I could do small things. Last spring, I shelled the whole pea patch. Mom kissed my green-stained palms and told me I was good. I could sing under my breath so the prairie wind would not hear. Every day I sang as I carried water to the house, the naked blue sky like a sea held aloft by God.
“Water in the bucket, water in the bucket from the well. Walk on tiptoe, walk on by, just walk so the water don’t spill.”
Sometimes the moon swam in the bucket as I carried it across the yard past the sheep pen full of them, dumb and square-eyed in their dirty wool that turned my guts with the scent of lanolin. The Nebraska night was so vast, I feared some force would pull me over the edge of it if I lingered too long in it. So I sloshed my hurried way to the porch and the seam of light under the door.
A single oil lamp burned upon our table, throwing wan light to the corners. Dad, Mom, Sister and I would gather here to sup. Our dog, Sampson would lick up potato peels fallen beneath the table skirt and be sick, whimpering from his rug through the night.
While Sampson rested his head atop my feet beneath the table, Dad read from the Bible and stroked Sister’s hand. The three of us sat and listened to Dad’s drone, dry as salt-wood. He read of the story of Peter’s three denials of Jesus, and the Lord’s foretelling of Peter’s lies. Dad held a finger aloft, pointed up into the gloom of the rafters. He closed the Bible and stared into the grain of the table.
“Mendacity.” He uttered.
In my bed that night I tried to lie. I tried to say I was seven when I was still two months left in six. I tried to say I was an empty vessel and could be filled to the brim with the water of the Lord.
“Water in the bucket, water in the bucket.”
I wondered at how my utterances could attract God’s notice.
Sister peered at me from beneath her sheets–hair spread upon the pillow like corn-silk. She told me not to worry, that she did not believe God heard the prayers of little creatures like children, or the field mouse under the shadow of the owl’s wing. That she prayed for Dad’s soul to be pure and good like water through limestone. That he would find God in the grass. But she did not believe God heard.
This sounded of blasphemy, but she was Sister, and she was fourteen, and I trusted no one more.
Dad settled in Nebraska because he said it was free of corruption. He had worked a timber camp out west in Orr-e-gone, and Warshing-ton where he said the moss grew like a plague and metal rusted overnight. The wind in Nebraska was clean, the grass swayed in time with the turning of the earth and the air was dry and flat as the ground over which it flew.
Maybe if I hadn’t tried to lie, it would not have happened.
I was trusted to take Sampson on morning walks down the dirt lane on my own. Every day I tried to walk farther to see how brave I could be, and would hug his neck when the wind picked up with a hateful wail that put him to whimpering. I had walked several miles, my mind a tangle with the question of God’s ear and judgment. Why did sister pray for Dad’s soul?
I was looking back at our footprints in the dust when the riders came upon me. The men atop the horses cast long shadows like wavering strings of molasses off tin spoons. They sat and stared while I stood quiet, and Sampson panted next to me in the dust. They chewed tobacco, their grasshopper mouths jawing in the dust. I lowered my gaze away from the beards and sun-browned leather cheeks. Only the wind spoke.
The foremost rider clicked his steed forward several paces, iron horseshoes sounding in the dense quiet like poplar branches snapping in a freeze.
“Son, that’s one poor excuse for a mutt. Like he’s walkin’ meat.”
Soft laughter like the scratch of sandpaper.
“Anyplace up the way for a man to rest? Bite of grub? A friendly hearth?”
And with all of heaven watching I shook my head three times like Peter. Mendacity.
The man leaned low on the pommel of his saddle, squinting as if the light hurt. “We ain’t seen nothin’ out here. It’s days ridin’ back to anything.”
He pulled himself upright to survey the surrounding pastel hills. “This the kind of country a man could lose direction. Lose hisself, forget what’s a man for. And here you are. A boy walkin’ his sorry-ass dog. Like a goddamn minor miracle.”
The rider grinned dirty yellow gold and blinked once, slow as snow falling.
“Boy, I ain’t all sure you ain’t a mirage. This company’s been known to see things, to fall prey to demonic visitations. So you go on and tell me what’s up the way. Assure me my lucidity.”
Steel winked in the sun bent off their bandoleers. I hoped to feel the presence of some angels, but instead I felt the emptiness of the Nebraska plains and that the edge of everything had pulled itself upon me. And I was mute in that vacuous space, staring down at the shadows of those men.
“Well, no matter,” he said. “I guess I don’t trade much in mens’ notions of lucidity no how. Take care of that dog now, you hear?”
Horse hooves clopped, pulled the viscus shadows by the root. My eyes screwed shut, I heard the shuffle of leather and spurs. I smelled the sharp stink of horse sweat. Sampson whined low in the dust at my feet.
In the empty lane, in the waving grass, I wondered if the riders had been there at all. There was nothing here that breathed. Only the grass. God was not in this place. Not with me.
The riders’ crescent tracks made a school in the dust, fleck in streaks of tobacco juice. I followed them up the lane until I heard the air crack, like a thunder warning, like Dad’s rifle, the air split with gunfire.
I cut from the lane, running into the grass. I heard my own voice chanting in the clapping of breath hot and strained in my lungs. “Water in the bucket, water, water in the bucket.”
There were shouts of men. Yips of twisted fancy. I came upon our home and the backs of horses standing in a row between the house and the sheep pen. A wedge-shaped rock jutted from the ground and caught my foot so I tumbled and lay low in the grass. I held Sampson against my chest, holding to his weight, worried my fear would carry me like a feather into the sky and I’d never hold anything again.
Black smoke emanated from the clapboard windows, carrying screams and shouts onto the air. Two more shots. Then, from the back of the house flew a streak of light. And I watched Sister, her back and shoulders harried in flames, run from the cabin. Sprigs of grass caught fire briefly in her wake, a burning trail from the back door to where she fell as the last shot crackled, her arms spread wide as if she were falling into a welcome embrace.
The riders moved on, taking what few things one might consider valuable. The cabin smoked and stank. Burnt hair and blood and cloth. I lay rooted in the grass, watching smoke curl and fade against the void of blue. Two days I didn’t move, sleeping in my imprint, feeling the pull of the moon walking above me, and the ants marching across my wrist on their way to somewhere less lonely.
I could not dig a grave deep enough for Sister, who lay in the flowering clover behind the cabin in her scorched dress. I could hold Sampson’s neck and cry into the thick fur behind his ears. I could fetch a bucket from the post at the corner of the sheep pen and pull water for him to drink. I could wash Sister’s cold face with droplets from my fingers. I could close her eyes that were staring like glass up at the stars that were vast and dying like sparks in God’s palm. I could see their light glowing silver on the grass around me and wonder if this was God coming to tell me why I was not in his kingdom. I could watch the sun shining down the lane to swim up the side of the burned cabin. I could breathe. I could do small things.