A thick bank of cloud rolled slowly across the purple evening sky. It extended well past the horizon, moving forward like a giant grey continent gliding over the earth. The savage ice storm of the past winter had left traces of itself everywhere. The tallest trees had suffered most. Branches that had snapped beneath the weight of the ice still dangled dead and leafless. Dark silhouettes of broken treetops stood out sharply against the sky and made the forest seem like the ravaged wasteland of a corrupt forgotten place.
Martin pushed his way through the thick underbrush into a wide clearing. He stopped for a moment, surveying the countryside and taking his bearings. Most of it looked unfamiliar now. As a boy he had felt at home in the woods. He had loved the outdoors almost intensely. Now he wondered what it was he ever saw in it. There was only a strange aversion now. It was something he had moved on from, like an old relationship; something he didn’t want to go back to. Being outside anywhere made him anxious. He didn’t like the disorder, the randomness, the chaos. He preferred a roof over his head and walls around him; a separation from the world as much as possible where he didn’t have to be reminded he was part of it.
The thorn bushes scraped across his pant-legs as he brushed past them. He moved through the giant hogweed and wild parsnip and spotted water hemlock, – all the poisonous varieties he had once learned to identify stood out more prominently from the other plants. Up ahead he noticed a dense mob of bullrushes that had sprouted from the shallow water of a tiny pond. He walked around its muddy banks, vaguely aware of how its waters had greatly receded since he had last seen them. He went on through the abandoned apple orchard. Some of the trees still managed to survive in spite of the smothering weeds that circled their stout trunks and twined their branches. The inevitable fate of the living was illustrated in the hollow black husks of their neighbours. Scores of wasted fruit covered in bruises and apple scab cluttered the ground and gave off a sweet, putrid smell.
He picked his way carefully down an incline strewn with dead twigs and green moss-covered stones. Dry, brittle stems cracked beneath his feet as he stepped over them. In the distance he could see the enormous twin Maple trees that stood side by side in the centre of a clearing. Their long twisting branches floating and swaying and reaching for each other and appearing always on the verge of some dramatic embrace. He stood observing them from a distance; remembering the last time his eyes beheld them, the fleeting glance he had given them then, yet how they stayed in his imagination. A definable landmark in the ever-changing scenery. He walked between them, finding a kind of solemn majesty in their size and beauty. The sound of the furious wind howling through the branches gave them voices. It felt like they were trying to warn him away.
He strode into the wide field where the remnants of an ancient stone barricade made a border along one side. A long, thick furrow of stones scooped out of the field a century earlier to make the ground more suitable for planting. When the land was abandoned the forest honoured no such jurisdiction and swallowed most of it, shedding leaves and branches over top and leaving only a small portion still protruding out into the open.
A rustling sound across the field caught his attention. Martin slowed to a stop and watched as the branches of the cedar trees parted and a tall figure dressed in a long black overcoat pushed his way free, brushing the fragments of leaves and twigs from his clothing. Martin felt a vibrating fear rise up. He watched as the man’s movements halted abruptly and he stared out across the field in a way that told Martin he’d been made. They stood frozen for several seconds, both of them poised on the brink of an encounter that was something complicated and profound, feeling the weight of it; consciously giving the moment its due. Almost simultaneously both began to move forward, closing the gap that separated them, impatient to proceed. Martin heard himself being addressed across the open space, over the rustling grass, a deep voice, familiar, imposing, – spoke his name like a question. “Martin?” The man walked with a confident stride and his long black coat looked expensive and immaculate.
“Martin! It really is you,” he said as he drew closer. “You startled me.”
“Me too. Christ! It’s been a long time.” He slapped him on the shoulder and smiled.
“Fifteen, sixteen years at least,” Martin said.
“More I think. What happened to your hair?”
“I can see that. Too bad.”
“I don’t miss it.”
They studied each other’s face. Each privately taking note of the changes the years had wrought. Each making the adjustment from the outdated representations they held in their memory.
“You don’t seem too overwhelmed with surprise to see me,” said Bill.
“No. I guess not.”
“I mean, what are the odds? That we both meet here on the exact same day…”
“You don’t have to humour me Bill. I’d prefer that you didn’t.”
“Okay. Whatever you say Martin.”
Bill watched him curiously, finally breaking into a coy smile. Martin turned up his collar against the icy gusts that stung his face and made his eyes water.
