“Foreign Girl” by Ashley Wurzbacher

04 January 2010 on Fiction   Tags:

It took a long time for the foreign girl to convince us she was real. Long before we loved her, before we learned that Verona was not by the sea, that her mother and father did not stomp on grapes in their bare feet and make wine in their front yard, even before she dropped out of the sky and into our deep, dark forest, we doubted her reality. I was twelve at the time and the most skeptical of all—skeptical of Sadie's mother's dreams of bringing the world to her lackluster modular in rural Pennsylvania, skeptical of the foreign girl's name, which did not sound Italian. When the homestay program first mailed Sadie the information about the girl, called just Anna, her face fell. She tried to hide her disappointment, but I knew she wished that the girl had been called Francesca or Giovanna or Alessandra—I wished it, too. On the information sheet there was a picture, black and white, so we couldn't see that her hair was actually gold or else we might not have had her at all; we would've thought right then that it was all a fix and said never mind, we want a real foreigner. It would have been a cruel joke, we thought, for a program that Sadie's mother said would help Sadie and me to get some culture to mock us for having none.

In the picture the Anna girl, who was coming to America in the hope of improving her English, stared blankly at the camera. She didn't smile. In an attempt at optimism Sadie's mom said, “They're Catholic there, see?” and looked pleased, not because she liked Catholics, but because it was Italian. Next to the picture, the paper said that this Anna liked to dance ballet, that she was an only child, fourteen, and that she had a brace. It didn't say what kind of brace, and so we imagined she would walk funny and wear metal on her legs like Forrest Gump. We were nervous about this; she was due to stay for a whole semester at the Junior High, and it would be winter by the time she left. It could get very icy here in December. Sadie's mom said see, we should be thankful—maybe they don't have such good care, medically, for kids where this Anna came from, and anyway the brace couldn't be anything too big, since that would make it pretty hard for her to dance ballet like the sheet said. Still, our doubts were not dispelled until weeks after Anna's arrival.

Because the foreign girl was coming, Sadie was expected to shine like new, always behave. Smile. The same expectations applied to me, as well, since I was with them nearly all the time. Her mother didn't let us forget. Standing on a kitchen chair, sweating with exertion and anticipation, she polished the antlers of the deer heads mounted on the living room wall, turning occasionally to look down and back at us over her shoulder and to remind us of how important it was for us to learn what it was like in the world, and to make a good impression. She gave strict orders to Sadie's father about where and where not to drive while this Anna was in the car, which street to take through town, where to turn to miss the dirty bars and rundown pawn shops whose junk overflowed onto the sidewalks. She told him which roads to take to avoid—as much as possible—the sites of everything unpleasant, from meth labs to mean dogs (but she forgot about the school bus, which would pass all of this daily. With stops along the way.) She meant well, but we laughed at her behind her back. Sadie's father laughed too, and when he did I imagined him, even more than usual, as my own father. He didn't say much, but now and then he said real deep and meaningful things: “We ain't much; there's no hiding that. But we're nice and there's no hiding that neither.”

When the day came to pick this Anna up at the airport, he took the day off from logging and put on new shoes and a brand-new button-down shirt, and Sadie used her mom's eyeliner. She drew thick lines above her top lashes and below her bottom ones, and she looked beautiful. If you looked closely you could see the crookedness of the lines and the places where she'd smeared them with her finger to try to straighten them out, but from a distance, she looked refined. Like a city businesswoman. When I told her so, she drew the lines on me, too, holding my eyelids open and streaking the edges of my brown eyes with 124: Deep Navy so that when I looked in the bathroom mirror I, too, felt old, mysterious. Then she sat with her father in the front seat of the Ranger and they drove the three hours all the way to Pittsburgh to go get this Anna. It was mid-August and ninety degrees.

There was no room for me in the cab. I stayed at the house and waited. On the way home, I knew, with Anna's bags secure in the bed of the Ranger (Sadie's dad had even dusted it out and put the cap on; I helped him—he gave me a dollar), he would crack the windows to cool the cab, and Sadie's hair would blow in Anna's face, and Anna's into Sadie's like some kind of strange, primitive bonding ritual, and the three of them would sit close together, sweating despite the breeze and their clean hair and faces, touching. I imagined myself there in the truck, in Sadie's new shoes, pressed awkwardly against Anna. Her skin would feel strange, warm, Mediterranean. Foreign. We would talk about the weather and Anna's flight.

