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Mercy Road (Dalia Pagani)


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  The Ridge. Like all things, it has its source. It began underwater. A jumble of rock, penole, sand, and clay heaped up and heaved out, melted down, and dumped in piles, mounds, and sheets. Bedrock and moraine.

Shaped by glacier flow and its debris, the ridge has been scoured, rounded, smoothed over; gaps widened to notches. Ten thousand years ago the ice receded and carried boulders, huge erratics, and rolled them high and far, in open fields and tops of mountains, to form the crown of the valley, the collar of the sky.

The sun rises over the carcasses of enormous beasts, pulverized now, but once they were ruminating, swimming beasts. There are remains. Whalebone, woolly mammoth fur. There is evidence.

This is what there is to see: violence in a shallow lake, a river loosened of itself, microscopic time in a bog. No one can belong to this, yet it invites all, it asks for immersion. It offers the deranged more of the same; and to the blessed, more blessings. All night long the snowy owl calls out from its boreal woods. It cannot imagine its own absence.



Winter, cramped like bears, wobbling from couch to bed to fire to food, and nobody said a word. If it hadn't been for the TV, some nights there would have been no human sound.

Earl dressed each morning with a sense of foreboding, feeling old and mortal. He layered on thermals and shirts and jackets, three pairs of socks. Hands in his pockets fingering bolts and nuts, short strings, matches, pencil stubs, and the thick card of the private investigator. Who's missing? the man had asked, and when Earl said, My wife, the man said, What do you want with her? and Earl didn't know what to say and walked out.

Butch heard his father pacing between bedrooms, outside, turning lights on, off, opening doors, slamming them shut. One day he saw him in the truck, head bent over the wheel, and for a moment thought he was dead, but then he raised his head and wiped his face with the back of his hand. He was only crying. Good, he thought, good.

The snow and moon and river and trees and the dog out back sometimes howled as if pleading, and the deer herd refused to freeze so early in winter. The cold wind formed sheets of new ice under the kitchen door. The mountains at dawn were like frozen beasts. It all spoke of the wild profusion of things. Under it all the bones of old Indians shifted and rattled and their curse spread as their bones became sand, which settled in deep wells and became part of the water everyone drank.

She became part of them in the same way. Enormous with the pull of her absence, and she thrived in the confusion she left behind so that even the beams and floorboards and rock foundation shifted under the weight of her abandonment.

She was the reason the sun faded and left a pink glow in the sky long into the night. The reason pots were burned and dinner was tasteless. The reason Earl walked around drunk one night saying to his children, It hurts like a sonofabitch. He held his hand to his jaw and when the children looked at him he asked, What's your problem?

"Butch?" Tina said.

"Yeah, what?"

"Want to play the Ouija board?"

"No."

"Come on, let's. I'll let you do all the asking."

"I thought you didn't like this game. You said it was stupid."

"I can't sleep."

"All right, bring it up here, I'm not going downstairs."

She stepped carefully like a thief, knowing what she was after, afraid of being caught. She saw the game in a corner by the kitchen window and when she heard Earl cough she froze, she leaned against the wall, terrified. Of what? Why? By the time she walked back to Butch's room he was asleep and wouldn't wake.

"Sid? Sid, you awake?" "Huh?"

"It's all right, it's just me. I can't sleep. You want to play the Ouija game?"

Sid, feet dangling from the bed, blanket around his shoulder. They whispered as the wind blew snow and piled it high on their roof. They asked, Is she alive? Is she coming hack? Does she love me?

The old apple tree broke under the weight of snow. Not far, on the road to the ridge, a car swerved to avoid hitting a fawn but it was too late. The fawn stood in front of the car, her foreleg raised. The driver stepped out and walked timidly toward the animal saying, Oh, my God. Bright red blood poured out of the fawn's nose and mouth. Eyes unblinking, steady on her feet, she did not know what happened. Not far, high in the forest, a pack of coydogs raised their heads, crazed by the scent of blood.


Mornings came like a jolt, bright, fast. She waited for the men to take their rifles and go. For their smell of coffee and smoke to go out the door. When she was sure they were gone she turned the TV on to the weather. Loved the prophetic voice of the weatherman. How he elaborated and paused, lowering his voice, holding his pointer in both hands, looking at the satellite map and taking his time to say the milder weather would soon give way to bitter, bitter cold. He looked into the screen with apologetic eyes as if to say, I'm sorry for the hardships of weather.

Shook the floor mats outside. Crows screamed. Slammed the door and a sheet of snow slushed down the roof. Plugged in the vacuum and blue sparks shot out. Vacuum snagged on the rug, spit out pieces of metal. Pennies, screws, bent nails, junk. She expected to find something of hers in the rug. A pin, a link of gold chain, something broken and forgotten, a sign, something she could hold in the palm of her hand and say, This is it, this is why you left.

Emptied ashtrays, did a ton of dishes, found dirty cups under beds, beer bottles on the sofa, on the porch. Bagged trash, rolled newspapers into tight logs, put boots in the pantry, hung up shirts, coats, and hats on the peg wall next to the gold clock which was the only thing bright and shiny in the house.

Sid had won it at the Grange raffle years ago; wrapped it and gave it to her for her birthday, two days late. Bought a card to go with it, a funny card with a mouse chasing a cat. Inside, it read: Time to get even. She hadn't seen the sense in it but thanked him anyway.

Clothes in the dryer, frying pot off, drumsticks sitting in their own grease. The men liked them that way. She had peanut butter on a spoon, Jell-O pudding. Saltines.

Caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and thought she saw her again, thought she heard her say: Be somebody. Somebody. But who the hell was she? She was gone like daylight, gone like a dream. Colorless and smelling of nothing. A starling chased by a band of crows. And here she was cleaning up in a house of men.

