Chapter One: Winter – Idaho
It’s winter in Idaho, past midnight, and it should be dark, but the wind-driven snow crackles with lightning and shakes the clattering glassy branches of frozen trees. Green and blue curtains of aurora borealis flare and furl and curtsy across the northern horizon.
Hanson appears out of the hissing snow with a double armload of firewood, on his way to the cabin. An owl, back in the trees where the wind doesn’t seem to touch him, watches with great yellow eyes as Hanson drops the wood onto the porch, opens the door, and goes inside, pushing the door closed against the wind. He hangs up his coat and feeds chunks of split locust into the castiron stove, watching the fire leap up before closing and latching the door. The only light in the cabin comes from the crazed mica window in the hinged stove door, flickering the cabin walls in and out like an old movie projector. It had seemed like April, spring on its way, when the storm blew down from the Hi-Line. He sits cross-legged in front of the fireplace, drinking tequila from the bottle, looking at his books stacked and shelved against the walls, the titles on their spines glittering in the firelight.
He’ll be leaving in another six weeks, as soon as the quarter is over and he’s turned in his grades. He’ll miss his students—he knows that—and the cabin too, half a mile above Boise, where he walks the hills through all the seasons, watching the weather roll in from the northwest. But after three years as an adjunct professor at the university in town, he’s leaving. The English Department will be glad to see him go. He isn’t anything like them and wonders how he ever thought he was. He’s going back to the only work he could find after the war, a job where people understand pain better than rhetoric. So much for the life of the mind, he thinks, smiling—time to go back to what he was good at.
He reaches into the neck of his wool shirt and pulls out a compass the size of a dime that he wears on a cord. An army issue survival compass he’s had since the war. The olive-drab enamel has chipped off the edge of the brass case, but the compass still works like it should, something he can trust if he thinks he’s lost. He holds it level, watches the arrow turn, twitch, reverse itself, and steady up on north. Good old north, he thinks. You can depend on north, where it’s always ice and howling wind and polar bears out there, white shadows deep in the blowing snow.
Finishing the last of the tequila, he stands and walks to one of the bookcases, considering the titles in the firelight, touching them, pulls out his Yeats, still warped to the shape of his leg from carrying it everywhere in Vietnam, wrapped in plastic, in a pocket of his tiger suit. He taps it with his knuckle, smiling, and slips it back into its place between The Oxford Book of English Verse and a King James Bible he picked up one night in a Motel 6 in Salt Lake City.
He’s lived in isolated A-camps where he was always awake, even when he slept, in cities where he booby-trapped his apartment with trip wires, shotgun shells, and blasting caps behind the Sheetrock. And once, in a cabin by the Rio Costilla in the Sangre de Cristos in Northern New Mexico, seventy miles from the nearest supermarket, he had to make peace with ghosts. Their bodies had been buried on the property during the wars between the Spanish and the Ute Indians two hundred years before, and for the first week or so he slept outside by the river while they watched him, chanted, tore their own arms and legs off in display, and one night called an icy wind down from the mountains that uprooted three of the ancient cottonwood trees growing by the river. After that they left him alone—accepted him, he liked to think—and he was glad to have them out there at night, watching over the place.
Outside, the snow blows silently in the wind, rushes, spins, whirls away, and gone is the distant glow of lights in the town below.
In the partitioned end of the cabin that is the bedroom, he shucks off his jeans and long underwear, slips between crisp palegreen sheets and, with his hands clasped behind his head, studies the flickering shadows on the log-and-plank ceiling. His ears chitter and chirp and ring and whine with the tinnitus the VA doctors told him would never get better, only worse.
Death is in the cabin, on the other side of the wall. Hanson had heard him opening and closing the drawers of his desk, reading old mail. He’s looking at the books, talking to them in his ancient language. When he begins to sing Hanson smiles, closing his eyes. Death is watching the fire. In the sky above the cabin, far beyond the storm and earth’s concerns, the constellation Orion, huge and magnificent, is keeping time.