It was the hay bales that did it. The men and women who knew Osby least, who nodded at him from passing trucks or said “Hey” while scanning cans of soup in the Mic-or-Mac, they might not have seen the change come over him. But the few who knew him a little better would have noticed Osby’s usual quietness grown heavier, that he stuffed his hands in his sweatshirt pocket a little more often. They would have chalked it up to him missing his father, figured it for nothing more than a rebalancing of the weight of a life that suddenly contained one instead of two people. They would have been wrong.
The truth was, it didn’t even make sense to Osby. How could rolls of old dead grass scare him so? What was the sense behind it being that—the sight of those wasted bales on that wasted government land—that finally dug from him his tears? But it was the bales. And afterwards, he had known only that it was going to get worse.
In those weeks, as the memory of old Cortland Caudill receded to the horizons of peoples’ minds, even those passing Osby in the supermarket aisles would have felt the sadness still hanging off him. Though it probably would have seemed pretty normal to them. In a place like Eads County, people sometimes get like Osby did. They’re scattered all over the valley, hidden from each other by the old ridges and thick woods, by log walls of age-sunk cabins, new ranch-house brick, by paint-peeling clapboard and trailer home siding so thin the propane bill is twice what it should be, never mind the electricity for the glowing space heaters that struggle in each room.
The First Congregational Church of Harts Run had always looked pretty to Osby. Some early mornings, when he was out on Route 33 before the sun had scaled the ridge, he would round the bend and see the church way up ahead, perched at the top of the hill as if God had put the limestone there as a plinth. Once in a long while—it had happened just a few times in all his thirty-eight years—the sun would rise exactly as Osby came barreling around the corner, and the church would light up right before his eyes. Times like that, he would take a sip of coffee, turn the radio down so it blended with the rumble of the Sierra’s engine, and imagine it was his headlights, and not the sun, that pulled the church out of the half-dark. He liked to pretend that if he hadn’t come along just then, the church would have stayed dim all day. That, as much as anything else, was why he chose to hold the funeral there.
The day of the service, it was warm for January in the hills. When Osby arrived at the church, about an hour before everyone else, he swung open the truck door and held out a hand, palm up in the air, gazing at the sky, testing the sun like most people would rain. Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, he thought to himself. If it kept up like this, the pastures would stay clear of snow; he’d save on hay. He wondered if the ground up at the family cemetery would have thawed a little if he’d waited a day on the funeral. Not much, he decided. It was always colder on Bowmans Ridge. Even on those fall days, years ago, when he was a kid and they used to go up there for picnics. Earlier that morning, breaking up the frozen topsoil with a pickax, the memory had come to him: his father, shivering as he walked beneath the old apple tree, over dry leaves between the graves, searching for a good patch of sunlight in which to spread the blanket.
Now, Osby switched on the radio and sat in the truck cab, waiting for the DJ to hand over the weather report. Every autumn, as far back as he could remember—five years old? four?—he would climb the apple tree, shimmy out on the twisted limbs, and shake down a fast thumping of fruit. From twenty feet up, he would watch his father wander below, stooping to pick up the few good ones, carrying them back to Osby’s mother. She would sit in the sun, soft and edgeless in a thick, lilac sweater, her knees drawn to her chest, gazing over the valley. His father would crouch next to her, peeling an apple with his pocketknife. He would hand her slices. She would reach up and take them from his fingers.
The year before she died, his mother was too weak from the chemotherapy to handle the rough ride up to Bowmans Ridge. So it was just Osby and his father standing by the truck, the breeze between them making noise in the leaves. After a while, his father strode to the tree, yanked an apple off, came back. Osby listened to him chew and watched the furious movement of his jaw. Halfway through the apple, Cortland snapped open his pocketknife and cut off a slice. Carefully, Osby took it from the offered palm. They looked out at the valley. Osby was twelve.
In the truck cab, the DJ blared on. Glad of the noise, Osby shook his head, smiled a little. What a strange man his father had been.
Forty-one degrees and sunny, according to the radio.
Osby grinned. He’d figured out long ago it was about three degrees cooler up in the hills. He glanced around the empty parking lot, as if looking for someone who might congratulate him. There weren’t even any tires grinding up the gravel yet.
The church never did get more than half full, but the minister gave as good a sermon as could have been expected. Some of it was pure bull—how Cortland had stayed by his wife to the end; how to his last days he had never questioned God’s will. Some of it was half-right—how Osby’s father had worked all his life to make the farm prosperous; he had never meddled in business that wasn’t his; he had single-handedly raised his son into a fine man. And some of it was dead on—how Cortland Caudill had loved his cows.