Flight. I couldn't have imagined it if I had tried, and I didn't dare try. It was a luxury that was out of my reach—not just flying, but mobility in general. This Anna was mobile; she was moving right that moment, while I swatted mosquitoes. She had been in the sky; she was practically a constellation; we had dreamed up story after story about her, and now she was descending. I pictured her in goggles and a brown leather jacket, a silk scarf fluttering in the thin air just beneath the clouds, red lipstick, dramatic dark hair and Ciao. Ciao Bella. Lamborghini-Godfather-Pasta-Pasta-Mafia-Mama Mia.

In the back of my mind I couldn't help but think: the joke is on her. She doesn't know where she's landing. It seemed almost cruel. Someone should have told her: “You're landing where bears eat the trash that's taken out at night. Strew it all over the yard, sniff it, eat it, shit in it. And if bears aren't making the mess, the people are—your own [real] father throws empty bottles out his bedroom window, you step on the pieces as you run through the yard in summer, cut your foot. Tractors drive down back roads pulling old washing machines and pieces of cars to rundown houses where they're displayed in overgrown side yards. Nobodies looking to make a buck or two make crystal meth inside these pieces of cars; after a few months, local cops bust them. They invade your school, tell you and your classmates about the stuff, what it is, what it does, exactly how it's made and what with, what it smells like (cat pee)—they tell you this so that you don't go and make it. Within a few months you smell cat pee wafting out of the vents in the locker next to yours. Your fellow Junior-High-ers drive their four-wheelers at night, drunk or high or both, slam into your mailbox. It tilts backwards for years; your father doesn't fix it; in the winter the box fills with snow and you can't read your mail. Not that much comes to you, anyway. The local paper comes, though. Its front page reads, ”˜Fall Falling All Ready? First Red Leaf of Season Sited in Yard of Local Teacher.'”

Someone should have told her this. This was where she would learn her English; these were the people whose few, rough words she would add to her vocabulary. If I'd had a chance to leave, it was when my mother had flown away (”Baker, CA,” read the return address on the letter she sent me to say, be good—”Home of the World's Largest Thermometer and Gateway to Las Vegas—and Death Valley National Park!”). She didn't take me with her, and so I've never known anything but this. I've heard it talked about, by classmates, by grown-ups. I've seen it on TV. But it (something else) is on the other end of the train tracks—which we do have, hidden among weeds. Trains don't run here anymore. You don't have to be a genius to know that there's nothing here for a foreigner.

So while Anna plunged out of the clouds in her silk and leather and Ciao Bella, I waited at home—at Sadie's home—and watched her mother swab the insides of mounted deer heads' nostrils with a damp Q-tip. Eventually, she handed me the fly-swatter, sent me out to the deck.

“You see any 'squitoes,” she said, “you swat them real good, Jean.”

. . .

Her hair was blonde. A bit greasy. She was tall and thin, but she looked strong and moved gracefully; it was clear she was a dancer. There was no sign of a silk scarf or a Forrest Gump brace, and I was surprised to find that it was not a dark complexion or a chic sense of style but solely her baggage, with perfect bows tied from flowered silk ribbon around the handles to mark it as her own, that labeled her something “other.” If I'd seen her from a distance, without her luggage, I never would have known.

“The treese are-a beut-iful,” she said in her accent.

We stared. On her teeth were shiny silver braces—the “brace” she had mentioned in her profile. “Your ”˜ouse ees beut-iful.”

It wasn't. Maybe by local standards. Certainly not by global ones. Just a house, clean, but dingy. Ordinary. Peeling paint. I looked at Sadie's mother and saw her squirm with delight, giddy like a rich kid on Christmas morning.

As she spoke the words, Anna threw her arms around first Sadie's mom, then me. I stumbled with the impact. I noticed a few freckles on her nose and cheeks. Dazed, I looked over her shoulder at Sadie, who shrugged, embarrassed, unable to explain this sudden intimacy. I was not sure whether to be alarmed or moved (I was leaning towards alarmed), but I maintained my position against the foreign girl's chest and tried to convince myself that this contact was normal. It was hard to do. I was unaccustomed to touch.

. . .

We entered Sadie's house through the front door that day, and not the kitchen, because it was a special occasion. We all wanted Anna to feel welcome. I was a kitchen-door guest. It had been a long time since I'd been through that front door, but it was no wonder we used it that day. Entering there, the first thing you saw were the deer—Sadie's dad's trophy bucks, the ones worth keeping, the ones that made his lumberjack friends say (tracking their dirty boots across the shag carpet) Nice rack. There were three of them, their heads turned slightly toward each other as if in conversation; they were heads to be proud of, and Sadie's dad was proud. It took me and Sadie years to convince him to let us string blinking colored lights in their antlers at Christmas.

When we were little, Sadie named the first two heads—Jenny and Princess Star Prancer.

