Out of the Valley
The first time Carl heard the sound he thought it was the background
of his dream. He shivered himself awake, the dream dissolved, and he burrowed
back in the blankets for warmth. The second time, as thin light began to spread
through the muslin, the rasp was unmistakable: it was their Allis-Chalmers
tractor coming toward the house. They hadnt used the tractor in months, and
he hadnt thought it had enough fuel to leave the barn. The year was 1933.
He rose from the mattress and glanced around the parlor. Faint ashes glowed in
the grate. His fathers empty cot lay against the wall, the blankets tangled
on the floor. Carl pulled his shirt and pants on, thrust his feet into his boots,
shoved open the door, and jumped down the back stairs of the house. A field of
gray snow loomed in front of him, the steep hills overlooking the valley bristling
with pines, their coats flecked with ice. The disk harrow lay sunk in the snow-crusted
In the murk he saw his father mounted on the tractor, winding his way up the
lane, black smoke twisting from the engine spout. As his father came closer to
the house, Carl saw a large carcass being dragged behind. It was a horse, and
it left a long smear of blood on the snow.
Open the barn, his father yelled.
What is it?
Whats it look like?
Carl looked at the horse, its skull crumpled, its upper lip peeled back to reveal
dun, disjointed teeth. The last horse they had had on the farm was five years
ago, when Carl was eleven years old.
Dont make me get off this thing.
Carl scrambled through the snow and swung open the wooden door to the stink of
His father steered the tractor up the lane, the wheels sliding. He drove into
the barn, the horses muzzle hay-stubbled. His father killed the engine and slowly
dismounted, groaning as he did so. He was a big-shouldered man in a shabby wool
duffle coat, a red scarf curled around his neck, and thick gloves that covered
his hands like gauntlets. Hay tufts and cloth strips sprouted from the ends of
his tattered chukkas. Dark stains of blood had congealed to his coat and stained
the left side of his pants.
His father removed a bloodied ball-peen hammer from his coat pocket.
You killed it, Carl said.
His father nodded, panting. He looked dizzy, and leaned against the tractor.
Theres blood all over you.
His father didnt answer.
Where did you find it?
His father spat a bloody gout onto the floor. Its a nag.
Maybe we could have used it.
We are gonna use it.
His father dropped the hammer and removed his alpaca cap, revealing a head of
jagged gray hair. When his hair grew too long, he lopped it off with the pruning
shears. He ungloved a hand and fingered a loose tooth in his gums. He untied
one end of the rope from the tractorthe other still wrapped around the
horses backsideand fastened it to the metal hook of the pulley.
He walked farther into the shadows of the barn, rummaged on the tool table and
back with a cleaver, a pair of pincers, a ripsaw, and another rope. He dropped
it all with a clatter, wincing, and attached the rope to the back of the tractor
and the hauling line.
Get the hatchet.
Im tired of living like this.
His father stared at him, still breathing hard, his eyes smears in his leathery
face. Guess youd rather starve.
Id rather work.
Theres work here.
Aunt Ginny wrote shes getting on all right. She aint rich, but theyve
Ginny. He nudged his face with his sleeve. Theres
a woman who knows nothing about sacrifice.
Seems she sacrificed plenty.
What kind of woman leaves her own land?
Carl remembered the drizzly day, the three of them, Ginny, a recent widow,
climbing up into the cab, the horses shivering, his cousins huddled and pale
clasping their cardboard suitcases.
Ginny, turning to Carl, said: Hell never leave.
Ill work on him.
Your mother would want you to go.
Carl didnt answer, because he knew it was true.
The horses heaved, the wheels rotated, and the drizzle dissolved the receding
shape of the cab as it bumped down the road.
You gonna help or just stand there? he heard his father say.
Im glad moms not here to see what youre about to do, Carl
Shed be proud.
Your mother was tough. She wouldve held on to the last.
But she didnt, did she?
I aint the one who got her sick, his father said.
If you just listened to her in the first place, we wouldnt be dying
Sometimes I think youve got nothing but slop for brains.
The blow came across Carls face, sending him to the floor. His father
bent down and tightened his arm around Carls neck, and with the other
it was less than a hand, more like a half-frozen claw, with the index and middle
fingers mangled from frostbitepunched him in the kidney. Carl yowled,
and lay gasping on the floor, staring up at the charcoal eye of the horse.
* * *
For a month, when he was eleven years old, he suffered with whooping cough.
He lay in the bed, the bright quilt patterned with the images of an eagle clutching
an olive branch in its talons, staring up at the rain-welted ceiling. The quilt
was new; his mother had stitched it, and he remembered feeling guilty for soiling
it with the discharge from his nose.
Only his mother was allowed into the bedroom, her pretty mouth and nose sheathed
with a calico rag. She came in at intervals, bearing the ceramic bowl brimming
with lantana-steeped water and a sponge. She dipped the sponge in the bowl,
and pressed the sponge against Carls nose, the fumes making him dizzy and indifferent
to the bursts that exploded from his chest and lacerated his lungs. After a paroxysm
of coughs, he lay breathless and exhausted.
For once, his father had released him from his chores. He spent his feverless
mornings flicking through the pages of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. There
were images of sexy women in lace corsets and girdles and panties and fancy
Bow hats, and he gazed through the pages, shoving the book aside when his mother
opened the door to his room. She caught him once, and laughed. She sat down
on the bed, took the book gently from his hands, and told him hed find a girl much
prettier than the ones that decorated those pages.
Nights were the worst. His head enflamed with fever, his hair thick with sweat,
he lay twitching in the bed, the blankets clinging to his legs like sticky
ropes. The coughs felt like they were splintering his ribs. His mother hurried
the bedroom. She lit the candle in the pewter holder, the flames shadows crawling
across the room. Wax had guttered down and dribbled to the table; medallions
stuck to the catalogue cover. She raised the daisy-patterned china cup with the
chip to his lips, the warm tea sliding down his throat.
Go slow, she said.
She shushed him to sleep, until his fathers words shouted for her through the
Though the coughs passed, he remained a gaunt, wheezing boy with a bluish tinge
to his skin. No fat collected in his waist or in his thighs, no muscle accrued
in his reedy shoulders and arms. His ribs protruded through his shallow chest
like long thin fingers.
Then his mother collapsed one day in a fit of coughs, her bucket falling, seed
scattering. She lay feverish and desperate for two days, and on the third,
she died. They buried her out back.
* * *
While his father butchered the horse, Carl went to forage for wood.
It was midday. A blank sheen sealed the sky, the sun a mere blotch. Snow was
on its way. He walked down the drive, passing the empty henhouse and the cowshed
with its collapsed roof on his right, and farther down, the empty granary.
It didnt seem possible hed once waked up to the lowing of cows waiting to be milked,
the clucking of hens perched on their eggs, and the smell of bacon taunting him
into the kitchen, where his mother, gaunt but smiling, greeted him with a cup
of oven-roasted coffee.
The path led into woods, where the light filtered through the steep willow
and beech trees. He walked, his boots squeaking in the snow. He glimpsed, through
the shafts of trees, the outlines of farmhouses and silos, all empty, as his
father and he were the last people to stay, as far as he knew. The three-room
school had closed. There was no work, no activity for miles, the only hope
Boston, where at least the jobless could find food and shelter, and Framingham,
where his aunt had fled. His father wouldnt move to the capital, nor would he
sell the house, that is, when offers were made.
Carl waded through a briar-patched slope, then into a welter of alder shrubs
and knobby dead trees. He began to chop at the husks, the hatchet making chunking
sounds. Carl stopped, gained his breath, his eyes staring forward, and noticed
a four-wheeled dray lodged in a cluster of briars, and a figure on it, slouched,
as though asleep.
Hello? Carls voice dissolved in the creaking of the tree boughs.
He approached the dray, noticing the track marks where it had been shoved into
the woods, and a sequence of familiar boot prints embedded in the snow. Carl
looked at the figure. It was a man, clad only in his shirt and trousers, his
starched white collar fastened around his neck the only thing on him that looked
clean. His fingers, sallow-tinged from nicotine, were clenched. Carl recognized
Father Richards. He looked at him, at his bearded face, his alcohol-swollen nose,
and his eyes dim and staring forever forward. Carl felt his wrist for a pulse,
and saw that he was shoeless, his big toe poking through a tear in his sock.
He examined the dray. A small ball of blood lay on the rim of the wheel. Carl
ran his finger through it: fresh. He looked at the priest, but there was no sign
of a wound. Purple bruises striped his skinny neck.
Carl sank to the ground, the snow cold on his knees. He sat there for a while,
thinking on what he saw, wondering if it could be true. He felt judged by the
silent trees. He got to his feet and hurried away, stumbling now, parting the
shrubbery. But as fast as he went, trying to repel the idea from his brain,
he knew. For more than a year, something had been wrong. He could no longer
his father’s once robust face, transformed into the mask of a crazy old
man. Most nights his father didnt sleep, but lay on his cot whittling a piece
of wood into a malignant shape. He stumbled around the farm in a muttering daze.
He no longer used the outhouse, but squatted wherever he felt the urge. He had
started to beat Carl for whatever imaginary insult flared inside his brain, one
time belting him so hard in the face that a blood vessel broke beneath his eye,
leaving a painful bruise that wouldnt go away. Yet everything, his father had
told him, he was doing for them, for Carl, in order to survive.
Carl went back to his foraging. He chopped and gathered wood, cinched it with
twine, and trudged one fat log behind him for the fire pit. He got back to
the house and went to the barn. His father sat on the floor, his back against
wheel of the tractor, finished with his work. Buckets surrounded him: one filled
with horse blood, another with kidneys, a heart, and a liver, another stuffed
with fat, and yet another loaded with meat chunks. A snake of strewn guts coiled
around his feet. The legs of his trousers were soiled, and wisps of horsehair
were pasted to his vest. He sat, one hand touching his side. A ragged cigarette
hung from the corner of his mouth. When Carl looked at him, he cupped the cigarette
in his hand.
Theyd been out of tobacco for months.
* * *
He didnt know how much longer he could endure it, and he planned on getting
out. How? It was cold, on warm days five degrees, on cold days ten below. The
chain of mountains isolating the valley could be navigated, but in the snow it
would be a long and dangerous haul. But he had some hope: an old Peerless 1914
bicycle hed found lying in the woods, half-buried in the undergrowth. Its spokes
clogged with leaves, the frame rusted, the bike had bent handlebars and crumpled
fenders, and the brakes didnt work too well, but Carl had been determined to
fix it. His father scowled at him when he saw him with it, once beating him for
working on it when he should have been milking the goats. After that, Carl kept
it hidden. There was only one place he could think of where his father wouldnt
look for it, and it was in the last stall in the cowshed, under a nest of hay.
He patched the tires, scoured the rust off, and re-bolted the handlebars, and
though it wasnt the sturdiest contraption, he knew it could take him out of
town and across the endless miles of prairie to Highway 21. He had stitched a
large pannier from old rags; it fit snugly over the back wheel. Hed stashed
a few potatoes, a chunk of petrified cheese, and some corn nubs in it. What was
he waiting for?
He sat by the glowing embers of the fire, pondering his escape. Shadows thickened,
darkening the parlor. He removed the smudged piece of cardboard he kept in
his pocket, the penciled words barely legible. But the important wordsin
a squiggly script from his Aunt Virginia, who had left the valley two years before
and was now living in the township of Framinghamhe could still make
out: There is work, and we have meat, and a goat which provides us milk.
Why wont you come? Is it Abe? We are all waiting for you.”
Nobodys gonna tell us where to go, his father had said. This
whole thing will pass.
Carl had images of a warm fire, full plates of food, coming home in the evenings,
his face glowing from a hard day’s work, a steaming cauldron of soup, clean
linens, fresh clothes.
The last letter to arrive from the postman was a year ago.
* * *
The first few flakes of the storm fell by late afternoon. By night, the flurry
had turned into a blast. Snow pelted the house and skittered over the roof
like a thousand claws. The wind blew with a force that felt like it would peel
The fragrance of cooked meat bored through the house, finding Carl wrapped
up in blankets and shivering in front of the stove. He passed in and out of
sometimes wondering if the entire day had been a strange dream.
It was real; the smell of cooked meat proved it, and it made his empty stomach
writhe. He was still cold, so he went upstairs into the closet in his fathers
bedroom, looking for clothes. He felt by instinct in the darkness, and with a
sweep of his feet he kicked over something. He bent down and felt on the floor
and picked up a pair of boots, not his fathers. They were strong, with clean
laces and sturdy soles. He dropped them, the thud loud in the dusty space. The
house seemed suddenly small, and he grew afraid being alone with his father in
the house, in the valley, surrounded by all the darkness and all the snow. He
went downstairs and into the parlor and picked up the Mossberg shotgun. It had
one shell. He held the rifle in his hands. He knew he could make it to his aunts.
Despite his weakness, he was handy and resourceful. He could make hydrogen from
foil and lye, his mother had taught him how to sew and quilt. He could work a
forge and use a grindstone. He just needed to leave, and that meant leaving his
father to die.
Hunger drove him to the potbellied stove. On top of it simmered a canning pot
full of blood, and a skillet with a greasy liver. He went outside, holding
the shotgun, his face snow-pierced. The fire pit was sheltered by a canvas
across two wooden poles. His father had skewered a rack of ribs, a strip of
flank, and hunks of rump and tenderloin. He stood behind the half-opened flap
tarp, watching the spit wedged between the walls of the fire pit. The meat
dripped into the flames.
Its ready, his father said. He hoisted the spit, and regarded the
rifle in Carls hand. You planning on shooting something?
Thought I heard something.
His father brushed by him and went into the house. Back in the parlor, his
father slid the blocks of meat off with a gloved hand and dropped them into
He carried the platter to a tablea wooden piece of the cowshed propped
on two cane-bottom chairssat down on the divan, and began to carve
the meat. The empty pewter candleholder stood on top of the Sears, Roebuck
its base sealed to the book with wax.
Fetch me some water, his father said, not lifting his eyes.
Carl went into the kitchen. The wind gusted, and the timbers of the house groaned.
He opened the cabinet and got a glass and dipped it into the bucket and retrieved
cold water. He brought it back to his father, who, as though he were at a restaurant,
had tucked a rag in the neck of his shirt like a bib.
He handed his father the glass. His father had set two plates full of fat pieces
His father took the first bite. About as tender as my belt, he said, but
Carl saw himself bending toward the meat. His teeth cut into it. What little
juice it held softened his throat. He imagined his stomach contracting as it
squeezed the nutrients out of the chewed meat.
His father stopped eating, lay back, gasping.
Carl munched in silence, shoving his face into his plate. He scraped the fat
from the bones with his teeth, and sucked on the bones fiercely as though they
might yield a song. His father clambered from the divan and went over to the
stove and picked up the tureen of blood and poured it into a chipped china
cup. He handed it to Carl.
Go slow, he said.
Carl stared at the cup. He brought it to his lips and took a scorching sip,
the blood lacquering his throat. He tongued the grease from his lips, grabbed
of ribs, and devoured the meat from the bone with savage little bites. He could
feel the juices giving strength to his muscles, reinvigorating his pulse. He
ate so fast that he began to sweat. He quaffed his thirst with thick chugs
of blood. When he was finished, he sat back, his face smeared, his belly distended.
He felt sick. He watched his father lying on the divan. He looked around at
parlor flecked with patches of firelight. The muslin curtains were half-torn,
the windowpanes fringed with snow. A clutter of crockery and firewood lay scattered
on the floor. Theyd been living like this for two years, huddled like hermits
in the house, after theyd sold most of the livestock, slaughtered all the pigs
and chickens, and harrowed their last crops.
I saw him, you know, about a mile into the woods, Carl said. Did
you kill him, too? The shotgun had fallen on the floor. Carl bent over
and picked it up, and lay it across his knees.
His father looked at Carl. He was just lying there when I came up to him
in the road this morning. The horse was ready to bolt so I grabbed it.
I dont believe a word out of your mouth anymore.
Believe or dont.
And you dont think theyre gonna come looking for him or that horse? And
that eventually theyre going to come down here?
The horse ran off. Thats what Ill say.
Yeah, the horse ran off and got slaughtered right in our barn, and you
end up with the mans boots.
Yeah, I found those, too. Carl stared at his father. There was something
so pathetic about this stooped old man with a head of butchered hair.
The fire had dwindled. His father, teeth clicking, got up, flung the pewter
candleholder aside and picked up the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and flipped it
out a few pages of girls in fashionable hats and crumpled them into his hands.
What the hell are you doing? Carl got up and snatched the tome away
from him. Goddamn you! You destroy everything, dont you? Well, Im
telling you this: as soon as this storm clears Im getting out of here and
Im not ever
gonna come back. You hear that?
Where is it you think youre gonna go? Framingham? You go look at
See how far it gets you.
What are you talking about?
If you did more work instead of tinkering with that toy maybe things would
different around here.
Carl raced out into the snow, all the way to the cowshed. It was dark, and
he took a matchstick from his pocket and scraped it on his boot sole, and in
haze he saw the remains of his bike: the two tires popped, the frame twisted,
his pannier ripped and ransacked. A bitter, hypnotic rage consumed him. He
ran back to the house, and saw his father still huddled over his plate.
Why did you do that? Carl hollered. He approached his father. Why?
His father got up, and smacking his lips, plucked the bib from his shirt and
threw it on the floor.
For your good.
For my good?
You start something you finish it. This place will turn around yet.
Turn around to what? Weve got nothing. No shells, no food, no gas. And
here you are feasting on a stolen horse of a priest you killed, and youre telling
me this is all gonna turn around?
His father extended his jaw, nodded his head like a dumb animal.
Im not waiting. Not anymore, Carl said. He scrounged in the semi-darkness,
found his coat, and wriggled it on. You can tell them whatever you want
about what you did or what you didnt do. And believe me: theyll come looking.
Youre not going nowhere. His father folded his arms.
You stop me. Carl reached down and picked up the rifle on the floor.
He pointed it at his fathers heart.
I need you here, his father said, staring not at Carl, but at the
nostril of the rifle.
For what? To die with you? Im not planning on dying anytime soon. You
get out of my way.
You cant leave me, not like your mother did.
She didnt leave you. She died, you pig-headed sonofabitch.
His father erupted into a howling rage. He pushed Carl aside, then stomped
on the table, sending the platter of meat and the china cup to the floor. He
up the chairs and hurled them against the wall and he crushed the cot with
his foot. He held up the quilt and stared at the design, and then collapsed
floor. His shoulders shuddered, and the sobs that came out of the cavern of
his chest sounded as though they were being torn from a wild animal.
Carl put the rifle down and crawled over to his father. He put a hand on his
We need to leave, Carl said, or were gonna die.
His father scuttled backwards, propped his back against the divan. With his
mangled fingers he unbuttoned his waistcoat, revealing a large bloody gash
in his left
He stabbed me. Wasnt counting on that. Not from no priest.
