Finalist : Terrain.org 6th Annual Contest in Fiction

 

Three hours after receiving the call, Juniper locked up her condo in Seattle and began the long drive back to her childhood home in Montana. She hadn’t been to that ramshackle cabin in the middle of nowhere since she was 17, and she wouldn’t be going back now if she didn’t have to. She had spent the first half of her life running wild across that remote mountain valley, and she spent the second half trying to purge every embarrassing remnant of that backwoods existence from her life. But now death was finally dragging her home.

As Juniper drove through Washington and Idaho and western Montana, she was stunned by the number of sprawling communities and ugly strip malls that had sprung up along the highway where there used to be nothing but grass and trees. She found herself craning her neck, looking back, trying to remember what had been there before all of this.

But none of that prepared her for the shock when she finally drove into the Crazy Mountain Valley. At first she wasn’t even sure she was in the right place because everything looked so different. The grassy two-track had been widened and paved and was now lined with subdivisions and McMansions that made this valley, her valley, look like all the other developed valleys she had passed through on her drive out here. There was even actual traffic speeding up and down the road. Juniper tapped her brakes as she passed the junky trailer park spreading out across the lower grasslands where the pronghorns used to drop their fawns, and she slowed even more when she saw the massive Aspen Springs subdivision cluttering the sagebrush foothills where the elk used to graze in the bunchgrass all winter long. The hillsides were thick with knapweed and the mountain slopes were tinted with the rusty-brown hue of beetle-killed trees. The only familiar sight was Crazy Mountain rising above it all.

She hadn’t realized she had come to a stop in the middle of the road until the car behind her honked. Juniper was so flustered by that city sound out here in her rural homeland that she stepped on the gas and drove right past her parents’ turnoff. As she entered the forest above, she saw the immense angled roofs of the trophy homes in the Evergreen Estates. It took her a moment to realize that those imposing structures had been built in the same spot where she had once seen the ghostly image of a lynx standing still and silent in the snow. When she neared the end of the road and saw the gaudy entrance to the Crazy Mountain Wilderness Resort, with its oversized bronze grizzly rearing up on hind legs and waving its paw like a circus bear, she dropped her head to the steering wheel and let out a childish whimper. How could all this have happened in such a short period of time? It seemed impossible.

She turned the car around at the trailhead and drove back down the mountain. When she pulled into the aspen grove and the tangled branches closed in behind her, it seemed as if all the crazy things she had just seen had magically disappeared. She was back in the land of her childhood, and it was just as she remembered it. They hadn’t changed a thing.

Juniper looked at the small log cabin and the plywood outhouse crouching behind it, the weathered woodshed and the old International waiting to be fired up for one more run, the blackened burn barrel in the middle of the yard and the rain barrel tucked under the roof gutter. How many buckets of rainwater had she scooped out of that barrel for baths and coffee through the years? It was a chore she didn’t miss.

She glanced at the rusty metal pipe sticking out of the roof. Her parents always cleaned their chimney, every September and January. Always. So how could this have happened? How could the chimney have gotten so clogged that it snuffed the life out of them like two oldfangled candles whose light was no longer needed in this modern world? She imagined them waking in the night and gasping for air in the smoky cabin, her father rising to his feet and then collapsing beside the bed, his body landing with a final thud not unlike all the trees he had felled through the years.

The last time she had seen her parents they were standing outside as she drove off to start her new life in Seattle. When they reached their arms up in the sky to wave goodbye, they looked for all the world like two gnarled old scrub pines rooted in the ridge rock. But even then they must have sensed the solid earth crumbling beneath them; they must have felt their roots loosening. They must have known they were finally going to fall. The rampant development had bulldozed its way right up to the edge of their property, and there was nowhere left to retreat. They were surrounded on all sides—fenced in like the last wild creatures on earth. They must have hunkered down in this single sane spot in the growing madness.

 

Juniper heard the shifting gears of a vehicle as it turned into the aspen grove. A shiny black jeep barreled up the rutted dirt drive and skidded to a stop in front of the cabin. A man jumped out and said, “I’m so sorry about the accident. It’s terrible, just terrible.” He looked at the cabin with a practiced frown, and then he held out his hand and added, “Tony. Tony Bradley. You must be Juniper.”

“June.”

