Edward Hamlin is the author of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, winner of the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Colorado Book Award. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Missouri Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Raised in Chicago, Edward now lives outside Boulder, Colorado. www.edwardhamlin.com
Editor's Choice Award, 2017 Raymond Carver Contest
Nothing has prepared them for the Colorado wind, which is no ordinary wind but a sudden, pugilistic wind as violent as any Atlantic gale. Every night through that first long January it roars out of its corner to jab at the house, the rafters and studs shuddering with each blow, the old place thrown against the ropes. Through the long nights Jerzy and Nora lie awake under its mighty assault, beyond exhausted, certain the pummeling will take the roof off at any moment. Soon the stars will be laid bare, the bedroom flung open to the frigid sky. Eventually they’ll get up—sleep impossible—and sit in the rattling drafty kitchen with cups of instant coffee, wondering if they’ve made the worst mistake of their lives in leaving Chicago behind.
In the end it’s too much for Nora—the wind, and everything it has swept into her life. When November rolls around again she announces that she’s going home.
“You’ll manage just fine,” she tells Jerzy, slouched at the kitchen table in a sour purple fleece. “Or not.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This whole deal was crazy from the start. To take a couple of city kids and try to run a ranch… Christ, Jerzy, we were out of our minds. I can’t do it anymore.”
Across the pasture the sun’s guttering out, bringing a fever-flush to the snow. Jerzy says, “You agreed to try it, Nora. You were all in.”
“For a year. That was the agreement. So, now it’s a year and a half. I was all in, and now I’m all out.” She pinches off her joint, holds the smoke; takes his hand across the yellow tablecloth, her eyes vague. “It isn’t that I don’t love you like crazy,” she says after a tight exhale. “I do. This isn’t about you.”
“Don’t lie, Nora.”
“Careful, there, cowboy.”
“It’s about me, Nora, because you don’t think I can make it work. But this is not a one-person undertaking. I can’t do it alone.”
“Your Uncle Josef did.”
“Only later, after my aunt left. They ran it together for twenty years.”
She frowns at his hand, inert in hers. “Come on, Jerzy, you’ve got plenty of help. Renfro, the summer hands. The shearing crew. The Extension people. They all want to see you succeed.”
“Renfro’s gone. And none of them can help with the hard part.”
Jerzy feels his throat closing, as if to keep the answer from escaping into the world. “The not knowing if it’s going to work out. The books. The anxiety, Nora. That’s where I need you.”
“I’ll be just a phone call away, baby.”
“But you want this to fail.”
He’d not meant to say this, though he’s been wanting to say it for weeks. She drops his hand and slumps back in her chair, her face a blank. “Whatever,” she says, no longer listening. Already he feels a void opening in his chest.
In a week she’s gone. At the United curb check she kisses him halfheartedly and he wonders if it’s for the last time. There are men in Chicago who want her; he could name them, count them off like a cop counting off suspects. Bob Crowder, her co-worker at the bank. Barry Polacek, their insurance guy. The lean blue-eyed kid who used to wait on them at Happi Sushi, assuming he isn’t gay. Men will clamor for Nora Nowak. Since announcing her decision she’s not said one word to suggest they have a future together. She’s leaving the ranch—is she leaving him too? She hasn’t said so, and he hasn’t found the courage to ask her. He isn’t superstitious, but maybe by speaking it aloud he’d make it so, put the idea in her head, set something even worse in motion.
During the long drive back from the Denver airport a winter storm sets in, snow barreling over the foothills to chase him across the plains. In the rearview mirror, a few miles behind him, it’s already a whiteout. He manages to outrun the front until the overpass in Keenesburg, where a gust buffets the truck and he’s suddenly in the thick of it.
Jerzy flicks off the high-beams and slows down sharply, his visibility all but gone. Garrison Keillor mumbles on the radio, unfazed; Jerzy switches him off, annoyed by the lumbering baritone and old-timey shtick. He needs to focus. Between Fort Morgan and Brush a state trooper’s pulled over some jacked-up ghetto cruiser with flame decals that doesn’t belong out in Morgan County, red and blue lights slicing through the blowing snow, the cop’s glove on his radio as he approaches the driver’s window. Apart from a trooper and a wayward city kid, thankfully, there is almost no one else on the road.
Jerzy’s thoughts roam through the blanked-out countryside untrammeled. In just a week everything’s gone to hell—though the truth of it is that Nora’s been pulling away since September or so, distancing herself with headphones and weed and the internet, no longer pulling her weight with chores, not even bathing regularly. Lately there’s been a faint reek about her, her clothes worn for too many days, her hair oily and thin; twice he’s run baths in the claw-foot tub and led her upstairs like a blind woman, the headphones never coming off, her breasts blotchy and lax in the hot water.
Through her last weeks at the ranch the music was non-negotiable. In bed she’d listen to Jewel and Sarah McLachlan and the Grateful Dead while he plowed through weirdly upbeat County Extension publications on bacterial diseases of meat sheep and water law and the changing economics of family farming, wanting to talk to her but locked out by the headphones and the weed. When he’d had enough of studying, his nerves frayed by the hard realities of what they’d taken on, he’d allow himself a few minutes of a spy novel, his wife sound asleep beside him now, a whisper of music bleeding from her, another day gone.
And so the Chicago Nora—the impeccably professional Nora, the Nora who dressed carefully for her public and waxed her legs and never wore underwear on Fridays, the Nora who could still arouse him as no woman ever had—had lately given way to a woman he barely recognized, a dull-eyed roommate with nothing to offer the world. There was another Nora who’d vanished, too: the smart and energetic woman who’d been his equal partner in getting through that first year, learning with him the cycles and needs of the animals, getting a grip on the business end of the operation. Five seasons of hard farming life had chased this Nora off too, leaving him all but alone.
There were days when they barely spoke to one other, days when he had more interaction with the border collies than with her. At least the dogs would notice it if he were to vanish into the snow one night and never return. She might not pick up on it until she realized that no one was cooking her dinner, that the slow-cooker was empty and clean and standing unused on the shelf, her belly roaring.
