Gleason hits August in the stomach and laughs.
‘So, are you gonna be able to get by all winter without her?’ Gleason asks.
‘Annabelle,’ Gleason says.
‘I always get by.’
August and Gleason never see anyone but each other, Gibbon, and their parents once the real snow hits. Gibbon’s gone though, left in the summer. They did have a winter with a baby girl once, but she and the other girl are dead now.
They’ve just finished the beets and Gleason and August have stained their hands and the fronts of their trousers with the deep scarlet beet juice. They dug the cellar last September and Gleason thinks it’s strange still, the way they have a cellar and no real house. The house was meant to be built that summer but Gibbon left and the planting and raising and harvesting took more time than they were meant to.
This is homesteader country and most things were and are made quickly, other than those built in winter. In the cold months, girls and their mothers linger over stitches and the soles of shoes, redoing and refitting them until the sun is gone. The first winter out of Illinois, August and Gleason’s father made a new bed to take the place of the one they’d left behind.
Piles of carefully chosen oak filled half of the room and the five of them all slept huddled around the stove for weeks. The building of the bed was the only thing John hadn’t wanted his sons’ help with. When he finished, the bed was beautiful, too big to fit through the doorframe. If the bed is ever to be moved to a new house, the old one will have to be torn down first. Gleason and August place their pallets in front of the wood burning stove each night. The house wouldn’t fit two beds comfortably, not with the table, stove, and work space. Gleason licks the scarlet bruise off his left palm, but he’s always hated beets and he grimaces.
‘Stop staring August. Are you gonna miss Annabelle?’
‘I don’t know. Are you?’
‘I’d sure rather have her around than your sick self,’ Gleason tells his brother.
Etta is at the stove beginning supper. Whenever she makes enough for her family to be happy and full John will groan that it isn’t even the first frost and she’s already cooking their shelves bare. If she makes just enough the boys will stare at their plates and in the after dinner prayer they’ll always ask for bounty. She touches the braided knot at the place where her neck meets her hair. If she ever dies the rest of the house will starve. She won’t die until they all have wives of their own, she can’t if she wants to.
John is rubbing the meat of a deer with salt. He doesn’t kill often. The deer is hanging by its two back legs from a tree out back. The chickens and oxen ate the stomach and intestines once they were cut out. Etta doesn’t do anything with deer hide so John leaves it on as the deer cures. In a few days after the salt has soaked in, he’ll cut down the deer, and dry it. Tonight they’ll eat fresh meat.
Dinner always begins and ends with a prayer. The family eats earlier and earlier as the days get shorter, never using lamps unless they have to. Oil is scarce and not for wasting on things like eating. The house was built without windows and even at noon the room is dim, with pieces of light coming in from the cracks between the door and its frame. The logs are newly stuffed with mud and little brightness makes it through them. The family is used to darkness and might almost say they favor it in winter. What use is light when the only four faces it exists for are always the same?
‘God bless the poor,’ John begins the prelude to the meal and his family joins.
‘God bless the sick,’ Gleason always keeps his eyes open, even though he’s not supposed to. He figures he can’t get in trouble for this because anyone else with their eyes open would be cheating too.
‘God bless our human race,’ Etta folds her hands together tightly and August’s legs bounce up and down.
‘God bless our food,’ John’s voice is the deepest, slowest, always the one leading and this is funny as John doesn’t like church and they all know. August expects his father likes the prayer and being the one to tell the story that always follows a meal because it lets him feel powerful, but if this is why John likes it, John has not noticed.
‘God bless our drink. All homes, O God embrace. Amen.’ They finish the prayer together and Etta continues alone.
‘Dear Lord, Thank you for this bounty that was brought to us,’ Etta only ever uses the word bounty in prayer time.
Gleason says his bit quickly, ‘Thank you for the roof.’
‘Thank you for the floor,’ August continues.
‘You said that one last week,’ Gleason kicks August beneath the table.
