Before the sun had come around the top of where we could see a fire in the south over the planets, there, already, they had him by the hair. Had the Dealer in the middle of where had had been spotted on by the birds, where he had lain filthy in Samantha’s dinner. She had received him from the city for what trade she needed, for the beans, for the shortening, for a form of icepick he had made available to us for what we would be doing to any predator come round our house, come into our vicinity.
It was not the guns to be frightened of with us, nor the all we could swing at your head. It was how we had a way of making you stay with us, and beginning slowly to tire you down till resistance was not allowed to you by your own body.
We had brought the Dealer into such a condition. We had seen his elbow plant that much more casually at the table. We detected the ease in his feet. We had felt the Dealer’s hand find its way onto our backs. And we had left it resting there. Not one of us was one to flinch. We did not draw back from the lips he insisted upon laying against our faces. We accepted everything from that man we had stay on for the morning and the evening and the next week. And when he was as casual with us as with the sounds of his own insides lying within him, we led him away to the elders, who would never be so gentle.
We led him up to the elders who at first had been difficult for Samantha. She being a teenager when she first got here, and there was no knowing how quickly she would take to the way the elders had with women. No knowing, for me, how very quickly she would take to them who left me out of the picture they illustrated before me.
They drew their ropes about their doors at night, and there was not a need for a lock, which could be broken under one thrilling thud from the shovel. There was only the rope to tie twice around the bars that kept the door a part of the house, and then to go to sleep, with Samantha in between them.
And she did this in a spirit of conspiracy that frightened me for the first time I had been frightened since my life was decided to be on the yonder side of what was right for me from my father’s mouth. It was my father’s mouth I saw in how they had beaten the Dealer about the knees with a piece of tree until there was no longer a point in making him feel the pain anymore. No please nor pleasure in making him stop swinging. No border anymore between the top and the bottom of his body. It was at once on the man everything that needed to be belted. He needed an unlashing, and a scooping too by now, had he been an animal. He needed leaving for a while under the house until the sun got to him even under there and we began to feel the stink coming up from under the rug my mother might have beaten into cleanness.
This man was not from among the missionaries of any city. And it was not immediately clear if he had family for the way he was not worried after his own dealings with the money he had coming from us. He was not after his being paid back in any currency for the packages he had packed up the hill under the sunrise. He was dealing in ways with us that had been to us every bit acceptable. He was fingering the miniature bottle of powder he had brought to us. He was bringing us the muddy jars of pharmaceuticals. He was bringing of what wheels we could hammer onto boxes we sat on before sending them to the elders up deeper into the trees.
We were people, to him (we had a feeling about our interests in him), that could be trusted only to seek what was forbidden to them.
Butter was a thing Samantha wanted. Beeswax and honey was another, and he could bring it. Sometimes he needed to bring things and leave them quickly for the storm anyone could see was coming over the doorpost, for the wind through the window, for the colder that the loneliness of the scenery was beginning to feel here where we lived outside incorporated limits. Several times the Dealer left what he had been asked, and he turned without taking his payment and added to his deliveries just a wave of his brimmed hat before finding his way back around the mountain by the baked mountain path that he took back.
Samantha had been the first one to speak with the Dealer. She had been the first to receive any thanks from him during a visit. He had a way of thanking by blowing his nose slowly into the lining of his coat, into what must have been tucked there. It was what he brought out that was his thanks. He thanked Samantha in the form of a magic trick, as if next time it might have been the rabbit coming out his sleeve, the nickel coming out of your ear, the thermometer coming out of where it had yet to be stuck into him. Samantha had, too, the habit of laughing at this, which seemed to do the trick for our business with him.
He was always coming one more time around the sunrise. He was always one more time putting his fists up to his ears and having us guess which was the one with the silver piece in it. And these were truly things we saw him do. They were things we asked him to continue doing. There were lines we continued to ask him to speak out to us about how his business with us was cleaner than his business with the elders farther up the mountain. That it was none of his business what they were up to with their lariats and their happenings after sundown. That he was just a gambler and a card dealer for a casino, and it was his business to do it respectably because of his children. Because of the women that were dear to his existence, to the way he had of living off a planet that did not think kindly of his interests.
He came looking one day for birds. There were birds, and big ones, where we lived. These the men would eat. They would hold them over the fire until the dying had died down. They would bite wings with their teeth. They cleaned their ears with beaks. These were birds that, too, had their families. They laid their eggs in the trees. Laid them in feather nests plucked from the cumbersome birds that could fly only so much farther before they were no more.
We had seen how it was with these creatures. We had seen the men picking their bones, picking their teeth, picking their flintlocks when they heard it was me coming up looking after Samantha. Pouring water over the coals so there was no light at all, only the odor of smoke. They spoke to me with cigars between their teeth. Everything they said to me had to be repeated if it was to be understood. Everything they did with the women they told me were their own must be omitted if this story is to be gotten out. If I were to tell myself again and again what it was that was happening to me as I heard the hissing between their teeth, as I heard their heavy heels and their breathing—how all the air was filled with the very instance of them—still I believe, eventually, I would forget for the sake of remembering other things.