I remembered the day of the naming. It was during my silent year. Mum had disappeared, and at the time she was still in limbo; it would still be a few weeks before the Baker, CA letter would arrive. I was seven years old, and I had already learned to go to Sadie's when I was hungry. I'd scratch at the kitchen door like a puppy and Sadie's mom would let me in, call me Jeannie, talk to me in a slow voice and feed me, trying to get me to speak, and I wouldn't. I wouldn't because I didn't know what to say. I didn't remember how to talk to grown-ups. I suppose I feared them—their anger, at least, and the words that came with it.

My dad didn't say much himself after my mum left. When he spoke, it was only ever a mumble, and hard for me to tell whether it was meant for me at all. He did not yell at me. He never touched me or hit me or even threatened me, though Sadie's mother questioned me about this frequently, and my silence, in response, only made her more suspicious. Sometimes, when he did not know I was near, I heard him swear, and this alarmed me—I never knew what provoked the words. They were mysterious to me, and I memorized them quickly. Alone in my bedroom with the door closed and the lights out I would recite them, before bed, one at a time, over and over again. Fucking, I would whisper to my only stuffed animal, an unnamed blue bear. Fuck fucking hell, and I would wait for a feeling to come. I expected, each time I tried this, a faint thrill, like that of having a secret. But they made my stomach hurt (back then it was a tummy, I suppose, and not a stomach). The words sounded strange in my voice. My blue bear stared up at me from my bed. I apologized to him each time.

I never spoke to strangers during that year, and rarely even to Sadie, though I always knew I could. She was nine months younger than me and always a few inches shorter, but she stood with her arm around me as we waited for the bus to school, brought me an extra knit scarf in winter, tucked it around my neck in the cold the way her mother had tucked her own. I didn't speak, though; I was too afraid of provoking words like my father's from people other than him. And I was afraid of what I had discovered these words could do. When Sadie named the deer heads on her father's wall, and her mom stopped her and said, “Let Jean name one. You want to name one, Jeannie?,” all I heard in my head were the words that I practiced by night in my bedroom at home.

“Fuck,” I said under my breath, shy.

Sadie's mom gave me a sideways look that suggested that she doubted what she'd heard. “What”¦what'd you say, honey?”

“Fuck. Fucker,” I said. I was loud this time, speaking clearly. “This one's Fucker.”

“Jeannie!” Sadie's mother screamed, clapped her dishpan hands over Sadie's ears. “Don't you let me hear you say that word again in my house, Jean, you understand me?” She paused, stewed in her concern. “And if you hear your daddy use that word, baby, you come straight over here to me, understand? You understand?” I was too confused to reply.

So Sadie named them. Her father came home from logging that day and his trophies' names were Jenny and Princess Star Prancer, because Sadie said so. Her mother smiled, hugged her, said what a great imagination she had, went into the kitchen and peeled potatoes.

When she had left the room, I faced Sadie.

“Those deer are boys,” I said, because it was true.

“They can be girls if I want,” she said.

“They can't. You can't make something a girl if it's a boy. And you can't name a boy a girl name.”

“I can name them what I want to,” she answered. “They're my deers,” and I knew she was right.

. . .

Now it was Anna's turn to meet Jenny and Princess Star Prancer, as well as the most recent addition to the wall of heads, a buck from just two years ago called Buck (Sadie's dad named that one). Their corresponding framed newspaper clippings hung beneath their heads, yellowed with years: Sadie's dad hoisting the heads—still attached to limp bodies—into the air with a triumphant, manly, unpretentious half-smile. Mounted on the fake wood paneling of the side wall, a pheasant posed frozen in takeoff.

Sadie's father conducted the living-room tour with pride, his face flushed, talking at Anna about the sound of the dead pheasant hitting the ground while his wife brought out a big plate of Oreos. Was”¦she”¦hun-gry? Sadie's mom asked, speaking the words embarrassingly slowly and drawing them out. She spoke so loudly that Anna jumped a bit and took an Oreo, probably more out of intimidation than hunger. She glanced from deer head to deer head to deer head to pheasant and we all watched her, waiting, and Sadie's dad asked did they hunt in Italy? What kind of animals did her father hunt, and with what kind of rifle?

Anna's eyes were wide and her face was blank; we thought she must have been tired. This was the conclusion we drew when, after a few moments, she didn't answer.

“Want to see my dog?” Sadie's father inquired. “She's out back.” Tracker, the English setter, lived in a box in the backyard. She was a hunting dog, well-loved but utilitarian.

Now Anna's eyes grew from big to huge and she turned to face me as Sadie's dad led us back outside.

“Ees-a thee dog”¦alive-a?” Her voice was barely a whisper.

