The Curve of the Earth

One day, they say, a man my grandfather knew—actually it was my grandfather—fired up his tractor early and chained on the twelve-by harrow and started across the black earth, in his wake a cloud of crows swooping over the damp soil. He followed the curve of the earth, toward a distant boundary where, as the story went, maybe the lovers were below deck, he peeling her bathing suit off her brown body, exposing white, and curly hair, and sighs, the sea cocks opened, popped inward, and the tractor disappeared from the earth’s round, sailing over the horizon, leaving only the crows, and worms exposed to cries and sun and the sadness of young people’s death, lovers with flowers in their hair and flushed cheeks, dying into each other. That’s what he said, my grandfather.

There were other things, too. It was the summer Grandmother got up on the roof and refused to come down or speak until he promised to keep his hardness to himself, at least to ask first and to try thinking about her the way he first knew her, standing between the sunlight on the counter top and rows of preserved apple sauce, peaches, and cherries. And the flurry of snow, holly trees, and red berries. Didn’t he remember her with lipstick, her chestnut hair in a knot and her lower lip undiscovered, blue eyes unkissed. Did he remember her blue eyes, the sunlight, her white aprons, the arched silver buttons specially sown down her blouse?

When my grandfather disked or harrowed and I sat on the fender holding on, the sun circled about the field like a duck coming in to land–over near the bog with the rushes and herons and turtles and quiet newts. I shouldn’t tell you these things, he used to say, but how will you know if I don’t. You don’t want to be like me in every way.

Well, the dust followed us across the field, before the rains, making Arabs of us, or Indians, unrecognizable to ourselves, sailing across vast plains, lovers caught below with flowers, and preserves and hard things of joy and sighs and bathing suits that fell off just when the tingling reached boundaries, like the far end of the field, and disappeared, just at the curve of the earth.

I saw things drown in the furrows of that sea. Thistles, mugwort and tar, and small flowers, that didn’t know the ship was filling, too much in love, slipping bathing suits, the candles, ice cream, the preserves on the window sill, golden in the last of the afternoon’s sun.

My grandmother stayed on the roof for something like nine months. At least the whole summer. At least it seemed that way. Grandfather said she was giving birth to someone he didn’t know—to a woman who sang not only in church but also alone in the bath tub which she had placed outside at the edge of the garden, overlooking the field so that when he passed he would see her and remember what she could have been but never became, because of his intrusions at night when the fields slept their damp sleep.

When the nine months had passed and the wheat waved in the summer wind like the ocean, with us sailing before the wind on the red-seeded sea, my grandmother—who had not spoken since she first climbed the roof—all at once did speak to my grandfather when he had just switched off the tractor and stepped down over the hydraulics, walked out over the harrow and jumped ashore. She said, “William?” That was his name, and it was a question. He didn’t really hear her because of the seacocks and bathing suits and dust, I suppose. And she said it again, “William?” standing there in the claw-footed bathtub in the garden near the rhododendrons, naked, her hair up in a knot, and, as he tells it, with lipstick on her lips and the sun catching her chestnut hair, no longer twenty, nearer fifty, as I recall. And that was when it struck him, what a wonderful woman she was and he actually knelt before her and cried and apologized for his damn tractor and said other things about seacocks and dust and would she teach him to see her the way she had always wanted to be seen, and other things, a lot of it hard to understand after a world that curved into the distance all the way to the bog, with drowning flowers, thistles folded under, and the smell of tar weed and hope, and crows swooping down over the wake of his red tractor. That’s all I remember really—with variations. Memories that come around like the morning sun, and set, and are never ever quite the same, except that they’re always true.

2 thoughts on “The Curve of the Earth

  1. I thought I had read the best story when I read The Fence. Then you put up more. Well, I really liked Nut Cake also. Then, today, The Curve of the Earth. I want to be that woman standing in the claw foot tub on the edge of our farm property in WI. Or at least I can imagine that. Where do you get this stuff? I’d give anything to be able to express myself like that. Heck, I’d love to just think those thoughts and worry about expression later. I have sent the link to your wordpress site to several people. I usually don’t read short stories because I feel ripped off when I want 300 more pages. But these super short ones are just great.Thank you, Sterling.

    1. Hi, Colleen! You can read longer stuff by going to the chapters of my novel which I’m putting up on the blog. The novel is called “The Horse Warmth Blues.” It’s not 300 pages long, but it is longer than a short story and may not leave you feeling too ripped off. It does treat some of the same themes that appear in “The Fence” and “The Curve of the Earth,” but in the setting of the Mexican Revolution. It is a love story, or several love stories!

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