I could tell that he preferred each and every stranger, even strangers he had not met yet, even strangers he imagined, he preferred those strangers to me.
Photograph by Erin Perfect.
One winter, Rudy got an infection in his testicles while he lay out drunk in the national forest in a one-room cabin by rights meant for a ranger. When the corruption began to smell, he washed his balls with creek water and put some plantain on the infected place. He wrapped it up in duct tape, and he kept the whiskey bottle by the bed. He lay on his bunk until his dick turned black and started bleeding out pus at which time he found he could no longer walk. The cabin was rank with the smell of rotting flesh. Soon he could not even get up to light the fire. Finally, when he started hallucinating, he knew that he would die if he didn’t get up, so he forced his feet to find the floor, and he forced his body to obey, and he dragged himself out to the road, and he began, somehow, to walk. He knew his only hope was a ride. But he was thirty miles out into the national forest, and it was the middle of the night, and it was winter, and no one came by. Rudy would count out fifty paces, and then collapse. Each time he passed out, he tried to do it in the middle of the road so that if a car came, it would stop for him. By his estimation, he kept himself moving like that most of the night, when finally a truck passed, some poachers coming back from a run, and they pulled him up into the cab in spite of his smell, and they drove him the hour into town, speeding the whole way. He stunk like he’d dug himself out of his own grave, shit and piss, the high smell of white worms and the paste of decay, and the hunters hauled him in to the emergency room, holding him up by his shoulders, and they set him down and left him there, and he fainted away on the floor.
For Rudy, my man said, all women are his mother, sister, girlfriend all rolled into one.
“What happened then?” I asked, the night before my man left.
“They put Rudy in a hospital bed,” my man said. “He was dead to the world for three whole days.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then? Well, I guess then he woke up,” said my man.
Rudy was a tree trimmer, and my man had run his ropes all summer, but my man came home that day in September with a cut down one cheek. He said he was done working for Rudy, just like that. When I asked him why, he would only say that Rudy was unbearable, a first-rate asshole, and he could not spend one more day listening to his shit. I couldn’t get much more out of him about it, gentle as he was, but he did remark on Rudy’s generally poor treatment of women. For Rudy, my man said, all women are his mother, sister, girlfriend all rolled into one. Every waitress, he says she wants it. Ranks them one through ten that sort of shit. And I’m supposed to go along with it. Like I’m gay if I want to talk about anything besides tits and ass if I consider women to be human beings. He hates women and he’s obsessed with them, my man said, fuming. That was all he would say.
Oh yes, he was a fine man. And yes, I drove him away.
Once my man left, I waited a while before I started calling around, the guys he’d known, the ones who’d call me sweetie when they saw me at the bar. Called Frank. “You know I can’t hire you onto my crew,” he said, “Why don’t you call Rudy? I hear he’s desperate. He hasn’t had anyone working for him since your man left town.”
“Why can’t you hire me?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen a woman could work a full day like one of my men. And the economy’s too hard right now to do it out of sympathy. Besides, what would my wife think?” I kindly told him that his crew was primarily made up of meth heads and drunks, that I could work circles around them, and that, as far as I could tell, he had never asked his wife what she thought about anything before, so why start now. These people believed strongly that the world was coming to an end soon because of solar flares and the shifting of the poles, though they’d never say a word about the warming planet and I could go on. But he had hung up.
The problem was, it was known around town and even out into the hills that I had driven a perfectly good man off by pure pique, and no one liked that, not with winter so close by.
So I shifted my bike down to its lowest gear and rode up to Liar’s Corner, where Rudy was dropping pines for a big animal vet whose house abutted five hundred acres of coal company land, rolling away into illicit distances. You couldn’t quite roam there. Could be there was a field you weren’t supposed to see. Other than that, it was pristine. Rudy had his Husquvarna 360 gnawing out the hinge on a fifteen-foot stub when I leaned my bike up against his truck, but he switched it off when he saw me.
“If you come any closer, I’ll take it you want to be killed by this tree,” he said.
“I heard you lost three ground crews in three months,” I said.
“I heard you drove your man away by constant nagging,” he said.
“Why’d you lose those crews?” I said.
“Must’ve been due to my bad attitude,” he said. “You want to work?”
He told me he would pay me fifteen an hour but would most likely yell at me. I said if he yelled at me, I’d walk off the job. He said he didn’t care, but he heaved a deep breath so that there was stillness and anticipation in the forest, you could hear it in the tops of the yellow pines, and in the flapping of turkey vultures, and Rudy let out his breath, turned his hard hat to the forest floor, and did not yell. That became our custom.
I worked for Rudy most days twelve hours. If, nearing dark, I suggested calling it a day, he accused me of talking union and threatened to fire me. Garrulous, truculent, defensive, and boastful, Rudy talked dirty on a great breadth of subjects, yet he never unburdened himself to me where it mattered most. I saw that he favored one shoulder, yet he never told me how he had been injured. My conversation had been trimmed down to a hum of self-loathing so—the argument could be made—I never asked.
Instead, Rudy talked about women. According to Rudy, the big animal vet only called him up to work if her husband wasn’t home if you get my meaning, and according to Rudy, a group of sorority sisters from the college had asked him in for a beer after he’d been dragging a maple out of their yard with no shirt on if you catch my drift. He’d had a steady girlfriend but things had ended poorly between them because she had two-timed him, as he said. When I asked why she had two-timed him, he told me he didn’t know but she sure liked to talk about her feelings a lot, and one day, she found someone else to talk to them about. Rudy was still sore. “I loved that woman,” he said. “I would have married her. But she just wasn’t ready. She’ll never see how good I was for her.”