I stared at her. “Huh?”

“Thee dog. Ees”¦alive-a? Yes?”


Sadie's mom overheard the reiteration of the question and took hold of me as I began to laugh uncontrollably. “Jean!” she exclaimed, then, “Yes, Anna, of course Tracker is alive!” and, in temporary horror, “Oh, sweetie, have the deer bothered you?” and, running ahead to catch up with her husband, a loud whisper: “Alan, she thought the dog would be stuffed!“ Then, sheer elation. Stuffed! It was just the damndest thing.

This embarrassed us all a bit, and shortly after she'd met Tracker, Anna announced that she was very tired-a. She seemed also to be in some kind of shock. We were afraid we'd made her feel uncomfortable but I guess, more than that, we feared looking stupid, unimpressive. So the next thing she said came as something of a relief to us—we realized that we had forgotten about the time difference. In Italy, she said, it was six hours later already.

I tried to imagine this. I tried to imagine it being the middle of the night, right now—right now while the sky above me was still a deep evening blue. I imagined it being a different time, at this time. It seemed impossible for the sky to be so multi-colored, dark blue here, black there, tinted orange with the sunrise somewhere, oranger with the sunset someplace else. It was like we were not all of the same world. Like there were many earths. Many suns. Many moons, all of different shapes and sizes. I thought of Indians and ancient Greeks and aliens.


Sadie's dad said, “A new day already. Imagine that.” And he shook his head.

I pictured Anna's parents fast asleep in some villa with vines and purple flowers climbing its crumbling walls, overlooking the sea. There would be a big wooden vat outside where they would stomp on grapes in their bare feet and make wine in good weather, in the daylight. And there would be a big crucifix on the wall and one of those funny guitar things playing in the distance.

I asked, “At night, where you live, can you hear the sea?”

Anna looked at me and I assumed she hadn't understood. I blushed and debated whether to repeat the question in the same loud, slow, patronizing voice that Sadie's mom had already assumed when speaking to her, like the voice you'd use to speak to a puppy or an old person.

But there was no need for this.

“Verona ees not on-na the sea,” she said. I blushed deeper.

Sadie and I helped her carry her things into Sadie's bedroom. We stood and gaped at her for a few moments and then said a simple good night, before I headed back through the trees to my own quiet house and my quiet father, leaving Sadie's mom to fuss over Anna, tuck her into Sadie's bed and make sure she had everything she needed. For the next four months Sadie would sleep on a cot in a cleared-out storage room in the basement, her books and shoes and clothing in cardboard boxes, an old, grape juice-stained tablecloth tacked up in the empty, unpainted doorframe for privacy, a few meters from the woodstove. Underground, she would shiver during the last weeks of summer, when it was hot above ground and silly to light a fire, and she would sweat during winter when the heat of the flames was almost more than she could stand. She would come upstairs some mornings during that November and December dressed in a short-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, no jacket. Throughout that winter, I would meet her at the front door in my winter coat and gloves to get the bus; Anna would usually answer, and Sadie would ascend the basement stairs behind her, huffing and puffing, red in the face, dressed for another season and another climate.

. . .

Once Anna had gone to bed I retreated through the line of trees that separated my real home from my substitute one. My father sat at the kitchen table with a beer and a TV dinner, no lights on. It was the same scene that always met me at night, whenever he was home, which was not all the time. He didn't tell me where he went sometimes and I didn't ask.

I approached him. “Hi,” I said. “Dad. How was”¦your day.”

He looked up at me and held my gaze for a few seconds, which was more than I usually got. In my years of wondering why my father seemed so averse to looking at me, I had settled on the explanation that I must look like my mother. This was pure conjecture; I could recall neither the shape of her face nor the color of her hair or even her eyes. And he had kept no pictures of her.

“What's that you got on your face,” he said.

“It's makeup, Dad.” He noticed! “Sadie did it for me. She has a foreign girl—”

“Take it off,” he said. “You look ridiculous.” He tossed the beer bottle into the kitchen sink, stood up, and stalked out of the room. In a moment I heard his door shut.

The truth, I rationalized, was that my mom must've worn number 124: Deep Navy at the periphery of her eyes, whatever color they were. The women probably all wore it in Las Vegas, and in Baker, CA, its gateway, home of the world's largest thermometer. I went upstairs, scrubbed it off.

. . .

