issue six

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(3600 words)
 
The Tower
Al Carty
                twisting dirt road ended finally in a broad turn-around among scattered pines and picnic tables. The green Forest Service truck made the turn slowly, until the trailer it pulled was on a level place. The young park ranger unloaded the pack mules and horses while the man assembled the supplies.

   "How long will it take to reach the tower?" asked the man.

   "About three hours. It's four thousand feet here in the meadow and seven thousand at Pine Point lookout; a thousand feet per mile, about one mile an hour."

   The path started gradually for the first hundred yards. Then the gradient increased and the trail became a series of switch-backs. When the animals reached the end of one angle the lead-horse turned and plodded up the next cross-cut. The other animals seemed to think the first horse was leaving them, so they always trotted around the turn to catch up.

   There was nothing for the man to do but sit and sway with the rhythm of the animal; there was only one way for the horse to go and he had been on this trip many times before, so the man relaxed and let his senses feed on the sights and smells of the mountain.

   The air was thin and very dry; the man's nostrils felt slightly dilated. His whole body was feeling a change, a shifting, but he had expected a time of adjustment, of acclimation. The hospital that had been his home for so long was at sea-level, and now he was at four thousand feet, on horseback, steadily climbing.

   He restricted the movement of his eyes to better enjoy the scene - up into a tree, down the grooved trunk, along the russet ground. The cool air was full of the mountain's fragrance, pine needles and tree-sap and loamy soil. The hooves kicked the mix into a pungent scent. The young ranger looked back and smiled.

   "I've walked this trail a few times. There are some places where the wind blows in the trees, like down below you in a gorge - sounds like voices. Like people shouting to each other. Sometimes it's like water running over rocks, but usually like voices - to me, anyway."

   The man nodded. "That could be a little spooky, when you're alone."

   "Yeah," said the ranger. "The first time I heard it I shouted back down to them, but of course it was just the wind. I felt like an idiot! Now I don't pay attention to it. Can't hear it much when you're on a horse."

   After two hours of climbing they came into a little clearing. The ranger pointed to the top of the southern crest. The man scanned the distant skyline and was finally able to distinguish a tiny house on stilts from the line of trees. It seemed to have blended with the forest, almost to have become a part of it. When they reached it at last the sun was far down the sky, and the ranger busied himself with the pack animals.

   "I'll help you unload, but you'll have to take the stuff upstairs yourself. I'm going to have to hustle to get back to the truck before dark." They worked steadily for a half-hour, replacing the depleted butane tanks under the tower and rearranging the mule-packs. Finally the young man watered the animals and came over to the man to shake hands.

   "Well, take it easy," he said. "I'll see you in two weeks. Hope you like the solitude. The last lookout…well, hell…anyway, uh, just call the Station when you have your grocery list ready. Keep an eye on your water tank; you should have plenty until my next trip." The man held up his hand.

   "Hold on - what about the last lookout? What were you going to say?"

   The young ranger was tight-lipped and looked at the ground. "Aw, hell, I wasn't supposed to say anything. It's just…well, the last guy just couldn't take the silence, you know? Some folks can't. They're used to people around. I never had a problem and you probably won't either. You'll probably like it, like I did. Anyway, I've got to go. I don't like this trail after dark, and the horses don't, either."

   The ranger stepped up into the saddle and started down the trail. The animals scuffed a fine dust as they went, and the rising westerly breeze blew it along the ground and down the slope to the meadow below.

   The man finished hauling the supplies up the stairs and brought up a bucket of water from the shack that housed the tank. The sun was now behind the peaks across the valley. Heavy clouds far out on the distant ocean glowed like embers, changing down the color scale rapidly, vermilion to orange to pink to amber, tapering to blue and then to night. He latched the gates at the bottom and top of the stairs and touched a match to the lantern in the tower.

   "Three months," he said aloud. "I can handle this for three months. A leave of absence is just what the doctor ordered." He laughed out loud. "Literally what he ordered! But let's not dwell on that."

