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In August, 2022 The Doubleback Review re-published the story Milk River.  This story is different in characters, plot, and location from the novel Milk River.  The story was originally published in Writers' Forum, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Colorado in Volume 11.  It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is mentioned in Pushcart Prize XI.  This story was anthologized in Higher Elevations Stories From the West, edited by Alexander Blackburn and published in 1993 by Swallow Press.  

Milk River, the short story


            There were bones in front of old Kerensky's house in the hills. It was spring and from a distance the bones looked like a patch of snow that had not melted. They were in a corner between the wooden steps and the house.

             Kerensky had died in his sleep sometime during the winter. My dad had found him in his bed and put the body in the truck wrapped in blankets. Then he went to town to see the undertaker and call the next of kin. My mother, my sister, and I were supposed to clean up Kerensky's house so the relatives, who were all coming from a distance, would have a place to stay.

            I didn't want to go inside that house. I watched Ma open the door. My sister stood real close to Ma and kept glancing back at me. They went inside. Five minutes later, they came out dragging a carved sofa spilling its stuffing. They dumped it between the trees behind the barn.

          Then they dragged a mattress into the yard. My sister tied a rag around her head, to protect her hair. She bunched papers under the mattress, soaked it with gasoline and set it on fire. I sat on the steps and watched it burn.

            I studied the bones. A steer. When Ma came by with a broken chair, I asked, "What about these bones?"

            Her eyes slid away from my face to look at the fire. "The old man was sick for a long time," she said. "His cattle died."

            I tried to look at her eyes. "Here? Did one of them die here by the front door?"

            "They got hungry. Maybe they came down to the house to see what was wrong with Kerensky."

            I laid the bones out on the ground to reconstruct the steer. They weren't all there. An animal must’ve carried some of them off. I walked around the farmyard looking for them. From the garage door I could see the top of my mother's head framed by a lower window of the house. The wallpaper behind her made the walls look cushioned. I had to turn away.

            The sky was so blue that water running over a mat of brown leaves reflected cobalt. A row of daffodils bloomed against the rock wall of the root cellar.



                        In the kitchen, Ma nailed a small cardboard box on the wall. In it, she balanced her grandfather's silver spoon. It was so tarnished the floral design on the handle was hard to see.

            "It's a beautiful thing," Ma said.

            My sister and I didn't think so. We could only see blackened lilies of the valley.



            Daddy swam Milk River without effort. He chose a course of deep water and never came close to the foam around rocks or the shallow places where branches snagged. We wanted to try it. My sister went first. Daddy and I ran along the bank and watched her. She did the crawl stroke very calmly, as if she could see the trail of Daddy's toes. We watched her pull herself up on a mossy log and wave to us. It was a triumph.

            Then I dove in. The river grabbed at me and pushed me over rocks. When I landed on the other side, I got sucked into the backwash, bumped my head on my knee and swallowed water. I did not breathe for a long time. I thought they would let me die. And then I was lying face down in pine needles, breathing dust and spitting.

            "You have to work with the river," Daddy said. "If you panic, it takes you."

            I never swam after that. The river wound between banks of buttercups I braided into my hair.




            On Wednesdays, we walked to the main road. We didn’t have a mailbox, so if no one met the mailman, we didn’t get any mail. When the weather was warm, we put plums in a pillowcase and ate them for lunch beside the road. Sometimes we saw a car go by in a cloud of dust. I liked to lie on my back in the grass and watch the wind blow through the Quaking Aspens.

            One day the mailman brought us a catalogue. When he handed it down, we could see it was something wonderful. Ma said, "You made a mistake. That's not ours."

            "Everyone along here is getting one," the mailman said. "It's free."

            "If it turns out it's not free," Ma said, " I'll be collecting the money from you."  She put the catalogue into the empty pillowcase. She carried it home, holding it out in front of her like the priest holds the host on a draped plate.

            She made me scrub the table before she put the catalog down. She worried we’d get a grease stain on it and then the postman would want it back. "Nothing is free," she said.

            We spent days carefully turning the pages. We marveled at how thick the catalogue was, how colorful, how flawless and beautiful the models were. It was our favorite thing. We kept it, wrapped in the pillowcase on the shelf behind the table, under the Bible.

            In September, Daddy told us we could choose something from the catalogue. It took us a month to decide. Ma and my sister ordered woolen shirtwaists and pumps. "We're very practical," Ma said. "Not like some."

