Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest 2009.
by Molly Prentiss
It is another disastrous weeknight in Idaho. I go to bed with Hans, we make love and it feels good, and then a hurricane happens, or a series of bombings. Hans’ body is there, keeping me warm and safe, but he cannot protect me from what happens inside of dreams. Before sleep I say to him: “Hans, tell me a story.” I want to ward off fires and tidal waves with his voice. He tells me the story about the man and the woman who met in Sun Valley in the back of a pick-up, had their first kiss just outside of Ketchum. This is a story that I already know. When his voice fades is the fear.
My dream last night: Hans and I are in a field, grass the color of sunbeams. The barn house to the East sags, perhaps made of wet cloth. Hans touches my arm with his fingers and where he touches me a spark flies - new love makes sparks, you know - and suddenly the field is ablaze; we run to the cloth barn for escape. But the flames follow us there, and we are lying together like children, the sides of our bodies touching and our hands clenched, when the fire swallows the barn with its orange mouth.
I tell Hans about the dream when I wake up. He rises with the sun, already working on his sewing. He laughs at me when I recount the fire and the field. He is tired of my imagined disasters, because although Hans is dreamy, he is a realist at heart. He says: Rose, your mind is inhabited by maniacs, and looks back to his hands. Hans makes blankets stitch by stitch, and right now he is embroidering the shape of a human heart. He says if he can recreate a heart with his hands, maybe his hands will become infused with heart. That everything he makes afterward will come from the heart, which is the ultimate goal.
I go to work at the pond. I am collecting specimens for a study about fish eggs. They want to know how fast the lake trout are reproducing and if their population is declining due to pollution. I tell them, because I already know the answer, that no, the population is not declining, that you can simply see less fish now that the water is more cloudy, but this does not satisfy them. People want concrete answers, facts. I spend my day on a moveable dock, crouching down to dip my Petri dish in the green water. I am careless, I am not thorough, I do not gather enough eggs from each section of the pond. But as long as we want to keep the house and the land and if Hans want to keep up his sewing and his staying home, I will continue counting and collecting these tiny eggs and turning them into tiny facts for money.
After the pond I come home to Hans, who is still working on his same heart. I smell like algae and am wearing an ugly puffy vest that he loves. “Hi, Muni,” he says. He calls me Muni, which is short for muñeca, or “doll” in Spanish. He is always decorating his language with other languages. He asks how the pond was, and if I had gotten enough goods today. He calls the fish eggs “goods,” as if they are drugs or candies or something else naughty. I tell him yes, I got the goods, but that I would rather talk about my dream. He me off but pulls me close. He pets my face with the square of fabric he is working on, which is a nice gesture, but does not save me from thinking that our relationship is doomed to death by barn house fire.
I say to him: I don’t know, Hans, and I go to the kitchen. But when he follows me and presents the dinner he has prepared – trout he has caught fresh, squash from the garden, wine made from dandelions – I hug him round the neck and forget about things being doomed for a while to peck at the perfect food that has gotten cold.
Later, in bed with the screen door open, I dream of a train. I am on the tracks; I cannot hear the train coming because I have stuffed my ears with cotton and my back is turned the wrong way. Somehow I can see myself die, as if I am a camera as well as a human, and then I can see Hans’ face in the little conductor window. His blank expression is more terrifying than my own death, and I am jolted awake by the image. I shake Hans’ shoulder. I whisper: Hans! You killed me! But he just makes a big spoon with his body and silences me with his warmth. When I fall back asleep I dream of lightening striking the house, a tidal wave that I cause by overflowing the bathtub, and quicksand that I do not detect until I have sunken to the knees.
It’s morning again and a square of sunlight has already found Hans’ square of cloth on his lap. When I am home alone this square of light does not appear, but it is always displaying itself all over Hans. Why is this? He puts down his sewing when he sees me in the doorway. How’d you sleep, Muni? he says, rising for me. He has already made coffee, and he pours some into a mug that he made on a potters wheel some years ago in Virginia, during a time he refers to as “the pot days.” He adds condensed milk, which he insists is better than cream. I tell him – again - about my various dream deaths. He laughs at me again and clinks his ceramic mug against mine. Well here’s to being alive! he says. I frown and drink my coffee bitterly. At this moment I long for an open road.
At the pond there is a layer of fog on the water. I am less patient than ever, and dunk my Petri dishes hurriedly to collect the necessary samples. A dish full of eggs looks like cells under a microscope, tender circles bumping into one another and then gelling. For the first time, I think about the fish eggs as lives that I might be ending, and I suddenly see myself as the conductor of a large train, moving over whatever is in its path. What am I doing here? I wonder, and think of Hans’ big hands and little needle, his love for creation versus my apparent attraction to destruction. But I do not stop working. In fact I work diligently now, mechanically, reminding myself that this is necessary work, important work, and that I am making progress. Hans does not know progress, I think; he works sitting still, without necessary change. I scoop a hearty dish of eggs from the edge of the pond and cover it with a plastic lid. I allow myself to feel a certain sense of power then - just a sliver of satisfaction - which comes, I assume, from controlling a very tiny bit of a very haunting natural world.