Single tree on flat landscape with cloud and night sky

Lay of the Land

By Nance Van Winckel

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I thought I ‘d miss my old life. I expected I’d miss the donkeys more and the dogs less.

Dear Sis,

We drove past this swimming hole where the Tongue River dumps into the Yellowstone, but Ike was too tired for a swim. Since the TV’s broken, the Motel 6 man only charged us $20 for the room. Thank YOU for driving way out to Lost Road Rd. to look after our critters. Am I crazy to miss them already? Here in Miles City, and since I already have my packed suitcase, it occurred to me I could catch a bus and set out alone for the Redwood Forest. I’d only miss you and the donkeys anyway. Maybe that gimpy dog Moe. Not Ike. I feel about done with Ike. He’s sure the convention speakers will convince me of an ice wall around a flat earth. (Doubtful!) We drove all afternoon into the sun, Ike babbling about us as “people of the ice.” The glare in my face and that crappola in my ear.

Doesn’t it sound divine to curl up inside a giant redwood? Imagining it, I can manage to fall asleep at nite. Please burn this card and don’t forget extra hay for Beanie Boy and please know I appreciate all you’re doing.

                                                                                                            Yrs, Maddie

Postcard of Miles City, Montana

Dear Claudia,

Arrived! This place isn’t even Spokane! It’s a defunct strip mall in a suburb called Spokane Valley. I guess I’m supposed to have some BIG REALIZATION that this Murkowski guy isn’t a goon after all and so accept his and Tom Cruise’s word and blah-blah “Biblical precedence” for a “square and stationary” earth.

The whole idea exhausts me. Remember when I told you about “the job of Ike?” I feel I’m failing at it. Failing so horribly.

Very hot here for May! Is it warm there? Do you still have your sore throat? Are the dogs and donkeys making a lot of noise? If so, they probably miss me. I hope all the different grain sacks and water troughs don’t overwhelm you. I still fantasize about the redwoods, but lately a crazy new plan calms me—a train (from the ACTUAL Spokane) going to Whitefish, Montana!! Maybe you’d want to ditch Mitch and meet me there? Are you laughing?

Tomorrow Ike presents “WE THE ICE PEOPLE.” I’ve been practicing my YOU’RE SO FANTASTIC face for afterwards, the one you showed me ten years ago when we first tried to imagine ourselves as wives.   

                                                                         X X X, Mads

P.S. Found this card on our car window in the mall parking lot. Remember: BURN IT!

Solar system with flat earth

Sis, So good to hear your voice last night, even if just through your machine. Yesterday things blew apart between me and the flat people. When I saw Ike had worn a bowtie !!! for his talk, I guess I gave a silly smile instead of the “fantastic-you” face. His ire included foot-stomping. Thank god we never had kids. He’s kid enough. He needs me to hate what he hates: faked moon-landings. Gravity! Answering a question about what lay on the ice wall’s other side, he quoted scripture. Surely a decade shows I tried.

So I did it. Got a cab and then that train—The Empire Builder. On it I met a lady (Peggy from you know where—top secret!) who’s paying me to help her clean her garage. Even knowing Ike’ll neglect the critters and they’ll be dead in a month, I still can’t come home. (I already dreamed about Elroy and Gibby emaciated and the dogs (my sweet Moe!) run over with magpies pecking at their guts!) I don’t expect you to do any more than you’ve done. Ike’s got our phone but I’ll borrow Peggy’s. I’m okay. (Card of my mt. hideaway! Ha!) I’m staring at a black lake in pure moonlight, feeling the glorious globe-spin.      

           Love, M

Rustic cabin on rock near river in Montana

Clauds, I’m so sorry you and Mitch have the croup. Now I feel extra bad that you’ve been trying to cover for me and that Ike’s calling you so often. Glad to hear he’s feeding the critters, but he’s terrible at it. He gets confused about which animal gets what food. I’m trying to regain something. Strength? And then I’ll be home. Probably. Maybe tell Ike I’m camping! You don’t know where! I’m NOT, under any circumstances, MISSING! I’m not afraid of him. I just need some time to get my footing and for him to get his.

Odd coincidence. This woman named Janelle, someone I’d seen at the Flat-Earthers, got on the train with me in Spokane. She was going to Chicago, but then she heard me talking to Peggy about the garage-cleaning job and she globbed on to us. Peggy said there was work enough for two but Janelle and I needed to keep our heads down. Said her neighbors keep watch on everyone. Janelle is young and pretty and will probably dance out of town with the first guy to ask. She needs to get her shit together. Well, so do I.

How’s Moe? You probably recall he only had just the three legs when he found us, which was right after that wreck on our road. The whole Wiley family—remember them? 7 people—zap. Gone. I think you were maybe 8 when you said you were going to marry the middle boy, the one who tried so miserably to play the flute. For years, I dreamed I was one of the bloody figures in the backseat of that car: dead but somehow looking around and seeing the others with their thousand-mile stares.

I’ll call Wednesday night. Phone-wise, Janelle’s got the same issue. Hers is dead. Lost her charger. She’s constantly asking strangers to borrow theirs.
Balmy here. June should be beautiful. Love, Maddie (for now but thinking towards a new name). Still had this stupid card from the stupeedoes.

Flat earth in space rotated by sun

Sis, Peggy let me hear the voice message you left me on her phone. Yikes, you sound awful. I should be there making squash soup for you. And yes, I plan to make contact with Ike soon. Glad to know he’s quit calling. I suspect we’re both getting our sea legs. That girl I met in Spokane, Janelle, lingers like a headache. She lives in the basement of sweet old Peggy’s house. I’m on a cot in the attic. We often crisscross on the main floor getting snacks. Turns out, like you and me, she hunts down a cookie around midnight.

Fear can be funny. I guess that’s my main problem about coming home. I can’t take on life with him again, but living alone scares me so. I keep recalling that time before Ike. Remember my little apartment above Pearl’s Beauty? I told Janelle about my life then, how afraid I was all the time of break-ins and the strange men I’d pass on the stairs. (Why WERE they hanging around there?!) Pearl herself said I needed a gun and she came upstairs and put one in my hand. A pistol.

I hated it, but held it for a minute anyway, recalling how I’d sworn never to wear our mother’s mink coat, but then one day she made me try it on anyway, and oh, the warm dense nest of it, and me as its snug little egg. 

                  Love, Lenora (Is this name any good?)

P.S. Postcards are everywhere in Peggy’s attic! Most are headed for the burn bin.

Postcard: Underwater Croquet Party

Dear Claudia,

I know you said, “The issue of Ike suddenly as a bachelor is one that needs a whole actual conversation,” and I promise that I’m going to ask Peggy to use her phone again. She’s offered. She’s a bit whacko, but I kinda love her. She’s “open” to the existence of those “greys” rumored to live in old mine shafts. “Open” was how I felt for maybe five minutes as Ike introduced me to his theory. For five minutes I searched his face for a hint of the old Ike. Surely it couldn’t just disappear. But it had. It did. I felt something in me slam shut. And only later, gathering my things in the hotel, did I understand what that was. All this I put in a note to him that I left on the bed. What a coward I was not to say it aloud to his face. I know that now. I should have tried. My cowardice was shameful. That’s what I will say when I call him tomorrow.

Oh yes, and I remembered something else about that gun from Pearl: how at first I wanted to give it back, but then my hand somehow didn’t. I saw the barrel lift and start turning in the direction of a loathed streetlight, and my mind started blowing the bulb’s brains out. I worried the gun’d go next for a poodle on a leash. That pistol seemed all over the place and quite on its own, as if it were terribly sad, afraid, and had only ever been loved badly. After Pearl swooped off in her fancy skirts and gold bangles, I kept staring down at it. I remember taking a big breath and telling myself that it was Time to be Rid of THE GUN, and to go on now and DROP THE WEAPON, but I couldn’t. That’s how I feel now. Unsure what this LEE is capable of, but yeah, before I married Ike, I did finally get Pearl to take back the gun. Love you much, Lee

I have two cards left from the Nutty Buddies, and this is one.

"The Firmament" flat earth with biblical quotes

Sis, I thought I ‘d miss my old life. I expected I’d miss the donkeys more and the dogs less. I thought if I found myself missing Ike even a tiny bit, I’d hightail it home. Amazing—that whole out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. I can’t believe I’ve been gone almost three months. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it until I was there at the convention and saw the other wives. They were smiling and signing petitions for the flatness, passing me the pen. I kept taking a step back from them, then another step, small ones, then larger ones, while in my mind I kept seeing that suitcase at the hotel.