            She was irritated with Daddy and me for what we chose. Daddy wanted a safari hat with netting you could let down or snap up into the brim. The ad showed a man wearing one of those hats and aiming a rifle at an elephant.

            I ordered a pair of silver-strapped, spiked sandals and a black dress with a fitted waist and a large, white, plunging collar. A red, silk rose was pinned where the collar came together in front.




            Ma opened the package when it came. All of us had one extra item she’d picked out to surprise us. Daddy got a khaki shirt with a lot of pockets. It was the kind of shirt you wore with a safari hat. My sister and Ma got flesh colored nylon stockings and I got black ones.

            "The ladies in the catalogue all have black stockings if they have black dresses," Ma said. "You go look."

            I knew she was right. We put on our clothes and took turns standing on a chair in the kitchen so we could see ourselves in the speckled mirror behind the sink.

            "You don't have the bustline for that dress," Ma said.

            I knew what she meant.

            Daddy saved his shirt for wearing to town. It had nine pockets but he never put anything in them. He wore his hat all the time, often letting the mosquito netting down.

            My sister's dress had silver buttons and Ma walked funny in her pumps. She put each foot down carefully. "I had a pair of these when I was young," she said.

            "You don't have to walk that way," my sister said.

            Ma walked that way, anyway.

            That day, I brushed my hair until it curved around my head and over my shoulders. I sat on the arm of the sofa, crossed my black legs and let my sandal fall away from my heel. Daddy said I looked like the ladies in the catalogue, only better because I didn't have the face of a statue.

            I needed a bottle of perfume that smelled like roses.




            It was my sister's wedding. Three days of dancing on planks with boys who smelled like garlic. We ate cabbage rolls and perogi, dill pickles, ham, baked chicken and bupka. We drank rye and ginger ale and fell asleep under benches or in the hay.

            Towards dawn of the last night, I spent hours removing the money pinned to the bride's dress and putting it into a milk pail. "How could you have danced so much?" I asked. "Did you really dance with everyone who pinned money on?"

            My sister pulled her dress up a little and I saw that her white slippers were gray now, her feet red and dirty. She giggled. "I had a drink with some of them."

            The bride left, her bouquet of roses cascading over white lace, seed pearls and satin. The groom held her waist. No one could tell her feet were dirty.

            After the honeymoon, she decorated her farmhouse kitchen with clay chickens, painted turquoise and orange. She planted a hundred red tulips and dried the baby's breath from her bouquet.




            When Daddy went to town, he took care of business in the morning and drank in the afternoon. Before my sister got married, she and I went with him whenever we could. We ate ice cream cones and watched trains pulling in and out of the station. We went through the stores looking at clothes and jewelry and furniture. At suppertime, we went to Wu's Chinese Restaurant and ordered tea and Sweet and Sour Pork with slivered carrots. There were golden dragons painted on the windows. The walls, chairs, tables, and floor were red.

            After my sister got married, I went to town with Daddy and did all those things alone. Sometimes he drank until the bar closed and I had to spend several hours in the hotel lobby waiting for him. I passed the time reading teen magazines and chewing gum. Once, I wore my black dress with the red, silk rose and spiked sandals. All day, people turned and stared and I felt very beautiful. That night I sat in the lobby, waiting for Daddy. A guy came up and stood in front of me. "My name is Freddie," he said. He had a round face and greasy, curly hair. "Your Dad said I could take you for a ride."

            "You could if I wanted to go," I said. There had to be something wrong with someone fat and forty who called himself Freddie. I went bapck to reading my magazine. He kept standing there. "I don't want to go," I said, thinking I hadn't made myself clear.

            He went back into the bar. But then he came out with Daddy and a lady. She wore a black coat, dress, hat and shoes, but no stockings. She had hairy legs. She carried a large shopping bag with a red apple painted on it. "This is Mrs. Churla," Daddy said, "and her son, Freddie."

            I stood up and smiled at Mrs. Churla. We went to Wu's. Mrs. Churla sat down next to Daddy. "You and Freddie sit together," she said. After the waitress brought a pot of tea and four tea bowls, Mrs. Churla said, "Don't they make a handsome couple?"  Daddy looked at his menu. He wouldn't look at me.

            "Your Mama and Daddy and I have known each other for years," Mrs. Churla said. "We always planned that you and Freddie would get married."

            A large chip of red paint had fallen off the wall onto the table. I put it into the ashtray. "Daddy never mentioned this to me," I said. The dragons painted on the windows seemed to be moving, but it was just someone walking by outside.