What are you talking about? Carl went to his father and gazed at
the cut. The wound was covered by a calico rag. Carl gently removed the cloth.
streamed all the way down to his fathers socks.
You need stitches
His father held him back. I stanched it. Just let me lie here.
What happened out there?
His father reached on the floor and pulled the quilt toward him and covered
himself with it.
Weve got meat here. Lots of it. Take the boots upstairs. Youll
Carl stared at him.
Get everything ready, his father said. When the storm breaks,
go. Its a long way to your aunts, but with some luck, well
For once, he was given the assent, but now that his way was open he felt only
an intense fear.
I cant do it without you.
He found two sweaters in the oak chest upstairs, then got his sheepskin coat
and hunting cap. Downstairs he found a flour sack and filled it with the remaining
potatoes and peas they had in the house. He grabbed an old tablecloth, and
he bent down on the parlor floor and picked up the remaining meat and dropped
into the bag.
His father lay slumped on the floor, grunting. Get me to the cot.
He guided his father on the cot, put the blankets over him.
Wake me up when it clears, his father said.
* * *
Later that night, his fathers groans filled the house. His father got cold,
so Carl recharged the fire, but the heat the flames generated didnt stop his
I think the storms letting up, Carl said.
He fell asleep on the floor next to his father. When he awoke, the fire had
gone out, and stray light slipped through the snow-caked windows. The storm
He looked over at his father, his jaw slung open, his face brusque and surly-looking.
He called him, not expecting a response, and none came. He checked for a pulse
or a sound of his heart, but he heard only his own thumping in his ears. He
knew he was dead, but he got up and left the house. He tunneled through the
wrenched open the door to the outhouse, and got the strait-back razor. He went
back into the house and stuck the razor under his fathers nose. After a few
seconds he held the razor up into the light: no condensation had appeared.
Carl fell to the floor and let loose a cry so weak that it refused to echo
in the snow-muffled house. He started to sob, but not many tears came, mostly
of his shoulders and some mucous from his nose. He swore at his father, using
every foul word in his vocabulary, half-expecting those harsh fists to rise
and beat his face, but his father just lay there, head tilted toward Carl,
as though he might speak.
He calmed himself, wiped his swollen nose with his shirt, and gazed around
at the room. He went upstairs and picked up the boots. He stared at them. He
what he was about to do, but he knew if he wanted to survive the snow hed have
to put them on. He wrenched off his old pair with the cruddy laces and squeezed
his feet into the new boots. They were big, and swallowed his feet, but they
felt warm. He picked up the flour sack. Carl reached for the china cup and dropped
it into the bag. He took the calico rag from his father, wringed the blood out,
and tucked it in his pocket.
He went in back of the house, farther into the yard, and stood in front of
his mother’s stone. He felt ashamed, and didnt know what to say, so he muttered
He gazed at the house, half-swallowed by snow. It was no longer the house he
once loved. There would never again be chicks, or cows, or hogs, never again
newborn piglets or calves, never again warm eggs to gather, no more apricots
to pile in the pouch of his shirt. He held in his mind memories of him and
his mother, in hot summers, making root beer in frosted bottles, the bottles
like dynamite if they got too warm.
He knew a path that skirted town and led up the mountains and eventually to
Highway 21. From there, perhaps with luck, he could make it to the rails and
jump a train.
The path took him past a grove of bowed birches, and it rose up the steep side
of the hill. Carl climbed, his feet harried by brambles and ice, his sack heavy
on his shoulders. It was a long climb, the snow scratching at his face. He
slipped, regained his footing, and finally surmounted the ledge that gave him
a view of
the valley. He was exhausted, surrounded by steep trees and walls of shrubbery.
He doubted his decision, and thought to turn back. But to what? He scanned
the horizon for a view of his house: it was a mere lump on the landscape. He
the buttons of his coat collar, readjusted his sack. He put his back to the
valley and plunged through the hanging sheaves of a willow tree, the branches
like fingers behind him.
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