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Heart Songs and Other Stories


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About The Book

Before she wrote the bestselling Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx was already producing some of the finest short fiction in the country. Here are her collected stories, including two new works never before anthologized.

These stories reverberate with rural tradition, the rites of nature, and the rituals of small town life. The country is blue collar New England; the characters are native families and the dispossessed working class, whose heritage is challenged by the neorural bourgeoisie from the city; and the themes are as elemental as the landscape: revenge, malice, greed, passion. Told with skill and profundity and crafted by a master storyteller, these are lean, tough tales of an extraordinary place and its people.


Chapter 1

On the Antler

Hawkheel's face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen, his thin back bent like a branch weighted with snow. He still spent most of his time in the field and on the streams, sweeter days than when he was that half-wild boy who ran panting up the muddy logging road, smashing branches to mute the receding roar of the school bus. Then he had hated books, had despised everything except the woods.

But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones: books on wild geese, nymph patterns for brook trout, wolves fanning across the snow. He went through his catalogues, putting red stars against the few books he could buy and black crosses like tiny grave markers against the rarities he would never be able to afford -- Halford's Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, Lanman's Haw-Ho-Noo, Phillips' A Natural History of the Ducks with color plates as fine as if the wild waterfowl had been pressed like flowers between the pages.

His trailer was on the north bank of the Feather River in the shadow of Antler Mountain. These few narrow acres were all that was left of the home place. He'd sold it off little by little since Josepha had left him, until he was down to the trailer, ten spongy acres of river bottom and his social security checks.

Yet he thought this was the best part of his life. It was as if he'd come into flat water after half a century and more of running the rapids. He was glad to put the paddle down and float the rest of the way.

He had his secret places hidden all through Chopping County and he visited them like stations of the cross; in order, in reverence and in expectation of results. In late May he followed the trout up the narrow, sun-warmed streams, his rod thrusting skillfully through the alders, crushing underfoot ferns whose broken stems released an elusive bitter scent. In October, mists came down on him as he waded through drenched goldenrod meadows, alert for grouse. And in the numb silence of November Hawkheel was a deer hunter up on the shoulder of Antler Mountain, his back against a beech while frozen threads of ice formed on the rifle's blue metal.

The deer hunt was the end and summit of his year: the irrevocable shot, the thin, ringing silence that followed, the buck down and still, the sky like clouded marble from which sifted snow finer than dust, and the sense of a completed cycle as the cooling blood ran into the dead leaves.

Bill Stong couldn't leave things alone. All through their lives there had been sparks and brushfires of hatred between Hawkheel and him, never quite quenched, but smoldering until some wind fanned up the flames.

In school Hawkheel had been The Lone Woodsman, a moody, insubordinate figure prowling the backcountry. Stong was a wiseacre with a streak of meanness. He hunted with his father and brothers and shot his first buck when he was eleven. How could he miss, thought woman-raised Hawkheel bitterly, how, when he sat in a big pine right over a deer trail and his old man whispered, "Now! Shoot now !" at the moment?

Stong's father farmed a little, ran a feed store and got a small salary to play town constable. He broke up Saturday-night dance fights, shot dogs that ran sheep and sometimes acted as the truant officer. His big, pebbled face was waiting for Hawkheel one school morning when he slid down the rocks to a trout pool.

"Plannin' to cut school again? Well, since your old man's not in a position to do it for you, I'm going to give you a lesson you'll remember." He flailed Hawkheel with a trimmed ash sapling and then drove him to school.

"You don't skip no more school, buddy, or I'll come get you again."

In the classroom Bill Stong's sliding eyes told Hawkheel he had been set up. "I'll fix him," Hawkheel told his sister, Urna, at noon. "I'll think up something. He won't know what hit him when I'm done." The game began, and the thread of rage endured like a footnote to their lives.

In late October, on the Sunday before Stong's fifteenth birthday, an event that exposed his mother's slovenly housekeeping ways took his family away.

