They had to sit for a time after dragging the body so far in this heat – two young women in sleeveless summer dresses, hugging their knees on the hillside while the hot wind danced in their hair and crept up their skirts and a dead man lay behind them. They both looked straight ahead across the rolling fields of prairie grass, and nowhere else.
“We should have tied him to a board or something,” Ruth said after a few minutes; “so he wouldn’t get tangled up in the grass like he did.”
Laura opened her mouth, then closed it abruptly. She’d almost said they’d know better next time. She closed her eyes and saw big, raw hands dragging through the grass, fingers curled, almost as if he’d been trying to hang on. It was high summer and the grass was long, whipping in the wind and wrapping around the rough fabric of his sleeves.
“Shall we start?”
Laura felt her heart skip a beat. “In a minute.”
But it was impossible to keep Ruth still for very long. She was like one of those little birds whose wings beat so fast you couldn’t see them, darting here and there like they were always on the edge of panic. She was trying to be still to please Laura, but her hands were busy, almost frantic, shredding one piece of grass and then another. “I have a headache.”
“It’s those combs. They always give you a headache.”
Ruth took the combs from her hair and shook it free, lovely blond curls falling down her back like liquid sunshine. Silly Ruth, as old-fashioned in appearance as the name she’d been saddled with; hair too long, skirts too short, and maybe that was what had brought this whole thing to a head. She managed to sit for almost a full minute, and then the fidgeting started again.
“Stop fussing, Ruth.”
“Don’t yell at me.”
Laura heard the hurt in her voice, and knew without looking that Ruth’s lower lip was starting to tremble. Soon the eyes would spill over. She hadn’t yelled, exactly, but perhaps her tone had been too sharp. That was wrong. Ruth had always been the fragile one, even before her belly had started to swell, and you had to be careful. “I’m sorry if it sounded that way. Have you thought of a name for the baby?”
“Stop trying to distract me. We have to dig this hole.”
“I just want you to be still for a bit. Rest.”
“Rest?” Ruth looked at her as if she’d just uttered a profanity. “But we have so much to do.”
“Just this one thing.”
And then Laura smiled and felt herself relax for the first time in years. It was true. Kill a man, bury him – that was all that was on their list today.
After a few seconds Ruth said, “Emily.”
“Emily. I’m going to name her Emily.”
“What if it’s a boy?”
Ruth smiled. “It isn’t.”
* * *
This was the story Emily was remembering on her last day, and it amazed her that she could remember it at all. She’d only heard it twice in her life – once from her Aunt Laura, who’d told her on the sly when Emily had turned thirteen, as if it were a strange and secret birthday present; and again from her mother on the day Emily had left the home farm to marry Lars and make her own life. Her mother had giggled during telling, which her aunt had never done, and that had frightened her a little. And then she told her to remember the tale, that it wasn’t really so funny, in case a day should come when she would need it.
Today she needed it, Emily thought, wondering if she could finally do it, after all these years. And if she did, what would all those wasted years have been for?
It was the last day; the last day of secrets. She lay on her back in bed, right hand pressed against her flat stomach; pushing, pushing the pain back inside; holding the evil, growing mass that writhed inside with hungry tentacles reaching for open nerves. God, it hurt.
A perfect, thin line of light pushed up the black curtain on the horizon outside her bedroom window, and the quality of dark began to change inside the room. This room, where love and hell had happened, all in the same lifetime.
Emily’s feet were on the floor before the first chirp of the earliest-rising bird had sounded, and the rush of agonizing pain pushed her head to her knees. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed and saw rolling, sparking pinwheels of light. Old, ravaged huddle; tiny woman; folded into a small package of gray hair and sharpened knees, alone in a chamber of agony where inexplicably, birds welcomed the morning in gay, sporadic disharmony.
She did things that seemed odd, considering her chore list for the morning. Prepared and ate her oatmeal; drank her precious single cup of coffee, carefully washed the bowl and cup and saucer with their faded rose patterns, knowing those patterns had always been there, amazed at her years of indifference. Everything seemed sharper, clearer, as if she had seen the world for years through a lens just barely out of focus.
And then she walked to the old gun cabinet in the dining room.
The pistol lay in her right palm, and she folded arthritic fingers around it. It felt good. It felt right. She hadn’t used it for years. Five? Six? Since she shot the squirrel the oil truck had left panting and mangled, eyes glazing in the driveway.
Emily was an excellent shot. Lars had seen to that, back when fox and bear still wandered freely in and out of the chicken coops and the isolated barnyards of rural Minnesota. “You will learn to shoot, Emily; and you will shoot if you have to,” he had answered her shudder when he first lay the new pistol in her palm; and she had. How impossibly far from her mind then was the final use to which she would put this gun. How inconceivable it would have been. To kill, with careful thought and planning; with only cold, dismal dread, as for any other unpleasant task.
Appalling, evil woman, she thought as she stepped out onto the back porch. To feel no remorse; no guilt. How hideous. How deeply sinful.
The sun had not yet topped the cottonwoods when she walked out from the house toward the looming barn, and the path through the tall grass was still dim with early morning.
She saw in her mind an image of how she must have looked at that moment, and laughed aloud at the sight – a crazy old woman, hustling in a faded dress and orthopedic shoes, gun in hand, out to kill quickly, out to finish the job before it was too late.
She stopped when she rounded the turn at the bushy hydrangea, just as the enormous, ancient barn sprang into view, tractor door gaping like a bottomless black mouth.
Suddenly the pain in her belly moved. Now it was a bright piercing in her head, and then without warning, a deadness spread down her arms.
It didn’t get the gun, she thought senselessly. It didn’t get the gun. I can still feel it. It’s heavy, hanging so heavy from my hand.
But the pistol was on the ground, winking sunlight off the long, polished barrel, mocking her as Emily fell beside it. Her lips wouldn’t move, and the scream stayed inside her head.
No, God, please no. Not yet. I have to kill him first.