The History of a Hunting Accident by Laura Krughoff
Did he hope to be a better man than his father? Did he promise himself to never be that stinking drunk, that raging husband, that fat man passed out in the kitchen? Did he blame his mother for how she kowtowed, how she ducked her head and bit her lip and twisted her apron strings? For how she apologized? For how she stayed?
Did he graduate from high school? When he landed that job at the grain elevators, a decent job making family wages, did he feel like a man at seventeen? Did his muscles stretch and harden beneath his work shirts? Was he a favorite of the other men, young and lean and hungry? Was he just a few years too young for Korea? By the age of twenty, had his skin begun to leather from the dust and chaff and the sun? Was he looking for a wife, after he bought that yellow house on Main Street, just down from the Bluebird Café where the farmers all gathered for coffee at six in the morning if the crops were in and not yet ready to be taken out? Had he started watching the pretty girls in their poplin dresses, who walked the sidewalks with ice-cream cones or sodas in those long summer hours of evening before dusk? He'd made a name for himself in that small town, rising above what his father had managed---did the girls notice?
Did he meet Jacob and Tobias at the grain elevators when they hauled in their father's field corn? Was it a friendship of half hours spent chewing and spitting tobacco back behind the silos, of three word sentences about the sky and the weather and the price of wheat? Did Jacob and Tobias say that if he cared some time, he could come to church? Did he squint his blue eyes over the grain wagons and parched earth and say, Maybe, though me and Jesus ain't had much business since my mama stopped taking me to Sunday school? When they laughed, was it good natured or uneasy?
How did he and Celesta first meet? Maybe Jacob and Tobias said he might as well come over for supper one night, have a good woman's cooking rather than always doing for himself? Did he say he didn't mind tinned beans and his own cornbread, but anyway, yes, he thought he just might? Did he go home to wash first, change his sweat-stained shirt and his Carhartts for something decent? Was he suddenly nervous when he parked his truck in front of the farmhouse way out at the other end of the county? Could he smell the beef and the noodles and the fresh bread from the porch? Could he hear Jacob and Tobias out in the barn with their father, discussing a heifer that might calve that night? Did something bitter and lonely turn over in his belly? When he went around back to greet the men, did he get a glimpse of Celesta through the kitchen window, or did he see her for the first time when all four of them came in from the barn together, leaving their boots in the mudroom? Did he know he would marry her when she looked up, her face flushed, from the pan of bitter lettuce she was wilting with vinegar and sugar and bacon fat?
Did his heart melt? Did his soul threaten to swim out of him, or did he simply think, yes, there she is, the girl I've been looking for? Did Jacob and Tobias see what was happening between him and their sister? Did they see Celesta's eyes light, her pupils dilate, her hand reach for her wayward curls, damp with steam from the boiling noodles? If they didn't see it, did their father? Did their mother? Or was love the last thing on their minds for Celesta, since she was only fifteen?
When they married at the courthouse six months later, just the two of them, secretly, did Celesta write a one and an eight on a scrap of paper and slip it in her shoe so that she wouldn't be lying when she told the judge she was over eighteen? What was she feeling as she stood there beside him, putting her life in his hands, swearing to honor and obey?
What was she thinking? How thrilling was it, to throw off her childhood, to say yes, to quit school, to become a woman and a wife? Did her mother cry when he drove her out to the farm to deliver their good news? Did her father stammer, as gap-mouthed as a bass? Was it her brothers who first said congratulations, or did they, too, fail to be happy for them? Did her mother take her aside and say Celesta, when do you think you're due? Did Celesta say, Mama, I'm not pregnant, I'm in love? Did her mother say, Oh, girl, what have you done?
How long did the giddy bliss of washing his work clothes and cooking him dinner last? For how many months did her heart thrill at the mystery of him, this good-looking man, this hard worker, this serious and often-silent husband? For how long did she wake with butterflies in her stomach at the thought of another day as his wife? Did she go out on the front porch of the yellow house with a cup of coffee on some mornings, after her husband had already left for the grain elevators, to catch her girlfriends as they walked to the high school? Did they stop and talk, clutch their books to their chests, turn their toes in saddle shoes with jealousy? Did she light a cigarette and sigh and say she would probably be pregnant before she knew it, and ask, with only the slightest hint of condescension, who was taking whom to prom? Did her girlfriends love her and hate her for how she'd leapt from girlhood to womanhood without them? Did Celesta revel in it, their jealousy and admiration? Would she rise from the porch steps and say, I better go in, I've got breakfast dishes to do, and I'm making a chocolate cheesecake for dessert tonight, who knows if it'll turn out right?
What kind of lovers were they? What did their skin and their sweat smell like? When it was over, who lay awake watching the other sleep? Was it Celesta? Was it him?
