by Bette Lynch Husted
Annie had followed him halfway across the yard before she turned toward the pasture and grove of pines beyond it, her thin soles already wearing a light rim of spring mud. He took the stairs one at a time, reaching out on the landing to touch the wall. In their bedroom he loosened the striped tie and looped it around the neck of the hanger, worked the slick trousers onto the wooden bar with the crease hanging straight. Then he laid the hanger on the bed and shrugged out of the jacket, working his shoulders. He took a step toward the closet, turned back, and sat down on the edge of the bed, still holding the jacket. His jeans were draped across the back of the chair.
Outside again, Brian walked straight toward the woodshed. The row of shingles reached almost to the overhang of the lean-to roof, raw-bright shingles stacked in alternating layers, east-west north-south, the bottom layers already darkening, almost gray. More rounds of cut tamarack spilled from the open south side of the shed. One was already sectioned into bolts, and he bent over to pick up the froe, but the short wooden handle slid through his hand and he stood looking at the bare earth by his boot, still soft from the March rains. Then he turned, hands loose and reaching slightly ahead of him as he groped for the drawknife leaning against the shaving horse.
When the last light of dusk was gone, the damp line on his shirt had climbed the stem of his spine. He tossed a smooth-tapered shingle toward the pile and groped for yet another thick-split shake but touched only empty air, and finally felt the pressure of the Border Collie’s nose, digging, pushing him. He drew his foot back from the wooden pedal and heard the wooden clamp loosen. Then he stood, lifting his leg across the shaving horse. From the house, upstairs, one light flared against the white ceiling of Ben’s room. And something else, a shape. Annie. Of course. Annie. She was still wearing the black dress, or maybe the blackness was only a silhouette. He blinked in the growing darkness.
Annie watched him from the kitchen window. When he had pulled the shaving horse out of the shed early this morning he had angled it away from the bright Solstice sunrise, so now she couldn’t see his face. Just his back and that pair of misshapen moth wings widening along his spine as he straddled the wooden horse, his leg pushing the pedal. He leaned toward the block that held the shingle in place, his shoulders rising, then falling as he pulled the drawknife toward his chest. Once, twice. Then he reached forward, smoothing his hand along the cedar grain. Another slow caress. Then the toss toward the rising pile of finished shingles, left hand tossing, right hand reaching as he leaned to pick up another.
Day after day. For—what? Three months? Three moons coming and going away again. So strange, now, to think of time.
Work comforted him, though there could be no comfort. It was the steadiness, of course—the way movements repeated themselves, numbing the ache of his shoulders and hands until he could move without consciousness, or at least until the pictures in his mind blurred as they pushed against the edges of his skull.
Her own work was not the kind that numbed. The dishwater cooled, gray slick. Annie looked at the bowl she had been holding; this morning’s oatmeal congealed along one edge. She set it back into the water and picked out a cup. Then a second bowl, one that had soaked clean. She ran her hand along the outer curve where a blue line streaked the clear glass. Then she set the bowl upright in her palm and circled its rim with the fingers of her right hand. Her fist fit perfectly. When she let go it shattered with a sound almost like Brian’s hammer against the froe. A sound like splitting shingles. Beauty scrambled awake, her stiff front legs pushing against the kitchen floor, paws clawing for purchase. Brian’s head was tipped, listening. He wouldn’t come running in, jamming his knuckles against the doorjamb in his panic; by now they had agreed on that much, though they had agreed without words, as far as she could remember. Finally he leaned forward again, gripping the handles of the drawknife. Annie seined the cool, greasy water. One bowl, one cup, two spoons.
Draining water gulped through the trap as she knelt beside the sink to pick up the shards. Then she sat on the floor, her hands flat at her sides, rubbing circles on the surface of the cool tiles. She lifted her hands and turned them over. No blood. Nothing. Well, not nothing. Remnants. And a boot without a foot. It was unbelievable, really, though she had made herself believe it. She had been firm with herself. Still, how could it be possible? But, yes, even this. Even this. Bodies had disappeared completely, vaporized, they said, in those collapsing towers—
Brian was stacking shingles when she stood to look again. He leaned to pick up three or four at a time, straightening their edges against his glove before he added them to the pile.
The kitchen door didn’t quite latch behind her but Annie did not turn around. When she reached the bench she sat sideways, then lifted her right leg across to straddle it, pushing the wooden pedal forward and watching the clamp block tighten against the slope where a shingle should be. She reached forward, pulling the drawknife toward her chest.
