Teens from Loden High wander in loose groups on the mesa, their winter clothes and white buckets bright flints in the sagebrush. Her own bucket half full of flowering sage stems, Trudi harvests and calculates the recovery of the Wyoming big sage, her pilot project at the agency. This year, the stand was over a month late to bear, a too-early winter, the whole system out of whack. At best, she’ll get twenty pounds of seed after cleaning, half what she got last year.
Asa—her husband, their environmental science teacher—herds a group of gangly junior boys below her in a wash. At intervals, Asa’s blaze orange hat rises up, his arms outstretched, as if he is trampolining. He is river-dancing for them and singing his nasal-high operatic song. That electric boyishness wooed her too, all those years ago, before they’d spent more than half their lives together. Now she’s mostly irritated by the stale insistence of Asa’s juvenile party tricks.
She picks her way over the mesa, eyeing the sky. East, charcoal clouds darken and the temperature falls. Soon the kids will start sheltering in the bus, restless to be finished, and she can hardly blame them. It’s tedious work, a big task even when the weather obliges, and for most of these kids, the carrot is the day out of school and the extra community service hours for their graduation portfolios. She needs them much more than they need her.
Trudi aims toward the privacy of a wash to pee beyond where two girls harvest alone. She flushes despite the frigid air, the baby inside her a furnace with no thermostat. A month earlier, she picked her way along the icy path that led from their cabin to Asa’s shop, an EPT, the fourth one, burning in her pocket. A bottle of Perrier tucked under one arm, two glasses in her hand. She was both nervous and imagining the chuckle they’d have about the universe’s sense of humor after all this time. The shop was hot as a sauna and the old potbelly ticked in the corner. Bluegrass bathed the back room in a swell of warbling voices and strings. Asa tapped one moccasined foot and hummed along. She stood inside the door a moment and watched his wrist arc the brush along the sanded surface of a barn wood bench, his shaggy hair curtaining his face.
She shifted her weight in the doorway. The glasses clinked. His wrist coaxed Tung oil into the grain, and he didn’t look up. Asa’s lasered attention and his ability to be fully present in the moment make him a great teacher. But it had been a long time since she’d felt seen by him. And that was maybe her own damn fault. Or maybe it was the middle-aged malaise others warned arrived to any marriage. Still, she yearned for him to notice her, was exhausted by the thought of all she’d been hiding, felt she might cry or have a tantrum or both. She had a welling sense of what her female friends with kids had always complained about—the relentlessness of parenting, their spouses flickering in and out of the frame of their jointly spun lives, able to engage and then disengage as easily as if they were merely visitors.
But why would Asa guess at all? At 47, after 25 years of failing to conjure a fetus out of Asa’s low sperm count and her tilted, uninhabitable uterus, she should have been well past this place. Should have told Asa two months ago, in her first trimester. Instead, she built a system of irrational camouflages. Awake before dawn, baking because work has been crazy, she told him. Giving up caffeine because it makes her hot flashes worse, she told him. Acknowledging the truth meant opening a fissure into the past, giving voice about the other baby she never talks about, not even with Asa.
In the shop, she knocked on the jam with the bottle’s neck. Asa raised his head and grinned. “Hey, babe. Come in. Join me.”
She held up the Perrier.
“Teetotaling convention’s down the street,” he said. “Unless you’re trying to tell me you’re breaking up with wine. In which case, we’ll have to renegotiate our contract.” He winked, wagged his head to the music, set his brush across the mouth of the Tung oil can.
On the stereo, a fiddle wound itself high and plummeted. Asa cleared a space for her on the loveseat and settled back into his work, but she couldn’t sit. She was juggling swords. Waiting. For some outside pressure to force her to either drop the rotating blades or add another. For Asa to call her out. For the in-utero acrobatics of their baby whorling inside her. For the proofs of life at the doctor’s office, where she would be reprimanded for not coming in earlier and then run through the gauntlet of tests: a sonogram, an ultrasound, a lecture about the hazards of giving birth at her advanced age.
“You’re hiding from me,” she said.
He brushed the seat of the bench, nodded, and let her words hang in the air a beat. “Just finishing up Lona’s order here. Not bad, eh?”
She nodded. “It’d be good if you could use some of your energy for inside projects too.”
“Is this going to be another honey-you-don’t-do fight? All you have to do is ask, Trud, and I’ll do it.”
She put the bottle and the glasses on his workbench. “For once, I just wish you’d notice what needs to happen first.” Her voice—shrill—made her wince.
