Suzanna stands in the middle of the field of harvested cornstalks, her hands on her hips, her belly bulging, a machete on the ground at her feet. Although it didn’t yield much in the way of food, the maíz patch contains plenty of dead stalks that now need to be dealt with.
She could leave them standing until spring. The elk and deer would probably find them useful as winter forage. Certainly, the raccoons would enjoy the remnants of the corn that was too small to pick. Not that she wants the pestilential beasts to get any ideas about coming back next season for ripe corn. They don’t need to be encouraged.
She scowls at Dos and Uno, who are chasing each other through the rattling stalks. Perhaps next year they’ll make themselves useful. They certainly didn’t protect anything this season.
She bends awkwardly to pick up the machete and hefts its smooth cottonwood handle in her right hand, then swings it experimentally in a long sideways circle. The long flat metal blade makes a hissing sound in the crisp fall air. If nothing else, chopping stalks will make her feel better. They won’t be visible anymore from the cabin porch, taunting her inability to make them produce or to protect the little they cared to yield. And she needs the exercise.
In Don Fernando, there’s always someone to hire for this type of work. Gregorio Garcia or one of his cousins. But here there are no young men eager for a few coins. And Gerald and Ramón are busy with their own winter-preparation chores: hand-hewing sections of board to partition the cows from the hay in the barn, hauling and splitting more firewood, placing yet more rocks at the base of the chicken run to guard from predators. Raccoons, those furry vexations, love eggs even more than corn.
Suzanna scowls at the thought of the pesky raccoons. Her grip tightens on the machete. The resulting pressure on her still-tender palm reminds her to pinch her thumb and forefinger around the machete handle, the way Ramón showed her. She repositions her hand and flicks her wrist forward and down. The blade swings smoothly. Her raccoon-chopping fantasy may even be plausible.
Suzanna chuckles and sets to work, cutting steadily down the first row of dead stalks. At the end, she turns and nods in satisfaction. Severed stalks scatter the ground, their long dead leaves stabbing in every direction. The half-grown Ute puppies run among them, chasing each other and their own tails.
As she watches them she feels a sudden pressure under her bottom left rib, shoving outward. She takes a slow deep breath, then massages the spot with her left hand. The pressure shifts toward her abdomen. Suzanna grins. This isn’t the first time this had happened. This baby seems to crave activity. Little feet and elbows poke outward the minute Suzanna stops moving.
“You want more action, little one?” she asks. “Shall we cut some more cornstalks?” The brown and black puppy yips as if in answer and Suzanna laughs, then goes back to work.
The baby may like movement, but Suzanna finds that she can’t chop as many stalks as she would like to in any one work session. It takes her almost a week to get to the last row of maíz. She’s moving up the row, her back to the western mountains, when the weather shifts, the air suddenly colder. A haze of damp stings her cheeks. But vigorous movement and her heavy wool coat have made her so warm that the bite of the air merely feels invigorating. She keeps chopping.
Suddenly a voice behind her says, “You may want to wait to finish that.”
Suzanna turns to see Gerald. Beyond him, a mass of gray cloud blocks any view of the western peaks. “I don’t think you have time to cut the rest of the row,” he tells her. He gestures toward the clouds. “This snowstorm’s coming in pretty quickly. “
Suzanna frowns. “It’s too early for snow. Not a heavy snow, anyway. It’s only the middle of October!”
“You’re not in Don Fernando anymore, wife,” he says gently.
“So I’ve been told,” she says. She looks back at her row of cornstalks. “I just want to finish this.”
He glances up the hill toward the barn. “I can get the other machete. We can finish it together.”
“I know you’re busy—”
“The barn is well enough. And the wood can wait.” He steps forward to kiss her forehead. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She watches him head toward the barn with his long easy stride, and smiles. He’s interrupted his own work to help her with something that isn’t essential, but is important to her. He’s a good man and she loves him dearly. Even if he does think this desolate mountain valley is the best possible place to live.
Together they quickly finish leveling the row of dead cornstalks. Then Suzanna heads toward the cabin, the dogs at her heels, while Gerald returns the machetes to the barn. The clouds have dropped into the valley now and the wind is pushing them steadily toward the cabin. The air is bitterly cold.
When she reaches the porch, Suzanna turns to gaze at the approaching storm. She can’t see the western peaks, but she knows they’re there. A patch of blue sky has opened directly above the almost-black clouds that cover them. The blue is a glorious contrast to the ominous billows below. Even in its foreboding iciness, the scene is majestic.
She squints at the foothills farther down, where a gray screen of moisture slants toward the grassy brown slopes. The mist half obscures the hills, but she can see movement at the top of the one on the right. A lone elk?
No. A thick-set man on a black horse. Facing the cabin across the valley. And Suzanna.
There’s something menacing about the stillness of both beast and man. And familiar. Those sloping yet bulky shoulders. The shapeless mass below. Suzanna’s stomach twists. It’s the same figure she saw south of the cabin in July. And it still reminds her of Enoch Jones.
Suzanna shudders, blinks, and shakes her head. Surely she’s imagining it. When she looks again, the gray screen of mist has thickened and dropped. The hilltop is gone. There’s nothing to see. And the screen of snow is moving steadily toward the cabin. She shivers again and the half-grown dogs slink up the porch steps and edge toward her feet.
Gerald crosses the yard and follows Uno and Dos onto the porch. “Aren’t you cold?” he asks. He circles the animals to move behind Suzanna and wrap his arms around her waist. His cold cheek touches hers as he looks past her at the oncoming storm. “I can keep you warmer than the dogs can,” he murmurs. “And we’re all set for winter, so I can do plenty of this.”
She smiles, tilts her head toward his, and nestles back into his arms. Whatever she thought she saw, it isn’t there now. And he is.
You’ve just read the seventh chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.