Heather Rounds’s poetry/fiction has most recently appeared in such places as
Big Lucks’ Quick Lucks Edition, Marco Polo Art Magazine, PANK and elsewhere. Her
novel, THERE, won the 2011 International Book Award through Emergency Press and is slated for publication
in March of 2013. She currently lives in Baltimore.
The farmhouse sat not far from route 340, across from the Great Valley of Colorado. It belonged to people who,
like all other people, consisted of bones that each had a name—names these people would never know. One of
them had 206 bones, one had fewer and one had more. They grew sugar beets and raised chickens. The names of their
bones made no difference.
The farmhouse included a woman whose head sat small under tight curls. She spent most minutes in the house’s smallest room with a bed consisting of iron and linen. She did not always know how to handle the minutes, but still the minutes came for her as she lay among the iron and linen. The minutes pinned her and she could hear a ticking. It had not always been that way.
The daughter of the woman whose head sat small under tight curls, Claire, lived in the farmhouse, too. Claire had never lived beyond the farmhouse, but she could trace the cracks in the earth as far away from her home as her eyes would let her go. She could name the birds moving above her, no matter which direction she looked: ash-throated and gray flycatchers, bald eagles, blue herons, pinyon jays, and peregrine falcons. Claire had eyes that caught light the way an Alpine Buttercup holds its yellow. If she had learned the names of her bones she would have done her best to remember those names, always.
Claire met her husband at the furthest distance she’d ever gone—on the plain just beyond the Great Valley—when they were both just children. He saw the way she held her head up to the sky of birds and the way her eyes caught the light. He aimed his gun toward a bird, then twirled it away and said he just liked jokes. She said please no. He leaned for her heart and reached for her breast. The cold wind rolling over the plain jerked their knees, leaving the two face to face, rocking left then right, arms folded, hands tucked. A sensation burned slow from their stomach to their skin. I’m sorry, he whispered. She nodded. A lip of light lined the valley as the sky went darker. His voice, her name, things came falling. This all happened slow over the course of many years. Claire had come to think of those years often.
Claire’s husband had come to think of the tilled earth that sat around the farmhouse and wondered how to make his sugar beets grow stronger. He saw velvetleaf weeds rooted at his every edge. He thought of how to blow away the weeds with flamethrowers too expensive to own. He thought of control. He thought of how to make something wilt and die. He thought of the tractors he didn’t own. He thought of how to imprint his fist on the velvetleaf weeds. He thought of split second kills. He thought of splitting the seconds. He thought of splitting the kills. He thought of all the cracks and the velvetleaf weeds. He thought of how he limped with his shotgun foot. That’s what they called him—shotgun foot—for having shot the gun in his foot as a child.
The woman whose head sat small under tight curls had come to think of how air slowly chips and bites at the rocks beyond the Great Valley. She thought of how rock moves with the wind, too slow to see. She thought of how ice once ground the edges of the earth and polished the jaggedness of cliffs and made the valley round. She thought of gravity and of everything wind can move.
The farm did not include children, but the farm was loud with small things: insects, some cats and some chickens. Claire kept these small things close. She would have liked children, too, but inside her she could grow no more bones and a wind scoured her depths. When she tried to make bones, only blood came. It came up from the dark and quietly joined the water and swirled away.
A day came when the woman whose head sat small under tight curls rose from her bed, went to the kitchen, turned to Claire and said listen. Claire stood at the sink, watching the water drain. She turned toward the window. Outside the rain had started. The chickens stood still and water dropped from them.
The woman whose head sat small under tight curls said listen. The gravity chipped and bit at the rock, too slow to see. No fire killed the velvetleaf weeds but they fell against the strong rain.
From the kitchen window Claire saw shotgun foot. He limped up from under the rain. He lifted himself up. The lip of light on the Grand Valley was a cold blue beneath him and the stars. Listen, said the woman whose head sat small under tight curls. Listen to how quiet the chickens get in rain.
The woman whose head sat small under tight curls walked to the porch. The rain ticked and she looked beyond the ticking. Shotgun foot came up and put his arms to her small shoulders. She was so small and he felt the smallness under his hands. Where have you gone, he said.
That night the minutes stayed mostly calm, until sleep and waking met the next morning and another day developed. Then another day developed again. At the farmhouse days always came again. The rain and then the wind began to come more often. The wind made its way over the small leaves that began to crowd over the heads of sugar beets. The velvetleaf weeds adjusted themselves high above. Their purple-tinged stalks flung out seeds everywhere. The sugar beets sat peaceful in their thin rows, despite all the flinging of seeds. The velvetleaf weeds seemed denser by the minute.
