Read Chapter One of THE EMERALD TRIANGLE--Free!
The phone call came while I was in the duck blind waiting for the sun to rise.
I suppose that made sense. Brian Ride had died sometime last night, and everyone in Cinnabar knew I turned in early. They would know, as a newly born “wild man of the woods,” I’d be getting up before the eastern glow in the sky was bright enough to see your hand by.
They were right. I’d shouldered my shotgun and set out from my cabin with Orson, my brown Newfoundland, a sunny, grinning dog with not a care in the world, unlike me. Orson padded soundlessly through the unseen underbrush, a marauding bear on the prowl, while I followed not so quietly, although I’d gone the extra mile toward becoming a mountain man and had buckskin pants on under my waders.
I knew approximately where the lake was and Orson guided me the rest of the way. It had snowed once or twice since I’d been there, and in November it stuck to the ground when I emerged from the alpine cover. Now my feet crunched in that baking soda way, but Orson danced quietly ahead. I could see his fur rippling, his tongue peeking from his giant mouth, his eyes merry as if to say “hurry! All the ducks will be gone if you keep lollygagging.”
So I did hurry, because I wanted to eat some duck, and have some to give my friends who owned the cabin. Last month I’d harvested a buck, enough red meat to satisfy me through the winter months I planned on being in the cabin, praying and meditating on my painful situation. I was grappling with a huge moral dilemma, and there seemed to be no way out of it other than to run away. Which I’d proceeded to do with such finesse and alacrity you’d think I’d been born to it.
I sighed deeply as I crawled into the sanctity of the duck blind I’d built earlier that month. Orson entered at the same time, shouldering me aside with not a care in the world, taking the best spot. I didn’t have the heart to move him, so I got on all fours and raised my glasses. The decoys bobbed like kid’s toys, rippled by a slight predawn wind, carrying the faint aroma of a passing skunk—or someone’s marijuana crop. That was common up there in Trinity County, California, but I knew my friends kept their grows away from their cabins, anxious for the final legalization laws to be passed.
I settled down and waited for the mallards to start flying. I put my gloved hands in the pockets of my camo jacket, my breath icy. A group of moths passed overhead, looking like pale morning glories. The sheltering forest fringing the lake was still. All I heard was Orson’s soft panting. I’d easily hear the mallards flying in.
Orson seemed to be telling me that existence was good—our life was ours for the taking, if we wanted to relish it. Only unenlightened people repeated the story that man had taken wild dogs and made them his fallen slave. They utterly failed to see how important dog is to man. I gave worship to Orson in many of my spare moments. Sometimes I thought he was the only thing preventing me from falling into a much darker place than I already was. He had let me into his life, not the other way around.
Alone, with the faint whooshing of water and Orson’s satisfied panting, I had no choice but to reflect on my fall from grace.
I still couldn’t come to terms with the loose woman my wife Jessica had become during our marriage. I’d never be able to move on unless I somehow came to accept that. Was it me and my boring, pious life that had driven her to it? I couldn’t wrap my head around the betrayal. No matter which way I looked at it—from a duck blind, in the cabin drinking whiskey, on my Harley canyon-carving the back roads of the Trinity Alps—there remained a red-hot ball of rage in the pit of my stomach.
She had cuckolded me, plain and simple, carrying on with a local pot farmer, no less. How long that had been going on behind my back while the citizens of Cinnabar laughing at me was anyone’s guess. I was naive and in love, and wrapped up in my work. I just didn’t think Jessica capable of anything like that. I’d been so blindsided when a snarky gas station owner had said to me, “And you know…your wife and that pot farmer are making a spectacle of themselves.”
“What?” I’d stupidly said.
His face had turned all ferret-like, his skull shaped like a nut. “You mean you don’t know about her and Paul Staples? Everyone in Cinnabar knows, Truman.”
Paul Staples, Paul Staples…Pot farmers rarely came to town because it was always this season, that season. There was always some excuse not to attend church services, but the same excuses didn’t hold when it came time for a party. So I vaguely knew Paul Staples, and I could picture him around Jessica. At the supermarket. The farmer’s market. The annual Humane Society charity dinner. Yes. Paul Staples always seemed to be there.
My heart thudded, then stopped. The gas station owner was clearly taking pleasure in seeing my distress. “Hits close to home, don’t it?” he leered. “Maybe you need to practice what you preach. Or maybe your wife does.”
I seriously wanted to punch him, and of course I couldn’t.
Mallards flew in then, interrupting my enraged reverie. Dozens of beating wings were like a whispering waterfall, or a distant train’s babbling wheels. I popped up from the blind, my pump action shotgun at the ready. I squeezed the trigger, but couldn’t be sure in the dim light if I hit anything. Orson seemed to know, though, and bounded off like a giant, floppy jackrabbit.
I smiled when he hit the water. From an uncouth, lumbering Bigfoot, he became a sleek eel when he swam. I knew his wide, webbed feet were working underwater as he steered right for the dead duck. Without breaking stride, he hit it with his open mouth, careful not to break the skin. My eyes were adjusting now to the oncoming light, and I moved out of the blind, encouraging Orson.
“Good boy! Get duck!”
It was a good-sized drake, its iridescent emerald green head glowing as if lit from within. I decided to move to the next blind I’d set up last week, the ducks already being skittish at this one, having winged away to the next inlet, churning up the lake. We had to walk fast to capture the ducks’ sunrise innocence, before they could see, smell, and become skeptical of man and beast.
I inhaled swampy earth and decomposing reeds, skirting the thorny blackberry bushes. Crunching crispy miner’s lettuce and lemony hedge nettle under my soles, I ducked beneath pine branches, swinging the recently demised drake by his warm neck. Jessica’s character had reflected on me, and ultimately the gossip and shame of living in Cinnabar got to be too much for me. The things I had loved about working in a small town had come back to bite me in the ass. So I ran.
My friends, the Anker-Santos brothers, had generously offered me their cabin. They spent most of their time at their plantations anyway, and the one bedroom log affair was perfectly fine for me, a man accustomed to sparse lodgings. It gave me time to reflect on what my next step would be, and I still hadn’t come to any sort of conclusion. I figured solitude was a traditional spiritual discipline. Moses, Elijah, and Jacob met with God when alone. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
I was struggling with that.
When I tried to meditate, images of Jessica’s insipid grinning face haunted my visions. She’d had no explanation for her straying. She claimed to still love me. But she couldn’t cut it off with the weed farmer. So she loved him, too? My lifestyle was too restrictive for her, she said. In the end, my agony started affecting my work. How could a priest whose faith was being tested lead his flock with honor? I had to leave.
A sturdy wind whipped up satiny waves on the lake. Orson frisked beside me across a sandy beach, and then we were at the blind. I placed the drake on the straw and reloaded my shotgun. “Orson. Hold.” He eased onto his stomach, folded his paws, and uttered a purr of discontent. He didn’t like holding.
When I peeked over the edge of the blind, my phone rang. Or, rather, lit up with a call from Woodrow Muir, the priest-in-charge at St. John’s in Cinnabar. He was the only one who’d call me this early in the morning, and I’d promised him I’d be available for questions after I dumped the entire load of my position on him.
“Truman.” He sounded out of breath. Would he be jogging this early in the morning? Must have. “Hate to bother you so early—”
“That’s okay. I’m up hunting.”
“—but Brian Ride killed himself.”
“Yes, his wife Vickie was out with friends last night and came home around one and found him. It was foul, Truman. My heart goes out to Vickie.”
“Yes, of course.” I wondered what he wanted me to do about it. “You want to know if suicide is a mortal sin. Well, first of all, he was obviously in a very dark place to have contemplated that at all.”
