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Partway


Vol. XXVII, no. 1

Rebecca Rasmussen

In the unincorporated town of Partway, Minnesota, Hux served as both the mailman and the local taxidermist. First thing Monday through Friday, he put on his hip boots and slogged through the peat bogs to pick up Marian's love letters. From there, he walked past the tamarack and black spruce forest, around the springs and over the hill, to pick up Gunther's government manifestos, Jolene's mail orders, and Churchy's letters to the Pope.

Saturdays and Sundays were reserved for the animals. Over the years Hux had worked on moose, elk, bears, white and brown-tailed deer, ducks, hawks, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, and rabbits. He'd preserved dogs and cats and a wood frog named Zippy. Hux had made an exception for the latter—a two-inch specimen—because he couldn't say no to Gunther under the circumstances. Zippy belonged to Gunther's daughter Racina.

Jolene concocted remedies for what she called Racina's Ghost Sickness. Churchy believed Racina walked between two worlds and was naturally depleted by her excursions. Everyone else believed the doctors from Minneapolis, who'd diagnosed Racina with cystic fibrosis the year her mother ran off with Red Bill: a man who trapped wolves illegally in the Boundary Waters and had a knack for meanness. Whenever Bill's face was flushed people stayed out of his way, which was pretty much all the time. This was years ago, before Racina had learned how to walk. Now she was eleven. Sickly, but mobile.

People said Racina looked like her mother. Naamah's hair was as black as crow feathers. Her skin, pale as river ice. Her feet were caked with mud and leaves because she walked everywhere barefoot. Naamah's eyes—those blunt gray stones—were what you needed to watch out for. If she set her sights on you, she'd have you oiling her buckskin gloves and giving up your best pelts so she could make a new coat. The year she left Partway, people stayed warmer.

Racina had everything but Naamah's eyes; hers were a gentle shade of brown. Sometimes she'd follow Hux up to Jolene's or Churchy's place. Hux didn't mind Racina tagging along because she always hung back a little. He knew where she was by her cough—she'd had more lung infections than birthdays—and the swish of her coat. To prevent bone chills, Gunther made her wear a flannel-lined barn coat and mittens year round. Any other child would have been miserable, but Racina shouldered her burdens gracefully. She was interested in taxidermy – why people wanted to have moose heads above their mantles and why Hux delivered what they wanted.

"How come you had me work on Zippy then?" Hux asked on the opening day of hunting season. He and Racina sported orange hats and leather Wellington's. They were on their way to Jolene's.

"That was Dad's idea," Racina said. "Zippy's back in the bog. He didn't look very happy sitting on my dresser."

"He's dead," Hux said.

"Maybe so, but dead things can still be unhappy."

Jolene waved to them from her porch. She was wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt over a pair of coveralls and a cap that said 'Escape from Wisconsin.'

"You two look like a couple of pumpkin heads," she said. "Come on in. I just put the coffee on."

Jolene's cabin was swollen with catalogues and tins of herbs. What looked like willy-nilly disarray to visitors made sense to Jolene. If you asked her for a particular herb or catalogue, she'd have it in her hands before you could tell her why you wanted it.

Jolene poured a cup of coffee for Hux and a glass of juice for Racina. "What do you have for me today?"

Hux handed Jolene a furniture catalogue.

"Rats. Is that all? I sent away for hyssop weeks ago."

"Hyssop?" Racina said.

"It'll do wonders for your cough, if it ever gets here."

"Better give it another week, Jo," Hux said. "It's coming all the way from Europe."

"I could swim across the ocean faster," Jolene said.

"You sound like Marian."

"I can't decide if that woman's a fool or a blockhead," Jolene said. "Either way, you'd think she'd stop all this nonsense."

"It's sad," Racina said. "Her letters always get returned."

"She'd have a mansion by now for all the money she's plunked down on international postage," Jolene said.

Hux set down his coffee. "You can't blame her for trying."

"I agree," Racina said.

Jolene put a hand on her hip. "You two are hopelessly blind. That's your trouble."

"Blind, maybe," Hux said. "Hopeless, no."

Well, maybe a little hopeless. Hux hadn't been with a woman since Leah. He was fine about it most of the time. From the beginning, he knew Leah was destined for the city the same way he knew he wasn't. He missed her though, below and above the belt, enough that he'd thrown out her comb, her flowery perfume, and her wool bunting – all the incidentals she left behind last winter. You'd never think a plastic comb could play tricks on your heart until that's all you have.

"You know what I think?" Jolene said. "Love is for the birds."

