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I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don't necessarily sense the motion. I've found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.
I opened my eyes on a Monday morning in June last summer and I heard, somewhere far off, a siren belting out calamity. It was the last time I would listen so simply to a sound that could mean both disaster and pursuit. Emma and Claire were asleep and safe in their beds, and my own heart seemed to be beating regularly. If the barn was out the window, clean, white, the grass cropped as close as a golf course, the large fan whirring in the doorway, then my husband Howard was all right. I raised up to take a look. It was still standing, just as I suspected it would be. I had never said out loud a little joke I used to say to myself now and again:
Everywhere that barn goes, Howard, you are sure to be close behind. He was a philosophical and poetical farmer who bought Golden Guernseys because he both liked their color and the way "Golden Guernsey" floated off his tongue. It was secondary that the breed was famous for their butterfat. I worried about his choice when we bought the farm because I was certain that poetry is almost never rewarded. Now, in my more charitable moods, I wonder if our hardworking, God-fearing community members punished us for something as intangible as whimsy. We would not have felt eccentric in a northern city, but in Prairie Center we were perhaps outside the bounds of the collective imagination.
The ambulances were streaking down the highway while I lay in bed in our farmhouse, in what used to be a very small town called Prairie Junction. Three years before they had built a greyhound racetrack outside of the city limits, a facility which has brought so many businesses and goods and services to the area the governing body voted to change the name of the new, improved version of our town to Prairie Center. Even people who lived there could never remember where they were.
I wondered if a building was burning down, if there was a car accident at the perilous intersection, or a baby coming early in one of the subdivisions. Our range of disaster in that town was fairly limited, but we were due for something, certainly. The last rain had come at the beginning of April and now, at the first of June, all but the hardiest mosquitoes had left their papery skins in the grass. It was already seven o'clock in the morning, long past time to close the windows and doors, trap what was left of the night air, slightly cooler only by virtue of the dark. The dust on the gravel had just enough energy to drift a short distance and then collapse on the flower beds. The sun had a white cast, as if shade and shadow, any flicker of nuance, had been burned out by its own fierce center. There would be no late afternoon gold, no pale early morning yellow, no flaming orange at sunset. If the plants had vocal cords they would sing their holy dirges like slaves.
I often had the fanciful thought that the pond would save us; it would be the one thing that would postpone our deaths by scorching as the climate of our part of the world changed. We were going to spend the long summer months ahead thinking always of the relief of our own unspoiled waters. Most afternoons our daughters, Emma and Claire, and I, and occasionally Howard, farmer, husband, and father, would walk the thirty yards down the wooded path to the jewel of the property, the clear water gurgling up from a spring into a seven-acre pond. There were no leeches, no film or scum or snapping turtles, no monstrous vestiges from the Cretaceous Age lurking in the depths. There, under the blazing sun, were cool, clean ripples spreading from their mysterious source and fanning to the shore, while trout circled beneath.
I needed to get out of bed. Howard, in his quiet, sissing voice, soothing as a dove, had told me to sleep in, but I should have been up to help him, should have woken hours earlier. I lay still and took another minute to smell: I smelled the warm, sweet, all-pervasive smell of silage, as well as the sour dirty laundry spilling over the basket in the hall. I could pick out the acrid smell of Claire's drenched diaper, her sweaty feet, and her hair crusted with sand. The heat compounded the smells, doubled the fragrance. Howard always smelled and through the house his scent seemed always to be warm. His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits. I had grown used to thinking of his smell as the fresh man smell of hard work. Too long without washing and I tenderly beat his knotty arms with my fists. That morning there was alfalfa on his pillow and cow manure embedded in his tennis shoes and the cuffs of his coveralls that lay by the bed. Those were sweet reminders of him. He had gone out as one shaft of searing light came through the window. He had put on clean clothes to milk the cows.
I knew just then, in a brief glimmer of truth, that the stink and mess, the frenetic dullness of farming, our marriage, the tedium of work and love—all of it was my savior. Half the world seemed to be scheming to escape husbands or wives, but I was planted firmly enough, striving, always striving, to take root. I was sure that that morning our family was connected by a ribbon of pure, steaming, binding, inviolable stench, going from room to room and out to the barn. I was so far from my mistakes of the school year, never considering in the freedom of summer that my winter's missteps could strain our vigorous bonds.
At breakfast I was putting out bowls when Claire banged her spoon on the table and announced, "I'm going to die when you do."
