“Octoberfest” by Elsa Nekola
Coral sinks into her uncle Dan’s recliner, thumbing through holiday catalogs and Black Friday coupons for the Feed & Seed, JCPenney, Holstrom Tire. The men have gone to deer camp, and she’s stuck watching the three children with her aunt Irene, the house already stinking of their chili supper. She might have figured she’d be left behind, if Dan and his friend Erik hadn’t led her to believe otherwise, and she knows now there’s no use in telling grown men you’re good at tracking when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl and they’ve got daughters half your age who aren’t particularly useful or bright.
They had led her to believe otherwise, no doubt about that. Erik had said, “A girl like you can have anything she wants,” and Coral still doesn’t understand what he meant by that, why he insisted on getting her alone at Oktoberfest, away from the boiled fish and kettle corn and old folks dancing polka, everything she looked forward to year after year. Dan had said, “You’re better with the Marlin than I was at your age,” and Coral knows this is a flat-out lie, that Dan is, and always has been the best shot in White Birch, maybe even across county lines.
But going to the woods isn’t just about aim or the physical agility to kill, not for Coral. It’s about listening and sensing, knowing tracks and habitats, discerning animal souls. It’s about patience, and silence.
Today, there’s frost on the grass, and a chill that won’t leave the air until April. The mallards and black ducks have begun to court, and in midwinter the hairy woodpeckers will drum on hollow trees. For generations, the woods behind Coral’s mother’s house have been cut and cleared by the forest products company, but over the past year, wildlife has begun to reemerge, claim territory, and so have the town’s men. It seems these former mill workers are everywhere they never used to be—even Uncle Dan is stocking produce at Kemp’s General Store and mopping floors at the high school. Erik found work on the other side of the bar at Anglers Tavern, and the adults say this suits him just fine: he’s handsome, knows how to talk to people, makes cash tips. Since his wife Kathleen went to clean up—to heal, Irene says—at her mom’s house in Chippewa Falls, Erik has begun to call on the women and girls of the town for help with Jennie and Paula.
Coral knows something else for certain, other than the lies she was told: she doesn’t want to be here among these silly girls. Her cousin Della is spread-eagle on the floor, decorating a plastic mask, Elmer’s glue under her nails; Jennie and Paula have braided each other’s hair into tight blond fishtails, the way their mother showed them before she went away.
“Let’s do Coral’s hair next,” Jennie says to her big sister.
“Don’t touch me,” Coral says, not looking at them. “I’m finding deals.”
Paula says, “Her hair’s probably dirty anyhow.”
Coral pretends not to hear. Licks her forefinger, turns over the glossy page.
She sinks deeper into the familiar chair. It’s almost become hers.
Over the past year, Coral has spent a lot of time at Dan and Irene’s, knows where the construction paper and spare change and hand-written recipes are kept, knows the busy family of turkeys that peck sunflower seeds, discarded corn cobs in the yard. Their house is a one-story ranch on the edge of town, cluttered up with toys and too much furniture—a butter churn from the old German farm, a rosemaled trunk and dresser from the old Norwegian farm, a sewing machine you pump with your foot—all shoved in corners over grape juice- and mud-stained carpeting.
Coral closes the Feed & Seed catalog, unimpressed by the deep sales on chicken egg incubators and snow fences. She wanders into the kitchen, where Irene is standing over the crockpot, hitting the bottom of a spice jar to break up the caking.
“We should make a casserole,” Irene says. “This isn’t going to be enough food for everyone, and I’m eating for two. Start a pot of water and grate some cheese for me, would you? If there’s mold on the colby jack, scrape it off.”
Irene always makes sure there’s enough kindling for the fireplace and a fully stocked cupboard of ten-minute boxed meals, but today she’s feeling generous, housewifely—“Deer season will do that to you,” she tells Coral—even though she has to sit every so often from nausea. “Besides,” she says, “your uncle can’t judge what I do in the kitchen, because he can’t do much better.”
“What about Erik?” Coral asks her, scratching her cold arms.