Hux had three deer heads in his commercial refrigerator by the second week of hunting season. That's where they stayed until he could get to them. The key to a good deer mount, he'd learned from his father, began the moment the animal went down. The veteran hunter knew to how to field dress his buck quickly and efficiently. He knew how to gut the animal, drain the blood, and pack the body cavity with ice or snow. Hux wasn't worried about the seasoned hunter; the weekenders were the people who made his work hell. They'd drive around with a twelve-point buck for two or three days and expect restoration miracles.

The weekenders were mostly men up from the southern part of the state. They were the sorts who used fancy equipment instead of intuition. It was a shame to lure a buck with a battery-powered caller and a bottle of Rusty's Doe-In-Heat, but Hux needed the work. He was saving for a new barrel tumbler to tan hides in. Usually Hux did things his father's way, the old way, but tanning was a losing game. Just to dry out a hide could take a week or two, depending on the weather, not to mention the curing, soaking, and cleaning: preparations that tacked on another week. The tanning itself took three or four days and required Hux's attention every few hours. After that came the oiling and finishing and three fingers of whiskey.

Leah used to reach for her nose plug when Hux came in from the work shed. She said he took on the scent of whatever animal he was working on. Nobody, Leah said, should smell like entrails. It was immoral, profane, ungodly. She wouldn't have anything to do with Hux on taxidermy days.

"Until you're the person who delivers mail," she'd say, "you're on your own."

Now that Leah was gone, Hux did the mounting in the house. He spread plastic garbage bags over the kitchen table and laid out his tools. The light was better for skinning here and the woodstove kept him warmer than the propane heater in the shed. On the weekends, while he worked, Hux drank coffee and listened to A Day in the Life Of…—his favorite program—on the shortwave radio. Recently, they'd done a story on polar bears in Churchill, Canada. Hux liked the part about the bears knocking over a tundra buggy and scaring a group of tourists into going home. He was keen on animals getting the last laugh. His father always said there were two kinds of people in the world: the kind that respected animals and the kind that got killed by them.

Hux's father didn't live long enough to see the caribou disappear from the forests or the forests disappear from the land. He didn't live long enough to see the dam up north or the rivers that converged below it, careening like enemies. He lived during the pre-flood days, when Partway was still called Two Rivers.

After the flood, before the waters receded and the town was underwater, people slept on top of their houses and traveled by canoe. Most took what they could and left the area. Hux and a handful of others stayed on.

"We're neither here nor there," Churchy said on Hux's roof one day. He and the other holdouts had hitched their canoes to the gutter. They were having a kind of town meeting. "We're partway."

"The government doesn't give a damn, that's for sure," Gunther said.

"When will the mail start back up?" Marian said.

"That's what I'd like to know," Jolene said.

"Screw 'em," Gunther said. "Hydroelectric power, my ass."
"We don't have a lot of water left," Hux said.

> "We're surrounded by water," Jolene said.

"It's no good for drinking."

"Ironic."

"Forsaken."

"Look!" Racina said, and everyone stopped talking. She was leaning over the edge of the roof, gazing at her reflection, coughing. "The water likes me."

Gunther made his voice soft. "I like you, too, honey. Come see Daddy now."

Racina dipped her fingers in the water and then began to cry. "Where did I go?"

Racina had a scar on her cheekbone that looked like the leaf of a pitcher plant. The edges of the scar formed the shape of a trumpet. Inside, the skin was marbled with bristly veins. When Racina was a baby, she fell from the crook of a tree outside the Mosquito Net, a shack in the woods where Naamah went to trade favors for drinks. On the night of the fall, Gunther was plowing the old forestry road. When he left the house, Naamah was nursing Racina on the couch.

I'm thirsty, Naamah wrote on a scrap of paper. She wrapped Racina in a summer-weight blanket and set off through the woods in the middle of a blizzard.

Racina was lucky for two reasons. First, if it weren't for the bank of snow beneath the cedar tree, she would have been killed on impact. Second, nobody put Racina in Naamah's charge again. The scar was the result of being left cheek down in the snow for over an hour.

Hux kept quiet when it came to the scar. As far as he knew, Gunther hadn't told Racina how she got it. Racina talked about Naamah like she was a character in a fairytale.

"Dad said the animals would follow her when she walked through the forest," Racina said. "They'd eat acorns from her hand."

"Well," Hux said.

"He said people would clear a path for her when she passed."

"That's true."

"Did you think she was beautiful, Hux?"

"Yes."

"Did you want to marry her?"

"No."

"How come?"

"You have to love someone to want to marry them."

"I thought you had to be in-love with them."

"You have to be both."

