Fiction - Winter 2015

At the Executioner’s Table

By Julie Schumacher | December 3, 2014


They were late. They had driven the same route the year before—320 miles of mind-numbing asphalt—but this time there had been laundry to finish, and Anna had belatedly realized that they needed more cat food for Mister Nibbs, and finally the forecast, which had called for clear but cold conditions, had been wrong again: by the time they left Minneapolis, snow had thickened the sky and was pressing cheerlessly against the windshield, as if suggesting that they return the way they’d come. Now they were being punished in the form of traffic. Which was inexplicable, Anna thought. It was a Wednesday in late October, and the only enticements and destinations on Interstate 94 in Wisconsin were cheese shops, historical markers, and an enormous fiberglass trout by the side of the road.

In the passenger seat: 15-year-old Grace, long-limbed and bony, wearing black as usual, this time a sweatshirt and a pair of torn jeans. She had plugged in her earbuds and, eyes closed, leaned away from her mother, head on the window. She had become furtive, prone to secrets. But I still know who you are, Anna thought. She noted the one-sided scowl, the left eyebrow troubling the otherwise smooth skin of her daughter’s forehead. She had seen and memorized that expression when Grace was four months old and nursing. She felt a flicker of anger: My body kept you alive.

On the opposite side of the highway, travelers were gawking at the eastbound traffic’s misfortune. There’s nothing like someone else’s disaster, Anna thought, to make a person feel vibrant and cheerful. They slowed to 10 miles per hour, then to five, then to a stop. The nose of their Subaru came to rest near the butt of a Fiat. While the windshield wipers tick-tocked back and forth, Anna studied her hands; they were chapped.

Grace disconnected herself from her music, a chaotic thrumming of discordant guitars. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I can’t see much.” Anna rolled down her window. The snow was spinning in all different directions. “Some people have their blinkers on but no one’s moving.” She closed the window. “Are you cold?”

Grace shrugged. She was always cold. “The trip seemed faster last time,” she muttered.

The last time, of course, they had been driving in the other direction, and it was the beginning of spring and Anna had felt hopeful. Grace had returned home healthier, stronger, more sure of herself. But she was also reticent, Anna had noticed, as if in possession of a private and difficult knowledge.

They heard the looping shriek of multiple sirens.

“Somebody died.” Grace picked at a threadbare spot on the knee of her jeans. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be stopped for so long. It’s probably more than one person.”

“Hand me an apple?” Anna asked. She didn’t want to indulge Grace’s morbid streak, which she hoped was a fad.

“I’ll guess three people.” Grace made a V with her fingers and lightly rested them on her forehead. “Make that four—four new customers on their way to the morgue.” She rooted through the small vinyl cooler that held their provisions: two diet sodas, a dozen pretzel rods, some apple segments turning brown at the edges, and a wrinkled package of M&Ms. Grace pinched the corner of the M&M bag with her fingers. “Chocolate is what dead people eat,” she said. “It tastes like something dug out of a graveyard.”

“Your dad put the candy in there,” Anna said. A column of taillights lit up in front of them. “Have a pretzel,” she said.

But Grace wasn’t hungry. She was never hungry. Anna had seen her dine on ice water and lettuce for both breakfast and lunch. Now she handed her mother a slice of fruit, the sirens still screaming. “It’s going to feel weird, being back. It’s like a separate country there. With different rules.”

Anna looked out the window. Mid-afternoon and the light was fading. The fields, once green, had been laundered of color. “What kind of rules?”

Grace listed a series of complaints. The hallways smelled of chemicals and the lights were fluorescent and, once admitted to the facility, no one was allowed outside the gate. “When I first got there, I had to eat in the kitchen at one of those disgusting wooden tables—you know—where people chop things up with knives. An executioner’s block.”

“Do you mean a butcher block?” Anna asked.

“Whatever. It was full of toxins and germs,” Grace said. “Look. People are turning around.” Cars in front and behind them were pulling U-turns, defecting and crossing the snowy median to join the westbound traffic. A yellow sports car tried but failed to climb the opposite slope, and ended up stranded in the no man’s land in between.

“We should get off the highway,” Grace said. “Turn around and find another route. Our car can do it.” The Fiat in front of them nudged its way into the left lane, leaving them to contemplate the back of a shapeless gray sedan with a receiving line of stuffed animals across its rear window.

“It’s not supposed to be winter yet,” Anna said. “Why is it snowing? It’s only October.”

Someone in the gray sedan threw a cigarette butt out the passenger window.

“What a pig,” Grace said. “And we’re just sitting here sucking up his carbon monoxide. Do you want me to drive?”

“You don’t have a license.”

Grace had a permit, earned because Anna had taught her to parallel park behind the delivery entrance of the nursery and garden store where she worked as assistant manager. The store—Olympia Nursery—was about to close for the season.

Grace flopped back against the headrest. She wore dark liner above her speckled eyes, which she probably imagined made her mysterious. “What’s the matter? Are you afraid if I got behind the wheel I’d make a run for it?”

“I don’t know. Would you?”

Grace mumbled something—words not meant for her mother to hear.

A few more cars pulled onto the shoulder. “I won’t know how to get there if we aren’t on the highway,” Anna said, checking her mirrors. “We always go straight.”

“This is why God invented GPS,” Grace said.

They turned around. Anna didn’t have a GPS; she had a map. They missed the first northbound exit, which came up too quickly, and took the second, driving past a series of No Hunting placards and a Pick-Your-Own pumpkin field where the pallid vegetables were freezing on their twisted vines. Some people loved fall, but they probably lived in more hospitable parts of the country, Anna thought, where winter consisted of a few picturesque snowfalls sprinkled over the landscape prior to spring. June, her boss and the owner of Olympia Nursery, had intercepted Anna at work the day before to give her a card with a picture of a maple tree shedding its leaves. The meaningfully italicized caption under the tree: Let Go and Let God.

Anna had thanked her, accepted her awkward embrace, and promptly threw the card away. Let God drive through the fucking snow to Wisconsin, she thought. She hoped the pumpkins they had passed would blacken with rot. She imagined the mums at Olympia Nursery infested with gall.

“We’re still going north. We have to stop.” Anna jerked the wheel in the direction of a paneled restaurant.

“Here?” Grace was incredulous.  The restaurant, squatting at the edge of a gravel lot, was grim and almost windowless.

“They’ll have a bathroom. And we can look at the map.” Anna parked among a cluster of mud-spattered pickups. “I need some coffee.” She tried to sound cheerful. “Are you ready? What did you do with your jacket?”

“I didn’t bring it.” Grace stared out the window at a nearby Dumpster. “I hate that jacket. I think I’ll wait here.”

“I don’t want you sitting here by yourself,” Anna said. I should have raised her in Florida or California. “Fifteen minutes. You’re the one who suggested turning around. You can spend the time on your homework. Aren’t you supposed to be finishing an English project?”

“It doesn’t matter whether I finish it,” Grace said. But she unfolded her reedy limbs from the passenger seat and followed Anna into the restaurant, which was wallpapered with horseshoes and wagon wheels, and smelled of fish and creamed corn.

They lingered by the Hostess Will Seat You sign, giving the other customers in red leather booths enough time to formulate an opinion about them. Grace hunched her shoulders. With her deliberately ragged hair and her oversized jeans and her thrift-store sweatshirt with the word Immortal across the chest, she was … painfully beautiful, Anna thought. Even when she tried to be alienated and edgy, she lived up to her name.

The hostess, an older woman in a checkered uniform, plucked a pair of laminated menus out of a bin and shuffled in front of them to a booth that was lit, interrogation style, by a glass lamp shining down on a small bouquet of artificial flowers. Anna immediately pushed the flowers behind the syrup.

“Don’t order me anything,” Grace said. “I’ll be in the bathroom.”

When the waitress arrived, Anna ordered coffee and two glasses of water and, without looking at the menu, a sandwich. Growing up, she had been taught to eat what was set in front of her; at her grandmother’s house, this might have been tongue, or liver and onions, or turtle soup, or pickled cauliflower and cabbage. She had learned to chase great doses of the more macabre offerings with milk. At the age of 10, she had vowed never to force her own children to eat anything. Grace had been allowed to eat what she wanted—but Grace didn’t want.

Anna spread out the map, which stuck to something at the edge of the table, then dug her cell phone out of her purse. “You’ve reached Alex Heinlein—H-e-i-n-l-e-i-n—at Heinlein and Dunlop Realty,” her husband’s voicemail assured her, adding that her call was very important to him. Resisting the impulse to spell her own name, she left a message: she and Grace were en route but delayed.

On the map, it didn’t seem as if there were any reasonable substitute for the highway. They would have to continue north and then east on a series of wiggling, irregular roads, then find one of two smaller southbound routes that would lead them back to I-94.

Grace had barely sat down when a turkey sandwich, accompanied by a glistening thatchwork of fried potatoes, clattered onto the table directly in front of her. “I didn’t order that,” she said.

“I did.” Anna pulled the plate toward her. She salted the fries and put one in her mouth. It was part of her job, as a parent, to continue to eat and to behave as if consuming food were a normal occurrence. “Tell me about your English assignment.” In a failed attempt to sound casual, she added, “Half the sandwich is yours if you want it. We probably won’t be stopping again.”

Probably in retaliation for the sandwich remark, Grace pushed her glass of water away. She leaned back on her side of the booth, wrists jutting out from the dark round cuffs of her sweatshirt. “It’s Greek and Roman mythology,” she intoned. “We’re supposed to write a letter to a god or goddess and give them advice.”

Anna nodded, continuing to eat the fries with her fingers. She liked the idea of giving advice to a god—an opportunity that didn’t arise often. “What kind of advice are you supposed to come up with?”

Grace tipped her head back toward the ceiling in a posture of martyrdom. “Dear Pandora: Don’t open the box. Dear Artemis: I know you like to hunt, but I think you should consider the rights of animals. Dear Poseidon—whatever.”

Anna wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Dear Grace,” she said. But she wasn’t sure what advice she would give. A visceral memory overtook her: she was carrying Grace, as an infant, in a sling on her chest. Walking along a wildflower path in the park—baneberry, pussytoes, columbine, wild geranium, starwort, bloodroot, trillium—they were one pair of legs, two sets of eyes, a single creature. She added ketchup to the potatoes.

“I know we agreed not to talk about it during the trip,” she said. “But I want—I just want to know—I hope you’re fighting it.”

No answer from Grace.

The waitress splashed a quick, burnt refill into Anna’s cup.

“I called your dad and left a message,” Anna said. “He and I have been talking. We’ve been thinking that next spring or summer, you’ll probably want to look for a job. I could get you something at the nursery. You already know people there, and you could work the register or in the cooler with the cut flowers, or—”

Grace lurched toward her, formidable, dazzling, the overhead light abruptly catching the fringe of her hair. “I don’t want a job at that shitty nursery,” she hissed. “I don’t want that life.”

“You can have a different life, then.” Anna held up her hands as if to ward Grace off. “There are different kinds.”

Grace subsided into the darkness on her side of the booth. She said she didn’t want to talk about it; hadn’t they agreed not to talk? “Can we leave now?” she asked. Then, a concession: “I can wait if you still want your sandwich.”

“I’ll wrap it up and bring it with us.” Anna waved for the check, then stood up, feeling numb. She kissed Grace’s forehead and felt her daughter submit to the kiss. “Watch my purse? I’ll be back in a minute.” She walked down the row of booths and into the salmon-colored bathroom. Coming out of the stall and washing her hands, she tried to avoid the traumatized expression of the woman facing her in the mirror. Alex had told her that she had to get used to the idea, again, of Grace being gone. She shook her head. Behind her, a little girl wearing a shiny, ribboned halo pranced her way to the stalls.

Grace was waiting by the checkout register—with her mother’s jacket and purse but without the sandwich—when Anna got back.

“Still snowing. Not a good day for traveling,” said the older woman who had seated them. Her nametag, drooping forward on the breast of her checkered uniform, said “Vesta.” Licking the spatulate pad of her thumb, she held out her hand for the money Anna removed from her wallet. “Are you folks going far?”

“East,” Anna said, as if they were headed for Tibet or Indonesia.

Vesta straightened the bills and tucked them carefully into their black plastic beds. “Can’t take the highway,” she said. “Just a few miles from here, they had a truck that jackknifed and caught fire.” A friend had called and told her about it: four people had died.

“Four?” Anna turned toward Grace, who stared out at the parking lot, impassive.

“And now the temperature’s headed toward zero.” Vesta handed over their change. “But we don’t control the weather, do we?”

“No,” Anna said.

Vesta wished them a pleasant trip and said she hoped they would stop in again soon.

Back in the car, Grace pulled the map from her pants pocket. “What time are we supposed to be there?”

“Between four and six,” Anna said. “I wish I’d brought gloves.”

Grace kicked off her shoes. “What else do you and Dad say about me?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Anna turned on the heat and pointed the two middle vents in Grace’s direction.

Grace immediately redirected the vents toward the floor. “I mean, when I’m not around,” she said. “And the two of you gossip about me. And whisper to each other about what a terrible person I am.”

Pulling out of the parking lot, Anna drove north. “You aren’t a terrible person. And your father and I don’t whisper or gossip about you.”

“Then why did you wait until I was in the bathroom to make your secret phone call?”

“I didn’t wait. I just—that’s when I called. It wasn’t a secret. You can call him yourself. You have a phone.”

“Not anymore,” Grace said. Her voice was bitter, almost desolate. “We’re not allowed to have phones there. Remember? No communication with the outside world. Dad made me leave my phone at home.”

The sun hadn’t been visible all day, and now the purse strings of the sky were tugging steadily at the horizon. Soon they were driving through a stand of trees. The branches of eastern white pine reached toward the car like the bristles of brooms.

Anna touched Grace’s wrist. “About working at the nursery: that was just a suggestion,” she said. “You should work wherever you like. You used to talk about wanting to be a veterinarian. Do you remember? You were always trying to practice on Mr. Nibbs.”

Grace reclined in her seat, so it was difficult for Anna to see her. “I remember wanting to be an undertaker, too. You wouldn’t let me see Grandmom’s body.”

“It wasn’t appropriate,” Anna said. “You were too young.”

The snow swirled in psychedelic patterns in front of the headlights. Grace put one of her feet on the dashboard. “No one told you this was your fault,” she said. “Did they?”

The road curved to the right. “My fault?” Anna asked.

“I mean it isn’t about you,” Grace said. “This trip. But you act like it is. I’m the one who’s going away.”

Anna tried the high beams, but they made the visibility worse, turning the snow-flecked air into something solid. Which god would she write to, she wondered, if Grace’s homework assignment were hers? Any self-respecting deity would be more accustomed to prayer than advice or instruction, and would be busy with an unpalatable workload: she didn’t envy their dark labor. Still, she wouldn’t shy from the correspondence. She would write one single missive to the gods as a whole: Keep your omnipotent hands off my daughter.

“We must have missed the turn,” she said. “We should go back.”

“There’s nothing to go back to,” Grace said.

“I’m going to turn around here.” Anna slowed and headed toward a break in the trees on the right, a narrow asphalt tributary that almost immediately dead-ended in a parking lot. The car came to a stop. Facing them, as if on a stage set in a dream, was a semicircle of tiny identical cabins, white and stark, each the size of a single room. The front doors of the cabins were numbered, one to eight. The ninth, unnumbered cabin had a plaque above the door that said “Office.”

“They must be closed for the season,” Anna said. She stared at the cabins. Their whitewashed symmetry was unnerving.

“Look.” Grace pointed to an SUV, crouched like a muscular dark animal under a bower of branches.

“Is anyone in it?” The Subaru’s headlights painted the rear and then the flank of the other vehicle. In the driver’s side, Anna saw a hand rise up and briefly thrash against the glass like a fish in an aquarium. Startled at first, she soon understood: it was a young couple, probably Grace’s age, groping and kissing. She marveled at their self-absorption, then tooted the horn.

Grace bent her knees and slid down in her seat.

Pulling around so that she could be face to face with the other driver, Anna lowered her window, signaling for the person in the SUV to do the same.

A moment later, a black-eyed boy was peering out at them. Was he high on something? He looked jittery, anxious. Anna told him about the highway being closed. Could he tell them if they had missed a turn-off going east?

The boy shifted back and forth in his seat. He seemed to be trying to look past Anna at Grace. East? No, they hadn’t missed it. They should continue going north: there was a county road heading east about three miles ahead.

“Three miles?” Anna asked. There was something feral about the boy, she thought.

About three miles,” he repeated. “Do you have any money? Some change? A couple of coins? I need some change.” A figure huddled under a blanket in the front seat beside him let out a high-pitched, tinkling laugh.

“I don’t have any money,” Anna said.

The SUV shuddered to life. Anna assumed the boy would drive away; instead he slowly ferried himself and his passenger to the other side of the semicircle of cabins and parked under another overhang of branches, then cut the engine.

“That’s strange. Why are they staying here?” Anna asked as the SUV’s headlights were extinguished.

Grace studied the map. “Probably because they like making out in the car. Because it feels good.” She spoke in the tolerant tone of voice she adopted when finding it necessary to interpret the world for her mother: This is how the computer program works; this is what the music video is about; this is why people kiss.

“Can I see the map?” Anna asked.
Grace folded it and wedged it under her leg. “Three more miles and then we need to turn right.”

“That boy was staring at you; did you notice?” Anna asked.

“Everyone stares at me,” Grace said.

They continued north, Anna keeping an eye on the odometer. “Do you want to talk to your father?” she asked. “Or to somebody else? You can use my phone.”

“Forget it.” Grace said.

The headlights were a pair of needles stitching two parallel paths through the dark.

“Once we get close to the highway again, we’ll find a hotel for the night. I’m pooped,” Anna said.

“I’m not tired,” Grace told her. “I want to keep going.”

“But we’re already late,” Anna said. “In fact, I don’t think they process admissions after 6:30. You can check in tomorrow morning. And in the meantime, you and I can—”

“I want to check in tonight,” Grace said. “They’ll wait for me. They’ll let me in.”

Anna felt the anger she had contained within her all day begin to scratch against the lid of its cage. What right did Grace have? What entitled her to try to erase herself from the life that for almost 16 years they had lived together, as if removing herself from the cast of a tepid play?

“There’s the turnoff.” Grace pointed. “Take it.”

The road was narrow, unmarked, and it curved steeply downhill as if into the mouth of a cavern. The car’s tires skidded when they made the turn. Maybe it didn’t matter anymore which route they chose, Anna thought. She had spent the past two decades under the illusion that she and Alex were steering their lives—which house to buy, whether to take the new job or stay put—but these choices had turned out to be trivial. What they had no choice in was this annual, hideous pilgrimage, a ritual to which Anna had been forced to agree because she was told that it was necessary for Grace, that Grace would soon be restored to her. But what if Grace chose not to be restored? What if she had decided to succumb to her illness, the polishing and polishing of her body a method of asserting herself and separating herself from her mother: I am not yours anymore; let me go.

The green E on the car’s compass lit up. “See? East,” Grace said, her voice lighter, almost musical. The road hadn’t been plowed.

“This is farmland,” Anna said. At the edge of the road: a combine and a set of bedsprings, then a tractor with a For Sale sign in the window of its rusted cab. Anna pictured the fields—rolling pinstripes, green upon green—as they would look in summer. “They probably grow corn here,” she said. “Soybeans.” She turned toward Grace, whose collarbones protruded like fragile scaffolds at the base of her neck. “Barley.” She felt she was choking. “The nation’s breadbasket,” she said. “We’re surrounded by food.”

“Mom. Don’t,” Grace warned.

But Anna was crying. “To starve to death,” she said. “Here. To die of hunger in a place where—”

The windshield exploded. Anna’s foot slammed down onto the brake, but the car slewed sideways, the left front tire sliding off the lip of the road and the vehicle’s right side rising, hovering weightless for several seconds until the roof traded places with the floor. The car flipped twice, then came to rest with a final cacophonous grinding thump in a gully 30 yards from the road. Someone was screaming. It was Grace, and immediately Anna’s hands were frantically searching the space between them, finding her daughter’s slender arms, her beloved beautiful face, her hair.

“I’m okay.” Grace’s screaming subsided, leaving an echo. “I’m not hurt. It was a deer.”

The windshield was gone. The passenger seat had been shoved backward, and the air bags, now miraculously deflated, had left behind a smell of burnt powder. One of the headlights was out; the other, like a badly crossed eye, pointed leftward at a slab of rock marbled with lichen. Grace was fine; she was talking. “God,” she said. Yes: the gods, Anna thought. We should write a letter to the gods and advise them to be more careful about their deer. 

“Mom.” Grace wanted to know if they should get out of the car. They probably should. Except that Anna’s left leg below the knee seemed to be pinned, or caught on something. When she tried to move it, pain seared through the bone and through every nerve, and she grabbed a fistful of Grace’s sweatshirt and pulled Grace toward her and gasped, open-mouthed, into her hair. “I’m all right,” she said, when she caught her breath. She didn’t want Grace to be frightened. “It’s probably just broken. Stuck. We need the phone.”

Grace’s door wouldn’t budge. She tore the headrest from the top of her seat, tossed it through the opening where the windshield had been, and clambered, limber creature, into the back.