“I remember when you were just an itty-bitty thing. I sold your parents this property when you were still in your mama’s belly. I knew it was the perfect place for them. Sherry and Jim just thrived out here in the wilds of Montana.” He nodded as if he were acknowledging the heroics of their martyrdom. “You’re living in Seattle now, aren’t you? Wonderful city, Seattle. A little more civilized than out here on the homestead, wouldn’t you say?” His brow furrowed, and he seemed to be considering what to say next. “Your parents were tough people. True pioneers. They were the first ones to settle in this valley after Mrs. Sorenson died. They were really roughing it out here. But you don’t look like the type of person who’d want to live in such rustic conditions. They never even put in running water and power, did they?”

“Nope. I lived here 17 years, and that was more than enough of the rustic experience for me.”

“So I guess you’re going to sell the place now?”

“You bet I’m going to sell. It should have been sold a long time ago.”

“When it comes to selling land, I’m your man. I can sell this place quickly, and for top dollar. I sold this whole valley.”

“That’s not really a plus with me right now. It was such a shock to see how much everything has changed.”

“I know what you mean. But if I didn’t do it, somebody else would have. People were streaming into Montana like it was the gold rush. Mountain property is a hot commodity these days.”

“I suppose. It’s just weird to come back and see it like this. But it’s happening everywhere, so I guess I should have expected it.” She glanced at the cabin. “And I do want to sell. I definitely want to sell.”

“Great! Here’s my card. Why don’t you drop by my office when you’re ready.”

“I’m ready now.”

“Then drop by tomorrow, and we’ll get the ball rolling.”

Tony climbed back into his jeep and drove away. Juniper walked around the outside of the cabin, examining the familiar nicks and cracks in the roughhewn logs. Her parents had inhabited this cabin since before she was born. They thrived on their backbreaking work, as if collecting firewood were their one true calling in life. Through all those years, they never faltered. They clung to their warped idealism as if there were something saintly about a life of deprivation and hard labor, something sacred about the fact that they endured. Her parents had wasted their entire adult lives slaving away on that worthless piece of land, and now they were dead and gone and the outside world would soon rush in to fill the void.

Juniper hadn’t bothered to think about her past in a long time. But now that she was back home looking at all the landmarks of her youth, now that she was running her fingers over the rumpled skin of a nearby aspen and listening to the familiar chatter of the trickling creek, the memories came flooding back. Yes, she had once lived on this land. She had climbed in the tall fir trees like a squirrel, wriggled through the muddy creek like a frog, scampered through the thick grass like a fox.

Back then there had been no difference between the landscapes of her imagination and the forests and creeks she played in. Juniper had believed that the water and trees and stones were as alive and sentient as she was. She accepted the coyotes and owls as her true tribe. Of course wild spirits lived in the soft moss under the gnarled tree roots. Of course those small earthen holes led down to magical realms. Of course any rocky crag could rise up and walk away from the place where it had always been rooted, like some ancient stony creature rising from a long sleep. All of that was as real to her as the hawk circling overhead, the wind sifting through the wild rye, the ripe serviceberries that she stuffed into her mouth whenever she was hungry.

 

Their homestead was 40 miles from town, a small cabin surrounded by nothing but the wailing wind and drifting snow. The road was just two ruts their truck tires had carved into the land, and the grass and brush were forever trying to take back that plundered territory. She grew up pretty much alone out there, with her parents hard at work every day. One night when she was ten she heard an owl calling from the woods, and she leaned out her bedroom window and answered him, Who, who-who, whoo, whoo, perfect pitch on the first try. After a moment she heard the call coming back to her, and a dark shape drifted in and landed on a nearby aspen tree. It was an instant thrill, that solid contact with another world, and she was hooked.

Juniper had been home-schooled, but everything changed when she insisted on going to public school for seventh grade. From that point on her life was separated into two parts: Before Public School, when she ran around with mud between her toes and burdocks in her hair, and After Public School, when the scales fell from her eyes and she realized how truly uncivilized her parents’ way of life was.

On the first day of school one of her teachers asked everyone to tell the class something about themselves. When it was Juniper’s turn to talk, all she could think to do was to hoot like an owl, Who, who-who, whoo, whoo, and the whole class erupted in laughter. That laughter rang harsher and crueler than anything she had ever known—worse than the sound of a mountain lion cracking the bones of a deer, worse than the roar of two grizzlies meeting in battle—and she never wanted to hear it again. From that day forward she made a vow that, no matter what, she would learn how to be just like her classmates.

