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Chapter One
from An Unfinished Life
by Mark Spragg

Copyright Mark Spragg, 2004. All rights reserved. For reprint permissions, please go to Contact page

The sapwood snaps and shifts in the low-bellied stove, and the heat swells up against the roofboards and weathered fir planking, and the whole small building seems to groan.

It's the first cool night of the fall-a good night for a sweat-and Einar adjusts his wet back and ass in the webbing of the lawn chair. He feels the full weight of his seventy years and wishes he'd thought to bring a towel to drape over the webbing, but he was in here just this spring and hadn't remembered one then either. He scoops a dipper of water from the pail beside the chair and casts it across the stovetop where it sizzles and steams.

He wishes he'd have known this was the way it was going to be.

"Some old son of a bitch should've explained getting old to me," he says aloud and then bows his head against the wet pulse of heat. "Some old son of a bitch probably did and I wasn't listening."

The sweat drips from his nose and chin.

He reaches his denim shirt from where he hung it on a nail, soaks it in the bucket and then stands to wring it and mop his face and chest.

He spreads the shirt over the chair and sits back down, staring at the chair that stands empty before him, both chairs raised up on this platform into the heat.

Through the west window he watches the amber moonlight on the pasture and remembers the fall they skidded in the fieldstones and mortared them into the foundation under this board floor. The building was Griffin's idea. He'd said: "Dad, I need it. I really do."

"You need a sauna?" Einar had asked.

"I'm a Viking," the boy said. "It's what the Vikings did."

All of this twenty years ago, Mitch helping them frame the walls and the headers for the door and windows, and Griffin just a boy, but already used to working with the diligence of a man. And not a boy who'd ever asked for much.

They put in a south-facing window, this one to the west, and a square of double-pane glass in the slanting roof so they could see the stars. And a smaller pane low in the east wall for the benefit of the boy's dog, so Karl could lie on the porch and stare in at them.

When they were finished, Griffin took each man by a hand, standing between them, and bowed his head. "God bless this place," he said. He was serious, original, not just repeating something he'd heard.

"Is there anything else you need?" Mitch had asked.

The boy shaded his eyes, looking up at the man. "You could sit in here with us."

Mitch's face shone even blacker in the sun, like wet obsidian. "Even though I'm no Viking?" He bent down over the boy. "Even though my great-granddad was an African man?"

"Does that mean no?" Griffin asked.

Mitch shoved him away playfully, the way men roughhouse with boys. "I guess I won't," he said. "I believe I've sweated enough in this life already."

Einar smiles at the clarity of the memory. He works his jaw, and his ears pop as if he were descending from a great height. The old dog fidgets on the porch, then settles its grayed jowls on its crossed forepaws and stares in through the little window. His name's Karl, but it's not the original Karl, just another dog taken from the town shelter, worked and fed and given a place to rest and grow lame. The first Karl lies buried behind the barn. Dead and buried like his son, Griffin, and his wife, Ella.

He straightens in the chair and wonders if the dog wishes it had a boy for company. Not his boy, just some other kid. He wonders what it is that dogs long for, or if they long. Maybe they just wait patiently for some improvement in their lives. He thinks he's a man who knows something of waiting, but the heat's gotten to him and he feels his stomach come up and shorten his breath. He cracks a window and sucks at the draft of night air. He drops his head back and stares through the window in the roof.

Pegasus has risen in the dark sky, poised as if for a run of magic, or that's what he used to think. Now he looks at the stars and sees only a silent, uncaring witness, and tonight feels this press of steam-thick heat, smells the odor of living wood reduced to ash. No magic.

He pops a wooden match with his thumbnail and lights a candle on the shelf by his elbow. He shakes the match out and looks down at his shriveled thighs and worn knees. His legs are white as summer cloud, blue-veined. At least his arms and shoulders are still strong, and he tightens his chest, the muscles in his neck. To the empty chair he says, "I've always been puny through the hindquarters, from the get-go. That's not news."

He scoots forward on the chair and takes the quart Mason jar from the shelf, holds it below him and pisses it half full before setting it down by the water bucket. He thumbs the sweat from his eyebrows and blinks at the walls and shelves, at the fist-size chunks of agate and quartz, the petrified wood and half a dozen of the boy's favorite books. There're the hawk feathers he'd hung on the walls. The skull of a black baldy bull. A map of Norway cut out of a National Geographic, carefully, with a razor blade. One of Iceland. The picture of a bearded man in a horned helmet, and another of a tall black man with a spear, balanced on a single leg. Both from National Geographic, the Norseman and the Senegalese hunter. The boy saw himself as dangerous, raised as he was by the descendants of warriors.

Einar stares down at the dog again and thinks it would be a fine thing to have that kind of focus. To have a small window, with something to stare at on the other side. He wishes for his own window and wonders what he might see. He wonders if Mitch has gone to sleep for the night.

He pushes out of his chair and opens the door. He carries the jar at his side and steps to the edge of the porchboards and sloshes the piss out into the darkness. He stands steaming in the cool air. The dog shifts but doesn't rise, its hips so brittle with arthritis that it moves only when it must. Einar turns back to the doorway and says, "Just like old times."

The dog blinks its clouded eyes and yawns, and Einar thinks this is an animal that should be called out into the tall weeds and shot in the head and buried next to its namesake. But he knows Mitch would never stand for it. Mitch believes in suffering as a right, a burden, even sacred, for both man and beast.