Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
Meteors in August
Melanie Rae Thon
for my mother and father
Weep not for him who is dead, nor bemoan him;
but weep bitterly for him who goes away,
for he shall return no more
to see his native land.
seven years old the night my father chased Red Elk out of the valley. Afterward he sat huddled at the kitchen table with a pack of men, their boots caked with mud, their whiskey bottle amber in the light. My sister, Nina, and I crouched on the stairs, shivering in our thin nightgowns. Voices slurred until the men all sounded the same.
“We drove that red-skinned trash out of town once and for all.”
“I would've killed him with my own hands.”
“Hardly worth the trouble to kill an Indian.”
“Well, it would've been worth
“She's just one of Harley Furey's girlsâlet him have her, and that bastard boy too.”
These men worked at the lumbermill with my father. Vern and Ralph Foot were a hulking pair, with black beards and scraggly mustaches that covered their mouths. I could tell them apart only when they laughed. Vern had no front teeth ever since the night he fell on his face on Main Street and didn't stand up till morning. The third man was Dwight Carson; he was burly, but his pale, pinkish skin made him look exposed and weak despite his size. Father was their foreman and had little use for them when he was sober. During lunch breaks, he was glad to take their money at poker: that was the extent of the pleasure he found in their company. Except tonight. Tonight they had a single purpose.
“Don't matter who she is,” Vern said. “Sets a bad example.”
Ralph agreed: “Nothing but white scum.”
“Stupid mutts,” my father muttered. “We almost had him.”
“Here's to the next time.” Dwight Carson raised his drink. All four glasses clinked together. “To the next time.”
They downed their whiskeys and poured another round.
Mama caught me and Nina on the stairs. Nina took the brunt of the scolding because she was going on fifteen and was supposed to know better. “Fine thing for you to let Lizzie see,” Mama said. “Well, I hope you both remember it. I hope you remember the way men look when they're full of hate and liquor, so full of their failure to kill a man that they'd shoot their own dogs and leave them in the woods to rot. You take a good look at your daddy, then you get your butts back upstairs. And don't let me ever hear you talking about what you saw in this house tonight.”
We did look at our father, his face slack from whiskey, his hair matted flat to his scalp, his brow cut with dark creases even when he laughed. Blood spattered his pant legs and we knew Mama spoke the truth. The dogs were dead. The dogs were lying up there in the woods with their tongues hanging out of their mouths and all their yellow teeth showing.
We scurried up to our room, but we didn't sleep. Later, when the men were gone, we heard Daddy pounding at Mama's door. She'd locked herself in the bedroom where her own mother had died the year I was born. He started out yelling and ended up crying. We knew he was on his knees.
It was almost dawn when he came to our room. The air was gray and watery, a sticky film. He leaned over our beds, watching us while we pretended to sleep. I wanted him to go away. I didn't know where. I wanted him to burn his clothes in the woods so I could stop thinking about the blood on his pants and the mud on his boots. I wanted him to bury those dogs so that I wouldn't find their bones someday, so that I wouldn't stumble on their carcasses and remember.
Nina sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It's okay, Daddy,” she said. He turned and disappeared so fast I wondered if he'd been there at all. I was hoping he hadn't. I was hoping this whole night was just something I'd dreamed.
When we woke again, hours later, Daddy was already dressed in his black suit and white shirt, ready for church. He stood in our doorway, acting as if he were a different man than he was the night before. But his eyes looked sore, and his hair had not been combed. He didn't have to tell us to hurry.
At the Lutheran church, Mother sat between my father and me, her back rigid, her eyes on the pulpit. I looked at Daddy's big hands as he cradled the hymn book; he still had dirt under his nails.
Nina sang in the choir. Her golden hair made her shine, and I believed I heard her pure strain above all others, a solitary soprano, sweet and clear.
Reverend Piggott rose slowly so that we had time to anticipate the seriousness of today's business. He warned that we must be prepared to meet our Maker at any time. He was a bald, bony man who trembled when he spoke: “Would you want to face your Heavenly Father stumbling drunk and muttering obscenities? Would you want to hear His call while you lay in the bed of a woman who was not your wife or with your hands in another man's pocket, your fingers on his last dollar? And what if God should send His angels down to earth just as you raised your gun to take the life of one you despise? What if you blinked and found yourself before the Lord, with your barrel aimed between
eyes? Pity the man who dies with murder on his mind. Pray for the man who lives with lust in his heart or a belly full of rage.”
I don't know if the reverend had heard of the night's escapades, or if he had chosen the day's topic by chance. Whatever the case, my father took it personally: he tugged at his pant legs as if his clothes were suddenly too tight.
During the minutes of silent prayer, Daddy clasped his hands together with a violence that made me think he believed the left one could keep the right from doing evil. Mother bowed her head and closed her eyes. I'm sure she did not pray.
I hoped that Father was asking God to purge the hatred from his heart so that he might love his red brother as himself, so that he might never again raise his hand in anger against another man. As we said the Lord's Prayer in unison, Mother's lips barely moved, but my father's voice was low and fervent. I thought his eyes brimmed with tears of repentance, but now I wonder: perhaps they only stung from whiskey and lack of sleep.
