I rarely buy a book without reading part of it first, so I’d like to share Chapter One with you today. (Pasted from a PDF–apologies for any formatting issues.)
Enjoy–and thanks, as always, for passing this on to the readers you know. (Sharing buttons below.)
Michael watched the paramedics work on his father. He stared at their backs, black uniforms hiding John Nygaard except for his booted feet, which now rested the same as when he slept in the hammock, toes pointing out. Michael had been in the barn when his mother yelled, milking the cow after school. He ran out and kneeled over his father, who had been mending a rotted fence post just outside the barn door when he collapsed. And then, minutes later, the ambulance cut across the yard, over the patches of snow, and the paramedics circled his father, blocking Michael out. Anne held Michael back and hugged him tight; he could feel her rounded belly behind him. He was jealous, did not want strangers around his father in this moment. John’s head lay too near a patch of cold mud, his jeans wet from the slush. They weren’t being careful.
He thought of dry pine boughs laid on the ground, like the ones his father laid for him in the forest clearing. He glimpsed his father’s limp fingers, dry and cracked white, rolling with each compression, each bit of forced life. Even at nine, Michael knew this was absurd, just one day after Michael’s first outing with him, his first visit to his father’s clearing in the woods.
John woke Michael early yesterday morning, a Sunday, and Michael knew where they were going. He had always hoped his father would bring him, yet never dared ask. Jumping out of bed, he threw on several layers over his long underwear as his father filled a thermos with coffee in the kitchen. John handed Michael the rifle before they left.
“We’re going to Ebersold’s first,” said John, in response to Michael’s questioning look.
Michael followed his father in the snow. The great Minnesota Northwoods grew up around them, black branches piercing the sky in frozen prayer. His bare fingers wrapped around the rifle, one hand on the butt end, one hand on the barrel. It was the same rifle his father taught him to shoot last year at the age of eight, mostly at pop cans in the backyard. He handled and shot a gun expertly now, though he still asked his father to wring the necks of the birds still alive in the tall grass.
The woods were cold and dark. The snow looked blue under the black sky, and the only sound came from their boots crunching snow into ice. Not even the squirrels had scurried down the trees yet. It was the period before dawn when the whole world slept.
After many minutes, the sun’s rays scattered through the tree trunks ahead of them. Michael watched the brown plaid of his father’s broad back sway side to side, side to side, as he pushed ahead in the snow, dragging along a stick that made a tiny trench beside them. The swaying made Michael dizzy, so he looked away and saw Ebersold’s field through the trees to their right, its fresh sheath white except in the middle, where it still soaked red.
John stopped. A piece of bait lay alongside the trail ahead of them. He stabbed around the bait with his stick. A steel trap snapped, and Michael started.
“They laid more,” said John. “Let’s go.” He threw the stick, the trap’s teeth clenched on like a dog, into the trees. “Goddamn Ebersold.”
Michael had heard it before, how Ebersold had been leaving his sick and butchered cattle in the woods for years, letting wolves clean up his messes. “Then he’s angry,” John always said, “when those wolves cross an invisible boundary onto his farm and take the food they’ve developed a taste for.” John was known as a radical,
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and some farmers called him a tree-hugger. He regularly scoured the woods for traps, especially in late fall when wolf pelts were at a prime and therefore the number of wolf traps multiplied, or in spring whenever he heard of the loss of a calf or sheep. John usually left the traps where they were after he tripped them, but sometimes he hid them in hollow trees, forcing the owner to search. He told Michael he felt like a wood sprite, invisible and secret, though the truth was every farmer in four counties knew who was behind the work. Once, a trap had a note taped to it: “Hi, John. Have pity.” His father placed the note in his pocket for later storytelling before tripping the trap with a stick and neatly placing it on the side of the trail, careful to brush any dirt from the teeth.
Most farmers were kind to him; they didn’t care how softhearted John Nygaard was. And most of them wouldn’t have asked the Fish & Wildlife Service to lay traps, as Ebersold did when one of his live- stock was killed two nights ago.
Only a few dozen yards farther, John stopped again. “Damn it.”
Michael peeked around his father’s body. A wolf lay ahead, its front leg broken in a trap, its huge paw slack. The wolf saw them but did not lift its head. Only its eyes moved from father to son. Plumes of warm breath rose from its nostrils.
“She’s probably been out here all night,” said John.
Michael looked at her black-tipped ears and spine, the lighter underbelly. “Do you know it?”