Osby figured he couldn’t have done much better. His father had not been a communicative man. He wasn’t a bad man, not even a bad father. He wasn’t mean to anyone; he just wasn’t especially nice to anyone, either. Outside, melted snow dripped off the church eves. It sounded like spring. Osby felt he ought to miss his father, but he didn’t, not really. Neither, he guessed, did the others in the church. His father hadn’t really cared to make many friends.
Osby looked around at the thirty-odd people, most of them his father’s age. They looked peaceful. The minister didn’t mention the one thing that would have made everybody uneasy, didn’t even acknowledge it with any special condolences to Osby. So there wasn’t much to be upset about in the room. Swaths of sunlight streamed through the windows, warm like only strong sun through glass on a winter’s afternoon can be. Inside, Osby guessed, it was a comfortable sixty-nine, seventy degrees.
At the end, the minister asked if anyone wanted to say something, and the whole roomful of people looked at Osby. He wished they’d go back to sitting happily in the sunlight. The minister shut the Bible very quietly and smiled right at him. Osby smiled back, but felt just afterwards that it was the wrong thing to do. He glanced at Carl and, sitting at Carl’s side, Lynne and their two boys further down the pew. Carl scratched his newly trimmed beard, jowls shaking, and flicked a glance back at Osby. It was a look Osby knew: the worry that came over his friend when Carl realized Osby was going to say something.
Osby wasn’t considered the smartest man in Eads County. But then no one, not even Carl, knew him well enough to realize that he wasn’t all that far from it either. His problem was that people could hear only what he said, and not what he thought. His words almost always came out saying something other than what he had intended; and, even when he did get them right, they were usually the last thought of a sequence. Without anyone knowing the process he’d taken to get there, what he finally got to rarely made much sense. Over the years, it had worn him down, so now he seldom said very much of anything to anybody.
Slowly, Osby stood up, taking as long about it as he could, letting the pew’s groans and creaks fill the silence. He stood there for a moment, looking at his cracked, red hands pressed against the edge of the pew in front of him. He tried to think of what his father would have liked him to say, tried to think of what Cortland Caudill would have said himself, and then, failing at that, Osby just tried to remember something good about his dad. The thing that came to him wasn’t one memory, but a series of them: his father trying out names for the new calves while clanking around under the dump truck, or while picking through clothes at the church donations store in Ripplemead, or ruining their hunting by calling out potential calf-christenings—”Woodrow?” “Lloyd?” “Skeeter?”—from his tree stand to Osby’s. Years and years of it, from as far back as Osby could remember. He knew there were other things that made his father happy, but he couldn’t recall them.
“Well,” he finally said, “Dad thought an awful lot of his beef. Once he give a calf its name, that’s what he called it. Heifers, cows, bulls, named them all like they was dairy cows. Never knowed anyone else to do that. I don’t believe he once named a calf the same, neither. Not in all his years.” It wasn’t until after he said it that Osby realized just how incredible that was. “We got some cows been calfin’ eight, nine years. I guess they’ll miss him.” He thought his father would have liked to leave it at that, but it seemed wrong, so Osby said, “I guess we all will.”
At the muddy jeep trail up to Bowmans Ridge, they slid the casket out of the hearse and lifted it into Osby’s pickup. Anyone with a car left it at the side of 247 and piled into the trucks. The wind was blowing up at the Caudill cemetery, and it was colder, like Osby had known it would be. They didn’t take long getting Cortland in the ground. Everyone was glad to get back in the trucks and drive, caravan style, into Pembroke for a late lunch at the Buttercup.
By the time they were done and driving back, the day was on its way out and Osby was starting to feel the letdown that hits after an event, just because it’s over. His tie crammed in his shirt pocket and lumpy against his chest, he drove behind Carl, a few other trucks and cars following him, rising and dropping over swells.
As they neared Harts Run, the vehicles turned off onto side roads, one by one, leaving dust where the gravel spilled out onto 33. As he passed by Alva’s store, the last car behind him pulled over at the pumps. The road, suddenly empty in his rearview mirror, seemed to lengthen behind him. A few miles later, the taillights on Carl’s truck glowed and his friend’s thick arm jutted out the driver’s side window, hand casually open. Osby raised a couple fingers off his steering wheel and watched the mud-freckled Ford turn off onto 288. Nothing in his windshield now but the wide valley and the long black line of asphalt cutting through it. Well, Osby thought, that’s that.
