Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion

Chapter Twelve

[p.186] The frigid wind blew through the wall, and Allison drew the blankets around her face like the hood of a coat. That bastard Howard had played her like a victim in a New York shell game and had gotten her into his grandfather’s cabin: “My father’s just not healthy. Only four days.” Now he was cooking a hot breakfast for her, some kind of canned meat fried in a pan and bread toasted directly on top of the black stove. The smells of grease, mice, dust, and the gas that fired the refrigerator lay heavy on the air—to say nothing of Walter’s effluvium. His last bath had probably been in the hospital. Out the window the desert was snow and light.

“Sleep well?” asked Walter. Both men were so cheerful it was nauseating.

“We’re all going to freeze our butts off today,” she said. “They’ll find us stiff as fish.”

“Is this the Alaskan pioneer talking?” said Howard.

“That’s a good name for you,” said Walter.

She made a face. “Even the North Slope is warmer than this. Damn, that grease stinks.”

“I’d better go see if that heifer is close,” said Walter.

“Alaska,” said Howard. “I like it.” He handed her toast, black on one side, white on the other.

“Why would it matter if a heifer is close?”

[p.187] “Close to calving. She was bred too young.”

Allison stared at the burnt toast, and he finally took it from her and carried it outside. “See, Alaska,” he said when he came back in, “good as new.” He had scraped it on one side. She laid the thinner slice on her plate. He poured her a cup of his father’s coffee. Standing at the stove, Howard shoveled the mess of egg and falsely pink meat into his mouth.

“I wish I wasn’t so hungry,” she said. He filled another plate and shoved it toward her. She ate without looking down. “Tell me a story about love. Something to warm me up.”

“Once upon a time a woman and a man and the man’s father lived in a cabin. Love was a rare bird. Then the father went to town for Sunday dinner.”

“Isn’t today Sunday?” said Allison grinning. “That’s a good story.”

Slipping on his parka, Howard raised his eyebrows at her as he left. All the warm air in the cabin rushed out with him. Soon he opened the door again. “I thought you wanted to drive.”

“I’ll be right out.” She hated being grumpy, out of control. She put on her snowsuit, her parka, gloves, and ski mask, but still felt as though she had stepped out onto the North Pole. The north sky was as black as the volcanic ridge which ran along the western boundary of the ranch. She went back inside and wrapped a blanket around herself before returning to the bitter cold.

The temperature had risen slightly the day before, melting the surface of the snow, which had refrozen during the night as a crust. Wisps of snow blew out of the holes left by her feet. The desert was gray. A wreath of steam rose from the slate gray pool, and the ridge hovered like a huge welt behind the cabin. “Let’s get this over with,” she shouted.

Howard, up on the haystack, couldn’t hear. Walter walked toward the burial pool, calling for the cattle. “Come and get it. Coooome and get it.” Howard was only half-finished loading the wagon, so she stood as close as she could to the hot engine of the tractor as he threw bales down, five or six at a time. Moving to the north end of the haystack, [p.188] she looked down on the cattle, which huddled on the south side of a board fence down on the flat.

Walter stood on the bank of the pool like a diver measuring his steps. If he stepped in, it would be death by baptism; she remembered from talking to the anthropologists that the Goshutes believed the deep pool was a birth canal into the new world. The three mummies were gone; the Goshute woman with the stark face and the child bound across her belly now lay in a special morgue at the University of Utah. Walter didn’t want them in the pool, he’d told her, and the university lawyers were wrestling with whether the current Goshute tribe, across the desert on the edge of Nevada, could demand that the corpses be returned to their proper burial.

Rimmed by gray alkali, containing water hot enough to melt the snow, the pool looked like an evil egg, an eye. Babe, she said to herself, don’t get superstitious on me. Death was no channel to anywhere. The heart stopped beating. Consciousness and identity were illusions of evolution. The wind whined through the rocks as if it were a woman wailing, the illusion that had proved deadly to Howard’s grandfather. Allison shook herself and turned back toward the wagon. The bitter landscape was as foreign to her as Pluto. The North Slope was only slightly less congenial. At least she was a visitor there, able to go home after a short stint.

