“Will you tell me what you’re talking about?”
“His Africa days—his malaria.”
“What about it?”
“The quinine treatments. It scarred his liver. All these years the scars were hardening inside him. Nobody knew it. Harder and harder, till the blood vessels burst.”
“Oh, dear.” Doris, fourteen years a practicing nurse in Sacramento, sat on the edge of an armchair sorting this information in her mind while Bonnie paced the florid rug in front of her, obviously braless under her oversize knit sweater.
“He vomited blood. Liver pushed the blood up his stomach wall. His esophagus ballooned with it.”
Bonnie’s account was interrupted by the single report of a gunshot outside. Both women looked toward the window.
“What is that shooting?” Doris said.
“Hunters, I suppose.”
“On your land?”
“If we can hear it, it’s our land. Didn’t Frank always say that? Anyway, they cleaned the blood out and he came home. Ordered ten yards of sludge for a new pasture and got a crazy idea of roofing the house again.”
Doris smiled, laying her head back and contemplating the ridgebeam twenty feet above her, a massive lacquered log of white spruce.
Bonnie went on: “He woke spitting blood at five one morning. We had a wild ride to the hospital. They couldn’t stop it.” She spoke in passionate but measured accents as if she were telling a hard story to a child whom she wished to reassure not frighten. It was the tone in which she spoke of the madness of governments and the world’s redemptive slide toward its end.
“What’s the matter with me? I’ve got scones and spiced tea. Give me a second.”
While Bonnie was occupied in the kitchen, Doris left her chair and wandered through the living room. She found the obituary on the rolltop desk by the picture window, a newspaper clipping which she hesitated over and finally picked up in her hand. She stared at the black-and-white photograph, a grainy likeness of Frank Hillrunner considerably aged since she had known him, and after twice reading the accompanying six-paragraph biography, she lowered the clipping to the desk and gazed out the window at the range of snow peaks rising in the blue September sky twentyfive miles away.
Those mountains, so close and so immense, used to affect her with a kind of breathlessness, a rapture of her senses not unlike what happened to her when
a man loomed above her in the act of love, only here there was no passing vigor, no flagging warmth, no change at all except as eons go. She remembered one
morning being out with Frank and the children when the clouds sped over the whitened peaks causing them to seem to teeter toward her in an illusion so powerful as to fill her with dread, with a foretaste of catastrophe.
Frank Hillrunner. Friends called him Haystack. Fought in the Pacific. One of the biggest haying operations in the state. Sometime civic leader. Active in his fellowship. Survived by wife Bonita and eight children. Eight children by three women none of whom was Bonnie, Doris noted.
Behind her in the open kitchen there were sounds of sliding drawers and chinking silver. Doris didn’t turn from the window but asked, “Did he have much
“No, he had no pain,” Bonnie said. “None he complained of. You know Frank. Worst pain was he couldn’t work. No energy.”
She entered carrying a tray on which two mugs of hot clove-smelling tea flanked a heap of scones oozing raspberry jam. There was a knock at the door just then and Bonnie, her eyes searching the room in protest, halted with the tray in her hands, at a loss how to react.
“Here, let me,” Doris said. And Doris, always quick to actions of mercy, in a flash had lifted the service from Bonnie’s hands.
Bonnie composed herself and answered the door. The caller was a hunter, a local man. She recognized his bearded, high-boned face but she couldn’t quite place him. A worn camouflage jacket rode his shoulders, a duckcloth cap covered his head, and a wooden goose call hung from a line around his neck.
The scones were done and Bonnie Hillrunner was sliding them out of the oven when a racket of gunshots sounded from the fields and sloughs beyond the house. In her hand the glass baking pan asserted its weight unexpectedly and—“damn!”—she dropped it with a shudder on the stovetop.
Eastward in the sky a flock of geese went winging over the berms and yellowing wood lots toward the Tanana River. She had forgotten there would be shooting today. A smile labored on her mouth as she drew the oven mitt from her hand, gazing out the dusty window. Every day you had to wake up and face it again.
A small sedan was approaching on the long dirt farm lane. “Doris,” she said. And even spoken aloud, the word was incredible to her. How many years was it?
Bonnie went and examined herself in the fulllength mirror in the hallway. She raised her chin, spun around, turned sideways and spurred herself with a
slap to the thigh. “Tally ho, baby,” she said.
Doris—Alston was the name of her late second husband; her second late husband—leaned stiffly to the right, considering her face in the rear-view mirror. Lines bracketed her mouth; another, a deep groove plunged vertically between her eyes. No artifice of expression softened the hard set of her features. She
drew her hand across her brow, along the hairline, and sat back with a sigh, refocusing on the dirt lane ahead. Frank, Frank, she thought. He could boast two widows now. Two at a time, just like he always wanted. We’re all two-timers now, she thought.
Something hit under the axle—a rock maybe. She eased up on the pedal, scanning in the mirror for rubble behind her. Treetops, sky. A trio of sandhill cranes, tall brown creatures with feathery duffs, lolled in the field to her left. Shaggy green pastures gave way to muddy potato lots and hayfields on both sides of the road.
She was suddenly aware of the log farmhouse ahead and the sight filled her with wonder. My God, she thought. The rough-and-ready picturesqueness of her life here, the making shift at every turn—it all came back to her, and she gazed back through memories so vivid she could smell the absent plumbing, squeeze up the mittfuls of bluegrass seed, and fumble through the midwinter nights in unelectrified darkness.
A woman strode out of the farmhouse to meet her. Flowing white skirt, full sweater, both hands resting on her forward hip—Bonnie, unmistakably.
“When I left Delta,” Doris heard herself saying a minute later, when she had emerged from the rented car and looked south over the fields to Mount Hayes and the snow peaks of the Alaska Range, “I thought I was leaving for good. This was my favorite view.”
“It is such a kick in the pants to see you, Doris.”
'Then I’ve done what I came to do. I’ll go home.”
A husky laugh from Bonnie. “Don’t you do that to me.”
The cold September morning was cut early from winter like the first wedge of a round of cheese. Splashes of yellow brightened the country from the waste willows to the highest lovely birches. Windrows of mown hay lay steaming in the fields. A red tractor ground along towing a machine which
Doris in her fever of nostalgia recognized as “the old baler!” its tumbler still turning, sheaving up the cut piles and leaving behind the neat wan blocks of pressed brome.
“Who’s haying for you?”
“Friend of Frank’s. I’m running late with oats and barley. I’m going to have to hire some men. Come in, Doris.”
“I came as soon as I could.”
“There just wasn’t time. You know how we feel about embalming. We had twenty-four hours to bury him.”
“If you’d let me know he was ill.” Doris preceded her into the familiar living room.
“The man was in excellent health until two months ago.”
“I might have done something. You say his liver—? I don’t remember Frank having a problem.”
Gunshots crackled at a remove from the house but the women were too intent on their meeting to pay it any mind.
“You mean liquor? He never touched the stuff. No, a world traveler’s been called home,” Bonnie said in an elevated tone of voice which, together with the arching of her eyebrows, infused her words with too mysterious a meaning for Doris to take any comfort in them.