The Master's Hand
W. D. Wetherell
No one bothered telling her he was a good man deep inside. The dozen that came to the grave site were not the kind for evasion, and even if they were, the November grayness was too bitter for anything besides truth. They stood there in a ring, the men in hunting clothes except for Mr. Andres and the minister Ted had found from the VA, the women in woolen coats that seemed spun from the same stark fabric as the sky. They bowed their heads, mumbled to the minister's prayers, then came up to shake her hand--people her age, forty and fifty; people who had lived in town as long as she had; people who had few illusions about life and none whatsoever about him.
"I'm sorry Linda," is what they said, bobbing their heads with shyness, moving on. Only a few added anything to this. Mary Demarest from the post office said, "It's a blessing," the way people did after someone had taken years to die, not seconds. Tom Clarkson of the road crew made a grabbing motion with his fist, managed a half-hearted grimace. "He could smash a softball, Jesus he could." Mr. Andrews told her there was no hurry getting back to work, even with Christmas coming and their being busy. Her job at the craft center was to take a burning iron and write From the North Country with Love on the back of all the souvenirs, and there had been a moment in the service when she weakened, felt herself being drawn toward the open hole after him and the strength that saved her had come from closing her eyes, imagining the words seared on the red battering ram of his forehead. From the North Country with Love straight to hell.
Afterwards, after Ted had paid the minister, told her he would come on Sunday to check up on things, given her the appraising kind of glance that was all twins ever needed, she had driven alone to the house, feeling a fatigue that surprised her more than anything else had all week--that she was turning out to be an amateur in exhaustion, she who had always thought of herself as a pro. She was half asleep just driving the county road, and even the ruts and bumps of the washboard that led the final yards to the old house her grandfather had built did little to jar her loose. In the early darkness all she was aware of were scattered sights tied to scattered feelings. The salty pattern the snow made on the circle of surrounding hills--how she was free to love it now, the terrain that had turned out too hard and tough for even Earl to ruin. The way Paco howled when he heard the car--how even more tired and heavy the sound made her feel, hammer blows driving her lower toward the ground. The heat of the woodstove when she opened the front door--the heat from the fire he had kindled just before storming out of the house Monday afternoon--and how it seemed to mock her with its illusion of comfort and safety and welcome.
She felt in the darkness for the light switch, then stumbled toward the kitchen past the carton of Christmas lights she had been taking out when the call came from the state police. As heavy as her fatigue was there was one task waiting before she could give way. In the drawer by the refrigerator were dozens of old pens, stubs of pencils, even some paint brushes left over from the days when there had been a child in the house, their tips dabbed with red and blue crust. She rummaged through these until she found a pen that seemed light and delicate enough to do what she asked of it, then went to the phone book for the writing paper pressed in back.
Sitting under the kitchen lamp, it took her only a few seconds to write the lines she had been composing in her imagination for the past twelve years. Dear Ellen. He's gone. You can come home now if you want. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Your loving mother.
She read it over, wishing her handwriting were less cramped, more open, then found an envelope and printed the address she had memorized when it came on the birthday card this spring. Finishing, she went into the parlor and the stove, stood there staring down at what lay scattered on dirty bricks of the hearth: the pile of firewood, the rusted poker, the blackened gauntlet-sized glove--and then, with nothing more to rest herself against, went to her bedroom, bolted the door shut and collapsed into the stupor that was her due.
She woke to the sound of Paco's barking out by the barn, the echo making it seem further away than it really was, less ugly, less mean. That was all she expected from life now anyway, to have the worst of it off her shoulders, have its rawness come muffled, but even this wasn't going to be accomplished without effort. The house was stained with his things, he wouldn't be gone until they were gone, and so after a lukewarm cup of coffee, an untasted plate of eggs, she started right in.
She worked all morning making a pile in the parlor, then carting it out to the woodshed where Ted could come and load his truck. She started with the military magazines, the dirty videos, the homemade cigarettes, and then when they were gone, she went into the back room for the archery equipment, the bows with their complicated levers and pulleys, the arrows that seemed tipped with deer blood the way Ellen's brushes were tipped with paint, the decanters shaped like fire engines or race cars he bought empty at yard sales and filled with grape wine, the posters and certificates from the secret organizations he was always joining through the mail--breaking the arrows over her knee, ripping the camouflage off the hangers, dashing the decanters against the floor--and yet none of these helped, the pounding on her head was worse than before, not better, and she felt herself falling deeper into the hole his living had dug for her, and this time there was no way to keep out.