‘So did you,’ August kicks him back.
‘Thank you for this table,’ John says.
‘Thank you for the children,’ Etta tries to smile.
‘Thank you for Mother,’ Gleason does.
‘Thank you for the daytime,’ August says.
‘Thank you for this bounty,’ John undoes his hands and they begin to eat.
People don’t leave their homes often this time of year.The Remmingtons are supposed to be visiting.The real heavy snows haven’t started yet but they will. Soon the roads will disappear and every- one has heard a story about a farmer going out and getting lost in the white. But the Remmingtons have always been fortunate and Howard Remmington told John he’d visit. He said he wanted to try out his new snowshoes at a distance and that he’d bring over a few extra pints of whisky for one of Etta’s pies. Etta doesn’t make pies in the winter but Howard doesn’t know that.
Howard likes to joke about how he’d leave Grace for Etta’s pies. John doesn’t think it’s too funny. When John was working on marrying Etta, Ozro Sampson said something like that too. John hit him harder than he’s ever hit anyone. Etta knows there wasn’t anything noble about it. It’s just that men like to own things. Sometimes John touches Etta’s back or smells her neck, and sometimes she traces the veins on the backs of the hands. Mostly, she watches him come in and out of the house. She’s quieter when he’s in the room. She’s learned his footfalls and he knows hers but it isn’t something either of them intended. When you spend every day next to anything you start to memorize it, and then forget it.
They’ve got a dog named Maggie in the animal house, along with the twelve chickens, a rooster, and two oxen. The animal house is just across from the one August lives in, with a roof connecting the two, so that you can always get across even when the snow is deep. The animal house doesn’t have a stove though. August sits with Maggie sometimes when he’s taking a break from working. She isn’t useful in the winter, except on the rare days when they brave the snow to go hunting but she isn’t all that useful then either. John says she’s stupid but August doesn’t care about her wit. He just likes to scratch her ears and smell her neck, it smells like dirt.
The family is at supper with the dog beneath the table. John doesn’t like to let her in, but he didn’t notice her until he started eating. Even he won’t break the meal, to take her out. It’s always August’s fault when Maggie comes inside. He slips her a scrap of bread under the table and John stares at him.
‘Dogs are work animals August,’ John says.
‘The cellar is full,’ he says, feeling brave.
‘Supper shouldn’t be wasted on the work animals,’ John’s voice gets louder.
‘Putting Maggie out to die isn’t gonna make the winter any easier.’ Etta says.
‘What will?’ John asks.
‘Hard work’s the only thing that’ll make winter easier,’ Etta says.
‘Hard work, hard work, hard work. Who needs those machines they’re building in Chicago? We’ve got ourselves to work and churn and feed the oxen. You might as well feed me to the chickens when this winter’s done with me,’ John says.
‘Stop what Etta? Stop talking? The four of us are together here and we will be for a good while.’
‘C’mon John, c’mon it’s suppertime.’
‘Even if I stop talking about the dog the bitch’ll still be there.’
‘I’m not. What difference would that be?’
‘You can’t be rational when you’ve had too much whisky. It’s supper. It’s suppertime.’
The family eats quietly, except for their chewing. John has always chewed loudly, Gleason does too. August hates this. He believes that it isn’t meanness or lying that makes one loathe another. It’s the way they chew, the way they tell a story.
The house holds two books, the requisite family Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The title The Complete Works of Shakespeare is misleading. It’s one of the volumes that was made in the thousands and thousands as America tried out its first printing presses and most families own it. It’s missing about half of the comedies. After dinner one of the family will tell the rest a story from the Bible, or from Shakespeare. They’re Lutheran United Revivalists and they became so in Illinois but there’s no church like that near them now, so they pray and worship on their own. The family figures God made Shakespeare and they treat William like a prophet.