For weeks now, in point of fact, he’d been the only one to feed them. With the October breeding and drenching done and the hired hands handling the heavy work in the barn, he’d had more time around the house; to stave off anxiety and keep his hands busy he’d worked his way through a bread book recipe by recipe, filling the kitchen agreeably with loaves of ciabatta and pumpernickel, with Syrian flatbreads and French boules and delicate breadsticks laid out like batons for an army of invisible conductors. Dorothy Dow, the cheesemaker up the road who bought thirty gallons of raw ewe’s milk every Monday in summer, kept them stocked with quarter-rounds of pecorino, the perfect accompaniment to his creations. But none of it moved Nora. She came, she ate; she washed the dishes slowly and badly, the conversation sparse and halting. She was only going through the motions of living with him. Anyone could have seen it.
And now, abruptly, selfishly, she’s left. Things have been tough at the ranch, with no relief in sight—no one understands this better than Jerzy Nowak. But try as he might to make his peace with her decision, he can only see it as a betrayal.
In his distraction Jerzy blows right past the turnoff onto County Road W, the sign encrusted with snow. Fuck! he shouts in the overheated cab, pummeling the steering wheel. Fuck fuck fuck! With her departure his body has lost its homing instinct. The muscle memory that should have made him veer off onto his own road has vanished with her, dissolved into the frigid air. The house will be empty and dark when he arrives.
Fuck you, Nora, he says experimentally as he creeps along the outer edge of his land. By now she’ll be in the air, somewhere in the night sky over Nebraska with a Seven and Seven on her tray table and the Dead on her headphones, powering back into her old life while he drives into the blizzard of his new one, having no idea what new obstacles might lie in his path.
. . .
After dinner he calls her cell phone to make sure she’s gotten home all right. In the background of the call there’s Mexican music.
“Where are you?” he asks.
“At Pepe’s,” she says in a distracted voice, as if making a face at someone across the table. “Had to get my fix.” A drunken laugh tatters across the line. “Danuta’s here. We were just talking about you, babe. Wanna say hi?”
No, he does not want to say hi. A few hours since leaving him and she’s already back in her element, a platter of enchiladas and a Tecate in front of her, unloading about him to her childhood friend. Danuta Kowalski told Nora she was insane to go west with her husband, to quit her job at Chase and follow him out to Colorado—Danuta who’d never left the neighborhood, who’d flunked out of hospitality school and failed again and again to make manager at Walmart; Danuta who’d gained fifty pounds since high school and still lived with the grandmother she’d brought over from Gdansk; Danuta who couldn’t get through a conversation without bringing up her imaginary fibromyalgia, which was just a ticket for a disability check. Danuta Kowalski, an expert in bold decisions, in brave life choices. And now the two of them are getting drunk together, having concluded that the Colorado adventure was exactly the trainwreck she’d predicted it would be. Jerzy can easily imagine the sneer on the woman’s face, cherubic with fat, the way she’s taken credit for Nora’s defection.
It’s a good thing he’s three states away. In his current mood he could knock her flat.
After rinsing the dishes and loading the wood stove he goes up to bed. It’s only eight o’clock, but he’s exhausted; after the day he’s had, he’s well within his rights to turn in early. As he stands at the sink brushing his teeth the snow ticks quietly against the window, the blizzard gusting in steadily now. Out in the pasture the snow fences will be listing toward the barn, taking the weight of it. The mercury’s down to eleven degrees, the pond frozen smooth as a dime. Two below is the forecast for the night, and it’s not hard to imagine it getting there.
Jerzy lies in his chilly bed and stares up at the knots in the pine ceiling, his head a tangle of bad wiring, his heart thick with anger. For an hour he tries Nora in absentia, building a bitter case against her. Her abandonment of the ranch is one thing; the abruptness of it is something else entirely. It’s there the viciousness lies. In twelve years of marriage they’ve never made a major decision without talking it through first. By nature and profession they’re both analysts; no decision is ever made without careful study. But now she’s sprung this on him, leaving no room for debate. By the time she broke the news she already had her plane ticket—another crime against basic decency.
In time he simply weeps. In the morning he’ll throw down coffee and toast and go out to help the hands feed the livestock, though they don’t need his help. Then he’ll come back to the empty farmhouse and try to make sense of what’s befallen him. God knows he won’t solve it lying in the dark with his head spinning off its axis. Eventually Jerzy falls into a trackless sleep, the roof burdened with snow, the studs in the wall cracking like an old farmer’s joints as the temperature plunges.
. . .
By the time the ranch fell into his lap he’d come to despise his work at the bank. From a cubicle three floors below Nora’s desk in the Loan Workout Group Jerzy tended to the enormous credit databases, his sole consolation a vast and vividly bright computer monitor bestowed upon him in deference to his seniority. Adrift in this shining pool he spent his days running backup scripts and performance analyses, tuning an index here and a storage schema there, all the while fending off the cocky young programmers who’d come to him demanding favors, little end runs around bank policy that would save them writing code. For some time his primary job had been to say no, and he’d executed it with dreary precision.
It had been years since Jerzy Nowak had felt the spark of creating something new: mapping a data model on a whiteboard, grinding it out, polishing it until it was clean as a jewel. He’d almost forgotten what the joy of good intellectual work felt like. His current duties were easily managed by the reptilian brain—the higher brain dedicated to counting down the minutes until he could escape the fluorescent lights and meet his wife for lunch on the plaza, Chicago swarming around them, the air full of taxi horns and gulls straying off the lake and snatches of rap music, office workers settling onto the granite benches like spindrift.
She’d be waiting for him with falafel sandwiches from the Jewelers Mall or microwaved lasagna from home, a blessed oasis in the desert of his day. In fine weather they’d push the envelope, stretching their forty-five minutes to an hour or more, but soon it was back to work, Jerzy struggling to stay awake through the dull afternoons while she met with panicked families who’d defaulted on their mortgages, meetings she dreaded as much as they did. The parade of desperately sinking homeowners—meek tearful couples agreeing in airless conference rooms to whatever terms the bank demanded—had ground her down mercilessly. During the housing boom, when she’d worked in Origination, there had been real satisfaction in the work, knowing that families were about to get their first homes; now it was a slow bloodletting, nothing more.
