Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
for Coleman Dowell
Her nostrils flared into fleshly roan rings pulled open by tautening about both sides of the longish jaw and muscular apple-round cheek, a movement which brought into view the crisp, expressive teeth hung in her head. Her strident neigh cut through the racket of the rain on the roof of the cab as the two men pulled into the clearing. The flames licked up the gable of the foaling barn and shot tongues of fire straight out the wood-slatted window directly above the large double doors into the sheets of rain, as if to defy the cloudburst’s furious strength. Several horses trapped within made a horrified chorus and began stampeding in close circles around the maniac interior whose stalls were broken or now were destroyed by flames. Men in rain-soaked nightshirts or slick ponchos ran helter-skelter across the paddocked court. One had managed to get a gunny-sack over a yearling’s head, led it away to a stable opposite the burning building. But poor Merle Lou, the foreman’s favorite appaloosa, with her tail in flames up over her dock, across the broad croup, loins, wither, and into the mane, would not survive to see dawn. Kerosene from one of the lamps she’d toppled was hungrily absorbed by the bluish fire; it spread through the drought-dried hay with greed in its passage to the roof. The men could smell the manure drenched with rain and could hear the horses hammering the soft turf in their sweeps but were only helpless witness as it grew, independent of both their efforts and the heavy black rain. Once the roughhewn joists and beams burned through, the roof collapsed, sending rosy ash and sparks high into the air. The mood of the men changed from frustration to resignation. There seemed to be little danger of the fire spreading to any of the nearby buildings. But they would keep vigil throughout the rest of the night anyway. They spelled each other in one hour shifts. Conversation in the farm house, where Mrs. Pitkin served coffee, shifted back and forth from sorrow about the livestock lost and the ruined barn, on one hand, to relief over the broken drought and conjecture about how much worse the destruction might have been had the fire broken out before the rain came. Slowly the night passed. One of the men who had been missing for several hours turned up. Another had not: but any search for him would have to wait until sunrise. Three horses, in the end, had been trapped inside, and two others were injured and would have to be put down. By morning the barn would be reduced to a rectangular chemistry of char, bone, shards, skeletons of indistinguishable blackened metal, beams smoldering, and sour corpses, still steaming under a blanket of very fine drizzle.
—Otis Taylor you are one goddamned lazy nigger, Handke thought as he waited for Murph to bring the truck around. Goddamned lazy worthless bastard.
Handke traced, with a kind of agitated nonchalance, a triangle in the bleached, dusty soil where he stood beside the long open porch of the farm house. It had become his habit—it had become a habit for all the men—unthinkingly to seek out shade whenever they were outside, since the drought had begun (and continued uninterrupted) four months back in June. He looked down at the pale brown, tired leather of his boot and smirked, then glared at a man who now stepped down the two cinder block steps that led from the mobile home, whose corrugated metal sides glistened as blindingly as snow under the sun.
It was Otis Taylor. He went about the complicated business of walking his lame bitch hound, purposely ignoring Handke, who stood a hundred feet away.
Otis Taylor held the bitch’s hindquarters carefully aloft in a makeshift sling that he had fabricated from an old canvas duffel, by cutting two holes for each of the infirm hind legs, bringing a wide strip up around each haunch and gathering both together at the handle. The hound negotiated its way, much like an ambulatory barrow whose wheel had been substituted by two shabby and quaking forelegs. Otis lumbered quietly beside her. The ridicule and disgust attendant to Handke’s stare was so strong it bordered on the tangible; Taylor shielded himself from it by lending his entire concentration to the task before him. With great precision, he followed the bitch’s tardy pace, careful neither to pitch the animal forward nor pull it backward off its course.
