As soon as your brother-in-law gives you word, you begin making the room ready. One of the upstairs bedrooms. The one with the east facing window. The room that was never filled.
You paint the walls a pale lilac. Elden and one of the farmhands drag an old iron bed in from the storage room in the barn. You sand off the rust and paint it white. You hang sheer curtains and spread a bright quilt—one of dozens your grandmother made over the years—across the bed. As a final touch, you add an antique vanity—a splurge purchase—with flowering vines stenciled across the front of each drawer and a matching velvet-covered stool. You position it in such a way that the mirror will catch the light from the only window, making the room seem larger, sunnier.
In the days before her arrival, you sit for hours at a time on the edge of the bed. You expected a kind of upwelling, working up here behind this door that you and Elden have been careful to keep shut for so long. But what you feel is quieter. You can’t even tell your husband.
When he finds you like that, you stand up as if you’ve been caught doing something sly. You turn and run your fingers over the quilt. Prairie Star, your grandmother called this pattern. You know the answer, but you ask him anyway, “Is it too much of a little girl’s room?”
And he wraps his arms around you. “Stop worrying,” he tells you. “She’ll make it her own.”
The morning of her arrival, a humid August morning, the White oaks form a dense, green canopy overhead. They’ve poured new blacktop since the last time you crossed the mountain, and the air is thick with the scent of tar. Elden’s hands tap a nervous cadence against the steering wheel, and you stare out the open window, hearing the insects rattle the brush. You don’t know what to expect. It was easier with your older nieces and nephews, easier to remember birthdays and graduations, and easier, too, to engage them in talk, in play. You know this must be your fault. Once that desire rooted in you, so different from the sexual desire you spent decades nursing—even more consuming—you started to forget how to be a proper aunt. Perhaps you had to.
And now this one. Your sister’s sixth, and five full years the youngest. How is it that you can hardly remember her infancy, hardly remember her in diapers or toddling around the parsonage, while you can remember the wet, needy mouths of the others, especially the oldest boy, the way his fingers would curl around yours when you touched his palm? Jane always dismissed it. Reflex. But you knew it was more. Like stirring buttermilk into fat and flour, the sudden thickening you felt in your womb. And now that boy, Peter, is soon to be an architect, finishing an internship in Seattle. When did you grow so old?
You think this as you and Elden approach the airport entrance. You can see yourself there, reflected in the dark glass. Your hair, which you finally stopped dying when you started the fertility treatments, now contains almost as much gray as brown. And the weight you lost—the doctor said it would add years to your life, but somehow it added years to your face instead—carving crow’s feet and pulling down the corners of your mouth in a few short months. More than this, though, it is the way you walk that marks you. Hesitant. Your arm linked with Elden’s. The way he pauses for you to step up onto the curb. The last two years have taken their toll.
You don’t know what to expect. It has been ten months since the funeral. You try to conjure up a picture of your niece from that day, but it is difficult. Your own grief put a caul over everything. You can only remember later that evening, after the visitors finally left, when you and Elden went around to hug all the kids (funny to call them that, since the rest of them are all in college or working, living on their own). “Goodbye,” you told them. “Call if you need anything.” Most of them were still clustered around the kitchen, wrapping food, rinsing plates. You found her sitting in the carport, even though it was forty degrees and getting dark.
Now, watching people stream off the escalator in the Tri-Cities International Airport, you try again to remember, try to reduce that last conversation to a series of stills. She was wearing those too-tight jeans—cigarette jeans the magazines call them—and a concert T-shirt. She didn’t look particularly criminal. Maybe a little too much eyeliner. She was sitting in a plastic lawn chair, texting away on a phone, and she looked up, for just a second when you called to her, thick bangs cutting a black slash diagonally across her face. “Okay,” she said. “Bye.”
On Monday morning, she knocks on your door. Soft. Overly polite. “Pancakes are on,” she says. This is new.
The last three days she has allowed you to sleep in, said nothing more than—Hey there! Would you like a sandwich?—when you finally wandered downstairs as late as one o’clock. But you have been awake. That is what she doesn’t realize. You have been awake in this ridiculous purple room, awake as soon as you heard their muffled alarm clock sound from somewhere down below, heard the two of them start to shuffle around, heard the dog yapping at the back door. And barely a thread of silver light through your window! Each morning, stretched—like death—beneath the heavy quilt as his coffee starts to percolate, as her tea pot shrieks, as the silverware rattles in the drawer, everything eventually fading into voices and stomping boots—the arrival of the morning help. And even after the men left to start the feeding, you could still hear her padding around down there, rinsing the dishes.
Your mother, each time your father was reassigned, would make her way slowly through whatever house the new church had provided, tapping door frames, opening and shutting cabinets, running water from each tap. “They don’t make houses like they used to,” she would say. Or, once your family had settled in, when the noise level rose as it was sure to in a house so crowded, when your brothers were strumming their electric guitars or your sisters were bickering over some piece of clothing, she would shake her head and mutter, “These walls are like paper.”
Yet here you are, in the house where she grew up, and you can hear everything. The last three mornings, you waited as long as you could. Not like it’s easy to keep busy. You can’t even text your friends. Your dad took back your phone. So you slowly unpacked your suitcases. You thumbed, again and again, through the same three magazines, the ones your father bought for you at the airport. Star, People, and Glamour. Thankfully, without commenting on the scandalous covers. His usual custom. You’re not sure what keeps you anchored in this room, the room you hate—would’ve hated even when you were six years old. Each day you waited as long as you could to go downstairs, waited until the smell of her midday baking rising warm and yeasty finally pulled on your empty stomach.
But today is the first day of school. The first day of eighth grade. Well, really it’s like what—the 260th?—day of eight grade since you’ll be repeating it this year. You saw the middle school on the way back from the airport. You’d just made it out of the mountains and you were a still little slurgy from that curving road, your forehead pressed up against the glass. They didn’t even turn the air conditioner on until you asked! You drove right past it—a limestone building with an arched entryway, a cinder track, a few basketball hoops minus the nets. Totally 1950’s.
She is yelling up the stairway now: “Thirty minutes till departure!” Like this is a train station or something. You pull on some jeans.
The men are already at the barn. She has cleared away their dishes and set a place just for you—three pancakes, bacon, a glass of juice and a glass of milk. You shudder when you see the milk. Your uncle has explained that they only raise beef cows, but you can’t get the thought out of your head: Probably right out of a cow.
And Peppy, her miniature poodle, is already there—hardly what you’d call a farm dog, white and fluffy, half blind from inbreeding. You can actually feel him panting beneath the table, waiting to gobble up any morsel you drop.
“Coffee?” She’s holding the stainless carafe, waving it vaguely in your direction.
You shake your head.
“You young people don’t need caffeine to get going,” she says. “Me, I can’t roll out of bed unless I know Elden’s put my teapot on.”
You think about telling her that back home you have sometimes nine or ten Mocha Frapuccinos a week. Or you did anyway until other stuff started eating your allowance. You think about telling her that your mom considered herself lucky to get all of you out the door with a Pop Tart and a multivitamin.
The clock on the microwave blinks 7:16. Jesus. You’ll hurl if you take a bite this early, especially without having had a cigarette. She is smiling at you, waiting. You take a little sip of the juice.
It works. She turns away, opens up the fridge. “What do you want in your lunch,” she asks. “We have turkey and honey ham.” She looks back at you, all expectant. “I could make you up a PBJ.”
“Oh,” you say, “I always buy my lunch.”
Then she opens a drawer and pulls out a little plastic card. “Well,” she says, “I got you $50.00 in Blue Knight bucks. That should be enough for a few week’s worth of lunches and any school supplies that weren’t on the list they sent me.”
She sets it next to your plate. It is like a credit card, only blue and gold with the words Conrad’s Fork Middle School across the front.
“Cool, huh? I can put more on it online each month. They didn’t even have those things when I was in college.”
And then you know. Your father has told her, told her to give you absolutely no money.
You and Elden take the cuttings in October, which isn’t optimal, you know. You wait as long as you can. The land hasn’t been yours for months. Your grandmother always grafted in early spring because the incisions didn’t have to be as deep, because less jointing material was required. And less time. You would know within weeks whether the new limbs were going to blossom.
Fifty acres. Nearly a third of the farm, steep—not the best land for grazing, but, still, your favorite spot because of the view from atop the ridge. You can see the river from up there, especially in winter. You can see the shacks that still dot the shore down in Sandy Bottom. And the trees. Those apple trees, decades old, really at their peak in terms of production—the trees your father planted!—will be thinned and cleared, and over the next two years twenty tudor-style houses (with Mansard roofs and three-car garages) will be constructed. You wait until they’ve staked each property with little orange flags, until bulldozers are parked just below the tree line.
When you ask her if she wants to come along she shakes her head, doesn’t even look up from her sketch book. Those pads cost $30 at Hobby Lobby, and she goes through one every two weeks. But she says art is the only class she really likes. Early on you asked her if you could look at what she was drawing. “Oh.” She slammed the pad shut, looked absolutely horrified. “It’s not finished yet.” She’s been sitting out back all morning curled in one of the deck chairs.
You try again: “Are you sure? It was your grandfather who planted those trees.”
This morning she’s pulled her hair back with a bandana, and you’re amazed at how pretty she looks while she’s sketching—her brown eyes, downcast and glittering, her face open.
But she looks up then. “Was he really?”
“Sure,” you say. But then you see the way one of her carefully tweezed eyebrows is arching. And you understand she’s not alluding to the orchard. She knows the truth, somehow she knows. Your sister must have told her. Jane didn’t even know until a few months before her death. She didn’t even tell you right away. At first, she just said you were not a donor match. You know she would have left it at that had the circumstances been in any way different. The fact that she told you shows just how desperate she was to live.
She flew down to spend a few days with you, despite your worry that she was too weak. The two of you stopped for lunch at the Valley Vista Grill, and that is where she told you, didn’t even wait for the food to arrive. Just came right out and said it: “The reason you are not a match is because you’re only my half sister.”
You looked up, holding a lemon slice, suddenly unable to squeeze it into your sweet tea.
“My oncologist told me so,” she said. “He encouraged me to talk to my family and see if there is any possibility of another sibling out there. A full sibling.”
She reached for your hand, across the table. “I was shocked too, Cora. I told Dr. Adler that. I told him there is only you. That everyone else is gone. And he told me to start with you, that you are where I start looking.”
But you were not completely shocked. That’s the thing. There were signs. Jane’s hair, so black and thick and shiny before her treatment. Her olive skin. Her calm, no-nonsense attitude. Even her ability to leave the farm, to leave the valley altogether. She wasn’t drawn back to that tether the way you were. And in that moment you knew something else: If your father had lived (and, even now, you still think of him as yours and hers) the secret would have been exposed.
You can’t be sure how much the girl knows, so you just say it again. “Your grandfather planted all those trees,” you say. “The sweetest Staymens in the state. And your mother and I crated and sold them each fall.”
The girl looks down, and her charcoal pencil begins to scratch the paper again.
The ground, always soft and mossy beneath the apple trees, feels spongy from several days of rain. The branches are slick and cool. You and Elden work quickly. Years have passed since you have done this—your grandmother directed you the last time—but your hands remember. It is not unlike feeling a human limb, something you did back when you were a nurse. Your fingers move over the ridges in the bark, feeling for tenderness, testing the joints. Elden works the clippers, cutting only where you direct him.
You wrap each branch in a wet towel from the pile soaking in the wheelbarrow. And once you have finished, the hillside is dotted with the bundles—you try not to think it: like casualties marking a battlefield. Elden dumps the remaining water and starts to gather the cuttings into the wheelbarrow, but you stop him.
“Wait,” you tell him. “This is our only shot.”
If they are heaped like that you fear the branches will jostle and crack. Instead, the two of you carry them in your arms, across the front of your body.
They have been together, it seems, since kindergarten, these kids at Conrad’s Fork Middle School. And the girls, even more than the boys, have long since established certain cliques. They move around each other in careful arcs, like the electrons and protons Mr. Martin blabbers on about in Chemistry. You don’t belong. You throw off the balance.
The worst group wears sundresses or designer polos with chunky, plastic jewelry. They tie their long, streaky hair back in matching blue ribbons for school spirit days. The teachers like these girls, always ask them to run notes to the office. And you can understand. In the classroom, they are all, “Yes Ma’am. No Ma’am.” Their hands shoot up with the appropriate answers. But in the hallway, they are all whisper and head toss. They slip each other intricately folded notes. In the cafeteria at the big trash cans, they reach across you to dump their trays, splash chocolate milk or spaghetti along the arm of your favorite sweatshirt. “Sorry,” they say, but, always, with a carefully contained smirk. Two-faced Bitches. Only a few teachers can see through the act: Ms. Hinkle in Art, maybe Mr. Sanchez in Civics.
The school doesn’t have air conditioning, and the classrooms are unbearable in the afternoon. You look forward to winter. Then, when the temperature suddenly dips in November, and you have to wait for your uncle to scrape the truck’s windshield each morning, the old broiler kicks in and the rooms are even hotter, even stuffier. Your eyes grow heavy after lunch.
In English, you ask for a hall pass. In the empty bathroom, you smoke so you can make it through the rest of the day. You climb onto the far toilet. Then, standing on the seat, you blow smoke through the cracked window. The relief, in your chest and your head—in your fucking finger tips!—is instantaneous.
You are nearly out of cigarettes. Back home, you got them from Scottie, the guy who worked at the Seven-Eleven near your house. You fooled around with him sometimes, and he always slipped you a pack whenever you went in. The last time you saw him, in the basement of his parents’ house, he gave you three cartons. “Here you go kid,” he said, “a little going away present.” When you were packing you emptied them all, stacked the cigs in supersize tampon boxes—just in case your dad decided to search your luggage.
You only bring two cigarettes with you each day because you’d be tempted to stay in here if you had more. You’re trying. You really are. You hurry back to class. After English, it’s on to Health and P.E., which you can tolerate. Outside, clad in the standard issue blue and gold sweat suits, you and twenty three other girls spread across the field. You try to stand ready with your hockey stick, stomp your feet against the chill, but your eyes wander along the line of the mountains. They are always there, and you can’t get used to them. They make you feel even more caged. Last month, the slopes which had at first hovered blue or green, depending on the light, burst into autumn color. Now the leaves are almost gone, and you can see outcroppings of gray rock through the bare trees.
Back in the locker room, you delight in the squeamish way the other girls undress, even the blue ribbon click. They slide their athletic bras off through the sleeves of their gym shirts, and then slide their regular bras on the same way, hunkering by their lockers. Flat-chested prudes. You’ve worn a C-cup since sixth grade. Scottie would always suck in his breath when you removed your shirt, Practically swoon. You make a point of walking bare-chested through the rows of wooden benches. You look straight ahead, but you can feel their eyes flit toward you for just a second as you make your way to the bathroom stalls.
