All the little live thin.., p.29
All the Little Live Things, p.29Wallace Stegner
One instant, and then she was death again, tottering between her careful helpers. The nurse fussed behind them with her own suitcase in her hand, and behind them all came Debby carrying a flat cardboard box. I saw the picture of a barnyard with animals: a jigsaw puzzle. Later, if Debby’s memory turned out to be better than Marian hoped it would be, she could put her mother’s death together out of just such irregular pieces.
They stopped at the edge of the shade, and at a jerk of Ruth’s head I hurried to take her place at Marian’s side. Ruth stepped back and grabbed up Debby’s hand. “All right, hon,” Marian said in the clear, strained voice. “You and Ruth have a good time.” She did not look around when she spoke. She looked at the open door of the car.
“I want to go!” Debby said. “Where are you going?”
“I told you. Just to see the doctor.”
“In your bathrobe?”
“He’s seen me in my bathrobe before.”
“You’ll look funny in his office.”
“I guess,” Marian said. She was withdrawing, her voice was indifferent. But I felt her frail weight on my arm, and looking out of the comer of my eye, I saw that her eyes were closed and that tiny blisters of sweat had come out on her upper lip. Still with her eyes closed, her back indifferently turned, she said to Debby, “You be a good girl for Ruth.”
“I wanted you to help me with my puzzle.”
“I’ll help you with it tonight,” John said through his teeth. He stooped and lifted Marian by her shoulders and knees; her bony, eloquent, beautiful feet hung down. In the haze of impressions, I saw Ruth, her eyes glazed and her teeth in her lip, pull Debby against her side, and on the other side of the car the moon-faced nurse came crawling in, creaking her slick nylon, to help John settle Marian in the seat. I slammed the door behind him, I slammed the front one after myself. As I backed around and shifted, I threw a look in the mirror. Marian was lying back against John’s arm, blind to Debby’s . uncertain wave. The nurse was reaching to wipe her face with a Kleenex.
“Did she guess?” Marian whispered.
“No,” John said. “Hold my hand.”
Taking the bump as easily as possible, I eased the car into the lane. My mind was a night sky full of crisscrossing beams. I was acutely conscious of the breathing in the seat behind, but whose I didn’t know. I saw the image of the brown hand and the thin one, locked together, with the precision of an etching, and I registered a blink of relief that the bulldozer had worked farther down the hill: maybe she could at least be spared that. I was already laying out in my head the route I would take to avoid the afternoon traffic and the stops and starts that would aggravate Marian’s pain.
And then I was leaning forward, rising above the wheel, stiff with disbelief and fury. Ahead of us, between the mailboxes and the wobbly bridge that had gone unrepaired for fifteen months since Weld had said he would fix it, Julie was sitting straight on her horse and talking to someone driving the familiar Volkswagen bus. By the bus’s rear wheel, half obscured but unmistakable, was the all-too-familiar Honda, and on it the figure in the white helmet, the cut-off jeans, the Castro beard. Thirty feet or so above them, at the end of the long rough gouge he had made, Dave Weld sat on the idling bulldozer. Unthought, Irresponsibility, Rebellion, and Foolishness held a conference or a quarrel, and blocked the road.
Julie must have known somehow that Peck was coming for his stuff, and somehow got away on her horse to meet the bus. And it was not likely that either Julie or anyone in the bus could have passed the nervous Judas on the bulldozer without pausing for some release of scorn or hatred. I have no inclination to believe that some Presence, somewhere Up, plugged a cord into a socket and sat back and smiled. But no matter how they came there, by accident or design, predestination or blind chance, those people could not have been in a worse place at a worse time if they had rehearsed for months. Coincidence I suppose it was. Yet they reacted with all the moves of guilty collusion.
The rumble of the idling bulldozer would have drowned out the sound of the car coasting down toward them, but even without it they would probably not have heard us. They were all looking up at Dave Weld now. I saw the vehement motions of Julie’s head as she shouted something. Cursing under my breath, I put my foot on the brake and gave them two light blips with the horn.
