After the day’s work, all on his own, Charles gave the baby a bath. While her attention was lost in the dripping of the faucet, he was touched by the sight of her small shoulders from behind, and of the soft wisps of her hair, damp and curling at the nape of her neck.
Plowing or planting, he approached systematically, settling each row cleanly next to the last, then looping back for anything he’d missed. Here, he swirled soap over Virginia’s feet, legs, arms, and belly, then backtracked, using a toothbrush to coax farm dirt from beneath the soft moons of her fingernails. The lightest touch beneath her ear, down along the jawline, and she hunched her shoulders, ticklish, trapping his finger between her shoulder and her cheek.
In the wheat fields and hog pens of the day, when metal or leather split a callous, Charles wished his hands were tougher; when hauling two bales of straw, he wished he could take three. This was the only time of day when he felt ungainly, too strong. He tempered every movement to a fragment of what felt natural, but her young skin still pinked up beneath his touch.
He missed the company of Virginia’s mother on nights like these, when the house’s wooden stairs creaked emptily and the acres stretched out around them in the dark. There was so much fertile quiet to be shared here, and so many small lives, sprouting at his feet—but while Nell had been drawn to the day-lit prettiness of the land from a distance, eventually she’d barreled away, swearing that the only interesting things that ever happened on a farm were birth and death, and only people like him and that baby could stomach the endless boredom in between.
Charles scooped Virginia up, wrapping her in a towel and then pajamas, and her eyes were on him every moment as he combed her hair into sections and placed a hand behind her head, then laid her in her crib, damp and fresh and tired. And only when the eyes finally closed did he put his heavy feet up, lay his head back, and sleep.
In her earliest memories, Virginia was strapped face-out to her father’s stomach during rounds. From between his arms, she had watched his hands spread feed in troughs, and set out two piles of chicken feed, and she had pointed at the pigs when they danced, and laughed when the chickens ran back and forth.
As she grew, she watched her father’s hands adjust the daylight timer in the henhouse, and coax borrowed boars into pens. She even watched the hands reach into a laboring mother, without hesitating, to fetch a litter in distress. And over and over, Virginia also watched her father’s hands dig holes when things died, burying what was left, nice and deep, so the coyotes wouldn’t come around.
By the time she was five, she had learned to help her father mend coops, stitch animal wounds, and oil and repair equipment—and she sat in front of him as he drove each piece of machinery in season, her mind sketching the patterns that her father had drawn for her of tilling, seeding, and harvesting, along with the rotation of clover through the wheat fields, to keep the soil alive.
Like Virginia, Charles had been a child alone on this small farm. “There’s no excuse for being bored on forty acres,” his mother had told him when he turned eight and she began shooing him out of the house every afternoon. In his memories, his mother spoke in rules—like tiny, rote capsules locked in amber from her own childhood. She said: A child needn’t be seen, but must at all times keep the house in view.
“Go,” he told Virginia in the afternoons once she turned eight. “It all belongs to you. Blend in.” An hour or two later, he would prop the kitchen door open with his mother’s iron doorstop, and soon enough Virginia would come through it—dirty-kneed, dreamy, or dark-eyed and underfoot.
By Charles’ estimation, she was a happy child, and well suited to the life he’d built for her. He’d kept her out of school, teaching her more at home than she could ever learn in town. She had good farm sense, and he was proud that the pick-up and delivery men took a liking to her, bringing things to show her and tell her about, and even obliging her for a few minutes when she beckoned to show them things, too—a new piece of equipment or a set of fresh-hatched chicks—before they eventually patted her shoulder and sent her to fetch him for business.
Charles was pleased with the way Virginia handled things, in general: she seemed to understand the farm and its patterns without being taught; she didn’t sniffle about the realities or riddle him for explanations; and even the hens didn’t protest when her dimpled hands reached under them to collect their still-warm eggs in the mornings.
Off the farm, he knew that she made people uneasy. Whether it was her quiet watchfulness or her motherlessness which was more to blame, he couldn’t say, but when he had to leave town for a whole day now and then, it didn’t escape his notice that the women at the church daycare pressed Virginia to their bosoms in the morning, and crinkled their brows behind her as she skipped to his truck at the end of the day.
But on the farm, watching the top of her head glide from one end of the field to the other as if the wind had simply blown her, or watching her slide through a crack in the barn door without even opening it, he understood the sweet possibility of what Nell had once accused: That child wasn’t theirs at all, but had instead grown right up out of the farm itself, and would encircle them just as sure as the soil, as sure as the goddamn pigs.
On her own, Virginia sometimes padded the perimeter of the acres in view of the house—drawing the lines of her domain, then looping back through its grassy middle, arms out, eyes up, feet bare, sometimes so fast the wheat whipped her skin and sometimes so slowly she could see the sun move.
