Juteland

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Summary

A Danish-American family struggles for atonement and finds inspiration in small things.

Genre:
Drama
Author:
Timothy A. Wren
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
18+

Juteland

(2001 The Roanoke Review)

We found it tangled in the field mint weeds and honeysuckle vines, the pink stubby flesh exposed to the evening air. It lay at the edge of Anderson’s fields, as though jettisoned from the womb of the deep forest.

Lila had just left,and I found Tally at the other end of the fields catching lightning bugs. She knew better than to come near us after the time I caught her watching us. If I ever caught her doing stuff like that with Martin Shimas I’d kill her. Shimas lived two houses down, in a big, Shaker style house that bordered the fields. They had a barn out in back where they raised peacocks, and at night you could hear them cackling like mad children. He was older than Tally, way beyond his fifteen years, had a habit of coercing every kid he met, including me, into reckless habits. Try a cigarette. Try Dad’s whiskey. Try stealing from old man Phelps at the grocery store. He had a mouth on him, too. I told Tally to stay away from him, but that was like telling Tally to do it.

Unlike my father, whose shores were the muddy isles across the North Sea, I considered those fields my ocean of green, the acres spread out forever, reaching toward the perimeter of the woods. I knew every patch of grass on those fields, and every shadow. I’d borrowed those shadows many times, had pulled the dark corners of them over our heads as I rolled around with Lila, tasted her sweet bubble gum tongue as she snaked it down my throat. It was always over quick, those adolescent surges, our drenched skin left with grass stains and dirt as we lay there blinking at the moon.

I met Lila on Thursday nights when her old man played Poker down at Reynolds, and we’d fuck in the same urgent fashion, anyway we could get it in, until she’d have to go. Our union was something desperate, an insatiability fused into the universe. There was rawness to it, the whiteness of our bodies enveloped in blackness, the elements pushing down around us and lifting us up. We fumbled with our hands, searching each other’s bodies, emptied our lungs over each other’s skin. The cosmos opened and we screamed at the world for all the jagged edges in our lives, then we lay on our backs staring at the clouds as they gauzed the moon. I remember holding her there when we finished, my nose buried in her red hair. I creviced my tongue between her ear lobe and neck, savored the sea-salt of her skin. It was something that would stay with me after she left, rumination I could toss to the stars in my loneliness.

Lila’s father was a drunk. He spent his days pouring concrete, kept a bottle of booze in his lunch pail. I watched him work once from across the street downtown. He was laying concrete over a parking lot, and his large arms swept back and forth like a piston, pumping fiercely, scraping the heavy paste as the sweat fell from his fat face. He never looked up, never stopped until he needed a drink, the wide arc of the rake pushing waves of concrete across the ground where it shook in the hot sun before settling. He worked like a man trying to cover the world over with his hostile cement sea.

Every time Lila came to me in tears with red marks on her arms where he had grabbed her, I imagined killing him. Many times after Lila left me there in the field I’d plot it in my head. It would be clean. No blood. Just a clobber on the head with a bat. It would take a lot to bring him down, so I would start lifting weights, train for it. I would bury him in his own cement, in some parking lot across the earth.

Mor was sick then, the mass of tissue growing inside her pushing against her heart, so we took turns checking on her. We went in long after dark, though I usually tried to send Tally in early on those Thursdays to get her out of the way.

“You’re not the only one she screws, you know,” Tally said.

“Watch that mouth and get going. It’s my business.”

She stuck her tongue out at me, and I chased her inside. I always found her later back in the fields, giggling about boys under the stars with Lucy Felder.

Those summer nights seemed endless. Fireflies lit up the fading sky, an entire universe of green stars that we could touch. We had caught quite a few, smashed them in our fingers, painting our hands with the bitter smelling, green phosphorus goo that crackled and seeped from the insects frail little abdomens. Tally could do that all night, made little glowing rings around her fingers and danced in circles like a ballerina-princess, but I joined in just to entertain her. We waved our glowing hands in the growing darkness like we were guiding enormous jets to land on Anderson’s fields, until we came upon it.