Racina and Hux were standing by the front porch of the Mosquito Net, where Ira Tanner lived now. Hux took out a package from his mailbag.

"Wait here," he said and went inside.

Ira liked to talk. A half-hour passed before Hux could excuse himself. When he came out, Racina was circling the cedar tree, singing.

Did you ever see a dream walking?
Well, I did.
Did you ever hear a dream talking?
Well, I did.

"What song is that?" Hux asked.

"I don't know the name," Racina said, dragging her mittens along the bark. "I just know the words."

> Hux walked over to her and buttoned her coat. "You have to be more careful, Racina. You'll catch a cold."

"Hux?" Racina said, when they were through the woods. "Do you think she'll ever come back?"

> Hux thought about this for a while. "God forbid."

"God has nothing to do with it," Churchy said when Hux told him what he'd said to Racina. Churchy was frying an egg in a skillet. He was a tall man who perpetually stooped to make people more comfortable. His hair—what was left of it—crisscrossed his scalp like spider silk. "He's too busy to give a nickel and dime about us. Just listen to the news. There's a million Naamah's in the world. Why should he care about ours?"

"He?" Hux said.

"A woman would let everyone die in their sleep."

"Not Naamah."

"There's an exception to every rule," Churchy said. "You should know that."

"How could I have?" Hux said.

"I'm not talking about that."

"What then. Leah?"

Churchy took the skillet off the woodstove. "This," he said. "All of this."

"Meaning?"

"This is all we've got."

Churchy had a way of making sense without making any. He was an ex-priest from southern Wisconsin. The bishop suggested Churchy step down after he compared God to a nettle at mass. God makes for a powerful tonic, he said, but He'll sting you all the same. A tornado had destroyed most of the town the week before and this was the best he could come up with.

"Don't say it," Churchy said.

"I wasn't going to," Hux said.

"Because I don't need a woman. I'm beyond that." Churchy slid his egg onto a piece of white bread. "Good company and good food, that's all I want now."

Thanksgiving was Churchy's big idea. He didn't see the point in feasting alone. Since his cabin didn't have electricity, he was working on getting permission to use the meeting room at Town Hall. His mouth watered for yams and brown sugar, turkey and cranberry sauce – the kind out of the can, he said, with the ridges on it.

Racina wanted to be in charge of the centerpiece. She said she could gather flowers and sedges from the bog on her walks with Hux. Hux agreed to share a bottle of 18-year whiskey, which he'd been saving for a special occasion that never seemed to come.

A sign up sheet went around until everything was spoken for – turkey to pumpkin pie to place settings. Jolene promised jalapeño cornbread stuffing. Marian offered a lace tablecloth and a set of silver candleholders. Gunther was staking out a rafter of wild turkeys on the edge of his land. The weekend before Thanksgiving, he asked if Hux wouldn't mind watching Racina while he hunted.

"Don't ply her with candy either," he said, when Hux agreed. "I know you give her licorice ropes."

Gunther dropped Racina off on Saturday morning. He handed Hux a two-page list of instructions. "If she starts coughing, give her a spearmint leaf to chew on. If she sounds gravelly, a cup of tea will help. Herbal not caffeinated."

"Dad," Racina said.

"Alright. I'll be up at Peck's place. Norb spotted a 21-point white-tail in the peat marsh."

"I thought you were getting a turkey," Racina said.

"I am," Gunther said. "The buck's not for me. I'm just helping drive him out."

After Gunther left, Racina took off her coat. She stood in the living room, fidgeting with her green mittens.

"Go ahead," Hux said. "I'll get another log."

Racina put her mittens on the coffee table. She peeled off her hunting hat and wrapped her hair around her neck like a scarf. Without her bulky coat, Hux saw how slight she was. Her skin glowed blue in the firelight. For an instant, as Racina bent to touch her mittens, Hux confused her with Naamah, who'd stood in that exact place when she was nine months pregnant.

"What should we do?" Racina said.

Hux hadn't gotten that far. When he agreed to watch Racina, he assumed that she'd amuse herself like she did on their walks. Other girls would have brought along markers or dolls or fingernail polish, but Racina came empty-handed. "You could help me mount a buck's head."

"Okay," Racina said, scratching her cheek. "But I won't touch the insides."

"Deal."

Hux set Racina up at the butcher block in the kitchen. He dragged a stool from the mudroom, as well as a cardboard box full of glass eyes. Her job was to choose a pair for the buck he was working on.

"What do you do with the real eyes?" Racina said.

"Throw them away. They don't hold up."

Racina sorted through the box. She held up a pair of piercing green eyes. "I like these the best."

