Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
7626 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

The Stranger Room

Susan Tekulve

Sadie first met Dean Sypher in June of 1963, the year the mines closed, and the operators who’d bought up farms in the valley below Wilderness Road left behind their houses filled with furniture, their barns locked up with the livestock still inside. When Dean wasn’t managing his mother’s property, he worked for the veterinarian who lived down the hill from the Sypher house, going out at night on large farm animal emergencies, looking after the abandoned animals. At seventeen, Sadie worked as a hired girl for Dean’s widowed mother, Emma, cleaning and cooking in exchange for piano lessons. She thought the worst veterinary cases were the horses. Unable to afford the feed, the operators set free their thoroughbreds before leaving. Arabians roamed, half feral with hunger, nuzzling bitter acorns dwindling in the woods at the edge of the Sypher’s sloping pasture, some of them dying, some going unborn.

Inside the Syphers’ parlor, Sadie stood beside the piano, staring through the bay window that overlooked woods, waiting for the horses to appear. Emma sat on the piano bench, her hands twisted like ginger roots in her lap.

“You’ve got true instinct,” Emma said. “If you would concentrate and practice, you could be good enough to play in church.”

After a month of piano lessons, Sadie could play only one hymn, “Adore and Be Still,” but Emma kept encouraging. Sadie never mentioned that there was no practice piano in her mother’s cabin over on Dump Hill. Jane Musick’s kitchen was filled with the single barber’s chair she used to cut hair for the railroad wives of Bluefield, and the boxy bedroom mother and daughter shared remained embittered by the smell of permanent solution that made Sadie wish she could live year round in the Sypher house. Cooled by mountain air in summer, heated by a coal furnace in winter, spring and fall, the house was filled with everything Emma had made before her rheumatism set in—hand-painted china with tiny pine cones around the edges, tables woven out of reeds.

On the early June morning that Sadie stared out the window and waited for the horses to come out of the forest, Emma’s hands began paining her so much that she gave up the piano lesson. She allowed Sadie to snap a music roll into the player piano, letting her peddle out old show tunes: “Oh Promise Me, “Canadian Sunset.” While Miss Emma swayed beside her on the piano bench, Sadie stared out the bay window again. All around the house, spring came so quickly she imagined she saw the trees greening, a sight that made Sadie’s whole body ache with unnatural stillness.

When Emma tired of the songs, Sadie helped her to bed and ran down the hill to feed the horses. At the bottom of the slope, in the remains of the old orchard, she gathered fallen green apples in a laundry tub and carried them to the fence at the edge of the woods. A black and a bay appeared under the leaf cover, but they shied away from her hands outstretched to stroke their knotted manes, retreating slowly into the forest. She dumped the fruit over the fence, turned and walked slowly back up to the hill to look for Dean.

She found him inside the barn, kneeling beside a chicken coop, staring at his latest veterinary project. After the last farm animal emergency, Dr. Chapell allowed Dean to bring home some abandoned chickens, and Dean had made a project of nursing the pecked chicks before trying to put them back in with the healthy ones. The project had gone badly. The dead chicks were all lying in the dirt, pocked and bloodied, while Dean paged through his father’s old Boy Scout Handbook, searching for the section on animal husbandry.

Sadie doubted that Dean had ever been a scout. When he was in the seventh grade, his father was gunned down by a tramp while grading Tidewater coal at the Norfolk and Western station in Bluefield, and Dean had dropped out of school to take over his mother’s farm. Eighteen now, Dean was short and barrel-chested. He was not handsome, but his face had a power—high and broad cheekbones, a nose broken twice by a fall from a horse, brown eyes so solemn that Sadie could never imagine him young.

As Dean scanned the pages of the Boy Scout Handbook, Sadie felt sorry for him, knowing he would not find a section on resurrecting dead chickens. She placed her hand above his shoulder, close as a touch, not touching.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Dean looked up warily. She dropped her hand, willing him to read her mind, You know me, until his gaze softened into recognition.

“A cow’s about to give birth up at the old McCaulley place,” he said. “I need to go up there and wait for the signs. You can come if you want.”

She nodded, but he’d already turned and walked out the door. Framed by evening sun, he stood at the pasture fence, calling and running a thistle along the wire mesh until a white speckled quarter horse came running, bumping her head against his chest as he rubbed her throat and crest. Though Dean found her half starved in the forest, he praised her high withers and long canon, noting her resemblance to an Indian pony.

“I think she might have some Barb blood in her,” he said. “I named her Cherokee.”

