What does Liesel think of horses? Does she like them?
Liesel has no time for questions, especially her own. She is sitting on the floor in her room, holding on her lap a heavy wooden box.
There are elk carved along the sides of the box. Liesel doesn’t like elk. She doesn’t like the word “elk.” She doesn’t like how elk look. She basically thinks that elk are creeps.
But the box is the only thing that her dad has ever given her, so she pretends the elk are caribou. The box is locked. Between the plastic shoulder blades of her doll there is a tiny compartment where Liesel keeps the key. The compartment is where the batteries would go if the key weren’t there instead. The batteries are in a drawer in the laundry room, so the doll never cries like it’s supposed to. Liesel could give its voice back any day but she chooses not to.
She unlocks the box only for her spelling books and pencils. She is late for her lesson with Pig Iron.
Katie, who has been sent here by Liesel’s mother to watch Liesel, is sleeping on the couch in the living room. Liesel’s mother is at work at the hotel, one eye on the security screens at all times. Katie is fourteen. Her dark hair falls over the side of the couch. Liesel gets very close to Katie’s face, so close she can taste the shampoo in Katie’s hair. She is making sure that Katie is asleep. “If Ellis ever hurts you,” whispers Liesel, so close to Katie’s face it is almost a kiss, so softly it is barely a whisper, “I will eat him alive.” Ellis is her enemy, the way the question is her enemy. Only Ellis is an old man who lives somewhere on the Back Roads, and the question is just a question that lives in Liesel’s mind.
Katie knows nothing of either Ellis or the question. Liesel studies her ignorant face. Katie has in fact experienced very little in her life. But when Liesel’s father was Katie’s age, he ran away with a girl in the back of a peach truck from his home in California. As Liesel remembers the story, her father’s finger was hooked in the girl’s and they rode in silence under the piles of peaches, lying flat in the truck bed so they wouldn’t be caught. The fruit was heavy on their bodies and faces. Sometimes Liesel pictures them opening their mouths and taking juicy bites.
But that didn’t happen because the girl died; her heart gave out and she was dead; she might have been dead for hours. Liesel’s father pulled her up from the peaches then held her in his lap, her body smudged and sweet. The truck driver kept driving and her father cried and the girl’s eyelashes were stuck to her face from all the juice.
The dead girl in Liesel’s mind looks exactly like Katie. So much that Liesel sometimes thinks it is Katie. But no, how can that be? But Liesel can’t picture the dead girl any other way, and she can’t look at Katie without thinking of the dead girl. Even when Katie is right there on the couch, very much herself, her spray-on tan shining like dried juice all up her legs, Liesel looks at the soft blond hairs above her lip and imagines her father’s lips there.
Really, though, the dead girl was Liesel’s aunt, Liesel’s mother’s sister. Liesel’s mother and father met at the dead girl’s funeral. They lived together a while, had Liesel, and then he met a teacher and went and had a family with her instead. He sent Liesel the box two years ago, when she was five. Liesel thought this was the start of something. On a piece of paper, she wrote her father’s name and her mother’s name and drew a line between them. Under her father’s name she wrote, “One Box.”
But that was the end of that. No more surprise packages in the mail. The list looks just like that, and it is folded up in the box itself.
Also in the box is a stick of Katie’s lipstick, which Liesel applies to her own lips.
Before leaving the house, Liesel looks down at Katie. “I’m going,” she whispers. Katie does not wake, but her hand twitches.
This hand is scarred all over, from a horse bite.
Outside, it is a bright July day. Liesel’s dog, Angela, is chewing on a deer spine. The dog is tied to a fruit tree by a long jump rope and thumps her golden tail against the ground, out of happiness at the sight of Liesel. This happiness sends up little puffs of dust that Liesel chooses to ignore.
Would Liesel trade in her dog Angela for a pony? Would she trade her in THIS SECOND?
Liesel is so fed up with the question that she kicks the nearest fruit tree, then makes her way to the shrubs which stand in a tall straight line that forms the border between Pig Iron’s yard and her own.
Liesel steps into these shrubs, pauses there, and then steps out on the other side.
Pig Iron’s car is gone. Ruth, his wife, is at work at the hospital. So Liesel opens Pig Iron’s door without knocking and slaps the spelling books down on the table. “I’m here,” she announces.