Seventh period. The tables that have been covered again and again in shellac, the smell of oil paints and linseed oil from the storage cabinets in the back of the room, the faint breeze through the windows—always cracked—for ventilation. Today Ms. Hinkle moves through the tables in a Boho skirt and ankle boots placing a roll of butcher paper in front of each student. You hear the jingle of her bracelets when she leans over your table. Her curly hair carries just a whiff of her shampoo. Something citrusy.
Back at the front of the room she unrolls her own piece of paper. She says, “Today you’re going to begin a kind of self-portrait.” And you see immediately that she is also there, on the paper. Well, really it is just an outline, but it is clear that it is Ms. Hinkle, not so much in the outline—just a shadow shape, really—but in the swirling colors and words. Her hair, springy even in silhouette, has been filled in with tiny magazine cut-outs—hundreds of shades of red that capture just the way her hair looks to you, almost glowing.
“The first step,” she says, “is to partner up. Get someone else to trace the outline of your body onto your piece of paper.” The class quickly divides itself down amid a sudden rush of mumbling and screeching chairs. You look around. Paired students are already staking out locations, spreading their rolls of butcher paper. And for just a moment you consider this possibility: Perhaps the class is not numbered evenly. Perhaps Ms. Hinkle will have to be your partner. But then you see him. The quiet kid by the window is looking around too—Eliot, you think his name is. He shrugs his shoulders and points his finger at you.
They have broken ground in the orchard, reduced the ridge to three leveled tiers, left just a few of the trees, enough, you suppose, to earn the name. They haven’t begun pouring the foundations yet, but already workers have constructed an elaborate entrance, a limestone and brick wall featuring the words Orchard Heights, a key pad to control the heavy wrought iron gates.
“Don’t look at it,” Elden says. “We’ll plant a giant hedge row.”
But for now that is your view from the kitchen window. And you torture yourself, hand-drying the dishes, making slow circles with the towel.
You make excuses to duck behind the old barn, trudging out to the compost pile three or four times a day. It’s not like you owe anyone an explanation, and besides, Elden spends the bulk of the day at the cattle barn. Finished last year, this new barn is as long as a city block, with birthing stalls and a state of the art ventilation system.
It was your idea, really. You laid it out for Elden, the specific allocation of the money: you would undergo one more round of in vitro, and then use the rest to outfit the farm for beef cattle. And you know you could have stopped it. Elden said so himself. “We’ll keep trying,” he said. “I’ll go back to work for Les. Hell, I’ll get a factory job. You just say the word.” But you were tired. You had already given up.
So here you are, emptying the slop bucket again, then pausing to inspect the crab apple trees behind the old barn. The jointing material is resinous, still clean and amber-colored in the afternoon light, making the grafts look like grotesque Christmas balls. It is different in texture from the stuff your grandmother used. She fashioned her jointing material herself, out of hardware store compounds. One of many things you failed to pay enough attention to.
You had, you suppose, thought it would fall to your mother, that she would be the one to impart all that knowledge. But then she went first, just lost control of the pick-up on her way home from the farmers’ market. She might have fallen asleep, that’s what they told you later when you were trying to make sense of how her truck wound up at the bottom of Yellow Creek Gorge. And then your grandmother was gone not three years later—an embolism following what was supposed to be a routine hip replacement.
So, not wanting to take any chances, you called the local landscape company to help with this project. The young woman they sent out—you were secretly glad it was a woman who climbed out of the big white truck—said this is the best stuff there is. She had a man’s name, Charlie, but her movements were soft and feminine. She wrapped the branches while you held them in place. You held them so steady and so long your arms started to ache, and all the while you watched her movements—precise, yet almost tender.
You said, “Charlie, you would have made a good nurse.”
And she laughed, said, “Well, I guess what I do isn’t that far off. Maybe that’s why they call it a nursery.”
You run your fingers carefully along the fused cuttings, knowing all the while it is pointless. There is no way to tell if they will take, not until March, February at the earliest. But it is not unlike praying.
“The laying on of hands,” Jane called it when she asked you to touch her head and pray that day in the attic. You had spent an entire morning going through boxes of photographs and old letters, searching for anything that might provide a clue.
“I’m not sure I’m the right person to pray like that,” you said.
But she unwrapped her scarf. “It doesn’t matter if you believe,” she said. “ I do.”
So you closed your eyes and placed your hands against her warm scalp.
You don’t force the girl to go to church, but you do call Steve on Sunday evenings. It is a good reminder that this is temporary, that he is still, after all, the girl’s father. You dial his number and hand the phone to her once it begins to ring. It is important, you think, that he hear her voice first. After the initial, “Hi, Dad,” her conversation tapers into a series of one word responses. It is painful to listen. Finally, she pushes the receiver back to you and trots upstairs.
You try to give him all the details you can, but it seems like you end up ticking off the same things: her grades have improved, she’s finally eating, she’s doing some chores. He doesn’t ask if she is making friends. He doesn’t ask about her drawing. He really only wants confirmation of one thing: “Is she clean?”
It’s wrong to judge him, you know. You can’t imagine how much embarrassment he must have felt when she was expelled last spring. But you were still shocked when he said he wished she had been arrested instead, that it might have been easier to keep that quiet.
You sigh, try to tell him the truth. “Her jacket still smells like cigarette smoke, but I don’t think she’s doing anything else.”
There hasn’t been alcohol in the house in months. You don’t even have a glass of wine anymore when your friend Amanda stops by to gossip after work. You hear news reports about all the meth being manufactured over near Somerset, but the girl never goes out. She hasn’t asked to go to a party, or even to be dropped off at the mall. In your mind that’s a bigger problem.
Girls never call the house, and you think that is strange. When you and Jane were in middle school, you kept the one phone, a red rotary style contraption that hung on the kitchen wall, tied up all evening. A boy has called a few times. You wouldn’t have even known he was a boy, except you asked, “Who may I say is calling?”
And he said, “Eliot.” Although, you suppose, that doesn’t really mean anything either, not the way people name their kids these days.
But then last week, you made salon appointments for the two of you, hers at 6:00, yours right after. Against your better judgment, you said nothing, just kept flipping through a magazine when she told the hairdresser she wanted to shave her head. It was Amanda, getting up from her station at the cosmetics counter, who intervened. “Or how about some purple streaks?” she said, catching your eye, for just a second, in the mirror.
And then, when the foils were in place, the evening started to unfold more like you had imagined it, the girl almost giddy with her head under the dryer. “What do you think it’s going to look like, Aunt Cora?” And later, when her hair was blown soft and straight, the streaks shimmering out like fairy wings, she actually sat in the make-up chair and let Amanda remove the thick make-up and redo her eyes. She was so lovely, suddenly, without all that eyeliner. You felt your own eyes start to tear up, and she misunderstood. “Hey,” she laughed, fingering the streaks in her hair. “It will grow out. Besides, it matches my room.”
You laughed, nodded your head when she asked if she could take a walk and look in some of the shops. And a few minutes later, when Amanda motioned you over to the front window, there she was, standing next to a boy. He was thin with a sandy crop of hair, and he was holding a skateboard. They leaned toward each other, and you felt your breath catch in your throat. You thought, are they going to kiss? But he only reached his hand up to touch her hair.
