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Authors: Lin Enger

The High Divide

BOOK: The High Divide
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THE

HIGH

DIVIDE

A NOVEL

LIN ENGER

ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL 2014

Also by Lin Enger

Undiscovered Country

— for Gus

Walking Off

T
hat summer was cool and windless, the clouds unrelenting, as if God had reached out his hand one day and nudged the sun from its rightful place.

Way out on the lip of the northern plains the small town lay hidden in fog, the few moving about at this hour ghostlike, not quite solid: the shopkeepers, the man driving his water-wagon, the dressmaker with her quick, smooth strides. In a clapboard house a stone's throw from the river, a lean, square-shouldered man knelt before an old flattop trunk. He closed the lid, locked it, then stood and moved across the room and set the key on top of a window casing. On his way through the kitchen he stopped and looked to his right, at the door closed to him, then turned left instead and climbed a ladder that led to a sleeping loft.

“Anybody awake up here?” he asked.

“Yup.” His son's voice was high, a couple years short of changing. He still gave off that clean child-smell, like carrots pulled from the garden.

“I'm taking old Rufus to the chicken man today, then helping put up a brooder house there. You got a squeeze for me?”

The boy rose from his straw tick, came over sleepily, and put his head on his father's chest, wrapped his arms around him. “Are you and Mom still mad?” he asked.

“No, we're fine.”

“I want to go along.”

The man shook his head and pulled away. He brushed his son's soft cheek with a finger before moving back down the ladder. In the kitchen he made straight for the back porch, where he grabbed the leg hook and walked with it toward the cowshed, unaware as the hens scattered before him that his wife had emerged from the bedroom and stood watching through the kitchen window as he shooed off the new rooster, then flung out an arm and hooked the old one, a rusty-feathered stud cock, by a gristly leg. She watched him tuck the bird beneath an elbow and cup one hand on its head to keep its beak in check. The shirt he wore, which she'd sewn from a set of old drapes, hung too loosely on his shoulders, and she had a mind to call him back, make him sit down and eat some eggs and fried potatoes, some side-pork, before he left. But then he turned, sharp-boned face heaving into view, and she ducked back into the bedroom and closed herself in again.

Outside in the cowshed he found the wooden hoop cage, shoved the old rooster inside of it, and threw the latch. Ten feet away his older boy sat leaning into the dusty flank of their big Guernsey, strong fists pumping, streams of milk hissing into the pail, barely glancing at his father, who spoke the boy's name—“Eli,” he said—and lifted a hand for him to stop.

“What?” The boy only half turned. He'd gotten so tall that his knees angled sharply up from the stool. The first shadow of coming whiskers darkened his lip and chin. Eli was barely sixteen.

“You might want to fix the fence, down by that corner where it keeps giving way. We don't want her getting out again.”

“Why don't you fix it? You're the carpenter.”

In the yard the hens bickered and flapped, provoking from the caged rooster a strangled crowing.

“Take the bucksaw and cut down one of those five-inch aspens down by the river. That'll give you good posts.” He reached out to squeeze his son's shoulder, which felt hard and grown up and very tight, then turned and picked up the cage and walked across the yard, pausing at the edge of it to look back before moving off into a fog so heavy it washed away the ground beneath him, the trees above him, and the houses on either side, even as he remained somehow visible to his son, who had risen from the stool and stood now at the door of the shed, watching him go.

I

Pursuit

1

His Father's Son

S
ix weeks later there had been no word at all. Nothing. No reassuring telegraph from St. Paul or Minneapolis, or some other city, saying,
THINGS ARE WELL, DON'T WORRY
.
No letter describing the work he'd found and promising money to follow. The note he'd left was cryptic, cruelly brief: “A chance for work, hard cash” was all it said, and Eli had managed to convince himself that was a reasonable explanation, a fair accounting. His anger had dissolved. He'd decided the loan his father took against their house, which caused such a stir between his parents, must have been necessary, and would not bring himself even to consider that his father might be gone for good—never mind how people talked and despite the fears his mother couldn't hide. After all, who could say what kinds of trials and odd contingencies might come against a traveling man?

