April 11, 1930
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession. In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well. My son, Henry Freeman James, aided me in this crime, although at 14 he was not responsible; I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of 2 months. This is a thing I regret even more bitterly than the crime, for reasons this document will show.
The issue that led to my crime and damnation was 100 acres of good land in Hemingford Home, Nebraska. It was willed to my wife by John Henry Winters, her father. I wished to add this land to our freehold farm, which in 1922 totaled 80 acres. My wife, who never took to the farming life (or to being a farmer’s wife), wished to sell it to the Farrington Company for cash money. When I asked her if she truly wanted to live downwind from a Farrington’s hog butchery, she told me we could sell up the farm as well as her father’s acreage—my father’s farm, and his before him! When I asked her what we might do with money and no land, she said we could move to Omaha, or even St. Louis, and open a shop.
“I will never live in Omaha,” I said. “Cities are for fools.”
This is ironic, considering where I now live, but I will not live here for long; I know that as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls. And I know where I shall find myself after this earthly life is done. I wonder if Hell can be worse than the City of Omaha. Perhaps it is the City of Omaha, but with no good country surrounding it; only a smoking, brimstone-stinking emptiness full of lost souls like myself.
We argued bitterly over that 100 acres during the winter and spring of 1922. Henry was caught in the middle, yet tended more to my side; he favored his mother in looks but me in his love for the land. He was a biddable lad with none of his mother’s arrogance. Again and again he told her that he had no desire to live in Omaha or any city, and would go only if she and I came to an agreement, which we never could.
I thought of going to Law, feeling sure that, as the Husband in the matter, any court in the land would uphold my right to decide the use and purpose of that land. Yet something held me back. ’Twas not fear of the neighbors’ chatter, I had no care for country gossip; ’twas something else. I had come to hate her, you see. I had come to wish her dead, and that was what held me back.
I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. And I believe that by March of 1922, when the Hemingford County skies were white and every field was a snow-scrimmed mudsuck, the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgment on my wife and decided her fate. ’Twas justice of the black-cap variety, too. The Bible says that an ungrateful child is like a serpent’s tooth, but a nagging and ungrateful Wife is ever so much sharper than that.
I am not a monster; I tried to save her from the Conniving Man. I told her that if we could not agree, she should go to her mother’s in Lincoln, which is sixty miles west—a good distance for a separation which is not quite a divorce yet signifies a dissolving of the marital corporation.
“And leave you my father’s land, I suppose?” she asked, and tossed her head. How I had come to hate that pert head-toss, so like that of an ill-trained pony, and the little sniff which always accompanied it. “That will never happen, Wilf.”
I told her that I would buy the land from her, if she insisted. It would have to be over a period of time—eight years, perhaps ten—but I would pay her every cent.
“A little money coming in is worse than none,” she replied (with another sniff and head-toss). “This is something every woman knows. The Farrington Company will pay all at once, and their idea of top dollar is apt to be far more generous than yours. And I will never live in Lincoln. ’Tis not a city but only a village with more churches than houses.”
Do you see my situation? Do you not understand the “spot” she put me in? Can I not count on at least a little of your sympathy? No? Then hear this.
In early April of that year—eight years to this very day, for all I know—she came to me all bright and shining. She had spent most of the day at the “beauty salon” in McCook, and her hair hung around her cheeks in fat curls that reminded me of the toilet-rolls one finds in hotels and inns. She said she’d had an idea. It was that we should sell the 100 acres and the farm to the Farrington combine. She believed they would buy it all just to get her father’s piece, which was near the railway line (and she was probably right).
“Then,” said this saucy vixen, “we can split the money, divorce, and start new lives apart from each other. We both know that’s what you want.” As if she didn’t.
“Ah,” I said (as if giving the idea serious consideration). “And with which of us does the boy go?”
“Me, of course,” she said, wide-eyed. “A boy of 14 needs to be with his mother.”
I began to “work on” Henry that very day, telling him his mother’s latest plan. We were sitting in the hay-mow. I wore my saddest face and spoke in my saddest voice, painting a picture of what his life would be like if his mother was allowed to carry through with this plan: how he would have neither farm nor father, how he would find himself in a much bigger school, all his friends (most since babyhood) left behind, how, once in that new school, he would have to fight for a place among strangers who would laugh at him and call him a country bumpkin. On the other hand, I said, if we could hold onto all the acreage, I was convinced we could pay off our note at the bank by 1925 and live happily debt-free, breathing sweet air instead of watching pig-guts float down our previously clear stream from sun-up to sun-down. “Now what is it you want?” I asked after drawing this picture in as much detail as I could manage.
“To stay here with you, Poppa,” he said. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Why does she have to be such a… such a…”
“Go on,” I said. “The truth is never cussing, Son.”
“Such a bitch!”
“Because most women are,” I said. “It’s an ineradicable part of their natures. The question is what we’re going to do about it.”
But the Conniving Man inside had already thought of the old well behind the cow barn, the one we only used for slop-water because it was so shallow and murky—only 20 feet deep and little more than a sluice. It was just a question of bringing him to it. And I had to, surely you see that; I could kill my wife but must save my lovely son. To what purpose the ownership of 180 acres—or a thousand—if you have no one to share them with and pass them on to?
I pretended to be considering Arlette’s mad plan to see good cornland turned into a hog-butchery. I asked her to give me time to get used to the idea. She assented. And during the next 2 months I worked on Henry, getting him used to a very different idea. ’Twasn’t as hard as it might have been; he had his mother’s looks (a woman’s looks are the honey, you know, that lure men on to the stinging hive) but not her God-awful stubbornness. It was only necessary to paint a picture of what his life would be like in Omaha or St. Louis. I raised the possibility that even those two overcrowded antheaps might not satisfy her; she might decide only Chicago would do. “Then,” I said, “you might find yourself going to high school with black niggers.”
He grew cold toward his mother; after a few efforts—all clumsy, all rebuffed—to regain his affections, she returned the chill. I (or rather the Conniving Man) rejoiced at this. In early June I told her that, after great consideration, I had decided I would never allow her to sell those 100 acres without a fight; that I would send us all to beggary and ruin if that was what it took.
She was calm. She decided to take legal advice of her own (for the Law, as we know, will befriend whomever pays it). This I foresaw. And smiled at it! Because she couldn’t pay for such advice. By then I was holding tight to what little cash money we had. Henry even turned his pig-bank over to me when I asked, so she couldn’t steal from that source, paltry as it was. She went, of course, to the Farrington Company offices in Deland, feeling quite sure (as was I) that they who had so much to gain would stand good her legal fees.
“They will, and she’ll win,” I told Henry from what had become our usual place of conversation in the hay-mow. I was not entirely sure of this, but I had already taken my decision, which I will not go so far as to call “a plan.”
“But Poppa, that’s not fair!” he cried. Sitting there in the hay, he looked very young, more like 10 than 14.
“Life never is,” I said. “Sometimes the only thing to do is to take the thing that you must have. Even if someone gets hurt.” I paused, gauging his face. “Even if someone dies.”
He went white. “Poppa!”
“If she was gone,” I said, “everything would be the way it was. All the arguments would cease. We could live here peacefully. I’ve offered her everything I can to make her go, and she won’t. There’s only one other thing I can do. That we can do.”
“But I love her!”
“I love her, too,” I said. Which, however little you might believe it, was true. The hate I felt toward her in that year of 1922 was greater than a man can feel for any woman unless love is a part of it. And, bitter and willful though she was, Arlette was a warm-natured woman. Our “marital relations” had never ceased, although since the arguments about the 100 acres had begun, our grapplings in the dark had become more and more like animals rutting.
“It needn’t be painful,” I said. “And when it’s over… well…”
I took him out back of the barn and showed him the well, where he burst into bitter tears. “No, Poppa. Not that. No matter what.”
But when she came back from Deland (Harlan Cotterie, our nearest neighbor, carried her most of the way in his Ford, leaving her to walk the last two miles) and Henry begged her to “leave off so we can just be a family again,” she lost her temper, struck him across the mouth, and told him to stop begging like a dog.
“Your father’s infected you with his timidity. Worse, he’s infected you with his greed.”
As though she were innocent of that sin!
“The lawyer assures me the land is mine to do with as I wish, and I’m going to sell it. As for the two of you, you can sit here and smell roasting hogs together and cook your own meals and make your own beds. You, my son, can plow all the day and read his everlasting books all night. They’ve done him little good, but you may get on better. Who knows?”
“Mama, that’s not fair!”
She looked at her son as a woman might look at a strange man who had presumed to touch her arm. And how my heart rejoiced when I saw him looking back just as coldly. “You can go to the devil, both of you. As for me, I’m going to Omaha and opening a dress shop. That’s my idea of fair.”
This conversation took place in the dusty dooryard between the house and the barn, and her idea of fair was the last word. She marched across the yard, raising dust with her dainty town shoes, went into the house, and slammed the door. Henry turned to look at me. There was blood at the corner of his mouth and his lower lip was swelling. The rage in his eyes was of the raw, pure sort that only adolescents can feel. It is rage that doesn’t count the cost. He nodded his head. I nodded back, just as gravely, but inside the Conniving Man was grinning.
That slap was her death-warrant.
Two days later, when Henry came to me in the new corn, I saw he had weakened again. I wasn’t dismayed or surprised; the years between childhood and adulthood are gusty years, and those living through them spin like the weathercocks some farmers in the Midwest used to put atop their grain silos.
“We can’t,” he said. “Poppa, she’s in Error. And Shannon says those who die in Error go to Hell.”
God damn the Methodist church and Methodist Youth Fellowship, I thought… but the Conniving Man only smiled. For the next ten minutes we talked theology in the green corn while early summer clouds—the best clouds, the ones that float like schooners—sailed slowly above us, trailing their shadows like wakes. I explained to him that, quite the opposite of sending Arlette to Hell, we would be sending her to Heaven. “For,” I said, “a murdered man or woman dies not in God’s time but in Man’s. He… or she… is cut short before he… or she… can atone for sin, and so all errors must be forgiven. When you think of it that way, every murderer is a Gate of Heaven.”
“But what about us, Poppa? Wouldn’t we go to Hell?”
I gestured to the fields, brave with new growth. “How can you say so, when you see Heaven all around us? Yet she means to drive us away from it as surely as the angel with the flaming sword drove Adam and Eve from the Garden.”
He gazed at me, troubled. Dark. I hated to darken my son in such a way, yet part of me believed then and believes still that it was not I who did it to him, but she.
“And think,” I said. “If she goes to Omaha, she’ll dig herself an even deeper pit in Sheol. If she takes you, you’ll become a city boy—”
“I never will!” He cried this so loudly that crows took wing from the fenceline and swirled away into the blue sky like charred paper.
“You’re young and you will,” I said. “You’ll forget all this… you’ll learn city ways… and begin digging your own pit.”
If he had returned by saying that murderers had no hope of joining their victims in Heaven, I might have been stumped. But either his theology did not stretch so far or he didn’t want to consider such things. And is there Hell, or do we make our own on earth? When I consider the last eight years of my life, I plump for the latter.
“How?” he asked. “When?”
I told him.
“And we can go on living here after?”
I said we could.
“And it won’t hurt her?”
“No,” I said. “It will be quick.”
He seemed satisfied. And still it might not have happened, if not for Arlette herself.
We settled on a Saturday night about halfway through a June that was as fine as any I can remember. Arlette sometimes took a glass of wine on Summer evenings, although rarely more. There was good reason for this. She was one of those people who can never take two glasses without taking four, then six, then the whole bottle. And another bottle, if there is another. “I have to be very careful, Wilf. I like it too much. Luckily for me, my willpower is strong.”
That night we sat on the porch, watching the late light linger over the fields, listening to the somnolent reeeeee of the crickets. Henry was in his room. He had hardly touched his supper, and as Arlette and I sat on the porch in our matching rockers with the MA and PA seat-cushions, I thought I heard a faint sound that could have been retching. I remember thinking that when the moment came, he would not be able to go through with it. His mother would wake up bad-tempered the following morning with a “hang-over” and no knowledge of how close she had come to never seeing another Nebraska dawn. Yet I moved forward with the plan. Because I was like one of those Russian nesting dolls? Perhaps. Perhaps every man is like that. Inside me was the Conniving Man, but inside the Conniving Man was a Hopeful Man. That fellow died sometime between 1922 and 1930. The Conniving Man, having done his damage, disappeared. Without his schemes and ambitions, life has been a hollow place.
I brought the bottle out to the porch with me, but when I tried to fill her empty glass, she covered it with her hand. “You needn’t get me drunk to get what you want. I want it, too. I’ve got an itch.” She spread her legs and put her hand on her crotch to show where the itch was. There was a Vulgar Woman inside her—perhaps even a Harlot—and the wine always let her loose.
“Have another glass anyway,” I said. “We’ve something to celebrate.”
She looked at me warily. Even a single glass of wine made her eyes wet (as if part of her was weeping for all the wine it wanted and could not have), and in the sunset light they looked orange, like the eyes of a jack-o’-lantern with a candle inside it.
“There will be no suit,” I told her, “and there will be no divorce. If the Farrington Company can afford to pay us for my 80 as well as your father’s 100, our argument is over.”
For the first and only time in our troubled marriage, she actually gaped. “What are you saying? Is it what I think you’re saying? Don’t fool with me, Wilf!”
“I’m not,” said the Conniving Man. He spoke with hearty sincerity. “Henry and I have had many conversations about this—”
“You’ve been thick as thieves, that’s true,” she said. She had taken her hand from the top of her glass and I took the opportunity to fill it. “Always in the hay-mow or sitting on the woodpile or with your heads together in the back field. I thought it was about Shannon Cotterie.” A sniff and a head-toss. But I thought she looked a little wistful, as well. She sipped at her second glass of wine. Two sips of a second glass and she could still put the glass down and go to bed. Four and I might as well hand her the bottle. Not to mention the other two I had standing by.
