Short Story April 2005

Bullheads

He wanted to thank God for his life, and he did. He didn't know what was next, but saw no point in being fearful now
More

During the last week of March—on Hurricane Lake, a lake so small and obscure it must be found mapped on the county township plats for rural southwestern Minnesota—Leroy Johnson, a cash-crop and livestock farmer, had a turn of character while doing his early-morning fishing. What happened was that at the age of eighty, for the first time in his life, he felt so sorry for a caught fish that he threw it back in the water.

Leroy still took four fish home to eat for breakfast, so it wasn't a total turnaround. But he could almost hear that one fish sucking for air on the dock. He couldn't. He was old, and could barely hear his alarm clock unless it stood three feet away from his head. But the fish had struggled next to his boot as he sat there, and he was bothered, not that it would be eaten but that its death was being prolonged needlessly. Leroy thought he should either kill the fish or release it back to the cold lake and not have such a show of the mouth going open and shut, trying to draw water through the gills when only air was available. Too much drama was involved.

His mysterious and sudden feelings surfaced for a bullhead. This was not a majestic muskie or a delicious walleye; no ferociously toothed northern pike or blue-bellied crappie as big and round as a dinner plate. No, this was a bottom-mucking bullhead, and damn if Leroy Johnson didn't almost come to tears for the spiny-headed devil before he finally kicked it off the homemade dock, and thus put an end to the philosophical struggle between them right then and there.

Still, valuing one shade of animal over another so greatly seemed wrong. Leroy knew that without the worms he baited hooks with, his life as a farmer would be in danger.

Because thousands of lakes pocket Minnesota, people think of some bodies of water as theirs, and Leroy considered Hurricane Lake his lake in that way. The lake shimmered beside his best eighty acres of cropland, his family's original homestead, and since Leroy first walked, the lake had been an everyday part of his life. It had given him more than he could ever measure, and he wanted to remember that.

Leroy recalled a time thirty years earlier, on a more public lake eight miles across the section. He had been sitting in a duck boat fishing when he saw four adolescent boys catching bullheads and throwing them on the ground. The boys had a baseball bat; to Leroy's amazement, they started tossing the fish to one another, practicing their most furious home-run swings on the bullheads. A sickening whop followed, but the boys seemed to think swinging at the fish was the funniest thing they had ever done. Leroy could barely talk, he was so disappointed; he trolled in, secured the bat, and let those boys know they could not continue with their stupidity.

Having a conscience was a good thing, and Leroy lived a life that was evidence of that fact.

A half hour later, back on the farm and cleaning the stringer of perch and walleye he'd kept, Leroy lopped off their heads with his hatchet and then threw the heads to Sister, his old Irish-setter mix. Sister carried them away to bury somewhere behind the machine shed, as was her habit with dead things she did not care to eat. The only female in a litter of thirteen pups, Sister always had her own stubborn intentions, and she was so smart that Leroy sometimes joked she might be the first dog in the world to actually speak a human word.

Today he thought she wanted to say, "Where's the bullhead you had on the dock? Why don't I get to dig a hole for that one?"

Leroy slowly bent down and rubbed Sister on her favorite spot: the breastbone. "That fish still had swim in him, girl. You should have seen him wiggle away when he hit the water."

Although Leroy Johnson had a near holy respect for animal life, he was certainly no tree hugger, and as he fished the next days, he wondered what had gotten into him. He puzzled over self-righteous vegetarians and animal activists, because he felt almost everything in life could be good for you if you didn't abuse it. If God had not wanted beef to be consumed in tremendous quantities, it would not taste as good as it did. Leroy believed that eating meat was a luxury, but so was not eating it. He had witnessed, in the work camps during World War II, that when truly hungry only the rare human being would stand on ethics about diet. The story of the Donner Party told him that people would sometimes eat human flesh if they had to. The choices in a person's life were not always clear, and sometimes not even available.