As Murph came around with the pickup, Handke watched the dog lose its footing and collapse with a sorry yelp into the dirt. Otis Taylor glanced back across the flat clearing that stretched away from the hands’ quarters toward the ranch house and saw, he was certain, Handke spit straight down. Murph brought the truck alongside Handke. The sheer cloud of dust that trailed behind the pickup soon caught up to it and gently blew over it, dissipated, resettled. Handke looked down. He had missed the perimeter of his triangle; he shook his head, then felt his shirt pockets for the piece of paper Buddy Schramm had given him. On it there was a list of supplies he and Murph were to pick up in town. He looked over to where Otis Taylor knelt beside his dog, helped it first sit up by steadying its forelegs, and soon continued walking it, hoisting aloft its hips as one might a preposterous valise. Handke shrugged, turned and climbed up on the running board and into the cab of the rusted pickup.
“D’you see that?” said Handke, incredulous, with a note of utter revulsion threading his words. “Ever see such a thing n’all your born days as that niggeren his goddamned two-legged bitch?”
Murph ignored Handke, depressed the clutch, pushed the floor stick into gear. The pickup bucked slightly and groaned as it moved away from the collection of buildings, stables, vehicles.
A thin, high haze of clouds had been washing across the white sky for a day and now had gathered into a partial overcast. It occurred to Murph—as they cleared the cattle-guard and began to work their way up the plateau—the pastures and surrounding land had been bathed for such a long period in the unfriendly, airless light of drought he had not noticed before this moment to what extent the rainless summer and early autumn had ravaged the hillsides and fields.
A birch grove bunched beside the lower pond—its bed parched and cracked as if one had broken a thousand unfired earthen platters in its shallow bowl, where they lay in triangular splinters, in disarray—had already turned. Many leaves lay as a sere quilt at their bases, were easily lifted and blown around in the most subtle breeze. Scrub ravines shimmered as desolate and blanched as lunar valleys. Reddish dust had settled over everything, a dust the men had gotten accustomed to breathing. It blew in and out of the cab of the truck. Murph and Handke didn’t bother to roll the windows up, as it was a dust so fine nothing could filter it out, not certainly this pickup cab, whose every seam was breached by rust and age.
“Smell that?” Murph said, finally. He jerked his chin up.
Handke snorted, without conviction.
“Smells like the real thing,” Murph continued, after a moment.
Ignoring him, Handke thought:—I’m going to kill that bitch.
He then began to roll himself a cigarette, an act which required considerable skill in the jerking, rocking ascent of the truck. He drew the top of the tobacco pouch shut by pulling its looped string with his teeth. He replaced the little flat package of rolling papers and his pouch inside his jacket and, after slapping various pockets with both his hands, the unlit cigarette dangling at the corner of his lax mouth, he asked Murph, “You got a light?”
Murph passed him a book of matches that read in gold on a shiny black background, on its cover, Hunan Tseng. Handke struck a match, lit his cigarette, inhaled and regarded the darkening sky. “Maybe,” he said, handing the matchbook back to Murph.
“The air feels wet. I think this may be it.”
“We’ll see.” Handke twisted slightly and entertained himself by watching the ranch fall away behind them out the oval window in the back of the cab as Murph, both hands on the wheel, maneuvered them up the five troublesome, tight switchbacks that zigzagged away from the fresh-painted barn, stables, the crowded assembly of unused shanties and leantos and outhouses, the two mobile homes where Mr. Pitkin put up his transient hands, the big L-shaped farm house, and the windmill whose silver vane and sails bucked and twirled in the breezy afternoon. His eye followed the series of fences and paddocks set running over the acreage out to the Great Plains. A meadowlark bowled across the plume of dust kicked up behind the flatbed. The pastures were very dry; the landscape as a whole was an unbroken whitish tan, interrupted here and there by the greens of conifer groves. September chores for Handke had consisted primarily of repairing gates and fences which lay like mazes upon the extensive spread. He was surprised by the size of the area he, Taylor, and Johnston had managed to cover. The pride of their accomplishment, in itself a sentiment to which Handke was not accustomed, struck him. As he viewed the land below, crisscrossed and divided by post-and-rail, here from the summit of this squat, unvegetated plateau, the pride even unburdened him, very much against his own will, of the disgust he felt so recently for Otis Taylor.
Handke’s angulated Tyrolean face, punctuated by two unexpectedly black eyes—the legacy of his mother—softened into a deep smile. He hid it from Murph with the hand that carried his cigarette to his mouth.