“No,” I said. “We haven’t been talking about Shannon.” Although I had seen Henry holding her hand on occasion as they walked the two miles to the Hemingford Home schoolhouse. “We’ve been talking about Omaha. He wants to go, I guess.” It wouldn’t do to lay it on too thick, not after a single glass of wine and two sips of another. She was suspicious by nature, was my Arlette, always looking for a deeper motive. And of course in this case I had one. “At least to try it on for size. And Omaha’s not that far from Hemingford…”
“No. It isn’t. As I’ve told you both a thousand times.” She sipped her wine, and instead of putting the glass down as she had before, she held it. The orange light above the western horizon was deepening to an otherworldly green-purple that seemed to burn in the glass.
“If it were St. Louis, that would be a different thing.”
“I’ve given that idea up,” she said. Which meant, of course, that she had investigated the possibility and found it problematic. Behind my back, of course. All of it behind my back except for the company lawyer. And she would have done that behind my back as well, if she hadn’t wanted to use it as a club to beat me with.
“Will they buy the whole piece, do you think?” I asked. “All 180 acres?”
“How would I know?” Sipping. The second glass half-empty. If I told her now that she’d had enough and tried to take it away from her, she’d refuse to give it up.
“You do, I have no doubt,” I said. “That 180 acres is like St. Louis. You’ve investigated.”
She gave me a shrewd sidelong look… then burst into harsh laughter. “P’raps I have.”
“I suppose we could hunt for a house on the outskirts of town,” I said. “Where there’s at least a field or two to look at.”
“Where you’d sit on your ass in a porch-rocker all day, letting your wife do the work for a change? Here, fill this up. If we’re celebrating, let’s celebrate.”
I filled both. It only took a splash in mine, as I’d taken but a single swallow.
“I thought I might look for work as a mechanic. Cars and trucks, but mostly farm machinery. If I can keep that old Farmall running”—I gestured with my glass toward the dark hulk of the tractor standing beside the barn—“then I guess I can keep anything running.”
“And Henry talked you into this.”
“He convinced me it would be better to take a chance at being happy in town than to stay here on my own in what would be sure misery.”
“The boy shows sense and the man listens! At long last! Hallelujah!” She drained her glass and held it out for more. She grasped my arm and leaned close enough for me to smell sour grapes on her breath. “You may get that thing you like tonight, Wilf.” She touched her purple-stained tongue to the middle of her upper lip. “That nasty thing.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” I said. If I had my way, an even nastier thing was going to happen that night in the bed we had shared for 15 years.
“Let’s have Henry down,” she said. She had begun to slur her words. “I want to congratulate him on finally seeing the light.” (Have I mentioned that the verb to thank was not in my wife’s vocabulary? Perhaps not. Perhaps by now I don’t need to.) Her eyes lit up as a thought occurred to her. “We’ll give ’im a glass of wine! He’s old enough!” She elbowed me like one of the old men you see sitting on the benches that flank the courthouse steps, telling each other dirty jokes. “If we loosen his tongue a little, we may even find out if he’s made any time with Shannon Cotterie… li’l baggage, but she’s got pretty hair, I’ll give ’er that.”
“Have another glass of wine first,” said the Conniving Man.
She had another two, and that emptied the bottle. (The first one.) By then she was singing “Avalon” in her best minstrel voice, and doing her best minstrel eye-rolls. It was painful to see and even more painful to hear.
I went into the kitchen to get another bottle of wine, and judged the time was right to call Henry. Although, as I’ve said, I was not in great hopes. I could only do it if he were my willing accomplice, and in my heart I believed that he would shy from the deed when the talk ran out and the time actually came. If so, we would simply put her to bed. In the morning I would tell her I’d changed my mind about selling my father’s land.
Henry came, and nothing in his white, woeful face offered any encouragement for success. “Poppa, I don’t think I can,” he whispered. “It’s Mama.”
“If you can’t, you can’t,” I said, and there was nothing of the Conniving Man in that. I was resigned; what would be would be. “In any case, she’s happy for the first time in months. Drunk, but happy.”
“Not just squiffy? She’s drunk?”
“Don’t be surprised; getting her own way is the only thing that ever makes her happy. Surely 14 years with her is long enough to have taught you that.”
Frowning, he cocked an ear to the porch as the woman who’d given him birth launched into a jarring but word-for-word rendition of “Dirty McGee.” Henry frowned at this barrelhouse ballad, perhaps because of the chorus (“She was willin’ to help him stick it in / For it was Dirty McGee again”), more likely at the way she was slurring the words. Henry had taken the Pledge at a Methodist Youth Fellowship Camp-Out on Labor Day weekend of the year before. I rather enjoyed his shock. When teenagers aren’t turning like weathervanes in a high wind, they’re as stiff as Puritans.
“She wants you to join us and have a glass of wine.”
“Poppa, you know I promised the Lord I would never drink.”
“You’ll have to take that up with her. She wants to have a celebration. We’re selling up and moving to Omaha.”
“Well… we’ll see. It’s really up to you, Son. Come out on the porch.”
His mother rose tipsily to her feet when she saw him, wrapped her arms around his waist, pressed her body rather too tightly against his, and covered his face with extravagant kisses. Unpleasantly smelly ones, from the way he grimaced. The Conniving Man, meanwhile, filled up her glass, which was empty again.
“Finally we’re all together! My men see sense!” She raised her glass in a toast, and slopped a goodly portion of it onto her bosom. She laughed and gave me a wink. “If you’re good, Wilf, you can suck it out of the cloth later on.”
Henry looked at her with confused distaste as she plopped back down in her rocker, raised her skirts, and tucked them between her legs. She saw the look and laughed.
“No need to be so prissy. I’ve seen you with Shannon Cotterie. Li’l baggage, but she’s got pretty hair and a nice little figger.” She drank off the rest of her wine and belched. “If you’re not getting a touch of that, you’re a fool. Only you’d better be careful. Fourteen’s not too young to marry. Out here in the middle, fourteen’s not too young to marry your cousin.” She laughed some more and held out her glass. I filled it from the second bottle.
“Poppa, she’s had enough,” Henry said, as disapproving as a parson. Above us, the first stars were winking into view above that vast flat emptiness I have loved all my life.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “In vino veritas, that’s what Pliny the Elder said… in one of those books your mother’s always sneering about.”
“Hand on the plow all day, nose in a book all night,” Arlette said. “Except when he’s got something else in me.”
“Mama!” she mocked, then raised her glass in the direction of Harlan Cotterie’s farm, although it was too far for us to see the lights. We couldn’t have seen them even if it had been a mile closer, now that the corn was high. When summer comes to Nebraska, each farmhouse is a ship sailing a vast green ocean. “Here’s to Shannon Cotterie and her brand-new bubbies, and if my son don’t know the color of her nipples, he’s a slowpoke.”
My son made no reply to this, but what I could see of his shadowed face made the Conniving Man rejoice.
She turned to Henry, grasped his arm, and spilled wine on his wrist. Ignoring his little mew of distaste, looking into his face with sudden grimness, she said: “Just make sure that when you’re lying down with her in the corn or behind the barn, you’re a no-poke.” She made her free hand into a fist, poked out the middle finger, then used it to tap a circle around her crotch: left thigh, right thigh, right belly, navel, left belly, back again to the left thigh. “Explore all you like, and rub around it with your Johnny Mac until he feels good and spits up, but stay out of the home place lest you find yourself locked in for life, just like your mummer and daddy.”
He got up and left, still without a word, and I don’t blame him. Even for Arlette, this was a performance of extreme vulgarity. He must have seen her change before his eyes from his mother—a difficult woman but sometimes loving—to a smelly whorehouse madam instructing a green young customer. All bad enough, but he was sweet on the Cotterie girl, and that made it worse. Very young men cannot help but put their first loves on pedestals, and should someone come along and spit on the paragon… even if it happens to be one’s mother…
Faintly, I heard his door slam. And faint but audible sobbing.
“You’ve hurt his feelings,” I said.
She expressed the opinion that feelings, like fairness, were also the last resort of weaklings. Then she held out her glass. I filled it, knowing she would remember none of what she’d said in the morning (always supposing she was still there to greet the morning), and would deny it—vehemently—if I told her. I had seen her in this state of drunkenness before, but not for years.
We finished the second bottle (she did) and half of the third before her chin dropped onto her wine-stained bosom and she began to snore. Coming through her thus constricted throat, those snores sounded like the growling of an ill-tempered dog.
I put my arm around her shoulders, hooked my hand into her armpit, and hauled her to her feet. She muttered protests and slapped weakly at me with one stinking hand. “Lea’ me ’lone. Want to go to slee’.”
“And you will,” I said. “But in your bed, not out here on the porch.”
I led her—stumbling and snoring, one eye shut and the other open in a bleary glare—across the sitting room. Henry’s door opened. He stood in it, his face expressionless and much older than his years. He nodded at me. Just one single dip of the head, but it told me all I needed to know.
I got her on the bed, took off her shoes, and left her there to snore with her legs spread and one hand dangling off the mattress. I went back into the sitting room and found Henry standing beside the radio Arlette had hounded me into buying the year before.
“She can’t say those things about Shannon,” he whispered.
“But she will,” I said. “It’s how she is, how the Lord made her.”
“And she can’t take me away from Shannon.”
“She’ll do that, too,” I said. “If we let her.”
“Couldn’t you… Poppa, couldn’t you get your own lawyer?”
“Do you think any lawyer whose services I could buy with the little bit of money I have in the bank could stand up to the lawyers Farrington would throw at us? They swing weight in Hemingford County; I swing nothing but a sickle when I want to cut hay. They want that 100 acres and she means for them to have it. This is the only way, but you have to help me. Will you?”
For a long time he said nothing. He lowered his head, and I could see tears dropping from his eyes to the hooked rug. Then he whispered, “Yes. But if I have to watch it… I’m not sure I can…”
“There’s a way you can help and still not have to watch. Go into the shed and fetch a burlap sack.”
He did as I asked. I went into the kitchen and got her sharpest butcher knife. When he came back with the sack and saw it, his face paled. “Does it have to be that? Can’t you… with a pillow…”
“It would be too slow and too painful,” I said. “She’d struggle.” He accepted that as if I had killed a dozen women before my wife and thus knew. But I didn’t. All I knew was that in all my half-plans—my daydreams of being rid of her, in other words—I had always seen the knife I now held in my hand. And so the knife it would be. The knife or nothing.
We stood there in the glow of the kerosene lamps—there’d be no electricity except for generators in Hemingford Home until 1928—looking at each other, the great night-silence that exists out there in the middle of things broken only by the unlovely sound of her snores. Yet there was a third presence in that room: her ineluctable will, which existed separate of the woman herself (I thought I sensed it then; these 8 years later I am sure). This is a ghost story, but the ghost was there even before the woman it belonged to died.
“All right, Poppa. We’ll… we’ll send her to Heaven.” Henry’s face brightened at the thought. How hideous that seems to me now, especially when I think of how he finished up.
“It will be quick,” I said. Man and boy I’ve slit nine-score hogs’ throats, and I thought it would be. But I was wrong.
Let it be told quickly. On the nights when I can’t sleep—and there are many—it plays over and over again, every thrash and cough and drop of blood in exquisite slowness, so let it be told quickly.
We went into the bedroom, me in the lead with the butcher knife in my hand, my son with the burlap sack. We went on tiptoe, but we could have come in clashing cymbals without waking her up. I motioned Henry to stand to my right, by her head. Now we could hear the Big Ben alarm clock ticking on her nightstand as well as her snores, and a curious thought came to me: we were like physicians attending the deathbed of an important patient. But I think physicians at deathbeds do not as a rule tremble with guilt and fear.
Please let there not be too much blood, I thought. Let the bag catch it. Even better, let him cry off now, at the last minute.
But he didn’t. Perhaps he thought I’d hate him if he did; perhaps he had resigned her to Heaven; perhaps he was remembering that obscene middle finger, poking a circle around her crotch. I don’t know. I only know he whispered, “Good-bye, Mama,” and drew the bag down over her head.
She snorted and tried to twist away. I had meant to reach under the bag to do my business, but he had to push down tightly on it to hold her, and I couldn’t. I saw her nose making a shape like a shark’s fin in the burlap. I saw the look of panic dawning on his face, too, and knew he wouldn’t hold on for long.
I put one knee on the bed and one hand on her shoulder. Then I slashed through the burlap and the throat beneath. She screamed and began to thrash in earnest. Blood welled through the slit in the burlap. Her hands came up and beat the air. Henry stumbled away from the bed with a screech. I tried to hold her. She pulled at the gushing bag with her hands and I slashed at them, cutting three of her fingers to the bone. She shrieked again—a sound as thin and sharp as a sliver of ice—and the hand fell away to twitch on the counterpane. I slashed another bleeding slit in the burlap, and another, and another. Five cuts in all I made before she pushed me away with her unwounded hand and then tore the burlap sack up from her face. She couldn’t get it all the way off her head—it caught in her hair—and so she wore it like a snood.
I had cut her throat with the first two slashes, the first time deep enough to show the gristle of her wind-pipe. With the last two I had carved her cheek and her mouth, the latter so deeply that she wore a clown’s grin. It stretched all the way to her ears and showed her teeth. She let loose a gutteral, choked roar, the sound a lion might make at feeding-time. Blood flew from her throat all the way to the foot of the counterpane. I remember thinking it looked like the wine when she held her glass up to the last of the daylight.
She tried to get out of bed. I was first dumbfounded, then infuriated. She had been a trouble to me all the days of our marriage and was a trouble even now, at our bloody divorce. But what else should I have expected?
“Oh Poppa, make her stop!” Henry shrieked. “Make her stop, o Poppa, for the love of God make her stop!”
I leaped on her like an ardent lover and drove her back down on her blood-drenched pillow. More harsh growls came from deep in her mangled throat. Her eyes rolled in their sockets, gushing tears. I wound my hand into her hair, yanked her head back, and cut her throat yet again. Then I tore the counterpane free from my side of the bed and wrapped it over her head, catching all but the first pulse from her jugular. My face had caught that spray, and hot blood now dripped from my chin, nose, and eyebrows.
