Content warning: suicide
The unknown man lies dead in the barn for three days, and on the fourth we bury him. We tried to bury him before but had to wait, the ground was so hard. Gunne, who tried to dig the plot in the cemetery down the road, says it was like trying to break ice with a toothpick.
So we wait until the March thaw frees the ground enough to dig up cold earth for a resting place. We wanted to do everything right, lay him there with all the rites and prayers and everything, as if he had been our own dear brother.
The second night, the air is cool and clean, blowing in from the South, where they have been having summer rains already. The icicles hanging from the rafters and windowsills are dripping and falling one after the other to the ground, to melt and vanish forever. The sky is dark with storm clouds, gathered like a shawl over the horizon, and the wind smells sweet like wet earth and honeysuckle. The house behind me is alight and glowing and filled with carefree laughter; it is easy to forget worries over a game of cards. But I step outside, barefoot on the ice-slivered ground, and go to see the body.
Mother told me not to, but I can’t help it. I want to see for myself. Even on a farm, with farm animals; sick cows, fatted pigs and hens, sheep ready to butcher and sell, it is my first brush with death. Farm animals don’t die; they have always been meant to die and so their ending is just… closure. Attaching myself to each dying animal would mean constant heartbreak, an unlivable life. And if I tried to stop the butcher, we would starve.
But this is different. I tuck my head down to my collarbone and skip quickly across the yard. There is some soft, frightening mystery hanging around the barn, floating on the sweet southern wind. The sun is almost gone: its last red rays are cast across the Nebraska plains and touch on solitary scraggly trees and slanted, wind-tormented barns, like a man caressing the face of his lover.
Silently, like the ruffle of wind on skin, I slide back the red door and slip inside. I stand alone with my back up against the wood, taking in the musty smell of straw and animal cud and rusty farm tools. And there’s another smell too, held back by the dry cold still hanging relentlessly in the air. I have my brown cotton dress on, with my brother’s trousers on underneath, and a green wool sweater over it all, and still shiver like a marigold in the wind. I tell myself it’s just from the cold.
I creep forward with my hands over my mouth. I’m barefoot and sidestep the dark steaming piles littering the ground, making my way slowly and fearfully across the center barn room to the other end, where something small and dark is lying quietly on a bench. My heart pounds in my ears and each step is hesitant, each step is fought in my head before I take it; to go forward, or to go back. Forward or back. I go forward and stand a few feet away from the body.
The man -- I have to remind myself it’s a man, not just a body -- is small and wiry, with skin roughened by wind and work and crusted with black blood -- And I think to myself that he looks like a cowboy, a man who rides the dusty Texan plains and squints into the sun.
We do not know this man. Uncle Halvor speculates he is a farmer, like us; living with his family on vast, lonely land, like us; who kissed his wife goodbye and ruffled his son’s hair and walked away across the Nebraska pastures until he couldn’t see anything but land, dead land, arid lonely land; and walked until he came across a shelter, our red cow barn, and pulled out the pistol from his belt. At this point while Halvor was talking, sitting on Grandmother’s ottoman in our warm living room, my twin and I put our hands over our ears and ran upstairs.
The man’s moustache is dry and clumped with the same color that spatters his clothes and the side of his head. His eyes are shut but he doesn’t look at peace. He looks tired and tormented, as he probably did in life; his body is twisted with rigor mortis, colored pale purple and blue, and when I see this I choke on my own bile and run away, unable to look death in the face. I hide behind the house, taking deep breaths and pressing my palms into my eyes until the lump in my throat dissipates and my shoulders stop shaking. I pull my tearstained palms away and think for a second, stricken, that they are covered in blood. I let out a cry, a guttural scream, before I see it’s nothing, just the moonlight in the shadows, and press my hands over my trembling lips. Where is God? I think. Frozen to the dirt barn floor like a pool of blood, something else inside me answers. I close my eyes and wish I were dead.
Uncle Halvor and my brother Ben find me outside half an hour later, with marked cards in their pockets and worry in their eyes. The wind has turned cold now and curls around my bare feet and ruffles their hair as they stand over me, scolding and laughing and asking where I was.
I tell them and they take me by the arms and bring me gently inside.
When Ben and Halvor and I come in, we find only women inside. Everyone else, and Mother, is searching for me outside. Grandmother is sitting alone with a book in her lap by the kitchen door, biting her nails; Yelina plays with baby Josef on the floor by the stove; and Hella washes dishes. When Hella sees me she screams “Aundy!” and everyone looks up as she runs from the warm, bright spot by the stove and throws her arms around my shaking body and sobs with me. It is warm in the house but I am cold, and I stand there in the living room and rock and rock and cry and cry in Hella’s arms, whispering that I am afraid, so very very afraid.
We decided, after Grandmother called the superintendent in town, to bury him in the Norwegian graveyard twelve miles across the snow-plaited fields. Superstition dictated that a suicide must be buried at the crossroads, but Grandmother and my aunts could not bear to subject the unknown man to such humiliation. They negotiated a corner plot -- reserved for unknown corpses -- with the superintendent, and Yelina and Uncle Aron made a small wooden cross.
