Justy stood at the window, thinking about the snow, the house a fortress of shadows, and traced a river on the windowpane, a deer leaping over the jagged line of water. Anything not to feel her stomach tumble in hunger again. She tried to remember the last time the lights were onmaybe a week agoand she wished Jake would pick up the fiddle and distract them, like he'd done every night this week. Before he'd gone into Sullivan's with the can of pennies and tried to buy food. Before Dale had broken one of her baptismal promises to Jehovah. As the silences swelled in the dark house, Justy gathered to her the sure knowledge that something was breaking; she heard it beneath the softness of the falling snow. She looked out into the night and asked Jehovah to take something from her, to help Jake and Dale find a way. She traced another river and watched it slide down the glass. Then Jake stood up from the kitchen table, his shadow raging on the wall.
"I'll do it, then," he said. Dale brushed her blond hair from her face and looked at him sideways as he moved into the hallway. They heard him gather a rifle into his arms and check a clip for bullets. Then he was walking, fiddle in one hand, rifle in the other. He opened the door, and cold air waltzed into the room. The night took him in seconds. Justy ached after him and watched his taillights disappear.
This is when it happened. When Justy was left speechless, her quiet ways easing her task, when she gave over her voice, swam to the bottom of the Eel River, slipped her tongue in among the rocks and fell into the currents of their minds.
Jake drove the truck from the house, tuned for a flicker of animal movement. The Willys whined in the cold and it seemed as if he'd entered a kaleidoscope, the snow flying at him. He stopped the truck at the Cedar Creek opening, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his pinkie and stepped into the night. With Kyle's .30-30 in one hand, a flashlight in the other, he walked from the truck, trying to think like winter deer. The rifle felt good in his hand, like it might bring him luck. Snow whispered the land white and he felt large in all that stillness. Only the tree trunks loomed dark at him. It confused him, this blanket, making his world a place he didn't know. Jake walked the hill, snow packing under his weight with small crunching sounds. He wanted to whistle to make the night less lonely, but he kept quiet. The flashlight beam cut the flakes, revealing a trail, and Jake followed the muted hoofprints to a young black oak tree. The lower branches were nibbled down in spots, and Jake took off his glove and dug his thumbnail into the tender skin of the tree. He imagined a deer's soft muzzle stretched up to scrape its teeth along the branch, hunger extending its reach.He let go of the tree and sighed, holding his palm upward. Snowflakes landed on his bare skin and melted. It had been a lone deer and had paused here hours before. Jake put the glove back on and walked down the hill.
The engine sliced the quiet and he blinked, trying to see beyond his fogged glasses. He pulled off his gloves again and looked at his hands. They seemed so useless in the winter. The black hairs on the backs of his fingers looked like limbless trees bending over the knolls of his knuckles. Under those trees, the land was pale, like the falling snow. The red soil under the blanket of white contained nickel, and the mining company wanted it, wanted to sink their big machines into the mountain and take out its insides. He'd seen pictures of strip mines, the way the earth seemed naked and weak. He flexed his fingers and put the truck into gear, considering where to look next. He decided to head toward the old hunting cabin another mile uphill. The tires rolled over the unbroken snow, and he tried not to pay attention to how the tree branches beckoned him. He had to shift into low four-wheel to make it up the last incline, and still the back tires slid when he came to a stop.
Copyright 2002 by Charlotte Gullick. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Blue Hen.
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