A love of landscape’s a true affection for regret, I’ve found,
Forever joined, forever apart,
Outside us yet ourselves.
Charles Wright, “Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat”
In the eighteenth century, our forefather Abraham set out onto a piece of land labeled on the map only as “The Wilderness.” He was 80 and likely crazy—certainly caught within the wiles of his new young bride, Bathsheba—and so the two worked their way into the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains, eventually settling on a thickly forested plateau reaching wide to the land rising higher at its edges.
When he came upon the land, he only found empty trails running like tributaries into a wide flat rock rising from the soil. The rock remained, yet all that surrounded it were traces of history, etchings of a time Abraham could never know. He didn’t know the Cherokee had never settled on this stretch of earth; they had forever set it aside for hunting and rest. He didn’t know that long before him the land beneath his feet was purposed. But he must’ve known that men had been living and breathing and fighting on this land, returning over and over to the outcrop of rock before him. Standing on his new land, all he could do was lay down roots atop the unreachable past and interpret the signs.
Before I’d come into the world, Granddaddy divided his land among his four sons, and they each set out to mark a spot and make the land theirs. Dad snatched a plot off in the forest, and when he married Mama and she left her family’s land across the creek, they moved into a house they’d built in the woods. His brothers, too, took their land—Steve built on a slope out near the hayfields and apple orchard, Tim settled down by the barn and creek, and Danny built higher than anyone, on a bare hill overlooking it all. Together, they surrounded the house of their parents, leaving us grandchildren to be born immediately in orbit of that rock house.
On summer mornings we drifted from our houses, pulled back to Grandma and Granddaddy’s, toward the middle, where we must’ve sensed we started. My cousin Jacob worked his way up from the creek and down the Old Road, a wide dirt path fit only for Granddaddy’s beat-up truck. From my house, I cut trails through the woods, wearing ruts into the land like thin, dry creek beds.
In the soil along those paths were bottles and half-buried remnants of machines, left there by my grandfather and those before him. Green jars full of must and dirt; an overturned, broken-belted sawmill; splintered, faded shotgun shells. We sometimes unearthed these bits, pulling them close, smelling them, wondering if we might make something of them.
My trails ended just above the tractor shed, where waited a large flat stone angling sharply up from the ground. We felt sure it was a Cherokee grave, so we stepped around it and brushed it lightly and looked in closely for any trace of etchings, any sign of life. But for all of our hours of boyhood searching, we found only a few arrowheads on our land. We knew in our bones that there were more, buried, and we could surely raise them up if we only had the time.
As boys, Jacob, Josh, and I took our plastic guns, painted our faces in the greens and blacks of camouflage, borrowed old fatigues from Granddaddy’s closet, and set out from Grandma’s. We ghosted through the woods, past Granddaddy’s old truck towards the hayfields. We crept from tree to tree until we arrived to the hayfield above our great-great-grandparents’ house. We crouched and crawled down the hill, staying attentive to any changes in the birds’ chirps, being sure our enemy didn’t see or hear our young bodies working their way towards the flatland near the creek.
When we arrived to the springhead, we ran or fought our way across the field and into the stream, just below the bridge. In the brown water of Clear Creek, we worked upstream against the soft, steady current. We made gestures we assumed army types made and kept our eyes fixed on the banks of the creek, where our enemies could be lurking, waiting. We shot down these unnamed, faceless men—watching each other’s backs. We fought and fired and dodged and occasionally became injured, but never dead.
The only thing that pulled us from our boyhood wars was Grandma’s car horn ringing through the forest and down the hill. When it was lunchtime or she wanted us home, she walked to her car, reached in through the open window, and pushed the horn—three steady blares. The noise was a homing beacon and it broke any delusion. We knew it meant to leave the muddy water and return to the rock house.
Jacob said once that he was ready to kick in a door and shoot someone in the face. He was due to be deployed to Iraq in a few days. Earlier that year, after basic training, he smiled as we sat on Grandma’s couch and he told me he’d learned where to hit a body in order to paralyze it.
