It’s March and something’s wrong with the baby, Jilly’s baby. The little girl isn’t going to survive, the doctors say, but they don’t say how long things will go on, either. Lucy turns it over in her mind and sips the last of her Sanka while the train comes up from the north. She hears the blows–long, long then short, short, short at every driveway and county road crossing. The first whistle she can hear is at DiNapolis’, then four more sets before the lead engine reaches their place. It only takes a couple of minutes when the train’s coming from the south and empty–whole nother, long slow story when it’s coming uphill and full of coal.
Lucy gets up from her coffee, opens the front door then the storm door, loose on its hinges, and steps out onto the front deck without a jacket. She puts her arms around herself. Even though it’s not very cold today, it is still winter. There’s plenty of snow left, and likely plenty still to come before real spring sets in about mid-May. That’s normal for around these parts, but in the whole country things haven’t been too normal. In January it snowed in Miami. After that there was a blizzard to beat all in Buffalo, only people with Ski-Doos could get around. She and Harvey learned it all from Walter Cronkite; there were pictures on the Evening News of people digging tunnels to get to their front doors.
On the deck, Lucy has to close her eyes things are so bright, and getting brighter all the time. Daylight savings will come in a month and screw things all up anyway. Whoever got the notion to mess with the hours of sun God gave, she doesn’t know about that. As it is here in the Rockies, the snow banks have piled up to the front deck and made a nice place for the cat to scurry and shelter when he likes. The wind when it blows can’t touch him under there, and he sure enough seems to be finding the mice and getting after them because she hasn’t seen or heard one in the house all winter.
Lucy squints through her lashes. At the edges of the valley, the mountains rise up, and she feels like they’re sheltering her, feels like they have been doing that her whole life long. Plenty of the folks around have given up their properties and gone to places with more people and big Safeway stores where they can get groceries every day if they want, but Lucy’s never leaving, likes it here with lots of space where she’s close to the sky. In the far section of pasture a cow bawls. Adjacent the house, the hay meadow lies white and bright, turning hard as glass from melting a little in the day then freezing up again at night. It’s what they used to call a three-wire winter, with the snow piled up over the top strand of the fence. Seems like mostly every winter hits that mark, meaning mostly every spring they have to fix fence all up and down the pasture, poking themselves full of holes trying to mend everything. Anyway with snowshoes or skis looks like she can get right over the barbed wire and into the wide open, where she wants to be.
It’s like the engineer’s tooting at her when the train finally makes their place, even though it’s the law he’s got to blow every time he goes by. Lucy’s glad for this everyday reminder to stay out of the way. The engineer gives a wave from on high, the engine gone before she can really wave back and the tracks bending under each car. Someday she’ll take pencil to paper and figure about how many hours she spent in this life worrying about what never happened¾her girls Jilly or Pauline somehow getting hit by the train. All that iron coming at 50 miles per hour through their property, just about.
Pretty quick the sun drives Lucy back inside, but not before she figures more or less what she wants to do. Jilly and Bert will come in a few days with their boys William and Zane and the baby, Alexandra. Such a pretty name, and the poor child will never get to be a grown up big enough to fit into who her parents thought she might turn out to be. But Lucy stops herself from thinking about it too many ways. It’s generous of Jilly and Bert to be coming home when things are so hard, gas is up to 65 cents a gallon, and any comfort’s bound to turn cold.
“There’s nothing you can do, Mam,” Jilly had told her. Lucy knew Jilly thought she could keep others from pain if she kept it mostly for herself; since she was a girl, she’d been that type, full of kindness, not wanting anyone to hurt. Even though they were talking long distance, Lucy could hear Jilly trying to keep her voice dropped low and steady in order to report the facts without getting herself or Lucy completely upset.
Back in the house things are mostly dark on account of Lucy’s eyes not being adjusted from the glare outside. Harvey’s gone to town for coffee, and he said something about the hardware store, which means he won’t be back before noon even if he had any notion of hurrying.
He had talked to Jilly separate the other night, eased himself into the hard chair they keep by the phone and barely said a word, sat there nodding and nodding as if Jilly could see him. Just as well she couldn’t because he had ended up with the phone squeezed to his head by his shoulder and his arms twisted around each other and himself in front so bad Lucy had to come loosen his grip, talk to Jilly some more, then hang up the receiver.
