Field

(short fiction originally published in Southern Humanities Review, Fall 2000)

Kate’s boots suck and pucker the muddy flats of her father’s wheat field.  She walks deep into the faded chaff and it tickles her ears and nose.  She carries a flashlight; its cone of light combs softly through the wheat.  Tucked under her arm is an old grain ledger of her father’s – his notations of prices and weights of wheat from years ago, applications of insecticides and weather patterns dated, charted, and graphed.

Kate clicks off the flashlight as she gets farther into the field, toward a leaning oak, and the wheat is blue in the moon.  Her breath is small clouds.  It breaks apart softly in the breeze which rustles the dying stems of wheat in whispers.

A small flock of geese, arching a V, passes.  The geese are quiet at night, softly moaning to one another low in the sky.

 

September 1, 1979.  Moon: first quarter.  Constellations:  Andromeda, Hunting Dogs, Dragon, Great Bear, Cassiopeia.

It’s midnight soon.  Tomorrow’s school.  Geese pass.  Geese are sad and lovely and sort of like me sometimes.

I’m in your field and this is where I’ll go forever until you return.  It’s my cross and where I go to pare down my stray thoughts and memories like my sister’s fat head and Bobby Siler’s faded blue jeans and the outline of the Copenhagen can in his left back pocket.  His smile, too.  And those eyes.  Those eyes could make you want to look into them forever.  You could honestly swim in those eyes, like a bright blue day in the Hastings quarry.  Soft, soft blue with sweet and careless flecks of moss.

The wheat you planted this spring is breaking apart.  Soon it’ll be past harvest and mom just watches it and turns down offers from the Salts and Petersons to help.  With each storm that comes through, she stands at the window and watches the sway, hoping, I think, for all the grain to tear away for good.  It only thins a bit at a time.

Sometimes I think about you leaving and form something out of shapes and thoughts that make it okay.  Sometimes I just hate.

Lately I’ve been noticing something else.  Maybe it’s a swallowed lump or dull aching and has nothing to do with you, my life here, or anywhere I’ve been.  It’s a hurt that has more to do with what comes next.  And when I reach to touch, sometimes my fingers just go numb.

I can’t feel the place I am.

 

Kate lies on her back, rests the journal on her chest, and stares at the pools of stars.  She squints her eyes and the stars swim across her vision in swirls and arcs.  She reaches her open hand across the soil and pulls in two cold handfuls.  It’s clumps and rocks and soft.  She squeezes the clumps and trickles of dark, cold water run the length of her arms.

The week-end before her father left, Kate had spent the morning observing him repair the tractor.  He pulled wound tufts of silage from the blades, rubbed the tufts between his fingers and thumb, breaking them down.  He wiped a crescent wrench with a n orange rag, opened the tractor hood and peered in.

Kate listened to the chink-a-chink of tools plunking from engine to toolbox.

She thought, then, about the hand-me-downs in her father’s life, the 1957 John Deere he was leaning over, the seventy-two acres of soft hills and stretches, framed on the northern slope by creek, the same seventy-two acres Kate’s grandfather had farmed with feed corn and winter wheat.

Her father, like his father, wore blue chamois shirts in the fall and Carthart overalls with the knees all but worn through.  His hands were always dark, even at church, with black half moons beneath fingernails.

He drank coffee with evaporated milk, poured it from a metal thermos he kept with him throughout the day.  When she was younger, Kate’s father told her how land and sky had always been his sanctuary – the silence and the vastness – how it swallowed up his aches and losses.  Like a glass of milk, he told her, cold and delicious.

When he spoke about a thing close to his heart, his voice grew soft.

He told Kate how he felt blessed to spend whole work days watching clouds fold themselves into balled shapes and then break apart.

He told her how he met Kate’s mother at a VFW hall wedding when he was seventeen years old and she fifteen.  They had danced and wandered outside the hall, and he couldn’t surface anything to talk about except the thunderheads he watched earlier that afternoon while twining hay bales.  He told her how the clouds had bloomed in inky thumbprints along the horizon, roiled, and spread across the field and made him feel new.  Kate’s mother had smiled at this – his enthusiasm for the shapes of clouds.

Kate had wondered if it was true her father had walked this same field the night she was born, whether it was true he chose a star, five left from Cassiopeia and prayed against it Kate’s laughter would be as gentle as her mother’s, her heart as soft as soil.

She had also wondered if he hadn’t wandered farther into the field during the night of her birth, and whether he felt scared or in love or alone all at once.  She wondered if becoming a father had made him feel old, or perhaps younger, more like a boy than ever.  She pictured herself in her father’s place, then, crossing the river birch near the creek, noticing the blue skin of the moon wrapped around their bark and wondered if her father had always considered running away.  Had running always been a pondered option, or worse, even a long-term plan?

Kate hadn’t imagined that fifteen years after her birth, her father would indeed run away, leave a note written on yellow legal pad paper, folded twice, and disappear.  At the time, Kate was thinking about the weighty moments of her father’s past;   their cumulative effect had not yet occurred to her.

She had sat in the field, squinting her eyes as the warm morning sun bled the clouds clean.  She heard a sharp spit of ignition and the John Deere hummed and revved before her father boxed up his tools.  A pull of swallows darted from the barn eaves and Kate followed their arc into the trees.

 

September 5, 1979.  Moon: gibbous waxing.  Constellations:  Cepheus, Guardians, Perseus, Herdsman.

I’m filling up your borders with words, surrounding your sad and cautious accounting of your wheat and field.  Each page I turn, I think I’ll stumble into some clue, some reason for your absence.  But this ledger is all numbers and columns and subtractions and additions.

You took such care in documenting exterior detail, the shifts of the world outside you.  Such care in this, but not in the rest.  I don’t know.  Maybe our interior detail is impossible to shape into meaning with words.

I think about Bobby Siler’s tongue in my mouth, flicking like some fish in a creel bag, twitching and turning, searching for something hidden.  The lightness at gymnasium after tumbling and rings, the pin pricks up and down my body and how I thought maybe I was falling into something warm but not mine at all.  My baby sister’s trembling and the way our house moans at night.  My mother’s locked door and the quiet, soft light beneath it.  The gentle ticking of forks and knives on china during dinner.

Who on earth could string these details of my world together and explain me?  Maybe you couldn’t capture the inside parts either.  Not with words.

But why the field? Why love this one thing so loyally?  Each change of growth, weather, and disease is accounted for.  Every leached nutrient of the soil, each new technique of plowing and planting and turning over.  Your coffee marks the pages in faded rings.

Whatever was it you were thinking in between these notes and balances?  What were you hoping to preserve?

I founded a wounded jackrabbit down by the culvert today – its hind leg broken and the rabbit in some kind of hazed shock.  I suppose it had gotten under a tractor somewhere or a pick-up.

I thought of how you once told me you learned how to set and splint animals’ broken legs in 4-H.  In my panic, I guess I forgot you weren’t here anymore.  I gathered the trembling rabbit in my arms and carried it halfway across the field before remembering and before leaning back down and setting the huddled animal on the ground.  The rabbit’s ears twitched back and forth and its eyes looked deep through you as if way in the distance and it’s hard to walk away from something like that, dad.  It’s nearly impossible.

 

September 9, 1979.  Moon: full.  Constellations: Hydra, Northern Crown, Arcturus, Hercules.

Last night Bobby Siler ran his hand up under my sweatshirt and I went ahead and let him.  It seemed like a challenge at first, not really an act of passion, testing limits.  We were making out behind the grain bins, my back pressed against the ribbed metal.  He squeezed, let up, then squeezed again.  Funny how still he got.  His eyes open.  His mouth soft and quiet, lips forming a simple o.

I felt a strange tingle, like a torn shiver, that ran through me from a place deep inside.  Maybe a place of sadness.

I pressed my face into Bobby’s neck and could smell his sweet, Old Spice cologne, probably stolen from his father.  I shut my eyes and if you concentrate in a place like that, you can  feel yourself lifting, soaring like a night hawk, slicing paper thin rivulets in the soft, soft sky – leaning against thermals.

Maybe it’s not only sadness.  Maybe it’s not only sadness I feel in Bobby’s arms and the way he pulls at my flesh.  Maybe the push I feel, like wings against rain, is release, or love.  Maybe it’s the openness of field, the raw tear of the moon, the scattered tumble of stars, releasing, releasing, releasing.

But even there, with Bobby Siler’s hands over my bra, my body leaning in as if to share a secret, I still feel small.  I still feel alone.

 

September 14, 1979.  Moon:  last quarter.  Constellations:  Swan, Fishes.

I don’t know.  I really don’t know anything except how to reach and how to hope.  Maybe Bobby Siler doesn’t either.  He touches my body and our places are sad and lost and soft together.  There’s only this and silence.  We don’t talk.  We only breathe together in silence and I find myself wishing his fingers would sink so deep as to let me go.

I do not love Bobby Siler.  All of a sudden it’s shapes and warmth and the soft taste of his mouth, but I do not love him.

Maybe I love the way his hands feel, fumbling beneath my shirt, the fierce squeeze and silence.

Is this the only place I’m free to dream?  In his kisses and in his father’s cologne and in the cool wash of his distant blue eyes?  Is this the only place I am so very far away?  It’s like the fade of dawn when the sky just lasts.  I do not love him.

 

September 18, 1979.  Moon: waning crescent.  Constellations:  Capella, Dolphin, Whale.

I worry about Mom and I keep trying to see past this, past this time of waiting for word from you, for reason or some sort of answer, but I guess I’m losing hope.  It’s not enough you find kindness to scribble off some farewell note, jumbled up words in short paragraphs by way of explaining whatever sadness you were holding inside.

Nothing about your explanation is original.  We all hurt.  Now, more than ever.  And my feeling is you owe us.

Mom talks about burning the field.  Maybe she sees it as the last thing you touched or a mistress on some plane.  I remind her we need to harvest to keep ourselves alive.  Winter approaches.  And I fill my mouth with all sorts of explanations as to why you really left and how you’ll return and I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t senseless.

Mom will survive without you.  I honestly believe if you never return, we all will survive.  We’re stronger than to fold.

It’s just the wordlessness in your leaving, the unexplainable wonder in it.  It’s not enough you told us you were sad in many places.  Take an honest look at this world, this field, this sky.  From wherever you are, dad.  Take an honest look and tell me, from wherever you are, you don’t feel sadness.

 

The Ellsworth I.G.A. is crowded for a Friday afternoon.  It’s the eve of hunting opener.  Men dressed in flare orange and camouflage, contrasting hues, load their carts with cans of Dinty Moore stew, plastic sleeves of beef jerky, and Olympia beer which is on special.  Kate weaves through the hunters with her young brother’s hand clenched tightly in hers.  She notices his awe of these men, their costume and grizzliness, and she is quick to whip him past them and fill her cart with the pork chops, russet potatoes, and Betty Crocker brownie mix her mother sent her to the store to fetch.

By the time she pushes through the glass doors and toward the pickup, she is hurrying still, her brother a pull-toy behind her, straining to keep up.

A car on Upton honks and a male’s voice calls her name sharply.  She is startled, stops, and loses her grip on the grocery bag.  It spills in a tumble.

It’s Bobby Siler in his blue Cougar.  He pulls up alongside her, gets out and leans over to help collect the groceries.

“Sorry,” he says.  “Seem a little jumpy.”

Kate mumbles something about it not being a problem and realizes, as Drew look son, this is the first time anyone else in her family has met Bobby.  Watching him scoop the dented Betty Crocker brownie mix in his arms, she senses a level of discomfort with this, similar to the discomfort she felt inside the grocery store with the hunters.  Not this one, either, she wants to tell Drew.  Don’t you grow up to be like this one, either. 

“You okay?” asks Bobby.  His arms are full now.  He looks only at Kate, doesn’t seem to notice Drew who only stares, red mittens hanging by yarn at his sides.

“Only a little in a hurry,” says Kate.

“Tonight’s homecoming.  Did you let your mother know you might not be coming home until later?”

Kate wonders what this means.  The bonfire at Jesse’s takes place before the game.  After, they had made no plans.

“I can tell her at dinner,” she says.

“Then I’ll get you at seven, okay.”

Kate says, “Seven.”

Bobby stands.  His arms are full and he appears lost about what to do with the groceries.  He looks at Kate for some direction and the moment he catches her and forces a smile.

“What?” he says.

“It’s not that complicated a thing,” she tells him.  “Set them in the pickup bed.”

He does this silently and the sun flickers off his hubcaps as the Cougar turns the country road.

 

September 25, 1979.  Moon: new.  Constellations:  Triangle, Lynx, Lizard.

The first real frost bloomed through the field overnight, last night.  It crawled across the wheat and soil in a silver blanket.  Twenty-two degrees.  In some parts of Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota they saw snow:  Ashland, Superior, Lutsen, Grand Marais.  The lake-effect snow you used to be so fond of.

I wonder if you know this.  I wonder if you are in a place near enough to feel this cold, see your breath in the same shift of weather.  I wonder how far away you are.

Mom still talks about burning your field.  I found some book on Sweden lying open to this chapter on Walpurgis Night.  It’s on this night – all through the Swedish countryside – huge bonfires are lit and the ashes scattered across the fields.  It’s supposed to rid evil spirits and bring good crops, which, of course, it does – the burn and char of brush making a strong fertilizer.

She wants to burn your field, dad, and I don’t think the idea is crazy anymore.  Can you imagine, a field on fire, the fast push of flames and smoke against and the darkness and the beautiful night sky, tangled burn and stars?

She’s looking for a way to revive something dead, something lost.  I can’t imagine what she’s been feeling inside.  Maybe it’s not at all different from the inside f you.  Wouldn’t be ironic to find out you ran from someone who was in the same place you were?  Wouldn’t it be ironic to find out you had more in common than separate?  Did you ever ask where you both were?  Under the softest of skies, did you ever ask?

 

Kate touches Bobby’s hand softly and draws her hand slowly up his arm to his shoulder and whispers, “What is wrong?”  She shivers, sees her breath, and wants to get dressed.  Instead, she stays near Bobby, who won’t face her now.  He is far away.

Moments before, he was inside her, the two of them making love on a wool blanket in her father’s wheat field, near the line of river birch, while the cold, waxing crescent moon navigated through the birch a little at a time.

Bobby’s mouth was sweet from Southern Comfort and as they undressed each other, Kate felt caught in something close to awe but different, too.  His eyes closed and she and he were so silent, just their rushed breathing, neither one of them taking the lead.  She hadn’t expected to see him so helpless.

When he pulled her close and began to move, she felt a flutter in her chest.  For a while, she felt a weight, not of Bobby, but of something else lodges against her.  To ease herself from the weight, she distracted herself by counting constellations.  She turned her head into Bobby’s neck and felt the weight coursing through her body, running the length of her arms and releasing at her fingertips, before the silence.

Kate pulls Bobby’s navy blue chamois shirt slowly toward her and drapes it over her shoulders.  She can’t quiet the slow shivers and feels them pull in between her own breathing.

Bobby wordlessly pulls on his underwear and jeans, buttons them up, and cinches his belt.  He is still for a moment and then he pulls on his boots.  He trembles a little from the cold.

Bobby walks towards the creek, past the birch, and his form is muted in the trees.  He waits a moment, faces the water, and then kneels and disappears from Kate’s view.  She knows he will return, feels some relief in his temporary absence, but imagines his disappearing act complete.  She imagines Bobby Siler and her father together.  They walk the field in the darkened night, wend their way toward the moon in a push of blue wheat.  She imagines the clouded hues of their blue jeans and wool shirts fading into the distant grain – the field, the world swallowing them whole – Bobby Siler and Kate’s father fading in the distance.

Kate’s breath is even.  Her chest has ceased pounding.  And she presses her hands down her thighs to her knees, tucks them under.

Everything is still.

She wonders about her father’s heart, how full it was, how alive, and what it takes for love to keep from disappearing.  She remembers the moment when her father carried her newborn sister in from the hospital.  Her father’s eyes were moist and he placed the baby softly in Kate’s arms.  He pressed a single caress over the baby’s small head with the soft of his hand.  She had never remembered seeing him so moved by the world before him, so gentle.

Kate wonders what her father could have been feeling during that moment.  Had he already planned his departure, or was he overwhelmed by the beauty of a young family continuing to take shape?  What were his heartfelt emotions?  How far did they reach and in how many different directions?

In a peculiar way, Kate feels closer to her father than she has for some time.  She wonders about the places found and took love, the places he lost it, the places he would search for it again, and how many they would total.  How many are they supposed to total?  

She nearly understands why he chose to disappear – the deep cadence of hope and despair that moves through our lives in waves – gentle life pushing up through warm soil, unfolding, and then receding like clenched fists.  Opening, then closing.  And Kate feels herself wanting to reach across all this, lean into her father’s breath and tell him:  “This is where I start.”

Bobby is walking toward her with his hands in his pockets, but Kate isn’t watching.  She clasps her dark hands together as if in prayer and watches the sky.  With the moon thin, the sky is inky black.  And the stars, each one, burn sharply through.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.

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