Mother sat on the edge of the bed in the main bedroom of the ranch house and looked over the pages of the play that father had been writing. It wasn’t the one that he intended to write, the one about his coming to South Dakota. That one he never got to. He was taken away by Dakota Inc. before he had a chance to start it. The one that mother was looking at was one that he had written during the War. He had written it to keep his mind on the things of Richmond, and to take it off of the killing that was going on north and south of the great city, in fields and over hills which, at the time, were far enough away to not be real, but close enough not to be a just dream.
Mother remembered how he used to sit in his chair near the window and sip his warm water, the half-finished pages of his play turning uselessly in his hand, his face turned to the window. He would just stare for hours at the street beyond the glass where all the people walking—people he knew even from his youth—turned to strangers before his eyes. He looked so sad, mother thought, as tears formed in her eyes. How do you get over sadness like that? Do you move to South Dakota? Does that help?
Perhaps, she thought.
Perhaps it is the only way, in the end.
She looked down at the foot of the bed. There were father’s boots, still neatly placed together. Empty.
She turned again to the pages in her hand. The last few were blank. There was no ending to the play. There was no ending because there was simply no ending. The War took care of that. The new play was to have started in South Dakota, but South Dakota was endless as well, mother thought. Endless, all the way even to the ocean. For it is all South Dakota, she thought, and then you fall into the water and are buried, and so even the oceans might as well be South Dakota. Yes, there was truly no end in sight.
Without an ending, all of the pages might as well have been blank. They might as well not have been written at all. Mother remembered the pages of the newspapers, and the pages from the books that blew down the streets when the blue soldiers came, popping with sparks and ash, burning all of their pages blank. She took father’s play and went over to the fireplace where Lucy was resting beneath the colored quilt and threw it in.
Then she went to the chair near the window and stared out at the plains beyond. Lucy began to cough and shudder, but mother just stared and stared. Soon, her eyes became blank.
Father was gone, and Jason could no longer work. Dakota Inc. had forbidden it, and so he no longer went to the casino to work for Van Carlo. He spent his time hanging out near the ranch house, usually out back, brushing their one horse that pulled their small wagon, and speaking to her in quiet, gentle tones.
Mother was afraid that soon they would also come for Jason. The boy was still strong, and useful, and if there was any chance of them getting paid, it would be through him. And so the boy would be worth quite a lot to Dakota Inc.
‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘surely they will come for the boy soon.’
They would come with their remorseless faces and all their guns, and there would be bullets, bullets, everywhere. Bullets in the bread and bullets in the soup and in the feed for the horse and bullets everywhere that would go down the throat the hard way. So the best thing for the boy would be to stay out of sight; to never go out, and never, ever go into Shadow, and hope that enough time might pass that Dakota Inc. would forget about him.
‘But I can still work,’ mother thought. There was a room in the ranch house with a hole in the ceiling where the boy never slept anymore. The boy only slept outside, on his back each night, his hands behind his head and staring up at the moon; and Lucy stayed under the colored quilt and could not move anymore because of the coughing which clung to her like a thin, damp nightgown.
Mother remembered a watch she had in a drawer in the bedroom. It was broken and no longer told time, but it was made of gold and still worth something. She stood up from the window and went to get the watch. She’d use the watch to buy something so that she could work in the only way a woman like her could in Shadow. The fair-skinned women in town said that the smoke made it easier, but the smoke cost money, and that was the reason she needed the watch.
Whiskey was available, too, and easier to get, and she wondered for a brief moment if she should try whiskey instead of the smoke. But the problem was that she never really had a taste for whiskey. Well, she actually did a little, before the war. But during the war, they would give it to the soldiers when they had been shot through the arm or leg, just before they began to saw at the torn and ragged limbs, so now whiskey tasted like amputation to mother. No, she couldn’t even bring herself to smell whiskey anymore, let alone drink any, so it would have to be the smoke for her.
The fair skinned women told mother that the smoke would go into her mind and make her think about some strange things, but she doubted that they could be any stranger than the thoughts that were already in there. She would join the fair skinned women in their work, otherwise mother knew there would be no surviving South Dakota, especially its winter. And even with the work, it would be hard season for them to bear.
Mother went into town to see the fair-skinned women, and bought some smoke with her gold watch. Then, each evening, just after the sun began to set, she left her children at home and climbed into the wagon with its one tired horse and rode to Shadow. In the wagon on the way to town, mother would use the smoke, and then go and find a man to pleasure. It didn’t matter who the man was as long as he was with Dakota Inc. Dakota Inc. organized the fair-skinned women, and Dakota Inc. men were the only men the women took into their rooms and their wagons and their tents.
