Blood in the new snow

“She stands at the kitchen counter and listens to him rummage in the hall closet for the rifle. . . . They both hate the gun and know nothing of killing except that it should be both careful and quick.”


Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom: A Novel by Chera Hammons. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Torrey House Press.


From Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom, Chapter One


The first thing John says when he comes inside is that he has seen blood in the new snow.


“Blood?” Anna muses over her coffee, not awake enough yet to feel alarm.


“Yes, beside the driveway.” He hits the newspaper against his leg to get the ice off of the orange plastic wrapper. It’s a habit Anna hates because it leaves cold, clear pools on the kitchen tile that seep even through her thick winter socks. “Just a few drops, not a lot. Still . . .”


Blood. How stark it would look against the crystallized white, like rubies loosened from a ring and fallen into a white fur pelt. “Where could it have come from?”


“A deer, I think,” John says. “There were tracks going off into the trees.”


“Oh,” Anna says. “Again?”


“It looks like it,” John says. “They didn’t get a clean kill this time.” He sits in one of the worn oak chairs and unfolds the pa­per. “I’ll take Charlie out later and try to find it.”


“Why? What good will it do?” She wants it to be spoken.


“Well.” He clears his throat. “It might be suffering.”


She nods. They can’t allow anything to die slowly in the cold, bleeding to death. Not on their land. They’re decent people.


She asks, as she did the last time, “Should we call the game warden?”


He looks at her over the paper for a moment, thinking. “Let’s wait,” he says. “I want to make sure there’s a good reason first.”


They are, after all, used to keeping their own counsel. Neither of them has any interest in hunting or knows anything of hunting laws, though they have read stories about these subjects in the Gazette and notice generally when hunting season falls. It hasn’t yet started this year, but it will soon. Anna doesn’t even know how to find the number for a game warden if she needs to call one. She assumes John knows, though he has never called one, either.


They eat in easy silence. Anna picks at her eggs and sips her coffee while John reads his paper. Every once in a while, he frowns; he must be reading bad news: obituaries, politics, crime, fracking, reports of invasive species that could kill the trees. That’s all the paper ever has in it besides births and weddings.


Anna tries not to think of the blood. It’s nice to watch John without his noticing. She studies his eyes, the pleasing wrinkles at their sides that mean that he has laughed a lot. Nearly ev­erything he does possess an air of benign absentmindedness that has only increased over time. He taps his foot as he reads. Anna can tell from the squeak that he has forgotten to take off his boots again; the snow will soon be melting onto the kitchen floor in dirty rings. She sighs. Still, staying annoyed with him is hard; he’s easygoing and tends to take good care of her.


She stands and begins to do the dishes while he finishes the paper. The window over the sink lets chilly air seep in that makes the metal faucet handle cold. The taps sputter at first. As she waits for the water to run hot, she looks at the naked maples and tall thin evergreens at the edge of the yard. The snow has clumped on the needles, making them droop. The trees look heavy, gray, depressed.


It’s still only the middle of autumn, and it has been harder than most. The ground will be white and blank for months yet. The floor under her feet leeches cold, making her heels ache. She’s glad there isn’t much to wash. The soap bubbles burst in the sink in tiny rainbows. The almost-translucent, spotted skin on her hands turns pink. The blue veins at the tops spread like roots.




As she dries her hands and slides her wedding ring back on, John stands and stretches, yawning wide and slow like a bear. “Well,” he says.


“Are you going out now?” Anna asks.


“I guess I’d better,” he says. “Who knows how far it might have gone.” He kisses her on the cheek.


“Be careful.”


“Old Charlie hasn’t thrown me yet,” he says.


She stands at the kitchen counter and listens to him rummage in the hall closet for the rifle. The rifle is only a secondhand .22 they purchased years ago, when they’d first bought their prop­erty, but it does well enough at close range. They both hate the gun and know nothing of killing except that it should be both careful and quick. They had originally been driven to buy it for protection of their livestock from wildlife and dogs, and it comes out only in emergencies.


Anna has never used the rifle and has seen John shoot it exactly three times. Once at a tree trunk to warn off a couple of coyotes that had been prowling near the chicken pen. Once to put down the Hansons’ gelding, which had gotten loose and been struck by a car. She can sometimes still hear the horse screaming in her memory; she had called their own vet to ask where in the forehead to shoot it for a clean kill, shaking so badly that she had misdialed several times. And once to kill a dog with distemper that someone had dumped off near their house.


If you live out of town, you have to get used to some killing. That’s the way of things. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.


Anna is sorry that John needs to take the rifle with him. He tries not to seem bothered by it. “Take your cell phone,” she tells him. “I’ll be in the tub for a while, but I can help you after I get dressed if you need it.”


