She watches Harlan through the window as he trudges across the frozen yard. He is tired, movements slow and labored; he’s worn out from years of hauling hay from the back end of a hay-baler, the wearing out of his body at the forgiving end of a pitchfork. Now that Harlan's joints and muscles are starting to go, Demmie has been thinking of late that his mind might be, too.
Not that he's done anything crazy or turned up lost at the neighbor’s feed lot down the road, but recently he mumbles to himself when he fusses over his papers and sometimes she thinks he maybe forgets where he is going. On occasion he will stand in the yard under the giant pine tree gazing at the barn and hog shed, as if there is something he is trying to recall, something that had been urgent enough five minutes ago, then he will suddenly start off again, remembering—so she thinks—whatever it is he is doing. The sight of him, now, hunched against the cold gray light, gazing into the white side of the tilted hog shed, disturbs her the way it does when he mutters to himself and knits his brow into an anger that sets deep into the lines of his face.
When he starts off again toward the doors of the barn, she turns back to close the cupboard from which she has taken a cup for her coffee.
This morning is like all the others. She was up with Harlan before there was any light to see by, the familiar bang of the hog feeder coming across the open yard as a pink snoot departed its trough, and the metal door slams shut in one of the sheds. It's harder getting up these days, even more so now that it's winter, the cold draft off the floor chilling beneath her where she stands by the window. She watches Harlan as he passes from sight, his body bent like an old tree. The disappearance of him around the side of the old hog shed like the soul of a man gone to the afterlife.
She as well as Harlan bears the signs of labor, and though her mind is sharp she scowls continuously from a wealth of pain that accompanies her from sunup to sundown, sometimes now throughout the night. It is still dark in the corners of the room, and she looks as dark as the room itself, brooding over the dishes from a lifetime of resentments, prophesies now apparently coming to pass.
Though the Almanac calls for an early thaw, it has been a bitter winter. Now it shows no signs of letting up. The forecast is for freezing cold, again tonight, an icy wind that will reach down like a hand and grab them by the neck, a wind chill that will reach to twenty below. Livestock warnings are in effect for the next two nights according to the radio, so neighboring farmers are busy getting their animals in. Demmie can't remember when it has been so cold but then things had been easier all around since the depression. Now with feed prices the way they are and everyone mortgaged up to their ears, it seems to her that retribution is finally on its way. Harlan's brother Everett is always talking about another Depression, but then, as far as Demmie is concerned, he always did have something to gripe about.
She crosses the marred and worn linoleum, eases slowly into a chair at the kitchen table. She pours herself a cup of coffee, then rubs her puffed and wrinkled face, moaning slowly as a way of announcing the coming of another day. It's here she lingers longer and longer every morning, thinking of Galen, her youngest, who seems lost to everything she's tried to do for him, lost to the whole world, in fact, and wondering about Harlan, who seems a little lost now at times, too.
Light, the color of lemons, ambers where it sinks in shadow near the floor. Coffee bubbles in the pot. Outside the window, a rusted gate sighs on its hinges, the drone of its empty voice calling to her when the wind rolls in off the fields. It sweeps past the teetering bones of the sagging white farmhouse, racing through the outbuildings beside
the barn, before dying away in the pine and elm windbreak along the road. The wind and sigh of the gate ae something Demmie is used to hearing, but only the sound of water slopping in the sink when she soaps the dishes, and the occasional banging of the hogfeeder breaks the stillness of the room. She spends the better part of a day here, hunched in her robe, her long gray hair still down from its confinement of pins.
It is a drafty room not suited to the weak‑hearted and lazy cats that come and go all the time at the farm. They rub their scarred and tattered heads against her leg before trotting off into the mudroom where a pile of gunny sacks makes an impromptu bed and shelter from the morning cold. She likes the cats, but at times there are just too many.
In the last forty years Demmie has drowned more litters of kittens, and warned off more stray dogs with a tree high blast from the shotgun than she cares to remember. Every spring there comes a new straggler, an orange feline missing half its tail, or a dog or two, that will hang around through summer and winter, before going off somewhere in the woods to disappear. In the past, when there got to be too many, Demmie would wade out into the Iowa heat with Harlan's gun and send a volley of buckshot across the tops of their ears, or round up a gunny sack full of kittens, spitting and clawing, and haul them off to the cow pond.
The kids were horrified by this when they were younger but now that they have children of their own, to supply them with unwanted menageries of orphaned and hobo animals, they remember the shock and indignations of childhood with a shake of the head and long, wide, grin.
Galen, the youngest, does not shake his head. He alone does not appear to see the humor in things. Not that any of them expect that he remembers or cares about the kittens. As far as Demmie can tell, his memories are of himself. They are, it seems to her, of a different time and place altogether.
He told her that he had watched her once, out in the field, bent over a feed sack at the edge of the pond, her feet splashing in the muddy water as she wrestled with the bag. When she had gone back up to the house he had crept down to the waters edge to watch in horror as the lifeless kittens floated to the surface. He said that when he was older he had told his sister Ellen about it. He told her that he wasn't sure at the time it was their mother who had put them there, or that they had been what was in the feed sack when she held it under the water, but later on he said he had figured it out. He said he could tell from her face that she didn't like doing it, and had tried to remember that about her until it no longer mattered. Now it had all but disappeared from his memory, Demmie figures, but she feels bad when she thinks of it, and how he must have felt.
When he left for good it was in a rage, tearing out of the gravel drive like a madman ‑ which is what Harlan always said he was—spitting gravel rocks behind him, burning through every gear with a loud screech as he popped out of one into the other and the tail of his 74 Pontiac wagged up the road like a snake. There had been an argument, a final blood‑letting of accusation and reprisal, the opening up of a chasm that he has since fallen into. Now he lives elsewhere and will not, it seems, be able to overcome the memory of that day.
Harlan's red face was flushed white, his brow sweating profusely in a crease of anger, the ball of his fist reigning down on Galen’s flexed arm.
"You lousy sonofabitch," he'd said. And he flailed with his thick arms until Galen could stand it no longer and lashed out knocking the old man down.
"Stop it!" Demmie had screamed. "Stop it!" But it was too late and Harlan lay on the floor with his arms flung wide, his head cocked funny like a bird. The blood on his lip trickled down to his chin.
"Oh, shit!" Galen said and ran to him and pressed his hands onto his father’s chest. The eyes of the young man were filled with tears, not the tears of sadness but of left over rage. "Goddamn fool," he said.
Harlan coughed and spit blood from his red and swollen lip.
"You won't stop until you kill him," Demmie said. She reached down and drew the tips of two fingers across Harlan's lip and wiped them on the back of her dress. Both her hands then cradled his face. Then she looked at Galen and yelled a furious, "Just go away! Why don't you just go away!"
"Fine," he said, rising, pushing a shock of long black hair away from his forehead. He rubbed his hand back and forth against his neck as he paced the room. Demmie could see a cross with a small black dot in each quadrant tattooed on his arm.
"All right then,” he screamed. “You've seen the last of me!" and ran from the house.
The screen door banging on its frame and the sound of the car door slamming were not heard by Demmie at the time. The squeel of the tires was not what she noticed, or the popping of gears. What she noticed was the way Harlan looked at her when he came to and felt lightly with his finger the cut on his lip, looking at her as though she had been the one who had knocked him on the floor. But afterwards, the next day and all that week, she couldn't get the sound out of her head. She would see Harlan's face looking at her and hear the door bang shut, and the car door slam, followed by the gravel spitting out from the tires and the squeal of rubber burning onto the pavement. The black marks were there for months afterwards, twin ribbons of scorched tire looking like two black snakes running away.