To give credit where it's due, Jett Superior shared a photo that I loved on Twitter a while back. I replied: "I feel like there's a deep (if short) story there, if only we could decipher it!" She said, "Maybe you should just use that photo as a prompt and write it. I'd love to see what comes of that." And so I did. I'm sure this one could use another round of strong-arm editing, but I feel like it's time to let it fly for a bit and then see how it shapes up.
ShekinahMarcus Abernathy had never been one for favors, but when an old fraternity brother called and asked him for one, it was harder than usual to refuse. Harris Chappell had just been elected governor and handed a monster of an in-progress highway project. A new interstate was being cut through the length of the state and Chappell had campaigned on a promise that he could get it done fast, right, and fairly. Abernathy had made a career out of smoothing the way for land acquisition for construction projects. Usually it was fairly straightforward - negotiate an acceptable deal between a municipality and a subdivision developer, line up incentives to lure a shopping mall to a nearly-abandoned strip of farmland on the edge of a growing city. This job, though, promised to be a little more delicate. The next phase was a major interchange with an existing highway just north of a small rural town that had offered serious opposition from the beginning. Out-lobbied and out-shouted by larger cities who didn’t want the highway either, the townspeople had eventually caved and the affected families were starting to sell, but tensions were high and the governor wanted someone on site to keep things from blowing up. Abernathy was looking forward to a few quiet years of semi-retirement before he called it quits for good. He was 57 years old, still relatively fit, hoping for a few good decades to enjoy himself. The project seemed pretty straightforward - shake some hands, hand out some reassurances, and hang out for a few months to maintain a semblance of government presence - so he finally agreed.
By the time Abernathy arrived in the tiny town of Hedges, there was only one holdout, an eighth generation farmer named Jessup McTiernan who owned 600 acres of field and timber and steadfastly refused to yield. His ancestors had carved the farm out of the wild country, worked it into something worth having. They’d been born there, died there, and were buried there. McTiernan was twenty five years old, married, with an Ag Ec degree from Purdue. Abernathy set up a meeting with McTiernan and his wife, held on supposedly neutral ground at the town’s tiny administration building. He made sure he arrived first and waited in the small, nondescript conference room. The McTiernans arrived five minutes early and were shown in by one of the mayor’s aides. Jessup was tall and lean, dressed in work-worn boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved plaid shirt despite the heat. He removed his John Deere ball cap as he entered the room, revealing close-cropped black hair and startling pale gray eyes. His wife Amelia was tiny and blonde, her pretty face hardened with concern. She was pregnant, the swell of her belly filling out the front of her light cotton dress.
Abernathy stood and offered his hand to husband and wife in turn. “Thank you for coming. I’m Marcus Abernathy. Please, sit down.”
Once they were seated, he slid a manila folder across the table to each of them. “As I told you on the phone, I’m here to serve as a mediator between you and the state. It’s my job to try to look out for everyone’s best interests and find a solution that suits everyone.”
His speech was mostly bullshit and he suspected the McTiernans knew it. As they went over the paperwork that all of them had seen before, Abernathy found Jessup polite in that way country people tended to be, but there was steel underneath. Amelia was mostly just angry and he could tell an outburst was simmering beneath the surface of her chilly civility. Everything about the state’s offer was offensive. The money they were offering barely covered the paper-value of the land and made no reparations for the crops, the timber, or the mineral rights. McTiernan was completely justified in being furious and had taken every right and legal step to defend what was his.
Worst of all, Abernathy found he genuinely liked the man and wanted nothing more than to hand him back his family’s land. The section the state wanted would cut a swath right through the core of the property, leveling the house, bisecting the cropland, ripping out the two oil wells drilled in the 1970s, and destroying over half the timber acres the family had kept mostly uncut since the 1800s. The McTiernans rejected the state’s offer yet again, and Abernathy himself went to the governor with a proposed adjustment to the route that would save the house and slice off the edge of the property instead of cutting out its heart. The highway commissioner rejected it immediately, angry after months of delays.
After a judge ruled that the state had the right to seize what it wanted through eminent domain and a second judge upheld the ruling despite McTiernan’s lawyer’s appeal, Abernathy insisted on being present when the eviction notice was served. A pair of state policemen had been sent to handle the situation when the commissioner had decided the local sheriff wasn’t aggressive enough, and they were fed up with the stubborn farmer and ready to work out some frustration. Abernathy rode in the back of the squad car, his stomach giving an unpleasant lurch as they passed between the two massive, gnarled white oaks that marked the entrance to the property. Angling the cruiser in to park in the grass near the front porch the nastier cop, Chandler, got out and hustled ahead, clearly hoping to cut off Abernathy’s attempt at diplomacy. McTiernan had anticipated the visit and stood in the open doorway, feet braced wide and arms folded across his chest.