So, for a few long and painful weeks–hazy, and void of form or reason–mother did this, but at the end of it there was still no money for the family to live on. Because of her husband’s debt, Dakota Inc. took a percentage of what mother earned. It was a very large percentage; practically all of it. What was left over went for the smoke, and mother found herself beginning to use it more and more, until the boy noticed that the smell of it became like the smell of mother herself. It was all around her, and announced her presence before she was even seen. It came before her like an emissary, and it followed after her like the long train of a filthy wedding dress.
Every morning mother would sleep in late. The boy would bring her some hot water and some bread for breakfast, but she would never take it. It would sit on the bedside table as mother just lay there. Eventually, the man in the bed with her—there was always a man—would nod and smile at the boy and then reach over and take the bread and eat it himself.
“Much obliged,” he’d say.
They were different men from Dakota Inc. most of the time. Mother did not really have any regulars, and though the boy knew that the men were always different, to him they all looked the same. The same man, just dozens of them, all with different names.
After bringing bread and water to mother, the boy would bring some to Lucy, who was always laying by the fire under the colored quilt. But she would never eat, either.
“Give it to the birds, Jason,” she’d say.
“What birds, Lucy?” It’s winter now, and I haven’t seen many.”
“Ah,” Lucy said softly, her eyes closed, as they were most of the time. “So they have not followed us from Richmond. I see…they have kept going to the ocean, while we stopped here.”
The boy told her that he didn’t understand. Then Lucy told him it was angels; that she meant the angels. Then she smiled and said that she was sleeping a lot these days and to never mind her.
“It seems that I am the fool now, Jason,” she said, smiling. “Not you so much.”
The next day the boy went to bring the bread and hot water to mother, but she was not in her room, and neither was the man from Dakota Inc. He walked out of the bedroom and laid the bread and water near Lucy’s head, near the fire.
“Lucy, I can’t find mother. She’s not here, and the bed is made. I don’t think she ever returned from last night,” he said.
His sister responded, but he couldn’t tell what she said. She was speaking in whispers a lot these days because her throat hurt from coughing so much, and she was so tired. Also, her breathing was very raspy, like waves upon rocks.
There was a small cup of water with a little sugar in it next to her head that the boy brought to her each night to soothe her cough. The boy looked into the cup and noticed that the water was gone, but there was a small amount of blood at the bottom of the cup instead.
His sister barely made a wrinkle underneath the colored quilt. She was so thin; thinner than a ghost. Maybe she was already a ghost, the boy thought. She was the transparent pale of a ghost, and she certainly spoke like he imagined a ghost would speak.
From the fire place some embers popped out and landed on the quilt. They were not dangerous. Just cold embers, and they quickly extinguished upon the thick quilt covering Lucy. One of them landed on a strand of Lucy’s hair, and it began to burn along it slowly until the boy reached down and squeezed it out with his fingers.
He picked Lucy up and moved her back a little from the fire. She turned her head up to him slowly, but did not open her eyes.
“Do not move me, brother,” she said in a whisper. “I like the flickering light of the fire in front of my closed eyes. It makes me think of Richmond during the war, and the popping of embers reminds me of the sounds of the muskets in the distance. I remember when I would stand at the window with closed eyes, for I could not bear to look at all the burning. And I thought that if I closed my eyes, I could see something beautiful instead.”
The boy started to say something, but stopped. He sighed sadly and moved her back nearer the fire. Then he sat down next to her, and stroked her hair gently.
“Lucy, I’m worried. I am worried about mother.”
After a long pause, Lucy responded.
“I am in the kitchen with the muffins, Jason. Mother is here. The muffins have red frosting, and they are glorious. All the soldiers have returned and are smiling, and even their horses are smiling.”
The boy looked confused.
“Lucy, the kitchen is empty” he said. “There is only a little bread and water next to you here. There are no soldiers. There haven’t been any soldiers for a long time. Except…” he paused. “From what I hear, the blue soldiers are coming closer this way in South Dakota. I do not want them here, to be honest. But they will be here soon enough anyway, and it will be like Richmond again, and you won’t need the fire before your closed eyes to imagine it.”
After a moment, the boy said, “Wherever we go, it seems the guns always follow,” He sighed again.
“We need to get out of here, Lucy. Perhaps West, to the mountains. I don’t know. But mother has not returned from last night. I hope she comes soon.”
“No, Jason,” Lucy said. “The soldiers have come home, for they came in the night, one by one. All are tall and grand, and their uniforms are as clean as the day they marched from Richmond. There is no speck of blood on them, and the only red is the frosting of the muffins, which mother has baked.”