"Those are for wolves," Hux said.

"I know."

"The customer probably wants brown ones."

"Why?" Racina said.

"Because they want it to look real."

"By using fake eyes?"

"When did you get to be so sharp?"

Racina put the green eyes back in the box. "I've been studying."

Because of Racina's condition and the fact that the nearest school was twenty miles away, Gunther decided on home schooling. As of now, Racina was two years ahead of other kids her age. From an educational standpoint, this was all well and good. The downside was that Racina didn't have any friends under the age of thirty-five.

Hux pulled a buck's head out of the refrigerator and set it on the kitchen table. He heated a pot of water to sterilize his tools. When he was a kid, he wanted to be a surgeon. He liked the idea of putting people back together. He didn't mind the sight of blood or the intimate knowledge of math and chemistry the occupation required. What he did mind was a lost cause: the moment when a person could no longer be saved. His mother had been such a person.

But she'd said something that changed his life. All day she'd been complaining about the nurse's nutritional milkshakes, the texture of the sheets on her bed, and the yellow drapes that hung across the picture window. Some people died nicely. Others didn't.

"Come here," his mother said. "You don't like me now that I smell like piss?"

The acrid smell was a reason Hux lingered at the bedroom door. He wasn't convinced that the woman in the bed was his mother.

"Well," his mother said. "I don't like you either, but I have something to say. Can you keep a secret?"

"Yes," Hux said faintly.

"Come closer then. I don't feel like dying without telling someone."

After Hux's mother told him her secret, he no longer cared to be a surgeon. Some people, he suspected, didn't want to be put back together.

"How about these?" Racina said, holding up a pair of chocolate-brown eyes. "They look sad."

"Is that what we're going for?" Hux said.

"That's how I'd feel if I was hanging on someone's wall. I'd want everyone who looked at me to know that."

"Sad it is then," Hux said. He turned off the burner on the stove and took his tools out of the boiling water. He glanced at the head on the table, wondering if he had the right size form for it. People came to him because he didn't use prefabricated foam or plastic forms. Unlike other taxidermists, Hux sculpted them out of clay and papier-mâché. The buck on the table was supposed to be mounted in full sneak position: ears pinned, head just below the back. The customer, a man from Illinois, hoped Hux could make the buck look a little fiercer since it was going to be mounted in his office.

"What did you have in mind?" Hux had asked.

"Some teeth showing would be good," the man said. "Nostrils flaring. That kind of thing."

"What do you do for a living?"

"Divorce," the man said.

Hux didn't ask any more questions. He decided it didn't matter what he thought about the customer. The animal was his business.

"Hux," Racina said. "Do you think animals have souls?"

"Sure," Hux said. "What about you?"

Racina sifted through the box of eyes. "I think animals are just as important as people only they can't talk so they can't say so."

"Trees and plants?"

"They feel things, too."

"You sound just like –"

"Who?" Racina said, leaning forward on the stool. Her feet slipped off the bottom rung. "Who do I sound like?"

"Your mother," Hux said reluctantly.

"Nobody talks about her in front of me," Racina said. "I don't even know what she looks like. You and Dad are the only ones who ever say anything."

"Not everybody knew your mother the way we did."

Racina looked into the cardboard box. "If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?"

"Alright," Hux said. "But just one. We have plenty to do."

Racina swept her hair back from her face. She touched her cheek, her trumpet scar. "How did I get this?"

"What does your dad say?"

"He says it's a birthmark." Racina walked over to the kitchen table and sat in the chair across from Hux. The buck's head was between them. "I'm eleven," she said. "I know the difference between a birthmark and a scar."

Hux picked up a skinning knife. He made two vertical cuts in the buck's neck and began to peel flaps of skin away from the base of the skull. Once the cape of fur was removed, he'd skin out the head. Cutting around the antler burr, the tear ducts and the eyes, without damaging the fur, was a tricky proposition.

"You were a baby," he said, cutting into the skull.

"I knew it!" Racina said. She tapped her scar punitively, as if it had been the one to lie to her. The table shook. "I knew I wasn't born with this."

"Careful," Hux said.

"Sorry," Racina said, regaining her composure. "It's just that I have this memory. It's not really a memory, I guess. It's more of a feeling. Like how I get cold even when it's summer."

Hux set the knife down. That Racina had some recollection, however vague, of the night she lay in the snow was what Hux was afraid of. He'd regarded the other day—when Racina was circling the cedar tree—as a coincidence, but he could see in her face, the seriousness of her expression, that she knew more than everybody thought.

"I dropped you," Hux said quite decisively and to his own surprise. "I was spinning you around and I dropped you."

