First Prize Fiction Contest
By Johanna Skibsrud
It was the morning Daniel turned eleven that the buffalo got loose and went wild all through the woods behind the Knutsen place, which was just about three miles away.
Something scared them. A coyote, or even, someone suggested, the sudden, severe, shift in weather, and it had caused them to run. Once they ran; once they’d left the sturdy fencing of the Knutsen’s once they’d got all separated up inside the wood (with the way the trees were in there, so small and thickly grown in on one another ) well then they just quite simply couldn’t find their way back in.
That afternoon—after Daniel had his presents and his birthday cake—his father picked up the phone and said, “I could have seen this coming a mile away.” The buffalo had only been at the Knutsen farm for a month. Less—his mother said –if you calculated all the time that it took to get them out of the truck and into the pen where Mr. Knutsen wanted them in the first place. Which was forever. A full day, anyway, that’s how long it took Knutsen, and his six sons and the tractor trailer man to get those buffalo where they were going. They just didn’t want to get out of the truck, is what it looked like. But then, of course, once they were out, they didn’t want to stay put, and they caused quite a lot of trouble. The morning Daniel was eleven they bust up that fence that the Knutsen boys had spent all spring fixing stronger than any fence that they ever knew of had been fixed, and took off.
Daniel thinks about this now because he is driving his daughter—her name is Anna—back home to his mother’s place for thanksgiving, and soon they will pass by the Knutsen farm, which was recently sold to a local developer. His mother has told him this, over the phone, and Daniel thinks about how those buffalo, standing around shivering in the woods, wouldn’t have known about it—couldn’t have dreamt it, because neither could he have, at that time, and neither could anyone.
Anna doesn’t want to be coming to Thanksgiving with him, or his mother. He knows this. She wants to be in Milwaukee with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend but she isn’t. She’s beside him, the way that Daniel wanted it, but now he isn’t sure if it was worth all the bother. First he had to wrangle with Anna’s mother, and that was a chore. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation with her he would hold the telephone away from his ear as if it was a very foreign and surprising object that he hadn’t much use for, and think, isn’t it funny this woman has anything to do with me at all.
In those moments he didn’t think of it as a sad thing. He did not regret the years that he’d spent with Diane, or wish them back—or wish for them to be done over in a different, more intelligent way: knowing, rather—with that retrospect of an already lived life—what choices had led to which outcomes, and what choices were left to him from there.
No, he only thought, that’s funny. Isn’t that the oddest thing, he thought, looking at the telephone, as if it really was the telephone that was causing him to wonder.
With Anna he’d hoped that it would be different. With Anna he hoped he could establish a real causal relationship. That they would recognize how they were inevitable to one another, because that was the way it was supposed to be with parents and their children. He had never had any intention of being an absent father, he thought that was the job of guys who were restless and moved around a lot, and couldn’t commit to things. He was never that guy, but anyway, now, bam, here he is, these years later, with a daughter, and not a single thing to say to her, because she is practically a stranger, beside him. Driving down to his mother’s place thinking about buffalo, of all things.
The Knutsen’s had been forward thinking farmers, which was unusual to that part of South Dakota. That postage stamp looking spot, that was their county. That was the size and the shape of it on the map—a postage stamp—which was always surprising—that it could be made to seem so small—because when he got out of the house, like his mother was always bugging him to do, and wandered around it, it always seemed so big, and it stretched out around him, so wide and empty seeming that it got him thinking about forever, until his head hurt.
Once he told his mother about thinking about forever. He said, I start off small, and then I work my way up, very slowly, to see if I can think it out, but then my mind goes all fuzzy at a certain point and I can’t think it out anymore. Why does it do that?
His mother had laughed at him, but in that nice, big friendly way that she had. She was very kind, but she told him, you can’t think about things like that, Honey. You’ll find out there’s a lot of things like that. Your mind goes fuzzy, that’s right. She gave another hoot of laughter. He knew he’d pleased her, but he also knew that he would never—that he shouldn’t—try to talk to her about forever again.
