In A Flash: The Woman Who Didn’t Speak

The sky was grey with cloud that promised rain. Marjiana eyed it with distrust as she set off down the road. She had learned to prepare for the worst. The universe was rarely kind and beneficent and one had to fight for the scraps of happiness that could be found, lest someone else steal them away.

Her side ached as she walked. It was a dull pain, one that she had grown used to over the last weeks since her injury. There was nothing else to do but become accustomed to it, for there was nothing to be done about it. The community doctor had succumbed to the rhesus virus two seasons ago. Now they made do with what little those who were left knew.

The hetman had promised a new doctor would arrive with the next ship, but everyone knew it was just something he felt he had to say. Of all of them he had to remain optimistic. Why else was he the hetman, if not for that? To lead was to believe. The rest of them, including Marjiana, focused on surviving. They knew that there was little likelihood of another ship arriving anytime soon—the greater probability by far was that none would arrive in what remained of their lifetimes—let alone one carrying a doctor.

Marjiana walked past the other five homesteads nearest her own home, each of them on its own carefully delineated half acre of terraformed land. Danjesh saw her from the field where he was busy at work and stood to give her a quick wave, before returning to the painstaking work of drawing sustenance from the poor soil. No one else was about in the fields and the surrounding houses were dark and filled with shadows. Two of them were uninhabited, the families there having passed from the rhesus fever along with the doctor. The remaining two were not empty, but might as well have been, for their inhabitants had fallen into despair and now spent their days indoors awaiting their end. The hetman came once a week, trying to stir them from their melancholy, to no effect.

Marjiana had no time for melancholy, even if her spirit had tended that way. She had mouths to feed—six ,in fact, if one counted her husband Kjessel, which she supposed she had to. Presumably he could fend for himself, but Marjiana had her doubts, based on their first five years here following the terraforming. He was an engineer and used to problems having solutions, an inner logic, and there had been little of that here so far. There had been little of anything beyond mistakes and their ill consequences, which they all had lived with as best they could. Some better than others.

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Image: Clint Westgard

In A Flash: Gambler’s Fallacy

The ripple of the cards upon the table, the shifting of everyone upon their chairs, the thumbing of glasses and clothes, the shuffle of money and hands: Burgess can hear it all. His eyes are closed and there is thunder in his mind, but he can hear it all. The air is redolent with the stench of rotgut whiskey, sweat and the wood burning in the stove they are all huddled near to keep out the winter cold.

Burgess opens his eyes at the sound of the door opening and sees Pederson returning within from the outhouse. A gust of frigid air makes them all tremble. Pederson takes off his coat, his breath still staining the air in clouds around his head. Everyone watches as he returns to the table and picks up the deck.

“Sorry boys,” he says with a smile. “Where were we? Five card draw?”

There are grunts of assent and the cards go out. Burgess does not touch his until they are all dealt, his eyes intent upon Pederson’s hands. His face feels hot in spite of the chill in the room, and his gaze goes blurry and then steady with each blink of his eyes. There is the sound of the ocean in his ears as someone stands to refill the glasses and someone else asks a question about Maggie Garneau. He thinks about saying something witty, but decides not.

The cards are dealt and he looks at them. Trip fives. He looks around the table. Everyone is looking at their cards. The bet comes to him and he throws in five dollars.

“Spending all your winter funds,” Pederson says, not glancing up from his cards.

Burgess bristles. “We’ll see where I stand at the end of the night.”

“You’ll be standing because you’ll have nowhere to sit again.”

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The Falkenbourg Place

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

Now Available: Smeagol Blues

Smeagol Blues scaled

For as long as he can remember, growing up on the Canadian prairies, David has been drawn to the house. Called the Faulkenbourg Place by the locals after the Swede who had homesteaded the quarter, it is an unremarkable, ramshackle thing, worn by too many harsh seasons on the prairies. David’s curiosity will lead him to an investigation of the strange history of one of its inhabitants, Louie Glazer, a man who had disappeared without a trace thirty years before. Despite these  and other ominous signs he remains in its thrall, a power beyond his reckoning, that will lead him to an act of betrayal and a startling discovery as to the nature the nature of the place itself.

A short story by Clint Westgard
Available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords

What Lay Within

It was during that fall that his mother’s illness became inescapably apparent to David, the strange pallor that he had noticed that summer now a permanent feature of her face. There were other changes as well, though little noticed by him. His mother was always tired, often going to bed early in the evening when he and Eric did, and on particularly bad mornings it was their father who would rouse them get their breakfasts and send them off to the bus for school. Sometimes their usual after supper games, crib and rummy and kings on the corner, would be left to he and Eric alone.

The dim concern David felt for these developments, more a sense that this was unusual than any true understanding of what they implied, was offset by the arrival of harvest. It was his favorite time of the year, filled with bustle and activity, given greater meaning by the race to get the crop off before the weather turned.  This year his excitement was magnified by the addition to the proceedings of the new hired man, a fellow named Jim from Enchant.

The hired man and his father worked from dawn till dusk, so long as the weather held and there was wheat to harvest. When David came home from school he would take the two lunch pails his mother had prepared, full of sandwiches, sliced cucumber and tomatoes with some cookies for desert, and two thermoses full of tea out to the grain bins where Jim was unloading the truck. Jim would give him a ride out to the field, keeping up a friendly chatter that to David’s ears sounded worldly and wise, and then David would run one of the pails and a thermos over to the tractor and combine his father was driving.