“Don’t touch it. I wouldn’t.”

I told Tally to shut up.

“I just wouldn’t touch it, that’s all,” she said.

“Reach down there and see if it’s alive.”

Tally stepped back from it. “Are you deaf? I said I wouldn’t touch it.”

Now it was moving its little legs; they shook in the air like it was dreaming. But it wasn’t. Its cloudy gray eyes were open and looking at us.

“Okay,” I said, “go get a garbage bag and a towel.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just go on.”

She came back, had the garbage bag tucked under her arm, the towel around her head like a shepherd.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Who am I, Desmond?” Tally pulled the towel back a little from her head, had her hands clasped under it to make a hood.

“A moron with a towel over her head.”

“Wrong. St. Francis the Weeper.”

Mor had a print of the painting hanging in the hallway. The hooded priest had peered at us all our lives, the painted silver tear glued to his cheek forever, never to fall and never to be replenished by another one; it wept when they found Far, when they called and told Mor it was over quick. He died out there, floating on an oil rig in the North Sea, Denmark and Norway blinking at him like lost frozen islands. To Tally and me he had already been dead; he existed like a ghost, merely floated in our memories as a passing ship.

“Okay, moron, help me here.” I kneeled down near it with the bag. “Give me the towel.”

“What are you doing?”

“Just get down here and quit asking. Damn.”

“I don’t want to get near it.”

“Stop being a pansy. It’s not going to bite you for Christ’s sake. Here. Hold the bag open.”

There were little ants crawling over its skin, picking at the dried blood. But it wasn’t dead yet. I put the towel over its body, felt it squirm under my hands. It was warm, a tiny furnace pulsating with life.

“Maybe you should put it out of its misery.” Tally was kneeling with her face twisted up. She held the bag out from her extended arms, turned her head away.

I could feel the thing’s heart beat under the towel. It made a noise, a small gurgle. I didn’t want to hurt it. “Maybe I’ll put you out of your misery,” I told Tally.

“Never mind the bag.” I lifted it after wrapping it in the towel and stood. I looked into the woods, at the slits in the trees where the blackness revealed nothing. Tally backed away.

“What’re you going to do now?”

“Take it to the house.”

I put it on the floor on the inside porch, had gotten another thick blanket to place underneath it. I told Tally to get me some milk, and the little dropper bottle Mor had upstairs in the medicine cabinet, don’t wake her up.

It was hungry. Its bright red tongue lashed out from its snout and almost took the whole dropper into its mouth. I told Tally to run to Lucy’s and get me one of her baby sister’s bottles with a nipple. She didn’t say anything, shrugged her shoulders in disgust.

After it drank nearly a whole carton of milk, it started moving more. It tried to get up and walk around. Its eyes were brighter, alive. It didn’t have any balance yet and it fell back on its side.

“It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. What do you think’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it. You couldn’t walk either when you were born. You couldn’t think, either, still can’t. Remember? Doc said he dropped you more than once,” I said.

Tally looked surprised. “You mean that thing was just born and left there?”

It was true, I thought at the time. At the edges of many fields creatures are left alone to dig through the world.

Tally stared at it. “It’s ugly. Mor’s not going to want it in the house. She barely wants us in the house.”

We heard her call then. At that stage her voice was raspy, like a winded out accordion full of snot. I tried to get her a bell, so she could just ring it when she wanted something, but she said No, I’m not a cow, my voice is fine. Goddamn she was stubborn.

“It’s your turn,” I said. “Go see what she wants. Don’t say anything, hear me?” I said.

Tally hissed through her teeth, watched the animal curl into a ball and close its eyes, then ran up the stairs.


Back then, Dr. Straub was making visits about once a week, except when he got busy over at the hospital and couldn’t make it. We called him Doc. He brought Tally and me into this world and he liked to remind us of that. It was a broken metaphor he used too often. If Tally or I did something stupid, which we were prone to do, he’d find out about it and say,“Well, if I hadn’t dropped you on your heads when you came screaming into this world this wouldn’t have happened.” He’d burst into that explosive laugh of his that echoed as though his torso were a hollow steel drum.