The horse nickered softly as Dean slipped the halter on and tugged her ear. He saddled the horse and lifted Sadie into it, tucking her feet into the stirrups. She teetered from the fourteen-hand height as Dean led her out of the pasture and toward an old game trail. He walked ahead, talking over his shoulder while the horse snaked her head at laurel branches, snatching deadfalls until she choked.

Dean looked back. “She’s an easy seat, but this time of day everything around her looks like a smorgasbord,” he said. “Hold the reins close to your stomach and pull the next time she goes for something.”

The horse’s gait was sloped and broken, but Sadie held on until the reins blistered her fingers. When the horse stopped straying, Sadie looked up. The night was spectral. Along the path, white pines were moon-bleached, arching like frozen fountains from craggy limestone bluffs. Dean was different in the woods, less wary than when he was around the house and barn. He carried a lantern, training it beneath the great rhododendrons, explaining how the locals preferred Dr. Chapell to the town vet who kept nine-to-five hours and transferred his emergency calls to another vet in Princeton.

“Dr. Chapell works by the moon,” Dean said. “He plans his social life accordingly.” When the moon was thin, Dean explained, Dr. Chapell went down to the Open Bar to drink Old Crow until reaching oblivion. When the moon was full, he’d wait at home for the phone calls. Dean talked and talked, and the horse felt strong beneath her, relaxed and supple now, traveling strongly. Sadie listened to the woods, to the horse’s tail swishing like silk over silk, to Dean telling of how they were on a game trail blazed by Cherokees one hundred years ago, when they crossed the mountains into the valley to hunt deer, elk, bison.

“They camped and hunted in the cove for weeks, sometimes months at a time,” he said. “They were just passing through. They never lived here.”

When they reached the wild white roses spilling over the path, Dean helped Sadie dismount and urged her to smell their apple scent, explaining that the wild rose bloomed for only four days out of the year. He helped her mount the horse again, reaching back to break off a branch of blossoms, handing it to her.

“Sub rosa,” he said. “It means that anything that happens under these roses stays beneath these roses.”

He pointed to the full moon that shimmered like a white coin, holding itself above the pine tops. “It’s definitely a calving night,” he said. “That moon’s pulling the water in their bodies like it pulls the water in the sea.”

They reached an abandoned house sitting above a creek bed. The back of the house was a chinked log cabin, but a room made of sawmill lumber had been added on the front porch. Dean helped Sadie dismount and carried the saddle and horse blanket over to the front room. It was empty, except for a bare straw mattress pushed up against the wall beneath a small, wavy window. There was no door leading from the new room into the old house.

“This is the stranger room,” Dean said. “Travelers could spend the night here without having access to the main house or the family inside. We’ll shelter here later on.”

He folded the blanket on the mattress, placing the wild rose branch on the window sill above it. They went back outside. Beyond the smoke house, Dr. Chapell stood outside the barn, dressed in a tweed cap and Wellingtons. His thick hair was shock white, his nose webbed with slender veins, but his blue eyes were good-humored as he looked Sadie over.

“Nothing a girl likes more than seeing a cow give birth on a Friday night,” he said.

“She’s interested in the cycle of life,” Dean replied.

Dr. Chapell laughed, nodding over to the calving pasture, toward a black cow standing among a herd of brown ones beside a pine windbreak. “That one’s done this twelve other times,” he said. “Just make sure you keep the calf from cold stress.” He looked Sadie over one more time. “Well, I’ll leave you to it.”

After the vet left, Sadie asked what signs they were waiting for.

“She’ll pull away from the herd, or we’ll see a wet spot on the ground beneath her,” he said.

“Is he coming back?”


“Dr. Chapell.”

“It’s a full moon. He’s probably tending cows all over the valley. He might even be helping a mountain woman or two give birth.”

Sadie studied Dean and wondered if he were teasing. He was still new to her; she’d yet to hear him laugh. When a slow smile blossomed over his face, she breathed easy again. “Come on,” he said, picking up his lamp. “It’ll be a while still. I want to walk and tell you everything about this place.”

He led her down the hill to a white, clapboard church, its tin roof streaked with rust. Inside, an angel carved from a piece of petrified driftwood knelt at the back, holding an empty pewter plate. They sat side by side in the last pew.

“Who were they?”

“Primitive Methodists,” Dean said. “They were strict. If you belonged to them, you didn’t play cards, you didn’t dance, you didn’t work on Sundays. You didn’t do anything, not even your sewing. You got your food ready on Saturdays, and you rested on Sundays.” He paused, resting his hand gently on the bare pew between them. “They’re all gone.”

“Where’d they go?”

“Home. Back to wherever they came from. They were just passing through.”

“Like the Cherokee?” Sadie teased, wondering if there was anyone besides the Sypher family who belonged to this valley.

