Austin’s father plants trees by the interstate—thin, willowy trees, saplings still—held up by wooden stakes and tied to the ground with strands of cord. When Austin asks why, his father tells him that one day the trees will be uprooted and moved to other places for shade or extra greenery. For now, he says, the trees remain in large fields, close together, while the branches thicken and the roots grow stout.
“They don’t look like trees,” Austin says when his father drives him out to the field one afternoon. Because the sun is high and the county has been under heat advisory for weeks, Austin wears one of his father’s baseball caps. It dips low over his face, and every so often he must push the rim of it back above his eyebrows so that he can see out the windows of the truck.
On both sides, the road is lined with trees. They extend back for miles in careful, even rows, their trunks as slim as Austin’s arms, their branches bare and brittle.
“They look dead,” Austin says.
“They’ll grow,” his father replies.
Austin considers this carefully, imagining the trees with thick, heavy branches and crooked roots that curl up out of the ground. “It could be a forest,” he tells his father. “If you didn’t move them, and years and years went by.”
His father turns his head to shoot a spray of tobacco out the open window. “This is crop land,” he says. Austin fills in the blanks: No use for forests.
In the few weeks since his family has moved to crop land, Austin has learned the importance of things that are useful. His sister, April, who is four years and five months older, explained the significance of dense earth and flat plains and how the murky water of the Mississippi River seeps into the Arkansas soil. This is why the cotton grows, she explained, and the soybeans and the rice and the grains. Austin cannot always distinguish one field from another, but he understands that they must be vast and abundant and yield good fruit.
April also explained why they have moved: how their father lost his job in the city and found work in the crop fields with some cousins. How their mother conceded that moving back out to the country, close to her hometown, was their only option, and how April hopes to reconnect with their extended family. These things are useful, April says: good jobs and rich land and close relatives.
What she hasn’t explained is why their relatives hardly ever come around or why the new house is so quiet or why she, April, must make dinner every night while their mother rests and their father watches television in the garage. These things, Austin reasons, are useful because April makes better macaroni and the quiet keeps everything peaceful. But others things make less sense, like his mother packing up a suitcase and driving to a hotel in the middle of the night. This happened four days ago, and although the hotel is only a few miles down the highway and she’s called twice since, Austin can’t help feeling like something important is happening and he’s missing it entirely.
As his father turns against traffic, Austin spots a car that looks almost like his mother’s. April has told him to leave well enough alone, but he feels as if it is his responsibility to make sure his father remembers. Austin nudges his father, then points directly at the car, but his father only nods once and stays quiet. He turns the truck off the highway, and the tires bounce and grind against the gravel road. When it stops, his father opens the door and steps out. He stomps his heavy boots against the gravel and walks to the back of the truck without saying a word.
Austin’s shoulders sink. April has told him that their mother will be back when she cools off and that he shouldn’t worry. But Austin cannot help feeling disappointed. He cannot help imagining that the car was his mother’s, even though it was the wrong color and the wrong size, and that she’ll be waiting for them when they return home. Somehow the whole thing makes him feel torn into pieces, like fragments of a boy.
Through the open window, Austin hears his father call out to him, but he hovers at the edge of his seat, just inside the door. He knows that his father has only brought him along because his mother is gone and April is visiting the bookstore in town, but he decides that he will learn to plant trees and be useful anyway.
“Austin?” His father reappears and grips the door handle. “We’ve got work to do.”
Austin jumps to the ground and follows his father to the field. He stomps his feet against the dirt as he walks, pretending that he also wears heavy boots, but his tennis shoes barely raise the dust.
Planting trees, Austin knows, is only the third job his father has held in his whole life. In the city where they used to live, his father worked in a shoe factory, pulling long sheets of leather through heavy machines. He worked his way up to manager until one day, a year ago, he came home with all his office things in a box. That’s when he started looking for jobs in the crop fields. “Turning over a new leaf,” he explained. Still, for months afterward, Austin’s mother complained about waking up at night to find his father pulling all the blankets to his chest, as if he were pulling the leather in his sleep. April called this muscle memory. Austin wrote the words in the notebook beside his bed and wondered if muscle memory was a superpower, and if he could inherit it.
Before their cousins hired him to plant trees, before the shoe factory, even before he married, Austin’s father guarded missile silos for the Air Force. These are his most exciting stories by far, but not the way he describes them. He tells Austin and April that all he did was sit in a hut in northern Missouri, drinking coffee to stay warm in the winter and watching Spanish soap operas on the only fuzzy cable channel he could pick up. He says the most exciting thing that ever happened was receiving a letter from their mother, who was only his girlfriend then and still lived at home with her parents.
Austin imagines this story much differently. He imagines his father marching over frozen tundra, wrapped in beaver skin and carrying a weapon over his shoulder. He imagines missile silos as laboratories that extend deep underground, with switchboards and blinking lights and special sirens that only sound in emergencies. April made him look up missile silos on the internet so he could see that they were really just large holes in the ground, covered up with thick, metal sliding doors, but Austin explained, again, that they were secret laboratories and of course they would look like nothing special.