But most of the time, she headed for the barns. Her father had instructed her not to name the animals and she obeyed, though she recognized them easily—and she ruffled their chests and scratched their ears, and invented secrets for them to keep, and dramas to spin between them. They weren’t pets, the pigs or the chickens—her father was strict about that—nor, she knew, were the foxes she tracked at dusk, or the possums she found curled softly by the side of the road.
Once, she had sat for an hour watching a spider spin a web across the narrow gap she’d left in the barn door on purpose—but she knew not to cry in front of her father when she forgot in the morning and slid the door open, and the web folded stickily in on itself.
On so many summer nights, she and her father had sat on the porch swing, lit only by the light from the kitchen, as he explained the same way each time, as if straight from memory, why the wheat fields had to be sliced away just as soon as they were grown, and why the pigs were loaded onto a truck before Christmas, and she nodded because she knew already, had understood from the start, the way she understood about the curled possums and the stillborn piglets, and about her mother—all without being told.
Charles hadn’t told Virginia much about Nell—only that she had loved them both very much, and that he missed her every day. They didn’t talk much in general and even less about things like that, and to Charles, the truth seemed crueler than even the most sorrowful death Virginia might invent. Quietly, though, he wondered whether Virginia might have figured out, or somehow known all along, that she’d been left behind on purpose.
Whichever story she had chosen, he thought she seemed at peace, until checking a perimeter fence one afternoon, he came upon her crouched at the side of the road, petting a half-dead deer. Its head twisted awkwardly back, its legs a tangle, and Virginia, hair tucked behind her ears, her hands set gently on its heart, humming to it as it trembled.
For the first time, disquiet sliced through him.
He recalled the hum of her tiny ribcage against his, years ago, beneath the rumble of the combine. What he had smiled to think was joy. What he now understood, instead, was a child’s goodbye to dying things—as even from his chest, she had addressed the rows of wheat, falling one by one beneath his wheels. All these years, out from under his eye and guarded from his ear, she had loved in secret, so as not to break his rules.
The deer sighed its death into her small hands the way the hens ceded their eggs, and Charles finally saw not only the farm-wise hands that he had labored so hard to cultivate, but also the loneliness that reached outward endlessly with no reply.
Virginia never dawdled once the kitchen door was opened. She and her father had spent years side-by-side in daytime rhythms and chores, but the cooling hour just before dinner was when he would sometimes finally turn to face her, and surprise her with a sketch of an owl he’d seen on a fence rail, or a seed pod from his pocket to pop open. To truly love a farm, he always said, you’ve got to see it from the inside out.
In the kitchen, he showed his love for the things the farm had created: slicing a tomato beautifully down the middle, snapping a pod and coaxing its peas into a bowl, or moving a piece of tender, blood-red meat under the fire. He was often quiet, like her, but when he did speak, she liked the rhythm of the way he talked about the farm that had been his parents’ before him, and his mother’s parents before them—and through the rhythm of his talking, she liked the way the farm transformed into something alive that stretched down deep and ongoing beneath them both.
Town was just a handful of intersections a few miles off—but even so, it took Charles weeks to go. With Virginia watching from the truck, he walked in the front door of the hardware store, then out the back and over to the barbershop where Jenna worked, cutting hair for farmers like him, and invited her to dinner.
He spent the time in between just watching. For Virginia, he knew, nothing had changed. She went on about her days as she always had, from house to chores and coops to pens, climbing the ladder to the barn’s loft and vanishing into the fields, appearing with a rabbit skull she’d found at the base of a tree, and quietly, always watching.
But the farm he looked out at was suddenly clear and cold in its purpose, and so contrary to what he thought he’d built, and given her, and been given. The land that had forever been home was now only saturated with unyielding solitude, and silence, and births that cycled quickly into deaths, and he wondered whether he had ever taught his daughter anything at all except destruction.
From the porch swing next to her father, Virginia watched a car come up the driveway. A young woman in a sleeveless dress and sandals got out, raising her whole arm but waving just her hand, a flutter at the very top—and Charles held up a hand in reply. He stood up, so Virginia stood, too, spinning to lean her back against his legs and watch the woman approach.
Her hair was dark brown and chin-length, with blonde stripes framing her face. Gold bracelets jingled when she tucked her hair behind her ears, and she bent down in front of Virginia, saying, “Hi there, princess. I’m Jenna.”
It wasn’t as if Virginia didn’t see people. She went to town with her father now and then, and plenty of people came to the farm—but most of them didn’t come right up to the house, at dusk, and none of them were women. She extended a hand, the way that always made the workmen laugh, and Jenna shook it, without laughing.