With Howard perched behind, she drove out on the flat. The cold wind penetrated her blanket and coat. The cattle had turned toward the sound of the tractor. She drove in a wide circle through the fields while Howard threw bales off the back. The cattle followed, some running up to the wagon and twisting their heads sideways, long tongues extended, to chew the corners of the moving stack. The lane below the cabin had turned white, outlined by gray-white and gray-green brush. Near the pool it joined the main road, which also showed white, a bank of gravel bisecting the valley. She saw the yellow of a snowplow crawling past.

After Howard had cleared the wagon, she stopped the tractor. Walter and Howard began to cut the bale wires and kick the hay out. “Do you want help?” she shouted.

[p.189] He shook his head so she turned the tractor and drove along the black ridge toward the cabin. The volcanic rock, partially veiled by the first wisps of falling snow, was beautiful but so stark and cold it terrified her. She felt emotionally unsteady and wondered if she could hold herself together for two more days. Along the base of the ridge, a smelly stream flowed from the pool. The stream was so laden with salt and other minerals that nothing grew near it. The exhaust pipe from the tractor rose above her head, but the fumes still choked her. When she arrived at the pool, she shoved her foot down on the clutch, flicked the gear shift to neutral, and climbed down from the tractor. The ground was disturbed where they had taken the three corpses from the salty mud. She bent to touch the surface of the pool—warm as a bath. She’d like to walk down into the pool, be warm all over for the first time since Houston.

The next morning after feeding, she again drove the tractor to the pond. Under cover of her blanket, she removed her coat, shirt, pants, and underwear, and put them in a plastic sack. She dropped the blanket and walked down into the water. Her feet, calves, thighs, belly, chest, and finally shoulders turned warm. After a few minutes the cold air felt good on her face. She kicked back, buoyant in the heavy water. The wind blew snow horizontally over her head.

Howard stood on the bank. She smiled up at him. “What the hell?” he said.

“I’ve been cold forever. Come on in.”

“You look like a mermaid.”

“You look like a big chicken. It’s nice in here.”

“There are more bodies below you, you know.”

“No,” she said. “My being here changes it. I’m renaming it the pool of life. The only baptism I’ll ever agree to.” He grimaced. She tried to make chicken noises, but they came out like the barking of a dog. “I’m no good at imitating animals.”

“The woman who imitates animals.” He laid his clothing on the wagon seat and slid into the pool. They touched fingertips in the water. She swam behind him, skin on skin, but as soon as she stopped [p.190] treading, she slowly sank in the salty water. The snow whirled down from the immense white above her.

Out of the pool, she wrapped the blanket around herself and started the tractor. Howard put on his shoes and sprinted naked toward the cabin. “You’ll get frostbite,” she called. He beat his fingers against his thighs. “I’m not worried about your hands.” She reached the cabin first—hot as an oven inside. Walter poured soup into bowls. Howard leaped across the doorstep, buck naked.

“I had to add water to it three times,” Walter said. Still holding the pot, he turned to stare at them. “You’re all red,” he said to Howard. Howard took the teakettle which always stood on the stove and poured hot water into the washbasin. “I’ll go check that heifer again.”

At the washbasin Allison cleaned the mud off her knees and hands.

“Wasn’t that great?” he said.

“We can bathe naked in a lot of places.” She wrapped her arms around his chest. “You can freeze your whacker off anywhere.”

“Not in our own pool. Not run naked across our own land.”

“Yeah, and your father can always be there to record the moment,” she said. “Freeze in poverty. I’m scared spitless that it’s your fate. Just over that ridge are three old hags weaving time, making sure that you’ll end up blue and chewed up like your grandfather.”

After dressing, Howard went out to help his father finish. Allison lay on the bed and drew up the filthy quilts. She imagined the Goshute woman walking the valley. She squatted on top of the black ridge and gave birth to a child under the tent of her skirts. She cuddled the small blue child to her breast and keened, her neck back like a wolf or coyote.

When Allison opened her eyes, Walter had the stove open, put­ting another log in. His face reflected the red light of the fire. “You don’t like it here,” he said. “Not many women do. I couldn’t ever get Emily to stay with me out here. Not more than a day trip. Oh, once or twice she’s spent the night.”

“What do you see in it?”

“Beyond its natural beauty—possibility. Range for cattle. Nobody crowding me.”

[p.191] She shrugged. The phrase colder than hell no longer seemed ­paradoxical.

“You’d have to look through my eyes.” He peeled potatoes and opened another can of the pink meat. “I won’t call you Alaska if you don’t like it.”

“I don’t mind.”

Later she swallowed the scalding stew, watching the two men whose faces looked more and more similar.

Mid-afternoon, the wind had died down, the fire was roaring, and the cabin was warm inside. She had her arms wrapped around Howard, wanted to have him in her arms for a month. “I know it makes no sense to you,” he was saying, “but the court did make a difference to me. They treated me with respect. It strengthened my confidence that God won’t abandon me.” They had the afternoon, evening, and all night alone. It wasn’t enough.

“I can show you fifteen ways to use a chair,” she said.

“A myth. I can only think of one or two.” He paused. “Maybe three.”

She said, “What’s the end of this court business?”

“In a year, they’ll let—.”

“No,” she said. “What’s the end of it for you? Will you become pious? Will you decide you’re not happy until I’m baptized?”

Howard traced a finger down her spine.

“Two weeks without you is too long,” she said.

“You’re two weeks on the North Slope.”

“But you know I’m coming back,” she said.

He turned away from her. “I built a new fence around the stack yard so Dad could feed alone. I was ready to fly to Anchorage when you said you were flying here.”

She pulled him close again, and he turned to her. He kissed the tip of her nose, took her upper lip between his lips, kissed her long and deep.

“Oh,” she said finally. “I’ve missed that. When I’d wake in the morning, I’d find myself hugging your pillow.”

[p.192] He kissed her again and then lay back. She touched his face, moved her hand across his chest and belly. “Anchorage isn’t easy for me,” he said. “I went there to be with you and you’re gone half the time.” Their legs crossed over and under between them.

“I don’t think Lisa will change the schedule.” She pushed the hair back out of his eyes. “Roll over. I’ll rub your shoulders.”

“Maybe I could fly up with you.”

“We’ll ask her,” she said. “She’ll say that I’m up there to work and that you’d be a distraction. She’d be right.”

He touched his left shoulder. “Here,” he said. “That’s where I’m always tight.”

With her fingertips, she tried to find the knot.

“I can’t tell what the end will be,” he said. “I don’t have a goal about it. After the court I slept, or didn’t sleep, alone in the house.”

“Ghosts were walking.” She moved her palm across his butt and down his hairless leg.

“That night I rebuked the stern patriarch god. I drove a stake through his heart.”

“Not really.”

“Right,” he said. “Not really. I just left the house and slept in the snow. But since then, since seeing that the God I had imagined had flaws of my own making, of my culture’s making, I started to feel that God might be more like my mother’s father, a wise and kind man. My mother says that he never raised his voice to her. He had a round Danish face and he grew apples.”

“How could I have known?” she said.

“What?” He turned onto his back.

“That you’re a sensitive man. I wanted you because I thought you were malleable.”

“Should I be insulted?”

“I was a fool,” she said. “But part of me was smart. Part of me sensed that I’d want to spend my life with you.”

“We’re married,” he said. “You’re stuck with me.”