“They were always different. In all the other churches, the men sat separate from the women. In here, a woman could sit next to a man.”

Sadie felt his hand on the pew beside her, wondered if she should take it. Dean stood, and they wandered out into the cemetery, through a path of gravestones that leaned into a leaf-covered slope. They passed into a clearing, where the grave markers were large and uncarved. At the very edge of the cemetery, Dean stopped in front of three white crosses planted above a bed of lavender, sage and rosemary. A pale white ribbon tied to a cypress swept down and along the ground, hedging in the herbs and three small plaques nailed to the footstones.

“These are the saddest ones.” Dean sat in the grass, holding the lamp near the three plaques, allowing her to read: Infant, December 19, 1918; Infant, February 18, 1916; Otis, February 27-September 5, 1917. “I always wonder how the mother got through this.”

Sadie shook her head, recalling the old family photograph her mother kept in a pine chest in her bedroom. It was of Sadie’s older sister, Grace, as a toddler, standing beside a pram that Sadie must have been in, an unseen infant. Jane knelt on the grass beside Grace, her dark eyes gazing softly at the older daughter, a stray curl of raven hair blowing across her unlined forehead. Grace had died of stomach cancer at eleven, and Sadie’s father left her mother soon after to marry a coal operator’s widow, claiming he no longer wanted to be poor, or stricken, that he just wanted a moneyed woman to take care of him. The photo was the only evidence of the lost sister that Jane had kept. Sadie took it out and looked at it often, guessing by her mother’s sultry looks that the photo had been taken by her father, a man still besotted by wife and children. She wondered if it was this memory that had kept her mother going.

Dean stood, swinging the lantern below another rhododendron.

“Can you see it?”

Sadie shook her head.

“It’s a spider’s eye,” he said. “My dad taught me how to find them like this.”

Sadie strained to see the spider’s eye, but all she could see was dew glistening in the grass. Dean walked deeper into the cemetery, training the lantern beneath shrubs, pointing at glistenings he called the spider’s eye. Sadie hated spiders. Once, she’d killed a bunch of spiders that were living beneath her bed. When her mother found out, Jane asked Sadie how she’d like them dressed, saying, “Don’t ever kill anything unless you intend to eat it.” Sadie never killed another spider, but as she followed Dean she hoped he wouldn’t kill any spiders and tell her to eat them. She nodded “yes” every time he spotted one because she liked how he leaned close to show her the glistening in the grass, the promise of his hand hovering above the small of her back.

When they reached the wooded edge of the cemetery, she saw a drop of blue larger than any spider. The blue drop moved slowly out into the open until she saw the swish of a white tail. The buck stared at Sadie and Dean, scraping his cheek against the headstones. He stamped his hoof, huffing like a small dog.

“There must be a doe bed around here,” Dean said. “He’s out laying scrapes, patrolling.”

“Will he come up on us?” Sadie asked.

“No, he’s just a homebody,” Dean said. “He’s just telling us he’s the boss on guard. He’s doing his best John Wayne swagger to scare us off the premises.”

Dean spoke to the deer in a human voice. “Okay, Duke. We’re not going to hurt your lady friend. We’re just passing through.”

An even bigger buck appeared, standing guardedly at a distance. Behind him, a doe sat in the grass, her delicate legs folded beneath her as she nibbled at the foliage. Dean swung the lantern, and both deer looked up, mildly staring back at them.

“Is she having her fawn?”

Dean shook his head. “It’s too early for that. Right now, she’s choosing her mate. She’s a quiet one. My guess is she’ll slip away from that old harem master and visit with Duke here. At least, that’s what he’s hoping. Until then everybody stays calm, fat and happy.”

The lantern smoked, and Dean turned it down. They sat on one of the low footstones, letting their eyes adjust to the darkness. Sadie felt Dean beside her, very close again, his hands milky in the moonlight, turning beautifully as he talked. She’d never been so close to a man, and she breathed deeply, catching his scent of horse and sweet hay, the sun’s heat still in his hair. She waited for him to lay one of his hands beside her, for his fingers to graze her hand as they rested on the stone between them. She wondered if he was waiting for her to give a sign, for her to do the choosing.

Sadie longed for an older sister’s counsel, someone who would speak plainly about the unspoken language between a man and a woman. When it was time for her to learn how to become a woman, Jane had taken her out into the forest to learn the names and secret uses of herbs. Rosemary and sage could evoke a man’s desire; lavender could help her to remain chaste, “if that’s what you want,” she’d added. Jane said a woman could drink a decoction of juniper to induce early labor “when nature failed to take its course.” None of her mother’s lessons explained what to do with this man sitting beside her, talking and talking, his hands moving around her, never landing.

Dean stood. “We’d better get back.”

Sadie followed him, confused by how close they had been, dimly disappointed, certain that whatever might have happened between them had passed. When they reached the pasture, the cow had pulled away from the herd. Dean ran to the struggling animal, Sadie trailing behind. The cow let out a low, defeated moan, and Dean spoke softly into her ear.

“Hey there, Delilah,” he said. “Shh, everything will be all right.”

He led the cow to a narrow corridor of aluminum piping that ran along the pasture fence, shoving a bar down behind her, feeling her haunches for broken bones. He rolled up his sleeve and stuck his arm inside, feeling for the calf. He motioned for Sadie to roll up her sleeve and stand beside him.

“I need your help,” he said. “The umbilical cord’s around the calf’s neck, and I can’t get my fingers under it. Your fingers are smaller than mine.”

She nodded, and Dean grabbed her hand, pulling her whole arm into a sticky warmth so spacious she felt she could have crawled inside. She reached toward the calf, feeling the cord like a wet rope around the calf’s neck. She slipped two fingers beneath, loosening it. Dean felt again, nodded, “That’s good.” He tied a rope around the calf’s hooves, and they pulled together, the air filling with watery sounds, the mother’s legs buckling as the calf landed on the soft grass, its wet fur bluish in the moonlight.

Sadie stared at the still calf, shivering as the birth blood cooled on her bare arms. She stopped breathing as Dean pulled off the placenta and flung it aside. Reaching down, he massaged the calf’s heart, pressing and circling with his thumbs until the mother heaved and righted herself. She licked the calf until it lived.

Sadie’s mind darkened, and her body swayed. Dean caught her in his arms and led her down through a laurel hell, guiding her into the creek. Standing with her in the shallows, he washed the blood off her arm, his hands moving over her skin firmly, gently, until he reached her shoulder, his thumb grazing the side of her breast. He stopped and looked into her eyes, his glance pulling all the blood through her body, and she wondered if the moon had begun working on her too. He let go, took off his shirt, and began washing himself. When he finished, he slung his shirt over his shoulder. They walked back to the stranger room.

Inside, the air was colder than the outside, the walls and window bare except for the branch of wild roses arching on the sill. “Come here,” Dean said, unbuttoning her blouse and arranging it with his own shirt across the mattress, urging her to sit down, pulling the musty horse blanket over them both. They sat side-by-side, closer than they had in the church and cemetery, their bare chests glowing in the dim light. They kissed until she felt slightly nauseated, and he pushed her down firmly, moving her around the mattress until he seemed satisfied with the way their hips joined. Her skin thrilled beneath his rough hands, her arms and legs weakening from the strange heat sparking in her stomach, traveling lower, until she felt an ache so pleasing it softened her mind, and she could only marvel at being there with him, chosen.

A pinecone dropped on the roof, startling them both. Dean stopped, looked down at her. “You can’t ever tell about this.”

He was above her still, but as he started moving again, he looked beyond, his eyes flinty, full of sadness and rage, as if he was no longer aware of her beneath him. She smelled the river they’d bathed in, the fainter smell of the blood they’d washed themselves of. Outside, the wind rushed through the pines like water. Her back ached, and she could feel the wooden floor through the bed tick, but she kept still, knowing that once started, even the loneliest of tasks must be finished. She closed her eyes, reciting the names of the loving herbs. Rosemary, sage, jasmine.

When it was over, Dean stood and paced the room, the mattress already lacking his heat and weight.

“There are herbs—” she began to say, but he hushed her by giving her the branch of wild roses from the windowsill.

“This can’t happen again,” he said.

She looked down at the branch, its blooms closed in the darkness. She added to her mother’s list of herbs, sub rosa.


When she got home, Sadie found her mother sitting cross-legged in the flowerbed outside the cabin, hedging a bed of irises with empty beer bottles. Jane’s black hair was woven into two loose braids, a few stray curls escaping, and her strong arms tanned from a morning of gardening. Her prized irises were deep purple, bearded, mail ordered from a catalogue, but they seemed wilder than the flowers she’d transplanted from the forest. Their stems bullied the coneflowers and lilies, but her mother never thinned them. All the flowers surrounded the rose of Sharon that Sadie’s father had planted to honor his lost daughter before he left, and Jane spent whole days moving and transplanting flowers around it according to some internal landscape unknown to Sadie.

Jane didn’t look up as her daughter approached.

“I went on a large farm animal emergency with Dr. Chapell and Dean Sypher,” Sadie said. “We helped a cow give birth. It happened near dawn. That’s why I was out all night.”