Behind me, Henry’s shrieks ceased. I turned around and saw that God had taken pity on him (assuming He had not turned His face away when He saw what we were about): he had fainted. Her thrashings began to weaken. At last she lay still… but I remained on top of her, pressing down with the counterpane, now soaked with her blood. I reminded myself that she had never done anything easily. And I was right. After thirty seconds (the tinny mail-order clock counted them off?), she gave another heave, this time bowing her back so strenuously that she almost threw me off. Ride ’em, Cowboy, I thought. Or perhaps I said it aloud. That I can’t remember, God help me. Everything else, but not that.
She subsided. I counted another thirty tinny ticks, then thirty after that, for good measure. On the floor, Henry stirred and groaned. He began to sit up, then thought better of it. He crawled into the farthest corner of the room and curled in a ball.
“Henry?” I said.
Nothing from the curled shape in the corner.
“Henry, she’s dead. She’s dead and I need help.”
“Henry, it’s too late to turn back now. The deed is done. If you don’t want to go to prison—and your father to the electric chair—then get on your feet and help me.”
He staggered toward the bed. His hair had fallen into his eyes; they glittered through the sweat-clumped locks like the eyes of an animal hiding in the bushes. He licked his lips repeatedly.
“Don’t step in the blood. We’ve got more of a mess to clean up in here than I wanted, but we can take care of it. If we don’t track it all through the house, that is.”
“Do I have to look at her? Poppa, do I have to look?”
“No. Neither of us do.”
We rolled her up, making the counterpane her shroud. Once it was done, I realized we couldn’t carry her through the house that way; in my half-plans and daydreams, I had seen no more than a discreet thread of blood marring the counterpane where her cut throat (her neatly cut throat) lay beneath. I had not foreseen or even considered the reality: the white counterpane was a blackish-purple in the dim room, oozing blood as a bloated sponge will ooze water.
There was a quilt in the closet. I could not suppress a brief thought of what my mother would think if she could see what use I was making of that lovingly stitched wedding present. I laid it on the floor. We dropped Arlette onto it. Then we rolled her up.
“Quick,” I said. “Before this starts to drip, too. No… wait… go for a lamp.”
He was gone so long that I began to fear he’d run away. Then I saw the light come bobbing down the short hall past his bedroom and to the one Arlette and I shared. Had shared. I could see the tears gushing down his waxy-pale face.
“Put it on the dresser.”
He set the lamp down by the book I had been reading: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. I never finished it; I could never bear to finish it. By the light of the lamp, I pointed out the splashes of blood on the floor, and the pool of it right beside the bed.
“More is running out of the quilt,” he said. “If I’d known how much blood she had in her…”
I shook the case free of my pillow and snugged it over the end of the quilt like a sock over a bleeding shin. “Take her feet,” I said. “We need to do this part right now. And don’t faint again, Henry, because I can’t do it by myself.”
“I wish it was a dream,” he said, but he bent and got his arms around the bottom of the quilt. “Do you think it might be a dream, Poppa?”
“We’ll think it is, a year from now when it’s all behind us.” Part of me actually believed this. “Quickly, now. Before the pillow-case starts to drip. Or the rest of the quilt.”
We carried her down the hall, across the sitting room, and out through the front door like men carrying a piece of furniture wrapped in a mover’s rug. Once we were down the porch steps, I breathed a little easier; blood in the dooryard could easily be covered over.
Henry was all right until we got around the corner of the cow barn and the old well came in view. It was ringed by wooden stakes so no one would by accident step on the wooden cap that covered it. Those sticks looked grim and horrible in the starlight, and at the sight of them, Henry uttered a strangled cry.
“That’s no grave for a mum… muh…” He managed that much, and then fainted into the weedy scrub that grew behind the barn. Suddenly I was holding the dead weight of my murdered wife all by myself. I considered putting the grotesque bundle down—its wrappings now all askew and the slashed hand peeking out—long enough to revive him. I decided it would be more merciful to let him lie. I dragged her to the side of the well, put her down, and lifted up the wooden cap. As I leaned it against two of the stakes, the well exhaled into my face: a stench of stagnant water and rotting weeds. I fought with my gorge and lost. Holding onto two of the stakes to keep my balance, I bowed at the waist to vomit my supper and the little wine I had drunk. There was an echoing splash when it struck the murky water at the bottom. That splash, like thinking Ride ’em, Cowboy, has been within a hand’s reach of my memory for the last eight years. I will wake up in the middle of the night with the echo in my mind and feel the splinters of the stakes dig into my palms as I clutch them, holding on for dear life.
I backed away from the well and tripped over the bundle that held Arlette. I fell down. The slashed hand was inches from my eyes. I tucked it back into the quilt and then patted it, as if comforting her. Henry was still lying in the weeds with his head pillowed on one arm. He looked like a child sleeping after a strenuous day during harvest-time. Overhead, the stars shone down in their thousands and tens of thousands. I could see the constellations—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers—that my father had taught me. In the distance, the Cotteries’ dog Rex barked once and then was still. I remember thinking, This night will never end. And that was right. In all the important ways, it never has.
I picked the bundle up in my arms, and it twitched.
I froze, my breath held in spite of my thundering heart. Surely I didn’t feel that, I thought. I waited for it to come again. Or perhaps for her hand to creep out of the quilt and try to grip my wrist with the slashed fingers.
There was nothing. I had imagined it. Surely I had. And so I tupped her down the well. I saw the quilt unravel from the end not held by the pillow-case, and then came the splash. A much bigger one than my vomit had made, but there was also a squelchy thud. I’d known the water down there wasn’t deep, but had hoped it would be deep enough to cover her. That thud told me it wasn’t.
A high siren of laughter commenced behind me, a sound so close to insanity that it made gooseflesh prickle all the way from the crack of my backside to the nape of my neck. Henry had come to and gained his feet. No, much more than that. He was capering behind the cow barn, waving his arms at the star-shot sky, and laughing.
“Mama down the well and I don’t care!” he sing-songed. “Mama down the well and I don’t care, for my master’s gone aw-aaay!”
I reached him in three strides and slapped him as hard as I could, leaving bloody finger-marks on a downy cheek that hadn’t yet felt the stroke of a razor. “Shut up! Your voice will carry! Your—. There, fool boy, you’ve raised that god damned dog again.”
Rex barked once, twice, three times. Then silence. We stood, me grasping Henry’s shoulders, listening with my head cocked. Sweat ran down the back of my neck. Rex barked once more, then quit. If any of the Cotteries roused, they’d think it was a raccoon he’d been barking at. Or so I hoped.
“Go in the house,” I said. “The worst is over.”
“Is it, Poppa?” He looked at me solemnly. “Is it?”
“Yes. Are you all right? Are you going to faint again?”
“I’m all right. I just… I don’t know why I laughed like that. I was confused. Because I’m relieved, I guess. It’s over!” A chuckle escaped him, and he clapped his hands over his mouth like a little boy who has inadvertently said a bad word in front of his grandma.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s over. We’ll stay here. Your mother ran away to St. Louis… or perhaps it was Chicago… but we’ll stay here.”
“She… ?” His eyes strayed to the well, and the cap leaning against three of those stakes that were somehow so grim in the starlight.
“Yes, Hank, she did.” His mother hated to hear me call him Hank, she said it was common, but there was nothing she could do about it now. “Up and left us cold. And of course we’re sorry, but in the meantime, chores won’t wait. Nor schooling.”
“And I can still be… friends with Shannon.”
“Of course,” I said, and in my mind’s eye I saw Arlette’s middle finger tapping its lascivious circle around her crotch. “Of course you can. But if you should ever feel the urge to confess to Shannon—”
An expression of horror dawned on his face. “Not ever!”
“That’s what you think now, and I’m glad. But if the urge should come on you someday, remember this: she’d run from you.”
“Acourse she would,” he muttered.
“Now go in the house and get both wash-buckets out of the pantry. Better get a couple of milk-buckets from the barn, as well. Fill them from the kitchen pump and suds ’em up with that stuff she keeps under the sink.”
“Should I heat the water?”
I heard my mother say, Cold water for blood, Wilf. Remember that.
“No need,” I said. “I’ll be in as soon as I’ve put the cap back on the well.”
He started to turn away, then seized my arm. His hands were dreadfully cold. “No one can ever know!” He whispered this hoarsely into my face. “No one can ever know what we did!”
“No one ever will,” I said, sounding far bolder than I felt. Things had already gone wrong, and I was starting to realize that a deed is never like the dream of a deed.
“She won’t come back, will she?”
“She won’t haunt us, will she?” Only he said haint, the kind of country talk that had always made Arlette shake her head and roll her eyes. It is only now, eight years later, that I had come to realize how much haint sounds like hate.
“No,” I said.
But I was wrong.
I looked down the well, and although it was only 20 feet deep, there was no moon and all I could see was the pale blur of the quilt. Or perhaps it was the pillow-case. I lowered the cover into place, straightened it a little, then walked back to the house. I tried to follow the path we’d taken with our terrible bundle, purposely scuffing my feet, trying to obliterate any traces of blood. I’d do a better job in the morning.
I discovered something that night that most people never have to learn: murder is sin, murder is damnation (surely of one’s own mind and spirit, even if the atheists are right and there is no afterlife), but murder is also work. We scrubbed the bedroom until our backs were sore, then moved on to the hall, the sitting room, and finally the porch. Each time we thought we were done, one of us would find another splotch. As dawn began to lighten the sky in the east, Henry was on his knees scrubbing the cracks between the boards of the bedroom floor, and I was down on mine in the sitting room, examining Arlette’s hooked rug square inch by square inch, looking for that one drop of blood that might betray us. There was none there—we had been fortunate in that respect—but a dime-sized drop beside it. It looked like blood from a shaving cut. I cleaned it up, then went back into our bedroom to see how Henry was faring. He seemed better now, and I felt better myself. I think it was the coming of daylight, which always seems to dispel the worst of our horrors. But when George, our rooster, let out his first lusty crow of the day, Henry jumped. Then he laughed. It was a small laugh, and there was still something wrong with it, but it didn’t terrify me the way his laughter had done when he regained consciousness between the barn and the old livestock well.
“I can’t go to school today, Poppa. I’m too tired. And… I think people might see it on my face. Shannon especially.”
I hadn’t even considered school, which was another sign of half-planning. Half-assed planning. I should have put the deed off until County School was out for the summer. It would only have meant waiting a week. “You can stay home until Monday, then tell the teacher you had the grippe and didn’t want to spread it to the rest of the class.”
“It’s not the grippe, but I am sick.”
So was I.
We had spread a clean sheet from her linen closet (so many things in that house were hers… but no more) and piled the bloody bedclothes onto it. The mattress was also bloody, of course, and would have to go. There was another, not so good, in the back shed. I bundled the bedclothes together, and Henry carried the mattress. We went back out to the well just before the sun cleared the horizon. The sky above was perfectly clear. It was going to be a good day for corn.
“I can’t look in there, Poppa.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, and once more lifted the wooden cover. I was thinking that I should have left it up to begin with—think ahead, save chores, my own Poppa used to say—and knowing that I never could have. Not after feeling (or thinking I felt) that last blind twitch.
Now I could see to the bottom, and what I saw was horrible. She had landed sitting up with her legs crushed beneath her. The pillow-case was split open and lay in her lap. The quilt and counterpane had come loose and were spread around her shoulders like a complicated ladies’ stole. The burlap bag, caught around her head and holding her hair back like a snood, completed the picture: she almost looked as if she were dressed for a night on the town.
Yes! A night on the town! That’s why I’m so happy! That’s why I’m grinning from ear to ear! And do you notice how red my lipstick is, Wilf? I’d never wear this shade to church, would I? No, this is the kind of lipstick a woman puts on when she wants to do that nasty thing to her man. Come on down, Wilf, why don’t you? Don’t bother with the ladder, just jump! Show me how bad you want me! You did a nasty thing to me, now let me do one to you!
“Poppa?” Henry was standing with his face toward the barn and his shoulders hunched, like a boy expecting to be beaten. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes.” I flung down the bundle of linen, hoping it would land on top of her and cover that awful upturned grin, but a whim of draft floated it into her lap, instead. Now she appeared to be sitting in some strange and bloodstained cloud.
“Is she covered? Is she covered up, Poppa?”
I grabbed the mattress and tupped it in. It landed on end in the mucky water and then fell against the circular stone-cobbled wall, making a little lean-to shelter over her, at last hiding her cocked-back head and bloody grin.
“Now she is.” I lowered the old wooden cap back into place, knowing there was more work ahead: the well would have to be filled in. Ah, but that was long overdue, anyway. It was a danger, which was why I had planted the circle of stakes around it. “Let’s go in the house and have breakfast.”
“I couldn’t eat a single bite!”
But he did. We both did. I fried eggs, bacon, and potatoes, and we ate every bite. Hard work makes a person hungry. Everyone knows that.
Henry slept until late afternoon. I stayed awake. Some of those hours I spent at the kitchen table, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. Some of them I spent walking in the corn, up one row and down another, listening to the swordlike leaves rattle in a light breeze. When it’s June and corn’s on the come, it seems almost to talk. This disquiets some people (and there are the foolish ones who say it’s the sound of the corn actually growing), but I had always found that quiet rustling a comfort. It cleared my mind. Now, sitting in this city hotel room, I miss it. City life is no life for a country man; for such a man that life is a kind of damnation in itself.
Confessing, I find, is also hard work.
I walked, I listened to the corn, I tried to plan, and at last I did plan. I had to, and not just for myself.
There had been a time not 20 years before, when a man in my position needn’t have worried; in those days, a man’s business was his own, especially if he happened to be a respected farmer: a fellow who paid his taxes, went to church on Sundays, supported the Hemingford Stars baseball team, and voted the straight Republican ticket. I think that in those days, all sorts of things happened on farms out in what we called “the middle.” Things that went unremarked, let alone reported. In those days, a man’s wife was considered a man’s business, and if she disappeared, there was an end to it.
