Scott Russell Sanders
As Harlan emerged from the woods, where he had searched all afternoon for a black bear that might have existed only in his dreams, he paused in the high pasture and gazed into the airy gulf of the Mad River Valley. In all that expanse of drifting clouds, blowing grasses, grazing sheep, circling hawks, and green mountains receding away ridge beyond ridge, his eye caught on a moving speck down between the farmhouse and barn, a speck he recognized, even from this distance, as the Swedish girl rising from the pond in her white chemise. He watched her intently, wishing he possessed the hawk’s acute vision. The girl bent over to wring out the hem of her chemise, shook out her long hair, and then crossed the lawn toward the farmhouse with the languid, upright gait that reminded him of a browsing deer. Only when she disappeared into the house did he realize that he had been holding his breath.
Her name was Katerina, and Harlan thought of her as a girl in the same way he still thought of himself as a boy, even though both of them were eighteen, old enough to vote or fight in a war. His own father had been eighteen when he joined the Marines to untangle himself from a pregnant girlfriend, and had been nineteen when a rare on-target shell from the Iraqis killed him during the final week of the Persian Gulf War. News of his death reached the girlfriend two months after she’d given birth to Harlan, two months before she handed the newborn to her parents and lit out for parts unknown.
With the sun dipping toward Black Bear Mountain, Katerina would be going inside to heat a tub of water on the woodstove for soaking the widow’s feet. Mrs. Winfield, the widow, complained that she never could get warm, not even now in the dog days of August.
Remembering that he had not filled the wood box before going in search of the bear, Harlan hustled down the mountainside along the mowed path, at the loping, headlong pace that used to make Mr. Winfield laugh.
“Once I could leap like a spring lamb,” the old man used to say, “but now I lurch like a one-legged frog.” He also liked to say, “Kick up your heels while you can, my boy, before gravity catches up with you.”
Remembering this raspy voice, silent now for half a year, Harlan missed the old man keenly. If Mr. Winfield were alive, he would have scolded Harlan for neglecting to fill the wood box until Sunday. All chores, except milking, were to be avoided on the Sabbath. Although Mr. Winfield had refused to attend church since feuding with the Lutheran minister, he believed in keeping the Sabbath holy, which meant resting both man and beast. Even if rain threatened to ruin a crop of hay, which lay cut and windrowed in the fields, he would not bale it on a Sunday. In spite of Mr. Winfield’s death, Harlan still felt free only on the Sabbath to lay down his tools and explore the countryside beyond the four hundred acres of the farm.
Nearing the farmstead, Harlan noticed the white chemise fluttering on the clothesline. It was as lovely to him, and as mysterious, as the Queen Anne’s lace swaying on long stems in the ditch.
At the woodshed he filled his arms with split maple that would make a good hot fire and leave scant ashes. He carried this load inside and laid each stick quietly into the box beside the kitchen stove where the tub of water was beginning to steam, then he went outside for another load. When he returned, and knelt beside the wood box, he could hear from the parlor the widow’s quavering voice saying, “It was never so cold in the Old Country.” This was a common lament, although Harlan found it hard to believe that Vermont was any colder than Finland, where Mrs. Winfield had been born. Then he heard Katerina responding in her musical voice, which had a bounce to it that he supposed must have come from her native tongue. She had told Harlan once that English was her fourth language, after Swedish and Finnish and German, yet what came out of her mouth sounded better to him than anything that had ever come out of his own. The streets of Cleveland, the wharves of Lake Erie, and the back roads of northern Ohio had put no polish on his rough speech.
He was kneeling on the kitchen’s worn linoleum, stoking the stove, when Katerina came in to fetch the tub of water. “Here,” he said, rising, “I’ll carry it for you.”
“You think I cannot lift it?” she asked.
“Oh, sure. I just thought I’d spare your back.”
“I am not soft like your American girls.” She pushed up the sleeves of her flannel shirt, baring the sinewy forearms, which he had often glanced at as he worked beside her in the garden, and then she dipped a hand to test the water’s temperature.