Chopping County farmers soaked their seed corn in strychnine to kill the swaggering crows that gorged on the germinating kernels. One of the Stongs, no one knew which one, had mixed the deadly solution in a big roasting pan. The seed was sown and the unwashed pan shoved beneath the blackened iron griddles on the pantry floor where it stayed until autumn hog butchering.

The day was cold and windy, the last of summer thrown up into the sky by turbulent air. Stong's mother pulled out the pan and loaded it with a pork roast big enough to feed the Sunday gathering of family. The pork killed them all except Bill Stong, who was rolling around in Willard Iron's hayloft on a first shameful adventure. The equation of sex and death tainted his adolescent years.

As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the feed store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharptongued gossip rasped at the shells of others' lives until the quick was exposed. At the weekend dances Stong showed up alone, never dancing himself, but watching the women gallop past, their print blouses damp with sweat under the arms, their skirts sticking to their hot legs. At night he walked through town seeing which ones left the window shades up. He went uninvited to church suppers and card parties, winked out juicy tales and stained the absent with mean innuendo. Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from a rancorous argument with them, and at other times he called them saints in a tearful voice.

Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again. After Hawkheel started farming, once or twice a year he found the mailbox knocked over, water in the tractor's gas tank or the gate opened so the cows got onto the highway. He knew who'd done it.

Still, he kept on buying grain at the feed store until Stong told him about Josepha. Stong's eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter.

"Hell, everybody in town knows she's doin' it but you," he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all the juice out of his sad condition.

It was cold in the store and the windows were coated with grain dust. Hawkheel felt the fine powder between his fingers and in his dry mouth. They stared at each other, then Stong scurried out through the chilly passageway that led to the house.

"He's got something coming now," said Hawkheel to Urna. "I could wire him up out in the woods and leave him for the dogs. I could do something real bad to him any time, but I want to see how far he goes."

Stong had sour tricks for everybody. Trade dropped away at the feed store, and there were some, like Hawkheel, who spat when they saw the black pickup heading out of town, Stong's big head turning from side to side to get his fill of the sights before the woods closed in.

For a long time Urna made excuses for Stong, saying that his parents' death had "turned" him, as though he were a bowl of milk gone sour in thundery weather. But when Stong told the game warden there was a summer doe in her cellar she got on the phone and burned Hawkheel's ear.

"Leverd, what kind of a man turns in his neighbor over some deer meat he likes to eat just as good as anybody?"

Hawkheel had an answer, but he didn't give it.

A few years after Josepha left, Hawkheel began to slide deep into the books. He was at Mosely's auction hoping the shotguns would come up early so he could get out of the crowd and take off. But it dragged on, hundreds of the old lady's doilies and quilts going one by one to the summer people. Hawkheel poked through the boxes on the back porch, away from the noise. A book called Further Adventures of the One-Eyed Poacher sounded good and he dipped into it like a swallow picking mosquitoes off the water, keeping one ear on the auctioneer's patter. He sat on the broken porch glider and read until the auctioneer, pulling the crowd behind him like a train, came around to the back and shouted "Who'll give me five dollars for them boxes a books!"

Surrounded in his trailer by those books and the hundreds he'd added to them over the decades, Hawkheel enjoyed his solitude.

Stong, too, was more and more alone up at the store. As he got older, his trade dwindled to a few hard-pressed farmers who still bought feed from him because they always had and because Stong carried them until their milk checks came in. Listening in on the phone wasn't enough now; he interrupted conversations, shouting "Get off the line! I got a emergency."

"You ask me," said Urna to Hawkheel, "he's funny in the head. The only emergency he's got is himself. You watch, they'll find him laying on the kitchen floor some day as stiff as a January barn nail."

"When I get through with him," said Hawkheel, "he'll be stiff, all right."

Stong might have fallen to the cold kitchen linoleum with an iron ringing sound, but in his sixties his hair turned a fine platinum white and his face thinned to show good bones. It was a time when people were coming into the country, buying up the old farmhouses and fields and making the sugarhouses into guest cottages.

"Bill, you look like a character out of a Rupert Frost poem," said the woman who'd bought Potter's farm and planted a thousand weedy birches on prime pasture. The new people said Stong was a character. They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer -- buying salt blocks for the deer, sunflower seeds for the bluejays and laying mash for the pet chickens they had to give away each fall.