There was only one surprise: a flimsy shoe box with a collection of lead soldiers he must have had when he was a boy. Some were painted, most were not. She held one up to her face, squinted at the features--bland, serene, lifeless--and for some reason this wearied her more than any of his other possessions, and she threw the toys into the woodshed with the rest.
Finished, she went outside to stand on the frozen ruts of her garden, stared out toward where the tree line supported the hard flowers of cloud. It had snowed again during the night, and the rim of hills that encircled the house was covered with something that was more sugar than salt, stickier, fluffier, more soothing. A crow flew across the whitest patch, underlining it with black, and a moment after that came enough sunlight to set the ground dust to sparkling, everything right up to the stubborn dark border of her boots.
"Goddam," she said, biting her lip, "Goddam it to hell."
Turning, she walked quickly up the gravel path toward the ruins of her grandfather's barn, drawing strength as she always did just to stand in its presence. She had gotten as far as the heavy sliding door, had bent to pry some ice away, when something caught her attention, and she walked carefully around to the silo side, leaning forward from the waist to see better, not be surprised.
A metal line extended from the barn fifty yards to the old Porter apple tree her grandparents had planted to celebrate her birth; attached to this line with a swivel was Paco's wire leash. He was straining at the furthest end, forepaws up in the air and dancing like he was trying to tow the barn to safety. His barking was louder than she'd ever heard, crazier, wilder, and she realized this was the pounding noise that had lain on her head ever since waking up.
She backed off slightly so the dog couldn't reach her if he turned. That was the extent of her relationship to him in the four years he had been chained there--in giving him distance just like she gave all the other hazards of life distance, and otherwise ignoring him altogether. He was a wolf-hybrid, Earl always claimed. As handsome as the dog was he was spindly and gaunt, and walked sideways with his nose coiled back in toward his tail. There were black splashes over his eyes and flanks that made it look like he was dressed in camouflage; the eyes themselves were white and empty, and it was clear he saw mainly through his teeth, snout and tongue.
The fifty yards of his run was on the small terrace of lawn that rose above the garden-- the prettiest spot on her land, the place she brought her dolls to when she was little--and it had been Earl's habit to go out there after dinner to a place she could no longer go herself, sit on an upended gasoline can to simply stare at him: never petting him, never even calling out his name, but staring toward the coiled spring of his ferocity the way she herself stared toward the hills.
Paco. Paco the wolf-hybrid. Paco her husband's joy in life, Paco who with the knives and arrows and bullets was now hers.
She saw what he was dancing toward: the porcelain mixing bowl that served as his dish. Empty, he must have nuzzled it during the night until it rolled out of reach, and now, frantic from hunger, he was lunging toward it again and again, neck straining, legs spread open to pull, his stubby white cock straight out in furious wanting.
That close, his barking was easier to withstand than it had been in the house. It wasn't a bark anyway, not the begging you got from a dog, but something shriller and more insistent, like commands shouted from a boss who was hoarse. She listened for a minute, then reached her hand up and pulled on the wire--once, then a second time much harder. Feeling this, Paco sat down and looked back toward the barn, head bent to the side, eyes narrowing into a squint. For a moment there was expectation enough to set him panting, but then almost instantly he was belly down in a crouch, his lip curled back over his teeth, growling with his head pressed against the dirt like he was sending his hatred to her through the ground.
He didn't leave the bowl, didn't rush her. Backing slowly from the barn, she went to the mount of kindling piled on the scrappy pavement left over from the days when they were young and stupid enough to still work the farm. The first stick she pulled out was too thin, and she had to squat down to find one better suited to her purpose. What Paco was used to seeing in people's eyes was fear, but he wouldn't see it in hers, not if she could help it. Holding the stick by its middle, she took up a position just a little way beyond the bowl and started very softly to hum. Paco spun around to face her, his eyes going from the stick to her face, then back again, trying to understand the connection, read by her tone what lay in wait. "Hungry?" she asked. She reached with the stick until it met the bowl's rim, pressed down so it rolled over, then scraped it back over the dirt toward her boots.
"Poor dog. No one left to take care of you? Left alone all by your lonesome. I'll get you your food."
She bent to pick up the bowl, turning slightly as she did so, just enough that Paco saw his chance. It was over so fast she didn't have time to be frightened: there was a shadow crossing the weak saucer of sunlight that underlay the white bowl, a warm push of air, the pinning sound of wire going taut--and then she looked down to see Paco on his back, squirming desperately to right himself, gnashing his teeth as if they held between them a corner of her flesh.
No time to be afraid. No energy for that anymore. Nothing to do but stare down at him with a look colder than anything in that hard and hopeless November light.