The weather turns bad two weeks into December, and you hole up for a string of snow days. In the morning, a lacy film of frost coats your bedroom window. You scratch the word FUCK with your fingernail, and then realize you should have done the letters backwards. You used to write in the hymnals back home. You don’t know where it comes from, this need to mar things, to mess things up. You have begun marking the little white dresser—vanity, she calls it!—with a Sharpie, a twisting, connected pattern, like the tattoo you plan to get as soon as you’re eighteen.
You stay in your pajama pants all day, play Tetris on the computer, lounge on the sofa in the living room where the pellet stove exudes a warm smolder. When you settle in, that dog moves in right beside you, curls up in a little ball. You’ve got a theory about why she’s so attached to the thing. He can’t weigh more than ten pounds: always the size of a newborn. When you shift to stretch your legs, Peppy’s suddenly all snarl, and you hear her voice from the kitchen. “Don’t get him riled up!”
Later, you shake your head when she asks if you want to make Christmas cookies, but you eat a couple when she brings them to you, warm and sparkling with red sugar.
It is your uncle who finally gets you out of the house. “You want to earn some cash?” he asks the third day when you show up downstairs in time for breakfast. “We’re mucking out the barn today.”
It is her reaction, turning and glaring at him—you remember seeing that look (cut it out now!) on your mom’s face—that makes you say, “Maybe.”
By the time you get out there, you are having second thoughts. You’ve watched the cows from your window or the back deck, but here in the barn you’re surrounded by them. You’re amazed at the heat that so many bodies can create. Already your winter coat feels suffocating. You loosen your scarf and get a sharp whiff of ammonia. And shit. Because that’s what it is really. That’s what you’re standing in. The straw slurps and sucks at your boots—gumshoes the men call them—with each step.
Up close, the cows seem a lot bigger. They nose their way into the troughs the men have filled, until all you can hear is the sound of their chewing. Seriously. Like something out of a horror movie. Elden makes his way from animal to animal, running his hand along their backs. Like they’re freaking pets! They finish quickly and start swinging their heads around, butting each other. Then your uncle hollers, “Alright, let’s move them out.”
You climb up on a railing and watch as Elden and the men fan out to shoo the cows from the barn. Once they get the animals going, the herd moves together like one giant creature, flowing through the big doors and spreading across the snow-covered pasture.
Then it’s on to the cleaning. Nasty! One of the men drives the tractor, scraping muck from the middle of the corridor, and the rest of you work the edges and the corners one scoop of the pitchfork at a time. The tractor lumbers out to the manure tank and back.
After a little while, Elden comes over. “How you doing?”
You point to the tractor, which is orange with the word Kuboda on the side, “I want to drive that thing.” you say.
And he just laughs. “Not a chance.”
An hour or so later, when the cement floor of the barn is exposed, you gather just outside the door, where the air is fresh and cold. The sun is up over the ridge now, and you have to squint your eyes it is so bright against the snow. The cows have gravitated to the back of the field, and you think how you would like to draw it—the cows against the fence in the foreground and the construction up on the hillside in the background. Talk about surreal.
One of the men takes a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his coveralls. “Anybody want a smoke?” he asks as he shakes one into his palm.
Elden is looking away, granting you permission. But you realize, for the first time since you ran out, that you don’t want a cigarette. You just shake your head.
Usually Elden cuts down a cedar or a white pine that is twisting its way up one of the fence rows, the uglier the better. That’s part of the ritual. The two of you decorate it, buzzed on eggnog. Before she was married, Amanda would come by too, sometimes one or two of the farmhands.
This year you go to the lot outside the Farm Bureau, just you and the girl. In the cab of the truck is a box of frosted cookies—little baggies tied up with festive ribbon. They’re for an errand you’re planning afterwards, if you can talk her into it.
The lot itself is a little overwhelming—blue Spruces and Douglas firs trimmed into perfect towers of greenery, prices ranging from forty to well over one hundred dollars.
She takes off. “Wait!” you shout in her wake. “They all look the same. You’re going to have to choose.”
And she comes back dragging the scrawniest looking tree of the bunch. It can’t even be five feet tall, gaping holes, needles turning brown at the ends of the branches.
“What? You don’t like this one?” Her skull cap is pulled low, making dark wisps of hair fan her face.
You wonder if this is a test, an attempt at sabotage.
“I love it,” you tell her. “Talk about family tradition.”
Back in the truck, the tree wrapped in twine and tossed in the bed, you ask her if she’s up for lunch at the Valley Vista Grill.
“Sure,” she says, but then, when you two are seated in a booth and looking over the menus, you can tell she’s worried about the tree. She keeps looking toward the door.
“What if somebody steals it?” she asks.
You laugh. Because this is Conrad’s Fork. You and Elden don’t lock your doors, not even
when you head over to the Land Between the Lakes for a week in August. And besides, who would want that tree?
But you ask the waiter if you can move to one of the window seats. There the two of you eat French fries and greasy burgers, watching snow flurries through the picture window.
You decide to split a piece of apple pie, and after a bite or two, forks jabbing across the little dessert plate, she looks up and says, “It’s not as good as yours, huh?”
You want to pull off her hat, reach across the table and ruffle her hair. But instead, you use that as your in: “Listen,” you tell her, “I have to ask you a favor.”
She slumps back in her seat, arms crossed, eyes narrowed. “What?”
“I need to stop by Black Mountain Manor on the way home.”
“Whatever.” She’s barely listening, or else she doesn’t even know what Black Mountain Manor is.
“It’s the nursing home,” you say, “the one where I used to work. I’ve got a box of cookies, and I was hoping you’d come in with me and deliver them to the residents.”
She’s really glaring now.
“You have no idea what it would mean to them,” you tell her. “They love to see young people.”
“So,” she says, “this wasn’t really our afternoon at all. You were just trying to get me to do something.”
Parked under the nursing home’s green awning, exhaust fogging the air, you try one more time. “Are you sure?” You turn to look at her. “It would mean a lot to me.”
“No way.” She pulls her hat down lower and starts to scan radio stations.
It takes some work to convince her. In the end, his mom has to call. Mortifying! Like you’re six years old and they’re arranging a playdate. But it works, and two days before you fly back to St. Louis you are walking around the mall with Eliot. Eliot, who is not your boyfriend, but who is sweet and cute. Well, kind of. He’s only thirteen, a kid after all. But he exists in the same sphere you do—that netherland outside the cliques. And that is enough to draw the two of you into a friendship of sorts.
His mom is tall and serious with big sunglasses, her hair pulled back in a low bun. Chignon. That’s what Amanda calls that style. She always wants to do your hair when she comes over—French braids, French twists. Are there no American hairstyles? Sometimes you let her, but the last time you weren’t in the mood. “Sorry,” you told her, “I’m not your personal Barbie doll.”
And your aunt about cracked up, said something like. “Goth Barbie, that’s hilarious.”
Eliot’s mom is young and pretty. But she doesn’t wear any make up, so it’s in a Little House on the Prairie kind of way. She says, “You two meet me back here in four hours,” and you part ways at the fountain.
The Valley Mall is awash with faux-flocked greenery and Christmas Muzak. You’ve only been in two stores, and you’re sure you’re hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” for the second time. You are within ear shot of at least three crying babies.
Eliot has a list he’s working off of, a crumpled piece of paper where he’s penciled in the presents he wants to get each member of his family. Typical. He still writes his homework assignments down in a little spiral notebook. Keeps it in his back pocket!
