Toby came running back from the creek, empty-handed, to tell her he’d found more tracks — down by the creek this time.
“All right,” Nora said. “Show me.”
She reined up and followed her youngest into the gulch. The trail narrowed between high bluffs and let out among the black imbrications of an ancient riverbed before winding for a quarter mile through cotton-woods and down to the shore. Little remained of the stream now save glossy September mud and the wakes of what few salamanders had managed to evade Toby.
He pointed to where his bucket had dropped. “Them’s the tracks.”
“Those are,” Nora said.
It relieved her to see his hair growing back. Through three sons and seventeen years of motherhood, shaving had borne out as the only successful campaign against lice, but its effects were decidedly punitive — Toby looked like a deserter from some urchin militia, sentenced to bear the badge of his dishonor. What if, this time, history should fail him, leaving him bald forever? He made a sorry little man as it was: too thin for seven, soft and golden and clewed-up with doubt. Prone to his father’s wilding turn of mind.
This business with the tracks had rooted deep, displacing all his other worries and earning him the derision of his brothers, Rob and Dolan, who wouldn’t brook a child’s ghost story now that they were so-adamantly men. The only solution they were charitable enough to entertain — “just say the word and we’ll bait it, Tobe!” — ran thoroughly against his inclinations, for Toby had no great wish to see the beast; merely to be believed in the matter of its existence. Last week the boys had taken him out to the abandoned Flores claim, site of the tracks’ initial manifestation, to cure him of his nonsense. (By what means Nora could not guess, though she had managed to refrain from warning them to mind his bad eye. They were her boys. Emmett’s sons. Recent outbursts aside, they were upright and vigilant, careful with others in general and with Toby in particular.) Still, she had waited on the porch until they reappeared in the red boil of twilight, two horses dragging long shadows. Dolan bobbing stoutly along, Rob a few yards ahead and so starved-looking at seventeen that she wondered how he was managing to keep Toby upright in the saddle before him with just one arm.
“Well?” she called. “Did you bare your teeth to whatever’s out there?”
Rob lifted him down. “Weren’t nothing out there but some grouse and an empty old turtle shell. And we’re all agreed that none of them’s fixing to haunt Toby ever again.”
A tiny smile dragged the corner of Toby’s mouth. The matter seemed at an end. But then followed morning after morning of Toby at breakfast, his eyes red with sleeplessness. Chin slipping from his hand. Mishandled eggs staining the henyard in his wake. Nights — while Emmett hunched over his newspaper drafts in the kitchen, and Rob and Dolan lay dead to the world upstairs — Nora put her ear to Toby’s door and listened to the restless rasp of his body under the covers.
Predictably, Emmett insisted it must have to do with what they were now calling “last year’s mischance.” Anything that went sideways with Toby could be explained away by it: a fall from horseback last March, indistinct, by all appearances, from any of the dozen Toby had brushed off over the years — so very ordinary in its course that Nora hadn’t even bothered to go to him when he fell. “I doubt it could have been helped,” Doc Almenara had assured her later, having declared it a miracle that Toby wasn’t blinded outright. They had been waiting ever since on the sight in his left eye to return, and for reprieve from some of the accident’s other miseries: headaches that set him retching; lightning that streamed through his field of vision; an inability to distinguish waking from dreaming.
He had come to fear the dark and the shapes that roared out at him from the electric chasm of injured sleep. To make matters worse, he mistook Nora’s tenderness for pity, which she found unfair — she could not help wanting, on those frequent occasions when he bumped a wall or missed a cup-handle, to seize his little head and hold it in both hands. Had he been too young to question her, or old enough to understand, Toby might have gritted his teeth through such attentions. But he was just the right age to find them unbearable.
Luckily, however, it was past him to question why she might be crouching streamside with him now, making a big show of hearing him out.
“Look,” he said. “See?”
She looked. Familiar disturbances marred the bank: a crisscross of skunk and quillpig trails, the smooth sidewind of a snake crossing the wash.
“There,” Toby said, “and there. See how it’s sunk-in at the top?”
He was pointing to a dent about the size of a small plate. The drag of his finger through the loam succeeded only in making it look like a picturebook heart.
He showed her where he thought he could see a few more scuffs scraping off into the sage, and up the old game trail with its trim of heat-withered grass.
“Must’ve gone up that way,” Toby said. “Loosing these rocks as it went.”
“Care to offer a thought on what it is?”
“Well, it ain’t small.” To prove this, he beckoned her to the overgrown hackberry stand just up the shore. Its branches were stripped bare all the way around. The few remaining berries, a withered orrery of orange globes, were all packed way back against the bole.
“Not a creature alive won’t make quick work of hackberries in a drought, Tobe.” She grew irritated. “Save for Josie, it seems. Didn’t I tell her come and get the rest of these picked before the birds beat her to it?”
She shouldered in for a fruit and offered it to Toby, but he only squeezed it until its skin snapped and the grit ran between his fingers. Then he wiped his hand on his trouserleg. He was sulling.
“What’s the matter?”
“You think I’m telling tales,” he said. “You won’t even look around.”
“Aren’t I looking?”
“Not like you really think you gone find anything.”
She seized her skirts and shoved into the thicket, pretending to look for sign. The boys still called this hillside “the antelope trail” — though any namesake antelope were long gone, having wised up quick enough to the shoddy little blind Emmett had built at the top of the gulch back when they were newcomers here. These days the slope was a scald of dead grass, one switchback after another twisting all the way up the red face of the bluff. The only heartbeat around might belong to the occasional chaparral cock scurrying from shrub to shrub. Here was one now, of course. It took off the moment her shadow touched it.
She stood in a drowse among the new ironwoods, still pretending. The sun had got into her. Damn near all morning, she had gone without thinking of her thirst. Something miraculous had happened while she slept to make it seem as matter-of-fact as breathing. She was slow and warm, and glad now that Toby had delayed her going into town. She could take less frenzied stock of matters. That Emmett was three days late returning with water was not so unusual. He could be no later than this evening, and there was a little water yet in the rainbarrel to last until then. And it was not so unusual to find Rob and Dolan’s beds empty. They had managed to pack up silently in the dark and make their way to the printhouse, as they often did, without waking her. As soon as she had put Toby’s fears to rest, she would ride into town with their lunch — the long way, calm and unhurried. She might even feel brave enough to stop by Desma’s place and pick up the elk steaks, after all. Call on Harlan, perhaps, and see if the Sheriff’s day was slow-going.
“There’s nothing up here, Tobe.”
“You ain’t gone but ten yards.”
“Toby.” He wouldn’t look at her. “When do you figure I can turn back? Once I’m snake-bit? What’ll you do then, all alone, and your brothers way out in town?” She had drifted somehow into trying to coax a smile out of him. “You gone throw your mama over your shoulder, carry her all the way back up the draw by yourself ?”
His voice was ruinously sad. “That’s all right, Mama. Please come back.”
She went on. Stowaway burrs dimpled her hem. She climbed the narrowing trail to its first hairpin, where the undergrowth lay flattened over the path. A huge, brown grasshopper sailed from stalk to stalk, becoming a distant rustle. Some twenty yards above her, snags of moss were outspread across the brush. As sun-burnished and red as the dead girl she and Emmett had dragged out of a cave down in the hollow their first summer here. Kindling crisp. In the places where her muscle had dried out, the skin had stiffened and dented. A thatch of orange moss, just like this, capped her skull. No sign of how she’d got there, though Emmett had notioned she must have crawled in to get away from the heat and never crawled out. Grinning to herself for a hundred years — or a thousand, they hadn’t been able to tell.
“There’s nothing, Tobe.”
Below, her son was back to frowning at the bank. “Don’t it look — well — cloven to you, Mama?”
“No.” She watched him. “Why would it?”
He shrugged a little, but his real concerns were finally loose now and there was no pretending otherwise. Interest in cloven hooves, like every other recent absurdity, could only point back to Josie, Emmett’s ward and occult cousin.
“Pig hooves are cloven,” Nora said. “Remember what those look like?”
“I don’t hardly.”
Nora held up two fingers. “They leave a trail like moth wings.” She went back down to him, and they looked at the red mud together. “It’s not cloven, Tobe. No matter what Josie’s been putting in your head.”
“She ain’t putting nothing.”
“Well she certainly isn’t helping your elocution.”
All the way back along the creekbed, the empty bucket clanked against his thigh. His free hand was stuffed in his pocket, out of her reach.
Back at the top of the gulch, Toby stopped. “ Where’s the dogs, Mama?”