"You want it, don't you?" she said, imitating Earl's flat, weary intonation she had heard so many times. "You want a feel of that glove."
Paco was back on his feet, pawing furrows into the dirt with his flattened nails. She reached again, this time facing him, and backed away with the bowl toward the house. By the time she was inside, his howling was excruciatingly loud, doubled by an echo, and she had to turn on the radio to drown it out. In the refrigerator was the frozen rabbit that was his favorite food. She boiled it, watching the pot until the pinkness turned brown, then mixed it with kibble from the bag in the pantry and brought it back outside still steaming with warmth.
"What was it, Monday since you been fed? There. Wild game supper fit for a king. All yours."
She put the bowl down on the ground in the exact spot she had found it, then stepped back to watch him battle with the chain. He pulled hard enough that the cable bowed out, but it was still too short, and the tension snapped him on his back. He jumped again, then a third time, then a fourth, the smell making him wild, the intervals between flying through the air, landing on his back, coiling himself together again, coming so fast there was no separating them, and all she saw was the crazy blur of his desperation.
"Needs seasoning, does it? You never learned how to cook the way I liked anyway. Tried to poison me, that's it huh? You want teaching you. You wait here."
She walked over to the barn, shoved the door open with her shoulder, kicked through the riddled targets, the broken snow machines, the shredded tires until she found the can she was looking for, lugged it back--and all the while she did this, felt a lightness in her legs and arms she hardly remembered having before, as if all the grimness was draining from her veins down through the screw cap, into the kerosene.
There wasn't much left in the can--just enough to dribble over the meat. She kicked the bowl so it slid across the ground toward the bare spot where Paco danced. He was on it instantly. He jerked his head back, poked his snout down, pulled it away again, shook his mouth back and forth so hard it set the fatty hump on his neck to rolling, sat back on his haunches and started to howl.
"What's the matter with you? Go ahead and drink up. We've got lots of time you and me. No one can hear us, know that? Yell all you want. Plenty of time. A November day is what I call the longest thing in the world."
The cold kept the fumes low over the dish so he couldn't get past them to bite in. She could see the confusion in his eyes, the humiliation, saw these too well. In her pocket was the match she had been intending for the woodstove, and it occurred to her it would be the easiest thing in the world to light it, toss it in the bowl the second his snout went down.
"You want the glove now? You want the feel of it, just holler."
By the woodshed was a frozen coil of hose. She tugged it over, breaking apart the kinks with her boot, then went back and turned on the faucet. At first there wasn't much water, but then the ice burst free and it came out in a jet. She filled up his water dish, slid it past the food bowl where he couldn't reach it without choking, then put her thumb over the nozzle and sprayed it back and forth along the grooved path his pacing had made under the wire, Slowly to the right, slowly to the left, covering the ground thoroughly, then covering it again, until the brown became wet with blackness and the blackness froze.
"Here Paco," she said softly, tilting her head back, patting her throat. "Here, come and get me."
He was smarter this time--he pulled to the side, straining so his feet stayed on the dirt. But still, there was no way to reach her, not without crossing the ice. He turned in a tighter circle, turned again, squatted and screwed his eyes closed, pressing out a turd. She took her thumb off the nozzle, turned it full blast on the ground beneath him so it blew the steamy heap of it away, then, not satisfied, raised it the inch or two it took to bring the jet against the black spot on his flank.
It stung him--he hopped to the side, started licking at the fur where it hit, but by now she had the jet going against his shoulders, and it pressed him back onto the ice. He snarled and leapt at it, trying to bite the spray before being hit, but she moved the nozzle too fast, hitting his paws, then his tail, then the hollow spots under his ears, then his nose, so he couldn't guess where it would go next. He rose tight against the wire like a fish against a line, exposing his bottom, and she instantly turned the stream there, screwing the nozzle tighter so the water drove even harder, hitting full force.
While all this went on, he never left off his snapping, never once stopped barring his teeth. She knew that kind of hate, knew it too well. Every reaction to the world, every response, there in the tightness in his jaw, the acid in his throat. A minute of it and she was exhausted, sickened--the heaviness was getting worse, not better, and with a disgusted motion she snapped the hose clear of the dishes and walked through the afternoon shadows back toward the house.
The dark came early, but she did nothing to hold it off, From the couch she could see orange bars thrown by the flames through the wood stove's vent, and it made the black seem deeper, more total, something a lamp could have no effect against. She may have slept for a time, but not so deeply she lost track of Paco's howling, or missed the sound of a car door closing and tires spinning away up their road.
When she did get up, turned the lamp on, it was to find it was snowing out, and that someone had left a chicken casserole on the front step. There was no name, even when she brushed the snow off from the foil. She brought it inside, feeling strong enough now to turn all the lights on, so the glow created a cream-colored ring around the house that rose like an extra wall.
She took her time over dinner, liking that feel--of treating herself,. making things easy. She used paper plates so she wouldn't have dishes, ate slowly,
fixing herself a hot mug of cocoa as a reward once she was done. When the phone rang she didn't answer. She heard it again, minutes later, but by then she had her coat on and with a plate full of leftovers was pressing through the door outside.
It was snowing harder, gritty pellets that slanted through the spotlight and accumulated fast on the ground. Paco was curled against the barn near the mound of his own vomit; it was clear he had managed to take a few bites from the bowl, and that the brown stinking wetness was the result.
Staying back from the ice, never leaving off watching him, she pulled the gasoline can over, brushed the snow off and sat down so the spotlight was at her back and he had to squint to keep her in sight.
"Go ahead and growl," she said, "Good for the soul, growling." She laughed, or at least tried to, but the cold burned her chest and she had to wrap her arms around herself to stay warm. "Not much of a day for you. Nope, not much of a day at all."
She could feel his eyes fixed on the shelf made by her knees. She pushed the plate out in plain sight.
"It must have been something you did to provoke this reaction," she said slowly, trying to remember the counselor's words, the exact tone. "Something in your own behavior, can you search your memory? What we want to do is empower you to take your fate into your own hands. Understand me? Empower. It's what we got to do to you,"
The snow came down against her neck, even with the collar raised. With the light blocked by her shoulder only a little made it to the barn, and in her weariness the dog's shape began to blur, so it looked like a pile of rags thrown there to freeze.
"Why don't you just leave if things are so bad? Why don't you just up and fly away like a little bird? You can pretend no one will come and find you and hurt you worse than before. You're empowered just like one of those space men with rockets on his feet. Fool for sticking it out here anyway. Snow in June, that's what it'll do to you. Frost in August and flies the rest of the year, only trash would want it anyway, ain't that so? Land of poison. No one's going to hurt you if you just get up and fly away."
The words came easier the faster she talked, so she hunched forward on the can, lost in them, hardly aware now of the dog's presence, "You know what you get for aggravating me? You know what you get, don't you? You know, because you know me, know from last time, and I'm warning you that glove's still hanging right where I left it. Ran from me once--where'd it get you? Treated like dirt in the city, ain't that so? Go ahead and run and then all this becomes mine, even the memories, and when I have those I have you, ain't that so?"
She put the plate of leftovers on the ground, sliding it forward with her boot so it was well within his reach. Paco pushed himself wearily to his feet, taking mincing steps across the ice so as not to fall, his head down into his chest like the snow hurt his eyes. When his chain tightened he looked up--saw the food, saw her leaning over it--and instantly made his decision, springing toward her throat, so she imagined the tearing press in her flesh even at the very second that she heard the pinning sound, realized the chain had caught him and thrown him sprawling back.
She shook inside, shook to the point of tears, but she didn't let him see this--knew in that moment she wasn't ever going to let anyone see tears again. "All right then," she said, facing the ice patch where he sat howling. She reached with her boot, kicked the leftovers toward blackness.
"Goodnight Paco dog. Sweet dreams to you."
She listened to his howls all night the way people listen to a sound that's been in their life all along, but only now are they really hearing. At times, she pictured it as a siren, imagined trucks and ambulances and police cars rushing to help her; other times it seemed like a hot wind that had spread its jaws around the house and was slowly crushing it inward, starting on the roof, then the beams, then the ceiling. Around midnight she got up, looked out he window, tried staring past the snow, paced for a restless half hour, then fell asleep again curled in the armchair with her robe wrapped around her shoulders. This time she really did dream, imagined Paco with his head pressed on her lap, so they were friends now, victims and survivors, the dog recognizing this, so the howling wasn't howling after all, but the cry of a helpless creature begging her forgiveness.
She woke up later than usual, startled to see the sunlight frosted on the windows, confused for a moment as to where she was. The dream was vivid enough that it still possessed her as she washed and changed, and it was only the phone ringing that began to shake it loose.
It was Ted. Talking as slowly as ever, putting each word out like it was a concrete block needing much consideration before it moved, he explained he was on his way over--that he'd been getting calls all night from neighbors who heard the howling, neighbors who weren't too scared anymore to complain; that it was time to end it; that he was bringing his deer rifle and he would take care of things himself.
