Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by Eric Shonkwiler

Excerpt from Novel in progress, Above All Men

It rained three times, each a full day.  The rain washed the dust into a slurry of mud that ran into the creeks and melted down the piles in the fields.  The trees budded and the grass livened, weeds flourished with the smaller plants and sprang up all along the fields and roadsides.  Helene started work on the garden to take advantage and when the land had dried David and O H hoed out the weeds and planted over a span of weeks and the three of them waited for the first green of their work.  Pacing the road going into town David saw the ivy winding and milkweed and the red buds on the tree branches.  The sand mounded against houses in town had solidified and cracked.  He walked the trails he’d used for the tractors and took his horse down other roads to look at the fields of other farmers.  He came home from riding in the early evening and the sun’s light was just golden on the land around him.  He saw Samuel walking ahead with a book in his hand and David called for him but he didn’t turn.  David rode the horse into the barn and dismounted.  He brushed the horse down and watered it and walked home.  He went in and saw Helene and Rue in the living room reading.  He stopped in the doorway and they both looked up.

Hi daddy.

Hey, girl.  How are ya?

We’re reading.

I see that.  Your brother come through here?

Huh uh.

He looked at Helene.

I haven’t seen him.  What’s wrong?

Nothin’.  I just saw him ahead of me comin’ home.  He’s probably in the backyard, readin’ too.

David came into the room and sat on a footstool and took off his boots.  He heaved a sigh and looked at them both and smiled.  Rain’s taking real well.

Helene turned a page and smiled back.  Oh yeah?


Hopefully it sticks around.

He nodded.  I’ll let you get back to it.  I’ma go wash my hands.  He rose and nudged Rue with his foot and carried his boots to the front door and dropped them.  He went to the kitchen and looked out the window for Samuel and saw nothing.  He washed his hands and rubbed them over his face and he saw the silhouette of a tree move, Samuel’s shoulder.  He dried his hands on a cloth hanging from the stove and wiped his face on his sleeves.  The sun was orange in the southwest and hovering just over the shape of the granary in town.  Hey, you want me to make dinner tonight?

There was a pause and he heard shuffling from the living room.  If you want.

Sure.  He started looking through the cupboards and by the clean sunset light they did not seem bare.  He set a pot of water to boil and found a box of spaghetti.  He got a jar of tomatoes from the pantry and he sorted through the spices they had and tried to make sauce.  There was a knock at the door and David went into the hall.  He looked in on Helene and Rue.  You may regret lettin’ me cook after all.

I’m not surprised by that.

He smiled and opened the door.  O H stood there with a hand in his pocket.

Hey, bud.


Is Mel in there by chance?

David shook his head.  Huh uh. 

O H pinched up the side of his mouth.  She ought to be home and she ain’t.  She knows to come back for dinner.

David glanced toward the living room.  You seen Melanie lately, mother?

Helene called from the other room.  This morning.

He turned back around.  Sam’s readin’ behind the house.  We could ask him.

Nah, that’s alright.  She’s probably just late comin’ in.

More than likely.  I’ll send her down the line if she drops by.

Appreciate it.  O H put up his hand.  Later.

Bye.  He shut the door.  The phone started ringing.  Well dang.  He picked it up and spun to lean back against the table.  It was Mrs. Spangler.  He was on the phone for less than a minute before he hung up and ran to the door.  Helene looked up at him from her book.

What’s the matter?

Get Sam inside and lock the doors.  He went out and bounded off the porch and was running to O H’s shack.  He knocked once and opened the door and stuck his head in.  O H was sitting at the little table eating, Delia on the other side with her back to the door.  Hey Ornery, come on.

O H wiped his lips on the back of his hand and stood up, the table skidding on the dirt floor.  What?

Come on.  He nodded back slightly.  Delia turned to look at him and he let his eyes flick to hers and back.  O H rounded the table and David backed from the door and once O H had shut it David began to run.  He heard O H behind him and they went to the truck and backed out into the road.  He could see O H looking at him from the corner of his eye but he just shifted the truck into gear and sped down the road.  It fishtailed briefly and David brought it back and he saw the dust in the rearview and watched the new flora streak by and the dark red mounds of dirt and heard O H yelling at him until he looked at him on a straightaway.  Spangler’s wife called, said Paige came in the house a minute ago all covered in blood.  Somebody shot Mel.

O H rocked back.  His head tilted like he was agreeing with something.  They came into town and turned right at the square and drove on.  They went back out of town and took a side road and David kept glancing over at O H but he hadn’t moved.  His hands were on his knees and he was looking at the visor in front of him.  The woods came flush with the road and the vegetation was thick along the roadside and the treeline.

She said they were by the creek down the road.

He nodded slightly.  The guardrails and culvert came into view.  David stopped the truck in front of the rails and they got out.  O H started running along the berm and David scanned along the trees for sign of clothes or blood.  O H yelled and David turned to see him jump the ditch and kneel at the base of a young locust.  David ran towards him and leapt the ditch and saw him pull Melanie up in his arms and her head lolled back and her eyes were closed.  She wore a purple blouse that was soaked through with blood up to her shoulders.  He was shaking her lightly and her arm slipped from her stomach and fell palm upwards.  David stopped and knelt and he pushed O H back for room and he sat up.  David felt at her neck and the skin was cool and there was no pulse, no flutter of a pulse.  He looked up at O H.  He watched as O H lifted her to his chest and he stood with her legs and arms long and waving.  Her feet reached past his knees and a thin-soled shoe caught against his leg and the foot twisted as he stepped forward.  When David tried to stand to follow his strength was sapped and he stuck a hand out to catch himself.  He stood up and sidestepped.