At that moment, the boy became angry. His sister’s imagination had become greater since her voice became weaker. She was spending too much time in front of the fire, just as she spent too much time in front of the window during the War of the States. He was angry at her and angry at himself for being such a fool. He could not understand his sister, or her imagination, and he hated himself for it.
He stood up in a flash and ran to the chair near the window. There was a holster with a long barreled pistol hanging from it. The pistol was from the blue soldier that he’d killed with his knife during the war. He grabbed the gun with its six-chambered heart and turned it on his sister. Perhaps this would open her eyes. Perhaps this would turn her away from the flashing before her eyes, he thought.
“Open your eyes, Lucy!” he screamed. “And help look for mother!” Then he raised the barrel up so that it pointed just above Lucy’s head and fired it into the wall. Each time he fired, he punctuated it with these words:
“There is a soldier! There is Richmond! There is a soldier!” And he fired until the gun was empty.
“There is a soldier! There is mother! There is father! And the muffins are hard and will smash your teeth to pieces when you eat them! Now where is mother?! She has not returned from last night!”
Lucy shrieked in fright and covered her head with the quilt. Her body shook with violent tremors, and the quilt writhed over her as though wild horses were trampling upon it.
“No, Jason!” she screamed. “I have not seen her because my eyes are not open! Ask the man! Ask father! There is always a man in the house, and he must still be here! There is always a man in the house!” And she sobbed heavily and continued to shake uncontrollably.
The boy threw the smoking gun to the floor roughly.
“No!” he said, grabbing Lucy. “The men mother brings are not father! And this is not Richmond! But I can make it feel like Richmond, by heavens, if you do not open your eyes!” He wheeled and picked up the gun. Then he pressed the warm barrel against Lucy’s forehead where it left a circular mark. “Do you feel this? This is the clean soldier! This is mother and father! Now help me!”
Lucy put her hands over her ears and shook her head wildly. And with all the strength she had left, she replied as plainly as she could.
“I don’t know, Jason!” she cried. “She is off with a stranger! How can I know her place when all the men are strangers?!”
The boy let go of her, and she collapsed, sobbing, to the floor, her limbs tangled awkwardly around and through the colored quilt.
“She is gone, Jason. Just gone. She is not herself, and the man is a stranger and no one, and so we must make them something…something we can recognize. And it is up to us to do this because father is no longer here to help us. And so I don’t care what you think or what you say, Jason! I will see the very clean soldiers, and I will see the muffins and they will be sweet, because what else can they be? What else? There is nothing else!”
The boy recoiled at his sister’s harsh reply. He sat back, almost as if pushed, onto the hard, wooden floor of the ranch house. The heavy gun in his hand made a dull thud as it plopped to the floor, his limp hand still holding the grip.
“And you, Jason, are a hypocrite,” his sister continued, her voice muffled as she buried her sunken face deep into the colored quilt. “You…with a mind like a mirror pointed to the gray skies of South Dakota. A knife? You used a knife, and you think that makes you better than that blue soldier you killed. And now you have his gun and you point it at your sister. You would just as well have left him alive and not taken it.”
After that she said nothing, and neither did the boy. There was no sound in the house except for the wind blowing through the holes in the wall, and the sound of his sister’s breathing, which was now like shallow creek water over very small stones.
After a minute had passed, Lucy spoke again. “Jason? Jason?” Her voice was a whisper.
“I’m here, Lucy.” And when the words came out, the boy was surprised to hear that his own voice sounded almost as weak as hers did. He felt numb all over.
“I forgive you, brother. You are just an empty sack. Just a fool, and a dullard, with an imagination like a crack in the desert. But I will fill you, Jason. With pure, white flower of high quality, and I will make the muffins, and they will be sweet, with red frosting. And I also notice the flower you bring to me. The gun, let’s say, is the green stem and the bullet hole through your hand is a red flower, a corsage, and you have come as a soldier for his bride.”
The boy looked down at his hand and that was when the pain started. It was agonizing, like a storm in his hand, with piercing lightning. If he was numb before, he wasn’t now, and he began to cry.
He leaned into Lucy, and cried with many kinds of pain into the quilt. Then he stood and ran to the kitchen and tore hastily a piece of kitchen cloth as a makeshift bandage. Shuddering in pain and fright, he ran from the house, the pistol in his good hand and the storm and the blood in the other.
He ran a few paces from the door, then stopped. He looked out across the empty, quiet landscape and realized that he had nowhere to go. Even in such great pain, there was no one who would take him. He turned back to the ranch house and saw the new holes he’d created with his gun. Then he gnashed his teeth in pain, and tore from the house in a sprint. He needed to find a some place for his hand. He needed to find mother, also.
