When he starts sucking on my nipples, all I can think about is goose grey clouds. I link my fingers behind my head and think of dogs barreling down the road before a big rain, filled with electricity. The sky green with heat lightning. Lake water. How the wind bends cornflower in pleats. I don’t think of the land, what it’s like from the flatiron of a tractor top, of the threshing of corn coming down, a sunburn massaging my shoulders like a rolling pin. For once I am not thirty years old, cultivating the land to death.
So I think of soil sinking under my sneakers. The soft earth. When the creek bed floods up into our yard and earthworms knead their way out of the water.
And I unbutton my blouse all the way so Istas knows to pet the soft pouch of flesh under my belly button. He does, his hands lax at the knuckles, still suckling. The two halves of my shirt fall to my sides and I’m glad to still have the feeling of being dressed while he’s doing this.
His kisses slink towards my jeans.
“I have to take my father to church,” I say as he shifts his shoulders back and forth, nestling his chin on my zipper. I’m thumbing through the sheets and slipping my hand under the pillowcase while he sulks. The rules are he stays here in the dank of the basement, where it’s safe, where I sometimes catch him taking the screen out of my window and petting the brown grass under the snow.
“Where’s my bra?” I ask.
Upstairs, my blind father gropes along the sink for the knob for cold water. He holds a cup under the faucet and he knows, judging by the weight in his hand, when to turn it off. He even knows a full cup by the sound of it—the intonation of water going up as the glass fills with pitch. Then he feels along the back of the counter, along the wall for his vitamins. Unscrewing the cap, he plucks two capsules out and sets them on his tongue.
He’s lonely and can’t stand the solitude. He can’t sit alone at church without that orb of warmth beside him, me. He hates in winter that it’s obscured by my coat. Me, I can’t stand the cold. I’m already cold, I think, but he reminds me about our canned jalapenos, and we cook hot food and think of summer. So I need him too, in a way.
He has excellent ears and is probably hearing Istas’ mouth suck on my earlobe, now, as he fumbles to refasten my bra. It’s a contraption he’s learning still, and he’s just fifteen, but he’s holding me as he goes, or it feels like it, or I lean into him to make it seem so, and I feather my fingers on his thin brown back while he tries. I like our bodies together. We’re petite, lean as deer legs. Earlier I asked him to say something Native American to me and he pointed to the ceiling, meaning the kitchen, and said, “Cocheta.” Meaning stranger. Then he put my hand on his dick and said, “Helki.” Touch.
* * *
The first night I bring him home, my father’s motionless in front of the television while the Discovery Channel does an expo on small-scale henneries. Coops right out of your own backyard, all you need is a little lumber and chicken wire. Papa leans forward and bows his head, eyes wide open and drilling into our green carpet, as he listens to the humming of heat lamps and, later, the farmer fawning over the first hatched chick. It’s a miracle, a lamp and a cardboard box. The farmer yammers on about their rapid heartbeats, cupping a chick in his hands. Papa pushes his toes into the carpet, alternating feet and grabbing at the threads between his toes, and I say, “Remember when we had chickens,” touching his arm, and he says, “Who’s that?” and juts his neck toward the sound of Istas creeping down the stairs.
* * *
It’s February now and still so cold the exhaust from the car drags along the road like a jacket. We smoke on the way to the hatchery, the tires crunching comfortably on the gravel, the windows cracked just enough on each side of the car, and I wear fingerless gloves so I can feel the filament burning inside the cigarette when I take a drag. It’s morning and so cold the dew crisps. Thin light, the shadows sheer. The land is stiff and stalkless, and snow cups itself under the shadows of trees.
I can feel myself getting antsy. Winter gets longer every year and I keep checking on the tractor in the barn, running my hands over the high tires, the frozen dirt that comes off my glove in a crumble. I want to get back to the earth. Everything waits for the snow to melt, for the big thaw, for softness.
Istas keeps his collar upturned and pulls his cap low over his forehead and his ears. I’ve given him sunglasses and still he ducks his head down as I drive, afraid of being recognized, of us being pulled over and him looking out-of-place-brown. He’s convinced they’ll identify him on the street in a second as a runaway, but I tell him he’s safe as long as he’s inside, stays in the basement, in disguise, with me. I tell him lovingly that I want him in. We live way out in the Dakota hills, the wind brittle and the sky lake-top clear. But he hates it. He’s plowed a little trench of footprints in the carpet from pacing. The window’s always open, and the room gets bitter and cold, the sheets still frigid hours and hours after his brown body’s under mine. I have to practically bolt the window shut to keep him in, and he can’t always be cooped up, and I know he won’t get recognized way out here anyway, an hour from home, in boonies that don’t belong to us. He does not speak. His darkness is haunting as his hands roving around in the grayling of morning, as though he’s clawing his way out of dream.
My father sits upright in the backseat, his hands resting on his seatbelt buckle.
“These fields depress me,” I say out my window as I steer us along a lazy curve in the road. Istas keeps glancing at me, cigarette pinched in his lips, to see if we’re going the right way, and I roll my hand as if to suggest keep with me, keep going. He thinks I’m twenty because I’m petite and because I told him I’m ten years younger than I really am.
Istas taps a long line of cigarette ash off the rim of his window. The land beyond the windshield is yellow-grey-brown and fissured as a tongue. The silos stand out in little pokes, and we keep guessing which road to go down, the car in a grumble as we pause at the big yellow signs with arrows pointing in both directions towards infinity.
We amble. Up and down Dakota hills. Linger at intersections. My father coughs a little at intervals and looks out the window, his eyes clear as tracing paper.
Then we find the place, a long, squat, one-level rancher with grey sidings and touching shoulders with a fence we can’t see the end of. Off a ways are barns and the coop. Two brown bays with long white noses lean over the sides of the fence and ogle us with great boredom.
“There’s horses, Dad,” I say, as we take the car in a crawl down a long, graveled-up driveway.
He puts a hand to the glass of his window and trails his fingers towards the button, pushing his window all the way down.
“I can smell them,” he says as the car fills with the stench of shit.
We park, get out of the car, and pad toward the farmhouse, me holding my father’s elbow as he scuffs his shoes along the ice, Istas taking deliberate steps in the dry patches. A border collie growls at us from the front porch, giving deep, loud barks from his little island of the front matt. A little puff of breath comes from his mouth with each yap. I can feel my father tighten through his shirt.
“It’s okay,” I say, throwing my cigarette down. “The dog’s chained up.”
A man peeps at us through the glass behind the door, and upon emerging, is rather taller than we’d expected, a full head over any of us, big farm hands and a head smooth as an onion. He waddles out and clicks the door shut behind his back. He says to us or the dog, “It’s jus’ people.” His eyes are white as if too full of milk.
My father laughs, nervous, shaking off my arm. “What kind of dog is that? How big is it?” he asks the voice, smiling at the third button down the farmer’s shirt and extending his hand for a shake.
“Oh, Jesse? Jus’ a collie. He don’t bite.”
He takes my father’s hand and gives Istas a looking over as my father beams forward and shakes heartily. “A pleasure,” the farmer says. He’s round in a strong way, and I notice he won’t look at me in the face.
“What can I do you for?” he asks, glancing between the men.
“We’re here for your finest eggs.”
* * *
When I was sixteen, we spent springs ripping up the ground with a tractor my father rode. The land was ribbed with tire tracks. Stakes marked the edges where soybean would grow, if the sky would oblige and open up her dress. The earth unopened, stiff as stale bread. I wore my hair in a long braid like my mother, who squatted down to inspect the tractor, thundering and stuck in a pothole, lucky it hadn’t somersaulted and squashed my father, who still perched up in the cab feathering the gas when her hair fed into the moving parts like a sewing machine. It wrung her whole body in tight, ripping her hair out, gashing at the skull in a thrust and a ka-thrust, the engine making a tick as if it were processing a rock. The machine whined so loud that Papa couldn’t hear her until the tractor jammed completely. A big wail of gasoline hung overhead like a raincloud. He looked down and saw her legs splayed. She’d tried to kick-claw herself out.
I was at the window sucking down coffee when I heard my Papa, unearthily, and came bolting from the house, my braid knocking into my back, and there he was in a clamp on the ground, tearing at the roots of his hair, making a noise like his leg was in a bear trap. My mother was in a tangle face down, arms akimbo, her head half-pulled apart and making a deep stain in the upper earth, which opened up and drank. I pounded back to the house to go call the police or the ambulance and I wasn’t sure which.
And when he tried to kill himself later, thirty assorted pills from the medicine cabinet, I called the ambulance then too and they pumped him, and he puked a lot, and IVed him back to life, but they couldn’t do anything about the blindness. “For good,” they said, and I drove us back to the sticks.
* * *
We leave with eighteen fertilized hens’ eggs wrapped in rags and nestled in an old ice-cream bucket. In the backseat my father keeps a hand on the lid and a hand on the side, and I drive slowly around corners.
Istas has pulled a worn paperback out of the side pocket by the door, the cover ripped off, the pages stained a deep yellow-brown. He thumbs through it, not reading, while I take us to the hardware store, where they have lumber for coops and Styrofoam incubating kits.
Papa wants to do it for himself. When we get to the checkout, Istas ducks his head and sets the box gently down on the conveyer belt, where a cashier’s got a clutch on a scanner and looks at us with long, droopy camel’s eyes.
“Twenty-five twelve,” she murmurs.
Papa pulls out his wallet and pages through the bills, extracts a twenty folded lengthwise, and a five folded up like a paper football. This is how he can tell dollar bills apart. I fold them for him at home. Paper money all feels the same.
Istas keeps his eyes low and hones in on his shoelaces as Papa gets into his change purse, thumbs around for twelve cents.
* * *
Istas’ spiel is that he’s from the Lakota tribe in South Dakota. It’s got a nice ring to it. His American name is David and he’s only one half Native and it’s the other half that got him off the res before all his teeth rotted out. But he wants to go back, to be close to the earth again, to get away from the suburbs where everything’s close-cropped.
I take him into the barn one morning, where the wind is howling and tinny, and lead him up to the tractor top. It is romantic. He crams into the cab with me, and I slip my hand into his glove and pet his fingers one by one, which are bony and driest at the knuckles. “I can teach you,” I tell him, picking his hand up and setting it on the wheel, bending his fingers so they curve with mine and grip. “This is what I know,” I say. “I know the land. I know how to work it.”
* * *
He looked so broken-baby-bird to me. I found him on the lip of the road one afternoon in December, when I was loafing around town like when I was sixteen. Town being Mimi’s, and Foster’s Antiques, a gas station and a lonely line of tin trailers. He was rigid under his clothes, a nasty wind lapping at his upturned collar. A beanie, a coat, his hair overgrown and his face long, flat-nosed, foreign. He rubbed a brown hand over his stomach and grimaced.
I said hello, crossing my arms for warmth. The streets were vacant and hissing with winter wind. I sat on the curb with him, and he didn’t look up. I said, “Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” Things got dark by four o’clock and he bent his head down into the deepness of shadows. And he nodded, so I knew he knew English.
I picked him up by the arm and took him to a corner table at Mimi’s Cafe, where I bought him hot yellow broth laden with cabbage, soft carrots. He let it in through his solemn mouth. He watched me pay for him and he nodded, and he nodded when I opened my car door to him, and when I told him we had to be very quiet he was very quiet, still quiet when he unbuttoned his body for me, when I knelt down over him, when I opened us up and I coaxed again in the early morning and he didn’t say anything then, peeling out of my father’s old t-shirt, not one word.
* * *
It’s raining by the time we get home from the hatchery. I’m in bed with Istas downstairs, propped up on his belly and hooking his arm across my collar like a cord. I’m listening. Papa pads around upstairs until he’s done turning the eggs and lies down on the couch. I guess I don’t know this, but I can see it in my head, how he feels the rows by hand, rotating each egg a quarter turn, his fingertips hovering above the shells. He lives on the first floor because it’s his house technically and the rules are nobody goes upstairs, the old bedroom, the old claw-foot bath. I live here as long as he lets me work the land. And he’s lonely. He misses working the land. There’s nothing he can muster up the muscle to do anymore, except listen deeply, and squat in the sun falling through windows. He likes to soak it up. He follows it room to room all day like the scent of something cooking.
What I can hear is the thermometer talking, which he keeps touching to make sure his eggs aren’t too cold. “Nine-tee-nine-dig-rees.” I imagine him tracing his hand along the neck of the couch, touching the side-table, the coffee table, making sure everything in his world is still in place.