When Eli was small he'd often daydreamed his father's life, imagining the childhood spent on a farm at the edge of St. Paul or the moment in the war that cost him his ear—a Rebel cannonball, Eli fancied, or a bayonet. This labor of invention was necessary, since Ulysses never spoke of such things himself. But now with his father not merely distant but gone, Eli had been making up stories again. He could see him standing at the wheel of a Mississippi riverboat or perched on scaffolding high above the city, trowel in hand as a building rose brick by brick into the sky. Or loading a freight car, sacks of potatoes riding both shoulders. Other times, though, at first light or late at night under the stars, no image whatsoever came to mind—only the sound of his father's voice, audible, close by:

I could use your help.

On a September afternoon in the back room of the mercantile, Eli removed his cowhide apron, hung it on the peg behind the door, and poked his head back inside to make certain the old man was still occupied at the counter, which he was, face bent close to the ledger and squinting through the gray thicket of his eyebrows. Eli withdrew and pulled the door closed, though not all the way. From the front pocket of his trousers he took out the envelope he'd intercepted from the fill-in postman. It was of good stock, ivory-colored, and still sealed. He flattened it against one palm and examined the looping, graceful script that spelled out the name of his father, Ulysses Pope, and beneath it his address—
their
address—Sloan's Crossing, Minnesota. He lifted the envelope and smelled French perfume of the sort Goldman bought from the wholesaler and sold to the local men for their wives. Eli's hands shook. His mouth was dry. It smelled like flowers—but like something else, too, that reminded him of his mother's baths on Saturday nights.

When his boss called out for him, Eli flinched and dropped the envelope, then scrambled under the packing table to pluck it up. Back on his feet, he jammed it into the pocket of his trousers and poked his head into the store.

“Yes, Mr. Goldman.”

“Aren't you walking Danny home?”

“Just going.”

“Stop in at Russell's on your way back, tell him those hinges haven't come in yet.”

Outside, Eli had to grab his hat to keep it from blowing off his head. With the letter crinkling against his thigh, he passed the barber shop, Merchants National Bank, Ben's Tailor Shop, and of course the rooming house where Mead Fogarty no doubt stood watching through his leaded-glass window, thumbs notched around his wide suspenders. In the grassy lot beside the schoolhouse Miss Waterson gripped her dress in a knot against the wind and offered a parsimonious smile to the circle of boys surrounding her. Eli climbed the stairs but stopped when he heard from inside a croaking, familiar voice:

“You're shittin' me, Danny. Know what I think? I think you ain't heard a word from your old man. Not a word.”

Eli moved light-footed into the cloakroom, slid along the inside wall, and drew up just short of the doorway to the classroom. His little brother had always been frail, but recently the headaches had started coming so often that last week when school started their mother insisted to Mr. Goldman that Eli be allowed to leave work each day long enough to pick up Danny from school and walk him home.

“And he ain't coming back,” the boy continued, “because he found some other woman. A better-lookin' one. And everybody knows it.”

No response from Danny—but the slosh of water meant that he'd pulled chalkboard duty again. Eli drew himself up to full height and stepped around the corner where he found himself eye-to-knobby-throat with the only sixteen-year-old boy in town still attending school: Herman Stroud, son of the banker. At the end of the chalkboard, dripping rag in hand, Danny stood hunched and still in his bib overalls, large bug-eyes staring up at Eli with a bald need.

My brother,
Eli thought.

The tall boy took a step back. “I was only joshin' around,” he said. “Right, Danny?”

Eli's hands ached at the prospect of making Herman Stroud feel more pain than he'd ever imagined in his velvet life.

“No harm meant,” Herman said. “You know me.” Standing there in his cream-colored shirt with red piping around the collar and cuffs, he tried to smile.