The best story Austin has ever heard about his father’s time in the Air Force may or may not have been true. Right before the move, he and April found a stack of letters locked inside a silver box on the top shelf of their parents’ closet. Their father’s handwriting looked cramped between the lines of the yellowed, crumbling notebook paper, but April read one through quickly and told Austin it was one of the letters their father wrote to their mother—like a love letter, she explained. She tried to read some of it aloud, but Austin wrinkled his nose at her.
“Isn’t there anything good?” he asked.
April glared at him. “Love letters are good,” she said.
“I mean something less mushy,” Austin said.
April skimmed over a few pages. Then she raised her eyebrows. “Here’s something.” She glanced at Austin and then read aloud: “‘I only lost one fight ever, to a man who tried to break into the silo.’”
Austin felt his eyes go wide. April read on as their father described a protestor who set up camp near the missiles and pulled a knife when the guardsmen approached him. “‘He sliced through my right arm,’” April read, “‘and I’ve never been able to pull a trigger since.’” She paused, and then pursed her lips. “He was just making up stories, trying to impress Momma.”
Austin shook his head. “It could be true,” he said, remembering how his father always came home after a long day at the shoe factory rubbing the long scar on his forearm.
“Of course it couldn’t,” April said. “If he couldn’t pull a trigger, why did they let him keep guarding missiles?”
They never mentioned the letter to their father, but sometimes Austin imagines other ways he might have gotten his scar: flash fire or bear attack or chemical spill. Sometimes Austin shares these scenarios with his father, but each time his father shakes his head and says that Austin has his sister’s imagination. Austin tries to explain to him that this is not true: April knows lots of words and can make up good stories, but he, Austin, is the one who creates their backyard games about living in space and traveling through time and escaping down tree trunks into a world populated by giant earth beetles. That’s imagination, Austin tells his father proudly, but by then his father has usually stopped listening.
Although the trees themselves aren’t much taller than Austin, the field seems to go on forever. A low ditch separates the field from the road, and his father steps across it easily. Austin has to run to catch up, but he stops when he reaches the ditch. It’s filled with dark, muddy water, and even though he could probably wade through it, he’s afraid of what might be at the bottom. Instead of crossing, he backs up until his sneakers hit gravel and watches as his father circles around the trees, checking their leaves and retying their stakes. His father’s skin has turned the color of copper since they moved here, and the muscles in his arms have grown thick. He kneels to check the soil, then stands and steps back across the ditch.
“You going to help?” he asks, and Austin nods. His father walks to the back of the truck and motions for Austin to follow. When he drops the tailgate, Austin sees a mountain of fertilizer bags, packed in tall piles.
“Grab what you can,” his father says.
Austin watches as his father picks up two bags at a time, carries them to the edge of the ditch, and tosses them to the other side. They land with a soft smack. Austin climbs into the bed of the truck and pulls on a corner of plastic. The bag is heavy, and he can only drag it to the side of the tailgate and kick it over onto the ground. He jumps from the truck bed and pulls the bag behind him with both hands, feeling the muscles in his arms stretch. He has to stop at the edge of the ditch to take a breath. His father walks up behind him and lifts the bag from his hands, tossing it to the other side. He turns back to the truck without a word.
As his father bends to lift another bag, Austin notices that his arms bulge and the long, thin scar that runs from his elbow to his hand twists and wriggles. His father grunts as he throws the bag across the ditch. Then he turns and looks down at Austin.
“You thirsty?” When Austin nods, his father reaches inside the truck and pulls out a bottle of water. He takes a long drink himself before handing it to Austin.
Austin sips the water, and they are quiet for a while. Austin thinks about his father’s scar and missile silos and secret things that might be hidden underground. His father leans back against the truck, hands in his pockets, and stares out at the field. After a few minutes, Austin pulls on the rim of the baseball cap tucked over his ears and glances up at his father, pointing to the scar on his arm.
“Did you get that in an altercation?” Austin asks. He has heard the word on a police show his father sometimes watches after dinner.
“Altercation?” His father looks confused.
“Like a fight,” Austin says. “Like a battle.”
His father glances down at the scar on his arm. “No fight,” he says. “Just unlucky. Wrong place, wrong time.” But he flexes his arm, and the scar stretches and puckers at the edges.
“How unlucky?” Austin asks. “What kind of place?”
His father shrugs. “It just happened. I was younger.”
Austin feels frustrated. “Were you at the missile silo?” he asks. “Were you attacked?”
His father glances away and shrugs again. “A man came out there with a pick axe.”
Austin feels his eyes grow wide. “And he chopped you in the arm.”
