by Lee Olsen
Ole paid a friend with a backhoe to dig a pond alongside the artesian well out on his north pasture. A lifelong fisherman, Ole envisioned a simple pond and a dozen trout. He ran a pipe from the well into the pond—it filled slowly, then spilled over the opposite bank and circled back toward the silty mire where the spring emerged from deep underground.
They all died promptly—the trout—not enough flow to oxygenate the water. We rode out one afternoon, found they had suffocated when the surface became covered with moss and weeds. The pond was then an idyllic stopover for migrating Canadian geese or black cranes, perfect habitat for mallards or red-winged blackbirds, but not an adequate home for trout.
I wandered that day, headed northwest to the point where Ole’s property butted up against the neighbor’s, to investigate decrepit corrals, sun-bleached haystacks, broken-down farm machinery, and a large wooden platform that stood twelve feet squared and twenty feet off the ground. The structure had a staircase and looked like a backyard deck without a house to attach itself to.
Ole claimed different purposes for it each time I asked, depending on the season: bird watching; spotting and counting cows; duck and geese hunting. He told me to stay off it—it was unstable, could collapse at any moment, I could break my neck. When I did climb onto the platform, the entire pasture changed. Elevated above the flatness, I saw the marshes and waterways to the north, the railroad tracks to the west, where they curved south and disappeared among the sugar beet fields.
From the deep spare bed, I woke and stared down the hallway to the window over the kitchen sink. The bedroom ceiling was textured with bits of what appeared to be crushed glass, and walls papered with golden-flecked pinstripes, running up and down, connected dark crimson plush carpet to crystal-white ceiling plaster. Beside the bed sat a broad writing desk, a straight-backed chair, and a chest of drawers, all warm-colored wood. Shelves were stacked with black-and-white photos of my father, Dean, and his siblings as grinning children—grayscales hand-colored with soft pastels—and washed-out color pictures of Ole and Clara as missionaries in Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa.
On winter nights, chilled air pressed in at the window above the bed and the old furnace in the basement rose up to counter it. Starting after dusk, blue-white light from the halogen bulb over the garage sifted through the curtains and powdered the bedspread. I fell asleep under thick covers to the sound of a whistling heat register while Ole dozed to the champagne sounds of Lawrence Welk.
During summer, hot air strained itself through the window screen while crickets chirped in the grape vines below. Periodic breezes turned the rusted vents on the roof of the boarded-up cannery next door, sending roosting pigeons flying, spooked and mindless. When cars made the turn around the alfalfa field across the road, headlights brushed the walls and picture frames, stretching shadows as I fell asleep to the whine of a sole, omnipresent mosquito.
East of the north pasture, at the southern end of Willard Bay, stood an auction house where Ole bought calves and sheep. The place bustled every Saturday morning as farmers and ranchers spilled out of battered pickups and slowly filled the arena with stiff cowboy shirts, Stetsons, soiled boots, and Coke cup receptacles of Skoal-infused spittle. Farmhands ushered livestock out onto the churned-dirt floor from corrals behind the building. Their shouts of heyo-hey-hey! get on up! mixed with the bellows and bleats of cows and sheep, and the din gave voice to the earthy musk of animal life.
Frisky calves with bulging eyes were prodded out onto the floor where they hesitated, looking anxious under the astute gaze of seemingly disinterested men. Potential buyers sat with one arm hugging the belly, the opposite elbow resting on the bulk of it, a hand against the face. A bid equaled a slight out-turning of the pinky and ring finger, a slight bow of the head. Occasionally, a bidder scribbled on a card with a stubbed pencil while muttering to his neighbor. Like the calves, I stared in wide-eyed confusion, trying to process the incessant jabber of the auctioneer.
Aaand, fifty-fibity-fibity-fibity-sixty-sixty-five-five-fibity-fibity-seventy-five-sebety-sebety-sebety, do I hear a dollar? Dollar-dibity-dibity-dibity-twenty-five? SOLD! Dollar-twenty-five on eighty-six. One-twenty-five on eighty-six.
As the afternoon ambled on, the men were slow to leave, unlike the animals, which were goaded out as quickly as they had been goaded in.
We’ll start the bidding at one, one, one dollar. Do I hear one ‘n’ a half? Half-hibbity-hibbity-hibbity . . .
