It was a mirage morning when the distance swells up and is more clear than what is close” But this story reveals the author’s clear knowledge of her native North Dakota as well as the larger view of human life. Miss O’ Donnell has spent the last two years as a graduate student in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she studied under Kurt Vonnegul.


Mary Kathleen O’Donnell

AMLETH CLAUDE BROCKHAUSER was not a farmer, but be was trying to be. He was bringing home repairs for the combine. Amleth drove slowly, staring past the black dash reflected in the windshield. Now and then a stone spurted up and clunked underneath, and Amleth winced. The smell of ripening wheat rushed in the open window; he knew what Tom would have been thinking — about golden days of hunting, bursts of orange and brown feathers, smoke from warm gun barrels and from fields of stubble being licked up stalk by stalk; fields that were raped first and then eaten by flame. But for Amleth somehow it was easier to phrase the feeling well than to feel it.

Amleth always associated fall with the ends of things — the end of quiet summer life, of sow thistle and windrows, and the beginning of hard winter that lay white and cold across the land for months. Now with the hardening of the wheat he associated death. It was just this time last year that Amleth had left school to go to his younger brother Tom’s funeral and then to take over the farm. Tom had been killed in a farm accident. The wall of a grain storage Quonset gave way, and tons of wheat oozed over him. Three men had shoveled for nearly an hour before they finally found him. It seemed strange to Amleth that the seeds Tom had sowed in the earth, the wheat he had laid on the ground with great swather arms and sent through the lurching bowels of the combine had finally smothered him.

It was impossible for Amleth to run the farm alone. He knew nothing about fixing machinery or about livestock or crop rotation, and he was grateful for Tom’s hired man, Jake, who stayed on to help manage things.

Tom’s horse was a problem too. It was a bony mustang that had been caught in one of the last roundups in the Badlands of North Dakota. They were small, tough horses with sturdy legs and mean eyes. Most of them were sold to packing plants or to bucking strings that supplied some of the smaller rodeos. But Tom had bought this buckskin hoping he could break him. The horse and Tom were alike—both strong-willed and persevering. There had been many hours of ropes and leather and sweat behind the barn before the two found a compromise. Amleth often watched them from outside the fence. Even now when he looked at the horse, he could see Tom with rings of perspiration under his arms, grinning and moving up the rope between the snubbing post and the mustang braced at the other end. Now after a year of freedom, the horse had reverted to his wild ways and could only be caught with a lariat, which Amleth didn’t know how to use. So every day during the winter Jake, the hired man, poured a pan of oats and threw out a bale of hay behind the barn for the buckskin. When spring came, the horse loafed around the pasture cropping grass and occasionally coming up to the barn for oats or water. Often in the evenings after supper, if Amleth looked out the picture window in the living room, he could see the buckskin standing on the knoll under the branchless lone tree, his head hanging, tail flicking from flank to flank.

AMLETH stopped the car in front of the machine shed. Jake was tinkering with the big John Deere tractor. It had a cab and a radio inside. It was one of the reasons why Jake stayed on to help, even though his practical knowledge of farming was often frustrated by some new theory Amleth got from a magazine. He loved the power of the big green tractor. Every Saturday after coming in from the field, he washed it down with a hose. And on summer evenings when sounds carry far, the blend of the John Deere’s “cha cha chachacha” and Western music could be heard several miles from where Jake worked.

Jake slid out from under the tractor; his face was smeared with grease.

“They have the right cog?”

“The man said this was the piece we wanted.” Amleth handed him the paper bag.

Jake peered in. “Yup, that’s it. Well, we better git the damn thing goin’. This kinda weather don’t wait around.”

“Are you sure you know what to do with it?”

“There’s only one place the goddamn thing can go.” Jake took the cog out of the sack.

“Are you going to need some help, Jake?”

“Nuh.” He moved off toward the combine.

“Well, if you do. I’ll be up at the house making coffee.” Amleth watched the back of the short, squat, aging man. “Better come up and have coffee after while, Jake.”

Jake grunted. He had liked Tom a lot. He thought of him almost like a son since he had no family himself. He took pride in how many birds Tom shot, kidded him about his girls, and planned with him the fields they would sow to wheat and barley in the spring. On mornings after Tom had been out late Jake made him strong coffee. He would set it on the table and smile, seeing what he would like to have been in the young man. Tom was not always so patient with Jake. His most common reproach was, “Look, you old bastard, maybe you did it that way twenty years ago, but this is the way we’re going to do it now!”