She retold the story, beginning with Dean’s failed chicken project and the cow birth, leaving out the part about the stranger room, ending with a list of the rescued animals Dean kept in his barn, the ones he’d shown her in the forest.

“He’s got an Indian pony named Cherokee, and he’s made friends with a deer he named Duke because his hero is John Wayne.”

Jane glanced sharply at Sadie’s waist. “That boy sure likes strays.”

“Oh, he’s got a heart like the world,” Sadie said.

“If it’s like this world, are you sure you want it?”

“He’s a good man. He doesn’t do a thing unless his mother tells him to.”

“That’s the worst kind of man.”

“What does that mean?”

“Emma Sypher is a high and mighty one. She’s got her eagle eye on everything.” Jane paused, considering the dirt beneath her fingernails. “Sometimes, the worst thing you can do is give someone what they want.”

Sadie waited, wishing her mother had given her a curfew and whipped her for breaking it. Instead, Jane gave her this puzzling admonition that would linger in her mind longer than any punishment. She recalled Dean’s stern words before leaving the stranger room. This can’t happen again.

“He wasn’t offering anything,” she snapped.

She turned and went inside the cabin. Now that she’d been with a man, her room felt crowded by everything a girl leaves behind when she’s not returning. Ragged china dolls lay side-by-side across her pillows; talcum spilled over its box on the vanity, dusting the silver brush and comb set that she no longer used. Above the bed hung a picture of Sadie taken by a traveling photographer a year ago, the kind touched up by a paint brush so that her skin looked as rosy as one of the china doll’s. The photographer had posed Sadie on a milking stool dressed in a Gibson Girl she’d borrowed from Miss Emma, her long, red braid slung over her shoulder like a bullwhip.

Jane came to the doorway. She’d changed into a white nurse’s dress and unwoven her black hair that swayed against her waist. She’d been a nurse during the War, and she’d kept her uniform, once confiding that she liked the way men still turned their heads when she walked by in that dress. Whenever she wore it, she did not come home until the next morning.

“I’m not telling you how to marry,” Jane said. “I never married well, so I quit. I’m only saying we have to be careful about the way we treat men. We have the power to make or break them.”

“Who said anything about marrying?” Sadie said, but Jane was already gone.

After Jane’s truck pulled away, Sadie went to her mother’s room and flung herself across the bed. A rain-scented breeze fluttered through the window screen, and Sadie rose to stand beside the pine chest that held the picture of her mother and sister beside the pram. She knelt, lifted the hope chest lid. It resisted. She tugged again, sinking with feelings of betrayal and embarrassment, as if her mother had known she’d come looking for the photograph that day, and she’d locked it away.

The clock chimed suppertime. Sadie’s stomach cramped with an emptiness greater than hunger as she imagined the Sypher family sitting down to eat on their screened-in porch off the kitchen, at a table Emma had woven from reeds. Everybody had their own silver napkin ring. Dean’s was big and heavy; Emma’s was smaller, with little beads around it. A few weeks before, Emma had caught Sadie polishing and admiring it. Emma gave it to her, saying “Every girl should have her own napkin ring.” After that, she allowed Sadie to set a place for herself after she served. She gave her two linen napkins a week, which Sadie never dirtied. She rolled them back into her silver ring at the end of each meal, placing them on the side table beside the silver oil lamp. Sitting in her mother’s room, she watched waves of clouds pour like milk over the next ridge. She longed unbearably for that silver napkin ring, for her place at the reed table on the Syphers’ airy back porch.


By blackberry season, it stopped raining. Storm clouds hovered beyond the valley, their dusty tendrils never reaching the ground. Streams dried up, ponds stagnated. Poisonous plants rooted in the dry pastures surrounding the abandoned farmhouses, their fence posts stacked in the center, clumps of rusty barbed wire scattered like tumbleweeds around them. Jane sent Sadie out with two empty buckets to pick berries, but the wild blackberries remained small and bitter from drought, and Sadie wandered for hours with half-empty buckets. Afraid to go home without the berries, she walked over to the Sypher place on her days off.

Sadie still kept house for Emma, but they’d stopped the piano lessons because Emma’s fingers hurt too badly now to play. No longer able to stand or walk, she sat for hours, staring through her cupped hands in her lap. Some days, she lay awake in bed, drinking coffee and hot tea. She talked hoarsely, continuously, as if her talk was the only thing keeping her mind from leaving her slowly petrifying body.

On one of those drought days when Emma was too ill even for talking, she asked Sadie to read to her from the love letters her husband had written from town, the summer before he died, when he’d begun working extra shifts at the railroad to save enough money to make the farm self sufficient. His love letters always began with the same salutation, Darling Mine, My Love Divine.