When the sheep birthed early one year, too early, Ole ended up with a slow-dying lamb on his hands. I overheard him telling Dean about it. Won’t live. Can’t stand on its own. After dinner, while everyone chatted in the front room, I snuck out to the barn to see the lamb, bedded down in a large pile of dusty-sweet straw under a humming heat lamp.
Looked normal—gray-white wool, black face, black legs—though it panted softly, eyes glossed over and listless. I swung my legs over the pen, eased into the straw beside the lamb, curled my arms under its belly, and stood it on its feet. Stand up. You have to stand or you’ll die. Its wobble-jointed stick legs couldn’t bear the weight of its frail body, and it sunk into the straw. Growing bashful at the thought of someone finding me there in the pen, I hurried back toward a window-square of light suspended in the blackness of the back porch.
The lamb died after a day or two. Ole wrapped it in a scrap of canvas and buried it temporarily under crusty snow outside the barn. The ground hadn’t thawed, wouldn’t allow for a proper grave.
The meat shop at the far end of Ole’s long whitewashed shed was a wonder of post-mortem processing: walk-in freezer, long stainless steel tables, bone saws, racks of cleavers and filleters, whetstones, meat hooks, rollers of waxed paper and tape, charts, calendars, fishing trip photos, photos of Ole and Stick as young men. When Ole got an order from a friend or neighbor, I hovered around and watched his broad hands and thick forearms work the meat with blunt pseudo-surgical precision. As the Orange Crush electric wall clock whirled inaudibly, I made up packages of fake meat—wads of wax paper wrapped up in more of the same, taped up tight, and stamped with candy-red ink: PRIME; CHUCK; TOP SIRLOIN. The smell of real meat was waxy-cold, slightly savory, neither offensive nor beckoning.
Ole carried in a bucketful of coal from the lean-to outside. Dark chunks burned slow and orange in the low stove in the corner—the ensuing smoke wafted up through a loose-fitted pipe, acrid and comforting. In the dry heat of summer, I slipped into the chill of the freezer, clanking the latch, stepping lightly across a thick layer of wood shavings to snag a strawberry soda or a fistful of sugar peas—quartered beef hanging from steel hooks above, thick marbled pink-white—cringing at the thought of touching the deceptively hard fat and muscle matter.
Ole suggested I drive the old white-on-maroon GMC pickup out to the north pasture, though I was only twelve years old. After breakfast, we packed sandwiches and orange soda into brown paper bags, nestling it all on the truck floor among hammers, pliers, crowbars, leather gloves, bailing twine, a red Maxwell House coffee can full of nails and staples. I turned the key, the raspy motor caught, thin pages of a sticky-backed miniature calendar trembled on the dash—curled paper months compliments of Smith and Edwards (the “Country Boy Store”), perpetually out of date, too small to be of any real use.
Driving north, then west, then north again, my right foot barely touched the accelerator and naturally gravitated toward the brake. We swayed on stiff springs, out past the city landfill, beyond enormous faded-red hay sheds dwarfed by the Wasatch Mountains in the east—Willard, Ben Lomond, and Lewis Peaks standing starkly against a backdrop of wispy-white cirrus and milky-blue sky. Continuing over the railroad tracks and past the duck hunters’ club—little more than a plywood shack painted forest-green—we entered the gate and parked near the artesian well. When I tasted the water out under those desiccated, skeletal trees, I imagined the salty inland sea pervading the entire valley, back in ’83, when Great Salt Lake reached a recorded high, crept across thousands of acres of pastureland. The spring bubbled up incessantly, unchangeably, whitish, heavily oxygenated, tasting far wilder than the tap water back home. Each time we visited, I crossed the old planks embedded in the muck, moving out to the steel pipe from which the well poured. I knew I did not like the taste of it, but I sampled it every time.
Ole taught me how to string barbed wire, how to keep it wound tight on the spool as it unrolled. Allowing the tension to slacken for even a moment could cause the next several feet of wire to unravel so fast and erratic as to shred the skin right off your hands and wrists, gloves or no gloves. Like this, Lee. Suspend spool, use crowbar as spindle; unreel enough wire to get you past the next post; set down spool; use crowbar to stretch wire across post; fasten wire with staple. Take your time, keep everything tight.
