It was snowing for the first time since German had arrived on the cape, two years ago and still, as planned, without a single acquaintance in the tiny town of Hobart, a town that had now briefly accepted this thin cover of white. Already were coming the eager companionable sounds of scraping and stirring, far off there came the rumble of gravel trucks and plows scalding the pavement with their curving blades, and German’s instinct was of course to join in this communal enterprise, to develop himself into the day in this fashion. The house came equipped, like a lifeboat, with a series of small but vital items, candles for the power outage that would not follow, a tidy blister pack of batteries and a radio, all these things tucked into a metal tin by the front door, a flashlight. The bracing air was dry and hard against him and on the porch was a set of tracks, maybe a raccoon, some little beast now made visible in its passing, the tracks bending with a certain grace toward the railing where they vanished into the bushes. What a life this suddenly seemed, pulling his coat around him, what a vastness of possibility presented itself in this world that had been abruptly simplified. Nothing simple for German, not lately, not since the endless and ferocious time in Brazil when all the work he had done to that point, every person he had met and cheated and cajoled, all the land he had acquired for Tom and all the people he had lied to, paid off, every stinking meeting in every concrete-floored café under the brightest lights in the universe, the jungle racketing outside like a machine at the edge of town, a vast and mindless enterprise that would happily absorb everything they threw at it, all the engineers whose calculations had been so pitilessly precise, every foot of soil anticipated, every inch of depth toward bedrock accounted for, the river and all its infinitude groaning past freighted with life and death, green in the mornings and brown an hour later when he returned to its presence, a changeable beast who could guess his intentions – all of it had collapsed in the course of a single week when the fires had begun and spread, had made all work impossible, as it would turn out forever or effectively so, all the ancient towered forests, themselves an ancient engineering work of ten thousand years ago, edible and useful trees so far outnumbering the trash, the useless cover, the jungle as it wanted to be, all of it standing as it burned, a salute to its own monumental nature, its only reasonable end a demonstration of this kind, visible from space and dusting the planet with its ash. And since then German had waited for the next thing, waited here in Hobart where he had been sent to hide, to recuperate, paid handsomely and urged to avoid all possible temptation to spill his guts, to tell his story to anyone who might ask; and in the nearly two years he had felt no need, no impulse whatsoever, indeed often cringing at the stupid shame of it, his own crew and their careless press, their engines sparking and no doubt some criminal laziness too, some wish to hurry toward the end, to skirt a law or two, to clear the land that needed clearing and in so doing clearing more than half the Amazon which burned still, burned now as the world watched and wondered where he was. And now this snow, this blankness, this set of tracks that bent with such unhurry toward the edge. What a beautiful day it was, really, maybe one of the last ones ever, maybe the last snow he would ever see, as it was all looking like, it was all looking quite bad, in fact, worse and worse and worse, but he could still now, he could still tug his jacket around him and pocket those matches, tuck that flashlight in beside them, the hearty heavy wax of his jacket assuring him that everything would be all right. He had kept one thing, a royal mask from some nameless people from deep in the interior, only a few hundred of them ever discovered, an offering of respect for him, or of courtesy, or pleading, this plunder a last request maybe that in exchange for their land he, someone, would recognize that they once had existed. A small mask like a skullcap, a people of petite dimensions, a saucer, a coaster nearly, the only other thing in his pocket now, always more or less at hand, its scent fair and vegetal, unsour, dirt and feathers, a cover for his features, a veil, a shell, and what a temptation to put it on as he stepped onto the snow now, and yet a greater one to leave it off, to march at last unguarded and discoverable into the new world that had been so long coming and that had overnight, and in silence, and everywhere at once, finally arrived.
About Michael Byers
Michael Byers is an award-winning novelist and Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at University of Michigan. His fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.