ABOUT THIS CONTEST
The winner of The Inlander's 11th annual Short Fiction Contest is John Nelson's "Today We Were Wolves," a story about a Gulf War vet who discovers his own capacity for compassion and for rage.
This year, we received 32 entries. (Stories needed to be original and unpublished, set in the Pacific Northwest and fewer than 5,000 words.) With the help of managing editor Marty Demarest, I winnowed those down to seven finalists, from which this year's judge, Lost Horse Press founder Christine Holbert (working with blind submissions), selected a winner and two runners-up.
-- MICHAEL BOWEN
Today We Were Wolves
by John Nelson
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & & lt;/span & As he slides the morning edition from its dusty sheath, a yellow school bus rumbles past, stocked with high school perspiration and two-legged hormones. First-day jitters are always palpable, even through thick, vitreous barriers such as the half-steamed windows of old number 63. He watches the younger children gather at every street corner, pushing each other, giggling, screaming. One stands in bewildered silence under a crimson sun -- where did my summer go? His own boys lurk two blocks away, their forms smudged by the pall that has descended on eastern Washington. Mount Spokane is a phantom, hiding in smoke from three new lightning fires sparked the night before. From Rattlesnake Mountain to the Pasayten Wilderness, mammoth complexes smother horizons and oxidize forests all along the driest slopes of the Cascades. Just five days earlier, fire threatened their neighborhood, on the ridge behind the elementary school. The blaze was tamped down quickly, but it awoke inside him a haunting whisper, a cryptic beast determined to claw its way out.
He steps over his dog and trudges through the kitchen to the dining room table, its scarred oak slabs buried under a deluge of pencils, markers, erasers, magazine clippings and permission slips. His wife and daughter are struggling in the bathroom.
"Maddie, please stop squirming."
"But I don't like lumps in my hair."
"There won't be lumps if you stop squirming."
Normally he would have laughed, but he hasn't laughed for days. The sky between the blinds seems to darken as the morning ages. He hasn't seen anything like this since Kuwait. He rubs his hands over his forehead and eyebrows, as if covering his eyes will stop the brutal pictures in his mind.
He worries there won't be enough time for his plans. Kindergarten is only three hours long.
"There. How does she look, Lee?"
The proud kindergartener throws her hands to her hips and taps her toes in a series of lecturing, staccato raps. "Daddy! You know I'm only 5 and a half."
"I'm sorry, little lady. I just meant... you look beautiful."
Strong like him, beautiful like her mother, she is every bit their fusion, and yet, in her teal blouse, stitched with a swirl of butterflies, she is every bit herself.
"So what's up for the day?" his wife asks, holstering her purse and smoothing the wrinkles from her outfit. The narrow strap of the Dooney & amp; Burke pressed against her navy blue, rayon blend defines her slender shoulder blades. "Are you working on a new sculpture?"
"No," he lies. "I'm blocked. I've got nothing right now."
She wrinkles her brows. She's never understood. He knows that. But she seems concerned, so he applies the ointment of comfort brewed in any strong marriage, the solace of familiar chatter. It means nothing but it means everything. "I've got a lady coming over for a tune-up at three. It's all about mileage these days. I'm thinking... lady, if you're so concerned about mileage, why did you buy a three-quarter-ton, four-wheel-drive aircraft carrier just to haul your poodle and golf clubs?"
He waits for her response, but she just looks at her watch and tells Maddie to gather her things. Then, more discreetly, she bends over, kisses his forehead and whispers, "I know what your plans are. I saw the rifle in your truck. I didn't think anything was even in season."
"Crows. They always are."
She pulls up quickly and scowls. Her Chanel No. 5 lingers as she moves to the opposite side of the table to assist their daughter, busy shuffling items into her Dora backpack like a high roller gathering chips off a craps table. "Look, Daddy, these are my markers, and these are my pencils, and these are pictures for my college. A college is a picture all about me. Momma told me so."
"It's 'collage,' hon."
"I know. Look, Daddy, I cut out a picture of a cat and a Barbie and this is a butterfly that looks like a moff. And here's a bicycle and Dora and a map and a wolf like we watched on that show. And here's another one with puppies."
He smells coffee, thick and warm. The way the child is chattering, he wonders if she's downed some. His mind wanders. Visions of Saddam's retreat plan, landscapes of chaos and burning oil wells, bully their way past his frontal lobes and smear his thoughts in color -- yellow folded into red into black. A hundred flaming whale spouts erupt on the horizon of his surging memory.
"Daddy, I asked you a question."
"Lee, she's talking to you." His wife reaches across the table and pokes a ruby fingernail into his shoulder.
"Oh. I'm sorry. Must be a little tired still. What did you want, Maddie?"
"Why do you like wolves so much, Daddy? Is it because they look like Smokey?" She reaches down and squeezes the resting canine, burying her arms deep into his charcoal coat.
"That wouldn't be a bad reason, but I've liked wolves since... forever. Long before Smokey came along." He scratches under the dog's collar. The fur around his neck is already thick with the turning of the season. "I guess I just admire the way they live, the way they hunt, the way they'll do anything to protect their families." He turns toward his wife. "It's amazing. They're so lethal and yet so loving -- ripping the entrails out of a moose one minute and playing with their pups the next."
"Lee!" She winces. "A little less graphic. Please."
"Well, it's true. I love the way they all pitch in to watch the little ones, too."
"The puppies?" The little girl finds one item of clarity in her father's otherwise tortuous adult answer.
"Yeah." He stands, stretches and pours himself coffee in a cracked mug. Lately he's been drinking it more. "You know..." He makes a circling, inclusive motion with his free hand. "If we were wolves, old Smokey there would be your uncle."
"Daddy, you're silly." She squeezes the dog one more time. "Momma, can we go now?"
"Sure." His wife opens the refrigerator and snags a red apple for her breakfast behind the wheel. "The twins got off all right?"
"Are you sure you don't want to come? It's going to get awful quiet in here. I mean, it's been what... nine years?"
He rolls his eyes, hugs his baby girl. "She's only going to be gone three hours. There are worse things in life."