“Your grandfather sat right there behind that table, dreaming about Marilyn Monroe. That’s such a sad story, such a lonely man. [p.193] He’s dead, but I feel so sorry for him.” She wrapped her arms around Howard again, her breast to his breast, hips to his hips, unspeakable consolation, unfathomable communion.

That evening the heifer tried to calve. Allison didn’t want to help, but Howard insisted. After they drove the heifer into the corral next to the haystack, Howard rummaged in a shed, a flashlight held between his teeth. He said something that sounded like “Cheese goink coo kai.” He pulled out an apparatus—a five-foot pole with a flat brace at one end. He handed her the flashlight. Chains and a cable with a winch on it dangled from the pole. The heifer stood in the mucky corral with her head down and her tail out. Howard slipped a lariat around her neck and cinched her against the bars of the corral. “Point the light where I need it.”

“Where do you need it?”

“Where my hands are.” The calf’s hooves protruded from the heifer’s vulva. He took the chain off the apparatus and slid it along the hooves up into the vagina. With the chain secure, he shoved the brace up against the heifer’s butt, just under the protruding hooves, and reattached the other end of the chain to the winch. He wound the crank until cable and chain were tight, then he bore down on the pole. The heifer bellowed, a long low sound which turned to a groan and trailed off. He turned the crank and bore down again.

“Stop it!” said Allison. “You’re going to kill her.”

“The head’s stuck.” He thrust his hands up into her vagina, his right arm up to the elbow. “Give me some slack.” He pointed with his chin. Allison pushed a lever, and the cable hung loose. “Now,” he shouted, his hands inside the cow again. “Let’s pull this calf.” The light between her teeth, Allison cranked and bore down on the pole, cranked and bore down again. She shivered and the light shook on the cow’s butt; the icy wind blew snow around them all. “I see tongue. Tongue and nose.” The cow bellowed again and toppled over on her side. He kept his hands inside, moved down on one knee. “Turn it, Allison, dammit, turn it.” She pushed down with all her weight on the calf-puller, cranked and pushed again. Suddenly the pole came loose, [p.194] and Allison slipped, sitting hard in the snow and mud. She held the light and saw that the calf lay in a pool of liquid, shrouded in the ­afterbirth.

“It’s dead,” she said, but then one leg shifted.

Howard knelt in the snow, hooking away the membrane with his fingers. He lifted the calf and staggered toward the cabin. The heifer lay in the mud with her legs extended horizontally. Allison watched, anxious for the animal, but not wanting to touch her. Soon Howard came out of the cabin, went over to the haystack and lugged back a bale. He broke it immediately behind the heifer. “Kick it under her while I roll her.” He flung hay under the heifer’s legs. Using the rope, he pulled her neck and shoulders vertical until she gathered her legs beneath her and lay more normally. Taking the light, he brought from the shed something large as a tent—a canvas tarp—and spread it across the heifer.

Inside, the calf lay on a blanket in front of the stove. It had its head up, nosing at him. He grabbed a towel from near the wash basin and wiped the yellow slime from its body.

“We just made four hundred bucks,” he said, his voice gruff. Then she saw him wipe his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

“It’s alive,” she said. “I thought sure as hell it was dead.”

“This is what it’s all about,” he said, and the feeling changed for her; the two of them, bent over the calf, seemed a damned sentimental tableau. One more argument in a campaign. When his father returned the next afternoon, he and Howard slapped each other on the back as if something marvelous had happened. It had been wonderful to see the calf butting against her mother’s flank that morning, but their emotion seemed excessive.

The morning before Thanksgiving, she packed her suitcase early, but Howard and his father puttered around all day. Finally after feeding that afternoon, Howard tried to start the truck. Soon he was back inside. “Battery’s dead.”

“You planned this!” she shouted, furious. He turned and left the cabin.

