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Authors: David Vann

Legend of a Suicide (9 page)

BOOK: Legend of a Suicide
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When he had finished the leftover pieces, he went into the woods with the ax looking for dead wood. He found a few pieces, but they were too rotten. Should’ve known that, he said out loud to himself. When are you going to figure out how to do things right? So he went out to the point again and chopped down another tree and stripped it and sawed it into sections and dragged them back to the cabin.

His father was there working on the racks. Good job, his father said. It looks like you’re getting the wood together.


You’ll get the hang of all this. Me, too.

But his father cried again that night, and it seemed then to Roy that nothing at all was going to work. He tried to ignore what his father was blubbering to him and tried to have his own conversations in his head, but he couldn’t block his father out.

There were two prostitutes in Fairbanks mainly that I went to see. One who had really soft skin and no pubic hair. She was just like a little girl, real small, and she would never look at me.

Roy stuck his fingers in his ears and tried to hum just loudly enough to block his father out and not be heard, but the confessions went on and he had to hear everything.

I kept seeing them, all of them, even when I knew that Rhoda knew.

Rhoda was Roy’s stepmother, his father’s second marriage and divorce, only recently ended.

I got crabs from one of these prostitutes, and I passed them on to Rhoda. You remember when we were supposed to go skiing that time in California, and we didn’t?

This was rare and caught Roy by surprise. He wasn’t usually asked questions.

Yeah, he answered. He remembered waking up and it was already midmorning, much too late and something wrong. And he didn’t want to hear now that it was all because his father had been with a whore. His father had told him that he had caught the bugs from the bench in the locker room at the YMCA, and Roy had believed him, along with everything else.

That time she got unbelievably angry. She never would give me any room to explain. It was like I was just some kind of monster. Like I’d shafted her. What do you think? Do you think I’m a monster? The question came with the odd whining and gulping.

No, Dad.

Roy’s dreams started repeating themselves. In one, he was in a cramped bathroom folding red towels while more red towels kept stacking up and coming in on him, pressing from every side. In another, he was on a bus that was trapped in sand and being swept down a hillside. In another, he was hung up on hooks and he had to choose between getting shot once, which would be quick but could kill him, or being dipped in a large vat of red ants, which wouldn’t kill him but would take a very long time.

In the mornings, his father was always in a good mood, and Roy never understood this.

We’re doing all right, his father said. We have some smoked fish put away, and some wood, and it’s still early in the summer.

Then one day when it was raining hard and Roy came in from the outhouse, he found his father standing in the cabin with his pistol out. He was holding it in one hand, aimed toward the roof, and he was staring up into the darkness of the timbers, moving
around like he was trying to get a bead on some big spider up there or something.

What are you doing?

Better just stay out of my way.


Stay out of my way. Get in the other room or something.

What is it?

But his father wouldn’t answer again; he just squinted up and sighted the pistol at something that seemed to be moving at the top of the ceiling.

Roy stepped back into the other room and watched his father from the doorway.

His father fired then, the blast deafening. Roy put his hands to his ears but they hurt and wouldn’t stop roaring. His father fired again up into the roof, the .44 Magnum a huge pistol and ridiculous and spitting fire in the dim cabin, filling the air with sulfur.

What are you shooting at? Roy yelled but his father only fired again, and again, and again, and then he tossed the pistol down onto a pile of clothes by the door and walked outside into the rain, saying, It’s so goddamn tight in here.

Roy went to the door and watched his father standing out there looking up into the rain and getting soaked without his rain gear or hat. His hair matted flat to his scalp and his red mouth open. His eyes closing and opening and closing. Steam coming from his breath and rising off his shirt. His arms limp at his sides as if there were nothing left to do but stand and let the sky come down.

Roy waited so long for his father that finally he sat down
against the stove and stared out through the doorway at the slice of gray air and water and his father soaked and making no sense. When his father started walking finally, Roy got up to see but his father kept walking on into the woods and didn’t return until after dark.

There was no light in the cabin when his father returned, and no heat. Roy was in his sleeping bag against the stove and had put cans out for the various drips and streams that came from the new holes in the ceiling. His father came over and lifted him into the other room and told him over and over how sorry he was, but Roy pretended to be asleep and wouldn’t listen and only hated and feared him.


When Roy woke in the morning, he was quiet. He grabbed some smoked salmon and crackers, walked out, and sat on the other end of the porch without a word or a look. He just stared down at his plate, though he knew his father was feeling bad about himself and wanted to talk.

His father stood up and leaned against the wall of the cabin. When Roy looked up, his father had his eyes closed and was feeling the sun.

Roy finished his breakfast and waited.

A nice day, his father finally said. Maybe we should go for a hike.

Roy considered.

Well, what do you think of that?

All right.

All right, then, let’s go hunting for a buck. We could use something other than salmon, right?

Roy was slow to get his gear together, but finally they were on the trail, his father leading. Roy didn’t want any kind of resolution. He wanted things to get bad enough that they would have to leave the island. He could make things terrible for his father, he knew, if he just didn’t say anything or respond in any way.

They cleared the low forests and climbed higher and bushwhacked their way over to a rock outcropping from which they could scan two mountainsides and the shoreline and their cabin. Roy wondered whether many deer would come on this side, this close to their cabin, but now they were here, so it looked as if they were going to just try it.

What do you think of this? his father asked.

What do I think of what?

All this. The view. Being out here. Being with your dad.

It’s nice.

His father looked out over the channel then and stared at the sun off the water. It was nowhere to look into, just glare. Roy moved around several times to different places to sit on the rock and in the brush, unable to keep still. He wasn’t looking for deer. He wondered if his father was looking for deer.