“What if my dad finds me before I get back to the reservation,” Istas says, and stops petting my hair. I squeeze his arm.
“He’s in Missouri,” I say. “You’re deep in Dakota.”
There’s a cloud-burst outside we’re listening to.
“Will I find my mother?” he asks aloud. I can feel him breathing through my neck, my hair, my shoulder bones. I can’t imagine anything about her but knotty black hair and the wind around her making sounds like a brown paper sack. There’s no reason she’s necessarily alive, I think. And I think of her body going down into a river.
“Not before your father does,” I say.
Istas and I have a tiny window level with the ground, and we can hear the rain licking down the snow, and we know there will be ice in the morning.
* * *
I’m easing Papa into a hot bath when he asks me where Istas comes from. He covers himself with a sponge and gropes around for the soap. I kneel by the tub and hand it to him, feeling strange.
“He’s looking for work,” I say, curling my fingers around the lip of the tub. “He wants to farm. I thought he can work here in the spring. The summer. Won’t be hard to teach him. Plus it’d be nice to have an extra person on hand.”
“Hmm,” Papa says, rubbing the bar of soap against his scruffy cheeks. He cups his hands full of bathwater and splashes it on his face, hunched over, his eyes in a squeeze, the water dragging off his cheekbones.
I don’t know what to say then, so I say, “Your razor is right here on the edge,” and I wait for him to finish shaving before I put it back in its plastic case and get up from my knees.
* * *
Because I want him to stay, I take him into the woods, couched in snow and the dotted lines of deer tracks. I pull my father’s old boots out of the closet for him, snow pants, a long coat, mittens big as potholders. This is the last winter, he says, I will wear things like this.
I imagine his smell mixed with hide, the orangeade of skinned skins.
And I do not want him to go.
We are bulbous and take deep steps through snow drifts. The woods are lean and upright. There are birds, but not many, and wind blows at boughs of snow like wish flowers.
I want to say, “This is where I like to sing,” even though I don’t sing, or “This is where I go to be alone, where everything’s dead,” but I don’t. I don’t go anywhere to be alone. I fall in a plop in the snow instead, lay down on my back, the snow smooshing, say, “Look at this, come down and look at this,” so he does and sees with great boredom or great solemness the way the treetops come together in one massive, forking star.
* * *
And then one morning, he’s gone, my father’s old clothes in a heap. There’s no note, no missing money or food, no clue he was there at all but the smell of him still in my bed, and I don’t wash my sheets for months to keep a part of him close. I push my nose into my father’s old boots, plant my face where he lay on his back, where he propped up his feet. I try to remember the way he crept upstairs to quietly use the toilet and the sink where he washed his face.
This is how I know. After thumbing through my closet for him, and hunting upstairs and outside, and rifling through Mimi’s and nothing, I return like reluctant water home, where my father is turning his eggs.
“Hello,” I say, loudly, like a shout. Papa stiffens a little and says, “Not so loud. Jesus.” And I sit on the arm of the couch and wait until he’s done with the eggs and I say, “Listen to the radio with me?” and he says, “I was going to pray the Rosary,” and I say, “That’s okay. I’ll just watch.”
He tugs out of his pants pocket a thin string of rosary and lays down on the rug, on his back, log-like, straight out.
“Hand me a pillow,” he says, and I do, letting myself fall down on the couch and keeping still there like a crumpled shirt. I want to see how long I can stay here without moving myself, see how far I can cramp up. My father is quiet on the ground, passing his thumb along the beads and staring up at the ceiling until his eyes get sore and his lids sink down like salt in water.
* * *
What happens next is getting up in the night when the zombie of my father dreams. I hunt my way upstairs on all fours and slink into the living room. It’s dark. The house fills with my presence quietly like monoxide. I unplug the incubator and take it with me into the kitchen, the plug dragging along the carpet behind me in a soft hmmm.
I crack open the eggs one by one over the sink, the slimy embryos red-pink and half-formed, soft as infant’s knees. I cup each one for a moment and squeeze softly, enough to feel their innards like a water balloon. There is no light except from the window, where a little ache of white slips beyond the new moon.
Their whole bodies shiver like rabbit hearts. They slip, squelching, through my fingers until the doormat of my father wakes up, and teeters horribly towards me on the linoleum barefoot and in flannel and feels for himself what I am doing.