I needed to get out of bed. Howard, in his quiet, sissing voice, soothing as a dove, had told me to sleep in, but I should have been up to help him, should have woken hours earlier. I lay still and took another minute to smell: I smelled the warm, sweet, all-pervasive smell of silage, as well as the sour dirty laundry spilling over the basket in the hall. I could pick out the acrid smell of Claire's drenched diaper, her sweaty feet, and her hair crusted with sand. The heat compounded the smells, doubled the fragrance. Howard always smelled and through the house his scent seemed always to be warm. His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits. I had grown used to thinking of his smell as the fresh man smell of hard work. Too long without washing and I tenderly beat his knotty arms with my fists. That morning there was alfalfa on his pillow and cow manure embedded in his tennis shoes and the cuffs of his coveralls that lay by the bed. Those were sweet reminders of him. He had gone out as one shaft of searing light came through the window. He had put on clean clothes to milk the cows.
I knew just then, in a brief glimmer of truth, that the stink and mess, the frenetic dullness of farming, our marriage, the tedium of work and love--all of it was my savior. Half the world seemed to be scheming to escape husbands or wives, but I was planted firmly enough, striving, always striving, to take root. I was sure that that morning our family was connected by a ribbon of pure, steaming, binding, inviolable stench, going from room to room and out to the barn. I was so far from my mistakes of the school year, never considering in the freedom of summer that my winter's missteps could strain our vigorous bonds.
At breakfast I was putting out bowls when Claire banged her spoon on the table and announced, "I'm going to die when you do."
"What?" I said, once in a voice roughly an octave lower than usual, and then again in my normal register. "What?" What had possessed Claire, three years old, to say such a thing, other than the terrible force of our doomsayer genes? Or was she prescient? Did she see before her our wrecked car, the Jaws of Life working in vain to extract what was left of us? In any case, I wasn't paying strict attention that morning; I didn't think about my five-year-old daughter, Emma, requiring milk in her red plastic cup so that she could pour her own milk over her cereal. In all innocence I poured the unpasteurized, completely homogenized milk from our cows straight from the blue pitcher into Emma's bowl.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"Christ," I said under my breath.
Emma's shrieks made our one crystal vase rattle and the blood pound in my head. She was flailing in her chair as if she'd been inadequately electrocuted. I knew from experience that there was not going to be any quick consolation for my transgression. "Emma, Emma, Emma," I said, wishing I could somehow teach her to take the smaller blows of life in stride. It was possible my blunder would start a chain reaction that might last a full morning, one tantrum after the next, each round going off when we least expected it.
"Why did you do that?" she sobbed. She was the child who was frequently on the verge of hysteria, the tears right under her lids waiting to fall. She was so often unhappy about what she didn't have or was about to receive. We led a hectic life, and she had a darling baby sister who had stolen some of her thunder, but even so her tantrums were excessive, indeed violent. They frightened me. They seemed to be about so much more than the protocol I had not observed. "Emma, I'm sorry," I said. "I wasn't thinking. Did I ever tell you about Aunt Kate's chicken pitcher that clucked when it was empty?" Of course I had told her about the chicken. I had told her about the magical porcelain pitcher countless times and she usually interrupted, begging for one just like it. "If you want to start over," I said, "I'd be glad to fill your cup with milk and begin again."
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