Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms (Liveright/W.W. Norton). Photo by Christophe Chammartin.
FWR: Let’s start with your pieces for Literary Hub, where you focus on grammar as craft. Of Lauren Groff’s writing, you say, “The style of her sentences … are the gears and wheels of her genius.” Often, when we talk about craft, we’re looking at aspects of the form—point of view, exposition, characterization. I found it interesting how you articulated conditioning these components with the shape of prose itself. How does a writer go about using language and grammar to achieve a desired composite effect?
Christian Kiefer: I think the easy answer here is by consciously reading with language and musicality in mind. For me, the sentence length is effectively the length of breath that any piece of writing asks for. That length of breath can fluctuate depending on the scene or situation, but the exhale/inhale of a line of text is mostly dictated by its rhythm and its use of pauses and end stops (commas, periods—but also textual interruptions and so on). With someone like Faulkner, you’ve got an increasingly ostentatious use of clauses and phrases meant to contribute to the flow of the text so that the length of breath becomes almost laughable. For someone like Groff, you’ve got shorter, impactful clauses often fraught with a staccato rhythm that, even when rendered by soft syllabic information, is nonetheless possessive of a kind of wave-like feeling. One doesn’t even notice the periods, the commas, because the unit of rhythm is rendered so expertly.
There’s a whole list of “grammar rules” out there on the internet, of course, and once you have those under your belt, it’s pretty easy to see when people consciously break them. James Baldwin, for example, has a deep love of comma splices, which many college professors would mark as incorrect. Or Garth Greenwell’s idiosyncratic but deeply meaningful use of semicolons. Look at the rhythm of Jesmyn Ward’s prose, or ZZ Packer’s, or Michael Ondaatje’s. These are masters in how they employ grammar as a tool of meaning-making.
FWR: You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you’re writing poetry, you don’t think about narrative, yet the sentences in your novels are so poetic, such as this passage from The Animals:
Above him, above them all, the sky had gone full dark and stars seemed all at once to rise from the tops of the trees, their pinpoints wheeling for a moment across that black expanse only to return once again to those needled shapes, as if each light had come up through the soil, through the epidermis of root hairs and into the cortex and the endodermis and up at last through open xylem, the sapwood, through the vessels and tracheids, rising in the end to the thin sharp needles and releasing, finally, a single dim point of light into the thin dark air only to pull one back from that scattering of stars, the cambium pressing down the trunk, pressing back to black earth. Time circling in the soil and the silver tipped needles. Time circling in the big sage and cheatgrass of everything to come before.
The first sentence is a kind of blazon of a conifer, used less for exposition and more as movement. You’ve mentioned considering velocity as a specific approach to writing. How do you see poetic language as capable of creating certain motion? And in that way, how can lyricism serve narrative?
Kiefer: You’ve happened upon a great peeve of mine: style guides dictate prose should strive for clarity, as if poetry is the only form of writing that gets to be poetic. On one hand, that passage you quoted is perfectly clear to a plant biologist, although of course I’ve taken some license here and there, but its point and purpose is to sink the reader into the language of the natural world, a significant and meaningful (I hope!) theme of the novel.
The motion of the above passage is paused-for-breath by the commas, allowing for a lilting rhythm. I hone this by reading passages aloud over and over and tinkering with the rhythm and the language until it feels representative of whatever effect I’m trying to work toward. Sometimes it’s very, very conscious and sometimes it’s more intuitive, but most often somewhere in between the two.
Those last two sentences above are summatory of the long sentence that precedes them. It’s a way to nail down what might be to an average reader just a bunch of nonsense. I’m offering a way to anchor the reader to something a bit more grounded, though still representative of what the passage is “about”.
This is all to say that in terms of velocity something needs to be moving forward in the text. I’m a pretty patient reader but if there’s no apparent motion, I will eventually get bored. The writer has to put pressure on something—maybe it’s on the sentences themselves, but often it’s the characters, the situation, the scene. Hemingway is known for these short(ish), punchy sentences, but when in action scenes like the end of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” he moves into a completely different rhythm, a completely different velocity
FWR: Your fiction heavily employs atmosphere. In your essay on Garth Greenwell, you call one of his passages a “stuttering delay on the details of the protagonist’s recollection and remembrance.” This relationship between the information released in each clause and what is concealed, to be released later, is a playful manipulation that lends itself to building the haunting atmospheric elements in The Animals, too. How do your terms “re-grammaring” and “re-informing” apply to your approach toward writing and establishing atmosphere?
Kiefer: This is probably something I learned from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner gives the reader so much information right from the first couple pages, yet the reader is totally flummoxed as to what is happening. Even at a basic level, the reader can hardly situate herself in the text. An elderly woman is sitting in a room telling a disjointed story to a college-aged Quentin Compson (from The Sound and the Fury). It seems like it would be straightforward, but part of Faulkner’s interest is the assumptions made by survivors of the Old South, such that most everyone knows the same characters and situations, and so Rosa Coldfield’s narrative—a narrative later assumed by Quentin’s father and by Quentin himself—is therefore fraught with assumptions about the knowledge of the listener/reader.
What this all amounts to is a text of accretion, the meaning of which deepens in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the reader’s confusion. It’s a miraculous thing and an almost impossible book to read, let alone write. I think I’ve probably read it ten times or so.
Having said that, I do think it can be very problematic to willfully withhold information from the reader, especially basic information. For those of us who are not Faulkner—and even Faulkner is not always in full possession of his talent—it’s important to set the reader into a situation or scene that is apprehensible. It can be terribly frustrating to read something and have to struggle to locate basic information. Absalom, Absalom! works counter to this because it’s very much about the act of storytelling over the gigantic canvas of history.
And thank you for your note on my use of atmosphere in my writing. It’s the part of the work that I most enjoy, which mostly comes late in the revision process. I’m doing 30 – 40 drafts of my writing, generally speaking, and a lot of that is dialing in specific textual effects and making sure that the setting is solid enough to be imagined but gauzy enough that the reader can also imagine her own version of it. In this sense, concealment can allow the reader into the text. In The Animals, I want readers to be able to envision the Nevada desert, but I also want to make sure it’s their own Nevada desert, not necessarily mine.
FWR: In Phantoms, characters and events parallel each other throughout, whether John Frazier and Ray Takahashi’s experiences in their respective wars, or John’s attempt to unravel the story of Ray against the backdrop of the town’s desire to deny it. Your syntax often mirrors this parallelism, as John views himself in opposition to or in league with different characters. Can you talk about how prose can embody what it is in fact describing, and how the goings on of a story might be inspired by its prose? How would you advise writers to play around with the tension and congruence between prose and content?
Kiefer: I would advise writers to play around with everything. In terms of the specific question, there’s a balance needed that is embodied in the syntax itself. Whenever you veer from the arrow of the narrative, you’ve got to remember that the reader is likely waiting for the text to reconnect with that (perceived) forward motion. As a microcosm, consider an individual sentence. “Once he awoke from his nap, Bob, still hung over from the night before—that last flight of whiskeys had clearly been a terrible mistake—returned to the office.” So what’s happening there is you’ve delayed the subject’s sentence by 7 syllables, then provided the subject, Bob, which immediately sets up the reader’s expectation that the verb is coming, which you’ve then delayed again by 25 syllables. You’ve got to make sure you’re deferring the reader’s grammatical satisfaction for a good reason. Too much of that will come off as an affectation. (Late Henry James is really, really good at this kind of thing.)
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a scene where the protagonist is trying to avoid talking (or even thinking) about something, then the syntax—even in exposition—might start wrapping itself in circles in order to display something regarding that state of mind, delaying and interrupting, and so on, so that the reader can feel the reticence and avoidance without you having to state it. That’s a fine line to walk because it’s so easy to overdo.
FWR: You play around often with point of view, too. In The Animals, Nat’s perspective is in second person, and you write from the perspective of Majer, who’s a bear. Both Phantoms and One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide feature first-person plural, which in the former creates tension between community and individual and in the latter calls attention to the (inter)viewer and the nature of an artistic lens. What is point of view’s role in situating a reader closer to or farther from the text or characters?
