wasn't usual, Lucien thought, this knocking in the middle of the night,
and when it came, it meant an emergency of some kind. There
was the trucker had run out of gas at two in the morning and come pounding
on his door. The high school kids, drunk and run the car
into the broad side of the barn. And he and Belle up most
of the night trying to calm the cows.
The problem was they'd built the damned road
too close to the house, and tricky the way the shoulder sloped down
into the limestone ditch. How many he'd hauled out of that
ditch he couldn't count. Big rain, and the mud slid off the
road, taking the cars with it. Just yesterday, a women with
red finger nails, car too big for the road, wanting more than helpwanting
to buy his land, turn it into a hundred houses. Mother of
God! "I'm not selling," he told Belle. "My grandpapa
he didn't break his back on this land for nothing. I don't
part with one goddamn foot of it, I'm telling you."
"They offered ten thousand dollars an acre
over to Benoit's," Belle said, "and they took it."
But he said, "I got over half that right here,
don't I?" and patted his inside pocket.
And Belle saying, "Only fools carry cash. The
world's not the same's it was."
But he knew who were the fools. His
own papa, for one, God rest his soul. He trusted it all to
that bank, and come the crash what'd he have but a caved-in barn and
ninety-five acres of clay?
No, he'd keep his where it was safe. If
they took the money they'd take him. And who'd want him? Tough
as an old mule he was, sure. Veins like rope, Belle said,
skin like bull leather. She threatened to take the polish
to it instead of soap. Hard weather and hard work, that's
what it was. Up at four milking, planting hayingjobs
never ended. Now middle of the night hauling some poor fool,
probably, out of the ditch. Mary and Joseph!
The knock came again, a man's voice, his name. "Lucien? Open
the door, Lucien!"
Hey, door's unlocked, they didn't have to wait
on him. He never locked, it, though, Belle starting to complain. But
hell, if he didn't go, Belle would, and moan about the cold. Woodstove's
not enough, she wants oil heat.
Here she was, already awake, gray-black braid
across her breast frizzing out under the elastic, but the breasts still
firm. Only the one child, that's why. And that
one a girl, with a ten-thumbed asshole of a husband. Who
was to carry on?
"They're calling you," Belle said, like he
couldn't hear. She heaved her thick body up on an elbow. "It's
someone we know. Maybe next door. They been having
trouble with that girl. She goes with the wrong kind, Ruth
says so, stays out late."
"Lucien? Answer the door. I
need help, Lucien."
The voice unfamiliar. But it don't
mean nothng. More folks in town knew him than he knew them. They
knew him because he ran for selectman that time, shook hands a lot. It
was that Ruth Willmarth next door put him up to it. School
budget up and getting so only flatlanders could afford to live here. So
he stuck out his neck and lost to a flatlander by fifteen votes.
"Will you go or I go"? Belle said,
"so's we can get back to sleep?" He saw how wrinkly and puffed the skin
was in the crease of her elbow, and her just sixty-three.
It used to be soft when he married her. She was the prettiest
thing he ever seen, down from a border town. Quebec roots
like him, but a quarter Abenaki Indian in her. You saw it
in the snap of the black eyes, way she walked, quiet, feet splayed a
little. Then the farm took it out on her, slaving all day.
"I'll go," he said. He planted his
feet on the splintery floor, then winced. It was only after
a long sleep he felt the pain. Some days he thought he'd
never walk again.
"Lucien? Come down," the voice said. "We
run out of gas, Lucien." The kitchen door slammed.
The old dog, Raoul, barkingtook a hurricane
to get him to bark, he was that old. The men, for there was
more than one sounded like, already inside.
Was it Halloween? Why were they
here? Not gas they wanted. Stockings over their
head and faces, blue jeans, boots. It was the boots on the
big one that startled him, the sharp smell of new leather, the hard
pointed toes, some fancy silverwork. It was how fear smelled. He
hadn't smelled it so bad for years, not since the war. The
Fascist boots, kicking him.
He picked up the maple stick he prodded the
cows with. "You shouldn't be here," he said. He
only meant to threaten them. One of them turning back already,
the taller thinner one, calling back the other, he heard a muffled voice. But
the big one, like a bull in heat, coming at him. Then there
was Belle. He turned warn her off.
