2 September 2002 | Vol. 2, No. 3
Ellie, barefooted, has just stepped on a wasp. She doesn't feel it at first—not for the quick pangs of summer heat radiating off the gravel drive—but soon an ache travels up her leg and she lets out a shriek: "God damn it. I told you not to leave your garden tools… " Ellie looks down and sees the body of the insect, scoffs, leaves it there to bake. The translucent wings shudder silently.
"Of all days," she mutters, hobbling on her heel across the broad wooden porch that wraps around their farmhouse. She lets the screen door bang behind her.
"Mary, little bee got me in the foot. See if you can get the stinger out, there." Ellie props her leg on a stool and slouches back in the old captain's chair at the dinner table. "I always say, if something can go wrong… "
"It's you that walked outside." The younger woman, experienced, has given up arguing and says her peace with no emotion. She brushes her wet hands on her apron as if drying porcelain plates and then gets the meat tenderizer from a scarred cabinet. Mary kneels in front of her sister, doesn't look her in the eye, wipes dirt from the wound like an overworked doctor cauterizing an amputation.
"I always say."
"There's nothing here, Ellie."
"Why sure there is. I can feel it." She takes off her broad-rimmed straw hat and puts it on the table, loosens her graying hair, darker now with sweat.
Mary swipes at the foot with a dirty dishtowel and shakes tenderizer into her hand. "Hold still."
Ellie can see dust in the part of Mary's clinging hair, little bits gathered here and there as though she has been left in an attic too long.
"That's okay, then," Ellie snaps.
"I don't want you in a mood for tonight. It's special."
"I'm never in a mood." She crosses her arms like a stubborn child, like that thing she will one day be again. "I'm indifferent."
In Nebraska the corn is as tall as a man and twice as strong—for doesn't it come back every year? No matter the weather and the locusts and the lonely prairie—doesn't it come back?
When Mary was twenty-five she married a young man from Long Island who had spent the summers of his youth on his grandfather's farm. His legs grew bowed with the years; his mind grew bowed. He went to Wyoming as a guide in the fall. Shoshone kept his thoughts free and his wife and child became wistful things to tell vacationers from California.
They grew used to the silence. Who could blame this mother and child for the resentment when he came home and expected his clothes ironed and his dinner cooked and his dog to mind after those long, lazy months? It wasn't the same with him there, brooding and dark and insistent.
One year he took his ATV and his horse trailer, waved goodbye and didn't return. Ellie moved in and scrubbed the walls from top to bottom to rid the house of his scent.
"God damn men," she said, stroking her sister's hair. She didn't mean it but wished she could. Though the siblings didn't share a likeness in thought or appearance or even in age, they rushed together like the wind and the grain, leaving a void behind.
Ellie and Mary rock in handmade chairs on long August evenings. Val Jr. runs before them, a little farther each year, a little stronger.
Mary half-rises out of her chair to call his name when he gets out of sight. Fear rushes to her throat. As a child she had wandered into the endless evening only to find that clouds covered the stars and she was lost. She saw a light in the distance and ran through wheat that was almost as tall as she, through a night heavy with the calls of coyotes and nightmares reborn. Then she stopped and stared for a moment before the tears started. Even now, she can see herself gasping, tearing at the single bulb that moored a windmill to earth. A cruel, dusty world. Also, tender.
All night long she listened to tractor trailers blowing by like ghosts on some highway hidden by a western ridge. In the morning she straightened her clothes and found that home was only a quarter mile distant. They had not left a light on.
Now, Ellie has to tap her sister's wrist lightly: sit, sit. Still, Mary gazes at the thousands and millions of lightning bugs that plaster the world with succinct shimmers of life. Ellie murmurs about their own light, their own house that is never dark, but Mary only smiles sadly with misery in her eyes. Each time, it hurts them. Ellie had not known on that night, so very long ago.
There isn't another place on earth like this, not another place where people reach out with lamplights and phone calls just to question—are you there? For the world might end. If someone walked off that rise they wouldn't return; they wouldn't know to return.
He would forget about snug, whitewashed houses and bottles of pop and wander, amazed, through the endless rills of land.
Their faces are drawn up tightly against formidable skulls. Ellie has small, impish eyes sunken into her copious flesh. Mary is thin and pallid and smiles without showing her teeth. He wasn't enough to make her strong. And when these two women grow old, they will take up jobs at the Quik-Mart. Instead of wrinkling, their faces will swing beneath strong jaws. But their eyes will still be crystal blue, peering into a shared, ancestral past and wondering, wondering, in a stolid Nordic way, if life will ever begin.
Val finds the sisters in the kitchen when he comes home from the creek. "How many hours is it now, ma? How many?"
He has his father's red hair and shortness of stature, and Mary loves him for it. This is her chance to make something good. "Not too many."
He dances around the kitchen, slapping his thighs, a lover of nature.
"You know, Mary, they say this is going to be the best shower in fifty years, more."
"Which I told you."
Ellie scoffs. "All I do is try to help here."
"And you do a wonderful job."
"Tell me again, Aunt, tell me how's it's gonna be?"
"Like lightning. Like lightning, I tell you."
Mary smiles back over her shoulder as she shucks corn. Her hands are thin and still beautiful, in their way. Despite the years of work the knuckles are smooth and her nails are white and even. If she is a little vain over this, who can blame her?
Val brings in a battered old Washburn that is almost as tall as he is. It's a steel string they got in Laramie on their way to visit Val the Elder. Bitterness surrounds it because of that, but they don't mind-too much-anymore. Val says solemnly, "Play the one I like."
So she sets the instrument against her rounded stomach and marches out "Jerusalem My Happy Home." They all look out the kitchen window and Val sees, or imagines he sees, the first of many burning rocks falling from heaven. He cannot think of enough wishes. In fact, he has only one.
Mary has the same thought. Her shoulders heave up and she grabs hold of the counter. "Look at me, Ellie, look at me."
"I see you there." She gulps, her eyes wide, and hands the guitar back to Val. "You run along back to the creek and bring me one of those frogs."
"I was already there—"
Ellie picks herself up and hobbles to the shrunken woman. "We got to get this dinner fixed. Don't want to ruin it for Val. He may never get to see this again, not his whole life."
"Listen here," Ellie says, tipping her chin. "Men leave when they got a problem. It's women that holds the family together. Oh yes, they go off and think they're happy enough—"
"No, girl, they're not. Sooner off you realize that… " It is the thousandth time, the thousandth different way to say we will go on. Their voices trail into whispers.
Val, listening beneath the window, stops hearing the words, hears instead the movement of wind through the grain, of wraith-like fingers combing his hair. Tonight they will eat ham and potato salad and buttered corn. Ellie will make little jokes to repair what happened earlier and his mother will laugh and nod her head, offering confirmation that life will always be even and good. Come locusts and droughts, the seed tries its best.
Then they will go outside to lie in the soft grass and watch just like other families. The meteors will be bright, brighter than any Val has ever seen, and he will cry out as the rocks burn into atoms and dust. Ellie will say hush, hush and watch, but his mother will brush her arm against his side and he will move closer, just for that one moment a child affixed by light.
And somewhere west a man will look up, catch the flickering in a sky plagued by the dead and dying dreams of a thousand, a million other men. It will be like lightning.
About the author:
Elizabeth Routen, 21, is the author of the recently released short story collection Voices on the Stair, from which this story is excerpted. Her writing has appeared more than forty times in publications including the Paumanok Review, the Adirondack Review, and the Newport Review, among others. She is a staff writer for Storyteller Magazine. You can visit her online at routen.windriverpress.com.