His wife wrinkles her eyebrows. She pulls him to the side, lowers her voice. "Is everything OK?"
"Well, it's just that, since the fire, you've been sort of... severe. I mean, you shaved your head for God's sake." She runs her hand over his pale, stubbly scalp.
"It's been hot." He can't tell her the real reason he went to skin, the daily clumps of hair coming out in his hands, dirtying the shampoo, plugging the shower drain, leaving a patchwork of clearcuts on his head like a Colville National Forest timber lease. There's much he can't tell her. He doesn't even understand it himself. If he revealed his torment, could she offer any insight? Could she decipher his recurring nightmare of the man with no face? Or would she just worry more than she already does? The way she does about everyone.
"OK, then, I guess this is it. I'll call you from work later." She presses her lips to his cheek, then rubs his head one more time.
He watches from the steps as the turbo Beetle hums down the street. The hazy air soon veils Maddie's fidgeting blonde bob in the rear window. He retreats into the bedroom, laces his boots. The silence of the house is like the pressure in one's ears 10 feet under water. Little sounds thunder -- the creak of a wall joint, the hum of the refrigerator, the far-off drone of heavy machinery ripping into another forested sanctum. They've always been there, these lonely, minute sirens, hiding behind the barrier of Disney Channel sound effects, piggyback rides and "Daddy, can I have more waffles?" Now they are prickly reminders that he is free, for a time. Free to make his plans, free to fall prey to his rustling fears.
He looks at his watch. Two hours, fifty-two minutes. Cut that in half, he figures. He slaps Smokey on the rear. "Come on, you ol' wolf." The dog needs no urging. He's seen the boots, the camouflage tee. He knows the drill.
To let the dog in the passenger door of the old pickup parked in the garage, he must first move two of his sculptures. (His wife actually branded them "sculptures.") He prefers to think of them as paintings -- his easel a sawhorse, his canvas a thin sheet of steel, his paintbrush a torch. He stumbled upon the process while fabricating fenders for his neighbor's boat trailer; instantly enticed by an accidental heat stain that resembled a flight of autumn geese, a chance meeting between acetylene and steel. At first, he experimented on scraps, but soon he purchased whole sheets solely for the torch. He added cuts, punches and welds, but it was through the colors he felt the greatest expression. Gold, orange, blue and black. Combinations of heat and duration, driven by thoughts and emotion.
He was able to keep his art a secret at first, but eventually, his wife discovered his creations. She suggested he try to sell some pieces, not for the money but for the validation. He refused. To him, not looking to sell the pieces kept them sincere, pure.
The honesty of his latest work -- a landscape of orange flames, dark plumes and blackened snags -- lunges at him like a tethered beast as he slides it across the garage floor to his workbench. Spikes of light, harbingers of a vision coming on, penetrate his peripheral view. He rubs his forehead. The image of the man with no face brings him to a knee. His stomach lurches. He can taste acid and spent coffee in his throat. He pulls himself along the workbench to the washbasin at its end. He splashes his face. Slowly, the hopeless, faceless man with the elevated arm fades away. He downs cold water until the reflux is tamed.
He straightens and wipes his sleeve across his chin. Smokey is sitting by the truck, his tail wagging, wiping a clean semi-circle out of the dusty residue on the cement floor.
He opens the door and checks the rifle. It is secure in the rack. He whistles two short bursts. Smokey steps carefully onto the cab floor and then onto the seat and licks his cheek. He can smell the dog's breath, his fur -- a pungent, welcome scent. "Hope I didn't leave you there too long, old friend," he said. "Never know when one of those is coming on, or how long it's gonna last."
With three-inch exhaust and new collectors he welded on himself, the Chevrolet sounds throaty cruising down the highway. He pushes the pedal to the floor, passing a Waste Management truck, the type with the big yellow hose for sucking out septic tanks. He won't part with the old 4x4, even though they could easily afford a new one. Between the salary his wife earns as an accountant and his independent wrenching out of their garage, they're doing just fine.
After a short run down the highway, he pulls off on Half Moon Road, and then veers off again down a dirt one-lane quickly engulfed by pines. The narrow byway leads him covertly to a gravel road that meanders along a string of high-tension power lines descending from the west and rising again to the east, through a tight valley, around a ridge and out of sight.
As they intersect the serpentine utility road and bounce over a stretch of washboard ruts, the dog spreads his toes to balance himself. His ears are pointing nearly to the ceiling and his tongue hangs in a heavy pant. He looks as if he's smiling. They undulate through a series of deep, dry rolling potholes and another set of ruts, sending his front paws scrambling like an eggbeater. As the road smoothes out again, he regains his posture and dignity.
"Sorry, Smoke. They don't really maintain these things too well. Probably to keep people off. You know, partiers, poachers, idiots dumping their trash."
They climb over a small rise and around a bend. Coming out of the turn, he suddenly slams the brake pedal to the floor. Gravel grinds under their tires and Smokey slides forward into the dashboard. "Sorry again, boy. Damn!" The dog scrambles back, shaking his head and digging in with his toenails. Dust swirls past them up the road.
He folds his arms over the steering wheel and sinks his stubbly chin into his forearms, pondering the obstacle before them. "A fucking gate."
He looks at his watch and weighs his options. Brown, stovepipe basalt rises to his left. A ridge covered in thick pines flanks his right. If they hike from here they might not have time but if he gets the truck stuck threading the trees he's dead. He backs behind an aspen grove and parks. "I guess we'll have to hump it from here. Come on, you old wolf."
Smokey jumps out, lowers his shoulders and front legs, stretches every toe, then trots over to a group of lichen-peppered boulders, sniffs and urinates.
He reaches for his rifle suspended upside down in the rack. He wants his privacy. Carrying a gun on his shoulder should ensure it. Not that he plans to see anyone anyway, but if he does, who's going to mess with a half-shaven, angry bald man with a Browning strapped to his back? They might report him, but they won't confront him. That will give him the time he needs.
He carefully slips the rifle over the rack hooks. The old A-Bolt with its Zeiss scope always feels heavier than it should. Not heavy... solid, like the grip of an old friend, one that happens to be made of wood and blued steel. The gun was a gift from his father, waiting for him upon his return from the Persian Gulf War -- the good Iraq War, as some talking heads now referred to it.
As if any war could be good, he thinks. Necessary, maybe -- but good?
He remembers Schwarzkopf's words: "Any soldier worth his salt is anti-war." Words that are lost on those who would push for armed conflict as a solution to every crisis, real or fabricated. Few pundits weigh the cost of war to the individual; it's always about big tactics and big maps. Even fewer have paid the price themselves, physically or mentally. He doubts many lament over the irony that Gulf War veterans like him have twice the chance of developing brain cancer than the slackers who stayed home, sucking on bongs all night in Mommy's basement while watching CNN broadcasts of smart bomb explosions. Such details are inconvenient for big-picture people.
They stay alongside the road for a while before heading off through the woods. In order to reach their destination, they must climb a modest ridge to the south. He had planned to circumnavigate the forested hillside, but following the road now, without wheels, will take too much time. The heat of the sun, amplified by the grime in the air, razes any chill left from the morning. He wishes he had water.
Smokey pauses at a rotting aspen, marks and moves on. His tongue, hanging beyond his black lips, bounces with every step. He is a wolf in Husky's clothing. His curly tail and large ears denote centuries of domestication, but he is still entirely in his element in the wilderness. His charcoal fur, amber eyes and long legs could just as well be trotting over the tundra. He has even been known to howl a time or two, at fire engines. If only they were caribou.
The acrid smell of old smoke is strong. It hangs in the air like the sunlight squeezing between the pine branches. He tops a false summit, breathing heavily, and shifts the rifle to his other shoulder. The source of the stench comes into view, a miasmatic hillside ripe with burnt trees, torched needles and still smoldering stumps. Three tentacles from last week's fire reach down the draw and across the ridge in front of him. He looks at his watch. Only minutes now. Again, he can't go around. There's no time.
He shudders at the thought of traversing the scarred landscape that has been haunting him for five days. A shiver rises through his shoulders and neck. Goosebumps appear on his exposed forearms as he realizes he must head straight up through the burnt backside of the ridge. He can almost sense the shards of light amassing at the borders of his eyes. But he has no choice.
He picks his way cautiously over the increasingly vertical incline. Some of the trees look like used matchsticks. Others are nearly untouched. The fire must have moved through this area fast. He is wary of hotspots. The crews have made an effort to flip the larger logs and stumps but he knows fire can smolder underground for days, gnawing on old roots and decomposing vegetation. The dog seems aware too, lowering his head, sniffing, making wide circles around seemingly harmless areas.
The slope lightens and it appears he has reached the top, but the backside falls away only to reveal a false summit. The top is still another 80 steep yards away. He kicks past a dead crow, its eyes eaten out by a swarm of tiny, black ants. His mouth is desert-dry. His heart is pounding through his chest. His eyelids feel like sandpaper. Dust and ash poof in the air with every step he takes. Irritated and hot, he knows time is short, but he must stop to catch his breath.
Then, just as he halts, he hears the final insult. The dog hears it too, freezes, points his black ears forward. Over the ridge and through the destroyed forest comes a sound faint but clear, the undeniable ring of a playground bell. In just seconds, the rush of small cries and louder squeals will follow it.
He bolts forward out of his stance, leaping over logs and past stumps. Ash flies all around him and his eyes start to water. In his haste, he doesn't quite clear a branch stub. It snags the laces of his right boot and sends him stumbling. His knees drive into the slope and his left arm jams under a downed pine. Instantly, searing white heat bites into his hand even as he rips it out from under the smoldering log. The smell of singed arm hair stings his nose. He wavers in dizzying pain and falls on his side.
The stench of burnt flesh cleaves open his mind. Spikes of light strike from all sides and he knows the beast has been unleashed again. He's back in '91. The sands of the Middle East are swirling. Hell's teeth are gnashing. Orange and red fireballs feed black, billowing thunderheads all across the horizon. In a quivering voice, someone quotes from Revelation... "And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened..." Greasy, fibrous strings of blackened polymer rain down, pooling in tacky puddles of tar on every APC, tank and helmet. Heavy machinery screeches and grinds as Hotel Company moves out. The Big Red One is headed into Iraq, headed into battle.
His platoon is supporting a detachment of armored bulldozers designed to rip through razor wire and knock down sand berms. They're the wedge, clearing a hole for the rest of the 1st Infantry Division to flow through. They approach a fortified trench brimming with Republican Guard. The sergeant yells for covering fire. The APCs open up with their machine guns. Something explodes. The troops on foot hit the ground and lay down a withering spray of rounds as the dozers move in, angling their blades, driving sand and bodies back in the trench. The Iraqis, trapped by the gunfire, are buried where they stand, one with his hand still grasping for the air. No scream. No face. No head. Just a burnt hand sticking out of tilled sand like a charred shrub.
He turns away, rubbing his forehead. The spikes of light withdraw. Slowly, the searing memories retreat, releasing him back into the wreckage of the day. His mind clears enough to realize he has been puking. Smokey is licking his cheek. He wonders how long he has been gone. Surely, too long. Then, like a distant reveille, a child's faint screech offers hope. Perhaps it's not too late.
He scrambles to his feet, almost forgetting the gun. His head is spinning and his hand throbs but, energized by purpose, he barely acknowledges his injuries. He dashes and bobs, even more reckless than before. The burnt landscape gives way to healthy trees and a brown-needle carpet. His thigh muscles burn as he finally gains the true summit and drops to a clearing on the other side, slamming to a halt. The dog overruns him, then circles around through some brush and settles by his side.
The elementary school, with its collection of flat, asphalt-roofed buildings, is spread out below them like a half-filled Scrabble board. The playground, overrun with small children, is a palette of chaotic motion, a pastel-colored anthill. And in the middle of it all stands his objective -- a tiny, almost unrecognizable teal smudge.