“Useless,” she says. “I wouldn’t trust him to pour beer into a glass.” Then she smiles a smile she must think is private, putting a lump in Coral’s throat. She’s kidding about Erik, of course—Irene’s always had a soft spot for him, and a thin-lipped sympathy for his pill-popping wife.
Erik’s hunting land—eighty acres near the river and wild rice bog—doesn’t impress or anger Irene the way it does Coral. Irene still calls November days like this dreary, and, despite everything, Coral calls them beautiful.
As Coral scrapes the blemished cheese, she hears a tapping on the side of the house and stops momentarily to listen. “Hear that, Auntie?” she says. “Woodpeckers are drumming early.”
“Those god damned birds,” Irene says. “There’s thousands of perfectly good trees around here and they have to go for my cedar siding.”
“I don’t care what he’s doing. It’s destructive.”
Coral remembers her mother saying pregnancy is a bitch, and makes you one, then giving Coral an exhausted look that suggested she should apologize for being born. What does the woodpecker have to apologize for? He was here first, not this neighborhood, not this cedar siding. “I’m going to take a look,” Coral tells her aunt. “A quick look.”
“Be quick,” Irene sighs. “I need your help in here.”
“I said I’ll be quick.”
Coral goes outside and takes a breath, welcomes the cold prickling her lungs. She makes circles around the house, searching for the woodpecker, but he’s already moved on. There’s an abandoned nest on a forked branch, and a female purple finch flits by, brownish and speckled like a woven mat. Coral lifts her face to the low afternoon sun. Something is falling from the sky—tiny droplets of ice, no bigger than the head of a pin. She opens her palms, sticks out her tongue, cautiously, as if the cool wind could snatch it from her mouth.
The screen door creaks. Coral feels a tugging in her gut.
“Water’s boiling!” Irene yells from the front stoop.
For a brief moment Coral considers running. Hiding behind the half-dead oak, pressing her cheek to its damp bark. She’s beginning to think that being a woman means staying where you’re needed, not where you want to go. Dan and Erik have the whole woods and sky, a small northern ecosystem at their disposal. For today, and every day this week, Coral has this yard, and a view of the bird feeder from Dan’s recliner.
She stomps pine needles onto the Welcome mat, kicks off her shoes. “Nice day to go to the land,” she says.
“They’re saying frost every day this week, and snow on Thanksgiving,” Irene says. “I’m not ready for that, for another winter. Our heavy blankets are still in the attic.”
“Don’t you ever want to go along?”
“Leave this warm house and traipse around in the woods all week? Do my business in an outhouse? Absolutely not.”
Coral grumbles. “Well, Auntie, you’re crazy.”
“And you’re ungrateful. Erik gave you forty dollars for watching his girls and all you can talk about is wanting out. Helping won’t kill you. Time to grow up.”
A month ago Coral might’ve answered back. Now she stares at the linoleum floor—a cluster of graham cracker crumbs, a black bootheel scuff. Irene’s slippered feet, swollen from pregnancy.
Erik has given Coral one hundred dollars to watch his girls for the week, but she doesn’t know if that’s what it’s really for. He told Dan and Irene was was giving her forty, then slipped five wadded twenties into her half-open hand. One hundred dollars is a lot these days, what with the plant closure and Erik tending bar. Coral had forgotten momentarily about the money in her pocket; now she feels its folds on her upper thigh and brushes her fingertips against them, guilty.
It’s almost Thanksgiving. She reminds herself to be thankful.
“What I mean is,” Coral says as she drains the pasta, inhaling steam from the sink, “don’t you ever feel like you’re missing out?”
“You tell me what I’m missing out there,” Irene says. “I’m all ears. You tell me, if you’re so smart, such a little girl of the limberlost.”
Coral can’t tell Irene what she’s missing, because it isn’t exactly a describable thing. Since Della was born six years ago, Coral can’t think of the last time her aunt experienced true silence. She can’t think of the last time Irene stood so still and so quiet she could have heard a tiny twig snap, or a cardinal land on a pine bough. Irene must have driven over the river a thousand times on her way to and from the grocery store, Trinity Lutheran, and Della’s school, but when was the last time she stopped on the bridge to hear water rushing over rocks?