Her answer, anyway, wasn’t the one he was looking for, and maybe it was because he could always get a ‘yes’ from his Dad when he couldn’t get one from his mother and the other way around, that he believed that if you didn’t get the right answer to something, well then, you just kept looking.
When the Knutsen’s first got the buffalo, his father said, “them Knutsen’s, you got to hand it to them, they got an eye to the future.” But when the Buffalo got out and all hell broke loose, all over the county, he said, “I could have seen it coming a mile away. Didn’t I say it,” he said, “messing around with buffalo was no genius idea, anyone coulda told you that.”
Daniel didn’t say anything, because his father seemed very sure even in the deepest most true part of him, that he’d been certain from the start that no good would come of the Knutsen’s having buffalo. He thought his father must have only said that, admiring the Knutsen’s eye to the future, because it was a nice thing to say. Or maybe it had been a kind of a joke. Daniel was beginning to realise that people often did that—they often said things they didn’t mean, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t think of the right way to say what they meant. They probably could. It was just what they did. Sometimes they even said the very opposite of what they meant, and liked it that way. They thought it was funny, and that whatever it was they said wasn’t meant to be taken seriously anyhow. Hardly anything that grown up people said, Daniel was beginning to realize, was meant to be taken seriously.
It’s funny for Daniel to think about how he and his daughter are together in the car just now—just them—in just that little closed up space, hurtling down the road—self-contained like that. It’s funny that that’s what surrounds Daniel now: the automobile, and the things in it which are very few and simple things. The upholstery, and all the knickknacks inside, for example, that make the thing work: the gear shift, the wheel, the buttons and knobs and handles and things. Then the things—like his luggage on the backseat, and his daughter’s multi-coloured camping backpack in the hatchback trunk, that has cartoon character baubles dangling from the ends of the zippers—which are more independent of the vehicle.
And his daughter, too, well—there. That was the first level of things. And then outside of that, there was the road, but that was harder to think of because what was just outside the vehicle kept changing and changing, because they were going so fast, but at the same time, it never did really change that much, because everything looks pretty well the same in South Dakota—all flat and gold, and empty. Daniel likes it that way. The whole mid-west looks the same, he thinks, if you don’t get too technical. And it’s a good thing, he thinks, that there’s still some things that remain, or change so slowly that it’s at a pace that a man like him, who is partial to soundness—to the endurance of things—can keep up with, and accept.
That is not the case with, for example, Anna, who has grown so much in the past six months since the last time that he saw her, that he was embarrassed when he went to meet her. He went forward awkwardly at first as if maybe she wouldn’t know him, and he’d have to wave his hands around and call attention to himself, and say something like it’s me, it’s your Dad.
Maybe she wouldn’t want him to hug her anymore. Daniel thought about that, too late, with a little panic when he did hug her, and his arms felt long and big.
How was he to know how much things had changed, and why, and what the implications of those changes would be, if he wasn’t around to see the slow progression toward them? It would be a shock to any man, after all, he told himself, to see his daughter tall, so suddenly, like that. To see his daughter suddenly looking like the sort of daughter other men had. Who snapped their gum, and wore lip gloss and had breasts. It wasn’t right the way they were going about things. Things were supposed to happen slowly. You were supposed to be able to think them out, step by step by step until you either came up with the right answer, or your brain got fuzzy and you started again.
He’d felt clumsy with Anna at the station. He had to think of things to say and do with his hands like he was picking up a business partner, and had to be on, or as if, worse, he was her age again, and still talked to girls as if he thought they were exotic birds that had to be entertained all the time, and danced around or else they would peck at you, and dash all your hopes. And not just for that one day, that one conversation—would your hopes be dashed—but for eternity: then, and for the rest of your life. All your hopes, would be, in that one moment, gone, and you’d know that you’d never be the same—that you were a lost cause, and your heart would always be a big squashed thing in you that you couldn’t get out, or do anything with.
Girls had that much power. Good thing, Daniel thinks, in remembrance of this, that a person grows up, and can stay on the outside of things.
Except now, that is: what he is experiencing now. He is very much on the inside of it—whatever it is. This car, for example, he is on the inside of that. Of the landscape, even—as it passes and passes—he is within that.
