Read an Excerpt
Everything you needed to know, Dad said, you could learn on a farm. He was talking about things my mind, shaped by Bible stories and the adventures of Dick and Jane, could barely comprehendthe value of hard work, self-sufficiency, the life cycle of all things. Well, the life cycleI did understand that. Things were always being born on farms, and always dying. And as for how they came to be in the first place, that was no great mystery. "They're mating," Dad would explain when I worried over a bull that seemed to be attacking a helpless heifer. "It's natural," he said, when the pigs went at it, when the white tom from Mel Wegner's farm visited and we ended up with litters of white kittens.
Nature wasn't just ladybugs and firefliesit was dirt and decay and, sometimes, death. To grow up on a farm was to know the smell of manure, to understand that the gawky calves that suckled my fingers would eventually be someone's dinner. It was to witness the occasional birth of a half-formed calf, missing eyes or ears, like some alien-headed baby. We couldn't drive into town without seeing the strange, bloodied remains of animalscats, opossums and the occasional skunk who had risked it all for one final crossing. By the time we got Kennel, our retriever-collie mix, we'd had three golden Labs, each more loyal than the last, until they ran away during thunderstorms or wandered into the path of an oncoming semi headed down Rural Route 4. When Dad had spotted him at the county shelter, Kennel had a torn ear, a limp in his back left leg and ribs you could spot from a hundred yards awaythe marks of an abusive owner.
Even humans couldn't avoid their fates. Sipping lemonade from a paper cup after the Sunday morning service, I weaved between adult conversations, catching little snatches as I went. A tractor had tipped over, trapping the farmer underneath. Cows kicked, and workers were hurt. Pregnant women, miles from any hospital, went into early labor. Machines were always backfiring, shirtsleeves getting caught in their mechanisms. This was to say nothing of lightning strikes, icy roads and snowdrifts, or flash floods and heat waves. This was to say nothing of all the things that could go wrong inside a person.
So we were used to death in our stoic, farm-bred way. It was part of the natural order of things: something was born, lived its life and diedand then something else replaced it. I knew without anyone telling me that it was this way with people, too.
Take my family, for examplethe Hammarstroms. My great-great-grandpa had settled our land and passed on the dairy to his son, who passed it to Grandpa, who passed it on to Dad, who would pass it on to Johnny. Dad and Mom had gotten married and had Johnny right after Dad graduated from high school, leaving Mom to get her degree later on, after Emilie and I were born. I'd always thought it was extremely cool that our parents were so much younger than everyone else's parents, until Emilie spelled out for me that it was something of a scandal. Anyway, when Johnny had been born, Grandpa and Grandma had moved to the inlaw house next door, where Dad and Mom would someday move, when it was time for Johnny and his wife to inherit the big house. This was simply the expected order of things, as natural as the corn being sown, thinned, watered, fertilized and harvested. Everything that was born would die one day. I knew this, because death was all around me.
There was Grandma, for one. I was too young to have any concrete memories of her death, although I'd pieced together the facts from whispered conversations. She'd been standing in her kitchen, peeling apple after apple, when it happened. A pulmonary embolism, whatever that was. A freak thing. I couldn't walk into Grandpa's kitchen without thinking: Was it here? Was this the spot? But life had gone on without her. Grandpa stood at that sink every morning, drinking a cup of coffee and staring out the window.
The first funeral I remember attending was for our neighbor, Karl Warczak, who'd collapsed in his manure pit, overwhelmed by the fumes. An ambulance had rushed past on Rural Route 4, and Dad and Mom had followedMom because she had just completed her training as a nurse, Dad because he and Karl Warczak had worked together over the years, helping with each other's animals, planting, harvesting, tinkering with stubborn machinery. By the time they'd pulled in behind the ambulance, Dad had said later, it had already been too latesometimes, he'd explained, the oxygen just got sucked out of those pits.