“It’s the grandmother.” John glanced briefly at his son before grabbing the gun.
“Why?” asked Michael, his voice tight.
“They’ll euthanize her when they get here. Who knows how long that will be.” John moved forward.
“But why don’t we try to save her?”
“It’s a wild wolf, Michael. The only way we can help her is by shooting her. If you don’t want to watch, walk back a hundred yards and I’ll come to you.” He placed a hand on his son’s head. “I thought you were ready.”
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Michael wanted to be ready. But he did not like that to save the animal, they had to kill it. She wouldn’t know he and his father were not like the rest of them.
But she seemed to have been waiting. She watched Michael, and he stared back. A feeling stirred in his belly, at once of longing and being at home.
Michael stayed. He could not take his eyes off the animal. He was still looking when his father shot the gun. There was nothing but the echo across the fields and a flutter of gray fur where the bullet entered. No reflexive movement, no birds in flight. As they walked away, Michael still watched her, calm in the white and red snow.
The paramedics had stopped moving. They were looking at him, at his mother. One of them put his hand on Michael’s head, and Michael saw his lips moving. Then they were carrying John to the ambulance, and Michael was walking with his mother to the house.
The two of them stood in the doorway and looked in at their kitchen, at the large old farm table in the center. A yellow-checked kitchen towel lay crumpled in the middle of the table, a block of cheese half cut with a knife still inside it. She’d been preparing lunch when she looked out the window and saw John on the ground. She’d been about to call out to him to run into town for bread.
“Are you hungry? We need bread,” Anne said to Michael, as if it was the oddest thing. How could they still need bread?
Michael watched his mother’s eyes dart around the kitchen as she held her stomach with both hands. He watched her breath grow deeper, each one more pronounced than the one before, as if the air might run out. She bent over, then kneeled on the ground. He knelt beside her and threw his arms around her shoulders, holding on as together they heaved up and down with their crying.
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Michael’s room was cold when he woke. He pulled the quilt up to his chin and contemplated lying in bed a bit longer. But the sun’s light was peeking over the curve of the earth, pushing ahead of the sun itself, and Michael knew that soon the farmhouse would be bathed in white sunrise. He needed to gather eggs and lay hay for the draft horse by breakfast. They didn’t need the horse—his father owned a tractor—but John had felt sorry for it when its owner, an old bachelor down the road, died and the bank came to sort out and sell what was left.
Michael loved this moment of the day. As he stepped out into the yard, looking to the cold fields and the trees in the distance, this moment felt as if it were his—across the land, across the seas, across the world. His. He imagined the sun warming each living thing, the birds and squirrels and trees, all stretching up from slumber. And he was the only one to witness this waking of living things, as if for the very first time, on the very first day.
When he returned to the house with the eggs, his mother was ready with melted butter in a warm skillet.
“Over easy this morning,” she said. “No milk yet. I’m letting your father sleep in a bit.”
Michael watched his mother cook, the back of her brown hair slightly wavy and pulled back into a low ponytail. Though she was a small woman, she had the honed muscle of a farm wife. She’d had a scholarship and studied English at the University of Minnesota in the mid 1960s, but after graduation she got married. She devoted herself to taking care of the home and farm and trying to have a baby. Born in farm country, she was happy there.
Michael’s father came out of the bedroom pulling on suspenders. “Morning,” he said. “It must be half past seven.”
“Quarter to eight,” said Anne.
John leaned down to kiss her forehead as she scraped the eggs around the skillet, tendrils of steam rising and dissipating in the sunny kitchen.
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Anne looked at him sideways and smiled. “Shall we tell him?” she asked.
“I can’t believe you haven’t already.”
“I was waiting for you.”
“Tell me what?” asked Michael.
His parents turned to him. But each was waiting for the other to begin and so the kitchen remained quiet.
“Tell me what?” Michael repeated, moving forward in his seat.
“You’re going to be a brother,” said Anne, and Michael squealed.
John kissed Anne on the cheek, then picked up Michael and swung him in circles until the kitchen became a white and yellow blur.
But that was two days ago, no, three. No, maybe three weeks, or months. Michael couldn’t tell, didn’t know how to mark the passage of time anymore, could only think of previous moments not in the linear past but in a whole mixed-up sphere that he wanted to sink into the center of and grab hold. Change happens quickly, Michael learned. Suddenly something is true. It wasn’t, and now it is.