His father laughs, but the sound comes out like a grunt. “Not quite. He was trying to break the lock on the mantle. Kind of out of his head. I pulled the axe out of his hand so hard that it slipped and I sliced my arm.” He glances down and runs a finger over the scar. Austin imagines blood pouring from the wound, and goosebumps race up his arms and legs. “That’s when I decided it wasn’t for me.”
“Guarding missiles?” Austin asks.
“Guarding anything,” his father replies. “My term ended the next year and I came home. End of story.”
Austin frowns, thinking of what April read in the letter. “So you sliced your own arm. By accident.”
His father nods and pushes away from the truck. He stretches and then turns toward the pile of fertilizer, and Austin knows he’s finished storytelling.
“Wait,” Austin says quickly. “What happened to the other man?”
His father glances back at him. “Spent the night in jail. Fined, then released.” He pauses, narrowing his eyes as if he’s thinking hard. “I heard he died, later on—trampled in a mob. Or caught in police crossfire.” He shakes his head and rubs a closed fist over the scar on his arm. “Some people just have to go out fighting.”
He doesn’t say anything else, just steps back across the ditch and pulls a bag of fertilizer to the base of the nearest tree. Austin watches his father carefully, weighing the two stories in his head. They aren’t exactly different, but they also aren’t the same. Austin wonders which story his mother believes and if she’d liked his father’s battle scar when she decided to marry him. He wonders which story April will believe. Then Austin wonders if he’ll tell April at all. She had spent a long time reading those letters, even after Austin lost interest. He knows that she likes the story the way it is.
Austin stands by the bed of the truck for a while, watching his father rip open bags and sprinkle fertilizer around the base of each tree. After circling a few rows, his father calls out and asks Austin to bring him a pair of shovels. Austin grabs a long shovel and small hand trowel from the back and walks toward the field, but when he reaches the ditch again, he pauses.
“Go ahead,” his father says. “Jump across.”
The water is murky and still. Nothing moves beneath the surface, but Austin imagines water bugs and scaly monsters and fish with sword-like noses. Then he thinks about his father and the pick axe, and suddenly he feels reckless and brave. He throws one leg out and leaps across to the other side before he can think himself out of it. He lands safely, shovels in hand, and grins up at his father, but his father takes the shovels and then turns away, waving behind him. Austin follows, straightening his shoulders and stomping his feet and walking tall across the field.
His father asks him to work in the fertilizer. “Loosen up the soil,” he says. Austin kneels and begins digging, turning over the soft, copper-colored dirt until it blends with the dark fertilizer.
After a long while of digging, Austin’s arms grow tired, but every time he looks up, his father is still circling the field, still pouring fertilizer over the ground. Austin keeps working, even though the sun prickles the back of his neck. After a while he stands and makes his way over to the edge of the ditch, where his father has set out another bottle of water. Austin takes a long drink, and when he finishes, his father walks up beside him and points over his shoulder to a bundle of netting he has brought over from the truck, lying next to a pile of twigs on the ground.
“I’m going to repair some of the wrappings,” his father says. “Bring that with you.”
“I’m hot,” Austin replies. “My arms hurt. April says I’m glycemic.”
His father shakes his head. “Finish what you started,” he says.
Austin frowns and thinks about how his mother would have let him sit in the truck. His feet stomp less evenly as he walks over to the netting. He steps over the pile of twigs to lift it, but the netting is heavier than he expects, and he has to bend his knees, straining his back to pull it off the ground. As he stands, the net catches on one of the twigs. He jerks it away, and that’s when the twig twists near his ankle and then wriggles over his toes, and it’s only after it darts behind him that Austin realizes it’s a copperhead. Something in his chest seizes, and he turns, ready to run, but his father steps up behind him and raises his arms, slicing his shovel through the air quick as a flash, severing the animal’s head before Austin can take another step.
Austin feels as if his legs have sunk six feet into the ground. He stares up at his father, whose hands still grip the shovel tight. On his forearm, the scar is white against his dark skin. He doesn’t say a word, just glances over Austin quickly. Austin feels a sudden panic, imagining himself as a bloody, mangled mess of a boy, but then his father nods once and turns away. Austin looks down to see that his shirt is clean, whole, just a little dusty.
His father picks up the netting and tilts his head toward the base of a tree close by, where Austin left his trowel.
“Finish what you started,” he says again.
Turning his back to his father, Austin nudges the baseball cap back over his eyebrows and kneels in the dirt. His legs shake only a little, but when he picks up his little shovel, his hands are steady. With all the force he can muster, Austin digs hard into the ground at the base of the tree, carving out small mounds of earth. When his elbows buckle, he imagines the movement burning holes through his muscles. This is how his body will remember things: by violent, consistent repetition. Austin wonders if he will act out these motions again tonight as he sleeps.
Aimee Davis earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2012 from Louisiana State University, where she also served as Managing Editor of New Delta Review and taught English and creative writing courses. Currently, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and works as a production editor.