Read Archangel Online

Authors: Paul Watkins

Tags: #Fiction, #General


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Copyright © 1995 by Paul Watkins

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York.

This work was originally published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber, London, in 1995.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Watkins, Paul, 1964–
Archangel / Paul Watkins.—1st ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-79980-7
I. Title.
PS3573.A844A89    1995    813′.54—dc20    95-2656



“Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”

Stonewall Jackson,
Army of the Confederate States of America.
Last words. Chancellorsville, 1863.


wice in his life he prayed to God, and both times he left it too late.

It was a December evening in the north Maine woods. The trees dissolved to coal-black silhouettes. Jonah Mackenzie stood alone and knee-deep in the snow, half-deaf from the rattling hum of his chain saw as he cut down a tree for his woodpile. Fat, damp flakes of snow fell around him. They settled on his short-cropped grizzled hair and melted on the warm skin of his neck. They filled in his footprints on the wandering path that led out to his truck.

Mackenzie raised his head, feeling sweat run fresh tracks down his face. He saw the Dog Star in the periwinkle sky. At the same time, a huge bird sliced the air above him, gliding without sound across the treetops. Its tip feathers spread like the fingers of a human hand. A bald eagle. He knew they hunted at dusk.

It was dangerous for one man to be out in the forest alone. Dangerous to be cutting down a tree in which the sap might have frozen. But Mackenzie was embarrassed not to have laid in a woodpile until now,
which was why he had waited until the loggers went home. After all, he thought, it would look bad if the owner of the logging company hadn’t completed a job that everyone else had taken care of weeks before. It would look even worse because he had only just inherited the Mackenzie Company. People were already saying that he couldn’t keep up. Couldn’t fill his father’s shoes. The population of Abenaki Junction seemed to have a personal stake in watching the son of the wealthiest man in the region run his father’s company into the ground. It had become Mackenzie’s goal to disappoint them.

He sawed a wedge from the trunk so that the tree would fall away from him. The vibrations numbed his arms and scuttled ticklish across his ribs. A spray of sawdust, like chips of bone in the gathering night, fell at the base of the tree. He walked to the other side of the pine, raising his knees to clear the level of snow. His hands were slick with sweat inside his leather gloves. He pulled the trigger of the chain saw and its growling putter rose to a snarl as the blade ate into the tree.

Mackenzie heard the familiar groaning crack of the tree as it began to fall. Instinctively, he breathed in to shout “Coming down!” but remembered his solitude before the words formed in his mouth. At the same time, another realization came to him: the tree was not falling as it should. A shadow passed across the navy-blue sky. As Mackenzie jumped back, the deep snow caught his heels and sent him down. He saw the tree toppling. Saw the needly branches swishing through the air and the trunk pale and ragged at its chain-sawed base. He waved his arms as he fell and his gloves flew away like sloughed-off layers of skin. It seemed to him he had all the time in the world to know what was about to happen.

The tree fell across his left leg. Mackenzie clearly heard the bone snap just below the knee and felt the earth shudder as the trunk smashed into the ground. Pine needles rained down on him. At first the twisting crunch of bone shocked him into silence, but at last the scream came, climbing the the bands of his windpipe. It was shrill and hideous and raced through the forest until Mackenzie felt the burn of empty lungs. The sound trailed away. Slowly he brought his hands to his face and clawed his fingers down his cheeks, trying to wake himself in case this might have been a dream. He smelled the sap of
the fallen tree, which stuck like glue to his palms. His stomach clenched, waiting for the pain to reach him. For now there were only strange bolts of shivering that rode up his leg into his buttocks and clambered up the joints of his spine.

It was dark. Beyond the trees, Mackenzie could just make out the road where his truck was parked. He knew that no cars would pass this way tonight. This was a logging road and it was Friday. No one would drive into these woods until Monday. There was no sense crying for help. It was a quarter of a mile to the main road and then three miles to town from there. In what seemed to Mackenzie to be the first clear thought to run through his head since the tree fell, he realized that he would freeze to death before his wife, Alicia, even considered him overdue. She would assume that he’d stopped at the Loon’s Watch bar for a drink on his way home. She wouldn’t miss him until midnight, and even then she wouldn’t call the bar. Alicia wouldn’t embarrass him that way. Instead, she would lie in bed and grow impatient. When he tiptoed in late and lay down beside her, she would turn away from him so that he was left to stare at her pale and freckled back. By now she would have let down her hair, the way she did every night. By day she kept it in a ponytail, clipped with a silver barrette. It was very fine hair, dark the way Asian hair is dark, and when the light caught it, the strands shone steely blue. He had known since before they were married that he could not live without her. With equal certainty, he knew that Alicia would manage in his absence. She would mourn, but she would not be the husk that her departure would make of him. Thinking this now made him determined to survive.

