Featured Prose | September 16, 2019
“Salt Land” by Amanda Baldeneaux
Timely and fresh, Amanda Baldeneaux’s Editor’s Prize winner—her first published work— is one of those eerie fiction stories that rhymes with reality. “Hydrolic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is endemic in Colorado,” Baldeneaux says, “with three hundred new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone.” She explores an essential question: how much of our environment are we willing to sacrifice for economic progress, and who gets make that decision?
by Amanda Baldeneaux
Many things lay buried beneath the fields of the Gillie farm: splintered seed dibblers tangled in sorrel root, Ute arrowheads, their edges chipped by plows, snapped cattle bones, and the rusted heads of severed scythe blades and spades. Those things were shallow, no harder to find than the bottle of bourbon Harlan hid beneath the bench seat of his mud-caked truck. Every family in Kester had them, relics revealed with little more than the scratch of an uncut fingernail.
Evaline knew—had always known—it was the deep things that brought ruin if exposed to sunlight: the name of Joanne’s real daddy, the scar on Jake’s cheek, the floor of the ancient seabed beneath the shale. Too long ago to fathom, the sea’s first inhabitants, soft-bodied squids, jellies, and cucumbers, had swum where corn now grew, then died and dissolved into methane and crude oil deep beneath the topsoil and bedrock of the Gillie farm land. Harlan’s family had owned the land long before Evaline came along and discovered the shale.
Before Kestract Oil & Gas gave a damn about the clay-packed tract, the first Gillies mined a living in turnip roots, rutabagas, and collards. The land fought back, and the farmers took to hanging their broken wagon wheels like trophies on the broad sides of the barn, the rims and spokes snapped in the trenches of mud where the Gillies worked themselves into graves forcing greens from the clay-thick ground. The broken wheels still hung there like phases of the moon charted across the peeling paint of the old boards.
With Harlan dead, though, farming was finished. Kestract saw to that, even though Evaline would be blamed. The neighbors didn’t know the brine water had spilled, though, so they busied themselves with other concerns that weren’t their own, like what Evaline should do with Harlan’s remains.
“Bury the body” was the consensus, but on the question of whether it should be in the Presbyterian churchyard—Harlan’s old religion—or the Baptist, Kester remained divided.
“Ashes to ashes,” Evaline took to responding. The way she saw it, Harlan hadn’t left much for her to dispose of, anyway. Pieces of his body had been calling it quits and taking their usefulness with them for as long as she’d been married to him. That would have been be fine, if the elements of Harlan hadn’t taken pieces of the Gillie farm with them each time they packed up and left. His left knee had been the first to go: years of high school track and morning PT in combat boots made that departure inevitable. His knee took the chicken coop with it. Sure, a bad storm had blown in the night and leveled the coop after the doctor declared all the cartilage shot, but over the years, Evaline saw the pattern. By the time Harlan died, there wasn’t much of him left to bury but calcium-bereft bones and the pooling skin draped over them. With the Kestract drilling rig slowly chewing away at the shale beneath the farm now, it only made sense to let Harlan’s bones be burned and ground down, too.
“Burial is God’s way.” This always came after Evaline told neighbors that she meant to cremate Harlan. God forbid anyone in this town might respond with a simple nod and a tending to their own business. Laissez-faire had never been a motto that Kester residents knew how to live by. Hell, Evaline doubted anyone born in Kester could even spell it. She couldn’t, even after three years of French in between her geochemistry courses at Bauxark College. No one had approved of that decision, either—a Kester girl shipped off to study rocks and beakers—where’d her momma gone wrong? She’d have stayed away, too, if not for the anchoring rocks holding the mud of the farm fields in place. And Harlan. As a child, Evaline had spent summers digging quartz and limestone out of the roadside, looking for streaks of crystal in the discard piles cut by bulldozers after the county roads were built. By the time she left for college, Evaline already knew about the shale and what it kept hidden inside.
Beneath was where most of Kester like to keep old things: secrets, bodies, and now the oil and gas that soaked the shale rocks just under the layers of cornstalks and soil. The Gillies had always been a farming family, naming their acreage “Gillies’ Retreat” after the turn their forefathers had made at the first sight of a salt pan stretching across the Utah desert. The risk of cracking open the salt pan’s crust and drowning drove the Gillies back into the delta lands bordering the swamps and the bayous that stretched into the sea further south. After that, the first Gillies were content to homestead the mosquito-filled bog they’d sneered at not six months prior.
The Gillies might have retreated, but at least they hadn’t joined the fraction of settlers nestled forever in the soft mud traps hidden beneath the crusts of salt out West. Those were the ones who didn’t retreat. Those settlers had left the swamps with seeds and spades in hand, following the promise of Zion and fields of ripe, dry soil. In the end, all they’d planted were their own bodies, from which nothing grew, not even stones.
“Retreat” for the Gillies, back then, had meant to run. With Harlan, though, it’d been a place. Now that he’d died, Evaline prepared to run again, and not just because she’d delivered Harlan cold to the crematorium twenty miles east and driven him back in a cardboard box on her lap, earning more scorn from her former friends.
What she did was not their business, but most Kester residents would argue that the fate of a soul is everyone’s business. Evaline never could get a straight answer out of one of those damned evangelicals about how the buried dead, with nothing but pewter coffin pins to show for all their living, would manage to rise their mud-packed remnants on Judgement Day.