It is in fact as if his whole world is a frame—the kind that shows a picture, and inside that another picture in which there is another picture, and on and on and on. But at the center of it, he knows, no matter how far down he goes, at the center it will still be him. It will be him at the very end of it all, a tiny little babushka of himself, nestled in at the center of all his other outer, emptied, babushka selves.
“You want to drive?” he says to Anna. He doesn’t know why. As soon as he says it he wants to take it back. He wants to laugh, like it was a bit of a joke he had with himself, but then he can’t because he hates the kind of man that would laugh like that, even if he is that kind of a man.
“What?! Now!?” Anna says, and now he’s happy that he said it because for the first time she seems to be really there, with him, in the car. It’s like she’s actually talking to him now, and not to a cut-out version of himself at it had seemed to him she had been—just answering all of his questions politely like she was practicing for someone else.
“Sure,” Daniel says, trying to find some reason why he thought this had been a good idea—besides he’d wanted to say something that would surprise her.
To keep a thing like this going now, it would have to be more than surprise—more than a joke that he had with himself. He says, “I was your age when I first learned,” even though it’s not true. “Why not?” he says, “This ain’t Milwaukee—in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I noticed,” Anna says, but she doesn’t say it unkindly. She is still interested in him and looks at him, wondering what he’ll do next.
He pulls off onto the side of the road. “Here, let’s switch,” he says.
When the buffalo came Daniel’s mother and her friend Cheryl, who worked at the meat processing plant off the main highway, took Daniel to watch them be unloaded at the Knutsen’s. Cheryl had long delicate fingers and her nails were long, too, and narrow at the tips. They were always a different colour whenever Daniel saw them. When the buffalo came, she kept them on the steering wheel while they watched from the car, and he could see them from his position in the backseat. Sometimes she lit a cigarette, and it was a very complicated procedure when she did that; her nails made everything seem more difficult and out of reach. Cheryl’s hands were different than his mothers, which were not rough, but were just hands, with short pale nails, and medium sized fingers. Cheryl’s hands didn’t look like they were meant to belong to someone who lived where they lived, especially not someone who worked at a meat processing plant. Once he’d heard his father say, “with those hands you oughtta be a secretary, Cheryl, show them off some,” and his mother got mad and said, “she ought to be more than that,” but then she didn’t say anything else, or suggest what “more than a secretary” might be, which was something that Daniel, and maybe even his mother, didn’t know.
The Knutsen place was just up the road. Cheryl didn’t pull into the drive, but just parked the car at a little distance from the house, on the opposite side of the highway, and then she, and Daniel, and his mother sat there for most of an hour and waited and waited. Nothing happened. They saw all the Knutsen boys run around in circles in the yard, and there was a lot of hollering going on from what it looked like, but they couldn’t hear anything because the windows were shut tight and they really were quite a distance away. His mother smoked a cigarette which was something he’d never seen her do before. The car filled up with so much smoke that his eyes stung, but he liked the way that the smoke fogged everything over so it seemed like a long distance between the front and the back seat, for example. Like there was all sorts of room suddenly for things to take place in.
Finally, Cheryl turned around to look at him, his face smeared up against the glass. He had got bored of watching the Knutsen boys run around and around. He didn’t believe in the buffalo anymore, so was not looking out of the window, but instead, just sort of staring, and trying to keep his eyes open, without blinking, for long periods of time, which made his eyes sting worse. When they’d been open for a particularly long time it was easier to make them unfocus, and the picture go blurry. He concentrated on doing that—on getting his eyes to unfocus and then, quick as he could, he’d focus them in again. Focus, unfocus, focus, unfocus, his eyes went—but to Cheryl when she turned around it probably just looked like he was doing nothing, just staring off into space.
“Let’s take this kid home,” Cheryl said, and his mom looked back at him then too, and said, “you had enough, Sweetie?” as if it had been his idea to come to the buffalo.
