Some people attract an idle and entirely unmalicious envy. Jammet was one of those, lazy and good-natured, who seem to slide through life without toil or effort. I thought him lucky, because he did not seem to worry about those things that turn the rest of us gray. He had no gray hairs, but he had a past, which he kept mostly to himself. He imagined himself to have a future, too, I suppose, but he did not. He was perhaps forty. It was as old as he would ever get.
It is a Thursday morning in mid-November, about two weeks after that meeting in the store. I walk down the road from our house in a dreadful temper, planning my lecture carefully. More than likely I rehearse it aloud -- one of many strange habits that are all too easy to pick up in the backwoods. The road -- actually little more than a series of ruts worn by hooves and wheels -- follows the river where it plunges down a series of shallow falls. Under the birches patches of moss gleam emerald in the sunlight. Fallen leaves, crystallized by the night's frost, crackle under my feet, whispering of the coming winter. The sky is an achingly clear blue. I walk quickly in my anger, head high. It probably makes me look cheerful.
Jammet's cabin sits away from the riverbank in a patch of weeds that passes for a garden. The unpeeled log walls have faded over the years until the whole thing looks gray and woolly, more like a living growth than a building. It is something from a bygone age: the door is buckskin stretched over a wooden frame, the windows glazed with oiled parchment. In winter he must freeze. It's not a place where the women of Dove River often call, and I haven't been here myself for months, but right now I have run out of places to look.
There is no smoke signal of life inside, but the door stands ajar; the buckskin stained from earthy hands. I call out, then knock on the wall. There is no reply, so I peer inside, and when my eyes have adjusted to the dimness I see Jammet, at home and, true to form, asleep on his bed at this time in the morning. I nearly walk away then, thinking there is no point waking him, but frustration makes me persevere. I haven't come all this way for nothing.
"Mr. Jammet?" I start off, sounding, to my mind, irritatingly bright. "Mr. Jammet, I am sorry to disturb you, but I must ask..."
Laurent Jammet sleeps peacefully. Around his neck is the red neckerchief he wears for hunting, so that other hunters will not mistake him for a bear and shoot him. One foot protrudes off the side of the bed, in a dirty sock. His red neckerchief is on the table...I have grasped the side of the door. Suddenly, from being normal, everything has changed completely: flies hover around their late autumn feast; the red neckerchief is not around his neck, it cannot be, because it is on the table, and that means...
"Oh," I say, and the sound shocks me in the silent cabin. "No."
I cling on to the door, trying not to run away, although I realize a second later I couldn't move if my life depended on it.
The redness around his neck has leaked into the mattress from a gash. A gash. I'm panting, as though I've been running. The door frame is the most important thing in the world right now. Without it, I don't know what I would do.
The neckerchief has not done its duty. It has failed to prevent his untimely death.
I don't pretend to be particularly brave, and, in fact, long ago gave up the notion that I have any remarkable qualities, but I am surprised at the calmness with which I look around the cabin. My first thought is that Jammet has destroyed himself, but Jammet's hands are empty, and there is no sign of a weapon near him. One hand dangles off the side of the bed. It does not occur to me to be afraid. I know with absolute certainty that whoever did this is nowhere near -- the cabin proclaims its emptiness. Even the body on the bed is empty. There are no attributes to it now -- the cheerfulness and slovenliness and skill at shooting, the generosity and callousness -- they have all gone.
Copyright © 2006 by Stef Penney. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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