Your dad has always insisted on a noncommercial holiday. When your mom was alive she made sure he did the Santa thing, but you and your siblings were supposed to exchange homemade presents. This rule always led to an array of poorly knit scarves, glitter-pasted ornaments, and papìer mâché under the tree. Total crap.
You try, briefly, to explain this, hear how crazy it sounds. “My dad’s just weird,” you say. “I mean he gets pissy when people abbreviate Christmas—you know with an X.”
Eliot’s list includes things you’ve never heard of. His grandparents are doing a house exchange (whatever that is), spending New Year’s in colonial Mexico, and he wants to get them a French press from a store called Williams-Sonoma.
“For their afternoon espresso,” he says, “Last year Nana about died without it.” And then he asks, “So, what are you getting your . . . family?”
You notice he doesn’t say either “your dad” or “your aunt and uncle.” Like your family is some kind of mysterious, nebulous thing. Which it kind of is.
“I’m not sure.” You’ve thought about giving your dad the self-portrait you made in art class, and you’ve also thought about giving him nothing at all. It would serve him right—after all, he sent you away.
You two are weaving through the racks in the men’s section of one the big department stores.
“Handkerchiefs are nice,” Eliot says picking up a package. “I’ve gotten them for my dad before. There’s a place here that can monogram them in less than an hour.”
You start laughing then because it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. Monogramming hankies, something you put snot in. You think about telling him your dad doesn’t even use handkerchiefs. He uses Kleenex, or if none are handy, toilet paper. You know because you found them everywhere during your mom’s final days, when his eyes just seemed to constantly leak and yours, strangely, had gone dry—shredded tissues in every trash can in the house.
But what you say is, “Can we get out of here?”
And later, sitting on the loading dock behind the furniture store, you reach into his coat pocket and pull out that piece of paper. “Hey,” you say, “How come I’m not on this list?” You’re joking, finally feeling like yourself again now that you’re out of that crowd. You like the cold feel of the concrete against your jeans.
“Because I already got you your present,” he says. And you must look surprised because he adds, “Seriously. You want it now?”
He reaches into his other pocket and removes a little paper bag, hands it to you. “It’s not wrapped yet.”
You draw out a cross on a black leather cord. At first glance it looks like it could have been purchased at one of the jewelry stands in the mall, but when you look closer and turn it over in your hands, you see the cross is like nothing you’ve ever seen, carved with flowers and dancing skeletons.
“That’s a Day of the Dead cross,” he says, “the skeletons and stuff. It was actually a key chain. My nana brought it back from Mexico last year. I told my mom what I wanted to do, and she found a jeweler who could make it into a necklace.”
Irony—that’s what your English teacher would call it. Eliot making you a Christmas present. You don’t know what to say.
“Do you want me to help you put it on?”
You hand the necklace back to him and lift up your hair. “I feel bad,” you say. “I didn’t get you anything.”
He leans in to clasp it, and you can feel his breath, warm on the back of your neck. “Just come back,” he says, “even if your dad tries to get you to stay. And don’t do anything with that Scottie guy.”
On the farm it begins like any other morning. The alarm clock sounds, and Peppy begins to stir first, pushing his way out of the warm quilts. You get up and get breakfast on the table while Elden goes out to break the ice on the water troughs. With all the help gone, it falls on you to assist him with the feeding. Most of his girls—that’s what your husband calls them—are moving slower now, their bellies swollen around the spring’s calves. It’s Christmas for them, too, a warm bran mash instead of the usual silage, the troughs steaming in the cold air.
“Merry Christmas, babe,” Elden says once the cows are jockeying for their food. The first mention of the holiday. You’re both a little too bundled to really embrace—you’ve got your down stadium jacket over your flannel gown, wool socks inside your boots—but you lean in and accept his kiss.
Back inside the farmhouse, there is no rush to the gifts which have circled the tree for the last week or so. Elden gets a shower, and you dress the turkey, set the rolls to rise on the stove top. You take note of the time as you slide the heavy roasting pan in the oven. 8:34.
You spent only one Christmas with your sister’s family. You were twenty-five, working in Minneapolis, and Jane convinced you to drive down. She only had Peter and Jesse back then, but those boys had everyone in the house up by 5:30, and by this hour everything was finished—the living room a mess of torn paper and emptied boxes, the kids sticky with candy cane and chocolate. You know it’s best the girl flew back home, but you can’t help but wonder. How would the day uncoil if she were here?
You and Elden don’t get around to unwrapping presents until almost noon. As always, it is a slow, contained kind of ritual. In between gifts—for you there is a new nightgown, perfume, a few hardback novels, as well as an antique hand mirror (silver, inlaid with mother-of-pearl)—you see to the final preparations for the midday meal, mashing the steaming potatoes, whisking broth into gravy.
When the food is ready, you set the table in your grandmother’s china, plates painted with delicate cherry blossoms. This set was mailed in narrow boxes of tissue paper all the way from Manila back when her second oldest son, your great uncle, was in the navy.
The sound of the television rises from the living room. The same Christmas movie has been playing over and over all morning, the one with the kid with the glasses. You set the silver next to each plate, pour a little wine into the glasses. How criminal it felt yesterday, after taking such pains to keep the house absolutely dry over the last four months, to walk out of the liquor store clutching the paper sack.
You call your husband in then, just as you call him and the men in from the barn or the fields every other afternoon: “Dinner’s on!”
And he appears in the doorway, looking back over his shoulder, laughing at the TV. He is clearly shocked, once he sits down across from you, to see the tears streaming down your face.
He comes to you then, hunkers next to your chair. “What is it, babe?”
By that point, you’re bawling. You can’t tell him what’s wrong. You don’t know what’s wrong. And what’s worse is it’s not even that uncommon, this crying. For months now, the slightest thing can set your throat tightening, your nose running in an effort to hold back the tears. You think you must be nearing your change, even though it seems a little early. It wouldn’t be that uncommon, your doctor has told you, to be perimenopausal with all the fertility problems you’ve had. If you were a Hereford the men would have loaded you in the truck and driven you to market a decade ago.
“Hey,” Elden whispers, “She got you something. I was just saving it as a surprise.” He gets up then and rummages around in the mudroom.
Your sobbing is quieting now, even though you haven’t been crying over any present.
When he sits back down he is holding two more packages. “She gave them to me when I drove her to the airport. I was waiting until after dinner to pull them out.”
They are wrapped in plain white paper, sketch paper. You peel it back slowly and break the tape sealing the box you find beneath. You don’t care that the food is getting cold on the table.
“Well, what is it?”
You lift it out of the box to show him. “A pie plate.” It is heavy ceramic, glazed blue on the outside, cream within. Twice as deep as the aluminum pans you baked in last night.
“What about you, hon?” you ask, sniffling. “What did she get you?”
“I’m not sure. It’s sort of half-glove, half-windshield scraper.” He holds it up for you to inspect—large and fleece-lined, clearly stitched by a hand unaccustomed to a needle, it looks like those muffs women used to carry, only with a plastic blade protruding from one end.
You laugh, but immediately you feel guilt creeping against your ribs. You gave her some art supplies, an envelope of gift cards to use at the after Christmas sales.