His father put his rifle down and stood and walked too close to the edge of the small cliff and fell off. It looked almost like he stepped off. And then he bounced and sprang out and hit branches, ripping through them and tumbling, and then he was out of sight but Roy could hear him and the top of his own head was rising in hot wavering streaks as he panicked.

Roy grabbed his gun and stood but there was nothing to do. His father was already down through the trees and brush, already loud whumps and it was over and there was no sound
from down there. His blood was in his ears and he was afraid he would fall over too, as if his father were pulling him, but then he shouted to his father and set his gun down and ran back into the brush to where they had come through. He tried to work his way down fast but the brush was so thick and cutting at him, and he was scared he would never find his father, that he would just disappear in there and be dying.

He kept screaming as he went but there was no response. He slid down through a patch of nettles, his hands on fire from them, and then fell down through some hemlock and hit a flat spot and got up and worked his way across to find his father. He got to about where he thought he’d find him, but saw nothing. He looked up to try to see the cliff for reference, but it was too thick in here and he couldn’t see anything. He whined and turned in a circle and then got hold of himself and stopped and listened.

It was only wind and the leaves, but then he heard a moan close by and parted the growth a few feet in front of him but there was nothing. He pushed through farther, then backtracked and checked all around. He couldn’t hear the moaning anymore, and he wondered whether he had only imagined it in the first place. He started whining again and he couldn’t help it and he just kept looking. Then he had the idea to trample everything down so he’d know where he’d already looked, so he stomped all around in bigger and bigger circles, crushing the smaller stuff, and still he couldn’t find anything.

By now it had been at least half an hour, so he hiked back up to try to find the base of the cliff. That was hard to find, too, and when he found it he wasn’t sure it was the right one, but he
searched below and he found, finally, a recently broken branch. He worked his way down from this to more branches and then a spot in the nettles and flowers and moss that had been crushed. A few feet farther on, he found his father.

His father wasn’t moving or making any sound. He was curled on his side with an arm flung out behind, and the eye Roy could see was shut. He came up slowly and knelt down and leaned in close, not wanting to, and listened for breathing or anything, and he did think he heard something but he couldn’t separate it from his own breath and told himself it might be just because he wanted to find something. But then he leaned in closer and put his ear to his father’s mouth and did feel and hear breath and he said, Dad, and then he was shouting it and trying to make his father wake up. He wanted to shake him but he didn’t know whether he should. So he just sat there and tried to talk his father awake.

You fell off the cliff, he said. You fell down here and you hurt yourself but you’re all right. Now wake up.

His father’s face was swollen and turning purplish already with red streaks where he’d been scraped. His hand was cut up and bloody.

Oh God, Roy said, and he wished he knew what to do or that there could at least be someone else around to help him. His father wasn’t waking, and finally he couldn’t think of what to do except grab his father under the armpits and start dragging him down the hill to the cabin. There was no trail, but they didn’t have to go across anything else and there were no more cliffs that he could remember. So he pulled him down through the undergrowth, trying not to trip but tripping and
falling backward occasionally anyway and trying not to drop his father or move him too much but dropping him anyway, dropping his head and seeing it bounce and loll around in the spongy moss, and still his father didn’t wake or say anything to him but still he was breathing. And then the sun went down and it was darker but not completely dark when they cleared the last stand of hemlocks. He dragged his father over the grass, past the outhouse and down to the porch of the cabin, where he had to rest after each porch step before pulling his father up onto the next, and finally he had him inside the cabin.

He laid him in the main room on a blanket and put the other blankets and sleeping bags over him. He propped his head up on a pillow and he got wood for the fire. It was still fairly wet and it smoked too much but finally dried itself out in the stove after repeated lightings and then they had some warmth at least.

His father looked very pale. Roy put his hand next to his father’s cheek to see the difference in their color. He was breathing, but only shallowly. Roy wanted to give his father some water but didn’t know if he should. He wanted to put an ice pack on his head but there was no ice and he didn’t know if that was the right idea anyway. He didn’t know anything. He just sat back against the wall with his jacket over him and waited and watched for any changes as the light disappeared outside and the cabin grew smaller. The wind came up and the cabin creaked and let out a low howl occasionally and still his father lay there like a wax figure pale with his mouth open and red streaks on his face that didn’t look real, as if he’d been painted. Even the hair didn’t look right, and then the lamp went out and Roy was somehow
too afraid to get up and find the paraffin in the dark so he only waited there seeing nothing, listening for hours until finally he fell asleep.

Waking in daylight he didn’t know what had happened, couldn’t make sense of his father lying in front of him like that, then he remembered. He went over to feel his father’s face and his skin was still warm and he was breathing.

Wake up, Roy said. Come on. I’ll fix pancakes. Cream-of-mushroom soup. Come on. Wake up.

Not a twitch from his father. Roy got the fire going again and the cabin slowly warmed. He stood in the doorway and looked out at the water, where there was no one, not a single boat. He came back in and shut the door, refilled the lamp and waited. Still his father hadn’t moved. He wondered if a body could be dead and still breathing, and this thought was so creepy that he got up to fix breakfast.

Hotcakes coming right up, he called back over his shoulder as he mixed up the Krusteaz with water. He put some of the powdered milk in the mix as a special treat, got the pan hot and oiled and started making pancakes with an intense concentration on the bubbles as they formed, worrying constantly about whether they were cooking too much on the underside, afraid also that he might flip too early before they had browned. He took his time with each one and waited until he had a perfect stack before he turned around and saw his father lying there with his eyes open watching him.

Roy yelled and dropped the plate. His father’s head moved slightly, the eyes on him. Dad, he said then, and he rushed over and his father said, in a whisper he could barely hear, Water.

Roy brought him water and helped him drink some of it, held the cup to his lips. His father threw up the water and then drank again.

BOOK: Legend of a Suicide
2.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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