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Birdsong strikes up and musters in the first soft press of dawn. Starlings, sparrows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds. There is the flush and shuffle of feathers. Throat tunings. The hollowing chitter of beaks. Bursts of flight. Wrens, flycatchers, cowbirds, crows. Complaint. Exultation. They work the meadow grass, the cottonwoods along the creek, the open barnloft, alive in tilting sweeps of hand-size shadows. The raptors float silently a thousand feet above, turning, spiraling atop the early-morning thermals, hunting the edge of the ebbing night.
A downdraft masses cool and heavy against the escarpment of the Front Range and totters and slides from the warming sky. It thrums against the sides of the stocktank, the outbuildings, the house; ripples the surface of the pond below the barn. It swings the pasture grasses east, lifts the boughs of a Douglas fir beside the house, scatters in bursts of cottonwood and aspen leaf. It smells of dew, juniper, sage, pine, horseshit, and stone. It chills McEban's exposed shoulders, his arms; pricks him away from sleep. He turns in his bed. He drifts. He is, for this brief moment, without memory, without longing. Simply one of God's naked creatures, accepting of the seasons.
The wasp-yellow curtains quake at the window, reflect as light beige. The bedroom furniture stands in subdued angles of gray and darker grays. Gretchen's dress, cornflower blue, draped over the ladder-back of an oak chair, catches in a predawn shade of snow-shadow. Her plain cotton bra and panties lie wadded on the seat of the chair, dull as weathered vertebra.
McEban doubles a pillow under the side of his head and relaxes into it, and hooks the hem of the sheet with a forefinger, and draws it gently back from her. He feels the flash of her body's heat against his own and lies blinking in the half-light, remembering that he has known this woman all of her life. Forty years and change, he thinks. He remembers they were children together, and that he loved her when she was a girl, and later, and that he loves her now.
He looks into a corner of the room, at their reflections caught in the freestanding mirror. There is the curve of her spine, lambent; flawless as a small burl of cumulus. She flexes and turns, and her reflection turns onto its back, its legs and arms splayed, settling. McEban looks away from the mirror. He looks again at the woman beside him.
Her arms are sun-stained to her shoulders, and her legs to her knees, and her face flecked with freckles. The rest of her runs milky, gone translucent in places, and at those places puzzled faintly with bluish veins-at her throat, the sides of her breasts, the smooth slope of flesh that draws low across her hips into the nappy wedge of auburn hair.
She moans lowly and moves her head from side to side and her long hair pools to the sides of her neck, spills across her shoulders, across the pillow, across the sheet, appears artesian. He cups a palmful of the hair to his nose and inhales. He has prayed to have this woman in his arms, and feels full of the power of his prayers. Her hair smells sweet as blood.
He is afraid to look again into the mirror. He is afraid of what he might see. It is his belief that his family's ghosts watch and record his transgressions. He imagines them as judgmental, with notebooks-as scouts for a prudish God. And then he thinks of Bennett. He thinks of the three of them-Gretchen and Bennett, and himself.
He thinks that Bennett does not believe in an afterlife, in witnesses, doesn't give a shit for the quick or the dead. He thinks he has never heard Bennett speak of his dreams. He has, in fact, heard the man state aloud that dreams are for the unfocused. He knows Bennett's trust lies in a world he can kick. A world that kicks back. And Bennett is his best friend, and Gretchen is Bennett's wife. He thinks there is no way for that not to be a blow. In the real world, for a focused man.
He looks again at Gretchen, to the woman who is his best friend's wife, lying here, beside him, in this house where he was a boy.
He'd heard her park in the drive and recognized the sound of the truck and did not believe it. He'd wondered if he was dreaming. It was after midnight, and there was just a paring of moon, Venus unclouded and lamping, fallen to the west of the moon, fallen down the vault of blue-black sky.
He heard her in the hallway, recognized her steps, heard her undressing at the foot of his bed, the sound of her breath, and still did not believe it. Even when she was beside him in his bed he did not trust the scent of her, the feel of her skin against his own.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"I don't believe you," he said. "This is just a dream."
She pressed herself harder against the length of him. She kissed him. She cupped his hand over her breast. "Does this feel like a dream?"
"Yes," he said. "It feels like my dream."
He reaches out in the soft morning light and rests his hand gently on her abdomen. Just his hand. The hand rises and falls. She fidgets slightly against its weight. Her eyes flick under their lids. Her lips part as if to speak.
He remembers her younger. Before the gray got a start in her hair. Before gravity pulled half a lifetime of living through her flesh. He can't help himself. She bends her left leg at its knee and settles the foot against the inside of her right calf, her thighs opening, and he remembers her at seventeen, in his arms. He feels the weight of wanting her all the time between. Twenty-three years, he thinks. The bulk of his life.
He remembers her standing in a falling light, spring light, unsteady on her bare feet. He remembers her kneeling on the uneven ground. She knelt on a blanket. He remembers her raking her hands back through her thick hair, drawing it into a ponytail. There was the sound of the creek. There was a hatch of mayflies. The air was gauzy with pollen and insect wings, the sun halved by the horizon, nearly set. Her breasts rose with her arms, cast cups of shadow, and her red hair ignited. That is what the slant of sunlight did in her red hair. He wondered that her hands did not burn.
He concentrates on their breathing, and the effort allows him a sense of fragile union. He concentrates on his breath, and hers, and doesn't wonder if he is wrong in the world. He doesn't worry that the walls are shelved with the eyes of the curious and judgmental dead. He feels boyish, sweet-natured, innocent, even lucky. That is the way he's feeling when she comes awake.
She smiles and looks at his hand, where it rests on her belly. She lifts his hand and turns it and kisses its palm. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and sits. She shakes her head, and her hair lifts and falls at her shoulders. She still holds his hand.
"Did you sleep?" she asks.
She turns to see him nodding and smiles again. "I didn't plan this."
He stares at her.
"Honestly," she says.
"I wish you had."
"But I didn't. It just happened."
The sun breaks the horizon and slaps the room alive and stark. The reds, greens, blues, yellows throb. She stands in the glaring light, and he reaches out to her. He looks up the length of his mottled arm, to the soiled fingers, the broken nails, the stubble of worn hairs spiking the lengths of the fingers. He means to ask some question, something hopeful, but his mind is struck blank by a plain and primitive gratitude.
He pulls in his arm and bends his knees. He rolls against his hip and sits on the opposite side of the bed.
Insect chorus spikes through the morning birdsong, and he knows the nightchill has settled in the trees along the creek, in the ditches, and, thinly, where the ground falls low.
He watches her stand from the bed and step her long legs into her underpants, hook her bra at her waist, turn it, shrug into its cool lace, run her thumbs under its straps. She drops her dress over her head and pulls it away from her belly and hips, and it settles and hangs in the morning light. She takes up her canvas bookbag from the back of the chair and ducks through its single strap and adjusts the strap between her breasts.
He knows the bookbag holds field guides for flowers, birds, trees. At least one novel. No doubt two, perhaps three, books of poetry. And Milton. She doesn't go out of the house without Milton.
Woody yips and bounces on his front legs, and they look at him. He blocks the bedroom doorway and is anxious for his day's labor. His tongue lolls from his muzzle, his brindled body bleeding out of definition in the still-dark hallway.
Gretchen squats at the dog's head and rubs his shoulders, works the length of his ribs. His eyes go soft with pleasure. He forgets he is ugly and common and owned to work cows.
"I love you," she says. Her hands are deep in the dog's ruff, and she muscles him back and forth over his shoulders, and he mouths at her wrists.
"I love you more," McEban says. He has not stood from the edge of the bed.
She looks over her shoulder. "It's not a contest," she says.
"It feels like it is."
She stands away from the dog. She leans into the doorjamb. "You love me more than I love you, or more than Bennett loves me?"
"Both," he says. He knows he is capable of saying anything. He knows a prayer has been answered and a vacancy made in his desires. He has no control over what may be sucked into the void.
"You remember what it was like before?" he asks.
"The time before last night. When we were kids."
"That was a lifetime ago," she says.
"It doesn't seem that way to me."
She adjusts the bookbag against her hip.
"I remember the light," he says. He looks up at her.
She squares herself in the doorway. She doesn't look away. "I can't remember whether it was day or night. Not even the time of year." She still doesn't look away. She means to hold him there, in front of her, without the escape of memory.
He nods and looks down to where his hands cap his knees. "You want me to pick you up for the auction?" he asks.
"Yes, I do."
"I thought you might've changed your mind."
"How would Bennett get home?" she asks. "If I changed my mind?"
She turns away and he hears her in the shaded hallway and the dog's toenails on the floorboards at her heels. He hears the screendoor slam, and the dog barking once from the kitchen, and then again.