They’d talked of leaving the city outright, of moving somewhere beautiful. The Bay Area, maybe, where he could latch onto a startup that would appreciate his skills and they could drive up into Napa on summer Sundays. Once, on a whim, they’d flown to Portland and strolled the compact city for a weekend, wandering through the Japanese gardens, easily imagining a life there. No matter where they finally landed, it would be fresh for a time: no tearful debtors, no Polish relations pressing in, no Danutas dragging them down.
And so the idea of leaving Chicago had entered into a quiet, unhurried gestation, ripening on its own schedule. In time, they assumed, their next move would reveal itself. Yet in all their speculation the idea of Colorado had never come up. Had Jerzy not received, one sleeting Saturday morning, a registered letter detailing his Uncle Bronek’s bequest, the thought of moving there might never have crossed their minds.
Bronek had willed his nephew sixty-six acres of pastureland with three water shares, thirty white Yorkshire hogs, a hundred Shetland ewes, a handful of rams, two border collies, a three-bedroom farmhouse, various outbuildings and a barn equipped with twelve parlor stalls and a TopFlow Z-bucket washless milking system, whatever that was. Almost as an afterthought, the letter mentioned that a tenant farmer named Renfro occupied a five-acre parcel on a twenty-year lease. But for the modern-sounding milking equipment it was like a bequest out of Faulkner, so alien to Jerzy that he could only laugh at the letter that drooped from his hand, limp with rain.
. . .
Uncle Bronek—his mother’s brother—had been nearly a stranger. Apart from a few disconnected childhood memories interspersed with the single shining recollection of a summer vacation spent at the ranch, Jerzy knew only that his uncle had sold his butcher business decades ago to create a new life out west, putting a considerable distance between himself and the Chicago Broneks. Jerzy hadn’t even heard that the old man was sick, much less dead; he wondered if his relations knew.
At first he’d kept the letter to himself, studying the arcane rundown of what he’d inherited, an idea beginning to form in his mind. As he and Nora sat over takeout one night he spread it across the table for her to read, then told her what he’d been thinking as briefly and simply as he could.
“Are you crazy?” she said, incredulous when he suggested they might take the ranch over. “What the hell do we know about that business? You do realize it’s a business, don’t you, Jerzy? A really shitty one, too. The only thing to do is sell the place. Take the windfall and put it right into some condos in Lakeview. Done.”
“It’s sixty-six acres, Nora. In Colorado. You’re ruling out living in Colorado? Just like that?”
“You’re a city boy, Jerzy. You’d go fucking nuts out there. And I repeat: You don’t know anything about farming, or ranching, or whatever you call it.”
“So? My uncle was born and raised in Bridgeport. It’s not like he grew up on a ranch, you know. He made it work. He learned whatever he had to. People do this. And there’s already a tenant farmer who knows the ropes.”
“Your uncle was young and stupid. After that he was old and stupid. This is one thing your family has always agreed on.”
“He succeeded, didn’t he? He built this operation. Bought the place on foreclosure and turned it around. I looked up that milker—that’s a fifty-thousand dollar piece of gear, Nora. Gives you a sense of the scale.” This seemed to give her pause: A flicker of surprise passed through her eyes. Jerzy changed tack: “I went out there the summer I turned sixteen, you know. We rode horses. We helped sows give birth. It was cool. And what beautiful country, Nora…it’s high plains, with the mountains off in the distance. I totally get why Bronek was drawn to it. We’d have breathing room. Peace and quiet—” Down on Damen, a car horn blared as if to drive his point home.
“So, Bronek did it,” Nora said. “Good for Bronek. Different times, brother.” She got up and pulled her bomber jacket on, the leather creaking. “News flash, Jerzy: Family farming’s dead, the whole thing’s gone mega. Maybe you didn’t hear about that? And don’t forget: Dear Uncle Joe’s wife left him. She’d had enough. Bear that in mind. I gotta go meet Danuta.”
But she was already barreling down the stairs, Jerzy staring at the lawyer’s letter and half wishing it had never arrived.
. . .
It took six months of cajoling and a road trip to Colorado to finally persuade her. Jerzy plotted the route to showcase the mountains before doubling back across the prairie to see the ranch—a solid plan whose indirection pleased him. The sheer beauty of the high country would sell her, he hoped, though the ranch itself was as flat as any Chicago parking lot.
They’d taken ten days off, enough time to really unwind. As winter ground on and on—the city moldering under filthy snow drifts and a property tax bill with a six-hundred dollar increase pinned to the refrigerator—the coming trip began to feel like a lifeline, regardless of what happened with the ranch. The city was fast becoming a place where you’d never in your right mind choose to live.
She’d always been curious about New Mexico on account of Georgia O’Keeffe; after Colorado, Jerzy promised, they’d cruise down to Santa Fe and on to Abiquiu Ranch. Night after night he sat at the laptop, educating himself, plotting every stop, making reservations, printing out lists of local attractions. Hotels in the mountains were surprisingly cheap; it was amazing what you could get for your money in the off season.
They headed out on Memorial Day weekend and spent the night at a highway hotel in Omaha, hitting the road early the next morning, tall coffees and a clutch of hotel mini-bagels in the drink holder. From Lincoln all the way through to North Platte Nora played Dead bootlegs, loud, singing along with Jerry in her sketchy alto. Jerzy would have preferred to talk, to tell her what he’d been learning about sheep and hogs, but he let it go, buoyed by her good cheer.
In Sedgwick, just across the Colorado border, they stopped to buy edibles, the whole idea of legal cannabis bizarre to them. Afterward she slouched down in the passenger seat to await her buzz.
“Jerz?” she said some time later.
“Seek out fries.”
She dozed through Denver, which suited his purposes fine. The traffic was miserable thanks to the holiday; better she not see it. Only when they began to climb into the high country did Jerzy rouse her. They couldn’t take their eyes off the landscape—the mountain vistas breaking out when you least expected them, the jutting spars of granite, the swaths of white aspen painted across the mountains. Chicago could not have seemed more distant.
“Okay,” Nora said as they waited at a stoplight on the outskirts of Vail.
He eyed her nervously. “Okay what?”
