Click … Click

Picture Credits: William Sturgell

He came to the
abandoned farmhouse to burn it down. He would wait until dark, and then burn it
down. He had lived there with his mother and father until he was eight years
old. Then his mother and father were gone. The house had been empty since, the
windows and doors black holes, the sagging roof barren of shakes, the
foundation cracked. The isolated yard, surrounded by rolling hills of short-grass
cattle pastures and wheat fields, was only approachable now down a grown-over
trail.

He passed worn-out-looking
farm and ranch towns, their scraggly trees bare in the fall. The buckskin-coloured
hills went on to the horizon, black cattle spotted over them. Undulating
harvested grain fields came to the edges of the fenced cattle pastures. He slowed
as he neared a gravel road going off into the grassland hills. Somehow, he remembered
the turn. He was seventeen, and he was going to visit his mother’s grave. And
burn down the house they used to live in with his father.

The dirt road
passed a lone ranch yard, cattle corrals and hay piles. He picked up speed,
raising a cloud of dust. Once into the grassland hills he slowed. At the
heights he pulled over and stopped. His aunt had brought him here once, when he
was ten years old. They stopped on this hilltop, on their way to the cemetery. They
got out of her car. “These are the Great Sandhills,” she said, looking west. “They’re
full of wildlife. Your grandfather used to hunt here.” They looked out over the
rough, ragged expanse of sage-spattered grassy dunes and chokecherry ridges
running to the horizon. Aspen bluffs in bright fall colours and green juniper
grew in the cups of the dunes. The sky was dark and heavy with high clouds. The
cold wind watered the boy’s eyes. He smelled the sage and grass. Small birds
flitted in the gnarled blue-green sage and leafless brush. They drove on, to
the cemetery.

Now, he drove until
the road began to peter out. At a turn he kept going, slowly, onto a bumpy
over-grown trail. He came to a large square of bare caraganas that he thought
he remembered. They were growing through a sagging barbwire fence, set well out
in a hilly pasture. The trail passed through a leaning black-iron gate. The
young man drove into the grass field, scattered with tilted headstones, and
stopped. The cemetery looked abandoned.

The visit here
with his aunt seemed so long ago. “Do you remember your mom?” she had asked
him, standing close to him.

He nodded.

“Do you miss
her?”

He only nodded
again.

“Me too.” She wiped
tears from her cheeks.

They knelt together
and placed flowers. The wind blew the petals. His aunt held him, and they both
cried in the cold wind. They did not drive by the farmhouse, where he used to
live with his mother and father.

The teen got out
of his old car, with flowers, and walked though the pale uncut grass. Her ashes
were buried near the back row. Her flat stone was almost covered by bent grass,
and its surface was lightly patterned with lichen. He read his mother’s name.
She had liked flowers, he knew. He knelt and placed the bouquet on her marker.
He stood for a time, in the wind that always blew here—then turned and left.

Miles along the
road from the cemetery he drove slowly down a long, rough trail, toward a lone,
two-story house on the horizon. A row of bare caraganas lined the edge of the
yard. Rusting, abandoned farm equipment sat scattered in the grass, and leaning,
grey corral posts stuck up near where the barn had been. The barn was collapsed
now, a pile of dark wood. He pulled over and stopped. The pale grass wavered in
the wind around the old house that was brown and badly weathered. He was
trespassing. His aunt, who had inherited the land, sold it after his mom’s
death. No one lived within many miles.

He always remembered springtime on the prairie: cranes and geese returning very high in the blue sky after the long winter, a meadowlark on a grey fencepost, grass in the cattle pastures turning green, crocuses blooming, a 1954 International Harvester pickup his father drove. His father’s dirty grey Fedora with the brim turned up at the back and worn leather bomber jacket. His sharp nose and chin under the shadow of the hat in the spring sun. His mother smelling faintly of a perfume that he never smelled again. She was so slim and beautiful, with her long, thick black hair. Her deep-blue eyes, soft features, and small white hands. She never put him to bed without singing to him, touching his skin with her gentle hands, until he was asleep.

He remembered
the hard-packed dirt surrounding the house. The heavy wooden door scarred by
weather. The landing broken, the steps worn to smooth troughs. The kitchen
linoleum through to the wood. A white, often-stained porcelain sink on a
pedestal in a small kitchen-pantry. No running water in the old house. Speckles
of dust floating in sunlight in the bright kitchen. A tall brass-stemmed
ashtray in the living room. A flower-patterned couch. The wine-red armchair
near a window. The smell of dust and polish. The dark wood banisters leading
upstairs to his bedroom. Wooden windowsills cracked and dusty. Dusty doily curtains
that felt like his mother’s nylons.

He looked out
his bedroom window that early morning, a thin line of bright sunrise cutting the
prairie horizon. There were storm clouds in the distance, coming silently,
slowly closer. He snuck downstairs. The house empty and cold, cold spring air;
the door to the yard swung open. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled
beer. Empty bottles. Butts with red lipstick on them in ashtrays. Then he heard
voices outside. Yelling. His father yelling, screaming loudly in the dull dawn
light. Then the sharp, loud, BANG.

