except the dull voices and light scrape of card shuffling from the other room.
I thought of Jack instead. I thought of how he could focus his ears on a specific sound and I tried to do the same. Instead, I started thinking about him. My uncle could always overhear the forest sounds—better than me, better than my father. He was best at that. When the owl called, he hushed his own breathing. The crows were the worst, with their cries crawling out of their beaks. He listened for coyotes carefully because they were coming back. Their numbers were growing. I disagreed because there were more houses now than carnivores, and I told him this—he shook his body and stood, dismissing me.
“Coyotes are here because the dead animals are missing. I see hawks and foxes, but there are not enough to eat the animals that are dying.”
He leaned on a tree while I sat cross-legged on a pad of moss. We met that time on the old cow road that followed the creek down to the river. The moss filled in where the hooves used to beat down the path.
“I don’t know. If you go into town again someday, you’ll see why. The field around the high school is all houses and there’s four lights.”
“I don’t go into town,” he said, “and besides, coyotes are something to predict to get ready for, to hear over the hill.”
He scratched his beard with one long, thick finger.
“Can’t hear houses, can you?” I asked, trying to close the conversation.
I considered telling Jack about my father driving in the old Ford into town. Daddy always kept the window rolled down so he could freely spit, and he usually steered with the crook of his right elbow, as though his hands got enough use at home. On Main Street, Dad would eye the fields of neighborhoods where horse farms and dairies had been ground down into fine rubble and replaced by sectioned houses and manicured medians. My father always narrowed his eyes and looked in the side mirror long after the new neighborhood passed. He said the same thing every day, like a chant: “Cracker box toys for folks who couldn’t afford them without a loan anyway.”
I was too nervous to say this story. I was worried Jack would roll his eyes. My father equated the owners of those houses to does moving together in the field. They were a mob, a nuisance. Jack was different. His eyes wetted on the rims. I guessed that he was afraid of the houses, as though one day he’d wake up and find his walnut replaced by a brick home, a two-car garage and a family of four. He let a couple drops stick along his eyelashes and rubbed the moisture away with his palms.
“No, I can’t hear houses coming.”
I opened my eyes to note the silence of the house. One of the hunters bunked on the living room couch and snored on beat. I had actually fallen asleep. I sat up on my elbow to listen more intently, but the kitchen had long since emptied. My hand brushed the fabric of my pillow and I realized that it was actually wet. I rubbed my fingers on it again It was surprising, that wetness.
When my father told the family what to remember, I knew we were supposed to forget Jack’s death before Daddy rolled out his voice. He gathered my sisters into the kitchen and pressed our ears together with his granite tones. The shadows in his cheeks moved in patterns as he repeated himself four times. My father explained it easily to us: “It was simpler this way, wasn’t it? Who would Jack want to come to a funeral?”
I traced the checks on the tablecloth with my finger.
“He was insane, right Lacy?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I agreed carefully, the word pooling beneath my tongue.
How else could I describe Uncle Jack? My father looked satisfied with my hesitant answer, put an arm on my shoulder and turned his eyes to everyone else.
We agreed with head nods, our necks craning, then our chins descending, as if marionette strings were in the rafters. The image of my uncle climbing up the walnut tree flickered in my mind. My father left a kiss on my forehead, and I looked down at the floorboards. The feeling of his lips remained for hours even when I rubbed the skin red.
Uncle Jack’s resting bed was a white sheet used to sink him into grittiness and mountain. It was noon and the other hunters gathered around the hole. Alec leaned forward heavily to look down at the sheet. Barry and Greg wore plaid jackets that nearly matched. They situated their stances in a similar manner with their legs placed wide apart. George Merrick stood next to me and nodded at the grave.
“Do you get it, Lacy?”