“I’m sorry I offered,” he said.
“Ah, well, to save you from sorrow, I will accept your help.” She gave him a wry look that he had seen many times but could never decipher.
Bearing the washtub, trying to keep the water from sloshing over the rim, Harlan followed Katerina into the parlor, where the widow sat in a lamp-lit recliner with a cat draped across her shoulders and a snarl of knitting in her lap.
“Oh, Mr. Winfield,” she said, beaming up at Harlan, “I’ve missed you so.”
Katerina smoothed a palm over the old woman’s thinning white hair. “It’s Harlan, mum, bringing the water to warm your feet.”
A stricken look came over the widow’s face. “Is Mr. Winfield ill?”
“No, mum. Not at all. He’s only out milking the cows.”
The widow beamed again. “Ah, yes, the cows.” Then she looked quizzical. “And who do you say this is?”
“It’s Harlan. You remember Harlan. He minds the farm.”
Mrs. Winfield whispered hoarsely to Katerina, “Is he honest?”
“Honest as the day is long, mum.”
Harlan set the washtub in front of the recliner and backed away. He watched as Katerina removed the slippers and socks and rubbed the old woman’s gnarled feet, placing each in turn into the steaming tub. No matter how many times he’d witnessed this nightly ritual, it still made his throat draw tight.
“Is it evening?” Mrs. Winfield asked.
“It is indeed,” said Katerina. “Time for your supper.”
Without being asked, Harlan fetched a plate of food from the warming oven above the kitchen stove, along with a napkin, bib, and spoon, and he set them out on the pie-crust table beside the rocking chair. He could see in the widow’s milky, unfocused eyes that she had already lost his name, but she smiled at him and said, “Ah, here’s that sweet man again. Isn’t he a sweet man?”
Without answering, Katerina tied the bib around Mrs. Winfield’s neck, then mashed up the beans and potatoes and stewed mutton with the spoon, and began feeding her tiny bites.
Harlan lingered outside the door to the parlor, listening, as the widow muttered nonsense, half of it in Finnish, and Katerina patiently answered. After a spell, as if having pondered the question, Katerina said, “Yes, mum, he is a sweet man.”
Mr. Winfield had told Harlan of seeing bears on the farm in years past, before the forests on nearby mountains had been gouged for ski slopes and condominiums and roads. “Usually at dawn or dusk,” the old man said, “slouching away with a bellyful of our blueberries or apples.” In the spring, a sow bear and her cubs; in high summer, the yearlings foraging on their own; in the fall, burly males that broke down trees in the orchard while pawing for fruit. Such sightings had led the first white settlers here to give both the granite mountain and the farm carved from its side the name of Black Bear. During his two years on the farm, Harlan had found apple skins in piles of scat, claw marks on the smooth, gray bark of beech trees, and tufts of midnight hair on barbed-wire fences, but had never glimpsed the animals that left these signs.
Harlan had first come across the name of Black Bear Mountain on a map of Vermont laid out across a table in the Cleveland Public Library. The library was only a few minutes’ walk from the Iron Ore Tavern, an often rowdy bar owned and operated by Harlan’s grandparents. They were loving enough, especially his grandmother, but they worked long hours, leaving Harlan to amuse himself, which he did chiefly by wandering the shore of Lake Erie and the tangled banks of the Cuyahoga River, poking into the wild fringes of the Conrail tracks, and visiting the library, where he read accounts of Lewis and Clark, Admiral Scott, and other famous explorers, and where he pored over maps. He took no interest in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which his classmates visited at every opportunity, nor in the pool halls, soccer fields, or hamburger joints where his friends hung out. In school, the only subjects he cared about were biology and geography.