Kiefer: This is something I’ve thought about a great deal. Pam Houston is the master of the second-person narrative, so I’m certain I learned everything I know about that from reading her work. Going back to Faulkner: he employs first-person plural often (look at “A Rose for Emily,” for example). Point of view is, for me, a decision of where to place what John Dos Passos famously called the “camera eye.” That placement can be very idiosyncratic and can even be off-putting (I remember Tin House-editor Rob Spillman commenting that he generally finds second person difficult to pull off).
What I’m interested in is using point of view to shift the position of the reader vis-à-vis the narrative. If we move from standard third-person past to second-person present, that does something significant to the flow of the text and the reader’s position to that text. The reader has to recalibrate where he thinks he is in relation to the story, which I find wonderfully invigorating (as a reader). Ondaatje does this kind of thing with scene, situation, character, and time when he shifts us into some other point in the timeline or shifting the entire narrative as in Divisadero. It’s a way to force readers to reapply themselves to the text while questioning what narrative is and what it can be.
FWR: I want to talk more about the filmic nature of your writing. One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide is described as a kinoroman, or a cinematic novel, and within it the narration functions at once as camera, us as collective readers and viewers, and words, as this is, of course, a book:
When she moves away we do not follow but watch her, receding, pulling out of focus as she reaches the glass doors of the casino, the reflection of the parking lot shifting momentarily across her disappearing shape. In that reflection is all of Nevada. In that reflection is you, reading these words.
Soon after, we read “We have not seen her smoke before, but she is smoking now.” This conflation of a literary feature like backstory with a note I’d expect to read in a screenplay functions as a sort of formal synesthesia. How do you draw from other creative formats in your work? And in your mind, what even is the role of form when it comes to writing?
Kiefer: I think it’s important to occupy “the arts” in a deep and meaningful way and to make sure you’re exploring how the effect of one work might be achieved in another. Like how might one create the textural quality of Anselm Kiefer’s (no relation) The Orders of the Night with words? Or the hauntingly floating opening of Hans Abrahamsen’s opera Let Me Tell You. Or Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Barack Obama. That portrait makes me tear up. How could I as a writer accomplish the way it does that?
Obviously these are shifty questions. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait is wonderful because it can’t really be accomplished any other way, but I do think it’s useful to consider artistic borrowing in this capacity. After all, one isn’t trying to replicate the actual painting or music or text or film or whatever it is, but rather the feeling of that form.
FWR: John states early in Phantoms that “much of which [has written about Vietnam] helped [him] understand what happened over there and how the heavy stone of that experience continues to ripple out over a life that has been, at times, troubled by its own hidden currents.” This understanding of the Vietnam War helps the reader understand the domestic violence between the white and Japanese-American families of Newcastle as “a legacy of sanctioned violence both subtle and overt.” The formal can be of course akin to the traditional. So how can writers use formal conventions in a way that allows us to also re-understand and re-experience them?
Kiefer: At heart, I’m a traditional narrative novelist. The formal conventions are there because they work, but their existence also allows us to push against them, sometimes pretty hard, which is to say one can break herself upon the rocks of formal conventions. Despite the violence of that metaphor, I actually mean it to be positive: breaking in the sense of breaking open.
One of the things that formal conventions made possible in Phantoms was the direct critique of whiteness. A certain kind of America loves its nostalgia, but nostalgia for, say, the 1950s, a nostalgia that is also pre-civil rights, which is to say nostalgia (and especially nostalgia) can become a tool of white supremacy. So I’m writing about the Japanese internment and the American war in Vietnam, all of which is held in a traditional structure strong enough to push against—both in terms of the structure (which does shift and turn from time to time) and the themes.
FWR: Kirkus Reviews describes One Day Soon as an ars poetica, and your reflections on the creative process are refracted in the many ways in which you participate as a writer, musician, educator, and editor. Similarly, your writing encapsulates your interests, from being an ardent nature lover to having studied film at USC. Does writing have a requirement to in some way reflect on itself as a form of expression? And what then is the role of the author to do the same?
Kiefer: I’m not entirely certain how useful it is for writing to comment on writing. I don’t, for example, find traditional “craft” books to be very useful, nor do I much enjoy books that swing toward self-reference or meta-textuality. I already know I’m reading a book, so pointing out that I’m reading a book isn’t of much value to me. On the other hand, I love Italo Calvino so maybe I’m full of shit on this.