Amleth put the pot on the stove and measured out the coffee; six teaspoons exactly. Then he sat down in the leather chair by the picture window. He picked up a book from the nearby coffee table, and it fell open to his place, revealing an intricately woven green bookmark. Amleth was a scholar. He had been at the university for five years before Tom’s accident and had planned to stay at least two more. He was intelligent, and his professors liked him.

Amleth’s eyes wandered from the book toward the towering, stark tree on the knoll. Today in town when he walked into the John Deere Implement, the parts man had called him Tom, and when he corrected him, he had said, “Amleth! My God, I could have sworn you were Tom when you walked in here! Thought I was seeing a ghost! He had a hat like that, didn’t he?”

Amleth had nodded; it was Tom’s hat. He had been wearing it on hot days to keep the sun off his head. He didn’t have a hat of his own. The parts man had put the cog in a sack. “You weren’t twins were you?”

“No, I was a year older.”

The parts man had shoved the sack across the counter to Amleth; “I’ve never seen you around town much. Your dad always told me how different you boys were. ‘Like night and day,’ he always said; ‘one does nothing but hunt, and the other one reads.’ Well, you sure look like his double to me!”

Amleth had smiled, tucked the sack under his arm, and gone out. And then up at the elevator where he took a sample of grain to be tested for moisture, the elevator man had thrown the wheat into the shaking, grinding dockage tester that separated the chaff and mustard from the kernels and stood with his hand on the machine. “You sure do look like your brother. Someone else was sayin’ that the other day. Guess it was that girl down at the café. Said she thought she was seein’ things when you walked in there. Just couldn’t get over it. Guess Tom stopped in there pret-near ever’ time he was in town.”

The man had stopped the machine then, run the sample back into the coffee can, and adjusted his gold framed glasses. “Let’s see now” —he had peered down through the bifocal dots —“guess we’ll have to give you . . . three percent dockage on this, and moisture . . . aahm . . . guess it’s about fourteen . . . well, we’ll say thirteen and a half. Well, guess you’re in good shape. It’s plenty dry. S’pose you’ll take it off this afternoon. I’m afraid this weather’s not gonna hold out much longer.”

Amleth had nodded his head. He hadn’t felt like explaining that the combine was broken down and that a round green piece of steel with teeth along its outer edge had to be installed before they could pick up another kernel. Amleth had walked across the strips of metal that were placed about three inches apart and through which grain streamed from the truck boxes into a huge pit below. From the pit the grain was elevated into bins high up in the towering building which could be reached only on a board lifted by four ropes. It zipped up and down live stories, carrying the elevator man, who hung on to nothing but one of the ropes. Since he was a child, Amleth had had the uneasy feeling that he would be sucked into that pit.

“ That was a real nice sample, Amlcth,” the elevator man had called after him.

The coffee was boiling over. Amleth could hear it hissing and sputtering on the burner. When he got there, brown foam and grounds were bubbling up like the prelude to a geyser. Amleth was not in the habit of cursing. He wiped the stove off with paper towels, then poured himself a cup of coffee and went into the living room. One wall was covered with guns — rifles, shotguns, three pistols. I he bookshelf was stacked neatly with boxes of shells 12 gauge, 20 gauge, .22 cartridges, and many boxes of reloaded .44 magnums for the big pistol. Amleth looked around the room for the millionth time in a year; Toin’s spurs, his slippers and red wool shirt in the corner, the racks of horns hanging on the walls, the enlarged picture of the buckskin hanging askew. Nothing had been changed.

THE screen door creaked open and banged shut four times before Jake reached the kitchen. He slid off his grease-soaked gloves and tossed them in the corner. They kept the curled shape of his large hands even lying on the floor. He scraped a chair back from the table and sat down, spreading the newspaper out in front of him. The smell of grease and oil and wheat straw had ridden in the door on him. Amleth could smell it all the way in the living room.

Jake picked up his reading glasses and wiped them on the front of his shirt. “You say you got some coffee on?” He peered through the glasses to see if they were clean.

Amlcth put the book back on the coffee table. “Yes, it’s fresh. It’s a bit strong, though. I boiled it over.”