From what I could see, most women wanted nothing to do with Rudy, yet I noticed that he maintained something of an association with a couple who lived on the Women’s Land Trust out on Hooper Ridge. Lily worked at the hardware store, and her partner Karen was a nurse at Community Health. I had often seen Karen giving people spinal adjustments in the grocery store parking lot so that they cried out in pain, tears of gratitude running down their faces.
Rudy was one of those men whose feelings were hurt by the very existence of lesbians. He was furious because Lily was pregnant, which Rudy insisted just wasn’t fair. Still, Lily and Karen sent him on all manner of errands, and requested numerous favors of him, which I never knew him to resist. Once, we dropped off a trailer load of wood chips at the top of their driveway. “For their fucking new moon garden or some shit, you expect me to know?” said Rudy. Another time, he put an extra bar on his professional account with the Bailey’s catalog. “The one with the mustache says her saw finally bit the dust. You think that’s my problem? Jesus. I should give her shaving tips,” he said, dialing in the order from the front seat of his truck.
While he hurled epithets, I clamped my blaze orange ear protection like seashells around each ear, and I thought about my man—why did he leave? I chewed on it like pemmican—why did he leave? I chewed on it until I drew out the juice—he left because I was fighty. Righteous indignation notwithstanding, I knew it was delusional to think otherwise.
Before he left, my man had been a fine man, a fine strong man, just the variety of man I had been advised to bring with me when I settled on an Appalachian slope, the oldest slope, some kind of raw wooded tract next to a pipeline. All we saw was half of a cast iron kettle on its side down in the hollow, but from a certain mud puddle we knew the place had a spring. My man was there to chop the wood and keep me warm at night, and these things he did with a willingness. Our trailer was so small, he could pull it and I could push it, and we propped it up on a stack of sandstone so it was level. Only the barest bit of light came in the windows past the spray painted declaration scrawled across them: “The McCann’s: Step Away,” a feud we were unacquainted with.
We smelled acrid, like red beetles and the campfire.
My man and I had lines around our eyes and mouths from squinting and we developed a common fungus across our backs that mottled our skin there as if we had tortoise shells. We smelled acrid, like red beetles and the campfire. We looked the same as each other, my man and I, and we went forth into our community, and our neighbors liked us. Why do you live that way, the old timers would ask us, with no toilet God bless it but just a hole in the ground? That’s the way we did it when this was still a company town, but you couldn’t pay me to go back to it, no sir. They’d ask us how we met, and my man would open his mouth to answer, but I never found out what he planned to say, because I would interrupt him, because I am, by nature, an interrupter.
I could talk all night. We would get in bed, and I would begin. When I began talking, the raccoon crept by, and when I finished, the woodpecker hammered its spring loaded head into the ash tree outside our window. My man never complained. Sometimes he even listened to me, though he was apt to fall asleep while I was just getting to the good part. He’d begin to snore, gently holding my hand, which I jostled up and down to try to keep him awake. He was so considerate that when my talk veered into aggression, and I threatened to sleep on the floor instead of the bunk he had built for us, he would tenderly say, There’s no need. Let me sleep on the floor. This thoughtful attitude continued until I fought him nightly. As a tactic, I threatened to clear out completely. No, please, he said, Allow me. He was gone the next day, leaving me with nine ducks, a leaking trailer, twenty acres to care for, little firewood, and no income to speak of. All this, and winter on its way.
The ducks. If only I could kill them, I’d be one step closer to self-sufficiency. I didn’t even have to kill all of them, just the male ones, the drakes. But I had never done such a thing, and did not know where to begin. They could not imagine anything harming them as they ate the scraps I gave them—melon rinds, rotten milk, potato skins. I looked at them, and they looked back at me, blinking with no eyelids, their faces like one Mona Lisa after another. They breathed, ruffled, tried to fly.
Though Rudy lived in his truck or slept on a sloped rock in the national forest, though he believed it was no use trying anyway because we were all fucked, though he was scum, yet and still Rudy had his code of conduct. He refused to disturb hardwoods, but had to make a living, so we started out that morning by felling a yellow pine.
Rudy strapped on his spurs, set his climb line and began to throw his body upwards, making his way up the tree by launching himself up into the air, an eel, gaining inch by inch up the rope. He moved as a current, sending his prusik up ahead of him, until he reached the lower branches, twenty feet up. Then he dug his spurs in, hugged the trunk like a bear cub, and went higher, using the small handsaw in his holster to cut twigs and small branches out of his way. I turned a quick-hitch on his climb line, and sent Rudy up the little saw, the Echo, for limbing. I tied on the bull rope, and he hoisted it up. I took the highway of a fallen pine sloping down into the thick of the woods, where the come-along hung from the crocodile trunk of a cherry tree.
Fifty feet up, Rudy tied his bowline, then drew back and launched the end of the bull rope. A long white arc, it sailed through sun and shade, snaking down into the forest. I went for it, pulled it out of a greenbrier. I hooked it up to the come-along by wrapping a climb-heist three times around, then yelled up to Rudy, and waited to hear his saw begin working. When I heard him knock out the wedge, I fit the rebar handle into place and cranked it hard as he made the back cut. Three clicks forward, two clicks back, then two, then one, rowing it to-and-fro until it was almost too heavy to pull. Rudy dug his saw in again, while I heaved back for all I was worth, and then the rope went nearly slack, and I cranked hard and fast and looked up to see the top of the tree moving. Far up in the sky like it had nothing to do with me, the fringe of green began to flinch and duck, and I dropped the rebar handle and got the hell out of there. I skidded sideways down through the saplings, then turned to watch it go. The pine toppled, dizzy and slow in the first moments, then picking up speed, crashing, bouncing onto the crisscross network of the others we’d taken down. The matted pelt of branches and trunks leapt up together, once, then shuddered back to earth, crushing one another, making new hollows and hiding places beneath the boughs.
