Look to the land, the sky told him, that last night before auction. Own its beauty, the Bible said. Know that its wildness defies God.
Anya Achtenberg’s novel Blue Earth tells a compelling story about Minnesota, a land that guards its secrets. The first chapter of the book, as given below, introduces the novel’s main character Carver Heinz to readers. More about the author and her work can be found online at her website http://anyaachtenberg.com/.
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No, boy, Carver heard in the wind moving over the land that sprawled out behind the old church. When the words struck him, he knew he was turning hard, like the old man had, but his own good bones were still covered in flesh warmed by the golden air of autumn, while his father’s were laid out in the black soil, his arms crossed over the Book of God’s Word.
Carver felt nothing when he left the hospital that night. They’d stood over him to tell him of his father’s last moments. He was sitting right outside the room, facing the glass, watching people race in and out when it happened. He could do nothing but lower his head, and that was the way he walked back into the house, where his mother was wailing and rocking, finding the rhythm of her own death. “Carver,” she said when she saw his face, “it’s over, then.”
She leaned on him after, and on Katie, and he did what he could, working through the night on the acres she still had left. In that night daze, in the hush of silver light that made it seem he was moving through the negative of a photo, his jacket glowing and his face in darkness, he saw his work disappear, though he knew it went back into the land.
His mother did all of the milking herself. She always had. She’d been pretty good, too, at getting the tractor up the rise without it stalling. She wouldn’t go near it anymore.
Carver brought over a pot of tea each night, and sat with her before he went to tend to the alfalfa in the front acres. But then she went into the great silence of the farm.
“What is it, Mom?” he asked her one night.
She looked up and put her hand to her ear. “They’re laying the tracks to Heaven for me. Can you hear it, the tracks getting set down? I could always hear it, the pounding of the spikes, ever since I was a girl, though the trains were already coming on through each day.”
“No, Ma, I can’t hear it.”
“That’s good, Carver. Each person should hear their own sounds inside, not what a mother tells them to. Not what a father says.”
It was then that he heard again the shots of the salute at his brother’s funeral. He heard the twenty-one bursts, but the firing didn’t stop. He kept on hearing it, or maybe it was the cracking of trees in the wind, or his mother making a small humming sound as she turned to him, and a sharp grunt as the hammer fell ringing against the spikes.
“Go, get out of here, son. Go to Katie, now. I’m alright,” she said, and sipped her tea.
He touched her hand and was shaken by the small explosion in her throat as another spike was set, then went back out into the moonlight and got to work again. He could at least try to make it right.
No flowers pushed up from the grave where his father slept, turned into silence. Carver knelt by the headstone that said, “Beloved Mother.” He wanted her arms around him as so many times when she’d tried to protect him from his father, or comfort him afterwards. But it wasn’t his father who had lost the farm. What could he do now, but go on and be hard, if that’s what it took.
He stood up and flung a rock at the sun, then walked away, weak-kneed, not certain of the path out.
As he read the notice in the papers that night, Carver understood it for a moment, how men could not own the land, the same way they could not own time. With the farm each day closer to auction, a few hairs fell out of his head whether he brushed hard or not at all. His beard grew in gray if he did not shave it, his stomach rumbled if he did not feed it, and his heart, well, that ached more each day, as he thought of his faraway girl, his perfect Rose, and of his wife, no longer his because of some legal paper, and maybe some misguided notion she had. Or, maybe, and his heart seized up at this, because of his rough ways.
But the seasons would keep on their coming and going, there on the land, even after he was gone to the Cities. The field mice and rabbits would feast there, unless the company that bought the place got rid of them. The land would yield or it wouldn’t. The sky would bless it with rain, or would not. The earth would keep on turning, like those speeded up films of night into day, and day fallen to night. And his own wife and daughter would be living in another town, his land under another’s plow, the rest of his folks dead and buried, and there was nothing he could do about any of it. That’s what everyone said, anyway. Or whispered.
He stopped wondering what it was that had broken him down, made him so hard sometimes. He knew the hand of his father. The loss of his brother. The grief of his mother, and he useless to do a thing for her. Just dig and bury: seed, family, his own sorrow.
He’d already asked every question he could think of. In the silence, he made up his own answers.
Those nights after Kate left and took Rosie with her, Carver figured it out. He knew that they were coming for the farm, and for the things he’d bought and the things he’d made, and this woman, who didn’t know the meaning of the word wife, left and took his girl, the flower of his flesh. He packed up all through those days and read the Bible every night, for three or four hours. Then he lay down in the stillness, down in the dirt, and smelled its truth, its giving. And he figured it out, just like he was told by the stars and their pretty pictures, here a great gourd full of water, full of blessing; over there a warrior, and circling his powerful waist, a belt to hold a man together in the darkness to do whatever he had to in the light.
Look to the land, the sky told him, that last night before auction. Own its beauty, the Bible said. Know that its wildness defies God. Walk upon the land, and with your long step, make it yours. It lies beneath you. It needs you to work it, to know it, even to force it, in the harshest weathers, in the plagues of insects, in the dust of drought. In the ice of loss. In the green knowledge of harvest. Plow here. He had heard all this many times. Plow deep in the earth and turn the land to opening. Seed it. With all manner of your needs, for bean and grain and the green tops of the vegetable world, seed the land. Make the rows straight. Water and water until all beauty floats up from the belly of the land. Make it give forth the pink buds from its violet furrows, and eat here, eat what you made flower. Then feed your village, and in harsh times feed no other. Become master of the land in God’s image.
Own beauty, he repeated.
It’s them that work it, have a right to it. He was told this by the old man, an upright old man in most habits, who stood over his son each evening at dusk and asked him what he did that day, what he accomplished that could be done by no other, just him and the sons he was to have. And he’d wanted a son, always. When Katie told him a child was coming, he was proud and took himself to the fields each day a better man, sure to be echoed by a boy working at his side, full doubled someday by a grown son to leave the land to. He had dreams of the wind coming up to bring that boy to him, and he was strong, fair-haired and strong, and looked to his father with clear open eyes, the land trembling around them as they made their plans—which fields to give what crops, which machinery to fix up and drive through—writing their dreams together into the land. In his head, Carver was seeing the rooms to add on for the little ones who’d come after the first, and he didn’t think once that Katie might not give him the child he needed.
She was upstairs for so long with the midwife and the neighbor, and he knew she was strong and clean and wouldn’t have any kind of trouble, like some women did. It was the polio that had worried him, but that was a long ago thing. After all, Katie was a farmwoman and knew how to grow a world inside of her.
Imagine, he thought, by lying beneath him, this woman goes on to grow a whole new world within her very flesh.
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