R. M. Rud
R. M. Rud
Rita Rud was born in the UK, trained as an RN, then received a BS degree in philosophy and psychology there before coming to the US to marry her husband. She completed her MFA from Purdue University and taught writing courses there for four years. She now lives in the Palouse region of Washington State with her husband, two dogs, and three cats, and teaches creative writing in the Honors College at WSU where she is starting an online arts and literary journal (The Palouse Review) for undergraduates in Honors programs throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Maddie Larson drives up to her house, exhausted from the heat and drama of the day. Lola barks her usual greeting, jumping up and down against the chain-link fence of her pen like a yoyo. Dusk's shadows have started their long sweep of the yard, but Maddie can still see the large pots of white geraniums out across the lawn that must be watered. Inside, she lets Lola in through the door that connects the pen to the downstairs sunroom. The little black dog will be looking for Don, Maddie knows.
"He isn't here, Lola," she says, more to herself than to the racing fluff in motion up the stairs. In the kitchen, she thinks about food. She's had nothing since breakfast except a cup of machine coffee at the hospital. But she should water the flowers before it gets too dark outside, before the usually hidden life of the mountain descends, driven down by the drought.
In all these years they've seen very little wildlife in their yard, but then, there's never been a drought like this summer's. Maddie saw the first deer one evening after dinner just inside the trees around the edge of their property. Only a flick of its white tail gave it away in the fading light. Later more came and, under the cover of darkness, ventured across the lawn, picking at the dry stubble that had needed no mowing for several weeks, past the once glorious flower garden—now brown and wilted—and finally into the field at the bottom where they disappeared into the high silver grass as if slipping into water. Two nights ago, one deer walked boldly along the now familiar path with a black cat by its side the entire way. Maddie was strangely moved by this. Was there a bond between the cat and the deer, she wondered—a friendship—or did they walk together for protection against the coyotes she'd seen recently shadowed along the tree line?
Now as Maddie fills two big watering cans from the outside faucet, she thinks about it again. Was it an omen?
A hose lies where it fell this morning just before lunch, when she'd found Don on the ground, pale and unresponsive. He'd worked all morning reseeding a large area of dead lawn, digging out the damaged turf first to prepare the soil for new seed. Maddie told him not to work so hard out in the heat, but knew he wouldn't listen. Because of the drought he'd decided to tap into the underground spring that ran by the house and gushed from under the stone wall after heavy rain. Soon after the spring had appeared several years before, he'd laid a pipe to take the overflow down to the field, but never used the water until now. After all his work in the last few days, digging down further to the spring, attaching a new pipe and spigot for a hose, all he got was a slight trickle.
"You're seventy-five years old," she told him, knowing how he hated to think of himself as old. "This is too much work, especially in this heat."
The ambulance arrived quickly, and Don came around on the way to the hospital, annoyed at the fuss and with the intravenous tube in his arm and the heart monitor strapped to his chest. It wasn't a heart attack, the doctors decided at the hospital, though the irregular heart rhythm Don had had for years showed up on the tests. This was the second blackout he'd suffered in the past six months, Maddie told the doctor, who insisted Don stay overnight in the hospital for more tests the next day.
Lola is crying, shut in the house. It's a shame she can't run loose in the yard. They have so much acreage for that, but each time they've tried it, she's taken off, gone for hours. She has always come back, but not before they searched for her all around the neighborhood and up into the mountains, too fearful for her safety to just wait for her return. They had buried Natasha, their Siberian husky, in the spring. Don dug her grave the previous fall before the ground froze, not expecting her to last the winter. But she lived on, enduring her twice daily insulin shots and the cancer that grew and spread. On a warm day when all the trees were heavy with pink and white blossom, Natasha collapsed in her pen. Together they carried her to the car and to the vet who tended her. A few hours later they brought her home to the grave that was waiting.
Maddie waters the pots of geraniums now, flicking off the iridescent beetles feasting on the colored petals. She walks over to Natasha's grave under the huge maple. She'd planted wildflower seeds in the mound of earth over the grave, but still no flowers have sprouted, only a few sprigs here and there of tuft grass. She'll plant again, maybe in the fall—after the rain.
She looks back at the house. How small it looks from out here; yet how large it has been in her life. So many years spent keeping it clean and safe for all of them, and so many memories of raising her family. For Don, it was this place—outside—where his life seemed centered. When they bought their house—one of the first in this development—thirty years before, they had purchased three extra lots on their mortgage. Don had been adamant in wanting privacy and an uninterrupted view of the Berkshire mountains he loved so much. He planted a circle of trees first around the edge of their ten acres, and each year added more all over their land. Every day after work he changed his clothes and worked in the yard until darkness settled and she called him in for dinner. Maddie often felt abandoned as he escaped to the peace outside, leaving her to deal with the chaos of family life inside. When their youngest child started school, Maddie returned to work as a teacher. Every night she cooked dinner for six, supervised homework, drove the children to their activities, listened to their upsets, intervened in their fights with each other, and did her own class grading. Don avoided family conflicts; he escaped outside to his tree planting and yard work, or went into his study and shut the door.
Maddie carries the length of hose back to its holder and winds it on. She looks up to the mountains. Only the tops are visible now in the last light of the day. The sky is hazy, clouded. She wonders if it will rain. The closest ridge, Yokun, rises up steeply behind the house, densely wooded. A few weeks will bring the fall spectacular, but some deciduous trees are shedding early from the drought. How disappointed Don will be, Maddie thinks, if our maples shed before they turn. She walks back to the house, stooping to pick up the first green fruits from the black walnut tree. They will dry in a big basket she keeps in the garage, and toward winter Don will crack open the hard black shells out on the stone steps with a hammer. She will prize out the nuts and bag them for Christmas baking. Thinking of Christmas, she checks the holly bushes at the side of the house as she enters.
In the kitchen she opens the refrigerator.
"Want some eggs, Lola?" Excited by the possibility of food, the little dog jumps up against Maddie's legs.
"Wait, I have to cook them. Down!" Lola loves scrambled eggs even more than the chicken and cheese Maddie sometimes slips her when Don's not looking. He won't eat eggs anymore, or butter, or anything with saturated fat. Says they're bad for his cholesterol, even though his is under 150. Maddie is glad Don's concerned with his health and diet, but he's become rather obsessive about it. She understands it's his fear of aging and death that drives it, so she fixes the food he requests. But she drives into town alone, now and then, for pizza and ice cream.
After supper she calls the hospital. Don is not happy:
"Why did you tell them I'd had a blackout before?"
"I had to, Don. They have to know this."
"It's nothing. Nothing to have to stay in here for . . . and more tests. It's not necessary, Madeline." He only calls her this when he's upset.
"You're there now, dear. Best to get everything checked. How was dinner?"
"Awful. They gave me an omelet. Said I was on a light diet. I told them I don't eat eggs, and so then they asked me if I was a VEGAN . . ."
"Oh, dear. Did you get something else?"
"Just some toast and a glass of milk. I had to ask . . ."
"If it was skimmed?"
"Yep, right. It wasn't of course. Two percent. So they had to take that back and change it."
"Well, try to get some rest now, dear. You'll be home tomorrow."
"Rest. I'll be lucky! The guy in the next bed must be deaf. I can hear his television out in the bathroom." Maddie murmurs more soothing words, then, "Yes, dear. I fed Lola. Yes, I'll make sure to lock all the doors. Good night, dear, love you."
At ten o'clock she gets Lola a treat:
"Beggin' Strips—your favorite." Lola sleeps out in the pen, in her doghouse. In winter, both dogs slept at night in the heated sunroom downstairs. They had never succeeded in house-training Natasha, who always urinated in the house when she was inside, so they had a stone floor put in the sunroom that could be washed down. Lola is house-trained but prefers to sleep in the pen, crying when they tried to have her sleep with them after Natasha died. Maddie picks her up now and holds her close, kissing her little black nose. "Don will be home tomorrow." Lola grabs the treat and runs into the doghouse, then runs out again, cedar chips clinging to her coat. Maddie laughs and closes the pen gate.
"Night, Lola, no barking now."
In her bedroom she prepares for bed, then flicks through the television channels but finds nothing she wants to watch. She will call Don first thing in the morning before he goes for his tests. She turns out the light and tries to sleep. She never slept well the nights Don was away on business. But they haven't spent a night apart for at least ten years. Alone in the dark she thinks of how life would be without him. She doesn't want to think of that. She couldn't keep this place up without him. Will they be able to keep it up anyway? When their riding lawn mower broke down for the last time, Maddie persuaded Don to hire the local farmer, who'd been coming twice a year to mow the bottom field with his tractor, to take over all the mowing. After Maddie retired, to cut costs, they stopped having the field mown, and now she loves to watch the wind ripple the tall grass, like waves, to the sweeping willows at the bottom of their land. Will, the farmer's son, now does their summer mowing and helps Don out with other tasks in the yard when he needs it.
Maddie is still awake. She looks at her bedside clock. Almost midnight. She feels hot and gets up to turn the ceiling fan to high. She lies down again, closes her eyes. Sometimes when she is awake in bed next to her sleeping husband, she recites to herself the names of the trees he has planted and tended, sort of like counting sheep: sugar maple, Japanese maple, ginkgo, honey locust, pin oak, red oak, ash, paper birch, katsura, redwood, juniper, conifer, white pine, Scotch pine, Norway spruce, Serbian spruce, willow, rhododendron . . .
Lola's barking wakes her. The bark is loud and urgent. Maddie lies still for a minute hoping it will stop, but it doesn't, and she pulls on her robe and hurries barefoot downstairs. Lola is up on her short back legs against the fence, barking furiously out toward the yard. Maddie opens the pen gate, but the dog doesn't run to her as usual and continues barking.
"Here, Lola. Come here!" The dog ignores her and Maddie starts to enter the pen until the pain of the gravel on her feet drives her back. She hurries into the garage, pulls on a pair of Don's old gardening boots.
She has to pull Lola away from the fence.
"Stop, Lola, for heaven's sake, you'll wake the neighbors." The little dog squirms in her arms, but Maddie holds tight and only lets her down when she is back in the house. Lola runs immediately to the door at the other end of the sunroom and starts barking again. The room is well insulated, Maddie thinks, but still, she doesn't want her barking down here. She picks up the dog and carries her upstairs to the bedroom, leaves her, and shuts the door. Lola starts to cry right away.
"Calm down, Lola. I'll be back in a minute." She wonders what she should do now. Go outside with a flashlight, alone? No, she doesn't want to do that. It could be an intruder. He could attack her in the dark. No, she won't go outside. She made sure all the doors were locked earlier. She is safe in here. Well, unless he breaks a window, kicks in a door. Calm down, she tells herself. Lola was probably barking at an animal. But it must have been something pretty big to make her bark like that. Maybe a deer. She peers out the windows in the sunroom, adjusting her eyes to the dark, looking out to where Lola was barking. There is a moon out now. The sky has cleared. It is not a full moon, or particularly bright, but it is shining a little light into the yard. Then she sees something, something tall and dark moving through a beam of moonlight near the old maple. Her heart jumps. There is someone out there, a tall, dark shape against the tree. But he is quite far away, across the lawn. She watches, hardly daring to take a breath. If he starts to come closer, toward the house, she will call 911. She feels in the dark room now for the phone she knows is on the table. She doesn't take her eyes off the shape . . . which suddenly collapses to the ground.
Maddie looks harder. What happened? She can still see something moving, but it is smaller, cut in half. She remembers Don's binoculars, which he was using here yesterday morning to look at a bird. She feels around the tables. Yes, here they are. She trains them toward the shape, adjusting the focus, searching for the light. Then she sees it—the shape. It is moving slowly, part of it swaying from side to side. She zooms in on that and sees a head. Not a man's head, she sees now through the powerful lens, but a bear's. She can just make out the long snout and the ears sticking up, when it turns, moving away now from the maple. It moves faster suddenly, its large rump getting smaller, toward the trees at the edge of their land.
She sits for a while, still looking out into the night. The bear has gone. Back up into the mountains, she supposes. Did she really see it? What will Don think? He's heard about bear sightings in the neighborhood over the years, but has never seen one. He'll be even madder at being in the hospital. Maybe I won't tell him.
Maddie sleeps late the next morning. It was almost three before she got back to bed. She put Lola in the sunroom for the night. She'd been afraid to put her back out in the pen, and the dog wouldn't settle upstairs. Sun is streaming into the house when she lets Lola out to the pen, then checks the answering machine to make sure she hasn't slept through a call from Don. There are no messages.
When she's showered and dressed, it's after eleven. She calls the hospital. Don sounds much more cheerful even though he must stay in the hospital another day. The morning test was normal, but he's to have one more in the late afternoon. He could come home tonight, but his doctor prefers he wait for the results tomorrow. He's getting along great with the guy in the next bed—yep, the one he thought was deaf—just a joke, he tells Maddie. They're going to watch a game this evening together. Yep, he tells her, he'll call her when it's over.
She doesn't tell him about the bear. It doesn't seem real to her at all today. After lunch she goes outside to look at the maple. Maybe the bear left scratches on the tree, footprints in the dust. As she walks across the lawn, something blows against her leg. She looks down. It's a piece of torn black plastic. Another large piece is caught around one of the pots of geraniums. She is puzzled. Then ahead, she sees a heap on the ground, something light-colored and furry. The bear must have killed something, she thinks. She starts to turn back. Don isn't here to deal with this, a voice says in her head. She walks toward the heap, her eyes half closed.
Oh my God, she cries out when she sees it. Some of the black plastic is still around what is left of the dog's body—the black plastic bag she was wrapped in when they brought her home from the vet, to bury. Under the maple, the grave is open on one side, the earth burrowed out in a pile.
She turns her face to the tree, beating her fist against its bark. Don wanted to take Natasha out of the plastic bag before he buried her, but Maddie saw the bag as protection. Against the dirt, and rain, and worms . . . against all the things, she realizes now, that would have aided natural decomposition.
Tomorrow Maddie will bring Don home. She has already hired the farmer's son, who has come with his backhoe to dig a deeper resting place and helped her gather up Natasha's remains, which they have just gently lowered and released into her final resting place. The dug soil feels damp as Maddie kneels for a few minutes, her head bent toward the grave. Will stands back in the shade of the tree, sipping the beer she has brought him. Look after my dog, she thinks, and says again silently as a prayer . . . and let me keep Don for a while yet.
When she is ready, Will starts up the backhoe to scoop the soil back into the hole. She watches him cover the bones she has given back properly this time to the earth.