The woman my father never loved hanged herself from the rafters in our barn. It was not yet light, but the snow opened up the darkness for her silhouette, and we could see the outline of her bent head and her high-heeled shoes as we came out of the trees. At first my father thought she was a deer, left for us as some sort of practical joke, like the dead goose my mother had found hanging from her wind chimes one morning, or the muskrat I found in the mailbox. My father was a taxidermist; people were always leaving us strange things. But as the two of us neared the barn—which was really more of a tunnel since the doors had blown off—it was clear that the shape was a woman, her hair tied back, her face looking out toward the fields, away from us.
This was early spring; the lake had just begun to thaw and there was only a thin layer of snow over the fields, like loosely arranged shipping material. We had thrown sweaters on over our pajamas. My father had closed the back door behind him and then opened it again to grab his cap and his cigarettes. I shivered in my nightgown, bare feet jammed into fuzzy slippers. “Here,” my father said, tossing me a pair of his old boots.
I had just turned 19, was home from college for spring break to nurse the wounds inflicted by my first real breakup. While my friends beached themselves on southern sands, I returned to Iowa to help my father with his taxidermy. He was still desperately behind from the holidays, and the two of us worked late into the evenings, grooming hair, sculpting eyelids, painting noses to look moist and alive.
The morning we found the woman in our barn, my father and I had been up half the night sculpting foam armature for an eight-point buck with a tall, polished rack. We’d been talking about relationships and whether or not it was possible to love more than one person. My father was a wide shouldered man, stocky and bald with a tattoo of three open roses on his chest. He said that in some countries men had several wives, and he believed those men could love them all equally. He said you could stretch love to fit different frames, depending on what you had to work with. From the mudroom outside my father’s shop, my mother had given off a little snort in passing. “Then again,” my father said, and he drifted out, an artificial nose in hand, to give my mother a peck on the cheek.
We had gone to bed late, only to be awakened by our black lab, who was nearly blind and pretty much incontinent. All winter my mother begged my father to put him to sleep. She didn’t like to watch things suffer, and she had just saved up enough money to get new carpeting. But my father and I couldn’t justify putting an animal to sleep when it still seemed full of life. We shared a die-hard tenacity when it came to saving things—like the old barn beyond the house. It was an eyesore the way it leaned to one side, yet we liked to stand in one doorway and look out through the other, watching the seasons change the distance. When the shingles flapped, it seemed like the barn might take flight.
Our dog was the first to approach the figure hanging from the rafters. He padded forward, his back a saddle of snow, his nose bent low, swinging from side to side the way a blind person uses a cane. He went up to her feet, licked the tips of her shoes. My father bristled. He took off his aviator’s cap, let it drop to the snow, and ran a hand over his clean bald head. Half-asleep, I was sure that even the birds—calling and calling at that hour—were part of a dream, yet no amount of swallowing and blinking could make the scene disappear.
“Go back, Nola,” my father said. His voice cracked like kindling. I shivered, pulled my sweater around me, squinted to be sure.The wind lifted the woman’s hair, and she came alive.
My father took a step forward. He was wearing light blue pajama pants that flapped around his legs, and an alpaca sweater my mother had knitted him for Christmas.
He motioned me back, half turning, paddling with one arm. “Go back to the house,” he said, and then, as if he could erase everything, “You should be asleep.”
Inside the house, my mother would be asleep. I could picture the sheet pulled over her lips, her ash blond hair splayed out on the pillow, one arm above her head, a glass of water and a book on the TV tray beside her. She had begun sleeping on the fold-out couch in the den while I was away at college, said the dog woke her too often in the bedroom. I didn’t like that she slept there. I had visions of the mattress folding up on her if she shifted her weight too near the top. I could see her buried beneath the springs, her legs caught in the metal frame, her fingers wedged between the bed and the plywood baseboards. It was strange to steal past my parents’ bed at night, see one lump, not two.
In the night, I had tried to call the man I thought I loved, the man I thought still loved me. I knew where he was staying, and I could imagine shells in his hands, shells with my voice inside them. Surely he would be glad to hear from me. Surely, I could move backwards into his arms, apologize, end up on the other side of forgetting. When he answered the phone, he was half laughing even though it was very late. “It’s me,” I told him. I crouched behind the bathroom door.
“Nola,” he said, utterly without chemistry. “I was asleep. You shouldn’t have called me.”
The woman my father never loved wore a dark brown parka with white fur around the hood. She wore white stretch pants. No socks of any kind. The old dog moved around her, then trotted off, perhaps spooked as I was. I moved closer, stepping in line with my father, and that’s when I noticed a strange thing. The woman was wearing my mother’s shoes. Black suede pumps with rhinestones on the toes. My mother bought them once on a lark while my father was off hunting. She’d danced around the kitchen until she felt woozy, collapsed, laughing, and then I tried them on. But when could she wear them? The only visitors we had were hunters and trappers who pulled into the drive with game strapped to their hoods, bucks and does with cloudy eyes; there were few occasions for fancy shoes, and so they ended up neatly wrapped in their box at the top of the attic stairs.