A few times each summer, always on a Sunday when the tavern was closed, his grandfather took him to an Indians game at Jacobs Field, but Harlan often missed seeing a crucial play while gawking at the sky. Gulls cruising overhead and clouds wafting in from the lake distracted him. His grandmother, who had wanted to be a painter before marrying a tavern keeper, took him several times each year, also on Sundays, to the Museum of Art, where Harlan was drawn to the landscapes. He had stood so often and so long in front of Thomas Cole’s View of Schroon Mountain that he could have drawn from memory the shapes of the gnarled trees, surly clouds, and sharp peak, and he could have done the same for a Chinese scroll of tiny pilgrims climbing beside a river into a misty valley, and the same for a dozen other paintings and photographs of wild places.
When he grew old enough to learn about his mother, he felt angry that she had abandoned him. But year by year he gradually forgave her, as he came to understand why she might have wished to flee. His mother had also been raised in the tavern, had washed dishes and cleared tables from the time she was ten or eleven, had been first a pet and then an amusement and then an attraction for the regulars. So it was not surprising that she had gotten pregnant at sixteen, nor that soon after giving birth to Harlan she had left him on the bar, wrapped in a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer towel, with a note saying, “Got to go or I’ll die,” and hit the road. She was a slender girl, he gathered from the few photographs and from his grandmother’s rare stories, but Harlan was stout, so he began working in the tavern after school and on weekends at the age of eight. Of all the stories he heard while sweeping the floor or busing tables, the ones that stirred him most deeply were those of sailors riding out storms on the Great Lakes, and of railroaders spying moose and coyotes and bears on freight runs across northern New York and New England.
At fourteen, he stowed away on a tanker bound for Duluth, but he was soon found out, brought to the pilothouse for safekeeping, and on the ship’s return to Cleveland was delivered to the Iron Ore Tavern in the captain’s car. At fifteen Harlan shagged a train and rode as far as Erie before a railroad bull collared him and sent him home. He was a junior in high school, still driving on a learner’s permit, when he unrolled a map of Vermont and traced the crooked blue line of the Mad River, down through the heart of the state, until his finger arrived at a spot labeled Black Bear Mountain, elevation 3,912 feet. From that moment he set his heart on going there.
After school let out that June, early one Sunday morning while his grandparents were sleeping, Harlan wrote a note thanking them for all their kindness and promising to let them know when he had arrived safely in a place surrounded by trees. He loaded a duffel bag with clothes and toiletries and books, tidied up his room above the tavern, left the note on the bar where he himself had been left by his mother sixteen years before, walked to the nearest on-ramp for I-90 and stuck out his thumb. Five days later a trucker hauling saw logs dropped him off in the parking lot of a grocery store at the base of Black Bear Mountain. With the last of the money he’d carried from Cleveland he bought three apples, which he ate slowly, every morsel except stems and seeds.
As he climbed a road leading up the mountainside, the duffel bag heavy on his shoulder, he caught glimpses of a summit that was neither high nor sharp, nothing like the peak in Thomas Cole’s painting, but rather a broad hump that looked from this distance as if it were covered in green fur. Trees, trees, as far as he could see. Unsure how far the road would go, or what he would do once he reached the top, he rounded a curve and saw a weathered wooden sign announcing Black Bear Farm. Two smaller signs hung below the large one, the first advertising fresh eggs and cream, the second offering lamb. Drawn by the name of the farm, and also hungry, he turned up the rutted gravel drive, passed a workshop, and came to a rambling, white clapboard house. A giant cottonwood shaded the front yard, the largest tree of any sort he had ever seen, and from a lower branch hung a rope swing with a plank for a seat. On the porch, which ran the length of the house, a pair of rocking chairs rested side by side, each with a turned-up length of log for a footstool.