Before going home, he decided to check on each of the five small herds they ran. In his head, he corrected himself: the herds I run. He wound along through lingering patches of sunlight and the sudden, cold shadows behind the hills, starting with the herd furthest from home, the field his dad—now he—rented from Sheldon Ballard alongside the government land. The ground was freezing up again, and the truck rocked and bumped over the pasture. Spread out below the hill, the cattle turned toward the engine noise all at once, the way a flock of birds rises in unison at some imperceptible signal. Osby got out and bunched his thick neck a little further into his collar. It was going cold, fast. The sunlight was at its deepest orange, just before it went red. It always looked to Osby like it should be at its warmest then, and it seemed to him a major flaw, a failing of someone’s, somewhere, that the light contained no heat at all. He watched the cows as the shadows crept out of the swales and covered the herd. He had just shy of a quarter of his beef pastured in this field: twenty-eight reddish-brown cows, four of them already calved. Mostly Angus-Lemosine, some with a little Hereford in them. No heifers; the heifers were in the two fields closest to the house so he could keep an eye on them. He and his father bred all their bulls and they ran them regular. They had a two-year-old Black Angus in with this bunch. At the fringes of the herd, Osby spotted a new dropped calf suckling from its mother. She was a good cow, had given them eight or nine calves—those wide Lemosine hips—and now he tried to remember what his father would have called her. The name didn’t come to him. He scanned the rest of the herd, looking for signs of compaction, foot evil, making sure all the calves were there. A few of the cows were showing bags beneath their tails and he watched them negotiate their legs under swollen bellies. One or two looked as if they might drop their calves anytime, but they were old pros. The swath of hay he’d rolled out that morning was still catching the sun at the top of the hill. Everything looked fine. Everything looked the same.
By the time he got home, it was fully dark. The moon hadn’t yet risen. There were no lights on in his house. He drifted past the driveway, wishing there was one more pasture to check on or something he had to do in town. Maybe he’d drive over to Carl’s place, just to say hello; it had been years since they’d sat on Carl’s back porch, drinking beer and throwing sticks for his bird dogs. As he rounded the bend, his headlights sucked the Old House’s mailbox out of the night. It had collapsed against the giant chestnut stump and the letters his grandmother had carefully painted were half gone; they read he Ca ills, now. He braked, his ribs suddenly feeling too small for all the stuff that had to fit in his chest. Slowly, he turned onto the dirt. A few feet up, he stopped. The truck idled under him. Grass and weeds had grown between the tire tracks and last spring’s rains had gouged the driveway. Up the hill, beyond the reach of the headlights, the Old House stood blackly against the stars, a hole in the sky. His home, the newer house he and his dad had lived in, had been built nearly a century ago, but the original family place, the Old House, was twice that age, the walls in its living room still made of logs from the homesteaders’ one-room cabin. After his grandmother died, his father used the house for storage: bags of fertilizer, car batteries, cattle medicines.
Osby flicked on his brights. The windows that still had glass flared. He hadn’t been in there since the day he found his father. He could make out the glinting shape of Cortland’s pickup, parked at the top of the driveway. The front door to the house was still open. He’d forgotten to shut it. Or the ambulance guys had. Or the cops. They had come, looked things over. There wasn’t much guessing to do. Osby asked them not to clean it up, said he wanted to do it himself. It would help him seal the thing shut, he said, put a cap on it. When the neighbors offered to take care of things, he told them he’d already scrubbed and swept and burned what had to be burned. Truth was, he hadn’t touched a thing in there. The idea of going back in made his bowels go watery.
The truck sputtered, and he gave it a little gas, shook a cigarette out of a pack of Winstons, and sat, smoking. He knew he ought to go up there and close that door.
When Osby’s mother died, his father hadn’t let anyone help them take the body to the funeral home. They had wrapped her in the sheets and carried her downstairs, his father holding her under her arms, Osby clutching her cold ankles. She had smelled like old cabbage. Her body sagged, heavy as wet sand. His thin twelve-year-old forearms strained and he struggled to keep his fingers locked around her legs. Halfway down the stairs, he dropped her. Her heels thwacked the hard wood step, and he had thought how much that would hurt if she was alive. Outside, they hoisted her into the pickup and drove into town. His father hadn’t even let people gather in the house after the funeral. He had refused the casseroles and cakes they brought.