"On accident?" Racina said.

"You slipped right out of my fingers."

"Where was Dad? My mother?"

"They were putting candles on the cake. It was your first birthday."

Racina touched her scar. "Is that it?"

"You sound disappointed."

"No," Racina said. "I just thought it would have something to do with my mother."

"Well," Hux said. "Your mother took you in her arms and comforted you."

"She did?"

Already, Hux regretted what he was about to say. If Racina ever found out the truth about her mother, she'd think him cruel. At the very least, she'd say, he could have come up with something more realistic.

Without meeting Racina's eyes, Hux said, "She called you her ginger bee."

Racina touched the buck's knotty antlers. Her fingertips were white. "I'm going to get my mittens. I feel funny without them."

"You should have told her the truth," Jolene said. "She deserves to know her history."

Hux set a catalogue on Jolene's kitchen table. "It's up to Gunther, not me."

"Where is she?" Jolene said.

"In the bog. She's picking bladderworts for the centerpiece."

"I don't see what everyone's afraid of."

"Well," Hux said.

"Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if Racina saw through your little story. You're not the best liar."

"Is that a compliment?"

"You can't worm your way out of this one," Jolene said.

Hux reached into his mailbag and pulled out a package from Europe.

"My hyssop!" Jolene said. "It's about time."

"Racina seems better," Hux said. "I haven't heard her cough in weeks."

"Well," Jolene said.

After he finished his coffee, Hux walked out to the bog to find Racina. The mosquitoes had already died off, which made the going easier. The last of the season's frogs were calling to each other. Soon, they'd bury themselves under the peat and hibernate until spring. The miraculous thing about frogs in the North Country was that they stayed frozen all winter—people called them Kermit Cubes. After they thawed out, in the spring, the frogs continued where they'd left off, unharmed and energetic.

From ground level, the bog looked as flat as a piece of paper. Several years ago, Hux had the experience of seeing the land from the air. Someone had paid a great deal of money to have a package delivered to the Circle, an ovoid island in the middle of the bog. The post office arranged for Hux to go up in a floatplane on Sand Lake, land in Otter Pond and taxi the rest of the way. The pilot took Hux up on a clear November day —much like today. Hux had never been in an airplane before. He was looking forward to the moment the pontoons lifted out of the water, to the impossibly steep climb over the choked swamp pines toward the sun.

"I'll take you up over the river first," the pilot said. "Then we'll fly over Partway and into the bog. Once the propeller's on, we won't be able to hear much."

They were up in the air, bounding skyward, before Hux had a chance to relish the takeoff, to commit it to memory. What he did remember was the river – how the higher they climbed, the calmer it looked, like a sheet of blue ice. The plane bounced over cool drifts into steadier air. After the pilot steered away from the river, Hux saw the old forestry road leading into Partway. He saw Jolene's cabin and Churchy's and the town itself, which reminded him of the matchstick cities he used to build as a kid.

Hux walked through the bog, across the flarks, calling for Racina now and then. He found her bent over a half-frozen pitcher plant. The sleeves of her coat were wet, brown as a vole.

"What are these called again?" she said.

"Pitchers," Hux said. "See the leaves."

"I like when things look like their name."

Racina and Hux continued through the bog. A sharp-tailed sparrow skittered into a bank of reeds. Most of the birds had already migrated south. The sparrows stayed put through winter, foraging the frozen peatlands. Their orange throats made them easy to spot.

Racina tugged on her boots. "Why do you think our sparrows have orange throats and others don't?"

"I don't know," Hux said. "Maybe they adapted to hunting season."

"People don't hunt sparrows."

Hux helped Racina over a tangle of black spruce roots. He didn't let go of her hand until they were out of the bog.

Racina twirled her hair into a bun and tucked it beneath her hat—her only means of cooling down without breaking Gunther's rules. "What are you going to say for your part of the toast?"

> For Thanksgiving, Churchy had asked everyone to contribute some thoughts. "I have to think about it more."

"I'm working on a poem to go with the centerpiece."

"What about?"

"I don't know yet. It was about thanking the turkey, but I keep thinking about the story you told me the other day." Racina stopped walking. "It isn't true, is it?"

Hux draped his jacket over Racina's shoulders. "What makes you think that?"

"You're too careful to drop me."

By Thanksgiving, Hux had more bucks than he could handle. He had to borrow a cooler from Gunther to store the heads, which he wrapped in plastic bags and secured with duct tape. Ice was a problem, too. His freezer threatened to give out at any minute—its high-pitched cries unnerved him—and there was a run on ice at the general store. It was the height of hunting season, of buck fever.

