Original Fiction

Bloom Creative Writing: “Necessity” by Mary Cuffe Perez

With this evocative and lovely short story from Mary Cuffe Perez, we continue to highlight original fiction and poetry from writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.

Editor’s note: I got to know Mary more than a decade ago, when we were community gardeners together on a mutual friend’s beautiful country property. Together, we hilled potatoes and spread mulch and harvested beans and tomatillos and turnips (so many turnips!). Every fall, the dozen families who tilled the plot together had a harvest dinner to celebrate everything we grew, and to celebrate each other. Mary was joyous in every task, whether it was squishing potato bugs or pressing bushels of apples for cider or sharing a glorious garden grown salad. Her gentle and observant joy is evident here, in this poignant and poetic short story about age and time and care – SJS.

Necessity

A dream of cold. Snow fallen all night. The horses left out, no hay thrown to them, the trough frozen to the bottom. Backlit by morning sky, they gather at the gate into their own geology. Peaks of ears, clouds of breath. Waiting.    

He awakens into smothering heat and the swamp of difficult breathing. Even within the darkened room, the surge of another day pulls him to alertness. For hours he is witness to the progression of light, the surfacing of walls, the hallways coughing and groaning awake. What is the color of the walls? he asks himself each morning, angry all over again at its elusiveness.  A bloodless beige like nothing in nature. The color of hospital waiting rooms and doctors’ offices. Non-committal. If it tells him anything it is that he has come this far and will go no farther. All of what he carried will pass on to someone else. He tries to remember who. He leafs past Ellen, long dead, past his daughter in another state, and comes to his son. His son is taking care of everything. Everything. What is that now? He passes the pigs, the chickens, the herd, the wood to get in, the hay to cut, the dog. There is just the barn. And the horses.             

One dark form rolling into the next, solidifying into a hunger mountain. There is no whinny of welcome nor blow of impatience. They draw him by the keenness of their attention.  They are aware of his first stirring, the coming to wake. The stumbling downstairs into the groove of everyday. Smoke rising from the chimney, the door opening. His burdened answer to this necessity, following the same path from house to barn he has always taken, the path that is worn into him so deeply nothing else will grow there.

The carts rattle, the aides complain. At half past eight his breakfast clatters in through the doorway. An aide switches on the voice and smile she uses when entering the room. More often now, it is not thrown on until halfway across the room and is dropped before she turns around to rattle out. The aides use the same smile and voice when tending to the man on the other side of the room, his bed separated by a pale blue curtain. Not really a man, but the husk of a man, who comes back to life each morning with a howl. The sound is all the man has left of himself. He is heavily drugged and most of the time can only manage a whimper or a few weary rumbles of outrage. Three times a week, after they feed the man his breakfast, he is dressed, hoisted from his bed with a special lift and set in a wheelchair. Then he is wheeled downstairs. Two hours later they wheel him back. He knows only this about the man, the path he will take each day. It is part of his own path now. It begins with the rise and advance of light across the room, the day put up and broken down, the new seasons of therapies and medications and the times they wheel him down to the first-floor community room and park him in front of the platform where an Elvis impersonator flounces for an hour. He knows how the building sighs as it shifts from one department of the day to another. It is what he does. What he has always done. Listen for the next thing to happen

He could hear a calf being born, the hunker of a coyote, the terror held in the hen’s throat, the conspiracies of weather. He heard the ice rasping on the roof that morning before it made a sound. He heard it coming while Ellen slept deeply beside him, and he heard what would come after. Power out for nine days and a herd to milk by hand. Breaking ice off the pond. He and Ellen and the kids huddled around the woodstove, making do. They always could. How did they? All those mornings, 75 head, the fields to mow, the tractor seized up, two kids to raise. Fences always down, the barn to keep up. No matter what, the barn to keep up. It held the center. The fields and pastures radiated from or rose to meet it. A 17th Century threshing barn, turned dairy barn, still as square as a good bull, its understory moored deep into earth on a fieldstone foundation.                                                                   

Slates come off every spring, he tells his son. Ice works up under them all winter so a strong wind can kick them lose. Keep an eye out, he said, and the barn doors, tell the girl who feeds the horses to close them tight or the wind will tear them off. His son nods. She’s still coming, every day, that girl who said she would? His son nods but doesn’t look at him. He is older somehow, the top of his head a pink bowl. He asks his son again, feeling that old necessity working its way into his blood, drumming his heart faster than it should go. Check the fences by the road. Every winter the snowplow knocks out rails. Horses go mad in spring; they’ll find a down rail. His heart beats faster. Will the hay hold ‘til grass? His son draws a long breath of exhaustion, finally looks up. Eyes sagging with too much to carry. Is the girl coming?  His son leaves, comes back another time. The aides rattle in and out. He listens to the day roll by on the commotion of wheels, shuffle of feet, the desultory savagery of the aide’s conversation outside in the hallways. Smiles put on and pulled off, words wobble like Jello. No one tells him anything. No one sees him. He is a child, going backwards to death. He follows the path of each day. Listens. When he comes to the hush that sinks between the joints of the day, he listens harder.                       