Evaline had been out at the cemetery laying flowers on her momma and papa’s stones when Howard Mortuary came to move the bodies buried in the south field. All of them had died back before the century even turned, and there was nothing left in their holes but a few screws and rusted trinkets. The mortician boxed up each bit and reburied the junk, with all the pomp of burying dead royals, on the other side of the freshly paved state highway, its new lanes the gleaming black of polished shoes. Evaline had watched the “funerals” for the reburials through the smudged window of Kester Café, wondering how those folks who now fit in shoeboxes were supposed to up and wake with Christ’s second coming.
That magical thinking—the belief in walking corpses and ghosts who cared about the preservation of their coffin pins—was why she’d left Kester in the first place. She’d gone after graduating Kester High and had received her geochemistry degree as each of her brothers shipped off to the army and seminary, in that order. She’d never intended to come back here, but Harlan Gillie always had a nice smile, and Kestract Oil & Gas was willing to pay heartily for her knowledge of regional minerals. Her daddy was ashamed that she’d got all that schooling just to marry a bog pit farmer, but not nearly as ashamed as her momma after learning that Evaline had no plans to baptize her daughter or son. Harlan had talked her into it, though, and Evaline’s momma had gleefully stuffed two-year-old Joanne and six-month-old Jake into white ruffled gowns for christening. The same baptismal font where the preacher turned his hands into scoops to speckle the baby’s heads with water still stood, a little dustier, near the pulpit during Harlan’s memorial service forty years later. Harlan himself sat neatly in an urn on the communion table, the most polished he’d ever presented himself. That didn’t stop the whispers during the service, though. What could be drawn up from ash? Even Jesus needed something to work with.
Evaline found everyone’s over-keen interest in the dead suspect, but she kept that to herself. At the least the chorus of disappointment over Harlan’s cremation paused—just briefly—the speculation over who among themselves had betrayed Kester’s code of keeping buried things buried. Some Judas among them had signed a sale of mineral rights over to Kestract Oil & Gas, forcing everyone into a pool that stripped their rights to royalties as punishment for not signing in the first place. It had landed a stadium-sized well pad where the cemetery used to be. Maybe if Kestract hadn’t chosen to drill over land claimed by the dead, the town would have been more considering, but people here believed there were some things not even money should mess with.
Everyone suspected Evaline—Kestract shill in her white hard hat and unladylike boots—of the signature that stole their Veterans Memorial Parkway, their cemetery south lawn, and Kester Memorial Gardens gazebo, where hotdogs were roasted on Decoration Day. A new gazebo was almost finished over the relocated grounds, but it wasn’t the same. The worst grievance, though, was yet to be discovered by the townspeople. Evaline hoped they wouldn’t know until she was settled in the Aspen Grove Retirement Home out of state, near where Jake lived. She’d signed the lease on the place a week ago, after Kestract closed on the final acres of the Gillie farm. In two days, Evaline would hold the condo key and be far away by the time Kester found out about the saltwater spill, 500 gallons leached from the shale and now seeping into the fragile ecosystem of the soil, devouring each pill bug, earthworm, and protozoa it passed. Nothing would live in its wake; a rapture of microbes.
Saltwater spilled from a frack water pipe meant a cocktail of salts meant to stay buried in its confines of shale, hydrochloric acids, and methanol, all immune to the borders of the Gillie farm’s fences. By the time the neighbors’ fields started dying, the documents that forced the pooling would be public record, and the signer who had sold all of Kester’s mineral rights to Kestract would face their reckoning, if they were still here. Evaline wouldn’t be; the movers would have every last box out by the end of the day.
Evaline cracked her knuckles. Her joints had grown stiff, and the fall rains didn’t help. She set her coffee on the porch rail and retrieved the urn by her feet.
“Last coffee?” Jake came out and sat in the rocker behind his mother.
“I’m not dying.”
“I meant at home.” Jake twirled a spoon in his mug. “Don’t spill Dad.”
“Wouldn’t he like that?” Evaline asked. “He was the one professed he’d never leave.”
“You like it here.” Jake grinned. “I see you for what you are, Ms. Kester County.”
“You rummaging in my things?”
Jake dug in his pocket and held up a black-and-white photograph of Evaline in an embroidered sash and a dress sewn from plumes of netting and silk. A tiara gleamed on her head. “No wonder you caught Daddy’s eye.”
“Let me see that.” Evaline snatched the photo. Her momma had spent weeks sewing the dress for the county fair pageant.
“You’re going to take him?” Jake nodded toward the urn and stretched his long legs, his knees almost to his chin when he set his feet down to rock.
“It’s not Gillie land anymore.”
“It’ll always be Gillie land. There’s enough of them buried out there.”
“Amazing any of them are buried there. Do you know how many bulldozers were busted digging graves in this bowl of clay? Fools don’t learn.” Evaline set the urn on the table beside Jake. “Ashes or buried, it all ends up the same.”
“Spoken like a scientist.”
“Am I wrong?” Evaline ran her finger around the lip of the urn’s lid. Out across the fallow fields, truck engines roared to life, melting the autumn’s night-wash of frost off windshields. “Can’t stay here,” Evaline said. “Who’d find me if I died in my bed?”
Evaline laughed. “I don’t have those anymore.”
Jake waved his hand. “Small town. Give it a week.”
“It’s been years.”
“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t gossip.” Jake leaned the rocker back against the siding.
“Didn’t you come here to help me pack?” Evaline tugged at the collar of her quilted coat. Jake didn’t know about the forced pooling or the salt spill. Evaline had always worked to keep her kids out of Kestract business, but then Joanne grew up and left to work for them, too. “Where’s your sister?”
“Here soon. Her helicopter got delayed on the rig. Winds or something. I don’t know, it was hard to hear.”
“The funeral could have waited a day.” Jake dredged the sugar crystals from the bottom of his coffee.
No, Evaline thought, it couldn’t.
No matter to Evaline what Kester thought about what she might or might not have done, though. Kester had been dying for years, since the highway went in and the train depot closed. What difference did it make if death came by economic or ecological disaster? Kestract had already put fat checks in the Kester County School District’s budget and finished the reconstruction of the mayor’s white-columned mansion. Kestract was life support, buying time God hadn’t granted. The bars were full. Boys who would have dropped out of high school and shelled peanuts now earned upward of sixty grand a year working the well pads. It was one of them, no doubt, who’d spilled the wastewater in the first place, but Evaline couldn’t bring herself to ask for names. Unlike the rest of the town, she believed knowing “who” just made everything worse. (Evaline and Constance Wimberley used to be friends. Knowing “who” put an end to it.) The spill had happened; the water had leached as she stood there, soaking into soybean fields and bog mud, killing everything on its way toward Kester proper. They already hated her for signing the forms—or so they figured she had—and nothing she said would make right the salt lake burning up plant roots and rabbit holes as the seconds passed. All she had to do was finish packing the house. Then Kestract and Kester could eat her retirement dust.
Evaline had almost laughed at the funeral yesterday, seeing Harlan in church for the first time in years. His irreverence had started simply, with skipping communion and the temptation of a spoonful of wine. He couldn’t even be trusted with a thimble of booze in the minister’s hand. His liver had already left him, taking off with the farm’s east lot, the departures always in pairs. The day Harlan collapsed in Campbells’ Meat Market, they’d sold a parcel to a cattle rancher next door to pay for Harlan’s appointments with the therapist for PTSD. Harlan was too proud to even file the insurance claim; his old buddy worked in the office on Main, and god forbid he see the request sent in from a shrink. The therapist kept Harlan’s mind around a while longer, but the liver went quickly, trailing its stench of bourbon and beer down the road with its bags. Liver be damned. It was the loss of fidelity that’d been the hardest for Evaline to take lying down. And Constance Wimberley, friend for the ages, had the nerve to sit not two pews behind her at the service. Evaline regretted not throwing his ash in her face. Constance had never gotten over Harlan staying with Evaline. She was the one who whispered loudest that Evaline had signed those papers herself, selling out all of Kester out of spite. In middle school, Constance and Evaline had been home ec partners, fixing each other’s stitches on skirts sewn with fabric too ugly to ever wear. Evaline didn’t ask for names anymore. She wished she’d never asked, “Who?”
When not bowed to pray, the Kester women spent Harlan’s funeral chattering, whispering. Well. Half those women had their first babies six months after marriage; not that Evaline could judge there. Joanne still didn’t know, and Evaline intended to keep it that way. Harlan had been willing to claim the baby, Kestract had already offered Evaline a job, and Evaline’s daddy had suffered a stroke the summer before. Marrying Harlan and moving back home had made the most sense at the time. Evaline had never even bothered to tell Joanne’s real daddy that she was pregnant. Let what’s dead lie, she always said, and she meant it both figuratively and literally.
The phrase crossed her mind again during Harlan’s service, as the preacher recounted the resurrection of Christ. Out across City Park, a drilling rig roared, rumbling its way onto the highway. Evaline squirmed in her seat as everyone watched to see if she would blush, display some semblance of shame over the sellout. Wouldn’t they like the truth, Evaline thought, clasping and unclasping her hands. None of the people in the pews had even spoken to her since the city council declared forced pooling in effect and the first big trucks puttered down the crumbling country roads into the town, throwing chunks of asphalt with their double-stacked wheels. At least Kestract had paid for the roads to be repaved, which was more than the city council had bothered to accomplish in the past ten years.
As children, Evaline and the women now fussing about the lack of a casket and the rig crews filling the diners and the shade of Evaline’s black hat had all sat together in the Presbyterian church, passing notes back and forth about which altar boy had the handsomest face. The answer had always been Harlan.
The Presbyterian church was shuttered when Evaline’s kids were in middle school, as all of Kester migrated here, to the new brick Baptist church that Evaline thought looked more like a barn than a sanctuary. There hadn’t been enough Jesus in Presbyterianism to fill these women, her old friends. There wasn’t enough of their husbands to fill them, either, Evaline figured, as she eyed both Constance and Ida McCleves down the aisle. Ida had run through three husbands, the new ones in bed before the old ones were out the door. Evaline knew. She’d been to two bridal showers and every baby shower before Ida stopped calling. It wasn’t Evaline’s fault that Ida’s third husband died in that explosion. Someone hadn’t tapped a well right and then lit a cigarette beside it. Ida smiled now at the minister’s words, hips and hat brim wide as the length of a pew, tutting her tongue over every hymn selection Eveline had made. If Jake hadn’t been there, squeezing Evaline’s elbow, she would have had a mind to slap the fabric flowers off Ida’s head.