Old Doc Straub became our father’s shadow when he left, his replacement in a part-time job. He had kids of his own, three of them, but when Mor couldn’t handle us anymore he stepped in. I don’t think it was for sorrow as much as to make up for my father’s inadequacies. He’d been friends with Far long before when they sailed together as naval comrades, after Far’s family had emigrated from Denmark. Mor and her pride would never accept any other reason.

Doc Straub showed up later in the month. I heard him like I usually do opening the front gate, saw him stoop as he listened to the hinges creek and moan, watched as he shut it and opened it again, evaluating the vast complexities of the hinges of the world that were rusted and tired. I often wondered how he became a doctor, the way he didn’t seem to assimilate things quickly, but studied their fine nuances before figuring it out with a shake of his head.

“Doc,” I said as he stepped into the foyer.

“That gate hinge,” he said, craning his neck toward it to make his point, “it can be oiled?”

I shrugged. Anything’s possible, you fix Mor and I’ll fix the hinge. “She’s weak today. Not eating much.”

He looked impassive, then irritated like there was an insect buzzing around his face.

He glared at me a long time. “Has she gotten up at all?”

“She won’t even let us open the curtains in the house anymore.”

He pushed past me, carrying his cracked, peeled leather case. “That won’t do.”

I followed him up the stairs, watched him clasp the railing and pull himself up. He spoke to the air in front of him. “You’re keeping up with the school work? You and Tally?” he said.

I didn’t bother telling him we were out for the summer.

“You’re done this year. Thought about college?”

I shrugged. It was a great time to think about college.

It was dark in the room, same as that morning when I brought her orange juice and fruit, which she didn’t eat much of, just looked at and sighed. There was a slit in the curtain where the sunlight came through, a small needle of yellow that etched a tiny circle on the wood floor. Particles of dust danced and disappeared in the shadows. The room smelled like sweat, old, and I wanted to open the windows to purge it. The painting hanging over her bed was tilted. It was a painting of the Danish coast, Juteland, where the North Sea met the soft marsh. Seagulls swarmed over the sea, white slashes of paint over a smeared, muddy beach. It was my grandmother’s painting once, and I remember Mor sitting us down in front of it and telling us all about Denmark, where my grandparents and mother and father grew up. I found Mor many times sitting in her dark room staring at that painting, studying the strokes of paint that made up the turbulent foam of the sea, looking for any trace of him at the crest of the horizon.

Mor had her heavy wool bathrobe on even though it was summer, was propped up on three pillows watching Sunset Boulevard, which she had watched at least ten times in the last few weeks. It was her favorite old movie, and it saved me from having a Danish name like Bjorn or Jens. Sometimes I thought my mother was becoming Norma Desmond, the way she stayed in her room all the time. The sound was muted and she ignored us, her eyes on a ghostly Gloria Swanson curled up on the couch in her Beverly Hills mansion.

“You want some sound on that thing?” Doc said.

Mor tightened her mouth, rolled her eyes up into her head, ran her hand across her face as she faked a groan. “I know every line. I like to watch her lips move. Keeps me occupied.”

Doc moved to the side of the bed, sat on the edge digging into his bag. He took her pulse, felt the side of her neck, looked into her eyes with a light.

“At least get some light into this place, Nora. It’s a cave in here.”

She frowned. “It hurts my eyes.”

“You need to get up sometimes. Take a walk outside. You’re not dead yet, woman, for God’s sake.”

Her eyes came straight to me. She held her hands out, and I moved toward them as they pulled me in. Her hands felt cold, and I remembered when they were warm, her sitting with me when I had bloody noses in the middle of the night, holding a hot wash cloth over my forehead, stroking my hair.

“Mor. Listen to the Doc? Let’s go for a walk.” I took a chance.

She let go of my hands, crossed them on her chest just like Tally does when she’s angry.