Throughout the first few weeks of her stay, we tested Anna's authenticity (when Sadie's mother was not around), making up pretend English words and watching to see whether she'd let on she understood. She usually did—her pride kept her from owning up to her confusion—and then we laughed so that she believed she'd agreed to something inappropriate, maybe answered yes to an embarrassing question or consented to some kind of dare without even knowing it. She passed all those tests out on Sadie's back patio—the made-up words, the meaningless questions. Sometimes she would excuse herself politely and run into the house and we would hear, through the window above and behind us, the faint sound of the pages of her Italian-English dictionary turning as she searched for meanings that did not exist. She was real.

School started.

We were nervous because she looked so normal. Because we could claim her as ours, we wanted her to look as exotic, and interesting, as possible. She was our key to popularity.

“This is my foreign girl, Anna,” Sadie said when introducing her.

She wouldn't have had to. What was not obvious about Anna at first glance was plain as day when she did things like dance ballet through the hallways and kiss people on the cheek—and, of course, when she spoke. And it wasn't just her accent, either, that made people point at her as she walked away, lean in close to me or to Sadie, and ask in a low murmur, “Is she, like, from somewhere?” The fact was, she used strange words that we didn't. Strange English words. She called nice kids and cute kids beautiful. It made them nervous. She called a mean kid who bumped into her in the hallway and did not apologize, “smarmy.” We had never heard it and we didn't think it was real. I figured she was reversing the games Sadie and I had played on her, making up words just to fool us.

Back at home on the day that Anna had first used that word, I was determined to get to the bottom of the business. I sat on the cot in the basement while Anna showered and Sadie did her homework. Under the privacy of the grape juice-stained sheet-curtain, I opened the pocket dictionary I found buried at the bottom of one of Sadie's cardboard boxes. There it was, smarmy. 1: marked by false earnestness; unctuous. 2: of low, sleazy taste and/or quality.

“What're you doing?” Sadie asked me.

“Nothing.” Embarrassingly, I couldn't even fully understand the definition.

I looked up “unctuous.”

. . .

After only a couple of weeks, she told us that she was in love.

His name was Matty Carpenter. In first grade, I had kissed him on the cheek. We had sat on our carpet squares on the classroom floor while Mrs. Dahlripple read to us from an Eric Carle book, and I had snuck in unexpectedly and pecked him on the cheek, then turned my cheek to him, expecting him to do the same. He hadn't. I punched him. He cried. His mother picked him up in a baby-blue minivan. I stood in the corner.

Now he was Anna's true love. As they walked to her locker after algebra one day, she said, he took her hand and kissed it. Trying to be romantic. European, or something. I could see it in my head—Matty, awkward, a solid four inches shorter than Anna, trying to be suave (1:.polite, charming, smooth. 2: well-groomed and having a sophisticated appeal). When I laughed, Anna asked why.

“Nothing,” I said. “Tell your story.”

“He drop-a my hand,” she said, “and he look eento-a-my ice. Ah, Jean, hees ice are so blue-blue like-a the Cinqueterre sea! Ah, Jean, he ees-a so beut-iful!”

Beautiful? I rolled my eyes at her theatricality. “I don't know about that,” I said. “Kind of cute. Maybe. I guess.”

All throughout the semester he would court her, slipping sheets of notebook paper, elaborately folded, printed in smeared pencil with lines of bad poetry that I caught him copying off a computer screen in the library—he had searched “love poems” on Google—through the vents in her locker. Before she left, she gave him a lock of her hair. She cut it for him, right in the middle of the hallway, with a pair of scissors swiped from the art room. She snipped off a good three inches of blonde curl from right at the front, by her face, and laid it in his hand with a dramatic sigh. Her head tilted. Her eyes watered. The assistant principal, passing by, confiscated the scissors.

She slipped me notes in class, the letters short, fat, overlapping. “Jean!” they said. “Matty = beutiful.” She spelled it this way every time, even after she'd been here long enough that she ought to have learned to spell the word the right way. Beutiful, without the a. A long word made short, an intimidating word—so flowery—made accessible. Made so astonishingly simple.

. . .

She made dinner sometimes, and over dinner we talked. Her accent rose and fell in waves and swayed back and forth, back and forth while falling; she spoke the way a sheet of paper floats to the floor. Sometimes, just from being around her, we found ourselves talking like her without meaning to, when we wanted her to understand, like we were singing. Around the dinner table when Sadie's dad got home from logging and sat down in his old plaid shirt and dirty jeans, bits of sawdust still all stuck up in his hair, we would chat with Anna and slowly notice our voices taking on the cadence of her own; the same musical pulse would beat through our own language, unexpectedly, and make it into something different. This was how we reached her, through this rhythm like a lullaby we'd never known we knew how to sing. Even Sadie's father, large, rough, a regular lumberjack, red-haired and red in the face and smoking like a chimney, would begin to draw out his vowels, to slow down his words that came between puffs on his cigarettes as he tapped the ash excitedly on the side of his plate. Through the haze of smoke and the thickness of the yellow light in Sadie's kitchen his words came, scratchy, hoarse from the years of smoke and hard work, and they floated: “Ann-na, pass-a mee the pep-per.” Just like music.

