|Jan/Feb 2016 Fiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
In the kitchen, Elsa and Mansfield pause to leave space between themselves, each reaching for a coffee cup in the cupboard. They wear sheer, silvery blue night gowns over their naked bodies, the membrane lighting on their shoulders like wings. She yields for a moment and waits until he turns away. They are like the bluegills that might have swum down the river if the summer currents were calm. The brassy splotches dot his shoulder like camouflage, markings from 40 years of walking the fields with the sheep. She vaguely resents the spring in his step; she feels ugly like one of the little beetles that come out this time of year and hover around your knees and scrape your shins. She compresses the resentment into a small atom in her chest, her invisible bunker, as if squeezing up the razor wings and sharp legs in containment. He moves to open the coffee canister, and the vacuum seal pops open. She pours water from the kettle into her cup and puts it back on the stove. He swirls the kettle until the water drums against the inside of it. He puts it down and clicks on the gas light, turns on the transistor radio, and sits at the table listening to the weather reports. He has been restless like this, cooped up in the house. The storms keep coming.
He wouldn't eat breakfast today, and neither would she just like most days. She is incompetent in the kitchen, never having taken any interest in cooking by the time her mother died in a car accident. Elsa had been 19, a sophomore at Vernon College. Her mother's paring knives are still mounted in a neat row next to the stove, as neat as the lineup of mason jars on the shelf, labeled with masking tape: salt, sugar, lemon rinds, cloves. She never once used her mother's fine oriental china. The plastic paper towel holder is empty, yellowing like an old tooth. An electric can opener and toaster sit idle in the corner. Later tonight she'd wipe away crumbs on the counter from the toast he'd make himself for lunch. In the sink she'd find a spoon streaked with a summer jam he bought from the local Amish farmers along the road. He liked to go into town on the weekends after the college kids went home and there were no bicycles, no lines at the post office or deli. The town turns to catering to new visitors from week to week, watching them as if some sort of spectacle, tolerable because the visits are temporary. This week everyone in town knows there are ladies attending their annual convention of the Order of the Eastern Star, writers for a novel workshop, and high school kids attending a swimming camp who would be marching in the Fourth of July parade. Elsa typically looks forward to this time of year, when she and Mansfield would enjoy talking with visitors, their special engagement with the outside world. On Fridays, the townspeople would gather for a party on the patio at the Vernon Inn. She would meet Mansfield there tonight, just as they had done for over 40 years. Sometimes he would still buy her the old-fashioned lemon drops from the bookstore.
She rinses her cup at the tap. The long drips of Ohio rain clatter against the kitchen windows. It is July, but the weatherman says there is a hail storm coming. This storm may last for the rest of the week. Dark clouds are churning over the pasture land surrounding Vernon Hill. She isn't religious, but she looks up at the skies. Today she is seriously searching there for frogs. Last week Mansfield had turned on the electric fences to keep the pigs inside the woods. The pigs would be fine rooting around the shrubs and mushrooms. There is only a day left in the field grass before he would need to move the flock.
She'd need to head out to work soon. Perhaps she'd ask him to drive her to the President's house so he could stop thinking about the yearlings that might not survive the winter. She knew from the beginning Mansfield preferred animal farming to any other type of work. He had tried plumbing, wiring and carpentry in Phoenix and Denver. He had even tried office work for an insurance company in Connecticut. When he was assigned with a group of young men to go to New York for training, the way he told the story, he had just kept right on driving until he was home to help his older brother with the family pig farm. He would tell her this wishing he could have met her father, had a chance to earn her father's respect. This was before they were married. Back then they'd sometimes sit on a bench in the tiny cemetery for college professors outside of the arts building on campus. Her father had been the last one to be buried there. Back then, she had sometimes called Mansfield "Professor" if she sensed he felt vulnerable or stupid. Now he is an expert breeder and enjoys talking to visitors about the feed for fatty meats or optimizing milk production. He talks about the science, stays at least one step removed from relating too closely with the animals. But she knows he never takes them to Columbus for slaughter during the Christmas season. She still sometimes calls him Professor. Her father would have known she made a good choice.
After his first border collie died, he had replaced the dog with two mutts from the shelter, one he called Amelia and another he called Beatrice. After that, all subsequently acquired dogs were either Amelia or Beatrice. For a while, after one of the dogs died, he got two more as if trying to stock up against death. She used to hear him call after them on afternoons when she read books from her father's library under the old willows marking the property line. Amelia! Beatrice! Amelia! He had run the flock over their 100 acres with only the company of dogs. At some point, he stopped collecting the dogs. All the dogs were long gone now. For years he had moved the flock through the pastures alone. At some point he said he just couldn't do any more mothering.
