Editor’s note: “The Bonfire” is an excerpt from Elise Gregory’s forthcoming novel The Clayfields. The novel features a rotating cast of memorable characters. In this chapter, we’re witness to Lupine — a gangly, smart, and tough farmgirl. Lupine’s presence throughout the novel reminds us that every encounter has a great potential for risk and reward.
Reading The Clayfields reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver and Kent Haruf and their commitment to animals, the natural world, and a sharp psychological rendering of their characters. Fans of Kingsolver or Haruf will find the same satisfaction in reading The Clayfields. Pre-order available here.
Her brother, Anders, threw a party for his college friends, most who’d never set foot on a farm. They wouldn’t know the back end of a cow ‘til it kicked. That afternoon it’d looked like an REI fair with all the colored, nylon tents. Geirolf muttered in Norwegian while he ran the second milking of the day. She couldn’t tell what he said, but his pinched brows meant it wasn’t good. But then he was always pinched these days.
Anders no longer talked much with her since his return in May. Used to be they’d feed the calves together. Catching up with his friends, she guessed.
He’d used the pile of buckthorn and sumac behind the barn for a bonfire, close to the ten-foot corn stalks, rows that stretched to the bluffs. She watched the smoke grow heavier from her second story window and guessed they were burning wood pallets. Smelled like it. No longer the fresh green but chemical in the air. She climbed down the oak beside her window to get a closer view of all the mess. The wide limbs, familiar and where she usually sat. But tonight was about escaping her room which felt warm and too small when she could hear all those voices outside.
The barn made a secretive spot. Dark forms laughed and passed bottles then laughed harder. Some pairs kissed on the square bales her brother had set out. The night was still, and the smoke stood up in the air like a mast.
Most of the kids were out of towners, though she thought she could make out the thick body of the Peterson boy. And was that Hiran? Manny? She looked for Anders but couldn’t find him among all the bodies. People she thought she knew, then they turned, and it was just the look of them in the shadows that tricked her into thinking they were familiar.
Years back, she, Anders, and Henrick stacked cedar and white pine limbs they’d trimmed on their land. They used a long-handled saw to cut the lowest branches, most with needles that trembled and dropped with the first cut. Sap swelled and ran down the silver trunks. Their arms were covered with sap. Needles knitted in their hair as they heaped branches into a huge, haphazard teepee. Then Anders squirted it all with kerosene.
The eruption was so sudden and so hot it burned off her eyebrows, eyelashes, and bangs. She’d shrieked and fell underneath Anders’s weight as he smothered his own shirt into her burning face. The heft of him was such a comfort that she didn’t cry.
For months after, Anders and Henrick called her hedgehog while the hairs grew back spiky and stiff. If she could find Anders now, she’d razz him about almost setting her on fire before she turned thirteen. With the flickering light she caught him with some girl, faces locked lip on lip. Beer cans nearly sideways. She knew better to interrupt him and gazed back into the flames.
She could have stayed happy seeing the fire climb and the shadowy figures beside. Then a guy wobbled into her.
“Hey, didn’t see you there,” he slurred, zipping up his shorts. “Are you Anne?”
“Who are you then, I can’t see too well now that I’m away from the fire.”
Her eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and the moon was out. She could see the boy’s chin length hair and sharp jaw. He wasn’t much taller than she was, though his chest and shoulders were wide like many of the wrestlers in this area.
“Lupine,” she said and stuck out her hand, feeling immediately like a little girl.
The boy grasped her palm and opened it to his mouth, touching his tongue to the middle. It reminded her of the goat kids over at Terra’s place where she’d been milking mornings—an animal act. It shook her. Not enough to let go. She prided herself on being a farm girl. And this was her brother’s college friend. An outsider. Besides, Anders wasn’t beside her.
She wanted to see where he would lead. The possibility of danger interesting. She liked the necessary labor of feeding calves, milking goats, but it was solitary work. Without public school she felt even more alone when Anders left. This wasn’t her brother. She knew this absolutely and knew he wanted something from her. For once, she wanted to be seen.
“Lupine, I like it,” he said into her hand. “Hey Lupine, did you see all this corn. It’s like a black hole.”
“Where are you from?” she asked knowing he couldn’t be from the Midwest.
“Boston, and look what I brought with me.” He pulled out a flask. It flickered in the firelight and so did his eyes.
What intensity, she thought. And here, she’d only stolen sips of warm PBR from her brother’s stash. She took the warm metal. His lips were wet with the stuff. She imagined she was pressing against his mouth as she swigged. She threw her head back, and the liquor burned her throat.
“Whoa, that was a mean drink.”
She coughed, “You didn’t say your name.”
“Gus. So Lupine, do you want to go to the fire or explore the corn?”
She could have told him she explored the corn all the time in full sun, but she felt the liquor ignite her cheeks.
The corn was something different at night. If animals used it as cover during the day, all sorts of nocturnal critters were doing the same thing at night. She’d rather not run into a coyote or badger. But the danger excited her. This night when no one seemed to know her. Instead of telling him it was a dumb idea she asked for another drink. It burned less than the first.
“I’ll follow you,” he said.
His heat was closer and hotter than anyone she’d known. It was hard to tell if it was the alcohol or Gus who had her heart racing. She looked for a wider row. All symmetrical except for one or two long openings. She turned back to see the fire grow and leap higher—wondered if Anders had added wood. She smiled.
