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A Brief and Necessary Madness
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The wooden steps explained nothing, no matter how long one stared at them.

—Kafka, The Trial

We called the tree a “knockaway,” but it is properly called Anacua, after an Indian tribe Cabeza de Vaca described without affection. Even that name is probably a fiction, or a mispronunciation of whatever those vanished Indians called themselves. We’re told the tribe attributed occult powers to the tree that became their namesake. I could see why. The specimen in the right front of our yard was timeless and indestructible, a Triceratops with branches. Its bark, rough as scales, rode the trunk in an armor of shadowed channels. Its leaves were sandpaper to the touch, and wore a green so dark I thought the liquid in their veins ran black. I never doubted that the tree had stood there since de Vaca wandered past, witness to countless summers like the one that year, when the temperature passed a hundred each afternoon and the pavement deep-fried anything it touched.

The layers of time were not static in that place. They rolled like waves above an undersea canyon, so that we were never far separated from the Stone Age tribes, or from our ancestors who came into that flat brush country with nothing and lived out of lean-to structures, or for that matter, it seemed, from the generations who would follow. In rare accidents of light you could glimpse the citizens of those other times, caught like fish in a crest, sometimes as spirits and sometimes as incarnate humans walking in an era not their own. The wave that was the summer when this story begins stood out because it was the midpoint of the worst drought any living person had experienced, and deer, coyotes, and bobcats were limping into town from the surrounding chaparral, driven mad by thirst. The Anacua was indifferent to it all. It was a portal to be negotiated when walking toward the listless businesses downtown. From certain angles it blocked the view of the squat, square-shouldered building across the street, with its steel-barred windows and its Deco-lettered sign that said Bee County Jail.

It was impossible to stand at the verge of the street and look over at that building without thinking of the man who lived inside it with his wife Lucille and his daughter Sarah Jane, and of his potential to appear in the flesh and look back through the gun-metal eyes hooded by his Stetson hat. The man was the county sheriff, a stone killer named Vail Ennis, and all of us who lived in that town feared him with devotion. He was forty-nine that year, but he looked older. We suspected it was the trick of an immortal, the way a man could appear so gray and cold, and still stand tall and straight and move like jointed steel. By that summer Sheriff Ennis had killed ten men we knew of: eight with his bone-handled .44 Colt or the Tommy gun he liked to mount on the hood of his green Hudson Hornet, one by stomping with his boots and beating with his blackjack, one in a car wreck that may or may not have been his fault. There was another body added to the count in a car wreck later. Some of the dead had been in handcuffs, some were armed and some not. Our sheriff had stood accused at three murder trials and walked each time. He was as much a legend as the gunfighters who ruled the same ground not so very long before and were still alive in the mind of every boy who owned a cap gun and a holster. One of his hobbies was photography. He liked to go to the funeral home—there was no proper morgue—to take pictures of the people he’d killed and tell the story later, pointing out the bullet holes. His other hobby was torture. When one thief failed to confess and say where he’d hid the money, the sheriff beat him and kept beating him until he crawled under the bunk in his cell when he saw Vail Ennis coming. “I would’ve...


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