"Damnation Spring" by Ash Davidson (Scribner) is an epic debut novel, set in the redwood forests of northern California, in which a lumberman takes a gamble on a parcel of land that could set up his family for years.
Read an excerpt below.
He lay for a moment, Colleen's arm draped over him, heavy with sleep: three thirty a.m. on the dot, his body its own alarm clock. He held his breath, trying to slip free without waking her, but the moment his feet touched rug, she sat up. He groaned, getting his shirt on. His back ached from carrying Chub up to the 24-7 yesterday.
"Want me to walk on it?" Colleen asked.
He rolled his shoulder, laced up his boots. Out back, he let Scout off his chain and loped up the hill after him, into the white dark. His headlamp turned fog to gold. His heart knocked at his ribs. Like some young buck sneaking off to the joyhouse.
I'll think about it, he'd promised Jim Mueller. True to his word, Rich had thought of little else. The kitchen light glowed in the fog behind him, Colleen getting the percolator going, cracking eggs, dropping store bread into the toaster. She wanted another kid so bad it hurt to look at her. He longed to tell her, to roll the plan he'd been drawing up in his head out on the table like a map, but she wouldn't want to think about letting go of the remodel money.
Brambles snagged at his denims. Hack them down to nubs, dig them out by the roots, burn them: blackberries would survive the goddamn apocalypse. Couple more weeks and they'd ripen: Himalayans, long and fat as the first joint of his thumb. First of September they'd bust open and bleed in your hand, bring out the bears. Colleen would bake pies, boil berries down to jam.
Scout trotted ten yards ahead, tethered to Rich, even off his chain. Dog came with a built-in tape measure, same as Rich, who'd never strayed more than a hundred miles from this exact spot.
Years ago, back in the fifties, when Virgil Sanderson had hired the company's first sprayer—the new chemicals kept the brush down, made it faster and cheaper to log—the pilot had let Rich ride along. He'd barely fit in the tin-can plane, knees pressed to rattling metal. They'd lifted off from the mill road, bottom falling out of Rich's stomach. The pilot had followed the coastline, turning inland at Diving Board Rock. It was Rich's first and only bird's-eye view of his life: the small green house with its white shutters set back on the bluff at the foot of Bald Hill, the cedar-shingle tank shed. The plane's engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They'd flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding's potential—an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They'd flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove—redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried. The pilot had flipped a switch and spray had drifted out behind them in a long pennant—taste of chlorine, whiff of diesel—Rich's heart soaring.
Rich followed the memory of the plane east, slid down the steep back side of their hill to Little Lost Creek, running fast at the bottom of the first draw. If Eugene dropped a twig in up at his and Enid's place, Rich could pluck it out here an hour later. It was roads that turned a few creek miles into twenty. Scout dug his snout in, drank. Rich took a running leap, felt a tweak in his right knee, leaving his doubt on the bank behind him.
Up and down the first no-name ridge, choked with alder and piss-yellow Doug fir—even smelled like piss when you cut it—second- and third-growth redwoods. Nowadays, even the fir that shot up to fill the cutover ridge-sides— trees he'd fit two arms around growing up—was worth something. His dad could have bought it up for nothing.
Who ever thought piss fir would be worth s***?
Scout cocked his head at the question.
Rain rolled down Rich's slicker, creeks rushing headlong in the morning dark. Water: always looking for a way to the ocean. Still an hour until dawn. He'd be on the crummy by the time the sun rose, the old school bus jolting along rutted logging roads—just another Monday—but for now, the woods were his. The trail was a tunnel; the deer weren't cropping her back like they used to. Rich's caulk boots were good and damp, flexible. He'd set them in front of the woodstove to warm up last night; the secret was to never dry them out completely or they'd turn stiff as rawhide. Could use a new pair, but it would be cheaper to get them re-spiked.
In his mind, he'd been chipping away at Jim Mueller's price since he'd named it, the notion foolish but irresistible. Timber was a young man's game. At fifty-three, Rich had already outlived every Gundersen on record. Yesterday, Chub dozing against his back, a warm weight, he'd felt a surge of hope so alarming it had taken a moment to realize nothing was physically wrong. Rich's mother had died in her sleep at thirty-six. Valve in her heart just gave out.
He climbed the second ridge and from there it was up, up, up the steep rise of 24-7 Ridge. It would take every cent he had. A hell of a risk on paper. But stopping to catch his breath and looking up at the old-growth redwoods near the spine, the tallest the 24-7 herself, three hundred and seventy feet if she was an inch—the worry evaporated. A monster, the tallest tree for miles, dwarfing even the giants of Damnation Grove. God-damn, he could sing. Scout nosed his knee. Rich sniffed: wet wood, needles rotting to soil.
Smell that, old man? That's the smell of money.
Rich inhaled deeper. He'd never have to work another day for Merle Sanderson, as he had for Virgil Sanderson before him, as Rich's father had worked for George and his granddad for Victor, all the way back for as long as men had felled redwoods.