But she is still at the kitchen window watching twenty min­utes later when he leads the ageing mule, Charlie, out of the barn and toward the woods. The mule is, as always, beautifully rigged with one of John’s handmade saddles. John specializes in cus­tom orders, hard-to-fit horses, the short-backed quarter horse sore from trees that bridge, the wide table back of a paint with no withers, the large flat shoulders of a Tennessee walker, the slab-sides of mammoth donkeys. John sometimes has Anna help him with the leather tooling when orders pile up in the spring. To her, it feels clumsy, unnatural, knocking the stamp into the unyielding hide, and the leather sewing machine with its noise and strength frightens her, makes her hold her breath while her heart pounds. She sometimes finds herself in awe of John, who is comfortable around such industry.


He checks his girth and swings up on Charlie’s back. The mule’s ears flick back and forth, listening. John pats the mule and speaks to him, then reaches back to check the rifle in the scabbard. Charlie looks thick and warm in his winter coat. John kisses the air, their signal to the mule to go ahead. It’s strange to see the expression from far away without sound. Charlie tucks his nose and strides forward, and they’re soon lost in the horizon of slim trunks. At least one out of every ten of the trees in Vermont forests stands tall even though the tree is actually dead, though it’s harder to spot the dead ones in winter. Going into the woods is a little like walking among ghosts. Anna pic­tures not only the spirits of trees, but caribou, mastodons. Lives that passed through the land before hers and will never come back.


As she waits for her bath to run, she thinks of all she ought to do that day. She keeps a list stuck with a magnet to the fridge, ticking chores off as she goes, but today is a good day, and she can remember much of what the list contains. The barn needs to be mucked out, more hay dropped from the loft, the chickens fed and watered. The cold often makes these tasks seem impos­sible. There are some bills to pay, and the house, of course, could always stand a cleaning. The Epsom salts swirl and vanish in the steaming water roaring from the faucet.


She tests it first with her foot, then stands in the tub, acclimat­ing herself to the heat. She ran it hotter than she was supposed to. It turns her skin red, and sometimes it hurts. The hotter the bath starts out, though, the longer she can stay in, weightless and untethered to her unwieldy body. She holds on to the sides of the tub and lowers herself inch by inch. She can feel her joints loosen, relax, and the pain soon seems to float around her, no longer a part of her, but a part of the water. The ache hovers around her wrists, hips, fingers, and knees in filmy clouds. She closes her eyes.


Once the cold starts to spill into the bath, too, Anna pulls herself up and wraps herself in a towel. She dresses in faded jeans and a sweater that is too big for her. Her once-brown hair, she pulls into a tight ponytail. Older women, she has been taught, are supposed to keep short hair, but she’s used to the low-maintenance, collarbone-length style and can’t bring herself to cut it.


She doesn’t like growing older, though she doesn’t try to fight it; there’s no point. Appraising herself in the mirror, she tries to judge her reflection as a stranger might, but she doesn’t allow herself to focus on her wrinkles, the sagging lines of her neck; she looks instead at the dark brown eyes, which still have some of the depth and sparkle they had when she was a girl. She rubs mois­turizer into her skin, enjoying the feeling of softness and luxury that comes from it. She doesn’t bother with makeup anymore…


She checks her phone where it charges in the kitchen; still no messages. John didn’t pack a lunch. It’s 11:38. Maybe he is nearly back home. Or maybe the wounded deer has gone farther than he guessed it would. Perhaps it’s really okay and he won’t find it at all. He will get to a place where the snow shows that the bleed­ing has stopped and the deer has run off, tracks wide apart and blurred with speed, indicating the deer has disappeared into the wilderness, as it is meant to do. The rifle will hang cold and still in its scabbard, unnecessary weight. And John will turn around.


Anna eats canned tomato soup and watches the local news. Cold, cold, and more cold. More snow. It never changes. Win­ters are always the same. Each winter runs into the next in her memory, a dashed line of frozen pipes and raw throats and the smell of space heaters burning off their dust. Even in spring and summer, the sun rarely breaks through such a landscape, one hewn by clouds and glaciers.


She puts her bowl in the sink and runs water into it. She doesn’t bother to wait for it to get hot before she washes the bowl. She scrubs the red line on the side until it has disappeared, then rinses it and sets it on the drying rack.


She looks up. Movement at the edge of the window catches her eye.


It’s Charlie, pawing desperately in the snow in front of the barn. He raises his head and calls with his strange sound, the noise somewhere between a whinny and a bray. He takes a step and trips; his leg is between the reins, which drag on the ground. There’s a white froth of sweat like foam along his neck.


He is riderless.


Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom: A Novel by Chera Hammons. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Torrey House Press.


Chera Hammons holds an MFA from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and serves as writer-in-residence at West Texas A&M University. The author of four books of poetry, including Maps of Injury and the 2017 Southwest Book Award winner The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City, she lives near Amarillo, Texas, with her husband, three cats, a dog, a rabbit, a donkey, and five horses.