Peace Like a River
Peace Like a River
Copyright © 2001 by Leif Enger
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Printed in the United States of America
Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Peace like a river / Leif Enger.
ISBN: 978-1-5558-4590-2 (e-book)
1. Boys—Fiction. 2. Minnesota—Fiction. 3. Fathers and sons—Fiction.
4. Motherless families—Fiction. 5. Brothers—Fiction. 6. Outlaws—Fiction.
PS3555.N422 P42 2001
DESIGN BY LAURA HAMMOND HOUGH
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
The country ahead is as wild a spread
As ever we’re likely to see
The horses are dancing to start the advance—
Won’t you ride on with me?
FROM MY FIRST BREATH IN THIS WORLD, ALL I WANTED WAS A GOOD SET OF lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor’s hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.
When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.
My father wasn’t in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running—sprinting across the grass toward the door.
“How’d you know?” I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.
“God told me you were in trouble.”
“Out loud? Did you hear Him?”
“Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way.”
I had, in fact, been delivered some minutes before. My mother was dazed, propped against soggy pillows, unable to comprehend what Dr. Animas Nokes was telling her.
“He still isn’t breathing, Mrs. Land.”
“Give him to me!”
To this day I’m glad Dr. Nokes did not hand me over on demand. Tired as my mother was, who knows when she would’ve noticed? Instead he laid me down and rubbed me hard with a towel. He pounded my back; he rolled me over and massaged my chest. He breathed air into my mouth and nose—my chest rose, fell with a raspy whine, stayed fallen. Years later Dr. Nokes would tell my brother Davy that my delivery still disturbed his sleep. He’d never seen a child with such swampy lungs.
When Dad skidded into the room, Dr. Nokes was sitting on the side of the bed holding my mother’s hand. She was wailing—I picture her as an old woman here, which is funny, since I was never to see her as one—and old Nokes was attempting to ease her grief. It was unavoidable, he was saying; nothing could be done; perhaps it was for the best.
I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.
Dad lifted me gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.
“Breathe,” Dad said.
I lay in his arms.
Dr. Nokes said, “Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes.”
“Breathe!” The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair short and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.
Dr. Nokes approached him. “Jeremiah. There would be brain damage now. His lungs can’t fill.”
Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it—a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining, I have it still. He left my face uncovered.
“Sometimes,” said Dr. Nokes, “there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won’t pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood.” Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. “Lungs that can’t expand to take in air. In these cases,” said Dr. Nokes, “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”
The truth is, I didn’t think much on this until a dozen years later—beyond, of course, savoring the fact that I’d begun life in a dangerous and thus romantic manner. When you are seven years old there’s nothing as lovely and tragic as telling your friends you were just about dead once. It made Dad my hero, as you might expect, won him my forgiveness for anything that he might do forever; but until later events it didn’t occur to me to wonder just why I was allowed, after all, to breathe and keep breathing.
The answer, it seems to me now, lies in the miracles.
Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week—a miracle, people say, as if they’ve been educated from greeting cards. I’m sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave—now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth.
My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed—though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.
The fact is, the miracles that sometimes flowed from my father’s fingertips had few witnesses but me. Yes, enough people saw enough strange things that Dad became the subject of a kind of misspoken folklore in our town, but most ignored the miracles as they ignored Dad himself.
I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.
If he were here to begin the account, I believe Dad would say what he said to Swede and me on the worst night of all our lives:
We and the world, my children, will always be at war.
Retreat is impossible.
His Separate Shadow
I NOW THINK OF MY SURVIVAL AS MY FATHER’S FIRST MIRACLE. DR. NOKES himself named the event miraculous once he woke up and washed his face and remembered who he was.
The second, I suppose, is that the doctor turned out wrong about the brain damage. I’m happy to say none surfaced until I entered tenth grade and signed up for Plane Geometry; but since I can still feed myself and grind out a sentence in English, you won’t hear me complain.
