Authors: Kevin Hardcastle
ome pale morning the old
woman found a greycoat squirrel drifting dead in the swimming pool waters. It travelled slow to the south end, trawling leaves and surface algae. Pegged there its wasted tail stropped the lip-molding. Emily Moore stood outside the short-fence with her roughskinned palms resting atop the arrowhead pickets. Beyond the pool and the little farmhouse were acres of untended field. Wildgrass and rogue wheats the colour of desert sand. A tractor half-sunk into black, black soil. Two silos ringed with rusted boltwork, old lettering worn faint and unreadable.
“Bob,” she said loud. “We got another in the pool.”
Nobody answered so she turned and made for the sliding doors to the kitchen, open yet with the drawn curtains rolling against the wind. He came out before she got there.
“Yes dear. You called.”
“Oh shh,” she said. “Get that net and your shovel.”
The old man stood a head taller than her, broad-shouldered and bowlegged, heavy plaids and worn-out jeans.
“How big a hole we gonna need? My back ain't my best friend today.”
“Ah,” she said. Looked over to the pool. “Maybe three scoops. No more'n four. The poor little fella saw less winters than he should have.”
They interred the squirrel in the damp,
dark soil. Tucked him in with the flat of the shovelhead and pinned a tree branch cross there at the head of his small plot. That potter's ground had dozens more crosses set in awkward rows, very few lost to wear and weather. Emily had written on all of them in black ink, such things as: “Raccoon. Spring. 1998.” Markers had likewise been posted for chipmunks, groundhogs, rabbits, one wayward cat. The old man had complained early on about the burials but it turned out that if they didn't lay out the bodies his wife couldn't sleep at night. So he'd quit his griping and kept at the planting. No prayers were said.
Emily walked the grounds
maybe a mile out from the house, following the length of a long and bending stream. There were blockages where water built and ran humped over sodden leaves. The old woman carried a cherry-branch walking stick and she worked the little dams loose and watched the current take them on bit by bit. An hour past and she could see rainclouds and their vaporous tailings. Steadily they went with the rains below like shuffling fibres. Her knees were singing to her about the humidity. She'd had to retie her long, grey hair more than once on the walk and now she just let it blow about the shoulders of her overcoat.
“Jeez, it's close,” she said.
On the way back the day turned eerie and very dim. A sparrow flock boomed from a huge and naked oak out in the fields, wound themselves inside out and took off to the north. Emily left the creekline and headed across the fields toward the farmhouse. She had very good eyes and she could see Bob out in the backlot, like a toy figure stood there. He raised one hand and pointed at the skies that shifted behind her. Emily didn't look.
Winds whipped the little
house while they lay in their places in bed. They'd left the window slit-open and it whistled at them. The drapes were near sideways for minutes at a time. Emily's bedside lamp had its bulb turned low and she had laid her book down beside it a long time ago to study the sounds of that storm. Thunderclaps landed like atomics and could be felt by the bedsprings. She had thought the weathers would carry past but it all seemed to have sat down and settled right in that farmstead. Finally she reached up into the lamp and turned the key. The room didn't go truly dark somehow. Once in a while fork-lightning flashed white daylight through the curtaincloth, scented the air with electric.
“This is a bad one, ain't it?” Bob said.
“Yes. I don't remember the last like it.”
He had corralled her in against him and she let him. His arms with their cord-muscle and mean elbow knobs, skin soft as old paper. She closed her eyes and then opened them again.
“Jesus H. Christ,” she said. “What the hell is that?”
“I took one a' them pills,” he said.
“Few hours ago.”
Emily whacked him on the thigh through the covers. The two of them lay there quiet for a while with the rains battering the roofshingles.
“Wellâ¦” she said, and turned around, took his face in her hands.
The kitchen entranceway fairly
shone near sunrise. Emily had the door open and the floor tiles were warming under her bare feet. The storm had picked up debris from across the county and seemed to have flung the all of it down on their plot. Emily waited for Bob to dress while she brewed coffee on the stove. She thought the power would be out for sure but it wasn't or at least wasn't anymore.
They went outside in their coveralls and boots and Bob made for the garage and his barrow and work tools. A length of eavestrough had come loose at one end of the building and he had to shift it wide to get the door open. Emily watched him fuss with the thing for a few seconds and then she walked out from the house. She'd not made it to the poolside fencing and yet she knew something was wrong in there. The waters were dark with steeped mud, and thatchwork layers of leaves and sticks lay over entire sections of the pool. Near the centre a young woman's white body carried past in a torn nightgown, lower back and ass up at the surface while her arms and legs and hair dangled like she was reaching for something at the bottom.
Emily didn't know how she got over the fence but she was over and bone-sore in her legs. She called back toward the house. Her hand searched the water for part of the girl's gown but it couldn't reach. When she got into the pool the cold all but stopped her heart.
The body lay under a sheet on
the stonework behind the house for the better part of the morning. The police had come by the dozen and they'd studied the pool and the girl and they'd surveyed the farmgrounds that sucked the boots right off their feet. A towering, ginger-haired cop called McGuire spoke to Emily and Bob at their kitchen table, his hat over his knee joint. He asked them a few questions and none too hard. Emily sat swaddled in so many blankets that she could barely stand when the cop got up and put his hat back on. McGuire smiled and she shook his huge hand before the cop left out to get his instructions from the newly landed detectives.
