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Fiction

Outside of Omaha

You would have hated your funeral reception. Potato-nosed husbands clomping around our parlor in their cheap suits, stinking of naphtha and condolences. Wives with sweat-streaked powder caked in the creases of their necks, like flour-sacks brought to life by a pair of magic dentures.

That’s what I kept staring at: dentures, bridges loose over gray gums, gold-mottled molars gleaming in the wells of mouths. If there is a God, why would he make us with teeth that rot in our jaws while we still live?

All these sunburned yokels with cavities full of casserole and clichés. I saw the priest’s wife fingering the webwork of your doilies enviously, clamping the intricacy of your antimacassars between thumb and forefinger while her husband cornered me in our kitchen, soughing psalms at me between mouthfuls of scalloped potato:

One day within your dwelling
Is better than a thousand elsewhere.
The threshold of the house of God
I prefer to the dwellings of the wicked.

“Dwellings of the wicked?” I wanted to ask. “What are you trying to imply?”

But I said nothing. I just stared out the window at the rectangle of turned earth, and watched the wind agitate the autumn leaves of the quaking aspen over your grave.

You would have liked the weather, at least, when they lowered your coffin into the ground. A Nebraska morning, drear and flat, with the harvest in and nothing but the wingwhirl of gleaning birds over the stubble field, the grain elevator nine miles distant on the march.

You always said you could see the curvature of the Earth. I still cannot. It all just looks flat to me. Perhaps flatter now, as if with your passing even the little rises that struggled to give the landscape character had sunk.

Now the neighbors are gone. Nothing left of them but their muddy boot-smears on the porch, their greasy fingerprints on the sideboard, an icebox full of dishes I will have to return the next time I can drag myself to church.

Now is the real funeral. Ours, alone.

I find myself thinking of the last time we went into town. It had been another such morning. I had lingered on the porch, watching you descend the pebbled pathway in your Sunday dress, your lacy collar, your heeled and pinching boots. We hadn’t even left yet, and I was already strangling in my starched collar, strings of hair painted to my scalp. Well, I’d thought—at least we ain’t headed to church.

So we drove the Ford in to Omaha and at the studio they froze our faces for the future. I had thought it a strange request—you wanting to go to town at all, much less to have our picture taken. Had you sensed your going then? Wanted to leave a trace?

After they got done pointing their lens at us we had lunch at the hash house. I wouldn’t more than glance at the picture.

On the way back from town you stopped us at an abandoned farmhouse. Upstairs, a blue bottle fly buzzed on the windowsill in the heat. “I’ve gone old and ugly,” I said. You unbuttoned my collar, tossed it on the floor, ground it under your heel.

I never cared for pictures. I have plenty in my head without needing those colorless rectangles to remind me. Pictures are just a diagram of how light falls on things. But I remember angles in my balded box no camera lens can see.

Watching the aspen shudder over your grave, I remember the early days, when I cast myself out to this place and raised up that little house of sod we use now for a shed. I remember writing out my stammering wifing letter to you by lantern, penned to an address in upstate New York from an ad I’d sliced out of the paper with a razor blade:

Get Married! Any lady or gent wishing to marry send age and description to us. We will introduce you to our members by mail; 10,000 pretty, respectable and wealthy ladies and honorable gentlemen anxious to marry; strictly confidential. Send stamp for particulars.

I remember the picture I had of you, then. A picture I’d made up in my mind: a good blonde German girl, rosy and somehow always white-dressed in this Nebraska mud.

Then came you from the train: small, weird of accent, wreathed with the Eastern city dark of coal smoke and narrow lane—but not the East of this country. No. Another East across the sea, where Europe exhausted itself. A crooked town of stone in gloaming, at the moss-foot of mountains from which horse-hooves sounded in the night.

You came with everything you owned in a jacquard bag.

You barely spoke, those first weeks. But we found a rhythm. Like a country dance in a lanterned barn, we found a language—the way you speak to a partner you burn for with a lingering palm, the twitch of a fingertip during the Allemande left.

I would get up from the couch where I’d slept, splash my face and hands clean at the yard pump, cook ham and eggs, bake the day’s bread. You’d come down from the bedroom, wrapped in your shawl, and eat.

I would talk idly about the day, as if to myself. Things I was going to do, lists of tasks for myself. I asked you nothing. When I took the bread from the oven, you broke it into pieces with your hands and put each one into your mouth, contemplating it as if it were something stranger or more precious than just the product of my labor in the fields. If you dropped a piece on the floor you picked it up and touched it to your forehead before placing it between your lips.

Later you would sit in the parlor with your bobbins, pillow, straight pins, and thread, making lace. I found any excuse I could to watch you, watch the white web of silk grow, pattern locked into pattern into pattern like memory itself.

Or sometimes you would go out and wander our farm. I would come upon you during my work: lying in the grass under the sky, or trailing a yearling through the pasture, or gazing into the stillness of the well.

In the evening we would sit on the porch—near one another, but not touching. Me with my pipe and you with nothing at all, watching birds cross the setting sun.

We had lived in that silence two weeks when the neighbors first came calling.

They drew up in their wagon at the end of the drive, just after we had finished a breakfast. Wife and husband, in the door of our home almost before I could invite them, with a pie and a noisy welcome. Who told them? Someone at the station perhaps—but news here seems to travel of its own accord, without people moving it along at all.

The husband and I stood on the porch trading the mercies of small talk and pipe smoke. With the free part of my mind I listened to her in there calling you “dear” and squealing over your lacework while you stumbled your short, thickly accented responses.

When we men came in the two of you were in the kitchen. You had somehow made her tea on a stove I had never seen you touch, with a pot I did not think you knew existed. She was happily chattering away over a tin of biscuits.

‘You will never believe, Harold,” she addressed to her husband, “The things this young lady can make with her hands. Such lace! The finest I’ve ever seen.”

And then she had to add, to me: “And so quiet and polite. You’ve found yourself a real old-country bride.”

You held your cup in front of your mouth like a shield. And our eyes met, and I saw the glimmer in yours of hatred for these folks, and knew then we would be together, you and I. Against everyone.

After they left you took up the broom—the first time you had touched it. You swept out the kitchen, swept the porch clean. It was a good, fat pie she had baked us, filling the kitchen with the scent of apple and cinnamon. You picked it up and walked out of the house.

I followed at a distance as you marched with that pie in your hands, down to where our drive met the county road, then further. Watched you turn the pie tin upside down over the ditch, then drop the tin beside it. Then you marched back. I stood out in the yard a bit, pretending to busy myself with the well chain. When I came inside you were at the kitchen sink, washing the teapot and your cup. Hers was still on the table.

“Rotten pie?” I asked.

“Rotten person,” you said, without turning around. “Take tea cup out and throw it in ditch too.”

And just like that, it began. Our real marriage. You started to do a few things around the place, here and there, though for the most part it was me who worked—and I never resented it, being the kind that likes busyness. You took to your lace with an added passion. And you began, that day, to knit for us a life as well: a circumscription patterned of your disregard for the world, an intricacy that was just us two and ended at the place our drive met the road.

On the days I went to town I felt as if, as my mule stepped out onto the country road, I was crossing a barrier beyond which was another place, not our own. Inside, our world was bright and cunning as a painted Persian box, where I lived in lacquer with someone strange and stranger than myself. And I would unlid for no-one what was inside.

That is why I write it here. It must come out of me, but when I am finished, I will bury this in the ground where none will find it.

That was the night you came and took me by the hand to the bedroom. I remember that as well: how you blended to me at the root, the cleft, the sweat and wanting on your lip. How you leaned up and hissed that lullaby in my ear:

Mother dear, mother heart
unlock the pearls from round my throat,
the Kaiser will come riding here,
and God forbid he want me . . .

• • • •

That winter we rode in to see 1900 come in with fireworks over Omaha. You held me by the arm, but went stiff when the rockets cracked and thundered, and I saw you were frightened: that the sound and fire brought back things you did not want to remember.

the Kaiser will come riding here,
and God forbid he want me . . .

So we rode home early. We turned the century on our porch, just us two. And about midnight we waltzed on the lawn to music in our own heads.

The next Sunday, you insisted we go to church. I had never been for it, preferring to spend my Sundays on the porch with a pipe and Mr. Milton or Shakespeare—folks you could read over and over and never really know, permanent friends of a sort. But you said:

“They have already begun to talk.”

So we went to that Sabbath prison, and mumbled hymns and were stared at and wondered about.

They might have left us alone—just another couple made strange by the prairies and the struggle of life. But then one Sunday after the service our friendly pie-baking neighbor clasped your hand when you weren’t expecting it. You recoiled and bared a square of teeth at her that was nothing like a smile.

Though you recovered quick, it was too late: I think she was from the old country too, though she’d had a longer time here than you to smother the old accent and “cheer up American” as I call it, learning that grin folks think is optimism but is really a kind of violence.

After that I watched for months as she glanced sidewise at you. To see what? If you droned the hymns right, stood where you were supposed to? If your lips moved during prayer? But you and I are smart: we do what we must to hide.

We were coming down the drive one Sunday when you got the fits. It was just as we hit the county road, crossing that line between our world and theirs: of a sudden I looked over and saw you twist and writhe.

I brought the mule up quick and had you in my arms, but I couldn’t stop you shaking and foaming at the mouth. It stopped by itself once I lay you on the porch. You came to after a while. You were steady enough for me to get the cart in its shed and return to you where you were wrapped in a quilt on the couch, nurse you with tea and whiskey.

The next Sunday it happened again, just as we turned on the drive. One moment you were fine, and the next you were choking, heaped up and shaking. You would have fallen from the cart if I had not gotten hold of you.

But this time you wouldn’t let me stay.

“Go to the church,” you said. “I am fine now. Go and let them see you.”

I did go, and they saw me, and our neighbor came up to me after:

“Where is that lovely old-country bride of yours?” She asked.

I saw a few of the other ladies were watching. Thinking they were sly, standing off at a distance.

“She caught a chill, is all,” I said. Then I raised my head and addressed the other ladies too, taking pleasure in the shame that washed over their faces. “She sends you all her greetings. And will be back soon enough.”

With that I tipped my hat and smiled and shook the men’s hands and left.

I don’t know why I noticed it, as I turned up the drive. Usually I am so distracted by that time, so eager to be home to you, that I don’t notice much at all. But maybe this time I was angry, and glaring around at everything, wanting to hit out at the world. Maybe that was why I saw it: a patch, just there by the road, where the earth had been disturbed.

I put the wagon away but did not come into the house. Instead I got the shovel, went down, and dug. I dug carefully, and about six inches down the blade clinked.

A bottle. It was made of cloudy, sky-tinted glass, corked and sealed with wax. When I held it up to the light, I could see fluid inside, and the shapes of other things.

I walked down the road a bit, then twisted the cork off. The liquid inside was piss—that was clear right off. And when I smashed the bottle in the ditch I saw nails, pins, and needles, wrapped in a bundle with a red thread. I ground the bundle under my bootheel, kicked dirt over the pieces of it all.

When I got to the house you were standing on the porch wrapped in a quilt I’d made you, with a red in your cheeks that looked like fever at first. You stopped me before I could step on the porch.

“Go and get a bucket from the well pump. Wash your boots and your hands out in the road.”

I did so, and when I came back in the house I found you in the kitchen. You had a copybook of mine where I scribbled, some days, lines that came into my head. Not quite a poem, but when you read it back to me out loud it sounded like one:

“The ’Brasky prairie land was right for us,
And knew that its possessors come
To make our parcel of this samey plain
A kind-of-Eden.
Here we reign secure.
Americans would sow a row of corn in hell,
As long as it was free and to the West.
So I guess we are Americans, after all.”

You paused on that line, repeated it.

“It’s just stuff,” I mumbled. “Some kind of dream-stuff I wrote out one morning.”

“No,” you said, looking up at me. Then I saw the blush was not fever, but happiness. “It is us you put down here. ‘A kind-of-Eden.’ Yes. ‘Here we reign secure.’ Yes.”

Before I knew what I was doing, I had my arms around you, kissing the lightning bolt that parted the dark coils of your hair.

“Are you well?”

“Always,” you said. “Always, in this place.”

• • • •

You can hold two opposite things in the mind at once. They say a person has logic in the mind, a guide that tells them what is true and what is false, like a little homunculus that lives in your head. I don’t believe that to be so. I think we are a mix of many thoughts that oppose one another directly, and which we hold to be true anyhow.

Think of anything, and you will see your thoughts are in contradiction. America. Take that example: we know what we have done here, in this land. Murdered the folks this place belonged to, tricked the English with our hocus-pocus about the inalienable rights of men while we held the black man as property, and held women inferior because of their shape.

You can hold two opposite things in the mind, you see. Anyone can do it. It’s no trick at all: it is how we keep from tilting off forever into madness. A murderer can be a good man—can be all the world to someone else, a whole universe of good, though behind him trails a seam of slaughter.

We all think we are good. Or someday will be good. And because we think so, sometimes we are good.

So if you want to know if I knew the truth of you, the truth of which we never spoke, and how I lived with it, I’ll tell you this: I knew, and yet I kept myself from knowing.

