by Sorrel Westbrook
There was no funeral for Dumb John. Even in her grief, the stoic and grey Rose Vega could not conceive of burying a femur and a handful of teeth in the graveyard alongside full corpses—those lucky enough to have died on pillows or at least lucky enough to have been put beneath the ground for the intimate process of decomposing. Those lucky enough to have died with their mothers there to touch them and cry over them. Dumb John was buried in snow, in the March storms, and when the snow melted he was buried in the bellies of animals. There was nothing more to do, and so Rose held a service for the eaten body of her boy.
Last winter was an especially mild season in the Adormidera Valley. November and then January passed meekly, with sharp frost on the pastures and thick socks left to slumber in the backs of dresser drawers. And everyone looked out the windows as the black, hollow winter clouds rolled through the valley, thanking the weather under their breath for every snowflake that did not fall.
The years before had been long and cold and blue. The land had been covered with drifts of snow like sediment, powder settling on dense snow over a crackling, implacable ice crust. This winter, with its delicate frost flowers and unbent trees, was a blessing.
So when the spring came and the great blizzard rolled through the Sugar Mountains in early March, Dumb John was caught unawares. His family cabin, up at Dead Horse Flats, had not been secured for the winter. He had not gone in the fall and then had avoided it through the later months, thinking, like a child in a picture book, that the winter would never come.
His father John had built the cabin when his son was six years old, and every autumn for the next twenty years, the two of them drove the long rough road to the cabin to close it up for the winter. Inside, it always smelled of pine sap and tinned food and stale sleeping bags, and one of Dumb John’s few indulgences was how thoroughly he hated the place. He hated the doors and the windows and the front steps and the mottled dirt path that wound up through starved pine trees to the front of it. He hated the way his father would pull his shoes from his feet after a half-day’s work and throw them against the side of the wall and smoke until he fell asleep—good for the moths, he would laugh.
After his father died, Dumb John took his own daughter, Sweet Bell, up to the cabin in good weather. In the late spring, the scrub hills were new under a blanket of lupines and poppies, and even the sage was pale and fresh. By midsummer, the flowers had turned riotous and were overblown, about to go to seed. Sweet Bell ran her hands along them as she walked, and they shed petals as easily as water.
And so when the snows came in March, Dumb John went barreling up Dandelion Road until he reached the end of the snowplow’s track, then drove further still. The road was grey with nubs of white. Powdered snow blew across it in elegant arcs, twining around themselves and then returning to the banks on either side of the road. And then, too quickly for him to believe, the road turned treacherous. It twisted off raggedly—he didn’t remember such a sharp incline. It was taking on a different character beneath the snow, which now covered the road, and the fog was rolling in tight against his windows. Death was awake and prowling through the snow, excited for the coming day, feeling the new strong wind hit cruelly against its body. Death loved vicious things, and was happy to see the storms coming again to Adormidera.
Even as he slowed the truck and considered the word—whiteout—aloud in the cab, Dumb John could not shake the half thought that his own confused mind had erased the shapes from the earth and painted his windows over with paste. He sat in the white world inside his car for six minutes, then seven, and a dull, guilty wave rushed down from his hairline. I’m calm, now. Now, I’m calm. I’m now calm. The old chant was threadbare, a vestige of childhood days in closets and nights in a long bed with too many blankets, weighing him down and making his legs sweat, no promises that he would be alive the next morning.
Everything has a logical explanation—the world was white because it was a terrible storm, the worst the valley had seen in nearly a decade. Dumb John felt lonely because he was utterly alone. And the road had changed because he was no longer on it, and he had not been for at least a mile.
