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New York Times Book Review
“Quietly moving.”—New York Times Book Review
Sound returned first: a rhythmic whirring, erratic clicks, a consistent tapping interrupted by intermittent beeps, a deep hum she felt more than heard. The light, which she had seen on the ceiling earlier, she now saw was cast by a street lamp outside the window. Through the open blinds she noticed the brick wall of another building.
She saw sitting beside her, his head drooping against his chest, her father, John Rasmussen. His hair was crimped where the crown of his hat usually rested. In the dim light she could make out the gleam of his white forehead in contrast to the ruddy lower half of his face. She knew it was summer by her father's face.
He stirred. "Mary," he said, and she remembered her name. "So you've decided to come back to us?" He leanedforward, bringing his face into the light from outside. "How do you feel?"
"Do you remember anything?"
"No." She looked slowly around, guessing finally she was in a hospital room.
John reached across the space between them. His hand felt rough in hers, his palm dry and calloused, his fingers thick from work. She felt a small scab on one of his knuckles and through her mind flashed a vivid image of him fixing fence on the ranch. With his free hand, he rubbed his lower lip. He nodded toward the bed. "There's some things you need to know."
Neither of them spoke. Finally, Mary lowered both hands to her legs, and as she did, she felt the fingers of her left hand drop over the edge of her thigh. She looked at John.
He nodded. "They had to take it to get you out of the car." He searched her face, wondering, she guessed, what she was thinking. She thought nothing, felt only a numb detachment as though she were watching herself from a great distance having this conversation with her father. She smoothed the top sheet then and looked away from the empty space where her leg should have been to look more closely at a monitor standing beside the bed. She didn't lift the blanket, didn't want to look any closer at what had happened to her.
John nodded toward the machine. "That thing's kept you with us for the past six weeks." He shifted in his chair, unclasped his hand gently from hers, and moved to stand up. "I need to let the nurses know. And your mother will want to hear. Are you all right if I leave you for a few minutes?"
At Mary's nod, he stood up slowly, stiff from sitting so long in the chair. He was broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, not tall. He wore his customary away-from-the-ranch clothes: new Levi's, a striped western-cut shirt, a tooled leather belt with a shiny silver buckle, and clean cowboy boots. On the stand beside the bed lay his good white summer Stetson. At home would be its counterpart, used only for work, sweat-stained, filthy, its brim curled. Mary preferred the hat at home. She preferred as well his manure-soaked boots and his worn jeans. He looked like a stranger leaving the room in his unfamiliar clothes.
As if he knew what she was thinking, John paused in the doorway and looked back. "Just checking to make sure I wasn't dreaming."
* * *
Mary woke again to her mother's voice in the hall. Fresia was scolding Will and Mark, reminding them that Mary still needed to rest. Seconds later, both boys banged through the door of her room. They stopped at the edge of the bed and peered soberly at her with their clear, blue eyes. Freckles spattered their noses.
They smiled then and gestured as if to jump on the bed.
"Stay off that bed," Fresia warned. Her skin was browned by the sun, and like John, she wore new Levi's and a western shirt. Her dress boots were fancier than John's, black with green vines and leaves. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face into a loose ponytail that fell across her shoulder as she leaned to hug Mary. Fresia did not speak, but she refused to release her hold on Mary. "You scared us good," she said when she finally pulled away.
Behind Fresia stood Mary's older sister Judy, and her husband Max, along with Fresia's parents, Lydia and Cal Stiles. Mary smiled at all of them. They crowded close to the bed, each of them touching her. Beneath their smiles, she saw something guarded in their faces, but she didn't ask any questions. John looked tired. He closed the door now so they wouldn't bother other patients on the floor. It was not yet 7:00 AM.
"We came as soon as we could," Fresia was saying to John. "We got all the chores done before the sun was up, went out right after you'd ..."
"Can I see your leg?" Will interrupted. For a split second everyone froze. Fresia grabbed his upper arm then. "William, you won't be ..."
"It's all right," Mary said. "I haven't looked at it myself. This is as good a time as any." She paused before pulling away the blanket. She felt her stomach pitch when she saw how the hospital gown fell away at the top of her thigh. She slowly inched up the gown to reveal the gauze-wrapped stump. As she gingerly touched the bandage with the tips of her fingers, it felt as though she were touching someone else's body.
Will and Mark had crowded close to the bed, and Mark looked away from the stump now and into Mary's face. "Can't you uncover it?"
"Mark," Fresia scolded again.
"Not yet, I don't suppose."