Irene dries her hands on her jeans, streaking them red-brown with broth. “I didn’t mean to be short with you,” she says.
“It’s alright,” Coral says, but inside she’s starting to feel more and more suspicious of everything and everyone inside this house. The stupid girls in the living room don’t know anything—not about deer camp, not about their dad, not even if their mother is coming back. Her aunt is old—what, thirty-four?—but she doesn’t know much of anything, either. How could she, hunched over that crock pot?
Coral watches the girls from the kitchen, spread on the carpet. To Coral, children Jennie’s age feel pink and warm, as though they are always running a fever. Freckles spill over Jennie’s bare shoulders, and her nose has been red all day from an oncoming cold. Jennie and Paula are pale-haired like their parents, and their parents’ parents, with the kind of stout, strong Midwestern bodies built for farm work and withstanding cold temperatures. And Jennie looks like Erik where it matters most, in the eyes—blue-gray and calm, almost placid when in sight of something to conquer—and the eyes, Coral remembers, are how most people determine likeness. When Jennie fixes her gaze on Della’s mask, she becomes intoxicated by the tangled ribbons, the neon feathers, the silver sequins clustered around the slits for eyes. She reaches for the ribbons and pulls the mask right out of Della’s thin fingers, then takes her sticker pack and laughs deeply. Jennie moves away, and Della reaches back, swatting her on the ankle. “That’s mine,” she growls.
Della and Jennie don’t understand yet that there’s much more to lose than toys, playthings. There is much more to lose, even, than a job at the forest products plant.
Not everyone has been reabsorbed by this place or given another chance, no matter how small. Cautiously, Coral asks her aunt, “When’s Kathleen coming back to town, anyway?”
The mention of Erik’s wife makes Irene slow her stirring, scrunch her nose as if she’s smelled something foul. “Whenever she cleans up, I suppose,” Irene says. “That woman’s had a rough go of things.”
“I heard Oxy,” Coral says.
“Her neck never healed properly after she crashed that car. She looks like a crow, head always tilted to one side. She didn’t want to get surgery, so.”
“Mom said her insurance didn’t cover surgery. That the accident was her fault.”
“Let me tell you something, Coral,” Irene says. “Women drink, too. You know why we drink?”
Coral shakes her head.
“Because of them,” Irene says, waving the saucy spoon toward the living room, where the girls giggle and whine. “Because of this.” She places a delicate, hard-veined hand on her belly. “And because of the men who helped create them.” Coral looks away, and Irene says, “Don’t worry, I’m not hitting the bottle now. I see what it does to families, especially these days. Thank God the girls weren’t in the car, huh? Erik was counting his lucky stars, I’ll tell you that much.”
Della loses interest in the mask, doesn’t bother to take back what’s hers. She rummages in a shoebox of little plastic baby dolls, the kind that have a chemical, white-chocolate smell and heart-shaped lips, permanently puckered to nurse.
But Coral can’t take her eyes off Jennie—wild, sweaty Jennie, confident, bossy Jennie with her braid already coming loose and purple spaghetti straps falling down her shoulders.
She wants to tell Jennie she’s sorry that Erik left her alone at Oktoberfest, sorry for the things the woman who ran the face-painting tent—Lou Ann, a high school friend of Kathleen’s—said when he returned. Truth is, Coral still doesn’t know why she stood there behind Erik at the fairgrounds, why she didn’t run directly home after their walk. She must have expected something—a parting word, a promise, some reassurance that, no, there wasn’t any reason to doubt him, to be afraid.
“This poor child thought her daddy left her, too, and my paint doesn’t do so well with tears,” Lou Ann had said to Erik. When she noticed Coral, she said, “Going off in the woods with the babysitter. Christ. You’re all the same. I told Kath she never should’ve married you.”
Jennie looked up at Erik, her face whiskered and pumpkin-orange, and the woman held out her paint-smudged hand.
“Five bucks, Daddy,” Lou Ann said. “Pay up.”