The family never reads the stories out, they tell them from memory and the tellings are often twisted. Jonah finds a twin in the belly of the whale. Hamlet is a saint and is stoned to death. Gleason’s favorite one comes from nothing other than what he dreams at night and is about a man living off the blood of a tree. There’s no one to tell them their stories are wrong, and they aren’t wrong, not really.
They don’t talk about Gibbon’s story but it goes like this. He was the smartest and the most trouble too, always getting beat for shaving dirty symbols across the backs of the oxen, or for staying at school too late. Gibbon never wanted to work on the farm but there was nothing else, especially as he was the oldest. Even the next real city was two states away. The railroad hadn’t made it anywhere near them yet, but Gibbon found someone else who was leaving, a traveling preacher. He told the preacher he wanted to become a missionary, and with a bag of apples and the family fiddle, he walked out the door. The letter said all that but it didn’t say what Gibbon would do once he got to the city and left the preacher too.
Gleason’s teacher said that sometimes there’s one buffalo that just wanders off by itself away from the herd. No one knows the reasoning behind the leaving of the buffalo.
‘It freezes August. The buffalo dies.’
August’s face becomes hard, and Gleason works to undo it. ‘But we’re all freezing,’ he laughs out.
‘Do you think Gibbon is freezing?’ August asks.
‘I don’t know. Maybe he’s a buffalo. Maybe we’re all buffalo.’
‘And we’re all frozen?’
‘When’s the last time you went out without your snot sticking in your nose?’
‘What do you think Annabelle is doing? You think she’s a buffalo? You think the Remmingtons are buffalo?’
‘I don’t know August. Is God a buffalo?’
Gleason has been told that God is like a man but if God was a man they wouldn’t spend so much time talking to him.
Nights are long. You lie down when the sun sets and get up when it rises. Most don’t sleep all the way through. When it’s the mother and father awake they try to keep quiet about it but when the children hear them they never say anything. They couldn’t. When August lies awake he counts his fingers again and again and thinks about Annabelle. Gleason tries to imagine God but mostly sees angels. He likes the thought of them but they’ve never felt too real. He holds his hands against the feet of the stove for as long as he can. His palms are already worn with calluses and they can handle the heat for several of August’s quiet snores.
Each morning the animal house is visited, the eggs collected, the oxen checked. The cistern is emptied. The floor is swept. The holes in the roof are patched. Wood is chopped and brought in. One morning August visits the animal house to find two of twelve chickens dead. No fox got in, the hens aren’t bloody. They’re just brown and going cold. August sits and pets Maggie and lets her tug at his coat for a few minutes longer than usual. He picks up the chickens by the feet and carries them across to his mother. John will be angry.
‘What happened?’ Etta asks.
‘I don’t know,’ August says.
‘Well I’ll cook them for tonight.’
‘And the Remmingtons!’ Gleason says. ‘They have to come today if they’re coming, since they didn’t come the last week. Hey Ma, you should make me a chicken hat.’
‘A chicken hat?’ August asks.
‘Yes! I’ll be a chicken!’
Gleason runs around the room the best he can, flapping his arms and clucking. They’ve never had this much meat at the beginning of winter before. There was deer, and now chicken. But John is nervous. If two chickens can die for no seen reason at all, the whole flock can go too.
After August brings the chickens to his mother, he leaves to check the traps. As he gets better and better at finding a good placement for them beneath the leaves and shadows of pine he hopes more and more that the traps won’t really work. He likes eating meat and he likes getting it but he doesn’t like the smell when he finds an animal a few days dead.
It’s even worse when the rabbit or fox isn’t gone but is still struggling. The snow is flecked with blood and fur. The animal gets frantic as he gets close. John doesn’t always let August take his gun and sometimes August has to find a way to strangle the animal, sometimes he has to drag it back to the house. But he doesn’t complain. His family is always grateful.