It was quiet long enough that Virginia leaned her head back to look straight up at her father’s face from below.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, finally. “This is Virginia.”
Virginia felt her cheeks flush hot and swung her chin down to her chest to hide them, catching sight of Jenna’s bright pink toenails. Bare toes on the farm made her father uneasy, so she crossed her fingers against his pant legs and hoped he wouldn’t notice.
Charles found it strange having Jenna in the house. Her friendly chattiness at the barbershop was comforting, charming almost, among all those men. She had the skill of touching an ear, a chin, or a shoulder the way a farmer touches an animal—reassuring in its weight and business, never flitting, never hesitating—and of filling silence so warmly that a farmer could even forget it was he who’d caused it. But here in his parents’ house, Charles found himself embarrassed by her. By the way she asked questions and then filled in their answers for them without pausing; by the careless way she moved around the kitchen (“reckless,” his mother would have said); by the way her bracelets jingled; by the way she reached across the table; by needing her at all.
But Charles noticed something in Virginia as she listened to Jenna talk. A sparkle and then shame, an embarrassed need she tried to cover. Her face had never before been such a snapshot of Nell’s. Jenna leaned in to Virginia, touching her hair, touching her hands, and talking about her job, town, nothing that mattered. This was how she talked to the men in her chair, this was what he had wanted—but the hunger with which Virginia gathered this new, ordinary attention shamed him.
Virginia had just about forgotten about Jenna when the little blue car pulled up again one afternoon, and she popped her head up from braiding wheat strands in the nearest field. Jenna was wearing a dress again and waving as she came to meet Virginia mid-way. She knelt down, putting her clean knees right in the dirt, and said, “You wanna show me the chickens?”
The bantams ruffled and squawked the way they always did when someone opened the door, but Virginia scooped one from its nest and settled it against her heartbeat, and gradually it laid its feathers back down, stilled its feet, and relaxed its eyelids.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” Jenna said.
The hen’s feathers rose to see Jenna’s hand coming, but unlike most hands, this one didn’t waver. Instead, it poured smoothly onto the shoulders and down the cascading black-and-white feathers to the tail, then looped kindly to the ruffled chest, where a tiny grunt escaped the chicken’s throat. Virginia smiled.
She set the hen back into its nest, then put her finger to her lips and led the way to an indoor pen in the back, where a gray sow lay on her side, a litter at her belly. Virginia climbed through the bars, moving so gently that neither the mother nor the piglets noticed her, not even when she tied a braid of wheat around the sow’s front ankle and placed a kiss on its spotted ear. She climbed back through the bars, wrapped her hand around Jenna’s, and held it until it softened.
Weeks later, from the top of the steps, Charles looked out over bare, fresh-tilled land, which always took some getting used to. Virginia sat a few steps down, a paper bag of corn in her lap, and he selected an ear and husked it skillfully in two pulls.
“Did I ever tell you why your mother married me?” he said.
Virginia shook her head without looking at him, instead watching his hands as he drew silk away from the cob.
“She always said only a good man could talk that way about pigs.”
Charles smiled, set his clean ear of corn next to him, and reached into the paper bag for another. He leaned down to nudge her in the belly with the tip of the new ear, and Virginia smiled back.
The blue car pulled up the long driveway. Jenna honked through the cloud of dust, and out the open window, shouted, “Ready?”
Virginia stood to face him. She was going to a cookout in town. She would play kickball and eat hamburgers and have her nails painted, and he didn’t know who she would be when she came back. He only knew that while she was out of sight, the things she loved would go on oblivious without her: eating, reproducing, and growing dumbly forward, under his own hand, to their slaughter.
He touched her hands and kissed the top of her head and hoped this would be enough—and she spun and leapt from the stairs and ran straight over the deep soil that yielded her.
From the passenger seat of Jenna’s car, Virginia trained her eyes on a hawk passing over. From there, he would be able to see all of it, the whole town, in one round vision. The main street with its people, its shops, its four blinking stoplights. And the four spur roads heading out in all directions: north, south, east—stretching out past her father and his impeccable square of land—and west—the road she imagined her mother had taken—a tiny truck top, humming against a long gray stripe, open windows, flying fast and faraway.
Virginia could feel him looking right at her with his hawk’s eye as she watched him go higher and higher, and she offered him her whole heart to take away with him. But she knew she was too small and getting smaller as he rose, and like the pigs and chickens and fields of wheat, he smiled but wouldn’t take it.
Molia Dumbleton lives and works outside of Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. In 2013, her story, “The Way We Carried Ourselves,” was awarded the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize for short fiction. www.moliadumbleton.
–Art by Jan Rockar
–Art by Plamen Stoev
–Art by Joel Hohner