Received your letter today. Sadie read. You write a good letter—when you write one. Work went fairly smoothly today. No fights among the other men anyway. They wanted me to do a little work Sunday, but I told them I’d rather not if they didn’t mind. The weather has been inclement today, so I’m sitting in the station, looking out at a moving storm. From my window, filled every minute or so with a lightning flash, I can see the beginning of the rain unrolling from the clouds. Before I finish this letter the first raindrops will begin bursting against my window. I used to like the rain, especially at night. I always loved watching the heat lightning in the summer. Stars would be out, but off in the distance, above some other valley.

“You would have liked him,” Emma said. “He was tall and kind of silent. He smiled slowly when he smiled.”

“Why weren’t you writing him back?”

“There had been some unpleasantness between us,” Emma said. “We were in the depths of the Depression, but Caleb still had his job with the railroad. They were beginning to cut salaries ten percent, and then ten percent more, and a lot of people were mad, and they quit their jobs and didn’t work for five years, and I remember telling him, ‘I don’t care what they cut it to. Stay there because look what’s happening all over.’

“The day he died, he’d phoned to say that he was quitting his job and coming back to breed horses and homestead. He asked what Dean wanted for his birthday supper. Dean chose sausage, I think.”

“Dean’s father died on his birthday?”

Emma nodded. “That’s when they found him lying on the tracks and brought him home.”

“How did you get through it?”

Emma kept talking, oblivious to Sadie’s question. “Sometimes, I don’t think I ever really knew him. He belonged to that damn railroad. He was a staunch Mason. Now why do you think he joined a group of men who keep secrets they won’t even tell their own wives and children?”

Wanting to cheer Emma, Sadie spent the rest of the morning fixing her hair and applying her makeup. She rolled the wheels beneath Emma’s rocker and pushed her over to the dining room table near the picture window that overlooked the farm. As she ministered to Emma, she romanced herself into feeling more like a devoted daughter than a hired girl. Emma had given her the spare room in the basement, a space wide enough for a chest of drawers and a wooden peg on the wall for her dress; and a slender cot to sleep on when it was too late to walk back over the mountain to her mother’s place.

Sadie’s room was near the back door, beside the room with the claw-footed tub Dean used when he came in from working. Dean hardly ever used it. He stayed outside for days, as if keeping himself away from her. When he wasn’t helping some animal give birth, he spent his time mending pasture fences around the valley, disposing the rusty barbed wire, dropping the old posts, stretching new woven steel between them. For the whole month of June, Sadie trained herself to avoid Dean, as he avoided her. She hardly knew him, she reasoned. He could be the worst kind of man, loyal only to his mother. She forced herself to quit wanting him; it was the worst thing to get what she wanted. Still, whenever he came inside, she could feel where he was in the house, even when she couldn’t see him. When she heard him moving in the next room, her whole body ached for him, wanting.

They kept living. The less she saw of Dean, the more Sadie’s role in the Sypher house filled out. Every day, she gathered the scabby apples from the old orchard, leaving them at the edge of the woods for the semi-wild horses, catching flashes of black and chestnut among the thickening foliage. She overcame her fear of Dean’s outlaw horse, Cherokee, who sometimes broke out of the barn and wandered down the hill to stand at the dining-room window. The horse was just paying a visit, but she spooked Emma, who ordered Dean to hobble the horse to keep her from wandering. Straps joined by a short chain were put around her forefeet so that she could only hop, but when Dean tried to leave the hobbles off, she broke out again. When Dean could not be found, Sadie walked the horse back up the hill, coaxing her back into her empty stall. She filled the water bucket and gave her a flake of hay. She never hobbled her. She sat on a chair beside her in the stall, smelling the sweet hay, the horse breathing softly on her face.

One night in early July, Dean came inside while Sadie was using the tub, steeping herself in lavender water. She felt raw, exhausted from not wanting him. Just what was so wrong about getting what you wanted? As he stopped before the open door, she left herself uncovered, gave him a tired smile, a little wave. They ended up at the cemetery below the Methodist church, beside the three white crosses marking the baby graves. This time, Dean told her to train the lantern on him as he stood among the crosses, his arms outstretched. Sadie heard a flurry of wing-snap as yellow, orange and tiger-striped moths flew into the light. He stood haloed by moths that pulsed like slips of paper along his shoulders and arms. He lifted each one on his finger, naming it for her.

“Royal moth,” he said. “Tiger, hawk, sphinx.” He lifted a drab gray moth. “This one here’s a run-of-the-mill-moth.”