If I had three wishes to last me the rest of my life, the first would be to take back those momentary touches of my wrist on the horn ring.
Guilty collusion, I said. Perhaps only astonishment that others, outsiders, intruded upon their dense enclosed groupy world. Maybe they all thought of everything outside their circle as a great faceless enemy, and it surprised them to see it bearing down on them in the shape of a station wagon and four people.
Their heads snapped around, their faces stared, startled, even as they started scattering. The driver of the bus, with hardly a break in the motion that started with his turning head, was twisting to look for backing room. Julie was lifting at the gelding’s rein, swinging him left. Peck’s foot stamped down and the Honda spurted smoke. Dave Weld up above snapped forward to his gears. It was like a collective start at the sound of an explosion.
Perhaps the abrupt starting of two motors, Honda and Volkswagen, frightened the horse; perhaps Dave Weld’s lurch to the gears sent clods rolling to burst around the gelding’s feet. Perhaps, indeed, my two touches on the horn did it all.
I had almost stopped rolling when I hit the horn. Now we were at a dead stop, twenty or thirty feet from the bus. In the narrow space between bus and motorcycle the gelding was suddenly wild. It spun and reared, the motorcycle went over and Peck dove rolling from under the hoofs. The air was dense with shouting, in my ear the nurse was crying, “Oh oh oh oh oh!” Like a broken-backed dog, the Honda circled, kicking up a great dust, and above it the horse was upright for one terrific instant, with Julie flat along its neck and its chin pulled back against its throat and her seat, that admirable heart-shaped seat, glued to the nearly vertical back.
Glass crashed, the Volkswagen rumbled like a beaten tub, the rearing horse vanished in the dust and reappeared, pawing and fighting for its head, walking on its hind feet. It must have stepped into the frantic Honda, for from mid-air, it seemed, it sprang upward and outward, away from the frenzy that had it cornered. I heard hoofs on hollow plank, Julie screamed, a long, terrible cry, and they were down, invisible behind the Volkswagen and the dust.
It couldn’t have taken more than five seconds. I found myself in the road beside the driver of the bus, the rather pleasant boy named Miles. He was full of adrenalin, as who was not; he pounced rather than moved; he looked thirty-six directions at once. Darting crabwise, his eye on the bridge from which came Julie’s bursts of screaming, as mindless as a steam whistle, Peck scuttled in and grabbed the broken Honda and shut it off and dragged it aside. I pushed past the stuttering Miles and ducked around the bus.
Julie was squatting just where bridge met road, holding the reins in both hands. The struggles of the horse yanked and toppled her. I saw that the gelding was through the gaps in the bridge with all four legs. Floundering with stretched neck, it gained a purchase on nothing. Its hoofs knocked muffled sounds from underneath, a haze of dust rose above it. On the right shoulder was a long slick raw wound, the skin wrinkled up like a scuff on a shoe to expose the red muscle.
Julie, her arms extended by the yanking on the reins, looked pleadingly over her shoulder, and I in turn looked over mine. John had not got out of the station wagon. He sat inside holding Marian’s head down against his chest. Over her childish pigtails his eyes glared at me, warrior’s eyes, hot with danger, fear, battle. The nurse’s face was a moon of terror.
Desperate, I looked around again. The horse lay briefly quiet, stretched awkwardly, its hind legs spaced between two gaps, its front legs down through a single one. It seemed suspended in a grotesque rack or single-foot. Its head thumped down on the planks.
I shouted at Julie, some advice or encouragement, foolish or othe
I moved too fast or too slow. I had taken only a step or two when the horse convulsed itself in a renewed effort to get to its feet. One stretched hind leg kinked up out of the gap, and for a split second the gelding stood impossibly on one comer, its chest jammed down on the planks and its other hind leg imprisoned. With horrible breaking noises the comer gave way and the horse fell partly on its side. Easily, at an angle that sickened me, the imprisoned hind leg came partly free. The head lay flat again on the bridge tread, the breath rattled in the stretched throat, the eyes rolled whitely.