Pig Iron is in the other room. Over the sound of the television, he shouts, “If that’s the spelling teacher, get out of my goddamn house!” It’s so loud that his own tiny dog, Piranha, wakes up in her basket by the kitchen window and crouches like she’s ready to be struck.
Liesel is not startled. She enters the living room and stands between Pig Iron and the TV. “Get up,” she says.
“Go home,” he says.
“Get up,” she says again.
She picks up the remote and turns the TV off. Pig Iron’s swollen hand rests on the top of the oxygen tank beside him. He looks at her for the first time, a red and shining scowl. His overalls are unbuckled as usual and his chest is bare. His belly alone is larger than she is.
She leans toward him, holding her breath against his sweet and awful smell, which is a little bit like cantaloupe. Then she sees, on a golden chain around his neck, glinting amongst the sweaty gray hairs, the bent nail that killed Candy, the horse that he loved most. Pig Iron had a different name then, long before Liesel was born. His voice was softer. He cried when he had to shoot the horse, and then he never cried again.
Liesel has seen this nail many times, but for some reason in this moment, she must touch it. Is it blood or is it rust that makes the nail red?
“It went into her hoof,” she whispers.
“Let’s get this over with,” he says.
She watches him walk into the kitchen, his white shirt spilling out of one of his back pockets. The floorboards sigh under the thick green rug. Sometimes, she makes him stand on the scale in the bathroom so she can see for herself how big he is. She tries to get her head around the number 263. She gives him different things to hold to see which things move the needle: Ruth’s plastic geese, the cereal boxes, Piranha, herself. If the needle doesn’t move, the object in his hand seems not to exist to her. She thinks, how can it be that something weighs nothing? Sometimes she’s afraid the red needle will say that of her. So she climbs up on a chair and hangs from his back, her arms choking him. She holds her breath against his smell, and her whole body moves as his enormous lungs fill with air and empty. The scale is very far down. She tells him to say the number. She makes him say it twice: three hundred and four. It is a number she is part of, a number he couldn’t be without her there. She has never been a part of something so big.
She pushes his oxygen tank into the kitchen, where they sit down together and have cereal. She lifts a spoonful of pink milk to her lips, but he grabs her arm midway and they stare at each other, her mouth open, the spoon dripping between them.
“What have you got on your face?” he says.
She shrugs. “A rash.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You know what that stuff’s made of?” She doesn’t answer. “Fish scales,” he says.
She shrugs. “So.”
“So want me to put a hook in your milk? Club you on the head?”
“Or I could peel your lips off like two sardines.” He pinches his fingers together like he is holding onto the tail of a little fish. He pretends to swing it a little over her bowl. “Piranha would like that.” Piranha has come into the kitchen and wags her stubby tail at the sound of her name.
Liesel takes a bite of her cereal and shrugs her shoulders.
“Take it off,” he says.
She rolls her eyes and scoots back in her chair. “You know,” she says before she leaves the table, “my mom said when I’m around you that I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do.”
He laughs a shocked laugh. “Your mother said that?”
“Which means the only reason I’m taking off the lipstick is because Ifeel like it.” She turns her back to him.
“I feel like it,” he mimics in a tiny, ugly voice.
In the bathroom, she wipes off the lipstick with toilet paper. It stings her rash to rub so hard, but no matter. She is glad that he noticed the lipstick and gladder that he told her to take it off. She likes when Pig Iron disapproves of Katie’s habits or her things, even if he doesn’t know they’re Katie’s. Katie and Pig Iron have never met. But Liesel likes to set them in competition with each other. She likes to think they are trying to outdo each other in her eyes, trying to win points that add up to her love.
She tests Katie to see if she can do some of the things that Pig Iron can, without letting her know that Pig Iron can do them. If she dares him, Pig Iron will eat a milkshake made with raw eggs, tuna fish, chewing tobacco, and limeade. He will hold onto an electric fence and take the shock for as long as Liesel says to. His smile is ugly but more interesting than Katie’s. He can spell half of the longest word in the world. He can whistle through his teeth and tie every kind of fly. Even his mistakes—the flies he throws away—are beautiful enough to glue onto barrettes.