“I get it.” She was smiling, sunglasses slipped down her nose so he could see her green eyes. “I get it, Jerzy. This is one fucking beautiful state.”
“I’m just saying.”
“I’m saying I might be warming to the idea. By like one degree. But don’t get your hopes up.”
The ski towns he’d thought would charm her proved to be only ghost towns in the off season, empty and shuttered and depressing. This he’d not anticipated. After sleeping too late they drank coffee in the fake European squares and wandered hand in hand past the closed shops and bogus alpine restaurants, all of it dull and deflated, both of them fighting headaches from the altitude. “I think I need to get out of the beautiful mountains,” she said finally. “Take me to Bronek’s?”
. . .
There are nights now when their first weeks at the ranch come back to him in dreams: the unwelcome discoveries, the suspicions about the tenant Renfro, the mounting anxiety about their prospects, the sense that the whole venture was nothing but a colossal error in judgment. How could they have wandered into such a trap? His sleeping mind replays it like a video clip of a terrible accident, the two unsuspecting bicyclists unaware of the menace barreling toward them on eighteen wheels.
In the first month they realize the books are a mess. With her accounting degree Nora’s been the one to size up the chaotic ledgers and files. Missing entries, careless arithmetic, suspect erasures…Bronek a dogged rancher but a terrible businessman, inept even at shading the truth. The deckle-edged ledger itself must be thirty years old, a relic. Certain pages smell like whiskey. Others are smeared with dirt, or is it manure? On the oldest pages the red ink has gone brown. At no point during Bronek’s tenure, clearly, had a computer entered the fray. The farm has been managed the way farms of the nineteen-thirties were, as if the whole world weren’t changing around it. As best Nora can make out, the place has been losing money for a solid decade. Bronek’s survived only by selling off parcels of pastureland, whittling down the tract bit by bit like a starving animal gnawing at its own limbs.
For the last months of Bronek’s life the ledger contains no entries at all. Perhaps, sensing death on the march, he saw no need to keep at the tedious business of recording feed and vaccine expenses, payments to Renfro and the hired hands, the births and indispositions and slaughter of livestock. The last auction settlement—the farm’s last known income—was recorded more than two years back in a shaky hand. Below the entry is a crude line drawing of a lamb as a disturbed child might conceive it, legs long and weirdly spindled, trunk unnaturally twisted—a little monster. Through the animal’s head is slashed a bold red X. The strange lamb has been not so much slaughtered as canceled, like an entry in a Nazi ledger.
On the next page the amateur bookkeeping picks up again with an entry for Silage, the amount written first in the income column and scratched out, then written again in the expense column. The bottom half of the page is branded with the brown ring of a coffee mug and a tiny haloed burn where a hot cigarette ash has landed. Nora imagines the old man hunkered over the ledger on a late winter night, the house half derelict around him, everything of importance neglected for a long while now. Clearly Bronek never mastered the art of living without a woman: When they’d arrived, the place was more midden than human habitation, sour with cigarette smoke and the stink of neglected hygiene, the floors layered in grit. The smell alone had almost driven them away. In a filthy kitchen cabinet was a Quaker Oats box dated 1982, its contents reduced to fine powder by generations of invading insects, the whole business eerily reminiscent of an urn full of ashes.
One day, rummaging through a battered accordion file on the floor of the bedroom closet, Nora comes upon a pad with several drafts of a classified listing, each eked out in a labored hand, the physical struggle of writing evident in the crabbed script. The final draft reads:
66 acres pasture, 2 barn w/outside Manure storeage, 30 yorksure hogs, 105 head Shetland yous, 4 good stud rams. Clean water suply + 3 share for iragation. New Feeders in barn, staneless Manure scrapers, new top flow milker. 2 loading shutes and concrete pads, barns in good shape and can make money.
Beatifull lawns and house, imacculute suroundings. Reliable tenent. Vinul siding, 2 car garage. Quite road. Woods for hunting. New hot water heater. House has email.
1 of a kind.
“This may not work,” Nora says one June night as they lie in bed, their lovemaking interrupted by unfinished conversation. “In fact, this may turn out to be a total shit show.” She nestles against him, the two of them sore from long days of helping Renfro and the hired hands prepare lambing pens and vaccinate ewes and repair fencelines—all of it strenuous and new, the help playing along gamely but laughing at them in Spanish, they’re convinced. They’ve been acutely aware of how ridiculous they must seem, clueless imposters from the city, their jeans new and stylish, their skills utterly useless in barn and pasture.
Jack Renfro directs it all with as few words as possible, deferring to Jerzy but not so much to Nora. His competence is unassailable. He’s sixty-nine and has worked on the ranch for twenty-six years, farming his own small plot in exchange for a certain amount of labor and a bit of money that seems embarrassingly paltry to them. They’ve seen his tiny white house only from a distance, careful to give him his privacy but also wary of his unreadable grey eyes, hesitant to trespass the invisible border. The same caution has kept them from asking him to dinner: this, and the suspicion that he wouldn’t say a word all evening, that it would be excruciatingly awkward. They know almost nothing of his family or his past—only that he’s a widower with a son named John who quarries limestone somewhere in Wyoming, and that he once worked security at a Denver bank. “I was in banking too,” he’d told Nora early on. “Hated every golden goddamn minute of it.”
Renfro is a good shot. At dawn or dusk they’ll sometimes hear the crack of his rifle in the distance, bringing down a marauding coyote or, once, a mountain lion. Afterward he hitches the carcasses to his horse and drags them along the fenceline, spreading the smell of death as a warning to future opportunists.
. . .
A month into their new life Nora says: “Maybe we should sell the place after all, Jerz. Looks like the stock alone is worth eighty thousand. What do you think we could get for the land and improvements?”
Jerzy turns to face her, the bedroom sagging under the day’s heat. “We said we’d try for a year.”
“Yeah, and I just paid the Chicago property taxes out of savings. Killed the monthly escrow because we have no cash flow.” They’ve kept the house on Damen as a hedge, intending to rent it, but thanks to a glut of rentals it’s standing empty.
She touches his face. “I’m just saying, baby.”
“You ran the numbers, not me. You said we could make it a year without touching anything we didn’t want to.”
