NEA Literature Fellowships

Noy Holland

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(2004 - Prose)

From the short story "Someone is Always Missing"

The baby was sleeping. The sisters had gone to the garden. There was flagstone around the garden. Lemon thyme bunched up between the slabs of stone. The dog lay down in the shade in the thyme and watched the girls in the garden.

The older sister said, "Listen for the baby, big dog."

It was the older sister's baby. It was the older sister's dog, the older sister's garden, beside the older sister's house. The house was built in the sage and pine that grew on the slope of a hogback that tilted out of the plains. You could see across the plains from the garden.

"And these," the younger sister said, "are these keepers?"

The older sister, Libby, nodded. She knelt on the flagstone and pointed.

It had been an easy birth. But it was hard still, bending. It was still hard for Libby to get herself around. "That's heartsease," she said, pointing. "There's motherwort and feverfew. This is hound's-tongue here; rue. The rest of this is garbage."

The beds were dusty. The dust that lifted away from the plains and the chalky dust of the concrete plant coated each leaf and bloom. The sisters knocked the dust off as they weeded; they heaped the weeds on the slabs of stone that Libby's husband had lain around the garden.

"I'm glad you came," Libby said to her sister.

The younger sister was Rose. She was the taller, the prettier one. She was the one their father kept moving from school to school. "Did you hear that?" Rose asked.

"What is it?"

"I thought I heard the baby."

Libby stopped and listened. She heard the wind moving the limbs of the trees and the dog, when it let its mouth drop open, breathing. But she could not hear the baby.

"Will Daddy come see the baby?" Rose asked.

"He says so. As soon as he can."

Rose's shorts worked up as weeded until her underpants showed, the elastic slack and useless. There were dusty streaks on the back of her shorts where she had wiped her hands.

"I mean it," Libby said. "I really am glad you came. It helps me. With the baby and all."

The dog rolled onto its back in the thyme. It showed the girls its body.

The days were growing hotter. The snowmelt was over, the runoff not plunging out of the mountains anymore.

The sisters moved on into the flowerbeds, into the bed where the iris was blooming. They had planted the iris the year before, not long after Libby married, before the baby had begun to show. It was a year winter came all at once. The girls had dug the new bed with a mattock in the falling snow, guessing at the borders of the older beds, the wasted leaves from the older bulbs the iris would bloom among. The iris had grown straight and healthily, sending up tall, sturdy stems whose blooms - this was why the sisters were digging them up now - were a murky, riverish brown.

Rose chipped the dirt up, twisted her spade to pry up the roots. "I'm so thirsty," she said. "All this digging."

"We'll be finished soon," Libby said. "If we go in, we'll wake the baby."

Rose dropped her spade. She walked to the hose, turned the faucet open and drank until the water that had been left in the hose and been warmed by the sun ran out. She let the water, running cold, run out into the iris bed to make the bed easier to dig in.

"You can't do that," Libby said. "They won't let you water when it's dry like this."

"Who is they?" Rose said.

"You know."

Rose turned off the faucet. She knelt again in the iris bed. "You know why they bring flowers to the hospital?" she said.

"Should I?" her sister said.

"Because then they don't have to smell you."

Rose leaned into the stand of blooms. She dipped her nose among the petals of one of the blooms, the crest and beardless falls.

It had always amazed her - that things knew when to grow. All those months in the ground in the snow, she thought, and she remembered the snow of the year before suddenly, earnestly falling. Rose had been between schools that year, their father going from job to job.

It was their father who had sent her out. He sent her to Libby with a dachshund, which Libby gave away, and with a shopping bag full of rhizomes, which he guessed, in his note, were tulips. At the very least, the note read, these should keep your sister out of harm's way.

Noy Holland is the author of two collections of short fiction, What Begins With Bird (FC2), and The Spectacle of the Body (Knopf). Her stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Ploughshares, Open City, NOON, and others. She is an Associate Professor in the MFA program for Writers and Poets at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she co-directs the Juniper Initiative. She is married to the writer Sam Michel. They live in a quiet hill town with their two young children.

Author's Statement

The novel I have been working on with the support of an NEA grant began as a short story. It was the story of two people hitchhiking in the snow; it had the ready linearity of an excursion down the road. And yet I found that a simple pairing, the familiar phrase "here and there" opened a wound I had not predicted in what I believed I had in my hands. The reiteration of this phrase brought me to what I recognize as the origin of the book, or, rather, the origin of my impulse to write it. There robs here and here there: it robs, enriches, squanders, competes. There came, like then, before here, just as then came before now. Pretty simple notion, I agree. But nowhere near as simple as two young lovers standing in the snow with their thumbs stuck out across the road. What has come of the quarrel between here and there, between then and now, is a generative ambivalence. This ambivalence feels truer to me than the clean narrative I began with, and it complicates the nostalgia that precipitated the book. I am still at work on the novel. The grant from the NEA has given me, in very practical terms, time away from the pressures and distractions of academia. It has allowed the book to grow as I wish it to - rather than feeling I ought to coerce it. Time to work, to clean up messes - that's a gift, truly enabling. What else has been enabling is the boost the grant has given me, the feather-in-the-cap. Public recognition has made it easier to quiet the doubts I work against. I am immensely grateful for it.