He faced forward again and saw the darker clouds piling up along the peaks of the second range of mountains. Murph slowed down while they drove through a small herd of cattle; a skittish calf clambered up and crossed in front of them.
“Little bastard,” Handke said. “Bad luck to say it, but I smell rain.”
Murph glanced over at him; it seemed so slight an idea, that of the air smelling of rain, for Handke to have bothered appropriating it as his own. Like stealing a postage stamp, or a penny nail.
The mechanical whine of the engine in the truck which strained to pull its body ahead as Murph shifted gears drowned out Handke’s comment. But Murph glanced over and could read in his face his mood had lightened.
* * *
Of course, Otis Taylor was malingering, in a way. What Handke didn’t know was that the foreman knew he was malingering and he approved. Buddy Schramm was of an older school and subscribed to its being a private matter; this is what he had told Mr. Pitkin, who distractedly agreed that it was all right. Mr. Pitkin, in fact, held no strong opinions about the subject, just as long as Schramm found someone to replace Otis Taylor on the run into town. Schramm would send Handke with Murph. Handke had dealt with colic before, knew the formulate for purgatives and the recipe for drenching. So Schramm had made up a partial list of supplies needed—cannabis indica, aromatic spirit of ammonia, and other chemicals, as well as the regular sundries and foodstuffs—and found Handke, who was alone, asleep in the wheelless Airstream he shared with Johnston. It was Saturday morning, Handke’s day off.
“I’ll see to it you get pay and a half and the day made up next week,” Schramm finished, before he turned to leave. Handke couldn’t see the awkward grin that played across Schramm’s face as he left. While Schramm made it his habit never to build too close a friendship with any of his men, he did allow himself the liberty of not liking some of them. “Anyhow, it’ll be good for you. You haven’t been two steps off the ranch in months.”
Itinerant labor was in high supply, jobs were rare. Handke could not afford to risk his over an argument with the foreman; he slammed the door shut with a kick, got dressed.
He would square matters with Otis Taylor later. Within the closed system of the small society of nine men and one woman on the ranch, Otis Taylor formed his own individual caste, and it happened to be the lowest, most assailable. And while Otis Taylor had worked there for two decades, his age and color conspired against him. Ox-shouldered, with a stiff head, minutely wrinkled and appliqued with white hair like the delicate ash of a burnt bird nest, Taylor might have been considered formidable in his day. But now, in his seventies, capable of nothing more than general, light labor, with no other home, he was helpless. Whatever Handke might want to do could be done easily, without fear of punishment.
Otis Taylor was aware of this. Toward it he was oddly indifferent. Indifference was at least the appearance he gave: what none of the men knew was what Otis Taylor carried in his belly. It made him smile to himself. Pear-shaped, as he imagined it, a living, gnawing tissue sustained by its own simple hunger. By Otis Taylor’s assessment there was nothing that Handke, with all his malice and cockiness, could do. He thought:—Sickness is freedom.
Too, Otis Taylor was grateful for Schramm’s having loaned him his .45. Where he sat on a three-legged stool in one of the empty foaling stalls in the barn, the gun, kept in meticulous condition by its owner, felt heavy in his hand, almost too heavy to lift. Under the diffused light of electric bulbs its short barrel gave off a blue sheen. It looked like a frozen totem of some petrified stone, shined to metallic perfection by a cold river.
His bitch comfortably reclined beside him. Her head was slightly erect as she craned, studying this small, dank room where she had never come before now. She sniffed at the strong antiseptic odor of chloride of lime used to disinfect the stalls. She looked at Otis Taylor and regarded, seemingly, the expressionless cast of his face. He simply stared at the gun for a time, but without pondering what he was about to use it for.
The dog sniffed at the gun, which was well-oiled.