Once the woods regained their stillness, Rudy whooped, and I whooped back. That was to tell each other we were alive. Then I unhooked the come-along and hiked back up, pulling the bull rope out with me, to find that all Rudy had brought to eat was a bag of super spicy red-hot Cheetos. These were the bold hue of artificial cinnamon. This had to last him until sundown, up and down out of trees, running the chipper, bucking it all up.
“That’s bad,” I said. “You’ve got to eat real food. You can share mine if you want.”
“Fuck off,” he said. “Fucking yellow pines. Sticky fucking sappy, poking me fuckers, stickers, choked with poison ivy, mangy trees, and they’re death traps, won’t hold a goddamn hinge, can’t tell which way or when they’ll go, cunt, cunt, cocksucking cunt.”
I ate my salami sandwich, a banana, a hard-boiled egg, a cucumber, a melon, some pumpkin seeds, drank the dregs of a carton of milk, drank about a gallon of water. Rudy finished his Cheetos and began to oil his saw, judiciously dripping it from an unmarked plastic bottle. “Spermaceti,” he said. “Whale oil from Japan.” I knew. He had told me many times. I knew that he kept the bottle unlabeled in order to avoid the stink-eye. “Certain assholes around here might not understand,” said Rudy. “But what do those motherfuckers know? I read Moby Dick every year.” I put the cap back on my canteen, put my ear protection on, kept my head down. I was an interrupter. I was. I was an interrupter of everyone but Rudy. Rudy cured me, at least, when I was near him. With Rudy, I knew interrupting him would delight him in just the way I did not want to delight him. It would be engagement, and I had decided on the bare minimum of that.
Rudy said, “we’ve got to knock off early today. One of those dykes needs a ride home. She’s six months pregnant, tired of riding her bike. She gets off at five.”
All day he talked about it, continuing to check his watch. “Don’t know how it’s even possible for me to give her a ride home, seeing as men aren’t allowed on her piece of shit land. Of course I wouldn’t set foot there even if they expressly invited me. Which they have. Oh, it was rich when they brought me onto their land to move a wood stove for them. That’s feminists for you. They still want men to do the heavy lifting.”
“How did you meet them?” I asked. I had often wondered about this. I had worked it out that they took his impotent distaste for them as an elaborate joke, or could see through it to the bald fascination beneath. It had also occurred to me that they were playing some joke of their own, along the lines of: Rudy is a pig, so let’s put him to work.
“Your man didn’t tell you?” Rudy asked.
“Tell me what?” I asked.
“When he was running my ropes for me, we cleared a hollow sourwood tree back of their place. In September,” he said. He looked at me strangely, “You didn’t know about that?”
“No,” I said. “He never told me. So what? So men are allowed on their land after all?”
“It still proves my point,” said Rudy. “They don’t need men until they need men. And now one of them is pregnant. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. Goddamn have you seen her? She must be as big as a house by now. But I’ve still got my standards,” he said. “I’ll give her a ride, but I won’t stop the car all the way to let her out. I’ll just open the door and let it roll. I have to show them I have some self-respect. They always think they can get the best of me.”
The next day he said she was as beautiful as god himself.
I put gas and oil in the saws, and hitched the porter wrap to the tree, but when I came back from the truck with the bundled bull rope slung over my shoulder, Rudy was just standing there holding his spurs, staring at his climb line.
“Shit, I want to have a baby so bad,” he said. I put the bull rope down, put my hands on my ear protection, ready for escape.
“Sometimes I hear a baby crying and saliva rushes into my mouth,” he said.
“Oh, it does not,” I said.
“You mean that doesn’t happen to you?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, it will,” he said. “It’s been worse ever since the dykes started doing it. She’s so fucking beautiful, she’s like the fucking earth or something.”
“Don’t make me throw up,” I said.
“Maybe it’s my age. I’m thirty five. You probably know how it feels, now that your man left.” I made motions to remind him we had a job to do. These motions included picking up the yellow throw line, tightening my hard hat, and sticking the rebar handle through my belt.
“What about me and you?” Rudy asked. “We could have a baby.”
“You can get that out of your head,” I said.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want to make it through the winter,” I said. “On my own more or less.”
“You kill those ducks yet?” asked Rudy, smirking.
“No yet,” I said.
“You need a man, is what you need.”
“Stop harassing me,” I said.
“You’re a real bitch,” he said, then unclipped his climb line, turned towards the truck. “Let’s go. I’ve got an appointment.”
“What kind of appointment?” I asked.
“None of your goddamn business,” he said.
The night before my man left, he’d told me the story about Rudy. Then he said, That asshole is crazy. He said, So I quit. I said, What are we going to do for money? He said, We’ll think of something. I said, I’m going to die. I need to go to sleep, he said. I’m going to die, I said. Please, I’m trying to sleep, he said. I’m telling you I’m going to die, I said. No you’re not, he said. Okay, but I want to die, I said. No you don’t, he said. I want to kill you, I said. Maybe, he said, opening his eyes. I’m leaving, I said. He didn’t say anything. I mean it this time, I said. Don’t do that, he said. You really don’t want me to? I asked. No, he said. I’m sorry, but I think that I have to, I said. Oh, come on, he said. I’m going, I said, I can’t take it anymore. I got out of bed, went for the suitcase. No, no, he said. Why not? Give me one good reason, I asked. It’s just not right, he said, that you should go. I’ll go, he said. I’ll find somewhere else, he said. I’ll go in the morning, he said. But right now, I have to go to sleep.
That was how he outsmarted me.
