The cottonwood stood at the edge of the prairie, its branches knuckling together in the cool, dry breeze. I sat, leaned against its trunk, picking at the tip of a twig. Katharine’s head rested on my leg as she stared at the driftless sky. We were watching the leaves lull their way down, piling up around us—crisp and sunny, autumn in Iowa.
She said, “Do you think animals enjoy this as much as we do?”
Squirrels scurried above us.
“It’s not a question I can answer. But if I had to guess—”
“Just play along.”
“If I were a squirrel,” I said, but then looked away. Crows circled the prairie. “Partial-hibernation sounds claustrophobic.”
She closed her eyes and tilted her face toward the sun. “If you were a hibernating squirrel you’d brood over not getting enough to eat, having to share with others. And you’d be scared of stepping out onto a naked branch, exposing yourself to predators.”
“That wouldn’t frighten me as much as being stuck in that small space.” I’d been avoiding her for the last two days. She’d asked what was wrong, but I couldn’t come up with the right answer.
Her family—Korean immigrants. They had ideas about her future—law school, Harvard or Yale—and the kind of man she should consider. No one in my family had been to college. We were tradespeople—carpenters, plumbers, electricians. I feared her family’s opinions were truer than she wanted to admit. I would never leave our town. She would only return for holidays.
She rolled onto her slender side, away from me. Straw-colored grass separated us from hikers moving along the far side of the field.
“Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t have told you those things,” she said.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. Her hair—long, black, shiny—I lifted a strand to my nose. Lavender shampoo. Two nights before, her father had cornered me at work, his supermarket, and told me how he felt. I was stocking shelves, moving the dented cans of soup to the back, dusting off the tops, repositioning their labels to face out.
“Please,” he said. “My daughter has a future to think about.” He was a slight man with smooth brown skin and a kind demeanor, and when he spoke, he ran his hand through his mostly silver hair.
I simply nodded.
But I didn’t have the courage to tell her, to end it. I was content letting things dissolve slowly. I was selfish. Her father was right. She belonged outside of this place.
“I made sixty-three paper cranes last night,” she said. Her hands were suspended in front of her face, concentrating, fingers miming against the clear sky—she folded another out of thin air.
“What was bothering you?” I said. I thought of the paper crane hanging from my truck’s rear view mirror. She always touched it when she hopped into my truck. Katharine always hoped the best for me.
“I’m not sure if I want to tell you,” she said.
It was an invitation to ask. But I’d already done too much of that. I rested a hand on her side, ran a finger along her ribcage. Skinny as a farm cat. She dug an arm under my thigh and held tight, her neck and shoulder nestled into the side of my leg. I knew she wouldn’t let go—not for a while anyway—so I tried to get comfortable, but the cottonwood tree was unforgiving. Its rutted-bark already bruising my back.
~ ~ ~
Keith Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. He’s an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. His stories and essays have appeared in Meridian, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere.