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Northern Lights


ISSUE:  Winter 1994

We were east of Hot Springs, South Dakota, on the gravel toward my uncle’s farm. I was riding in the backseat between my aunt and my mother, but leaning up between the front seats to hear what the men were saying. My uncle was driving. He had on a gold-colored jacket and a green John Deere cap. It was September tenth, and we’d been to town to celebrate his birthday. There had been some hard feelings because my father and my uncle had sat in the lounge for a long time while the rest of us looked at the menu in the restaurant. Finally my mother had gone to get them. My uncle was cheerful, though, even when he sat down at the table, and my aunt gave him a look. He’d ordered another bourbon and Coke from the waitress and said, “You only turn 50 once.”

Then we’d eaten, and nothing more was said about the drinking until we got out to the car. My aunt didn’t want my uncle to drive, but it was his car, he said, and he’d damn well drive if he wanted to. So he did.

It was just getting dark, and big gray sledrunner clouds curled up at the ends slid over the Black Hills. The gravel road jogged east and north, east and north again along the section boundaries. It was rolling hills mostly, climbing to the mesas which ten miles away dropped down to my uncle’s place. The Black Hills off to the left were already blue-black against the sky. My uncle sprayed stones on the turns and weaved a little across the road, and now and then my aunt said, “Easy does it, Luther,” under her breath.

My father liked to come back to the Lakota. It was where he and my uncle had grown up—over near Oelrichs—and I think he felt the going home. My uncle and aunt had two older boys—one in college and one working for General Mills in St. Louis, and my father held them up to me as what to strive to be like. They’d worked on the farm and had done well in school and now they were making names for themselves. My father thought the farm instilled values.”You learn from the land,” he said.

Rut the farm to me was just someplace different from Denver, where my father was a veterinarian. He knew about animals, and my uncle knew about farming. When they got together they talked about cows and sheep, alfalfa and corn and wheat, and the weather. And machines. My uncle could take apart any machine—tractors, pickups, windrowers—and when we visited, he and my father were always tinkering in the shop.

They were talking then about the Case tractor and the broken three-point on the ditcher—nothing I understood— but it was better than listening to my aunt and my mother talking about books.”We can weld the three-point,” my uncle said.”No two ways about it. I’ll do her in the morning.”

“But the tractor still has that bearing about to go.”

“We’ll get through ditching the borders and put some water on them for spring. I can replace the bearing this winter when hell freezes over.”

My uncle slowed and turned at a section, but took the corner too fast, and my aunt tipped toward me. I felt the words she didn’t say tighten in her body. We made the corner and ran straight north toward the mesas.

For a moment there was quiet in the car—-just the engine and the rocks cracking up under the Chevy. Then my father said, “Maybe we should let Les drive.”

My uncle stared ahead. He kept both hands on the wheel.

“Not with so many people in the car,” my mother said. “Not at night.”

“Couldn’t do worse than Lute,” my father said.

“We’re still on the road, aren’t we?” my uncle asked.

“You want to drive, son?”

“Not really.”

We kept on north for another mile. I’d been driving some on the farm—the half-ton Ford mostly—back and forth from the fields to take lunch or to deliver gas for the tractor or just to practice with the gears and get used to the feel of the engine. But I hadn’t driven on the county road.

My uncle pulled on the headlights, and the land closed away, all but the tan stripe of gravel, the weeds and dead sunflowers in the ditches, and the fences on both sides of the road. A few arc lights blazed in the distance.

“When does the irrigation district cut back the water?” my father asked.

“Two weeks,” my uncle said.

“If it snows you’ll be all right.”

“If it snows we’ll be cold,” my uncle said. “Can’t plant crops on snow.” He slowed a little, then took one hand off the wheel and pointed ahead through the windshield.”Look there.”

I ducked down between the seats to see what he saw. Wisps of white and yellow and pink drifted up vertically into the sky, diminished, then burst again like curtains of colored rain.

“Northern lights,” my father said. “I’ll be damned.”

“Haven’t seen them in years,” my uncle said.

My aunt and my mother leaned forward. “They’re from sunspots,” my mother said.”I read about them. The sun throws out bunches of atoms.”

The lights diminished. My aunt sat back. She asked about how much schoolwork I’d have to make up coming to visit on a long weekend.

“Not that much,” I said. I looked back out the windshield.

“We thought it important to see Luther,” my mother said. “And Les likes the farm.”

My uncle slowed down. “You want to drive?”

“It’s all right,” I said.

“Go ahead,” my father said. “You have to practice night driving sometime.”

“He’s 14,” my mother said. “He has plenty of time.”

My aunt leaned up. “Luther, it’s late. Why don’t we get home now?”

My uncle pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. He put on the hand brake.”It’s pretty flat from here,” he said. “And I don’t want to sit in the back.”

He opened the door and got out and walked a little ways away from the car to urinate.

“Sometimes I don’t understand that man,” my aunt said.

My father opened the door on his side, too, and the cool air with the smell of sage and cut hay rushed through the car. “Come on, son,” my father said.

I climbed up between the seats and got behind the wheel. My uncle came back and got into the passenger side up front. “You can drive a stick,” my uncle said.”This gear’s just in a different place. All you have to do is follow the road.”

My mother slid to the middle of the backseat, and my father got in behind me, though he didn’t lean back.

I was tall for my age and looked right out over the wheel. I shifted a couple of times to get the feel, then left it in first and gave some gas. The car jerked forward. I accelerated and shifted again.

“Easy does it,” my aunt said. “Don’t shake out my teeth.”

We got up speed and I shifted again. “Look at the northern lights,” I said.

They’d come back in a different place—or maybe the road had turned slightly—a band of shifting colors way up in the sky.

“Watch the road,” my mother said.

The road dipped and rose and then ran straight for two or three miles. It was dark, but I knew where we were. The bright light off to the left was Fosters’ farm, and farther on, TePaskes’. I wasn’t going fast, maybe 35, but no one spoke. It was as if they were waiting for an accident.

I passed Fosters’ and TePaskes’ and turned east. The sky was darker ahead of us, a few stars, but no moon. The road was straight. We were still a mile or two from my uncle’s farm, and I felt the softness return to the car. My aunt and my mother resumed talking.

I picked up speed to 40, maybe a little more. We came up on some brush on the right and two cottonwoods loomed bright yellow at the edge of the headlights. Then an animal bounded out from the brush and into the road.

“Coyote,” my father said.

I was surprised by his voice so close behind me. I slowed. I thought the coyote would cross the road—it had plenty of space—but it swerved and loped along in the same direction a few yards in front of the car, as if it were racing us. It was a big one, gray and reddish-brown, broad-shouldered. Its bushy tail flopped down as it ran. Any second I expected it to veer off into the weeds. I took my foot off the gas. But then, suddenly, the coyote darted left. There was a terrible crumpling noise, and then nothing. The car passed. The engine kept on. The stones slid under us.

“You did the right thing,” my father said. “You kept the car steady.”

“I didn’t think it would cut in front,” I said.

“Blinded, maybe,” my father said. “Animals get lost in that kind of light.”

“It might have dented the car,” I said. I looked over at my uncle. He was staring ahead at the road, but maybe seeing something else. He didn’t say anything, and I looked back at the gravel.

Then he pointed. “Turn in there.”

“Where?”

“There. At the lane. Turn the car around.”

I slowed and turned into the lane and stopped.

“What are we doing?” my aunt asked.

“Reverse is in and up,” my uncle said.

I got it into reverse and backed out into the main road, shifted down to first. We drove back.

The coyote was lying in the road. At first I was sure it was dead. How could it not be dead? But as we got closer, it rolled up and lifted its head.

“Get the lights on it,” my uncle said.

I aimed the headlights at the coyote and pulled closer. It had weird eyes—black, but flecked with yellow—and a thin nose. Its ears were raised alertly, and it was panting. There was blood in its mouth.

We stopped for a moment.

“Okay,” my uncle said. “That’s enough.”