When the whiteout passed, there was a foot of new, powdery snow that squeaked beneath Dumb John’s weight when he got out of the cab. There were no wheel tracks to follow back to the road, but as long as the air was clear, Dumb John didn’t need them. He was close to a long stand of trees and shaggy bushes, and knew they would lead him to Dandelion Creek, which crossed the road a few miles below the pass to Dead Horse. Two and half years was not enough to erase the route from his mind, and Dumb John made good time alongside the frozen stream. For a man who had always moved slowly and without discernable direction, Dumb John was suddenly a pioneer, a hero of the mountain, and he felt his effort in his thighbones and in the ache that webbed between his shoulder blades as he climbed the mountain and reached Dandelion Creek.
The ice of the creek was gnarled and bulbous, arrested over rocks and along the curving bank. Walking by the silent water, with the hushing sound of his own feet through the powder, John thought of an enchanted forest his mother had told him about. He walked beneath leaves of gold and silver that hung down under the diamond sun, letting off pearl droplets that became ice-melt only when they ran down his collar and disappeared into his jacket. He thought of Sweet Bell in her mother’s new apartment in the city. He imagined snapping off the jewel leaves, sending them to her in a box, where they would sit patiently, miraculously unmelted, until she touched them.
The late afternoon sun split the cloudbank in blades of light that lit up pockets of frozen land and gave a numb gilt to the storm shadows that still rolled quickly over the white earth. No animal stirred, and Dumb John was alone on the mountain. It was only a respite—the head of the blizzard was charging down into the valley and out of the mountains, but the body and claws of it were still snarled behind the peaks, fighting their way towards Dead Horse and Dumb John. But it was a well-timed pause, and John was quick even through the deepest banks of snow. Even as the day’s small light went out of the sky, Dumb John navigated easily through the glooming twilight—all the light from the atmosphere was magnified by the snow, and Dumb John’s world was lit from beneath him, a glowing blanket that he fought through.
When Dumb John was a boy, he had lived near Mill Pond, a smear of dark water hidden behind a stand of slouching cottonwoods. Once in the summer when he was young, a birthday party of children, his classmates, came to Mill Pond, and Dumb John left his house to join them, thumbing the petals of wilted irises, his eyes adjusting to the harsh sunlight, visions of the television screen still bluely flickering behind his lids. He followed them down to the pond, both of his white and wing-like hands folded above his eyes to shade them from the sun. Down by the shore, out of sight of their parents, they stripped off their party clothes, pink and green checked big-skirted dresses, button-down shirts, and stood in plain undershirts and slips. They abandoned their clothes on the stinging grass and walked around the edge of Mill Pond, pinching the dusty sage leaves and then rubbing their fingers beneath their noses. Dumb John did the same, and with his head swimming with sage, he watched them play.
His own game, which he called “Insect,” had to be played alone. It was a faith game, childish and without end. To play, he would run from his house when his father wasn’t paying attention, and on his hands and knees, his skin puckered and pink and embedded with gravel and small bits of wood, he would crawl toward the farthest shore of Mill Pond, which was bordered by Sawdust Road. The road had been newly paved and gleamed like oil. Dumb John would stalk across it, a nocturnal creature caught under the daylight, and then drop down into the grasses that started across the road. They began in irregular clumps, surrounded by red brush and thorny black shrubs. Then there was a vast expanse of grass, higher than two of him stacked atop one another. The grasses reached up into thick, regal tufts. The grasses were blond as lions. Lying down in the middle of the grasses, watching those tips sway against the sky, especially on a day when a violent violet-grey storm was just starting to roll past the mountains, Dumb John felt a pleasure so acute that it seemed to pierce him and plant itself deep beneath his body in the dark soil and down into the ancient ocean bed that his father promised was beneath them all.
Alone in the blizzard, Dumb John tried to summon thoughts of that ocean beneath his body, beneath all the impossible snow. They would not come. He could remember the game but could no longer play it. It had been serious and joyful, and it could begin only when he was safe beneath the grasses. He would stare up at a single tuft and forget his language. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.