A tall, thin man, slightly stooped, was just emerging from a doorway onto the porch as Harlan neared the steps. As sunlight caught the man’s face, Harlan could see he was old, older than his grandfather, and he looked as though he had lost a lot of weight, the way the straps of his overalls hung slack over bony shoulders, the way shadows hollowed his cheeks. The old man asked Harlan in a crisp Yankee voice if he was looking for eggs, and Harlan answered that he was looking for work. The man sized him up slowly, then said he could use a hand, all right, but couldn’t afford to pay for help. Couldn’t hardly pay the light bill, the way prices kept going up for everything except what a farmer raised. Harlan said he would work for room and board. The old man looked him over once again, head to heels, then gave a sharp nod of his chin, pointed to a window on the second floor of the workshop, told him to put his bag up there, wash off the dust of the road with a dip in the pond, and then come inside where Mrs. Winfield could start easing the hunger out of his face.
The hunger soon vanished from Harlan’s face, for Mrs. Winfield cooked hearty meals, enough to feed the two sons who had long since grown up and left the Mad River Valley. The older son, Harlan would learn, had gone to Middlebury on a scholarship, then to business school in Philadelphia, then to a job high in a Boston office tower, where he bought and sold millions of dollars worth of stock every day. The younger son had studied agriculture at the University of Vermont, leading Mr. and Mrs. Winfield to hope that he might eventually come back home and take over the farm, but instead he had moved to Arizona, where he ran a franchise selling golf carts. The two sons sent photos and checks, but rarely visited. Once, and once only, Mr. and Mrs. Winfield had flown to Phoenix, and several times they had driven down to Boston for holidays, but they did not know what to do with themselves in their sons’ houses, where all the work was done by servants or machines, and where the grandchildren locked themselves away in bedrooms to stare at screens or fiddle with electronic gadgets.
Within a month of Harlan’s arrival, Mr. Winfield began paying him a wage, with money sent by those absent sons. Harlan worked from daylight to dark, doing what the old man no longer had the strength to do. His own strength now seemed to have a purpose. Guided by Mr. Winfield, he learned how to set fence posts and pull wire, how to roof with shingles and steel, how to hold a squirming sheep and shear the fleece without drawing blood, how to tune the engine on a thirty-year-old John Deere tractor, how to bale hay and stack it in the barn, how to shore up a crumbling stone wall, how to butcher a lamb or a hog. He also learned the lighter work, such as milking and pruning. From Mrs. Winfield he learned the arts of gardening, canning, composting, and beekeeping. In spare hours, he painted every building on the place, beginning with a coat of red oxide on the barn and workshop and a coat of dazzling white on the farmhouse. He cleaned out the spring, plugged a leak in the dam that held the pond, put up an electric fence around the blueberry patch, transplanted elderberry bushes from the woods to form a hedge beside the orchard, repainted the signs out by the road that had lured him up the rutted drive. He hauled gravel and dragged a scraper behind the tractor to fill those ruts.
Harlan considered it a blessing to work so much outside. Even on the shore of Lake Erie, he had never been so aware of the sky. Mountains encircled the farm like the rim of a green bowl, meeting everywhere the blue bowl of sky arching overhead. Clouds fluffed and streamed across this immensity day and night, lit up by sun or moon. Occasionally the sky would be swept clear for hours at a stretch. More often, clouds would clamp down a lid stretching from horizon to horizon, yet even on such days the sky seethed, rippling with mottled grays and purples and every shade of white, as if the air were the surface of the sea. Harlan did not see how a person could ever grow bored in the presence of such a non-stop show.
When snow lay too deep for outside work, he mended gear in the barn or glued rickety chairs in the shop or churned butter in the kitchen. Whether indoors or out, no matter how tiring, the work was satisfying, unlike the sweeping of cigarette butts or clearing of empty bottles in the Iron Ore Tavern.
In letters written on Sundays, he told his grandparents about the farm, river, and mountains. He told of night skies dusted with more stars than he had ever imagined in Cleveland. He described the animals he’d seen — the foxes prancing along the borders of the pasture, swallows cruising in and out of the barn, monarch butterflies feeding on red clover. No bears yet, he wrote, but from the woods he heard the tinkling call of hermit thrushes and the rusty-engine cry of barred owls. He assured his grandparents that he loved them, that he was happy and healthy, that they needn’t worry their heads about him. Every now and again his grandmother wrote a few lines in reply, telling him of fights in the bar, trouble with the police, aches and pains, and bad weather, and inviting him to come on back home if his string of luck ran out.
