The sky through the trees looked like purple streams of bubbles from a wand. I told Adam, and he said hey, that’s great, I might use that—that okay? He had his left hand curled over his lips in thought and the other on the wheel, and I thought he might be serious. I said sure? I wasn’t the artist. I wasn’t writing anything, just doing the retreat part. But we drove the rest of the way up mostly in silence.
The trees grew thicker and thicker, closer together and taller, and the rain that came later seemed impossible, like a downpour couldn’t have come from such a thick tent of pine. A cold and damp seeped in. I asked to turn up the heat. Adam murmured he didn’t care. I fiddled with the console, sticky with age, and something deep in the belly of the car started to moan. I turned it back, pulled a blanket from the backseat over my knees, shaking off dirt and splintered leaves. He reached a tentative hand across the console and squeezed the edge of my thigh.
He said he won the cash for the trip in a radio call-in. The 11-hundred at 11. When I came over for Sunday dinner, I pressed for more details of this miracle from his Mom, us shoulder to shoulder at the sink with our sweatshirts over our elbows. Radio winnings from a guy without a working stereo? Really? And she sheepishly said, I dunno, Edie. But his sister said it was the last of his share of their Aunt Betty’s insurance money. I took the car and went home before dessert. He slept on Mom’s couch for a couple days after that.
Adam was set on his plans. He was gonna make the next For Emma album. All he needed was time and a cabin and he’d make it. He’d be Bon-freaking-Iver. He said he found a thread on Reddit, found a picture and an AirBnB link to a cabin up north of Eau Claire in the thick of a forest. And the Redditors said yeah, that’s Bon Iver’s dead dad’s cabin, DEF, that’d be sick.
Bon Iver dumped his girlfriend to be “one with the wolves” for a winter, Adam.
When we’d finished fighting, I don’t know how I’d agreed, yes, I’d come along and cook. We’d make the most of that time for him to finish an album. I could take his Dad’s gun and try to hunt, or at least go snow shoeing all I wanted if it snowed. I didn’t have to pay, not even for gas. I thought of a whole list of things I’d have to pay for or not if we made the same choices. Flowers. Dresses. A barn and buckets of Christmas lights from raw, rough beams. All that dreaming for a cabin in the woods. I shouldn’t have counted on one penny of Aunt Betty’s money. You can’t start saving on a dead person’s wallet.
I made up my mind last-minute to test us out. Like fine, I’ll go, I’ll be quiet, I won’t bother you. I packed my extra-thick socks. I borrowed a book from his sister. I wanted to take my fleece-lined hat, a sherpa with a shorn rabbit down, but Adam said I looked like a matted bear, a no-go for hunting season, and he swapped it out for a neon pink ski hat he found in the hallway closet. Edie, I’m just looking out for you. Come on. Let’s get going.
We pulled up a dark gravel drive, the late November rain swaying with the promise of flurries, and we found the narrow path the owner said we’d follow to the front door. Adam yanked his guitar and his duffle from the back and tore into the thicket with a flashlight, his voice trailing behind, he didn’t want it to get soaked. I humped the three bags of groceries, our boots, the old hockey bag with the rifle, clunking heavy against my leg as I hurried down the path. Adam stood fiddling at the lockbox, hugging his guitar close in the dry bubble under the tiny awning. I felt a clod of slush fall onto my head and split down my
forehead. Down my collar against my neck, I shook and it felt like a fever.
I hurried him and urged him to give me the key, if he couldn’t do it, let me get it. But he managed and opened the door to a dark room. He sidled in, dragging his duffel in with his foot, and I nearly tripped.
His friends from school told him he could make it big, his professors did too, but he had to work at it. He hadn’t worked at it much in the years since he moved home, but having heard him fiddling, twiddling on his strings between Netflix and having a smoke in a rare fit of inspiration, I thought this could be fine. He might make something here. There was nothing else to do. A single room with a stove, a cot, a wide, rough work table. A beat-up sofa. A tepid mini-fridge. One single-socket outlet in the kitchen. But there might be something here in the cold. A snap, a change. We lit a candle lamp with the last of my phone battery.
I got up twice in the night to check the wood stove, convinced the fire had petered out. I crawled back into the cot, yanking the thick quilt from under Adam’s belly. He wrapped around me, his toes icy, and I folded my arms tighter over my chest, willing them to catch fire. I found myself wriggling away from the sharpness of Adam’s body, all elbows and knees curled around me, then wriggling back further from the stiff cold of the wall, caught in an impossibly tiny space in a shrinking bed.
I woke up sore. I cupped my hands together and exhaled deep into them, and the stirring woke Adam. He blinked up at me and for a moment, I thought he’d reach for me and pull me back into the sheets. Instead he said it was time to get to work. He claimed the sofa for himself and set about tuning the guitar. I made over-easy eggs that browned to a fry on top of a pale toast. When I tried to ask if we might have left the orange juice in the car, he scowled and said to leave him alone. He’d be silent until sunset. This was the rule. I probably forgot the juice back at his Mom’s, either way.
I poked at the wood stove and fed it contents from a pail the owners had provided, stuffed with wood bits of every size and coverless, waterlogged paperback books. I withdrew the book I borrowed, a thick volume of poetry, and sat at the hard barstool at the long table. Adam’s guitar plunked, plucked, and he ran over scales in a stretching, clumsy yawn of his fingers. I sat facing the tiny, rusting sink, the tiny porthole window into the forest. I couldn’t stare at him working. That was a must. But I imagined him glancing at the knot of hair on my head. I wiggled and adjusted the waistband of my sweats, pulled down the hem of my sweater. I tried to pause after every poem, like a chewing, a mulling, after a rush of pages blurred into an unwanted story, a crooked bucket of scenes that stuck out in the authors’ pondering. Machine-throb heard by the whole body. Tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy. Swallowed up and all hands lost. Fire engines. I read and promptly forgot the story of them.
Outside, the punishing rain had frozen over and a soft snow drifted down easy. To the east, a view of a browning hill, the west, the branching path to the woods and the path to the car, and a higher window in the slanted ceiling, a white blot leaking thin light. Behind, Adam sighed, happy, at simple sounds and chords. A patchwork, a search. Not a song yet. He gasped, aha, oh my god. Edie! An hour into picking tones here and there, he wondered aloud, Like, wow, do you hear that? I asked him what he was looking for. How was that going? The writing? Adam went quiet.
"You can’t ask me that right now. It’s not half-fledged, even. Let me figure this out."
Morning passed with endless loops of chords, Em–C–G–D, and E minor for Emma, how clever, little licks and runs he couldn’t handle and would abandon with a loud “fuck!” He snapped at me to stop drumming my fingers, but I hadn’t noticed except for the bright red blotch on my thumb where it’d hit the countertop. I curled up tighter, perched like an owl, on that stool. I was perfectly still, so as not to creak the floor or the chairlegs. Afternoon brought no new lyrics. I stared down the anthology, willing the poems to block out the stuttering riffs, but the unfinished songs fractured lines and pushed Merwin’s enjambments, and I couldn’t hear or read a word. I thought I’d packed another thing to read, a novel, something with narrative. I pressed my fingers to my temples and pinched in little circles. Progressions of hums and chords, the same note over and over louder, then softer. I reached for my headphones, but kept the volume to a whisper, so low I could hear him grumble, “Well, sorry to bother you,” and I put them away again.
I heated a can of soup for lunch, but Adam wouldn’t touch it, just put a stony grim line on his face, gave a fast shake of his head. Not now. I sucked up the noodles from the edge of my mug, trying not to slurp, quiet as I could.
Feeding the wood stove, I carefully tossed the tinder in its rightful places, erecting a tent of sticks and rolls of paper over a dense core of pulp and log. I closed the hatch and looked into the bucket, eyes blurring from the heat, heavy from the drone of the anthology. A dark splotch of lettering, a headline in all caps. I picked up a paperback, a dusty magazine, and brought it idly to the table.
In a copy of Outside, joyful faces climbed mountains, clean of sweat or traces of exertion. They wore bright bandanas around their heads and raised their hands above their heads in front of vistas. Headlines with cozy, ethereal titles: “A dirtbag’s guide to sanitation” and “The man who wants the world to hear whale songs.” Maybe this is how he pulled it off, I thought. Bon Iver rummaged through the garbage. I took a knife from a drawer and sliced, careful and slow, from the pages. An op-ed about syrup sales. A block-letter ad for a mom and pop store with a sinking roof. Help wanted notices—tree climbers wanted!
Adam had stopped playing, I thought to pause and start writing something down, but when I swiveled around in the chair, I found him reclined, head nestled into the crook of his arm, napping.
I fixed BLTs for dinner, his request, and a can of three-bean chili. I nudged him awake and asked, was it time to talk again? He smirked and asked me, did I hear it? The way the guitar hit the cabin walls? No, I said. But I’m not the second coming of Bon Iver, so what do I know? What do walls sound like?
He woke up the next day early, and I woke up to his guitar, sour-tuned, and Adam hissing curses at a popped string. Your love’s allergic to the cold, I said, cocooning in the cot, willing the thin pillow to muffle him. His runs and lines were the same, a soft thrum then a hard note, like a hammered note on an old piano, a kid’s glee at finding the highest note on the far right, hitting it with popsicle-slick hands. Over and over, I remembered it. Pillow failing, I sat up in the cot, draping the quilt around my shoulders, scrunching my toes in the tent of sleepy warmth. I asked him what he was thinking, what was he working on? He didn’t answer. I looked out the window. The world outside was thick and white, the brown hill now a blank slope without shadow, the lower forest a whisper-soft blue. I watched him narrow his eyes to a spot on the floor, strumming hummingbird flutters with an open neck, note-less, sexless, empty, like the motion itself would make an empty space or question mark more meaningful.
He looked up at me staring and frowned. Do you mind? I wanted to throw something. I did. But I sucked in my bottom lip. I wiggled my hands and found their flickers of warmth. I got up and the blankets pooled around my ankles in a defeated plop.
I cut those out for you, I said, if you need any ideas. He growled, do I look like I need ideas? Okay, okay, I get it, I said. He turned to the wall, curled up over the guitar, like he wanted to draw up another wall in the tiny one-room space. I shuffled to the bathroom. I ran warm water onto a worn washcloth with a forlorn spot, bleached naked of dye. I pressed it to my face and sank into my palms. I’ll get out of your way today, I murmured. I left the cloth in the sink. I went out, pulled on another pair of socks, my boots, my parka. I grabbed the leather-topped gloves and the gym bag with the rifle, hooking it over my shoulder, and walked out without another word. The door closed and I could hear him start to play again.
When I jammed the spare pink hat over my ears, it smelled like hockey tape and dog hair. I walked a ways down the path, coughed out the odor, pulled the hat off and stuffed it into my pocket. What kind of hunter shot a pure black anorak or a clean sherpa hat? I willed myself taller, less a bear, and hugged the sky-blue gym bag against my hip. I pulled the parka hood over my head and the wind pushed through the down. The cold was hard and sharp at my neck. Nestling my nose under the neck of my sweater, I trudged along. I kept moving. I moved slow, my boots leaving slug-trails, my footprints blue in the shade of laden pines.
Whispers of snow fell to the thinning path. Little thickets and threads of dry reed peeked up and broke the sheer white of the way ahead. I wondered how likely I was to get lost. I wondered if I would find my way back, if the snow swallowed up my trail, would Adam come and find me, pale and purple-lipped, tilted sideways into a drift? He would call someone if he had the bars. I could see the snow sway and dance but I couldn’t hear the wind. The stillness of morning in the cabin was somehow louder than the woods. I pressed my boots hard as I could into the drifts, willing the crunch of my heel to call out to the woods that I was there. I searched the trees to see if my passing would startle the warblers, the hares that burrowed beneath the bramble. Nothing called out, nothing moved, just the shake of the storm in the branches.
Feeling neither brave nor fearful, I unzipped the gym bag and pulled out Adam’s dad’s rifle. I held it by the throat, my fist over the chamber, fingers far from the clutch of the trigger. Casings
rattled in the bag. My heart patted a little harder, the gym bag and the trees more dangerous than the dead metal in my hand.
Go try a hunt, he said. Forget the license. I’d never gone, never shot anything, not even the cans and bottles his Dad lined up with his sister, who I’d watch pop-pop-pop a handgun with gleeful, sick precision. But I wasn’t that kind of woman. I wasn’t even from there, a D.C. transplant in a Midwestern college town. I’d never had my own snowshoes. I’d never won money to spit it away. I’d never known an album by heart, just the lyrics, a handful of melodies. I played piano as a kid and gave up twice. I stood in the snow and thought of all the what-not’s and what-if’s until a wind hit my eyes, they started to water, and I sneezed, and the shriek pinch of it barely registered in the thick of the woods. There was no echo, no reverberation, just the snow and a sharp jab at my chest. I looked up. Nothing. I pulled the hood away from my ears. I heard the hiss of the snow finding mottled, wet ground. I waited for a sound, the snap of a twig or a branch, the crunch of something stirring, moving its way closer. I willed a deer’s knotted antlers to come out and fight me. I wanted to know how it yelled. What did it sound like when it was scared. I willed the bullet into the safety-locked gun. A tiny click.
I figured then that Bon Iver—formerly named Justin?—was an idiot. Adam said he’d dealt with the wolves, that they howled and stalked the door, left prints on the windows, their noses and paws. He was alone with a gun through the whole damn winter? Did he catch his own food? He shot at the deer? Did Emma catch his deer for him? Did she shoot and miss? Did he come to hear his work, only to find a cabin in painful quiet? He didn’t have a working fridge? He didn’t have a girlfriend anymore? But he made something out of nothing and a cabin, rent-free. Are you sure? Just Bon Iver and his sound.
A whiff of smoke. Somewhere in the middle of this naked wildness, behind an open door of solitude, someone lit a fire. Imagine that. Another one of Bon Iver’s dead dad’s cabins. A whole industry of loners, wanting to be found. I hoisted the rifle and pointed its nose to a hole in the treetops. I held it all wrong, I knew, the butt of it under my arm and not notched secure against my shoulder, and I held the length of it higher, pointing at the sky.
Bang, I growled, muffled, choked by the curtain of snow. Bang, louder. I wondered if I had traveled far enough for Adam not to hear me, or if he heard, not the gun he might have expected, but me, safety off.
Bang. The thick silence was something I could beat. Bang, screeched in a higher pitch because we weren’t on a naked, open mountain, where the noise would shake and travel, but under the cover of a foot of snow in Wisconsin, and we were buried at least until Sunday, and I wasn’t going anywhere except the cold and damp and the empty cabin, where I had nothing to do but chop poems. Adam wanted an album. He’d make an album. Adam would make 11-hundred on the 11 worth of songs. Bang became another word, I wanted to make the trees echo. We would have money back for dresses and flowers and buckets of Christmas lights. Adam could wear a damn bow tie if he wanted. Fine. A blue jay bolted out of hiding. My throat was hot and torn, and I had half a mind to scoop up a mouthful of snow. I turned around.
When I came back to the cabin, I found clusters of candles lit here and there, and Adam at the kitchen stove, watching a pot muster a boil. I shimmied off my boots, pulled tiredly at my sodden socks, double-layered, plastered to my shins. He watched me and offered a little smile. He asked about my walk. He figured pasta was fine for him to get started until I got back. I asked him if he’d been productive. Adam smiled and helped me shrug off the coat, heavy with water, and hung it on a nail in the wall. He kissed the top of my head and took my hand in his. He said it felt good, what he was working on was still a work-in-progress, but something real was gonna come, maybe tomorrow. He figured “For Emma” started with just a bounce back and forth between two chords, and he’d felt them, going back and forth, and he was playing with lines here and there, until it rushed out like “Flume.”
I stared at the table, bare. No clippings or scissors, no piles. Did you read them? Did they give you any ideas? Adam’s smile thinned. What?
No firefighters, crickets, or tree-climbers wanted. No cyclists or haunted furniture mirrors or the ghoul in the attic. They crackled in the wood stove. They cluttered the waste bin. There was a jar of pasta sauce on the table, the cheap kind, and a sheaf of notebook paper, a single line surrounded by hatches of lines and storm clouds with thick underbellies.
"Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase." - J.V.
Fuck you, Emma.