Joyful I step into a golden field. In days the harvest will drop at the will of the stone-sharpened scythe, the grain threshed from the mother stalk, collected and poured like honey into sacks, then rocked in wagons to the railroad depot. But for now the feathery tips tickle my palms and swish against my skirts, and around me, to the horizon, is the undulating gold, bending in the Chinook wind as if God Himself runs His hand through His hair.
Walk on open heart, in step to the quickening. I ache to press my lips against his smile, to let my hair come down and mingle gold on gold as I fall into his arms, but when all I see is ripe barley for a thousand miles, I know that I shall not see him, that he is here in spirit only.
I wake with tears. My hands are clasped prayerfully across my chest; elbows, forearms and fingers numb in mock death. And the dream rushes at me like the West Wind, the strongest of winds, the breath of Mudjekeewis, and lifts me from my slumber quickly to the dresser, to pick up my journal, to write down each fragment immediately, lest I should fail in the moment to embellish the record with other memories, other dreams, other truths.
From my room I look out east at the Red Swan floating in a purple haze. The barley fields glow with sunrise flame. The Indian winter trade has filled our stores with salmon, mountain trout and buffalo. The wet spring saw the ploughing and sowing tableaux across the fields, for anyone who would paint them, and now the crops respond to the summer heat.
At the window I issue thanks and rest my forehead on the cabin wall. Only death will take me from this place, for I love it as I love my memories. It is part of me. It hunkers down in winter, resistant to wind-whipped snow, but in spring the windows and doors are flung wide open and prairie breezes blow through west to east, bringing the promise of rejuvenation.
I drop my pail at the door and, leaving a shortening shadow on the porch, move, cooling, into the main room.
"There’s a newcomer on the other side of the River, toward Minot Town," says Poppa.
Momma hunts busily at the range. Poppa sits spread at the table, his eyes focused on cleaning his gun. The two boys are beside him, watching, eating.
"I made some pies yesterday," says Momma, and opens the pantry door and looks in.
"Elinore, you can take one over."
"And ask him to Sunday lunch," says Poppa.
My sweet brothers, how your faces howl with silent, indignant screams, knowing that my chores are now yours! But contrast that with my happiness: moan and groan, yet still manage to get the work done in time to go fishing, you loveable rogues.
Lily of the prairie, Wenonah, is a strong horse, but she likes me, and she likes to run, streaking along, her white mane flicking my laughing face. Like a tick on her neck I suck her zest as she carries me on and on as if I were not there. Together we race along the riverbank, heading north until we reach the ford, a place where scattered rocks and shingle reduce the depth of the river. It is rushing, and four feet deep, so, untying the laces of my boots and removing them and my stockings, I hoist my skirts up round my waist and urge Wenonah into the dark, crystal water; it is cold, and she blows and snorts as the Taquanemaw slaps her belly.
The sun still climbs when I reach his homestead. A thin smoke spiral rises from the chimney. In a small corral is a short-horn cow with her calf and between her cloven toes chickens inspect and stab the dirt. A family of hogs root at the side of the shack; the black backed sow gives me a bloodshot glare. A big dog thumps its tail against the earth, embarrassed because he is too old to get up to protest my arrival.
I stand in the stirrups and holler. Wenonah clops forward and I can smell acid earth, wood smoke, and bacon. I wonder what kind of man comes out here, alone.
Suddenly he is there at my bridle. And look at me: boots tied around my neck, skirt around my thighs, ruckled on the saddle in the gallop. My fault for riding like a man. He is amused, I think, and I take instant offence and my cheeks flush, yet I am staring at him.
The sun is strong and he puts one hand up to shade his eyes. Now I can see their darkness. They look deep, like the middle of the Taquanemaw, where currents fast tug at your legs if you swim when the river is in full spate. It seems to me that I can feel something swirling around, pulling me as I talk to him, but I ignore it because I am a strong swimmer.
At the Midsummer Dance it remains light until eleven o’clock. The sun slips below the horizon and leaves a rim of magenta sky, which shades into purple, and then finally, over my head, becomes an inky indigo through which stars shine.
All night I dance with John Buckley. Poppa stands by the band and pounds his hands together in time to the beat, his face split by a huge smile. Momma sits with her friends. Poppa makes her dance with him a couple of times and once I catch her eye, and in that glance she makes it plain that she is simply doing her duty. In reply, I flick out my skirts in a promenade, and laugh.
John Buckley and I walk through the fields, our fingers entwined, brushing the tips of the harvest.
"Can you see the future?" he says.
I have learned the enticement of enigma.
He smiles approvingly.
"Will you stay with me?"
"Will you be my love?"
He laughs a little at this.
"I promise," I say, slightly hurt. "I will stay with you forever."
He sighs and pulls off an ear of barley, rubs it in his hands, blows the chaff away and drops a few grains into my palm. I put some in my mouth, crunch them, then spit them back onto the earth. He does the same.
"I can’t make promises like you," he says. "In the past I made promises." He looks up, shows me the line of his jaw, the conch of his ear, and stares over his shoulder, towards the east, his origin. "And I’ve broken a few." He turns to me.
"But I swear…"
I put my fingers to his lips.
"No," I say, and drop to the ground, pulling his arm. He kneels beside me, trembling. We do not speak. He kisses me. I feel the pressure of his lips, the thrill of his tongue against mine and, as we lie together, I imagine that I am floating in the golden harvest.
The barley sways and whispers, but he stands suddenly, pulls me to my feet, then stretches out his arm parallel with the horizon and makes a broad sweep.
"Just imagine many years have passed." He points to a hollow by a tree. "Children, running. Can you hear their laughter? And there is the house, the open door, a welcome to our friends, and all around is the ready harvest."