He sat up, using his hands as much as he could so as not to put pressure on his pinned leg. His hands sank into the snow until they reached the ground, where he could feel the frozen pine needles from previous years carpeting the soil. His other leg was tucked up toward his chest, clear of the trunk and cramped from the awkward position. Now the babble of his nerves was dying down. Soon the pain would focus.

His hand crept past branches and along the wool of his trousers. He reached past his knee to the frayed threads of torn cloth. Then his fingers snagged on something. It felt like broken glass. He realized
it was bone, and jerked his hand back. New sweat broke out all over his body and nausea like a bubble of foul air swelled in his belly. His fingers brushed against the chain saw, which had fallen to the ground blade-first and now jutted from the snow like a stubbed Excalibur.

In panic, Mackenzie dug around the area where his leg was stuck, scooping out snow and throwing it over his shoulder. His fingernails became packed with bark where he’d scraped them against the trunk. But after a few minutes of this, he realized that he couldn’t dig his way out. The trunk had slammed his leg down to the ground, and the ground was frozen. He tried to ease himself backward. Electric jolts jumped from his leg, sparked across his ribs and showered down the side of his head.

At last the pain was coming. It moved in twisting, knifelike cuts along his flesh. The cold had reached him, too. He could no longer feel the toes of his good leg. Slowly he began to understand what he would have to do. The knowledge took its time, pushing through the veils of disbelief. He knew he couldn’t wait. If he did, he might not be able to go through with it. The indecision would kill him.

Mackenzie didn’t pause to brace himself or cry or think about the future. He snapped a finger-thick branch off the tree, set it between his teeth and bit down. Then he grabbed the chain saw, heaved it out of the snow and pulled the starting cord. It coughed once and he pulled again and it started. When he set the blade in motion, ice and dirt thrashed at his face.

He cut off his left leg two inches below the knee. The blade slipped quickly through his bone and skin, vibrating along the length of his body. He bit down on the stick and howled. His back teeth cracked from the pressure. Then the saw struck the ground and he let go of the trigger. The motor stalled out and it was quiet again.

Mackenzie was beyond the point of crying. Any sound at all seemed useless to him now. He eased himself back from the trunk and used his heavy bridle-leather belt to make a tourniquet. Then he began to crawl as fast as he could toward his truck, elbow over elbow, hands knotted into fists, sinking into the snow. The pain was growing, taking shape. Heat and cold flashed at the place where his leg had been severed. Mackenzie looked back to see the bloody skid
of his wound and the shreds of cloth from his trousers. The space where his leg should have been seemed to shudder with emptiness.

He reached the truck. It looked huge from where he lay. He clambered up the side until he reached the door handle, and when the door opened he swung back with it, dragging the stump of bone along the ground. He climbed into the cab, smelling the plastic of the seats and the coffee he had bought at the Four Seasons diner on his way out of town. The styrofoam cup rested on the dashboard. The coffee was cold and muddy-looking in the sharp yellow glare of the overhead light.

He couldn’t find his keys. He slapped at the left chest pocket of his Filson hunting coat, where he normally kept them. He slapped harder, as if to jolt the keys into existence, but the pocket was empty. His hands clawed across his trouser pockets. Change rattled onto the floor. A handkerchief wafted into the dark. The keys had fallen from his pocket and lay somewhere out there in the snow. He’d never find them now.

Mackenzie heard the tiny patter of his blood dripping on the plastic floor mat. The muscles had spasmed. The blood flow was light. In every moment of stillness, shock draped itself around him, layer by paper-thin layer. He knew he had to keep moving. He drank the cold coffee, tasting its bitterness in the corners of his mouth, then crushed the styrofoam cup into squeaky chips and threw it outside. He took a flashlight out of the glove compartment and eased himself down from the truck. He started crawling along the road, over the snow-padded gravel. The moon came out from behind the shredded clouds and he caught sight of his own warped reflection in the funhouse mirrors of the frozen puddles.

He begged himself to rest. Fatigue purred in his head and slowed him down. When he felt it taking over, he grabbed snow and rubbed the gritty crystals hard against his face. Sometimes the stub of bone scraped on the ground. It sent the same rude shiver through him as nails scraped across a blackboard. Mackenzie followed the strange valleys of his own tire tracks until he reached the main road. He had no sense of time passing.

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