Excerpt from Down Burned Road by Jacqueline Baker

I

YOU WOULDN’T KNOW the place was there at all, if you didn’t know where to look.  It’s a long way out, Carrie told people, knowing they would get only as far as the old cemetery, where pavement gave way to dirt winding darkly through corridors of pine and brush. Then they would turn back, thinking they had passed it.  Everyone did.  It’s a long way, she told them. Yes, yes, they said, a long way, okay, what’s the address?  It doesn’t matter, she said, there’s no sign.

Early on she had suggested to Yurig they put something at the end of the road. Not a sign, exactly, but a marker, something natural. The gnarled root of a tree, say, with their names on it. What for? he’d said. She’d told him, So people can find us. He’d frowned, genuinely puzzled.  Why do we want people to find us?

She did not tell this to her friends. She felt it put him in a bad light.

Instead, if she knew someone was coming, she drove to the end of their road and waited. After a while she’d return home and sit looking at the phone.

I think we missed you, they’d say, when she picked up.

She’d give the directions again. Down Burned Road, a long way, past all the acreages, over the Fraser River, past the old cemetery, no, there’s no sign for it either but you can see the headstones through the brush, past the marsh, no there’s no name for that either, you can’t miss it, it’s the only open spot in the trees, then a mile up the logging road, you have 4-wheel, right?, a mile or so up on your left, no, you can’t see the house from there. You can’t see anything.

When you think you’ve gone too far, she told them, keep going.

ON THEIR FIRST ANNIVERSARY Carrie’d bought a small can of paint and a brush at the hardware store in town. She’d driven home, parked her truck at the end of their road and – with bear spray hunting knife hatchet alarm whistle strapped to her belt – walked the ditch with Yurig’s grub hoe until she found a rock big enough. She used the hoe to pry it loose, then rolled it back to their road. She positioned it with the care of a floral arranger and got the paint.

When she’d finished, she stood looking at it. She stepped back a few paces and looked some more. Finally, she walked out onto Burned Road and looked from there.

Carrie + Yurig.

It occurred to her she should have put Yurig’s name first. It was his place, after all. Not that he ever lorded it over her. But, still.

She had to admit it looked silly. One little rock (she’d thought it was bigger) cowered beneath trees like dark gods, the great, bull-necked mountains. It looked puny, insignificant. She knelt at the rock again and added: 4ever. At least she could give him a laugh.

Then she drove home. She put the grub hoe back in the tool shed. She cleaned the brush and placed it on top of the paint can in the basement. She hung bear spray hatchet hunting knife alarm whistle on a nail by the screen door. She made a cup of tea and drank it standing at the sink, staring out the window, wondering if Yurig would, in fact, get a laugh out of it.

When she’d finished her tea, she rinsed her cup, strapped bear spray hatchet hunting knife alarm whistle to her belt, drove to the end of the road, got out and rolled the rock over so the painted side faced the dirt.

THE ROCK STAYED. Its blind presence gave her a certain pleasure, and a certain strange power too, as if it were a talisman, a love charm, binding her and Yurig together (4ever, as she had written).

A secret, between her and the earth.

FRIENDS FROM THE CITY were astonished, once they found the place. They’d sit at her kitchen table shaking their heads while she served them coffee in blue mugs she’d made at a pottery class in town.

That road, they’d say. Burned Road? It doesn’t smack of—

What?

Burning bridges?

What do you mean?

They shook their heads. Then they said, At night, my god. What if something happens? What if your truck breaks down?

Oh, she’d say, smiling, I have Yurig.

Dubious, the friends watched him through the window as he split logs and tossed them into a pile one-handed, his toque pulled low, his pants hiked up far too high.

Where did you meet him, again?

In town, she’d say.

The friends would nod slowly, at Yurig, at the rock and pine and brush. They’d look around the cabin.

Okay, they’d say finally, lifting their palms in a gesture of bewilderment, but what do you do?

Oh, I keep busy, there’s always something, she’d say. I keep pretty busy. You’d be surprised.

Occasionally, visitors would arrive to find Yurig gutting and bleeding a deer in the yard, the animal strung up by its hind hooves, Yurig lifting a bloodied hand in greeting, clearly pleased with his timing, as Carrie ushered them into the house.

Sometimes the friends saw bears on the way up, the occasional wolf. Do they come into the yard? they’d ask.

Now and then, she’d say, sipping her coffee, hardly ever, it doesn’t bother me. (Neglecting to mention she never left the house without bear spray hunting knife hatchet alarm whistle.)

The friends would shake their heads again in what she took for baffled amazement. She liked that, she had to admit it. She was doing something that amazed her friends. She was amazing. She poured out more coffee and served homemade bread and jelly from cranberries she’d collected herself. She would say, They’re sweeter if you wait until after the first frost. And, I only pick as much as we can use; the bears have to eat, too. And, Did you know berries make up the majority of a bear’s diet? She’d dish up beaver stew from the slow-cooker for lunch. Then she’d watch the amazement play on their faces.

~

“Down Burned Road” was originally published in The Malahat Review.

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