After Mary had pulled the sheet back over herself, there was a lull in the room, and her family shifted uncomfortably. They looked from one to another before Fresia finally cleared her throat. She nodded, and everyone left the room except her and Lydia. "It's Brian," Fresia said once the door was closed.
Mary lifted her hand to stop her. She didn't want her to go on. She knew already. The dreams had told her. Before she woke the wind had stopped and the drifting sand had filled the empty house. Sand had drifted against the fencepost and the barn, silencing both the rattling sign and the banging door. Mary looked at her mother and her grandmother, their faces mute with anguish. Now that they had broken the silence, she felt a sudden force of emotion so visceral it was as if she had been pushed hard back down on the bed. She gasped for breath before turning her face away. Fresia and Lydia sat on either side of the bed. Neither spoke as Fresia stroked Mary's hair away from her forehead and Lydia gently rubbed her arm. The sound of Mary's sobs masked the sound of the monitors.
When she was ready, Fresia and Lydia answered all of her questions. The car had been hit by an oncoming truck on Highway 21 just north of Oconto, in early March. The driver had been at the wheel for twenty-six hours. He had fallen asleep and crossed into their lane. Brian was dead by the time the EMTs arrived. He'd been buried weeks before in the little cemetery outside Rose, Nebraska, near the Needham ranch. The rescue team had cut Mary out of the car. Her leg, crushed beyond saving, had been removed at the scene of the accident. As they talked, no matter how she tried, Mary could not reconstruct any memory of that night.
"That's merciful," Lydia said.
There was an official-sounding knock and the door opened. The nurses had changed shifts and it was the new nurse on duty.
"We've been calling you Sleeping Beauty," she joked as she checked Mary's vital signs. "Now we'll have to start calling you by your real name, won't we?" She smiled down at Mary, ignoring her tears, and said to Fresia and Lydia, "Everything looks good." She made a few notes in Mary's chart. "We'll have to be careful, though, not to wear her out." She looked up from the charts at Fresia and Lydia again as she said this. "I know people will be excited to see her, but after this we'll want to limit visitors to two at a time, at least for the next few days."
Both Lydia and Fresia nodded dutifully. They seemed chastened by the nurse's request. On the ranch, they were commanding women in full possession of themselves-strong, capable, and masterful; there was no situation that could get the better of them. But when off the ranch, they sometimes seemed subdued, a little uncertain.
Lydia remembered then the flowers she had brought. "Do you have something we could put these flowers in?" She reached for a bouquet of lavender iris-their stems wrapped in wet paper towels covered with aluminum foil-and held them up for the nurse.
* * *
Within a day of her waking, the terms phantom limb and phantom pain became a part of Mary's lexicon as the pain in her phantom limb took the form of an excruciatingly tight vise around her missing foot. Nights she woke in agony. During those nights, some of the nurses never let down their guard with her. They remained polite, professional, detached, while others went beyond their duties, staying with Mary after they had administered her medication, sometimes gently massaging the stump, which, when it had been unwrapped, revealed a purple scar, an extra piece of skin folded back over the bone, reminding Mary of the flap of a purse. These nurses did what they could to distract her, telling stories and jokes so she could almost forget the pain until the medication took effect. Many were close to her age, one a new bride herself. Although none of them asked questions, Mary felt their fearful curiosity, their bewildered empathy.
Her team of doctors differed too. The neurosurgeon made his rounds, checked her like one might the engine of a car, made notes in her chart without comment to her, and always left with a curt nod. Others attempted to establish rapport, but they were not all equally successful in the attempt. Among the least graceful of this group was Dr. Jacobs, her orthopedic surgeon. He had a habit of sitting on the edge of Mary's bed, not seeming to sense her discomfort with his overfamiliarity. Despite his awkwardness, it was Dr. Jacobs who helped her finally understand her phantom limb pain.
"The fact that you still have the sensation of a foot is key to your success in learning to adjust to a prosthetic limb." They had been talking earlier about how her fabricated leg had been ordered and that once it came she would begin physical therapy. Dr. Jacobs talked about her having a relationship with the limb. He said she might curse it now but she would eventually see it as a means to freedom. "If you can channel what you now feel as pain into the prosthesis, shoot that sensation down into the prosthetic foot, you'll not only adjust more quickly but what you now understand as pain will, with luck, eventually be perceived simply as feeling."