Daniel eases the gear shift into Drive, and his hand is overtop of Anna’s, and he says—once the stick has clicked in at “D”— “now just step on the gas, just a little, just a little.” Anna doesn’t step on the gas. His hand is still on hers, and underneath that is the gearshift. “Which one’s the gas?” she says to Daniel in a near whisper, this look on her face like she’s about to say the wrong answer when she knows a lot of things depend on her getting it right.
“The right, the right,” Daniel says, and then they lurch forward, going too fast and a second later have stopped entirely, with a little bounce. She’s hit the break. “Okay, okay,” Daniel says. Anna has this other look on her face now like she doesn’t know whether to laugh, or to cry. One of her eyebrows is all knit up and she’s got a hold of her top lip with her bottom teeth biting back whatever it is—and she can’t decide—she is going to say, or do. “Okay, try again, just ease the gas on, and don’t get scared.” He’s taken his hand off the gear-shift and has put it on the wheel, just above where her right hand is knotted around the rim.
“Are you sure?” She says. She—still with that look on her face.
“No,” Daniel says. “I’m not sure about anything, really.” He laughs a little, but mostly feels stupid. “Except that”—he tries to rescue himself from the joke—“for the next five minutes, even with you at the wheel we’re going to be ab-so-lute-ly fine.” He taps the rhythm of the word “absolutely” out on her hand on the wheel, which is gripped very tightly. Then he adds “kiddo,” after the fact, which was something that he used to call her. When she was younger and he saw more of her—before Diane moved to Milwaukee. He hasn’t used the word on her yet this visit; it’s okay, though, when he says it. It comes out okay. It hangs around a bit in the air between them but in an okay sort of a way.
This time the car starts more smoothly. Daniel thinks with some surprise how easy it is to forget how many things get learned. Simple things. Driving. Tying your shoes. Even that used to be a struggle, for example. Something to be concentrated over –he remembers that, clearly. How often, at the beginning, he’d got it all wrong, and had to be shown—again and again. Yes, and driving a car—that had been hard. Especially because he’d learned on his father’s stick shift.
Well this was why, after all, he’d wanted a kid. Even when he was a kid, he thought it would be nice—to have someone to show things to. That was supposed to be the real joy in life, wasn’t it? Once you learned enough to get by in the world: passing it on.
It’s nice, for Daniel to think this out now—about how much he’s learned, after all—but it also gives him a kind of sick feeling in his stomach when he thinks about how, really, he has that now: enough to get by in the world.
When he thinks of how difficult driving had been for him when he first started, and how easy it is for him now—he thinks that maybe there are lots of things like that that he doesn’t know now, or are difficult now, but he just won’t ever keep after, trying, because he doesn’t need to.
Because he has, already, enough to—technically—survive.
Later that day, Daniel’s father got the word that the Knutsen’s had finally got their buffalo unloaded and they were in the field. He hung up the phone and said, “well, we got some new neighbours, Ladies.” Daniel’s mother and Cheryl were sitting on the couch, their feet tucked up under them, drinking something with ice in it, that clinked around in the glass. “Damn,” said Cheryl, “I would have liked to see them all charge out of there.”
And then not a month later, Daniel’s father was on the phone again, after the birthday cake, only this time he had a different look on his face, and he said “I could have seen it coming a mile away.” Or maybe it was “I should have—I should’ve seen it coming”—maybe that’s what he’d said when he hung up the phone.
“Don’t anyone go outside,” Daniel’s father instructed his family. He seemed to like the way that it sounded: the words alarming, but the voice in itself not alarmed. “We got twenty mad buffalo storming around out there. I want everyone to stay put ’til we get all this taken care of,” he said.
Daniel’s father went out to the shed and came back with his rifle. His mother sat with Daniel at the kitchen table, where he’d been doing some homework, and where she had been looking through a magazine, and helping him over his shoulder when he ran into problems with division.
“Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t like the sounds of this,” when his father first went out, and then she got up and used the telephone herself. Daniel heard her giggle into the phone in the other room —he thought she was probably talking to Cheryl—but she giggled in that nervous sort of way like she probably didn’t mean to be giggling, but didn’t know what else to do.