Thanks for telling me that Ike and the critters seem okay and I’m sort of glad he took Trisha to the Grill ‘N Grub. Now SHE’S someone who would GET a flat world. I went to the town library to read the latest on The Flatsters’ Doings. Evidently some expedition to the ice wall. (See CARD.) Won’t global warming melt this wall? And then WHAT?! Sheesh! I hope they don’t all slide off. I’m surprised Ike hadn’t wanted to tag along. (Am now wondering how long Trisha’s been in the wings.) Speaking of tag-alongs, just as I thought, Janelle’s moved out of the basement and into some “staff quarters” at a ski resort, where she got on as a maid. We’ve sworn each other to secrecy, but I suspect she may have far bigger life stuff to leave behind than a husband. August nights already chilly here!  

Glad to know you’re better at last! We’ll talk again on Sunday. Hugs to Mitch, Lee

Wall of ice in ocean

Clauds, Just had a beautiful Labor Day Parade here in town! And hey, turns out I’m not bad at garage sales. We made $2,800. Peggy gave me half—for all the pre-sale sorting and lugging of boxes into the garage, which I also cleaned out. Phew. I helped move her to the main floor, setting up a bed in the little den. There’s a half-bath nearby. She can barely do the steps. Just going upstairs for a bath is an effort. So now I’m installed on the second floor in her old room.

Mrs. Gurley who owns Main Street Antiques came to the sale and offered Peggy $1,500 for a huge pile of stuff. I helped her load her van, and out of nowhere she offers me a job. Two days a week. “Cash?” I asked her, and she laughed but said sure. I guess I’m off the books but apparently a lot of Whitefish people like it that way.

Glad to hear my doggies are okay and the donkeys gone to the orphan kids’ place. Good. Glad Ike seems to be moving on. He seems to like having a FLAT PLACE on which to stand. I’m in love with these mountains. And I keep recalling that family swerving and going off the road. It makes me think about a) roundness, and b) the brevity and swift exit of our time here.

I need to legalize my new “Lee” self. To be divorced for real. The person I am now—with an actual job and new friends—needs a larger rounder life. Oh yes, and about Janelle. I ran into her at the grocery store. She’s clearly having a baby! She said she’d fill me in later on “the details.” I almost didn’t recognize her! She’d cut her long hair short and looked so plump and happy.

I’ll slip this card in with my letter. I think the schoolteacher here was Peggy’s mother. Lots of love, Lee

Old school photo: 3rd and 4th grade, 1939

Dear Maddie-Lee,

I have to keep your old name just to keep the YOU in my mind still close to me.

Glad to know about this antique store so I can send this packet there. I wanted to let you know that the last time I drove by your place out there in the boonies, I saw some little girl running around in the yard with that dog you love so much. What?! Ike was nowhere to be seen. The grass was mowed. I waved to the girl, but I think she saw me as “stranger danger.” Ha!

I know you said you’d come home if I really needed you to, and I thought about pressuring you to do that. Amping up my sore throat, etc. But then I drove past Ike (wearing a bowtie, a leather vest, and a big Stetson) headed into that Fresh Life place that calls itself a church, and I groaned. I think I’m starting to get it now. Yes, the job of Ike, of any marriage really. Clocking in. Smiling, listening… when you’d so rather keep reading the article he’s just interrupted.

I guess I know what you mean, though, about not ever truly knowing someone else. You make your best guess. That’s what Mitch and I did, and so far, it seems okay. But what’s gone on with you and Ike scares me. He’s not the funny up-for-anything Ike I remember from years ago. He’s so serious now. So stony faced. But I’m glad to know you two have finally talked!

Anyhow, I’m enclosing the info on the No-Contest thing our lawyer friend gave us. He will help you if you need him to. (When I told him you were leaving Ike, he just smiled and nodded.)

Oh yes, and I found this old thing Mom and Granny made. Remember when they used to sit at the kitchen table doing this? I used to think that’s the kind of silly-ass stuff we’d do as grown-up wives. Ha! That’s Granny back in the 70’s, I think. She wore those black gloves way past the time most women quit.

