Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
Joy Harjo, Perhaps the World Ends Here
He wakes up to the sound of thunder outside his bedroom window. Lightning flashes across the glass, brightening the room. He rolls over and looks at the clock – it’s midnight and the storm is in full swing, a spring barn-shaker. He wonders briefly if he should worry about the shingles – were any loose?
Between thunderclaps, he hears something move downstairs, a muffled thump in the kitchen.
He listens for a moment, for any sound from Max, his black Lab.
The dog lifts his head over the edge of the bed and perks his ears forward. he gives a low whine, maybe disturbed by the thunder, maybe by something else. Downstairs, Billy hears a clatter, perhaps cutlery in the silverware drawer. Max whines again, more urgently.
Billy sits up and swings his legs over the edge of the bed, sliding his feet into the slippers on the floor. He crosses over to the closet, quiet despite the limp, and retrieves his shotgun. Six shells, three loaded as quietly as possible and the others slipped into a pocket of his pajamas. He uses one hand to signal Max to stay, and then slips down the stairs.
The only light is from the one lamp he always leaves on in the front room – the one his mother’s mother owned, that both of them always left on. “Light in the dark,” his grandmother would say, and his mother said the same thing after the old woman died. He edges down the stairs, skipping the tread that has been squeaking since before his Dad was born.
A silver light falls across the kitchen floor, and he sees her feet first. Bare, dirty feet. The rest of her is in shadow, where she stands in front of the kitchen sink, looking out the window into the storm. Long, tangled wet hair hangs to her waist. Her dress is torn, streaked with mud.
He stops in the doorway. “Hello … can I help you? Are you all right?”
She doesn’t move at first. He looks again at her feet and realizes with a start that the kitchen floor is pristine, the only mud and water where she stands now.
She turns her head to looka t him, and the lightning flashes again across her face. Pale skin, dark eyes, she looks like she is trying to speak.
Billy takes a step or two into the kitchen, shotgun held at waist level. She could be a junkie … or what? “Where did you come from?” He doesn’t recognize her, which means she’s not from Colfax, probably not from the county at all.
Her mouth moves, and he hears her draw a slow, labored breath. But when she speaks, the thunder drowns it out. She closes her eyes, waits for the rumbling to stop, and tries again. “Storm,” she whispers.
“The glasses are in the cupboard to the left. Why don’t you get a drink, sit down,” he points theshotgun towards the kitchen table) and tell me what happened. Were you in an accident? Are you hurt? Is there anyone else?”
She blinks, looks at the cupboard, but doesn’t reach for it. A sound from Max, a soft woof upstairs, distracts him for a moment, and when he glances back she is already sitting. “Watch—” she stops, struggles as if she can’t find the word.
Billy flips the kitchen light on. “Watch? Watch what?”
She blinks again in the sudden light, and cowers back in the chair. “Too late.” The words are barely above a whisper. “No time left.” Speaking is an obvious effort for her. “Harvest comes.”
“Too late?” Billy echoes. “No time left? Harvest comes?” Her words, like the whole situation, make no sense. “No, no, it is spring. Harvest isn’t until fall. What happened to you? You’re not from around here.”
She blinks slowly, then raises one hand over the edge of the table. It holds whatever she had been searching for, something he forgot he had. The wood handle is polished wiht decades of use by his family, the blade curves, its edge glittering. She lifts her hand higher, and for a moment, he worries she might lunge. But then she drops it to the tabletop, whispers again, and his ears strain to hear her.
“Scythe.” The word is a hiss, or a sigh, he can’t tell which.
After a moment, Billy reaches out slowly and moves the sickle away from her with his right hand, the shotgun still balanced in his left. “Scythe? I … I don’t understand. I’m gonna call the sheriff, I think we need to get you to the hospital.” He reaches back with his right hand to the phone on the wall, not taking his eyes off of her.
She places both hands flat on the table and leans forward, expression intent. Behind him, Max growls warning from the bottom of the steps as she speaks again. “No time.”
Lightning flashes, and the light in the kitchen goes off.
Billy raises the shotgun in front of him, defensive, and looks around, listens for Max. The dog presses himself against Billy’s leg, panting heavily. Billy can feel him trembling, but the girl is nowhere to be seen.
He turns on all the lights in the downstairs room, jumpy at every sound, and then all the porchlights. Does he see anything on the wrap-around porch? Are there footprints? The floors inside are clean, as if no one was there. But Max follows him at every step, his anxiety confirming that it wasn’t just his imagination. The sickle still lies on the worn wood of the kitchen table.
“Yeah, boy,” he says softly, stroking the dog’s head. “I know. What the fuck was that?”
Max looks up at Billy, and then his body stiffens as his head whips towards the front door. The thunder has stopped, and the rain outside has settled into a steady downpour – but Billy can hear the footsteps over the rain, moving up the front steps, past the oak railing his great-grandfather built to surround the porch, and then a pause in the footsteps followed by two dull thuds of each heel, as if knocking mud from the boots.
For a moment, he stands with the shotgun aimed at the door, but a quick peek through the front window and he sees a familiar face – it’s Nora Robb, from the next farm over, tossing the hood of her rain-slicker back from her head and shaking water loose from her sleeves. “Jesus, Will,” she says as he opens the door, shotgun still in hand, “plannin’ on doin’ some hunting in the middle of the night?” She uses the name she’s used all his life, one of the privileges of being someone who changed his diapers when she baby-sat him years ago, before she spent some time away at college and then medical school. “Be easy with that thing, I don’t want to have to waste my time patchin’ you up tonight. They need me down at the hospital, and that tiny Prius I bought isn’t gonna get me through the high water on the road. I don’t suppose I could borrow your truck?”
He’s not surprised to hear she has been called in – storms like this always lead to accidents and folks needing some medical care.
“Umm…sorry Mrs. Robb,” Billy mumbles; his mother taught him better that to use an elder’s first name, no matter how old he got. He hastily put the shotgun, standing up, beside the door. “Come in, come in,” he urges her, spreading his hand wide to the foyer. “Me and Max here, just thought we heard someone, that’s all,” he says slowly, “You didn’t see anyone near or leaving the house, did you? You know you can always borrow anything, Mrs. Robb, but if you want, I could drive you there, and pick you up when you are done, if you don’t feel like driving in this mess.”
She slips the raincoat off her shoulders as she steps in, leaving it draped across one of the Adirondack chairs on the front porch so it doesn’t drip all over the floor in the front hall. “See anyone? Who’d be foolish enough to be wanderin’ around your farm in a storm like this? ‘Cept me, of course, but I have an excuse.” She crouches down to rub Max’s ears and kiss the top of his head. “If you’re up for a drive, I’ll take the offer. Besides, George Bowman might put you to work helpin’ with the fools who are out in this mess.”
“Sure, sure, Just give a minute to throw something on.” He takes the shotgun back upstairs, and throws on a sweatshirt and jeans. He drives Mrs. Robb into town, avoiding three or four downed trees, along the way. It’s a good thing I have four wheel drive, he thinks. The mud on the sides of the road is pretty thick, with all the rain. The whole ride into town, he can’t shake the image of the woman, that was in his kitchen. She was in my kitchen.
He drops Nora off at the county hospital and medical center on West Fairview, where the parking lot and emergency entrance seem especially busy on this stormy night. On the way back, he drives through the heart of Colfax, stops at one red-light, realizing that the rain has lightened some. Half a block down, Billy sees Hank Brewer follow a tall man out of his bar. As the man walks down the sidewalk towards the truck, the street-lamp he passes flickers out
Storyteller’s Note: This photograph used under Creative Commons license.