Mom had laid out my clothes the night before the funerala hand-me-down navy wool jumper that seemed to itch its way right through my turtleneck, thick white tights and a pair of too-big Mary Janes with a tissue wadded into the toes. She'd always been optimistic that I would grow into things soon. During the service I'd sat sandwiched between Mom and Emilie, willing myself not to look directly at the coffin. The whole ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust thing made me feel a little sick to my stomach once I really thought about it, and so did Mom's whisper that the funeral home had done "such a good job" with Mr. Warczak. It was incredible that he was really dead, that he had been here one minute and was gone the next, that he would never again pat me on the head with his dirtencrusted fingers. There had been such a solemn strangeness to the whole affair, with the organ music and the fussy bouquets of flowers, the men in their dark suits and the women in navy dresses, their nude pantyhose swishing importantly against their long slips.
"It is not for us to question God's perfect timing," Pastor Ziegler had intoned from the pulpit, but I remember thinking that the timing wasn't so greatnot if you were Mr. Warczak, who thought he could fix the problem with the manure pump and then head inside for lunch, and not for his son, Jerry, who had been about to graduate from Lincoln High School and head off to a veterinary training program. The rumor had been that Mrs. Warczak's cancer was back, too, and this time it was inoperable. "That boy's going to need our help," Dad had told us when we were back in the car, riding with the windows open. "It's a damn shame."
"Why did it happen?" I'd asked from my perch on top of a stack of old phone books in the backseat. I could just see out the window from that heightthe miles of plowed and planted and fenced land that I would know blindfolded.
"Why did he die?"
"It was an accident. Just a tragic accident," Mom had said, blotting her eyes with a wad of tissue. She'd been up all morning, helping in the church kitchen with the ham and cheese sandwiches that were somehow a salve for grief. When we'd parked in our driveway, she'd gathered up a handful of soggy tissues and shut the door behind her.
"Oh, pumpkin," Dad had said as he sighed when I'd lingered in the backseat, arms folded across my jumper, waiting for a better answer. He'd promised to head over to the Warczaks' house later, to help Jerry out. "It's just how things go. It's the way things are." He'd reached over, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze in his no-nonsense, farmer-knows-best way.
Somehow, despite all the years that passed, I never forgot this conversation, the way Dad's eyes had glanced directly into mine, the way his mustache had ridden gently on top of his lips as he'd delivered the message. He couldn't have known the tragedies that were even then growing in our soil, waiting to come to harvest.
All he could do was tell me to prepare myself, to buck up, to be readybecause the way the world worked, you never could see what was coming.
I would always remember the summer of 1994 as an unbroken string of humid days, the air thick and sticky late into the evening. It was the summer of the Fifth Annual Watankee Softball Tournament, and a summer I'd never forget. Mom had seen the announcement in the St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church bulletin on a Sunday morning and, looking for an activity to keep us from uninterrupted hours in front of the television, had signed us up by that night.
"It'll be fun," Mom said, urging us into action. "I can see it nowThe Hammarstrom Hitters."
Emilie rolled her eyes. "More like The Hammarstrom Quitters."
We practiced on our front lawn, using tree trunks as bases and chasing Johnny's powerful home runs until they disappeared into our cornfield. Johnny had been dying for action all spring, ever since he'd dislocated his elbow during wrestling semifinals and had been forced to sit in the bleachers at State, his left arm swaddled from shoulder to wrist. By June, Johnny's arm had healed and he was ready to resume his status as a local hero.
We piled out of Mom's Caprice Classic an hour before our first game at Fireman's Field, Johnny leading the charge. Dad followed him, whistling, tossing a ball and catching it in his glove. Emilie slumped behind Dad, her hands in her jeans pockets. "This is going to be so boring," she'd protested on the way over. "Almost as boring as staying home."
Mom waited for me to free myself from my roost in the middle of the backseat and leaned over, shutting the door behind me. She pointed to the encyclopedia-sized book I carried, Myths and Half-True Tales. "You're bringing that with you?"
I considered. I was too small for softball, too small for most thingsI needed a boost from the top rung to reach the monkey bars and a step stool to see the top of my head in the bathroom mirror. It went without saying that I couldn't swing a bat by myself, and that a fly ball would probably knock me down.
"What if I get bored?" I replied.
Mom and I walked toward the infield, where Bud Hirsch, captain of Hirsch's Haybalers, waited with his clipboard. He took one look at me and, with his massive gut thrust forward, said, "You here to watch, shorty?" He chuckled as I sidled away, offended, and turned away to bark orders at the rest of the team. Johnny was going to start out in left field, Dad at first base.