For almost two years, Harlan’s luck held. Day by day, the farm came back into trim, and the neighbors who stopped to buy eggs, cream, blueberries, or lamb said as much. But Mr. Winfield, who was approaching eighty, kept losing flesh, and Mrs. Winfield fretted over him. Harlan tried to spare him whenever he could, but the old man would not be coddled.
Then one bitter cold night in March, during the heaviest snowfall of his second winter on the farm, Harlan was lying in bed under a pile of quilts reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers when a movement outside the window caught his eye. Looking out, he saw Mr. Winfield laboring through the drifts toward the barn, no doubt to check on the pregnant ewes, to see whether any of them were close to lambing. Harlan threw on his clothes, pulled on his boots, and hurried into the night, following the old man’s path. Even through broken snow, the going was hard, and he puffed as he waded forward.
By the time Harlan reached the barn, Mr. Winfield was curled on his side in the straw between two ewes, arms tightly crossed over his chest, eyes closed, face white in the feeble glow of a dangling electric bulb.
“Mr. Winfield?” Harlan said, going up and laying his hand on a bony shoulder.
When no answer came, he gently rocked the rail-thin body. It gave no more resistance to his touch than a bundle of rope. His fingers understood this utter slackness before his mind accepted the truth. He knelt there, while the ewes turned their dark eyes on him and their warm breath filled the stall. After a moment, he wrapped the old man in a horse blanket, took him into his arms, a weight as light as a bundle of cornstalks, and waded back toward the house, where he would lay the body on the parlor table and go upstairs to wake Mrs. Winfield.
When Katerina arrived that April, a month after Mr. Winfield’s death and three weeks after Mrs. Winfield’s stroke, Harlan was greatly relieved. He had not known how to speak with the addled widow, let alone how to care for her while doing all the work of the farm on his own, especially in lambing season. The older of the widow’s two sons, the one who ran a brokerage firm in Boston, had hired Katerina through an agency that recruited young people from Scandinavia who wished to perfect their English in America. She rode by limousine from the Burlington airport, a luxury also arranged by the stockbroker son, but there was nothing fancy about the jeans, boots, and sweater she wore as she climbed from the sleek black car, and she insisted on carrying her two suitcases as Harlan showed her to a corner bedroom upstairs in the farmhouse. She looked tired from the journey, and her blond braids, falling halfway to her waist, had begun to unravel. In his nervousness on meeting her, Harlan could not think what to say. Katerina was silent as well, leading him to worry that she might not speak much English, in spite of the stockbroker’s assurance. But when she set down her suitcases, surveyed the sunlit room, and took in the view of the valley and mountains, she said to him in perfectly formed English, “It is beautiful.”
“It is,” he said.
“I should go meet Mrs. Winfield.”
“Wouldn’t you like to rest first?”
“I have come to work, not to rest.”
Usually, when he met a girl his own age, some unreasoning part of him swiftly decided whether she was pretty or not, but this girl confused him, her body was so muffled by the bulky sweater, her face was so frank and unadorned. Realizing that he hadn’t introduced himself, he said, “I’m Harlan Ames. I look after the farm.”
“I am Katerina Swanson.” She extended a small hand and shook his large one with surprising strength. “I grew up on a farm in the south of Sweden, so I can help you with chores.” She gazed at him with startling gray eyes. “Do you live here?”
“I’ve got a room over the workshop. You can see it there beyond the cottonwood,” he said, pointing out the window. “But since Mrs. Winfield’s stroke I’ve been sleeping on a pallet outside her door, in case she needs me in the night.”
“That will no longer be necessary.”
“The house is yours, if that’s what you’re wondering. I’ll only come in for meals.”
Katerina studied him with a directness the girls in Ohio had never shown. “It is an unusual name, Harlan,” she said.
