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Tiniri & Aman
The boar hunt was the first time I heard of the tree people and it stayed with me for a while. I didn’t make it back to check on the guide’s story that year or the next, though. Spring and summer are my busy seasons at work, so getting a time to go back was impossible. I couldn’t find anything on the internet about them, I couldn’t get out to check it myself, and, eventually, I just let it slip out of my thoughts. I hunted at a different and closer place for the next few winters. I told the story of the trip over beers sometimes, but we mostly talked about my brother popping his shoulder out with a 12 gauge. My brother never went hunting again, but he did go camping a bit more.
It was damn near a decade before I found myself in the area again. I was heading north for a conference and my route took me right through Ridge City, but that time it was May. The town jumps out at you after a blind corner on a 120 km/h strip of wide-lane freeway. I saw it and made a late tear onto the exit ramp. Ten years I hadn’t thought of that city, and in a matter of seconds I decided to leave my route to go visit. I am not sure I have ever been so decisive in my life.
The road into the city cut through tufts of blueberry bushes combed into sequential rows. My car heaved up the switchbacks until the road flattened out into Main Street. There was a sun-bleached Safeway, a tackle shop, and a few windows of second-hand shops—nothing that really interested me. Main Street turned into a gravel road and started another run of switchbacks, this time through a spindly second-growth forest. The front wheels of my beater sedan spun and spit gravel on the turns, but ultimately made the climb. The road ended at a trailhead that led to the high-ridge viewpoint, which was an hour away from the grove.
I didn’t even have my hiking boots. I did that climb in plain runners. My sweatpants soaked in my sweat until they started falling off my butt. It took me two hours to reach the dale where we camped, and another thirty minutes of scrambling to find the pass into the grove. The sun was high and hot when I finally reached it.
If you had been sitting in my passenger seat when I pulled off the highway, I might have said I was just curious. If you asked what I expected to find, I would have said decaying deadwood. But you would have known then I was lying, because if I believed that—as you might have said in the second hour of my hike—then why would I struggle so much to see what I’d already seen? I think I believed I would find the same grove moved only by overgrowth and time. I believed that, sure, but I saw in my mind a clear field of turned soil that came alive with loose petals on every gust.
Indeed, that is what I found.
There were no blossomed cocks or tree people prancing about, but it was an empty valley save for the cyclones of pink that spun up to stick to my sweat. The ground was soft with ruptures of black soil. The air smelled of earth. With the sightlines cleared of those gnarled figures, I could see there was a willow towering high over the east ridge. It stood about two storeys and wove a net of roots over the rocks, stretching down into the valley soil. I sat and let the petals collect against my skin before heading back.
All I remember about the hike back is that I didn’t wipe the petals off, but they were gone by the time I reached the car. My stomach was growling so I stopped at a heritage saloon that had looked like it stood since the ridge was only forest and farms. It was called “The Grand Willow” or something. I remember it had “willow” in the name. The interior was mostly original oak beam construction. The low lights deepened the mahogany red of the bar and obscured the patrons under shadows cast by their own faces. I had ordered my food before I recognized the guide, who was seated on a bench that lined the wall. He was sitting with a lady. She had shoulder-length blonde hair and pale green eyes, and her skin was a blushing amber tone. She sat a head taller than any other person along the bench. I watched her for a moment. She pecked the guide on the cheek, then stood—ducking under the faux-candle chandelier—and walked toward me. She smiled at me gawking at her then carried on her way to the washroom. I decided I had to ask the guide about his beauty once she was out of sight.
“Hello, um …” (his name had slipped my mind entirely), “you were a guide for me quite a while ago—like ten years ago. You probably don’t remember me.”
He smiled at me, stood, and shook my hand. “I sure don’t, but hell, I must have been good if you are walking up to me ten years later, right? Good to see you all the same, I suppose. Why don’t you have a seat? I’m sure my wife won’t mind.”
I sat. “So, you got married?”
