John Jeffrey Allison is on his back in a field. He is looking up through tall alfalfa and pondering the play of a kaleidoscope of butterflies dancing in still air over his chest. They have been there since he opened his eyes five minutes ago. The sweet scent of the field reminds him of boyhood spent in places just like this, and calm mornings near the home where he grew up —playing alone with his imagination.
He lifts his arms, stretching them fully upward and splays out his fingers. They move with his command and they allow flashes of light from the mid-day sun to blind him as he changes their position against the sky.
“I love your hands,” she used to say, “I love the veins, I love the skin, they are so fair and strong.” She would stroke them with her fingers and he would fall back from thought into a state of experience and watch himself be loved.
At six-thirty last night in front of a tavern about twenty miles from this field he sat in his car watching the front door for over two hours, and when the man he was looking for opened that door and began to walk down the street, John left his vehicle, walked to the curb, lifted one arm straight out and used his right index finger to pull the trigger – four times – ending the life of the one who’d assaulted her.
Where have you been?
Just out. I can’t sit here all night and watch T.V.
There’s some dinner left. You smell like smoke. You smoking again?
No. Shit. I told you I was at that pub.
Didn’t say that though. Just said you were out.
Shoulda known. Said I was thinkin’ of it earlier.
You OK honey? Sit here a while. I’ll move the dog.
No. You sit. Don’t move her. She’s comfortable. I’ll shower and come down. You get ready for some of this man. We’ll move the dog in ten minutes. I’ll hurry.
He remembers telling her. He remembers the shower, their sex, the release, he remembers looking up from her neck to see the dog sitting across the room, and wondering again what dogs must think of human copulation.
He was still inside her, beginning to go flaccid when he said it.
I killed my brother.
He remembers putting his clothes on and going out the door and the drive to the bar and all the thoughts on the way there. He can hear her yelling at him about calling the police and turning himself in, he remembers leaving the car in the parking lot of the Walmart in order to give him time to drink enough courage make that call. He can smell the shitty bar-smell of the corner place he picked because he’d never been there and maybe it would be a while before they found him.
They had .22’s and they used to hunt in a field just like this. The older one would talk him into it. He’d be sitting downstairs listening to the radio and writing down the songs in a school exercise book. The songs would come on and you could tell from the first note what each one was. He was proud of himself.
They had leg-hold traps too and he had learned to set them, to pry the cold metal jaws open, set the center plate and the trigger pin over the bar – so careful to let the spring out slowly and tension it against the plate so it didn’t snap shut – you could break a finger. A big brother could teach you to do it safely.
Hey – dad bought some bullets, let’s go over to Springbank and shoot some gophers.
They were fields like this, but fallow. Sun-dried grey dirt in neat rows, so soft that when you walked on it your boots would sink an inch, and if you picked up a handful it was black loam underneath. The gophers would stand on hind legs and look around – maybe smelling them on the wind. He never knew. The rifle would buck just a little in your hand, the sound was no more than a hand clap – the gopher would jump back with the smack of the bullet – and they would go look at them in death – usually with an eye popped out or sharp little teeth glinting from a bloody mouth – the curiosity of the boys fed by something ancient.
He would make airplanes from wood – nail a couple of pieces together and run with them in his hand. A dive bomber, a fighter – all the noises and commands from the ground yelled across the yard, and then the big brother would come up from the basement with a real airplane. One he had built with balsa wood and fabric and paint and glue. With the single-piston engine and the four-inch propeller and lines from the wing to a handle. The fuel smelled like grease and it stuck to your clothing so that mother would complain, but dad kept buying cans of it and it kept leaking and they kept smelling of it. And he would watch his brother fly the plane at the end of the long control lines and he was completely in awe of this champion of all things. He made planes that you had to hold and make sounds. His brother made real airplanes that could really fly.
The sky between his fingers – slices of bright blue – the thickness of the air, all the way up to emptiness. And no sound of dogs yet. They will have figured out by now where he was drinking. They will have figured out by now he walked away at close, and they would have had to get the dogs over from Fort Macleod in order to start a search. If it’s close to noon there’ll be dogs on the ground soon. They’ll come up the old coach road and climb the hill – he’ll be able to hear them when they’re a couple of miles away. It will be that fat cop – they call him barley after the smell of him. The same one that nailed him on DUI the first year he was out of school and partying all the time, before he was married and before he calmed down. They’ll bring the shepherds, those mean bastards and he’ll be able to hear them from a way’s off.
He didn’t believe it at first, when she told him. He’d been working up north – in the Arctic – three weeks in, one week out. Jesus that was good money. They used to say the best rig hands were farm boys – that they already know how to work. So they’d get the foremen from little towns – Blackie, Olds, Carmengay, Nanton, and then ask them to find all the 18 year-olds they could. After a year there was a steady stream of brothers, cousins, uncles and friends and always a few more in the pipe for when someone gave up and said fuck it and moved to the city to spend all that money.
He worried sometimes about leaving her alone. About how horny she was. But that was always a good thing when he got off the plane again. They’d spend a couple of days in bed and then take a break, come back to it after another day and she was up for all he could muster.
She told him it happened when he was at the rigs and they were both drunk. They’d been dancing and playing pool all afternoon and she said she didn’t want it to happen and said no a bunch, but he wouldn’t listen and it happened. She cried a lot and said maybe it wasn’t all his fault, but then he didn’t call his brother for a year and the sonofabitch knew why too.
He wanted it back the way it was. He watched time go by and watched her try to forget and he watched her watching him. The skies would turn from day to day into something different. Rain would come or sun would beat on the pavement or a wind would come up from over the mountains and make the grass lie down for a whole week. But the days would never go back to what they were.
Everybody knew it too. She told her mother after they’d had a fight about it – he said never to tell anyone – that the telling would make it stick. He warned her about that. You could paint over an old fence, but once you told one person what kind of shit was underneath nobody’d be fooled. And he knew then, once everybody was in on it what the end of the road would look like.
It was nearly dawn when he lay down in the field. He’d come out until the pavement ended, kept going on the gravel road until it turned to dirt and kept walking. All the thinking worked out, and the threads wound through different places and different memories and when he stopped and looked up into the sky he saw all the way to the edge – through the glitter of a moonless night – the billions of stars and the glow of the milky way. He stood in one spot and turned and he saw the sky turn above him and he felt the earth turn beneath him and then he saw the field ahead and managed his way through the fence and made his way in – until he felt the weariness of all the weight, and he sat down in the middle, lay back and fell into a dark sleep.
There – to the north – he hears something and turns his head. Unsure, he stops his breathing and listens. Through the heavy, wet crop he can make out noise. Yes, it’s barking. It’s the dogs – they’ve found his scent – they’re a long way off but that only means five minutes or so. That fat cop will be a while longer.
He reaches to the ground at his hip and picks up the handgun. Two shots left. The weight of it on his chest feels sure. His finger slides into the trigger guard and and he pushes the muzzle to the skin just above his Adam’s apple. He remembers his brother teaching him trigger discipline, gun safety, saying, you never point a gun at something unless you intend to use it. Ever. Do you understand?
The dogs are closer now, but he waits.
He wants to smell the alfalfa and watch the butterflies dance a bit longer.