“Boiled it over again, didja. Well, it don’t matter.

I never did like weak coffee.” He concentrated on the newspaper, moving his lips as he read. “Say, did you read this here article about farm prices? It says at the present time top amber durum is $1.87 and rising. Why, they don’t know what they’re talking about. There ain’t a man in the country got over $1.35 for sixty-one-pound stuff, and sixtyone is good weight!”

“Umm.” Amleth poured coffee for Jake and got the cream carton from the refrigerator. “Would you like anything with that, Jake? Bread and jam? There are some Oreo cookies in there.”

“Nuh,” He swallowed the last part of the word, rattling the paper open to the editorial page and spreading it out.

Amleth leaned hack against the kitchen counter, folded his arms, and looked thoughtful. After some time he said, “Jake, do you think I look at all like Tom?” He waited. “Jake?”

“Nuh.”He didn’t look up. “Jesus Christ! I see here where the government’s still tryin’ to take firin’ arms away from the common man! I hat puts me in remind of the time that cop in town tried to take that there pistol of Tom’s away for carryin’ it in the glove box. Carryin’ a concealed weapon, he said. Tom says, ‘If you think you’re man enough to take it out of there, you just go right ahead.’ This here’s the same damn thing. There ain’t a self-respectin’ man in the country gonna let the government just up and take his guns away from him.”

Amleth refilled his coffee cup and walked into the living room. He set it down and looked out the picture window. The buckskin was standing under the lone tree again, head down, tail swatting at his sides rhythmically. Amleth watched him, saw him kick at a fly under his belly with a black hind leg. Then he slowly went up the stairs to Tom’s old room.

There were still things lying around — shirts, jeans, a hunting jacket, several caps. He picked up a brown wool shirt, slid it on over his own, and looked in the mirror. He adjusted it a little; the shoulders weren’t sitting right. Then he buttoned it and tucked it into his trousers. It fit him quite well except for the cuffs, which seemed a little long. He twisted his wrists and stretched his arms out in front of him to see if they really were much too long or if it was just his imagination. They were long. He tucked his chin in and pulled the collar up higher. The way it spread apart made his neck look thin, he thought. He turned all the way around once, looking at the sides and the back. Altogether not a bad fit, he decided. He found a cap on the bed beside a pile of shirts and set it on his head at a rakish angle. Then he stood in front of the mirror with his arms folded. Not bad at all, he thought. He looked at his face and grinned. It was more like a grimace. He thought it was partially his glasses that were ruining the effect, so he took them off. Without them, he could see only the basic outline of his face, but he somehow felt that the grin was better. Salt water welled in his eyes, and he was out of focus in the mirror, as though he were upside down against the picture window trying to see the lone tree through rain. He thought he had known this moment before.

Amleth went downstairs. The buckskin had not moved, but now without his glasses, Amleth thought the horse looked shadowy, indistinct; like some vaporous creature that could carry him into a mysterious world.

Jake looked up from the newspaper. He stared at the shirt and the cap.

Amleth grinned. “Combine going to be ready this afternoon, Jake? This weather won’t wait!”

“ Uhh.”

“Tell you what I want you to do. I want you to take the wheat off that field directly into the elevator — the P.V. elevator — and sell it in my name.”

“Goddamn it, didn’t I just tell you the price of wheat is down! We’re gonna hold it over till December or so and see if the price goes up!”

“Who’s running this place, you or me?”

“We sure as hell ain’t gonna make no money with you runnin’ it!”

“I want you to take it to the P.V., Jake.”

Jake stared at him. “Where the hell’re your glasses?”

AMLETH stood on the cement step in front of the house. It was a clear day with just a hint of smoke in the air, like someone puffing a good pipe mixture in another room. The hunting jacket, the pants, the boots, and the cap that Amleth wore were Tom’s. So was the gun in the case that lay on the second step. There had been two guns in the case exactly alike except for the size. One was a twenty gauge, the other a twelve, Jake had said. Amleth took the larger one, assuming that it would prove more effective. Jake had found him a box of number four shotshells, and now Amleth waited for two old hunting friends of Tom’s to pick him up. He looked across the farmyard. Everything was in its place. The buckskin waited under the tree, and Jake was down by the gas barrels tinkering with the John Deere, getting ready to go out and plow. The wheat was all off and sold; Jake would be done with the fall plowing in a couple of days, and then everything would rest.