Between two fingers, Asa seesawed the brush. “What’s going on with you, Trud? It’s like you can’t remember anything joyful.”
The truth powdered in her throat when she opened her mouth to make the words, and instead she only whispered, “I don’t know.” Trudi stops to check in with the two girls wrapped in bulky mismatched wools, boots, and Carhartts. Farm girls. She used to be one in another town, though her parents were the redneck hippie variety, conceiving her in a bean field. Even now, when kids have so much else to convince them away from it, she’s relieved there are still girls who aren’t squeamish about inclement weather, or dirt and bugs, or using their bodies for something other than pleasure.
“How’s it going, ladies?”
“Hey, Trudi,” they say together.
Their buckets are nearly full. “Wow. Nicely done.”
They move over and make more room for her. “I swear winter’s been here, like, for forever,” the shorter one says, pausing to blow into her gloved hands. “I really miss my shorts.” They giggle and move to a bush a few feet away, rubbing stems laden with seeds between their gloved hands as she’d shown them.
Trudi harvests with them, tries to read their name tags without being too obvious. Lindy and Sam. She recognizes Sam, the taller girl with glasses who’s grown a few inches and put on some weight since Trudi saw her last. She’d been out in spring on a junior biology project to plant penstemon and rabbit brush, had hung mostly with some of the boys.
“Take a break in the bus if you need to. Zeke brought that tankard of hot cocoa.”
“That sounds good,” Lindy says, though they both keep working.
Zeke, the bus driver, winds through the stand alone, determined to fill his bucket. Standing next to the bus, they’d begun the day by looking at pictures of Zeke’s six-point whitetail and his hunt for chukkar and Alaskan halibut, stories he told with busy hands and a boy’s eager eyes. Trudi bit her tongue against telling Zeke his favorite quarry would soon be endangered like everything else.
Zeke plows on with his stories and Trudi tunes out, counts up the number of mornings in a row she and Asa have fought. The sting of that morning’s argument still fresh enough that they weren’t speaking.
That morning, Asa cooked eggs, opened a jar of canned peaches. Trudi assembled their lunches, poured hot water into their thermoses of tea. They engineered their day, discussed who would be home first to start dinner, brainstormed arguments for her restoration grant proposal. “At this point, I’m not sure what good federal money will do,” she said. “There’s not enough funding to battle entrenched stupidity. Those kids would do better to build bomb shelters. Group up and buy land with spring water and arable soil for gardening.” She snorted into her orange juice. “Let’s do a joint workshop on getting ready for the end times. We’ll call it ‘How School Won’t Save You But Botany Might: the World, Post- B.L.M. and Formal Education.’” She screwed the lid onto their thermoses. “I like the sound of that one.”
Asa turned off the gas on the stove, slammed the cast iron pan onto a cool burner. “I’m so tired, Trud,” he said. “I mean. Aren’t you?” He scratched at the cowlick at the top of his head, worse when he wore his hair short, and so he kept it wild.
“I’m just saying it feels shitty to do futile work,” she said. “You’re a scientist, too. Don’t you feel like raging against the machine? You used to.”
He shook his head, jammed his hands in the pocket of his Carhartts. “Being joyful is a choice, Trud. People don’t want to hear that doomsday prep stuff. Not everything has an underbelly, for Christ’s sake.” He opened his mouth to say more and then pulled the bread out of the toaster. He separated the eggs onto two plates, buttered the toast, and handed her a fork. “Look, I know you’re upset about work, but we’re going to be okay.” She played with her fork, didn’t respond.
The wind shifts and Asa’s voice, a loud beacon in any room, reaches them, and then his laughter. Three stuttered barks before he gives himself over to full-bellied delight.
“That voice,” Sam says. She smiles a lopsided dimple into her left cheek. “You can always hear it.” She stoops to harvest. It makes Trudi’s back ache to watch her.
“I know, right?” says Lindy. The girls sing a few nasally operatic lines, a parody about picking sage. Lindy pulls a glove off with her teeth, tucks it under one arm and then reaches into her pocket for a tube of cherry-vanilla lip balm. She applies it thickly before passing it to Sam, who does the same.
Sam rolls her lips together, distributing the balm, and says to Trudi, “Your house is fun, I bet. Does he rock-opera everything?”
Trudi laughs, shakes her head. “He used to.” She doesn’t want to talk about Asa.