She studies him in the low light, her eyes reasonable enough. She won’t force anything yet, he can see. “Maybe we at least sell the hogs off,” she says, “keep the sheep. At least you get three products from that one animal, whereas hogs are just hogs, right? Renfro says sheep’s a better bet. He advised Bronek against keeping the hogs. How about we go sheep all the way, lay off one of the hands? Focus. Let me work the numbers. Okay?”
The numbers bear her out. In the weeks that follow they sell the hogs and use the proceeds to buy thirty more ewes. The decision seems to impress Renfro, if only by way of vindication. As she’s been the one to announce it, he begins to treat her with more respect, making more eye contact, even asking for her okay on small purchases—rope, winch tackle, rat bait. By slow degrees they’re winning him over. Nothing seems more important for the welfare of the operation. Without Renfro they’d be rudderless, adrift, mortally exposed.
. . .
In July the sun turns blistering, the air dry as salt. After a hard stretch of work penning the animals the shearing crew arrives, three men and two teenage boys in slouched cowboy hats with a trailer full of leather slings and electric clippers and oily chaps. In the hot barn the hats come off and the boys drag the sheep on their rumps to shearing stations where the men dangle from slings to shear the wool, the sheep lying stunned, legs splayed, not sure what’s happening to them. The crew go about their work with efficiency and a nonstop banter Jerzy and Nora can’t make much sense of. Renfro meanwhile stands by to wrangle the wool as it comes off in ragged sheaves, carpeting the floor in piles that quickly mount higher than the animals they came from. Three by three the sheep are unzipped from their coats trim and white, skittish but docile as they scramble to their feet and are led back to pasture. At one point Renfro summons his citified bosses over to a newly shorn ewe and has them rub their hands over her flank; they come up shiny with lanolin. All the while the ranch hands and collies move more sheep into the catching pens, feeding the assembly line, keeping the operation moving. By day’s end the wool fills one end of the barn nearly floor to ceiling, the lanolin throwing off a hand-lotion smell in the stifling heat.
After dinner, in the waning day, Jerzy and Nora walk out hand in hand to the barn and stand before the mountain of wool. “We gotta, right?” she says, and strips her clothes off and falls back into it and rolls around until the grease glistens all over her body. “Come on,” she says, “let’s get dirty, cowboy.”
For a few days it seems like it might work after all. When the wool yields a check for almost eight thousand dollars they open beers and get a little drunk and make love on the couch, the old house beginning, for the first time, to feel like home. Later, peace: the border collies snoring softly on the floor, one on each side of the bed, the dark ship of their sleep trawling quietly through the summer night.
. . .
It’s with the first litters of lambs that the real trouble begins. Later, in Jerzy’s dreams, the deformed animals will glisten and wriggle, slick with placental juices, their spindly legs bent at painful-looking angles, their tiny bodies twisted around contorted spines. They’re living embodiments of the grotesque lamb sketched in Bronek’s ledger. Renfro culls them as soon as they emerge: “Fucking spiders,” he mumbles to himself, and hands the poor creatures off to be drowned in barrels kept in the small barn for this purpose, apparently.
“Spider lambs, it’s called,” he tells Nora later. “I thought we was good and done with it.” Renfro spits and strops the slime from his hands with a rag. “You best think about a new supplier for your studs,” he adds. “I don’t know why you’d trust Murph again. He said he’d cleared this up.” His tone implies that she’s somehow at fault, as if she’d been the one to choose the studs. Between this and the sickening spectacle of the broken lambs she can’t keep the tears from welling in her eyes. But as she turns back toward the house one of the hired hands, Miguel, greets her with a perfect lamb, black-faced and irresistible, its legs akimbo in his arms. “Hermoso cordero,” he says, smiling. “Perfecto.” It’s all that keeps her from breaking down in front of Renfro, which she’s sure would be a grave error. “Gracias, Miguel,” she says, and scratches the lamb behind its winsome little ear, hurrying away.
After a week of lambing, the barn lights blazing at all hours as Renfro and the hands attend the laboring ewes in shifts, Jerzy and Nora walk the barnyard. The new arrivals are split off into small pens with their dams, suckling or sleeping, festooned haphazardly with hay. “You don’t want to think about where this all leads,” Nora says. “But right now it’s a beautiful sight.” Again the small relief: the faint hope that it will all work out somehow. “Them there?” she mugs, pointing down the line of pens, “them’s your assets.”
When the last pregnant ewe has delivered, they sit down with Renfro to review the yield.
They’ve lost twelve percent of the litters to spider lamb syndrome, rectal prolapse, and other causes. Five of the new arrivals have inverted eyelids, eyelashes scraping their corneas, the lambs blinking compulsively. “I could staple ‘em,” Renfro says. “A vet’ll charge you an arm and a leg to do it.” They have no way to judge whether Renfro’s suggestion is serious or facetious. There never has been the slightest whiff of humor about the man, sarcastic or otherwise. Jerzy catches Nora’s eye but she’s as baffled as he is. “I’ll just staple ‘em,” Refro concludes, impatient, ready to move on.
“Twelve percent with defects?” Nora says later, in the privacy of the house. “That can’t be right.” Jerzy only shakes his head, stunned by the number.
They bring in the veterinarian Cobb on a Sunday afternoon, while Renfro’s away trout fishing.
“This is all genetics,” Cobb declares after reviewing the birthing notes and examining the flock. “You’ve got no parasite issues here to speak of.”
“So, what’s the source of the problem?” Nora asks.
“Could be your ewes, could be your rams. Except for the spider syndrome, which is recessive. Has to be both sire and dam with the gene.”
“What about the rams we brought in?” With Renfro’s guidance they’d rented five stud rams to supplement their own small clutch. “Do we know they’re okay?”
“Probably are. That business lives or dies on the bloodlines. You could do the work and trace it out if you like—you’ve got decent breeding records. Who’s your supplier?”
Cobb nods. “He’s reputable.”
“So it’s our own rams?” Jerzy says.
“Likely.” The veterinarian studies the pasture gate, avoiding their eyes. “Look, your uncle was getting on in years and there were some things he should have seen to, but didn’t. He should have culled more than he did. Now you’ve got a gene pool issue, friends.”