Stong set his tattered sails to catch this changing wind. In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful. He saw what the summer people liked, and to please them he carried armloads of canning jars, books, tools and other family goods down from the house to the store. He arranged generations of his family's possessions on the shelves beside the work gloves and udder balm. He filled the dusty window with pieces of old harness, wooden canes and chipped china.

In autumn he laid in ammunition for the summer men who came back for their week of deer hunting. The sign in his window read GUNS BLUE SEAL FEED WINE ANTIQUES, a small part of what he offered, for all his family's interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.

"They say," said Urna, "that he's cleaned out everything from kettles to cobwebs and put a price tag on it. You know, don't you, that he's selling all them old books his grandfather used to have. He's got them out there in the barn, higgledy-piggledy where the mice can gnaw on them."

"Has he," said Hawkheel.

"I suppose you're going up there to look at them."

"Well," said Hawkheel, "I might."

The Stong place was high on a bluff, a mile upstream from Hawkheel's trailer as the crow flew. To Hawkheel, every turn of the road was like the bite of an auger into the past. He did not remember his adult journeys up Stong's driveway, but recalled with vivid clarity sitting in the dust-colored passenger seat of their old Ford while his father drove over a sodden mat of leaves. The car window had been cranked down, and far below, the hissing river, heavy with rain, cracked boulders along its bottom. His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was one of the last memories he had of his father.

The Stong place, he saw now, had run down. The real-estate agents would get it pretty soon. The sagging clapboard house tapered away into a long ell and the barn. The store was still in the ell, but Hawkheel took the old shortcut around back, driving through the stinging nettles and just catching a glimpse through the store window of Stong's white head bobbing over a handful of papers.

The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of books, some in boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills. The first one he took up was a perfect copy of Thad Norris's 1865 The American Angler's Book. He'd seen it listed in his catalogue at home at $85. Stong wanted one dollar.

Hawkheel went at the boxes. He turned out Judge Nutting's nice little book on grouse, The History of One Day Out of Seventeen Thousand. A box of stained magazines was hiding a rare 1886 copy of Halford's Floating Flies, the slipcase deeply marked with Stong's penciled price of $1.50.

"Oh god," said Hawkheel, "I got him now."

He disguised the valuable books by mixing them with dull-jacketed works on potatoes and surveying, and carried the stack into the feed store. Stong sat at the counter, working his adding machine. Hawkheel noticed he had taken to wearing overalls, and a bandana knotted around his big neck. He looked to see if there was a straw hat on a nail.

"Good to see you, Leverd," said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, "Don't spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new Ruger shotguns?" A mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.

The books had belonged to Stong's grandfather, a hero of the waters whose name had once been in the Boston papers for his record trout. The stuffed and mounted trout still hung on the store wall beside the old man's enlarged photograph showing his tilted face and milky eyes behind the oval curve of glass.

"Bill, what will you take for your grandpa today?" cried the summer people who jammed the store on Saturdays, and Stong always answered, "Take what I can get," making a country virtue out of avarice.

Stong was ready to jump into his grandfather stories with a turn of the listener's eye. "The old fool was so slack-brained he got hisself killed with crow bait."

Hawkheel, coming in from the barn with book dust on him, saw that Stong still lied as easily as he breathed. The summer people stood around him like grinning dogs waiting for the warm hearts and livers of slain hares.

Stong's best customers were the autumn hunters. They reopened their summer camps, free now from wives and children, burned the wood they had bought in August from Bucky Pincoke and let the bottle of bourbon stand out on the kitchen table with the deck of cards.

"Roughin' it, are you?" Stong would cry jovially to Mr. Rose, splendid in his new red L.L. Bean suspenders. The hunters bought Stong's knives and ammunition and went away with rusted traps, worn horseshoes and bent pokers pulled from the bins labeled "Collector's Items." In their game pockets were bottles of Stong's cheap Spanish wine, faded orange from standing in the sun. Stong filled their ears to overflowing with his inventions.

