Novel loosely based on author's mother's life in rural Idaho, spanning years from World War II through Vietnam War, as she rears a family with her schizophrenic husband, using her rural life to give her fortitude.
A Devil Singing Small - U.S. Kindle
A Devil Singing Small - UK Kindle
What would you do if, after 12 years of trying to by the perfect wife, your husband was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic?
A family saga, spanning the years from World War II through the Vietnam War and after, recounting the unseen wounds war inflicts on two generations of a family. With a raw authenticity stripped of self-pity and a poet's eye for lyrical detail, Betty recounts her wartime romance with Army Air Corps Sergeant Mitch Lanier, raised in a Catholic orphanage, and a combat veteran; their rocky marriage; the births of a son and daughter and Mitch’s gradual spiral from a man who could build or fix anything into a schizophrenic, obsessed with the Virgin Mary and extra-terrestrial flight. They raise their family in rural Idaho and Betty relies on her inner life – her love of the land – to give her the courage to fulfill her marriage vows and to protect her family. From her life of subservience to that of the family’s bread-winner, temptation, fear and love give a razor’s edge to a sometime funny, often difficult life. It is also the story of the conflicting relationship between mother and daughter Torie, and Betty’s pride and fears for son, Michael, who becomes a combat infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. The author drew on her observations of her father’s mental illness to give this novel authenticity.
A Chinook blew for two days, slurping up snow that had piled, blizzard upon blizzard, since November. The snow slumped and flattened, reduced itself to mush and mud. I pulled on two pairs of thick wool socks to cushion my bunion within the men’s work boots I wore now. I had to be careful. The rubber tread had worn flat from years of tramping the hills. Snow on pine needles is like snow on ice. One heedless step, a broken hip. Lie there for hours in agony ... the dogs whining, stepping all over me, jockeying for position to lick my face. Mitch lying in bed, half-drugged beneath his electric blanket in his wintry room, occasionally coming to the surface to wonder why I hadn’t come down to fix his supper. It would be past time to take his sleeping pills, say his prayers and go to sleep. Except for the supper, he’d be glad I wasn’t around to bother him with my “blithering.” He was the crazy old man I always feared he’d become.
The past autumn new people moved down the road into Rachel and Arnold’s old house ... a young couple with three little boys who looked to be five, four and three years old. One day I went out to get the mail and saw them swaggering up the road, decked out in little cowboy hats, toy guns looped around their hips. The oldest one called out, “Hey! Hey! Don’t let those Laniers out, will you? Okay?” We were the Laniers, but I was sure he meant our two German shepherds, noisy dogs. But then, who knows what he meant? I assured them that I wouldn’t for all the world let those Laniers out. Though I felt a chortle rise from deep inside, I didn’t laugh in front of them. Maybe that’s what we’d become, Mitch and I ... those crazy Laniers, who shouldn’t be let out. Before I turned away from the mailbox, with my back to the house, I slipped four of the five begging letters from Mitch’s Mary charities inside the waistband of my jeans. I’d destroy them later, so he wouldn’t give more of our money away.
This was my territory, this path I trod every day when good weather beckoned. Nobody
else’s. Two months had passed since I’d been able to walk my entire route among the sloping hills. I clumped along now, breaking trail through crusted snow ... all that was left of the deep drifts piled up ... brushing through bushes, leaving my scent. It was certainly not Mitch’s land. He no longer nurtured it, but tore it down and destroyed it when he did anything at all.
Look what had happened to Old Taproot. That giant bull pine had stood atop the hill overlooking the swale since before the old man homesteaded this land and built his house. Hundred of years. Then suddenly it died. One week it was green, the next all the needles, from bottom to top, were brown and dead. Mitch got it into his poor sick head that its taproot had grown so deep, it had struck uranium. Radiation poisoning had killed it ... just like whole towns had died suddenly in fifties sci-fi movies that flickered black and white on the television late at night. He’d called a man with a Caterpillar and had half the hillside bulldozed. I winced at the look on that cat operator’s face every time Mitch wildly waved his arms for him to stop so he could sweep his new Geiger counter over the fresh mounds of dirt. Now the hill stood raw and bleeding in the melting snow.