She was hot and out of breath, and she didn’t know. But his question had finally flushed out the strange sense of absence that had goaded her all morning. It wasn’t just that the boys had already fared off, or that Emmett’s ongoing delay had forced her to brace for yet another wretched, waterless day. No, there had been something else, too, something under or around it all, and now it struck her: the dogs. The dogs were gone — four of them, possibly five if that old amorous one had survived his latest dalliance with whatever coyote bitch had most recently turned his head. Their din—feral and ungovernable as they were, sounding off from every corner of the farm at every hour of the day, and driving Emmett to empty threats of execution — was her constant companion, and in its absence stretched a stillness so vast the small music of the grasses could not rise to fill it.
“The boys must have taken them,” Nora said.
She thought about it. “Hunting?”
For the first time all day, Toby laughed. “Mama,” he said. “How silly.”
He went on ahead of her toward the house. It sat against the bluff with the melted sun in its windows and a black cloud — the telltale sign of Josie’s fried eggs on the make — sieving through every crack around the door. Of late, Nora had found herself envisioning what might become of the place when the Larks, too, finally played out. When Rob, his patience overdrawn, finally joined some Kansas-bound cattle drive; and Dolan lucked into an apprenticeship — perhaps, with God’s mercy, under the benevolent hand of some patient judge; and Emmett inevitably got his way and bundled Nora and Toby and his ancient mother into the wagon and set course for his next venture in some nameless camp, if there still existed such a thing in this world. The house would fall silent. Mice, having prospected every last crumb, would nest in the eaves. Rattlesnakes would follow. The scrub oaks, with their thirsty roots, would wander down the hill, creeping, by and by, over the jackfence and over Evelyn’s little headstone and down toward the outbuildings. The yard would go to seed, all those hard-fought grasses returning in their prickly mats to outman the descendants of Nora’s cabbages. Perhaps a late summer storm might blow the barn down. Perhaps a prickly pear, small and round, would begin its slow ascent through the floor in one of the downstairs rooms. Soon some quiet autumn evening would find the farm just another massif of slanted roofs, and the lightless windows would draw some desperate neighbor to probe their well, as she and Emmett had done when the Floreses — Rodrigo and Selma, and Toby’s little friend Valeria — had pulled up stakes last year without warning. Gone without goodbye, in the custom of surrender.
Watching Emmett stand in the Floreses’ dusty foreyard and guess how long their well had been dry had been bad enough — but then came the greater mistake of going into the house, where a host of small heartbreaks lay waiting. The beds all made up. Boxes of old cards and letters still in the drawers. Pictures left by the front door because they had obviously been considered, deemed too frivolous or heavy, and jettisoned on the porch. The silence that overwhelmed Nora and Emmett in that house had lasted through their evening chores and followed them to bed, where they had nevertheless set about each other with uncharacteristic vigor. Some hours later, sleepless despite her exhaustion, Nora had watched Emmett raise himself from their twisted blanket and balance on the windowsill to reach the ledge high above their headboard.
“What’s got into you?”
“You’ll see,” Emmett said. He was still unclothed and a little out of breath. He worked a nail loose and began scratching something into the wood.
“What are you writing?”
He surprised her with a smile that shed ten years from his eyes. “Emmett, Nora and their boys lived and were happy here.”
What about Evelyn? she’d wanted to ask — for sure enough, Evelyn was already in her ear, muttering: Yes! What about me? She sounded more incredulous than hurt, which was fitting for a seventeen-year-old girl — as she would have been, as Nora imagined her. Seventeen and incredulous and asking a not-unreasonable question: what about her? Hadn’t she, too, once lived in this house? Hadn’t she gone on living in it, persisting as she did in Nora’s imagination? And if she’d been a real spirit, rather than the imagined manifestation of their long-dead child, would the departure Emmett now seemed to be planning not leave her to haunt this place, horribly and unimaginably alone?
Over the last year this unbearable idea had grown in Nora, and its growth had crept between them somehow, like ice between planks. Perhaps, if she had mentioned it to Emmett that night, this would not have happened. But Emmett had seemed at such blissful remove, so pleased and absorbed by his scribbling, that Nora couldn’t bring herself to pierce him with such questions. Instead she had drawn the covers around her chin. “That’s a fine glut of nonsense, Mister Lark.”
“I reckon it’s a damn lovely truth,” he said. “We should remind ourselves of it more often.”
It was so unlike him to be this extravagantly wistful. There was no recourse save to tease him.
