Wed October 17, 2012
First Read: Barbara Kingsolver's 'Flight Behavior'
Originally published on Wed October 17, 2012 11:05 am
Dellarobia Turnbow, the smart-mouthed heroine of Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, is frustrated by her marriage to Cub, the boy who got her pregnant in high school, and by the grinding privation of life on her in-laws' failing farm. Kingsolver mixes a story of personal awakening with themes of environmental stewardship and climate change as a freak natural phenomenon begins to transform Dellarobia's life. This exclusive excerpt exhibits one of the book's pleasures — Kingsolver's closely observed depictions of rural life — as it introduces the main characters. In the excerpt, Dellarobia is still thinking about the strange vision she'd witnessed the day before, of "a mighty blaze rising from ordinary forest" but not consuming it. She'd been hiking through the woods to meet a lover, a tryst she abandons after her near-religious experience. As Dellarobia soon learns, the flames were actually monarch butterflies whose migration was thrown off by environmental devastation and weird weather (and which appeared flame-like because she'd left her glasses at home). Flight Behavior will be published Nov. 6.
On shearing day the weather turned cool and fine. On the strength of that and nothing more, just a few degrees of temperature, the gray clouds scurried away to parts unknown like a fleet of barn cats. The chore of turning ninety ewes and their uncountable half-grown lambs through the shearing stall became a day's good work instead of the misery expected by all. As far as Dellarobia could remember, no autumn shearing had been so pleasant. After all the months of dampness, the air inside the barn now seemed unnaturally dry. Stray motes of fleece flecked the beams of light streaming from the high windows, and the day smelled mostly of lanolin rather than urine and mud. The shorn fleeces were dry enough to be skirted while still warm off the sheep. Dellarobia stood across from her mother-in-law at the skirting table where they worked with four other women, picking over the white fleece spread out between them. The six of them surrounded the table evenly like numbers on a clock, but with more hands, all reaching inward rather than out.
There was no denying the clear sky was fortuitous. If the sheep had stood in rain and mud all morning waiting to be shorn, some of the wool would have been too fouled for sale. A lot of income turned on a few points of humidity. But good luck was too simple for Hester, who now declared that God had taken a hand in the weather. Dellarobia felt provoked by the self-congratulation. "So you're thinking God made the rain stop last night, just for us?" she asked.
"Know that the Lord God is mighty," replied Hester, who likely could live her whole life as a string of Bible quotes. She looked daunting in a red-checked blouse with pearl snaps and white piping on the yoke. Everyone else wore old work clothes, but Hester nearly always dressed as if she might later be headed out for a square dance. The festivities never materialized.
"Okay, then, he must hate the Cooks." Dellarobia's insolence gave her a rush, like a second beer on an empty stomach. If Hester was suggesting God as a coconspirator in farming gains and losses, she should own up to it. The neighbors' tomato crop had melted to liquid stench on the vine under the summer's nonstop rains, and their orchard grew a gray, fungal caul that was smothering the fruit and trees together.
Valia Estep and her big-haired daughter Crystal both looked at their hands, and so did the two Norwood ladies. They combed the white fleece for burrs and bits of straw as if the world turned on rooting out these imperfections. Neighbors always came on shearing day, starting with ham biscuits and coffee at six a.m. Not the unfortunate Cooks, of course, who had failed to gain Hester's sanction in the five years since they'd moved here. But the Norwoods' farm abutted the Turnbows' on the other side of the ridge, going back several generations, and they were also sheep farmers, so this help would be returned at their own shearing. Valia and Crystal were motivated only by friendship, it seemed, unless there was some vague unmentioned debt. They all attended Hester's church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.
"I didn't say word one about those Cook people," Hester said, not letting it go. "Valia, did you hear me say word one about the Cooks?"
"I don't think you did," replied mousy Valia. Dellarobia knew her mother-in-law could command unlimited agreement from these women. Hester's confidence in her own rectitude was frankly unwomanly. She never doubted a thing about herself, not even her wardrobe. Hester owned cowboy boots in many colors, including a round-toed pair in lime green lizard. But at the moment it was the self-interested logic that irked Dellarobia: if Hester and Bear had bad luck, like the winter of terrible chest colds they'd suffered last year, they blamed the repairman who failed to fix the furnace and charged them anyway. But when the Cooks' little boy was diagnosed with cancer the same winter, Hester implied God was a party to the outcome. Dellarobia had let this kind of talk slide for years, showing no more backbone really than Valia or any other toad in Hester's choir.
Until now. "Well, it just seemed like that was your meaning," she said. "That God stopped the rain for us, but not the Cooks. So he must like us better."
"Something's got into you, miss, and it is not good. You'd do well to consult your maker on respecting your elders." Hester spoke down her nose. She lorded her height over others in a way that her tall son did not, even though Cub had a good fifteen inches on Dellarobia. Only Hester could cut her daughter-in-law down to her actual size: a person who bought her sweatshirts in the boys' department, to save money.
"The Cooks are older than me," Dellarobia said quietly. "And I feel for them." Something had gotten into her, yes. The arguments she'd always swallowed like daily ration of pebbles had begun coming into her mouth and leaping out like frogs. Her strange turnaround on the mountain had acted on her like some kind of shock therapy. She'd told her best friend Dovey she was seeing someone that day, but not even Dovey knew what she'd been called out to witness. A mighty blaze rising from ordinary forest, she had no name for that. No words to put on a tablet as Moses had when he marched down his mountain. But like Moses she'd come home rattled and impatient with the pettiness of people's everyday affairs. She felt shamed by her made-up passion and the injuries she'd been ready to inflict. Hester wasn't the only one living in fantasyland with righteousness on her side; people just did that, this family and maybe all others. They built their tidy houses of self-importance and special blessing and went inside and slammed the door, unaware the mountain behind them was aflame. Dellarobia felt herself flung from complacency as if from a car crash, walking away from that vale of fire feeling powerful and bereft. It was worse even than years ago when the stillborn baby sent her home with complicated injuries she could not mention. Both then and now, Hester was not one to ask about personal troubles. She seemed unacquainted with that school of thought.
Valia piped up, "Did you all see that one on Jackass where they tried water-skiing on a froze lake? The Jeep busted through and sank!" Esteps could be relied on to change the thread of any conversation.
"I can't get over that they let people go on TV for that stuff," said Valia's daughter Crystal, shaking her stockpile of curls. "My boys ought to be famous."
Crystal was a high-school dropout with two kids, no history of a husband, and a well-known drinking problem, but she got to start over with a clean slate when saved by AA and the Mountain Fellowship church. Now she always kept her bottom lip clenched in her teeth, as if she were about an inch away from punching someone's lights out. Salvation had its tradeoffs, evidently.
Hester reached back, divided her thin gray ponytail in half, and gave both sides a hard, simultaneous yank to tighten it. This was one of about five thousand personal habits that drove Dellarobia nuts. Why not just get a tighter ponytail band? Her mother-in-law seemed to use hair-yanking as a signal: I'll yank you. If Dellarobia meant to live out her natural life in this family, the new policy of speaking her mind was going to be a bite in the butt. It had the effect of setting everyone in a room on edge and looking for the door, herself included. But it didn't feel like a choice. Something had opened in her and she felt herself calamitously tilting in, like that Jeep on the ice. Jimmy was just gone, as others had come and gone before him, she had to admit. She'd never been unfaithful to Cub, not technically, but in her married lifetime she had quit these hard crushes on other men the way people quit smoking, over and over. So the standard joke applied: she should be good at it by now. She'd stopped answering Jimmy's calls, and Jimmy had failed to be persistent. And she still lay awake at night, no longer watching a nearly touchable lover behind her eyelids but now seeing flame in patterns that swirled and rippled. A lake of fire.
Dellarobia inhaled the lanolin-scented air, clearing fire and flood from her head. She was holding up the pace here. It was her job to leave the skirting table every few minutes to fetch a new fleece from the other side of the barn. She bypassed the wooden crate she'd set up as a playpen for Cordie, lightly touching her daughter's fluffy head, and then booked it over to the men's domain. At one door of the brightly lit shearing stall her husband had a grip on both horns of a big white ewe, waiting to deliver it into the hands of the shearer, while their skinny neighbor Peanut Norwood stood at the opposite door ready to escort out the newly shorn. She smiled at the sight of her tall husband in a pink flannel shirt. In many years of laundry days she'd watched that thing fade from burgundy to a plain, loud flamingo, but he still called it his red shirt, and must have seen it so. Cub was not a man to wear pink on purpose.
He motioned her over, giving her a quick one-armed hug that might have been a maneuver to get her out of the shearer's way. There was no making small talk over the racket of nervous bleating, but she stood for a minute getting an eyeful of the shearer, Luther Holly. Not that Luther was eye candy in any ordinary sense. He was a wife-and-grandkids, former-high-school-wrestler type, late fifties or maybe sixty, short and freckled with slightly bowed legs. But when he took up shears, his moves could make a woman think certain thoughts. He took the woolly ewe from Cub and she struggled for five seconds before surrendering with a sheepish sigh as Luther sat her rump down on the shearing mat. He wrapped his left arm arm across her breast in a chokehold while his right hand pushed the vibrating blade gently from throat to belly in long strokes, as careful as a man shaving his own face. The electric shearing rig looked antique, with its trembling steel cylinder and clipper head hanging from a tall tripod, but in Luther's hands it was an instrument of finesse.
She noticed how each ewe came through the chute to face her duty by first pausing at the entrance, lowering her hindquarters and urinating, giving herself a long moment to size up the scene before walking through that door. Watch and learn, Dellarobia thought, feeling an unaccustomed sympathy for the animals, whose dumb helplessness generally aggrieved her. Today they struck her as cannier than the people. If the forest behind them burned, these sheep would come to terms with their fate in no time flat. Flee or cower, they'd make their best call and fill up their bellies with grass to hedge their bets. In every way more realistic about their circumstances. And the border collies too. They would watch, ears up, forepaws planted, patiently bearing with the mess made by undisciplined humans as the world fell down around them.
Her father-in-law was keeping his distance from Luther's commanding presence, staying near the barn door where he trimmed hooves and conspicuously inspected each shorn animal for razor nicks before sending it out with a slap on the rump. Luther was too skillful to cut up the animals, but she saw Bear make a show of opening the big iodine bottle and swabbing a wound, or the suspicion of one. Bear Turnbow had a talent for attentiveness to minor insults. The collies Roy and Charlie moved in dutiful orbits around the men, perpetually alert to the flow of stock and the men's wishes. At a whistle from Bear, both dogs melted into a black-and-white gush of canine authority, pushing the flock through the maze of stock panels and narrow head gates like sand through an hourglass. Hester wanted them ordered by color, first the whites, then the silver badgerfaces, the brown moorits, and last the black, for ease of sorting the wool. Icelandics came in every shade of a bad mood, Cub liked to say, but Dellarobia liked their patchwork look in a field and the animals' own disregard of color. Brown ewes gave birth to white lambs or the reverse, sometimes even twins of different hues, devoid of scandal. The white ewe Cub brought in now had a big dove-gray lamb tagging along, still trying to nurse at six months of age. The worst hangers-on were the little rams, insatiable boys. Preston had been the same, still begging to nurse when his sister was born, howling to see an impostor baby. She felt permanently caved in from those years she'd spent with one child keening to draw milk out of her and another one fully monopolizing her surface. Effectively deep-mined and strip-mined simultaneously. These little boy lambs would be spared the fight with their successors, as they were scheduled at the slaughterhouse in ten days. Their mothers had to be dried up before the siring rams came in, and the boys couldn't stay in a communal pasture without benefit of castration. So the slaughterhouse had its attractions, all things considered.