I found a spot to cross the swollen spring, pushing through the brush a few feet from where old Daisy Cow, she of the large brown freckles on her greedy white face, had bloated and died after eating not only her share of barley, but that of the other cattle. Always greedy; always a bully. Mitch had been too confused to understand what she was doing. Her mud-caked horned skull emerged each summer as the spring receded to a trickle and the ooze dried and sank. Poor old Daisy. She would always be my favorite cow. One summer evening as she lay drowsing out in the field, chewing her cud, I’d slipped onto her back. She’d turned to look at me, but never got up. Mitch took our picture, slightly out of focus from his hands shaking.
The dogs had run off. Now they rushed back, loping heavy-pawed through the mud, splattering me.
“Here, you dogs! Get away! “
Ranger stopped and leered wolfishly, then raced away. Baron followed.
I started up a hill, pushing through more brush. Deep snow here. I was sweating beneath my coat. I took if off and tied the sleeves around my waist. Up through the evergreens growing dark and close I searched for my old path, my friendly path I hadn’t trod since before the blizzards. Halfway up lay the ancient remains of the bleached horse skeleton. The long horsey skull devoid of teeth ... souvenirs the kids had handed out to cousins and new friends through the years.
I paused to catch my breath, turned and looked down through the orchard. The old man would have turned in his grave had he seen the way the place had deteriorated since he broke the earth with horse and plow, planted his fruit trees, nurtured them. The orchards were dying. Scrub pine had moved in. Oh, well. Let it all grow back . . . the way it had been. I don’t care. I welcome it. I tramped on, calling to the unseen dogs, hoping they hadn’t flushed a deer.
I neared the spot where Mitch had dug his grave the previous spring. A macabre pastime, digging your own grave. He’d spent two days at it. A bizarre Idaho law, allowing people to be buried on their land. He’d covered the deep hole with a rotting plank door he’d found. Probably the door to the old man’s house, pulled off so the cattle wouldn’t be trapped inside.
Ranger came crashing through the bushes with something in his mouth. Oh, no ... a piece of a deer carcass. I’d heard a shot back in November during hunting season and figured someone had poached a deer on our property, ignoring the faded tattered signs posted on trees. I called Ranger to me and reached out to grab the rotten thing from him. I looked at it then and my stomach rolled. I gagged. My morning coffee and toast threatened to come up. Dangling from his mouth were blackened human fingers.
“Drop it!” I shrieked. Ranger danced sideways. Now I wouldn’t touch it. But I couldn’t let him eat it. He’d never lick my hand again. I took a deep breath, ordered in my mean voice, “Drop it! Bad dog! Drop it!” He sheepishly let it fall at my feet. I gagged some more, then vomited. I couldn’t pick it up. I kicked snow over it, then stood hesitant, staring down at the shrouded black hand. I finally broke off a branch from a bush to mark where it lay.
Where had Baron gone? What prize would he bring me?
I followed what I thought were Baron’s tracks, calling to him, ordering Ranger to heel each time he started to plunge ahead. I came into a clearing ... and knew what had happened. There was Mitch’s grave site with something sprawled halfway out of it. Baron lay in the snow nearby, intently chewing. Nothing remained in my stomach to vomit.
“You horrible dog! Get over here! I’m going to beat you! Where’s my stick!”
I didn’t go nearer. The hunter had crashed through the rotten plank door and into the open grave. His rifle discharged ... the shot I’d heard ... and he’d died there. Fallen snow had covered him until now.
“Baron . . . come on! We’re going down to the house! You’d better come!”
Reluctantly, he rose and followed us out of the clearing, jaws clamped on his prize. Halfway down the hill, far enough away so I thought he wouldn’t go back, I made him drop the piece of flesh and covered it with snow. I marked this burial, also. I didn’t want to come across it by accident. Would I ever walk this way again?
I shook all the way down to the house. How would Mitch react? He’d reached another low point, torn apart the old iron stove we’d used for heat when we lived in the garage, and nailed its cast-iron pieces to the inside of his bedroom door. An armored door to protect him when “they” came to get him.
Clammy with sweat, I burst through the front door.