“I’m sure you’re not writing one damn thing, Mister Lark.”
“Of course I am.”
“Well, if you are I’ll bet you’re only writing ‘in this house, Emmett Lark brooked a lot of nonsense from his wife, God help his soul.’ ”
“Here, look for yourself, if you don’t believe me.” She let him help her up, but even standing on tiptoe brought her nowhere near eye-level of the ledge. She persisted in teasing him about it. In the intervening months, whenever some quarrel erupted between them, or he disappeared like this, she became more and more convinced he hadn’t written anything there at all.
What a thing to say — “Emmett, Nora and their boys lived and were happy here.” Well, the living could not be denied. But she doubted whether any of them could stand before the court of heaven and truthfully say that they had been happy here.
Except for Toby, of course. The eerier and more wretched a place, the happier he seemed. There he was in the foreyard, jumping in place, cheerfully waving her down.
“Look!” he cried. “Gramma’s escaped again!”
Emmett’s mother, Missus Harriet, sat on the front porch with her face tipped sunward. Her wheelchair — older than the republic, and on loan to them from Doc Almenara for so long Nora figured they must own it by now — had truly disintegrated into something monstrous. Cane curls fanned out from its wicker back in all directions. Where they met the fingers of whoever happened to be pushing, they drew blood. The huge, rusted forewheels gave the whole conveyance the look of some bedraggled survivor of Pharaoh’s army. Its present charioteer — sixty now, perhaps a little older, and still the battle-ax she’d been when she came to them from Kansas—had been immobilized two years ago by a stroke. Robbed, if not of her appetites and aversions, at least of the means to voice them.
Toby backed the old woman carefully into the kitchen, where Josie was prodding a skillet of pulverized corncakes in the midst of the usual bedlam: charred eggs and smoke; the wide-flung oven belching still more heat into the kitchen. Two breads, left to rise overnight, had burst out of their pans like dancehall girls leaning over the rail. The sight of them sent a bolt of panic through Nora. She had mixed them last night in the grip of optimism, still listening for Emmett’s wheels on the drive — still counting on all the things water would allow, a long drink and laundry, perhaps even a bath — and now here they sat: two bloated mistakes that had brought the entire household not one, but two, cups of water closer to the bottom of the bucket.
Not yet seven in the morning, and already she was shouting at Josie.
“Didn’t I tell you get that bread baked?” In one swift motion, the girl threw the pans in the oven and kicked the door shut. “And didn’t I tell you never leave Missus Harriet out on the porch? People die sundrowned here.”
Josie looked aghast. “I’d never leave her, ma’am — she must’ve escaped again.”
“Don’t lie, goddamn it.”
“She keeps doing it, Mama,” Toby put in. “She manages it somehow when nobody’s looking.”
“Lies cut holes in fabric of Heaven, Toby, and make all the little angels fall out.”
“So does saying ‘goddamn.’ ”
“Look at her.” Her mother-in-law’s face was beginning to glow around the furrows. “She’s sunstruck.”
Josie bustled in to wipe the old lady’s brow. “May I give her some water?”
“I suppose you’ll have to.”
“You mustn’t keep getting away from me, Missus Harriet.” Her harried little face was stern. “You’ll get me in Dutch.”
The dram of water she measured out mercifully hadn’t reduced the bucket by much — there was still enough to cover the bottom of the ladle, enough for a small drink, perhaps for everyone, perhaps even Nora herself.
“How much is there left in the springhouse?”
“I hardly know, ma’am.”
“Well don’t be giving her any more until you find out!”
Josie hurried into her hat. She was “that sorry, ma’am” — she was always that sorry, and there were countless transgressions to be that sorry for. Josie had the hazel eyes and broad forehead of Emmett’s far-flung Scots kin. Her cheeks and throat were scattershot with freckles that flared an obscene pink after half a second in the sun. A triad of clefts fissured the bridge of her nose whenever she was under duress, and Nora was beginning to feel sorry for these hard-working lines. They might as well stake up for keeps for all the rest they got between admonitions.
Passing Toby in the corridor, the girl grazed a hand over his bristly head. He seized at her and said in what he thought was a whisper: “Mama don’t think the tracks are cloven. They don’t strike her as tracks at all.”
Josie stooped down to him. Dark lines laddered the back of her dress — a rare sign of mortality, Josie sweating. Born of woman after all.