There’s one trap that hasn’t caught anything all year. August kneels and puts his hand on the trigger to test it. The metal comes down fast and he pulls his hand out quick. The rusting teeth catch his finger through his mitten and a muscle tears as his blood begins to stain the snow. He laughs. His father will be angry, but the trap works, and he knows this now. August staggers home, shoulders the door open. Gleason had always had an eye for blood. He sees that August is stumbling and clutching his hand.
‘August! You stupid!’ Gleason yells.
‘One of the traps came back on me. Feels like my finger is half off,’ August sits down just past the doorframe.
John looks worse than August once he realizes what’s happened to his son.
‘You idiot,’ he says.
Etta lets herself feel frantic for a moment, and then focuses as a mother has to when her son has nearly ripped his hand off.
‘John, would you keep on with the chickens? August, sit down, on our bed. I’m gonna take your mitten off.’
She gasps at the blood. It’s not that the wound is unusually large or deep. Injuries on the farm are common. Etta even had a brother take a whole hand off with a trap one winter. Tools are dangerous. Horses are dangerous. It’s just that the mitten had made the stain look contained, painted. It hadn’t prepared her for the torn flesh, popping out muscle.
‘Is he gonna die?’ Gleason asks.
Etta is focused, ‘Shut up. Get my needles, my thread, and some calico. Some water too, a pot of water. Is the bone broken?’
August’s face is going from white to red, ‘I don’t know.’
Gleason takes too long finding what his mother needs to sew, these steps always take too long when they’re important. He remembers how far away the midwife was when they lost the second girl. If August’s bone has cracked there won’t be any doctor for it ever. He’ll just point crooked for the rest of his life. Gleason finds the needle and thread, fills a pot with water, and hands Etta a piece of calico. She begins to wipe off the wound so she’ll be able to see well enough to sew. Once the swatch of fabric is soaked with blood she places it into August’s mouth for him to bite into.
‘Alright this won’t hurt any worse than the trap did,’ she tells him. ‘It’ll just last longer.’
‘Wait,’ John says. ‘Let’s give him some whisky.’
A healthy swig is poured down August’s throat, he bites the cloth again. His mother begins to sew.
Gleason tries to be kind, ‘Don’t look at it August. How’d you keep your whole finger from coming off anyway? That thing clamps down quick.’
‘I think I sorta pulled it out quick. I don’t know. It happened quick.’
August’s words are short and pained and end in a moan.
Gleason dances around the bed, ‘You got it Augie. Think of Annabelle. Sweet, sweet Annabelle. Bet she could sew you up nice. Hey and the Remmingtons are coming! They sure will be interested in your finger. And Jesus is already here! Dear Lord. My brother was real stupid and tried chopping his own hand off. It didn’t work all the way so we’ve gotta sew his finger back on now. Let Ma sew it back on straight. Otherwise my brother will never be able to point at anything himself. Thank you Lord. Amen. See the Lord’s got you now Gusty.’
Etta sits up as August lies back and shuts his eyes.
‘Let’s hurry with the chickens then,’ Etta says, returning to the meat.
John walks out the door and Etta doesn’t say anything.
‘You think the Remmingtons know how to find us?’ Gleason asks his mother. ‘Maybe they’ve been on the road for days and can’t find us cause everything is white.’
‘They aren’t half a mile away. They can find us. They’ll find us. They’ll be here.’
‘Is his finger gonna fall off?’
‘I pray not. Help me tear this wing off.’
Hours later, the meal is ready and John is back inside, putting wood in the stove. August is still sleeping in his parents’ bed.
‘August? Can you move? Have you left us for the light? We cooked up your dead chickens,’ Gleason says.
August only groans.
‘Get outta bed August,’ John says louder.
‘He nearly chopped his hand off,’ Etta reminds the family though it’s been two hours. She piles the table with chicken.
John sits at the table. ‘He won’t get better if he won’t eat.’
August sits up, and stands up. He’s white but no one can tell in the light.
‘Come on son. It’s your finger. I’ve seen men lose legs.’
