For three months I lived in a house with no other houses around it. I was in pink sky country, the part of the world where most light is brand new or mostly fading. A country with long mornings, far enough north that the sun made just a low swing through one corner of the valley, barely rising above the mountains before settling down again. This was a latitude that made for hours of dawn, hours of twilight. There was a distance between things. You could walk ten miles and stop at the little no-place town of The Pas, or you could just keep walking.
I was in that place because my brother was dying and things could not get done easily. He owned a small farm, with only a small herd of horses and a few sheep, a couple plots, and he wanted to be rid of it so he could leave things tidy when he died. He never offered to leave it to me and I didn’t ask. I knew nothing about taking care of animals. I wanted no hand in it. We were from a warmer state and I couldn’t figure how he’d ended up there, hauling around cold stones, watching his breath, landlocked.
My brother, for his part, spent most of the day in a wheeled chair by the furnace stove. We had made the wheels ourselves. He showed me where to cut the wood and I worked the saw, and afterward, he sat in the hardback chair for hours, sanding, making the circles smooth. We attached the wheels with iron tacks to the legs of the chair, and my brother used a pole to push himself around. He used to spend most of the day designing like that, making clean lines on blue paper, but after the sight went out of his left eye he didn’t do very much at all.
When it started, it was morning, and I was crossing the field of frozen hay where my brother could not follow me. It’s cold and clean out there, with the mounds crunching beneath your boots, and the swallows looping through December, and the only movement being your own steam and the steam of the horses. A buyer had come round for one of the mares and I was going to see about her. My brother wanted to keep the herd all together but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.
I was coming through the slatted gate when I saw the hacked-up dirt and the streaks of old blood. Something had gouged deep into the earth. I kneeled to it. There was enough blood that it seemed sure something had died, messily. I checked and none of the horses were missing. They all stood at the far end of the fence. All their shapes were a black wash in the brand-new light. I crouched close to the dirt and tried to make out a pattern I recognized, some hoof or claw, but it was all scuffed up too badly for me to understand a thing. I touched the blood and it was still sticky. If there’s a way to tell what’s human and what’s animal, I don’t know it yet, so I wiped the blood off on the leg of my jeans and started back to the house.
“Some kind of attack last night, Swansea.” My brother was in his chair, using a butter knife to shape some soft wood. Long curls of the pale pine unfurled themselves onto the table and stayed there.
“Out by the fenced-in.” He put the knife down and looked at me. “All the herd’s fine. It got something but I don’t know what. Some chewed-up dirt and a bucket worth of blood.”
“Some. They seem okay.”
“Didn’t hear them screaming last night.” I nodded to agree. Horses get loud when they panic, you can’t mistake them. They shriek and shriek and stamp around. I’ve been woken by them before—once it was a black bear, another time thunder, a couple other times it seemed to be nothing at all. “Probably just an owl coming down on a hare, something like that.”
I wasn’t going to say anything but I couldn’t stop. “Wasn’t an owl. For sure. It’s a big chewed-up hole, Swansea. More blood than a rabbit holds. It’s like a slit pig.”
Swansea waved his hand and threw the stick of wood down. “I don’t know what to tell you, baby brother. Less you want to pick me up and carry me out there, which I rather you didn’t, don’t go asking me questions ’bout what you seen, because I’m not walking around in your head. If it’s a problem, figure it out your own self.”
So that was all and I put on water to boil and a minute later called him a prissy old bitch, and he laughed out loud, and it was fine.
My brother had a dead young wife. Her name was Marlene. She had cheeks like winter apples and legs that made you want to lie down on the floor. Swansea found her in a plains town Texaco, swept her along on his movements north. I went to visit them a few times before they gave up on the warm world and settled on this freezing heap. Marlene served Swansea and me warm beer in glass jars, then stepped back from the table, softly. I saw her fingerprints on the rim when I lifted mine to drink. At night, I could hear them clawing at each other. It kept me awake, pressed hot to the wall. Since she died I try not to think about it.
In the house where he lived alone there was no carpeting, no soft thing. My brother made angles of whatever was around him. He liked polished tables and shelves cut from oak, pine, cypress. He made a lot of picture frames, with Marlene staring out, boxed inside each one. There were more picture frames than there were pictures of Marlene so there was her same face staring out several times throughout every room of the house. With all those pictures, you might think my brother had one thousand wives. I never married.
Lots of afternoons, when the horses weren’t ready to be put up yet, or the rain was blowing down from the long brown hills, I’d sit and watch him push the blade through the wood. I liked to see a thing come up from where there was only some dead block before. He offered to teach me, once, but that all was his territory and I didn’t want to lay some weak claim on it. There ought to be lines between what’s mine and what’s not.
It was late that same night that I heard the screeching. Swansea had gone and poled himself to bed, and I was sleeping on some mats laid out in the main room by the stove. I’d hear crashing around from his room when he went in for the night. I don’t know how he climbed from the chair into bed, and I never asked. I know he couldn’t wash himself anymore, and the ripe stink would follow him through the rooms, but I never helped. I couldn’t see myself lifting my brother’s withering legs from the chair, sponging dead skin from along those skinny thighs—he would’ve died of it and I’d have died too. I do know that he took the eye patch off at night. I used to see him, tying the string back up in the morning, shifting the cloth to rest easy on the bone. I don’t know what gray rot might have been beneath it. He never showed.
At first, I thought maybe I’d fallen asleep after all, and the screeching was just a dream. But I sat all the way up and I could still hear it, a loud wail, keening and growing and then fading soft again. I stood in the living room and put my pants and boots on. I considered waking Swansea but there’d be nothing he could do, nowhere he could go, no purpose but to worry him. There was a Remington in the kitchen, by the back door, and I thought of grabbing it but decided that would make it an emergency even if it weren’t one already. I stepped out into the clean sharp night and moved with the other things that moved there.
I came around the corner of the house and listened for the bad noise. It sounded again, from near the ditch where the water ran out to the fields. I didn’t know if the screech was human or animal but it was voiceless. The air was huge in the frozen night and there was nothing between me and the mountains, only empty space, space which wasn’t really empty exactly but more like a single low note, suspended. It was clouded but there was enough light to make out some movement by the ditch water. I clenched my fist and raised it like a weapon, pointing to the shadow on shadow ahead of me. It was drinking. I could hear the splash of tongue in the water. I didn’t know what to do so I cocked my thumb and pulled.
When Swansea and I were coming up, we had it kinda rough. There were meat-shaped hands, welts. We took off at different times but with the same mind of won’t-go-back, me staying near the Gulf, him arrowing straight north. He used to say that roughness set us both apart. Like we had a ring drawn round us in the dirt that nothing can cross. There were other things, pieces missing: Swansea said he’d never cried, not even when he was a kid, because it’s such a false and easy way to the thing that’s eating you. Like crying is too simple for real sadness.
Fear, though. We know about fear. It makes a hot rush out of my head when it comes on, and I can’t be held responsible.
The black shape raised its head and bawled out once. It was like a sheep trying to become a man. It was like a man trying to be a beast. It was a noise up from the gut. I saw it swallow—some gray teeth glinting in the dull light, then covered, the pulse of throat, and the teeth bared again—and then it took off. It ran in long, side-sweeping steps, moving with the texture of the earth, like it had lots of legs. I watched it go. I lowered my unloaded hand. I went back inside and lay down to sleep and I didn’t sleep.
The next morning, I asked Swansea if he’d heard anything.
“Just your noisy ass, clomping out and back inside again. What, you need to be pissing outdoors these days?”
“No. I heard something. There was some animal out there, making noise. You didn’t hear it?”
Swansea sighed and put his carving knife down on the mantle, where twin Marlenes smiled from hand-carved picture frames. “You gonna get spooked every time some goddamn raccoon’s out there rattling?”
“Wasn’t a raccoon. I saw it. Big as a man, but with eyes like a cow, the kind that reflect in the dark.”
“So it was a cow.”
“Wasn’t a cow.”
“A big goddamn dog, then. Jesus, I don’t know. You see it again, shoot it, all right? If it ain’t ours it shouldn’t be on our property.”
“Your property,” I corrected him. “Yours.”
“Yeah. Well.” He poled himself toward the front door and swung it open for me. “They’re coming by to trailer up the sheep today. Make yourself useful if you like.”
It was a muddy job, and rough too when the new handler asked me to take all the tags out of the ewes’ ears. When we were done and they were all in the trailer, the man gave me a thick wad of cash in a used envelope. I only counted it when he’d driven off. It was the right number, each bill soft and folded over many times, furred like a sheep’s ear.
I handed Swansea the envelope when I got inside and he tossed it right on the table.
“Settling my debts,” is all he said. I didn’t ask about it. The block he’d carved was turning into a whistle, but when he blew it, no sound came out.
That night I dreamed about Marlene. She was long and white and she pressed flush against me, right there on the floor. Her skin was cool and fresh in the hot night. I felt her hand move down my lean chest, my stomach, down to where I was hard for her. She put her lips against my ear and whispered something I understood that wasn’t English, turned me toward her. I put my mouth to her closeness, her chin, her throat, I took her breast in my mouth, the soft pink bud of nipple, curling fingers to the hot pulse of her secret heart and she curved her hands around my back, dug claws in, hard, harder, pressing her nails into the flesh and moaned until I woke up.
I was sweating through the sheets. I threw off the quilt and cleaned myself up. It wasn’t the first time.
In the morning, I went to rinse my face in the kitchen sink. Shining on the aluminum there was a tooth. A molar. It looked gritty in the hard morning light.
I picked it up and turned it between my fingers. It had to be Swansea’s. He never told me what kind of sick he was, but I’d hear him coughing through the thin walls. Some sore-through part of me wanted to go to him then, to pick his dirty clothes up off the floor, to jump on the cot with my feet on the pillow like we used to do in cold winters when I would lay my feet up right next to his head, so that he would yell out about the stink and throw marbles at me till I rolled onto the floor and crawled beneath the bed, hiding just so he would follow me.
But standing by the kitchen sink I heard him cough and cough. I stuck the tooth back in my throat and swallowed it. I could think of no other way to embrace him.
After the herd was sold, after the deed was drawn up, after all the paperwork of dying was finished, I told Swansea that I’d be heading out soon. I started to talk, loud and often, about how soon I was going to jump back in the truck and take the long black road out of the valley, back toward civilization. I wanted him to know that I’d be leaving regardless, and he could take his time with death. He didn’t need to hurry on account of me. But I kept putting it off, and putting it off, and putting it off again.
On the last morning, I woke up to the sound of Swansea coughing. It was still dark, but it’d be dark until almost lunchtime. I knocked around the kitchen and rinsed off plates from last night’s dinner. There wasn’t anything left for me to do in that house. Swansea coughed and coughed. Before I knew it, I was at the door, knocking once before swinging it open myself.
“Hey, goddammit,” Swansea said before dissolving into a fit of coughs. The room was cold and close with the curtains drawn. Swansea’s chair sat blankly by the bed, and on the floor around him were dirty towels, old fruit peels, cigarette butts. There was a stuffed owl on the mantel over a fireplace that’d never held a fire, didn’t function, had no chimney. Marlene’s image repeated.
I pointed to the chair and pointed out the window. “Come on, then,” I said.
By the time I got Swansea in the chair and wheeled out the door, it’d shifted to gray pre-dawn. When the hardwood floor stopped and the peat and hay began, I laid down two sets of long timbers before the wheels of the chair to roll it along. When the chair got to the end of the second set of timbers, I picked up the first one and moved it ahead to continue the track. We weren’t going to get far that way, and Swansea growled about it being embarrassing, a waste of time, but I could see him breathing deep.
I only got him to the pen. It was far enough. We both leaned on the rails and watched the space where his horses used to be and now there was nothing. It was nearly 11 a.m. and the horizon was just getting pink, tinting the edges of some chewed-up clouds, filling the big bowl of sky like the weight of night come up-lifting. I wanted to tell him this but I didn’t. We could’ve talked about good times past and we’ve come so far and I sure wish you’d stay alive, big brother, but we didn’t do that either. I said, “You smell terrible,” and he agreed.
He asked me what I was going to do next. I wanted to live in his house, sleep in his bed, eat off his plates. But I just told him, “Back to the flat land, I guess.”
That was enough. There wasn’t any more. When he started coughing again I turned the chair around and pushed him back inside.
It was late after dinner when I noticed Swansea had stopped coughing. There was no sound coming from his room at all. I went to the door and pressed my ear against it. I couldn’t hear anything.
I went back to the sink and ran the water loud, knocking glasses and pots around, making sure I couldn’t hear the noise that wasn’t there. I stoked a fire and fed it with whatever I could find. I moved the kitchen table, turning it so it was longways, then back again. I made breakfast for the next day, though by the time I rose in the morning it would be cold and congealed and I’d just end up tossing it into the trash.
When I turned off the gas stove and dropped the pan in the sink, when the hissing of water against hot tin stopped, I heard it. The ragged breathing of the bad animal, out there in the night.
I grabbed the Remington from the space by the door and swung out into the yard. At first I didn’t see anything. While my eyes adjusted it was all black, with some bleached space for snow at the top of the mountains. But then I saw it. There, some silhouette with its shoulders hunched, making slow steps toward my brother’s curtained window. I could just make out its pricked ears, the long wet tail it flicked in the dark, the way its hooves wouldn’t sink in the mud. Before I even thought about it I slid a round into the breach, pushed the bolt forward, shouldered the rifle, and fired, blasting through the unseen body. It gave a great shriek but it wasn’t dead yet, and I yanked back the handle until it locked open, pushed another shell forward and snapped the handle shut again while the animal came at me in crooked, loping steps and then I pulled. The shape dropped in a heap. It didn’t move again. I didn’t check on it. I spat in the mud. I went back inside.
When I entered his room, I covered Swansea with a sheet, threw away the trash, wheeled the chair outside. I know that that animal was coming for his gone and empty body. It smelled a meal, hoofing through the night, but I wouldn’t let it come close. This was the only good I ever did for my brother: to keep safe the things he’d lost already. I kept watch over his still frame all through the long northern night, holding the half-carved whistle he made in my lap, and when noon finally came the sun crowned the hills, and even with shadows still cradled in the valley I knew that I’d made one clear space in a bad life, that the shots I fired off at the beast in the dark were all I ever had that was ours.