Peter Grimes

Two Fences

 

I’d stopped wanting it by the fifth week. My husband, who’d taken over Fairgrove after Dad passed, was keeping me penned up in the house while he and the Mexicans ran the farm. John Mark drove around on his go-cart, ripping up root vegetables, plucking berries out of briars, and patrolling his employees; I paced our downstairs, talking to doors, because no task suited me. Knitting made me dizzy, and I couldn’t can since the smell of peaches turned my stomach. When I told him pregnancy felt like whole-body sepsis, like invasion, he just laughed in that way men do, as if to say, Women are cute. Not until day thirty-three did he grow concerned. At six o’clock, when he typically comes in for dinner, I pulled a bottle of bourbon from the cabinet, poured a finger in a glass, and sat by the backdoor.

“Let me out of this goddamn house. I didn’t drink any, but I will.” At that point I couldn’t tell if I was joking.

At six the next day, I trembled behind the wheel of our idling pick-up. Dust settled behind the employees as they left in two cars for the house they shared in Norristown. Behind me, John Mark lugged the compost bin onto the bed so we could drive past the pit and make our fieldtrip worthwhile. “We’ll start slow,” he’d said, “take some rides around the farm. You can even drive.” With sun on my arms, the smell of manure and sod on the breeze, I didn’t care that his tone had turned patient, as if he were dealing with a stubborn machinery supplier or waiting for the blackberries to finally yield.

We rumbled over the first rise, our fields to the left, quietly producing crop. I could tell the vibration made him nervous by the way he kept an eye on my belly, even though I wasn’t showing. Maybe he was imagining his seed, floating there in the dark. I hardly needed to watch the road, no one else on it, twenty-five miles per hour with shoulders of tilled soil. We cut through the stagnant air, making wind of it, while all around us waited for sun, rain, and season.

When we reached the pit, I stepped out of the truck and walked to the edge of the forest between our acreage and Torvald’s dairy farm. I stretched in the still sunlight. This is where my soon-to-expand body belonged. Outside. I had a vision of myself camping in the cucumbers, puffed up between green shoots. Behind me came the splatter of rinds and expired fruit dropping into the moldering pile. He really had taken it well, hadn’t seemed mad I’d threatened our fertilized seed. It was sweet, in a way, his being a farmer. I considered apologizing for the overreaction, but then a strange cry drifted to my ears.

“Ready, soldier?” John Mark said.

“Shhhh.”

The cry hadn’t been human, but we didn’t keep animals. Just tomatoes, squash, strawberries—silent creeping things. John Mark’s blank face told me he hadn’t heard. Then we both faced the woods as a low growl and leafy gallop pulled our eyes behind the trees to the left. A double report sounded—our border collie’s bark.

“Dame must be after something on Torvald’s side,” he said.

I knew the fence was there—as around the rest of our property—but I could only see trees, as if the edge of a vast wilderness. The cry turned and came back toward us. Strident, half-formed, the voice of a mutant. My abdomen vibrated like a drum. Something in me wanted to see it, the way I sometimes want to ogle horrible things on the road, on television. After the noises passed, I entered the forest, picking my way through briars.

“Where are you going?”

“One sec.”

Far to the right, the cry announced itself again, then fell off. I stopped short. Straight ahead in the shadows I saw the black fence, ten feet high, its links entwined with ivy. Three feet beyond, a smaller fence, gray and chest-high, ran away to either side along the property line. This fence I hadn’t seen. Past it were Torvald’s lots, his dairy equipment and sheds. Hardly a wilderness.

In between the fences ran an empty corridor of stick and stone, carpeted in last year’s leaves. I spotted a child-sized gate in ours—a way to get in and make repairs, I supposed.

“Rachel?” Leaves crunched behind me.

“Why are there two fences here?” I had to stall him somehow, until the animals returned.

I heard him stumble through the underbrush. Soon his breath reached my ear. “Just for this reason.” His fingers grasped the links. “To keep whatever Dame’s after out of our fields.”

He took my arm. “Come on.”

I grabbed the fence. “I can understand one—to keep animals out—but why two?” I followed the corridor between fences until it disappeared in the greenery that concealed the animals’ coming. “Why two with space between?”

“Why not? That’s extra protection. The black one’s ours, the other Torvald’s.”

He tugged me gently—the way he’d handled me since we knew of the conception—but I held on. Then he moved off toward the forest’s edge in long, slow steps. Belly pressed against the mesh, I felt like an offering left behind and suddenly doubted the wisdom of staying.

If I could only see it, I’d know what we were dealing with. That’s what I said to myself. Then I saw Dame coming toward me on our side, weaving around saplings. Blood whistled at my temples. To her right a dusty blur, brown fur billowing above paws or hooves, moved along through the unclaimed space. Instinctively I pushed away from the fence and fell on my back.

“John!” I called as Dame’s prey sped past, hunched in the shadows. Its hair was long, and it ran close to the ground. Baby warthog? Not with a cry like that. Goat? Too quick. As the shapes reblended with the bushes to the left, a chill washed over me and the bottom dropped from my skull. I’d been so close to it, something utterly foreign.

“It’s on the other side,” John Mark said cheerfully, moving behind me. “Won’t hurt a thing.”

“But it’s in between.”

“How’d it get in there, then?” he said, pushing aside a branch. “It got in, it can get out.”

I stood to follow him out of the thicket, feeling confused. Soon I’d be back in the house. Safe. I sunk and heaved, yielding clear liquid on the roots of an oak. These spells of sickness normally came in the morning, but I knew he’d believe the act. My mother had spent most her life inside that house, ordering what no one but Dad would see. I’d always chuckled at her meticulousness, but remembering it now, I couldn’t leave the forest.

Heavy footsteps came and a hand pressed on my shoulder.

“Please go. Stand by the road while I clear my head.” I spoke with my face buried in my arms and listened to him hesitate before moving off.

The cry had stopped, but I could hear Dame’s growls and scratching just on the other side of a clump of trees. Perhaps it had escaped, jumped back over Torvald’s lower fence. That sight, I decided, would be gratifying, an empty corridor of leaves. Whether I felt this way because I’d be glad for the animal or because I imagined it too hideous to see, I didn’t know.

“Dame?” Her barks lowered and doubled, running together with growls. Picking my way around the sun-dappled trees, I squinted to find her black-and-white fur in the foliage. She squirmed back and forth, tail-tip wagging. In the passageway under a fallen tree limb that slanted down off Torvald’s fence, a shadow lay. My knees locked and I felt the sweat on my wrists.

“Are you okay in there?” John Mark called.

“Call Dame!”

When he did, Dame backed off as if under a sorcerer’s spell. “Good girl,” I heard.

The animal breathed in jagged gasps, and at first I was afraid to get closer. I appraised our fence, how high it was, the thickness of its links. John Mark wouldn’t have built one too low. All I had to fear then was the shock of its look. Its being there so close.

“What are you doing?”

I moved to where Dame had been, feet from the animal. I could see that its fur was both black and gray, that the tufts stood at different lengths. The fallen limb hid head and legs, but a wide tail of shorter fur stretched behind it. A sour smell, like compost or vinegar. The odor of experience. I tensed.

I’d been assuming without realizing it that the trapped animal was young, still growing into whatever it would become, something I’d never see. From the way it screamed maybe. If mothering instincts existed, maybe I had them after all. Yet something about its demeanor now as it huddled, gasping, under the limb told me it was full-grown, resigned. It was shameful.

“I’m coming in,” John Mark called.

“Wait just a sec.” I couldn’t let him see it. He’d insist on uncovering its face, destroy it out of horror. “I’m peeing.”

The child-sized gate hung partially blocked from my view by a box elder. I couldn’t imagine John Mark fitting through this tiny door to clear the brush. A gate that size seemed both preposterous and perfect just now, and when I swung it open, my arms seemed hardly under my control. This had been my way lately, hurling cans against the wall, methodically ripping pages from a novel at the rate of reading, as if something were acting through me, practicing for life.

Nothing stood between my legs and the animal. And a strange magnetism drew me toward the opening, but I stumbled backwards and ran out of the forest, branches ripping at my eyes and dress. I found my husband just on the edge, dog at his foot.

