Authors: Tara Westover
The seed of curiosity had been planted; it needed nothing more than time and boredom to grow. Sometimes, when I was stripping copper from a radiator or throwing the five hundredth chunk of steel into the bin, I’d find myself imagining the classrooms where Tyler was spending his days. My interest grew more acute with every deadening hour in the junkyard, until one day I had a bizarre thought: that I should enroll in the public school.
Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.
But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.
I made some effort to keep up my schooling in the free time I had between scrapping and helping Mother make tinctures and blend oils. Mother had given up homeschooling by then, but still had a computer, and there were books in the basement. I found the science book, with its colorful illustrations, and the math book I remembered from years before. I even located a faded green book of history. But when I sat down to study I nearly always fell asleep. The pages were glossy and soft, made softer by the hours I’d spent hauling scrap.
When Dad saw me with one of those books, he’d try to get me away from them. Perhaps he was remembering Tyler. Perhaps he thought if he could just distract me for a few years, the danger would pass. So he made up jobs for me to do, whether they needed doing or not. One afternoon, after he’d caught me looking at the math book, he and I spent an hour hauling buckets of water across the field to his fruit trees, which wouldn’t have been at all unusual except it was during a rainstorm.
But if Dad was trying to keep his children from being overly interested in school and books—from being seduced by the Illuminati, like Tyler had been—he would have done better to turn his attention to Richard. Richard was also supposed to spend his afternoons making tinctures for Mother, but he almost never did. Instead, he’d disappear. I don’t know if Mother knew where he went, but I did. In the afternoons, Richard could nearly always be found in the dark basement, wedged in the crawl space between the couch and the wall, an encyclopedia propped open in front of him. If Dad happened by he’d turn the light off, muttering about wasted electricity. Then I’d find some excuse to go downstairs so I could turn it back on. If Dad came through again, a snarl would sound through the house, and Mother would have to sit through a lecture on leaving lights on in empty rooms. She never scolded me, which makes me wonder if she did know where Richard was. If I couldn’t get back down to turn on the light, Richard would pull the book to his nose and read in the dark; he wanted to read that badly. He wanted to read the
TYLER WAS GONE. There was hardly a trace he’d ever lived in the house, except one: every night, after dinner, I would close the door to my room and pull Tyler’s old boom box from under my bed. I’d dragged his desk into my room, and while the choir sang I would settle into his chair and study, just as I’d seen him do on a thousand nights. I didn’t study history or math. I studied religion.
I read the Book of Mormon twice. I read the New Testament, once quickly, then a second time more slowly, pausing to make notes, to cross-reference, and even to write short essays on doctrines like faith and sacrifice. No one read the essays; I wrote them for myself, the way I imagined Tyler had studied for himself and himself only. I worked through the Old Testament next, then I read Dad’s books, which were mostly compilations of the speeches, letters and journals of the early Mormon prophets. Their language was of the nineteenth century—stiff, winding, but exact—and at first I understood nothing. But over time my eyes and ears adjusted, so that I began to feel at home with those fragments of my people’s history: stories of pioneers, my ancestors, striking out across the American wilderness. While the stories were vivid, the lectures were abstract, treatises on obscure philosophical subjects, and it was to these abstractions that I devoted most of my study.
In retrospect, I see that
was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
BY THE TIME THE SNOW on the mountain began to melt, my hands were thickly callused. A season in the junkyard had honed my reflexes: I’d learned to listen for the low grunt that escaped Dad’s lips whenever he tossed something heavy, and when I heard it I hit the dirt. I spent so much time flat in the mud, I didn’t salvage much. Dad joked I was as slow as molasses running uphill.
The memory of Tyler had faded, and with it had faded his music, drowned out by the crack of metal crashing into metal. Those were the sounds that played in my head at night now—the jingle of corrugated tin, the short tap of copper wire, the thunder of iron.
I had entered into the new reality. I saw the world through my father’s eyes. I saw the angels, or at least I imagined I saw them, watching us scrap, stepping forward and catching the car batteries or jagged lengths of steel tubing that Dad launched across the yard. I’d stopped shouting at Dad for throwing them. Instead, I prayed.
