I found Silas sitting by the stream in the bottom of the narrow valley. When I was a kid I used to go down to that valley, past the rusting shells of cars half-sunk in the weeds, careful not to get too close to them because my mother had warned me about rattlesnakes and foxes that made their homes there. Rattlesnakes scared me. I never saw a fox, except once in the winter moonlight when a silvery apparition glided across the yard. Silas told me they were ghosts, and I probably believed him.
Silas did not acknowledge me when I sat down. We were sitting with our backs to the ancient highway, a wide trail winding through hemlocks and oaks that bent over like rows of weary giants leaning on each other. The highway had been abandoned for generations. Society had been rerouted around the mountains, through broader valleys and plains, and Silas never tired of reminding everyone that this part of the country had been forgotten—unless you counted the hunters who strolled the lost highway on bitter November mornings in search of their deer stands.
Silas glanced at me and struggled to remember my face. Today was not a good day.
“How are you, Silas?” I said.
“Above ground,” he said. He scratched his head, not because he was confused or itchy, but because he wanted to get inside, work on his mind like he had worked on trucks and replace the parts that were not working, delve into the shafts of his body and remove the coal that was clogging his veins in order to disperse the firedamp that accumulated in his chest until frustration ignited it on days like this. He was not comfortable above ground.
“You going to be okay finding your way home?” I said.
“Never got lost before,” he said.
“Not for lack of trying.”
Folks around town used to tell me Silas was “not an easy man.” They referred to him only in the negative, perhaps afraid to say what he was out loud, so I grew up not knowing what kind of man he was, only what kind of man he was not. My parents regretted that, because I got curious and started going hunting with him. He tolerated me, even thought I was tough because I watched him skin a buck without vomiting, which was more than he thought of his own family. This was before I went away to college. While I was gone, the world changed, and Silas became more isolated as the countryside he knew changed. His friends moved away or died, his children spent all their time on phones and computers, and he was left to wander the woods by himself, which is where I found him when I got back from school.
He did not trust me anymore. Not because he was superstitious of my education or thought I had changed too much, but because an educated man like me thought himself too good for the likes of Silas, or maybe too sensitive. Nobody could take a joke these days, Silas said. Half the people were hypersensitive and the other half gave genuine opinions when Silas thought they had to be joking. He was sure social media was an elaborate prank that digital megalomaniacs in the mountains of California were foisting on society. He hated society, but he suspected he might get along with those megalomaniacs.
I was never sure why jokes were part of trust with someone as saturnine as Silas, but it was laughter that won me his trust again. I was involved in a fatal accident and was suspected of driving under the influence. Until the case could be fully investigated and go to trial, I was placed on parole and had to wear an ankle monitor at home while I lived with my parents. At the time my family owned a Great Dane and had installed invisible fence so that he would not terrorize the neighbor’s horses. To keep a dog of those dimensions contained, we had to crank up the voltage to astronomical levels, and somehow wires got crossed and the invisible fence shocked my ankle monitor when I went to get the mail. Jolts of electricity snarled up my leg and had me twitching and yelping in the yard. Silas did not care about the totaled car, he did not care about the person that died in the accident, he did not care about our dog, he did not care that I might go to prison for the rest of my adult life. It was the bizarre electrocution that moved him to trust me again.
Still, he was not as talkative as he used to be. Sitting on his porch, watching cars go by, his myriad yarns that used to flow freely dwindled to an occasional observation. Doctors advised me to spend time with him, warning me that it would be worse if he did not talk. I tried to explain to them that talking was not his problem. Listening was.
The bombinating noise of a wasps’ nest nearby distracted Silas, and for a moment he watched hive workers build their upside-down emporium of stinging darts. His eyes strayed back to the old highway, overgrown with weeds and dandelions. Sometimes I knew how he felt, because sometimes I also watched and waited for the cars to come back, but today his expression was cryptic. He sat like a gnarled sphinx, stooped with age, who had long ago given his final riddle to a world that had never solved his first one.
Guess I ought to keep him talking.
“You ever wonder where all these roads went before folks forgot about them?” I said. There are countless trails that run through Appalachia which were now covered with leaves and saplings, some with two parallel ruts, as if wagons had once trundled through the depths of the forests. Nobody ever talks about them.
“Civil War.” He growled like a slate landslide. “Most folks don’t realize the South lost half its history. Most of it still ain’t been found.” He pointed at a hill, hunched and jerky. “There’s a forge back yonder. Made bullets for the war. They took the iron, melted lead up in the top. Fell like raindrops.” He wiggled his arthritic fingers in a clumsy yet delicate manner, miming lead rain as his cloudy eyes searched the forest for the forge’s location. “Nobody knows that forge is there except me. Give it a few years, though, and same crowd that destroyed them things will rediscover them like they’re historic artifacts, like we didn’t know they were here to begin with. Reckon everything becomes historic sooner or later. Right after everybody forgets about it.”
“What does it matter? The Civil War is long gone. Wasn’t it Lord Byron who said, ‘the dead do not care’?” I said. I would have explained the reference, but that might come across as patronizing, so I did not enlighten him. As it turned out, I did not need to.
“How long it take him to figure that out?” Silas said, and suddenly heat was flowing out of my collar. Conversations with Silas could be embarrassing for one or both of us. Today it was my turn.
Talking had helped Silas remember himself and his surroundings, but this exchange led to a lull in the conversation that put him in a dour mood which could soon have him wandering those lost highways. I told him the news from town and what I had heard from the hunters about bears and bucks in the forest. He knew all of this already, and probably more, but I could think of nothing else to talk about. No amount of gossip stirred him, and when I mentioned that I was now engaged he did not congratulate me, though I talked about my fiancee at some length. I was afraid I had lost him entirely when the sun glittered off of his eye and he fought a smile.
“She have a dog?”
Alex Pickens has lived over 20 years in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. He recently graduated Magna Cum Laude with a dual degree and this year his work appears in outlets such as Pretty Owl Poetry, Jersey Devil Press, Crack the Spine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Tuck magazine, and Allegory Ridge, while his flash fiction has been nominated for a Best Microfiction, 2018 anthology. Author of award-winning screenplays, in his spare time he runs in the mountains, reads the Classics, and occasionally stares down an angry bear.