The young man
walked slowly now through the dry yard grass. Beyond the house was the ragged
row of bare caraganas, the wind-tilted corral posts, and scattered pieces of
rusting equipment. Ripe crested wheatgrass wavered in the wind. He remembered lying
in bed at night, freight trains passing on the prairie, rumbling, clacking,
echoing in the distance. The train tracks were abandoned too long ago.

He kicked at
the dusty grass. This patch of ground, once his mother’s garden and flowerbeds,
had long ago grown over. He remembered black crickets crawling from cracks in
the earth, baked dry and hard by summer heat, golden wheat fields moving in
waves in the hot wind, a rustling sound. The crickets clattering. His mother,
in her breeze-billowed floral skirt, and her worn shoes, a tied kerchief over
her hair, hand-hauling cistern water in an old grease pail. She somehow made
their garden green, the barren yard almost pretty. His father whistling, “Till
We Meet Again,” his sun-browned face as dark as polished wood, his chiseled
nose and chin.

Crows in flocks
in the fall. Hovering over and feeding in the harvested grain fields. A large
flock silently appeared, swooping over and above him on the pasture hill where
he went as a boy, away from the house. The black birds rose higher, intermittently
flapping, an almost indiscernible whish of wings, then gliding, with scattered
cackling and caws. Another large flock, slowly rising too, as if on the wind.
Then another, the birds floating black in the breeze like pieces of burnt paper.
Flock after flock swooping above and beyond the hill, and higher into the
achingly blue, numinous sky, flying slowly, relentlessly southward. He watched
them, the smell of ripe grass, the fall sun warm, the warmth soaking into him, warming
the earth, warming him. Eventually, reluctantly, he walked home to the old
house, and his mother, and father.

The young man
removed a can of gas and a propane torch from the trunk of his beat-up car.

He remembered some
kind of party or anniversary that night. His mother and auntie on the couch,
tight skirts, legs crossed, nylons, high-heeled shoes, red lipstick, their
thick, wavy dark hair, smoking cigarettes, smoke curling through lamplight. His
father’s cruel smile. “To bed, to bed,” his aunt told him. His aunt tucking him
in that night, not his mother. Noises downstairs as he tried to sleep. Loud
voices and laughter. Bottles tinkling, until he fell asleep.

From the
worn-out step of the dilapidated house, standing shirtless, wearing his
manure-stained boots his father often shot at foxes and coyotes, and an empty
green antifreeze can. He was shirtless that morning too, wearing those worn-out
boots. His father shot his mother in her head, near the unpainted barn. Out on
that small farm, where they lived, isolated from everything.

The tilted
grass there was copper-coloured from frost. The approaching storm clouds made
it seem dusk. Then the sharp, loud, BANG.
Then his father was in the house, in front of him in the kitchen, his face
disfigured and dark, wild-eyed. His father raising his arm with the big black
gun in his hand, pointing it directly into his face. His father pulling the
trigger: click. Flinching, he put his
hand up in front of his closed eyes. Opening them, his father still there,
pointing the gun at his face, pulling the trigger again: click. His father yelled, “Fuck it!” and put the gun to his own
temple: click. His father’s arm
falling. His father turning away from him, his thumping boots out the open
door. The roar of his truck leaving the yard.

He remembered
going out that open door. The morning turning darker, not lighter, the thunderstorm
coming. He ran across the yard to the edge of the pasture. Crawled under the
barbwire fence. Ran toward the barn. A flicker of lightening on the darkening
horizon. The wind blowing now. He saw white, billowing in the grass. Her white
dress. The distant thunder came closer and closer.

He would only say
that he remembered his aunt finding him in his upstairs bedroom looking out the
window. And he remembered the smell of the rain-soaked windowsill dust. In the
yard there were black and white cars, and men wandering through puddles of
rainwater. The birds sang and the air was still now. “She died instantly,” he
heard them say, as if it were a consolation. Her blood in the grass like
afterbirth from the cows calving in spring.

The farmhouse abandoned.
Tattered curtains in an open window, luminous, billowing in the grass-smelling
breeze.

When he was
fifteen he was told his father was released from prison. Blind drunk had been his defense, according to a newspaper clipping
his aunt kept hidden in a bedroom drawer. The original charge of second-degree
murder was changed prior to his guilty plea of manslaughter.

A great horned
owl swept silently over the caraganas. A Hungarian partridge’s creaky call came
from the fields. The young man calmly stepped back, the house barely visible
now, the sun having fully fallen. The can of gas sat on the ground. He held the
propane torch. Nearly dark, only a strip of sunset.

He splashed
gasoline on the beautiful golden walls of weather-worn shake siding. He walked
the perimeter of the house, lighting the tall dry grass next to the cracked
foundation. It did not take long. The flames swept up the walls, higher, increasing
waves, creating a whirlwind that moved his hair. He felt the heat, the flames
intensifying, brighter and faster and crackling. The smoke rose, grey and white,
and then black.

He stood well
back. The flames lit the old farmyard. A tall burling flame was all he saw now,
orange, yellow, and white and high, and the black silhouette of the house—until
it collapsed, throwing up swirling clouds of starry sparks. The grass was on
fire, but it did not spread. The flames dwindled. Darkness returned, some stars
out now. Only glowing embers and small flickering flames where their house used
to be.