These days, he is out of the army and has moved into a trailer in the hayfield, just above the home my grandmother’s people shuffled into in the late 19th century. I’ve settled in a house farther up the creek after a stint teaching young children in the mountains of Honduras.
In truth, it’s more like Jacob is squatting than living. The singlewide had belonged to his maternal grandmother, and after he returned from his last tour, he moved in and left everything as it was: knickknacks on shelves, frilly curtains hugging the windows, a floral-patterned couch stretching out in the living room. He pools his things in corners or stacked in boxes alongside the trinkets and gaudy lamps. A .22 with scope and suppressor stands on the kitchen table, aiming out the picture window. Granddaddy’s old rifles and Jacob’s new, high-powered weapons rest together in a case in the back room. Under Jacob’s bed sleeps a semi-automatic army-grade assault rifle. On the bathroom sink, he keeps a .45 pistol to practice clip changes while he shits. A 9mm is in his truck.
From the outside, his trailer seems like it could be an escape pod for a spaceship—plastic-looking and haphazardly dropped amid the rising hay. It shares nothing in common with our ancestor’s tall homeplace farther down the hill, which fades in color while the rock foundation crumbles too slowly to notice.
As boys, we stuck what we wanted to keep in the woods. Tinker toys and trucks, homemade maps and secrets—everything given over to the caves of rhododendron and loamy soil for safekeeping. In our leaving behind of action figure torsos and broken Matchbox cars, we also uncovered what our fathers and their fathers and their fathers left in the forest.
Once, during a GI Joe war, Jacob found a misshaped cube of lead from beneath some leaves near the shed. He and I, the GI Joes, waited for Josh, Cobra Commander, to emerge from deeper in the forest. The lead, we decided, was a grenade. Jacob threw it at Josh when he appeared, slugging him in the face. His nose bleeding and crooked, Josh ran toward Grandma’s while Jacob and I disappeared into the woods, awaiting the inescapable beckoning of Grandma’s car horn.
Not long after he returned from Iraq, Jacob laid his 9mm across his arm by reflex while driving on the interstate near Asheville. In Iraq, they aimed guns from the windows of their trucks and Humvees to keep cars from weaving in and out of army convoys. On the wide highway back home, Jacob caught himself pointing the gun out the window as a car passed to his left, and he tossed the 9mm back into the passenger seat shaking his head.
In Honduras, guns became a part of my daily life. The small town packed back in the mountains felt like a colonial wild west. Horses and oxen clicked down the dusty cobblestone streets on their way to the market, men wore brown boots and cowboy hats, and all the banks planted straight-faced men in bulletproof vests and shotguns at the entrances. When I first arrived, I half-expected to see a Central American John Wayne stroll up the street with six shooters on his hips.
Many afternoons, I walked through town after school and nodded hello to one of my students’ fathers who guarded a bank. When not working, he was a small man with glasses bringing his daughter to school on the handlebars of his bike and then smiling as he bounced back down the street. But in front of the bank, he wore dark sunglasses, a thick square chest, and a sturdy semi-automatic shotgun. He nodded back a brief smile, and I continued on my way.
Gun sightings became normal and expected—a man getting out of his truck in front of my apartment carrying a stack of books with a revolver lying on top; a woman in a red dress in the restaurant off the park accepting the pulled-out chair from her date, a man with a glock tucked obviously into the back of his Levi jeans. Guns became plastic and unreal.
While I taught in Honduras, Jacob was shipped to Afghanistan for crowd control during an election. Some days, as I stood on the playground trying to keep the peace among the racing children, I imagined Jacob, a gun always in his hands, wearing authority on his chest and face in a foreign land.
Not long after his father died in a Union prison, our great-great-grandfather moved into the house below Jacob’s trailer and stuck anything that would grow into these hills and fields—corn and cattle, hay and potatoes. His family turned the earth over and put food on the table and built a church and multiplied.
His son, our great-grandfather, married a fiery woman from Mills River, and they built their boxy house just above the barn and tended the land. But as he aged, he started picking up mail routes for consistent money.