My father’s chin held its tight line, used to weathering any sight. His knuckles brushed mine for an instant, and I pulled away. “I can explain,” my father said, but he didn’t. “She was—” and then he stopped.
I thought of this: how my father kept a cabin up north for when business was slow. My mother hated going—it was cold, and the only heat source was a wood stove. When I was a kid, I went along. While my father was ice fishing, I knocked about the drafty rooms for days, reading and drawing while he hung, red-faced, over a little hole in the cold. Sometimes I snooped around, bored, hoping to find some old letters or a secret door. Once I found a tube of wine-colored lipstick under the bed, another time some bobby pins lined up on a ledge.
“What’s she doing here?” was all I could think to say now. My father closed his eyes. His eyebrows were pepper gray, his forehead full of creases that looked almost fake, as if they’d been molded from clay. “We better get her down,” he said softly, but made no move.
I looked at my father, watched his breath freeze in the air like captions. I tried to fill them in with his thoughts. Surely he was thinking about regret. He talked about regret often and about Vietnam, even though he’d never gone. My father lied his way out of the war when I was born by faking a rash on his feet. He wore the same pair of wool socks for months until his skin came off. His brother went, joined the air force—got sent to Laos and never came home. I think my father believed that if he’d been braver, he could have saved his brother. That’s why he’s a taxidermist—taxi, as in movement, derma as in skin. He likes thinking that what he does brings things to life again.
While my father prepared to cut the woman down, I followed the dog out across the field, fading in and out of consciousness, disbelief eclipsing belief and back again. If I hadn’t grown up seeing dead animals—moose, whitetails, pronghorn antelope, elk—I might have been more shocked to see a human dangling by a scarf. So the horror wasn’t about the body; it was about my father coming clean, and it was about my mother, sleeping soundly, listless and unaware. And it was about the man I thought I loved scooping the surf with another girl, a girl whose hair I’d seen him stroke at a party. It made me feel scared for my mother and close to the woman in the barn—I’d worn those same shoes once to prom.
The dog zigzagged across the bumpy snow, and I thought about the woman’s heels catching on dead grasses. I wondered if she came up to the house and looked in the windows, saw my father sculpting veins and muscle. I wondered if she came in a car and where it was, or if someone dropped her off. Everything about her seemed out of place.
“I need your help,” my father called.
“No,” I turned to look back. My eyes stung, windburned.
“Nola,” he crossed to me, his palms out, his body lithe like a buck I’d once seen moving in some tag alders. The buckles on his boots rattled. His face looked gouged, tired. “Listen, hey,” he grabbed my shoulder, but I turned away. Behind me, I could hear him tamping a pack of cigarettes against his palm, then the click of his lighter. Without looking, I could see his thick fingers cupped against the wind, the cigarette moving to the side of his mouth, his eyes squinting down. I could picture him perfectly, yet I could not picture how we belonged—to this landscape, to the body hanging like a bell in the first light of morning.
“Here,” my father tapped my shoulder, waving a cigarette. That was a first; we’d gone hunting that winter—my then boyfriend along—and my father had gone crazy when he came upon us in the brush, smoking. Now all he said was, “Why not?”
“I can’t believe you,” I said. “What about—” I spun around, pointing up toward the house—“her?" My father blinked, long and slow, ashing against his pant leg. “Will you just help me?” he asked softly, his eyes moist. “Will you hold her while I cut her down?”
I knew a little about love, that it thaws and freezes, is never without motion or some kind of momentum. My mother had picked me up from college that winter, and careening over back roads, we had our first real conversation. It was the first time my mother confided in me, the first time she seemed to have things on her mind that she wanted to say. She and my father were fighting a lot about what they were going to do now that I was gone. She wanted to move down to Arizona where she was from; my father wanted to fix up the cabin. She said that while I was gone they talked about going their separate ways. My mother had family down in Tucson, three sisters who all lived in the same complex where there was a nice pool—they had sent pictures. My father had no family left; she thought maybe that’s why he wanted to stray off on his own.
My mother and I stopped in one of the small towns along the way. We heated up burgers in a gas station microwave, then ate them at a little table, looking out the window at the ice. My mother asked me if I was okay, if I was shocked. I bit my tongue until I could taste blood’s metal. I couldn’t eat. I asked her if she believed in destiny, if she believed there was only one person out there for each of us. She answered before I’d even finished the question. Of course: she believed that no matter what happened my father had been the one for her. She had never doubted his love for a minute.
Then she bought us both ice cream, even though it was freezing outside. My mother was weird like that—she liked to eat cold things when it was cold and hot things when it was hot. In the car, we drove with the heat blasting so the ice cream melted and dribbled through the cones, and we took off our sweatshirts and drove along quietly, listening to the Beach Boys, eating ice cream in our T-shirts as if we were in Tucson.
I thought about that day when I touched the woman’s hair, which was dark brown, the color of good earth. My father had taken her hair out of its barrette so that it fell across her face in a dark sheet, rippling down to her waist. His pocketknife was ready. I was afraid to touch her, yet wanted to get near, to examine other things about her—the earrings she wore, for instance, which were small red and white mushrooms, childish and poisonous looking.
When I put my arms around her legs, it was like dancing with someone much too tall. When the scarf snapped, she fell into my arms, so slight she nearly slipped through me, and when I helped lay her out on the ground, I felt the first real wave of sadness. Not just shock or anger, but the gut realization that the present was shifting, that time sways, and people topple.
My father stood there, his face cramped by a contemplative frown. It was the same face he made when he used the airbrush to accent a doe’s inner ear or waited for a mouth to dry, checking his craftsmanship. His eyes went from dry to wet and back again, like some part of him was trying to decide whether to freeze or to thaw.
This could have been me, I thought.
“What?” My father jerked up, as if I had spoken.
My mind spun, and I had this idea then—that the woman had been a drifter, that my father had picked her up in his truck on a desolate road near the cabin. When it got really cold, sometimes we picked up people who were stranded. My father usually brought them home; he would come in the door, holding them—frostbitten bundles wrapped in blankets. We ran hot baths for them, and my father would make a poultice from white peppercorns and ginger, and paint their afflicted parts—fingers and toes—with an actual paintbrush.
What I wanted to believe was that my father really loved my mother, even though he had gone with another woman. I knew he had held this woman’s feet long after he slipped them into my mother’s old shoes. But still, I believed that there were true things, and that my mother, whose slight form rose and fell on the sofa bed, was still his dearest one.
My father pulled the parka hood over the woman’s face. “Listen,” he rubbed his eyes and sighed, then looked out at the dog hobbling across the field toward the lake. My father seemed small against the vast white space, like an astronaut—one who has become lost, uncertain of what he is really meant to circle. He paused, and I wasn’t sure but I thought that maybe he was crying, and at that point, I couldn’t have told you for whom.
“I’ve changed my mind,” my father said. He held the burning cigarette in his hand but did not smoke.
It burned and burned, the ash slowly crumbling into the snow.
I didn’t say anything.
“Remember what I said yesterday? About men with multiple wives?”
My father turned slowly. He looked very pale. “I hope you forget that.”
My father kicked at some dirt with his boot. His fists stuck out through the front of his pockets, as if he were holding stones. He stared at me with wet gray eyes, and his mouth opened again. I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to explain, but before I could ask him, we heard a voice.
It was my mother, calling us from the house. “Joe,” she called. “Are you two down there? Joe? I’m coming down with coffee.”
My father stood still, his lips parted, unable to make them move.
My mother liked to take long walks early in the morning, and sometimes we all went, the three of us bundled up, walking along the lake. She liked to bring a thermos of coffee and pour it for us. Even though it cooled quickly, she would blow on it before she handed us the little plastic cup.
“Joe?” she called again, and this time I heard a door slam, and I knew she had put on her warm clothes and was stepping out the back door, coming toward us. From the top of the ravine, she would not be able to see into the barn, but once she started her descent, she would see the woman lying between us. She would see her own shoes.
My father just stood there, slightly beyond the barn, the dog panting by his leg. I knew if he didn’t say something, she would start down the wooded slope in our footprints, squinting as she got closer. My father looked at me—his eyes grew cloudy, homeless.
“Wait,” I called to my mother. The air came fast into my lungs.
My mother called my name. I could see her then, her blue jacket standing along the edge of the trees, the bullet-shaped thermos in her hand.
“No, don’t come down here.” My voice was shrill and high. The wind seemed to carry it away.
Snowflakes fell lightly around me. I felt like my voice fell with them.
“What are you doing?” My mother called cheerfully. She waved the thermos.
I stalled for a moment, nervously rubbing the neckline of my flannel nightshirt. The trees between my mother and me looked thin, their branches like eyelashes barely holding snow. I could see her standing stock-still, like a doe that has just picked up a human scent. She turned her head slowly, looking out across the field. Then my mouth opened and without even thinking, I called, “We’re going to put the dog to sleep.”
There are two kinds of dreams, the kind you forget immediately and the kind you never shake. Somewhere in between those two kinds of dreams: reality. My own hands became dream hands, floating against the snow. My mouth became a dream mouth, talking to a ghost. My father paled, watching my mother turn back to the house. Then he turned to me, watched me move toward the barn where there was a rifle hidden behind some old plywood.
I returned with the gun, handed it to my father who looked sad and surprised, his lips trembling. “Just the dog?” I thought I heard him say, but I had already gathered the damp trail of my nightgown in my hands and was headed up the ravine. I was already back at school, walking through the dorm hallway that was painted like a forest. I was already calling the man I had once loved to tell him I didn’t love him any more. And when my mother came into my father’s shop with coffee, her hair full of warm rollers, I had already painted a dozen sets of eyes.
—Tenaya Darlington’s work has appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998 and In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, as well as the Utne Reader and Chronicle of Higher Education. Her book, Madame Deluxe (Coffee House Press, 2000) won the National Poetry Series in 1999. She is the features editor for Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin and the former managing editor for Beloit Fiction Journal.