The miners finally look, and what they see is black sands, bristle, and a herd of horses skittish where they walk the thinnest barrier between frog and a sea of serpents.
The miners take the steel implements, their picks, shovels and axes and ply their unyielding trade. The soil, dampened in the snakes’ blood, blooms purple-headed thistles mounted on scaled stalks. The flowers are striking among the desolation. The mad horses eat these delicate heads, but we should never pick them. No, the miners never did. There are fangs in the blooms. Listen. Wind or wing among their stalks sounds warning.
What I mean is that our father shot himself. In the wastes of The Palace, in the days following the birth of my brother, Pinpurse, my father drank a fifth of rye and shot himself in the chest with a hunting rifle. For what reason? Nobody claims to know. But over time his passing became an unanswerable question that transformed into an object, a stone, in fact, that weighed down my brother his whole life, and there was nothing we could really do to help him. We only knew there was a stone and a dead man, and neither a stone nor a dead man can speak. And if they could, would you trust what they told you? No, you wouldn’t, and the more you move stones around the more you uncover what’s beneath them, which is simply snakes, dust, bones turning to dust, and air.
My mother, on the other hand, left your classic suicide note. Barb, I do not wish to diminish before your eyes is a line of what she wrote on the paper that she put on my bed stand to find. We did confirm with doctors that she was very ill, and it is true that she sheltered us from watching her physical decline, but inadvertently, she, the one whom we’d named Hero, willingly abandoned us, abandoned me, who she addressed most cordially when using the abbreviated version of my name. I sometimes wonder what I’d feel had she written Barbara. Some people will believe my mother’s actions noble. They will tell me that I can’t possibly know what horrors my mother saved us from, and perhaps they’re right. They probably are right. But my brother and I had to live with her absence, and further, we were left behind in the same way twice, and that is a violation, regardless of intention.
Everyone here knows at least five suicides. At least. I’m not exaggerating. Everyone here has not just heard of someone they once met choosing to walk the dark road but knows personally five people who have chosen to die. These suicides are first kisses, they are the friends who taught them how to drive the inside curve on a twisted highway, who taught them to soak peeled potatoes for crispier fries, who had drawn minnows from a lake in a flour sifter and funneled them into a bottle of gin and watched them swim right out of their scales and skins until all but their bones disappeared. We drank down those bones on the dock after the adults went to sleep, our laughter echoing across the dark water into a hidden cove.
We are told stories of snakes and of horses and eventually we accept that someone dear to us will choose to die. We accept that another suicide is more likely in our lives than seeing a wolf or a porcupine or a beaver, and we live in Western Montana, a forest, or what used to be a forest.
Our grandmother took me and Pinpurse in first. We were young. Pinpurse still in his diapers. Our grandmother was old and filled with the poison, and soon after we arrived she passed away in her kitchen. Before she died she told us, too, the story of the snakes and the horses, and of the bitten child and the lovely, dangerous flowers. Then she sent us to play on the rail track. She sat on the kitchen floor. The long, cool cinder of her cigarette ash arched from her forefinger and stayed there until my uncle touched her shoulder. The ash came all apart then, but never hit the floor. It went out the window and then away somewhere else.
Those were our early years. They sorted themselves out around us, and our uncle, a kind man with little knowledge of children, brought us to The Palace, into the heart of the story, the place where the mountain had died. There, he showed us a certain way in a hard place: how to breathe in a dust storm, which horses to use for target practice, how to kill snakes. He taught usthat the land was not evil, but that nature could be thrown out of balance. And so we ran through rust-colored ruts and brambles, breathed deeply the poisonous dust. We carved our shining faces into spring’s bones.
From a young age I picked Pinpurse up when he cried. First, when he was in diapers, as we all do with babes, but then later when the schools sent him home for fighting, or for spitting tobacco into the radiator, for smoking weed in the locker room or putting grain alcohol in a bottle of maraschino cherries and eating them at his locker. For not giving a shit. For wanting to be in trouble.
We had an inheritance. And perhaps that was the problem. Pinpurse’s struggles were real. He reacted to our parents’ deaths by sabotaging his life, but he lived in the luxury those choices provided without reprimand or consequence. Our parents were suicides, but Pinpurse had a seventy-two-inch TV in his room and no one to set him straight. He sulked in a king-sized bed. He self-medicated with the good shit. The sabotage was fake, was vain. He was accountable to me and my uncle, and neither of us could raise our voices to the flailing boy. What if we pushed him over the edge? We told him it was all going to work out.
Pinpurse. This sweet boy unguided, turned into a young man jobless and profane. He stooped on the porch with our aged uncle and a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English mixed with orange juice that he happily gulped with the belief that he among the many had been singled out and cheated. Something was owed, and he became his own personal zealot, and he became a taker. He wanted for nothing. He could afford all that he stole. He stole nonetheless. It was not really his fault. It was just his story. And it made him a ghost.
Ghost stories are tales of recompense, and what needs to be clear is that something had not been settled when on one cold day a rumble carried over the hills and gullies of The Palace. An untended campfire burned on the haultop while its maker sighted her rifle, firing slugs into a hard ridge of aged slag. The rifle’s report loosed a crow’s hold on the single black pine still standing. The abandoned mine dumps bleached the valley a hundred miles in any direction outside of Birch, Montana’s city limits. Green-grey light diluted the edges of the Flint Creek Range. It was early morning. The world had yet to round. It remained flat in its motion like sheet metal gliding on dirty flooring. The crow drifted down to the clotted smelter waste and hardscrabble. Pinpurse faced five to twenty years in Deer Lodge State Prison for robbing a train.
Dust and snow had covered the broken stones and the hoof prints of the wild horses that still ran in the gullies. Near the primitive road, all rut between granite, the horses ran from the warmth in the gully across the darkened ridgeline, spooked by the rifle and Pinpurse’s tires on the cattle rattle. Pinpurse drove, and I rode with him. He chomped a toothpick, and a smug grin turned the stubbly corners of his mouth up into dimples. Technically, his crime had placed him in the company of Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, and humored, he slapped his knee about that fact. Sitting shotgun with all the gravitas of a mildewed sack of Idaho Golds, I reminded him of his grim prospects. Something like fear replaced his smile and tightened his neck.
Pinpurse set his knees under the steering wheel and shifted the rig into neutral, letting the truck take its own course down the hill. He popped the lid off his chew can and pinched out a dip. He stuffed the wad behind his dimpled chin and the lump distorted the symmetry of his features. He recapped his tobacco and threw the can on the dash. He spit through the hole in the floorboards down near the clutch where silt coming off the road plumed through in quick spouts that dirtied his clutch foot. The brooding, begrudgingly delighted boy that had been my brother a year before had become a rugged young man. Already there was a touch of winter in his beard stubble, and a year of labor on the roofs around town had replaced his defiant mean streak with an assured passivity that was on the verge of breaking.
The suspension creased, old and loose, and slack-shouldered from sleep loss my head dipped to touch the window. I shook out the lank strands of hair that had become sticky with neglect. I felt ill. I hadn’t worked or washed in over a week but sat fretting in my bed. I had sprung Pinpurse on bond, but he was due back in court soon for sentencing. He was going to do some serious time, and I was helpless to stop any of it. I pinched my nose and sniffed hard to pack the dust from my nostrils in closer to my brain.
I wanted to set Pinpurse at ease. Times before, when I’d bailed him out after dust-ups and pranks gone south, we’d laughed it off over a few beers. But this time he hadn’t merely broken the nose of a college student or broken the head off the dinosaur at the Sinclair. I could not address this dilemma. I did not know how I felt about it. Or maybe I did and just had a hard time taking the whole thing seriously.
What had happened was Pinpurse caught wind that a train car had gone unlocked and unguarded down at the depot. He went to the yard to check the facts and finding the tales true it didn’t take much to convince a few of his boys. They stole a train car’s worth of beer, and it took little more than backing a few trucks up to the tracks and then driving away.
Mornings don’t keep night’s secrets in small towns. By noon next day, the whole town had a free case of beer in their fridge and heard tell of the comical ease with which this caper was accomplished. We all celebrated the boys. Laughed. Forgot. Never even considered forgiveness or what might be owed because, honestly, who could possibly give two shits? Turns out the train company. The beer distributor. And the federal government. It quickly became all too clear that those were the answers to the question none of us, especially my brother and his friends, had thought to ask.
A day or two later the impulse to brag faded into a shut-mouthed necessity. Thing of it was, tight lips irritated the local force until the time for any leniency passed and they were forced to pursue grand larceny. The usually good-humored law enforcement, the feds breathing down their necks, would persecute to the fullest extent of the law. They had to. It was now a federal crime on the national radar. The first train jacking of the 21st century. The blues stood true to their word, too. Collared on the corner of Copper and Platinum, Pinpurse knew it didn’t really matter who’d turned coat on him. It was serious. I imagine that for the first time in his life he felt something like relief.