“It’s always a conspiracy. Let me sleep now. You have exhausted me.”

I walked Doc out to his car, an old Cadillac with faded blue paint and a cracked windshield. He opened the door and tossed his bag in.

“Your mother’s going to die of depression before anything, the rate she’s going. Stubborn as stubborn can be. Viking blood.”

I nodded.

“Can you get her in for the last one? We need to run some tests.”

She had been stubborn about the others. Said it was making her sick, which it was, her once full Nordic hair falling out in clumps.

Doc shut the door of his car and looked at me through the open window. “Get her out of that room, or tell her I’ll get Guy Sacks out here with a crane to lift her out.”

Tally was on the porch crouched over the animal, had placed a tennis ball next to its bed.

“It’s getting hair, look at it,” she said. “Thing’s cute, too.”

“What happened to ugly?” I bent down to stroke its head and it liked it, turned its snout up at me and yawned, letting its pink tongue lap the sides of its mouth.

“It’s a female, the dominant species. Missing some things.”

“Doc left.”

“So. She’s rotting up there.”

“Wants her out of her room.”

“Then let him try.”

“He’s got a plan for that.”


By the following month, the animal grew a thick, beautiful coat of fur, streaked with hints of silver and brown. There were dark patches under her eyes, and we began to call her Bandit.

In the morning we fed her bottled milk and dry cat food. She was a curious thing, and when she began walking never stayed still. We decided to let her in the house, thinking the porch wasn’t big enough. She darted around the house, her nose sniffing the couch, the tables, the chairs, the pantries.

We heard Mor call us one day. Bandit was running around the living room, rolling on her back as she pawed the tennis ball.

“I’m hungry for once. Tally you fix me some soup and Desmond set me up so I can move to that chair. Sheets need changing and my butt’s sore.”

I started to help her when we heard it, a loud crash downstairs, bottles and cans rolling across the floor. Mor flashed her eyes to me.

“What’s going on down there? Who’s down there?”

“Probably the wind. The screen door must have flown open,” I said. I rolled my eyes to Tally.

Mor looked at the curtains. “Open them.”

I did. The big oak tree outside exploded across the window, its spidery branches as still as a picture.

Nej! Don’t insult your mother. I may be cranky and inert, but I have my senses. It’s about as windy as the moon. What is going on?”

There was another crash--this one the clanging of metal falling onto the floor. We heard loud cackles and snorts. Bandit was into something and happy about it.

Mor stood up next to the bed. She scanned us with her eyes.

She moved past us, tying her robe up in front, patting down her thin remaining hair. She stood at the top of the stairs as if considering whether or not to jump off a cliff.

Mor stood there at the door to the kitchen, eyes blinking. Bandit was lying on her back, a jar of tomato sauce between her paws, spinning it with dexterity, licking the inside of it like a dog. Her fur was caked with food; potato chips, bits of vegetables, tomato sauce, its nose red as a clown’s. The trashcan was still settling on the floor, rattling back and forth on its handles, the garbage spilled out like it had exploded. One of the pantry doors was open, and Bandit had rolled some cans out of it trying to get into them. The horror on Mor’s face.

“What is that?” she said.

I waited a beat. “We found it dying at the edge of Anderson’s fields,” I said. Bandit stared at us complacently as she slurped on the jar.

Mor didn’t say anything at first, just crossed her arms over her chest, a bad sign.

“Get this place cleaned up. And get that thing out of this house,” she said.

Tally and I just looked at each other and smiled.


“I told you,” Tally said, holding a broom. “You should be cleaning this shit up, not me.”

It took us the rest of the afternoon to clean the kitchen up. We washed Bandit out back. Tally held her while I sprayed her with the hose. She didn’t like it one bit, put her paw out at the water and cackled like a hen trapped in a butcher house. We lathered her up with Ivory dish soap until she looked like a big white bubble, her dark brown eyes shinning through the suds. She shook her fur repeatedly, showering us with water and soap. We rinsed her off and put her on the ground.

“What are we going to do with it?” Tally said.