“My mother named me after a man she met who was living on a shantyboat on the Ohio River.”
“What is a shantyboat?
“A houseboat. Like a floating hut on a raft.”
“Ah, yes. We have the same. I have often thought how lovely to ride along a river and tie up at night and cook your meal on a little stove and sleep with the waves rocking you.”
Harlan had imagined such a life, ever since learning from his grandmother the source of his name, but he had never said as much to anyone. And now here was this girl voicing the same desire within minutes of meeting him. All he could think to say was, “Well, make yourself at home. Mrs. Winfield will be glad you’re here. I’ve tried to keep her fed and warm since the stroke, but I’m not much of a cook and not much good at talking with her.”
“She is confused?”
“Forgetful. She can’t remember her husband’s dead. She calls me by his name, or she takes me for one of her sons. The doctor says she might get back some of her wits, but not all of them, and maybe not any.”
“Her sons come to see her?”
“Both of them came for the funeral in March. Only the one from Massachusetts came after her stroke. He wanted to put her in a home, but I promised to look after her until he found somebody who could do a proper job.”
“I know old people,” Katerina said. “Always I have lived with grandparents and great-grandparents. I left home only when the last of them died.”
Harlan wished to say something about his own grandparents, about his own reasons for leaving home, but he did not trust himself to speak. So he stood there watching Katerina move from the east window of her room to the south window, where she pulled aside the curtain and looked out. Without turning to him, she said, “If one must grow old before dying, here is a good place to do so.”
By the Sunday in August when Harlan emerged from the woods after another fruitless search for the black bear and spied Katerina rising from the pond in her white chemise, he could no longer tell which of the two stirred the deepest longing in him, the bear or the girl. He lost sleep thinking about Katerina, and sometimes he lost track of his work, leaning his forehead against the flank of a cow and forgetting to pull on the teats, or standing with an injured lamb in his arms and remembering to call the vet only when the lamb began to bleat, or halting the tractor in the midst of mowing to gaze down at scarves of mist on the river.
Still, he kept up the farm, although he missed the old man’s company. Since Mr. Winfield’s death, the sons had continued sending him two monthly checks, one for his wages and the other for groceries and parts and supplies. He sent half the wages to his grandparents, who had begun to speak in their letters of selling the Iron Ore Tavern and moving to Florida. They were tired of snow, tired of gray skies, tired of serving drunks and breaking up fights. The allowance he handed over to Katerina, who bought what little they needed from the village, including Mrs. Winfield’s medicines.
Month by month over that summer, there was less farm to keep up, as the Winfield sons sold off the hogs, then the cows, the chickens and bees, and finally the sheep. Harlan unhooked the two smaller signs — one offering fresh eggs and cream, the other offering lamb — from beneath the large wooden sign announcing Black Bear Farm. After the last of the livestock had been hauled away, surveyors showed up, dragged their tripods and measuring sticks all around the four hundred acres, and drove orange-flagged steel posts into the stony ground. The surveyors were followed by men in suits who stepped gingerly along the mowed paths in shiny shoes. Next came two nurses, each with a plastic name tag pinned to a uniform shirt covered in cartoons, and they tried speaking with Mrs. Winfield. When they could not penetrate her bewilderment, they interviewed Katerina about the old woman’s habits and needs, and one nurse wrote down the answers on a clipboard.
The coming and going of trucks, animals, and strangers frightened Mrs. Winfield, who often witnessed the commotion from a rocking chair on the farmhouse porch, her legs propped on a length of log and swaddled in a blanket in spite of the August heat. To soothe her, Katerina would sit nearby shelling peas or packing blueberries into bags for the freezer or braiding the stalks of garlic, and as she worked she would sing hymns in Swedish. More than once, Harlan had come into the front yard to find Katerina gliding back and forth on the rope swing beneath the cottonwood, bellowing out a song, while Mrs. Winfield sat on the porch clapping her hands and grinning.
