The Adirondack Review
Ablution

by Lawrence Miller




Caleb walked down the mountain.
He hobbled down, staggering into boulders and trees, left leg lame below the knee, buckling under the weight of his emaciated body on the rocky, rutted deer-path.  Down from the spruce and fir to the hickory and oak, sharp, pungent needles to broad, flat leaves.  He walked through the cornfield at the foothills of the range to his house, months to harvest and the drinking and dance and football after the fields were cleared and shucked and collected in silos for the cadelle beetles and Indianmeal moths and mice.  Damp grass clippings clung to his feet; the yard was kempt and mowed and the house was empty and nearly as quiet as he left it. He walked up the back porch and tried the door.
The house was clean, bereft of dust and cobwebs he feared seeing as he entered.  The cake was put away, dishes cleaned and stacked in cabinets.  He walked through the kitchen and up the stairs and along the heart-pine floors to the bedroom where he had last seen her body.  From the chest-of-drawers he picked up his Bronze Star and ran his thumb over it. On the rug where she had fallen the threading was matted by vigorous scrubbing but there was no blood.  The bed was made and tidy, a pillow he had never seen resting on the top quilt.

*        * *

He walked down the gravel road past the McMurtry’s and Kinney’s and Nash’s houses, past the corn and alfalfa and soybean fields down to Locke Square and the old red-brick courthouse on Cleary Street.  On the sidewalk in town mothers urgently pulled little boys and girls in overalls and summer dresses closer to their wombs, away from him.  James Conner stopped sweeping the walk in front of his apothecary to stare after him, paternalistic, vigilant. He did not recognize Caleb, who sat on his chrome stools and drank chocolate malts and cherry phosphates with Mary and Tim and Harvey years ago.
In the courthouse he asked Deputy Corp for the sheriff.
Tyler stood up and put his hand on his holster.
Hold on.
He walked back to the sheriff’s office and in a moment came back out, followed by the porcine sheriff, hiking up his pants just under his belly, adding authority to the pronounced badge on his chest, looked him up and down.
Well, I’d ask how I can help you but I haven’t got all day.
I need to turn myself in.
Turn yourself in?  Well, what’ you do?
You know.  It’s me.  Caleb.  Sutherland.  It’s me Caleb Sutherland.
Caleb?  The sheriff looked incredulously to Deputy Corp.  By God.  It is you, Caleb.  Well Jesus H.

*        * *

He sharpened a twig to fine points on either end and notched the mid-section.  He tied thread from his shirt to the hook and baited it with a grub.  It danced in the churning plunge pool at the base of the snowmelt cascade until a small trout swallowed it and he set the hook in the fish’s gullet.

*        * *

Caleb gazed ahead.  In front of them the muzzle of Hampson’s M1 darted from door to window to alley to roof to window of the burned-out village.  Cooper trailed four paces behind, cocksure with his Browning and heavy frame, a Lucky Strike hanging from his lip. 
They turned down Rue de la Cathedrale.  Muted MP40s popped from the smoldering bakery at their right, dropping Hampson as his skull and brains and blood splattered out of his helmet and onto the plaster façade of the grocer’s storefront next to them.  Caleb fell behind a wooden wagon hamed and collared to a decomposing Percheron, slumped and stinking, supported only by the traces and weight of rotting vegetables in the wagon.  Bullets stood virile Cooper momentarily erect.  Rangers on the left side of the Avenue du Mer peppered the bakery with their Springfields until a shell from a remaining Sherman blew out the first floor and crumbled the building into itself.  Caleb rose after the concussion, shooting a fleeing soot- and blood-masked Kraut through the sea breeze and roiling dust.

*        * *

He built a lean-to on a level plot on the mountain where Confederates bivouacked during General Stoneman’s maraud through the western counties.  Shoveling with a wood plank he sliced through the grubs and roots and rock and the black earth until he could nearly stand under the spruce boughs he later stacked on the cross-beam of the hut.  During the summer thunderstorms fat drops of rain collected and fell to the floor and his face and body but in winter the shanty held the snow above and warmth underneath.  When he killed his third deer he built a smokehouse to cure the venison; a cougar had gotten his second deer, dragging it through the forest, spreading intestines and blood on the dry needles.  In December he built a hutch for kindling and timber to keep the wood dry under the snow.  At night, if he slept, he slept under blankets of skins and with sinew sewed a long coat of pelts like a Visigoth chieftain would wear as C-47s flew over Berlin and families in Knoxville and Johnson City and Roanoke gathered around their RCAs to listen to The Raleigh Cigarette Program.