The weatherman talked fast as if he had no time to lose, as if the storms in the global air were upon him as well. Hurricanes, palm trees bent to the ground, boats heaved up on land, a young couple huddled under a thick gray blanket, a house, or what remained of it, splintered on a beach. Disasters.

The worst that happened on the ridge was the cold. Ordinary cold and snow, tons of it. That was to be expected. Every now and then there was a botched killing, a minor robbery, collisions between man and moose. The week she left, the front page of the local paper had a photo of a two-hundred-foot spruce toppled over a farmhouse, roof collapsed, split in two. The tree's roots up in the air like a scream. The back page of the paper had a photograph of a skier also up in the air, tree line far below. Grainy, black and white, unreal.

Winter was full of bright bloodstained roads; in the woods small animals howled as they tried to drag themselves out of traps. In the ridge irrevocable things occurred all the time.

The blue streak of a jay against the white sky. Air frozen. Day grizzly. White upon white upon white for days. A flicker of light off the ridge like spun metal. The men were up there, walking in silence, waiting, ready to shoot. They wouldn't be home till dark.

Coat on, she walked down the unplowed road, snow above her ankles. It would get deeper, more trees would topple, the ridge would appear like a scar in the land, the scream of gunshot would echo for miles, the river would freeze, calamities would occur, houses would burn, and church bells would toll. Winter would come and go and come again.

Walked far enough from the house to see it for what it was. A ramshackle place. A makeshift arrangement.

If it hadn't been for the tepee at the far end of the town there would have been nothing unusual to see. It rose out of the ground like a flesh cone, canvas and willow poles. A stream of smoke up the top. The mailbox was painted iridescent pink: SANDRA LOOS-LAND. HIDDEN LIGHT, GRAVITY FIELDS, INC.

Earl hated the tepee and the woman in it. Called her a goddamn witch, Indian witch. She had no indoor plumbing but had a spring that never froze. Had no electric, a blind crow for a pet, had her blacktop drive dug up. Built the tepee after the house burned down in a chimney fire. Witch. Earl spat out the window every time he drove by. When he plowed the road in winter he turned the blade around, encasing the woman's car in snow boulders. He tried to have the town slap her with a fine, something having to do with building codes and such, but there was no law that said you couldn't put up a tepee and live in it.

Fox walked by the tepee and Sandra saw her and waved. "What a snow! Isn't this beautiful? I just love snow, don't you just love snow?" She spoke in halting tones, as if in a spell. Eyes like river water. Smell of lavender. Face flushed with life.

"Yeah, it's nice." Fox had never said anything like that before. Snow was snow. Cold was cold. A day was a day. In fifteen years she hadn't given snow a thought, except to say, It's snowing again.

Sandra leaned toward Fox. Fox pulled back.

"We're having a little celebration tonight and we'd love it if you could come. Food and music...and a chance to talk." She breathed the word talk.

"What do you mean?" Fox said.

"Tonight's the solstice and it's very special, there's going to be a lunar eclipse."

She wasn't about to ask what was so special about that.

"Why don't you come? Share with us. It'll be just us, just women."

She could not believe she was being asked to a party, even if it was just to look at the moon. She'd never been to a party. At school she'd been the youngest, shortest, ugliest, and unfriendliest girl in her class. "Okay," Fox said, "I'll come." The words rushed out, and embarrassed for sounding almost happy, she turned and walked away.

Sandra's friends were transplants, they'd come to the ridge from somewhere else and built houses in the sunny hills outside of the ridge, houses so new they made the old farms look like pictures in old postcards. They had windmills, solar panels, ponds shaped like hearts, Victorian gazebos purchased from catalogs. They had llamas for pets and pretty horses. They jogged, they knew about Skin So Soft, and the count of E. coli bacteria in the Fulfillment River's swimming holes, they swam naked. Nekked, seen them women nekked in the millpond! Earl would announce. Oughta be against the law to be ugly and nekked. Women who posted the land against hunting, trapping, trespassing.

Back in the house she did her eyes and lips. Dampened her hair until it pricked.

You look like a headful of needles. Like somethin' struck by lightning.

Set the table, fed the dog. Sprayed the house with perfume so the men knew she'd cleaned up.

The weatherman said: Accumulation of five to six inches by nightfall in higher elevations.... Out the window the clouds looked distorted and enormous. Sunlight filtered through clouds like lamp-tinted light.

Didn't want to go out but didn't want to stay in either. Her words rang clear: Do something, anything--join a club, go to church, get a boyfriend, a job, something. What's wrong with you...scared of daylight, scared of people?...go on...do something, will you? Go on...get out of the house...what's wrong with you?... And to Earl she'd complained: That girl, holed up in that room. Nose up in the air.

In the air. Holed up. In that room. And here she was, out the door, going somewhere. It wasn't fear of the outside but fear of what held her in. Afraid it was stronger than her, afraid if she stepped out she'd never be let in again.

Gunshot bounced off the river. The men were out there with hands stiff and eyes burning trying to make things out in the dark, things which weren't there. Later they'd cramp the kitchen with their gloom.

She took clothes out of the dryer and changed in the kitchen. A white cotton T-shirt with long sleeves, a black wool sweater, white underwear, jeans, wool socks, a pair of black impractical boots up to her calves, a red mouth. She rolled the coat sleeves up and felt that tremendous weight on her shoulders. Grabbed a lighter from the table, a pack of cigarettes, and walked out.
 
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Excerpted from Mercy Road by Dalia Pagani. Copyright © 1998 by Dalia Pagani. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.