Mom leaned down to me. "Never mind him. You can share my position with me if you want."
"No, thanks," I said. "I'll just watch."
During the warm-up, I sat cross-legged on the bench in the dugout, leaning back against the chain-link fence. Bud Hirsch's son, Raymond, was pitching slow arcing lobs to Sandy Maertz, a member of our church. Dad, Johnny and the rest of the men in the infield passed the ball back and forth, rolling grounders and tossing fly balls. Mom stood awkwardly in right field, waiting to be included.
The other team, Loetze's Lions, was starting to arrive, and the bleachers on both sides were beginning to fill up. Someone unlocked the concessions stand, flipped the wooden door down, and raised the Watankee Elementary Academic Boosters Club banner. The money raised tonight would finance our school field trips to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc and our less academic but equally inspiring annual visits to Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
I tracked Emilie as she made her way up to the top row of the bleachers, her honey-blond hair swinging behind her. It amazed me how she moved, how much confidence she had. A year ago she'd been a clumsy eighth grader. Now she was ready to take Lincoln High School by storm. "I'm going to join pep band," she'd announced to me proudly when we were lying side by side in our twin beds one night. A shard of moonlight had fallen through the curtains and cut her slim body in halfher hipbones and long legs on one side, the small buds of her breasts, like plum halves, on the other.
"Why do you want to be in pep band?" I'd asked, thinking of the few football games I'd attended in my life. The pep band was a group of shivering kids who took the field at halftime after the cheerleading routine, right about when half the stands decided they needed a hot dog or a trip to the bathroom. "Those kids never get to watch the game."
"I don't care about the stupid game," Emilie had said, sighing dramatically. "I want people to watch me."
Bud Hirsch called my attention back to the game with two toots on his whistle. "All right! Switch it up!" Our team started a slow jog through the infield to our dugout, and Loetze's Lions took a turn at their warm-ups.
Panting as he came off the diamond, Dad gave me a high fiveas if by staying out of the way, I'd performed some huge feat.
I slid from the bench. "Can I have a dollar?"
"Sure." Dad dug in his pocket and came up with a handful of change.
"Stay close," Mom said.
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked behind the batter's box, my feet kicking up little swirls of dust that instantly coated my tennis shoes. I resisted the urge to hike up my shorts, Emilie's from years before. Sometimes I hated the way Mom looked at me, like I was a medical specimen.
A dollar bought me a can of Coke and three blue Pixy Stix, the kind of pure-sugar pleasure I was never allowed at home. Clutching the soda in one hand and my book in the other, I scanned the bleachers for a place to sit. A few people from church smiled encouragingly in my direction, but I spotted Emilie in the center of a tight, whispering circle of recent Watankee Elementary graduates and changed course. A few of my own soon-to-be-fourth-grade classmates were sitting in the stands with their parents, but we glanced away from each other with summertime awkwardness, as if we knew we weren't meant to connect again until the Tuesday after Labor Day.
I lugged my volume of Myths and Half-True Tales to a shady spot beneath the bleachers and opened to the dogeared page on Atlantis. The game began and cheers erupted.
We were only a mile or so from our farm, but to hear Dad yell, "Hammer one home, Hammarstrom!" during Johnny's turn at bat was to imagine that we'd been transported somewhere far away, like an island in the South Pacific. Dad was only here at all because he'd worked out a deal with Jerry Warczak: Jerry, who had no interest in soft-ball, would cover Dad's last milking on these nights if Dad and Johnny would lend him a hand on Saturdays with the chickens. This was typical of the sort of deals they worked out. "It's just being neighborly," Dad had explained to me, but it had seemed that he was being more than neighborly when he'd clapped Jerry on the shoulder and said, "He's like another son to me."
When the noise of the game finally faded into the background, I spent the next few innings reading about Atlantis and wondering how a city could go missingpoof!just like that. What would happen if Watankee, Wisconsin, and all the people I knew were to fall off the face of the earth one daya sudden crack, then a quick slide into Lake Michigan? How long until the rest of the world missed us?