I worked faster when I salvaged alone, so one morning when Dad was in the northern tip of the yard, near the mountain, I headed for the southern tip, near the pasture. I filled a bin with two thousand pounds of iron; then, my arms aching, I ran to find Dad. The bin had to be emptied, and I couldn’t operate the loader—a massive forklift with a telescopic arm and wide, black wheels that were taller than I was. The loader would raise the bin some twenty-five feet into the air and then, with the boom extended, tilt the forks so the scrap could slide out, raining down into the trailer with a tremendous clamor. The trailer was a fifty-foot flatbed rigged for scrapping, essentially a giant bucket. Its walls were made of thick iron sheets that reached eight feet from the bed. The trailer could hold between fifteen and twenty bins, or about forty thousand pounds of iron.
I found Dad in the field, lighting a fire to burn the insulation from a tangle of copper wires. I told him the bin was ready, and he walked back with me and climbed into the loader. He waved at the trailer. “We’ll get more in if you settle the iron after it’s been dumped. Hop in.”
I didn’t understand. He wanted to dump the bin with me in it? “I’ll climb up after you’ve dumped the load,” I said.
“No, this’ll be faster,” Dad said. “I’ll pause when the bin’s level with the trailer wall so you can climb out. Then you can run along the wall and perch on top of the cab until the dump is finished.”
I settled myself on a length of iron. Dad jammed the forks under the bin, then lifted me and the scrap and began driving, full throttle, toward the trailer’s head. I could barely hold on. On the last turn, the bucket swung with such force that a spike of iron was flung toward me. It pierced the inside of my leg, an inch below my knee, sliding into the tissue like a knife into warm butter. I tried to pull it out but the load had shifted, and it was partially buried. I heard the soft groaning of hydraulic pumps as the boom extended. The groaning stopped when the bin was level with the trailer. Dad was giving me time to climb onto the trailer wall but I was pinned. “I’m stuck!” I shouted, only the growl of the loader’s engine was too loud. I wondered if Dad would wait to dump the bin until he saw me sitting safely on the semi’s cab, but even as I wondered I knew he wouldn’t. Time was still stalking.
The hydraulics groaned and the bin raised another eight feet. Dumping position. I shouted again, higher this time, then lower, trying to find a pitch that would pierce through the drone of the engine. The bin began its tilt, slowly at first, then quickly. I was pinned near the back. I wrapped my hands around the bin’s top wall, knowing this would give me a ledge to grasp when the bin was vertical. As the bin continued to pitch, the scrap at the front began to slide forward, bit by bit, a great iron glacier breaking apart. The spike was still embedded in my leg, dragging me downward. My grip had slipped and I’d begun to slide when the spike finally ripped from me and fell away, smashing into the trailer with a tremendous crash. I was now free, but falling. I flailed my arms, willing them to seize something that wasn’t plunging downward. My palm caught hold of the bin’s side wall, which was now nearly vertical. I pulled myself toward it and hoisted my body over its edge, then continued my fall. Because I was now falling from the side of the bin and not the front, I hoped—I prayed—that I was falling toward the ground and not toward the trailer, which was at that moment a fury of grinding metal. I sank, seeing only blue sky, waiting to feel either the stab of sharp iron or the jolt of solid earth.
My back struck iron: the trailer’s wall. My feet snapped over my head and I continued my graceless plunge to the ground. The first fall was seven or eight feet, the second perhaps ten. I was relieved to taste dirt.
I lay on my back for perhaps fifteen seconds before the engine growled to silence and I heard Dad’s heavy step.
“What happened?” he said, kneeling next to me.
“I fell out,” I wheezed. The wind had been knocked out of me, and there was a powerful throbbing in my back, as if I’d been cut in two.
“How’d you manage that?” Dad said. His tone was sympathetic but disappointed. I felt stupid.
I should have been able to do it,
It’s a simple thing.
Dad examined the gash in my leg, which had been ripped wide as the spike had fallen away. It looked like a pothole; the tissue had simply sunk out of sight. Dad slipped out of his flannel shirt and pressed it to my leg. “Go on home,” he said. “Mother will stop the bleeding.”
I limped through the pasture until Dad was out of sight, then collapsed in the tall wheatgrass. I was shaking, gulping mouthfuls of air that never made it to my lungs. I didn’t understand why I was crying. I was alive. I would be fine. The angels had done their part. So why couldn’t I stop trembling?
I was light-headed when I crossed the last field and approached the house, but I burst through the back door, as I’d seen my brothers do, as Robert and Emma had done, shouting for Mother. When she saw the crimson footprints streaked across the linoleum, she fetched the homeopathic she used to treat hemorrhages and shock, called Rescue Remedy, and put twelve drops of the clear, tasteless liquid under my tongue. She rested her left hand lightly on the gash and crossed the fingers of her right. Her eyes closed.
Click click click.
“There’s no tetanus,” she said. “The wound will close. Eventually. But it’ll leave a nasty scar.”
She turned me onto my stomach and examined the bruise—a patch of deep purple the size of a human head—that had formed a few inches above my hip. Again her fingers crossed and her eyes closed.
Click click click.
“You’ve damaged your kidney,” she said. “We’d better make a fresh batch of juniper and mullein flower.”
THE GASH BELOW MY knee had formed a scab—dark and shiny, a black river flowing through pink flesh—when I came to a decision.
I chose a Sunday evening, when Dad was resting on the couch, his Bible propped open in his lap. I stood in front of him for what felt like hours, but he didn’t look up, so I blurted out what I’d come to say: “I want to go to school.”
He seemed not to have heard me.
“I’ve prayed, and I want to go,” I said.
Finally, Dad looked up and straight ahead, his gaze fixed on something behind me. The silence settled, its presence heavy. “In this family,” he said, “we obey the commandments of the Lord.”
He picked up his Bible and his eyes twitched as they jumped from line to line. I turned to leave, but before I reached the doorway Dad spoke again. “You remember Jacob and Esau?”
“I remember,” I said.
He returned to his reading, and I left quietly. I did not need any explanation; I knew what the story meant. It meant that I was not the daughter he had raised, the daughter of faith. I had tried to sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.
It was a rainless summer. The sun blazed across the sky each afternoon, scorching the mountain with its arid, desiccating heat, so that each morning when I crossed the field to the barn, I felt stalks of wild wheat crackle and break beneath my feet.
I spent an amber morning making the Rescue Remedy homeopathic for Mother. I would take fifteen drops from the base formula—which was kept in Mother’s sewing cupboard, where it would not be used or polluted—and add them to a small bottle of distilled water. Then I would make a circle with my index finger and my thumb, and push the bottle through the circle. The strength of the homeopathic, Mother said, depended on how many passes the bottle made through my fingers, how many times it drew on my energy. Usually I stopped at fifty.
Dad and Luke were on the mountain, in the junkyard above the upper pasture, a quarter mile from the house. They were preparing cars for the crusher, which Dad had hired for later that week. Luke was seventeen. He had a lean, muscular build and, when outdoors, an easy smile. Luke and Dad were draining gasoline from the tanks. The crusher won’t take a car with the fuel tank attached, because there’s a risk of explosion, so every tank had to be drained and removed. It was slow work, puncturing the tank with a hammer and stake, then waiting for the fuel to drip out so the tank could be safely removed with a cutting torch. Dad had devised a shortcut: an enormous skewer, eight feet tall, of thick iron. Dad would lift a car with the forklift, and Luke would guide him until the car’s tank was suspended directly over the spike. Then Dad would drop the forks. If all went well, the car would be impaled on the spike and gasoline would gush from the tank, streaming down the spike and into the flat-bottom container Dad had welded in place to collect it.
By noon, they had drained somewhere between thirty and forty cars. Luke had collected the fuel in five-gallon buckets, which he began to haul across the yard to Dad’s flatbed. On one pass he stumbled, drenching his jeans in a gallon of gas. The summer sun dried the denim in a matter of minutes. He finished hauling the buckets, then went home for lunch.
I remember that lunch with unsettling clarity. I remember the clammy smell of beef-and-potato casserole, and the jingle of ice cubes tumbling into tall glasses, which sweated in the summer heat. I remember Mother telling me I was on dish duty, because she was leaving for Utah after lunch to consult for another midwife on a complicated pregnancy. She said she might not make it home for dinner but there was hamburger in the freezer.
I remember laughing the whole hour. Dad lay on the kitchen floor cracking jokes about an ordinance that had recently passed in our little farming village. A stray dog had bitten a boy and everyone was up in arms. The mayor had decided to limit dog ownership to two dogs per family, even though the attacking dog hadn’t belonged to anybody at all.
“These genius socialists,” Dad said. “They’d drown staring up at the rain if you didn’t build a roof over them.” I laughed so hard at that my stomach ached.
Luke had forgotten all about the gasoline by the time he and Dad walked back up the mountain and readied the cutting torch, but when he jammed the torch into his hip and struck flint to steel, flames burst from the tiny spark and engulfed his leg.
The part we would remember, would tell and retell so many times it became family folklore, was that Luke was unable to get out of his gasoline-soaked jeans. That morning, like every morning, he had hitched up his trousers with a yard of baling twine, which is smooth and slippery, and needs a horseman’s knot to stay in place. His footwear didn’t help, either: bulbous steel-toed boots so tattered that for weeks he’d been duct-taping them on each morning, then cutting them off each night with his pocketknife. Luke might have severed the twine and hacked through the boots in a matter of seconds, but he went mad with panic and took off, dashing like a marked buck, spreading fire through the sagebrush and wheat grass, which were baked and brittle from the parched summer.
I’D STACKED THE DIRTY dishes and was filling the kitchen sink when I heard it—a shrill, strangled cry that began in one key and ended in another. There was no question it was human. I’d never heard an animal bellow like that, with such fluctuations in tone and pitch.
I ran outside and saw Luke hobbling across the grass. He screamed for Mother, then collapsed. That’s when I saw that the jeans on his left leg were gone, melted away. Parts of the leg were livid, red and bloody; others were bleached and dead. Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from a cheap candle.
His eyes rolled back in his head.
I bolted back into the house. I’d packed the new bottles of Rescue Remedy, but the base formula still sat on the counter. I snatched it and ran outside, then dumped half the bottle between Luke’s twitching lips. There was no change. His eyes were marble white.
One brown iris slipped into view, then the other. He began to mumble, then to scream. “It’s on fire! It’s on fire!” he roared. A chill passed through him and his teeth clattered; he was shivering.
I was only ten, and in that moment I felt very much a child. Luke was my big brother; I thought he would know what to do, so I grabbed his shoulders and shook him, hard. “Should I make you cold or make you hot?” I shouted. He answered with a gasp.
The burn was the injury, I reasoned. It made sense to treat it first. I fetched a pack of ice from the chest freezer on the patio, but when the pack touched his leg he screamed—a back-arching, eye-popping scream that made my brain claw at my skull. I needed another way to cool the leg. I considered unloading the chest freezer and putting Luke inside it, but the freezer would work only if the lid was shut, and then he’d suffocate.
I mentally searched the house. We had a large garbage can, a blue whale of a bin. It was splattered with bits of rotted food, so rank we kept it shut away in a closet. I sprinted into the house and emptied it onto the linoleum, noting the dead mouse Richard had tossed in the day before, then I carried the bin outside and sprayed it out with the garden hose. I knew I should clean it more thoroughly, maybe with dish soap, but looking at Luke, the way he was writhing on the grass, I didn’t feel I had time. With the last bit of slop blasted away, I righted the bin and filled it with water.
Luke was scrambling toward me to put his leg in when I heard an echo of my mother’s voice. She was telling someone that the real worry with a burn isn’t the damaged tissue, but infection.
“Luke!” I shouted. “Don’t! Don’t put your leg in!”
He ignored me and continued crawling toward the bin. He had a cold look in his eye that said nothing mattered except the fire burning from his leg into his brain. I moved quickly. I shoved the bin, and a great wave of water heaved over the grass. Luke made a gargled noise, as if he were choking.
I ran back into the kitchen and found the bags that fit the can, then held one open for Luke and told him to put his leg in. He didn’t move, but he allowed me to pull the bag over the raw flesh. I righted the can and stuffed the garden hose inside. While the bin filled, I helped Luke balance on one foot and lower his burned leg, now wrapped in black plastic, into the garbage can. The afternoon air was sweltering; the water would warm quickly; I tossed in the pack of ice.
It didn’t take long—twenty minutes, maybe thirty—before Luke seemed in his right mind, calm and able to prop himself up. Then Richard wandered up from the basement. The garbage can was smack in the middle of the lawn, ten feet from any shade, and the afternoon sun was strong. Full of water, the can was too heavy for us to move, and Luke refused to take out his leg, even for a minute. I fetched a straw sombrero Grandma had given us in Arizona. Luke’s teeth were still chattering so I also brought a wool blanket. And there he stood, a sombrero on his head, a wool blanket around his shoulders, and his leg in a garbage can. He looked something between homeless and on vacation.
The sun warmed the water; Luke began to shift uncomfortably. I returned to the chest freezer but there was no more ice, just a dozen bags of frozen vegetables, so I dumped them in. The result was a muddy soup with bits of peas and carrots.
Dad wandered home sometime after this, I couldn’t say how long, a gaunt, defeated look on his face. Quiet now, Luke was resting, or as near to resting as he could be standing up. Dad wheeled the bin into the shade because, despite the hat, Luke’s hands and arms had turned red with sunburn. Dad said the best thing to do was leave the leg where it was until Mother came home.
Mother’s car appeared on the highway around six. I met her halfway up the hill and told her what had happened. She rushed to Luke and said she needed to see the leg, so he lifted it out, dripping. The plastic bag clung to the wound. Mother didn’t want to tear the fragile tissue, so she cut the bag away slowly, carefully, until the leg was visible. There was very little blood and even fewer blisters, as both require skin and Luke didn’t have much. Mother’s face turned a grayish yellow, but she was calm. She closed her eyes and crossed her fingers, then asked aloud whether the wound was infected.
Click click click.
“You were lucky this time, Tara,” she said. “But what were you thinking, putting a burn into a
Dad carried Luke inside and Mother fetched her scalpel. It took her and Dad most of the evening to cut away the dead flesh. Luke tried not to scream, but when they pried up and stretched bits of his skin, trying to see where the dead flesh ended and the living began, he exhaled in great gusts and tears slid from his eyes.
Mother dressed the leg in mullein and comfrey salve, her own recipe. She was good with burns—they were a specialty of hers—but I could tell she was worried. She said she’d never seen one as bad as Luke’s. She didn’t know what would happen.
MOTHER AND I STAYED by Luke’s bed that first night. He barely slept, he was so delirious with fever and pain. For the fever we put ice on his face and chest; for the pain we gave him lobelia, blue vervain and skullcap. This was another of Mother’s recipes. I’d taken it after I’d fallen from the scrap bin, to dull the throbbing in my leg while I waited for the gash to close, but as near as I could tell it had no effect.
I believed hospital drugs were an abomination to God, but if I’d had morphine that night, I’d have given it to Luke. The pain robbed him of breath. He lay propped up in his bed, beads of sweat falling from his forehead onto his chest, holding his breath until he turned red, then purple, as if depriving his brain of oxygen was the only way he could make it through the next minute. When the pain in his lungs overtook the pain of the burn, he would release the air in a great, gasping cry—a cry of relief for his lungs, of agony for his leg.
I tended him alone the second night so Mother could rest. I slept lightly, waking at the first sounds of fussing, at the slightest shifting of weight, so I could fetch the ice and tinctures before Luke became fully conscious and the pain gripped him. On the third night, Mother tended him and I stood in the doorway, listening to his gasps, watching Mother watch him, her face hollow, her eyes swollen with worry and exhaustion.
When I slept, I dreamed. I dreamed about the fire I hadn’t seen. I dreamed it was me lying in that bed, my body wrapped in loose bandages, mummified. Mother knelt on the floor beside me, pressing my plastered hand the way she pressed Luke’s, dabbing my forehead, praying.
Luke didn’t go to church that Sunday, or the Sunday after that, or the one after that. Dad told us to tell people Luke was sick. He said there’d be trouble if the Government found out about Luke’s leg, that the Feds would take us kids away. That they would put Luke in a hospital, where his leg would get infected and he would die.
About three weeks after the fire, Mother announced that the skin around the edges of the burn had begun to grow back, and that she had hope for even the worst patches. By then Luke was sitting up, and a week later, when the first cold spell hit, he could stand for a minute or two on crutches. Before long, he was thumping around the house, thin as a string bean, swallowing buckets of food to regain the weight he’d lost. By then, the twine was a family fable.
“A man ought to have a real belt,” Dad said at breakfast on the day Luke was well enough to return to the junkyard, handing him a leather strap with a steel buckle.
“Not Luke,” Richard said. “He prefers twine, you know how fashionable he is.”
Luke grinned. “Beauty’s everything,” he said.
FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS I never thought of that day, not in any probing way. The few times my reminiscing carried me back to that torrid afternoon, what I remembered first was the belt.
I would think.
You wild dog. I wonder, do you still wear twine?
Now, at age twenty-nine, I sit down to write, to reconstruct the incident from the echoes and shouts of a tired memory. I scratch it out. When I get to the end, I pause. There’s an inconsistency, a ghost in this story.
I read it. I read it again. And there it is.
Who put out the fire?
A long-dormant voice says,
But Luke was alone when I found him. If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn. Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain. Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old. Why it had ended up in a garbage can.
I decide to ask Richard. He’s older than I, and has a sharper memory. Besides, last I heard, Luke no longer has a telephone.