   In the days and weeks that followed he fell into a comfortable routine as he became more familiar with the job and his surroundings. His mornings began with a complete and thorough viewing of the countryside. From the catwalk that went around the tower he had a panoramic picture in all directions. He scanned the forest and meadows through the glasses while the coffee was brewing and, after breakfast, began the endless chore of cleaning the windows that lined each wall.

   He would often look up from his work in the tower to see squirrels peering in at him from the railing, chattering and begging. A ring-tailed cat perched momentarily to look at him, then raced around and around the railing. The man fed them little morsels occasionally, from a distance; he did not want to take a chance of being bitten. Random deer passed by in the mornings and looked up at him when he whistled, then walked leisurely along the northern path through the boulders. The mountain creatures showed little concern at his presence, and he began to feel at home.

   One late afternoon as he finished cleaning the storage shed - just to keep busy - he passed by the woodpile on the way to the stairs. A large timber-rattler had arranged itself next to a rotting log and had not sensed the man until he was a few feet away. The man jumped back instinctively, eyes wide. The snake pulled its thick body together into a low coil before the man could blink. Its head was cocked back like a rifle-hammer and was ready to strike in an instant; its rattle buzzed madly, its eyes bright and insane. The snake had one purpose.

   The man's brain focused on the imminent danger. He found a large rock and killed the creature. Before it died, the head hanging by a slender thread of skin, the body continued to coil and strike, coil and strike, moving by inherent reflex. The man watched the snake until it no longer moved. He found a long stick and used it to pick up the snake. He threw it behind the tower where it landed on a large boulder.

   It seemed to have become very quiet on the mountain. The man stood still and listened. He wanted to hear a sound, any sound, something to bring to him the awareness that there was still life in the world, something beyond the almost overwhelming hum of silence.

   He threw a few stones down the trail. The dull thuds seemed to be swallowed instantly by the mountain, the lack of sound closing over his ears at once, but more than silence remained. There was the whistling presence of nothing; it whined like the maddening sound of summer cicadas. It magnified itself by the man's knowledge that there was nothing to be done about it.

   He turned suddenly and faced the woodpile, having heard that rattlers traveled in pairs. He did not want to face the snake's mate. An image formed in his mind, a picture of the other creature being something more than the one he had killed; it would be a giant, a wild thing of enormous proportions and capabilities. He, the man, would not have the courage, or the will, or the strength to resist. The great snake would fix him with an overwhelming gaze. In that encounter the man would be killed, painfully. He then knew, strangely, naturally, that his death would be justified by the mountain. It would be as it should - and he couldn't do a damned thing about it.

   He went up into the tower and pulled a bottle from a canvas bag under the cot. He knew, because it had been impressed upon him by the doctor, drinking would bring on the feelings, the suspicions. But he told himself a drink would calm his nerves. The meeting with snake had shaken him. One drink would brace him. He would stop with one.

   He tuned the radio carefully, hoping a voice would break into this dumb world with gossip, news, trivia - human sound! But the speaker only crackled with muted static, itself accentuating the scream of the surrounding silence.

   "This is nonsense," he said aloud. "Seeing that snake gave me the jitters. Period! That's all there is to it. Have another drink and forget it." He mixed another cocktail. "Thank you, sir," he said to himself. "Think nothing of it, old man! Forget about it, relax! Find something to read and get your mind on something else. This will pass, soon." But no books he had brought with him interested him, no story would engage his mind.

   The binoculars were near at hand, so he made the tour of the catwalk twice, looking down each path and into the forest, searching the mountainsides for any activity; he saw nothing out of place. And so he began to think.

   On the day of his arrival at South Pine Station the chief ranger had taken him on a tour of the other lookouts. He had been instructed in the use of the fire-finding apparatus, the radio, and was briefed generally on what he would do when he got to his own lookout station. The other towers could be reached by vehicle, so the tour was accomplished in one morning. On the return trip the ranger had spotted something in the road and stopped the vehicle. The man jumped out and retrieved it. It was a small canvas bag, stitched closed on all sides, and weighed several pounds.