But those days were gone, and even if they hadn’t been… there was the land. The 100 acres. The Farrington Company wanted those acres for their God damned hog butchery, and Arlette had led them to believe they were going to get them. That meant danger, and danger meant that daydreams and half-plans would no longer suffice.
When I went back to the house at midafternoon, I was tired but clear-headed and calm at last. Our few cows were bellowing, their morning milking hours overdue. I did that chore, then put them to pasture where I’d let them stay until sunset, instead of herding them back in for their second milking just after supper. They didn’t care; cows accept what is. If Arlette had been more like one of our bossies, I reflected, she would still be alive and nagging me for a new washing machine out of the Monkey Ward catalogue. I probably would have bought it for her, too. She could always talk me around. Except when it came to the land. About that she should have known better. Land is a man’s business.
Henry was still sleeping. In the weeks that followed, he slept a great deal, and I let him, although in an ordinary summer I would have filled his days with chores once school let out. And he would have filled his evenings either visiting over at Cotteries’ or walking up and down our dirt road with Shannon, the two of them holding hands and watching the moon rise. When they weren’t kissing, that was. I hoped what we’d done had not spoiled such sweet pastimes for him, but believed it had. That I had. And of course I was right.
I cleared my mind of such thoughts, telling myself it was enough for now that he was sleeping. I had to make another visit to the well, and it would be best to do it alone. Our stripped bed seemed to shout murder. I went to the closet and studied her clothes. Women have so many, don’t they? Skirts and dresses and blouses and sweaters and underthings—some of the latter so complicated and strange a man can’t even tell which side is the front. To take them all would be a mistake, because the truck was still parked in the barn and the Model T under the elm. She had left on foot and taken only what she could carry. Why hadn’t she taken the T? Because I would have heard it start and stopped her going. That was believable enough. So… a single valise.
I packed it with what I thought a woman would need and what she could not bear to leave. I put in her few pieces of good jewelry and the gold-framed picture of her mama and poppa. I debated over the toiletries in the bathroom, and decided to leave everything except for her atomizer bottle of Florient perfume and her hornbacked brush. There was a Testament in her night table, given to her by Pastor Hawkins, but I had never seen her read it, and so left it where it was. But I took the bottle of iron pills, which she kept for her monthlies.
Henry was still sleeping, but now tossing from side to side as if in the grip of bad dreams. I hurried about my business as quickly as I could, wanting to be in the house when he woke up. I went around the barn to the well, put the valise down, and lifted the splintery old cap for the third time. Thank God Henry wasn’t with me. Thank God he didn’t see what I saw. I think it would have driven him insane. It almost drove me insane.
The mattress had been shunted aside. My first thought was that she had pushed it away before trying to climb out. Because she was still alive. She was breathing. Or so it seemed to me at first. Then, just as ratiocinative ability began to resurface through my initial shock—when I began to ask myself what sort of breathing might cause a woman’s dress to rise and fall not just at the bosom but all the way from neckline to hem—her jaw began to move, as if she were struggling to talk. It was not words that emerged from her greatly enlarged mouth, however, but the rat which had been chewing on the delicacy of her tongue. Its tail appeared first. Then her lower jaw yawned wider as it backed out, the claws on its back feet digging into her chin for purchase.
The rat plopped into her lap, and when it did, a great flood of its brothers and sisters poured out from under her dress. One had something white caught in its whiskers—a fragment of her slip, or perhaps her skimmies. I chucked the valise at them. I didn’t think about it—my mind was roaring with revulsion and horror—but just did it. It landed on her legs. Most of the rodents—perhaps all—avoided it nimbly enough. Then they streamed into a round black hole that the mattress (which they must have pushed aside through sheer weight of numbers) had covered, and were gone in a trice. I knew well enough what that hole was; the mouth of the pipe that had supplied water to the troughs in the barn until the water level sank too low and rendered it useless.
Her dress collapsed around her. The counterfeit breathing stopped. But she was staring at me, and what had seemed a clown’s grin now looked like a gorgon’s glare. I could see rat-bites on her cheeks, and one of her earlobes was gone.
“Dear God,” I whispered. “Arlette, I’m so sorry.”
Your apology is not accepted, her glare seemed to say. And when they find me like this, with rat-bites on my dead face and the underwear beneath my dress chewed away, you’ll ride the lightning over in Lincoln for sure. And mine will be the last face you see. You’ll see me when the electricity fries your liver and sets fire to your heart, and I’ll be grinning.
I lowered the cap and staggered to the barn. There my legs betrayed me, and if I’d been in the sun, I surely would have passed out the way Henry had the night before. But I was in the shade, and after I sat for five minutes with my head lowered almost to my knees, I began to feel myself again. The rats had gotten to her—so what? Don’t they get to all of us in the end? The rats and bugs? Sooner or later even the stoutest coffin must collapse and let in life to feed on death. It’s the way of the world, and what did it matter? When the heart stops and the brain asphyxiates, our spirits either go somewhere else, or simply wink out. Either way, we aren’t there to feel the gnawing as our flesh is eaten from our bones.
I started for the house and had reached the porch steps before a thought stopped me: what about the twitch? What if she had been alive when I threw her into the well? What if she had still been alive, paralyzed, unable to move so much as one of her slashed fingers, when the rats came out of the pipe and began their depredations? What if she had felt the one that had squirmed into her conveniently enlarged mouth and began to—!
“No,” I whispered. “She didn’t feel it because she didn’t twitch. Never did. She was dead when I threw her in.”
“Poppa?” Henry called in a sleep-muzzy voice. “Pop, is that you?”
“Who are you talking to?”
“No one. Myself.”
I went in. He was sitting at the kitchen table in his singlet and undershorts, looking dazed and unhappy. His hair, standing up in cowlicks, reminded me of the tyke he had once been, laughing and chasing the chickens around the dooryard with his hound dog Boo (long dead by that summer) at his heels.
“I wish we hadn’t done it,” he said as I sat down opposite him.
“Done is done and can’t be undone,” I said. “How many times have I told you that, boy?”
“?’Bout a million.” He lowered his head for a few moments, then looked up at me. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “Are we going to be caught? Are we going to jail? Or…”
“No. I’ve got a plan.”
“You had a plan that it wouldn’t hurt her! Look how that turned out!”
My hand itched to slap him for that, so I held it down with the other. This was not the time for recriminations. Besides, he was right. Everything that had gone wrong was my fault. Except for the rats, I thought. They are not my fault. But they were. Of course they were. If not for me, she would have been at the stove, putting on supper. Probably going on and on about those 100 acres, yes, but alive and well instead of in the well.
The rats are probably back already, a voice deep in my mind whispered. Eating her. They’ll finish the good parts, the tasty parts, the delicacies, and then…
Henry reached across the table to touch my knotted hands. I started.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’re in it together.”
I loved him for that.
“We’re going to be all right, Hank; if we keep our heads, we’ll be fine. Now listen to me.”
He listened. At some point he began to nod. When I finished, he asked me one question: when were we going to fill in the well?
“Not yet,” I said.
“Isn’t that risky?”
“Yes,” I said.
Two days later, while I was mending a piece of fence about a quarter-mile from the farm, I saw a large cloud of dust boiling down our road from the Omaha-Lincoln Highway. We were about to have a visit from the world that Arlette had so badly wanted to be a part of. I walked back to the house with my hammer tucked into a belt loop and my carpenter’s apron around my waist, its long pouch full of jingling nails. Henry was not in view. Perhaps he’d gone down to the spring to bathe; perhaps he was in his room, sleeping.
By the time I got to the dooryard and sat on the chopping block, I had recognized the vehicle pulling the rooster-tail: Lars Olsen’s Red Baby delivery truck. Lars was the Hemingford Home blacksmith and village milkman. He would also, for a price, serve as a kind of chauffeur, and it was that function he was fulfilling on this June afternoon. The truck pulled into the dooryard, putting George, our bad-tempered rooster, and his little harem of chickens to flight. Before the motor had even finished coughing itself to death, a portly man wrapped in a flapping gray duster got out on the passenger side. He pulled off his goggles to reveal large (and comical) white circles around his eyes.
“At your service,” I said, getting up. I felt calm enough. I might have felt less so if he’d come out in the county Ford with the star on the side. “You are—?”
“Andrew Lester,” he said. “Attorney-at-law.”
He put his hand out. I considered it.
“Before I shake that, you’d better tell me whose lawyer you are, Mr. Lester.”
“I’m currently being retained by the Farrington Livestock Company of Chicago, Omaha, and Des Moines.”
Yes, I thought, I’ve no doubt. But I’ll bet your name isn’t even on the door. The big boys back in Omaha don’t have to eat country dust to pay for their daily bread, do they? The big boys have got their feet up on their desks, drinking coffee and admiring the pretty ankles of their secretaries.
I said, “In that case, sir, why don’t you just go on and put that hand away? No offense.”
He did just that, and with a lawyer’s smile. Sweat was cutting clean lines down his chubby cheeks, and his hair was all matted and tangled from the ride. I walked past him to Lars, who had thrown up the wing over his engine and was fiddling with something inside. He was whistling and sounded just as happy as a bird on a wire. I envied him that. I thought Henry and I might have another happy day—in a world as varied as this one, anything is possible—but it would not be in the summer of 1922. Or the fall.
I shook Lars’s hand and asked how he was.
“Tolerable fair,” he said, “but dry. I could use a drink.”
I nodded toward the east side of the house. “You know where it is.”
“I do,” he said, slamming down the wing with a metallic clatter that sent the chickens, who’d been creeping back, into flight once more. “Sweet and cold as ever, I guess?”
“I’d say so,” I agreed, thinking: But if you could still pump from that other well, Lars, I don’t think you’d care for the taste at all. “Try it and see.”
He started around to the shady side of the house where the outside pump stood in its little shelter. Mr. Lester watched him go, then turned back to me. He had unbuttoned his duster. The suit beneath would need dry-cleaning when he got back to Lincoln, Omaha, Deland, or wherever he hung his hat when he wasn’t doing Cole Farrington’s business.
“I could use a drink myself, Mr. James.”
“Me, too. Nailing fence is hot work.” I looked him up and down. “Not as hot as riding twenty miles in Lars’s truck, though, I’ll bet.”
He rubbed his butt and smiled his lawyer’s smile. This time it had a touch of rue in it. I could see his eyes already flicking here, there, and everywhere. It would not do to sell this man short just because he’d been ordered to rattle twenty miles out into the country on a hot summer’s day. “My sit-upon may never be the same.”
There was a dipper chained to the side of the little shelter. Lars pumped it full, drank it down with his Adam’s apple rising and falling in his scrawny, sunburned neck, then filled it again and offered it to Lester, who looked at it as doubtfully as I’d looked at his outstretched hand. “Perhaps we could drink it inside, Mr. James. It would be a little cooler.”
“It would,” I agreed, “but I’d no more invite you inside than I’d shake your hand.”
Lars Olsen saw how the wind was blowing and wasted no time going back to his truck. But he handed the dipper to Lester first. My visitor didn’t drink in gulps, as Lars had, but in fastidious sips. Like a lawyer, in other words—but he didn’t stop until the dipper was empty, and that was also like a lawyer. The screen door slammed and Henry came out of the house in his overalls and bare feet. He gave us a glance that seemed utterly disinterested—good boy!—and then went where any red-blooded country lad would have gone: to watch Lars work on his truck, and, if he were lucky, to learn something.
I sat down on the woodpile we kept under a swatch of canvas on this side of the house. “I imagine you’re out here on business. My wife’s.”
“Well, you’ve had your drink, so we better get down to it. I’ve still got a full day’s work ahead of me, and it’s three in the afternoon.”
“Sunrise to sunset. Farming’s a hard life.” He sighed as if he knew.
“It is, and a difficult wife can make it even harder. She sent you, I suppose, but I don’t know why—if it was just some legal paperwork, I reckon a sheriff’s deputy would have come out and served it on me.”
He looked at me in surprise. “Your wife didn’t send me, Mr. James. In point of fact, I came out here to look for her.”
It was like a play, and this was my cue to look puzzled. Then to chuckle, because chuckling came next in the stage directions. “That just proves it.”
“When I was a boy in Fordyce, we had a neighbor—a nasty old rip name of Bradlee. Everyone called him Pop Bradlee.”
“My father had to do business with him from time to time, and sometimes he took me with him. Back in the buckboard days, this was. Seed corn was what their trading was mostly about, at least in the spring, but sometimes they also swapped tools. There was no mail-order back then, and a good tool might circle the whole county before it got back home.”
“Mr. James, I hardly see the rel—”
“And every time we went to see that old fellow, my mama told me to plug my ears, because every other word that came out of Pop Bradlee’s mouth was a cuss or something filthy.” In a sour sort of way, I was starting to enjoy this. “So naturally I listened all the harder. I remember that one of Pop’s favorite sayings was ‘Never mount a mare without a bridle, because you can never tell which way a bitch will run.’?”
“Am I supposed to understand that?”
“Which way do you suppose my bitch ran, Mr. Lester?”
“Are you telling me your wife has… ?”
“Absconded, Mr. Lester. Decamped. Took French leave. Did a midnight flit. As an avid reader and student of American slang, such terms occur naturally to me. Lars, however—and most other town folks—will just say ‘She run off and left him’ when the word gets around. Or him and the boy, in this case. I naturally thought she would have gone to her hog-fancying friends at the Farrington Company, and the next I heard from her would have been a notice that she was selling her father’s acreage.”
“As she means to do.”
“Has she signed it over yet? Because I guess I’d have to go to law, if she has.”
“As a matter of fact, she hasn’t. But when she does, I would advise you against the expense of a legal action you would surely lose.”