Whitefish isn’t THAT far. Let me know when you think you’re UP for a visit. I’ll go drop this in the mail. Love,


Woman art collage

Dear Madeline,

Your sister said she’d send this note on to you. She said you knew a little about my dating Ike. I just want you to know there was never anything between us while you two were together. He and I went out a few times in high school but that was a lifetime ago. And you may know I’ve been divorced from Bryan Hodges for six years. Our daughter Jackie is 11. She thinks Ike’s a hoot. They play Xpeople on our Xbox.  She taught him. Actually, Jackie sort of brought Ike to us. She was doing a report on The Flat Earth Society and since I’d heard Ike knew all about them, I suggested she talk to him. When we met at the library, I could see how passionate he was about all these new (old) ideas, so much so that I’m currently rethinking a lot of what I learned as a kid. Well, let’s just let this lie. I’ve heard it’s a sore subject.

Like you, my Jackie adores animals. I mention this because she loves to visit with your dogs out at Ike’s, and that little 3-legged one, which I hear is your favorite, is hers too. Just FYI. When I was still married Bryan and I gave her a dog. She was 3 then and decided to name the dog Jesus. Could not be talked out of it. Yesterday I came across these old drawings she did—a card, front and back. Jesus in some of his outfits. I know it may be weird, but I thought I’d send them to you. Jesus died last year, so that’s another reason Jackie’s so taken with the dogs, and by the way, it was me who suggested Ike give the donkeys to the Henderson Children’s Home.

I’m just hoping to make some good contact with you since Claudia said you might be ready for a more legal sort of split from Ike. I believe that may be something we ALL want, Maddie.

I don’t mean to push or rush. I just wanted you to know that I find Ike a good and honorable man. I think you must have too—at least for a while. For him, the earth’s flatness is a truth too important to smother. Lately he and I and Jackie have been attending the Fresh Life Church, and the other day there was this quote from the Psalms printed on the programs: “He set the earth on its foundations so that it should never be moved.”

Please know that there’re no hard feelings towards you from him or me. I remember you from high school. You were a couple years ahead. You had the prettiest red hair. I hope you’re well. Your sister is so kind to mail this for me.

                                             Sincerely, Trisha Hodges

Jesus the dog, drawn by a child

Jesus! Loves you so much, drawn by child

Dear Whatever Your Name Is Now,

I’m glad you finally got up the gumption to call me on your landlady’s phone. So like the new you, though, not to tell me her name or where you are. Why’s everything got to be so covert? Your sister looks worn down with all this secrecy and mailing. (As she instructed I sealed this in my own envelope so she’d mail it.)

And I agree you’re right we shouldn’t be mad we’re just moving on and it’s Oh so nice you’re not carrying grudges and I wish I could say the same even though I’m moving on too. Trish is like an answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I was praying but I’m sorry I still have things stuck in my heart that stir around and maybe as Trish says it would help to just let a few of those poke out of me and into this letter. Stuff I wish we’d settled or let go of together:

—those boxes of your mother’s things in the cellar?!

—why you took it upon yourself to give that antique gun away to the historical society lady. You know she’ll never start a museum!

—why my moose and elk heads went missing?

—I had no clue how much and from which sacks to feed Elroy and Gibby and they were braying like crazy and no one (no one!) could get them to shut up.

—I won’t replay the long history of our flat earth battle but you buy in too easily to garble-talking non-American fake science people instead of just looking at what’s right in front of you. And it always made me sad you never trusted I could be smart too and studious and well-read even if my thoughts went in another direction.

—when I threw the car keys at you that one time, I swear I did NOT really mean to hit you. I thought you’d catch them and that’s the God’s truth.

—and speaking of God what was the worst for me was that time you said you weren’t sure anymore about God. We needed to have HIM between us and around us to go on. Surely this is what sunk us in the end.

—Not feeling your love anymore was like a hot poker going through me, but maybe the wound it left is filling again even though sometimes the old wound hurts what with the new love pouring in being so cold or sweet or something laying down atop the hot infected place that’s full of pain. I don’t know. I’m tired. Your sister says we can do a no-contest thing and settle into new lives and so on but it can’t really be that simple can it? Will it? Should it?