He was also the best horse trainer in three states, says this other part of Liesel, to remind her.
She admits that this is true. Long ago, he roped calves in rodeos. He has pictures of the stallions he trained and Liesel has memorized their names.
Does that mean Liesel likes them?
No. Pig Iron got bucked off and got his ankles crushed. Then he had to go and marry Ruth.
There are also things about Pig Iron that Liesel doesn’t tell Katie, to protect her. Like about Ellis. Liesel only ever mentions him to Katie when Katie is asleep. Liesel hasn’t met Ellis, though she has drawn him many times. He has appeared to her in terrifying dreams. He and Pig Iron used to ride horses together as teenagers, but you wouldn’t know that now because Pig Iron went to jail for biting a chunk out of Ellis’s arm. It happened after a fight on the four-wheelers, as Liesel remembers it. Liesel thinks Ellis deserved the bite. She asked Pig Iron what the arm tasted like, and Pig Iron said like ham.
But there are things she doesn’t tell Pig Iron about Katie, either, for fear of hurting him. Katie can do cartwheels. She can climb the apple tree and shake the pale apples to the ground. She will play Miss Susie’s Tugboat with Liesel until her palms are bright red and the scars on her hands are bright white. She puts wads of cotton between her toes and paints horizons on each nail—pink suns setting on waves. She predicts the future by how fast a pinch mark disappears on Liesel’s arm. She pulls out a strand of Liesel’s hair and slides her fingernails down it until it turns to a tight coil. She studies it for a few seconds before delivering the verdict: Boy Crazy, or, sometimes, Little Lesbian. She cracks invisible eggs on Liesel’s head and makes her believe they are real.
Now, in Pig Iron’s kitchen, Liesel dances. He is sitting at the table facing her. She makes her fingers walk up the air while she sways her hips from side to side and swings her short brown hair. Pig Iron sings the song for her to dance to. It is a song she taught him, made out of the letters of the longest word in the world. The word means “miner’s lung disease.” It is forty-five letters long and Pig Iron knows twenty-eight of them.
“You-ell-tee-are-ayyyyy.” His voice rises and falls to the tune she’s made up, which is a bunch of little tunes she’s heard other places, strung together in a long line. She herself learned to spell it in three days, without the help of anyone.
How astonishing that he does this, that he does what she says to do. He doesn’t know what the letters look like and remembers them by sound: “em-eye-cee-are-ohhhhhh-ess-cee-oh…” And when they get to the middle of the word, he leans back in his chair and listens. She takes over on letter twenty-nine.
But something happens this time, when Liesel takes over. There is the smallest pause between when his part stops and hers picks up, and in that pause, she has the sudden sense of her mother searching for her. It is so strong and terrible that she wants to call out.
“I have to go,” she says to Pig Iron, shocked.
“Put your bowl in the sink,” he says. “You’ve been leaving it.”
But Liesel stands there, staring at him. “I better go,” she says, hoping he will stop her. “I’m going now.” And she turns her back and slams the door behind her.
The line of shrubs stops at the woods, and there the two properties merge. The woods spread out. They belong to both sides. The line that divides them is invisible.
So that’s where Liesel goes.
She’s out of breath. The wild roses are thick and tall and scratch her arms. Pushed up against them is a yellow tractor bucket, spotted with rust. She crawls inside it. Her view is framed with its yellow teeth. She lies with her arms around her legs, with her knees pressed to her chin. She is in the mouth of a great wolf. She has been here before.
In the wolf’s mouth are other things. On the lid from a peanut-butter jar, turned over so it’s like a silver tray, are four floss bracelets she’s cut from Katie’s wrist when Katie was asleep. She has unraveled them to search for the strands of Cora’s hair—Cora is Katie’s best friend—which Cora had promised were woven among the colored threads. But Liesel never once believed in them and when she searched, not a single hair was found. She wonders what other high-school girl has Cora’s hair instead, woven in her bracelet as a claim to best-friendship, or what other girls in addition to Katie think they do but don’t. She feels disgust at the thought of Cora. This is a secret she will keep.
There are other things: a little wooden camel that she found by Joe’s grave—Pig Iron’s son’s grave. There’s also a jar of Mount St. Helen’s ash, a little ballerina with magnets on her feet, and dots of dried mud in the dents of her nostrils.