Hux was only halfway through the first mount. The buck he and Racina had worked on was waiting to be put back together. Hux had just begun to glue the fur onto the papier-mâché form. He was still trying to figure out what to do about the customer's request for fierceness; he'd extracted the buck's incisors before he ran into his current storage problem and had to stop.

If he'd figured right, five thousand dollars worth of work awaited him in the kitchen. He'd be able to buy the new barrel tumbler, for sure. The rest he'd put into the coffee tin beneath his bed. Racina's birthday was coming up and Hux wanted to buy her a waterproof jacket he'd seen in one of Jolene's catalogues. The jacket was made out of goose down and weighed only thirteen ounces. He liked the color, too. Red onion. He thought it would look pretty with Racina's black hair.

Hux didn't like that he'd lied to her, but he didn't want to tell her the truth either. Kids deserved happy memories and Racina deserved more than other kids. Hux never much wanted children—another reason Leah went south—but he liked Racina, even loved her, though he never said so out loud. He tried writing some of his feelings down for tonight's toast.

The sun in her hair
The shining sun. The sparkling water.

With Racina, the sun always shines.

Hux couldn't think of words that would express how much he liked walking with Racina in the mornings, how her nose twitched whenever she was interested in something. He opened a taxidermy book, hoping for inspiration, and settled on a quote, which he changed around.

She is happy with simple movements. The flutter of a wing. The turn of a head.

Hux wrote the quote on an old envelope and went back to the bucks. The refrigerator had inched away from the wall, as if it were alive. Hux put the cooler in front of it. Tomorrow, he'd drive down to International Falls for more supplies, possibly a new refrigerator. Maybe he'd take Racina along if she wanted to go. He could bring her to the 76 Diner for pie and ice cream like his mother did before she got too sick. His mother used to say pie and ice cream were evidence God hadn't forgotten about them.

At four o'clock, as dusk was settling over the house, Hux put a bottle of whiskey and the envelop into his mailbag and set off for Town Hall. With the sun down, the temperature dropped quickly. Hux turned up his collar and braced himself against the wind. He walked past a scattering of rundown houses, tarpaper roofs and barking dogs. The sky was a peculiar shade of pink, which meant snow.

Town Hall, which used to be the old Forest Service headquarters in the days when there was still good lumber, was decorated with strands of Christmas lights. From the front porch, Hux could see Jolene wiping down a piece of silverware with the end of her apron. Marian was lighting white candles and Churchy was opening a can of cranberry sauce. Gunther and Racina were positioning her centerpiece on the long pine table. Though it was cold where Hux stood, he lingered a moment longer. Nights like tonight reminded him why he'd stayed in Partway all these years.

Once Hux was inside, the women fluttered around him. They took his coat and the whiskey and handed him a glass of spiced eggnog. Before he set his bag down, Marian gave him a postcard.

"I know there's no mail today," she said. "But tomorrow, if you don't mind."

"Just because the mail stops doesn't mean we do," Hux said.

Marian kissed Hux on the cheek. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Happy Thanksgiving, Marian."

Racina came bounding toward Hux and pulled him to the table. Though she'd taken off her coat, she was still wearing her mittens. "You have to see my centerpiece," she said. "I made it look like a turkey."

"Don't rip his arm off," Gunther said to Racina.

"Well, hello there," Churchy said. "How goes the mounting?"

"Buck fever," Hux said.

"Did you ever hear the Indians' version?" Churchy said. "They go around acting like bucks. Leaping through the woods."

"Native Americans," Marian corrected.

"We're ready," Jolene said. "Hop to it everyone. Find a seat before the turkey decides to walk out the door."

"What about the toasts?" Racina said.

"After dinner," Churchy said. "Everything looks glorious."

In fact, the spread on the table did look glorious. Marian had brought along the china—English fine bone, she said—which enlivened Churchy's cranberry sauce and his jar of brown gravy. The blue plates depicted Roman or Greek ruins, Hux didn't know which, and were framed by a floral border.

"Isn't this the Domus Aurea?" Churchy said, holding his plate to the light.

Marian set down her fork. She looked pleased. "Yes."

"Poor Nero," Churchy said. "The emperors tried to erase his memory."

Whenever Marian and Churchy got to talking, everyone went quiet. The two of them had been to college (university, Marian would say) and had traveled extensively. Hux and the others had never left Minnesota.

"No luck, though," Churchy said. "Wasn't it rediscovered during the Renaissance?"

"Can you imagine?" Marian said. "The Domus – and on my wedding plates."