His seasoned eyes need help but he will not point a gun at any child, especially his own. If he's going to use the scope, it must come off the rifle first.
He slides the Browning from his back, kneels and holds the stock against his inner thigh. He knows he's nearly out of time. The screws on the scope mounts will not budge between his fingers. He flips his knife from its belt sheath, desperately grinding the blade into one screw head and then the other. Small shavings of black metal peel off onto his hand but the screws eventually turn, releasing the scope.
He raises it to his eye. Red digits mark her distance, 137 meters. He runs his hand out in front of the lens as if he could pull her to him. But there is no need. She is laughing, spinning, hand in hand with a new friend, another little girl. Her smile splits the crosshairs.
He lowers the scope and leans back against a pine, sliding down to its base. Smokey stares intensely, his ears forward. They both gaze silently at their little girl, their friend, their third wheel, cut loose and rolling down her own road now, three hours at a time. The bell sounds its unquestioned authority. As if sucked in by a giant vacuum, the children swarm back into the building from where they came. He quickly raises the scope again. His child is the last to obey, her black heels skipping along the pea gravel walkway, leaving only a wisp of dust as she disappears. He scratches his stubbly crown. Smokey, doleful eyes squinting, points his long face to the hazy sky and howls.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & areful not to bump his bandaged hand, he adjusts the knob on the acetylene torch, squeezing the flame into a skinny, blue spearhead. He watches as the dog, curled in a crescent at the edge of the lawn, licks the ash from the fur between his toes. He turns back to the clean steel sheet lying on the sawhorse. Flipping down his goggles, he scorches out a ridgeline along the upper third of the burnished, metal rectangle. Then below, he torches a series of flat, square roofs. In the middle of the sheet, he deftly burns a sea of pines and the outline of two wolves, one standing on all fours and one sitting on his rump at the edge of a clearing. He adds dry bunches of wild grass by flicking the flaming tip over the same space repeatedly.
A yellow bus with black stripes squeals to a halt in front of the open garage. The obligatory stop sign swings out from its side and the dog's ears pop up like lawn sprinklers. At the sound of Maddie's feet crossing the asphalt, Smokey rises on all fours and watches, his attentive posture betraying the ancestral wolf in his genes. His vigilant eyes declare his willingness to risk the moose's hoof or the polar bear's jaw in order to protect the pack.
He turns the torch off. It pops at the interruption of gas. He is like his dog in a way, and he carries the scars to prove it. They may not be wounds as visible as the rake from a grizzly claw, but they're still deep. He's willing to admit that, to himself anyway. He knows the source, understands the damage and endures it without regret. He would not hesitate to make the same sacrifices again to protect the little girl walking up the driveway. And her brothers. And her mother. The whole pack.
"How was your first day?" he asks, pushing up his goggles.
"OK, Daddy. I made a frog," she states simply, dropping her backpack at the lawn's edge and bending to hug the dog. Then she stands, looking slightly older, and asks, "How was yours?"
"OK, too, I guess. I started a new picture. I call it, 'Today We Were Wolves'." He tips the charred steel toward her so she can see it better.
"Are those the wolves?" she asks, pointing.
"And is that... is that my school?"
"That it is."
She puts a finger to her chin, digests the picture for a moment then smiles with all the confidence of a child that is loved. And that is the best vision he's seen in days.
2ND PLACE WINNER
By Terry Lawhead.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & umming happily Dr. Audrey Hamilton drives up the long gravel road toward the farmhouse hidden behind a steep wheat field. She keeps her eye on the thin edge of the grassed ridge popping in and out of the cottonwood trees off to the north. After months of talking about it and traveling the better part of two days to get it within view she doesn't want the land to up and disappear on her.
She passes through another tall gate left open for her visit with well tended barbed wire fences heading off into the brush. This was private land and people took their privacy seriously in the rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington. She knew her maps and property lines and knew the dirt was owned for 24,300 acres around her. And a woman waiting for her at the farmhouse owned that dark grassy ridge and the pioneer cemetery in the center of it.
Dr. Hamilton is not a medical doctor. She is, to deliberately put people off that she had no interest in talking to, a "bug foamer". Her love of insects had started when she was five years old. She is a tenured professor of entomology with a loyal posse of graduate students. She is also a relentlessly clever sleuth tracking down overlooked or understudied dirt.
"So, you kill bugs," a person would say after a moment of uncertainty following her pronouncement.
"No," she would answer, extending the pause so everybody near was sure to hear, hopefully as they sipped their wine. "I love bugs and foam at the mouth at the thought of them."
Dr. Hamilton wants to talk to people who own undisturbed soil. She travels the world to discover and name unknown bugs but prefers finding beetles. Owners of untouched land are pretty hard to come by and reluctant to talk much but she has learned how to connect the dots. She linked up with Mrs. F.P Clyde, the widowed owner of the trees and grassy ridge harboring the old cemetery and several thousand acres of wheat stubble, after tracking an anecdote through a half dozen people scattered across the country. Her only direct contact to date is a conversation with a talkative granddaughter. On her invite Dr. Hamilton packed her bags.
She finds she likes the approach to the house. Somebody had planted trees early and frequently in an area of little rain. Coming up the last bend in the road she is surprised to see an old image unveiling in her mind. The trees are not native. They line the road evenly spaced. She stops the car.
The trees look like the kind she remembers from an old movie. She knows them but cannot place them. She drives on, coming over the rise and enters the expansive farmyard area for trucks and harvesters and sees the elevators of a working wheat farm. In a glance she sees more old deciduous trees sheltering the modest white farmhouse and cypress, yew and cedar standing down a slope. She squints her eyes trying to draw conclusions. She knows pioneers brought trees with them for comfort and beauty. Then she remembers the name of the trees on the gravel road. Plane trees, planted by Napoleon on French roads.
The front door opens and a young woman steps onto the porch waving at Dr. Hamilton. That would be Tessie, she thinks, one of many grandchildren but one who earned the authority to invite her out to visit. Tessie waits at the steps, looking up at the sky for a long moment. Dr. Hamilton quickly affirms for herself that the young woman is a smart ally but one who puts her grandmother and the farm first.