“No, that’s really not my question, although we should discuss it at a later date because I could find no literature on it. No, Vickie doesn’t think it was a suicide. A gun was in his hand, but, ah, she doesn’t think—”
Suddenly Vickie grabbed the phone from Woody. I wasn’t prepared for her. Her voice was raspy and strangled, beyond the one pack plus of cigarettes she must’ve smoked every day. “We need you, Father Burgess. Come back, please. You know Brian would never have killed himself. I suspect foul play.”
I didn’t know anyone actually said “foul play.” In all my years in Cinnabar, I’d never dealt with a murder. “Well, Vickie, what makes you say he couldn’t have killed himself? Sometimes depression is kept well hidden even from family members—”
Vickie drew in a ragged breath and let it out all at once. “I know he wouldn’t have killed himself because he was having an affair.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. Oh. Of course, a general confession was part of my liturgy, and if someone didn’t feel that was enough, they could come to me in private for absolution. Brian had never done anything of the sort, and to be frank, he didn’t have that guilty, sneaky look I’d grown accustomed to in adulterers. But I couldn’t blow off Vickie’s feelings. “Would you like absolution? Because I can give it from here—”
“No. We need you to come back, Father Burgess. Now. You need to see Brian for yourself before they move him.” Indeed, I heard commotion in the background, a quiet sort of contemplative hubbub. The sort cops make.
“Are you at home, Vickie?”
“Yes, and we need you, father. It’s not just Brian. Susan Rechy’s son was just diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and talk about suicide, she’s at the end of her rope. No one’s ashamed of you for divorcing that slut Jessica.” In her grief, she had become unfettered, unfiltered. “In fact, Trisha St. Elmo specifically requested a sermon on divorce. Maybe she’s heading for it, I don’t know. But we’re all falling apart around here without you. No offense, Truman. We don’t want some outlander busting in and taking charge.”
I really didn’t want to leave the sanctity of my Walden Pond. But of course, I had to think of what was best for Vickie, the congregation. “I’m two hours away, up by Weaverville. I’ll have to drop Orson off with Father Muir. Do you think you can stop them from moving Brian until then?”
“Yes, oh yes, father!” The relief in her voice was palpable. Sometimes I wondered at my motivation for having taken vows. Was it all about ego, the pride one gets when one is relied upon to a large extent? My work should have been without gratification—work for work’s sake. Maybe I just loved to be needed. “Yes, come as fast as you can! You remember where I live.”
Indeed I did. I remembered where everyone lived. Everyone I’d visited in time of need, sickness, emotional distress. That was my job, my work, and I’d cut it short because pride had made me slink away from Cinnabar in shame. “Yes, Vickie. I’ll be there as soon as I drop off Orson.”
I blew a sigh of relief after hanging up. I used to thrive on that sort of drama, and now I just dreaded it. As I slung my shotgun over my shoulder and once again grabbed the drake, I realized how cozy I’d become in my little cabin, even thinking of it as “mine.” Solitude was cleansing, and I was in a place where Jessica could never reach me with her infidelities, her taunting, her rubbing my face in her sins. I was separate now, truly a divorced man, pure.
Orson’s fur flowed elegantly, already dry, as we started back up the hill. Were we master and slave, as some people claimed? Sometimes I thought I was Orson’s slave. Allegedly, dog gave up his wild birthright when he surrendered to man’s domestication. Man, who originally tamed the wild cur to prove his own superior ego, keeps owning them to groom his own vanity.
Orson’s kind, gentle eyes told me otherwise. He was just here because he happened to like me, happened to like duck hunting, happened to like the food I gave him. He’d be out of there in a hot minute if he stopped liking me—if a sexy, fertile woman came along.
He was as fickle and as temporary as any wife.
I had no time for dressing the duck, so I hung it in the pantry to age. But I did make time to stuff my pipe with some long-flowering indica and take a few flavorful puffs.
I would miss this solitary cabin, even if I was only gone a few days. I’d been re-reading my favorite book Pan.
“I love three things,” I then say. “I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth.”
“And which do you love best?”
“The dream.”It was hard to disagree with him.