The next morning, the rain fell in steady beads and whispers. We were supposed to be chipping a downed tulip poplar out on the Christian Brethren land. I let the ducks out, then waited at the bottom of the hill until my flannel shirt was soaked through, but Rudy didn’t show. When my phone rang, Rudy’s voice came bitter and hoarse through the static. “All women should be nurturing me at all times,” he said.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“That’s an interesting one,” he said.
“Where are you?” I asked again.
“I was in jail, but now they’re moving me to the hospital. The psych ward.”
I held the phone to my ear.
“Yeah, so no work today,” he said.
I rode my bike into town through the fine rain, stopping to buy half a dozen jelly donuts and a gallon of carrot juice. I made it to the hospital, locked my bike up, found the visiting room. Rudy came in wearing hospital clothes and paper slippers, coolant-colored. I pushed the provisions toward him across the table.
“I went to therapy,” he said.
“That was your appointment?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” he said. “I’ve just about had it, okay? I’m angry. I’m disappointed. I can’t decide between change the world or fuck the world, you know? I want to have a baby, but I just stay up all night throwing one thing at another thing. Sometimes I bash my head into a tree trunk just to clear it, you ever do that?”
“No,” I said. “I do other things. So what happened?”
“This therapist, she said she’d help me manage it all at a cut rate,” said Rudy. “Fucking cunt.”
“When are they going to let you out of here?” I asked.
“Not for a few days I think. I guess you’re on vacation. It’s always like this,” he said, biting into a doughnut. The jelly squeezed out of the corners of his mouth.
“You’ve been here before?” I asked.
“The last time I went to the hospital,” he said, “It was like the time before and the time before that.”
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
“My balls fell off,” he said.
“I heard that one,” I said.
“They put me on horse antibiotics. When I woke up they asked me, Why didn’t you come in sooner? Why did you get this infection? I said I got a wound and I tried to stitch it myself, but it went bad. Where do you live? they asked. I told them I slept on a rock, or in the cabin when it was too cold but mostly on the rock if it was clear. Was the rock flat? they wanted to know. It’s sloped, I said. It’s sloped? they asked. I put a log at the bottom to stop me rolling off the cliff, I said. Then the pain shot up through me again, and I groaned, I howled, Oh I want to die, I hope I die, I’ll do away with myself, give me an implement, I’ll do it! The next thing I woke up and I was in the psych ward. The note they wrote said I’d threatened to harm myself, and was acting unreasonable, attempting to perform surgery on myself and living outside the bounds of civilization. They brought these pills. They said if I took them I would calm down. They came around every afternoon at the same time with those same pills for everyone. They wouldn’t quite tell me what was in them. I won’t take them, I said. And they marked me down as paranoid and non-cooperative.”
“And are you cooperating now?” I asked.
“Hell no, I won’t take their fucking pills,” he said. “That’s why they won’t let me leave.”
“My man once told me most of that story, but not the part where they locked you up,” I said.
“You figured out yet why he left?” Rudy asked.
“Did he ever say anything to you about it?” I asked.
“I never talked to him again after that last day working together,” Rudy said, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“I think I have a pretty good idea why he left,” I said.
“What’s that?” Rudy asked.
“I spoke in desperate hyperbole,” I said.
“You think he left because of something you said? That’s horseshit,” Rudy said. I closed my eyes. I had never told anyone.
“I am dying, I would say,” I said.
“That’s not hyperbole,” he said. I opened my eyes.
“You want to know why I’m locked up this time?” he asked.
“I told my therapist they were watching me.”
“They?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I am being watched.”
“Have some carrot juice,” I said. Rudy drank some carrot juice. “Have you seen those cameras downtown?” he asked. I had. There were problems in our sleepy town with the kind of drugs that make people chase each other naked down the streets with air conditioning units brandished like unwieldy grenades.
“So, you see,” he said. “Just because they’re watching everyone, and just because I’m not the only one they’re watching, does not mean that I’m not being watched. But certain cunts don’t understand logic.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I asked.
Rudy pitched his voice low, leaned in, clamped his hands on the edge of the table. “What you told your man is true,” he said. “No hyperbole. You are dying. I am too.”
Before I left, Rudy gave me the keys to his truck and told me to pick up Lily from the hardware store. “She’s relying on me,” he said. “So now she’s relying on you. You’re my help-meet. Don’t forget.” I left him with the provisions. He said he was glad he had me.
At that moment, I did not choose to tell him, you don’t have me Rudy. I’m not your help-meet. You’ve got it wrong. Somewhere along the line, I had lost the thread. I had waited for him until the water soaked through my clothes. I had brought him donuts and carrot juice. And in all that fine rain, coating our hills, flushing the fairy shrimp out of the spring, pelting the ducks in just the way they wanted to be pelted, I had no one else to deliver provisions to.
The morning my man left, we’d sexed the ducks. He’d been quiet when he woke up in bed beside me. I had a headache, seeds in my eyes, a dry mouth. He was staring at the wall. “Sorry about last night,” I said. “I just got upset. I didn’t really mean those things I said. I just imagined so many things.”
“Let’s sex the ducks today. They’re old enough,” he said.
“I’m sorry I kept you up,” I said.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“What do you mean, it’s fine? Did you say anything you didn’t mean?” I asked.
“Last night,” I said.
“About what?” he asked.
“About leaving,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“No, I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean,” he said.
“Are you leaving?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“It’s because of me, it’s because of me,” I said.
“It’s because I need to get some sleep,” he said, “I can’t stay up all night like you can.”
Then we said yes and no for a while, and he held me, but soon he wanted to get up and make coffee on the camp stove, despite everything. I lay in bed as if nailed there.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Let’s sex the ducks,” he said again. I watched him press the coffee, then take out the blue tin mugs. He poured me a cup and bent to lace his boots.
