Galactic Collisions, Quiet Acres on Mars

Before this latest economic downturn, blamed on presidents, squeezed by OPEC, fueled by adversarial countries, the heirs of the old Burchfield place near the top of Best Ridge had neatly subdivided it, drawn it into a plat, placed it into the hands of a realtor as ten-thousand-dollar “view lots” to entice retirees out of Florida. The Burchfields had owned their land since just after the Indians had been driven out.  

The people climbing to look had just driven more than six hundred miles to North Carolina from the heat and crowds and fun near Disney World in a Volvo station wagon. The man, an engineer, early sixties, fair-haired, trim, tan from regular golf, had recently retired from work on the latest Mars Lander.

For thirty years immediately preceding that, through hard work and smart investments, he and his wife had saved enough to live comfortably wherever they chose. They’d seen no particular concerns for the future except for the gradual ones of aging, the possible college needs of grandchildren. They had those covered, just in case, with bonds. 

“Land is always going to be there,” the engineer had reasoned to his wife, who expressed concerns about the economy. “It’s the classic hedge against inflation. If things get really bad we can clear trees and grow our own food.”  

The wife had some doubts about this since they’d both grown up in Kansas City.  They’d driven up here anyway, aware it was a buyer’s market. 

The engineer was also an amateur geologist. In the subdivision’s dirt road (already seeding back to woods with finger-length baby Virginia pines) he had picked up a shard of white quartz to explain to the grandson how these mountains were some of the world’s oldest. He took off his L.L. Bean packable hat, leaned backward, and pointed straight up as if indicating something beyond either vision or imagination–possibly just some passing satellite. “We’re actually only a couple of thousand feet up here. Can you believe that at one time these hills were more than a hundred thousand feet, higher than the Rockies?”

The grandchildren had skied at Vail, Sun Valley, some other place in the Sangre de Cristos/Sandias out of Albuquerque where there was no lift, only rope tow.

“Higher than the Himalayas?” said the grandfather. The children knew all about the Himalayas though they hadn’t climbed them, yet.

Having experienced the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Tetons, Old Faithful, Aspen, Reno Lake Tahoe, Wall Drug, they weren’t impressed with the ground they walked on at the moment. As they climbed, the grandson punched and swerved with the latest GAMEBOY clone, obliterating whole armies, entire civilizations. Once he fell flat when he hung a sneaker toe on a small boulder dislodged from the road bank by last winter’s frost.  

“God.” His sister snickered as he brushed off dirt, checked for blood.  

His grandfather said, “That’s what happens when you walk around with your head in the clouds not paying attention.”

Most of the way up the hill the sister was too busy slapping gnats and deerflies to compare mountains. “It’s just some old rock,” she said when the grandfather finished his lecture. She brushed sweat from her freckles and tried to look back down at how far they’d climbed.

Just after the rock the grandfather told them how someone on the Internet was already selling acre-sized lots on Mars.  

His wife brushed at a deerfly that buzzed her head. “Isn’t that illegal?”  

He only laughed. “On the Internet? Since when does that matter?”

“Maybe we should buy a place up there instead of here.” 

“Too far to good schools and hospitals. The doctors there probably wouldn’t accept Medicare.”

The grandchildren giggled. “Can we leave immediately?” They had forgotten the trip would take months. The drive from Florida had seemed to last forever. The granddaughter said, “Papaw, did that man in the gas station not believe people have been to the moon? For real?”


In the woods down the ridge, on land that had been his family’s since his grandfather overruled his grandmother to borrow the money to waste six dollars an acre for it back in the fifties, Joe Posey had just finished showing Maldon Williams where he wanted the driveway built to his weekend cabin. Maldon would build the cabin too—out of local stone and rough timbers. Normally Maldon sawmilled and built mainly logging roads but with work slow he had agreed to build the cabin. Joe had given him a pencil sketch, four thousand dollars cash as first payment, instructions to go ahead. A handshake sealed it.

Joe’s wife Connie’s main concern was that the cabin be rustic. Maldon was telling Joe and Connie again about the Lord’s gift to him of the ability to build good roads. Gimpy-legged, scarred from forehead to jaw from a tree that had sprung back on him during the seventies, hard-of-hearing from years of operating heavy equipment in the days before Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Maldon was a large man who spoke in a hoarse shout that the people up the ridge couldn’t quite hear because of the summer leaves between them.

Joe and Maldon and Connie didn’t know anyone else was on the mountain. The Florida people didn’t know Joe and Connie and Maldon were on the planet.  

Before going away and starting a community-college-administration career, Joe had known Maldon and gone to school with his daughter, Rhoda. But it was only on coming back all these years later that he thought about how different Maldon was from the people who commuted by freeway to work in offices. Connie, who collected antiques and folk art, had on the ride up referred to Maldon as M.O. for Mountain Original. Joe only grinned.

“Labels are certainly one tool we use to try to understand what we don’t.” Joe had talked more after leaving the interstate. Somehow that seemed to help him focus on the winding road.

“Well, anyway, you can’t deny Maldon’s originality.”

“I remember a few people like that. Most of them were already old when I was growing up.” He was thinking mainly of a couple of fellows who had kept Black-and-Tans and Plott hounds and still hunted bears and wild hogs in the high mountains and carried needles and catgut to sew up dogs that had gone in too close. He was thinking of a couple of country preachers who took turns, weekend-about, ranting from the courthouse steps on Saturdays.  

Connie reached over and turned off the air conditioner and rolled down her window, staring across Yoder Gorge. “I envy your getting to grow up here.”

Joe shrugged. “I was like everyone else at the time. I wanted a job and couldn’t wait to get away.”

“Now you can’t wait to come back.”

“It looks like I’m not the only one.” He was thinking of the subdivision up the ridge. On nearby ridges dozens of houses had sprung up like strange vast parodies of weathered stones in old-time hillside graveyards. The roads that in his childhood had been little more than dirt tracks rutted lug-bolt-deep by “paperwood” trucks in winter were now heat-shimmering asphalt crowded on weekends, despite the economy, with late-model SUVs and travel trailers with out-of-state tags.

“The Lord give me two gifts,” Maldon was saying now in that refreshingly uninhibited way that assumed shared beliefs without even asking. They had stopped in the woods where their driveway would curve around the point of a ridge as it climbed. Maldon had told them that this was the best way to have a good grade. The only other way to get up to where they were going without the road being too steep was to bulldoze a bunch of switchbacks. He’d said, “You don’t want that. Switchbacks take a lot of time if you build them right. They tear up a lot of timber and cost a lot of money.”

Connie smiled.

“One gift is knowing how to lay out a road,” Maldon said now for at least the third time. He propped one boot up on a rock while he wedged a plug of tobacco up out of the bib pocket of his overalls between thumb and forefinger and sliced off a chunk with his pocket knife. His jaws rippled with two days’ growth of black stubble. He wore a tan hunting cap stained with oil and sweat and rosin. The cap looked as if it might have survived being run over by the dozer.  

“The other is for praising Him through music,” Maldon said around the lump in his jaw.

Joe nodded but wasn’t sure what to say. In the city church he and Connie occasionally attended everyone smiled but people didn’t say things like that.

“Your mama used to sing,” said Maldon. “I don’t guess you were old enough to remember it.”

Joe shook his head. His mother had died young. That had been almost fifty years ago. His memories from that time had become so infused with stories people told that often he couldn’t remember which was which.

“She did. She’d bring a bunch of girls out from town and people would spread dinner on the ground after church and then sing ‘til dark.” He looked at Joe. “I don’t guess you sing much, do you?”

“Not even in the shower,” said Joe while Connie laughed.

Maldon didn’t laugh but chewed once and gave them an appraising dark-eyed look that was hard to interpret. “People don’t sing now like they used to.”

“That’s true.”

“I’ve wrote a few songs,” said Maldon.

“Really?” said Connie, eyes widening.

“I can’t read music but I figure that don’t matter. It’s got to come from in here or it’s not worth doing.” He jabbed a thumb toward his chest—or his bib pocket. Connie wasn’t sure which. The end of his thumb was missing. He spat the wad of unchewed tobacco into his palm and tossed it underhand into the brush.  

With neither warning nor explanation Maldon went from speaking to something more like a groan—sob, cheer, lament:

            I’m coming to you over yonder,

            Though the way looks dark and far.

            You’ll be waiting by a river

            Flowing out from beyond the stars. . . .

Joe had never heard the words or tune before but once or twice as a child he had experienced such moments. They usually began with some ancient stoop-shouldered slick-skulled hill farmer or sun-withered granny. They usually occurred in cemeteries, with those standing around spontaneously humming or joining in.

Joe and Connie did not join in.

            You’ll be waiting as you promised

            Old Andrew, Peter, James and John.

            You’ll be there standing by that river

            Flowing out from beyond the sun.

The sound at first seemed to erupt from nowhere. It seemed to break forth from the ground itself, rising higher until it was almost chant-like, welling up and then cracking, like a sudden wind up out of Yoder Gorge, like an audible slow-motion of all the molten forces that had once pushed up these mountains, as if the hills themselves were too stunned to know what to make of it.

Farther up the ridge people were beginning to yell now, though Joe and Connie couldn’t hear them yet for Maldon. Wide-eyed, Connie stared. Maldon, eyes closed, seemed to have forgotten them. Joe just stood there caught up in it. A ball of fire could have dropped from the sky that very second. The sky itself could have ripped apart to reveal worlds until then un-guessed. They all might have been sucked into some black hole, some worm hole, been shot out of a time warp into another dimension.  

None of this happened. Maldon stopped as abruptly as he had started and he and Joe were laughing and the three of them were only faintly aware of the voices farther up that were yelling louder now, confused, puzzled, insistent, demanding explanation, probably needing one, possibly even deserving one.  

Joe couldn’t have given it, as much as he would have liked to. He couldn’t have done so even if all of them had managed to travel together at just below the speed of light to the very edge of the galaxy, not even if somehow just one of them lived long enough to come back and tell it.


  • Ray Trotter has won numerous cash prizes for short stories, published or placed fourteen stories in small journals, and once served as fiction editor for the University of Tennessee campus magazine, where he also earned an M.A. His debut short story collection, And Dogs To Chase Them, was published by EastOver Press in 2023.

  • The Los Angeles Alligator Farm (ca. 1907.) From 1907 until its relocation in 1953, the area of Lincoln Heights was home to what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the city’s most exotic residents”--a thousand-strong collection of alligators that welcomed visitors every day of the year to see, pose with, and even ride them. Alligator postcard (1910s)from Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. From Public Domain Review