“I’m not the babysitter,” Coral said, noticing how, when she finally spoke, her lips felt sore.
Lou Ann took Erik’s cash and said, “Then who the hell are you?”
“Come on, Lou,” Erik said. “Not in front of my daughter.”
At Oktoberfest, Coral had walked with Erik to his truck. They crossed the small fairgrounds—nothing more than a county park with a playground and bandshell—leaving Paula with her new sixth-grade girlfriends and Jennie at the face-painting tent, all so Erik could get a drink. That’s what he had said when he saw Coral sitting in a lawn chair, alone, waiting for the polka band to play: I need a drink. Join me?
Of course there was beer everywhere at Oktoberfest—in tents and food carts, under autumnal vinyl banners—but Erik wasn’t one to care about looking cheap for bringing his own.
A month ago, Coral hadn’t known that walking alone with someone meant favors, secrets. She knew what she had wanted—an invitation to his land, to deer camp. She’d heard stories of albino deer eating from Erik’s palm, northern lights falling like hot pink streamers he could almost touch. She’d heard stories of sacred Native burials and hibernating bears in drainage pipes.
It was like magic, he told her.
She told Erik about the time she’d tracked a moose that had wandered down to Wisconsin from the north shore, about finding hoof tracks the shape of lungs near the cedar swamps adjacent to her grandfather’s house. She never did see the moose, but finding those tracks thrilled her for days. She photographed them with her disposable camera, added the glossy prints to her photo album alongside the deer and mink tracks, the fox jaw, the opossum picked apart by carrion, with clumps of damp fur that seemed to melt from its bones.
“Long time ago, I thought about selling my land to the company,” Erik said, getting a beer from the cooler in his truck, “but I couldn’t do it. Once I was sleeping out there in my camper, and it was so quiet in the woods I swear I could hear the river eroding the banks. You can’t sell something like that. Now none of it matters.”
“Prost, or whatever,” Coral said, touching her fist to the sweaty can.
When he didn’t want to talk anymore, he pressed Coral against the passenger side door. She had only been held by him once before, years ago, when their families went on a summer day trip to the Apostle Islands. She had been swimming in Lake Superior, admiring the rocky lake bottom, the way her skin looked otherworldly and dead in the clear-blue water. When the wind and waves picked up—as they did in an instant on the big lake—she swallowed water and began to panic. Coral’s mother and Aunt Irene were on the beach and didn’t notice her wave for help—but Erik swam in and brought her back to shore, wrapped her in a towel and held tight until her teeth stopped chattering.
That had been a touch of safety. This was something else. She wasn’t drowning. She wasn’t even very cold.
Coral felt herself pulled forward and pushed back, lifted so that her toes only just brushed the gravel and the scattered, woody scales of fallen pine cones. The sun came into the oak opening where Erik had parked, bright and blinding. She strained to hear the band, the high and low brass punctuating the air, the flat accents of fourth-generation Germans shouting their ancestral songs. From the corner of her half-shut eye, she saw a pine siskin hang from a hemlock branch, quivering—then the dark but faded red of oil-stained fabric, a twist of jumper cables. Her arm falling, wrist catching in the cupholder.
After a few minutes, Coral was shaken by the knees, Erik’s face close over her. “Look at me,” he said. “It’s time to go. Look at me. You awake? You alive?
Finally, a soft blink.
Her lips forming the word “yes.”
Not yes to him, but to living.
“Almost done there?” Irene asks Coral now, punching the oven timer with her thumb.
Coral folds the noodles and cheese into a ceramic dish, sprinkles the top with stale bread crumbs. Irene appears vacant for a moment, dizzy. She puts a fist to her mouth and leans over the sink.
“It’s okay, Auntie,” Coral says, steadying her. “Take a rest. I’ll finish all this.”
Irene pours herself a glass of milk and sits at the kitchen table with her ankles folded and head down between her elbows.
Coral says, “Must be worth it, huh?”
Irene fans herself ineffectually with a few fingers. She presses her cheek to the table’s cool Formica surface, and with her worried eyes and small, spittle-slick mouth, she looks almost childlike. “Oh, I suppose so,” she says. “Some days.”