"Yes," he would say, "that's what Antler Mountain is named for, not because there's any big bucks up there, which there is not" -- with a half wink for Hawkheel who stood in the doorway holding rare books like hot bricks -- "but because this couple named Antler, Jane and Anton Antler, lived up there years ago. Kind of simple, like some old families hereabouts get."

A sly look. Did he mean Hawkheel's father, who was carted away with wet chin and shaking hands to the state asylum believing pitchfork handles were adders?

"Yes, they had a little cabin up there. Lived off raccoons and weeds. Then old Jane had this baby, only one they ever had. Thought a lot of it, couldn't do enough for it, but it didn't survive their care and when it was only a few months old it died."

Stong, like a petulant tenor, turned away then and arranged the dimes in the cash register. The hunters rubbed their soft hands along the counter and begged for the rest of the story. Hawkheel himself wondered how it would come out.

"Well, sir, they couldn't bear to lay that baby away in the ground, so they put it in a five-gallon jar of pure alcohol. My own grandfather -- used to stand right here behind the counter where I'm standing now -- sold 'em the jar. We used to carry them big jars. Can't get 'em any more. They set that jar with the baby on a stump in front of their cabin the way we might set out a plaster duck on the lawn." He would pause a moment for good effect, then say, "The stump's still there."

They asked him to draw maps on the back of paper bags and went up onto the Antler to stare at the stump as if the impression of the jar had been burned into it by holy fire. Stong, with a laugh like a broken cream separator, told Hawkheel that every stick from that cut maple was in his woodshed. For each lie he heard, Hawkheel took three extra books.

All winter long Hawkheel kept digging away at the book mine in the barn, putting good ones at the bottom of the deepest pile so no one else would find them, cautiously buying only a few each week.

"Why, you're getting to be my best customer, Leverd," said Stong, looking through the narrow, handmade Dutch pages of John Beever's Practical Fly-fishing, which Hawkheel guessed was worth $200 on the collector's market, but for which Stong wanted only fifty cents. Hawkheel was afraid Stong would feel the quality of paper, notice that it was a numbered copy, somehow sense its rarity and value. He tried a diversion.

"Bill! You'll be interested that last week I seen the heaviest buck I seen in many years. He was pawing through the leaves about thirty yards from My Place."

In Chopping County "My Place" meant the speaker's private deer stand. It was a county of still hunting, and good stands were passed from father to son. Hawkheel's Place on the Antler regularly gave him big deer, usually the biggest deer in Feather Riven Stong's old Place in the comfortable pine was useless, discovered by weekend hunters from out of state who shot his bucks and left beer cans under the tree while he tended the store. They brought the deer to be weighed on Stong's reporting scales, bragging, not knowing they'd usurped his stand, while he smiled and nodded. Stong had not even had a small doe in five years.

"Your Place up on the Antler, Leverd?" said Stong, letting the cover of the Beever fall closed. "Wasn't that over on the south slope?"

"No, it's in that beech stand on the shoulder. Too steep for flat-landers to climb so I do pretty good there. A big buck. I'd say he'd run close to one-eighty, dressed."

Stong raked the two quarters toward him and commenced a long lie about a herd of white deer that used to live in the swamp in the old days, but his eyes went back to the book in Hawkheel's hands.

The long fine fishing days began a few weeks later, and Hawkheel decided to walk the high northeast corner of the county looking for new water. In late summer he found it.

At the head of a rough mountain pass a waterfall poured into a large trout pool like champagne into a wine glass. Images of clouds and leaves lay on the slowly revolving surface. Dew, like crystal insect eggs, shone in the untrodden moss along the stream. The kingfisher screamed and clattered his wings as Hawkheel played a heavy rainbow into the shallows. In a few weeks he came to think that since the time of the St. Francis Indians, only he had ever found the way there.

As August waned Hawkheel grew possessive of the pool and arranged stones and twigs when he could not come for several days, searching later for signs of their disarray from trespassing feet. Nothing was ever changed, except when a cloudburst washed his twigs into a huddle.