“You never met her? I’ve been married nearly fifteen years,” he responded, dipping a fry in his cup of gravy.
“Oh. Maybe she was at the store or something. I only saw your place briefly—you butchered a hog for me.” I laced my fingers and leaned back in my chair.
The guide raised an eyebrow, then stared off for a moment. “Wait a tick!” He slapped the table. “Were you the city boy who popped his shoulder with a 12 gauge?” he rasped through a seizing belly laugh. “I have told that story to damn near every hunter I meet.”
I caught onto his laughter, then said, “that was my brother, but you’re remembering right otherwise.”
“Aw hell, I remember ya both. That was February or something? A winter hunt? I guess you wouldn’t have met Tin, then. Here she is, though,” he said, looking past me with a warm smile. I turned on my seat to greet her. She pulled her lips back to reveal teeth that were not quite white. Her movement was deliberate—but with a sway—and her steps were soft.
“Tin, you remember that story I told you about the bald yuck years back? He fucked his shoulder shooting rabbits with a 12 gauge?” the guide asked.
She came to rest on the bench next to him. “Yes. I do.”
“Well this is his brother—he was there when it happened!” The guide hung a crooked smile on his face, then waited for his wife’s reaction.
Her lips curled after a slow breath. “Oh, wow.” She nodded to her husband. “The legend is true, then.” She reached her arm across the table, and introduced herself. “My name is Tiniri.” Her eyes were pale in a way that gave distance to her glances. “Most call me Tin—”
“That’s an unusual—”
“—Like the metal. Oh … pardon me? What were you saying?” she said slowly.
“Sorry, I was just saying it’s an unusual name,” I continued.
“I suppose it is.” She nodded.
The guide all but ignored me from the moment Tin returned to the table. He watched his wife as if the world was turning only for her. She blushed, then leaned her head against his. “It’s good to see you again, too, Aman.”
They did speak a bit more to me. I wanted to ask about the grove, but I was a shadow in their glow. I ate my burger while they watched each other. I spoke a bit about the architecture of the building and Tiniri told me the wood it was built with was a gift in an accord between two warring parties. The saloon was meant to be a place that belonged to the two cities equally, where both tribes could mingle. She finished the story when Aman pulled her close.
I continued to talk, but it went mostly unacknowledged. I spoke about the beauty of the forest, how it glistened in winter frosts. I spoke about how soft the bun on my burger was. I spoke about the conference that brought me up that way. I spoke about spending the day hiking. I spoke, but they watched each other. I spoke, but I wondered why I had never built a love like that. I spoke about things other than my thoughts. I left my questions about the grove aside, and eventually left them to each other.
It was evening when I stepped outside. I watched the moon for a moment before checking the time. I had a conference eight hours away that started in ten—doing the math on that was like waking to an alarm. I rushed to my car, mumbling curses about the detour having been a bad idea. I was about to step into my sedan when I noticed three shadowed figures arguing in the centre of Main Street. Only the tavern kept its lights on after dusk, so they were blue shadows in the moonlight. A tall man was yelling at a shorter man about him trespassing. The shorter man was backed by a third figure, who was of average height. I could only pick out a few words—mostly from the two shorter men. They said things like “unwanted” or “drunk” or “fuck” and “you.” The tall man then shoved the shortest man down with ease, which prompted the short guy’s friend to march off into a darkened shop. The tallest man shouted “coward!” after him. The shortest man scrambled back to his feet and followed after his friend into the shop. The tallest man shouted a few more things at them, then swaggered away down the street.
I didn’t know what to make of it, and I was late, so I finished climbing into my car, plugged my phone into the car stereo, and started my road trip music. A song was playing when I backed my car out, so I only barely heard the awful screech. I spun my head back towards the confrontation. The tallest man was on the ground and pulling himself away from the two that had ducked into the shop—at least it looked like the same guys. The shortest of the two lifted an axe over his head and swung down on the crawling man’s legs. A sudden gale rocked my car, then the night fell back into calm. There was some argument between the two figures before they each picked an arm and dragged the tall man out of sight.