We were in the middle of the road. I backed up a ways and turned around. I was shaking. No one said anything.

The last couple of miles to the farm took forever. At the lip of the mesa we could see the arc light at the barn as stationary as a star. But it wasn’t a star, and we did finally get there, and when I pulled in under the light, I was relieved.

“That was some birthday,” my aunt said.

My father patted my shoulder.

Everyone got out except my uncle. I went around to the grille to inspect the damage, but there wasn’t a mark on the car.

My uncle rolled down his window. “Go fetch the. 22,” he said.”We have to go back.”

My aunt had already gone inside and had turned on the light in the kitchen, and a rectangle of gold light spread out into the yard. My mother paused at the door.”Luther, he’s tired,” she said.

“I’m tired,” my uncle said. “I’ve been up since five-thirty, and I’ve worked all day.”

I thought my father might make a case for me, but he didn’t. “I’ll come along,” he said.

“No, I want the boy.” My uncle looked at my father and then at me.

There was a pause. Then my father said, “Get the. 22, son.”

I started to cry. I don’t know why. I felt the tears begin in my body. I knew I shouldn’t cry, and I didn’t make a sound. No one knew. But I knew. The tears came and I couldn’t stop them, and to get away, I went into the house to get the.22.It was in the living room in the glass cabinet where my uncle kept his guns—a 30—30 and two shotguns and the. 22. The key was in the lock.

I opened the cabinet and took out the rifle and stood for a moment facing the glass. The crying passed. I touched each eye to each shoulder to soak the tears. I got a box of cartridges from the drawer.

“Are you all right, Les?” my mother asked.

“I’m all right.”

“You don’t have to go.”

“I want to go,” I said.

I turned around, and she hugged me, but I was holding the gun sideways in front of me.

“What’s that man asking now?” my aunt said.

I broke away from my mother and -went past my aunt and through the kitchen. I let the screen bang,

My uncle was in the driver’s seat talking to my father when I came out. The car was running and the passenger door was open. My father backed away from the open door, and I got in with the.22 between my knees, barrel up. My father closed the door.

My uncle turned around in the yard and headed back down the driveway. He didn’t say anything for a while. We bounced along, and the headlights jumped across the dark fields of alfalfa. Then we got onto the smoother gravel of the county road and climbed the long hill to the top of the mesa.

We turned south, and my uncle glanced in the rearview. “The lights are still playing their games,” he said.

I looked around. The northern lights had flared up again, an eerie wash rising and disappearing.”I thought northern lights were in Alaska,” I said.

“They’re everywhere,” my uncle said. He glanced into the rearview again and back to the road.”I’ve seen them a few times, but never like that.”

He was quiet again. I could feel the lights like some odd force translated into my body, flaring and fading, and flaring again.

“I’ve lived out here 35 years,” my uncle said. “By the time I was your age, I knew everything I know now. Maybe I’m a little better at some things—fixing the Case or the windrower—but I’m worse at others.”

“What are you worse at?”

“Can’t run a tractor straight down a row anymore,” my uncle said.”Takes concentration. My mind wanders. And I’m worse at talking.”

“You talk all right,” I said.

I keep things to myself, my uncle said. “Sometimes I walk into that house and wonder what’s there. All those hours up and down the fields—disk, plant, spray, harvest. That’s what I know. We talk about the crops and the weather and the work, but I’m out there.” He pointed into the darkness at the side of the road where the headlights didn’t reach.

I thought it was booze talking. My uncle was quiet again for a while. We turned west onto the straight stretch where I’d hit the coyote and he slowed down.

“So what about the coyote?” I asked.

“He’s a trickster,” my uncle said. “That’s what the Indians say. He shows you one face and means another. That’s the legend.”

“I don’t know any legends,” I said.

“Two faces and one name,” my uncle said. He slowed down more, to maybe 15.I thought he was looking for the coyote.

“He’s farther on,” I said.

My uncle seemed not to hear. “My sons hate me,” he said.

I didn’t say anything.

“They hate me. You understand me? They didn’t call me today, did they? My birthday? Fifty years old. They didn’t call.”