“Heard you got married,” he said.
“Nine years ago.”
“And a father too huh?”
Bill reached into his coat and withdrew his wallet. He flipped through it quickly and slid out a photo. He stepped forward and showed it to Martin.
“That’s my oldest Alison. She’s seven. And that’s my son Ryan. He’s five.”
Martin studied the two children, seeing some resemblance to their father in the features. He felt something like regret as he looked down at the smiling little faces.
“Good looking kids,” he said. “Is that your wife in the background?”
“Yes she is. An angel.”
“She has to put up with you.”
“She’s compensated for it believe me.”
Martin handed back the picture. He didn’t expect any questions about his personal life, and none came. Bill tucked the picture back into his wallet.
“It’s good to see you again Martin.”
The sound of a airplane drew their attention and both men watched the passenger jet rising up to meet the cloudy ceiling. Martin looked away first, his gaze going back to the ancient collection of stones that traveled back into the shadowy cluster of trees.
“So,” he said quietly. Is she still there?”
“Yes. Still there.”
“Did you check?”
“I did some poking around.”
“What did you find?”
“What I expected to find. Bones. Oh and this…”
He fumbled around in his pocket and brought forth a small ringlet of gold. He handed it to Martin.
“I turned it up when I started digging through the stones.”
Martin studied it carefully. It was tarnished a dull green and black and most of the inscription on the inside was illegible but he could still make out the name “Jenny” in tiny letters.
“You should have it Martin. She was your wife.”
There was a callous quality to the remark, even the flippant way he sprung the ring upon him like some kind of depraved memento.
“And she was your sister,” he replied with a note of anger.
Martin turned the ring over in his fingers. He looked unsteady for a moment as a wave of nausea came over him. He took several deep breaths and closed his eyes, waiting for it to pass.
“Still can’t believe we got away with it,” he said quietly.
“We were careful, that’s all.”
“I had these thoughts…, before the robbery, that if we carried it off, maybe the money would fix my relationship with her. A big reason I agreed to do it was for her.”
“C’mon, you fought like cats and dogs. Don’t act like the marriage was something sacred now.”
“She didn’t care if I told her we were safe, that nobody knew…I couldn’t ease her mind.”
“Spare me.” Bill looked impatient. “She threatened to turn us in and I believed her. You said yourself she would.”
“Not if we returned the money. We could’ve done it anonymously…”
“Be serious Martin. She gave us an ultimatum. She shouldn’t have done that.” Martin watched the two Maple trees swaying and trembling in the wind. They looked small from this vantage, like two withered hands coming out of the earth.
“We had this conversation already – remember?” Bill said. “Twenty years ago. Back when it was relevant.”
“Twenty years ago today.”
“Yes, twenty years ago today. Happy Anniversary. I’d do it again.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t pissed it all away at the casino, you might feel differently.”
“Because I didn’t want it Bill. I didn’t care if I lost it. I wanted to.”
The overcast sky had darkened. Faraway to the north they could see the glow of the city lights. Martin dropped the little gold band into his pocket.
“How much are you paying your cousin Stuart to keep tabs on me?” he said suddenly. He’d become aware of the surveillance a long time ago. Even bumping into Stuart occasionally. The clumsy way he’d been spying on him. Often sitting in his beat-up Buick Regal up the street smoking cigarettes. Bill smiled.
“He’s a bargain. And it gives him something to do. Makes him feel useful.”
“He’s seems to be around more than usual.”
“He told me you lost your job. Said you started going to church every Sunday. Is that true?”
“It’s my business Bill.”
“He says any time he sees you out in public you’re completely shit-faced. He said you moved into a crappy apartment building in the east end of town. Are you that hard-up?”
“I didn’t need the extra rooms at the old place, especially after my cats died. I got the smallest place I could find. Anything that didn’t fit I threw away.”
“I don’t need a lot of space.”
Something in the admission caused Bill to frown.
“When I saw you coming out of the trees,” Martin continued, “it was almost like you had been here forever guarding this place. Like imagining the possibility of something, almost hoping for it, dreading it too, and then seeing it materialize in front of you like a mirage, then discovering it’s real.”
“You know, you should meet someone,” said Bill. “Get your life together. Have a kid. I always thought you would make a good father.”
“No. It’s too late.”
Martin’s eyes went back to the line of trees and the bank of stones that traveled between them. He shivered, realizing his flimsy blue jacket was no match for the November wind that blew unfettered in the open field. He sank his hands into his pockets. His face looked worried.
“What’s on your mind Martin?”
“She would have been forty-five years old next month,” he said quietly.
“Even if we had gone to jail for the robbery, we’d be out now, she’d still be alive…
“Stop torturing yourself. It doesn’t do any good.”
“We did a terrible thing Bill.”
“We did what we had to do. It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“She deserves a proper burial. Peace of mind for her family.”
“What are you talking about?
“I wouldn’t even mention your name. You wouldn’t be in any way connected. I’d
take full responsibility.”
“I can’t let you do it Martin.”
The distant, lonesome sound of a crow’s call echoed through the quiet evening. Bill’s eyes were drawn to it and he watched the bird as it lifted off one of the trees at the edge of the field and flew away.
“You know Martin, there was a time when you were like family to me. Remember those days? I trusted you then. You were the only one I trusted. And I wasn’t as concerned when I only had myself to worry about. But it’s different now.”
“I said I wouldn’t mention you. Go back to your life. Forget about this.”
“I want you to come back with me Martin. You can meet the family. It’s long overdue. Stay for a while. Use the guest-house. We’ll have a few laughs, like the old days.”
Martin winced at the invitation even as something in him wanted to believe it could be that way, that it was possible to move on from this. It seemed like a cruel taunt. Bill turned toward the sunset. It had been a long time since he really looked at one. The sky was clear there. It was even more vibrant, more alone on the horizon.
“I can’t carry this around anymore Bill.”
Bill coughed and cleared his throat and spit into the weeds as he watched the blood-red orb slowly sinking.
“I don’t want to be here all night,” he said. “Are you going to have a look?”
“No I guess not.”
Bill dropped his chin and grimaced at the mud and dirt that covered his shoes as he quietly slipped the pistol from his pocket. He tapped it lightly against his leg, not even bothering to conceal it.
“If you add it all up, I’ve gone to considerable expense and aggravation trying to avoid what you’re forcing me to do.”
Martin was looking at the pistol, it was startling to see it exposed. It took his breath away for a second like the death of a loved one after a long illness. Expected, but shocking when it finally comes.
“You were looking out for your own interests Bill.”
“Don’t we all?”
“I won’t talk about the robbery. It will be just another case of domestic violence. It won’t concern you.”
Bill scanned the surrounding fields and woods. He seemed to ignore the suggestion. His eyes gleamed in the late afternoon sun. He looked like he was searching for something in the trees. Scrutinizing each one. He turned his attention back to his companion; the broken down version of the man he used to know; – worn out, dilapidated, falling apart. He felt a fleeting tinge of sadness and regret, like he did when he had the family dog put down last year. He didn’t see the point in delaying this any longer. Martin’s heart was pounding.
“Don’t do it Bill.”
Bill stepped forward and lifted his arm to find his target but gunshots were already sounding. Martin’s face became disfigured with a terrible intensity. He stabbed the barrel forward through the hole he had blown in his jacket pocket as though trying to give the projectile more force. Bill’s arm dropped and his hands went to his chest where three of the bullets had penetrated. Martin pulled the hot pistol from his pocket and held it pointed out in front of him. His hand was shaking and his whole body trembled. He waited, posed to unleash another round but Bill had already dropped his own weapon. The wounded man choked and struggled to breathe. A look of intense hatred distorted his features. He went down on one knee, then fell forward into the grass and lay there twitching and gagging before he finally became still.
Another minute went by before Martin approached him. The gun that had fallen from Bill’s hand now lay in the weeds beside the body. Martin poked at the head with the toe of his shoe and pushed it around so that the face turned toward him. There were smudges of dirt on his forehead and nose. The eyes were open, and blades of grass and weeds poked right against the lenses. Blood spilled from the nostrils and mouth.
The moon had appeared in the eastern sky and the last of the sun’s rays were quietly disappearing. Across the horizon the dark silhouette of a figure bowed against the bitter wind walked quickly away through the forest.
Robert William Wilson is a writer and filmmaker whose films and screenplays have garnered multiple awards at various international festivals. Two of his short-subject films were broadcast nationwide on the CBC television series Canadian Reflections. He lives in Montreal.