After serving in World War II, our grandfather left much of this land to its own devices and carried the mail full-time to feed his four hungry boys.
Tim, Jacob’s daddy, reawakened large swaths of land to grow hay after high school. He took on a herd of cattle, settled above the barn and bottoms, and set out to be a farmer. The money didn’t come, and Tim joined the army. Now, he rents the land to a sod farm and serves as an army reservist. His full-time job is as a mail carrier.
My daddy went off to study art after high school, making signs and landscapes and portraits in classrooms. When he finished his degree and moved into the woods with my mom, he became a teacher.
In high school, Jacob decided he would farm. I decided never to become a teacher.
While he took classes on Y hall—the vocational stretch of shop, auto, and horticulture classes—I sat at the other end of the building, in art and English classes, plotting my escape. When Jacob graduated, he earned a two-year degree in turf management from State to work our land. I studied creative writing and dabbled in painting classes at a small private college, where I learned the word predestine traces its roots to Middle English: “to make firm beforehand.”
Jacob soon grew tired of sod farming—endless days of sitting on monster-sized mowers—and joined the army. I went south to explore life beyond our land but eventually took a steady job in the Honduran mountains, teaching.
Then we both came home.
At Christmas, I flew home from Honduras. Jacob returned from Afghanistan. At Grandma’s, Jacob said he wanted to show Josh and me something. We walked out to his truck, parked in Grandma’s yard, and he popped open the glove compartment. He pulled out his 9mm and quickly tightened a long suppressor onto the end.
“I just had it threaded last week; bought the suppressor today,” he said as we watched him spin it around and around until tight, looking like something James Bond might pull from his cummerbund. I wondered why he’d need a silencer to a pistol on our family land in the middle of empty Appalachia, but we admired it anyway and went back inside.
He didn’t need to shoot anyone during the election in Afghanistan. When I returned to Honduras a few weeks later, an eight-year-old boy was caught by a stray celebratory bullet that followed a raucous presidential campaign rally in town. He died immediately.
In the flatland along Clear Creek, Jacob stands the two-dimensional bust of a man at one end of the field, just in front of an irrigation ditch. 200 or more yards away, he lies flat, his gun propped on a stand, takes aim, and tightly punctures the paper about the forehead and mouth. The face lacks eyes or a nose but it’s lined with numbers, and I wonder if Jacob ever gives it life—if he imagines that face as one of the shifty, shapeless figures that crept along the creek banks of our youth.
By the barn, he has targets for all directions—hanging and nailed and leaning. These targets are recycled, reclaimed bits of the past: wheels from toys, a computer monitor, scraps of metal from retired farm equipment. When we were young, our family tossed broken and unused things like offerings into a hole in the earth. Occasionally, Uncle Tim would aim the tractor towards it all, and drop dirt from the backhoe onto this familial dump.
Now, two decades later, some of it reemerges like resilient weeds. Jacob lifts them up, attaches them to an eight-foot wooden frame, then stands back to shoot. The myriad copper and aluminum and plastic all swing from the beam like a giant mobile, pinging and cracking at the spray of bullets.
I can’t help but stop and stare when I amble past it. The thing is perfectly haphazard—the objects suspended at different heights and angles, sometimes swaying into one another like wind chimes. I have half a mind to somehow transport it to a modern art museum in some city far beyond these mountains and watch it fetch a large sum of money.
These days, Grandma calls Jacob The Twig Man, though he prefers The Branch Manager. He lives partially off a check from the army, but makes the rest of his money by pulling from the land. He walks the banks of the creek, collecting smooth stones to drop into jars; he gathers warped twigs, binding them into flowerless bouquets. He delivers these finds in the back of his truck to his partner, an apple farmer named Russ Lyda. Russ hauls them to the curb market, where tourists pay him in cash.
Last week, Jacob pulled a huge dead stump from the ground near the Cherokee grave. The roots of the stump are broken off at sharp points and shooting in all directions like wooden flames. He cleaned it up and gave it to Russ. They’re selling it for a few hundred dollars, and someone has already asked to rent it at an hourly fee for a wedding ceremony at a mountain resort. Russ says people can’t help but stop by to touch the thing as they’re milling about in the curb market in town, each taking a hold of a hunk of our wilderness.
