Thoughts of Death in the Big Country Morning

Thoughts of Death in the Big Country Morning

Francis thought about what his day would be and he decided what made sense was a day of drinking and walking and looking. He would stand on the porch and curse the trains in the distance and then move to the meadow and sit still, so to watch the deer moving slowly through the long grass, and then he would go to the edge of the pond at night and look at the beautiful moonlight mixing like oil into the pond water and he would think about putting a bullet straight through his brain and sinking to the moss at the bottom of the water. That’s as good a day as any, he thought. But first, he would find Solomon so he could have the dog by his side through it all, just like his son did when he explored the valley and hollered at geese and balanced on the train tracks.

The road out to the country started in the small town of Rockbridge and turned to rugged dirt as it reached the hills. The train tracks crossed one mile into the hills and followed alongside the road for a while before splitting and falling down the face of the hill towards the east. From the porch, Francis could see the tracks as a thin line slicing through the shallow valley. He stood outside and wondered what to drink on such a bright and cold and beautiful morning. Spring wildflowers bent to the breeze, spilling over the meadow and through the split rail fence bordering the gravel driveway which led to the porch from the dirt road. On top of a hill out in the meadow, a barn stood half-empty with dark wood slats and a leaning roof. Under the roof hung long metal hooks used for moving bales of hay, left over from Francis’ grandfather. The rest was filled with hardening hay bales and a few Calico cats and it all smelled like piss.

At the base of the hill was the small pond which Francis loved. On most mornings while he drank, he sat on the wooden bench on the porch, or stood leaning against the square porch pillars, and watched the American Wigeons dip into the hazy water and poke through the pondweed for minnows. On this morning, he decided he would drink whiskey. He didn’t like it but he would drink it.

He walked inside the log house and picked up his glass and his hat from the small table next to the couch where he left them before he fell asleep the night before. The cap said Bennett’s Auto on the front and was blue and looked fine over his graying hair, paired with his white t-shirt, blue jeans, and brown boots with thick and fraying laces. He walked over to the wooden liquor cabinet in the corner of the room, picked up the bottle of whiskey, and replaced the empty space in the cabinet with the bottle of scotch from the night before. After he poured the whiskey into his glass, he drank it whole and poured again. A large Kuvasz walked over to sit by his feet as he looked out the window.

“Solomon, what are you good for anyway?” said Francis as he lifted his hand to take another drink. “You bastard.” He smiled and cupped his hands under the dog’s snout and patted him. Solomon’s coarse yellow hair was tangled in his red collar and matted with strands of hay. “You look about right for a sheepdog.”

Francis clicked his tongue against his teeth to get Solomon to follow him as he walked outside to the porch and sat on the wooden bench and took a drink and spit through his teeth. The spit stained the wooden boards and seeped through the slats and onto the gravel below. They both looked at the meadow and the road and the pond in silence. In the true country, a man tends to feel that all of his moments are old and lived. Feeling this is what Francis thought to be natural. He always felt it while surveying the valley from his porch in the morning. He didn’t doubt that feeling of commonality, but he doubted the truth of the feeling. He thought of his father standing in his stiff white collar and saying, “As it is many parts, but one with the body.” Francis wasn’t sure about God, but he sure as hell didn’t believe in his father’s words. He didn’t think it was possible to know his feelings as another man. It was a fact of evolution that made his feelings singular to himself. The country couldn’t take that from him.

After a few minutes, the silence was broken by a woman opening the front door. She wore a gray robe over a small white shirt and nothing else except wool slippers cut off at her ankles. Her glasses were pushed all the way up the bridge of her nose and her long eyelashes almost touched the lenses. They started to fog as she drank coffee out of her small white mug with the big black cross on it.

“You know,” Francis said as soon as he heard the screen door slap shut, “it’s a hard thing to do together, Ann.” Ann paused and leaned against the door frame as three of her long brown hairs stuck together and moved gently in the morning breeze.

“What’s a hard thing?” she asked, like she didn’t know.

“The sadness. It’s a hard thing when you do it together.”

“That’s the only way to do it. To do it together.”

“Mhmm.” He didn’t think it was the only way to do it. He stared ahead and watched the lone Tundra Swan circle the pond. The hyacinth at the edge of the water pulsed in the calm current. A broken plume of steam floated over the road, flowing from the spout of a passing train engine, starting solid, rising as it traveled, then freezing stiff in the air and breaking apart over the pond and ascending into nothingness in the thin clouds above the valley. The soft hum of the train mixed with the pond waves lapping against the soft grass and mud at the banks of the meadow. Francis noticed his wife had put on a record and the jazz piano reached through the door out to the porch. He liked the rhythm of the country much better.