They both laughed, Handke and Murph, as brothers might, familiarly and each content. Presently, after Handke had taken a third pull off the silver-plated flask, he handed it back to its owner. Murph screwed its tarnished cap back on and held the flask up to the fickle light. He patted the chubby, bare bottoms of each of the three putti engraved on the belly of the flask, and slipped it back into the glove compartment. Handke jumped down out of the cab and swung open the gate—an old-style Texas Bumper gate—so Murph could pull through up on to the shoulder of the paved road. The engine idled but there was no other sound except the irregular whistle of the wind through cracks in the windows, which he had now rolled up. Handke reset the latch-string and got back in the truck.
“Temperature’s dropped ten degrees since we pulled out,” he said.
Although Handke was for Murph the most oblique and difficult to read of all the men whom he had met since he was hired on at the ranch, he was grateful Handke was his companion for the afternoon. While he didn’t share Handke’s prejudice against Otis Taylor, Murph found conversation with him very limited. It seemed there was only one subject upon which Taylor willingly would focus. His bitch hound. Its history, its health, its lameness, its cataracts, its breakfast … the various devices he had concocted, before settling on his hand-carried sling, to help it get around. The first time Murph had heard him recount all this, in ponderous detail, there was much that was admittedly amusing, even rather startling: the description, particularly, of a jerry-rigged rear chassis, complete with spoked tires taken off a small wagon, that Otis Taylor had strapped to the dog’s hindquarters with a cross-system of belts and bells. Because she managed within minutes to work herself out of the thing, however, it had to be abandoned. There were other stories. But by the third, fourth, fifth retelling Otis Taylor, Murph learned, was someone to avoid. And his bitch hound, blind and often incontinent, was not a welcome traveling companion on the drives into town.
As they set out, the clouds had gotten thicker over the foothills and mountains and a damp cool wind began to blow in earnest down the narrow canyons from the west. Green, black, gray, white, the clouds were working in rapid successive layers to block out the sun. The wind was carrying loose things across their path; leaves and needles whirled and shivered along the shoulders of the road, under the waving branches of aspens, pines, and scrub brush.
Handke, encouraged by the whiskey, exhilarated by the speed with which they drove along the straight road that paralleled the foothills, looked over at Murph.
“Murphy. What’s your first name?”
“That is my first name.”
“Well, what’s your last name, then.”
Murph laughed. “Would you believe me if I told you, it’s Murphy?”
“Well, as a matter of fact it is.”
“Murphy Murphy? Bullshit.”
“It’s been one of the great pains of my life, my name. My daddy was loaded when he named me. He was loaded when he signed the certificate. Murphy Murphy Murphy. What can I tell you?”
“Huh? Murphy’s your middle name, too?” choked Handke.
He shrugged, with a faint smile. The whiskey had tranquilized him enough to get through his brief embarrassment. He would change the subject.
“Look at this,” he said.
Russian burrs, tumbleweeds, shreds of unlikely paper, slivers from tattered sagebrush, the dust of minerals and fossils, and a company of unnameable objects shot by in increasing agitation. Whereas the ground at first had been running mottled because the sun flickered through the openings in the clouds above, it lay in unbroken shadows now, since the clouds had grown full and closed out the sunlight. A false twilight had settled in so that the bright patches that played here and there in the landscape seemed unnaturally luminous. The dark patches receded into the dimmest background. It had begun to sprinkle.
Again Handke ignored him. “You gonna help me?” he said, apropos of nothing.
“Help you what?”
“When we get back to the ranch.”
“Sure, okay,” Murph guessed.
Handke took the flask out of the glove compartment and helped himself to another pull. He waved it in Murph’s direction, but Murph shook his head. He screwed the cap on and lay the flask between them on the seat. Murph turned on the windshield wipers; all that could be heard in the cab for some minutes was their morose percussion as the blades flopped reluctantly back and forth over the glass.
The rain increased. Murph had to hold the speed down, since the winds continued to gust eastward across the road. Conforming to an outcropping of granite, the highway bore left, down through a dense forest of spruce and lodge pole pines, and then ascended right again, facing into the wind-blown rain.
