Out of the Valley
Michael Leone

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 hadn’t used the tractor in months, and he hadn’t 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 father’s 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 yard.

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?”

“What’s 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.

“Don’t make me get off this thing.”

Carl scrambled through the snow and swung open the wooden door to the stink of long-abandoned hay.

His father steered the tractor up the lane, the wheels sliding. He drove into the barn, the horse’s 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.

“There’s blood all over you.”

His father didn’t answer.

“Where did you find it?”

“Forget it.”

“Looks strong.”

His father spat a bloody gout onto the floor. “It’s 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 tractor—the other still wrapped around the horse’s backside—and fastened it to the metal hook of the pulley. He walked farther into the shadows of the barn, rummaged on the tool table and came 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.”

“I’m tired of living like this.”

His father stared at him, still breathing hard, his eyes smears in his leathery face. “Guess you’d rather starve.”

“I’d rather work.”

“There’s work here.”

“Aunt Ginny wrote she’s getting on all right. She ain’t rich, but they’ve got food.”

“Ginny.” He nudged his face with his sleeve. “There’s 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 and scared, clasping their cardboard suitcases.

Ginny, turning to Carl, said: “He’ll never leave.”

“I’ll work on him.”

“Your mother would want you to go.”

Carl didn’t 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.

“I’m glad mom’s not here to see what you’re about to do,” Carl said.

“She’d be proud.”


“Your mother was tough. She would’ve held on to the last.”

“But she didn’t, did she?”

“I ain’t the one who got her sick,” his father said.

“If you just listened to her in the first place, we wouldn’t be dying out here. Sometimes I think you’ve got nothing but slop for brains.”

The blow came across Carl’s face, sending him to the floor. His father bent down and tightened his arm around Carl’s neck, and with the other hand—though it was less than a hand, more like a half-frozen claw, with the index and middle fingers mangled from frostbite—punched 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 Carl’s 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 Clara 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 he’d 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 into the bedroom. She lit the candle in the pewter holder, the flame’s 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 father’s words shouted for her through the closed door.

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 didn’t seem possible he’d 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 being Boston, where at least the jobless could find food and shelter, and Framingham, where his aunt had fled. His father wouldn’t 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?” Carl’s 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 recognize his father’s once robust face, transformed into the mask of a crazy old man. Most nights his father didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 the 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.

They’d been out of tobacco for months.

* * *

He didn’t 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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. He’d 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 words—in a squiggly script from his Aunt Virginia, who had left the valley two years before and was now living in the township of Framingham—he could still make out: “There is work, and we have meat, and a goat which provides us milk. Why won’t you come? Is it Abe? We are all waiting for you.”

“Nobody’s 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 off the roof.

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 sleepiness, 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 father’s 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 father’s. 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 aunt’s. 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 tarp stretched 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 of the tarp, watching the spit wedged between the walls of the fire pit. The meat dripped into the flames.

“It’s ready,” his father said. He hoisted the spit, and regarded the rifle in Carl’s 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 a platter. He carried the platter to a table—a wooden piece of the cowshed propped on two cane-bottom chairs—sat down on the divan, and began to carve the meat. The empty pewter candleholder stood on top of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, 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 of meat.

His father took the first bite. “About as tender as my belt,” he said, “but it’s meat.”

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 a hunk 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 the 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. They’d been living like this for two years, huddled like hermits in the house, after they’d 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 don’t believe a word out of your mouth anymore.”

“Believe or don’t.”

“And you don’t think they’re gonna come looking for him or that horse? And that eventually they’re going to come down here?”

“The horse ran off. That’s what I’ll say.”

“Yeah, the horse ran off and got slaughtered right in our barn, and you end up with the man’s boots.”

“What’s that?”

“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 open, yanking 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, don’t you? Well, I’m telling you this: as soon as this storm clears I’m getting out of here and I’m not ever gonna come back. You hear that?”

“Where is it you think you’re gonna go? Framingham? You go look at that bicycle. 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 be 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 the 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? We’ve got nothing. No shells, no food, no gas. And here you are feasting on a stolen horse of a priest you killed, and you’re telling me this is all gonna turn around?”

His father extended his jaw, nodded his head like a dumb animal.

“I’m 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 didn’t do. And believe me: they’ll come looking.”

“You’re 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 father’s 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? I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. You get out of my way.”

“You can’t leave me, not like your mother did.”

“She didn’t 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 picked 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 on the 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 back.

“We need to leave,” Carl said, “or we’re 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 side.

“He stabbed me. Wasn’t 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. The blood streamed all the way down to his father’s 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.

“We’ve got meat here. Lots of it. Take the boots upstairs. You’ll need them.”

Carl stared at him.

“Get everything ready,” his father said. “When the storm breaks, we’ll go. It’s a long way to your aunt’s, but with some luck, we’ll make it.”

For once, he was given the assent, but now that his way was open he felt only an intense fear.

“I can’t do it without you.”

“Get ready.”

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 it 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 father’s groans filled the house. His father got cold, so Carl recharged the fire, but the heat the flames generated didn’t stop his chills.

“I think the storm’s 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 had ceased.

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 snow, 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 father’s 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 twitches 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, lips opened, 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 hated what he was about to do, but he knew if he wanted to survive the snow he’d 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 didn’t know what to say, so he muttered goodbye.

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 detonating 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 fastened 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 closing like fingers behind him.

First appeared in The Jabberwock Review

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