My car was half out of the spot and running when I finally left it. I stepped slowly, but every crunch I made filled the silence. In the road where the tall man had stood remained only two shoes, oozing a thick brown liquid. A car swung out from behind me and roared away down towards the highway.
It gets fuzzy after that. I know I ran back to the saloon. Everyone came out to look. I remember Tin picked up the shoes, and Aman—the guide—was pale and silent. The whole crowd was silent. No one did anything. It was Tin who said I should go, but others agreed. I asked about the police, but she said the cops wouldn’t be there for hours, maybe not until tomorrow. So, I gave her my number to pass along to them. She thanked me, then returned to the circle of townsfolk. I didn’t think it was right to leave, but I left anyway, and drove through the night to my conference.
The conference went poorly. A shower and a shoe-shine did not compensate for a night of driving. I ended up fighting with someone from the podium, and then walking off early. Before flying out the way he flew in, my general manager told me I was on suspension until the matter could be reviewed. They would eventually resolve to demote me to contract work. It only took about four more months until I was effectively unemployed. It sank my reputation there and, eventually, everywhere that mattered, though I think I am technically still employed there.
After my non-firing firing, I didn’t really have anywhere to be. I bought a square bottle of rye to pour into a tall glass with ice. My intention was to stay in the hotel for the night. I fell asleep after that glass, but I had stamina in those days, and woke up a few hours later. It was dinnertime, and I didn’t feel hungry. I was sober. I wasn’t sober. I thought I was sober. Frequent drinking skews your sense of sobriety, because you also get better at compensating for the impairment. It gets difficult to know where you are on the scale. Hell, I’m just justifying why I got in my car to drive to Ridge City when I was drunk. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me is all. I’m not like that. Though, I suppose even if I woke up somehow sober, I did spend the drive to Ridge City drinking to the moon over the freeway.
It was late—really late—when I parked my car in front of Aman’s farm. His place was a mile up the freeway from Ridge City. Towns like that don’t have streetlights, so I doubt I would have found his place again if it weren’t the only one on that road. I wasn’t sure I had the right place until my headlights found his business sign leaning against the hut. He had expanded the greenhouse since I last saw it. His trailer was dark, but I pounded on the door with drunken confidence. I slurred out some calls for Aman. Some lights turned on in the greenhouse and Aman emerged, a silhouette.
“Who the hell is that?” he asked. He kept himself half in the door of the greenhouse.
“It’s me—the dude from the bar … brother was the dimwit that—” I said from the door of his trailer.
“Okay, yeah, I got it. Why you here?” He grunted and pulled a shotgun up to lay the barrel on his shoulder.
I pulled up from my lean and teetered backward enough that I nearly lost my step. “The cops never called me about that thing. Don’t you think”—I held my hands out and wobbled back to a point of balance—“don’t you think the police like to speak to witnesses of axe murders?”
Aman just stood there, breathing.
I continued with a shrug, “I’ll tell you what I think: I think it was sap. I never saw any fresh blood—I never saw, uh … it was brown, Aman. It’s a tree person, yeah?”
“That’s just a story and you’re drunk.”
“You didn’t think that ten years—”
“Yeah, I did. BSing tourists is a great pastime.”
“Your wife? Your wife who just wasn’t around in January? You married a tree, didn’t you?”
He rolled the gun from his shoulder and leaned it in my direction. “You should go the fuck home.” Then he stepped back into the greenhouse and shut the door. It struck me as odd then as it does now that a man would sleep in a space with lights on at all hours. I wondered about the purpose of his trailer.
I remember shuffling around the gravel for a bit. The glass on the greenhouse was smokey with muck and age but I could see something like a figure among the plants. I stared back at it for a while. I guessed Aman was waiting for me to leave. Somehow my drunken brain connected that he might well shoot me if I didn’t stop trespassing, so I hopped back over the gate and drove my car into town.
Written by Rory
Edited by Lindsay Vermeulen
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