“I can’t wait until boys are finished being lame,” Lindy says. She gestures toward the scrum of boys following Asa.
“No doubt,” Sam says.
Trudi laughs again and says, “Don’t be fooled. They stop maturing around nine years old.” Then, “Thanks for coming today. I don’t know how I’d keep this project going without you.”
The girls nod, keep their hands moving. Trudi feels how ludicrous her work must seem to them. Harvesting all this seed, only to plant it again instead of relying on pollination by windblow, the way high desert ecosystems were meant to work. Not this endless race to erase eco damage, to tinker and fix and sustain what might be unsustainable. “We’ll get these seeds cleaned and potted in the greenhouse and then be back out here in the spring to replant. Hope you guys can make it out for that event.”
“Sure, probably,” Lindy says. She nudges her bucket ahead of her with the toe of her boot.
They move and shake stems quietly together. Down the slope a few kids come out of the bus and lean against it. Asa and Zeke appear, leading a small group from the top of the hill. She guesses she’s got a half hour left at best. There never seems to be enough time or resources to do anything right; she hears the dark-chorded theme song of her pessimism and wishes she knew how to change it. Wishes she were in this place at this time as a younger person. Not the tired and old-enough-to-be-these-girls’-grandmother version of herself whose life’s work was about to be cleaved out of the state’s budget and probably leave her jobless, unhirable. Not the one carrying a baby in a uterus way past any reasonable shelf life. They can make it on Asa’s salary, and she’s lying to herself if she thinks he won’t throw himself into parenting with the same engine of positivity he brings to everything else. Last month’s tantrum in the shop just another one of her dodges, she realizes. The timing a gift if she can just look at it that way.
Lindy and Sam pick alongside of her, and Trudi is much less certain about the world than she remembers feeling at seventeen. The last time she was pregnant. A million years ago.
The emergency to urinate has passed. She asks the girls if they have a plan after graduation, and they both nod. “Junior college for me,” Lindy says. “I’ll see how it goes. Sam’s the smart one anyway,” she says, giving her friend a teasing nod.
Sam snorts and moves her bucket over with the toe of her boot. “A real Einstein,” she says.
“Whatever, Miss Scholarship.” Lindy turns to Trudi. “First time a grad from here ever got a thing like that, and she’s not going.”
“I said I’m still deciding. That’s different,” Sam says. “Anyway, I just found out.”
Lindy is about to say more and doesn’t.
“It’s a big decision, a good idea to try and think it through,” Trudi says and blushes, feeling stupid, a try-hard at the mentoring thing. She’s never sure what to say to kids, wonders if they think it’s weird she and Asa are childless.
Sam squats and reaches for some low-hanging stems, her boots scuffing shapes in the loose loam. The pungent musk of sage fills the air and then is lost in a gasp of wind. Sam shrugs. “I guess.”
Lindy rolls her eyes in Trudi’s direction. “I’m gonna kick her butt if she doesn’t go.”
“Bring it,” Sam says.
“Dare you,” Lindy says.
“You know I will.”
“What would you like to study?” Trudi asks.
Sam stops picking a moment, claps her gloved hands together over the bucket and seems to be thinking. “I like history pretty well. And anatomy.” She blushes. “I don’t really know. It’s complicated.”
“Most kids change their majors anyway, after they get to school,” Trudi offers. “Hard to decide about your whole life, isn’t it? Who knows what you’ll want in a few years. If you’re on the fence, I’d like to put a plug in for the sciences. Maybe botany?”
Sam chuckles and says, “Maybe.” She winces and shifts her weight. “Ugh. I have the worst heartburn today. Must’ve been the bacon.”
“Zeke’s got some Tums.”
“I can wait.”
Wind hurls against them, bowing the sage, scudding hoarfrost and alluvium along the ground. Near the bus, more kids congregate, swinging the buckets they’ve emptied into the sacks by Trudi’s truck. The sweat-equity of all this help is the only way Trudi has a chance at restoring thousands of acres trampled by livestock, scorched by wildfire, poached by seed hunters who harvest government land at night with tennis rackets and tarps and then sell the government back its own seed. She rubs at the angry lines between her eyebrows, embarrassed she’s been scowling to herself. She turns to the girls to say some bright, interesting fact. Lindy has wandered several yards off, scoping the terrain.
“This one’s loaded,” Sam says to Trudi, setting her bucket under a limb and then rubbing her gloved hands as if warming them, the buff flower heads filtering down.