He slammed his head back against the headrest, upsetting the rattlesnake skins draped in the elbows of the gun rack. The skins had not been taken down from last year’s kill and they had turned hard and slim as catgut. Some moldered where the muscle and blood hadn’t been scraped clean, and their dry rot flurried in the cab a corpulent blizzard. Pinpurse slapped at his neck. He chewed rapidly his tongue, and his neck flesh crawled with snake dust and what I assumed and hoped was shame. The mixture of grime and anxiety spread hives down his spine and he pulled on his collar. He rolled down the window. It didn’t help. The itch was too much for him. He stopped the truck and put the brake on, stepped out to slap out his coat. He rubbed at his cold, damp nose and slammed his jacket off the side panel. He did it again. He slammed and smacked and punched until he was beating hell out of the fender, the coat on the ground near the tire. Spent, he kicked the coat across the road and leaned on the open door and spat.
“Look,” he said. “We’re running hot here.”
I was his oldest and possibly only friend, now that his compadres had thrown him under the proverbial train car. I leaned my chin into my hand. Pinpurse retrieved his coat.
“What about it?” he asked. “We could run. Get into Canada? Vancouver always treated me well.”
“That’s a child’s thought, Pin. You’ll make do. You’re not in yet, and you will be out. Someday soon you’ll be out. All right?” I crossed my arms and looked out the window at the cracks and rocks and shadows wondering how much prison might change a man. If it might do my brother some good?
The sun spilled. Frost at the edges of the windshield glowed. The herd of horses stopped on a near hill and turned broad to the sun to feel its warmth. Pinpurse pulled his cap down to shield his eyes. The wind touched the ash and the snow that smothered the ground. It was hard to live in the valley, and almost harder to believe that before the mines it had been one of the largest horse ranches in the country, running with grass, scored by high mountain streams running off the Continental Divide and game trails that lead to the water. Now, there wasn’t a hint of growth that wasn’t barked or sharp, and this included the shifty horses forced to eat the brambles. There were plague creatures in the hot months, snakes and grasshoppers, but now they slept in their winter dens.
The road wound through piles of ancient shaft braces, the squared pines they’d cut out of the Beaverhead by the thousands. They’d used them to buttress the mining tunnels. I don’t know how these got here, but they’d always been there, turning askew on each other in haphazard piles. I had the inclination to stop and light them on fire, set the valley ablaze and Birch, Montana, along with it. Send out a warning signal to anyone able to see the smoke. Do not tread here. I knew better, though. The valley and everything in it was sown with arsenic, a lethal, natural flame retardant. Twenty miles northwest, in Asphodel, the world’s tallest smelter had steadily burned stone for decades, burying everything in a three-hundred-mile diameter in ash. Once burned, nothing could burn. It just sat in the dry air and slowly fell into ruin.
Pinpurse took a right and cut away from the road. The docks of the ruined train dumps scattered along the ridges of rail track. The rail ties had eroded down to furred brace bolts and nests of broken duff that would forever smell of kerosene. More hills rose out of the littered washes below the dumps, where the ditches gathered bedsprings, rocks, broken bottles. The truck stamped track in the earth, and the dust came out from under the featherings of snow and fell into the cab. We pulled our bandanas over our mouths and ears.
“You know, Barb,” Pinpurse said. “Killing snakes is bigger than us. It’s tradition. Like grandma’s stories. We’re keeping the town safe.”
“The hell did the snakes ever do but act like snakes?” “I’m serious.”
“So am I.”
“Okay, well, how’d Nanner Feet die?”
“How’d that dog die?”
The heat blasted out of the dashboard. My face was hot.
“Snake bit,” I said.
“You’re damn right snake bit. And I can’t count on my toes how many people, and their dogs, have thanked me for not being dead, or in a whole lot of discomfort.” Pinpurse turned the knob on the heater to defrost and the windshield fogged. He turned it back.
“Them the same people that turned you into the feds?”
“Don’t change the subject. Snakes are dangerous. Killing them is right and good.”