Since July when their father left, Eli had been in three fights, each time as payback for what some foolish, mean, or stupid kid had said to his brother. Herman, of course, couldn't know that Eli's violence in each case had been calculated, that he'd never knocked out anybody's teeth or kicked anybody's glands without thinking to himself,
Do I want to do this?
and then deciding,
Yes I do.
He couldn't know, either, that Eli had promised his mother he was done with fighting.

“How come Danny's doing the work and you're only watching?” Eli asked him.

“Teacher told
him
to do it. Not me.”

Danny was moving inside his clothes now, as if he had an unscratchable itch, the first sign of a headache coming on.

“Is that how it is?” Eli asked his brother, and when Danny shook his head, Eli turned to Herman. “Take your shirt off,” he said. “You'll need it to wipe the board.”

“There's another rag in the bucket,” Herman said, and bent down for it—but Eli laid a hand on his shoulder and straightened him back up. He put his face two inches from the taller boy's neck where a patch of skin, like a handprint, was turning bright pink, fingers snaking down toward his chest. When Eli reached for Herman's collar to tear it away, the boy jerked backward, knocking his head against the slate behind him. “All right, all right,” he said, and started on the buttons.

Danny stood with his forehead bunched in a hard frown, wet rag still dangling from his fingers and dripping water on the floor as Herman finished the buttons and then paused, his shirt hanging open, his belly as white and glossy as well-kneaded dough.

“Get at it,” Eli told him.

The boy shrugged off the shirt, balled it up, and plunged it down into the bucket. The chalkboard was filled with neat rows of long division, and Herman, starting at the top, made a long, wet swipe. Eli took his brother by the hand and led him out of the school and down the street toward home, the dusty wind cool in their faces, Danny's feet dragging, his steps slow and arrhythmic.

“How does your head feel?” Eli asked him.

“I want Mother.”

“Here, you better hop on.” He crouched in the dirt so that Danny could climb up on his back, and then he carried him that way, Danny resting a hot cheek against the back of his neck, Eli gripping his brother's legs, which felt as skinny and light as candlesticks.

The headaches came hand in hand with strange dreams—of talking beasts and far-off lands, or sometimes, of things to come. A week before the flood of eighty-four, Danny had dreamed it, right down to the family of mud hens swimming in and out through the front window and the long-tailed rat perched on the brass lamp their father had ordered from Chicago. If their mother got to him early enough, before the real pain came on, she could often save him from the worst of it—by singing, stroking his face, applying to his forehead a poultice she'd learned from her grandmother in Copenhagen who'd used it on her husband, himself a headache sufferer. Other times there was nothing to do but let him lie there in bed, elbows gripping his ears, and wait for the pain to work its way through him, a day or two in most cases, sometimes three.

At home their mother was hanging the wash, her face suspended like a dull moon above the flapping clothes and sheets. Her eyes quickened with fear and she ducked beneath the line and rushed forward, saying, “Give him to me.” Eli turned and leaned backward, allowing Danny—all legs and skinny arms—to wrap himself around his mother, who pumped her knees to get a better hold and headed for the house, humming in Danny's ear, his face wobbling on her shoulder as they went.

In the kitchen Eli peeled and grated three large potatoes into a bowl, added a palmful of mustard seeds, a heavy pinch of dried dandelion, a tablespoon of ground pepper, and just enough water and flour to make a sticky ball. His hands worked on their own, his mind given over to the letter in his pocket, the sweet smell it carried, and the new fears he had now because of it. He was lucky it arrived today, though—he knew that. The regular postman, Smith, was down with a fever, and a man from Moorhead had come out to handle the mail. Smith, of course, would have noted the feminine hand on the envelope and made sure to deliver it in person to their house.