“Guess we’re all going to react to this different,” Harvey had said later when he still hadn’t moved from the chair. This as if he’d never heard of disease.
Now Lucy works on her snow clothes and thinks about what she might use for hair. Jilly’s family is dark, even the baby so far, and her other daughter Pauline’s family is all blond, so she’ll need two colors at the very least. Baling twine might work, but she’d have to paint it somehow; yarn’d be better, yellow and brown if she can get enough. Probably she can convince Harvey to go into town again tomorrow and see what he can find at the dime store. It will mean a half hour in the truck, but it’s not like there’ll be anything else he wants to do but have coffee and worry about things. Lucy thinks maybe a skein of red for the mouths will do as well. Buttons will work for eyes if she can get them to stay in.
She feels foolish strapping on the snowshoes to walk ten yards, but it’s the easiest way. Lucy packs down a path over the fence then brings the shovels, one for moving snow, a big spade for packing, and a tiny garden spade for shaping. Where she decides to build, it’s tough work breaking through the crusty layer on top, but by the time she hears Harvey home with the pickup, she’s got two snow piles, four feet tall or so apiece, one for each of her girls’ families. She’s peeled her jacket off and stands sweating.
Harvey parks and gets himself out of the truck, walks around. “Keeping busy?” he yells, and the words hang from the bare limbs of the cottonwood trees above her for a minute. She waves at him. He waves back without saying anything more. His arm stays frozen there against the sky a while, all by itself looking sad, the curve of it like the limb is trying to smile but it can’t, not even for her. Anyway, it’s after lunchtime already and she might go in and heat something up, if either of them can bear to eat. She plants her shovels in a row upright and picks up her hat and jacket. At least the sun feels good. She expects there’ll be a little red burn line on her head later where her hair is parted.
“You don’t have to fix me lunch,” Harvey says when she comes in. He’s sitting in front of the television. They each have an easy chair, side-by-side, identical, but he always sits in the same one. Ever since Carter pardoned the draft dodgers, seems like Harvey’s been glued to the T.V., waiting all day for the evening news.
Harvey got his news about war on Omaha Beach, that’s what he says. Now, most of the vets are mad at the new president, but Harvey says since Carter served on submarines and battleships he’s no coward. Anyway, it was a campaign promise to pardon them, to heal the nation’s wounds and all that, and Carter made good on it first thing. Harvey has told Lucy he wonders what the president could pardon other folks for, what trouble people could get out of just by another fellow saying it’s OK because of the way things have changed now. Harvey won’t say he’s thinking about anyone he might’ve harmed in his war. He also won’t say what he and Lucy talked about once, what if Jilly and Pauline had been boys and had to go, would he let them? “I know I’d do anything to protect our girls,” was all Harvey had said.
Lucy’s lived with him too long to expect him to talk much, least of all about a grandchild of theirs that’s already dying. But she knows he’s breaking apart inside like she is, and Jilly is, and Bert. Harvey’s feeling has grabbed him from the inside and is commencing to turn his intestines in knots or something like that. She’ll have to live with his resulting flatulence for months, every fart an expression of ruin. Still, she’s glad she’s got him, plain and familiar. He’s never laid an unkind hand on her in all their years, and he’s always grateful for whatever cooking she does, and how she raised the girls. He can be tender, and just now turns to her and says her name as a greeting.
Lucy stoops a little to hug him around the shoulders on the way to the kitchen. Even though she feels sorry for him and what they have to go through losing together now, she believes the situation’s harder for her. Always harder to be the mother. She understands what it is to carry a child inside, deliver it, feed it with your body. Now she’s got to watch her Jilly lose a daughter, and she’s got to lose Baby Alexandra herself, too. It can’t be easy for Harvey, and it doesn’t matter who’s got it the worst because what they have to do is help Jilly and Bert and the boys somehow, even though every last one of them knows there’s no real way. Lucy wonders what the boys, the baby’s brothers who are just three and five, have been told and what they can understand. Alexandra barely seems sick sometimes, Jilly said. Jilly said some days pass and she’s like any normal infant, cooing and smiling, eating and sleeping. Still, Jilly said she can barely stand to put the baby down. And Bert weeps at night.
“Weeps?” Lucy had asked. It was the second call since they found out.