My eyes are closed. His face touches mine, his breath is soft in my mouth as he gives me his words, his promise.
So is it you, John Buckley, who prompts the pictures in my mind?
"One day you’ll remember me," he says, eyes closed against the summer sky.
The stalks of barley stretch to infinity.
"We are quite safe," he says.
I shrink and squirm my wing-blades into the red soil, closer to the pulsing earth, and crackle the barley nest as I shake my head. An Englishman in North Dakota? A man who talks in riddles and boasts, and utters poetry, speaking with crisp clear consonants and soft rounded vowels produced from the largest space at the back of the throat, the space where the tongue takes root.
"Who shall I tell about this?" I tease.
"Then only we will know."
"And Him,’ he says, pointing his arm straight up, then flattening his palm to shade my eyes so I can stare at the penumbral glare.
"Gheezis," he says, "the Great Sun, the Beholder, has seen everything, and he is jealous."
"He should be," I whisper.
Poppa looks up briefly, lamplight on his weathered face. He is mending a broken halter, the one used on the harvester. Soon, everyone will be in the fields before dawn and home after dusk, almost twenty hours on the longest days, and we will be heartened by the volume of the harvest and Poppa’s booming voice exhorting us to "Keep on." Momma works as hard as he does, but when we stop to rest she is the one who carries barley wine round to the hired hands, while I follow and give out thick slabs of honey wheat cake.
I stand quietly at his elbow.
"There’s a storm coming," he says, and carries on working. I help steady a leather strap as he threads it through a metal ring.
"I know. At the well I could feel the heat on one side of my face and a chill on the other, and the air smells different."
"That’s right," he says.
I am aware of the rolling tempest that nears as we speak: Annemeeke, the thunder, and Waywassimo, the lightning, in deadly partnership with Mudjekeewis. They often come in the night.
By morning the fields are flat.
I fly on a winged horse, brushing grey clouds that press down from the dome of the sky. Poppa rides with me, his steed a fistful of sinew and muscle. At the edge of the farm we soar to the top of a hill and look back at the cabin. The sun breaks through the clouds in great shafts of light. Of our one thousand acres the storm has taken half.
"We’ll have to dig into reserves," he says. "No point getting upset. What’s done is done. Learn from it if you can."
"But what can we learn from this?" I say to myself, to Poppa, and to God.
His gaze rises and fixes on the horizon.
"Something," he says, voice husking, and gently turns his horse away.
Come now midnight, one of many in my long winter and, as usual, I am sitting in front of the fire. The glow from the hearth lights up your face in orange and gold and I can see your smile shine through the darkness, a light etched in my memory. You are a poet, yet it is I who know you by heart.
"You can’t leave." I am crying, sobbing, my face ugly, and you don’t care how awful I look because you love me. Nothing in Heaven or on Earth can change that.
"I won’t get through the winter." His voice is flat and toneless. "I’m going to Grand Forks. There’s a mining company, they need people."
"Can’t you borrow money? What about the bank? My father?"
John shakes his head slowly, in time to a distant clock. The seconds pass, one by one.
He says, "In a couple of years—"
"In a couple of years we could all be…anything can happen!"
I am shouting.
This time he approaches, stands behind my chair, stoops and kisses my neck, breathes through my hair, and I am calmed.
"Remember me every day, and I will think of you remembering me, and then, you will know that I am thinking of you. Mornings in April, secrets, laughing like children, warm summer nights, my voice, whispering through the barley. And never forget, I have shown you the future."
So I remember. I see his face in the flames of the fire, in the folds of a snowdrift, in the contours of a cloud.
A letter. Poppa collects it from Minot Town when he goes for supplies. He stands in front of the fire, hands pressed against the oak bressummer; after years of smoke and heat it is cracked and split and black as liquorice.
I have not seen Poppa shake before. He moves away, paces the edge of the Hessian rug, stepping over Mische, who lies with his muzzle on crossed paws, slivers of white at the rims of his eyes, making canine sense of the human world.
Eventually one hand crumples the letter. Momma looks into the hearth. The boys are silent, anxious. Every crack from the fire is a rifle shot, each sigh a lament.
"What does it say?"
That’s my voice, but from where it comes I do not know. I feel as if I cannot stand for another second, and yet if I move I think my knees will snap.
Poppa knows that he has been displaced in the hierarchy of love, and that is why he shakes when he tells me that there has been a mining accident at Grand Forks and the authorities are contacting the next of kin.
"And may I ask, who is that?" I say quietly.
Some silences last forever. The wind back-drafts down the chimney, strokes the flames, and coaxes them into life.
"You," he replies.
I am back, a long time since, with an ache in my chest like a twisted muscle. On many occasions my toes have spread into the glacial earth that enfolds his body. Skin to skin, my way of feeling him.
The fields reach in every direction to a cobalt-blue sky. This summer, the heads of gold, coarse tresses trailing, sway like dancers mimicking nature mimicking dancers, but I have no more tears.
He left in autumn. The leaves were turning.
I wake. The fire is out; there is just a glow, the memory of flame. I get up and walk outside. Through the mist I imagine running children, hear their laughter, indistinct in the distance. And there, at the tip of his finger, is the house, the door open to our never friends. And all around me the harvest sings, lifting more than a million voices to the rising sun, staring from a jealous sky.
Sometimes I can taste the bitter grain.
FIELDS OF GOLD earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Steve Jefferies is a family doctor in Surrey, England. Married with four children, Steve graduated from the University of Chichester with an MA in Creative Writing in 2004. He has been published in the online magazine Pulp.net.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
FIELDS OF GOLD by Dr. Stephen DB Jefferies
Posted by Lorian at 11:26 PM