"Domus schmomus," Jolene said. She dished out pieces of cornbread and placed enormous chunks of butter on each of them. "Let's eat.

"Jo," Hux said.

"I haven't taken a bite since breakfast. I have a big appetite."

"I'm hungry, too," Racina said, fiddling with her mittens.

While Gunther carved the turkey, he told the story of tracking it through the bog.

"Dad," Racina said.

"What?" Gunther said. "This is the greatest turkey that ever lived."

"Exactly," Racina said.

"Would you be happier with a regular turkey?"

"No," Racina said, stroking the sedges on the centerpiece. "I'm happier with my turkey."

The bladderworts and sundews were arranged to resemble a fan of tail feathers. For the body, she'd used sedges and mosses. She'd devised the head out of an antler point, at the base of which she'd glued a piece of red construction paper: the gobbler's wattle. The feet were made of twigs and were covered with white- and red-veined lady's-slippers.

Through dinner, everyone was too busy wolfing down cornbread and yams, turkey and stuffing, to talk. When it came time for the toasts, Hux had had three glasses of eggnog spiked with his good whiskey.

"God and I aren't always on the best terms, as you all know," Churchy said, raising his glass. "The Pope, too. I've seen a lot of bad works in my time on this earth. But in my experience, whenever there's bad, there's an equal measure of good."

"Here, here," Gunther said.

"God is nigh," Jolene said.

"Seriously," Churchy said. "I just wanted to thank everyone for keeping an old man from going batty."

Marian placed a hand on Churchy's shoulder. "That's very sweet."

One-by-one, the adults went through their toasts, which were mostly expressions of thanks and friendship. Good will. When Hux read his toast, everyone congratulated him. Thoughtful, they said. True to form. Racina wanted to be last. She unfolded a piece of notebook paper and Gunther looked at everyone cautiously, as if to say she worked really hard on this.

"Have you read it?" Jolene said to Gunther.

"No," Gunther said. "She wanted it to be a surprise."

Racina stood up. "I wrote a poem," she said very seriously. "It's called The Head on the Wall, but it doesn't rhyme." She began to read from the piece of paper.

The Head on the Wall by Racina

I'm not allowed to take off my coat.
I'm not allowed to go without mittens.
I'm not allowed to walk alone.
I'm not allowed to go to school.
I'm not allowed to run and play.
I'm not allowed to laugh too hard.

I'm not allowed to ask too many questions.
I'm not allowed to know my mother.

After Racina was finished, she sat down again. Everyone looked to Gunther for a signal, for what should and should not be said.

"Take off your mittens then," Gunther said. "I didn't know they bothered you so much."

"Jesus, Gunther," Jolene said. "She's trying to tell us something."

"Mind your own business," Gunther said.

"Mind yours," Jolene said.

"I want to walk home tonight," Racina said.

"It's too cold," Gunther said.

"It's always too cold," Racina said.

"I'll give her my scarf," Marian said.

"She can have my sweater," Churchy said.

"And my ear muffs," Jolene said.

Gunther stared at Hux for a long moment.

"If she wants to walk," Hux said. "You better let her walk."

"Okay," Gunther said. "We'll walk."

After the dishes were cleared and washed, everyone put on their coats and walked outside together. It was decided that they'd all come back tomorrow to finish cleaning up. Racina put on Marian's cashmere scarf and Churchy's wool sweater and Jolene's mink ear muffs.

"Thank you," she said, blowing everybody kisses. "Thank you all."

Hux walked along the dirt alleyways, past the barking dogs, all the while looking up at the sky. He decided that tomorrow he'd talk to Gunther and convince him to tell Racina the truth. To Hux, her poem meant that she was old enough to know. Hux was ten when he'd learned his mother's secret and he'd managed all right.

"It's not my kidneys," his mother had said. "It's my heart." Which turned out to be true—his mother's kidney failure was caused by a blockage in her right ventricle. "All the waste is building up."

Hux sat beside his mother and listened to her talk. Her skin had yellowed and slackened. Her urine—a word that embarrassed Hux—smelled like burnt leaves. Purple rosettes overtook her legs. All these years later, Hux couldn't remember if she said I love you or goodbye or I'll miss you. Probably not. She was never much for saying those kinds of things when she was healthy.

"Before I married your father," his mother said, "a man came to town selling pelts. He trapped me like one of his wolves."

"What happened?" Hux said, half-disgusted by his mother and half-sorry for being disgusted.

"I had one of his pups," his mother said. "Then I gave it away to some nuns in International Falls."

Hux's mother spit into the jar on her bedside table. Before she rolled over on her side, away from Hux, she said, "You have a sister." And then, after a few minutes, she said, "I think I'll die now."