“Mitch!” I called to him through his bedroom door. It was always locked now. I didn’t dare try to open it. He kept his loaded rifles in there, sometimes in bed with him. “I’ve got to tell you something! Something happened up above! Come out of there!”
I heard him roll over in bed.
“Come out . . . please.”
When he staggered out, unsteady on his feet, unshaven, smelly, I made him sit down. He’d overdosed on his pills again.
“Remember, I told you there was a hunter missing last fall?”
He looked at me glassily.
“Well, there was a hunter missing . . . I found his body. He fell through the covering over the grave you dug . . . his gun went off and killed him. We’ve got to call the sheriff.”
Mitch looked stricken.
“No . . . don’t call the sheriff!” He slurred his words. “You can’t tell anyone!”
“I’ve got to! We can’t let him stay up there!”
I reasoned with him. “They’ll know it was an accident. They won’t hold you responsible. He was trespassing. There’re “No Hunting” signs posted all over the place. They won’t think you killed him.”
“No!” His black eyes glared suspiciously. “He was looking for my money. If you tell them, they’ll find my money and take it.”
So that’s what had happened to all those old silver dollars, quarters and dimes Mitch had hoarded ever since the government began issuing coins of silver and worthless copper in the mid-sixties. He’d bought silver ingots, too. I’d thought he’d buried all of it beneath the wood pile in the lean-to.
“Mitch, honey, they don’t want your money. You’ve got to believe me.” But I knew I’d never convince him. Panicky, I tried other arguments. “If we don’t tell the sheriff, what will happen to his body? The dogs found it. They’ve already pulled parts of his hands off.”
“We’ll bury it in the grave.”
“On top of your money?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“What will you do someday when you want your money back.”
“It’s safe there. They’ll never find it.”
“Someday the price of silver will go up and you’ll want to dig up your money and sell it.”
“They’ll never find it,” he repeated.
“If we don’t tell the sheriff . . . if they ever come up here and find him we’ll be held responsible.”
He shook his head again. “They won’t find him . . . unless you tell them.”
It was the way he looked at me that turned me icy cold inside. Calculating. Suspicious.
When pirates buried their treasure, didn’t they kill each other off until only one was left? To keep the secret. I knew with absolute assurance that some day he’d kill me. He hadn’t told me where he’d hidden his money. He didn’t want me to know. If he’d died, I’d never have found it.
Why was I considering such a thing as burying the hunter? Why was I arguing with him, trying to use logic on his sick mind? It was all wrong. Wrong what his twisted mind wanted to do.
“I have to call the sheriff, Mitch. If Michael were dead, you’d want to know where to find your son’s body, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t want anyone keeping it a secret. Would you?”
He looked sad. An appropriate emotion. I was hopeful. “No, I guess not. But this is different.”
“This man has a mother and father, probably a wife and children. I’m sure that’s what the newspaper said, that he had a whole family looking for him and wondering and grieving. See, we have to call the sheriff. We just have to.”
I got up and went into the kitchen, picked up the telephone, turning to keep Mitch in my line of vision. A quote from Reader’s Digest came back to me at odd moments. It did now. Marriage is a game, said Auden. Patience, foresight, maneuver ... like war, like marriage. It’s a more desperate game when your husband is demented.
The sheriff came and an ambulance and some other officers. I had to make a statement and show them where I’d buried the body parts the dogs found. Mitch skulked in the woods nearby, watching, making sure no one took his silver. One man helping to pull a plastic bag over the body slipped and fell into the grave. He got a panicky look on his face and scrambled out. No one even suspected there was anything more to the story I’d told ... that Mitch wanted to be buried on his ranch and had dug his grave in case he someday died when the ground was too frozen to break. I tried not to look at the dead man. I knew I’d have enough nightmares without seeing his rotting features. I didn’t want to see my son there in place of him . . . but I knew I would. My life was getting to be more than I could bear.
I felt sometimes that I’d been on a long journey, though I’d seldom traveled more than thirty miles from where I was born, grew up, and lived all of those years. Time is a journey, isn’t it? Laden with haunting memories. And time will take you up to heaven or down to hell without your going very far at all.