Claire spent these days bent to each velvetleaf weed. One by one she took the purple-tinged stalks with a corn knife and flung them far. She pulled the roots above the earth. The velvetleaf weeds seemed denser by the minute.
Sometimes shotgun foot watched her. Still, despite anything, she framed some minutes completely. Claire raised
her head to a sky of birds. The fuzzy heart shaped leaves of the velvetleaf weeds edged him. They squeezed the
moisture from earth. They squeezed him and flung seeds. It seemed impossible to catch up. He limped. A chicken
approached and pecked some seeds. It chipped at a heart-shaped leaf.
Listen, said the woman whose head sat small under tight curls. She’d lifted herself out of the linen and iron of her bed. She’d crossed the kitchen and the porch. She found Claire and shotgun foot in the distance. Listen, she said, but she could not say it in a voice they could hear. She could not decipher their shapes. She returned to her bed. There came a ticking.
Shotgun foot raised the chicken to the block of wood. Inside him he saw how Claire’s blood met the water and swirled away. He thought perhaps she didn’t eat right.
Claire could not watch such blows these days. Her head went toward the horizon. She waited for the lip of light on the valley.
He raised the ax above the block of wood, above the chicken. He saw some greenish tacks, a sag in the lace of her wedding slip now used for curtains. He saw her move like a lullaby. He saw how her blood met the water and swirled away. He felt the chicken under his hand. Perhaps she didn’t eat right, he thought. He let his arm fall with the ax. A sting came, a ringing came, and darkness. So much darkness and Claire came through the ringing. Her voice grew. Listen, she said. The chicken was still there, headless, gurgling and fumbling. It pecked for the ground and could grasp nothing. Claire cried and the chicken fumbled toward her cry. The chicken came to her foot and gurgled. She bent down close.
What now, she wondered.
Enough, said shotgun foot. He picked up the headless chicken and dropped it in the dark of the barn. A cat ate his head.
Sometime between sleeping and waking, before it began again, Claire saw the water and blood meet and swirl over the edge. A loose stream grew across the floor like a crack in earth. It moved beyond the door. Black sand lined the stream. She followed the stream and it took her under the lip of light that glowed the barn. The lip of light hung above a darkness collapsing at her edges. The darkness moved fast. She felt wind scouring within her, chipping her into a shape she couldn’t see. She couldn’t see. Opening the barn only darkness came, but she heard the headless chicken’s gurgle. She quickly shut herself inside the barn.
At dawn shotgun foot walked across the porch, he could see the velvetleaf weeds at his edges, glossed in morning’s dew. They locked to the heel of his boots. He reached down and flung them back. He watched as they grew right back and glistened. It seemed denser by the minute. He could feel the rumble of the weeds. A vibration. The seeds flung. A gurgling and Claire humming. All sound from the barn. He opened the door and the headless chicken fumbled out of Claire’s lap. He took it under his arm and placed it in the truck. He drove the headless chicken beyond the farm, beyond route 340, beyond the Great Valley of Colorado.
He drove it to the veterinarian, who placed it on the cool steel table. Its claws scratching. It gurgled. The veterinarian knew nothing.
How could he, the veterinarian said.
Shotgun foot drove the headless chicken further, to the university. The professors placed him on a smooth white table. It gurgled. Its claws scratched the smooth white.
How, the professors said.
Shotgun foot drove the headless chicken back to the farmhouse, past route 340, past the Great Valley of Colorado.
How, hummed Claire.
The woman whose head sat small under tight curls had remained in bed that day. She was thinking about the iron that made up the bed and how it was also the iron living in the sun and endless other stars and black sand lining many streams, as well as the chlorophyll dotting the cells of the velvetleaf weeds beyond the small room. As the minutes pinned her, she could see it running through small and distant shapes. Suddenly she could see Claire, a softness clogging the air beyond the iron. Quick, said Claire from the distance. Though it chipped at her bones to do so, she rose from the iron and linen and moved toward the kitchen. From a drawer she took an eyedropper. She filled it with small grains of corn, milk and water and handed it to Claire.
Claire found the headless chicken trying to balance on a wooden perch. Below, several headed chickens collected and chattered. Claire swept the headed chickens away and placed her hand under the headless chicken. She squeezed the eyedropper’s liquid down the hole where the head once was. The liquid swept the sticky mucus down its windpipe. She named him Michael.
Minutes moved and everyone on the farm continued as the days came again. The winds continued to chip the rock. The velvetleaf weeds continued to rise over the sugar beets and Claire yanked them from the earth. The seeds flung denser by the minute. Michael balanced on a perch as much as he could. He walked clumsily and tried to preen. There was the grain and the water in the eyedropper and Claire’s voice in his blood. Her voice swam and batted up and down. Michael gurgled and pecked at the ground and could grasp nothing. There came a ticking.