The Father, Unblinking
He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open. The day had been a bright day, without clouds. He had found his daughter facedown in the sun-thick mosquito-spattered mud, by the back corner, where the dark paint had started taking air underneath and was flaking off the house now and falling apart at a touch like burnt turkey skin. He squatted over her and turned her up, and she came free with a sucking, the air coming out of her in a sigh, blowing bubbles of mud on her lips. He smeared away the mud from around her mouth. He worked at bending the body straight until the muck on her face dried ashy, then cracked.
He slapped mosquitos dead on her. He picked her up, folded her best he could, and carried her across the yard. He ducked under the window, hurried past the worn back stoop with the door at the top of it. He kicked hens and chicks out of the way, booting loose turbid clouds of pinfeathers. Hooking the barn door with his boot, he hop-skipped back until it was open wide enough to let his foot free and for him to shoulder himself and his girl in. It was quiet inside, and dark except for the shafts of light from the roof traps, four long pillars of bright dust descending to the scatterings of hay below.
He went to the far wall and ran his eyes over the hooks and what hung there: shears, axe, hatchet, hacksaw, hand-saw, hand-rake, horse-rake, pitchfork, hoe. He stood staring, running his eyes over them again from the beginning. He looked over each shoulder in turn, turned in a slow circle in the half-dark of the barn, and walked jaggedly around the barn, kicking apart the damp clumps of hay that coated his boots in a yellow mold.
Moving hay in loads across the uneven dirt with his boots, he dragged some together in a pile at the far wall and put her atop the pile. He brushed the dirt off the dress, pulled the socks up past the calves again, loosened the buckles of the blunt-ended shoes. He scooped up an armload of hay and dumped it on top of her.
He scraped the soles of his boots on the edge of the stoop. He stamped a few times, pulled the screen open, went in. She was cutting venison into thin strips. "Your shoes good?" she said.
"Yes," he said. "Boots," he said.
"Better be," she said, and turned in a squint toward him, red hands and all.
He held on to the end of the counter and lifted first one foot, then the other.
"Pass," she said, and went back to cutting.
"Seen my spade?" he said. "The long-handled job?"
"What for?" she said. "What do I want with it?" she said.
"You seen it or not?" he said.
"You lent it out to Quade," she said. "Your mind's a blunt one today."
"I reckon it is not," he said. "Quade, is it?"
"Heard me, or did you?" she said.
He saw her shoulder blades shiver beneath the dress with each blow. He did not say a thing.
"You seen your little lullaby?" she said as he pushed open the screen.
"I haent seen her," he said.
"You tell her get her butt in here, you see her," she said.
"I haent seen her," he said. He pushed out onto the stoop, letting the screen clap to. "You know where I'm off," he said, loud.
"I know where," she called.
He went into the barn, to the far wall, and took down the hoe. Uncovering the girl's face, he looked at her, then covered her quickly over again. He went out with the hoe in his hands. Drawing the doors shut, he jammed the handle of the hoe through where the rings lined. Grunting, he shook the doors, pulled on their handles.
He set off down the path, walking on the mounded sides instead of down in the ruts. The day was a bright day. Without clouds. The mud in the low spots was drying up, going white and hard. He walked the sunlit half-mile downslope to Quade's fence. There were ants aswarm, darkening the knotty rails. Jumping up, he grabbed the old oak limb. He swung a time or two and then heel-smashed the gate, shaking off hordes of ants, leaving the gate ashiver. He took a few more swings to make his body really go, and then flung himself over to the other side.
"Hey, Quade," he said, from the door.
Quade looked up from the box he was nailing, his half-gaunt face red and stringy, lumpy as the flesh of an old rabbit slaughtered too late.
"Bet I know what you are after," said Quade.
"Bet you do," the man said.
Quade spat nails into the box, dropped his hammer on the dirt. He rubbed the sweat off his neck, undid his bags to let them slide off his waist down to the floor. He went to a corner which sprouted handles. Messing about for a bit, he pulled forth an axe from the angry snarl.
"That mine?" said the man.
"Isn't it?" said Quade.
"Hell," said the man, spitting. "I come for the spade."
Quade squinted, looked at the axe. "Well, whose the hell is this?" he said.
The man shrugged.
Quade went back to the snarl, fished around, poked his way through it, drew out tool after tool, leaning them in a row. His hands hanging loose, he stood staring at the row of handles stacked stiff against the mold-blistered wall.
"Well, I'll be damned if I know where it got to," he said.
"Got to have it today," said the man.
"What you need it for?" said Quade.
"Digging," said the man.
"Digging what?" said Quade.
"Just digging," said the man.
Quade shook his head and went out. The man scavenged loose a quarter sheet of plywood from underfoot, threw it on top of the box, and eased his full weight down upon it. The wood had been ripped ragged on one end, leaving a furry edge. Bending down, he picked up the hammer, hefted it, let it fall onto the dirt. He stared at his big, empty hands. On the inside of one of his thumbs was a shiny gray smear.
Quade came back in, shovel in hand. He stopped moving at the sight of the man.
"Can't say it is good luck to be sitting on that," said Quade, "even with the plywood between."
"It don't matter, Quade," said the man. "It really don't."
Quade shrugged. The man took his time to stand up and reach for the shovel.
"How's the wife?" said Quade.
"Good," said the man, taking.
"The girl," said Quade.
"Sick," said the man.
"You take care of those two," said Quade.
"You got it," said the man, walking out the door.
Opening the latch with his shovel blade, he let the ant-ridden gate swing his way. He went through, on the other side turning the shovel scoop-down and reaching back over the gate with it, dragging it back, pulling the gate closed. He smashed a couple of hundred ants, listening to the shovel ring dull against the scrubby bark-flaked pine. He swung the shovel up over his shoulder and made his way, through the heat, home.
From the path, he heard his wife calling out. He rounded the bend to see the house in front of him, the woman standing in front of it, hands cupped around her face.
"You seen her?" she called, this time to him.
"I haent seen," he said.
"Where in hell?" she said.
"What of that hoe there?" she said, pointing.
"I put it there," he said.
"What about it?" she said.
He shrugged. He walked over to the barn doors and pulled the hoe handle out of the rings, leaving a long streak of rust on it. He stepped inside and pulled the door shut. Hanging the hoe back where it went, he paced out the floor and started to dig, heaping the dirt against the wall. He pulled out shovelfuls, feeling the pressure in his back deepen the farther down he had to go.
Banging the shovel clean on the side of the hole, he hung it in its proper place. He sprinkled the bottom of the hole with hay, dropping in handfuls. He dug through the hay, pulled out the body, jaundiced now with grain dust. He kneeled, lowered it in, dragged with the shovel blade the dirt back in over it, stamped the grave down, kicked the rest of the dirt around the barn until it was no longer visible.
He put the shovel away. He left the barn.
The woman was standing on the stoop, looking out in the low, clear sun.
"What you been doing?" she said.
"Nothing," he said.
"Thinking?" she said.
He drew time out long, to figure her. "Thinking," he said.
"About what?" she said.
"About nothing," he said.
"You know what I been thinking about?" she said.
"I can guess," he said.
"You think we give the sheriff a call?" she said.
"No," he said.
"You seen her?" she said.
"No," he said.
"You going to look for her?" she said.
He did not answer. He looked at what the sun was doing through the aspens. He looked at the way the stoop had grown worn underfoot, and at the difference in how the sun shone off the rough spots.
"Will you look for her?" she said.
"I will not," he said.
"Look at me to tell me," she said.
He turned to face her, turned all the way around, feeling his boots drag hard over the rough patches until he was facing straight at her. He opened his eyes all the way open and stared her in both her eyes. He looked at her in the eyes and looked at her, and looked at her, without blinking, until it was she who blinked and turned away.