“Worse than plain crying, Mam,” Jilly said. “Like nothing you’ve ever heard before.”
While Lucy’s in the kitchen fussing, Harvey sits with his elbow propped on the chair arm, the side of his face resting on his open hand. He’s watching a new game show, The Family Feud. First the host, Richard Dawson, always kisses the girls. Today he asks what women surveyed say would be the worst thing about being married to Tarzan. Top six answers are on the board. Lucy comes from the kitchen and hands Harvey a bowl with the spoon already in it. She’s got a bowl for herself too. Harvey nods his head sideways to mean she should sit down beside him. “Can’t sit, my back’ll stiffen up,” she says.
All that yelling turns out to be the number one answer. Lucy does not want to be married to Tarzan. “I don’t know,” she says, “the yelling part might be fun.” Harvey’s busy blowing on his soup and doesn’t say anything. “I guess it might be hard,” she goes on, “if you had to listen to it all day and you didn’t get to yell yourself. But there’s no reason Jane couldn’t yell, too. Who would hear her? I doubt Tarzan would complain.” She looks over at Harvey. “Do you think Tarzan and Jane were really married, anyway?”
There’s a commercial, and Lucy walks back to the kitchen finishing her soup by tipping the bowl to her mouth on the way. Because she didn’t bother to take off her snow boots, trails of tiny puddles dot the floor. “Do you mind going back to town for me tomorrow?” she asks Harvey, and she tells him what colors of yarn she wants.
“I can go back now, if you need me to,” he says. “Can’t seem to do anything else.” He puts his bowl down beside him on the floor, and when he bends he farts. “Those beans tear me up inside,” he says.
“Got nothing to do with beans, I expect.” Lucy makes a fist and bounces it lightly off the top of his head to say that she’s teasing him.
“It’s not really like a feud.” Harvey points at the TV. “It’s not like those families have any problem with each other at all. They just huddle up trying to think of the right thing to say next,” he says.
“Name something children do outside,” Richard Dawson says.
By the time Lucy goes back out that afternoon, her snowshoe path has hardened, and she can walk over in just her boots. She lays her coat in the snow again, her hat on top, before she takes up the large spade and begins pounding down her mountains. The first is bigger; this will be for Jilly’s family. Lucy alternates with her tools, pounding the snow into a tall, hard lump with the backside of the long-handled spade, then digging and throwing more snow onto the pile with the snow shovel. She doesn’t dwell on what will happen to Alexandra, how the sickness will take her, slow or quick, but she can’t keep herself from seeing the baby in her mind, her wiggling body, tiny fists opening and closing on the air.
To help herself stop brooding, Lucy concentrates a few minutes on the muscles knotting up in her shoulders, then a few minutes on trying to stretch as she swings the shovel into the air and lets the piles of snow land on the mound she’s building. The years of bucking bales, pulling calves, and hauling wood have made her body hard. Now anytime she catches herself in the mirror, she turns away thinking she barely looks like a woman anymore.
Even so, she’s glad for the strength to accomplish things. And glad for space around her. Once in a while a grosbeak sings at her like a happy drunk from the cottonwoods. Or a truck turns onto the county road a few miles down and heads away from her toward town. The weather’s clear as crystal, and sound carries forever, over and around the rises in the valley floor until it gets to her out on the ranch.
By 3:00 thinks she’s got the first mound to where she can start the real work on it. But she wants to get both mounds done before she begins chiseling, so she starts to hard packing the second pile. She has to walk farther away now to get snow to add, and it’s like she’s created a room. It looks to Lucy like a picture postcard of those kiva places around Mesa Verde. Except there’s no earth showing for miles around; everything’s white, and the room is only something she’s dug out in less than a day.
She expects that Harvey has made his way back from town again, because daylight’s getting lower and he’ll have to feed whether he thinks he can or not. Her own shadow stands taller than herself by half already. She wishes she felt more hungry. She can remember Jilly being hungry as a baby, and as a child. Skinny she was, too, all ribs and knee caps such that anyone who saw her joked about how Lucy ought to be feeding her more. It wasn’t like that with Pauline. Her second child had been a plump little thing. Lucy pictures the two of them playing somewhere near where she stands now, remembers how she used to long to hold them, even when she could see them just fine out the kitchen window, her two daughters walking through the hay meadow, the grass up to their ears just about. Lucy tries to recall way back, tries to hear their little girl voices, and wonders now, finally, what they could have been chattering about when they lay down, both of them disappearing entirely into the waving summer field.