I never knew how early Ole woke up or when, exactly, he went to bed. I typically woke to the sound of frying pans rattling on the stove—Ole opening the guest room door and returning to prepare breakfast without saying a word. By the time I was up and dressed and sitting at the green table on the green-swirled tile floor, he was back from his first trip out to feed the barn cats, throw hay to the cows, check the coop for eggs.
I sat facing the wall; Ole faced down the hallway toward the bedrooms. My eyes picked over wallpaper printed with faded oranges, pears, berries, vines. Before Clara died, she allowed the grandchildren to touch up the aging fruit with fine-tipped felt markers. Most of the touched-up fruits were fresh, inviting; some were over-inked and splotchy.
Ole and I ate, then crunched across frozen alfalfa stubble in gray morning light to visit the old Lao couple in their small tar-papered warehouse where they raised birds, wove willow wreaths. They spent winter days smoking long Hmong pipes alongside an indoor iron fire ring, while baby chicks skittered about their feet, cheeping and testing the heat of overflowing embers. Conversation was sparse, in broken English, but the pair got Ole to laughing. Thank you, thank you, it’s been nice talking with you. Nice talking with you, he would say. We always returned with duck and chicken eggs from the coop they kept below the canal, alongside a marshy pond.
Occasional solitary barn owls took up residence in the upper rafters of the barn—behind the high-hung hay hook suspended from rusted wheels on a rusted track. They spat charcoal-gray pellets onto loose straw and last year’s lacy-decayed cottonwood leaves. Ole showed me how to pick open pellets to reveal miniscule mouse bones buried in gray fur. I usually saw the pellets before I noticed the large, sandy-colored birds perched solemnly with their stoic sliced-apple faces. Too much noise upon entrance opened apple-seed eyes and sent the owls gliding out the hay window with a single ha-woosp, from attic shade to blinding afternoon sun. They never returned so long as I stood in the stillness watching for the reappearance of their blonde-brown wingspan.
An adjustable up-and-down hospital bed later replaced the deep spare bed. For convenience, my parents said in passing. For convenience. The all-white master bedroom was left undisturbed. Ole had been treated for colon cancer, and was then being edged out by a tumor in his brain. One night he fell in the bathroom; weak and disoriented, he was unable to raise himself from the floor. My sister—on hiatus from university—was living with him at the time and called for help.
When Dean and I arrived, Ole was barely conscious. This is all wrong, I thought. He was supposed to be waking up, after dozing off in his chair during the sports news, and getting himself into his own bed in his own room. He was supposed to be sleeping under layers of Clara-made quilts, snoring, so he could get up to do chores and cook breakfast before driving out to mend fences, to chop thistles in the pastures—not meant to slump crumpled on cold tile.
Dean and I muscled Ole off the bathroom floor, shuffled clumsily through the narrow doorway into the hall—Ole’s body sagged. Lift, Dean shouted, LIFT! Scared and embarrassed, I fought hot tears. Three generations of still waters running slowly through that hallway, roiling up across that one-word imperative, drifting back into the flow of stillness. I strained and fought for a better grasp. Once Ole was in the hospital bed, under the covers, I ducked out and waited for Dean in the chill of the enclosed porch.
We didn’t talk during the drive back to North Ogden—twenty minutes of silence speeding across glistening cold-black winter roads. Back home, sliding into my own bed, in my own room, I thought of Ole sleeping in the dark spare room between sparkling ceiling and crimson carpet, heat whispering up through the register, headlights brushing the walls and picture frames.
Ole died on a school day in November. The office aide interrupted our class with a small canary-colored note in hand; I knew before she called my name. Your mom called—your sister’s coming. I met her in the parking lot; we drove west to Ole’s house. Inside, standing in the spare room around his lifeless body—a strange hospice nurse hovering and cooing soft, meaningless words—I thought only of leaving. I walked out the back door, leaving, out from the covered porch, through the barnyard, over the fence, into the cow pen, out again, walking westward past the empty canal and leafless cottonwoods that curved over the channel.
I cut southward, toward the Lao neighbors’ willow farm, out across the frozen slough, kicking at fragile, hazy ice that formed among the grass and cattails. I stared as the sun sank slowly behind the Oquirrh Mountains, sending pale yellow November light streaming across the fields, through groves of Russian olives growing alongside the ditches and property boundaries. When I heard the whisping rush of wings overhead, I glanced up to see a flock of geese flying northward, searching for an open-water stopover in the direction of the north pasture’s artesian well and its skeletal trees.