They parked in the pine and cottonwood and McEban picketed the horse at the edge of the meadow. Kenneth helped Einar to the bench and ran back into the timber, snapping off any dead branches he could reach. He made a dozen trips, carrying armloads of them back, working the dry limbs in at the bottom of the pile of antlers and bones, McEban circling behind him, sloshing kerosene up into the mess from a five-gallon can. When it was empty he sat down beside Einar and lit a cigarette.
“I didn’t know you gave up chewing,” Einar said.
“I’m doing them both now.”
He was watching the boy skirt the north edge of the bone heap, disappearing behind it, coming back toward them from the other side.
“Can I bum one from you?”
McEban handed him the cigarette he had going and lit another, staring at the figures where they stood away from the mound. “I could tip those creepy sons of bitches over,” he said. “Drag them in close enough to burn, if you wanted.”
“They’re better left where they are. I like the company.”
“I guess I’ve never known what to think about ’em.”
“I think they’re cool.” Kenneth was squatting to the side of the bench.
“If you just wanted to get out of the house we could’ve gone into town.” McEban turned to look toward the darkening sky in the west. “I don’t know why you’d want to be left out here.”
They could smell the dampness and ozone in the air, hear the rumble of the storm.
“It’s a celebration.”
“Burning this heap of shit up, you mean?”
“It was something Griff and I talked about.”
“You ought to wait for her, then. Till Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
“I’m not sure I can.”
“Well, damn.” McEban looked to where the boy was bent over digging in the ground with a stick, and then back. “You’re not thinking you can swing up on that horse when you’re done, are you?”
“I thought I’d turn him loose. Hold on to his tail and let him lead me back to the corrals.”
Kenneth was standing now. “I could stay and help,” he said.
“Maybe we all ought to stay.”
“You aren’t invited.”
“Why not?” McEban laughed, gesturing toward the boy. “I didn’t hear you invite him either.”
“We’ll have more fun without you.”
“You’re probably right about that.” McEban dropped his cigarette, grinding it out under a boot tip. “I’m going to leave a shovel here with the boy. In case that grass starts up. And a flashlight.”
“You’re a good neighbor, Barnum.”
“There’s something else you’re right about.”
They could feel the pressure of the storm gathering, turning back upon itself like a large, dark animal circling into its night bed.
“You’re going to get soaked. I hope you’re not kidding yourself about that.”
“That’ll be part of the fun. Won’t it, Kenneth?”
“It’ll be like an adventure,” the boy said.
McEban carried the empty kerosene can to the truck and returned with the shovel and flashlight. He slipped his cell phone out, then put it back in his pocket. “I didn’t think there’d be reception up here.” He knelt down by the boy. “You call me when you’re done,” he said, “when you two get back to the house. If I don’t hear from you in a couple hours, I’m driving out here to find you.”
“I promise,” Kenneth said.
McEban stood. “You want another cigarette, Einar?”
“No. I enjoyed the one I had.”
McEban took the flashlight from the boy, turning it on to check the batteries, and gave it back. It was nearly dark.
“Goddamnit, Einar, I wouldn’t be doing some screwball thing like this if I hadn’t known you my whole life.”
“I wouldn’t have asked.”
“You owe me at least a dollar,” Kenneth said.
“All right, then.”
McEban kissed the top of the boy’s head, and they heard him walking away, stopping to look back, and then the sound of the truck pulling out and the rolling approach of thunder.
“You want to light it up?”
Einar drew a pill bottle of wooden matches from his shirt pocket, shaking them out into the boy’s hand, and he circled the pyre, lighting the kerosene around the perimeter, and came back. It was very still, and they sat listening to the fire gather and spread.
“I better check the other side.” Kenneth picked up the shovel and disappeared behind the pile.
Einar could feel the heat now against his face, and thought that maybe Marin was right and this was only one in a succession of lives, a thousand of them, and then the heat increased and he could distinguish the oranges and reds and yellows, labile and rising into the darkness. “How we doing?” he called to the boy.
He could hear the boy’s laughter.
Lives of deformity, there had to be those, the losing of limbs. He felt the first drops of rain. Lives of brutal commerce, lies, lying with neighbors’ wives. A chanter of hymns. The beater of slaves, his years marked by the chains of slavery. He glimpsed the boy weaving through the figures at the edge of the dark night, at times wildly lit, in and out of shadow, circling, thrusting the wooden shaft of the shovel ahead of him. Lives of hopelessness, beauty, decency, charity, body after body consumed by fire. Kenneth came back into view again, the figures on that side of the fire seeming to move along with him.
The rain hissed in the flames, the air alive with sparks, and he wondered how many times he’s been an old man sitting at a fire in the night, a horse looking on, in a dark rain. Good men and bad, through the grind of centuries, and then there was Ella, who he imagined he could see dancing in her girl’s body, their son holding her hand, Mitch Bradley and Ansel Magnuson. He heard the accretion of their laughter rising from the flames. The rain fell in sheets, the fire sizzling, snapping.
“Are you out there?” he called.
“I’m over here.”
The boy was passing in front of the wolf-headed figure.
“How about a rooster?” he asked. “Can you get an echo out of one of them?”
The boy sat down beside him. “I only know about ducks.” He smiled, his eyes shining with the last of the flames.
Water ran from their faces.
“You think you can get me and that old horse back to the house?”
“Yes, sir.” He stood and stabbed the shovel into the ground. “I know I can.”
My wife, Virginia, has been unwavering in her willingness to review drafts of this book, discuss the narrative and the motivations of the characters, sweetly courageous in challenging every line she felt might be improved. Her contributions are immeasurable, as are my thanks to her.
I wish to thank Richard Spragg, Kent and Cathy Haruf, Maggy Rozycki Hiltner, Laura Bell, Allison Smith-Estelle and Steve Estelle, Mitzi Vorachek, Gary Ferguson, Pete Fromm and Betsy Burton for their thoughtful comments.
My thanks also to Katie Wilson and Fay Bloom, John and Kari Clayton, Joanna Wilson and Peter Choi for suffering my questions about NGOs and degrees in public health, Becky Keene for her father’s story, David Hiltner and Stephanie Lanter for all things clay. Darrell Steward and Gene Plambeck were helpful with information concerning law-enforcement procedure, and my thanks to Dr. Renée Crichlow for her advice about the diagnosis and treatment of the characters’ various illnesses.
My thanks to Emily Milder; Kate Norris and Lydia Buechler; Robert Olsson, Jason Booher and Carol Devine Carson; and Gabrielle Brooks.
Nancy Stauffer owns my gratitude and affection for her friendship, her counsel and care for my work.
Finally, I wish to express my admiration for my editor, Gary Fisketjon, for the devotion, intelligence and precision he brings to his work. His imprimatur has become fundamental to me, as has his friendship.