The weather still acted like winter, and Leroy felt good stepping into the house porch and taking his heavy coat off. After throwing his boots in the closet he decided to limit himself to three fish for his stringer each day. Then, as fast as he could, Leroy washed, filleted, and cooked the fish for late breakfast. He couldn't cook like Doris, but he wasn't fussy. His standards had lowered over the three years since she had passed.

For a week the memory of that gasping bullhead still flashed in Leroy's mind. He realized that he was really trying to think about his wife and the months of trouble she'd had breathing with lung cancer. Like when a fish has swallowed a hook so far that you have to almost pull the guts out of it to remove the hook—that's how he thought of his wife's cancer. The disease ruined her deep inside and started her rotting, and once that hook was set and yanked, no surgery could correct it. The cell mutations began in her chest, and the mass just grew and grew, filling her lungs until it moved up into her throat and then she had to gag on it every day. The smell of that sickness reeked worse than rotten soybeans, and Leroy gagged on it himself many times, even though he was not the one who had to die from it. He remembered having to stop the car one summer day and get out for fresh air while driving Doris to chemotherapy. He stood bent over and dizzy, and he threw up in the gravel on the shoulder of the road. He felt ashamed that he could not bear to stay in the car with her, but Doris was sorry for him and forgave him.

The images of his wife and the fish groping for air became intertwined in his memory and almost made him dizzy. His wife meant more to him than the bullhead, so Leroy was confused to find them edited together in his memory's slide show. He questioned the way his mind worked lately, but decided he shouldn't place so much weight on any one loss, because the world was full of loss, and if you stopped to retch through every injustice or mystery, you would never stand straight. Leroy liked to carry high spirits and, like most people, usually had a way of ignoring almost everything outside his orbit if he had to. Yet in the days following this bullhead he made himself concentrate his images and think about only the fish. The bullhead had become mythic somehow, and thinking about it made him feel even more blue.

Leroy continued April by deciding to shoot his TV. His frustration had been building for weeks now, swinging between sentimentality and rage. Today he was ornery when he woke up. He swore at the blankets because he couldn't get his feet out of them, and then swore at his feet, which were as stiff as cold taffy in the morning. He hated them for complaining. He wished they would just loosen up and get on with it, and his restlessness was fueled by his inability each day to walk without a limp until noon. He believed that a little shooting today would improve his mood.

Shotgun blasts in the early-morning quiet might get him arrested in the city, and that's what he loved about living in the country. He had no neighbor within a half mile anymore, and if anybody was driving by on the blacktop and heard, they would probably think he was shooting pop bottles, or committing suicide. Either way, they wouldn't be able to do much about it.

Because of his kids, he'd developed this desire: to take the TV out of the house, drag it into the yard, and shoot the son of a bitch. The feat would be Elvis-like, but without the drugs and the extravagance. What an adventure to actually do it. He'd spent the night before trying to find something to watch on the satellite and wishing in the end that he had just the one station he'd had until the 1990s, so he could either watch or turn it off. Now he raged at his own addiction. He'd been birthed in this very same farmhouse in 1925, and the family had struggled by for forty years without a TV. Now Leroy wondered how his life had become so neatly divided into before TV and after TV.

When he was raising four kids and couldn't yell them into coming out of the house to work in the fields, that's exactly what he had wanted to do: get rid of the distractions while he could and while he still had the kids around to be a father to and spend time with. But they had always wanted to watch TV instead, and because he denied their pleasures, all four of his children at one time or another had labeled him a slave driver.

So be it. At least he had taught his kids to work, even if they did all leave and want never to see the farm again. He should have killed the TV before it killed them. He rubbed the Zenith label at the top of the cabinet and thought to himself, I'm gonna shotgun this devil.

But first he had to drag the big sucker through the porch, out the door, off the deck, and into the yard. He started wrestling with it, and found that he could still have his way with it if he was careful not to twist his back. He had always been a powerful man, but he'd gotten heavy at the waist over the past fifteen years, and his legs and back were suffering. His legs looked almost goatlike, with flintrock knees and only a weathered slab of knobby muscles covering the bones.