            "Freddie's a real nice boy," Mrs. Churla said. "He's been admiring you and waiting for you to grow up."

            I turned the button on my coat around and around. Freddie burned the chip of paint in the ashtray with the tip of his cigarette. "Maybe Daddy and I should talk about this now,"  I said. I stood up. "It was nice meeting you and Freddie,"  I said. “Daddy and I need to go."

            When we got in the truck, I asked, "You planned, years ago, for me to marry Freddie?"

            "I don't remember. Maybe she discussed it with your mother a long time ago."

            "But you think it's a good idea."

            "What did it hurt?"

            "It hurt me," I said. "What were you thinking?"

            "I wish you were married," Daddy said. "That's all."

            I didn't answer.

            "Are you interested in someone else?"  He looked at me in the lights of the dash.

            "Think about that," I said. "I hardly leave the farm. Who would it be?"

            He didn’t answer for a long time. "Someone you dream about, I guess."

            I got out at the gate, opened it, and closed it again after the truck passed through. "I'll walk the rest of the way home," I said.

            "No, get in," Daddy said. "I want to talk to you."

            So I got in, trying not to slam the door.

            "There's no such thing as falling in love," Daddy said. "You could give Freddie a chance. It's a hard life for a woman alone."

            I never wore the black dress to town again. I hung the red silk rose over my dresser.




            My father lay in bed almost buried under his own hair. It fanned out over the pillow and covered his chest. His small face hid in it. My sister held his hand. Ma sat in a chair at the end of the bed. I stood in the doorway and watched the wind ruffling first the curtain at the window, then the hair on his forehead, and then the tattered wallpaper. The wind came again and again.

“The wind is looking for something," I said.

            "Why don't you come in?" he asked. "And sit here."

            I went and hugged him, held his other hand.

            "She won't stay," my sister said.

            "It's too hot in here," I said. "I can't breathe."

            "Today, I want you close by," he said.

            Ma cried into a large tea towel embroidered with shells. Looking at her made a place beneath my ribcage hurt.

            "I need to oil the tractor," I said. "I'll do that and come back."

            "You should sell this place," Daddy said. "Use the money to get started in something else."

            "I don't want to do anything else," I said.

            The wind stripped the curtain away from the window and blew the hair away from my face. I watched it move the wallpaper. When I looked back at Daddy, I knew his breath was gone.

            A lot of people I’d never seen before came to his memorial service. We decorated the altar with evergreen boughs. It was too early in the spring to have flowers.




            Sunlight hurt Ma's eyes and made them water. She took to keeping the kitchen so dark I couldn't see her when I first came in. But I could hear her breathing, hear her slippers rubbing against the floor. She sat in her rocking chair, wearing sunglasses. "I baked cinnamon rolls for you," she said. "They're on the cupboard."  She dabbed at the tears on her face with a tissue. I poured a cup of coffee, and took a roll. "I hoped you'd get back before dark, for a change," she said. "I have a job for you."

            "It's too cold to wash the windows," I said. Since her eyes began to bother her, she always wanted the windows cleaned.

            "Before it gets dark, we have to walk up the hill with Daddy's ashes. The mailman brought them here today."

            "That was nice," I said. "I planned to meet him on the road tomorrow."  I looked at the box on the table. "It seems so small." 

            "The mailman was surprised that the ashes came in a cardboard box. He thought there should be a fancy urn, but I told him we didn't need anything else around here to remind us of Daddy."  I helped her put on her gumboots, a coat, and hat. I put my arms around her waist and almost carried her to the top of the hill behind the house. It was nearly dark. She carried the box of ashes. When we got there, she turned her head, trying to see. "Does the place look the same?"  

            The snow-covered mountains rose behind the log barns. We’d left the kitchen door open. The wind banged it shut and open again. The curtains billowed. I put my arms around her. "It looks the same."

            She peeled back the masking tape on the box, fumbled inside for a handful of ashes, then opened her hand in the wind.

            "Moye tatoosh," I said. "My father."  I felt like digging my fingernails into my scalp.

            Ma tipped the box upside down and shook it. The rest of the ashes blew away and knobs of bone fell to the ground. I hoped she couldn't see them. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

            "When it warms up, I'll help you plant the cabbages," I said.

            "Last week, I planted sweet peas just for you," she said. "They like to be planted when there's still snow."  In the summer, sweet peas always bloomed along the rail fence. And this year, she was telling me, that simple thing would not change.