"Hi, I'm Audrey Hamilton," she calls out. "Tessie?"
The young woman nods. Dressed in casual but sturdy outdoor clothes, Tessie is the picture of a capable, practical person. Long black hair falls loosely over her shoulders and her brown eyes are sharp. "I watched you approach from the turn off on the county road. You navigate pretty well for a city person." They shake hands and she turns toward the door. "The temperature is dropping with a cold front moving in. Shall we just go inside? My grandmother is waiting."
They walk through a comfortable living room into a sitting area that looks out over rolling fields and attractive groves of fir trees. Mrs. Clyde is seated on a couch facing the window and turns to greet her without standing.
"Yes, you do look awfully pretty to be a professor," she says with a smile. "Tessie produced a lot of paper on you from her research on the Internet."
Dr. Hamilton smiles, nodding an acknowledgment at Tessie. She knows her website is impressive with a lot of serious science and that her students, male and female, are unusually photogenic.
"Tessie wants a beetle named after her," she says.
Dr. Hamilton laughs, delighted at the bluntness and nature of the request and nods in agreement. "Fate willing, of course. In my profession the wish toward ordered taxonomy rules. I hope we find enough to include the rest of your family, too."
She shrewdly senses Mrs. Clyde observing her attentively. Dr. Hamilton guesses the woman is learning everything she needs to know about her in the first few minutes and that she is probably getting it right. Normally preferring to be elusive until trapped, she is surprised to feel relaxed about it. Mrs. Clyde is older than she would have guessed, easily in her late 80s. But she is nobody's fool. "You have no idea how many kin there are, but I had no idea that was even a remote possibility," Mrs. Clyde says. "Please tell me more."
"For people in my line of work there are still islands of mystery left all over the world," Dr. Hamilton says. "There are 350,000 known species of beetles but at least thousands more continue to live unnamed in forgotten old cemeteries of native grasses." Mrs. Clyde nods, smiling.
"Tessie enjoys science," says Mrs. Clyde. "And her poets."
Dr. Hamilton nods appreciatively toward her. "Tell me a local poem. Please."
"'Star Thistle, Jim Hill Mustard, White tops, Chinese Lettuce, Pepper Grass. / The names of things bring them closer.'" Tessie smiles. "Robert Sund, from an old book called 'Bunch Grass'."
"Lovely," says Dr. Hamilton, impressed. "And I totally agree with that statement. As would Linnaeus, if he could."
"I think Adam got the jump on him, though, back in Eden," says Mrs. Clyde with a straight face. "According to a pretty good source, Book of Genesis." Then she smiled. "Is a rose by any other name really just as sweet? You don't dig up the dirt a lot, do you?"
She looks steadily at Mrs. Clyde wishing she knew more about her. "Like running a comb through your hair."
Mrs. Clyde laughs easily. "Tessie just wants to be first to get a bug with her name on it." Dr. Hamilton carefully waits, wanting to listen and learn. "There are some family secrets up there, as you can imagine. I assume you will not disrespect these."
She nods, keeping eye contact. "This is not unusual, of course, for people who ask to dig around in people's cemeteries. I once dug in a Roman ruin and found a bug and ignored a human skull."
Mrs. Clyde's face brightens. "Where was the ruin?"
"I know France a little," she says. "Where in France."
"Southeastern. Near Aix Les Bains. An aqueduct led to some forgotten cisterns. I cherish forgotten places, as do beetles."
Mrs. Clyde looks out the window with a thoughtful expression in her eyes. "Do you want to take a look at the land right now?"
Dr. Hamilton feels a familiar rush of pleasure run through her. "I would be honored to."
Tessie excuses herself to slip out the back door to get a vehicle. "I think the soil on this farm will serve you well," says Mrs. Clyde, still looking out the window. "My husband was one of the early adopters to no till direct seeding. Some of our land has been plowed only a few times in the past decade."
"I congratulate you," says Dr. Hamilton. "Good sustainable agronomics make terrific bug beds. Lots to eat all the time. Do you spray?"
"Oh yes. But less and less. Tessie will be ready with a truck, can you help me a little bit?" Dr. Hamilton goes to her and takes her elbow as she stands unsteadily. They slowly make their way to the door and the waiting truck.
"I always have to ask when a scientist comes to visit," says Mrs. Clyde, carefully climbing into the cab with assistance. "How does it matter? Your research?"
Dr. Hamilton sees Tessie's eyes in the mirror as she slides into the back seat behind them. "You mean, in the big picture?"
"Yes," says Mrs. Clyde. "When neighbors ask about a scientist doing research I never am quite sure how to explain it to them."
"Science is about understanding. Does understanding matter?" asks Dr. Hamilton. "And nowadays, the descriptive sciences are becoming predictive. But we will need a lot of information to forecast how ecosystems respond to alternative practices. Even insects finally make a difference."
"But you enjoy it, too," volunteers Tessie.
"I love it. Biped carbon-based colonizing nesting mammals, that's all people really are. But our curiosity changes--. " Her nose perks up and she sniffs the air. Tessie notices.
"Sorry, I have the nose of a beetle. I smell a dead animal." Tessie looked surprised and then laughed. "Your best chance to meet exotic bugs is when you die and then, of course, that's not good."
"Your favorite beetles like dead animals?" asks Tessie.
"The bugs I primarily study, sometimes called death eaters or carrion beetles or many other Latin names, are vital to the continuation of life by, with assorted other interesting critters, taking care of the dead. Vegetative and otherwise. I didn't know that at five, of course, I just fell in love with how colorful and shiny they were. I still find them as beautiful as when I was a kid. But now I respect what they do as well. Only through death is renewal possible."
They pull into a small graveled parking space beside the cemetery. Tessie waves at her grandmother, who chooses to wait in the heated truck, while Dr. Hamilton and she walk into the tall grass near the tombstones.
"Do you like it out here?" she aske Tessie, now that they are away from her grandmother.