“You see her? Mor was down the stairs, yelling at us just like she used to.”

“Bet she’s back up there now. I don’t care. Let her rot up there. I’m sick of this shit.”

“We can’t just let her go. She won’t know how to handle herself out there.” I gestured to the woods. We watched Bandit claw at the dirt, sniffing away. “Alright. I say we put her back on the porch tonight till we figure it out.”

“I’m going to the fields. Do whatever you want.”

The next morning we got up and fed Bandit before we left. I had worked at Sack’s Hardware that summer, and Tally was stuck with summer school. We let Bandit run around the porch and play with her tennis ball.

“I say we leave her here, then when we get home we decide what to do,” I told Tally. Mor never said anything about the night before. I brought her soup and bread for dinner, adjusted her pillows, kissed her goodnight. She just grunted at me, said Change the channel I’m tired of looking at the news.

Most of the time Tally beat me home. She would be on the porch, holding Bandit like a baby, feeding her milk from the bottle.

I found her standing at the door waiting for me. We stood on the porch, looking at Bandit’s empty blanket balled up in the corner. Her tennis ball sat faded and ripped where she had bitten it. I kicked it and looked at Tally.

“Where the hell is she? You left her here?” I said.

“We left her here.” She looked at the door. “Locked the door, too, like you told me.”

The door was locked, but as I stepped closer I saw the rip in the screen. It hung shredded at the bottom.

We looked in the kitchen. Nothing was overturned, no cupboards open or food spread about. The living room was in one piece. I looked under the couch, in the closet, under the sink.

And then we heard it. A loud giggle, muffled words coming from upstairs. Tally looked at me, and I shook my head. We ran up the stairs so quick it shook the house.

It was dark in there when we opened the door to Mor’s room. She wasn’t in her bed, but in the old rocking chair by the window. Mor used to rock us in that chair, the Scandinavian antique whose soft wood lulled you into slumber with its gentle moans, and now Bandit was in her arms, lying on her back like a baby, Mor holding the baby bottle as she licked and sucked it. Mor didn’t look up at us when we came in.

We stood there in the pale room, watched Bandit roll her brown eyes up at us as she suckled the milk, watched Mor’s lips move as she fed it, smiling, a brightness in her eyes that had long been absent.

Finally she looked at us.

“Don’t just stand there. Open the drapes so I can see you.”


Doc Straub came by at the end of August. I sat on the porch and watched him pull up. He reached out with his large hand to lift himself out of the car, and when he did he grimaced, grunted loudly when he stood, rubbing his back. He hobbled up to the gate and opened it, paused, opened it again and bobbed his head.

“About time,” he called to me.

He came and sat down next to me, pulled his handkerchief out and blew into it.

“Lila Spencer came to see me the other day,” he said.

I froze. Couldn’t breathe.

“She didn’t know where else to go. The little thing was bawling her eyes out.” He tucked his handkerchief into his pocket.

I couldn’t look at him, was afraid to move.

“Desmond, she was pregnant. She didn’t want to keep it.” He sighed, as if to dismiss the entire thing as rudimentary. Then he reached in his bag and pulled out a handful of them. He put them into my hands, and I dropped some as I looked around nervously. “Raincoats. I’m sure you know how to use them?” He lifted his chin to peer at me under his glasses.

I shoved them into my pockets, nodded my head. That was that. I wondered if it was even mine, told myself it wasn’t, but I knew it was. Flies buzzed around us, filling the moment with an uncomfortable distraction. We watched them circle, drawn to our sweat, and we both ignored them as they crawled on our skin.

I stared at Doc’s car, at the cracked windshield.

“I know. It’s a sight, that windshield.”

I was surprised by his casual tone, at his insensitive subject changing. I rolled my shoulders. I wanted to be alone.

He pushed the glasses up on his bulbous nose. “I ran that thing off the road about ten years ago, missed the tree but the stop sign went right into the windshield. I was drunk. My daughter was in the car. She was fine, but it could have killed her.”