The next Saturday, Osby had helped him with an excavating job and they had sat in the bulldozer’s shovel, out of the cold wind, passing a thermos of steaming coffee between each other. “Ain’t going to have ’em walking all over our place,” Osby’s father had said. “Big show.” And a week later, in the kitchen, digging shotgun pellets out of a rabbit with the tip of a knife: “When I go, I don’t want no noise about it. Don’t want the whole of ’em traipsing around, tearing up the driveway, snooping around the Old House. Just dig a hole and dump me in.”
When he’d finished the cigarette, Osby rolled down his window, tossed out the butt, shoved down on the clutch, and put the truck in first. Behind the Old House, Bowmans Ridge, solid and black, smothered the bottom edge of the sky. After a while, his left calf muscle started to shake. He shifted into reverse, backed up onto the road, and drove home.
Quiet smothered the bang of the truck door almost as soon as he shut it behind him. He could hear the night animals moving around, small birds, opossums, squirrels, making crackling noises too big for them in the dry leaves. They went silent as his feet made their noise from the truck to the porch.
Inside, the house had gone cold. Osby clomped into the kitchen, opened the flue on the woodstove, and stirred up the remaining coals, watching them feed on the draft. When they were glowing, he shoved a couple overnight logs on top, waited for them to catch, and then shut the stove up and let it go to work. He scanned the twenty-odd cans lined up on the kitchen counter. He and his father never bothered putting the soup in the pantry. That was for the things they bought on a whim and ended up never looking at again, things like cake mixes or cloves of garlic, things that needed what Osby and his father called “major preparation.” Cans of soup, cans of beans, cans of cranberry sauce, jars of pickles; those things were useful; they stayed on the counter where they could be got at.
Osby chose a can of chicken and dumplings, shaking his head a little at all the clam chowders. His father had loved the stuff. Osby couldn’t stomach it. Now he was stuck with a dozen cans. He rinsed a saucepan under the faucet, using his thumb to rub away most of the crust left from last night’s soup, dumped in tonight’s chicken and dumpling, lit the stove burner with a match, and got out the bowls and spoons.
The kitchen opened up right onto the living room, and Osby went in there, turned on the TV, and watched the weather report while he unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it off his arms. Not wanting to put his good shirt on the floor with the rest of his clothes, he held it in one hand while he took off his shoes and pants, and then held those bunched in the other arm, while he listened to the forecast for the next day. There was a slight chance of snow.
“Hope not till afternoon,” Osby said aloud to the empty house, feeling foolish immediately afterwards. When he heard the pot spitting soup, he hurried into the kitchen, dumped his clothes on the counter, and emptied the chicken and dumplings into a bowl. For a second, he stood, perplexed, staring at the second bowl. He didn’t remember taking out two. He put the extra bowl and spoon away and took his soup into the living room to finish watching the local news. It was still cold in the house—the heat from the woodstove never really reached all the way into the living room—and he turned on the electric space heater, pulled it close to the couch, sat in his underwear and T-shirt and the brown socks that looked strange to him on his feet, slurping the soup while the space heater’s warmth started to tingle on his skin.
An hour or so later, during the ads between two sitcoms, he glanced to his side to see if his father had fallen asleep yet. The other end of the ratty brownish-orange couch was, of course, empty. Seeing it, he tried to feel whether he missed the old man. He couldn’t tell. He lay down, stretching his legs out all the way along the couch. True, it felt odd to do that. He tried to picture his dad sitting there where his feet were now. It should have been easy; after all, Cortland had sat there nodding off practically every evening since Osby was a kid. But he couldn’t picture him. When he looked back at the TV, he thought he saw his father’s face looking in at him through the window, not as he looked in life, but as Osby had found him three days ago in the Old House: his lower jaw and half of his right cheek blown off, one eye exploded in its socket.
Osby made himself stay still and stare at the window, where there was nothing but his own reflection, until his heart had gone back to thumping like normal. Then he scraped up the last of the soup, sighed, and carried the bowl to the sink. As he clinked it against the other dishes, he had a sudden urge to wash them all, to wipe down the counters, get the place clean. He filled the sink, watching the steam billow up through the soap bubbles.
Through the window, he could see the occasional pair of headlights drift along Route 33, a couple miles off down the valley. After they were out of sight, he could still follow their progress for a while, watching for the patches of hillsides swept briefly by the faint yellow glow. He wondered if he was going to be lonely now. He didn’t see why he should be; his father had never been much for company. He didn’t think he was lonely.