by Joseph Hurka
In the late summer evening, the two boys and the father came to a meadow. One boy had the eyes of his father and a similar walk; the other boy was a friend.
They had been walking around the pond nearby and now they were going home. They stood on a knoll. The sun was shining brown-gold on the dry weeds and grass. Jediah Vest felt his father’s hand around his own, and when he glanced behind he could see, through trees, the silver water in the sun. It looked very bright and he could not watch it for long.
He could smell the dry ground. The sun was not as hot on his back as it had been when they were at the pond.
Billy was telling Jediah’s father a story, something about baseball, and how Billy had stolen second. Jediah’s father said Wow, Billy, you’re getting fast. That’s the way to do it.
Crabapple trees hissed in the meadow, and past those branches was the dark forest with the path to Jediah’s neighborhood. The pine trees were like towers with patches of bright sky behind them. The sky was the color of orange flowers Jediah’s mother grew in her garden. Jediah thought of his mother in the kitchen, looking out the window at the forest, waiting, making dinner.
Careful on the embankment, Jediah’s father said. Jediah felt his father’s hand tighten. The boys swung out on the father’s arms, swaying over the steepness for a moment; the grass stirred below them, and Jediah’s insides leapt. His father laughed with them, carrying them down the few feet, and landed them at the bottom. Here grass grew every which way as high as Jediah’s waist, looking as if it were on fire. You could smell the apples and the dry ground. Dragonflies went up and down and sideways.
Okay, boys, Jediah’s father said. That’s enough swinging on the old man. You’re getting too big for me now.
The crabapple trees were black and twisted when you got near them. Crabapples hung in green clusters above Jediah. He could hardly see anything in the bottom of the forest ahead because it was so dark there.
And then, while Jediah watched, the dark bottoms of the trees began to move. He felt his father’s hand tighten again on his own.
Mrs. Woodrow’s dogs got out, Jediah’s father said, quietly. Okay, boys.
The dogs came from the trees, eight of them. They paused and stared. They sniffed the ground and came on again, their black heads and small ears nodding with the running. Jediah could not swallow.
Jediah had seen the dogs up close in old Mrs. Woodman’s cage once, behind wire mesh. One, larger than the others, had showed its teeth and snarled and barked and the others barked and the barking went right into your stomach and Jediah had stepped back to his father’s legs and Mrs. Woodrow clucked her tongue and laughed and told the dogs how silly they were. Jediah’s father had led Jediah away from the cage quickly. They had gone inside Mrs. Woodrow’s very old home. Everything had smelled like candles there. Jediah had felt his father being polite to Mrs. Woodrow, as they sat with tea. The tea was too hot to hold or drink for a while. The window looked out at the large, ivy-covered cage with the dogs.
Now Jediah’s father firmly lifted Billy, then Jediah, into the nearest crabapple tree. Jediah felt the swift pull under his shoulders, and when he was in the first branches he grabbed hold of the harsh wood and felt his father’s hands leave him. Billy said, Mr. Vest?
It’s all right, Billy, Jediah’s father said. Both of you boys climb up a little higher. You’re good at that.
The dogs came up to the tree and surrounded it and Jediah’s father. The big one put his paws up on the trunk and barked suddenly and so loudly that Jediah felt it in his stomach, something coming up in his throat. The dog snarled and showed its white teeth. Billy said, Mr. Vest?
It’s all right, Billy, Jediah’s father said again. Keep climbing. You’re fine there. He said, Stay there, boys. Don’t come down until I’m back. I shouldn’t be long. Dogs, come.
The dog on the tree looked back, hesitated, and then dropped to the ground. It went up to Jediah’s father to sniff, but Jediah’s father was already walking for the trees. The other dogs sniffed the ground, glanced up at the boys, and turned toward the path. Jediah watched his father walk with the dogs around him into the forest. He heard his father talking to them as if they were guests at a party. Then the trees were over them and he could not see his father anymore.
A few nights before, when Jediah’s father got home from the yacht yard, there was an awful fight in the kitchen. It was something about a party and Jediah’s father was going to be Goddamned if he would go be with those people. Jediah’s mother’s voice rose and she was crying. Jediah went down the stairs carefully and he heard his father say I’m in no mood and his mother said Well maybe Henry for once you’re going to hear this, her voice hoarse and sad like if she had a cold. Jediah waited at the banister and he could see the kitchen doorway and he could not breathe well. He saw a dish fly by, heard it smash, and it was suddenly like the whole house was coming apart. The smooth paint of the spindle posts grew wet from Jediah’s face and hands. His parents heard him and came and brought him up to their bed and he lay face down on a pillow while his mother rubbed his back. His father paced awkwardly and said I’m sorry, son, parents are stupid sometimes, but don’t worry, we’re not going to go do some stupid damned thing. Jediah had thought about how Billy’s father lived now in a house by the sea. Billy had said there was a big window there where you could watch the motorboats. Sometimes Billy’s father drove him all that way to school, and from the high windows of the bus Jediah saw his friend get dropped off.
Don’t worry, son, Jediah’s father said, his hand in Jediah’s hair. That’s right, his mother said. She made circles on his back. That’s right, little man. No more fighting. Soon Jediah could breathe steadily again and the windows were dark. When he woke, still in their bed, he could hear his parents’ voices low in the kitchen. He could hear a car pass on the street. The car lights moved in squares over the wall.
Billy made a sound in his throat. We’re high up, he said, looking at the ground. The fire in the grass was going out. The pond was darker, and Jediah could not see the colors as much now through the trees. He felt wind against his cheek and wood biting into his forearms where he held onto his branch. He could smell the apples and the water. The birds seemed suddenly to be talking a lot, saying things and answering one another. The wind rushed once hard and the tree groaned and rocked and the ground seemed to rise.
We’re moving, Billy said.
We’re all right, Jediah said. He looked down at the meadow. Think about hitting baseballs, Billy.
Billy closed his eyes, but Jediah didn’t really know if his friend was thinking about swinging a bat. He thought of his father in the dark forest with the dogs. He wished his father had a bat.
The insects grew louder, the whole field of them. The flattened places of grass where his father and the dogs had gone were very hard to see.
Maybe we can get down now, Billy said.
No, Jediah said. He said for us to stay here.
Billy closed his eyes again and gripped his branch, for the wind was gusting again. Jediah watched the face of his friend. Then he watched the forest carefully until he could see his father’s shoulders, a steady movement, coming from the dark trees of summer.
Joseph Hurka’s recent memoir, Fields of Light: A Son Remembers his Heroic Father, was a winner of the Pushcart Editors' Book Award and is now in paperback from Pushcart/W.W. Norton. Hurka’s short stories have been published in numerous literary journals, and he is at work on a novel. He teaches at Tufts University and Emerson College.