That evening in August, after Mrs. Winfield had been put to bed, Harlan sat on the porch steps waiting for Katerina to call him in to supper and replaying in his mind her quiet remark: “Yes, mum, he is a sweet man.” The leaves of the great cottonwood clattered above him. In the gathering darkness a barred owl began to repeat its rusty call.
The door opened behind him and Katerina came out, pausing beside him on the steps. “The owl is the rooster of the night,” she said.
“I suppose it is,” Harlan answered. “I never thought of it like that.”
Without mentioning supper, she walked off into the darkness, her dim shape clear in his imagination from a thousand glances he’d cast at her since she had climbed from the limousine in April. She made her way to the clothesline, where the chemise hovered like a pale moth, then she unpinned the garment and turned back toward the house. When she drew up beside him on the porch, the chemise folded over her arm, she touched him lightly on the shoulder and said, “You are not hungry?”
Harlan slapped his legs and stood up. “Hungry enough to eat skunk.”
“Ah, if I had known, I would have cooked a skunk. Instead I have cooked a chicken.”
“I’ll make do with chicken.”
He followed her indoors, the sensation of her fingers burning on his shoulder. Their plates were set on the kitchen table, along with a pitcher of sun tea and a vase filled with Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and ferns. When it was Katerina’s turn to say grace, she recited prayers in Swedish, but tonight it was Harlan’s turn, so he offered his usual clumsy thanks to the land for the gift of food.
Only when they began eating did Harlan notice the envelope beside his napkin, with the familiar return address from the stockbroker’s firm in Boston. He set down his fork and picked up the envelope, turning it over.
“It arrived yesterday,” Katerina said. She raised her eyebrows, which were paler than her sun-bronzed face. “I carried it all day in my apron.”
“We’re not due any checks,” Harlan said.
He slit the envelope with his table knife, drew out the letter, and read the brief text. When he looked up, he found Katerina studying him with those mist-gray eyes.
“They will send her away?” she said.
He nodded. “Next week. To a nursing home in Boston.”
Katerina shook her head. “It is wrong. This is the only place she can be happy.”
“There’s more.” Harlan refolded the letter and pushed it away. “We have to leave the farm by the end of August. They’ll pay us an extra month’s wages to help us move. The new owners take possession on September 1.”
“And who are the new owners?”
“It doesn’t say. But those guys in suits aren’t going to raise sheep. More likely raise condos, I expect.”
Katerina turned to look out the kitchen window toward the pond and barn and sweep of valley, all dark now, and Harlan’s gaze followed hers. When she turned back to him, her eyes were wet. “Where will you go?”
“To see my grandparents, I figure, but not to stay.”
“There are no bears in Cleveland.”
“Not outside the zoo.”
Katerina tried to laugh, but sobbed instead, letting the tears run down her cheeks. “In the nursing home she will not live until spring. Why could she not die here, in this beauty?”
Harlan reached across the table and grasped Katerina’s hands, the first time he had ever touched her except when they’d brushed against one another in their work. She did not pull away, as he had feared she would. “Did your grandmother lose her wits before she died?” he asked.
“Both grandmothers, and a grandfather, all lost their memory and their speech and every pleasure except music and flowers and the feel of hands on their skin. When I rubbed their sore joints, they purred like cats.”
Katerina’s hands felt small in his, but firm, work-hardened. “Will you go back to Sweden?”
“For college, yes, but not for another year. I must learn your crazy language well enough to become a translator.”
“Then you need better teachers than Mrs. Winfield and me.”
“You are not such a bad teacher, only you work too much and speak too little.”
“Well, the work here is about over, so maybe I’ll have more breath for talking. I figure I’ll leave next week after Mrs. Winfield gets moved. I couldn’t bear to see trucks roll in hauling backhoes and bulldozers.”
“So soon,” she said.
Feeling Katerina’s hands clench, he let go of them and leaned back in his chair. She stood and carried her untouched plate to the refrigerator. Harlan cleared the rest of the table. In silence, he washed the dishes and she put the food away. Questions for her pressed on his tongue, but he could not let them out.
