Sarah awoke to the sound of the hinges on the slab-planked door of her bedroom. In the dim light she could see her stepfather, Lester, moving barefooted towards her bed. His smell traveled ahead of him through the darkness, and as he bent to pull the covers back she felt it envelop her: the sweat, the sourness.
His rough hands pushed up her nightgown and the bed sagged under his bulk as he lowered himself on top of her. Then the groping began, his rough, dirt-blackened hands fumbling. The bed kept time with the movement of his body as it rocked them back and forth. And then he collapsed on her, his big belly making it difficult for her to breathe. She lay there, silent, trying not to gag.
Lester didn’t bother closing the door.
Sarah allowed herself to slowly come back into her body then opened her eyes and sat up on the edge of the bed. The pain and the blood were no longer there as they had been in the beginning, but the feeling he left behind was the same. Sarah pushed her nightgown down and lit the kerosene lamp next to the bed. She took the hand basin from her dresser into the kitchen and filled it at the hand pump on the edge of the sink. In her bedroom she methodically washed her body and face, scrubbing for a long time between her legs, re-rinsing the washcloth and re-bathing, over and over. When she finished she turned sideways and looked at her belly in the dresser mirror: rubbed her hands over it, felt its size and roundness. She thought her face was changing too. Her dark hair, pulled back from her face in a single long braid, accentuated the high cheekbones and wide, full mouth inherited from her mother.
When she lay back down, the shivering that always accompanied his visits began. She cried silently, her fist pressed against her mouth.
The first few times Lester had come to her room she’d allowed him to see her terror. That had been five months ago, two weeks after her mother had been buried. When she realized her fear excited him even more, she fought to lock her feelings away: to hide inside the memories of her mother and not think about her own body, and what was happening to it.
At first light Sarah got up. From the bedroom on the other side of the kitchen she could hear Lester’s snores: loud and rhythmic. She quickly pulled on her work brogans and bib overalls and went out to milk and feed Molly, the little Jersey cow she’d raised from a calf. Then she hurried to the garden. The stream of clear water coming through the hose from the windmill still wandered down the small furrows and disappeared between the rows of corn.
She worked for an hour then stopped, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, absorbing the freshness of the desert morning: the smell of sage, the coolness of the air. In the distance a raven’s coarse call broke the silence. She opened her eyes. To the south the sagebrush-covered ground fell away to form a valley, then climbed gently between the cinder cones to form small jagged black peaks. To the north were the multicolored red cliffs of Navajo sandstone that changed their colors with the time of day. Gradually through the years Sarah had fallen in love with this place, but it was the vastness of this unforgiving country that held her prisoner, particularly in the summer. Overhead the cloudless blue sky promised another hot day. She needed to finish her chores early.
While she worked, Sarah thought about the day her mother, Hannah, first told her about Lester, and that she’d decided to marry him. It was the day school had let out for the summer. She’d just finished the sixth grade and had walked into the house excited about starting summer vacation. Her mother and Grandma Lily were sitting in the living room of Grandma’s house. She could tell they’d been arguing.
“Sarah, come here.” Her mother patted the seat next to her on the couch and put her arms around her when she sat down. “Sarah, Honey, your mother’s going to get married. Lester Nielsen has asked me to marry him and wants us to move out to his ranch. You remember how pretty the country was, and all the animals he had?”
Grandma Lily, mumbling under her breath, got up and stomped into the kitchen. Sarah began to cry. “But, Mamma, we don’t need anyone else. We have each other and Grandma Lilly. And where would I go to school?”
“You can come into town and live with Grandma during school,” her mother said. “And some of the time I’ll come in and stay with you. It’ll be fun, Baby.”
Sarah pushed away from her mother. “But that old house out there is just a shack. It’s like people lived a hundred years ago.”
Her mother reached out and took her hand. “I know it’s rustic, Honey. But he’s got propane there now, so we’ve got a good stove to cook on, and a refrigerator. And he’s saving up for inside plumbing.”
“But, Mamma, he doesn’t even have television. This is 1975. Nobody lives like that anymore. My friends will think we’re weird.”
“Honey, Lester says he’ll give you your own horse, and your friends can come out during the summer and stay with you.”
“Daddy wouldn’t want you to get married,” Sarah sobbed.
Her mother pulled her close. “Sarah, I’m forty-six years old. It’s been five years since your daddy was killed, and I need somebody. Lester isn’t perfect but he’ll feed us and take care of us.”
