The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story
Yeguas Y Caballos
It was late in the night but Larry sat on the old church pew that served for the bench on their porch and he watched the great cumulonimbus flare out over the plains, anviling tall into the night. The thunder came rolling over the creosote, as though somewhere out in that darkness a colossus stood billowing canvas out from him far into the heavy storm air. The first gusts of wind were just reaching the porch and he drank out of an old crockware pitcher full of mescal that Luis had brought him. The downdraft hit the house and Larry’s hat blew off and landed on the ground and the smell of rain came in rich and deep on the wind. The first drops began sounding on the tin roof of the house and Larry thought with his insides warm from the alcohol that it was fitting that there be storm outside as there was storm inside and he fell asleep out on the old church pew with the mescal on the ground beside him.
He was in the kitchen early, the darkness still filling the house, and his flour-covered hands moved back and forth over the yellow Formica countertops, setting the coffee to boil and mixing the batter white to amber gold. He took a knife and cut a section of butter and dropped it into the cast-iron skillet, watched it fall into itself, then turned and poured batter from an old tin cup into the sizzling grease. The bubbles began coming up through the batter, and he flipped the hotcakes in the skillet and waited for the other side to brown.
When he had two neat stacks of cakes, he covered them with towels and pulled a match from his shirt pocket and lit the oven, setting it to a low heat. He put the cakes in the oven and walked back towards their room, his boots clicking softly against the old wood floors. He sat beside her on the bed, passing his rough hands gently over the skin of her face until she awoke.
“Morning,” he said.
She moved out from under his hand and sat up in the bed.
“I made us some breakfast if you want to eat with me before you go.”
“Alright,” she whispered.
She looked at him sadly and got out of bed and he rose with her, wrapping her in a blanket and holding her beside him, her brown hair twisted gently in his hand.
They ate quietly for a while and finally he put his fork down beside his plate.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do. I have to.”
He was quiet, the muscles in his jaw bunching and releasing under his lean skin as he chewed. His stomach was sinking.
“No, you really don’t,” he said. “I’m goin’ to work here in a second. I guess I’ll see you around, huh?”
“No, you probably won’t.”
“What are you goin’ to tell the girls?”
“I’m not telling them anything.”
“Just like that then? Drop them at school and be gone.”
She didn’t say anything.
“What am I goin’ to tell them?”
She looked off through the window at the graying dawn in the yard and past that to where the horizon was beginning to become more definite, the eastern edge glowing at the hastenings of the sun.
“You’ll think of something,” she said.
He took her plate and his and he walked over to the sink and placed them both down into the water where they rang dully against the pan and the silverware and he washed off his hands and dried them on a rag hanging from the oven. He walked back to the table where she sat wrapped in the blanket that had been on his father and mother’s bed before his and he kissed her head a last time.
“I’m always gonna love you, you know that, right?”
“No, you’ll forget. Soon enough.”
“No,” he said looking at her. He looked at her for a long time. “No, I won’t.”
He walked towards the door, pulling the keys to his truck out of his pocket and taking his hat from the hook on the wall. He turned back and looked at her.
“Where you gonna be?”
She didn’t say anything. She just looked away. He stood with his hand on the wooden door frame looking at her then he turned and walked out.
He got up into the truck and turned the keys in the ignition and waited until the orange glow plug light went off, then he put his head against his hands on the steering wheel and sat. He sat for a long time and he thought he could see inside of himself, the mesquite wood around his heart darkening, the coals fading. He was afraid that what life there was in him might leave entire, and he willed himself to hold fast to the sparks for his daughters but he didn’t know if he could. He wasn’t sure that such little sparks could survive in all that dark. Finally, he looked up and pushed the key forward and the Cummins shook itself to life. He put the truck into gear and rolled up the dirt road away from the little house, the light from his daughters’ room spilling amber into the blue morning.
On the side of the road a mile or so up from his house there was a rattlesnake swallowing one of the gray desert rats that run across the roads at night. Its mouth gaped, its jaws unhinging grotesquely, and the white diamonds of scales shimmered serpentine down its back. He thought of swerving to kill it but he didn’t, he just passed on.