After his father died, years later, Hux drove to the only orphanage in International Falls. He sat down with the head nun and discovered that he did have a half-sister. He learned her history—how she'd thrown a pan of hot oil on one of the nuns, how she'd slept with the caretaker.

"We let her go when she was fourteen," the head nun said. "I've heard stories about her at the logging camps. My advice is to go home and forget about her." The nun rolled up her sleeve, exposing a large purple scar on her forearm. "This is your sister's work. She came into my room while I was sleeping and bit me."

Hux went to find his sister, despite the nun's advice. He took her away from the logging camp where she sold herself for nothing and brought her to Partway.

Hux arrived home to a broken refrigerator and a pool of water on the kitchen floor. The refrigerator door had flung open and a buck's head had toppled onto the cooler and then onto the linoleum. One of the antlers had broken off. The other heads had warmed to room temperature and were ruined; they dripped blood onto the vegetable bin.

Already, Hux was calculating what the mess would cost him. He'd have to reimburse the customers and add some on top of that. Plus, he'd get a bad name. He'd be known as the guy who spoiled perfectly good bucks. Hux sat down at the kitchen table. He opened his mailbag and pulled out the bottle of whiskey. After a few drinks, he'd think of a solution, some method of salvaging the bucks. He placed Marian's postcard on the table. For twenty years, she'd used the same pale blue stationary and matching envelopes. Always, she sealed her letters with wax. Hux didn't know where Marian would have bought a postcard like this or what it meant to her. On the front, two sailboats were moored to the end of a whitewashed dock.

Hux took a drink of whiskey. The neighbor's huskies started barking. They'd gotten out again, probably by leaping over the fence, and had knocked over Hux's garbage can. Hux pulled back the curtain from the kitchen window, figuring he'd have to get a rope and round them up.

That's when Gunther and Racina knocked on the front door.

"We brought you a piece of pumpkin pie," Racina said. "You forgot to eat one."

Hux ushered them into the kitchen.

"It looks like a butcher shop in here," Gunther said. "What happened?"

"The refrigerator died," Hux said. "So did my business."

"We should give it a funeral," Racina said.

"The refrigerator?"

"Yes," Racina said. "The animals, too."

Gunther opened the cabinet beneath the sink. "Rags. We need rags."

"You don't have to do that," Hux said, but Gunther was already wiping up the blood on the floor. Racina peeled off her coat and her mittens, all the subsequent layers meant to protect her from the elements. She took a rag from the cabinet and got on her hands and knees.

"Bless this buck," she said, lifting one of the heads to clean beneath it.

"Amen," Gunther said.

Hux watched the two of them work. He knew he wouldn't have to say anything to Gunther about letting up on Racina, just as he'd known that Naamah would never be able to live among decent people.

The night Naamah had stood in his living room, her belly hanging over her pants, she begged for money and ran at Hux when he wouldn't give it to her.

"Why did you bring me here?" she said, digging her fingernails into his skin.

"I'm trying to help you," Hux said.

Naamah clutched her stomach. She fell to the floor.

An hour later, Racina was born. She lay on her mother's chest, curling her fingers around the ends of Naamah's black hair. Hux waited to cut the umbilical cord. He thought something had changed in Naamah's expression. Her gray eyes looked momentarily relenting.

In an unimaginably sweet voice, Naamah said, "She's not mine."

"She even looks like you," Hux said.

"Take her away from me," Naamah said. "Please. I'll only hurt her."

"Sweet dreams, Refrigerator," Racina said, patting the freezer door. "You did the right thing."

Hux turned on the radio. A Day in the Life of… was almost over. This week's theme was black bears in northern Wisconsin. A mother and her cubs had taken up residence in someone's summer cabin. The bears had been sleeping on the couch.

"The people are always from Illinois," Gunther said. "Doesn't make me want to go there."

"Coffee anybody?" Hux said.

"I'll have mine with milk," Racina said. "And two spoonfuls of sugar."

Gunther stared at her.

"Okay, one spoonful."

Hux put the water on to boil and sat down at the kitchen table. He picked at a lint ball on Racina's mitten. "I don't even like to leave Partway."

He looked at the heads on the floor, at the half-finished buck on the mounting brace. Maybe wolf eyes weren't such a bad idea, after all. Maybe it didn't matter if he lost a handful of out-of-town customers. He'd always have the locals, the people who didn't mind a gentle expression.

Hux turned over Marian's postcard. Her words clung to the bottom of the paper, as if, at any time, they might slide off.

Were you happy?

I was.