Dad’s third miracle—and one of the most startling, if not consequential—happened in the middle of the night, in the middle of North Dakota, just after I turned eleven.
It was the trip I shot my first goose, a medium-sized snow. We were staying at August Shultz’s place, four hours west onto the Great Plains, hunting near the homestead Dad grew up on and still quietly longed for. The goose was a joyous occasion, and for a while we could all speak to each other again. That is, Dad and Davy could speak again—Swede and I rarely quarreled, for I never held opinions in those days, and hers were never wrong.
I do remember that the tension in the car, going out, was so potent I fell asleep as soon as I was able. A veteran bystander to hard moments, I knew they went by quicker when you were unconscious. Davy was sixteen then, a man as far as I was concerned, with a driver’s license and a knockout four-inch scar down his right forearm and Dad’s own iron in his spine. That night they sat in the front seat of the Plymouth, green-gilled from the dashlights, not speaking at all.
We were late getting started, as happened often, because Dad had to lock up the school after the football game. Swede and I yawned in the backseat, boxes of shotgun shells stacked at our feet. The sky spat ice and water. It rode up on the windshield, and from time to time Dad pulled over so Davy could jump out and scrape it off. That Plymouth had a worthless heater. Swede and I rode cocooned in gray army blankets and stocking caps, the two of us scratchy as horsehair. Twenty miles into the trip she slipped off her rubber boots; then I felt her toes creep up against my hip. Oh, but they were cold. I pulled them into my lap and rubbed them while up front Davy opened a thermos, poured coffee into the lid, and without looking at Dad handed it over.
Still not a word between them. The road beat backward under us. In a few minutes Swede’s toes felt warm and she was breathing evenly through her nose. I kept my hands tented over her feet, pigeon-toed there in my lap, laid my head back against the seat, and slipped away as well.
Before dawn we settled among decoys in one of August’s barley fields. Dad and Swede lay on their elbows side by side, the two of them whispering under a swath. Davy and I took the opposite flank, he with his clawed-up Winchester goose gun. I was too young to shoot, of course, and so was Swede; we were there purely, as she said, “for seasoning.” In all the years since I don’t remember a colder morning afield. Rain can outfreeze snow. We lay between soaked ground and soaked swaths with a December-smelling wind coming over our backs. As the sky lightened we heard geese chuckling on the refuge away to the east. The rag decoys puffed and fluttered. I yawned once, then again so hard my ears crackled.
He could say it; he wasn’t cold. Though his gloves were nothing but yellow cotton, he could handle an icy shotgun in evident comfort. I had on his outgrown leather mitts with two pair of wool liners, yet my fingers were clenched and bloodless. It seemed to get colder as the day came on. When Davy said, softly, “Old Rube, I could live out here, couldn’t you?” I was too frozen to tell him yes.
Minutes later I woke: Davy was poking me in the side. Finger to his lips, he nodded east. A lone snow goose was approaching, fighting the wind, making low questioning honks at our flock of rags. I put my face against the ground, trying not to move—a goose is an easy bird to spook. The loner’s honks got louder and more confident as it decided to land for breakfast. It was utterly fooled. I’d actually started feeling sorry for the doomed bird when Davy grabbed my shoulder and spun me so I lay on my back. He jammed the Winchester into my hands.
“Take him, Rube.”
The goose was straight overhead. Not twenty feet high! I flung off a mitten and tried to aim. The gun was way too big but I balanced it out there and yanked the trigger. Nothing happened—something was stuck—then Davy’s hand zipped out and clicked the safety off. The goose was just beyond us but still so close I could hear its panting wings. I yanked again, shot wild, and the recoil slammed my shoulder into the mud. My ears rang high and clear, and the goose finally understood and tilted off to the left while I pumped another shell into the chamber and fired again. The goose still didn’t fold but caught the wind and sailed over the barley like a kite. Tears were in my eyes—I’d missed two easy shots and wasted Davy’s present to me. Blind with despair I fired again. The goose had to be out of range; yet somehow it shuddered, went graceless, and made a controlled fall to the ground some eighty yards away. “You did it,” Davy said. “Good shot—you took him the hard way, buddy. Better go finish him.”
