Hot Tin Roof: Agates

By Nickolas Butler

The land beneath the trap had been in our family since before the time of steel and always without poachers. We had taken it from the Indians who had in antiquity taken it from their own or those like them. That history we owned and we were unabashed. We did not think of them as savages because our fathers had taught us to think of ourselves as savages. We thought of them as obsolete. We were the inheritors of their earth. We are not apologizers.

Her boot had hovered over the trap and I could not claim credit for having seen it there, hungry for her little foot, its teeth jagged and painted in rust. I had been walking behind her, in a path well-grooved by the deer that move through our land as if it were their own. I might have bumped into her, pushed her into the trap but at the last moment she fell away from it and called my name.

We rarely spoke once we were inside the forest–it was poor practice.

What is it, I whispered.

There, she pointed.

Staked into the breast of the earth and held there by a chain, the steel jaws gaped open, undisturbed. A lace from her boots draped over one set of teeth like a strand of spaghetti. She drew her leg further away from the trap and we both watched the lace follow her leg. The mouth there did not bite. On hands and knees we peered at the maw.

How, she asked. How could it never have been tripped?

I shook my head; it was incomprehensible.

All the things falling all the time from the heavens and the canopy above: leaves, limbs, snow, rain, hail, meteorites, satellites, running hooves, landing birds, stray bullets. A hundred years undisturbed. This patch of earth a vacuum of movement until us, then. Out gathering fiddleheads and morels. Out scouting, out collecting tinder and kindling. What if we had not wandered by? How much longer would it have remained, forgotten? And how much longer could it be, could it persist as metal forged by man before returning its molecules to the loam below?

Touch it, I said. I dare you.

No, she said.

Touch it, I said, and I’ll braid your hair forever.

She hesitated. Give me your agate collection, she said.

I sucked the still air, then nodded.

She reached for a stick and was about to depress the trap’s spring when I said,

No, that ain’t the deal. I could have done it with a stick. You have to do it with your hand.

Fear went over her face replacing the color in her cheeks and the light in her eyes.

You would make your sister do that, wouldn’t you, she asked.

Or don’t, I said. But we had a deal. You can welch out if that’s what you want to do.

No, she said, I’m going to have your agates. This trap is broke anyhow.

Alright then, I said, go on.

Her fingers shot out quickly, quicker than I would have guessed. But she arrested their reach. Her hand was over the teeth now and our faces were close to it.

You need to press hard, I said. You need to press down hard enough to imitate a she-bear.

She looked at me, then closed her eyes. She made a fist of her little hand and punched the spring.

Louder than a shotgun, louder than thunderclap, louder than a chainsaw, is the sound of grouse frightened from its nest. They explode from the forest floor, their wings and feathers like a bass drum and what’s more, no matter how many times you have spooked a grouse, each time they burst into the near air it is enough to quiet your heart forever. That was how grandfather died. He was out, hunting with our father. They had taken no more than ten steps into the forest when a grouse erupted out of the bush and grandfather keeled. He was ninety-one years old.

We kill bears. Their meat makes good stew, good chuck. They trouble our dogs and given a bad spring or summer they come for what little garbage we make. Once, they topped the outhouse for our shit. Everything in our world is food or fuel. What cannot go into our hungry mouths goes into our stoves to beat back the winters. We are unapologetic. Winter is a cold war for calories. The bears wait out their winters in sleep. We find their dens sometimes, the holes where their breaths have melted away the ice and snow. We leave them be. A winter bear is too skinny to eat.

At night, I hear her with my agates. Our room so dark the notion of shutting our eyes seems redundant. I hear the polished stones, the stones I polished with boot oil and my underwear, those stones in her hand like the prayer beads the nuns in town dangle between their wrinkled hands when they see our approach.

I pray these nights, these days. Pray that something long hid comes to get me one day. Some bullet fired decades ago in some anonymous war. A star broke lose from heaven, careening down through epochs of time to snuff me out. I walk beneath the widowmakers of the forest, the big maples hung up on their brethren and uprooted from the earth. I want them to crush me. To come down and pound me into my grave unboxed and without a stone.

I am sorry, sister. Please now, put them agates into their velvet pouch and let me be.

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