Their silence was broken by a plaintive call from Mrs. Winfield, who rarely slept through the night. Katerina quickly dried her hands on a towel and hurried down the hall.
Harlan could think of nothing to do but retreat to his room over the workshop and read until his jangled nerves let him sleep. But when he walked outside, and passed beyond the vast canopy of the cottonwood, he saw that the night sky was cloudless and moonless and bedazzled with stars, and so he decided to take a blanket from the barn and walk up the slope into the high pasture. As he passed the blueberry patch, he turned off the electric fence, thinking he might as well let the wild critters in to eat up the crop before bulldozers scoured the bushes away. Only when he spread the blanket on the ground did he realize, from the faint smell of horses, that it was the one he had wrapped Mr. Winfield in on the night he died. Harlan paused, missing the old man with a sharp pang, and then he lay down and faced northeast, where Perseus would rise just before midnight and give him the best chance of seeing meteors.
From the valley floor came the sound of trucks shifting gears on the highway. He couldn’t hate the sound, because he might be snagging a ride on one of those trucks a week from now. But he preferred listening to the crickets, which rang in the grass like ten thousand tiny bells, and to the barred owl, which rasped out its guttural call from the woods beyond the pasture. He stayed awake long enough to see dozens of meteors tracing white streaks across the black sky.
Just before dawn, Harlan woke to the sound of steps approaching. Bear, he thought, untangling himself from the blanket and sitting up in a mixture of eagerness and alarm. But the shape he saw coming, outlined against the brightening rim of the eastern mountains, was Katerina’s. She drew up to him slowly, at her browsing-deer gait.
“I wanted to watch the sunrise from up here,” she said. “And when I climbed the path, I saw you sleeping.”
Harlan smoothed out the blanket and patted a spot next to him. “Sit, and we’ll watch it together.”
When she lowered herself beside him, he could see that her jeans were damp to the knee from the dew-wet grass. Her feet were bare. “I cannot stay long,” she said.
“Do you want me to go listen for Mrs. Winfield?”
“No.” Katerina hooked a hand under his arm and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I want you here.”
They were quiet for a spell, as the sun spilled light into the valley. Mist blanketed the river. In the pasture, goldfinches nibbled seeds from black-eyed Susans, the stems bending under their weight, and swallows cruised for insects over the tall grass. Feeling Katerina’s warmth against him, Harlan grew very still, as when a fox or a perching hawk showed itself to him and he wished not to scare it away.
Out of the silence, she asked, “Why is your Lake Erie called a great lake?”
“Because it’s big, I guess. Too big to see across.” Turning over her question, Harlan decided to ask one of his own. “Would you like me to show it to you?”
She tilted her face up at him. After months of glancing into her gray eyes, he found them no less startling. “Yes,” she said, “I would like that.”
Harlan shivered. “It’s a long way.”
“Not so far as Sweden.” After a pause, she added, “But we must not hitchhike. American drivers all carry guns.”
“We can take the train. It goes right through Cleveland not five blocks from my grandparents’ place.”
“And can we see also the Ohio River with its shantyboats?”
Katerina was about to say something else when Harlan heard thrashing nearby and pressed a finger to her lips. She kept still, and they both turned toward the noise, which was coming from downhill in the blueberry patch. In the early light he could see that a section of the electric fence had been flattened, and just inside the patch a bear, smaller than the ones he had imagined, was sitting on its haunches and stripping berries from a bush with its teeth. Beyond that bear he saw a second one, also small, round-eared, plump, and then he noticed a third, much larger, as large as any he had ever imagined, and he realized the trio must be a sow and her two cubs. The sunrise licked silver highlights onto their black fur. Their obsidian eyes gleamed. Their teeth clicked, mashing the berries, and they grunted with what Harlan took to be pure delight. Katerina tightened her grip on his arm, and she let out surprised little gasps as the bears uprooted bushes with their exuberant eating.