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Authors: Sam Reaves

Cold Black Earth

BOOK: Cold Black Earth
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Also by Sam Reaves


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(Fred Pascente with Sam Reaves)


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Sam Reaves

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503944343

ISBN-10: 1503944344

Cover design by Stewart Williams

Readers familiar with western Illinois will recognize the county I have fictionalized to serve as the setting of this story. I have changed place names while attempting to convey a sense of life in a real community, partly to take a few liberties with topography but mostly to emphasize that the story and all characters are pure invention. Any resemblance between the characters in this story and actual people is decidedly coincidental.



From the train the land looked tired, stubbled brown fields and spindly black trees, vast acres stripped of their riches and left supine under a slate-gray sky, waiting helplessly to be covered by snow. That’s the pathetic fallacy, Rachel thought: You’re the one who’s tired.

When she opened her eyes the land was still there, Illinois in late November, the crops in and Thanksgiving past and the farms settling in for the winter. The quiet time was beginning.

It had taken the California Zephyr an hour to claw free of the metastasizing Chicago exurbs. Rachel had been stunned by the extent of it, mile upon mile of new developments, ranks of identical slapdash prefabs covering up the best farmland in the world. Her father had told her that: This was the best farmland in the world. But her father was gone and the land would be gone soon, too.

The sun went down and she dozed, her head canted against the window, and thus missed a hundred miles or so of lights passing in the dark. She was awakened by the conductor coming through the car calling out Warrensburg, the last stop before the train crossed the Mississippi to set out across the Great Plains. Rachel gathered her things as the train slowed, then stooped to look out at the lamplit town grinding to a halt outside.

Matt was waiting on the platform, and Rachel’s heart soared a little when she saw him, aging at last and growing heavy but essentially unchanged, the image of their father in his visored cap but also of the intrepid boy she had idolized. They embraced, and Rachel held on to him for a few seconds after she could feel he was ready to release her, then stepped back to smile up at him. “Hello, big brother.”

“Sis. Been a while.” His smile faded and he bent to grab her bags. “Hope you don’t mind the pickup. Billy’s got the Chevy out someplace, running around.”

“I’d love to ride in the pickup. I haven’t ridden in a pickup truck since, well, since the last time I was here.” It was cold out here on the prairie but Rachel didn’t care. For the first time since she’d set out on her long journey a week ago, she was sure this was where she should be.

“I think we got a new one since you were here.” Matt led her through the echoing station lobby and down the steps outside. The truck was a Ford, massive by the standards of the old Chevy Longhorn she remembered from her childhood, and it was a real working truck, scarred and dusty, with fence posts and a folded tarp and miscellaneous detritus in the bed. Matt slung her bags behind the seat and they climbed in.

The route home took them down Main Street. This had been the big town when Rachel was a girl, but she had seen her share of big towns since then, and now it was just a county seat out in corn and soybean country, with a grain elevator, a couple of intersecting rail lines and some minor industrial plants, now derelict. Downtown was a courthouse, some churches and a line of storefronts, a lot of them shuttered. “Oh my God, the bakery’s gone,” Rachel said, tracking the decline as they sped down the empty street.

“Years ago. Where you been?”

“Oh, all over. I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

They laughed a little but there was discomfort there, too, and she knew that when the time was right they would have to talk about it all. “So, Billy have a girlfriend?”

Matt grunted. “I wish he did. Might keep him out of trouble. Nah, nobody steady. He’s in his tomcat phase, I guess. Still running around with that Stanfield kid, just raising hell. He’s gonna wind up in jail or dead by the side of the road one of these nights.”

That was a little gloomy for the brother she remembered, but she supposed he was entitled, after all that had happened. “And how’s Emma?”

“OK, far’s I know. We don’t talk a whole lot. She says Ray’s business is hurting. Peoria’s not exactly the economic powerhouse of the nation these days.”

“I don’t think there is one these days.”

“No, I guess not. But people gotta eat, so I guess the farmers will do OK. Long as we can stay a step ahead of the government.” Matt sounded weary, and Rachel wondered if everyone all over the world was as tired as she.

