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Joan of Dreams

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

The windrower lurched left, and Joan raised the cutting bar to slide over what she knew was the unseen mound of a gopher hole under the dry alfalfa. The earth in the dark shadow was damp still from rain days before, and the windrower veered sharply until Joan caught the wheel and brought it back. She imagined the gophers underground, frightened—as she had once been as a child when a jet fighter flew overhead so close the ground shook— scurrying away from the new light the cut hay shed on them, down into their burrows into blackness, into damp earth, into the smell in their lungs, wishing they could descend farther, deeper, where there was no tunnel for light to follow.

Joan lowered the cutting bar again. Behind her in the wake, the uneven row of cut hay had an angle, like a sudden jolt of lightning through music on the radio. The engine of the windrower resumed its steady roar, and above that, the clicking of the metal teeth and the slapping of the canvas conveyors which carried the cut hay to the center where it slid away under the wheels of the windrower, and some kind of music in the air like cool wind, like voices moving among the particles of dust and pollen and insects and bits of alfalfa thrown up from the reel. Sometimes Joan thought the music was the alfalfa singing as it rolled under the reel; sometimes she thought it was the wind whirling through the stems and leaves which leaned in on one another. But that morning it was the voices of the dead sighing under the ground, the whispers of bones echoing a language she did not understand, except the sorrow of it and the longing.

She had wakened that morning early, hearing the wind through the loose window glass and under the eaves, moaning, begging, lifting her from the bed. She was the wind and the sound, whatever form it took—a dove’s lowing from the cottonwood outside or a sparrow’s long slow sweet whistle. Ray had always waked her with his singing in the kitchen, the bacon frying, the dishes clattering as, careless, he whistled to himself as the light seeped in over the Lakota, and she lay in the cool bed wondering why he had left her for the work he needed to do. That morning he had called her with another voice, with the month of June, with the alfalfa growing too heavy, waiting and ready, the sun rising.

She had done two perimeter cuts to give the windrower space to turn around at the ends of the rows, and now three rows north and south. She raised the cutting bar at the end of a row, turned the windrower sharply in front of the irrigation ditch, and turned again, lowered the cutting bar at the edge of the high alfalfa. The belt slapped, the metal teeth clacked, the high hay lay down, the quick descent into windrows of gathered hay that trailed behind her. Joan glanced into the sun, then drew with her eyes the line between the mesa and the sky. This line was flat, too, not unlike the lines of hay she had already left on the ground behind her, though to the west, the mesa dropped off into a gentle swale and disappeared into the trees along the river.

She dreamed she had a broken leg, a heavy white cast with Ray’s signature on the plaster in 30 or 40 places. A broken leg didn’t matter to what she was doing: she could raise and lower the header with the toe of her left foot, and the gears were hand levers. To drive the tractor or to shift the four-wheeler, to ride Pecos Bill, to turn over in bed—each of those tasks took such close attention, such strength of muscle and bone and perfect resolve that she had to prepare herself like a gymnast about to perform on the balance beam, She sat in the windrower seat feeling the heaviness of her leg, the withering of her flesh under the cast. She readied herself for the time she would have to step down to free the conveyor, which from time to time got clogged with alfalfa or to get the gasoline canister from the pickup to fill the windrower tank.

In the fifth row the cutting bar caught a stone, jerked it from the ground and up into the reel of the windrower where the wooden slats slapped it higher into the air. The stone dropped and was struck again by the next revolving slat, and instantly Joan remembered the rattlesnake Ray had run over last summer. It had been sliced nearly in half by the cutting bar, then thrown into Ray’s lap in the seat where she was sitting now. Ray had caught the snake in his gloved hand, knowing exactly what he had hold of, he said, but unable to do anything but gaze into the snake’s eyes. It was hurt badly, the red flesh spilling out where the metal teeth had cut it. Ray had watched the remainder of it coil around his hand, the jaws open, and he had suffered its bite as the least he could do for it.

But the stone was too heavy to be thrown high, and it fell away and rolled under the windrower. Joan stopped the reel to see whether any of the wooden slats was damaged, and then, letting the engine idle, got down from the seat, braced herself on one tire and stepped to the plate, without any sign of a broken leg, and to the ground where she picked up the stone and carried it slowly toward the ditch so the baler wouldn’t run over it.

She dreamed herself as the stone she carried, having come from a volcano as fire, and having been once, eons before, a part of a cliff under the sea. She waited inside the granite until the sea fell away and then the lake, until the sun shone and the glaciers wove their way down through the land, tearing the cliff around her, and rolling her down among the other stones, rounding their edges and hers to the smoothness of her body. She stopped at the ditch and threw the stone into the weeds.

Across the field, beyond the windrower, the green billows of the cottonwoods obscured part of the pale brown butte. A hawk skimmed left to right in front of the rocks, discernible to her eye only as movement—the red-tail that had a nest upstream in the trees. She imagined its call in the air, though she couldn’t hear it for the idling engine, how it cried that sharp note echoing on the cliff, heard in its call Ray’s whisper before he died when he had lain under the heavy body of the pickup and could not speak words. He’d looked at her and said everything the hawk cried out hunting along the butte and scanning the river bottom.

To feel Ray’s voice everywhere in the world had made her body spare, the muscles taut, breath shallow. She knew by heart the work she had to do—feeding the horses, mowing the lawn around the house, the dishes and the cooking, the garden, the haycutting and baling and stacking and selling. But doing things by heart was not her way. She dreamed the hawk touched her skin with its wings, tore her flesh with its beak. Ray’s body had done that to hers without any sound at all except their hard breathing under the blue light of stars.