Juniper shortened her name to June. The renaming helped, but it was still a constant battle because everything about her parents’ way of life conspired against her goal of refinement. Her father drove to town in a mud-spattered truck with a jumble of junk sliding around in the bed. Her mother clomped around in heavy work boots and let her hair hang loose and long like Spanish moss. They both wore oil-stained coveralls three seasons out of the year. Juniper couldn’t forgive them for isolating her out in the wilderness, for depriving her of a normal childhood, for preparing her so poorly for the real world. “You should sell this place,” she told them over and over again, but they just smiled as if they were holding on to some secret that she was rapidly forgetting.

 

June walked the worn path to the outhouse. She heard the familiar creak of the hinges as she opened the door. When she sat on the splintered wooden seat, she had the weird sensation that she was that little girl Juniper again, rough and uncivilized. She was surprised how natural it felt after all these years, like a snake crawling back into its long-shed skin. She pried the top off the tin can that held the toilet paper, and she glanced at the wasp’s nest that her parents had never removed from the open rafters. “Don’t bother them,” her father had told her, “and they won’t bother you.” On that one small thing he had been right.

The outhouse door banged shut behind her, just as it always had. When June came around the corner of the cabin, she saw a young woman pedaling a bicycle up the drive. The woman leaned her bike against the side of the cabin with an odd familiarity.

“Hello. Are you Sherry and Jim’s daughter?”

June nodded, shocked by the stranger’s casual use of her parents’ names.

“I’m really sorry for your loss. Your parents were such great people. They talked about you all the time. They were so proud of you—the bigshot banker in Seattle.” The girl smiled.

“And who are you?”

“I’m Allison. I was good friends with your parents, ever since they caught me trespassing up here when I was a kid. I mean, I wasn’t really trespassing because I didn’t know anyone lived here. I was just out searching for dragonfly larva in the creek. But they were really nice about it. I came back a lot after that, because this is the coolest place in the whole valley. You’re so lucky to have grown up here.”

“I guess that’s a matter of opinion,” June said. She looked at the girl’s bright green eyes and bouncy red ponytail, unable to believe that her parents had anything to do with this perky young woman. “You say you were my parents’ friend? I didn’t think they had any friends. They were so antisocial, living like hermits way out here so far from everybody.”

“Well, they were awfully friendly for being antisocial. They were about the friendliest people I ever met. Your mom always made tea for me whenever I happened by. She had that cute little blue tea set, the one with the dragons on it. Remember that?”

June nodded, not wanting to admit that she knew nothing of the little blue tea set. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know they were good people. It’s just that they were such recluses.”

“I don’t know if recluse is the right word. They lived out here because they loved the land. I can certainly understand that.”

“I know,” June said. And she did know because she had once loved this land, too, but there was no way she could live here anymore. “It might look like a fun way to live, but everything’s different when you’re a kid stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

“I would give anything to have grown up in this cabin. And I would love to have had your parents. They were the coolest people I’ve ever met. I’m really going to miss them.”

“Yeah, me too,” June said, her lips forming the first sincere smile in years. “Thanks.”

“Are you going to have a funeral?”

“I think I’m just going to spread their ashes up on the ridge. That’s how they would have wanted it. You’re welcome to come along if you want.”

“I would definitely like that.”

After Allison pedaled away, June walked through the aspens to the creek and plunged her hands into the cool mountain water. There were so many things that a person like Allison would never understand, so many things that nobody would ever understand. All the painful embarrassments that came with being her parents’ daughter. Even as a child, Juniper knew they lived a hardscrabble life that was nothing like the kind of life she wanted to live. Her parents were always working, but never reaping any tangible benefits from their labors, always struggling, but never really getting anywhere. All of their efforts just kept them going for one more day, but for some inexplicable reason that seemed to be enough for them. And for some even more baffling reason, they seemed to think it should be enough for June.

On the day she turned 16, her mother had the nerve to suggest the unforgivable. “You know, Juniper, you can make a pretty good living selling firewood if you’re willing to work hard.” Her father nodded earnestly and added, “Yep,” as if they were passing along some valuable wisdom that she would be foolish to ignore.

