Derby’s hooves trudge heavy on the soft undergrowth while weaving a path through the quiet woods just north of the homestead. Her head bobs deep, laboring under the weight of us four Oleson siblings. Her rhythmic gait is as gentle as Grandma Thorsen’s rocking chair, quiet and lazy. I have simple math in my head and realize the four of us total forty in age – 13, 11, 9 and 7 – and estimate we’re seven bales in weight. Poor old horse.

An earthy breeze whispers through the weathered pines and tattered birch trees while the afternoon sun casts a cool light between leafless branches and on to our dozing heads. The spring bloom is late. It feels eerie as I imagine Derby stopping to lay down, falling asleep and blending in with last year’s dead foliage, and taking us with her. A glint of sunlight startles me, pulling me from thoughts of toiling in the fields this coming spring and back to my own aspirations of becoming a famous writer or a wealthy banker. I don’t know which.

“Git!” The heels of my boots thump against her sides. She stirs, trotting a few paces. I feel the tug of Sister’s hold from behind on my overalls. She clings to me only because she knows the little ones are clinging to her. I know she’d rather be in my spot. She’s so competitive.

“Hold on, Peanut,” says Earlene with a chuckle made up of both devil and angel. Then she makes her long “Ohhh” bounce with each stride. It’s a game she quickly grows bored of. “Babe, I’m hungry.”

I look back over my shoulder, enough for her to see the aggravation etched on my face and say, sharply, “You can thank yourself for that.”

Before we rode out, Earlene managed to knock Ma’s pot of stew off the stove. I only heard the pot crashing on the floor, but then I heard Sister shout, “Let’s get outta here!” And the next thing I know the lot of us are making a mad dash for the barn. No lunch today.

Both Derby and I feel Earlene’s shoes kicking about in a tantrum. “Ah, that was an accident.”

“You dumb-dumb,” Sister scolds. “It don’t look like an accident when you leave Babe’s baseball bat laying in the mess.”

This is news to me. My prized possession. It was a bat I won in a drawing at a town team baseball game in Fargo last summer. “Thanks a lot, Earlene. I’ll be getting the brunt of the lashes when we get home. Thank you very much.”

I feel Sister shifting behind me as she reaches her voice out to my right ear. “Babe, are you really not going to school this week?”

“Yep. Pa says I’m done with book learning.” Just this morning before breakfast, Pa took me aside to tell me it’s time for me to trade in my slide-rule for a plow.

“What about baseball at recess?”

“You can be captain of my team.”

“Josh won’t go for that.”

“He will if you wrestle him for the spot. You know you can beat’em.”

“I’ll beat’em all alright.”

I smile to myself. “Sister, you shoulda been born a boy.”

She swats the back of my head.

“Deer!”

“Where?”

I point to the right. “Off about fifty paces through that clearing, between those two big oaks.” There’s a doe with an alert expression that seems to mark the new season. I wish I had my rifle along. Bringing home a deer would probably go a long way to softening both Ma’s boiling anger and Pa’s wielding strap.

Sister heaves a sigh filled with boredom. “Where’s this old horse taking us anyway?”

“We’re heading toward the creek,” I say. “I thought we’d follow it to Dead End corner.

“What for? Ain’t nothing there but crazy man Trettel’s place. You wanna get shot at or what?”

“It won’t hurt anything to just look around.”

“We gotta get back in time for milking.”

“We got time.” I lead Derby in the direction of the Trettel farm.

“Oh, I bet I know why you wanna go there. And her name is Hanna.” Sister starts to giggle and I raise my elbow to let her know I’ll throw it at her head if she doesn’t shut up.

“Turkey!”

“Where?”

I look back and Peanut is pointing to the opposite side of the creek. There’s not much meat on that bird. But its size doesn’t mean much without my rifle.

“Hey, Babe,” asks Sister. “Did you understand what Mrs. Hansen was talking about when she was explaining about the president’s depression?”

“I’m not sure. Something about how the banks don’t have money to borrow to poor people, so most have to go without.”

“Don’t seem right he should be sulking in that White House instead of helping the poor folk.”