And despite Sadie's mother's initial censorship of our town, our house, and us, Anna took an interest in our ruins. Somehow, the cluttered messes around town and the vast empty spaces in between seemed to fascinate her. There were a few abandoned oil refinery tanks along a back road on the way to town that she liked to walk to sometimes, to sit and think—she did a lot of that, just sitting and thinking. We would circle the old tanks, pace the pavement beneath them now barely discernable through the grass and weeds that grew over it, hinting that everything here was bound for ruin, for age, for decay.

I disliked these concrete examples of why I hated home. “Piece of shit,” I had said on the first day we visited the tanks, kicking one.

“Don't touch it,” Sadie had commanded Anna. “The rust'll rub off on your fingers.”

But Anna had touched the tank, fingered its rusty sides.

In time, as we continued to frequent the tanks, her genuine interest in them made me begin to think differently of them, too—hints of a better time, suggestions of the lost potential of the place where I grew up. Where I was growing up. Our little Colosseums.

Her fascinations did not die out. Every day when the school bus picked us up, she commented on how “beutiful” it was. She took pictures of chipmunks and lawn mowers, printed them, sent them to her parents. And every evening we sang at the dinner table.

. . .

Fall was ugly, brown, soggy. It rained for weeks and didn't snow until a few days before doe season. When the first snowflakes began to fall Sadie's dad sat by the living room window with us and watched.

“Fit keeps snowing like this, it'll be perfect for spotting deer.”

Sadie agreed. For her twelfth birthday, they'd gotten her her own rifle. (They got me a book, Where the Red Fern Grows). The plan was, she'd take it and go out with her dad on the first day of doe (school was cancelled that day; no one would have gone if they'd had it). It was an important event for both of them.

To everyone's surprise, Anna asked if she could go along.

Sadie was annoyed at first. Her patience was short with Anna sometimes, when she couldn't understand Sadie's questions, when she hugged and kissed her parents far more than Sadie would have ever thought of doing. One day in early autumn Anna had cried over a pair of lost sunglasses.

“Sadie, my sunglass-ees,” she had sobbed on the bus to school.

“It's not a big deal, Anna,” Sadie said.

“But Sadie,” Anna went on. “My sunglass-ees. I love them.”

Sadie glanced up to make sure the bus driver couldn't hear, then leaned in close to Anna. “Bull shit,” she whispered (and Sadie never swore). “You don't love a pair of glasses. Don't be stupid.”

Anna had leaned her head against the bus window and gazed out of it, pining, heaving heavy sighs the way they do in books. Rain streaked down the bus windows; there was no sun, anyway. It was pathetic.

Now, when Anna asked to come hunting, Sadie's annoyance was mixed with amusement.

“You do know, I'm gonna shoot one,” she said to Anna, grinning.


“It's gonna die,” Sadie went on. “There's gonna be blood.”

“I know-a.”

“My dad's gonna cut out its heart.”

“Sadie,” I said. “Stop it.” I don't know whether I said it for Anna's sake, or for my own.

“No-a,” Anna said. “Ees true. But I want-a to come.”

So she did, and after struggling long and hard with the dilemma, I decided that I would go, too. I had never been hunting before. I had no wish to get involved with the ugly rituals of the town in which I was trapped. They were dirty, embarrassing. But Anna's interest unnerved me.

If she went out, and I stayed, it seemed that something would be out of place.

It was only a day in the woods.

Suppose I didn't go. They would share a memory from which I was excluded. They would talk about it together and I would only listen. Like the day of her arrival when they had sat close together in the cab of the truck, I would be left behind. Nowhere.

So Sadie's father wrapped us both in bright orange scarves and loose, torn old camouflage jackets. I thought about hunting as I had always imagined it: an ugly experience, loud, dirty. I imagined an explosion of smoke and guts, body parts and insides flying through the air. I was afraid to see it. Sadie was afraid not to. It was the first year that we were old enough to kill. She'd be a local hero if she did. I was ashamed.

There was hardly enough light to see by when we set out that morning, but still we could make out the silvery smoke of our breath in clouds around our faces. It had snowed enough over the past few days that the ground was completely covered and the dead leaves beneath the layer of white were frozen, crunched under our boots. It was the only sound we heard. Unlike the crashes and bangs of the primitive hunt of my dreams, this sound was regular, peaceful, like a pulse, and the smoke around us was not smoke at all but only vapor. Our excess life, expelled from our lungs, crystalline. The cold burned in my nostrils and filled my nose and my throat, dry and clean. We walked slowly, Anna and I close behind Sadie and her father, Sadie's short legs pumping, stepping twice for every one of her father's strides. In the stillness, as the morning grew clearer, paler, I felt my fear depart.