“Time’s up,” Chandler said, thrusting the eviction notice out in front of him. “You’ve got thirty days to pack up and clear out.” When McTiernan made no move to take the paper, Chandler reached over and stapled it to the wood-sided front wall of the house. Every chunk of the silver staple gun felt like a punch in Abernathy’s gut. As Chandler finished and stepped back with a smirk, there was a flurry of movement in the doorway. Amelia darted past her husband, her face contorted with rage. “You son of a bitch!” she shrieked as McTiernan caught her under the arms, yanking her back just before she was able to get at Chandler. “You rotten, thieving son of a bitch!”
“Let her take a swing, cowboy,” Chandler sneered as his partner Laramie laughed.
Abernathy felt his own hands clench into fists as Amelia spat and swore.
When McTiernan finally spoke, his voice was low and dangerous. “Get off my land.”
“It’s not yours much longer,” Laramie told him.
“But it’s mine today. So get back in your car and leave.”
With the last legal obstacle cleared, things proceeded quickly. Heavy equipment rumbled up and down the road to the McTiernan farm, widening the gravel road and laying pathways for the destruction that was to come. Two weeks after the eviction notice, a half dozen local men in pickup trucks rattled up the rutted road pulling empty flatbeds behind them. Abernathy saw them drive by from the window of his miserable office trailer and hopped into the car to follow them up. The men were loading up everything the McTiernans deemed worth saving as Amelia directed traffic in the front room. Abernathy rolled up his sleeves and joined the flow of work without a word, helping haul out boxed-up dishes and papers, duffel bags of clothes, all the sundry things that make a life and never get noticed until someone has to move them. It was heartbreaking to load up furniture and carefully wrapped quilts handed down through generations of people who’d only ever wanted to stay. When a pair of men came down the front stairs carefully carrying a spindle-sided baby crib between them, Amelia broke. She sank to the floor as sobs wracked her body and McTiernan came to her, knelt and hugged her to his chest, rocking her as she wailed. Abernathy turned away, busied himself with carrying another stack of boxes from the room.
All the household goods were delivered to a storage unit on the edge of town and Abernathy heard from the sheriff that Amelia and Jessup had decided to stay with Amelia’s sister for a little while. But a few days later Jessup was back at the farm, his dusty truck parked next to the ramshackle white barn like always. One evening after the construction guys had cleared out for the day, Abernathy made the drive up to the house. He found McTiernan sitting on the front steps, halfway through a bottle of whiskey.
No greeting seemed appropriate so he finally settled for “Hey.”
McTiernan grunted and offered the whiskey bottle. Abernathy accepted, settling down on edge of the porch and taking a deep pull. “Look,” he said finally, handing the bottle back. “I am truly sorry for how this all turned out. It’s not what I wanted.”
“I know,” McTiernan said. “Thank you for trying.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, staring off across the gently swaying corn to the rich green of the treetops beyond. Cicadas whirred, filling the evening with their hum. The smell of rich soil and fresh cut hay hung in the air.
“I wouldn’t want to leave here either,” Abernathy said after a bit, feeling utterly wretched.
“I’m not leaving.”
“Jessup, you don’t have a choice. If you don’t go willingly, they will arrest you and drag you away. Think of Amelia and the baby if you won’t think of yourself.”
“You don’t understand,” McTiernan said. “The land is our blood. Without it, we don’t have anything. No family, no home.” He took a long drink from his bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was born here, did you know that?”
Abernathy shook his head, aching with the misery of the moment.
“It’s true. I was born right up there, in the front bedroom. And I buried my dad here after he died. I’m supposed to die here and be buried here and hand this all down to my son. I’m not supposed to end up raising my boy in a rental house in the middle of town and working under a roof all day.”
“I know. It’s horrible.”
“I don’t think you know. I think you want to understand, but I don’t think you do.”
Once the construction foreman figured out Jessup was back, he enacted a policy of constant harassment. Nothing Abernathy said to him or relayed back to the governor made any difference. The sheriff’s hands were tied, jurisdiction firmly resting with the state police. Construction equipment encroached closer and closer to the house each day, drivers blasting music and blaring horns and revving engines. One afternoon a driver got a little too bold and pulled his wheel loader through the oaks, probably planning to tear up the grass or God knows what. Before he got thirty feet past the property line, his windshield spiderwebbed in front of his face, cracked by a bullet from McTiernan’s rifle. He turned the machine around and fled, and by the time Abernathy got word of it and raced up to intervene the foreman had gone up to the house to raise hell. When Abernathy arrived the foreman was standing between the oaks, swearing and screaming. McTiernan stood fifty yards away, the rifle in his hands.