The one time Rich remembered his dad taking him up here, his dad had stopped at about this spot, hitched a boot up on a fallen limb. There she is. Twenty-four feet, seven inches across. Someday, you and me are going to fall that tree. His dad had just turned thirty, but they'd lived harder and faster in those days, smoked, chewed, drank like mules. When they'd gotten up to the 24-7, his dad had pressed a palm to her bark: fireproof, a foot thick. A week later, he'd be dead, but that day he'd looked out over the ridges, dark with timber, one behind the other like waves in the ocean, breathed it all in. Someday. That breath swelled in Rich's chest now. His whole life he'd wanted her, and here she was.
Jim Mueller was right. Sanderson would have to run roads down into Lower Damnation Grove, if not to the creek itself, then close enough to spit across at the foot of 24-7 Ridge. All Rich would need to do is lay the big pumpkin down and truck her out. That, plus the two hundred other redwoods—close to a hundred million board feet, grand total. Even after the equipment, the crew, the mill taking its cut, it'd be twenty years' salary for a few months' work. Pay the land off free and clear. Rest would be gravy.
Forget her nails, Colleen would bite her fingers off to the first knuckle if he told her he was even thinking about it. Seven hundred and twenty acres. His dad had worked six days a week from thirteen until the day he died and never owned more than a damn truck.
Rich sidestepped down the ridge to Damnation Creek, low this time of year. He cleaned a few dead leaves out of the screen catch at the mouth of their water line, snuffed his nose on his arm, slicker spreading the wet around. He whistled for Scout, sweating by the time the yellow square of kitchen window finally reappeared below like a beacon. Winded, he stopped to catch his breath. Something glinted under the sweep of his headlamp. He stooped, picked it up: a red pinwheel mint in a clear plastic wrapper. Scout butted his leg, looking for an ear rub.
Come here, you mutt.
Down in the yard, he hooked Scout back onto his chain, got his caulks off before the pegs driven through the soles for traction tore the hell out of the kitchen linoleum. Inside, Colleen turned bacon with a fork.
"Smells good." He draped his wet socks over the handle of the woodstove and padded down the hall for dry ones, the red tail of Chub's rocket night-light glowing in the morning dark.
Colleen set his plate on the table, eggs steaming.
"I might stop by and see Lark after work," he said, testing it out. It didn't sound untruthful. He tucked into his eggs so he wouldn't have to look her in the eye. He rarely lied to her, usually only to play down an injury.
"Should I pack him something?" she asked.
"Nah, I'll stop at the Only." His back tooth throbbed with the coffee's heat. He pressed his tongue to it, mopped up the last of the yolk, brought his plate to the sink, lifted his slicker off the hook—rain puddled on the linoleum below—and grabbed his thermos and lunch pail. Colleen turned the lamp on so he could see to fish his keys from the burl bowl, half-filled with the pea-sized beach agates she collected, bright as candies.
"Gloves?" she asked.
"In the truck."
When they were first married, she would inspect his body at night, feeling along his neck, his ribs, his abdomen, until his heart was pounding. When she found a new scrape, a bump or a scab, she'd cup her hand over it, as though it were an insect she'd trapped there.
Now she pecked him on the cheek—I choose you—in a better mood since she'd started helping out the Larson girl, pregnant again, and still too poor for a hospital birth. It had taken her mind off it, finally.
"Want anything from the store?" she asked. "I have to take Enid down to the clinic. The kids need their shot cards before school starts."
"She can't drive herself?" he asked, pinching a toothpick from his front pocket.
Colleen shrugged, Enid more her child than her sister. She stood out front, hugging herself for warmth, watched him climb into his truck. Over her shoulder, the wooden plaque he'd carved and mounted on the door shone with mist. HOME IS WHERE THE ♥ IS.
"Be careful," she called.
His denims were cut off two inches above his ankles to keep a Cat tire from catching the hem and pulling him under, mashing him like a potato. But there were a hundred other ways to die in the woods. He'd seen a three- thousand-pound haul block land on a man's chest, choker chains snap and send logs as big as school buses bouncing downslope, felt their shadows pass over-head when he dove below an old stump for cover.
Don't ever leave the house without kissing that woman goodbye, Lark had said, knotting Rich's tie tight enough to hang him, on his wedding day, advice tinged with his own regret.
Rich thumbed the blower on full blast and cracked his window down a half inch. Rain tapped the hood. Up valley roads, across creeks, in town and the glen, men walked through this rain to their trucks, wives looking up from the dishes, pausing the length of a prayer. Be careful. What besides prayers kept any of them alive? Luck, the steady hands and quick judgment of men he'd known all his life, men who swung an arm up over the seat back, reversing down their driveways as Rich did now, fog eddying in his wake, rain-beaten yard sign listing below the weeping willow:
THIS FAMILY SUPPORTED BY TIMBER DOLLARS.
From "Damnation Spring" by Ash Davidson. Copyright © 2021 by Ash Davidson. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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