*        * *

He sat in his lean-to as snow fell outside, a small fire illuminating the entrance of the hut several feet in.  He slowly whet his knife on a smooth, flat cleave of slate, then set it at his side.  He untied his boot and slowly removed the boot and filthy sock.  His hallux and second innermost toe were black and shriveled, frostbitten and shrunken next to the other toes.  Tears welled in his eyes and he swallowed air as the tears overflowed to his cheeks.  Bracing his toe with his left hand he lifted the knife and cut through the black septic blister into the dead flesh and cartilage and sesamoid bone, severing the first phalange of his big toe into his hand.  Shaking, he amputated the second toe and set it on a rock next to the first.  He set down the knife and with his right hand removed a crude hide mitten and looked at his dead pinky and ring finger.  He picked up the knife and pressed the blade firmly into the end of his metacarpal into the joint to excise the fingers.

*        * *

He stripped in the ferns and moss at the edge of the pool and waded into the cold freshet.  When he was several feet deep in the pond he swam to the base of the waterfall and soaked his back and hair and beard.  He scoured his body with fine sand from under the fall until his face and armpits and testicles were pink and raw.  He set about rubbing his soap upon his face and shoulders and hair.  He washed his jeans and shirts on the rocks where the current picked up again, whitening in a cacophony of splashes as it clamored down the mountain.  He washed his feet and legs and crotch and returned to the pool to frolic.  At night, lying awake in his lean-to, he realized it was a pleasure he should not have.

*        * *

They danced in the dim Swannanoa gymnasium with other juniors and seniors as the band from Asheville played Only Forever.  She pulled him into her bosom and tears slowly wetted the shoulder of his grey sweater.  He brushed auburn hair from her cheek.
I love you, Mary.
I love you, Caleb.

*        * *

He saw the doe just off the trail.  The fletching whisked through his beard and the bone-tipped arrow lodged into the deer’s abdomen, paining it to its side until it rose again and bolted into the forest, the arrow shaft knocking into the wind-stunted oaks until the doe came to a staggering halt and slumped mouth-open to the forest floor.
In months he had eaten only blackberries and blueberries and trout and salamanders from the stream and grey squirrels from his snares.

*        * *

They sat at the bar.  Mr. Dawson was at the far end, listening to the radio and polishing glasses.
Where the hell ya been?
Up on Greene Mountain.
Greene Mountain, huh?  You still got a lot of Army in ya.
Caleb laughed despondently.  I don’t think it’ll ever go away.
What’s it been?  Two, three years?
Two.  Since Mary.
Mary.  That was a shame.
You know I did it.
Sheriff Hobbs drank his beer and set the glass back down in the perspiration ring on the bar.  You didn’t do nothing to that girl.
I killed her.  My wife.
Sheriff Hobbs shook his head.  Caleb, me and Deputy Corp both saw your place.  It was a suicide.  Dr. Carter even says so.  Even her sister says so.  Signed the coroner’s report and took the body down to Georgia and buried her with the other side of the family.
I’m telling you, I killed her.
Hobbs grabbed his biceps firmly and quietly spoke.  I’m telling ya, son, ya didn’t kill nobody.  He drank his beer.

*        * *

He slid rough down the granite escarpment to the fallen stone below.  He picked his way through the lichen-covered stone near the base twisting his ankle and falling again. As he hit the diamond-back struck.  He stumbled and rose as the rattle rushed in his ears.  Stumbling again he fell to the earth at the base of the precipice.
He braced himself against a hickory and lifted his pant-leg. Two gashes marked entry in his calf.  Blood poured out soaking his sock into his boot. He staggered to another tree and pulled his knife to cut the wound, then thought better of it and began walking to the spring below the ridge as pain radiated from his leg.  Worse than a bullet he thought.  Near the spring he vomited and fell again.  He rolled up his pant-leg.  Blood-blisters formed up his gastrocnemius and his leg swelled and bruised.  He heaved in empty convulsions and staggered over to a boulder and lost consciousness.
He lay for seven days in the wood.  He woke in the evening of the seventh day parched.  On his elbows he drug his body to the spring and drank the clear water deeply then passed out.  He dreamt of Tim Cavanaugh and Mary and Hampson and the desert.  The whore in Algiers with the scar across her forehead from temple to temple.  He dreamt of killing the box turtle and scraping the bloody goop from the shell.  He dreamt of him and Mary on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico and there was never a war.  He saw the German soldier he shot in the throat and the leg that followed him ashore as he waded through the surf of Normandy, blood draining in his wake.  Everyone in his dreams was dead.
On the tenth day he woke.  He drank from the spring, cupping his hands and pouring the water on his tongue and tonsils and constricted throat.  On the fir above him rooks weighed the boreal boughs, turkey buzzards the southern.  He looked down at his leg, distended and black, split along the calf above the fang-marks.  Maggots fed on the dead flesh, eating down to pink muscle away from the necrosis of the bite.
He pulled his knife from his side and began cutting maggots from his leg.  He tried to remove his boot but was prevented by swelling and pain.  He urinated on his knee and calf and tore and cut his shirt and wrapped his leg from his boot-top to above his knee, inserting a small green bough for a splint.  He started to crawl to his camp but passed out just past the lid of the gully.