Liesel begins to cry. She puts her hand up to her eye to make sure she really is, and then, seeing the tear on her finger, she cries harder, and with relish. Crying is proof that something has occurred.
She’s crying because of her mother, her poor mother trying to find her, her poor mother so worried. But then when Liesel thinks about it, she is also crying because of the wooden camel, which she shouldn’t have taken from the little grave in her pasture, what kind of a thing was that to do? But it was her pasture, she couldn’t help there was a grave on it, it was her pasture and the camel was half buried in dirt anyhow, doing nobody any good. Nobody even knows that it’s gone. She could put it back. She wipes her eyes on her arm. Her chest stops heaving a little.
Piranha jumps over a vine and comes to her, wagging her tail. She must have gotten out of the trailer when Liesel did. She comes into the wolf’s mouth and leans against her, panting and smiling, her hot breath in Liesel’s face. She licks the rose cuts on Liesel’s hand and Liesel wonders if they taste sweet, if Piranha might like to eat her if she dies. She would rather Piranha than anyone else.
Then she thinks of Pig Iron. She thinks of him putting the camel on the grave when he was a teenager; maybe it was Pig Iron’s favorite of many wooden camels. Maybe it was hard to give up. But he did because his boy was dead and that’s what you do for dead boys even if you’re a boy yourself.
She thinks what Ruth told her mother about Pig Iron, how he married a different girl long before he married Ruth. He and the girl were both fourteen and had a child, Joe, who ran away and starved himself when he was three years old. Only he didn’t run away—that’s just what they thought. He was underneath the porch the whole time, eating moths and pinecones that he ground into dust with a rock until he got so skinny and weak he couldn’t even do that.
No, Liesel shakes her head, no. She is pretty sure that Joe grew up. Joe lives in the Back Woods, too. He’s got a wife. Was it their kid who died then? She tries to remember better what Ruth said, but the boy eating moths is the only way that she can picture it.
She wonders what it’s like to eat a moth. She thinks, If I never come out of this wolf’s mouth everyone will think I ran away. My mother will think that I have died. She is still crying but pauses for a second to open up the bag of ash and put a small bit on her tongue. It is a lot like a moth’s wing. She thinks, I am going to die.
And then she thinks that if Piranha did eat her, she would taste like everybody else, like ham. And she thinks of her doll and how it won’t cry for her when she is dead, because the batteries are in the drawer in the laundry room. And Pig Iron—no one will teach him the rest of the song. No one else will think it’s important enough. But what good is knowing only half of the longest word in the world? She kicks her heels on the ground, she feels so mad at him. If he could just learn how to spell that word, everything else would fall into place in his brain and he will know how to read, know how to do anything in the world that he wanted to do. The word will be like fitting a key into a lock or a trick box shifted just the right way that it opens everything else inside.
And why must it be this way? Their houses so close, just one orchard apart, but separated by the long line of shrubs that neither one can ever cross, because one hates the thing the other loves, one loves the thing that’s hurt the other.
And what does Liesel think of horses? What does Liesel choose?
On one side of the bushes she memorizes the names of stallions. She walks around in Pig Iron’s cowboy boots that go up to her thighs and says the only thing she wants is a pony, she will give up Angela, her dog, and all her cats and even her toys if she could have one. She has put a bouquet of bloomed chives on Candy’s grave in the pasture and knelt there on her knees and said the names of every horse she ever knew.
Then she crosses the shrub line and puts her shirt back on under her overalls and hates the horses for Katie’s sake, keeps her horseshoe necklace locked away in her old elk box.
She’s as bad as Cora weaving lies into her bracelets.
Then Piranha says, “Pig Iron got hurt by horses too, let’s not forget that. Pig Iron was hurt worse even, with his ankles crushed in the rodeo. Then he had to go and marry Ruth.”
“It’s true, but Pig Iron’s an old man,” cries Liesel.
“He wasn’t an old man then,” says Piranha. “I saw a lot of things when I rode with him on his motorcycle. I’m not like Angela. I’m not young.”
“We’re not talking about Angela. Angela’s a good dog!” cries Liesel, angry.
“Then why is she barking all the time?”