I think more important is being open to the truth that there may be no requirements in writing at all. Blake Butler, Katherine Standefer, Tasmyn Muir, Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Matthew Salesses, Emily Nemens: these are all wonderful writers who are doing very, very different things with words all while fulfilling whatever “requirements” we might place on them (or that they might place on themselves). What I want, what I long for, is a full immersion of my heart in the deep red-hot center of the text. I’m in the business of breaking hearts. We all are. And to be broken in turn.
I had been afraid of the cold silent body I held to my belly but when we at last reached the engine and clambered up the frozen metal ladder and into the relative warmth of the interior, the child jerked awake and began to wail, a thin, gasping sound that bit directly into my heart. Alive. The babe was still alive.
How long I had been outside in the blizzard I did not know; it could not have been more than five or ten minutes and yet I was shivering with cold. The baby’s parents were entirely soaked through, the girl’s lips a faint, pale blue. The young man had found the heater and stood before its orange filaments, rubbing his hands. His eyes looked wild, hair matted to the shape of his skull, teeth clenched down in his jaw. Jeans and a thin denim jacket. At his feet rested a shapeless knapsack, soaked through and dripping.
“Blanket up there,” I said to the girl.
She reached for it and when she made no move to take the child from me I nodded down into the well of my coat. “She’s OK,” I said.
Still the girl said nothing. Probably no older than sixteen or seventeen, her clothes utterly insufficient for the weather: a thin sweater, threadbare skirt, canvas shoes still caked with ice and snow. When she looked up at me through her lank hair, her hollow eyes spoke only of exhaustion.
“You’ll need to take her,” I said “I gotta get this thing moving.”
Only then did she step forward, hesitantly, as if unsure of what I meant to do, but she took the child. That warmth moving away from me.
Then I was at the controls again and the engine took up its growl and began to slide forward. Relief that it had not frozen to the rails. “Coffee in that Thermos there,” I said over my shoulder. Later I said my name.
“Tommy,” came the response from behind me. “And here’s May.”
The plow was moving and I had cranked up the engine to regain its speed, the whole machine vibrating with barely restrained fury. “You might all’ve froze,” I said.
“I think we did,” Tommy said.
As if in response, the baby resumed its mewling cry. I did not turn. “Girl or boy?” Beyond the window glass: the onrush of snow.
May’s voice was small and thin. “Jilly,” she said.
“Little Jilly,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Just Jilly.”
A child with a child, I thought.
* * *
After my crack-up, they took me off freight and assigned me to the plow engine where there was almost no chance I would see a single living soul on my runs back and forth across the pass. In the first years on the mountain, I could still sometimes see the girl I had killed, her body turning to meet the engine as if greeting a friend. Martha Evans had been twelve years old on the bright spring afternoon that my locomotive had dismembered her and although I knew—and had been assured over and over—that her death was in no way my fault, the vision of her continued to haunt me. I had lifted the pieces of her from beside the tracks and under the freight cars and had set them next to the locomotive in some approximation of her living shape as if she were a doll that only needed stitched back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wanted only to be left alone. It did not seem too much to ask and indeed my coworkers and dispatcher were kind enough to give me that much and to keep me employed when I probably should have been let go, my dependence on alcohol being such that I could not much be trusted around heavy equipment. And yet the plow had provided a way back for me, the locomotive’s handling requiring all my skill as an engineer and its blade producing an effect that was tangible and immediate. The way before was obscured by hissing snow and the great spreader blade did its work so that my path was marked by clean silver lines of track that extended on into the darkness, ready for whatever train was next to come.
My solitude had felt like penance at first, the little girl’s unconcerned gaze staring back at me from around each bend in the rails, but that too faded with time until my loneliness came to feel more like meditation than anything else, the blurred snow outside the glass swirling and the train invisible under its flow such that I oft felt as if I had become wholly untethered from the world of men. I could read the hidden topographies of that trackless snowfield as if all of it were part of my body: turns and twists and wildly descending slides and hard uphill climbs.
And then you. And everything to come after.
* * *
The headset lay crackling on its little hook and I placed it upon my head again, its pads against the flesh of my ears.
“What’s that do?”
Tommy had come up next to me and stood now strangely close in the tight space at the head of the engine, his finger pointed to the headset.
“Keeps me in touch with dispatch,” I told him. “How’d you get out there anyway?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s kind of like my home office. Gotta check in now and then.”
He did not respond for a time. I did not know if he watched me or watched, as I did, the onrushing snow through the window. Then he said, “Got stuck on the road is all.”
“Isn’t the highway closed?”
“Weren’t on the highway.”
“On a side road?”
“You ask a lot of questions, mister,” he said simply.
“Just making conversation.”
Throttle back. The spreader vibrated and I brought it up and alongside. The forest seemed to roll out under us like a great wave and we upon it, barely in control.
“You’re dang lucky I saw you.”
“That was May. She was waving.”
“Lucky she did. I almost didn’t stop.”
At first I did not speak. Because of Martha Evans, is what I wanted to say. Instead I told him that I was not sure what I had seen. “Thought it was an owl,” I said.
“An owl?” He turned toward the back of the engine. “You hear that, May-May? He thought you were an owl. Hoot hoot!”
“Yep, hoot hoot,” I said. And then, loud enough that I hoped May could hear me: “Better get hold of something. We’re gonna get a little fast through here.”
“How fast?” Tommy said quietly.
“Fifty or sixty.”
“That doesn’t seem fast,” he said.
But then the hidden tracks pulled over the lip and the train tipped forward, the lights illuming a rushing flood of snow and forest, a whole topography of surprised motion. Tommy let out an audible gasp as we descended that wild loop.
“She all right?” I called to him. I did not take my eyes off the swirling window glass and when he did not answer I called to him again, the same words, the same question.
“Who?” he said at last.
“May,” I said.
“She’s fine,” he said but I do not think he so much as looked toward the back of the engine. The lever forward against the weight of my palm. Oh how I throttled into that deep dry powder like some great knife and how it flew, flew away into the darkness of the forest all around, the tracks clean and pure and silver in my wake and already the engine beginning, once more, to rise. The grace of that movement. The secret joy.
“Boy that’s something,” Tommy said. “How’d you get a job like this?”
“Kind of happened into it.”
“You already knew how to drive this thing?”
“They trained me,” I told him. “Didn’t know a thing when I started.”
“Lucky,” he said.
“Could be,” I admitted. “I just kind of stuck with it, you know.”
The train heaved against the uphill run. Edge the throttle forward. A bit more.
“You can run this all by yourself?” Tommy asked.
“There’s a rotary if it gets much worse than this,” I told him. “That one takes a whole crew. This one here’s pretty simple, really.”
“How’s that?” he said.
I gave him the basics then. To this day I do not know why; perhaps simply because he was there in the locomotive with me. It still felt a kind of miracle I had seen her waving hand and had stopped and had found them, shivering in the snow, a little family: man, woman, and child. I had taken the baby from her so quickly, an action totally without conscious thought, and had tucked it into my jacket in the blowing snow and had told them to follow. It had felt so cold against my chest, my belly. Martha Evans’ severed legs had been warm, almost hot. How her mother had screamed in the station office. I had sat there weeping in the cracked Naugahyde chair as the station manager tried to calm her but I wanted her to keep going, to break all the windows with her screams, to shake me to powder.
I placed Tommy’s hand on the tiller. On the throttle. On the brake. He asked what to look for and I showed him. The drift that might secret the great bulk of a tree within its frozen milky shape. The way to read the track. How to lean the whole engine into a curve so that the force of the plow continued into the heaving snow without cease. How to throttle back in a downhill run and when to throttle up for the momentum to ride the next rise.
It was then my dispatcher’s voice came through the headset. “Hang on,” I said to Tommy. “Dispatch this is Thirty-Two. I hear you, Donna.”
Her voice was a loud tinny squawk in my earpiece. She asked me how it was looking, the storm. “Looks like a blizzard,” I said.
“You hit eight-two yet?”
“Not quite. Just through Yaw’s,” I told her.
I glanced over at Tommy and found, to my surprise, that he was no longer staring out the windows of the train but was, instead, staring at me, his expression like a cold spear of ice running along my spine. What that gaze meant or might have meant I could not guess but for the first time I wondered who it was that I had welcomed into my engine. Donna was still speaking but her voice sounded far away now. Through it I could hear May’s voice, although it was not nearly so loud: “Tommy,” she whispered, “don’t do nothin’. He’s been nothin’ but kind. That’s all.”