They stare at each other, stare at him. Jerzy says, “How much of the flock?”
Cobb shrugs. “Hard to know. Half, maybe? There’s genetic tests for some of these things, but to do that across the board would cost you more than your house here. Most ranchers would just let it play out, cull aggressively, get a baseline.”
“I know this is an awkward question,” Nora says, “but why the hell didn’t Renfro keep an eye on this?”
Cobb spreads his hands. “I’m not going to speculate on that.”
That night they barely speak to one another. Through the open windows the scent of manure wafts in; the yard fills with the sounds of sheep bedding down. Their asset, tainted now by Cobb’s findings and Renfro’s neglect. In their worst-case scenario they’d planned to first sell the livestock, then sell the ranch. Now, in good conscience, they cannot sell the flock. In one afternoon all the calculus has changed.
. . .
“We have to confront Renfro,” Nora insists as they drive into town. “This happened on his watch.”
“And Bronek’s! We don’t know what happened—maybe Bronek forced Renfro to look the other way. If we accuse Renfro, we’d better have our facts straight. Where’s our evidence?”
“Drowned and burned,” she says grimly.
“The last thing we need is to drive the guy away.”
“Renfro’s not going anywhere. He’s lived here for fucking ever. We can’t let him jerk us around, Jerzy.”
On the way back from grocery shopping she tells him to pull over.
“Any requests?” she says, nodding toward a cramped storefront with a sign saying Fresh Baked. Only the white cross on a green field—the new heraldry—tells Jerzy it’s a pot shop. After twenty minutes she comes back with a bagful of goodies, smelling like a college dorm room.
“Sorry,” she says. “It’s like Costco in there with all the free samples.”
“God damn it, Nor!” he says, starting the truck. “I need you to be on your game. And we don’t have money for this. How much you drop in there?” Without waiting for an answer he rifles through the bag for the receipt. “Shit, really? Seventy bucks?”
But she’s gazing out her window, far away. It’s the beginning, though Jerzy doesn’t yet know it. Perhaps she doesn’t either. By September it will be a daily habit, her version of cocktail hour; by November, when she announces her decision to leave, it will be her answer to the mid-morning coffee break.
Soon the problem of whether to confront Renfro takes care of itself. A tentative knock comes at the kitchen door as they’re having breakfast, yesterday’s heat still lingering in the house. Miguel waits on the stoop respectfully, waving off Jerzy’s offer of coffee.
“Mister Renfro?” he says. “He goes to Laramie.”
For a moment Jerzy assumes the worst: The old man’s quit after all. “When?”
“Last night. He got a phone call. His son die.”
Later Nora finds the article online in the Laramie Boomerang: Local Man Killed By Union Pacific Overland Train. “Oh, Jesus!” she calls from the office. “They think he jumped in front of a train. Suicide.”
Day after day, they hear nothing from Renfro. As he has no cell phone they can only wait for him to reappear. In the meantime they pitch in and work side by side with the hands to pick up the slack. In short order they learn how to work the milkers and creep feeder. Miguel teaches Nora how to deworm the animals. They feel physically stronger than they have in years. A bit of income trickles in from the milk: Dorothy Dow buys her allotments for cheesemaking, and the hands deliver the rest to the dairy in town. The money is just enough to pay the help and keep the lights on. At the grocery store they pay for their own sustenance from Chicago funds.
It will be months yet before there is income from the lambs, though they’re growing every day. In the near pasture they begin to venture out, stretching their legs, running and tumbling over one another, the border collies giving playful chase. Nora and Jerzy keep their distance, afraid to bond with them, knowing what’s coming, how little the future holds for them. In the evenings Nora disappears into a long high, saying it helps with the muscle fatigue, while Jerzy takes baths or watches movies or reads, both of them exhausted by the unaccustomed physical work. They talk less and less, their old Chicago palaver giving way to a rural reserve.
The late summer grinds on, Renfro still off the air. On a Sunday they let themselves into his squat house to empty the refrigerator of spoiled food, only to find it bare. From the evidence before them it appears their tenant subsists mainly on elk jerky, dry cereal, and Coors. With its scummy floors, stern chairs and sheetless bed the place is more prison cell than home. They’re in and out in ten minutes, the air forbidding and far too still.
. . .
In early September Miguel says it’s time to make arrangements for the autumn breeding. Later the same day there is a call from Bill Murphy offering his stud rams. Their own rams loiter in a segregated pasture, waiting to be called into action, their genes disgraced.
Jerzy’s been avoiding the project, but it cannot be avoided any longer. That evening he sits down with the breeding records and traces out the bloodlines, correlating dam and stud with defective progeny. His Mendelian labors show that all four of their rams and at least sixteen ewes are carrying the spider lamb gene. Not one of Bill Murphy’s rented rams is implicated. There is nothing to do but hire more studs from Murphy: another expense they can’t support.
After Nora heads up to bed Jerzy goes online and places a sell order for twelve-thousand dollars worth of Oracle stock, part of their retirement nest egg, routing the proceeds to the ranch’s checking account. They are losing ground every day. He barely sleeps that night, his mind thrashing in the darkness, the border collies alert to his distress. Nora meanwhile snores beside him with the immersion of a cried-out child. He decides he won’t tell her about selling the stock; in better days she’d have noticed the influx of cash immediately, but she no longer watches the accounts. In a few days the money will be spent anyway.
. . .
October comes: On chilly mornings, fog fills the cottonwoods like the warm breath of a god. The summer lambs have been weaned; slowly the ranch buckles down for winter. Through an ancient telescope unearthed from Bronek’s cellar Jerzy can see snow atop the distant mountains. It won’t be long before the first storms barrel in, lashed forward by the cold boreal surging down from Alberta and points north. The winds, inescapably, are coming.
Dusk falls early, and with the days shortening it’s necessary to bring the sheep in from pasture earlier. Unfortunately the hands don’t adapt the schedule soon enough, Renfro’s absence again making itself felt. One day, as Jerzy lugs milk cans to the sterilizer in the waning light, he hears a cry of distress from the pasture and turns just in time to watch a coyote take down one of the lambs. The border collies race toward the scene, outraged, somehow caught off guard. In the coyote’s jaws the lamb kicks and struggles and squalls for a few excruciating moments but then falls still. As the dogs arrive, the attacker manages to drag its kill through a gap in the fence and suddenly three other coyotes appear from nowhere, the assembled pack too much for the collies to challenge. It is over.