Later that night you enter her room for the first time. You’ve made a point, all fall, to offer her privacy wherever you could. You’ve left her clean laundry stacked on the table in the upstairs hallway. You’ve always handed her the dust rag and broom, said, “Why don’t you go tidy up your room?” You’re not planning on cleaning today. Your plan is to peek in her drawers and see if she left behind any of her ratty T-shirts, the ones with the names of her favorite bands. You will write down the names of the bands and then find some posters in the music store downtown, or if you have to, you will order them online. Whatever it takes.
It’s not such an ill-conceived plan. The morning she left, she came down the stairs with just her backpack.
And you asked her, your heart thumping because you were scared, even though it wasn’t part of the plan, scared that she might be staging a campaign to stay in Missouri and finish out the year at her old school. “Where is your big suitcase?” you asked her. “You want me to send Elden up for it?”
But she shook her head. “I don’t want to have to check anything,” she said, and then, with that smirk you’ve come to know so well, she added, “Besides, Dad asked me to bring something other than black clothes. That limited my choices a little.”
The shirts are there, just as you had known they would be, carefully folded in the chest of drawers, worn thin from repeated washing. So these are the bands she listens to when she’s hunched silent on the deck chair or in the front seat next to you, those buds in her ears. At first you think there is some kind of mistake because the names all sound so much alike: The Cure. The Cult. The Smiths. The Strokes. You write them down in your day-planner, thinking maybe you will do better than buy posters. Maybe you will buy concert tickets. She deserves that. Yes, she’s been a bit surly at times—what fourteen-year-old girl isn’t?—but she hasn’t really given you such a hard time.
And that is when you see the vanity. You suck in your breath, pace across the room, and run your hand across its surface. How could you have missed it a moment ago? The top is covered in black magic marker—a viney, twisting design, breaking at times into fish and trees and skeletal faces, what might be letters. You turn and leave, slamming the door as you go.
“Did you find them?” Elden asks when you slide beneath the quilt a few minutes later.
“No,” you say, “They weren’t there.”
He’s on your case right away. Before you’re even out of the airport!
“What are you wearing?” he wants to know.
And you look down. You’re wearing a red leotard under a gray wool jumper. The skirt isn’t that short. The only thing black is your tights and, if shoes count, your Doc Martens.
“Around your neck, sweetie? What is that?”
“A cross,” you say. You know, like Jesus died on.
In the parking deck he looks at it more closely. He can’t stop looking at it. “What’s all over that thing? Skeletons? Where did you get it?”
You tell him, “It’s a Mexican cross. My friend gave it to me.”
“It seems really inappropriate,” he says. “Almost blasphemous.” He waits to start the car, keys in the ignition. “I want us to get off on a good foot, really I do, but I’m going to have to ask you not to wear that thing around me. I think you should think long and hard about wearing it at all.”
Your room is the same. Your Hello Kitty collection still lines the shelves. The same gray branches fork outside your window. You know, if you press your face to the glass and look down, you will see the edge of the patio, the top of the barbecue grill. But the lock has been removed from your bedroom door. The new, smooth knob calls out a subtle warning: Go ahead and just try any of that crap again.
At first the house feels strangely quiet. Peter has flown in, but he is busy on some design, tinkering away on his laptop. Your sister Ruth and her husband drive up on Christmas Eve, and Jesse is there, too, with his wife and their little girl, but the other boys are staying away this year, celebrating with college friends. And you can’t blame them.
It’s the second Christmas without mom, but it feels even more wrong than the first. Last year you moved through the holiday under the fog of Demerol or Oxycontin or something, you weren’t even sure. You kept them in a zippered pencil case in your backpack, the pills you had siphoned from your mother’s bedside over a period of months. Sometimes you shared them with select friends, traded them for other things at parties.
After the Christmas Eve service, various members of the congregation trickle in and out of the house. “You look good,” they tell you, or “We’re so glad you’re here.” The Prodigal freaking Son. No one says, “You know, you caused us a lot of worry.” No one even asks, “Are you keeping out of trouble?”
Most just deliver fruitcake or plates of cookies and then go on their way. But one woman, blond in a boiled wool blazer, sits all evening in one of the dining room chairs that have been arranged around the perimeter of the den. Occasionally, she looks up at you and smiles, the lights from the tree casting her face in color. Someone introduced her—your dad, or maybe your sister—when she arrived, but you can’t remember her name, don’t even think there is cause to try. Not until you see your dad bring her a mug of coffee, see his hand rest a moment too long on her shoulder.
An hour or so later, the house all but emptied, he says, “I’ll be back soon, sweetie. I’m just going to drive Sandra home.” And then you know.
You corner Ruth in the kitchen. “Who the hell is that woman?”
And it comes back that fast, the careful touch, the condescension you remember everyone treating you with before. She moves so slowly and methodically—turns off the water, puts down the cookie platter she has been rinsing. “Now, Gracie,” she says, “take a deep breath. It’s not really my place to tell you.”
“So what—she’s his girlfriend? He’s got a girlfriend?”
“First of all, it’s been more than a year.” She raises one hand, palm up—like a traffic cop: stop, stop, stop—pulsing the air between you. “He has a right,” she says, “to at least try to be happy.”
If she had just stopped there, you might have been alright, but she said. “They want to give you the news themselves. They’re planning on taking you out to dinner, just you and them, right after Christmas.”
And then you know he’s planning on marrying her.
You leave that night. You shove everything back in your pack, and you walk right out, right past Jesse and his wife sleeping on the fold-out couch, the baby snuggled in the pocket of space between them. At first you just walk. The weeds along the shoulder of the road shine silvery in the moonlight. When you look up, you feel the night sky. The stars like little pinpricks in your chest.
Somehow, you’ve left your gloves behind. Even inside your coat pockets, your fingers have gone completely numb. You think about your mother in the final days, waking only for a few moments at a time and saying the strangest things, looking right at you and not seeing you. “Are these my hands?” she asked. “Why can’t I feel my fingers?”
You are walking with no destination, just certain you have to get away from there. But when someone slows down and throws open a car door, you tell him, “East toward Kentucky.”
You ask her for the exit number off the interstate, but you don’t ask any other questions.
You think about calling the police, asking a state trooper to wait with her until you arrive. Wasn’t somebody found murdered at a rest area on that stretch of I-64 just last year? But she could be on something—you don’t want to scare her. Instead, you tell her to wait in the bathroom. “I’ll be there in three hours,” you say, “three and a half, tops.”
Elden has to stay on the farm for the evening feeding, and alone in the car, you can hardly contain the rage you feel toward your brother-in-law. You think about calling Steve and really giving him a piece of your mind, asking him why your niece is calling you collect from a pay phone the day after Christmas, asking why he didn’t call you as soon as she left, demanding to know just what has happened in the last four days. After all, she was fine when Elden dropped her off at the airport. But right now you need to drive. That conversation will have to happen, but maybe, you think, it’s not a bad idea to get the girl’s story first.
You leave the car running and take off up the hillside, sliding a little in the thin crust of snow. You call her name, your voice hollow against the tiled walls. She doesn’t answer, but you hear a shuffling from one of the stalls, knock—harder than you meant to—on the metal door.
“Hey,” you say, “it’s me. Open up.” You brace yourself for anything. Who knows what she may have gotten into, you tell yourself. She could be completely out of it. She could be injured, bleeding.
She opens the door slowly.
“Thank, God,” you say, “you’re okay.” And you move forward, wrap your arms around her, amazed at how small she feels. “You are, aren’t you?”
She nods her head.
You pull back, take another look. Her eyes are puffy, her hair flat and unwashed, but other than that, she seems fine.