The rows of hay stretched across the field—10, 12, 14. The sun claimed more of the sky. Joan put her hat on—the one Ray had worn sometimes when he visited his mother—a clean, yellow University of Montana cap with a visor and a grizzly on the front. The sun warmed her back, burned through her thin shirt. She took off her shirt and stuffed it under her seat so the sun could burn her back and the tips of her breasts. She was the sun, on fire with its desolate consumption of itself. She burned herself in a thousand sleepless nights, and in so many words she had never spoken. For what else could she have given Ray but such words when she was so tired she couldn’t move to touch him? She did not know her own strength, or care, warming the earth and urging the alfalfa to grow tall, but with equal ignorance, blistering the stones, drying the pond from which the ditch flowed, letting the darkness fall.

Her breasts ached with the sun when she drove north, and her back burned heading south: the rows of hay lying in pale green stubble were lines on a blank page, a sheet of music unwritten, parallel bars of a cell, each row assembling gradually, and more to cut, a field whose dimensions she had forgotten—how many rows? Fifty, a hundred, a hundred thousand?—at least that many in a lifetime of cutting this field and the lower meadow three times a summer for as many years as she had to grieve after Ray.

She thought of herself as blind, driving the windrower back and forth across the field by the feel of it, staying in the grooves where the irrigation water ran, by measuring and keeping to the angle of the sun, by feeling the echo of the engine from the cliff across the river. She closed her eyes and estimated how many minutes it took to run one row, maintaining speed and rpm’s by touch and sound, the sun on her eyelids, the whirring of the canvas conveyors and the alfalfa breaking underneath her.

The minutes expanded: she lost cadence. The windrower sputtered and stopped, and she opened her eyes. For a moment the stillness astonished her. The cutting bar was silent. The conveyor filled with hay had ceased moving. Then she heard the wind through the high alfalfa and the gurgling of water in the ditch. The water was not running onto the field, of course, but straight from the reservoir along the edge of the meadow and under the road at the far end of the field and past the next meadow she had to cut tomorrow. Joan dismounted from the windrower to fetch the canister of gasoline, but once on the ground she felt the heat caught among the stems of the cut hay, listened to the flowing water. She dreamed she was water possessed of memory of where it had come from, where she had been once in her mother’s frail body, on her father’s lap as he drove his tractor down the gravel road to a town distant and hazy now. She seeped into the ground, rose to the air as clouds, fell as rain. Ray lifted her in his cupped hands to drink. Or she stayed in the stream to the river, down the river to the bigger river and more silent, rose again to the clouds, perhaps to another place, but always here again over eons to this alfalfa field, this ditch, this body of hers.

She leaned against the wheel of the windrower, its rough tread against her bare skin, her face shaded by Ray’s yellow cap. She heard the water and the wind and the hawk’s cry, listened to Ray’s sighing against her neck, felt his hands touch her breasts, felt his fingers in her mouth, wet, then sliding down her stomach to unbutton her jeans and delve lower until her dreams taught her the lesson that was never the same.

The truck was parked at the bend in the gravel road where she had begun to cut the hay. She got into the cab and drove the lane to the row where the windrower was stopped, then turned into the field running parallel to the shallow grooves where the water had run. Ray had been killed in that same pickup when it had slid on the gumbo and pitched askew into the river bottom. He’d got out and tried to push it back to level, but instead had only rocked it so it toppled over further and pinned him. She’d been up at the house watching the rain, hearing the crackling on the tin roof and the water falling over the eaves and wondering where Ray was in such lightning and thunder, until she had gone out on the four-wheeler to look for him, and found him in the graylight, in drizzle, having died all those hours without her.

She drove the pickup to the windrower, hoisted the canister to the seat, leaned the nozzle into the empty tank. She thought of herself in a faraway city where everything worked—the electricity, the telephone, the traffic lights, the elevators, the automobiles, the computers— all organized, as Ray had said, by people who wanted it to be the way it was.

She finished pouring the gasoline and got back into the seat. The engine whirred and caught. Joan lowered the cutting bar to the ground. She did a row, then another. The sun slanted away. She put on her shirt. Every row of cut hay had to be retraced by the baler, then the bales carried with the tractor to the hay pen and stacked for the feedlot truck. With the money she would make, she’d get through the winter and she’d have hay for cattle so she could do the same the next year and the next.

Ahead of her the deep alfalfa swirled and thrashed, and suddenly a buffy hen pheasant fought clear of the cover and burst into the air. The hen swerved over the windrows and beyond the road where she sailed down into the weeds. Joan stopped and lifted the reel, watched the mown hay shuffle on the conveyors to the center, the flightless pheasant chicks cut and bleeding, dropping from sight under the windrower.

Joan pulled to reverse and backed away a few feet, then idled the engine and got down. The chicks had been shredded, dead or maimed. Two of them crawled away. One bird’s wings had been torn off, and its eyes were glazed in shock. What Joan imagined the bird saw was the near earth so bright with sun, the blue sky paling. She picked up the bird, righted it in her open palm, and shaded its eyes with her other hand. The life which seconds before had been merely the joy of hunger and warmth was now an assemblage of useless feathers and bones and blood and flesh drying in the air.

Joan cut hay till dark, till the clouds dissipated in the cooling sky, and the trees along the river turned gray-black, till the blue darkened overhead, the earth’s green became colorless and without depth, till the cliff lost its patterned shadows and turned black. She dreamed herself the hay meadow, the roots holding the soil, the air and water and sun merging in her leaves and growing stems. She was the gophers burrowing deeper, the pheasants in cover in the uncut high alfalfa, the hawk’s shadow gone without trace, the intricate darkness, the sighs the wind made calling.


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