Leroy's most distinctive features were his hands and cigar-like fingers. When the local Quaker meeting disbanded for lack of members, he'd looked for a church for his family. The preacher at the Baptist church had made the Johnsons all stand up the first day they attended. The preacher had shaken Leroy's right hand and commented on the size of it. Leroy was not big on crowds or attention, so he just nodded; then, to his surprise, the preacher tried to make conversation in front of the whole church audience, and asked Leroy how his hands had become so massive. Leroy had replied that it was from pulling tits.

Even though a few farmers in the pews thought that made perfect sense, because they knew Leroy was talking about hand-milking cows as a boy, most of the other people and the preacher himself found Leroy's language a little too real for the occasion. They avoided rather than welcomed him after the service was over. Leroy eventually attended Lutheran services.

Leroy had some arthritis in his hands, but he secured a strong grip anyway and waddled the TV halfway across the living-room carpet before he decided he didn't need to shoot it dead in order to avoid watching it. Moreover, if he shot it he'd have to get rid of it—load it and haul it to the county landfill. He waddled the giant cabinet back into the corner and left the set unplugged. He felt a little defeated.

His son Dean had given it to him as a Christmas gift. He could get 100-some channels, and he had a dish out on the tree pointing toward South Dakota. But it had taken more than a year to learn how to work the son of a bitch. Same thing with the computer his daughter Pam had given him: he'd managed to learn how to get on the Internet and check the markets, but the screen was always so full of those pop-up windows that he was driven almost crazy. On top of that the machine would freeze up like a December river, and then he'd be left banging the side of it with his palm, to no avail. He didn't know how people could stand to look at computers every day. He'd rather go without than diddle around on that thing anymore, although he had hoped to be able to get some e-mails from his children.

To hell with it, he thought. He unplugged the computer monitor too.

The next day the phone rang at 6:15, and when he answered it Leroy had to pretend he had been awake. Most days he no longer got up at 5:30, as had been his habit for about sixty-five years. For the past fifteen years getting up that early had been too difficult. And for the past few years, especially, his body had seemed to require more sleep.

"Hello?" Leroy said, cranking the knob on the mail-order speaker device so he could hear better.

"Er du oppe?"

"Oh, ya," Leroy quickly replied. "I've been up for quite a while already."

It was Oris Scarset. His wife had died the year before, and Leroy already knew why he was calling. After church the previous Sunday, Oris had told Leroy he was interested in getting a housekeeper/date, and hinted that he wanted help. Oris was four years older than Leroy, and they'd known each other since they were boys in a one-room country schoolhouse. Both of them had left school by sixth grade to start working full time.

"I was wondering what was on that computer of yours for women."

Since Oris's tone was somewhat bashful, Leroy asked, "Do you mean for dating?"

"No, one to live with me," Oris said. He was always a man of some candor, and had a lot of energy. In fact, he looked quite a bit like Norman Vincent Peale. Oris had roller-skated once a week since his twenties, and kept it up even after his wife died. This amused Leroy, because Oris must have been fifty years older than the next oldest customer.

Leroy laughed. "I think you might have to take them out to eat and maybe even dance a time or two before they do that."

"Why? Have you looked for one?" Oris asked jovially.

"No, no," Leroy replied. "I'm not ready for that." He added, "I've never tried it, Oris, but I've seen some ads on TV. Those Country Couple ads seem to be the thing. I heard Oliver Munson, over in Slayton, found somebody." Leroy did not mention that Oliver Munson was a pup yet, at fifty-seven.

"Maybe we can find one in there then, if you know how to work it," Oris said. "I've never run one."

"I'm no expert myself, but I think I can get it dialed in."

"Okay, then, Leroy. I'll be over in a while."

Leroy spotted Oris coming up the walkway from the yard at 6:40. He shook his head, because he'd barely had time to get dressed and brush his teeth. The day was very cold for April, and Oris wore only a windbreaker. He walked at a good gait, but held his head down for the wind, and wrapped his arms around his wiry frame to keep his windbreaker from flapping up. The wind had been raw for days, blowing out of the northeast, steady. The high had been 28˚ the day before, as if it were late February instead of early April.