A green pickup truck pulled up in front of the house. Amleth reached down for the gun case. One of the men got out to meet him.

“All set to shoot yourself some birds, Amleth? We sure got a dandy day.”

“It’s nice of you to stop for me.” Amleth put out his hand.

The man shook it and then looked at his companion, who was seated at the steering wheel. “You know, Rip. I’ll be damned if Amleth here don’t look a bit like Tom in them huntin’ togs!”

Amleth grinned and started to get in the cab with his gun and shells.

“Amleth, if you’d just give me that gun a yours, I’d stick it back here in the truck box with ours. Gives us more elbowroom up front. Ain’t the biggest cabs on these older pickups. Take the new ones, now; they’re as big as the front seat of a Cadillac! Rip, why don’t you get yourself one of them so we could hunt in style!” The man got in. “Swing her down there by the gas barrels, would you, Rip. I want to say hello to Jake.”

Jake came toward the pickup smiling and shook the hand offered to him through the window with his greasy glove.

“How are things goin’, Jake? God, I haven’t seen you since last—guess it was way last spring! S’pose it keeps you pretty busy around here. How’d you come out on the wheat anyway? Good yield? S’pose you’ve got the market all figured out again !” He laughed.

Jake shook his head. “Nuh, wheat’s all sold.” He watched the truck leave the yard. Just today he read that the price of durum had risen three cents on the Chicago Grain Bulletin, He was sure he had it figured out. “December,” he muttered, “Christ!”

The sun was bright orange. From where Amleth stood at the mouth of a coulee it looked as though it were hanging exactly one inch above the earth. He was posting, waiting for the other two men to walk through the dried, coarse slough grass in an effort to flush some birds toward him. This would be the last drive of the day. The sun would fall before the two men reached him. Amleth had fired nine shots in the afternoon and had nothing to show for it. He strained his eyes toward the draw. Without his glasses he could hardly see the two figures moving slowly through the waist-deep grass. Rip had said they probably wouldn’t jump anything; the birds would be feeding by this time. A few doves still fluttered around a clump of willow bushes. Earlier in the day Amleth had fired at one. He had trouble distinguishing them from partridges.

The figures were closer, within firing distance, when a prairie chicken jumped out of the cover and began its low, evening flight across the sky. Two guns rose. The chicken beat its wings, glided, and then cackled, ”pkakakakakaka,” beat its wings, glided, and cackled again. The shots were fired simultaneously, like one. The bird stopped, hung an instant, and then dropped straight down.

“Nice clean shootin’, Amleth,” the man said; “she never had a chance!”

“I’m sure glad you got yourself a bird, Amleth. She’s a real fine one,” the other man said, his hand closing around the chicken’s neck, twirling, twirling the body. The smell of freshly discharged gunpowder hung in the crisping air around the three men, and the sun was gone.

“It was a hell of a fine day,” Amleth said to Jake later. “I wish you could have seen her fall; she never had a chance. She’s a nice bird too, isn’t she?” It was warm in the kitchen. Amleth fingered the handle of a steaming hot cup of coffee.

“She’ll do.” Jake knelt on newspapers spread out on the floor. They were covered with feathers and entrails. He washed the plucked bird in a pan of water and then began cutting it up to fry.

Amleth sipped the coffee; it was still too hot. “I think I’ll go out again Saturday, Jake. It’s a nice sport. In fact, I’m going to clean the next one myself!”

Jake hit a piece of shot in the bird’s thigh and carefully lifted it out with the point of the knife. He examined it. It was six shot, a common load for upland game, instead of the heavier four shot he had given Amleth when he couldn’t find any sixes.

“You ain’t got nothin’ to worry over.” Jake stood up, put the last piece of the bird in the pan of water, and brushed the downy feathers from his overalls. “I’m goin’ to town,” he said, and walked out the door.

“You’re going to miss an exquisite meal, Jake,” Amleth called after him. He looked into the pan; the water was red. He hated to put his hands in, but he was hungry. So he lifted each piece out with a spatula, rolled it in flour, and dropped it into a pan of sizzling butter.

