There were several hired men who passed through the Faulkenbourg Place in the following years. None of them stayed for long, though none admitted to feeling any odd sensations while living in the house. It was the nature of job that there would be so much overturn, at least that was what David’s father told him. At the same time the farm prospered and, along with the rest of their neighbors, their family had money to spend. They put electricity and plumbing in the house not long after, removing the last vestiges of its homesteader roots.
What truly marked the passage of time though was the worsening of his mother’s condition. There was the day when she ceased to rise to see he and Eric off in the morning, the day when his father started to make their suppers after he came in from work, the day when she could no longer walk without help, and, worst of all, the day when he had to keep score in their nightly game of gin rummy. Though it was never said by anyone, David understand that these were the way stations on the path to oblivion, that his mother was dying, as Albert Faulkenbourg had died, as the steers did when they were sent to market in the fall.
Death did not seem a strange occurrence to him, not when he was surrounded by it daily. He assisted in killing the hens and pigs when the time came each year and had spent many an afternoon watching hawks lazily circling the sky above a tractor as it moved through the field, stirring up the mice and voles below. This, he understood, was a different kind of death, a momentous one, the others merely profane. It wasn’t the fact of the death that told him this, dying seemed much the same regardless of who or what was doing it, it was everyone else’s reactions to it.
Visitors that came to the farm, even the various hired men, would speak in hushed tones or with a forced joviality when his mother was about, her condition obvious at a glance. They would not meet her eyes and then stare at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. David suspected she noticed it all, though she never said. His father, taciturn by nature, turned ever more inward as his mother’s condition worsened, some days speaking no more than a dozen words. Eric, too, retreated within himself, passing his hours at home in his room, not even spending time with David. He was hurt by this change in his brother, for in their younger days they had been inseparable.
Unlike the others, David was drawn to his mother, spending as much time as he could with her. He became the one who unfailingly helped her around the house as that became more difficult. He found reasons to be near her, to touch her, crawling into her lap to sit, though she found such contact painful in her condition. His father would yell at him to leave her be when he would see him sitting in her arms and he would slink away, only to return later as soon as his father had gone away. The smell of her fascinated him, musty and rank, as though an unseen decay had already begun within her. As the end neared and she spent more and more time in bed, neither sleeping nor truly awake, David would secrete himself in the hall outside her bedroom and stay for hours listening to her labored breathing.
He was fourteen when death granted her the peace life had not. Just as her illness had changed and reordered the cosmos of the farm, so her passing did again. His father withdrew ever more inward, working blindly in the fields, and in the evenings retreating to his office or to shop, where he would tinker mindlessly on some project or another. It fell to Eric to take care of them, once the neighboring wives stopped bringing over meals they had prepared, getting David up in the morning for school, helping him with his lunch and making supper for them when they got home. It was a role he resented for the burden it placed upon him, and yet fiercely protected whenever David would try to care for himself.
For his part, David felt lost in this new world, so he avoided both his father and brother as much as he could. He would wander among the three rows of trees, evergreens and caraganas, which divided the farm from the road, playing in imagined realms in the shade of the branches. Days when he knew the farm hand was out working or in town, he would take his bike and ride the mile to the Faulkenbourg Place, sitting in one of the rooms on the floor, staring off into nothing. In those long hours he felt it speak to him, its soundless reverberations echoing through the center of his being.
Even as he turned fifteen and started high school, a time when he knew he should have moved beyond these childish things, he continued to venture to the house, its very presence reassuring him. One Sunday, with his father and brother having retreated into their respective worlds and the farm hand gone home for the weekend, he went over to pass the dreary afternoon. He stayed for hours, losing track of time, watching the sun move through the sky by the changing light coming through the windows. Though he knew he should leave, that the farm hand would be returning soon, he could not bring himself to stir from his reverie, until he heard the truck wheels on the driveway.
In an instant he was on his feet, sweat on his forehead and panic in his mind. He stayed frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do, knowing only that he couldn’t go out the front door without being seen. The windows were no good either. He would need time to get their screens off and their being open would be evidence enough of his presence. Had he been a little older and a little more confident he might have met Grant at the door with an apology and some excuse – no butter in the house – which he would likely have accepted without question.
Unable to think of anything else, he fled to the bathroom, climbing into the tub and ducking down so that his head did not peek over the side. This proved to be a poor hiding place, for after the long drive from Bonneyville, the first thing the farm hand did was go to the bathroom. He had his fly unzipped before he noticed David.
“Goddamn Christ,” he said with a jump. For a terrifying moment David thought he was going to hit him. Instead he walked out without saying another word. David could hear him on the phone to his father. He stayed where he was, letting the disaster continue to unfold, knowing that Grant was on the other side of the door if he tried to leave.
In a few minutes he heard another truck pulling into the yard and the front door opening, the screen door clanging against the side of the house. No words passed between the two men and then his father was there, looming above where he lay crouched miserably in the tub. His father leaned down and cuffed him hard on the ear, the other side of his head hitting sharply against the tub. Without needing to be told David got up and followed him out, past Grant whose eyes he could not meet, and then home, neither of them speaking.
from Smeagol Blues
Available in the collection On the Far Horizon