"Get back," he said.
Something exploded in the side of his head. He
wheeled about, was struck in the belly. The dog barked and
went still. "Go, Belle," he groaned, doubled with pain, but
she was bent over him, screaming. And then a thump like the
sound of an overripe apple hitting the ground, and Belle pitching across
his foot, the big one standing over her.
He swung at the head with his stick, his fists. He
was flung against the old Kelvinator, heard it squeal, knocked into
the iron sink. He couldn't feel the pain now, just a numbness,
the outrage. There was a tug-of-war for the stick, and he
lost. Then it came: the stockinged head arched back, the
boot lifted. It was the hurricane again, but now he was
the porch, knocked off his props and flung in the air, crashing down
on the other side of the house, the boards shrieking as they wrenched
apart, fell in one on top of the other
* * *
was something about this morning that made Ruth Willmarth uneasyshe
didn't know what. Usually she enjoyed a morning like this,
mist on the mountains, hugging the ground like shredded paper. "Shredded
paper," she liked that. She'd had a poem in the high school
lit magazine once. How did it go? "The sun is
a golden poppyda-da da-da..." Was it almost twenty-four years agao? Her
mind was foggy. Like all those years had never been, and
there was been nothing, ever, but this farm, and three children, and
a grandchild already. And the husband who'd left for New
York one mornng after milking and hadn't come back.
She was so stunned she just kept running the
farm. Took over the milking on top of the syruping, the records,
dairy meetings, vet checks. It was unending, but she'd always
liked a routine. What else could she do? Where
else would she live?
She put the uneasiness down to worries about
family: her son Vic, her daughter Emily coming in late last nightthat
city boyfriend! It was work that relieved the stress. She
swept in the mangers, shoved back the bits of hay, grain, corn the cows
had dropped in their stampede to eat. Another week or two
and they'd be out in the field, in only for milking, which made it easier. Black-and-white
Holsteins, thirty head. Use to be fifty but when Pete left
had to sell some. Kept the hired man, Tim, though. She
couldn't do it alone.
Here was Tim now, coming up fom the sugar house,
the foster boy tagging behind. "Fields still too wet to plough,"
Tim said. "Maybe next week. So Willy and me gonna
plant trees. Your husband ordered 'em last spring."
Scotch pine, for Christmas treesPete's
plan for making use of a rocky area. He was always jumping
on new money-making schemes: pigs, turkeys, soybeans. He'd
abandon them when they got to be a hassle.
"If you think there's time. Not
a thousand again!"
He grinned, nodded. He had on that
cowboy hat he got out West one year, it looked ridiculous on him. He
was still the hippie he'd been back in the sixties. But he
gave a hard day's work, did half the milking, most of the syruping. "I
thought Vic might help. We can get 'em in a week and still
finish up the sugaring."
"He'd rather do that," she agreed, "than help
in the barn."
Lately her son Vic had refused barn chores
altogether, wouldn't even feed his pet calf, didn't want the smell on
him. Kids teasing him, that was why. "Farmer boy,"
they said, the city kids moving up here with their city ways.
Actually, she liked the idea of Vic working
with Tim. Vic had taken Pete's leaving hard. She
knew he needed him, especially with this trouble in the school. Though
Pete wouldn't have done much about it. "Had to fight my own
battles as a kid," was the cliché on his latest postcard.
"Can you hold the fort till noon?" she asked
Tim. "I have errands in town."
"Consider it done. Hey, Willy? We'll
hold the fort till the lady gets back?"
"Who's a lady?" she said, and smiling, held
out her palms, red and mottled from barn chores and tough as winter
Tough lady, sure, but why this feeling deep
in her bowels that something was going to happen, was already happening,
to her family maybe? She ran, ran back to the house and took
the porch steps in two jumps.
And inside found the fire had gone out in the
The sunlight swiped at Lucien's face like a
knife blade,. Instinctively he threw up his hands. But
then the light softened with the passing clouds, and he let them fall
back across his chest. The window above him was crooked,
a shiny diagonal. He squinted, and it sharpened into a blade
It came over him that it wasn't the window
that was wrong, but himself. "Mother of God," he groaned. "What
When he tried to move, the joints screamed,
like he was rusted out. He turned his neck to look for Belle. It
was like twisting the top of an old bottle.