* * *
As the days of her hospitalization went on, Mary became adept at listening to the sounds in the hallway and predicting who might be coming to her room. She discerned the differing squeaks and clicks of the shoes worn by various doctors and nurses. Her brothers were easy to identify, always running ahead of her parents, the soles of their shoes slapping the floor. Her parents' boots made a metallic tap, Fresia's lighter at the heel than John's. Cal and Lydia also wore boots, but theirs sounded very different from her parents. Lydia shuffled slightly, something Mary had never noticed visually but could now hear vividly. Lydia was still very petite and proudly made it known she still wore the same size Levi's she'd worn all of her life. Her gray hair was cropped short. Her icy blue eyes were a startling contrast to her dark and deeply wrinkled skin. Cal walked with a slow, heavy footfall that immediately brought to mind his massive bone structure. He was a tall man, six foot five. Though he stooped a bit now, he was still broad shouldered, squarely built, like a "brick shithouse," as John always said. He had a large head on a thick neck, and he wore a handlebar mustache that made him resemble a walrus. He laughed and talked loudly, his voice deep in his chest. Everything Cal did was big. In recent years he'd developed a belly. He'd grab it sometimes and say salaciously, "I needed a big shed for my tool."
Mary never had trouble believing the near-mythical stories about her grandparents from their younger days. Cal had inherited over twenty thousand acres from his father, Gerald, and the ranch had been in the Stiles family for 115 years. Mary's great-grandfather had been a hard-drinking man, and he had surrounded himself with hard-drinking hands. Her great-grandmother, Katrina, had always worked alongside the hands and was famous in the area for her daredevil ways, her practical jokes, and her tolerance for the antics of Gerald and the cowboys he hired. She was the only girl in a family of eight, the darling of her brothers, and had worked alongside them. When she married Gerald, it was understood she would not be the camp cook, nor would she be, like so many ranch women, stuck inside. For years they hired old wagon cooks retired from the big outfits that had moved herds across the prairies from Texas to Montana each year. Gerald himself had been a part of those cowboy outfits, repping for the 101 out of Nebraska for a decade before marrying Katrina.
Mary never knew Katrina-she'd died before Mary was born-but she remembered Gerald. He died when she was six. She remembered still how all the ranch hands and the neighbors who had helped each year with branding rode two dozen of the ranch's saddle horses in single file to the cemetery. Cal had headed up the procession on foot, leading Gerald's riderless horse, a big, deepchested iron-gray called Thunder. After Gerald's death, Thunder was turned into the pasture near the barn and given a pensioner's rest, despite the fact that he was only seven when Gerald died. As far as anyone else knew, no one had ridden him since. But Mary had ridden him one night when she was ten. Her friend Katie had been staying over, and they had snuck out of the house on that moonlit night and into the corral where Mary had bridled Thunder and jumped on his bare back while Katie held the gate open. Thunder had taken the bit eagerly, ducking his head for her to slip the bridle over his ears and shifting as he waited for her to tighten the throatlatch. He had run full out on the open prairie, and Mary's pajamas had been wringing wet by the time she returned to Katie, who was angry for having been left alone so long in the dark corral.
The morning after this escapade, Mary had felt ashamed of violating an unspoken code of respect for Gerald. She never rode Thunder again, though for months after that he nickered and bobbed his head toward her each morning when she turned him and the other pension horses out of the corral into the pasture.
Cal and Lydia weren't as dramatic as Gerald and Katrina had been, but there were fabled stories about their youth, too. Like Katrina before her, Lydia had always done ranch work. Once John and Fresia were married and assumed most of the daily operations, Lydia had taken over management of the house. She was as capable and scrappy a woman as Mary had ever known, though Mary sometimes had a little trouble squaring the stories of her grandmother's wild years with the matriarch she had always known. Only in the last five years had Lydia stopped riding roundup each May. Like Katrina before her, there was still a tradition of keeping the door open for former ranch hands, and she'd accepted every one of those troubled cowboys through the years without criticism. She still did, as some of them, damaged physically by the hard work they'd done ranching and mentally by the ravages of alcohol or loneliness, now and then came back to the Stiles ranch to rest or sober up. Cal and Lydia always welcomed them as family and made room at the family table for them.
Things had changed over the years and no hands now lived in the bunkhouse on the ranch. They leased out a few thousand acres of pasture to other ranchers and had cut their herd by more than half. John had more trouble each year finding men willing to work such long hours, and there hadn't been a steady hand for almost three years. Before her marriage to Brian, Mary had been as close to a regular hand as they'd had.
Excerpted from A Sandhills Ballad by Ladette Randolph Copyright © 2009 by Ladette Randolph. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 9, 2010
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