"What?" I said, once in a voice roughly an octave lower than usual, and then again in my normal register. "What?" What had possessed Claire, three years old, to say such a thing, other than the terrible force of our doomsayer genes? Or was she prescient? Did she see before her our wrecked car, the Jaws of Life working in vain to extract what was left of us? In any case, I wasn't paying strict attention that morning; I didn't think about my five-year-old daughter, Emma, requiring milk in her red plastic cup so that she could pour her own milk over her cereal. In all innocence I poured the unpasteurized, completely homogenized milk from our cows straight from the blue pitcher into Emma's bowl.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"Christ," I said under my breath.
Emma's shrieks made our one crystal vase rattle and the blood pound in my head. She was flailing in her chair as if she'd been inadequately electrocuted. I knew from experience that there was not going to be any quick consolation for my transgression. "Emma, Emma, Emma," I said, wishing I could somehow teach her to take the smaller blows of life in stride. It was possible my blunder would start a chain reaction that might last a full morning, one tantrum after the next, each round going off when we least expected it.
"Why did you do that?" she sobbed. She was the child who was frequently on the verge of hysteria, the tears right under her lids waiting to fall. She was so often unhappy about what she didn't have or was about to receive. We led a hectic life, and she had a darling baby sister who had stolen some of her thunder, but even so her tantrums were excessive, indeed violent. They frightened me. They seemed to be about so much more than the protocol I had not observed. "Emma, I'm sorry," I said. "I wasn't thinking. Did I ever tell you about Aunt Kate's chicken pitcher that clucked when it was empty?" Of course I had told her about the chicken. I had told her about the magical porcelain pitcher countless times and she usually interrupted, begging for one just like it. "If you want to start over," I said, "I'd be glad to fill your cup with milk and begin again."
She threw her head back and groaned. My dispensation meant nothing. Her skin was already so brown that when she spread her fingers in her woe the little webs between were white as pearl. Her face, stretched to the limit with exaggerated heartbreak, was red and blotchy. I wasn't sure I could bear a day like that one was sure to be, and I slammed my hands down on the table, saying, with such exquisite self-control I felt as if I was singing, "Emma, if you need to scream and cry and carry on you may go sit on the chair in the hall."
"Why," Emma heaved, "did you do that to me?"
"I did not do anything to you," I explained, with emphasis on every word. "I will count to three, and if you are still in a temper you will go to the chair." That was the procedure my neighbor Theresa used with great success to discipline her children. I counted. Emma remained seated during the punctuated and fractionated count from zero to three. Even after I was done, absolutely no place to go after three, I waited, giving her the chance to bolt. In the end there was nothing to do but lift her under her arms and drag her away. She kicked and tossed her head back and forth, snarling and spitting. She could be a torment, a humiliation, at nearly six years of age carrying on as if she was preparing for the role of Helen Keller. I didn't know how the calm and deep wellspring of mother love could sustain itself through years of such storms. I hated her being so unreasonable and so fierce in her anger. She didn't have any right to be angry!
There was a black chair in the hall that had been set there for those occasions, and when I forced her onto the worn seat she dug her fingernails into my arm and pulled down so that blood sprang up from the scratches. "Stay there," I growled. I stumbled back into the kitchen and set the timer for five minutes. My hands were shaking. I looked at my arm, at the three bloody tracks. Emma's rage was as perfect an anger as I could think of, flowing spontaneously on a moment's notice from the depth of her being, where a careful accounting of justice, swift as light, must take place. I could have cried at the terror of it, the surprise, the strength of her fury; I could have cried because I knew that I was responsible for her anger; I wanted to cry most of all because I had wanted to right my own wrongs, to raise a loving family, and I had instead produced a hellion. A hellion! She would pursue us through our lives, fueled by rage, crashing into the nursing home where I would sit slumped over in a wheelchair, to give me a piece of her mind. Emma, more than anyone I had ever known, made me think in outlandish terms, in measurements that occasionally extended through to eternity. I covered the scratch with my other hand. "What did you say a minute ago?" I asked Claire, who was sitting straight in her chair peeling the stickers off the bananas. Her short sleek, dark hair was molded around her head like a close-fitting cap.