His call only emphasized this new feeling, made her long to make friends
while there was still the chance. Without even putting her coat on she went
outside, squinting toward the hard glare of the sun where it broke apart into
streamers that led toward the barn. Paco was huddled against the boards, looking
weaker than the night before, his fur frozen in clumps that reminded her of
the cheap stuffed animals she had bought Ellen as a girl. He was still howling,
or at least trying to; his snout went up as before, enough so she could see
the tendons tighten and flex below his muzzle, but what came out was brittle
and hoarse, as if the night had driven the ice deep into his chest.
When he went for her it was in slow motion, shaking free of the ice, gathering
himself, shivering, finally managing a comic imitation of a pounce. She saw
all this with perfect clarity, with plenty of time to back off, and yet what
she couldn't avoid was the hatred in his muzzle, the growling that came at
full strength, redoubled strength, tripled strength, eyes slanted, head down,
teeth bared, so it was as if someone had taken ferocity, plopped it down in
front of her, drawn its silhouette with an icy pen. Always before she thought
Earl had made up the wolf part just to brag, but she could see it now--how
the food didn't matter to him, the possibility of warmth or shelter, nothing
except the overwhelming need to transfer the tension from his throat onto
And the odd thing was this still didn't frighten her--made her if anything
know a brief moment of victory and satisfaction, so when she backed away from
him it was with a grim sort of smile.
"I had nothing to do with it, just remember that. Your choice, not mine."
No thought was needed anymore, no decision. What was needed was to back away
from the ice, press her shoulder against the heaviness of the winter door,
walk inside to the wood stove, reach like a robot toward the asbestos mitt
hanging from its nail on the hearth--the blackened glove that had hung there
even before Ellen left home; the glove she had never put on before; the glove
that was the last thing in the house that was his. Always before she had imagined
it being unbearably heavy and coarse, a glove of iron, so she was surprised
at its lightness--at how well it fit.
She got down on her knees before the woodstove's door, opened it with a half
turn to the right, then reached the glove past the burning logs in front until
it came against the coals lying against the base plate, closed her fist around
them, brought the largest ones back out.
They didn't burn--the glove absorbed all their heat--and so she was able
to walk back outside holding the coals in front of her the way she had held
the bowl of food, the redness flaring at the new touch of air, its smoke coiling
backwards toward her eyes. Off behind her on the other side of the house came
the sound of a truck door slamming, but she walked on anyway, not stopping
until she came to the spot where Paco stood bent over the frozen rabbit, pressing
his fade down as if trying to force it underground.
"Here Paco," she said. "Here, this is for you."
He saw the coals cupped there in the glove, realized at once they were meant
for him. He backed up slowly on the ice, the rabbit flopping from his mouth
like an extra tongue, arching his back the way a cat would, growling, but
this time in confusion, his muzzle trembling. His fear infuriated her even
more than his hatred; she walked toward him so there was no chance of his
sliding past her on the chain, and when he had backed as far as the barn,
she stopped and held the coals up toward her face so he could see what had
become of her, the liver-white saucers on her cheeks, the dead patches that
flaked off in the cold, brought the other hand up to touch them so there would
be no mistake. Here, Paco. Here is what they do. But his eyes stayed
fixed on the coals, so it was like a wire extended from their center to his
eyes, one she could pull any direction she wanted and the tightness wouldn't
Behind her she could hear a voice, but she kept on anyway, and then when
she was within reaching distance and Paco had nowhere left to go, he leapt
wildly to his right, hard and desperate enough that his weight came sideways
against the frozen collar, snapping it open. For the first instant he didn't
realize he was free, merely cowered there whimpering, but then with her next,
much more sudden step he was off and racing away from her, feet onto solid
ground now, running toward the field, his speed increasing once he got there,
his silhouette flattening so within seconds he was halfway to the trees.
She turned, saw Ted folded over his truck with the rifle taking aim, a steady
red shape of great intentness, and she threw the coals down and ran toward
him shouting before it was too late.
He heard her--looked over briefly so she could read the puzzlement on his
face--and it was enough time that Paco was behind the first low rise into
the trees. She saw him running toward the gap where the hills separated, let
go their hold. The county road was there, the highway, the interstate that
led toward the south. toward the south where she'd fled once herself, enough
so she knew exactly what was waiting for him there, enough so she didn't feel
regret at seeing him run but only satisfaction--felt a s second, more violent
kind of snapping as the hardest part of her tore away. Ted was taking aim
again, there was one last chance to stop Paco as he crested the last rise,
but she waved her hands, shouted at the top of her lungs, wanting only to
hurry his escape from it--the land of the scarred, the stubborn, the ones
meant to stay.