He saw no good to them. Two geldings and a lame mare. When he tries to remember how old they are, he gets lost somewhere else. No one farmed with horses, he argued. They had no more use than a barn full of kangaroos. Something else to feed. But Ellen would have her horses. She was hard on this. He never understood what it was. Any chance, she’d be off on the bay gelding without a word to anyone, away from work, out of the reach of their calls. He’d catch sight of her breaking away from the circle of need, into the north field at a canter, galloping up into the hemlock hill. One winter day—how long ago?—snow belly deep to the horse, twin black flames of her loose hair and the gelding’s tail flickering away. The only dark, moving thing, like a vessel sailing toward an impossible destination, caught in a wind whipped swirl of snow, disappeared completely.                                                           

As a boy he learned horses but left off them when he drove his first tractor. Ellen came to horses late and grew into them. More with every year until it seemed they were all she saw. At stray moments of the day, he’d find her leaning against the fence, looking out into the field where the horses grazed. Toward the end, that was all she could do. Watching them with a look too far for him to get to.                                                                 

Take care of the horses. You’ll do that, won’t you?  

He said he would, but never meant to. With Ellen gone, the herd sold off, he’d sell the farm. But it never came to that. He could not see himself any other place. He was framed by the hedgerow of black locusts to the south, with the layering of fields beyond, the rise of the Adamowski fields to the east, the dark tide of hemlock to the north and to the west, where the weather came. The barn in the center.  

Sometimes he wonders about the howling man on the other side of the blue curtain. What hills had framed him; what was his center? He wants to tell the man that he holds the same howl inside but cannot let it out. There is no reaching the man to say anything to him. His eyes are sunken deep into his head and his cheek bones are like cliffs falling off into the cave of his mouth. No one comes to visit him. 

Toward the last, there were only the horses to keep him to his old path. Just as the sun eased over the Adamowski hill and crossed the road into his own fields, he answered the call only he could hear. The path is worn there still, he knows, the 500 feet from house to barn, as deep as the paths the horses wore out to pasture. Even here, from behind these walls, he feels the way, goes there to the horses waiting. Their alertness still tuned to him. The old ache in the crook of his back as he slides the great doors open. The horses brought in, stomping over the stone floor, snorting, tossing their heads, pushing past one another. Snow on their backs, muzzles frosted.  

His son in the doorway the next time. Snow steaming off his coat and hat. He can smell the depth of cold. Winter again? He almost asks but catches himself. His mind staggers back trying to find the day before. It was summer, last time.  How could he get so lost? He kept such careful track of the departments of each day, the measure of each season.  He says little while his son tells him about what couldn’t be helped, traffic and shifts at the mill. So long since his last visit. And yet, hadn’t his son sat right there with the same explanations, the same way of mumbling into his hands, last week? He looks through the section of window visible from his side of the room. Snow falling through bare limbs. It is slanting in from the east, a needle fine snow, driven to lay the world to rest. The old necessity yanks at him. Watch the snow on the barn roof, he says. When you open the doors, it will avalanche off those slates. Bury you alive. Tell the girl to bring the horses in for the night. Don’t wait too long. This one has intentions. He is studying the snow so intently he doesn’t notice that his son has stopped talking and is staring at him with the obliqueness of a stranger. Then his son drops his head, speaks into his hands again. Everything is fine.                                                       

It does not stop snowing. Even after darkness, the day all shut down, the snow falls.       

Hissing all night across the tin roof. Were the horses in? Quickly, he is out of bed and dressed. Downstairs. Doesn’t stop to rouse the fire. He switches on the porch light and there is only snow. The outline of the barn barely visible through the smothering white of sky and earth. Snow to his knees, seeping into his boots. He can hardly move against it; each step tears at his chest.  The barn surfaces. Beyond is blankness. Nothing else. He stands before the barn, breathing heavily. Waiting. His breath and the scything of snow is all there is. But he knows they are there, even before he sees them. A darkness, a defiance of snow. One, then the other, steps forward, assembles into the landscape he knows. He moves against the gathering snow. Slides open the door.

Author photo courtesy of Mark Bowie.
Barn photo courtesy of James Jordan (CC BY-ND 2.0) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesjordan/2085785316.

Mary Cuffe Perez, 75, published her first book of poetry in 1999 (The Woman of Too Many Days, Calyx Press); and since, has published two children’s books, one novel in verse, a chapbook of poetry and a collection of creative nonfiction. 

2 thoughts on “Bloom Creative Writing: “Necessity” by Mary Cuffe Perez

  1. I liked the mood and rhythm of this story. I tend to use a lot of dialogue in my short stories, so it’s always interesting to read a fine example of a story without any. I particularly liked this simple description: “He can smell the depth of cold.”

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