There were mornings when Samantha was up before me. There were evenings when we were practically a single being, a family. She had me thinking of the religious feeling that we still managed to believe in, and that this was enough to be expected of anyone. It was enough that we had gotten onto a green piece of God’s earth that no one had been offered or wanted. It was ours and nobody’s from the beginning. It was abundance for us, what little the Dealer could bring us, and a supper was never missing for him in the evening, anymore than you would be without your coffee in the morning.
Summer came and I made my way to where the elders had built an extra bedroom onto their cabin. They had built it with Samantha as their reasonable demand. They said it was inevitable that everything needed always to be moving deeper and deeper into the trees, that it was daily every bit a bigger commitment for the whole of us, themselves not excepted. And if such progression didn’t mean anything to me, then they had with them the munitions and the leadership with which to visit upon me. That I was free to leave and take the woman for all they were concerned. It would be as simple as packing up the bundle that we had been allowed to bring in, and leave everything else we had gained along the way. And they would be personally happy for me to see me leave, and as for the woman, she would be the thing most unfortunate about our ever coming up the mountain in the beginning. It would be her burden to be lending me a hand on the way down, both of us hearing more and more of the noise that once had become nothing to us, and, now, every day would surely be more and more our perdition.
But I never left, and I am glad that my world will be here until I am buried. That Samantha will lie beside me.
For now, it is both of us the ones that continue to use as little as we can of what must one day appear to us in all its disease. We must trust what we can of our own lotions, our larders, our remedies for the fever that reappears every year. Samantha has many times asked me to leave her. It has been a difficult persistence that has made her behave this way, a wish she has for simplicity, an admiration she has for what can be done with the road open before.
I have never told her of the one time I followed the Dealer back through the fields to where the mountain turns again into red earth and there is a clearing that marks now we are out of the mountains. We came to this space over the course of four hours of hard bargains struck against the rock, which did not heed our feet.
It was the Dealer’s decision to bring me there. To lead as if I had been witnessing just another of his tricks, as if I had been one of the sundries he produced from his sleeve. He always pulling and pulling, puffing and puffing, until a color was produced from under the black cuffs. He always leading the eyes with his little fingers cocked into a woman’s position, while it was all the while the thumbs that were miracle working.
We stood looking over the city. Again he had his hand on my back. He had his vision in the distance, and he asked me to believe there was nothing up his sleeve.
I told him home was nowhere for me but in the trees. Nowhere but there with the elders under the night sky cracking before them into morning. With the sawing away of each dawn into an evening, and with his always bringing and Samantha always receiving.
After, there were days when I believed at night I had, in fact, gone back with him. And I began to dream of speaking to the mother I had left behind, as if she were living up on the mountain here with me.
It was the oddest thing I could recall about my father and the house that he had married in. It was his fear that the willows would fall upon that house. It was his fear that one of the storms would be strong enough to take down a tree on top of us in the middle of our sleep. I remember him in the middle of the living room standing with his fingers in his ears. He was my father pleading with the very trees to stop all the nonsense. He was pleading with the still unfinished living room in which he was standing to fall on top of him now, and please leave the rest of us to remember how he had given us warning on the morning of the night he was gathered away.
These were the words that I heard from the Dealer, and the things I said to him, the man who had about tricked me into taking my life back from Samantha. We spoke these things, and he showed me the path that she had me on, the path on the side of the mountain you do not come back from, the one I had so many times watched him travel only with his eyes.
It was in the winter that they did to him what my family had done to me. They had taken me to a place where they said, if I didn’t believe in their ways, then why didn’t I make my own image of the Creator? They had taken me to the place they bury those who are dead to our house. Those whose names are carved as deep as our own shall surely be.
They made me bring Samantha. They made her hair uncomfortable for me to take into my hands. They made it smell of everything unclean in a kitchen. They made it smell of the oven on the day when there was company coming and my family had to leave before the others were able to make their visit. There was the breaking and the singeing of the chicken, and the dumping by my father of the drumsticks and the organs over the porch. There was the closing of the door, and then we were gone until it was certain the company had managed to let their appetites get the better of their manners.
I worked for my way out of the circumstances my family had given me. I took years to build a kitty. And I spent it on Samantha in the minute it took to sign the papers saying this will be where we will have a homestead of our own. And then it was everything we had for the shock of actually having to live on it. And we have lived here since. Samantha has buried here three children which did not manage for the summer heat or the winter ice falling knives from the sky. They are the things most we have given up to be here, and there will be no trading with the winds that carried them away. There will be no way of making the elements repay.
The last time I saw the Dealer he was draining his mouth one last time on his sleeve. He had one last time filthied his whiskers. And he was feeling, I am certain, that it was a mistake for him to have come here in the beginning. There were fortunes to be made, to be sure, in bringing up the things we needed. And yet if it had been his to see into the future, I believe that still he would have made his fate be this same strangulation in the dimness.
That same day he hung under the rising sun. There was nothing but batter come off of his tongue, nothing but sorrow come out of my heart, nothing but love of Samantha in all the air I breathed.