One afternoon the wind came up too strong to cast from below the pool, and Hawkheel took off his shoes and stockings and crept cautiously onto the steep rock slab above the waterfall. He gripped his bare white toes into the granite fissures, climbing the rough face. The wind blew his hair up the wrong way and he felt he must look like the kingfisher.

From above the pool he could see the trout swimming smoothly in the direction of the current. The whole perspective of the place was new; it was as if he were seeing it for the first time. There was the back of the dead spruce and the kingfisher's hidden entrance revealed. There, too, swinging from an invisible length of line wound around a branch stub, was a faded red and white plastic bobber that the Indians had not left.

"Isn't anything safe any more?" shouted Hawkheel, coming across the rock too fast. He went down hard and heard his knee crack. He cursed the trout, the spruce, the rock, the invader of his private peace, and made a bad trip home leaning on a forked stick.

Urna brought over hot suppers until he could get around and do for himself again. The inside of the trailer was packed with books and furniture and the cramped space made him listless. He got in the habit of cooking only every three or four days, making up big pots of venison stew or pea soup and picking at it until it was used up or went bad.

He saw in the mirror that he looked old. He glared at his reflection and asked, "Where's your medicine bottle and sweater?" He thought of his mother who sat for years in the rocker, her thick, ginger-shellacked cane hooked over the arm, and fled into his books, reading until his eyes stung and his favorites were too familiar to open. The heavy autumnal rain hammered on the trailer and stripped the leaves from the trees. Not until the day before deer season was he well enough to drive up to Stong's feed store for more books.

He went through the familiar stacks gloomily, keeping his weight off the bad leg and hoping to find something he'd overlooked among the stacks of fine-printed agricultural reports and ink-stained geographies.

He picked up a big dark album that he'd passed over a dozen times. The old-fashioned leather cover was stamped with a design of flowing feathers in gold, and tortured gothic letters spelled "Family Album." Inside he saw photographs, snapshots, ocher newspaper clippings whose paste had disintegrated, postcards, prize ribbons. The snapshots showed scores of curd-faced Stongs squinting into the sun, Stong children with fat knees holding wooden pull-along ducks, and a black and white dog Hawkheel dimly remembered.

He looked closer at one snapshot, drawn by something familiar. A heavy boy stood on a slab of rock, grinning up into the sky. In his hand a fishing rod pointed at the upper branches of a spruce where a bobber was hopelessly entangled in the dark needles. A blur of moving water rushed past the boy into a black pool.

"You bastard," said Hawkheel, closing the album on the picture of Stong, Bill Stong of years ago, trespassing at Hawkheel's secret pool.

He pushed the album up under the back of his shirt so it lay against his skin. It felt the size of a Sears' catalogue and made him throw out his shoulders stiffly. He took a musty book at random -- The Boy's Companion -- and went out to the treacherous Stong.

"Haven't seen you for quite a while, Leverd. Hear you been laid up," said Stong.

"Bruised my knee." Hawkheel put the book on the counter.

"Got to expect to be laid up now and then at our age," said Stong. "I had trouble with my hip off and on since April. I got something here that'll fix you up." He took a squat, foreign bottle out from under the counter.

"Mr. Rose give me this for checking his place last winter. Apple brandy, and about as strong as anything you ever tasted. Too strong for me, Leverd. I get dizzy just smelling the cork." He poured a little into a paper cup and pushed it at Hawkheel.

The fragrance of apple wood and autumn spread out as Hawkheel tasted the Calvados. A column of fire rose in the chimney of his throat with a bitter aftertaste like old cigar smoke.

"I suppose you're all ready for opening day, Leverd. Where you going for deer this year?"

"Same place I always go -- My Place up on the Antler."

"You been up there lately?"

"No, not since spring." Hawkheel felt the album's feathered design transferring to his back.

"Well, Leverd," said Stong in a mournful voice, "there's no deer up there now. Got some people bought land up there this summer, think the end of the world is coming so they built a cement cabin, got in a ton of dried apricots and pinto beans. They got some terrible weapons to keep the crowds away. Shot up half the trees on the Antler testing their machine guns. Surprised you didn't hear it. No deer within ten miles of the Antler now. You might want to try someplace else. They say it's good over to Slab City."

