We all waited, I think. I don’t believe anyone rose immediately. And this was because the dead man was capable of anything. If he had fallen, who knew what he might do next? He had no insides, no center, so the heavy sound of that thump, the enormous weight of it, had to be his invention. His head no longer pinned against his chest, his limbs free to move, his head back laughing and he could be up and dancing any moment. He had no blood and so he followed no rules.
I opened my eyes half-believing I’d find his face above me, his breath that would hold no air and eyes that would fall inward and keep falling, that look on his face of wanting more.
Like Jesus from the grave, able to claim anything afterward and who would dare not believe? The only trick that matters, cheating death, because death is the only true god.
I opened my eyes half-believing I’d find his face above me, his breath that would hold no air and eyes that would fall inward and keep falling, that look on his face of wanting more. But there was only sky above, and all those needles of the pines bunched and etched and at no distance that could be known, moving closer or farther at will.
I sat up and peered over the fallen tree that protected me, and no one had risen. The camp empty, no sound of another being, sound only of that water that would never cease.
The mountain rupturing everywhere around us but making no sound. A cataclysm held back by holding my breath. And this was what death would be like, I knew. My dreams of pressure and panic were dreams of death. Forever held at the moment when all was about to rupture. The body fallen, the dead man’s or our own, and the impact of that shock driven through the center, but for one moment all still holds and it’s the middle of a bright day, a time meant to be safe, only this premonition inside, these two feelings at once, of being crushed and also of being pulled into vastness.
Each of us afraid to move. But my grandfather a force of his own, heavy sounds of rocking himself upward off that mattress, and then the vision of him standing in the trees, naked from the waist up, looking toward the body, ready for whatever might be. He and the dead man brought together here for battle, because my grandfather was close enough to being death itself, formless and without feeling, a weight that might fall in any direction, and always this, unchanging, only waiting.
The dead man had every advantage, though, in waiting. He lay on the ground in his sack and didn’t move.
I couldn’t remember seeing my grandfather’s naked back ever before, not even once. Blotchy red and white expanse, living flesh and blood, as featureless as his face, in shifting folds and creases, armored in fat. He stepped forward toward the body and the dead man did nothing.
The dead man’s boots were still hanging in chains from that meat hook.
My father rose also and walked slowly through the trees toward the sack, his hands at his sides in fists. My father become desperate, mouth open and grim, ready for anything. And then Tom, and then me, all four of us advancing on the dead man, who coiled inside that sack, hidden, and I held my rifle ready and so did Tom. The men advancing until they were within the length of a body and then they could go no closer, and I was farther out still, walking across that unsteady earth until I stood behind them.
The dead man’s boots were still hanging in chains from that meat hook. Yellow-brown work boots with their soles to the sky, hanging down perfectly in unison as if they still held him, and who could say they didn’t still hold something? I was creeped out enough to believe anything. The dead man below in his sack with his face and intentions hidden and only his socks and shins visible to us. White shin meat and bone.
Well we can’t leave him like that, Tom said.
No shit, my father said.
I’m not touching him, Tom said.
Another piece of fucking news, my father said.
My grandfather rolled his neck, eyes closed, rocked his head side to side, like a boxer warming up. Here, he said. Here we are.
You’re not up to the test, my grandfather said. You think everything has funneled down to this, but in fact everything has become possible.
What the fuck does that mean?
You’re standing here at a moment when you could be anything.
Yeah, you’re right. This is freedom. A real gift.
It is, actually. You just don’t see it. This dead body doesn’t matter.
My grandfather stepped forward then and reached down for the dead man’s ankles and picked him up, free of the sack, that white belly gone dark, a stiffness to his arms and legs.
Don’t touch him, my father said.
Tom was backing away with his rifle held before him, and I was doing the same. The dead man a darkened ghost, his head kinked, hands tied between his legs, looking at us from the tops of his eyes, vacant holes. My grandfather turning and swinging the body, turning like a shot putter, spinning, pulling that body in an arc and the dead man patient, holding on for the ride, his head and shoulders lifting higher above ground, levitating, and my grandfather at the center, this mound of living flesh. A hub of blood and the dead man become a putrid spoke and this wheel turned and my father backed away but not fast enough and my grandfather flung the body at my father.
My father screamed.