He pushed the covers off and forced himself up to sitting, placing his bare toes on the cold wood floor. When he entered the kitchen, his mother was at the counter preparing lunch already, a fresh chicken and pickled carrots she’d canned last fall. Breakfast sat on the table.
“Do you want help?” Michael asked.
“No. Just sit and eat.”
“Are you feeling better?” This didn’t sound right to Michael; it wasn’t enough of a question to show all he meant to ask.
“Better.” She paused in her work and looked out the window into the morning. Michael could see from her profile that she’d been crying. “I was just noticing the snow on the pines across the road. It’s full of meltwater that froze again overnight. Makes it look like clouds all along the branches. Lovely, don’t you think?”
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Michael looked. “Sure, it’s pretty.”
She resumed cutting. Harder, he thought. “I don’t think there’s any place lovelier in the world. I don’t ever want to leave it.”
A cat scratched at the door and mewed.
“Here,” said Anne. “Give her these chicken scraps.”
Michael opened the door and leaned down. “Hi, girl.” The cat grabbed a piece of skin and trotted away, and as Michael rose he could see his father coming up the walk. John looked tired as he stomped the snow off his boots, but he smiled as he stepped over the threshold past Michael and into the kitchen. He walked up behind his wife and put his arms around her waist as Michael watched. She laid her head back on his shoulder for a moment, then continued cutting the chicken.
“We have to go into town today,” said Anne, “to the funeral parlor,” and Michael lost sight of his father, saw only his mother still at the counter. She put down the knife and washed her hands at the sink. “Forgive me, Michael,” she said, as she walked to him by the door. “I forgot myself.” She pulled his head to her chest. “How are you?”
“Okay,” he said, but again it wasn’t enough.
“Let’s go, Michael. I’ll let you drive,” John would have said.
And Michael would have jumped up into their old, light blue truck and placed the county phone book on the seat so he could see properly. His left leg would get the clutch down just far enough.
As it was, he sat next to his mother and looked out as she drove.
The road was hard-packed earth with patches of gravel and ice. They passed the neighboring Mulvey farm with its tall silo, passed the sled hill he raced down on a steel shovel with Pike Mulvey, both boys holding their legs in the air, thigh muscles burning, until they dug in their heels to stop just short of the lake. It was the same lake
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where, last spring, Pike caught the biggest northern anyone remembered ever seeing. Many thought it was mostly his father’s doing, but his father always claimed he’d been down the shore trying to un- snag his line from a willow, hadn’t even known Pike—then called Daniel—had a line in the water. How an eight-year-old got such a fighter as a northern onto land was suspect, but then Pike, since the age of five, had won every arm-wrestling match at school and could carry a kitchen cord of wood on his own.
The road upped and dipped over the farm fields like a ribbon for the seven miles to town. Michael had heard this land described as monotonous, but he found a home in every hill and gully. A stand of white pines signaled they were nearing the gas station, followed by the market and the post office. The town was two blocks long, nothing much—the larger town, with the grain elevator and clothing stores, was ten miles beyond—but the funeral parlor was here, as well as a beauty parlor, several bars, and a one-room movie theater that sometimes had current releases.
All of these things were still here. Only his father wasn’t. Michael could not reconcile the two facts, could not make them match, and so he felt like he was floating through something that wasn’t real. It all should have passed with his father.
Anne pulled over at the post office out of habit, something everyone did no matter his or her errand, something Michael had done with John many Saturdays. He grabbed the door handle but then looked over at his mother. Anne had turned off the truck but held onto the key in the ignition. She stared ahead, and Michael waited for her to move. She restarted the truck, and Michael let go of the handle as they pulled back onto the road. When they arrived at the funeral parlor, she left the truck running to keep him warm. “You wait here, Michael. I’ll be a few minutes.” But when the heavy oak door closed behind her, Michael scooted over and grabbed the wheel.
The one-story brick post office had a perfectly flat roof that leaked in the middle. Customers were used to walking around a
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white plastic bucket placed in the center of the room. It was still there, Michael noticed. Still there.
Pike’s father, Bob Mulvey, leaned an elbow on the counter and chatted with Mr. Sogard, the clerk. Bob was middle-aged, though something about his eyes made him seem older, a leathery tiredness surrounding shallow blue pools. Always the farmer, he wore denim overalls with his work shirt and mud-splattered boots, his finger- nails caked with dirt, slop, and blood. He was not unique among the men in this area, at once tender and rough, naive and hardened. Men like this surrounded Michael and made him feel safe.
“Michael,” said Mr. Mulvey, and he straightened.
The clerk smiled kindly as he passed over a couple of envelopes. Michael grabbed them and turned to go.
“Tell Pike hey,” he said over his shoulder, but Mr. Mulvey stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm. “We’ll be over again later. Tell your mother.”
When Michael returned to the funeral parlor, Anne was still inside. He parked the truck and scooted back over to the passenger seat. Out the window, a cardinal sat on a telephone wire, piping its hooo-wit. Hoo-wit. Hoo-wit. Hoo-wit. A loud and clear whistle, calling out, calling to. And Michael began to cry, the tears falling like the fast-dripping icicles along the gutter of the funeral parlor. They fell without forethought, almost without knowledge, like the moment just after his father’s death. Just yesterday, but how could that be? His mother emerged, squinting in the sunlight, and pulled her old wool coat around her growing belly. When she opened the door and saw Michael sitting in his tears, looking at her for help, she stepped up and pulled him to her, his nine-year-old legs trailing behind him.
It was late afternoon by the time they drove up their gravel driveway, the white farmhouse coming into view between the pines and bare oaks. Michael usually had chores before dinner, and he wanted to do them. He stacked the wood his father chopped yesterday morning and salted the walkways between the house and outbuildings so
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the melting snow wouldn’t freeze overnight. He raked the chicken yard and set aside the extra corn he found for the squirrels. He imag- ined the purple silhouettes of his father and Mr. Mulvey in the fields, discussing where and what to plant come spring.
When the funeral and visitations were over, when pie was eaten and stories told, frozen casseroles wrapped and placed in the freezer, and sorry visitors trickled to none, Michael’s mother sat him down at the kitchen table. “We have to move,” she said.
No, Michael thought. No. No. No. “We can’t,” he said. “We can’t move. This is our farm.”
“Yes, but we have to leave it.”
He shook his head. “This is our farm! You can’t make me do this, too!”
“We’ll have a new house, in Illinois. A town called Ackerman— where your Uncle Kevin lives.”
“I don’t care. We don’t have to go.” He kicked his foot again and again under the table.
“Yes, Michael, we do. I have to work. Kevin’s hired me as a waitress.”
Michael looked at his mother then, his quiet and strong and schooled mother. She could never wear some silly outfit. She could never take orders on a notepad.
“We’ll leave by August, in time for you to start fourth grade.”
“I’m not going.” He believed this. He would find a way. “I’ll stay with Pike.”
“We can’t survive otherwise. We’ll barely have anything left after paying off the mortgage. Things will be tight, but better than here.”
“Nothing’s better than here.” He kicked harder and hoped he’d find her leg.
Anne placed a hand over his. “There’s no way around this. We’ll have to go through.”
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Michael saw that her eyes were wet and that she was about to cry, but he ran to the barn and left her sitting at the table. He stroked the cow’s neck and talked to his father, still so present in his life that he could hear his words, his voice. He saw his father rub his eyebrow and pick at the hairs as he broached the tender subject.
“She already found a nice little house to rent,” his father said. “You might like it.”
He looked away. “You know I’m not going to like it.”
“I know you, Michael. I know you’ll be alright.”
“What about the cat?”
“The neighbors will feed her.”
“Who’ll take care of the animals?”
“The new people will buy them.”
Michael watched the cow and the horse in the stall beside it and envied them. They were home and always would be.
“Why does someone else get to live here and not us!” he cried. He could hear his father, could see him, but could not run to him as he so wanted. He laid his head against the cow but pushed his cheek too hard, so the cow sidestepped and Michael stood upright again.
“What about the wolves? Who’ll find the traps?”
“It’s been troubling me, too, Michael. But wolves have been around far longer than we have. They’ll make it far after, I suspect.”
“Stop it! You don’t want us to leave!”
His father only said, “There’s nothing left to do.”
Michael dropped down into the hay and grabbed a bunch in both fists. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You don’t have to.” His father moved closer, and Michael believed for a second that he could touch him.
“Wherever you go.”
Michael could almost feel him, his face turned up toward the wide barn doors and the warm outside. He closed his eyes so he could imagine hugging him.
“Your mother lost me same as you,” his father said. “Don’t be hard on her.”