“Ye are the salt of the Earth,” the preacher finished and stared directly at Evaline. she squirmed in her satin-lined dress.
But that was yesterday. Today, the sun rose on a world without Harlan in it, the service finished and the wake dishes washed and stored. Evaline clutched Harlan’s urn, morning light filling the small chip of a diamond on her ring. He’d offered to buy her a bigger stone years ago, but what sense was there in that? She’d laughed in his face, warning him not to touch the ring he had given her back when she was still just a girl with a waistline no bigger than a chicken’s plucked neck, a twelve-week Joanne in her belly, a college degree, and a job panning the dirt around Kester County just like she’d done since she was a child. Harlan couldn’t have afforded a bigger ring, anyway. Evaline always made more money working for Kestract in a year than Harlan could make in a decade trying to squeeze fruits from the soggy fields. She’d never rubbed that in his face, though. Not that it mattered.
She sat on the porch beside Jake, sipping coffee, calculating the viscosity of saltwater over waterlogged fields and dried cornstalks. She had hours now, maybe less, before the spill went public. Roses grew in front of the porch between the remains of lilac bushes she’d planted after her wedding—Harlan killed those with overwatering last spring. Blight set in, killing the enormous plants, their stalks blackened like someone set a blow torch to each. Harlan took everything.
A vegetable garden sat frost-crisp out back. The soil wouldn’t survive the salt or any of the other chemicals mixed into the wastewater brew. Sodium and chloride, chromium, cobalt, lead. Evaline recited the metals drawn up from the bedrock and steeped into the frack fluid in her head. As a child, reciting the periodic table had calmed her, made her feel infused with elemental properties: strength, resilience, the ability to dissolve completely and then return whole. She looked at her coffee, wondering if the tap water was already contaminated. They were on well water out here, and all of Kester on alluvial aquifers. She’d warned Harlan about this before he signed. She’d given him statistics and historical accident records till she was spent. She’d screamed at him that it was her job to know what a horizontal drill could do: she’d seen the full gamut up and down the coast. Spills, explosions, poisoned water and air. “Some things should stay in the ground,” she’d said. But leaving things there never made anyone money. He’d signed the papers, anyway.
Evaline handed the photograph back to Jake.
“Think I’ll keep this one,” he said and tucked it into his pocket. “Brody will get a kick out it. Grandma fluffed up like a queen.”
Evaline stood, studying the coffee in her mug. Was that a fleck of aluminum? She dumped her mug over the porch rail, steam rising off the mulch. “Coffee’s stale.”
Jake sipped his. “Tastes fine.”
Evaline took the cup from him anyway. “Better safe than sorry.”
“I’ll brew another pot. Don’t drink any more tap water.” She hooked the mugs by the handles and pushed through the screen door into the kitchen and took a bottle of water from the fridge. When the Gillies first chose this land, there’d been a stream running through the property, a tributary of the river that filtered the water through stones and silt before flowing past the original clapboard cabin. The stream had dried up in the ’70s, back when canals were dug into farm fields and the water bled down to a trickle. Now all that remained on the property was a thick slice of mud snaking from the peanut field and out into a drainage ditch alongside the gravel road. The ground here had always been muddy, with swamps bordering the towns to the south and the preferable farmland up north, where old oceans had left crushed mollusks and minerals composting in the rich, black soil. Here, Evaline and Harlan had fought clay since Harlan got the land from his grandfather. The clay came from the shale beneath it, and all of the shale from decomposed feldspar, mica, and quartz. The mud and the clay had compressed over millions of years, hardening into layered rocks permeated with the crushed and liquefied bones of the creatures who’d lived here before. Evaline wondered how long before the dead Gillies became gasoline, too.
The clay didn’t detour Harlan, the only brother willing to take over the farm. The ink was still wet on the title when Harlan carried his bride across the farmhouse’s creaking threshold. Clay soil didn’t much matter when pasturing cattle and sheep, as his grandfather had done, declaring his ancestors fools. Harlan, though, wanted things rooted.
“You could mold a man outta this stuff,” he’d say, trying to run a plough through the field back when his hair had been brown. His grandpa laughed when the plow snapped off its handle and pointed at the museum of broken tools on the barn wall. Harlan’s father hadn’t even tried to farm—he’d sold small appliances door-to-door down the coast.
Evaline fitted a new filter into the pot and filled it with coffee. Out in the Gillie graveyard, the bones of those who’d retreated here back in the 1800s still slept, rotting away. Maybe the Baptists were right: soil like this, the clay, could fill in the spaces between ribs and make the dead whole again. Like rhodium: resistant to corrosion and capable of converting back to its elemental form after exposure to high heat. Maybe they all could come back: Papa, Momma, her brothers, Harlan, and the baby she’d lost in between Joanne and Jake. All of Kester, way back to its founding, could be remolded out of Kester clay, fired in a kiln, and set to walk again.