It rains during the funeral, not a storm, just a gentle shower. I stood looking down at the small black hole with my heart aching inside my ribcage as water poured down my hair and dripped onto my skin. It was like the whole earth was mourning with me. Once the service was over and we walked home along the warm, damp roads, I felt something fill me: a hand on my back, a smile, a beam of light. Small flowers, marigolds, foxgloves, and bluebonnets, lined the warm road and seemed to call Look, look at us. The earth was smiling at me; God himself, no longer frozen to the ground, was walking along the road with me, borne by fresh winds, as the sun shone through the blurry horizon after the rain.
A few weeks after, Aundy found her twin standing on top of the barn, barefoot with her green summer dress swinging in the spring breeze. She climbed up the side as quickly as possible, her bare feet following the paths she and Hella had made as young children, breath moving in and out raggedly, calling “Hella!” urgently.
Aundy walked slowly and carefully along the slanted rooftop until she reached the motionless form of her sister and threw her arms around her and dragged her backward.
“What are you doing?” she screamed as she fought with Hella, who was biting and scratching and trying to get free and stand up again. They tussled for a minute, Aundy doing her best to keep them on the roof and keep her grip around her sister, both panting desperately, each fighting for their own reasons.
Hella kneed her in the stomach. With a grunt Aundy released her, but instead of standing and crawling to the edge again, Hella crumpled and began to cry. “What, what?” Aundy could only beg. “What? Tell me what’s wrong, what are you doing, what is going on?”
Through her sobs Hella whispered, “I’m scared, I’m so scared. I can’t do it but I’m scared not to.”
Aundy didn’t know what to think or say or even how to breathe. She could only say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t be afraid.”
“I saw him too,” Hella told her, lifting her big red tearstained eyes. Her face was swollen and tormented, like the unknown man’s face that March. “I saw him too and I got so scared. He looked unhappy, so unhappy and tired. He’s not -- ” She took a big, shaky breath -- “Not resting. Not at peace.”
Aundy looked out across the flat fields waving with wheat and corn, moving with the wind like the sea in a storm. She opened her mouth and shut it.
“But I’m scared,” Hella went on; “I don’t know what will happen when I die. I just don’t know. That scares me so much I want to die.” She let out a laugh, a giggle mixed with panicked tears. “I’m crazy. I know, I’m just crazy.”
“No you’re not.” Aundy was finally able to speak. She rubbed Hella’s shoulder and ran her fingers over her twin’s shining brown hair, which was tangled with wheat buds and tiny pink wildflowers and splinters from climbing up the side of the barn. Hella bent her head again and wiped her wet face with scraped and bloody hands. The wind on top of the barn was stronger than on the ground. It pulled and pushed at them, the warm summer wind, and the sun shone brightly down on their backs, burning their skin and hair. Everything was silent but for the rush of the wind and a distant hawk, screaming as he dove for prey.
“No you’re not. Don’t die. Live. You’ll see.” That was all she could say. “You’ll see. I did.”
Hella looked up at her again. Her chin and cheeks were light red from her scraped hands but there was something new shining in her eyes, something like the freedom of the diving hawk and the rustling wheat and the sleepy gleam in baby Josef’s eyes. “You did?”
Aundy nodded. “Look, I see God.” She raised her arm and pointed across the fields, warm in the bright noon sun, awash in soft winds. There were small bluebells, marigolds, sunflowers, and Indian paintbrushes growing between the fence stiles and along the road. In the big wide pastures, a group of cows ambled toward a pond, protecting a calf that skipped along happily and nosed the ant piles and snake holes. And the tree line in the distance was blurred by the sun, as if drawn by pencil, stirred by far away winds. “Look, I see God.”
And Hella looked, and did not ask “Where?”
Years afterward, when the days of long, open fields were over, and the bluish-green grass had been ploughed under until it had almost disappeared from the flat prairie; when fences ran around the land like calves skittering around a heifer’s ankles and roads no longer went around like free winds but followed directions and maps, the unknown man’s grave was still there, with a leaning fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. Beyond the Norwegian graveyard, long left to rest, the road from the north curved a little to the west there, and the road from the east swung out to the south, so that the edges of the grave, laying at the very corner of the yard, was always untouched, with its tall bluish grass never mowed, like an island by the road. At dusk, under an old moon or the clear evening star and bright, ever-changing night sky, the dusty roads used to look like soft brown rivers flowing past it.
Aundy never walked past the grave without emotion, and in all Nebraska it was the place most precious to her. She loved the simple superstition that had put the grave there, a lighthouse for those left behind, and she loved the peace it had given her, the peace of death and of life together -- that of the tenderly moving roads along which old-fashioned cars or wagons rattled during warm, lush afternoons. She knew in her heart that a tired, homeward-bound driver never passed the small corner plot with the unpainted cross without wishing peace to the sleeper beneath.