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The Farmer's Daughter
By JIM HARRISON
Grove PressCopyright © 2010 Jim Harrison
All right reserved.
She was born peculiar, or so she thought. Her parents had put some ice in her soul, not a rare thing, and when things went well the ice seemed to melt a bit, and when things went poorly the ice enlarged. Her name was Sarah Anitra Holcomb.
She was without self-pity never having learned how to administer it. Things were as they were. A certain loneliness was an overwhelming fact of her life. Her family had moved to Montana in 1980 when she was nine years old. They felt like pioneers striking out from Findlay, Ohio, but without the young man called Brother, then eighteen and the son of her father's first marriage, who chose to stay behind but then up and joined the marines, an insult because the marines were the core of her father Frank's unhappiness. Frank had seen no combat in Vietnam but as a graduate of Purdue had been in the Competitive Strategies (all unsuccessful) Office in Saigon. His very best friend Willy, also from Findlay, had died from friendly fire in Khe Sanh. The death of Willy, a friend since childhood, was the poisonous goad that finally sent Frank out to Montana where he proposed to forget the world thirteen years after mustering out. The dissolving of the first marriage had put quite a crimp in saving a grubstake, and the second marriage and the arrival of Sarah furtherdelayed his somewhat heroic plans. Frank was a pure ideologue and had planned a future that wouldn't include our culture and its murderous politics. As a mechanical engineering graduate of Purdue (magna cum laude), Frank was confident of making a living in Montana beyond the amount of the savings which he estimated would last three years.
In February 1980 Frank announced that they would make the big move in late April. He had just returned from Montana where he had closed a land deal for 180 acres. He made the statement with a military tinge as if saying, "We move out at dawn."
"Great! We're heading for God's country," said Frank's wife and Sarah's mother, who was nicknamed Peppy.
"There must be a hundred places in the U.S. that call themselves God's country," Frank muttered over his goulash made with super-lean beef. Peppy had been a home economics teacher when Frank met her at the Ohio State Fair where he had been manning his engineering firm's extensive display booth. One reason that he married Peppy was that his ex-wife had been an alcoholic and Peppy came from an evangelical family and didn't drink.
"I'm going to stay here and live with Grandma unless I can have a horse and dog on our ranch."
This brought dinner to a stop as Sarah's rare ultimatums always did. Her mother had never allowed her a dog because she thought of dog poop as satanic. Frank sat there waiting for his wife's lead.
"You know how I feel about dog fecal matter," Peppy said properly.
"I'll teach the dog to poop a hundred yards from the house. If we're living twenty miles from the town we need a dog to guard our chickens, cows, and horses on the ranch."
"It's not a ranch. It's a farm," Frank said irrelevantly.
"We'll think about it, sweetheart," Peppy said.
"No we won't think about it. It's a dog and a horse or I'm staying in Ohio with Grandma." Sarah's grandma was a piano teacher, a Swede who had married an Italian truck farmer, not necessarily the best ethnic mix. Every day after school Sarah stopped at her grandmother's to play the piano. She had been given her middle name, Anitra, from the composer Edvard Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" at iron-hard Grandma's insistence.
"Well, all the kids in the Montana countryside seem to have a horse and a dog," Frank offered.
"I'll pray about it," Peppy said in resignation.
Sarah had to pray with her mother every morning but she had her own eccentric versions of prayer including imaginary animals, the moon and stars, and music, horses, and dogs. Her grandmother disliked Peppy's evangelical beliefs thinking her son had traded in a drunk for a nitwit. Grandmother taught little Sarah that music was the speech of the gods while Peppy insisted that Sarah learn to play some hymns to counterbalance the sinful effects of the classics. Sarah would play the lugubrious "Old Rugged Cross" poorly because it was no more than barbed wire set to music.
Packing up was hard. Sarah wanted to take along their big backyard with its maples and oaks, its coverts of viburnum, honeysuckle, and barberry, the ornamental crab-apple trees and flowering almond, the tiny playhouse you had to crawl into, even the path out the unused back gate, and the back alley where she fed stray cats and where she walked to visit her few friends. Her best friend Maria who was a year older and prematurely pubescent absolutely guaranteed Sarah that cowboys would rape her in Montana and that she best get herself a pistol to defend herself, a matter over which Sarah spent a good deal of time brooding.
One Friday afternoon in mid-April her father showed up with a huge three-quarter-ton black pickup and a long trailer. Two neighbor men helped load the trailer and on Sunday there was a yard sale for what had to be left behind including Sarah's ancient piano. What would she do without a piano? Her parents, of course, hadn't thought of that. Her piano in a real sense was her speech, her only viable conversation with the world. Her father talked sparsely and her mother didn't listen in her busyness of figuring out what she was going to say next. Sarah stayed back in a thicket during the yard sale watching people paw over her bedroom furniture and beloved piano. So much had to be left behind to make room for Frank's tools and equipment, including a large floor tent they would live in while Frank built them a log cabin. She wept behind the honeysuckle bush when a man bought the piano for thirty bucks announcing loudly that he would tear it apart for its hardwood lumber. This man was going to murder her piano and it reminded her of when she and Maria would ride their bikes over to the Humane Society to visit the lovely dogs and pick out which ones they'd like to own should they ever be permitted a dog. Only after several trips did they learn from a brusque docent lady that most of the dogs would be euthanized because no one wanted them. They would kill the dogs like the man would kill her piano. Brushing her tears with a shirtsleeve she had the idea that children like herself were kennel dogs.
The jump from the piano to man to herself to dog wasn't difficult. Unlike most people, she knew her own story while she kept on making up a new one. She had figured out that it was the big gaps that were the problem so she tried to keep busy. Did her father love her? Off and on. Did her mother love her? She doubted it. Her mother loved the certainty of her own religion. She had only an obligatory, perfunctory love for her daughter. Peppy always reminded Sarah of that grinning, porcelain cat on the windowsill near Grandma's piano.
It was a far cry, as people say, from their brutally crude beginning to where they were a few years later. First of all late April is not reliably spring at an altitude of about forty-five hundred feet in Montana. That first day at noon it was thirty-five degrees with heavy sleet and a low-flying cloud bank coming up the valley from the southwest. The five miles of dirt road off the blacktop was mired in mud called gumbo from the recently melted snow still evident in the coulees leading up to the foothills of the mountains to the west.
Her father was stiff-faced grim as he coaxed the pickup along in four-wheel low and finally pulled onto a two-track near the burned-out hole where a ranch house had been. About fifty yards out in back were small corrals, an outhouse, an open-faced calving shed, a small toolshed, and a small pond full of dead, brown cattails. Off in the distance a herd of about fifty elk watched the truck warily.
"What in heck are those?" Sarah asked noting that there were tears in Peppy's eyes, which that morning had glowed with hope.
"Elk," her father said, getting out of the truck and looking up the two-track to a small canyon where an ancient Studebaker proceeded toward them. That would be a man named Old Tim who had sold Frank the 180 acres, all that was left of a once sizable family ranch mostly sold to neighbors. Old Tim was seventy-one and all the family that was left. When the house had burned from an overheated woodstove pipe he had built a log cabin up the canyon on what was to be the five acres of remaining property in his name.
Sarah and Peppy watched as Frank and Tim rather quickly put up the floor tent, installing a dry sink and a potbelly stove. There was a pipe sticking up near the tent and Tim used a wrench to open a valve then walked all crouched over out to the toolshed, started a Yamaha generator, and water came out of the pipe. Frank had told them that Tim had been both a cowboy and a hunting guide and would help set up the floor tent for their home until the cabin was built.
"Don't let a boy touch you until you're eighteen," Peppy said for unknown reasons in the pickup while they watched the men work.
"Why?" Sarah asked.
"Don't get smart with me."
"I mean why would a boy touch me?" Sarah was teasing. Her friend Maria had told her boys would try to put their weenies in her which was god-awful painful. This was remote to Sarah who was staring at an old dog in Tim's truck. She abruptly opened the door. The dog snarled and Tim hurried over.
"Be careful. She don't like no one but me and some days she don't like me. Her name is Sarah."
"What kind is she?" Sarah was smiling at the dog because of the miracle of the dog having the same name.
"She's mostly an Australian shepherd cow dog mixed with something else, maybe pit bull. She thinks all this land around here is hers."
"Sarah, come," Sarah called, kneeling on the ground. The dog came and rolled over to have her tummy scratched.
Now, three years later, there was a great deal of good and bad. They were more or less at home but the bad part for Peppy was that the energy of her religion waned in isolation. She became depressed and Frank drove her to a doctor in Helena a hundred miles away where she was prescribed Valium, a popular drug among rural wives. Peppy fell into a deep lassitude and Sarah's already mediocre homeschooling failed.
For Sarah the homeschooling was the rawest item. It had been planned well ahead of their move and not shared with her. Other than for Tim's dog Sarah, which she called Rover because she didn't want to call out her own name, and her young, difficult gelding Lad, she was terribly lonely. She had joined a 4-H club, an organization for the young like Girl and Boy Scouts but devoted to all things rural including livestock and gardening, sewing, and canning.
Puberty had come unpleasantly early for Sarah and she bound her growing breasts with cloth ankle wrap. The breasts were worse than her monthlies which came in the middle of her eleventh year and for which Peppy who was no longer peppy gave her a tract on the subject for "young Christian women." It was all about the miracle of the bodily processes and in it her body was called "the temple of the Holy Spirit." This was definitely not the way she felt. Even Rover was puzzled by the odor of blood.
She was five foot ten late in her twelfth year, the tallest girl in her 4-H club. The younger, shorter boys called her "geek," her height a wound to their shorter vanity, but she was quick to stop them. When the weather was okay she would ride her rank gelding Lad six miles down the road for their once-a-month 4-H picnic meeting which was held on the ranch of the Lahren family. It was a medium-sized ranch of four thousand acres but immaculate because the Lahrens were of Norwegian descent. Sarah was miffed at her dad because he wouldn't let her raise a heifer for the county fair like many 4-H kids and she was forced to fall back on gardening.
Lad wouldn't work as a project as he was homely, also quite difficult. Rover was out of the question as when she tethered the dog at the Lahrens' she snarled at anyone who came close to Lad having added Lad and Sarah to her circle of protection. Rover would arrive at about noon at their homestead after Sarah had finished her dreary homeschooling and go back to Old Tim's by dinnertime. If she heard or sensed anything at night she'd make it down from Tim's canyon in less than two minutes. Once on a ride Sarah had seen Rover shake an old coyote by the neck until the head separated and march around with the head as if it were a trophy.
Sarah, like nearly all young people, was alert to changes in her parents. Young people with all of their somewhat hormonal difficulties tend to want their parents to stay the same in order to avoid further problems acquiring their tenuous balance.
Frank was thriving and well ahead of his three-year deadline to make a living in Montana. He averaged twelve hours a day of work partly because he could think of nothing else to do. Back in Findlay, Ohio, he had played golf on weekends and basketball with a group of friends during the winter, diversions not available in Montana. He had erected a small pole barn in which he organized a machine shop. He put up a poster advertising his abilities fixing machinery on the bulletin board in the post office in the nearest village, twenty miles distant. Old Tim helped with advice on unfamiliar equipment like hay balers, diesel tractors, or combines to harvest wheat. This involved a lot of driving to distant ranches and Sarah often went along. Ranchers were charmed by a handsome young girl wearing greasy bib overalls helping her father. Frank's better moneymaker came from a sizable greenhouse he'd erected. He had grown up helping his truck-farmer father which he disliked but then Frank was still very knowledgeable about growing vegetables. He also had a large garden area with a high fence to defend against deer and elk. It could be covered with a mechanically unrolled cloth. At one end he had two large fan blowers behind which there were metal wood-fire boxes to protect his vegetables from spring and autumn frosts. Montana was traditionally short on vegetables and twice a week during season Frank would haul his beautiful vegetables to Missoula, Helena, and Great Falls with Sarah going along to help out and take in at a distance the pleasures of cities. One early June when the vegetables sold high her father stopped at a country tavern where they had hamburgers and he also had a beer. The bartender said to her, "Hey, good looking, what can I cook for you?" and her blush burned deep into her. They detoured over to Choteau before turning south and her father drove a few miles into the ominous Bob Marshall Wilderness. As if on order a grizzly bear crossed the gravel road in front of them chasing an elk fawn. In a forest clearing perhaps a hundred yards away the big bear crushed the fawn to the earth. "Don't look," her father said but she watched as the fawn was rended. He turned the truck around and there was the mother elk standing in the bushes just off the road also watching. It was horrible but also thrilling.
Peppy was another matter that third year. Early in the winter when she drove Sarah to the 4-H club she met Giselle, a single mother whose daughter Priscilla Sarah had made friends with recently. Priscilla had loaned her Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye which she read out in the shed knowing that Peppy would take it from her. Peppy and Giselle took to each other despite their acute differences. Giselle was thought to have "too much life," and Peppy started going to the village for groceries and odds and ends like chicken feed after eleven in the morning when the tavern opened. Giselle was the barmaid and Peppy would have an orange pop and they would talk. It was nerve-racking for an evangelical like Peppy to go into a tavern but then her family and minister were back in Ohio. Peppy liked listening to Giselle talk about her "gentlemen friends" but then one day Giselle said, "Frankly, I love to fuck," and Peppy stayed away for a lonely week. Finally she convinced herself that Giselle was helping to lift her depression and didn't that count? Peppy started to go to the once-a-week "girls' night" at Giselle's double-wide trailer where several local women would meet and drink beer, play canasta, and practice dance steps all of which was against Peppy's religion.
Sarah liked the lightening of Peppy's mood. Frank taught Sarah the sciences and Peppy literature and history from textbooks approved by her evangelical group which meant they were bowdlerized. Peppy insisted that Frank teach Sarah creationism rather than evolution but he ignored her. Sarah borrowed books from a boy in 4-H who had a clubfoot and thus was excused from the rigors of ranch labor. This was called horseback country as much of the rough-terrain pasture for cattle could only be reached by horses. The boy named Terry loaned Sarah novels by Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Steinbeck, a volume of Henry Miller called Sexus he had bought in Missoula, and the poetry of Walt Whitman, a far cry from the Tennyson and Kipling her mother forced her to read. Sarah was appalled reading the Henry Miller in the cold toolshed. Why would a woman do these things? In early March her father caught on to her reading habits and installed an electric heater in the toolshed. Sarah had discovered Willa Cather and it was fun to read her without freezing her ass.
Excerpted from The Farmer's Daughter by JIM HARRISON Copyright © 2010 by Jim Harrison. Excerpted by permission.
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I'm not totally convinced about Jim writing in a 15 year old girl's voice, but I liked the story just fine. Good to catch the episode of Jim on No Reservations. Time to pull out his classics for a reread. One thumb up.
The characters in each of Harrison's three novellas find there way into your heart, your brain and your soul. They are people you never met but strongly suspected existed in the next town over. Each novella brings Harrison's earthly view of the gods into the human play. I swear you will never look at a bear the same way to did after reading "The Games of Night". You might not think of yourself the same way either. The Farmer's Daughter belongs in the hands readers who enjoy literature well crafted and a story well told.