Several times, Anna tried to speak. Each time, Sadie or her father hushed her. She looked at me. Her cheeks were red and her skin was shiny; a few snowflakes caught in her eyelashes, melted, shimmered. She wiped her nose. We smiled at each other. Ahead of us in the dim light, Sadie held her rifle like a soldier. Anna slipped her gloved hand into mine. Strange. But her hand was warm inside her woolen glove, and we walked that way for a long time, crunch, crunching through the snow, not speaking.

We had waited at the spot Sadie's dad had chosen, by a boulder shaped like a dinosaur, sipping hot chocolate, for a little over an hour when the deer showed up. She was alone. Sadie and her father whispered. I heard him tell her to wait. For a good, clear, killing shot. It was just like in the hunting shows Sadie's dad watched on TV: ridiculous whispering—she's a bigun—and suspense.

I watched the doe. I never saw Sadie raise the gun, or pull the trigger. When she did, the sound was loud, but not in the way I'd expected it to be; only a sharp, tearing blast that broke through the air around us and shattered the silence.

More than the sounds and the smoke and the shattered body, I had feared that the doe would suffer before caving in upon herself and letting go; in between the sound of the bullet and its impact, this fear welled up in me again. There was the possibility of a struggle that I didn't know if I had the stomach to watch. But as the bullet entered her body right behind the front shoulder, clean and sharp through the lungs, the lack of gruesomeness startled me more than any amount of gore could have done. It was less than a minute before she collapsed. In the meantime, between the impact and the end, there was a dance. She leapt into the air, spun a bit, landed unsteady on her feet, took a few wobbly steps, and went down. All without a sound, somehow. She was dainty. Dignified. There was only this dance, in the forest a few miles back behind our houses, this dance of death that she seemed to have been made for. She accepted it, excelled in it—it seemed she'd practiced it for years. And when she fell to the snow after dancing, it all seemed oddly OK. Maybe she'd stood in that very spot a few weeks ago, alive. Maybe she'd been born there. Given birth there, even. Yet when she dropped to the snow, hard, like a fact, all that mattered was the dance.

It was this simple. I was amazed. This was the secret art behind the heads on the wall. I'd never felt so involved in this place where I lived, in the commerce of watching things die.

Sadie's father whistled, laughed like a little boy, picked up Sadie and twirled her around. We made our way over to the deer. I watched Anna, afraid she might cry.

We stared at the deer like we'd never seen one before. Her eyes were closed, peaceful, but her legs had buckled under her unnaturally and were bowed in strange directions.

“What do you think, girls?” asked Sadie's father, thrilled.

Still no one spoke. Anna leaned over the deer's face. I expected a soliloquy of some sort, or a dramatic sob; I waited for her head to tilt the way it did in moments of melodrama.

“Will-a you keep its face?” she asked.

On the wall, she meant.

“Nah,” Sadie's father said. “Not a doe. She's a pretty one, though, ain't she.” As he said this, he drew his knife from its case. The blade gleamed in the sunlight.

I knew what happened next; I wasn't sure if Anna did. We hadn't warned her about the way the knife would inevitably slice through the doe's underside, bottom to top, the way that Sadie's dad would roll her onto her side, his hands steady and efficient, and sever tissue, letting the organs and intestines slide free from their frame. I had heard about all this before. Just before they seeped free of their casing, I found myself reaching for Anna's hand.

“Maybe you'll want to close your eyes,” I said. Maybe I would, too.

Neither of us did. The same silence that had been with us all morning, through the sunrise, through the softly falling snow, descended again, and the body lost its shape.

In the bitter cold, the body steamed. Like our breath that vaporized around our faces, clouds rose from the cut and from the organs that Sadie's father removed, carefully, mostly still intact. The lungs, which the bullet had broken, oozed blood and melted the white snow beneath them. The contrast—the red and the white—was shocking. The red was bold, bright. It dripped into perfect circles.

Even from where we stood we could feel the heat rising from the body, both its shell and the former interior which now lay in heaps, strangely neat, around it. I did not think that I could look at a real heart, plump and unbroken, and not look away, yet there it was. And there I was. I was astonished by myself.