“I suppose he’s doing the best he can.”

A curling picture of FDR hangs above the blackboard in our little country school house where the furnishings are both rickety and sparse. The older boys are tasked to keep the oil-drum stove going during the winter months, but it’s never enough to keep the frost from filling the cracks in the rotted planks that make up the four walls. The room’s main color is dark gray, so you can imagine how someone as pretty as Hanna Trettel brightens the place. I spend time aplenty staring at her shiny gold hair and store-bought dresses from the Woolworth’s in Thief River.

Hanna is Jelmer Trettel’s daughter, his only child. He keeps an eye on her like she was the Queen of Sheba.

“Where’s your ma,” I asked her once.

“She’s gone to heaven,” she said, and quickly added, “Pa killed her.” She searched my face for a reaction, but I stood there stiff as a broom handle. “Reckon no one will ever believe me.” She walked away, her eyes scanning the tree line of the nearby woods and said, “Pa don’t like me talking to boys.”

“She don’t hardly talk to us girls neither,” Sister said, strolling up behind me, “so don’t feel bad.”

“I don’t feel bad,” I said, shrugging, while furrowing my brow to erase the look of rejection from my face.

Then Sister whispered in my ear, “I think she’s crazy like her pa.”

After awhile of following the flow of the creek, I jump down from Derby and help Peanut off her back while Sister and Earlene slide away, one off each side. We walk like cautious cats up toward the near woods where the Trettel outhouse hides and the farmhouse sits twenty paces beyond.

The big house is rundown, weather-beaten and in need of a paint job, like most places around these parts. Like most places, I figure, all around the country because of the president’s depression.

Sister pulls on my shirtsleeve. The fabric binds up, pinching my wrist. “Someone’s coming.”

I grab Peanut by the back of his suspenders while looking at the nearby trees. They’re all saplings, and not one wide enough to hide a dirty elbow. So I quickly surmise the best spot is behind the width of the double-seat crapper. I pull him close to me as we scamper and scrunch behind it.

“Why’d you lead us all over here?” Sister hisses. I stare at her and shrug. “What if they’re going to the john?”

Sure enough. Whoever it is swings open the door to the outhouse and shuts it with a bang. The four of us stand there like jittery field mice.

There’s a cough from inside.

“It’s Hanna,” says Sister as I quickly slap my hand over her mouth.

Thankfully, a heavy breeze drops in from the north, but with no leaves to rustle, there’s not enough noise to conceal Earlene’s giggling. I look down at her, my face about to crack with anger, and mouth “shut up”.

I start to shuffle the lot of us back into the woods when curse-filled shouts explode from the other side of the farmhouse.

“Get off my property before I blow your goddamn head off.”

The four of us stop cold in our tracks.

“Lower that gun, Trettel. The bank is the rightful owner to this place and these papers give me the authority to demand payment in full.”

“I got a bead on your forehead. Are you gonna move off or do I have to blow your goddamn head off?”

The outhouse door swings open. Hanna runs toward the loud voices and I instinctively run behind her. She stops just around the corner of the house, and so do I, about three paces behind her. We both watch as the tires of an automobile spit up gravel and dust, leaving Hanna’s pa standing mean faced with the gun at his side. While slowly walking through a cloud of dust, he turns his head from the automobile and to our direction.

I can barely hear him speak. “What the…”

Hanna turns to see me standing behind her. Her face chills over as if I was pointing a gun at her. She looks back at her pa walking forcefully in our direction and then takes a quick half-step back just as I decide to bolt toward the woods.

Sister has already scooped up Peanut when I overtake them. Earlene leads the way back to Derby, darting under branches and laughing. I grab her hand as I fly by.

Derby looks at us sideways as we charge from the rear. Thankfully, she doesn’t spook. I throw Peanut up, too strong, behind Derby’s neck. Luckily, he grabs hold of her mane and stops himself from flying over and off. I jump on behind him and reach down for Earlene, pulling her up and plopping her down behind me. Sister grabs hold of my overalls just above my thigh and leaps up behind Earlene. I kick Derby’s sides harder than I ever have before. She starts trotting. I look back and swear I see Jelmer Trettel breaking through branches and underbrush like a wild bear as we bounce away quick, but, I figure, not quick enough. I hand Peanut the reins and reach for Derby’s ears, squeezing tight and pulling back while kicking her sides hard again. She takes off like a thunderbolt.

“Duck!” My voice cracks with fear. Derby runs like a mad bull, cutting through branches with no regard for her cargo of bareback riders. She’s determined to knock us off as we all lay as low to her back as possible. I take a glancing wallop to my forehead from one flexing limb and then another. It seems nothing out here is brittle enough to break except the invisible tether holding us to Derby.

I want to look back but realize the fear of bullets whizzing through the part in my hair has been replaced by the uncertainty of how our hell-on-horseback will finish. No shots fired is a good sign, I think to myself just as we break into a clearing. I take the reins back from Peanut and pull back, but Derby’s intentions are miles away, maybe even all the way down in Kentucky. She bursts into a full gallop and I find myself first elevating and then dropping back hard, over and over, each landing less secure than the last.

Suddenly, one quick break to the side and I find myself airborne, grabbing Peanut by the back of his overalls while Earlene throws her arms around my neck. The three of us stay connected in midair for what seems like an eternity as I have time to ponder the exhilaration of flight before clumsily landing on the ground and rolling through muddy weeds packed down from the weight of the past winter.

I hear Earlene still giggling as I roll over to look for Peanut. My hip aches as I study his face. There’s a glob of mud on the side of his head. His lower lip quivers as he reaches to feel of it.

“It’s just mud,” I say, helping him wipe it off.

Looking back at our broken trail I spot Sister twisting and turning on the ground back about thirty paces. Earlene and I run to her.

“You alright?” I ask as I dive knees first to the ground beside her.

“I…can’t…breathe.”

Sister lays there waiting for her breath while the rest of us hover patiently. After what feels like a sermon’s worth of time, she sits up with tear-filled eyes and says, “I think something’s broken. It’s hard to breathe.”

With Derby long gone back to the barn, Earlene and I slowly walk Sister home, holding her under each arm while Peanut dawdles behind.

It’s the middle of milking time when we finally arrive. I ease Sister through the porch door and whisper to Earlene to let Ma know we’re back. Then I run to the barn.

I grab a pale of water and a rag and sidle up next to the next jersey in line as quietly as I can.

Pa doesn’t look at me from across the way as he asks, “Where you kids been? You missed lunch.”

“Derby dumped us a fair ways up the creek. Sister got hurt, so it was slow going coming back.”

“How bad?”

“She says it’s hard for her to breathe.”

The next morning, Sister’s running a temperature and sweating buckets. After the early chores, Sister and I ride with Pa to the county hospital in Thief River.

Pa and I sit alone in the shrinking waiting room. I cringe from the disappointment that fills his voice as he tells me how he hopes the county will help cover Sister’s medical bill. As the oldest, I feel shame for allowing the whole situation to happen. It’s my time to become a man, to help with the planting, to make smart decisions. I promise myself to do just that even though I can’t look Pa in the face and say the words.

I wander down the length of the hall and push open the swinging doors leading into a dark room. I want to cry with shame, but in private. A dusty sunbeam peeks through a high window, falling on top of the end of a gurney. I realize I’m not alone as there’s someone on the gurney. I step back to leave but notice there’s a sheet covering whoever it is. Is that a dead body, I wonder? Something stupid takes hold of me. I guess I’m not old enough quite yet to do the right thing and walk back out. A strong force of temptation pulls me toward the unknown. I look back at the door and then quickly lift the sheet from the sunny end of the gurney. Hanna’s empty eyes stare up at me, reminding me of the last time I saw her face. She looks as scared now as she did then. I look back toward the swinging doors, wanting to rush through them for help. But instead I start wishing I could go back in time and pretend I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. Wishing and pretending that I hadn’t seen her yesterday on her pa’s farm. Wishing and pretending a pot of stew had always been upright on the stove. Wishing and pretending I never won a bat at a drawing during a ball game in Fargo last summer.

