The loving trees stood off an old grownover wagon road dug into the earth of northeast Guilford County and leading to a ford on Reedy Fork. They were red oak and maple trees grown together below their centers, holding each other at the hips as they swayed in their slow way through the decades. The snow remnants crushed below Elijah’s feet as he followed Bailey off the obfuscated trail and eastwards towards the granite outcroppings. One foot in front of the other, where the dusted forest bedding of a clearing gave way to the packed snow and ice of the shade. One foot in front of the other, each step satisfying in its own way.
“A Night in Tunisia” replayed in Elijah’s head as he observed the weaving of the woods, both standing and fallen. The plaiting of the collapsed members, the cross-hatching of the suspended winter branches. Their speed seemed to jump forward before his very eyes, and he could see the next split, the next collapse, the next rot and the next sprout. The trees all appeared to make like folded hands. The spaces between them all appeared to make like dismembering, dividing, blowing wind. Jazz was like that, he figured. It’ll mess with your mind.
Bailey the pitbull ran ahead some twenty feet, peed on a granite rock, sniffed some lichens beside his steamy splash of urine, grabbed a large rotten branch in his mouth and then ran back to Elijah with it. Once he reached the man’s legs he turned away, snapped at the branch until it broke apart, and then began to chew the pieces aggressively. Soon finished with that he sprang again back towards the granite. One foot in front of the other. Satisfying steps to step, satisfying branches to destroy. Elijah’s mind went back to jazz nights on Tate Street, campus life in Greensboro, desolate life nights on Tate Street in Greensboro. Nights in Tunisia.
“Oh, I followed yer footsteps, I guess!” blurted a voice from behind. Elijah turned around, half-heartedly stunned. There stood a man with a dark pall of death over his face. The man smiled, but it was barely visible. Only grim fate made it past that veil. “Huh?” asked Elijah. “Oh, sorry,” the man said as he approached closer before saying in a more subdued voice, “I said I musta followed yer footsteps up from the creek, in the snow. I was lookin fer the trail, ya know. Thought I was onta somethin.”
Elijah stopped hearing the trumpet and for the first time heard the stillness of the North Carolina winter settling upon the earth. The liveliness of music was gone. In this man’s presence there was only the brown, gray, white, gray. The subtle, somnambulant wind and the exposing sunlight closed in around the two men. The babbling of the Piedmont creek underneath layers of ice brought the waters from the mountains out to the Cape Fear lowlands and beyond. Nothing seemed to hold the man there besides the vulgar physics of the woods, without which he might simply have blown or drifted away himself. “Oh,” said Elijah. Bailey barked and began running toward the man.
“Is that yer dog? Is it ok? Is it good?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. He likes strangers. His name is Bailey.”
The man turned his side to the approaching animal, then kneeled to shrink in size still further, extending one hand in greeting. Bailey smelled it and then walked off. The man stood up again and faced Elijah. “I’ve always loved bullies. Such great personalities,” said the man. Elijah smiled at this, reaching his hand up to push his round-lensed glasses back up his nose. “So what’s yer name?” asked the man, voice now booming as he held his ground some thirty feet away from his interlocutor.
“Well I guess you could call me Ahab! But no, muh name’s Al. Say, you a musician?”
“Yes, I am”
“I could smell that on you! I’m a musician as well. Whadaya play?”
“I play jazz trumpet,” said Elijah.
“Oh, really! Great! I play some strings,here an there, you know how it is. Old stuff. You from round these parts?”
“I’m from Cheraw, South Carolina. I go to UNC.”
“Oh, great! Whadaya study?”
Elijah loosened his posture some, warming to this Al fellow ever so slightly. “Music.”
“Well, that makes sense, a course! I use’ta play out, barns an bars an whatnot. Don’t do that much these days. Also use’ta study, quite a bit in fact. Ain’t no point in it in the end. Least not fer me, anyhow. But jazz trumpet, now that’s somethin folk’re likely to wanna hear ‘bout.”
“Yeah, well, I play over on Tate Street in town. Wednesday nights.”
“You don’t say? Well, I oughtta make it out there someday. But I tell ya, I don’t get out much. Not these days, anyhow.”
The wind sleep-walked around the trees and the men again, with no interest in the conversation. Its words fell like some snow from up high, an afterthought to whatever had come before. In that instant Elijah felt compassion for the man named Al. Desperation clung to him. He seemed to have materialized out of some snow drift like a refusal to freeze. What was any music worth if your soul was unclean? How might you be clean again if you leave this man wandering in the wilderness as such? Bailey walked back to Elijah’s feet. His wagging tail whacked against his owner’s legs. For a brief second Elijah thought of himself, bloodied and buried in a snowbank.
“You come here often?” asked Al, closing the distance between them to something more akin to talking distance in the town.
“Where, Bold Moon? Every once in awhile.”
“You know the history of it?”
“Yeah, it was a lesbian commune, wasn’t it?” Elijah said with a smile.