   The ranger had placed it on his office desk and cut the stitching. He poured out buckshot, gunpowder, and a dynamite cap. The device was obviously homemade and had either fallen from a vehicle or been placed in the road deliberately to blow up when a tire passed over it. The authorities that were called in said that it may or may not have been effective, but its presence there was enough to put the Forest Service and the nearby residents on their guard. The memory merged with those of recent events as the man brought the glass to his lips.

   In the morning the atmosphere had a close, tight feel, and thunderheads had gathered on the northern horizon. The man made his usual inspection of the forest, but had not shaken his uneasy feeling. Several times as he looked through the glasses he felt he should look behind him. Once he sensed movement from the near boulders, but when he looked there was only the familiar scene. And he saw that the snake had vanished from where he had thrown it, but that would have been the work of a hawk or some other mountain creature. Some other mountain creature - one that ducked away when he turned to look at it.

   He shook his head and chastised himself for being foolish and occupied himself with his chores. He left the tower and walked to the storage shed to continue with further cleaning. He glanced down as he approached, and saw for the first time the circles in the sand.

   He found two of them by the corner of the tank-house, several feet apart, perfectly round. The depressions were quite narrow and very shallow, as though made by a pencil point. 'Maybe a bug,' he thought, but no trails connected the circles. No track led to or from them. He went to the tower and brought back the water bucket. The contours of one did not match the other. The more he searched the area the more he found, many more, and of varying sizes. A few were half-made, some three-quarters round, but most were perfect circles.

    What the hell is this? The snake is drawing little mysteries for me! He giggled lowly. He raised his head and looked around. "I just giggled!" He briefly laughed aloud, but caught himself quickly.

   "Oh, God! Don't crack up, you idiot! You were doing so well. This is just a stupid thing you have to figure out! OK, slow down. By the way, you might want to stop talking to yourself. That would be a start! Oh, yeah, if the other me is out there, don't answer back!" He smiled broadly and put his head back and laughed long and loud. When he stopped he was no longer smiling. He moved his head from side to side, slowly, trying to clear his thoughts.

   "Jesus Christ! Get a grip, man! Get a grip!" Looking down the trail and into the forest, he shouted, "What do you think?"  But when he listened there was only the gathering silence. He took that for an answer. Looking down at the circles he rubbed them out vigorously with the sole of his boot. There were many on the mountain; he destroyed only a few.

   A sudden warm gust of wind brushed his cheek. He looked up into the darkening sky and saw the storm was coming fast. He secured the gates and windows and double-latched the door, glancing over his shoulder often. The wind began to buffet the many windows. He pulled the lightning-chair from under the bed - it was a short-legged stool with glass insulators for feet. He doubted its usefulness.

   The rumblings and flashes started across the valley and black clouds boiled and tumbled along the ridge toward the tower. As the thundering increased in volume it lessened in distance; he stepped onto the stool and squatted to await the brunt of the storm. He could no longer see the mountains to the north or west. Along his own ridge he saw bluish bolts shoot from the moiling clouds, giant molten javelins of pure energy slamming relentlessly into the earth. Clouds of dust were released from the disturbance; trees were blasted and splintered, some split down the middle. The storm was all about him now, the roar a constant living thing.

   He grabbed a blanket and threw it over his head. His eyes were tightly shut and his hands were pressed hard over his ears but the colossal noise and blinding brilliance seemed to be inside of him. Visions came to him to replace the scene outside; a typhoon, the ships of his fleet being ripped off-course, the troughs of the sea luring, pulling, forcing bows of warships down, down, many never regaining the surface, searching the bottom, forever there. The typhoons had missed his ship and he was spared; now he had been found and would be consumed by the giant engine of the past.

   The acrid smell of dust and sulfur filled his nostrils and his dry mouth tasted bitter ashes. He wondered at prayer, robotically, and if wishful thought would keep the relentless power from searching out and exploding the butane-tanks beneath the tower. He remained perched on the stool and had barely breathed. The heart of the storm hovered, screaming, lashing the mountain savagely, turning its angry canopy down the meadow to the southern ridge.