—Remember when we found those people in the wreck? Waiting for ambulances. You are the only woman I know—or probably ever WILL know—who would go inside a smoking car and pull out a dead child the way you did. I will never forget your fingers touching each child’s neck for a pulse, and then covering them one by one with blankets and rugs I brought from the house, me still screaming directions on the phone with the 9-1-1 idiot. When I think of you this is often the woman I see, kneeling and closing another little one’s eyes.

—I’m still mad about all the things you made me try and which I mostly still hate. Swordfish tops the list. I’d put Faulkner and appletinis near the top too. Any tini really. Canada. Mexico. Beaches and ferryboats. I’m glad to be done with all these things you thought “might be fun” or “illuminating.”

I guess I’m getting most of it out. Your sister said she’d sent you the papers and I guess soon you’ll be done with me without so much as an adios.



Dearest Claudia,

First, Happy New Year! I hope you and Mitch watched the ball drop.

How will I ever express my gratitude for your helping me through all this, for not judging, for so much steadfast support? I couldn’t have had the strength if not for you. I’m getting my phone on Saturday and I’ve already sent Ike my P.O. address so he can send whatever else I need to sign directly to me. Congrats! You’re finally out of the loop!

Crazy how things have evolved. At the shop I dust knick-knacks from 1888, thinking no one will ever take this ugly thing, and then someone comes in and picks it up and there’s this huge smile and pretty soon the ugly thing’s on its way to a new shelf a hundred miles north or south of here. This happens every single day.

I’m glad the little girl Jackie has taken to Moe. Such relief to think of him playing with a child, or vice-versa. It was three whole days after the wreck before he came to us in the donkey shed and another three days before he’d let us touch him and discover that the missing leg had been missing for a long time. Who knows, maybe the Wileys even adopted him that way.

We can talk more about this when I call you Saturday on my brand-new phone, but our news here is that Peggy and I have another guest. Janelle’s BABY! She asked me if I’d look after him until she gets back from Vancouver, WA, where she says the resort company is relocating her but that she needed some time to get settled first and figure out about child care. The baby, Cid, is three weeks old. I only agreed because Peggy and Mrs. Gurley said they’d help too, and they do. Cid may be the most adored child ever to live in Whitefish! Janelle left me two gallons of breast milk in the fridge! She says she’ll be back before it’s all gone, but already the second gallon’s running low. Mrs. G. says no worries; she knows exactly what sort of formula to use. I’m the middle-of-the-night feeder, but I really don’t mind. I never pictured myself with a kid. But it’s fine. It’s good.

My life out there on Lost Road feels like a lonesome decade, a creek drying up with me just standing there in the middle of it while a cool wetness slowly became warm mud. I tried to say some of this to Ike on Peggy’s phone last week, but he just cut me off. Lately I feel the world spinning so fast, I almost understand why the Flatsters were afraid of that—you feel the swirl and it’s all you can do to hang on.

When Ike and I talked, he said my voice was different now. He said I made no sense. He didn’t ask me a thing about my life in Whitefish. Instead, he wanted to know if I’d met a girl named Janet at the convention since apparently she disappeared from Spokane the same time I did. He said it’s now understood she’s a government spy reporting on the Society’s “unassailable science.” Hearing that Ike-talk again made me feel like I might be getting stomach ulcers. (I do recall, though, that when Peggy asked Janelle her last name, she told her a different one than she’d told me, although at the time I thought I’d just misheard the one I’d been told.)

It was great having you visit in October. Now at least we all know where each other is. Glad you liked Peggy, and yes, it is lovely here. I’m painting some upstairs rooms. A soft green color. Feels fresh and bright. We hear it could be a long winter! Cid keeps us all on an even keel. Yes, we’re all smitten by him.

Okay, we’ll talk soon! Miss you, love you, M-Lee



Nance Van WinckelNance Van Winckel’s ninth poetry collection, The Many Beds of Martha Washington, will appear in July with the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series/Lynx House Press. She’s also published five books of fiction, including Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). The recipient of two NEA fellowships, the Washington State Book Award, a Paterson Fiction Prize, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance teaches in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing Program and lives in Spokane, Washington.

View “The Map,” prose + map gallery and “Western Facades: What is the Who?”, an ARTerrain gallery, by Nance Van Winckel previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Bessi, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.