The wedding had taken only a few minutes. When the pastor said, “You may kiss the bride,” Lester, dressed in a clean white shirt and bib-overalls, had kissed her mother. Then he’d put his arms around Sarah, kissed her on the cheek and patted her behind. She’d run into the house and locked herself in the bathroom.
As Sarah got older she became more and more uncomfortable around Lester. He began touching her in ways that worried her. Brushing up against her when he passed by, letting his hand stray onto her hip or thigh. Once he walked in on her as she was getting dressed. The night she’d whispered these things to her mother, her mother had gotten very quiet, then put her arms around her and held her tight before she walked out and closed the bedroom door. The next morning her mother’s eyes were swollen like they got after she had cried a lot. Sarah realized it hadn’t been a dream when her mother and Lester argued during the night.
But her mother stayed on the ranch.
Sarah’s last year of high school had been hard. Grandma Lilly had died the summer before, and Sarah had lived with friends. At graduation all her classmates had talked about what they were going to do during the summer and which colleges they were going to. All Sarah had been able to think about was staying on the ranch winter and summer. That had been only been a year ago.
Sarah still couldn’t accept her mother’s death. It happened so fast. It was just after Christmas she’d gotten sick. When Lester took her to the doctor they hospitalized her immediately. A week later she was dead. The doctors said it might have had something to do with bombs being tested in Nevada during the fifties. Sarah had never gotten over the terror she felt as she and Lester drove back to the ranch.
Sarah leaned on her hoe. How long since she’d been to town: three, four months? She’d only been once since her mother died. Lester refused to take her with him when he went to town for supplies.
Sarah glanced at the sun. It was time to fix Lester’s breakfast. On the way to the house she stopped at the chicken coop to collect the eggs. When she turned around from closing the gate, Lester was standing on the porch in his overalls, the straps dangling, and watching her.
Lester came out of his bedroom just as Sarah fished the last of the bacon out of the frying pan and dropped in the eggs. He lumbered over to the table, lowered himself to the bench and leaned over to grab a piece of toast.
She placed his breakfast in front of him and filled his coffee cup. Sarah sat down opposite him and ate slowly, keeping her eyes on her plate.
She felt him staring at her as he always did the morning after. Sometimes he’d try to talk normally as if nothing had happened. As if he believed this was a normal life. In the periphery of her vision she could see his hand clutching his fork trowel-like. He chewed with his mouth open while his tongue rolled the cud of food around inside.
When he’d finished, Lester held his coffee mug up to his mouth with both hands, his elbows on the table, his eyes on Sarah. “Ya know, girl, sometimes I wonder what might start your mouth working again. When your ma was alive you had plenty to say.”
Sarah kept her eyes on her plate.
“If she was here, it’d be like it was before.”
Sarah kept watching her strips of untouched bacon, the bits of yellow egg.
Lester sighed and took a toothpick from the little jelly glass on the table and maneuvered it in and out of his mouth. “You’re too much in her likeness.”
Sarah kept silent.
“I need to fix the pig-pasture fence. Them two biggest boars have torn a section of it loose. It’s going to take a while, so fix me some sandwiches.”
Sara nodded and got up from the table, leaving her partially finished breakfast. She put more bacon in the pan and cut four more slices from the loaf of bread. Lester heaved himself to his feet, hesitated, then clumped out the front door and down the steps.
When the sandwiches were made Sarah wrapped them in tinfoil, then lifted the canteen from its nail on the wall and filled it with water. Through the window she saw Lester lead his horse, Cody, to the barn, disappear inside and come out with a pair of fencing pliers, a hammer and a bag of staples. He stuffed them into his saddlebags, pulled himself into the saddle and rode towards the house. Sarah met him on the porch with the canteen and sandwiches. He took them from her without a word and rode off.
Sarah washed the dishes and went into her bedroom for her mother’s old straw hat. She stood in front of the mirror as she put it on and looked at the little snapshot of her mother, stuck in the upper left-hand corner of the mirror. It was one her Grandmother Lilly had given her of her mom wearing the same hat. It pleased her to see how much she was beginning to look like her mother. She reached out and touched the picture with her fingers then walked outside to finish her chores.
Sarah had no idea how long she’d worked when she straightened up and took her hat off. She looked around with a feeling of satisfaction. The calf pens were cleaned and she’d just finished putting new bedding in Molly’s pen. By now the shadows were gone and the slight breeze that had been blowing earlier had quit. Overhead the sun had become more intense. Sarah stuck the pitchfork into the manure pile and walked slowly back to the house. She got a glass of water from the kitchen, came back out to the porch and sat down on the crude bench pushed against the wall of the house. Laying her hat on the bench, Sarah closed her eyes and leaned back. Occasional beads of perspiration ran down between her breasts. She no longer thought about tomorrow or the next day. The two times she’d tried to run away he’d caught her before she’d gone ten miles. He’d locked her in the tool shed, giving her only water for that night. And with her grandma dead she had no place to go. Her thoughts wandered as the heat pressed against her and her hands unconsciously moved across her belly. She understood now why she was beginning to eat more and why she was so tired at night.
Startled, Sarah opened her eyes. How long had she slept? There were shadows now and the entire porch was in the shade. She sat up and massaged her neck, feeling the stiffness caused by the position she’d been sleeping in. In the distance a horse whickered. She stood up, shaded her eyes with her hand and waited for Lester and Cody to come into view. Instead it was just Cody, coming at a rapid trot as he worked his way through the sagebrush: head up, looking around, frightened. White froth dripped from his bit and occasionally he’d step on the dragging reins causing his head to jerk down.
Sarah stepped off the porch and whistled. Cody spun towards her and broke into a lope, his feet kicking up little puffs of dust. Sarah stepped in front of him and he jolted to a stop, his flanks heaving. The odor of horse sweat and dust settled around her as she patted him. “Whoa Cody, easy Cody,” she said.
When his breathing slowed she climbed into the saddle, reined him around and pushed him into a fast walk towards the pasture. Sarah chewed anxiously on her lip as she rode, expecting any second to see Lester walking: worried about his anger and what he might do to Cody.
When the pasture came into view Sarah pulled back on the reins and stared. Lester was hanging upside down, the bulk of his huge body on the ground, his feet in the air, tangled in the fence.
Sarah nudged Cody closer and could see the wire cutting into Lester’s ankles above his brogans. His hat was lying a few feet away and things he’d had in his pockets – his pocket knife, the keys to the truck, some matches – were scattered on the ground around him. Three smaller pigs were rooting near him.
Lester glared up at her, his face covered with dust and flushed from the heat, his hands and fingers coated with blood. Sarah could see blood smeared on the fence post and wire where he’d tried to pull himself up.
Lester was breathing hard. “It took you long enough to get down here,” he gasped between breaths. “Hand me them fence pliers so I can cut my way out of this.” He pointed at the pliers sitting on a post ten feet away. I got astraddle that top strand of bobwire and lost my balance. When I tipped over my feet got wound up in the pig-wire. If that damned horse hadn’t gone goofy and broke loose I might have pulled myself up on him.”
Sarah guided Cody down the fence to where the pliers were, picked them up and rode back.
“Well!” Lester said, looking up at her. “Get down off that horse and help me get out of this. I can’t even feel my feet now. And that sun’s frying me.”
Sarah held the pliers in her hand and looked down at him. In the distance, three or four of the larger pigs ambled toward them, drawn by the sound of their voices, expecting grain. Sarah studied Lester as he lay there in the hot sun, wheezing with each breath, squinting up at her. The hatred she felt for him pressed against her insides like a hard knot. This was the man that had taken away her mother. And this was the man responsible for the baby growing inside her. Last night was still so fresh in her mind she could close her eyes and feel and smell him. As she looked down at him she sensed his fear: his eyes fixing on her face, then flitting away, only to come back an instant later: spittle dribbling from the corners of his mouth. She reached back, pulled up the flap of the saddlebag, dropped the pliers in and methodically slid the strap through the buckle. Without looking back, she turned Cody away from the fence and started up the hill.
“Where you going?” Lester yelled. “Girl, where the hell you going? Damn you,” Lester yelled. “I’ll peel the hide off you when I get out of this. If I have to, I’ll cut my feet off and crawl back to get you.”
Sarah continued up the hill, her braid swinging slowly back and forth with the motion of the horse.
“Girl, don’t leave me like this–them big boars will kill me.” His voice broke. “I won’t do it no more, you hear?”
His voice became fainter as she rode.
Sarah turned Cody loose in the corral and hurried to the house. In Lester’s bedroom she picked up the lever-action .30-.30 Winchester rifle standing behind the door and hunted until she found a box of shells in the closet. Out on the porch bench she pushed six shells into the rifle, levered one into the chamber then laid it across her lap and sat back to wait, her eyes fixed on the direction he would come from.
Sarah gazed out at the red sandstone cliffs in the distance: at the windmill, its fluted wheel slowly turning in the slight breeze, at the two old car bodies partially buried in the sand in front of the house: familiar pieces of her life. Over by the barn was Lester’s truck, a ten-year-old Chevy flatbed, its fenders rusted and torn: an occasional splotch of the original dark green paint still showing.
Eight hours later the sun on the horizon was still heating the evening breeze, and the shadows of the mesquite trees and sage were stretching towards the east. Overhead the sky was a deeper blue and the first star had appeared; all a prelude to the darkness that was less than an hour away. Sarah had left the bench only twice in all this time: once to fill a quart jar with drinking water and go to the bathroom, and once to milk Molly and feed the calves.
A gray desert fox trotted by without sensing her presence, stopped to sample the air and urinate. From the garden she heard the cicada begin their nightly song. For the first time in five months she welcomed the end of the day.
Sarah didn’t move as darkness settled in, just sat there, absorbing the quiet. Slowly the moon slid into view and began its climb, forming moon shadows in front of her. In the distance a coyote howled followed by the yapping of its pups. Occasionally she dozed, her head falling back against the wall of the house; then she’d awaken with a start, a burst of fear fluttering inside her.
The hours drifted by and gradually the world around her crept out of the darkness and became familiar again. From the chicken coop she heard the first crow of the old rooster and stood up, stiff from her all night vigil. She made a pot of coffee and carried a cup of it back to the bench to drink.
The sun rose higher and Sarah heard Molly mooing her displeasure at not being fed or milked. Carrying the gun and a pail she went to the corral. While Molly ate, she milked her, feeding most of the milk to the calves. The little she saved she brought back to the house and put in the refrigerator.
By noon turkey buzzards were circling high above the pig pasture, floating on the thermals. Sarah took the rifle off her lap and stood it against the wall.
It was another two hours before Sarah dared ride down to the pasture. She slipped a bridle on Cody, climbed the fence to mount him bareback and rode towards the circling birds, holding the rifle across his withers. As she got closer her hand tightened on the rifle stock, her breathing became shallow and rapid. Underneath her she felt a change in Cody also. His head came up as he fought the bit, dancing from side to side, occasionally crashing through sagebrush instead of going around it.
They came over the slight rise and Sarah saw Lester, still hanging from the fence. She began to tremble with relief, but her fear of him an inherent thing, still hovered in her mind. She clutched at Cody’s mane to keep from falling off, nearly dropping the rifle. Sarah forced herself to look again and realized his head, neck and hands were missing: pieces of his clothing scattered around in the dirt. Most of the pig herd was gathered around Lester, two of the big thousand-pound boars tugging at him from opposite sides. As they got closer Cody kept trying to spin around, occasionally rearing.
Sarah slid off Cody, led him down the fence until he was far enough from Lester to stop worrying and looped the reins around a post. Carrying the rifle, she came back, waved her arms and shouted at the pigs. When they didn’t move, she put the rifle to her shoulder and fired over them. For an instant they panicked, squealing and scurrying away through the sagebrush, dust rising above them as they milled around in a group. When Sarah climbed into the pasture they stopped and spun around, eyes wary, snouts close to the ground, pretending to root: watching Sarah carefully as they edged their way back. She moved closer to Lester, stirring the dirt with her foot; trying not to look at him. The loud buzzing of the huge blue-bottle flies, hovering around and on him, increased each time she disturbed them. In the heat, Lester’s body had swollen even larger and was beginning to smell. She found his pocketknife first, its handle caked with dried blood. Sarah widened her circle and continued to search the trampled area until she uncovered the truck keys. Then she crawled back over the fence, untied Cody and led him through the sage and up the dry sandy slope toward the house.
In the south the first storm clouds of summer were building and a breeze had sprung up, bringing with it the fresh, clean smell of rain. Sarah felt the first drops sprinkle against her face and stopped, tipping her head back and letting Cody’s reins and the rifle fall to the ground. The storm moved rapidly over them while she stood there, her breath coming in little gasps as the wind blew the rain against her. She reached back and slowly undid her braid, shaking the hair lose, exposing it to the cool rain.