There was a pause. Tommy’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just that cold staring, as if the visage of an animal. Then May again, louder now: “Mister,” she called. “Just don’t say nothin’ about us. Please, mister. Just don’t.”
Donna, in my ear: “You still read?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I said. “Everything’s A-OK.”
A few more forced pleasantries and then I set the headset back on its hook. “What’s this about?” I said, trying to sound pleasant, trying to sound, that is, as if May’s words had not brought a tingle of fear to my gut.
“You just mind your own business.”
“You in some kind of trouble?”
“I said mind your own goddamn business.”
The baby had started to mewl again and now its voice spiraled up in a long howl of anguish.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy yelled. “You make her stop!”
May had begun bouncing the babe against her, her face leaning down to shush it, a kind of wild heat in her movements.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy said. “I’m warning you. You make her stop right goddamned now or I swear to God I’ll throw her right off this goddamned train.”
“OK,” I said now. “Let’s just take a breath.”
He swung at me so quickly that I had no time to react, the impact of his fist upon the side of my head swift and violent and without warning. I looked up from the floor into the space where he had been. Just before me hung the torn bare wires of the headset. My ears rung. Tommy and May were far away, across the open space of the car, Tommy shouting something and May cowering under the lash of his words.
I clambered to my feet again, peered out the window, lay my hands on the controls and then removed them again and turned to face Tommy and May at the back of the train. My heart clenched hard in my chest. A rivulet of panic.
“He doesn’t know anything,” May was whispering. “Please Tommy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t.”
“He sure as shit knows something now, though. Don’t he?” He spun and looked at me.
I put my hands in the air. “Just minding my own business,” I said, although that seemed a hollow, cowardly claim after I had been struck and knocked down. When I turned back to the tracks, to the storm, my hands were shaking. So dark outside that the headlight beam was a cut hole in the shifting texture of the night. I tried to steel myself against what was to come but there was only my fear like a great avalanche cascading down through all parts of me at once.
After I had put Martha Evans’ body together I had crawled up into the engine and curled into the corner and fell asleep there. It was a strange response, I know. It might have been that I thought it all a dream and that I might trick myself into waking from it were I to will myself asleep. But I awoke to all manner of police and officials and it was no dream and never had been.
“Where’s this train go, mister?” Tommy had come up next to me again and put his face up near my still-ringing ear.
“Switch yard’s in Camperville,” I said. “I could get you there easy.” My voice sounded filled with stones. This was no dream either. I had learned that much at least.
“How far’s that?”
“After Camperville it goes on northeast.” Behind us the baby had taken up its crying again. I could hear May’s voice trying to quiet her, shushing, whispering, a muffling to the baby’s sound that might well have been her hand over that tiny mouth.
“How far?” Tommy asked me, his face twisting anew at the sound of the squalling babe.
“All the way across the country,” I said. My throat felt very dry.
“I don’t know what you’re asking me.”
But Tommy had turned and lurched away from me towards May, towards the baby. “Jesus Christ, May!” he shouted. “Give her here!” and then she was on the ground against the cold steel of the back wall and he was pulling the baby from her grip, her voice calling out to him, “No, no no, Tommy, no,” but he pulled and then the child was in his grasp, its screeching voice raised to a pitch that bent the insides of my hearing. He held the baby out before him as if it were a sack of flour and began to shake it, screaming all the while to shut its mouth, to be quiet, to goddamned be quiet.
I did not even know I was shouting until my voice closed down around that single syllable, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the baby was in my arms once more, the whole of that transference accomplished with such rapidity that I hardly understood myself what had happened, what I had done, Tommy standing utterly still for a long strained moment before reaching around behind him to the hollow of his sodden back and producing from that place the pistol he now held out before him in the air. May’s voice was a quietness from many miles away: “No, Tommy. Please. Please don’t.”
God knows what the tracks might bring. The curve and then the last descent as the iron moved down towards Camperville. All hidden in the blur. And where had I left the throttle? The snow hissed and ran. The engine rattled. How strange to worry about the state of the tracks when a man held a gun to my chest, but so ran my thoughts.
