Frost glittered on almost every surface that I could see, the sun not yet high enough to melt it back. Looking at the skeletal branches, mostly bare, and the distant fields full of stubby, shorn brown corn stalks, death was an obvious thought. To be honest with you, I would have thought of death even had it been July and the cornfields were knee-high with green.
I pretty much think of death every day. Let me just say that death had played a big role in bringing me to that position that November morning, high on the hill we call Bear Mountain. Death and the recession. To make short out of long, it happened like this: I lost my wife to a sliding snowplow on an icy road.
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I lost my job as a mortgage originator to the economic collapse, and I lost my grandfather to a stroke. My unemployment meant that I had to sell our four-bedroom colonial at a fire sale price.
I was lucky to get it sold at all. Without a job and with the family home gone, it looked like Ashley and I would have to move in with my parents.
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But then my grandfather, Robert Moore, Senior, died rather suddenly of pneumonia. Or so we thought. My grandmother had christened it Bear Mountain not long after marrying my grandfather. Grandpa had come running in, excited by finding a black bear track on the hillside, the muddy pugmark of an early spring bear passing through on its way to its summer range. My reverie on death was interrupted by the lively bark of my companion.
Looking at the hilltop behind me, I spotted the brindled bundle of energy, quivering and barking at an untidy lump of gray on the ground.
Charm was sixty pounds of pitbull mix and my constant shadow during school hours. When Ashley was home, Charm left me like she owed me money. As far as she was concerned, the sun rose and set on Ashley Ting Moore.
I approached her and whatever she had found, the indistinct gray lump resolving into wispy fur and a long, ratlike tail. The animal looked deflated, really just scraps of fur, flesh, and bone. But the blood on the ground was fresh, as were the bits of flesh on the skin, although the body looked like it had been picked over for weeks, not hours.
There were no tracks in the bloody mud around it. Puzzled, I poked it with my utility knife, a four-inch blade of my own design. The cause of death was obvious based on the inch-wide crescent bite marks that had literally hollowed out the carcass. I knew every track, every predator that roamed this land, and nothing made wounds like the ones I was seeing.
Not finding any other clues, I snapped a couple of pictures with the camera in my cell phone, then strolled around the top of the hill to see what I could find. At the very top of Bear Mountain is a granite outcropping that was rounded and smoothed in the last Ice Age. Some force of nature, be it seismic or ice, had cracked the big chunk of rock from the top down. The resulting crevice is four feet wide at the top and about a foot at the bottom, making a natural little chasm on our hill.
As a kid, I had played cave explorer in that dark, rocky nook, able to crawl much farther back than my current size would allow. There was some disturbance in the sandy soil at the bottom of the crack, but nothing as clear as a track. I took one last look around, shivered in the chilly air, and continued my morning stroll, brindled dog in tow.
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Getting back to the household, I stopped in the kitchen long enough to get a fresh cup of coffee from the breakfast pot, then headed to the barn to check the forge. School days follow a pattern, as they do in most households. I get up first, dress for the day, then wake Ashley—a job that combines the skills and danger of snake handling with zombie reanimation. When Sleeping Beauty finally makes it downstairs, we eat, chat about the day, and then make her lunch. My guess is that the long wait in the lunch line cuts into chat time with her buddies.
When her lunch is put together, we both head outside; her to wait for the bus, and I, in theory, to light the forge. While I do actually light the fire, I spend more time watching her from the grimy, carbon-streaked window to make sure she gets on the bus okay. That morning, I found the coals burning red, the three-inch billets of stainless steel I had left nestled in the firebox just reaching a dull cherry hue.
I turned on the blower, quickly bringing the metal to an almost white-orange, the color of critical, the temperature where the steel becomes nonmagnetic. Then I pulled a chunk of steel from the fire and began the rhythmic work of hammer and anvil that would shape the metal for its future life—in this case, as cooking knives for a chef in New York City. First, when I became unemployed after losing my wife, my grandpa had asked me to help him with the forge.
At the time, I had been shocked he would do so, as despite his eighty-nine years of age, he was still spry and capable. But looking back, it was obviously his way to help me, one proud man discreetly providing financial and mental help to another proud man. I say mental help because forging steel into useful blades is a very Zen-like business. You need to picture the metal in three dimensions, then form an image of what you want it to look like. The steady work of hands and mind is much different from the stress of originating mortgages; working paper, phone and numbers to get approved loans.
The work in the smithy was as therapeutic as it was helpful financially. The old skills I had learned as a boy, hanging with and helping my grandpa, came back quickly, tempered and smoothed by age and life experience. When he died, I took over completely, using the income to supplement the Social Security death benefits that Sarah had left behind. I had a third source of income that took up time in the afternoons and some evenings, but it was more irregular.
About two hours into the morning work, Charm lifted her head from her paws and looked at the door of the smithy, silently announcing a visitor. By habit and lifelong training, I put the current piece back in the forge and picked up the fighting ax that was one of the first things I ever made. I moved closer to the door, strategically positioned for when it eventually opened, and I got a look at the white-haired head framed in the opening. He was, instead, pleased, although the only sign of it was a slight quirk at the corners of his mouth, just under the white mustache that lived on his upper lip.
As he backed out the door, the muscular little dog looked at me, seeking permission to go with him.
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Her response… a tail wag, a doggy grin, and a brown blur out the door. Threatening your father with an ax is not normal behavior in most parts of the world. The fact that he approved of my actions is even stranger, unless you know my father. My grandfather was a welder by trade, but his son, Bob, Jr. Government, working for a little organization with the initials DEA. So I grew up living in five different cities across this great nation.
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And growing up DEA is quite a bit different than the normal American experience, whatever that is. DEA households are well kept and tidy, but there is never a name on a mailbox. The houses all have alarms that are used faithfully, and there is always, always, always a dog. As long as it has all of its senses. DEA children are constantly coached in things like situational awareness, household security, and never telling anybody anything personal or private.
Cars are backed into the garage, ready for an emergency exit. Drug dealers are notoriously unforgiving on both agents and their families. My father took it further, by having me take martial arts lessons in every city we lived in.