After Oris warmed up, they had a conversation over coffee about the best planting dates for sweet corn, and then about the old days. Oris had built a couple of barns in his younger years, but now he worked mainly as a painter (mostly outbuildings on farm sites) and a gravedigger, and took care of four local cemeteries. He'd helped Leroy out many times over the years when Leroy was short on help, and they ran some of that grist through the mill before Oris came to the point: "Can you help me get a housekeeper?"

Leroy thought that Oris was being naive, but he admired his innocence and his willingness to try not to be alone. He waited until they were sitting in folding chairs in front of the computer to say, "You're probably not going to get someone to keep house for you at your age, Oris."

After an hour of searching and then filling out questionnaires they discovered that not within 200 miles were there any women in his age range looking for a date.

"I guess they're all crippled up or dead," Leroy said.

"That's probably about right," Oris said. "Most people don't keep themselves in that good shape."

He sat upright in his chair and gestured at his belly: he had only a small paunch. "I'm glad I've always kept up my roller-skating."

Although Leroy thought it was wrong, they pecked away for another half hour to refill the forms and drop Oris's age down to seventy. Fourteen years seemed like quite a trimming, but Oris convinced Leroy that it would do no harm.

"It's lucky I don't have to send a picture yet," Oris said. "But some people have told me I don't look a day over eighty."

Sure enough, some results came up from the Minneapolis area, but they were rather sophisticated women.

"I wonder if I'd have to make quite a few concessions," Oris said.

"I believe so," Leroy said.

The prospects didn't look good, and the computer had tired both of them out.

Oris had a narrow face anyway, and his cheeks looked drawn now. Leroy remembered how Oris had taken care of his wife in their red farmhouse for three years before she died. She had been a dear, hardworking woman, but in her last years she had suffered from terrible incontinence and had to be wheeled into the bathroom many times a day to be cleaned up. Leroy didn't blame Oris for not wanting to be alone, but he also believed that that was the reality, and that Oris would be better off accepting it.

When Oris put his boots and coat on in the porch, Leroy stood next to him and said, "You better put your earflaps down today or that wind will push your thoughts out your ears."

"That wouldn't be the worst thing, would it," Oris said, slowly pulling the flaps down. He was trying to look happy and make a joke, but he was obviously really hurting.

Leroy put his hand on Oris's shoulder and said, "You'll have to get over it, Oris. Just go through the process, you know."

Oris nodded and smiled. His eyes were as blue as the sky.

Four days later Oris had a heart attack while trying to sort lambs in his barn, and fell over dead. Three days after that Leroy was a pallbearer at his funeral. They put Oris in the ground on a day that was even windier and colder than the day he had visited. The church council didn't know whom to hire to backhoe the grave, since Oris had always done it, but then the council members discovered that Oris had already dug a hole for his coffin next to his wife's grave, in the very back corner of the cemetery. Nobody had noticed it until they went out to find a spot to bury him.

Since he was in town for the funeral anyway, Leroy decided he'd stop up and see his older brother, Elvern, in the nursing home. What a sad son of a bitch he was; but it was still the right thing to do, to visit and give him the news.

Elvern had been a trapper and a corn sheller until five years earlier, when his whole body seemed to start giving out all at once. His wife was still alive, but she had emphysema and was on a machine so much that he could talk to her only about fifteen minutes a day. They both had to be fed by nurses in their rooms. Elvern was so lonely that he'd become a man who could easily start talking to books or windows or old hair combs. The place was depressing, and Elvern had become so negative and argumentative that talking to him was nearly impossible. You could say it was a nice sunny day, and he'd say we needed rain. You could bring up an old friend or story, and Elvern would find a way to associate an injustice to himself with the narrative. The place was killing his spirit, and no wonder nobody wanted to come and visit.

What kind of a society do we live in? Leroy thought as he walked past the reception desk and was not even acknowledged by the head-down nurse seated there. He was starting to regret he'd set foot here himself.

On the way to Elvern's room he passed an open doorway and saw another old friend, Raedar Knutson, a lifelong bachelor, lying on his side and trying to suck air and not even recognizing Leroy when he stood and called his name. Leroy grew angry again and thought he'd like to bust Raedar out of this place. It was killing him and killed everybody who lived there.

He'd like to take old Raedar home for company one more time, because Raedar had always been fairly good coffee company. He was one of the few people who actually stood out for the old way of stopping by people's houses and talking—both when Leroy had the time and when he didn't. Work wasn't always No. 1 with Raedar. He had taken one trip back to Norway, his only experience outside Minnesota, and he could tell you every detail of that grand trip, with about half of it in Norwegian because he became so caught up in the moments he'd had there. Leroy had heard it so many times, but now he longed for those stories again. By God, those were the days when anything was still possible.

Now Raedar had cancer too, in his pancreas, and from some fluke in the chemo he'd lost the ability to swallow, so he had to lie on his side or he'd drown from drool. It was a miserable disease, Leroy thought, and it ought to be eradicated from the earth. He stopped in the hall and thought about all the people who tried to live with dignity, no matter what their differences of color or creed. AIDS should be eradicated too, he thought, though he had never gone that far before. So should all this shit, the old man decided, as he walked down the halls and looked into dying people's rooms.

No wonder nobody wanted to come into these nursing homes. He couldn't do it today, he decided, so he walked back out to the parking lot, squatted into his Buick, and drove home to the farm.

All of a sudden he was full of rage, and he noticed he was almost warping his steering wheel by gripping it so hard to drive and turn corners. He arrived home and spun his tires on the gravel up the long driveway to the farmhouse. He took a look at the garden plot next to the grove. Problem was, the plot was still the same size as when he and Doris had raised four kids here.

Here he was, eighty years old and still trying to farm. Still trying to raise hogs. He'd given up all the other livestock, but twenty feeder pigs still remained. What kind of a fool am I? he wondered. The garden was the hardest work for him to do, and yet it gave him the most direct, hands-on pleasure on the farm. He didn't know if he could get down and work close like that this year, and yet he didn't want to sit around and wait to die, either. He'd tried to make himself give it all up, but he wasn't the motor-home-to-Arizona type.

He'd do it somehow. He covered his ears against the raw wind and looked at the black plot of tilled garden soil. He imagined sweet corn all along the east edge of the plot, and thought about the conversation he'd had with Oris about sweet corn over coffee that last day. He'd told Oris about a coon that had been eating all his sweet corn two years earlier. Leroy had set a live trap with peanut butter as bait, and had caught the rascal on the first night.

This was in the months following his wife's death. Instead of killing the coon, he had tried to domesticate it. He kept it in a cage out in the machine shed, but all it wanted to do was sleep all day, and it seemed miserable.

Oris had said, "They're nocturnal, you know. He probably livened up at night."

"No," Leroy had said. "I checked on him at night, too, and I had to poke him with a stick just to get him to move."

"Did you kill him, then?"

"I didn't have the heart to do it," Leroy said.

Leroy had taken the raccoon down near the lake and let it go in the cornfield there. The coon had taken off like a rabbit once he cleared the mouth of that cage.

"I would have done the same thing," Oris said.

Leroy had wanted to tell him about the bullhead, too, because the stories were in his mind together, but it was a good conversation as it stood. He felt less angry now that he thought back to that time when Oris had visited and they were alive together in the kitchen, drinking coffee.

So he really had turned into a softie. Or maybe he was turning back into a softie after a time of hardness. He didn't feel too bad about it. He was a Quaker, for God's sake, and had even spent three years in a work camp in California during World War II. He was grateful for those who had fought Hitler, but happy with himself for doing what he believed was right. After the horror of the Holocaust was revealed, for years he'd brooded about the usefulness of pacifism in the face of a known beast like Hitler. But in the past twenty years he had gathered more and more satisfaction from what he had done. Solving things with force still seemed stupid, but Leroy also realized that rage was a human urge that had to be resisted, and at times he had not done much resistance himself. He would have to hope that God was merciful.

W hat Leroy needed, he felt, was to stop thinking so much and do some work. He felt better than he had in town, but also restless, as if something was building inside him that he couldn't control. The day had been full already in some respects. He slipped into the house, changed clothes, and put on his thick jacket and chore gloves. Then he went out into the orchard and walked around in the stunted grass a little bit and thought, Maybe I'll put that new belt on the mower. Fixing machinery tended to settle him down.

Even though he would have no grass to mow for many weeks, particularly if the weather stayed cold, he decided to tackle the Woods-style belly mower on his old Case tractor. He used the woodshed as a windbreak, and parked the tractor next to it so that he could work in the daylight outside even though it was cold. To install the new belt by himself would be a challenge, but Leroy thought he was up to it.

Put too much pressure on, and the belts will twist on the pulleys. It's a hell of a job once that happens, and the whole deck has to be lowered so that you can adjust the pulleys and straighten out fourteen feet of belt. Sister licked his face a lot while he shuffled around on his back, working under the mower. After nearly an hour he thought the belt and all eight guides were installed correctly and wouldn't twist on him when he engaged the power take-off.

He stood up and leaned over the axle to hit the starter button.

The next thing Leroy knew, his feet were off the ground and he was being carried across the yard by the tractor. He'd had the throttle almost all the way forward, and the old Case stopped just short of a huge walnut tree when Leroy popped the gears into neutral and jammed down the brakes.

He'd fallen over the axle between the fender guards and the seat when the tractor had lurched, and he'd had to work hard to get his arms unfumbled and find the gearbox. When Leroy straightened up, he felt a pang in his ribs. He'd banged them pretty hard when he fell forward over the axle, and they would be a little sore for a few days. But he was lucky.

He'd made a little mistake and left the tractor in first. He knew that if it had been in reverse, he would have been badly hurt or killed, because it would have traveled right back over him. He felt fortunate now, but he also understood that he must be more diligent. He wasn't very quick of mind anymore in some ways. His memory was fading and he knew it. Leroy had more long-term memory than he knew what to do with, but he couldn't even remember exactly what he'd had for breakfast that morning.

The thought of spending the rest of the afternoon and evening in the house sickened Leroy. He knew he probably should do just that, because his ribs were sore, but Leroy decided to stay outside anyway. He fetched his rifle from the porch and grabbed a scarf to protect his neck from the wind. Oris had said a few chunks of ice were still off the east side of the lake, half a mile away, and it might be fun to target-shoot some of them once he reached the lakeshore. He called Sister as he walked out the door, and she was happy to come from under the porch. She already knew what he had in mind, and she started down the driveway ahead of him. Ever the unpredictable dog, Sister had disappeared when Leroy had the mishap with the tractor, but now she was right on the trail.

Leroy walked down his gravel driveway, across the blacktop, and through a small wild meadow. His ancestor Halvor Johnson had picked this area because of the meadow and the lake. In fact, after his arrival from Norway, Halvor had lived in a dugout on the banks of Hurricane Lake for two years, the first year alone and the second year with a mule. That had been the start of Johnson farming in Cottonwood County, and back then Sioux Indians were living right in the area and passing through this very same meadow for hunting. Four burial mounds rose on the northwest corner of the meadow. Nobody but the Johnsons and the state of Minnesota knew about them.

Leroy liked it that way, and didn't want anyone digging them up for treasure. The Sioux were often buried with items for the next life, and in Leroy's mind the Sioux were with God. If you took their spears, arrows, or corn-grinders away from the graves here, they could lose them in the life after. Maybe what you believed you got in the next life was exactly what you received from God. That didn't seem impossible to Leroy, but he wasn't sure either. He was content to find out about those unanswerables when his time came.