On the wind, sharp again and bitter, snow slants against them.
“Nice to see,” Trudi says. “It’s not a great year for sage with this wacko weather. The harvest usually happens before now.” Hard-edged snow pelts her face. “We should go in soon.”
“Okay.” Sam doesn’t move to leave. “Because of global warming?”
“It’s hard to say,” Trudi says. She’s got a ready supply of evidence to back her certainty in humans destroying the planet and each other, but she doesn’t want to scare the girl, be the Eeyore Asa accuses her of being. “A lot of times it’s the cumulative effect of a couple bad years—too warm or not enough water. But, for sure, yes. Climate change is huge.”
“My folks say it’s just politics. Made up so someone can get rich.”
“What do you think?”
Sam squats down, picks her bucket a few inches off the ground and taps it back firmly in the dirt, watching its contents settle. “Not sure. Seems like a raw deal either way. The planet exploding or the same people taking money from the same people.” She adds, “I mean, I know it’s not that simple. But some days it seems like it is.”
Trudi thinks of what Asa would have said. How a girl like Sam would hear every false note if Trudi borrowed words. She has no idea how to be both frank and encouraging to a young person. “A bunch of choices came before your time.”
Sam shrugs. “It’s kind of dumb to be sad, I guess. I mean. It’s done now, right?”
She stands fully upright, stretches her back, and angles around the bush, and Trudi sees that she is pregnant, evident even underneath a too-big jacket and all those layers. In her swollen jawline where she carries extra weight, the skin is puffy, sallow, and everything they’ve said to each other in the last half hour is suddenly barbed with parallel meaning. Snow collects on the girl’s eyebrows, flecks her glossed lips like raw sugar, fogs the lenses of her glasses. She takes the glasses off and tucks them in her pocket. She looks at Trudi without blinking and puts a gloved hand against her belly for a moment, then jams both hands into her jacket pockets and leans back. “This little sucker’s hard on my back.” Evidently used to the question by now, she offers, “Two more months.”
Trudi blushes, kicks herself for being so self-consumed she hasn’t noticed the girl’s predicament earlier. She looks back over the land, wondering if one of the boys from school is the father, doing some quick math and understanding Sam had applied for a scholarship and for college when she was already pregnant. She’d forged on with blind hopefulness that circumstances would work out. A thing Trudi would never have done and can’t do even now.
A few yards away, Lindy points to the sky, tells them Asa and Zeke are calling them. “I’m going in. You ready?”
Sam waves her down, says she’ll be along soon.
Their backs to the rioting wind, Sam and Trudi rub their gloves over stems heavy with flowers. Trudi is sweating heavily under her jacket. The waist of her jeans—too small now, the button she can no longer close rubber-banded to the hole—is tight against her flesh. Urgent, sudden, the stone-heavy pressure pulses from her bladder again. Surprised Sam hadn’t gone down with Lindy, Trudi feels at the very least she owes the girl her presence, hopes she’ll say a true, comforting thing.
“But it might not be permanent,” Sam says.
Positioning her bucket under a laden stem, Trudi squats and rubs her gloves to release the sage flowers, for a moment thinking Sam is talking about the baby. The seeds catch in the wind; the bucket is too full for more. “Nobody really knows what it means,” Trudi says. She stands, starts to wet her pants a little. She tries to cross her legs casually and then adds, “But I’m not really a very hopeful person. Occupational hazard.” She gestures loosely at the sagebrush, the mesa.
Sam shakes her head, exhales a wisp of smoke that speeds into the wind. She looks out over the land and takes her glasses out of her pocket, unfolding the arms to put them on, then letting them snap back. “Thanks for not doing the counselor thing. I hate that.”
Sam claps her hands together over her bucket. She touches her belly again and winces, inhaling slowly. She unwinds her scarf, then coils it tighter and pulls her hat down over her ears. “I’m heading back. You coming?”
“In a minute. I really have to pee.”
“Oh. Okay. Think I’ll find some of those Tums. I really don’t feel that well.”
“Want me to grab the buckets?”
“They’re not heavy. I got it.” Sam leans down to collect both buckets, balances them in either hand and walks toward the bus.
Trudi hurries to squat in the lee side of the wind behind a boulder, her ears pounding in the sudden quiet. Heat and steam rise up from between her legs. She considers the cowardice of her secret pregnancy. Every day intending to claim it; every day caught in the drift between belief she’ll lose the baby and disbelief at its existence. This inertia so unlike how she’d once been.