She nods vigorously. Dr. Hamilton smiles, liking her enthusiasm. "Would you like to help me on this project if we end up going ahead?"
"Very much," she says. "And I know my grandmother feels okay about you and what you want to do."
They split up and Tessie walks along a line of tombstones. She spots a black crow flying away and, sniffing again, Dr. Hamilton walks to a far corner and finds a dead magpie with some flies and beetles crawling over it. She looks around, guessing the plot to be roughly half an acre, enormous by her standards. She kneels in the grass for a moment, placing her palm on the ground and, in her own way, asks for aid. She stands and sees that Mrs. Clyde is watching her through the windshield.
Tessie approaches. "There is one new grave," she says quietly. "A young man killed in Iraq. An uncle. Andrew."
"The oldest one goes back to 1850," she says. "On my dad's side."
"You know this place."
She nods, then looks toward the horizon. "This is an amazing area, once you get to know it."
"Somebody must water out here for this grass to be so green."
"Sometimes. There is a little well, it runs dry pretty fast. But we've already had some fall rains. The native grasses come back quickly."
"You always check out the horizon," she says to Tessie.
Tessie tilts her head at her. "You're right, I do. I love watching the sky when the weather is changing."
"Are you going to school?"
She makes a loose wave with her hand. "Every so often."
They walk back to Mrs. Clyde, who unrolls her window. "Well, I never had any reservations about wanting to do research here," Dr. Hamilton says to her. "It is a remarkable place."
Mrs. Clyde glances at Tessie for a moment then relaxes her gaze. "Grassland soils, mollisols," she says, looking off. "Loess, with some ancient layers beneath it. Actually blown in from glacial meltwater deposits and volcanic ash."
Dr. Hamilton nods, thrown off by her precise knowledge. "Yes, I have studied it, it is very unique. Although I am not a soil scientist, just--."
"A bug foamer," finishes Mrs. Clyde. "Tessie told me a story on your web site." Dr. Hamilton smiles.
Tessie stands to one side as the two women are silent. "Okay, we have a deal," says Mrs. Clyde, watching Dr. Hamilton. "And I am just going to trust you. I am sure you can handle any arrangements necessary. You just need to give Tessie the first name."
Dr. Hamilton grins broadly. "Absolutely." She turns to Tessie. "It is complicated. The scientific name consists of both a genus and species name. Your name would be Latinized according to very precise rules. The genus name is capitalized and given first and the species name is given next and the third part would be your name. If we find a subspecies, and I think we will, your name is incorporated into the third part. Is Tessie a nickname for a longer formal name?"
She raises her head slightly, playing formal. "Theodora."
"Good!" Dr. Hamilton exclaims. "It even has a nice Latin resonance, it'll roll off the tongue perfectly."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n mid-March a proposed trip to the cemetery is cancelled due to there being two feet of snow on it. Dr. Hamilton reschedules for the first full week after the end of school in early May. She brings four graduate students with her from her own program in Wisconsin and enlists four more from Washington State University. They converge upon the farm and unload boxes of equipment under a threatening grey sky.
Tessie is helping a student lay out a grid when she sees something move out of the corner of her eye. She kneels down and spots a beetle crawling slowly through the grass. She carefully picks it up in a paper sleeve and takes it to show Dr. Hamilton, who stops what she is doing, pulls a hand lens out of her coat pocket and sits on the ground with her. She lets the beetle crawl around on her bare hand.
"Well, Tessie, you certainly have the magic," she says. "This is a lovely beetle from the species Nicrophorus americanus. Family Silphidae. They are considered increasingly rare and just what we would hope to find in this kind of native soil. See the scalloped orange red markings on its wings and the one on the pronotum, the area just behind the head? Very distinctive."
She gives her hand lens to Tessie and looks out across the grass. "This one got out too early to mate and start reproducing and the cold got it. But there is probably a carcass around that lured it out, maybe right here or out in the wheat field. They are powerful and can move a half mile a day. Let's keep it, file it and have Jonathan examine it carefully." She lays her hand on Tessie's arm, smiling. "I am not going to tell you it is anything new to name, but let's not rule it out. Good eyes, Tessie."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & y summer the operation is in full swing. Awnings are spread over a work area to keep the blazing July sun off the backs of hunched over graduate students, Tessie, Dr. Audrey Hamilton and Mrs. Clyde when she visits. Laptop computers are scattered among microscopes, collecting equipment, nets and jars of fluids, coolers and latte makers with looping extension cords to a generator in the back of a pickup. Mrs. Clyde is comfortable in a spacious chair with a foot rest. She is behaving in a more familiar manner with Dr. Hamilton.
"Audrey, what have you heard about the two beetles Tessie found?" Mrs. Clyde asks her.
"Still under review, but very promising," Audrey tells her. "This is remarkable earth."
Mrs. Clyde nods proudly. "My husband's ancestors went back to the beginning of farming here. We even have papers. A registered pioneer farm under the Timber Claim Act. Not even Abraham Lincoln and the Northern Pacific Railway could steal it from us."
"Okay, I spend my days digging in dirt. Can I finally ask your history?"
"British. I'm a Brit. I met my husband when I was a young woman. World War II got in the way but he eventually got me back here. He died far too young, bless him, and sons and daughters continue the farm, mostly with leases to good neighbors."
"The trees coming into your land, they make it feel like a French lane."
Mrs. Clyde looks off into the distance and then sighs. "I have endured a lot of pestering from neighbors about that," she says. "You have no idea. My husband had a brother who exiled himself to France, I actually met him while my family was on a visit. He returned to plant that stretch then moved on to somewhere in Asia and vanished. A vagabond. Somehow the trees took, a miracle in our weather. Plane trees, a kind of sycamore." She fell silent again. Audrey glances at her and waits.