He walks to the window and squints into the glare. He watches her drive across the plank bridge, the boards thumping against their loose spikes. He watches her on the dirt section road, the rise of the red talc behind her. The wind has hushed, and the dust swells to the roadside and powders the borrow ditches rusty.
"It was the first of June," he says. "It was the very last part of the day." He sat at the kitchen table with his mother and grandmother. His heels were hooked on the front rung of his chair, and his knees pressed against the underside of the table. He was eight. It was 1968. He does not remember that they spoke. There was the tinny clink of silverware. The burble of the electric coffeepot on the counter. He was waiting for the day to happen to him. He was working his way to the bottom of a bowl of creamed wheat.
He heard his father in the hallway and looked up from his breakfast and smiled at the man. His father was in a hurry. He didn't smile back. He moved to them, and passed without so much as a nod. He held a pistol at his side, low against his thigh. He kicked through the screendoor and marched to the center of the yard and stopped. He gripped the gun in both hands. He raised it slightly away from his waist and took a deep breath and emptied all six chambers into the ground between his feet. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom. Just like that.
The boy's mother and grandmother winced at each round's report but did not move from the table. They put down their silverware and stared into their plates. The world stood quieter than it had. For a single long moment he could remember no sound at all.
He unhooked his heels and slid from the chair and stood at the screendoor.
The red-and-white Hereford cows along the fence had bolted away into the irrigated pasture. Sprays of hoofstruck water rose and hung in the air about them. They bunched at the pasture's north corner, milling, their calves bawling and nuzzling their mothers' bags. A row of red-winged blackbirds lifted from an electrical line and flapped in the air, then settled farther downwind in a stand of cottonwood.
"Your father cannot tolerate crabgrass," his mother said.
He looked over his shoulder to his mother. He still stood at the screendoor. She began to giggle and couldn't stop.
His grandmother scowled and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Crabgrass?" she asked.
"Gardening," his mother said. She had stopped laughing. She stood and carried her dishes to the sink, and pressed her fingers to her temples and turned. Her pupils had come large in her eyes. "Migraine," she announced. She could as well have said, "Sunrise."
His grandmother snorted and took up her spoon and scraped at the rind of her truck-ripened grapefruit. They heard the back door open and close and his mother settle into her chair on the back porch.
"My ancient ass," his grandmother whispered, but she wasn't trying to be quiet.
It was as though there had been an argument, and now the argument was done.
His father stood on the lawn. He stared at the ground. He was dressed in his single suit. A wool serge, dark blue, the trousers worn pale at the knees and seat, the jacket at the elbows. The suit had been McEban's grandfather's. It had come with the ranch. Handed down like work and debt and weather. He'd seen his father wear the thing to funerals, and weddings, and on these occasional acts of emotional disobedience.
His father took a step toward the barn, shook his head, and thrust the pistol into the waistband of his trousers. He blinked into the cloudless sky and turned and looked back at the house.
McEban stepped away from the screen to let him in and the man poured a mug of coffee and leaned against the counter and sipped the coffee. His hat was tipped back from his face. The face appeared drawn. It was unshaven. The belly of his shirt bunched above the pistol's wooden grip.
"You about done with your breakfast?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," McEban told him.
"You get all the way done I'll want your help. We need to move those bulls in with the cows."
"He's helping me today," his grandmother said.
His father turned and stared plainly at her.
"For how long?" he asked.
"For as long as I need him," she said. "There's a garden to put up. And I bought flats of fruit at the IGA. They'll spoil."
His father nodded and sucked at his teeth.
"I better get out of these clothes," he said.
He paused by her as he passed. He kissed the top of her head, and when he was out of the room the old woman said, "He gets his good manners from your grandfather."
She crimped the halved grapefruit rind in her fist, held it above her upturned face, squeezed the last of its sour juice into her open mouth.
She gripped the sides of her chair and stepped it back from the table. Right side, left side, right, hefting and releasing separately the weight of each considerable buttock. She stacked their breakfast dishes and carried them to the sink. McEban stood by his chair. His bladder ached and his ears rang.
"You learn anything useful this morning?" she asked.
He looked up at her, pinched his nose, and blew hard to clear his ears. "I learned to stay out of the yard when Dad's dressed up."
His grandmother smiled and then began to chuckle. The sleeves of her housecoat were pushed past her elbows. Her forearms and hands were shiny with dishwater. Her cheeks were flushed.
"That suit's going to fit you someday, too," she said.
From The Fruit of Stone by Mark Spragg (c) August, 2002, Riverhead Books, used by permission.