At seventeen. In another small town. Trudi and Justin steamed the windows of his truck parked at the edge of her parents’ field. She liked him well enough, though he chewed tobacco from a can that wore a circle in the back pocket of his jeans. He tasted of peppermint, aftershave, too much cologne, hay from his family’s fields. In the collision of their bodies, they left each other swollen and bruised and spent. After a few months, she was pregnant and couldn’t imagine a life built on nothing but a baby or conversations with no substance. She broke it off, said she was in love with someone else. She forged her mother’s signature, hitchhiked to the clinic in Stella, used her 4-H steer money for the procedure. Mostly, Trudi recalls the clinical way she’d problem-solved what to do then, and later, the washing relief that a person with so little emotion about ending a life shouldn’t have kids anyway. She never told Asa about this other baby because he wouldn’t understand a story that had nothing to do with atonement, then or now. She would do the same thing, in the same way, if she could go back and be that girl again.
Trudi fills her lungs with the ragged yowl of winter. She imagines their child unplugging itself, swimming free of her, already understanding the confused reluctance of its mother.
Asa’s muffled voice sifts down, and she is disoriented, afraid she has imagined it all. The man she has chosen, the baby they have made, the listing world. His voice grows louder, and she whistles their five-note chickadee tune. She hurries to finish, then stands up to rubber-band herself back together. Asa jogs toward her in a lopsided gate that favors his bad knee, his orange hat luminescent under the bruised sea of clouds. She climbs up to meet him.
“There you are, Trud. You okay?” He reaches her, a little out of breath. The fringe of hair beneath his hat is frosted with ice crystals.
“Sam needs to go to the hospital. Not the first labor scare, she says. You’ll have to drive her, and hurry but don’t rush, okay? The roads are getting slick.”
Her heart jugs in her chest. “You knew she was pregnant?”
“Of course. I’m with her every day.”
They move quickly over the mesa toward the bus, wind buffeting them from behind. She’s wearing pants that don’t fit her alien body, and she’s sweating and freezing, and she feels ridiculous in her adolescent insistence that she can hide. “I don’t know what happened this morning,” she says.
Asa swings his hand into hers, pulls her along. Through their gloves, she can feel the heat of him. A clump of sage bisects their path, and he lets her hand go. She watches his face. The scar above the left eyebrow where he was nicked by a broken limb while back-country skiing. The triangular dimple on his chin. His mother’s Germanic nose. “I know you’re unhappy,” he says. “But I’m not leaving.” He clears his throat. “Are you?”
“What? No.” Somewhere she’s read about the nonverbal tics of deceivers. Turning away, clearing the throat. But Asa grabs her hand again and somehow looks at her fully while they’re jogging now toward the bus, and she reminds herself that she’s the withholder.
“Don’t get me wrong. You’ve been a real bitch.” He sniffs, wipes his nose on his sleeve.
Zeke revs the bus’s engine. They hurry down the embankment. Trudi realizes she’s missed the chance to thank the kids. Their dark silhouettes move behind the fogged opalescence of the windows. Zeke’s jacketed arm swipes a clean arc on the windshield from the inside. Wisps of exhaust curl underneath the chassis of Trudi’s truck and disappear. Inside, Sam leans against the passenger window with her eyes closed. Defrosted half-moons of clear glass bloom on the windshield. Asa collects his backpack from the ground, takes out the thermos of tea and hands it to her.
“Take care of Sam. We’ll figure out the rest at home. And be careful.”
“I will. I’m … I’m sorry about this morning.”
“I know. It’s too big now to discuss. But. I know.”
As if turned off at some invisible spigot, the wind dies and Asa’s words are loud and thick, close. Heavy snow falls. Trudi flushes. The ground beneath her cants.
He kisses her hard on the forehead and steps onto the bus. Zeke closes the door and motions for Trudi to lead the way back to town.
Trudi settles herself behind the wheel of the truck, reaches out a hand to squeeze Sam’s arm. The girl is sweating, pale. “I think this might be it,” Sam says. “Sorry you’re the one.”
“It’s okay. I want to be.”
Trudi squeezes her arm once more. Then she pulls onto the vast white tarmac ocean, its edges scudding away across the land and into the sky.
Laura Gibson lives in Idaho, where she works in education, tends a tiny farm, and spends as much time outside as she can. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Carve, The Sun, and JuxtaProse. She is currently at work on a novel.