“How do they strike you?” she said. She, too, thought she was whispering. She thought Nora couldn’t see the small shrug of Toby’s shoulders, or the way Josie’s hair met his stubbled little forehead.
“They’re tracks,” said Toby.
“Well, then that’s so. What we see with our hearts is often far truer than what we see with our eyes.”
Having wafted this profundity, Josie took her leave. Her ridiculous hat, crowned with turgid burlap sunflowers, presented almost too great a temptation when it came bobbing by the window moments later. It could be dislodged with the mere flinging of a shutter. But then the hat’s owner might be knocked down or, given Nora’s luck, knocked out. And the day would fall to waste: confusion, reproach, water wasted on cleaning her up, hours wasted on summoning the doctor, tears wasted on patching up that pale forehead. And hadn’t they all had their fill of stitches last night?
Nora resumed her calculations. They had maybe two, two and a half cups of water left in here. Filling at least one bladder in town and boiling a little more from the rainbarrel would restore the bucket to almost half-depth. They had gotten by on less all day. For now, she had only to go on resisting thirst herself — a feat more easily managed when she was not watching others drink.
Perhaps inevitably, Toby came in frowning. “I’m thirsty.”
“There’s a drop of coffee left.”
He made a face. “It’s two days old!”
He stood on tiptoe anyway and peered into the kettle.
“Are we square about those tracks, Tobe?”
“Well, Pa would believe me.”
Of this, she had no doubt. “Why not show him when he gets back?”
“Dolan says he ain’t ever coming back.”
He clapped the coffeepot shut and began thumbing hunks of corncake apart, one for himself, one for Gramma. Whatever nascent glimmer of forgiveness Nora had been brooding since the previous night dissipated. No amount of entreaty or admonition could make the boys understand that careless talk could not be had around Toby. Nothing escaped him. He was always listening, always mulling — especially when he appeared not to be. A perceptive child, she’d told them, casting about for a diplomatic way to put it — perceptive. Yes, more perceptive than any of them: more perceptive than Papa; more than Josie; more even than Dolan, who by his own esteem was the very paragon of perceptiveness, declared himself perceptive in the way of Greek poets, really, capable of perceiving for the county and happy to tell you all about it. Well here was the harvest of their ongoing underestimation of their little brother: he had overheard last night’s racket. In frightening him, it had naturally resurrected all the other things he found frightening, with cloven hooves, and all the devilry they bespoke, right in the vanguard.
“Missus Lark!” She was in such froth she almost failed to notice the premature return of Josie’s hat, which shot past the window again and reappeared moments later in the doorway — with Josie wilding under it.
“Missus Lark! Something’s got into the springhouse.”
“There.” Josie tugged at her arm. “You see?”
The springhouse crouched in a copse of scrub oaks at the far end of the yard, but nothing was visible for all the branches, save a glimpse of light-stippled tin Nora supposed must be the roof, and a sliver of door, which jawed a little on its hinges, first this way, then that, clattering faintly where it slapped back off the jamb.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Something’s stuck the door.”
“Well is it man or” — she veered at the last possible moment — “animal?”
But it was too late. “Beast,” Toby said. He had gone very still in the tangle of Josie’s arms, his whole mien more reminiscent of some thunderstruck little dime-novel urchin than a real child now, all of which deepened Nora’s unease into irritation.
“Between the pair of you,” she said, “we might as well be living on Herschel’s moon.”
She seized the shotgun from behind the kitchen door and crossed the yard, sunblind. Two agonizing courses of sweat had begun to race down her ribs. She could feel each distinctly, and really smell herself besides, a needless reminder of how long this entire household had gone unlaundered.
The springhouse was a hopeless early construction: an adobe half-dome that had supported a succession of failing roofs before Emmett finally settled on this ill-fitted tin sheeting that all but defeated the structure’s function. The door, which came into view as she rounded the huerta, was indeed open. There was something lodged in the jamb. She couldn’t quite make it out. But from here, it looked like a boot.
“Hullo?” She cocked the hammer. “Come out slow, you’re stood down.”