“Come on, Pin. You’re right. A few less people and/or their dogs may be bitten by snakes. Good on you. But that’s not why you kill snakes, and it sure as hell doesn’t make it ‘right and good.’ You’ve been the first to do something just to do anything since day one.” I scratched a line through the frost on the window, aware that I was saying things I’d been thinking for years. “You don’t think I can see it. See you risking your ass for what you say is just kicks when we both know you tear yourself up because you don’t know which direction to fire an arrow. Your whole life it hasn’t mattered if it’s killing snakes to kill time or acting the asshole for your buddies or, apparently, robbing trains.”
Pinpurse rounded down the hill, maneuvering slowly through the rock that led up onto the granite outcropping. I hoped that he was trying to convince himself that he hadn’t lived a life so obvious, but he said, “No, I think you prove my point.” And we didn’t say another word about it.
Silt and the roots of dead thistles gripped the seams of the boulder covering the rattlesnake nest. Steam drifted from the deep fissure below the rock where they slept. Pinpurse stopped the truck. I got out, put hands to hips and stretched a bit. Sweat beaded on my lip. I licked at it to keep it from running into my nostrils when I bent to touch my toes.
“Better clear the early birds first,” Pinpurse said.
Pinpurse and I, like the law, like the chosen righteous, like miners with their tools, we pushed the noses of our shovels through the dirt and dusting of snow, checking for the few snakes that had exited the den, snakes fooled by the early spring, only to twist their bodies back into the sand for warmth. My shovel turned over a length of body hidden in the soft earth. The slightest movement and the dust trickled off the spine and scales like a lit fuse and gave away the rattlesnake’s shape. I drove the spade through the snake and into the ground, freeing the head from everything else. The mouth still worked separate from its body, opening and closing, emptying the venom out of its glands. I kicked it aside, and we set to prodding the dirt around the entrance to the pit, bothering a few small snakes from the rocks, and stabbing them apart.
The ground clear of any snakes we might have stepped on, Pinpurse fired the rig and backed it up carefully, edging the bumper near to the den. I took the hose out of the truck and pushed one end into the muffler. I fed the other end into the snake hole. I stopped up the exhaust with a ball of socks and the fumes flowed down through the hose. Pinpurse revved the engine. Exhaust roiled up from the nest. The truck idled, and Pinpurse got out of the cab. The morning had warmed a bit, and the world filled with the sound of a steady dripping.
The stones whispered. Bothered by the hose and the taste of exhaust, the snakes closest to the mouth of the den deserted slowly, colder than the others at the bottom of the burrow where the tangle created a live furnace, but more willing to flee the hole. After months in the dark, I could only imagine how the cold, bright day assaulted their senses, made them stupid and frantic as a thing newly born. They slithered in random directions or coiled up when they felt the cold air. We killed them at a controlled pace, rocking from foot to foot, shifting our weight, turning furrows in the ground with our heels. The dust came out from under the snow, and it covered rock and skin and spade. Then the blood ran and melted the snow and dampened the silt. A few snakes made it into the shelter of the rocks. Other asphyxiated bodies ceased mid-slither at the opening of the den. The snakes that had been sleeping deep in the ground were already dead. I looked at all the bodies, unsure at what point my derision for this act turned into gleeful participation.
Pinpurse pulled the last of the train beers, his loot and misfortune, from behind the seat. Other than the possibility of twenty-five years in prison, these beers were all that remained of the prize he’d hauled from the belly of that train car. It had only been a few weeks since he’d pulled up to the fire, his truck bed stacked three cases tall, his cab filled and all his friends celebrating, the girls noticing and admiring his handsome recklessness. The spray of beer foam flecked his blood-spattered hands. He blew heat back into his fists and admired the slaughter on the ground before him. “I must have killed twenty.”
“Maybe six,” I said.
Pinpurse slapped my shoulder. We had practiced forgetting over the years. I emptied my can, gagged, and threw it into the rocks.
“Flat.” I opened another.
“You’re a pro,” Pinpurse said.
Full daylight and everything possible. Pinpurse wound the hose, pulling it around his shoulder and elbow, he watched the herd of horses that had brought in the morning. They’d roamed off toward the base of a butte, but now the dirty stallion led them down through the snow directly toward us. They turned to and fro at intervals to avoid the ghosts, until they came right up on us and stopped. The horses were small. In them, time and a shared bloodline had rotted the careful breeding of the valley’s original purebred Arabians and quarter horses. On their long thin necks they held high proud heads. Where they had bitten each other, open wounds on their flanks and necks wept an infected curd. Their hides were warty with pellets that had once been in my gun. Pine brambles and burrs were stove up in their tails. They pawed the ground. They shook out their manes.