I dropped Anna's hand and stepped forward. I stood in the clean snow by the deer's face, peaceful even in the midst of her disassembly. I touched her sleeping face. Empowered by this contact, and by my own strength, I removed my glove, extended my hand and held it over the body, which was now empty down to the base of the ribcage. The heat rose. I moved my fingers, white with cold, in the steam, and felt them thaw. I think I moved them gracefully.

I can think of a million words, now, that would explain that moment. The heart on the snow, my hand moving back and forth in the heat of an open body, my fears miles behind me. In the moment, though, I could make no sense of my thoughts. I looked up at Sadie, saw her smile at me. She was proud of me, and I of her. I stood and Anna took my hand again and we waited together as Sadie's father finished his careful work and finally took the doe by its legs, dragging it back the way we'd come, through the sunlight.

At the time, I had thought it was only the presence of Sadie's father that steeled us and kept us from turning from the sight of the blood, closing our eyes as the knife first entered the sleeping body, and running away. But now I'm sure we would have stood there either way, whether he was with us or not, the three of us, holding hands in the snow and the silence.

. . .

Sadie's father said that after a few hours, the organs would begin to freeze. Eventually, he said, the coyotes and the bears would take care of them. In the meantime songbirds would pick at the fat and sing. He butchered the deer himself and the meat lasted until long after Anna left near the end of the month, just a few days before Christmas.

I asked Sadie's mother for some of the venison from the freezer. I could tell she was surprised, but she didn't ask questions. I took it home and hid it near the back of the freezer there.

. . .

It was only a matter of weeks, then, before Anna would return to Italy. We braced ourselves for the change the same way we had in August, but though her arrival had been sudden and shocking, her departure seemed to occur in bits and pieces, stretching themselves out across a period of several months. At times our voices slipped back into song, even after she was gone. Matty Carpenter came over the night before she flew away, gave her a red rose from which he'd carefully sliced the thorns with his pocket knife. He tied three scraps of fabric around it—green, white, red: the colors of the Italian flag. When we returned to school after Christmas break, he brought an identical one in and laid it on the hideous brown tiles on the floor at the base of what used to be her locker. It was one of the corniest things I ever saw. She would have loved it.

She promised to write, and for a long time, she did. Her letters were long and full of exclamation points and love and “very beutiful.” She promised me an Italian home and family, a family I had never met and knew then that I never would meet. I went back to imagining her, her house, her parents and their everyday lives, more realistically now—not stomping grapes, but a lawyer and a teacher in a second-floor apartment in a town that was not by the sea. Blonde.

On the day that she left, jetting forward in time, I took the venison Sadie's mother had given me out of the freezer and let it thaw. I could cook well, thanks to my time at Sadie's, my years of handing her mother spices and wooden spoons and watching her, without speaking. By the time my father came home (he was pumping gas then at a Texaco), it was nearly ready. It was dark outside.

His face was blank when he saw me. “Don't they want you over there no more,” he said.

I shrugged. “Yeah, they do.”

He stared at me for a while and then sat in the living room. I heard the TV click on.

I served him the venison on an old plastic plate. We didn't have anything nicer. I sat down across from him and we ate in silence. On TV, The History Channel, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon.

“Hey,” I said after a while.

He looked up.

“This deer?” I said. “Sadie shot it.”

“That's somethin.”

I said, “I watched it die.”

He didn't say anything, but he looked at me for a long time. He looked old.

It was strange. I had slept in my own bedroom, in the house where Daddy lived, nearly every night of my life, and yet I couldn't remember the last time we ate dinner together. I had an urge to tell him things, then, in my new language.

I could tell him he'd been real smarmy.

But I didn't. And I didn't tell him about being seven years old, sitting on my bed, wondering whether I should slam my arm hard against the doorknob or run an untrimmed fingernail down my face and pretend that he'd hurt me. I'd thought about this every time Sadie's mother had asked if he had, yet I never did it. I guess, even then, I knew what the consequences of such an action would be. I guess I never really wanted him to be taken away.

On the TV, 1969. Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon. He bounded across the dusty surface, playful, like a cartoon. Then the scene changed and he was sitting in a shiny wooden chair, talking about what it was like making contact with what he, what everyone, had seen, stared at, danced under for so long from across such a vast, empty distance.

I glanced at my father. I thought he'd fallen asleep. As I considered whether to go up to bed, maybe write Anna a letter, he spoke.

“That's somethin',” he said again.


“The moon.” He motioned to the TV screen.

Yes, I thought, it is something; it's beautiful, and it's right outside our window.

I guess I fell asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up. My father was sleeping in the armchair across from me. I looked at the clock on the wall. 8:30. I thought of Anna, six hours ahead where it was already afternoon, and of my mum, in Baker, California, home of the world's largest thermometer, three hours behind, where it was still dark.


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