By the time Daniel’s father had got back, she was sitting at the table again, reading her magazine. Daniel and his mother looked up at him when he came in, and he seemed to remember something then, and put down the rifle, and went back outside. He’d leaned the rifle up against Daniel’s mothers chair, which was closest to the door, before going out, and it looked very silly—a little outrageous to Daniel –to see his mother calmly reading her magazine with that gun leaning up against her chair.
When his father came back he was carrying a second gun, and he said to Daniel, “Daniel you can come too,” and then he extended his hand out with the gun in it, so Daniel was then supposed to get out of his chair and walk over to his father, and take up the gun in his own hands.
He had shot a gun before. Many times. His father had taught him, and that was the end of the second fall, in fact, that he’d been out with his father in deer hunting season, although he was supposed to wait until I was twelve. Sometimes his father had gone out for grouse with him, too, but he’d only shot in practice and never for real, even when his father had purposely held back on a shot he could have taken, and said, “this one’s yours, son.”
He would always come up with some reason that it hadn’t made sense to fire, but he didn’t know why he did that, every time. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to kill the bird. He wanted to kill the bird more than anything.
“Oh, come on, don’t,” Daniel’s mother said, when Daniel got up to take the gun from his father, and put on his boots, and follow him out to the truck. “He’s got work to do, this is not messing around, you know,” she told Daniel’s father. “I thought you just told us both to stay inside. That seemed like a plan to me.”
“You stay in,” Daniel’s father said, and went outside, so that Daniel had to shove his boots on quickly to not get left behind. His feet weren’t all the way down into the boots when he started for the door, so they made him walk funny, like a duck. His mother had got up and moved out onto the porch, just in her slippers so she was probably cold.
“You be careful,” she said, when Daniel waddled past with his feet not in his shoes, and his gun in one hand, outstretched away from his body like it was another arm. “You be careful with my son,” she yelled to his father, a little louder than she needed to, for him to hear.
They drive for about three minutes, very slowly, but smoothly. Anna is concentrating hard on the road, and has her jaw set tight, and her hands all tensed up, still, on the wheel. Daniel lets go himself, and then he watches her—frozen like that, not a muscle in her body moving—and yet moving—the outside world moving steadily past. He digs back in his memory for some brief moment that he can recall that would show him how all of this was inevitable. How it had been, from the very beginning, exactly right that they should have arrived at this moment together. He wants to call up some brief memory of Anna from when she was very small that will explain her to herself, and to him, as she is now—some determined moment from babyhood, for example. When, like now, she was serious, and set on a task.
He will share that moment with her, if he can think of one, and then they will see how they are essential. To themselves and to each other.
He can’t think—though—of a moment.
After about three minutes are up, Anna pulls the car expertly off to the side of the road, puts on the brake—a little heavily still—and, without a word, stops the car.
“I’m done,” she says.
“You’re doing so well!” Daniel says. He brings his hand down briefly on her arm, which is off the steering wheel now, and lying in her lap. The movement is intended—by Daniel—to be conciliatory and tender, but really it comes off more as a hit, or a slap.
“You drive,” Anna says, as if it were a disgusting thing. “It’s your car.”
Too late, Daniel realizes he has made a large and irrevocable error. He shrugs.
“Okay,” he says. “I will drive.”
On the main highway, their guns on the rack at the top of the cab, Daniel felt happy in a way that he did not think he might, when his father originally came back from the shed, that second time, with the gun. His father’s dog, Sugar, was sitting in between them, peering eagerly ahead of herself, out the front glass. Sugar always went with his father everywhere. It was the usual thing, to see his father returning from wherever he went with Sugar racing beside him down the drive. About a mile from home, where the road split and one way went in a loop back to the highway, and the other went to their house, Daniel’s father always let the dog out of the cab and Sugar ran the rest of the way. She could always keep up for the most part, when Daniel’s father didn’t tease her and drive too fast, with the truck. Once, his father had said to Daniel—when Daniel was driving back home with him and Sugar and they’d stopped to let Sugar leap out, and race off, getting a head start on them—“sometimes, I wish I could let myself out and run around beside myself for a while, I get to feeling so restless. You ever get like that?”
