Fiction — From the September 2017 issue


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When I came into the kitchen, Ward was using a knife to help his wife, Irene, peel the skin from two buffalo tongues. The skin was discarded in a small heap along with the glutinous veins cut from the undersides, then Ward left it to Irene to cut the meat into cubes. He pulled out a chair opposite me at the table in the dining area and opened up a John Deere repair manual, which was my reason for being there, and began thumbing through it. Meanwhile, Irene put the cubes into a cast-iron Dutch oven and seared them. She added butter, garlic, onion, white wine, and spices, causing me to grow alert to aromas. Besides garlic and onion, I picked out the scents of rosemary, oregano, and something else I couldn’t identify. A pressure cooker slowly heated up on a back burner, and on the counter beside Irene stood ranks of quart mason jars.

“Untitled (Deeper than Night),” a photograph by Coley Brown, whose monograph Deeper than Night was published last year by Silent Sound

Irene turned down the heat under the Dutch oven, placed a lid on it, moved out of the cooking area to a niche in the wall, and sat on a stool. She wiped her hands on her apron and reached up to the back of her head, adjusting the clip on her bun.

“Buffalo,” she said. “So this is what it comes to. All for my sister.”

“I’m sorry,” Ward said. His voice sounded dismayed, which was not typical of him, though he’d been showing more of it lately: dismay, even distress, with the world.

I surmised that it wasn’t canning buffalo tongues that made him sorry. Under the circumstances, he was probably glad Irene was doing that. Rather, he was sorry that the meat had come to be available at all, that these tongues had been selected from the two formerly angry buffalo that now lay in neatly stacked white packages in the cold of their freezers. He was also sorry that the three-month saga with Irene’s sister and brother-in-law, Jenna and Leland, had come to a head the way it had.

And that wasn’t all. Ward, like most everybody else in these parts, was on edge over the drought and the wildfires that had been ravaging our state that summer. Though we had so far been spared the burning, the winds carried the smoke into our valley. The ridgeline of the canyon below our house was barely visible, and Irene and Ward’s place, set under a hill just to the north, often vanished in a sullen pool of smoke and dust.

“I guess you’ll have to show more discretion about helping Leland out, generous and competent as you are. Or stay out of trouble by keeping completely clear of misanthropes like him,” Irene said. The dimples in her cheeks deepened when she glanced at me and smiled. “I don’t mean you. You’re no trouble.”

“Leland exaggerates,” Ward said. “That’s all I can say.”

“He’s got a screw loose.”

“Hmm,” Ward murmured.

“It’s my sister,” Irene went on. “It’s her I’m worried about. She’s the only one I care about in this thing. But what does she mean that God is in the trees and rocks of the world, in every animal and plant? Or when she says he’s not called God anymore, but Goddess? She’s certainly taken on some wild ideas since she and Leland moved to Montana.”

Ward sighed. “Honey, she had to be working on those ideas before they moved.”

There was an edginess to this exchange, and despite Irene’s exempting me from the misanthropes of the world, I began to wonder if I should leave. I had come up to ask Ward about a mundane thing, the steering-fluid leak in my tractor, a late-Fifties John Deere 720. That was all. Ward had a tractor like it. Irene might have doubted his competence when it came to assessing certain types of people, but when it came to animals, machinery, the farm implements that I regularly borrowed, nobody questioned Ward’s judgment. Earlier in his life, he had been a mechanic for Union Pacific, then for the Air National Guard. I’d never come across anyone who could diagnose a machine’s problems as he did, often by listening to it run, sometimes by clambering up on the engine with a stethoscope and listening to the innards turn on themselves.

Most of his equipment was thirty years old. In other ways too, Ward and Irene seemed content to inhabit a time warp. They didn’t have an answering machine on their landline and had no cell phone. They avoided computers. They lived close to the way they’d been raised, both of them having emerged from hardscrabble farm families whose grandparents had journeyed west during the Dust Bowl. Every Saturday, Irene did her shopping at the Air Force commissary, and every Sunday she went off to the Methodist church in a town nearby. She had her routines of baking, cooking, washing, and cleaning, and her life and Ward’s, too, had a deep-seated sobriety and intactness. No wonder she felt that her sister, who was now living in an underground compound among celestially oriented Blackfoot rock piles, had slipped off the deep end.

Ward looked down at the service manual. “My guess is you’ll have to pull the pump,” he said. “Replace the hoses. As long as you’ve got the pump out, you might as well replace the bearings too. And there are the O-rings on the water lines.”

“To get at the pump, I’ll have to take the grille off too, right?” I said. “And the cowling? Do I have to take the radiator out?”

“You’ll have to drain it and slide it out of the way.” He pushed the manual across the table and pointed to a picture that showed the pump and the radiator levered all the way to the front of the tractor. He put his finger on another picture. “You’ll have to pull the steering wheel and steering shaft too, and take down the worm-gear housing.”

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is the author of seven books, including Yellowfish and The Shadows of Owls. He lives in Washington State.

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