Renfro’s sharpshooting, of course, was what kept such raids in check. Nora asks Miguel if he’ll take it over, but he demurs with a nervous frown. He has four children at home and works a second job at an ammunition factory twenty miles away. Nor can the other hands manage it. And so it falls upon the owners to defend their flock.
Uncle Bronek’s rifle is still in the closet, along with hundreds of rounds. Embarrassed to ask the hands to teach him how to use it, Jerzy chooses a collapsed hay shed as his target and begins his methodical self-education, breaking the gun down until he understands its workings, adjusting the scope, preparing himself. When he takes his first shot he has the scope’s eyepiece too close to his face and the kick hits him like a boxer’s punch, giving him a black eye. But every day he spends an hour learning to manage the rifle, his aim improving, and one day he takes the truck with Miguel and they shoot prairie dogs from the tailgate, his first kills. It remains to be seen whether he could kill a coyote or lion as easily as he’s killed the chittering rodents, but there is a faint exhilaration in it he can’t deny. He’s mastering his new life, uncertain as it is. At dusk he patrols the fences with the rifle cradled in his arm, but the predators keep their distance—watching him, perhaps, gauging their man, wondering what he’s capable of and whether he is a worthy adversary.
. . .
Soon the first snow will come, blown in on a robust wind, plumes of it swirling across the barnyard in a first hibernal dance. All through the night the bones of the old farmhouse will creak, the roof thumping softly under errant gusts, the winds of deep winter already sending their advance guard south.
In the morning Nora will take her husband’s hand in bed, then drop it and roll onto her side, giving him her back. That evening, after dinner, she will sit across the table from him and announce her decision to move back to the city—the sheep safely bedded down for the freezing night, the collies asleep by the guttering fire, all his life’s danger packed into a small and drafty kitchen far from home.
. . .
Six weeks later, on New Year’s Day, she calls him from Chicago. He’s cleaning Bronek’s rifle with a chamois at the kitchen table, chores done, the ranch hands given the week off, the animals in his sole care. It’s been days since he’s spoken to another human being. All around him is a silence that may or may not be shifting into solitude. When the wall phone jangles it’s as if someone’s detonated a bomb in the house.
“Hey,” Nora says over the scratchy line. “Happy New Year, you. Wish I could be there.”
This is a lie, but he lets it go. He doesn’t want a fight with her. “How’d you celebrate last night?” he asks, keeping his tone neutral.
She lowers her voice and says, “It was pretty fricking boring, actually. Felt like I had to include the kid—Josef. I mean, I couldn’t just let him loose on the streets of Chicago, could I? He’s already got a little girlfriend, Juana, this Honduran girl from English class, so I let him invite her over. And Danuta. Nobody even made it to midnight. I watched the ball drop from bed. I’ve been sleeping on your side, you know. To even out the mattress.”
Josef is the son of Jerzy’s cousin Jacek, from Wrocław. Without a hint of advance notice Jacek’s enrolled the kid at Truman College, assuming, no doubt, that family loyalty will compel his Chicago cousin to take him under wing. Alas, Cousin Jerzy is in Colorado—but fortunately for Jacek’s kid, Jerzy’s wife could use some company. And so young Josef has been spending more and more time at the house. By Nora’s report he’s a shy, well-mannered kid with the usual teenage foibles, flummoxed equally by bullies and girls. On the phone he’s seemed courteous enough. Jerzy’s not opposed to the arrangement in principle, and Nora’s seemed more like her old self lately. Perhaps it’s the boy, somehow.
“So,” Nora says, “how did you spend your New Year’s Eve?”
Jerzy laughs, catching both of them off guard. “Hauling silage,” he says truthfully. “I want more stockpiled before the really cold weather hits.”
There is a long silence on the line as both of them consider the gulf that’s opened between their worlds.
“Jerz?” she says eventually.
“Where’s this headed?”
“Us. I mean, are you ever coming back?”
“I could ask you the same.”
“But it’s a losing battle out there. You see the numbers. The revenue from the lambs wasn’t nearly enough. You know that.”
He does. With the birth defects their profit was nil, or negative depending on how you counted things. Milk and wool aren’t the main events—it’s the slaughter that makes or breaks you. The take wasn’t much more than they’d have made in a month at the bank.
“Jerz? Are you there? I’m just asking you to tell me what to expect. Life is moving on.”
In the next room an ember pops in the grate, startling the dogs awake. They circle the room warily, settle again. “Look,” Nora says, “if you want to stay there and ride it out, okay, but every six months of this pushes our retirement out at least a year. I ran the numbers, Jerzy. And I picked up on that Oracle stock, too, by the way.”
“I didn’t tell you because you were half out of it all the time.”
“I know, baby, I’m sorry about those last few months. I was depressed, all right? It was hard not to be. It’s good to be working again. They switched me out of Workout, thank god.” Chase has taken her back gladly; her old life has resumed, but without him. Her paycheck is the only thing keeping them afloat.
After a long silence she says, “Baby? I think I’m asking you to come home.”
“If it’s the money—”
“It’s not. I miss us.”
Her words reach in to meddle with his heart, but his own feelings aren’t so neatly summed up. In Bronek’s drab kitchen he waits for inspiration, for something meaningful to say, but it doesn’t come.
“I have to think about it,” he tells her.
She hangs up without another word, the dial tone drilling at his brain, the phone lifeless in his hand.
. . .
At nine in the evening the snow starts. At eleven the wind kicks up, whipping the storm into a blizzard. Lying in bed with a glass of whiskey balanced on his chest, Jerzy feels the house being shoved about, manhandled. All through that first winter they’d lain awake in fear that the roof would be torn off, Bronek’s kerosene generator kicking in and out as the power wavered. He’s only slightly less worried now, with gusts pounding at the roof and prying at the eaves with their greedy fingers.