I looked at him and shrugged. Indifference seemed to be a wise choice these days. Everyone else was picking it up. Alec, Barry and Greg, all three held shovels and wiped their heads. Together they grabbed handfuls of sheet and lowered the body. They covered Jack with the lime we used to bury deer organs The smell of it hissed in the air and rolled upward with the wind. George Merrick pushed a hand through his hair.
“Probably how he would have wanted his death, anyway, right?” he asked.
I watched as my father pulled himself up to the black plastic throne above the orange tractor. It came to life easily, growling without the backfire I always drew from the engine. His neck was crooked around his shoulder as he reversed out of the barn. His hunters backed up next to George Merrick, so that we all stood in a line. My father plowed the soil with the tractor, covering at first Jack’s lower body, then his upper, at last sealing the hole.
I had been ignoring George Merrick.
“I guess so. Can’t imagine anything better for a hermit in the woods.”
He found this to be a suitable agreement.
But it was a lie, because I could imagine something else. Uncle Jack could too. I had met him that previous summer down by the two boulders. He was between the rocks, kneeling, with his fingers petting a squirrel pelt. When I approached, it was obvious he held his body differently, his head bent in the sunlight.
He turned, but said nothing, his neck curving painfully when his head righted its direction. Dried blood had collected low along his neck.
“Lacy, I have a job for you.”
I walked forward and sat directly in front of him. The boulders looked at each other above our shoulders.
“How did you do that?”
“Killed a squirrel and kept the tail.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I took a fall.”
“I need you to sew me up. I can’t see the cut well.”
“I think you need a doctor.”
“I need Dr. Lacy.”
He passed me a needle with a thick string. It was a rough leather piece he chewed himself.
“It’ll be a horrible scar and it’ll get infected.”
He ignored me and pinched the gash so that the skin met.
“Sew me up.”
I did. At first it felt as though the skin would rip, but it met itself slowly like patchwork. With each pass of the needle, he breathed like an old dog. The chewed string pulled the skin unevenly so that the cut became a rough row of teeth.
“Jack, what if I wasn’t here to do this? What would you do?”
He grunted, his eyes pressed closed. He didn’t speak until after I knotted the string and cut the needle loose. He was lucky he had the needle—a thick metal one for leather.
“Feels better, almost.”
“What would you have done if I hadn’t brought you this needle last July?”
He laid back and cringed when leaf edges touched the back of his neck.
“If I knew I would die out here, I would come looking for your Daddy and I would lay in his yard until he moved me himself.”
“Jack,” I said.
He looked at me.
“Lacy, if I ever know I can’t make it out here, I’ll bury myself beneath the walnut trees on the ridge, and you won’t have to worry about me at all. The woods will take care of me. And if you hadn’t given me this needle, I would have made one out of a long thorn, and if you hadn’t been here I would have done the work blind, by myself. Might have even done it better than you.”
He leaned back in a heap and breathed through his nose until he passed out. I stayed for a while without him knowing, eyeing him from up the hill until he woke roughly and rolled over. He came to his knees next, then to his feet, and rubbed the cut on his neck. He turned to the hillside and listened to the wind. I held my breath, but it didn’t matter.
“Go home. I know it’s you.”
I rose and left without looking back, just as he wanted.
During the walk home, my face grew hot and my ears swelled, but I focused on my breathing so my eyes wouldn’t tear.
The hunters tamped down Jack’s grave with their own feet. For a moment I thought of Uncle Jack’s cocked head, and his legs crossed on dead leaves and water- smoothed rocks. I turned from the makeshift funeral, and walked back inside to the warmth of the house, and the men didn’t mind. Even George Merrick didn’t seem to notice I was gone Nothing came of it. Uncle Jack simply vanished from the mountain, from the tree branches. When the soil in the grave sunk a bit, my father filled it in with more from the woods and then covered the dark topsoil with spoiled leaves and old grass to match the rest of the field.
I even helped him and tossed clots of field grass across the bare ground. He righted them and pressed the soil to support their bodies.
“Daddy, don’t step on it.”
“I have to, to cover it up, Lacy.”
We kept working, but he kept his eyes away from me when he spoke.
“It’s not right for a seventeen-year-old girl to babysit an old uncle. You can’t hide how young you are. In the end, anyway.”
I sat back on my haunches.
“You two certainly didn’t hide it at all.”
He gripped the belt loop on his jeans in response and looked up at me, the grass dropping from his hand. I half expected him to smack me, but he didn’t. He never did, though, I was sure, particularly that time, he wanted to.
When he didn’t respond, I said, “Why didn’t you just tell the police, Daddy?”
“He was nothing but trouble,” my father said, walking forward on his knees with leaves in his fist, “You tell police that and they get suspicious, come around looking for people to blame. And that’s not what we want—not for you and your sisters. Not for the other guys. It’s nobody’s fault but Jack’s. Lucky coyotes didn’t carry his body to town. Fool, just a goddamn fool.”
I didn’t say anything, which was probably the worst choice possible. He turned his chin up to me, his left eyebrow dabbled with the grave’s soil.
“Nobody’s buried here, goddamn it. He wasn’t a man, so he’s not a dead man either. Go to the house, and don’t you dare come back out here.”
His voice broke on the end, which surprised me. But it didn’t matter I went back inside and he moved through the house later that evening like we hadn’t spoken at all.
Eventually, nothing seemed out of place. The walnuts in the woods took on the wizened color of the topsoil. They pressed beneath winter boots and their spoiled centers crushed.
One Saturday in January, once the hunters had all given up for the season and the walnut shells were nearly lost entirely, Uncle Jack’s name was said again for the first time in weeks. The sheriff’s deputy drove up the ramble of gravel and shale to our gate. He was a surfboard of a man, built with a curve forward, so that when he stepped from the front seat, his shoulders dropped at an angle in the direction of his elbows. I heard his gravel splatter from the bridge already, so we were prepared and tensed.
My father had a splitting maul tossed over one shoulder, sharpening oil hanging from his fingers. Next to the deputy he was craggy, but composed.
“Frank,” he greeted, and the deputy gave a surprisingly feminine handshake in response. My father let the oil go and took his hand.
“I’m looking for Jack. Anybody seen him around the woods?”
The handshake dropped a bit too quickly, though the deputy didn’t notice. I watched my father’s inner wrestling match The conflict spread from his pupils to the base of his neck as he waffled momentarily. He shook his head.
“Nah, Frank, to tell you the truth I haven’t. About six months ago he dropped off contact with us. Stopped talking all together, even to Lacy, his favorite.”
He pointed a crooked finger at me, and I wanted to duck. It was my father’s signal for help. With little effort in the shuffle of my boots, I strolled to their conversation in the open field. I played with the lint in my right pocket and repeated the script in my head. The grave was visible from this spot, though it was completely camouflaged now. I was careful not to look in that direction. The officer didn’t notice how I confined my vision.
I never meant to understand Uncle Jack. He was not one to be understood, but watched from a distance. Sometimes my mother caught his movement in the backyard and my sisters called up the hill to him as though he was listening, but he didn’t want or need the attention. Several days after I sewed his wound, I returned to the same place, but he wasn’t there. The creek passed by in light noon sunlight, so I followed the water down to the swimming hole and passed it into the wide creek bed where pawpaws grew.
He turned from the creek where he was washing his clothes. I caught him off guard while the remains of his blood loosened from the knit of his shirt and clouded into the water. He narrowed his eyes.
“You need this, take this You need to clean it.”
I held out a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a tube of antibiotic ointment and several butterfly bandages. He growled and turned back to his shirt and rung it out, then tugged it over his head. I noticed his disappearing chest, the sag in his biceps, the old skin along his side and his ribs framing the top of his stomach.
“I don’t need it.”
“Please. Take this now and I won’t ever make you take another thing.”
My voice sounded childish now. He washed a rag, and I noticed that this fabric was stained with blood as well. As he worked in the water, I moved forward. He ignored me, so I slipped forward again and sat. Still, he ignored me, so I crawled closer, each movement taking no longer than five seconds. I made sure—I counted in my head.
“I can hear you. You’re the loudest thing in these woods.”
“Please, take them.”
“I’m fine. I know how to care for myself—spider webs clotted it.”
“That’s so dirty.”
“I live a dirty life.”
“I know,” I said, leaving the supplies on the ground next to him. Then I backed up and left him. He wouldn’t reappear again for two weeks and then six weeks after that brief, wordless encounter. The scar balled up groups of skin below his neck, but he never mentioned it again. I didn’t actually notice the wound until the start of the winter when he sat in front of his walnut. The stitched skin shone in the sunlight, pink and fresh, but healthy and sewn tight against the air. This is what I thought of when the policeman came to the property and turned to me with a question.
“When was the last time he was around?”
I spoke up with an obedience I never knew I had.
“A ways back, maybe in the spring. He took less and less supplies, until one day he sent me back. He was determined.”
“Had to be to live out here,” the deputy replied.
He turned to view the field, commenting on the grace of the hills without saying a word. I thought about Jack’s walnut trees up on the plateau waving in the winter sunlight. Nodding absentmindedly, I ignored my father’s look. His green eyes were remarkably like Uncle Jack’s.
“Where would he go, then? He just up and left one day?” the officer said, and then paused, “There was a bit of a disturbance down at the new development by the river. Just some broken windows. That was one of Jack’s favorite plots. That wouldn’t be him now, would it?”
My father shook his head, lowering the maul now to the ground. I thought of my Uncle’s calm face draped in a sheet and weighed down by the pile of soil. I remembered to breathe just as my lungs started to burn, but the deputy didn’t seem to notice that either.
“I mean, Jack’s only been getting quieter as he’s been getting older,” Dad replied.
“I know, it’s just necessary for me to ask. It was probably just some kids. Though, everyone is nervous about Jack. The way he cuts himself off is just, well, unsettling.”
There was another pause in which we all looked to the field and followed the power lines. The deputy continued.
“We’re not sure, and it’s one of those cases that insurance will cover. It does make me nervous, though, to think of Jack out on his own.”
“Well,” I said, scraping the notes of my voice together, “if he is here, he’ll probably crop up this winter. He didn’t like going through snow without his winter gear and the rest of January is bound to be too cold.”
The deputy nodded.
“Hell, I wouldn’t either. Alright,” he said as he moved back to his cruiser. “I’ll probably check in again sometime in the next couple of weeks. Give me a ring if he shows.”
He shook my father’s hand again from inside the cruiser. I don’t believe he had a question in his mind. I don’t believe there was a doubt between us that Uncle Jack had simply slipped into his paranoia. That was the most terrifying part of the conversation, the fact that it ran so smoothly. My father turned to me as he gathered his tools. I could have rushed back to the cruiser before the deputy left. I could have walked over to the grave and started to dig Jack back to the surface. But I did not. The sudden concreteness of our lie formed in my stomach.
Daddy kissed me on the forehead, without a word, without the assurance I needed, and I felt the presence of the kiss continue long after he walked away. It was a promise that the family would go on this way.
But, I could smell Uncle Jack on my father, the soil, the walnuts.
Daddy turned and walked back to the barn as though he had never stopped. I found myself thinking about the plateau’s trees and the laps of the wind across the top of the mountain. The clouds were easing in from the Southwest and pressing down. There would be a hint of snow and ice coating the ridge that night, leaving crystals along the limbs of trees. Regardless, it would be far easier to spend a night in the walnuts than another moment in the house with my father’s voice in the vents.
JESSI LEWIS grew up on a blueberry farm in rural Virginia. After perhaps too many indecisive college years, she came to devote herself to storytelling and is now working through her MFA at West Virginia University. Her work has also been published in Flyway.