F a m i l y
published in NUDE IN TUB (Algonquin Books, 1999)
It was an educated crew - that family - that went wild outside of Quilli, the man starting out as a professor at the tiny state university in town, his wife and four kids wanting to live out somewhere, way out, an old way in a new time.
"This is Maine," they said, and listed it all: heavy coats, woodstoves, lakes and rivers frozen by Christmas, moose, wolves, even eagles. The wife said, "I'm going to re-learn French." The children went Pow! Pow! Pow! During his first day of staff orientation he was told: Don't go living out somewhere. It won't be what you think.
That afternoon they closed on a farm forty miles from Quilli, well beyond St. A de P (St Antoine de Plupart). Leaving the bank, the man, Catullus Fender, bought the first axe he'd ever owned. His wife bought five kerosene lanterns and a kerosene can. Her name was June.
June was amazed when she told her oldest child, a boy, that she'd help him hook up the television and the boy said they - the kids - were more interested in learning how to chop wood and bring water up from the well.
"Let's get a book on plants," she told her husband, "and a book on wildlife. Maybe a book on the stars? I've never seen such clear night skies."
The next day, as Catullus was driving home from school with the books on plants and wildlife and stars that he'd bought at Don's Grocery in Quilli, he saw his oldest daughter walking alone on their dirt road. She was carrying something, or mostly dragging it.
"What do you have?" he asked her.
"It's a fox," she said. "I hit it with a stone."
"You killed it with a stone?"
"I strangled it while it was knocked out."
"Can we eat it?"
"I don't know. I'll have to look it up."
Once a week the dean would ask Catullus how things were going and he would say they were going fine. His students - the dean had heard this - thought he was a great teacher. He had a full beard in hardly any time at all and June stopped shaving, too. Bit by bit, he told people, they were opening doors into the past.
June was schooling the children at home, which gave her comfort as winter came on. No bus rides into an icy ditch for her kids. Nor Catullus - he arranged for a room in Quilli with an old retired man named Bill. He stayed there only when the weather was bad. When Catullus told Bill where they were living and that they were trying things the way they used to be Bill, who was eighty-six and recently widowed, said: "Are you nuts?"
They lost their first child that winter, an accident.
Snow had banked up to the second floor of one whole side of their house. Their youngest child, a little girl, went upstairs and opened a window to slide down the snow. She closed the window behind her and took a great joyous leap outward and sank down into the fifteen-foot drift.
When the dean asked Catullus if there was any word yet, Catullus, as stiff in his face as a man with a beard can be, said: "She just disappeared. We think she was eaten by something. We've resigned ourselves to it."
That spring brought her slowly back to them, something noticed by their next youngest child while he was looking out a living room window on a drippy, warm day. She emerged standing, not even a look of fright on her face.
A small service was eventually held and they buried her on the farm.
The remaining three winters saw Catullus and June lose the rest of their children. Fevers took two of them, while the third cut off half of one foot chopping some wood and bled out while June was trying to remember how to use the cellphone Catullus had bought for her.
"What can you do?" the dean said philosophically. He could see the pain beneath Catullus' beard, but he had just told him he was being recommended for tenure and he hoped that would be at least a small bit of good fortune in what was an unending stream of hideous luck.
Bill didn't think it was all so sad, just bad planning, though he did say: "I respect your grief."
Catullus had just gotten off the phone with June and was certain that she'd gone plain crazy. She was cold, she said. She was freezing, she said. She was wearing every piece of clothing she owned, she said, but when Catullus asked her why she didn't just start a fire in the woodstove she answered:
"I don't want to. I just want a switch on the wall, a nice little dial. I'm sure there's one here somewhere."
"Four?" Catullus asked.
"Four," Bill said. "That's what you said."
"Four kids - my children."
"We had four," Catullus repeated. "That's right."
"You said like the old days, that's how you wanted to live."
"In a sense."
"Or lacking it."
"You're a harsh man, Bill."
"Oh - you know I'm not. Four kids?"
"As you have known."
"Just average, son."
"Ten, maybe fifteen kids. Everyone had that, and everyone lost three, four, maybe five or more. You lean on history?"
"I teach it," Catullus said.
"You hit the average," Bill said quietly. "You just didn't have the whole team."
There were reports that Catullus stopped June's suicide, and other reports that he did not. He was clean- shaven, though, when he told the dean he was declining the tenure offer, but Bill was the only one who saw him before he left town.
Catullus stopped by to pick up some books and to leave a final rent check with Bill. It was snowing as Catullus left, however, and even though Bill stuck his head out the door and waved goodbye, his cataracts and the heavy snow prevented him from seeing if Catullus was alone in the car or not.
He smiled when he remembered Catullus nagging him about the cataracts, about new treatments with laser guns and high-speed sound - whatever that was. Some things, he knew, you didn't mess with. You just let your times be.
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