He got to the end of the road, then stopped and knelt over. He was breathing hard, and the air that came out of him was as cold as the air that went in. It was frigid in South Dakota, and the wind was moving. There was no smell or sound upon it. The cold wind carried everything away in the winter, like a silent train heading for the coast.
Then there came a sound, and the boy looked up to see his mother coming in the wagon. There was a man with her that the boy did not recognize. The boy stood as mother approached at a slow pace. She stopped the wagon next to him and the boy looked at her but he didn’t know what to say or how to look or what to do. He put the pistol in his trousers and clutched his hand and breathed hard. Then he looked at the man and hated him.
The man looked straight ahead at the house for a long moment, and there was satisfaction in his eyes, as if he’d already gotten what he came for somehow. Then he turned toward the boy and smiled.
“Did you shoot yourself in the hand, boy?” he asked.
The boy hated him. He wore a black suit with a white shirt. Dakota Inc. kind.
“I did, and it is very painful.”
“It happens,” the man said. Then he pulled a coin from his pocket and threw it to the boy. The boy instinctively reached out with both hands and caught it, and there was a searing pain as the coin touched the wound.
“It is a good day for me,” the man said. “I knew this woman had a son your age that was working for Van Carlo. I’d heard about this son, how he killed a blue soldier in Richmond. We all thought there was a very good chance that one of us would see a bullet eventually.”
The man smiled again and shook his head and chuckled.
“Well, I’ve sure seen the bullet. It’s right there in your hand. So we’ll just head up to the house and do what we came to do, eh?”
“The bullet is not in my hand,” the boy said. “It went through it.”
“Then it is lost. And that’s just as good, I suppose.”
The boy did not reply. He looked with uncertainty and disappointment at the hole in his hand. The pain had subsided by this point. The hand had mostly gone numb.
“Yep, it is a good day for me,” the man chuckled. “A boy who shoots his own hand will have trouble finding the bullet, I think. If I were a gambling man, I’d say it’s not in him to find it.”
“You are not a gambler,” the boy said. “I’ve never seen you in the casino. You are from Dakota Inc..”
“I am from Dakota Inc.. We are all from Dakota Inc..”
“But there was one man who did not have a black suit. He came first, just a few weeks before you.”
The man nodded. “That was Jimmy. I knew him. He is dead now because he was not supposed to come. He broke the rules. So, you see, we are all from Dakota Inc., or we are not at all, understand?”
“The new rules. Your mother is very comely, so it was important that we make new rules. We make them every day, it seems.”
The man sighed and looked anticipatory and bored at the same time.
“Take the coin,” he said. “Go to town and see the doctor. Tell him you are from me. He’ll know better than to think you are lying.”
Mother said, “When the doctor fixes your hand, bring back the bandage. Do not leave it there.”
“Who is this man, mother?” he said.
Mother did not respond. She just stared straight ahead at the ranch house and started the wagon moving slowly again. After the horse, the tired horse, who moved with her head lower than her tail, had gone a few paces, mother turned back to the boy.
“Do not speak to me again, Jason,” she said.
“Trust me, boy,” said the smiling man from Dakota Inc.. “And go and fix your hand.”
So the boy went to Shadow. None of the men from Dakota Inc. bothered him as he walked down the street because of the coin in his hand. He found the doctor and gave him the coin, and the doctor fixed his hand. He worked without many words. He just muttered softly under his breath and said “There, there, lad” in an Irish accent a few of times. “There, there, lad.”
After his hand was fixed and had a new bandage he went back to the ranch house, but he left the old bandage at the doctor’s. When he finally remembered that mother had told him not to leave it, he had gone too far and it was too late to turn back to get it. Surely the doctor had disposed of the bandage by now, the boy thought. Then he marveled at what a fool he was, and at how quickly he could forget mother’s words.
The boy arrived home a few hours later and stood at the door of the ranch house. But he did not go in. He heard Lucy coughing weakly, and there was the now-familiar smell from inside. The boy could smell it from under the door, and from around the top and through the weak spots in the wood of the door. Rotten. Meaty. Organic, but somehow unnatural. He turned away from the door and felt the odorless wind of South Dakota across his face. The wind took everything away. Everything. The cold numbed his face to where he could not feel it and it to where seemed as flat and featureless as the very land around him. He could not bring himself to go back inside the house.
He went back to Shadow and wandered the streets. No one from Dakota Inc. bothered him because they saw that, even though he no longer had the coin, he did have a new bandage on his hand.