Her face is pasty and her lips are chalky gray, but her hair still shines bright as gold in the sunlight. I reach out and feel of it. It’s strong and soft at the same time.

“It grows even when you’re dead and buried.”

I drop the lock of hair from my fingers and spin round, wide eyed, to see whose voice it is.

“What?” I ask the tall nurse in the doorway as I step away from the gurney.

“Hair,” she says. “And fingernails. They go on growing and growing, even after you’re buried.”

I walk back out of the swinging doors, dazed and scared, slinking passed the nurse.

“You’re not supposed to be in there.” Her scolding voice is high above me.

“I…I…didn’t…”

“Let me guess. You need to use the bathroom, right?”

I nod like a guilty child.

The little boy’s room is down that hallway.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I mutter.

Voices bounce off the walls as I come to the corner of the hallway. I spy the town sheriff talking to a doctor. “Of course I’m going to conduct an investigation. That’s why I need to you perform a thorough autopsy. You can’t tell me a wife and a daughter shoot them self by accident cleaning the same goddamn gun.”

“Hard times bring out the worst in people,” says the doctor, mournful.

“I’m not saying he shot either one of’em,” says the sheriff, lowering his voice a notch, “but there was talk about his wife chasing around just before she ‘shot herself’ two years back. And now the daughter?”

“I still say hard times –”

“Any reason is cause, but not every cause is justifiable.” The sheriff’s voice trails off as I turn round and slowly walk back to the waiting room.

Pa slowly stands when he sees me coming.

“There you are. Go sit with your sister while I run to the mercantile.”

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s got a cracked rib that’s paining her breathing. The doctor says she should stay a few days in the hospital. But I don’t know how we’re going to afford it. I’ll be back.”

Sister sees me walking toward her bed. “I dang near died,” she says, quiet, yet loud enough for the four or five other patients in the big room to hear.

I shake my head, confused.

“It was close,” she continues. “The doctor said my broken rib almost punctured my lung. I just gotta keep still now.”

The steel chair next to her bed feels cold against the back of my legs as I stare at the floor.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. I look up at her and she’s half smiling. “Don’t worry; I’ll be okay. Anyway, it’s not your fault. I told you old man Trettel was crazy.”

I force a smile. Then she lays back down, her head melting into the pillow.

“Hate to be his daughter,” Sister says.

It’s mid afternoon when Pa and I return to the farm.

“Time for milking,” he says, pulling a piece of equipment from the back of the pickup.

I look out toward the woods – the north woods – and wonder if that’s where Hanna will forever live in my memories. Those woods scare me now because that’s where I saw her last, when she was still alive.

I look out to the fields stretching to the south while slowly walking to the barn. Soon I’ll be out there working. It’s my time to be a man. But something inside tells me I need to make better choices.

“Pa,” I shout while running back toward the house. He turns and looks at me. As my voice cracks, I say, “I got something I need to tell you.”

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As Crushner walked up the fairway, searching for his ball beyond the deep rough and tree line, his hatred for the game of golf trailed behind him like a scolded child. As he ventured into the trees, he could see someone coming down the adjacent fairway. His thoughts began to scatter, like an exploding time capsule, followed by an inaudible “Fifty goddamn years of this bullshit!”.

A nearby voice said, “Your ball’s between those two little pines.”

Crushner responded, shouting, “Where?!” But he remained lost as no one ever cared about an old man’s balls.

Tired of his rattling the floors and walls, with a wave of frustration, Large’s mother ordered him out of the house. As he wandered the new outdoor mall, he walked quietly, almost shrinking, not wanting to shatter any storefront glazing. Noticing a sign in a window with the words ‘Step Softly’ next to a pair of brown loafers, he paused to look down at his own black boots, shoelaces askew and toes scuffed from banging into this or that piece of furniture. A nominal purchase later, while feeling light as air, he imagined himself in a new world, where he would be both invisible and missed.