Pressed into the bed by a great weight, my body disappeared and I was reduced to a brain on the pillow, a pair of streaming eyes. I set my mind to work on the problem. I saw that the steps to him leaving must happen one by one. First coffee, then boot-lacing, then ducks, then a visit to the shitter, then his truck would need an oil change, air in the tires, then he’d be hungry. It could go on and on. I began to hope. I began to see the chance that it could be like the Arabian Nights, that he could be suspended forever in one small task after another, not leaving. Lacing boots was not leaving. Drinking coffee was not leaving. Shitting was not leaving. Sexing the ducks was not leaving, so I went along with it.
The ducks struggled and flapped while I caught them, but I held them firmly, both hands around their wings. Their bodies nestled into the crook of my arm, their hearts beat into mine, and they settled into me. My man held a sharpie. We waited to hear their sounds. Male ducks—drakes—make a choking whistle. It’s only the female ducks who quack. So we listened to each bird, and then we marked each duck with an X on her beak. We went through all eleven of the flock one by one and discovered that we had eight drakes and only three ducks. For meat, we planned to kill all the drakes but one. We would keep the ducks for laying.
So the afternoon before the evening that my man left, he slaughtered two drakes himself, while I didn’t watch. “You should watch, because I’m leaving and you’ll have to do the rest of these yourself,” he said with gentle practicality. But I refused, thinking that might keep him. It did not keep him. Nothing kept him. It was not the Arabian Nights. By sundown, my man was gone.
Rudy stayed locked up, and I went to the hardware store, where a young pregnant woman in overalls lay on her back with her head underneath a utility sink. Her belly domed above her. Lying there, she could have been a snake eating an elephant.
“Are you Lily?” I asked.
“We do everything here,” her voice came from under the sink. “Scratch and dent. We fix it up, sell stuff out back. Hardware in front. You need something?” I told her Rudy couldn’t come so I was there to give her a ride. She pulled herself out from under the sink, but stayed on her back, her long black hair spilling out from under a baseball cap. She looked at me a long moment, and then, carefully, she mentioned my man.
“I’m just saying, if you think you might be crazy, there’s no need to tell the people who can put you away for it.”
“He left,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “How are you getting along?”
“Just fine,” I said.
She continued to lie there, her sharp white chin pointing up at me. “It can be hard in the winter,” she said.
“Maybe for some people,” I said, shrugging. She turned over onto her side, pushed herself to hands and knees, laboriously got to her feet. I watched, not sure how to help or if she wanted me to. She clocked out. We got in the truck.
“How’s working for Rudy?” she asked, like she already knew.
“Fine, until they put him in the psych ward,” I said.
“Is that where he is? Ha. That doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “That motherfucker, why he can’t keep certain things to himself I’ll never understand.”
“I’m just saying, if you think you might be crazy, there’s no need to tell the people who can put you away for it.”
“Do you think Rudy’s crazy?” I asked.
“I think he should stop sleeping on that sloped rock. I think he should eat a decent meal,” she said.
“When are you due?” I asked her.
She said that it would happen in three months, that it would happen in a tub of water and that her partner Karen was at that moment figuring out how to attach a water pump so that hot water could flow into the tub.
“So you’ve got running hot water,” I said.
“We got it just for the birth,” said Lily. “Our cabin is sixteen by sixteen. We’re trying to get insulation in there and a wood stove by the winter. We moved a propane hot water heater into a little shed out back.”
“You’re not going to the hospital?” I asked.
“Where they’ll treat Karen like she’s some stranger and all that kind of hassle? No. We’ll just do it ourselves,” said Lily. She took off her hat and twisted her black hair once around her wrist, then tucked it up off her neck, resettled the hat over her eyes. I could see her take me in sideways.
“Me and Karen have been wondering about you up there,” she tried again. “Twenty acres and just you by yourself? Is Rudy helping you out?”
“Rudy? No. It’s not like that with us.”
“Just asking. You got any animals?”
“Nine ducks,” I told her. “We got them for laying, but it turns out most of them are drakes. I’ve got to kill six of them.”
“Have you ever done that before?” she asked me. I didn’t say anything to that, kept my eyes on the road.
“Duck killing’s hard with just one person,” she said. “Takes a long time to pluck them, all those pinfeathers. We could help you.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I knew I would never call upon them. I only wanted one duck killer and he didn’t want me anymore.
I pulled onto Hooper Ridge, and idled the truck across from the Land Trust driveway. “Well,” said Lily, making no move to get out. But I sat quietly, giving her no encouragement until she sighed. “You know where we live if you need anything,” she said. I kept my hands on the steering wheel and nodded as she shut the door.
Way out in the distance, silhouetted on some other hill at the edge of the world, he was killing ducks for a woman who could understand him.
I watched her walk down the long driveway towards her mysterious separatist land. Even to me, it was mysterious. Even to me, a woman. I knew I could never be allowed there because of what ran through my head all the time: My man. My fine strong man, and where did he go, and what was he at that moment doing? Way out in the distance, silhouetted on some other hill at the edge of the world, he was killing ducks for a woman who could understand him. Later he would sleep softly, drooling on this woman who couldn’t bear to wake him, who barely had a thing to say. They had no need of conversation, so well they did agree.
I drove Rudy’s truck home and made it there just as the rain gathered itself and became a storm. I fed the ducks, shut them into their shed for the night. They made one downy animal of themselves all plastered together, heads tucked down. I burrowed into my sleeping bag. In the night, the trailer sprung new holes, the wind and rain coursed down through it. I took to the tool shed, the driest place I could find. I could hear water rushing and roaring down the gullies all around me, the wind beating against the slope, and behind me in the forest, beech trees snapping, smacking the ground.