The dead man lofted for a moment, an easy lift to his shoulders and his mouth open in pleasure as he sailed through warm summer air, the center of him still missing but that bullet hole became a second birth and this his childhood, playing on a summer day, flung outward in pleasure but my father shrinking, caving backward, turning and his hands coming up to fend off, but the dead man collided with him, chest to chest, rolling up close to my father in an embrace, and the two of them falling back in a moment suspended forever in my mind, finally hitting ground and both shaken at impact.
My father screamed. Not something I’d ever heard from him before, but as he lay there on his back in the dirt, the rotting body on top of him, this was too much. He arched up on his neck and turned and threw that body off him and rolled back fast away and was on his feet.
My father and grandfather with their arms curved out from their sides like wings, both ready, and I realized my rifle held low was pointing at my father, and Tom’s too. I had no idea what would happen next. Anything seemed possible.
My grandfather a mountain and without age. My father would have no chance against him, but they circled closer, arms out and ready, and my father had become desperate. His mouth contorted as if he were still screaming but no sound came out. His teeth showing as if he would snap and bite at my grandfather.
There are only two choices, my grandfather said as he circled, his voice calm, no fear at all. His knees were not bent. His legs like pencils beneath that bulk, stiff and ready to snap. He could seem fragile at times, always changing shape. You can honor the man who has been killed. You can say his death meant something, in which case we have to punish your son. I’ll help you put him in the sack right now, and we can do whatever we need to do, beat him or burn him or shoot him and bury him, whatever we need to do to make it right and stop him. That’s one choice.
My father was beyond hearing. He was ready to lunge, waiting for an opening, an opportunity, circling in the pine needles near the hooks. The dead man behind me watching also. He could rise and join at any moment.
Or we can decide the man your son has shot is nothing. He was a poacher, he was breaking the law, but he doesn’t matter and the law doesn’t matter. We put ourselves first. The clan. We make our own rules. So we take his body and throw it out in the brush and don’t even bury it. We forget about him.
My father had circled all the way around to the dead man again, and he looked down at that body, and that’s when my grandfather charged. There was no sound, no warning. Only this frightening bulk moving fast and he just ran over my father. No hard impact, only a slap against that bare skin and my father curled like a child at his father’s naked breast, folded against him and then fell backward onto the dead man, a second horrifying embrace, and he rolled clear and kneeled down with his palms flat on the ground in prostration. He caved forward and put his head to the ground between his palms.
You won’t take any responsibility. You won’t do what you need to do, because you’re weak.
My grandfather hadn’t even used his arms, hadn’t swung at my father, had only run over him. And he returned now for the dead man and grabbed one wrist. You won’t take any responsibility. You won’t do what you need to do, because you’re weak. So you’ve made your decision, and this man’s death means nothing.
He walked then toward the creek, dragging the body behind him. He passed beneath the log hung with hooks and chains and the empty pair of boots, and the dead man looked like a naughty child being dragged off to bed. His chin was stuck against his chest, frozen forever there, and so he looked penitent. He knew what he had done, and he understood being dragged away now.
My grandfather’s feet in only socks, no boots or moccasins, slopping into water and sand and rock with no care or hesitation, ripping through ferns, the dead man yanked and shaken and soaked and torn. The ferns lush, deep green and unlikely, unchanged for a hundred million years, and the dead man now like how many generations before him, dragged away, and my grandfather as terrifying as any beast the world had ever seen.
Then through pines and into sunlight, the meadow, dry yellow grass and shimmers of heat, a different world entirely, my grandfather luminous, a second sun brought close. All distance collapsed, each world brought next to every other and no gate at the boundary. My grandfather’s legs hidden by the high grass and so he seemed an orb that glided across that field, disconnected to the ground. The dead man leaving a wake of darker yellow, dull and not catching the light, a hollow that would not fill, and he gazed into this wake, would not lift his eyes to the sky, kept his chin pressed tight, intent.
This meadow the place of all my childhood play, close to camp, a small and nearly perfect meadow that should not have been used for this. This one transit erasing all others, polluting memory. But my grandfather did not pause. Swept along unstoppable until the dead man had left his wake and disappeared into brush. We had lost them. Too far away for sound. Tom and I had not moved. We stood with our rifles and watched the far rim of that meadow. My father on the ground in prostration, and no sound from him either.