A luna moth appeared, large and green and delicate above the grave. Suddenly, the moth flew toward the white cross, bashing its fat rat body against it. Sadie felt betrayed by its up-close ugliness, emptied, and she begged Dean to turn off the light and release the moth into darkness. Her heart thrashed terribly. Dean calmed her with stories about luna moths, explaining how they emerged for only one week a year. They hid in hickory and walnuts until their wings filled out, and they could fly.

“The adults don’t have any mouths,” he said. “They eat nothing. They live solely to mate.”

The strange heat bloomed inside of Sadie, drawing her closer to him, almost unwillingly. As she reached to touch the last drab moth that clung to his shoulder, he clasped her hand, leading her up to the stranger room. This time, she took her pleasure quickly, before his mind could turn away, before he could forbid her to tell anyone of their lovemaking, or say that he never wanted to see her again. Outside, the mongrel horse bumped against the porch rail, stamping her back hooves. Unhobbled, she did not wander, and Sadie knew why the horse remained helplessly close, so bound to Dean that she would stampede inside the room if only he would call to her.

Another pinecone fell across the roof. This time, Sadie imagined gunshot, Dean’s father falling along the train tracks. She felt Dean’s mind start roaming, searching for the father who taught him how to collect animals, spot spiders, name all the moths, a man so terrestrial that the earth must have heaved and scattered for his son when he died. Before Dean could leave her completely, Sadie began talking him back to her.

“Am I one of your strays?” she asked.

Dean looked down, his eyes clear and unsurprised. “You aren’t so to me.”

After that, Dean took her out on all his nightly farm-animal emergencies. Each time they ushered in new life—the barn cat’s litter of kittens, a semi-wild horse’s foal in the forest—they ended up back in the stranger room, her body soft against his. She liked being that soft and sturdy place beneath him.


In August, on her birthday, it started raining again, and Sadie went back to her mother’s house. She wanted to be with someone who would remember her birthday, but she didn’t mention it to Dean or Emma, afraid of stirring the sadness that birthdays always brought to the Sypher house. Sadie’s mother had not watered during the dry spell, and the drought had claimed everything but the iris stems and the spindly Rose of Sharon. It had down-poured for three straight days, and the Rose of Sharon blooms spooned rain that the hard, cracked earth would not take. Her mother’s cabin seemed adrift in the muddy water ponding all around it.

Inside, Sadie’s room smelled of olives. Because Sadie loved them, Jane gave her a bottle of green olives every year on her birthday, warning Sadie not to eat them all at once. Sadie kept the bottle on her windowsill, and Jane allowed her to eat one olive every five minutes. That morning, as Sadie sat in her small room with the door cracked, waiting for Jane to call out, “It’s time for another olive,” she imagined Dean’s father landlocked at the train station, writing love letters and watching the moving storm, wanting to get back to his family.

Sadie fished out eighteen olives, one for every year of her life. Feeling too old for this ritual, she ate the olives all at once, her lips burning from the salt. Outside, the muddy rain circled the hills of parched earth, making her feel thirsty, swollen. She wore one of Dean’s soft shirts because her own shirts had begun to strain around her middle. She’d filled out from all the good meals at the Sypher house, and lately she’d taken to eating a whole loaf of bread in one sitting. Suddenly, she felt too warm, dizzy, and her arms and legs shook from a deep exhaustion she’d never felt before. She touched the swell of her lower abdomen, certain that she’d inherited her sister’s illness. The smell of olives closed around her. She heard the glass jar breaking against the floor.

When Sadie came to, Jane was smoothing a cloth soaked in lavender water across her daughter’s forehead. Beneath her mother’s touch, Sadie ached for a time when she was younger, fevered with flu, when illness still inspired her mother’s tenderness.

“How far gone are you?” Jane asked.

“It might have happened in June, or maybe July,” Sadie said. “Dean and I celebrated too much whenever we saved a calf.” Sadie followed her mother’s glance to her own stomach. “I guess you already knew that.”

Her mother nodded. “I could see it in your eyes. You were losing your waist,” she said. “Do you love him?”

Sadie nodded, unsure how to answer this unexpected question. “At first, he seemed so sad. I felt sorry for him.”

Jane paused. “Sadness isn’t love. Not all men need saving.”

“Dean doesn’t need saving,” Sadie said. “He’s the kind of man who’d give you the shirt off his back.”

“I know his kind. It’s probably not his shirt to give.”

Sadie looked down at the broadcloth shirt, knowing it had belonged to Dean’s father. Jane looked down with her.

“You’re carrying low,” Jane said. “It will be a girl. Soon, she’ll be wrapping herself all the way around your middle, like her fingers are reaching for her toes. Before you know it, she’ll be robbing the breath out of you.”