“Goddammit,” Tommy said. His voice shook, his eyes shining with tears. “Wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“You’ll be all right,” I said, my voice quiet, almost a whisper.
The blanket had come partially unrolled and I tucked it around the baby as best I could. The child stopped crying in my arms. I do not know why.
“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” Tommy said.
The baby felt was warm and heavy. “You’re alive,” I said now, and I did not know if I was speaking to Tommy or to the babe.
“You don’t know,” Tommy said. He tapped the gun butt against his temple. “I got a temper,” he said. “I know it. And I wish I didn’t but sometimes May makes me so mad. And little Jilly there. I ain’t proud of it but sometimes she just goes on and on screaming like that. You heard her.”
I might have told him something now, that the baby’s bright, hard squalling was proof that she was going to survive and that everything was going to be all right in the end. But I could think of no words. There was an axe near the back of the engine. I could see it there, in its metal loops upon the wall. A tool box where I might grasp a wrench large enough to knock him unconscious. But I held a baby in my arms. Warm now and alive. Near the back of the train, May stood and wiped her eyes and watched us without comment. “You want her?” I said. I was speaking to May but it was Tommy who answered me.
“No,” he said simply. “I never did.”
“Tommy?” May said from behind him.
The pistol still hovered in the air between us. I could grab for it. Maybe I could. But the baby.
“Move on back,” Tommy said.
And I did, the baby warm and silent, the pistol following me along the sidewall of the engine. At some point he waved May away from me, away from the direction in which I was headed toward the rear of the engine, to the door that led out into the night.
“Open it,” Tommy said.
“Just open the goddamned door.”
May’s voice was quiet behind him. “Tommy, you can’t,” she said.
“Shut up, May.”
“The one at the bank was an accident. Anyone could see that. But this one ain’t.”
He whirled so quickly and with such force that it seemed as if she simply jerked backwards of her own accord, her head whipping back from the blow and her whole body crumpling to the floor.
“Don’t,” I mumbled. “Please. Look, I’m opening the door. Like you said.”
The cold was immediate, a sharpness that shot into the warm interior of the train.
“Now jump,” he said. “Do it, goddammit.”
I held the baby out towards him.
“No,” he said. “Jump.”
And then May seemed to understand what was happening. She did not rise. “No, Tommy. No!”
“Shut up! You can’t even keep her from crying.”
“But she’s mine!”
“I’m gonna count to three, mister,” Tommy said, “and you’d better jump before I get to the end or I swear to God I’ll blow a hole through you just like I done to the bank man.”
Behind him, May rose to her feet, her eyes wild. I thought she might rush for the baby, but she did not, her voice rising in a shriek that went on and on as Tommy counted out his numbers.
“Wait, please,” I whispered.
But already it was too late. When I jumped it was into black frozen air. I hit the snow hard and the impact blew my lungs empty. When I rolled to a stop and looked down into the gap in my coat, there you were, your eyes staring up at mine in the darkness.
“Tell me again,” you would ask me later, when you were seven and eight and ten. A kind of fairy tale spun between us. What I heard in my own voice was the story of someone unrecognizable to anyone but you.
What I know is that when I did not respond to the radio, Donna diverted my plow engine onto a spur and ran it into the gravel. It was found empty and the team that rescued me came on snowmobiles along the tracks. Tommy was shot dead in Nevada a few months later. I do not know what happened to May. I think if she were alive she would have come for you at some point but she never has and this is why I think she too is gone. I lost two toes from that long walk through the blizzard. I would have given more than that had I been asked.
But what I remember most of all, what I return to when my sleep is troubled and my mind filled with worry, is the black shape of the plow engine against the forest, the bright dots of snow streaming their shadows across the flat white blaze of the headlit night. There it is, my engine, my very own, moving away, moving away from me. From both of us. There as a shadowy glow. And then finally gone. What remains, for a time, is the sound, a kind of hum that fades into the wind and the trees and the hiss and shake of the blizzard. After that there is only darkness. So cold that it feels as if my breath might freeze a cloud of snow into the air. Quiet against my chest. And so still. The two of us afloat in the black of that night, following the one thing we can see: the twin silver lines of the rails. How clean they are. And, despite everything, how bright.