“What happened?” His face looked as it had when I held the bourbon, set as if against eternal elements—wind, rain, pestilence. Patient. “Did Dame scare it off?” He approached the woods.

“Just a fawn,” I said, grabbing his shoulder. “Please take me home.” And I didn’t mind anymore the thought of going.

“Let me handle that sort of thing from now on. You don’t know what could have happened.”

We walked to the truck, its red chrome shining like John Mark’s promise to defeat the land, all obstacles between our family and the future. Inside, he turned on the air vents and sighed, stared again at my midsection.

“The baby will be fine,” I said.

I closed my eyes as he drove, imagined the animal waiting between fences, yards from escape. Crouched, it would spy the opening, a hundred acres of fertilizer-fed globes. Momentarily I regretted not having seen its face, its full form, because soon it would be gone.

John Mark slammed on the brakes. “How did it get in?” The horror in his voice infected me.

I followed his gaze out the back window, where I saw nothing but our dust, the strip of forest, our fields.

“What?”

“How did it get in?”

The animal must have already come through the gate. Too soon. I jerked my head in each direction. If only it had come out after nightfall, like something unreal. I saw only leaves flashing their undersides, a crow lunging into flight. I waited for him to identify what alluded me, but he didn’t.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

He sped us toward the house.

***

We went to bed shortly after sunset. He moved up behind me and slid his hand under my shirt, over my stomach. One of his nicer qualities, one that makes him a successful farmer, is his quickness to cut his losses. Surely he thought of the intrusion as a loss, an invading pest. Or, at least that’s how I’d been hoping he saw it. Nothing more than a pest. Yet neither of us had mentioned the breach since we came in from the truck.

In the soft darkness, his callused palm on me, we spoke of the baby to come—names, places it could go to school, a playhouse we would build beside the vegetable shed. It was the first time since before I got pregnant that everything felt right inside. We were in here, while the unpredictable world was out there.

He fell asleep first, and the silence deepened the significance of our silence about the breach. Why, if it were simply a pest, hadn’t he identified it, spoken its name? What roamed in the darkness beyond the light of our porch, through our fields, fenced in and desperate? Since a child I’d hated the woods, all its unplanted, unintended life. The poison oak that blistered, the random bees’ nests, every rock a risk to turn over. That afternoon, though, for twenty minutes, the world had seemed centered there, everything rushing out of the light to lose itself in the brush.  What had I let in? I backed up against him under the covers and pulled his arm around me like a bar.

***

In the morning, he was gone. Although it wasn’t unusual for him to check up on things Sunday, his day off, I knew he’d renewed the search. Without me there to confuse or distract, finding the animal would be easy. He’d follow its tracks, see where it had nibbled a pepper.

In my state of half-sleep, I felt steady, not yet queasy. So I stayed still, dozed as long as I could. I got up an hour later to vomit a wicked curl of white in the toilet. Perfect evidence I didn’t need to go running through the forest.

I grew hungry. Though the thought of food made me sick, I took some peanut butter out of the cabinet and ate it with a spoon. Not too horrible. Next, I got a bucket and scouring pad. On my knees I dipped the pad into the hot water and vinegar solution my mom had used. By keeping my eyes shut and my mind on John Mark, I found I could scrub the floor without feeling sick. Right now he’d be whipping in his truck past the red streaks of strawberries. Up ahead he’d spot the animal trotting along the road. As he drove toward it, it wouldn’t run. Just trot, ready to be captured and released. Though I couldn’t see in my mind what it was, having it in my husband’s sight was enough. By the time I finished scouring and rinsing, the section near the stove had already dried. I doubted it looked any cleaner than before—doubted it was any cleaner. Except I knew I’d cleaned it. That’s all that mattered.

“All done,” I said.

I brewed some tea and sat by the den window, which looked out over the front yard and Route 80, through a power-line space in the trees, and up a steep field belonging to the Petersons. A few goats, recognizable animals, stood out in the dawn. Life could be simple. I wanted the baby just as much John Mark. More, perhaps. I would be its soil. I’d lend it the patience of my body. Everything was fine.

As I studied the goats’ peaceful graze, a splintering sound startled me. A gunshot. It echoed, as gunshots do, even without mountains and valleys. I set down my mug. I hadn’t thought about what he’d do when he found the animal, his finding and identifying it having been my focus. Shooting it seemed like an overreaction. I watched the goats until they forgot about the gunshot and returned to grazing.

I went through the house to sit on the porch by the driveway, grabbing a light jacket against any chill. But the jacket did no good. I rocked on a dew-covered chair under the sparkle of a garden spider’s web.

The black truck pulled up five minutes later, headlights still burning though the sun was already half an hour in the sky. My husband walked over and sat heavily on the swing beside me. At once I could tell something was wrong.

“I heard the shot,” I said.

He nodded his head, eyes trained on one spot, as if the thing were still there, writhing in the open with a hole in its belly.  I’d have him bury it on our land. A reminder, maybe. Or an apology. I would not look at its body or learn its name.

“They ran her over,” he said after a while. “The fuckers.”

I saw then the look was sadness. “Who?”

“Dame,” he said. “Out on Route 80.”

The tears were there before I even thought of them, my body forming my reactions. But underneath, an uncertain joy flashed through me. It was alive. I’d already counted it gone, but it had a life, a resilience of its own. It must have re-entered the corridor and this time found a way out. Or maybe Dame had gone in alone.

“I couldn’t keep up with her,” he was saying.

“You mean she got out of the fence? Where?”

I appreciated that he didn’t answer. Two breaches made even less sense than one, and I was, of course, to blame. I thought of the yelp he must have heard. How must it have felt for him to find the mangled fur? To see her teeth gnash in agony? That divide. He must have placed the shotgun barrel against her gently, looked away.

I pulled his hot head down against my stomach and looked the way he’d come, through the dust as it settled. I could feel his tears and drool through my shirt, but when I pulled him closer, his neck stiffened. In his grief, he remained careful of the life inside me. I loved him at that moment for keeping this place together. For his fortitude against certain dangers he saw lurking at the edge of our lives. For letting me alone decide what I’d done.

***

We buried Dame behind the farm house in a quilt my mother had made. John Mark wouldn’t let me see the body, its wounds. For all I knew, it could have been the intruder we were burying, the way it could have—maybe should have—been. Together we lowered her stiff, hidden form into the hole. I flinched when a clump of dirt fell onto her side, though I knew she was dead. Safe. Once John Mark filled in the dirt, he sprinkled grass seed on the grave. We decided not to mark it. It was better that way.

The next day, he came home with a new dog. A border collie like Dame, but not as sharp. It’s his mind for crops, I guess, one generation preceding the next, on schedule. I also wonder though if he was showing he forgave me, that he was willing to lose our dog to keep me happy, our fetus safe. Although young, the new dog is lazy; Kirby sits around our yard while my husband and his help work around him. Our place might be overrun with raccoons and beasts of all stripes without us knowing it. There’s no way he’ll catch or even sense what stalks our fields.

It’s been two weeks now since the incident, the breach. Already my nausea has decreased. I can get around the farm all I want, though I take it easy for John Mark’s sake. With the exception of Kirby, the farm appears the same as it used to be. In the fall we’ll harvest the gourds and pumpkins, vegetables for show. Then the winter will come, and the two of us will have more time together. Inside will appeal more. The fireplace. Stews. Movies. Doctor Phillips says that the baby will soon generate heat. I’ll be like a walking furnace.

One change, though, does linger. The little unsown joy my body conceived the morning we lost Dame has grown. I don’t summon it. It’s just there. People believe children are miracles, fully formed identities sprouting from love. I’d have to agree. This imperceptible presence in me is coming fast, blooming into consciousness until one body won’t be enough for the two of us. A miracle for sure. But I’d say it’s just as much of a miracle that out of a space just wide enough for a person to walk, a space no wider than one body, a blur might come rushing, carrying strange odors in its uneven fur, renewed life.

 

 

Peter Grimes is a writer and professor who directs the creative writing emphasis at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. His fiction has been published in journals such as Narrative, Fiction International, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, Memorious, and Sycamore Review.