It’s about dark when she finishes the second mound high enough to where she thinks she can start working on it. There’s a big moon up, but even so after the sun has set Harvey brings out a kerosene lamp and a hamburger that’s already getting cold. She thinks of the grease that must be in the frying pan and knows she’ll have to clean it up later. “Don’t know what you’re up to, I guess,” he says. The hamburger rests in the middle of a plastic plate. Beside it, half a red apple with the core cut out wobbles around on its backside. Harvey retrieves a can of Coca Cola from the pocket of his parka and buries it in the snow, leaves just the top showing.
Lucy accepts the plate and bites the burger, which he’s cooked clear through like she likes it and squirted ketchup under the bun. She doesn’t remember there being any buns in the house and wonders where he can have found such a thing. She sniffs it for mold. Harvey lifts the lamp to get a look at her while she chews, but his own face is lit. His cheeks suck in between the rows of his top and bottom teeth.
“I want to make a family each out of these hills, one that’s Jilly’s, one that’s Pauline’s.” Lucy takes a second bite of the burger, which tastes good.
“All right, then,” Harvey says. Lucy looks at the sky as if an airplane or an eagle had passed its shadow over her, but nothing like that has happened, and anyway it’s dark. Their house light is the only one in sight. “What about you and me?” Harvey asks.
She looks at him and shrugs. “We’re here already,” Lucy points out.
“You’re not forgetting that snow melts, are you?” Harvey’s voice is so tired it seems to take time to pack up and travel in order to get to Lucy only a few feet from where he speaks. But she knows Harvey, and he’s not making fun. He offers to leave her the lamp, and an hour later he comes back out to refill its little fuel tank.
When she goes in Harvey tells her she better call Pauline. The girl is beside herself, so Lucy coaches her to say just one word at a time. Pauline goes so slowly then, and Lucy has to write the words out on a notepad by the phone until she’s got: We just can’t come now and then. . .That’s when Pauline won’t say the next words so Lucy helps her by asking, “ and then again later?” She hears how froze up Pauline is on the other end, trying to say such awful things. Pauline’s family won’t be able to afford coming twice. Pauline’s husband Jim had to move them far¾clear to Kansas, to the other side, to a good, productive farm. It’s a day’s drive and too much time away from everything that needs done every day.
Lucy goes to bed late and gets up early with almost no sleep while she was lying there. She walks over the fence in her boots again, and by the light of day she can see better what she’s made. Pauline’s family will be the blond ones, but now they just look like blobs. Jim is the tallest in back, Pauline stands there beside him and their daughter and son sit in front. For a minute Lucy thinks about leaving them, without expressions or any features that give them away. They all look fine like that, except no one could tell they’re meant to be people yet. They look like stalagmites or stalactites, whichever the kind it is that grow up from the bottom. Except they’re thicker than that.
Lucy’s started work on Jilly’s family, making them about the same way. She builds a lump from Jilly’s lap up to her shoulder to be the baby, Alexandra. Then she’s carving with the tiny gardening spade what will be little Zane’s shoulders while the train whistles from the south, making its way to her. When it’s close she ducks behind the family she’s working on and tries to see maybe what the brakeman thinks of her project while he goes by on his way to the mine, but the guy faces forward, watching the tracks like he’s supposed to.
Harvey and Lucy had debated, long ago, about not buying their place on account of the train going right through, but it made the price better than they could have got on any ranch in Northwest Colorado not on the tracks or with a house farther from the line. She’s used to the train now, but Lucy doesn’t guess anyone, not even Harvey, knows how much she depends on it. Like a touchstone, all that rumble and clatter, and the whistle. Once in a while, when for some reason or other the train stops across the drive, she gets uneasy. There’s supposed to be some legal time limit for how long the engineers can do that, just let the train cars block a road or someone’s drive. She wonders what would really happen if there was an emergency and she was stuck, on one side or the other, separated from some particular safety offered only on the opposite side. But, most days the train goes by four times, twice up the tracks and twice down, like it’s supposed to, without stopping.
In the late afternoon both families melt slightly because of the intensity of the