‘Who have you seen lose a leg?’ Etta asks her husband.
John doesn’t answer but it was one of his brothers when they were children.
‘Dear Lord,’ John begins. ‘We thank you for not taking my stupid son’s hand.’
‘We thank you for the health of our sons,’ Etta follows.
‘We thank you for the chickens dying,’ Gleason is pleased.
‘We thank you for the chickens cooked,’ August takes more whisky.
‘We thank you for the chickens living,’ John is holding his fork already.
‘We thank you for the sun,’ this is what Etta says when she has nothing else to say.
‘We thank you for the Remmingtons,’ they don’t know if Gleason’s joking but if he is, John would have to smack him so John assumes he’s not.
‘We thank you for the blood stopping,’ August hasn’t really stopped bleeding but it’s slowed.
‘We ask that you help us this spring with a son who might barely be able to use his right hand and can’t always use his head,’ John is holding his knife too.
‘We ask only for the bounty given,’ Etta doesn’t like to ask.
‘We hope that baby Wava and Cora are laughing,’ Gleason is not joking.
‘If Gibbon’s a buffalo, let him be happy,’ neither is August somehow.
‘God bless the poor,’ John begins again and the rest of his family follows.
God bless the sick.
God bless our human race.
God bless our food.
God bless our drink.
All homes, O God embrace.
August gets drunker and drunker as dinner goes on. Cider is cleaner than water. He gets drunk and eats chicken meat. John is nervous about the chickens and talks about the chickens. Gleason talks about Annabelle and August follows this. They finish dinner and at night the first big snow comes.
It’s snowed all December but this time it’s heavy. The walls of the house get closer. August keeps waking and listening. You can’t hear snow falling the way you can rain but you can hear trees groaning and eventually splitting, reaching the ground. You can hear the animals whining. This snow is only the first real one and it won’t be the freezing kind yet. August sits up, finger still pulsing, and decides he wants to go outside.
As he and Gleason get up, their father hears them. Gleason says something about checking Maggie and the brothers slip out into the white. They didn’t put their coats or hats or mittens on, and without the sun it can’t be much above freezing. August is still drunk maybe, but he’s never been happier to see the sky.
Soon Gleason is laughing, they’re both laughing. They jump back into the new snow and look at the stars. This is the last time they’ll see them all winter. No one opens the door at night unless they have to. It’s too cold. Tonight even, it’s dangerous. August thrusts his stitched-up hand into the white powder. Gleason rolls around and round until he’s soaking. They howl until a coyote howls back and shush each other and laugh. They go inside once their necks are numb. Beside the stove their skin unfreezes so that it burns and little pieces of it swell up. If there was light those little patches of swollen would be white against bright red. This isn’t lasting frostbite. In the morning the snow has covered up where they lay. If John or Etta noticed a chill in the night, they don’t mention it.
The snow comes hard all the time now and the wind too. If Gibbon ever wants to come back he can’t until the melting. The Remmingtons never came and the family knows they won’t see anyone until the spring. If they died now, if any of them died now, no one would know until the snow was gone. It’s a curious thing, the coming together of the people after the winter. There are new babies, dead animals. Roofs have caved in. There are awful stories about nights up with sick cows and horses. Quickly, the ache of winter gives way to the first foaling, planting.
August does not like to think about spring. If he doesn’t think about it he can even imagine he likes the winter. The days stretch into each other. Each night there is the ritual of prayer, eating, prayer, story, prayer, sleep. August doesn’t really believe in God anymore but he doesn’t think that matters. He bets the God they talk to was created by people just like his family, those who couldn’t live through winter without anyone else.
Etta keeps dreaming that she’s pregnant but the last baby, the second baby girl, took whatever piece of her she had left to give. When she wakes her belly is sore. Sometimes she turns to John but he is always too gone in the fury of snoring. Etta and John never thought about much like love. He might’ve happily kissed her behind the schoolhouse once when she was near fourteen but if so she can’t really remember it.