June scowled at their low ambitions for her. “You’re kidding, right?” she said with a shrillness she had never used with her parents before, and then she walked away as if they were no longer worth wasting a minute of her time on. That life might be good enough for them, but she knew she could do better, and she thought they should have had enough sense to realize that, too. But she wasn’t going to let their stupidity ruin her life. They could live their dreary little existence if that’s what they wanted, but they weren’t going to drag her down with them.

When she left the creek and walked back through the woods, a hawthorn branch caught on her sleeve, ripping the sheer lavender fabric. She had forgotten that you couldn’t even wear normal clothes around here.

 

She climbed the weathered porch steps and opened the cabin door. Everything was the same in that sparse interior—it was frozen in time like a musty museum diorama. Her eyes moved across the room: the kerosene lamp on the worn wooden table, the pile of firewood near the warped iron stove, the metal tub they used for rainwater baths and laundry, the broken freezer her father had hauled over from the junkyard to use as an ice box—all reminders of how bleak her life had been in that tiny cabin. It was amazing she ever managed to escape its stifling grip.

But she did break free. After she graduated from high school, she moved to Seattle and found a job as a teller at the Security Bank of Seattle. She was quickly promoted to loan officer, then manager, and it was entirely possible she’d be vice president after Mr. Farley retired.

She loved her job. She could dress up every day in stockings and heels, and she could interact with people who had never once walked to the outhouse in the middle of a blizzardy night, never once eaten tangy bear meat or marmot stew, never once been stupid enough to hoot like an owl in front of a room full of people. She bought her own sleek silver car, then a beautiful downtown condo, and she stacked up her own set of loans and retirement investments. She had molded herself so perfectly into her new role that no one would ever guess her background as a wild child.

 

Seeing the cabin again, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for her parents. Even though they worked long hours every day of their lives, they had nothing to show for it—nothing but their worthless land. They hung onto that property as if it were a secret goldmine; they whittled their lives down to just that one small place; they wouldn’t give it up, even though it had taken everything they had to give; and now it had survived them. But June had no such qualms. She was more than ready to get rid of the old homestead.

It was a good time to sell, since town had been edging out this way for years. The land was worth more now than it had ever been, not as a rustic homestead, but as a subdivision, a place where normal houses could be built for normal people to live out their normal lives. Since it was free and clear of loans, the property would turn a profit for a change. Even though she was doing well, the money would add a final cushion to ensure that she would never have to return to the squalor of her early life.

June lifted her mother’s flannel shirt from the hook near the door and slipped it over her ripped blouse. The scent of sap and chainsaw mix carried her back to the warm nest of her mother’s arms. She brushed the tears from her cheek and returned the shirt to the hook, running her dampened fingers down the arm and then holding the cuff as if it were her mother’s hand.

June glanced out the window and saw a middle-aged woman with straggly hair walking up the drive. The duct tape on her ripped jacket and the oil stains on her worn jeans made her look like one of the street bums of Seattle. For a moment it crossed June’s mind that the woman might have seen the death notice in the paper and was there to rob the place. She had her cell phone out by the time the woman knocked on the door.

“Who is it?”

There was a long pause and then a gruff voice said, “Kate. I was a friend of Sherry and Jim’s.”

More friends of her parents? Who were all of these people turning up on the doorstep claiming to be friends with her mother and father? June opened the door a crack, but she kept her foot against the bottom so she could kick it shut if she had to.

June stared into the woman’s stony black eyes. “Yes? What do you want?”

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry about their death.”

“How did you know my parents?”

“I’ve known them for years. They used to let me crash here sometimes in the winter.”

“You stayed here? This isn’t exactly the Hilton.”

“It was back when I was going through a pretty rough time in my life. I was sleeping behind the Pump Pit during one of the worst winters on record, and Sherry offered to leave their door unlocked so I could sleep on their couch. I remember the first night I stayed there your mother served up moose meatloaf and huckleberry pie. It was the best meal I ever had.”

“Yeah, I loved her huckleberry pie. I always used to complain when we had moose meatloaf for dinner, but I’d give anything for one of my mom’s meals now.”

“I know what you mean. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was sleeping with a full belly under a warm blanket on their couch. I guess they were kind of the family I never had.”

June realized that her mouth was hanging open, and she pulled her lips together into a polite smile. “Well, I’m glad they could be of service to you.”