In deeper spring the air would have teemed with ticks and horse flies, but the winter had at least relieved them of those infestations. The lead stallion had a patch of royal white on its flank where the filth had been cleared by constant motion, and he stood even with Pinpurse’s shoulders. Drawn by the horse’s wet dark eye, Pinpurse raised a hand and took a step, hoping to touch the darkened muzzle. The stallion turned and yipped and kicked, bit the rump of the mare nearest to him who reared, and the herd bucked in a single motion, snapping each other’s mouths closed and thumping rib cages with their broken hooves. Pinpurse touched his mouth, rubbed the tips of his fingers into the soft part of his upper lip and slid it around on his skull.
I went after them. They were amazing to me in that moment though they had never been worth much before. I wanted to get up close. I tugged on Pinpurse to follow.
“A walk would be all right,” Pinpurse said. “Get my blood moving.”
I slapped his shoulder and we went after the horses. They’d made it to the slope of the ridge. The stallion twisted on its back, bathing in the dust. It thrashed about like to put out flames. The other horses fanned out on lower ground near a gully trickling with run off. They idly drank from the water and bit the heads from the thistles that had sprung up at the first suggestion of the moisture. We walked toward the horses until they started to shy and we changed direction, circling the herd to the left until we happened upon a scree slope. A crow worried a carcass lying in a scrabble of stones
The foal had two punctures in its muzzle. The snake venom, hemotoxic, destroying cells in the horse’s soft flesh, had caused the nose and upper lip to swell until pin pricks had split into horrible stars. The blood, unable to clot properly, had run into its mouth and stained the horse’s teeth black. Its stomach was full of gas and distended near to bursting. Dead a few days, the cold had kept it from going putrid, but when the spring finally came the gases would burst the skin and work a stink up. Then the dogs would stray to find the body, bringing their slaver and spit and noise. They’d be crazy with the smell, stupid for their chance to gorge on green meat, and they’d ignore the warnings of the snakes newly freed from their dens. The dogs would return home snake bit or not at all. Families would mourn. Snakes would die. Unsatisfied with their vengeance, men would drink toasts to their dead dogs. They would drink too many toasts. Their families would miss them. Mothers would send their sons to find their fathers and the fathers would turn up bitten by the bottle again, and the misery and the madness would spread. A spouse would be put out. Another would uncover a deeply ingrained worthlessness residing inside them, full grown, crystalline, somewhat beautiful if not horrifying for its abundance, as if it had always been there, tangible and undeniable. Then there would be death and winter. But, then too, the spring to turn it all over. The cycle ends with hope, ends in the rot that sprouts life. The rot lies dormant in the next stupid thing to root about in the rocks, blinded by want, not paying attention to the alarms or where it is putting its innocent nose
I squatted and tilted my head to get a better look at the markings on the foal’s forelock, a white diamond.
“Poor little thing had a jewel in his head," I said.
Pinpurse lifted a stiff leg with his boot. If he had a thought, he didn’t say it. He unearthed a large flat stone and drug it abroad the foal. Under its weight, the spine and ribcage popped in several places. I helped my brother out
“Just think,” Pinpurse said, picking the bright head from a thistle before leaning on his knees to catch his breath. “He’ll be nothing but bones when I get out, and me . . . Barb, I’ll make this right for you. For both of us. When I get out. It’s going to only be five years. I can feel it. Five years. I swear it on this horse’s bones, five years and I’ll pay my debts to you and I’ll get the hell out of here. Let you live your life. Live my own.”
He handed me the flower, but I could not accept it. I crossed my arms and tightened my lips into a small smile, trying to stay stoic and proud, trying to rationalize, trying to will some luck. I hugged him, but I would not take that flower. Pinpurse let it fall and pulled me into his chest so that I could feel the calamity of his heart. I found myself believing him. He’d try hard to follow through on his word. I thought, then, that he intended to, and I almost cried aloud at the fear of my hope. I put my head to his chest and listened to the ever-present timbre of rattlesnakes. I felt bad for that dead horse awhile.
Danilo John Thomas is the author of the chapbooks The Hand Implements, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet, and Murk, fine letterpress printed by book artist AB Gorham (abgorham.com). Recently, his writing has won the 2017–18 Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review and the Matchbook 5 contest from Small Fires Press. Other work is forthcoming in Tampa Review and High Desert Journal. He earned his PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University and his MFA from the University of Alabama. He manages Baobab Press (baobabpress.com) in Reno, Nevada.