In the morning, I came out of the shed to face the calm. The ducks climbed into their drinking trough, dipping and splashing in the rainwater. The drainage ditches sent runoff down towards the creek. After all, my place didn’t get hit too hard. It was good that way. It was hiding behind bigger hills, deeper valleys. It was a little place, my place, a hiding place.
I wondered how high the creek might be, so I went down the long driveway. I saw a small orange turtle, spotted like a frog. I saw a milk snake stranded and slow in the cold morning, flung out of hibernation somehow. I saw that the persimmon tree had dropped some chalky fruit, and at the bottom of the hill, above the high creek, Lily and Karen stood in the driveway, leaning against Karen’s pickup, two bright orange traffic cones on the ground at their feet. Karen, her long frame zipped into a big hooded sweatshirt, stepped forward and stuck her hand out. “We just came by to see how you made it through the storm,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, shaking her hand. “You?”
“Not too bad. We can help you slaughter those ducks,” said Karen. “It’s no problem. Might as well do it today, before it gets colder.”
“I don’t have a place to keep the meat,” I said. “Besides hanging them. I don’t have a place where the foxes and raccoons and coyotes won’t get to them.”
“The hardware store’s got a deep freeze we could use,” said Lily.
What was I to do? The sun was coming out, and steam rose up off every jutting muddy piece of the land, which sparkled in a great show of democracy. A discarded truck bumper shone just like the sandstone, just like a scrap of metallic insulation and the white of yarrow flowers and the flash of blue jays’ wings, a coil of chicken wire, an old license plate half-entombed in mud. We went up the hill.
Lily and Karen each carried one of the traffic cones. “What are those for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” said Karen.
“I hear you’re a nurse at the community clinic,” I said, “I’ve seen you cracking people’s backs.”
“It’s true that I do that,” Karen said, “but I’d rather you think of me as a whittler.”
“You should see it,” said Lily. “She’ll spend hours carving a tiny thimble-sized skull out of cherry wood, and then she gives it to a friend for their birthday, and they put it in a safe place and then lose it.”
“But that’s good,” said Karen. “My hope is that they’ll find it again twenty years later, still in the same safe place.”
“I even lost the one she made for me,” said Lily.
“How can you lose a skull in a sixteen by sixteen cabin?” I asked.
“Oh, you can,” Lily said. “You can lose anything anywhere.”
Back up the hill, I knew enough to get the propane burner going full bore, and to fill my largest canning pot with spring water from the pump. Lily and Karen went to the duck shed, picked out the drakes. Soon, the water roiled and steamed. Karen took a utility knife from her belt and sawed off the top of each traffic cone, letting the stubs fall like outsized candy corn near the fire pit.
I took a chance. “My man did this before, but I couldn’t bear to. Squeamish, I guess.”
“Do you miss him?” asked Lily.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said. “I still don’t know.”
“If we’re going to do this, we’ll need buckets,” said Karen.
Lily ignored her. “At night, sometimes, I bet it’s hard,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to sleep out here all alone.”
“I loved to look at him while he was sleeping,” I said. “Sometimes I touched his face.”
“While he was sleeping?” asked Karen.
“I loved to,” I said.
“Yeah, you’re not really supposed to do that,” said Karen. I felt my throat close, and I knew she was right.
“Buckets,” prompted Karen.
My man had held each drake on the chopping block, lopped off their heads in a spray of blood as the bird struggled and kicked.
Karen rigged a long line and suspended the traffic cones like funnels over the five-gallon buckets I’d supplied. My man had held each drake on the chopping block, lopped off their heads in a spray of blood as the bird struggled and kicked. Reluctantly, I had seen it in my peripheral vision. But Karen held the drakes until they were calm, and then two-by-two, we lowered them upside down into the cones so their necks stuck out the narrow end. They did not struggle but opened their beaks and gazed at the woods, the fire pit, the razor knife. We slit their throats, beginning with the jugular.
I used the knife my man had left for me. He had spent an hour over the whetstone with the thing, yet as soon as I dug into the drake’s neck, I felt that the blade was dull.
“Fuck that. They don’t deserve that,” said Karen. “Now it’ll be messy. Better saw through the windpipe so he dies faster.” I did that, and the drake’s beak opened and closed. At the top of the cone, its feet kicked up at the sky. The blood and the sandy paste from inside its gizzard dripped into the bucket making a hollow spatter. The drake wilted into death, its long neck stretched limp toward the ground. I wiped my hands, put the dull knife aside, and Karen handed me a razor blade.
Afterward, we sat by the fire pit and ripped the feathers out by the fistful, and the sun grew hot, and the yellow jackets came. It was true that to get all the pinfeathers out was nearly impossible. The hot smell of boiled feathers and blood choked the air. But it was pleasant to sit there together, and I thought how it had only been my man and I on that land before. Each place was also a landmark of where we had failed to understand each other. The fire pit where I’d many times berated him, the duck shed where he’d made ready to go, the mulched path by which he’d left. We cleaned the ducks and threw the organs far out into the woods. We hosed everything down. I hoped that Lily and Karen would not leave.
“Do you want to go swimming?” asked Lily, when we were finished. “It might be the last warm day. And we’re covered with gore.”
“Where?” I asked.
“On our land,” said Lily. “In our pond.”
“Am I allowed to go there?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Lily. “You’re a woman.”
“But I’m obsessed with men,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Which man? Rudy?” said Lily, laughing.
“No way,” I said.
“Come on. You and Rudy really aren’t a thing?”
“Never,” I said, “God. Would you?”
“Well, but,” said Lily.
“Let’s go,” Karen said. “I want to rinse off.”
We took their truck. I threw my bike in the back.
