The path was not too dusty, it had rained the day before, but its gravel was coarse and lay in piles knocked to the side by carts, and made it difficult to traverse the already uneven ground. The grass surrounding the path on the hill was lush, and cushioned an occasional large boulder with its brown tufts. The road continued down the hill and made a sharp corner at the foot of the slope, following the sheer rock face that comprised the hill’s side. Moving past the hill and along the shore of a small pond, full more of organic slush than water, the path ended in a driveway in front of a small brown hovel of two chambers, the larger of which was collapsed, its ceiling lying propped against the center wall. The front horizontal beam jutted out above the rubble, and a cat perched itself atop it. The animal’s coat shone in the sunlight; in held its right paw in the air as if hurt, and turning its head to the light, a beam caught the shining red surface of its closed left eye. Because of the recent rainfall, the structure and its ruins were wiped clean of the dust of demolition, and the broken bricks and splinters shimmered with shards of glass from windows and housewares.
A quiet thump from within the intact room frightened the cat, who jumped from the beam, disturbing a pot on the way down, which fell and broke open. From its shell slowly leaked a dark red gel, which came to rest against the corner of the doorframe.
Across the yard was a rust red wooden shed resting on the flat ground just before the hill’s slope began. Its door had two windows separated by a single vertical pane, and whose glass was warped, thickened at the bottom by time’s weight. It stood propped open by a pair of cinderblocks stacked against its hinges. Visible inside were a few shelves holding plant pots, a coiled hose, bags of soil, and leaning against these was a long, white, plastic cylinder covered at both ends by brown paper.
The animal flew into this doorway and a moment later appeared serenely in the window on the wall facing the road, its orange eyes lazily tracing the path of a flock of crows through the gray-yellow sky. They seemed to race towards the setting sun, as the great orange globe fell off of the horizon, dragging its banners of color down with it. The darkening sky threw a purple veil over the ruins of this homestead, dulling its features, but bringing attention to a deep green covering sprawled across the debris; it was moss. The moon’s shape shone white on the rubber surface of the coagulating red gel. This was the Pott’s Hill home, in the town of Temtic.
* * * *
I recall that landscape each morning, while I brush my teeth, gel my hair, tie my tie, and pin my badge to my jacket pocket; I see my reflection through the crystalline soap stains on the mirror. My left eyelid (or is it the right?) has a birthmark, a gray stripe of raised flesh curving from the tear duct to the corner, its mass visible even when the eye is opened wide. My jaw collapses inward slightly at the chin, a moderately successful reconstruction after a childhood automobile accident. My beard is quite old, but it is shaved down to a two-day length by my ancient razor. Thin, black eyebrows skirt my forehead, whose wrinkled surface melts into the sickly sheen of my bald skull, draped around the sides by tangled, graying, thin tufts of hair. Water drips from my nose and eyes; I just washed my face. The countenance altogether pleases me; it is a map to the events of my past, in its own way. Ugly is, quite certainly, not out of the question, but these days, who’s counting? Justice is ugly - now there’s a pretty tagline.
Smothering myself with a towel, I cleared the thought away and turned off the radio sitting on the kitchen shelf, from which emitted an advertisement for a new type of dental surgery. My teeth are pristine.
* * * *
I stopped at the doorway, adjusting my tie in the mirror - though I developed a habit of only looking downwards when I tied it, and I suppose the mirrors are just for show. Two pairs of shoes lay under the light switch. The left pair was hard, brown leather, a tighter fit with western tassels and punch-holes. The right was a tall, wide black leather set with a white band around the outside of the sole. The laces were of a dark green suede with chrome ends. I saw my graying beard reflected in their surface when I leaned down to peer at them. I stood up and flipped the lights off, looking down at the shoes the whole time. Turning them back on, I deliberated. Hoping for an easy workday, I slid on the brown pair.
As I walked to the car I felt a tiny dart of rain fall across my neck, and I instinctively looked upwards, but my gaze was instantly drawn downwards again when I realized that my truck’s end was situated just at the edge of the roadway. It’s not a busy area, but I usually parked it up higher. Why did I do this? I left that thought behind - this is the type of question that bores us so much, in confounding us, that we can forget it, and its consequences. So I left for the office.