O H.

O H didn’t turn.  He was walking to the truck with her and David first noticed the waning light by their silhouettes and the shadow of Melanie’s legs dangling.

We have to keep her here.  The sheriff might find something.  David breathed in and turned to look at the treeline.  The green there and the mudded sand in the ditch.  The thin creek split the trees and beside it there was a path trod in the new grass and weeds.  He turned back and saw O H still walking, clutching her body to him.  David stared as they became smaller and the land slowly darker and he dropped back to his knees.  He frayed.  His thoughts evaporated. He thought of a child that died in his arms years ago, dark venous blood dripping into the dirt and onto his fatigues. Eventually he found himself standing and walking to the truck.  He started it and turned it around in the road and drove until he was beside O H and he dreaded the sight of her limp in his arms and he could not see himself stop the truck and help pull her into the cab but moments later she was slumped partly in OH's lap and David was driving into town.  The sun was blocked by the stores at the square and they turned and drove out to the house. They pulled in and he turned off the truck and O H opened the door and slid her out and carried her across the yard toward his shack.  David got out and stood against the truck and saw heads in the lit windows of the house.  The door opened and Delia came running out to O H and they stopped where the fence used to be and he heard her wailing.  He looked back to the house.  Helene was backlit in the doorway with a hand up on the frame and he saw her step down and stagger and grip the porch railing.  He walked up to her and looked in her eyes and he opened his mouth but only shook his head.  Rue was in the doorway and he went around Helene to push Rue back and he shut the door.  He stood with his hand still on the door.  He backed a step and pivoted and he looked out at the yard and only in periphery at the three huddled on the ground to the right.  Helene was staring at him and she was gone and he realized she went inside.  Then she was back.

I called the sheriff.

He nodded.  I should get a blanket.

I’ll get it.

He heard her footsteps and heard the door shut.  The sun had set and the sky to the east was dark.  They were shadows now.  He shook his head.  Samuel.  There was no one to answer him.  He opened the door and went in and he looked at his hand as it dropped from the doorknob.  Blood dried and flaking on the web of his thumb.  He walked up the stairs to Samuel’s room and tried the door.  There was no lock but it was held fast and he knocked.  He pushed at the door and it budged and he threw his shoulder behind it and the chair went along the carpet inside and he slipped in.  He set the chair aside.  Samuel was sitting on his bed facing away and his head was down.  David went around the end of the bed and sat beside him and put his arm around his shoulder.  Samuel turned and put his head against David’s chest and David pulled him closer and stroked his hair.  He felt the boy shudder in his arms and felt his ribs and spine and his shoulder blades and he wanted nothing more than to feed him.  A deep shame spread through David and the room seemed to dim as if it had veiled his head.  He rubbed Samuel’s arm and took his hand and held him tight.  Helene was in the doorway waiting and he knew the sheriff had arrived.  He eased and dropped his arms and Samuel sat up.  David stood and wiped his eyes and went to Helene.  She held him briefly and their cheeks met and were damp.

The sheriff’s here.


There are deputies out looking, he said.

Okay.  He’d been staring at the floor.  She took his hands and he glanced up at her and her eyes were dark and tight.  She let go and he went downstairs and out into the yard.  The sheriff and a deputy were standing with O H and there was a light on in the shack.  There was a blanket around O H’s feet.  He saw the sheriff glance his way and David went over and stood beside O H.  The sheriff was talking about the people they knew and if there was anyone they thought might want to kill her.  He paused before he said it.  O H shook his head and the sheriff looked at David.  They stood there talking for a while longer until they could see their breath between them and David brought them inside.  He made a pot of coffee and stood by while the sheriff and O H talked at the kitchen table.  David poured a cup for the deputy outside and gave it to him and walked back and the night passed in the black windows and the open doorways.  Helene stayed upstairs with the children and he paced through the house seeing her at times at the top of the stairs looking down.  There was an emptiness to the house.  All the rooms were lit up and silent save for his walking through.  He paused to touch the back of the couch and the banister in the hall and the jewelry box on top of the dresser in their bedroom.  His mother called and offered to come out or to take the children into town.  Deputies stopped in at the front door and the sheriff came out to talk with them.  The coroner came for the body and David stood on the porch with the sheriff and watched as O H and Delia followed the cart down the road.

I’m awful sorry this happened.

So am I.  David pinched the bridge of his nose and held his hand there.  He rubbed at his eyes and ran his hand down his face.

Never seen anything like it.  Five holes in that girl.

I don’t need to hear that.

The sheriff shook his head.  Never in sixteen years.  He breathed deep.  But I imagine you’ve seen worse.

It’s different.

How’s that?

I’ve never seen hell and home at the same time.


BIO:  Eric Shonkwiler is a Midwesterner currently living in California. This is his third novel.