Saturday, October 3, 2009


It is an early October afternoon in the Palouse and I am riding home on the late bus, which is empty, since our house is the last stop on its route.  Out the window, I see a man on a tractor plowing a dark circle around the contour of an empty field.  I squint, wondering if he is my father or my Uncle Tommy, since from this distance, they're hard to tell apart.  The bus driver, Mr. Olson, honks and the man on the tractor waves.  Uncle Tommy, I decide.  Papa wouldn't wave.  He keeps his head down when he's working.
     Trudging up our steep driveway, my violin bumps against my hip and the leaves on the trees rain vermilion, maize and puce over my head.  Clouds tumble in from the west, foretelling he autumn storm that will break at dusk.
     Standing at the back kitchen door, I watch my mama knead bread dough at the scarred oak table, her head turned to my baby sister, Susu.  The twins, Sierra and Selena, whisper and giggle on the long, low window-seat in the kitchen.  Vannah is playing something bleak and mournful on the piano, music she plays when she's been fighting with her boyfriend, Rudy.
     Mama lifts a hand to swipe hair out of her eyes, and flour, like a smear of whitewash, streaks her forehead.  "Phia," she says when she sees me, "Come sit."  At the table next to Susu, I munch on a handful of popcorn from a large yellow bowl.  Susu has her head bent over a sheet of math facts and is carefully turning all the minus signs into pluses. When I ask her about it, she says she likes adding things, but taking them away makes her sad.  Mama rolls, punches and sways with her kneading. "Here you go, Bairn," she says, placing a hunk of dough in my mouth.
     Then Vannah presses a single, haunting note in the middle of her piece, and there are tears on my face.  Looking up, I see Papa standing right outside the kitchen door--home at 4:30 in the afternoon, when he should be working in the fields until dark.
     He backs away from the door, gazes around the room and when he looks at me, I see that he is crying too.  My papa--crying.  He turns, walks down the hall and the study door opens, then closes.  Mama is too busy working the bread to notice.  Flipping open a book, I lower my head and read.
     Later as Mama sets the loaves of bread in the oven to rise, I realize that Vannah is studying beside me.  Mama walks to the sink to wash off her hands, and then I hear a sharp crack from upstairs.
     We all look at Mama, then tear after her as she flies through the kitchen and tumbles up the staircase, smearing the the banisters with bread dough.  Bunching into the doorway of her bedroom, we see her kneeling next to Papa, clawing at his chest, moaning, "Please, Duncan, please," cupping a ruby river and pouring it back into Papa's shirt, but it's pouring off his chest, pooling over the old braided rug, the shaft of Papa's smoking .22 rifle, the dark folds of Mama's skirt, which look like the hills above the river.  I hear the pounding of feet, see Papa's brother, Tommy, kneel next to Mama, place his fingers against Papa's neck, lift Mama's hands from Papa's chest. "It's no good, Dee.  You see that, don't you?" he says.
     Mama stands, her hands gloved in blood, and the country in her skirt floods the floor around Papa.  Uncle Tommy closes Papa's eyes, smears the blood from his hands onto his jeans.  Mama walks toward us, whispers, "Not this house," then raises her bloodied hand and swipes it in a wide arc over the doorway.
     "Oh Papa, " I whisper, creeping down the stairs after my mama, then sneaking through the door to Papa's study, my heart pounding, my palms sweaty.  But the study is dark and empty, the curtains closed.  There is an open book on the bare desk, Papa's pen in the crease.  In the dim light, I read the words, "Remember me," written in his bold script, and I turn and run out of the study, down the long corridor to the back door.  I fling open the screen and stumble out onto the porch.

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