When Dumb John could distill his mind down to five or six words, leaving all the detritus of road crossings and school taunts and the word for the taste of his lunch that lingered on his tongue behind him, then he knew he was getting close. And he would be propelled by the thrill of forgetting, and work to break apart those fistfuls of words that sat squatly between him and being an insect. And some days, when he felt a certain way and the ground beneath him wasn’t wet or dry, the words would pull apart like leaves off a young stem, leaving a clean green wound behind them. Young John Vega, not Dumb, not anything, would lie alone and breathing, miles above the sea bed, surrounded by unnamed abstractions of color and light that danced themselves up and out of the earth.
When the blizzard began again, the dim light of the afternoon had given way to a pearlescent hue that hung over the land around him and promised blindness soon. The creek had disappeared long ago, but he had not yet reached Dead Horse Pass. The earth around him was a new continent of snow, high and endless and blinding. Dumb John felt a shard of panic lodge itself in his heart. He turned around abruptly, searching for the metallic fleck of his truck behind him, but he saw only the Dandelion Flats. When they were stripped of wildflowers, with their streams and hillocks maliciously smoothed over, they seemed a sinister place, like an empty palm waiting to curl into a fist. He would turn back, trace his already disappearing steps to the truck, and wait out the storm. He was thirsty, and tears were spreading in the squint lines of his eyes from the wind. His descent began as the storm started up once more, and as the flakes appeared before his eyes like miniscule taunts, Dumb John’s stomach flipped and his face warmed with fear as the limbs of the blizzard began to race across the sky.
When the sky turns white and the air in front of your face turns white and you think you’re holding your hand right in front of your eyes—but you can’t see it, so maybe you aren’t—then you are in danger of getting lost.
Dumb John wandered far to the north, following the steepest slope of the canyon downwards. He was searching for the line of trees along the creek that would lead to his car, but they seemed always on the verge of appearing and never actually there. Despite this, he felt sure of his path. The air was thick with snow. In his last hours, Dumb John was not forced to falsely remember the bend of a particular tree or insist under his breath that he knew he was close—everything had disappeared from him, and as he lumbered slowly in the wrong direction, he felt that it must be right. Was there any other way to go?
The wood shock, with all of its sudden smothering panic, hit him when the whiteout lifted and left him in a bare white gully. The snow was unbroken even by shadows. A childish instinct rooted him to the spot, convinced that to put a footprint on the new snow would bring him unimaginable trouble. With effort, he turned his trunk and looked behind him. His tracks looked sloppy, with an ugly wake of disturbed snow cutting alongside them. Retracing was foolish—wherever his truck was, it wasn’t up the mountain, and so downhill, even down such a strange hill, must be the right direction. This patchy logic couldn’t do much to soothe him—his heart was beating too quickly for anything other than his own panic to be comprehensible. The blank landscape seemed to turn on an unknowable axis, and his knees melted beneath him as he sank down into the powder.
As night fell, Dumb John moved more and more slowly, setting out in one direction and then the other, searching for something he could recognize. He did not even have the comfort of feeling he was walking in circles; instead, he was sure that he was not moving at all. Everywhere he looked was maliciously familiar. Exhausted at the top of a small rise, with a mouthful of snow that taunted his parched throat as it refused to melt, Dumb John untied the tarp from his pack and laid it over the snow before collapsing onto it. His back was at once burning and numb, depending on where he focused his attention. His vision was overrun with pinpricks of dancing light, an intimate snowstorm even though the blizzard had paused. Beneath him, stretching out from the rise, he saw his own confused efforts, the intersecting trails of tracks, looping over themselves and finally leading to where he was now collapsed. It was his own universe. No one would ever be here again, and he suspected no one had ever been here before. It had his dizzy stamp upon it.
He would rest. A few minutes would put him right. The grey sky developed a purple bruise across it, and flakes came down lightly, quiet and shy in the presence of a dying man. He didn’t have to say it aloud: I’m now calm. Now, I am. He would not die here. He was not lost.
Published on January 14, 2016