We waited and the entire mountain seemed to wait with us, all oriented toward where my grandfather had gone down over the horizon and waiting for his return, same as any sun but the night sped up and no darkness, no rest or new beginning, day after burning day without end, and he reappeared above those grasses and left no mark as he advanced upon us, an orbit that could not be changed, and nothing that had ever happened had left any effect on him.
He crossed the meadow and grew in size and crossed the threshold into pines, in shadow, extinguished, and crushed through ferns and the boundary of the stream back into our world, and he did not stop or notice us with our rifles held low and level, pointing at him, but walked right between Tom and me. If we fired now, and the bullets found some way of passing through him, we’d be shooting each other. But he did not look at either of us, the tremendous weight of him set in motion with his pencil legs unsteady and erratic until he reached his mattress, where he collapsed upon it face first with his arms at his sides and legs flipping up behind. The sound of rusty mattress springs, coils jounced, and that was it. He did not adjust or move except to breathe, the rough rise and fall of mottled flesh and those tiny lungs buried somewhere beneath.
My father rose behind us with a low moan and Tom and I swiveled in unison with our rifles, guards at some gate that had not yet been built. But my father had no interest in us. His eyes were fixed on the far edge of the meadow, and he passed beneath the hooks and over the water and through fern and pine and into that bright grass following in the dead man’s wake. A figure clothed and thinner than my grandfather, a figure with legs and a stride and a human form, having to walk across the earth and suffer. A figure on which all that had happened had left a mark.
He passed step by step across that meadow beneath the sun and grew shorter at the far end as the land curved down and then was swallowed in brush. We waited, as we had waited before, but the mountain did not wait with us. It was indifferent, my father no devil or god but only human. His return over the horizon would mean nothing.
But we waited, and my grandfather settled into sleep behind us, his breath slowed and deepened and a faint whistling all through him. A giant at rest, and it was unclear who we stood guard for. Tom wearing a camo T-shirt, dark patches of green and brown and black, and his rifle held together with tape, ill-prepared for some war not yet announced. Both of us ready to fire from the hip, not raising our rifles because it was unclear where we’d aim. As if some enormity were about to descend upon us.
The dead man’s bare ankles sweeping downward a bit in the current, at play again on a summer day, going down to the creek to cool off, a strange dead man who still had not discovered the gravity of what had happened to him.
But my father reappeared, a shape become smaller and bent, dragging the dead man, stepping backward across the meadow. Not following the previous wake but wandering aimless through that high grass, not bothering to look behind, only dragging. His path erratic and jointed, my father pulling in tugs, and the meadow became a larger distance to cross and it seemed too long for him to reach the pines, finally, and then drag through ferns and into the creek. The dead man’s bare ankles sweeping downward a bit in the current, at play again on a summer day, going down to the creek to cool off, a strange dead man who still had not discovered the gravity of what had happened to him.
My father pulled until the dead man lay beneath the hooks, and he dropped him with his arms flung above, relaxing, not a care in the world. I wasn’t sure when that rope that bound his hands had been lost, but he was a tricky dead man and took advantage any time we looked away.
My father loosened a rope that held a chain and hook, let them fall to the ground, and then he kneeled at the man’s feet as if he’d wash them, bare feet bloodless and white, not turned dark like the rest of him, but my father took that hook and impaled an ankle, hooking the Achilles tendon, just as he did to hang a buck, and the hook went in bloodless and he impaled the other ankle also and let them fall into the dirt.
Then my father rose and pulled at that rope and wrapped it around a tree to the side and pulled and sweated the line and the dead man rose again as he had before but this time with his ankles skewered the same as any buck and his arms back in praise but his chin ducked, penitent, not so wild now, understanding something of his fate, perhaps. That dark thin belly and the double birth, and as he rose, he swung and we saw that crater again, dark and unknown as any moon, and the flies gathering again, and it seemed that we had stood here before in this same moment and would stand here again and would always be raising the dead man to hang here above us.
David Vann’s new novel, Goat Mountain, will be out on September 10th from HarperCollins. Published in nineteen languages, his internationally-bestselling books (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt, Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, and A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea) have won fifteen prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and appeared on seventy Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. A former Guggenheim fellow, NEA fellow, and Stegner fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England.