Gus, thinking she smiled at him, grinned and grabbed her. He probed her mouth with his tongue. His mouth was slick and hot and tasted slightly like the flask and something muskier. It made her lose her breath. She wasn’t quite sure she liked it and pushed back on his chest. He held her and grinned into her face with a doggedness she’d never seen in a man. Not that any man had ever looked at her. His spit was still on her lips. She didn’t know quite how to wipe it off without him seeing. She shoved at him again and then turned into the corn, finding a slightly larger row so they could move more freely.
Leaves still flicked against her pajama pants. Webs caught her cheeks and hair. She wished she’d made him go first, irritated at herself for not speaking up. Then his hand went to her shoulders just below her neck. It traced down. She stopped. With his other hand, he squeezed her hip.
“You wanna stop here?” he asked.
She did, even though she thought it was silly to be inside such a narrow space. She would have led him to the upper barn where the air was sweet. But she was curious now after his kiss. She stood still and let him turn her. He kissed her eyes, ears, and left wet streaks down her neck, making her legs tremble. What was she doing? She wasn’t sure how to use her hands at all, laying them like blocks of wood on his shoulders as he moved down her, kissing the whole way.
She let him lift her shirt and tug down her pajama pants. She stood in her underwear and long hair while he kept kissing. Every place he didn’t touch felt cold and very naked. She should be embarrassed. When she thought of other people, she felt colder, like they were turning from her one by one. But she liked the kissing: how it coiled inside her—a snake ready to strike. When he said she was lovely, she couldn’t quite believe him since the stalks blocked the moon. Still, it was a nice offering, and she allowed him to pull at her panties. He threw off his own shirt and shorts and boxers. She could only half see his skin glowing in the fractured moonlight. He wanted her hands on him. His chest. His hips. She could tell as he took her hands in his—moved them to each place. His body hot in comparison to hers.
It didn’t seem odd to her since she’d witnessed so many animals breed, though there was hardly such preparation. Really, she never followed the squeamishness of her mother, Gin, who’d seemed frightened of tampons and Lupine’s bleeding. But, it was awkward in that small space. He tried lifting her to his hips. The leaves and stalks were knives against their skin. He wanted her to turn around and kneel, but she wouldn’t. That was too far. She wouldn’t have her first time without someone’s face beside hers, and she liked the kissing. The pushing she could do without except for that coil in her belly.
Kissing her mouth, he stood her back on the uneven dirt. She felt relief to have her bare feet in the soil even though it was cold. Her head spun from the drinking. Or him. She wasn’t sure. He took her hand and pressed it back on him, pulling her hand back and forth until she understood what he wanted her to do. She felt detached from her body and his then. The darkness helped her and so did the thought of the bonfire that her brother had made.
As Gus helped her dress, she hid her face behind her hair even though she knew he couldn’t really see. He put his mouth to her hair-covered ear and said, “Thank you. You’re beautiful,” which made her feel both pleasure and the need to cry. They tripped their way to the fire.
He fed her more alcohol. It helped her with any tinge of shame. They toppled over one another on the hay bales. His arm slung across her shoulders, hand squeezing a breast.
The fire lit up Anders’s face across the way. She shrugged Gus’s hand off. With her fingers she combed her hair over her face, hiding from Anders. But he’d already seen them. He was beside her fast. Even with the firelight his face looked dark. She knew she was in trouble.
“Shit, Lupine. You’re supposed to be in bed.”
“Hey man,” mumbled Gus and pulled her onto his lap.
“Fuck you, Gus. This is my kid sister.”
Anders hauled Lupine to her feet. Up to the house he dragged her.
“Hey, I can walk,” she said. But he didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t hear, she thought. And she said again, “Hey, let me walk, will ya?”
They were unsteady on the stairs. When he shushed her, she could smell smoke and alcohol on his breath. He stunk and she guessed she did too. She could feel his fingers digging into her upper arms. Still, she thought he might talk with her like he used to nights before he left for school.
Instead, he growled as he shoved her inside her room, “Stay away.”
“Why?” She stood grounded in her bedroom doorway.
He tried pushing her inside again then harshly whispered, “Gin needs to have a talk with you is why. This isn’t up to me.”
“She doesn’t talk.”
She wanted him to come in and sit on the old rocker. Legs hanging over one side.
“That’s not my problem.”
“You’re the only one besides Grandpa Etzel who talked.”
His face wobbled close in front of her round and glowing, “Listen, Lupine, I’m drunk. Now is not the time to have a little fuck-chat with you. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
He snuck back out to the fire, his friends, and booze. She wondered what exactly she was supposed to stay away from: Her brother? Men? Drink? What really had she done? The ceiling swirled in front of her. It took time to release the images of her brother and Gus.
Over the past year, she’d tried texting her brother then joined Facebook just so she could see him post selfies that had nothing to do with her, farming, or family. It hurt to see his superimposed smile, arm around a stranger whose face was just as large and fuzzy from drink. She missed him.
Anders never did talk about the bonfire even though she waited on the straw bales beside the charred remains of pallets. The nails glowed in the afternoon sun as she waited for him to come sit beside her. She heard the calves bellow. She watched all the colorful tents stuffed inside packs. Ander’s friends, all strangers to her, packed up their cars. A parade of out-of-state license plates. Maybe she saw Gus climbing into a Volvo with another girl, Lupine wasn’t sure, and anyway he wasn’t looking for her. She sat and watched the corn bend and sway. The cows tromped back inside for evening milking. And Anders never came for her.