It was dangling there, hanging from a nail in the wall on a little copper-plated hemp string. It shone softly with a crystalline silver reflection, almost translucent. Sometimes, when through the... [+]
For all his life, Frank had been at war with the willows. They sprouted in and around the stream, clogged the irrigation ditches, and choked off the water flow.
His land, a narrow plain between steep mountain shoulders, received few hours of direct sunlight, and the already challenged crops could not support the shock of thirst: he needed to keep them well watered.
So Frank burned the willows, dowsed them with poisons, or latched a chain around their bases using his Power Wagon to yank them out by their roots.
They always grew back.
Frank called his spread "Rancho Pancho," a ranch, even though he had only one pig—enough to eat the slops—and one bull—enough to collect flies. His downstream neighbors accused him of never being a real farmer, saying the stream was undersized and his measly crops stole water that they could be using.
He ignored them: his land was thirsty.
Days passed as each morning, the eastern ridge pulled back its shade and each evening, the western ridge tossed out its blanket of night. Months passed as the mountain shadows tilted, a sundial to the seasons. In the summer, the willows' catkins bloomed with feathery seeds. In winter, their dried reeds stood like a phalanx bearing spears.
Each decade the year reset to zero. Still he pressed on, fighting the willows by flame, or poison, or ripping them from the earth.
His veins grew as varicose as the stream.
His tractor, Gravel Gertie, never aged because it was always old. Its smokestack forever coughed, its motor always shuddered.
One overcast day, when the sun could not wink, when all shadows dissolved into one, the ditches went dry. Frank drove to the northern tip of his land, to the place where the river entered, a rocky site with little purchase for plant life. And yet somehow the willows had grown there, too. Tall, dense, they formed a barrier, their shafts as daunting as prison bars.
Looking between the reeds, he saw an old man lying on the ground, crumpled as though fallen.
"Señor? Señor? Are you okay?"
The man didn't move. Frank looked to where he had parked his Power Wagon, but it wasn't there.
In the distance he saw his daughter, walking his way. His only daughter, he had always called her, "Sister," the name her brothers used.
"Sister!" he called. She made no response.
As she approached, he saw that his daughter was older than he was.
His mind hurt. He felt so tired that he no longer felt anything—including tired. Knowing he had to help the fallen man, Frank pressed into the thicket of willows. The stalks parted, then closed behind him. They wouldn't allow him to go forward or back.
He grabbed a reed as though to strangle it. It blossomed through his hand. Spikes grew up, piercing his feet.
"Sister!" he cried as she arrived. Her body passed through the willow stalks, their spears dividing her smoke.
Sap thickened in his veins. He shut his eyes.