he said and slammed the door shut before hearing an answer, if there was one. He followed the two dirt tracks of the road, anticipating each turn or shallow ravine before coming upon it. The late-setting light picked out the fence line as it appeared from time to time parallel with the road. He passed by three moonstruck cows standing silent and curious among the oaks. Jolly chuckled. “You stupid cows,” he said. “And I used to run like hell from your grandmothers.” He chucked a stone at them and laughed aloud as they snorted and whirled, crashing into the brush, their tails high in the pale light. At the spot in the road where it entered a tunnel of wild and ancient grape vines, Jolly paused. He peered into the blackness through which not one spark of light shone. He stepped off the road and took the short cut across an open pasture, knowing he would meet the road on the other side where it curved out of the tunnel near the elderberry bushes. Even Jamie would never pass through the grapevine tunnel at night—not to watch Jesus walk the water on the other side. Huge against the sky he saw the circle of cotton-woods that had once formed the outer boundary of his world when he was allowed to wander alone. The trees had been planted in a circle, perhaps seventy-five feet across, as green fence posts for a corral long before Jolly’s father and mother rolled into Skull Valley on the Santa Fe day coach, he restless to explore new lands, she tremorous as Tennessee moved farther and farther away. The posts had grown into trees, fed by the underground springs that flowed into the swamp, slowly wrapping their bark over the barbed wire stapled to their trunks like patient snakes gorging themselves in new spring. Jolly left the path and walked into the circle of trees picking his way over the shattered brittle limbs that lay confused on the ground. As he passed each tree his hand remembered. When he came to a young tree standing three or four feet inside the circle, he stopped. “You’re new,” he said aloud. Then he laughed as if someone might have been near to hear him talking to a tree. He placed one foot on either side of the tree and ran his hands up and down over the bark. It was smoother than the older cottonwoods, but its white skin had already begun to develop the bumps and crevices common to its type. Jolly pressed his face against the cool bark, and his arms encircled the young trunk. “Goddamit,” he said. His face began to throb from holding it too tightly to the bark. Beyond the circle of trees he saw the pools of water in the swamp reflect the darkling moon. As he watched, the pools began to whirl in colors. Slowly, then more frantically, the kaleidoscopic colors mixed in time to the heat of Jolly’s pulse against the tree. He closed his eyes and let the pools whirl in and out among his desires. His hands moved restlessly and without reason over the white bark. Tightly, rhythmically, to the beat of the pulse in his temples he pressed all of his body against the tree. He lay against the damp young body of the cotton-wood a long time while his breath became regular again, and the pools of color settled back in the swamp. He felt his face with his fingers and could trace on his skin the marks the bark had left. He pushed back from the tree and carefully lifted and bent one leg after the other and felt gingerly the sore, raw places on the inside of his thighs. He walked stiffly to one of the pools and squatted beside it on a wobbly hillock of grass that stood round, stump-like from the water. A person could travel a whole morning, maybe a whole day, through the swamp under the willows by stepping or jumping from one hillock to another. The water was not cool on his face until after the breeze caught it.
Back on the road, beyond the cottonwoods and the swamp, as he approached the top of the last small hill Jolly watched the single track at his feet. When he felt he had reached the summit, a deep