For weeks after, whenever he was not at school, Michael sat in the barn. He watched his house, a thing he knew was wood and nails, but he wanted to hug it, wrap his arms around the large chimney his father had built before Michael was born, hauling rocks up from the lake. He wanted to hug the front steps where his father and mother used to sit talking, dark shadows against the white house, while he caught lightning bugs in the yard. Michael wanted to hug the doors that led to hard-packed earth in the cool cellar, his favorite place on humid summer days. His friends were scared there might be ghosts, but not Michael.
He looked at the fields behind the house, the trees beyond, and the lake he knew was after that. His mother had said their new home was in a suburb, with many houses side by side on every street. They would have a yard, though she did not know how big. She worried whether she could have a garden.
“I’ll come visit,” said Pike one Saturday as the end of the school year approached. They’d planned on riding bikes to town, the day being the kind of sunny that warms without causing sweat. But the move was too imminent, and Michael could not bear to spend even one afternoon away from home. So they played catch in the backyard between the house and barn, in the shade of an oak tree. The farm cat sat atop the picnic table and watched. As Michael caught the ball, he tried not to look at the rotting fence post next to the barn behind Pike.
“Will you?” asked Michael.
“Sure. I can get my dad to drive me. Or maybe there’s a train from Minneapolis.”
“I’m sure there’s a train. Or a bus.”
“I’ll come,” said Pike.
On a warm day in May, Michael came home from school to find Mr. Mulvey sitting on the front step, elbows on his knees. He twirled a long stem of grass in his fingers. Michael sat down next to him
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on the old wood and watched a garter snake disappear under the house. He liked it when Mr. or Mrs. Mulvey stopped by to visit; he liked anyone who had known his father.
“Your mother had a miscarriage,” said Mr. Mulvey. “The baby’s gone.”
The baby had not yet come, so Michael could not imagine it being gone. He understood that now there was no chance of the baby, that it would not come at all, and he remembered that he’d planned to tell it about the wolves, would have had to because the baby would never have known Minnesota, or their father. This gave him a twinge of ache in his heart, but the loss felt so much smaller than the loss of his father. It was nothing compared to that. And so it didn’t hurt, not really. That made him feel better.
Michael didn’t want to say that, didn’t know what to say, but he knew Mr. Mulvey didn’t expect him to say anything. They sat in silence awhile until Michael remembered to ask about his mother.
“Is she okay?”
Mr. Mulvey looked down at his hands. “About okay as you’d expect, I guess.”
Anne had been unprepared for the question.
She filled out the forms a nurse had brought her, and on automatic she wrote in her name, age, address, insurance. She signed waivers for the dilation and evacuation she was about to receive. And then, sandwiched in the middle of the mundane, she was asked what she wanted to do with the baby’s remains. The hospital would dispose of them at her wish, or she could bring them home for burial.
Why hadn’t she thought of this? Of course she should have thought of it. She had been almost five months pregnant. She had felt the baby move. Why had she not thought of this?
Out of habit, she reached for the phone to call John but then pulled back into sobs. A nurse brought her water and tissues but then had no
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words, knew there were none, and having witnessed many tragedies was not self-conscious about it. She touched Anne’s shoulder before leaving the room. Anne placed her hands on her abdomen and closed her eyes, hugging the baby with her mind and blood and being, loving the piece of John she carried. She cried until the tears were gone from her, and then opened her eyes. Her pain—her intense, heaving pain— had already killed her baby. She could not let it do any more harm. She wouldn’t let it. She’d do better for Michael.
The baby was a girl, they learned afterward, and Michael stood at Anne’s bedside and asked if they could name her Diane. “After the song dad always sang,” he said. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
Anne knew then that they would bury her—just she and Michael and Mr. Mulvey leaning against a shovel in the backyard, standing in the sun. Surrounded by trees and grass and sky, and all the things that would remain. It was the right place for her.
Later, when Mr. Mulvey left and they sat on the grass, Anne grabbed Michael’s face in her hands and watched him for several moments, rubbing his cheeks with her thumbs. His hair and eyes were the deep brown of wet tree trunks. Behind them, inside, boxes of clothes and dishes, books and knickknacks, filled the living room in crooked towers. “I couldn’t have raised two children on my own,” she finally said, but that was all.
The sun burned through July. Michael wished hard and felt hopeful to the end, but the day came, as any day. He and his mother packed up the truck and trailer one morning and said goodbye to their farm, to the places of his father, to the baby. Before he left the house for good, Michael snuck a knife from a box and pushed it hard into the front door jamb. It felt good as he broke through the grain and scratched out the letters. Michael 1983. If he could not take it with him, he would leave something behind.