God, she was still there, crumpled like a piece
of paper, braid across her eyes. He crawled to her, fumbled
for her pulse, felt nothing, panicked, grasped her shoulders. "Belle,
Belle!" Threw himself on her chest, his cheek against hers.
Then felt the barest breath. Or
was it from the half-open doorthey never closed that behind, fire
out in the woodstove. And the dog, old Raoul, lying at a
queer angle, front paws not matched up with the rear. Afraid
to explore further, not wanting to in case the breath he felt was from
outdoors; wanting, needing to hope, he dragged his body toward the phone. His
arms hauled the belly behind like a hay rake. It bumped along
with painful scrapes and grinds, a sharpness in an elbow where an elbow
wasn't touching. The smell of leather boots still in the
room, the smell of bloodhis blood, Belle's. He cranked
his head about; a red ring haloed her head where the blood sank into
the floor. He was glad now he didn't get the linoleum in
the kitchen though she wanted it, the living room was enough. Then
she went and covered that with a rag rug. You never knew
The phone wire was cut, they done that too. Outraged,
he dragged himself to the door, hoisted his body over the sill. The
porch needed sanding, painting, the old boards drove splinters into
his hands, his knees, bare toes. He saw with surprise he
was in his nightshirt and the sun up alreadyhe was always dressed
by sunup. And then he was down the steps, rolling, he couldn't
walk: he'd get in a crouch and fall over, like the boot got him againwhere? His
cheek was bloody and full of holes, like he was Jesus nailed to the
cross. Close his eyes and that was all he knew: the boot
in the face, the smell of fear. And vomit up in his throat
He vomited into the mud, again and again, then
just dry heaves. He wanted to let go right now, right here,
collapse in the mud. He could die this minute, it'd be easy.
But there was Belle.
He hauled himself to the road. Someone
would find him, pull him out of the mud like he done the others. Get
to a phone. He lay down along the sloping shoulder of the
road. He could only hope they wouldn't come around the bend
too fast, mostly they did, town wouldn't put up a sign. He
couldn't keep a lookout, he was that bad. He let his head
drop in the mud. His body like trash you'd throw out a window.
When the car came, finally, he couldn't lift
his head to see who.
* * *
wasn't till she got Lucien to the hospital that Ruth thought of Belle. If
Belle had been all right she'd have phoned, would't she? "Where's
Belle?" she asked as they loaded Lucien onto a stretcher. But
his eyes were scrunched up in his head like he didn't want to know the
answer, was driven deep into his bones. She almost hadn't
stopped, was headed into the Larocque drive to get Lucien to help when
she realized it was Lucien himself hurt. The ambulance was
out when she phoned from home, so she and Tim got him in the car. Now
if it was Pete, well, Pete had a way of never hurrying, even in emergency:
He "had to think," he'd say. "I hope we never have a fire,"
she'd told him. We'd be ashes before you decided to call
But she wasn't thinking straight herself, was
she? Halfway out to her car and she still hadn't called the
police. Though it could have been some other kind of accident,
farm accident. How many nights she'd lain awake worrying
about fingers in the machinery, tractors overturning. It
was in God's hands, her fundamentalist sister-in-law would say when
the kids got pumping too high on the tire swing. And Pete
would laugh, too, say God was the only way, though there was nothing
spiritual about Pete.
So afterward she raced back to the Larocques'. Belle
would be frantic, wondering where he was. She could phone
the police from there. He must have been struck by a car,
a hit and run. She balled her fitsirresponsible inhumans!
Was it true he kept his money in his pockets? She'd
heard that but couldn't imagine it. Lucien was different,
but not dumb. Anyway, Belle wouldn't stand for it, Belle
had smarts. Not classroom smarts, she never went past ninth
grade, maybe tenth, but she could have, that was what counted.
Up on the porch Ruth saw where Lucien had come
from, the blood stains on the old boards, the door cracking on its hinges
where someone had banged it. It wasn't a car that struck
him, then, but something else. She entered slowly, afraid
of what she'd see.
And she saw.
© Nancy Means