“Yeah yeah! Hahaha,” Al chuckled, stepping some ways outside that pall of death for a moment. “That’s basically what I said, but a course the little signs up at the trailhead say somethin like ‘women’s farming project’, hahaha. I actually did some research inta it. Fascinatin stuff. Part of a long line of women’s separatist land thangs. Back when people believed in ‘liberating space’, I guess. Those were the days, Lord! Now it’s a solid day’s work if you’ve intersectionalized the bejebus outta a proposed course a real world action on a social media platform. Even better if you excommunicated all willin participants before the startin pistol. Nothin ta go out for but a glass a milk ta drink before bed. These’re cleaner times, these are. Ya see where muh education got me? Not a single blemish a upward mobility on muh soul. Hahaha. Honestly, I was thinkin bout jus comin out here ta bag me some squirrels. I’m sure the spirits a the departed will not mind. Hell, I catch them Center Grove hicks up north a the lakes fox huntin round the Preserve on horseback an all. County don’t give a shit. No one gives a shit. I called the County, they din’t even know the land was theirs, they said. Scared me when I went out there an heard children screamin and dogs barkin. I thought a bear like to’ve ambushed someone farther down the trail, but this man sittin in his pickup with a cage on back jus sittin up on the roadside grinnin said they was fox huntin. I don’t see no damn foxes, I wonder what the deal is with that.” Al stopped, put his hands into his pockets, and rotated his head around right to left with a concentrated grimace. “Ain’t no damn foxes.” He pulled out two quarters from his right pocket and began tapping and scraping their serrated sides together.
Bailey had trotted back off into the snow.
“Sure there are,” said Elijah, “you see dead foxes on the side of 85 every once in a while.”
“Maybe that’s where they all are! Maybe that’s where I’ll end up, too,” Al replied as his grimace changed into an ironic smirk, still looking elsewhere. He was evidently not much of a man for eye contact.
Elijah’s mind played a sudden reprise of “A Night in Tunisia”, this time with Sarah Vaughan taking the mic: ‘I walk in a moonlight solitude…’ For a moment he was back under a snowbank again, and his new acquaintance was stretched along the side of the interstate with his entrails out. Bailey’s leash wriggled between Elijah’s fingers as they danced atop imaginary trumpet valves. Ella Fitzgerald’s version: ‘The moon is the same moon above you… the same moon above you…’ So easy to slap a couple of lines about the moon together for a piece which was nominally an “Interlude” to Gillespie, who wrote it on a Texas garbage can. Bold Moon was probably the same. Some name slapped onto an interlude. “A Night in Tuscaloosa” sounds good, too. ‘Each wonderful night in Tuscaloosa… love was just an interlude’. Seriously, nothing was even ‘land’ until there was a transaction, then like ‘interlude’ it becomes an easy lyrical addition to the thing. Now Al stood there, adding some profanity of words to the jumping, weaving, plaiting, and cross-hatching of the woods. Perhaps there was some value in the manner of their vocalizations. ‘Words fail to tell a tale, too exotic to be told… Each night’s a deeper night, in a world ages old… Tuscaloosa!’
“Well what brings you out here?” Elijah asked.
“Checkin fer sap,” Al said, making brief eye contact as he stepped forward again and pulled a bowie knife and a handful of spiles out of his jacket pockets. Elijah shifted his weight backwards at the sight of the knife, but stopped short of full retreat. “Isn’t it a bit early for the maples?”
“Might be too early fer sappin the maples, but I’m takin a look at the sycamores, walnuts, and birches.” Al twisted his wrist to examine both sides of the knife before returning it and the spiles to his pockets. “You ever been to the Ol Mill out in Oak Ridge? Picked me up some spoonbread mix out there yestaday, wantin ta try some surp wid it. If possible. I don’t really know what I’m doin, wi the sappin. Jus experimentin. I’d of liked to be out here last fall fer the mushrooms, I bet they’re plentiful.”
Elijah wondered where that pall of death went. This man now seemed to be genuinely living, and fully liable to get hit by a truck off of 85. Not some force of nature. Although that cloud can’t be far away. It couldn’t have dissipated permanently from such a great density. There was still something about this Al which seemed to court mortal catastrophe. Elijah may have been acquainted with such catastrophes in his mind, but Al seemed to have some underlying disinterest in the catastrophic dimension of anything. Or perhaps he was overly acquainted with catastrophe. It was just some crass lyrical hodgepodge slapped on top of his twelve-bar sequence of unhappiness. Something for him to unselfconsciously sing before — smack! — there goes the Mack Truck to lay him out in his own, personal, universally identical way. ‘The moon is the same moon above you…’
“That yer truck up there?” Al asked, “I never see another vehicle up here. Never. No one ever comes here.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” answered Elijah. Bailey, now down by the water, began barking at a piece of ice which broke underneath him. “Come here, Bailey,” Elijah called in a high-pitched voice.
“Well, I’ll see you round,” Al said, weakly raising a hand as he turned to slip back into the direction from which he came.
“Oh, you’re leaving?” Elijah asked, then turned, whistled, and called Bailey again, who ran back to his owner with a large pitbull smile on his round head.
“Yeah, yeah. But, hey, I should catch you playin sometime. Where you do yer trumpet thang again?”
“Tate Street, over by UNC, Wednesday nights.” He hooked the leash back onto Bailey’s collar.
“Tate Street, Wednesdays,” echoed Al, “Alright man, take care.” He waved.
“You, too, Al. It was nice to meet you.” Bailey jumped up and put his two muddy front paws on Elijah’s coat. “No!” he said to the dog. When he looked back in Al’s direction he saw the man’s shoulders, looking heavily laden, with a head tucked down somewhere between them, making their way back through the physics of the woods. He might have completely drifted away into the winter unencumbered were it not for those physics. “A Night in Tunisia” came again. Dizzy and Charlie, Town Hall, 1945. Al Haig’s piano marching into discord. A demon trumpeting through a procession of trees, an evil restrained only by its quickening approach. An interlude.