This excerpt from Braden Hepner’s Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press, September 2014) is reprinted here by permission of the author and publisher.
Working a dying trade in a dead town, dairy farmer Jack Selvedge finds his life and existence stagnant. When Rebekah Rainsford moves back to town on the run from her father, her dark history consumes him. It soon becomes clear why girls like her don’t stay in towns like these, as elements of humanity in ruin culminate in tragedy. A deeply written and deeply felt story of love, depravity, and shattered ideals, Pale Harvest examines the loss of beauty, purity, and simplicity within the mindset of the rural American West.
They sat at the breakfast table with the television on a few days after Thanksgiving. Blair pushed his plate away and left the table and returned with a sealed envelope and handed it to Jack.
—Where’s the other one? said Jack.
Blair sat down, his face somber.
—Can’t, he said. I’m very sorry. I can’t do it. I’m in terrible pains about it. Some realtors have got a hold of me. There’s been interest in that mountain by a company that builds ski hills. They’ve offered me a sum I can’t turn down, and it’s the only way to secure the farm against the future. So I’m thinking about another piece for you. Ain’t figgered it out yet.
He seemed braced for an explosion. Jack looked down at the deed in his hands, and then he looked out the window.
—I see, he said.
He rose from the table and folded the deed. He tucked it back into the envelope and pressed the flap down. The two exchanged a glance and Jack saw a lifetime of uncertainty in those pale eyes. He nodded to his grandfather and left the room.
On the last day of the month he walked to his truck carrying a sleeping bag and a canvas sack full of clothes, toiletries, and other liveables. He was showered clean from his chores that morning and on his way out of town he understood that seeing her would simply not work, how it was not something he could do. On his way out of town he swung by Balls Murphy’s and backed his truck beneath the camper he had purchased and secured it to the bed. He had with him a roll of cash he had taken from the inside of his dusty Sunday shoe, and now he wandered mapless through solitary roads he’d never seen, south and west across the open desert. He was alone on these roads and therefore alone on the earth. His first fill-up had been to get him back, but it had taken him forward.
He passed the northern reaches of the Great Salt Lake 20 miles to his left. He passed loose groups of white cattle and fields of wasted crops, and once a flock of sheep with a lone donkey in their midst as shepherd. When he found himself beyond sight of any house or structure he stopped the truck and got out and walked north toward a mountain range that seemed closer than it was. He walked for what he reckoned was an hour and when it seemed that he had made no progress he turned and walked back. He left pavement and the land he came to lay hammocked between rugged deadlooking mountains beaten by the elements and still wearing under them all these millions of years, filling their own basins with their sloughing. Thin patches of snow on the floor like blown tarps. He drove from range through basin to range and on, always finding another range farther, all of them staggered like a movement of giant slugs across the land. There was nothing but this desert, these solitary mountain ranges, and the occasional despondent ranch.
When night fell he drove into a curtain of darkness. He could see the mountains against the stars like shapes of cut felt and no light within them. He built a fire and sat near it. There was no working heat in the camper and he had the warmth only of his sleeping bag as he slept—an old down army-issue that had belonged to his father. In the night the wind picked up and rocked the camper. He woke in the darkness and climbed down and out of the camper into the bitter cold to urinate. As he did he looked across the desert to a glow above the east mountains like a counterfeit dawn and guessed it to be Salt Lake City or the vast conurbation to the north and south of it. He slept in the small area above the cab of his truck and when he woke from his dreams at dawn to see his breath clouding against the ceiling he momentarily forgot where he was until he placed the smell of the camper. He went outside and discovered the strange world he had wandered into in the darkness, a thick forest of cedars and a groundwork of sage. Standing next to the cold fire ring, salted by smoke, dust, and desire, he beheld a silence so complete that he strained his ears to hear it and heard nothing but the roar of utter tranquility.
He drove on all that day and into the evening and at night he lost his sense of direction. He did not know he had passed into Nevada until he saw a strange little town lit up garishly among dark stone mountains and a great void beyond. He entered Wendover and drove between the smattering of casinos and watched loose gaggles of winter gamblers on the sidewalks. Some turned to see his truck with the hulking camper in its bed, and when he met their vacuous stares he felt like some species of wildlife wandered in off the desert, baffled by the lights and the people, though the people were few and the place seemed deviant and lonely. He drove south and rose in elevation and the neon town soon fit into his side mirrors. It lay alone in the black night, small and brilliant and hemmed in on all sides by darkness. When he looked to his mirror again it had been swallowed by darkness.
He left pavement and after an hour of dirt road he passed through an empty collection of homes and buildings. This town had been a settlement of thousands at some point. There was some kind of mill above town, a lone and crumbling yellowbrick building, and an old town proper that spoke to bygone affluence and commerce. One dirt road leading in, two leading out. Empty houses and buildings settled among the hills. He camped near the stone ruins of a pony express station and ate canned stew heated in the fire and took from a loaf of bread. In the morning he had a breakfast of hard beef jerky he found in one of Balls’ cupboards and chipped a tooth on it. He drove through the hills and when he reached a portion of the road where a ravine had reclaimed its path in an earlier flood and the road disappeared into a ten-foot wash as if cut with a saw he turned back and found a new way around the hills. As he rounded the eastern edge a vast plain lay to his left, white salt flats stretching some 50 miles to the next mountain that rose like the cataphracted back of a prehistoric monster buried and fossilized in the dirt. He drove a little farther and got out. The sky was turbulent and restless with small storms. As soon as he stepped from his truck he seemed to shed the anxieties that plagued him, the clamor of his thoughts. He stepped from the world inside his truck into a sanctuary of strange color and quietude—the dry yellow of the grass, the gray-green sage, the deep green, almost black, of the junipers, the sound of the breeze. He climbed a nearby hill. When he reached the top he scrambled up a rock formation and sat and sucked on a piece of beef jerky to soften it and looked across the unfinished landscape, its vast clean lines, ranges rising broken through the pan. Again the humming silence, paste colors among the groundwork he had never seen. He could hear the wind move through the grass and the junipers, his own movements when he changed position, and nothing else. He was sickeningly lonely, an abyss inside him, and he drank this emotion like liquor. She had disturbed the landscape of his life in the way he saw the land below him disturbed, had pulled plates apart and cast up rugged stone mountains, and his landscape would be altered now for the eons it took the mountains to crumble and spread their remains to the floors of their valleys, for the land to become smooth and featureless again. Would the cause of alteration provide the meaning and substance it had promised, or would he be left in a landscape bereft of the agent that changed it, to continue his wanderings as he had before, only now with anguish and knowledge for company? Could he learn to be comfortable in the bleak, barren world that had come to him, or would he despair?
—If nothing fills the land, he said aloud, he must needs despair. Despair.
Then he was in shadow. He looked up to see heavy clouds coming over the mountain separately like a herd of giant white cows, their udders bruised and swollen. He lay backward and watched the purple mass move over him. The storms moved across the basin below and it seemed a private display meant for him alone. The distant mountains turned indigo, the desert floor shaded in a thousand hues of broad color, variations of blues, purples, reds, yellows, ochers, and browns. At some distance across the valley a single cloud dropped her underside to the ground in a vast white pillar and he wondered if the God of All Creation could be in there, if he, John Blair Selvedge, had seen any or the least of these, seen God moving in his majesty and power. And what failed prophet parched and delirious and also within was being revived?
The clouds moved across the land, dropping their undersides and giving to the desert in random selection. He felt a cold drop and looked up to see a wispy pillar descending on him, the cloud above him lowering her great teats. He leaned his head back and opened his mouth and felt the rain, cold, on his face and tongue. It passed and he was in late sunlight, the land below him still in the shadow of storm. He looked over the blue basin beyond the sunlight, rifted with solitary blue mountains. The smell of the sage after the rain was so sharp it stung his nostrils. No more storms came.
He walked stiffly down the slope to his truck and by the time he reached it the shadow from the mountain covered him and moved across the valley floor. He was very cold. He drove into the mountain a few miles to where he would camp for the night. He changed his clothes and carried his sleeping bag and blankets down into a small draw where he could see the dim basin below. He gathered juniper and sage wood and built a ring of stones. He broke sticks over his knee to size and made fire. The sage wood was pungent and smelled faintly like dung, a pleasant smell. It pleased him to have this small fire in the otherwise consummate dark, to have its warmth in the stinging cold. He raised his head and was surprised to see the stars so bold and infinite. When he got up to climb the hillside to better see them he turned and watched his fire yaw back and forth amid the dark hills, and that pleased him. He reeled like a drunken man under the spectacle above him. Here was a desert not made a garden, a waste place not comforted. Here was a solitary place left alone.
He stayed until he could not stand the cold and then returned and built his fire up again and watched the tiny devils rise and dance into the darkness. A leaning juniper stood nearby and he examined its trunk in the firelight. He remembered that a juniper could live over two thousand years. This one was young and spare. He considered the ordered chaos of the juniper’s bark, its purposeful entropy and dishevelment. Shaggy thing. Lovely thing. The tree was wrapped in stringy paper, so unafraid to show its essence that it was disrobing itself.
From across the desert a bright light flashed. He waited and in a moment saw it again, a flash at ground level as bright as lightning. It was impossible to tell how far it was, but he guessed it to be at the foot of that faraway range some thirty miles to the east. In a moment it flashed again, followed by a series of smaller flashes from other lights around it. They ran in a rapid and complex sequence, maybe a dozen lights in all, all flashing in under a second. He watched for them again and saw the brightest light flash once. At that distance he wondered what kind of light could show that brightly. Once more he saw the sequence and then it fell as dark as the desert around it. He waited and the lights did not flash again. The fire was gone and he was shivering. He listened to a new wind that moved selectively among the junipers, leaving one tree and passing to another, possessing them one at a time like a lone spirit.
In the cold morning he looked across the desert and could see nothing but the open land turned gray. Light snowflakes began to fall around his shoulders and melt on his neck as he sat by his fire. He stayed until the fire was gone and then got in the truck hungry and drove down onto the floor. He joined the road there and went south, passing below a bearded man who sat alone next to a fire on the white bone dust of the mountain, the mouth of a stone canyon yawning behind him. Jack lifted a hand and the man lifted his in return.
He drove until he crossed a paved highway and continued south on gravel. He was several days wandering dirt roads and visiting ranges and canyons and twice he had to buy gas from desert ranchers in whatever broken settlements he came to. The first rancher was old and friendly. They talked gospel and crops. The rancher told him he had four daughters, three in college and one married with a child. The other rancher was likewise old, and there was a girl came out of a house lined with asbestos tile, twentyish, with a red baby on her hip. It was a mild day for the season and the sun was out. The girl wore bib overalls and a thin shirt too short to reach her waist, and she seemed to have nothing but underwear on beneath them. As she walked up Jack’s thoughts drifted from what the rancher was saying about his methods of procuring petrol in such a place to this girl, his apparent daughter. He could see full muscular hips curve and disappear in the denim overalls, though the material moved and shifted with her and farther revealed defined lines where the parts of her went together—leg to hip, abdomen to loins—clear soft skin there, and her breasts were full also, round with milk and spilling from their restraints. The man commanded her to fill the two cans Jack had set on the ground. The girl handed the baby to the man, who took it in his rough hands as he would anything that was not feasible to set down immediately. The girl averted her eyes as she came forward for the cans and took them 15 yards away to a free-standing tank with a faded smiley face painted on its end. As she leaned over to fill the can her bib pouched out and her breasts hung down like an udder, her ragged brassiere not sized to hold the ample flesh that strained it. Jack let her lug the cans back to his feet, paid the man in cash, and drove away.
He kept his direction by the north-south lay of the mountains but could only go where the dirt roads took him. When he reached pavement again and saw the glow of a city to the southeast he made for it, and when he read the name of the city he was surprised to be only at the bottom of the state. He fueled his truck and ate at a diner before crossing the interstate and driving on.
When he woke in the morning he followed any road that promised to take him south and east. Without a map he zigzagged across state lines and at times found himself going north again, and once west, but then he crossed into New Mexico and saw the first sign for Amarillo. Outside the city he picked up a country station that played the old stuff that every song seemed to speak to him, its words trenchant poetry and its sentiments his own.
He arrived in the city and didn’t know what to do. He drove his truck and camper up and down the streets, taking in the stores, restaurants, houses, people. He ate dinner at a steakhouse and ordered the largest steak they had with mashed potatoes and gravy and steamed vegetables and imagined that Seth and Balls could be with him at the table with good conversation and companionship. When he was finished he sat back in his chair and watched the people around him. His waitress could have been in her early 30s. She wore a miniskirt and her sturdy, smooth legs, youthful and of lovely complexion, disappeared into beautiful cowboy boots. He found her slight accent attractive. When she brought him the bill he asked if there were any rodeos in town. She asked if he was a cowboy. He told her his friend was and said where they were from and asked if she knew where he might find him. She laughed and told him there were a hundred thousand people in that town.
—What do you do when you’re not coming to Texas to look for your friend? she said.
—Mmm, she said. Her eyes rolled back and her eyelashes fluttered. That’s romantic. The warm soil between your toes and God’s earth on your hands.
—Everything is done with machines, said Jack. The disc feels the soil, not my hands. And I’ve never seen a farmer standing in his field with his boots off. Maybe it was like that once, but it ain’t like that anymore.
—Maybe we should take our shoes off more often.
—And you’d be the pretty little dairymaid, sitting on a three-legged stool, milking her cow in a pasture. Is that it?
—I could do that.
—Lord, how she must smell.
—What does your friend look like, honey?
Jack gave a description and she said, Well, that looks like him right over there. She nodded to a young man sitting at a table with a woman and a child. Or is he one of those two strangers? She lifted her chin in the direction of two young men who were standing to put their coats on. She smiled.
—You’re a long way from home, honey. Don’t forget your receipt.
She reached for Jack’s face and laid her hand a moment on his whiskered cheek before taking it away in a light touch. She left, and when he looked at his receipt he saw her name and number written at the bottom.
He was there three days before he gave up, uttered dark and opprobrious curses on both Seth and Balls, and wondered at the ignorance of all three of them, their assumption that a man could simply be found in such a city. He purchased food and water and filled his fuel cans and the tanks in his truck and wandered back into New Mexico. He moved due west and planned to enter Arizona and then go on to California to see the Pacific Ocean, but one evening he was drawn off the highway by the sight of low indigo mountains to the northwest. Their shape against the paling sky was like the edge of a rust-eaten plow disc buried in the soil. He drove toward them until they faded into the darkness and then he pulled over and cooked dinner. With his new supplies he had a frying pan and a sauce pan. He had ice in the icebox and white packaged beef. He had eggs and cheese and salsa. He ate well and did not cease to think about her, pulchritudinous and calm, her beauty fresh as one of these desert dawns.
In the morning he drove toward the mountains, gray now in the rising sun and hazy in the distance. It took him half the day to reach them, rough as the road was, and they grew to be far larger than he had first judged. As he drove he spoke to himself, pausing between thoughts and allowing the next to form.
—I am happy with my life up to this point, he said. It’s a strange thing to realize. I keep looking for something I believe I should have and don’t, but I don’t need it. It’s an illusion. I feel it is time for a change. This way can’t keep going. But up till now things have been good. I don’t know if it’s a lasting good, but what is? I have enjoyed it for the good. I am comfortable with who I am and I am hopeful for things. I need her, but I don’t need anything else. I’ve lived a goddamn good life.
He drove around the foothills of the mountains on winding roads and canyon offshoots, through cedar and juniper forests, sage and cacti, for two days, stopping to see about certain rock formations, stooping through sagebrush on spoor he didn’t recognize, examining canyons to their ends, the eldritch moon following in parallax as he veered back and forth at night and camped wherever he happened to be.
A fortnight since he had left his home, alone in the desert and growing thin from food rationing. No radio station carried this far. He read scripture he had brought and learned that the words were not yet dead. He sang at night by the fire until he had no songs left and hadn’t the heart to start again. His desire for her was enough that he spoke to her aloud, and in his solitude his ravings nearly took the form of prayers to her. He came to better see truth from error and reached the true bottom of things, and these verities settled into his ultimate awareness. His soul was opened to her fully, nothing held back.
In driving he came to a large canyon and climbed upward until the road ended, and there he parked his truck. He hiked up the dry slope with his sleeping bag and reached a high ridgetop at evening where he sat atop a cliff band and watched the sun drizzle and melt into the orange horizon and the desert cool and darken. How far could he see. A hundred miles. Two hundred. This earth that had just been made for all that it was unmolested and pristine. The voice of his father spoke to him as he had spoken in life and Jack spoke back, long dialogue, justification for his actions, explanations of things he did not understand, the working out of complex matters. He spoke to Heber, Heber who had sown and reaped, who had wondered, asking questions and providing the answers Heber would have given. He was consumed by the state of his faith, what it had been, what it was now, and the obscurity of the path between. He looked for things that had been there and was startled to find them gone. Like losing anything, he could remember a time when he had it, but he could not remember the moment he lost it, nor where it was now. If the milestones of his unbelief had ever been definite, they were no longer. Some beliefs had unraveled under honest scrutiny, but it seemed that the beliefs he had not seen fall away were victims of interdependency, where when one falls, more fall by virtue of their connection to the one, and the crumbling goes quickly. And there was nothing he could do to retrieve them. He could not will himself to believe. And while he would not trade his current understanding for ignorant belief, he was saddened to know this reality.
Atop the cliff band he faced the east and watched the stars appear. He felt what he had always known to be true, that only alone could a man clearly reflect on and reckon with who and what he was. Only in isolation, apart from the influence of humankind, could he understand his place and purpose on the earth, his place among a forsaken community. If he could not stand his own thoughts, his own company, or his conscience, which grew clearer and more poignant with seclusion, then he could not live generously among his fellow men. In these mountains he felt the teasings of some immemorial knowledge of the creation of the land, felt privy to a secret he could nearly remember but which ultimately escaped him. Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?
The threnody of wind carried auguries to his ears and moods to his heart. The mountain around him was visible from lesser suns. Within the new expansion of his soul he missed nearly everyone he had ever known and longed for them each in turn. He leaned back and regarded the Milky Way where it stretched from horizon to horizon like the ruinous wake of a universe long passed by. What was man in the scope of all this? The earth had been here before, and it would remain after. He hunched down into his coat and stayed on the cliff top watching the sky. Far out in the distance he saw a twinkling light on the ground moving north to south, the only human evidence to confirm that he was not some Eveless antipode to Adam in a more desolate Eden. Meteors streaked above him sporadically and within the hour there were so many he couldn’t keep his head still. He watched their long trails of burning matter as they stayed lit for full seconds, ephemeral as a man or woman, as a man and woman together, and made simple wishes that he knew could not be granted.
When the sky turned a sudden blue and the entire mountain became like day he thought it was an angel come to visit and was shaken off his perch. From a prone position he looked up to see a streak of light tearing through the atmosphere. It flashed brighter in its fall and seemed to burst, and then it was gone. The sky cracked like thunder and the sound rolled away in a broken rumble. He heard a high whistle which grew louder and changed pitch. Something crashed through a copse of pines below and thumped the ground not three hundred yards from where he lay, and the earth resounded like a drum. A ricochet of the distorted sound came from some unseen stone wall above him. His heart beat hard and fast in his chest. He felt his adrenaline ebb away. He kept his head turned toward where the thing had crashed, his eyes wide, as if something might emerge. When he moved he moved carefully, picking his way slowly along the ridge. He came to the meteorite where it lay in its new crater. It was roughly two feet across at its top and had hit the mountainside dead on and had not skidded nor furrowed the ground but sat cradled in the dirt, parts of it melted from its friction with the atmosphere, the whole thing misshapen and warm and ticking. He took his knife from his belt and poked at its crust to see if it was molten as it looked. The stone popped and he drew his hand back quickly and dropped the knife, but the blade stuck to the stone by some magnetism and did not fall to the ground. He left it there and stood back. Wormwood. He went for his sleeping bag and smoothed out a place next to the stone and fell asleep with its fading warmth on his face.
It took him two days and no end of improvised ingenuity to get the meteorite down the mountain. He had no tools to work with but a small foldable handpick-spade, a tow strap, and an axe. He dug the crater away on the downhill side. He searched the mountainside for a sturdy stick and, cutting one from a tree, used it as a lever to dislodge the stone. When he came to a slope steep enough he tried to pull it like a human mule with the tow strap around his waist. Where the mountain was steeper he started it rolling with the stick, end over lopsided end, until it took off on its own, tumbling roughly through trees and bushes, breaking some trees and smashing lesser stones to pieces, and once taking short flight before truncating a pinyon twelve inches in diameter. By the time it came to rest at the bottom of the canyon he had forgotten which day it was.