By evening they were very much alone. Bob had gone back outside and tried to work against the creeping dark, stacking the loose breakwood into a teepee as tall as he was, great mound of leaves and long grass underneath. While he worked by twilight Emily ran a bath, sat there on the closed-over toilet watching the tub fill up. She had a bottle of beer in her hand and there were two empties on the bathroom countertop beside her. She drank the last of the one she had and took the bottles out to the kitchen. Came back with another beer and again sat there waiting. When the tubwater started gurgling down the overflow she went over and turned the taps. Emily started to take her robe off and then stopped. She stared down into the tub for a minute. Then she reached in and yanked the plug.
When she came back outside Bob had already lit the stack. It smoldered low at the heart, the pilings too dense and too damp yet. Emily shut the sliding door and walked over to him with two beers in hand, offered him the one. Bob looked her up and down.
“You okay?” he said.
“Okay as I'll get today,” she said.
He put his left arm around her like they were gone to the drive-in. Smoke started railing out from somewhere in the build and carried up into the dusk. Flash of yellow. Nothing. Leaves started curling.
“Here 'tis,” she said.
Over the mottled fields she
went. Half an hour out she got to the treeline and scoped the firs. The sun hung high and furious but the inner woods were lit only in patches. Emily walked on over the forest floor and its pine-needle carpeting. She had the cherry-stick and used it to shift face-height branches, cobwebs thick as string that broke and trailed ghostly from their peggings. Eventually she reached a break in the trees, a shieldrock ridge that looked out over a low clearing. A narrow clay path led down to the place in a series of switchbacks. Emily didn't go any farther.
A cabin sat crooked on the grounds below, no more than three rooms. Satellite outhouse with a shovel-dug shithole. The place had foundered a little on the southwest end but the windows and doors were intact and the frames square. Nothing stirred. Still, Emily waited there for the better part of an hour before she started down the grade.
She made it back to their fields
in time to see her husband on the drive back from town. His truck rolled tiny in the distance, spitting dust on the concession road before it turned off for their long laneway. Bob parked and went into the house and came out again, looked around. Went back inside.
He was in the john when she came through and hung up her coat. She waited for him in the kitchen but she didn't sit, just leaned her hip to the sink-counter. He pissed loud and quieter and louder yet, sound plain as could be with the door wide open. Little one-shots afterward that rung the bowl. Out he came cinching his belt on the walk. When he saw her standing there he stopped for a second and coughed. Kept on with the buckle before stuffing in his shirt-tails.
“You know nobody can sneak up on me,” he said.
She blew air hard over her lips.
Bob went over to the counter, brushed his shoulder against hers as he passed. He started up the stove-burner and left the coffee pot to brew atop it.
“Did you go by the cop shop?” she said.
“They find her people.”
“There ain't any people.”
Emily shook her head.
“I don't think I can believe that. Even if it is true.”
Bob nodded. He set a cup down for her and then poured another. When he sat at the table he didn't drink and he didn't talk.
“What else?” Emily said.
“They said the girl had a blood-alcohol level that coulda sat a buffalo down. As well as her veins were run through with Benzodiazepine.”
Emily put her hand to her mouth for a minute and let it drop. She stared out the windowglass at the muckfields. Bob turned in his chair.
“Tell me you ain't been out there through the woods,” he said.
Emily sipped at her coffee.
“He's covered his tracks pretty well,” she said. “But that little son of a bitch is livin' in that shack.”
“Come on now.”
“I just don't know for how long he's been there,” she said.
Two mornings later Emily
found the backdoor to the garage swinging on the breeze. Little marks by the keyhole cylinder. She had Bob inventory his tools and whatever valuables he could think of. In the end he had lost only a Phillips screwdriver and a half-gallon of Varsol. He said he would've been happier were the truck gone.
They fished a blue jay out of the pool the next morning and couldn't figure out how he got in there and how he couldn't fly off when he did. They'd slept little and Bob dragged ass when he went for his burial tools. He came back with a wood-handled trowel, the blade tarnished by the edges.
“Where's your shovel?” Emily said.
“I do not know.”
She just looked at him, shoebox in her hands that carried the little birdbody.
When they made it to the plots they stood bewildered for maybe five minutes before Emily dropped the box and headed back to the house. Bob called after her but she couldn't be turned. He knelt awkward on the turf, bit at his bottom lip as he found a workable position. Then he dug the hole with the trowel and tipped the shoebox. Beyond him in the makeshift graveyard all the crosses had been plucked and they were gone and the naked soils told no stories anymore about who they'd put under. The old man tamped earth down in the new plot and kept eyeballing the grounds to see what else might be out there with him.
A lone cruiser sat in the
road in front of the farmhouse. Officer McGuire heard Emily out as he stood on the flagstones behind the kitchen door and then he walked the fields, got smaller and smaller until the trees took him. An hour later he resurfaced at another opening perhaps a hundred yards to the west and made his way back to the house. He had red lines in his cheeks and forehead from the branches he'd caught. His boots had doubled in size by the mud and he left them outside and stood beside the kitchen counter in his stockinged feet.
“If anyone's staying out there I couldn't tell,” he said.
“He is,” Emily said. “You could see it's been disturbed.”
“I did everythin' but bust into the place,” said McGuire. “Sure, there's signs that it's been tampered with. But that could be raccoons or kids or goddamned anything.”