Luther nodded at Dellarobia as he kicked a cloud of belly wool from his mat to be discarded, a nod meaning "Howdy Mrs. Turnbow" or "Sweep up!" or both. She grabbed the broom and swept the waste-wool into a rising pile in the corner of the stall. Having removed the unusable portion, Luther flipped over the ewe to shear the rest of her coat all in one piece, from neck to tail and shank to shank, moving himself and his paired opponent through what looked like a series of wrestling moves. That forward-bent posture would make ordinary men weep, but he did this all day, and made it look easy.
A woman's place, however, was not standing in her barn shoes gawking at Luther. Dellarobia gathered up the armload of waste wool and carried it out of Luther's way, dumping it in the big wooden crate she'd set up for Cordie. "Hey baby girl, here you go," she sang, sifting bits of fleece over her daughter like snow. She remembered as a child thinking this was what snow should be: soft and lovely, instead of the cold, wet truth. Cordie was thrilled, grasping handfuls of fuzz and tossing them in the air with such force she fell on her bottom, over and over.
Dellarobia hustled back to the shearing stall to get the fleece Luther had finished, which she rolled up like a big bath mat to carry to the skirting table. Before this day's end they would pick over some two hundred fleeces, pulling out bits of straw and the tag ends left from second cuts. The women flew through the work, flinging out each new fleece on the table and falling on it like worried animals grooming their young for fleas. They threw the waste onto the barn floor, a parti-colored fall accumulating in drifts around their legs. This was the second shearing of the year. Luther also came in the springtime after lambing to relieve the ewes of their coats that had grown felted and filthy over the winter months, so the precious summer fleece would grow in clean. This one, the late fall wool crop, gave the payoff. Once these fleeces were skirted clean, bagged, and stacked in great piles in the front of the barn, Cub and Bear would crate them to be shipped off to the spinning mill.
She knew it would take only minutes for Luther to finish the lamb he'd taken next, ahead of its mother, so she ran back to fetch that soft dove-gray fleece and was careful to keep it separate. The wool from these lambs' first and only shearing was finer and more valuable than regular wool. Hester could get an astounding fifty bucks apiece for virgin fleeces on the Internet, selling to hand spinners, and last year recouped the cost of her new computer in one season. The lambs' flesh was already contracted to a grocery chain and would be consumed by Christmas, but their wool would go on keeping people warm for years.
Dellarobia slid back into her place at the skirting table in time to hear the end of one of the world's unnumbered tales that share the same conclusion: Can you believe the nerve? The guilty party was evidently some friend of Crystal's, but the details were hazy. The friend had come to visit and somehow suffered damage from Crystal's kids.
"They're just horsing around like always, right?" Crystal's voice rose to a question mark at the end of every declarative sentence. "Shooting water pistols? So Jazon's trying to get away from his brother? And she's trying to get away from both of them I guess? So that's when Mical slams it. She's all, like, You boys are going to wreck my coat! And then wham, boo-hoo. She was worried about the water on her silk jacket, which she should not have wore to my house, I mean, hello, I have children?"
Dellarobia was accustomed to Crystal's question-mark oratory and her everlasting train wreck of the past and present tense, but couldn't quite pick up the thread. She looked from Crystal to the two Norwoods, slightly overripe ladies whose dyed-black hair was identically parted down the middle by a stripe of white roots.
"Slammed what?" she asked, when none present offered to pony it up. "The car door on her hand," Crystal replied tiredly in a descending singsong. She seemed weary of the tale, yet told it with such enthusiasm.
"The thing of it is," Crystal maintained, "I am sorry Brenda broke her fingers. But accidents happen. The same could have happened without my kids being there."
"Brenda's asking Crystal to pay her doctor bills, and Crystal don't want to," one of the Norwoods explained in a lowered voice, filling in Dellarobia on the plot as if she were a moviegoer who'd slipped in late. "You know Brenda, her and her mother does the Sunday school," said the other. One of these Norwoods was married to Peanut and the other was his sister, so how did they look just alike? It was that half-grown-out dye job, a weirdly permanent fixture. Secretly Dellarobia thought of them as the Skunkwoods.
"Let me get this straight, Crystal," she said. "You're thinking if Mical hadn't been there, Brenda would have slammed the door on her own hand?"
"Accidents happen," Crystal repeated with a more strenuous intonation.
"Oh, they do. And many among us have got the kids to prove it."
Hester threw Dellarobia a look, still simmering from the earlier exchange. The ponytail-yank was impending. "You ought to be looking after your own," she said.
Dellarobia was indignant. Her daughter was perfectly content, throwing herself around in the crate of belly wool like a tiny insane person in a padded cell, and Preston was circling nearby making the whooshing noises boys make to imply they are going fast. It was Crystal's pair running wild all over the barn, two freckled, big-for-their-age elementary boys in buzz cuts and tight T-shirts just a little past expired. Jazon and Mical. What kind of mother misspelled her kids' names on purpose? Dellarobia had last seen them jumping off the loft stairs with empty feed bags over their shoulders like superhero capes. Now they were nowhere in sight, not a good sign. Roy, the collie, tended to keep tabs on the kids and now wore a long-nosed look of concern.
"Preston, come here a minute," Dellarobia called. "Where's your buddies?"
He arrived dramatically panting, his straight-cut bangs stuck to his forehead and his little wire glasses askew. "Outside. They wanted to step on poops but Mr. Norwood said they couldn't. Look!" Preston in one vigorous hop turned his back to them, revealing that over his shoulders he wore a full white fleece for a cape.
"You're going to wreck that fleece," said Hester.
He turned back around and said in a cartoon growl, "I'm Wool Man!"
"Wow, what superpowers do you have?" Dellarobia asked, but Wool Man was off, orbiting the skirting table and calling out answers on the fly, including being tricky and eating grass.
His shenanigans pulled the fleece apart in less than a minute, as Hester predicted, and that was all it took to get the family thrown out of the proceedings. Hester ordered Dellarobia to round up Preston and Cordie and the other two boys and take them in the house for the rest of the day.
She felt bruised, and inclined to argue, but this was Hester's show. Immediately Crystal was demoted into Dellarobia's former position of step-and-fetch, and ran to get the next fleece. No more ogling Luther Holly's biceps until the spring shearing. Dellarobia went to find the kids and tell Cub they'd been banished to the house, in case he should wonder. Her anger collapsed into a familiar bottomless sorrow. It was just the one fleece, and not an especially valuable one. A more forgiving grandmother would have let Preston have it for a day of play, since it clearly made him happy. The woman had no feeling for children's joy. She could take the fun out of ice cream, dirt, fishing with live bait, you name it. Being around Hester tended to invoke an anguish for Cub's childhood that made Dellarobia wish she could scoop him up and get him away from there. Probably that was where all her family troubles began.
At half past five, she lay flat on her in-laws' uncomfortable sofa with Cordie asleep on her chest. The jelly toast Mical had demanded, but not eaten, sat flattened in its plate on the floor where Jazon had stepped on it, and then violently refused to let her take off his sneaker. He'd used his fists. As a personage of third-grade status Jazon was no joke, within striking distance of her own height and weight. Probably one of those kindergarten holdbacks where teachers tried to postpone the inevitable. She'd surrendered to spending some of the afternoon crawling on her knees with a damp dishtowel following that sticky, waffled left footprint over rugs and floors and sofa cushions, imagining Hester's ire if she overlooked one. When Jazon started running and leaping against the wall to see how high he could leave a jelly print, poor little dutiful Preston lost it and started crying, which set off Cordelia too. Dellarobia finally started up a game of Crazy Eights for money—a desperate measure—in which kids were allowed to use shoes for money, and won on purpose so she could gain control of the offending sneaker. She hid it upstairs in a laundry hamper.
Her mind was on temporary leave from the din when her phone caused her to jump, ratcheting its manic jangle from the sofa cushions under her. It must have slid out of her pocket and attempted its own escape. She tried to move Cordie without waking her, but missed the call before she could locate the phone.
Dovey. She hit call.
"Help," she moaned. "I'm trapped in that Twilight Zone episode where a child has mental power over adults and turns one of them into a three-headed gopher."
"I hate when that happens," Dovey said. "So how does that work, are there three corresponding butt-holes?" Dovey and Dellarobia had started life under the surnames Carver and Causey, thrown together in grade school by alphabetical seating. No one had come between them since. "So where are you?" Dovey asked.
"At Hester and Bear's. Hell, in other words, department of child management. Can you come over? I'm seriously losing my mind here."
"Nope. I'm on break, I had to come in to work. Three guys called in sick."
"Three? So you have to close, on a Saturday? That stinks." Dovey worked behind the meat counter at Cash Club, a man's world if ever there was one, and was of such slight stature she had to stand on a box to use the grinder. But Dovey held her own. Be sweet and carry a sharp knife, was her motto.
"There's a U-T game today," Dovey said. "I'm sure that's the reason those guys called in, basketball flu. So yes, I'm closing, and we're swamped. That's why I couldn't answer when you texted, like, sixteen times. Jeez, Dellarobia."
"Sorry." She lay down again and eased Cordie back onto her chest, facedown, without disrupting the child's devoted unconsciousness.
"The problem can't possibly be those angels of yours," Dovey said. "It's you."
"Actually it's Crystal Estep's two boys. She and Valia are over here for the shearing, and Hester is using the occasion to put me in my place."
"Oh, God. She stuck you with what's-their-names, Jazzbo and Microphone?"
"Affirmative. I'm in the custody of two small men with plastic AK-47s forcing me into the slave trade."
"Why do they even make toys like that? I ask you."
"Crystal said Jazon and Mical are fixing to be terrorists for Hallowe'en."
"No real stretch there. Okay, look, you have to find your fierce. That's what the instructor says in my kickboxing video. Aim for the groin."
Dellarobia lowered her voice. "To tell you the truth, I'm kind of scared of Crystal's boys. She told us about some friend of hers that came over and the kids broke her fingers in a car door."
"Here's my advice. Run for your life. Maybe put in a really long video first, so you'll get to the state line."
"A video, are you kidding? Jazon and Mical are hating on me here because there's no X-box in Hester world. The only child-oriented thing she's got is this one DVD they're playing over and over, probably for revenge. It's that squeaky-voiced muppet thing with the red matted hair."
"You want to know something? That creature right there is why I have no children. That voice was invented by the drug companies to get all the parents on Xanax."
"My own kids have better taste, I'll give them that much. Listen." She held up the phone. Preston had stuck his fingers in his ears and was walking in a circle shouting the words to "Willoughby Wallaby": An elephant sat on YOU!
"Do you hear that? That's my son. He is innocent by reason of insanity. His sister gnawed awhile on a stuffed dog and then she conked out."
"Okay, honey, I suggest you do the same. I have to run, my break's almost over."
"Here I go. This is me, chewing on a stuffed doggie."
"Not now, but sometime. Are we going to talk about it?"
"Me and what."
"Whatever happened two Fridays ago. With your telephone guy."
"Nothing happened. I told you that. Over and out."
"But you were like, Category Five obsessed. How's that just over?"
She had told Dovey the outlines of her affair, after the torment rose so high in her throat she felt she would choke. And if Dovey had seen reason to judge, she didn't say so. The better part of friendship might be holding one's tongue over the prospect of self-made wreckage. Dovey had weathered her own run-ins with strange fortune, in several varieties including the man kind, and seemed to understand the appetite for self-destruction. What stumped her now was the return of sensible behavior. Dellarobia could see the perspective. Of the two events, the latter did seem further outside the standard script.
"If I had a reasonable explanation, you would hear it, Dovey. This is all I can tell you: it wasn't my decision. Something happened. I was blind, but now I see."
"Now you're talking crazy. Is this something religious?"
Dellarobia was at pain to answer. In twenty years she'd sheltered nothing from Dovey, but there were no regular words for this. When you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, the flames will not set you ablaze. That was the book of Isaiah. "It's not religious," she said.
"I know you," Dovey said. "And I don't get this."
"Okay, but we're not done."
"Okay, go back to work, bye. I hear the rescue squad."
The shearing crew must have wrapped things up. She could hear them outside the front door, stomping the muck off their barn boots. Dellarobia knew she should look alive so Hester wouldn't call her Lazy Daisy, but the weight of her baby's sweet sleeping body kept her immobile on the couch. The collies rushed in and circled the toy-strewn living room like the sheriff's posse in an old western, surveying the wrecked Indian camp, then retreated upstairs. The tumbling dog feet on the stairs sounded like a waterfall in reverse.
From her horizontal position she watched Bear lean over Luther in an intimidating way, apparently in disagreement over payment due. Surely Bear wouldn't push it too far. Sheep farmers lived in dread of getting crossed off Luther's list for some infraction, such as trying to short the head count when they wrote his check. As the only shearer in the county, Luther's skills probably put him in greater demand than any doctor or drug dealer out there. Dellarobia and Cub had actually changed the date of their hastily planned wedding when it turned out to be the day Luther had put the Turnbows on his calendar for shearing.
She'd argued with Hester about it, and still to this day felt humiliated by the priority, but they'd ended up moving the wedding from October to November: first trimester to second. Not that she'd been showing that much yet, but the compromise felt significant. That was over a decade ago, and even then Luther was the last shearer standing. Younger men wanted nothing to do with such hard work, preferring to drive some rig or gaze at a screen.
She glanced around for Cub, but he hadn't come in. Hester had probably left him to sweep up. She and the other ladies were washing up at the kitchen sink, and Crystal was nowhere to be seen, probably off somewhere plotting to have another horrible child and dump that one on Dellarobia too. No word of thanks would be forthcoming, she assumed. She sat up gently and settled Cordie in the sofa cushions, warning Preston to keep the roughhousing away from her. Jazon and Mical were using the edge of a CD to press down cornerwise on Legos and make them pop into the air. She stretched her stiff back, waiting for acknowledgment from someone who had attained the age of reason.
"You're welcome," she announced finally. "I'll go see if my husband needs any help." All four women turned simultaneously to gawk at her, as if her life had become a bad school play. "The kids are hungry," she added. "If y'all are about to feed yourselves, you might think of them while you're at it."
The shadows outside were longer than she'd expected, the long dusk of wintertime. Bear's penned hounds were snuffling and growling low in their throats, maybe catching wind of some raccoon on the ridge they pined to chase down and take apart. The wind banged the doors of the metal building behind the house where Bear had his machine shop, in the middle of what looked like a truck graveyard. Dellarobia had never even entered that shop, knowing it would make her homesick for the long-ago place where her own father built furniture. Even this fleeting thought, the shop doors banging, socked her with a memory of sitting on his shoulders and touching the cannonball tops of bedposts he'd spooled out of wood with his lathes.
She drew a very squashed pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of her jeans and lit up, thinking that if someone had asked her to wait one minute longer for it, she might have taken them out. She was trying hard not to smoke around the kids. Just a couple of sneaks, one of them when she'd gone upstairs to hide Jazon's shoe, and that was it, in over six hours. In truth, Hester's reproach the other day had left its impression. Dellarobia now felt her foggy head clear as she picked her way across the muddy ground and entered the fluffy storm inside the barn, where fluorescent lights blazed and it looked as if it had snowed indoors. She found the broom exactly where she'd left it, beside the leaf rake and boxes of trash bags. If Cub was cleaning up, he was doing it without much in the way of technology. Where was he? When she opened her mouth to speak, she had a weird feeling that squeaky muppet voice would come ratcheting out. And that he would answer in a child's voice. She was not born into this family business, which explained her low-ranking position, but they had no excuse for treating Cub as they did. How could a man amount to much when his parents' expectations peaked at raking up waste wool? Dellarobia doubted she'd have much gumption either, if she'd been raised by a mother like Hester. The woman ran all horses with the same whip. She'd even aimed some hits at the shearer today about second cuts, but he'd ignored her, exactly as he ignored Bear's posturing. Maybe that vibrating metal cylinder next to Luther's skull drowned out the whole family. Dellarobia could use a thing like that.
"Cub?" she called, and heard a faint reply. Animal or husband, she couldn't say. She peered into the paddocks one after another, all empty of sheep. The shearing stall was knee-deep in belly wool, so Crystal must have abandoned her post as cleanup girl after about ten seconds. Lucky her, she could defect without getting court-martialed. Dellarobia called Cub's name repeatedly and heard an answer each time, eventually realizing it was coming from overhead. She climbed the narrow stairs to the hay mow and found him lying on his back across a row of hay bales. This time of year the mow should have been packed like a suitcase, filled side to side and top to bottom, but the cavernous loft was more than half empty. They'd lost the late-summer cutting because three consecutive rainless days were needed for cutting, raking, and baling a hay crop. All the farmers they knew had leaned into the forecasts like gamblers banking on a straight flush: some took the risk, mowed hay that got rained on, and lost. Others waited, and also lost.
"Cub, honey, what's wrong. You dead?"
"I've seen you further gone than that, and resurrected at the sight of a cold beer."
He sat up straight. "You got one?"
"From your mother's kitchen?"
He flopped back against the hay, taking off his Deere cap and settling it over his face. She sat down opposite him on the lowest row of bales, which were stacked like a wide staircase leading up to the rafters. Not many farms still maintained the equipment to make square bales, instead favoring the huge rolls that were handier to move with a tractor and fork. But these made nice furniture. She dragged one close for a footstool, swung up her short legs and leaned back against a prickly wall of hay, waiting for further signs of life from her husband. Lying on his back, he resembled a mountain: highest in the midsection, tapering out on both ends. He pulled his cap farther down over his face.
"You're just worn out," she offered.
"No, it's more than that."
"What, are you sick?"
"Sick and tired."
"I hear you." She was conscious of her unfinished cigarette, aware that only a fool or city person would smoke in a hayloft. It could catch fire in a flash. But that would be in some year other than this one, in which the very snapping turtles had dragged themselves from silted ponds and roamed the soggy land looking for higher ground. A little tobacco smoke might help dry out this hay. Cub evidently didn't disagree, for he lay silent awhile. Then spoke from under his cap.
"Dad's fixing to sign a contract with some loggers."
"You mean to cut timber? Where?"
"That hollow up behind our house. All the way to the top, he said."
"What possessed him to do that now? That timber's been standing awhile."
"The taxes went up, and he's got a balloon on his equipment loan. You and I are behind on our house payments. Money's coming in even lower this year than last. He's thinking we'll have to buy hay out of Missouri this winter, after we lost so much of ours."
She looked at the backs of her hands. "Just one month behind, you and me."
She'd been hoping Bear and Hester didn't know about the missed payment, but every nickel gained or lost on that farm went on the same ledger. Bear and Hester knew every detail of their lives, as did their neighbors and eventually the community as a whole, thanks to the news team down at Hair Affair.
"I talked to the man at the bank about our payment, Cub. It's Ed Cameron, you know who that is. He said it was no big deal, as long as we're caught up by year's end."
"Well, foreclosure on Dad's equipment loan is a big deal."
She felt something in herself drop. "That's not an issue, is it?"
"The word was mentioned."
She wanted to throw something, though not necessarily at Cub. She hated how his parents left them in the dark, even on something so important. Bear earned as much or more on machine repair and metalwork in his shop than from anything that happened in this barn. For years he'd gotten steady contracts making replacement parts for factories and something for the DOT, a bracket for guardrails, was her understanding. Dellarobia kept out of it. Bear seemed to think of these contracts as more valid than regular farm work, maybe because he'd learned welding in the military. He'd borrowed a huge sum to expand his machine shop, a few months before transportation departments everywhere suddenly came up strapped, and people decided they hated government spending. The equipment loan was backed up by a lien on the land.
"So what happens to us, if this farm gets folded in half overnight?"
Cub remained mute and supine on his bed of hay. Cub's only off-farm income was what he made driving a truck that delivered gravel, intermittently, as that company was not seeing a lot of action these days either. Ever since the economy tanked, people had been settling for what they had. Renewing their vows with their bad gravel driveways.
His inert response to this crisis was predictable. In case of fire, take a nap. She tried an easier question. "How'd you happen to come by this information?"
"Listening. He talks more to Peanut Norwood in a day than he does to me in a year."
"Lord, if he's telling the neighbors of his downfall, we must be pretty near the end of the rope. You know your dad."
"Yeah, I do."
"No bad news comes looking for Bear Turnbow that he can't send running."
"I know, I was thinking that. It's worse for the Norwoods, I guess. Peanut wants to log out his side too. They said it works best if they clear-cut the whole deal at once."
"A clear cut. Cub, honey, could you at least sit up and discuss this like a human? You mean where they take out everything down to the slash?"
Cub sat up and gave her a sorry look. He had fleece clinging to his trousers and hay in his hair, a sight to see. "That's where they'll give you the most money. According to Dad, it's easier when they don't have to pick and choose the trees."
She stared at Cub, trying to find holy matrimony in there, pushing her way back through the weeds as she always did. To what she'd seen in him when she was still looking: the narrow face and long chin that gave an impression of leanness, despite his burgeoning middle. The thick lashes and dark, ruler-straight eyebrows like an interrupted pencil line across his forehead, behind the pale forelock that hung in his eyes. The cause of their marriage had been conspicuous at the wedding, but she'd gone a little foggy on the earlier motives. She recalled the nice truck, other plans canceled, an ounce of pity maybe. A boy named Damon who'd kissed her half to death and then left her for dead, on the rebound. And there stood Cub, with his rock-steady faith that she knew more than he did, in any situation outside of automotive repair. His bewildered sexual gratitude, as near a thing to religious awe as a girl of her station could likely inspire. These boyish things had made him lovable. But you could run out of gas on boyish, that was the thing. A message that should be engraved in every woman's wedding band.
"So this is a done deal," she said finally. "Has he talked to the logging people?"
"Whatever's too little to cut up for lumber, he said they can grind into paper."
"Oh, Cub. They'll make it look like a war zone, like the Buchman place. Have you looked at that mountain since they finished logging it out? It's a trash pile. Nothing but mud and splinters."
Cub began pulling white threads of wool from the knees of his jeans, one at a time. The air was so dry they stuck to him, drawn by static electricity. How strange, the humidity dropping like that overnight. She cleared a spot on the floor and carefully ground out her cigarette with the toe of her work boot. "I drive past there every time I go to Food King," she said. "It looks like they blew up bombs all over it. Then all these rains started and the whole mountain is sliding into the road. They have road crews out there blading the muck out of the way. I bet I've seen that six times since July."
Cub's voice flagged in ready defeat. "Well, you won't have to drive past Dad's upper hollow when you go get your groceries." He was already losing interest, ready for a new topic, the same way he went glassy in front of the TV every night and channel-surfed without cease. Some flashy woman in a silk suit would be describing a faux-emerald necklace, and suddenly they're landing the biggest fish in the Amazon. Or Fox News would morph into a late-night comedian making jokes about Christians and southerners. Cub claimed the surfing relaxed him. It made Dellarobia grind her teeth.
"I need to get back to the house," she said. Hester was feeding Preston and Cordie their supper, probably an array of items from the choking-hazard checklist: grapes, peas, hot dogs cut crosswise. There was no point in arguing with Cub, when neither of them had a say in the family plan. She and her husband were like kids in the backseat of a car, bickering over the merits of some unknown destination.
She stood up, but instead of heading for the stairs, walked on impulse to the end of the loft, where the giant door was propped open to ventilate the hay. A person could just run the length of the haymow and take a flying jump. For the first time in her life she could see perfectly well how a person arrived on that flight path: needing an alternative to the present so badly, the only doorway was a high window. She'd practically done it herself. The next thing to it. The thought of that recklessness terrified her now, making her step back from the haymow door and close her eyes, trying to calm down.
When she opened them she looked down on the sheep milling around in the dusk, surprisingly slim and trim without their wool. Pastor Bobby at Hester's church spoke of Jesus looking down on his flock from on high, and it seemed apt: an all-knowing creator probably would find humans to be exactly the same kind of ignorant little dumb-heads as these sheep. Right now they were butting each other like crazy. Hester said head-butting was a flock's way of figuring out who was boss, so it was normal to some extent, but Dellarobia had noticed that shearing always left them wildly uncertain as to who was who. She had asked about it, but no one in the family could say why. She stood watching now, oddly fascinated. Grumpy ewes lowered their horns to toss off lambs that weren't theirs, the poor little things bunting at the wrong udders, and one old girl in particular was running up against puny yearlings, revisiting arguments long ago settled. Suddenly they were strangers, though they'd been here together all along. In the still evening she heard the dull, repeated thud of heads making contact, horn and skull. They must have some good reason; animals behaved with purpose, it seemed. Unlike people.
And then it dawned on her: scent. They must recognize each other that way. And all their special odors had been removed with the wool. They'd be blind to one another's identities until they worked up a good personal aroma again. Dellarobia felt a glimmer of pride for working out this mystery by herself. Maybe one day she'd inform Hester.
She walked back and sat down across from Cub. "When do you think your folks were planning to clue us in about the foreclosure?"
"I don't know."
"Just one day the phone would ring and they'd be like, 'Hey, pack up the kids, get a new life, we just lost your half of the family deal.' Or that they're moving in with us, or us with them? Cub, I swear, your mother and me under one roof, never again. You'd just as well call nine-one-one right now and get it over with. Because homicide will ensue."
"I know that, hon."
"If he can't make the payment, why wouldn't they just repossess his equipment?"
"Depreciation, I guess. It's not enough. They needed that lien on the farm."
This shocked her. The equipment was so nearly new. She wondered if anyone totally understood how banks could make the ground shift underfoot and turn real things into empty air, just with a word. "So you think he's really going to do that logging?"
"He said it was as good as done. He's signing a contract."
"Are they from here?" she asked.
"The logging company. Whoever's in charge."
"Are you kidding me? What man in this county owns anything more than what he squats on to take a crap?"
"Thanks for the visual." She thought of a magazine article that advised keeping your marriage sexy by closing the bathroom door. She couldn't remember whether she'd actually read that article, or just wished someone would write it.
"Naw," Cub said, "a guy came over from Knoxville. And that's not even the main office, the outfit's owned by Warehouser or something. Out west."
"That figures. Come on down. Get the poor man's goods and haul them out of here to make I don't know what. Toilet paper for city people, I guess."
"Well, hon, it's money we need."
"I know. Let's all sing the redneck national anthem: Settle for what you can get."
"I'm sorry you see it that way, but I don't see where we have a lot of choice."
He looked sorry all right. It made her want to punch something, all that sorry. She wished he would get mad. Instead he sat pulling threads of fleece from his jeans in a slow, passive way that made her blood boil. With occasional exceptions in the bedroom, Cub did every single thing in his life in first gear. It could take him forty minutes to empty his freaking pants pockets. In high school Dovey used to call him Flash. She was furious when Dellarobia first went out with him. They'd sworn onto a flight plan, older guys with vocabularies and bank accounts, men from anywhere but here.
Inadmissable thoughts. Dellarobia forced herself now to try being someone else, a wife from Mars with a nicer personality. She'd come down that mountain feeling so sure there was something new here to see. She slowed her breathing and just watched the little threads that clung to his jeans, standing straight out as he pulled them away from the fabric. The night air was crisp for the first time in months, full of promise and static. Spark weather, was how she thought of these fall nights when the air suddenly went so dry her pajamas lit the sheets with little sparks. Why would cool weather make dry air? She'd wondered such things a thousand times, inciting the regular brainless replies: woolly worms predict the weather and the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Good night. She knew she should be patient with those underly endowed with intelligence, but could everyone at once be below average? Most, she suspected, were just sliding by.
She had seen trees aflame on the mountain. For some reason that knowledge was hers alone. What had she been thinking?
The full proposition now flooded her with panic, shutting her into a tight place. "They can't log that mountain," she said.
"I don't know why not."
A lake of fire, what would Cub make of that? The route to the world's end, a vivid moral suggestion he'd heard all his life and probably believed. The Revelations. Her mind worked differently. Flame and inundation were opposites, they canceled. "The world can surprise you," she said finally. "It could be something special up there."
Cub lifted the plane of his eyebrows. "He's selling trees, Dellarobia."
She balked, knowing his wariness of people who wanted to save trees for trees' sake. An easy want, when they weren't your trees, or your foreclosure. "But what kind of trees?" she pressed. "I mean, are they big or little or red or blue or what? If Bear's signing a logging contract, I think he should walk up there and look at what he's selling. You both should."
Cub stopped picking at his jeans and looked at her as if confronted with a whole new wife. Like those sheep out there, bewildered by the familiar. He took off his cap, ran a hand over his standing-up hair, and replaced it, studying her all the while. For the first moment in a long invisible time, she actually felt she was being seen.
"What for?" he asked, at last.
"What for? It's out of the question to walk your own land?"
"Not my land yet."
She had carried the leaf rake up here, and now pictured herself walking to the haymow door and throwing it out, just to hear the satisfying metallic clatter. Cub still drove the same pickup truck they'd dated in, now on its third engine overhaul, with so many miles on it you'd think surely he'd been somewhere. But he hadn't seen a state line, and didn't care. What did it take to move a man who, when he ran out of steam, which he didn't have much to begin with, resembled a mountain?
"If it's not your land, then what are we, sharecroppers?" she asked. "We work this farm, it's almost our entire living, so you might want to claim it. Even if your dad has not passed away as of yet. Why won't you act like one thing in the world is yours?"
"I walked the fences that time when the ram got out."
"Jesus Christ, that was the winter I was pregnant with Preston."
"No need to take the Lord's name in vain."
"I've hardly seen you set your boots outside this barn in five years. That's a fact, Cub. How do you even know what's up there in that hollow? There could be anything. You all are fixing to sell off something, and you don't even know what it is."
"Well, I don't expect there's any gold mines. Just trees. The green ones, I'm a-thinking."
"Trees, okay. But you could go look at them. The logging company could rob you blind. They could tell you the timber is not any count, when it is."
"How do you know what it is?"
"We've been up there, you and me. We've consumed some Ripple in that turkey-hunting shack." She blushed, her fair skin ever ready to give her away. But Cub was so unsuspecting. He would think it was sins of their own she was blushing over.
He smiled. "Maybe we ought to go up there again one of these days, baby."
"Okay, let's do that. We'll have one last look before you go knocking down all the trees with your shock and awe, turning your family's land into frickin' Iraq."
"Ain't no A-rabs on the Turnbow property, Dellarobia."
"That's not what I meant. Anyway, for all you know, there could be terrorists camped up there on the ridge. Who'd find them? Nobody around here will get out of their darn pickup trucks. That ridge is probably the safest hiding place in the world."
Cub rolled his eyes, and she felt overwhelmed with futile energy, like a dog chasing its tail. She could see this was going the way of all their arguments, poised to step from the ground of true complaints into the quicksand of trivial nonsense. With full righteous outrage intact. "You and your dad ought to lay eyes on your own property once in a while, is all I'm trying to say."
"Why are you nagging me about this all of a sudden?"
"I don't know. There's just reasons. There could be more treasure than you think in your own backyard."
He shook his head. "What you're saying is what you always say. Work harder, Cub, go faster, Cub."
"Well, what am I supposed to do? The ATV busted an axle last month."
"Busted an axle all by itself, as I understand it. With no help from your drunk friends."
"Nobody was entirely drunk."
Here we go, she thought, into the quicksands of stupid. She stood up. "I'm going in the house. I just thought I'd mention that God gave you feet, to set one down in front of the other, if memory serves me. Seems like you'd go up there and look at what you're selling off before it's gone. It's just good business."
"Good business. Since when did you get your business-lady degree?"
The contempt startled her. That wasn't even Cub, he was just parroting his father in some last-ditch attempt at manhood. She made for the stairs without looking back. "I hear you. Good business, and it's none of mine."
From Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Copyright 2012 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.