She felt his hands close over hers and the smooth wooden handles twisting free. He pulled her off the bench and then they were both on their knees, her face pressed against his sweat-dampened shirt, but what force had put her there she didn’t know. Maybe just gravity, the two of them falling together.
Day after day. Chopping, splitting, stacking. The sound was not nearly fast enough to be a heartbeat or even any kind of metronome Annie had ever heard, but just as regular, as steady. When it stopped she lifted the big wooden spoon out of the steaming pot and stepped over to the window. Brian stood beside the woodpile, holding something. He had taken off his leather glove and held whatever it was cupped in his hand, and something about his profile, a slight movement at the back of his neck, made her think he was talking. He walked over and knelt at the end of the pile of scattered new-split stovewood and turned his hand over; whatever it was fell out. A caterpillar, maybe. Or a baby mouse, or one of those tiny frogs. She squinted, but he was already back at the chopping block, the splitting maul sliding through his gloved hand on its way down. The two halves of the round toppled on the edge of the block and then fell. He bent, one motion, to pick up the first one by its raw edge, swinging the maul from the ground up, his right hand sliding from the top of the maul handle to its tip, wrists meeting. Crack. Lean, swing. Crack. The jam was rising now, a tide of pink froth climbing up the handle of the wooden spoon. What would they do with all this firewood—or that endless row of shingles, straight as any wall? The steam was burning her wrist. She lifted the spoon and turned off the stove, strawberry seeds still clinging to the handle and a few drops of foamy syrup dripping onto the counter as she stood watching him through the gap in the gathered yellow curtain. Lean, swing, his shoulders making circles, his hands clinging like fists. Crack. The pile was chest high when he set the maul against the chopping block and filled his left arm with the first load. He would weave each stick into the corded stacks tightly as a stitch. She turned back to the stove. Well, but how were they ever going to eat this jam? It amounted to the same thing, didn’t it?
She sat down hard then at the kitchen table, wiping her hands before she pulled the green-shaded lamp closer to the box of photographs, though the one she picked up first was already lit by the window—and besides, even with the magnifying glass, what else was there to see? Ben’s hair had been cut short that summer for the first time. Their own clippers, of course. And she hadn’t quite learned how to use them—those bangs angling over his left eye . . . . He was frowning, or maybe not frowning but concentrating, focused on the pale stone he held up for the camera. Of course the fossil itself didn’t show: it was just a snapshot. Hold it still a minute, Ben.
A fossil. That gray shoebox, nearly full. Where had she put it? Why could she remember where he had found this one—he had reached out and picked it from the crumbling sandbank at the turnoff to the dump—but couldn’t remember where she had put the box she’d kept so many years? A man’s shoebox, Redwing boots. She had been so amazed by the way Ben could find fossils as easily other children found snail shells or dandelions, the earth a history book that opened to him. Even at Ice Lake that time, 4,000 feet above the valley, 8,000 above the ocean itself, he had trailed his fingers through the glacial-melt creek to comb out the black shell of a life that had pulsed before theirs, a small, hard child of a time before these mountains had pushed up out of the sea. Where was the picture of that trip? There must be one, she could almost see it, the stunted alpine trees, dead branches silver against the darker lake, and the small strip of emerald where grasses grew beside the creek, and Ben’s head bent, his hair streaked gold and white that late in summer. Beauty lying beside him, nose on her paws. Maybe it was a transparency, a slide. Or here—but no, this one was from another trip, coming back down from Echo Meadows, Ben wearing that blue pack she had looked and looked for, one just his size, and the sweatshirt that made his eyes look gray. His arms were reaching for something already there, a monarch that had left the yarrow to rest on the edge of his hand.
And here, here was one with his rock hammer, standing in front of the hole they let him dig behind the house the summer he was nine. The archeology hole, they called it, though what he found were not arrow points or old bottles but fossils. The other picture, after Ben and his friend Jason had covered most of the hole with rotting boards and Jason had run home to get his plastic army helmet, the shot that showed only their heads peering out, eyes hidden behind binoculars, that one was only in her mind.
It wasn’t the war, Brian knew that. Not some misguided patriotism, another stupid kid with a recruiter’s promise stuffed deep in his pocket. And it wasn’t rebellion. Kicking his old man in the teeth just to see him spit some blood. Being for whatever his mother was against. It wasn’t any of that.
It was just Ben, just a kid trying to be a man. Make up his own mind, then tell his folks. A stint in the army and money for school.
Annie and Brian and Ben, oh my! The way they had swung him between them.