It would turn out to be a man, of course. Trespassers never failed to be. Women — even the Indian ones — were good enough to come by the front door. Roughnecks, on the other hand, were only ever surprised in transgression: sleeping in the barn loft, or breaking for the woods with an armful of eggs or — once — forcibly accosting one of Nora’s sheep. Time and time again, she had managed to keep her voice firm and her aim steady, knowing all the while that she was more afraid of these bummers than they were of her — a truth made glaring on the single occasion of Rob’s encountering one such drifter. A smallish man with a mustache so dirty it appeared almost green, he had emerged from the wreckage of their henhouse and stood staring at Nora with sullen, impassive eyes, and then advanced as though the shotgun she pointed at him were a fistful of flowers. But when Rob burst, hollering, from somewhere behind her, how that ugly little bastard had lit out! She’d never seen a fella so small take such bounding strides.
This, however, was different. Rob was not here. He was in town. He would not be putting in a sudden, timely appearance to rout this bastard. It was just herself now, and the gun — which she prayed had not been discharged since she’d last checked it — and the owner of whatever footwear her springhouse door was thumping against.
She tried again. “You’ll find nothing to rob here.” And then: “I can fix you a meal if you’ll only come out.”
Desma would be tickled by this ruse. Town stories had it that a dusty badman had shambled in off the plain one roasting afternoon and surprised Desma in the act of washing her linens. The roughneck was ball-jointed and thin as a cur, and looked like whatever had happened to him out there in the desert had been a hell of his own making. So when he fell to his knees and begged for a drink, Desma just said, “Hold up — can’t you see I’m on my way through something? You just wait one goddamn minute while I finish what I’m doing, mister, and then you’ll have my attention.” And went right on slapping her sheets against the washboard until the roughneck slumped over and died. “It weren’t my intent to kill him,” was all she had to say in the aftermath, “but I only had that last bit of water I needed to finish up the washing, and he didn’t frankly look like the caliber of man you’d waste spit on.”
But even the promise of sustenance did not prompt this enigmatic obstruction to budge from the springhouse door. Minutes went by. Nora shielded her eyes and looked back toward the porch. Josie still had her son strangleheld in the shade.
There was nothing left to do but go forward. A few more steps brought the object to view: not a boot after all, but a leather cinch of some kind, worn as hell though ordinary enough, and wedged sideways so that its buckle caught the light. She nudged the door with her foot, and a triangle of sun yawned across the springhouse floor. She took in the unremarkable shambles of the place — the hooked sausages in slow, perpetual rotation, the tins crammed along the rear shelf, the jerking motes that cohered finally into flies — and for a moment nothing seemed out of place. Then a sour blast of whiskey and rot gusted at her, and she saw: sometime in the night, the shelf nearest the door had been dislodged, and with it an avalanche of bottles and jars had met their demise on the ground.
Before her eye found the rainbarrel, she saw its lid on the floor, and knew, without seeing, that it was on its side.
Beside it lay the carcass of some small, desiccated bird.
The water, Mama, Evelyn said. It’s gone.
The sight of her tearing out of the springhouse took them both by surprise — but they scattered all the same. Nora was only fast enough to manage a single swipe at the hem of Toby’s shirt before he sprang out of reach and scrambled up the porch.
“Come here,” she said.
“I can’t see, Mama.” He hovered, glaring reproachfully down at her.
His bad eye flitted like a jarred moth. It never seemed to do this when he wasn’t being asked to account for some grave mistake.
“The latch is wide open. Weren’t you meant to lock up last night?”
He shook his head. “Josie was.”
But Josie, too, had already flown out of reach. “I latched it, ma’am,” she called from across the yard. “I know I did.”
Of course. It had been Josie sent out for whiskey last night after Dolan’s overwrought suppertime eruption. An odd, appalling moment that needn’t have happened if he had just left off badgering Nora about his father for once — if he’d given up bewailing how long Papa had been gone, and that Nora seemed angrier about the lack of water than what folks were saying in town about Papa and the Sanchez boys and the suspicious wagon, and all the rest of that overcooked nonsense, till eventually he was shouting. He’d called Nora — what? Unseeing and foolhardy.
“I see you’ve learnt some new words,” Nora shot back, pleased with how readily the reply had come to her, at least for a brief, triumphant moment. “Unseeing and foolhardy,” Dolan had said again, of her — and then put his fist through the door. It was so absurd she would have laughed if she hadn’t been laughing already. But then his knuckles turned out to have been rutted to the bone, and the entire household found itself rooted stupidly there in the gloaming of his rage. It struck her that leaving Dolan to twist in mangled distress might caution any onlookers against similar displays. But then her sympathies got the better of her. This was Dolan, after all. More taken aback than anyone by his own outburst. Welling with confusion and what turned out to be a great deal of blood. So out Josie went for the whiskey, and the rest of the evening had devolved into the candlelit stitching of flesh.