Far afield, a pop of metal from the rig startled her. There could be no new bodies from this clay now, she thought, picturing the saltwater worming its way back into the ground.
“Joanne’s here.” Jake pulled the screen door open. “Movers, too. I’ll go pack up the shed.”
“Wait—” Evaline called, but Jake was gone. He did this on purpose, trying to get mother and daughter to talk. Someone had to be the peacemaker in a family of grudge holders. A car door slammed, followed by the rumble of oversized tires on gravel. Harlan would hate this much noise. He hated the churn of the drilling rig, even after the sound walls went up. He hated how the towers lit up like lightning strikes that never flicked off, keeping him up at night. Then the smells. Diesel so strong his migraines returned. He drank again to relieve the headaches. To sleep. Then the phone calls when he needed money: a quarter more of an acre. Half an acre. Whole. Evaline bit her tongue every time he reached for a bottle of Advil or beer.
She doubted that Harlan could have imagined that the expanse of acreage he’d inherited back in 1947 would shrink as much as it had. Hell, how could either of them imagine how much they’d shrink, too; bits of the body sold off to age like parcels of property at auction.
“He lived hard,” the pastor had preached over Harlan’s urn. “But he died easy.”
“He died easy.” The coroner told her that too, and the phrase was repeated by the few in town who’d respected Harlan enough to stop by with potted lilies or cold cuts and cheese trays. Easy dying: the consolation for widows whose husbands passed in the night. No cancer, no stroke. No chest-seizing heart attack or race to the county ER. Harlan went easy, unlike how he’d lived. Sometime in the night, as Evaline slept in a floral gown beside him, Harlan slipped out. He disappeared without so much as a “Goodbye, darlin’,” the most he’d ever said each morning when he left for the fields, mug brimming with coffee and brandy in hand.
She leaned against the porch rail, wishing he hadn’t taken her lilacs with him. She’d have liked to take a cutting with her to the condo, but a rose twig stuck in a bucket of sand would have to do. She liked roses well enough, but the lilacs had been her mother’s. Where she’d grown them, out back of Evaline’s papa’s store on Main, had since been paved into a parking lot. Paving everything, Evaline thought. One more obstacle for the dead to overcome in their rising.
She dumped the rest of the coffee into the trash; she wouldn’t need it tomorrow. The can would work well for the rose canes. At least he’d left those, if nothing else. Now, with the salt spill, he’d take the whole damn farm, even after his death. Evaline closed her eyes. She would have stayed, if he’d let her, if he hadn’t insisted on signing the papers.
But he had, and Kester would see that it was Harland who’d done it, and they’d say she had made him, the minion of Kestract. Or worse, they’d believe the truth for once: Harlan Gillie had sold Kester with the swipe of his pen. The last of him would be gone, then: his reputation. Evaline couldn’t bear it.
So senior living, a condo in a retirement community, just a few steps from a nursing home , where old folks like her went for their bodies to finish their wearing out. No forwarding address to be left. She’d go off grid. Underground. Whatever it took to keep the town’s respect for Harlan intact. Her own for him was already so tattered. And yet. There’d never been a fight big enough to dissolve the marriage; she loved him too much. Or Kester loved him too much, and she wouldn’t share. As long as he was hers, she’d won. The handsome altar boy. The hometown farmer and regional peanut king, savior of soil, war veteran, Elks Club President. Each feather in his cap a star in her crown. No one could touch Evaline, no matter what wrong they thought she did, as long as Harlan was hers. Plus, his damned smile.
She wondered if a day would ever pass when she wouldn’t catch herself crying for him being gone. Point three milligrams of sodium in each teardrop. Another salt spill of his making.
Evaline and Harlan had other plans before he died, but he took those with him, too. “Blood from a turnip,” Evaline’s mother had said when Evaline told her that Harlan planned to sell the cattle and farm the Gillie land. “It’s valuable land,” Evaline said, knowing already what Kestract would pay for it if she found oil anywhere near it. She’d been wrong only in that the price had gone higher than even she could have imagined.
She touched the gray pencil marks on the wallpaper beside the refrigerator. Joanne and Jake, each one’s height marked in meters up through their high school years, when both refused to stand against the wall with a ruler stuck across the tops of their heads anymore. In the corner of the floor, saturated into the tongue-and-groove oak planks, was a round purple stain from the jar of pickled beets she’d thrown at Harlan’s head when he told her about the affair. First the affair. Then his death. The quagmire of their marriage, of the town. All of it inescapable. Here were the two worn bowls on the floor where feet had stood in front of the stove every night for a hundred years, stirring, stirring. Upstairs, the room where Joanne was born, and out back two placentas planted beneath grafts of loblolly pines. Somewhere out east, Joanne’s real father, oblivious. There were many things Evaline regretted.
Joanne rapped on the door.
Evaline called, “Since when you need an invitation?”
Joanne stepped in, her tennis shoes clean and white like they were bought yesterday. They probably were. “What’s that?” She pointed at the coffee machine spitting into the brown-tinged pot.
“Don’t start,” Evaline said.
“Where’s the one I sent you?”
“The thing with a thousand buttons?” Evaline opened a cabinet and pulled glasses out onto the counter to pack. “Your father fixed this one last month.”