Sister loved the meadow, and Leroy knew the walk was a good idea for both of them. He was a slow walker, and the coarse winter meadow grass stood up thick past his boot tops. Sister ran circles into the reeds and sloughs and scared up pheasants and partridges to amuse herself while she waited for Leroy.

The beauty of the birds as they rose above the meadow was majestic. A ring-necked pheasant in flight was one of the wonders of nature, and Leroy felt sorry for anyone who had never seen it.

Once they reached the woods that surrounded the lakeshore, Sister settled down into a pace right beside Leroy. A path wound through the trees and down to the Point—a piece of land that necked out into the center of the small lake. That's where the fishing dock stood as well, but the lake was too windy there, and Leroy wanted to travel another 150 yards up toward the southeastern shore, near Halvor Johnson's old dugout spot. He would be on high ground there, where the land rose in a steep bank about twelve feet above lake level. A grove of trees to the southwest blocked a bit of the wind, and a pretty vista across sparkling blue waters appeared once they arrived at the trail above the dugout. Here Halvor Johnson must have stood many nights as he returned from the work of crop tending and groundbreaking.

As Oris had said, ice chunks about the size of breadbaskets bobbed at the edge of the reeds that lined the southeastern shore and extended thirty feet into the lake. The thick reeds created terrific cover for duck blinds in the fall, and Leroy remembered the huge job of clearing them when he built the fishing dock. He also remembered when the lake had dried up, during the Depression, and he and his father had planted flax in it to try to make a crop where moisture might yet remain. They were blessed with an incredible stand of blooming flax late that summer, in 1936, and Leroy well remembered the waving blue field because it made the lake seem full of water again; that's how blue blooming flax is, and what a shame that no one could make money growing flax anymore, because it was one of the loveliest crops you could ever hope to grow.

The reeds and water had come back, of course, and now the ice chunks, despite their weight, could not make their way to the shore through the reeds. Leroy chambered a round into his .22 and shot at a chunk about thirty yards down the shore. The bullet made a sharp ricochet sound as it took a corner off the ice chunk, and the repeat echoed across the water. He had always been a good shot, and his eyesight was best when he looked far away, rather than up close.

Unexpectedly, Sister plunged into the water and swam headlong through the reeds toward the ice chunk Leroy had assaulted.

"No, Sister!" Leroy yelled. "Come back here, girl!"

He had not thought she would go into that freezing water. She must have believed he was shooting at ducks and thus wanted to retrieve, as was her training. The blunder was stupid on Leroy's part, and he would have to get her home and dried out now. Sister was thirteen years old, and didn't have the thick layers of beef needed to keep warm or to swim in these conditions.

Sister ignored Leroy's commands to return to shore. He said "Come!" over and over, but she only circled out in the open lake water, next to the ice chunks, as if still searching for a duck. This went on for five minutes, and even with his poor hearing and the raw wind, Leroy could hear Sister laboring badly. She barely kept her head above water now, as she swam in a small, regular circle like a shark, just beyond the black reeds.

Suddenly Leroy realized that Sister was scared of the reeds. They were dark and dead and thick, and she did not want to come back through them. That made no sense, since she had paddled through them to get to open water in the first place. But now she was exhausted, and confused, and thirteen years old. And freezing to death in that icy water.

Leroy could not let her drown there. He chambered another round. He knew he had to hit her in the forehead, and that would take excellent marksmanship because she was bobbing in the water. Leroy put the sight right on his old friend's forehead when she made a turn toward him, and tried to pull the trigger. But he could not do it. As a younger man he would have been able to, but not today. She could be saved, and he needed to try. He would have to get in the water and swim out to her.

He left the rifle at the top of the bank and slid down on his buttocks. An opening for the old dugout remained below; a part of the shelter had caved in over the years, but Leroy used it for protection as he took off his clothes down to his underwear. He had to have dry clothes when he came out of the water, or he might freeze to death—he knew that.