I stood up. One of my overall straps had fallen off my shoulder, and I hooked it back into place with a thumb. “Well, since she’s not here, it’s what the legal profession calls ‘a moot question,’ wouldn’t you say? I’d look in Omaha, if I were you.” I smiled. “Or Saint Louis. She was always talking about Sain’-Loo. It sounds to me as if she got as tired of you fellows as she did of me and the son she gave birth to. Said good riddance to bad rubbish. A plague on both your houses. That’s Shakespeare, by the way. Romeo and Juliet. A play about love.”
“You’ll pardon me for saying, but all this seems very strange to me, Mr. James.” He had produced a silk handkerchief from a pocket inside his suit—I bet traveling lawyers like him have lots of pockets—and began to mop his face with it. His cheeks were now not just flushed but bright red. It wasn’t the heat of the day that had turned his face that color. “Very strange indeed, considering the amount of money my client is willing to pay for that piece of property, which is contiguous with Hemingford Stream and close to the Great Western rail line.”
“It’s going to take some getting used to on my part as well, but I have the advantage of you.”
“I know her. I’m sure you and your clients thought you had a deal all made, but Arlette James… let’s just say that nailing her down to something is like trying to nail jelly to the floor. We need to remember what Pop Bradlee said, Mr. Lester. Why, the man was a countrified genius.”
“Could I look in the house?”
I laughed again, and this time it wasn’t forced. The man had gall, I’ll give him that, and not wanting to go back empty-handed was understandable. He’d ridden twenty miles in a dusty truck with no doors, he had twenty more to bounce across before he got back to Hemingford City (and a train ride after that, no doubt), he had a sore ass, and the people who’d sent him out here weren’t going to be happy with his report when he finally got to the end of all that hard traveling. Poor feller!
“I’ll ask you one back: could you drop your pants so I could look at your goolie-bits?”
“I find that offensive.”
“I don’t blame you. Think of it as a… not a simile, that’s not right, but a kind of parable.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Well, you’ve got an hour back to the city to think it over—two, if Lars’s Red Baby throws a tire. And I can assure you, Mr. Lester, that if I did let you poke around through my house—my private place, my castle, my goolie-bits—you wouldn’t find my wife’s body in the closet or…” There was a terrible moment when I almost said or down the well. I felt sweat spring out on my forehead. “Or under the bed.”
“I never said—”
“Henry!” I called. “Come over here a minute!”
Henry came with his head down and his feet dragging in the dust. He looked worried, maybe even guilty, but that was all right. “Yes, sir?”
“Tell this man where’s your mama.”
“I don’t know. When you called me to breakfast Friday morning, she was gone. Packed and gone.”
Lester was looking at him keenly. “Son, is that the truth?”
“The whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“Poppa, can I go back in the house? I’ve got schoolwork to make up from being sick.”
“Go on, then,” I said, “but don’t be slow. Remember, it’s your turn to milk.”
He trudged up the steps and inside. Lester watched him go, then turned back to me. “There’s more here than meets the eye.”
“I see you wear no wedding ring, Mr. Lester. If there comes a time when you’ve worn one as long as I have, you’ll know that in families, there always is. And you’ll know something else as well: you can never tell which way a bitch will run.”
He got up. “This isn’t finished.”
“It is,” I said. Knowing it wasn’t. But if things went all right, we were closer to the end than we had been. If.
He started across the dooryard, then turned back. He used his silk handkerchief to mop off his face again, then said, “If you think those 100 acres are yours just because you’ve scared your wife away… sent her packing to her aunt in Des Moines or a sister in Minnesota—”
“Check Omaha,” I said, smiling. “Or Sain’-Loo. She had no use for her relations, but she was crazy about the idea of living in Sain’-Loo. God knows why.”
“If you think you’ll plant and harvest out there, you’d better think again. That land’s not yours. If you so much as drop a seed there, you will be seeing me in court.”
I said, “I’m sure you’ll hear from her as soon as she gets a bad case of broke-itis.”
What I wanted to say was, No, it’s not mine… but it’s not yours, either. It’s just going to sit there. And that’s all right, because it will be mine in seven years, when I go to court to have her declared legally dead. I can wait. Seven years without smelling pigshit when the wind’s out of the west? Seven years without hearing the screams of dying hogs (so much like the screams of a dying woman) or seeing their intestines float down a creek that’s red with blood? That sounds like an excellent seven years to me.
“Have yourself a fine day, Mr. Lester, and mind the sun going back. It gets pretty fierce in the late afternoon, and it’ll be right in your face.”
He got into the truck without replying. Lars waved to me and Lester snapped at him. Lars gave him a look that might have meant Snap and yap all you want, it’s still twenty miles back to Hemingford City.
When they were gone except for the rooster-tail of dust Henry came back out on the porch. “Did I do it right, Poppa?”
I took his wrist, gave it a squeeze, and pretended not to feel the flesh tighten momentarily under my hand, as if he had to override an impulse to pull away. “Just right. Perfect.”
“Are we going to fill in the well tomorrow?”
I thought about this carefully, because our lives might depend on what I decided. Sheriff Jones was getting on in years and up in pounds. He wasn’t lazy, but it was hard to get him moving without a good reason. Lester would eventually convince Jones to come out here, but probably not until Lester got one of Cole Farrington’s two hell-for-leather sons to call and remind the sheriff what company was the biggest taxpayer in Hemingford County (not to mention the neighboring counties of Clay, Fillmore, York, and Seward). Still, I thought we had at least two days.
“Not tomorrow,” I said. “The day after.”
“Because the High Sheriff will be out here, and Sheriff Jones is old but not stupid. A filled-in well might make him suspicious about why it got filled in, so recent and all. But one that’s still being filled in… and for a good reason…”
“What reason? Tell me!”
“Soon,” I said. “Soon.”
All the next day we waited to see dust boiling toward us down our road, not being pulled by Lars Olsen’s truck but by the County Sheriff’s car. It didn’t come. What came was Shannon Cotterie, looking pretty in a cotton blouse and gingham skirt, to ask if Henry was all right, and could he take supper with her and her mama and her poppa if he was?
Henry said he was fine, and I watched them go up the road, hand-in-hand, with deep misgivings. He was keeping a terrible secret, and terrible secrets are heavy. Wanting to share them is the most natural thing in the world. And he loved the girl (or thought he did, which comes to the same when you’re just going on 15). To make things worse, he had a lie to tell, and she might know it was a lie. They say that loving eyes can never see, but that’s a fool’s axiom. Sometimes they see too much.
I hoed in the garden (pulling up more peas than weeds), then sat on the porch, smoking a pipe and waiting for him to come back. Just before moonrise, he did. His head was down, his shoulders were slumped, and he was trudging rather than walking. I hated to see him that way, but I was still relieved. If he had shared his secret—or even part of it—he wouldn’t have been walking like that. If he’d shared his secret, he might not have come back at all.
“You told it the way we decided?” I asked him when he sat down.
“The way you decided. Yes.”
“And she promised not to tell her folks?”
“But will she?”
He sighed. “Probably, yes. She loves them and they love her. They’ll see something in her face, I reckon, and get it out of her. And even if they don’t, she’ll probably tell the Sheriff. If he bothers to talk to the Cotteries at all, that is.”
“Lester will see that he does. He’ll bark at Sheriff Jones because his bosses in Omaha are barking at him. Round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.”
“We never should have done it.” He considered, then said it again in a fierce whisper.
I said nothing. For awhile, neither did he. We watched the moon rise out of the corn, red and pregnant.
“Poppa? Can I have a glass of beer?”
I looked at him, surprised and not surprised. Then I went inside and poured us each a glass of beer. I gave one to him and said, “None of this tomorrow or the day after, mind.”
“No.” He sipped, grimaced, then sipped again. “I hated lying to Shan, Poppa. Everything about this is dirty.”
“Dirt washes off.”
“Not this kind,” he said, and took another sip. This time he didn’t grimace.
A little while later, after the moon had gone to silver, I stepped around to use the privy, and to listen to the corn and the night breeze tell each other the old secrets of the earth. When I got back to the porch, Henry was gone. His glass of beer stood half-finished on the railing by the steps. Then I heard him in the barn, saying “Soo, Boss. Soo.”
I went out to see. He had his arms around Elphis’s neck and was stroking her. I believe he was crying. I watched for awhile, but in the end said nothing. I went back to the house, undressed, and lay down in the bed where I’d cut my wife’s throat. It was a long time before I went to sleep. And if you don’t understand why—all the reasons why—then reading this is of no use to you.
I had named all our cows after minor Greek goddesses, but Elphis turned out to be either a bad choice or an ironic joke. In case you don’t remember the story of how evil came to our sad old world, let me refresh you: all the bad things flew out when Pandora gave in to her curiosity and opened the jar that had been left in her keeping. The only thing that remained when she regained enough wits to put the lid back on was Elphis, the goddess of hope. But in that summer of 1922, there was no hope left for our Elphis. She was old and cranky, no longer gave much milk, and we’d all but given up trying to get what little she had; as soon as you sat down on the stool, she’d try to kick you. We should have converted her into comestibles a year before, but I balked at the cost of having Harlan Cotterie butcher her, and I was no good at slaughtering much beyond hogs… a self-assessment with which you, Reader, must now surely agree.
“And she’d be tough,” Arlette (who had shown a sneaking affection for Elphis, perhaps because she was never the one to milk her) said. “Better leave well enough alone.” But now we had a use for Elphis—in the well, as it so happened—and her death might serve an end far more useful than a few stringy cuts of meat.
Two days after Lester’s visit, my son and I put a nose-halter on her and led her around the side of the barn. Halfway to the well, Henry stopped. His eyes shone with dismay. “Poppa! I smell her!”
“Go into the house then, and get some cotton balls for your nose. They’re on her dresser.”
Although his head was lowered, I saw the sidelong glance he shot me as he went. This is all your fault, that look said. All your fault because you couldn’t let go.
Yet I had no doubt that he would help me do the work that lay ahead. Whatever he now thought of me, there was a girl in the picture as well, and he didn’t want her to know what he had done. I had forced him to it, but she would never understand that.
We led Elphis to the well-cap, where she quite reasonably balked. We went around to the far side, holding the halter-strings like ribbons in a Maypole dance, and hauled her out onto the rotted wood by main force. The cap cracked beneath her weight… bowed down… but held. The old cow stood on it, head lowered, looking as stupid and as stubborn as ever, showing the greenish-yellow rudiments of her teeth.
“What now?” Henry asked.
I started to say I didn’t know, and that was when the well-cap broke in two with a loud and brittle snap. We held onto the halter-strings, although I thought for a moment I was going to be dragged into that damned well with two dislocated arms. Then the nose-rig ripped free and flew back up. It was split down both the sides. Below, Elphis began to low in agony and drum her hoofs against the well’s rock sides.
“Poppa!” Henry screamed. His hands were fists against his mouth, the knuckles digging into his upper lip. “Make her stop!”
Elphis uttered a long, echoing groan. Her hoofs continued to beat against the stone.
I took Henry’s arm and hauled him, stumbling, back to the house. I pushed him down on Arlette’s mail-order sofa and ordered him to stay there until I came back to get him. “And remember, this is almost over.”
“It’ll never be over,” he said, and turned facedown on the sofa. He put his hands over his ears, even though Elphis couldn’t be heard from in here. Except Henry still was hearing her, and so was I.
I got my varmint gun from the high shelf in the pantry. It was only a .22, but it would do the job. And if Harlan heard shots rolling across the acres between his place and mine? That would fit our story, too. If Henry could keep his wits long enough to tell it, that was.
Here is something I learned in 1922: there are always worse things waiting. You think you have seen the most terrible thing, the one that coalesces all your nightmares into a freakish horror that actually exists, and the only consolation is that there can be nothing worse. Even if there is, your mind will snap at the sight of it, and you will know no more. But there is worse, your mind does not snap, and somehow you carry on. You might understand that all the joy has gone out of the world for you, that what you did has put all you hoped to gain out of your reach, you might wish you were the one who was dead—but you go on. You realize that you are in a hell of your own making, but you go on nevertheless. Because there is nothing else to do.
Elphis had landed on top of my wife’s body, but Arlette’s grinning face was still perfectly visible, still tilted up to the sunlit world above, still seeming to look at me. And the rats had come back. The cow falling into their world had doubtless caused them to retreat into the pipe I would eventually come to think of as Rat Boulevard, but then they had smelled fresh meat, and had come hurrying out to investigate. They were already nibbling at poor old Elphis as she lowed and kicked (more feebly now), and one sat on top of my dead wife’s head like an eldritch crown. It had picked a hole in the burlap sack and pulled a tuft of her hair out with its clever claws. Arlette’s cheeks, once so round and pretty, hung in shreds.
Nothing can be any worse than this, I thought. Surely I’ve reached the end of horror.
But yes, there are always worse things waiting. As I peered down, frozen with shock and revulsion, Elphis kicked out again, and one of her hoofs connected with what remained of Arlette’s face. There was a snap as my wife’s jaw broke, and everything below her nose shifted to the left, as if on a hinge. Still the ear-to-ear grin remained. That it was no longer aligned with her eyes made it even worse. It was as if she now had two faces to haunt me with instead of just one. Her body shifted against the mattress, making it slide. The rat on her head scurried down behind it. Elphis lowed again. I thought that if Henry came back now, and looked into the well, he would kill me for making him a part of this. I probably deserved killing. But that would leave him alone, and alone he would be defenseless.
Part of the cap had fallen into the well; part of it was still hanging down. I loaded my rifle, rested it on this slope, and aimed at Elphis, who lay with her neck broken and her head cocked against the rock wall. I waited for my hands to steady, then pulled the trigger.
One shot was enough.
Back in the house, I found that Henry had gone to sleep on the couch. I was too shocked myself to consider this strange. At that moment, he seemed to me like the only truly hopeful thing in the world: soiled, but not so filthy he could never be clean again. I bent and kissed his cheek. He moaned and turned his head away. I left him there and went to the barn for my tools. When he joined me three hours later, I had pulled the broken and hanging piece of the well-cap out of the hole and had begun to fill it in.