I didn’t say anything, studied the tentacles of the windshield.

“I never had it fixed and never sold it.”

I understood.

“How’s the patient?” he said.

I smirked at him. “See for yourself.”

He found her in the living room, her feet propped up on the stool sipping lemonade. She had opened the thick curtains at the bay window, changed from her bathrobe to a spring dress with flowers on it. She looked beautiful.

“What’s this? A ghost?” he said, dropping his case to the floor, relieved he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. “And all this light in here.”

Mor smiled at him. “No ghost. Just me sitting here enjoying a lemonade. Don’t just stand there with your mouth open. Sit down and have a glass.”

Doc looked dumbfounded. “Well. That’s fine. Just fine.” He glanced at me, winked.

The porch door slammed and Tally came running in. She held Bandit, was untying the leash from her neck collar as she set her down. We had begun to walk her like a dog; I tied a thick rope collar around her neck and knotted it tightly.

“She didn’t have to go.”

“What’s this?” said Doc.

Mor bent forward to pet Bandit, spoke to her in their own language that had developed over the last month. Apparently Bandit understood her, because she looked up at Mor, brought her little paws up across Mor’s face like she was itching her nose. “This is the new rascal. Got into everything in the kitchen until I trained her.” She looked up at Tally and me. “Just like I had to with these two.”

Doc stepped up, bent down slowly to see her better, contemplated her like he did everything. He reached out and stroked her back. “What a critter.”

“Ya. She’s a rascal,” Mor said.

Mor had begun to move around the house more, had even scolded us when we left dishes in the sink. We were elated, happy to instigate a formal yelling at just to hear her voice and see her form standing there in the sunlight. Bandit followed her around, would jump into her lap sometimes wherever she sat, or crawl up and lie with her as she slept. Mor only moved to her room to take her naps, but many times stayed on the couch with Bandit near her. She was usually the first one up to feed her; it became a ritual, Mor in the kitchen at 6 a.m. getting her milk, cat food, and an occasional morsel left over from dinner. I put locks on all the pantry doors, had to, to keep her out of them. Bandit had figured out how to get into or out of most anything; she used her paws like a surgeon’s hands; we’d watched her unscrew an apple sauce jar with her paws one day. She grew in those months, her tail a thick, bushy silver wrapped in dark rings. The mask around her eyes became darker so you almost couldn’t see them anymore. She had gained so much weight from the cat food that she wobbled when she walked.

Lila never showed up at the fields in those weeks before school started. It didn’t matter; I was afraid to face her, didn’t know what I’d say. I didn’t want anything to disrupt the pattern, our union at Anderson’s fields, but it had. I waited anyway until the moon was high in the sky, its milky light softening the trees like a painting. I contemplated things, what could have been. Then I was angry. Lila never told me, never asked me. Part of me was growing inside her and she simply voided it, made it all go away like it disgusted her. I guessed I would have let it be, and when the time came it would never be left by the edge of any field.

I saw Lila at school when it started, her quick glances at me down the hallways as she stood surrounded by her girlfriends, averting her eyes like a little broken doll. I glared at her between classes, waiting for her to be alone and wave me over. I didn’t know what I would say. I vacillated between anger and yearning, embarrassment and guilt. I wondered if she had told her father, or if Doc had. I began to have nightmares about him, that the baby was really his. I dreamt that he buried me in his cement while Lila stood there laughing.

The weeks went by as we plummeted into fall, and I began to miss those Thursday nights. When I woke up in the morning I was hard and I craved Lila. There were some days I was afraid it would never stop, that I’d be stuck like that until Lila returned, and I could enter her and scream at the cosmos with her soft legs wrapped around me. I woke with her scent on my skin, her taste in my mouth. I turned to smell the pillow, the sheets, as though she were just there but had vanished. We had done it once in my room, when it rained, when we had no place else to go, and I remember staring at the indent her body had made on the bed after she left. I lay there listening to the rain hammer the roof, massaging the warm imprint in the sheets.

