Emily and the Red Snow
1899. I gut two chickens of their grit bags and intestines, hearts and livers. Still I want to cleanse the snow and wipe the red rain from where the hens struggled to keep running, even after their heads lay axed behind them. Barnyard Marie Antoinettes. As I pluck I breathe the cut odor of quill and feather, the severed wings. Their innards are still frightened in death. I shiver. Too cold for just work dress and apron. “The pinfeathers,” my mother says, “you’re missing some.” Today is a school day and I won’t be going again. Students have fallen sick. Measles. No one will marry a girl with a pitted face. I’ll never again be a scholar who memorizes whole chapters from the primer. I’ll not ride the black horse bearing Demeter and Persephone to the winter underworld, his huge hooves cleaving frozen ground. Hardest-working student, I practiced my penmanship at the long table. In the one-room where eight grades are taught by a nineteen-year-old girl, I’m missing roll call. Emily. Here. “Pinfeathers, Emily,” my mother clucks. Tiny, soft as fleece, a living hen’s pinfeathers warm her eggs. I pinch them from the broken carcass. I still don’t have the knack of wringing a chicken’s neck, plucking, butchering, frying, and setting it on the table between the bowls of dumplings and sauerkraut before the clock’s pendulum strikes an hour. When we pray to give thanks we should pray to the hen for her blessing. Later, to covet a brother’s college studies is to be mesmerized, to climb stairs in summer when no one bothers the books, to enter his room and kneel by the desk. Dust from the dirt road rises as a wagon passes. Heat breathing from the trees, heat in the fields where workhorses stand sixteen hands high, weighing 700 lbs. each. Gray giants plodding through the south acre dumb to sentences. Tendrils of black hair sweat themselves to my forehead. In my hands the heft of a book, the smooth skin of its cover, how forbidden, how different from the wooden spoon, the knife, the scrub board, the rag, the hoe, the harness, the blue grist stone. The scent of its pages. Latin, Catullus, Passer, deliciae meae puellae. I touch the words to taste them, like dew moistening my fingers. “Go weed the string beans,” my mother’s voice comes to fetch me.
Emily and the Threshers
1907. The sun is a hawk watching as the soil chokes up oats. The men shimmer walking in from the fields their shirts off, all of them burning black-red from the heat, chests glittering in chaff. I stir clouds of mashed potatoes. For days I’ve been baking, grinding the dried fruit and black walnuts, kneading the rye flour, rolling out the dough for strudel, pinching pie crusts, filling the hollowness with mincemeat, pecan, apple, cherry, and peach. All morning they’ve followed the steam engine binder—four iron wheels and a long snout—that workhorses drag. The men know the truth of twine, cut and tie, chaff and straw, the bundles shat and separated. In the yellow air visions mingle. Animal and plant. Who does the workhorse see with his broad eyes? What stops the sky from slipping off earth’s yolk? Someone has brought orange lilies from the ditch and left them on the step. They flame in my fingers as I arrange them on the table’s massive oak planks with the scrolled legs of a crouching beast. The screen bangs behind me, as I go outside to set mirrors on the limbs of the horse chestnut and apple tree, to fill pans of water for the men to wash before entering the house. A yellow man follows me back to the door. Too tall to be my husband. He murmurs: Thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies. Under my apron, a second child swells. Its father is the cast iron cookstove. I forced myself to love its flue and ash pan and its perfume—struck kitchen matches. Yes, my second child I carry in my belly weighs on me like the five-gallon kettle of dumplings. Its father is the six burners. Czech girls learn early how to cook with fire. The threshers come lathered in sweat no matter their wash under the trees. They bring the fields into the kitchen, the daddy-long-legs and gnats. One by one, they sit at the table breathing in the air. Fragrant. A week spent peeling potatoes, chopping onions, snapping string beans. A week rising before blue dawn to feed the hired men who will sink into darkness at day’s end. Like the steam engine puffing its black smoke over the furrows of faraway. My husband gives the blessing. I wonder what the roots of plants search for in the ground as they reach out. What keeps the grass upright? Which one of these men with bowed head murmured, ‘thy belly?’ The clatter of forks and knives erupts. Amen.
Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyyil. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, So to Speak, Nimrod, South Loop Review, Rhino, Fjords, among others. Port Authority Orchids, a novel in stories for young adults is available form Rain Mountain Press. Her fictional interview Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg was released from New Michigan Press.