Was she more surprised than hurt or angry the first time he hit her? Did it come out of nowhere, that first time he popped her in the mouth, that first time she tasted the copper of her own blood? Did she stand in the living room, blinking, confused, touching her split lip and looking with an odd sense of wonder at the bright red staining her fingertips? Did she say, I'm sorry, please, I'm sorry, even if she didn't know what she was sorry for? Was he shocked and sorry, too? Was he the kind of man who swore he'd lost himself, he didn't know what had come over him, it would never happen again? Or was he the kind of man who left immediately, who went down the street to the Eagle Lounge and came home ready to pretend they hadn't fought, he hadn't struck her?
How long does it take love to sour? How did it happen for these two? What did he tell himself in his heart of hearts when he hit his sixteen-year-old wife? Hadn't he loved her? Hadn't his knees gone weak when she turned her pink face up to him? Hadn't she done everything he'd ever asked her to? In the kitchen? In the bedroom? Why did the world go white with fury when he looked her? Why wasn't she pregnant? Who did she tell about him? What did she say when they went to her parents' house for Sunday dinner? What quiet words were passed between mother and daughter at the stove? How was her family planning to humiliate him? What would the whole town say when she packed her overnight valise and left him? Wouldn't they laugh? Wouldn't they say water finds its own level? Wouldn't they say he was just like his father after all? Why does she look at him like a deer caught in headlights every time he walks into a room? Why can't she see that that look on her face of terror and submission is what makes him want to break his knuckles on her cheekbones?
How long can she hide it? From whom? What does the doctor say the first time she goes in for stitches? What does he say the second? Does he say, Celesta, sweet girl, what are you doing to yourself? Or does he say, You're going to have to learn to be less clumsy? What does the nurse say? If the nurse says nothing, what do her eyes say? How frightened is it possible to be? What do you do when you discover that you've made an unfathomable mistake? What does her mother say when Celesta tells her everything? Does Celesta cry, or is she beyond tears? Is she in a land of fear and confusion that is beyond grief? What happens in her heart when her mother says, Try not to make him so angry? Does her mother say, Don't scorch dinner, or ask for money, ever, or nag him when he comes home from work? Does her mother say, Have a baby? Does she say, A baby sometimes makes everything turn out all right? Does she say, Don't tell your father, or the boys, it would eat them up? Does she say, He's young yet, sometimes it takes men a while? What is Celesta feeling as she drives herself home? What is she thinking?
How is Celesta's arm broken? Are the bones broken when he hits her, maybe with something heavy? Maybe when she raises her hands to protect her head? Or is her arm broken when he knocks her down, when she reaches out blindly to break the fall? What do they say to each other as he drives her two towns over to a hospital to have her arm set? Does he weep at the steering wheel? Does he say he promised himself he'd be a better man? Does he say it's not her fault, it's his, she's done nothing wrong? Does he say, with God as his witness he'll never raise his hand again? Does she say, Baby, I love you, please change?
Is it Jacob or Tobias who asks him to go hunting a year later? Is it doe season, or buck? Did Celesta pack apple butter sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for him, before the sun was even up? Did she stand on the front porch, her bathrobe wrapped tight, waving as her husband disappeared up Main Street in her brothers' truck? How long had they been happy again together? Six weeks? Six months? Did he trust Jacob and Tobias? Did he feel his blood alive inside him as dawn broke over the horizon and he and Jacob and Tobias took their well-oiled guns from the rack behind the seats and slung them over their backs? Did they tramp across a harvested cornfield in silence, stalks and husks crunching under boots, the sky turning from indigo to robin's egg above them, their breath coming out in clouds? Did Jacob say they'd set up a deer stand in the trees down by the river where the ground was too wet to till? They were climbing a fencerow, weren't they, the two brothers in front, their sister's husband bringing up the rear? Did he see it coming, their betrayal? Did he see on their faces what they meant to do when they turned to him? Did he have time to panic? Did he have time to put his hands up? Or did the rifle go off as he glanced up at the morning sky, admiring the way clouds marbled the blue, feeling younger and stronger and happier than he had in a long time, thinking of his wife? Did their father know Jacob and Tobias were going to kill Celesta's husband? Surely Celesta didn't, did she? She loved him, for all his faults, she was besotted, still, wasn't she? Do the birds squawk or go silent when the rifle goes off? Does the man, shot through the gut, pitch forward or fall back? Does he writhe and groan, or does he die quietly? What do the brothers say in the still morning, their ears ringing with the rifle's report? Are they afraid of the coroner's assessment? Do they wipe down the rifle and try to position the body? Do they think about the angle of the bullet's entry, or do they know already that the certificate will list the cause of death as an accidental shooting, that the obituary will run on page two, after a page-one article about a tragic hunting accident? Do they consider the fact that their sister will examine the body later, will touch her husband's cold flesh, will mark the wound with her finger? Who stays with the body and who goes for help? What are they thinking? What are they feeling, other than the flood of adrenaline and the ache of their hearts in their chests?