   The radio came alive with excited voices giving coordinates of numerous spot-fires about the forest and the man, breathing again, took his glasses and went out onto the catwalk. He reported several small blazes to the west as he listened to the storm in the distance, grumbling, threatening, searching out new victims. When the sun flamed into being over the distant Pacific the man went inside and fell on his cot.

   In the days that followed, the mountain began to mend itself and occasional showers washed away the scars. The season changed but the man felt no closer to the mountain. After the storm he thought his right to be there had been earned, but there was always the snake. The mountain kept to itself; no animals visited, although he could see them on the rocks and in the trees, watching. He was as separate from this place as he was from the world below. He no longer looked at the circles in the sand, but he knew they were there.

   He slept less but kept alert, hoping to catch sight of anything out of place. There was something out there. He somehow connected the bomb in the road with the circles; he convinced himself there was one person responsible, a madman roaming the mountains. The wildlife watched him, and deer still followed the path by the tower. Whenever hunters were in the area they shouted up to him. When he answered at all he mumbled and made vague gestures, indicating directions opposite from the travel of the deer.

   His radio reports became shorter and less frequent, and he no longer conversed with the other lookouts. When his supplies were brought the man stayed in the tower. The young ranger could see that someone in the tower was watching him as he unpacked the mules. The man came down only when the pack-train was across the distant meadow.

   "Pine Point, this South Pine Station! Over!" The man answered after the chief ranger had called three times.

   "Yeah," he said sullenly.

   "Listen, Pine Point, we're having a training session down here tomorrow. I want you to be in on it. I think maybe you could use a change. There's a job down here for you."

   The man drained the glass he was holding before he answered.

   "I'm OK up here," he said.

   "I want you down here for awhile," said the chief. "We'll be up for you in the morning. Have your gear packed!"

   The man made another drink and stepped slowly and carefully down the iron steps to the ground. He walked around the beams of the tower, looking at the woodpile where he had first seen the snake. The path that led beside the outbuildings and down the trail was dark, forbidding. He shouted down the path and into the trees.

   "You better do it now! You better come and get me now!" He drained the glass and threw it against a boulder. It shattered with little noise. The air about him seemed to muffle sound. The skin on his face felt tightly stretched. He began to breathe with increasing labor. He shuffled toward the ladder and another drink.

   As he reached the top of the tower he stared down into the unfamiliar and unfriendly forest. He spoke conversationally, as to a person standing below.

   "Bring your bombs and your goddam circles. It doesn't matter now. You win. You sons-of-bitches win." The forest looked at him mutely, the trees standing close together, quietly watching. He went inside and lay on the cot but did not sleep.

   In the morning the rangers locked the tower and turned off the butane tanks. The man sat silently in the saddle. He had only mumbled a few words to them since their arrival and the rangers glanced at each other and shook their heads. The procession finally began the descent and the man rode in silence, holding the saddle-horn, head down. He watched the ground as he rode and, seeing a few small circles, his lips formed a little smile, but he said nothing. The little caravan made its slow way down the silent mountain - a silent, watching mountain.

   A mild breeze drifted up the near meadow and through the trees on the summit. It ran along the ground and around the beams of the empty tower. The surrounding rocks and outbuildings deflected the wind, causing it to run in every direction. Small whirlwinds developed, alive and frenzied for a moment, then followed the undulating ground until the breeze found an exit down a dark path between the boulders.

   Here and there dry straws of mountain grass strained against the wind, some snapping at the base, holding on by a few fibers. The wind pushed the stalk around in a halting semicircle until the erratic character of the wind caused the straw to complete its revolution.

   During the course of its travel the tip of the stalk etched a slight path in the sand. By evening the breeze had diminished; the grass straws had broken free and blown away. There remained perfect circles drawn upon the face of the mountain; with the next wind they would disappear. When the day closed, the sanctity of darkness would return and the creatures of the night would roam their land, free once again of the alien presence.




*

M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Al Carty. All rights reserved.


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