Jacob and I were born three months apart. We’ve never been mistaken for one another—his sandy blond hair is curly and tight upon his head. Cornbread, they called him in high school. I was Shaggy. Even though I’ve now cropped my hair close to my head for my teacher life, it was long and, for a couple of years after studying in Costa Rica, wound in dreadlocks. But Jacob and I are the same height, built similarly. We carry the strong genes of my grandmother’s people in our noses and round faces. In a family portrait I found of our great-great grandfather’s clan in front of the old homeplace, I’m most taken with how timeless it seems. In their suits, our bald great grandfather and his brothers could be our fathers at another angle. They could soon be us.
If not for a patch of forest along the creek, I could see Jacob’s trailer from my house, though he’d have a much better view of my place with his scope aiming out the window. I moved into this house after leaving Honduras and started teaching at the community elementary school—the same school I attended as a boy, the same school where my grandma taught for 30 years. A few miles from the school stands the high school where Daddy taught.
All day, while I’m surrounded by wild children in a classroom, Jacob spends his time alone in the woods. When he’s not in the bottoms unloading ammo atop the sod, he harvests what he never planted. He reaps from the natural life of our land—the slow lapping of the creek, the twisting of decades-old trees. We’re all amazed at what tourists will buy, looking for a souvenir of mountain life. But I’m most struck by Jacob’s eye. He’s become a curator, a secret artist. He laughs more than anyone at what sells to passersby—those suckers, he says—and would never pick up a paintbrush or sketch the contours of a tree or stop to ponder a sculpture, but it’s obvious that somehow he knows. He knows what’s beautiful.
Since returning to this land, I’ve realized that either Jacob has changed or I don’t know him anymore. Maybe I never fully knew him. As a boy he frustrated easily, turned red-faced and forceful, couldn’t be trusted with a baseball bat, but these days, he’d rather keep his distance than crash into someone. He’s no longer the kid who grinned when learning how to paralyze a body. It’s hard to picture The Twig Man wanting to kick in a door and shoot someone in the face. Shooting, he told me recently, is his exercise. Some people go out and run or lift weights; he fills the air with the crack of a bullet—the shattering vibrations of metal stinging air. This is Jacob’s meditation: slowed breathing, focused attention, and release.
Granddaddy’s truck, tractor, and shed—all brown—are collapsing. They stand in the woods, near our paths and the Cherokee grave, and cast off their parts. The tractor is in two pieces, bisected at the engine and hanging by a chain. The shed’s roof runs diagonally into the ground, the wood splintering.
These days, when I cut through the woods to Grandma’s, I pick through cans of nails and wrinkled Farmer’s Almanacs and handsaws missing teeth in the shed, and I think about what Jacob might make out of the fragments in here, how he might arrange and revive them.
As he and I sink back in here after different lives abroad, shifting our shapes, becoming our fathers, I think about the inevitability of this land. Nothing is ever still. The creek has rearranged itself like a snake stretching in the sun; the lead chunks and faded bottles and dismembered GI Joes reach up through the soil; the rhododendron surrounding Grandma’s has closed in upon itself so that our former paths now appear as if cut by a dull knife. The lines between the manmade and natural are faint here. Granddaddy’s truck, our toy trucks, our trash—it all gets swallowed up or broken down or grown around. Everything moves together. Nothing goes away.
As I descend the hill and hear gun reports from somewhere in the bottoms, I run my fingers along the dusty outside of Granddaddy’s overgrown truck, leaving lines. Its windows were never rolled up, so leaves and pine needles now form the mossy bench seat. The tires are becoming spongy earth, seeping into the ground. There are days that I tramp past and notice dim handprints that aren’t mine streaking the sides of the dissolving machine. Someone else’s passing. Someone else’s traces. As I drift by, I stay my fingers, careful to leave the ghost prints intact as the truck falls to pieces and I’m pulled ever onward to Grandma’s rock house beyond the woods.