When he got to the ranch house he parked out front, leaving the engine idling, and walked around to the back. He knocked on the cracked wood of the screen door before letting himself in. Mr. Raburn looked up from his paper and set down his coffee.
“Mornin’, Mr. Raburn.”
“What needs gettin’ done today?”
“Well, that storm last night knocked down some fencin’ over in the Madrugada.”
“Alright, I’ll get that back up. Any of the cattle run?”
“No, no. I called up Jorge and Luis after the rain slowed and they drove the cattle into Oscuridad before the flash was over.”
He took a sip from his coffee. “You want a cup?”
“Sure, I’ll take some coffee,” Larry said sitting down. “You want those cattle back in the Madrugada when I finish with the fence?”
“I’ll get Jorge and Luis to do that again. When you’re done come on back up here, the loader’s got a leak in the hydraulics that needs fixin’ and after that I ordered some steel to replace the windmill, I might have you pull the gooseneck into town to go pick it up. We’ll work on that for the next few days. I figure we’ll oil up the old Aermotor gearbox.”
He took a sip from his coffee and read absently from the paper, a corner of it lifted in his hand off the table.
“Did you know we’ve had that gearbox and the blades since back when my daddy ran this place?”
“No, sir, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, it’s true. Anyways, we’ll use that and the blades again but we’ll build a steel base where the wood is now. I’ll get you to weld the base.”
He had gotten up and was about to walk out when he turned back.
“Yeah, Larry, what you got?”
“Sarah Beth left this mornin’.”
“When’s she comin’ back?”
“I don’t know if she is, sir.”
Mr. Raburn had picked up his paper but he put it back down and he looked at Larry for a little while pursing his lips.
“I’m sorry ’bout that, Larry, I really am,” he said finally. “You take the time you need.”
“Well, I thank you. I’ll get to that fencin’.”
The morning clouded as he worked and he ran the barbed wire rusty through his hands in the gray light.
“We’ve broken it all,” he said to no one. We broke every last bit, he thought sitting down on the ground among the tall white blooms of the Lechugia.
He moved slowly up the line at school, the big white Dodge idling low and throaty, the gooseneck behind it. When Abby saw his truck she walked over to him carrying her lunch pail in her hand and her pink backpack that they had gotten for her before school began and the dry desert wind tossed about her light hair. She had a piece of manila paper in her other hand and after he had reached across the bench seat and opened the door for her she climbed up into the truck and gave him the piece of paper.
“What’ve you got, Abigail?”
“I made it for you,” she said smiling mischievously.
He looked at it as she pulled the seatbelt over her little body. It was a picture of him on a horse with her in front of him and hills behind them and his heart tightened as he looked at it and he didn’t know why.
“The horse’s name is Parnell,” she said.
It was a gray horse with dark spots.
“Where’d you think of a name like that?”
“I don’t know,” she said shrugging. “I just did.”
“I like it. It’s a good name.” His voice was shaking and he cleared his throat, and breathed in deep to steady himself.
They pulled out of the parking lot onto Sul Ross and drove towards the middle school to pick up Isabelle.
“Scoot on over so Izzy can get in.”
“She can sit in back.”
“The back’s dirty, sweetie. Plus, I want you to come over here and sit by me,” he said teasingly.
She giggled and moved over to sit in the middle of the bench. They pulled in and picked up Isabelle and he was quiet driving towards Morrison’s.
“Where are we going, Dad?”
“We’re goin’ to Morrison’s, Izz. I gotta pick some steel up for Mr. Raburn. I think we’re gonna be building a new windmill where the old one used to sit.”
“Is everything okay? Mom was crying when she dropped me off at school today and she wouldn’t say why.”
He couldn’t look at her and he thought he was going to cry but he didn’t.
“Mom left, sweetie.”
He said it quiet and he wasn’t sure the girls had heard but they had.
“Where’d she go?” Isabelle asked.
“I don’t know. She said she was goin’ to the city but she wouldn’t say where.”