Hawkheel knew one of Stong's lies when he heard it and wondered what it meant. He wanted to get home with the album and examine the proof of Stong's trespass at the secret pool, but Stong poured from the bottle again and Hawkheel knocked it back.

"Where does your fancy friend get this stuff?" he asked, feeling electrical impulses sweep through his fingers as though they itched to play the piano.

"Frawnce," said Stong in an elegant tone. "He goes there every year to talk about books at some college." His hard eyes glittered with malice. "He's a liberian." Stong's thick forefinger opened the cover of The Boy's Companion, exposing a redbordered label Hawkheel had missed; it was marked $55.

"He says I been getting skinned over my books, Leverd."

"Must of been quite a shock to you," said Hawkheel, thinking he didn't like the taste of apple brandy, didn't like librarian Rose. He left the inflated Boy's Companion on the counter and hobbled out to the truck, the photograph album between his shoulder blades giving him a ramrod dignity. In the rearview mirror he saw Stong at the door staring after him.

Clouds like grey waterweed under the ice choked the sky and a gusting wind banged the door against the trailer. Inside, Hawkheel worked the album out from under his shirt and laid it on the table while he built up the fire and put on some leftover pea soup to heat." 'Liberian!' "he said once and snorted. After supper he felt queasy and went to bed early thinking the pea soup might have stood too long.

In the morning Hawkheel's bowels beat with urgent tides of distress and there was a foul taste in his mouth. When he came back from the bathroom he gripped the edge of the table which bent and surged in his hands, then gave up and took to his bed. He could hear sounds like distant popcorn and thought it was knotty wood in the stove until he remembered it was the first day of deer season. "Goddammit," he cried, "I already been stuck here six weeks and now I'm doing it again."

A sound woke him in late afternoon. He was thirsty enough to drink tepid water from the spout of the teakettle. There was another shot on the Antler and he peered out the window at the shoulder of the mountain. He thought he could see specks of brightness in the dull grey smear of hardwood and brush, and he shuffled over to the gun rack to get his .30-.30, clinging to the backs of the chairs for balance. He rested the barrel on the breadbox and looked through the scope, scanning the slope for his deer stand, and at once caught the flash of orange.

He could see two of them kneeling beside the bark-colored curve of a dead deer at his Place. He could make out the bandana at the big one's neck, see a knife gleam briefly like falling water. He watched them drag the buck down toward the logging road until the light faded and their orange vests turned black under the trees.

"Made sure I couldn't go out with your goddamned poison brandy, didn't you?" said Hawkheel.

He sat by the stove with the old red Indian blanket pulled around him, feeling like he'd stared at a light bulb too long. Urna called after supper. Her metallic voice rang in his ear.

"I suppose you heard all about it."

"Only thing I heard was the shots, but I seen him through the scope from the window. What'd it weigh out at?"

"I heard two-thirty, dressed out, so live weight must of been towards three hundred. Warden said it's probably the biggest buck ever took in the county, a sixteen-pointer, too, and probably a state record. I didn't know you could see onto the Antler from your window."

"Oh, I can see good, but not good enough to see who was with him."

"He's the one bought Willard Iron's place and put a tennis court onto the garden," said Urna scornfully. "Rose. They say he was worse than Bill, jumping around and screaming for them to take pictures."

"Did they?"

"Course they did. Then they all went up to Mr. Tennis Court's to have a party. Stick your head out the door and you'll hear them on the wind."

Hawkheel did not stick his head out the door, but opened the album to look at the Stongs, their big, rocklike faces bent over wedding cakes and infants. Many of the photographs were captioned in a spiky, antique hand: "Cousin Mattie with her new skates," "Pa on the porch swing," simple statements of what was already clear as though the writer feared the images would someday dissolve into blankness, leaving the happiness of the Stongs unknown.

He glared, seeing Stong at the secret pool, the familiar sly eyes, the fatuous gaping mouth unchanged. He turned the pages to a stiff portrait of Stong's parents, the grandfather standing behind them holding what Hawkheel thought was a cat until he recognized the stuffed trout. On the funeral page the same portraits were reduced in size and joined by a flowing black ribbon that bent and curled in ornate flourishes. The obituary from the Rutland Herald was headlined "A Farm Tragedy."

"Too bad Bill missed that dinner," said Hawkheel.

He saw that on many pages there were empty places where photographs had been wrenched away. He found them, mutilated and torn, at the end of the album. Stong was in every photograph. In the high school graduation picture, surrounded by clouds of organdy and stiff new suits, Stong's face was inked out and black blood ran from the bottoms of his trousers. Here was another, Stong on a fat-tired white bicycle with a dozen arrows drawn piercing his body. A self-composed obituary, written in a hand like infernal corrosive lace that scorched the page, told how this miserable boy, "too bad to live" and "hated by everybody" had met his various ends. Over and over Stong had killed his photographic images. He listed every member of his family as a survivor.

Hawkheel was up and about the next morning, a little unsteady but with a clear head. At first light the shots had begun on the Antler, hunters trying for a buck to match the giant that Stong had brought down. The Antler, thought Hawkheel, was as good as bulldozed.

By afternoon he felt well enough for a few chores, stacking hay bales around the trailer foundation and covering the windows over with plastic. He took two trout out of the freezer and fried them for supper. He was washing the frying pan when Urna called.

"They was on TV. with the deer," she said. "They showed the game commissioner looking up the record in some book and saying this one beat it. I been half expecting to hear from you all day, wondering what you're going to do."

"Don't you worry," said Hawkheel. "Bill's got it comin' from me. There's a hundred things I could do."

"Well," said Urna, "he's got it coming."

It took Hawkheel forty minutes to pack the boxes and load them into the pickup. The truck started hard after sitting in the cold blowing rain for two days, but by the time he got it onto the main road it ran smooth and steady, the headlights opening a sharp yellow path through the night.

At the top of Stong's drive he switched the lights off and coasted along in neutral. A half-full moon, ragged with rushing clouds, floated in the sky. Another storm breeder, thought Hawkheel.

The buck hung from a gambrel in the big maple, swaying slowly in the gusting wind. The body cavity gaped black in the moonlight. "Big," said Hawkheel, seeing the glint of light on the hooves scraping an arc in the leaves, "damn big." He got out of the truck and leaned his forehead against the cold metal for a minute.

From a box in the back of the truck he took one of his books and opened it. It was Haw-Ho-Noo. He leaned over a page as if he could read the faint print in the moonlight, then gripped it and tore it out. One after another he seized the books, ripped the pages and cracked their spines. He hurled them at the black, swaying deer and they fell to the bloodied ground beneath it.

"Fool with me, will you?" shouted Hawkheel, tearing soft paper with both hands, tossing books up at the moon, and his blaring sob rose over the sound of the boulders cracking in the river below.

Copyright © 1998, 1995 by E. Annie Proulx

Reading Group Guide

Heart Songs and Other Stories
Annie Proulx

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In “On the Antler” Hawkheel Leverd and Bill Stong play out their childhood rivalry in a series of exchanges involving antique books, food poisoning, and private hunting places. What is at the heart of their disagreement? What leads Hawkheel to destroy the valuable books he purchases from Stong?

2. “Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators” (“Stone City”).  Discuss the legacy of the Stone family and its connection to Banger and his dog, Lady in How do the Stones continue to wreak havoc on the residents of Chopping County? What role does the fox narrative play in this tale?

3. “Bedrock” explores the relationship between Perley and his second wife, Maureen. How do Maureen and her older brother, Bobhot, enter Perley’s life? How does Perley’s interaction with Maureen as a young girl relate to her mistreatment of him in their marriage? 

4. “A Run of Bad Luck” explores the emotional undercurrents between family members about to go hunting. Discuss the relationship between Haylett, and his son, Amando. What does their exchange about the road damages reveal? Later, how does Haylett try to protect Amando, and what do his efforts suggest about his feelings for his son?

5. How do Snipe’s encounters with the Twilights in “Heart Songs” seem fated? When Snipe admits to himself that he doesn’t love Nell, but that “It had always been the truck in the weeds,” what does he mean? 

6. How do the hunting lessons that Santee gives Earl in “The Unclouded Day” hint at the tensions between old-time locals and moneyed newcomers? Why does Santee agree to teach Earl, and what does he get out of it? What does the end of the story suggest about Santee’s true feelings toward Earl?

7. Discuss the wrecked camp in “In the Pit”? What does the camp (and its missing toaster) symbolize to Blue? Does Blue’s behavior toward Mr. Fitzroy and Gilbert to recover his parents’ missing belongings seem justified? In light of his actions, how did you interpret Blue’s discovery at the end of the story?

8. What brings Rivers and Sauvage together in “The Wer-Trout”? How does fishing for giant trout in the Yellow Bogs separate them? Why does Rivers tell Sauvage the legend of the Wer-Trout, and what is its significance in this story?

9. In “Electric Arrows,” what explains Mason’s contempt for his neighbors, the Moon-Azures? Why does their discovery of what they believe to be a native American petroglyph please Mason? How is their discovery related to Mason’s memories of his father and his father’s friend, Diamond, installing electricity in farms?

10. What explains Albro Sweet’s attraction to Rose Noury in “A Country Killing”? What does Simone Sweet’s reaction to the news of the murders suggest about her knowledge of her husband’s indiscretions? Did you interpret her reaction as proof of her involvement in the murders?

11. How does Albina Muth’s appearance on the scene change the relationship between Buck and Walter in “Negatives”? How does Walter’s photo session with Albina hint at exploitation? In what sense is that exploitation mutual? 

12. Many of the stories in Heart Songs—including “Negatives,” “The Wer-Trout,” “Electric Arrows,” “The Unclouded Day,” and “Stone City”—examine the conflicts that arise between locals and new neighbors who are ignorant about the longstanding traditions of their community. Did this theme resonate for you? Did any of these stories portray this tension in a way that you found especially powerful?  What themes does the title story Heart Songs carry through the other tales?


For musical inspiration prior to your discussion of “Heart Songs,” check out The Anthology of American Folk Music from your local library. This cd anthology was drawn from the holdings of Harry Smith, a music lover who amassed an impressive collection of 78 rpm recordings by little-known American artists in the years prior to World War II.

Visit to listen to recordings of folk songs by groups like The Twilights in Annie Proulx’s story. 

In “Negatives,” Walter’s interest in photographing people like Albina Muth is mockingly referred by Buck B. as an obsession with “The Rural Downtrodden.” Many famous photographers have sought to capture the plight of the impoverished. Walker Evans, in his famous book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, took a series of realistic and revealing portraits of tenant families. Visit: and discuss these images in the context of “Negatives.”

Visit your local historical society or town hall to learn more about the family or families who founded your community. Or, seek out any memoirs or biographies written by people who played a part in settling your region. Try to find out if those families are still living in your town, and share your findings with the group. You might discuss whether there are any stories or legends associated with those families, and talk about those in the light of the story “Stone City.”

About The Author

Gus Powell

Annie Proulx is the author of eleven books, including the novels The Shipping News and Barkskins, and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award–winning film. Fen, Bog, and Swamp is her second work of nonfiction. She lives in New Hampshire. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 17, 1995)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780020360759

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Raves and Reviews

Elaine Kendall Los Angeles Times Proulx doesn't merely tell her stories or participate in them, but convinces you with every word....You'd have every right to expect that a Hemingway disciple wrote these remarkable stories about life in the Northeastern granite country.

Kenneth Rose The New York Times Book Review Compelling...their sometimes enigmatic, often lyrical images seem to complement New England's lavish but barren beauty.

Wendy Smith Cleveland Plain Dealer Proulx beautifully evokes the unchanging rhythms of country existence with a deep appreciation for life lived close to the earth....Her prose is supple, strong, and filled with striking images.

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