Her mother stood, her heels clicking briskly as she went down the hall to the kitchen. She returned with a cup of tea and put it on the bedside table. It smelled of earth and juniper. Sadie studied the photograph of herself on the milking stool, deciding she looked young and foolish, her features unreal beneath the gaudy paint. She now saw Dean through her mother’s eyes, a boy dressed up in his dead father’s shirt. Sadie knew that their lovemaking had been reckless, maybe even dangerous, especially if he became the kind of man who would up and leave without any notice. But he’d taken her back to the stranger room with him, and that meant something. Even his most transient affections in that borrowed room were sweeter than her mother’s bitter herbs and solitary ways.

Sadie pushed the tea away, spilling it across the bedside table. “I think you’re the robber.”

Her mother stood, her hands steady as a painter’s as she reached for Sadie’s portrait. She turned her daughter’s face to the wall.


Sadie followed the low creek bordering the old game trail, looking for Dean. The rain had stopped, and the afternoon sky’s frail light filtered through poplar and pine. Midges flew into her eyes, and the wood fern and nettle had overgrown the trail so completely she had to trust her memory of the path. The cemetery looked different in daylight, the headstones blackened by mold, the deer vanished. The rain had rotted the droughted roots of pines, and they’d fallen down the ridge, their rootballs reaching up like gnarled hands from the sooty mud.

Dean stood at the edge of the cemetery that overlooked the valley, staring beyond the fallen trees. She could hear no wind or crickets. In the distance, a horse whinnied, searing the afternoon’s silence. She followed the sound and Dean’s glance to where the speckled white horse stood, her forelocks spread, her head extended, a loop of old barbed wire fencing around her throat. Her breath labored, she lay in the mud, and stood up again, twisting the barbs deeper into her neck. It was the worst sight, that white horse bleeding and falling in the black mud. Dean stood, his face unreadable, his dark eyes trained on the horse. High and mighty, Sadie thought, hating him for standing by, for cruelly doing nothing. She wanted to hit him; she wanted to bury her face in his chest so that she wouldn’t have to look at the horse dying terribly in the mud.

“Do something,” she said.

Dean shook his head. “There’s no help for her.”

The horse stood and fell again, her eyes rolling into her head, her nose frothing as she lay prostrate in the wet grass. Unable to stand it any longer, Sadie ran down the ridge toward the horse, gorse and bramble slashing her legs, the hem of her dress soaking up watery mud. She reached the horse, ran her hand down the curve of the horse’s shoulders, patting her neck. The horse’s sweat lingering on her hand, she slipped her fingers beneath the wire and pulled. The barbs bit her palms, tearing the flesh from them, pinning her knuckles into the sticky fur above the frail pulse beneath the horse’s neck. She kept pulling, numb to her own pain, until she felt Dean’s hands unclasping her fingers from the wire, turning her away from the horse and toward him, his face boyish, frightened.

“You’ll shred yourself to ribbons.” He knelt in the mud and pressed two fingers against the side of the horse’s foot, the left side of her chest, beneath her jaw, searching for the pulse. The horse lay her head upon his leg, her large eye open.

“She’s gone,” he said softly.

Sadie’s insides ached so fiercely that she placed her bloodied hands over her abdomen. Dean looked at her stomach. He took her hand, leading her back through the cemetery and churchyard, not stopping at the stranger room. When they reached the springhouse below his mother’s farm, he stopped. The creek had begun flowing again, its low water trickling around smooth yellow rocks in the bed. Dean motioned for her to sit beside a soapstone bowl cradled in a bed of limestone, washing her torn hands, bandaging them with strips of his shirt.

“Some old Indian must have ground his corn in this hundreds of years ago,” he said, nodding at the bowl.

“I thought you said they were just passing through—”

“I’ll bet it’s worth something,” he continued, kneeling beside her, circling a finger around the rim. “I can’t offer you much, but I think you and I could give this old bowl a run for its money.”

Sadie looked down at the bowl that was so clearly the end of an ancient water trough, broken and heavy, wild columbine climbing through its cracks, but as she looked down at him, she could not muster the heart to tell him this. His knees bent, Dean gazed up at her so shyly that it took her a moment to understand what he was offering. Above them, the open windows of his mother’s house were filled with yellow light, and she could hear “Rhapsody in Blue” playing. Sadie imagined Emma rising from her long, melancholy slumber, peddling the piano, watching its keys move as if played by swift, invisible fingers. She imagined her own child’s ghostly hands soon reaching around her, but not the death grip her mother had warned against. She breathed easier with this child inside of her, feeling her great emptiness filled for the first time, each part of her body making sense in ways she felt sure Dean already recognized.

“This should be a happy time,” he said.

She nodded, yes, and followed him up to the house, toward the promise of music.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury