Book Excerpt: The Lost Country

A hunted boy hiding out in the frozen woods finds an unexpected way to keep warm—and it's classic William Gay

by William Gay

Winter that year was short and mild. Then a false spring came in late February and overnight the world softly altered. First the softwoods then the oak and hickory budded and sprouted tiny leaves like archetypes of emerald grandeur and the fruit trees bloomed in a riot of white and pink and on Crying Woman ridge the wild plum trees from an abandoned orchard were banked like windblown snowdrifts. The new growth of leaves and mayapple softened the abrupt harsh angularity of the ridges and a warm wind looping up from the south set everything astir and gave the world the illusory quality of a mirage. Everything was blurred green motion.

Yates took heart. Since the beating he was much in the woods, avoiding any place that Knighten might be, sleeping wherever night fell on him, and he welcomed this moderation of the temperature. He saw this early spring as a gift from the fates. A balancing of some cosmic scale. The scent of wildflower rode the winds and he moved through this Edenic world with a newfound confidence. He began to think he might make it after all.

Come March and a hard freeze seized everything in ice. Each blossom, each twig, each zygotic leaf. The muddy earth erupted in crystal spumes of ice and he hugged himself against a bitter wind that had shifted northward. Beneath the wavering bowl of orange light his bonfire formed and peering upward into the frozen heavens Yates could see the very air freezing before his eyes. Glittering crystals of frost formed and drifted weightlessly earthward and vanished in the fire and beyond the wall of heat a circle of hoarfrost formed on the earth around him. He suspected some suspension of the natural laws, some aberration, somebody asleep at the wheel. Senility or madness overtaking whatever god controlled the weathers.

He crouched watching his house from the shelter of a windfall pine. Off and on for days he'd been watching the place but his ribs still ached and he had not approached it. Who knew where Knighten might turn up, he was rootless as smoke and might be anywhere. Knighten's truck was long gone broken windshield and all but Knighten himself might be hunkered in a darkened corner cradling an axe like some beast of childhood nightmare. Yet there was no smoke from the chimney, no lights when night fell.

Who knew where Knighten might turn up, he was rootless as smoke and might be anywhere. Knighten’s truck was long gone broken windshield and all but Knighten himself might be hunkered in a darkened corner cradling an axe like some beast of childhood nightmare.

He wondered where his mother was. His sister. He guessed his mother was laid up somewhere with Knighten but he had no idea where Carmie might be. He had a thought for the chill of the night, for wayfarers on the road, for the cold hard stones where she'd pillow her head.

Dusk was drawing down the hollow like sleep, the known world telescoping inward on itself. A chill wind carried a few tentative flakes of snow, leaves clashed softly like faint distant chimes. He'd been living out here in the open until he felt barely human. Just something resembling other folk yet with some grim twist to mark it, set out in these hills and brusharbors like some outlandish mascot to the human race, some cautionary reminder of what can happen when your luck goes south. It was turning colder yet and last night he'd dreamed of the living room stove and his bed.

Goddamn, he said aloud. Somebody might as well be gettin the use of it.

He took up the club he'd taken to carrying and wound down the hillside toward the house. With its rusted roof and weathered dark planking the house seemed a focus for drawing off such light as there was, the waning day sucked through failing windowpanes to the dark beneath the beds, the sooty corners of the closets.

He entered and thumbolted the door behind him with some caution but there was only the smell of dead ashes, cold still air, a sort of humming silence.

*****

The first thing he looked for was the lamp and he lit it and reglobed it and stood for a moment clasping the globe bothhanded for the yellow kerosene heat. Then he turned his attention to the heating stove. It was packed almost full with wadded newspapers and grocery bags and he found more and jammed them in along with a dress that didn’t fit anyone and an ancient straw hat that had a combustible look about it.

Then he paused and looked about the room to see had anyone left him a message saying where they'd gone. There was no note around and if there was message at all it was in the spoor of things and in silences and there was nothing at all in any language he knew. Nothing save a wall calendar from some lost year where a trio of angels simpered in defiance of gravity from a hillock of cloud. He thought of Carmie and her own cindered wings and despair hung in the corners of the room like smoke.

*****

He knelt and lit the newspapers and wandered into the kitchen in the off chance that they might have left any food. He hadn't had a warm meal in he didn't know how many days and he envisioned a hot meal and an hour or two basking before the fire. Then maybe he'd bar the door and hope Knighten was somewhere else for the night and take a chance on sleeping in his bed.

He found an unlabeled can which when opened proved to be corned beef hash and he raked it into a saucepan and carried it into the living room and set it atop the heater. Then he noticed the fire had gone out.

He'd had his ears attuned for Knighten's truck or his step on the porch but this was a different sort of sound: a sort of hissing keening that rose to a hoarse croaking screech. He kept looking about the room but the sound seemed sourceless, something out of the very ether. Yates was a believer in signs and portents and he wondered was this a warning of something dire.

Why won't you burn you cold son of a bitch, he asked it.

He found the kerosene can and shook it to gauge its contents and upended it and hurled perhaps a quart of kerosene over the papers and when he dropped a match in this time it met his expectations. The papers exploded in billowing orange flames and he was buffeted by an enormous wave of heat. He could hear the fire sucking up the chimney like a freight train. That's more by God like it, he said.

He was sitting crouched before the fire eating cold corned beef hash with a spoon when he heard a strange sound. He cocked his head sideways, listening. He'd had his ears attuned for Knighten's truck or his step on the porch but this was a different sort of sound: a sort of hissing keening that rose to a hoarse croaking screech. He kept looking about the room but the sound seemed sourceless, something out of the very ether. Yates was a believer in signs and portents and he wondered was this a warning of something dire.

He had a spoonful of hash frozen between pan and mouth when an enormous flaming rat erupted from the depths of the stove in a welter of oil and burning paper like a salamander scattering the firecoals of hell garneteyed in the flames and with paws outstretched like a flying squirrel riding the cusp of an explosion and leapt upon him.

Arhh, Yates cried. Wide eyed and fallen backwards he was trampled as the rat shot over him and went scrambling across the floor. Its hot little footprints, the smell of burning oil and hair. On the braided rug it left little seedlets of fire like vermin spreading a flaming plague. It fetched up against a wall and spun and came at him again like some demented windup toy.

You're strowin it everwhere, Yates cried.

He'd come up with the broom and like the participant in some bizarre game was batting at the furiously animate rat. It had climbed the window curtains and he knocked it free but behind it left small hot flames like roses. The room was filling up with hot yellow smoke that bellied against the ceiling. The paper the room was ceiled with began to curl and smoulder.

He looked wildly about. He ran into the kitchen for the waterbucket but there was no water and he hurled the empty pail into the rising tide of fire. The rat lay still and smoking in a corner of the room. Yates began hopping about the room stamping out little patches of fire but others erupted and burning paper unreeled and drooped from the ceiling. At last he took up the saucepan and the spoon and went out.

It burned all night. He kept restoking it with the charred buttends of rafters and floor joists. It was a long night. Daylight found him crouched over the coals, a soft snow falling, the saucepan set in hot ashes to reheat. He knew he should be on the move but he didn’t know where to and he was loathe to leave the fire. It was the first time he'd been warm in days.

Published Wednesday, 28 October 2009