“Maybe they called while we were in town.”

My uncle shook his head.

“Why would they hate you?”

He speeded up a little. We passed the farm lane where I’d turned around the first time. My uncle leaned closer to the windshield.”I made them work,” he said.”I told them what to do, how to do everything. Do you see? I made them windrow and drive the tractors and combine because it was work that had to be done.” He paused.”I never let them want to do it.”

The coyote appeared in the road ahead of us—I made out its shape beyond the headlights. I had hoped it wouldn’t be there, that it would have healed itself and run off, but the way my uncle was talking I was glad to see it. Maybe it was dead already. That’s what I hoped.

We came up on it slowly, and right away we could see it wasn’t dead. It was lying down, but had its head up and ears raised. It panted, still frothing blood, and looked directly into the headlights.

My uncle stopped and put the Chevy in neutral and pulled on the brake. He left the engine running and the lights on. We got out, and I held the .22 at my shoulder, barrel pointed at the sky.

The clouds had dissipated a little, and a half moon wove its way through them.”What do you want me to do?” I asked.

My uncle didn’t answer. He stepped in front of the headlights and stared at the coyote for a minute. Then he took a couple of steps forward and crouched down. He was maybe 15 feet away.

The coyote stared back.

My uncle crept forward. I didn’t know what he was doing. I put a clip of cartridges into the magazine and pulled the bolt to let a bullet into the chamber. I didn’t know much about coyotes, but I thought any wild animal would protect itself.

“Let him be,” my uncle said. “Turn off the engine.”

I leaned into the car and turned off the ignition key. It was suddenly quiet. The headlights dimmed a little. Then I heard a few crickets buzzing and in the near distance other coyotes yipping and barking.

My uncle got down on his hands and knees. “Turn off the headlights,” he said.

I went around the car and turned off the headlights.

Dark. The moon had gone back under the clouds and there was only a rim of silver where it had been. The wisps of the northern lights were gone, too. The road was paler than the berm, paler than the fields on either side of us. The road narrowed into the distance and ended at the horizon of stars.

The coyote was a dark shape. My uncle was a dark shape crawling forward. He got closer, and then he started talking softly, in another voice I hadn’t heard him use before, in a sweet voice, almost singing. I’d never heard him sing before. A lullaby, maybe, is what it sounded like. I couldn’t make out the words. The crickets and the coyotes in the distance and my uncle’s voice were all mixed together.

I don’t know how long that went on—minutes. The coyote didn’t move. Then it started to sing, too, louder than my uncle, as if the pain in its body were its voice. It whined and howled and cried. And I wanted to sing, too. I wanted to get down on my hands and knees right there on the gravel with my uncle. I don’t know why, but I did.

Then a car came from the other direction, far away so that it was only a pale glow of headlights moving across the darkness. I didn’t think my uncle saw it. He kept on singing. Then the car lights turned north toward us, still far away, but close enough to cast my uncle and the coyote in silhouette. I was certain my uncle would get up then. But he didn’t. He stopped singing and crawled forward.

He wasn’t more than two or three feet from the coyote when the coyote lurched up from the gravel. My uncle rushed forward—lunged, but the coyote eluded him. I was surprised how quickly it moved with just its forelegs. It dragged itself into the weeds and kept moving. The weeds swirled in a jagged line. I raised the.22, but it was dark, and I couldn’t see well enough to aim, and I lowered the rifle again without firing.

The car came on, still a quarter mile away. My uncle lay face down on the gravel, a big man in his pale jacket. The headlights closed in and then turned off at the section marker toward TePaskes’.

I unloaded the. 22 and set the gun on the backseat. Then I helped my uncle up from the ground. He’d had too much to drink. That’s what I thought. I got him into the passenger seat, and I got behind the wheel. I turned around at the section road and headed back east.

We passed the place where the coyote had been. I slowed, but I didn’t see him. My uncle didn’t look. He was slumped against the passenger door with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself. The northern lights over the mesa were not so bright anymore, just faint streaks shimmering, like nerves firing in the night sky, like pain all through my body.

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