by Lauren Small
All winter long Cyrus Swale wrote letters to his son. He sat in the kitchen with a sharpened pencil and a pad of writing paper before him, a pot of coffee warming on the stove. Meanwhile outside the snow lay siege to the house, piling up in scalloped drifts beneath the windows, burdening the roof, lying knee-deep on the plain.
One night he wrote about the dappled mare, which had lost its foal, and about how he hoped to breed her again in the spring. What he didn’t write was how he’d found the stillborn one morning when he went to the mares’ pasture to put out feed. The foal was lying in the snow beneath a wintry, windswept sky, its tiny body already perfectly formed, the shape of the skeleton visible beneath its gelatinous skin, its eyes pecked out by crows.
He wrote about the creek, which had vanished beneath the snow, and about the watering trough, which had begun freezing over, greeting him each morning with a layer of ice. A few weeks later he wrote about a blood bay mare, which had spooked in her paddock one cold wintry eve. The mare got hung up on the rails, and by the time he succeeded in freeing her, her leg was broken, hanging twisted from the knee. He called the vet and after some discussion, they decided to cast it. Now the mare passed her days in her stall, tethered and sedated, while they waited for the leg to heal.
What he didn’t write were the things the vet said to him about his own son, who’d just come back from the war. Once, the vet said, the boy had talked of college, but now all he did was spend his days—and half the night—driving aimlessly around in his car. The vet wound a strip of cloth, soaked in plaster of Paris, around the filly’s leg. It was making them both crazy, he added, him and his wife. They were worried to death, but the boy wouldn’t talk about it—he wouldn’t talk about anything. And what were they to do?
Before he sat down to write, Cyrus took the biscuit tin with Eason’s letters down from the shelf. He counted and recounted the letters inside, as if the number might have magically grown larger when he wasn’t looking. Then he put the biscuit tin back in its place, picked up his pencil, and wrote.
The wind had become strangely unpredictable, blowing one day from the east and the next from the west. It swept in broad arcs across the plain, spinning dry clumps of snow into powdery white dust devils, frightening the horses and unsettling their dreams. On one such day, the blacksmith came out to shoe the horses. The farrier set up his tin hearth in the snow, and Cyrus lingered nearby as he worked, basking in the heat of the fire. Meanwhile the blacksmith trimmed the horses’ feet, shaving off thin slices of hoof, which floated like snowflakes to the ground. He set the new shoes into the fire, removing them with tongs when they’d become glowing hot, then put them on the anvil to shape them, hammering with sharp, chiming blows. When he was satisfied, he plunged the shoes, hissing and smoking, into a water bucket to cool. Then he set them on the horses’ feet, each new nail releasing the smoky sharp smell of scorched hoof into the cold air.
The farrier was a garrulous man who liked to gossip while he worked. The Collins girl, he said, had finally gotten married, and the Dwyer boy was working at the feed store now. When, the rancher wondered out loud, had he gotten old enough to get a job? Defying all logic, the Lees had left the county and moved to Alaska, leaving stunned neighbors in their wake. Word was—as incredible as it sounded—they’d given up farming for the fishing trade.
When the last horse was shod, the blacksmith packed his tools into his truck. “Heard from Eason lately?” he said.
The rancher looked away for a long time before answering, “No, not for a while.”
Then the farrier, too, fell silent, until finally he said with a cheerfulness neither of them felt, “Well, no news is good news, right?”
For months his son had been a faithful correspondent, and the letters had come regularly, one for each week that he was gone. But all that had ended late in the year. A letter dated just after Thanksgiving came in the middle of December, in reasonable time. After that there was nothing. Not a single letter. Not a single word.
Cyrus told himself not to worry. His son was a soldier now. He had other things to think about, things far more important than writing home. He should be glad Eason was taking care of himself, not wasting his time on frivolous things like writing. Hell, it was ridiculous of him to expect a letter from his son every week. He’d just been spoiled, that was all, by all the letters that had come before.
For a while he considered not writing himself. Maybe Eason wouldn’t want to be bothered with news from home. But he rejected that idea. Surely a word or two from his father would be welcome, even if Eason didn’t have time to write back. And so, that winter, he continued to write, sitting at the kitchen table, framing his letters with care.