"I forget," was all. Our daughters had forged their roles early on with our unwitting complicity: Emma, the bad. Claire, the good. Emma had come hard into this world. "Who are you?" we had hardly dared to ask as she miraculously sucked and burped and moved her bowels. "Where did you come from?" We had stood over her waiting for her, our creation, to find her hands, to sit; we begged her to walk, to use the shape sorter properly, to say our names. We wanted to know she was normal and secretly hoped she was quite a bit above average. We were so careful, buying her skid-proof socks and a bike helmet for the goat cart. At night Howard and I fell asleep discussing her intelligence and her remarks. Claire was the blessed second child, nothing more than a baby, someone who had come to live at our house, who would grow up in her own time, her achievements more often than not overlooked in the confusion of getting to work, scratching up meals, finding clean clothes.
When the timer rang, Emma marched into the kitchen, climbed on her chair, turned her bowl over, and then dropped it to the floor, a look of triumph on her tearstained face. The bowl smashed. I fetched the broom, without missing a step, as if the scene had been choreographed, swept up the broken porcelain and then walked out into the yard, slamming the kitchen door behind me with all my might. She had been sitting so peacefully on the black chair, not because she was obedient, but because she had been hatching her plot.
Outside, the air smelled as if it had been cooked, as if it had been altered by the heat and was no longer life sustaining.
"Don't leave me!" Emma shouted from the porch.
I did not direct my answer to her. I was cupping my hand over the yellow cat's face while it went wild with the prospect of near suffocation. During the next tantrum I would have to tell Emma that I was going to count to infinity, that I would give her that much time to compose herself. I was hissing, shaking the poor cat as I lectured him, when Howard said, 'What are you doing, Alice?"
He was standing in the doorway of the milk house, wearing his rubber overalls and his rubber boots, each the length of a basset hound. The open buckles on the boots and the metal hooks on the overalls jangled when he moved. I felt a rush of admiration for him, in his stiff, clattery suit that on anyone else would have looked oafish. Because he himself was commanding he gave even a rubbery old hillbilly getup dignity.
"What am I doing?" I asked myself, prying the cat's claws from my shirt. "I'm about to suffocate this cat instead of our daughter, that's all," I said, snorting, as if I'd made a joke. Without saying, he'd know I meant Emma.
"I'll be in soon, as soon as I can." He turned and shuffled into his barn. His overalls were pulled too tight in the back and had the beguiling effect of the wicked schoolboy's trick known as Chinese laundry.
"I'm handling it fine, Howard, I really think I am." I sometimes felt dismayed because he didn't seem to trust me the way he should have. "I'm pretty sure I'm doing the right thing," I said under my breath, "strangling the cat instead of Emma."
I had always suspected that deep down Howard was able to slip into a phone booth, shed his rubber overalls right down to a blue body suit, and then take off into the sky, scooping up the children with one strong arm before he made off to a land where milk naturally flows in the rivers. He has always been capable. This is my fondest image from his childhood: Howard, nine years old, is in his back yard in Minneapolis, setting up battalions of toy soldiers and then digging the firecrackers into the ground, lighting them, and exploding his armies. The noise, the smoke, the destruction, are not only thrilling, but beautiful. I can so well imagine the pleasure he would have gotten from being the master planner. In his family album he always has the same crew cut and he doesn't smile. He was a solemn boy who was taught that life is both important and nice. When I first knew him he believed in irresistible notions as the result of living in a neighborhood brimming with Lutherans. He believed that God gave people certain gifts and that if you used them appropriately you'd travel the path that was there expressly for you. His Maker was organized, just like his mother. For Howard, life was never ridiculous; humans, at heart, were not even remotely foolish.
I could see him disappearing through the inner door to the milking parlor. "Don't rush yourself," I called, dropping the cat. "Theresa is bringing her girls over so we'll be fine without your—' I was thinking the words, "model of control."
The night before, our neighbors, Dan and Theresa, had come for dinner with their children. And in our yard, in the spot where I stood, Howard had thrown the glow-in-the-dark ball up in the air, the four little girls fluttering like bats, rising and falling, barely visible in the dark. The luminous ball, a strange glowing green, bounced in the grass and the littlest girl, Lizzy, clapped and shouted, "Moon. Moon. Moon."
When I got to the house, Claire was dutifully eating her cereal. Emma sat in her chair sucking on a strand of her stringy hair. "Someone forgot to feed me breakfast," she choked.
"I'd like some now," I said. "Would you rather I ate here with you, so we could talk about our day, or should I take the tray out to the porch, where there is peace and quiet?"
"Here," Emma said. "Could I please have something to eat?"
"Certainly." I smiled a tight, close-lipped smile at my reformed daughter. Welcome back, I wanted to say. We will tread so carefully, so lightly, so you will not go off again.
"Tell me," she said, "exactly what the plan is."
From the Trade Paperback edition.