Anna threw up.

Alex was probably getting home now. He had offered to spare her, volunteering to make the trip himself, but it had made more sense for Anna to go, because she was working part-time until spring. Anna pictured her husband walking into the kitchen, putting his briefcase on the counter, and checking his phone. He would let their golden retriever, Riley, into the yard, and whistle twice for Mister Nibbs; then he would open the refrigerator, which, in light of Grace’s illness, had become more of an educational display than a place to find food.

The rock in front of the car had a cleft in it, probably centuries old. “We’ll need to ask for an ambulance,” Anna said. “I wish we knew the name of this road.”

Grace was ransacking the rear of the car. Raised in the upper Midwest, she knew the catechism about emergency supplies for winter travelers: reflectors or flares, a flashlight (preferably with working batteries), a sleeping bag, bottled water, and food.

Anna tried with her right foot to discover what might be oppressing her left, but whenever she moved, a symphony of pain—a thousand instruments at full volume—burst to life in her lower leg. Maybe they would call the Jaws of Life to free her. The phrase sounded odd all of a sudden. She had to slow her breathing. Jaws? Was that the right term?

Grace climbed into the front seat again. She wiped the vomit from her mother’s shirt. In the gloom and detritus of the car, she had found a moth-eaten blanket belonging to Riley, a diet soda, and the M&Ms, which she set near Anna on the console. Anna remembered Alex slipping the candy into the vinyl cooler just that morning. “For moral fortitude,” he had told her. “For the long drive home.”

Scrambling around in the car, Grace couldn’t find flares or reflectors, but she spied the miniature penlight dangling from her mother’s keychain. She quickly detached it. It emitted a slender yellow beam when squeezed at the sides.

Anna concentrated on not moving her legs. “Did you call yet?” she asked. “Did you find the phone? It’s in my purse.”

Grace was shuddering, with fear or with cold. She had unzipped and emptied her suitcase in the back of the car, and now she was draping items of clothing—mostly T-shirts and jeans—across Anna’s lap. She fitted socks, like faceless puppets, on her mother’s hands. Anna remembered dressing Grace when she was a baby: the delicious, rounded soles of her feet, the doughy flesh of her shoulders. Grace unfolded Riley’s blanket, the fabric releasing its canine aroma. Anna pictured the dog’s eagerly clueless expression.

Snow was falling through the open windshield, dropping in sparkling clumps from the trees.

Grace found a pair of boots in her suitcase and put them on. She was crying now. The car doors were jammed and wouldn’t open, but she was so lithe and slim she had no trouble climbing through the broken windshield onto the hood. “Mom. I’m sorry,” she said.

“Where are you going?” As if still driving, Anna held the wheel with both sock-covered hands.

“I have to walk to the road back there,” Grace said.

“You can’t. It’s too cold. Get back in the car. Can you give me my phone?”

Grace lowered her voice to a near whisper. “It was on the table,” she said. “I left it at the diner next to your food because I didn’t want you to talk about me. You were talking to Dad. I’m sorry.” She squeezed the penlight and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Mom, I’ll be back.”

Anna felt as if the earth had just reversed itself on its axis. “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Grace, stay. You have to stay here. We’ll wait together. We’ll wait here for help.”

Grace leaned through the windshield, and Anna thought with relief that she had decided to reenter the car. Instead she kissed Anna’s lips. She kissed her mother’s mouth with her mouth and then she was leaving, she was gone, stumbling into the snow.

Anna tasted her lips. Chocolate? Grace had opened the M&Ms and eaten. The food of the dead. The flavor spread through Anna’s mouth, as fragrant as loam.

She shouted for Grace. She yelled until she was hoarse, feeling love and rage in equal parts suffuse her. Her head thrown back against the window, she cursed the snow. She cursed the trees and the rocks and the deer they had killed; then she cursed the gully into which they had fallen, and which six months from now would be threaded with rivulets of water and the coiled tendrils of ferns. Impossible, she thought, to reconcile oneself to this excruciating cycle, the torment of departure and return. She refused to withstand it. Let the soil freeze. Let the fields lie uncultivated. She saw a single pinhole of light in the distance. Let those who are hungry be seated at the executioner’s table. The light in Grace’s hand, like a paper-white narcissus, bobbed and gradually disappeared into the thickening dark.

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