Up ahead, standing beside the wet highway, they saw two figures at first, two women waving them down. There was a young boy with them. Murph glanced over at Handke, discovered his black eyes were as shiny as buttons in a doll’s head. The pickup braked, pulled over just past the hitchhikers on the shoulder.
The taller of the two women wore a burgundy-colored dress tailored in a fashion even Handke recognized as being out-of-date. She was in her middle thirties, had an ordinary face, narrow and bright; her most distinguishing attribute was a wild frame of thick, deep brown hair, dark and various in hues as a mink’s. Handke squinted as he rolled down the window. The shorter woman stepped forward.
“You two driving all the way in?”
Murph told them to get in. The two women climbed into the cab and the young boy, seven or eight years old, came up over the tailgate, got into the pickup bed in the back.
“He’s going to be all right back there?” Murph asked.
“Sure,” said the woman, whose name was Brook. She wore a corduroy skirt, black, and a short-sleeved jersey, a pair of tired espadrilles. Her features were thick, with prominent, strong lips, almost negroid. They looked, her lips, as if they had been flattened like clay under the pressure of a spoon or wooden spatula. The boy, who possessed a similar pair of lips, and glistening olive skin, was obviously her son. He was wiry and moved swiftly, precise as a sparrow darting from line to line between telephone poles.
Handke said nothing. He felt as if he’d been suddenly catapulted into a dream. Accustomed to solitude and to men, the odor of rainy dampness and the female dampness that lifted off their clothing and hair threw him into a state of unsettled mute bashfulness. Brook was talking to Murph. Handke, who had gotten out in order to let the women get in, saw there would be little room in the cab, and offered to get in back with the boy, but Murph insisted there was enough room for all of them. Even as Murph spoke the rain increased, so Handke stepped up on the running board and pushed himself in. Brook lifted her right hip slightly, sat partly on Handke ’s lap, cramping his leg; Lois sat crosswise between them, her legs pressed over away from the gearbox.
As Murph started off again the rain fell in distinct sheets and in a minute was pounding little pebbles of hail. The noise it made was deafening on the roof of the cab. White pellets seemed to boil and spring forth out of the highway itself. The boy crawled under an oilcloth tarp and didn’t move. The tiny compartment up front was stirred by an awkward tension: Handke was surprised Murph had stopped talking to the women, but saw his mind was on the difficult driving.
“What were you doin out there in the middle of nowhere like that?”
Handke finally ventured, attempting without much success to find his voice.
Brook either didn’t hear him, or she ignored him.
She had shifted against Handke’s leg and was craning to see whether her son was sheltered from the sudden hail storm. Discreetly, Handke breathed in the humid scent of her hair. He leaned forward and looked across at the other woman for an answer to his question, but she pushed her face forward into a round, generous smile and said nothing; it was possible, Handke thought, that she too couldn’t hear him over the din on the roof and windshield. He sat back and furtively studied the delicate, askew limbs and the soft fabrics that hugged them. Lois’s knees, which were shoved against his own, were broad and very white against the dark red material of her dress. Her hands rested in her lap, tips of fingers lightly touching, each index finger tapping the fragile flat end of the other. —What beautiful hands, he thought. As her knees were slightly apart, the blood-colored fabric of her dress was depressed between them into a valley; Handke took it all in, his heart pounding ridiculously under his shirt.
The town abutted the foot of a steep, low granite mountain. At its northern edge one of the several canyons, fed by a rocky stream, meandered into the foothills and the upper range beyond. A scattering of houses trailed up the canyon. Like their fellows down in the central part of town, lights shone out the windows. At the southwest border, below a subtle rise, there was a grassy expanse, unpopulated, where numerous chautauqua tents once could be found on Sunday afternoons.
Brook directed Murph through the darkened streets to the house she shared, as it turned out, with Lois. It was a small clapboard building, typical of the variety which was thrown up along the base of the Colorado foothills after the Depression. Two stories but only a room and a half across, as if it had been drawn up by an architect for construction on a tight urban lot, it was literally overgrown by mock orange. The house was overshadowed by two ancient elm trees that flanked the flagstone walk leading to the porch. The rain and hail had carried many leaves down into the grass. A mist hovered over the mountain, and they could smell the wet, sweet, warm scent of pine and soil mingled with a fainter odor of gasoline from the engine.
The boy lept out from under the tarpaulin, jumped down and ran to the porch.
Murph left the engine running. “That was some lucky timing,” he said, with a broad and innocent grin.
“I hope it rains and rains and rains,” Brook answered. “Thanks for the lift, though. It’d have been a long walk.”
“What were you doing out there?”
“Car broke down,” said Brook.
Handke noticed that even when he spoke directly to Lois she watched his lips, but seemed to look beyond him, as if he were a translucent, even transparent, screen through which she was forced to gaze, fascinatedly fixed on an object somewhere behind his head.
“I didn’t see it,” Murph suggested.
“Well, I’m afraid it’s there. I’m not sure how or when we’re going to be able to fix it. Lois has a friend with a truck who can tow it back here, I think.”
“Me and Handke can tow it in. But it’d have to be tomorrow.”
“Never mind, that’s all right. We can take care of it.” Then Brook did the oddest thing; turning to Lois, she fashioned with her agile hands a rapid succession of signs. Like independent beings, her fingers knitted in the air. Lois muttered a single syllable that more or less sounded like, “Yeauuh.” She extended her hand first to Murph and shook it, and afterward turned to Handke, whose demeanor showed both curiosity and discomposure at not having realized before that moment that Lois was deaf. She smiled, took up his hand and shook it warmly, with a manly grip. Handke watched her as she walked away, up to the porch. She and the boy went inside.
“When you two are done running your errands why don’t you drop back by?”
“I wish we had more time,” Murph began.
“We’ll try,” said Handke.
“Good. We owe you a drink, if you can’t stay for dinner.”
“Okay,” said Handke.
They got back into the pickup and drove down Museum Street, named for an institution that had never been constructed, to find old Grumback who, no doubt, would be puttering among his shelves of gentian, tincture of digitalis, linseed tea, opium.
* * *
Otis Taylor could hear the first sharp pecks at the dazzled tin over his head. It was a relieving music, that much he knew. The foaling barn, full of lighted beasts, stirred and the bitch pricked her ears, whiffed at the keen air.
—What a final blasphemy, Otis Taylor thought. The handle of the gun was warm and viscid in his palm. An absurd image of his brother, who had come home a jubilant hero from the fields of Meuse-Argonne, in 1919 still boyish, slim, athletic, only to be taken by the influenza, who died passive as a lamb in his bed—this came to Otis Taylor at that moment. He stared, dazed, out the imagined window of the room he had shared with his brother, once again, out over the funny sea of winter wheat. His mother was there with them.
Otis Taylor started. Hail fell like percussive pins on the roof now; it smelled like a tropical snow. —Drought’s done now, he thought. He fidgeted with the gun. Whether he had been sitting in the stall for half an hour or half the afternoon he couldn’t be sure. That he had not yet accomplished what it was he was determined to accomplish was surely, dishearteningly, and with every second that ticked by, more painfully obvious. He sought a source on which he might draw the strength to get on with it, to rebuke himself; this way, it seemed to him, he could find if not the desire, at least the means to continue.
It could not go on long. She was dying; they both were. The gun looked ludicrous, taunting in his hand.
He lay it on the tepid cement. How many animals had he seen with his own eyes perish in their inefficient newborn bodies within this very chamber? What matter. He knew it wasn’t right not to be able to level the gun to the bitch’s skull. She needed to die, the dog. It wasn’t cowardice. Once he touched upon his own simple sense of how much he’d miss his companion, he tried to grasp at it, certain that it represented this source from which a kind of self-abasement might come, help bring him along to his little task. If he could feel sorry enough, he knew he could act. However, as he drew down toward it, it played its fiendish trick as always, for self-abasement was, he knew, a strict self-mastering thing.—Just like the brother-ends of two magnets. Otis Taylor bit his lip.
Aimlessly, he picked the gun up again off the floor. He handled it now like a child might a plastic toy, a cap pistol. The bitch trained her vacant, liquid eyes on him. Otis Taylor stared down its compact, pupil-black barrel.
—God’s asshole, he reflected.
Handke, bathed in the light of a quiet television, had forgotten how deliriously weighted and soft a woman’s breast can be. Cradled in his two hands, like a holy bowl he brought it up to his dry mouth. Her nipple stiffened, an obedient raisin. Handke moaned with the pleasure of it. He pressed his face forward, freeing his hands now and locking one arm behind her, around the small of her slender back. His other hand wandered over the fabric of her dress to find and unfasten the buttons down the front, and open it. She helped him. As he continued to suckle her, she lowered her face until she could easily kiss his hair, dark and salty, across the crown of his wide-browed head.
Framed in the window were the rolling branches of the great elm, illuminated from across the way by the pale phosphorescence given off by a streetlamp. The rain, which had intensified again and was falling very steadily, sounded like a small, vigorous creek outside, or the distant applause of ghosts. Handke listened to the rain, to the discussion play-acted in the faint show. He listened to the variety of sounds that came delicate and unchecked from the young woman’s throat. She spoke ribbons of mystery to him, to the shadowy room. It was uttered, and he heard it as if it were a foreign language he might have known once, but had now forgotten, so familiar were its cadences and vocables.
After a time, Handke entered her, and then lay content beside her on the day bed.
Before he could fall asleep, there was a knock at their door, and Handke could hear Murph whispering.
“Hey, Handke. You hear me? Handke?”
“We got to go.”
“We got to go, man. It’s already late.”
Handke looked at Lois’s face, inches away, and he could see her eyes on him. He kissed them, the nearest first, next the other, and then began to point at the door. She nodded. Handke reckoned that he had never seen a more precious face in his life. He ran his fingers lightly over her cheek. She pushed her lips into his palm and kissed it. Handke rose and quickly dressed.
Outside the room, Murph was waiting.
“Come on, let’s go,” Murph said, nervously. “We better hope that horse ain’t down yet or they’ll have our butts in a sling tomorrow.”
“It ain’t our fault. It’s the vet’s.”
“You get to tell Schramm.”
“Tell it to Schramm.”
“What about coming out tomorrow, then?” Handke asked Brook, who was sitting in her robe, an ornate oriental flow of pass-me-down drapery. “Will you two come out riding, that is, if the rain stops?”
“Murphy gave me the number. We’ll call.”
“Don’t worry,” said Murph. “They’ll come.”
“Once we find out about the car.”
Murph and Handke said goodnight to Brook and dashed across the slippery leaf-strewn lawn to the pickup. In the back, under the tarp, there were boxes of supplies and medicines they had bought at the grain and feed, the pharmacy and the grocery store. Murph started the engine and drove away. Like tiny brass teeth the sharp rain sounded on the walls and windows of the cab. Murph was a little drunk and took them careening into the left lane of the highway. The raindrops hypnotically burst and raced through the white tunnel of light which shone ahead of them in their path. Murph asked Handke to roll down his window to keep the windshield from fogging up. The rain was uncomfortably warm and the seat felt gummy beneath them.
Shortly they arrived at the gate. Handke ran down through the mud and unlatched it by the headlight’s beacon. Then they went off the paved highway, down across the tables of hills and over the lip of the plateau, on the slippery muck, making their way to the ranch. Although the compound sat in a meadow nearly half a mile away, they could see yellow squares of lamplight burning from windows below. There was a golden aura hung in the thin fog over the area, the color of an isolated sunrise.
Murph’s entire body was suddenly involved in forcing the machine to its destination, pulling the clammy stick-shift with his gloved hand, stamping the clutch pedal, brakes. Handke noticed the cab still bore a faint scent of the women; he breathed in deeply, hoping to take it inside him and prolong its taste in his head and lungs.
As they moved over the second cattle guard into the lower meadow the buildings greeted them with the shock of something gone wrong. Men in rain-soaked nightshirts or slick ponchos ran helter-skelter across the paddocked court. Murph issued a breathless sound that resembled a cackle. The pickup’s old suspension gave a sharp crack just as the right front tire bounded over a heavy unearthed root that wound out from the fat base of a ponderosa next to the gate. Murph drew his hand, flat and quaking some, across his mouth. Two men dressed only in their trousers ran shouting through the points of lamp-light out before the pickup truck.
Then they saw it. The bluish flames were licking up the gable end of the foaling barn. Murph shouted something; yet Handke didn’t hear him. Leaving the engine idling, Murph shoved his door open, bounded down into the muddy court and ran with the others toward the barn.
Handke helplessly watched. He reached across the gearstick and cut the engine. As he sat up he watched with wordless awe as the great maned appaloosa mare exploded out of the front of the barn, her body ablaze in the yellow and blue flames. All he could think of, seeing the burning horse charge into the cluster of men in her wild terror, was whether or not Lois would be able to come riding on Sunday now after all.
The sound was familiar but came from an unfamiliar place.
Handke stopped and listened for it to come again.
Vowelly and desolate, for an instant it suffused the thicketed stand of cottonwoods and box-elders with the pure air of hauntedness. By response, he spat down into the damp chokecherry at his knees.
Off to the north a mourning dove had cooed, but Handke could not spot it in its undulant shelter of buffalo grasses and grama. Noon, and it was still overcast, even though the rain had stopped the day before yesterday, the day after the barn had burned down, the day they had found Otis Taylor.
The sound did not come a second time, so Handke stepped into the brambly stand of old trees in the direction from which he thought it had originated. High up, two chickadees scratched their names in the breeze. Within the darkness of the grove of tightly spaced trees he could smell the bark, still moist from the rain. He walked as silently as he could so that if the sound came again he would be able to hear it easily. Back down the slight ridge behind him, not a quarter of a mile away, the repetitious dull hammering sound of Johnston mending a spoiled section of barbed wire fence filtered through.
The bitch gave a yowl from where she lay against the trunk of a big cotton wood, only a few yards to the right of where Handke walked. Handke looked at her with frank astonishment. She trained an eye on him, milk-clouded and unseeing: she sniffed; she was dying, clearly. Handke was surprised at his reaction coming upon the animal. He was afraid. He had assumed the bitch hound had perished in the barn blaze along with her master. But for her to have dragged her dead hindquarters all the way down here?
Her eyes welled, were glazed. She regarded Handke with the kind of indifference that comes from spiritual relinquishment—a relinquishment which binds men and beasts together in a common ground, into a thinking family that comprehends an eventuality such as the approach of death. So evident was this in the air around the bitch hound that Handke, despite himself, became suddenly receptive, sympathetic, and hateful of the meanness of a life’s having to end.
“Bitch dog,” Handke muttered aloud. There was a threatening tone in his throat that made the dog recoil. He took several steps toward the animal and was impressed by her baring of teeth. Nevertheless, aware of her depleted strength, he knelt and showed the bitch his open hand, turned palm up. Her weakness did not keep her from taking a feeble snap at his hand. Handke involuntarily jerked back, although the dog had no real chance to bite him. This small effort sapped the last of what resources she had, and so she fell back, leaning her head against the ruddy bark of the trunk, panting painfully.
Handke moved forward. She had lost her sling sometime during the journey down into the stand of foliage.
“There,” he said, and began to stroke her along the back. After several minutes Handke began to talk to the bitch reassuringly.
“Handke,” came Johnston’s distant voice trailing into this quiet place. Handke listened to his name called from far away. It sounded hollow, disembodied. He looked at the bitch. It was time for Handke and Johnston to get back up to the ranch. The dog’s panting had abated.
Slipping one arm under her lame hips and encircling with the other her breast, Handke lifted her up and began to carry her back out of the grove of cottonwoods. The bitch was very light, he thought.
Bradford Morrow lives in New York where he is the editor of Conjunctions. He is completing his first novel Come Sunday and has edited Selected Poems of Kenneth Rexroth and soon to be released Selected Essays by Kenneth Rexroth for New Directions.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.