By the time Eli started back to the store, Danny had been tucked into bed, their mother's, and all the shades had been drawn. The poultice covered his forehead and eyes. Eli took the long way back, stopping to climb the half-dead cottonwood that leaned out over the river, its wide trunk offering a saddlelike seat that Eli leaned back against, trying to calm himself. His heart was beating inside his ears and pulsing in his neck. His hands were weak. He forced himself to take long breaths, and when his heart slowed, he took out his jackknife and sliced open the envelope, careful not to damage the letter inside, which was written in the same hand, though the ink was a different color, not black but a shade of purple that made Eli think of the veins on the tender side of a woman's wrist. In the upper left-hand-corner was the return address—1020 5th Avenue North, Bismarck, Dakota—and in the upper right, the date: September 10th, 1886.

Dear Ulysses,

I trust this letter finds you healthy and rested from what must have been a difficult journey. It would have meant so very much to Jim that you came, and for me your visit, I hope you know, was a burst of sun in a long gray season. I've been fine and busy since you left . . .

Eli scanned down the page, registering her mention of a garden—ripening pumpkins and late tomatoes—house painters, a new pastor at church, pleasant weather. Then, toward the bottom of the page, her words caught him up again:

Although I wouldn't wish upon you or anyone else the loneliness I know, at least I can say now that my heart is capable of human feeling again. Thank you. And if future travels bring you this way, you would be more than welcome. But you know as much already.

Yours,

Laura Powers

For half a minute the interior of Eli's skull was sparkly and white, like his mother's kitchen on baking days when the air was full of flour, the sun pouring in through the window. Then his head cleared. Above the river a mallard set its wings, tilted in a fast drop to the water, and skated into the calm pool inside the river's bend. Eli's stomach twisted inside him. His parents had always been happy together, hadn't they—except for that fight over the promissory note? Hadn't they made a habit of taking walks in the evening, holding hands? Hadn't he spied them kissing sometimes, early mornings down by the outhouse, or after dark beneath the drooping branches of the old birch? Or was that long ago now? He thought about last winter, not even a year past, when his father managed to offend the entire congregation of Our Savior's and, soon after lose most of his carpentry jobs, notably the schoolhouse contract. He remembered, too, watching his father pummel a man at the train depot and lose that job also—justified though he had been. All of this leading to their money problems, and finally his leaving. Something had happened with his father, that was certain, something Eli didn't understand. Yet he was just as certain—or at least determined to be—that one day everything would be set straight.

But who was this Laura Powers from Bismarck, and how had his father come to know her? Why would he go and visit her? What did she have to do with anything related to their family? And what did that mean:
a burst of sun in a long gray season
?

Eli supposed the right thing to do was to take the letter home and show it to his mother, yet he dismissed the notion out of hand, because he knew this about women, or thought he did—that jealousy could make them incautious and at times irrational. If he showed her the letter, she'd likely decide that Ulysses was lost to her and give up on him, and then, when he
did
come home, confront him in a way that would drive him off for good.

In the first days of his father's absence, Eli had decided he was obliged, on behalf of his mother, to go off and find him. Each week he'd put aside from his wages a dollar and a half and had hidden it in the loft where he and Danny slept, behind a loose board in the wall. The money was still there, more of it now. He checked on it every day, counted it to make sure his brother hadn't stumbled across it. He'd also squirreled away a loaf of his mother's bread and half a dozen eggs that he boiled up one day while she weeded the garden. Then late one night in the middle of August—it was the same night the summer's long pattern of windless days and thick fogs finally broke—he'd stolen outside and sneaked through town to the depot, where he waited behind the water tank for the eastbound night freight. Partly it was the weather—rain, lightning, a terrific wind—and partly the fear of leaving his mother and brother behind, but mostly it was the image of himself in a rattling boxcar, alone and hurtling east toward St. Paul, a city he'd never visited, that made him turn around and walk back home in the driving rain. There was no evidence, after all, beyond his mother's hunch, that St. Paul was the place to start looking. In fact next time he'd be heading west when he left, not east, his destination certain—at least the first leg of it would be—and nothing was going to stop him.

BOOK: The High Divide
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