“Maybe she’s hurt!”
“That’s not a hurt bark, that’s just a bark,” says Piranha. “You don’t even listen.” But Liesel is listening, and as she listens the barking gets louder and she is thinking that Piranha is nothing like her dog. How can they even be the same kind of animal? Then a screen door slams in the distance. She sits up and blinks herself awake. She looks around and Piranha is gone.
Katie is sitting upright in the hammock in Liesel’s backyard, swinging it a little but with her feet on the ground. She’s eating macaroni and cheese out of a bowl on her knees and looking at a magazine.
“How’s Pig Iron?” she says, not looking up at Liesel, who approaches slowly. Liesel doesn’t answer. She slumps over to one of the trees the hammock is attached to, then sits down on the dusty ground and leans against the trunk of the tree. “You know he can read, right?” says Katie. This is mean, so Liesel ignores it.
“Can I come up there?” Liesel asks after a minute. It is not very comfortable down on the ground.
“When I’m done eating. Hey, Liesel,” says Katie then. She closes her magazine and tosses it down into the dust. “If half of the people on the Earth had to die, and someone had to choose who lived, and you’re guaranteed to live either way, would you want to be the one who chose?”
Liesel thinks a minute. “Yes,” she says, surprised that the question is so simple.
“You do not.”
“I hope it happens,” Liesel protests.
“What a mean thing to say.” Katie puts her bowl down on top of the magazine. Then she shifts in the hammock so that she’s lying down. She puts one arm behind her head and the other, the horse-chewed one, across her stomach. “By the way, who’s Ellis?” she asks after a while.
“Who’s what?” asks Liesel quickly.
“He a nice guy?”
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t know.”
“You think we should go meet him? You think I should be his girlfriend?”
“Is he afraid of you?”
“I’m afraid of him.” And with that Liesel pries off a large piece of bark from the tree, then tosses it into the dust.
“You didn’t seem so afraid earlier.”
Her eyes have been closed up until now. Now she opens one of them and lifts her head just a little to look at Liesel. She laughs.
Liesel stands up. She smacks her thighs to get the dust off. “I’m going back,” she says
angrily, because why not. This is her house. She doesn’t have to listen to this.
“Ohhh,” says Katie then, and even though there’s still some laughter in it, it is also her nice voice. She holds out her hand. “I’m sorry, come here.”
Liesel thinks a moment, then takes the hand. She climbs into the hammock with Katie. They lie down together, looking up at the tops of the trees.
“I like you, Liesel. I like you very much.”
“You remember I’m not just the babysitter, I’m your cousin,” says Katie softly.
“Whose mom is yours again?”
“Why is that so hard to remember? Your mom’s sister. Your Aunt Claire.”
“Is she the one who died in the peach truck?”
“What are you talking about? You saw her two weeks ago.”
“Oh yeah,” says Liesel.
“Stop forgetting, you’ll hurt my feelings.” Liesel looks into her face to see if she means this and she does not.
They look up at the trees. Liesel nuzzles her face into Katie’s neck. Katie says, “Is your face contagious?”
“No,” says Liesel.
“Your mother thinks so.”
“It’s not. I’m sure.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” Katie rolls her eyes at Liesel, but not in a mean way. It is nice for a few moments. Katie pinches Liesel’s arm and they both watch to see how the mark disappears. Katie examines it for a long time before she reaches a decision.
“Liesel,” she says in her good voice, in the voice that Liesel loves. “If I’m not mistaken, I think you’re gonna live another day.”
And in fact she does. The weekend arrives. The weekend is just for Liesel and her mother. Her mother does not have to work. No Katie, no Pig Iron; the horses are a thousand miles off.
That first morning of the weekend, they spread peanut butter on strips of aluminum and hang it from the electric fence around the garden. The deer lick the foil and get shocked. They can’t resist—who can? They wag their tongues and dance away. They warn the other deer and no deer ever come again, except the few who haven’t heard. Liesel and her mother clap.
They swing in the hammock and Liesel’s mother sings, “Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread.” Twice her mother cups Liesel’s chin in her hand and asks, “Have you been using ointment?” And twice Liesel has gone in and squeezed out a little clear pea of it and wiped it underneath the bath mat.
And it seems on Saturday night that the day has been so wonderfully long that it’s impossible there could be another day just like it, and closing her eyes Liesel can’t wait for it to come.
Except the next day is a Sunday—she always forgets this until it is right upon her—and so there is a feeling like death everywhere. And instead of peanut butter on foil it’s peanut butter and birdseed on pinecones. “We want the birds to come, and the deer to stay away,” her mother says. These distinctions are made with the magic knowledge that her mother possesses of herself. Everything is unbearably clear.
Liesel goes on laughing and swinging but all the while, Sunday thrashes in her heart. It is a feeling like the question of horses.
Her mother goes on as if it’s Saturday. She puts on her sunhat and fills the plastic pool with a hose for Liesel to play in. Liesel puts on her swimming suit dutifully. She puts on her water wings and cut-off nylons over her hands to look like fins.
She lies down in the cold water because her mother wants her to want to and she wants her mother to be happy. She kicks her feet up and down and claps her fins together. “Bark! Bark!” Liesel says half-heartedly, and when her mother throws bits of white bread from a bag, Liesel catches them in her mouth or in her slimy hands. Sometimes she misses and the bread bobs in the water and falls apart like little continents.
“Bark! Bark!” And just saying it, calling out in her seal voice, she feels a little better. She kicks a little harder. “Bark! Bark!”
Does Liesel’s mother know what Liesel thinks of horses? Yes, mothers always know. But if you tell her that you yourself don’t know, she will say it doesn’t matter. A lot of little girls don’t know. They might pretend at school, but pretend is never real. And she’ll guarantee that most of them will change their mind.
Those girls at school, the ones who like horses, they have flatter faces than girls who do not. Liesel has noticed this. Underbites. She has noticed that their names usually begin with K or C. These are the girls who write in pens that are not the usual colors. Not blue or red or black, but pink and silver and green. They have longer hair than the girls who don’t like horses. Hair that goes down to their backs, that thumps against them as they gallop. Liesel’s hair will be long soon. But those other girls, their sandwiches are cut in triangles. Liesel’s aren’t cut at all. The creases of their paper hats are sharp. Liesel hates the texture of construction paper. It makes her want to lick her hands. Other things go with these girls. Music lessons. Chapstick. Sticker collections. Church songs. Sometimes they stay in from recess by choice, to draw. To draw horses.
Liesel does that last one sometimes, but that’s about it for Liesel.
Well, you’ll know soon enough, her mother seems to say. Only she doesn’t say it. It is all in the way she throws the bread. The bread flies up. The bread in the sunlight. The sunlight in the pool. The harder Liesel kicks, the more it feels like Saturday.
Then the phone rings inside the house.
Liesel claps her fins.“Bark! Bark!” she calls. Her mother goes to answer the phone.
Sunday again. “Bark! Bark!” Her mother comes outside with the phone, winding the cord around her body. She sits on the porch. She talks in a very low voice that Liesel can’t hear. It is probably her ex-boyfriend.
“Bark!” yells Liesel half-heartedly. Then louder: “Mother seal!”
Then louder still. “Moth-er se-al!”
Mother seal turns to Liesel with a look not like a seal at all. She throws the whole bag of bread at the pool. It hits the rim of the pool and flies open, the bread spilling out into the water and some into the yard. One piece hits Liesel on the shoulder.
Liesel stops kicking. First she thinks: It doesn’t hurt. It is less than a sting. Then she thinks: I am not even crying.
There is a lot to be done, and very quickly. She gets out of the pool and dries off. Her mother mouths “sorry” to Liesel, then goes into the house, talking loudly into the phone.
Liesel goes right to Pig Iron’s house.
She does not tell Pig Iron about the bread, though he seems to sense it. He gives her a dollar to color his toenails with crayons. He likes the way it feels, and Liesel likes the colors. Soon she is laughing. She never sees Pig Iron on Sundays and so this does not feel like a Sunday at all.
She feels so cheerful, so unbelievably cheerful. She tells him she wants to put on a play about him and Ruth. She goes into his and Ruth’s bedroom and looks through their clothes. Ruth works, even in the summer, even on Sundays.
She puts on his cowboy boots and hat and uses Ruth’s mascara to paint chest hair on her bare skin underneath her overall straps. She enters the living room holding her lower back, leaning on a cane. “Ruth!” she bellows. She can’t think of anything else to say, so she limps around the room calling for Ruth, pretending that Pig Iron is hitting Ruth with a cane as he chases her around the room.
Pig Iron chuckles.
She runs back into his room, pleased with herself. She puts on Ruth’s shower cap and some lipstick, then straps a big white bra around herself. It sags down off her shoulders. She enters the living room again. Pig Iron says, “Ruth, what are you doing home so soon?”
She says in a high-pitched old-lady voice, “Ask me where I’m going!”
“Where are you going, Ruth?”
“I’m going to Wor-shington.”
Liesel can’t stop laughing at her own joke, at how well she mimics Ruth’s ignorant way of speaking. She holds onto her side, laughing. Pig Iron shifts in his chair. His face has changed. Then she says, in the old-lady voice again, “Ask me what I’m doing there!”
“What are you doing there, Ruth,” he mumbles.
“I’m going to worsh my clothes!”
She laughs and laughs. She laughs until Pig Iron hits her in the leg with his cane. “Knock that off,” he says. “Go get that lipstick off your face.”
Liesel is still laughing. “How do I get it off?” she says.
“Go in the bathroom and wash it off, I don’t care.”
“You mean worsh it off!” She laughs uncontrollably and he hits her so hard in the leg that it makes a sound like a crack. She falls backward, holding her hurt shin.
“I said knock it off.”
From the floor, she looks into his face. She feels a hot shame rushing up and down her body, but she doesn’t want him to see that she’s about to cry.
She stands up. The bra falls down around her body to her ankles. She tries to pretend she is angry to trick her tears out of falling.
“My mom says when I’m with you not to do anything I don’t want!” she shouts.
“Then why don’t you go back and tell her how you’ve been talking,” yells Pig Iron.
Liesel picks up the bra, then throws it to the ground again. She leaves the house in a fury. She calls out for her mother in a voice that means to tell on him, but once she gets to the shrub line she just hides. She hides between two bushes. Piranha comes over and Liesel throws a pinecone at her. It hits her—Liesel doesn’t mean it to—and Piranha barks a hurt bark.
There will be time for that later, time to give her a scrap of deer meat from Pig Iron’s freezer, to pull out the hard, black tears from the corners of Piranha’s eyes and ask her to forgive.
But for now all that she can do is cry. She stands inside the shrubs and she cries. She keeps her arms perfectly straight at her sides so that no part of her can be seen between those shrubs.
And what an ugly little hand is Katie’s hand! She will have to marry someone ugly. Someone with his teeth all broken up. Not someone like the young Pig Iron who rode horses. Beautiful horses he named after beautiful girls. Girls like the one before Ruth. Like the one in the peach truck her father loved. Like the one that Katie will never get to be, never, ever again.
It is the worst day of Liesel’s entire life. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to go.
The fences in her mind break down and all the horses come slinking in. They don’t even gallop, they just slink. They eye her. They are waiting to be judged.
It is not so hard a question.
But it is, it is, it is. And in Liesel’s mind, Candy’s dark eyes become like the liquid that Liesel has squeezed out of weeds. Her red hide froths a sick, dark smell. The sides of her hooves are scraping the grass. She is dreaming she can run from what is killing her, but the nail is already in her hoof.
An idea comes into Liesel’s mind.
The square of earth in the middle of the pasture, that square of earth that holds Candy’s grave. It is unmarked. It is secret. It is old. It is a wide space of ground in the middle of a much wider space of ground.
She will leap over it and she will decide.
And before her brain can even tell her to run, she is running. Her hair is flying up. She becomes the frontrunner of a herd. A herd of deer? No, a herd of elk! The elk on her father’s box. They are all around her. They want to see what she will say to the horses.
The elk gallop and neigh.
Here it is now. Here is the edge of the sunken ground. Here her toes go up into the air—
She spreads out her arms.
Flying, frozen mid-air—
She lands on her hands and knees on the other side. She brushes herself off and looks behind her. The horses and the elk are gone. It is just Liesel in the pasture.
And Piranha, impatient for her piece of deer meat, comes wagging her tail over the grave, ready to forgive.