“How’s Solomon this morning?” Ann asked.

“As good as he ever was.” Francis bent down and patted Solomon on the head and Ann walked over to do the same. After she finished, she put her hand on Francis’s knee and looked up at him as he looked out to the pond.

“You know it’s good to do together, don’t you?”

“How can it be good?” He thought it would be easier to talk like this after so long, and he tried to wash out the pit in his throat with a bit of whiskey, but his glass was almost empty.

“Why do you say that? Of course it’s good.”

“How can it be good if two people go through it so different?” He was really thinking now. When two people go through it different, it only makes it harder on them both. The one pushes one way and the other pushes another way and at the end they can’t help but be miles apart and the distance is filled with the bad kind of silence.

Ann kept looking at him and she raised her eyebrows. “I don’t really think it’s all that different in the end if you’re both going towards the same place.”

“You’re right after all,” he said as rubbed his forehead and crossed his arms. “It’s good and it’s right and so on and so on.” He felt like shit and he wanted to vomit.

“I think so, Francis. It’s like it should be.” Ann looked at him more and he looked out to the meadow and the pond. She lasted as long as she could stand the cold before she stood up. “He would have wanted it to be us in this together,” she said as she walked inside.

Solomon looked up at the sound of the screen door slamming shut but Francis did not. He shook his head and thought she didn’t know what he would have wanted. He drank the rest of the whiskey and it dripped down his throat and emptied into his stomach and burned his insides the way he liked it to.

Solomon stood up and looked out into the empty meadow and walked down the three wide stairs at the front of the porch. He headed towards the opening in the split rail fence leading into the meadow and up to the barn on the hill. Francis knew he would sit in the hay as it was warmed by the mid-morning sun and watch the cats chase the field mice through the holes in the wall slats. And when he was bored, he would climb on the stacks of hay and jump off to try to catch a barn swallow looping down from its nest. That was a good life and Francis was jealous of it.

When Ann started the car next to the house, Francis got up to open the swinging gate at the end of the driveway. The old gate was framed by long metal piping that felt like ice in the cold morning and it turned Francis’s hands to grey-blue like dry ash. He liked to know he could feel the cold and see it in his hands. The point of feeling something was to feel it and sometimes there was no cure and that was good. He thought it was good that he could feel it and sometimes he even loved to feel it. That was what he told himself every day.

As he approached the house with his hands in his pockets, Ann walked out of the side door facing the driveway. He knew she liked to start the car and go inside to sip her coffee and look out the bay window as the exhaust puffed into the cold air. She pretended to wait for the car to warm up, like she didn’t run the car to get his attention. She always waited until a quarter after nine and then walked out again, smiling as he walked up the driveway with his hands in his pockets and his hat turned down over his face. This time, he put out his hand to wave.

“It’s a beautiful day for a drive,” she said.

“I guess so.” He did think it was a beautiful morning. For a moment, he looked out to the blue sky in the crisp spring air and over to his wife smiling by the car and it all came back to him. The cavernous and unending sky covered all that was good and seemed to energize all the world’s possibilities. And then it was gone. “I ought to find Solomon. Got enough to do here,” he said.

“That sounds alright.” She was not smiling anymore. “I’ll tell the Reverend you’re busy.”

“He’ll send his best wishes, I’m sure.”

“I suppose so.” Francis hated himself in this moment, because he loved her. He loved her like an old expeditionist lost in the South American jungle, unsure if he’d ever get back to the simple life with his Beloved, but thinking of her all the same. Everyone wondered when he would leave for her, like it was a simple return journey, but they didn’t realize how hard of a road it was to go back.

“Okay, well I’ll be home at the usual.” She held her gaze on him a few seconds as he walked past with his head down towards the back of the house. Francis didn’t look back at the car as she drove away. He knew where she was going and he did not think she might stop or turn around. There was something about her driving to town to talk to the Reverend that made her seem so sure of herself. Like she knew the cure and she took her medicine every day in diligence. He imagined she would talk and cry and laugh to the Reverend, and he would say, “You’re really doing it, Ann.” But Francis didn’t think she was sure. He thought talking about it every day was a sign of flailing in the sadness, and he thought she knew that deep down. That’s why he didn’t go. He didn’t need to be led into the darkness. He could get lost in the darkness by himself and he didn’t need to dip further into helplessness with someone else.