The sidewalks at the town’s Law Enforcement Bureau were slicked wet, probably by the sprinklers, which sometimes activated as I walked up to the wide, heavy glass doors at the entrance, wetting the cuffs of my pants and dulling the sheen of my black pair of shoes, if I happened to be wearing them. The building was one story tall, subjected to the area’s strict zoning. But it stretched across the entire back border of the Richardsons’ apple orchard, offices within ranging from that of the Superintendent of Schools to the local weather emergency crew’s communications hub. The lobby was a long, wide corridor with elevators at the end that flew down two levels to god-knows-where, and four doors on each side, running through this oversized ant-farm to the various departments.
I made my way for the second door on the left, and cut a right into the stairwell, going down one floor to maintenance, and continuing down the corridor to the stairs at the other end of my hallway - I wanted to avoid my neighbors, solitude, you know. I stepped into my office without risking eye contact with Sergeant Eriksen, and pressed the green light on my phone for messages. Thomas’ voice came through, tired as ever, seeming to sigh at the middle of his sentence, and catching his breath at the end.
“Another dispute over storm damage - Williams Property,” he growled, and the machine clicked off. The Williams Property, unfamiliar to my ear, had to be looked up in the database, just to the left outside my door, at the end of the hall. The blue and white striped walls terminated in a completely black wall with a steel door, left ajar during the workday. I slipped inside and flipped through my properties file. Memorizing the address, I switched to the maps of the area in the other corner of the room, around the tall island of shelves in the middle. The Williams Property was just past Pott’s Hill Road.
* * * *
I put my hand into my pocket and slipped the weight of a half-dollar into my palm, clutching it as if to feel a pulse.
“I’ll head over there now.”
Walking out of the station back to my truck, I noticed a dark mass of clouds crawling over the eastern ridge, encroaching on the sun’s morning gaze. The clouds looked thick and heavy, full of water waiting to fall. The radio only plays a few stations when you drive out this way into the country. I let the tuner sit on “Classical Ninety-Five,” with the volume just loud enough to fill in the gaps between the jostling road bumps.
“Trees,” my exasperated motto. In country like ours, with the most restless of winds, the majority of civil disputes consists of neighbors’ treefalls. Arguments ensue over whose tree it was, whose fault it was that it fell, whose property was even damaged, and on whom the responsibility falls. In my decade in this position, I’ve never encountered a rulebook, or even a set of informal guidelines, that would help a rookie resolve such conflicts.
A couple of years ago I was called out to Coldcreek, a pair of farms on the northern edge of town. I pulled into their dirt driveway under the burning, midsummer sun, and my truck was immediately surrounded by a group of five delegates from both farms. They still shouted at each other but apparently wanted to bring the discussion to me. I ended up holding the entire meeting in the driver’s seat, with the window down, because, though I had cracked the door as if to get out, Dean, who worked water on Old Coldcreek, didn’t get the hint, and wouldn’t budge.
Apparently a few dead trees from the New Coldcreek orchard had been uprooted by the storm, and overnight carried away by a flash flood. The waters rammed the trunks into the Old barn, puncturing the wall and ruining a substantial number of hay bales.
Dean was yelling, letting his voice rise and fall in volume, so that at its height it was all the more aggravating, yet also convincing.
“No, you should have moved them, carted them off, cut them up! For firewood, you know. Only an irresponsible farmer in these parts would leave them trees lying around. That’s what you are, Richardson, irresponsible! You know they’re light, you know they float, you know there was a storm-“
Richardson, the massive, gaunt, ghost-of-christmas’-future head of the New farm interrupted. He held his left hand in his pocket and his right gestured towards the ground around the Old barn.
“I wonder, Dean, if you’re as much a water man as you act.” He paused, Dean stepped back, and stood with his weight on that back foot, his hands clutching fists, and was frozen. Richardson continued with a smirk, whose humor reached no farther than the corners of his mouth, the rest of his face solid as stone.
“Do you see these rills? This one, which is almost deep enough to be a gully? They point directly into your now-devastated barn wall.” I peered at Richardson from my seat, my hand on the wheel and slumping down to get a view of his sunken eyes, as he stood just by my sideview mirror, now resting his hand on it.