[p.195] “Damn,” Walter said. “I took the jumper cables back to Rock­wood.” He lifted a long chain from the corner of the room and shuffled out the door. Allison put on her coat and followed. Walter started the tractor and backed it up to the truck. Howard hooked the chain and then climbed into the truck, cranking down the window. He waved his arm for Walter to go. Walter started forward slowly, then shifted gears and pulled down on the throttle. The truck tires stopped turning and the chain popped loose.

Walter backed the tractor again; Howard bent under the bumper of the truck and reattached the chain. They started across the field. The truck slid at an angle behind the tractor but didn’t start. Walter pointed across to the main road, which was graveled, and the caravan pulled across the fields. Allison stamped in the cold, but the thought of reentering the smelly cabin kept her outside. Finally both vehicles stopped, Howard unhooked the chain, and the truck came back up the valley toward her. She loaded her suitcase and Howard’s into the truck bed. She sat between father and son in the cab of the truck, and Walter drove.

“Old battery,” said Walter.

“Can you get a new one in Rockwood?” she asked.

“This one still has some life in it.”

She opened her mouth, shut it again, and they drove up the long narrow valley. Rockwood would seem like heaven after this barren place. Howard claimed they needed the land in the desert as well as in Rockwood in order to make the ranch work. She thought it just another way of excluding women from their lives. It was clear why Emily and before her Max’s wife had refused to follow their husbands west into a frightening and isolated wasteland. At dusk the truck passed a flat-topped butte with huge boulders lined along its crown, sentinels which seemed as tall and rectangular as those at Stonehenge. Out on the flat they passed through patches of surreal fog, so thick that she couldn’t see the road.

“Sometimes sheep bed down on this flat,” said Walter. She imagined the truck rolling over bloody, white sheep bodies. She knew that part of her fear was not just of injury or death, but of the strangeness of [p.196] the desert and the eerie fog. The defroster was broken, and the windows misted over. The fog grew thicker, filling every low place and spreading across the flat. On the other side of Lookout Pass, the fog became even more dense. Walter stopped the truck, and Howard lay flat on the hood on his stomach, raising his arms to either side like a swimmer to point the direction his father should turn. An hour later they were at the edge of town. A gleaming spot of light approached—someone’s yard lamp. Suddenly a white horse crossed in front of them and ran into a field next to the road. Howard leaped off the truck and shut the gate. They crept down the street; fences and parked cars were transformed. Two months earlier she had driven that same road with a new and hesitant lover. Now she had a husband—disorienting. The other road felt as if it were in another universe—the bright road on which she pulled up to his parents’ house. She didn’t feel different: as Howard said, it was the past that had changed.

Walter stopped the truck. “We made it,” Howard said. “What an adventure!”

She stared at him. He had translated even the surreal and deadly fog into fun. She shook her head in wonder. The desert was a condition of his mind, an aspect of his faith; for her, it was strange and foreign. Eventually it might divide them, despite their growing love for each other. “I thought I was going to die,” she said.

“Not even sheep are stupid enough to be out,” said Walter. “That’s why we were safe.”

Emily had built a fire in the old cook stove and the kitchen was wood-fire warm. The windows, with fog against them, were white and opaque. Howard opened the oven door, laid a towel inside, and moved a chair close. “Put your feet inside,” he said.

Allison sat and lifted her feet carefully onto the towel in the hot space.

“I can’t believe you dragged her out there,” said Emily. She sat at the table crimping the edges of uncooked pie crusts. “What’s even more bewildering, Allison, is why you let them.”

“As if you’ve never been out,” said Walter. “You had your days of foolishness with me.”

[p.197] “When I was young and naive.”

“We weren’t young a decade ago. And we sure as hell weren’t young a couple of weeks ago when we spent the night out there.”

“No, we weren’t young,” said Emily. She turned to Allison. “You warm yet?”

“Not yet. I’ve been thinking of crawling in the oven and shutting the door.”

“Baked Alaska,” said Walter. Allison grinned. “Remember when we were snowed in, Emily? You was eight months pregnant with Stuart. I finally used the tractor to break trail out to the main road. We caught a ride with the county snowplow.”

“I didn’t think you would even remember I was pregnant. Let alone which child.”

“I remember.” He looked at his hands. “We’ve changed since then. We’ve changed away from each other.”

“You going to cook them in the old oven?” Howard asked his mother. She poured a hot cherry mixture into two of the ten shells she had laid out across the table.

“No,” she said. “The temperature’s too hard to regulate.”

“It’s done fine for you plenty of times,” his father said.

“Yes, and every time I cooked I was anxious that something wouldn’t turn out.” She handed the two men each a bucket of apples and a peeler.

“I can’t use that contraption,” Walter said. He pulled his pocket knife out.

“A knife wastes too much apple,” she said. He peeled an apple with his knife, one continuous coil. Allison nodded in the warmth; the desert was just a bad dream.

“You’ve changed too,” Emily said.

“I said we’ve changed. I was sitting out there in my father’s cabin, angry as I could be about how different you’d become, and then I realized where I was sitting.”

“We’ve done it to each other. I feel like I’ve had to beg for too much.”

“You did have to beg. I’m sorry about that.” He held an apple in [p.198] one hand, his knife in the other. “I didn’t pay for that land. My father gave it to me. His father gave it to him. It didn’t feel like it was mine to sell.”

“A buyer’s already signed an earnest money agreement. It’s already done.”

“I’m not going back on my promise. I’m just explaining why I put it off so long.” He halved an apple and cut the core out. “That’s not all of it. For thirty years I thought of the ranch as mine. It seemed like selling a child. But then I sat out in my father’s cabin, looking across that barren alkali land that I’ve tried to farm for decades and I thought what’s the use of it?” His voice turned tremulous. Allison looked up at him. “Just don’t sell the house, too.”

“I have no plans to sell this house. After I start school, we’ll need it here for both of us to come back to.”

“Your halfway house,” Allison said.

They both turned and stared, as if they were surprised to discover someone else in the room. Allison slipped an apple slice, tart, into her mouth.

Walter leaned toward Emily. “I wish Gerald had never released you. There’s no woman in the ward who could match you. Him releasing you so soon was an embarrassment to you.”

“I didn’t know you thought anything about it.”

“Of course, I thought about it. Gerald’s too damn heavy-handed. He’s driven you farther out than you wanted to be. He’s driven you to do crazy things. If he had helped you with the women from the beginning, none of this would have happened.”

“Whatever he is, Gerald’s not heavy handed. He’s talked and talked and talked to me. He’s seen it my way and seen it his way, and made a careful decision. I’m grateful—he’s helped me understand my own mind better through all our talking.”

Thanksgiving morning Allison and Walter slipped out to Willy’s for a cup of coffee. “We’ll be right back to help,” said Walter.

“I’ve heard that before,” said Emily.

The same men were still sitting at the stained wooden tables—[p.199]Willy, Vernon, the man in cowboy boots, she couldn’t remember his name. The only one missing was the young one, Howard’s friend.

“Good morning,” said Willy to Allison as she sat. “So you’re back to stay?”

She frowned at Walter. He lifted his hands.

“If you say something enough,” he said, “maybe it’ll come true.”

“So you’re not pregnant either,” said Vernon.

“Walter,” she said, “you’ve got to stop this bullshit. No matter how much you wish it, wishing’s not going to get you a grandson. That takes Howard’s sperm.”

Cowboy Boots laughed and slapped his leg. “Pull in your loop, Walt,” he said. “You ain’t goin’ to rope this one.”

“We’re eating at one o’clock,” said Walter to Willy. “Emily says you’re welcome.”

“Vern’s invited me already.”

“I told her we should have asked you two weeks ago.”

“That’s all right,” said Willy. “How’s Emily?”

“The stake president told Gerald Hansen to discipline her,” said Vernon. “He told the bishop that she’s like the serpent in Eden.”

“Now how would you know all that, Vern,” said Cowboy. “Are you privy to the conversations of them with power and authority?”

“I know what I know,” said Vernon. “He told Gerald to stop being undecided. He told him to nip apostasy in the bud. If he had any—” he glanced at Allison.

“Balls?” she said.

“—he’d have acted a long time ago.”

“Let’s go,” said Walter. “I don’t have to sit here listening to this dimwit.”

“My own wife asked me why she shouldn’t have the priesthood if I’m good enough to have it,” said Vernon.

“It’s a reasonable question,” said Willy. Walter stood and moved to the door.

“Then she said a few things about my character that I won’t repeat,” said Vernon.

“Ain’t the truth a painful thing,” said Cowboy.

[p.200] Vernon glared at Walter’s back, as Walter let the door swing shut behind him. “Anything that comes between a man and his wife ain’t of God.”

Allison finished her coffee and followed, nodding at Willy. She opened the passenger door and climbed in. Walter said, “That man doesn’t have the sense God gave a pissant.”

Howard went down to the cellar, transported back in time by the musty smell, and hauled up a cardboard box of butternut squash. “It’s too damp down there,” said his mother. “They’re all going moldy.” They sat on the screened back porch; he cut the squash and scooped out the seeds while his mother laid the halves on cookie sheets. The porch table had become the storage shelf for old bottles, boxes of seeds, odd tools, and Louis L’Amour novels.

“I read ten or twelve of these in Anchorage,” said Howard.

“I could never see the point of reading more than one,” she said. “Your father read them all the time, but they all seemed the same to me.”

“They make me homesick.”

“It’s a made-up world,” she said. “How can you be homesick for a story?”

Emily placed a bucket of carrots and one of potatoes in front of him. He picked up the peeler and started on the carrots. Through the screen he saw Bishop Hansen walking down the road toward their house.

“I dreamed I entered into a room where Walter leaned against the wall,” said Emily. The bishop came around the corner of the house. “He looked bigger than he is. Big and slow. He didn’t look at me. And I can’t remember anything else.”

“Who was big and slow?” said Bishop Hansen, and Howard’s mother jerked and dropped a potato. “Sorry I startled you.”

“So nice of you to visit, Gerald.”

“All those women chased me out of the house. They don’t want me around. I had two choices: working on my shed or walking down to chat.” He extended his hand toward her and then toward Howard. “How’s Walter?”

[p.201] “Stronger every day,” said Howard.

“He’s happy to have you back. He told me so.” He turned to Howard’s mother. “Can we talk a moment?”

“Of course,” she said.

Howard stood and walked into the house. He stood just inside the door.

“Belinda said you gave her a blessing,” the bishop said. “She said you did it in the name of Christ and by the power of Walter’s priesthood. Then she said you told her not to talk about it. But she was anxious, rightly so, and wanted to talk to me about it.”

She finished peeling her apple. She said, “How long have you known me? Have you ever known me to be careless about the ­gospel?”

“That’s why I don’t understand what you’re doing. Do you believe I’ve been called of God?”

“You know I do,” she said.

Then Howard felt self-conscious, eavesdropping, and entered the kitchen. Allison had rolled out a circle of dough. She tried to lift it from the cloth to cover an apple pie, but the pastry tore. “Dammit to hell,” she said. “My mother could do this, why can’t I?”

“I think it has to do with respect. The dough curls up when it hears that kind of language.”

Allison nodded toward the porch. “Who’s that?”

“Bishop Hansen. Mom gave a blessing to Belinda.”

Allison started toward the door, but Howard caught her arm. “She can handle it.”

They heard the bishop’s voice. He said, “—like setting out on a trip through the wilderness with Satan as your pathfinder. You’re like a stranger to me. Sometimes I’ve wondered if you have an evil spirit that I should cast out. Or that you’re one of those split personalities.” Then their voices were softer.

After a time Emily reentered the kitchen. “Well,” she said. “He’s made up his mind.”

During Thanksgiving dinner, Allison watched Walter, who had [p.202] sunk into himself, taciturn as an old bull. Howard often moped, but Walter had it down to an art. Allison told Emily about her work, flying above the Alaskan wilderness to the North Slope.

“You’re like James Darren Rockwood, first settler of this valley,” Howard said to her. “He writes about how beautiful the grass is, but at the same time he’s calculating how his herds of cattle and sheep will double. His herds ruined the grass here.”

“That’s environmentalist talk,” said Walter. “No true rancher would talk like this.”

“I don’t ruin anything,” Allison said.

“You just make it possible for others to ruin it,” said Howard. “The pipeline, the Valdez spill, all those oil rigs.”

“I’ve never been an idealist,” said Allison. “I just work.”

“Remember that trip we took to Denver?” said Emily.

“Damned fine bulls,” said Walter. “Best thing we ever did for the herd.”

“Maybe we could take another trip. Maybe we could fly up to see Allison and Howard.”

“Who’d take care of the cows?”

“Brother Jenkins could for a week.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Well, whether you join me or not,” she said, “I’m going one of these days.”

“Whether we can afford it or not?”

“I want money of my own,” she said, “so I can decide for myself without asking your permission. How can I be sixty years old and not have my own money?”

Walter looked as though he’d been hit with a rock. “It is your money,” he said.

She slumped into a chair. “I’m sorry, Walter,” she said. “Something’s-a-pulling at me. Like a hunger. I can hardly stop myself from doing what I know is evil or harmful.”

“Oh, Emily,” Allison said. She put her arms around Howard’s mother and held her. Over Emily’s shoulder she saw Walter, whose face showed wonder and bewilderment.

[p.203] After dinner she and Emily washed dishes while Howard and his father stood outside in front of the truck. Allison watched them from the kitchen window, the yard light shining down on their heads. They had the hood up and Howard was pointing to the battery and saying something while his father stroked his grizzled beard.

“Howard is not the Howard I sent off on his mission,” said Emily.

“Right.”

“When I first met you, I thought you had ruined him, but I was wrong.”

“He’s changed me, too.”

“What was wrong-headed in him. Feeling like the prince of the family because he was the youngest. That’s gone. Some of his bossiness. You’re more relaxed. More yourself.”

“More myself.”

“At first you were so desperate to get him away from here that you were unpleasant.”

“Those would be fighting words from anybody else.” Allison thought about her future with Howard—learning from their differences for forty years. “What’s it like having a baby?”

Emily froze. “Are you pregnant?”

“No, I’ve just been thinking about it.”

Emily slid a plate into the steamy water. She lifted her hands out and shook them once.

“Evan, my first child, came early. I kept telling Walter I wasn’t ready for it, despite the clear signals, that I needed just two more weeks before I could have the baby. He didn’t say anything, just kept driving toward Hamblin, getting more and more angry. Finally he said that it was coming whether I wanted it or not. The baby came before we got into the delivery room.”

“I’m going to make Howard do it,” said Allison. “He’s the one who wants it.”

“He’s been hinting?”

“Hinting like a bulldog.”

“Do you want me to talk you into it?”

“No,” said Allison. “I just wanted to let you know I was thinking [p.204] about it. Some day it’ll happen. I want something that Howard and I have made ourselves.”

“I won’t tell him we’ve talked,” said Emily.

“Not a word,” said Allison.

In the middle of the night, Allison got up to get a drink. She looked out the window onto the moonlit orchard. The branches cast stark shadows on the snow. Then a shadow moved under the trees, someone bundled in a big coat walking under the trees. Peering closer, she recognized Emily’s coat. By the time Allison dressed and followed out into the orchard, Emily was gone. Back inside, Allison brushed her fingers through Howard’s hair, laid her hand on his neck. She felt that she could fly with her own arms to Anchorage.