With the chili set to simmer and the casserole baking, Coral wanders into the living room to check on the girls. Paula is on the couch, reading one of Irene’s Prevention magazines and listening to her DiscMan. “How to stay slim over the holidays,” she reads aloud, without removing her headphones. “There’s a recipe in here for diet eggnog. As if eggnog wasn’t already bad enough.”
Jennie has littered her arms with Della’s stickers—cartoon elephants, zebras, monkeys, tigers wearing ridiculous, toothy expressions. The edges are peeling, and Coral imagines ripping the stickers off her like a Band-Aid so the glue leaves little red hairless shapes on her skin, stinging. What would Jennie do, Coral wonders, with that unwelcome sensation? How hard or soft would she cry?
Coral asks her, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Jennie?”
The girl walks in circles around the stuffy room, trying to catch the high of dizziness. “Going to see Mom,” she says, chin bobbing with each careless step.
“She has so much hope,” Paula says loudly over her music. “It’s sad.”
“Oh, shut up, Paula,” Coral says.
“I said shut your mouth.”
“You can’t talk to me that way,” Paula says. “You’re only four years older than me. I don’t even know why you’re here. I can take care of myself, and her.”
Before Coral can say anything else, Jennie trips over a pantsless doll and falls forward, forehead aimed at the wooden sewing machine. Coral means to intervene, but it all happens too fast. Jennie misses the the hard edge of the sewing machine, then crumples onto the carpet, hardly making any sound when her body lands. “Oops,” Jennie says, licking the wetness from her runny nose. “That was close.”
Coral feels relief that for now, pain has been avoided—but there’s something else welling up in her throat, something like laughter, over Jennie’s momentary loss of control. The girl seems to have no idea where her arms end, where her legs begin, no concept of the consequences of space, or of having a body at all.
“She falls down all the time,” Paula says, giving a grown-woman sigh, and when Jennie walks over to her, Paula swats her leg with the magazine as though she’s killing a spider. “She does it for attention.”
Coral reaches onto the coffee table for a tissue. “Come here,” she tells Jennie. She folds the tissue over Jennie’s throbbing nose, tells her to blow.
After her nose is clean, Jennie extends her arms, points to the stickers, and laughs. “Remember when I was a tiger?” she says. “Remember, at Oktoberfest?” Jennie splays her fingers over her cheeks, mimicking stripes, or whiskers, then bares her baby teeth, crooked and soda-stained.
Coral looks at the skinny legs, round belly, and flat chest on Jennie, thinks about how, not so many years ago, she had been this little girl, with the fierce, intent eyes of her father and a still-narrow body ripe for unrealized threats, just waiting to betray her. Used to be Coral could crawl on her belly through autumn leaves, run her fingers over frosty scat, and blend into the landscape like a soft, downed tree—and if she stood, a deer could’ve rubbed velvet from his antlers on her outstretched arms. Then, somewhere along the line, she had been noticed—but she hadn’t really left that space of a child, at once smothered and ignored.
When Dan and Erik come back, Irene will serve them hot chili in paper bowls. They will slur every few words and grin, and their eyes will glitter over the eight-point they should have bagged. Erik will gaze at Coral in his distant way, and she’ll hate him for owning that land. She’ll put away the hundred dollars for Christmas gifts, buy her mother something nice, comforting, deserved—a new bathrobe, some pink wool socks, chocolate. In the winter, she’ll drive her mother’s snowmobile across the frozen lake, cut holes in the ice, fillet her winter catches with her grandfather’s knife. She will try to forget the things that hurt and confuse her, until she knows what to do with them.
Jennie steps forward. Coral tugs the ends of the girl’s limp hair, touches her palm to the child’s feverish face. “I remember,” she says, her hand resisting, then falling away. “You looked real scary, Jennie. I hardly recognized you.”
Elsa Nekola is a writer from Wisconsin. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Nimrod, Passages North, Midwestern Gothic, and North Dakota Quarterly. She is currently at work on a collection of stories set in the Upper Midwest about women, isolation, and the natural environment.