Mor was improving. Doc said the tumor had shrunk, that the danger was over, and she went cheerfully to the hospital for the last treatment. On the way home, she even suggested we stop for custard, something we used to do a lot. Mor got a cone for Bandit, made Tally carry it the entire drive home. Mor rushed out of the car when we got home, wanted to feed the custard to Bandit before it melted, though half of it was all over Tally’s hands by then.

Mor held the cone for Bandit, and we watched her lick it frantically, like she was trying to set a record eating it. She had the custard all over her snout and paws. She stopped and shook her head between chomps because it was so cold.

I studied Mor as she fed Bandit, her delicate minaret fingers, the childish smile, her thin, blonde hair becoming tinsels of sunlight as it fell across her delicate face, the way she giggled. I didn’t want the moment to end; I wanted to freeze it, stop it in time. The future was criminal, an intruder. The past was no better. There were only the in-between moments in time that made up for it. I wanted to erase my father and the North Sea from Mor’s memory, and stop whatever future was bent on coming.


“You know, she’ll be unmanageable. You’ll have to let her go eventually.”

Doc was telling me but I didn’t look at him. We were out in the backyard watching Bandit paw the dirt.

“The tests came back good, Desmond.”

“How long?” It was a tired question, but I asked it anyway.

“Hard to say. It’s a good sign. As long as it lasts.”

Bandit was at the edge of the lawn, her head pointed into the woods. “Think she’ll make it out there?” I said.

“She’ll miss the ice cream, the steak, the cat food. But it’s where she belongs.”

I started to walk away, stopped and faced the woods. I bent over and picked up whatever rocks I could find. Doc took some from me and we both stood there whipping them into the trees.

Bandit had gotten more active, constantly in search of ways to get into things. She began to leap onto the kitchen table from the chair, then onto the counter near the sink. From there she stood on her hind legs and opened the cupboards I hadn’t put locks on. When I went to lift her she cackled at me and swatted my hand away. She was getting more aggressive, even in her playing.

It had gotten cooler in the mornings, and I awoke late one Sunday, afraid to step onto the bitter wood floor. The sun was bright and the white shade over my window made it seem like it had snowed. I relished the one window Mor didn’t seal up, and out of habit flipped the shade up and listened to it rattle, let the sun warm my face. The remnants of a dream speckled behind my eyes refusing to disappear. It was Father again, his thick blonde hair raked by the North Sea gusts, calling to me from the oil rig. In the dream I stood on the frigid muddy shore listening to his wail. And then it changed: he was embracing me, the heavy canvas sleeves of his hunting coat wrapped around my torso, my face buried inside where velvet creatures lay still warm after being plugged from the air. “Du er kold,” he whispered to me. You are cold. After a long embrace he took my shoulders and gently pushed me away.

The thing behind my eyes, the sensory piece from dreams of him, was the smell of his hunting coat. It somehow made up his composition, formed a remembered texture that I couldn’t see when I awoke, yet it was this texture that moved in me, that made me up and oozed from every pore. I would feel him with me the rest of the day, look for him through the trees and around the house.

I went into the kitchen but Mor wasn’t there. Tally was still sleeping and I saw her blond hair sticking out of the covers as I poked my head through her door. I looked in Bandit’s bowl and saw it was empty. Mor had not fed her yet. I looked on the porch but Bandit wasn’t there. Finally I went upstairs.

I knocked lightly on the door, heard no reply, pushed it open.

Mor was in the rocking chair in the dark room, Bandit at her feet, a large white bandage wrapped around her hand. She held her bandaged hand up to her mouth, her lips slightly pursed, the hand resting there. She stared at the painting over the bed.

“What happened?” I said.

She took her time, rubbed her fingers across her lips in the gray light. “She bit me.”

Bandit went to the window and sniffed under the curtains, pawed them and brushed her nose against the fabric. The curtains sealed the windows like a vault.

“You okay?”

“Fine.”

Then she was silent. I waited, felt like I was suffocating in the closed room.

“Mor?” She followed Bandit with her eyes.