MORNING came like a shot. It crashed through the bedroom window with rays that blinded Amleth when he first opened his eyes. He had been exhausted by yesterday’s brisk air and the difficult walking. Normally he would have turned his face to the wall and indulged in the peaceful morning dozing he enjoyed. This morning there was something on his mind. He pulled on his clothes and went down to the kitchen, where the feathers and entrails were still lying on the newspapers. He avoided looking at them while he warmed up some leftover coffee and washed down three Oreo cookies with it. It was chilly in the house. He knew better than to wake Jake. Jake always got drunk when he went to town and was surly the next day, especially when he just got up.

Amleth stood on the step. It was clear, and there was a mirage. It seemed as though he could see to the end of the world. He could see white houses and red barns that were twenty miles away, and clumps of trees had grown up overnight where they never were before.

Down at the barn Amleth filled an old washbasin with oats and opened the back door. The buckskin was dozing under the lone tree, resting on one hind leg. His head snapped up and his ears pricked forward when he heard the scraping of the door Realizing it was oats time, he ambled toward the barn, stopping at the water trough for a drink. Then he looked around for the washbasin in which he was usually fed. Amleth stepped out holding the basin; the horse jerked backward and gazed at him. Amleth shook the basin so the oats rustled; then he lifted out a handful and let it dribble slowly between his fingers back into the pan. The buckskin stared as Amleth backed into the barn and set the basin on the floor about twelve feet inside. Amleth turned and walked out the front door, knowing the horse’s eyes were on his back. He waited for a few minutes outside before he went to the rear of the barn on tiptoe and eased his nose around the corner. The buckskin had gone in. Amleth moved quietly up to the door and pulled it shut before the horse could turn around. He could hear him snorting and stomping. The basin clattered on the cement floor. Amleth leaned against the barn door to catch his breath.

To be safe, Amleth went into the barn through the lean-to door. In his left hand was a coiled end of a lariat, in his right was the noose of the lariat. He had seen Tom do this before. The size of his loop was good. He walked down the center of the barn aisle dragging the tip of the loop on the cement. The buckskin faced him at the other end, snorting, nostrils extended, his eyes small and bitter. He moved his feet nervously up and down, Crowding closer to the last box stall. Seeing the door open, he bolted in, skidding on the wet floor. Amleth slammed the door behind him and locked it. He climbed to the head of the stall, secured the coiled end of the rope around a two by six in front of the manger, and picked up the loop end. He threw several times. The buckskin flew around the stall in a frenzy, bouncing off the walls and rearing toward the small window where a patch of light filtered through dust and focused on the manger. Finally, when the horse tore past Amleth’s perch, the noose flipped onto his head, slid clumsily around his neck, and he was caught. Amleth drew in the slack and eased the horse closer to the manger. He wrapped the end around the two by six again and tied three knots to secure it. The horse leaned back against the rope, the slip knot of the loop cutting into the windpipe right behind his jaw. His small eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets. Amleth climbed out of the manger and went for Tom’s saddle, Tripping on the girth and stirrups, he dragged the heavy saddle to the stall. Cautiously he opened the door. He left it open and slowly moved toward the horse, inching the saddle along beside him. The buckskin’s ears went back, not in the flattened-out attitude of ill temper, but in the half-flat attitude of fear. His hind legs moved well up under his body, and he squatted back on his haunches trembling. Amleth moved closer. The horse squealed, rose on his hind legs, twisting in midair until he hit the end of the rope and fell backward into the manger. All Amleth could see of him was four hooves and four black legs thrashing above the top board. He dropped the saddle and ran toward the house.

“Jake! The horse is in the manger! He’s upside down and can’t get out! I can’t pull him — the rope is —”

“Jesus Christ!” Jake rolled out of bed, pulled on his overalls, hooking only one suspender, and jerked on his boots. “Jesus Christ! Upside down! He don’t have a chance!” “Jake, the rope—”

Jake ran through the kitchen, grabbing the butcher knife he had used to cut up the bird the night before. When Amleth reached the barn, Jake was sawing on the rope tied around the buckskin’s neck. It gave way just as Amleth came into the stall. Both men stared into the manger. The horse was still.

“Is he dead?”

Jake walked out of the barn. In a minute Amleth heard his old Chevrolet start up and leave the yard.

Amleth stepped out of the barn. It was a mirage morning when the distance swells up and is more clear than what is close.