Daniel had said no, because he wasn’t positive that he knew what his father meant, and didn’t want to have to back up something that he’d made a mistake about to begin with. He did think he knew what his father was talking about though, and he was surprised because he’d thought that only small boys, and not grown men felt that way—like they were rattling around inside of themselves.
Long before they got to the Knutsen place, they could see how it was packed with cars. A fire truck and several police cars were there, even. Everyone was running around like mad, round and round in even tighter circles than the Knutsen boys had run when they were trying to get the buffalo out of the truck. They had to park on the road again, but this time not as far away as Cheryl and his mother had parked. They walked up to the main drive, and Daniel found that without noticing it—or trying—he could match his stride with his fathers. They were crunching along on the gravel shoulder and it was as if one man was walking, the sound they made—their feet falling in unison—instead of a man and a boy.
After a while they headed into the woods. They could see the men at various stages of nearness to the tree line, which was a good mile or so away. Some had started off just minutes before, and so were up close, still large and distinct. He could still hear their voices some of them—the ones that were that near. Others were almost to the edge of the woods, about to disappear, and the rest were somewhere in between.
While his father was talking to a Sheriff that was giving directions to the men that arrived, Daniel saw Cheryl come out of the barn, smoking a cigarette. She was talking to one of the Knutsen boys and she looked upset. Everyone looked upset, it shouldn’t have surprised him that Cheryl might too. But it did. He wondered what Cheryl was doing talking to a Knutsen, and then he thought it was interesting that it had never crossed his mind that Cheryl got sad sometimes, or that she knew anybody else besides his mother and him. He tried to catch her eye when she came out of the barn, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her head was bent down into the collar of her big man’s jacket and she looked kind of swallowed up in a way that all the sudden made Daniel not want to talk to her anymore.
They started across the field. Daniel’s father had his hand at first on Daniel’s shoulder and then it was off. Sometimes Daniel’s boots got sucked down into the soggy parts of the field and then he’d have to stop for a half-second to squelch them out, and in that short time he’d fall behind his father and then have to double step to catch back up again. His father didn’t speak to him until they got to the edge of the wood and then he said, “you stick close to me. You’re not worried are you? You can go on back, you know.” But Daniel shook his head. He wasn’t worried. He felt entirely free of worry, like he was in fact not in his body at that moment, at all. Like he had let himself out to run around—in some other field. He felt very light and very well, beside his father, as if for the first time in his life he knew exactly what to do, and did not feel at all worried that he’d make the wrong move.
Daniel’s father nodded at him, when he saw that Daniel was steadfast, and they entered the wood. For a long time they wandered around—it seemed to Daniel in circles—and then it occurred to him that they might get lost but then he didn’t think they would. He was just beginning to start his mind wandering away on him—to notice little things, as if he was a real boy suddenly, again—finally come back to sit around uncomfortable and wet-footed, inside his body—when they saw the buffalo.
It was bigger than Daniel could have imagined, having only seen them from quite a distance after the Knutsen’s had got them out of the truck and into the field. The field—being so large and flat as it was—allowed you to see things from such a distance that they were so diminished in proportion they did not at all resemble themselves.
“Shit,” Daniel’s father said, when all the sudden there it was. He grabbed at the hood of Daniel’s jacket and kind of tugged on it so that Daniel assumed he was meant to get down on the ground like it was a movie and they were the ones being shot at. “No, get up,” Daniel’s father hissed, “back up, back up.” He had his gun raised and he was shooing Daniel behind him, with one hand. The buffalo did not see them, but was standing looking off into the closely grown wood as if at nothing.
“I got’m, I got’m,” Daniel’s father said, and then the gun went off and the buffalo was gone. Daniel realized that he had tightly shut his eyes and that was why there had been no progression. One minute he had seen the buffalo looking off into the woods, and then there was no buffalo at all. The trees were so tight together that it seemed impossible an animal so large could have squeezed through them in such a hurry.
That was the problem, after all, the buffalo had got out of the fence, and then— once out—they couldn’t get back in and now they were just wandering around the wood by themselves because it was too tight a space for them to get together—get their bearings—or make any sort of plan.
The only thing to do now was shoot them, and be done with it.