“When’s she coming home?” She was starting to cry.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know that she is.”
Isabelle was crying and Abigail didn’t understand what had happened but he pulled them close to him on the bench seat and he held them against his rough work shirt and told them not to be afraid.
“We’re gonna do alright in this one, okay, girls? We’re gonna do okay.”
That night he cooked fajitas that he had made out of flank steak bought at the supermarket before he picked the girls up at school. He grilled them outside on the barrel grill over charcoal and he grilled peppers and onions wrapped in aluminum foil and tortillas. The coals glowed through the tortillas in the dusky air. When he served the tacos to the girls it was with green onions and cilantro and a salsa he made himself. Before cooking the fajitas he had mixed dough, flour and shortening and butter and a touch of sugar and salt, and he rolled the dough in his heavy hands and put it into the refrigerator. He melted butter and mixed in brown sugar and cinnamon and he poured it over green apple slices and rolled out the dough and cut it deftly into a circle and placed it in an old clay-fired pie dish. He put the apples in and crisscrossed it with dough and sprinkled some of the butter and brown sugar over the crust and he put it all in the oven. He thought that the girls would be happier if they had something nice to eat and they were a little bit, but the night was dark all the same.
After they had eaten he put the dishes in the sink and he took the girls back to their bedroom and made Abigail take a shower and they both brushed their teeth and he pulled the curtains closed and tucked them in. When they were in their sheets he told them stories about when he rode in the rodeos, about the broncos and the bulls, fierce eyed and wild with madness. He told them about when he rode the famous Red Rock, how he had held for seven seconds, almost eight, but lost in the last bit. How the bull glistened under the auditorium lights as he stomped great holes straight to the heavy core of the earth. He told them about hunting in the Del Carmen with his father when he was a child. How they had come upon a black bear in the forest and how the thing reared up on its haunches bellowing down at them. He said that he almost shot the bear but that his dad put his hand on the gun and told him to wait. His dad had said if the bear charged that they would shoot but until then that they could let it live. He said that the bear finally took its head from out of the sky and that it glided gloriously dark back into the pines. While he spoke Isabelle was quiet and Abigail played with the shapes of the shadows of her hands in the lamplight.
After his stories were told he kissed them both on their heads and he turned the lamp off and walked out of their room.
He went outside and drank half a bottle of cheap whiskey, letting the brown liquid burn his throat and flutter his eyelids. The charred oak taste of it and the alcohol fumes floating into his lungs when he breathed. He stood out there on the plains looking up at the stars. God, the great welder. His torch spattering the sky with the blazing bodies of the heavens illumined. He wondered at the strangeness that man should be the metal that the Lord chose to be his craft. How the divine torch must never stop working and repairing what the world does to people. How the heat of His gun is set to the limit of what men might bear and must be so and that that limit is a thing far beyond where most men believe it could be. He thought maybe the Lord needed to learn to work faster, though, that too many spirits became unbonded to the bodies they were meant to inhabit. End up with too much cold metal and not enough fire. A train’s whistle blew far distant and the darkness parted for the sound of it and then closed again as it passed. He went inside and stripped off his pants and his shirt and he got into his bed. Sarah Beth’s ring was on her bedside table with her pearl earrings and there was a note that said to give the ring to Isabelle and the earrings to Abby. He slept though he didn’t think he could.
He got up the next morning and he took the cereal out of the pantry and the milk from the refrigerator and he woke the girls and they both had forgotten for a moment what had passed.
“Was it a dream?” Isabelle asked.
“No, sweetie, it was no dream. We’re gonna be alright, we’re just gonna have to take it a day at a time, okay? It’ll be hard for a while, that’s just the way it works, alright?”
He was all that morning looking at the plans for the windmill and thinking about how to set up the trelliswork for welding, the best angles to use. He welded a seven-by-seven-foot steel square that would be moored to two piles driven into the ground around the well. Mr. Raburn walked into the barn where Larry was welding, the sparks of metal bouncing off his canvas shirt and falling about his boots below.
“Larry, you doin’ alright?”
Larry stopped welding and pulled his hood up over his face. He was sweating and his eyes were red.