“Well, come on,” you tell her. “Let’s get going.”
You’ve decided that you won’t grill her in the car, that you won’t ask the really hard questions until you get her home safe. So you just hand her a turkey sandwich zipped in a little baggie. She goes at it like she hasn’t eaten in days, and you realize she may not have. At first, she’s chatting away, talking with her mouth full, even, but she’s not saying anything. Not really. She’s asking about Elden and the dog, describing her brother’s baby, going on about how they will get to use the new kiln in art class next semester. And as soon as she finishes eating, she falls silent, leans her head against the window. You keep glancing across the seat. You can’t help it. Because now she’s crying, crying without a sound, smoothing that plastic baggie, folding and refolding it in her lap. And it goes on for miles, this crying, goes on until you realize you have to say something.
So you exit, stop the car in a McDonald’s parking lot. “I’m going to get some coffee and use the restroom,” you tell her. “Do you want anything?”
She shakes her head. It has grown dark in the last half an hour, and when you turn off the car her face looks almost gray in the dimly-lit parking lot, like wet stone.
“Hey,” you say, “I didn’t get a chance to tell you yet. I love that pie plate. That was really thoughtful.”
She doesn’t say anything, so you start to get out of the car, and that is when she grabs your arm. You can feel her fingers, like a vise, even through your down coat.
“It was sickening” she says, “everybody being so nice and so careful. But they don’t even know. They don’t know half of what I’ve done.”
“What are you talking about?” The car door is open beside you, and you can feel the night air creeping into that warm space. “Honey, you’re not as bad as you think, not as bad as your dad’s made you think you are, anyway. Besides, there’s nothing that can’t be forgiven, not if you’re willing to start over. Lord knows I’ve started over enough for three or four lifetimes.”
“Sometimes I ignored her,” she whispers. “We gave her a little bell like on TV, and sometimes she would ring it just because she wanted to talk, and I would stay up in my room. I’d pretend I couldn’t hear it.”
You want to tell her that it’s her dad, not her, who should be feeling guilty, that he put ridiculous pressure on Jane right from day one of their marriage. There was a certain look expected of a preacher’s wife. Her suits had to fit just so. Her hair had to lay just right. And even at the end, when she accepted hospice he made her feel like she was giving up, like she wasn’t praying hard enough, like she was refusing to believe in the possibility of a miracle.
It’s like she knows just what you’re thinking because she looks up at you then, eyes glittering, voice sharp. “He’s marrying somebody else.”
You can’t help it, you’re stunned.
“Look,” she tells you, reaching down to unfasten a roll of paper from the outside of her backpack. “I was going to give him this.”
You unroll it, knowing she’ll be watching you, judging your reaction. It is a body tracing, like the outlines chalked around murder victims on old television shows. The inside is filled in with layers of torn tissue paper. The effect is not unlike stained glass. Then etched across the surface is a design in black ink. You squint, trying to recognize words or shapes. It reminds you of the destroyed vanity.
“It’s lovely,” you say, although you know you don’t get it, not like she wants you to.
She sinks back into her seat and folds her arms across her chest, and you understand that some cord has been snapped by what you said or failed to say.
Back home, you let her be for a while. You let her eat dinner in silence. You let her sit, catatonic, in front of the computer. A few days later, when that boy calls, you let her slink into her bedroom and close the door. More than a month passes. You know you’re losing ground.
In February, the first calves arrive, weeks before Elden expects them, during a stretch of ten-degree days, cold enough to freeze a calf to the ground if its mother doesn’t get right to the cleaning. Men are in and out of the mudroom all day. You keep the coffee pot going.
In the middle of the night, it is you who accompanies Elden out to the birthing corral, you who helps pull the calves from this year’s heifers. You wear gum boots and long rubber gloves, but by the time you are washing up at the basin in the mudroom, you’re still covered in blood. It is good blood, you tell yourself, watching as the water clouds and swirls down the drain.
But you can’t help it. Your mind slides as it does every spring along the spectrum of your own disappointments. The way, that afternoon twenty years ago, you kept lifting the pad from your panties after you left the clinic in Kingsport. The way you had to keep looking before wrapping it and tossing it in the wastebasket. The way you couldn’t stop thinking—it’s not the same, it looks the same, but it’s not the same. And the way, four years ago, as if in secret confirmation of that other afternoon, when the blood ran warm down your legs as you stepped out of the shower, it wasn’t just blood you saw, but clumps of something gray and shriveled there on the linoleum.
She brings the calves right into house, sets them up in the mudroom, where she has spread cardboard and straw.
“Their mother is gone,” she tells you, when you are shocked to hear their lowing that first morning. “I didn’t think we’d get them out alive, honestly.” She has secured a baby gate across the open doorway. “We have two or three orphans every year, and this is what we have to do to keep them warm and fed.”
You peer around the corner and find them curled in the straw like little deer. “They’re brother and sister,” she says, “and still shaky on their feet. We haven’t even been able to get any colostrum into them yet.”
One of them looks up, emits a little cry. You are surprised at the sound, a bleating more like the cry of a human baby than the moo of a full-grown cow. They are black and white like the cows you see through the fence each day, but their fur looks softer, curlier. You see the pile of towels, stained and still damp from where she must have finished cleaning them.
“You’ll have to get your own breakfast today, okay?” She is removing the plastic baggies which have been in the freezer for days now, since last week’s stillbirth. The milk inside is creamy-colored, frozen in a solid cube. “If I can get some of this in them, their chances are much better.” She dunks the bags in warm water. “But this is all we’ve got.”
You watch as the ice melts and swirls into liquid, almost golden. She siphons it out with a baster—you’re too fascinated to even wonder if it is the same one she uses in the kitchen—then kneels in front of the larger of the calves and works the liquid into its mouth. He is standing up now, and his long tongue keeps working even after she’s moved on to the other calf. “Look at that,” she says. “He’s going to have no problems with the bottle.”
You hope she is right. You start to barter. The closest you come to prayer. As you watch her in front of the other calf, the smaller of the two, you think how you will be good. You will find a way to be better.
“I don’t know about this one,” your aunt says. “She’s definitely the weaker of the two.”
You tick off the things you will do if they survive. Stop cutting English class. Toss the Sharpies you use to mark up certain lockers. Find a way to make up with your dad.
She steps back, looking pleased, and then turns to you. “What do you say? You want to try to give them a bottle?”
They have to nurse every few hours, and this chore falls to you. Yet another chore. But it’s preferable to some of the other stuff they’ve asked you to do—spreading gravel over potholes in the driveway, for instance, or turning the compost pile with a pitchfork. You scoop formula from the plastic bin under the sink and funnel the powder into two empty Coke bottles. At first the thick smell rises up, catches in the back of your throat. But soon there is a familiarity in that scent, a constancy in the motions, repeated several times throughout the day. You add warm water and snap the black nipples in place.
You have to ride the school bus home until the calving is finished. You hurry up the half mile lane, and when you step into the kitchen they are leaning into the baby gate, vying for position. Peppy trots back and forth, egging them on. His claws need trimming, and they click against the linoleum. The lunch and breakfast dishes are still stacked, crusty, on the counter. Everything, it seems, has been put on hold these past few weeks. After three days, the calves butt the mesh plastic, strain their heads past the gate. Already they have grown that tall.
