NEA Literature Fellowships

Melanie Rae Thon

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(2008 - Prose)

From the short story "Confession for Raymond Good Bird"

You hauled thirty-seven dead sheep down a hillside west of Helena. They'd died as one, skulls fractured by lightning, the head of each sheep resting tenderly on the rump of another. They were filthy now, their gray wool rain-soaked, their shocked bodies bloated. Flies swarmed you and them.  Crows and hawks and kestrels circled. You lifted them by their broken legs, you and two Colombian men who called themselves Jesús and Eduardo, who jabbered as they worked, quick Spanish words muffled by bandannas. You tore your own rag from your mouth and nose to be with the dead, to know their smell, to breathe their bodies. The Colombian brothers laughed when they heard you choking.  Estúpido. Even then you didn't hide your face. You heaved the pitiful animals into the bed of the rancher's truck. You saw that each face was distinct, with a certain space between the eyes, a soft curve of the mouth, a singular tilt of nose and forehead. Each one of them - and you, and Jesús, and Eduardo - secretly made, silently beloved. Why were you whole? Why were they shattered? 

You left that night. Issaquah, Butte, Aberdeen, Seattle. You slept in the woods, in a cardboard box, in a barn with a whiteman's cow, in a bed of leaves under a freeway. You dove in dumpsters for bruised fruit, half-eaten buffalo wings, cold biscuits and gravy. You snatched three perfect blue eggs from the nest of a robin. The birds woke you for a hundred nights, beaks sharp as barbs in your lungs and liver.  You stole corn from pigs and a gnawed bone from an old wolfhound.  He rose on his crippled hips to tug his chain, too sick and slow to nip you. A goat gave you her milk, and for this offering, you praised her.

North of Spokane, you walked up a dirt road to a weather-wracked farmhouse. You meant to ask for work mucking stalls in exchange for one meal. Nobody answered your knock, but you touched the doorknob and it turned. You breathed, and the door opened. The sweet smell of cherries sucked you inside, pulled you in a dream down a long passage to a sun-dazzled kitchen. 

There it was, all for you, a cherry pie with a lattice crust, cooling on the table. In the freezer, a half gallon tub of vanilla ice cream waited - untouched, perfectly white, unbelievably creamy.

You thought, Just one piece or maybe a quarter. The pie vanished. Who could blame you? You tried to stop, but you couldn't do it. In your swollen stomach, seven scoops of ice cream swirled.

Your head throbbed. You felt hot and cold at the same time, stunned by bliss and suddenly so tired.  You staggered to the living room, but the couch was old, too short, too lumpy. Somehow you gathered the strength to climb the stairs. You opened three doors before you found the room you wanted, cool and dark with a wide bed and a down comforter.

You were afraid to sleep, but a voice that was your own voice gone mad and mocking said, Why stop now? Why resist this last pleasure? You knew you might die in this bed, victim of your own delight and a farmer's righteous fury. You woke to a woman's voice, insistent and gentle. Mister, you best get up now, go down those stairs and keep walking. She was white-haired, but not old - thin, but not frail. A farmer's wife, yes, without the farmer. The widow cradled an unraised rifle. She was kind: she wanted you to go, but she didn't want to scare you. 

That night it rained and you slept in a child's treehouse. You crept out hours before dawn. If the boy came with his BB gun, he'd aim for your right eye and kill you.

Raymond Good Bird, twenty-two years gone. You walked close to death every hour, but somehow you survived, and then one day you came home to rest, and I let you die in your sister's kitchen.

Melanie Rae Thon's most recent books are the novel Sweet Hearts and the story collection, First, Body.  Her work has been included in Best American Short Stories  (1995, 1996), three  Pushcart Prize Anthologies  (2003, 2006, 2008),  Granta's Best Young American Novelists  (1996), and  The O. Henry Prize Stories (2006). She is also a recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award (1997), a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts  (1992), and a Writer's Residency from the Lannan Foundation  (2005).  Her new fiction appears or is forthcoming in  Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Glimmer Train, Conjunctions: A Writers' Aviary, Pushcart Prize XXXII, Idaho Review, Crazyhorse, Five Points; and at Originally from Montana, she now lives in migration between the Pacific Northwest and Salt Lake City, where she teaches at the University of Utah. 

Photo by Karen Nichlos

Author's Statement

I have been inspired by numerous high-profile searches for missing children - from the abduction and return of Elizabeth Smart to the miraculous survival of eleven-year-old Brennan Hawkins who emerged unharmed after four days and five nights alone in the Uinta Mountains. Other searches have ended more tragically - a boy never found, a young girl found murdered - but what unifies all these incidents is the way in which the search itself becomes holy: a missing child belongs to, and is loved by, a whole community. As strangers work together toward a single cause, they become family - bound by love not only to the child lost, but to all who gather. This is what I wish to illuminate in my novel about a search for a missing boy: the web of compassion, astonishing grace in the midst of suffering, what Edward Galeano calls "the potent magic, a luminous mystery that redeems the human adventure in the world."

The generous fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts will give me an opportunity to pursue my most challenging research. The winter light and landscape of northwestern Montana - the river, the severe weather, the people and wild creatures of this particular region - inspire and inform my project. I wish to immerse myself so that I may render the animate environment and my people's lives as fully and honestly as possible. I am grateful for the freedom, but even more thankful for the faith. This gift from the NEA is a blessing and a responsibility, one I hope to honor through my work.