“The espresso machine does not have a thousand buttons.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Evaline handed Joanne a mug. “He had to prove things could be fixed. Air conditioners, baby birds.”
“Glad you’re home, Joanne.”
Joanne took the mug but wrapped it in a sheet of packing paper. “The movers are outside. Have you even started prepping?”
“I taped those boxes together.”
“They charge extra to pack it for you.”
“Since when does an upcharge bother you?” Evaline handed Joanne another cup. “When is Kestract’s cleanup here?”
“They’re sending a crew,” Joanne said. “Don’t worry about it.” She reached for tape. “You didn’t have to retire, you know. You’re too young for a nursing home.”
“Retirement community. I can’t stay here.”
“So, work up at headquarters.”
“I’ve done all I should.” Evaline sipped the new brew. “It’s 500 gallons, Jo. There’s mercury in it.”
“I said they’re coming. Jesus, Mom, I just got here. It’s not like I dumped the water, personally.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“You didn’t do it, either.”
“Have you had coffee?” Evaline turned off the pot.
“Not enough.” Joanne grabbed another mug from the cabinet. “Should have gotten Styrofoam for moving day.” She examined the mug, dried glue smears sealing the handle to the cup. “Daddy’s work?”
“I told you,” Evaline said. “He had to fix everything.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Evaline tore tape off a dispenser with her teeth. “He did his best.”
“AA would have been better.”
Evaline closed the box. “You know they used to grow cotton here?”
Joanne shook her head.
“Destroyed the soil. Dust Bowl came. Then cattle. Weeds. Harlan always had to prove something could be brought back from the brink.”
“But you’ve given up on it.”
“I wouldn’t call moving closer to grandkids ‘giving up.’ Jesus, Jo, did you forget how to have a decent conversation with another person while out on that platform?”
“I’m just saying, Daddy would never have left this place. You run out the moment he’s gone.”
“I’m sure Kestract would lease you back the house if you want it that bad.”
“It’d go to weeds, again,” Joanne said. “Not the same without Daddy here.”
“I don’t want to fight with you, Jo. You haven’t been here five minutes, and all I want is your help putting things in boxes and taping them shut. Can you do that?”
“I tried to come earlier.”
“The funeral couldn’t wait.” Evaline threw open a cabinet beneath the sink.
“Daddy wasn’t going anywhere.”
“But the spill was. Is.” Evaline began tossing boxes of trash bags and parchment paper onto the floor.
“Screw this town. What’s it done for you lately, anyway?”
“Stay here, screw here. Which is it, Jo?” Evaline straightened her back. “I need to speak to the movers.” She pushed the door and went out onto the porch. Harlan still sat on the table.
Evaline watched as the movers rolled a furniture dolly down a metal ramp. Stray seed and corn kernels crunched under boots. There’d be no corn next year. No beans or beets or even turnips, which Harlan had grown out of spite toward Evaline’s momma. With the land all sold, oil rigs could move even closer, keep pumping the dying land like defibrillators.
Evaline surveyed the dead lilacs and then looked past them.
Out across the field, the saltwater crept like fingers out of a grave, sliding through the plow furrows. Evaline swallowed. She’d found dozens of sites for Kestract to drill, but all of them had been far away from her home; she hadn’t wanted them here, exploiting the cracks in the Gillie farm’s shale. Harlan, with his soaked liver and stubborn pride, had left blight in his wake every way he could. She considered knocking the ashes across the porch, sweeping him under the boards to lie forever with the bones of raccoons and rabbits. She picked up the urn, felt the metal ribs running from lid to foot like furrows.
In geologyit was“fissility,” the ability of rock to split along planes of weakness. It happened in marriages, too. Friendships. Whole towns. Fissility happened when the clay particles that first formed the shale aligned during initial compaction. Evaline shook her head. The only way for things to break was to line them up nice in the first place. She looked out over the land. She’d been so busy since Harlan died that she hadn’t had a chance to go further than the length of the driveway to the road; she’d like to see it one last time, before Kestract owned it forever.
“Be right back,” Evaline called. “Left some tools out in the field.”
“I’ll come,” Joanne said. “I’m supposed to be working while I’m here. Checking the site counts as work, right?”
“Boxing plates counts as work.”
Joanne rolled her eyes and handed Evaline the truck keys off the hook from inside the door.
“You never do listen.” Evaline turned the truck key over in her hand, feeling for an imprint of Harlan’s thumb in the worn plastic. The truck door screeched as she opened it.
“Hold him.” Evaline handed Harlan’s remains to Joanne. The engine fought turning over, just like Harlan on mornings after drinking at the Elks Club bar. It heaved into gear, and Evaline turned off the drive into the grass.
Away from the house, geese swept the plow furrows of shorn cornfields, rooting for kernels spit from the thresher before fall. In late September, when the stalks were tall, she’d cut corridors through the fields, tracing with her finger and the tractor’s tires the design Harlan had drawn years ago on yellowed paper. The maze had been his idea, something for the kids. He’d sketched the first maze when Joanne and Jacob were little enough to sit beneath the kitchen table at dinner, passing rolls back and forth in their fort buttressed by table and chair legs. Each year he’d updated the design, adding more corridors and forced turnarounds. Dead ends.
“You remember the mazes?” Evaline asked.
“I remember getting lost in one. Took you an hour to realize I was gone.”
“Should I have tied a balloon to your wrist?”
“I liked balloons.” Joanne turned the vent toward her, her nails white-tipped and glossy at the ends of her long, slender fingers.Both Evaline and Harland had large, panhandle palms. Harlan’s were strong; he’d dug his pencil as deeply into paper as he’d dug plow chisels into the resisting fields. In winter, after the maze-goers were gone, the candy booths closed, and Harlan too blind and blurred to drive the tractor, Evaline had returned, cropping the field for the last time, leaving what fell for the geese.
“Your daddy never could do anything in a simple line.” She drove into the ruts in the field. “Couldn’t even till straight.” She sideswiped a puddle.
They drove out to the back line. Despite the cold morning, barehanded workers clipped wire threads from poles, fencing that Harlan had unspooled and stapled himself back before they were married. Constance Wimberley’s son, Ronnie, worked in the crew. He snapped a line, severing a section of fence. Evaline stared at his bearded face, searching, as always, for Harlan.
Months prior, the rig workers drove in bulldozers. They drove in fenceposts long as telephone poles on the backs of flatbed trucks, and mosquito-tongued machines whose reels of cable tickled the dust of the bones of the first Gillies, buried a century ago here, their wooden crosses as gone as their bodies.
“Red-tailed hawk,” Evaline said, pointing at a bird perched on a fence pole down field, scanning for mice. “Remind me to mark it in the book.”
“What book?” Joanne leaned, trying to spot the bird.
“The book,” Evaline said. “I told you. Your daddy took to bird-watching before he died.”
Sometime in old age, they’d become people who wrote down in notebooks the kinds of birds they saw. They’d puzzle out the species and genus of birds by the angle of wing tips and degree of slope to the beaks.
“Getting old is easier than getting young,” Harlan had said. “’Cept for the dying part.”
“You’d be dying less fast if you’d finished your drinks slower.”
“I survived war,” he’d answered. “Everything else is dying slow.”
For all his pain, Harlan had liked his birds. He drank less the days he heard meadowlarks singing from the fenceposts or owls calling out in the pre-dawn dark. Leasing the land and selling the mineral rights beneath it had meant money—his money—would be there for things like trips to ID birdsong in Costa Rica and haul long scopes into Colorado forests, hoping for glimpses of snowy owls in flight.
With the money, they’d get an RV, drive far enough away that they couldn’t smell the diesel or see the lights on the drill glaring all through the night. They’d visit Jake and his family.
Harlan hadn’t lived long enough to hold a check from the lease, though.
“I need you to know something.” Joanne took a cigarette out of her pocket.
“You started smoking?” Evaline tried to snatch it out of her hand.
“Why’d you bring Daddy’s urn out here?” Joanne asked, dodging her mother.
“If I left him, the movers might pack him.”
“You’re going to spread him at the old graveyard.” Joanne lit the cigarette.
Joanne sucked, the end of the cigarette glowing red. “I know about Daddy,” she said. She cracked the window.
Evaline flicked the wiper blades, clearing frost and fog off the glass. “Know what?”
“That he raised me as his, even though I wasn’t.”
Evaline stopped the car, the sound wall of the drill site rising in front of them like a padded fortress.
“Where did you hear that?”
“When I came last,” Joanne said, eyes fixed on the dash. “When he was in the hospital. Probably the morphine made him do it, but at least he was finally honest.” She turned to Evaline. “That’s more than you ever were.”
“Harlan is your daddy,” Evaline said. “He raised you. That’s all that matters.”
“No,” Joanne said. “It’s not.”
“That your cleanup crew?” Evaline pointed at a line of trucks rumbling down the back road toward the drill pad. “Where’s the clean dirt?”
“I found my real dad.”
Evaline started the engine and drove up to the walls. “That’s your real dad in your lap.”
“Edgar Stills. You slept with him in college. He’s retired. A rig worker out in the gulf. Has three kids and never knew I existed. Didn’t believe it till the DNA test came back. You think I wouldn’t want to know I have two other brothers and a sister?”
“You couldn’t make the funeral but you had time for all that?”
“That’s your response?”
“Yes,” Evaline said. “Satisfied?” She put the truck in park.
“No.” Joanne set the urn in the middle and threw open the door. “My mother lied to me my whole life. You are my real mother, right?” She dragged on the cigarette, then tossed it in the mud beside a collection of spent butts abandoned by drillers. “Least he was honest with me. That’s backbone you never had.”
Evaline stiffened. Harland had used the same words when he argued for signing the lease and she’d resisted, anticipating the fight from the town. “Have some backbone.”
“Morning, Ms. Gillie. Mrs. Gillie.” A man in a hard hat patted the hood of the truck. “Heard you were coming.”
“Heard we had an accident,” Joanne said. “Too bad. We’d had a clean record here.”
The man handed Joanne a hard hat and extended another to Evaline through the open door. “Crew will get it contained in no time. I can show you the extent of the spill,” he said. “It won’t reach the house.”
“What’s it matter?” Evaline asked. “Aren’t you tearing it down tomorrow, anyway?”
The man smiled. “Not my paygrade, ma’am.”
“Wednesday,” Joanne said. “In case moving takes longer than expected.” She turned to Evaline. “I signed the papers.”