“I’m coming,” you tell them. Hinkle and Morrissey. That’s what you call them, although you don’t say their names aloud. The girl for your favorite teacher and the boy for your favorite singer. They nearly tore the bottles from your hands at first, but you have learned how to hold on, and now you can feed them both at once. When they finish, they bellow and suck on your fingers, searching for more.
After a few weeks, they transition to milk buckets, and your uncle moves them to the tiny paddock off the old barn. You still want to be the one to feed them, though.
Your aunt is skeptical. “Are you sure? Things are slowing down out there. I can have one of the men take over.”
But you insist. You tell her, “They expect me. I feel like they’re my responsibility now.”
You want to show the calves to Eliot, so he rides the bus home with you one afternoon. Your aunt is making meat loaf, kneading ground beef and bread crumbs and spices together in the big steel bowl. She looks up, all smiles, when the two of you come through the door. “Well, hello there,” she says.
“This is my friend Eliot,” you say. “I’m just going to show him the calves.”
“That’s fine,” she says. “Is he going to stay for dinner?”
He looks at you then, waiting to see how you will answer. You just shrug.
“Well,” she tells him, “there’s plenty. If you want to stay I can have Elden run you home after we eat.”
“Come on,” you tell him. “This way.”
He watches as you mix the milk buckets at the big basin. The mudroom has been sprayed down and disinfected, but last week the temperature shot up, and three straight days of rain have left the space almost as dirty as it was when it served as a calf stall. The linoleum looks scarred with long streaks of muck and sour straw. Along the far wall, a line of gum boots are caked with damp mud. “Take off your tennis shoes and pull on a pair of those,” you tell him. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a little big.”
Each of you carries a bucket. The milk sloshes a little as you cross the barnyard, wetting your jeans. Hinkle and Morrissey are waiting, bellowing. You show Eliot how to lean over the fence, using it as a brace while the calves slurp down the formula. He laughs, nervous, you can tell, as his bucket jostles against the boards.
The two of you climb up on the fence and sit awhile after the milk is gone. “Come on,” you tell him, hopping down, “I’ll show you something else.” The mud sucks at your boots as you cross the paddock.
You open the double doors a crack, just enough for both of you to pass through. Inside the old barn everything is dry, and you remove your boots and socks. The wooden rungs of the ladder are worn smooth. You wonder, for a moment, how many times your mother climbed this same ladder. If she, too, did it barefoot. If she ever snuck in here with a boy.
Up in the loft, a skim of rich dust coats the floor, along with little seeds and pieces of hay. You’ve been coming here almost every day. A window opens out the back of the loft. Sometimes you sit there and let your legs swing over the side, look up the ridge where the bones of all those new houses look pale and naked on top of the ridge. But more often than not, you just lie back in the dust, and that is what you do today. You don’t mind that it clings to your hair and coats your skin like powder.
Chestnut. That’s what your aunt says this barn was built from. “You can’t even get that kind of wood, anymore,” she says. “Those trees are all gone now, but that barn will last forever.”
Your eyes are closed. You can smell the heady scent of the compost pile rising up from behind the barn, and you can feel Eliot’s breath, the tickle of his hair, as he leans over you. You think he is going to kiss you, and you think that is okay, that you wouldn’t mind that so much. You think that soon he will cup your breasts, that you will feel the weight of his body along your own. You wonder though, at the inevitably of it, wonder why things must always move forward in that way.
You don’t let yourself think of others. Not here. Not Scottie’s heavy tongue. Not that man’s fingers back in December, tangled in the back of your hair as he pulled you toward his lap, said, “Hey, why don’t you come over here and wake me up a little bit so I can keep driving.”
But instead of Eliot’s mouth, there is only breath. His fingers are moving around you, around your face, along the perimeter of your limbs, yet you can feel them, electric. He is tracing you into dust.
You watch them through the kitchen window as they lean over the paddock fence, and it dawns on you how the two of them together look kind of like you and Jane—his hair light and wavy, just as yours once was, hers black and thick like her mother’s. You realized weeks ago, as soon as the girl took on the bottle feedings, that these calves will have to be dealt with differently. Elden can’t just march them up the ramp into the trailer, not even the male. He’s got the facilities now to keep a bull.
You pepper the top of the meat loaf and measure out flour and fat for biscuits. It feels good to be moving through the kitchen this way again, slowly, building a meal from scratch. For weeks now, in the excitement of calving, dinner has been whatever you can get on the table—microwave pizza, chicken nuggets and vegetables out of a bag in the freezer. In a few more weeks it will be time to start the seed trays for the garden. And you think how it will be good if you can get her to help with that. Then the tilling and the transplanting.
You allow yourself, for a moment, as you roll and cut the biscuits, to have a little faith in the sheer symmetry of the seasons. You need to get a couple of jars of beans out of the pantry, and you look for them again, out there on the fence, as you move across the open window. But they are gone. The calves have gravitated over to the old barn. The presence of the animals there—persistent, waiting—draws your focus to the cracked doors.
So you hurry out, not bothering with boots or a jacket. As you slide through the wet barnyard, you’re not sure what you’re going to say to her, to them. She’s only fourteen, but then again, it’s different now than when you and Jane were girls. You were still building hay forts at fourteen, still playing hide and seek in the cornfield.
The calves meet you at the gate, and you have to battle your way past them. “Hey,” you tell them softly, “You’ve already had your milk.” And you wonder, then, why you’re talking so softly, almost whispering.
You hesitate at the barn door, your fingers hovering just over the rough wood. Should you knock, you wonder. They could be doing anything in there. They could be smoking. One spark could send the whole place up in flames. Or they could just be talking, sitting up in the loft, shoulder to shoulder, as you once saw them on the steps outside the middle school, linked by one set of headphones. Your hand floats in the cool air.
All week, rain has pelted against the aluminum roof, poured out of the gutters. You are standing in a foot of mud. You realize you have been so busy these past few weeks that you have forgotten to check the apple trees. It has been weeks since you ran your fingers along the slick bark of the grafted branches, straining to feel sap running beneath.
First, you had to find Grace. Then there were the problem calves, and not just the two in the kitchen. Three nights ago, when the vet didn’t arrive in time, you and Elden did damage control for a heifer with a prolapsed uterus. He braced her in the corner of the birthing corral while you stitched her up, drawing the thread in a tight, careful arc as if you were mending the toe of a sock. These past weeks you have chosen, without realizing it, to focus your energy where it matters, to tend to the crises over which you have a shred of control. Triage, they called it back when you worked at the hospital.
Yet the trees have been there all along—tissue growing, or not, beneath the resin. They are there now, behind the barn. You move your hand away from the door, draw it up into the warm flannel of your shirt sleeve. You’re okay not knowing.
That’s what your sister said the last time you saw her alive, the day after you laid your hands on her head and she prayed up in the attic. The two of you were in the kitchen clearing the breakfast dishes, and you asked her if she wanted to try and talk to some of your mom’s old friends. “Dotty’s still living over by Mount Solon,” you said, “and there’s another lady she used to run around with who’s in assisted living at Black Mountain Manor. They might be able to give us some information.”
But she shook her head. “I’m glad we didn’t find anything up there. I’m okay not knowing. That’s not really why I came anyway. I just wanted to be here again, you know?”
Slowly, you step away from the barn. You will go back inside and watch the biscuits rise in the oven. You will set four plates at the table, and serve the meat loaf, hot and fragrant. Afterward, you will scrape the dishes and dump the slop bucket out behind the barn. And tonight you will choose not to feel the branches in the dark.