"My husband and his brother and I were involved in things in France during the war. Nothing that important but as a result we knew people in the Resistance, in a place near the French Alps. The Rhone Alps, the Savoie region actually, near Aix Les Bains. Most of them were executed, you know. I was young and very fond of them. They were heroic men to me at the time but really, I learned much later that they just loved their communities." She pauses again, looking away. "Not everybody has the same chance to have their hearts broken and survive. I have made my own children and their children far too patriotic, I fear, for these troubled times. I have some grandchildren who have somehow become far too protective of their home." She smiles. "My husband was a Republican all of his life and I am sure he is storming in heaven as he watches me today helping raise his young descendants, most of them Democrats. I want them safe and out of danger, of course. And fair is fair, what about you?"
"Privileged suburban blond, swept away by an archer beetle at age five and never had another true love," Audrey says. "Men come and go but insects last forever. And I am a Madisonian. Wisconsin."
"Is there something about this work you love that has changed you over the years?" she asks her.
Audrey rests back again, looking out over the fields, surprised by the question. "Well, I have to think about that. I don't follow much else about the world and my habits are absurdly normal. But knowing the land in different places is worth the trouble for me. Finding unnamed creatures, of course, is the fun part. I like naming bugs. Success is always based on luck. Kind of similar to the chance of finding true love."
"I found true love more than once and you are naming some beetles after my granddaughter and maybe even me."
"You're doubly lucky."
She glances at Mrs. Clyde. "You are peeling back the onion."
"You don't need to answer."
"No, I welcome this. I want to save it all."
"My neighbors see nothing to save out here, Audrey," she says gently. "Gravel road Christians are waiting, even longing, for the end of the wicked world, not trying to save it."
Audrey gets to her feet and dusts off her knees. "Well, I don't know, wouldn't a benevolent wise God want us to use our minds to figure this stuff out? Reassemble, then," she says, poking stones with the toe of her boot and looking to see if anything is under them. "Restoring through the imitation of models provided by nature. Mimicing the miracle, to the best of our ability. Using a healing art of rediscovery. Restoration can be as amazing as the first presence of a place." Audrey shakes her head and laughs. "Sorry, I can launch rather quickly. Climate geeks get a lot more press than bug geeks ever will, but what can you do? Bugs do matter. Love is love."
"So what is the most important virtue?"
"Innovation," she quickly answers. "And patience. Usually in reverse order. And for you?"
"Courage about what, though?"
"I'm an old lady, Audrey. After a while everything is about having courage. Even keeping memories alive is all about courage."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & udrey looks up to see a familiar truck driving down a lower road she has never seen anybody on. She can see Tessie and Mrs. Clyde in the truck. They round a bend and vanish, reappearing for a moment on a rise and vanish again. She gets busy and doesn't notice if they return on the same road.
Within a few days she sees them drive by again. The next time Mrs. Clyde sits with her at the cemetery, she decides to ask her about where she and Tessie go. Just before she is about to ask, they both hear the sound of a truck on gravel and look up. The graduate students come and go through the day but this truck is unfamiliar to Audrey. She scans the cemetery and sees the three students already working away. Audrey turns back to Mrs. Clyde with a questioning look..
"Gavin," she says. "A good boy."
"Does he farm out here?" Audrey asks her.
She shakes her head. "Oh goodness no. He would like to. But he works in town except during harvest. He needs the health benefits."
"But still lives out here?"
Mrs. Clyde nods, looking toward the distant truck. "You should meet him. If he sees me he may stop, but maybe not. I am sure he knows about your project. He is probably late to work." She raises a hand in greeting. The truck stops a quarter mile away. Behind the wheel Gavin stares toward them without waving back. "He was raised to farm by his grandfather," she explains. She looks at Audrey. "His own grandfather probably would have plowed this cemetery a day after a funeral if he thought he could get away with it, and told Gavin that in no uncertain terms. And spray all the bugs. No live bug was worth keeping around. You should get to know Gavin, he could lead you to all kinds of places. Unknown places. They all had names, too, by family members. Every landform around here is named by somebody. You name your beetles but farmers name the land. We just start forgetting the names and then the places. The next generation has to try to remember them."
Just then the truck kicks gravel and he pulls away abruptly. The truck turns down a side road and dips below a hill.
"Gavin means well but he is probably a combination of mean and shy," says Mrs. Clyde.
Audrey presses her face against an umbrella-shaped net looking at trapped bugs, forgetting Gavin.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & ovember. A chilly west wind is blowing across the cemetery. Audrey is alone at the lone remaining work table, her students gone. Harvest came and went while she was back east and now the work is shut down. She knows Mrs. Clyde--she allows Audrey to call her Hannah--is away and misses her. A truck heads up the dirt road toward Audrey. She hopes it is Tessie but soon she can see a different young woman behind the wheel. The woman parks and walks up to her.
"My great-aunt sent this to you," she says, handing her a thick envelope. "She expected you to be here." She turns and leaves.
Audrey examines the package. The postage is French. She opens it up to find a disc. She inserts it into her laptop and in a few seconds a video starts up. Hannah is looking at her seated in a chair beneath trees. Audrey leans forward, listening.
"Hi Audrey. Sorry we couldn't talk before I left. I hope your work is going well.
My grandchildren of course did this for me. You can probably tell, we are in France." She points out a cane at an angle. "Light filled trees all around, great weather. I know it is getting cold there. Tessie is driving me around just like back on the farm. She is fluent, did she ever tell you that?"
She looks off to one side. "A grandson does live here and met us but I don't think he is very happy. We may bring him back home, in fact. Introduce him to my favorite Spanish philosopher, Manual Labor." She smiles toward Audrey, chuckling for a moment. "I want to give you permission to go visit another spot on the farm. You need to know where the key to a locked gate is hidden. It is very cleverly hidden, under a basalt rock beside the post."
Something distracts Hannah to her left and she watches for a moment then returns to look at the camera. "You need to drive a few miles. This place is pretty much in the center of the farm, near a little year around spring. I think you will like it. Feel free to look around for your favorite things."
She pauses, looking off camera again. "I don't know how it works, Audrey, people we have loved draw us wherever they are, even after they have died. But somehow the bones of family members keep bringing us home. I am lucky, almost all of my ancestors, back over at least a century and a half, are buried on the farm. I even imported my own parents. I am coming back soon. But this place calls me, too. It has been a good trip."