When she can't see the old willows, she wipes the window pane with the base of her fist.
"How would I know if something happened to you in the fields," she says.
"You wouldn't know until it was too late," he says.
"At least when you had Amelia or Beatrice, you could send one of them to fetch me, show me where you are," she says.
"With all this rain, I'm not going out. You take the truck," he says.
Later he'd put on his blue jeans and a blue work shirt, scrub his face pink with hot water. This Irish farmer of pig and sheep had a new emerging form: paper white hair, a candle light in the iris of his blue eyes. It was as if a new creature had appeared over the last several weeks. She thinks he would continue to cross over the acres of farmland long after she is gone.
He's next to her now, putting his coffee cup in the sink. "Take the truck. It's stormy out there," he says.
"I'll come get you for the party," she says, but she isn't sure she wants to go.
"I'll be here, same as always," he says.
The screen door claps shut behind her. She walks to the carriage house in the back. Her feet grow slick with water as she walks through wet grass in her sandals. She runs to get out of the rain and gravel pops up at her feet. Inside the carriage house she yanks on the door handle of the truck. She grabs hold of the steering wheel and hoists herself onto the seat. The sharp scent of artificial pine makes her eyes water. Mansfield kept the truck immaculately clean all these years, as if tending some kind of mausoleum. She places her hand on the passenger seat, remembering the baby's swaddled face.
More than 40 years had passed since their daughter Amelia died. Mansfield's voice that night had been high-pitched and hollow, so much like one of his sheep when he used to take them out back to slaughter. He had been the one who found the baby. He had hollered the baby's name as he leapt over stairs and slammed open the front door. Elsa had jolted up, ran out the front door toward the carriage house, the snow bursting hard against her chest.
In the truck he had handed the baby to Elsa, the baby's face as white and sweet and empty as meringue. The truck had swerved and raged as Mansfield sped toward Columbus. The storm had taken the baby's air. He had reached over Elsa's lap to roll up the window. He had barked at her. She had screamed at him. There were no words. She remembered the frozen air, so useless and suffocating. The roads had been difficult to see. He had glanced down at her lap. She did not have to look. There was no weight against her thigh, no weight in the crook of her elbow. She had stared over the hood of the truck, watching the snow swirl like clouds of ash exploding in the quiet ahead. The doctors had called it sudden death. They never had any children after Amelia.
She spins out onto the road and keeps going until she turns onto Route 229, passing by the northern acres of their land where a small corn crop is turning yellow at the root, neglected and drowning in water.
She looks out at the grainy wet snow and the old willows marking the fields like time. Soon she'll see what had once been the Brooks family pig farm that Mansfield sold to help cover nursing home costs for his older brother Tom. Soon she'll see a small rig bobbing up and down like a giant black buzzard on a piece of land still owned by one of the town's old farming families. If she keeps going down the road towards New Albany, she'll eventually pass the land that had been converted by the old farmer into a golf course. That old fellow will be dancing with the town's widows at the party tonight.
The sky is a block of cement across the horizon. She reaches down to turn on the headlights.
She turns on Center Road, passes the town barber, the gas station, and the pub. She parks the truck in front of the little dress shop. She thinks: I'll buy a pretty yellow dress for the party.
And after finishing the housekeeping for the day, she'd walk across the narrow road from the President's house. She'd toss her hair to make sure she didn't smell like her cleaning supplies. The clouds would have thinned out, collapsed together like linens. Plastic folding tables and chairs would be empty and waiting, strewn across the front lawn of Vernon Inn. She'd walk up the steps of the front porch with Mansfield and they'd sit next to each other. They'd wait together for the visitors to come and the twilight would darken the sky as if a curtain had been partially drawn. The porch lights would come on. The men in bright golf shirts, the women in bright prints, would twirl and dance. The fireflies would gather over the lilies in between blades of tall grass. Tiny golden lamps would hover as if watching the spectacle, the frolic of children.
Small pellets of salt start to fall from the sky, and she grips the steering wheel. She is cold, can't feel her feet, and lifts her face toward the storm. She feels her eyes close, and she pictures herself walking the fields. Hail stones are drumming steadily against the hood of the truck like water in the kettle. And after the vibrations finally fade, she hears only the stillness coming in, until, she thinks, she hears the sound of Mansfield's voice calling out her name.