Despite the cold, the new pump held up, but the truck ran poorly until one morning, beneath an icy blue sky, Cyrus changed the spark plugs and the wires. A few days later he confessed to his son that he hadn’t been out much lately. His hip had stiffened up too much for it in the cold. But, he added hastily, he didn’t want Eason to worry. He was fine. And he made sure each day to get his chores done, turning the barn-kept horses out in their paddocks and letting them run until they were tired in the fields of snow.
Occasionally in the evenings, people from the county still stopped by. Remembering him from his judging days, they brought him their disputes to settle, grievances that fell short of the court system and the law, but went beyond what ordinary folk could resolve on their own. He refused payment, but the morning after invariably found something left for him on the porch: a jar of chokecherry jam, a sack of cornmeal, jerked venison wrapped in burlap cloth. If only they knew how burdened he was by his own fears, and how he wished someone could resolve them the same way.
Around Valentine’s Day a pair of telephone repairmen spent two whole days on the ranch working on the wires. Soon after Cyrus drove into town to pick up groceries and fuel. When he stopped in to get his mail, the postmaster set the pile of letters on the counter with his eyes averted and his mouth pinched tight, so that even without looking, Cyrus knew there was nothing from his son.
In late February he fixed the ladder to the hayloft, hammering in a new rung to replace the one that was missing, and baited the loft for mice. He got most of the tack mended and spent one whole evening repairing horse blankets, sewing the torn edges together with thick stitches of white cotton thread. He had taken to staying up late, trying to avoid the nightmares that had begun waking him in the middle of the night, leaving him shivering and gasping for breath. The dreams all started differently, but ended the same way, with him walking out to the dappled mare’s pasture and finding his son lying in the snow, dead like the stillborn foal.
Tired of his own cooking, he drove one night to the truck stop for dinner. As he took the road northwards, the darkness of the county flowed in around him. Finally the highway appeared before him in the distance, a procession of trucks and cars rolling eastwards and westwards through the night, their headlights glowing like lighted ships upon the ocean, like underwater beasts that moved with gleaming eyes through the murky depths of the sea.
He felt as if he’d been hauled out of the depths himself as he emerged from the darkness of the parking lot into the bright lights of the diner, a nocturnal animal dragged with startled, blinking eyes into the sun. He took a booth at the back of the restaurant, where he had his back to the wall and a good view of the room before him. The food, when it came—chicken-fried steak and gravy—was comforting in a predictable, bland way. The waitress flirted with him as she served him, and he found himself enjoying that, even though he knew she meant nothing by it; it was just her way of cadging a better tip.
His mood changed when he emerged from the diner and stood by the doorway, contemplating the long highway, which stretched out before him. All at once he found himself wondering what would happen if he got into his truck, chose a direction, and started driving. He imagined driving all night until the sun came up, emerging from the darkness into a completely different landscape, into a southern forest perhaps, where Spanish moss hung thickly from the oak trees, and the ground was thick with bogs and swamps. Or he pictured himself taking the road until it ended, until he was standing in front of the astounding blue and white expanse of the sea. Maybe in such a place, he thought, he wouldn’t have to spend his days clenched in terror each time the phone rang, or an unexpected knock came on the door.
The days were finally getting longer, darkness holding off until six, when beneath their burden of snow the fields vanished in the waning light. In their pastures the horses passed the winter months as they always did, dozing quietly in the bleak light, chewing meditatively on their hay, their breath steaming lightly in the cold.
Winter, he often thought, was a kind of limbo for the horses, a time when life was put on hold. There was nothing for them to do but wait patiently for springtime and the changes it would bring to their world. But he didn’t tell his son that. Just as he didn’t tell him how lucky he thought the horses were. They didn’t worry about the future or the past. They knew their spring would come. They felt it in their blood. One day the grass would green up again. The sun would shine warm on their backs, and on a new crop of foals.
He had no such luxury. Each day that winter he felt the pressure of the past bearing down on him, harder and harder to escape. As long as Eason’s letters had come regularly, he’d been able to convince himself that everything would be all right—that he’d done nothing wrong by sending his seventeen-year-old son to war. But what if the number of letters in the biscuit tin never grew again? What if the last letter he’d received was—the last one? What exactly was happening to his son? And what would he be like, if he ever made it home?