*        * *

He fried the bear-fat on a slab of granite from the outcrop just below his billet.  As it sizzled he strained ash and water through a punctured deer skin into the turtle shell.  When the fat liquefied her poured it and the lye into a concave rock and mixed the two.  He set them aside to cool.

*        * *

A Panzer ground through the burned olive trees and over Sgt. Mason and tufa and limestone and golden smoldering grass.  He looked back as the Panzer rotated its turret and fired on an American half-track stuck in a ditch surrounded by a gallimaufry of flowers, Barbary Nut and Hairy Mallow and Meadow Saxifrage and poppies.  With a brightness like the sun coming from out of an eclipse limbs and metal and flames burst into the horizon and milky-blue sky.

*        * *

She stood in the grass by the cracked cement walkway of their old white-washed clapboard house, waving goodbye and crying as he hopped into the back of Mr. Cavanaugh’s old Ford with Tim. Dishes in the sink, the cake she baked resting on the kitchen table under the dome they had received as a wedding gift from his aunt in Atlanta.

*        * *

He still woke from the dream wiping Hampson’s blood from his assault jacket.

*        * *

The bear stood over the fetid white-tail carcass, pulling the skin over the rump to expose the turgid intestines and kidneys and haunch. Caleb froze beneath a gnarled black oak then slowly drew an arrow from his quiver and placed the nock in the bow string.  The arrow entered just behind the scapula and into the lung and ascending aorta.  With a grunt the bear charged through the woods slowing to a choking stop some 40 yards down the ledge.

*        * *

They sat in silence.  Dawson poured another round.
That girl done killed herself.  Carrying on like she did when you were gone.  Just deplorable.  Seems like the whole county appreciated what you were doing ‘cept her. 
He didn’t mention the Tunisian whores or the Italian whores or the French whores he knew Caleb knew.
She didn’t deserve that.
Didn’t she?  Not a man I’d call a friend that wouldn’t do any different.  In your home.  In your bed.  While you were fighting Mussolini and Nazis.  Not a man I’d call a man.  She didn’t do anyone here any favors with that.  Not you, not her family, not the town.  With that flag in your yard.
No.  I was wrong.
Caleb?  You know that saying two wrongs don’t make a right?  Well, it’s horseshit.  Wronger than a three-legged-fish flyin’ through the clouds.  One wrong’s called a crime.  Two wrongs is called justice.  The whole town knows what happened, churches know, I’m the law, and, as we say in government, that’s the consensus.  It was a suicide, and I’m gonna leave it at that.
Hobbs stood up, hitching up his pants, and put 50 cents on the bar.
Sheriff…
Caleb.  Go home.  Clean yourself up.  Rest.  Go see Dr. Carter about that leg.  Goddammit, shave, boy!  Yarborough down in Buncombe’s looking for men for the mill.  Buildin’ houses all over the state.  There’s a dance down at the Episcopal Church next Friday.  We’d love to see you there.
He walked away, tipping his brown campaign hat to Dawson.

*        * *

Her blood was still on the shirt he wore, brown splatters in the uniform plaid.

*        * *

Caleb walked up the rural lane to his old house.  He stepped on the sidewalk out front and looked vacantly into the windows.  Mrs. Clancy from next door was upstairs cleaning.
He walked to the backyard and into the cornfield and silk and tassels and small, tight ears of corn and back up the mountain, up the rocky path to the heat and snow and starvation.  Past the oaks to the conifers and the cleaved, jagged granite to the nightmares and filth and despair and contrition.  Stumbling along the trail to the anguish and isolation and pain, up to the top of the mountain to die in the sin it was just for him to die in.  Up to God and hell and the hell he achieved every night. To cut away his appendages and flesh and limbs until nothing remained but his beating heart and his nightmares.  To blanket his body in snow and fatigue and death over and over and over as the towns and cities danced below, as the Christmas presents were unwrapped and the turkey carved and the fireworks illuminated the sky in whites and reds and blues, up to the top of the mountain.




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LAWRENCE MILLER received his J.D. from the University of Southern California and his B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University.  He has lived across the US and plans to start graduate work at Columbia University this fall.