“What the hell are you doing?” Abernathy called out, frustration mounting.
“This is still my land.”
“For four more days!” the foreman shouted. “Four fucking days, McTiernan, and then I’m going to drive a fucking bulldozer over you myself if you’re not gone.”
Abernathy pulled out his cell phone and dialed the sheriff. “You have to get Amelia up here to talk some sense into him. Someone’s going to get killed.”
Amelia came and went. Jessup stayed. Abernathy flagged Amelia down as she drove past the trailer on her way back to town. She slowed to a stop and rolled down her window. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying. “His mind is made up, Mr. Abernathy. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“I don’t think he understands. Someone’s going to die up here, Amelia.”
“Without this land he’s as good as dead anyway.”
It rained for three days and kept things quiet. The fourth day dawned clear, the last day before the land became state property. Abernathy had barely settled in at his desk when he heard tires on the gravel. Glancing up, he saw the foreman’s truck and the state cop cruiser roll by with a bulldozer rumbling along behind. Chest tight with panic, he ran to his car to follow. At the oaks, the foreman and the cops got out of their vehicles.
“I want these trees down by lunchtime,” the foreman said.
McTiernan stood between the two massive trunks. He was unarmed, disheveled, dressed only in jeans and a white T shirt. His bare feet and rumpled hair made him look young and vulnerable. “It’s not time yet.”
“It is as far as I’m concerned. You’ve been slowing us down long enough.”
The bulldozer fired up and began to roll toward the closer oak. McTiernan stepped in front of the tree and faced the machine.
“For God’s sake,” Abernathy cried. “This is insane!” He started toward McTiernan, but Laramie stepped into his path and caught his arm.
“Stay out of this.”
Abernathy could only watch as the bulldozer rolled closer and closer to the figure standing immobile in its path. He felt tension knotting across his shoulders as the bulldozer driver actually crept close enough to bump the dozer blade against McTiernan’s chest and knock him back. McTiernan kept his feet, but a moment later Chandler was on him, throwing a couple of punches before shoving him to the ground and cuffing his hands behind his back. The cop hauled McTiernan back up and dragged him over to the cruiser.
“Do it!” the foreman called out and the bulldozer roared to life again. McTiernan was silent, rigid, anguish laid bare on his face. It took nearly fifteen minutes for the first oak to yield. As it finally cracked and toppled, McTiernan wrenched himself free of Chandler’s grip. He bent double and vomited, then reeled away, staggering a few steps before sinking to his knees and pressing his forehead against the side of the cops’ car.
Abernathy yanked his arm free and moved to McTiernan’s side, gripping the young man’s shoulder tightly. Though he remained silent through the other oak’s fall, the farmer trembled with grief. After it was over, the cops drove McTiernan down to the town jail, but the sheriff refused to book him. He ordered the troopers to turn McTiernan loose and they did, perhaps sensing they were on the verge of pushing too hard. The sheriff drove McTiernan to Amelia’s sister’s and left him in his wife’s care. Abernathy hung around his trailer until nearly midnight, certain that McTiernan would come home. He was right and waved down the farmer and his wife down as they drove up the road.
“I really don’t want to watch you die, Jessup.”
The young man’s eye was bruised, his lip cut, but he seemed steady again. “You won’t have to, Mr. Abernathy.”
“See you tomorrow, I guess.”
McTiernan offered a sad smile. “Thanks again for everything you’ve tried to do.”
Abernathy made sure he was the first to arrive at the farm the next morning. He parked his car near the ruined oaks and approached the house on foot. As the sun broke over the timber stand and illuminated the side of the white barn, Abernathy stopped in his tracks. Painted in large, neat black letters was a message: I will not bow down to tyranny.
He knocked at the farmhouse door but got no response, though Jessup’s truck was parked in its usual spot. When the cops arrived they kicked in the door and searched the place, but McTiernan wasn’t there. The foreman called in an excavator and a bulldozer to level the house. As the front wall buckled and peeled away to expose the room where Jessup said he’d been born, the room he and Amelia had painted light blue for their baby boy, Abernathy turned away, unable to bear the sight.