The sun was just warm and the nights were very cold. All the mountain was quiet and empty. He negotiated stones, trees, and sagebrush and backed his truck up to the rock and pulled it with the tow strap hooked to the hitch, digging a furrow behind him, to the valley floor. From there he dragged it along the dirt road like a stubborn pet and contrived ways to get it into the back of the camper. The tow strap broke on the first afternoon, and though he tried to tie its frayed ends together, it proved unusable.
He began to ration his water. By morning he struggled with the stone to no avail and by evening he ate his scant dinner and studied the stone from where he sat in the doorway of his camper.
If he were to perish out here, no matter, he carried the center of the universe with him. He was the center.
He gathered other stones from the sides of the road and carried them toward the meteorite until he could lift them above his head and drop them in hopes of breaking it open, but the meteorite only rang like a church bell each time it was hit. It had been at least three days since the strap broke and still he didn’t move his truck from that spot. He ran out of food the next day and didn’t realize it until that night, and when he did it seemed of little consequence. At the end of the day following he was weak and his water was gone. He lay by the meteorite in the road and stared at it sideways. He was uncertain how long he lay there, but night came on dark and too soon. He must have slept because he dreamt he was being strangled by unseen hands and he woke tearing at the collar of his coat. When he rose stiff and cold and entered his camper dizzy and disheveled he believed without having any way to tell that it was the 21st of December, and he retired to his bed and slept until he woke curled up in hunger pains and could not get back to sleep. He dressed and shuffled through the gravel of the road toward the dark shape.
The stone blocked the way he had come. His Ebenezer. Heaven’s pale, trembling gaze upon it. He sat on the stone and tried to purge himself by weeping, like a man trying without success to vomit. When he could not weep he sat in his coat and shook with cold. Dawn spread pale blue over the cold eastern rim with a waterfresh beauty. The stars were disappearing across the expanse, the firmament held between two worlds, one that would become near, flat, and blue within minutes, and the other always endless and only seen when the sun was gone. He shivered in his coat. He walked away from the stone until his boots stood on dirt that cracked and crumbled to dust beneath his heels. He walked out and picked his way around desert brush until the ground declined slightly in a shallow ravine, then crossed and climbed the other side. There was sage here but it was sparse and small. Patches of bunchgrass and thorned bushes scattered over the rolling land.
Beneath him the earth spun, and behind him the sun rushed unseen toward its emergence. He stood in the middle of a large patch of bare dirt and breathed deeply the cold air of the desert. His mouth was dry. His ears burned. His hands stung when he left them out of his pockets. He closed his eyes for a moment and the heavy lids stayed down. He felt that any minute he could be touched by warmth and stop shivering. He remembered the time he saw her in that first fey vision and he’d felt his soul tremble. He thought of her darkness and her eyes full of pain. He thought of the ruin of her, the renewal of her.
When he opened his eyes he faced the dim northwest, the direction from which he had come in the beginning, and where home lay, and the whole landscape was bathed in red. He turned to face the east and the sun was like blood spilling through milk. The last stars departed to dawn and the world diminished all around him. It didn’t feel right to leave this rock. It hadn’t felt right to stay in Juniper Scrag. The edge of the sun broke over the low distant mountains and the shadows of pebbles and bunchgrass stretched across the dirt far taller than they were in truth. True light touched the tops of the near hills. He had rarely had occasion to watch the sun rise, though he’d been awake for the better part of them throughout his life, held inside the barn in deferential supplication to the udders as the sun came to do its own daily work. Blair would be milking, even at that moment.
He got off the rock and made his way to his truck and camper. He regarded one last time the serpentine trench made by the dragged stone and then the stone itself. He touched it and then he climbed in his truck and wandered out on dirt roads directionless, the sun a weldflame in the cobalt sky.
Braden Hepner graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2009 and lives in Idaho with his wife and son. Pale Harvest is his first novel. Catch up with him at BradenHepner.com.