“I’ll help,” he said in a flat and dreary voice.
“Good. Get the truck and drive it out to the dirtpile at West Fence—”
“By myself??” The disbelief in his voice was only faint, but I was encouraged to hear any emotion at all.
“You know all the forward gears, and you can find reverse, can’t you?”
“Then you’ll be fine. I’ve got enough to be going on with in the meantime, and when you come back, the worst will be over.”
I waited for him to tell me again that the worst would never be over, but he didn’t. I recommenced shoveling. I could still see the top of Arlette’s head and the burlap with that terrible picked-over tuft sticking out of it. There might already be a litter of newborn ratlings down there in the cradle of my dead wife’s thighs.
I heard the truck cough once, then twice. I hoped the crank wouldn’t kick back and break Henry’s arm.
The third time he turned the crank, our old truck bellowed into life. He retarded the spark, gunned the throttle a time or two, then drove away. He was gone for almost an hour, but when he came back, the truck’s bed was full of rocks and soil. He drove it to the edge of the well and killed the engine. He had taken off his shirt, and his sweat-shiny torso looked too thin; I could count his ribs. I tried to think when I’d last seen him eat a big meal, and at first I couldn’t. Then I realized it must have been breakfast on the morning after we’d done away with her.
I’ll see that he gets a good dinner tonight, I thought. I’ll see that we both do. No beef, but there’s pork in the icebox—
“Look yonder,” he said in his new flat voice, and pointed.
I saw a rooster-tail of dust coming toward us. I looked down into the well. It wasn’t good enough, not yet. Half of Elphis was still sticking up. That was all right, of course, but the corner of the bloodstained mattress was also still poking out of the dirt.
“Help me,” I said.
“Do we have enough time, Poppa?” He sounded only mildly interested.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Don’t just stand there, help me.”
The extra shovel was leaning against the side of the barn beside the splintered remains of the well-cap. Henry grabbed it, and we began shoveling dirt and rocks out of the back of the truck as fast as ever we could.
When the County Sheriff’s car with the gold star on the door and the spotlight on the roof pulled up by the chopping block (once more putting George and the chickens to flight), Henry and I were sitting on the porch steps with our shirts off and sharing the last thing Arlette James had ever made: a pitcher of lemonade. Sheriff Jones got out, hitched up his belt, took off his Stetson, brushed back his graying hair, and resettled his hat along the line where the white skin of his brow ended and coppery red took over. He was by his lonesome. I took that as a good sign.
“Good day, gents.” He took in our bare chests, dirty hands, and sweaty faces. “Hard chorin’ this afternoon, is it?”
I spat. “My own damn fault.”
“Is that so?”
“One of our cows fell in the old livestock well,” Henry said.
Jones asked again, “Is that so?”
“It is,” I said. “Would you want a glass of lemonade, Sheriff?? It’s Arlette’s.”
“Arlette’s, is it? She decided to come back, did she?”
“No,” I said. “She took her favorite clothes but left the lemonade. Have some.”
“I will. But first I need to use your privy. Since I turned fifty-five or so, seems like I have to wee on every bush. It’s a God damned inconvenience.”
“It’s around the back of the house. Just follow the path and look for the crescent moon on the door.”
He laughed as though this were the funniest joke he’d heard all year, and went around the house. Would he pause on his way to look in the windows? He would if he was any good at his job, and I’d heard he was. At least in his younger days.
“Poppa,” Henry said. He spoke in a low voice.
I looked at him.
“If he finds out, we can’t do anything else. I can lie, but there can’t be anymore killing.”
“All right,” I said. That was a short conversation, but one I have pondered often in the eight years since.
Sheriff Jones came back, buttoning his fly.
“Go in and get the Sheriff a glass,” I told Henry.
Henry went. Jones finished with his fly, took off his hat, brushed back his hair some more, and reset the hat. His badge glittered in the early-afternoon sun. The gun on his hip was a big one, and although Jones was too old to have been in the Great War, the holster looked like AEF property. Maybe it was his son’s. His son had died over there.
“Sweet-smelling privy,” he said. “Always nice on a hot day.”
“Arlette used to put the quicklime to it pretty constantly,” I said. “I’ll try to keep up the practice if she stays away. Come on up to the porch and we’ll sit in the shade.”
“Shade sounds good, but I believe I’ll stand. Need to stretch out my spine.”
I sat in my rocker with the PA cushion on it. He stood beside me, looking down. I didn’t like being in that position but tried to bear up patiently. Henry came out with a glass. Sheriff Jones poured his own lemonade, tasted, then gulped most of it down at a go and smacked his lips.
“Good, isn’t it? Not too sour, not too sweet, just right.” He laughed. “I’m like Goldilocks, aren’t I?” He drank the rest, but shook his head when Henry offered to refill his glass. “You want me pissing on every fencepost on the way back to Hemingford Home? And then all the way to Hemingford City after that?”
“Have you moved your office?” I asked. “I thought you were right there in the Home.”
“I am, aren’t I? The day they make me move the Sheriff’s Office to the county seat is the day I resign and let Hap Birdwell take over, like he wants to. No, no, it’s just a court hearing up to the City. Amounts to no more than paperwork, but there it is. And you know how Judge Cripps is… or no, I guess you don’t, being a law-abiding sort. He’s bad-tempered, and if a fellow isn’t on time, his temper gets worse. So even though it comes down to just saying so help me God and then signing my name to a bunch of legal folderol, I have to hurry right along with my business out here, don’t I? And hope my God damned Maxie doesn’t break down on the way back.”
I said nothing to this. He didn’t talk like a man who was in a hurry, but perhaps that was just his way.
He took his hat off and brushed his hair back some more, but this time he didn’t put the hat back on. He looked at me earnestly, then at Henry, then back at me again. “Guess you know I’m not out here on my own hook. I believe that doings between a man and his wife are their own business. It has to be that way, doesn’t it? Bible says the man is the head of a woman, and that if a woman should learn any thing, it should be taught by her husband at home. Book of Corinthians. If the Bible was my only boss, I’d do things the Bible’s way and life would be simpler.”
“I’m surprised Mr. Lester’s not out here with you,” I said.
“Oh, he wanted to come, but I put the kye-bosh on that. He also wanted me to get a search warrant, but I told him I didn’t need one. I said you’d either let me look around or you wouldn’t.” He shrugged. His face was placid, but the eyes were keen and always in motion: peeking and prying, prying and peeking.
When Henry asked me about the well, I’d said, We’ll watch him and decide how sharp he is. If he’s sharp, we’ll show him ourselves. We can’t look as if we have anything to hide. If you see me flick my thumb, that means I think we have to take the chance. But we have to agree, Hank. If I don’t see you flick yours back, I’ll keep my mouth shut.
I raised my glass and drank the last of my lemonade. When I saw Henry looking at me, I flicked my thumb. Just a little. It could have been a muscle twitch.
“What does that Lester think?” Henry asked, sounding indignant. “That we’ve got her tied up in the cellar?” His own hands stayed at his sides, not moving.
Sheriff Jones laughed heartily, his big belly shaking behind his belt. “I don’t know what he’s thinking, do I? I don’t care much, either. Lawyers are fleas on the hide of human nature. I can say that, because I’ve worked for ’em—and against ’em, that too—my whole adult life. But…” The keen eyes fastened on mine. “I wouldn’t mind a look, just because you wouldn’t let him look. He’s pretty hot under the collar about that.”
Henry scratched his arm. His thumb flicked twice as he did it.
“I didn’t let him in the house because I took against him,” I said. “Although to be fair, I guess I would have taken against John the Apostle if he came out here batting for Cole Farrington’s team.”
Sheriff Jones laughed big at that: Haw, haw, haw! But his eyes didn’t laugh.
I stood up. It was a relief to be on my feet. Standing, I had three or four inches on Jones. “You can look to your heart’s content.”
“I appreciate that. It’ll make my life a lot easier, won’t it? I’ve got Judge Cripps to deal with when I go back, and that’s enough. Don’t need to listen to one of Farrington’s legal beagles yapping at me, not if I can help it.”
We went into the house with me leading and Henry bringing up the rear. After a few complimentary remarks about how neat the sitting room was and how tidy the kitchen was, we walked down the hall. Sheriff Jones had a perfunctory peek into Henry’s room, and then we arrived at the main attraction. I pushed open the door to our bedroom with a queer sense of certainty: the blood would be back. It would be pooled on the floor, splashed on the walls, and soaking into the new mattress. Sheriff Jones would look. Then he would turn to me, remove the handcuffs that sat on his meaty hip across from his revolver, and say: I’m arresting you for the murder of Arlette James, aren’t I?
There was no blood and no smell of blood, because the room had had days to air out. The bed was made, although not the way Arlette made it; my way was more Army-style, although my feet had kept me out of the war that had taken the Sheriff’s son. Can’t go kill Krauts if you have flat feet. Men with flat feet can only kill wives.
“Lovely room,” Sheriff Jones remarked. “Gets the early light, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “And stays cool most afternoons, even in summer, because the sun’s over on the other side.” I went to the closet and opened it. That sense of certainty returned, stronger than ever. Where’s the quilt? he’d say. The one that belongs there in the middle of the top shelf?
He didn’t, of course, but he came forward with alacrity when I invited him to. His sharp eyes—bright green, almost feline—went here, there, and everywhere. “Lot o’ duds,” he said.
“Yes,” I admitted, “Arlette liked clothes and she liked the mail-order catalogues. But since she only took the one valise—we have two, and the other one’s still there, see it in the back corner?—I’d have to say she only took the ones she liked the best. And the ones that were practical, I suppose. She had two pairs of slacks and a pair of blue denims, and those are gone, even though she didn’t care for pants.”
“Pants’re good for traveling in, though, aren’t they? Man or woman, pants are good for traveling. And a woman might choose them. If she was in a hurry, that is.”
“She took her good jewelry and her picture of Nana and Pop-Pop,” Henry said from behind us. I jumped a little; I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“Did she, now? Well, I suppose she would.”
He took another flick through the clothes, then closed the closet door. “Nice room,” he said, trudging back toward the hall with his Stetson in his hands. “Nice house. Woman’d have to be crazy to leave a nice room and a nice house like this.”
“Mama talked about the city a lot,” Henry said, and sighed. “She had the idea of opening some kind of shop.”
“Did she?” Sheriff Jones regarded him brightly with his green cat’s eyes. “Well! But a thing like that takes money, doesn’t it?”
“She’s got those acres from her father,” I said.
“Yes, yes.” Smiling bashfully, as if he’d forgotten those acres. “And maybe it’s for the best. ‘Better to be living in a wasteland than with a bitter-tongued, angry woman.’ Book of Proverbs. Are you glad she’s gone, Son?”
“No,” Henry said, and tears overspilled his eyes. I blessed each one.
Sheriff Jones said, “There-there.” And after offering that perfunctory comfort, he bent down with his hands braced on his pudgy knees, and looked under the bed. “Appears to be a pair of woman’s shoes under there. Broke in, too. The kind that would be good for walking. Don’t suppose she ran away barefooty, do you?”
“She wore her canvas shoes,” I said. “Those are the ones that are gone.”
They were, too. The faded green ones she used to call her gardening shoes. I’d remembered them just before starting to fill in the well.
“Ah!” he said. “Another mystery solved.” He pulled a silver-plated watch from his vest pocket and consulted it. “Well, I’d better get on the roll. Tempus is fugiting right along.”
We went back through the house, Henry bringing up the rear, perhaps so he could swipe his eyes dry in privacy. We walked with the Sheriff toward his Maxwell sedan with the star on the door. I was about to ask him if he wanted to see the well—I even knew what I was going to call it—when he stopped and gave my son a look of frightening kindness.
“I stopped at the Cotteries’,” he said.
“Oh?” Henry said. “Did you?”
“Told you these days I have to water just about every bush, but I’ll use a privy anytime there’s one handy, always assuming folks keep it clean and I don’t have to worry about wasps while I’m waiting for my dingus to drip a little water. And the Cotteries are clean folks. Pretty daughter, too. Just about your age, isn’t she?”
“Yes, sir,” Henry said, lifting his voice just a tiny bit on the sir.
“Kind of sweet on her, I guess? And her on you, from what her mama says.”
“Did she say that?” Henry asked. He sounded surprised, but pleased, too.
“Yes. Mrs. Cotterie said you were troubled about your own mama, and that Shannon had told her something you said on that subject. I asked her what it was, and she said it wasn’t her place to tell, but I could ask Shannon. So I did.”
Henry looked at his feet. “I told her to keep it to herself.”
“You aren’t going to hold it against her, are you?” Sheriff Jones asked. “I mean, when a big man like me with a star on his chest asks a little thing like her what she knows, it’s kind of hard for the little thing to keep mum, isn’t it? She just about has to tell, doesn’t she?”
“I don’t know,” Henry said, still looking down. “Probably.” He wasn’t just acting unhappiness; he was unhappy. Even though it was going just the way we had hoped it would.
“Shannon says your ma and your pop here had a big fight about selling those hundred acres, and when you came down on your poppa’s side, Missus James slapped you up pretty good.”
“Yes,” Henry said colorlessly. “She’d had too much to drink.”
Sheriff Jones turned to me. “Was she drunk or just tiddly?”
“Somewhere in between,” I said. “If she’d been all the way to drunk, she would have slept all night instead of getting up and packing a grip and creeping away like a thief.”
“Thought she’d come back once she sobered up, did you?”
“I did. It’s over four miles out to the tarvy. I thought for sure she’d come back. Someone must have come along and given her a ride before her head cleared. A trucker on the Lincoln-Omaha run would be my guess.”
“Yep, yep, that’d be mine, too. You’ll hear from her when she contacts Mr. Lester, I’m sure. If she means to stay out on her own, if she’s got that in her head, she’ll need money to do it.”
So he knew that, too.
His eyes sharpened. “Did she have any money at all, Mr. James?”
