The New Fence

Not with zeal, but rather deliberateness, Ernst scraped his face with the straight edge. Each time he scuttled the cold blade in the charcoal-colored basin, the mixture of lather, water and whiskers turned that much more dark and filthy looking. A clean shave always left something else dirty and in need of cleaning.

The morning felt cold, indoors more so than out. The kitchen scrub board had never, and would never, face the rising sun. It was colder that morning than Ernst thought it would be when he had wondered about it the night before. The old two-room shack spoke the language of the frigid and sad, with boards that creaked in a stiff wind and cried with the weight of a heavy storm.

Ernst watched Paulette through the small, clouded mirror as she filled the old stove with wood. He could hear Peter lifting wood from the woodbox, with all his little might, and handing to his mother. A sickly lad, thought Ernst, while rubbing his chin as he watched his wife’s auburn curls dance over her shoulder and across her cheek. It was beyond too late, ten years exact, but Ernst knew she had the wrong complexion for this part of the territory. She held her beauty with each passing season. The frontier had spared her looks. Ernst had done her father a favor, taking her out of the old country, to settle in America, his dream, to share, to etch out a farmstead. But the land did him no favors. Instead, he found himself filled with doubt and regret. A failure as a farmer. A pretend husband and father.

“The parson’s waiting on us.” Ernst dunked the blade one last time.

“Good.” Paulette smoothed out her Sunday dress. “He’ll have something to say about putting up fences between neighbors.”

“And other things he could tell us about, no doubt.”

Paulette ignored him. “It’s a shame when one’s neighbor leaves an impression of untrustworthiness. I can’t remember a time when we’ve ever lost a single grain of wheat to thieves, let alone a neighbor.”

“A fence makes a point. And not a dull one at that. And there are cattle.”

“On the other side of the hill. Marten’s cattle have never strayed so far from the pasture.”

“It’s Marten, is it?”

“Mr. Andersson then.” Her voice now tense as she quickly added, “And a good neighbor for many years.”

Ernst checked his expression in the mirror. He saw the agitation quaking throughout his square jaw and his anger-filled eyes. He pressed the straight edge against his clean cheek, noticing its color of dull gray.

“Papa, will you teach me to shave?”

Ernst quickly turned and looked down at Peter and stared into eyes he no longer recognized.

“Come here, my son.”

Ernst turned Peter on his heels and bent down behind him, both now facing Paulette.

“It is a father’s responsibility to teach his son many things so that he will someday become a man.” Ernst pressed the blade against Peter’s cheek, just below his ear, with fiery eyes staring up at his wife. Her expression assured him that the blade was not dull in spite of it’s color. “And so he will not make the same mistakes as his father.”

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