Dean faltered. “Those- those were dug by the lumber when it rolled over into my wall!”
“No, they weren’t.” This voice came from old man Coldcreek himself, whose substantial shortness was due to a stoop, but whose hair shone blonde as the sand, and whose skin and face were clean and bright, albeit a bit wrinkled and lumped up at points, like paper soaked under with paste. He carried a tape measure in one hand and an envelope and pen in the other.
“Look at these figures,” he said, hurriedly shuffling to me, and I took the paper. “This column is the diameter of the trees’ roots, which I measured bent over themselves, as if rolling on the ground. The next column- you don’t have to worry about that, just look at the next two: the widths of the rills and the gully, and the differences. You can see that this argument is unfounded?” This was how Coldcreek had become one of the most prosperous of the farms in the area – the old man’s number skills were good enough to be the best in town, but flawed enough to escape ostracism, for nobody liked a bean counter. His upper lip quivered when he was crunching figures in his head, but he was still able to speak. One could hold a lively conversation with him about his plans for a new crop, but all the while he’d be calculating the free time he had left in the day, how many servings of bread he would need at dinner, or even how much gold to buy the next month, the hoarder!
I nodded, and looked over to Dean, whose face had gone pale, his bright blue eyes aimed towards the ground, into which he was scraping the letter “A.” He mumbled a few words about his own misfortune and the prosperity of the Old farm. He looked to me, as did the ghostly face of Richardson, and Coldcreek’s furrowed brow was aimed at the side of my truck, his lip still but clearly in deep thought. His glance up to my eyes impelled me to speak.
I shifted myself upwards, out of the deep slouch I had been using to watch the speakers, straddling my door with my arm. Leaning my head out through the open window, I glanced around, and my eyes landed on Christopher, the account keeper for the Old farm. He held a clipboard in one hand and furiously scribbled notes with a yellow pencil, his wisps of red hair dancing as his head wiggled from side to side. He bounced on his heels in his massive, gray boots, whose necks ended right below the holes at the knee of his dark, denim pants. His eyes glanced up without his head moving, and he smiled at me, a small smile, hiding somewhat the bright yellow sheen of his teeth, and returned to his notes.
“Chris,” I addressed him and he stopped bouncing, immediately dropping his notes to his side and putting the pencil behind his ear, slowly raising his head to meet mine – though it need not go far, my truck rides a bit low.
“It’s clear to me that the Old farm has suffered a loss, and the New has a legitimate stake in the damage, not only in causation but also, more pertinently, in repercussion. We should remember that, yes, there are two farms here, but there is also Coldcreek,” and at this word the old man’s lip began to quiver; he seemed to know where I was going.
“Your prosperity is tied together-“ Chris, too, caught on, and took up his notes again. Richardson and Dean still glared at each other, quietly nursing their anger while the rest of us spoke our turns.
“As such, not only has the Old farm suffered a loss-“ I had become dizzy, the sun shone directly onto my bronze heat conductor of a dome; I repeated myself. “A loss, a loss that extends to the New farm as well.”
A sharp intake of breath came from Richardson, whose pale face now became tinged with a border of purplish red, and he cleared his throat with a groaning sound.
“Listen to Mr. Coldcreek, Dean. We are not responsible for this damage. We’re all real sorry about it, and I’d be willing to help you all fill in those rills.”
“Sixteen man hours,” belted Chris, and the old man quickly slithered over to him, looking over his shoulder at the notes. “Carry the one,” he uttered enthusiastically, “twenty six man hours!” he announced, “to fill in these rills.”
“What about the bales?” whispered Sandra, Dean’s aunt and legal owner of the Old farm. “We lost fifty three bales beyond salvage, and they were your trees, and you wish to fill in a hole? Your dirt-“ “One hundred and fifteen pounds of it,” interrupted Coldcreek – “your dirt is not enough…” her voice crescendoed here and then quickly became timid and wandered off into silence, and she smoothed down her blue sweater with hands shaking in irritation.
I sunk back into the car. Sometimes I think I just show up in these cases to prevent the more rash representatives from killing each other. Dean wasn’t harmful, but you have to be careful of Richardson. And cattle drives, into one of which I almost drove my truck headlong.
* * * *