Leroy stood in the wind, shivering. He felt very small, and the lake, which usually seemed the tiniest of lakes, now seemed immense before him, with the wind blowing whitecaps on the waves. Sister had about had it, that was clear, and he heard her whining as loud as he'd ever heard her whine. Leroy knew he must move.

As he waded into the lake, he looked not at the water but across it, to the other side and the church steeple in the sky. His wife was buried in the cemetery behind that church, and he spoke half to her and half to God as the shock of the water hit him. "Be with me," Leroy asked. "Just give me some strength."

He struggled to keep his balance as he made his way through the reeds to Sister. "I'm coming, girl," Leroy said, "I'm coming now," but he was worried. As the water rose above his groin, he realized he could not feel the bottom with his feet anymore. His troublesome feet. They felt Novocained. He was going to sink past his neck by the time he reached Sister—he could see that now. He had to hurry. He would have to swim.

He had been trying to keep his arms out of the water to save heat, but he had to lunge for Sister now, and suddenly he was in open water, swimming to catch her. His arms still had power, and he took two and then three long overhead strokes to close the gap. The frigid water made him gasp, and his lungs seemed to shrink to nothing as he treaded water to stay afloat near Sister.

In one lunge Leroy grabbed her by the tail and pulled her hindquarters to his chest. Then they both went under. The water was blindingly cold, and Leroy saw stars.

But he had reached Sister. He wrapped his arms around her trunk and swam as far as he could underwater toward shore. Sister was not fighting him, and Leroy found his footing and stood to take air. The reeds were all around him, and Leroy took three huge steps toward land, carrying Sister through the thick of the reeds. With all his energy he heaved the dog above water toward shore. Miraculously, Sister landed in enough water not to be hurt; soon she was scrambling and shaking her coat up on the shore near the dugout.

Leroy's legs failed him, and he fell forward onto his knees in four feet of water. He had trouble keeping his head above the roll of the water. All he could see was black reeds. He felt panic, sensing that he was going to pass out, but at last he made his way close enough to shore for his head to clear the water. Then he used his arms as crutches to take him slowly through the final yards to shore. He did not feel the rocks on his knees or anything else below his waist; the cold had all but paralyzed him.

Sister came over to him and tried to press into him, as she always did when she was worried. Leroy's teeth were chattering so loudly now that he couldn't even attempt to speak. His mouth would not work; it just went up and down like a puppet's jaw. He wanted to tell Sister to run home, but he couldn't. He used his arms to pull himself forward like a crab into the dugout's mouth. He flattened himself on his back, on top of his pants and coat, and the clothes felt good at the back of his neck. His skin was still sensitive. He flailed around with his right hand for the scarf so that he could quiet his chattering teeth. He managed to wrap it under his chin and over the top of his head and tighten it enough to stop his teeth from banging into each other.

Sister was licking his face, and Leroy was finally able to say, clearly, "Run home—good girl." Sister ran off, and Leroy was thankful that she had listened. He lifted his head to look at himself, and what he had feared was true. His whole body was blue.

He would not be going back to the farm this time. He would have to stay in the dugout. He knew what was happening, but he did not feel angry. He imagined how they would find him, and almost laughed to think that maybe someone would assume he had stripped off all his clothes and gone for a swim to take his mind off the pain of a bad toothache. Maybe they would do an autopsy to find out if he had a rotten tooth. That really didn't make sense, but he smiled to think it anyway.

He wanted to thank God for his life, and he did. He didn't know for sure what was next, but he saw no point in being fearful now. He would find out soon enough, or he would never know the difference. But right after that thought his conscience spoke to him, and he asked God to forgive him for his unbelief.

That was his last prayer. Leroy now felt nothing in his body; it was numb everywhere, and he couldn't move his head. Only his strong fingers could still move. He worked them past the clothes he was lying on, and wiggled his hand into the earth. The ground was hard, but he had enough energy to break through its frozen surface. How wonderful to feel again, to put even a small smear of mud or a few pebbles between his fingers. To do a little work again.

Michael Lohre writes fiction, poetry, and music, and teaches writing at Ohio State University in Marion.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In