He should have stopped it. He should have driven straight to that recruiter’s office and ripped up the papers. Torn the computer out of the wall. Should have fallen on his knees and begged. Should have hit that bastard so hard that his face would be the one they had to peel from the power pole. My God. Imagine. No, not Ben’s face. But he’d read about it, it had happened, somebody else’s boy—
He put his head in his hands.
He was sitting on the edge of Ben’s bed, the way he had sat so many times. Reading, talking. Laughing. Nothing to see in Ben’s room that he hadn’t already known was there. Books and pocket knives, the easel, his microscope. A dog bed for the Border Collie Ben had named himself—“Look, Dad! See how the light comes through her fur here where it’s brown and white and black?”—though for ten years Beauty had slept in the twin bed too, curled against Ben’s chest. At the back of the small closet, under the daypack and the box of fossils, an ancient centerfold. Ben had not yet had a serious girl. And he had been too young to leave anything behind that would make him live on in a way. Of course there were thousands of stories, moments, sayings and motions he and Annie would remember forever, and Ben’s friends would too, for a while, things he and Annie didn’t know about. But Ben was still mostly potential.
The phone calls had all but stopped—their neighbors’ voices choked, awkward, reaching for words. Most of them got around to the war, if he stayed on the line long enough. And sacrifice. It was an idea people could hang onto, a framework, whether they clung to it out of fear or anger. Sacrifice. Good God. Once a reporter called, wanting a story. “You have to leave us alone now,” Annie had told him, her voice kind and calm, exactly the way she had sounded that afternoon when she talked Ben and Jason down from the barn roof, one movement at a time. Then she put down the phone and walked out the door, past the woodshed and down into the pines, and that was when he had heard that sound, the one his arms weren’t strong enough to stop. The cry for which there was no comfort.
They had had a son. A boy growing into his beingness, each photograph different from the one taken the day before. Ben was a sapling, a ripening plum. And now he wasn’t.
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Ben had seen people die: a child, his child knew more about death than he did. If Ben were here he could help.
Annie was driving, Brian’s head turned away, his hand resting on the door handle of the battered blue truck. They were almost there—something he needed at Ace Hardware—just passing the city park. “What the hell,” he said, but by that time she was already out of the truck, gearshift jammed into neutral but the tires still rolling and the driver’s side door hanging open in the path of oncoming cars; she was already running across the park, under the flaming maples and up a curve of lawn that flared out beneath the stone steps of the statue like a soft green skirt, running as fast as she could toward the family and their soldier son in uniform. A family posing for pictures, as if this boy were simply getting married, or maybe going off to college.
“Annie, we’ve got to hang on!” Brian had screamed at her afterward, his voice startling the people in the hardware store parking lot in the same way she had unnerved the family standing like a church choir on the stone steps at the park. What he meant, of course, was that she had to hang on. She had to.
But they had lost those first murmurs of morning, the sleepy peace of breakfast, questions shouted across the pasture, daylong conversations in the rows of raspberries. How could they ever again lean over the kitchen table with the first seed catalogs or his penciled diagrams of nesting boxes and gravity-fed drip irrigation plans? The thumb-worn magazines that claimed people could live simple lives?
He was putting the garden to bed, spading things under. Getting ready for winter. He would pull up the tomato plants, burn the wood he had split—five years’ worth at least, she’d accused him one afternoon—keep spreading her thick sweet jam across each morning’s toast. His shovel stabbed the earth, slicing through blackened vines. They would carry every last acorn-shaped squash up from the root cellar. And cook it, he whispered, his shovel a bayonet now. Chew it. And swallow it. His boot caught in a blackened squash vine and he kicked free, his heart pounding.
There was Annie, sitting on the porch steps, watching him.
He laid the shovel against the compost bin. How long had it been since he’d even tried? Not counting yesterday in the parking lot—
Loose gravel shifted as they walked, the dust of this bone-dry fall lifting like small footsteps on the county road behind them. Beauty had stopped to sniff a thimbleberry bush but now she trotted ahead. Walking point. “We’re not alone, though,” he said as if they had been deep in conversation from the time he had reached out and pulled her up from the steps. “I know it feels like that, like we’re the first —”
“Oh Brian, I know that.” For an immeasurably quick moment—he and Annie still riding the same wave, picking up the threads of each other’s thoughts in mid-sentence the way they always had—he thought nothing’s wrong, nothing’s happened and then he knew it again, the way he remembered every morning in those first few seconds of wakefulness, a blow just behind his breastbone. “That’s the one thing I do know,” Annie was saying. “I know how it feels, and I know other people are feeling it.” She kicked at the gravel. “And it’s not just the war. It can happen in so many ways. That little girl in the paper last week—and Kay’s boy Jeremy, she doesn’t think he’s alive, either, out there on the street so long—it’s all of them. All of us. I just don’t know how to do it.”