The last time Rachel Lindstrom had come home, her parents had both been alive. Her father had still been the Colossus, chipped at by arthritis and the weight of years but still bestriding the earth in his Red Wings and his Deere cap; her mother had gone gray and started to stoop but still ruled the house with the quiet assurance of the éminence grise.

A treacherous heart had taken the one and a savage, rapid cancer the other. Rachel had been engaged in serious matters on the other side of the world. She had not set foot on the farm in eight years. For Rachel it was still the lost Eden, and she was afraid of finding it changed. But she was out of excuses for not coming home. There was no more career, no more marriage, no more obligations. She was no longer important, no longer committed, no longer needed anywhere.

All she was was tired: worn out, run-down, bled dry. All she wanted now was to rest in her old bed in her old room, with a view of the tossing branches of the oak and the vast prairie sky beyond it. She wanted to sleep twenty hours a day.

Matt turned off the highway and Rachel’s heart quickened; these roads threaded her earliest memories. Farmsteads passed by in the dark, placid and tidy under their halogen lights. “Oh, no! The Swansons tore down that beautiful old barn.”

“It was falling down. I don’t know how much farming Bob’s doing anymore anyway. I think he sold off half the acreage. Mostly he’s living off the railroad job these days.”

More turns, the road starting to dip and rise. Local undulations veined the prairie, channeling water toward the great river forty miles to the west. Trees loomed in the dark, filling the folds in the land. Matt braked as something raced across the road just ahead, fur flashing in the headlights.

“What was that?”

“Coyote. They’re all over the place.”


“They’ve come back big time. They sneak around and pick off people’s chickens and farm cats. Pain in the ass. I’ve shot a few. You hear ’em yowling at night a lot.”

“That’s scary.”

“They’re just wild dogs. But a pack of them can cause a lot of trouble.”

They crossed a creek on a narrow bridge and made another turn. “Wow, when did they blacktop this?”

“Four or five years ago. I’d been yelling at Jim Hanson for years about it.”

“Jim Hanson? Debby’s little brother?”

“Yeah. He’s been on the road commission since about ninety-five.”

“Little Jimmy. He’ll always be thirteen years old in my mind.”

“He’s got the farm now. Their dad passed away five or six years ago.”

They topped a rise and the headlights fell on a figure two hundred yards ahead, walking by the side of the road. “Who the hell’s that?” said Matt. A distant face turned briefly to them, pale and indistinguishable in the hood of a sweatshirt. The car dipped into the hollow and the lights showed only blacktop. “Somebody’s car broke down, maybe.”

“Did we pass a car?”

“Could have been on one of the side roads. I didn’t recognize him, though. Don’t think it was anybody I knew.”

The road began to rise again. Matt slowed. “Well, we’ll see if he wants a ride.”

They climbed out of the hollow, the land opening out, and there was nobody there. “Where the hell’d he go?” said Matt.

Ahead of them was a level stretch. The headlights lit the road ahead and the ditch on either side for a hundred feet or so; beyond was the dark.

Matt had slowed to about twenty. Rachel peered out the window on her side, seeing nothing but corn stubble going by. “That’s weird. He just vanished.”

Matt gave it a few seconds, then accelerated gently. “We didn’t hallucinate that, did we?”

“We both had the same hallucination, anyway. There was a guy there.”

“He must have jumped into the ditch, laid down flat. Why in the hell would he do that?”

They hadn’t come up with an answer by the time they turned onto the gravel road that led to the Lindstrom place, settled in 1854 by one Swan Lindstrom of Östergotland, Sweden, and worked by his descendants ever since. The land now consisted of something over a thousand acres, lying fifteen miles north and a little east of the county seat and marked by a USDA
Centennial Farm

Matt wheeled into the drive, gravel crackling under the tires. He parked close to the kitchen door. While Matt reached behind the seat for her bags, Rachel walked away from the house to stand for a moment and look around, seeing details that had changed—a flower bed that hadn’t been there, a concrete slab where an old pump had been—but mostly the topography she’d grown up with, ghostly under the lamp high on its pole: house, barn, sheds; beyond them the wide fields, invisible now in the dark.

How many times have I come home late at night like this? Rachel was presented with a brief vision of a thousand arrivals: sleepy in her mother’s arms, fleeing from disastrous dates, sneaking in tipsy and giggling. She turned and followed Matt into the house.

Here much was changed: new wallpaper in the kitchen, a stainless steel refrigerator in place of the old Frigidaire, sky-blue paint in the hallway, a new runner on the stairs. Rachel recognized her dead sister-in-law’s hand at work and was saddened. “Did you eat?” said Matt.

“Not really. I had a sandwich before I got on the train.”

“We may have some leftover pizza.”

Rachel wondered who if anybody was doing the cooking in this house now. “Whatever you have is fine. Give me those.” She took her bags from Matt and made for the stairs. “Can you put on a kettle for tea?”

“Not sure we have any tea. I’ll look.”

Upstairs, she threw her bags on the bed in her old room and stood at the window looking out at the oak tree, just visible in the glow from the yard light, and the blackness beyond. She went and sat on the toilet, glad for the familiar shabbiness of the bathroom, then washed her hands, avoided looking at herself in the mirror and passed quickly through the hall, haunted by ghosts.

They sat at the kitchen table. Matt had found a tea bag he said had to be a decade old; it produced a passable cup of tea. Matt opened a beer. After some halting small talk they fell silent and then Matt said, “You missed a lot.”

She nodded. “I know.”

“Mom was kind of upset that you couldn’t make it back when Dad went.”

She stared into her tea. “I’m sorry. We went through all this.”

“Yeah. I’m just saying.”

“I know.” Attending her father’s funeral would have required the commitment of scarce logistical resources and deprived a besieged American embassy of its best Arabic linguist at a time of exploding crisis, so Rachel had had to make do with constrained, inadequate words with her mother and brother over a satellite telephone link. A year after that she had come halfway around the world on emergency leave to say good-bye to her mother as she lay dying in a Peoria medical center, then flown directly back to Iraq. “I missed both my parents’ funerals. I’m not proud of it. That’s just the way it worked out.”

“Don’t worry about it. Far as that goes, none of us managed to make it to your wedding.”

“Well, Lebanon’s a long way away. It’s just as well, considering how long the marriage lasted.”

“I stuck up for you, believe it or not.”

“I believe it.” Rachel raised her eyes to her brother’s. “Matt, I’m so sorry about Margie. I can’t tell you how much.”

If there was pain in there somewhere, Matt had gotten just as good as their father at hiding it. He nodded once, ponderously. “I never should have moved back here. She didn’t want to. She wanted her own house, even if it was a dump. But I wanted to keep the damn house in the family after Mom died. What the hell did I know?”

“It made sense to me.”

Matt drank from the beer and frowned at the label. “I thought it was going to be fine at first. She did a lot of remodeling, all this.” He waved at it. “But then after about a year the depression got worse. And then one day I came in and found her.”

“Oh, Matt.” She was whispering now, consumed by guilt; after her sister-in-law’s suicide she had not even thought of coming home.

“Now I’m wondering how long I want to stay. This house has seen too much. I can’t even go in the bedroom anymore. I been sleeping in the den down here.”

They traded one of those looks only two people who have grown up together can trade, long and candid, and Rachel found herself hurting for him.

“So,” he said. “What about you? What happened over there?”

Rachel sighed. “Everyone knows what happened over there. We blew it. We took the country and then when we had it, we messed it up beyond repair. And I got tired of helping mess things up. So I resigned.”

In the silence she could hear the old kitchen clock ticking. “And what happened with Fadi?” said Matt.

She shrugged. “We just discovered there wasn’t much of a marriage left, that’s all. The separation killed it. I thought it would survive, but it didn’t. Seeing each other two or three times a year wasn’t enough.”

“Yeah, I guess that would be hard.”

“It’s always tough to make an international marriage work. Especially with two careers going head-to-head.” And most especially when one partner is locked up in a fortified compound in a war zone and the other is roaming the nightspots of Beirut, she thought.

BOOK: Cold Black Earth
11.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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