The old rusted padlock on the wooden cabinet in the corner of the garage only provided a few seconds of resistance before Francis was able to take out his .44 magnum. He held it in his hand and looked around the garage for something to give him the urge to shoot. An emptiness met his eyes, except for the cobwebs dripping down from the rafter beams like hanging moss and the sawdust on the cement floor washing back and forth in the wind like the tide of the sea. He wished a mouse would run across the floor in a panic or a stranger would swing around the corner, but they never did. He put the gun in his waistband like always and walked out the open door into the bright morning and headed up the hill to the barn to find Solomon.

As he walked up the hill and his boots parted the spring wildflowers and thistle weeds, the whiskey started to drain from his empty stomach and soak into his veins. He loved the feeling. It was hard for him to stand and walk and he loved it. The whiskey told him what to do and finally he wasn’t in charge. Finally, he wasn’t a coward and a lament and a chickenshit, as his father would say. He didn’t have to think about what to do next, the whiskey told him. But some things the whiskey couldn’t even do. Even under the whiskey’s direction, he could never find himself at the bottom of the pond like he imagined every day. He was still worthless and a chickenshit, he thought.

The crest of the hill in the meadow looked out over the valley and from there Francis could see the town a few miles away. He could see Ann and not see her at all and he realized that was how it always had been in the sadness. The pond was a good place to stay and watch the country move because he could see the little movements in detail. The bullfrog settling in the mud at the edge of the water. The soft dew dripping off the ugly brown cattails. The purple water lily bouncing over ripples. But up on the hill, all he could ever see was the disgusting bulge of the town and the inevitable charging of the trains. A kind of façade where beauty lasted for a minute but gave way to loneliness as time went on. Nothing like the serene and still and lasting grace of the pond.

The outline of the barn split the sun in half over Francis as he walked closer and he traced the roof line with his eyes as it caved in and rose upwards in the corners, pointing sharply towards the heavens. The dark wood on the outside was decayed from rain and neglect, nothing like how Francis and Ann used to imagine the barn would be once it became derelict. They saw the walls covered in wisping high grass and clematis climbing up the sides with a beautiful large hole in the roof that let the light in. Kids from down in the valley would find it and go inside and dance in circles with purple flowers in their hair. A secret paradise. Francis still liked that idea but he did not imagine it very often anymore. Instead, he saw the barn as it was: ominous, dead, useless.

Francis walked through the barn doors into the dancing particles of the bright country morning and smelled the cat piss and bat shit and heard the mice softly burrowing in the hay. Solomon laid in a shard of sunlight next to the hay bales stacked in piles, two, three and four high, like steps into nothingness. Francis knelt down to pat him on the back and then, with his hand resting on the dog, he looked out the doorway towards the country house down the hill and the trains in the distance. He could hear the conductor’s horn echoing in the valley and he could hear the creaking of the barn’s walls and he could hear the gentle splashes of the Wigeons on the pond and the swishing of the gray squirrels in the meadow and he realized all of these sounds signaled the absence of life instead of the presence of it. A heaving breath built in his chest and then it slowed as quick as it began, and he realized that he cared, but not as much as at first. And this, he thought, is what the sadness does to you.

The conductor’s horn blew again and Francis clicked his tongue as he stood up and took a few steps towards the emptiness of the meadow. Solomon looked up at him and then looked away, eyes slowly opening and closing in indifference. Francis spit on the floor and the spit mixed with the hay and the dirt and seeped into the wooden bones of the barn. He clicked his tongue again, but Solomon didn’t move, so he crouched down to look at the dog in the eyes. As he watched Solomon take in the world, Francis shook his head and thought about how his father used to call him a dog, like he was a coward. He was not a dog. He didn’t think so then and he didn’t think so now. He smiled and cupped his hand under Solomon’s snout. “You’re a brave sonofabitch,” he said.

Francis stood up and pulled the gun from the front of his jeans and walked out of the barn and started down the hill to the pond where he always imagined sinking to the bottom on top of the mossy floor. He didn’t look back to see if Solomon followed him. He thought about faithfulness and he thought about Ann and his son and the sadness and doing it together, like she said. He breathed steady and calm as he thought about the country. And then, he thought about being a dog.


About the Author

J. Billings lives and breathes in Hilltop, OH. His work can be found in JABBER, Overheard, and Blood Orange Review, with forthcoming stories in Black Warrior Review and San Antonio Review.


Image by Tove from Pixabay