“I’m doin’ alright, sir. Could be better, I guess.”
They stood for a while, quiet, Mr. Raburn looking over the base.
“When Sadie died a few years back, I couldn’t think straight for weeks. Even just the simple day-to-day things, I couldn’t do them right. And I know what you’ve got is different, as leavin’ while you’re still alive is a thing of choice, where death, well, there ain’t much choice in that, is there?”
“No, sir, I imagine there isn’t.”
Larry picked the corner of the base up and pushed on it, absently testing the strength of the weld.
“Mr. Raburn, I’m gonna be alright, I think. I’m pretty sure I will at least, but I worry about my girls, Mr. Raburn. I don’t want them to start hatin’ people too young. There’s time enough in the future for that. I don’t want them to get it when they’re just girls.”
“Larry, if you need time, I can give it to you.”
Larry was quiet for a while.
“I’ll be alright. Thank you, though.”
That evening Isabelle came to him embarrassed.
“What’s wrong, Izz?”
“Dad, I’m bleeding.”
“My privates,” she said turning her face from him. “My stomach hurts.”
“Oh, God,” he said, “it’s okay. You’re having your first period. Shit, I wish your mom were here right now.”
He realized as he said it that he shouldn’t have and she was crying. He held her shaking to him.
“I’m sorry, Isabelle. I shouldn’t of said that. Listen, sweetie, wait in the bathroom. I’ll go into town and get you what you need. You’ll be okay, this is just part of growin’ up. Get some Advil for your stomach, I think you’re havin’ cramps. It’ll make it hurt less.”
She said okay into his shirt, but he could hear that she was afraid.
He went and told Abigail that she needed to sit with her sister and talk to her, that he would be back in just a bit.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?”
“It’s alright, your sister’s just feeling a little sick. Listen, I’ll be back in just a bit. Sit outside the door and talk to your sister, alright?”
When he got to the store he walked to the counter a little bit embarrassed and he asked one of the women clerks what he should buy if his daughter was having her first period. The woman told him that he should get sanitary napkins and a heating pad.
“We already have a heating pad, but thank you,” he said, and he went on and bought a box of sanitary napkins.
He left the Dollar General and headed towards the Flying J.
The diner was quiet and he walked towards the row of silver swivel benches in front of the bar. She was sitting behind the counter with her legs crossed and Larry thought to himself that she had always been something prettier than what you’d expect to find where you found her.
She turned a little bit surprised.
“Bobcat,” she said, “it’s been a real long time.”
She walked around the counter and hugged him.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. It’s nothin’ I wasn’t expectin’.”
“Listen, Sarah Beth left me a few days ago.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s just, Izzy’s havin’ her first period and I need someone to talk to her. I don’t mean to put you to anything, I just don’t have anyone else to go to. Raburn’s wife’s been dead for years and I ain’t talked to many women enough since I married Sarah Beth.”
“Listen, sweetie, I understand. I haven’t forgot you neither.”
He smiled for the first time in a while.
“I appreciate it, I really do. I’m sorry it’s been so long. You look like you’re doin’ well.”
“I am. I’m doin’ alright.”
They left the store and drove towards the ranch and the desert stretched far about them and the stars pressed down against them.
When they got to the house he gave Blueeyes what he had bought at the store and he showed her to the bathroom and told Isabelle that there was an old friend of his who would help her. He heard the toilet flush and they waited for a little while and then the door opened and Isabelle let Blueeyes in and Isabelle looked up embarrassed.
He took Abigail and they walked to the porch and waited.
“Is Izzy going to be alright?” Abigail asked him.
“She’s goin’ to be fine.”
“Who’s that lady?”
“She’s a friend of mine from when I was younger.”
“She seems nice.”
“She is, sweetie. She’s a good lady.”
When Blueeyes came out, she and Isabelle were talking and Isabelle was thanking her and Blueeyes told her that it wasn’t anything. Blueeyes got into Larry’s truck and he asked her where she wanted him to take her.
“I still live over on Means.”
“Alright, I’ll take you there.”