The Women’s Land Trust was a gleaming expanse of fields and hills. Sugar maples lined the banks on either side of the creek. Karen and Lily said they got maple sap each year and pointed out the shack where they boiled it down. The creek helped feed a pond the color of a coin, flinging light back up off its surface, half an acre wide at least, with a raft floating in the middle, duckweed around its edges, a honeybee hive on the far bank, the bees gone sleepy and slow this time of year.
Lily and Karen peeled off their clothes and plunged into the pond, whooping at the cold. Lily’s belly cut through the copper water. Karen kicked next to her and they reached the float at the same time. Karen pulled herself up first, then helped Lily scramble up onto it backward, belly out, dripping brown water back into the pond. I stripped down and swam out after them. The blue gill, disturbed, jumped for us.
Added together, our bodies showed the marks of elastic waistbands, of chigger bites and peeling scabs, stretch marks, birthmarks, ingrown hairs, generous ripples of fat around thighs, jellied parts, furry belly buttons, sun burnt clavicles. Caked with grime, our toenails were sharp and filthy as hooves.
“I trust him with my life every single day that I work with him,” I said.
I didn’t bring up the subject of men, but Karen did.
“What do you think? Do you think Rudy’s crazy?” asked Karen.
I thought about how to answer. “I trust him with my life every single day that I work with him,” I said.
“Yeah, that counts for a lot,” said Karen. “Maybe for everything.” She spat a wad of sticky saliva into the water, and the fish swarmed to it, nipping it apart into frothy white and yellow bits until it was gone. Lily laughed and rolled onto her side. Her belly button stretched wide and taut like a mouth open screaming.
“How can you be friends with Rudy?” I asked.
“We’re not exactly friends with him. We’re associates,” said Karen.
“You work for him,” Lily said. “How can you work for him all day?”
“But that’s just work,” I said.
“He called you from jail,” Lily said.
“I don’t think he has anyone else,” I said. “Except maybe the two of you.”
In the brief silence that followed, I knew that my secret was out. Is it appropriate to spend time with people so that later you can call them from jail? So that they will miss you if you lay out in the national forest long enough? Is that what I was doing with them, here at their pond? Setting up insurance? Wrapped up snug in my stubborn loneliness, I was just the same as Rudy. They must have known, or why would they have come to help me with the ducks? They must have known much better than I did. But they did not see a need to say it aloud, and maybe it was then that I began to love them.
“I need the money and Rudy pays fair,” I said. “But you should hear the things he says about you, about your land.”
“We know about the names he calls us, we know about his—bad attitude, but we have a certain relationship with him. It’s a bond,” Karen said.
“At heart, he’s very eager to please,” Lily said. “He’s quite helpful.”
“He’s his own worst enemy,” said Karen.
“We feel a responsibility to him,” said Lily.
“But why do you know him?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” asked Lily.
“All I know is that he cleared a sourwood for you,” I said. Karen and Lily looked at each other.
“Why did your man leave? Do you even know that?” Lily asked.
“Lily—” said Karen, but I broke in.
“Everyone wants to know why my man left,” I said, “and the truth is I don’t know. I only know that I talked too much. I said I wanted to die, when really all I wanted was to disappear, to stop being myself. I don’t know what finally made my man leave, and what I don’t know, I fill in with every shortcoming of mine, every flaw I can think of. I don’t know but I understand. I understand why he would leave me. If I could leave me, I would do it. But there’s a difference. If it were me, I would always come back. I would look at myself and I would say, Well look who came crawling back. So why won’t he come crawling back?”
When I was finished, Lily and Karen watched me, and I was filled with regret. To map it out: the two of them sat side by side in their small square cabin, waiting for no one but their unborn child. A few ridges over, my camouflage camper was as far away as a comet, spectacularly wrecking itself in outer space.
I gave up. “I’m sure Rudy told you that I drove off a perfectly good man, simply out of stubbornness, nagging, and nervous energy,” I said.
“No, Rudy did not say that,” Lily said quickly. She glanced at Karen. “Rudy knows why your man left.”
“Lily, stop it,” said Karen.
“What? What is it? You think I should just shut up? Is that it?” said Lily, going red.
“I’m reminding you that simply because you’re thinking something doesn’t mean that you always have to say it out loud,” said Karen, her voice quiet and deliberate.
“Fine, I’ll shut up,” said Lily.
“You’re emotional because you’re pregnant,” said Karen, stone-faced.
“Oh perfect,” said Lily. “The diagnosis of a medical professional. Fuck! What’s this tumor growing out of my stomach? Why is it kicking? It’s alive!” Her voice rose to a shriek. Her chin crumpled and her lips were wet. She turned to me. “Why do I put up with this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re talking about. You won’t tell me,” I said. Lily began to cry, gulping in air. Karen did nothing but sit next to her, gazing at the far bank where the honeybees took slow laps around the yarrow. Everything was doing what was built into it, and would keep on until it died. I could take it no more.
“Please,” I said. “Please. If you know something, please.”
So Karen started talking.
“The way it happened was that the Land Trust hired Rudy to take down a sourwood after the last storm,” Karen said. “He and your man showed up one morning. Me and Lily were at our place. I had set up the small forge and was hammering metal. She was inside fixing. It was a workday. We heard the chainsaw going back there at first, but then we heard shouting, a lull, then buzzing. A low whine, something shrill, I can’t say what it was. But I stopped hammering. And then your man came out of the woods, white in the face, a gash on the side of his head. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there swaying.”
“Didn’t you ever see that gash?” asked Lily, passing the backs of her hands over her eyes.
“He came home with his face cut up,” I said. “But he said it was nothing.”
“Right. For him it was nothing,” said Lily, snorting.