            I wore Daddy's safari shirt, rolled at the cuffs, until it hung in shreds from the elbow. As long as I wore his shirt, I felt his spirit with me. I worked in the fields, getting sweaty and dirty. My hands got so calloused it was hard to hold a needle and thread.

            One day I saw Ma coming across the dusty field, tapping the furrows ahead of her with a willow stick. She wasn’t seeing them very well. I knew she’d been to town with a neighbor. She carried a sack. I stopped the thresher. "I got something for you," she shouted. I leaned against the thresher to catch my breath.

            Ma's glasses glinted in the sun as she picked her way uncertainly through the stubble. "The doctor gave me medication," she said. "It's cataracts."

            "Is it curable?"


            "I wish you wouldn't come out in the field," I said. "You're going to fall."

            "Why is your face so red?" she asked. She came up close and put her hand on my cheek. "My God, you're straining yourself. This is a man's job."

            "I don't want to hear it." 

            "Look," she said. She opened the sack and pulled out a royal blue blouse. "A hundred percent pure silk."  She held it up. "I bought it from a man with a truck full of things from the Orient. He had silky jackets with tigers embroidered on the backs. But I had a vision of you wearing this color."

            I reached out to touch it, and felt it snag on the roughness of my hand. I couldn’t really feel it. I watched her go back toward the house through the haze, the blue blouse over her arm. She didn’t stumble and I thought maybe the medication was working. When she got to the road, I shouted, "Hey, Ma."  When she turned, I shouted, "Thank you."  She waved.

            I pulled out the stalks that kept the thresher blades from moving. I did that a dozen times a day and I should’ve been wearing gloves.




            My sister brought her children here last summer. I watched her teach them how to swim the river. I ran along the edge to pull them out if I thought they’d gone a long time without breathing. I showed them how to weave buttercups in their hair.

            At night we shelled peas on the veranda and told the children stories about how we grew up. About how I planted carrots in a pot and set it on the windowsill in the kitchen, trying to rush spring. About coming home from school the day we learned about gravity. We couldn't wait to tell Ma. "It's the magnetic force of the earth," my sister had said. "It's what makes a rock fall to the ground when you drop it."  She got up on the table and jumped to the floor. "That's gravity," she said.

            "You mean the earth has arms to reach out and grab things to it?" Ma asked.

            This was a vision I never forgot. When you die, the earth takes you back. I remember my sister laughed. "If there wasn't gravity," she said, "your feet wouldn't stay on the ground."

            "What would they do?"

            "I don't know," my sister said. "Maybe you’d just float around."

             I remembered Ma saying, "My feet have always stayed on the ground." 

            Out on the porch in the dark, I ran my hand through the bowl of peas in my lap, and listened to my sister tell this story. When she was done, we looked at each other and smiled. Ma didn't think the story was amusing. The children didn't know what to make of it. It seemed they always knew about gravity.




            Every morning in the winter I did my chores and went down to the river. I liked to listen to water running under ice. I read to Ma and looked at catalogues. I ordered a black skirt and shoes so I’d have something to wear with the blue silk blouse.

            Ma got a pair of sheepskin slippers and a small bottle of silver polish for Grandpa's tarnished spoon. The mailman helped her order black stockings for me as a surprise. I didn't know where I'd wear these things. I couldn’t even touch them until my hands softened. Carrying buckets of water to the cows in the snow had chafed my skin even worse.

            One afternoon I polished Grandpa's silver spoon. I rubbed until I saw my own reflection in the bowl. When I showed it to Ma, she held it close to her eyes. "I wish I could see it," she said. "It must be beautiful."  She pressed the bowl of the spoon into her cheek and ran her fingers over the handle. "Those silver lilies of the valley."  She dabbed at her eyes and leaned back in the rocker. "It's a shame," she said, "that you never married."  She handed the spoon back to me.

            "I should make a wooden frame for this," I said. She seemed to be crying, but her eyes watered so much, it was hard to tell. "The sun is really bright today," I said. "Should I pull the shades?"

            "Who will take care of you when you're old?" she asked.

            I put the spoon back on the wall in its cardboard box. Then I went to pull the shades. The icicles hanging from the roof were melting. Each drop caught the sun and glittered all the way to the ground.

            In the darkened kitchen, I knelt beside Ma's rocker and patted her hand. When she asked me questions like that, I never knew what to say.

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