They drove in silence for a while, cottontails tearing like shooting stars through the high beams.
“Listen, Blueeyes, I really appreciate this more than maybe I can tell you.”
“I know, sweetie. It’s okay.”
They were quiet for some time.
“When’d she leave you?”
“Three days ago. I cooked her breakfast, and she took the girls to school. Then she left.”
“Why’d she leave?”
“I don’t know. She changed, I guess. People change. Mostly it seems in ways that are hard. It says in the Bible, ‘Like iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens another.’ I wonder sometimes at whoever wrote that down, if maybe they spent all their time around priests or in churches. It’s been my experience the other way around.”
“I’ve seen what you’re sayin’, sweetie.”
“Yeah, well, you ever see anything else, you let me know. That’ll be the place where I’m headin’.”
“I’ve seen somethin’ else. People can be good to each other, Larry, for a little while at least. Maybe not much more than a little while though. I saw it in your girls tonight. You’re not a bad father, Larry. Those girls love you.”
He was quiet and when they got to her house and she opened the door to leave and the light came on in the truck there were tears falling down his face.
When he got home he walked in to make sure the girls were alright, and they were both asleep. He pulled their covers up about them and kissed them on their heads and walked into his room.
In his dream the night came dark and bare down the hillside, constellations upon constellations dripping from her naked skin and her eyes blue where he thought they’d be brown. The stars running off of her pooled molten in the troughs of the hills and shined upwards into the sudden blackness without.
She walked to him almost shyly saying, “I’ve seen you looking at me.”
“Yes,” he said, “almost every night.”
“Why don’t you ever talk to me?”
“I didn’t know I could,” he said, “or that you’d want me to if I knew how.”
“I do,” she whispered silvery onto his cheek and through his hair. “I do.”
When she spoke her words were warmer than he would’ve imagined them to be, and when she kissed him it was with the gray gentleness of owls’ feathers delicately touching the dark.
“I don’t know what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I got two girls and me and I don’t know what to do.”
He woke near tears with longing for the dream to be real but it was not and he felt that he was more alone in that moment than he had ever been, the stars softly glowing between his sheets.
The next morning he woke up and cooked the girls French toast and the agave was blooming outside the house, the white of the blossoms astral in the dawn light, and hummingbirds and bees orbited about it like tiny planets filling with nectar.
“I don’t want to go to school today.”
“Izzy, you’ve only got a day more and it’s summer, and I’ve a treat for us.”
“Tell me what’s the treat and I’ll maybe go to school,” she said smiling.
“I think we’re gonna go to the beach.”
He talked to Mr. Raburn that morning about taking a few days off and Mr. Raburn said it would be okay so long as the windmill was finished. Larry stayed and worked hard in the hot summer sun. He worked the bright blue gun and his bronzed skin glistened about his neck from the heat and he reckoned that he drank a whole cooler of water the day he set up the windmill. Luis worked the loader to hold the steel up and Jorge and Larry made sure the angles were correct. The wire feed sounded a Morse code too fast to comprehend and the windmill stood up and the gearbox was set into place and unlocked and the sucker rod began pumping down and back deep into the ground and the concrete cistern filled again with water.
The next day they pulled onto the road, the turbo whine rising ghostly into the morning dark. Isabelle had asked if Blueeyes could come and Larry said he would think about it. He called her later that night and invited her. He told her that it was for the girls and that she needn’t consider him, though he would be happy to have her too.
“I’d love to, Larry, I really would,” she had said.
They listened to AM country stations and they all sang along and for a while they kept the windows down, everyone’s hair strangely alive in the little pool of wind inside the truck. Beside them the clouds drug their heavy shadows over the dry ground.
He had called ahead and rented a condo in Port Aransas and they spent the day on the beach and grilled hot dogs for lunch, the summer taste of ketchup and mustard filling their mouths. Larry sat with Blueeyes in his bathing suit and his cowboy hat, and the girls played in the surf, jumping the waves and throwing their hands over their heads and falling into the foam. The waves rolled all up and down the beach and the sky held no clouds at all.