Daniel sensed his father’s disappointment, although neither of them said anything. When the buffalo was gone, Daniel’s father had simply took down his gun, wiped off the muzzle, and then turned in the direction that Daniel was, without looking at him. “Come on, which way?” He said to Daniel. Daniel didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t seen the direction that the buffalo had gone, and then he wasn’t even that sure if they should be running after it or away from it. He pointed straight ahead, and his father took off in the direction that he’d pointed.
When he is driving again, Daniel tries to change the subject, and talk about something that Anna is interested in to get her mind off the failed adventure of her driving. She is sullen with him though, and doesn’t elaborate on any of the answers that she gives him to any of the questions that he asks—about school and sports, and her new friends in Milwaukee. All her answers come out sounding like he is a fool to have to ask in the first place, as if of course there was only one answer to that, and everyone would know it but him.
Actually, he feels that way. He feels that he is a fool to not know these things about his daughter—things that he should know, things that are very simple things.
The things that, all along, if he’d asked, there would have been definite answers to.
When Daniel and his father got back home that evening they left the rifles on the rack because neither of them wanted to put them away. It would have seemed to be too outright an admission that their chance was over—that they wouldn’t go looking for buffalo again. The next day they both had work or school, and probably by that time anyway, the police and the fire department would have the situation under control and they wouldn’t need volunteers anymore. Daniel’s mother was scrubbing the bathroom when they got back in. She didn’t rush up to greet them as he’d thought she might.
“Catch a buffalo?” She said, when they got in the door, in a voice that Daniel recognized as one that was a capable of starting up a fight between her and his father.
“Nope,” Daniel’s father said.
“Too bad,” Daniel’s mother said.
“Yep, I sure wouldn’t have minded having a buffalo to eat off of all winter, and neither would have Daniel, would ye?”
“Knutsen’s buffalo,” Daniel’s mother corrected him.
“Not if I shot it,” Daniel’s father said. “Not if Daniel here shot it. That was the deal they had going. Anyone could have had himself a buffalo tonight.”
“Too bad,” Daniel’s mother said again, in that voice.
“Yep,” Daniel’s father agreed. He gave Daniel a wink, and then wondered aloud what they were having for dinner if it wasn’t anything wild.
Later that evening Daniel went walking down the road toward the direction that the Knutsen’s place was. He wasn’t planning on going as far as that. He wasn’t supposed to be out at all. But his mother and father were both in the back room watching TV and not paying him any attention so he’d just slipped out. The night was very cool and calm. It was like walking through a picture of another planet. The air had that sense about it of being very clean and stopped—as if it was containe
d within a whole new and separate atmosphere.
He felt like he could walk on and on forever and that that would be the good, and really the only choice that he could make in his life. To just keep walking on and on forever. But then he made himself think of his parents. How worried they would be for him, out there with the buffalo—if they realized he had done what he’d done—gone out into the night.
He made himself turn around and, reluctantly he went back to the house. But then, when he entered the house, he found that too was good. He found that too had been a fine decision—and he saw very clearly in that moment that he would never know what the right thing would be to do in his life.
They aren’t far now to the place. Soon they’ll pass the Knutsen farm and then after that, they’ll come to the split in the road and choose the one to the right, which leads to where Daniel’s mother still lives. Maybe Daniel will tell Anna about how his father used to let Sugar off right there, to run, when they get to that split in the road. That would be something to say, anyway.
He wishes that Anna wasn’t in such a rotten mood. It’s putting him in one too, but it’s not her fault. He shouldn’t have made her drive.
What he really wishes is that they could arrive at his mothers house—he and his daughter—chatting and laughing, and hugging each other, like they were the most natural companions in the world. His mother would see, then, that although some unfortunate things had come to pass—some things that Daniel himself had not forseen—everything was going on anyway, and going on in another, and equally good sort of way.
Failing that, what Daniel wishes is that at least they were back at the beginning of the drive and Anna was polite to him again.
The split in the road seems a long while to wait before he says anything again, so he says—and he certainly wouldn’t have said it if he’d thought about it carefully— “whatcha thinking, Honey?”
He tries to make his voice sound cheerful and light, as if the question has come out of nowhere and isn’t attached to anything else—even to any anticipation of reply.
Anna says, “nothing,” and Daniel notes that he has made another mistake. After that he doesn’t say anything for a moment, but then all the sudden he feels reckless. He feels that maybe he doesn’t even care anymore. He thinks what the hell, I’m just going to say any old thing, and half turns to Anna and says, “I’ve always found that’s a difficult thing to do. Think of nothing,” he says. “I mean I’ve tried, it’s not that I haven’t tried.” He can feel the way his sentences are not connected to each other and are just stringing themselves out and away from him—how he has no control over them at all. He feels like a fool for it, but he also recognizes that, under the circumstances, foolishness is his best, and perhaps his only option. “And I can never quite do it,” he tells her, “so if you can,” he gives her a shrug, “well that’s pretty cool for you,” he says.
Anna has been ignoring him, but she doesn’t look quite so angry to Daniel as she had before—but maybe that’s just his imagination. He thinks, though, that he has a small chance.
“Are you really thinking of nothing?” he asks her, letting a little teasing note creep into his voice. If he can get her to laugh before he gets to his mother’s place, then everything will be okay. Six months ago he could have done it. He remembers that about Anna, certainly. She’d never been good at holding a grudge. She’d get upset—just crazily angry when she was a kid—enough to frighten him sometimes. Just so frustrated, and by the simplest little things—but then—in another moment—if you could get her distracted by something—anything—she’d be happy again, just like that, and it would be as if those small frustrations, which had got so out of hand, had never existed.
“I mean really really,” Daniel tries again. He smiles as he says it over at Anna—to where she is looking out the window, down along the Knutsen’s drive. In another second, without turning her head, she will be looking at the Knutsen’s field instead of the drive. That is the way it is when you are travelling, even at a moderate pace, in a moving vehicle. She will see the field stretch on and on until it is stopped by the edge of the wood. What will she think then? Daniel wonders this but knows, even as he wonders it, that it is something that he will never ask. Not again, and she will never volunteer the information on her own.
That is the pace they are travelling at. Daniel gets four words into the distance between the drive and the field, and then he wonders how many words he can get in before his mother’s house. If the space between here and the house is enough. “I mean right now, are you thinking nothing, now?” Daniel says, then he says, “how about,” and pauses, and then says “now!” Very quickly and loudly, so that maybe she jumps a little beside him.
And smiles. “Hey?” Daniel asks. Encouraged. “Hey, Hey?” He says, and takes a risk, and touches her. He takes a hand off the wheel and gives her a poke on the shoulder to match that last, “hey?”
She sways a little toward the window, but doesn’t pull back from his touch, as he’s been afraid that she might. And she does, she smiles. At first she tries to hide it but then she shifts in her seat, and tosses her hair over her shoulder to look at him—at Daniel—and then he can see that everything’s alright.
“I didn’t think so,” Daniel says, to answer his own question.
Once they get out past the Knutsen’s field, away from the wood, the land really does fall away. It doesn’t drop off it just extends itself out—just stretches on and off, right out to blankness. Especially this time of year when all the colours are so muted and not even really colours at all but just a suggestion, now, of the sort of colour they once were. It just seems to go on, out here, for what is—to Daniel’s perception right now— as good as (he assumes) forever.
He feels happy when he thinks this. And then happy, too, when he realizes he has chosen to stay out here, in the Midwest, when it was not at all predetermined that that’s what he would do.
That he has chosen to stay in the Midwest where the landscape is not so interrupted, and a man can think thoughts like the one he has thought, just now, seems to him like the best kind of decision. He knows that on the East Coast and on the West, there is the imposition, always, of objects on other objects. The sky is interrupted by the hills—the hills by the trees—the trees by more hills, and houses, and so on. But out here, in the middle, it’s possible to find a section of the road to look out at and not see anything for miles and miles.
To just see and see until it gets hazy and you can’t see anymore—and then, at that point—at the point where you stop being able to see any further—it’s not because what’s out there is covered up by anything, it’s just—that’s the limit.