He would sit beside his father, nestled precariously on the armrest, with the various unfathomable gear sticks threatening to jab him in the back, as he made his rounds in the field and ate his supper. He enjoyed watching the swath disappearing into the combine, transformed into kernels of wheat straw that would be spit out the back of the machine. His father did not really say anything in these moments, focused on his supper and the task at hand, but David did not mind. It was enough to watch, to hear the throttle of tractor and the rumble of the combine as they worked. Sometimes, if his father allowed it, he would stay out on the tractor until his eyes grew too heavy and then Jim would take him home for bed.

On the weekends they would all eat lunch in the fields, sitting in lawn chairs out on the stubble in the shadow of the machinery. The talk would be on the progress of the harvest, how this field was going tougher than the last, how the equipment was holding up, and how the weather might threaten or bless in the days to come. David would listen to these conversations with fascination, feeling a part of some monumental task, the import of which he could not quite grasp.

One day, Jim seemingly tired of all the talk of work, asked about the Faulkenbourg Place.

“Why do they call it that?” he wanted to know.

His father finished the bread he was eating and said, “Albert Faulkenbourg homesteaded that quarter. He bought the house and put it up there in twenty two or twenty three I think.”

“What happened to him? Get moved out in the Thirties?”

“No. The year after he built it he was killed. He was disking a field and something spooked his team. He was thrown off his seat and the discer went right over him. Dad found him the next day.”

“That’s a hard thing.”

“Yes it was.”

“Your family bought it after that?”

“No, it went through a few hands,” here his father paused tantalizingly, as though there were much more to be said. “Bit of a bad luck place I guess you could say. Land’s a bit sandy too.”

Jim stayed on through the winter and into the next fall as well. During the summer, when more of his time was his own and he had much more freedom to navigate, David would often make his way over to the Faulkenbourg Place to chat with the hired man, who didn’t seem to mind the company. He taught David how to throw a proper curveball and told him about the time he had batted against Satchel Paige when the Negro Leaguers were barnstorming through Saskatchewan.

As much as he enjoyed the Jim’s company, the larger purpose of his visits was to be within the house. It was a compulsion, deeper than any understanding he was capable of. The thrill he felt as he stepped from the entryway, to the kitchen or the living room, to sit across from Jim and talk was something near ecstasy, especially now that he knew what had happened to Albert Faulkenbourg. To be in these same places where a dead man had sat and done the same things he had was an incomprehensible and new thing to David.

Jim left in the middle of the next winter, a particularly harsh one, even by the standards of the Canadian prairies. The first snow had fallen a week after Thanksgiving and stayed on through November and into the new year, accumulating into vast drifts that hardened into immovable dunes, reshaping the landscape entirely. The drifts in the yard were so large and solid that the cattle could walk out of their pens and the tractors were unable to break through them. The temperature offered no reprieve, staying well below freezing so that even the slightest breeze was cutting.

It was in January, when the days were at their shortest, the sun setting before five, making the cold seem to set in the bone all the more, that Jim came by their house to announce his leaving. David was at the kitchen table playing cards with his mother while his father finished his tea and read the paper. Jim looked sheepish as he unbundled himself on the porch and apologized for disturbing their evening. His father waved away his concerns and poured them both a glass of whiskey. They retired to the living room to talk.

Though David made a great show of playing his hands, he lost three games in a row as he tried to play and listen to what was being said in the living room between the two men.

“I’m just here to give my notice,” Jim was saying. “Sorry to spring it on you like this.”

“You’ve got something else then?” his father said, in that even tone he used to indicate disapproval.

“No, not exactly yet.” Here Jim stammered. “I know some folks in Maidstone.”

There was a pause where David could imagine his father taking a measure of the situation while he took a sip of his whiskey. “Is there a problem, something you’re not telling me?” he said. “I think I’ve been fair in all our dealings. I could understand if you had something better lined up. Lord knows you don’t want to be doing this your whole life.”

Jim’s discomfort was plain in the way he spoke. “It’s not anything you’ve done. You’ve done right by me Walter. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity. Just time to move on I guess.”

“There’s not something else wrong is there?”

“No, no,” Jim said and there was a long silence. “It’s the house, if I’m being honest. There’s something about it doesn’t sit right.”

“How do you mean?” his father said, sounding confused.

“I can’t explain it really. I just don’t feel right in it, like there’s something else there with me.”

“A ghost you mean?”

“No. I know what you’re thinking. Jim’s gone crazy. I swear to you, it’s nothing like that. I can’t explain it. I know there’s nothing there. Can’t be. But it just doesn’t feel right.”

They left it at that, his father thanking him for his help and wishing him the best. Later David would overhear him talking about the situation with his mother, saying that maybe it was a blessing that he had gone when he had. “He can’t be right in the head, thinking there’s something in that house with him. Who ever heard of such a thing?”

David knew what Jim had tried and failed to tell his father, that sensation that escaped all words yet sunk deep into the center of his being never to be shaken free. Jim had been afraid of it, though he had tried to hide it in front of his father. David, though, felt no fear, only a longing that somehow he imagined would be made whole by the place itself and whatever lay within.

From Smeagol Blues by Clint Westgard

Forthcoming April 2013

Forthcoming: Smeagol Blues

Smeagol Blues

For as long as he can remember, growing up on the Canadian prairies, David has been drawn to the house. Called the Faulkenbourg Place by the locals after the Swede who had homesteaded the quarter, it is an unremarkable, ramshackle thing, worn by too many harsh seasons on the prairies. David’s curiosity will lead him to an investigation of the strange history of one of its inhabitants, Louie Glazer, a man who had disappeared without a trace thirty years before. Despite these  and other ominous signs he remains in its thrall, a power beyond his reckoning, that will lead him to an act of betrayal and a startling discovery as to the nature the nature of the place itself.

A short story by Clint Westgard
Forthcoming April 2013