Evaline took the hat. “I’ll be a minute.”
“Movers will need you,” Joanne said. “Don’t wait for me.” She followed the man behind the sound wall.
In the pickup, Harlan’s urn rested in the dent on the bench seat. The dent was deep, pressed round from years of Evaline’s widening bottom. She shut off the truck, her body suddenly hot and spots dancing at the corner of her eyes. She glared at Harlan’s urn. He’d found one more thing to take with him before dying: Joanne. She felt her blood drain into her stomach. Her fingers went numb, and she flexed, trying to shake out the tingles. “How could you?” she asked.
Joanne had been right; Evaline did want to scatter his ashes at the graves of his kin. But now.
She tucked Harlan under her coat and slid out of the cab, grabbing gloves from the dash as she went. She set the hard hat on her head and trailed after the man and Joanne, then veered away from the direction of the incoming crew and toward the drill. A tanker truck, sloshing with water, waited beyond the sound wall. The enclosure was unfinished, but Evaline had watched it knitting closer together each day, swallowing the back field whole. The tanker’s reservoir vibrated as generators revved, ready to blast the fresh frack water through cracked shale and deep into the broken Gillie ground. The drill exploited the weakest planes of the bedrock.
Evaline went cold, seeing everything in her life as a drill: Constance Wimberley, Harlan’s dereliction to drink, her own decisions to let some things stay buried and others rise up, poisoning everything in their revelation. She’d led Kestract up and down the coast, signed a lease that ruined ancestral fishing shores, made farmland sprout pump jacks; she’d been foolish to think they wouldn’t close in around her home, too. No place or thing existed in isolation, Evaline realized.
She rounded the tanker and tugged the worn leather work gloves high on her wrists. She climbed the ladder, the rungs slippery with frozen spray. In her old work coat, hard hat, and boots, she’d look just like field crew from behind, her ponytail tucked down the back of her shirt. Evaline unscrewed the fill cap and poured Harlan inside.
“Here’s your backbone,” she said as the ash dust plumed up in her face. “Two square miles of rigid shale.” She emptied the last dregs of Harlan into the tank. When the water fired, the fractures it made would fuse Harlan’s burned bones with the bedrock of the farm, forever. He would seep up through the cracks and into the soil. He would rise, whole, like the day she met him. The way she wanted him to stay.
She resealed the tube and climbed back down the tanker. She left Joanne and drove back to the house, the empty urn by her feet.
Out in the field, a tanker backfired like a gun, and the geese, no strangers to the sound of shot, erupted off the sleeping fields, honking. They lifted together like a congregation rising and soared away to other fields. The survivors of winter and the long flight south would circle back like the loops in the maze Harlan had drawn each year, like the pattern of forward and backward momentum that was living and dying and living again. They’d pass back through come summer, after the salt-stained soil had been scooped out in chunks and the ground filled in with dust and crushed rock from some foreign place. Spring would sow young cornstalks and grass in the dead roots of the old, when Harlan would flow into the veins of unfurling green stems, rooting like he’d always wanted.
She parked beside the moving truck, stepping out and sinking into the clay; the ground tried to keep what it wanted.
“Momma, where’s Daddy’s urn?” Jake handed a box to the mover.
“I scattered him,” Evaline said.
Jake nodded. “I figured you would.” He went back inside, the storm door slamming behind him.
“Buried you,” Evaline said to the field. “Now tell the old ladies to hush.” She wiped the mud off her boots on the steps.
Evaline went inside. She pushed aside boxes to the wall where the height marks marched up like ants. She took a knife from a box and dug into the wall, peeling the strip like skin from bones. The house had sheltered them from heat, rain, and dust. It had kept the town out and the secrets in, burying them within its walls. Evaline rolled the wallpaper and rubber banded it tight, then dropped it in a box. Harlan was the land; but she was the house, and the house was her, and she would take what was hers in the end.
“Salt Land” derived from plans for a collection of linked stories about a family in the South. Each story has an ecological bent, stemming from my interest in ecology and environmental protection. Religion sneaks in often, too. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is endemic in Colorado, where I live now, with 300 new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone. My concern for what havoc this chemical industry might cause in residential neighborhoods led to my researching health and environmental impacts of fracking—and down a rabbit hole of stories about the destruction inflicted on communities and ecosystems by the oil and gas industry.
My family hails from Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri, so my stories started in the South, but as I’ve settled into Colorado, my characters have begun migrating westward, too. Stories like “Salt Land” mix my love of the natural environment with my fears for its future. I hope they’ll serve some small purpose in tuning a reader or two into the uphill battle we face to rein in carbon emissions, restock the seas, protect and preserve open lands, and reckon with our culpability in bringing the climate to this dire state. I’m hopeful, though, as I must be—I want my three-year-old to grow up to get lost in the mountains, the plains, or the woods, if she wants to.
Amanda Baldeneaux is the development director for a nonprofit serving children with special needs. She’s also a contributing editor to Fiction Unbound. She holds a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and a master’s in teaching secondary English literature. She is a graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s two-year Book Project program, a Lighthouse Lit Fest Masters Class Workshop, and the 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop. An army brat, she now lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, two dogs, a cat, and a pollinator garden for native bees. This is her first published work of fiction.
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