She gazes toward the camera again. "I don't know if it is raining there but if it is, don't go, you'll get stuck. The topsoil in that little draw has a lot of clay that gets real slick when it is wet." She pauses again. "I think I told you I knew a lot of people who died here. They were executed. They wanted to protect their communities from the Nazis after the French government capitulated. They lived in the hills. They were found and executed. Mostly all men, boys, really. Children. All of them somebody's child. They loved their families and their towns and they made a choice. War is one thing but occupation is another, especially when you love a place so much. It didn't seem to be my home and I escaped with my husband but...." Her voice trailed off. "Each village has built something to remember the loss of their children. It is a long story." She pauses again. Audrey now can see leafy mountain oaks lit in sunlight off in the distance behind her.
"I escaped and survived and live in a wonderful place with so many wonderful people. I'd like to think I would tell my grandchildren to capitulate and live long. But I am not sure I could." She gazes directly at her. Whoever is working the camera just holds it steady. "Audrey, I can't even remember the time before I was a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. But I was, once I was somebody's daughter and a young woman, and it was here. There is a wonderful and horrifying code of the young dead that we remember all of our lives. And we never forget their names.
"I'm homesick now for the farm, good or bad weather. See you in a few weeks, if you're sticking around. Or next spring if we have to wait that long."
Audrey closes the file and her computer and walks to her truck. She drives down the old road to the locked gate, finds the key and swings the gate open. The road heads over one ridge and there was nothing but wheat fields. She continues on. It loops over another without any visible sign and then a third. Then she dips into a long hollow where there are several areas of old cottonwoods and lush bunch grass. A few groves of willow stands crowd a narrow creek, a magpie lifts off and soars away. She slows and looks at them for a moment, knowing it is a rare sight of undisturbed earth, and then continues on.
Audrey rounds another long bend and sees what appears to be a tall slab of stone with a small roofed seating area beside it. She stops and gets out and steps up closer. Off to one side is a small basin with an ornate pipe dripping water into it. Now that she is closer she sees that there are bouquets of dried flowers lying on the ground. Glancing at the polished face of the stone she sees what appears to be a long list of names. Louis Chioffi. Sylvain Dardyck. Jean De La Tullaye. Serge Dormy. Roger Dupasquirer. Charles Glatz. Maxime LaCosaz. Eugene Lanoz. Marcel Nicoud. Claudius Mermoz. Pierre Try. Then she sees three similar last names in a row: Cherce Setti. David Setti. Maurice Setti. Three brothers from one family. She rests one hand against the cold stone and examines the carved inscription above the list of names.
Aux Enfants Des Baux Mort Pour La France.
3RD PLACE WINNER
Passing the Exits
by Melissa Voelker
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t is nighttime and we are driving through Texas. Jack is behind the wheel, one long, brown arm thrown carelessly over the passenger seat. Deveney and I are in the back, her pale feet propped up naked and vulnerable in my lap.
Jack's window is open and the humid Texas air fills the car to hang heavy and thick about us. Jack likes Texas and the wet cat tongue of its atmosphere. He likes the rundown gas stations every five miles along the Interstate, the pastures of cows and horses that surround us constantly, and the strange way people look at us as we pile out of the Civic and infiltrate their small towns with our foreignness.
"Tell me a story, Poe." Deveney demands, her voice low and urgent as if we are making love in the backseat at a drive-in movie instead of headed down I-10 toward California at 65 mph.
"I don't know any stories." I reply, watching the light from the headlamps of the car behind us play across the back of Jack's neck. His skin looks strange and unnatural in the high yellow glare and I want to reach out and touch it to make sure it's real, to make sure he is real.
"Tell me about the Travelers." Deveney punctuates her command with a little shake of her feet. Her face is young and impatient in the dimness of the backseat but I have the lines and angles of it memorized on the canvas of my mind and I don't need to physically see her impatience to succumb.
"You know all of the stories by now, Deveney. You could tell them yourself if you wanted to." My protests are half-hearted and weak and everyone in the car knows this. Jack glances quickly at me in the rearview mirror but his expression never changes so I can't tell what he is thinking. Deveney just gives another shake of her feet and then lights up a Camel Red Light, the cue that I am to begin my performance.
"The Travelers hear the voice of the wind and the call of the journey and they refuse to be possessed by one place or people or time." My voice falls into a rhythm, spinning a tale into the muggy air so that it creeps liquidly into every inch of the car and the passengers it carries.
"Long ago they were like other people, enslaved by their own lives and their desires to build things and own land to rape and destroy. But then there came a time when they realized the error of their ways."
"The great Epiphany." Deveney interrupts softly, her eyes dark slits as she leans against the door and blows smoke rings about her head.
"They cast aside their houses and foundations, their collars and leashes." I continue as if she has said nothing, having learned long ago that when she is getting caught up in a story Deveney tends to start talking to herself. "They cast aside their jobs and governments and their fears of all that stood outside their doorways. They set out with no clear destination in mind, traveling to where the wind and the roads led them. They were freed of their prisons to traverse the path with no beginning and no end. They became gypsies and nomads. They became Travelers."
I look up at Jack as I finish to see him nod ever so slightly. He is not like Deveney, or me even, with my desperate urge to attain what I have never felt before. I'm not sure why he is among us, with his silence and his calm, only that he has been here since the beginning and that his presence behind the wheel makes me feel safe.
"They became . . ." Deveney repeats this over and over several times, rolling the words across her tongue as I'm sure she is rolling her thoughts across her mind.
Sometimes when we are driving through miles of desert or long stretches of empty country highway she will have me read to her from whatever novel I happen to be perusing. It doesn't matter what it is or whether I start at the beginning of a story or the middle of a chapter or the end of an essay. It is the sound of the words she craves, the complexities of their meanings and the way they tell her a deeper story inside her head. She'll have me repeat things over and over until she has fully absorbed them into her skin, whether they are just random words or phrases or whole pages of text. Then later when we are piled on a Rest Stop picnic table to sleep in Little Rock, Arkansas or