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Authors: Bonnie Jo Campbell

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BOOK: Q Road
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In her time living alone on the
Glutton
that fall, Rachel killed only as much as she needed to eat, and she boiled the meat for hours, days sometimes, to tenderize it and to kill parasites, as her mother had taught her. For the most part she avoided contact with anyone other than Milton and the people she had to see at school. She didn't let herself think about the night with Johnny and her mother in the barn, but she knew those details were swimming around the island of her conscious mind, and she dreaded lying down at night for fear of what might come to her in the unguarded moments between waking and sleeping. On the season's last warm nights she slept on straw in the upper level of the Harland barn, but usually she burned a kerosene lamp in the boat, where she cleaned her mother's rifle and read library books about gardening and wild plants and animals and the Potawatomi, whose name she found out meant “people of the fire.” Rachel read that these local Indians sometimes sent their kids into the woods alone to gather what wisdom they could. Rachel felt that in her time alone she was learning plenty, and not just about plants and animals.

She was learning that loneliness could deepen with every passing day, even when you thought it couldn't get worse. Rachel wished she had tolerated the skunk fumes longer to learn more, her father's name, at least, and anything else about her ancestor who grew corn here. Rachel learned from books that the Potawatomi came down from the north four hundred years ago and took this land from the Miami tribe. Good for them, Rachel thought; they must have really loved this place if they went to the trouble of driving other people away. She also learned that the children within a clan were considered brothers and sisters and could not marry, and so when a girl married, she went to live with a new clan. That suggested to Rachel something about Corn Girl. It might not have been the prospect of marriage to a man that made her kill herself, as Margo had suggested. It made more sense to Rachel that Corn Girl would have killed herself to keep from having to leave the place she loved. She had no idea what evidence her father'd had for his claim of discovering the girl's grave, so when Rachel wandered on her own, she searched for anything at all—a depressed spot in the earth, a big stone curiously placed. People now buried their dead high on hills, but back then the Potawatomi put folks into the lower, more fertile land near the river, and instead of securing them in houselike coffins, the Potawatomi wrapped bodies in what, in the drawings in library books, resembled collapsed wigwams of skins and grass mats. Rachel dreamed repeatedly that she herself was lying on the bare ground, surrounded by mounds rising up around her as though they were rows of the dead, lying end to end, not buried but merely stretched out with a little dirt piled onto them, dangerously easy to uncover.

Though Rachel sometimes fantasized about going to Milton or April May or even George Harland and telling what had happened, she needed only to remind herself that it would mean confessing she was living alone, and since living alone was illegal for a fourteen-year-old, she had to keep her mouth shut. The authorities
would probably send her away to an orphanage in Kalamazoo if they found out. Losing her mother was bad enough—losing her place here would be the end of everything. So that nobody became suspicious, five days a week Rachel went south of the river to school, where she kept quiet and ignored kids who teased her about her worn-out clothes. She honestly didn't give a damn what they thought, but she resented their calling attention to her.

In those first months without her mother, Rachel settled on a focus for her new life alone: to earn as much money as she could in order to buy land from George Harland when he would have to sell, as Milton insisted he and all the other farmers eventually would. With the money Milton paid her, Rachel first went to the township office and paid the overdue taxes on her mother's wedge of property, explaining to the clerk that her mother had sent her on the errand.

A few times that autumn, Rachel tried speaking prayers to Milton's god, begging to be allowed to stay where she was, but she didn't feel right asking a favor of somebody she couldn't even imagine. She spoke aloud to Corn Girl more often, figuring a girl buried in the ground nearby might understand her better than a man living in the sky. Sometimes as she washed her clothes in a tub of creek water she'd heated on the woodstove, she told Corn Girl that really she was fine alone. She said aloud that she wouldn't know what to do with a father even if he showed up and introduced himself. On rare occasions Rachel felt so lonesome and agitated that she used her pocketknife to dig at the bullet lodged near her armpit. Though it was not buried deeply, it was at an impossible angle, and her efforts only resulted in new wounds that she had to bandage and salve. In general Rachel tried to take care of herself, and in her hours alone she was making up her mind about the world, concluding that not only was land the most important thing, but that everything else—school, buildings, people—meant nothing.

There came to be one exception, however. Rachel was carrying
the .22 one sleepless night when, close to the river's edge, she sensed a coyote. She caught the glint of teeth and a fawn-colored coat, and she lifted her rifle, aimed, and shot into raspberry brambles. When David Retakker, a sandy-haired, freckled kid in a tan sweatshirt with a Higgins Dairy logo, slowly stood, Rachel let the gun fall slack against her arm. Johnny had been dead on the barn floor, and now, two months later, here was this scrawny kid standing straight up in her line of fire, clearly alive, eyes sparkling with fear. She'd seen David wandering the neighborhood, knew his father worked for George Harland, but she'd never cared about him any more than she cared about any other idiot kid. When he stood unharmed, however, Rachel knew he was some kind of miracle. This little boy, only chest high to her, had come back to life in a way that Johnny had refused to do. She walked David home to P Road and told him he ought to be more goddamn careful, that he shouldn't be out so goddamn late, and that he should wear brighter goddamn colors for safety and a jacket, too, on such a cold night.

Three days later when she saw David squatting, eating something from his hand and throwing bits of whatever it was into a mud puddle, Rachel's whole body flashed with heat at the memory of almost shooting him.

“Hey, you,” she finally said. “I hope to hell you're being careful.”

David stood as though rising again from the dead and wiped his hands on his jeans, letting pale nuggets fall around his feet.

