by Benjamin Vance
When the lawn mower engine exploded and the barn caught fire, Mom got the boys together and told them that everything happens for a reason. They were young boys—all three of them between the ages of seven and twelve—and they had never seen such a fire before, nor had they seen a scorched goat, and the dead goats and the fire excited and scared them.
The boys talked together after the fire. The fire had a reason, a reason, but what was the reason?
At church that Sunday, the pastor called out to the congregation and asked them to pray for the family that had lost its barn and goats and reminded the congregation that God, in His wisdom, used such difficult times to test and educate His people.
God was the reason, then, thought the boys, but then they realized that if God, who was locked so far away in heaven, had caused the fire, there wasn’t much they could do about it.
They played with dominoes after school and found in them a certain order. Cause and effect as real and as simple as the reactions in their chemistry classes—a push and down down down they went. There was comfort in that order—push, down down down. They found that that simple order could cause great things. The fall of a domino, then a block, then the triggering of a lever that blew a house of Lincoln Logs to pieces.
Causality, they realized, was everywhere—the world made up of a vast tangle of lines of dominoes, nothing random, nothing–but the opaqueness of causality and the breadth of it made it hard to sort out.
A tornado came and ripped across the valley and tore the roof from the Johnsons’ house and canceled their friend Tommy’s birthday party.
Later, Mom got cancer, and the three boys knew they needed to examine all of causality to make sense of it.
After school, when Mom would go away for her treatments, they would go out to the potato field behind the house and play cowboys and Indians and go on adventures that had cause and effect and, with cause and effect, blame and coherence and principles of cosmic justice.
In their playing and in their adventures, they found him—the Renafern man. He was a distant man, the Renafern man, hard to make out. In the great chains of metaphysical dominoes, which in playing, they could see and grasp and pull from the air, they always found him at the critical junctions. In ignorance or vice, the Renafern man had taken the chains of causality and shaped them and set them rolling so that when they reached the three boys down the line, they had burned up the barn and scorched the goats and wrecked the Johnsons’ house and given Mom cancer.
The high plains where the boys lived were all potatoes, or, where not potatoes, sage brush, but Mt. Taylor in the countryside rose from the flatness and grew evergreens and turned white as it reached the clouds. That was where the Renafern man lived—they were sure of it.
They discussed the ways in which the Renafern man had interacted with causality.
He had leveled trees on the mountain. The lack of trees had caused mudslides, which had delayed gas trucks and caused impurities in the fuel that would one day blow up in the lawn mower and light the barn on fire.
He had burnt wood at the top of the mountain. The smoke had risen and enhanced the warm air. The warm air hit the wind coming south and caused a tornado which ripped across the valley and tore the roof from the Johnsons’ house and canceled Tommy’s birthday.
The cancer was harder to trace, but radiation in all its many forms was so volatile and malleable that the boys, who had become familiar with causality, found in their playing that the dominoes traced up the valley and to the place where the Renafern man lived.
The longer they talked, the more the boys settled on the Renafern man.
The day Mom died, the three boys came home from the hospital and went into the storage room and packed. Candles and a lighter, sleeping bags and a tarp, a rifle and a bullet for the Renafern man.
They got on their bikes and hefted their packs onto their shoulders and set off.
They cut across potato fields, the tires of their bikes printing a string of hieroglyphs in the soft earth.
They forded canals and stopped to drink from the pivot-irrigation sprinklers, whose pipes stretched out in the shallow arcs of a stone skipping across water.
When they got to the base of the mountain, the youngest came to a halt and turned and stared at his brothers and shook his head.
I’m done with this, he said. I don’t believe in the Renafern man.
What do you believe in, then? asked the oldest
I don’t know.
In the great chains of causality, who, if not the Renafern man, causes the bad things to happen? Who burned the barn and made the tornado and killed Mom? asked the middle child.
I don’t know.
If you don’t believe in the Renafern man, are we to assume that all occurrences are events in themselves and that nothing has any significance in the great chains of causality? asked the oldest.
If you don’t believe in the Renafern man, are we to assume that people are powerless in the face of chaos and that—
I don’t know, said the youngest.
They left the youngest where he stood, and the two of them went on to the top of Mt. Taylor and found the Renafern man.
The paper said that when they found him, whoever he was, they crept up in the bushes until they were real close and leveled the rifle and aimed for the back of his skull. It said that the man must not have felt anything when the boys killed him, couldn’t have. For him, it was all woodchopping, then blackness—his thoughts clear and unmuddled, then his thoughts strewn on the leafy floor.
The sheriff and the police department didn’t know what to say about those kids and the case and the murder. What could you say? Hard to make sense of it. Their mother’s death had something to do with it, that was for sure. But what was the cause of all this madness with the boys and chain reactions and the Renafern man?
They brought the boys’ chemistry teacher in and held him for a night and would’ve held him longer if they had had cause. They knew he must be a strange man, for these were strange boys.
Nothing, they knew, happens without a reason.
Ben Vance is a Senior studying Chinese at BYU. He enjoys reading and writing in his free time.
(Art) Pamela M. Parsons recently retired as a Professor of Art from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. There she served as Department Chair and taught classes in painting, drawing, and art history survey. She earned an MFA in Painting from Indiana University in Bloomington and a BFA in Painting from Boston University.