He’s spent the day pondering Nora’s words. Waiting, too—hoping that the sting of her abrupt hangup has been as painful for her as it has been for him, that she’ll call back and apologize, make it right somehow. Between chores he’s come back to the house to check for messages, to no avail. All through dinner the phone seemed about to ring, but never did. A dozen times or more he’s considered calling her, but the truth is that he has nothing to report, no answer to her fundamental question. He simply does not know if he’s coming home.
Exhausted, he falls asleep despite the wind’s taunting attack. If he has dreams, they’re gone by first light. After a cup of warmed-over coffee he goes out to feed the animals, then comes back to the house and makes oatmeal, his thoughts wandering back and forth between the phone call with Nora and an ominous lump he’s detected on the inner flank of one of the pregnant ewes. He should call the veterinarian, but it’s too early, and he’s not in the mood to talk to anyone anyway. It must have been like this for Bronek, too, in his last years: the isolation, the silence, the weight of the failing ranch constantly on his shoulders.
It’s as he’s finishing his breakfast, gazing out the window into the unbroken white of the pasture, that something odd catches his eye. The winds have racked snow against the barbed wire, hurling it eastward across the plains; all the night’s turmoil is stamped into the land. But near one of the gates there is something else pressing on the fence, something that doesn’t belong there. It could almost be a tumbleweed, but they’ve long since blown off. Jerzy finds Bronek’s binoculars and steps onto the porch, barely aware of the cold.
As best he can make out it’s a coyote or dog, grievously trapped in the barbed wire. Perhaps still alive, perhaps not—from his vantage point it’s impossible to tell. Magnified by the binoculars, the glare off the snow makes it hard to study the scene for more than a few seconds at a time. Already an ache is pulsing under his skull. Though the trapped animal appears canine, he wonders if it’s one of the sheep, somehow escaped from the barn.
Whistling for the dogs, Jerzy pulls on his work jacket and boots and straps on Bronek’s rickety snowshoes, slinging the old man’s rifle over his shoulder almost as an afterthought. It will be a hard trudge to reach the site, but he knows he must go. Lately it’s occurred to him that he’s begun to think like a rancher at last: The animals come first, always. The collies plunge into the snow, powering through it, the drifts as tall as they are. Together they cut a ragged path toward the scene of the accident, if that’s what it is.
At the halfway point Jerzy sees that the animal is indeed a coyote. He sees too that it is still alive. Terrified by the oncoming dogs it squirms to free itself, head cocked back unnaturally, its situation hopeless.
The dogs are barking frantically out ahead. When Jerzy whistles they turn and thrash their way back to him, obedient to a fault. They sit panting before him, eyes fixed avidly on his, awaiting further orders. “Heel,” he says, and they slog through the snow to pull up at his side. The three of them advance toward the fenceline, sweat stinging Jerzy’s eyes, a pulse throbbing in his temple.
They stop thirty feet from the trapped animal, maintaining a careful distance. Jerzy inspects the scene through his binoculars, the situation leaping out in vivid detail. Now he can see that the coyote is a female, perhaps an adolescent, smaller than the collies; she’s hopelessly snarled in the barbed wire, trussed up as if by a psychopath. There are gouts of snow trapped in her large ears, in the fur of her breast, in the ruff around her neck. She’s all but encased in white, jacketed in snow.
Jerzy sizes up the situation, a finger of bile rising in his throat. The dogs yelp, pleading to be released. “Down!” he says, and they drop to the snow instantly.
The coyote is terrified. As Jerzy watches her she bares her teeth, trying futilely to threaten him, desperate with fear, her gums blue and mottled. He sees that she’s badly depleted, exhausted by the long hours of cold and struggle. In her yellow eyes is the sourness of failure. She’s staring directly at him, but he detects no plea in her gaze.
Jerzy tries to reconstruct what’s brought her to this grim pass, and gradually it comes to him. He can imagine every step of her ordeal, standing before her in the driven snow of a Colorado field, his heart going out to her.
Trawling for prey in the night, famished, the blizzard raging around her, the coyote must have been hurled against the fence by a brutal gust, her leg snagged in barbed wire from pastern to fetlock. Lost in the blowing curtain of white she’d have raged frantically, yelping and yowling, the pain biting deep, only worsening the damage in the struggle to free herself. New gusts would have driven her ever deeper into the trap, the storm ruthless. As the battle wore on she’d have paused now and then, panting, praying in whatever manner a coyote prays that the storm would finally let up, would give her a fighting chance. But by the time it did wane, in the flat predawn light, she’d have somehow twisted her entire shoulder into the maw of the fence, exposing white bone, dooming herself. By sunrise she’d have been on the brink of unconsciousness—hypothermic, addled by the penetrating cold, sinking into death until the dogs and the man startled her awake.
Jerzy pans the binoculars down and sees that there is blood in the snow, wrung from the animal’s wounds. Near her hindquarters there’s a deposit of urine, steaming up from the crevice it’s carved. In the face of the onrushing dogs her bladder must have let go. Methodically he moves the binoculars over her twisted haunches, her profound wounds, her mangled shoulder, hoping against hope that she can be saved—and then he finds her eyes again, yellow and still, the fear in them unaccountably gone.
Jerzy stops breathing. The unwavering gaze is trying to tell him something, but he’s not sure what it is. The canny intelligence is obvious; what’s in her slowing heart, less so.
She’s a creature of instinct, he tells himself. Perhaps her stare is only a primitive defense, a last attempt to telegraph a threat to her pursuer. But he finds that he can’t break contact. For a long while he stands in the snow, transfixed. She may be dying, but she’s mastered him somehow.
Eventually—perhaps it’s been seconds, perhaps an hour—Jerzy lays Bronek’s binoculars gently in the snow and straightens. He takes a single deep breath, the bright air filtering through him like sunlight. With a practiced motion he unslings the rifle and brings it up to firing position, then nudges the sighting scope to adjust for the cold, the stock solid against his shoulder. The coyote’s head fills his sights, tawny and angular, her steady gaze on him still.
“Stay,” Jerzy says quietly to the dogs at his feet, and as a parting gift to him the coyote closes her eyes, the yellow gaze winking out, the morning quite suddenly sacred.