Large trees along river with dark clouds


By Alan Sincic 12th Annual Contest in Fiction Finalist

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“I been meaning to tell you. I got plans for us. Big plans.”

On the mend. It don’t amount to much, from overhead, coming in out the clouds, nothing really, the sight of a tent up in the arms of a tree, and nothing but air beneath it—satchel of canvas surfing the swell—but you’d be mistaken. Come take a look. On the plank in the crown of the cypress, under the tarp that splits the wind and parries the sun, lies a man all beat to hell. Beat but on the mend. Green again. Grateful, and like any other man who ever lived, a cosmos in the making. So it seemed to GB. Awake or asleep, ragged or spruce, horny or hale or all beat to hell and back again, it don’t matter he figured, it’s all the same: every day you wake, and poke your nose up out the bedcovers, and discover you ain’t dead yet, that day’s the day God said Let there be light. The first day of creation.

The boy waited, then spoke. “I can get Maggie to bring—”

“You don’t tell Maggie nothing. Don’t even tell her you seen me.”

“She gonna come looking. She knows about the tree-fort.”

“Tell her you seen me at the depot. Tell her you seen me—” Barnett pictured himself at the depot, attaché in hand, the brim of the fedora bent to match the curve of the earth. Watched himself whip out a cigar, finger the fob of the pocket watch, the—what do they call it?—fret at the neck of the fiddle.

“Tell her I was boarding the train. North. Not the local. No. Savannah maybe.”


“You decide.”

The boy was a wonder. Whatever you tell him, he takes it all in, neither believing or disbelieving, and not like he ain’t sharp enough to see the difference, but he got him a scale of his own to weigh it, touch it, tell if it’s crooked or true. It was Sparrow made him see what Maggie wanted. Not in so many words—mute as a mushroom, Sparrow—but in the way he moved. Allowed himself to be carried in the current of the come and the go, to travel in the shadow of Maggie without losing that shadow of his own. Nothing but the pleasure of his company is what the boy give her, and no charge, cheap as a breeze, but that was enough. No money, no trade, no property? No matter. Not so big on ownership, Maggie.

To Maggie the land was no more than the dirt beneath her feet. Defended her territory same as any other creature of the wild, sure, but to her the land was a field of battle, a room to maneuver in that war of hers against everything and everybody. You travel the land. That’s what it’s for. To parcel it? Price it? Pay it out by the yard like a length of batting? You’d sooner slip a river in your pocket or carve yourself a slice of air.

No wonder then, when it come to Maggie and Barnett, you got yourself a collision. For Barnett it was always the land. He figured the way to win a gal like Maggie was to gather up a spread of a size to make him a squire, a man to be reckoned with, a citizen true.

Mercy. What a sap.

No you say? Okay. Have it your way. A logical man, okay, but a logic that made him, in the game of love, a fool. He figured inches, feet, yards. Acreage he figured. The imprint of them boots of his too small a claim to carry the day. He pictured himself with a deed in hand to cover the whole of the earth, and the oceans to boot, and the grains of sand by the billion at the border between the two. Everywhere’s where he would be. No place to plant a foot without a charge of trespass. Only then would he relent. Surprise her. Give her back, pressed down and running over, the whole of the world she’d—in her stubborn way—always refused before.

And who knows? Maybe today was the day to begin. Begin again. From up top of the tree the territory, the sight of the territory, stirred in him a hope. What with the broke arm and the face all purpled up into a bruise, more like a notion than a hope, but hell. You do what you do, right? When you don’t got a breeze you settle for a breath. You can live on a breath. Be grateful. Plenty people don’t even got so much as a breath. The boys who beat him? What do they got? Blood is what they got. You whack a pinata you win the prize. But that’s it. The all of it.

But don’t they got the truth? you say, say you. Sure they got the truth—from out the vasty ocean a pincher of salt. A factual. A dead letter of the law is all, and all because—nobody’s fault but their own—they don’t got the capacity to appreciate the grandeur of the vigorous lie.

GB pictured the day they decided, him and Sparrow, to conquer the tree. To build ‘em a fort.

For sure the arm was—below the elbow there—broke. In the binding it swelled. The pain got a rhythm, a throb to the beat of the heart, greenstick fracture they call it, as if blood were the same as sap, and flesh the same as wood, and the bone the bole of a tree you break to feed, in the end, a fire.

Never mind. No never mind. Come back in a week he said to the boy. Gimme a week. They’d nobody find him here, no, not after all the trouble the boy’d taken to hoist him, inch by inch, up the trunk and into the arms of the tree. Here was a place to mend, a here worth a having, where the crown umbrellas up into the sun, snuffs out the branches below, carves out a cavern of green.

The boy poled away, off the bank and downriver. GB pictured the day they decided, him and Sparrow, to conquer the tree. To build ‘em a fort. Outside the map is what it was, out in the bed of the river, the cypress, a part of the river but outside the reach of the rod and the chain. Free and clear they said, they laughed. Nobody owns the air!

Over the summer they’d labored, him and the boy. Into the flesh of the cypress they’d hammered a spike, head-high, another then another, so’s to boost the boy up the bare trunk and into the lower branches. Off a broken dock they crow-barred the boards. Upstream they rafted them, and into the shallows and up the tree they hauled them, one after the other, to corduroy out, over the limbs, a platform scabrid as the hide of a gator. The pulley was Sparrow’s idea. “Like a elevator,” he said. “A elevator for ammo.” A castle keep is what it was, the treehouse. They rigged a rope to a basket full of provisions and then winched it, hand over hand, up the 40 feet or so to the larder they fashioned from the trunk of a steamer.

A helluva climb to be sure, but from up top, from a perch on the four-by-four that shot out beyond the bounds of the platform and into the sun you could see, to the south, when the weather was good, the whole of the grove. The packers. The pickers. Every which way the ladders they pitch up into the plush, the bins that bubble over to speckle the earth, the beekeeper that sets the dogs to bark as he grapples, from out the portable cloud he carries, a jagged chunk of honey. Thick the wind with the scent of the peel of the orange. Sharp on the tongue the salt of the brow. The skin a shiver in the rain. 

How they would argue away the hour with a game of who goes there? A point for every person you, with your eagle eye, spy. And even now, in the dark, in the moment of recollection, how fierce the color—the copper spout of the still, the red blaze of the robin, the bright geyser of sand the gale, as it rounds the mouth of the quarry, kicks up into the blue. How the boy would babble over the stir of it all, the rattle of the hopper and the roar—faint now at such a distance—of the pulper. The zig and the zag of the clay path where round and about the tractor rambles, into the green and out again (There! I told ya, I told ya—there he goes!)—the clay the color of a Dreamsicle or the heart of a mango or the ember you jar with a poke of the stick.

“I spy,” the boy’d say. “Lookee yonder there, the bridge, the fella with the neckerchief, the yellow, there slapping—see? Slapping a horsefly.”

“You telling me you can see—”

“Look at him, look. Smacking himself (point, point for me) on the back of the neck.”

Point. Point-Set-Match. Silence. Topside the two as they master the province, give it the God’s eye, cradle the lake in the palm of the hand, whisper up a wind so’s to shoo the cloud away, so’s to spy the glint-of-the-razor rail that cleaves the land and divvies the green into buyable portions, so’s to hail the fella at the helm of the Jenny there paying out, in a plume of vapor trim as a bead of icing, the word Jesus, and so’s to hear, off and away, and beyond the reach of the voice, faint as a head of thunder in a build at the brim of the earth, a rumble of dozers and sluice buckets and dredgers.

The whole of the summer they labored to build it. To make it so. To reckon up, at the end of a day, the gain, the keepsake of a day worth a keeping and the cry, come the dusk, of the osprey and the hawk, and the fireflies in a cinder, and the turn of the season, and the moon as it fattens, and the chill air that gives the breath a shape, a heft, a body the color of bone.

The boys who beat him shoulda been thanking him for the lesson he conveyed.

Into the shade he shuffled the cooler, the case of gin, the jugs of water, the mess kit and the jerky and the tin of biscuits. Gathered up under the tarp a basket of gear—the bug spray and the Bowie, the torchlight and the trencher and the rope in a coil. The slop bucket he hung from a length of chain off the end of the platform. The whiskey the boy’d fetched him—bottle from out the hollow of a tree—he swaddled in a strip of gauze. The doc in a bottle. The germ-killer, pain-killer, kissable buddy in the cold of the night. Into the sling it went.

The first two days he drank. This he could do. This he was good at. To an assembly of leaves he spoke. A claim is what it was, the treehouse, a bid to be the boss of a sky bigger than a breath or a billow of smoke, bigger than the blue that binds the earth. Gave the sky a punch. Stirred the air. The invisible swirl of the citrus brushed him on the cheek. God if you could rake it up into a bushel or a bale, a bottle, a brew, the scent of the grove, think of it, just think. Again he felt the ache—it surprised him, all broke as he was—to feel the quick of it, the yen for the place, and the power in the hand to make the place, his the hand, his, the hand of the Maker. Stackable the clouds. Breakable the waves. The blue of the sky and the bully green of the tree.

He licked his knuckle. The split at the ridge. The red furrow down the heel of the hand, where he’d parried the blow of the crowbar. He savored again the uppercut, the counter-punch, the shock of the fist in the face of that bastard. A sight to behold. A sign from on high. Out there somewhere in a shamble off the porch of a shanty, God willing—dumb cracker with a broke tooth!

Bastard. The bastards. The boys who beat him shoulda been thanking him for the lesson he conveyed. To see it is to be it is what he told ‘em, and they believed, and in the believing saw—for so long as they believed—a vista magestical and, at the same time, cozy. If he hadn’t of sold ‘em a deed to a property that don’t exist, they never woulda had the pleasure of the picture of that red brick house on the bank of the river with the skiff and the dock and the dog, the chill at the lip of the jug and the bass nipping at the bait and, bobbing up out the water at dawn, that red ball of the sun. Grand is what it was. And ain’t that a pleasure in its own right? The picture? And the bonus at the end, right? The righteous pleasure of beating the tar out the fella sold you the picture.

It ain’t too much to ask, is it, of God, if there is a God? To die in a manner marvelous?

Sundown. Day three. Careful, like you fold a pastry, into the quilt he rolled, and onto his side, the wad of a towel for a pillow and, up top, the arm in a sling. In the hold at the heart of a cocoon he pictured himself. Fold upon fold the quilt, the tarp, the canopy of green, as if to shield himself from that brute of a moon, that savage assay of the sun. Slept.  

Come the night, midnight or so, a gust of wind ripped the canvas off the frame and flung it overboard. You think, when you sleep, the universe shutters the blinds and the planets pause and that flower the sun flutters to a halt. The earth—the buzz of that little bee—brakes. The buzzing stops—and why? Because the god of it all sleeps. Say who? You. You there. The center of the universe. That’s what we all of us—am I right or am I right?—feel about the world out there on the far side of the lid of the eye.

He woke. It was nothing, he figured. Wind is what? Wind is air. And air is what? Air is—put your hand out. Give it a shake. Nothing. Air is nothing. And the sky was empty. Not a cloud. Not a spit of rain. The moon is all, the Maggie moon he called it on account of the promise he made to buy it for her. She laughed. Smacked him on the head. “Like you got a grift enough to win you a planet.”

“A planet’s too much for you to handle, Maggie. A moon’s the fit for a gal like you, all bitter and chilly and bare.”

The moon looked on. The deck swayed in the grip of the nothing, rode up and then down like a ship on a swell. From a ways off, upriver, the timber roared. In a race it came, the roar. The nothing swept away the sleeping bags, the clothes, the cooler with the food. Into a gap in the planking he thrust the one good hand. Anchored himself. He knew the floor would hold (four-by-fours bolted at the branch) so he did what the tree did. Rode the wind. Starboard or port. Up or down.

As if to make his body a smaller target he curled up into a ball, the broken arm in the center, the eggshell of the hip and the shoulder and the back of the skull a shield. To die here, impaled on the knee of a cypress or—head-first—post-holed into the muck? Talk about a outrage. If it were lightening. He could abide by that. That he could abide. A meteor. Struck By A Meteor: GB Bites The Dust—every damn diner, barroom, breakfast table set to buzzin with news of his demise. It ain’t too much to ask, is it, of God, if there is a God? To die in a manner marvelous? Plucked by a twister and dropped, downriver, onto the javelin head of a steeple; bazooka-ed up into orbit from out the mouth of a volcano; flash-frozen in a hollow at the heart of a tree?

The steamer trunk slid to the lip of the platform. Tremored. Over the side it went. Struck the bone of wood at the base of the tree. Splinters. The rain that followed beat the branch above him, the plank that held him, the bare shoulders he bowed upwards to parry the blow. Keen to shatter the earth, that’s what the rain was about, what its intent was, but the earth bullied on. The body of the tree battled. The rope handle of the crate he hooked with his foot. Gave it a tug. The bottles pinged. The gin quivered. He pictured the boys in a crowd around him at the end of the bar, him bragging how he beat the odds, broke a twister, a flood, a fusillade of locust and brimstone and hail.

The branch gave way but he was ready. Into the crotch of the tree hauled himself. Thunder he thought it was, at first, the shipwreck of the deck come crashing, come—leaf and limb, spike-spar-plank—avalanching down.

He licked the blood off the palm of his hand. Cradled the broken arm. From outta the sea the salt in the blood, that’s what they say. He coulda been a fish. A bear. A vulture. Who’s to say? God took it upon Himself to make a Barnett is what He did, the bastard and then bam. Goodbye. Up here. Left him. In the trunk of the tree. Busted. Broke. Bereft. That would be the word. Bereft.

So be it. Let the timber howl and the granite buckle and the clouds mountain up to bury the earth. By the power of the liquor and the flame of the spirit of grift ever eternal within, he vowed that he would—yea verily, and let the heavens be damned—master the moment. He tucked himself, butt first, into the bole of the tree. Bowed his head. Shut his eyes. Bye and bye the body wrestled, rocked him, pulled him into a sleep, a swim, a drowning, but even in the dream he battled on. Over the face of the earth the water clamored. Two by two he gathered them, the animals, here at the door of the ark, male and female gathered he them, and here he stood, and let us in, let us in they cried, and his robe and his staff he waved, and his white beard he swung to and fro in the blaze of the wind and said to them, saith unto them, Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin.

And the waters rose, and up over the land and up over the crust of a cloud they elevatored the ark. A pie is what it was, the earth, a giant pie, and the clouds that cobble the earth a patisserie, and he reached out his hand, and partook of what the pie offered, and in his hand he held it—his hand, his the hand that cuts the pie and fingers the tart and brushes with a knuckle the puff, yea verily, who sucks, from out the belly of the croquemboche, the cream, and licks the cinnamon glaze, and steals the scent of the butter and the almond, and the lemon and the lime, and the ginger and the honey, and the cocoa and the cherry and the dulce de leche. Like unto a god he was.

Sure the ring a solid thing but the breath, it’s the breath that binds.

Come the dawn Maggie showed. Sat on the bank. Rolled a smoke.

From off the branch that pinned him he plucked a finger of bark. Clawed at the moss in his hair. Called down: “I been meaning to tell you. I got plans for us. Big plans.”

“You ain’t ripe yet. Maybe tomorrow.”

“The hell you say. Look. Lookit. I’m ripe as can be.” He touched his forehead. The cheek. Plumpish, like a plum. Lumpish. “Come get me down.”

“What do you promise me?”

“The moon.”

“I don’t got no place to put a moon.”

“You got the sky then. I throw in the sky.”

“I already got me a sky.”

“I swear by the powers—”

“Power don’t give a damn what you promise.”


“Shut your mouth.” She stood at the base of the tree. The empties pebbled out around her. Up the bank a ways? Butt up in the mud a bottle of Jack. Honey the color. Fat with the ichor of God. Out the waistband of her skirt she fingered up a knob of silk. Tore the fabric. With a twist—like you free a fishhook—she unlimbered the object. Into the fist it went.

“You asked me what it would take. What would it take to win me.”

“I got me a plan for—”

“What was my answer?”

“I got—”

“I wanna hear it. From outta them lips I wanna hear it.”

“Nothing. Nothing is what you said.”

“Nothing. Now look at you. Just look at yourself.”

He shut his eyes. Now and again you get, from out the past, an ember to redden the cheek. A singe. Not this. This a furnace. From out the forge in the heart of whoever-the-hell-he-was, a heat.

“But I never—”

“I bought this with my own money.” She waited. He stilled himself. Shifted so’s to parry the beetle creeping up the cuff of the jean.

“Look,” she said.

He looked. She lifted both arms above her head. The right hand a fist, the left hand open, like you see in the movies, the guy on the aircraft carrier who flags the fighter into place for the launch.

“You done won me at last,” she said. “You and that nothing of yours.”

She opened her fist to reveal, in the palm of the hand, a ring. Fixed him with a look. He followed the ring as, with a twist of the wrist and the fingers, like a magician, she moved to frame it up between the thumb and the finger—an empty O. Over to the other hand now she moved it. Held it in a hover over the tip of the chosen finger.

“Yes or no,” she said. “What’ll it be?”

He took a breath. From out the blue of the sky a breath, a nothing. Sure the ring a solid thing but the breath, it’s the breath that binds. In the crotch of the tree he shifted, made as if to right himself. Slipped. The naked head of a spike, bent by the wind and the wreck of the wind, pierced him. Into the denim and the meat of his thigh hooked, like you gig a fish, the whole of him. It was all he could do to hold it, this breath of his, to give it a shape and a sound of a kind she could answer, she could hear in herself, in the heart of her the torrent as well, the something grand, the something unmendable, the something like a cry.



Alan SincicAfter an MA in Literature at the University of Florida and a poetry fellowship at Columbia, Alan Sincic earned his MFA at Western New England University. His work has appeared in New Ohio Review, The Greensboro Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Hunger Mountain, and Prime Number, among others, and his stories have won contests sponsored by The Texas Observer, Driftwood Press, The Prism Review, Westchester Review, American Writer’s Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, The Broad River Review, and Pulp Literature. Recently the opening chapter of his novel The Slapjack won the 2021 First Pages Prize. Learn more at

Header photo by Thammanoon Khamchalee, courtesy Shutterstock. Royalty free music in audio reading courtesy Bensound. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.