Perhaps it was inevitable that some part of Josie’s already tenuous judgment should lapse in all that confusion. But no, Josie insisted. She had locked the door, ma’am. Last year’s run-in with that bear had righted her for good, cured her of assuming any doors were fastened or windows latched. She was real careful about locking up now. She could remember the feel of the bolt against her fingers. Yes, yes she could. In the lifeless air of the springhouse, she raised her fist as though it still held the evidence that might exonerate her.
Nora gave her a little shove toward the rainbarrel. “Then how did it happen?”
“God preserve us, Missus Lark.”
“We will need His preservation now more than ever, Josie, since we hardly seem capable of preserving ourselves.”
She could picture it so clearly: the door creaking on its hinges all night, tempting the dogs, who were always prodding and scrounging around anyway, to nose it open and down the rainbarrel trying to water — like every other damn thing in this drought — and then flee to wherever they were currently waiting out their masters’ retribution.
“Goddamn, Josie, but what a mess.”
“I did lock it!”
“I did, ma’am. I know I did.”
“Then account for this. Did the dogs hop up on each others; shoulders, circus-like, and unbolt the door? Or did I go sleepwalking and open it myself?”
“I really don’t know, ma’am.”
“Perhaps your ‘lost man’ left it open to spite you, then.”
She felt, before the words even left her tongue, the cruelty of conjuring this particular apparition. But it was too late now. She was rewarded with having to watch Josie’s face tighten into a rictus of misery. “I beg your pardon, ma’am — but it’s just plain wrong to hoot at the dead.”
An uneasy silence lengthened out. “I only mean to say: This is not an act of Providence, Josie. The door was left unlocked.”
Toby was crouching over the dead bird — a windhover, perhaps, or some other insubstantial raptor — so close that his nose might brush at any moment against its dry, flattened skull.
“Leave off that thing.”
“Don’t you think it’s some sort of omen, Mama?”
“Certainly — of our worsening prospects.” There was a crust of something in her hair, just above the nape of her neck, and she scratched at it until her nails came away pink. “That was the very last of our supply. Josie — do you understand?”
At last, Josie did. You could always tell a Damascus moment was upon her when her hands went to her forehead. “Almighty God, Missus Lark — the water! I am just that sorry.”
Now commenced a drawn-out treatise, of which Nora absorbed very little. She was thinking gloomily of the depleted kitchen bucket. She was thinking, too, suddenly and viscerally, of her mother, and the gusto with which Ellen Francis Volk had committed herself to the thrashing of servant girls. Whatever solace her mother seemed to find in throwing these sapling women over her knee had mystified Nora — until now. Now, she understood perfectly that her mother’s rage — a twisting, gasping, biting thing, indigenous to the Reilly women of her mother’s line — must have loosened a little as the girls’ bare bottoms and her own hand turned the same blistering shade of red. Nora could well imagine herself in the teeth of that impulse. But she could remember, too well, witnessing this punishment, feeling her own face tickle until it had contorted into a kind of hysterical awe, laughing and crying in simultaneous horror of the executioner and sympathy for the condemned. None of that could be allowed here — not with Toby standing by, pretending to study the ground but listening, all the while, to every detail of Josie’s protestation. Which was winding down now, thank God, for Josie seemed to have got herself into a knot. “What I mean, ma’am, is that I can’t imagine how I could have left it open, since I remember my own hand on the latch. I do. But — if I did ma’am, if that happened to happen, I am that sorry. I suppose you’d be right in telling me that I should have gone out to make certain, but I didn’t think of it. And even if I’d thought of it — well — I doubt you would’ve let me, ma’am.”
Let her? Nora didn’t understand. “Why on earth not?”
“Well — it had fallen dark.”
“And?” She glanced back at the house. It was, at most, thirty yards. Hardly the Panama crossing. She turned around just in time to catch a guilty exchange of glances between her youngest and her ward disintegrating like the tail of a comet. “Why wouldn’t I let you, Josie?”
“Well, ma’am,” Josie said. “On account of the beast.”
From Inland by Téa Obreht. Published by Random House, an imprint and a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Téa Obreht. All rights reserved.