“Don’t be shy. Confession’s good for the soul. The Catholics have got hold of something there, don’t they?”
“I kept a box in my dresser. There was 200 dollars put by in it, to help pay the pickers when they start next month.”
“And Mr. Cotterie,” Henry reminded. To Sheriff Jones, he said: “Mr. Cotterie has a corn harvester. A Harris Giant. Almost new. It’s a pip.”
“Yep, yep, saw it in his dooryard. Big bastid, isn’t it? Pardon my Polish. Money all gone out’n that box, was it?”
I smiled sourly—only it wasn’t really me making that smile; the Conniving Man had been in charge ever since Sheriff Jones pulled up by the chopping block. “She left twenty. Very generous of her. But twenty’s all Harlan Cotterie will ever take for the use of his harvester, so that’s all right. And when it comes to the pickers, I guess Stoppenhauser at the bank’ll advance me a shortie loan. Unless he owes favors to the Farrington Company, that is. Either way, I’ve got my best farmhand right here.”
I tried to ruffle Henry’s hair. He ducked away, embarrassed.
“Well, I’ve got a good budget of news to tell Mr. Lester, don’t I? He won’t like any of it, but if he’s as smart as he thinks he is, I guess he’ll know enough to expect her in his office, and sooner rather than later. People have a way of turning up when they’re short on folding green, don’t they?”
“That’s been my experience,” I said. “If we’re done here, Sheriff, my boy and I better get back to work. That useless well should have been filled in three years ago. An old cow of mine—”
“Elphis.” Henry spoke like a boy in a dream. “Her name was Elphis.”
“Elphis,” I agreed. “She got out of the barn and decided to take a stroll on the cap, and it gave way. Didn’t have the good grace to die on her own, either. I had to shoot her. Come around the back of the barn I’ll show you the wages of laziness with its damn feet sticking up. We’re going to bury her right where she lies, and from now on I’m going to call that old well Wilfred’s Folly.”
“Well, I would, wouldn’t I? It’d be somethin’ to see. But I’ve got that bad-tempered old judge to contend with. Another time.” He hoisted himself into the car, grunting as he did so. “Thank you for the lemonade, and for bein’ so gracious. You could have been a lot less so, considering who sent me out here.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “We all have our jobs.”
“And our crosses to bear.” His sharp eyes fastened on Henry again. “Son, Mr. Lester told me you were hidin’ something. He was sure of it. And you were, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Henry said in his colorless and somehow awful voice. As if all his emotions had flown away, like those things in Pandora’s jar when she opened it. But there was no Elphis for Henry and me; our Elphis was dead in the well.
“If he asks me, I’ll tell him he was wrong,” Sheriff Jones said. “A company lawyer don’t need to know that a boy’s mother put her hand to him while she was in drink.” He groped under his seat, came up with a long S-shaped tool I knew well, and held it out to Henry. “Would you save an old man’s back and shoulder, son?”
“Yes, sir, happy to.” Henry took the crank and went around to the front of the Maxwell.
“Mind your wrist!” Jones hollered. “She kicks like a bull!” Then he turned to me. The inquisitive glitter had gone out of his eyes. So had the green. They looked dull and gray and hard, like lakewater on a cloudy day. It was the face of a man who could beat a railroad bum within an inch of his life and never lose a minute’s sleep over it. “Mr. James,” he said. “I need to ask you something. Man to man.”
“All right,” I said. I tried to brace myself for what I felt sure was coming next: Is there another cow in yonder well? One named Arlette? But I was wrong.
“I can put her name and description out on the telegraph wire, if you want. She won’t have gone no further than Omaha, will she? Not on just a hundred and eighty smackers. And a woman who’s spent most of her life keepin’ house has no idea of how to hide out. She’ll like as not be in a rooming house over on the east side, where they run cheap. I could have her brought back. Dragged back by the hair of the head, if you want.”
“That’s a generous offer, but—”
The dull gray eyes surveyed me. “Think it over before you say yea or nay. Sometimes a fee-male needs talking to by hand, if you take my meaning, and after that they’re all right. A good whacking has a way of sweetening some gals up. Think it over.”
The Maxwell’s engine exploded into life. I stuck out my hand—the one that had cut her throat—but Sheriff Jones didn’t notice. He was busy retarding the Maxwell’s spark and adjusting her throttle.
Two minutes later he was no more than a diminishing boil of dust on the farm road.
“He never even wanted to look,” Henry marveled.
And that turned out to be a very good thing.
We had shoveled hard and fast when we saw him coming, and nothing stuck up now but one of Elphis’s lower legs. The hoof was about four feet below the lip of the well. Flies circled it in a cloud. The Sheriff would have marveled, all right, and he would have marveled even more when the dirt in front of that protruding hoof began to pulse up and down.
Henry dropped his shovel and grabbed my arm. The afternoon was hot, but his hand was ice-cold. “It’s her!” he whispered. His face seemed to be nothing but eyes. “She’s trying to get out!”
“Stop being such a God damned ninny,” I said, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that circle of heaving dirt. It was as if the well were alive, and we were seeing the beating of its hidden heart.
Then dirt and pebbles sprayed to either side and a rat surfaced. The eyes, black as beads of oil, blinked in the sunshine. It was almost as big as a full-grown cat. Caught in its whiskers was a shred of bloodstained brown burlap.
“Oh you fuck!” Henry screamed.
Something whistled inches past my ear and then the edge of Henry’s shovel split the rat’s head in two as it looked up into the dazzle.
“She sent it,” Henry said. He was grinning. “The rats are hers, now.”
“No such thing. You’re just upset.”
He dropped his shovel and went to the pile of rocks with which we meant to finish the job once the well was mostly filled in. There he sat down and stared at me raptly. “Are you sure? Are you positive she ain’t haunting us? People say someone who’s murdered will come back to haunt whoever—”
“People say lots of things. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, a broken mirror brings seven years’ bad luck, a whippoorwill calling at midnight means someone in the family’s going to die.” I sounded reasonable, but I kept looking at the dead rat. And that shred of bloodstained burlap. From her snood. She was still wearing it down there in the dark, only now there was a hole in it with her hair sticking up. That look is all the rage among dead women this summer, I thought.
“When I was a kid, I really believed that if I stepped on a crack, I’d break my mother’s back,” Henry said musingly.
He brushed rock-dust from the seat of his pants, and stood beside me. “I got him, though—I got that fucker, didn’t I?”
“You did!” And because I didn’t like how he sounded—no, not at all—I clapped him on the back.
Henry was still grinning. “If the Sheriff had come back here to look, like you invited him, and seen that rat come tunneling to the top, he might have had a few more questions, don’t you think?”
Something about this idea set Henry to laughing hysterically. It took him four or five minutes to laugh himself out, and he scared a murder of crows up from the fence that kept the cows out of the corn, but eventually he got past it. By the time we finished our work it was past sundown, and we could hear owls comparing notes as they launched their pre-moonrise hunts from the barn loft. The rocks on top of the vanished well were tight together, and I didn’t think any more rats would be squirming to the surface. We didn’t bother replacing the broken cap; there was no need. Henry seemed almost like his normal self again, and I thought we both might get a decent night’s sleep.
“What do you say to sausage, beans, and cornbread?” I asked him.
“Can I start the generator and play Hayride Party on the radio?”
“Yessir, you can.”
He smiled at that, his old good smile. “Thanks, Poppa.”
I cooked enough for four farmhands, and we ate it all.
Two hours later, while I was deep in my sitting room chair and nodding over a copy of Silas Marner, Henry came in from his room, dressed in just his summer underdrawers. He regarded me soberly. “Mama always insisted on me saying my prayers, did you know that?”
I blinked at him, surprised. “Still? No. I didn’t.”
“Yes. Even after she wouldn’t look at me unless I had my pants on, because she said I was too old and it wouldn’t be right. But I can’t pray now, or ever again. If I got down on my knees, I think God would strike me dead.”
“If there is one,” I said.
“I hope there isn’t. It’s lonely, but I hope there isn’t. I imagine all murderers hope there isn’t. Because if there’s no Heaven, there’s no Hell.”
“Son, I was the one who killed her.”
“No—we did it together.”
It wasn’t true—he was no more than a child, and I had cozened him—but it was true to him, and I thought it always would be.
“But you don’t have to worry about me, Poppa. I know you think I’ll slip—probably to Shannon. Or I might get feeling guilty enough to just go into Hemingford and confess to that Sheriff.”
Of course these thoughts had crossed my mind.
Henry shook his head, slowly and emphatically. “That Sheriff—did you see the way he looked at everything? Did you see his eyes?”
“He’d try to put us both in the ’lectric chair, that’s what I think, and never mind me not fifteen until August. He’d be there, too, lookin’ at us with those hard eyes of his when they strapped us in and—”
“Stop it, Hank. That’s enough.”
It wasn’t, though; not for him. “—and pulled the switch. I ain’t never letting that happen, if I can help it. Those eyes aren’t never going to be the last thing I see.” He thought over what he’d just said. “Ever, I mean. Aren’t ever.”
“Go to bed, Henry.”
“Hank. Go to bed. I love you.”
He smiled. “I know, but I don’t much deserve it.” He shuffled off before I could reply.
And so to bed, as Mr. Pepys says. We slept while the owls hunted and Arlette sat in her deeper darkness with the lower part of her hoof-kicked face swung off to one side. The next day the sun came up, it was a good day for corn, and we did chores.
When I came in hot and tired to fix us a noon meal, there was a covered casserole dish sitting on the porch. There was a note fluttering beneath one edge. It said: Wilf—We are so sorry for your trouble and will help any way we can. Harlan says dont worry about paying for the harvister this summer. Please if you hear from your wife let us know. Love, Sallie Cotterie. PS: If Henry comes calling on Shan, I will send back a blueberry cake.
I stuck the note in the front pocket of my overalls with a smile. Our life after Arlette had begun.
If God rewards us on earth for good deeds—the Old Testament suggests it’s so, and the Puritans certainly believed it—then maybe Satan rewards us for evil ones. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that was a good summer, with plenty of heat and sun for the corn and just enough rain to keep our acre of vegetable garden refreshed. There was thunder and lightning some afternoons, but never one of those crop-crippling winds Midwestern farmers fear. Harlan Cotterie came with his Harris Giant and it never broke down a single time. I had worried that the Farrington Company might meddle in my business, but it didn’t. I got my loan from the bank with no trouble, and paid back the note in full by October, because that year corn prices were sky-high and the Great Western’s freight fees were at rock bottom. If you know your history, you know that those two things—the price of produce and the price of shippage—had changed places by ’23, and have stayed changed ever since. For farmers out in the middle, the Great Depression started when the Chicago Agricultural Exchange crashed the following summer. But the summer of 1922 was as perfect as any farmer could hope for. Only one incident marred it, having to do with another of our bovine goddesses, and that I will tell you about soon.
Mr. Lester came out twice. He tried to badger us, but he had nothing to badger with, and he must have known it, because he was looking pretty harried that July. I imagine his bosses were badgering him, and he was only passing it along. Or trying to. The first time, he asked a lot of questions that really weren’t questions at all, but insinuations. Did I think my wife had had an accident? She must have, didn’t I think, or she would either have contacted him in order to make a cash settlement on those 100 acres or just crept back to the farm with her (metaphorical) tail between her legs. Or did I think she had fallen afoul of some bad actor while on the road? Such things did happen, didn’t they, from time to time? And it would certainly be convenient for me, wouldn’t it?
The second time he showed up, he looked desperate as well as harried, and came right out with it: had my wife had an accident right there on the farm? Was that what had happened? Was it why she hadn’t turned up either alive or dead?
“Mr. Lester, if you’re asking me if I murdered my wife, the answer is no.”
“Well of course you’d say so, wouldn’t you?”
“That’s your last question to me, sir. Get in yonder truck, drive away, and don’t come back here. If you do, I’ll take an axe-handle to you.”
“You’d go to jail for assault!” He was wearing a celluloid collar that day, and it had come all askew. It was almost possible to feel sorry for him as he stood there with that collar poking into the underside of his chin and sweat cutting lines through the dust on his chubby face, his lips twitching and his eyes bulging.
“No such thing. I have warned you off my property, as is my right, and I intend to send a registered letter to your firm stating that very thing. Come back again and that’s trespassing and I will beat you. Take warning, sir.” Lars Olsen, who had brought Lester out again in his Red Baby, had all but cupped his hands around his ears to hear better.
When Lester reached the doorless passenger side of the truck, he whirled with an arm outstretched and a finger pointing, like a courtroom lawyer with a bent for the theatrical. “I think you killed her! And sooner or later, murder will out!”
Henry—or Hank, as he now preferred to be called—came out of the barn. He had been pitching hay and he held the pitchfork across his chest like a rifle at port arms. “What I think is you better get out of here before you start bleeding,” he said. The kind and rather timid boy I had known until the summer of ’22 would never have said such a thing, but this one did, and Lester saw that he meant it. He got in. With no door to slam, he settled for crossing his arms over his chest.
“Come back anytime, Lars,” I said pleasantly, “but don’t bring him, no matter how much he offers you to cart his useless ass.”
“No, sir, Mr. James,” Lars said, and off they went.
I turned to Henry. “Would you have stuck him with that pitchfork?”
“Yessir. Made him squeal.” Then, unsmiling, he went back into the barn.
But he wasn’t always unsmiling that summer, and Shannon Cotterie was the reason why. He saw a lot of her (more of her than was good for either of them; that I found out in the fall). She began coming to the house on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, long-skirted and neatly bonneted, toting a side-sack loaded with good things to eat. She said she knew “what men cook”—as though she were 30 instead of just 15—and said she intended to see we had at least two decent suppers a week. And although I had only one of her mother’s casseroles for comparison, I’d have to say that even at 15 she was the superior cook. Henry and I just threw steaks in a skillet on the stove; she had a way of seasoning that made plain old chew-meat delicious. She brought fresh vegetables in her side-sack—not just carrots and peas but exotic (to us) things like asparagus and fat green beans she cooked with pearl onions and bacon. There was even dessert. I can close my eyes in this shabby hotel room and smell her pastry. I can see her standing at the kitchen counter with her bottom swaying as she beat eggs or whipped cream.