One afternoon John comes in and pushes his wife against the table and kisses her. August is sitting, trying to fix a lantern, but his father does not see him. Etta is frightened, not by whisky in John’s mouth but by the absence of it. It isn’t only the drink that makes them wild. August reworks a piece of the handle as his father grips his mother’s waist.
When all the chickens die, it is John that finds them. He’s been imagining this all winter, every winter. He sees a caved-in cellar, a bloody-mouthed fox as he lies in bed each night. He sees his family starve. There has always been enough, his wife tells him, but one morning he opens the door to the animal house and the rooster is still alive. Each of the ten hens that were left is going stiff and cold.
He, Gleason, and August carry the meat into the house by the necks. Etta reassures John that the cellar is nowhere near empty yet. John asks her to cook all of the meat for that night. He wonders what God, if there is God, might be telling them.
The table is piled with meat. Etta begins the prayer.
‘Dear Lord,’ she says.
‘We thank you for laughing at us,’ John says.
‘We thank you for the chickens,’ Gleason says.
‘Thank you for the seeing,’ August says.
‘Thank you for family,’ Etta says, and the family cycles through.
‘Thank you for the snow.’
‘Thank you for the sky.’
‘Thank you for the walls.’
‘Thank you for the heat,’ Etta finishes.
‘For laughing at us John?’ Etta picks up her fork.
‘If He wants to use us for humor I don’t mind one bit.’
Gleason and August begin to eat.
‘Meat’s never tasted like this before,’ Gleason says.
The family eats with fervor, without speaking, dripping meat juice down their shirts, drinking hard cider and whisky.
‘We’ll build a great big house in the spring,’ John tells them.
‘We will?’ Etta asks.
‘A stove in every room,’ John reassures.
‘We’ll build a great big barn for the animals too,’ August can see it.
‘The animals. I’d like to get pigs next year.’
‘How will we?’ August asks.
‘We will. We’ll have to work all through the night but we can just sleep through the winter,’ John isn’t smiling.
Gleason gets excited, ‘We won’t have to sleep in the springtime.’
‘Horses.’ Etta says.
‘Maggie will be jealous.’ Gleason laughs.
‘Can we bring Maggie in now?’ August wants to know.
‘No. And I’ll shoot that dog now,’ John says.
August drops his fork, ‘No! Pa, please, no, Pa. Why?’
John stands up and gets the gun from the wall.
‘Pa. Please.’ Gleason begs.
‘Unless you’d like to do it yourself son,’ John walks out the door.
Etta looks down and keeps eating. She touches the knot of hair at the back of her head.
Gleason and August know they won’t cry, but that they’ll want to. August holds his knife and wonders how killing a dog is different than killing a man. There’s a shot, a moan.
John walks back in the door and his foot is bleeding. He sits down, and takes a whole other quarter of chicken for his plate. He chews loudly.
‘Pa. Your foot?’ Gleason asks.
John swallows, ‘It’s fine. Maggie is fine.’
Etta looks under the table. She gasps.
‘John,’ she says. ‘Let me. I need to.’
The younger brother looks at the spot of dark red settling into purple. The blood is staining the floor.
‘You’ve shot yourself,’ Gleason says.
John bows his head, ‘Let’s enjoy this perfect meal.’
He lifts his fork and puts more chicken in his mouth. The family watches him chew and then pick up the next piece of meat with his hands, the juice running down his fingers, his chin.
His sense of where the shot hit moves from a constant burning knife edge to a swollen warmth that catches each of his ribs.
‘Blessed us all,’ August says.
‘There’s never been this much meat in the house before, has there?’ Gleason says.
Etta puts a hand to her stomach, ‘We’ll be starved by spring.’
The fork in his hand is twitching and he sees he is trembling. He sits straight, stares at his fingers until they calm.
John looks up, feels the pain in his foot. ‘We have everything.’