“What’ve you been doin’ these years?” Larry asked.
“For a while, it was what I was doin’ when I knew you. I mostly stopped that. I saved money durin’ the last few years, as funny as it might sound. Lately, I’ve been workin’ the counter and such. Bob and his wife have been pretty good to me.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.
She looked down at a cockle shell that she was running her fingers over and her hair fell darkly about in the wind.
“Every so often I see one of the old-timers, but there’s not fun in it anymore. I don’t think really that there ever was. For a little bit there was at least the idea of it. I don’t know. Lately, I can’t think on the past with much fondness.”
“Everybody’s got what they aren’t proud of.”
She looked off over the beach and watched the girls. The gulls cawed crassly in the blue sky.
“Some have more of it than others,” she said looking up at the birds. “I’ve been gettin’ better at not blamin’ myself for things I’ve done. A little better at not blamin’ everybody else, but that’s been maybe harder. Maybe not. You only get one go of this thing. It’s not like you get to start into it knowin’ how to do it. You just kinda feel your way along.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re probably right.”
She looked off at the horizon over the sea, the flatness of it almost unbearable where the sky touched down onto the waters.
“I’d see those other girls and they’d get to dyin’, mostly just in their eyes but some of them actually. I tried not to let it touch me, but sometimes watchin’ death creep in on the eyes of those other girls got me shook up pretty good. I walked in one day to Loreen lyin’ naked and pale in her rosy bath water. She’d cut her wrists.”
She picked up the speckled shell and threw it down towards the sea.
“I can’t say I’ve been shown much to recommend life to me, but I’ve taken a likin’ to it all the same,” she said, standing up from where they were sitting, brushing the sand off her legs.
“Larry, thanks for inviting me out here. I’ve been needin’ to get away for a while.”
“Yeah, you’re welcome. I’m glad you came.”
The girls were walking up from the water.
“Blueeyes, I’m sorry if any of the things you look back on that hurt were things I had part in.”
“Listen, Bobcat, I always loved you.”
“No, you weren’t ever bad to me. I waited for you to come back for a long time, but I guess I wasn’t that surprised when you didn’t,” she said.
That night Larry lit a lantern and parceled a section of beach out of the darkness and there was the smell of kerosene burning. The girls ran about in the paraffin light catching the little sand-colored ghost crabs, diving around on the sand laughing and yelling.
“Daddy, I got one,” Abigail yelled, running up to him, holding a yellow plastic bucket up to the lantern, her hair all adrift in the shore wind.
“Yeah, sweetie. It’s a pretty lookin’ one.”
After he put the girls to bed, their sheets hot against their sunburned skin, he walked out onto the beach by himself. The sand was wet against his bare feet and the onshore wind blew warm off the sea. He stood beneath the heavens burning, the stars pulsing like coals in the wind. He stood there for a long time and he loved his girls such that his heart ached and he prayed that they would stay unbroken, but he was afraid because he knew that the world breaks everything. That almost none escape its iron embrace, clutching and pressing the souls of men into the shape of a thing not touched by God for a very long time. He knew also, though, that some survive and so he prayed that his daughters would grow strong enough that they could keep themselves away from some of the night. After he had stood a long time on the beach he turned and walked back into the condo.
When he went inside, he found Abigail in his bed and she was sobbing.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
She was half-asleep.
“I don’t want you to leave us. I don’t want you to leave.”
He couldn’t say anything for a long time. He just held her, his jaws clenched, and when he spoke he was crying.
“I’m not goin’ to leave you, I promise. And I won’t promise you what I can’t keep.”
She quieted and he held her until she stilled and he fell asleep with her pulled against his chest all nested in the covers and the dark.
Outside the stars caught in the mesquite branches and on the thorns, and everything went swinging on round the pole star, grinding the nocturnal mills.
Offshore in the deeps of the sea, sardines swirled in great silver shoals upward between the serried rays of moonlight, and two marlins cut through the schools, their great swords thrashing back and forth, flashing bright in that marine dark, flashing like meteors through the black water.
© 2009 University of North Carolina Greensboro