Cautiously I edged past Julie, still hanging to the reins, and as I did so the horse made another effort to free itself. Somehow it got a front foot free and planted on solid plank. Broken, the hoof flopped aside, but still the horse pried and lifted, and then the other front foot came free.
This one was not merely broken, it was broken off. Squatting, hoarsely gasping, with its hind legs still crookedly jammed in the cracks, the gelding braced itself like a sitting dog on one flopping hoof and one peg of bloody white bone.
Julie looked, a long look, and then her whole body shuddered down until her face was on her thighs. A high whimper came out of her, unbroken, without breathing; then a hiccup; then the whimper again. It was a lovely tableau vivant, the propped and terrible horse, the bridge spattered with blood, the bowed girl, the two kooks and I standing stupidly aghast, the station wagon with its suffering eyes looking down on it all. “Oh, kill him!” I heard Julie saying between her knees. “Kill him, kill him!”
I am not good in emergencies. My mind was racing among alternatives like a man in a fire who grabs up things, and drops them to grab up others. What made me incoherent and frantic was not so much the horse, though that in other circumstances would have given me nightmares for months. But there was Marian up there in the station wagon, desperately needing the obliteration that the hospital’s needle might give her, and no way out. The only other way out of our dead end was through the pasture where I had come on the Fourth of July. That would be rough, slow, hard on Marian, and it would bring us out not into the foothill road but into El Camino, in the worst of the afternoon traffic. We had to clear the bridge, kill the horse, something. The bulldozer? But how to kill it. My house. The shotgun.
I ran around the bus and saw that inside the station wagon Marian was craned around, looking back. The cords were harsh in her neck, and she fought off the nurse’s hands. John had one leg out of the car, and he was waving, pushing against the air. Over the rise between us and the cottage I saw Ruth’s white head and knew that she would have Debby by the hand. The bumper of the bus was behind me. I jumped on it and wigwagged, shouting, “Back! Back! Don’t bring her down here!”
She saw, she heard, she stopped. cupped hands around mouth and shouted again, “It’s the horse. It’s O.K., it’s just the horse! Keep her back there!” With relief I saw the white head retreat and disappear. When I took my eyes off Ruth I saw John backing out of the station wagon with the splitting hammer in his hand.
Just for a moment he hung at the window. He put out his left hand and laid it over Marian’s eyes. “Don’t look, sweet,” he said. A tic was jerking at the comer of his eye. To me he said, “Get Julie out of the way.”
I ran and grabbed her by the arm, but she was limp, moaning, and heavy, and to move her at all I had to get her under both arms. She clung to the reins: I kicked them out of her hands and dragged her a dozen backward steps, and dropped her and stood up, dripping sweat, in time to see John straddle the horse’s neck. The head lifted, distended nostrils and bulging eyes swayed on the stem of the neck, the peg of bone scratched and scrabbled at the planks. Then it sagged back, the head thumped down, and John stepped across it again and swung the splitting hammer, half sledge, half ax, between the rolling white eyes.
Raging, blood on his hands and arms, blood on his shirt, he threw the hammer aside. “Come here!” He grabbed up a stub of two-by-four and began to pry a hind leg out of the crack. We were slow getting to him, and without stopping his furious prying he roared at us, “Come here, help me get this damned thing off the bridge!”