“It was more than just that. This place was like a haven for me, a refuge from all the chaos in my life. I was going through a lot back then, and it felt like nothing bad could ever happen here. And your parents were so… real. They knew how to be kind, but not condescending. They knew how to be helpful without making you feel like a one-eyed, three-legged dog. It was so easy being with them. They didn’t judge me like everyone else. They just accepted me for who I was, and that made all the difference. I don’t think I could have survived without them.”

June’s foot relaxed and she opened the door a little more. “I think I remember you. Did you used to have a big red motorcycle?” Kate nodded. “I used to watch you racing up and down Crazy Mountain Road when I was little. I thought you were so cool on that big motorcycle. It made me want to be a biker for about a week, until I came to my senses.” June looked at the aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze. “I’m still a little shocked that my parents are gone. It seems so sudden.”

“I know what you mean,” Kate said. “It’s always hardest for those who are left behind. And it stays with you forever.”

They looked at each other for a long moment, and June felt the sensation of something warm passing between them, like a physical object.

“I’m going to miss them,” Kate said. “They were such a major part of my life, and now they’re gone forever. It’ll never be the same.”

“No, it’ll never be the same,” Juniper said, and the second genuine smile of the day crossed her lips.

 

After Kate left, June climbed the nearby ridge. It was a place she had been many times before, but this time she moved slowly, knowing it would be her last. She ran her fingers across the claw marks on a nearby aspen trunk and she listened to the chickadees twittering and fluttering like tiny angels in the pale branches. Everything opened up the higher she climbed, as if she was being handed the gift of that view to soothe her sorrow.

Allison and Kate were right, of course. This place was special. Her parents had always known it, and June had known it once, too, but she had forgotten. Or more accurately she had buried that knowledge; she had willingly severed her attachment to this place. Only now did she realize that she had lost a huge part of herself in the process.

For a moment she thought about moving back to the cabin, but she knew there was no way she could live here anymore. Everything had changed. She had traveled too far and been gone too long and there was no way back to the place that she remembered.

June pulled out Tony’s business card. When he answered the phone she said, “I’ve been thinking about the property. This is kind of the last untouched place in this valley.”

“I know. That’s why it’s worth a lot.”

“Well, I was thinking about what my parents would have wanted. I was thinking I should put conservation easements on the land, so it can stay the way it is.”

“If they wanted conservation easements, they would have put them on when they were alive.” His words tumbled out fast and shrill as if she had insulted him.

“No, they wouldn’t have. Because of me.”

“You really don’t want to do that, Juniper. Conservation easements will devalue the property and you’ll lose a lot of money. You need to think about this before you rush into it.”

“I’m not asking you, Tony. I’m telling you. I’ve already made my decision.”

Tony laughed. “Well if you put it that way, then we’ll just have to find a buyer who wants that sort of thing. There are a few of them out there, it just might take a little longer.”

“That’s okay. I’m not in any hurry.”

June spent the night in her old bedroom. Even though it was a windless night, she had a nightmare that tar paper was flapping loose on the side of the shed. When she went outside to fasten it down, her father’s rotting body was wrapped up under the tar paper, nailed to the side of the shed. She looked over and saw her mother lying in the mud with crows crawling all over her, pecking at her eyes and pulling at her tangled hair. But the really odd thing was that they were both smiling.

After waking, June climbed out of bed and walked to the window. She heard the distant bark of a dog and music blaring from a vehicle driving up the road. She could see a glow over the Aspen Springs subdivision, and an even bigger glare towards Granite. When she was young she used to stand outside and gaze up at the thick soup of stars, the Milky Way as much a part of her life as the grassy slopes beneath her feet. Now only the moon and a few bold stars broke through the bright haze of lights from the developments.

On a sudden whim June leaned out the window and called to the owls, Who, who-who, whoo, whoo, just as if she were ten years old again. She waited with that old longing, but there was no response. She didn’t know why that stillness made her feel so sad, or why her losses grew heavier in the lengthening silence. June leaned far over the sill and called again, but something in the tone of her voice and the rhythm of the call was not quite right, and she found herself straining to hear an answer that never came. She knew it would never come again. Somewhere along the way, she had lost the language of owls.

 

 

Elise Atchison lives in a cabin on the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. Her work has appeared in Montana Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Silk Road Review, An Elk River Books Reader, Cutthroat Journal, Reflections West Radio, and elsewhere, and she received an artist grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for her novel-in-progress. Catch up with her at www.eliseatchison.com.

Image of owl in forest at night by Ricardo Reitmeyer, courtesy Shutterstock.

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