“You're eating raw soybeans?”

David shrugged. “They were left after the combine went through.”

“I've never been hungry enough to eat raw soybeans,” Rachel said. “Follow me. We'll go eat something better.”

Rachel jogged toward Queer Road, stopping repeatedly to allow David to catch up. He was panting when they got there.

“What the hell's the matter with your breathing?” When he only shrugged again, she said, “Fine, don't tell me.”

She squatted down, and he squatted in imitation beside her. She picked up a walnut that had been run over by enough cars that the tough green husk was worn off. She placed it on the edge of the road and cracked it open with a fist-sized rock. “And don't smash your damn fingers when you do this.” She handed him both halves of the walnut, and was impressed when he pulled out a pocketknife.

“I'm going to be a farmer,” David told her, as he dug specks of walnut meat from the shell. “I'm going to grow hundreds of acres of food.”

“Don't bite down hard or you might break your teeth on a piece of shell.” Rachel decided that the only way such a small, wheezy, hungry kid was going to survive out here long enough to become a farmer was with her help. Rachel threw a couple dozen more walnuts into the road so that cars could run over them and they could eat them another time.

In the months following, she taught David things her mother and Milton had taught her, such as never to drink water from the river, not even if you boiled it for twenty minutes. She taught him about borrowing tools from the Harland shed, making him promise to always return them to the exact positions he'd found them in, so George wouldn't start locking the toolshed. She often petted and talked to the Harland animals in the pasture, and when she found a blood-swollen tick on the spotted pony's neck—a tick as big and hard as a kernel of corn—she showed it to David and made him promise to check himself for ticks before going to bed. She didn't bring David to the
Glutton
, for fear he'd notice her mother was missing, but she told him without hesitation that the Potawatomi had loved this place, and that the Corn Girl used to cut her hair and bury strands of it with her plants and then talk to the plants until they were big enough to grow on their own. Rachel herself invented the stories about Corn Girl, but once she told the stories to David, she never doubted the truth of them.

Throughout the ensuing winter, Rachel worked whenever Milton would hire her and she sought out David every day. The coldest nights kept her inside the boat, though, and made her feel more alone than she thought she could bear, especially when she awoke from her dreams of the dead lying under dirt. And there was another dream, one that occurred just as she fell asleep sometimes, a dream in which her mother stood silently before her: Margo started out solid, but gradually she grew translucent, and finally invisible. In a variation, Margo would break up like oil on water and flow away downstream. Rachel had long known the river divided the world into halves, but she was coming to realize that her mother had been her center point on the river, and a landscape without a center was an uncertain place, even if you'd known it all your life. Daytime, on her own, she continued her search for Indian graves, as though the dead could give her some new insight. It was the following spring, on such a search, that she came face-to-face with George Harland. She was standing in a field near the river, feeling so alone and heavy that when George's tractor approached, she didn't run away.

7

ON THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 9, 1999, DAVID RETAKKER'S
mother lit a menthol cigarette and emptied the pint of bourbon into her coffee in the kitchen of George's other house. Sally had tried a few times recently to quit smoking—namely when she'd run out of cigarettes. At Mike's insistent nagging, she'd also tried to quit drinking once about three years ago, but she didn't intend to try that again. She felt bad for David not having a father around, but she was relieved Mike was gone, because she'd grown tired of fighting with him. Now that she was rid of Mike, she was ready to be out of this place, away from this whole damned climate. She was ready for California and sunshine and year-round warmth.

As her son accepted the seventeenth bale of straw in the barn on Queer Road, Sally knotted the belt of her flannel robe, carried her cup out into the backyard and sat in a lawn chair beside a rickety picnic table. She'd have preferred to live on Queer Road because she could more easily walk or hitch down to the Barn Grill, but
when she got out of this place, she'd be moving a lot farther away than Queer Road. And when she got out of this town, she'd be drinking in bars that didn't have pictures of the Lord Jesus staring down at you from the walls.

Sally had heard David get up this morning and leave to go help George do something or other. Sally didn't know George very well, despite living for more than a decade in a house he owned, nor did she understand why George was letting her stay there rent-free now. She half expected him to come wandering in some night with a bottle. She'd never seen him drunk, but all men had to get drunk once in a while. She'd seen him have a beer or two at the Barn Grill plenty often. A few times he'd even bought her a beer and joked with her about some new piece of Jesus artwork Milton had picked up, like the picture with the red lightbulb behind it to make the Lord's heart appear pinkish beneath his white robe. George had also taken her to the store several times when she'd asked. Though she didn't particularly desire George, she didn't desire him any less than she desired anyone else, and if he came in smelling of alcohol and talking sweet to her, she wouldn't refuse him. In the last few months, however, George hadn't even come by to suggest Sally pay the light bill.

Sally tried to look at the bright maples, but settled her gaze instead on the cluster of tall brown walnut trees. People didn't understand how hard it was having a twelve-year-old son at her age. She'd been through all this before with the first two boys, and she'd only just finished raising them when David came along. Of course David couldn't have been a nicer kid, and of the three boys, David was the only one who resembled her. The older boys looked like their father, stocky with broad shoulders and meaty fists. David looked nothing like his father, but was fine-featured and pale with freckles like Sally's. He had her long, big-knuckled fingers. The first time Sally had a boy, she was still a teenager and stupid in love. Back then she'd been full of energy, but it was just too hard to
have a son when you were fifty and you'd been through it all before.

BOOK: Q Road
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