• • • •

I woke up in the middle of the night to find you gone from our bed. It was a strange night, with the warmth of a second summer in the air. What my mother used to call St. Martin’s Summer, before she coughed her life out. What my father used to call babye leto—the “old woman’s summer,” before he was crushed to death beneath the coal.

I had not heard you go, nor sensed it in any way. I could not say why I had woken, but I knew, somehow, that you were not in the house. I put my boots on, lit the bullseye lantern and went out. The crickets sang still, in the grass, though a frost had come and silenced some of the choir the week before. In the barn the mule stood staring into the gloom with his glossy eyes and huffed when I came in with my light. I walked up the little ridge, the Nebraska nothing of a rise we call a hill, to that copse of quaking aspen.

There, at the foot of one of the trees, I found it.

You had folded it neatly, like the precious thing it was. I dared not disturb it, though I crouched down next to it and played the light of my lantern across every detail.

Your skin.

I stroked a finger along an eyelash, on a lid that opened on nothing at all. I ran my palm over the glossy surface of your hair, neatly bound with ribbon over hands like empty gloves, each whorl of every finger pad unique to you.

Then I stood and went back into the house. I opened the bedroom window so I could hear the night, and I lay there, waiting.

Everything we know is surrounded by darkness. We scry things out by the light of weakest torches pushing back at the abyss.

I once was at a night-fair and looked through the lens of a telescope at the moon—and there were mountains there, and what looked like seas. Whole mountains, out there in the emptiness turning around our Earth to no purpose.

And just like they took that picture of us in Omaha, the astronomers have been taking pictures of stars, out there in the void. They even break the light into pieces, and learn from those pieces what elements a star is made of.

But what do we know, here where we live? When we live? Nothing more than superstition, and a glimmer thrown here and there by science against the night. That is all. And I do not believe we will know much more in one hundred years, or in a thousand: we can build the greatest of bonfires, turn science into a cult akin to church, but I think darkness will remain the substance of the world, illumination the exception. Sometimes I think all the light will do, in the end, is show us the sides of the well we are trapped in.

I lay there and was afraid. But not of what you may think. No.

I was afraid you would not come back.

When I heard your footstep on the stair, I felt nothing but joy. I lay quiet, as if I had been asleep, and let you get into bed. You smelled of the air when lightning has struck nearby. In the dark you lay a palm on my chest, and whispered:

A kind-of-Eden.

• • • •

They found them far out in the fields. Husband and wife, in different spots. No-one had touched them, but behind each of them was a trail of pumpkins, from their own garden, smashed in the furrows as if dropped from a great height. And every piece of glass—every jar, every lantern, every window—in their house had been blown to powder.

The next day, we got ourselves dressed up and went to church, laced and booted tight as armor. We shook hands and chatted and nodded at the right times. We leaned into one another on the wagon the whole way home, just us two, with you singing to me in a language I would never know. There would be stares over the years. Whispers. But what could they prove?

We kept our secrets.

Us from them. You from me. Me from you.

I never spoke to you of what I found that night. But then I never spoke of my Colt revolver rusting in a tin box, smothered under three feet of earth by the shed. And I never spoke of those I killed with it, before I came here: most of them bad men, but some just near me in my rage. And one nothing but a boy.

After all the casserole-carriers had gone, I got the Omaha picture down off the mantle, and looked at it for a while. Plain old crone in a cloche, gangle of a man with a clotted razor nick above the paper-collared throat.

Two laced-up relics made awkward standing still and wondering what unborn eyes will make of them.

One day someone will see that picture, and think they know the summing of these worn-out folks. As if, like those pictures of stars, they could break the light of us to pieces and learn what we are made of.

But they cannot. We have kept our night hours to ourselves.

Once I am gone none will know what once was outside of Omaha. What answered my wifing letter. What ancient loneliness arrived in the shape of you, to take up here your lacework, your songs, your never-ending hatred of the world.

But I know. And knowing, I’d still ride to Omaha to hand you down from the train.

Ray Nayler

Ray has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus for well over a decade. He is a Foreign Service Officer, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. He speaks Russian, Albanian, and Azerbaijani Turkish. Ray’s most recent foreign assignment was as Press Attaché in Baku, Azerbaijan, and he is currently headed to Pristina, Kosovo, where he will manage Cultural Affairs for the U.S. Embassy. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Cemetery Dance, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Crimewave, The Beloit Poetry Review, and many other journals and collections. His story “Winter Timeshare” was recently included in The Very Best of The Best: 35 years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. You can follow him at raynayler.net.