“Lily, stop interrupting,” said Karen. Lily began to cry again, quietly, but Karen kept talking. “Where’s Rudy? I asked him. Rudy, your man repeated. Tell us, I said. Where’s Rudy? Then I just dropped my hammer and took off at a dead run through the woods. Rudy was back there on the ground. He was out. He had been sick all over himself. There was a blue and red bruise right at the front of his head, and his shoulder was pinned beneath a white pine branch. I pushed at the branch, but could not move it. I turned to your man, who had followed me, but he stood stupidly, his arms hanging at his sides, his mouth open. Your man said, I dropped it on him. I killed him. It was an accident.”
“But he didn’t kill him,” I said.
“Nearly did,” said Lily.
“Why didn’t my man roll that branch off him?” I asked.
Karen looked at me, long and cool. “How am I to know why a man does something or not?” she said. “All I know is I tried to push that branch off Rudy. I could see that it made it so he could not breath. He’s not dead, I told your man. You have to help me. I can’t move it on my own. I can’t, said your man. You have to, I said. Okay, said your man as if he was just then waking up. He knelt down and we gave the branch a great shove, and it rolled off into the leaves. You could see the marks up and down Rudy’s chest. He wasn’t breathing.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I started breathing into him,” Karen said. “Finally he breathed back. He came to. The first thing he said was, No hospitals, no doctors, no nurses, they’ll put me away again. I’m a nurse you stupid idiot, I told him. He turned over and threw up again.”
“And my man? Where was my man?” I asked.
“He left,” said Karen.
“He walked right past me as I went into the woods,” said Lily, wiping her dripping nose on the back of her hand. “He looked right through me. I found Karen back there, and she and I managed. We carried Rudy out of there. We don’t know where your man went.”
“He came home to me,” I said, filling in the blank. I looked out over the water, watching the sun go orange. “He came home to me and said he couldn’t bear to work for Rudy anymore. He said he quit.”
“We kept Rudy on the land overnight,” said Karen.
“Isn’t that against the rules here? To have a man on the land overnight?” I asked.
“We drew the curtains, is all,” said Lily.
“My man came home to me, and the next day he left,” I said.
“Where did he go?” asked Lily, and I knew how to answer.
“Somewhere no one knows him. Somewhere that he can be new,” I said, breaking again inside, but then beginning to mend.
Rudy got out of the hospital and I continued to work for him until the snow came. On the last day, we dropped another stand of yellow pines. “Do you ever think about how you’re likely the only one ever to climb these trees?” I asked him. “It’s an unexplored territory like any unexplored territory, like the bottom of the ocean. It’s a vertical frontier.”
“That doesn’t mean shit to me,” said Rudy, clipping into his climb line.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said, “What about using bear fat for chain oil? Do you think anyone has ever done that?” I got an earful, about mouthing off when he was climbing a tree, but I had begun talking again. I had gone back to interrupting, and I didn’t want to stop.
Yet there were things I did not discuss with Rudy. I did not mention his injured shoulder. I did not ask him why he had not told me about my man. I knew what he would say, more or less. Some things are hard to talk about. Some things, it’s hard to say just what happened. It’s right to say we are dying. It’s right to say we are being watched. If you can’t wrap your own mind around more than that, better to keep your mouth shut.
The snow came. I holed up in my trailer, got it patched up, put in a stove. Despite the short days, the three ducks began to lay small misshapen eggs, and in January, Lily climbed into the tub and gave birth to a boy, which meant that they would have to leave the Women’s Land Trust and start over someplace new. I heard that Rudy stayed drunk for a week, but I did not see him much that winter.
Those women told me that my man had not left me, that he had simply left, and I had stayed. I would make it through the winter on the strength of that. In the spring, I would go find them and remind them that I had twenty acres. There was a place for them and their boy if they wanted to try it. Meanwhile, I would prepare to answer their questions.
How does someone live with a man they don’t know? Weren’t there signs? He could not admit that he did not know how to sharpen a knife properly. He had spent half an hour at the whetstone only so I could torture a duck who did not deserve a slow confusing death.
Weren’t there signs? I didn’t know how to read them. I had to be told.
But there was this:
I could tell that he preferred each and every stranger, even strangers he had not met yet, even strangers he imagined, he preferred those strangers to me. His eyes would catch fire at the possibility of someone he didn’t know. Many times we had plans to build something together, and I would find him packing a lunch. Ted from down the road needs help moving straw bales. Ted? Yes, Ted from down the road. I don’t think I know him. I don’t know him either. Just met him. Anyway, it’ll probably take all day. He’d kiss me and be gone. He planned a canoe trip with someone who worked at the bakery. He told his life story to the grocer’s wife. He canceled dinner with me so that he could have a drink with the mailman’s brother-in-law. In those last desperate days when I would have done anything to make him prefer me, I invented my death, I invented my leaving, I thought that if I could become strange to him again he would stay.
I wanted that fine man to happen upon me at the duck shed one day, to interrupt me at my work. Hello. Who are you? Slaughtering ducks, is it? You look like you could use a hand. And I would remain mute, prolonging the strangeness of our acquaintance, living slowly through those brief moments when he believed himself capable of great courage, when he looked at me and wanted what he saw. I would keep perfectly still. I would stay by the duck shed in my muck boots. I would wait for him to draw near me on the mulched path, and I would resist to the last possible moment becoming known to him.
Madeline ffitch is the author of Valparaiso, Round the Horn, a collection of short fiction. She was a founding member of the punk theater company, The Missoula Oblongata. She is at work on her first novel, of which “The Vertical Frontier” is the first chapter. Madeline lives and writes in Appalachian Ohio, where she raises ducks, goats, and her small son, Nector Vine.