But as I handed him the gun, almost sobbing with relief, Swede streaked past in her corduroy coat yelling, “I’ll get ’im, I’ll get ’im!” and Davy said, “Aw, let her chase the old bird down,” so I watched her go, yellow hair bouncing behind her stocking cap.
Downfield, though, the goose seemed to have recovered its wits. It stood upright, taking stock, its head so high and perky I feared it might take off and fly after all. When it saw Swede coming it turned and sprinted away.
I’m telling you that goose could run.
Seeing this Swede lowered her head and went full steam, mud and chaff raining off her bootsoles. Dad started laughing, whipping off his cap and whacking it on his leg, while the goose stretched out its neck and bolted across the barley. Reaching the end of the field it encountered a barbwire fence. It stopped and turned as Swede closed in.
Did you ever see an angry goose up close? It’s a different bird from those you’ve watched flying south or waddling in city parks. An adult goose in a wrathful mood can stand up and look a third-grader right in the eye, and that’s what this fellow did to Swede. She got within a yard and stopped cold. She’d seen Dad wring a few goose necks and understood the technique, but those had been badly wounded, pathetic creatures—they’d seemed almost grateful to get it done with. This goose still owned its spirit. Later Swede told me she felt numb, standing there with her hand out; the goose had one blind, clouded eye, plenty eerie in itself, but Swede said the good eye was worse. She looked into that good eye and saw a decision being reached.
“It decided to kill me,” she said.
From where we stood, though, all we saw was the goose raise its wings and poke its beak at Swede. She spun, slipped to one knee, then was up and shutting the distance between us. The terrifying part, for her, must’ve been glancing back and seeing that goose coming after her just as hard as it could, wings spread, its black beak pointed at her rump. Dad was laughing so hard he was bent clear over and finally had to sit down on a gunnysack wiping his eyes. Swede led the bird straight toward us, and when she pounded past, Davy leaned over and snagged it just behind the head. A quick twist and he handed it to me, wings quivering. He grinned. “All yours, Natty”—after Natty Bumppo, Mr. Fenimore’s matchless hunter. It was a heavy goose. I realized I was warm, standing there with my mitts off, even hot. I held my goose with one hand and Davy’s Winchester in the other, smelling gunpowder and warm bird, feeling something brand-new and liking it quite a bit. Swede, though, was crying, her face in Dad’s belly, even while he laughed helplessly on.
* * *
Swede felt bad about that goose for a long time. For an eight-year-old girl she put enormous stock in courage. To be routed across a barley field by an incensed goose gave her doubts about her character.
“He’s really a big one, look at him,” I said, once we were back a
t August’s farm doing the job you might expect; behind the barn was a hand pump and an old door set across a stock tank for a cleaning table.
Davy was whetting the blade of his hunting knife, a bonehandled Schrade. He said, “You want me to show you how?”
“I shot him, I’ll clean him.” I had no urge to actually gut the bird, but I was eleven and a hunter now—a man just beginning his span of pride.
He gave me the knife, handle first. “Don’t forget to thumb out the gizzard. We don’t want sandy gravy, uh?”
As he strode away I noticed how the clouds had racked up, thick and low, and how the light was going though it wasn’t yet noon. Maybe this affected me, or maybe it was just the thought of cleaning that goose by myself, but I sure wanted Davy to stay.
“I’ll save out the heart for you,” I called after him, and he turned and smiled, then climbed a low ridge of cottonwood and willow brush and disappeared.
I had, of all things, a lump in my throat. Luckily Swede was standing at my elbow and said, “First thing, you have to cut his head off.”