She stood up, moved to the window, jerked the curtains open with a sweep of her arms. The room exploded in light. She stayed like that for a moment, facing the window, inhaling deeply, like she was sucking in the sunlight.

She turned to me. “Where is the leash?”

“Down-”

“Get it, will you?”

I came back with it, and Mor reached down to tie it on Bandit. When she fumbled with her bandaged hand I helped her. Mor moved to the stairs, pulling at her. Bandit pawed the leash cord, hissed.

I followed her down the stairs, Bandit taking three steps to her one, the leash cord yanking her back. She stopped and swiped it with her paw in defiance.

Tally was up, was standing there barefoot in her pajamas, her hair twisted around her face as she yawned. She rubbed her eyes as Mor passed her, gave me a look that questioned Mor’s hurried, stone-faced movements toward the porch door. Mor opened the screen door and stopped, her body silhouetted against the burst of the morning. She extended her thin right arm out to the side, clutching the leash.

“Desmond. Take her.”

“Mor, you should walk her. You need the-”

“Take her.” Mor dropped her head to Bandit, let her chin rest on her chest like a spent marionette puppet. She let a breath out, but it was broken, made her chest heave and shake. “Bring the knife. The bears will be cranky looking for food,” she said to the floor.

I told Tally to get Father’s Kabar hunting knife out of the cabinet, and she hesitated, shook her head before moving to get it. Mor had kept it all these years, as if Far might show up one day to claim it. We stepped up to Mor and I took the leash, had to pry it out of her hands. She enclosed my hand in hers, gave it a squeeze, smiled at me.

Before we were out of the yard I turned to Mor. She was no longer there, but I could see her at the large bay window tying the curtains back. I watched her fasten the other side, saw her white-robed arm move up and down, cleaning the glass with slow, resolute strokes.


We walked out into the cold forest, past the edge of the field where we had found her, over the silver-dewed grass that smelled of peppermint from the field mint weeds. We left ghostly footprints as Bandit led the way, straining against the leash like she knew where she was going. She sniffed the ground the entire way, stopping occasionally to lift her nose into the air and turn her head back and forth. It was familiar to her, like an old house you return to and know where every creak is, know the sounds the floors will make when you step on them. Black birds called in the trees, and squirrels barked and leaped from branch to branch, as if excited that Bandit was there. Bandit knew those sounds, too, maybe she heard them in her mother’s womb, waiting to be pushed out into the fields. She paused and sat up on her hind legs, tilted her head up to the trees as if to say Hello, I’m back.

We walked for a time, waited for the trees to thicken, for the broad, thick bases of the oaks and white ash to obscure our path. It grew silent; each step we took echoed into the forest, and I heard my own breathing and felt a pulse in my ears. Everything became acute. I felt the tide of blood rushing through my veins, wondered what it would be like to live out here, to wake everyday to this silence, hearing only the animals moving through the trees, and I stopped. Tally came up next to me. I lifted my head and absorbed the quiet, imagined that this was it, this is what life brought you to, this peace after all the noise. I bent down and felt the leather sheath for the knife rub across my thigh.

A memory burst through. Far gutting trout with the knife, the six inch blade glittering in the sunlight as it slid into the scales and slimy flesh, the sound of the cold creek as it percolated over ancient pebbles, the musky animal smell of the hunting coat again as he carried me over the creek beds to the other side.

And then it was gone. It left me burning. Aloof.

“Go on and let her go. I can’t stand it,” said Tally.

I held Bandit with my other hand and slowly untied the collar. She jerked her head around when she felt the slack in the rope. She seemed grateful, rubbed her snout against my hand, crawled forward several feet. When the silver-ghost of her vanished, we stood and listened to the rustle of the leaves.

I reached back for the knife and unfolded it. I studied the handle and the blade, looking for the swirl of my father’s fingerprints, though I knew they’d long been erased, smeared into non-existence. I pressed my thumbs into the polished steel and tilted it at an angle so I could see the new sunlight dance across the subtle islands I had made.

END

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