Generous was the word for Shannon: of hip, of bust, of heart. She was gentle with Henry, and she cared for him. That made me care for her… only that’s too thin, Reader. I loved her, and we both loved Henry. After those Tuesday and Thursday dinners, I’d insist on doing the washing-up and send them out on the porch. Sometimes I heard them murmuring to each other, and would peek out to see them sitting side by side in the wicker chairs, looking out at West Field and holding hands like an old married couple. Other times I spied them kissing, and there was nothing of the old married couple about that at all. There was a sweet urgency to those kisses that belongs only to the very young, and I stole away with my heart aching.
One hot Tuesday afternoon she came early. Her father was out in our North Field on his harvester, Henry riding with him, a little crew of Indians from the Shoshone reservation in Lyme Biska walking along behind… and behind them, Old Pie driving the gather-truck. Shannon asked for a dipper of cold water, which I was glad to provide. She stood there on the shady side of the house, looking impossibly cool in a voluminous dress that covered her from throat to shin and shoulder to wrist—a Quaker dress, almost. Her manner was grave, perhaps even scared, and for a moment I was scared myself. He’s told her, I thought. That turned out not to be true. Except, in a way, it was.
“Mr. James, is Henry sick?”
“Sick? Why, no. Healthy as a horse, I’d say. And eats like one, too. You’ve seen that for yourself. Although I think even a man who was sick would have trouble saying no to your cooking, Shannon.”
That earned me a smile, but it was of the distracted variety. “He’s different this summer. I always used to know what he was thinking, but now I don’t. He broods.”
“Does he?” I asked (too heartily).
“You haven’t seen it?”
“No, ma’am.” (I had.) “He seems like his old self to me. But he cares for you an awful lot, Shan. Maybe what looks like brooding to you feels like the lovesicks to him.”
I thought that would get me a real smile, but no. She touched my wrist. Her hand was cool from the dipper handle. “I’ve thought of that, but…” The rest she blurted out. “Mr. James, if he was sweet on someone else—one of the girls from school—you’d tell me, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t try to… to spare my feelings?”
I laughed at that, and I could see her pretty face lighten with relief. “Shan, listen to me. Because I am your friend. Summer’s always a hardworking time, and with Arlette gone, Hank and I have been busier than one-armed paperhangers. When we come in at night, we eat a meal—a fine one, if you happen to show up—and then read for an hour. Sometimes he talks about how he misses his mama. After that we go to bed, and the next day we get up and do it all again. He barely has time to spark you, let alone another girl.”
“He’s sparked me, all right,” she said, and looked off to where her father’s harvester was chugging along the skyline.
“Well… that’s good, isn’t it?”
“I just thought… he’s so quiet now… so moody… sometimes he looks off into the distance and I have to say his name twice or three times before he hears me and answers.” She blushed fiercely. “Even his kisses seem different. I don’t know how to explain it, but they do. And if you ever tell him I said that, I’ll die. I will just die.”
“I never would,” I said. “Friends don’t peach on friends.”
“I guess I’m being a silly-billy. And of course he misses his mama, I know he does. But so many of the girls at school are prettier than me… prettier than me…”
I tilted her chin up so she was looking at me. “Shannon Cotterie, when my boy looks at you, he sees the prettiest girl in the world. And he’s right. Why, if I was his age, I’d spark you myself.”
“Thank you,” she said. Tears like tiny diamonds stood in the corners of her eyes.
“The only thing you need to worry about is putting him back in his place if he gets out of it. Boys can get pretty steamed up, you know. And if I’m out of line, you just go on and tell me so. That’s another thing that’s all right, if it’s between friends.”
She hugged me then, and I hugged her back. A good strong hug, but perhaps better for Shannon than me. Because Arlette was between us. She was between me and everyone else in the summer of 1922, and it was the same for Henry. Shannon had just told me so.
One night in August, with the good picking done and Old Pie’s crew paid up and back on the rez, I woke to the sound of a cow lowing. I overslept milking time, I thought, but when I fumbled my father’s pocket watch off the table beside my bed and peered at it, I saw it was quarter past three in the morning. I put the watch to my ear to see if it was still ticking, but a look out the window into the moonless dark would have served the same purpose. Those weren’t the mildly uncomfortable calls of a cow needing to be rid of her milk, either. It was the sound of an animal in pain. Cows sometimes sound that way when they’re calving, but our goddesses were long past that stage of their lives.
I got up, started out the door, then went back to the closet for my .22. I heard Henry sawing wood behind the closed door of his room as I hurried past with the rifle in one hand and my boots in the other. I hoped he wouldn’t wake up and want to join me on what could be a dangerous errand. There were only a few wolves left on the plains by then, but Old Pie had told me there was summer-sick in some of the foxes along the Platte and Medicine Creek. It was what the Shoshone called rabies, and a rabid critter in the barn was the most likely cause of those cries.
Once I was outside the house, the agonized lowing was very loud, and hollow, somehow. Echoing. Like a cow in a well, I thought. That thought chilled the flesh on my arms and made me grip the .22 tighter.
By the time I reached the barn doors and shouldered the right one open, I could hear the rest of the cows starting to moo in sympathy, but those cries were calm inquiries compared to the agonized bawling that had awakened me… and would awaken Henry, too, if I didn’t put an end to what was causing it. There was a carbon arc-lamp hanging on a hook to the right of the door—we didn’t use an open flame in the barn unless we absolutely had to, especially in the summertime, when the loft was loaded with hay and every corncrib crammed full to the top.
I felt for the spark-button and pushed it. A brilliant circle of blue-white radiance leaped out. At first my eyes were too dazzled to make out anything; I could only hear those painful cries and the hoof-thuds as one of our goddesses tried to escape from whatever was hurting her. It was Achelois. When my eyes adjusted a bit, I saw her tossing her head from side to side, backing up until her hindquarters hit the door of her stall—third on the right, as you walked up the aisle—and then lurching forward again. The other cows were working themselves into a full-bore panic.
I hauled on my muckies, then trotted to the stall with the .22 tucked under my left arm. I threw the door open, and stepped back. Achelois means “she who drives away pain,” but this Achelois was in agony. When she blundered into the aisle, I saw her back legs were smeared with blood. She reared up like a horse (something I never saw a cow do before), and when she did, I saw a huge Norway rat clinging to one of her teats. The weight had stretched the pink stub to a taut length of cartilage. Frozen in surprise (and horror), I thought of how, as a child, Henry would sometimes pull a string of pink bubble-gum out of his mouth. Don’t do that, Arlette would scold him. No one wants to look at what you’ve been chewing.
I raised the gun, then lowered it. How could I shoot, with the rat swinging back and forth like a living weight at the end of a pendulum?
In the aisle now, Achelois lowed and shook her head from side to side, as if that might somehow help. Once all four of her feet were back on the floor, the rat was able to stand on the hay-littered barnboards. It was like some strange freak puppy with beads of bloodstained milk in its whiskers. I looked around for something to hit it with, but before I could grab the broom Henry had left leaning against Phemonoe’s stall, Achelois reared again and the rat thumped to the floor. At first I thought she had simply dislodged it, but then I saw the pink and wrinkled stub protruding from the rat’s mouth, like a flesh cigar. The damned thing had torn one of poor Achelois’s teats right off. She laid her head against one of the barn beams and mooed at me tiredly, as if to say: I’ve given you milk all these years and offered no trouble, not like some I could mention, so why did you let this happen to me? Blood was pooling beneath her udder. Even in my shock and revulsion, I didn’t think she would die of her wound, but the sight of her—and of the rat, with her blameless teat in its mouth—filled me with rage.
I still didn’t shoot at it, partly because I was afraid of fire, but mostly because, with the carbon lamp in one hand, I was afraid I’d miss. Instead, I brought the rifle-stock down, hoping to kill this intruder as Henry had killed the survivor from the well with his shovel. But Henry was a boy with quick reflexes, and I was a man of middle age who had been roused from a sound sleep. The rat avoided me with ease and went trotting up the center aisle. The severed teat bobbed up and down in its mouth, and I realized the rat was eating it—warm and no doubt still full of milk—even as it ran. I gave chase, smacked at it twice more, and missed both times. Then I saw where it was running: the pipe leading into the defunct livestock well. Of course! Rat Boulevard! With the well filled in, it was their only means of egress. Without it, they’d have been buried alive. Buried with her.
But surely, I thought, that thing is too big for the pipe. It must have come from outside—a nest in the manure pile, perhaps.
It leaped for the opening, and as it did so, it elongated its body in the most amazing fashion. I swung the stock of the varmint gun one last time and shattered it on the lip of the pipe. The rat I missed entirely. When I lowered the carbon lamp to the pipe’s mouth, I caught one blurred glimpse of its hairless tail slithering away into the darkness, and heard its little claws scraping on the galvanized metal. Then it was gone. My heart was pounding hard enough to put white dots in front of my eyes. I drew in a deep breath, but with it came a stench of putrefaction and decay so strong that I fell back with my hand over my nose. The need to scream was strangled by the need to retch. With that smell in my nostrils I could almost see Arlette at the other end of the pipe, her flesh now teeming with bugs and maggots, liquefying; her face beginning to drip off her skull, the grin of her lips giving way to the longer-lasting bone grin that lay beneath.
I crawled back from that awful pipe on all fours, spraying vomit first to my left and then to my right, and when my supper was all gone, I gagged up long strings of bile. Through watering eyes I saw that Achelois had gone back into her stall. That was good. At least I wasn’t going to have to chase her through the corn and put a nose-halter on her to lead her back.
What I wanted to do first was plug the pipe—I wanted to do that before anything—but as my gorge quieted, clear thinking reasserted itself. Achelois was the priority. She was a good milker. More important, she was my responsibility. I kept a medicine chest in the little barn office where I did the books. In the chest I found a large can of Rawleigh Antiseptic Salve. There was a pile of clean rags in the corner. I took half of them and went back to Achelois’s stall. I closed the door of her stall to minimize the risk of being kicked, and sat on the milking stool. I think part of me felt I deserved to be kicked. But dear old Achelois stilled when I stroked her flank and whispered, “Soo, Boss, soo, Bossy-boss,” and although she shivered when I smeared the salve on her hurt part, she stood quiet.
When I’d taken what steps I could to prevent infection, I used the rags to wipe up my vomit. It was important to do a good job, for any farmer will tell you that human vomit attracts predators every bit as much as a garbage-hole that hasn’t been adequately covered. Raccoons and woodchucks, of course, but mostly rats. Rats love human leavings.
I had a few rags left over, but they were Arlette’s kitchen castoffs and too thin for my next job. I took the hand-scythe from its peg, lit my way to our woodpile, and chopped a ragged square from the heavy canvas that covered it. Back in the barn, I bent down and held the lamp close to the pipe’s mouth, wanting to make sure the rat (or another; where there was one, there would surely be more) wasn’t lurking, ready to defend its territory, but it was empty for as far as I could see, which was four feet or so. There were no droppings, and that didn’t surprise me. It was an active thoroughfare—now their only thoroughfare—and they wouldn’t foul it as long as they could do their business outside.
I stuffed the canvas into the pipe. It was stiff and bulky, and in the end I had to use a broomhandle to poke it all the way in, but I managed. “There,” I said. “See how you like that. Choke on it.”
I went back and looked at Achelois. She stood quietly, and gave me a mild look over her shoulder as I stroked her. I knew then and know now she was only a cow—farmers hold few romantic notions about the natural world, you’ll find—but that look still brought tears to my eyes, and I had to stifle a sob. I know you did your best, it said. I know it’s not your fault.
But it was.
I thought I would lie awake long, and when I went to sleep I would dream of the rat scurrying up the hay-littered barnboards toward its escape-hatch with that teat in its mouth, but I fell asleep at once and my sleep was both dreamless and restorative. I woke with morning light flooding the room and the stench of my dead wife’s decaying body thick on my hands, sheets, and pillow-case. I sat bolt upright, gasping but already aware that the smell was an illusion. That smell was my bad dream. I had it not at night but by the morning’s first, sanest light, and with my eyes wide open.
I expected infection from the rat-bite in spite of the salve, but there was none. Achelois died later that year, but not of that. She never gave milk again, however; not a single drop. I should have butchered her, but I didn’t have the heart to do it. She had suffered too much on my account.
The next day, I handed Henry a list of supplies and told him to take the truck over to The Home and get them. A great, dazzled smile broke across his face.
“The truck? Me? On my own?”
“You still know all the forward gears? And you can still find reverse?”
“Then I think you’re ready. Maybe not for Omaha just yet—or even Lincoln—but if you take her slow, you ought to be just fine in Hemingford Home.”
“Thanks!” He threw his arms around me and kissed my cheek. For a moment it seemed like we were friends again. I even let myself believe it a little, although in my heart I knew better. The evidence might be belowground, but the truth was between us, and always would be.
I gave him a leather wallet with money in it. “That was your grandfather’s. You might as well keep it; I was going to give it to you for your birthday this fall, anyway. There’s money inside. You can keep what’s left over, if there is any.” I almost added, And don’t bring back any stray dogs, but stopped myself in time. That had been his mother’s stock witticism.
He tried to thank me again, and couldn’t. It was all too much.
“Stop by Lars Olsen’s smithy on your way back and fuel up. Mind me, now, or you’ll be on foot instead of behind the wheel when you get home.”
“I won’t forget. And Poppa?”
He shuffled his feet, then looked at me shyly. “Could I stop at Cotteries’ and ask Shan to come?”
“No,” I said, and his face fell before I added: “You ask Sallie or Harlan if Shan can come. And you make sure you tell them that you’ve never driven in town before. I’m putting you on your honor, Son.”
As if either of us had any left.