They were laughing as his jeep slid and spun, slush flying everywhere, like her hair in the warm air. He was retrieving his icehouse before deploying overseas. She was along for the wild ride. Everything was melting. The ice. His fierceness. Her heart. Their time together. She thought only of chaos. He pondered oblivion. And together, the sun and lake forgave them both.

As the tiny tot stepped out from under the tunnel’s shadow, gazing into the brilliant yawning beyond, the Earth shuddered, wincing as a rarely so-frigid nor’easter slapped its masculine shoulder, while a quake rocked its mountainous back and ground its massive multi-plated underbelly. Meanwhile, Prophecy spoke in a whisper, cowering, its boastful tone suddenly absent, with voice now filled with both fear and disbelief.

A first thought was now emerging for the little tyke, as memory and knowing blended as one. In years to come he would hark back, time after time, to this moment in his life. As he stood in awe at the vast surroundings, his first word crept its way up his throat, anxiously tumbling over his tongue, and spurting out of his little mouth in a popping spit bubble. It was not the typical first words spoken by endless generations of children, either that of the unconditional “mommy” or the worshipful “daddy”. The first word this little wonder spoke: “Mine!”

His life on the dusty floors of his parents’ small three-room cottage in County Clare would provide a child’s share of amusement, but colorful hand-made toys created only limited opportunity of imaginary control and gain. But now, as his tiny fingers reached out to clutch all that stood before him, he could feel the welling of something beyond his own imagination while an unknown hunger consumed him. The gray-stone walls of the centuries-old Carron fort lay before him geometrically arrayed along a rain-covered pathway leading to the Irish horizon, to the west just beyond the wind wild trees. But it was the commingling of the drifting clouds, those of both rain-filled black and sun-hued gold, that conjured up an unbeknownst sense of energy that would compel the scallywag many years off to commission an artist to paint such a landscape in glorious detail. The blending of such a scene, he would later conclude, had told him of his divine right to part the curtains, so to speak, revealing what lay beyond them: that of both his destiny and triumph.

In time, the bars of the wee lad’s thatch crib would no longer hold his curious spirit. There were things to do, like scouting near the cliffs of Moher, moving like a ghost through the inland fog. Or embracing the forlorn limestone terrain, while chastising the calm open sea as it conspired with the reflective moon. One day, the wee lad would spring to his feet, laughingly, holding a dying field mouse by the tail in a firm grip filled with a child’s blind rage. His parents would convince themselves their only child knew not any better. They would insist upon his having a proper Catholic upbringing, the Church providing both the nurturing and control a young mind required. But such ideals would not take.

All of ten, he would begin to doubt the promises of righteousness and redemption. In a darkened tool shed, the ruffian would demand God’s intervention as a stray cat lay at the ready between the prongs of a pitchfork while he steadied a scythe above it. “Show yourself!” he demanded. “Can’t see you because you’re not there,” he would conclude, lopping off the animal’s head to ensure God’s lesson on mercy had no influence on his decisions.

In his twelfth summer would come accusations relating to the mysterious cliff death of the youngest daughter of nearby O’Moilan House. Suspicions would abound with the discovery of the child’s body washed ashore and signs of ritualistic sacrifice near the ruins of St. Cavan’s church. Eventually, with a great deal of pressure from the community, his parents would be compelled to send him off to boarding school on the mainland. While there, the rapscallion would devise, unconsciously, an ethic-less approach to profit from the most bitter of schoolyard enemies, pitting them ever more strongly in opposition. He would secretly encourage each of the antagonists to escalate the confrontation, selling to each one his methods of one-up-man-ship for the price of a pouch of pearly marbles or a week’s worth of lunch tickets, methods for which he had barely labored to secure, almost as if he had acquired them while still in the womb. And with such amorality, his perception of right and wrong withered to a blur, eventually becoming imperceptible.

His resolve would be accentuated by the international-terrorist killings of his parents at a Belfast railway station, ultimately leaving him without the strictures of convention. Society, having regressed due in large part to the bankruptcy of most social programs throughout the European Union, would provide little comfort or solace, leaving him to embrace his street-orphan status and to map out his own future.

“Two can play at this game,” the little troublemaker would declare, envisioning how he would eventually wrest control from the two main forces engaged in the War on Terror – The Axis of Righteousness and the International Terrorists. He immediately acknowledged “patience” as his main ally. The whelp would resort to a life of crime, petty theft and burglary. These acts would provide a means to define his convictions, sharpening the edge of his determination.

The rogue would eventually reach young manhood, aesthetically pleasing to women in both appearance and deceptive demeanor, preying upon them, particularly those older and of position, catering to their vanity, proffering his services. But one indiscretion involving the misappropriation of funds of a cabinet minister’s sister would end in this punk finding himself conscripted out in the deserts of Arabia where the War on Terror had been raging for nearly fifty years, a time that would become known as the Apocalyptic Age. With both callousness and false submissiveness, the faux-loyalist soldier would aspire to a leadership role, his vision of domination still well intact.

While engaged in combat there would be boundless opportunities for mass manipulation, as he would work up his fellow nomad-like militants to attack the enemy as merciless as a pride of lions circling its quarry, and as heavy and hard as the blows of a chain gang’s sledgehammers, while his superiors turned a blind eye. And all that they would capture, land and property, he declared belonged to the nations making up the Axis of Righteousness, while plotting his method for gaining control of it all. But the truest measure of how he would elevate himself to greatness would be by inflaming one village against another, thus creating civil war up and down the front.

By design, his military unit would become isolated from the normal chains of command. Hence, it would become a fighting element on its own, engaging in guerilla warfare. Even the top generals of the Union, though recognizing the warrior’s indiscriminate brutality, would confess privately that his methods had advanced the cause of the Axis of Righteousness against terrorism. They would promote him to lieutenant colonel.

He would return to the people of his homeland as a great hero, both humble and solemn in his words and deeds. Eventually, he would secure a seat in the Union’s government. The profiteers’ minds began to race, dying to know what his Euro-dollar potential would be over time, while the ubiquitous and ever-evolving media wondered what god-like mythology they would use to both fabricate and to elevate his greatness and stature, spreading both throughout the world. But the great hero would have plans of his own. He would increase his popularity, exponentially, by engaging, first hand, in a campaign of destruction upon the legions of terrorism. Like no other public figure before him, he would lead the charge across the battlefields upon the heathens that would make up the southern hemisphere. “Extermination” became his battle cry as he would rally the multitudes of the north, whipping them into a cultic frenzy.

The heads of nation states would provide, whole-heartedly, the resources, the manpower and weaponry needed to take up such an undertaking. He would prove himself in the Middle East, devastating the tyrannical governments supporting the terror that raged throughout the world for so long.

At the end of several seasons, the ghoulish warrior would level many great third world cities, wiping out multitudes. Historians would credit him with the victory of good over evil, and the overthrow and elimination of terror. While in small corners, he would be castigated as the greatest mass murderer of all time with the conservative declaration of one billion deaths to his credit.

With his greatness assured and the people firmly behind him, the recently promoted general would see to the reconstruction of the southern hemisphere, accomplished through the works of his own divine hands. Additionally, and with the backing of several nations’ militaries, he would demand all the heads of state to give way to the will of the people and allow him to serve as the leader of the north. With mandate firmly in hand, he would be triumphantly ordained as such on the sixtieth anniversary of 9-11.

For now, that is all in the future. With so much time for such thoughts, and now newly pre-occupied, the little sprout pulled down his trousers and peed on his world to come.

1863, Rock Dell Township, Minnesota

The others had heard many times Cornelius Thorsen’s boastful retelling
of his grandfather’s greatness in having for decades bred Fjord draught
horses on Tandberg Farms for the whole of Northern Europe’s agriculture
industry.

“Then why would your family move to America, forsaking your rightful
inheritance?” Peter asked in a whisper just barely above the night’s
shadows. “And why is your father a miller instead of a horse-breeder
like his father before him?”

But Cornelius had already moved on to another tale.

“Without my help,” he explained, with cold, blue eyes, “the captain of
the Helvetia would not have been able to come full rudder, hard to
starboard. And, instead, the ship would have rolled against the froth
of a gigantic breaker and foundered.”

In the moonlight, Cornelius could see the unanimous look of disbelief
that even they, the solemnest of Norwegian fraternity, could not
conceal.

“It’s true! It took both the captain’s and my strength to right the
wheel and the ship’s course.” Then he placed his hand on top of his
head. “And that’s how I lost my cap, while crossing the North
Atlantic,” his hand lifting upward and away, like some object lost to
the trade winds.

“And I reckon you single-handedly ended the Sioux uprising of last
autumn.” Nels jested. Cornelius, ignoring him, turned to stare off at
the stable in the field surrounded by the dim-white speckling of sheep.

“Never mind all that,” Anders reproached Cornelius. “We’ve come all
this way because you claim that you and the pretty daughter of
Khristoff Middelson are as joined together as the birds in springtime.”

Cornelius looked into the three faces, noting how the sharp shadows
from the nearby bushes etched an intense expectation from one to the
next. For weeks, he had spoken boldly of how he and Kari had frequently
engaged in the tradition of nattfrieri, night courtship, in which
budding teenage boys and girls are permitted to spend the night
together, a usually tame approach to testing the waters of
pre-adulthood. Never mind that he had boasted how the occurrences had
taken place without the consent of either his or Kari’s parents. Never
mind that he was taking chances with Kari’s honor, should his friends’
loose tongues falsely bray throughout the community of her reputation
after this night.

“Get on with it then,” said Peter while Anders pushed Cornelius out
from behind the bushes.

“And remember,” added one of them, “you’re to bring back an item of
proof.”

“Right,” he whispered, while feeling the cool night air against the
sweat on his brow.

It was hardly uncommon for the children of sheep farmers to spend the
lambing season, all alone, up in the hills where the ewes found a good
mix of grasses and legume. Each member of the Middelson brood had taken
his or her place, in succession over the years, doing just that. This
was Kari’s year to guide the grazing flock from pasture to pasture, and
to be on watch for difficult birthings or ringwomb.

As Cornelius crept through the flock, he felt the nervousness of a son
of a miller, out of his element, trembling with every nose turning away
with indifference or shuttering when a hindquarter lightly hopped away,
parting the way for his advancement. While holding his breath from the
smell of sheep dung, he could hear the chuckling coming from the bushes
near the end of the field.

Nearer now to the back corner of the stable, Cornelius saw a lit lamp
inside. He hesitated long enough to realize he could neither go
forward, in the event Kari was awake, nor backward, for fear of the
ridicule he would surely encounter.

Just then, Kari stepped out from behind the stable’s opening. The light
from within the stable shone on one side of her face, covered in
perspiration, and ignited in Cornelius feelings a grown man would
describe as both wondrous and alluring.

“What are you doing here, Cornelius Thorsen?” She scolded, exhausted.

“I…I…”

“Never mind,” she snapped while taking him by the hand, and continued,
“I was going to fetch my Pa as one of the ewes is having difficulties
delivering. But you can help just as well.”

Cornelius felt a sense of satisfaction, while looking back toward the
bushes, as Kari pulled him into the stable. But it was short-lived as
he began to feel queasy once he gazed upon a ewe lying in a pool of its
own innards.

“But I don’t know anything about …”

“It’s your strength I need, Cornelius Thorsen. See these ropes? I’ll
tell you what to do. I’ve tried to pull it out by myself, but now I’m
too tired to pull any longer.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“We need to pull togehter on these ropes and save this little lamb. And
we must hurry.”

Kari smiled, nodding, as Cornelius got down on his knees beside her.
“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

Kari handed him one of the ropes and they both began to pull. After
only a few moments, the lamb slid free from its mother’s womb and into
the world. Then Kari quickly cleared its throat and gently wiped it
down with straw.

Both Cornelius and Kari exchanged smiling eyes for a moment before she
asked, “Have you run away from home?”

“No. I’m…”

“Or did you come here on a dare?”

He stiffened.

“I heard the laughter of your friends in the darkness.” He saw the look
of suspicion on her face. “And that look on your face means you’ve come
to the right place.”

“What do you mean?”

“’Baa’,” she mimicked, while looking out at the flock.

“Oh, right.” He stood up and began to shift from one foot to the other.
“I feel more like a goat.”

“Were you supposed to bring them back a trophy of some kind?”

He was speechless as she untied a ribbon from her hair and offered it
to him.

Embarrassed, he shook his head. “No. That’s okay.”

She shrugged and then asked, “What shall we name him?”

“Who?”

“Our baby lamb.”

“You name them?”

“Not usually. But in this case, we’ll pretend you’re Joseph and I’m
Mary, and we’ll name him Jesus.” She smiled.

Humbly, Cornelius smiled as well. And then he rose. “Good night, Kari
Kristoffsdatter.”

“Good night, Cornelius Thorsen.”

He walked slowly back to the bushes where the three boys were still
crouched in silence.

“What happened?” asked Peter. “Have you returned with proof?”

He looked back at the stable, and after a short pause, he spoke with an
exaggerated tone. ”Forget all the things I’ve told in the past, for
tonight tops them all! A miracle! My beloved Kari and I have just given
birth, bringing into the world a savior!”

The three friends each looked from one to the other before breaking out
in laughter.

“C’mon,” said Anders, while pushing Cornelius back down the hill. “It’s
late. We should be getting back to the village.”

Cornelius looked over his shoulder, not realizing he had aged this
night, yet still firm in the knowledge that his days of story-telling
had somehow come to an abrupt end.

Paul tried to think about afternoons on the river – tadpoles, fishing poles and beer pulls. The deafening hush of silent skies and quiet ripples. Sun-baked arms and sleepy eyes. His mind was nearly empty of winter’s heavy hand, shadows and thaw-freeze-thaw cycle. But the slow pace of merging traffic and Terri’s voice, pitched and pointed, penetrated his drifting thoughts. He tried to curl the combo of angst and anger, seething beneath the surface, into a ball the soft shape of Nerf.

“The baby needs new clothes,” she said.

Her words caused Paul to have a flash thought, a blinking mix of regret and acceptance. He’d been having them all winter. The first one had occurred last spring, after Terri had told him she was pregnant. Run or be responsible, followed by a quick erasure of “Run” and acceptance of a terrifying “be responsible”. He never imagined such thoughts would become harder over time. And more frequent.

“I’d ask you to work more overtime, but I think you spend enough time with Andrea.”

Paul glanced over at Terri as the baby started to cry in the backseat, and decided to stow his “Shut up” and thought more about fishing and worrying less about the baby weight she’d yet to lose.

“I bet Andrea doesn’t have to worry about baby clothes,” Terry said, followed by a mumbled “yet.”

Another flash thought. Someone getting away or maybe not. Just depends on the amount of destruction he would be willing to inflict on his new young…Forget it!

“All that gaming with the guys…and Andrea,” she scolded. “It costs money.”

His arm resting on the lose chrome of the car door, Paul flicked ash from his cigarette while memorizing the necessary approach pattern to overtake Humpback Ridge from Josh in Games of Warfare 3. Rolling to his left, behind a burnt out dwelling, he calculated the distance needed to chuck the grenade into the last gunner’s nest. Then he’d rush the nest and blast to hell those left alive.

“And so does all your fishing trips,” she continued just as a white Dodge Charger zoomed passed on the shoulder. “The money you spend, we coulda just bought some fish at the store.”

Pissed, Paul wondered where that guy thought he was going, cutting line as if there was an open space up ahead just for Chargers.

“I’m sick and tired of Andrea showing up at the house,” Terri declared. Then she challenged Paul. “Can’t you just work with her?”

Paul cranked the steering wheel hard to the right and took off down the shoulder. Once alongside the Charger, he got out while ignoring the sound of Terri’s voice. He first knocked on the passenger window. He could see the startled face of the driver, a brunette holding a compact in one hand and an iPhone in the other. Realizing she wasn’t about to power down the window, he stood straight up, shouting at the top of his lungs, “It’s called a zipper merge for a reason, you bitch!” while pulling his fly up and down, over and over, like a man on the wrong side of a flash thought.