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Fiction by John Brantingham
In the Land of Drought
In the Land of Drought
by John Brantingham
Harrison’s halfway down to the water when he sees the rifle. Some kid a
couple hundred yards away is swinging the barrel around, sighting things in
the distance, aiming at a hawk circling above. “Boom!” Harrison can hear
him say, the words skipping echo across the distance.
The two of them are in the white barren silt where the lake used to be. In
this time of drought, the lake has receded down into the Earth, creating a
kind of no man's land a quarter mile long filled with the ashy remains of
what used to be underwater plants and fish.
To Harrison, the kid looks like his son, Stanley, but then every boy reminds
him of Stanley lately. Stanley, who is in juvenile detention right now after
breaking some poor kid’s arm with a bat for striking out during baseball
practice. Stanley, who is locked up because this is not his first offense, not
even his fifth. Stanley, the sociopath Harrison has apparently raised to be a
bully, whom Harrison loves as if he is still five years old.
“Gareth,” the kid in the once-lake yells up to his friend leaning against the hood of a car at the top
of hill. When Gareth looks down at the kid, he holds the rifle above his head like it’s a barbell and
yells a long, “Woooo!”
For a moment, Harrison thinks the kid is celebrating a kill. That doesn’t make sense though. He
didn’t hear a bang, and there are too many people up and down this unnaturally long beach. No
one but Stanley would be reckless enough to hunt in a place like this.
Most of these people have stopped what they’re doing to watch the kid celebrate whatever has
happened. A man twenty yards off lets his metal detector droop and stares up at him with a
sideways kind of smile.
“Do you think we should stop him?” the man with the metal detector asks.
The kid is laughing now, excited by his luck. He’s drawing a bead on Gareth up the hill. “I don’t
know,” Harrison says. “It can’t be dangerous right? A gun down at the bottom of a lake like that.”
He hears his own words. Maybe his weakness has allowed his son to become a bully.
The man walks closer to Harrison. “If a shell had been left in there, it could have dried out by
now, I suppose.” The man cups his free hand to his mouth. “Be careful,” he calls, but the kid is
trotting up the hill and doesn’t seem to notice.
Harrison should stop the boy, he knows, but whatever strength he had has been sapped out of
him lately. Instead, he nods at the metal detector. “Find anything?”
“Some nails and hooks and things, and look at this.” He holds a white lump of something out to
Harrison holds it in his palm. It’s carved soapstone, white with light blue streaks running through it,
but the shape is hard to understand. Then he sees the rough outlines of what was once clearly a
carved bear, eroded now a little, so the paws are smoothed out, the snout is softening away.
“Where did you find this?”
The man points with the tip of his beard. “Over there across the lake. It’s a good find, isn’t it?”
“Good find, yeah,” Harrison says. “It should be in a museum.”
This last remark is just meant to be a compliment about what great eyes the man has, but he
stiffens, and Harrison realizes that he’s wearing his ranger uniform. The man has to be thinking
that he is law enforcement here to take something away. He isn’t going to keep the bear,
wouldn’t know what to do with it if he did, and doubts that it’s any kind of major find, but he can
feel the heat in the man starting to rise, feel the argument about to start.
Maybe he should argue, but instead before the man speaks, Harrison hands the carved bear
back. He thinks he can see the future of this bear. It has been sitting here in the lake for who
knows how many years, and now it will be just as lost sitting on this man’s mantel. He’ll be
excited about it and then it will be as lost to humanity as it would have been down here, tossed
into the trash by his heirs or broken in half by a little boy. Still, what else is there besides the
clumsy loss of everything good in this ashy world of drought?
He’s going to say something more to the man, but the young man’s screams cut him off: “I’m
John fucking Wayne.” He’s grabbed the rifle by the barrel and is swinging it around and around
his head. “I’m King fucking Kong.”
“Stop,” the man calls.
Harrison has a vision of what could happen, the rifle discharging, a hundred year old piece of
shrapnel lodging itself in the kid’s brain. He sees Stanley’s stupid reckless bat as though he were
there when he did it. He sees him beat that poor nerdy kid on the baseball field. “Stop,” he yells.
“Stop, Goddamn you.”
The kid doesn’t hear him. Gareth is clapping and laughing. The two of them have started to
dance around. Maybe they’re drunk, Harrison thinks. Maybe they’re high.
“Stop it!” Harrison screams, but something about this air tamps his voice down. His words arcs
into the air but they’re sucked back into this filthy white hole, this place that once shrouded the
land with its water.
Biography of John Brantingham
My work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, and I have had hundreds of
poems and stories published in magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. My
newest poetry collection, The Green of Sunset, is from Moon Tide Press. I am the writer-in-
residence at the dA Center for the Arts.
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