The house was gone by the end of the day, smashed to rubble and pushed out of the way. Even the fieldstone chimney had been toppled and shoved aside. Work proceeded rapidly at first, the crews laying a wide gravel access road past where the house had stood and up to the corn, but then things started to go wrong. Equipment constantly broke down, slowing work by hours and then by days. The weather turned abysmal, with rain and lightning storms. Two weeks after the house fell, one of the bulldozers was crippled by an engine fire in the middle of the work day. The foreman and the cops blamed McTiernan, but no one had seen him since the night before the demolition. The cops and the sheriff had watched Amelia’s place night and day and the construction company left night security on the site, but McTiernan never turned up.
The day they started bulldozing the cornfield, a sinkhole opened up at the edge of it and swallowed two machines. There’d never been any indication of instability in any of the surveys, and Abernathy had no answers for the highway commission. A month into the project and already two months behind, the crew doubled their pace but met tangle after tangle. Electrical shorts killed the grader they’d brought in to extend the road bed. Two men were seriously injured when an excavator tipped over in high winds. Finally, a late summer storm washed out the access road up to the farm. Abernathy sent his report to the highway commissioner and the governor, detailing repairs that would have to be made for work to continue.
He heard nothing for a week, then received an abrupt message informing him that his services were no longer needed, that due to unforeseen unsuitability of the land, the highway would have to be adjusted to the alternate route. He packed up his stuff and headed back to Indianapolis. For a while he called down to the sheriff every few months to check in, but Jessup never reappeared and he eventually stopped calling. He took on a few more acquisition jobs but nothing involving private landowners. At the end of the year he filed for full retirement and left the industry for good.
Years later, Abernathy was passing through on his way home from a week in the Florida Keys and stopped by the old farm on a whim, not entirely sure why he'd driven up the long and still-unpaved road. The scars from the skid loaders and bulldozers were nearly healed, new trees growing straight and strong to hide the gaps the men had cut into the sky. But no one living, not even the little boy chasing chickens in front of the modest two-story house built atop the foundation of the one Abernathy had seen ruined, would last to see the white oaks restored at the end of the drive. The low, sad stumps hit him like a fist to the gut. So much wasted. The gravel from the access road remained, though the grass had grown up around it again. The cornfield started fifty feet farther back from the house, a small pond filling the sinkhole that had stopped the bulldozers.
As his car rolled to a stop at the edge of the yard, a small blonde woman stepped out from the shade beside the house, a damp bed sheet still crumpled in her arms. She recognized Abernathy as he got out of the car and her back went straight, the set of her shoulders turning defiant.
"Amelia," he greeted her, his tone heavier with regret than he'd intended.
"What do you want?" she asked, her voice pleasant enough with the child so close but her eyes hard as flint.
"Nothing. I was just in the area and thought I'd come up and see what had happened to the old place."
"Still here, no thanks to you." She stepped away to clip her sheet to the clothesline, then turned back, arms folded tightly across her chest.
"Look, I'm sorry for the way it happened. I truly am. I had a job to do."
"And look how far it got you."
Abernathy laughed; he couldn't help it. "He won in the end, I guess."
"Damn straight," she replied, pride evident in the set of her chin.
Abernathy turned his gaze to the boy who now sat at the edge of the yard, black hair shining in the sun, a hen captured in his skinny embrace. "At what cost, Amelia? Leaving all this behind, was it worth it?"
She spread her arms wide to encompass the farmstead and the acres beyond. "He didn't leave all this, he saved it. You still don't understand, do you? Jess tried to tell you. The land is our blood. Without it, there's nothing. He did what he had to do."
The little boy turned the chicken loose and came to stand beside his mother, looking up at Abernathy with curiosity in his pale gray eyes. Amelia rested her hand fondly on his head. “Say hello, Jesse,” she told the child.
“Hello,” the boy said dutifully.
“Hello. And I guess goodbye. I didn’t want to upset you, I was just wondering how things were.”
“We’re fine,” Amelia said, twining her fingers through her boy’s dark curls. “We’re fine.”
“Well, all the best, then. If you ever need anything the sheriff knows how to get in touch with me.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Abernathy,” Amelia said, but not unkindly. As Abernathy walked back to the car she called out, “Thank you, by the way. For what you did back then. I know you tried to help.”
Abernathy smiled sadly. “I only wish I could’ve done more.” A warm breeze rustled through the distant trees and washed over the yard as he walked back to the car, ruffling his hair and carrying with it the barest scent of sweet whiskey.
He glanced in the rearview mirror as he pulled away. Amelia and Jesse still stood together, the peace of their land wrapping around them. The white barn and its barely-faded message reared up behind them, the peaked roof reaching proudly into the impossibly blue Indiana sky.