I imagined he had made a bargain with God, agreed on the terms of atonement. I had to trust Father's sincerity and God's mercy. My own salvation depended on it. From Reverend Piggott I had learned that I was born wicked, tainted by original sin, my father's and my mother's crimes of knowledge. I prayed that I would be spared the burden of Daddy's latest transgression. I had been blessed and baptized, but somehow this protection seemed far too slight to save me from the stain of murderous intentions.
Years later I would realize that my father did not regret what he'd done to Red Elk. He did not long to change his ways or expunge the wrath from his soul. He'd lived with rage so long he could not even imagine himself free of it. So he asked only to be forgiven. Should he die that day, he wanted to enter Heaven in a state of grace. And should he live till evening, he wanted to enter my mother's bed without an argument.
God might have been willing to give Daddy another chance, but Mother was not so easily fooled. She refused to slip her hand around his elbow as we left the dark church. As much as I wanted to believe in my father's enlightenment, I couldn't trust the man Mama spurned. He tried to take my hand, but I pulled away from him, clutching Mother instead.
Nina ran to join us. She looped her arm through Father's and kissed his cheek before he asked. I thought she must have forgotten what we'd seen the night before. I envied her for her laughter, her easy faith. Mother and I dropped behind, and I watched Nina bounce along beside Daddy. Her hair glistened. Her beauty and her simple joy filled me with jealousy. If Father and I had died that day, neither one of us would have been in a state of grace.
Mother squeezed my hand too tightly. I felt an unbearable weight that filled my shoes like stones until I could barely walk. When I was old enough to explain it, I realized this weight was my mother's doubt: she did not believe God had the power to save my father.
I wanted to skip ahead, to feel Daddy's huge, callused hand around my own. But I kept remembering him at the table with those men. I saw the blood on his pants. I thought about the dogs in the woods.
Soon Nina and my father were a block ahead of us. Mama clung to me as if she thought I might charge in front of a car to tease her. She didn't know that I was just as scared as she was.
When I was as old as Nina was that day, I found myself trying to understand why she had to leave us. I kept thinking of the look on Daddy's face when he said he would have killed the big Indian with his own hands. That was before he even knew what was going to become of Nina. But no matter how far back I went, I could never quite see how it all started, and I still haven't figured out why Nina, who loved Daddy and always forgave him, was the one who had to go, while I was the one who stayed.
Two months later Mama caught Nina in the shed with Rafe Carson, the son of one of the men in Father's gang. I'd been spying on the two of them for a good half hour, peering through a knothole in the side of the shed. Rafe's hand was stuck down Nina's bra, so Mama had time to give him one good swat on the head before he pulled himself free. He made a run for it and hit a stack of wood in the dark. Sprawled on the ground, he was an easy shot. But Mother had already forgotten him. She backed Nina into a corner, pinned her to the wall with one hand and slapped her with the other, four times, hard across the face, slaps that stung just to hear them. Mother who never struck, who only threatened us with Father's fury, our mother waled on Nina, her blows all the more cruel because they were so unexpected, and so rare.
Mama got her voice back in time to say, “Aren't things bad enough? Your daddy ever catches you like that, he'll be a murderer for sure.”
Rafe Carson was on his feet again. He didn't need to hear anything more.
Nina crumpled in the corner, sobbing, and Mama just left her that way. I sneaked into the shed and tried to comfort my sister, but she couldn't stop crying. Her whole body heaved. I curled up, close as I could. I was small and warm. That's all I had to offer. I stroked her blond hair with my clumsy hands. It was snarled from rolling around with that boy, and my fingers snagged in the knots. I kissed her wet cheeks, licking at the salt because it tasted good. But everything I did only made her shake harder.
Finally she shivered and fell asleep, all of a sudden, as if she'd cried herself to death. I felt her shallow breath and knew she was still alive. Her blouse was unbuttoned and one breast had been pulled free of her bra. Her chest flushed, speckled with a heat rash. I touched her skin, lightly, with just the tips of my fingers. She didn't wake.
slowly in Willis, Montana, when I was a child. We had one movie theater and a musty library. The dust on the shelves revealed how seldom books were borrowed. Sunday service at the Lutheran church was the social event of the week. When the reverend had finally worn himself down and let us go, we gathered outside to catch up on the news. Women admired one another's hats in false, girlish voices, then drew into tight clusters to whisper about daughters who stole their sleeping pills or husbands who stayed out all night and never explained. They touched their friends' arms or their own mouths as they talked. The men stood in larger groups and maintained a dignified distance from one another as they debated the merits of clear-cutting or the best bait for rainbow trout. Now and then they eyed their wives impatiently, wondering why women always had so much to say.
Willis sprang up in the shadow of the Rockies. A glacier cut this valley, moving mountains by inches through the years, leaving everything in its path forever changed. But even the greatest force cannot escape time: the frozen blue sea turned to muddy water and seeped slowly into the earth.