Now here came Dave Weld on the bulldozer. Frozen spectator up to now, he knew what power he commanded and saw the job clearly. But John stood up a second, estimating the pulpy bridge, and waved him back, and ultimately it was up to him and me, with Peck and Miles belatedly and inadequately helping. We struggled, slipping in thick blood, dragging at legs, mane, tail, prying at broken legs with broken pieces of plank. We got the legs free, rolled it over, pried the loose heavy shoulders and haunches nearer the edge, got its legs over, pried it closer. Resistant, sagging, sliding inside its skin, it moved reluctantly. Beside me, rank as a goat in the heat, Jim Peck grunted and shoved. His left eye was black and purple from the blow Tom Weld had dealt him at the booking. Miles was green in the face, and snorted and moaned as he worked. We pried, tugged, lifted. With a slow fleshy caving, with a tremendous loose dead weight, it toppled, gave, crashed down into the creek-bed brush.
Pouring sweat, smeared with blood, John threw the two-by-four after the splitting hammer. He said to Peck, “Get Julie home. Ask her father to have somebody with a winch get the carcass out of the creek.” Dragging an arm across his face, he started for the car.
Peck turned on me a face that seemed to have shrunk inside his beard. He looked like a boy in false whiskers, which is probably more or less what he had always been. “What is it?” he said. “What’s happening?”
I might have felt sympathetic to him, seeing him as scared boy. And I had been working at his side in an emergency, the only time in all our acquaintance when we had had anything in common. Though I blamed him for all this blood and anguish-why in God’s name did he have to stop in the middle of the road?—I saw by his face that he hadn’t the slightest idea why John was so raging mad to get the dead horse off the bridge, why a tragedy to Julie must be turned into an emergency as furious as a pit stop in an auto race.
I started to answer. The bus and the station wagon whited out, Peck’s face faded, I was glaring blindly into a sheet of oatmeal paper. Then it came back, the hill steadied and deepened to its usual gold, the blood was dark on the pulpy planks, the body of the horse was shining black, laced with bright blood, among the crushed brush below me. I said to Peck, “We’re taking Mrs. Catlin to the hospital to die.”
It was a cruel thing to say, and if I had it to do again I would not say it. For I saw at once that he hadn’t the slightest notion of Marian’s condition. He thought she was pregnant. And in that moment I had a kind of rush, a revelation, an understanding of how it is with the Pecks. They think it is simpler and less serious than it is. They don’t know. They fool around. They haven’t discovered how terrible is the thing that thuds in their chests and pulses in their arteries, they never see ahead to the intersection where the crazy drunk will meet them.
I turned from him, ran to the station wagon, slid in, and from the glimpse I had of Marian’s white face I knew she had watched it all. John took her in his arms again, where she had been when all our complicated relationships erupted into one of their consequences. In the mirror I saw her bowed, pigtailed head, his bloody shirt. Then I was easing the station wagon over the bridge while Peck and Miles stood back—staring, staring, shocked, without a word to their tongues. I felt the tires go sticky and then dry again. At the stop sign fronting the county road I stopped. Another look in the mirror.
Marian had lifted her face from John’s shoulder and laid her head back against the seat
YESTERDAY WAS FEBRUARY first. After lunch, when I went out into the yard, I found the almond trees, as dependable as the swallows of Capistrano, announcing another spring. It was a day as fresh as spring itself, the air washed, the hills green, acacias yellow down the valley, mustard yellow in the fields. And all it said to me was that a few more like it would dry the ground so that Tom Weld could put his bulldozer back to work tearing the heart out of his hill, and that on just such a day as this Marian and John had first made their way up our road, and that the last blossoms I had seen in our orchard had been those put out by the cherry tree with death at its roots.
Peace was not in anything I saw or smelled or felt. The bell jar that had protected our retirement was smashed, the dark hole that had guaranteed quiet was dug up. And no exhilaration in any of it, none of the pleasure in pain that Marian, professed. Only somber thoughts and a sense of exposure and grievance. Despite her urgings, I do not accept the universe.
Knowing no other way to deal with unpeace than the way that used to work for both me and Lou LoPresti, I busied my hands. I got hoe and rake and began to basin trees and shrubs on the bank where, not quite a year before, Marian had preached me her sermon on the indomitable mushroom.
All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes