The Flatland Dance
She watched Cole working the stones loose from the field south of their shack. Prising up the big rocks and carrying them to the edge of the field, dropping the rocks, straightening, stretching, pressing his hands into the small of his back. Then doing it all again. The smaller stones he placed in a tin pail, filling it three-quarters full – any more and the wooden handle wouldn’t have taken the weight. At least, that’s what she assumed. Cole certainly had the strength in those muscled arms to carry a full bucket of stones, so there must have been a reason why he only filled it partway, and she couldn’t think of anything else.
He’d been working the field, on and off, for a month, and was almost done. He thought he’d finished it once and started to dig it over ready for the seeds he’d bought from Mac in town, only to reveal another layer of stones and rocks. He’d got drunk that night on the cheap Baltimore whisky that Mac sold. As the alcohol soaked through him his language had turned foul and after a while he hit her.
He hit her simply because she told him it would be all right.
“What do you know?” he’d said, and she could taste blood in her mouth.
Another day, she watched him butcher a deer he’d shot many miles away where the flatland started to rise and the trees grew thick. His knife was sharp and with his great strength he pulled the blade through the animal’s flesh like it was freshly baked soft bread.
She watched him dig their well, too, and to make a ladder so he could climb in and out easily. It crossed her mind, that once the well was deep enough, she could grab the ladder and pull it out, leaving him down there.
Would that solve everything?
Would that solve anything?
No, he was strong enough that he would work his way out of the well, either by walking up the wall, his back and his hands pressed against one side and his feet flat against the other, or he would simply dig out hand-holds. Either way, a terrible beating would follow.
But it was a nice thought for a few seconds. Not the beating, but the freedom.
So she watched him. She watched him cleaning his rifle and making paper cartridges for his revolver. Putting up a fence, sharpening his knives, using all those stones from the field to make foundations for a small smoke- house. She watched him sawing rough timbers to make that smoke-house, and she watched him bartering with the neighbours,who all lived too far away to hear her cry and visited too infrequently to notice her bruises. She watched him selling deer meat and buying whisky, planting a wind break, heaving water up from the well and washing his naked torso, his skin white, and those muscles hard and tight. She watched him and he smiled at her, and he was handsome and honest, he was loyal and he was impressive, and there were times, albeit few, when it was all right.
But still she watched him.
Wondering if she could do it all by herself?
In town, in the Mercantile, Cole said, “Sometimes I think she wants to kill me. I see it in her eyes.”
Mac laughed. He hoped he didn’t sound as uneasy as he felt.
“I’m not joking.” Cole’s eyes were hard.
“Really? She wants to kill you?”
“I think so.”
Mac’s heart was hammering so hard he was sure Cole would hear it. Had Cole found the note? It had been stupid. Just a spur of the moment thing that he hadn’t been able to resist. Blame it on her pretty smile and the way she had looked at him those last few times, as if pleading for help.
“You treating her okay?” Mac already knew the answer to that, but it seemed like the question that a concerned fellow would ask.
Cole paused. It seemed to Mac that it was an angry pause.
“Of course. She’s my wife,” Cole said.
Mac looked at him and he was suddenly sure that his face was betraying too much. Quickly, to fill the gap, he said, “You should bring her to town more. Come to the dance.”
Cole just stared at him.
She carried half a pail of water from the well over to the herb garden that nestled in the lee of the smoke- house. She’d destoned that patch of ground herself, and Cole had belittled her for the tiny scale of her plot, her achievement, and her vision. Nevertheless, she dug it over regularly and she watered it daily and a few times a year she worked in horse manure. She kept the weeds and the wind and the birds and most of the sunshine at bay.
He belittled her, but he wasn’t averse to some mint on his deer meat and some dry chilli ground into his beef. He liked her home-made tea and he let her use some of the larger stones to build a raised area for ginger and sage.
That afternoon, she watered those herbs that liked being watered, paying special attention to the purple flowers that had grown up against the smoke-house timbers and that somehow gave her hope for the future. Some of the plants she had found growing wild and she had taken cuttings. Others she had grown from seed. The purple flowers came from a bag of unmarked seeds that Mac had given her. That had been the last time they’d met. He’d told her to be careful. Very careful. Giving her the seeds and a small pamphlet about growing herbs.
She walked around the side of the smoke house and felt the gritty breeze against her face. Town was that way. The German family – the Stromans – were that way, too. Nearer than town, but too far to walk and Cole had the horse.
The sky looked vast and felt heavy and empty enough that it both weighed down on her and made her feel insignificant. The dust in the wind worked its way into her mouth and her lips felt like dry paper. If she smiled she knew the corners of her mouth would crack and bleed.
She turned and looked to the west where the first of the hills rose up, the dark trees somehow inviting, as if they hid a whole world, a life, that was better than what she had here, just ten miles away on the flatland. The trees rose in green swathes and grew thicker and taller even as the miles made them vague and soft. There were deer and squirrels in the woods, snakes and cougars in the hills, rabbits and weasels in the crevices. There was clear running water. Cole had told her all this.
“Why don’t we live there?” she’d asked him once.
“Because this is the land they gave us,” he said. “And we don’t need to cut trees to make fields here.” Then he’d said, “Are you complaining? Are you not happy?”
She knew better than to tell the truth.
Mac liked her. She was young, and certainly the first few times he had met her she’d had a playfulness in her grey eyes, and a sense of mischief in her smile. There’d been something between them. Well… maybe he’d imagined that. Hoped for that.
But, no, it had been real. He was sure of it.
It got so he looked forward to her visits to his store. He thought she felt it, too. But bit by bit she changed. That laughter and mischief replaced by… By what? An emptiness, maybe. The last time he’d seen her, her hands were actually shaking. It made him think of a once fine dog that is beaten and beaten until the only thing it knows is fear.
Not that it mattered. Not really. She was with Cole. Maybe she even loved Cole. That was the way it was out here.
But then she stopped coming to town. Or rather, Cole stopped bringing her. Perhaps Cole had seen that something in her face when she’d looked at Mac? Perhaps Cole had found the note that he’d slipped her that last time.
Now Cole was saying she wanted to kill him. Saying it as if he was proud of it. Saying it as if to show how he had her in her place. Saying it, and his body language suggesting, I’m not even scared.
“Yes, you should come to the dance,” Mac said, knowing that Cole wouldn’t bring her, but hoping anyway. Not just for him, but for her, too. It was no life out there alone on the dry farm.
“Maybe we will,” Cole said. “Maybe we’ll do that.”
But he was lying, and they both knew it. Then Cole bought four bottles of Mac’s cheapest whisky, two bags of wheat seed, a box of .44 cartridges, and went on his way.
They ate smoked venison, sprinkled with sage, and, on the side, wild onions and sliced potatoes grown on their own land. Afterwards he smoked a cigarette, cleaned his revolver, and talked of a cougar the size of a small pony that he’d seen up in the hills. She mended a blanket that had been torn when they had been making love, or rather, trying to make a family. Later, in candle-light, he started drinking whisky and she went quiet, not knowing how the night would go.
“Mac wants me to take you to the dance.”
“Mac at the Mercantile. Don’t pretend.”
He sipped whisky and stared at her and she felt a chill in her fragile bones.
“He said they have one every Saturday. Somewhere in town. I guess it would be easy enough to find.”
He drank more whisky.
“You want to go?” He stared at her, the candlelight creating dancing shadows on his face, his eyes dark and impenetrable.
“I guess not,” she said, feeling memories of tenderness in her arms and in her belly where he’d hurt her before. Sometimes she wondered if that was why she had never conceived. But she couldn’t tell him that. Wouldn’t dare.
“You sure?” A slight slur on the second word. “It’s your choice.”
“I’m sure,” she said.
He smiled. “Mac seemed to think it would do you good.” And she wondered if Mac, with the sweet dimples and the good heart, might have unknowingly and unintentionally condemned her to Cole’s fists that night.
“I’m happy here,” she said, hoping it was enough.
In the morning, still stiff from his hands, she filled his water skin and she made him thick venison and onion sandwiches, last night’s leftovers. She’d got up especially early to make them. He kissed her, and he told her he was sorry. He smiled, as if that was all it took. An apology and a smile and a day, maybe two, away from her. Give them both space. Let him take out his frustrations on rabbits, a deer, or a cougar the size of a small pony.
She watched him ride away, heading towards the hills and the forests where life certainly looked more interesting, at least from this distance. The dust from his horse hung in the air even after he was out of sight. She watched that dust swirling in the early breeze, the morning shadow of the smoke house still long. She fancied she could see shapes in the dust, like ghosts. Then, without being aware that time had passed, she realised the ghosts were gone, the dust had settled, and she was alone.
There’d been a time when she’d loved him. What young girl wouldn’t love such a handsome and strong man? Adventure and passion in his eyes, and a fearlessness and persuasiveness in his words that dragged her way out into the middle of nowhere to follow his dreams? Back then he had made her feel special, happy, and most of all, amazed, that she, of all of them, had been the one.
But somewhere beneath the relentless sun and the endless sky and the constant grit-filled wind it felt like something had shrivelled and died within.
She went inside the shack and sat at the table. Fresh dust had been blown in through the open door, and over by their cot there was some blood on the floor. She’d warm water later on the little stove and clean it up
There was no rush.
Not any more.
The horse found its way home on Friday morning. The rifle was in it’s scabbard. But the waterskin and the bag in which she’d put his food was missing.
She felt a tightening across her chest and a dryness in her throat. Unwanted and unexpected tears sprung to her eyes. Despite the worst of it there had been good times. Just not enough of them, and they were getting fewer by the week.
She led the horse around to the stable that he’d fashioned at the back of the shack. She undid the straps and took the saddle off, took off the bridle, wiped her down, dried her. Giving every stroke of cloth her full attention, lest any other thoughts tried to find their way in. She fed the horse and went to the well and brought back fresh water.
“It’s just you and me now,” she said, and the horse looked at her as if she was crazy.
Maybe I am, she thought. Maybe I’m crazier than I can possible imagine. On the plus side, maybe if you’re crazy you don’t need to worry about forgiveness. But still she stopped outside and looked up at the vast sky and she asked for that forgiveness anyway. And if He couldn’t manage to forgive her, then at least might He understand?
She went inside and wondered if the cougar the size of a small pony had found Cole yet. Or would it be forest rats – were there such a thing? – or birds? Buzzards, maybe?
Even though she was sure, she still spent the day, the evening, and most of a sleepless night, sat watching the empty miles between their shack – her shack – and the hills. After dark the ground held some warmth from the long day, and the soles of her feet felt good. But elsewhere she shivered. It had always been lonely on the flatlands, and tonight she would be lonelier than ever before.
But tomorrow would be better.
The dance was in a tent that was almost half as big as the field that Cole had spent all summer trying to de-stone. The sides of the tent were rolled up. There were barrels with planks laid across them for tables, and a mixture of chairs pressed up against those make-shift tables. There was straw on the floor and on a small platform at one end of the tent were two fiddle players, a black man with a banjo, and an accordion player. When she arrived the band were playing something that she didn’t recognize – she wasn’t sure the accordion player recognized it either – but it had a good beat and already people were dancing, laughing, and shrieking. Men and women holding each other, spinning each other, throwing – and catching – each other. Having fun. Having a good time. Smiling.
It was Mac, smiling as well. Looking up at her, his dimples and his eyes and the way he was paying her attention already giving her that feeling that she was special.
“Here I am,” she said, holding his gaze, enjoying the moment, enjoying the feeling. Enjoying the anticipation of…. newness.
“Cole?” he said. For a moment the pleasure in his eyes darkened to concern. Maybe even fear.
She held his gaze. “Hunting,” she said. “He’s determined to kill a cougar that he’s seen. Said he might be a few days.”
“Up on the hill?”
She realised what was coming and felt her shoulder muscles tighten.
“How do you get here?” Mac said, and as if to ease the pain of her answer and to show her that it didn’t matter he added quickly, “Can I get you something to drink? Wine maybe? They got some proper stuff just arrived.”
“Yes, thank you. That would be nice.”
She saw the fear leave Mac’s eyes now he knew Cole wasn’t around. He was relaxed again. Paying her even more attention.
She followed him across the tent to where a bar had been set up. The band finished their number, all within a few seconds of each other, and a few of the dancers clapped.
“So you rode here?” he said, turning, handing her a tall glass of red wine.
“Yes,” she said, “Yes, I did.”
Both of them knowing that she and Cole only had the one horse.
Later, slightly drunk and a little hot from dancing, they sat outside the tent, the music inside beginning to sound a little ragged.
Mac said, “He told me he thought you wanted to kill him.”
He looked at her and said nothing, waiting for her to expand on what had happened.
“He made me drink the water from his skin.”
“Yesterday. When he went hunting. He made out that I looked hot. He said, here, drink, go on. I told him, it’s for you. He said, there’s plenty of water up in the hills. Go on. So I did. I drank.”
“He really did think you wanted to kill him? He thought you were going to poison him?”
“I’m not sure.”
“He seemed proud of the fact that he was … I guess not scared. Confident maybe. Like it was a badge of honour. She wants to kill me, and yet here I am.
“He used to leave his gun out as if to tempt me. But then I never trusted those paper cartridges of his.”
“That would have been something. You finally pluck up courage and then the gun misfires.”
“He would have killed me. Or worse.”
“What did he used to do?”
“It’s okay,” she said.
Then, after a long while, she said, “Maybe the cougar got him?”
Mac said, “Maybe.”
Mac had known how it would go long before she did. In one of the little paper bags of seeds that he’d given her all that time ago, there was a hand-written note. It looked like he’d written it quickly. Be careful with these. The flowers are deadly. Purple killers.
Mac had been right. In a way it had been a game to Cole. Big fearless Cole, confident that whatever she was going to do he was strong enough to beat her, wily enough to outwit her.
But it hadn’t been in the water. It was the herbs in his sandwich. Nightshade from her garden, from Mac’s seeds. The flowers chopped up like a herb and put in with the deer meat and onions. Cole always had a hunger on him. A hunger for everything. It was one of the good things about him.
But he never did take his time and enjoy things.
He would’ve eaten the sandwich in one or two bites.
“You want to dance again?” Mac asked?
She brushed away a tear before Mac noticed it, smiled, and said, sure. A dance would be nice.