“We have to, we have to. I know that. I just don’t know how.”
If she had cried then. Or yelled, cracked the way he had. If she hadn’t sounded like this.
“Yesterday, Brian, at the park—the only thing that has felt right since Ben—that moment when I thought I could stop it, just stop it for one boy, one family. Or not stop it, really, but at least face it, call it by its name. Stop the pretending.”
“Yes, pretending. Pretending that things work. Public things. Social things. Women don’t run screaming across the park and interrupt a family photograph, do they? When the boy’s about to be deployed? Not done. Not done.”
“Annie, I don’t—”
“Nothing works, Brian. Nothing. What should we be doing? Tearing down the flag, like that guy in New Jersey? Would that work? Or raffling off Ben’s car, like that woman in Oregon, to build a monument for all these dead kids? Covering our mailbox with yellow ribbons? Should we start another Scout den? Plant more potatoes, make more jam? None of it means anything if—I keep hearing that poem about the noiseless patient spider flinging out her strand, Till the bridge you need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold; till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul . . . if we sent out our thread and he didn’t catch, what do we walk on? How do we keep going? I don’t know. I just don’t know.” A mourning dove flew up from the chokecherry brush, tail fanning in a flurry of panic. “And it feels, I don’t know, wrong. To keep going.”
He felt the pressure of her hand wanting to lift, shrug out of his, but he didn’t let go. Why not say it? He had a poem in his head, too. “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
She looked at him then, finally, and he saw it wash across her face, that wave of something that was both relief and pain. “Yes. Yes. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know that I can do that. It’s as if, if we do that, none of it ever meant anything. Ben’s life. Our lives, the three of us. You and I, making him. Loving him.”
They had passed the old Pomeroy place. Her voice was tighter now. “But of course I can’t not do that, either.”
He could see the bridge, and beyond it a quick flash—sunlight on chrome, a car out on the main road, just a quick glimpse through the corridor of cottonwoods.
“Annie, don’t leave me.”
The words had torn from his lungs, sliced like blades between his ribs. Had he really said them? Or had some force reached inside him and pulled part of him loose, left it hanging silent and bloodless just above the dust? Annie was looking up at him. No—past him, her eyes focusing on something in the sky. Redtails. He could hear them now—and when he turned he saw them too, a pair and this year’s fledgling, calling each other upward, riding the evening air.
Winter. One of the coldest on record, but at least the holidays were over, week after week of SEASON’S GREETINGS stretched in gold tinsel across Main Street, inflatable Santas and giant plastic candles climbing the stems of the parking meters. Annie had felt heavy with the weight of silence. But they stood together by the window feeder, where the finches’ red breasts looked like living ornaments, and on the evening of the Solstice Brian opened their bedroom curtain to the sharp December stars—some lights, they knew, from fires already gone.
But the holidays were behind them now. Nearly a yearful of days behind them, in fact.
Better not go there, Mom. That teasing grin.
Behind her the teakettle began its morning shimmy on top of the woodstove. They’d had another late-February storm, but the wind stopped sometime after midnight: waist-high drifts rose against the shed and along that little rise, the pasture otherwise smooth, not yet marred by tracks. Her breath condensed against the cold kitchen window. What she saw through the blur might have been anything, just a motion out there in the dim winter dawn. A coyote’s shadow, or an early morning deer. Then she recognized the shape rising out of the snow as he crested the hill above the creek, at first his head and shoulders and only then his arms and the burden he was carrying. He was looking down now to bury his face in it, whatever it was. He used to carry Ben like that, used to tip his face into the bundled smell and feel of Ben’s tiny body exactly like that. She felt something inside her split its husk, sharp as obsidian. Beauty. It was Beauty.
Then she was running toward him, her robe opening like wings, the place just below her heart where she had carried their son a sharp ember. When he saw her coming he laid the dog’s body gently into the drift. Her hands were reaching for him and then touching him, cradling his face. He had been crying, or he was crying now, the late-winter sunrise cresting just behind his head making it hard to see. They were holding each other, balancing each other in the deep new snow, the morning already coming bright with cold.
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